Sunday, February 3, 2008

Humbled By the Power of Our Girl's Memory

It's become something of a cliché that the more experienced you become at parenting, the less you realize you know. Young couples who haven't had kids yet think they have a sense of what they're going to do when the first little one comes; then when there's actually a little squirming thing right there, and I'm supposed to figure out how to feed it, and hold it, and nurture it... well, the pre-conceived notions tend to fly right out the window. Yep, this happened to us too.

And it's amazing: as we parents gain more experience, we get tempted into complacency. Ok, we say, we've started to get a hang of things. We understand what's going on now. Now we can start setting up a system so we can get our lives back in order! Of course, then the wee one hits a new milestone, or enters a new phase, and we parents are back to realizing just how little we know.

By the time our kids finish the teen years, we finally realize we don't know squat. ;-)

So what prompted this observation?

Well, we've been including some memory work in the homeschooling curriculum we've been following with the Pillowfight Fairy. We believe that it's a very good thing for kids to learn how to memorize, in general; it's good for a person to be able to draw on a wide store of knowledge: poetry, scripture, important literary passages and dramatic soliloquies, and so forth. With the Fairy, we've been having her systematically memorize (among other things) the Bible verses she's been assigned in her Sunday School classes. A few weeks back, the teacher in her class handed out a sheet with five verses that the kids needed to learn; when completed, the kids earn a prize.

Now, when I was a kid, I did very well with the memory work I was assigned. My Dad had a method that proved to be pretty much foolproof: simply read the passage, out loud, eight times a day for a week. I discovered that every time I did this I had the passage memorized by the following Sunday. So it seemed the most natural thing in the world, that when I had children of my own who needed to memorize things, I would pass on this nugget of paternal wisdom, just as my Dad had with me.

I had it all figured out, you see.

Well. As is the case with many homeschooling families, in my family it's the mother directing the education while the father is away at work. And Tonya had been reporting for some time that the Pillowfight Fairy wasn't doing too well on her memory work. One day she would say, "Yeah, we worked on it a little today, but we didn't do too much." On another day she would say, "We didn't do the memory work today. [The Fairy] really didn't want to do it."

And I would grouse to myself about it. I know better than to jump all over my wife for not following the plan--after all, if it was me trying to do the schooling, I'd be lost. She knows how everything is going a whole lot better than I do, because she does it every day. Nevertheless, I would think to myself: Come on! Just read it eight times a day--what's so hard about that? And why are you letting the kid set the rules around here? Who's the boss?

This week, they went the entire week without touching the memory verses!

And in her class today, the Fairy recited all five of them, and was able to explain what they meant.


Hmmm. I'm not so sure what this means. I certainly didn't expect that. And my wife didn't either. What's going on?

So we sat around tonight commiserating, trying to figure out what went right. Here's what we figure. First, the Fairy has always had a way with language. And she loves memorizing poetry. If you ever meet her, ask her to recite Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky to you. We think part of her success just comes from natural talent and interest on her part.

But there's more, too. Tonya explained that she's been trying to get a sense of when to push, and when to back off. Obviously we'd love it if our little girl worked really, really hard on all her work every time she sat down with her books. But given that she's human, we have to figure out what to do when she's just not in the right frame of mind. One possibility--which we tend to use with her math work and her writing skills--is to make her do it anyway, whether she wants to or not. And she does it, although she makes quite sure we know when she doesn't feel happy about it.

It should be noted that when we do push, it's generally only on those topics where progress is made through constant practice. There are just some skills that start to degrade if they're not used continually. Judging from our experience with the Fairy, this appears to be true of writing and math--if we miss several days, we have to spend a whole lot of time and energy just getting back up to where we were.

But at other times we try to take a more lenient approach--especially with those subjects that we know the Fairy is good at and likes doing. In these cases we feel it's important to not squash off her enjoyment of the subject matter. So with the memorization, Tonya has been careful only to make the Fairy do what she's inclined to at the moment. This is, of course, an important feature of the Charlotte Mason approach, and of the various "child-centered" approaches out there. And in the case of memorization (and, it appears, of our piano lessons as well), it really does appear that we can teach her effectively with a very light touch.

Of course, there's another concern that I have, that we haven't ruled out yet: when I was in school, I was good enough at memorizing and regurgitating my lessons that I could get decent grades without learning decent study habits. By high school, I could whip out a decent essay while the second period teacher's back was turned, so I had something to turn in at the beginning of third period. Great skill to have! It'll get you through high school. It won't get you through college, alas. It may be that the Fairy is so good at memorizing that she doesn't have to work at it--meaning she'll never learn how to memorize longer and more difficult passages, like Shakespearean roles. Of course, I could just be borrowing trouble from tomorrow with all this pondering. But the point is, I don't know.

I'd love to be able to refine our experiences into a generalized rule from which all homeschoolers could benefit. But alas, I don't think that's possible here. In fact, this is one of those pre-concieved notions that we threw out the window after trying to apply it to a real, live human being. When must we be strict, and when can we use the light touch? Um... whenever it feels right to use one method or the other. And I suspect it's totally different for each student. Not only that, I suspect it's totally different for each teacher.

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