Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dragons and Trails

Kieron (age 11) is quite interested in dragons right now, so I was ransacking our library system for books about dragons that I thought he would enjoy (Amazon is a great partner for this kind of search because the reviews and booklists usually give me an idea of what kind of book it is and who would want to read it).

Anyway, while searching online, I found Chicken Spaghetti's list of dragon books and resource ideas (including Theresa and Superboy's Dragon Notebook)

I am in planning mode, you see; it won't last forever, but it's fun while it lasts. But I like to have more ideas than I can actually use.

I've (finally)found a way to deal with unit studies that works for me and my family. My husband, kids and I all tend to have a few interests going on at the same time -- moving from one to another. We don't usually focus on just ONE. What is more, we usually tend to be focusing on a couple of skills or methods at the same time. For example, I just read three modern fiction books in three days. But before that, the last fiction book I read was two or three months ago. Also -- we like to follow a "golden thread" through an interest, rather than plan it out all ahead of time.

But while I feel a bit claustrophobic if I follow a unit exactly or just follow one unit at a time, the rich treasurehouse of unit study plans that are out there CAN provide a sourcebook of possible ideas and activities and booklists, and so that is what I've been getting out of unit studies recently. Lightbulb moment! (As my 11 year old said dryly about his 4 year sibling, "He should dress up as Captain Obvious for Halloween." Well, me too. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to an idea that everyone else has figured out immediately)

So with units---- I find that if I have a few thought out a bit, and we move from one to another during a given time frame, it works better than just focusing on one at a time. This is how we worked with Giotto/Shakespeare last term. We never did get to the architecture (but there's still 2/3 of a year left..).

For me, it also works well if I have a theme. Not just a topic but something to think about with regard to the topic. This is difficult to explain, though I tried a bit in my post about Literature Themes. It seems to help me keep on track -- this year, the theme is about exploration and discovery -- there is a wide field, indeed! but when I am planning and sorting, I am looking for ideas to do with exploration and broadening horizons. And so that is somewhat the method I am using too -- trying to explore, and keep lots of options so there is an abundant choice.

One more thing that works for me -- tacking unit studies onto Everything Else, not vice versa. I know that I read a lot of unit study books and articles that say that units should incorporate Everything Else. But for me, units become painful if they are academic vehicles. For me, they work better as occasions of delight, that we can feel good about doing for variety or enrichment or family closeness, but drop without hesitation if they are not going anywhere. In this regard, I like the way Andrew Campbell explains Non Multa sed Multum :

Does this mean that students will go through thirteen years of schooling never cracking an English novel? Are we denying our children the pleasure of floating down the river with Rat and Mole, bursting with excitement when Almanzo wins first prize for his milk fed pumpkin, or pushing past a row of old coats to step into the Narnian winter? Of course not. What it does mean is that we apply the principle of multum non multa in selecting schoolbooks. The streamlined classical curriculum leaves plenty of time for other pursuits, including reading for pleasure and discovery. It is in these hours that students can sail the seas to Treasure Island, sit in the drawing rooms of Austen and Trollope, thrill to the daring escapades of the Scarlet Pimpernel, march with the Roman legions in Eagle of the Ninth, circle the globe with Phileas Fogg, or experience the angst of modern dystopias in 1984 and Brave New World.

To say it briefly, my family and I have decided that if we are going to float down the river with Rat and Mole, we want to ...float. Not necessarily study vocabulary words, or estimate how many miles they floated, or research the water habits of rats and moles (though I could see how any of these COULD become a delight-directed project; I'm talking here about artificially dragging in all the cross-curricular connections just so the unit can be a comprehensive academic experience).

With the dragons, I have in mind to strew the books and see which ones he would like to do, and I bought a Sculpey model kit with a dragon and knights that I expect this particular 11 year old will delight in. But there is a point, difficult to define precisely (since some kids might hate sculpey kits while others might enjoy writing a dragon story using their vocabulary words or something that my kids would hate) where it would not be just "floating" but be a confusion between utilitarian and liberal.

In that way, I feel very much as Charlotte Mason did (summarized by the DHM at the Common Room in a Charlotte Mason Tutorial; the words are the DHM's)

And if I might insert a suggestion- excepting the historical connections, do not try too hard to otherwise correlate the books one with another in a unit study approach. Charlotte Mason really isn't a unit study. In fact, she didn't care for them much. She thought that children should have a _wide_ variety of material to stir their interest and keep it sharp. She felt that too much of a muchness would sort of dull their interest. If everything they study for weeks at a time is all about apples or Robinson Crusoe (two hilarious examples CM used), they rather quickly tire of it.

The idea with a CM education is that the parent/teacher spreads the banquet, and then does less so that the student can do more- the student discovers and builds her own connections with the material. This is lovely to see.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if Kieron would like it but there is a rather interesting dragon character in the After Hamelin book we read recently. there is a quite funny scene in which one of the other characters mentions being glad that he doesn't breath fire and he is horrified that anyone would even think this of dragons.

You might enjoy that book, actually. Very creative.

I like your thoughts on unit studies. I think it is that instrumental and efficient thing that bothers me about them, too. As if everything we do must have some instrumental purpose and we should be efficient about our learning (so making sure we get all those connections in is an efficiency thing). Not really the best principles for organizing education, I don't think.

Us! said...

I have that same feeling in my gut about unit studies, but you summarized it so well. I want to enjoy the little trails we go off on together- and when I NEED it to fit into an educational picture my kids are very quickly off that path! Those little comprehensive units are a no go around here (I think part of this is that the idea of making our enjoyment 'educational' always seems forced to me!).

Great thoughts again Willa....

Theresa said...

Very well put, Willa. Perhaps it is for this reason I have never been attracted to any pre-packaged unit-studies, commercial or otherwise. And also why my unit-studies, no matter how well-planned, always, always go astray. They never end up being what I originally envision them to be, but if I allow myself and my son the flexibility of following his interests, and don't get too attached to my plans, they somehow usually end up being what ds needs.