Ambleside Blog

A Test by Any Other Name

We don't give tests in our homeschool. We give assessments. However, I accidentally used the "T" word the other day with Michael.

Michael, it's time for your spelling test.

A look of panic crossed his face that said: What test?! I didn't study for a test!

I tried to recover.

I mean, it's time for your spelling assessment. It's an assessment not a test.

He didn't look reassured, so I continued,

This is not a test. I just want to see what you know. These are all words you know how to spell. If you don't know the words, then we will just spend more time going over them next week.

He was still not buying it. He explained:

My teacher last year called them "assessments", too. But they were really tests.

The difference is not in name only, as Michael suspected. Assessments should be an opportunity to show what you know, not a trap to find out what you don't know. We don't give grades either, indicating a pass or fail based on what can be regurgitated. And there aren't any punishments for not knowing the answers. Wrong answers simply let me know more time needs to be spent on a subject, or a change in approach needs to be made, or both. Also, the boys do not study for assessments, like they would for tests at school-school. I'm not interested in what they have been able to memorize the night before, but in the knowledge they truly hold and that has become a part of them. Charlotte Mason explained it this way:

There is a third kind of (spurious) memory––facts and ideas floating in the brain which yet make no part of it, and are exuded at a single effort; ... when the schoolboy 'crams' for an examination, writes down what he has thus learned, and behold, it is gone from his gaze for ever: as Ruskin puts it, "They cram to pass, and not to know, they do pass, and they don't know."

- Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Michael is still new to this idea. For two years, he has breathed in the atmosphere of the "test" and all the anxiety and pressure that comes with it. It will take some time for him to realize I'm not here to trip him up or catch him by springing something on him for which he is unprepared. Trust is built and maintained through experience. And it will help if I don't use the "T" word again.

The Value of Athletic Training

For six years of my childhood I competed in figure skating.  I remember going to school until 12:30 and then training on the ice from 1:00-5:00 p.m. every day, Monday through Friday.  In the summer, I remember being on the ice at 5:00 a.m. every morning, Monday through Friday.  As I reflect on this, I see how very formative and valuable it was to me.  The physical training developed skills and habits in me like stamina, perseverance, hard work, and discipline.  And, as I look at my life now and the success I have enjoyed thus far as a home school parent, I owe much of it to that regimen of athletic training.  The lessons learned daily on the ice as a child have served me well as an adult. 

After teaching my children from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., I sometimes am a little less than enthusiastic to get in the car and drive my children to their afternoon soccer practice or ballet class.  But, it does not take me long to remember the benefits of sports and physical training.  Beyond the social benefits it offers my children, these activities are formative in their lives and are a part of a living education.  Below is a quote that I read recently about the value of sports in the lives of children.


“Courage is the foundation of all the virtues; unless a man has that virtue, said Doctor Johnson, he has no security for preserving any other.  Athletics develop courage; they develop resource in the face of an emergency; they develop good sportsmanship, which consists in playing every game fairly, in respect and consideration for an opponent, in ability to take victory without conceit and defeat without excuse.  They develop qualities of leadership, and qualities of obedience.”

-The Excitement of Teaching by William Lyon Phelps


The caution here is to keep sports in their proper balance and not to let them consume the lives of our children or override their school hours.  We live in a time where sports have become a religion - almost everything in schools, even more than academics.  But, as thoughtful parents we can see that the lasting benefits of sports have nothing to do with whether our children are the best player or on the best team.

“The danger in athletics is not the danger in studies.  There is no danger that most boys or girls will study too much or give undue importance to the training of the mind or to the acquirement of knowledge.  But there is danger always and everywhere that athletic sports will take a disproportionate place in the student’s mind.”

-The Excitement of Teaching by William Lyon Phelps

The life lessons of sports can be gained by participating in any local community team or organization.  Just a quick Internet search can identify local teams for baseball, football, soccer, basketball or studios for ballet, clubs for gymnastics, karate, or tennis or swim teams.  Yes, in most circumstances it means driving and if you have more than one child it can get a little tricky logistically.  But, when one looks at the benefits and the life long lessons children will take with them beyond the stage or playing field, it seems a worthwhile endeavor.

