Monday, August 24, 2009

Leadership Education

For me, finding the right rhythm and method for home education is a slippery path, and I am still trying to wrap my mind around what we're doing here." How should this look in our home? Neither unstructured, radical unschooling nor parent-directed homeschooling seem to work for us. I want that holy grail of self-directed learning, but I want plenty of space in my kids' lives for quiet learning, including learning that doesn't involve electronics, and a clear, consistent rhythm.

In trying to envision what would work, I found myself drawn to the Thomas Jefferson Education model. When I read A Thomas Jefferson Education, I felt like I'd found a framework I could draw from. So I went on to Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning.

I. Part I: A Philosophy for Life: Why the Phases Matter

The first chapter is devoted to influential theories of child development and education, exploring how they shaped our current educational system. The authors highlight the ideas of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky (known, among other things, for the idea of the Zone of Proximal Development), Erik Erikson (best known for his stages of psychosocial development), and Jean Piaget (famous for his stages of learning). They refer to these four thinkers as "the four gospels of modern education," because their influence is so pervasive. They urge parents to read their works for themselves, rather than letting it all be filtered through other sources.

Then they explore "The Seven Keys of Great Teaching"

1. Classics, Not Textbooks -- They call textbooks "dumbed down summaries of long lists of rote knowledge." Reading great works inspires greatness.

2. Mentors, not Professors -- "The mentor finds out the student's goals, interests, talents, weaknesses, strengths, and purpose, and then helps him develop and carry out a plan designed to effectively develop his genius and prepare him for his unique mission"

3. Inspire, not Require -- "There are really only two ways to teach. You can inspire the student to voluntarily and enthusiastically choose to do the hard work necessary to get a great education, or you can attempt to require it of him." The key is for parents to continue to pursue their own rigorous educations rather than mandating a curriculum for the kids. Children must be inspired, by example, to become masters of their own learning.

4. Structure Time, Not Content -- This is the most crucial thing I'm trying to implement right now. According to the DeMilles, we need to help students establish and follow a consistent study schedule, not micro-manage WHAT they are learning. At our house, we're going to try setting aside the morning hours for the older kids and me to work on whatever we need or want to do. No friends. No video games or movies. Granted, these are valuable learning experiences in themselves, but I think the older kids and I desperately need consistent quiet time away from these things.

My goal is to do this 3-4 days per week. I am also thinking of setting up a variation of workboxes with some quasi-academic activities for each of the kids. These activities won't be required -- more like structured strewing. For me, it could be a time to "grade" papers (I teach online), get some of my promotional work done, work on my writing, and continue my own learning.

Seems like a lofty goal -- one that's likely to test my tendency not to follow through on best-laid plans. Any thoughts? Suggestions? Words of encouragement for a mom who is desperately challenged by consistency? :-)

5. Quality, not Conformity -- We're not educating kids on the conveyer belt.

6. Simplicity, not Complexity -- The more complicated we make the curriculum, the less likely we are to trust ourselves. This leads to "dumbing down" educational plans to make them manageable or unnecessarily relying on "experts."

7. YOU, not Them -- We need to exemplify self-education.


Part II: A Recipe for Success: The Foundational Phases

In this section, they offer 55 essential ingredients for a TJEd lifestyle. Much of it had to do with developing a consistent rhythm and routine, how to set up your home, and how to manage your time and possessions. They make suggestions about how to plan the rhythm of each day, each week, and each year, adapting to the cycle of the seasons. They offer guidelines for decluttering your house and your schedule every six months. They talk about having an annual family project, weekly clubs, field trips, chores, cleaning time, and much more.

They also discuss the importance of having a "central classic," a source of truth that is a compass for your family. This can be a religious book, like the Bible, the Qur'an, or the Bhagavad Gita, or it can be something else altogether.

A few basic points that resonate with me right now.

1. Parent Meetings -- Every Sunday, the DeMilles have a Family Executive Committee (FEC) meeting -- a meeting between Mom and Dad. They discuss problems and concerns related to family and homeschooling, and they devise a schedule for the week.

