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An interview with Rachel Miner about Learning at Our House

teen girl doing her homework online and listening to headphones.I recently spoke with Rachel Miner, a science teacher from Learning at Our House, about the offerings by Learning at Our House in general and about her work in particular. —Robert Begley

Robert Begley: Thank you, Rachel, for taking time to discuss your work in education. To begin, how would you summarize the curricula and offerings of Learning at Our House?

Rachel Miner: Learning at Our House is a suite of products for homeschoolers that covers history, music, literature, and science. The classes are taught online to a live audience and are available as recordings as well.

Scott Powell created History at Our House, the original program, and later invited others to create the adjunct products. His courses cover the history of Western Civilization in a three year cycle: Ancient History, European History, American History. The offerings for Music at Our House and Literature at Our House roughly follow the history cycle.

The coordination of history, music, and literature offers a unique value to students, in that the three subjects involve many related elements, which, when integrated, enable students to better grasp and retain the material. I’ve seen this both as a parent of a student and as an educator.

The Science at Our House curriculum follows a different three year cycle: Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth Science. John Krieger, a science teacher at VanDamme Academy in Southern California, developed the science curriculum, which I teach in a version modified for the online classroom. Over the first two years, I taught the Life and Physical Science classes respectively, and I would be teaching the Earth Science class this coming year, but Mr. Krieger is still preparing the curriculum, so I’ll be taking a year off. But I’ll resume in 2015.

RB: Can you provide an indication of the way in which Learning at Our House approaches teaching these subjects, and describe a typical day in the “classroom”?

RM: The teachers seek to engage students in a highly interactive learning process. For example, test reviews in the science curriculum are conducted via Jeopardy style quizzes. Literature assignments often involve the students imagining themselves interacting with the book characters—so, for instance, imagine that Captain Keller from The Miracle Worker was your babysitter and you broke something. Students present memorized poems, science projects, history papers, and get to enjoy live feedback from both teachers and peers. Unlike classrooms with one-way lectures on the material, Learning at Our House offers interactive classrooms with vibrant discussions where questioning is encouraged.

Each class focuses on the essentials of the subject at hand, and the teachers help students see the significance of the material they are learning in their own lives. For example, history students examine both the French and American Revolutions in depth and learn how these events have had political repercussions that are still relevant in today’s world. However, students are not expected to learn the particulars of either Robespierre’s or George Washington’s private life. During the European history year, music students learn to identify the essential elements of music from different European countries by listening to the most representative examples. Bach and other masters help them learn the distinctive sound of German music while Vivaldi helps them grasp the same for Italian.

In one exercise, science students are encouraged to go around their homes and discover as many examples of levers as they can before the next day’s class. Rather than just being told or shown what a lever is, the students are guided to look at the world around them and see various kinds of levers at work in their lives. This enables them to better grasp what a lever is and what this knowledge can do for them when they want to, say, open a heavy door, or loosen a tight screw on a toy, or put in batteries, or the like. The goal is to have the students engage in and understand the world in which they live, not merely to memorize formulae or pronouncements from their teachers.

While each of the programs involves these three aspects—interactive learning, essentialized material, and a focus on how the subject matter is of value in the students’ lives—there are separate “classroom” norms; so there isn’t a typical day for all Learning at Our House. It depends on the classes a student takes.

History at Our House usually starts with Mr. Powell sharing his desktop. He presents the historical narrative with visuals of maps and pictures while asking students lots of questions to engage them. Music at Our House starts with the teacher reviewing the students’ prior homework, which acts as both a review and allows personal feedback. He then progresses into presentation and discussion of music selections which explore the year’s theme. Science at Our House begins with me turning on the camera so that the students can see me; I welcome the class and briefly review where we left off. Then we switch the visuals to slides, worksheets, video clips, or the like and begin to explore the subject at hand. Literature at Our House starts with the teacher similarly turning on the camera while he shows an outline of the expected flow of the day’s class. He includes challenging questions to assess the understanding of the previous night’s reading. He also includes visuals referenced in the reading, such as a map of Paris for The Hunchback of Notre Dame or a picture of the namesake flower for The Scarlet Pimpernel.

RB: What special challenges do you face in providing educational services online, as opposed to working in a classroom?

RM: I think the biggest challenge is that you can’t see all your students with a quick glance the way teachers in a brick and mortar classroom can. Having multiple video feeds open at the same time slows the online classroom with sound delays and lagged video, so teachers find other ways besides that visual check to assess understanding and engagement. Since I don’t get the hints of a glazed eye or brief frown, I need to verbally check with students more often to make sure they are paying attention and understanding the material. That said, the online classroom can be surprisingly intimate. Students can do such things as show the class their kitty when we’re discussing feline anatomy. They enjoy the comfort of their homes while engaging in a rich classroom-like experience.

RB: How can people learn more about Learning at Our House?

RM: Our website, provides information on all our programs, and people can click on the classes that interest them to learn more and register.


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