Saturday, December 21, 2013

Homeschooling and Finnish education

Finland consistently scores at or near the top in worldwide education surveys. The implications for the US have been discussed widely in US media, including prominent articles in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and The Washington Post.

I'm quite interested in this. Born in Finland, I am a US resident and went to public school in both countries. My father is Professor of Education at the University of Helsinki, my own graduate studies were in sociology and I am currently homeschooling my children here in the US.

Although homeschooling is legal it is still rare in Finland. Most Finns are happy with public education and don't see the need to homeschool. Moreover, private education is virtually nonexistent.

I've just finished reading Pasi Sahlberg's 2011 book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland and it occurred to me that the reason for Finland's success in public education might be that it strikingly resembles homeschooling.

Here are my notes from the book.
  1. Finland is small – but as a unit of educational reform 5.3 million is comparable to many states and provinces in other countries (including US states, which have a lot of say in designing their education systems)
  2. In international educational surveys, Finland went from being an average performer to a top performer in just a few decades. At the same time inequality between students, which started out being considerable, was reduced to a minimum.
  3. Finland is homogenous in terms of language and culture – but it is the most rapidly diversifying European country, and has managed to improve even as it has diversified
  • Not only small classes but also small schools
  • Motivated teachers who get a great education and a lot of autonomy
  • Absence of testing and audits keeps school stress-free
  • Shorter days and less homework mean there's more energy left to be creative
  • Children learn to read early regardless of school; their literacy provides a basis for other learning
  • Normalcy of special ed: roughly half receive it at some point
  • Other people really value teachers
  • Well designed spaces and nutritious warm meals
  • High social cohesion and trust. On average, a Finn belongs to three clubs or associations
  • Children are spending more and more time on their devices; they use them to learn different things at different speeds
  • Children find themselves in bigger schools; small schools are disappearing
  • Devices are also changing how children spend time together face to face
  • Boys are no longer reading as much for pleasure (no data on girls?)
  • Older children increasingly feel the lessons at school are irrelevant
Sahlberg's reader will conclude that a great school is small, led by highly educated teachers who are free to do things their way, has short days and issues little homework. It relies on parents and other people who help the children learn to read early. When a child has difficulty learning something – which happens to many at some point – they get help from a specialized teacher without being stigmatized. Plus, everybody there benefits from well-designed spaces and good food.

To Sahlberg the key challenge now is personal media. Because children spend so much time on their screens, teachers find they are harder to reach. They read fewer books on their own and their learning is out of synch with their peers. Hence, more effort is required from teachers to engage each individual student. But schools are getting larger and as the kids get older, they become even less engaged and more dissatisfied. They no longer see any reason to be in class. They use their devices to access information and to communicate.

Sahlberg's answer, which he calls the Big Dream, is school as a safe community where children are free to pursue their interests, learn more diverse things, and discover their unique talents. In the future he paints, classroom-based teaching gives way to customized, activity-based learning:
Rather than continue thinking of future schooling in terms of subjects and time allocations to them, the time is right now to make a bold move and rethink the organization of time in schools. This would mean having less time allocated to conventional subjects, such as mother tongue, mathematics, and science, and more time for integrated themes, projects, and activities.
He continues:
This would also mean a shift from common curriculum-baed teaching to individual learning-plan-based education. This would lead to extended time for all students to spend engaged in personally meaningful workshops, projects, and the arts.
Sounds a lot like homeschooling.

Cross-posted on my blog

Friday, December 13, 2013

Strong and weak ties

A new boy joined the school and it has been great. Everyone now has a friend and it really matters.

Maybe because of that we have been thinking and talking about friendships and the optimal size of our group more in recent days.

Marjatta Kalliala, an educator in Finland, noted in one of her books that what matters most to young children are trustworthy grown-ups who can offer a lot of individual attention to them. Whereas closer to their teens it becomes even more important to be part of a diverse, stable community of other young people.

