Guided Self-Directed High School: Learning Logs

Though we will undoubtedly do quite a few informal yet "documentable" learning activities over the next few weeks, the girls and I have officially begun our winter/Christmas hiatus from formal bookwork, which also marks the end of their "first year of high school." I put that in quotes because we aim to view learning and education in as holistic a way as my school-indoctrinated brain can muster - I will likely be deschooling myself for the rest of my life! - so, other than thinking in terms of when we expect the girls to "graduate," we try to avoid paying too much attention to starts and finishes. We've simply been doing our best to be diligent with multi-faceted learning throughout the year, and we're taking our long, year-end break now; in January, we'll just continue where we've left off.

Of course, we've got our own "eclectic" way of doing things - it's what I described this past February as a "'guided, delight-directed' approach" - and I've been keeping track of everything the girls have been doing all year with an eye toward arranging an "official" record-keeping system once I had a year's worth of "data." So designing forms that work for us - and compiling them in a way that makes sense - is one of my tasks over the next few weeks. And I'll refer to the girls' Learning Logs - six each for the year, counting the Logs for our "trial run" during the Fall of 2015 - in that process.

I devised the Logs - using LibreOffice (though Microsoft Word would work just as well) - to help me keep track of what the girls do, but also as a means of helping them monitor their own daily progress, and I've tweaked them through the year as we've seen what does and doesn't work for us. So what I've designed is very specific to our approach - not something another family could necessarily adopt wholesale as its own. But I've nevertheless been asked to share what we've done, and I'm happy to oblige.

We've figured out that a rough 6/1, 7/1, or 8/1 schedule works well for us right now - i.e., we divide up the year into "units" of approximately six, seven, or eight weeks each (give or take, depending on our overall family calendar) and then take about a week off in between each "unit." We also take a "long" summer break (roughly four weeks) in July and a "long" winter break (three to four weeks) at this time of year, so our schedule allows for about 185 formal "academic" days per year. Of course, we consider ourselves to be learning on weekends and "days off," too - in fact, I explained my real position on "required hours" here - and we actively "count" activities we do during our days and weeks "off." But in regards to the girls' Logs, each one is set up to cover one 30- to 40-day "unit" during our times of formal bookwork.

Each Log has three main sections: Goals, an Action Plan, and a Record of Daily Learning. And a Log for each unit is individualized to each of the girls, keeping in mind each one's learning needs and her progress from the previous unit. I simply print out the pages I want from among those I've designed, along with a colored cover sheet for each section; collate them; and take them to my local FedEx Office for binding. I prefer a coil binding with a colored plastic back cover and a clear plastic front cover, and binding one book costs about $6.00. Just for fun, the girls custom illustrate the paper cover at the start of each unit.

Goals section is usually about two pages long. It's where I delineate what I've determined each girl should work on during that unit. Of course, I've previously collaborated with each of them to determine what they'll be studying at any given time, and they have a great deal of input about the resources they use - for example, one of the girls uses Notgrass materials for Civics while the other has chosen the In the Constitution series. Thus, the Goals pages are simply my way of helping them to break down each area into manageable "chunks" for each unit (keeping in mind that we don't necessarily aim to finish a book or "subject" in a school-style length of time). Of course, not every goal is completed as suggested - but as long as the girls work diligently during our learning times (and they both do), we simply adjust any unfinished goals when we start a new unit.

An Action Plan is two or three pages long. It consists of a series of check-off boxes for each area included in the Goals section; it's a place where the girls can quickly mark off what they accomplish each day and visualize their progress. Some tasks - Reader's Workshop and music practice - are daily assignments, and a couple - math and Work with Mom (specific language arts instruction) - are assigned four days a week. But for other areas, each of the girls has the freedom to determine for herself what to do each day. Because they are diligent and can clearly see the goals before them, I trust them to determine their own daily plans.

The bulk of a Log - a little more than 100 sheets of paper - is made up of the Record of Daily Learning sheets, one set for each day of the unit. Each day's section starts with a one-page table that the girls fill in with details of what they accomplish in the various areas - i.e., which math lesson is completed, what literature chapter is read, etc. When they don't work on a subject, they leave the space for it blank.

The daily table is followed by four to five pages of blank lines for journaling, with designated space for each subject area. I ask the girls to journal in certain areas - Bible, World History, American History, Civics, science - and they know they should aim to fill most of the lines (roughly half a page) any time they write. Again, not every journaling section is filled every day - that depends on which lessons each girl chooses to do each day - but I include the same pages every day (in the same order) so I can see at a glance what each has done. I copy the daily table and journaling pages back-to-back to save paper so each day's Record of Daily Learning consists of three to four pieces of paper. I just move a small post-it flag forward each day after I check the journals.

As an aside, I embrace journaling as an authentic means of documenting and monitoring a child's learning - and I reject school-style assessments ("comprehension" questions, tests) even when a resource we use offers them. I know from my time as a classroom teacher that school-style methods of evaluation serve the record-keeping needs of teachers - i.e., so they can document everything in numerical form in order to rank and categorize students against each other. But real learning - as opposed to performance for the benefit of teachers - comes from reflecting upon, talking, and writing about what a person has read and/or watched or listened to. I saw that when I secretly but happily played the rebel in my classroom teaching days by utilizing journals instead of school-style evaluations - so, of course, I promote such real learning now at home.

For some subjects now - history in particular - the girls actually use their journal entries as rough-draft summaries which they revise and edit to create history scrapbooks; thus, their journaling kills two birds with one stone by becoming meaningful composition practice, too. But rough-draft journaling is enough in other areas - I simply have the girls summarize and evaluate what they've learned, knowing that taking the time to write will cause the important information to "stick" - without requiring any sort of final project. And in still other areas - especially literature - they don't journal at all because doing so would be too much of a distraction from the main task; instead with their literature, they're currently keeping a book review blog and will later practice other responsive writing forms and genres.

The point is that journaling - which could be accomplished using Dragon software for a child who struggles with written composition - is the main method I use to document my children's learning. And organizing our year into "units," each with its own Learning Log customized to each child, has been a great way for my girls to enjoy and benefit from their first year of guided self-directed high school.

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