Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Homeschool Evaluation or Portfolio Review

I’ve been asked to relay my evaluator/evaluation/portfolio review experience, so here goes:
It’s beginning to be that time of year when homeschoolers start their annual panic over what to do about showing proof of progress.  We fret over testing vs. hiring an evaluator and we worry that we haven’t taught our kids enough.  Our family has 11 years of homeschooling experience under our belts & we have chosen to go the evaluator route all but two of those years.  As you’ll quickly learn for yourself if you stick with this post, I’m quite passionate about meeting with an evaluator vs. taking the CAT test.  I’ve mentioned my dislike of the CAT, in detail, elsewhere so I won’t go into all that again.  This post is going to be about hiring an evaluator.
We have always used  Dr. Teressa Williams . (She’s way, way down there at the bottom of the list.  It’s alphabetical.)   And we have loved her since day one.  We met her when she was just getting started as an evaluator, in fact, we were her very first customer.  Eleven years later, that first evaluation is still fresh in my mind.  It was one of those hard to forget moments in time.  
The evaluation process started a week or so before we actually met.  I began frantically compiling samples of my son’s first grade work.  Samples of beginning, middle & end of year work were required for math & language arts.  Math was no problem.  We had used only one workbook all year.  Language arts was another matter.  It seemed we’d been through about 20 different curriculums trying to find something that both my son & I could tolerate.  I gathered the 20 different workbooks & teachers manuals.  I gathered hand writing samples and pictures Zack had drawn.  I gathered spelling tests and reading lists.  Oh, the reading list!  I needed to come up with a list of all the books Zack had read or had read to him over the year.  
Next, I had to decide how to present all this information to Dr. Williams.  I’d seen samples of a friend’s portfolio.  Her portfolio was a museum quality scrapbook of her children’s school year.  I had 20+ half used workbooks.  A museum quality scrapbook wasn’t going to happen for us.  I went with a milk crate full of workbooks.  Actually, I believe it was several milk crates.  
The night before Dr. Williams was to arrive, I stayed up until about 4 a.m. trying not to vomit from nerves and organizing the workbooks over & over again.  Even though we had 20+ workbooks to show, I was convinced that I hadn’t taught my child a single thing, he was dumb as a box of rocks and Dr. Williams was going to immediately report me to Social Services for causing my child to be a complete moron.  
The next morning, the nerves were no better.  I decided to start a loaf of bread in the bread machine so that the house would smell good when Dr. Williams arrived.  Plus, don’t all homeschoolers bake their own bread?  It would be my little secret that I was using a machine instead of doing it by hand.  
Dr. Williams arrived and got out of her car looking a little scared.  We were her first customers.  And then there was our house.  We had just moved into a very old farm house that had yet to be painted on the outside and the majority of our belongings were piled up on the front porch because they didn’t all fit in the house & we hadn’t yet decided where to put stuff or what we’d keep & what we’d get rid of.  We looked like the Beverly Hillbilly’s redneck cousins.  
I greeted Dr. Williams at the door with each of my kids clinging to one of my legs.  I think my kids were almost as scared as I was.  The only difference was, they didn’t realize that Social Services would soon be removing them from my care.  I should probably mention that while my daughter was only 4 & not yet officially in kindergarden, I was still worried about her reaction to Dr. Williams.  She was shy.  No, she was SHY.  As in, she didn’t speak to anyone outside our immediate family.  The pediatrician had even started talking about putting her on medication because she was so shy.  Zack, my first grader was generally outgoing, but if he decided to cop an attitude, there was no forcing him to speak.  I was a total nervous wreck.  I just knew the process was going to be a total disaster.
Dr. Williams entered our house & Zack immediately began handing her workbooks to look at.  Sarah immediately disappeared but quickly came back wearing her Cinderella costume & proceeded to force Dr. Williams watch her dance.  And both kids began psyco-babbling to her.  They told her about art projects and trips to the library.  They told her which books were their favorite.  They told her about a few of our history projects we’d done.   Meanwhile, Dr. Williams repeatedly asked me what grades they were in.  Each time she asked, her voice got stranger & stranger.  I began to think that either this woman has a serious memory problem, or I’ve been teaching my kids pre-school level things all year rather than first grade subjects.  Oh gosh!  My kids are dumb as rocks & Social Services is on their way!
And then the kids brought out the volcano.  We’d made a volcano that you could put vinegar & baking soda in so that it foamed up & made “lava”.  The kids began to tell Dr. Williams all about putting the “chemicals” into it to make it foam.  
