Friday, September 9, 2011

Learning in the Middle Years


August 8:

I am sitting at my dining room table.  Rhubarb is to my left, working on her second lesson of math for the day.  She claims it as her favorite subject.  The sun shines in from the eastern facing window and frames her with a halo of blue from the lake.  Nectarine sits across from me, gently calculating his answers to math.  I am amazed at the sense of calm he brings to the table.  Eggplant is to my right, working on spelling.  It is not his favorite thing to do, but he wants to write stories more fluidly so it is a means to an end.  He jazzes up the subject by adding pictures next to the words.  Blueberry is lying on the couch a few feet away copying her own dictation about the wheelchair she wants to buy.

This is school, for the morning anyway.  We will take a field trip with another family later to the Northwestern campus to check out the architecture.  

My job, besides the proper care and feeding of my children and facilitating research and development, is to mentor them when needed.

Eggplant, for example, understood all but one section of his morning math.  I see no need to teach him that which he already knows, so I only focus on the concepts he does not understand.  After a short explanation (3 minutes tops), he completely understood the previously confusing section and mastered its completion on his own.  Besides learning a new concept in math, he felt pretty satisfied with himself.  Rhubarb prefers to attempt to teach herself new math concepts by thoroughly reading the instructions in the book.  She follows them well and always enjoys the euphoria of having solved a problem on her own (And isn't that what math is partially meant to do?  To teach us how to problem-solve?).  In fact, she will not come to me unless she has exhausted all other attempts at figuring out the problem.  I am less her mentor in math than her last resort.

When they were all younger, most of their education looked like play.  Though each of my children has needed to learn how to read (they did not pick it up on their own from being surrounded by literature like several children I know, myself included), much of their instruction took the form of me reading to them, them reading to me or each other, them listening to audio books, us playing games together, and them playing reading games on the computer.  Math and science were picked up through a multitude of activities that required these topics, like cooking and construction.  History and geography came naturally through our exploration of the world and exposure to museums, art, music, and literature.  There were loads of classes and playdates to fortify the mix.

As they have grown, we have been able to determine together how their educational needs have changed.  So far, two out of three of my own children have organically subscribed to Cindy Gaddis' pedagogical timeline, as I learned it from a friend.

The basic gist of Gaddis' observations***  is that learning during the early years is all play-based.   Children are passionate and excited and learn by doing what they love to do, usually in an imaginary setting.  During these years, which are typically spent in elementary school, children frequently develop passions that could, if treated properly, hold for life. By about early puberty, children are ready to absorb and process a great deal of information and facts to be used as building blocks towards pursuing those interests more concretely.  This is a good time to offer as many resources as possible and to consider more formalized versions of education where necessary, though within the context of their interests and passions.  By the teen years, children who have been allowed to learn according to their passions, are typically ready to chart their own educational courses, knowing by then how they learn best and what they most want to continue learning.

Rhubarb desperately wanted to learn to read when she was about five.  She mastered reading (meaning, she could read most books fluently) when she around eight.   She also wanted to learn to play the violin, to dance, to do fiber arts, and to do worksheets.  Aside from these things, she resisted all other attempts at formal education while I was trying to discover and navigate our learning environment.  I was very lucky in that she LOVED worksheets and reading, mostly because it made me feel better about her education.  Now she is 11, has a healthy sense of how she learns best, and is gulping up knowledge like a shark on krill.  

Therefore, both Rhubarb and Nectarine are currently using John Taylor Gatto's educational approach and learning through self-guided projects that require pre-requisute math, writing, and reading for mastery (in some cases, like the building of their model home, even just for participation).  Each week, they have a list of what they need to accomplish that week, according to their goals. Then, they do it.  That's it.  I hang out and mentor.  I do not teach -- because they do most of that themselves -- unless required or requested.  I don't set a schedule beyond activities that are time-sensitive.  

I provide lots of support, guide them where necessary, share pertinent and interesting information and resources, find interesting and pertinent options to consider, provide lots of materials, and drive them all over the place.  

I am pretty busy by all this, going and going all day long.  I don't need much else on my plate.  And, in case you are wondering, my house is never clean.

I would not have it any other way...most days, that is.


***This is according to my friend.  I confess to being too overwhelmed right now to go searching for it through Cindy's wonderful blog -- plus there's a chance my friend heard it from Cindy herself at a conference and it is not on her blog at all.



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