Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Beach Novel While Not on the Beach

It's spring break and I'm reading a literary beach novel while not on the beach, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a Year 10 Amblesideonline free read. Seven chapters into the book, my favorite, laugh-out-loud quote is,
Clear your mind of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not … and don't I know how ready your attention is to wander when it's a book that asks for it, instead of a person? ~ Gabriel Betteredge, former bailiff and current house steward who consults Robinson Crusoe as his lifetime companion.
He raises a good question — How does one train attention to a book, not a person, when years of schooling has trained students to focus on a teacher lecturing or prompting? When years of worksheets has taught them to skim for answers, instead of reading to know? How can this transformation happen in a classroom with students whose abilities range from barely able to make it through a large group setting without a meltdown to gifted learners who already long to know? How do we help them go from letting facts pass through them like a sieve to seeking knowledge and making connections?

What are signs of a classroom full of seekers? Here is a list made by Charlotte Mason to assess for yourself, whether you are a homeschooling parent, a teacher at a homeschooling co-operative, or a teacher in a classroom. (These statements are quoted from Leslie Laurio's modern paraphrase of Towards a Philosophy of Education.)

"It's appropriate for all ages — even Shakespeare's seven ages of man!" — When I'm pre-reading, I sometimes gasp at an exciting connection. The other day my mind turned to a literature book when reading about Tim Severin's brilliant solution that blocked ginormous waves from entering his medieval leather boat during a gale. He and his crew sewed together pieces of oxhide with thongs to make a shell based on an image of a Roman army testudo formation that flashed into his mind. The hard part letting students make discoveries. To my delight, one girl gasped; another said, "Wait a minute;" a boy blurted out the name of the book.

"It effectively educates brilliant children, and develops the intelligence of even the slower children." — The other day we did the classic test of acids and bases using red cabbage juice as suggested in The Mystery of the Periodic Table. First, we tested vinegar and it turned red; then, we tested a baking soda solution, and it turned blue. Excited chatter erupted. We put them together and purple foam brewed. Eman, who is learning to function in a large classroom, exclaimed, "I can't wait to tell my dad I did three experiments." Another student decided to do this at home with his little brothers. The seekers of the class pondered and shared their thoughts, "Wait a minute! So, when you mix the acid and base, it reacts and becomes neutral!" Living out living books means that persons with varying abilities can thrive together.

Children concentrate with focused attention and interest without any effort from them or their teachers.Effort is required to get them to that point! Lots of patient smiles and awkward pauses and encouragement. Reading short sections. Scaffolding them in how to notebook. Reading fewer books. Skipping long, wordy nonessential passages. Once students learn this kind of concentration, it looks effortless.

All children taught this way express themselves in confident, well-spoken English, and use a large vocabulary. — The boy who came to us labeled non-verbal in August 2013 amazes us. Every morning he spends a half-hour outdoors on a scooter. When we came in, I asked what he was going to do during math and he said, "Work on lessons." For history, he said, "Narrate." Narrate! He is still such a slow processor that it's hard for him to narrate in class. Since he asked for it, the headmaster and I brainstormed how it could be done. Now, he leaves the class with his Kindle and notebook and finds one of us. Then, he narrates and we write what he says. The first day was rather amusing — for the record, he did not have his Kindle that day — he said that Lincoln "was a red car." However, a few days later, Angie took down what he said about their readings in ancient history, "Mesopotamia has rivers. Deserts with dark storms like Egypt." Even speech-delayed children can acquire a large vocabulary when surrounded by living books.

Children are calm and stable. — Last week, I substituted in the elementary class. Since Eman and the boy who narrated Mesopotamia are usually with me, they joined me for the reading, a chapter from Tom Sawyer. Thirteen students and I sat in a circle on the carpet while I read to them. Those with books had their eyes on the words. A prospective family with a spectrum child was meeting with Angie. They wanted to know how their child might fit in, so she said, "In the room next door are four special needs children. You'll be able to figure out one. Can you spot the other three who all have autism?" They quietly opened the door, watched, and listened. They were amazed at how calm and attentive the students were. Building trust, developing good habits, and helping students find joy in learning helps them find meaning their daily work.

