Owning Their Learning Part I
We have been eagerly watching our elementary class this year. For the first three years of Harvest's history, learning together melded them into a tight-knit group. Every day they live the habits instilled by a Charlotte Mason education -- curiosity, imagination, initiative, effort, and discipline to name a few. Here is a peek into that class's history discussion of the beginnings of the Carolina colonies to show you how owning their learning looks:
The class was wrapping up a narration about South Carolina's transition from being a proprietary colony to a crown colony, its split from North Carolina, the movement of its capitol, and the finalization of the border which happened only recently.
Suddenly, one says, "Wait a minute! I want to go back to Columbus. Didn't someone else come to America first?" The students begin to have a "grand conversation" and their teacher stepped aside and listened.
"Don't you remember we read about Leif the Lucky?"
"Yeah, it was a colorful book that looked like cartoon drawings!"
"I was in Ms. Tracy's class. I read about it in a different book."
"I don't remember reading about him at all."
"Wait. Who remembers reading it? [Discussion of who remembers reading it.] Okay, maybe we read it the first year because C and G came the second year and they don't remember reading it."
"Ms. Tammy, can you give me something to read about him? I want to know more."
One student asked, "Do you think it would be a good idea to make an index of symbols so I can make a symbol to show this was the year he died?" I answered in the affirmative and said that people today who make bullet journals do that very thing!
Before Christmas, another grand conversation following a history reading led us into a geography lesson which tied into science as well. We had been reading about the first border of Carolina which went from 30˚N to 36˚N latitude from sea to sea.
"Sea to sea? Are you kidding?"
The next day, I brought copies of the first map of America so they could see how understanding of this continent has changed over time. They were shocked that North America looked like a long, thin island.
Another student pondering the idea of North asked, "I get latitutde and longitude mixed up. Can we go over that?"
I grabbed the nearby globe and we did a quick review of terms like globe, equator, hemisphere, poles, and latitude. Striking while the iron was hot, the next day, we did a map study of a blank outline map to see which borders fell along lines of latitude. That lead to a conversation about some states having borders with rivers. We did the same thing for longitude and then I made a sheet with a map for them to practice locating a point by latitude and longitude as well as figuring out and writing down coordinates. Typically what happens is that the map lovers finish early and then help the students who need extra help because having to teach an idea to a peer strengthens their understanding.
In the middle of exploring latitude and longitude, another student asked, "I have heard the term magnetic north. How is that different?"
This student's curiosity was perfectly timed for several reasons. One of our science books is about the Peary expeditions to the north pole. With Christmas looming on the horizon, even the youngest students in the class were interested in learning about the arctic. I asked the class questions to assess their knowledge and they had a basic understanding of the north pole and how there is not a real pole. It is an imaginary axis that we draw through the earth to help us understand its tilt.
Then the history lesson that morphed into a geography lesson was now morphing into a science lesson. Falling back on navigation classes when I was in the Navy, I warned them that working with true north is going to stretch their brains because the best kind of maps for that region of the earth are called polar maps which are round.
The map lover in the class echoed, "Round? What do you mean?"
I walked around with the globe to show them how the lines of latitude look like circles if you are looking at the perspective of the north pole as the center of the map. I explained that the earth is like a big magnet and magnets have two poles. Suddenly, one says, "Wait! So that is why we call it the north and south poles?"
"Yes. The inside of the earth is metal, especially iron. That metal becomes magnetized. Magnetic north and south do not stay in the same spot. In fact, sometimes, the poles suddenly reverse or move far away from the poles. Morevover -- now this is going to blow your mind -- the location of magnetic north and south changes slightly from day to day. When I was in the Navy, we had to correct for magnetic deviation because it affects the reading of a compass. I have an idea! This may be hard but I think I can make a map and you can plot the changes in magnetic north for the past a hundred years."
I spent part of a weekend looking up the coordinates and preparing a polar map in such a way that would scaffold their ability to plot on one. I labeled the lines of longitude along the border and added more latitude rings.