Magnolia: Gone to Seed

We kicked off nature study this year by studying the fruit of the Southern Magnolia tree. We had the opportunity to observe the transformation of the fruit as it opens to reveal its cache of seeds.

While ripening, the fruit remains closed up tight and firmly attached to the tree.

After the fruit has past its prime, its flesh begins to pull back, giving a glimpse of the seeds inside.

Eventually, the fruit dies back completely, allowing its scarlet seeds to dangle freely by thin white threads.

It was such a privilege to watch and document this amazing transformation of fruit to seed.

The boys were even inspired. I believe their detailed and carefully crafted representations testify to that fact.


Country Stars

As I wrote about before, our attempt to study the stars near our home in the city was a little disappointing. However, I was excited to discover that our local astronomy club was holding their annual "Star Party" only a few days later.

I had never been to a "Star Party", or even heard of one before. This particular event was a week-long stargazing marathon. The venue for the party was one of the club's dark-sky locations, well away from the city lights. The astronomy club's website stated that "Beginner astronomers" were welcome and they would have their twenty-four inch telescope set up for visitors to look through. It sounded perfect!

We invited another homeschooling family to join us and made plans to head out one night after work. It was a two hour drive just to get there, and with the Atlanta traffic reaching its peak about the time we were able to leave, there was no way we could get there before dark. But hey, it's stargazing, it's supposed to be dark, right? So, we decided to wait out the traffic and have dinner in the city before we left.

"Of course, you can trust us with your $40K telescope!"


"Look! We're starfish! Get it?"

Finally, with our bellies full and the traffic cleared out, we were off. At some point along the two hour drive, our friends texted us, asking if we had read the "Star Party Etiquette" document they found on the website. It contained rules like "arrive before dark" and "no white light after sunset". My visions of super-friendly astronomers welcoming us to their party were rapidly being replaced by images of angry astronomers telling us where to stick our headlights.

The closer we got to our destination the more nervous we became about how exactly we were going join this Star Party without everyone there hating us. We turned off our headlights once we made our final turn onto the road where the venue was supposed to be located, trying to avoid inadvertently blinding all the dark-adapted party-goers. When they said the party was at a dark-sky location, they weren't kidding. With only our running lights to guide us, we crept along the road, looking for the entrance in the darkness.

Our question of "How to approach the observing site without disturbing everyone?" was answered for us. You see: astronomers are very serious about maintaining their dark-sky conditions and they know all about people like us white-light-blasting-late-comers. They were ready for us. When we finally arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a closed and securely locked gate, bearing a sign that read

Gate closed: Sunset to Sunrise

Everything around was dark and silent. I think even the crickets stopped chirping when we pulled up.

Needless to say, I felt horrible about dragging everyone out there to the middle of pitch-black-nowhere only to be locked out of the event. And what now? Do we park the cars outside the gate and try to find the "party" on foot? But as my slightly annoyed better-half pointed out:

What? Are we really going to walk who-knows-how-far into the pitch-black darkness with four kids and no idea where we are going? ... And then we are going to grope our way in the pitch-black darkness onto a field full of strangers, who are already annoyed that we are arriving late, and then try to find a place to sit amongst them? ... And then we are going to ask if we can look through their telescope? No, we are not.

We decided to stay where we were for a while and see what we could see. We pulled off to the side of the road, right there in front of the locked down "star gate". We spread out our blankets and lay down in the back of our pickup truck. Even though our Star Party and telescope plans were a bust, the night sky itself did not disappoint. Our six stars from a few nights before were joined by thousands of others. It was truly awe-inspiring. Although, I'm fairly certain we didn't need to drive two hours each way to do it.

City Stars

We began studying the night sky in our astronomy class this year. We learned how to read a star map. We focused on where in the sky to look for the Big and Little Dippers at this time of year in our location, and how to use them to find the North Star. We stayed up past bedtime and headed out to the open field in the park across the street. We looked up and saw... three stars. Three.

