Book Lover Baby Steps

Summer Reading Bookshelves.jpg

I wish my boys were avid readers. I make sure they always have a variety of quality books from which to choose. Since we started homeschooling using the Ambleside Charlotte Mason method, they are exposed to many classic living books in all their classes. They particularly love our read aloud selections (where I read and they listen), but when it comes to reading on their own, in their own free time, there are a million other things they would rather be doing than reading. [Sigh]

The only time they do read on their own is when we let them stay up a half an hour past bedtime to read. To them reading is at least better than going to sleep at bedtime, but that is not saying much. Despite all the excellent literature I have available to them, the only books I've ever seen them get really excited about are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney (Is it a coincidence that my children's favorite author is also a video game designer?), The Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Recently, however, there have been signs of hope:

King started reading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, a true classic! (Shout outs go to King's grandparents, Joan-Joan and Bob-Bob, for giving him a boxed set of Tolkien books; and to New Line Cinema for making the books into movies.)

After a long whiny debate with Mike over whether we had any good books to read, he reluctantly agreed to give the book Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata a try. (Shout outs go to Mike's grandma, Mimi, for giving us this book; to Grandpa Mike for bravely serving in the Vietnam War; and to Mike himself for being an animal lover.)

They are still only reading these books at (instead of) bedtime, but I am encouraged that they are truly enjoying books that don't have pictures! King says he intends to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy next. Michael was so excited about his book that one morning he was eager to share a passage that he had read the night before. My heart swelled.

He opened his book and read a few choice lines from a scene where Cracker is being bribed with hotdogs:

He reached into his pocket and took out his secret weapon: a wiener.
"Wiener?" he said in a low voice.
"Wiener for Cracker?"
Everybody in the world seemed to know her name, even this man with a wiener.

My heart shrank a bit. Mike thought it was hilarious. At least he was excited about reading, right? Baby steps.

What books did you love as a child? What books do your children love? Please share!

[This post contains associate links. Please read my disclosure.]

Dinosaur Presentations: A Self-Education

We are studying Dinosaurs in homeschool this year. I told the boys I wanted each of them to choose a dinosaur, research it and give a presentation telling what they learned. I gave them very little direction, other than they must include a drawing of their dinosaur which they created themselves.

I was not concerned so much with the presentation itself. What I wanted was to give them an opportunity to take responsibility for their own learning. I wanted them to be motivated by their own natural curiousity in choosing for themselves which dinosaur they wanted to know more about. I wanted them to experience what it felt like to be excited about learning, to have a desire to know and have an enthusiasm to share that knowledge with others.

They both dove into their projects with an enthusiasm that was inspiring! They were begging me for time to work on them! They even worked on them "outside" of school, during their own personal free-time. And when they were finished with their projects, they couldn't wait to show us what they had accomplished. I have never before seen such excitement in them having anything to do with "school".

They both decided to make powerpoint slideshows to go along with their presentations.  They did all their own research and prepared their presentations with no help or input from me, although King did help Mike put together his Powerpoint presentation.

King's presentation on the carnotaurus.  [click picture to play]

Mike's presentation on the eoraptor.

These may not have been the greatest presentations ever given, but I know that each of the boys has a relationship with "their" dinosaur that didn't exist before and that they will remember more about it than if I had just told them about it in class.

What we are concerned with is the fact that we personally have relations with all that there is in the present, all that there has been in the past, and all that there will be in the future––with all above us and all about us––and that fulness of living, expansion, expression, and serviceableness, for each of us, depend upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of.

School Education by Charlotte Mason

A Test by Any Other Name

We don't give tests in our homeschool. We give assessments. However, I accidentally used the "T" word the other day with Michael.

Michael, it's time for your spelling test.

A look of panic crossed his face that said: What test?! I didn't study for a test!

I tried to recover.

I mean, it's time for your spelling assessment. It's an assessment not a test.

He didn't look reassured, so I continued,

This is not a test. I just want to see what you know. These are all words you know how to spell. If you don't know the words, then we will just spend more time going over them next week.

