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)

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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)

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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?

SAHM

There’s an article here on homeschooling your high school student. It’s short but provides a few tips on making the most of the experience.

Will we be homeschooling through high school? I get asked that question fairly often. My answer is always, “It’s the kind of thing you become more committed to as you go along. We have a general plan for homeschooling over the long haul, but we’re open to other options should we find ourselves in other circumstances. Based on the options available to us now, homeschooling is what we’re supposed to be doing.” There may come a time when the kids need things we can’t provide in a homeschool setting. But we’re not there yet.

I’ve been mulling this lately because I’ve been considering going back to work outside the home. But try though I might, I can’t find any peace in the possibility. I understand that some folks feel it’s necessary for Mom to work, and some folks even keep a foot in the professional door while homeschooling. It’s not the kind of thing I would argue about; I wouldn’t argue that my point of view is the “right” one, only that it reflects an understanding I have come to, and nothing seems to dislodge it. At least, not yet.

I feel that my career needs to stay on hold. Whether or not I’m homeschooling, I want to be available here at home. A wise woman told me, before we had children, “People think that once their kids are in high school, they are free to work full-time. But actually that’s when it’s more important for them to be there when their kids get home.” I’ve always remembered that because it’s counter-intuitive.

As with most things, I’m influenced by a mixture of principle and personal experience. I remember that my mother worked as a nursery school director when I was in 6th grade, and it meant she was no longer home when I got home from school. On Fridays, I made supper. I remember a darkness descending that year as well, a darkness that was always explained to me as the hormones of puberty. Maybe they played a role. But I remember as well the feeling of responsibility I had that year. I had a younger sister, and I felt that it was important for me not to get sick so that I would be there to walk her home from school. I was on the brink of junior high, which meant adulthood to me, and I didn’t feel ready. It was just a dark year, one of those spots of memory that sticks out to me, and the darkness spread over my high school years. It wasn’t all because Mom went to work, but the isolation was certainly intensified because of it. Material resources were brought into the household by taking Mom out of it — her physical presence, and also the many small touches of care and artistry that reflected her presence there.

Now I have children, and I’m at home with them. Sometimes I notice that it’s as though they’re alone in the house; they are playing with legos, or listening to stories, or reading, or playing outside, and I am not actively involved in what they’re doing. This seems very healthy to me. But I am still there. I am available if needed, as I sometimes am.

To me it’s that availability that defines motherhood. When all is said and done, this time when they are at home is a fairly brief period. They will graduate from high school in the blink of an eye, and I don’t want to have any regrets. As long as God provides, we’ll keep on as a single-income family. One key element in all of this is that “provision” is not necessarily “abundance”; we live on less, and there are plenty of things we cannot afford. But the operative assumption is that presence is worth more than stuff, and so far nothing has happened to convince us otherwise.

That’s not to say that I don’t have my frustrations at times. I spent many years of my life earning a doctorate, and that means I’m an educated professional who’s not in the classroom and not in the academic journals. Sometimes I long for recognition, though admitting that embarrasses me. But I’m still able to participate in my “field” in ways that I love: reading and writing, influencing young minds, and even undertaking a longer-term writing project as I have lately been preparing to do.

I have been reading some strongly feminist stuff lately, but as I’ve reflected on it I’ve been reminded that though it speaks some truth, there are seasons in life. This is a brief and precious season of nurture. And as a Christian, the project of self-development takes in a larger scope than if I did not see myself as a soul loved by God. Spiritual formation involves developing whatever profession or gifting God has given me, but always in relation to Him and in relation to others; always there is the awareness that He has purposes He graciously allows me to participate in. It’s actually a grander vision than professional achievement — though it has the humility and paradox of the mustard seed.

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.

Homeschool days

Courtesy of Stockxchnge

I thought I should record some of the tweaks I’ve made in materials this year, as well as a brief description of how a typical school day goes. I see these on other blogs from time to time, and even if it’s not of interest to anyone else, it will help me to remember what’s working and what’s not.