I once asked Riitta Olander, head teacher of the preschool E & E went to in Helsinki what she thought of this. She recited a simple formula: age of the child + 2 = the maximum number of other people they should be expected to interact with daily.

That seems to be true. Now that our children are aged five to six, a core group of four to five kids plus two teachers has been working out really well. It's enough to enable deep friendships, free group play, and more directed group activities like Simon Says and yoga without compromising on the ability to comfort a little one when things go wrong, have thoughtful conversations, and pair up for extended one-on-one sessions when math, writing, etc. requires it – and they frequently do.

Those are the "strong ties". But we all need "weak ties" too – people we don't know so well, who we engage with out in the world when we need to get something done.

In New York we team up with Brooklyn Apple Academy on field trips sometimes once, sometimes twice a week. This larger combined group of seven to eight kids has started to gel as the children become more familiar with each other and we develop routines as a group.

Then there are the afternoon classes, sports, park days and homeschooler community events on both coasts. The faces on the soccer field, at the pool and gym, in the park, science camp, or at robotics class are familiar even though we may not remember everyone's name.

The world is big and it moves fast, and a six year old is wandering out of his or her comfort zone a lot. It's ok though, when there's a close friendship and a safe home base to return to.

Apple of the Day

Every day one of the children gets to be Apple of the Day. We borrowed this from our friends at the Brooklyn Apple Academy

The Apple acts as a tie-breaker and takes on some grown-up responsibilities like leading the way on field trips and blowing out the candle after circle time.

The system is known as rotating chairmanship and it is part of many democratic institutions. For example, the Presidency of the European Council is a rotating chairmanship.

Now, whenever there's a conflict (who gets to press the elevator button?) the children have an obvious way to resolve it without needing grown-up referees.

Monday, December 2, 2013

School Rules

Some mornings the children want nothing to do with circle time or academics. We start such days by crossing the street to the park, which is often still wet from dew, and run around and play hard. (My first grade teacher in Finland sent us outside to run in the woods. It worked wonders then and still does today).

But after a few particularly rowdy mornings I asked the children if they thought we should have any rules. They all enthusiastically agreed "Yes!" – even the couple who were beating each other with their seat cushions.

I asked what the rules should be, and offered to write down what they said. Here's the result:

1. The Apple gets to lead and blow candle - not anyone else
2. No phones
3. Raise your hand and no interrupting
4. No screaming, standing up, yelling, showing private parts, disturbing, lying down
5. No playing with stuffies in circle time

This set has worked remarkably well and it has remained on the wall of the tower room where we meet in the morning. 

Maybe the reason it has worked is that it is consistent with John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

The harm principle has become somewhat of a guiding line to us. The children have become familiar with it through arguments about what they can and can't do. They think it's fair.

For example, rule 5 originally read "No stuffies in circle time." It was amended to "No playing with stuffies" after one of the girls pointed out that the stuffies didn't bother anyone if they were not being used.

That sense of justice is probably why these rules continue to get respect from the grown-ups and the children – even the ones called out for breaking them.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Asian Art

On a field trip to the Asian Art Museum today with homeschooler friends, we tried out Korean-style book binding and saw lots of statues: Buddhas, Brahmas, Shivas and the dancing Simhavatra Dakini, a ferocious lion-faced guardian of Vajrayana Buddhism who wears a tiger skin around her waist, and a demon skin knotted around her shoulders.

In a hallway the children created a statue exhibit of their own:

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Role playing

The girls have been playing dog and owner for a while now. One child plays dog, another is the owner, and they act out different scenes. We wrote a bunch of words describing positive and negative personality traits on flash cards to juice it up a bit:

Each one picks a card, then they act out the behavior (i.e. sly dog, devoted owner).

The second time we did it in Finnish, English on the flip side.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ancient Egypt: books and projects

This week we have been learning about Ancient Egypt, inspired by our friend Theo in New York, who was learning about them from a book. 

