Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Homeschooling Boys

I have received many emails recently asking me for advice on homeschooling boys. Boys do present their own unique set of educational challenges, don't they?

Well, while I don't consider myself an expert of any kind or even a model homeschooler, we have been at this for seven years now and we have no plans to stop. This is the life for us, and I can share with you some of the things we've found helpful for teaching boys.These may not all be gender specific or true of every boy, but based on our own experiences as well as what I hear and see from other educators, these are the things that are typically most helpful for boys.

Diet: Studies have linked artificial colors, preservatives, and food additives to a great variety of learning and attention disorders. We avoid these additives as much as possible. We won't be food snobs when visiting friends and relatives, but I don't buy products that contain red 40, yellow 5, blue 1, MSG, BHT, or anything like them. We know which pickles to buy, which ketchup doesn't have these and the kids will even read the labels and tell me if I've messed up. You don't have to pay more or buy organic to do this.

Protein. I can't emphasize enough how protein at every meal is important for concentration.

Fish oil. The younger set takes an Omega supplement in the form of gummy fish. They love them. My oldest takes two fish oil gel capsules every morning, 2000 mg a day. I buy him his favorite fruit juices to help it go down. I have noticed marked improvement in attention and performance when the children take these supplements. We were lax about it one summer and had the worst September ever afterward. I got back on the regimen and the difference was amazing. Grammy was right, people. The human brain needs Omega 3s.

Exercise: Who doesn't know that boys need daily exercise? Let them play in the yard, get outside with them when you can, involve them in sports, take them for a walk or jog, join the YMCA. Get them out..out...out. Which brings us to...

Outdoors: Boys are generally happier when they are outdoors. We take the schoolwork outside in the fall and spring months. We work on the front porch, back porch, or picnic table if weather permits.

Get the essentials done first: Hit the three R's first thing--reading, 'riting, and 'rithmitic, and always start with math. You don't know when attention might rapidly decline, so use those first moments of the day for what really counts.

Break up lessons into short sessions: In what we call "afternoon school," I pull each boy one by one from his play to work on something with me for a very short period of time, never more than ten or fifteen minutes. I find these short, but consistent lessons go a long way toward progress.

Limit busywork: Boys generally have an aversion to worksheets. They tend to learn more readily from experience than through the written or spoken word. Avoid unnecessary busywork as much as possible. If writing is a struggle, don't make your boys write in every subject. Choose one or two so that he does practice writing on a daily basis, but let him work orally in the rest of his subjects. Also, you might consider computer based programs and keyboarding for some subjects. Boys generally respond well to these methods.

Motivate with Rewards: A trick I learned from my sister, Helene, was to let my boys earn computer time by reading for an equal amount of time each day. They earn as much as an hour a day and Saturday comes with a free half hour. This has worked beautifully here, both for motivating reading and limiting computer time. We also let the boys read past bedtime by reading lamps or out on the porch some nights with me. Late night reading doesn't earn them computer time, the reward is staying up past bedtime.

Another trick I use to get the boys to the school table in the morning is to offer them chewing gum, permitted only during "morning school." Studies have shown that chewing gum while studying actually improves concentration. It's true. And it gets them to the school table like nothing else.

Be patient: Now this is an area that I have really struggled with and that continues to be a daily challenge for me. As my husband rightly says, "You want everything done perfectly...and yesterday." It's true, and that isn't a good thing. Patience is something that doesn't come easy to me, but I can honestly say that I have grown in this area and in no small part due to the fact that I homeschool boys. Boys learn differently than girls and their progress is not as readily recorded. It takes time, sometimes more time than we would like, to see the fruits of their efforts and real accomplishments. Experience has taught me, though, that the fruits of their efforts are well worth the wait. Once boys grasp a concept or idea, they have really made it their own. They often have a unique take on what we're trying to teach and an insight that comes from long deliberation and careful observation. Be more patient with your boys, expect less immediate and recordable progress and they will eventually get to where you want them to be and teach you something in the end.

Provide structure, but not too much, and clear directions: Boys do need structure, but not too much. They don't respond well to endless charts and lists and rules, but simple instructions and basic expectations laid out clearly provide discipline that helps them to thrive. We have a basic "morning routine" that includes breakfast, brushing teeth, getting dressed, fixing beds, and tidying up bedrooms before getting to the school table. I've actually written up these instructions on index cards step by step and taped them on their closet doors complete with their own hand drawn images to help them remember their daily duties. Boys tend to need this kind of clarity and reminder when it comes to rules.

Competition: Most, but not all, boys have a competitive spirit and that is to your advantage. Make good use of it. We have competitions for our drill work--who can be the first to finish a set of age appropriate math drills on a dry erase sheet? I've found, too, for my less competitive boys that they still like to compete against themselves. Can you beat your last time on this drill sheet? Let's see how fast and accurate you can be. Boys respond to a challenge.

Work through the summer: This is one that I have been slow to come on board with, but I'm there now. I've always been a huge proponent of taking a break and focusing through the summer months on getting as much sand and sun and water and waves as we possibly can. I still believe this is important, but so also is keeping up a certain amount of discipline and keeping things learned fresh in mind. We do take a break in the summer from regular school year routine, but we have developed a light and fun summer program that keeps the kids from forgetting everything they've learned and makes the task of getting back into the swing of things a little bit easier come September. We try to keep all learning fun in the summer months. We now have drill competitions, money counting as "play", reading time with stamps and stickers, poolside catechism, and late night summer reading, as well as Vacation Bible School, skip counting in the van on the way to BBQs, and educational games--memory, spelling bees, and so on...

Let them go: Last, but not least, is to allow boys plenty of free time during the school year and summer months. They are full of natural wonder and they really do learn best from experience. Let them experience the world as much as possible. Give them lots of unstructured time to watch an anthill, explore the woods, wade through creeks and far away places. Listen when they tell you about all they observe and encourage them to put their experiences into words. Some boys may wish to record their experiences in writing. The best two dollars I ever spent was on a blank journal for our second son. He, more than all the others, took to his journal and recorded in pictures and simple sentences the very elaborate world of wonder that he and his brothers inhabit here in our own back yard and deep woods. Reading his journal is eye opening and heart warming for me. I wasn't aware of half the things and places he and the others had discovered, observed and named. While I washed dishes and mopped the kitchen floor, my boys were out conquering the wild and learning as boys learn best. You have to love this wonder, spirit of adventure and delicious boyishness. I certainly do.