Keeping the mind busy with things to think about seems to make children's minds and lives pure.Our kids find neat things to do outside of class. Several want to do more chemistry experiments at home. Some girls are planning to make a video of The Brendan Voyage over the summer. At recess, the kids are fighting Civil War battles or fighting over who gets to be Robin Hood and Maid Marion. We have a couple of kids whose viewing choices have shifted to history documentaries and trivia shows. When they go to local Mexican restaurants, they speak Spanish and sing for their servers. One boy would rather go to North Dakota to see dinosaur bones instead of Disney.

Parents [and teachers] share their children's interest in their schoolwork and enjoy the company of their children. — Back to my morning substituting, we read the chapter on World War I from A Child's History of the World. First, they gave a lovely narration about the previous chapter on the Industrial Revolution. Then, we read the introductory section on Serbia and Austria, which they narrated well. "Those countries are so little!" We read how France and Russia joined the fray. They were indignant about Germany marching through poor Belgium. When I asked what they thought England would do, they were sure it would side with Germany. They based their reason upon the connection between British royalty and Germany in their biography about Queen Victoria. They were shocked and appalled to learn that the United Kingdom sided with France. "FRANCE?" "They always fight France!" "Have they forgotten Napoleon?" The teacher told me that, the next day, they were still shaking their heads and muttering about England's choice. Teaching is a pleasure when students are engaged!

Children enjoy their books, even when they aren't picture books, and they seem to really love learning. — We are reading a challenging, worthy book for junior high geography. We sample the most tantalizing excerpts, and they are hooked. Two gasped when Josef Fischer found the long-lost Waldseemüller map in a German castle. When each student got a print of one of the twelve pieces, they looked carefully to make one large map. "Hey! That's not big enough!" "Yeah, the book said it was four by eight feet." In drawing a medieval map of the cosmos, done in Latin, they applied Spanish and Aristotle's four elements. "Tierraterra — it must be Earth!" "Aqua sounds like agua, which is water." "Aer looks like air." "So, ignis must be fire!" In narrating the imaginary races that medieval people believed existed, one girl said, "Those sound like the duffle pods in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader;" a boy decided the barking, dog-headed people were from Egyptian mythology; Eman added, "They're wearing a dog head skin like British wild people." Students love learning when we let them make connections.

Teachers don't have to work so hard making corrections. — One day, I filled in for the junior high teacher for literature. The class narrated their previous reading in an Alfred the Great biography. They were confused about why Alfred would marry when he was only a boy. I was confused because I didn't remember him having an arranged marriage as a child. I quickly realized their error and peeked at the next reading. I decided it contained enough information for them to correct themselves. After reading a section, I heard, "I'm confused." "Why did Alfred call Judith his sister?" "It said Judith married a man four times her age." "She's fifteen, so her husband must be sixty." "Wait, I think I got it! Judith married Alfred's father!" "And she's young enough to be his sister!" "Oh, now it makes sense!" Living books lend well to self-correction when students go astray.

Children taught this way do very well no matter what school they attend. — I suspect that children do very well in school, and, more importantly, do very well in life based upon what I know of CM-taught students who are now adults.

Students don't need grades, prizes, etc., to motivate them. — To scaffold parents in the transition, we assess habits as well as academics using a non-tradtional scale: novice, apprentice, practitioner, and expert. It removes the pressure of "getting all A's" because nobody can be an expert at everything. There is always room for growth! Having gotten over the hurdle of extrinsic motivation, the junior high is starting to learn for the sake of learning. When they drew a T-O map in their notebook, one said, "Hey, didn't we see one of those in a Fra Angelico painting?" When I pulled out Madonna and Child in Majesty, they asked, "Why is the globe upside down?" One is saving up for a copy for the Waldseemüller map for her bedroom. Another mappamundi sparked a lot of conversation. "Mappamundi must be a map!" "Mundi sounds like mundo which is Spanish for world." "I get it! Map of the world!" "Don't you see? Jesus is embracing the world. He's in it and in us!" "I can see why they were afraid to sail west. It wasn't just the end of the world; it was the end of time." "So, let me get this straight. What we're reading in geography is connected to chemistry, history, literature, and Spanish?" One student asked about the antichrist, and other students raised their hands to answer it! The teacher simply guided their conversation.