He was still not buying it. He'd heard this before. He explained:

My teacher last year called them "assessments", too. But they were really tests.

The difference is not in name only, as Michael suspected. Assessments should be an opportunity to show what you know, not a trap to find out what you don't know. We don't give grades either, indicating a pass or fail based on what can be regurgitated. And there aren't any punishments for not knowing the answers. Wrong answers simply let me know more time needs to be spent on a subject, or a change in approach needs to be made, or both. Also, the boys do not study for assessments, like they would for tests at school-school. I'm not interested in what they have been able to memorize the night before, but in the knowledge they truly hold and that has become a part of them. Charlotte Mason explained it this way:

There is a third kind of (spurious) memory––facts and ideas floating in the brain which yet make no part of it, and are exuded at a single effort; ... when the schoolboy 'crams' for an examination, writes down what he has thus learned, and behold, it is gone from his gaze for ever: as Ruskin puts it, "They cram to pass, and not to know, they do pass, and they don't know."

- Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Michael is still new to this idea. For two years, he has breathed in the atmosphere of the "test" and all the anxiety and pressure that comes with it. It will take some time for him to realize I'm not here to trip him up or catch him by springing something on him for which he is unprepared. Trust is built and maintained through experience. And it will help if I don't use the "T" word again.

Impressionism: Up Close

Last week we did our first Picture Study. Our approach to the study of art comes from the ideas of Charlotte Mason:

As in a worthy book we leave the author to tell his own tale, so do we trust a picture to tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it. In the region of art as else-where we shut out the middleman.

- Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosphy of Education, Homeschooling Series Vol. 6

We study one artist each semester. Each week we read a little bit about the artist's life and technique, then a quality print of one of the artist's pieces is put before the boys. They are given four to six minutes to study the work, to really look at it, and to take it all in. Then the piece is turned over and they are asked to "tell back" what they saw. I also provide a magnifying glass for them to use, if they would like to take a closer look at some particular detail in the picture.

The painting we looked at last week was done in the impressionistic style, where the artist uses dabs or small strokes of unblended color that, when looked at as a whole, create the visual effects of light and shadow and surprising detail.

Last week was Michael's first experience with Picture Study. I turned the picture over and told them to begin their observation. Michael immediately reached for the magnifying glass and wouldn't put it down. He was scanning all over the painting, looking only through the lens of the magnifying glass. At one point King asked to use it. Michael reluctantly gave it up, but he kept an eye on it the whole time, not once looking back at the painting until he had the magnifying glass back in his hand.

I must add that the original of the work we were looking at was only about six by nine inches, but the print we had was blown up to about five times that size. Needless to say, this only served to further magnify(!) the problem.

 What's that orange splotch?

I decided that I needed to take away the magnifying glass completely. After some protesting, Michael again reluctantly gave it up. But he was now completely obsessed with it and could hardly glance down at the painting without asking for the magnifying glass back.

Mom, I NEED it! I HAVE to SEE something!

Finally, exasperated by how quickly this exercise had gone so wrong, I whispered sternly,

Michael! I'm telling you: you better be able to tell me every single thing that is in this painting by the time you are done!

Charlotte Mason may have rolled over in her grave at that moment, but Michael straightened up and really started looking at the picture for the first time. He didn't ask for the magnifying glass again and we ended up having a lovely discussion about what they both saw in the painting.

Telling or Teaching?

Our neighbors asked Mike if he would stop in twice a day while they were out of town and take care of their pets (two cats, two turtles, three beta fish, and five goldfish). Mike agreed, and I decided the opportunity for him to have a hands-on lesson in responsibility was worth the effort on my part. Plus I really wanted to help out my neighbor. Plus plus we have our own "zoo" that will need "sitting" in a few weeks. Win, win, win.

"A little to the left... oooh, yeah, that's it."

On our twice daily trips, I referred to the list of morning and evening "to-dos", while Mike performed each task. I stepped in with words of caution ("Don't pull the turtle's leg out too far!"); reminders ("Did you turn on the light?"); and to do what he physically couldn't ("Don't climb on the turtle tank to turn out the light! Let me do it."). I was proud of Mike. He did (pretty much) all the work without complaining (much) about it. I was proud of myself too for facilitating the learning experience.

