Friday, February 19, 2010

The Rhythm of Learning

"Life in its entirety is like a plant. The plant contains not only what it offers to external life; it also holds a future state within its hidden depths. One who has before him a plant only just in leaf, knows very well that after some time there will be flowers and fruit also on the leaf-bearing stem. In its hidden depths the plant already contains the flowers and fruit in embryo; yet by mere investigation of what the plant now offers to external vision, how should one ever tell what these new organs will look like? This can only be told by one who has learnt to know the very nature and being of the plant." - From The Education of the Child, Ruldolph Steiner.

In modern textbook education many subjects are taught one page or one chapter at a time. The teacher will set aside a couple hours to teach the children "how to do division" and then will assign problems and continue to assign problems with progressive difficulty. Or, a teacher may explain what the subjunctive is and then have children practice marking these in sentences. No matter what the subject, the rhythm is often standard - teach the subject, practice the problems, answer some questions, and students who don't understand get the lower grade.

What is missing in this method (and I call it a method rather than attaching it to a certain place of education or name of an educational philosophy because you can find this method in many different systems) is an understanding of the quote above. People bloom like plants. Children bloom like plants and blooming is not something that happens so instantaneously. One cannot touch a rose bud, chant a little and it will open. One must slowly coax it out into the sunlight with a little water, some gentle breeze, rays of sun and most importantly - time.

When a child is given this time to really get to know a subject and become comfortable with it the fear related to that subject will vanish and they will truly learn instead of just "learning enough" to get by and go on with the next subject. This means that as a teacher we must be patient.

The most important part of teaching is not always what the child is taught but how and when they are taught. The teacher first presents the material in a gentle way. The children are not expected to fully understand or be able to mimic the process at this point. In this stage the children are simply expected to "encounter" the material. The children are then given a day to reflect on this encounter either consciously and/or subconsciously (during sleep). This process typically takes one day but it could take more if you are teaching at home and have more freedom with time. If your child needs more than one day with this stage, consider giving them more time. Sometimes I may even go through all the stages with my child and if they still are not easily grasping the subject I will set it aside and come back to it again in a week or a month. Miracles often happen during that week or month!

From this encounter comes experience. The second day the child is asked to participate in the learning process either through verses, painting, drawing, copying from the board, movement or other tasks. However, there is still no pressure on them to actually completely understand the material or to be able to "spit it out" again onto a worksheet or during a test. This stage may last a few days. There may be stories, paintings, movement, and many other experiences related to this concept.

Finally, when it is the right time for the class (as I said before, teaching at home you have more freedom with this time-line) the experience naturally crystallizes into the concept itself. You will find that some children will "suddenly" understand the concept and will be able to explain it and complete tasks. Their "buds" in this topic have bloomed.

Other students may need more time. In this case you should give them more time. To force a bud to bloom before its time can result in the petals being ripped apart, and falling to the ground. It is often hard to recover this bud and create a whole and beautiful flower from it later. One can force the child to finish the worksheets and projects and "half-understand" the concepts but their flower will be filled with petals that are glued onto the stem, always falling off and having to be put back on...and some petals may be missing. This "flower" may hate the subject for the rest of their lives or develop a fear of performing in that subject that will prevent them from growing in other areas. Or, they may simply not feel an affinity to the subject and will find it undesirable the rest of their lives. This could be why some children grow up and don't enjoy reading books, writing letters to friends, or doing anything related to math.

Perception, feeling, idea - these are the three steps in the genuine learning process that prepares the intellect for the abstract and conceptual thinking that will become possible later in adolescence.

When I think of this in terms of rhythm I think of the first method being akin to a marching band. There is a strict drum rhythm and everyone needs to keep the beat - ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. When I think about the rhythm of Waldorf education I think more of the rhythm of a river...flowing instead of beating, with one idea flowing into another flowing into another and so on...until it reaches the ocean of adolescence.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Environmentally Responsible Valentine's Day

For Valentine's Day Sofi and I "adopted" a Koala on behalf of her friends, printed out a picture of "him" hugging a tree and made thank you cards for all of her friends.

