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Educating our Children in the Humanities


The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s will indicated a preference that his son be raised in San Francisco, Chicago, or Manhattan, “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts and architecture that such cities offer.” As a society, we devote a lot of energy to standardizing education, testing outcomes, increasing STEM content, and generally trying to make education the same for everyone. Yet, Hoffman’s will highlights something we are missing with all the standardization: the danger of making education equally bad and equally pointless.

Hearing Hoffman’s wish for his son made me think about the outside-the-classroom choices that my parents made and the choices my husband and I have made as parents. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and then Flint, “culture, arts, and architecture” were a little thin on the ground. There were museums, plays, and the occasional symphony concert, but what we didn’t have was critical mass of people who cared about the arts and talked about them. Despite a wonderful, bright extended family and a few dear friends, we didn’t have that 24 x 7 soup of culture, arts, and architecture. So, early on, my parents started taking us to Toronto. Braving the QEW over winter breaks, we spent more than one snowstorm in Simcoe. But our parents’ objective was to have us experience what a real city was like, one where as a teen I could ride the subway on my own, where there were lots of innovative restaurants, books, magazines, bigger art museums, more people focused on the arts.

That early exposure was part of what prompted me to apply to graduate school in Dublin, a city sometimes overshadowed by London, but with a hugely literate culture. Two (that I know of) the 20 students from my MA program are published authors.  People in pubs had reasoned opinions about literature, contemporary world events, art. Over winter break, I spent my first week in London, where a guy who was very interested in the friend I was traveling with gave us a brilliant tour of the Inns of Court. It wasn’t a matter of a few more museums, or even safe, reliable mass transit (although that made a difference). The critical factor came from just bumping in to people who were well-educated and cared about history, culture, architecture.

Fast forward to my own parenthood. I have struggled to find schools that work well for my child, and after 15 years, finally realized that a combination of homeschooling and community college is the right answer for us. I feel like it took way too long to figure that out and I probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief by doing it sooner. What we did do well, though, was travel. Starting when our child was less than 2 weeks old, we were up in a small plane. We’ve done road trips around the US, hit the history sites in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian in Washington, even been to Beijing as a family. We keep going back to London, though. It’s the place that grounds us because of the “culture, arts, and architecture,” and I would add history. The cultural texture is so thick and so deep there that our child couldn’t help but become immersed in it, developing a perspective that’s informed by history, literature, music, wit, drama.

Education, after all, comes from the Latin, for to lead out. Education leads us out of ourselves, out of the narrow confines of our worldview. Whatever steps we take as parents to lead our children to a broader, more informed worldview enhances their education.Image: London double-decker bus

Getting Accommodations for the CHSPE as a Newbie Homeschooler

Standardized Test Close-Up

Standardized Test Close-Up (Photo credit: biologycorner)

Homeschool students often find it useful to take the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) because they want to work or enter community college. If you’re new to homeschooling as we are, producing all the paperwork to be approved for accommodations (for example, extra time, or computer use for the essay) takes a little extra effort, but we were successful. In case it’s useful to anyone else, here’s what we did.

–>Note that when requesting accommodations, all documents have to be in by the regular registration deadline. The regular deadline for the next CHSPE is Feb. 15 for the March 16 test. More info on dates on the CHSPE calendar.

1. Get supporting documentation required for any accommodations you are requesting. This might be a letter from a professional or copy of a 504 plan if your child has recently been enrolled in a traditional school. It must be dated within 36 months (be less than 3 years old).

2. If your student is not yet 16 you will need to fill out and submit a Statement-in-Lieu if you haven’t already filed a PSA
3. Put a copy of your Statement-in-Lieu or of  PSA or have your education consultant fill out the school portion of the registration form.
4. Fill out the test registration form, including verifying student’s eligibility to take test (if student is 16, ID with date of birth meets the eligibility requirement). Otherwise parent as director/administrator of homeschool fills out that section of registration form.
5. Get a cashier’s check for the $110 test fee.
6. Mail/Fedex everything to the appropriate address on registration form.
–>Note that there is a different address if (like me) you are doing this at the last minute and using Fedex.
I Fedex’d everything on the Thursday one day before everything was due and we had the confirmation (by email) of registration within 2 business days and a physical letter approving the requested accommodations two business days later.

