Posts Tagged ‘charlotte mason’

Should kids keep illustrated journals?

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Illustrated journals seem like such a good idea for kids, right? It’s a good excuse for building writing and drawing skills, not to mention budding scientific observation.  Wouldn’t we all be proud to have a child like Teddy Roosevelt, who kept detailed journals filled with his sketches of birds, mammals, and other creatures, sometimes even labeled with their Latin names?  Charlotte Mason, that wonderful Victorian era champion for homeschooling, was also an enthusiastic advocate for children keeping nature notebooks.

It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, especially since I enjoyed keeping illustrated journals myself. The problem was, when I introduced the idea to my oldest son Jesse, he had absolutely no interest in drawing anything from real life. He liked to draw, and would often sit for an hour with a piece of paper, illustrating a space battle while narrating the scene aloud (with plenty of explosions and sound effects):

 

Robot Battle by Jesse, age 10

This kid was obsessed with monsters, aliens, space villains, and ray guns. Running around outside was fun, but he wasn’t admiring the flora and fauna for what it was, because in his mind, trees were fortresses and rocks were spaceships. There were monsters hiding behind every bush and he carried his homemade stick saber wherever he went. Occasionally, he would stop short to admire a spider spinning her web or tadpoles swimming near the edge of the pond, but drawing those scenes would have ruined the enjoyment. No, as soon as he was back inside, this is what he would draw:

Space Battle by Jesse, age 8

 

I was happy that he was so imaginative, but sometimes I worried a bit that he didn’t want to do anything “academic.” Write a paragraph on tadpoles or “What I did today?” Forget it. Writing thank you notes was required, and he saw that it was important, so that was OK with him. Otherwise, the only type of writing he might do involved dire peril or good vs. evil, and that was only to keep Mom happy. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Jesse was around 13 and saw a friend’s sarcastic birthday letter, that he really started writing on his own. His friend’s letter opened the possibility of humorous writing, and Jesse has never looked back. He’s actually a wonderful writer, and now, at the age of 19, he’s working on a degree in communications, with the dream of writing for television.

Looking back on all of Jesse’s drawings now, I can see that he was essentially keeping a journal. But it was a journal of his imagination. It satisfied something deep inside of him that I did not need to interfere with. He enjoys nature, but does not want to be a scientist or naturalist. He enjoys drawing and art, but does not want to become an artist. What he really wants to be is what he already is – a story teller. His early drawings were just stories that he told himself. Later, when he was ready to put the stories in words to share with others, he started writing. Now, it makes him happy, and he can spend hours working on one of his fantasy novels or screenplays.

Illustrated journaling or nature notebooks can be a fine idea if kids like it, but if they don’t, then it’s just another artificial school thing that must be done to please an adult. I suspect that the kids who enjoy nature notebooks, like Teddy Roosevelt, are naturally inclined to be naturalists, or at least observers.

My daughter is an observer. She could draw amazing pictures at a very young age because she actually looked at what she was drawing, but she still preferred imaginative drawings. She was not at all interested in her nature notebook, but drew countless fairies, babies, animals and story scenes in her large sketchpads (she didn’t like being cramped). One time she was inspired to tell a story, comic book style:

The Day I Saw a Garter Snake by Emma, age 7

 

She wasn’t using her best drawing skills in this example, because she was more interested in telling the story. She first drew the major plot elements, then told me the words to write in each frame. This was a very satisfying project for her because the event (seeing the snake) was so important and thrilling that she really needed to express it. Just like her brother, her drawings reflected what she was thinking about. They reflected what was important to her. My kids didn’t need me to tell them what to draw, or even to give suggestions. Even as she got older, Emma didn’t like art project books because she preferred to create her own projects. Now, at age 15, she is attending a charter school for the arts and must work on the assignments that the drawing/painting teacher gives her. But most of the assignments are about technique and the students are free to choose their own subjects as long as they practice the right technique. Plus, it was Emma’s choice to attend this school, and she gives it 110%.

My instincts and experience tell me that forcing kids to do a particular kind of journaling is not necessary and may even be counterproductive. It is fine for us to do our own journaling or nature notebooks; maybe our kids will wish to do something similar. But don’t require it. Just pay attention to what it is they really want to do. You might learn something interesting.

Keeping Kids on Track

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I know this sounds like a really strange topic from someone who claims that self-education is the best way to go. “Keeping kids on track” sounds like something a school board would care about, but bear with me, because I’m talking about a completely different approach.

In my last post about getting kids to try hard, I talked about the importance of ownership. Anyone, including kids, will work harder for something that they feel committed to, something that they created or envisioned. It also helps to have a personal stake in the outcome. Good leaders know this. They try to give their people as much creative control and autonomy as possible, because it makes the work more satisfying. The same is true for household work or homeschool work. But kids are still kids, and they don’t have much experience with time management or breaking a large job into manageable bits. So, there are ways for you to help give a little structure to support their vision, without taking over or becoming the typical “boss.”

