Saturday, April 30, 2011

Letting a Young Man Take the Helm of His Education

This week I made a promise to my son.  He doesn't know about it yet-maybe I just won't even tell him.  Aspen is fifteen years old and has hit a point in his education which I think most, if not all, young men eventually hit.  Hit is a particularly good word to use, because we are not talking about a bump in the road here.  We are talking about a brick wall.  Somewhere along the road to scholarship my wonderful young man has lost his footing.  

More than any other goal for my homeschool, my desire is to have my children walk into their adult lives with a love of books, not just any books, but the truly great books.  As well, I want them to love non-fiction, because it is through this broad genre that they will become well-rounded lifelong learners.  To my great distress I am failing, in this my primary goal, with regards to my once avid, eldest student.  Furthermore, the most disheartening aspect of failing him is how magnified that feeling becomes when I look into the faces of all his younger siblings.  

Our curriculum is whole book, as opposed to text book or anthology, based.  For certain subjects, such as science and math, we use a more structured approach, but history and literature are not taught in dry paragraphs and excerpts.  How does one feel the power of an event presented as dates, places, and names?  The power of history to move students is born in the realization that people-with families, faith, dreams, and talents-are the fundamental components in the story of our universe.  How do readers grasp the glorious complexity of a well crafted novel if all they read are snippets, taken out of context?  A great work of literature is an aggregate of too many elements to be adequately rendered in a fragmented state.  I remain convicted that this approach is a good one; so why am I loosing my son?  And what can I do to not only get him back on the path to learnedness, through a balanced program of study, but also help open up once again the tap of discernment and wisdom which will flow from a lifetime of self-motivated reading?

Every so often my well, as a mother and a homeschool teacher, verges upon empty.  Invariably in these moments of exhaustion, my gracious Heavenly Father sends me my very own balm of Gilead.  Enter Adam Hailstone, Andrew Pudewa, and Brian Wasko-compliments of our local homeschool conference.  Adam Hailstone is a teacher with the classically based online school, Williamsburg Academy.  Andrew Pudewa is the founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, a commonly used curriculum among home schoolers.  Brian Wasko is the founder of Write At Home, an online writing program.  These three men, over the course of two days, mentored me; each of them taught me specific, individual lessons and collectively they reinforced in me one overriding precept.

The workshop which afforded me the biggest eureka moment was without a doubt one taught by Adam Hailstone entitled "The 15-Year-Old Challenge".  Two Powerpoint slides were all it took.  For the past several years I have expected my son to meet a bi-weekly accountability schedule.  Every couple of weeks (or so) he is expected to turn in all of his assignments, completed in compliance with the detailed lesson plans which I provided him two weeks previously.  Mr. Hailstone presented a table of realistic expectations for accountability; I discovered that my expectations for my son have been grossly unreasonable.  During many of these years that I have presumed my son to be responsible enough for bi-weekly liability, I should have been requiring it of him on a daily basis.  Even now, at fifteen, he is barely on the verge between daily and weekly answerability.  In short, I have set my son up to fail as a direct result of expecting more than a student of his age should realistically be challenged to deliver.

Another concept presented by Mr. Hailstone, while not new to me, has never been laid out in such step-by-step fashion.  That concept is a system of goals and commitments.  Like most home schoolers, we set annual goals for those things which we hope to accomplish in a given year.  Mr. Hailstone maintains that this is not nearly enough and advocates every student having a weekly appointment with a "Running Partner" during which the student writes out what he or she commits to do in each aspect of their education for the coming week.  In addition, the student outlines a few "above and beyond" type of goals for which they would like to strive.  Aspen, in other words, writes out his lesson plans-not Mom, and they are based upon his own motivations.  The key is that the student must choose a Running Partner who knows that student's capabilities and insures that they stretch them-self.

I had the pleasure of attending, as my first event of the conference, Andrew Pudewa's marvelous keynote address.  With charm, wit, and common sense, Mr. Pudewa eased my burden by reminding me that my kids are normal and a sense of humor will take me a long way.  He presented a fascinating view of motivation within a home school, based upon the relevancy which students attach to given activities, and gave some concrete tips for achieving the results we all hope for.  In a later workshop he expressed an opinion which, for some reason, came as a surprise to me.  While he agrees that students need to learn to write literary analysis essays as part of a comprehensive writing curriculum, he hates them personally, believes students hate them, and feels that students would get more benefit out of their literature if they did not spend so much time dreading the looming expectation of their teacher for them to expound upon it ad-nauseum in essay format.  What an odd thing for a writing guru to say, I thought.  And then I attended Brian Wasko's "Great Books for Regular Students" workshop.

Prior to beginning an online writing program, Mr. Wasko was a high school literature teacher.  His enthusiasm for fine literature is thoroughly contagious.  I felt myself to be in the presence of a kindred soul and loved every second of his inspiring class.  Even my seven year old remarked upon how much fun Mr. Wasko had talking about books.  God was certainly using the technique, often used in the scriptures, of more than adequate repetition of those salient points which He felt I needed to learn.  In solidarity with Mr. Pudewa, Mr. Wasko stressed the importance of letting students read!  No essays, no worksheets, no pressure.  Discuss their reading by playing off what the student loved about a given work.  If they thought the plot was insipid, but loved the characters, then discuss the characters.  In all likelihood they will read a book later with weak characters and a masterfully crafted plot.  I have been feeling nudged in that direction by the Spirit, but the confirmation of my impulse to cover more novels by spending less time writing about them was very liberating.

One prominent motif floated through all three of these gentlemen's presentations: the advantage of letting the students manage their educational pathway on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Hailstone contends that the students will learn to be more accountable because they are their goals, not Mom's.  The assertion that a student's natural industriousness and creativity will flow if they are allowed to follow a path of their choosing is a central tenant of Mr. Pudewa's philosophy.  Applying the same idea to literature, Mr. Wasko believes that it is more important for students to love what they read, so they are inspired to read more great books, than to drill every aspect of every novel into disinterested minds.

My spirit has gone through a renovation thanks to these fine educators.  Concepts that have flirted on the periphery of my educational philosophy have now become axioms which I feel empowered to embrace.  I pledge to finally change those aspects of our home school which are, and have been for some time, irretrievably broken.  What Aspen studies will now be up to him, and he will be responsible for setting his weekly commitments and goals.  In exchange I pledge to faithfully meet with him every week to hold him accountable and be his cheerleader when he succeeds.  Rather than working solely off my opinions about what is relevant, I will honor his need to feel included in the decision making process with regards to what he studies.  Finally, I set him free to read for the sheer experience of it-to let him join the Great Conversation on his own terms, to learn what he may from the great thinkers and writers, unhindered by narrow composition requirements.  

And so we return to the promise I made to my son.  Just as every teenage boy hits a brick wall in his educational progression, every mother reaches a scary point when she realizes that it is time to let her son begin to become his own man.  I promise to let him go, to let him grow, to let him take the helm of his ship of learning, according to reasonable expectations of his abilities.  I commit to being there to help navigate when he needs me and to redirect his course when he flounders.  Above all else, I thank my Heavenly Father for the opportunity to be there to celebrate with him as he begins to take ownership of the life journey which his Father has granted him.

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