London with Teens–A Flexible Approach


We’ve been traveling with our daughter, now 15, since she was less than two weeks old. When a friend recently asked for recommendations about seeing London with teens, it got me thinking about how much we love visiting London with her. Traveling with a child or young adult can really open up your experience, so that you get beyond the tourist attractions and experience places more like a local. All it takes a little flexibility. Here are some tips for having a great visit.

Avoid Summer Holidays
We avoid the summer tourist season, June-September. Air fares are highest then and everything is crowded. Who wants to spend vacation waiting in a two-hour line to see the crown jewels? Apart from the summer, though, school vacations can be a great time to go. If it’s a school holiday in England, there are often special activities for children and teens. Larger castles often have medieval cooking and craft demonstrations during school holidays, or historical re-enactments. Our first family trip to the Tower of London was during Easter school holidays. One of the activities was a troop of actors doing an audience-participation performance of Colonel Blood’s plot to steal the crown jewels, a much more active way to learn history than reading guidebooks.

Consider a Flat, Instead of a Hotel

Hotels can be expensive in London, and eating multiple meals out every day can really increase costs. Look for accommodations that include a kitchen. Many independent hotels have studio or one-bedroom flats with kitchens and small dining areas. With a kitchen, you can buy something inexpensive at the local Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s, or, if you’re lucky, Waitrose. By making your own tea and toast, you can feed everyone for less than what you’d pay for one meal out. If you eat a hearty lunch out, you can make sandwiches at the flat or have tea and cakes for an evening meal. Pick a place that’s close to one or more Underground stations. The hotel web site will tell you the nearest station and walking distance to it.

Get Around Without a Car

The Oyster card works on the Tube and buses

In fact, having a car in central London costs extra. But that’s okay because between the Underground (Tube), the overground, the Docklands Light Rail, buses, and taxis, it’s very easy to get anywhere in London. Not to mention walking, which is often the most interesting way to get to where you’re going. When you arrive at Heathrow, follow the signs for the Terminals 123 entrance to the Tube. Buy an Oyster card for each member of your group and put 25 pounds or so on it. You can pay for this with a credit card, but it’s a separate transaction for each person’s Oyster card. It’s easy to top up cards at any station, as well as many newsagents. Oyster cards work on all of London transport and automatically calculate the best fare for you at the end of each day, based on where you actually traveled. Pick up one of the free Tube maps. The agent who sells your ticket or the one attending the gate will be happy to tell you which line to change to for your hotel. Touch your Oyster card to the reader each time you enter or leave the Tube system. You’ll start out on the Picadilly Line and the trip should take about an hour. If you’ve got a lot of luggage, you can always take a taxi from the Underground to your hotel. There are fast and express trains to and from Heathrow, but they’re more expensive. The people-watching on the Tube is more fun anyway.

Spend a Few Pounds Your First Day

TimeOut London Magazine - cover story is 50 Be...

TimeOut London Magazine – cover story is 50 Best London Websites (Photo credit: Route79)

Roaming charges on your home cell phones can quickly add up. It’s better to purchase either low-cost UK mobile phones or UK sim cards with Pay As You Go Service. Put 10 or 15 pounds on each phone. You can add funds (“top up”) your phone at many of the same locations where you top up your Oyster card. Once you have a cell phone and Oyster card, stop in at a newsagent for a copy of Time Out and a couple of copies of London A to Z (“a to zed”). The listings in Time Out cover a magnificent variety of shows, museum exhibits, festivals, concerts…if it’s happening in London, it’s listed there. Each listing ends with an icon showing the transport system (bus/rail/tube) and the name of the nearest stop. The A to Z lists every street in London with a grid reference to a corresponding map. Copies range from about 5 pounds to 8 or 9 pounds, depending on size. The very smallest ones are handy, but can be difficult to read, especially while walking or riding a bus. I like the second-smallest size. It still fits in a pocket or bag and is easier to read. Oh, and if it’s raining, the newsagent probably has umbrellas for about 4 pounds.