Fifth grade:

Math: Saxon 6/5. We’ve made our peace with Saxon by implementing a few simplifications to the potentially tedious routine of fact sheet, lesson practice, and mixed practice every day. For instance, identical timed fact sheets tend to be repeated for several days in a row: 100 addition facts, or 64 multiplication facts, etc. Older Daughter keeps doing the same sheet for as many consecutive days as it takes to get it done with no errors in 5 minutes. This keeps a little motivation in the process, and rewards her for knowing the facts by not making her keep doing them once she’s proficient. With the mixed practice, we’ve been doing just every other problem — evens (on even dates) or odds (on odd dates). This reduces the 25-30 problems, which keep drilling concepts from previous lessons, to 15 or so. It’s more manageable and she still gets plenty of review and practice. There is a short section of “lesson practice” problems each day, and I always make her do those; they drill the day’s new concept.

Spelling: Spelling Workout E. This represents a change; I originally planned to use Spelling Wisdom, which theoretically teaches spelling using dictation. I love the concept but felt it wasn’t really working for us — it wasn’t challenging enough. Honestly, Spelling Workout hasn’t created wonderful spellers yet in our homeschool, but it is easy to use and gives more daily practice than Spelling Wisdom.

Writing: Here too, I’ve added materials. I started with Rod and Staff’s “Following the Plan” writing text, and I’m continuing to use it because it’s strong in grammar. But since there is very little actual writing practice, I’ve started using Writing Strands 3 along with it. I’m not sure yet whether it “works,” or what criteria will emerge to determine its effectiveness. But it’s easy to use, addressed to the student and broken into manageable assignments.

Science: Well, we are loving nature study using Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, Peterson’s First Guides, and lots of firsthand outdoor observation. I’ve said plenty about that in previous posts.

History: We are progressing through Story of the World 2, and Older Daughter supplements with readings from the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and a reading list of my own devising (evil chuckle) that enables her to go more in-depth into the period. This is her second time through this period of history, and she’s able to read independently in a wider selection of books about the various topics we cover. I haven’t given her any decent instruction in outlining a text yet, but she writes summaries of about two history readings a week, as well as two pleasure books, and this furthers her writing skills. She’s pretty good at zeroing in on the main points and “shape” of a text, but right now I’m concentrating on helping her refine her writing by carrying over the paragraphing skills we’re learning in the Rod and Staff text.

Logic: Yes, we’re supposed to be doing logic this year, and I even purchased and received Mind Benders for the purpose. But I cannot for the life of me find the book. I’ve searched high and low, and it is quite lost. (So is Many Moons, a book I actually had to check out of the library to revisit with the girls because our copy is so completely lost.) So logic isn’t happening as yet.

Art, music, gym: These are quite hit-or-miss at the moment, except for horseback riding lessons once a week. Piano lessons are haphazard (I am the teacher). Art is constantly happening, and we do draw together in our nature journals. But the only actual instruction has been from Jan Brett’s online drawing videos. So, guilt, guilt, guilt.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in fifth grade.

Second grade:

Math: Saxon 2. All is going well. My heart is strangely warmed when I see my 7-year-old adding columns of numbers and regrouping. We don’t even have the meeting book, but we do the lesson sheets and fact sheets every day.

Spelling: Spelling Workout B. Charlotte Mason suggests waiting till 3rd grade to start spelling, and I tried to hold off this year. But I felt like this was necessary.

Writing: Younger Daughter dictates narrations for history readings and for two pleasure books a week. She does copywork daily to work on handwriting and “practical spelling.” I’m holding off on cursive until we aren’t reversing any letters and numbers — we’re getting better at this, but we’re not perfect yet. For grammar, we’re continuing with the second-grade half of First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind.

Science: See above.

Reading: We finished The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading awhile back and I was having Younger Daughter just read to me daily, but I missed having a systematic spine of some kind. So I broke down and got her a McGuffey’s Reader. I’m not a worshiper of all things old-fashioned just for the sake of being old-fashioned, but we’re really enjoying these daily readings and pictures.

Art, music, gym: See above, minus the horseback riding (you have to be 8 to start). More guilt.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in second grade.

Typical day for us:

We don’t do a daily “circle time,” though it’s an appealing concept to me. We do start each day with a reading from Egermeier’s Bible Storybook at breakfast, and a short prayer. We’ll finish this storybook this week, and I’ve purchased an Adventure Bible to launch into this reading plan starting next week.

As of this week, we also sing a hymn — this week it’s “Joyful Joyful, We Adore Thee” (first verse only, at this point) and the plan is to learn a hymn a week. I’m looking forward to checking out the library copy of Then Sings My Soul, and I may get our own copy if reading about the stories behind the weekly hymn is something that enriches our devotional time together.

