Dirt Under My Fingernails

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Why Do You Educate?

SteamPoweredClassroom-Logo-Full-FCIf you haven’t joined us over at the new website, it’s not too late! Click on over and be sure to sign up for email notifications when we publish new material. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, but be aware that Facebook no longer shows a lot of the posts from professional pages. However you’d like to do it, please keep in touch!

In today’s post at STEAM-Powered Classroom, I talk about creating a child-centered vision for education. You can read all about it here!

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Dirt Under My Fingernails is Moving!

SteamPoweredClassroom-Logo-Full-FCAs of today, Dirt Under My Fingernails has transformed and become STEAM-Powered Classroom. I hope you’ll join me there; I will not be posting on this site anymore, though I will keep it up for a while yet. All of the content here has been moved over to the new site, so don’t worry! You’ll find better organization at STEAM-Powered Classroom, a funkier look, and an improved resources section, broken down by subject, and complete with reviews and links to purchase.

So come on over! Be sure to sign up for emails at the new site to be notified as new posts appear. You can also find me on Facebook now, as well as Twitter. (I tend to use Facebook more often). I look forward to continuing to connect with you!

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Steve Hargadon: Escaping the Education Matrix

I ran across this article that says everything I try to about education, it’s philosophical difficulties, and how we need to reshift our perspectives and roles. I’ll be reading more about Steve Hargadon. Hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Reblogged from | January 8, 2014 | To view the original post, click here.

By Luba Vangelova

“We tell a story about the power of learning that is very different from what we practice in traditional models of school,” says Steve Hargadon, education technology entrepreneur, event organizer, and host of the long-running Future of Education podcast series. If we really want children to grow up to become self-reliant and reach their full potential, “we would be doing something very different in schools. We live in a state of cognitive dissonance.”

His comments are informed by a recent cross-country tour facilitating community discussions on education, as well as more than 400 interviews he’s logged with a broad spectrum of education practitioners, analysts, and innovators.

“What are most kids getting out of 12 years of school?” he asks. “The honest answer is they’re learning how to follow, and that was the original intent. Public schools were based on the belief that what was needed was a small group of elites who would make the decisions for the country, and many more who would simply follow their directions” — hence a system that produces “tremendous intellectual and commercial dependency.”

And the notion that the smartest students rise to the top, regardless of family and social circumstances, “sends a message to the majority of students that they are losers,” Hargadon notes, which doesn’t square with a professed belief in the inherent value and capacity of every child.

“How do you tell a story that opens the door to rethinking what people have believed for decades?”

The system’s fundamental design also leads to a host of unintended consequences, including bullying. “We’re placing kids in an artificial environment,” he says, “telling most of them they’re not good at things, and then expecting them not to explode at each other? Of course they will. The ‘mean girls’ thing is not a natural part of childhood—it’s more a reflection of how kids are being treated than a reflection of kids. It’s shocking that we put up with it.”

The reason so many adults find the situation tolerable, he says, may stem from the fact that they experience little control over their own lives. Additionally, they themselves are products of the system and, as such, find it difficult to envision an alternative. “People are almost in this Matrix-like existence,” Hargadon says. “They don’t question schooling. How do you tell a story that opens the door to rethinking what people have believed for decades? So much in their lives depends on that story being what they think it is. How do you tell a new story that involves people reclaiming their destinies, children not being defective, and learning not being owned by one organization?”

There are also vested interests in the status quo. “The people who benefit from us not being active citizens, from all buying the same things, and being willing to take jobs that demand we leave our personal values at the door—they all benefit from the current schooling system, because it produces a populace that does not feel confident in being critical,” he notes. “At an institutional or personal level, those who benefit don’t have much incentive to promote changes in education that would lead people to question their motives or challenge their practices.”

To Drive Real Change, Focus on the Human Factors

An economic crisis (perhaps the one we’re already experiencing) may provide the financial imperative to overhaul the system, Hargadon says. But something even more powerful may take precedence: He’s noticed “more and more resonance with the idea of having a moral imperative for education,” pointing to the growing backlash against high-stakes testing as one indication of a shift in thinking.

