Last month, Parents Magazine ran an article called "Why Art Makes Kids Smarter." Now, Parents Magazine is usually, to put it gently, full of crap about everything from parenting to education, but the article made a point that has been well known in education circles for years: artistic expression actually improves a child's grasp of "core" subjects like math, literacy, and science.
They described three schools, in Arizona, California, and New York who actually improved their test scores by adding more art classes to their curriculum, as well as incorporating it into other subjects. This is counter to the popular tactic of cutting art funding to accomplish the same goals (hint: it doesn't, and never will, work). The Regio Emelia schools in Italy have been doing this for years with great success, while the U.S. has been viciously cutting funding for art class, shop class, band, and any other subject that doesn't rate a section on the standardized test.
I've been beating this drum since Rich was in kindergarten, not because I gave a rip how he did on standardized tests, but because when implemented consistently, art in its many forms gives birth to skills that are not obtained from "the three R's" - it teaches the use of metaphor, imaginative thinking, three dimensional problem solving, structure and form, engineering conceptualization...I could go on an on (can you tell?)
I was pulled out of third grade math for a special art class, therefore missing key math concepts which haunt me to this day. The intention was good, but the methodology was flawed. I hate math, but if you use art to teach me math - Bingo! But we have such a faulty, compartmentalized view of education that we're still trying to separate the fine arts from other disciplines, instead of blending them in. And the Renaissance chuckles at us and clicks it's tongue from the annals of history.
I think kids are like this about pretty much all subjects. Art turns the learning over to the child because it is by nature subjective. They can approach creating something in whichever way seems best to them, and it doesn't matter if they get it right. It allows them to fail (Yes, the "F" word that's feared and dreaded in public education, despite the fact that brilliant minds from DaVinci to Einstein cite it as the key to success. Hey, it's not the teachers' fault. They're not the ones who insisted that No Child be Left Behind - or rather that No Textbook or Testing Company Be Left Unpaid. But I digress...). The good news, and hopefully a nail in the coffin of the NCLB Act, is that the current administration has launched an extensive assessment of the state of art education in the U.S. for these very reasons. The survey results won't be in until 2011, but at least there's finally an acknowledgment that the Draconian NCLB Act needs to be replaced with something positive and holistic, and that the Arts should play a key role.
Most objections to this approach come from well meaning people who often insist we must return to "the basics" of education ("the three R's") and do away with such frivolous subjects as design, drawing, dance, Latin, music and other disciplines of a classical education. I argue that if we're going to train kids to be architects, graphic designers, software engineers, biochemists, or nuclear physicists, they need the imaginative, creative skills that are only afforded when education is approached with imagination and creativity. They need art. Traditional public education is designed to train people to work in factories, which is fine if that's what you love to do, but that outdated system is a product of the industrial age, not the post-tech age that is upon us. The long view of education must have art at its core, even if the child is not "artistically inclined" (and honestly, have you ever known a kid that wasn't? Public education sometimes beats it out of them). Rich was fortunate enough to have an awesome Kindergarden teacher for constantly engaged the kids in art projects, but as he moved up, art was gradually phased out until he only got it in a "specials" class one hour a week. It's not about them learning how to paint beautifully or sight read Mozart's Concerto in B. It's about them developing, through artistic means, the skill set that will make them a better scientist, mathematician, writer, or athlete.
Sermon over. Go draw something. :)
Friday was our first visit to the Crafty Cottage in Bentonville. The boys got to try their hand at ceramic painting, pottery, and leatherworking. Really cool place, really cool people. The boys like the pottery wheel the best. If anyone has a used one lying around, we'll take it off your hands. They only cost about $10,000!
Today, they've been up to their elbows in molding clay (we discovered that snakes are a good starting place) and getting ready to paint a cardboard playhouse. Seems like a lot of arts stuff this week, but I'm convinced that time correctly invested in art, pays off tenfold in other disciplines, and the stats back me up. More on that later!
(CLICK PICTURES FOR LARGER VIEW)
And our heroes unmasked:
And the Aftermath:
Two weeks of cutting, gluing, taping, fitting, painting, and sewing to get to this! We went to the Rogers Goblin Parade Friday night, then Saturday it was the Bentonville Farmer's Market, Fastlane Costume Contest, and last night, Trick or Treat on Main St. in Gentry. Lots of compliments from passerby and the boys felt like they were the hottest ticket in town.
