Follow the money to the Common Core

“I wouldn’t mind it nearly as much if I didn’t feel like I was just part of a big corporate and political campaign,” said a third-grade teacher I know. She was talking about the Common Core Curriculum. Recently another friend pointed me to this article in Politico, which helps me to understand. Though it contains some encouraging news about resistance efforts that have gained some momentum, there is also material that concerned me very much.

This, for instance:

The proponents would appear to have all the advantages. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation already has pumped more than $160 million into developing and promoting the Common Core, including $10 million just in the past few months, and it’s getting set to announce up to $4 million in new grants to keep the advocacy cranking. Corporate sponsors are pitching in, too. Dozens of the nation’s top CEOs will meet today to set the plans for a national advertising blitz that may include TV, radio and print.

libraryI’ve actually read and thought about this before. Whatever philanthropic good the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may be responsible for, its presence at the roots of public education is sobering. That the developer of a computer operating system would be supporting, and gaining a dominant voice in, the content of our children’s intellectual development suddenly (or not so suddenly) explains why STEM so steamrolls the humanities in the operative conception of what an educated person is.

I prefer Wendell Berry’s wonderful phrase “furnishing the mind” to describe the process of educating someone. It implies the self as a dwelling place to be adorned with useful, beautiful things to use, care for, and create other things with. The mission statement at the CC website speaks rather drably of “knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

web-logo-2-1402247-mUnfortunately, students who do not have a richly furnished inner world are not “fully prepared for the future.” I think children need to know how to use the various forms of technology. I used it myself last night when I had to Google “substitute for canned cream of mushroom soup.” It improved my tuna casserole. But it takes the meat and potatoes served up by the humanities — imagination, philosophy, faith, art — to find meaning (rather than information) in the often bewildering and difficult circumstances of adult life. The global economy spins on its own, and human essentials like wisdom and freedom do not register there at all — nor are they articulated in our current notions about what makes an educated person.

It’s the weak in a society — the children and the elderly — who feel the effects of its bankrupt values first. The fact that millionaires, rather than respected educators, are developing the educational plan for the next generation feeds my cynical belief that it’s all about creating good consumers, dependent on a host of intermediaries between themselves and everything they want.

Encyclopedia of Outdated Information

…up until the last generation it was possible to be born, grow up, and spend a life in the United States without moving more than 50 miles from home, without ever confronting serious questions about one’s basic beliefs, and patterns of behavior. Indeed, without ever confronting serious challenges to anything one knew. Stability and consequent predictability — within “natural cycles” — was the characteristic mode. But now, in just the last minute, we’ve reached the stage where change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

Of course, this frustrating state of affairs applies to our education as well. If you are over 25 years of age, the mathematics you were taught in school is “old”; the grammar you were taught is obsolete and in disrepute; the biology, completely out of date, and the history, open to serious question. The best that can be said of you, assuming that you remember most of what you were told and read, is that you are a walking encyclopedia of outdated information.

(Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1971)

Postman and Weingartner go on to offer (among other things) a metaphor: our language is a map intended to describe the world outside our skins. When the map corresponds to what’s actually there, a person has a high degree of success in functioning. When it doesn’t, chaos sets in. Education, they suggest, should help students develop an effective language — one that includes an ability to describe the state of continual change we live in.

Before reading any farther, I want to jot down some thoughts about how to do this, because it’s something often on my mind. Mostly it’s something I wonder about: am I a real dinosaur, creating dinosaurs with my educational approach? But I think there are some ways an effective “map” is formed naturally with our educational efforts.

