Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Pizza with the works" curriculum

There has been much written, and much of it wise or at least well intended, about the value of simplifying young childrens' schoolwork, and about not trying to teach them physics before they've mastered phonics. A recent post to that effect on another blog got many positive comments from veteran homeschoolers. They agreed: take it easy on yourself and your kids; don't try to do too many subjects too early; stick to the "3 R's" until the junior grades. And if you do teach science or history in the primary grades, don't expect the children to remember much of it.

This isn't so much a rebuttal as just another way to look at things.

In Ruth Beechick's booklet A Home Start in Reading (part of her 3-R's series, but we won't hold that against her), she describes the following experiment carried out by a school district:
"Some kindergartners in the district received extensive instruction in reading. Others spent the same amount learning science. They melted ice. They observed thermometers in hot and cold places. They played with magnets, grew plants, learned about animal life, and so on. Books and pictures were available for these children if they wanted them, but no formal lessons in reading were held.

"And what did the school district learn? By third grade the ‘science’ children were far ahead of the ‘reading’ children in their reading scores. The reason? Their vocabularies and thinking skills were more advanced. They could read on more topics and understand higher level materials. The ‘reading’ children, by starting earlier, used up a lot of learning time on the skills of reading, while the ‘science’ children spent the time learning real stuff. And when they did begin reading, they were older and knew more and learned in a fraction of the time that the others took.”
(Ruth Beechick unfortunately doesn't provide any footnotes or verification for this study, so we'll just have to take her word for it.)

Now this may sound like an argument for the don't-teach-them-to-read-early camp, and in fact that is the context in which Dr. Beechick was writing: not to pressure children to read until they're ready. However, all the Squirrelings have happened to be early readers. By kindergarten age, they have all been reading fairly fluently, which, ironically, gives us the same curriculum problem we would have if we didn't want to teach them reading early: what else to do during school time if much reading instruction isn't needed or wanted?

Well, we read books. Out loud, silently, together and alone. Narration of one kind or another often follows.

We do copywork and work on handwriting skills; Crayons practices making her numbers right way round.

And, like the kindergarten experimenters, we "do." Especially this year, with a fourth grader (with a late-in-the-year birthday) and a kindergarten-age child at home during most of the day, I'm trying hard to keep a balance between reading and "doing." Some days feel like we're eating a curriculum pizza with the works (and the kids are helping make it).

We have a big map of the world on the kitchen wall (which Crayons loves to look at and find places she knows, like Poland), and an edible-ingredients model of the atmosphere on the kitchen counter. (We may have to borrow back some of the Thermosphere if we run short.) Already this fall we have had leaf lessons on the back porch (with samples all around us); have acted out (more than once) a favourite story about King David; have made file-folder pictures of the characters from "As You Like It"; and listened to Leonard Bernstein's orchestra demonstrating how Haydn added humor to music.

We've played domino concentration and Pico Fermi Bagels, looked forward to the next chapter of Peter Pan, and memorized Emily Dickinson's poems. (Crayons liked Michael Bedard's picture book Emily, and also the poem that starts "I started early, took my dog and visited the sea; The mermaids in the basement came out to look at me.") We make up new verses to songs, and try to answer Ponytails' Big Questions about everything. The girls mess around with a keyboard and a lap harp. They make up ongoing doll stories, radio shows, and hospital dramas. When the Apprentice comes home from school, she teaches them games she's learned in drama class. Mr. Fixit also lets Ponytails help (as the Apprentice did) when there's a tape recorder or some other piece of electronic stuff to be refurbished.

Now this may not be very different from the daily experience of homeschoolers who say "stick to reading, writing and math for the first few years." Maybe when people say that, they're not including all the things they do with their children and which their children do spontaneously. (I'm typing this while listening to a Squirreling who chooses not to be identified vocalizing at the top of her lungs while playing under a card table tent. They've been opera divas singing "The Voices of Spring" all day after watching The Three Stooges' "Microphonies.") When they put together a very short list for first-grade curriculum, maybe they're not including the books already on the shelf and the games and puzzles they pull out of the closet, and all the other resources they have in their kitchens and workshops.

At the same time, it worries me that "cutting out all those extras" could also mean subjecting primary-age children to an (unnecessary) hour daily of math and the same amount of time spent on phonics AND spelling AND language. No wonder some people can't even imagine adding more to a young child's schedule.

Was it a waste of time for the kindergarten classes to melt ice and play with magnets? According to Dr. Beechick, no; the "real stuff" stirred their imaginations and gave their minds something to work on. (Charlotte Mason would say that they were learning from Things and Ideas.)

Is it a waste of time to do botany and geography and poetry with kids who still play with Polly Pockets? Will they remember everything? No. Will they learn something about their world, that it's a much bigger and more interesting place than the tiny corner of space and time that we inhabit, and yet that even our tiny corner has enough to keep us going for a long time? I hope so.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Bravo, Mama Squirrel.

No, they may not remember everything but in the early years I think they spend a lot of time creating what my husband calls memory hooks - bits of information that create a spot to hang more information on later. For example, when my older girls were young we read many book in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. When they encountered those persons later in their history studies they already had a place formed for the new information to stick. At the CM conference in NC this year, they spoke about the latest brain research that verified this idea. It was very interesting.