Other years we have knitted flowers from local yarn and used sticks from the backyard as "stems" or created felt mice from hearts folded in half with knitted tails. There is always something creative you can do for holidays! And here are some good reasons to be creative...

From The Organic Consumers Union

Tis that time of year when more than 20 million Americans are buying sweets and flowers for their loved ones on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, these tokens of love aren't as sweet or pure as they may appear. Over 40 percent of the world's conventional chocolate (i.e. non-organic and non-Fair Trade) comes from Africa's Ivory Coast, where the International Labor Organization and US State Department have reported widespread instances of child slavery. Meanwhile, commercial flowers, most of which are produced in countries such as Colombia, are the most toxic and heavily sprayed agricultural crops on Earth. In order for you to deliver your bouquet to your beauty, poorly paid workers in Third World countries put in up to 18 hour work days for poverty wages during peak flower buying times such as Valentine's Day. But don't let the bad news squelch your Valentine's plans. Show your love by choosing Fair Trade and organic flowers and chocolate for your Valentine's Day gifts. Check out OCA's Buying Guide, watch an entertaining flash movie and take action against the 5 major chocolate and flower corporations:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Perfect Book for 8th/9th Grade Waldorf

I'm always on the lookout for interesting books I can use in home education. I'm pretty "picky" so new ones don't come along very often. My requirements are - they need to be interesting enough to capture the attention of a teenager (I have 13 and 15), they need to have enough information that I can justify taking my time away from something else to stop and share this book with my children, they need to fit into the natural progression of our Waldorf curriculum (see Waldorf 101 for a list of specific topics by grade) and it needs to cover more than just one topic. I am a great believer that educational topics span more than one category. You can't just study "American History" without "World History" and you can't study "Math" without art, design, architecture and so many other things. The last great book we shared was "The Physician" - it was an amazing historical fiction spanning the genres of medical history, European history and Middle Eastern and Asian history. And now I have discovered another gem - it is called "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and I can't put it down.

In this book, a science journalist, tells the story of an African-American woman who's cells became one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century. When I purchased the book I expected to read about how the cells had been discovered and how they managed to get the cells from her and perhaps what made her different from other people. I love reading about medical history so that is what I was expecting. I would have been pleased if it was mildly interesting and a quick read.

I was not expected to be so enraptured by the story that I could not put the book down. And on top of that this book contains a hunk of history that is often hard to teach to children. To make it even more perfect - it covers so many topics that are covered in the 8th grade Waldorf year - we are going to read it together even though my eldest is in 9th grade now.

Some highlights of this book:

* The author describes how cells work in a way that makes all scientific text books on the subject appear overly verbose (what a surprise lol ;) Her descriptions could encourage most anyone to get excited about cells.

* Her descriptions of African American history are refreshing - a new story - and told from a completely different point of view that the usual "required reading". Most required reading from this genre is written from an activist point of view or with the obvious purpose of creating awareness and/or sympathy. This story is written for the simple and honest reason of telling the story of a woman whose cells changed the world. Her history is only part of that story, which makes it all the more real and compelling.

* Other topics touched upon in the book are: agriculture, American History, medical history and more. And in each genre her descriptions are entertaining as well as highly educational. She has a gift for teaching in the most natural, organic way.

* The topic of how pap smears were invented and the history of cancer research was fascinating to me.

If you plan on reading this book with your older children please let us know so we can exchange ideas, thoughts and perhaps even extra reading or lesson extensions.

Note that the book is for older children as it does mention an early marriage, performing medical tests for pap smears, the cervix, diseases like syphilis and other more adult topics. There is nothing graphic, of course, it is all very scientific, but the topics come up naturally and kids will ask questions - so be prepared.

Here is another review of the book - I find it so interesting how every review of this book is so different: Boston Globe Review