Balance History and Culture with Teen Interests

Rather than trying to cram all the popular historical attractions into one visit, focus on a couple and separate them by a couple of days. Devote the other days to finding less touristy options that match teen interests. London is so full of history, that this strategy is really like hiding vegetables in a recipe for cupcakes. Our daughter’s interest in acting schools led us to two free performances by one of the excellent acting schools in London, at the only surviving Music Hall in London. Her interest in Science Fiction sent us to a special exhibit at the British Library, and to the Forbidden Planet bookstore.  She also chose a wonderful beach-combing walk along the Thames with an archeologist, a Jack-the-Ripper walk with the former curator of the City of London Crime museum, and a walk around Rotherhithe and into the shaft of Brunel’s Thames tunnel with the curator of the Brunel museum.

A great find in Notting Hill.

Shop Around

There are lots of brand-name shops on Regent St. and Oxford St, but if you like searching for bargains, head for The Stables near Camden. This cobblestone collection of shops started life as a hospital for horses that pulled the barges on the nearby canal. Stores range from vintage and steampunk clothing to common tourist stuff, with lots of inexpensive  food options. Walking along the road toward Camden (downhill) from the Chalk Farm tube station, you’ll see several other vintage shops. Just past the stables you’ll come into the oft-photographed Camden shopping district. In Shoreditch, you’ll find the world’s first pop-up mall.The area around Notting Hill tube stop has several stores with inexpensive clothes and shoes. There is a huge market in Portobello Road on Saturday mornings, but it’s extremely crowded, and many shops and stalls are selling the same t-shirts you can find anywhere. If you’re interested in antique scientific instruments, check out the antique shops mid-day during the week. If you’re near Seven Dials, be sure to try the cheese at Neal’s Yard Diary, which used to be in Neal’s Yard, but moved around the corner to Shorts Gardens. And although there is no bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road, Foyle’s and Blackwell’s are very nearby.

Cabinet War Rooms

Cabinet War Rooms (Photo credit: Iphtjes)

Focus on Special Interest Museums

London is a wonderful city of museums, many of which simply ask you to make a donation. The Science Museum, Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, to name a few. If it’s a school holiday, you will want to stay away from the dinosaurs at the natural history museum, as well as the London Zoo. Both will be mobbed, and they aren’t really any different from similar museums elsewhere. In London, the speciality museums are really worth your time. There are museums dedicated to photography, architecture, medicine, military history, maritime historyurban history. Some of the more specialized museums charge admission, but are well worth it. Walk through the Cabinet War Rooms to see where Churchill and others worked underground.

See a Show

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1

English: Ticket Booth, Leicester Square W1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Leicester Square Ticket booth will sometimes have bargains on tickets for theatrical performances, you can even check availability a day or two before you leave. During the season, there are almost always 5-pound tickets for performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, but at that price, you have to stand through the performance and experience it as a “groundling.” Many of the theatre schools in London offer low-cost performances and you might get to see a great actor before s/he becomes famous. Smaller theatres, outside the West End will also have more reasonable ticket prices. These will be listed in your copy of Time Out.

Find Your Local People

Very Normal London People!

Very Normal London People! (Photo credit: Jody Art)

If you or your teens belong to a group, see if there’s a chapter in London. If your teens are interested in computers and there’s a technology show in town, let them go. Even though there’s technology at home, the opportunity to connect with Londoners who share an interest can be more valuable than seeing one more historical marker. If you like French food, go to a French restaurant, or a Chinese or Indian one. Check the listings on lectures to see if there’s a movie premiere or a special performance or presentation. Take a one-day class in Falconry or a horseback riding lesson. If you let your and your teen’s interests lead you, it will be a wonderful trip.

