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Tips On Tracking Unschooling Activities With Evernote

For the last 11 months, we’ve been pretty diligent about recording educational activities in Evernote. When I say “we”, I mostly mean The Missus. She has a lot more access to the kids on a day-to-day basis to capture photos and write quick descriptions of what they’re doing.

Even with our efforts to stay on top of it, it’s next to impossible to capture everything they are learning.

That’s a good thing.

When you change your perspective and realize that learning is something that is always happening (not just between the hours of 8 am to 3 pm during the months of August-May), you realize you can’t even begin to truly document it.

We just had our annual teacher evaluation for our first grader 6 year old learner. It was the first time we’ve gone through the official evaluation for the state of Florida, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Mostly, we wanted to make sure that we had not only enough hard samples, but also lots of information stored digitally to demonstrate the wide range of subjects and interests she’s explored during the “school year”.

The Missus is an organization freak, and I’m an information hoarder, so we should have known we’d done enough. Still, we were relieved to find we had plenty of hard samples of work, and what we’ve been doing in Evernote made it super easy to demonstrate the fact that our kids are learning a ton.

Our approach to using Evernote to track the kids’ education is constantly evolving and being tweaked, but I thought I’d document a few of the tips and tricks we’ve developed along the way.

Buy the Premium version of Evernote

Homeschoolers are notorious for seeking out good deals and using as many free resources as possible. Not criticizing that at all…I’m all about it! But this is one place I’d recommend spending the extra money. You won’t be sorry. At $45/year, Evernote is an insanely good deal. Some of the benefits of Premium are:

  • 100 Mb notes, and 1 Gb/month of storage. You’ll need it for the photos you take on field trips with your mobile device
  • Search within photos. Again, this works great for field trips. You won’t have to annotate nearly as much, because you can just take photos of all the informational signs you see, and search will help you easily navigate to these signs later.
Searching for "Greek" in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.

Searching for “Greek” in Evernote finds the word in the photo of an informational plaque at The Parthenon in Nashville.

  • Sharing notes. More about this in the next section, but our strategy depends heavily on both parents having access to the Notebooks we use.

If you aren’t sure about this purchase, the free version is still extremely useful and highly recommended!

Get Both Parents Involved

My favorite thing about using Evernote is that I get to see what the kids are doing and learning without being there. I only get to go to a few of their out-of-the-house activities because of the pesky work thing, but they are constantly out doing stuff. I have Evernote open all day for my own notes, and since Evernote allows The Missus to record notes on her mobile device and they are shared with my account, I can see what’s going on semi-real time. If they’re out for a program at a nature center, I can check in at lunch and see what they’ve been up to. When we sit down to dinner, I have a bunch of specific questions about their trip.

“Did you get to see any critters on your field trip?” is a much better conversation starter than “So…what did you learn today?”

evernote_scavenger

I also use Evernote to add notes for things I do with them, and it gives us a central location to track everything. For example, I taught them a game they love a few weeks ago.  To tell me which coloring pages they want me to print from Google Images, they give me the column number and row number of the picture. To them, that’s just a cool “code” to tell me what they want, but it gets recorded in Evernote as a math activity–the Cartesian coordinate system.

coloring_pages_peregrine_falcon

I do the majority of bedtime reading around here, and as the kids are getting older the subject matter is getting a little deeper. So we are now able to have history discussions based on what we read in the “Little House” series and science discussions prompted by books about snakes and sea creatures.

evernote_little_house

Minimize Notebooks

Your first inclination may be to create separate Notebooks for every subject, but when you think about it, that will soon put you in a position of having to choose between at least two Notebooks, maybe more. For example, let’s say you’re reading the “Magic Tree House” series of books and your child starts asking questions about mummies–what they are, how people were mummified, how long ago this happened (all based on a real conversation we had by the way).

This is exactly how self-directed education works! It’s working! You definitely want to make a note about this! But does it go into the “Reading” Notebook, the “History” Notebook, or the “Science” Notebook? After all, you’ve hit on all these things.

