Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Is Real Learning?

In my last post, I described what fruit our science readings are bearing in Pamela's mind. She continues to refine her thinking about animal feet and put notes in her science notebook. She recorded tapir under the category clawed and discovered after careful research she had incorrectly placed as clawed when they are actually webbed. She cannot decide if trolls have claws or nails, which sparked a long discussion on my facebook page. While watching the speech Brutus makes right before Anthony steals the show, Pamela shared that Brutus had bloody fingernails but decided not to put that in her science notebook.

We started another page in her science notebook based on another train of thought Pamela has been following for some time: inventions. In one book on Alexander Graham Bell, he shares his newly invented liquid transmitter (i.e., telephone) at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. On display were machines invented between 1776 and 1876. Launching from that idea, she drew two columns in her notebook, labeled 1776-1876 and 1876-1976. She came up with a list of inventions and placed them in their proper category. Pamela continued to add items here and there and two days later asked, "What about 1995?" I flipped the paged and asked, "What should you write?" I was came up with three labels but refrained from giving her any suggestions because then I would steal from her the chance to think: 1976-2012, 1976-2076, and 1976-?. She chose to write the first option.

If you look carefully, Pamela wrote the word BETAs for the video format competing with VHS. We never had the beta system, nor have I taught Pamela about it. She has figured this out through her own research. Also, note that I could have encouraged Pamela to work backward in time and create more columns. However, then I would be thinking for her, which would hinder her from following an idea where it took her. Ideas let students to places when teachers get out of the way.

This school year I have reported how Pamela chooses the order of books and things: in her mind, she has organized every book, song, art study, etc. in chronological order. She has sorted them all from earliest event in B.C. to the latest one in A.D. We are singing Joy to the World for our hymn study and she placed it in B.C. when Jesus was born. She sandwiched it between Plutarch's account of Brutus and the New Testament reading. Pamela is quite flexible in how she approaches it. Some days she moves forward in time from beginning to end, and other days, vice versa. At other times, she closes her eyes and lets me pick in any order, giving her a clue and letting her guess which one. Now, she has refined her system even more: she has developed new categories: first century A.D., the Middle Ages, the 18th century, the 19th century, the 20th century, and 21st century. Sometimes we start in one category (Middle Ages) and jump to something completely different (21st century). By avoiding a strict structure and order, as is often recommended for children in the autism spectrum, I am letting Pamela think more flexibly.

The common thread in comments on that post pointed to these examples as being "real learning". One friend compared it to contrived teaching:
This is just what we experienced regarding geography. Last year I broached the subject of learning the names of the states using a fun music CD that our nieces had enjoyed. We had already been using the idea of bringing out the map or globe whenever we started a new book. Tim resisted so I put it aside. Then in the spring we took an Amtrak trip to Iowa. Tim became interested in the states we traveled through, looking at the travel map and talking about it often. When I brought up the idea of learning the states again, he was very interested and geography became a favorite subject! The next step for him was really fun. He likes trains so he thought of the idea of using the capitals of the states as the names in the states song instead of the states' names. All of the motivation for this was internal and was really fun to watch!
Two friends were pleased to be given a way to assess what real learning is: "This is a wonderful way of distinguishing real learning, which is fruitful and branches off in various directions, from rote learning. I'd never thought of it exactly that way before." "I simply loved reading your account of Pamela's interest in toe nails etc. I thought to myself this is real learning.Something she will treasure her whole life. I so much agree with you that we as teachers need to get out of the way and let them learn."

Another friend linked real learning to flexible thinking: "I so enjoy reading about Pamela's progress. I am overawed at her dynamic thinking."

What is real learning? I think real learning is giving an alert, curious mind the scope to explore ideas and follow them into paths of thinking that begin to intertwine and weave a beautiful tapestry of thoughts.

What is an idea? Borrowing from Charlotte Mason, "A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We all know how an idea 'strikes,' 'seizes,' 'catches hold of,' 'impresses' us and at last, if it be big enough, 'possesses' us; in a word, behaves like an entity" (Page 105) I remember the very moment when the idea of animals having toenails was born. Pamela stared at the feet of the young gorilla and marveled that the primate had black toenails.

What does the mind do with an idea? Coleridge wrote (Page 107-108),
From the first or initiative idea, as from a seed, successive ideas germinate.

Events and images, the lively and spirit-stirring machinery of the external world, are like light and air and moisture to the seed of the mind which would else rot and perish.

Progress follows the path of the idea from which it sets out requiring however a constant wakefulness of mind to keep it within the due limits of its course. Hence the orbits of thought, so to speak, must differ from among themselves as the initiative ideas differ.

Looking at a picture of a gorilla's foot planted a seed. The seed began to germinate. Pamela sought images and researched information to explore that idea. From that day on, her thoughts went back to gorillas with toenails and followed it to other animals with toenails, to animals with other kinds of feet, to imaginary creatures. Her wakeful mind has continued to refine her thinking in the past year and has categorized animal feet and classified animals and imaginary creatures by their feet.