After that, the girls go make their beds and get dressed and brush teeth. They start in on what they can do independently: math fact sheets, a page of spelling, and maybe copywork or a section of Writing Strands.

Three days a week, I go run on the treadmill while they do this, then do a 15-minute Pilates video get stretched back out. I have mixed feelings about this. It doesn’t really fit in with the idealized picture — or at least, one of the idealized pictures — I have of homeschooling, in which I am always in the picture, dispensing wisdom and loving support. But on the other hand is the idealized vision of homeschooling that fosters independent learners. The truth is, there is nothing for me to do as they work through fact sheets and spelling lessons except twiddle my thumbs. I make sure they understand the directions, and if they need help I’m quite accessible as I run from nowhere to nowhere downstairs. Sometimes Younger Daughter does the Pilates with me. But I struggle with feeling selfish for investing this time in myself. I need the time before the girls get up for my spiritual life. That leaves the time after they get up for my bodily life. So, unresolved feelings about all of this.

On days when I don’t exercise, I get cleaned up and ready for the day while they do this morning work. Then I alternate, usually getting Older Daughter going on the new math material for the day, then switching to math with Younger Daughter. (They do the fact sheets on their own, but I work with them on the new lesson material.) Then I switch back to grammar with Older Daughter, then grammar and reading with Younger Daughter. I check their work and make suggestions. If one finishes something and I’m still busy with the other, they can read or take a short break.

We do history together on Mondays, Wednesdays and sometimes Fridays, often listening to the audiobook of our text while having lunch, then discussing the comprehension questions in the activity guide. Younger Daughter dictates her narration; Older Daughter does some reading and writes her narration. We do the map work in the activity guide, and work on our Book of Centuries. (This is just a notebook with a 50-year timeline on each page, organized chronologically. We plot what we’ve studied on the timeline using the chart at the back of SOTW, and paste in the review cards from the activity book at the appropriate dates.)

Then we’re done with the meat and potatoes. Afternoons, we do some reading, and reading aloud, and lots of art and imaginative play or errands. This is when anything that didn’t get completed in the morning — narrations or writing assignments — gets finished up too.

On nature study days (Tuesday or Thursday) we take a walk, and it usually takes several hours, and doesn’t feel like school at all. We come home and look at the pics we’ve taken and write in our journals and read about something we saw. Some of what we learn gets written down; much of it doesn’t, but if it’s worth knowing it reappears on another day, and gets reinforced that way.

The girls really do the work. I give some direction here and there, and keep them on track. But they are great workers, and they’ve caught on to the fact that they have some control over how the day goes, and how long everything takes. I would say they learn equally as much from independent reading and extra-curricular experience as they do from our curriculum plan, and I’m pleased with how they’re doing. If I’m awakened in the middle of the night, it’s usually from anxieties over what they may be missing — more time with other kids, more structured art and music, more challenge in this or that area. Or I wake thinking of my personal deficiencies. But the actual academic part of the whole enterprise, as well as a number of other aspects of it, seem to be working pretty well. I keep checking in with the Lord periodically to see if this is still what we’re supposed to be doing, and so far, of the choices available to us in this time and place, it is.

And there was evening, and there was morning, in our fall 2011 home school.

Metamorphoses

We started school yesterday. We layered in a few subjects and “met” the books for the others. Then today, we layered in the rest.

I’m struck by how much our concept of “school” is in constant metamorphosis. When I first started home schooling, it was a very big deal to go from “vacation” to “school.” I had big plans, new books — and daughters who were quite happy with “vacation,” thank you.

This year, it feels just… normal. We’ve been continuing with a few subjects throughout the summer in a very low-key way, and easing into the full menu this week seems to be happening seamlessly. The girls seem ready and have good attitudes. I’ve made some adjustments and streamlined some things, working to emphasize the priorities I consider to be the most important. But I don’t know as I have “big plans” in the same way I have in years past.

I kind of miss that feeling. It was a big blast of wind in my sails in the first week of school. But I won’t miss the dead calm that always and inevitably followed — the one that came when my big plans collided with the reality of day to day life and personalities around here. Big plans are more dramatic, but realism is better.

Anyway, speaking of metamorphosis… The story of our butterfly farm continues to develop new twists.