We were also inspired by Theo to use some tracing paper to draw maps, and the gods and goddesses. The tracing paper has become quite popular around Sesat School, and everyone has been tracing just about everything. 

We learned to do hieroglyphics, and wrote some words (some in Finnish, such as "aurinko" - sun, and "hevonen" - horse), some of our names, and Xylitol, which may have been the official artificial sweetener of the Ancient Egyptian Gods: 

We made clay figures of Anubis, the jackal-headed god, and Bastet the cat-headed goddess. We made the pharaoh's crooked heqa-scepter and one of the girls made the longer was-scepter that was carried by both pharaohs and deities

All of the kids chose a god or goddess, and learned about their particular sphere of influence. Ma'at, the goddess of Truth; Bastet, who makes plants grow; Tawaret the pregnant hippopotamus, protector of mothers and babies; and Ra, the sun god, who is born each morning and lives his life out crossing the sky. He is also the god of revenge. 

Here are their tracings:

We also studied the Egyptian Book of the Dead and were intrigued by the weighing of the heart scene. Anubis weighs Ani's heart while he and his wife Tutu watch anxiously to see if his sins weigh more than Ma'at's ostrich feather. This spurred a discussion about being righteous vs being mean, and remarks on the concept of the afterlife.

E & E visited the Egypt exhibit at the Met with Jyri and we are teaming up with other homeschoolers for a trip to the Rosicrucian Egypt museum in San Jose soon.

We also watched the first hour of Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison (as Julius Caesar), and after the first half hour, one of the girls said, exasperated, "Are there going to be any girls in this movie?". We also watched a documentary on pyramids and mummies.

New workbooks!

We gave each student their own workbook on reading/writing and math and time every day before lunch to work on it if they want. So far the children have been excited to work on their books and we have agreed they can continue after lunch. Good thing there are other activities most afternoons so they don't spend the entire day just on their workbooks -- it's hard to make them stop. Here are the ones we are using.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Epic stories

A popup book version of The Odyssey that Jyri found in New York inspired a conversation about heroic deeds by Odysseus, Robin Hood, our grandparents, friends, and ourselves. 

We discussed differences between tragedy, comedy, and the epic. We talked about personal life stories and created popup books that include renditions of tragic, comic and epic/heroic events from our lives.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Treasure hunt on Treasure Island

We wanted to finish the unit on navigation with something memorable, and decided on a treasure hunt on Treasure Island.

Caterina found wooden wine boxes at an arts supply store. We worked through the night converting them into treasure chests and filled them with beads, bones, art supplies, glass eyes, and of course coins.

We decided to associate each child with a historical pirate, and chose "Calico Jack" Rackham and his crew, which included the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny.

I drew treasure maps, aged them with coffee overnight, and drove to Treasure Island at dawn to bury the chests on a deserted beach near the Marina.

The night before we had told the children a story about the crew of Rackham's ship The Kingston. In the morning each child found a map waiting at the breakfast table, presumably drawn by the pirates themselves.

Dressed appropriately as sailors we chartered a boat from Pier 1½  to Treasure Island Marina. Luckily it was a beautiful day! With the help of their maps and a metal detector (and after a decent bit of shoveling) the children all found their Jolly Roger-inscribed chests.

The rest of the morning sailed by picnicking and playing in the shallow water. When it was time to go, we all wanted to stay.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Navigation: maps and signs

We have been learning about navigating around the world, a subject close to my heart (as the founder of Findery). Jyri has come up with a dozen creative ways of teaching navigation. The first project he created, was asking the kids to draw a map of the house, all the different rooms, and draw their own bedrooms and our school room. Then they decided to make a treasure hunt inside the house. First they painted some rocks gold, then made maps of the house. They wrote instructions ("Look under the table" "Go into the kitchen") and invited people to find their treasure using their map and instructions. The next day, Jyri went to the park and drew all of the signs he found in and around the park. He photocopied them and put them on clipboards, and all the children went to the park to look for the signs. They crossed them all off as they found them.
And the following day was the Epic Treasure Hunt on Treasure Island. More about that later.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gandhi Quote

"There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent" – Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, August 5, 2013

Why "Sesat" School?