Mmmm... turtle sandwich.

About mid-week, I asked Curtis to take Mike over to do his evening chores, so I could finish making dinner. I was confident Mike knew what to do, and if not, there was always the list for reference. Curtis, like me, would be in a purely supervisory role.

Upon their return, I asked Mike how it went.

"Fine. Great."

"You gave the cats food and water?"

"Oops." [blank stare]

"What do you mean, 'oops'? Didn't you look at the list?"


Curtis interjected from across the room, "NO! Obviously, you didn't read the list! If you had, you wouldn't have forgotten to feed the cats!"

"YES! I did so read the list! It said, 'Evening: turn off the lights.'"

I explained, "Michael, that was just for the turtles, the first thing on the list. You have to read the whole list."

This big boy could stand to miss a meal, but that's not the point.

So what happened? Mike had already been through the routine several times. How could he forget such a basic and vital item like "feed the cats"? Upon reflection, I remembered something my brother told me:

Learning happens in the mind of the child, not in the mouth of the teacher.

Charlotte Mason (whose philosophy of education and method of teaching we follow in our homeschool) calls it "masterly inactivity" or "wise and purposeful letting alone". If I am always hovering, cleaning up behind, and reminding my children what to do and when to do it; all I have managed to teach them is how to be directed by a source outside of themselves. Then, when that source is no longer there, why am I surprised that they forget to "feed the cats"?

What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort.*

"Seriously, who hired this kid?"

While Michael indeed did most of the physical work, I had created a situation where it wasn't necessary for his mind to be fully engaged in the process. He didn't need to think or remember, because I was there thinking and remembering for him. Both the list and the responsibility were firmly in my hands the whole time.  

It's like being driven to a new place and then asked to navigate back to the same spot yourself the next day. After passively riding along, even two or three times, how well do you really know the way? As a passenger, you have to be quite motivated and pay close attention at every turn to be able to confidently and successfully find your way on your own. If you were an eight-year-old boy you might not care too much about where you were going, or how to get there, or doing it yourself the next time. Even if your mother had been calling out each turn as she made it, you probably still wouldn't be able to get there on your own.

Curtis had it right. (Indecently, Charlotte Mason observed that fathers tend to have an easier time with this "letting alone" than mother's do.) Curtis was present as an authority for safety and supervision, but the responsibility for the job was Mike's and Mike's alone. I had the right idea, but all my telling him what his responsibilities were did very little to actually teach him how to be responsible.

So once again, the lesson for myself is to get out of the way. My role is to guide, facilitate, support, and to create an atmosphere where my children can enter into relationships with the world and all that is in it. I can put these things before them, but they must do and learn for themselves.


*For more on "Masterly Inactivity" see School Education  by Charlotte Mason; chapters three and four.

Daffodils Make Me Happy

I planned a field study to the Botanical Gardens. We would sit amongst the daffodils, read Wordsworth, and King would sketch.



It sounded so perfect.

However, as so often happens, a fresh new setting led to fresh new distractions; and poetry pushed beyond the most literal ("Daffodils make him happy.") was merely frustration.

"I don't KNOW what he's talking about! ...Daffodils?"

I wish I had left it at that.

"Yes, daffodils make him happy. Now, let's get out the sketchbook and get to know one for yourself."


Surely there was more to the poem, but it wasn't mine to give. I pushed too hard, explained to much, and as a result King began to loathe my words, my questions, and perhaps even the poem itself. Even with all my good intentions, I had achieved the exact opposite result from the one I wanted.

One of my favorite things about Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education is that she rightly places all inspiration and knowledge in the hands of the Divine Teacher. I may put King in the presence of daffodils, and place Wordsworth before him, but I cannot force him to "drink" the ideas therein. I must quietly stand aside and let God reveal what He will in His own time and in His own way.

For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him. Isaiah 28:26