Inspiring Creativity

“Remember this: the freedom to choose anything does not inspire creativity.  It inspires panic.

Boundaries inspire creativity.  Limitations inspire creativity.  Guidelines inspire creativity.

Boundaries and limitations are fuel for the fire of the imagination.  The freedom to choose within those limitations is air. A good fire needs both.”

Another awesome quote from Daniel Schwabauer, author of One Year Adventure Novel.  He’s talking about writing and the difference between handing a child a blank piece of paper, telling him to “write about anything” and giving him a certain goal or topic to work with.  There’s a sweet spot somewhere between too wide open and too rigid.  Finding that spot that inspires your student is the challenge.


Becoming a storyteller

Every culture is shaped by its storytellers.

So says Daniel Schwadbauer, novelist and author of the One Year Adventure Novel.  This is the writing curriculum we’ve chosen for my high school son this year.  The two goals of the program are to understand the pieces of a novel and to write a compelling action novel over the course of a school year. 

My son is so excited over the choice that he actually snuck in to the computer to pop in the first lesson.  He asked me today if he can start early before school actually begins.  Being the benevolent, compassionate mom/homeschool teacher that I am, I granted him permission.  (If someone can figure how to do this with algebra, please tell me!)  Imagine…an entire year of high school writing without essays.  He’s in heaven.  He’s already asked if he can repeat this course next year.

As educators and parents, we want our children to grow up to lead meaningful, productive lives, and we want them to be leaders…to impact and influence the community they live in.   For some reason I always pictured these positions of power and influence as lawyers, politicians, and professors.  Daniel Schwabauer says the power also lies with newspaper editors, marketing and ad writers, singers, talk radio hosts, and movie producers.  The storytellers. 

“It’s the storytellers who steer popular culture.”

I wonder what direction my son’s stories will take us.

What I did on summer vacation…

Granted that my kids have never actually been asked to write an essay about what they did over summer vacation.  If they did, it might look something like this…










Or it might look something like this…

So much fun stuff!

Slept late…

Played video games…

Went swimming…

Helped create a whole summer camp around my favorite adventure novel…

Wrote four chapter of my own adventure novel…

Raced Greek chariots while being ambushed by archers…

Ran obstacle courses…

Saw my friends every week…

Spent time lost in my favorite stories…

Learned to steer a canoe…

Took my first fencing lessons…

Got my tooth nearly knocked out by an errant sword…

Learned new songs and sang in a talent show…

Made new friends…

Got called by a cute member of the opposite sex…

Wow.  It sounds much cooler when you don’t list it by academic subject.  We need to start school again just to get some rest.

It starts…new adventures await

The school year has started.  We haven’t sat at the table and cracked a textbook, but it has started anyway.  There’s so much learning going on here, who has time for textbooks?

Right on the heels of wrapping up Camp Halfblood, the most amazing Greek mythology unit since…well…since the Greeks actually made sacrifices to Athena…we dove into volleyball camp and robot club and still managed to squeeze in interviews for 4H awards (interviewing…definitely a life skill) and a Better Business Bureau Smart Consumer Workshop (My daughter is lecturing me on the wisdom of checking the small print in a cell phone contract.  Neither of us owns a cell phone!).  Did I mention that rehearsals have started for the next community theatre production?  All 3 are involved in Seussical, Jr., a musical with about 1,296 ensemble songs to memorize.

I love that my kids are always willing to try new things.  As long as new experiences are an adventure and not a threat, I know that they will be lifetime learners and lead rich, productive lives.  Last year, robot club was our new thing.  Oh yeah, so was auditioning for community theatre.  This year, volleyball takes that spot.

At ages 14 and 12, Cameron and Jordan have never played a team sport.  That might sound like sacrilege in this Texas sports-are-everything culture, but competitive team sports just never had a big draw…never filled a need for us.  They’ve done individual sports like martial arts and gymnastics.  They’ve done team activities like robotics.  We just never put the two concepts together. 

At last year’s end of school picnic, a buddy asked Cameron to play a little volleyball with him for fun.  Apparently it was fun (and 12 foot long arms don’t hurt), because he’s been asking ever since to join the team this year.  For Jordan, all it took was A) big brother is doing it, and B) I’ll get to see my friend Katy.  She’s sold.  It’s just a bonus that she has now discovered that she enjoys the sport and will be able to play it competently. 

We’re off to a new adventure.  Let the games begin!  (and I guess I should locate those textbooks…)

How grades help shape a personality

I remember my first introduction to grades vividly. I was 4, and my sister 6 – the older, wiser girl that I looked up to and adored.  As she came home from school each day, she would draw up little worksheets for me so we could play school.  She was the teacher, of course, and I her willing student.  I would trace and copy letters of the alphabet and she would grade them (or put me in the corner for misbehavior). 

