Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fail Harder

[Image Source]
Some years ago, Julia, one of Tim's two awesome daughters, participated in 12, a year-long experimental training program at the Portland offices of the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy (the program is a fascinating educational model: collaborative, creative, project-based, conscientious, and inspiring).  The exhortation to "Fail Harder" has become the informal motto of the program.  Of course it cleverly inverts the concept of "trying harder." But the motto is getting at more than that.  It's not enough to take a risk, as we are often told, or even to fail a little bit in your quest for success.  You have to fail harder than that.  In 2006 Julia and her collaborators created a mural out of a zillion push-pins, the "Fail Harder" wall, at W+K.  The elegant script conjures the motto's inversion of traditional inspirational sayings; the text is created by the negative space left by the dense surface of pushpins.  The pushpins exemplify both sheer work (you can watch them pushing all those pins in here) and the reimagining of objects for new ends; both are essential components of creativity. 

I've had "Fail Harder" on my mind this month because I've picked up a couple activities that I haven't done for about 20 years: ballet and cello.  N. asked to start a weekly ballet class in January (which he loves!) and inspired me to seek out adult ballet classes.  (I took ballet for ten years but stopped at age 15 as my interests shifted and the level of commitment required became too high.)  Now, although I am surprised at how much I actually remember, every class is a huge struggle, physically and mentally.  I fumble through the combinations of steps, trying to remember what comes next, trying to make my body assume these strange postures.  Of course I fail at all kinds of things in my daily private life, like putting away my laundry, but in general what I do publicly -- teaching and writing -- I do very well.  In ballet classes, I am failing harder, publicly, often in front of the very students who have struggled in my literature classes.  It's humbling.

Similarly, I am playing my cello this semester in a student chamber ensemble on campus because my violinist friend who coaches the student musicians had no student cellist who could participate.  As the only cello, I blunder through Bach, totally exposed for all to hear (though fortunately the continuo is often doubled by the bass and harpsichord!).  I have played my cello very infrequently since N. was born, and even at the height of my playing (in high school), I almost never had the opportunity to play in ensembles.  So I am out of practice and inexperienced.  Every week in rehearsal I publicly confront the limits of my ability.

As I fail harder in ballet and cello, I watch how the students dancing or playing alongside me handle the prospect of failure.  For example, some of the male athletes in Beginning Ballet rise to the challenge of a different physical discipline, working seriously to grasp the movements, while others retreat from it into jokes and ironic detachment.  All of them are voluntarily taking the class, but as athletes who define themselves by their physical prowess, some of them can't make the humiliation of failing at a physical activity a productive experience.

As an over-scheduled overachiever in high school I was involved in a zillion activities and I tried hard to do them all well.  Once I got to college, I deliberately ended all my extra-curriculars so I could devote myself to studying literature, something I both loved and was very good at.  It felt like an immense luxury to focus intently on one subject.  Now I have the opposite luxury of working at disciplines (music and dance) that I love but that I will never be particularly good at.  I hope as I fail harder in these realms that I regain sympathy for students who struggle in my field, that I learn to foster my students' productive failures, and that I learn to fail harder in my literary work.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York Times Sunday School

As I have mentioned before, print media subscriptions are a major learning resource for us, introducing N. to all kinds of ideas and topics of study.  N. and I read our tiny local newspaper together every morning over breakfast.  Tim reads Scientific American over his breakfast and N. occasionally likes to look at it with him even though it is very abstruse.  We subscribe to National Geographic and recently added Smithsonian Magazine.  My parents gave N. a subscription to Trains Magazine for Christmas a year ago; although it is a highly technical publication for adult train enthusiasts, N. loves it.  He also loves getting This Old House (even though his parents are the last people who would ever be fixing up or DIYing anything), and every month we fantasize about the "Save This Old House" feature.  Now that N. reads fluently and independently, the various magazines are getting even more use as N. dips into them and reads and rereads favorite articles.  He consumes these magazines (especially Trains and National Geographic) in a long, slow, accretive process that often takes months: first he looks at the pictures, then at some point he might read the photo captions, and eventually he'll read the articles.  We keep the magazines out and accessible to facilitate this process (one of the many reasons our house will never resemble those pristine rooms in This Old House!).  I've been pleasantly surprised by how much he's learned from this reading, often without Tim or me being aware of it, when he makes connections between something we're talking about or reading and something he's learned from National Geographic (these moments of surprise always involve N. running to his pile of NGs to proudly show me the article). 

We also get the Sunday New York Times, and N. and I ritually read the Travel Section together (although we get annoyed when it is focused on spas or ski vacations); usually the rest of the Times is still over N.'s head.  But recently we've enjoyed several fascinating articles and spent long portions of our Sundays on them.  Last November I read N. the complete article about the history of bulldog breeding ("Can the Bulldog Be Saved?"), which led to lots of conversation about breeding and genetics, as well as animal welfare.  More recently we read most of another NYT Magazine piece about dogs, "Wonder Dog," which describes the training of service dogs, the struggles of a boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and his relationship with his service dog.  We aren't dog people, but we were so moved by this story, and we talked about FAS, about the connection between the boy and dog, and about a program in our city through which prisoners train service dogs. 

