Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Tale of the Sleeping Fish: A Parable of Mental Habits

Attention, the power of turning the whole force of the mind upon the subject brought before it.

Concentration, which differs from attention in that the mind is actively engaged on some given problem rather than passively receptive.

Intellectual Volition, the power, that is, of making ourselves think of a given subject at a given time;––most of us know how trying our refractory minds are in this matter, but, if the child is accustomed to take pleasure in the effort as effort, the man will find it easy to make himself think of what he will. ~ Charlotte Mason
Once upon a time, there were fourteen fish — thirteen swam around while one slept behind a plant. As they were new to this tank, they weren't quite familiar with how things were done. They didn't realize when they were to be fed, much less in what direction their banquet would appear.

One morning, the fish were quite hungry, but they didn't realize it was time for a feeding. They heard a strange creaking sound but hadn't yet connected it to the arrival of food. After the tank lid was opened, a boy and his friend sprinkled fish flakes on top of the water. The two watched the fish and waited and waited and waited for something to happen. None of the fish noticed the food floating above them. The boy and his friend giggled about the fish that were oblivious to their meal.

After several very long minutes, one fish flake slowly drifted down. The boy and his friend began to wonder which fish would spot it first. None of the fish paid attention to the flake until it fell halfway down the tank. Suddenly, the white fish with red blotches spotted the food and gobbled it up. The other thirteen fish didn't even know they had missed something. The boy and his friend began to giggle some more.

That fish remembered where the food came from and swam to the surface of the water. It gobbled up flake after flake. Then, another fish noticed its friend eating food at the surface and joined the feast. Before another minute passed, five fish had gobbled up most of the fish flakes. The boy and his friend tossed in more flakes and, by then, all the fish were at the surface gobbling food — all but one fish — the one sleeping behind the plant.

The boy and his friend watched and watched and waited and waited for that sleepy fish to wake up. It looked awake for its eyes were open. Clearly, it had no idea what it was missing. The boy and his friend waited for several minutes and then the jaws of the sleepy one began to move as if it were chewing. Perhaps, it heard the sound of its friends eating.

Its mouth grew wider and it chewed almost like a cow. It slowly drifted up from behind the plant. Then, the fish realized it has almost slept through breakfast. It zoomed to the surface of the water! Since the food was nearly gone, the boy and his friend sprinkled a few more flakes for the sleepy head.

Morals of the Story

Attention - Children are born with natural curiosity unless something hinders it. Sometimes, physical or brain issues get in the way. Sometimes, the education system encourages them to pay attention to earn cheap rewards (grades, test scores, awards, candy). When offered nourishing food (ideas found in living books and real things) and allowed to explore them with an active mind, they eventually learn to pay attention. Some take longer than others to join the feast.

Concentration - Children who have stayed too long in a stultifying atmosphere take awhile to wake up. My friend who fed the fish in this true fish tale, came to our school, highly resistant. He associated school with people who said "GREAT JOB" and "CALM DOWN". He associated school with long, tedious tasks and nothing that interested him in the least. He associated school with being asked to do things that were outside of his zone of proximal development.

As a result, he had developed the habit of balking when asked to do most things. It took some time and patience but we focused on developing a relationship with him. We kept lessons short and offered interesting things for him to do with free time. We consistently expected him to do little things within his reach and letting him do things he finds interesting — things like poring over animal books and magazines, feeding the fish, replenishing the bird feeders, cleaning the pond, working in the compost bin and garden, etc.

There was a time when a drawing in a nature notebook was "too hard" or "too boring." Now, he draws something and writes a sentence. He even drew a comic of the fish tale because he found the fish tale hilarious. Below is the nature notebook entry he made the day the school got the fish. He has gone from concentrating on how to get out of work to doing it so he can concentrate on what interests him.

Intellectual Volition - Some take a long time to find intrinsic motivation, especially if the education system hasn't been a good fit. Eventually, the sleepiest of minds or resistant minds or unfocused minds will find enough living ideas to find pleasure in the effort.

