Saturday, July 09, 2005

Some Questions about Literary Learning

I sent these following posts to a friend of mine and thought I would put them here because they describe how I arranged things in one of my best school years ever:

What if we chose two or three books a quarter, and
> created an entire learning program around those books? One book > might lean more heavily toward a science study; another book might > tip more toward a history study. >> Has anyone done this before? It's not a unit study. It's more like > a book study. Any thoughts?

I did something like this with my second son when he was a sixth grader. We used Elizabeth's booklist at We'd focus on a book per month and explore its context (historical, geographical, scientific or whatever), its literary aspects, how it related to Church truth, and how the theme, plot, or characters related to our lives and/or other books we read. In other words, CM's idea of building relationships that extend into different areas. We also used it to practice academic "skills" and cover content that was appropriate for his grade level, eg when we read Shakespeare we learned some poetic and dramatic terminology. He did copywork from the book and some picture study or art project that connected (not as much of this though since he is not really an arty type)

For some books, if he was really interested in the theme or author, I would have him read further books on the same historical time period, or by the same author, or with a similar style or intention. Elizabeth's booklist is grouped this way, so some of the backup choices were already there for us. Often we'd choose a saints bio that matched the time period or culture. For others, if the book was more challenging or he was not as interested, we would just stick with that one book with maybe just some background research or study.

He loved this -- it was fun for me too, finding things that related to the book. We had a general geographical, multicultural theme with an emphasis on evangelization and how different cultures, even non-Christian ones, have truths mixed in with error. We kept coming back to that theme in order to interconnect the books. Another primary theme was that individuals by their lives and choices can make a significant impact on their society and on the future. The saints' bios of course lent themselves to this theme and it is also an important literary theme. We studied Japan this way, comparing it to medieval Christendom, and the Middle East, and then Poland,and then some other countries through focusing on WWII.

He had formerly been a "non-fiction" type kid and not much of a reader. He's now probably my most voracious reader, I can't keep up with him. I don't know if one is related to the other, but I do think he learned a lot and retained a lot from that year. He still talks about some of the things we read and asks me what we are going to read together this year (he is now in 8th grade). I'm not sure why I don't do this anymore, except that it was quite time-consuming since I read the books aloud to him and we did a lot of oral discussion. If you try it and it works for you,
please post and maybe it will give me the motivation to start again.

> >>Hi. This is our first year homeschooling and I am really struggling > with planning my week for my kids (ages 8,7,4,1). Do you all write > out weekly lesson plans or have more of a quarterly plan? How and > when do you do your plans if at all?

I have younger kids about the ages of yours (10, 7, 3 and newborn) and 3 older ones as well. I try to plan through the spring and summer for the following year. This gives me time to decide on and gather books and resources. It helps me to have certain "core" resources -- as --------- said, a spine text, even if we end up deviating from it considerably. That way I can break down the texts used into weekly and daily increments.

One thing I try to do is plan for only about 32 4-day weeks or 130 days per year -- even though our state (California) requires a 180 day school year, I find that with field trips, "rabbit trails", reviews, and the various interruptions of real life, it saves end-of-the-year panic to only plan for the lesser time.

On Friday afternoon I plan more specifically for the next week -- gather books, preread, photocopy or print out materials, write notes to myself on how to approach various subjects with the kids. I am using -----'s idea of a spiral notebook where I jot down ideas all week so I won't forget them. Things like "review geometry terms" or "switch Bible storybook since K isn't retaining much"

The kids work from a weekly checklist of subjects -- some subjects have things like "read a chapter" of a certain book, others are noted "ask Mom". I have a checklist even for my non-reading child, so that *I* can see what we've gotten through that day and what is left to be done. This helps keep things flowing during the day, so when I am busy with one child, I can tell the other one to do something independent from his checklist.

As Charlotte Mason recommends, we do "short lessons" and try to make steady progress on the basics, like math, phonics, grammar, and catechism -- other subjects, like science, literature, and history, I have a lot more latitude.


I homeschool with a combination classical/CM and have done so for about 10
years now. I thought I'd try to answer your questions from my perspective.

