Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

I’ve been mulling over my last post trying to sort out just what I was getting at and thought  a bit about Charlotte Mason’s definition of education.  She believed, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”  I’m a big fan of Charlotte Mason.  When I was first researching home education philosophies I found books based on her writings to be a fantastic middle ground.  In practice, I borrow heavily from the relative extremes of classical education and unschooling, but I have nothing to say against Charlotte Mason-inspired approaches to education and certainly don’t mean to disparage her ideas here.

However, I have always found her three-part definition a bit too wishy-washy for me.  I think it’s purely a personality thing.  I just want more to grab on to.  But her three-pronged description of what “education” means was helpful for my thinking.  I propose:  Education is culture, discipline, and training.  In that order, with slightly less emphasis on the third aspect.  This is only a “working idea” meaning that once my husband gets around to reading this post and then we get around to chatting about it together, I may completely rework my thinking.  But here are some initial thoughts about what each prong looks like inside my head.

Education is culture.  Family culture, local culture, national culture, the culture of the Church.  This aspect of education is about rhythm and predictability and about routinely entering into something much, much bigger than ourselves.  This plays out, for our family, in large and small ways.  It means that we always say grace before meals, and that on Saturday night we have a significantly more elaborate (though still very manageable) liturgy to set the “Lord’s Day” apart.  It means we attend Mass every Sunday, certainly, and as often as possible during the week.  It means we enter wholeheartedly into the liturgical rhythm of the Church.  We fast and feast and decorate and watch vestment colors come and go.  Our particular family culture also looks like reading aloud a lot, singing a lot, not owning a television, learning to do things ourselves, trying to be frugal while also learning to enjoy good food, wine, music, and art.  Appreciating our local culture means really trying to live in the midst of it and take it for what it is–engaging personally with our neighborhood.  And, then, trying to steep our children in the richness of the Western Civilization.  Not there’s anything wrong with non-Western civilizations.  We’ll learn about those as well.  But I think the best cure for lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness is a firm rooting in and appreciation of one’s own culture rather than diversity training.

Education is discipline.  Habit formation and the development of virtue are both key.  We do chores partly to teach skills but more importantly to teach that an orderly life requires a lot of hard work.  That living in community demands contributions from each according to his ability.  We ask the children to learn to play musical instruments because it is good for their souls to persevere through a challenging task day in and day out.  We make the children share a bedroom because it is good for them to learn to work out boundaries.  Another component to discipline is order.  An orderly life (when it isn’t adhered to slavishly) is a framework within which creativity can flourish.

Education is training.  This is, to my mind, the least important of the three.  I think much of modern education is training and, at that, training in all the wrong ways.  I want my children to have skills.  I want them to be able to read and do math and read music and quickly put things in alphabetical order.  I want them to write coherent sentences and make sound arguments.  I think that, for the most part, if the first two aspects of education are in order, much of this third part will fall into place easily enough.  Most of the “training in skills” I am doing at this point with my kindergartner and second grader are more catalysts for learning discipline than anything.


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This weekend’s Wall Street Journal arrived with the tantalizing headline, “Why French Parents are Superior.”  It’s been the source of a fair amount of buzz if my limited Facebook friend list and Google Reader sample is any indication.  Though it’s 929 comments (as of this writing) are nothing compared to the almost 9000 last year’s, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” elicited.  I’m sort of hoping this will become an annual tradition for the Wall Street Journal as I found both articles to be very interesting and thought-provoking.  I saw immediately how some of the “tiger mother” attitudes could benefit my family and, while I don’t anticipate ever shouting at my children to complete hour number three of violin practice, I’m also certainly not going to let my seven-year-old decide for himself when or whether to quit.

I didn’t read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and I don’t intend to read Bringing up Bebe.  There was plenty I disagreed with in the piece and, overall, I’m not sure the French have much claim to authority when it comes to child-rearing since, statistically speaking, they are doing a good bit less of it than much of the rest of the world.  That said, there were a few nuggets that I’ve been mulling over since first reading the article on Sunday and this quote, in particular, stands out to me:

When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

This is a concept I’ve been trying to wrap my head around since I became a mother and it came up recently in something else I was reading.  My husband and I have been talking about our ultimate goals for home education and that has meant asking ourselves, “What does education mean? What does an educated person look like?”  I think the above quote makes an important distinction that is often overlooked:  education and discipline are not the same thing.  And, to that, I would add:  and neither is “training.”  The tricky thing, of course, is that they are all inter-related but it has been helpful for me to sort out what, exactly, I’m trying to accomplish in various parts of my parenting.

Here, from Merriam-Webster are the pertinent definitions for each word:

education:  the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process

discipline:  training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character  or  orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior

training:  the skill, knowledge, or experience acquired by one that trains

Those definitions don’t exactly clear everything up but I think the slight differences are important.  Education is “development resulting from a process.”  Discipline can be a particular kind of corrective training or orderly behavior.  And training results in a particular skill.  These minor differences help me sort out my goals for various interactions with my children.  For example, if I give my three-year-old a timeout for grabbing a book from his older brother I am trying to do two things.  First, I want to correct the immediate behavior of grabbing things from other people.  Second, I want to gradually shape him into a patient, courteous young man.  Knowing that these are my goals I can ask myself, “Is a time-out the best way to get there?”  I don’t know the answer to that, yet.

