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Review: How to be a High School Superstar…Without Burning Out


High school students can have a life.  Even if they want to get into top colleges or universities.  In fact, based on his research of high school students admitted to top US universities, Cal Newport suggests that having a relaxed, interesting life (along with excellent marks) makes one more likely to get into a top university.  Of course there are some caveats to that, and in his book How to Be a High School Superstar, he explains exactly what he means.

Even though most homeschooled teens are not obsessed with getting into ‘top’ colleges as this book’s intended audience is, How to Be a High School Superstar is full of excellent advice for homeschoolers. In many ways this book is about how to be interested in things and to succeed at them, guidance that is desperately needed these days by homeschoolers, too.  We all know that many homeschoolers of the past were motivated by their interests and learned unusual material at an adult level almost naturally, but that is changing since the advent of cell phones.*

So, what does Newport tell teens who want to do very well in high school and maybe even become superstars? And how does that apply to ordinary homeschooled teens?

Obviously they need to excel academically and do well on standardized tests.  Yet, they do not need to be overly busy, burnt out, extremely stressed, or facing mental illness because of their zeal to be impressive enough for college admission.

Instead, by carefully evaluating their lives and learning more effective study techniques, teens can free up a great deal of time.  By learning how to use all this time to develop deep interests, they will stand out so much that colleges will be eager to accept them.  What is more important, they will be happier, healthier, and more balanced, serving and learning in the real world.

Newport claims that what top colleges are looking for in their students is ‘interestingness’ and he states that genuinely interesting accomplishments come from living genuinely interesting lives, not from special abilities or careful planning.  His aim is to help students build sustainable lifestyles that yield rewards beyond college admission as well as for college admission.  With that in mind, he discusses incredible teen accomplishments and deconstructs them to show how they are based on small steps and on following certain ideas.  He substantiates his claims with interesting research.  Finally he emphasizes that ordinary students who follow his steps can stand out in similar ways.

To that end, Newport gives three laws for high school students:

  1. Under schedule and use free time to explore.
  2. Focus on and master one serious interest.
  3. Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not to do.

He divides his book into thirds, one section for each of his laws.  There is a lot of inspiration here, but the most useful parts of the book are three Playbook chapters that are based on how real high school superstars function. These ideas are a practical treasure trove for all teens and I summarize them below.

Find and use free time

First of all, in order to be able to pursue interests and opportunities, one needs to have enough spare time.  Newport shows, in detail, where to find that time. And, no, it does not involve sleep deprivation or using up all of one’s free time to study.   He also explains helpful study skills and shows teens how to be purposeful in their use of study time and how to get to know their own most effective habits.  Then, because many students with spare time waste it, Newport gives them a structure for using it wisely to explore and to reflect.  He shows them how to learn quickly from experts, how to make connections with interesting people, and how to find time for a ‘wow!’ project.

Focus and master one serious interest

Once a person begins to find interests, there seem to be so many.  Newport shows teens how to focus on a meaningful one or two.  Of course, one must become good at whatever one chooses, and Newport shows what that means and how to do it.

Pursue ‘wow!’ accomplishments

A master of efficiency, Newport also shows teens what characteristics of an interest turn it into a ‘wow!’ achievement.  His discussion of innovation is fascinating and full of insight.  It turns out that diligence and meeting expectations are enormously important qualities.  Of course that is obvious to anyone who has ever pondered the biblical injunction, “Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord and not for men,” but these qualities do not seem to be common in the society around us.  This section also outlines the innovation mapping technique that deconstructs the paths of superstars by analyzing what precipitated their ‘wow!’ project, what their accomplishment was, and what actual work they did.

As mentioned before, all of this excellent advice is written from the point of view of getting into competitive colleges without burning out.  Such an emphasis is irrelevant to many teens, including many homeschoolers and most students in Canada where there is less frenzy about university admission.  Centering one’s entire life around such a goal is not even a temptation for many.  Thus, in order to benefit from this book, most students will need to read past the hype about impressing college admissions officers and learn to see the value of Newport’s practical advice for their own goals.

