The Spirit of Education

Points, points, points.

In some of my university classes, in particular in mathematics, I see what I call ‘calculating’ students. I am not referring to solving math problems, but to a certain attitude towards getting through my class.

These students are strategically (and some of them expertly) going through their laundry lists of how to get through college with the best GPA and the best portfolio that will sell them optimally on the labor market. — Is this commendable?? Well, to an idealist like yours truly, I don’t think so. No, I am not disputing that some of these students may be what you would call ‘successful’ in life, in terms of landing a good job and making good money, knowing when to sell and trade up for the next big house, the next big car, etc., but this is not the stuff that we want life made of, is it?

One of the beauties of homeschooling is that we can get away from these pesky ‘ill-motivating’ points and learn for the sake of the subject, for the sake of the love of learning, and for the sake of interest.

Now before you throw your hands up in the air and declare me hopelessly deluded by ideals that do not exist anywhere in your universe, let me qualify that NOT EVERYTHING is fun to learn and NOT EVERYTHING is going to entice kids and sometimes we do have to use either ‘brute force’ (metaphorically speaking) or ‘carrots’ to get junior out of the start holes and engaged.

What I am lamenting is that some kids get all the way to college and they have never engaged with any topic academically except because they were forced to do so, or at times because they were bribed to do so.

What these students lack is the joy of doing it because it is interesting.

Well, so how do we engage students in material in such a way that they want to study it and pursue it for its own sake? And that is a difficult question to answer because at the heart of that question is the psychology of motivation.

My answer would be that the learning environment is one large factor in student motivation. The other two would be student abilities (native) and student training.

Learning Environment

Your classroom is where students learn, obviously. And that environment has to be inviting, safe, fun, and challenging all at the same time.

Inviting Environment
What I mean by inviting is that it should be an orderly, well-equipped place where the student has his or her own desk (and computer or tablet, if possible) — a mini student office, if you will, where he or she gets to arrange the space and live in the space in the same way those of us who work in an office get to organize and take pride in our own offices. If you need to, go on a shopping spree at an office supply store. Let your student pick out both writing supplies that he or she likes, colors for folders and trays and other storage bins, themed stickers, anything that gets him or her excited about arranging the school space to say ‘this is uniquely me’.

Safe Environment
Obviously home is not a hazardous place threatening to blow up, be bombed or otherwise pose a physical risk to our kids. I am here talking about emotionally safety. Any homeschool with more than one kid will have pecking orders: the weak student, the stronger student, the loud student, the quiet student, the dominant student, the compliant and submissive student. For students to love school (even school at home) the emotional environment needs to be affirming. That means, even if the student struggles to be motivated, and even if the student is not good at spelling or writing, the schoolroom has to be a place where the student feels safe to try, and does not worry about being attacked by demeaning looks and comments from other students — and likewise not a tirade of frustration from the teacher when he or her fails to deliver the desired product.

I recently went to a talk by a homeschool father who used to chair the homeschool association in Colorado and one of his comments about homeschooling and ‘mom’ (who is usually the teacher) was that mom is so emotionally invested that she is more likely than a public school teacher to yell at her kids for misspelled spelling words. I understand the temptation and the weakness, but I would maintain that this must be the exception, not the norm. In fact, when I listened to that man say that, my immediate reaction was NO, I don’t remember doing that, and NO, that cannot be a regular occurrence, or the environment of the homeschool will not feel like an emotionally safe place to a kid who struggles to perform.

Part of emotional safety is that when the student is struggling, the teacher takes the time to come alongside the student with the attitude of ‘let’s unravel this together’, and then you sit side by side, going through the assignment or problem or essay or spelling list, and with HUMOR and good will, you show the student how to recover gracefully and victoriously from the mini-defeat that just took place, so the student comes out on the other side with the skills to complete the problem well, but also with the emotional fortitude that should this happen again, I have the strength and the sense of direction to recover well. The teacher may need to aid with this kind of recovery several times before the student is emotionally and intellectually prepared to start turning himself or herself around when an assignment has gone south.