He sees a need for more people to “stand up and say: ‘This is not the right thing for children—it’s not a healthy childhood.’” But families must also reclaim ownership of learning, rather than viewing it as the responsibility of schools and government, and also resist the tendency to make decisions for others. “In some ways, traditional schools have co-opted a lot of traditional parental responsibilities,” he says. “That’s really unhealthy, and it becomes self-fulfilling. And when society says it knows better than the family, it’s a recipe for disaster. Some family circumstances are not ideal, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s about trusting and respecting the capacity of individuals to make choices.”

Technology can support a transformation, but it’s not a silver bullet. The Internet has ushered in an era of “digital democracy” and increased people’s capacity to question the status quo. Widespread access to unlimited information has also opened many doors. But “the process of becoming a self-directed, independent learner is a very human process,” Hargadon says. “Recognizing the different needs of every student, and the desire to help each one become personally competent as a learner and find productive things to do in life—that won’t happen online.”

The temptation to “solve all these problems with data” must also be tempered, he says. “Data does not define the core things in education, such as someone opening your eyes to something.” There’s a lesson to be learned from the world of business, he adds, where “the true value of the ‘total quality’ movement came not from tracking, but from involving workers themselves in using the data for self improvement.”

A Future Marked by Greater Freedom and Collaboration

For models of healthier ways to frame education, Hargadon suggests looking to food and libraries. “No one says that from age six to 17, we will give you all the same food, at the same time, regardless of your individual circumstances or needs,” he says. He envisions a world where families can similarly choose where, how, and what they learn.

What might that world look like? He considers libraries good examples of places that already facilitate such mandate-free learning. “The reason we have a hard time conceiving [an alternate reality],” he says, “is because we so strongly associate education with control. If I ask you how you choose your own food, you’d probably say that it’s just what you do: Depending on your circumstances at the time, you may go to a farmer’s market or grocery store or restaurant or grow your own food. The difficulty is dismantling something that’s taken away our conception of having that kind of agency. But when I imagine that world, it includes things like community college classes, apprenticeships at businesses, educational certification programs. You have a range of choices, depending on the child’s interests.”

Hargadon sees connecting people to each other as the most effective way to get from here to there, hence his recent tour. “The tour convinced me that policy changes are not the answer, and that change needs to come from us,” he says. “As individuals, families and communities, we need to reclaim the conversation around learning, and to do so in such a way as to recognize the inherent worth and value of every student, with the ultimate goal of helping them become self-directed and agents of their own learning.”

Hargadon thinks one way change agents get tripped up is by promoting a particular model, rather than a process by which people can develop (or adopt) models that best fit their needs. He considers deep, meaningful conversations a useful starting point for people to use to shape the future, and to that end, he’s planning to host a series of national conversations in 2014 that probe the deeper questions around education and can serve as models for conversations people initiative in their own communities.

“Living in a democracy means involving people in decision making,” Hargadon says. “You can’t just create a new system to implement top down; you have to provide the opportunity to talk about it and build it constructively.”

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian and Salon.



Releasing a Rock and Roll Single in the Digital Age

Ian Ridenhour in the Studio

Today is a day of celebration in the Ridenhour household! It is the official release day of Ian’s new single, “Along the Lines of Fairytales,” which he’s been working on for six months.

This is Ian’s first fully produced single, and it’s been an incredible learning process for all of us. He wrote the song last year, and performed it live during several of his Ian Ridenhour and the Sonic Screwdrivers gigs (this band consisted of Ian, his dad, and a handful of awesome high school buddies). During the summer, he decided to record it.

DSC_0191The six-month long process was a rich combination of organic music creation and digital mixing magic. We propped up microphones over our beloved old piano at home to record the keys, recorded strings in our basement, and to lay down drums, vocals, and guitar, we set up in a professional studio in South Carolina. A wonderful film crew called The Creative Treatment produced the video, and husband-Jamie made the behind the scenes videos using his laptop and photos and short clips I’ve been taking all along the way. Jamie also researched and set up the business end of the single, creating the ability to buy it on iTunes and other places. It was such a mix!


