Planning: Enough Already

I think we’re just going to start school on Monday.

I started looking at the fall and the chances are that school is going to get disrupted many times with DOB’s medical issues. Better to start a bit early and have some breathing room. If we start this next week, we have five extra weeks to get through the end of the term before Christmas break. Which means if all goes well we’ll have plenty of time for a nice Thanksgiving and Christmas break and the long weekends and even if it doesn’t all go well we should be *done* before Christmas instead of scootching it in afterward and playing catchup all winter and spring.

I *think* I’ve done everything on the must-do list. I got the Spanish book in (it looks good!). The notebooks are ready and the papers and maps printed out. No doubt things will turn up missing once we plunge in, but we’re just going to makeĀ  a start at it.

The house isn’t perfectly organized, but it’s functionally clean and I’ve at least made a start on the basement. If I have the energy tomorrow, I might organize the shelves and desk area. Or I might get started on the legal work I have coming due next week. So many things to juggle sometimes, and only so much energy.

The kids are excited. Whether it is from the studies itself, or because it means we will be resuming daily computer time, I’m not sure. Either way, it will work. (And they did just fine all summer without the regular computer time, so I am satisfied that it is not taking over our lives.)

Here goes.


The Talent Code

Someday I’m going to compile my own personal list of books that everyone who wants to homeschool should read, regardless of homeschooling style or philosophy. One of those books is going to be The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. Simply, this is a book about the art and science of how people learn–not just learn tolerably well, but become great at something. It applies to every area of learning and every stage of life.

Charlotte Mason homeschoolers will see many connections with CM’s teachings on discipline and habit formation; but, as I said, this is a book for everybody. Unschoolers will appreciate knowing how to support their children’s passions effectively. Traditional and classical educators will learn how to make their instruction more effective.

The science, in a nutshell, has to do with myelin. Myelin is the insulation around nerves. Yes, learning starts with connections between neurons, but for those connections to work smoothly and efficiently, they need insulation. Growing that insulation is a slow process, and the brain allocates it based on use–the more a connection gets used, the more the brain knows it’s a priority for insulation. And the more insulation the connection has, the more quickly and efficiently it operates, and the better we become at the skill.

So practice makes perfect–not exactly earth-shattering. Ah, but the rub is, it’s not just *any* kind of practice that makes perfect–it’s fully-engaged “deep practice,” where the person is deliberately working right at the top of his ability, perhaps making mistakes, but then fixing them. Picture a baby staggering out, falling down, getting up, trying again. Picture a music student taking the passage apart, trying one piece at a time, slowing it down until he can do it perfectly. An hour or two of this kind of practice is worth weeks of going through the motions.

Coyle then goes on to explore what makes this kind of practice happen–what makes people willing and able to go through this kind of labor. He visits “talent hotbeds” from Brazilian soccer fields to Appalachian music camps–places that produce a disproportionate number of great players or performers. What he finds is that these hotbeds usually have an identifying triggering factor–an outstanding individual athlete who hundreds of youngsters admired and wanted to emulate. On the other hand, there seems to be little genetic limitation on what people can learn to do–rather, it’s what they get inspired to do and then work at hard enough.

Inspiration alone isn’t enough to generate a talent hotbed, of course. There also is a need for settings for deep practice–such as the Brazilian pick-up version of soccer that requires much more interaction with the ball than standard soccer. And for great coaches, whose primary skill turns out not to be speaking inspirationally or comprehensively, but rather knowing both their subject and their students well enough to speak the information the student needs to know right then to make the next step.

Now, this is all very well as a recipe for making a sports or music superstar–but what if neither you or your children care about those things? The point is, though, that this is how we can learn (or teach) anything. It also describes how the Bronte sisters learned to write and how Michelangelo learned to carve.

Reading through this, I realized this is exactly how my older two children learned to read. I tend to say they taught themselves–but they didn’t, not entirely. Rather, I provided them with inspiration and materials, and then, as they worked at it, I spoke to exactly what they needed to know, when they wanted to know it. (“That’s ‘Chex’ on the cereal box; C and H together usually say /ch/.”) It took very little time or effort on my part because I seldom had to tell them the same thing twice–they were fully engaged at the moment when they heard it.

