Category Archives: Home Education

Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)




My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…


Beauty in the Word

Beauty in the Word covThough Catholic schools are the ostensible audience, Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the subject of education — or worried about current trends. The book explores the classical trivium and shares many insights into the nature of learning as well as the power of language, story and tradition. It’s a great read for anyone who needs a refresher on the purposes of homeschooling or other educational pursuits.

I liked it partly because it presented to me some things I already believe. One is that stories are important — perhaps more important than the much vaunted “informational texts” that form an increasingly large proportion of the required reading in the common core. Stories matter because they link us to the past, they compress and layer meaning, and they provide us with the tools we need to creatively interact with our own lives, reorganizing our experience into narrative so that we can better understand it.

Caldecott draws many threads into his argument. In discussing the role of tradition, for instance, he considers the subtle alterations our technologies bring to our understanding of knowledge. Technology, he writes,

tends to eliminate tradition, and with it the possibility of a truly human living in time. If human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace, the past too becomes something we treat as external to ourselves, something other than us, something we sit back and observe… [as] a detached observer of the grid of knowledge, an insatiable consumer set loose in an infinite supermarket of information… The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man. But the purpose of the mechanical order that currently dominates education is for man to serve the growth and further evolution of the machine.

Sobering words, especially when we consider the heavy-handed presence of Bill Gates in promoting the common core. It sounds laudable to speak of developing software tailored to individual learning styles, but are we teaching children to think and master knowledge, or merely to be competent technicians, dependent on the rapidly changing and expensive world of I.T.? Better to educate in such a way as to help children recognize that they have a stake in a world of ideas much older than they are. Moral sensibility grows from this perspective.

I also liked Caldecott’s casting of the purpose of education as a conversion of heart and mind — a pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. It’s not to prepare us to do our share for the global economy. It’s not to fit us for a career and provide us with an income. It’s to make us more fully human in the way God intended us to be, and ultimately to pursue him — the source of all truth and beauty. As I read, I thought of the young Calormene warrior who worshiped Tash in Lewis’ The Last Battle. He recognized and loved the truth, and ultimately he discovered that he’d really sought Aslan all along. However relentlessly the modern world paves over our innate spiritual inclinations, we can educate in such a way as to encourage a love for truth and beauty. As Caldecott puts it, “The kind of education we want is one that fits us to know the truth that will set us free.”

I’ve only barely scratched the surface in this review. There was a good bit of discussion of some favorite authors in these pages — Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald — that I’d like to reread. As I expected from the book description, there was a fair amount of discussion of Catholicism as well, but one doesn’t have to be Catholic (I’m Protestant myself) to find much of value in Caldecott’s argument. As happens all too often in this season of my life, I reached the end of this book feeling that I had not attended to it, or paused to reflect, nearly as well as it deserves. All I can do is recommend it as a worthwhile read for the educator or parent who senses a need for insight and inspiration.

Factory or Garden?

I thought this was an interesting article about ADHD. It discusses the insights yielded by recent research on children with ADHD. Apparently, in these children the connections between the area of the brain largely responsible for focus and other regions are slower to develop.

factory-chimney-1445484-mThis suggests that it’s simply a matter of brain maturity occurring at a slower pace in these children. Time takes care of it. But I find it interesting that the emphasis in researchers’ responses is on “treatment.”

We wouldn’t normally “treat” a process occurring naturally. Treatment implies illness. But because our public education model is essentially a factory, we have to do what we can to make everyone the same — not just by mass producing a certain product, but by making sure that the raw materials are as nearly identical as possible.

I prefer a different model — one that was presented to me by my reading this morning:

Thought in a child arises naturally. The job of the teacher is to encourage and defend it from being blighted and destroyed, to strengthen it and enable it to flourish. Education is more like gardening than manufacturing. (Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education)



Cognitive Toolboxes

A week or two ago found me musing on my role in relation to my 6th grader’s classics reading list. I realized after writing the post that I failed to note the role of that list: a literature component in history, but neither the spine of her history study, nor the sole reading she does. I also realized that I actually have some established opinions on how I approach my role already, based on my years of teaching college English and my personal convictions about the value of reading in general.

There is a push in the public schools for students to read more nonfiction — up to 50% of their assigned reading in the middle grades, according to a middle school teacher friend. I’m not sure what I think about this. Probably for many, school is the only time in their lives that they read in genres other than nonfiction. I checked out the latest Pew Research Report but didn’t find any genre breakdown of people’s reading. But I know that the patience and deep thought required to read even one book cover-to-cover are in increasingly short supply. Part of the reason this is so sad is that the process of discerning meaning in the events of our own lives is largely a process of story creation, and surely literacy in stories better equips us for this. (I wonder if it’s too much to say that it helps to humanize us, as I touch on here.) I think of that phrase I mused on awhile back: we are a “culture of narrative deprivation.”