> I would like info like: Can I teach both my kids (ages 7 & 10) the same
topic and how exactly would that work? Is it like a unit study, or is there
more to it?>>

I think you CAN teach them the same topic if that works out. I taught two of my kids together for a long time until one of them starting feeling too competitive with the other. A lot of CM people do literature based unit studies where they read various books on the same topics or related topics. You can choose some books geared to the 7yo and some geared to the 10yo -- the older child benefits from hearing or reading some more "basic" books while the younger one can be stretched by hearing more difficult books read aloud and hearing his mother and older sibling discussing them.

A "literature based" unit study is more books, narration and copywork than "hands-on", though you can still include as many hands on projects as you want or as your kids can think up. I used to find it easier to have my kids plan the hands on stuff they *wanted* to do, rather than me plan it for them. Their motivation was higher and it made me feel less frustrated if the project didn't work out. You can have the kids take turns narrating, or the older child could do an oral or visual presentation of what he's read for his independent reading.

Elizabeth's booklist is good for theme-based or author-based literature units. You can take a given month, then choose one book to read aloud together and have the other books be silent readers or enrichment reading. You can find non-fiction books or articles in the library to supplement the month's literature, and then think through what to cover in terms of: history (a timeline book, perhaps); geography (looking up the place in the atlas or on the globe); science, if that is relevant; art, poetry... you can take passages from the books for copywork and dictation. You can choose related topics to use to develop research and library skills.

However, you don't *have* to use the unit approach to be CM-- you can also approach it the Ambleside or Mater Amabilis way, and have several books going on in various subjects at the same time, letting the kids make their own connections. That's more how I do it now.

> How do you choose curricula or topics? I don't know whether to continue some things we have been doing and just gradually switch over or start all new at the beginning of the year.>>>

I'm not sure -- I've done both. You could continue math and that kind of subject using the same books you have been using... or keep your history or science book, but just use it as a "spine" or starting point, finding "real books" to supplement and develop the ideas.
> I guess I would like to see some one's working schedule with specific book titles and how their day goes to get an idea of how this plays out. I couldn't go the unschooling route, so I need some examples with more structure than that. I don't want to copy your schedules, just get some solid ideas!

Here's how I do it with my 8yo and 11yo.

They start their lesson time at about 9 am, after breakfast, chores etc. I read aloud to them (a book chosen for my 8yo's level-- presently reading Charlotte's Web) during breakfast. This is just for fun, no narration. Then I get my 11yo started on his math lesson, which takes about 10 minutes. He sets his timer for 20 minutes for independent work, and while he's working, I go over math with my 8yo. We do the bulk of his math together,using Miquon Math which is more manipulative and concept-oriented, and MCPMath which is more drill. We review past lessons for a couple of minutes. Then I give him a few problems to work on his own. In addition, I work with him for about 10 minutes on catechism and Latin vocabulary memorization.

Then he gets a short break while I start working with my 11yo. With him I work on very short lessons of Latin, Logic, Grammar and Greek (about 10 minutes each at most). That's his infusion of classical studies . Then he does his independent reading -- presently he is using Old World and America for a spine history text, reading Howard Pyle's King Arthur for literature, and Faith and Life and the Gospel of St Matthew & Schuster's Bible History for religion. I need to start him on a saint's biography because his religion is rather dry to him right now. His science I won't mention because it's not working very well -- so today I had him read one of
the simple science books from our shelves. I'll have to adjust this subject, I think. Both the kids do some informal nature study but we've never really had formal nature study in our school until high school level -- we do it more on an interest-based level of getting out the field guides, etc

Meanwhile, while he's reading, I am either working with the 8yo -- reading Child's History of the World, then a short language lesson (Primary Language Lessons, MCP Phonics, or CHC Language of God for Little Folks), then the 8yo does some silent reading of his own, OR I'm spending some time with the two preschoolers.