Last Sunday we read an article about the future of Penn Station.  The opening sentence arrested N.'s attention as I read it over our Sunday pancakes: "It's time to address the calamity that is Penn Station."  This calamity is one of N.'s obsessions, since it involves trains, old buildings, and their wrongful destruction.  We read the full article, then reread a favorite picture book (helpfully recommended by Mom &  Kiddo) called Old Penn Station by William Low, and reread big swaths of one N.'s favorite architecture books, Lost America, a catalog of historic buildings that have been demolished, including Penn Station.  We also read the original piece in the Times from July 14, 1966 lamenting the station's destruction.  Our previous discussions of Penn Station have centered the founding, inspired by Penn's destruction, of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  But in the Times Michael Kimmelman suggests another important element of the story.  The station's architect, McKim, convinced the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad not to build a lucrative hotel over the train station, but that "the railroad owed the city a 'thoroughly and distinctly monumental gateway.'"  Thus, Kimmelman concludes, "The lesson to be gleaned from the destruction of the old Penn Station is about the importance of preserving McKim’s public-spirited ideal for urban splendor as much as it is about preserving venerable buildings."  This gave us a chance to talk about buildings not just as aesthetic objects but as spaces that shape people's lives.  Are corporations obliged to create beautiful spaces for the people from whom they profit?

I also read aloud another really interesting article Sunday about the discovery that a supposed portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln is a forgery.  The humorous headline on the front page caught N.'s eye: "Mrs. Lincoln, I Presume?  Well, as It Turns Out..."  We enjoyed reading about how the forgery was detected as well as the circumstances surrounding its original sale to Lincoln's descendants, and we played around with the interactive feature online that makes it easy to compare the retouched portrait with the restored version.  N. was especially struck by this phrase at the end of the piece: "It has lost most of its value (it is insured for $400,000)..." and I found it very challenging to explain that the portrait of an anonymous woman was not worth nearly as much as the same canvas had been when the woman was thought to be Lincoln's wife.  In N.'s view, the painting looks much better now that it has been cleaned than it did before, so why would it be worth so much less?

 All this reminds me of what N. told a neighbor when he was 4 years old and being questioned about why he wasn't going to attend kindergarten: "I learn a lot more from magazines!"

Bonus reading: I describe Tim and N.'s reading of a Scientific American article about bats that prompted N. to make this proclamation about magazines here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unschooling for Preschoolers, Part 2

Our friend who recently emailed us with some questions about homeschool methods also asked for ideas about how to pick good books at the library in the 5 minutes she might have there before her 3-year-old starting randomly pulling books off the shelves and her newborn started crying.  Our friend knows how important books are but was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available (and especially concerned, as am I, to avoid the licensed character quasi-book-products such as Dora or Thomas merch).  How do you choose?  I wrote this reply:

I definitely understand the library situation; one solution might be to allow [3-year-old daughter] to pick one book herself, and you could come prepared with a set list of additional books you want to get (some libraries even let you put them on hold online to pickup when you get there).  I've compiled a list of book lists and book blogs that I've found to be reliable guides here: .  I like to browse them and write down titles.  Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook is a good resource.  The Charlotte Mason perspective is that less is more and there's nothing wrong with rereading the favorite books over and over rather than looking for new picture books. 
Our friend asked about the Five-In-A-Row method, so I responded to that question and also shared some further thoughts on curriculum and unschool for preschoolers:

As for Five-In-A-Row, I would definitely print out the book lists and use them; they are good, quality books!  I personally wouldn't want to follow the curriculum because I don't think you need a curriculum for pre-school, but I can totally understand wanting to feel like you are "doing something" and I could see FIAR meeting this need effectively and simply.  In other words, if you have to use a curriculum, that seems like a reasonable one to use, and not too time consuming or too academic.  A blog that has a lot of pre-school-age easy home activities that build numeracy and letter familiarity is "What Do We Do All Day."  I notice she just put up a good post about how to find good children's books too!

I do feel strongly, however, that pre-school kids need most of all lots of unstructured play time.  I think the best investments are not in curriculum but in open-ended play toys: dress-up clothes (from thrift stores rather than pre-fab costumes), blocks, dolls, etc.  Lots of outside time.  The hardest thing I thought about being an adult in a small child's world is that we want to accomplish tangible things with our days, but kids accomplish what they need developmentally through what sometimes looks like doing nothing at all.  Big blocks of unstructured time can be hard for the parent but I think they are really good for kids, developing their long attention spans even more and helping them learn how to draw on their own resources and interests.