Since I don't believe in extrinsic motivation, I will offer a hilariously funny natural consequence for making it to the end of this very long post: another quote from The Moonstone, one of the 100 best novels in someone's eyes. It seems that Gabriel Betteredge may adore Robinson Crusoe, but he would not last long in a Charlotte Mason style of education.
You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring over one of their spiders' insides with a magnifying-glass; or you meet one of their frogs walking downstairs without his head — and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you DO know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see — they must get through the time. You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is, that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands. And so it ends in your spoiling canvas with paints, and making a smell in the house; or in keeping tadpoles in a glass box full of dirty water, and turning everybody's stomach in the house; or in chipping off bits of stone here, there, and everywhere, and dropping grit into all the victuals in the house; or in staining your fingers in the pursuit of photography, and doing justice without mercy on everybody's face in the house.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Shift

Tonight we celebrated the term finale feast at Harvest, a Charlotte Mason style private school founded by two friends and me. We value feasts, not just food feasts, but feasts of the mind. On Fridays, we celebrate the feast after lunch. Rather than fight minds wandering to the weekend ahead, we grab their attention by feeding their ears with composer study, their eyes with picture study, their fingers with handwork, and their minds with Plutarch. We also invite parents and homeschoolers to join us — it gives our teachers an afternoon a plan and our community a chance to gather together. The feasting culminates in the term Finale Feast, where we feed the families a lovely meal, let the students share some things they have learned (tonight it was Psalm 121, Génesis 1:1 in Spanish, "La granja," and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"), and invite a pastor to share the gospel and feed their souls.

Lately, I've pondered what I call the shift, which is the process of becoming a seeker of knowledge. One of the fathers told me tonight that it's like a lightbulb suddenly switched on in the brains of his daughters. Another student shared "Harvest can change your perspective of learning — in a fun way." And, after settling into a routine of copywork, oral narration, and drawing a story, Eman suddenly decided to try written narrations. He has volunteered to do three of them on his own initiative. On his own initiative! Do you know how huge that is? He told our headmaster, "My hands are hungry for writing words." So, part of the shift is stimulate a person's hunger.

One transformation has amazed me. I met this introverted girl over four years ago. She hardly talked to me even though her brother, a chatterbox, was in my class at the after school program. They were some of the first students to sign up for Harvest. Anyway, a Charlotte Mason style of education has changed her life — just two weeks ago, she did a wonderful reading as Ophelia in Hamlet. Not only is she taking guitar lessons, she has played for us once at the morning meeting and plans to write the school song. She did not want to recite a poem at the finale feast. She doggedly pursued the opportunity to share her testimony.

She was amazing. She stood at the podium, her face radiant with confidence. She gestured and put passion into her carefully chosen words. She admitted to being shy, quiet, and scared at school. Its strictness and rules kept her from being herself. She had friends and good teachers, and nothing bad happened. Yet, the atmosphere made her feel small. She said that she could not believe she was looking forward to her first day of school last year. Within a week, she relaxed and let herself emerge. She beamed as she described who she is today: she talks non-stop, she narrates everything, and she is not afraid to speak about her faith, which brings her joy.

I could spend all night blogging about changed lives. About the girl who never went outside and who now adores going on what she dubbed "the dangerous and wet trail of death" on Friday. About the boy who got upset when asked to read aloud who acted in a play in Charleston last month. About the girl whose third grade teacher made her feel stupid and who now knows how intelligent she really is. And the primary class who is absolutely jealous because they are not old enough for Shakespeare. And the girls who bake to raise money to build an aquaponics farm in Mozambique.

God keeps sending us students and we are now completely full. We have a waiting list next year, and it looks like we are going to add on to our building in God's perfect timing. We hope to have more space next year. If God can give us the resources to open a school in ten weeks, He can supply enough money to build this summer or the next. Rather than ask people to buy things they really don't need (wrapping paper, candy, popcorn, magazines, etc.), we have set up a gofundme page. Every dollar raised there will go directly to building more rooms so we can help kids shift to becoming seekers.

One thing God has taught me in the past two years is that He is in the big things, and He is in the little things. One of the girls asked me what we were serving and I told her taco soup. She did not look thrilled. She asked about dessert and I told her key lime pie. "Pie, I don't like pie! Aren't you going to serve fried chicken and macaroni and cheese?" I told her no but that Mrs. Shea is a really great cook! So, what happens on Saturday? The afternoon of The Finale Feast, a couple celebrated their 50th anniversary. They had plenty of leftovers and asked us if we wanted some. So, that young lady got her macaroni and cheese (and it was delicious).

