Saturday, May 23, 2015

Part Two - Even-Steven Expectations

Even-Steven Expectations - Part Two

Dear home teacher. Please give yourself credit. Don't be discouraged by the uneven path. If, by your guidance, your children possess knowledge-made-personal in this subject or that, (they don't have to like everything) you have done very very well. This is more precious than any perfect test score or Even-Steven grade level results.

Lilacs out the back door.

We Met a Snag

Baby One's high school Nature Notebook, May 1999.
I remember my first uneven learner. Sophia, Baby One, in first grade homeschool. We met a snag. She was having trouble recognizing her numerals in the teens. Why say thir-teen when the teen is pictured before the three (13)? This backwards order may have been what stumped her. Anyway, after several lessons she just couldn't get it. Being a new teacher I shared my anxiety with a friend who happened to be a school math teacher before she began home teaching. "Lay it aside for some weeks," she told me.

"Some weeks, really?" I asked. I had my doubts but followed her advice. After a month I returned to teens and tried again. My student got it. What went on during the down-time? I can't explain. Can anyone?  My student's mind needed a pause - as it needed again through-out our home education experience. But in later years I took it with a grain-of-salt.

Maple "helicopter" seeds near the front door.

Following a Child's Pace is Lessons at Their Finest

Once-in-a-while, with a twinge of disappointment, I'd replace a book I was reading aloud.*1 (A book change was infrequent but when it did occur I didn't mourn over the one that didn't lend itself toward a narration.) And, as uncomfortable as I felt, at first, to teach unevenly, inevitably, I did just that. I'd skip it, tweak it, review it, replace it, or return to it later. This is what happens when following a child's pace. When tested (the C.A.T. by law) years later, Baby One was grade levels "ahead" in reading comprehension and vocabulary, teetering on-average in math, pitifully "behind" in spelling. Fine. Being uneven people by nature, it was something I learned to pay little attention to. I kept pleasantly plodding along our journey, challenging her strengths, taking patience with her weaknesses. My readers could tell their own stories of uneven paths and uneven people, I know. 

Do I Hear A Sigh?

We want to live by faith not fear. As we've heard that faith is the evidence of things unseen we learn to live without the security of constant testing. Miss Charlotte Mason found the state of her country to be "an examination-ridden empire."*2 This state of things was born out of good intentions. More than one hundred years ago Even-Steven Expectations were born out of the large classroom. Population growth had to be managed somehow. But I can hear Miss Mason sigh between the lines of her books.

A rare Jack-in-the-Pulpit I found in our woods.
When grade level and passing tests become more important than knowledge-made-personal, over-testing and over-teaching (for the test) is the result. Sadly, this fear detracts from a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere of learning - an atmosphere where children best thrive. Today, an atmosphere of less-testing and less talky-talk from the teacher seems to be accepted among circles of the Charlotte Mason-minded. Fabulous. The nervous race to get-ahead, of constant quizzing and testing to prove progress to ourselves or to local authorities, is unheeded. We don't "run with the pack"- a phrase I borrow from my husband's boyhood school days. Rather, we preserve a child's curiosity.  His mind is made to grow with nourishment and exercise as his body grows with its nourishment and exercise. Trusting this we can test less, teach less. We can be more the mother, less the teacher.

It isn't surprising that teachers think learning is all in their hands. Yet, Miss Mason pops this bubble. She tells her conscientious teachers what to expect.

"In the great work of education parents and teachers have a subordinate part after all. You may bring your horse to water but can't make him drink: and you may present ideas of the fittest to the mind of the child; but you do not know in the least which he will take, and which he will reject. And very well for us it is that this safeguard to this individuality is implanted in every child's breast. Our part is to see that his educational plat [plot of ground] is constantly replenished with fit and inspiring ideas, and then . . . leave it to the child's own appetite to take which he will have, and as much as he requires. Of one thing we must beware. The least symptom of satiety, especially when the ideas we present are moral and religious, should be taken as a serious warning. Persistence on our part just then may end in the child's never willingly sitting down the that dish any more."*3

Just For Fun
Baby Two turned 30 this year.

My married daughter Yolanda (Baby Two) teaches cello to students who come to her home. She takes her teaching seriously. The Suzuki Cello Books she uses are good for progress in developing new skills. But she supplements theses with her own pieces, she told me with a smile, "just for fun." She composes Celtic style music or a hymn to fit each student's ability - arranging duets that she plays with her students. These they particularly enjoy. She also transcribes for the cello, a familiar pop song or two, perhaps one requested by a student, so that he or she can do some "side" playing, she calls it, - "exactly where they are.

