One of my master’s students expressed a desire for her professors to share the things that have most influenced their ideas about education. I love this idea. One my graduate professors assigned a genealogy project in Histories of Art Education and Policy, a similar exercise. I remember enjoying that assignment, and I return to this idea of reaching back to the people who have informed my thinking and practice as an educator (and coincidentally, or perhaps not so much, I do the same in my spiritual practice). Stacking stones as it were.
I have had a number of notable teachers in my 20 years in formal education. I went to public school and looking back, did not have an academically traumatic experiences (or otherwise traumatic). I had good teachers. Small classes not focused on testing. I remember our third grade teachers especially: a language arts teacher who encouraged creative writing and our science teacher. Third grade was the year in which the class learned about a habitat (our year was the rainforest, and the year before ours was the ocean). I remember anticipating our project all through second grade because we walked through the hallway students decorated as if we were under the sea (blue lights, blue walls, jellyfish hanging from the ceiling) everyday for weeks. I remember the diorama and art projects from our Rainforest unit I’m sure we did experiments and reading and art projects and writing as well, but it really was the memory of walking through that ocean hallway and anticipating our year that is impressed on my memory.
I have parents who made sure I had every academic opportunity, meaning they made sure I was in honors classes and took classes at the local community college. They provide music lessons, art lessons, trips to museums and historic sites, time spent outside hiking, visiting national parks and local parks, participating with my mom doing water quality testing, volunteering, working, doing things with church and scouts. We weren’t over scheduled, and I remember numerous opportunities to choose what I wanted to do: band or art, theater, painting classes. Our screen time (although this was pre smart phone and tablet) was limited in the summers and we were expected to help out around the house and yard. My least favorite chore was weeding. I hated being hot and found pulling what seemed like thousands of weeks tedious. Now, it is one of my favorite things to do – keep my gardens tidy, grow vegetables, harvest them, and cook from them.
In college, I had a group of professors who were experimenting with what they called, “Total Loss Teaching.” It’s something I’m still grappling to understand what exactly it is from both a teacher and a student perspective. At the time, I was on board with what they were doing: forming a learning community in which the students and members of the community drove the learning. They gave us options in our learning, and asked us to take responsibility for it. There were several examples of this: in one class, the policy was that if you missed class (whatever the reason) in the following class, you had to apologize to the class for depriving them of your contribution. In another, the professor described a student who asked to leave class early (or come late or miss…I can’t remember the specifics) because they “had to lead chapel.” His point was not that it was right or wrong to miss class, but that it was a decision made, not something passive. In an art history class, there was an optional research project, to dig into a piece that was discussed in the textbook further. I remember only a handful, maybe 3 students in the class did the paper. I did. And then I was able to visit the piece in person when I travelled to Italy the next year. It was incredibly impactful because I knew so much more about why it was made, how it was made, and the context of its making. It seems that in all these cases, there was an effort to draw students into taking responsibility for their learning and their choices.
I keep returning to this idea.
In graduate school, I delved more into the world of research. Particularly community-based research and narrative inquiry. I loved it. Learning from people. Putting seemingly incongruous ideas together – philosophies, concepts, disciplines, people, communities, processes – and seeing what possibilities emerge. I’m not sure that anything I did or am doing is particularly groundbreaking. I’m not saving any lives or discovering unknown life forms. But, I like to think I am engaging people in new ways of thinking about their communities and learning how to live and learn together in a different way.
So all these things lead me to homeschooling. I am not homeschooling because I had a bad educational experience growing up. Or because my children can’t or won’t behave in a traditional classroom. I do question the use of technology in classrooms and the emphasis on testing as a result of (my opinion) ineffective educational policies. I do worry about the speed at which children grow up (and how we are defining maturity at the social level). But, mostly I homeschool because I want them in the world, learning through experience and play and experimentation. I want them to be curious about their world, care about others, and strive to learn more so they can do more and be more.
So what does this have to do with play?
With my children in early elementary, play is one of the most important elements of our time together. We have old clothes and a variety of objects for make believe. We have arts and craft supplies. We have books. We have building toys of all kinds; Snap Circuits and Legos to blocks and last week’s recycling.
When I started writing this post a month ago, my son was outside making a mud puddle so he could mix it with the sand he collected from the creek during a hike a few days before and grass he cut from the hill behind our apartment. He was making mud bricks in an egg carton mold after we read about Mohenja Daro during our studies of ancient India. He designed two different buildings and discovered he needed 4 extra bricks. I convinced him to go ahead and make even more extras in case any more crumbled. He’s digging, and putting his feet and hands in the mud. Forming the mixture with his fingers. He is learning about design, materials, building, history all in this one activity (that continued for about two weeks by the end). We’ve moved the bricks into the sun and back under the overhang depending on the weather. Checked for consistency in color to tell if they are done.
My job was to fetch pails of water from inside. And knowing when to stay out of the way. Even my insistence that he make extra bricks, I realize now was either a lesson in preparedness (for him) or more likely a response to my own anticipated discomfort. I anticipated the meltdown if something broke and then it wouldn’t work (I saw it yesterday when the Lego structure he was working on kept collapsing. Though, in hindsight, despite expressions of frustration, he continued for several attempts to make it work before it was time to clean up before dinner.). It turned out in the end that he decided to use the extra bricks to create the Plan B he designed in his notebook.
The buildings turned out great, but that isn’t the point. The point was he was learning about materials by collecting, touching and manipulating them. He was experimenting with process, creating his own recipe for bricks by figuring out the ideal ratio between mud, sand, water, and grass. He was learning about design thinking, studying Mohenja Daro and drawing designs from different angles, figuring out the number of bricks needed, creating the building materials, constructing the building by following his plan, and then seeing the result. He was getting to know a different way of doing things and living (reading about why people used and continue to use mud brick construction). He was learning about another culture and its history by doing.
Our Reading List for India (2nd Grade Level, whatever that means):
Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.