  1. Students need information, and not all facts are in a state of flux. I’m not quite as committed to pouring facts into kids in the early stages as some of the more hard-core proponents of the trivium, but certain facts are essential building blocks and should be taught without apology.
  2. We need to remember our own orientation — in terms of both worldview and history — at all times when so much around us seems to be in flux. It can be articulated often in lots of areas — study of history or science or literature. The first thing you look for on a map is where you are. Each attempt to clarify where we stand in relation to what we’re studying reinforces identity, and strengthens one’s internal “language.”
  3. Cultivate imagination, reading with appreciation, art, creative problem solving, and all creative pursuits. Consider the ethical and spiritual dimensions of current events. Life is about so much more than transient human activity.
  4. Nature study. It’s only human innovation and knowledge that change rapidly. Get outside and find some loved places and you discover that nature is more stable. It’s also the larger context in which all human culture exists, and in significant ways it sets the terms whether we acknowledge it or not. The natural world provides one of the most vital external reference points there is.

Homogenization

Very few of us have contemplated more rigorously what is happening through media change than Jacques Ellul, who has sounded some chilling alarms. Without mass media, Ellul insists, there can be no propaganda. With them, there is almost nothing but. “Only through concentration of a large number of media in a few hands can one attain a true orchestration, a continuity, and an application of scientific methods of influencing individuals.” That such concentration is occurring daily, Ellul says, is an established fact, and its results may well be an almost total homogenization of thought among those with media reach… As the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas. (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postmas and Charles Weingartner)

More means to communicate fewer ideas. Homogenization of thought. All this was written over 40 years ago in preparation to discuss the devolution of education to mere propoganda — mere training to support the power structures in place in our society.

I can’t help but notice that this basic description of propagandizing could be applied to our operative notion of public school education: in the name of “higher standards” and “preparing children to be workers in the global economy” (ideas present in almost any justification you find for the common core standards), we are reducing the number of significant ideas they are exposed to. It was empty to reduce education to technical training for a good job so you could make a lot of money. It’s emptier still to reduce it to technical training for a good job  so you can make a lot of money so your country will be competitive on the global economic stage. Our humanity is not defined by salary; still less is it defined by our usefulness to our economic and political institutions. (No great surprise that businesses and political entities may be the primary forces determining what constitutes education.)

What a contrast to the educational vision John Adams described:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, Natural History, Naval Architecture, Navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Adams envisioned a society in which increased security and development would bring a richer flourishing of the humanities. It seems the trends are going in exactly the opposite direction. Of course the reasons are more broad and complex than just the digital explosion. But technology has certainly accelerated the process. There are those who would argue that it is the great equalizer, giving everyone a voice. But without organization, political clout and money, your voice doesn’t count for much.

Grinding Machine

I’ve had some time to read today and find that I can’t really ingest any more of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction without pausing to reflect. This excerpt in particular, quoted from Charles Darwin, captures my attention:

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music…

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

I can’t help but think of the common core initiative with its heavy bias toward nonfiction. What kind of people will such a view of “education” turn out? I find this passage sobering because it reminds me that our minds are formed by what they dwell upon. Nicholas Carr wrote of the plasticity of the brain, and this means that changes to the quality of our thought lives can be undone or refined. But Darwin here suggests what I suppose I already know: there can be a point of no return.

How much better and wiser it would be to offer our children the widest possible range of literature and art, as well as science and mathematics, so that they can have a greater choice in who they will become.

 

Lady of Shalott

JWW_TheLadyOfShallot_1888This week, Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” was on my 6th grader’s reading list. She read it, then last night I read it aloud to both girls and basically we all registered our questions and observations; I was too tired to do any more than that. But this morning, I got up and started investigating in my old anthologies and online, and I found some great resources. This entry at “Shmoop” addressed most all of our concerns in a very direct way. And a google image search revealed countless illustrations (including the above one, from Wikimedia), confirming what this site had said about it being a popular poem among illustrators.