A neat approach that is related to this idea is "project-based" or Reggio Emilia schooling, in which your kids pick a topic they want to explore and every day spend a little bit of time on it.  Say, butterflies.  You'd pick books together from the library about butterflies and read them.  You'd ask your daughter for her ideas for butterfly related projects: a dance, drawings, making up a story, etc.  In some ways we do this (though not explicitly) in the sense that we are always looking for ways to build on N.'s love of trains and buildings. 
I was especially impressed with our friend's awareness of how her own personality and training inform her thoughts about homeschool.  As an engineer, she's a problem-solver.  How will that help or hinder her as a homeschooling parent?  In developing the approach we take (which is of course ever evolving), we don't only consider what works for N. (although that is a crucial priority), but also what works for Tim (and to a lesser extent, for me).  For example, I like the idea of the "project-based" approach but it's not Tim's style.  And I've written before about the failure of my attempt to impose a structured form of record-keeping; we had to adopt something more organic to Tim and N.'s days.  Learning at home is a collaborative process that requires awareness of both parent and child's temperaments and learning styles.  Furthermore our approach to learning at home is always subject to modification and adaptation as we get inspired by a method or material, as life conditions change, as we build on what works and jettison what doesn't.  I call this blog "Unschool Academy" to capture this sense of hybridity, that we are inspired by unschool principles but that our days are often more structured than perhaps those of others who identify as unschoolers.  And I always point to Melissa Wiley's "tidal homeschooling" concept which so aptly captures the true ebb and flow of homeschool that many curricula and methods can't accommodate.  You can pick a method, but in real life it seems that many people make use of bits of many different approaches.

More important than choosing a method or curriculum, then, is to identify the temperamental requirements of both you and your child(ren), to identify the principles that have led you to homeschool, to identify a few broad goals (for example, for us for a preschool-aged child, these would include daily reading aloud, daily unstructured play), and to practice regular reflection and analysis to determine if your homeschool days are fulfilling all of the above.  One of the things I love about homeschooling is this process, this continual engagement in thinking about the why and how of learning.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Unschooling for Preschoolers, Part 1

A friend with very young children wrote to Tim and me, asking if we followed a program, curriculum, or method for preschool.  As a high-achieving woman who's taking time out of her engineering career to be home with her kids, she's wrestling with the fear that she won't be "doing enough" to provide an academic environment.  Tim wrote her a reply that I am reprinting in part here because I really like it:

"As for pre-school, you already know I believe that a good home, with parents in tune with the kids, is the best pre-school.  My obsession: letting kids develop their naturally long attention spans.  Over and over and over when I'm out in public and observe parents interacting with children, I see the parents stifle or crush or end the attention/interest of young children.  Adults in our consumer culture are the ones with the attention-span problem, not children.  I believe in nurturing kids' interests and attention as much as possible.  Two hours with a couple dumb blocks or a toy hammer or a little truck?  Why not?  Of course, it's not easy.  So I've tried to be the quiet voice my daughters (I was a stay-at-home dad with them until they went to [Catholic elementary school]) and N. had to listen to--talking about things, verbalizing what's going on, reading things--most anything--aloud, using numbers in a calm way to build a sense of quantitative reasoning, and explaining as best I could whatever questions come up.  I guess I try to model "thinking, learning humans" so that being curious or analytical or philosophical seems natural.  I tried to use a variety of music every day; lunch, for sure, is a steady concert time, with lots of American traditional music but most anything else coming up so that musical literacy isn't just left to the marketplace (blues, folk songs, classical stuff especially for solo instruments to learn various sounds, jazz, big band, "world music" whatever).  And if we have a banana, which we do every day, we talk about where they come from and their color and you get the point.

Outside, we worked on just being attentive [and] always trying to be engaged with our surroundings.

So, as to "not doing enough," I wouldn't worry.  Personally I have a better feel for the everyday quotidian rather than the "big event" stuff like museums and events.   Just being curious and communicative and open to their experiences and moods while at the same time being a kind of model of how to act and think--that to me does a big part of the job.
My method is pretty much seat-of-my-pants, as they used to say.  I hope some of this might be helpful.  You've got all the ingredients--both parents educated, interesting people, great kids, no huge tensions ....  If you're having fun and trying to be there in the moment with them--avoiding praising and all that junk and instead just describing and being calm--you can't help but nurture in positive unforeseen beneficial ways.

Have fun!"

It's a measure of how entrenched school (or a particular kind of reading-writing-arithmetic concept of school) has become in our culture that upper middle-class, highly educated parents worry about whether they can provide enough enrichment at home for a three-year-old.  I don't know the data, but it seems anecdotally that a very large majority of children under age 5 with a parent not working outside the home nonetheless attends preschool.  The "early-academics" model is so pervasive that it feels radical not to send your child to preschool.  I'm not suggesting there is something wrong with sending your child to preschool or that there aren't benefits beyond academics to preschool.  I was simply struck with how uncommon it seems today in my demographic to opt out of preschool. 

Because it feels so radical to eschew preschool for one's child, the stakes seem very high.  Hence our friend is fretting over what method to use, what program to follow.  I remember this feeling!  And I remember how liberating it was to befriend a veteran homeschooler whose calmness helped me see that the decision not to send my child to preschool was actually not a big deal.  At no time is this case easier to make than when one's child is under five.  Don't worry!  It's going to be fine!  And as Tim wrote to our friend, "Have fun!"

Bonus reading: Attention Span; Diverging Paths