It takes the entire family to tackle an ambitious project like this. Though Ian did most of the coordination, Jamie and I had to help him stay on track. Did you call Matt yet? When’s Madi going to come over to record the strings? Have you heard back from Kevin? You probably need to send a follow-up email to Nolan… Don’t forget to brush your teeth! You get the idea. We want Ian to succeed in this endeavor, so we treat it as seriously as we would one of our own creative pursuits.

Below, you’ll find three videos. First, the big release itself! Below that, I’m including two behind the scenes videos: the first follows the process of recording, and the second highlights the music video portion. If you are moved by his song, we all hope you will: 1) share it with your friends, 2) find and follow Ian’s professional page on Facebook (ianridenhourmusician), and 3) consider subscribing to his YouTube channel as well. He’s working toward a full album, which he hopes to record this summer. We’d love to share the journey with you!


The Hour of Code: Bringing Computer Science into the Home and Classroom

Happy birthday to Grace Hopper, who was a pioneer in inventing the first universal computer language.

Happy birthday to Grace Hopper (1906-1992), who was a pioneer in computer science. She helped created the first all-purpose computer, UNIVAC, and co-created COBAL, one of the first computer languages.

Did you know, according to Code.org, by the year 2020, one million computer jobs will be unfilled simply because there aren’t enough people who know how to code? One million jobs. In this fragile economy and rapidly changing world, there are few careers that promise stability. Therefore, it is unaccountable that 90% of our schools currently do not offer computer science. 90%! We are supposedly educating our children to prepare them for the future, yet we are closing off a vibrant world – a world in which they are involved daily. Cell phone, IPads, laptops, banking, websites, online shopping and music, even car engines! We live our lives with technology. So why aren’t we taking the time to understand (and teach our children) how it works? Why aren’t we preparing our children for the future?

Oh, I know. Many of us just shake our heads, falling back one of the following excuses:

The No Skills Approach: “I can’t teach computer science. Sometimes I can’t find the power button on my own laptop!”

The Too Busy Approach: “Who has time? Between school and music and sports, we can’t fit one more thing in.” 

The Too Broke Approach: “Our budget is already so stretched. How could we afford one more private lesson?”

If you’re a school teacher or administrator, perhaps you’re using:

The No Skills Approach: “We don’t have anyone on staff who could teach computer science. It’s impossible.”

The Too Busy Approach: “Our schedule is already so tight. We can’t fit in another type of science.”

The Too Broke Approach: “Our school budget is already so stretched. How could we afford it?”


If you identify with any of these reservations (or even if you don’t!), I challenge you to take part in National Computer Science Education Week and participate in the Hour of Code, offered December 9-15 for the exorbitant price of absolutely nothing. This webpage offers a wide variety of easy-to-use interactive coding tutorials for all ages and interests. There is even a category for kids who don’t have access to a tech device. That’s right – you don’t even need a computer to learn code!

Eva is incredibly excited. You can choose programs that contain computer code in digital building blocks that you simply click and drag and snap together. Or you may prefer to learn some actual languages, in which you type in the words and math codes you need to create the outcome you desire. There is truly something for everyone, and I will be the first to tell you: I know nothing of computer coding. I am really quite illiterate. You don’t have to be a computer scientist to provide the tools for your students and children. The abundance of kid-friendly sites out there that are chomping at the bit to teach your kids takes the pressure off of us. And though some have a fee attached, many of them are always free.


Eva has been working with Code.org for several months now, trying the different coding curricula they’ve brought together there. She’s worked with Scratch, Code Academy, and Khan Academy. So far, Khan’s been her favorite. But this week, I’ve encouraged her to only play with programs she’s never used before. Who knows? Maybe she’ll find something she likes even better. She will guest post here at the end of the week to review the programs she tries.

If you have 15 minutes in your day, you have time to learn to code. Try switching out the kids’ video gaming time for a week to coding instead. Or perhaps split it up and expand the limits a bit. If they have an hour of gaming time, then give them 40 minutes of coding and 30 minutes of gaming. If you have no limits on gaming, then perhaps ask your kids to switch over and try coding for even one day. You know your particular needs and family dynamics. The point is, this doesn’t have to be a major time commitment. You can spend as little or as much time as you like and still learn.