Sesat was the Egyptian goddess of wisdomknowledge, and writing. She was seen as a scribe and record keeper, and her name means she who is the scribe. She is credited with inventing writing. She also became identified as the goddess of architectureastronomyastrologybuildingmathematics, and surveyingMistress of the House of Books is another title for Seshat, being the deity whose priests oversaw the library in which scrolls of the most important knowledge were assembled and spells were preserved.

She is most often portrayed wearing a leopard robe, with a seven pointed symbol above her head, of unknown meaning. 

She seemed like a good, lesser-known goddess to name our school after! Also we could have leopard print as our school colors, always an important consideration. While wearing the seven pointed mysterious palm leaf and belljar/breast symbol thing on our heads. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Homeschooling and Socialization

I study communities, especially online communities, so I have thought a lot about the subject of communities and socialization. When people first hear their friend or grandchild or friend's child is going to be homeschooled they often ask "can homeschooled children be well socialized?" and sometimes "is there any research on this?". 

Naturally this depends on what is meant by "socialized". I am not sure how this could be researched, however. Number of friends? Hostile or amicable relationship with parents? Hostile or amicable relationships with peers? Frequency of contact with members of the community? Volunteerism rate? Suicide rate of homeschooled vs. traditionally schooled? Violence and bullying in traditional schools vs. homeschool groups?

However, here are some differences I've noticed, as a homeschooling mother:

Age Cohort & Peer vs. Family Orientation
Most schooled children spend most of their time with children their own age, usually within a year of their age, with a few adults teaching or supervising. Homeschooled children tend to spend more time with their families, siblings and children of different ages. Typical homeschool groups include kids of a variety of ages, from newborns through teenagers, and often you see four-year-olds working side-by-side with 10-year-olds. Related to the age cohort difference is the result of that stratification by age.  The tendency for schooled children is to be primarily peer-oriented vs. parent or family-oriented (see below). There was a study done which indicated that mixed-age groups of children were significantly less likely to exhibit bullying behavior. Children interacting with other children at least 3 years younger saw themselves as protectors and role models, rather than as competitors or rivals.

Personally I believe our society is broken in that people mainly associate with people their own age. My relatives in the Philippines, if they threw a party, would include everyone -- babies, kids, teenagers, people in their 20s, 30s, 40s -- and grandmas in their 80s. This was not unusual, and I think, the mark of a healthy society. However I rarely see this kind of intergenerational mixing in the States, except with first generation immigrants. 

One-on-one attention
Parents also know their children, and can adapt the pace of learning, the subjects taught to the individual child.  Traditionally schooled kids have to keep to the 2nd grade, 3rd grade, etc curriculum as taught, whereas homeschooled kids can go faster or slower as needed. As has been noted in the recent article regarding Khan Academy in Wired ( and in the work of 826 Valencia ( among many others -- kids thrive when given one-on-one attention, learn more, gain confidence. 

Community participation
We are able to spend time every week at a nursing home, in conversation with the elderly residents (we visit one resident in particular that we have a close relationship with, but have adopted the whole place). Children and the elderly are almost never seen in our daily lives and are missing from civil society. As such their needs are not taken into consideration in many decisions we make regarding public life, nor are children given real responsibility in this regard. I also think to be well socialized one should contribute to society by doing volunteer work -- and not putting stamps on envelopes in uptown offices or throwing gala fundraisers -- but by serving in soup kitchens, or cleaning out the bedpans of the very old and sick. John Taylor Gatto wrote an essay about kids doing volunteer work, and how it fundamentally changes ones relationship to the community, and one's self within that community. 