"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." Lamentations 3:22-23

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Flexible Thinking in How We Help Spectrum Students

Last year, I blogged a bit about a "Harvester" with autism who enjoys gardening. (Harvest is a Charlotte Mason style school where Pamela and I hang out.) We have several spectrum students in our school, and they are all so different. As the saying goes, if you've met one person with autism, then you've met only one person with autism. We have one boy who "missed" a lot of classroom time last year because he was on a very difficult journey from learning to co-regulate (master his reactions with the help of someone) to self-regulate (know when to excuse himself or ask a teacher to help him deal with a stressful situation). This year, he's learned the lesson so well that he's never out of class. Point One: Sometimes, taking a huge step back fosters a huge leap forward!

Another spectrum Harvester came to us last year from a self-contained classroom, labeled as nonverbal. His real issue is slow processing. When we gave him time to process, he talked. Once he realized that we would wait for him, he began to talk more and more and more, a little bit faster, a little bit faster, and a little bit faster. After the morning meeting, he needs time to eat a snack and burn off energy. Then, he is ready to join his peers for class. He works all day in class at his own level. He goes through an occasional giddy spell and has to leave class until he gets a grip. Point Two: Sometimes, labels are not accurate.

Here is the update on Eman, who could only handle an hour at school just over a year ago and who now stays all day and after school to play with friends. Last year, our goal was for him to work up to a full day at school. While he made it through most days, he left at lunch whenever he had a tough morning. Some mornings were tough, and I believe one issue was that he knew he had an out. His mother assisted the primary class teacher in the morning and went home for lunch. In the back of his mind, he knew he could go home if he acted up enough. Point Three: Some behaviors are deliberate, and they are the trickiest to figure out.

The good news is that we have figured it out. Over the summer, his mother chatted with him from time to time about having to stay all day. Why? This talented lady has joined us as the primary class teacher! The first term he stayed all day, but some days were very tough. Eman is wonderful and, when fully regulated, he is a delight. He gets excited about a story; he stays very engaged; he begs to help. The day we planted seeds in the winter garden he had a hard time taking turns because he wanted to do everything. When he notebooked the garden, he drew his dream garden which included a fountain and a hot tub. He has a big heart and a big imagination. Point Four: Every child, however challenging, has good qualities!

What was the trick? Eman is easily bored, but he needs some structure. Spending all day, in the same class, with the same kids, with the same teacher was a little too much sameness for him. His mother and our headmaster brainstormed a new schedule that gives him variety within a routine. He joins the morning meeting for the devotion, pledge, song, habit talk, and Spanish and then he has a snack. Low blood sugar can ruin a day for him. Then, he goes to the headmaster for independent work: listening to an audio book, notebooking it, and map work. Then, he joins Pamela and I for literature: we practice the fighter verse of the week, read a poem, read from two different literature books, and prepare for Shakespeare on Thursday. Then, he goes to his mom's room for math and heads to lunch. After lunch, he goes to recess and comes back in for copywork. Then, he and Pamela join the junior high in the big room for history and science in the afternoon. I am teaching that class so the junior high teacher can continue to build a solid relationship with him because he will spend several years in her class. Point Five: In spite of what many believe, rigid routine does not help autistic children.

How have things been going for Eman? Surprisingly well. He's only had two tough days all term. On one day, he tested us and realized that he prefers choosing to do the right thing even though he does not always feel like it. The other day was a combination of a cold and a death in the extended family.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Nature Study Y'all