Furthermore, once the college admissions focus is removed, pursuing the ‘wow!’ effect could become a bit narcissistic.  However, learning about innovation and accomplishments is always helpful, as is learning to focus, to excel, to study, and to use time wisely.

Another benefit to having deep interests and knowing how to succeed at them, rather than overworking or wasting time, is that it could make a student more resilient and less vulnerable to the current epidemic of teen depression and anxiety.

So, how could homeschoolers use this book?

Our two youngest teens have missed significant amounts of high school time due to illness. I’m assigning them this book with the hope that they will learn skills to maximize their effectiveness in their remaining high school years, and will also learn how to discover and develop interests.  I will need to emphasize and, probably, reemphasize that its insights are valuable to them even though they have absolutely no interest in getting into an Ivy League university.

At times homeschoolers may want to document their ‘wow!’ experiences as high school courses.  On the other hand, many great learning experiences would better be listed as activities; a similar under-reporting of accomplishments is discussed by Newport.

Also, for teens to use this approach, parents also have to buy into it.  Thus this is a book for parents as well as students, and both can benefit.  In fact, I found a few thoughts that could relate to my own future, and I think other homeschooling moms will also find personal inspiration as they face life after homeschooling.

If you and your teen can get past the college admissions and superstar focus of this book, you will find it to be very helpful.  My older teens enjoyed Gary North’s study skills course (link to my review), but it does not cover the breadth of topics that this book does.  In fact, I have found no better high school advice than that contained in How to Be a High School Superstar, provided one ignores the focus on getting into a top college.

In conclusion, living the way Newport suggests, concerned more with learning and contributing than with obsessing about university admissions, will help students be happier and healthier.  It may also help for university admission as well as SAT scores, as the old but useful book 1600 Perfect Score emphasized (link to my review). Excellent academics are vital, good test scores are crucial, and interesting activities are important, but no student, whether homeschooled or not, should spend his or her high school years in a state of anguished frenzy.  Idols are never worth it.

*I think it’s relevant that Newport now writes about digital minimalism, both at work and in personal life.  Effective and interesting lives do not seem to be compatible with excessive use of technology.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read. 

Disclosure: We borrowed this book from the library via interlibrary loan and then immediately bought our own copy.  We are not compensated for our honest opinions.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Documenting Interest-Driven Learning as a High School Course

Smoking the Bees

Although we use standard textbooks in many courses, there are times when our teens follow their own rabbit trails and just learn things they want to learn.  This interest-driven exploration is one of the most effective ways to learn, but it leaves me scrambling at high school record keeping time.

It is easy to document the learning in a formal course with a textbook, defined assignments, and purchased tests and exams:  You just note down the text, make a course description based on it, list its contents, record the marks, and calculate the final grade.

But what about a course that starts as a hobby and expands into academics?

One of our teens loved historical fashion coloring books, so we got her more and more of them.  At first I thought it was just an interesting hobby but then realized that this was becoming a serious academic interest.  I was able to retroactively design a course which we called “History of Fashion” based on ten Dover coloring books by fashion historian Tom Tierney and a handful of library books.

Of course, it is impossible to give percentage grades for such a project and constant evaluation is not conducive to deep learning.  However, I read somewhere that if a teen focuses on something out of pure interest and puts in the time, they almost always deserve at least an A.  I have found that to be true.

How about a course that starts off formally and then dissolves into a pile of library books and a deep distaste for the textbook?

One of our teens started Apologia’s Biology but became less and less motivated.  Such situations are always a quandary.  If it had been math, for example, there would have been no option but to be tough and move on, for so much depends on math and each math course builds on the previous one.  Biology, however, being more content-based than skill-based, could be treated as optional if it wasn’t a prerequisite for any of her areas of future interest.  (And if that ever changed, a solid few months of study could easily take care of it.)