She wrote a big “A” on top of my first worksheet.  The next one wasn’t quite so good, and it merited an “A-.”  “Tut tut,” she shook her head and explained in her worldly wise way, as only an experienced first grader with a baby sister can. “You don’t ever want to get less than an A.  A+ is a better, but A- is worse.”

Ahh, now I understood.  In school you could earn one of three grades.  A+ for good, A- for bad, and A for  all right.  The next year, I entered kindergarten still carrying this notion.  Seriously, it was a few years before I realized grades existed below A-.  Gasp!  By then, my self-perception as an A student was thoroughly ingrained.  I considered grades below A unthinkable (and A- was always suspect).  I simply HAD to make straight A’s.

That first encounter set the stage for me.  It’s my first memory of of a conscious decision about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.  I resolved at age 4 that I would not make less than an A in school.  I graduated high school and college as a straight A student, with nothing less than a sneaky A- to mar a record.  Now, clearly, more factors were involved than one encounter with my sister’s less-than-thorough explanation of the grading system.  Life is more complex than that.  But what a high and rigid goal I’d set for myself so young, and without any clue of the full scope of the situation.  At the time, I just wanted to earn praise from my big sister.

That decision and that unforgiving goal brought me a fair amount of stress over the years.  I remember my 10th grade teacher shaking her head in exasperation at me as I argued passionately, on the brink of tears, that an essay question had been marked down unfairly (the essay had been given an A, but it was too low of an A for me).  I remember one of my few disciplinary encounters in high school was a detention I earned by arguing vehemently and publically that my government teacher was acting unconstitutionally by changing the rules for grading an assignment after we’d already started (we were studying ex post facto laws at the time).  So many knotted stomachs and moments of terror that were not understood by classmates who would’ve been thrilled to get my grades.  But I never compared myself to them, only to my own self-image as a straight A student.

I admit that my quest for academic excellence was not always noble.  I sought the grade, not the learning that accompanied it…the reward, not the journey.   

Clearly, my self-perception as an A student brought me success, too.  A bucket of medals and a pile of certificates proclaim my educational acheivements, and the scholarships gave me a free ride through college.  I never lacked for academic acclaim.   I still benefit from my past studies and the knowledge acquired during them. 

My point in writing is NOT to complain about how grades ruined me.  I may compulsively research topics and carefully edit my casual emails and study for Scrabble games like they were final exams, but I actually think I escaped permanent, serious harm.

My point is simply to acknowledge the powerful influence that grades have on young personalities and young hearts, not just young minds.  A child who realizes in kindergarten that he is a C student may take years to overcome that view of himself, if he ever does.  A young child who believes she is an A student steers herself into years of anxiety and the constant threat of failure.  Either way, children at that tender age are too young to be gelling their self-image around such an arbitrary and subjective standard.  They should be free to explore and enjoy the adventure of learning and living. 

I never gave my children grades in kindergarten or elementary school.  Homeschooling made that possible.  Middle school is quite early enough for those to creep into their lives.  By that time, self-images have formed based on reality, based on experiences, based on years of encouragement and room to take risks and fail without permanent harm.  By that age, they know themselves as readers, as scientists, as artists well enough to gauge their view of themselves healthily against a singled grade on a test.

Grades should be wielded with care for the strength of the force they can be.

Lost in Translation – More on grades and homeschooling

Comments on yesterday’s post by Teresa:

I understand the need for our homeschooled children to be aware of the grade language of academia, but I have questions. If a child is taught from the beginning to learn whatever is being studied until understanding is achieved with a grading system of only two possibilities (understood or not yet understood), how does one translate that later into a traditional academic grading system? If a child is expected to learn/understand something before leaving it, then is a grade only meaningful in the academic world sense if the grade is issued on the first try? Is that first try grade then meaningful, if persistence in study with the goal of being able to teach is eventually reached?
I have more questions, but this is a good starting place.

My thoughts spurred by these comments:

Key word – language.  Public education speaks a different language.  That language doesn’t always translate exactly to home education because our world is so different.  Have you ever tried to explain to your children what a hall pass is?  Why would you even need a word for that concept?  How would you translate that to a home school setting?

When my kids were younger, I never graded anything.  It wasn’t a big issue – we just didn’t need them.  I was so involved in their work, I always knew when they knew the material.  I could see it in their eyes, I could hear it in their conversations, and I could watch concepts creep into their imaginative play.  If a word was misspelled or a math problem missed, we talked about it and corrected it.  What use were grades?  Worse than useless, a traditional academic grading system would’ve been burdensome and dragged us all down.  I would’ve had to change my approach to education to even be able to implement it.  It would’ve spoiled their view of learning as organic and enjoyable.  How do you grade a lego town that a kid builds so his beanie babies can re-enact the midnight ride of Paul Revere?  Why would you want to?  How do you grade origami swams we folded when we read a story set in Japan?  Do you count off because it’s crumpled?  The corners aren’t square?  Swans aren’t supposed to be purple?  How do you grade a trip to the duck pond to throw bread?  Do you give extra points when someone screams, “Look!  It’s Mr. and Mrs. Mallard!”?