Anxiety the Note of a Transition Stage––Every new power, whether mechanical or spiritual, requires adjustment before it can be used to the full.... But to perceive that there is much which we ought to do and not to know exactly what it is, nor how to do it, does not add to the pleasure of life or to ease in living. We become worried, restless, anxious; and in the transition stage between the development of this new power and the adjustment which comes with time and experience, the fuller life, which is certainly ours, fails to make us either happier or more useful. ~ Charlotte Mason

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Resiliency during Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

I want to THANK all the people who have worked tirelessly to keep us safe (firefighters, police, EMS, tree cutters, etc.) and warm (electric and gas company workers).

The week began uneventfully. I prepared two posts for the blog carnival: one on Sunday and one on Monday. I hosted the blog carnival on Tuesday. Pamela and I attended school like we always do. Our headmaster (also a volunteer firefighter) called off school because of Winter Storm Pax, which seemed scarier than Leon. The governor urged everyone to stay home. They were right. Early Wednesday morning, someone in our county died in a car accident.

While everything looked sparkly and lovely with an icy glaze, I worried about the power. My folks had gone several days without it in the ice storm here back in 2001. I headed out to take pictures for Steve and posted them before we lost power. It rained and sleeted off and on all day. David cleaned the tub and filled it with water for the toilet. I filled jugs with fresh water for us to drink. Then, we waited.

When lights flickered that evening, Pamela turned off the ceiling fan lights (4 bulbs) and turned on the desk lamp to dim. She explained, "I don't waste power." Her thoughtfulness impressed me, and I posted a note about it on Facebook. At about ten o'clock, we heard a tremendous crash. Pamela woke up and asked me, "What happened?" My favorite branch had bit the dust (sniff, sniff). Then, we all went to bed warm and cozy, and the temperatures dipped below freezing.

At 1:30 AM, I woke up to the Amityville Horror in my house!

The blue LED light of my alarm clock was blinking madly. The smoke detector was beeping at odd intervals. The house alarm system randomly cut on and off. A bright orange glow blazed eerily through my window. I grabbed a shawl and ran out to the front porch to see wild sparks and a grass fire along the telephone pole in my neighbor's yard. My dad told me later that he saw it through his bedroom window and thought he was dreaming that his front porch was on fire. I shivered in my socks and jammies and watched to make sure the ice would prevent it from spreading. Pamela popped her head out and asked, "Is the power off?" I told her, "Not yet."

Once everything looked safe, I ran inside to wake up David. I grabbed my cell phone and we watched a spark that flashed between blue and orange travel down the power line. Here is a short clip (turn up the volume to hear the crackle). These are the last dying breaths of our power.

We heard a terrific BOOM. The sparking stopped. We had no power. The next morning we figured out that a tree branch had smashed the light bulb of the street light and caused the light show. We headed back into the house. David used his new iPod as a flashlight and I looked up the number for the power company in the phone book. Since Duke bought Progressive Energy recently, I couldn't find the phone number. We bundled up and went back to bed.

The most amazing thing about that night was that Pamela didn't freak out. In spite of the noise and the fire and the loss of power, she didn't cry and she didn't scream. She saw that I was calm and that her brother was calm and that our neighbors across the street were calm. She borrowed our perspective and didn't lose her cool.

Do you know how amazing that is for an autistic person?

We woke up the next morning (Thursday). Pamela wasn't upset nor did she cry about the loss of power or the lack of electronics. At some point, she had rummaged through kitchen drawers and pulled out two flashlights for me. The house was very cold, but the thermostat had reached rock bottom. I found the thermometer we use for science and discovered that room temperature was 50°! I headed outside to assess the damage and take more pictures.

Until you've been through an ice storm without power, you have no idea how eerie it is. Dead silence. Totally cut off from the world. Silence broken by the branches cracking, which sounds just like gunshots. Sirens blaring down the road. Heavy vehicles rumbling past to help someone in need. Melting ice sliding off the metal roof and hitting the windows.

