The Language of Learning

 language of learningYesterday at 12:07am

What are your favorite Middle School and High School science curriculums? Prefer secular science.

December 8 at 8:45am

I am looking for something to teach my boys, 11yrs, to be upstanding and good men. Something that can be worked on like books and earn a grade for.

September 23

What do y’all use for 5th grade history?



Are you intimidated by curricula? I often hear confusion as homeschoolers seem to grasp for a kit with all of the learning neatly tucked inside, but how do schools decide what and how to teach and what can you do about it at home? What is the language of learning?


Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with an energized homeschooler who was also a career mom, but she had a bit of a dilemma. One of her 3 children was bucking the normal homeschooling plan and was giving her quite a struggle. She contacted me because she wasn’t sure how to handle her tween who wanted to handle learning her way. The issue was that mom was afraid to let go. I mean, after all, who trusts a teenager (or younger) with their own education?

My ideas gave her pause and though she generally embraces my enthusiasm for learning, I’m worried that she’ll meet with more struggle than she realizes. The crazy thing is, I DO trust children with their own learning. The big secret is that they’re already in charge of their own learning no matter how big of a stick we carry and how many threats or bribes we make because we can’t get inside their brains.


Ask Mr. Oman (yes, his real name), my 8th grade Social Studies teacher. He was a dear man, but I learned nothing that year from him. I hated boring dates and places I’d never visited. Without a conceptual understanding of the history which I always felt disconnected from, I absorbed none of his lessons. I missed the opportunity for learning in his class. Somehow I earned a passing grade though I have no recollection of my grade (nor most of my grades in school). I remember the Cs I fought for and the As that came easily in high school and college, but those letters had nothing to do with what I learned. It may not have even been his fault, but I wasn’t interested in his class and he found no way to capture my own individual approach to learning.



Without passion or interest, learning isn’t really learning.


This is probably the biggest misconception in education today. Ask a teacher what he taught today and he’ll answer with his interpretation of the list of standards he added to his lesson plan book. If he’s lucky, he gets to interpret what they mean with input from his own experience and colleagues. If he’s not so lucky, he’s handed a script and told to basically read from a textbook. Most solutions to math problems are scripted step-by-step (unless you’ve been lucky enough to really learn your way), poetry has 1 correct interpretation (boy, did I learn that way in high school), and science is made up of know-it-alls (who are proven incorrect or have to go back to revise their own conclusions years later (yes, even Einstein). The truth is, there is no one right way to “do learning”.


Interpreting standards are like understanding how to follow a recipe. There are those who go step by step not really understanding how spices meld and chemical reactions occur. Sure, your recipe will work most of the time, but you won’t be able to use your superficial knowledge if you’re out of an ingredient or if your souffle’ starts to fold in the middle of bake time. Understanding and application demonstrate real learning; not superficial knowledge.



Things like, “7.EE.1 Apply properties of operations as strategies to add, subtract, factor, and
expand linear expressions with rational coefficients” get reworded as

Understand how numbers can be ordered, grouped and arranged with variables to solve. 

If you understand what the operations, properties, variables, coefficients, and linear expressions are, the standard becomes much simpler. If not, you’re left following rote processes, grasping for out of reach terminology, and lacking understanding.


And for a 4th grade teacher,

“Solve multistep word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.”

translates into  “I can solve word problems involving measurements expressed by whole numbers, fractions, and decimals” in “student-friendly” terms.

What it really means is:

Solve all kinds of word problems involving distance”, or “solve word problems with time”, “solve word problems with fractions” and check your work…… you get the point.



As a substitute in my early days, I walked in 15 minutes prior to see what I would be teaching for the next 7 hours. Sometimes there were detailed lessons and sometimes there were blank blocks of fun. Though in my early years, I stressed over those blank blocks that always resulted in a visit to other grade level teachers or a principal for guidance, I long for those blank slate plans years later.

Twenty years ago, I was handed a textbook and told to teach what’s in it. I skipped lessons; sometimes I skipped chapters. I moved the order of chapters, I assigned 30 problems in practice sections, we completed the odd numbered problems in review sections together in class. Every teacher I know approached instruction differently.


As a teacher, we always had to write down lesson plans. They’ve become even more micromanaged these days, but the typical lesson plan book consisted of a bunch of blocks of time filled in with the the topic for each subject and possibly a short description of an activity or page number. That was it. We let kids decide how deep we’d go, the tangents we took, and often the homework we assigned. And on days when it just wasn’t working, we knew it was time to scrap the plan, regroup, set it aside for another day, and adjust.

Many times I back-filled as a teacher intending to teach a particular standard only to discover that my students developed other insights and picked up nuances I hadn’t planned for.  Luckily, the lesson plan book was erasable. That was when I began to discover that I wasn’t teaching (as in doling out information to fill some brains) and began to think of myself as a guide. My students told me what they needed. I just had to understand how to listen. It’s what I tried to show my colleagues, but few understood (or refused to believe) that they were a side player and not the main event.