My husband and I want to implement a weekly meeting. We have very different ideas on parenting and education, and I think these things should be discussed one-on-one, and not rushed, instead of being resolved (or brushed aside) on the fly. Also, I tend to make many decisions about the kids' education and therapy unilaterally. I end up feeling resentful about carrying a disproportionate share of the responsibility, and he probably feels disenfranchised. I need his support and full participation, and he needs to have an equal voice.

If other families have similar issues, I'd love to hear about how you work through it. :-)

2. Morning Routines -- This reflects what I've been thinking about in terms of giving myself and the older kids quiet working time in the mornings. This feels very important to me right now. The point is not to come up with an agenda of things I want them to do or learn, but to create quiet time to accomplish work and explore a variety of interests without so many distractions.

According to the DeMilles, "We have historically set aside the morning for school, and this has few guidelines ... school time is not friend time, video time, or sit-and-look-at-Star-Wars-cards-time; just about anything else is fair game."

In Part II, they also talk about the transition from the Love of Learning to the Scholar Phase. This can't be pushed or hurried, but they suggest signs to look for that might indicate that a student is ready for this transition, as well as guidelines for collaborating with the student to make that transition.

Of course, early adolescence -- where the transition to scholar phase typically takes place -- is a time of great cognitive leaps. I find this fascinating, and it is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching writing to middle schoolers so much.

According to the DeMilles, by the transition to scholar phase, the child has developed language and motor skills. During this transition, he strengthens memory, control of attention, and organizational skills. (Hmm ... how many kids have IEPS and 501s, or are on Ritalin, because they're expected to have mastered these skills by age 6??) Social thinking reaches a new level, and he develops much stronger intuitive abilities. This lays the groundwork for building higher thinking skills during the scholar phase.

When my oldest was in public school, there seemed to be a push to get kids doing higher-level thinking at an early age. We've all seen Bloom's Taxonomy



It seems that River's teachers were guiding 3rd - 4th grade students to higher levels -- using rubrics and worksheets -- teaching them to apply, analyze and evaluate. Can these things really be directly taught? Or do they need to blossom naturally from being allowed to think and explore in a learning-rich environment?

It reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who famously framed the stages of cognitive development. He said that at speaking engagements, he often got what he called "The American Question." The listener, usually American, would ask, "How can we speed up these stages?" The questioner often didn't want to hear that they couldn't and shouldn't be accelerated. I believe the purpose of a model like Piaget's is to help teachers and caretakers celebrate and nurture each stage as it unfolds. You can't make it happen before the right time. And why would you want to?

According to the DeMilles:
"The healthy child naturally learns all of these thinking skills openly or subconsciously -- unless they are squashed. Unfortunately the conveyer belt (standardized education) rejects Intuitive Thinking and simultaneously over-emphasizes the need for Higher Thinking skills at an early age. To compensate, many students turn to Memorizing as a way to fake Higher Thinking skills which their brains are unprepared to utilize. If success and happiness in life, mission and relationships were not good enough reasons to safeguard the foundational phases, this alone should be compelling. Many who substitute memorization for Higher Thinking maintain this habit through adulthood resulting in a nation of highly trained but narrow experts. In such a society, expert training passes for education , and rote expertise substitutes for independent thinking." (p. 158)
They go on to say:
"It is a sad and unfortunate circumstance when a nation sets as its educational target the inferior skills of copying, counting, and comparing. This is especially lamentable when the youth of today are bright, inquisitive and interested in creating, valuing, impacting, and leading. To "dumb down" a nation of natural leaders, telling them they must put their interests aside in order to qualify for a future job, is a tragedy. Twelve or more years of conditioning to spend their days doing things they do not want to do, because "that's just the way it is," readies them for modern jobs their parents so highly prize and personally hate in such high numbers." (pp. 159-160)
The authors also outline parenting skills for to help nurture kids during the transition stage. These suggestions are gleaned from the works of Mel Levine, John Holt, and Wayne Dyer, as well as from their own experiences. There is plenty of wisdom here, and these guidelines can help parents nurture their kids' health and growth as intuitive and higher thinking skills blossom, according to each child's innate timetable.

Part III: A Blueprint for Leadership: The Educational Phases

This section discusses the scholar phase, where the adolescent student begins intense academic study, and explores the transition to being a scholar. It also delves into the depth phase, which generally occurs at the college level.