Needless to say, city stargazing was a little under-whelming. We live about eight miles south of a very bright city and about two miles north of a very bright international airport. We also live on a well lit street with a well lit park across the street. What our lesson lacked in actual stars was made up for in a very poignant lesson on "light pollution".

The three stars we could see from the park were lone bright stars, but I had absolutely no idea which stars they were. All the stars around them were drowned out by ambient light. The Dippers were nowhere to be found either; therefore using them to find Polaris was out of the question. I was thankful to have downloaded a few stargazing apps onto my iPhone, so that I could at least identify these few visible stars for the boys: Vega, Deneb and Altair.

Michael had fun pointing my phone around the night sky, watching different graphics of the unseen stars that were supposedly there flash across the screen. However, it wasn't long before the boys had lost interest in our three stars and were off playing, giddy at the idea of being out past bedtime, in the park, in the dark. Meanwhile, I was on my back on the grass with my phone in the air, trying to gather all the information I could about the few stars we could see.

After returning to the house, we decided to try our slightly darker, albeit tree-lined, backyard as a stargazing location. There, peeking around the side of the house, was an actual group of stars, together, trying to form something. Thanks to her bright stars, Cassiopeia could be seen from our backyard. Wow! An honest-to-goodness constellation! How exciting!

Hello, Cassie! Thanks for showing up.

In class the next day, I asked the boys what they had observed the night before? Michael started rattling off all the constellations he had "seen":

Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Polaris, the Dragon, the King...

At first, King and I were perplexed. How did we miss seeing all those constellations? Then I remembered giving Mike my phone to use. 

No, Michael, I mean real stars... in the sky... that you saw with your own eyes.... not just on the phone.

Oh... uh... then, I don't know.

We ended up having a good discussion about the stars we did see and the boys sketched their observations in their science copybooks.

Thankfully, an opportunity for celestial-redemption lay just around the corner. I had planned another outing for the upcoming weekend: we would travel to a "dark-sky" location well away from the star-masking glow of the big city lights.  

Stay tuned...

Four Agreements

My husband and I recently came across these Four Agreements written by a man named Don Miguel Ruiz.  Although he comes from a different spiritual background than me, these agreements hold a lot of truth in relating to oneself and others.  Why didn’t I know about this kind of stuff 30 years ago?

  • Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
  • Don't Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.
  • Don't Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this habit, you can completely transform your life.
  • Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.


Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

-Proverbs 24:27

I read this proverb this morning, and was reminded how important it is to be prepared.  There is such a difference in my school days between when I am prepared and when I am just “winging it”.  I was struck by the phrases “Prepare your work” and “get everything ready”.

One of the main differences that I have seen in my homeschooling since working with Ambleside is that I do much more lesson planning.  Before Ambleside, I would just open up our texts and, together with the children, work through them.  I didn’t read through the material beforehand and have a daily, let alone weekly, lesson plan.  My thinking was to just keep moving forward and everything will turn out fine.  But, what I realized is that the children had gaps or holes in their learning and understanding of the material.  Also, I gave the children more independent assignments per their individual grade level and because of the sheer amount of different material I did not have the time to review it beforehand.  Now, I actually have time set aside several times a week to lesson plan.  We combine all of our inspirational subjects together and learn them as a class rather than each child having independent material.  This helps a lot in assessing comprehension.  During the summer, I read through all of the upcoming texts beforehand noting any difficult terms or places on the map we should look up prior to reading.  I make checks in my teacher text next to significant “ideas” that we may want to bring up during discussion time.  Then, during the school year, on a weekly basis I prepare lesson plans for disciplinary subjects like French, Geography, Grammar, Spelling, Math, etc.  That way I ensure I am covering the key concepts each week and we are progressing without (hopefully) leaving any holes in the material.

In educating my children I am “building a house” in many respects.  The proverb is a good reminder telling me to prepare and “AFTER THAT build your house.”   I should ask myself before I begin each school day; did I “prepare my work” and “get everything ready”?