I decided to keep warm by cleaning house since Steve was due to arrive the next day. I had a pile of laundry to fold, dusted, and worked on the floors. David woke up at around eleven and said, "That's weird. I'm picking up Opa's wireless." When offered the chance to hang out at her grandparent's house, she refused. I took a break at one point and enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading back to Planet Hoth. At about one, we decided to find some hot food. Hardly anything was open and what was open had Soviet Union style lines. I managed to order a delicious meal for us, only to learn that they couldn't take credit cards. An hour later, we came home with groceries from The Pig.

Pamela got a little upset at one or two times, but she did well in the face of so much uncertainty. She consoled herself in the car by comparing the situation to history. "No power. Just like cavemen." "I pretend to be Ma and Laura." "Knights had no power." When we heard a favorite composer, she'd say, "Mozart had no electricity." I was so impressed with how much self-regulation and resiliency she displayed in the face of adversity.

I cleaned until sundown, and the thermometer was at 46° when I left. Miraculously, my folks still had power. Mom offered me a glass of my sister's award-winning Madeira. I rarely drink but the thought of going home to a frozen house with temperature dipping into the twenties convinced me to sip a quarter of a glass. At around eight o'clock, their power went out! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! We went out to the street to look for a cause and, to my great joy, a man from the power company was working in the cold and dark to restore power! I jumped up and down on my mom's porch like a contestant on The Price Is Right! Before long, the power came on so I checked on my house. I turned around to get Pamela when I heard the lovely purr of the heating unit.

We slept well in a warm, cozy house. And we slept in! I spent the day vacuuming, doing laundry, running the dishwasher, etc. I emptied out the freezer and counted birds. Pamela and I picked up our hot meal. Bright sunny day. Ice gone! Except for the fallen trees and debris and the sound of chainsaws you'd never have guessed that our town had looked like Narnia the day before. Of course, lots of people are still without power, even now.

That evening, I was doing the finishing touches of cleaning up. There seemed to be a bunch of power trucks in front of the house. I found out later they were pruning the live oak in the yard of the neighbor across the street. Apparently that tree was an outage epicenter. While I was working on the bathroom, Pamela burst in and announced breathlessly, "I saw CBS."

Me: "At Oma's house yesterday?"

Pamela: "A reporter."

Me: "Where?"

Pamela: "Over there!"

She pointed to the window. I looked out. Seven power trucks lined the street with a WLTX vehicle in front of my house. A reporter was giving a live report for the news for a station in Columbia — the night footage is in front of my house.

You don't see that everyday! You might not think much of what Pamela did. Let me explain. First, she noticed something extraordinary in a week of unusual events. Second, she realized I was so busy cleaning I failed to notice what was happening on the street. Third, she could not keep the exciting news to herself. She searched for me and went upstairs to tell me.

This is one element of what they call experience sharing in RDI. Situations like this may seem minor but, when you add them up, you see a huge improvement in quality of life as a friend has shared at her blog.

Steve finally made it home and we were so glad to see him. He took a nap while I waited for the blanket to finish drying. Just when things had finally calmed day, Pamela and I felt a sharp jolt shove the house. Pamela asked, "Is it earthquake?" I replied, "I'm not sure," and waited to see if a tree was going to fall on the house. About a minute later a friend on Facebook asked, "Did anyone just feel an earthquake?"

Yes, as far-fetched as it might seem, a 4.1 earthquake hit Edgefield, SC, and we felt it on our side of the state. So, like any good citizen scientist, I filled out an earthquake event form and went to bed before the locusts arrived. After all, you never know what might happen with a full moon.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On Mindfulness

Welcome to the February 11, 2014 edition of the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival. The two carnivals for the month of February focus on Chapter 11 of School Education, and I encourage you to read it in Mason's own words or Leslie's lovely paraphrase (Sh..., no one will ever know). Not only do I encourage you to read the chapter first, but narrate it, copy your favorite phrases, make your own connections. How can we expect our children to develop mindfulness if we aren't doing it ourselves?