I just took lots and lots of pictures!  Issuing grades, counting off for imperfect work would’ve spoiled those excited eyes when I called them to the couch to read together and might’ve poured ice water all over their desire to suggest projects.  I knew when Cameron was ready for the next phonics lesson when he could read the one we’d started.  I knew Jordi had difficulty in spelling because she couldn’t read her own journal entries.  I knew Sean was brilliant at math.  Not because I graded his little workbooks, but because he would call out the answers to Jordi’s flash cards while he was messing with his playdoh across the room (that made her so mad!).  We always moved on to the next book/page/lesson/concept when we were ready to move on.  And when they suggested a project (which they often did, especially Cameron), I agreed wholeheartedly and without concern about assessing it.  They leapt into for the joy of doing it and without fear of failure because there were no permanent records to record mistakes.  Grades were irrelevant to our world.

Fast forward to junior high/high school.  I do not sit with Cameron and read his science and civics books with him.  I wouldn’t know if those concepts are making it into his imaginative world or not.  The most effective way for me to measure his mastery of 9th grade biology is to grade the test that came with the teacher’s manual.   I find grades useful, so I use them.  Simple as that.

I also find grades useful for communication purposes.  Now that the kids are older, I find more of a need to communicate their progress in school to other people.  Cameron’s privileges (such as playing video games and auditioning for community theatre) are based on his having put the proper effort into his education first.  When he asks if he can play a game or watch a movie, his dad asks, “How did you do on that math test?”  Dad doesn’t want a 20 minute discussion on his relative progress with graphing polynomials.  It’s quicker to say, “I got a B.”

The kids also like to communicate with their public school friends.  When a buddy is moaning about his C in history, Cameron can commiserate in kind.  They have a shared language.  I’ve explained to him the subjective nature of grades, but still, it is a way to communicate.

And of course, the biggie, communicating their education to potential colleges and scholarship committees.  Yes, I know that grades are not the ONLY way to communicate a lifetime’s worth of experiences.  We’re preparing a portfolio of work samples and descriptions of experiences.  We’re collecting letters of recommendation.  He will take a standardized test and write astounding application essays.  But that transcript is a part of the package.  I do so many things in a nonconventional manner, I thought it would be nice to have something conventional and recognizable for colleges to look at.  Call it meeting them halfway. 🙂  I’m not willing to alter my entire approach to education to gain college admission, but I’m willing to alter my method of assessment.

BTW, we don’t only grade on the first try.  My system is basically if they make an A on math, we move on.  If they make a B, they do corrections for half-credit.  Less than a B, they obviously didn’t understand the concept, so I sit down with them and discuss and probe and re-explain, and we work on the concept together.  Then they simply redo the lesson/test, and we count that grade.  Other subjects are handled in a similar way.

We still dive into self-initiated projects.  Cameron volunteers to write a play for 4H club, he researches, he writes, he revises.  He dreams up stage directions and envisions the entire production in his head.  He attends rehearsals to help direct and occasional takes a role himself.  The kids decide to help design an entire summer camp based a greek mythology novel.  They plan, they paint, they build weapons, they write, they climb rock walls and race Greek chariots.  One thing they don’t do is ask, “Is this for a grade?”  And I’m smart enough not to interrupt the fun to tell them they might get one.  When it’s all over, if I need a grade for a transcript, I write up a summary of what they did, what they learned, and how many hours spent.

I have more to say about grades and self-perception, but this is getting lengthy and it’s time to cook the fajitas.  Watch tomorrow for part 2!

Subjective Nature of Grades

Can we all stop pretending that grades are an objective standardized measure of a student’s work?  That you can accurately compare any two students’ mastery of a subject who are in different classes or different schools?  That is means the same thing to be an “A” student in 2 different high schools even in the same town?

In my public high school, the reputations of easy teachers and hard teachers were common knowledge among students, advice passed to the lower classmen between classes and over lunch.  In a town with more than one high school, reputations preceed entire schools as well as teachers. 

Even in the black-and-white right-and-wrong subjects like math, an A doesn’t level out among different teachers/schools.  How was the A calculated?  Is a correct answer with no label counted wrong?  Did you count off for not showing the work?  Could you correct a paper and raise your grade?  Could you retake a test you failed?  Were late papers penalized?  Do you get half credit for a partially right answer?  Is the lowest test score dropped?  You can see how an A in a class with all yes answers would mean something very different from an A in a class with all no answers, and I’ve had teachers who would answer differently on each of these.