Part IV: A Mandate for Service: The Applicational Phases

Part IV explores the mission phase, when you establish the "twin towers" of career and family, and the impact phase, in which you are almost finished establishing these "twin towers" and focus on making an impact on the world.

They wrap up the book with "The Three Jobs of a Leadership Education Parent" --

1. Develop, Nurture and Heal Family Relationships -- If family education is not going well, resist the temptation to try to teach more or better. Instead focus on nurturing the relationships within your family.

I should have had this engraved on my forehead six years ago!!

2. Create an Inspiring Environment -- Offer a variety of choices, and expose kids to plenty of things without expecting them to take an immediate interest.

3. The Art of the Dance -- Help them choose for themselves and support their blossoming interests. It's often best to be relaxed when sowing seeds that may blossom into a child's knowledge and interests, and it's best to listen more than you talk. "A casual tone and a good ear are essential."

4. The Art of Being Inspired -- Make sure that you are inspired. What are you learning? What are you passionate about?

Those last four points kind of say it all, don't they?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Notes on Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning

I'm continuing the notes started earlier about this book by Oliver and Rachel DeMille describing Thomas Jefferson Education. The TJEd model has helped me enrich my understanding of how I want our version of unschooling to work.  

I. Part I: A Philosophy for Life: Why the Phases Matter (cont...) The next topic this book tackles is the phases of learning. The core idea here is that children and adults don't learn the same way, nor do young children and teens. We go through distinct phases which parents can support and nurture in particular ways. Also see Cindy Gaddis's stages in the collaborative learning process.

A. Foundational Phases

1. Core Phase (birth to around age 8 ) -- This early stage lays the foundation. The child absorbs his family's values and sense of identity. He develops a firm sense of right and wrong and of the value of work and play. "The lessons of the Core Phase are best learned through daily experiences in home life, uncomplicated by the secondary goals of pressured academic achievement." The key is for the parents to nurture healthy relationships with their kids and be models of learning and spiritual growth. If something interferes with relationship development, such as autism, does that keep the child from successfull mastering this phase? Or does he just master it differently?

2. Love of Learning Phase (around ages 8-12) -- The child falls in love with learning by being allowed to explore freely, and parents observe his special gifts and interests. During this phase, the family begins to set aside a certain amount of time for "study." This can mean journaling, writing letters, or building a birdhouse -- the possibilities are endless. Parents might specify that this isn't a time for friends, video games, or T.V. -- anything else is fair game. Family responsibilities (chores, etc.) are also very important at this stage. Children need to feel they're contributing to the family in a meaningful ways.

B. Educational Phases

1. Scholar Phase (around 13-18) -- This is where formal "book learning" starts. The student, now a young adolescent, is relieved of some of her household responsibilities and devotes more time to study. She decides what she will learn, and the parent acts as a mentor. Outside relationships with peers and other mentors become vitally important.

2. Depth Phase -- Studies are pursued in more depth. This typically happens at college.

C. Applicational Phases

1. Mission Phase -- Building family and career

2. Impact Phase -- Making the world what it should be for your children and grandchildren The TJEd model assumes that the scholar and depth phases will focus on academic study, including immersion in the classics. I see a lot of value in this (especially since I'm a little bookish myself). But I don't think this is the path for everybody. Some teens will immerse themselves in something other than books -- like building things, creating music or art, designing video games. Not everyone is a professor-in-training :-) -- there are plenty of blossoming tradespeople, cooks, musicians, and so forth. Do we all need a grounding in the classics, or is the point simply to learn what we need for our own unique life missions? Are there things everyone needs to know to be "culturally literate," informed citizens, and thoughtful voters. (Methinks there is a shortage of thinking voters in this country.) Or is the whole point to create one's own path?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Milestones -- and Cinematic Parenting Moments

Five-year-old Eliza reached several milestones this week. First she decided to stop using her little toddler potty and using the toilet. Hooray! Granted we were thrilled when she started using the kiddie-potty, even if she did insist on it being strategically placed right in the T.V. room. (Remember when she refused to use the potty at all, even when she was 4? She told me, "I'll use the potty when I'm old enough to drive!" Yes, she did.) But we've been encouraging her to make the switch to the regular toilet. Well, she decided she was ready, with the help of one of those little potty seats that fits on the toilet -- y'know -- to help dainty little derrieres stay safely in place.