I think babies and toddlers naturally challenge themselves in this way, and are naturally in settings where they get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t, as when learning to walk and learning to talk. I am sure we can all remember experiences where we were working at that deep practice level and astonished ourselves with how quickly we learned something that seemed impossible at the outset. (One that stands out in my mind is for me, the total klutz, learning to tie a baby on my back, instantly and safely, anywhere.) The challenge is learning to make use of this for whenever and whatever we want to learn, and to teach our children to do the same.

Some Ideas With Resonance

Project-based learning.

Making art more accessible.



Yesterday we cleaned and reorganized the basement to make a play/work area and an art area. Now, how to arrange and supply the materials.

What do I have? How can I use it better?

What interests the children?

What do I need/want to do that I can involve them with?

How do I balance/intersect giving them ownership/following their interests with discipling/leading them in the way they should go?

Too Smart for Charlotte Mason?

I feel like I need some sort of disclaimer at the top of this post, in case someone takes it too personally. I don’t claim to know everything. I don’t know enough to tell you what to do with your kids. I’m just exploring in my own mind the question of how far Charlotte Mason’s principles can be trusted and how serious I am about following them. My children are still very young (3.5, 2.5, and twins coming soon), so I have no real experience to draw on, and though they are bright and verbally gifted, I don’t think they’re any smarter than your kids and I can’t guarantee results. Check back in twenty years and I’ll tell you how it went. That being said . . .

I belong to a list devoted to applying Charlotte Mason’s principles for young children under the age of six: avoiding formal lessons, spending much time out-of-doors, participating in a rich home life. Every so often someone posts something along the lines of:

"Of course I *love* CM’s ideas, but my child is so gifted  (long list of achievements starting in infancy) that we have to do lessons or she would be bored."

Well, maybe so. I don’t know their child. But is the world and everything in it really such a small field that a four-year-old can’t find enough to do and learn without a lesson plan? I’m twenty-nine, much smarter than even the most profoundly gifted four-year-old, and I am never bored even if nobody does lessons with me.

I can’t help but think there must be some miscommunication somewhere. Some possibilities come to mind:

1) They are seriously misunderstanding CM’s advice to think they must somehow hold back their child and prevent them from learning anything taught in school. Quite the contrary, CM expected many children to teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic before their sixth birthday. But she expected that to grow out of the children’s interests and questions, not out of a formal scope and sequence imposed by the mother.

2) They have trouble interacting informally with their children and feel a need for lesson plans to give them some ideas, because their child is tired of being sent off to play while they do laundry. There are many perfectly good parents like this; their laundry gets done much more quickly than mine does, I’m sure. Keeping books of projects and activities around is a good idea; for many families it will be helpful to schedule a special time for Mom to sit down and do things with the kids.  But that’s not the same thing as formal lessons; far better is to watch the child and suggest projects that seem likely to be a good fit. And they still need to make an effort to include the children in the laundry. Even Einstein got his socks dirty.

3) Their house is a really boring place. Modern suburban life is rather devoid of interest. There are few grown-ups to watch working. The landscaping is all the same. Buying a curriculum may seem simpler than resolving this problem, but it’s only a band-aid. If life isn’t interesting, make it more interesting. Let Mom take up a complex and absorbing hobby–and let the kids watch and help. Travel around to watch people at work and, if they seem nice, ask them questions. Go visit new parks, museums, businesses, etc. Horrify your neighbors by piling up scrap lumber and mud in the back yard for free exploration.

In the end, though, I think people still really haven’t absorbed the point of Charlotte Mason’s advice. The world is a rich, wonderful, amazing place. Learning to read and write is a tiny, tiny portion of it. A four-year-old who is ready to read–who gets read to and who has her questions answered–will learn to read without any need for a curriculum. (I did it myself, so it’s not like I’m a hereditary dimwit who’s completely clueless about the challenge of gifted children.) And if they don’t, they are not being held back while they learn a million and one other things.

