Monday, January 19, 2009

Discipline and Dawdling

I recently happened upon my stash of diaries and journals and in the process of shuffling them into deeper storage to prevent this sort of cringe-inducing trip down memory lane from happening too often, I glanced over the volume containing entries I wrote intermittently during the later years of elementary school. Now that we’re beginning to unschool/homeschool our son, I suddenly see a recurrent theme of these entries in a very different light. “Today I got all my work done in school,” I wrote in 4th grade. “Today I only had to take my English work home.” “Today I got my math done in work time so I didn’t have to take it to lunch to do it then.” Apparently there was a concern that I was dawdling in school, that I wasn’t finishing busy work as efficiently as I should.

My parents struggled throughout my school years to get me to manage my time more efficiently and effectively, and indeed I am sure they are still chagrined by what looks in me like a tendency to put things off, to do things at the last minute. It’s pretty good evidence for the resistance of inherent personality to change!

I now see my recurring struggle to get my schoolwork done in elementary school not as a sign of my weakness or lack of discipline but of the meaninglessness of the work itself. After all, in the summer after 4th or 5th grade, I wrote a 10+-page typed research paper on the history of ballet simply because I was interested in it and thought it would be a fun thing to do (fledgling academic nerd --and unschooler—I clearly was!) It is unfortunate that I perceived lack of discipline in some areas to be one of my central traits instead of focusing on how I did devote myself wholeheartedly to other areas or activities. I hope that unschooling gives me the chance to recognize N.’s true strengths, whatever they maybe, rather than measuring him against standards derived from a nineteenth-century industrial model of school and work that has little to do with real learning and happiness in life. I am thankful that my career as an academic does not require adherence to an industrial model of discipline. Although my profession has its share of deadlines, scholarly work is enriched by the fortuitous discoveries and deep explorations that sometimes look from the outside like procrastination.

Perhaps my tendency to procrastinate is a simply an inherent personality trait of mine, yet there are ways that my early education and the parenting practices of the day reinforced this trait even as my parents tried to reform it. I was raised in the heart of the self-esteem movement and fulsomely praised. I was pulled out of class for Gifted and Talented enrichment, programs whose laudable intent was to provide intellectual stimulation but whose terminology implied that I was special, endowed with gifts that I just happened to have, not that I had worked to cultivate. I felt internal and external pressure to live up to this “G&T” label, but I didn’t recognize, as a child, how insignificant a factor “genius” is in any accomplishment. I think this is the point my parents meant to make when they emphasized time management and discipline. They wanted to me to see that hard work is 90% of the story, but because school was both rewarding me for being “gifted” and requiring me to work hard on tasks that were meaningless, I didn’t really get the message.

School led me to think I was undisciplined because I had no particular desire to work at meaningless tasks; at the same time, the “gifted” label encouraged me to depend on my talents, rather than cultivating my inherent desire to work hard at something that engaged me. Unschooling allows me to reframe the issue in terms of learning and passion rather than character traits. And perhaps most importantly, to leave space for the rich bliss of dawdling!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Worlds of Words

I read John Holt’s book Learning All the Time last summer on a car trip to Minnesota and loved his account of the ways that children decode and embrace the worlds of print. Observing N.’s long and careful exploration of reading has been fascinating; he doesn’t read fluently yet, though he knows all the letters and their sounds, recognizes some words, and can sound out words along with us, though rarely by himself. Without having formal reading lessons, reading is a central subject of our conversations these days. As we talk about all the things we talk about everyday (and we are all three big talkers), questions about the meanings, pronunciations, origins, and spellings of words are always coming up. Although Tim and I both have Ph.D.s in English and are perhaps a bit more obsessed with words than some other adults, words are a main family topic right now because N. is figuring them out, not because we are pushing it. Reading is both foreground and background; it is everywhere in our conversations, yet often incidental, a side note to the main subject at hand.

So, N. is learning to read by talking to us all the time. How else is he exploring the world of words? Of course he loves being read to. Yet another thing I love about having him at home is that there are no particular behaviors that he is required to adhere to while he is listens to books. He doesn’t have to sit quietly or cross-legged; he can interrupt to ask questions as much as he likes. Often he asks for a story while he is doing something else – drawing, eating, playing with blocks or trucks. He loves to hear long stories in books with few pictures (favorites currently include the Five Little Peppers, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Homer Price, Winnie-the-Pooh, Thomas the Train, Grimm’s fairy tales); I think his long attention span is facilitated by his freedom to move and keep his hands active. Though he might look like he is merely multi-tasking, he doesn’t miss a word and will quickly correct you if you misread something in a favorite tale.

