Thoughts on the creation of the Stargazer Ranch School, by Beth.

Introduction

Recently, I have begun looking at the idea of homeschooling for my daughter (born 4/99) Elena. I've only just begun my research, but already I am very impressed with the arguments for homeschooling. Some of the highlights that stand out in my mind right now include: individual attention, freedom of curriculum, tailoring of the educational experience, and being able to keep her from being exposed to undue religious, commercial, and hostile social influences.

I've also learned about how some really brilliant people have been taught at home, such as Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Thomas Jefferson, just to name three. And I found out about how mass schooling originally started in this country, and why. It wasn't about providing the best education for the children; it was done for reasons of economics, to enforce conformity, and to assimilate immigrants.

The more I thought about it, the more the idea of homeschooling Elena sounded incredibly appealing - being able to guide her along an educational journey where the choices for what we study and how are determined largely by her interest and aptitude level, not by a school board's hunches about what they want students to study. I am confident that I can be an excellent teacher for her, and make sure that she gets a solid foundation in the essential basics. In addition, she will have the freedom to pursue things that simply wouldn't be possible in a normal school's curriculum.

Another reason why this appeals to me is that I know that Elena won't be held back in math, as I was, or in any other subject, for that matter. When I think of how I was held at the same level in math for an entire year, on two separate occasions, for the sole reason that they did not have a high level class available for me, it makes me angry to realize how much of my time, ability, and enthusiasm was wasted.

With the flexibility of doing the teaching myself, I can teach Elena about subjects as a whole; she can learn drawing as we plan an addition to the playground and price materials, writing as we make a small web page describing what we're doing. History, science, social studies, all of these things can be integrated as she learns, rather than cut into pieces in a traditional course of study in a school. I think this is a much more effective way to learn about the world. Also, she will not be interrupted by a bell in the middle of working on something important to her - she won't have to stop in the middle of a great breakthrough in writing a poem, or at the climax of a book she's engrossed in. If she wants to spend a whole day working on math, that's fine.

The more I look at it, the more I realize that an individualized educational experience is an amazing luxury that every child deserves. Furthermore, I can't think of anything I'd rather do. I have come to realize that this is what I'm meant to do - no other career could possibly interest me as much as this. It has taken me a long time to come to this realization.

And then I got to thinking... what about Autumn, and future siblings and cousins yet to be born? I could teach them, too. And, for good measure, perhaps a few additional children as well, to help generate a bit of income to keep the school going, and to allow me to be paid, too.

I've started looking into the laws in Colorado about home-based education, and about private and independent schools, and it looks very promising - very little oversight is required. Also, my mother's basement would be an ideal place to house the school. I think this is an unprecedented opportunity to do something incredibly worthwhile, and challenging, with my life.

So, here is the rough proposal for a school I'd like to start. I'll add additional ideas as they occur to me.

Name

I was considering calling it the Stargazer Ranch School, since it would be located at my mom's house, soon to be known as Stargazer Ranch.

Facilities

My mother's house is an ideal place for hosting such a school, because of the great facilities available:
  • Large main room in the basement, with windows to the outside, woodburning stove, and separate door at ground level.
  • Small room with tile floor (basement)
  • Large storage closet with shelves all along the walls (basement)
  • Three bedrooms (basement)
  • Bathroom (basement). The guest bathroom upstairs could be used in situations of urgency when more than one person needs to use the bathroom at once.
  • Washer & dryer (basement)
  • 5 acres of land, with horse barn & pens to be built in the future. This offers plenty of space for a garden, play areas, and lots of room to run.
  • The neighborhood is relatively quiet, with little traffic. Yet neighbors are nearby in case of an emergency.
  • The breezeway offers a nice space to play outdoors when it's raining or snowing, that is somewhat protected from the weather.
  • The hills are good for sledding in winter.
  • The terraced area outside can be incorporated into the playground. Kids love climbing on that kind of thing.
  • The driveway is a good paved area for playing basketball, jump rope, etc. We could create a paved area down below near the basement door as well, if we chose to.
  • The upstairs of the house need only be used very minimally (perhaps the kitchen would be the only thing used on a regular basis), so it can remain the private domain of my mother.

Number of Students and Teachers

I would be the primary teacher, and I'd like to get an additional teacher as well. Perhaps someone to come in full or part time, and have their child/children in the school. And a combination of the other parents and grandparents could come in on whatever basis they would like, to give instruction in their particular areas of interest and ability.

The total number of students should not exceed about 10-12. It will all depend on how it turns out, of course, and the ages of the children.