Fruit of the Magnolia

For Nature Study, I try to pick out one or two specific trees that we will study throughout the year. We will study them at various times, observing their changes with the seasons. One of the trees we will be following this year is a Southern Magnolia living in the park across the street.

In autumn, our Magnolia bears fruit.

But before you can properly study a tree, you must swing from her branches. It's a rule.

With that out of the way, we gathered our low hanging fruit and headed back to the classroom.

Poetry is full of sadness of the fading flower, whereas rightly it should be the gladness of the flower that fades, because its work is done for the precious seed at its heart. The whole attention of the child should be fixed upon the developing fruit instead of the fading and falling petals.

- Anna Botsford Comstock, HANDBOOK OF NATURE STUDY

The fruit of a plant is its vehicle for producing and distributing seed. We had an interesting discussion about all the different fruits that are falling this time of year and the different mechanisms and partnerships that are utilized to distribute them. Michael commented that the squirrel that buries an acorn is really an oak tree farmer.

But we are talking magnolias here, not oaks. 

The boys got out their Nature Journals and their watercolors. Here is the fruit of their labor:

Investing in Yourself as a Teacher

I was reading the Economist the other day and was struck by a couple of articles discussing education.  One thing stood out to me; the quality of the teacher was the number one determining factor of success in education.  I was wondering how much time do homeschooling parents invest in themselves as teachers.  How often do they attend teacher trainings?  I am not talking about going to a local conference and listening to a motivational speaker but, real teacher training where you are required to participate and are evaluated and critiqued. 

"Good teaching is the single biggest variable in educating pupils, bigger than class size, family background, or school funding, says Eric Hanushek, and education expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.  And crucial to having better teachers is evaluating them properly, hiring, firing and promoting on merit." -Flipping the Classroom, Economist Magazine, 9/17/11 edition, p. 32

"What is clear however is that the shiniest new academy will struggle without decent teachers.  An emphasis on better teacher quality is a common feature of all reforms.   Countries like Finland and South Korea make life easier for themselves by recruiting only elite graduates, and paying them accordingly."  "In schools reform, structural progress-new sorts of schools, reorganized old ones, new exams-can happen very fast.  Better teachers take much longer to form.  They should be made the priority."  -The Great Schools Revolution, Economist Magazine, 9/17/11 edition, p.24

Are you making it a top priority to invest in yourself as a teacher?

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

The other day I was talking with a friend at church and mentioned how excited I was that we were going camping.  My friend said with disbelief, “YOU camp?”  “Yes, we enjoy it very much.” I replied.  My preteen daughter then smiled her sweet metal braces with color-banded smile and said she was looking forward to hot dogs and S’mores.  My friend then said with even more disbelief, “YOU eat hot dogs …and S’mores?  I can’t believe it!”  I just smiled, laughed and said, “Okay, the hot dogs are organic and the chocolate is Ghiradelli, but yes we are real campers.”

I find this a bit humorous and a perfect example of “not judging a book by its cover”.  It’s funny because we also seem to get this same response when people find out we educate our children at home.  I guess from the outside appearance we don’t fit the typical homeschool or camper stereotype.  But, I am writing this blog at my campsite picnic table and my children are having a ball playing down by the creek in their dress up clothes.  My daughters are in Laura Ingalls style dresses with scarves around their head and my son is outfitted in a checkered shirt, toy gun and powder horn with of course their Hunter Wellie rain boots.  (They are by the creek after all.) And my husband, well, he is singeing his arm hairs on the incredibly dangerous and huge flame coming from our new gas camp stove.

I guess from the standpoint of some people that know us, we are kind of “weird” since we home educate.  From the viewpoint of those who are “dyed in the wool” homeschoolers, we are also kind of “weird” because well we don’t really “look” like homeschoolers.  I guess we don’t fit very well into the stereotypes.  I like it that way.  People aren’t meant to live in boxes. 


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