Monday, May 05, 2008

Fighting learning fatigue

It is easy to get excited about projects, curriculum, timetables and learning goals. As homeschooling parents it is anyway! Kids slowly become hyper-scheduled, churning out artwork to be put on the fridge or sent to grandparents, learning party tricks like how to name all the states and capitals or every prime minister since federation. Parents get obsessed with the academic and giving them the 'best' education, so often at the expense of true learning. When I was teaching, I remember having children in my classes who were so fearful at the idea of making a mistake, they wouldn't even try something new - let alone invent or create something original. Children who knew their timetables at six year old, but had forgotten how to play. Children who had a highly advanced reading age, but had never laughed or cried over a good story.

The most frightening part of this is how close I have come to this trap on occasion!

Erin is a bright kid and she has been champing at the bit to learn to read for months. Jon and I are happy and comfortable in the world of academics, and want our kids to be also, so it makes sense that the way we teach does somewhat resemble the traditional idea of 'school'. Young children, with their desire to please and ability to pick up predictable cues easily (i.e. if I sit here and write what she tells me, I will please her, then she'll let me up!) quickly begin learning in any environment - even if what they learn is how to fake interest until you go away and leave them alone! I do NOT want Erin to learn this. I want her to find 'school work' exciting rather than become programmed to have her eyes glaze over as she picks up the pencil (an all too familiar sight in schools) and to learn what is REALLY important.

So this is how we do it.

We start each day at the breakfast table with the Bible, songs and prayers. In 1956, Elisabeth Elliot's husband, Jim, was martyred by Auca Indians in Ecuador. Later, when an interviewer asked this woman why hymns are an important part of her life, Mrs. Elliot responded:

I came from a home where we not only read the Bible every day, but we sang a hymn every day. I have learned as a result of that [practice]...hundreds of hymns. They are as much a part of my life as the Scriptures, and they have been a tremendous blessing to me in times of distress.

Elizabeth Elliot went on to say that, upon hearing that her husband might be dead, a verse of Scripture (Isaiah 43) and the words of a hymn ("How Firm a Foundation") came to mind and ministered to her soul. (Quoted from The Remarkable Women of the Bible by Elizabeth George)

As well as spiritual and moral training, reading, discussing, and memorising the Bible provides opportunity to expand vocabularies, practice conversation skills, enjoy the sensory pleasure of listening to language used well, and experience thinking logically and philosophically. Great literature grows little minds, and the Bible is the greatest there is!

Singing, as well as providing an opportunity for praise, teaches many spiritual truths and stands the kids in good stead for the future. Miriam, named among the precious prophets gifted by God to Israel (Micah 6:4) sang! (Exodus 15:20-21) Singing was even highly commended in the New Testament church (Ephesians 5:19). If this wasn't enough, singing encourages good, clear speech habits, expands the vocabulary, prepares kids for enjoying and composing poetry, encourages them to use their lungs well, develops their sense of movement and rhythm (especially action songs!), and teaches sequencing and patterning (vital for maths). I am not a great singer, I just throw myself into it with enthusiasm. We sing a mixture of hymns, scripture set to music and kids songs and it is VERY rare for us to have songs and prayers without laughing together. We each choose two songs then finish with our usual song before prayers that sets the mood for quiet reverence.

Praying together as a family, especially with my little ones, is the most important thing I do in a day. We pray for each of us - especially Daddy who is usually at work. They see and hear me modeling prayer, they have a go themselves. They learn how to still themselves internally as well as externally. Often, I gain insight into their hearts as they pray that I would otherwise be ignorant of.

After this we take a break. The kids play inside and outside - sometimes with toys I get out for them, other times games of their own invention. Sometimes they help with jobs - sometimes not. But I expect them to make their own decisions within the parameters I have set - I just set the parameters according for their need for structure and discipline on the given day.

Before lunch we usually do our 'school work' at the kitchen table. Billy has his "Maths Book" (an old colouring book at the moment - it varies according to his mood) and I set the timer for ten minutes. Erin works on either her Signpost Maths text book or her Explode the Code phonics text book for ten minutes. I sit beside her doing my own thing (often feeding Christopher and doing paper work) giving help as she needs it. When the timer goes off she finishes off what she is doing, we check it together and I write the date at the top of the page/s before swapping to the next text book. We repeat for another ten minutes. The main aim of this time is to experience success without boredom! She is always reluctant to put the books away and looks forward to the next time she can get them out. If she is ever disinterested, we just put the books away for another day. Her view of herself is "I am good at school work, this is something that is fun and I can succeed at!". I try to focus my praise on her work habits i.e. "you persisted with that even when you were a bit frustrated, well done!" rather than getting things right and being clever. She is clever, but I have known too many clever people who have crashed and burned once the got into Uni and needed to structure their own work habits or the first time they met a true challenge to their intelligence. Maths and reading is a bonus, but I would not have worried over much if she had not had great interest until she was six or older.

Games is actually where I do most of my 'teaching' (reading skills etc.). I have some books by an American author named Peggy Kaye filled with brilliant learning games. Today we played the body part game at Erin's request. She read the body part name written on the index card, then Billy pointed to that part for us to stick the card on. It is hilarious when we are all covered in cards! We also used a phonics card game I have. We put cards with pictures on them down on the floor and I held up the letter for Erin to match with the picture, or the other picture with a letter superimposed on it for Billy to match with the picture on the floor. I really just involve Billy because he loves being a part of it, with no real academic goals for him. If he develops skills, great, if not, he will later. We also have puzzles, sticker books, card games etc. I try to find time for at least one game a day with the kids, they often get them out and play them without me.

Books are a big part of life for the Guest family. We read before afternoon nap time for the boys. Sometimes the kids pick, sometimes me, sometimes both. If you don't know the benefits of reading to your children, I highly recommend the book "Babies Need Books" By Dorothy Butler.

Sometimes Erin and I do projects and experiments in the afternoon after the boys are in bed. Sometimes they are based on the book we read, sometimes they are just something we do together. It is as much about us spending time together as the academic value. We draw pictures, nature journal, paint, use playdough, make books, family trees..... any number of things.

Wednesdays are different. We break the routine a bit, get out of our comfort zones. Instead of text books, we only play games. We have a special 'tea time' where we picnic outside on a blanket, have special food, eat lunch under the table or on a rug in the lounge room. We each choose a poem or nursery rhyme to be read at the tea party or we put on an audio book. As the children get older we will laugh over Henry Lawson's "Loaded Dog" together, be inspired by Rudyard Kipling's "If...", be spell bound by "Beowulf" and cry over "The Little Match Girl". We will acquaint ourselves with Aesop, Shakespeare, Chaucer and The Brothers Grimm. What is the point of knowing how to read if you can't enjoy a good story?! In the afternoons, we also craft. We make and measure and sew and knit. We use our hands and minds. We problem solve and salvage mistakes. We make gifts and games and Useful Items. We design or follow directions. We learn to love learning on Wednesdays!!

The keys to our home schooling are, little bits often, variety within routine, HOME schooling not school homing (school work happens around relationships, people and life, not the other way around) and knowing What Is Important rather than trying to learn it all.

And so far, no learning fatigue!

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