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Monday, November 4, 2019

Math Machinations


Do any words uttered by human tongues produce as much anxiety as the daily cry, “Get out your math books?” Once upon a time, “The British are coming!” might have sent bodies into such a frenzy, and with better reason. But in our house, for lack of the perspective gained in war times, it is down to the math to upend us.

Curriculum comparison blogs and books there are aplenty. And if you wish to further compound your miseries with a throbbing headache, read two or six or ten of them. I do this at intervals, when the winds of school day emotions are unfavorable, and there are times when a curriculum change is in order. But the format is often not the problem. The myth of the perfect curriculum can often obfuscate a character issue.

The longer you wade in this pool of education and child-rearing, the more you steep in the notion that it’s all an exercise in character development. (Which narrows, certainly, the schooling options, to those that can and will organize around the idea of paideia.) A child who has tasted the sweetness of understanding wishes to know. He also wishes to swing on his tire swing. The child who can weigh these competing desires and choose well is a free person. His self-mastery will be the vehicle by which his love of discovery begets a life of learning.




Strong-willed, we shruggingly call a child who bites on the playground and runs towards busy streets and will not nap. Strong will, nursed on the stories and ideas that illustrate for him the difference not only between good and evil, but between impulse and choice, delivers him from compulsion. He is taught obedience as a child, but when he is educated, he develops wisdom to self-govern. And this is the primary qualification for governing others.

Is this a greater headache than three hours of internet searching over “kinesthetic math options?” Hopefully, it liberates instead. Our goal in math is not just to get everyone through calculus and into Princeton. Achievement in math is just a bend in a tributary in the river of ideas by which we develop free humans, habit being “to life what rails are to transport cars” (Charlotte Mason.) But because our aim is higher, those smaller goals become incidental, and within reach. We do master fractions and long division. But on its own, long division is too low a bar, a hoop fit more for a leaping tiger or a dog in a frilled collar. 

The well-governed child, and then the self-governed child, applies herself to math, first because it is the quickest route to time on her tire swing, and then because she becomes addicted to that thrill of understanding. We must first inculcate a love of goodness, an abhorrence of wrong, and the discernment between the two, and the rest will follow (with fewer tantrums, we hope). Eighteen years cannot the whole of the universe hold, so we must rather send off wide-eyed seekers into a world of possibilities than satisfied holders of transcripts that signify that that business is finally over and done with!

So we plug away, freed by our soaring ideals from the anxieties of limited, and limiting goals.  

Friday, October 18, 2019

Little People Under the Big Sky



“Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!”
            --Pink Floyd


The second time through the Little House series, I ground to a full stop at the chapter “Fish Trap” in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Had I given this full notice on the first read-through with Songbird, I might have been less concerned about her natural timing in learning to read. It’s a lovely moment, where Ma, the trained schoolteacher, announces that it’s high time that Laura, nearly eight, shove off to school and learn to read. She digs out her treasured primers and sends her barefooted children across a mile of fields to the schoolhouse, where Laura learns to read in the first half of the first day, being fully ready for such studies.

Between Ma’s announcement, however, and her new Teacher’s effective lesson, comes another telling moment. Laura does not want to leave off exploring the creek and fields. And so her Pa takes her fishing. He lets her help build the trap, waits to explain its mechanism until she has observed it in action herself, names for her the fish he knows. Models prudence as they let go the fish they don’t strictly need. Lingers in appreciation of the beauty of the moment under the waterfall. And all the while offers wisdom in encouragement (“You’ll like school, Laura,”) and admonition, (“Be thankful you’ve got the chance.”) No one can think that the day she masters C-A-T surpasses the day before it, spent by the creek with her father. We cannot so truncate the meaning of education.

Charlotte Mason recommends six full years of “passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air.” Not in drawing of shapes and letters or counting of beans, but in taking in the world and learning one’s relationship to it. Lying for hours at a time in tall grass so that a rabbit will come quite close, this is Laura’s first education. I cannot imagine that a full day’s programming of group activities from the age of 2, with small, fenced playground breaks, would have developed in her an equal desire and ability to describe the world around her so poetically and powerfully.