For kids under the ages of 7-8, I really do not believe there is any reason to impose a formal curriculum. I explain all the research and reasons for this in my book, but the main reason is that children are natural learners, and given a warm, nurturing authentic atmosphere, they will learn a great deal of important stuff all by themselves. Most of the “early learning” topics taught to young children in their first 3 years of school (preschool, kindergarten, 1st), could be taught in about 3 months to a child who is old enough. I believe the real reason children are being pushed into early academics is because of parental anxiety and/or competitiveness, thus the term, “Head start,” which seems to imply some kind of race. Having children fill out worksheets matching the big triangle to the little triangle or the mama duck to the duckling are unnecessary. Elaborate phonics programs are unnecessary. Those things give the illusion of learning, because they represent “school,” something that an outside authority has prescribed and can easily measure.

There are so many more important things kids should be doing at this age, usually those that involve their whole bodies: building, climbing, running, playing, throwing, investigating, rolling, swimming, painting, pouring, hiding, seeking, singing, dancing, stomping, cleaning, laughing, visiting, and helping. When they are tired, that’s a good time to snuggle up on the couch and read aloud. Answer their questions as best you can, listen to them, play games, and take lots of pictures. That’s it. The only “keeping on track” you may want to do for this age is journaling, scrapbooking, and perhaps keep a list of books read, places visited, etc. *Note* If your young kids want to learn how to read or anything else, that’s perfectly fine, but there is no need to push it. If you live in a state that requires some kind of proof of your children’s learning, I believe that you can make up a satisfactory portfolio with just your lists of books, field trips and perhaps a list of skills learned; but do check with your local homeschool group for more advice.

Kids aged 8-12 are much more capable of settling down a bit and thinking abstractly, but they still prefer lots of hands-on learning. If they have not been burned out by school yet, they should still have a healthy sense of curiosity, so let their curiosity guide your curriculum. Make a list of stuff they are interested in. Take them to curriculum fairs, used book sales, or the library and let them pick what appeals to them. For hands-on activities, it’s nice to have an assortment of books available that your kids can flip through and put sticky notes on the things they want to do. This is really my favorite age for homeschooling because it is so diverse and creative.

Unit studies work well for this age, because you can concentrate on the subjects that really interest your kids. Talk to your kids. Let them know that this is their time to explore and that there are no absolute rules. If there is something you really want them to learn, just explain your thoughts to them. Together, come up with a learning plan. Pull out a blank grid calendar with all the months of the year on two pages (6 months on one 8.5X11 paper). Show them where you are now on the calendar and mark down upcoming events and vacations. Let them help you pencil in when to do each unit. The length of the unit will depend on the depth you plan to study each topic; it could be one day or one month or more. I’ve written more about planning a unit study here. Unit studies, whether you buy them pre-made, or design them yourself (my favorite) are nice because you can include math, reading, writing, art, geography, music, social studies, science and life skills all in one nice holistic package. Plus, unit studies can be done with multiple ages at once, so it takes advantage of the group learning dynamic. They do take a bit more time to put together, but I enjoyed it because of the creative challenge. If the thought of preparing a unit study makes you cringe though, there are plenty of free and low-priced resources online.

Another option is a literature based curriculum, similar to Charlotte Mason or the program offered by Sonlight. The idea is to focus more on quality literature and use that as inspiration for writing, social studies (map work), and other supporting projects. Math is generally supplemented with a dedicated curriculum. Science topics are also taught through literature or “living books,” as Charlotte Mason called great books. There is the danger here of imposing so much curriculum that your kids might start to rebel. I still believe it is important to give your kids a lot of control over their own learning. If they don’t like the books you have picked out, pick something they might like better. If they hate the math curriculum, look for options. Include them in the decision-making. You may have to do the initial research, to find out what is available and offer suggestions, but let them have input. Then, when you have chosen your resources, take the time to break down each resource into manageable chunks and assign to the days or weeks you have available. It doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple list on notebook paper will work – or you may want to use computer software (like mine) or downloadable planning forms. Your kids will think this is boring and have no interest in helping you. That’s OK. In fact, you may find this boring too. It really helps though to have the year laid out before you. Be careful not to overschedule. Remember that it’s far more important for kids to explore their own interests, for however long it takes, than it is to cover everything. There are no rules, especially for this age. The only reason to make these plans now is to help give you a direction to follow, even when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. It’s OK to skip stuff, or move things around. If your kids start to dislike the idea of “homeschool”, you may want to reconsider what you are doing. If they begin to think that education is something done to them, instead of something they pursue for their own reasons, then they have lost ownership of the process. And it is tough to get that back once it is lost.

Another approach you may consider is a Montessori style environment, where a wide variety of self-correcting learning materials are prepared ahead of time and available within reach of the children. The children are then free to choose whatever interests them and work until they are satisfied. However, the amount of preparation and work space you would need for something like this is intensive, so I would only recommend this is as cooperative effort among a group of like-minded families.  You could also decide to use Montessori type materials for just some of the subjects you hope your child will take an interest in, such as math and science. There are a lot of wonderful hands-on materials for math and science that can be made or purchased. Again, these will take some effort, but if you have a spouse or other family member willing to help you, these items can be a lot more fun than typical textbooks. One resource to check out is TOPS for science. The difference here in using hands-on materials vs. a unit study or literature approach is that instead of planning lessons, you are preparing materials. There is no schedule for when your child will use the materials, you just show them how to use something when they are ready. Perhaps you could have a check-off sheet to show when they have mastered a certain skill. In this situation, there is no need to “keep” the kids on track, only to keep notes of what they worked on each day.