So. Let’s recap: Learning to code is free, is easy, and doesn’t require previous expertise. It will help prepare our children for a wealth of interesting, well-paying jobs (or entrepreneurship opportunities). It will nurture critical thinking and problem solving skills. 90% of our kids aren’t been taught this in school. And this week, dozens of clever, fun, engaging computer science programs have all been linked up to one convenient launch page and on top of that are being offered for free.


What are you waiting for? Still need convincing? Watch this lovely video that will inspire even the most resistant. Even Sarah Michelle Gellar (the actress who starred as Buffy the Vampire Slayer) guests on it encouraging you to code, and she knows a thing or two about saving the world, what with being a vampire slayer and all.

Let me know in the comments if you give it shot!


Host a Smashing 1930s British Dinner and Skype an Author, What?

At Chez Ridenhour, husband-Jamie and I sit around a lot drinking coffee and brainstorming new and interesting ways to create community, engage in the arts, make education fabulous, and in general enjoy ourselves thoroughly. We have a lot of these discussions, and I’m happy to share our newest idea, which can involve… yes, that’s right: YOU!

Barking MadAnnouncing the Mad Dogs and English Dinner! As many of you know, Jamie is an author, and a couple of years back released his first novel called Barking Mad: a hilarious, clever, 1930s whodunnit, complete with comical werewolf and starring man-about-town Reginald Spiffington. It’s like Agatha Christie meets P.G. Wodehouse meets… a werewolf. He’s getting ready to release its sequel, Mad Dogs and Englishmen in February 2014. And I’ll tell you what: I laughed out loud all the way through. You’ll love it!

As we were drinking our coffee and thinking about how to promote the book (which is being released by Typecast Publishing), we noted both novels’ emphasis on fine cuisine and elegant dinner parties. We also used to love hosting Murder Mystery dinners – remember those? Holy cow, they were fun. What if, we mused, we invited people to host a period dinner with their best friends to celebrate the book’s release? My education brain kicked into overdrive. We could mix cooking, literature, and history all up together to create a super cool event for kids and adults alike to share all over the country! Oooh! And Skype! We could have Jamie Skype into each party and connect with the guests.

Ok – I’m getting carried away. Allow Jamie to tell you how it works:

Things You Should Know

  • Our hero Reginald Spiffington

    Our hero Reginald Spiffington

    This is not primarily an educational event. We are trying to sell Jamie’s book. However, it is in line with how we in general “do” education around here. We find fun ways to engage with the traditional (and sometimes nontraditional) core. This is fiction novel, but it is set in a particular time and place. We have no curricula to hand you, but you can create an interesting educational experience for your kids if you’re up for it.

  • Both Barking Mad and Mad Dogs and Englishmen are adult novels, but older kids and teens will enjoy them as well. I love Jamie’s language, which is rich and sometimes challenging. There are funny romantic escapades, and at one point Reggie (our hero) finds his hand cupping his lady fair’s breast. There are also a spattering of curse words, the worst of which is sh*t, which our hero uses once to describe manure, and immediately apologizes for. But those are the most mature events in either book. Well, besides the murder.

Turning the Event into a Unit Study

  • Host an event. Sit down with your child/ren and study the British 1930s. This is the period between the World Wars. What was going on then? What technology was being invented? What was the social class system like? What was the prevailing culture?
  • Read some P.G. Wodehouse.
  • Read some Agatha Christie.
  • Read Barking Mad!
  • Invite your guests and plan the dinner with your child. Teach them simple things like how to address an envelope (we take these things for granted sometimes!).
  • Read the recipes together, as well as the costume, party game, and music suggestions. They will all be historically accurate.
  • Decorate and plan costumes together. Really get into the look of the day.
  • Menu plan, shop, and prepare the food together. This is a great opportunity to get kids working in the kitchen. And each course has options for the real-from-scratch-deal, or shortcuts that you can make or procure in minutes. You could switch it up, making a couple of courses, and short-cutting others. To check out the recipes, just click here.
  • Talk about authorship, and have your child prepare some questions for Jamie on the big night. He will be happy to answer anything you throw at him!

