Saturday, June 07, 2008

Converting Fahrenheit to Celcius (turned into a rant on democratic schools)

My children and I have a little game that we play whenever we get in the car. When I start the engine we all look up to see what the temperature is in Fahrenheit and then everyone guesses what the temperature would be in Celsius. Then I click the button to change the temperature display to Celsius and the winner gets nothing but the hoorays or boos from the other family members. If my oldest is with us he will win. After today, the game will forever be changed as my daughter was introduced to the conversion formulas in her math work book.

Do you remember the formulas? I certainly didn’t remember the formulas and I just went over all of this with another child just a few years ago. I’ve been in the fifth grade THREE TIMES and still, I am NOT SMARTER THAN A FIFTH GRADER.

Here it is just in case you are like me and can’t remember:


That’s three easy steps!
1. Replace the letter C with a numeral (temperature) and multiply it by 9.
2. Divide your result by 5.
3. Add 32 to that.


What is interesting is while I don’t remember the temperature conversion formulas that I’ve learned and that I have taught twice; I do remember what my first child was ‘into’ when he learned how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit. I remember because it was during a time in our home school adventure when I decided to try out the methods used by “democratic schools.” If you haven’t heard of democratic or free schools let me just say that they are a shocking contrast to the schools that you and I spent 13 years attending. Many of us can’t fathom their existence without some twitching of the eye.

A democratic school is a school where the child is free and has control over what she will and will not learn. The child would work with teachers to create a curriculum and the “teacher’s” job would be to find ways to bring that learning to the child. The child may want to learn to play the guitar for the next few months and/or may want to learn how to create web pages. The child has that freedom. The children are encouraged to teach classes and to share what they have learned with others. The graduating body will have its share of “slackers” just like any other school. The alumni stories are amazing!

Anyway, after a several months break from academics and encouraged by a bit of “burn out” academically, I decided to give democracy a chance – in education. I told my children that we would only learn about the things they wanted to learn about. I told my children to make a list of all the topics that they wanted to learn about and that their lists would become their curriculum. They were in charge of “school.”

Each child created their own list. My daughter dictated her list to me. Her list contained the names of various fluffy creatures like: lion, fox, cheetah… We took the lists to the library and checked out many books on the first words on each list. We spent the next few days on the living room floor reading, learning, and sharing our discoveries with each other. This was a wonderful time in our educational journey together as a family.

My son had “gems and minerals” first on his list. He was always fascinated with rocks. One of the first books that he dictated to me before he could read was titled, “MY ROCKS” and it was a book about his rock collection. So it was natural that he would check out many books on this topic. He began to take an interest in diamonds and “diamonds” was added to his list of topics that he wanted to learn about. As he was reading about diamonds he found out that they had a melting point or boiling point, I can’t remember. This book only gave this temperature in Celsius. This made him curious about what how to go about converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. Converting Celsius to Fahrenheit was added to his list. One day, he came to me and said, “Mom, help me memorize the periodic table of elements.” It was amazing to watch one topic, “gems and minerals,” trigger a curiosity about diamonds, converting temperature, and eventually the periodic table of elements. When he wanted to rest, I let him.

My daughter at some point in her self created interest driven curriculum ended up wanting to learn how to create a webpage to display some of her favorite animals and her artwork. We did that. I miss those days and my son just told me the other day that he thinks he actually learned more during that time of academic freedom that at any other time in his life.

Many people fear that allowing a child this type of freedom would result in havoc or laziness but I can assure you that I didn’t see that.

I saw the opposite. I watched as one topic or interest would trigger another like a domino effect. Something happens to a child when they are allowed to be in charge of their learning. It becomes “theirs” and they cherish it more. Freedom is a good thing, especially for children, and it's very important for learning.

All that flooded back to my memory yesterday as my daughter’s math book explained the concept and gave the formulas for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit and vise versa.

My son was very influenced by his sister's lesson. Here is the post about that: Family Learning: Coffee thoughts - multiple ages in the learning environment

A few things I have learned while teaching my own children at home.

What have I learned from over ten years of teaching my own children at home? I have learned with each child that many of the educational materials out there are a waste of money, children can learn without a “qualified” teacher, and that children need a reason to learn.

I wonder how many children associate the first day of school with a big brown delivery truck. My six year old son’s school year began when the UPS man dropped off his school books. For me it was like Christmas but I don’t think all of my children shared my enthusiasm.

I wasn’t sure if my son would be in kindergarten or in first grade this year so I ordered materials for both levels. He picked up the kindergarten math workbook, flipped through it, and said, “This is too easy!” He had learned basic math skills by just living with competent counters. We made a point to count out loud and to verbalize our thought processes as to instruct. He ran off with the 1st grade math workbook and completed the first twenty lessons on his first day of school! “I’m in first grade like eleven year olds” he told his big sister.

He wanted to “do school” even on the week ends. I found myself saying things like, “No more school!” or “No school if you don’t eat all of your dinner!”

I witnessed the same thing when my now 15 year old was about five years old and ready for kindergarten. UPS was on strike that year and our materials were late. By the time the school books finally arrived my son had learned how to read on his own. What a waste of money! If I knew that a child could learn to read by playing around with refrigerator magnets I wouldn’t have invested what little money we had in expensive instructional materials.

Like his little brother, he ran off with his math workbook and completed the first 20-30 lessons on his first day of school. He finished his whole kindergarten math workbook before Christmas and had learned to read on his own. I didn’t even get a chance to “teach” him.

I think one of the things that helped my son excel in math was that his favorite computer game, Math Blaster, required that he work several math problems quickly so that he could save the world from enemy invaders. If that's not a reason to learn I don't know what is. Armed with an abacus and the ability to count to twenty, he spent much of his day solving math problems.

My daughter had a similar reason to learn to read. Her favorite computer game, Roller Coaster Tycoon, required her to read the messages that were flashing on the screen. She knew that in order to please her park guests she would have to read those messages.

She taught herself how to read without the aid of instructional school-like materials. She had this wonderful Leap Pad alphabet desk that would say any three letter word that she entered. She figured out how to get this toy to help her read Dr. Seuss books.

I didn't know that she was able to read until I caught her reading a book to one of her beanie babies. She acted embarrassed when I caught her. I don't know why. I guess she hadn't perfected her reading ability and she wasn't ready to share it with the world.

She figured out the concept of multiplication by organizing and grouping her beanie babies. She taught herself many basic math concepts during play time. I wrote about it at the time.

It would be a big confidence boost to be able to say that I was a wonderful teacher. More important than a good teacher are good learners who have a reason to learn! More important than a "qualified" teacher is an atmosphere conducive to learning, a reason to learn, and freedom to play.

If I wouldn’t have allowed my children the freedom to play most of the day I don’t think they would have had the time to use an abacus to solve math problems to save the world, cuddle up on the couch and demand that mom read ten books, figure out how to make their toys help them read words, or learn mathematical concepts while playing with their beanie babies. If I would have made my children sit in a desk and do school would they have learned as much? Would they have learned to read naturally and with ease?

A loving and educationally rich atmosphere or environment can be more important than a "qualified" teacher. I know that because I can’t say I’m a “qualified” teacher, yet my children still learn.

Did I mention that my daughter would be considered a "late" reader? I had read enough research to know that children don't need to learn to read at such an early age. That is the only reason that I can say that teaching her how to read was not a struggle - I waited until she needed a reason to read and saw the value in it. I had to tell myself "Just so she can read by the time she takes her SATs." And she did. ;)