Carol focuses on ideas in her post on this chapter, and ideas are at the heart of intellectual habits. They are the things that our minds digest to absorb nourishment that causes new ideas to grow. Like many of us, she longs to hone her own mindfulness,
I underline passages, scripture or quotes that stand out to me as I read. It's telling that often when I go back through books I've read and see what I've underlined, I think, 'Why on earth did that strike me at the time?' and I am clueless because I allowed it to pass over the surface of my mind. Taking the time to write some notes in the margins or in a notebook makes all the difference for me.
Nebby shares her struggles with mindfulness, too because she wants more for her children. Don't we all?
All those things that my kids in a Charlotte Mason education are supposed to be learning, the habit of attention, concentration, being able to focus all their mind and to remember after one reading, I am horrible at those things. Perhaps that is why I am so attracted to Charlotte’s methods; I want something better for my kids. My mind always drifts during sermons. And I rarely remember things I read well. That’s actually why I blog on books so much — so that I can look back myself and remember what I read. It’s actually kind of nice when it comes to movies because I can watch them again without knowing what is going to happen.
These are great questions. Does my mind drift during sermons? Can I remember what I read? What intellectual habits might I encourage for myself? This year, I'm expanding my habit of keeping. I draw and write in a nature notebook consistently. Now, I'm adding a language arts notebook for my own copywork and narration to better understand what students at my school are experiencing. Doing so led me to some wonderful connections between Psalm 100 and this chapter on mindfulness.

Amy has asked herself similar questions with an eye toward the aging process. Here's her plan:
I hope this year to really give my children an opportunity to develop their intellectual habits, and I think my own could use some tweaking as well. I think our explorations with AO will give us some lovely scaffolding as we explore and form our intellectual habits. Reading, discussing, asking some tough questions and paying attention to how we present our ideas and our written work will all play their role.
Nancy shared an important discovery in asking questions about the leading questions at the end of Mason's book Ourselves. Mason wrote this book for students whom she trusted to read one time and narrate. Why include such pointed questions? Well, you'll have to read Nancy's post to learn why but it connects to our struggles with developing our own intellectual habits.

While many place their faith in reason, Mason viewed it with doubt. Look where Lady Reason lead the French during their revolution. Being mindful is reading something old and comparing it with something new. Kristyn pondered the limitations of reason with the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham (as did I at my math blog). Her questions illustrate beautifully what an active mind does naturally:
Could your reasoned conclusions of any particular point be unreasonable? How do we know if they are? And how do we change, if so?
Blog carnival coordinator Amy Tuttle describes a hands-on way to develop mindfulness through paper sloyd. She and her children are seeing intellectual habits emerge as they make projects together. She explains,
I had to learn to be clear and careful in GIVING instructions. We have all had to work to maintain a friendly and relaxed atmosphere (struggle on, perfectionists!). The kids have had to make an effort not to get overwhelmed or frustrated while listening and concentrating in a group context with various skill levels represented.
Speaking of sloyd, Gina shared pictures of her children making an envelope. She compares it to the Japanese art of origami, but with more cutting, drawing, and measuring. Like Amy, Gina hopes her children will refine intellectual habits as they do more lessons.
Our first sloyd project was a simple envelope but it required the kids to carefully measure and cut. I assisted them a little. I showed them how to use a ruler and where to find 'inches'. They carefully measured, cut and folded to make an envelope. For the succeeding lessons, my job is to read the lesson and have them figure out how to measure, fold, and cut based on the instructions and diagram with minimal assistance.
Moreover, sloyd shows students one place where math ideas live in the real world. Yesterday, I was guiding a boy in making a picture frame. When he drew the two diagonals, he exclaimed, "Hey! I just made an intersection." I probed a little further since he started the conversation, "I have a bonus question! What kind of angles are formed when the diagonals of a right triangle intersect?" He grinned, "Right angles!"

Today, a girl elaborated on her ability to make a 6″ by 6″ square. She needed a 10″ by 10" square to draw a frog. I have no idea how this turned about because she didn't show me the process. I was excited for her to link what she learned in paper sloyd to what she wanted to make. Elaborating on a previous idea is another example of mindfulness.

Speaking of math, our potpourri of posts touches on Cindy's take on living math. Two more posts point to nature study: a year-long milkweed study by Barb and Friday's Great Backyard Bird Count by me. And, if you have littles underfoot while you try to teach the older ones, Celeste shares how her days with six children and one on the way look.

