12 August 2006

Last Things First: An Integrated Plan for Education, by Laura Berquist

While I didn’t agree with everything Dr. Berquist said, she did give me some things to chew on. As before, my rabbit trails are in italics (maybe I should’ve called this blog “The Rabbit Trail”?):

As teachers, we need not just know truth, but how to pass on that truth to our students. The point of education is to know God. The primary purpose of education is to teach our students how to think and this requires an understanding of the human soul. We are working toward not just the passing on of information, but the formation of the mind. This reminds me of Andrew Kern: “Education is not the communication of facts from one mind to another; it is the communication of ideas from one soul to another.”

There is a time and purpose for everything. There is a right time for thinking about subjects and a right way to think about them at their given time in order to produce the right formation. For example: 13 is too young to read Anna Karenina. Instead teachers should explore where their students are in more depth instead of trying to cover ground the students aren’t ready for. Reading certain books or exposure to certain material too soon will make a student less likely to do it well and with understanding; students may also find it uninteresting.

I agree with this to a point, but not to the extent that Dr. Berquist seems to take it, or maybe that some of The Wild Bunch took it. I think that we most definitely need to evaluate our students in terms of moral and emotional readiness for certain books, not just academic readiness. However, I believe in setting the bar high. My students aren’t afraid to read harder books because they’ve been reading Jane Austen and watching Shakespeare for pleasure for years. And even if they don’t fully understand a work the first time they read it, that’s okay, as long as they realize they don’t fully understand it. If they read the book in the company of someone who loves it, they are more likely to love it and go back to it again and again, understanding more of it each time. I also think an early familiarity with a great book will help them understand it better in the future.

However, last year in our co-op we read Aristotle’s Poetics and most of the kids weren’t ready for it. They came away from the experience thinking that Aristotle is boring or that they don’t have what it takes to understand him. My heart still sinks when I think about it and I saw this most definitely as a call to discernment in deciding which books my students should read. Just because it’s on a curriculum booklist, doesn’t mean that it’s the right time for my particular student to read it.

I think it’s also imperative that the person leading the book discussion (or teaching the book, if you will) be a lover of that particular work. So if there’s a book on our list that I don’t love, it’s better for us to skip it and substitute something else good and beautiful and appropriate that I do love, rather than to subject my students to an experience that just may ruin the work for them for life.

But I need to be open to learning more about those works that I’m not particularly fond of,  for the problem may very well reside in me. I want to stand on the shoulders of those giants who came before. I must remember that I’m still in the process of training my affections to love that which is good (more about that in future posts!).

Dr. Berquist went on to discuss the vicarious experience we gain from reading the great books and stated that reading them helps us see through the eyes of the author. Our children also need life experience to bring to the great books to increase their understanding of them, one of these things being natural history or natural science. In other words, have children interact with nature.

We must also allow time for reflection. We need to be careful that our and our students’ schedules aren’t so full that there’s no time to think, reflect, and wonder. “Be still and know that I am God.” This was a major theme of the conference and a major theme that Andrew’s been propounding for all the years I’ve known him. Take time to reflect. Better to read a few works deeply than to skate over the surface of lots of books. Multum non multa. This has had a huge impact on me and is becoming a dominant theme of our next school year.

We want to dispose our children to classical education. This goes back to the situation in our co-op I described above. The kids in families who aren’t necessarily classically-minded may have come away from reading Poetics with a bad taste, not just for Aristotle, but for classical education in general.

