03 April 2007

One Lump or Two?

I had a wonderful chat with a precious mom of seven this afternoon. As we talked, she shared some of her difficulties in teaching such a wide range of ages. She’s currently actively educating five of her brood, with a pre-schooler and a toddler in tow. She said she’s felt scattered lately. I understand her struggles.

I’ve found that, with a large family, the more I lump my children together (in other words, teach them all the same thing, even if they’re working at different levels) the more sane and the less scattered I feel.

This blending (or lumping) requires a different approach to evaluating curriculum. There are many good books and curricula on the market today. We are blessed and almost have too many choices. It can be overwhelming. Currently, in addition to evaluating the worldview and rigor of materials, I think about how I can use it at many levels at the same time. Even better, will it also allow me to combine two or more disciplines or subjects together at many different levels? (Talk about multi-tasking!)

Now, I don’t necessarily mean that my children are at different places in the same text book, although for independent studies (math and phonics), that works well. I mean that, if it’s something that we struggle to get to and I decide my direct involvement is necessary for learning to take place, I ask myself if there’s some way we can all work together, yet each at his own unique ability-level.

Here are a few specifics of what this looks like in our home:

We all study the same era of history. I can’t answer questions about Napoleon, Nero, and Nixon all in the same day...or the same week for that matter. Our oldest students’ Gileskirk study decides which era we’ll be studying each year.

Our literature studies are not approached and assigned by grade level. All my high schoolers read, discuss and write about one and the same book; all my middles read, discuss, and write about another. And our literature studies are dictated by our history studies. This year, we’re studying Christendom (a.k.a. “The Middle Ages”) and so all our literature selections were written during or are about Christendom.

The excerpts we analyze for our grammar studies (KISS Grammar but I don’t use the workbooks) come from the literature the kids are reading or, currently from Shakespeare’s plays as we’re working on a Shakespeare unit (ie. watching many versions of many plays and then discussing them). My little ones use portions of these same excerpts for their copywork. This cuts way down on my prep time. I love Project Gutenberg! I find the excerpt I want to use there and copy and paste it into a Pages document, format it with a larger font and triple-spaced for the olders, and with lines on the lower half of the page for the ones who are copying it, print them all out, and I’m done. My older students analyze the excerpt for more elements than my younger students, but the youngers listen in and glean what they can while the olders and I go through the more advanced work. When we watch the play, all the kids enjoy join in in reciting the lines from the monologue or dialogue they analyzed or copied. Another thing I love about KISS Grammar is the continual review. Students analyze for everything they’ve learned in the past while they practice new concepts.

The format for the writing that they’re doing for history and literature comes from The Lost Tools of Writing, although the topics are adapted from Veritas Press’s Omnibus II. Since the process is repeated for each essay with new bits added as the student progresses, I can use the Lost Tools techniques with all my kidlings, adding a new bit for each child as he’s ready, but we still work through the invention process together. And while we work on that invention process, we’re discussing history and literature.

As I re-read what I’ve written, it occurs to me that this may sound overwhelming and that’s not my intention. I added in one element at a time, using curricula that wasn’t necessarily the easiest to use until I found something that worked better. It was a process. I was willing to change, even in the middle of a school year if I thought the change would be beneficial in the long-run. And most of the time it was the right thing to do (not always, but we learn from out mistakes, right?)

If you can eliminate grade-level divisions from your thinking, and look at each discipline in terms of skills and each ‘subject’ as the context for learning those skills, many options open up for those of us teaching a larger brood.