Governor Haley just signed a bill to replace current standards (Common Core) with new ones.
What are standards? They are learning goals for what students ought to know or to be able to do by a certain grade level. Those who develop standards typically break high-level skills into small steps and spread them out over time. Then, publishers develop tools — textbooks, media, and materials — to help teachers ensure that students meet these goals. Most states have adopted Common Core as the progression for students to be ready in the three R's for college or for the workforce.
How much will it affect students at Harvest? Not much. We follow a very different progression for literacy. This post will introduce our thoughts on developing the ability to write. Harvest follows a method that offers far more flexibility and inspires far more delight.
Think back to when your child was an infant. You were thrilled at every milestone leading up to the grand achievement of walking. They included rolling over, sitting up, rocking on all fours, crawling, standing with support, balancing without help, and walking. You didn't begin by expecting your infant to walk at the age of two months. You knew to nurture specific abilities over time before expecting the child to cruise: neck and head control, conditioned core muscles, strong legs, etc.
Learning to write requires a series of developmental milestones leading up to a grand achievement. They include hand dominance, finger strength, pencil grasp, visual acuity, eye convergence, shape discrimination, oral expression, posture, sitting still, fine motor planning, and, most important of all, a desire to communicate thoughts on paper. Some children lack some milestones at the age of five simply because individuals develop at different rates. Others have diagnosed or hidden learning challenges. Early overuse of electronic screens shut out opportunities to achieve these milestones for some children.
We believe that expecting five-year-olds to express complete thoughts on paper is too much too soon. Besides having milestones in place, writing requires a set of discrete skills: reading, letter formation, writing in words, spacing, spelling, punctuation, capitalizations, and grammar. Common Core expects Kindergartners to use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to do complex tasks like compose opinion pieces, explanatory texts, and narrate a sequence of events plus react to what happened. The student sample for a Kindergartner is a picture and an entire paragraph that expresses their opinion of their favorite book. The paragraph contains ten sentences!
At Harvest, we do not believe sooner is better. We do not believe high expectations must overload and overwhelm children. We build a solid foundation during the primary years and expect writing to bloom in the elementary years. We focus on writing mechanics and oral expression. We offer background knowledge and vocabulary through living books. We wait until all the pieces are in place before having them to write lengthy original compositions.
If we had to choose an over-arching standard, it might be how much a student cares about writing. Charlotte Mason asked, "The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?"
That standard sounds a bit squishy and very difficult to measure. However, we are talking about persons, not products that can be conformed to a specification. Here is an example of how this looks.
We have a bright, curious student who came to Harvest as a reluctant reader who didn't care much for writing either. Since we had so many writing habits to cultivate during this transitional year (copywork, recitation, studied dictation, and oral narration), we assigned only one major writing project per term. The first two were group projects: a five-paragraph description of a book they had read together and a letter to the county about the dogs running wild in our schoolyard. The final project became clear to us in the last month of school: a narrative story about the toe-biter family. We read to the students some excerpts from The Book of Insects by Jean-Henri Fabre. We asked them to describe a scene from the life cycle of this water-bug in the style of this French scientist.
This student completed the writing assignment on time. Each student wrote rough drafts, edited, and brought in a copy in their best handwriting on Monday. Here is the final result of this student:
The Battle of the Mason Jar
There is a minnow in the jar that has a toebiter and all its babies. So the dad attacked the minnow, then he let go. The babies said, "Give me a turn, give me a turn." So the baby toebiters jumped onto the minnow who wiggled all around. He said, "Get off of me or I will eat you!" So the minnow ate one, while another was hanging on its mouth.
Our student did the assignment exactly as requested and did it well. However, that was not good enough. Inspiration struck over the weekend, and a completely new manuscript was pounded out on the computer. The student waved the printout in front of us and had to read it aloud, laughing and giggling the whole time. Before the morning meeting, we listened to the story read aloud with joy. Later, at lunch, the formerly reluctant writer was conspiring with friends to don costumes and act it out like we do with Henry V. The playwright offered to rewrite the script and add lines, so the whole class could participate. Here is the rough draft:
The Mason Stadium
R___, “Welcome to the Aquatic Mason Stadium where we have toebiter vs minnow. Okay L___ take it away.”
L___, “Thanks R___. So let’s begin!”
Minnow, “Hey wait, I thought this was solo event!”
L___, “So the toebiter has the minnow! He has him, but looks like the little toebiter tackled the minnow!”
R___, “What an awesome tackle! Looks like the minnow is fighting back. Wait is that a foul or a penalty?”
L___, “I don’t know? Alright, halftime! Let’s go down to the field and talk to the teammates. E___?”
E___, “Thanks guys. So daddy toebiter, what is your strategy?”
Daddy toebiter, “Well I put poison in when I bit him, then sucked his liquid guts out”
Baby toebiters, “Daddy lets beat this minnow!”
E___, “Okay what is your game plan?”
Minnow, “Mine is do the backstroke out of here or swim for my live!!”
E___, “So that’s what’s going on here, back to you.”
R___, “Thanks. Alright L___ lets go back to the game. So the toebiters are all over the poor minnow!”
L___, “Hey look there the minnow is dropping out! Look like the the toebiters won the game!”
R___, “Lets go back to E___.”
E___, “Well L___ and R___ the toebiter won or the minnow got too scared.”
R___, “What a good game!”
L___, “Yes R___! So that’s a rap at the Mason Stadium!”
Think about it. This student not only turned in the assigned homework but also submitted a completely original story. It was not to pull up a grade nor was it to get extra credit. It was not to win a contest nor to replace a bad grade.
It was for pure joy!