I KNEW watching all those McGyver and A-Team episodes would pay off one day!
So after an intense few weeks of cutting, painting, cutting, gluing, scavenging, and a few paint fume headaches, we're nearly done with Iron Man Halloween costumes. Of course, the boys didn't want the red and yellow Iron Man costumes you can get at Wal-Mart for $15. Rich wanted the "Mark II" suit which is all silver, and Brennan wanted the New Avengers suit, which is all black and grey. Both with enough cannons, rocket launchers, mini-missile cartridges, and rocket packs that we probably could have gotten Dick Cheney to invest in the project.
The boys loved spray painting, and used glue guns, molded armor from milk cartons, and picked out "found" items that could be re-used as buttons, rockets, valves, fuel ports, etc. They designed their own paraphanalia on the breastplates and helped design the guns based on pictures and drawings. This has been the longest project we've done so far, and I think it's really helped Rich to realize that it looks and works better in the end if you do a little planning first, and take your time. We still haven't figured out how to make the suits nuclear powered. That's for next week.
Just like teachers and kids in public school we have really good days, really bad days, and everything in between. Some days the kids just aren't with it, other's the teacher doesn't feel like doing much. I *can* say that everyday something happens that would never happen in public school. The most important thing going on here is that the boys are getting to live life, whether that means building a mulch fortress at the park, or helping mom balance the checkbook. They are being introduced to the real world, not spending all day in an artificial simulation of it. Math and reading happen when they happen, just like in real life. They are constantly bombarded with science and history because, honestly, how can you live in the real world and not be? It surrounds and permeates everything we see and do. We're constantly discussing these, and myriad other topics that a textbook would never cover. All day, every day. That's learning.
There may well be a boxed curriculum on the horizon for us, or a more structured approach, but right now, Rich is slowly re-discovering his natural curiosity and wonder, apart from textbooks, florescent-lit classrooms, and worksheets, and that's invaluable if he's to enjoy learning again. In the meantime, he's getting to be a kid, and isn't that what we all complain about - how kids don't get to be kids anymore? Is it more valuable to learn long division at age 8, or play in the rain? To learn the parts of speech, or to build a dragon spaceship out of Legos? I would argue that he's got 10 more years to learn the names of the Presidents, but only 2 or 3 more to lose himself in building a tank out of refrigerator boxes. I would further argue that the Legos and tanks are essential to him working out how to learn the life skills that are relevant to him, that will eventually make sense in the context of a career.
So today, we're spray painting milk jugs to use for Iron Man costumes, going to the Library, and will probably play multiplication games over lunch. It may not look like school, but I'd rather it look like life.
There's a lot of homeschool jargon floating around out there that I don't have much use for, but we've grasped onto one of them because we found ourselves experiencing it before we knew what to call it: "De-Schooling"
Homeschool critics jump on that term and imagine it implies that education is being neglected, or that the parents are anti-education. It simply describes a period of time after taking a child out of public school in which the child de-compresses, de-programs, and recharges. It's obvious to us that despite a great public school with competent teachers, Rich has all but lost his love for learning. His innate curiosity is still strong, but not strong enough to motivate self-directed learning yet. Nor is he ready to sit down at a desk to read, write, or work math problems. He's in the process of making up for the time he lost to just be a kid - to play, explore, and to be bored.
We're trying very hard to help him let go of the idea that learning=work, and fun=play. It will take some time, but eventually, those terms will all get mixed together in a big bowl called "life." Fact is, he's constantly learning, whether he wants to or not. It isn't happening in the way the critics, or even myself would prefer. It can't be checked off in little boxes, or assessed by tests or exams. Maybe that will come. Right now, he's resistant to anything that resembles school. He's suspicious that we're going to try to take his freedom from him. I'm not saying kids don't need direction and limits - they do. But if we're ever to recapture the free-spirited, self-motivated learner that lurks somewhere inside him, we have to back off for a little bit and let him live - let him realize that he can learn what is important to him, in a way that makes sense to him.