The Side-Stroke

Isn't this what education is meant to do for us after all - at least in part? - that is - to enjoy being exactly where we are? Swimming the side-stroke is going somewhere. And when the yellow sunshine warms the air and the blue water is cool and refreshing, it is delightful to be right where we are for the moment. 

Resisting the "Not Enough Syndrome"

If self-education is to be fostered we would do well to remind ourselves that this is an education that also trusts in the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit (as talked about in earlier posts and comments). The Christian who rests in this needn't feel that she is never doing enough. Taking this yoke upon us the weight of our responsibility is light. The home teacher is diligent in overseeing daily lessons. But she resists packing information into a child like packing an already overstuffed suitcase - pressing down hard enough to zipper it closed (for the test) - my metaphor of Miss Mason's "satiety."

Yes, we provide - over the years of the journey - a feast of good books - on a sumptuous scale. We guide the student in forming skills and forming a relationship with pictures, music, outdoor experience, etc. But following the Charlotte Mason method, we do some stepping aside. The children step forward. They delve. They are given space to reflect, to observe, to consider. They form a relationship with what, they themselves, pack into their suitcase, piece by piece. They may be on a journey but they are also, for the present, enjoying being right where they are. If they are able to tell what impresses them. This is knowledge-made-personal - a blessing immeasurable.

End Notes

*1  I remember replacing a book (of bland and unmemorable mini-biographies) with the unabridged story Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Its setting widened my students world a bit further and the characters, her sympathies.

The 1937 film with nine-year-old, Shirley Temple, is sweet, is humorous around the edges, and exciting near its conclusion. I like happy endings, too, very much.  (Heidi DVD)

*2  Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, page 224
*3  Ibid, page127

Related Topics
Are you new here? Welcome. Some of the ideas I've written above, I've introduced before in earlier posts. For your convenience I've linked to them. This May marks five years of my blogging. I've so enjoyed meeting those who have read my book, A Charlotte Mason Companion.

More The Mother, Less the Teacher
All Education is Divine   
Not Enough Syndrome

On Mother's Day  Libby's daughters presented her with a pint of Lavender Strawberry Sachets. Soon after, she thought of me kindly, and sent me a photograph. Thanks for sharing your strawberries with us, Libby. It looks like the girls used their own ribbon choices and that your gift was made by loving hands. Isn't a homemade gift a touching surprise?

Comments are Welcome
Karen Andreola

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Even-Steven Expectations - Part One

Even-Steven Expectations - Part One

My married daughter taught first-grade to her son this year. What a difficult time she had over the winter. Two herniated disks flared up after picking up her other son when he fell. Being pregnant further complicated matters. Her sister drove below the Mason Dixon Line to help her. I've been there to help (between posts) and plan to travel there again. Her husband is a big help. And some church friends brought meals.

All the while my daughter tried to obey her doctor and not do much. Telling a mother of two energetic boys, who like to play cowboys and Indians, to not do much - and while you are supposed to be home teaching - is a remedy hard to follow.

 In the midst of this she telephoned me in bewilderment to confess her son's "uneven learning." I did my best to console her.

When it came time for the year-end evaluation she was nervous. (She reports directly to a public school teacher/evaluator three times a school-year.)  Being truthful she told the evaluator that because of her physical limitations she had given her first grade student about one hour of formal lessons a day over the winter. (Although, she hadn't mentioned all the informal learning he picked up along the way.)

"Oh, honey," the evaluator told her, "from what I see here, and what you're telling me, you did great." "You homeschoolers worry too much, " she went on. "You shouldn't. You can accomplish far more in one or two hours a morning, at this age, than a classroom can accomplish in a day." This lady smiled when she added, "You aren't the only pregnant mother who's come in here with the same concern." My daughter was relieved. As she walked down the hallway (I should say hobbled) toward the door to leave, she noticed the colorful and happy-looking homeschool artwork this lady had pinned along the wall. They had scripture verses on them.

I like the rolling, uneven grounds of Ephrata Cloister 

The Object of Lessons

Miss Charlotte Mason points out the object of formal lessons. They should be twofold:

To train a child in certain mental habits, as attention, accuracy, promptness, etc., 

To nourish him with ideas which may bear fruit in his life. *1

A teacher with students. Swiss painter Albert Anker (1831-1910)

Incremental learning is advisable. It is especially helpful for math, penmanship, reading and other skills such as spelling. Daily lessons spaced out over weeks and months, show our faithfulness in helping our child gain skills and giving him something to think about.

