Friday, April 18, 2008

Realizing the other day that it's none too soon to start thinking about and planning for homeschooling, I decided to read a book that's been on my list for a while now--The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. It's a guide to classical education at home, and is laid out chronologically, with detailed chapters for each subject. One could follow their program to the letter, as pretty much everything is covered; or use it as a guide in developing one's own curriculum.

Already it's clear that the method Odious and I will use will tend more towards the unschooling movement--we both greatly enjoy watching Sam learn on his own and discover things for himself without unnecessary teaching on our part. But still I'm finding the Wises' book useful, both for things we probably will do and things we probably won't. They follow the classical method, using the trivium and quadrivium, so that reading, writing, and math are of highest importance. However, in my opinion, their curriculum separates subjects too sharply, and requires more scheduling and formality than I could handle. I've always felt that education tends to be formalized far more than necessary, giving it a tinge of both elitism and tedium. As infants we learn from life, from the ordinary hustle bustle and domesticity around us, and there's no reason why this should change so drastically as we grow older.

I do agree that a formal math program is essential--even Odious, I don't think, could manage to teach math entirely without books and worksheets--but it needn't be tiresome if approached properly. Likewise grammar textbooks that teach the rules of the English language so that children are prepared to write well. But writing programs? I don't think so. They may teach one HOW to write, but they don't make it much fun. If I'd had to write an outline and composition for every reading assignment during my schooling years, I'd've gone crazy--what a waste of time. My sisters and I have been commended for our writing throughout our entire lives; I attribute our skills to all the reading we did as children and our familiarity with books, and, perhaps most importantly, the years and years of bedtime stories. Until I went to college (and I believe it continued for some time after that as well), our family would gather nearly every evening before bed and listen while my mother read aloud from Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, Dickens, Richard Adams, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Jane Austen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Alexandre Dumas, A.A. Milne, Mary Norton, and dozens of others. Not only was it a wonderful family time that we all looked forward to, but it meant that the English language in all its elegance was constantly sounding in our ears. My sisters and I know what good prose looks like and sounds like from all those excellent books, and because of that we have no problem putting together a well-written, well-structured essay with a sound argument. In fact, it's so easy that there have been some feelings of guilt about turning in papers that have taken so little effort.

The Wises divide childhood learning into three stages: Grammar (ages 6-9), Logic (10-13), and Rhetoric (14-17). The Grammar stage is also called the poll-parrot stage, where children are gathering information from everything around them and repeating it back without completely understanding it. This, they claim, is the time for memorizing all sorts of facts without worrying about comprehension. Questions and connections come later, during the Logic stage, as children's brains mature and broaden. In the Rhetoric stage, they are able to present and defend (through composition, elocution, art, etc.) original thoughts and opinions. This division also allows for a chronological study of history, from ancient to modern in each stage, at appropriate levels of complexity.

I like this system because the expectations for ability are age-appropriate, something that public schools completely ignore. However, the Wises do follow an unfortunate public school method in which they schedule separate subjects for set time periods (i.e., Math for 1 hour, Grammar for 1/2 hour, etc.). For one thing, many "subjects" can be integrated (History/Reading, for example), and time periods are not necessary. When an assigned task is completed satisfactorily, the child should move on to the next, regardless of time spent.

Again, this is an excellent though pedantic guide to homeschooling in the classical method. Be inspired, think hard, and rearrange to suit your fancy.