Friday, February 01, 2008

thinking out loud

Five Good Minutes generated some interesting questions, not so much in terms of the "quality of life" issues I was thinking about, but more because of my suggestion that child-directed unschooling, and indeed even traditional homeschooling, need not follow the curricula of schools. The main issue seems to be wondering whether the underlying assumption is that "what children need to know" will eventually get taught, or learned. And if that is the assumption, how does it happen?

So let me think about this for a bit. What is it that children need to know? And then once that's answered, how can I ensure, as a responsible parent who expects that her children will want to attend college as well as graduate school, that they will learn it?

I am assuming college is on the horizon, and I am also assuming that both boys will go to high school. I know this is not the assumption many homeschooling families make, but that's what I'm thinking, and I can tell you why, but not right now. So let's imagine that this homeschooling/alternative schooling gig is a K-8 venture. What do kids need to know? What do they really, actually need to know, in order to be successful in high school?

As I start to pull this issue apart in my head, I find that my ideas and answers to these questions break down into two categories: things they need to know how to do, and facts they should know. I also believe that much of the reason both public and private schools are not working for many of our kids is because schools tend to emphasize "knowing facts" over "knowing how to do."

A classic example is a traditional elementary geography class, in which children color in maps and memorize the state capitols. Why? For what? Do you know exactly where the Dakotas are relative to Nebraska and Kansas? Do you know the capitols of each of those four states? I don't, and it doesn't matter a bit. I can look at a map. What I really need to know is how to read a map.

What else do they need to know how to do?

They need to read, for pleasure as well as for information, fluently and well. In my house, this happens whether I want it to or not. I don't think there's much of anything that I could do that would discourage Big One from reading and Little One from looking at books. We all have books of all kinds (not just sock books) and we are all reading, hours a day.

They need to be able to express themselves clearly in writing, with an understanding and observation of the conventions. Some of this happens on its own. I make shopping lists and write letters, I write this blog and other things, Big One writes stories and acts as scribe for Little's stories.

But I find that writing doesn't happen completely organically; it requires a bit of discipline. I make a time every day for Big One's writing, but I leave up to him what he wants to write about. He has a choice between working on the stories he has going on the computer, the story in his journal, writing a letter, or working on his French homework. I often encourage him to write down a story that Little One is telling. It's pretty easy... here again, they are both interested in the written word, and they have around them examples of competent adults writing competently.

They need to understand math conceptually and use that understanding to do arithmetic. Realistically, they also need to be able to think algebraically before ninth grade. At Little's age (5) this is easy and integrates with real life in an active home. When we make cookies or bread, he helps me measure and develops an understanding of number through counting, and volume, etc. He finds pattern blocks and tangram problems inherently interesting, and it is fun for him to play with these materials, which develop concepts about geometry such as area and angles.

At Big One's age, however, it is a very different matter. He is 10, and there may be some kids his age who get up every day just burning up to learn long division, multiplication tables, and multi-digit subtraction with regrouping, but mine is not one of them. And this is where I would not allow his interest or lack of interest to dictate the curriculum. (Uh-oh, I think this means I'm not an unschooler. Maybe I'm eclectic. Wouldn't that be a surprise?)

Other than that, they can choose what skills to acquire. Big One takes music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and French lessons, all by his choice, and if he wanted to drop one, that would be fine. Except maybe the music lessons, and that's mostly because Big has a certain gift for music, so I consider lessons to be essential, and music theory best learned young. But still, if he really really wanted to quit, and had some good reasons, I would probably let him. Probably. Almost definitely. Because the thing that's so beautiful about his accomplishments in music is that he plays (recorder) well, and loves it.

Little One is not interested in music lessons or learning a language or any sport yet. He is happy with his life the way it is. (Those are his words.) He likes to play games and do puzzles, build with Legos and play sword fighting, help me in the garden and take care of the cats. He's learning, and I'm not worried about it.

So those are the skills I think they need to acquire: reading, writing, and arithmetic, plus whatever else they want to pursue.

And don't worry, I can hear your protests. I know, I know, and I'm getting to it.

What about facts?

What about history? What about science? What about literature?

Here's my theory about this: Joe and I are both awake in the world. We are paying attention. We read the news, we read books, we listen to the radio, and as a result of all that, we get excited about things. We get excited about them, and then, because we love our boys more than we love anybody else on earth, we share what we're excited about.