The answer is to forget about trying to drop stuff into Notebooks (basically folders) based on subjects and use tags instead. You can only put a note into a single Notebook, but you can tag it with as many things as you’d like.

(more on our tagging system in the next section)

That doesn’t mean Notebooks aren’t useful though. We use a pretty simple system of Notebooks to keep up with the new notes we create–a “To Be Processed” Notebook, a “Current Academic Year” Notebook, and (as of next month) a Notebook for each archived academic year.

evernote_notebooks

The default Notebook is “To Be Processed”. Every note we create goes here automatically. It stays there until we have both had a chance to tag it, review it, and annotate it if necessary. Once that’s finished (processed), we move it over to the “Current School Year”. And once the academic year has ended and we’re ready to start a new “year”, we’ll move all the notes in that Notebook to the archive Notebook for the past year.

Since school learning never stops for us, we’re continuing to add notes to the “Current School Year”, even though it’s summer. In August, we’ll empty out the “Current School Year” Notebook, moving all of these notes over to the “2013-2014 Academic Year Archive”, just so we can stay in sync with the timing of regular school.

Tags, Tags, Tags

This is the real payoff in my opionion. The ability to tag your notes is huge for unschoolers. Since we don’t have “subjects” in the traditional sense as part of our every day learning, it would be really difficult (as mentioned above) to categorize notes into separate Notebooks the way traditional education systems break down classes and subject matter. Still, we need a way to make the evaluation process run smoothly and to show that we’re making progress in specific subjects.

And, let’s be honest, some unschoolers get a little anxious now and then they aren’t “doing” enough, especially when it comes to math. By tagging notes, it’s easy to go back and review what’s been going on and quickly see progress. More often than not, you’re able to put your mind at ease when you find there’s actually a lot of math going on, just not in the sense of filling out worksheets at a desk.

Forty six notes as shown below may not seem like much, but when you consider that these are just the moments you were able to capture and document, you realize they are doing a ton of math all the time!

evernote_math

So how do we organize tags? This is the part of our system we’ve developed by trial and error. What we’ve tried to do is determine what we’d like to know about each note, and develop a way to organize the tagging:

  • What subject?
  • Who? Which kid(s)?
  • What area of interest (specifically)?
  • Where did this happen?
  • When (automatically taken care of in Evernote…cool!!!)

Here’s where we got fancy out of necessity. When you go to tag a note, Evernote tries to assist you with an auto-complete feature.  Great feature! The problem is that you’ll probably end up with a ton of tags in the four different areas mentioned above, and that makes the auto-complete not as handy.

For instance, if your kid’s name starts with an ‘S’ and you want to tag them in a note, as soon as you type ‘S’ you’re going to get a long list of possible tags and (from experience) you’ll end up hitting “enter” prematurely and tagging them with an incorrect spelling that you can’t find later.

To make it easier to tag notes quickly, we came up with a prefixing system to make things super-easy to see at a glance.

For traditional subject categories, which are useful when it’s time to do evaluations, we use the ‘$’ (it looks like an ‘S’, get it?) as a prefix. So if we’re doing something related to history, we tag it as “$History”. There are very few of these tags, but again, most of our notes have more than one “subject” tag.

When we go to tag the subject(s) of a note, all we have to do is type the ‘$’ symbol, and Evernote automatically filters our tags down to those few subjects.

evernote_subjects

For the “who” type tags, we just use our kids’ names, but with a ‘+’ at the beginning. So you may tag a note with “+Johnny”, “+Sally”, and “+OtherKid”. This allows you to go back later and look at a what a single child has been up to, or even see what activities they’ve been doing with their brothers and sisters by searching on multiple tags.

When we want to tag the kids in a note, we enter the ‘+’ symbol, and all of our tags are immediately filtered to the only the kids’ names–just three tags.

IMPORTANT–Since our kids are “free-range learners”, a large number of the notes we take are things we just happen to catch them doing during “play”. We’re constantly stumbling upon them doing things like observing bees and counting/sorting rocks. Lots of these activities are things they’re doing together!

