Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Curing Boredom

One of my favorite Dickens mini-series is Bleak House. Gillian Anderson captured haughty Lady Dedlock's boredom brilliantly. In the book, the author attributes Dedlock's boredom to monotony. What a wonderful surname he gave to someone who is perpetually bored.
They cannot go away too fast, for even here my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady under the worn-out heavens.
Charlotte Mason observed something quite similar about teachers and children in typical schools:
The complaints made by teachers and children of the monotony of the work in our schools is full of pathos and all credit to those teachers who cheer the weary path by entertaining devices. But mind does not live and grow upon entertainment; it requires its solid meals. (Page 90)
The mind does not live on entertainment alone! How many evenings do people spend surfing hundreds of channels only to find nothing interesting? (You know we have all wasted precious hours in this mode.)

She also noted a link between boredom and rewards (grades, prizes, class rank).
The teacher who proposes marks and places as worthy aims will get work certainly but he will get no healthy love of knowledge for its own sake and no provision against the ennui of later days. The monotony I have spoken of attends all work prompted by the stimuli of marks and places; such work becomes mechanical, and there is hardly enough of it prepared to last through the course of a boy's school life. (Page 91)
What is wrong with rewards? The same thing that is wrong with trying to teach by entertainment. Both depend upon an outside person or force acting upon the person. With entertainment, somebody else performs the act of entertaining: those watching become passive. Passive learning assumes the mind is an empty bucket, waiting to be filled. It assumes that the quality of learning depends upon the skill of the teacher. The instructor can compile lessons over a year or two and repeat the course, year after year. The student can simply go through the motions, memorizing only what is needed with little thought to make the kind of connections that makes learning stick.

With rewards, somebody sets up the system and dishes out the reward when requirements are met. They do what has to be done and no more. I know of kids who will read the simplest books to rack up points for programs like Book-It or summer reading programs at the library. When one high schooler told me she never reads books, I asked, "What about school? Doesn't your school have Accelerated Reader?" She explained that she looks up information online and can pass the test without reading the book. If the grade or prize is more important to the student, then the book is the means not the end. After graduation, when the system is no longer in place, what happens to the student? Some never crack a book for many years after leaving school because they have no need to read.

Mason suggested that knowledge for its own sake is the key to holding attention.
There is no faculty within the soul which can be spared in the great work of education; but then every faculty, or rather power, works to the one end if we make the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake the object of our educational efforts. We find children ready and eager for this labour and their accomplishment is surprising. (Page 93)
She recommended that knowledge be wrapped in a story form or gained through firsthand experience. Research today shows that the mind really does hang onto ideas presented in a story format. (Why do you think Jesus spoke in parables?) Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist, explains that stories with four features grip the mind the best:
  • Causality - one event causes or initiates another
  • Conflict - a main character must overcome obstacles to reach a goal
  • Complications - attempts to overcome an obstacles create problems that must be solved
  • Character - strong, interesting people come alive

I have been homeschooling Pamela since 1995. We started using Mason's methods in 1999. I do not find the daily effort dull because I just never know what to expect from Pamela. In the past week, here are some things that have delighted me.

Pictures Pamela Drew for Her Architecture and Natural History Exams

Pamela's New Exploration in Science

How The Psalm This Week Was Exactly What **I** Needed to Read

How God Orchestrates Connections That I Don't Plan in Advance... Two months ago, I chose "Good Night, Moon" in Spanish to begin this term this week, which just "happens" to be the same week we begin reading a chapter on the moon in our weather book, which just "happens" to be the same week as the super moon.

How I See Pamela's Progress over Time... Three years ago, I could only say one word at a time for studied dictation of one sentence. Today, I can see three words at a time and I can pull one sentence out of a paragraph that she studied.

How Pamela Constantly Surprises Me... Before reading our book on the Alamo, which written as a first person account, Pamela announced, "I'm pretending to be Billy." Then, she said three sentences in the first person with perfect use of personal pronouns.

Do you know how many social milestones are required for a person with autism to do that?

Saturday, May 05, 2012

"Why Is There an Apple with a Knife Stuck in It in the Fridge?"

Husbands and fathers of homeschoolers have to put up with all kinds of weirdness. When we were staying with Steve in Kansas, he wondered why an apple with a knife stuck in it was in the refrigerator. I explained that we were modeling why seasons occur. Then, he asked why I had the string and tacks out. I told him I forgot to put them away after drawing an ellipse with a string. He had never heard of that before, so it was our turn to teach our resident engineer something new!

When we read science books, we don't just read them. Often we try to live them. Pamela and I were learning about the seasons and why they occur. I had a feeling that the diagram in the book and written explanation might not be enough to make it clear. I labeled an apple with the letter N for north pole and S for south pole. Then I drew a line representing the equator and labeled that. I stuck a knife in it to represent the polar axis.