This is terrifying for me, a book/curriculum oriented person who wants to make sure he "keeps up" with his age group. Part of our adjustment to homeschool is our letting go of every one else's expectations and figuring out what works for him, for our family, and still accomplishes (or even exceeds) what he would get in a public school setting. It's about trusting him, trusting that children are driven to learn, and in fact, can't be stopped from pursuing their interests. He's got years and years to learn all he needs to, and my bet is that giving him the time he needs right now to "de-school" is going to pay off in gold later down the road. The great thing about doing it ourselves is that if we're wrong, we can fix it without getting chewed up by the school system.
There are those little learning moments that are so crucial to capture, both for adults and children. Those times when something sparks in the mind of the learner, and they take control of their own learning. We're on Week 3, and that hasn't happened much so far - and it's mainly my fault. It's hard to break away from the traditional way of doing school - after all, most of us are products of "sit still and listen" public education. I tend to kill those little sparky moments by getting in the middle of the boy's business, telling them the better way to do it, providing more direction than what they need if they're truly going to own the project or the information.
Rich started collecting boxes to build a castle with last week. In an effort to seize the moment, I ran out and found a dozen castle books, websites, and other castle related things for him to look at - I took over, and he lost interest. It took him a couple of days to find that spark again, but today he started cutting, painting, comparing his boxes to a picture he choose from the web. My attempts to cram history, math, and reading about castles into that moment backfired. Rich is the kind of kid that wants to *do* - the learning stems from that, and very rarely precedes it. Lesson learned, Dad.
I guess what looks like goofing off or "doing nothing" to most people is what we consider some of the most important, educational "stuff." Last Friday we took off for Gulley park, with extra clothes, some glass jars, and no real agenda. This of course led to catching water spiders in the creek, rock-climbing, long conversations about river heads, the difference between fresh and stagnant water, survival instincts of insects, and Brennan making about 20 new friends on the playground. We also explored on the bicycles and ended the day with a short trip to the library.
We're really trying to create negative space in our life. You know, those white spaces between the words and paragraphs that make it easier to distinguish the print on the page, or that dramatic pause in your favorite song, just before that last, epic chorus kicks in. Negative space is breathing space, and in life, as in art, it brings everything else into sharper focus. We're all so over-booked and over-scheduled (especially kids) that there's no negative space, no time to just explore or imagine. I'm claiming Fridays with no plan as some negative space for us.
Where will yours be?
Rich started his project with some really broad questions:
1) How does the computer know what to do?
2) How does it know what pictures to send to the screen
3) How does the internet work?
People think I'm a computer geek, but I'm not. I understand software a little more deeply than some, but these questions are daunting for me.
If it was something I already knew about, I could tell him all about it. But he wouldn't care. As it is, he's spent the last three days gutting a computer, pulling out itty bitty chips, pouring through some books he got at the library to identify them, and making notes (writing!? He HATES writing!).
The whole thing belongs to him. He even asked the librarian where to find the books - his initiative, not mine or mom's. So the whole process is taking place - identifying the knowledge he needs to obtain, figuring out how to get it, then assessing and organizing it in a way that makes sense. Much better than someone telling him a bunch of stuff about computers then giving him a worksheet to fill out. And to top it off, he's asking better, more specific questions and staying interested. I'm learning lots too.
Today was our first "official" day of homeschool. Rich has decided that he wants to learn how computers work (why dream small, right?), and Brennan is going to learn about Firefighters. Rich began by dis-assembling an old PC we had laying around, determined to get the inside of the hard drive (more on that tomorrow). Brennan decided (with some prompting) to start building a fire station and truck out of our found items (boxes, plastic thingies, cardboard rolls, old egg cartons, etc.). Today he painted the house for the fire dog whom he named "IN" - mainly because he really likes the letter N.
Yes, I'm blogging on a Saturday. What's sleeping in?
Brennan got himself dressed today. This is a big deal because he rarely does that, but just in the last week something great has happened at our house.
We've slowed down.
See, when Rich was going to school, mornings were a mad rush, no matter how early we rose (Brush your teeth! Yes, all of them! How did you get dog food on your...nevermind - bring me the comb so I can get this donut out of your brother's hair!). After school wasn't much better because of soccer practice, cooking dinner, fighting off Jehovah Witnesses in the driveway, etc.