Integration with Public Schools

In Colorado, the homeschooling law allows children to participate in extracurricular activities with their local school. (However, those who are not members of our family would probably not be able to do so, since they would officially be going to a private school, not homeschooling. I'm not entirely certain about the rule, so a lawyer could clear it up). So the kids could do sports, plays, clubs, etc. Also, if any of the children would prefer to be in public school, or if it seems like they would do better there, no problem. They can enroll (full or part time), and even change their minds later on and come back to my school if it seems it's not working out. The whole situation is flexible.

Socialization Opportunities

Just a few of many ideas: Dance classes, music lessons, horse riding lessons, sports teams (such as soccer), volunteer groups, 4-H, girl & boy scouts, networking with other homeschoolers, church, parties. There are all sorts of ways for the kids to interact with other kids, as well as people of all ages in the community.

Field Trips and Outings

We could go to the public library every week, perhaps at story time, and then check out new books for the kids to read. Other places to go: art museum, Forney museum, natural history museum, the zoo, the planetarium, ice skating, Colorado History Museum, Children's Museum, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Geology Museum (at CSM), the Butterfly Center. There are of course many, many more possibilities.

Outdoor Activities

Some ideas for things to do outdoors on-site:
  • build additions to the playground (plan, buy materials, build, finish)
  • take care of horses (feeding, grooming, picking up manure)
  • keep goats - build an enclosure and shelter, feed the goats
  • keep chickens (if an exemption from the neighborhood association's rule against poultry is possible)
  • build snow sculptures
  • go sledding
  • gardening - planning and building enclosures, buying seeds, starting seeds, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, composting, fertilizing
  • overnight camp-out to learn about the stars, moon, and anything else we can see in the sky. Kids could make up their own constellations based on what they see in the patterns of the stars.
  • identify all the plants on the ranch - take samples, learn about them
  • identify all the animals, insects, and birds on the ranch - take pictures, create a web page or wall display showing what we learn
  • play on the playground (including wood tag!)
  • play basketball, jump rope, etc in the driveway
  • ride bikes on a big loop around the land (we could create a narrow dirt path for this purpose)
  • do fix-up or clean-up projects around the house. Shovel snow, fix fences, plant flowers, etc.

Curriculum Ideas

  • each week, learn about a different country of the world (this would take a while, but imagine, after four years or so, the ability to recognize the name of many countries and find them on a map, at least)
  • plan a sewing project and create it (with adult help to whatever degree is appropriate for the child's age)
  • show & tell - practice public speaking in front of the other children, regularly, talking about things that truly interest the child. As they get older, the sophistication of their presentations will increase, as they do more involved projects.
  • make a puppet show stage, and puppets, and put on a puppet show (for parents & friends, then for a nursing home perhaps, or at the children's hospital)
  • learn computer skills (word processing, creating graphics, printing, using spreadsheets, creating html pages, installing Linux, researching on the internet, programming)
  • create 3-d plots of complicated functions, using interwoven pieces of paper
  • singing & dancing, and inventing their own dances (and performing them)
  • watching selected shows on channels such as the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Animal Planet, or PBS, and then learning more about the topics presented
  • learn French
  • learn about parts of speech, and play with Mad Libs to help reinforce the lesson
  • learn about different religions of the world
  • learn about advertising, how it works, how to tell when an advertisement isn't entirely truthful
  • take weather readings (rain, min/max temperature, etc), and plot them on a graph. Compare with the previous year's, record, and long-term average values.
  • play selected computer games, such as Myst and Riven (which rely heavily on logic and are not violent at all)
  • create frames for their own artwork (cutting mats themselves w/adult help), and hang it up all over the walls (with a small # of students, there is space for everyone to have artwork on the walls, not just the ones subjectively deemed to be the "best" by the teacher).
  • cut out silhouettes of themselves on large paper, and create different costumes to play life-size paper dolls
  • build an abacus, and learn how to calculate with it
  • Kids can create their own books - write the stories, draw the illustrations, create the cover and binding, and bind the book.
  • Learn about tessellations, tiling patterns, and create paving tiles of these patterns. Then, we could pave an outdoor path or play area.
  • Play games that stress logic, critical thinking skills, and word play, such as chess, checkers, Cathedral, connect 4, Pente, Y, Boggle, and Scrabble.
  • Make items out of clay and then glaze & fire them.
  • Learn about optical illusions.
  • Make mosaics.
  • Build a paper clock (I have a book for this).
  • Do paper crafts such as origami, pop-up paper cards, and cut paper designs.
  • Tie-dyeing.
  • Learn about wind and solar power, build a small unit that uses solar or wind power to run a fan or something else.
  • Learn about eclipses, the changing of the seasons, and the overall pattern of how the earth rotates.
  • Visit Red Rocks and learn about geology.
  • Play text-based computer games (teaches logic, typing, spelling)
  • Design and build kites, and fly them.
  • Do a "variations on a theme" art project, where they use all different kinds of media to create images of the same subject or scene. They can use: pen and ink, charcoal, pencil, colored pencils, pastels, crayons, watercolors, computer-generated images, or anything else they'd like.