Houdini went into the pupa stage on Sunday afternoon. I posted some day 1 chrysalis pics in this post. On day 2, he looked like this:

And today, on day 3, we can already see his butterfly wings forming:

I think the most striking thing to me is the way the chrysalis is actually within the caterpillar — rather than being manufactured from without, the way we envision a cocoon forming. A monarch molts 4 or 5 times, and in one of these routine events, something altogether new is revealed underneath the old skin… something the exact color of the single food the caterpillar has been eating for its entire (short) life. I don’t know about you, but I find that to be fascinating “food” for thought. What am I feeding my soul? What is forming in the depths of my character, waiting to be revealed in the next seemingly routine moment of transformation? Such moments of growth and adjustment come all the time.

Peeper, who was the smallest of our caterpillars — one of the ones I “rescued” from wind and rain — is about half an inch long, and yesterday he molted.

All seemed to have gone well; his old skin is beside him, and his antennae are in a curl next to him. I like this photo because it reveals his three kinds of feet (which we learned about from the Handbook of Nature Study) really well: three pairs of true feet (nearest his head as he hangs there upside down), four pairs of profeet, and the prop feet at the back.

As I said, all seemed to have gone well with his molt. But somehow a super-fine strand of… something attached his old skin to his antenna, so he’s having to drag it around with him as he goes about his business.

Poor little fellow… He reminds me of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. Hopefully the next molt will complete the job. Meanwhile, he has a nifty new sign on his jar, made by his primary caregiver, Older Daughter:

(As you can see, she’s renamed him. But he remains Peeper to my aging brain cells.)

This little fellow is no longer the smallest caterpillar on the counter. Oh no. This morning we returned from the milkweed patch with…

…who is by far the smallest.

What happened was this: we went for milkweed and counted around 15 monarch caterpillars of varying sizes in the small patch where we found our original three. We worked hard to find caterpillar-free plants to refresh our supply. One milkweed stood alone a little away from the rest, and I commented that it looked like a good possibility. But Younger Daughter went over to it and exclaimed, “Look! This is the tiniest caterpillar yet!!”

I only agreed to bring it home on condition that we return some of the ones we already had, so we brought Philip and Cinderella (now quite large), as well as Billy, back to the field and let them go. Younger Daughter prayed that God would take care of them. Then we watched them crawl happily along their respective plants.

So we now have Goliath, Peeper, Houdini in his chrysalis, and my caterpillar mutant, Caractacus.

I’m utterly mystified as to what Caractacus is, but it looks like a monarch minus the white. Surely it will pass into the pupa stage soon, and we’ll have more clues about its identity. It eats with unswerving dedication and sometimes falls asleep mid-bite.

Several caterpillars at several different stages give us plenty to write about in our nature journals. And as for sketching, well, it doesn’t get much easier than a caterpillar.

We even have a caterpillar bookmark.

 

Charting a path

I’ve thought a lot this summer about our approach to school. It’s mainly because by the end of last year, I was burned out. The aspects of learning that I had wanted to accentuate when I began this enterprise — reading and discussing good books together, especially — have consistently been pushed to the end of the day, when we’re all tired and rush through them. We’ve read lots of great books, but they haven’t gotten the emphasis I wanted to give them. It had begun to feel like nothing more than checking things off the list each day so we could get to the fun stuff.

Why? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the approach I’ve been taking — a neoclassical method heavily influenced by the vision laid out by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer in The Well-Trained Mind. I think what’s happened has been a combination of vision-slide on my part, poor prioritization, and some time commitments that gave our schooling a rat-race feel. (Then there’s the sad reality that I get very sleepy reading aloud. I have no solution for this yet!)

As I’ve been thinking this through and restructuring things in my mind, I’ve learned a bit more about Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. Truth be told, I see very little difference between The Well-Trained Mind and Charlotte Mason. Living books, narration and dictation, and chronological history appear to be prominent parts of both. There are some differences in the details of how the vision is implemented — the timing of introducing certain subjects or emphases, and the length of time spent studying certain things. Charlotte Mason seems to emphasize a child’s psychology in cultivating a love for learning, whereas the WTM approach seems to emphasize mastering a certain body of knowledge. (Mason also has a highly romantic view of children — moreso than my own.) But both seem to come down in a very similar place regarding the content to be learned, and in some core methodologies.