As I was looking through her reading and movie list, however, I noticed that she had listed five significant adult books about topics such as disease, food flavorings, dietary fat, and inflammation, as well as five BBC nature documentary series.  A lot of serious learning had happened on her own time, and I realized that, together with the completed work in the textbook, this could easily be a course.  I decided to call it “Topics in Biology.”  For the textbook chapters she completed, I listed test marks and for the books and documentaries I gave an A, for the reasons discussed above.

If she reads a few more relevant books in her remaining high school time, they will be added to the list.  If she reads twenty more, however, I may need to rearrange this course and perhaps assign all the books to a new course like “Readings in Biology” or “Introduction to Disease” or whatever seems most relevant, and keep the formal textbook part of the course by itself, giving her a half credit for that work.

How about a part time job or volunteer position that involves an enormous amount of learning?

It could be treated as a co-op course, at least here in Ontario, and I am contemplating a horsey credit for one teen.

Or it could be treated as an academic course with the job itself being treated like lab work.  For example, one of our teens worked with farmers and veterinarians. She assisted with veterinary procedures and post-mortems and provided much routine animal care.  She also read a university level animal science text, Anatomy and Physiology of Farm Animals, and I put that all together into a science course, using the title of the text to name the course.

General Tips for Documenting Interest-Driven Learning

  1. In the course description note that it is a self-directed or student-initiated course.  Often such courses cover several years, in which case I also note that it is a multi-year course.
  2. Always keep a reading (and film) list.  Besides recording memories, which is always fun, it can add significantly to a high school record, and some of it can applied to courses after the fact.
  3. Be flexible in how you think about courses.  If you look at the course calendars of a few nearby high schools, public as well as Christian, you will discover all sorts of course options.  Your teen’s interests, too, can be noted in their high school records as a course.
  4. Be traditional in naming your courses as you apply to universities.  If there is a similar public school course available, use that title for your course.  If your teen is very focused on something and has done advanced learning, you may want to look at university course lists for titles as well.  And if no similar course is offered anywhere, then be bold and make up your own title, as we did for “Western Literature and Thought,” which was a crazy-intensive course based on Veritas Press’s Omnibus series and included works from Gilgamesh, Virgil, the Bible and Augustine to Machiavelli, Calvin, Marx, and Tolkien. (It was actually worth two or even more credits, but we already had enough other credits so we gave it only one.)
  5. Non-standard courses need good documentation in a university application.  For one of our teens, three faculties at a university combed through the course descriptions I had provided before awarding a large scholarship conditional upon successful completion of the non-standard course, “Western Literature and Thought,” mentioned above.
  6. If there are outside validations of your teen’s effort, such as competition prizes, be sure to record them. Such things are also learning experiences in themselves.
  7. If teens focus on something out of pure interest and put in the time, they almost always deserve at least an A for their work.
  8. Not all interests need to be recorded as courses, although if they related to a potential field of future study they could affect scholarship chances.  It is perfectly fine to keep some as hobbies, as we did with beekeeping, especially if there are already enough high school courses listed on the transcript.
  9. All nonstandard courses based on a teen’s interests will likely far surpass the normal number of hours required for a high school credit, which range from about 100-180, depending on whom you listen to.   That is fine.  Let your teens continue to enjoy themselves and keep on learning while you keep on documenting, just in case.
  10. Upon request, I once posted some examples of high school records for several multi-year, literature-based history courses.   Our teens chose what to read with very little input from me and they learned an enormous amount.

Above all, let your teens continue to explore the world around them, following their own interests.  That possibility is one of the great benefits of homeschooling during the high school years.  With time, opportunity, and exposure to different possibilities, the sky is the limit.  Then, with a bit of effort, you can document their learning in a way that university and college admissions officers can appreciate.

Meanwhile, your teens are having the time of their life learning–engaged, excited, and enthusiastic, which is good in many different ways–and discovering how they can best serve God in this world.