Learn More about Reggie Spiffington

  • Check out Reggie’s own website! You can listen to and/or read excerpts from Barking Mad, learn more about werewolves, and check out the dinner menu.
  • Connect with Reggie on Twitter.
  • And of course, learn more about Jamie as well at his author website or on Facebook.
  • Explore the world of the talented culinary guru Jenni Field, who created the nine-course menu for the Mad Dogs dinner party.

We hope you’ll join us!


EEME: Building Circuits in the Classroom

EEMEAs part of our Makers Year, Eva and I signed up for EEME, a program that is designed to teach kids electronics and circuitry through hands-on experiences coupled with online tutorials. I snagged this from their website:

EEME makes hands-on project kits paired with an online video curricula to teach 7-12 year old kids electronics. Our goal? To nurture the curiosity & critical thinking kids need for the science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) opportunities of tomorrow.

How the program works:

  1. Each month a little package arrives in the mail. Hooray! We love packages! Inside is everything you need for the month’s project. For the first month, you receive a breadboard, baseboard, battery component, wires and resistors, and an LED light. Every month after that builds off the first project. So that breadboard you received in month #1 will be used again and again in future projects.
  2. Eva using the online instructions to make her project

    Eva using the online instructions to make her project

    After you’ve opened the package, log into the EEME website. There you’ll be able to watch step-by-step instructions about the new project. Follow the instructions, take one- to three-question quizzes at the end of each to make sure you’re understanding the concepts, and move onto the next step when you’re ready. So far we’ve built a simple light, a sunlight-activated “nightlight,” a numerical digital display, and a super loud audio alarm.

  3. Once you’ve completed the project (which takes about an hour), simply place everything in a storage box and wait for the next month’s surprise. Or if you love it love it, then keep building with it, or use the project you just created. I always encourage playing around and experimenting!
Working on project #3

Working on project #3

How we like it:

The Pros: We love it! As you know, I’m not much of a curriculum user, so when I find something all-in-one that we really connect with, I’m thrilled. The kits are affordable and self-contained. The monthly regularity gives us something to look forward to. We love the fact that we use the materials from previous months. The instructional videos are clear, short, and digestible. If you don’t understand exactly what you’re seeing, no worries: there are handy illustrations that you can zoom in on to make sure all the wires are where they should be. And the best part is that they explain the concepts behind the projects. You’re not just following instructions mindlessly; you’re learning electronics fundamentals. We’ve enjoyed moving things around and making new combinations to see what else we can create with our little kits. It’s really quite fabulous.

The EEME kit: baseboard (broken but workable), wires, resistors, batteries and battery compartment

The EEME kit: baseboard (broken but workable), wires, resistors, batteries and battery compartment

The Cons: I don’t have a lot of cons. My only complaint is that the initial baseboard arrived with two snapped off clips that are supposed to hold the battery compartment in place. It’s not a big deal – we just support the batteries by hand if we need flip the unit over. But I’ve sent several emails and notes asking for a replacement component (since it is the star of every month’s show), and have never received a response. The other odd thing is that the wires that arrived are different colors than the ones described in the videos. Once we figured out that we need to use yellow when our instructor says white, we were fine. But it’s something to be aware of. And that’s it. Those are the only complaints I have, and they are so minor. I highly recommend this program!

What it costs:

The basic plan is $18.95 per month and includes the materials and online videos. For $29.95 per month, you receive the same thing plus little covers that enclose the projects neatly (this is the Pro Plan). We went for the basic plan, and though at first Eva thought it would have been cool to have the covers, I just didn’t think they were worth the additional cost. If you think your kid might like to use the unit when they’re not building it, then go for the pro plan. But Eva just likes working with it during the lessons.

If you like, you can get the first month free by clicking this link. Just so you know, I’ll get a free month as well (up to two). You can also opt for their deal to receive the first month at 50% off by clicking on this link (I’m not getting any kick-back for that one). Either way, you know me well enough I hope to trust I would never recommend something I didn’t really love!