Likewise, if there is a tendency in your student ranks to laugh at one particular person or always sigh at a particular person, you need to turn that around by selecting that student for praise, encouraging that student, as well as pulling aside the students who laugh or sigh and explain why that is not a way that we treat our fellow human beings, not in the family, nor anywhere else.

Fun Environment

Your homeschool should be a fun place to be, not every second, but as a rule, your students should enjoy going there, or you are not likely to produce life-long love of learning. Fun means starting out the day with something motivating. My students read plays right after prayers, breakfast, and chores. We read simple kids plays and moved up to more complicated plays as they got older. They loved acting that part. They also read and copied poems and learned to recite them (and happened to like it). Figure out what you love and what your students love and sprinkle that stuff throughout the school day, so the day is doable for each one of them.

One of the most motivating factors in a student’s life is that YOU are excited about the material, and that you model a love for learning that is tenacious and contagious. For example, we never gave up on a math problem. If there was one that did not sit with the student I sat with him or her until he got it (if I knew the answer). Once we were both stumped on some precalculus, and we did set it aside to eat dinner, but it was on the front burner for the next day’s math. Smack in the middle of a movie at night I said, I got it!! And my son and I buzzed down in the basement to the white board to hash out the silly detail that we had written square root of 2 as if it were 2 and it had ruined our entire problem. — We also did a ton of diagramming (we are puzzle type people and love to ponder stuff) and quite often we would wrestle with a diagram from Latin that we just couldn’t quite figure out… and we would stick with it. — For your school that could be singing and getting the students to learn a difficult 4 part harmony piece. It could be sticking to piano lessons 1 hour practice per day, it could be a gardening project where you are very disciplined about weeding and watering and studying how to treat the plants or how to best lay out your garden. It could be sewing or woodwork or some science fair project. Whatever it is, if you in your life care enough to do it right every time, if you have good routines and show students how to finish stuff, and if you get excited about seeing an ancient Roman coin at a museum, if you are thrilled to succeed in translating a tough Latin sentence, if you delight in exploring how ancient cultures calculated pi (yes, I do!!!), or if you are into learning C++ programming with your kids, whatever it is…. YOUR enthusiasm, your behavior around academic topics is one they will imitate. IF you are not excited and if you do not think this is fun, neither will they. They will read your attitude and absorb it by osmosis and make it their own.

Student Abilities and Training

Obviously student abilities play into how a student feels about school. My son with Down’s is not going into calculus. He has a limited ability to learn many things, HOWEVER, whatever he is capable of learning he is very motivated to do. In short, abilities should not be the issue. It is an issue of training.

By training I mean, YOU help training the student to do what he or she needs to do, and stick with him or her until the skill is learned well enough that he or she has some independence. In 3rd grade I gave my oldest son a Latin test from his Latin curriculum. He did abysmally and I was shocked because we had gone over the stuff and he knew it. I asked a teacher friend of mine and he said that he expects his students to do well “those things which he has taught them well”. I had never before given my son a test, he did not know how to take tests, and I had assumed that he had the skills innately. But he didn’t. I needed to train him in how to take a test — not assume that because I knew how to do it, he would too.

Training is so very important, and the balance between helping and letting students struggle on their own is difficult to hit just right. My daughter, somewhere around 5th grade, got in the habit, as soon as I handed her something to just throw her hands in the air and cry for help. I wanted to help, but I did not want to spoon-feed her. I basically had to sit down make a list of what skills she was lacking (based on the behavior I was seeing) and then figure a plan for how to help her be more of a self-starter and how to persevere rather than ask for help after a second’s contemplation of the assignment. My first step was to make sure she read the assignment independently all the way through TWICE. My second step was to MAKE HER identify specifically where she was lost… and then after she had done some prep work, I would ‘help’ her by asking questions and having her identify the missing pieces until she was able to complete the assignment. This process was slightly painful and she was resentful for a short while, but with encouragement, within 6 months or so, I had her ‘trained’ to be more of a self-starter and more independent, a skill that has paid off for years and continues to do so.