A Social Approach to Learning French–Thoughts on Duolingo

Because we are looking for a way to home-school third-year French, language study has been on my radar this summer.

English Language Lab

English Language Lab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning languages

other than English has always been both too easy and too hard for me. When people ask if I speak other languages, I sometimes say that I can say “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello” and “Goodbye” in 6 or 8 languages but can’t really speak any other language fluently. Typically, I begin studying a new language to rave reviews. My ability to mimic gets me points from Spanish teachers for getting the ñ and rolling r sounds, from German professors for not turning “ich” into “ish” or “ick,” and from lecturers in Hiberno-English for making the sound between “t” and “th” that appears so often. Having dabbled in so many languages has been great for my vocabulary in English and means that I pick up words in European languages quickly–too quickly. Because I understand the initial lessons, I don’t study them enough to get them set in my brain. Very quickly, the pace of vocabulary and grammar exceeds what I can remember, because I didn’t put in the time with flash cards or written drills to solidify what I thought I knew.

I have been playing with Duolingo for about a month and finding it a very enjoyable way to resuscitate and solidify my school

English: The United Nations Security Council C...

English: The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York, also known as the Norwegian Room Français: La Salle de réunion du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies à New York Nederlands: De Zaal van de Veiligheidsraad van de Verenigde Naties in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French.  Duolingo’s blog explains that it provides “a free way to learn a language while also translating the web.” So far, it works quite well, especially for those of us who get bored with language drills and move on before we’ve really mastered something. The lessons are short. Most have 20 exercises that introduce a few words at a time and rather than forcing memorization of all the present tense forms of a verb, it teaches you one at a time, along with some vocabulary. One set of exercises will have you listen to, translate, write and back-translate “We drink the wine.” Anybody else drinking the wine comes up in a slightly later set of exercises. The exercises fit into small blocks of time. Duolingo very cleverly brings back terms for review that you have studied, so that you do actually learn them. “They drink” might be introduced along with reviewing the plural forms of animal names. So now, it’s elephants drinking. The balance of new and familiar material works really well. You can make progress with ten or 15 minutes a day. And Duolingo will send you a daily reminder email, although this feature doesn’t always work.

One of the other frustrations in learning being unable to deal with complex ideas until you have several years of language. Duolingo addresses this challenge by encouraging you to translate into your native language at first. Hardly a new idea–United Nations simultaneous interpreters translate into their native languages as this article in Slate explains. The web translation activities give you a chance to stretch beyond the basics from the very first lesson. Because I’m translating into English and am familiar with the style of wikipedia entries, I can translate much more advanced material than if I were translating into French. For example, I translated the French for “disambiguation page” in an article about the term “tube.” That was never on any of my first- or second-year vocabulary lists. Duolingo awards lots of points for translation. I tested out of the lesson on the differences between avoir and etre by translating an article on cholera. Knowing a little bit of medical jargon and having had a friend who worked during the early days of oral rehydration with sugar/salt solutions gave me enough background to work out what the French text had to say.

The cholera article was quite long and I probably wouldn’t have gotten though it without the social features of Duolingo.

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learners translate articles sentence by sentence, with feedback based on how well their translations agree with others’ translations. For simple articles, there are lots of translations and if you don’t agree with 80-90 percent of other translations, you’ve probably done something wrong, like confusing indefinite and definite articles. (“Oh rats! It said des not les.”) With longer or more specialized articles, though, there are fewer translations and the ability to see and comment on others’ translations becomes very interesting. Duolingo sometimes can’t tell if your translation is correct, but you can see what others have done with the passage.  Sometimes a translation is more faithful to the French but not colloquial English. Sometimes there’s a better phrase in context, for example “contaminated” rather than just “dirty.” In a long article, seeing how others are translating tricky words in one sentence can make everyone’s translations better in subsequent sentences. When I suggest edits and offer explanations on others’ translations, I feel like I’m helping them learn as well. And I get more points.

Duolingo currently supports Spanish, German and French.