In the younger years, we dispose dispose our students to classical education by means of strengthening their memory, observation, and sequencing skills in the concrete so they can be used in the abstract later.
  • “What is the main point in this paragraph?”
  • “How did this author arrive at his main argument?”
  • “What does this mean?”
  • “What is the topic sentence in this paragraph?”
  • “Tell me the story. What happened next? And after that? And then?”
over and over and over and over and over…

We must expose them to Shakespeare and ask them to memorize soliloquies and monologues from his plays. I’ve found that, if our kids don’t know that Shakespeare is supposed to be hard, they don’t think it is. I don’t have my children read Shakespeare, but watch him, either local stage productions or DVD’s. As they watch Much Ado About Nothing or Henry V, they memorize Benedick’s and Beatrice’s monologues and the St. Crispin’s Day speech, as well as the dialogue from various scenes to recite together the same way they memorize dialogue from Finding Nemo, Newsies, and Pirates of the Caribbean 1. It becomes a natural and joyous part of life. I didn’t realize how much my kids had memorized until we were in Coos Bay. Outside our rented yurt was the stump of a large tree which our kids used as a stage, acting out various monologues and scenes, mostly from Shakespeare that they had learned in an informal and natural way. (Note to self: get Midsummer Night’s Dream (the one with Robert Lindsay) from Netflix again…the little girls have been asking for it.)

Remember that one of our goals is to prepare our children for continual education throughout life. We must also include the truths of the faith to develop the powers of their souls.

Formation comes from method. We must decide upon the goal and then plan the steps to get there. There are three general goals of education.
  • Movement from ignorance to knowledge
  • Refining of the tools of thinking
  • Application what you know
Content and Method: Of the two, method is more important. A statue can be made of anything (in other words, its content can be of marble, glass, bronze, sand, or jello), but it is the shape of it that determines what it is (my grandmother and not a horse).

There is a natural order of learning. It is crucial in the younger years to develop our children’s imagination, which is the faculty of making and receiving images. Imagination is a necessary tool of the mind, but we want an imagination that does what it’s told to do.

The dialectic stage is the time to teach our students how to summarize and analyze. Don’t make them analyze if they’re not ready. Give them the right objects to argue about.

No materials will be effective if used improperly. We must train our students to observe. We ask questions about the object to teach them to observe. Here are some of the methods she recommends:

  • Show students a picture for 30 seconds, then ask them
 to draw it from memory.
  • Sequencing for very young children: first read a short
 text, the next day narrate it, then the day after that
 copy it. It doesn’t have to be copied in its entirety;
 one sentence will do if that’s all your student is able to 
do. It’s important to separate composition (the 
 narration) from the physical act of writing when they’re just learning how to write.
  • It’s about the process rather than the finished product in the young years. Yes, I’ve known this sequence for years, 
but never did it because I was always disappointed with the 
 final result. Dr. Berquist reminded me that it’s not about the result, but the process, and that process should be repeated over and over and over and over and…well, you get 
 the picture. This perfectionist never had the patience for this.
 Laura’s reminder about process was priceless to me and will show itself to be priceless to my children. I think I can now relax and enjoy the process. It comes back to leisure - which is the next session I’ll write about.
  • Use beautiful pictures in beautiful books: The Golden Press Bible, Edith Nesbitt’s retelling of Shakespeare
  • Use books with the understanding that the
 information contained therein is formative and that the language should be challenging.
  • In the dialectical stage we should tackle Latin in order for our students to learn basic language principles (which may have been the title of a book - I need to check that out). Latin grammar trains the mind; it’s not about speaking (although I might argue that the ability to read Roman and Medieval works in the original language is a definite benefit).
  • The dialectical stage also emphasizes the importance of discussion to exercise our students’ thinking ability.
  • The rhetorical stage consists of understanding and presenting and argument. In order to truly understand an argument and be able to argue effectively, it is important to learn both sides of the argument.
I don’t think Dr. Berquist was dismissing the subject view of the trivium in her presentation. She did, however, help me to see areas that I need to work on with my children. I was doing okay in the content, but have much work to do on the method side of things. I came away with a desire, not for more curriculum or another program, but to simplify my use of the curriculum I have. That in itself was a burden lifted from my shoulders as were her admonitions not to ask my children to do what they are not yet capable of doing. I think this workshop laid some foundation for what I was to hear next from James Daniels.

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