Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fun and Games

Here are two games N. has been playing a lot lately: word jumbles and marbles.

He made up the word jumbles after seeing them in the newspaper; we each take turns writing a jumbled word for the other to rearrange.  This is a great example of what John Holt describes in Learning all the Time, namely that an important part of learning to read is learning what arrangements and combinations of letters don't make words in English.

N. recently bought an old-fashioned wooden marble shooter and we play a darts-style game with it and keep score on the sidewalk. We write down any points a player gets, and verbally keep a running tally, compare scores, quiz each other about how many points each player needs to take the lead, etc.

I think N. enjoys these games so much because they are building on skills that he is (unconsciously) working on very intensely right now: reading and math.  I believe strongly that child-led activities and games like these are the most productive kind of learning, much more so than empty adult-initiated busy work or drills.  And being able to solve problems flexibly in situations where the answer matters to you is more important than being able to answer a question on a test.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Unschool in Kids' Books: Stuart Little

I've been making a mental list of the depictions of conventional school in some of our favorite children's books.  Whether for the necessities of plot (a sedate school day might not provide many story opportunities) or because compelling characters are spunky and unconventional, children's literature often critiques traditional schools.  What happens when the hero is a mouse in a human world?

When E. B. White's Stuart Little volunteers as a substitute teacher for a day, he quickly dispenses with traditional subjects of instruction in favor of stimulating conversation. 
'What's the first subject you usually take up in the morning?'
'Arithmetic,' shouted the children.
'Bother arithmetic!' snapped Stuart.  'Let's skip it.... What next do you study?'
'Spelling,' cried the children.
'Well, said Stuart, 'a misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone.  I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt.  So much for spelling.  What's next?'....
'Writing,' cried the scholars.
'Goodness,' said Stuart in disgust, 'don't you children know how to write yet?'
'Certainly we do!' yelled one and all.
'So much for that, then,' said Stuart.... 'Instead of taking up any special subject this morning, why wouldn't it be a good idea if we just talked about something.'
Stuart's cavalier dismissal of the subjects is funny, but also worth pondering.  I believe "arithmetic" in the early years is best learned in the context of real problems, and that arithmetic is only one part of the necessary mathematical thinking we want to help children develop.  Dedicated use of the dictionary is indeed a very good way to learn how to spell (dictionary use in general seems to be a dying practice; it thoroughly amazes me how few of my college students ever look up unfamiliar words in the course of their reading).  I love Stuart's assumption that the only purpose of Writing as a separate subject of instruction would be for students who don't know how to write the letters of the alphabet.  Although it is important to practice handwriting, divorcing writing from content and occasion makes the "subject" of Writing meaningless (not unlike "teaching" content-less Reading as described in a New York Times op-ed last year). 

Instead of leading lessons, Stuart proposes a conversation (which happens to be Tim and N.'s primary mode of instruction).  Stuart is a rather autocratic pedagogue; instead of working with his students' suggestions, he rejects outright their somewhat narrow suggested topics ("'Could we talk about the way it feels to hold a snake in your hand and then it winds itself around your wrist?' asked Arthur Greenlaw.  'We could, but I'd rather not,' replied Stuart") and instead suggests "Let's talk about the King of the World."  This idiosyncratic conversation-starter ends up leading the students through major problems of government and ethics (is there a King of the World? what is the difference between a rule and a law? should we have sympathy for the despised among us, such as rats? is a law such as "Absolutely no being mean" enforceable?).  They talk, question, and role-play.  They establish "what is important:" "A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy."  Also: "ice cream with chocolate sauce on it."

Stuart's teaching concludes with musing on the pleasures of summer, when you aren't in school, but might be playing by the lake, rambling, swimming, flirting.  "Summertime is important," Stuart says, and he leaves his students with this parting bit of wisdom: "Never forget your summertimes, my dears."  The children "all wish they could have a substitute every day, instead of Miss Gunderson."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Handwriting Practice

Tim looks for meaningful occasions to encourage N. to practice writing letters, and this often means writing notes to mail to family and friends.  Valentine's Day, birthdays, Mother's Day, thank-you notes for gifts all warrant an N. card (hint to family and friends: send N. more mail so he can write back to you!).  Tim and N. start by talking about what N. wants the note or card to look like and what he wants it to say.  N. will dictate the message to Tim, who will write it down for N. to copy.  Sometimes N. practices on a piece of paper before writing on the card.  Here's a recent sympathy card he sent to my mom and dad, whose cat had died.  It's pretty much the sweetest thing in the universe.

As you can see, N. still prefers to write in all capital letters.  As he is doing more independent reading, I've noticed that there are still a few lower-case letters that he mixes up (b, d, p) so it makes sense that when he is writing he uses the letters he is most comfortable with and for which he apparently also has an aesthetic preference.

These notes make handwriting practice a meaningful task; they also feed into his developing literacy, and they provide important lessons in socialization.  N. is very proud of them and so are we!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Gardening 2010

We love growing vegetables every summer, and this spring Tim and N. revamped our main garden because Tim was concerned about possibly contaminated soil in our old urban yard (where we regularly find "clinkers" emptied long ago from someone's coal furnace).  He and N. built this raised bed together, had a big load of dirt delivered, which they then had to transport from the alley in wheelbarrow loads (N. working alongside Tim with his own shovel and little wheelbarrow), and planted seeds and plants.  Here they are planting marigold seeds outside the perimeter of the bed for pest reduction.  We also have a second smaller bed elsewhere in the yard.

We have some favorite plants that we grow every year: eating pumpkins, butternut squash, kale, arugula, mixed salad greens, a huge variety of tomatoes, zucchini, black-eyed peas, pole beans, basil, dill, cucumbers, peppers, nasturtiums.  We're on the second year of nurturing several asparagus plants, but they take several years before they produce edible spears.  This year we are also trying broccoli, leeks, and Japanese eggplants.  There is probably more that I am forgetting right now.  Tim has written everything out on a garden map this year, because later in the summer the vigorous growth tends to overwhelm us, and we lose plantings among the squash and tomato vines. 

In the spring, before the mosquitoes come out in full force, work on yard and garden projects is a regular part of Tim and N.'s day.  N. loves these kinds of projects, whether it's placing paving stones, moving dirt, planting seeds, or watering plants.  He and Tim talk the whole time about all kinds of things.  N. is often working right beside Tim, but when he wants to take a break to play, he does.  Either way, he's getting sun, air, and exercise, building up his knowledge about plants and food growth, participating in a long-term project that requires planning, regular attention, and teamwork.  It's our own Edible Schoolyard!