For “where” we preface all of the tags with “loc”. Again, not a ton of these, but they look like locHome, locClasses, locMuseum, etc. Admittedly, we don’t use the location tags for a lot of our notes because the photos make the location obvious and Evernote can actually keep up with the precise location for you. Still, it’s nice to quickly be able to use “locBeach” to quickly see all the notes about things they’ve learned there.

By far, the most varied tag type we use is our set of “interests”. We preface these with a ‘!’ (like an ‘i’). Tons and tons of these: !Tessalations, !WaterCycle, !Sewing, !RevolutionaryWar….the list goes on and on. Unlike the others, this set of tags is constantly growing, depending on what the kids are interested in at the time.

We also use the !interest tags to get more specific information about a $subject. For example, if the two year old is sorting game chips by color and counting them, we’ll tag it as $Math, !Sorting, and !Counting.

Here’s a really great example of how we tagged a note for an activity that came about after reading a book on Pompeii. The 6 year old became interested in volcanoes, and read some other books before making one of her own.

I’ll save my remarks about how amazing it is that this was all self-directed for another day, but you get the idea here. Lots of subjects were involved, and specific interests give us more detail about the activity.

evernote_volcanoes

I feel like the real benefit to using Evernote for unschooling is going to come at a later date. Maybe in a few years, after they’ve learned to use a tool like Evernote for themselves, they’ll come across some information about Pompeii and wonder, “that sounds familiar–have I ever learned anything about Pompeii?” They’ll be able to easily filter through these notes and see what they’ve already learned.

Maybe it will trigger something for them and it will all come rushing back. Maybe it won’t. But they have the foundation for a personal knowledge base they can continue to build on their own in whatever format they like.

At the very least, Evernote makes it easy for us to keep up with all the amazing things they are doing!

Daily Reading List — July 15th

Project management for work that matters – I've made the mistake of breaking every one of these rules at least once. Good stuff here.

RevCoachAtkinson: For Love – For any of you Robert Earl Keen fans getting weddin'd soon, this could help.

Bonus points if you are able to tweak it to mention someone stepping into the alley with a single-shot .410

Taxi companies fret over impact of Uber, while drivers hope for more money – Whenever I use Uber, I usually end up talking about the service with the driver. One guy in Chicago told me he worked in management for a taxi company, but drove for Uber with his brother-in-law (also a taxi employee) on the side. He said the exact same thing–the taxi company owners hate it, and the drivers are loving it. Many, many drivers are interested in starting their own business, and Uber is the perfect way to get started for them.

Hostile people more likely to suffer a stroke – As we age, it's important to remember that it doesn't hurt your health at all to maintain a cheerful and positive disposition.

Hey! You kids get off my lawn!

Why Your Yoga Class Is So White – And then there's the even smaller percentage of minorities who spend their lives wearing Lululemon. Well, there is that one half-Korean chick.

Why The Cloud You Want Is Not The Cloud You Deserve – Maybe starting with low-risk systems and working your way out based on demand is a good idea?

5 People You Should Regularly Talk Shop With for a Better Career – I like these articles about establishing a "Board of Directors" for your personal life.

Meh – Of course, I only have one thing to say about this…

Daily Reading List — June 19th

3 Trends That Are Changing The Way We Work Today – Yes. Yes. And yes.

"People don’t share because they like a project or brand … they share to help people who they want to see succeed."

To it's logical end…if you're only sharing with yourself, you only want to see your self succeed. Q.E.D.

Five Libertarian Lessons in HBO’s Game of Thrones – I would say there's a sixth lesson as well…the rule of law binds everyone. At least everyone with honor.

After Ned lost his head, there probably wasn't a more honorable guy in all of Westeros than Stannis Baratheon. Not the most charismatic to be sure, but he at least respects the rule of law. I mean, the guy didn't even really want to be king…he was just doing it because it was his duty.

Stannis acts on principle. And it doesn't really matter to him how many people have to die for the principle to be followed.

I'd better stop. That last sentence is a pretty good argument for political pragmatism.

