Thursday, February 9, 2017

An Experiment

Have you ever walked down the sidewalk with a toddler, holding his hand and trying to compel him to walk at a reasonable pace instead of collecting every pebble he sees? And yet the same toddler, if he decides he wants to run away from you, can be equally hard to stop. You may even wonder, “If I didn’t force him to go at my pace, would his pace average out to something reasonable? Might we get home just as quickly if all I do is keep him out of the road instead of trying to control his speed? And he and I would both be happier that way.”

That’s a picture of how I came to the conclusion that we need to try something radically different in our homeschool. Particularly this school year, with E10 and to a lesser extent B7, I have faced incredible resistance to certain activities (Latin, spelling, or strength & endurance exercises are some examples) while they want to race ahead in others (math, for B7, or geology, for E10). I have also felt a bit as though our school schedule is like one of those bucking bronco rides you see at amusement parks, which becomes wilder and wilder until it throws you off. Our days have been packed with schoolwork, but all of it has seemed so valuable that I couldn’t bear to pare it down at all. And yet I have longed for space for my children to pursue their own interests and passions, without having so many other things to do that, by the time they’re through with their schoolwork, all they want to do is stare at a screen. I realized that I have been guilty of teaching a curriculum instead of teaching my children.

So, the change. I wanted to throw off the scheduled box checking to allow for exploration, but not to throw out all structure and just allow the children to play computer games all day. Suddenly, on Tuesday afternoon last week, I remembered seeing something that could work: the record-keeping book from Notgrass ( I decided to try using this system during the month of February (which, as the shortest month, is an ideal time to try an experiment). There are 11 categories of learning, and for the time being I simply created an Excel file with space to record activities in 10 of them (the one I left out being “Relating to Others: Character and Relationships” – with 5 children in the house, this happens daily without any additional effort!).  I have ordered the actual record-keeping books, but who knows how long it’ll take for them to appear in the middle of the Pacific? For now, I print out 3 copies of the file each day, for B7, E10, and P12. Each child needs to do something from each category each day, but exactly what and how is their choice. Some activities can play double or triple duty: I have been reading B7 a history of Solar System exploration, which covers science, history, and geography (mapping where people like Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler did their work).

So far, we are all a lot happier, having a great time, and learning a lot. On the Tuesday evening when I announced the change, P12 was so happy she was literally jumping up and down. We went to the library the next day, and bought a dozen or more 50-cent discarded/donated books in addition to checking out another dozen or so to follow the children’s interests. P12 has been studying various Middle Eastern countries, learning Arabic with Rosetta Stone, and is working on writing a report on Turkey. She has also written a praise song which she intends to have her Community Bible Study class sing, made a model of the Solar System out of tissue paper, and done some watercolor painting. She’s currently exploring Khan Academy’s Algebra 1 course to fulfill her math requirement.

E10 has been reading about pirates and working on writing his pirate adventure novel. He’s also taking advantage of some of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses: “The Secrets of Mental Math” to meet his math requirement, and “The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology” because he’s certain he wants to be a geologist. I found him a few mornings ago sitting with his notebook taking notes to help him grasp the structure of Earth’s interior and how plate tectonics functions. This is the child who shirks writing assignments, doing the minimum possible – left to his own devices, he’s voluntarily using writing as a tool to further his other goals. I’m in awe. Oh, and he asked if he could get a course “like the geology one” about chemistry, because he had a hard time understanding the chemistry in the lecture on mineral formation. And the high school chemistry course from the Teaching Company is on sale right now! Once he starts working through that, I expect it to stretch his math skills enough that it can count for both science and math.

B7 loves that I allow him to play on the playground instead of requiring “strength and endurance exercises” like sit-ups and push-ups. His arm strength is barely enough to bend a bow (he just turned 7, old enough to join P12 and E10 in archery), but I perceive a pattern similar to that of his brother’s attitude toward writing: when I specified what exercise he needed to do, B7 would do the minimum possible to allow me to call something a sit-up or push-up and do as few reps as he could get away with, but he is quite happy increasing his arm and abdominal strength through playing on the playground for an hour. He isn’t as much of a bookworm as I’d like, though he’ll happily read Dr. Seuss’s more advanced works (Bartholomew and the Oobleck, for example) to H5 and E2. I’m letting him focus less on language arts so he can pursue his true passion, math. So far, our mathematical adventures have included ellipses (as we came across Kepler’s work in his book about Solar System history) and exponents. On the way back from Community Bible Study yesterday, he asked from the back seat, “What does ‘to the power of’ mean?” After a brief discussion of exponents, he sat silently for a minute or two before asking, “So 2 to the power of 13 is 8192?” When we got home, I asked him if he felt that had been enough math for the day or if he would like to do more with exponents. He enthusiastically voted in favor of more math, and lacking a better idea, I hauled out P12’s Pre-Algebra book and opened it to the chapter on exponents. Yesterday and today, he has worked out problems such as, “How many perfect squares are between 1000 and 2000?” and “Why is (125*8)2 equal to 1252*82?” I kept asking him, after thinking he must be exhausted at doing math designed for people 5 years older than him, if he wanted to quit, but he wouldn’t stop before the entire set of problems was solved.

And the little guys? I had been doing school with H5 “to help him feel included”, but somehow had allowed that to turn into pressuring him into a daily reading lesson, writing activity, math game, violin practice, and several other things. He’s not even old enough for kindergarten yet, so I asked myself why I was pressuring him to do early academics and couldn’t come up with a good reason. So for H5 and E2, school time is play time. If they ask me to read books to them, I try to say yes unless I have a good reason, and I involve them in household tasks. With so much learning going on around them, they’re absorbing huge amounts without my needing to do anything.

I’m really amazed at how much my children are learning on their own initiative, and although I announced this experiment as being only for the duration of February, it might well be the way we do things from now on. I feel like I’ve let go of my toddler’s hand, and with only occasional nudges to keep him out of the road, he is heading straight toward home, giggling with joy.