So Much to Say…

…and yet I never said it. It’s been almost a year since the FPEA conference which was part of my motivation for this site. In retrospect, I was not thinking clearly on how to use this blog site and what to say. I wanted to talk about some of the things we are doing, but I also wanted to talk about HOW I am doing it. That makes for a pretty long post. Plus, it is very labor intensive in that I actually have to make sure the directions I give are correct and actually work.

I’ve since realized, while I still want to do the How-Tos, they need to be done a something separate from the blogging. So, to blogging (How-Tos coming soon…)

ClassCraft… Way cool. I ran across this awhile ago and have been trying to use it for home. It is designed to entice classrooms to work together and be inspired to do classwork through the use of gamification. It uses a fantasy setting with a story line, “boss battles” and “random events” to keep the classroom lively.

Now, for home use, I am still struggling to find a good approach for it. However, this year I started teaching a Computer Programming class for our homeschool co-op. For the first semester, I did not use it, partially because I did not know how the other parents would feel about a fantasy themed gamification, the idea of gamification, requiring Internet access and email accounts for students, etc.

Unfortunately, I spent all semester begging and pleading with students and parents to get their students to turn in homework so I could make sure everyone was keeping up and understanding the lectures. Since our co-op meets only once a week, I just 45 minutes to lecture and check in on student progress. Said evaluation typically came in the form of me just walking around class to see what was on their computer screens.

In desperation, I decided to deploy ClassCraft in the classroom. I had already paid for it for myself so took the risk. I put it out to my parents, coerced them into create GMail accounts for their kids so I could integrate Google Classroom I even did a couple sessions on Internet Safety using the NestSmartz Kids resources.

It was painful, but WOW what a difference! Once everyone was setup and introduced, I went from begging kids to turn in something, anything, to having those same kids yelling at ME to grade their work faster!!!!

If you run a classroom for a co-op or something similar take a look at it. The “Random Events” have turned into a ridiculously huge hit. Although my first Boss Battle hit them pretty hard, it seemed to only galvanize them to be ready for them. In fact, this weekend I need to create a new Boss Battle. One that will challenge them a bit more.

The New Administration

So with goals set and curriculums chosen it was time to tackle the administration part of this beast.  Yes, in case you are wondering, I’m about to over-complicate this thing.  In my defense, you’ll recall in the end, I blamed the public school administration for the sad state that is our current system, so this part was important to me.  Besides, I’m a computer person so of course, I’m going to look to computers and software to save the day.

Communication.  That is the key to good administration.  Even with a massively smaller audience, we do still have to communicate.  My wife and I have to communicate to stay in sync.  We need to communicate with our kids to make sure they understand what our goals are and we understand when they need help.  We are also still farming out some of the instruction so we need to stay in communication with teachers, band directors, archery instructors, etc.  Finally, since we chose the option of a portfolio review, we need to save everything for an end of year presentation.

As it turns out, there are a great many ways to fumble the communication and not all of them were so obviously predictable.  When it comes right down to it, our problem was choosing a buffet style approach to homeschooling, rather than choosing a single method to deliver all or most of the education.  Because of this, we have to coordinate things.  Imagine my surprise when I realized answering the simple question “What do I need to do this week?” was not so easy.  We knew that some sort of calendar, whiteboard or something would be necessary.  What we did not realize was how difficult it would be to pull it all together.

One of the nice things about purchasing a curriculum, or using online resources, is they come with a plan.  That plan has a pace, not just an order.  From that you get a syllabus.  In public schools (or college) you know what to do and when it is due based on the calendar week.  So, in week twelve, you look at the syllabus for week twelve for all of your classes and you plan your week.  But what happens if you start Math first, just to get your homeschool “feet wet” and then a few weeks later, you start your FLVS classes, only you have to schedule an interview with your teacher before you can actually start, so you don’t really start that week?  Even so, only four of your teachers get back to you that first week, another the second week and the last is actually part of the County Virtual School, not the Florida Virtual School and they start on the same schedule as the public schools, so you can’t even start that one for another couple weeks, and then someone forgets to put your son in the class so he starts two weeks late.  So now, you are on week eight in one syllabus, week five for four others, week four for another and week one for the last (even though it should be week three, so you are already behind…) and a couple others you had in mind aren’t even started yet.  On top of that, you realize the syllabus and pace chart is not actually what you want because that says when everything is due and what your kids are really asking is what they should be doING right now.