Acknowledgements:  I read most of the available books on homeschooling high school when we started high school many years ago and they have undoubtedly influenced my thinking on this topic.   Especially helpful were Barbara Shelton’s  A Home-Designed Form+U+La and Lee Binz’s record keeping advice

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I eventually share what I read. 

This article may be linked to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Thoughts on A Daring Sacrifice by Jody Hedlund

Juliana Wessex’s people, peasants that her uncle has taxed into poverty, are starving, so she robs the rich to provide for them. But what is she to make of the arrogant Lord Collin who gives her more than she steals from him and invites her to rob him again if she ever needs more?  And then kidnaps her?

A red-headed bandit with a notorious reputation and a dangerous secret, a bored knight come home to claim his inheritance, and a thoroughly evil uncle combine to make a fast-paced teen novel of treachery and heroism.

Jody Hedlund’s skillful writing turn this improbable tale into a gripping story that leaves the reader replaying scene after scene.  A Daring Sacrifice celebrates heroism, skill, and good.  It also includes unbearable evil, and a self-sacrificing savior who, in turn, needs to be saved.

There are many, especially in the West, who question the need for God’s judgement.  Never having personally faced atrocity, they feel no personal need for justice to be done or for evil to be punished.  Books like A Daring Sacrifice, stories of persecution, tales of abuse and evil, examples of people ‘grinding the faces of the poor’ as the prophet Isaiah says—these sorts of things remind us that evil exists and is very, very real.  A just God cannot face evil without punishing, and thanks be to him that Jesus died for sins!

But there are stories, like Job in the Bible, Corrie Ten Boom’s Hiding Place, Darlene Deibler Rose’s Evidence Not Seen, and Cathy LaGrow’s The Waiting, that display how, even in trauma, God reveals hints of his magnificent work, both in victims and, sometimes, in perpetrators. We puny humans cannot think God’s thoughts, see behind the scenes, or understand his good plans—we just need to acknowledge and trust that the Creator of the world can manage everything in the world in a good and just way.  In some ways, A Daring Sacrifice hints at all of these things.

In this book evil is overcome, a subtle retelling of the story of the ultimate Overcomer of evil, who then had to leave for a while to continue his work.  The evil in the daily news will also be overcome, something we can count on because God is both good and great.

As an added bonus, the discussion questions at the end of the book encourage the reader to think about wise romantic relationships, Christ’s sacrifice, and biblical sacrifice.

I highly recommend A Daring Sacrifice for teens who enjoy adventure, love archery, or campaign for justice, as well as for anyone who enjoys a fast-paced, thought-provoking story.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I occasionally show up, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

Disclosure: We borrowed this book from the library and are not compensated for our honest opinions.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Living Off the Clock as a Homeschooler


We all feel so busy.  There is so much to do and often there seems to be so little time.

Time.  It’s one of life’s mysteries.  Sometimes it slips away much too quickly, other times it is painfully slow.  We try to stretch some hours but to compress others.  We aim to manage it hour by hour, yet we squander vast quantities of it.

I remember how, long ago at the start of our homeschooling journey, all the empty years stretched out endlessly in a complex mixture of enthusiasm, hope, and terror.  Now, nearing the end of that journey, I look back and then forward to the remaining few years, trying to gain the wisdom I need to use them well.  Similar concepts can apply to each of our lives.

In Off the Clock:  Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done Laura Vanderkam turns her attention to this matter and asks a life-changing question:

Can we alter our perception of time by interacting with it in different ways? 

When Vanderkam’s research turned up busy, productive people with both jobs and children, who felt that time was abundant, she studied their hour by hour time use to see what they did differently than folks who felt time pressure.

The resulting book approaches this matter of time pressure systematically, with research, stories, discoveries, and practical suggestions.

It begins by numbering not only our days but our hours—168 a week, probably only a few hundred thousand left in our lives, and many fewer in our homeschooling days.

