Thursday, October 20, 2005

Cave Painting

Autumn is the kindest season in the Deep South. Winter is cold, Summer scorches, Spring is pretty but erratic. Autumn is long stretches of steady mild weather with little rain. Aside from Christmas and January, we take most of our time off in Autumn, because it's the best time of year to be outdoors where we live. Right now the girls are playing with bubbles in the backyard, and I'm supposed to be working on Halloween costumes.

The last thing we did before going on holiday was cave painting. Brighteyes had won some finger paints at the Summer Reading Program, and Daddy donated the cinder block wall of the blacksmith's forge for the purpose. We waited until he got home so he could be part of it and take the pictures.

When I opened the paint set, I found the paint was not liquid, but creamy. It looked like neon colored cold cream. We gobbed some on our fingers and went to work.

The first thing we found out was that an undressed cinder block wall is not the best surface for painting. It's so porous it steals the paint right off your fingers. It's no place for brushstrokes, you have to use lots to leave an impression. It made us appreciate the value of a good cave wall. The girls tried to make animals but they came out as blobs. My husband and I were a little bit better at making recognizable shapes, but not much.

When the girls got tired I poured some paint into a paper plate so we could make handprints. That was a lot of fun. Brighteyes made the best prints, because she spread her fingers the widest.

That was a week ago. The paint has dried well, and is holding to the wall. We haven't had any rain, so we don't know yet how well it will do then. We've still got over half of the paint, and we'll have to get back to it soon. It seems like Brighteyes and Sunshine have been trying to see how many different things they can do while on break. They've been on the go constantly. I'll post the list soon.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Samhein Break

It's too pretty to be in the house. We're on break until Halloween/Samhein.

We did the cave painting Tuesday. I'll put that story up in a day or so.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Paleontology of Oz

Brighteyes wants to know if "Homo Sapiens Munchkin" (her term) were shorter than modern humans but taller than ancient humans.


"What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwhichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible." - Kenneth Grahame, "The Reluctant Dragon"

Saturday, October 08, 2005

We plunged from the 90s to the 70s this week. I packed up the girls' summer clothes, got out their winter clothes, and made an inventory of what was needed. Two Halloween ghost costumes, 1 1/2 Ren Faire costumes, a few nightgowns and shirts -- shouldn't take me a week to sew up if I had any energy, but I'm bushed. I'll have to see what I can put off till later while I dust off the sewing machine.

Sunshine has been very interested in reading this week. She's doing daily lessons in her primer without making us go back and start at the beginning every day. She's also pulling out picture books and having me read them, then rereading the first two pages over and over again for hours. In a monotone. It's driving me nuts. I tell myself she's busy learning something and work to ignore it.

All the drawing has improved her handwriting. She did letter-writing exercises twice this week, but the third day it was like she had no idea how to form any letter at all. Maybe it's boredom, but I'm not sure. Two steps forward, one step back.

Brighteyes pulled out a crafts book and made her first diorama this week inside a cracker box. It was her first real experiment by herself with school glue. She didn't get glue all over anything and what she glued down is still stuck in place half a week later, so I'd say the experiment was a success.

She wants to make a hanging loom. We visited the hardware store and the craft store this week for parts, and I'm looking around for a cheap plastic hair pick for her to use as a weaver's comb. At the moment she's working on teaching her puppy how to shake hands.

This was supposed to have been the week we decorated the outside wall of the forge with "cave paintings". We spent the past two weeks reading up on the subject, and everyone was excited about it. Then Friday it threatened rain and I put it off. The girls were terribly upset, especially when the rain didn't come after all. We'll try to do it tomorrow. I'll try to post pictures when we're done.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Our Journey to Homeschooling Part 4: At Home With the Classics

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

By now we had a three year-old who had started reading and one year-old who wanted to be just like her big sister. We were committed to homeschooling, but not sure how to go about it. Unschooling hadn't worked, but every system we had seen had been too arbitrary. We needed to figure out what we really wanted to do. We started by examining how we ourselves learned and picking apart what we already knew.

The statement, "When I need to know something I can learn it then," is a conceit with two flaws. The first flaw is that the young child's brain is uniquely wired for learning, and most adults do not learn with the same ease and speed as a child. The second flaw overlooks the fact that quite often when you need to know something, you need to know it right now. You don't have time to research it. I don't mean facts like what was going on in Sweden in 1290 A.D., but concepts and their history. If someone comes up to you with a really great new idea that no one's ever thought of before, it's helpful to be able to say, "This idea was tried by the Sumerian Lugols, the Sun King, and the Soviet Premiers. These are the problems they had with it. What steps are you taking to keep the same problems from showing up in your model?" Or to use a recent example, it helps to know that when people say, "It's a new economy! The old rules about how money works have gone out the window!", they really mean, "We're inside a bubble that's going to burst any moment and wash billions of dollars in profit down the drain." An awful lot of people would be better off today if they had been taught that bit of economics when they were younger and remembered it ten years ago.