Then, we took a piece of cardboard and practiced drawing circles and ellipses with a piece of string. We drew an ellipse on a big piece of cardboard, and I made four marks to represent the four seasons. I did not label them because that is what we were going to discover! We darkened the room, removed the lampshade, and placed the lamp in the middle of the ellipse. The plan was to tilt the apple, move it around the lamp in an elliptical orbit, and mark the seasons.

We did something similar to illustrate night and day way back when I homeschooled Pamela and David. David caught on immediately to the idea that day was where the light shined and night was in the shadow. Pamela could not make the connection at all but, at least, she learned that the earth spins. Last year, we revisited the day and night demonstration, and it clicked for Pamela. I suspected she might be ready to grasp the connection between the earth's orbit and seasons.

Her background knowledge played a role in how I structured this. Pamela, a savant in calendars, knows many facts about the calendar. She taught this to herself by researching it on Google.
  • A common year has 365 days.
  • A leap year has 366 days.
  • February 29 only occurs in a leap year.
  • Spring begins around March 20 or 21.
  • Summer begins around June 20 or 21.
  • Fall begins around September 22 or 23.
  • Spring begins around December 21 or 22.

Unlike most people I know, Pamela has an advantage: not only have we lived in Alaska where days are really long in the summer and nights are really long in the winter, we have visited family in two countries near the equator (El Salvador and Guatemala). We have also stayed in South America for nearly a month. In 2006, we left Carolina on a hot summer day before the equinox and arrived in Santiago, Chile on a chilly winter day. Three weeks later, we said adios to the spring blossoms of Chile and hello to the cooling fall temperatures of Carolina. Pamela saw for herself seasonal oddities that other children must be told. Life experiences have given her more facts.
  • When it is summer in North America, it is winter in South America (and vice versa).
  • When it is spring in North America, it is fall in South America (and vice versa).
  • Days are longer in summer, and shorter in winter, especially when you live closer to one of the poles.
  • Some countries never have snow (the ones near the equator).

Since she understood why we experience day and night last year, I had hope the seasons would make sense to her. First, we tried the day/night demonstration to tie into her prior understanding and she had no trouble pointing out to me which part of the apple had day and night. Then, I tilted the apple and began moving it along an elliptical orbit. I stopped at the location for summer in North America, and Pamela could easily see how the sun was shining very constantly on the North Pole while the South Pole was stayed in darkness. Because of her previous experience, she saw right away how it had to be summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern. We marked that on the elliptical cardboard. We continued working through the seasons, and the next day Pamela copied the diagram from her book into her science journal.
After she drew her diagram, we spent the week reading about the seasons and their connection to the motion of the earth. We drove back to Carolina and read another chapter on the northern lights the following week. We studied the seasons three weeks ago and have not reviewed any of the material. I did not drill her on facts because that is not part of a Mason paradigm. The video is a short clip of what she narrated about the chapter on seasons. While the transcript does not look like much, you have to watch the video and see how she uses her hands to illustrate the orbit of the earth and demonstrate her clear understanding.
The earth was spinning from year. Days—about 365 and 366 days leap year and common year. Around Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

"I Can't Wait for Exams!"

People are starting to wake up to the thought that high-stakes testing is burning out our kids and teachers. It's also undermining creativity and encouraging cheating. Even homeschoolers are not immune to the pressure, either because some states require it or parents feel pressured to cave into societal expectations. People do not realize we can assess learning without creating anxiety. Our secret is oral exams: Pamela tells me everything she knows about each and every book or thing we did.

Because of Pamela's delayed language, we didn't even try exam week until last year. We did another round of exams last fall, and we started our third attempt yesterday. We are not even half way through exam week, and I can see such progress in Pamela's ability to communicate fully. More importantly, for the first time in her education, I feel like we are equally yoked!

What does equally yoked mean? Study the picture of Farmer Boy and his yoked oxen. When one ox is physically stronger than the other, they do not share the load very well. Not only that, one walks faster and one walks slowly, resulting in going around in circles. For years, I have been the one driving us to make things happen. I made the yearly plan, the weekly schedule, the daily box. If I was too burnt out to keep going, we stopped. Usually, by spring, we slowed down considerably because (1) I was tired, (2) my tree pollen allergies zapped me even more, and (3) I was gearing up for the June conference. The end of our school year would dwindle, which didn't make me fret too much for Pamela always find something to keep her mind going, but at a slower pace.

This year is different!

Pamela now sets up the daily box. When we are finished with a book for the week, she puts it next to the computer because she knows I stack them until I add them to the schedule for the next week She watches me make the weekly schedule and catches me when I make typos! She has even figured out the first few tasks I perform in Excel to get a new week going. When I'm tempted to call it a day, she often inspires me to keep up with her. Instead of taking five hours to get through our subjects, she's only requiring three or four. Pamela's zeal is helping me get through the spring blahs. She has even figured out how I categorize books, saying to me, "I want border history," when she wants to read our books on Mexico and Canada!