For mother to turn her attention from going out and exploring, from answering the children’s questions, from hunting up new and challenging books that match the children’s interests, from teaching handcrafts and household skills, and to focus instead on introducing the three R’s, is to turn from a rich, diverse, nutritious banquet to a making sure they down their bowl of oatmeal. Indeed, perhaps a child with an abnormally strong taste for oatmeal (traditional school skills) needs extra encouragement to entice them into a more adventuresome diet (imaginative play, physical activity, out-of-door time, crafts).

The smarter a child is, the less they should need formal lessons at an early age, because they have a greater capacity to perceive, inquire, and learn without being prodded. If your child is zipping ahead, teaching themselves to read and write, asking dozens of insightful questions–why slow them down with someone else’s idea of what they should be learning?

What’s Formal?

One subject I wrestle with particularly often is whether I’m pushing the ducklings too hard or introducing formal schooling. I really don’t believe in formal schooling for young children. They’re supposed to just be playing!

So where did they learn all their shapes and colors and letters and numbers? It just kind of . . . happened. I found this great article through the Carnival of Homeschooling that provided some reassurance about the process I’ve seen occurring, including excerpts from Charlotte Mason’s own writings.

What distinguishes informal learning, which can hardly be stopped at this age, from formal learning, which should wait? I think the distinguishing feature is pressure, whether through schedule, blame, performance, or excessive praise.

Preschool learning shouldn’t sound like this:
"It’s time to work on colors now!"
"Oh, come on, you know that! Can’t you tell Mommy?"
"Sing your ABC song for Grandma!"
"Wow, you’re so smart to know that!"
(Not that I don’t ever fall short here, especially with the showing off for Grandma.)

It should sound like this:
"Do you want a red block or a blue block next?"
"Shall we cut the sandwiches in squares or in triangles?"
"We have one, two, three, four plates on the table."
"You’re right, that is an ‘A.’"
"Sure, I can write a word for you."
"All right, if you insist, we can read the number book again." (I HATE the number book. I have read it SO MANY TIMES. Oh well.)

One area of particular note is in memorizing. I do want the ducklings to know Scripture passages from the start. I don’t want to pressure them to memorize. So I just say the passage over in front of them every day. (When I really have things together, I write it up in a notebook and illustrate it with magazine pictures.)

I never ask them to say it with me. I never ask them to say it to anyone else. Before too long, though, I’ll hear them murmuring it over to themselves during their play.

I find it works best with longer passages that we can work on for several weeks at a time, which is the opposite of the microscopic verses ("God is love") usually given to preschoolers to memorize. They probably can’t say the whole thing word-for-word yet, but the ideas are worming their way into their hearts, and we will revisit the same passages when they are older.

Blending in Montessori

One thing we’ve added to our daily agenda in the past few weeks is some small Montessori exercises. These have been inspired by the book Mommy, Teach Me! by Barbara Curtis.

Montessori’s philosophy has a few things in common with Charlotte Mason, but in practice they look quite different. Certainly Charlotte Mason did not approve of having preschoolers spending their days doing formal, graduated exercises to lead them to the point of reading and writing early. Reading Mason’s letter critiquing Montessori, however, has helped me clarify why and how I believe implementing a few Montessori-inspired ideas will be helpful to us.

One area I don’t think Mason emphasizes adequately, at least not enough to be helpful to me, is in practical life skills–doing chores, caring for themselves. Now, this may be just so simple she doesn’t need to mention it, or it may just be part of the "servant gap" of a different century and social class. If I had a nursemaid and a cook, I wouldn’t care when my children learned to dress themselves or pour their own milk. Lacking a staff, I need the children to be my staff as soon as possible, so we can spend more time in free play out of doors.

Another area that Mason is very strong on is forming good habits. While there are some areas I notice and train more easily, there are some that are very hard for me to do unless there is a specific time to sit down and work on them. Among these are obeying specific instructions (not just general directives), proper care of belongings, and tidiness.

