Notes On Education

I have barely scratched the surface of my reading/viewing list from the Schools of Conscience meeting. The quick and easy bits were… well, quick and easy, and led me to such tangents as Benjamin Zander’s “The transformative power of classical music” (which is not only about classical music, but still was mostly for fun).

Slightly more time-consuming, but still fairly light and fun, has been Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. His arguments match Dave’s and my own experiences, which we’ve discussed extensively (we’re very interested in why we do what we do, and often have conversations along the lines of “I was watching myself react to such-and-such today, and I noticed…”). So although I wasn’t aware of most of the specific research he cited, some of it was familiar, and his overall conclusions were enjoyable but not surprising to me. I wish I’d read that book back when I was taking my Software Engineering (i.e., project management) class in grad school, for the professor’s notions of human motivation were decidedly old-school.

(Drive did make me think a lot about homeschooling, for that’s the endeavor in my life where my motivations are trickiest. But that’s something I’ll need to chew on a bit more.)

I also recently finished A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century. That had been a general homeschooling read, not something I got from the Schools of Conscience meeting, but it connects in via one of its major points: that teachers do not educate; students educate. The fundamental work and drive come from the student, and if we ignore that we can fall into the trap of thinking that teachers have all the power, and students just passively receive information. My own experience is that learning something, regardless of how challenging it is, feels natural and enjoyable as long as I can find my own intrinsic motivation for doing so. If I’m only doing it to please someone else or to pass a class… well, I can still learn it long enough to write it down on the test, but it isn’t fun and the information gets shuffled out of my brain almost immediately.

This is not to say that teachers can’t be great mentors, for they can. One of my greatest mentors (after my parents) was an English teacher named Miss Smith, who was so good at opening up the world of literature to her students that I still enjoy Shakespeare and remember the power of The Grapes of Wrath. In Thomas Jefferson Education, mentoring is a critical process; but learning still relies fundamentally on the student. If we believe that model, though, it makes you wonder about systems where a teacher is “graded” based on how well his students do on a test…

What I haven’t made much headway on has been the charter school information. Don Berg was kind enough to point me toward reports on various aspects of the charter school system in this state and nationwide, and I’ve been trying to get a handle on how different states manage charters and how well the system works. (In New Orleans there are apparently only charter schools, which I find fascinating but have not yet looked into.) I went into the Schools of Conscience meeting all fired up to learn about the system and work on how to change it, but Don seems to feel that isn’t the nearest-term goal; and I’m starting to agree with him.

There’s a fun graphic at the Center for Education Reform that touches on charter schools. They have what they call a Parent Power Index, which takes into account various things like charter schools, transparency, etc, and by which they rate each state. Oregon and Washington both get D’s. I take their analysis with a grain of salt; their perspective on Teacher Quality definitely does not follow a Thomas Jefferson Education perspective!

Bee Houses

On my (vast) mental list of Household And Garden Projects has been, for a long time, making bee houses. We have a reasonable native bee population in this area — at least, I think we do, since I see them around all the time — and I’d love to encourage them. I’d love to encourage anything that increases the yield of my garden.

Bee houses for cavity dwelling wild bees are supposed to be crazy easy to make, and I mentioned this to the boys one day while we were talking about various kinds of bees (specifically about how the wild bees are unlikely to sting you, or even in some cases incapable of it). To my great astonishment they wanted to make the bee houses right now.

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So we did make one — a rougher, not-quite-ideal version than the sort I have in mind long-term, but one that could be made in the moment. We had a log too crooked to split for firewood; we drilled a scattering of holes in it, with both Nathan and Ryan helping; and now it remains only to see if anything will take up residence this year.

This skill, by the way — of choosing an easy version of the project rather than the more elaborate one I have in mind — does not come easily to me. But, as more than one person has pointed out, our children are our best teachers.

Schools Of Conscience

I went to the first meetup of Schools Of Conscience last night. I’d gone in wondering if the conversation wouldn’t be just sort of fluffy, a general hash of “wouldn’t-it-be-wonderful if schools nurtured better.” I left impressed by the depth of research Don Berg appears to have done, the breadth of knowledge other members brought to the table, and with a long list of topics to look into so that I can get up to speed.