Finally, I hear my 6th grader's narrations and work with him on written narration/composition skills. He does some copywork either by hand or on the typewriter. The same then with my 3rd grader, except he doesn't write his own narrations. We try to finish by noon because in the afternoon I have to work with my 3 highschoolers (though two of them are pretty independent). Sometimes we have to pick it up in the afternoon, though, or sometimes a subject goes on longer than usual because of interest, and then I skip one of the other subjects.

> Also, when doing a topic for a month or so, could you read a book like Little Women to them if it has nothing to do with your subject at the time?

I think so!! Everything doesn't HAVE to be related to the main topic. If you think about how we *really* learn ourselves, we do sometimes get interested in a topic or need to find out more about it and so devote a lot of time to that topic, but we are usually learning other things at the same time as well. In fact, sometimes I read a book just for a change from whatever I'm focusing on. It can be almost stressful to concentrate just on one thing, especially if it's something not intrinsically interesting to that person.

> I also have a dawdler who doesn't really seem motivated by anything, and
we need to work on obedience in a major way!

Hmm, I don't have a dawdler right now. I do have kids who don't seem exactly motivated to do school and try to hurry through as fast as they can. I've tried interest-led learning, micro-managed -by -Mom learning, andeverything in between, and really what's worked best, though not ideally, is a balance between the two. I give them assignments -- what I sincerely think is valuable and worthwhile for them to learn -- but they can give me feedback, and I sometimes change my approach depending on whether their feedback is constructive or not. They know that if their feedback is negative -- whining, complaining disobedience, sloppy work -- that I won't be flexible unless they become more positive. It's my job also to be interested in what they are interested in, at least to some extent. That's the other side of the coin -- that I pay attention to what they like and enjoy, and I participate in their activities IF they want me to be involved.

My experience has been that a very young child wants to be interested in the things his mom is interested in, and really TRIES though he sometimes has a short attention span and some conceptual difficulties that make his job difficult. I really work in those ages on being flexible and sharing the learning experience rather than pushing through X pages of X book. I also work hard on making each lesson end on success -- if they are struggling, I stop and go backwards to where their "comfort level" is, so they can restore their confidence level.

A slightly older child, ages 9 to 13 or so, seems to have a latent and argumentative period. They don't want to be challenged very much, they ask "Why do I have to learn this?", they seem to want to get off with the minimum effort so they can go about their lives. But they are usually a lot more intellectually capable than the young child; they just don't seem to want to be pushed too much. They want equilibrium, it seems, at least in my experience. I try to challenge them a little and build some perseverance, but I do also try to take into account that this is a transition period intellectually and they need lots of down time. Physical activity -- sports etc -- and household jobs are a good alternate way to build fortitude and a cooperative spirit at that age.

Then a teenager, again in my experience, seems to get past the "latent" period and develop strong academic or creative impulses. They may still argue or even rebel, but they usually have their own ideas about what learning *should* be, even if their ideas are still immature. They often develop a strong interest in something which carries them through and provides motivation for the less pleasant subjects, and they have usually internalized some type of sense of duty, though sometimes it's hard to see. Some of them get restless and want to test themselves in the real world more and more, and it *seems* like rebellion when it may just be frustrated or poorly channelled energy and drive. Often they want to do things their own way, rather than the mom's. But you can have really great discussions with teenagers -- they are honest and idealistic.

And usually, at that point you can see the time and effort you spent in their younger years bearing some fruit. My teenagers will say things that make me realize that the books they complained about or seemed to half-listen to in the younger years were really being absorbed very deeply. Just one example -- I read "If All the Swords of England" to my 10 and 12yo several years ago. They seemed to squirm through it, especially my then 10yo -- but now she tells me it was pivotal in her spiritual life and made her realize the glory of being a witness or martyr (it's about ST THomas Becket). I would never have predicted that outcome and thought the book was mostly a wash for her. I have other, similar examples. So my thought is that that 9 to 13yo age is a foundation age for building a worldview, even though it's easy for the mom to get discouraged and think absolutely nothing is sinking in -- that all the kid wants to do is argue or slip out of things.

Sorry this got so long, and I hope some of it makes sense -- please take what is useful and discard the rest, because families are so different and what works for one may not work for another -- I've sure found that out during the years.

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