Thank you to all the bloggers who worked so hard to make this carnival possible. You have given us all food for thought. If today's posts inspire you to write about the topic of mindfulness (intellectual habits), feel free to submit it to the next carnival. The carnival schedule for the year is here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Psalm 100

Multitasking thwarts the habit of attention. You can read what it does to health, IQ, learning, and productivity here.

There I was. Friday night. Doing a very tedious task. Making a 137 graphs for a video explaining how to curve stitch a heart on a paper sloyd picture frame. To break up the monotony, I popped on the head phones and "listened" to a John Piper sermon on education. I should say half-listened. To be honest, it didn't make much sense because only a sliver of my mind was paying attention.

One sentence drove me to dig deeper when I had more time the next day. "For . . ." A whole philosophy of education hangs on this word. How could an entire philosophy of education hang on one word? I replayed the sermon on my Nook while falling asleep. It still didn't make sense.

The next day, I put my full attention to work. I copied Psalm 100 into my notebook (thanks for the inspiration, Laurie).
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful singing. Know that the Lord himself is God; it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his lovingkindness is everlasting and his faithfulness to all generations.
I pondered Charlotte Mason's twenty principles in light of "the old one hundred." I wrote in my notebook. I listened to the sermon, and it made much more sense. A whole philosophy of education rests on for because knowing God is the aim of true education. Both Piper and Mason believe in an education rooted in God. He wrote, "God-centered Exultation is rooted in God-centered Education." She wrote, "The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and the chief end of education."

When I turned to the chapter to study for the blog carnival, and joy swept over me as I read this line: "We realise ourselves as persons, we have a local habitation, and we live and move and have our being in and under a supreme authority."

It fits so beautifully with these verses from Psalm 100.
Know that the Lord Himself is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Piper put it like this, "We need to know three things: 1) The Lord is our God. 2) He made us. 3) We are his people, like sheep in the pastures of a shepherd."

Mason's three ultimate facts –– not open to question are, "God is, Self is, the World is, with all that these existences imply, quite untouched by any thinking of ours, unprovable, and self-proven –– why, we are at once put into a more humble attitude of mind."

God has lovingly placed us in a pasture to feed on great intellectual and spiritual ideas and to be active in our exploration. As my pastor pointed out in his sermon yesterday, the pasture has some boundaries, and, within those boundaries, we can play freely. He has given us the Good Shepherd to guide us, protect us, and lead us to living water and rest. He has given us the Whispering Spirit to offer us knowlege of "witty inventions, of man and nature, of art and literature, of the heavens above and the earth beneath," to help us discover, and to share great ideas.

A more humble attitude of mind avoids a great fallacy. Our natural tendency amplifies Self and World and puts God to a small corner in the pasture. We forget that the source of great ideas whether they be scientific, literary, poetic, or artistic is God, who sends the Whispering Spirit in the name of the Good Shepherd to "teach you all things" (John 14:26).

Humility takes me back to the word upon which a whole philosophy of education rests. The last verse of Psalm 100 explains it well. "For the Lord is good; his lovingkindness is everlasting and his faithfulness to all generations. The Creator of Self and World, our authority, is good, is always loving and kind, and is faithful to us all." Knowing these three attributes of God is the point of education.

When we follow the Good Shepherd to the still waters and pay attention to the Whispering Spirit, then we can know something new about God. New to us, not to the Father, of course. That's when we see the glory of God and He fills us with joy.
"Child, know thyself, and thy relations to God and man and nature." ~ Charlotte Mason

"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." ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Plato's aim (page 24)

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count 2014

We've had a rare snowfall here in the midlands of Carolina. I couldn't resist taking pictures of birds and their tracks. We saw our typical favorites: northern cardinals, chipping sparrows, and goldfinches.

I also spotted two kinds of birds that are new to my feeder. How exciting! Truly! I squeal when I discover new birds. The first was something completely new to me: an eastern towhee. Its unusual behavior first caught my eye: the towhee was flicking leaves up as it foraged. Later, I spotted it perched on tree branches not far from a sparrow. Since towhees look like a large sparrow, the picture with the chipping sparrow clinched the identification for me.

