Countdown to school: T-7 days

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I have seven days till we start school.  This is my 13th year homeschooling, and my last year homeschooling my oldest.  Granted, things may change, but at this time it’s looking like I have a few years more to go.  No matter how many years I’ve been doing this, every year feels like a new, distinct challenge.  Here’s how I’m talking myself back from a precipice of anxiety.

We don’t have to start everything all at once.  When my kids were littler (and for the one who’s still little) I don’t start everything all at once.  I begin with a favorite subject (or two), and one that is new to us, sandwiching the new between the old.  Then when those are rolling well (which might be a few days, or in a harder year, a few weeks), I add the next.

We’ve got good books.  Much of our schooling is based on books, and if all else fails, we can retreat into our living room and read books for a week or two until I figure out where to go from here.

We take advantage of early-fall weather.  I love the fall as a time for hikes and nature walks and family bike rides.  There will be plenty of time come winter to hunker down at home for longer lessons.

“Important things will be repeated.” I stole that quote from my favorite medical school professor (Dr. Wood), and it’s true.  We can repeat and refine as much as we want, so why am I so worked up about every moment being critical?

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”  I take this quote to mean that we are learning together all the time, in the attitude (atmosphere) of our home: we ask questions, we pay attention, and we are curious; in the habits (discipline) we practice, and in all aspects of life.  Thank you, Charlotte Mason.

Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. –Charlotte Mason

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Habit Training for the Long Haul

When we started homeschooling, I had a five year-old, a two year-old and a one year-old. We planned to school at home for one year. I never anticipated that we would still be at it ten years later. Now I have a ninth grader, a sixth grader, a fifth grader and a first grader. While the quantity of work and the style of our education has changed, one thing has remained constant: the need for good habits.

Obviously, habits guide many parts of our lives: physical (brushing our teeth and washing our hands), mental (paying attention the first time, putting forth our best effort), and spiritual (telling the truth and showing kindness). But I had most of those down when they were young, and most of the training was unidirectional, from me to them.

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Now, as we reach middle school and high school, my habits mean as much as theirs, and are as hard to learn.

Charlotte Mason wrote, “Education is a discipline—that is, the discipline of good habits in which the child is trained. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere—that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Vol 2, p. 247)

When my children were little, it was easier to overcome my fatigue or lack of preparation by the quality of our atmosphere. I could easily say, “Today is nature study!” and spend the day out-of-doors. Counting the petals on the flowers in bloom could count as math for the day, and labeling a diagram of a flower could count as writing. Now that my children are older, it’s harder to get away with that. Yes, my children have habits that, like rails that guide a train, get them going in the right direction if I am having a tough time getting started in the morning. But the stakes are higher now, and leaving the math ungraded till the end of the week can mean my kids have been practicing square roots wrong for five days before I catch the problem.

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Yes, the atmosphere of our home still matters. The focus on books and experiences instead of television makes a difference. The ideas we discuss at the dinner table shape the people my children will be. But as much as my kids were observant at five, they are ten times more so now. They know exactly when I am at my weakest, and they are quick to exploit it. If I am on the phone all afternoon, no one is going to learn much from an unguided exploratory search online.

My getting up before the children to gather my thoughts and plan the day makes a huge difference in how our day goes. Having a stack of living books lined up on the shelf means we don’t waste a week waiting on the library requests to come in. Checking in on the math and the writing every day or two keeps us honest, both in terms of getting the work done and learning it right the first time.

When I am off, physically or emotionally, our learning suffers. I can’t control the circumstances of our lives, but habits give us a head start. And at this stage of the game, my habits are as important as theirs.

A New Nature Table

I’ve been reading lots of Charlotte Mason lately– ever since Amazon raised the price on the Kindle Georgette Heyer books I’ve been consuming like candy corn.

Right now Miss Mason’s going on and on about Nature and getting kids into Nature and how our early exploration of Nature is vital to all sorts of later functioning, like Faith and Science.  Here are some quotes:

“It is infinitely well worth of the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them, a love of investigation.”

“Consider, too, what an unequalled mental training the child-naturalist is getting for any study or calling under the sun– the powers of attention, the discrimination, of patient pursuit, growing in his growth, what will they not fit him for?”

“There is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in.”

“The little girl: she it is who is most tempted to indulge in ugly tempers (as child and woman) because time hangs heavy on her hands… is it to the girls, little and big, a most true kindness to lift them out of themselves and out of the round of petty personal interests and emulations which too often hem in their lives; and then , with whom but the girls must it rest to mould the generations yet to be born?”   (All from Charlotte Mason: Home Education, Vol. 1, sections V, VII and VIII)
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But I struggle with Nature Study.  Seriously, I am supposed to make my children spend hours daily outside?  I’ve got laundry to do, people.  Our yard is the size of a two-car garage, and the only wildlife there I can see is the neighbor’s cat.
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I liked the phrase she used: “to infuse into them, or rather to cherish in them” a love for Nature.  Maybe I can go back to shooting for an hour outside every day.  I notice that when we get our one hour outside (especially in the winter) in the morning, then we are more likely to want to go back out later.
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I want to bring more Nature into our home (and thus, our school).  I saw this great idea on Still Parenting recently: sandwiching a specimen from nature between two pieces of clear contact paper, for looking at later.  Duh, but it had never occurred to me.  Whenever I think, “Bring Nature inside,” I end up with a pile of crushed, dry leaves underfoot or a dead cricket in a glass jar.  So her idea– preserving the Nature so we can look at it– cherish it, investigate it— later was a  lightbulb moment for me.  It only took me 6 weeks to get my hands on clear contact paper.
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How do you encourage your children to Cherish Nature?