Closeness to Family
After "better education" the reason most frequently cited for why parents homeschool their children is in order to have a closer family. Peers, media, and other influences commonly drive a wedge between children and parents and homeschooled children tend to have a closer relationship with parents and siblings. 

Determining who in our society is 'well socialized' is subjective. But a friend of mine in the tech industry asked me "Why is it that homeschoolers are so much better socialized than other people?" He mentioned a woman at his company who was always sent out to talk to new employees, meet new customers, talk to "problem" clients. "She can talk to anybody," he said. It might just have been the woman's personality, but one of the reasons I decided to homeschool was I met a friend's 12-year-old daughter, who spoke to me without fear, as to another person, and not as an adult as most kids do. She was talking about the radio show that she DJ'd on a local station and knew so much about music, which she clearly loved. She was empowered to pursue this interest by her parents, as a homeschooler.

There is a book called The Well-Adjusted Child, about homeschooling and socialization which I reviewed on GoodReads with some notes from the book. As there are books about this topic, and this post is becoming one too, I'll wrap it up here, as I could go on.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And every thing else is still

Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise
Come come leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies

No no let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep
Besides in the sky, the little birds fly
And the hills are all coverd with sheep

Well well go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh'd
And all the hills echoed

This is one of the poems that we read at circle time. There had been other poems in the Curricula that we are using, but they weren't as good as Blake. Since this stuff stays in your head for your whole life, we should make sure it's good! I still have "Once there was a elephant who tried to use the telephant, oh no I mean the elephone who tried to use the telephone..." rattling around in my head.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Finnish Culture

Well obviously Finland is very important to us. And I found this list of everything we did the week we were studying Finland, which did not include the Finns, who were back in Finland.

  • Making a “vitsa” for Easter
  • Books
    • Moomin Cookbook of Finnish Food
    • Tove Jansson books - Who Will Comfort Toffle & The Book of Little My etc.
    • The Canine Kalevala
    • Cultures of the World: Finland
    • Finland: History & Culture

  • A documentary about the Sami and their relationship to Reindeer.
  • Making Finnish shortbread
  • Making a Finnish flag
  • Having a sauna

Friday, February 8, 2013

Chinese Culture

This week we have been learning about Chinese Culture.

- We read My First Chinese New Year, which explains all the Chinese New Year traditions (cleaning, oranges, money) and the Chinese New Year parade.
- It is the Year of the Snake (coming up!) and so we collaborated on a Snake. I am especially interested in us finding projects we can work on all together, interspersed with individual projects. This Snake is now hanging from the ceiling in Sesatland.
- Roxanne taught us how to make dumplings (with cabbage wrapping for the Paleo among us!). These were delicious.
- Upcoming: Next week our friends Jed and Elisa will come to show us how to do Chinese calligraphy. We are getting tickets for the Chinese New Year's Parade, and we will go out for dim sum in Chinatown.

Monday, January 28, 2013

What we did on Monday January 28, 2013: Caterpillars and Butterflies

I just found this summary of what we were doing this past January. The very best part of it was rolling everyone up in brown paper -- cocoons, and letting them break out and become butterflies. We came up with that game spontaneously.

THEME: Butterflies, caterpillars, transformation
- Caterpillar, caterpillar Poem
- Caterpillar/Butterfly Song
- Hello Sunshine Song
- Read The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Art Project:
- Egg Carton Caterpillars

Science Project:
- Caterpillar Anatomy
- Hunted for Caterpillars in the park
- Talked about the stages of development of the caterpillar

Phys Ed:
Running around in the park

For lunch:
Caterpillar Salad

Friday, January 25, 2013

This week we will be learning about:

- stages of growth
- identification
- male vs. female markings
- Monarch migration

WEDNESDAY: - dress to get dirty
- worm composting
- cutting back the rosebushes
- raking up the dead stuff

Everybody will need:
- Two spiral sketchbooks
- A recorder
- Art supplies