I remember very clearly the first time this happened. Big was maybe ten days old, and we were listening to the radio, baby on my chest, when a Prince song came on. I think it was Prince: the song was either 1999 or Raspberry Beret, and I'm pretty sure Prince's name was Prince at that moment. I started laughing with sheer joy over the perfection of the music. Oh, my, what a great world to be born into, is what I was thinking.

Ahem. Shall we find a slightly more high-brow example?

I love Jane Austen, and as a result, I've told the boys about her stories and her life, Big One has read pieces of P and P and others of her novels, and Little One knows exactly who Lizzie and Darcy are. We all know what we mean when we say "a Lady Catherine sort of person."

Joe works for a firm that makes plastics out of the available CO2 in the atmosphere. The boys are naturally curious about this, and this leads to all sorts of interesting conversations about the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle, which leads to conversations about the symbiotic nature of the relationship between humans and trees, which leads to a unit of study about tree identification.

See what I mean? We have interests and hobbies and discussions about what is interesting to us, and that ends up being what the kids are learning about. The projects we do and the things we collect and the ways we spend our time create the environment, and unschooling and progressive schooling are all about the environment. Our home is a reflection of what we value, intellectually and otherwise, and so that's what the kids end up asking questions about and working on.

That's essentially what the schools are doing too: somebody, somewhere, a long time ago, decided that kids should learn this, that, and the other thing, and that has become received wisdom about how elementary school is supposed to look. By the time you get several generations into the project, most people can't imagine elementary school any other way.

And if they end up learning slightly different facts from the ones their public school counterparts are learning, I think that's okay. What is the worst that could happen? They could get to a tenth-grade history class and never have heard of, for example, The War of 1812. That's okay, just look it up and proceed. What's the most an elementary school student is learning about that war anyway? Surely nothing a tenth-grader couldn't absorb in ten minutes. Betcha half of the kids who "learned" it back in fifth grade don't remember much about it either.

I know I don't.


klflote said...

I love this post. It's as if your household is a learning center that doesn't quit! If things go according to plan, two interested and interesting Os will go to HS where they can do what has to be done and explore more exciting interests either at school or other avenues that suit their needs.

shaun said...

Very thoughtful! I am also leaning towards high school for my girls, unless one of them has strong interest/talent/drive in music/art/film that would be better served in a different setting.
I appreciated your thoughts on how to prepare without following a traditional K-8 path.

elsie deluxe said...

Thanks Tyson and Shaun, I really appreciate your thoughts. This is something I think about a lot, and sometimes it seems not so easy to allow their learning to take place naturally... I did plenty of time in the papers and pencils school of elementary school. That does tend to inform our way of looking at and evaluating learning.

Penelope said...

I read this last night and have been thinking about it a lot since, because the last few weeks I've been thinking how lacklustre my own teaching currently is. I did an exercise with my education students where they took a questionaire to figure out their own teaching philosophies and it made me realize that I'm straying from my own instinctively progressive ideas. I'm in a rut, I'm not teaching them to ask questions, just how to answer mine. Then the other day I got an email from a student who is interning at the newspaper and she wanted to know about classifications of crimes for an article about the courts, which we had been talking about in class the week before. My first instinct was to sit down and do some research so I could teach it to them, but I realized that's not the point. So on Monday I'm going to have them figure it out and teach me.
Also been thinking for a while about my 2nd grader's transition from your wonderful classroom to public school, particularly the writing. Most of the writing I'm seeing coming home involves one or two sentences at a time, nothing sustained. Plus she's gotten really good at circling the verbs in sentence and identifying tense. So I've been wanting to supplement that. And reading your post, it got me thinking more about why/what do kids need to write. I'm academically trained, so I go straight to research papers. But my students take a public policy class where the culimating assignment is a one page memo to a real person about a real problem. That takes more skill than you might think. And right, it is more about skill. Big One is going to catch up on social studies so quickly in 9th grade, you won't believe it, because he knows how to read that map, chart, political cartoon, letter from an ex-slave, or whatever.
ok, I'm rambling, I could go on and on, but this is stuff I'm trying to figure out too. Plus I'm at work...

elsie deluxe said...

Penelope, cut yourself a little slack in the teaching department. These kinds of realizations/reflections and subsequent self-corrections are exactly what is required to be the kind of teacher you want to be, and are.

I'm interested in this notion of supplementing a public school curriculum. This is an idea that has come up for me before, in the context of TSS and elsewhere. I'll have to do some more writing about this to clarify my thinking.