The morning of the day we were going to make our plots, one student confided to his mother, "I'm so excited! We get to plot magnetic north today." Again, some students caught on more quickly and, when finished, they helped the ones who were struggling. The class was amazed at how much magnetic north had moved over a hundred years. One said, "Can we do more polar maps after Christmas?"
I answered, "Yes. It might be fun to plot Peary's travels in the arctic."
A final example of how owning their learning looks happened over Christmas vacation. One family was traveling to Colorado to ski. Since I lived there for two years and I know this young man loves nature, I told him that he needed to look for three things: mule deer, abert squirrels, and ponderosa pines. When he returned, he excitedly told me about their trip to the Dinosaur Museum, brought out his fish fossil, and showed me a picture of a dead mule deer on the side of the road and a ponderosa pine. He gave me a cluster of pine needles! I asked him if he had done any nature notebook entries and he had!
When the time came for Spanish, I notice he did not have his Spanish notebook. He explained sheepishly, "I left it in my bookbag. and it's in Colorado. I was so excited to see family that we hardly ever see. I brought my notebooks because I wanted to show them what I've been learning in school."
I will close with a few quotes from Charlotte Mason that go along with students who own their learning:
"TEACHERS SHALL TEACH LESS AND SCHOLARS SHALL LEARN MORE."
"Education has three faces." "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life." "Education is the science of relations."
Charlotte Mason wrote her books over a century ago. How might these ideas look today?
Our nature walks embody the three faces of education as well as the science of relations. Two weeks ago, on our first trip to a Carolina Bay, we came across a water bug that's probably not on any standard for "must-study" insects (i.e., bees, butterflies, ladybugs, etc.). To get a clear picture, someone tossed it in this net full of honeysuckle. We plopped it back in a Mason jar of bay water and brought the curious creature with the bumpy back to school for further study.
Some believe atmosphere depends upon classroom decorations, appealing graphics in textbooks, modern technology, and kid-friendly books that entertain while educating. However, we think bringing the world down to a "child's level" dulls the mind. First, it sows the idea that learning happens only at school. Home isn't full of textbooks and educational posters. Neither is the store nor the outdoors. Second, facts must be boring if teachers have to works so hard to make it look appealing. Third, it implies that, once we leave school for the day, weekend, holiday, summer, or forever, we stop learning. When free of the bonds of school, we seek entertainment rather than life-long learning.
Harvest relies upon the real world of books and things for knowledge. Our school has the most sophisticated science laboratory ever equipped. It's full of ideas for inquiry. It's also free. It's called the outdoors, and studying nature is the best foundation for science we can imagine. For example, this cockroach-like water bug raises many questions. What is it? What are those bumps? What should we feed it? Why does it seem reluctant to swim?
We turned to our community for help since education is the science of relations. A mom in one of our homeschool families texted a photo to her father, an entomologist. He classified it as something in the Belostomatidae lethocerus family, which grows to four inches long! He even identified its gender as male. Why? Because the mother lays her eggs on the father's back, which he carries for about two weeks until they hatch. We all grew excited when we realized we might see young water bugs emerge before the school year ended.
One scary aspect of the science of relations is that teachers never know when something beyond our knowledge will arrive on the scene. That's okay! The water bug sent us all on a quest for knowledge. We studied with our students. While we guided them in finding answers, we had no idea of what to expect on hatching day. It's hard to find eyewitness accounts on such an obscure topic!
Monday, May 12, was an exciting day. Over the weekend, some families decorated the school for our headmaster's birthday! Her own children kept dawdling and forgetting things to make her late, so that all the students school could shout "Surprise!" when she walked in the large room. The eggs looked "like cylinders" according to one student. Someone said, "Wouldn't it be cool if the toe-biters hatched on Mrs. Angie's birthday?" God must have a sense of humor for we noticed two wee nymphs hovering around their daddy at noon, exactly ten days after we found him. She might be the only person who has ever been serenaded with "Happy birthday, Mrs. Angie and the toe-biters."
