Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spelling Wisdom

My mother insists that there's no point in teaching spelling. People fall into two immutable categories: natural spellers and natural misspellers. I hope she's wrong, as the mother of both orthographically gifted and challenged children.

But I hate teaching spelling lists, words, and rules, so I've only taught spelling erratically. While I find learning to spell words by rote to be tedious, I find learning by spelling "rules" to be even worse, maddening because of the tower of exceptions. Neither option ignites a love-of-learning flame in me or my children.

Whenever I try to find a solution to an educational problem, I usually find it somewhere in the context of Suzuki's method for teaching music. Last year at a workshop I attended, a Suzuki teacher said that much of the beauty of the method is that the etudes (exercises) are taken directly from the pieces. Rather than go through drills that have little musical meaning, children work on sections of their pieces to improve technique and musicality, then place those sections back in the context of the whole piece of music.

For spelling, this should mean that words to study come directly from books children are reading. However, I'm not sure that I would cover all of the 6,000 most-frequently-used-English words by selecting passages from our current studies. In my search I discovered Spelling Wisdom, a Charlotte-Mason-style curriculum. The introduction explains that Charlotte Mason "taught spelling, not in isolated lists of words but in the context of useful and beautiful language." Most of the exercises in the five books of Spelling Wisdom are taken from literary works and the Bible. As such, they are full of meaning, with literary language and ideas, the food of thought.

The main appeal for me is that, at last, I have found a spelling curriculum I can actually tolerate teaching. My children study the words in the passage and when they feel ready, I dictate it to them as they write it. No more lists and rules! I enjoy the selected quotes, which often contain thoughts that stick with me, and I have even copied some of them into my journal. The approach's simplicity also appeals to me. I merely open the book, find the passage, and recite it to my children.

The approach is by nature synergistic, with spelling and language arising naturally from the study of a passage by a skilled writer. As I have discussed the passages with my children, I have found vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, interpretation of poetry, and the discussion of the authors' ideas all to arise naturally from dictation. I believe this detailed examination of the way a writer uses language for beauty and meaning will help them in their own writing, too.

I only regret that all of the dictation passages do not come directly from books they are reading or have read. One way I am remedying that is by selecting one passage a week from our current book. With my 5th and 3rd grade boys, we have done some from The Secret Garden and will soon begin The Westing Game. This lets them see how the part fits into a whole. I would also like to read several of the books the passages in Spelling Wisdom come from, but we haven't yet done that.

My 5th and 3rd grade sons are doing Book One together, my 8th grade daughter is doing Book Three, and my 10th grade daughter is doing Book Five. Each book is intended to take approximately two school years to complete. You can purchase it spiral bound or as an ebook.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why Chinese Mothers are Superior

The Wall Street Journal ran an article this week entitled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior." The author, Amy Chua, outlined the reasons why she believes Chinese mothers like her "produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies." She focused mostly on strict Chinese parenting versus lenient Western parenting, and many of the comments on the article did so as well. Her main points were:
  1. "Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem." While American parents think children are fragile, the Chinese do not, and will "excoriate, punish, and shame the child."
  2. "Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything." American parents, on the other hand, feel as if they owe their children everything.
  3. "Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences."
Some of the parenting techniques she described seemed less than superior to me. She told a story of practicing piano with her 7-year-old daughter Lulu that, if it had occurred in my home, I would be embarassed to admit to anyone, even if I achieved the successful result she described. I try, albeit not always successfully, to be positive when working or practicing with my children.

Chua's focus also seemed to be almost entirely on visible success. According to her article, her daughters must have straight A's and "be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama" (apparently worthless subjects in her mind). And in a study she sites comparing 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, 70% of the American moms believed that "parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun." 0% of the Chinese mothers, on the other hand, felt that way. I stand firmly on the American side here. Not only do I want my children to love learning and think it is fun, I want them to focus on the process of learning rather than grades or other external ways to show off. As adults, I want their drive to come from within, not from an extrinsic drive to impress.