You can also try out their virtual breadboard for free by clicking here. It’s pretty cool.

Do you have a super-cool resource you wish everybody knew about? If so, please share in the comments. I’d love to hear about them!


Announcing: The STEAM-Powered Classroom

That’s right: Dirt Under My Fingernails will soon become The STEAM-Powered Classroom, with its own URL and everything. Thanks to everyone, both on this forum and in emails and conversation who helped brainstorm and give feedback for various name manifestations. In the end, inspired by all of your suggestions, my own husband helped me settle on a final name. So who are these delightful, creative people who helped me out? Let me introduce (I’m only including those whose web info I know):

Applause for Our Support Committee!

Tamara Swedberg, an expert in all things tech and solar. You can find her here (plus she made really cool digital birthday cakes that you can personalize and send to your friends!): http://www.tamaraswedberg.com/

DairyAirHead, a “sometimes hipster” who keeps a creative writing blog dedicated to poetry, fiction, music, and other forms of art that touches her life. Find her at www.dairyairhead.com.

Vanessa, who says “I am passionate about providing a rich, personalized education for my children (and when I am teaching, other children). My interests include home education, giftedness, alternative education systems and writing for children.” You can find her at http://chrysalisisland.blogspot.com

And my dear friend Horrible Ray, who sells Horrible History books as well as books from Life of Fred, Art of Problem Solving, Story of the World, and a couple of foreign language resources too. Find him at http://horriblebooks.com/. And tell him I sent you!

Many thanks to all of these folks, and the many others who participated in my earlier poll.

Why STEAM-Powered Classroom?

The emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has been sweeping our country’s educational reform movement for some time now, as there is a general feeling that we are short-changing our students in these areas. However, there are many voices who also feel that the arts are also an area where we are woefully lacking, and its omission is stunting our kids’ development of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. So we stick the “A” in and get STEAM. We’re huge proponents of STEAM in our home, and we are generous to the “A” and let it include the humanities as well. I mean, you could call it SHTEAM, but now you’re just getting silly.


A laptop with a Steampunk treatment. To see this and other creations by this artist, check out http://www.datamancer.com.

Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is an artistic movement and science fiction sub-genre that’s been gaining popularity over the last decade or so. Stay with me here: imagine being transported back into the Victorian era, but having a lot more technology and badassness. This is the essence of Steampunk. There are a lot of brass and leather workings, rivets, goggles, and dirigibles (AKA blimps), and of course everything is steam-powered. It’s an aesthetic that is showing up in music, books, movies, artwork, and clothing. It’s taking the old and re-imagining it with a little more funk, and a lot more tech. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do in our home. We’re honoring the parts of education that work, and tinkering with them, making them more funky, more relevant, and more beautiful. If you still don’t have a grasp of Steampunk, just give it a Google and click on “Images.” You’ll get the idea.

What Should I Expect Here in the Future?

Though I’m changing the name and theme and “growing up” the site, I hope to maintain the personal, intimate, and positive atmosphere I’ve worked to develop at Dirt Under My Fingernails. I will continue to share my kids’ stories as examples of what you can do when you’re not willing to simply accept the educational norm. I will continue to support individualized, child-centered education, and will be there for you to help you brainstorm ideas with your own children. I will also continue to offer support to parents and kids are are fully enrolled in public schools. You’ll find better organization of my posts, and easy access to resources for your kids. I’m working on a book project now that I hope to link up here in the future, and I have some curricula ideas that I hope to develop and share as well. Oh, and I’m finally going to create a Facebook professional page so we can connect more easily there as well.

I will still get dirt under my fingernails, and I will still celebrate the messy, organic, industrial, beautiful world that is our lives. I hope you’ll stick with me!

I hope to roll out all the changes in a month or two, so keep your eyes peeled.

PS: You’ll find that my post categories are already changing, as I begin this process. These are listed on the right side of this blog page. Take a look, and tell me what you think. Does the flow make sense to you? Can you find what you’re looking for? Do you see room for additional (or fewer) categories or sub-categories? Many thanks for your feedback!