But when it comes to knowledge for a fruitful life (I explained to my daughter) what the student is learning may not get digested or absorbed evenly. It would be nice if it did. It would conveniently match the objectives of the lesson planner. And it would secure confidence that we were really doing our job - and a good job at that. We would like evidence of that rock-solid phrase we've grown so familiar in hearing: Steady Progress.

A large bed of lily-of-the-valley thrives in an uneven flower bed. 

Uneven People, Uneven learners

But children aren't necessarily even-learners. If we look at the child's powers of self-education we see that learning often runs contrary to our Even-Steven expectations. What is really going on is that the child learns in spurts. He learns on the go. He can make wide strides one day and go on tippy-toe the next. "I get it," can come after a pause of reflection - after some down time. Or a certain book, painting, person, filed trip, science experiment, nature walk, piece of music, Bible story, etc., may open the door of a child's mind - a door of interest or a door of understanding, that wasn't open before.

A certain vivifying idea may leave an impression, merge-in-the-mind with a batch of other ideas (that seemed to lay dormant before) and now "it makes sense" - it makes wonderful sense. This knowledge-made-personal brings a sparkle to the learner's eye. Derived by uneven learning (and not something proved by any tidbit on a page of multiple-choice) it has left a welcome and meaningful impression - enough of an impression to be one of those delightfully satisfying morsels of knowledge that will bear fruit in the child's life.

The home teacher, who finds that learning isn't matching up to the lesson planner or the teacher's guide might find this uneven-aspect a worry. She might sink into utter exasperation. She might think she is a bad teacher. Or the thought might cross her mind that her student is an odd-ball, is stubborn, disobedient, or has a mental-block. But all the while, what could be taking place is normal uneven-learning by the uneven-people we are. In actuality this mother is probably a diligent and conscientious teacher who would be much encouraged to consider the ways of the Gentle Art of Learning.

End of Part One

The Gentle Art of Learning trusts in self-education. It is something uneven that takes place on the child's side of the fence. Next time we meet I hope to bring you the second half of this article.

 Do you have uneven learners in your home?

End Notes
Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, page 229. 

Except for the paintings and the photograph of my fast moving grandsons - the springtime photographs are from my file taken by Dean at Ephrata Cloister a few years ago.

Jennifer and her daughter Keren sewed a batch of purple Strawberry Sachets from her kit, gave them as gifts, made more, and happily gave those away as gifts. Perhaps with the knowledge that the roadside stands will soon be displaying their offerings of red ripe homegrown strawberries, Jennifer and Keren couldn't resist making a pint of red sachets, (left). These are a gift to a special friend who has been kind to their family. I'm in anticipation of strawberry season, aren't you?

Until Next Time,
Karen Andreola

Monday, April 13, 2015

How to Overcome a Modern Disadvantage to Learning How to Read

How to Overcome a Modern Disadvantage to Learning How to Read 
 (article length)

I am probably preaching to the choir (again.) But from the comments I’ve received over the years, I know you don’t mind.

On the first warm day of spring the Man-of-the-House treated us with frozen custard at “The Meadows” in Strasburg. Their custard is rich and creamy-scrumptious. Near the ceiling of this little ice cream parlor is a wide-screen TV. While my scoop of rich vanilla was disappearing I said, “Oh, this must be one of those house make-over programs. My menfolk looked up and nodded.

I watched. A man spoke a few words. Then scenes appeared in lightening-sequence. The new owners were demolishing the old kitchen cabinets. Splintered wood crashed to the floor in a cloud of dust. A moment later the wife was picking out wallpaper and paint colors. “What was that color they chose? I didn’t catch it,” I said to my menfolk. “I guess I’ll find out when the show starts.”

“Mom, this is the show,” my adult son said.

“You mean this isn’t the sneak-preview introduction?” I queried.

“No,” he said. “It’s the way shows are made these days. Everything flickers and flashes. I can’t watch it.”

“Neither can I,” I said, disappointed. It jarred my senses. I turned my attention to my melting custard and gazed out a window at the blue sky over the parking lot. 

“How do they film it?” my son wondered, thinking out loud. He was already crunching on his cone.

“Good question,” I said, “It must be a piece-of-work to cut and paste all those separate segments rather than rolling the camera.”

The Man-of-the-House added, “Rolling” is a word associated with film-making of the past.” I felt old.

Today, children aren’t watching the camera roll. What is being made for them (for all of us) is a choppy presentation of individual images on a screen. And with computer games children themselves are in control of the fast-paced animation – a deeply satisfying experience of creating the next and next new experience - a continual feast of novelty. 