The other bird that thrilled me is the slate-colored, dark-eyed junco. I first met them behind Pike's Peak where they live year round. In years of bird watching here, I've never seen any. Monday, I spotted a flock at the school. I loved seeing them at home today. Aren't they cute?

Long-time blog readers know that we celebrate the Great Backyard Bird Count every February. This year will be quite an event since Pamela and I will be counting at two locations: our schoolyard on Friday and our backyard the rest of the weekend. Because we needed to prepare an entire school for this event, I came up with several things to teach students and staff to identify birds. At the beginning of the new term last December, I incorporated a bird theme into some elements of our curriculum.

Living Books - At the beginning of the school year, the elementary students started reading UltraSwan by Elinor Osborn and The Wright Brothers by Quentin Reynolds. Now, they are reading John Audubon: Young Naturalist by Miriam Mason and the primary students are reading The Boy Who Drew Pictures by Jacqueline Davies. I also recommend a birthday present I gave to a young naturalist: For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Peggy Thomas.

Nature Study - We have bird feeders stationed in the school yard, and students help us keep them filled. When playing outside for recess, students see things in nature and ask us about them. We give them proper names so that most of them have from saying red bird and blue bird to cardinal and blue jay. They also know mourning dove, robin, mockingbird, and tufted titmouse. Some students are quite advanced and know yellow-bellied sapsucker and Carolina chickadee. Instead just knowing the name of our state bird, many students can describe how the Carolina wren looks. They ask for the names of birds that they see while looking out the window at school and even at home. They have to give a good description, and then we head to our bird books.

Our staff and students have come a long way since the beginning of the school year. We are all more aware of birds and able to identify some and able to observe and describe them in enough detail to classify them. It's quite common for children to ask me about a bird that they saw at home or grab me at recess to take a picture of one. It's not unusual for students to flock around the big window near the bird feeders suddenly because one student exclaims, "I just saw a huge bird!" The other morning, one girl asked me to identify a bird. "It's brown on the back and has brown splotches on its chest. It's about the size of a blue jay. It was on the ground looking for seeds or worms." I showed her a picture of a brown thrasher, and she smiled, "That's it!"

One little boy's mother majored in biology in college. They were out bird watching and he said, "I think that's a tufted titmouse." She thought he was making up the name, so she looked it up on her smart phone. He was right, and she was amazed at what he knew about birds. We have a little flock of tufted titmice that adore our bird feeders.

For science, they have made detailed drawings of a dead yellow-bellied sapsucker that we found on the grounds one day. While recording observations in our science notebooks, a live sapsucker was bring into a red maple tree nearby, so we quietly stalked it and found the holes in the trunk. While we were gone, an anonymous bird dropped a "gift" onto one girl's notebook and we all had a good chuckle.

Science - To go along with the book on the Wright brothers, the students learned about Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines and built some models as described in this book. It also helped them understand some principles as flight and they saw how da Vinci used nature study to design his flying machines. They were quite amused at how da Vinci tested them.

Picture Study - The artist we chose for picture study this term is John James Audubon, specifically this book. Since we have about a dozen students per class on Fridays (our homeschooler day), we have two books and two pictures. They have to sit quietly and study the picture for at least two minutes. They are such chatterboxes it is hard for them not to talk. When they are ready, we close the books and each child gets a chance to say one thing. They go around in a circle until they run out of things to say. Then, they switch pictures.

Silhouettes - We've read several books about our state. Mama, Let's Make A Moon by Clay Rice, a silhouette artist who has been to our county many times, inspired us to study bird silhouettes. I've made about ten of them. Sometimes we hand out individual silhouettes to half the class and bird pictures to the other half. Each student has one. They have to match the silhouette with the picture. I used a picture from this GBBC blogpost as a guide.

Plans for February 14 - I plan to make copies of the checklist and count birds during the day. I'll have a small group of children with me to help me spot and count the birds. As always, I'll have my camera, bird books, and my Nook available for tricky identifications.