Posts Tagged ‘teddy roosevelt’

What About Gaps?

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Crossing the Gap

Have you ever felt that surge of alarming doubt when your homeschooling friend talks about her ten-year-old’s rigorous curriculum, complete with 3-page written reports, Latin flash cards, accelerated math program, and violin lessons? Or how about when your neighbor gushes praise for the new local school science program or marching band?

Does it make you reassess your decision to let your daughter play “Sims,” draw horses, and read fantasy novels all day every day?

You would have to have nerves of Zen not to let this bother you. It may be true that your daughter will miss out on the benefits of Latin, violin, marching band, and all the rest. But it is also true that those other children will miss out on the benefits of “Sims” and unlimited hours of free reading. Is it an equal trade-off? That’s the big question. Students who receive a rigorous academic education may indeed be better prepared for further academic studies at college or university, particularly when compared with an average U.S. school experience. But if you know any teachers, or spend time reading the forums that teachers frequent, you’ll hear that two of the biggest indicators for student success are having parents that care and students that care.

Students that Care

It doesn’t matter how rigorous the curriculum is if the student doesn’t want to do the work. Teachers, or parents, might be able to convince or coerce a student to complete an assignment, but that doesn’t mean the student will retain the information. There will always be those achievement-oriented students, especially with helpful parents, who work hard to earn top grades and extracurricular attainments in order to impress college admissions offices, but how much are they really learning? And what about the rest of the students who are bored, or confused, or just getting along until graduation sets them free?

This is where the true benefit of self-directed education comes in. When children (or adults for that matter) have ownership over their own education, they will care more. They will pursue subjects that are interesting to them . . . or necessary in the pursuit of something else.

When Teddy Roosevelt was a boy, he was passionately interested in the outdoors, birds, animals, taxidermy, adventure stories, and naval history. His aunt, who taught Teddy at home, required a few other subjects, such as letter writing and French, but he was “behind” other boys of his age in mathematics. It wasn’t until he was fifteen, and eager to get into Harvard, that his father hired a tutor to help him prepare. He worked so hard (6-8 hrs a day) that he was able to do three years of mathematics in only two years.

Kids probably will not pursue subjects that you wish they would.

An 8-year-old would never say, “I want to learn more about language arts.” But they might pick up a book beyond their present reading ability and read it anyway. Or they might enjoy making up stories to play with their friends. Kids want to find answers to their own questions (“What does a leech look like?” or “Where would I look for a Sasquatch?”), and explore their favorite subjects in exhaustive detail. I had one son who was obsessed with deadly snakes (non-deadly snakes were of no interest), and he wanted to read every book we could find on the subject until his interest shifted to Aliens (deadly ones). Later, he moved through a procession of interests, including Greek Mythology, Yu-gi-oh cards, Tin Tin comics, fantasy novels, Shakespeare, weight-lifting, acting and singing. Along the way, he also learned how to read well, spell, write amazing prose, conquer math tests, memorize long poems, and identify logical fallacies.

Younger kids prefer concrete over abstract learning. They would rather build perfect squares out of Legos than learn how to square a number on a workbook page. This doesn’t mean they will never learn about square roots or grammar or the scientific method; it just means that they will learn it when they are ready for it. When they are ready for abstract concepts, it’s much easier for them to dive in and cover more material.

There will ALWAYS be Gaps

Even if your child went to the best college-prep school in the country, there would be “gaps” in the curriculum. There is no possible way we could teach children everything there is to know in a dozen years of school. There is no possible way any of us could learn everything there is to know in a dozen lifetimes. The thing to ask yourself is this: “Since we can’t learn everything, what are the most important things to learn?”

If your child doesn’t get to have a say in this, then she must decide . . . either to do as she is told or to rebel. With the first option, it’s hard to say how much the child is truly learning and she may forget what it feels like to be truly interested or curious. With the second option, the child might just reject any and all adult help, which will make independent learning very difficult.

If your child does get to have a say in what is most important to learn, and their opinions are truly honored, then a balance can be reached. Both parents and children will care. Children will feel a sense of ownership, but also know that they have their parents’ support and help whenever it is needed. It’s good to research college and/or job requirements together, but remember that sometimes a student’s true zest for learning can lead to places that neither one of you might expect.

Following along with someone else’s curriculum is like following along someone else’s trail. It may be a fine trail, but you will always end up where the other trailblazer meant it to go. Take the chance to go off trail and explore a little – or a lot. Teddy Roosevelt would approve.

How do your children feel about their curriculum? Did they help to choose it? Why? If it’s boring, do they understand or agree with the reason to stay with it?

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.