 Book of life

Photo credit: jeltovski from


I thought homeschoolers had a glimpse into education that most teachers missed (maybe due to school system expectations), but I’ve found that most home educators mimic teachers in their approach to learning. So many have bought into the “if it’s not measurable, it’s not learning” propaganda. Though they may argue against testing more vocally than a teacher (who is threatened with the loss of a job), most homeschoolers choose a workbook-style pre-packaged program. I wish they knew that the kind of security they’re receiving is no substitute for real learning. Call me the female Gatto. I see through it.


Below is what I could find listed for some popular “homeschool curricula”. While I love the concept of curricula, not allowing (or expecting) deviation is where curricula goes wrong. Curricula is merely a compilation of ideas that (hopefully) build gradually offering depth of understanding and connections to many areas.

No, you must not do long division following the same procedure as everyone else. Will it help? Sure. As much as baking a cake using one recipe does. Can you use an alternative solution? Yes. Can you use whatever works for you? Yes. Why wouldn’t you if it works? Do you really have to follow the script? Never. All you need are some general ideas, a learner, and a real understanding of your learner each day.



Sample standard from homeschool math curricula: 

  • Abeka- Math- Arithmetic 3-4- “Process terminology”- no internet found explanation from where Abeka gets its math concepts as per grade level only 2-3 word descriptions listed. Abeka has this to say about its curriculum:
    What are curriculum/lesson plans?
    Curriculum/lesson plans help you make the best use of your valuable teaching time by giving complete day-by-day lesson plans for the entire year.
    “Huh? Are you kidding? Scripted lessons. I feel so sad for these kids, but even sadder for the homeschool educators who don’t endorse deviation from these plans as needed for their children. Before you say, “They do!” How many posts do you see asking for “open-ended” or “flexible” lesson plans? Like a new teachers, they want to be told what to do. The problem is that soon there will be no seasoned teachers left to help new teachers and there are few of us willing (and hopeful) in helping homeschoolers learn their way.
  • Math U See-correlates to Common Core
  • Saxon Math-correlates to Common Core
  • Singapore Math- correlates to Common Core
  • Teaching Texbooks-no internet found explanation of its choices for mathematical concepts except as i.e. “Teach all topics normally covered in 4th grade: whole numbers, fractions, percents, units of measure, simple geometry and more.” No indication of how lessons are approached.I guess the less they tell you, the less you’ll be disappointed. You paid the money. If you don’t like it-gotcha!


My version of a math curriculum standard:

  • A child will be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers using his most efficient approach by understanding how numbers can be manipulated to ease computation.What does that mean? It means use all 4 mathematical operations in whatever way works for you all while THINKING about what it really means.i.e. If a child solves a math problem using the equation 2+2+2+2+2=10, our approach to instruction is to acknowledge his correct answer and “notice” that there are 5 2s and that it’s the same as 5×2=10…..Read More…….Additionally, noticing that 2 is double of 1 (1+1+1+1+1=5)  so doubling that 5 yields 10. Yes, kids really do understand that and do manipulate numbers that way (when we let them). It’s breaking numbers down in a way that’s difficult for adults who have passed their child in understanding to grasp.


Depth of Understanding

Photo credit: stuartjessop from




What’s the difference between milk, heavy cream, sweet cream, 1/2 and 1/2? To the average person, not a whole lot. Ask a chef what he thinks. He’ll give you insights you can’t imagine.


Learning works that way too. There are insights most adults miss because no one took the time with us. Most people who can manipulate numbers can do phenomenal mental calculations. Can you? Have you ever had the time or support to try?



Manipulation of numbers can be a tricky concept for adults used to traditional mathematics, but that doesn’t mean their solution needs to be replaced to make you more comfortable. If the child continues to use repeated addition in place of multiplication, it’s fine. Developmentally, he may not be ready for multiplication, but continually pointing out equal and more efficient equations will eventually lead to more efficient equations. It’s the child’s choice and time frame. That is key. Forcing it before they are ready to understand will only confuse them and they’ll resort to standard in-out algorithms. Sound familiar?


As a real life example: If you always wash your car from the bottom up, eventually you’ll come to the conclusion that by starting at the top, the soap and water will run down thereby making your job easier, but it’s perfectly fine to solve the problem in whatever way you choose until you’re ready to extend your reason to the problem at hand.

Over the years, you’ve probably found more efficient ways to load the dishwasher, pay your bills, schedule appointments, and live your life. Don’t trust your child’s mind to the usual way if another way works better. Keep an open mind. Deviate from the plan as needed.



So, to end a long-winded explanation, savor this pivotal component of education :

Know what you’re teaching, but let your child be your guide. 





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