Despite the flaws I noticed, I finished the article convinced that she is a superior mother in many waysbut also certain that she attributed her success to the wrong factors.

First of all, she does care about her daughters' self-esteem. She just knows that Western-style empty praise will not result in good self-esteem. She writes, "as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't." Her tenacity amazed me. She believed her daughter could learn a difficult piano piece even when her husband and her daughter didn't think she could do it. "Every child can learn," Shinichi Suzuki taught, and this Chinese mother really believes it.

The second secret of her success, in my opinion, is that she believes in "letting [children] see what they're capable of and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away." My favorite expert on child learning is Mel Levine, who believes that one of parents' main jobs is to teach their children to work. I agree that instilling a work ethic and other positive character traits should be foremost in every parent's mind. Chua writes, "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." I dismiss her assumption that overriding their preferences must involve coercion as false.

Strict or lenient, I think the best parents believe that any child will succeed if she works hard enough, then teach their child to work hard. If her two points would have been "The Chinese mother knows that every child can learn" and "The Chinese mother instills a good work ethic," I would now be touting the absolute superiority of the Chinese mother. What do you think? Here's a link to the full article:

She has just published a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I intend to read.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hope, Regret, Resolve

In the midst of my New Year's Day organization of the books and articles I have on the Suzuki Method, I encountered a poem. A poem that contained hope. Hope for a new year. Hope for childhood. Hope that things of beauty, ideas that feed the heart, truths that nourish the spirit, always available to those who seek them, will be the things I share with my children.

Yet it also contained regret. Regret for the brief span of time that is childhood. Regret for lost opportunities. Regret that if I am not careful, the workaday cares of tending to my children's physical cares may leave their hearts and spirits empty.

Finally, the poem contained a resolution, a promise. A resolution to feed my children's souls. A resolution to find things that are "worth the while." A resolution to seize the moments I do have.

When I was a child, my mother hung a cross-stitch on my wall that read, "A mother's heart is a child's classroom." Love is the thing I want to pass on to them more than anything else, love for everything that is beautiful and worthwhile. Einstein said, "Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty." I know my children will only learn from my heart if I seize the time to communicate heart to heart, spirit to spirit. The seasons will pass swiftly enough, but only a moment is needed to share something of worth.

Here is the poem. I hope you also find hope, resolution, and yes an ounce of regret in the simple stanzas. I resolve this year to show my children the light of this world, so we may all look with hope towards the perfect day.

Although the Day Is Not Mine to Give, I'll Show You the Morning Sun
by David Melton

My child, my child,
Your days of childhood are quickly spent.
As the season passes,
I wonder why it hurries so.

I hope that in these years,
I have attended to more
than skinned knees and cut fingers.
I hope that somewhere in the everyday,
that I have not overlooked
the needs of your heart,
and the growth of your spirit.
I hope that somewhere in the while
there was enough worth the while.

And if there was not . . .
And if there was not . . .
And if there was not . . .
I don't know now
how I can make it up to you.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cambridge School Shakespeare

Weaknesses plague most student editions of Shakespeare. They spend too much space dissecting the language and interpreting what Shakespeare means instead of helping students find meaning themselves. In addition, perhaps because this is the type of learning typical in schools, they make studying Shakespeare a dry exercise completed in a chair. The Cambridge School Series avoids these traps, however, and is the best tool I have encountered to help me teach Shakespeare. Each play in the series begins with a letter by editor Rex Gibson explaining the purpose of these editions. He writes:

This Julius Caesar aims to be different from other editions of the play. It invites you to bring the play to life in your classroom, hall or drama studio through enjoyable activities that will increase your understanding. Actors have created their different interpretations of the play over the centuries. Similarly, you are encouraged to make up your own mind about Julius Caesar, rather than having someone else's interpretation handed down to you.
Gibson actually does enable students to make up their own individual minds about what each play means instead of handing down an "expert" opinion. He does at times explain different ways people have viewed the play, but only as an opening for a discussion where readers can decide on their own interpretation. The activities also do "bring the play to life" by making the study of a play an active enterprise, helping students experience Shakespeare as Elizabethans originally did. In Renaissance England no one read Shakespeare's plays. Well, the actors might have, but it was en route to memorizing and performing them. The audience heard and saw. To fully experience Shakespeare today, I think it is necessary to watch movies or plays, read them aloud, memorize and perform selections from them, and do a variety of activities designed to help you contemplate them. The Cambridge School editions have made it easy for me and my students to get better acquainted with Shakespeare. Last year I taught 13 students As You Like It, Macbeth, and King Henry V, and I'm currently teaching Julius Caesar to my two daughters and niece. The series has been invaluable for me, reducing my preparation and research time as I have prepared to teach each play.

Some features of the editions I like are:
  • Extensive photographs of real productions of the plays in both color and black and white. This enables students to see that every director has interpreted the play differently, so of course every reader can.
  • Brief summaries of the action on each page to help the student understand the action. Plays with longer summaries tend to interpret the play in the process, in my opinion, leading the student to think only one interpretation is correct.
  • Essays in the back that provide background information and discuss characters, imagery, Shakespeare's language, major themes, critics' reactions to the play, and performances of the play from Elizabethan times to the present.
  • An unobtrusive glossary of difficult words. This way students can look for the meanings if they want, but it doesn't interrupt the flow of reading if they choose not to. I find that sometimes I understand less of the action if nearly every word is prominently defined and displayed.
  • Activities to go along with the action of the play on the left-hand side of every page. These include discussing, acting, writing, drawing, designing sets or costumes, miming, and pretending you are a director making decisions about how to stage the play.
  • Writing assignments that go beyond literary criticism. Some of the writing topics seem like traditional English class assignments, but others involve other types of writing: for example, writing additional scenes, promotional material for a "production" of the play, a letter from one of the characters to another, a poem to accompany part of it, and a scene recast as a chapter in a novel. Students can gain experience with creative writing, summarizing the action of the play, letter writing, and imitating Shakespeare's style in addition to structured expository writing.
  • I habitually spend time on a never-ending quest for the perfect curriculum for every subject. When I do find something ideal, I feel like broadcasting it to everyone I know. Cambridge School, my best discovery in years, should be on everyone's homeschool high school essential list.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Leonard Law

"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" (Boy Scout Law).

 When my son Tommy had to memorize the Boy Scout Law and explain what it means, I found myself thinking about the advantages of a list of positive character traits to aspire for. I have always felt uninspired to craft a mission statement for our family, no matter how many times I have thought about or read Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families; for some reason it never seemed like something my family would naturally come up with together, and I like family life to feel natural and authentic. "Wouldn't it be fun, though, to come up with our own "Leonard Law" of character traits instead of a mission statement?" I asked myself, and when I proposed it to the family, they all said yes.

At our family gathering to write the law, we began with each individual suggesting a few traits. We decided to whittle the list down to 12, just like the Scout Law. Multipurpose words won out over more specific ones as the debate over which traits to include continued. We decided "strong" could include both physical and moral strength, and "clean" could mean purity as well as personal hygiene and housekeeping. I was sad when "studious" lost out, but everyone convinced me that "curious" and "diligent" both overlapped with it. Making the final cuts took over an hour, and "fun" snuck in as our final choice because we didn't want to seem too serious all the time.

Until we see fit to come out with a new version, the "Leonard Law" says:

"A Leonard is faithful, obedient, curious, diligent, helpful, patient, honest, clean, strong, courteous, kind, and fun."

We have been discussing each of these traits in turn one night a week, deciding what they mean to us and how we can develop these qualities. One grumpy night I used the discussion to tell my children how they really aren't very obedient. My oldest daughter reminded me that these are qualities we want to have, not ones we are already stellar examples of. Since I want these to be times my children anticipate rather than dread, I have decided not to mention something specific my children have done unless it is positive. This week during our conversation I mentioned how each of my children had been helpful.

