Educator interview: Michelle Conaway

Michelle Conaway is a home-school parent. She has been using The Zimmer Twins to help her kids learn a wide variety of topics. When we launched the educational site I wanted to learn how the Zimmer Twins at School helps homeschool families, and talking to Michelle was at the top of my list.

Just as I expected her thoughtful answers make a fascinating read for parents and educators.

You are a homeschool teacher. When did that start and why?

I like to think of myself as a learning facilitator rather than a homeschool teacher. I certainly don’t “know” everything there is to know, but I do have a love for life and everything in it. My family approaches life with a sense of wonder about the world.

I started homeschooling in 2008 for many reasons, the first being that I love being with my kids. We have fun together and I truly feel that we learn best when we are having fun and following our interests. There is much to learn about our world and there is no way we will ever learn it all.

When we follow the things that excite us, those things stay with us. We learn to problem solve and become critical thinkers. Rote learning has it’s place, however, our desire to keep our creative inquisition alive and well is what really matters.

Our interest in life itself is what provides the motivation to learn what we need to learn to get where we want to go. This is what I desire not only for my children but for everyone. Homeschooling allows me the freedom to let my kids learn in a way that best suits their learning style.

How long have you been using technology as part of your teaching? Why did you start using technology?

My husband is a technology director for a major corporation. There is no way we could NOT use technology with him in the family. My kids have been using computers since they were old enough to sit up by themselves. We started with programs for toddlers and progressed from there. We continued using it because they enjoyed it and when someone enjoys something it usually becomes a way of life and a great tool for learning many things.

Technology is the way of the world these days. I do not limit the use of technology with my kids. If they are enjoying something on the computer, they have free reign to explore it to their hearts content. The likelihood of my children needing to be thoroughly entrenched in technology is a very good possibility, as they become adults. They will need to keep up with the latest and greatest technologies in order to be employable. To limit their usage of it would be putting unnecessary obstacles in their way.

How do you think your use of the Zimmer Twins differs from a classroom teachers?

Well, for one thing, a classrooms setting must be very structured. At home, if my kids are in the creative flow of making a movie, I don’t have to stop them because it’s time for math or something else. They can stay in the creative flow as long as they want to.

Another thing is that I have the freedom to use Zimmer Twins however I wish. A classroom teacher, I assume, is confined to the objectives in his/her curriculum. I usually just allow my kids to be creative and make movies about what they are interested in at the moment. They’ve made movies about religions, the universe, a bad day they’ve experienced, holidays, math facts, art and a myriad of other subjects. Sharing their movies with family and peers builds confidence.

I have also found that when I watch their movies with them, a dialogue opens up on all the subjects they are making movies about. I have the freedom to converse with them about those subjects and ask questions. This seems to fuel their curiosity more and gets them delving deeper into the subject matter. A classroom teacher does not have the time or the freedom to allow kids to incorporate so much in the short time allotted in computer labs.

In our home, Zimmer Twins serves as a learning tool in many areas such as journaling, outputting information, spelling practice, writing practice and the creative process itself. My kids have surprised me, through their movie making, with what they already know. Zimmer Twins helps me build on what they already know.

What kinds of challenges do you face as a homeschool teacher? How has technology like The Zimmer Twins helped you address those challenges?

There are many challenges as a homeschooler. The biggest challenge for me has been to learn HOW my kids learn best.

My oldest son learns best by doing and exploring on his own. Rote learning is not his thing. For example, before Zimmer Twins, he was a horrible speller and was in tears when I would have him sit and write spelling words over and over. He also disliked writing stories. I got him on Zimmer Twins only because he was interested in animation. I had no idea there were other great learning tools available through this medium.

After a while, he started asking me how to spell words. His peers on Zimmer Twins were letting him know when his spelling was incorrect and out of that immerged the motivation to learn to spell well. Now he has an online dictionary/thesaurus and has built not only spelling skills but vocabulary skills as well. He is a very enthusiastic speller and writer now. His spelling and writing skills have spilled out into everything he works on.

By allowing him to explore animation through the Zimmer Twins, he has gained skills that I had difficulty teaching him. I love that technology can be used in this way. I have come to trust that technology is a beautiful medium for kids who might otherwise have been labeled learning challenged. Technology has allowed me to let my child learn in the way that he learns best.

What recommendations would you make to other parents interested in integrating technology and homeschooling their children?

I would recommend that all parents have an open mind and trust your children to learn in the way that best suits them. All children want to learn. It is our job as parents to find the avenue that works best for each child.

I often hear parents say that they limit the amount of time their child is allowed on the computer. I think this is such a big mistake. Technology is the way of the future.

In all likelihood, our children will be working on a computer for most of their lives. Limiting the use of technology only makes them want to use it more. I don’t limit computer usage in our house and my boys still go outside and play a lot. They both love to read. They don’t spend ALL of their time on the computer, but they do know that it is available any time they choose to utilize it.

Allow your kids to explore what interest them. My kids love things like Zimmer Twins. If I had not allowed my son to spend time on Zimmer Twins, he would not be the speller and writer that he is now. If I had cast animation off as a frivolous pastime, I would have missed so many opportunities to have great conversations about the world with my kids. I would have stunted their curiosity, trying to move on to more “important” things like writing spelling words over and over.

Start with what your kids are interested in. Ask them questions about what they think. Get their minds stimulated and you will have a lifetime lover of learning on your hands. The love of learning will carry them to all the places they want to go.

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