I can see this mindfulness in her exams too. Monday morning, the first thing Pamela said to me was "I can't wait for exams." Pamela eagerly narrates her exams. She speaks a tad more fully. Sentences are flowing more easily. She elaborates with her body language. She knits her brow in concentration. She even looks up in our weekly sheets what chapter we were reading at the beginning of the term. It is almost like she has prepared for this because she often goes from chapter to chapter, often recalling the title of each one, without peeking in the book. We are finally living what Charlotte Mason described in a passage our study group will be discussing next week:
Parents and those who stand in loco parentis have a delicate task. There must be subjection, but it must be proud, work as a distinction, an order of merit... There is no great gulf fixed between teacher and taught; both are pursuing the same ends, engaged on, the same theme, enriched by mutual interests; and probably the quite delightful pursuit of knowledge affords the only intrinsic liberty for both teacher and taught. (Page 71)
This "equality" between teacher and taught is what high-stakes testing steals from our kids. Because teachers end up drilling children to prepare (I know some staying after school right now because their pre-tests hadn't measured up), students lose interest and their minds wander. "To allow repetition of a lesson is to shift the responsibility for it from the shoulders of the pupil to those of the teacher who says, in effect,––'I'll see that you know it,' so his pupils make no effort of attention. Thus the same stale stuff is repeated again and again and the children get bored and restive, ready for pranks by way of a change." (Page 75)

Through our daily efforts of learning together, side-by-side, Pamela has achieved a most important lesson of education: "Children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught." (Page 74) The proof is in the determination she has shown in her exams and in owning what she can do in planning.

I decided to compare Pamela narrating the same book for all three exams: A Wrinkle in Time. Keep in mind that, when we moved to Carolina in the summer of 2005, I was thrilled if Pamela could remember three words after we closed a book. THREE WORDS. Folks! She was sixteen years old, well past the magical age of neural plasticity when the door to language is supposed to slam shut forever. We began reading this book in September 2010, and we finished in the middle of February 2012.

January 2011 - Pamela is eager and quietly narrates. She needs me to guide her to the next thought when she gets stuck. She doesn't use many proper names. Her verbs are a bit limited.

[Meg and Charles] had no dad somewhere. Somebody, it had no father anymore. They had family. They had hot cocoa. It was snow. It’s too cold.

They saw the ghost. “Boo!” Scared. They had the soup. It’s good. They had the magic. It [the ghost] turned into a unicorn, white horse. Unicorn is white. It giddy-up. Mrs. Whatsit. Three ghosts.

They go space. They fly into space. They saw the stars and the shadows. It’s darkly. It’s scary. It’s boo! The happy medium in the crystal balls. They had the earth. Meg with children, they were cute.
November 2011 - Pamela's narrations flow more easily, and proper nouns come to her more easily. She gestures a little bit.

Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace saw a man spinning with the eyes. They had the bad man. They were grumpy. They were in a space. The space was awful. Charles Wallace was soul. He disappeared. It’s gone. They can’t find Charles Wallace anymore.

They had a computer and electricity. They saw a bed. The bed was huge and chair was huge. They can’t Father anymore. They go look for space. They have to find Father. They found it. They have to go It. They have to find Mars, wrong one. It was a space. Space wasn’t wonderful. It had brain. “Boop-boop!” Charles Wallace turned into cold. Father was so sad. They can’t find Charles Wallace.

They had Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, wearing the glasses and the ghost. They go to space. They had the stars. The stars had in their eyes.

Calvin had two children. Charles Wallace turned cold fingers turn into cold. Meg was a cold. She has a frozen. It was so cold. They [Father and Calvin] were helping a rescue to the two children. They were save.
May 2012 - Keep in mind that Pamela finished reading the book TEN WEEKS AGO! She would have remembered far more details had I recorded an exam then. Pamela is delighted, eager, and confident. Her body language and face are so animated. Names come to her more easily. She tries to pronounce words like "tesseract" which she can see on the page in her mind (something I've seen her do in her daily work). She includes sequencing words like next and last. When I look up the title of the last chapter, she leans in with interest.

Meg doesn’t have father anymore. They feel sad. It has no more sky. Right. They went. They drinking hot cocoa. They saw Mrs. Whatsit. Was a ghost. They saw Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which. Who was a ghost.

Charles and Calvin. Black Thing: They said, “You can’t go! They’re very dangerous!” Tesseract about 3D.

They had a happy medium. They had saw Central, Central [and] man with the red eyes. Spinning. Scared. Charles Wallace! The next chapter, “It.” They found the father. They go Absolute Ten. They’re flying. About Aunt Beast: they were furs, tentacles. They had tentacles, alien.

Last chapter about foolish weakest. Foolish and the Weak, they can go find Charles Wallace’s soul. They feel happy. They return to the earth; said, “Good-bye,” to Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. “So long!”