My daughters get a lot of nonfiction already, actually, though I have never calculated percentages. Nonfiction constitutes the spine of our history and science study, and they read a variety of nonfictional texts in their areas of interest and hobbies as well. In the rhetoric phase of the trivium they will be entering the great conversation themselves, formulating their own informed opinions and arguments. These years in the grammar and logic stages are about accumulating information and beginning to question and analyze. They read poetry and fiction as well, and I read to them consistently.

Overall they’ve built up a certain reading momentum that carries them through the more challenging fare. I discuss their reading with them to make sure they’re understanding it. It’s easy and natural for such discussions to lead into theme and historical context, and comparisons between works based on similar themes or organizing devices. But it happens pretty naturally because of my background and interests, and really it’s not my main focus at this point.

I have a real hesitation about injecting too much instruction and analysis into my daughters’ reading right now, and when I reread The Well-Trained Mind this confirms my instincts. But mostly it’s my experience as a teacher that influences me. Part of my rationale for staying out of the way is to allow them to feel confused, and to recognize confusion as the starting point of understanding; they have to develop their own toolbox of strategies for figuring out meaning. I can help them when needed, but not until then. One reader sent me a link to this interesting article about finding the right balance between directive and non-directive instruction. It would never be my intent to simply leave students totally adrift on their own, but my natural tendency is to let them work independently for awhile whenever possible before intervening, so that any instruction from me will have a landing place.

My experience in the college classroom comes into all this in two ways. As a graduate student teaching freshman writing, I had to be observed from time to time by senior faculty members. This was always scary of course, but I got some fabulous feedback through this process. The first time I was observed, the faculty member pointed out that I was doing too much of the work. My ideas were good, but the students were very passive. Better to structure things so that the students were arriving at some of these ideas themselves. It was wonderful advice, and I take it to heart as much with my own daughters as I did in the classroom.

The second aspect of my experience that informs me is my memory of some of the basic comprehension problems students had with reading. My college students often didn’t understand what they’d read, whether it was a contemporary essay or an American novel or The Odyssey, and they had no strategies for dealing with it. Was this because they’d had too little instruction — or too much? My guess is the latter. Most of them had a well-developed idea of literature as something they could access only through a mediator; it involved a privileged set of codes and discourse that only the specialist could understand. We had to spend a lot of class time just explaining the basic content they had read. In this sense my daughters are already ahead of them. It was very difficult to overcome college students’ notion of books as specialist territory by that stage in their educational lives. I don’t think you can begin too early when it comes to encouraging them to claim their own ground as readers — or as literary explorers, to stick with my metaphor. There are always new terrains to be discovered, and sometimes they will need a map or a guide, but they won’t get completely lost as long as they don’t lose their own internal sense of direction.

In my family as I was growing up, we would travel from time to time, and my mother would be in the front seat as the navigator while my father drove. She would figure out the route according to the map, and if we found ourselves in the midst of a busy city or a detour, the tension level in the car would rise dramatically. My parents wouldn’t trust the road signs; they trusted the map. My husband, on the other hand, never gets stressed when we get lost. He goes with his intuitive sense of where we are; instead of going back to the wrong turn (as I would do), he figures out a way back on track while still moving forward. On the whole it’s a much less intense and rattling experience to get lost because his orientation isn’t limited to the map. I like to think that my daughters will have an analogous experience in the various kinds of texts they encounter throughout their lives because they are developing a sense of internal orientation in the written word now, in their early years.

I hesitate to post this because I’m not interested in arguing for my point of view — only exploring and clarifying it, for myself as well as anyone who might read this. In this area of working with books and reading, I feel like we are on a right track. But it’s a pretty complex process to train young minds, one that includes variables of temperament and experience and the relationship between teacher and student. What works for one person might not work as well for someone else. The goal is to produce literate people — people who know how to grapple with new knowledge and learn. Surely there are many ways to approach this goal.

Reading, Teaching, and Wondering

wtmMy 6th grader has been following this reading list from The Well-Trained Mind. It corresponds to her history study this year — early moderns. A few of these have been abridgements or have been supplemented by audiobooks (as noted); it’s technically the 7th grade list, and I wasn’t sure she would have the wherewithall to wrestle through some of the more difficult books. She reads beyond her level with deep absorption if it’s a subject of interest, but not all of these books qualify that way (i.e. they aren’t about birds!).