In these areas, I think some Montessori activities–especially ones deliberately adapted for home use, like in Curtis’ books–are helpful to us. Practice with things like spooning, pouring, or handling a sponge–at a time when I am free to focus on instructing one at a time–will help them be better helpers in more stressful situations. I also have appreciated the guidance on teaching chores in manageable steps (in fact, I’d love to see more on this topic–I have a hard time thinking step-by-step).

For each of the ducklings, there’s an additional habit I’m working on. With D1, it is following the specific instructions, rather than insisting on doing things *her* way. With D2, it is staying focused on a task–he is highly distractible, which is an advantage during a temper tantrum, but a problem at other times. During our table time, I gently keep directing him back to finish the thing he started.

The way we are using it is that at a particular time of the day–right before supper is when it is right now, it will probably be morning in the winter–they each get a turn playing alone in their room while the other one gets to sit at the table and work with my guidance. I would like to move to where they can work more independently, but they are really appreciating having some time with just me. They usually get about fifteen minutes each. So far they are still very enthusiastic about this time, and the only trouble I have is squabbles over whose turn it is to do it first.

Reading Mason’s critique of the Montessori method has given me some good thoughts on keeping this in perspective. This is still a very small part of our day–not more than fifteen minutes for each of them–and the rest of the day is devoted to playing freely, helping with chores, reading stories, and going outside. (Our outdoors time is far too short this time of year, though!)

I’m choosing activities with an eye to what will be fun and interesting to them, not trying to get them through a particular sequence. I allow them a reasonable amount of leeway in how they use the materials–we’re still working on a balance there, because I do want them to have some idea that Mama gets the final say in how things are done.

So far, the ducklings have really enjoyed this, and I think it is helpful to them and to me. We’ll see how it works out long-term.

Going Out

Charlotte Mason raises the ideal of young children spending the majority of every nice day from April to October outside. She also acknowledges that this ideal may not be possible, but it’s better to have high goals.

Last year my goal, with a baby and an almost-2-year-old and potty training and a move mixed into it, was to spend two hours a day outside. We did pretty well at that. This year, I’m shooting for at least three hours. The need for a long afternoon nap cuts our time short, and after nap I usually have too much to do getting supper on for a long trip out, although sometimes we can finagle another hour in the yard.

This week has definitely been prime time. Now is the time for us to be out most of the day, before it gets too hot for my thick Northwest blood to bear it. Monday morning we spent three hours at the neighborhood park, winding up with lunch. (Another mother asked me, "You stay out with them that long and they don’t get all wild?" But it makes sense to me–and I find it to be true–that the longer we stay outside, the calmer they are.)

Then DOB called during naptime (which does still limit our hours outside) to suggest another picnic for supper. We headed to a large nature preserve and walked on a trail along the river. The ducklings, especially D2, were fascinated by the water and were thrilled when we found a spot in the trail where they could get down and wade. D2 was ready to take off through the rapids, but we wouldn’t let him go that far. We also watched some mallards swimming on the river.

Yesterday on our way home from the library we explored a bird sanctuary for a few minutes–we didn’t see any birds but there were quite a few different wildflowers.

Today we had a date with another family (mom, little girl D1’s age, little boy D2’s age) to see their favorite park. The weather looked iffy, but the rain held off for us. We climbed a tree with numerous low limbs that even a two-year-old could climb. We also made bark rubbings, which they didn’t quite get the hang of but seemed to enjoy. Then we went down to a little creek, which was small enough for me to let D2 go wading around and throwing rocks in to his heart’s content. We also spotted an unusual-looking moth and watched the birds. The boys enjoyed picking different plants and looking at the leaves and seeds.

I’ve been inspired again by discussions on the cm4earlyyears yahoo list to nudge the outside time more towards experiencing nature and less towards playground equipment. Of course, climbing and sliding and swinging are important things to do, too. But so is stopping to look at and enjoy the things around us. The best is when we find trees and rivers where all that climbing and exploring can be done naturally.