Here are some questions to ponder on whether or not we are fostering real learning:

Is there time in the day for children to explore, think, wonder, and ponder?

Would your books fall into the category of a compendium of facts or ideas clothed in story

Are books, things, and things you do laid out in such away that there are no neat categories?

Is what you present wide and varied, eclectic, written with literary power?

Do you focus on getting something out of your student or seeing how the mind acts upon ideas?

Do you learn new things every week?

What do you value more, process or product?

Does you student ...
  • ask what a word means?
  • make connections between books that you never noticed?
  • ask you questions that have nothing to do with what you are studying?
  • use words you have never taught them explicitly?
  • desire to explore topics you are studying during free time?
  • act out a story or historical event for fun?
  • follow an idea and refine it into new ways of thinking?
  • look forward to starting a new book or feel sad when a beloved one is finished?
  • live in a larger world of ideas?
  • grow more flexible in their thinking?
  • ask questions that have nothing to do with anything you have ever done or read?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fruits of Thoughts

Sometimes, trying to visualize what Charlotte Mason meant in her writings is difficult until you see them in action. Some of my favorite moments are when her ideas come to life in the form of homeschooling Pamela. For example, sitting at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, watching Pamela record artifacts into her book of centuries last month filled my heart with joyful tears. Other moments come from grand conversations that come from living books such as the time we talked about culinary horror stories triggered by a paragraph in The Brendan Voyage. Or the day when we were sitting on the back porch rockers making a nature notebook entry and a lone monarch butterfly flashed into the corner of my eye. I could go on, but I won't bore you. Another sweet example that has been emerging all last year brought this passage to life.
[Let me] conclude with a wise sentence of Coleridge's concerning the method of Plato, which should be always present to the minds of persons engaged in the training of children:––

Plato's Educational Aim.––"He desired not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting room, but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite its vegetating and germinating powers to produce new fruits of thought, new conceptions and imaginations and ideas." (Page 125)

What exactly did she mean?

I think about how children "learn" today. Adults pour facts into passive minds and students regurgitate them upon request until they is no longer requested and new facts replace the old ones. True learning of knowledge begins to germinate new ways of thinking. Some ideas are like beans and they sprout very quickly. Other ideas must age for a long time like tropical seeds before they germinate and eventually bear fruit. Last year, I noted Pamela's fascination with gorilla toenails after she studied a picture in a book we were reading. A new conception in her mind, that gorillas have toenails and fingernails like her, has born fruit all year long.

At first, Pamela talked about gorilla toenails a lot. Then she shifted to other primates with nails and eventually other mammals. In time, she shifted to claws, then hooves, and recently webbed feet. She also came up with a category called nothing for creatures like snakes. Today, I thought she might enjoy recording these conceptions that have been percolating in her mind for the past year into her science notebook. She loved it. Pamela drew the vertical lines and set up her categories. She came up with so many animals with claws that she had to write on the backside of the page. When she thought of salmon, Pamela realized she needed a category for fins. Later, she added flippers since they seemed to fit together. She remembered talons and I had to look up the exact difference between talons and claws to help her classify. Tentacles popped into her head for another category.

During this process, I noticed many interesting things about how Pamela's mind works. She thinks very flexibly. After she focused on one category and ran out of ideas, I would come up with an animal in a different category. She easily shifted somewhere else and often shifted on her own. Once we went back to reading, her mind pondered some more and she was able to "hold that thought" until we finished the book. While I grabbed another book, she recorded new animals. She cares enough about spelling to ask for help but doesn't obsess if something didn't look quite right. When she realized she put an creature in the wrong category, she simply erased it and corrected her error.

Pamela's knowledge of animal names and body parts are wide and varied. She came up with some obscure animals like grackle, anteater, pike, lynx, and platypus. She came up with extinct animals like mammoth, dinosaur, and dodo. She even included imaginary animals like beast, dragon, monster, and unicorn. You might be wondering why she put aliens under the category of tentacles. Here are three reasons: (1) Kang and Kodos, (2) Galaxy Quest, and (3) A Wrinkle in Time.

Now, if your "take away" is to create a worksheet or lap book for your kid, then you are missing my point! Pamela enjoyed this process because her mind had been chewing on categorization based upon feet for the past year. One small idea led to her mind being tuned into putting her thoughts into writing.

The hard part for teachers is the art of stepping aside, waiting for seeds to germinating, and guiding the child into meaningful expressions of them when the new conceptions are bearing fruit.

Monday, January 09, 2012

An Hour at the Museum

My understanding of what a book of centuries means has gone on many rabbit trails and, with the help of my friend Laurie Bestvater, I finally get it. I think! If you have not read her article on them, reading it will improve your grasp of what they are. Last summer, I ordered a beautiful book of centuries from her and, as noted last fall, Pamela has been making regular entries in it based upon pictures of artifacts we find at museum websites. She will continue to add pictures and entries as we read wide and varied books and look up pictures online.