Equipment Already Available

  • microscope (binocular, very high quality, very high magnification)
  • computer with modem, scanner, printer, and video capture device
  • video camera
  • vcr and tv
  • some child-appropriate videos (teletubbies, kipper, a bug's life, the iron giant)
  • tons of baby toys
  • walker, ride-on toys, rocking boat, walking toys
  • full-sized futon mattress (little ones can romp on it on the floor)
  • toddler-sized table and two chairs
  • assorted electronics parts (breadboard, resistors, wire)
  • scroll saw (for making jigsaw puzzles)
  • full-sized wooden baby crib
  • two pack-n-play baby cribs
  • the Perfect Knife for cutting cardboard forts
  • set of encyclopedias
  • big American Heritage dictionary
  • tons of books
  • small inflatable swimming pool
  • sewing machine, fabric, patterns & accessories
  • assorted craft materials, including beads
  • weaving supplies (cardweaving & small loom weaving)
  • big bubble thing
  • slide projector
  • camera (35mm & polaroid)
  • various tools
  • cd & tape boombox
  • high chair
  • Fisher Price Little People sets
  • Atari 2600 & a few games, and an old Nintendo set (to be used in moderation, obviously)
  • Several wooden walkways that could be integrated into the playground (possibly, if they aren't being used for another purpose).
  • Assorted textbooks (mostly college), including those on: linguistics, fractals, geology, psychology, sociology, music theory.
  • Text-based computer games (from Infocom, mostly).
  • Some plastic storage bins
  • Boggle cd-rom computer game
  • Assorted toys, including: slinkies, a Merlin, Mattel Football 2, Rubik's cube, jigsaw puzzles, tea set, inflatable beach balls, and more.
  • Maps of various locations
  • Mathematics Around Us textbooks for grades 3, 6, and 7

Equipment to Buy and/or Build

  • large chalkboard
  • bookshelves/other shelves (can make a child-sized tunnel through)
  • reading nooks
  • tables and desks
  • child-sized chairs
  • small fridge for downstairs
  • cots/pads for sleeping
  • kid-sized open wooden lockers w/bench
  • plastic storage bins to store toys
  • fenced outdoor play areas
  • playground (can start small and add to it). I am thinking of eventually making something that's good for playing Wood Tag. We can make a piece that looks like a castle, lots of walkways and ramps, get swings, a tire swing, monkey bars, etc.
  • sandbox
  • wooden building blocks
  • legos
  • bristle blocks
  • paints
  • art easels
  • soft foam blocks
  • changing table
  • tools to build things (router, miter saw)
  • textbooks
  • bean bag chairs
  • bench/picnic table brackets