At this point, the tool, Google Calendar, whiteboard, sticky notes, whatever doesn’t matter.  The problem is the “administration” was having trouble keeping things straight.  Who didn’t see that breakfast full of irony coming?  We needed a rosetta stone for our calendar.  We needed a way to translate back and forth from our various syllabi to the current week and we needed a way to capture our work and store it.  In theory, simply printing it out and putting it in a file cabinet would be the simplest and most obvious thing to do.  Unfortunately, loose papers suffer horribly in our house.  They always have.  No matter how much care we take with them, some will go missing.  We had a choice of fighting this ever present, daily reality, or admitting our limitations and realizing a paper record was not likely our best goal.  So we needed a way to schedule our work according to our week ahead, but store the completed work in  a sensible manner for each individual class.  Ideally, this would all be presented in a dashboard of some sort so our kids would not even need to ask us what was next, it would all just be there for them to see at any time.  Equally important was a need for them to see some sort of progress.

You’ll recall I said I was a computer guy right?  It turns out, I’ve also been keeping a casual eye on technology in education.  I’m an advocate of it, but I’ve seen it horribly misused also.  In fact, a good deal of my experience with educational software could be seen as a long litany of how-NOT-to examples.  But I’ve seen some really stellar things also and even more potential.

For the time being, I have settled on a core set of tools with possibly more to add over time.  Although I fought somewhat to avoid it, I eventually made Google Classroom and Google apps the centerpiece of my homeschool, administrative framework.  I create a Google Classroom for every class and map out the syllabus.  I then schedule assignments (when to start on them, not when they are due) and they show up in the family Google Calendar.  They then use the various Google applications to do their assignments.  They can then save their assignments as PDFs to submit to their FLVS teachers.  They can also save their quizzes as PDFs and save them on Google Drive.  Quizzes, notes and assignments can then be attached to the Google Classroom assignment and grades recorded.  Grade reports can then be generated from Google Classroom as Google Sheets.  From all of this, I can create a live report card and transcript that updates automatically, every time I update the grade sheets.  I can also create a portfolio from a Google Doc that links directly to every assignment uploaded.

The final piece needed was to try to make this all fun and provide a single portal for the kids to know what to do next.  For this, I paid for an annual subscription for ClassCraft (  This would provide a gamified portal linked directly to Google Classroom telling them what assignment was next and allowing them to gain points for completing assignments.

There are many, many details that went into all of this and many are still being worked out.  Did you know there are about six different ways to calculate a GPA and there is no accepted standard?  I didn’t.  But as I create each of the pieces to this puzzle, these little details start to pop up.

So hopefully, I am now ready to start showing you how I use each of these tools in detail, including how I built my calendar rosetta stone.  Oh, and hey, we might even talk about the schooling itself as well…


Educational Fruit Salad (part 4)

All the Rest

The remaining goals, Learning to Learn, Learning to Mastery, Making Learning fun and Avoiding Test Anxiety all pretty much got lumped together. This also encompasses the second part of College Preparation; that being College Survival Skills.  The driving force for this is Learning to Mastery. In simple terms, this means not progressing until you are ready, i.e. you don’t leave the current chapter until you’ve actually learned it. From a day-to-day perspective, this means if you don’t get an “A” on the test, you go back, study some more and take it again. Yes, I realize getting an “A” does not actually mean you have mastered a subject. But I think we can all agree NOT getting an “A” does in fact mean you have NOT mastered the skill. So it is a weak indicator, but, at least in some cases, the only.