Or, when I require my seven-year-old to practice his violin for fifteen minutes I want to achieve, perhaps, something in each area.  I want him to discipline his spirit to stick with a task, unpleasant as it is sometimes.  I want to develop in him a  taste and appreciation for music (an educated person is one who appreciates the arts, perhaps?) and I want to train him in a particular skill–that of being a competent maker of music on an instrument.

Or, when I make the same child sit and learn the parts of speech.  It’s not so much that I think it imperative that he learn, by name, every part of speech in a certain order by a certain date.  But I do think it important that he learn to apply himself to a task with regularity and focus.  Learning the parts of speech has turned out to be a fairly pleasant way to achieve that part of his education.

And, then, on the flipside, we have family prayer.  An utterly “useless” activity by some standards and one requiring a fair amount of, ahem, discipline–of various kinds–to get through each night.  But it is an important part of the overall education we are trying to hand down to our children.  It is part of our family culture and it is invaluable even if it doesn’t train them in any useful way for a particular, marketable, skill.

It’s not easy to sort out, and I’m not all the way there.  I have thoughts from some other reading I’m doing but I will get there another time.

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Starting school

Hello loyal readers (and you are loyal indeed if my blog is still on your reading list after such a long break). I could write several posts, at least, on all the reasons I haven’t posted all summer. Chiefly, we moved to Minnesota and that has taken a lot of time and energy. But more immediately, I don’t have any idea where regular blogging can fit into my life right now. So I’ve had moments here and there when I could have written something but I never wanted to give the impression that I was “back to blogging” only to take off for three months again. What’s the word for this kind of “all or nothing” personality of mine? It does not serve me well.

So I’m going to dive in here on one of the gazillion topics I’ve been wanting to write about lately and I’m going to start with the easy one: we started school.

Joseph will be four in October. I think, actually, that in most school districts he would not be eligible to start kindergarten until Fall of 2010 which is just incomprehensible to me. I have many, many unschooling and “Better Late than Early” tendencies and I struggled with how much–and how formally–to attack the whole school thing this year. In the end I decided that Joseph and I would both benefit tremendously from some structured time together each day. My crazy daughter has taken up most of my time and energy for the last two years and my laid-back son has really gotten the short end of the stick. Margaret still naps two hours every afternoon and Joseph almost never naps. Our routine is that I get Margaret to sleep after lunch, have an hour to nap myself or get some work done, and then spend an hour with Joseph who will have had an hour of quiet “rest time” on the futon by then.

I wanted to round out our new “school” focus with a reinstatement of our tea time tradition which was definitely set aside this summer. And I want some kind of semi-regular outing schedule for mornings. But one thing at a time.

I intended to start school the first Monday after Assumption but we had an out-of-town guest. Then I realized that things were still a total mess in our home and that I couldn’t really be in school mode before Labor Day anyway. So I moved the start date to the day after Labor Day. But we were out-of-town that day. So we started on Wednesday last week and that was all the school we did last week.

But we did get in tea time every day. Tea time is a snack–usually a sweet one–with tea (herbal and diluted for the kids). I read about the saint for the day and then we dive into the refreshments while I read aloud from a chapter book. We got through quite a few last year and last week I started The Secret Garden.

Today was a fiasco schedule-wise. Margaret fell asleep at 10:30 this morning. But in an amazing feat of flexibility it actually ocurred to me to do school anyway. And in a last-minute inspiration I decided to use the material and activities I’d chosen for the year to work on one letter each week. So with no preparation at all we started right in on “A”.

Our curriculum this year consists, so far, in nice paper, crayons, colored pencils, scissors, glue sticks, old magazines, and books. Basically we have an activity at the table and then we read together on the couch until Margaret wakes up. I’m still working on what it will mean to do one letter each week but today I drew an A, and Joseph traced it. Then I helped him think of something that started with “A” and he drew an apple–a really lovely apple, I might add. Then I let him draw his own picture of anything he liked with his new crayons while I worked on my own drawing. Margaret woke up then and we put away the nice art supplies and moved to the couch. Instead of finding an A book we read Tomie de Paola’s book Mary, the Mother of God in honor of Mary’s birthday today.

My “goals” for this year with Joseph are to improve his fine motor skills and solidify letter and number recognition. I have no idea how long that will take but that’s the goal until we meet it and then we’ll set a new one.

I do hope to be back here more often but I’ve only been able to write this much because my children have suddenly decided that raisins are the single best thing that has ever happened to them.