Key Resources

Other stuff

  • With the advent of the Internet, the ability to find information on almost any topic is astronomical. Networking with other homeschoolers is made very easy, as well as finding additional ideas for activities to do, and curriculum suggestions. The kids can have online pen pals as well, and communicate with their parents online during the day.
  • The children would each get a large amount of individual attention - in this way, the teacher (and parents) can know whether the child is progressing well, or if things need some adjustment. There is little to no possibility of the child being "invisible", gradually falling behind without anyone detecting it, or slacking off and not really doing much.
  • The children would learn how to teach each other and themselves, to a degree. They would help out the younger kids, and be helped by those who are a little older.
  • The children would not have to get used to a new teacher every year, or every semester. Or every class period, for that matter. But the variety of parents/grandparents/other adults coming in to teach, field trips, and other mingling events would allow them to relate to a variety of adults in a positive way.
  • With close supervision and a small, tightly-knit group, cliques and the more brutal aspects of the typical social atmosphere of a large school wouldn't have a chance to develop. There would be no "in-group" and "out-group", just "the group". A "no put-downs" rule would be a good idea that would actually be feasible to implement.
  • Kids would be safe. No worries about drug use, smoking, violence, etc (at least while they're in school). They would be looked after until the parents were done with work, and not have to spend several hours a day by themselves after school.
  • Kids would progress at their own pace - without dozens of others in their age group to compare to, they would be much less subject to the harsher aspects of competition. They would learn that the most important measure of learning is in themselves, not in comparison to others, or involving arbitrary scoring systems. (Though the state does require standardized testing in certain grades, so there would be occasional testing, and we could use testing in certain areas such as math and spelling to give the kids an idea of how they are improving *compared to their own previous test scores*).
  • With the extra rooms in the basement, kids would have plenty of space to do quiet reading, research, or even nap (at ages greater than nap facilities are available in a typical school), if that's what works best for that child at that time. Others could engage in different activities in the main room.
  • A child who became sick during the day could retreat and sleep or lie down, without disturbing anyone, yet being nearby so that the teacher could assist them if needed.
  • If a child is particularly into music, they can use one of the other rooms to practice (or even receive private lessons), thus having enough privacy to concentrate without disturbing anyone else.
  • The whole setup is completely flexible with regard to scheduling. If a child needs to come early or stay late for some reason (parents have an appointment, car trouble, whatever), it's no big deal. It can be accomodated. If there are two teachers present on a usual basis, one of the teachers can take a child to the doctor, dentist, or even just on a one-on-one field trip or errand.
  • Parents would have huge amounts of feedback on how their child is doing, and input into the direction of the curriculum. To tell the truth, parental input is really essential to doing this well, I'd say.
  • Kids could have horse-riding lessons during the day, with the horse-riding teacher coming to the ranch to teach them.
  • I would plan to have the internet connected computer facing the main gathering area, so that anyone can essentially peek at what the person on the computer is doing. I think this would help keep any kind of inappropriate surfing to a minimum.
  • We could get in a regular schedule of steam-cleaning the carpets every month or so, or even buy our own steam-cleaning machine (this would probably be more crucial when the children are very young and some are still babies).
  • With a very low teacher/child ratio and children of different ages, infants should spend very little time out of someone's arms. I am quite willing to wear a baby in a baby bjorn or sling, while teaching the older kids. This is much better than anything a day care center can offer.
  • The horses, dogs, and other animals would get lots of attention (and kids LOVE animals!)
  • We could rig up a big metal bell with a pull-rope to ring when it's time for the kids to come inside from playtime, or when it's time for lunch. Kids could take turns as the Official Bell-Ringer.
  • As long as one or more children is young enough to worry about choking hazards, we would use secure barriers to separate playing areas whenever older children are working with something involving small pieces (such as Legos). This also goes for anything else that would pose a hazard to babies or toddlers. The older kids would also be taught about the importance of why this is necessary for the safety of the babies. To some degree, we could plan such activities to occur when the younger ones are taking their naps.
  • Kids can have a shower or bath if they get particularly messy during the day, and we can also wash their clothes.
  • We could set up a webcam so that parents could see what's going on in the main room during the day.
  • We can use weblogs and other types of web pages to share what the kids are doing, which will also serve as a record of what subjects we've covered, and eventually as a portfolio of the child's work which will help them when they apply for scholarships or for admission to college. (Of course we'll also have lots of paper-based projects as well).

Summary

Overall, a large part of my goal is that the children would learn to find their own voices, to not feel that they have to fit in like interchangeable parts. By following their own interests, even from a relatively young age, I'm hoping they can really learn to honor their own individual spirits, and to be able to learn how to teach themselves, something they can carry through their whole lives. I want them to have an authentic educational experience, where their innate curiosity and enthusiasm is encouraged and guided, not stifled because of limited budgets that mandate huge teacher-to-child ratios and the inability to tailor each child's experience.

I want them to be able to participate in real projects that matter - in helping to decide how to build another section of the playground, take care of animals, do volunteer projects, and explore the things that strike them. I will give them a solid grounding in the basics - they'll need to be able to read to learn about the things that interest them, to do math to be able to plan projects and work within a budget, to speak clearly to share their ideas with others. They will also know about how the world works - animals, plants, physics, electricity, history, the constitution, the human body. They will not be limited.

I can only plan so much, because I expect many of the ideas to come from the children themselves, as well as the parents. We will all learn from them as they grow, and better be able to decide the directions their learning should take. They do grow up so quickly, but it is only one day at a time, and if we keep our eyes and ears open, and pay attention, we can do what it takes to make sure they have the best education possible. I think they all deserve nothing less.

Let me clarify that I don't think this job will be easy, at all. I expect to face many challenges, and I recognize that I have so much to learn about being a teacher. But I can't think of anything I'd rather do. I can't think of anything that I'd be better at. I need the variety, the exploration of all sorts of things - I have found in my life that no one single topic has ever been able to hold my interest for all that long (long enough to make a career out of it). And I feel I have a way of talking to children with respect, of answering their questions honestly and as clearly as I can (in fact, I really enjoy this).

I expect to make some mistakes sometimes. I expect to sometimes be stressed out as well. But I can't convey to you the enthusiasm I feel for this project. I truly feel that this is what I'm meant to do. I cannot be satisfied with anything else. I am so excited, I can hardly wait to get started!

Thanks for reading,
Beth.

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