10 Easy Steps to Create Your Own Curriculum and CHANGE THE WORLD

10 Easy Steps to Create Your Own Curriculum and CHANGE THE WORLD

I get asked all the time: how do you do homeschool with no curriculum? Aren’t you afraid you’ll leave something out? Aren’t you afraid you won’t do it “right?” These questions are typically asked by other home educators who would like to try ditching boxed curricula, but are terrified they’ll screw it up somehow. In the beginning of this adventure, I shared those anxieties. But it’s not as hard as you might think. My ultimate goal in educating my children is to help them become empowered, self-sufficient individuals who are hungry for knowledge and eager to change their world for the better. With that as my goal, I am always led to expand my approach beyond the subject matter at hand.

1. Identify Your Subject Matter Together

Eva always works with me to decide what subjects we will study. We have a general framework: English, history, science, math, arts, but those are over-arching guidelines. What we’ll study within each topic is up to us, and I find that when Eva has a voice in determining the subject matter, she’s more invested in the process. In this example, I’m going to talk about our history study: the 20th century from a Western perspective.

2. Frame the Topic in Terms of Your Child’s Interests

We’ve been working our way through the Euro-centric history timeline for four+ years now, and this fall we’ve entered the 20th century. Eva was not excited to say the least, dragged down by the idea of all those wars and conflicts. However, I felt that this era was important to cover, so I re-framed it with Eva to create a study of powerful women who happened to live during this century. We’ll study the history around these figures as the settings of their lives, so to speak. By looking at history in this way, we recapture the power of narrative, which is Eva’s particular strength. We shift from names and dates and death tolls, and instead look at women’s lives and accomplishments, families and dreams. And while we’re at it, we’ll gain an impressive collection of new role models.

3. Create the Unit Together

The results of our brainstorming and research session

The results of our brainstorming and research session

Sometimes I extensively research a unit before we plunge in, but other times I find it’s more appropriate for us to research and create it together. For this unit, Eva and I spent a whole day looking up women on the internet and in books (and pulled them out of our heads) and wrote them up on our white board. We created categories for music, science, politics, authorship, and activism (and others), and made sure we had representation in each. We also took careful notice that we had women spread out over the whole of the century, ensuring that we would watch the era develop and go through its painful and beautiful growth processes. By involving Eva in this process, she became eager and invested, while learning research skills to boot! She helped pick these women, so she’s naturally more excited to learn about them.

4. Go to Your Library Together

Getting the “together” theme here? Bring your kid along with you to the library to gather more materials. Yes, this is a time commitment – after my initial library trip to gather biography collections for our brainstorming session, Eva and I spent another entire class day in the stacks finding everything we could on the women we had selected to study. It is an important part of that “change the world” goal I referred to earlier. By doing this together, Eva learns research and library skills, and this time she worked off her own Word chart on which she had carefully organized all her heroine choices by birth date (another valuable lesson). Instead of simply receiving the knowledge from me, she is learning how to find it for herself. Eva in particular wants to be a writer. Learning these research and organizational skills is invaluable.

5. Check Out Everything

Our stack of biography collections, ready for exploration!

Our stack of biography collections, ready for exploration!

At my library, we’re allowed to check out 25 books per card, and each family member is allowed his or her own account. That means for a family of four, we can bring home 100 books! When you’re creating a curriculum without a textbook, you’ll need a lot of resources, so take advantage of your library maximums. We hit up the biography section, selecting 32 titles on individual women and collections of famous women, scientists, etc. We requested a dozen more that were checked out to other patrons. When we’ve studied other periods of history, I’ve also visited the cookbook section, the arts and crafts section, and the religion and folklore sections. I purchase things as well from time to time. But for this unit, we’ll be sticking with our biography focus.

6. Sort Materials in Study Order

Our collection of individual biographies, stacked in order of birth date.

Our collection of individual biographies, stacked by order of birth date.

I’ve stacked up all our biographies to match Eva’s birth date chart. When we’re ready for the next woman, we simply refer to the chart and select the biography on top (or the books of collections, depending on which one holds our next heroine). This also makes it easier for Eva to keep up with her reading assignments. What’s on top is what’s next.

