Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Superior Education – The Smiles and Excitement Method

Years ago, when my children were small, I heard a saying that went something like this: “If we taught our kids to eat ice cream the way we teach them to read, they wouldn’t like ice cream, either.” In the last few weeks I’ve had opportunity to see that in action.

We recently had a visit from some friends of ours down in Sacramento, a nice young couple with a lovely and brilliant seven-year-old daughter. It was the first real visit we’d had with them in nearly five years. As we chatted, the subject of schooling came up. They had decided on homeschooling for little ‘Georgia,’ which Lon and Penney and I thought was wonderful. We had homeschooled all four of our boys, decades ago, before it had become popular. And we had a blast doing it.

However, it turned out that Georgia was unhappy. Her entire kindergarten and first grade years were a constant battle to get her to do her schoolwork. Mom and daughter were both exhausted and discouraged. Now they were beginning their second grade year using a different program, and things were a bit better, but the upshot of it was that Georgia hated the new curriculum a bit less than the old one.

The effect of this rigid curriculum m on Georgia was horrifying. During their visit we went to Trees of Mystery to visit Paul Bunyan, took a trip up to Oregon Caves National Monument, and spent a lovely day flying kites at the beach, complete with a campfire, sandy hot dogs, and s’mores. Georgia was able to explain to me in adult terms how visiting the redwoods ‘satisfied the weekly requirement for science class,’ and continued with similar descriptions of how our other activities would satisfy the requirements for reading, writing, math, etc. There was no mention of fun. In fact, while we were at Oregon Caves, Georgia rejected the opportunity to become a Junior Ranger because of the handwriting involved. Penney volunteered to help with the writing part, and before the day was over, Georgia had her Junior Ranger certificate and badge, and a big smile. We celebrated the achievement with ice cream treats, and her dad bought her a chipmunk puppet that Georgia promptly named Chitnut.

So there you have it: In two short years, even a fairly liberal public school curriculum had soured the kid on reading, writing, math, typing, photography and even the public library, where they met with their teacher each quarter. Ack! It’s no wonder that reports that recent studies “estimated that 40 to 50% of adults are functionally illiterate.” Where have we gone wrong?

I started thinking about my early childhood, trying to account for my love for learning and reading. Then I thought about my boys when they were small, because they all love to learn and read, too. What’s more, we all learned to think, to figure things out, which is a very different kind of learning from the ‘read, remember, report, forget immediately’ method of public school. My dad started talking to me about things when I was very small. I have memories of lying on the rug in front of our fireplace with him when I was three. (He taught me how to make great fires. My job was crumpling up the newspaper.) We’d lie there, basking in the glory of our beautiful fires, and out of the blue he’d ask me questions. Could I say the days of the week yet? How about the months of the year? What about Roman Numerals? How many quarts in a gallon? Why are they called quarts? He asked all kinds of questions about everyday things, just for fun. And I had fun, in large part because there were no wrong answers, and because when I remembered things he seemed enormously pleased with me.

When my boys were little, they went everywhere with me and did everything with me, and we talked all the time. Not just ‘parent’ talk, like giving instructions or correcting behaviors. We really talked, about anything and everything. We still do, actually. It’s amazing what goes on in little kids’ minds, but I’m sure that listening to them improves my mind.

When it came time for school, we started with public school. That didn’t last six weeks, because I didn’t like the changes I saw in my oldest. So we started homeschooling, and that was okay. Like our friends, we, too, started with a rather regimented program, and our boys didn’t like it, either. Then, one day, I was talking to the leader of our budding homeschooling association. She asked me, “What’s the point of having homeschool if you’re just going to imitate public school? I thought you wanted a superior education for your children.” So, gradually we figured out how children play to learn, and how they learn to play, and adjusted our methods until finally we just stocked the ‘fun room’ with every interesting and scientific thing we could find, lots of books and magazines and toys, and mostly just left them alone. They had a blast, and so did we.

So, if you’re thinking about homeschooling, or if you’re already homeschooling but are finding it a grind, start thinking about how you can change the shape and color of your child’s future by educating outside the box. This is the best time in history for homeschooling, mostly because of the Internet. Wikipedia has everything! In addition to mere information, you can find any number of websites and social media dedicated to homeschooling, including a number of websites that support freestyle learning, where you can share ideas to enhance your own program.