I have certain Tennyson poems I’ve studied before, but this wasn’t one of them, and I loved several things about this process. I loved the way reading the poem aloud sounded (it’s also a nice predictable poem to talk about rhyme and rhythm). I loved the way we did an in-depth, impromptu literature lesson at breakfast, rehearsing the research process with seeming effortlessness. I loved seeing my youngest sitting with her nose in my huge thick anthology, her Cheerios set to the side, poring over the poem and then getting pulled into the next one, “The Lotus-Eaters.” But most of all, I loved how much this was an example of literature driving the study of literature — “The Lady of Shalott” is Anne of Green Gables’ FAVORITE, after all, and “The Lotus-Eaters” is one that Laura Ingalls reads in the Christmas gift she finds ahead of time by accident. In some way we find ourselves entering into a deeper identification with these two loved characters even as we meet a new one in Tennyson’s mysterious, dream-like poem.

Not all of our schooling has this quality of delight, but it’s wonderful when it does. (*Edited to add: not all of our schooling is this off-the-cuff, either! This is basically a supplemental reading list, and not one of our core assignments. So I’m comfortable with the spontaneous way this all came together, even though it’s not the way I usually do things. In fact, I was planning to come back to this in a more structured way later on — which is part of why it was delightful that it came together this way.) I came upon this W.H. Auden quote in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and you’ll understand what I mean when I say today feels like a holiday:

When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.

I’m sharing this at Read-Aloud Thursday, hosted by fellow Anne-fan Amy at Hope Is the Word. Be sure and drop by there to glean ideas about possible read-alouds from others!

read-aloud211

 

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?

Outliers

My pastor mentioned Outliers in a Sunday school class. He’d read part of it, and it sounded interesting. I picked up a copy at the library to read, but I wasn’t expecting it to provoke so much thought or to have such an impact. It’s really given me a lot to think about.

“Outliers” are exceptional people — people who excel far beyond the norm in some way. Malcolm Gladwell takes a number of such figures — software gurus, pilots, hockey players, lawyers, geniuses — and examines their stories. He ends up showing that all of these people emerge from social, economic, cultural, geographic, historical contexts, rather than being “self-made.” “It is not the brightest who succeed,” he concludes, “…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

He puts it pretty strongly there. I don’t agree with quite such a strong emphasis on outside factors; the giftedness of these individuals is crucial to their success, too. But looking at the Bible, I see that context matters. Look at Joseph, who was prepared for his position of power in Egyptian government through the seeming tragedy of his betrayal and enslavement. Or look at Moses, prepared for leadership in Pharoah’s household. Look, even, at Jacob, a weasel, but one who was loved and promoted by his mother, and so he rose above his brother in the long run. It all seems to reinforce what Gladwell refers to as “the Matthew effect,” based on Matthew 25:29.

The book is interestingly written and researched, and it made me think deeply about a number of things — only a few of which I’ll mention here, in order of ascending importance.

First, parenting. There is a difference, Gladwell explains, between the way different classes parent. Lower class, poorer parents tend to care for their kids, but let them develop on their own. Upper and middle class parents are much more involved, teaching their children how to assert themselves, and how to live comfortably in the world of people. Part of the way they do this is through conscious instruction in how to communicate and carry themselves, and part of it is through scheduling their children’s time and exposing them to lots of different experiences and activities.

I find that I’m a blend of these approaches. I think free time is important, especially for younger children. But I also see the value of giving them varied experiences in varied social contexts. I’m not sure what exactly this means for us, but I felt this book affirmed the direction my thoughts are already going on that score. I have no desire to overschedule my kids’ time, but I think it’s time to be more proactive about getting them involved in more activities.

Gladwell describes the best parents as actively looking for their children’s gifts and interests, and seeking out ways to cultivate them. I’m pretty good on the first half of the sentence but tend to flounder on the last half. I mean, I find play options for them to do the things they want to do; I have one daughter who wants to be a museum exhibit designer, and I get her dioramas to build, clay and legos to create with, drawing supplies, miniatures. But what can we do outside our four walls to cultivate this design interest? How can we bring it outward into more cooperative endeavors with others? (My other daughter is a little less focused. She wants to be either a pet store owner, a horse trainer, or an artist. I feel a little less pressure there…)

Another thing the book gave me lots of food for thought on was education. I think any home educator would find this book stimulating, not necessarily because we’ll agree with all of Gladwell’s conclusions (I certainly didn’t), but because there is so much interesting material about the learning process, and the values common to excellent students. As a teaser, I’ll mention rice paddies, taking 22 minutes to solve a math problem, and how Asian cultures count as factors Gladwell mentions. If you want to see how on earth they fit together, you’ll enjoy reading this.

