Category Archives: Home 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?

Back to basics: why we’re doing this

I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I’m open to other educational options than homeschooling, should we find ourselves in a place and circumstances with better choices than the ones now available to us. It keeps me from panicking when I think about homeschooling through high school. On the one hand, I’m prepared with a general long-range plan, curricula-wise. But on the other hand — when I think of my desires to provide the kids with a range of experiences, and when I think of the additional state requirements, the need for transcripts, and the long shadow of college in the high school years — I nurse the hope that we’ll have other options by then.

But then I’ll hear something that reinforces that we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing right now, and I realize that it may remain exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. I hear a story like this one, for instance, about the government’s dilemma over what to do with kids who can’t read: hold them back? Or keep them perking along through a failing system in the name of a self-esteem that’s made meaningless by the failure of standards?

Or this one, about a “health clinic” at a California school that provides reproductive services for anyone over the age of 12 without their parents’ knowledge. (Something like this exists without dispute and is paid for by taxpayers, all the while the debate is raging over contraceptive coverage. Figure that one out.)

Or I hear the stories of public school educators I know personally, good ones, talented and smart and experienced, who face children every day whose lives are without direction and in utter disarray. Educating sometimes takes a back seat to simply getting these kids through the day emotionally and socially.

The general impression is of education as a foundering ship in this country, lost at sea and manned by a crew of hopelessly divided and confused experts.

Throw this week’s American Experience program on the Amish into the mix, and it’s quite thought-provoking. This group may reflexively call to mind a sense of cultish constriction and insularity, but I was struck by the reference to freedom at two key points in the program. In one, an Amish man comments on the freedom he feels because he’s off the electric grid. “Think of all the aisles I don’t have to go down at Walmart,” he remarks. He’s free of the forces of consumerism. At another key point, the mother of one of the children shot by a gunman in an Amish school in Pennsylvania talks about the freedom of forgiveness. “I am so glad I don’t have to decide that man’s fate,” she says. “I can leave him in God’s hands and forgive him.”

As a home educator, I couldn’t help but notice that they have “freed themselves” educationally as well. Up until the turn into the twentieth century, the Amish looked pretty much like other people from the outside. The industrial revolution, the growth of consumerism, the lengthening school day and school year and increasing requirements, all gave this community pause for reasons both practical (as an agricultural society) and principled (as a people who take the spiritual formation of their children seriously). They withdrew their children from the public school system, and for a time they suffered punishment for it, with some fathers sent to jail repeatedly.

I don’t think Amish life is easy and I don’t intend to glorify it. (One of the things that struck me about the program was how there are elements of both great grace and great severity.) But it’s clear that these people considered the outcomes of public educational trends instituted a long time ago, and believed them to be undesirable.

I find myself in a similar boat. As homeschoolers, we may appear weird or overprotective or unrealistic. But we don’t like the way the wind is blowing in public education. We take the spiritual formation and the intellectual formation of our children seriously. Unlike the Amish, we don’t enact our choice of alternative education within a strong supportive community. But I’m reminded that we need to be truly prepared for the long haul — for the challenges, but also for the blessings, of following this road.


First Days

A friend loaned me the cd’s from a Charlotte Mason conference back in 2005. It’s hosted by Ambleside Online, featuring sessions led by members of the advisory board.

One of the best nuggets I’ve gleaned so far is from Lynn Bruce’s description of how she starts the school year. Those first days are so important in establishing a tone, and she makes the point that it’s wisest to layer in subjects and responsibilities rather than abruptly “hitting the books.”

My first year, I failed miserably at setting the tone. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of books, feeling wobegone myself — aware of the gap between homeschooling as I had imagined it, and homeschooling the way it seemed to be working out. In subsequent years, I’ve managed to start the year better, instilling a bit more vision and positive energy. But I’ve never heard a more helpful, inspiring description of how to start the year than Lynn Bruce’s. I don’t usually just summarize someone else’s thoughts here, but I feel this is so good I want to share it — and also to reinforce it for myself through writing.

She takes three days, accelerating gradually into the book work. Day 1, “school” consists of Mom sitting in a chair with a recipe card for cookies, and the children following directions. Mom reads each direction, and the children listen and do what it says. When it’s all done, they have cookies, and they talk about how if they failed to listen carefully to every word Mom said, and if they failed to follow the directions accurately, they wouldn’t have had cookies. She makes the point with the children that school is the same way. It’s crucial to listen to, and do, what Mom says in order to produce a satisfying result together.

That’s it. That’s Day 1 of school.

On Day 2, they talk about what they’re going to be studying this year in the light of God’s Word. What does the Bible have to say about each subject? What role does each discipline play in God’s purposes? I’m looking forward to sitting down and giving this some thought. There are, for instance, numerous examples of math being used in the Bible. So much in both Old and New Testaments  testifies to the importance of writing, language, poetry and history. The roots of nature study are clear in Genesis and Job. And we’d know none of this if it weren’t for reading — a gift from God, Lynn Bruce points out, that enables us to understand God’s Word. All of this emphasizes that we learn for a purpose, and the bottom-line purpose is to know God better.

I believe it’s on this second day as well that she challenges her students to think about scheduling. How can they best set things up in order to accomplish certain goals efficiently and well? She asks questions, inviting the students to think this through and take some responsibility in figuring out a structure for learning. So that’s Day 2: more of the Big Picture, but a little more nuts and bolts.

On Day 3, they start with the books.