Two days later, a few lucky students had the great joy of seeing one hatch. The pale-yellow nymph that emerged shocked us! Such a lovely lemony color! We learned that they turn brown within the first hour of life — a factoid hard to find in your average article about these water bugs. We even posted a video on our facebook page to share with friends and family. After four days, the entire family huddled close together.
Education is a life when new lines of thought emerge in the mind, and our experience with the toe biter family offered many! Some students likened them to seahorses and penguins because the father cares for the eggs. We couldn't believe that such small creatures could kill a small snake until we watched daddy and his kids gang up on a minnow! Daddy injects his prey with a toxin that liquifies the body's interior so that he and his nymphs can insert their proboscis and slurp a meal. We wondered about what kind of food he ate: we tried an ant, earthworm, and mealworms as well. Then, we began to plot when and where we would release the gruesome family. Oh, yes, gruesome for cannibalism is one way they feed as we saw with our own eyes. One student concluded, "I think God must have created toe-biters after the fall. I can't imagine how they're good."
Education is also discipline in developing habits that support the nourishment of mind, body, and spirit. Nearly every week, we walked Santee National Wildlife Refuge: rain, shine, wind, snow, and ice. When the park was closed, we found other places in our area to walk. On special occasions, we explored other sites. At first, some children were not used to walking over a mile and complained of exhaustion. Now, they eagerly seek rabbit trails. At first, some found very little to interest them. Now, they stop all the time to study something interesting. At first, they didn't know the proper stewardship of the critters in our care. Now, they beg to take turns to feed the fish, frogs, turtles, anole, and toe-biters.
We are thrilled to see how our children have flourished under the three faces of education (atmosphere, discipline, and life). Every day, they apply the science of relations (making connections in a world of living ideas). While they may not understand what these words mean, they know how to live them.
"Give children a wide range of subjects, with the end in view of establishing in each case some one or more of the relations I have indicated. Let them learn from first-hand sources of information — really good books, the best going, on the subject they are engaged upon. The teacher's business is to indicate, stimulate, direct and constrain to the acquirement of knowledge, but by no means to be the fountain-head and source of all knowledge in his or her own person. The less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and thought to the children they are educating, the better for the children.... They will ask for help if they want it."
God placed many lessons for parents and teachers in the outdoor life. Today, a student and I watched two mourning doves solve a problem. They landed between the water filter (black bin) and white bucket. The couple waddled to the edge of the mini-pool, peered into the splashing water, and realized they could not drink without taking a tumble. They did not frantically rush about nor flail. They cautiously strolled around the pool until they reached the waterfall. One took the lead, leaned over, and drank without mishap.
This morning, a similar thing happened with one of our students. His brother had fixed a breakfast sandwich for him. He took one bite of it in the car and then another, but rejected it because of mayonnaise. Sometimes, he likes mayo; sometimes, he does not. Today, he did not. Skipping breakfast is not an option for him because of headaches. So, when they arrived at school, his mom told him that he had to eat half the sandwich. Fuming and fussing, he did not process reasons why he needed to eat breakfast. Mayo is not my favorite condiment either, and I did not relish forcing a someone to chow down something I did not even like.
Like the doves, I did not rush the student over the edge and demand him to eat on command. I let him sit quietly and calm down. He turned to me and said, "Mrs. Tammy, can I wipe off the mayo?"
Happy to stall, I said, "Of course!"
He opened the sandwich slowly. Then, he pulled off a piece of meat covered in mayo. I noticed the remaining two were slathered in mustard.
He took a napkin and began to wipe the piece of mayo bread. I studied the meat sitting on the mustardy slice of bread with meat.
Suddenly, a whisper from God came to me. If the student folded the mustard side, he would have half a sandwich. A mayo-free half! I shared my idea with him and noted that he could obey his mom without having to eat mayo. He smiled and asked if he could toss the other half in the trash. "Of course!" I said.
What I learned from the doves is that sometimes answers do not come in a rush. They come when quietly walking around the edge of a problem. The solution is not obvious until you take a few steps and see where God is leading you.
A community called to offer another way to learn for students in Clarendon County