Dr. Williams turned to me and with a look of shock on her face & said, “Chemicals?  What grade did you say these children were in?”
Oh, Lord!  She’s calling Social Services because I’ve been letting my kids play with chemicals, I thought.
In the end, it turned out that my kids were not dumb as rocks.  In fact, they were little geniuses.  Dr. Williams had just been shocked that kids that age knew the word “chemical”.  Apparently that’s an advanced vocabulary word.  She’d also repeatedly asked me what grade they were in because all of the things we’d done were rather advanced for a normal first grader.  
And the praise and pats on the back began.  Dr. Williams complimented both kids repeatedly and best of all, she kept telling me what a great job I’d done.  I was an excellent parent!  I was an awesome teacher!  She even thought I was organized!  My nerves finally calmed down long enough for me to remember my manners.  I offered Dr. Williams some coffee & the now ready bread.  
Somewhere around two hours later, after my kids had each shown her their rooms & every toy they owned, after my kids had talked themselves hoarse, they finally let her leave.  I promptly got on the phone & called every friend and relative I had to tell them that Zack had passed, that I was a Homeschooling God, my kids were both geniuses & Social Services was not going to be removing my kids from my care.  That evening, still pumped from all the compliments & encouragement, I broke out the Rainbow Resource catalog & started planning the following year.
And each year since has been basically the same with a few minor differences.  The kids never hid behind my legs after that first meeting.  They always ran out to great Dr. Williams in the driveway.  After all, they’d been anxiously awaiting her return since January.   Some years I made brownies instead of bread.  And then there was the year that our “portfolio” consisted of a bunch of crumpled up papers crammed hap-hazzardly into a grocery bag.  As I said, a museum quality scrapbook is just not my style!  But the thing is, Dr. Williams never cared how I presented the information.  My scrapbooking abilities, or lack of, was never questioned.
One other year stands out in my mind & probably should be mentioned because it shows how an evaluator is so great at seeing the educational aspects of ordinary tasks.  One year was affectionately known as The Year From Hell.  It was comically awful.  One of those times when friends would ask how I was holding up & I’d start giggling weirdly.  Maybe I should start at the beginning...
I get rather overly excited about Christmas, I always have.  I get so excited that there’s no way I can concentrate on school work in December so we’ve always taken the month of December off for the most part.  The kids will still read and they’ll occasionally write something, but we don’t do official text booky school work in December.  And actually, we don’t do all that much in November.  As I said, I get excited.  
So there we were, Christmas Eve morning, we haven’t done a lick of school since Halloween & the doctor tells my dad he has lung cancer.  By Jan. 1st, Dad was in the hospital & told he had a week to live at most.  Luckily, the doctors were wrong about the 1 week thing.  He started daily radiation & an 8 hour, once a week chemo program.  I was elected to drive him each day because I didn’t work & had “nothing else” to do.  Now, don’t get me wrong - I am SO glad I got that time with my dad, but there was the issue of homeschooling.  But really, I was so involved in Dad’s health that we weren’t going to get any school done anyway.  The kids tagged along to the radiation appointments because they were relatively short, only 30 minutes or so, and the doctor’s office had a super cool turtle tank in the waiting room.  We learned about turtles & one day, the nurses took my kids back to the radiation room & showed them the machinery & the weird mask thing Dad had to wear during the treatment.  The kids learned all about radiation therapy.  Meanwhile, they were also learning a little about chemo and a lot about cancer.  The chemo affected  Dad’s heart so the kids also learned about cardiovascular things.  
Meanwhile, my mom went blind due to macular degeneration.  She’d had problems with it before, but one day she simply woke up blind.  The kids learned all about eyes.  They got to go with Granny to the eye doctor’s appointments & see scans of her eye and the blood vessels in her eye. 
My dad passed away & the kids learned about grief.  They also learned compassion.  They helped Granny move into an old folks home and when a month later, the old folks home burned down, they learned about fire.  
Not long after the fire, Gaston hit Richmond.  Remember Gaston?  We had 10 feet of water in the house.  The kids learned to paddle a canoe & boating safety.  They learned about the force of flood waters & what it can do and how it affects the wild life.  They learned how to live without electricity for 6 weeks.  They learned how to live without drinking water for 8 weeks.  They learned about mold.  
