29 Jun 2010

Teaching what really matters

Jemimah has her best friend, the Princess Pea, here this week. The blog-name is appropriate too, for one of these two are truly two peas in a pod. They were up and gone at the crack of dawn - frost lying heavy on the ground - for Jemimah's cubby where you will find them now if you care to look, rugged up in enough clothing to brave the South Pole, but having a tremendous lot of fun playing.

Some time soon I will need to call them inside to start school - alas it is not holiday time in our Peaceful Home as it is at Pea's public school - but I am procrastinating. As the only child at home with her two fuddy-duddy parents, Jemimah doesn't get enough opportunities to just be a kid and play. It is nice to see the two girls together.

The idea of short lessons and plenty of time to play and live real life was one of the things that first attracted me to a Charlotte Mason style of education for Jemimah. I have always been of the opinion that learning is an integral part of life that happens anywhere and everywhere - not necessarily in school - but for this to happen then there has to be plenty of free time. To me, the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education made this achievable.

Why is it then that sometimes I get so hung up about academics? Why do I worry if we get behind with maths, for example, or fret about getting our reading done? How is it that we didn't do memory verses at all whilst in Japan on holidays - since when has hiding God's word in our hearts been a part of the weekdays only academic curriculum, I ask you! How can it be that sometimes when we are running short of time I will forgo our Bible reading in order to finish history? What does this say about my priorities?

We had a baptism during our morning service on Sunday. Aren't they just the best? I am always challenged to hear over again the promises that we made when Jemimah was in that same place. I always measure my progress against the promises we made before God on that day eight years ago: Am I setting an example of a holy and consistent life? Am I seeking that my daughter might while young come to understand the history, doctrine and practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church? Am I helping her to experience the blessings of loving obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ?

Am I practicing Bible centred parenting?

In an article by Susan Engel in the New York Times entitled, Playing to Learn, which I came across on Saturday, I read about the reforms proposed by the Obama administration for education in America:
So what should children be able to do by age 12, or the time they leave elementary school? They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college.
It's a pretty simple list really, isn't it: reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation, collaboration and socialisation. In six hours per day.

Miss Mason had a list of attainments for a child of 12 as well:
What a Child Should Know at Twelve

The six years’ work–from six to twelve–which I suggest, should and does result in the power of the pupils–

(a) To grasp the sense of a passage of some length at a single reading: and to narrate the substance of what they have read or heard.
(b) To spell, and express themselves in writing with ease and fair correctness.
(c) To give an orderly and detailed account of any subject they have studied.
(d) To describe in writing what they have seen, or heard from the newspapers.
(e) They should have a familiar acquaintance with the common objects of the country, with power to reproduce some of these in brushwork.
(f) Should have skill in various handicrafts, as cardboard Sloyd, basket-making, clay-modelling, etc.
(g) In Arithmetic, they should have some knowledge of vulgar and decimal fractions, percentage, household accounts, etc.
(h) Should have a knowledge of Elementary Algebra, and should have done practical exercises in Geometry.
(i) Of Elementary Latin Grammar; should read fables and easy tales, and, say, one or two books of ‘Caesar.’
(j) They should have some power of understanding spoken French, and be able to speak a little; and to read an easy French book without a dictionary.
(k) In German, much the same as in French, but less progress.
(l) In History, they will have gone through a rather detailed study of English, French, and Classical (Plutarch) History.
(m) In Geography they will have studied in detail the map of the world, and have been at one time able to fill in the landscape, industries, etc., from their studies, of each division of the map.
(n) They will have learned the elements of Physical Geography, Botany, Human Physiology, and Natural History, and will have read interesting books on some of these subjects.
(o) They should have some knowledge of English Grammar.
(p) They should have a considerable knowledge of Scripture History and the Bible text.
(q) They should have learned a good deal of Scripture and of Poetry, and should have read some Literature.
(r) They should have learned to sing on the Tonic Sol-fa method, and should know a number of English, French, and German Songs.
(s) They should have learned Swedish Drill and various drills and calisthenic exercises.
(t) In Drawing they should be able to represent common objects of the house and field with brush or charcoal; should be able to give rudimentary expression to ideas; and should be acquainted with the works of some artists through reproductions.
(u) In Music their knowledge of theory and their ear-training should keep pace with their powers of execution.

This is the degree of progress an average pupil of twelve should have made under a teacher of knowledge and ability.Progress in the disciplinary subjects, languages and mathematics, for example, must depend entirely on the knowledge and ability of the teacher.

