Let me first say that I don’t believe in the joy of learning. I think it is a myth propagated by people who don’t remember their own educations very well, or perhaps were never were truly educated. Just because I don’t believe in the “joy of learning” per se doesn’t mean that I never ascribe positive attributes to the act. Learning can and should be interesting much of the time. It should be challenging. It should be satisfying. Occasionally, it should be inspiring. And it should be as tear-free as possible. Given all of that, you’d think that I would have made peace with the traditional tools of learning: textbooks, workbooks, and their ilk. But, alas, I have not.
It seems as though about a month or so into each school year, I begin to reevaluate my choices and plans for Son8’s program, and this year I’m doing it again. I am not happy with the crank-it-out, textbooky, workbook-ridden quality of our days. Specifically, I’m having issues with literature, history, and science.
So what produces delight in our lessons? I found last year that with Son8, high level information delivered in the form of a story worked really well. Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts materials were spot on in this regard and are continuing to be this year as well. Ellen McHenry’s The Elements, while not a story exactly, did have a cartoon character called the “Atomic Chef” who tended to get into trouble while mixing chemicals, occasionally resulting in his death; apparently these scenarios were hilariously funny to an 8 year old sense of humor. The elementary history curriculum Story of the World has been another winner as it attempts to present history as a story or series of stories about interesting characters and events. What all of these resources have in common is that they present complex ideas without dumbing down information or language.
But these types of resources are few and far between.
And then there’s the added complexity that, at least on the input side, Son8 is working on a middle school level pretty much across the board. Because there seems to be a sense that middle school is the time to “buckle down,” increase output expectations, and develop study skills, there is a huge focus in most middle school resources on these things. Whimsy and wonder are sorely lacking.
So what to do?
I broke down and ordered, at great expense, Oak Meadow’s fifth grade history (US) and seventh grade science (earth) syllabuses. The history looks to be a good supplement. It’s a bit weak on the input side, though it does have lots of good suggestions for supplemental reading. The science, sadly for the kids who use it on grade level and as a stand alone, is incredibly weak on the input side, sometimes to the point of being inaccurate. So given my review so far, you might think that I’ve already boxed it all up and sent it back. Not so.
On the output side, Oak Meadow is all about whimsey and wonder. For example, in a lesson about various explorers visiting the Americas before 1492, the following assignment appears:
Compose a short story about what terrible monsters and other hazards might await anyone who tries to sail around the world. Illustrate your story with colored pencil drawings.
Or how about this one from the same lesson:
Go outdoors on a clear night and look for the North Star. After looking at the night sky, close your eyes and imagine what it looks like. Were the start twinkling? Was the moon shining? How did the air feel? How did you feel when you looked into this huge expanse? Did you think about how quiet or how big the sky is or what might lie a million miles away in space? Jot down a few key words that contain strong visual images or intense feelings and use these ideas to write a poem about the night sky.
Moving to the science syllabus, the assignments are a bit more sedate, though this should probably be expected as it is for kids two years older. But even though the assignments are a bit more sophisticated, they have a similar character. Here is one from the astronomy section:
Write and illustrate a story of the life cycle of a star.
Write an imaginative story or an actual account about your experience of an eclipse. Make it interesting, informative, and exciting for your reader.
So instead of replacing the resources that we’ve been using, we will be adding assignments like the ones highlighted above. In fact, we’ve already started. This past week, instead of having Son8 write a short report on what he learned about various regions of the ocean, I had him write a story about something that might have happened among the inhabitants in a deep trench somewhere. The result was a story about Fish the angler fish and Weird the tube worm. Son8 enjoyed the assignment and was particularly proud of the illustration he produced.
So my long, rambling point is that it is possible to balance a need for higher level input with more creative or even childlike output. And I will definitely be keeping Oak Meadow in mind for when we need to move to high school level input. Since Oak Meadow switches to using actual textbooks for high school, my reservations about their homegrown texts will be eliminated and we will be left with what they do best: creative and varied assignments that allow kids to become emotionally invested in both the subject matter at hand and the work they do with it.