Second -- and know some attachment parenters are cringing -- we decided she needed to start sleeping in her own bed. In her own room. We talked about it for a several days first, and her dad took her out to buy a special night light. But when the fateful night arrived, she was not having it. I lay down with her for a really long time -- past midnight -- singing and cuddling with her, until she finally fell asleep.

The second night, I left her on her own. She raised holy hell. She screamed. She shrieked. Her siblings couldn't stand being within a 100-yard radius of her. Even the dogs ran for their miserable lives. Seriously. This continued -- off and on -- for hours. My night was something like a cross between The Miracle Worker and The Exorcist. I finally let her into my bed around 3:00 a.m. She wore me down, I tell you. Wore me down!!

The third night, she told me, with the indomitable will of a world dictator, that she would scream all night if I left her in her own room. "I will just keep crying!!!" I left her in her room. I braced myself. She went right to sleep.

Now she's pretty much doing fine with it. Ah ... the joy of uninterrupted sleep!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Drink Tea and Ramble -- Pondering Therapies

I've probably run off whatever readers I might have through sheer boredom. *LOL*

I'm floundering -- and struggling -- so much with things that -- well -- I just don't feel inclined to write. This is ironic since I often use this blog to articulate my struggles with parenting and unschooling and try to work things through. Even if it's just to ask questions -- what am I doing? how might this work? what do my kids need? I'm floundering SO much that I can't even frame the right questions. :-D Hence, no blogging.

I'm also struggling with depression -- unresolved grief about several things --- which causes a lot of stress and nights riddled with nightmares. Grief is cyclical and ... as 12-steppers say about addiction ... cunning, baffling and powerful. In other words, when you're least expecting it, it'll creep out of a dark corner, jump you, and kick your f'ing ass.

I like to think of the cyclical nature of grief in terms of Jung's idea of the spiral staircase. (That Jung -- he loved staircase metaphors, didn't he?) You go around and around, finding yourself in the same spot, again and again. But each time you return, you've progressed a little higher. I comforting thought, and one that makes a lot of sense. But in my head, it seems more like one of those ubiquitous kiddie play structures than a damn spiral staircase. You go up, turn a corner, climb a little higher, then find yourself catapulting down a slide. Then you start climbing again. To quote Alan Tudyk's character in Firefly, "Wacky fun." :-P

We're gradually making some changes around here. I've reintroduced Breakfast School, but I've made it non-compulsory. When you've finally come out as an unschooler, you don't get to keep saying things like, "Yes, you have to. Because it's part of your school." For years, I leaned on that pointless argument -- I figured it it was good enough for the government, it would work for me. :-P

We have breakfast -- usually cinnamon and sugar biscuits and fruit. We play a few games. We're also loosely following a fantasy curriculum, which seems to have piqued Seamus's interest. So far, we've talked a bit about sub-genres of fantasy literature, uses of magic, and literary themes and started drafting maps of our own fantasy kingdoms. Eventually, we'll write.

We continue to have Family Writer's Club every week. There've also been the usual playdates, sleepovers, video games, and occasional outings. John and I have been thinking that Eliza needs speech therapy something we should've followed up on several years ago). I am the only one who almost always understands her. Her dad and brother sometimes get me to translate, and her friends have a little trouble getting what she's saying, which concerns me, especially as she's stepping into stage of her development where connections outside the family are becoming more and more important to her.

But I'm vacillating. We could get perfectly good speech therapy services, on the taxpayers' nickel, through the local school system. I'm just resistant to having to jump through all their hoops, which will include complete educational testing to see whether she's where she "should" be -- cognitively, linguistically, and so forth. I don't know why that bothers me so much, but it does. There's also the option of investing in a private practitioner, of course. But I have no leads on where to go here in town. I know of a therapy center in Charlottesville -- a PT there has worked with both my girls in the past. They'd offer speech, and they could also offer occupational and physical therapy, which Eliza could also benefit from. It's a long drive, and not cheap (and no, my insurance company won't pay a dime -- "developmental problems" are -- well -- not their problem).

The other option is something of the DIY variety. Maybe I should start there, while I'm pondering these options. We all know I suck at follow-through, but it's a possibility worth considering. Any thoughts? Ideas?