My impression has been that Charlotte Mason advocates classical education minus the trivium. I haven’t seen the three 4-year stages of learning — grammar, logic, and rhetoric– anywhere in what I’ve heard or read. This morning I discovered this article on “The Classical Side of Charlotte Mason,” which confirmed my impression and fleshed out why.

I actually like the idea of the trivium, although I have not consciously hammered memory work during the grammar stage. There are certain things — math facts, grammar rules, Latin vocabulary — that the girls have had to memorize as part of their texts, and in church they’ve worked on Scripture memorization. But in my own implementation, I think I may have resembled Charlotte Mason more than Dorothy Sayers in this respect. However, I want to hold on to the trivium as an organizational principle in our home school. The insight it offers into different stages of learning maturity makes sense to me, and it allows us to go through the chronological history cycle three times between kindergarten and 12th grade.

This year I’m striking out on my own, against the recommendations of both Charlotte Mason and The Well-Trained Mind, and dropping Latin. I’m toying with the idea of starting it in a year with my (then) third grader, and making my (then) 6th grader a tutor, but I haven’t made up my mind. I’ve also let one large time commitment go so that we have more flex time during the week. All that remains is planning our coursework, and I think I’m pretty well set. As Hannibal on The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

My second grader will work on reading (I’m compiling a list of reading choices to recommend as needed), brushing up on her handwriting through some copywork, and language as we continue with First Language Lessons. I’m dropping spelling, in keeping with the Charlotte Mason idea of waiting till she’s a little older, and just working on reading, reading, reading — building that visual storehouse of correctly-spelled words.

My fifth grader will have a reading list too, in history and in “fun” books. I’ve ordered Rod and Staff’s writing and grammar program for fifth grade. In spelling, I’m switching from Spelling Workout, a workbook approach, to Spelling Wisdom, which incorporates dictation and copywork.

Both girls will do history using Story of the World 2 and lots of supplemental reads, using the list I’m formulating now. Our geography will consist (again) of the maps in the SOTW activity guide, along with some of the online games (like these) and puzzles. Science will be nature study. Both girls will do plenty of oral narration and some written narration in various subjects. Both girls will do various extracurricular sports activities for gym, and I have materials to do art, art appreciation, and music appreciation.

For math, we’re sticking with Saxon. (Sigh.) Every year, I look at other curricula, and every year I’m unconvinced that any of them would be the silver bullet. My ideal would be to do the program four days a week, then do “real life math” or math games on Fridays, so if anyone knows of any good games to recommend let me know. There are quite a few on the market, but it’s difficult to evaluate which are the best.

I will be doing more reading aloud, at different points throughout the school day, interjecting some pleasure and perhaps eventually “buddy reading” as well. I find the Kindle a wonderful tool in this area; this week we’ve read from The Burgess Bird Book (free), The Blue Fairy Book (free), and Parables from Nature (under $5), all of which were downloads on the Kindle. Other books are available for free or for precious little, some of which I’ll put on the Kindle (Heidi, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, The Story of Mankind) and some of which I’ll order for the physical shelf (50 Famous Stories Retold, Our Island Story, Trial and Triumph). There is a certain democratization to a book on the shelf, rather than one stored in a device that may not be accessible because it’s MOM’S. :-)

This summer we’ve done swimming lessons, gotten a start on nature study, started to incorporate more reading time into the day, and in general worked on order — especially “doing it right away” (whatever “it” happens to be — putting sandals away, folding laundry, putting one thing away before starting another, putting the book on the shelf rather than on the nearest surface — with Mom being the worst offender). Younger Daughter is continuing with First Language Lessons. Older Daughter is doing state history and typing.

It may seem strange to leave Bible for last, but we do read, or try to read, every day. This is just life, and I don’t think of it as school. We’ve come within spitting distance of the end of Egermeier’s Bible Storybook, and I’ll probably choose a reading plan from Biblegateway or somewhere to dig into the “real Bible” next. Just this morning, we had a good discussion about why we read the Bible even if, as Younger Daughter confidently asserted about the story we read this morning, “I’ve heard this before. I know this story.” It was a moment we probably wouldn’t have time for if they were hurrying to get ready for the bus to public school, and I can see how easy it would be to become too busy for it even in a home school. So the prayer for me this year is,

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.