Let's face it! When the temperatures are below freezing, it's hard to muster the mojo to walk. (For folks down south, hot, humid, mosquito-mired days in July are no picnic). Whatever your obstacle, it's worth keeping the habit of a long, weekly walk. Our sweet spot is Santee National Wildlife Refuge, and, while it's twenty minutes from my house and ten minutes from our school, I don't mind the drive once a week. Here are a few tips, one or two gleaned from the AO forum which I encourage you to join because of their collective wisdom.
  • Find a like-minded kindred spirit to walk with your family. Make a commitment with one another to walk the same place at the same time every week.
  • Bring and wear what you need to be comfortable: hats, gloves, mittens, scarves, layers, boots, raingear, sunscreen, insect repellant, etc.
  • Set a temperature limit (minimum and maximum) and use that to buck yourself up when it's cold but not too cold and hot but not too hot.
  • Practice the habit of cheerful resilience. We have sayings to go with the weather: "Harvest kids don't melt/ freeze to death/blubber." (The kids reading Carry On, Mr. Bowditch coined that last one.)
  • Take pictures to help you research what is out there. Let older children take their own pictures if they use it for nature study.
  • Keep a family nature notebook for the little ones and scaffold them into doing their own when they are ready. Record common names and Latin names of what you see whenever possible.
  • Keep a list of what you find at the back of your notebook like the one Laurie Bestvator shared in her book The Living Page. It becomes a handy reference during notebooking time.
  • Let them develop their own names of places: we have the castles and moats, rock mountain, the frog pond, the boat ramp pond, the binocular boardwalk, the swamp boardwalk, etc.
Just over a week ago, we experienced a "long" period of freezing temperature. My friends from up North, please make sure you have no coffee or tea in your mouth. Thirty-six consecutive hours of temperatures well below freezing is long for us — especially when your house is not insulated!

We decided to make Friday's walk optional since it began just as the thermometer began passing 32 degrees Fahrenheit. My group headed straight to the water where the deer drink. Watching them play in the ice was like seeing Lucy explore Narnian snow for the first time. Ice is a rare treat for us. Seeing a section of our lake iced over is extremely rare. Rather than drag them out of the ice and walk the whole trail because that is what we do every week, I let them explore and play with ice. As you can see in the pictures, they had a BLAST.

It is especially rewarding when you get to see students making discoveries. They became mesmerized by chucking bits of ice and watching them skid across the ice. This video shows them cheering when the little chunks slid off into the water.

When this little boy ran through the cypress knees, he announced, "Hey, it's like a maze!"

Then, the kids had an idea just as we are driving away. They wondered if they could explore the ice at the little beach near the mound. They learned that the ice had already melted on the sunny side of the lake.

What was Pamela doing? Well, she and I had violated one of our tips. We had forgotten to wear boots so we did not have as much fun as the others!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflection about Term 1

It's hard to believe but we are half-way through our second year at Harvest Community School. We started last year with eighteen students in first through seventh grades, and now we have FORTY-THREE from Kindergarten to eleventh grade. That's not including a handful of preschoolers who join us for lunch and an hour of Harvest time after Montessori. I wish I could tell you all their stories because Harvest has been a place for children to know God, to discover God's plans for them, and to find joy.

Pamela and I go there every day. Because the junior high was overflowing, Pamela and I are working together again. She and I join the entire school for morning meeting where we listen to a devotion, recite the pledge of allegiance, sing a patriotic song or hymn, and learn Spanish (which I teach). She and I are working through a variation of AO Year 7 adapted to a private school, modified to scaffold students who have never learned through Charlotte Mason principles.

It is a challenging transition! She and I worked very hard during the first term in between trips to Indiana and Canada. In Ohio, we watched a jousting tournament! And we met Hildegard and other friends in Ontario.

You may think Charlotte Mason is all about reading tons of great books. While we do read great books, we also study things up close and personal. God has sent all kinds of creatures to us. We studied a dead bat, a baby opossum that found itself in our trashcan one morning, and a mud turtle.

We explored two Carolina bays: one at Woods Bay State Park and another at Santee National Wildlife Refuge. Their staff invited us to go on their autumn audit of snakes and salamanders. We saw how they capture and count these critters. Don't worry! This snake is venomous unlike the cotton mouth that stayed in the cage.

The staff of SNWR also gave us a tour of the bird migration fields and told us all the things they do to keep traveling birds well-fed. We learned a lot about the different habitats along our beloved trail and how to apply terms like producer, consumer, and decomposer.

Finally, we ended the term and our study of Hildegard von Bingen with a visit from the author of the book we had been reading. Megan Hoyt shared things about Hildegard that went beyond the book. We passed around herbs, and the children enjoyed grinding spelt. She passed around scrolls with sayings by Hildegard plus something they might be when they grow up. The Kindergartners was so impressed because they knew the book inside and out. When our headmaster told them that the author of the book is here, their eyes grew wide and one little boy exclaimed in surprise, "She's HERE?"

To read more posts like this, check out the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival!