Tag: Homeschooling Resources

The Middle School Years – by Rosemary Ward Labaree

This post is for the many, many homeschool families who ask me about the middle school years and how best to prepare for high school when a competitive college admission is the ultimate goal.

I’ve met many parents of middle school students who feel stranded.  They want to be prepared for the high school years that are skulking around the corner.  They want to get this right, but they’re unsure.   School administrators, grandparents, and well-meaning friends offer  “do this, do that” sound bites.  But, inertia and uncertainty prevail.

There are two distinct phases of home education, after the elementary years wind down: The Interrogatory Phase (middle school) and the Execution Phase (high school).

It is in the Interrogatory Phase that you learn what you will be doing in the Execution Phase.  The Execution Phase is a terribly busy time and as the name implies, you are putting into action all of the plans you made in the late middle school years.  If you wait until high school to ask the important questions, you will find yourself bogged down, confused, and feeling rather ineffective.

Regardless of what your long-term goals are, you should think of middle school as preparation for high school. Here are key components of middle school years:

                                                         Figure out your kid

What does my student love best and where does he/she excel?   For example:  Does she like to build things?  Is he quick with his math?  Does she read above grade level?  Can he write better than most boys his age?  Do topics in science, music, art, or history hold her attention more?

It might seem like a lot to know about your student but if you pay close attention to your days, the answers are there.  Your goal is to get an academic lock on your student and know his strengths, weaknesses, and special interests.  Pay attention to your student’s skill set and talents.  These are the headwaters from which good things can flow.


For an objective “stock-taking”, you’ll need to test. I am not a big advocate of testing, especially in elementary school, but by middle school you really need to get a fix on how your student measures up against the general population.  We are not very good scorekeepers for our own kids.

(There are many online resources for testing your student in the privacy of your home, if you prefer.  A google search will reap a harvest of them.) 

1.  You can have your older middle school student take the PSAT or the SAT.  Scores prior to 9th grade are purged – no one but you will ever see them.  You don’t have to get upset with low scores here because you will adjust down for his/her age.  For example, if your 7th grade student has an SAT math score of 500 – you should be very encouraged; that is quite good for that grade level.

2.  There is also a test called the SSAT (not administered by the College Board).  The SSAT is similar in shape to the SAT, is geared toward the middle school student, and it will give you a projected SAT score, depending on the age of your student when he takes this test.  The SSAT is a personal favorite of mine.

What does this testing accomplish?

1. You will have a reality check.

2. You will know where you need to concentrate your efforts.

3. If your student has real strength in one area, it will be revealed and you may have a ticket to gifted learning programs.

4. Since all of these achievement exams are (at minimum) 3 hours long, your student will know ahead of time what it feels like to sit through this endurance test.  Better your kid do this before it counts than do it for the first time when it really does count.


Is my student ready for high school?  Is he ready to work hard?  Does she know how to manage her time?  Does he know why he needs to do all of this work?  Are we on the same page?    

Most students do not know what they want to do with their lives.  But, they should still have goals. Without goals, how will you get them to study into the late hours of the night and on weekends when that time/need arrives.  It is very hard to push a kid who does not have a shared vision of excellence and achievement.  To instill this desire in your student, he must see the goal(s).  You should do college tours.  It might sound foolish to traipse across the campus of Columbia University with a middle school student – it is not.  Pick a beautiful day, travel without time constraint on a day when classes are in session, jump in to an organized tour or just walk the campus and hang in the nearby eateries to get a sense of the intellectual energy and excitement that you will find everywhere.   If you can get your student excited about attending ONE college, ANY college, then you are on the “go” square of the game board.  You can build goals from there.  Without this, you will find yourself parroting admonitions which will fall on deaf ears.  A student needs a tangible goal, especially if no particular career goal is present.  Invest in your student’s enthusiasm.

Does my middle school student even KNOW what hard work looks like?

