Some more, rather rambling, musings about teaching history with Story of the World, following up on History for the Young Child.
In several follow-up discussions to Leila’s piece and my response and in other conversations about history and homeschooling, one thing I noticed was that even among families who use the same spine curriculum we do, Story of the World, there are as many ways to use it as there are families who use it.
This should be unsurprising because each family is unique and is composed of unique individuals and what works for one mother won’t work for another and what works for kid won’t work with another. Still, I was a bit surprised to see the different ways different people approach the same book. You mean my way isn’t the only logical way to do it?
I’ve always thought that the key to successful homeschooing is knowing yourself and knowing your kids so that you can teach from your strengths as much as possible. I’ve always found that the best teachers are those who teach what they know and love. At the same time, though, it is important to teach as much as possible to a child’s interests and abilities. You can’t force education. So there’s a tension sometimes between the teacher’s preferences and those of the student.
The root of the word education is e-ducare, the Latin means to lead out. We are in the process of leading our children out of the dull cave of ignorance and sin into the bright daylight of knowledge and wisdom and fear of the Lord.
The word student comes from the Latin studeo, meaning I am eager. The student who isn’t eager will not learn. That is the root of my homeschooling philosophy. So my job as a teacher is to figure out how to engage that eagerness and delight. Which doesn’t mean we ditch math if the child finds it dull. It does mean we try as best we can to find the right approach to math, the one that will help her to make a connection to that wonderful language of numbers. Because, to quote the same bit of Charlotte Mason yet again, education is the science of relations. The child must have a relation to what she learns.
It follows, then, that if you as teacher find a subject to be dull and lifeless, you have a problem on your hands: How are you going to make it live for your children? That’s a tough one. I’d suggest that the challenge is to first try to return to childhood and childlike wonder, to seek to make for ourselves those connections that we lost somewhere along the way that made learning seem dull and insipid. If you hate a subject, you need to find your own joy first, only then can you convey it to someone else.
But of course that’s idealistic me talking. Sometimes you just need to slog through. That’s just life. I’m one to talk about rediscovering lost joy, I can’t really imagine what it is to hate a subject. I’ve never yet met a subject I truly hated in every aspect, that couldn’t have been made fun with the right approach. I’m a Love to Learn Mom, according to one online personality test I took years ago. So I don’t quite get having a subject you hate with a passion. Books, yes. I’ve hated books. Approaches, yes. I’ve found them loathesome. But whole areas of human inquiry? No. I can imagine no good and beautiful and true area of inquiry that human minds can fathom that I cannot find some degree of enjoyment in and engagement with. (I discount the ugly and tawdry, the false and the evil, those can never be true areas of knowledge.)
Differences in Temperament, Differences in Homeschooling
Anyway, digression over, back to differences in homeschooling. My ideal homeschooling day is one spent sitting somewhere comfortable– a couch, a bed, a blanket on the grass– reading a gigantic pile of books to a bunch of eager kids. So far that’s been a technique which has worked pretty well with my gang. My friend Kyra, though, she finds sitting and reading for hours to be torture. She’s much rather go bake some Roman camp bread or take the kids to the museum. I like the museum too, but it’s rather draining so we only do it a few times a year. Kyra has gone an estimated thirty times in the past two years. 30!
And her oldest child is a boy and we discussed how very different his level of engagement is. She starts with science and who made what when. Bella likes the science, but for her the stories are primary.
Mrs Darwin opined recently that she is tired of people pontificating about homeschooling practices, telling others what to do or what not to do. So am I. I’m no expert. I’m just a mom with five kids and a little experience teaching as an adjunct at the college level. I’ve read some books and some homeschooling articles and a lot of blogs. But I’m making this up as I go along. Just trying to do what’s best for my family. The books and blogs that have helped me most are not the ones that expound great theories– I like those, don’t get me wrong, I’m a theory junkie, but what helps me to decide what is going to work for us has been seeing glimpses of the nuts and bolts of how learning actually plays out in the contexts of various people’s families.
When I was preparing for teaching my first composition class as a graduate teaching fellow, I was fed a lot of theory but given very little practical instruction and the only observation I had were the ones I’d made when I was a student myself. So I dove in head first, sink or swim. I made a lot of mistakes. I learned from experience. But what I craved most was being able to learn from other people’s experiences. I wanted more sharing, more stories of what worked and what didn’t work and why. So when I knew I was going to homeschool, that was the sort of information I set out to collect. Over the years I’ve encountered many theories and latched onto those that fit my preconceptions about education and which caught my eye with insights and illuminations. But mostly I latched onto those that resulted in a homeschool life that looked like the kind of life I wanted to live.
Now it’s true that Leila has much more experience than I do. She’s successfully graduated a large family of successful children. And I respect and admire that and welcome her perspective and experience. But it’s of limited usefulness to me as a teacher because usually I’m not seeking the big ideas but the small ones. I don’t need someone to tell me what to teach or why, I’ve got that part pretty well figured out. No, what I want is the how. And the very granular how at that. I write up my weekly learning notes mostly for myself to keep track of what I’m doing. But I happily share them here precisely because they are what I most want to find when I go a trawling on the internets. How useful will my notes be to you? I have no idea. I can’t claim to have successfully graduated anyone. My ideas are mostly untried and unproved. My oldest child is 8. I have no idea whether this will work or not. I’m no guru. I’m no expert. I’m not trying to peddle any wisdom. But I do hope to treat you, my readers, as colleagues. This space is our virtual breakroom where we can sip our coffee and share the stories of our successes and failures in the trenches. We can pass on the names of books we are enjoying, we can warn each other about the books that don’t work for us– always keeping in mind that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. What I hate you may love and vice versa.