The DOs and DO NOTs of running your first marathon – DO chase down people in your office who are trying desperately to get away from you talking about your training. Sprinting after these people counts as intervals.

Google Fit: Another Try At Health Data? – Until I can get an on-the-wrist HRM that doesn't spend more time completely dead in the water *cough Garmin cough* than it spends monitoring my HR, I'm going to sit it out.

Then again, I guess my only real option is to continue struggling with a HRM that is usually completely dead.

Cartagena, Colombia added to 2014 World Cup schedule – This would be a really cool place to race! #jealous

Everything Is Broken–All Software Is Bad – Hello World! At least the Pinboard->Twitter->WordPress plugin that will autopost this onto my blog works.

Well…most of the time.

School cancels reading program rather than promote “hacker culture” – Related…I'm currently reading "Natural Born Learners", which is about homeschooling/unschooling and very hacky itself in a lot of ways. Every kid is different, and every family is different. But I'm more and more convinced that your best bet at getting an education (whatever that means) is to hack it together yourself.

Focus – "Success comes from doing the hard part. When the hard part is all you've got, you're more likely to do it.

And this is precisely why it's difficult to focus. Because focusing means acknowledging that you just signed up for the hard part."

Word.

Daily Reading List — June 5th

Android vs. The iPhone: It’s All About The Cloud – Um…yeah. I'm a little shocked to read this epiphany from a tech writer who didn't realize this difference years ago. Am I taking it for granted that people understand the difference between Apple and Google's focus?

4 Habits Of The Most Resilient People – There's actually a 5th habit: Habitually post motivational posters/quotes to social media.

Sharks & Minnows – Punching and kicking on purpose isn't acceptable on the swim–too dangerous for everyone involved. On the other hand, as the guy who once grabbed my ankle and used me to pull himself forward found out the hard way, I ain't no punk either.

The 9 Biggest Reasons to Embrace Solo Running – I'm mostly a solo runner. The only downside to running solo for me is that I'm the only person I get to spend the time with. I don't like myself as much as I do my running partners 100% of the time.

As IT’s industrial age ends, the humanist era begins – Power to the people!

Remember when Mark Zuckerberg gave New Jersey schools $100 million? OOPS!!! – Fortunately for Zuckerberg, all most people are going to remember is that he wrote the check. #ForTheChildren

Roku Remote Stopped Working – Easy Solution – I love the internet on most days. Today is one of those days.

A Bachelor’s Level Computer Science Program Curriculum – If you want to learn it, here you go. Good for review too. And there are countless other resources available as well!!!

Chicago halts Uber try at airport pickups – Translation: taxi companies and airport upset that people don't like price fixing.

Triathlon, Do You Live And Die By It? – Anyone who ever accused me of this isn't aware of my results. Still, I could benefit from a healthy dose of it right about now.

What Ancient Cave Paintings And Teen Spirit Teach Us About Where Social Media Is Going – Of course, everything is alternative. Until it isn't.

Selling Ice To Eskimos

Because we may never see the actual sun in Florida this June.

Today I noticed a woman walking out of this fine establishment.
I’m not sure what they do there to make people decide to pay them money for something they can get for free in the parking lot, but I aim to find out.
Brilliant!

Laziness Will Exact Revenge

It’s my own fault for not being better prepared and letting off the gas.

Trainerroad announced the 2014 8 Days in California Challenge, and I’m very ill prepared to ride this in just a week and a half. The only thing I can do to make it easier on myself is to take a new FTP test based on my newly found lack of bike fitness.

It sucks when you have to take an FTP test to make things easier on yourself.

Although I don’t expect it to be as grueling as the Tour of Sufferlandria, I’ll be bringing a bucket to this one.

Daily Reading List — April 25th

Triathlon Fatalities Aren’t Going Away – Really hope someone can figure this out. Everything I've heard is that most of the people who die are fit and experienced, but have an undiagnosed heart condition.

And, uh, we also really need to do something about the number of people getting mowed down by cars when they are out training on their bikes. I stay inside the house because of that. Also there is Netflix.