So far we’ve had good success, budgeting around two weeks per work and coming out, on average, according to schedule:

  1. Don Quixote, retold by Michael Harrison.
  2. The Complete Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Charles Perrault et. al.
  3. “A Voyage to Lilliput” and “A Voyage to Brobdingnag” from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. (We were assisted by Librivox with this one! Listening was more manageable than wading through Swift’s narrative.)
  4. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (We read Pilgrim’s Progress : A Retelling by Gary D. Schmidt, and had mixed feelings about it. She preferred the Olver Hunkin abridgement we’d read a few years ago. She hasn’t read the original yet.)
  5. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (In this we were assisted by an unabridged audiobook.)
  6. William Wordsworth’s Collected Poems (Dover Thrift edition)
  7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
  8. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” Washington Irving
  9. Robert Browning: “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”
  10. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  11. “The Way to Wealth,” Benjamin Franklin.  In Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings
  12. Christina Rossetti: “Goblin Market,” “A Birthday,” “Sister Maude”, “No, Thank You, John”
  13. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  14. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (In this, too, we were assisted by an unabridged audiobook.)
  15. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  16. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
  17. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  18. “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Alfred Lord Tennyson; in any Tennyson collection
  19. “The Raven,” Edgar Allen Poe
  20. East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon : Fifty-Nine Norwegian Folk Tales, by Peter Christen Asbjrnsen
  21. Narrative of the  Life of Frederick Douglass, an American  Slave: Written by
    Himself, Frederick Douglass

We’re currently around #13, Alice in Wonderland, though I’ve somehow managed to get out of sequence. We read Pride and Prejudice prior to this one, and we haven’t yet read Christina Rossetti (officially — though she did gobble up “Goblin Market” this week on her own).

Though we’ve “done it” so far, it’s been an uneven process from a teaching standpoint. Only now, just past mid-year, am I really thinking about what my instructional goals are in all of it. I wanted to pause and think about what is accomplished in following a reading regimen like this.

This is what I’m coming up with:

  • There is value in engaging with these classics at a young age, so they are less intimidating later. This is something I’ve thought all along.
  • Something I’m noticing lately, in connection with some discussion I’ve seen about “common core standards,” is the variety of genre in the list: fiction, poetry (several different forms), travelogue, autobiography, satire, fantasy (fairy tales and surreal nonsense), historical novels. Such a list requires numerous adjustments in perspective and judgement, and different kinds of mental effort. I’ve marveled over the intricacy of the inside of my piano over the last year, but the complexity of the human mind engaged in the act of reading is absolutely incredible to me when I think about it.
  • There is value in simply doing the work of reading, and achieving a level of comprehension sufficient to write a summary.
  • These works cast some light on the historical periods we are working through. They help to keep history honest. And they amount to a parallel timeline to the events of history — they are an imaginative timeline of sorts, a trail of breadcrumbs that shows us how the reflective artists of different periods sought to make sense of their times. It was chaotic to live through, but they forged meaning through literary creation.

Now, though, I also want to come down to earth and think about what I have not done very well. I have not been intentional about “teaching” these works. I have required summaries, I have discussed the books with her, and in some cases I have asked for more extensive writing assignments related to the reading. But I have acted like the main goal is simply to read the books, to take them to herself as seeds that will bear a harvest sometime, some way.

My kitchen table, cluttered as always with the artifacts of busy minds.

My kitchen table, cluttered as always with the artifacts of busy minds.

Which brings me to the real question I have in mind in this post: what is my role in all of this? To what extent am I the one responsible, at this stage, for pointing out, say, information about the works’ literary properties? I have been making more of an effort lately to seek out information on teaching some of these works to younger readers; this morning my 6th grader and I actually talked about surrealism, and looked at some interesting paintings by surrealist artists in an effort to think about what Lewis Carroll is doing in Alice in Wonderland. But I confess I’m still only half-hearted about the necessity of this (other than to make me feel like I’m doing a good job as a teacher. But that can be the bane of the teacher’s existence. Making ourselves feel like we’re doing a good job sometimes comes at the expense of other treasures our students might have found if they were left to themselves to work and struggle and organize their own constellations of meaning and significance.) I’m a classical educator with a not-entirely-suppressed inner unschooler, it seems.

What do you think, Gentle Reader — surely you are a gentle reader, if you’ve made it this far in this rambling, circular post. What is the most important thing a reading list of this kind accomplishes for a 6th grader? And how much of the energy should be supplied by the teacher in the process?