What do these traits mean to me? I have tried to summarize each in a sentence to give me focus as our family strives to build our character.
  • Faithful: We are full of faith in our Savior Jesus Christ and dedicate our lives to emulating Him.
  • Obedient: We obey our parents with love and respect, and we obey our God.
  • Curious: We eagerly desire to learn about anything that is good and uplifting; nothing is boring.
  • Diligent: We work hard with persistence and no procrastination.
  • Helpful: We help each other and try to notice and meet the needs of others.
  • Patient: We keep an even temperament, and we realize that the most valuable things in life take time.
  • Honest: We love truth and represent this in our thoughts, words, and deeds.
  • Clean: We cleanse both the inner and outer vessels, practicing good hygiene, good housekeeping, and personal purity.
  • Strong: We exercise and face physical challenges to strengthen our bodies. We exercise faith and follow Christ to strengthen our spirits.
  • Courteous: We understand that etiquette primarily means being aware of others and the effect of our actions on them.
  • Kind: We treat others generously and gently.
  • Fun: We believe enjoyment improves everything.
Our Leonard Law is a work in progress because our family and each of us as individuals are good people in progress. As we memorize it and bring its meaning to action in our lives, I think it will help us grow and give us a stronger family identity. Most of all, though, coming up with it was fun, and I want my children to remember it fondly some day when they are adults who have developed good habits of character.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Found Nouns

As much as possible, I try to avoid traditional curricula (textbooks and workbooks) in favor of living books, a concept originated by the educator Charlotte Mason. To me, a book is a living book if it is:
  1. Well-written in a literary style
  2. By a single author who cares about the subject
For our elementary school grammar studies this year, we are studying one of the parts of speech each month through books and activities. We began September with nouns, using the following three books:

Our final "test" on nouns was to name as many nouns as possible from the picture above. The same object could be named more than once; for example, the dice could also be a cube or a square. My family, my sister's family, and my mom and niece competed against each other. The family who found the most nouns that none of the other families found would win. Next time I try an activity like this, I think I will forego the competition because it made my boys a little too intense. It works just as well to find out how many nouns we could all find together. When I pooled our answers, I found that between the three families, we identified 176 unique nouns in the picture.

Afterwards we discussed how learning about nouns, and that multiple nouns can name the same object, could help us in writing. We decided that it can help us select the best words to represent something and avoid repetition by substituting other appropriate nouns when we can.

I selected the picture I did because it seemed to fit the season. I found it at the following link, where there were some other good pictures that could be used as well.
The I Spy book series would be another resource for pictures of nouns to name.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Jack's Shoes. . .

are here."

This email grabbed me when I went to the computer this morning. Our piano teacher wrote it brilliantly. The subject line of "Jack's shoes. . ." made me eager to read on, even though I anticipated the conclusion with embarassment. I admire her tact and brevity. One of the advantages and challenges of taking Suzuki piano is that the teacher gets to know the students, parents and any parenting issues very well. Yesterday when Jack began his lesson she reminded him to take his shoes home with him, wondering how many shoes we need to buy since he has left them several times before. As I pulled out of her driveway, she chased me with one of Luke's shoes. I thanked her and drove off, then had to stop again as she caught up with me to pass the other one through the window to Karina. In a matter of minutes I discovered that Jack had once again left his shoes behind, so I expected and dreaded the email.

How does a mother who seems to be meeting her children's higher needs by homeschooling them, practicing instruments with them, directing them in plays, and all the other things I try to do fail to keep shoes on their feet? The truth: my feet are the bare ones. I appear to have it all together if you don't look at the ground when you see me, where my feet fight against the heat, the cold, the slivers, and the shards of glass. I can't do it all, even with constant effort, and my children grow up with part of the education and part of the clothing I think they should have. Next time you see my family, look above the ankles if you want to see perfection, but don't forget that bare feet are lurking beneath.