7. Provide Some Instruction

This is the point in our story where I take on more traditional teacher-duties. As we work through the century, we’ll first discuss the political climate of the day. For example, this week I told Eva a bit about World War I, and we talked about the changes in class structure, technological advancement, and political relationships and shifts. She could read about all of this, but I find that sometimes it’s nice to talk about things or read about them out loud together. And yes, this means I had my own preparation homework to do before class.

8. Assign Homework

Though Eva will be allowed to read a lot during history “class,” we’ll never get through all this if that’s the only time she cracks open a book. She’ll have 2-3 women on her assignment list each week. These biographies are short for the most part, and easily digestible. If we find a heftier book that we want to take that on or a particular woman that captures Eva’s interest, we’ll allow more time for deeper exploration. We’re flexible.

9. Have the Student Teach the Teacher

Eva’s the one reading these bios, so for many classes, she will lead the “class” and talk about what she’s learned. After we’ve talked, we’ll probably look up other things about the women of the week online, checking out documentaries and the like. The History Channel is a favorite choice for that kind of research.

10. Create a Hands-On Assignment Together

My magic formula for all our studies is comprised of great books, stimulating conversation, interesting videos, and engaging hands-on projects. Eva and I have been talking about what she should do for her hands-on portion. We’ve discussed 1) a straightforward essay (suggested by me, snubbed by Eva), 2) a blog post about one or more women, or the whole century in review, to be shared here, and 3) a series of fun videos in which she and her stuffed koala Kinzy discuss the merits of one historical figure at a time in a comedic manner. In our experience, Eva is a zillion% more likely to remember a topic if she’s created something inspired by it.

In a typical school set-up, the student begins her study when she receives the materials and/or instruction from her teacher. By these traditional standards, Eva doesn’t actually begin her subject study until step 7. It’s the first six steps combined with shared leadership duties, however, that make all the difference. By creating the plan, doing the research, and collecting the materials, and even helping teach the subject matter, Eva is gaining the skills to become an empowered lifelong learner. Her education truly belongs to her.

What works well in your teaching method? If you are hesitant to approach education in a non-traditional manner, what’s holding you back?


We Just Made a Music Video

We Made a Music Video

Making the Video

Over the past few months, Ian has been slowly recording a new single, bringing in different musicians, recording parts in different states, emailing, playing back, tweaking, adding new layers. It’s a gorgeous song. He plans to release it in mid-December, along with an honest-to-goodness music video.

Video Shoot (51)Last week, we filmed this video at a beautiful old gilded theater called The Belle Mehus. The Creative Treatment film production company approached Ian months ago to make the video – simply because they believe in Ian’s vision and potential. They were the amazing talent that produced his Daily Dakotan video a year ago (which you can see below).

We rented the theater and their grand piano, lugged in Ian’s drum set, and then the rest just happened. The Creative Treatment team and the Belle Mehus staff were amazing – so patient and kind, so enthusiastic and supportive. I ran sound, playing back the unmixed recording over the Belle’s sound system so that Ian could sync up his various parts. They filmed the entire song a dozen times – different angles on the piano, different angles on the drums, and then straight up vocals. It took only three hours. And now for the production magic. I can’t wait to see the final product! If you’d like to see more pictures from the shoot, check out Ian’s photo gallery on his website.

New Phase for Ian

This video represents a new stage in Ian’s music career. He’s lately been backing up the fantastic country-pop duo Tigirlily, who are crazy-close to busting into the national music scene. We’ve learned a lot from them – especially about the social media work they’ve done. Inspired by their successful kitchen videos (in which they sing on bar stools in their kitchen) Ian just this week launched the first of his new weekly studio sessions. You can see it below, and you can subscribe to him on YouTube to catch future episodes.

He’s been thinking about a “look” too – we’re considering marketing strategies, fonts, YouTube banners, and the like. There is so much to learn about being an artist in this digital age. But we’re having a blast, and we’re super excited about the potential.

First, the studio session:

And next, the Daily Dakotan episode:

Stay tuned!



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