But then, rather than leaving us sad or frantic about the limited amount of time left, Vanderkam points out how we can maximize that time calmly and realistically, with joy.  There’s no penny pinching of hours here, but extravagant spending of them in fulfilling ways.

To live in this way we need to remember a few things:

  • Time needs to be tended carefully.  If we accept responsibility for it and plan its use thoughtfully, it will seem to expand.
  • Fun often requires planning, memory-making takes effort we hesitate to expend, and memories must be intentionally cultivated, but they all expand our sense of time.
  • Bliss is possible in the past and the future but rarely in the fleeting present.   In the present we are often preoccupied with the inevitable problems that anticipation and memory can ignore.
  • Few activities are fun for the whole family for their entire duration.
  • Paradoxically, people who get a lot done choose not to pack their schedules.  Instead, they think through their days ahead of time, planning to use their time rather than merely fill it.
  • Self-imposed suffering happens when our expectations are unrealistic.  In most cases ‘good enough’ is good enough, and anxiously striving for perfection uses up enormous amounts of time and energy. Accepting that no person or experience is ever perfect and learning to find the good in them anyways is not only wise; it can also save a lot of time and anguish.
  • In our individualistic culture and our busy lives we sometimes forget that ‘people are a good use of time.’  We need to be as intentional about relationships as we are about anything else.  Yes, this can take up large chunks of our schedule; the phrase ‘love is patient’ implies many things, one of them being that love is generous with time.  On the other hand, Vanderkam points out that that time spent cultivating relationships generally expands the time we seem to have.
  • She also points out that we often foolishly rush through pleasant experiences rather than lingering and enjoying them to the fullest.  Savoring the good times, something we can learn, stretches time; becoming good at suffering, another thing we can learn, can make endless moments of pain feel a bit shorter.  In this sense, joy is a discipline closely allied to our sense of time.

Although Vanderkam studied people with both outside jobs and children, not homeschoolers, we can adapt these ideas to our homeschools.

  • Numbering our weekly hours can help us use our time more wisely; changing our attitude to time can give us the joy and energy to make learning more exciting and effective.
  • Our goal as homeschoolers is learning, not time-consuming ‘educational clutter,’ impressive and validating as it may seem. Mary Pride wrote about this in her valuable book Schoolproof (link to my review).
  • When we have a golden moment or when someone is immersed in a topic, we need to allow time for that.
  • Memorable learning takes effort, even if only in the planning.
  • We should not overwhelm ourselves and our children with unrealistic expectations but instead be satisfied with doing a decent job every day.
  • It’s important to teach children to notice their blessings and be grateful for them.
  • We also need to teach them that filling time online correlates with time pressure and less joy, and to encourage them to invest in real life instead.

Of course, these ideas have long been discussed by Christian homeschoolers but Vanderkam’s approach helps us see them in a fresh light.

I had expected Off the Clock to help me manage my limited daily hours more effectively and joyfully but also found a whole lot more.  I found a handful of deep ideas about time and living that expand on truths I also find in the Bible, concepts I have tried to apply over the years but have rarely seen others wrestle with. Unexpectedly I, a tired, ill, middle-aged homeschooling mom of five, found myself looking at Vanderkam, a youthful, energetic, thoughtful bestselling author of several books and mother of four little ones and thinking, “What!  You too?  I thought I was the only one.”

This is not a standard time management book, but a personal, research-driven look at how our mindset affects our experience of time and, hence, life.  Many of Vanderkam’s ideas can give fresh, practical insights to Christians.  If we add a solid understanding of God’s providence to the insights in Off the Clock, many of us will unexpectedly find extra time and joy in our personal lives as well as our homeschools.

It is ironic that, because of postal issues, I actually did not have adequate time to read and ponder Off the Clock before starting this review. Also, the past days have been the fullest ones in months.  Yet reading in spare moments helped me look at things so differently that I felt peaceful and even savored several memorable mini-vacations despite the time pressure.  When I think of this book in the future, I will likely also think about the firefly blinking on my excited daughter’s hand, the soothing greenery beside various parking lots, and the field of scented wildflowers I spent a blissfully long five minutes photographing.  In fact, I was able to Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.