This is critically important.  Your daughter might view 20 math problems per week as punitive.  Your son might think that a weekly 250 word essay is pure torture.  Most middle school students need to calibrate what they think is hard work to what hard work actually is. They need good models.  Middle school students who want to land in a competitive college need to meet other students with similar goals..  Your job is to find them. The homeschool community is filled with success stories.  Find the families who have high-achieving kids.  Ask them what they did.   If your 12 year old son or daughter sits down with a 21 year old who has a proven academic track record and they hear it straight from the source, they will never forget it.  It is golden.

To find peers, try to get your middle school student into one high-achieving program, whether online or through your local community.

                                                        From Ideas to Action Plans

During the Interrogatory Phase of the middle school years you should try out different things.  This takes time but it is worth it.   If math seems to come easy, find a math club.  If your student loves science, do science fairs.  If writing is at the top of the list, find contests and competitions to enter.  Your goal is to get some traction.  Once that happens you will see real progress. Advice for mom – get on numerous homeschool discussion loops and scour the digests from these groups nightly.  This is how you learn about cool, local opportunities.  You will  have to make a regular investment of time to do this research.  Here is a terrific website with lists and lists of competitions in science, art, history, math, computers and writing. A good place to start –  http://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/resources/competitions/index.html

This list includes a good number of competitions for middle school students.

If a student is preparing to compete for something  – anything – he will be more focused.  Then you (mom) can reverse-engineer your school year around this event.  Big events like these actually ADD structure to your year.

                                                           Plan, Plan, Plan Some More

Once you have gathered up activities, events and competitions, you are one easy step away from creating a calendar for the year with clear goals mapped out.  Keep going with this.  Do a hypothetical 4-year high school plan.  Involve your middle school student in this.    Of course, this plan is going to morph.  But if you have no plan at all, you are bound to fall short of a high standard.

                                                                Broaden Horizons

A desire to achieve and the determination to do hard things  won’t come out of thin air.  You need to nurture it.  There are wonderful educational events run by Learning Unlimited throughout the year.  Middle school students can take exciting classes on the campuses of some of the best universities in the country for as little as $30 for a full weekend of amazing courses.  No grades are given.  University students volunteer to teach. Often a middle school student discovers an entire field of science or language they did not even know existed. Inspiration is everywhere.  Do this!  Do it as often as you can.

http://www.learningu.org/current-programs  Get on the mailing list.  Have it on your calendar.  The MIT and Yale programs are especially good.

                                                                Your Leadership

Many years ago a homeschool family asked to meet with me.  Mom and dad could not get their kids to read books. They wanted advice.  Most home educating families know that in order to be poised for the academic world kids need to read  – a lot.  They need to read hard stuff and they need to read often.  These parents were worried.  Their kids did not have dyslexia or ADHD. They were neurotypical kids.  “Why can’t we get them to read?” they lamented.    I asked them what they (mom and dad) were currently reading, looking high and low for a sign of books.  “We don’t read, we don’t have time for it.”  Hmm.

The prescription is simple.  Kids will read more if you have a set reading time and lead by example.  Kids will also read in the absence of other forms of entertainment and if most table top surfaces hold a small stack of interesting books.

If your middle school kids are glued to glowing rectangles, have technology free hours built into the day and have good books ready to fill the gap.  It is harder now than it ever was before to encourage kids to read books.  The glowing screens hold far more appeal.  We cannot extricate ourselves from these devices entirely but we can claim back a few hours a day – this is a reasonable goal.  Lead the way on this.

                                               ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~

The middle school years are a period of intense mentorship.  It is during these years that you can establish that you and your student are on the same team.  The road to excellence is arduous, but it is made easier when the prize is clear, the goals are reasonable, and your leadership is obvious. You got this !   Godspeed !

Rosemary Laberee



Which of the following do you recommend: homeschooling (online) or the US public school system, and why?