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The homeschooling world is all abuzz this week over a recent ruling by the California Court of Appeals. The court was responding to a confidential juvenile proceeding and the case involved child abuse. Legal battles are still being fought but as the ruling stands now, it sounds like all children in California will need to be taught by credentialed teachers in the future. We’re having pretty similar troubles in DC right now. There was a tragic case earlier this year of four children found dead in their home. It’s a long, complicated story but one of the reasons these kids slipped through the cracks was that they weren’t attending school. The mother had withdrawn them to “homeschool” them. The District, previously one of the most homeschool-friendly “states”, is responding with a set of regulations including home visits to observe parents instructing their children.

These cases remind me a bit of the articles on co-sleeping that come out once a year or so. The newspaper reports that there is a growing or hidden trend of parents sleeping with their children and then goes on to list all the reasons this is a bad idea. The example always given is of a mother under the influence of drugs or alcohol who has rolled on top of her infant in the night. What’s the problem? It must be co-sleeping.

It is nothing short of tragic when children are abused by their parents or, worse, when they die from neglect or at the hands of a mentally-ill parent. But the problem is not that these children were homeschooling or sharing a bed with their parents. What shall we discourage next? I would bet it’s pretty dangerous for a six-month old to be bathed by a drunk parent. Should we discourage the bathing of small children?

Many of my closest friends are teachers or have been teachers in public schools. They are, without exception, wonderful teachers. I have asked all of them if their education degree has been helpful to them in the classroom and almost all of them agree that their teacher training was helpful only in the area of classroom management. (I should note that all of the teachers in my sample teach elementary school. My argument may become less true with older children.) This is great. I would hope any single person left with the charge of twenty to thirty five-year olds has had training in classroom management. But home-educating parents do not need to practice classroom management. There might be similar skills required in managing a transition from one activity to another, or redirecting a stressed-out child but these are skills necessary for a parent long before a child reaches school age.

The attentions of even the most excellent teacher are no substitute for the love of the most distant, ignorant, or uneducated parent. There are extreme examples, to be sure. But if a parent is abusive, addicted, or mentally ill the problem will still be there after school. Remember, kids live with their parents.

I don’t have an easy answer for the problem of how to keep kids in those sorts of situations from being injured or killed. I don’t think there is an easy answer. It is unfortunate that the state of California and the District of Columbia seem to be reacting strongly against a tangential issue to these cases. The State wants to protect these kids but as my husband is fond of saying, “The State can’t love you.” Change needs to come at the cultural level, not from top-down government intervention and cultural change is a long, slow road. Few, I’m afraid, have the energy to travel it.

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The title for this post was not born out of my own imagination. I’ve been working my way through The Night is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard. This author figured fairly prominently in my conversion, or reversion, if your prefer. He taught English literature at my college but “resigned” after he converted to Catholicism. This was in 1985, I believe, but the way folks talked about it I had long thought it must have happened the year before I got to the school–which was 1998. Anyway, he lived in the neighborhood and was friendly enough with the college that he returned to give a talk on “The Church of Rome in the Body of Christ” at the end of my junior year. He set about answering long simmering questions that I hadn’t really had the time to articulate for myself, yet. It was that talk, more than anything, that set me irrevocably on the road back to the Church. I was privileged to get to know Mr. Howard very slightly later at parish events.

Thomas Howard is a serious anglophile. Many of the essays in this book were lectures given at Oxford. I’ve completed the first section “Things Literary and Literary Men” and almost the last essay is “Let us Purify the Dialect of the Tribe,” a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Howard makes the case in this essay for loving language, particularly as a writer. Certainly, Howard himself is a lover of language. My one criticism of this collection of essays thus far is that it’s just a bit much. When writing at book length, Tom Howard manages to temper himself a bit knowing that his reader must get through several hundred pages. In essay, article, or speech length he tries to cram himself and his love of language into just ten or twelve pages. The essays need to be read one at a time. But it is lovely. I’ve loved Howard’s use of the English language since I first read his On Being Catholic and I’m struggling to be encouraged, rather than discouraged, as I read him now. I don’t exactly want to write just like Thomas Howard, but I hope to have the same tools at my disposal: the English language. From literary references, to the most appropriate vocabulary choices, to correct use of commas. Part of the reason I don’t blog more often is that I don’t have the time to do justice to most of the ideas in my head.

On the whole, though, I am encouraged when I read really good writing and this essay on language has stuck with me. I remember fondly one summer in college when I was living in the dorms and became friends with someone I barely knew while classes were in session. Together we worked hard at eliminating “like” from our conversation. We were very nearly successful. I don’t talk like an airhead anymore. But there’s nothing like living with a three-year old to bring one’s linguistic deficiencies to the foreground. Joseph has applied the adjective “stupid” to most everything in his environment over the last week or so. Joseph is above-average in the language department–everyone says so–and he often comes out with things that are the obvious result of having had quality literature read aloud to him for hours and hours out of every week (and sometimes of a single day–we’re on the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia already). But stupid? It’s just not that creative an adjective. Some things are stupid but I hope that my children are able to come up with a more descriptive word than “stupid” when they aren’t satisfied with something. I guess it’s up to me. I may not write often enough or well enough to purify the dialect of the masses but I suppose I can take a crack at my own tribe.

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