If you, too, feel time pressure, I urge you to read Off the Clock.  It could change the way you experience time, both in your personal life and your homeschool, and equip you to live with more love, joy, and peace.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I show up once in a while and am still a newbie, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

Disclosure: Laura Vanderkam sent me a review copy of this book.  All opinions are my own and I have received no compensation for them.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

Zeal Without Burnout for Homeschoolers

At this time of year most homeschoolers are feeling a little bit burnt out.  That’s no wonder after an intense ten months of teaching some of the most important people in our lives some of the most important things they will ever learn.  Or perhaps vainly trying to teach them without actually succeeding, which is even more tiring.

And then there are all the other things we do as well.

Recently I realized that, for the past few years, I have been trying to do more than I can physically manage.  Although some of the biggest energy uses have been unavoidable and completely necessary, I should have given myself more downtime to refresh afterwards.  Christopher Ash’s book Zeal without Burnout is helping me come to terms with the fact that zeal, while important, must be tempered with wisdom in order to last (Rom 12:11).  Few of us are called to overwork ourselves for more than short seasons of our lives.  In general, God calls us to be wise, not foolish, burning out our lamps without having extra oil to spare.

Sometimes, however, we do not realize when we are doing too much.  What’s more, at one time or another many of us deal with the temptation to choose to do more than we should and we occasionally foolishly set ourselves up for burnout without even realizing it.

And that’s where Zeal without Burnout comes in.  It shows us how to live lives that are both effective and sustainable. Yes, there may still be all kinds of sacrifice, but it is sustainable sacrifice so that we can continue to serve God zealously for the long term.  This is a message that most of us moms, especially homeschoolers, need to hear.

Ash’s Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice are so simple—and also so obvious—that we really should not need such a book.  However, one of the signs of approaching burnout is that the person often does not realize what is obvious to others:  the pressure he or she is under.

So, here is a quick list of the seven points that Ash discusses with gospel wisdom, practical advice, and stories.

  • We need sleep, and God does not.
  • We need Sabbath rests, and God does not.
  • We need friends, and God does not.
  • We need inward renewal, and God does not.
  • A warning: beware celebrity!
  • An encouragement: it’s worth it!
  • A delight: rejoice in grace, not gifts!

We all repeatedly need be reminded of the biblical truth that we are finite and that therefore our service has limits.  We also need the reminder that God has no limits and is ultimately in control.

As homeschooling parents, then, we need to remember that our children are God’s children and that he loves them.  Of course, we need to care for them, read the Bible with them, teach them math, insist on completed schoolwork, supervise cellphones, and so much more.  But even more, we need to trust God.  We need to remember that we cannot give them learning and, especially, we cannot give them faith.  While we obviously need to do our best, we need to trust God, not our own intense efforts, for results.

When we forget this in our everyday lives, we put ourselves at risk for burnout just as surely as the workers in Christian ministry that Ash has written this book for.

If all homeschoolers, indeed all parents, would read Zeal without Burnout and take it to heart, the world would change for the better.  Of course, this little book is also helpful for anyone else who loves God and is tempted to serve him with more zeal than wisdom.  I highly recommend it as summer reading for homeschooling mothers and everyone who wishes to serve God sustainably for a lifetime.

Note:  These ideas are not for lazy people and this is not a plea for taking it easy.  It is a plea for wisdom in serving God.  Ash’s book helps us understand what that means.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to follow me on Google+, where I often mention helpful or interesting ideas, friend me on Facebook where I show up once in a while and am still a newbie, or connect with me on GoodReads where I share what I read. 

Disclosure: We borrowed this book from the library and are not compensated for our honest opinions.

This article may be linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook  as well as to Inspire Me Monday, Raising Homemakers, Friendship Friday, Make My Saturday Sweet.

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