I sympathize with this generation of home teachers. Never before has there been such a big disadvantage to teaching a child how to read. The disadvantage is in the form of a multiplicity of irresistible screens. Yet, beautiful books and quality audio are in abundance. Can screens affect the ability of a child to focus on lessons? Children naturally learn at different paces even without any such thing as screens but those who closely study how children learn say “yes.” They see a correlation.

a disadvantage to reading

A lack of focus and ability to remember are symptoms of a child spending regular time riveted to fast-paced entertainment. Many television programs and computer games grab attention by a heightened sensory experience. The viewers give involuntary attention. Attention is seized by exaggerated animation – portraying a distorted use of force (slapstick), bold sound effects, dazzling explosions of color, blasts of music, a wide range of emotions – all in a cacophony of vignettes that change hurriedly. It might be surprising to learn that among all this busyness brains are passive while the screen is active. Furthermore, when children are acclimated to the over-stimulation of screens they are set on habits that are antagonistic to academic learning.

Voluntary attention is the kind needed to learn how to read. Dr. Jane M. Healy says,

“Reading involves sustained voluntary attention from a mind that can hold a train of thought long enough to reflect on it, not one accustomed to having its attention jerked around every few seconds.” *1

In comparison to viewing, reading is a slow business. It isn’t instant access to ideas or instant gratification. Accustomed to the “instant” a child may be restless at lessons. He gets impatient with himself. He gives up if he doesn’t immediately get it. Ideas picked up from reading do not seize the reader’s mind like entertainment does. Words on a page stand still. The very fact that they are stationary and not calling attention to themselves make it difficult for some children to focus.

A Skill Developed in Slow Tempo

children's early readers
Photograph by Michael Drummond

The early readers I gave my children have one sentence per page and one picture. The words and pictures are stationary. But the characters are active. A mini plot unfolds with action. A sort of animation is encouraged and launched in the mind of the reader by the vivid verbs in the sentences. Described and pictured in the story might be a dog with its snout wide open, barking at a cat. A boy runs making energetic strides in mid-air in his brand new sneakers. Dad hammers nails as he builds his children a tree house. The children, all smiles, climb into it. They also ride bicycles, throw snowballs, blow out candles on a birthday cake, etc.

With each reading lesson an important critical skill is gaining power. I don’t mean the decoding of phonic blends or the recognition of sight-words (although this is necessary work, too – and basic). The skill I’m talking about is imagining. With each lesson the ability to imagine gains power. This important skill is what holds the interest of a reader – at this slow tempo. The fruit of this skill, developed by slowness, is mental perseverance.


Screens make the power to imagine unnecessary. All the work is done for us. With reading the act of imagining not only keeps the reader connected with the text “but also it is a very practical way to keep track of and remember what has been read.” *2 This is why reading aloud to children, for some years prior to reading lessons, is immensely helpful. Children need lots and lots of good slow exposure to language. It starts them developing their powers of imagination as their minds create pictures from the words read to them – pictures other than those in the picture books. It gives them experience at projecting things and animating things - on “the screen of imagination.”*3

Later children will read books with no pictures. Living books for history and science as well-written fiction, will contain sensory language: words and phrases that describe action, sounds, colors, smells, textures, and emotions. All this must be interpreted by our brains in our imagination.*4

Some children have the ability to bend their brains around the written word, easily. It magically makes sense. They piece together phonic clues, nouns, verbs and pictures, within the grammar of a simple sentence. Others, including bright children, have a hard time of it. Readiness and ability vary greatly. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay says that reading lessons “should be carried out in a friendly, quiet, regular, and structured way. A child should never be made to feel that he is lagging behind others of his age.”*5

Patience Does More Than Push

Turning seven - Maryland - April 1996

Given the same lessons some students, boys for one, will crawl forward and not without much effort. Such was the case with my son. (I had taught two girls before him.) Patience was my friend. Practice was his. But it must be interesting practice. I remember sitting beside Nigel on the sofa daily, listening to him read aloud, around the age of 7 to 8. I tried not to sigh or interrupt (unless I was asked a word). I tried to not let my thoughts race ahead to all the many other things needing attending-to before lunch. I sat back comfortably and enjoyed the experience. He took his time within a reasonably short lesson. He could relate to the characters and plot of the little story. They held his interest. The sense of accomplishment he derived from his effort was a quiet happiness for both of us. From what has reached my ears over the last 30 years this crawling-issue with boys is not uncommon – even up to the age of ten or so. Slow is a legitimate "way to go."