Inspiration and Outrage in Boston – Outrage! If you're worried about the integrity of bandit runners, stop using your company's computer and bandwidth to try and track down bandit runners using Twitter and Facebook.

Ronald McDonald gets a makeover – Ronald McDonald now *serious* about being creepy. No more messing around.

American Teamwork–How Ryan Hall Helped Meb Win Boston – Great story about sacrifice for your teammates. Ryan Hall has smarts real good.

Why There Will Be A Robot Uprising – Some touch screen devices seem to have already achieved the desired outcome of preventing people from turning them off. #NoDisassemble

Drone Footage of a Rocket Taking off and Landing is Spectacular – The takeoff and landing is amazing on its own. Drones for the +1!

Post-Run Yoga – I blindly clicked, guessing low lunge would be the first thing on the list.

Google’s Secret Weapon To Keep Amazon And Microsoft On Their Toes – Race to the bottom of prices with a concurrent race to the top on speed? Sounds good to me!

4 Manly Lessons from the Minor Leagues – Some great stuff in here for triathletes too, even if you aren't trying to be a pro or get some sort of sponsorship. "Dominate the things you can control." and "Action without vision just passes time." are two of my favorites.

Unfollow Chocolate Milk! – It's about time someone with a louder voice than me said it. I bet Kool Ade, Tang, and every other sugary drink company wishes they'd thought of this scam before the Chocolate Milk cartel did.

Weekend warrior: mastering the art of the triathlon humblebrag – Really, there's no reason to be humble about it. If you're going out and doing ultra distance events regularly, or kicking ass in your age group in short and mid distance events, you are a bad ass. You are MUCH more of a badass than 90% of the population.

Flaunt it while you have it. You're not getting any younger.

Penn State Rugby Team Suspended – Here's the thing–college kids like to drink cold beer and, apparently, set things on fire.

When you have a problem with scholarship Division 1 athletes behavior, you can expect to have similar issues with non-scholarship club sport participants.

Ok..it's probably fair not to expect them to set things on fire because they aren't happy with their coach, but still.

Here I Am

Again Nashville…write me a song like this.

Here I Am
On my way
Down another road I have paved
With every good intention I’ve saved
And hearts that I broke
As for me I got scars
For every mile I’ve traveled so far
And some blood
On my hands
Here I am

With a song in my heart
And an attitude from the start
I took everybody apart
To see how they work
I got friends that I owe
I ain’t namin’ names cuz they know
Where they stand
Here I am

Here I am
Here I am
Here I am

If I went back where I’ve been
And I knew what I know now then
Well I’d probably do it again
Cuz I’m just a man
At the end of the day
I ain’t got nothing to say

Here I am
Here I am
Here I am

Here I am
Here I am
Here I am

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A Bone To Pick With Yogis

Yoga whoops me. It whoops me good. I have a healthy respect for yoga. It’s eclipsed only by buffets on the list of things that expose my personal weaknesses.

But I have a hard time dealing with all the spiritual stuff commonly associated with it. I’m not saying it’s not real, and I’m not knocking people who are into for those reasons.

If that makes your day better, improves your experience, helps you deal with buttheads at work, that’s great. More power to you! I’m just saying I roll those little invisible eyes in my head that no one else can see every time I hear that stuff.

Again, I’m not saying those aren’t real and powerful things. I know that feeling is real–I get it from running.

Running is my flow. “Scottyasana”–Sanskrit for “Fat Jesus Lizard”.

Yoga, running, rock climbing, surfing…whatever. I think it’s pretty badass if anyone can get this amazing experience out of any activity that doesn’t involve a Schedule I narcotic. If you can find anything in life that makes you feel this good and is good for you at the same time, DO IT!!!

What I don’t fully understand is the need to talk about it at length.

Let’s say you go to a yoga class at your gym (or watch a video). It may be that the person teaching the class feels a ton of inner awareness or connection/oneness with the universe. I’ll go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt and concede that.

But what about the other thirty people in the class? How many of them are feeling that–really feeling that? How many of them are just faking it because they think they are supposed to be feeling it because you keep talking about it?

