Thursday, June 18, 2009

Teaching without Fear or Frills

If you could teach however you wanted, do anything you wanted to train and educate your kids with no worries about a school system, a state law, standardized tests, or anything, would you be doing things differently?

I read this question in a book the other day and it has made me think alot. Even in our great state where there are very few restrictions placed upon homeschoolers, I still feel a need to prove my homeschol method is adequate. I don't have to give my kids standardized tests, but I have given them EOGs I found online and tormented them, then brutally assaulted myself for not having kids who measured up. Which honestly is insanely ridiculous. I gave them a test on material they never studied. We do not cover the same material every other 4th and 6th grader in Texas studies. We may be studying botany while they study anatomy. We maybe studying slavery and emancipation whereas they may be studying the Cold War. I am humiliated to even make the admission I was trying to measure up and put myself and my kids through a process that induced so much anxiety and sorrow.

Since then, I havebeen learning more about Charlotte Mason. And I have really rethought the standardized test and even grading in general. Grading is only necessary when a teacher is not present. Grading replaced relationship when our classes became depersonalized and overcrowded. Grading becomes a product sought versus the process of learning which should be our goal.

"We parents can become quite anxious about covering and completing all the requirements for a particular grade level, and seeing that our children excel in the skills demanded of that grade level. It's a woeful business when parents look toward doing what the grand system of education says is right for a child within their little homeschool. But when parents pursue knowledge for its own sake they need not be subservient to this grand system. Many young children hunger for knowledge. Yet they dutifully serve the system of textbook overview with never-ending worksheets, and under a system that does not feed their hunger for vibrant, vital knowledge, they begin to pine away. It is then that Mother loses confidence and feels discouraged and unqualified to teach. The children, for their part, find it harder and harder to obey. Parents and children are stuck in a system that stifles curiousity and intitiative, and makes learning uninteresting." Charlotte Mason Companion, Andreola.

Iworked in the private school system within a small Christian school that promoted small class sizes. Meaning 20 kids, 11 kids, 9 kids. Still, it was a very vigorous curriculum we used, and it was very writing intensive. Kids did one of two things in the classroom: listened to a lecture quietly or worked quietly on their worksheets. Kids who have a drive to get 100's did very well. Kids who were active, spirited, and naturally curious did poorly. My kids did poorly.

So I started homeschooling. I chose a different boxed curriculum. I was teaching a full curriculum that year to a 1-student class for 2 grade levels. I taught 1st grade and 3rd grade. They did their reading, I made them sit quietly at the table for hours. They filled in their worksheets so I could grade them so I would know whether they understood their lessons or not. How else would I know if I was doing my own thing while they completed their math problems? I certainly would have had no idea whether they "got it" without right/wrong answers and a teacher's answer key and a calculator and a fabulously helpful little cardboard sliding thing that told me if they got 12 wrong out of 24 they earned only 50%. I got frustrated, they were crying. It was fabulous. It was just as Charlotte Mason said.

My daughters and I were discussing the other day how I have improved as a mother and teacher. I asked them to tell me something they learned about in our early years as homeschoolers. Tara could remember crying, me yelling at her to stop crying, and not understanding what I expected her to understand. She did remember one thing she learned from the years prior to Charlotte Mason, whose method we use here in year 5 of homeschool: She remembers me doing an experiment with her on sound where we tested sound moving through the table, through a 2x4, through paper, through the air. She remembers me being there learning beside her. I remember it, too, as a pleasant learning experience. It sticks out. No book, no lesson, just discovery. Hannah remembers workbooks and red ink. YAY! GO me! Awesome job, mom!

As I have been thinking about what little I accomplished in homeschool years 1, 2, 3 & 4, I realize my focus was clearly on getting through a curriculum, hoping to God my kids could get enough right answers to pass, and being so entirely focused on other things. My goal was good grades. Their goal was to be finished.

It is different today because we read things through literature. I sit down and pick up the biography on Alexander Graham Bell, and ask one of them to tell me what we learned when we read from the book two weeks ago. Tara, formerly a completely indiffierent, lazy, unmotivated without extreme external pressure type of learner, now starts this 2 minute description of Bell's attempt to patent the first multiple telegraph and how he helped develop the Visible Speech (sign language) to help deaf people (which he felt was his life's calling), and can tell me the circumstances surrounding inventing the telephone. We are driving down the road and she brings up Greek Mythology, she tells me how she learned in Seton's Two Little Savages this and that. Tara who could not read a 200 page book within 2 weeks about a year ago, just finished reading Pride & Prejudice. That is a testimony to the Mason method. Hannah told me yesterday voluntarily that she is glad I am "making" her read a classic book of literature in between each modern library book. Because she just finished Little Men, and in it she learned just how much we squander, how intensely we are spoiled, how we appreciate so little. She told me thank you for "making" her read literature.