Now, Brennan ain't gonna hurry himself about anything, for anybody. He's on his own time schedule, and it's, shall we say, very Eastern (He'll get to it when he gets to it).
Thing is, he's perfectly capable of dressing himself, brushing his teeth, and getting the donut out of his own hair (or close enough that the glaze can be passed off as mousse). But he never did before, and it's because he didn't have time. When I kept rushing him, he'd simply give up.
Think about how this applies to the way we educate children. We rush them from one activity to the next, 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, hurry through lunch, hurry through recess. Then we wonder why there's an ADD pandemic. It's OUR OWN FAULT.
I'm amazed at what kids can do, given the opportunity, and more importantly, the time. I think more than anything else, the next month will be a lesson in slowing down, re-inventing the wheel a bit, and allowing ourselves to be bored at times. In our fast-food obsessed and ulcer-ridden culture, the concept of doing something thoroughly and well has little value. But taking time to do it right and good is invaluable, and it's something most successful people realize early on.
Maybe they started with dressing themselves.
More on socialization later. Right now, FOOD.
Project-based learning is a more organic approach to learning than what happens in the traditional classroom (or among many homeschoolers for that matter). The word "organic" here probably translates to "hippie" or "artsy-fartsy" to some, but it simply means "natural." It begins with the premise that kids LOVE to learn, not with the premise that they must be forced to learn.
Don't believe that's true? Consider how many times a kid asks the question "why" in a given day.
Rich: "Dad, why do flies just land everywhere?" (We get LOTS of flies here in the Ozarks in summer)
Dad: Because they're looking for food.
Dad: Because they're hungry. Don't you get hungry?
Rich: Yeah, but not every few seconds. Why do they need to eat so much?
Dad: Well, they don't find food every time they eat. I think uh...also maybe their wings get tired? (You can see how quickly my knowledge of flies is exhausted).
Rich: But why can't they just get food in the air - like other insects?
Dad: They aren't carnivores.
Rich: What's a carnivore?
Dad: That means they don't eat meat
What's happening here? He doesn't know it, but he's asking about the digestive system of flies, nay of all living creatures. He's inquisitive about this and millions of other things.
The traditional approach to learning about this is as follows: "Wait till we get to that page in your science book and we'll do a worksheet about it."
The project based approach seizes on this area of interest (Rich is infinitely inquisitive about all things biological). We decide exactly what questions we want answered, then we observe actual flies, read books about flies, find fly experts to talk to, etc. until we've discovered every single thing he wants to know about flies. Now, he has an exhaustive knowledge of flies, but even better (and this is the important part) - No one gave him that knowledge on a platter. It's his because he got it himself, based on his own interest.
Along the way, we've been reading, writing, using math to figure out how fast a fly can fly, the average amount of landings per minute (hour, day, etc.). We've easily incorporated four core subjects into this deeper knowledge of flies. Most important of all, he learned how to find, assess, cull, and arrange the information he found - he learned how to learn.
This is just a hypothetical example, but you can see where project-based learning opts for a deep understanding of several topics that are of interest to the child, rather than a surface scraping hit-and-run of several hundred, as often happens in the traditional classroom. What they are learning about isn't as important as how they learn it and the fact that they want to learn it because it's already an area of interest.
We'll talk later about the boundaries and limitations of project-based learning, and give some examples of how this type of education works in real life.
We've not officially started school work yet, but we're trying to draw a little bit each day. The idea is to increase observational skills, and more importantly, to slow down and really spend some time working on producing something. We try to go to a different place each day. Brennan finishes very quickly because he'd rather explore, but Rich usually gets somewhere by himself and works for about ten or fifteen minutes uninterrupted. The quiet time is like a "reset" button for the day.
We're starting with simple paper and pencil but once we're in the habit we'll introduce colored pencils, textured paper, heavier lead pencils, etc. and eventually different kinds of paint. The idea is not to be graphic artists, but explore these tools and learn their differences. Heavy lead works differently from a No. 2 pencil, just as watercolor behaves differently from tempra paint. Change the type of paper and you get a completely different look. Here's the key: these principles can be applied to a wide variety of disciplines. We learn to use the correct tool in the correct way to express ourselves or solve problems, and to change tools when we're not achieving the desired result. These concepts are invaluable in math and writing, and essential in science.