Charlotte Mason, School Education p. 301-302
It is a far greater list. Miss Mason expects children in addition to the list of the Obama administration above, to have a general knowledge of fine arts - Scripture, poetry, music, drawing and handcrafts. She expects geography, language, grammar and Bible. She expects general knowledge and conversation. All this in two or three hours a day.

So what do I expect? What is our aim for our daughter at the age of twelve? What do we want for Jemimah?

Am I teaching what really matters?

As I Christian, I obviously seek that my daughter will come to know her Lord and Saviour at an early age. That is my ultimate aim for Jemimah, but alas, it is not for me to teach this to her. Only the Holy Spirit can change my daughter's heart. It is, however, my responsibility to provide the framework for Jemimah to build upon, if not the skill itself. Susan Engel talks about this here:
Developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.
For me this says that if I am to hope to achieve the goal of a saving knowledge of Christ at an early age, I need to teach Jemimah to think and behave in such a way that will lead to that desired outcome. I can help provide the scaffolding on which to build further knowledge too. I can encourage Scripture memory work. We can learn and understand the catechism. I can teach her to read and understand God's word and I can teach her how to pray. The rest is up to God, but that is up to me.

This then is my ultimate aim for Jemimah. But I would be kidding myself - and you - if I said that this is my only goal. At this stage in her education Jemimah appears to be quite academically bright. I encourage her when she says that she would like to be a nurse or a doctor or a vet (or less often and less likely an artist or a florist). I would like her to achieve academically because I like the fact that I am educated. I know that I do not need a university education to lead a satisfying and fulfilled life as a wife and mother, but I am so thankful that I do have one! I think it makes me a more rounded and interesting individual. I also think it helps me to be a more capable and efficient at my job of keeping a home. I think that my university education helped me to develop ways of thinking and behaving that lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on in my life. This is an aim of mine for Jemimah as well. If she wants to pursue further education then I would like to ensure that she has the adequate foundations to do this.

This is why I chose a Charlotte Mason Liberal Arts curriculum for our schoolwork - so she would know stuff. In addition to academic disciplinary subjects, I teach the artsy-fartsy ones as well. And to be honest, these are the ones that I use most often in day to day life as an adult. The names of flowers, trees and clouds. The names of the countries, their people and their foods. Musicians, artists and song. These are the things I use every day. Not calculus, not the Krebs cycle and not Latin declensions. So why do we learn them? We learn them to develop ways of thinking and behaving. Of course. As you do.

All of this merely brings me back to the question I asked earlier. With all this information, how do I ensure that I apportion my time according to need - how do I ensure that I teach what really matters?

I do hope you haven't ploughed your way through to here in the hope of finding the ultimate answer to this question, because the fact is, I don't have one. As I confessed earlier I am often guilty of getting my priorities wrong. I do think that a liberal education of many and varied subjects is part of the solution. Likewise, short lessons and plenty of time for play and just living life is another. I believe in being a learning home where our learning happens as part of life, anywhere and at all times, not just during lessons. I believe in allowing experiences to teach. I believe in developing thinking and behaviour - of concentrating on forming good habits and life skills. I believe in Bible centred education.

As to getting it all in the right order? As to teaching what really matters? Well, I'm working on that.

Are you?

Pop over here to see Hopewellmom's interesting take on this.


  1. Fuddy-duddy and artsy-fartsy in one post. A literary masterpiece, my dear!!

    The gorgeous girls appear to have had a lovely long play.
    On a serious note,those "achievement lists" are extremely daunting, read depressing, when one has a twelve year old who cannot read :-(
    Training up in the fear and nurture of the Lord is definately the top goal for me ~ and attitude ajustment 101. (That's for me :-)

  2. WOW, when you read it like that, and yes we are conctantly working on priorities, and achieving balance. I think as I mature as a homeschooler and mother it will become more clear and on the other hand I think priorities change as our children grow. But yes I try to ask God instead of deciding myself (tends to work out better that way!!)
    Another great & thoughtful post Taa.