A year ago I read the Charlotte Mason Companion and was inspired. I was obesssed really. Then I thought right before we started our school year with Mason's philosophy, "Ok, this is probably going to be like every other year we have thought it would be a fabulous year and my kids will LOVE to learn this year, and I will probably be disapppointed again. They will probably hate it.." I have not even completed half of what I intended this year, and my children ARE CHANGED. They are more mature, they are thinkers, they are insatiable readers of really difficult books, they are lovers of learning, and they are changed.

So how does this change how I plan to continue homeschooling my kids through high school, how I intend to teach my 1 year olds?

I hope I will continue to teach my teenagers without regard for what other 6th and 7th graders are learning. I will try my hardest to not worry about whether my 7th grade can spell as well as other 7th graders she is texting. She is different. She is not them. Education whereby we compare each child to the other children their age in skill level is like comparing me to my husband. We are both 37 this year. Should we take a test to see who is more skilled in spelling? Does it matter? The point is whether I am spelling to my ability, and whether he is within his aptitude. Anytime we try to teach with a goal to achieve a number or a percentile or a grade equivalent, we lose sight of why learning should matter. I am not trying to just get my kids through a series of workbooks or a list of educational goals on the Texas websites. My highest goal is that my children will be Christ followers, moral and ethical citizens, responsible and able to live independently on few resources, and lovers of learning. As long as the spark and desire to learn is the passion that drives us, we will be all we can be. When we seek to achieve an A on a test or a good percentile on the EOG, we are seeking wrong.

It should not be "How much has our child covered?" but "How much does he CARE?" Charlotte Mason Companion, Andreola.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Teaching Without Lecture

I saw something come to fruition before my very eyes last week. I felt like a promise was kept even though a formal oath was never sworn. My kids really learned.

I do remember having teachers who made learning interesting. Mr. Lewis had a way of telling stories that made me sit with my mouth open, to wish I didn't have to go home at the end of the 5th grade day, to chatter endlessly about World War II and the Battle of 1814 at the dinner table, and my older siblings say, "Yeah, Mr. Lewis...." even though they hadn't been in his classroom for 8 years. Oh, how many conversations we had about dear Mr. Lewis.

He loved what he taught. It showed. Teaching wasn't a chore. It wasn't an occupation. It was as if he dearly loved learning and his goal was just to share his passion. And that passion caught fire. Of course, that was quickly extinguished in 6th grade with the dry note-taking, points earning, mid-terming EOG type learning. Learning which basically means memorizing, passing, and forgetting. It lacks any sort of passion or joy, really. If there is some, it will not be remembered in 20 years, not like Mr. Lewis' singing Old Man Tucker.
This is the first year we have used Ambleside Online and followed the principles of Miss Charlotte Mason. Wow. That's all I can say. I had no idea that my daughter who was behind in reading comprehension and decoding would be able to read high school and college level one year. I had no idea things would stick, that they would enjoy learning, that their skill levels would grow to such a one year.

But mostly, I had no idea we would all enjoy learning together, that homeschool could be a joy. I left behind the workbooks and adapted to a reading-together, learning-together type learning environment. No lecture is necessary. No need for me to elaborate. No need for drawing on a marker board or waxing eloquent. Our books take care of that.

Last week, I experienced something magical. In both our science and greek mythology books, I finished reading the selection for the day, and there was a little silence. Before I even had a chance to say a word about narration or anything, my daughters launched into a discussion on the moral and ethical complications of the passages.

Think about this. I simply read aloud to my teenagers on our porch swing. Sure they could read it themselves and report to me, but there is something about our deepening bond and enjoyment of reading it together. I finished. I was thinking. They were thinking. They learned things from these passages other than the story, the facts, the history, the critical analysis. They could apply it to their own lives without me having to give them a worksheet, to ask them, "What did you learn?" The two of them began to discuss the morals of the characters, the strengths and weaknesses of their decisions. My eleven year old said she felt like the father (a greek god) made a catastrophic mistake in giving his son the license to act on his impulses freely. The father ignored his better judgment and the whole world (in the story) suffered the consequences. Days later she brought it up. Days later we were in the car and they brought up the science lesson, which included a powerful example of hardwork, persistence, the fruit of one's labor, disrespect, crushed dreams, and resilience.

Thank you Charlotte Mason. Thank you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Last Week in School

I (should) post here to serve as a virtual record of our educational journey. However, I have not been on top of things for quite some time. Now I'm Ba-ack!

Last week we really got fully back into our educational plan after a long holiday break.

Josephine de Beauharnais, by Artist Francois Gerard, 1808

We have been studying world History period from around Abraham Lincoln's living years. Since we have spent quite a bit of time discussing this, I was very pleased to find myself "in the know" when I watched a documentary about French castles over the weekend. I was really just listening to it while reading, but then I heard some discussion about Josephine Bonaparte's influence on a castle's bathroom design/decor, my interest was piqued because I enjoyed learning about her before the holiday break.