The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons, and this comes, not of continual intervention on the mother’s part, but of much masterly inactivity.

-Charlotte Mason, Home Education


How do we let go in the face of cultural opposition? Gleefully! I have posted here about how deeply I have felt the wisdom of our predecessors in moments when I am brave enough to jump off the hamster wheel. Though she is six and we do read books and recite poetry together and play with the hands of the clock, two of Geronimo’s primary occupations (used in both senses of the word) are the catching of lizards by sunlight and flashlight, and the perfecting of her own lizard-behavior-techniques by the practice of being a lizard for several hours a day. This last is often done to a particular movie score, the instrument entrances and musical turns of which she knows minutely.


Perhaps her greatest educational pursuit, however, like Laura’s, is in living as a human among humans. She has sisters to fight with, friends to cede territory to, boundaries to learn by observation or, more often, by discipline, and ideas to sound out in spontaneous conversation. In our era, the most important lesson she is learning is the meaning and value of proper authority. Because her parents are human, she sometimes gets a bad example for contrast, but because our authority provides mostly consistent security (the bite on her finger confirms this when she doesn’t let the lizard go on command,) she will avoid the modern error of dismissing authority altogether, and by knowing its good, she will better discern its abuses in the world.

How I homeschool now is different than when I started eight years ago. Every year I do more poetry and fewer, or more appropriate, wonder-oriented facts with littles. And it will continue to change as I dive deeper and deeper into my own reading and reflect on how much I still don’t know. That category, the yet unknown, grows as I grow. There’s so much to marvel at, even in a lizard.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Quality of Unexpectedness


Songbird has been panting at the foot of the bookcase for three years. It was three years ago that I, in my agoraphobic longing to burrow into my books and couch cushions with muffin and coffee, decided to test young ears on Jane Austen’s humor. It was only because we had read aloud every appropriate book in all those shelves and it was too hot to go to the library. It was a brief experiment, chiefly in my ability to explain every blasted sentence. It ended in relief on the part of Gale Force and tears on the part of Songbird, who understood nothing, but already knew enough to wish to.

This year, to her hand-clapping delight, I tried it again. We are halfway through, and I have had to explain one or two things. There have been one or two moments of delicious snark that failed to elicit a laugh, and I could be tempted to think I jumped the gun.

Here why it’s not too soon.

1. She is delighted. She wants to hear another chapter, and another. She giggles at 75 % of the humorous parts. She comments astutely on the most ridiculous characters. If she is hanging in and having fun, she is picking up enough to benefit. Marinating in beautiful and witty language is always beneficial. Delighting, even 75%, in story is the foundation of a lifelong love affair with books.  


 2. She is asking good questions. “What did that mean?” after every sentence and paragraph tells you the writing is too advanced. “What is an entail?” tells you it’s mostly sinking in. “You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity,” says Mortimer Adler, but he is not speaking primarily of literature. My biggest worry was that I would divulge the plot twists before her mind was ready for the beauty. I made Geronimo sit out the last four Harry Potter books last year because I knew she was missing most of the plot but was sure she would remember who died. That is all spoiler and no benefit. But as long as the questions indicate general understanding (and enjoyment) you can’t really spoil anything. Because….

3. First reads are all about getting over the plot hurdles. The magic of the best books actually happens in the subsequent reads, when the pages have softened and the corners bent. This time through, Songbird doesn’t yet know what happens. She is falling in love with the style and wit, learning to sit taller and prick her ears because she doesn’t want to miss the subtleties. But she will inevitably miss a great many because she is trying to follow the action.

But next time! Next time, she will curl up with it in her bed, and she will already know what happens. The magic begins to work when you are free to dwell in the moments between the action. Your eyes won’t fly to the next piece of a puzzle, but will linger over hints and phrases and skillful wordplay that you missed that first, anxious time.

Anything worth reading is worth reading again. If you found out whodunnit and have no need to pick it up again, it might have been entertaining, but it probably had no soul-molding value. Let’s just let C.S. Lewis say it better and have done.



“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . .It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” (On Stories)