Ultimately, of course, the book makes me think about what constitutes “success.” The operative definition for Gladwell seems to include wealth, recognition, and full realization of potential. He argues for a culture in which more people can succeed in these terms, one that could be brought about if we made a few key changes in our thinking. As a Christian, I find myself thinking about how I would define success differently. I believe there is a loving Creator who has a purpose for me. Wealth and recognition may or may not be a part of that. True success would mean transformation of the thoughts and intents of my heart toward Christlikeness, toward love for others.

But I think it also involves full realization of potential, as in the outliers Gladwell discusses. How do I parent in such a way as to help my children “succeed” as followers of God? How can I use the knowledge in this book to help my children become the people God made them to be, with the influence he intends for them to have? How can I help them to reach beyond the limits I feel myself? They have gifts and talents and aspirations meant to be realized, meant to be shared with the world. We all do.

One of the most interesting things Gladwell points out is that outliers all seem to follow the 10,000 hour rule. The Beatles, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Jewish lawyers who specialized in corporate takeovers — all of them had already put in 10,000 hours practicing in their field of expertise so that when their moment of opportunity came, they were prepared for it. It takes 10,000 hours, one neurologist explains, for the brain to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery of something. Gladwell points out that it’s next to impossible for anyone to log 10,000 hours at something by the time they’re a young adult — unless they have parents who support and encourage them. This book has been a wake-up call to be more intentional about some things with my children, and I believe that in the big picture I’m going to be very glad I read it.

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.

For the Children’s Sake: I am, I can, I ought, I will

For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, published in 1984, represents an argument to rethink educational priorities in light of the ideas of British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923). Written by Susan Schaeffer Macauley, daughter of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, this book has two purposes: to provide an educational vision, and to re-introduce Charlotte Mason to a more modern age.

In the homeschooling movement, Charlotte Mason’s ideas are probably more familiar now than they were when this book was written. I understand that her writings have been published more recently, with introductions by Ms. Macaulay. Ambleside Online is a great resource for further reading on Charlotte Mason’s perspective.

I was somewhat familiar with the curricular aims of Charlotte Mason, but this book presents more of her philosophy. I appreciate the practical understanding of children, the respect for them as “persons” and not mere vats to be filled with facts (or computers to be programmed). I appreciate the gentleness and thoroughness of Ms. Mason’s approach to the mind and character of young children. As a (neo)classical homeschooler, I share her love of history, and her belief that good books don’t need the help of a lot of commentary or simplification; let them speak for themselves. And I love the progression forecast in the motto of some of the British schools modeled on her principles: “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”

Reflecting on our own home education experiences so far, it was reassuring to see that we’ve done a lot “right” (as defined by this attractive philosophy) without consciously trying. We keep our lesson time to about half the day, and the girls have lots of free time to be imaginative. We observe nature around us, garden, explore. We read plenty of “living books” (including the Bible), listen to music, encourage artistic and verbal expression, pay attention to art.

It was good, too, to spend some time thinking about the art of diversion, mentioned here as a tactic in the training and management of children. I tend to be a confrontational person. It’s good to have a different strategy to turn to in difficult situations. When a child is struggling with her own nature in some way, sometimes it’s better to just defuse the situation and turn her to a different activity than to talk about it in a tense moment. It sounds simple, but it’s not my natural tendency.

In any case, for an appealing picture of what education of the whole person can be, this book is an excellent read. It brought me back to some basics that are good to remember this first week of school. It reminded me of the amazing blessing of homeschooling my daughters, so full of potential and mystery, so able and so eager. It’s a journey made with fear and trembling, but also with joy.