When you float into subjectively graded classes like writing or “participation” graded classes like PE, don’t imagine that the grades suddenly standardize. 

After all, if grades were standard, we wouldn’t need standardized tests, would we?  A college could look at your high school transcript and know exactly how strong a student you were.  ACT and SAT would be redundant.

In my homeschool, I issue grades.  I didn’t when the children were younger, but as we hurtled in the junior high/high school years, they seemed more important.  We felt the need for official assessment.  But I have to warn my children about comparing themselves to other kids, explaining why a B in their science class might not mean the same as a B in their friend’s AP science class at a a public high school or even their homeschool friends’ science classes.  Even if I graded all their tests and daily questions completely objectively (fairly easy to do in science), we might’ve used different curriculum or assigned different reports or set the expectation level differently to define what work earns what grades.

I hear people argue that grades in homeschool are meaningless because moms aren’t objective.  I say they are just as objective/subjective as anyone else.  As a part-time professional writing teacher, it’s been my experience that homeschool moms grade too harshly, too critically.  But that doesn’t matter.  Using grades to compare students is an imperfect system, in home or public education.  Too many factors go into calculating a grade.  A grade is a method of boiling down a lot of information into one quick communication device which conveys a general idea of a one person’s assessment of student’s work. 

I’ll keep using grades because they are expected for college; they are a necessary language to learn to communicate to anyone outside my homeschool.  I’ll keep paperwork and portfolio examples to show those colleges exactly how my kids achieved those grades.  But I won’t worry about whether I’m too subjective or stress myself defending those grades to people who aren’t in my shoes (with the possible exception of an admissions officer).  My kids are more than numbers, and those grades are such an inconsequential sliver of their lives.  It’s not worth the emotional energy.

Mastering Labels

Sometimes the labels I choose for myself surprise people.  I happily and openly describe myself as a nerd, and my husband as a geek (that’s King of the Geeks, thank you very much).  Word Nerd and Computer Geek if you need the sub-categories.

Once a new friend told me, with a bit of concern, that those labels were used in a bad way where he grew up.  I laughed and said that’s how they were used where I grew up, too.  But I’m far enough from the emotional trauma of a public high school to to be hurt by the negative baggage associated with nerddom, and I’m realistic enough to know that certain aspects of nerd label accurately describe me.  Actually, on adult reflection, many of the things that make me a nerd are quite positive and have led to success and happiness in my life as well as meaningful friendships with other so-called nerds and geeks. 

So I’m good with it.  I claim it.  I’m a nerd. 

I’m also realistic enough to know that ALL the aspects of nerdiness don’t describe me.  Well, they couldn’t really, because the label drags so many different (and often conflicting) associations.  Honestly, how many people do you see wearing pocket protectors?  (recommended reading:

So I’m a nerd.  But I’m not JUST a nerd.  I’m so much more.  People are more complex than any single label.  I use labels because they’re a useful communication tool.  I can very quickly communicate to someone a general idea by using a label.  But we have to be careful with them because they can’t communcicate the specifics of any single experience. 

If we define ourelves (or others) entirely by a label, then we confine ourselves with that label.

Homeschoolers label themselves all the time.  Recently, when I was introduced to someone at a Mom’s Night Out, the woman described herself as a classical homeschooler and I responded that I was an eclectic homeschooler.  Others in the group range from unschoolers to unit study homeschoolers and beyond.  We were quickly able to get a general idea of each other’s educational philosophy.  After a longer discussion, I began to realize that our different labels actually overlapped significantly. 

Sometimes I label myself a relaxed homeschooler.  I think Dr. Mary Hood coined that phrase (  Lately, I’ve stumbled on the label Organic Homeschooler.  The thought behind this is that learning is a natural extension of being alive, not an artificial ingredient that we must force on our children.  Learning is a natural as breathing.  It’s an apt label of my view, but it smacks a bit of California granola girls and hippies and tree huggers, and those aren’t labels that work for me. 😉 

BTW, I call my own kids nerds, too.  They laugh and accept it.  They are comfortable enough in their own skin (and far enough removed from the daily trial of being forced under peer scrutiny for 8 hours daily) to recognize that some things they do and like are “nerdy” but to value those things anyway.  They all know that they transcend any single pigeon hole.  When I call them nerds (or they call themselves that), it comes from a place of acceptance.  They are firmly founded in a family that doesn’t obsess over what’s cool/what isn’t.  We enjoy the luxury of time of knowing each other fully for all our complexity. 

Go ahead.  Label us.   The labels neither fullly define us, nor confine us.

Power to the nerds! 🙂