At the same time, it is impossible, impractical and immoral to try to completely control a child's learning. It is impossible because children learn all the time, and no one can fully predict what lessons they will learn from any given situation. It is impractical because to control a child's learning environment is to limit it, and what you leave out may prove to be more important than what you let in. It is immoral because it denies the child the opportunity to learn how to learn and to integrate what they learn into their own psyche in their own way.

The best method I have seen so far is called the classical method, also called the trivium. It is based on the way children learn language, and coordinates beautifully with the child's developing brain. The trivium picks one topic to be the central focus of the child's schooling and ties everything back to that one focus so you get a holistic effect, but you choose the topic.

The trivium goes back at least to Ancient Greece and Rome, if not further. It was first condemned by Christians, then championed by them when they couldn't find a method of teaching that worked better. It was taught in Catholic schools up through the early 20th Century, and is still used by many private schools including the Marva Collins Schools and Calvert School, America's oldest correspondence school.

As I said earlier, the method is based on how a child learns language. There are three stages, which correspond with three different phases in a child's mental development. The first stage of learning a language is learning the words. The second stage is learning how the words fit together to form sentances. The third stage is learning how to express your own ideas using that language.

The first stage takes place before the age of 9 or 10m, when most children's brains are ready sponges actively absorbing every data point they run across. The teacher's job at this stage is to cover the material in a way the child finds interesting and fun.

Around age 9 or 10, the child's brain matures enough to wonder about cause and effect. When that happens its time to change stages and begin teaching how all those facts you covered in the first stage fit together, and to deepen the child's understanding of those facts and the circumstances surrounding them. At this age a child wants to argue all the time. The trivium encourages you to teach them how to argue with lessons on Logic and critical thinking skills. Then at least they will be able to argue well, and to spot bad arguements offered by other people. Also, since a child is learning how to think through cause and effect, they are encouraged to study more independently and to learn how to manage their own time.

Around the high school years, the child becomes obsessed with self-expression. Then the trivium switches to the third stage and concentrates on developing self-expression. The child learns Rhetoric so that they can get their ideas across with greater ease and so they can learn how to analyze the ideas of other people. They are encouraged to study what interests them, and to develop and communicate their own ideas and projects. Topics that don't interest them drop by the wayside so they can spend more time with what fires their imaginations.

Part of what makes the trivium work is that it picks one subject to be the base subject, and ties all the other subjects back to that one. If the base topic is, say, history, then the science and literature for that year will concentrate on the scientific and literary developments that took place during the era of history being studied. Different people use different base subjects. "Traditionalists" use Latin as their base subject, Marva Collins uses phonics, Charlotte Mason used Nature studies, The Well-Trained Mind uses history, some Christians use Christianity and some Hellenistic Pagans use Ancient Greek Paganism. I've also heard of people making science, literature and the military their base subject. What matters is that you are consistent and don't change your focus from year to year. Change the focus slowly and only after careful consideration of what the new focus should be.

I won't say that classical homeschooling is a perfect fit for everyone. I won't say that anything is a perfect fit for everyone, except for breathing. Classical homeschooling is a good fit when you have parents who love learning or children who are very bright and very energetic. We have both. I've asked other homeschoolers, "How many people do you know who classically homeschool and aren't Conservative Christians have aggressive learners? Children who are full of energy, want to learn badly, and if left on their own would tear the walls down just to see how they are made?" So far almost all the homeschoolers I've talked to who use a straightforward classical approach do so in self-defense. If you have that kind of child you might want to look into classical homeschooling.


Today's the day for the shellfish lesson in Science. The girls are terribly distracted all day. They're not bad, but if I turn my back they wander away. Sunshine actually does a reading, a drawing, and two workbook exercises today after a several week break, and only throws one tantrum about it. She wants to read the whole primer from the beginning and hates it when I want to start in the middle, but if we start at the beginning she gets bored by the fifth story.

"Guess what animal we'll be covering today!", I say in an attempt at mystery. That perks them up a bit. We finally get to Science at the end of the day. I open the Usborne World history book to the page of the first multi-celled organisms, then open a can of Play-Doh.

"We've covered microbes, worms, and jellyfish. What do all these animals have in common?" I ask as I roll out a Play-Doh worm and a balloon. The girls grumble a bit, then Brighteyes mutters "soft-bodied".

"That's right! They're all soft-bodied. This is a problem, because if a rock falls on them they get squished." I squish the worm with a plastic toy.

"Ooh! Squish!", say the girls. Many more worms are made out of Play-Doh and squished in the name of Science. "Squish! Squish! Squish!"

"Right! So what are these soft-bodied creatures going to do about that?" I roll a ball of Play-Doh up and cover it with a clamshell. "They evolve shells." I tap the top of the shell with the plastic toy and turn it over to show the soft body underneath is safe.

"Oh! The shells are hard! They protect the soft bodies!", says Brighteyes.