When at the Chateau de Brissac, they talked about the treaty signed there in August 1620 by Louis XIII and his mother to overcome their differences. It was short-lived, but the cool thing was...I knew what they were talking about! Can you imagine living in a place so rich with history? Some of the castles were 1,000 years old! Good Gravy!

Sojourner Truth, photo by Matthew Brady, 1864

In addition to our prescribed History reading (through literature), I am having the girls read a biography about Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree). Her speech Ain't I a Woman? is a must read. Where would we be today without abolitionists like Sojourner? Would we be swearing in our first African American president tomorrow? No!

Which reminds me of what we read in Matthew 4 this morning. Verses 30-32 say (paraphrase) that the Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, which is the smallest when it is planted into the ground. But when it grows, it is the biggest of the herbs and has such large branches, birds are able to build nests in it.

When the girls and I were discussing that, it brought to mind our reading about the disciples and historical heros we've been reading apart, particularly in regards to abolition. A tiny thing, a frail older black woman who is willing to use her life for the betterment of mankind, can become something strong and powerful.

The girls and I have been reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I wholeheartedly believe in my kids reading good literature. I also believe that my kids need guidance as they read this book, because Tara especially finds it disconcerting to read how African-American people were treated, as the story would have taken place before emancipation. I picked up my copy at a homeschool sale for a dollar, and I am so glad I did! Because it has information in the margins accompanying pictures from the historical time period explaining what was going on in our country at that time. Which is how I came to find myself studying drawings about slavery, emancipation, the Old South and the New South, etc., into the wee hours one evening. I will have to order the bio on Frederick Douglass next, I think.

Thomas Nast drew this idyllic vision of the way life would be for African-Americans after emancipation. This picture tells a story. It has a lot of hope in it. The family in the middle is drawn to show their respectability, to show the peace the multi-generational family now has after being emancipated.

But, two years later Nast drew reality in "The Union as It Was." Our copy of Tom Sawyer discusses how recently freed slaves were drawn to new places because of posters depicting African-Americans dancing and singing and flourishing. Families left everything in order to go to these mythical place where life was easy and they could have the life they dreamed of. Only to find once they got there, there were enslaved by fear, intimidation, grueling labor, poverty, relentless suffering. And that is where we ended last week.

In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, we are still lingering over poor Olivia being in love with Cesario who is really Viola posing as a man. Viola is in love with Orsino who is in love with Olivia. And so life is a soap opera, apparently. Tara really enjoys Shakespeare, and frankly, so do I.

Olivia, by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1888

I admit that I dropped the Greek Mythology for a bit of time because I just get frustrated with the pronunciation of the names. I was taught as a child that Mythology was ungodly, so I have NO familiarity with it. Now that we are Charlotte Mason enthusiasts, I picked up the Bulfinch's Mythology and started it with the kids, only to find I couldn't stop stumbling over names. Well, Hannah insisted after reading a library book based upon mythology, that we restart it. So this past week we started at the beginning with Pandora, who was the first woman according to Greek Mythology.

Allegory of Vanity (Pandora's Jar) by Nicolas Regnier, 1626

I'll admit I never had a CLUE what was meant by the opening of Pandora's Box. Come to find out Erasmus mistranslated JAR into BOX . The story goes (according to Bulfinch) that Prometheus created man, and his brother Epimetheus named and betowed gifts upon all of the creatures of the world. When it came time to bestow a gift upon man, there were no gifts left because they had all been given to the creatures. So Prometheus snuck into heaven and stole fire to give to man as his gift, which solidified man as leader of the world (over the creatures). Jupiter made woman for man and named her Pandora. She was bestowed a gift from all of the gods: beauty, music, persuasian. Epimetheus had a jar in his house which held evil, noxious properties. Naturally, Pandora was curious and slipped off the cover. Out came illness, disease, "envy, spite, and revenge," and all things vile and hateful. Pandora's "box" emptied evil into the world as everything escaped...except one thing which remained, which was Hope. The girls and I discussed how there is a different interpretation that Pandora's Box contained her marriage blessings from all the gods, and once she released them, what was left was Hope. But we preferred the interpretation that most parelled the Bible, and also, we felt like Hope was more critical when paired with evil. When else would you need more hope than when evil prevails? I am most happy we restarted Mythology.

