Flashback post from March 2008

 It started with a math lesson today. Janessa and I read about binary numbers in a book by Theoni Pappas. We made sense of the explanation, and Janessa was able to respond to questions such as, "If 1011 is a base two number, how is it written in base 10?" No problem. Pappas claimed that any number can be represented with these 0's and 1's in the binary system. Since I've had almost no exposure to the binary number system, I was skeptical. I extended the lesson by suggesting a number which we needed to represent with 0's and 1's. Enter the problem.

I knew what I was asking of Janessa was within her reach. I also knew the process would require her to struggle. She wasn't interested in a struggle; she desired ease. At that point, she would have much preferred to mindlessly fill in a page of simple multiplication and addition problems. When I said I wanted her to struggle, she thought I had cursed her, and began to cry.

Fast forward to this afternoon. A local store is offering a savings of 50% on all of their games this week. The girls and I browsed the store, hoping for nothing more than a new deck of Dutch Blitz cards. With the cards in hand, I continued to look. I spotted Settlers of Catan, a game my friend recommended years ago. I hadn't purchased it for two reasons: it's expensive, and it looks daunting. The sale removed the first reason. But the second reason remained. This appeared to be a game which would require a lot of study prior to playing. Frankly, I wasn't interested in the struggle; I wanted ease. I showed it to the girls, though, and they were up for the challenge. Within an hour of opening it, we became the game's newest fans.

How do binary numbers and Settlers of Catan relate? In our little world, they both represented struggle. Both required effort. Both wrinkled our brains. At first. Once we pressed through, however, we experienced gain. Janessa's gain was unlocking the secret binary code and accomplishing something she thought impossible. Our group gain was learning a game we anticipate giving us many hours of fun family time.

It didn't take more than a moment of reflection to discover spiritual application as well. How I prefer ease in my life! I want a happy (tidy) family, a healthy savings account, a husband who leads flawlessly, friends who adore me...you get the idea. It is when I have all these things, however, that I see very little growth in my relationship with the Lord. When trials come, even small ones like a child crying over her math, I am tested, refined, disciplined, humbled--all for God's good purpose of producing righteousness and steadfastness, a genuine faith and maturity in me. When life is easy, I forget my Lord and unwittingly place myself on His throne. Trials knock me down and impel me to seek my Savior.

In dependence upon my mighty Savior is where I want to be. It's where I need to be. Therefore, I welcome the struggle, knowing gain will be right around the corner.

See Hebrews 12:11; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7.
Flashback post from June 2008

Almost daily I read what other moms and teachers write on the Living Math Forum, a Yahoo group I enjoy. The following quote snagged my attention.

"Sometimes I laugh to myself because my undergrad friends would say, 'You are SO smart.' Really, I was pretty dumb. I was like a rat in a maze--just do what you're taught, don't even think."

I was--am?--one of those rats in the maze. I learned the material presented to me for the sole purpose of earning an A (and all the benefits which accompanied it). Once I accomplished that, I turned the corner, sniffing around for my next one. Somehow I missed the reality outside the maze. My husband, who is one of the clearest thinkers I know, couldn't be bothered with a silly, old maze. He didn't play by the rules, as his GPAs reflected, but he knew how to think, and he knew how to communicate his thoughts.In the early days of my teaching career, I began a quest to learn how to teach outside the maze, to keep students from mindlessly meandering through the maze. My insights are shallow, my implementation is imperfect, and my learning is ongoing, but here is what has helped us thus far.

~We keep W. B. Yeats' wise words before us: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

~We avoid workbooks and other rote memorization methods which can program a child to turn off her mind as she fills in the blanks.

~We fill the house with living books of all kinds to encourage reading. We avoid fluffy books which lack content, have a a controlled vocabulary, or include poor writing.

~We visit the library regularly.

~Writing for real purposes is vitally important. We have a large collection of the girls' own books, portfolders, and projects.

~We try to give the girls many and varied experiences to help them connect their learning to the world.

~We encourage creativity and decision-making.

~We try to teach skills in context rather than isolating them.

~We encourage the girls to set their own goals. We are here to help them learn in whatever ways we can, but their education is ultimately their responsibility.

~As they play, the girls re-enact what they've learned.

~The girls don't work for grades; they work for excellence.

~We talk together a lot.

~The girls observe our continuing desire to learn.

~We teach them how to learn, so they may continue to do so when they're no longer at home.

Marilyn Burns says in Math: Facing an American Phobia: "And to learn with understanding, students' curiosity about mathematics must be tapped, their thinking must be stimulated, and they have to be actively engaged in learning and doing mathematics. It's not okay to do anything less than that and call it education" (79). Burns is primarily focused on math, but the principle can be extended beyond math. Curiosity, stimulation, and active engagement are the breeding grounds for students to grow as thinkers, not in a contrived maze but in a big world where learning has no end.
Flashback post from August 2008

While I watched the girls at their swimming lessons today, I had an Ah ha! moment: learning is risky.