After that there's a lot of Play-Doh played with. Sunshine has to be reminded to tap the clamshell gently, Mommy's had it a long time and we don't want to break it. Then the girls remember my seashell collection that's kept locked up and clamor for it ("Next lesson.") It takes a lot of work on my part to get Brighteyes to focus on the page about seashells in her animal book and narrate back to me what she learned on it. Then we're through with lessons, and the girls get into a fuss involving messing up each other's creations. By lunchtime we're all frazzled.

All in all the second half of the lesson could have gone a whole lot better. I'll have to work on that when using something like Play-Doh in the future. But I don't think they'll ever forget what shells are for.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flashback: Notes From a Life-Long Learner

I posted the original form of this essay to an e-list last year as part of a discussion on the pros and cons of self-teaching:

The argument that children should not learn to read from primers but only from "real world reading experience" takes a very limited view of the real world. The real world includes all the things the child happens to find in it. Depending on where the child grows up this can include chickens, computers, nomadic tents, high-rise apartments, goats, gruel, cereal boxes and primers -- sometimes all at the same time.

I've tutored adult literacy students before. Their usual preferred reading material was the grocery sale ads and the paperwork they had to deal with on a daily basis. These were urgent matters that couldn't wait. But while grocery ads are interesting to my daughters, they lack the same relevance. In their world fairy tales and primers are just as important as milk sales and a lot more fun.

Brighteyes likes McGuffey's Eclectic Primer. She also likes reading every book, brochure, road sign and label she sees. Sunshine is more laid back, but she picks up an amazing amount of learning just from sitting back and listening, often answering puzzles before her big sister.

Both my husband and I had both a lot of formal education -- I've been to college, he has a PhD in Molecular Biology. We've also had a lot of informal and self education -- over the years we've taught ourselves an awful lot about the world, as well as
organic gardening, painting, sculpture, cooking, baking, carpentry, cabinet-making, dress-making, crochet, roofing, embroidery, husbandry, silversmithing, goldsmithing, blacksmithing, lapidary,sword-making and enameling. We've taught a lot of people in informal settings. We've taught a lot of people in classrooms.

Some students respond well to self teaching. Some students want or need someone to hold their hands. Those who can learn things well from a book will. Someone who has severe problems with dyslexia isn't going to learn well out of a book, and someone with a fear of fire isn't going to pick up a torch without guidance, however much they may yearn to learn soldering.

And that's not even getting into the various "styles" of learning -- visual, audio, kinetic. My husband once had a "taste" learner in Botany. She could only catalog facts if she had a taste to go with it. He taught her by giving her tiny bits of plant material to taste with the tip of her tongue, but she was completely lost in her English class.

Most techniques are really easy to self-teach and teach informally. Some techniques are almost impossible for the average person to learn without hands-on training from someone who knows what they are doing. My husband was part of the last class his graduate school taught in preparing slides for Electron Microscopy. The technique is so demanding the instructor has to literally hold and guide the students' hands for hours on end before the student develops the skill to cut a slice a micron thick on their own. The instructor couldn't teach more than five students a semester, and when the university insisted each class have at least 10 students the course had to be cancelled permanently.

Even the original proponents of the "modern" style of teaching art -- just do whatever you feel like, don't worry about technique -- now say that while it does a great job of freeing creativity it doesn't teach you what to do with that creativity. I vividly remember sitting in "Art" and "Creative Writing" classes boiling with fury as the teacher chirped, "Oh, just do whatever you feel like. Be creative!" I already had the creative ideas, thank-you-very-much. I was paying with my time and my money for pointers on how to massage those creative ideas into the shapes I wanted them in. What are the most dramatic ways of describing scene X as a prelude to Y? How do you modify proportions to make everything look right in a particular setting? What are the differences in "realistic", "classical", "heroic" and "fantasy" figures? What are the different solders used for? What's the difference in temperature between pouring silver for lost-wax casting and sand casting, and what are the torches, tips and regulators you need for both? It's taken a lifetime of obsessively searching out antique textbooks and extensive trial and error to recreate what one 19th Century expert could have shown us in an afternoon.

Things involving a high level of dexterity -- handwriting, playing an instrument, dance -- take up to 1000 repetitions before you can do them well. And that's if you're lucky to have good hand-eye coordination. I don't, sometimes it takes me as many as 10 times the repetitions as it takes other people. But young children don't know that, they can't even grasp the concept of 1000. The only way to learn "practice makes perfect" is to see it happen in real life. One thing I'm careful to do is to show my daughters Mommy practicing something she's not good at and how she gets better over time. Right now it's bellydance. :P If there's a problem with
the concept, it's time to do something else and come back to that later. But if it's just "don't wanna" my philosophy a little bit won't hurt you, then we'll do the fun stuff. "Three more bites of soup, then we'll get out the cheese and crackers." "Seven words a day, then we'll do a connect-the-dot puzzle."