It's a Wednesday morning. A group of elementary-age kids are gathered around a table cluttered with test papers, math games, and manipulatives, all listening to another child explaining how she solved a tricky problem from this month's Math Olympiad set. She's diagramming her solution on the large chalkboard, and others are waving their hands to share how their ways of going about the problem were somewhat different.
Think this must be a school classroom? Wrong! It's our monthly homeschool Math Olympiad meeting. What's the Math Olympiad? It's a wonderful international competition for elementary age students that annually involves about 80,000 public and private school children in challenging math problem solving. We started the very first homeschool team six years ago, and now groups of homeschoolers all across the country are starting to take part.
The Math Olympiad is just one national program that our four homeschooled kids have taken part in over the years. Many team or group contest programs welcome homeschoolers. Here are some of the benefits we've found in taking part in these types of activities:
- Learning to cooperate with others. Cooperate while competing? Yes, that's actually the focus of many of the programs we've been in. A competition may be the culminating event, but the hours of working together with other kids and learning together is probably what carries much of the real value. The Math Olympiad wouldn't be nearly as much fun and so energizing for the kids if they were all doing these challenging math problems at home just on their own. At our meetings we encourage the kids to help one another, play math games together, share ideas with the group, and even present special projects they've done at home. It's positive socializing -- and fun.
- Ease of organizing a group activity. National team contests are already well-organized, making it possible for even this very busy mom of four to take part. For instance, the Math Olympiad program sends local teams all the needed materials for each monthly contest. I don't have to do a lot of last-minute planning or head-scratching about what to do on Wednesday when I'm faced with a dozen bouncing kids. And if we want to add extras, there are lots of ideas in the Olympiad newsletter.
- Provides focus for getting a group together. Sometimes support groups want to provide kids' activities, but it can be hard to decide just what to offer. An agreed-upon group contest, such as the Geography Bee, can sometimes give that focus, and lets everyone know clearly what they are involved in. This can be especially important at the high school level.
- We get excellent, often free, guidelines for developing an area of our curriculum that maybe we had been pushing to the background for too long. I think of the great materials from the National Geographic Geography Bee; they really got me realizing that we needed to focus more on this area. Or there's the MathCounts coaching books with all their sample problem sets and ideas for using calculators and advanced problem-solving techniques with junior-high-age kids. Many times these contest materials have spurred interests that last for years.
- We get an unusual chance to let our kids measure themselves against kids who are traditionally schooled. Sometimes this is energizing -- as when our Jesse at 16 came in third place for 11th graders in the national current events competition Global Challenge, and the same year our Jacob at 13 came in fifth place for 8th graders. This was out of thousands of kids in the country, and probably our team comprised the only homeschoolers. Sometimes competitions are humbling, and let us realize that there indeed are really bright and hardworking kids out there in the public and private schools. Good for keeping a bit of perspective! Our kids get an equal chance to reach high goals with other students and see how they measure up.
- Entering contests gives someone else the job of setting parameters for a project, not just Mom. I can go over the contest guidelines for the American Statistical Association's annual project and poster contest with Jacob and his team partner and help them devise a plan to meet the requirements. I become a coach and guide, not someone who is just dishing out assignments, or someone who is just weakly making watery suggestions. Proofreading is not Jacob's favorite thing, but we proofread his statistics paper with a fine tooth comb (it was on the demographics of homeschooling in PA!). That was our language arts work for a week. And it was authentic and needed, with no doubt about the purpose of it all.
- It doesn't hurt to have team contest accomplishments listed on a homeschooler's high school records. Last year when Jesse applied to a special high school summer program on the workings of the free enterprise system, he had many recognizable things to list when asked about any special awards or honors he'd earned in his high school years. Many people might think that homeschoolers wouldn't have anything to put down -- after all, aren't these types of activities only available through schools?
- Participating in contests can be good public relations work on the value of homeschooling. People in my hometown come up to me all the time to say, "Oh, I see how well all you homeschoolers are doing -- saw the article just last week in the paper about that math competition your group won!" Sometimes people outside of homeschooling really need to hear about these sorts of accomplishments before they can believe this "nutty" idea of ours is working. Impresses legislators too. And our PA Department of Education always notices how many homeschoolers make it each year to the state level Geography Bee. This year 6 out of the 100 state level kids were homeschoolers!
Here's a list of some of the many contests for teams and groups of students that we've looked into over the years. Write for information on these programs, and see what might fit in with your group's interests. Just remember -- when taking part in a national contest, your homeschool group must follow all the program rules. A few years back the Geography Bee threatened to disqualify all homeschoolers when one family had a child take the written test for the state level without actually having a local oral Bee with the required number of students. Let's show these national organizations that we can be trusted by being scrupulous about following all guidelines.