What about little Georgia? Well, as of this writing, it’s been about three weeks since they were here. After they got home, we got Georgia her own Skype account and her own blog. Instead of grinding, she’s been writing a story about magical ponies. Her mom says they’ve been to Fairy Tale Town as a family, tie-dyed some t-shirts, sewed up some mermaid tales for the ponies, and bought Minecraft. And as of this morning, they’re starting a worm farm. How is Georgia adapting to all these changes? Her mother reports that she’s all Smiles and Excitement. I think that’s what I’ll call the freestyle method from now on: The S&E method!


Games as Educational Tools

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Having a Blast Homeschooling! It’s all about engaging children’s natural sense of play, curiosity, and wonder, instead of the grind of more formal ‘teaching.’ This is from the chapter on Games, which is about how common board games and card games can contribute to basic education. I welcome your comments and feedback on how you make homeschool fun for your children and yourself, and what you like most and least about homeschooling. Thanks! — Cormac


Board games, or ‘parlor games’ (as they used to be called) are a great way of getting children to learn lots of important things without realizing that they’re being taught. Games teach sportsmanship, winning and losing, operating within a structured framework of artificial rules. Plus, they’re fun! In the informal setting of playing a game, your child will often open up and talk to you in ways that they won’t in a more formal school setting. We like to have drinks and treats while we play. Don’t worry if the popcorn butter gets all over the cards—cards are cheap!

Be careful not to turn the games into a ‘lesson’ of some kind. Kids educate themselves when they play. Just help them to learn to play, and the educational aspects will take care of themselves organically. Remember what my cousin Phil from Philadelphia always says: “If you get too serious, you’ll spoil all the fun.” Continue reading

Curmudgeonry, My New Religion

This is an excerpt from the book The Portable Curmudgeon, by Jon Winokur. I’m making it my new religion.

1. archaic: a crusty, ill-tempered, churlish old man
2. modern: anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretense and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner

The Portable Curmudgeon

The Portable Curmudgeon

“A curmudgeon’s reputation for malevolence is undeserved. They’re neither warped nor evil at heart. They don’t hate mankind, just mankind’s excesses. They’re just as sensitive and soft-hearted as the next guy, but they hide their vulnerability beneath a crust of misanthropy. They ease the pain by turning hurt into humor. They snarl at pretense and bite at hypocrisy out of a healthy sense of outrage. They attack maudlinism because it devalues genuine sentiment. They hurl polemical thunderbolts at middle-class values and pop culture in order to preserve their sanity. Nature, having failed to equip them with a serviceable denial mechanism, has endowed them with Continue reading

Heaven Hill Distilleries – Heavenly!

My Twitter followers already know about my conversation with Heaven Hill Distilleries, makers of, among other things, Evan Williams Kentucky Bourbon and PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur. A couple of weeks ago I was expecting company, a nice young couple from Orangevale, California. I asked them what they would like for party drinks, and they requested Tequila Sunrises. I don’t drink mixed drinks that often, so I had to look it up: Tequila, orange juice, and Grenadine.

Good enough. Tequila was easy. Lon picked up some Centenario 1800 100% Agavae Azul. Orange juice was easy, too. Penney bought some oranges and an orange squeezer. Grenadine was harder. As you know, Lon, Penney, and I live in a tiny little coastal town where our shopping choices are limited. I found Rose’s Grenadine right away, of course. Sadly, I found it was made of “High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Red 40, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Blue 1” according to their web site. It seemed a shame to mix that with fresh orange juice and high-quality tequila. So Continue reading

Harlan Ellison Goes to Work for Disney Studios. Seriously.

Yesterday I was trying to make some sense out of the title of Harlan Ellison’s 1975 science fiction story Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38 54′ N Longitude 77 00’ 13″ W. Fascinating title, even though it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story. The Islets of Langerhans are a part of the pancreas. The geographical coordinates refer to a location near Union Station in Washington, D.C. Well, ok. Then, in my research I came across this question:

Was Ellison really fired on his first day as a writer at Disney for suggesting that the studio make a porn movie?

Funny! Oh, but wait – the real answer is YES. According to the web site Continue reading