Another way that N. is learning to read is by manipulating letters. Although we had alphabet books, he seemed to learn the alphabet primarily by playing with refrigerator magnet letters. Currently he thinks it is very funny to make up words with the letters on the fridge and laughs uproariously when we try to pronounce his new words. As John Holt writes, it is just as important to experiment with what doesn’t make a recognizable word as to learn what does.
We have a set of rubber alphabet stamps that N. sometimes uses when he wants to write something. He expresses a strong preference for upper-case letters and usually refuses to use the lower-case stamps. I assume this is a way of keeping things simplified while he figures all this reading and writing business out. I am sure he’ll incorporate them into his usage when he’s ready to.

Recently N. seems to be experimenting with writing his own letters as another aspect of the textual universe. We haven’t taught him to write letters but the other day he showed me this paper on which he had written his name.

On another recent occasion, I was in the kitchen cooking and couldn’t help him immediately when he asked me; when I made it into the sunroom where he was working, he had written his version of “Happy Birthday Pooh Bear.” I was pretty surprised! As you can see in the picture, writing, the stories of Pooh, and his beloved trucks converge as N. systematically gathers his knowledge about words.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Attention Span

We hear lots of complaints about contemporary American children’s short attention spans but N. has the opposite “problem.” His attention for a task or activity usually long outlasts that of the adults who are accompanying him. He would happily work at one Lego station at our local children’s museum for 2 hours. He observed the blacksmithing demonstration in the “Yesteryear Village” at the fair last fall for more than an hour one day and returned the next day for another 45 minutes or so, asking the blacksmiths questions all the while about what they were doing, trying to understand the strange process he was witnessing. I don’t know whether his attentiveness is “normal,” but since it was a trait that Tim and I felt we saw in him even in infancy, we have actively tried to foster it, in part by not sending him to preschool. His long attention span is an important factor in our thinking about long-term homeschooling as well. He spends a long time on each of the things he does, wringing every last bit out of them, before he’s ready to move on to something else.

Once when N. was 3 ½ we went to a birthday party at Gymboree where kids were whizzed through one activity after another at breakneck pace. N., who prefers to watch a new activity from the sidelines for quite awhile before participating, seemed flabbergasted. He would barely begin to decode an activity before it was be over and something new introduced. Although I am sure most preschools are more sensitive than Gymboree, this experience has become symbolic for me. I am not talking about clinical diagnoses such as ADHD (though it is my personal and thoroughly unqualified opinion that this is overdiagnosed) , but the colloquial short attention span of children seems to be a Catch-22: when you believe children have short attention spans and structure activities in short bursts of stimulation, you at the very least confirm that short attention span, if not create it.

It might be adults, not children, who actually have the short attention spans. Tim and I always notice parents at the children’s museum interrupting their children’s play in one nook to entice them to check out some other area. “Do you want to go upstairs to the donut factory or the grocery store now?” And it is definitely a challenge to sit with N. at his favorite Lego table for two hours! I have to make a conscious effort at the beginning of every weekend to switch from my work mode, where I make my own agenda and take pleasure in accomplishing numerous tasks, to N.’s chilled-out mode, where drawing pictures together for an hour or more is all he wants to do. It is easy to fall into the habit of being the activity mommy, planning outings and scheduling the day. There’s nothing wrong with outings, but I enjoy sharing some of that long intense attentiveness that structures Tim and N.’s time at home during much of the week.

Yesterday when I called home from work, I heard that Tim and N. had spent over an hour and a half reading about bats, first in Tim’s issue of Scientific American that happened to be on the breakfast table, then in our WorldBook and Britannica encyclopedias (sets bought for $15 each from my university library's annual deaccession sale -- such a great resource!). This led (maybe because they were in the B volumes?) to reading about bees. N. told me lots of interesting stuff about bats on the phone. And today he asked Tim to read the Scientific American article again, and later they got books about bats from the library, which I read to him at bedtime. I love the way the unschool environment makes this kind of sustained engagement with a topic possible, that N. can pursue bats for as long as he wants to, with no one forcing him to move arbitrarily to something new before he’s ready.