My daughters on the verge of 2 years old and I have another one on the way. I’m wary about sending them to public school, because I personally didn’t learn a lot (a bit too easy) and it didn’t really help socially. While I know there are pros and cons to both, what are your point of views?

Written Apr 18

free to learn

Wow … you are way ahead of the game!


First of all … relax. You have plenty of time to figure things out and, who knows, the playing field may change significantly by school time.

Until that day comes, you have quite a bit of homework to do.

Your first assignment: What are your goals for your children? What do you want them to achieve as a result of their education?

Second assignment: What are the strengths and weaknesses of each child? How do they interact with others? Are they social, or not? Gifted? Any learning difficulties, etc?

Third assignment (and this question is just a start): What are the strengths and weaknesses of different educational choices, and how well do they fit each of your children?

The good thing is that you have several years to complete your assignments, before you make any decisions.

Now it’s time for me to answer your question.

But first, a digression.

There’s a body of research that suggests we should not begin to formally educate our children until they are older. Some studies indicate that it can actually provide negative performance outcomes. The consensus seems to be about age seven. Several European countries, including Sweden and Poland, do not require schooling until age seven.

Other researchers believe that it is far more important (and natural) to encourage our children to play during their formative years. Dr. Peter Gray has a lot to say about this, but we’ll talk some more about him later.

So, don’t be in a big rush to start your kids on the education hamster wheel. Anyway, back to our story.

Deciding on a specific curriculum greatly depends on the answers to the above assignments. In fact, it is entirely possible that each of your children will require a completely different approach.

Your question asks us to compare online versus traditional schooling. There are two major considerations for this comparison. The first is the adequacy of the curriculum, and that mostly depends on the classes that are chosen (both online and traditional). I have read no research that indicates online teaching is better than traditional. Ultimately, your children need to do the work to understand the concepts, and to demonstrate mastery. Whichever method is chosen will require someone to ensure they are “getting” the material. My view, from a curricular perspective, is that this is a toss-up. Either option could provide a really good, or really bad, education.

The second major consideration is the learning style and, in my view, this incorporates the degree of social activities and interaction required. Online learning tends to be more isolated. A classroom environment is more likely to foster group interaction. However, once again, each situation is different, so you have to be careful. My view on this one is mixed. Some kids thrive in a social environment, while others prefer to work in isolation. (It happens that our daughter prefers relative isolation – a large classroom is a bad environment for her. We also have friends whose homeschooled children have chosen to return to traditional school).

Therefore, your answer is … it depends.

But that’s just the beginning. You forgot to ask some other important questions.

For example … what other learning opportunities exist, other than online or traditional education?

And it turns out, there are lots of choices available. Here’s an excerpt from one of my other answers:

  • Unschooling. The interests of the child guide the focus of the learning.

  • Democratic schools (such as the Sudbury school system). The interests of the students guide the curriculum, but this occurs in a community environment.

  • Homeschooling, with the parents (or family members) as the teacher.

  • Homeschooling, with instruction guided by tutors.

  • Online education.

    • This also has its own spectrum, which ranges from selection of individual courses, to a complete curriculum. Online classes are available from grade school to graduate level.

  • Co-op classes – where homeschool families share responsibility for teaching.

  • Umbrella schools. These can also occupy a spectrum, but are generally a hybrid which may offer classes (or not). However, the idea of an umbrella school is to provide for administrative support (such as grades, or transcripts).

  • Dual enrollment. Homeschool students generally have the option of attending community college classes (if they meet minimum qualifications).

  • Charter schools. While some of these schools are essentially just regular schools run by businesses using taxpayer funds, others can be formed by parent groups. The specific rules for formation and administration of charter schools are determined by each state.

  • Private (and religious) schools. Privately funded schools.

  • Magnet schools. These are generally operated by the local school district, but with an emphasis on certain academic areas.

  • Traditional schools.

The beauty of homeschooling is that you don’t have to be restricted to one choice … there’s a whole smorgasbord available.

