Tuesday, August 18, 2015

5th Grade Autobiography Curriculum

[I'm trying to catch up on blogging about things from 5th grade before 6th grade starts next week!]

As I've described in many previous posts, Tim and N. begin their "school" time each week day with reading aloud.  Usually this comes from an autobiography or biography.  Why autobiographies?  Primarily because the lives of others are so very compelling, and offer a great medium for learning all kinds of other things along the way.  I've mentioned that Tim read N. Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë, but I wanted to be sure to record the other autobiographies he read aloud over the course of N.'s 5th grade year.

They began 5th grade with an excerpt from Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, the account of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School .  I don't know if this was a random choice; at any rate, it was interesting to start the school year reading about the educational philosophy of this school reformer.

One Victorian led to another and next Tim read to N. the portions of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography that recount his childhood and young adulthood.  Mill was educated at home by his father, was precocious and academically accomplished from a very young age, but also suffered from the strain of his studies in his early 20s.

Another school headmaster led to their second autobiography of the year.  One of Tim's old friends was, until his retirement in June 2015, the head of Doane Academy in New Jersey and upon hearing of the improvised autobiography curriculum that is one of the foundations of our homeschooling, he gave Tim a copy of The Fire Within, the autobiography of Henry Rowan, the founder of Inductotherm Corporation and major donor to Doane Academy.  I was skeptical that this would be worth reading, but in fact Tim and N. found it engrossing and read it completely through.  It covered aspects of chemistry as Rowan developed induction furnaces, which synchronized well with Tim and N.'s ongoing reading of The Disappearing Spoon and their study of the elements.  They found the accounts of the business side of Rowan's career just as interesting as the chemistry; his travails founding and developing Inductotherm offered an inside view of the challenges of running a company.  He also discussed some aspects of his personal life, including the difficulties he and his wife weathered as parents of disabled children, and he detailed some of his goals in his extensive philanthropy.

Throughout much of the winter, Tim alternated reading Rowan's autobiography with that of Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1940).  This book resonated with so much of what Tim and N. have studied over the past couple years, and extended those lines of thought as they read of Hughes's accomplished family, his childhood love of books, his father's flight from U.S. racism to a life in Mexico, Hughes's experiences in college, the Harlem Renaissance, his world travels as a crewman on a cargo ship, his growing literary achievements... I am tempted to say that everything you need to know about America in the first half of the 20th century is in this book.

And then Tim and N. turned from Hughes to Brontë to conclude N.'s fifth grade year.  Since I always hear all about their reading at supper each night, I look forward to seeing what they read together in 6th grade.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fieldtrip: Wildwood

In late May we went to Portland, OR for a week to visit family.  One day we hiked some of the gorgeous Wildwood Trail in Forest Park.  N. was especially excited about this because he had just read the Wildwood Chronicles trilogy by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis.  It seemed pretty magical to step into the world of the books, still so fresh in his mind from reading.  He ran ahead of us so that our chitchat on the trail wouldn't burst the illusion he was enjoying that at any moment Prue or Colin or the Dowager Governess might cross his path.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Summer Socializing

I always think of summer as a time of retreat; at the end of the academic year after intense engagement with students and colleagues I want time for quiet reflection, research and writing.  For N, however, summer offers more opportunities for interactive, social learning than are sometimes available to him during the school year.  He's in activities throughout the year with other kids, but they maybe last an hour or two at a time.  He looks forward to summer when friends are more free to play all day and when he participates in full-day summer programs with other kids.  

This summer he attended an intensive 1-week chamber music day camp, a 1-week ballet intensive, and he and I went together to a Suzuki music camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  He learned tons of music and ballet, of course, but just as valuable was the practice he got in parsing social groups, navigating cliques at meal times, making friends.  Last summer, as the only boy in the ballet program, he ate lunch at a table by himself.  This summer I peeked in to the lunch room (near my office on campus) on the first day of ballet camp to see him enjoying his sandwich in the center of a group of girls.  Later I asked him if the girls were nicer this year, more willing to hang out with a boy? "Well," he replied, "I think I'm just better at going up and talking to people this year."

At the music camp in the mountains, there was a group of boys around N.'s age who were fun but who tended to go a little wild.  I was interested to observe from a distance how N. skirted this group with an instinctive wariness, playing with them but peeling off just before they crossed the line into inappropriate behavior.

We took our annual road trip to the Midwest, and I saw evidence of his growing social skills there as well.  Visiting his half-sister and her children, who are 3 1/2 and almost 6, N. was much more patient and playful with his adoring but inevitably (to a 10-year-old) sometimes irritating niece and nephew than he had been the previous summer.  Visiting adult friends and relatives, I noticed with pride many moments when he joined in the conversation with apposite anecdotes, and especially praised him when he did so without interrupting, a particular challenge for him (growing up in a family of prodigious talkers as he is, interrupting is almost a necessary skill).

Homeschooling parents get annoyed by "the socialization question": people worry that homeschooled kids will be weird and unsocialized.  We have many ready answers to this concern: that weird is cool, that some forms of socialization are soul-killing, that outside of age-segreated conventional school settings, homeschoolers are comfortable with older and younger kids, etc.  But it is true that homeschool kids may have less experience of the complex dynamics of groups of kids interacting over the course of a day, day after day.  I've realized that summer programs and camps offer this experience to N. and I'm enjoying seeing him develop in this area.