Our October learning traced a map of streams and waterfalls. For days at a time it felt like formal learning came as a trickle: writing was avoided. The suggestion of reading lessons nearly induced tears. Even reading aloud was protested in favor of elaborate pretend games outside, and lengthy inscrutable art projects.
Of course, I could have insisted that the lessons happen anyway. Instead I waited, uncertain but hopeful.
Then, suddenly a waterfall: a full page poem written on inspiration. A reading lesson that wouldn’t end, the learner wanting more and more content, progressing through a week’s material in an afternoon.
These paths can be hard to watch from above. One longs for a steady churn of a reliable river. One longs for daily inspiration. One knows a few rote tasks must be done.
But from both accomplished results, we watched as their creators took enormous pride in what they had chosen to pursue.
One Thing at a Time
The eight-year-old lucked into the opportunity to be in a play at the local high school. It was an immersive, time-demanding, socially stretching experience that would have been exhausting had she had anything else going on. But as it was she slept in late, played, read, and talked about the performance to come. She sat for the hour before drop-off each day to have her hair brushed and plaited into french braids. She read the script, watched the rehearsals over and over, and murmured the complicated Greek character names under her breath.
It was the ultimate of what unstructured schooling can offer: the time to dive into a passion project, the time to reboot in between, and the focus that naturally results from those two elements.
Presidential Unit Study
The nearly four-year-old spent a good bit of the month paging through through Pete Souza’s photo book of the Obama presidency. I’d find her sprawled on her bed in the afternoon, staring at the images, many of them quiet, evocative captures of the president waiting, listening, or thinking. The photos introduced all sorts of questions and conversations for us: the presidential seal, Air Force one, soldiers, flags, Congress, the First Lady, the White House. At the end of the month we had the chance to share with friends favorite books that we were into—I asked her what she wanted to share. “I’m really into the Obama book.”
We do monthly allowance, untied to any strings of performance (though household chores are a daily reality). Your age in dollars, setting one dollar aside for generous giving each month.
It’s enlightening to watch personality-driven impulses develop and shift—the nature steadily altered by nurture. The generous one who consequently almost always has empty pockets. The spendthrift who can browse a store without asking to spend a single penny. Seeing that play out and learning from each other.
One child wanted to spend several months savings on a birthday gift for Dad. After crossing the $20 threshold, she was still a dollar short. I offered ten cents for every word looked up in the dictionary. By this I meant: look up a word and tell me how it’s defined. She interpreted it as: Look up words at random and write down the definitions.
Whichever! Within a few days the dollar was earned, and the juxtaposition of words was delightful.
A Book I Loved
The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery, The tale of a couple of writers in New Hampshire falling love with their pet pig. The pig spends its life with them—twelve years!—and Montgomery documents life alongside him. His favorite food and how they got it (mostly the compost bins of nearby cafés), his many visitors (neighborhood children), the times he escaped and various townspeople called to ask them to pick him up.
A writer of nature tales and anthropology reporting, Montgomery packs the book full of knowledge about pigs and otherwise. A natural introvert, she writes about the ways having an enormous social animal in her backyard brought richness to her life in a small town.
It makes you want to be a better human, and to have a pet pig.
After I finished it on my kindle (it was a library borrow), Amazon suggested I might like to read the most recent collection of Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery. Indeed I would, Algorithm, indeed I would.
Winter Warmup: Read This Book with Us!
Find a copy of A Christmas Carol—look for an illustrated unabridged edition like this one. Read it aloud in the evenings, stopping every few sentences to explain what’s been said. Charles Dickens is a master of description, and 175 years later it feels like the source of what we mean when we say Merry Christmas. Not to mention Bah, humbug! Even the depiction of grasping, penny-pinching capitalism feels downright modern.
When asked why she liked it, the six-year-old said, “It’s a little creepy, but it’s also funny, and I never know what’s going to happen next. I like that it’s about Christmas.”
Begin reading it with your family in November so you’re not in a hurry.
After you finish Dicken’s “ghostly little book…may it haunt their houses pleasantly” as he called it, plan a family viewing of the Muppet version, or check your local theater listings for live performances nearby.
And a Blessing for You
We must cook, rather than graze, if we are to survive the cold and the wet. Those allergic to cooking may need to bite the bullet and get the casserole down from its shelf if they are not to short-change the family dinner table. Only onions, starch and meat juices can get through to our marrow when everyone comes home soaked to the skin.
-Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries (cookbook)
To remember winter isn’t to remember a variation in weather, but to remember an entirely other world. Winter is less of a season and more of a planet.
-Nikaela Peters, Winter is the Season of My Childhood (article)