If you have a child who is particularly left-brained and wants to have a more formal curriculum, that’s fine. You can research the possibilities and let him or her choose the most appealing. This alternative is probably the easiest for most parents, because it involves the least amount of preparation. All you will need to do is check their work and make sure they stay on schedule. But in my experience, there’s not many kids who love this approach, at least not for very long. You may have to resort to external motivation to keep them going, which will only yield short term results.

This post is already longer than I intended, so I will wait for the next one to talk about keeping preteens and teens on track. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. How do you keep your kids on track?

How Studying Nature is Like Appreciating Football

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Years ago, when my husband still watched football, he wanted me to enjoy watching with him. I didn’t mind as long as I was cleaning up or working on a craft project or something, because the sound of the game was enjoyable. Listening to the cheering crowds and announcers is just part of everything that is “Autumn” to me, along with changing leaves, crisp sunny days, apples, and the smell of woodsmoke. But I couldn’t focus on football games at all because all of the running, tackling, yards and penalties didn’t mean much to me. I would watch the screen, only to discover that I hadn’t really been watching, and was only daydreaming. My husband patiently explained the fundamentals and I watched the replays with some interest, but it wasn’t until he started telling me about the players that I really paid attention. It wasn’t until I felt like I knew the people wearing those uniforms that their play really became interesting. This isn’t just a male/female difference either, because obviously my husband already knew the stories about the players. He knew about the coaches, the rivalries, and the histories of his favorite teams.

Learning begins with attention, and attention begins with connection. When we make connections with people, they become more interesting. The same goes for anything really – cars, buildings, gardens, animals – you name it. That’s one of the reasons that reading a great book can launch an interest that you never had before. I was never interested in slime mold until I read The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodsen, but now I can hardly wait to see a slime mold.

Little kids seem capable of forming personal connections with anything. They will watch, touch, smell, and play with everything they can get their hands on. This of course is why they are such excellent learners. Turn them loose in a field and they will find all kinds of things. “Nature study” comes naturally to them. Nature girl

The problem is when kids get a little older, and maybe they have lost their genius for connections. Point them to a field and they might say,”Why? There’s nothing out there.” It may be pretty to look at or a good place to play a game, but other than that, why bother? It’s like me watching a football game. We need to know who is playing. What’s at stake? Where are the rivalries? What amazing skills and quirks are there to see? Once we’ve made those connections, interest tends to follow.

So if we want kids to get outside and appreciate nature, it really helps to have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic tell us stories about the players. Every tree, spider, salamander, and stinging nettle has a story to tell. Volunteers and guides from Nature Centers can be wonderful resources. My daughter took a weekly class last year that met every Monday at a mountain lake. The guides took them on nice slow walks looking for animal tracks, identifying plants, and learning about wilderness orientation and survival. My daughter LOVED it, as did most of the other kids.

In the absence of real live guides, there are always books to captivate interest. Some of our favorites are the books by Jim Arnosky, especially his “Crinkleroot’s Guides.”

Unfortunately, I think these guides are out-of-print but you might be able to find them used or at the library. You will probably find A LOT of books at the library though about various nature topics. Just let your kids pick out whatever appeals to them.

If you would like to brush up on activities and background stories yourself before heading out on nature walks with the kids, try the classic “Handbook of Nature Study” by Anna Comstock. Hold out for an original version though – don’t get a cheap reprint. I found mine at a wonderful used book store. This delightful (and heavy) book is not necessarily meant to read to kids, but for YOU to read so you will have some understanding of what hidden stories lurk under rocks and forest pools.

I also used a neat series of books by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac that used Native American stories to help kids find connections with plants, animals, rocks, and water.

Another great resource these days is videos. Have you ever seen “The Secret Life of Plants” or “Life in the Undergrowth?” Seriously, those movies will pull the rug out from everything you thought you knew about plants and insects. Check out what is available in your library and online.

Whatever resources you use to find the stories behind nature, be sure to get outside with your kids to make discoveries on your own. Take your time. If your kids want to race around and climb trees, that’s fine. Wait until they are tired out before settling in to really look at things. Let them do the discovering, but be prepared to look at everything they will want to show you, and perhaps answer a few questions. But don’t turn it into a science lesson. Think of it as storytelling, and getting to know our wild neighbors. Even your most jaded, non-nature loving kids will find it hard to resist a hermit crab after reading “Pagoo” by Holling C. Holling; just like I found it hard to resist watching football after hearing all about Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and the rest.

It’s all about making personal connections, and feeling some empathy or kinship with whatever it is we are trying to learn.