Miss Charlotte Mason says,

We forget how contrary to nature it is for a little child to occupy himself with dreary hieroglyphics – all so dreadfully alike! – when the world is teeming with interesting objects which he is agog to know. But we cannot excuse our volatile Tommy, nor is it good for him that we should. It is quite necessary he should know how to read; and not only so – the discipline of the task is altogether wholesome for the little man. At the same time, let us recognize that learning to read is to many children hard work, and let us do what we can to make the task easy and inviting.*6

Limited Animation - A Step-down

In the pre-computer, pre-gadget days, I learned that television had an affect on a child’s ability to focus during lessons. Therefore, I was careful. I rationed screen-time like I rationed sweets. I developed ear-skills over eye skills with reading aloud, conversation, singing, music and audio. And the outdoors was a sensory experience for them.

When we lived in England (1980s) my little girls watched limited animation such as the early BBC TV Postman Pat. Years later my son watched the early Thomas Tank Engine videos narrated by Ringo Starr. Both of these (stop-motion) programs have since been “improved” for modern viewers. A favorite of ours is the British clay-mation film Wind in the Willows (based on Kenneth Grahame's classic story). We enjoyed, too, the television series with further adventures made up about Mole, Ratty, Toad and Badger. We had books with all of these story characters.

Although they are becoming rarer in the U.S.A. you can still find copies of Wind in the Willows and The Tales of Beatrix Potter (another favorite of ours) on DVD. (Look for versions that are region 1 - U.S.A. compatible). Beautifully produced these programs are a decided step-down compared to today’s techno utopia.

When the children were older on Friday evening we'd watch an old movie together as a family – with popcorn. If you asked my children what Saturday morning cartoons are, they couldn’t tell you. Although I tried to use video sparingly I was discrete. I followed guidelines I made up for myself. It was just how we lived.

Arm Yourself

bored children, creativity
In March our grandsons were digging for diamonds in their front garden.

You might decide that you would like your child be more screen-deprived than he is. Consequently, he may experience symptoms of withdraw.

First, arm yourself with the notion that it is okay for people (adults and children) to be uncomfortably bored, even bored stiff.

Second, it is okay to make messes. Cleaning up afterwards is a worthwhile activity too. It’s training in orderliness.

Active, creative brains bounce back and forth between boredom and creativity.

A list of alternative activities will suggest themselves to you. Recently, the Man-of-the-House and I were driving along a country road between two wide fields. The wind was blowing steadily across them. “This would be the perfect place and the perfect day for a kite,” he said. I agreed. When we returned home I decided kite-flying would add a light touch to the end of a serious article and found a painting by John George Brown. His children seem to have kite-flying-clumsiness in common with Charlie Brown, don’t they?

End Notes
Lavender Sachets
*1, 2, 3   Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., Endangered Minds – from the insightful chapter: “Sesame Street and the Death of Reading,” pages 231, 232.

*4  Exercises in recognizing and writing with sensory language are provided in my book Story Starters – for 4th grade up to high school.

*5  Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, page 36. I have an autographed copy.

*6  Charlotte Mason, Home Education, page 214 The chapter on reading could be quite helpful to you.

Lavender Strawberries
Here you see Stacey’s Lavender Strawberry Sachets. Her mother sent her a kit for Christmas. It looks like Stacey is getting ready to make another set of sachets with the pretty fabric on her table in colors also in keeping with springtime. Thank you, Stacey, for sending us your photograph. You’ve brightened my day.

Feel free to share my article with this generation of concerned mothers.
If you like to read product reviews see below.

Until next time,
Karen Andreola 

Captivated – finding freedom in a media captive culture

Review by Karen Andreola

After viewing Captivated several years back and reviewing it for CBD I went on a buying spree. I bought a quantity to share. I’ve since given them all away.

Its message urges us to establish screen-time guidelines. Technology is a good thing but caution is needed. Christians and unbelievers alike are recognizing the powerful pull media has over the behavior of young children, teens and adults. The influence of screens, media and gadgetry is stronger than we like to think. Beginning with our littlest and most impressionable children it can quickly produces both aggressiveness and inattentiveness. It can distract teens and adults enough to mar productivity and hinder spiritual well-being.

If we humbly look how captivated we’ve become by screens we’ll be more open to heed the warning to control them so that they do not control us. Authors, pastors and people in different walks of life, reasonably and candidly share why to unplug. Although many a tragic story of serious addiction could be told, it is not told here. In this message reason, not sensationalism, pleads with us to make choices – big or small.

Media can drive a wedge in relationships as it isolates us in our own little worlds. And yet, seeing the faces of our friends on-line makes us “feel” sociable. How far we’ve come from the days of neighborhood play and of talking over the fence.

After listening to the comments in the extended interviews a conviction arose in my heart. I sought to make application to my own life. I enjoy visiting blogs and window shopping online but chose to unplug at least one or two days a week. May the message of Captivated be a blessing to you.