Theseus and Aethra, by Laurant de La Hyre

We also finally received our copy of Plutarch's Live Vol 1 which we waited for FOREVER! We started reading about Theseus. His mother Aethra was married to Aegeus, but on her wedding night, met and lay with the god of the sea and earthquakes (Poseidon), so when Theseus was born, he was half god, half human. His father Aegeus went back to Athens, but he buried his sword and sandals under a heavy rock. One day his mother told him about his earthly father, and told him if he could lift the rock, he could then have the shoes and sword of his father, and he could take his rightful place as heir in Athens. Of course he did this with no trouble. Then he had to make the choice whether to travel to Athens by sea, which was quite safe, or to travel a path around the Saronic sea. He had many heroes in his family he felt like he had to live up to. He also was quite obsessed with Hercules, so he therefore chose the dangerous road to Athens, which is where we ended. We discussed how teenagers often feel like they are invincible, as Theseus apparently did as he set out on his journey. And certainly I gather he is going to make it fine since there is more material in his chapter; however, what if it had turned out badly because he felt he had big shoes to fill?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

And again


These recitations were due a couple of weeks ago. I finally got them to stand still long enough to record them last night. Both thought speed was of the essence since they were 2 minutes from leaving for church. But at least I got it! And they remember it!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sometimes You Gotta...

drop a few books out of your educational repatoire. We did that this past week with The Story of King Arthur and His Knights and Of Courage Undaunted. They were living books, but we were not feeling the fire. So we moved on to other living books.

We use a literature study method for homeschool because we want to learn through living books. Charlotte Mason advocated reading living books versus books with cold, boring facts.

It took me a while to understand what a living book is. Still, sometimes, it seems like it escapes me philosophically. But the finest way I can venture to explain it is like this: your son is 8 years old and needs to eat. You have a choice, as a parent, of what to feed him. You can feed him some cold chicken nuggets and salty french fries and a coke from McDonald's. He might thoroughly enjoy tasting this nutritionless meal with all its salt and oil and preservatives, but as for what it does for building his body, I think we all would agree if we have seen the documentary on McDonald' is not best for the healthy. Have you seen the experiments people do where they take a home-made meal and a McDonald's meal and see how they decompose? Three weeks later...McDonald's french detereoration. That tells you how preservative-rich it is.

Or you can serve him some home-made, preservative free baked chicken, iron-rich spinach, mashed potatoes, whole wheat bread, and a cold glass of farm-fresh milk. This meal is going to be digested by enzymes and be able to carry actual nutrients through his blood stream out to nourish the rest of the body, support organ function, improve eye sight, etc.

This is what Charlotte Mason advocated in living books. We could give children all the same cold facts books we read in school that are supposed to help them perserve dates, names, wars, titles, anatomy (but they forget by the end of the school year or sooner). We can give them twaddle (life-less reading material). Or we can give them something sustaining, life changing, rich, comforting. Instead of a cold-facts easy read on wolves we can read a book where someone has a life-long relationship with a pack of wolves, can tell you first hand about their spirit, their customs, their diet, their charm, their brilliance, their obstinacy. You can read a book on wolves and walk away with two or three hard facts, your can feel like you are there with the wolf in a living book, and never forget what you read.

Charlotte Mason advocated children reading books that come alive, that light a fire in you and alter your life. Books that make you think. Why would we give our kids SpongeBob when we can give them Shakespeare and Thoreau? Why would we not want our children to be challenged? Why would we want a watered-down education?

I, too, was afraid my kids would go, "Plutarch Who? Shakes...huh?" A few days before school started I worried they would completely reject classic literature. I worried they would find it irrelevant, boring, and too difficult.

What I found is that they find it extremely relevant. They are alive with ideas. They are insatiable readers. Our biggest problem these days is having to say, "Please put your book down!" Hannah read over 1,000 pages in less than 7 days, not including everything we read in school. They have a fire lit within them.

But I need to challenge them more. I need to alter our homeschool even more toward Charlotte Mason's tenants. I see how I held on to a few chicken nugget and cold french fry mindsets and I have suddenly become of aware of that this weekend. I think sometimes God has us see changes we need to make a little at a time. I am one quarter of the way through the school year and we have made terrific changes. It is better than what I ever imagined possible for my children's education. But I see more...we can do more.


I have grown frustrated with our spelling curriculum, which we have used since 2006 at the recommendation of some educational testers that evaluated my daughters in Winston-Salem NC while we were vacationing there. It is a great concept, but it is too complex to use effectively. I'm thinking if it were softened and streamlined, it would be a great concept.

Why the change? We've pulled what we could use out of it for almost 3 years. So why change? Two reasons:

1) Charlotte Mason has changed my outlook on education. And what I have read of this woman's philosophies has already changed our homeschool, our parenting, our home life. Everything she said that I have put into practice has come to be just like she predicted. So why not take spelling and align it with her precepts as well, and see even greater improvement?

2) Our kids seem to have hit a plateau here.I think we used the program to the best of its ability and it is time to move on.

So what did we change from? No matter. What are we changing to this week? Spelling Power! I got the book yesterday in the mail and read the manual and looked over the 2 DVDs, discussed it with Michael, and so we will implement it this week. HOORAH!