  3. Jeanne: As an educated woman who got very different children I've had to reasses the nature of what it means to be educated. I'm not brave enough to unschool but I have watched even my Ditz take on the world in ways I've not seen public school children manage. Before 12 she researched how to write a resume, wrote one & applied for a job. Unfortunately she was too young to be employed but she did it. Ditto her music CV. While her older public schooled peers hid or simply failed to show up Ditz did street theatre on her own. She has tried her hand at teaching ~ a real eye~opener!!! She got one just like her! ☺ My total drop~out can do the sort of navigational math Jessica watson got her satellite to do. Now I ask different questions. Do they know how to find out? Do they know how to learn what they need? Are they afraid to take risks with their learning? Are they savvy about manipulation in advertising? Can they negotiate finances without feeling threatened & intimidated? Can they communicate clearly with the people who can help them gain the information they want? Do they learn from their mistakes & take precautions not to repeat them? Do they think about the choices they make & the consequences?

    As homeschoolers we talk a lot about learning styles & teaching styles & then find ourselves [well I do] getting hung up on traditional academic outcomes. My boys might be blue collar workers but they are thoughtful & articulate. Ditz might struggle with higher math but she has no illusions about how the music industry works. They function well in the real world & isn't that the end result we are aiming for?

    Sorry to write you the book but I felt a thoughtful, if slightly long, response was more appropriate that a short trite one. ☺

  4. Ganeida, I love your thoughtful long answer. I always am interested in what you have to say.

    Neither of our older children has gone on to finish tertiary study, despite the academic ability to do so. I know first hand that we can't predict what our kids will do and become. All we can do is teach them to think and show them how to behave. We can live lives we hope that they will emulate. We can pray. There is not much else we can do. Except pray more, I guess.

    You should be rightly proud of your children.

  5. That is sweet of you, Jeanne. ☺

    A confession: All mine score really high on those silly iq things they give kids in school. I wish I had half their brains! But God has gifted them in other ways as well & their true interests lie outside academia. I confess I get really frustrated sometimes. :(

  6. Very interesting. I know I struggle with the thoughts of, am I teaching and doing things because it's what I believe is right and familiar or should I be lead down the road I haven't travelled which somehow I think is right for my daughter.

  7. Let her play--the books will be there. My kid has been in public school for 6 of his 7 years in the USA and won't read, hates to learn and doesn't get along well with others! lol As for the President's list--Mr. Obama, your kids go to Sidwell Friends. Our kids don't get to choose "Eton" like they do. I realize the Secret Service has a huge say in where the girls will be safest, but not since Jimmy Carter sent Amy to public school [briefly] has any White House kid had an ordinary education! Take away the stupid Every Child Left Behind Act--that WILL be a help to our kids!

    End of Sermon.

    I think I'll post about this! Check later, ok?

  8. ""I know that I do not need a university education to lead a satisfying and fulfilled life as a wife and mother, but I am so thankful that I do have one! I think it makes me a more rounded and interesting individual. I also think it helps me to be a more capable and efficient at my job of keeping a home. I think that my university education helped me to develop ways of thinking and behaving that lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on in my life.""

    I have been pondering similar thoughts myself lately, as my eldest dear daughter gets closer to the time when we need to consider some of her future choices. I am finding the scope of possibilities alot of fun to toy with.

    But I am beginning to think that some kind of further education is beneficial, especially to those girls who will remain home based and family oriented. How that further education happens, is an entirely new matter! :)

  9. Aver thought provoking post, and thought provoking comments, as well. And, can I just say "ditto" to Hopewell's little rant? The Obama standards are less than inspiring.

    I think it's so important to have goals, and I think it's equally important to have the flexibility to adjust the goals according to each child's needs and abilities. That's why homeschooling is so wonderful.

    Thank you for reminding me and challenging me, Jeanne. The line about putting Bible aside to finish up a history lesson gave me a little stab. Our children certainly aren't blind to our priorities, are they? I think I'll go and re-order mine right now!

  10. Oh, I was waiting for the answer!
    I don't have one, and the 3 & 1/2 years I homeschooled I was always struggling with the same issues! My mind was constantly in a spin, every waking moment in regards to these questions.
    Am I teaching the 'right' things? Am I prioritising according to my Christian beliefs? Constantly thinking, now what aren't we doing enough of. Drove me crazy!! Especially whilst trying to think of a 1 and 4 year old's needs at the same time, let along getting a break for myself every now and then to just think blankly!
    Those are very real struggles, and at the moment I am having a break with the children in school to concentrate on being a mother. Being a detailed person doesn't help. I think the big picture people who homeschool are in much better form, than what I am and was!
    Butter Fly

  11. I just found your blog and wanted to say hello and that I've quite enjoyed the three or four posts that I've read so far. I am an AO homeschooler, too, and was researching some nature study topics...Which led to composer study....which led to your Vivaldi posts....which led to this one.

    Thank you! I'll be back.


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