In November 2011, I blogged our visit to the Nelson-Atkins art museum but decided not to mention how much I felt like kicking myself! I had no idea they had such a large collection of ancient artifacts. We had been reading about ancient Egypt—they had a mummy, coffins, slabs with drawings, paintings, and hieroglyphics, large and small statues, etc. We had been studying columns, and the building itself had every kind of column we had studied not to mention a ginormous Assyrian relief with the rosettes and tree of life motifs. It even had Greek pottery with the paintings of gods and heroes. Where was the book of centuries? At Steve's apartment! Ack!!!!!

During our Christmas visit to Kansas, I made a point to spend an hour at the museum and let Pamela pick a few things to record in her book of centuries. We stayed in the ancient world the entire things, focusing on what she had been reading in her history and art books. She quietly drew while I snapped a few pictures. I even teared up when I realized this was the first time Pamela was using her book of centuries in the way that Charlotte Mason's students has used them over a hundred years ago!

Ancient Egypt:
The very first thing Pamela chose to draw was the mummy, of course. We turned to the pages on the 5th century B.C. and she recorded a nameless mummy labeled Ka-i-nefer. While Pamela made her entry, I read the information about how a team of specialists examined the mummy with sophisticated equipment to gather details on how he might have looked.

In the same room as the mummy were coffins of someone who probably lived later than the mummy: a noblewoman named Meret-it-es, whose name means beloved by her father. The display included her inner coffin, outer coffin, guilded mask, body plates, figurines of slaves to serve her in the afterlife, etc. On the same page as the mummy, Pamela drew pictures of some of these items.

In that same room was a slab of a couple named Se-ankhy and Ankhu. Pamela drew a picture on the pages for the 20th century B.C.

In another room, we found other interesting artifacts of famous Egyptians. Pamela selected King Tut's falcon necklace.

A relief of Ramses II!!!!!

A relief of someone a bit more obscure, Metjetji

Assyrian High-Relief Sculpture:
My absolute favorite moment was sitting in front of this magnificent sculpture of the genie fertilizing a date tree. Pamela spent a quarter of an hour sitting on this bench, sketching the creature in her notebook. I sat next to her and simply studied the sculpture. We noticed it on our last visit but didn't stop to "see" it. We posed and snapped a picture before breezing over something else in the ancient world. We stopped and studied: Pamela drew into her book of centuries while I sat and soaked in every detail I could absorb in fifteen minutes. The experience reminded me of a post Amber Benton blogged about sitting and really seeing at a museum.

The first detail I noticed was the tree, having learned about the "tree of life" motifs common to Assyrian sculpture. It reminded me how Pamela draws trees in her nature notebook: highly stylized and sparse in its foliage. Then, my eyes drifted over to the wings. Until that moment, I had not realized the figure was not a human, but something mythical. The feathers are so detailed and striking, and that is when I began to appreciate the skill and patience it took to create this sculpture.

As I moved closer to study the feathers, I noticed the lines of cuneiform! Although Pamela and I have seen similar reliefs in her sculpture book and online at the British museum, I don't remember seeing ancient writing on it. I didn't see it in this sculpture during our last visit either.

The lines of cuneiform led me to the genie's legs: highly muscular, buff, apparently to signify the creature's power and strength. My eye moved up from the well-defined calves to an equally buff arm. I wondered why this manly creature carried a manbag, or murse, but corrected myself on the error of applying modern thinking to something crafted almost three thousand years ago.

Looking still further up reveals an answer to the murse question: the genie is fertilizing a date tree with a male cone. Most likely, it dips the cone into a bucket of pollen to accomplish the mission. I noticed the bracelets with the rosette motif common to Assyrian sculpture. The genie also wears earrings and a horned helmet. Its hair is styled in the fashion common to Assyrian royalty: long hair and long beards sporting corkscrew curls, a term I first read from our beloved copy of A Child's History of the World.

Here are more historical tidbits: the winged genie fertilizing a date tree dated ninth century B.C. comes from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, which was the capital of Assyria at the time, about 200 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. The palace, which could hold five football fields, had reliefs like this lining its brick walls. This one was near the king's throne room. Sometimes the genies on these reliefs were hybrids of humans and other animals, specifically the eagle.

Ashurnasirpal II was ruthless. I cannot go into details here because I like to keep my blog G-rated. However, if you are curious, you can read the kind of grisly boasts this conqueror made about his feats in battle. He bragged about his tribute, everything from metals to exotic trees and plants to monkeys.

Greek Amphora:
Pamela recently studied the five styles of Greek jars last term. Of several on display, Pamela wanted to record the terracotta amphora (two-handled jar) with Dionysius, the god of wine, painted in black. It stood next to another amphora with Achilles. These jars are great examples of positive versus negative space. The subject (Greek heroes and gods) are positive space in the natural color of the clay. To create the image, the artist only painted the negative space in black. I'm wondering these jar paintings might be way to introduce the concept of space to Pamela.

[Art] is of the spirit, and in ways of the spirit must we make our attempt. We recognise that the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, nay, speech, the power of producing words. But there must be knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced....The little pictures are studied one at a time; that is, children learn, not merely to see a picture but to look at it, taking in every detail (Page 214). ~ Charlotte Mason