There is one other very important consideration. Some children have special needs, or have specific learning disabilities. While it may be possible, or even desirable, to homeschool, it is also quite possible that a traditional school has better resources available. Once again, carefully consider the alternatives. Traditional school may be the better choice.

Oops! I said I would mention more about Dr. Peter Gray, so here it is.

Peter Gray is a leading advocate and researcher who writes about unschooling. I find myself drawn to the philosophy of unschooling. I always seek to engage my daughter in choices about what, and how, she should learn. I recommend studying the principles, as it may help you clarify the educational goals you seek for your children.

Is it OK for our children to use textbooks with a copyright of 1999?

Written Nov 18


I agree with John Taylor Gatto (A Different Kind of Teacher, 2001), that textbooks are generally not very effective:

I came to see that the school edition wasn’t a real book at all but a disguised indoctrination. The book had been rendered teacher-proof and student-proof.


However, there are cases (such as Mathematics) where a textbook is important. I homeschool our daughter, and I purchased Mathematics; A Human Endeavor, by Harold Jacobs. I have the second edition, copyrighted 1982. I have reviewed many textbooks and options for studying math, and believe this provides an outstanding overview. Since the fundamental ideas of math do not change (at least at this level), there is no need for constant updates. In some cases, the classic is the best.

In other cases, particularly when information is changing rapidly (such as the sciences and technology), recent updates are important. However, don’t get carried away with the idea that newest is best. Often the better idea is to read some of the source documentation, and also to explore alternate viewpoints.

How can I learn mathematics in YouTube?

Written Oct 12, 2016

YouTube is only a medium. Other media include lectures (oral/visual), books, etc.

If you want to learn math on YouTube, you would need to find videos that convey the information you are trying to learn, in the format that makes it easy for you to understand.

There are many videos about math on YouTube. However (just like with any way of teaching, including books), there are good and bad ones. How can you decide which videos are the right ones for you? For example, Vi Hart has a lot of great videos about math, but I don’t think you would learn math from her videos.

If you want to learn basic math (through high school), I believe Khan Academy is a good place to start. After that, I would look at some university level courses such as Math and Logic Courses | Coursera, or MIT Free Online Course Materials.

p.s. Thinking about this further, I realized that Jo Boaler (Stanford University) has a great TED Talk on YouTube. Jo has some great ideas about learning math which you can review at her website: Inspiring Students to Math Success and a Growth Mindset


Should I let my child go to an online high school?

He will still get his diploma, but I am hesitant. What are the advantages and disadvantages of online high school?

Written Oct 7, 2016

Why online high school?

Does your child have a particular reason for wanting to go to online high school? Is it because of academic reasons, or bullying, or introversion, etc?

If your child is very motivated to study; has the capability to work on or ahead of schedule; has an interest in a particular area out side of the normal curriculum …

then online school MAY be an appropriate choice.


There are different types of online school.

For example, our state and local school district each offer online high school. These programs essentially mirror the curricula available in the brick-and-mortar school. They both have teachers who monitor, assess, grade, and are available for advice. They both are accredited and offer high school diplomas. They are both FREE to residents.

There are also online schools available which offer all of the above. However, they charge for tuition.

There are several other online options (such as Khan Academy or Coursera) which can provide an excellent education. Many of these are available free, or for a nominal fee. They are not accredited, and do not offer a high school diploma.


These have mostly been mentioned by other authors, and include schedule flexibility, and possibly greater curricular choice. Additionally, consider:

  • better sleep schedule. It is well documented that learning is facilitated when the student is well-rested. Additionally, there is research that teenagers sleep cycles really are optimized for sleeping later.
  • flexibility in scheduling vacations. This depends on the specific schedule of the online school.
  • the ability to do things during the week, when everybody else is locked up in school.
  • ability to pursue unusual hobbies or passions. For example, music, art, sports, etc. Online study can allow your student to practice for hours, or attend performances or competitions, etc.
  • ability to study a particular area in depth.
  • ability to participate in extracurricular activities, such as band, sports, etc. As an online (or even homeschooled) student, you can generally participate in these activities (check with your school for details).


