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.