Monday, October 31, 2011


Teachers want to inspire curiosity in their students. Homeschooling parents want to allow their children's curiosity to remain untrammeled by brick-and-mortar school practices. Is curiosity really all that important?

According to this study, curiosity is just as important as conscientiousness in predicting good academic performance. I don't doubt it, having been pestered by dd4 for weeks until I finally helped her build a crane out of spools, wood, and tape today; she got the idea from a book of science projects she likes to browse. She and dd7 have since discussed what simple machines are incorporated into the crane.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Carnival of Homeschooling is up!

And this time, I put something in it (the post below on music). You can find the Carnival of Homeschooling #303 at this link at Small World.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Music Education

My mother had a goal for each of her ten children to learn to play the piano and one other instrument--preferably a string instrument, for she was rather snobby about instruments and viewed band instruments as what one plays when the school doesn't have an orchestra. She was a bit like a Chinese tiger mother when it came to music, but at least she never threatened to burn our toys if we didn't play a piano piece correctly. As part of a sibling package deal, she got free violin lessons for me from a Suzuki teacher when I was in kindergarten, so music has been a part of my life for over thirty years now.

Because my life has been greatly enriched by music, I want my children to have the same chance to learn to love making music and develop appreciation for the effort involved in creating an excellent music performance. (I'd also like them to reserve standing ovations for truly excellent performances instead of every bloomin' performance they ever attend, but I'd be fighting a losing battle on that....)

Recently I have been worrying that my efforts to bring music into my children's lives have been insufficient. (Shocker! A homeschooling mother wondering if she's doing enough!) My shortcoming: I have yet to sign my children up (ages 1, 4, and 7) for any formal music lessons. I don't want to force dd7 to practice just yet; I have too many negative memories of my mom yelling at us to get us to practice. However, I will not pay for music lessons until dd7 is capable of practicing regularly and diligently mostly on her own. But time is passing, and her brain needs to get wired for music before she is too much older.

Dd7 has had some music instruction through her part-time institutional schooling. I started teaching her to play the piano last year, but progress was slow and she had little enthusiasm. Later I labeled notes on the piano and gave her cards with "mystery songs" to figure out; that was intriguing for a couple of days. I think I am having greater success now with a different instrument. Recently I rediscovered a recorder instruction book in the bookcase, and now dd7 is learning to play the recorder. I'm pleased to see how she is finally putting together what she's learned about melodies, note length, and music notation from various sources--I hope her interest in the recorder continues beyond mastering "Hot Cross Buns"!

I am hesitantly optimistic that we will make it through the entire recorder book. When we have done that, I will tackle piano lessons for her again. It should be much more fun for us both now that she is becoming better at reading music. Who knows? Maybe it will finally be worth signing her up with a professional teacher....And then what string instrument to start her on? (Actually, she can choose any instrument except the drums.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dorothy Sayers and TLTOL (part eight)

More Sayers ideas from her essay. This is a long excerpt, but it sums up the trivium.
Let us now look at the mediaeval scheme of education--the syllabus of the Schools. It does not matter, for the moment, whether it was devised for small children or for older students, or how long people were supposed to take over it. What matters is the light it throws upon what the men of the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of the educative process.

The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part--the Quadrivium--consisted of "subjects," and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.
Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these "subjects" are not what we should call "subjects" at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a "subject" in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language--at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to "subjects" at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself--what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language-- how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.
At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty. By this time, he would have learned--or woe betide him-- not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled. There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.

I love the idea of actually learning the basics of communication before being asked to communicate. It seems like we have a plethora of talk these days and a corresponding dearth of coherent usage of the English language. Of course, texting and tweeting are obvious examples of poor grammar and spelling. Yet even on news sites, one sees too many comments posted on newspaper articles by people who think profanity-laced, misspelled attacks are worth anyone's time. I don't think much of someone's opinion if they can't spell correctly, for that is an indication that he or she either received a poor education or is too arrogant or lazy to use a spell-checker before posting. I plan to teach my children to spell well and teach them as much information as practicable. Although Sayers doesn't seem concerned with pride, I also hope I succeed in teaching my children that they never know enough to be conceited about and satisfied with what they have learned; humility is such an important, though under-appreciated, virtue.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." - Benjamin Franklin

Some mornings it is very difficult to get going on schoolwork, getting dressed, etc. Because my husband doesn't have to be to work until around 8 a.m. and we live a few minutes from his workplace, the girls and my pregnant self don't get up until he heads off to work. We adults have been going to bed by 10:30 p.m. recently, so I think we are doing the "early to bed" part of Franklin's maxim, but somehow "early to rise" just isn't happening.

Generally, it's easy to feed myself and the children breakfast, but moving on to schoolwork is a struggle most days. The girls want to play with toys or read books, I want to check the news in the world, and the schoolwork doesn't usually get started until after 9 a.m. There is a bright side to our late starts - the girls seem to recover from colds fairly quickly, and we adults are less susceptible to getting them at all. I'm appreciative of the health, but I need to bestir myself earlier if I want to increase our family's wisdom and wealth. Perhaps 10:30 p.m. isn't early enough? (When did I get so old??)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dorothy Sayers and TLTOL (part seven)

Here's another short meditation on a segment of this influential essay by Dorothy Sayers.

Is not the great defect of our education today--a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned--that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play "The Harmonious Blacksmith" upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized "The Harmonious Blacksmith," he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle "The Last Rose of Summer." Why do I say, "as though"? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this--requiring a child to "express himself" in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to "give himself the feel of the tool."

The point of beginning with basic skills is one that I think people need to consider when looking at second (or third) language acquisition curricula. Because young children learn so well from immersion in a foreign language, many think that immersion will be sufficient and/or superior in teaching languages to older students and adults. But young children have shorter working memories, and when immersed in a foreign language, they actually break down what they hear into smaller chunks for themselves and learn those chunks. Older children and adults, with their increased working memories, are able to learn whole sentences and conversations, but that doesn't mean that is the best way for them to learn a language. I've learned a few languages as an adolescent and adult, and my experience was that it was more effective for me to memorize vocabulary and grammar rules and then practice using them to become competent in communicating in and reading/writing a new language, while language tapes of conversations were useful mostly just for learning pronunciation and idiomatic expressions.

Not as pertinent to the Sayers paragraph above, but something that I dislike in general is the heavy emphasis on giving students assignments where they are supposed to "express themselves". First, do we really want teachers grading a child on his/her expression of his/herself? I'd rather teachers evaluate academic and physical skills. Second, students are typically young, with limited knowledge of the world. I was quite frustrated in elementary school and beyond by creative writing assignments. I remember thinking sometime in 2nd-4th grade, "I don't know how to come up with something new. I'm just a kid! I don't know all the stuff that's been done before!" I had little to "express" when given a picture and a list of vocabulary words and told to produce a "creative" story based on the picture. Why didn't they instead say, "Write a story using these words and base it on the picture. We don't care if you're creative or as logical as Spock as long as you focus on writing as clearly and correctly as you can."? Creative expression, for those capable of it, should be its own reward, not an element of the assignment.