Let me give an example. Michaiah's teacher wanted her to learn how to flip turn. She talked Michaiah through the steps. She demonstrated the process. Michaiah tried but couldn't do it. The teacher, forgetting what it was like NOT to be able to flip turn, tried other strategies but eventually called the neighboring teacher to her aid. As Michaiah practiced, she bashed her head, she botched her flips until, finally, she succeeded.

From my comfortable perch on the sidelines, I imagined myself in her place. I would have been nervous. I would have felt threatened. I would have been in a rush to prove myself. Not Michaiah. With concentration, determination, and an obvious peace with the process, she persisted toward the goal.

This is the life of children whose full-time job is learning. To progress, they must face the unknown, trust the one guiding them, potentially (and probably) look stupid, and try, try again. That sounds risky.

It sounds like something else, too. For those of us who teach, patience is required.
This is a flashback post from June 2009.

So by Thursday Chester Cricket was the most famous musician in New York City. But now here is a strange thing: he wasn't really happy--not the way he used to be. Life didn't seem to have the fun and freedom it had had before.

For one thing, although he thought that glory was very nice, Chester found that it made you tired. Two concerts a day, every day, was an exhausting program. And he wasn't used to playing on schedule. Back home in the meadow, if the sun felt nice, or the moon was full, or if he wanted to have a musical conversation with his friend the lark, he would chirp because the mood was on him. But here he had to begin performing at eight and four-thirty whether he felt like it or not. Of course he was very glad to be helping the Bellinis, but a lot of the joy was gone from his playing.
In this excerpt from The Cricket in Times Square, I see a metaphor for something I think about often: school vs. education. Chester's concert schedule in the city reminds me of school. It's tiring, scheduled, restrictive, rigid. School demands 180 days, specific subjects, standardized tests, daily logs, medical records, and, and, and.

Education, in contrast, is a meadow of fun and freedom. It doesn't care whether it's fall or summer, Sunday or Tuesday, 10:30 am or 10:30 pm. It can happen whenever and wherever, alone or with company. It needs no curriculum or grades. Motivation comes from within not from without.

School can teach us these lessons.
  1. Do the bare minimum.
  2. Learning means pleasing the authority figure.
  3. Learning, schooling, and studying are no fun.
  4. Playing is when you don't have to learn.
  5. To be a good student I have to study somebody else's interests.
  6. My own interests must be pursued on my own time, and they aren't as valuable as the "accepted" topics of study.
  7. If nobody is making me study, I'd rather be entertained than learn.

Education gives us different lessons.
  1. There is so much to learn and it is so exciting.
  2. Learning is more fun than almost anything.
  3. I can learn on my own, in a group, or with help from a teacher or parent.
  4. All I need is a book and I can learn.
  5. In fact, I can learn even without a book.
  6. I love learning!
  7. I am passionately interested in.....
  8. If I do more than is assigned, I'll learn more and have more fun. The assignments are just minimums.
  9. My thoughts and ideas are as valuable as anybody else's.

School is not inherently confined to buildings with whiteboards and desks (although it does exist aplenty there). Similarly, education doesn't automatically flourish in a home with a mother and her children. Some classrooms encourage education; some homes dispense school; some have a combination of each.

In my ideal world, our home would be a meadow of inquisitiveness, exploration, and excellence. By God's grace, it is much of the time, but always ready to encroach on our fun and freedom is the yoke of school. I know it has us in its grip when I hear (or say) comments such as:

Does this count?
Was that a full day?
How many weeks of school have we finished?
You counted THAT?
You need to do your math first.
Can I go play now?

It's then that I ponder the school/education tension so intently that I find myself identifying with a cricket.

We are taking a brief break from school (oh, there it is again!), but I am so glad education continues. I've captured some of those moments on the camera.
Rebekah making gravel cakes for a doll she's sewing.
Janessa drawing and painting on the computer.
Rebekah dying socks in tea for the doll she is making
Michaiah laying out the pieces for a quilt she designed
The girls dancing the "Cha Cha Slide"
Janessa in bed knitting while listening to The Hiding Place
Michaiah reading
Rebekah playing piano, with her makeshift microphone next to her
I'm fully aware that the tension will remain for me. Realistically, the pull toward school will only increase as we march toward the high school years. But as much as possible, I want to encourage the girls toward the meadow, where they can enjoy musical conversations and chirp as they so please.

The numbered lists are taken from A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century by Oliver Van DeMille.