I know for a fact that some of them (at least one) are thinking, “C’mon! I  just wanted to do a tough workout that includes a little mini-nap at the end! And now you’re talking about crystals and soul rainbows during the nap  part!”

Again. I get it. I know that feeling you’re talking about. But do you really have to talk about it (so much)?

And why would you want to?

One of the cool things about running/runners is that they generally don’t talk about this zen experience they have while running.

Don’t get me wrong. They will talk your ear off about running. They will drone on endlessly about their splits, their resting heart rate, and what they felt like 16.37 miles into the race. They will spend so much time at the water cooler telling you about how dehydrated they are from their last workout that you’ll dehydrate yourself just to avoid dealing with them at the water cooler.

I do it (here) all the time.

My poor wife.

But what I won’t talk about often, especially with people who don’t run, is that feeling I get from running. I’m more apt to mention it in passing with a fellow runner. And even then there’s a look in their eye that immediately lets me know whether or not they understand what I’m talking about and if I should carry on.

And when I do talk about it, there’s no way I’m going to divulge the full extent and details. That’s such a personal thing. Really, it’s too personal for me to put into words.

And if I could, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.

Besides the fact that this feeling is so personal, I also feel like it’s something of a secret about running that I don’t want just anyone to know. I just found it one day. I was never looking for it.

You have to earn it, and it usually happens by chance. Just because you know it’s possible doesn’t mean you always get to have it, even though you walk out the door every day looking for it. At least that’s my experience.

Could it be that everyone doesn’t get a connection to the universe every single time they practice yoga? And can we talk about it a little less?

Maybe, just maybe, people can find it on their own.

Daily Reading List — March 30th

How much pee in a pool would kill you? – Still, going to keep the chlorine numbers lower this year to be safe. #dontstoppeeing

Pets Vs. Cattle: The Rising Value of Cloud Computing Skills – Digits – WSJ – “'Now you shoot servers in the head and leave them in the field,'” said Joshua McKenty, a former technical architect of NASA who co-founded a cloud software company based on his work there called Piston Cloud Computing. 'Eventually enough die and then you swap out the whole rack.'"

Wait…is he talking about servers, or sysadmins?

The Hardest Problem In Baseball – I thought this was going to be about pajama pants being allowed as part of the uniform, or players not wearing stirrups.

Still cool though.

Google And Apple—Take My Fitness Data, Please! – The first one to solve the problem of fragmented fitness data is a huge winner.

"The smartest move for Apple and Google would be to avoid creating their own fitness apps, aside from very simple data-display tools. Instead, they should use their clout with developers—the stick of app-store approval and the carrot of promotion in those stores—to encourage app makers to strive for compatibility with one another."

The Logic of Long Distance: The Running Bum as Sad and Admirable – "The running bum intuits what the rest of us also know: life is short and it will fade for us all. In the end all instrumentalities of life, all the best-made plans, lead us all into the ground. His choice is noble, as it honors the present. He throws himself deeply into it without regard for futures beyond his experience."

Why the Wallabies struggle with the ‘choke tackle’ – Step 1: Change the law to award scrum to defensive side in failed mauls to discourage offenses from mauling and speed up the game.

Step 2: Change the law to give a defender on his feet less right to the ball in the tackle in order to give advantage to the attacking side and speed up the game

Result: Defenses now have TWO incentives to force maul situations, where they now have more rights to the ball than in the tackle, and a better chance at changing possession by forcing a scrum, thus slowing down the game.

Nice move IRB.

Lance Armstrong’s Fuel Guru Reboots. His Quest? Kill Gatorade – For those who want to go faster AND care about their health.

Disney bets big on visitor-tracking technology – The technology is cool, but the scheduling of Fast Passes isn't as nice as it sounds, and may cost them some revenue. For example, it's already less likely that we will wake up and decide to head to a park after lunch on the same day because we know we don't have much of a chance of getting Fast Passes for our favorite rides. As a result, guess where we DON'T end up having dinner and ice cream treats.

Doing More With Less Since 1972