  • the online high school packages offered by the school district tend to be just as rigorous and time-consuming as regular school. I know some folks who have experienced this. Check to find out if there are others in your area who have done this, and ask them about it.
  • the teachers may not be very responsive. Again, this is what I have heard from others who have done it. Same as above, check with others in your area.
  • if your student is not able to complete the work on time, then this could be a disastrous approach. Think carefully about this one. If you decide to try the online route, have a bailout strategy. You can always send your child back to regular school, ANYTIME. (This may also be a good threat to hang over their head, to keep them on track).
  • To do this effectively may require you to spend time monitoring and assisting to make sure things go well – especially in the beginning.

My opinion

If you select the online option offered by your local school, you are essentially just duplicating the school’s curriculum in your home. I am not convinced that the standard curriculum, and the way it is taught in our schools, is effective. Therefore, I do not see the advantage of duplicating the school in my home.

If your goal is to get into college, be aware that a high school diploma is not necessarily a prerequisite. Check on the admissions criteria of the colleges you are interested in, and tailor your child’s curricula to achieve your goals. If you pay attention to what the colleges are looking for, you may be surprised – and come to the conclusion that there may be better options than the prepackaged online high school curricula.


Ultimately, the decision is yours. Only you know your child’s personality and learning habits. Carefully research the options, and determine the best method to meet the goals of you and your child.

What is the best way to switch to an online high school?

Written Oct 6, 2016

That depends upon your school district or school system.


Our local school district provides the option to attend school online. This option is essentially the same as attending school, only at home. Same curriculum; same graduation requirements; and a teacher to monitor performance, assignments, and answer questions. It is accredited, so you earn a high school diploma upon graduation.

Interestingly, our state offers a very similar option. I believe the only difference is the source of the assigned teachers.

You could also switch to an alternate online high school (e.g. Stanford; Connections Academy). I believe enrollment in these programs would be considered (for compulsory education purposes) as a private school. Admissions criteria, and tuition costs, are determined by the school.

Yet another alternative is to set up your own curriculum. If online learning is your desire, there are many options (such as Khan Academy, Coursera, K12.com). If you select this option, you will need to pay careful attention to the end product – do you need/want a diploma, go on to college, etc. If college is your goal, you should check the admissions criteria, and ensure your plan meets or exceeds those requirements. The costs and expectations associated with this alternative are much more variable. Once again, careful research is needed.

To implement this alternative, you will most likely need to apply to be a homeschool student. The specific method to do this will be established by your local school district. In the US, this typically involves writing a letter to your school board (from parents or guardian). (Congratulations – that’s often all that’s needed to become a homeschool student!). Usually, you are also required to annually demonstrate your academic progress. (Again, check with your school board for details). Of course, as a homeschooler, you don’t have to limit yourself to online high school.

Enjoy your online schooling adventure!

What is the right way to study History?

Written Oct 5, 2016

Well … that depends on what you are really asking.

If you are asking how to study History for a test, then the answer is to find out what you are expected to know; what you are expected to understand; and what are the criteria for passing. Therefore, you should ensure that you have a clear understanding of what the teacher expects. Once you know that, you can formulate a study plan – take notes, answer practice questions, etc.

If you are asking the more general question about studying History as a means of understanding our past, then there are various approaches:

  • Start with an overview of world history
    • Textbook
    • Videos on Youtube
    • Coursera (or other MOOC)
  • Focus on a large theme, or civilization. For example:
    • Greek or Roman Civilization
    • China
    • Ottoman Empire
    • US History

As you learn more about aspects of history, you can continue your studies. You can read, or watch videos or lectures. You can also start studying original sources. For example, you could read books written in the period of interest. Perhaps you could visit areas of interest (such as the Roman Forum, or Herculaneum).