I love this idea of easing into the process. It gets the year off with a right emphasis on the CM idea that education is about relationships — between subjects, with each other, with God. She concludes her remarks by reminding us of how essential it is to make time for the “magic words”:

  • I love you
  • I think you’re wonderful
  • I’m so glad you’re mine

In a few minutes, she manages to hit very practically on the real heart of what I’m about as a home educator. This session has truly been food for my soul — and, I might add, an example of one-minute management at its best.

How about you? How do you start your year? I’d love to hear more ideas.


Looking Ahead: Curriculum Musings

I don’t think I normally begin thinking beyond our current schoolyear this early. But yesterday the less-than-perfect aspects of my fourth-grader’s experience this year spurred me online to investigate some materials, and I found myself laying an entire tentative plan for next year.

Both girls will be doing earth science and astronomy next year, at second and fifth grade levels. The astronomy decision is easy: Real Science-4-Kids. Our experiences with pre-level 1 chemistry and level 1 physics have been quite positive — even though not all the experiments in physics worked for us, and the math was pretty difficult for a fourth grader. The material is always very solid and challenging, and I like the layout of the courses: a chapter of the text on science day 1, an experiment on day 2. And the materials have gotten much more affordable now that they can be downloaded digitally.

I also like that the program doesn’t have a religious agenda. It examines the subject without getting into issues of faith that are outside the scope of science. My faith shapes the perspective and assumptions with which I approach everything, including science. But the basic process of scientific method — observing, testing, observing again — should be the same for all of us, regardless of our beliefs. Part of the goal of science instruction is to teach a method, and I feel like RS4K teaches it well. If questions come up, we can deal with them together (one of the reasons we homeschool, isn’t it?), but the curriculum doesn’t venture out of bounds and try to do it for us.

Earth science is more difficult. I haven’t found any “program” of study that is not slanted. So probably we’ll use the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Our World, supplemented for my 5th grader with the Usborne Science Encyclopedia, and we’ll use Janice Van Cleave’s book of earth science activities for projects and experiments.

For history, I’ll use Story of the World II next year for second grade. My 5th grader can listen in, but I’m going to have her start outlining from the history encyclopedia for her main meat, and (as we’ve done this year) supplementing independently with selections from the reading lists in the Story of the World activity book and elsewhere.

As I’ve read the descriptions of different “Christianized” science and history materials, this passage from Helen Keller’s biography has come to mind. Annie Sullivan explains,

Great care has been taken not to lead her (Helen’s) thoughts prematurely to the consideration of subjects which perplex and confuse all minds. Children ask profound questions, but they often receive shallow answers, or, to speak more correctly, they are quieted by such answers. . . . She has not yet been allowed to read the Bible, because I do not see how she can do so at present without getting a very erroneous conception of the attributes of God.

My children have heard the Bible (and as far as I can tell it hasn’t ruined them…). But Sullivan’s respect for young children, and her desire to attend to their level of readiness before burdening them with certain kinds of knowledge, has been important to me. One day in church not too long ago, beside the coat racks, a little boy turned to me with an outraged expression, pointed at another little boy, and gasped, “He believes in evolution!!” Maybe dogmatism is about all that can be instilled by addressing certain kinds of arguments too soon. I really think that waiting until students are ready to engage more complex issues using moral reasoning, and then working through those issues together in the context of the family and the church (rather than a curriculum package or a book), is the best approach.

Back to the subject at hand…

For math, both girls will use Saxon again. I’m happy with the results and comfortable with implementing the course. Older Daughter will begin with some logic puzzles next year as well.  Spelling Workout continues to satisfy for spelling. And Younger Daughter will go on using First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind for second grade grammar, and Zaner Bloser handwriting workbooks.

For Older Daughter, I want to make a change. We have used First Language Lessons (since 1st grade) and Writing with Ease (since 3rd grade), and though the texts are easy to use and effective at developing skills, we’re feeling restless — ready for some variety, and ready for more integration between the grammar and the writing instruction. I’ve been moving away from WWE, using the dictation exercises but letting my 4th grader’s summaries in reading and history be sufficient for the writing requirement. I’ve assigned a few different projects: a State Notebook, a photo essay, a description. I’m thinking of trying Rod and Staff next year, which weaves both writing and grammar instruction together in a systematic course.

The other snarl is foreign language in 5th grade. There is one more installment of the Latin for Children series we’ve been doing for the past two years, so it makes sense to complete it. Beyond that, I’m not sure I’m enough of a believer in the value of Latin instruction to continue with it. It has been useful in shedding light on English grammar, and it will be useful when we take up a modern language and see its roots in Latin. But beyond that I don’t yet see the purpose of years of study.

The Well-Trained Mind recommends starting a modern language simultaneously with Latin in 5th grade. I find myself balking at this.  It seems like a heavier academic load than necessary for 5th grade. Besides that, the expense of Rosetta Stone or PowerSpeak is a bit staggering (upwards of $200 for a year). There is a Spanish course through Veritas Press, the originator of our Latin course, that costs less, but I have to admit that if and when we do it, Rosetta Stone is the most appealing program to me. I think we may forgo Spanish next year and continue with Latin, then make a break from Latin into a modern language the following year.

So that’s where things stand at this point with the core subjects. I’m sure there will be changes, but I like getting a head start on some of these choices. I have a box full of books to sell that looked really great when I bought them, but that ended up not being used or that we’ve outgrown. It’s interesting to see how my expectations have changed over the last few years. I’m not thinking there’s a perfect text out there, a silver bullet curriculum. I’m just hoping to make some good minimal choices and then tweak or supplement as needed.