And I came away with enthusiasm. I’m excited to pursue this concept further, even though my kids theoretically don’t stand to benefit from it — after all, we’ve specifically worked to keep them in nurturing environments. But there are an awful lot of kids out there, and I haven’t forgotten my own school days. (Check out this great TED talk by Peter Gray which mentions some of how school has changed since the 50’s!)

Trying to have even a small influence on a big system can be daunting. But, as many people have said in many ways, failing to try is the only real failure.

Another Tie

…this one a bow tie. We scored a better jacket at the thrift store, too. Now Nathan really, really wants a top hat.

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The Beans’ Last Hurrah

Play beans seemed like such a good idea — inexpensive sensory play, totally simple and absorbing and engaging. When I first put together my little play bean kit (when Nathan was two), it consisted of several pounds of dried beans and some containers from Goodwill, and I loved it. Simple! Engaging! Over time it has morphed into a big plastic tub of beans, with a sheet to be spread beneath the tub for (theoretically) easy cleanup, but the core (the beans) remains the same. It is still simple and engaging.

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And messy. Because no matter how assiduously I hover over the children involved, whether they’re one year old or eight, there is a very limited span of time in which they’re happy with the beans being in the bin. Then other questions surface: Can I pour these out? Splash in them? Throw them? Stomp them? Pretend that my hand is lightning striking them?

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I’ve come to really hate those beans.

Which is why, after reluctantly pulling them out again a few weeks ago, I came to a decision: they have to go. They’d been sitting in the bottom of the closet for so long, with my discouraging their use, that I finally admitted I will never want them out. I hate scraping them off the carpet. I hate the fact that for weeks after every use, beans pop up in random places. When Mica started picking them out of her diaper, I realized that this was stupid. It might be wonderful, healthy sensory play, the sort that every parenting magazine seems to think is love-in-a-bucket, but I am just not the sort of parent that grins and shrugs at beans all over the place.

Initially I just wanted to dump them, but then I realized I might be able to get one last bit of use from them. So I planned a grand finale for the beans, with the absolute most important requirement that it take place outside. We’ve had two 90-degree days lately, so why not?

I added water to the bin as an extra incentive and let the kids loose on them. This time there was no reason to hold back. Throw them, kids! Scatter them everywhere! Let them sprout into lawnmower-chow!

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Trampoline

Our living room rope swing has been down for a while — the bolt holding it to the ceiling finally stripped out. (Not coincidentally, the largest of the neighborhood kids was on it when it went.) For some time our living room has been considerably tamer than usual. But on a recent visit to a thrift store, we scored a trampoline!

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I don’t know how long it will last; we got it with two of the springs already broken, and a third went pretty quickly. But in the meantime it’s just the right kind of get-some-energy-out entertainment.

It’s small enough that the kids recently dragged it into their room, and turned it into a bed. This greatly intrigued Mica, who spent some time snuggling with each of her brothers. Baby snuggles are the best.

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Easter Eggs

Last year there was much hiding and finding of plastic eggs filled with candy for Easter, which was fun except that I was always the filler and hider, and after a while that felt like a lot of eggs. I remember thinking that I needed a way to make this holiday a little simpler for myself. Which is why it is so inexplicable that this year I made large paper mache eggs filled with treats.

This project was an excellent learning experience — in particular, I learned to do at least a couple solid layers before popping the balloon. so that the thing wouldn’t collapse under its own moistened weight. Also I learned never to do paper mache while the baby is awake. And probably I should have stopped at three layers total, because those things had some real strength to them. Belatedly googling for paper mache eggs ideas, I discovered someone doing smaller, more delicate eggs along a similar vein. Tissue paper sounds much easier to manipulate than newspaper. Maybe next year…

But I have to admit that hiding the eggs was easier this year — all I had to do was find one spot big enough for an ostrich egg, and done! We did one at a time, I let each of the boys help me with the other one’s egg, and the whole hiding and finding process took only about fifteen minutes. Then came the real challenge: getting the eggs open. Stomping them was eventually determined to yield the best results.

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Happy Easter!

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