We train–not too much, not too little, but just right– with an eye towards supporting independence and innovation in our students. It requires knowing the student well, and whenever you see an academic behavior that troubles you, sit down on your own, articulate to yourself precisely what the troubling behavior is, list all its aspects and why it irritates you, list possible causes — is the student looking for attention, does the student simply not have the training to complete the task, is the student just not motivated to complete the work, is the student too eager to do something else that is coming up next, is the student somehow afraid of looking inept or in some other way does the student have some fears? Then brainstorm for paths to success, how can we get over this learning or focusing or motivation hurdle? Make a multi-step plan, share your observations with your student. Enlist his or her help to blaze through with this new plan to bring about success. Ask him or her for things that would help motivate to get through this.

Challenging Environment

Above I ask for a safe fun environment, and now I want a challenging environment. By that I mean an environment that is safe and fun but which stretches a student to do his utmost. It is difficult for a teacher to know when a student has been pushed too hard, which is a terrible thing to do to a student, but it is in my view equally wrong not to challenge a student enough so that he or she gets a chance to excel at what they are good at, and learn to do well that which they may not be so good at.

Here is another area where homeschooling can really shine. We KNOW our students well, very well, and we know what they like, we know what they are good at — if we have provided that safe fun environment where they have been allowed to be themselves enough that we actually see the real ‘them’ and not the version of the student that the student thinks you want to see.

No student should be challenged everywhere all the time. There should be the easy course that is kind of fun, along with the course that is hard but rewarding. During my years as a college professor I get to see many products of homeschooling as well as private and public schooling. You have the chance to engage and challenge your student more so than institutional schools, because you (the homeschool teacher) can shape the curriculum and the assignments precisely around what that student can handle and what that student is interested in. I had one of mine doing C++, another doing Greek. One was really into literature, another loved history, and the third finished Calculus 3 before graduating. They did a lot together, but they also got their own projects to work on independent of their siblings.

Summa Summarum
Let me finish with this, I know we live in a society that likes to ‘earn’ everything, a society where hard work is rewarded and where you get what you deserve. That attitude may be politically sound, and it may be important for your student to know that out there in the real life, he or she needs to support him or herself and be responsible with his or her time, money, etc. Where the attitude falls short is when it becomes exacting and when education, knowledge, learning, study is simply an exchange medium — something I do to get a diploma so I can ‘buy’ myself a place in the workplace, so I can earn some money and buy the things I want.

Education and learning are pursuits that are worthwhile for their own sakes. I am currently reading Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People with a friend. To that end, I regularly listen to the book on audio while commuting. I do that because I enjoy the story and I am interested in filling in holes from my big-picture English history. I print maps to follow along with places mentioned in the story because I could not put Wessex, Kent, and North Umbria on a map. I look up lists of English rulers, because I need to place them in a framework of history and connect them with my knowledge of world history, French history, etc. I do this for two reasons 1. I love spending time with my friend and we have a cool two person reading group. 2. because I love history, I love Winston Churchill and I am plum interested in the topic simply BECAUSE I AM. It is not going to earn me a greater salary at work, it is not going to help me related better to my family. It’s something I do for its own sake, and it is worth doing because it is interesting, and perhaps as it deepens my knowledge it may make me a more compassionate, interesting, and thoughtful person (I hope).

THAT is the attitude I hope to instill in all our students about all the learning they do. WOW!! I get the chance to learn French… how cool!! Or oh, I didn’t know what caused weather, that is fascinating…. so what does it mean when ________?? And the question goes on and on as love of learning goes on and on.

If I have made no other point than this— let me say this one again — Love of learning begins with you!! Yes. If you find studying Beethoven’s biography and the development of his sonatas over time interesting, so will your students!!! If you make jelly and wonder why it did not set and you start digging into the chemistry of what went wrong in your kitchen… in short if you approach life with a voracious appetite for knowing more, if you tenaciously dig into topics and pursue them till you get your answers, if you don’t give up but stick with a job till it is done, if you stay late, come early, and do your work well with interest…. SO will your students, most likely. They will imitate your approach to learning, more so than anything you say or assign.

About Lene Jaqua

Co-author of Classical Writing books
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