Oops, sorry that was another digression, wasn’t it? Back to this history thing.
How It Works for Us
So this here is merely a little amplification of what I’ve been doing in my learning notes. A summary, if you will, of the last two year’s worth of learning notes. Here’s an overview of how I’ve implemented Story of the World over the last two years with my family. This is how it works for us. Keep in mind, this is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. This is how it works for me and my family. You make the decisions that work best for you and your family and do not feel at all like my way is superior or easier.
First, I don’t make a schedule and stick to it. I don’t make a schedule. I looked at the number of chapters in the book, saw that it was less than 52 and deemed that if I tried to do a chapter a week we could finish the book in a year with plenty of wiggle room for weeks off. Since I prefer a year-round school with lots of breaks when needed, that was as much planning as I have felt necessary to do. I’m not working on a time table. And the first year what with a pregnancy and a new baby we didn’t actually finish up SOTW 1 until maybe the end of September. We just waited to begin SOTW 2 until we’d wrapped up everything I wanted to cover. And somehow it all still worked out that we finished up SOTW 2 just in time for the start of the new academic year. I don’t feel bound by that schedule, but I do like to have it as a general guideline. It’s the rhythm to which I’ve always worked, the rhythm by which the academic world ticks, the schedule I have to follow with my local school district. So I sort of try to think of things from September to September with regards to our history cycle if not math and reading and any other subject.
Second, I think of SOTW as a spine, but not the real heart of our history study. Really, it’s just the tool I use to help make all the other living books stick together into a coherent narrative framework. It provides the breadth while other books (and videos and museum visits and field trips, and art work and music, etc, etc) are the depth. I’m mixing my metaphors, but I hope my meaning is not muddled. It wasn’t SOTW that made Mesopotamia or Egypt of Greece or Rome come to life for Bella, but all the other books. SOTW is an appetizer and the myriad of other resources are the real meat and potatoes and vegetables and bread and drink and dessert.
Third, I don’t use all the other SOTW resources. I don’t administer tests or do worksheets or ask guided questions. I did buy the resource book for volume 2 and enjoyed the supplemental reading lists– those were quite helpful. And the kids liked the coloring pages. But I only glanced at it a couple dozen times. I didn’t really feel bound to do any of it.
So what I did was read a chapter of Story of the World about once a week or so. (Sometimes, rarely, more than one in a week, because I feel like it’s a lot to digest more than one chapter in a week. I like to give it time to sink in.) Either I’d put it in our pile of books for our afternoon read aloud or Bella would bring it to me and say: Please can we read this?
And when something caught our eye, either mine or Bella’s we’d seek out more information via books, google, you tube, the library. And I also deliberately sought out living books, to make it come alive. I’d browse the library shelves and found some gems that way. I looked at reading lists online and offline and requested piles and piles of books via our library’s online catalogue, which lets me reserve books from any library in our local system and have them delivered to my town’s branch library that’s a mile from my house.
Bella loves the Eyewitness Books and the Life in a Egyptian/Roman/Greek town sort of thing. We looked at period art in books, online, and when we could get to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston we did that too. We visited the Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit at the Museum of Science–perfect timing on that! We also have made it a point to learn about archaeology, to visit local digs and the archaeology fair. Also, it’s amazing how once I’m thinking about a thing resources keep popping up. I notice news stories and feature pieces. I find it, but also in this information-rich age, sometimes it finds me.
Sometimes we’d get so immersed in a particular area that we’d spend weeks and weeks, even more than a month on it. Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ancient China we dug in deep and explored widely. Then we’d read several chapters we were less interested and sort of skip ahead. We didn’t try to go deeper with extra resources for every chapter.
And then evaluation has always been the most informal of informal. Dom and I have always talked with Bella about what she’s reading, an ongoing conversation about books and not just read it and done. This sometimes happens with me getting so excited about something we’ve read that I tell him about it, modeling the behavior, you know. And I’ve sat back and watched how what we’d read entered into her play. We make sure she has lots and lots of time for play. I never have required drawings or narrations. I do sometimes ask if she remembers things. I’m not all that Charlotte Mason-strict in that regard. But Bella has a pretty good memory and likes to narrate on her own time and in her own way. She just hates to perform on command. I am slowly trying to get her to occasionally retell something we’ve just read because I’m convinced that paraphrase and summary are useful skills that aren’t practiced enough. But it’s something we’re working up to very slowly because of her particular personality and learning style.
Now that Sophie is at the first grade level it’s a challenge to try to incorporate her into history lessons. She’s not as enthusiastic about it as Bella nor as quick to grasp. I’ve been pausing more often, after reading shorter sections, and asking them about what I’ve read. But Sophie does enter into the play with Bella. She’s totally into the Shakespeare, acting it out and drawing paper dolls. Much of the SOTW Vol 3 stuff is just over her head. And that’s fine. She’ll sit with us, absorb what she can, and I won’t sweat it. We’ll come back to it later and she’ll be fine.
The nice thing I’ve discovered is that with Bella once she’s latched onto something, she continues to be interested in it. She still wants to read and play and think about Egypt and Rome and the rest. It’s become a part of her mental and imaginative landscape. A part of who she is. In fact, I’ve noticed before that she seems to approach history books quite consciously as raw material for imaginative play and stories. She’s hungry for information and color and stories that she can retell later with her own flourishes. Nothing is ever lost but doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.