Meanwhile, while all that was going on, Great Grandma who had Alzheimer’s was living with us.  The kids learned to babysit her.  They learned more & more about compassion.  They learned to look in the knife draw if they wanted the telephone & they learned to search the couch cushions for the knives.  They also learned not to leave their books laying around because Great Grandma always tried to cook them.  (Don’t ask!  Let’s just say it was an interesting time in our lives.)
So yeah, the year from Hell.  Dr. Williams shows up in June or July and we literally have not done any school work since Halloween.  Not a single bit.  I KNEW this was the year she’d be calling Social Services.  But once again, she proved me wrong.  If you look back over that list of everything that went wrong, you’ll see that the kids learned a TON of science.  They’d just about gotten a first year medical student’s worth of science!  They’d also watched .... I forget the show’s name now but it was a US history cartoon that used to come on on PBS.  So they’d gotten in some history.  And while they’d sat in a zillion different medical waiting rooms, they’d read to themselves and played cards.  Reading  & math!  They’d written a zillion get well cards.  Handwriting!  They’d even gotten some socialization in during all those conversations with various medical personnel.    
As Dr. Williams started listing all their accomplishments for the year, I was utterly amazed.  I really had thought that we’d done absolutely nothing.  Once again, I was a Homeschooling God & my kids were geniuses!
There are other brief snippets of various other evaluations that come to mind when I think about how great Dr. Williams is.  There was the year when Sarah refused to speak in English & would only answer in Japanese.  Never mind that she probably only knew 3 words of Japanese.  But Dr. Williams never complained.  Instead, she complimented Sarah on her knowledge & patted me on the back for allowing her to follow her interests.  There was the year she asked Zack to read a page from Harry Potter (Zack’s choice of books to read.)  Except Zack was determined to read the entire book to her.  There was the year Sarah forced her to watch her ballet recital dance.  The year Zack played song after song on the guitar with the amp turned up to full volume.  Those are just a few of the examples of crazy behavior Dr. Williams has joyfully put up with from us.  I’d love to know what things stand out in her mind about us. Or maybe I wouldn’t. 
But the evaluation process has not always been rosy.  Over the years, my kids have given me plenty of things to be concerned about.  Real things, not Social Services things.  Sarah’s ability to learn math skills came to a screeching halt around 6th grade, until Zack turned 10 or 11, he cried when asked to pick up a pencil and his spelling.... don’t even get me started on how bad his spelling was.  But each time I had a concern, Dr. Williams was right there to help.  She would give me ideas & suggestions for ways to fix the problem or to work around the problem.  She never once made me feel like I was a bad teacher or that my kids had any kind of problem.  She has always been supportive.  And complimentary.  In fact, one year I was absolutely cringing because of Zack’s failure to improve his hand writing.  It was so bad that he couldn’t read it himself most of the time.  But Dr. Williams pulls out a sample of the previous years’ writing & showed us both that he had made some progress.
I can not speak highly enough about the process of a face to face meeting with an evaluator.  Yes, after 11 years, I still stress for a week or so before the meeting.  Yes, I still stay up all night before thinking I may vomit from the stress of worrying about how horribly bad our school year was & how little my kids learned.  Never mind that each child now has two or three milk crates worth of “school” to show off.  I still feel like we accomplished nothing.  But ten minutes into the evaluation & I start to feel like Super Woman.  Super Woman, the Homeschooling Goddess.  We’ve had years where we followed a boxed curriculum to the T, we’ve had years where we unschooled & there was the “medical school” year.  No matter what our style of homeschooling was for that year, Dr. Williams has always looked positively at our progress and she’s always been forthcoming with her praise.  Like I said, she makes me feel like Super Woman, the Homeschooling Goddess.  And that wonderful feeling carries forth into the following year & gives me the strength & courage to not only homeschool my kids, but to do so willingly and with excitement.  
The CAT test does not leave me feeling that way.  Not at all.  But that’s a whole other story, one that I may or may not tell again.


  1. She sounds like a dream come true, and YOU sound like a homeschooling goddess! Way to go and congrats for hanging in there!

    1. It amazes me that we've been doing this for 11 years. No wonder I'm a mental basket case! LOL But I do really, really love our evaluator.

  2. Liberty's Kids- my two like it too ;)

    Our experience with Dr. Williams has been almost identical. My kids just LOVE her- and even when DD did not need to be evaluated, she wanted to show her stuff to her too :)
    They honestly look forward to her coming each year!