In a true homeschooling sense, this is not a problem. Just send your child back to read and try it again. In public schools of course, this just simply isn’t allowed. In some cases, students can in fact ask to retake a test, but nothing about the class flow or schedule changes to accommodate that. The student just takes the test again while the class continues on. Interestingly, the Florida Virtual Schools do NOT follow the policy of their brick and mortar cousins. Each section allows up to three submissions for its quizzes and assignments. Depending on the class and teacher, the chapter exams may or may not allow retries. Additionally, they do not force a strict adherence to a schedule. Students are expected to make “some progress” weekly, but within certain constraints, the start and end dates are flexible. So while not perfect, it offers just enough flexibility to be usable.

Gamification is a concept making the rounds in Education, Corporate Training and even social research programs.  The concept is as simple as it sounds.  Everyone loves games, so make lessons into games to motivate learners.  In theory, a game is more fun and adds a competitive component to further motivate students.  It’s not even a new concept.  Games like Chess are believed to have been used to teach nobility war strategy.  Special skills training such as Corporate Leadership Training and the like have used games as a way to create situations stimulating the same decision processes as those required for common work scenarios.  In it’s simplest form, it can be nothing more than a points system where various actions either add to or subtract from a student’s points where the end goal is to meet some specific value, usually for some tangible reward.

As it turns out, there are many, many options for this.  Duolingo is a language learning site where members gain points for learning lessons.  Groups can even create private leader boards to compare results on a continuous basis.  Moodle, an Educational Content Management System has many plugins for turning lessons into games. While Moodle is still a possibility, our primary game learning platform is ClassCraft.  This is a paid service that allows you to create “quests” for your students.  By turning in assignments, students progress through the quest, earning points and gold.  Our hope is to turn their ClassCraft gold into actual cash as a reward/allowance system.

Anxiety is another concern.  Its not that we want to shield our children from all adversity.  However, we see very little value in intentionally creating artificial deadlines or disproportionate consequences.  The sentence needs to match the crime, so to speak.  The reasoning for this should be fairly obvious.  If you frame the goal in the form of a disassociated reward (a grade, a scholarship, video game time) and try to teach your child to make “responsible decisions” they may just opt to take the “C” and let the future be damned.  Then your only recourse is to say “I dislike your choice, and since I’m the parent, I’m going to overrule your decision.”  So, rather than saying on Friday you’re taking a test and your MIT scholarship is on the line, we simply say the only way to complete the chapter is to learn the material.  If you fail to learn it, we do it again.  Now the effort and consequence match the goal.  By learning the material and getting an “A”, we finish the chapter and move on.  If we fail to get the “A”, we do it again.  And again.  And again.  The ability to complete the required work and move on to something more fun, is now entirely in the hands of the student and the cause and effect are directly related.

Learning to Learn is the final piece of this puzzle and something else that has just gone by the wayside.  No teacher teaches this anymore.  Now, one might argue this is not the teacher’s responsibility but the parents’ and there is a good chance you would convince me of this.  HOWEVER, when the teacher refuses to communicate with the parent about expectations, lesson plans, etc. and instead filters every communication through an eleven year old, there is no reason anyone should expect anything other than accidental success at best.  In the public school system, this would require a true partnership between the parent and teacher but teachers (or their administration) have instead drawn a line in the sand where we send them our kids and they send back end of cycle reports and that is it.  If you decide to blacklist your child by declaring a special need for them, then you negotiate a contract (IEP) for your child but you still get no ongoing, interaction or oversight. You’ve just created a more complex way to be ignored.  In our new homeschool, we have started to take the time, even stalling our instruction to review note taking and record keeping.  This late in the game, it is quite painful, but we are hoping it pays off in the long run (and hopefully in the near term as well, once we get past the whining complaining…)

In short, we are looking to do all the things our schools have promised to do but have continually failed to accomplish.  By homeschooling, we have the unique scenario of complete agreement between Teacher, Administrator and Parent and we get direct and immediate feedback from our students as to our program’s effectiveness.