The Habit of Attention

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention.  It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them (Charlotte Mason: Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 146.) [emphasis mine]

I promised you a post about increasing attention span, didn’t I?
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But I want to back up, because the habit of attention has two parts really– the length of time we are able to sustain it, and the ferocity of attention we pay.  (Thanks to the amazing Brian Doyle for that phrase.)

Isaac Newton said, “If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.”  And Thomas Edison’s “1000 ways not to make a light bulb” relied on his determined attention to a singular problem.  Without paying attention, what can we accomplish?
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Okay, so nuts and bolts.  How to do we teach the habit of attention?

1. We offer interesting material.

2. We expect a high level of attention (eg., narrations from a first reading, not allowing dawdling, perfect execution of copywork) but for a short period of time.  Nothing makes me pay attention like a looming deadline.

3.  Charlotte Mason says that we ought to begin teaching attention from the earliest times.  When a baby drops a toy, we bring it back to her attention.  When a toddler moves on from an activity, we show them one more wrinkle on the game to draw their attention back to it.
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These photos are of SweetP and our young neighbor, who wanted to sew when I was trying to clean out our sewing box.  SweetP was ready to be done after about three tries, but I kept encouraging her to try a little longer.  Likewise, when O wanted to practice volleyball this morning, he was done after 10 minutes.  I challenged him to an extra ten hits.

In our school day, it requires my attention to teach their attention.  When I am wandering from chore to chore and telling them, “I’ll be there in a minute,” it’s no wonder that after half an hour, when I finally make it to the table, they have only done one problem.  But if I sit at the table with them and gently draw them back to the paper, five math problems can be done in three minutes.
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The reward for rapt attention is free time.  (And it’s odd, but my children do pay ferocious attention when they’re at their own activities.  I know they can do this… but we all have to learn to pay attention, even when it’s hard.)  A lesson completed in three (of fifteen minutes allotted) earns an extra twelve minutes of fun before the next lesson starts.  Or, if you’re my O, all your work completed in forty minutes yields hours of free time before lunch.

Practically, our preschool “attention teaching” will involve a timer.  For her school lessons, my goal is to keep the “teaching” to 60 seconds or less for each lesson, and then to work up her replication from 5 minutes to 15 minutes by the end of the year.

Picture Study: Cezanne

I love picture study.  Recently a friend asked me what is the point of picture study: is it to teach them how to do art?  Is it to make them memorize great works of art?  Is the point the history– so they can identify different schools of art?
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Education is a feast.  My goal is to set before my children- well, before all of us, really- a feast of ideas.  Ideas are more than morals, more than words, more than works of art.  But the great artists present ideas in amazing ways, and my job as a teacher is to introduce my children to them.  They don’t- can’t- take in all of a great painting any more than they can understand the whole of a great book in one sitting.  But each nibble, each time we study it, we grow a little more.

In other news…

Recently I heard a piece on npr about current educational pioneers and how they are seeking to drop the lecture format.  (Read it– or listen– it’s worth your time.)

We’ve been steadily (or not so steadily, depending on the week) reading along in our history book, Genevieve Foster’s The World of Captain John Smith.  This week we read about Galileo. And I had one of those moments, where everything sore of connects in a very Charlotte Mason-y way.
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Galileo, writes Foster, was taught via by rote the  ideas of Aristotle.  When he questioned them, he was scorned in the university.  He sought to test things his science by experiment.

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Over at MIT, they developed a test to measure how much their students were learning in their introductory physics class, and the results said: not much.

“Hestenes had a suspicion students were just memorizing the formulas and never really getting the concepts. So he and a colleague developed a test to look at students’ conceptual understanding of physics. It’s a test Maryland’s Redish has given his students many times.

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Here’s a question from the test: ‘Two balls are the same size but one weighs twice as much as the other. The balls are dropped from the top of a two-story building at the same instant of time. The time it takes the ball to reach the ground will be…'”

Then: “Hestenes showed that after an entire semester they understood only about 14 percent more about the fundamental concepts of physics.”

His response: make the students figure it out themselves… and then teach each other.

As a part of O’s engineering course, I had him build two cubes of equal size, one hollow and one solid.  Same size, same shape… different weight.  So we had these cubes, and this story of Galileo… and we dropped the cubes from an equal height.  And guess what!  They hit the ground at the same time.  Whoa.

What was cool about this experiment was that the kids designed it themselves.  I don’t know how to replicate this all the time, but the fact that it happened once was encouraging to me.  Maybe our science “curriculum” is actually accomplishing something.

And if I’m lucky, I learned 1% more about the fundamental concepts of physics.