This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler
Volume Three of My Book House series, “Up One pair of Stairs,” is also a collection of folk and other stories and poems. Here there are more original texts (as opposed to retellings) than in the previous volumes and children are introduced to the unadulterated language of literature. I assigned Jack poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, and Wordsworth, and stories from the Grimm brothers, Old Testament, and retellings of a couple of stories from Chaucer.
Now, please don’t imagine I expect a whole lot from my son. Alas, the average middle-schooler of today can only handle very simple language. I have no idea what age group Olive Beaupré Miller, the editor of these books, had in mind for each volume but I would bet anything school children in the 1920s were a lot more sophisticated readers than kids are now. I only mention this so my readers don’t think that I am overly ambitious with my son or that he is any kind of prodigy.
The poems I assigned were short and simple. Here is Emily’s Dickinson’s “The Sea” as an example:
An everywhere of silver
With ropes of sand
To keep it from effacing
The track called land.
During this lesson I went back to where we left off in the previous lesson, which was how it is more difficult to say why and how you enjoy a piece of writing than point out what you “learn” from it. So I asked Jack which poems he enjoyed more and why.
He said that the Stevenson poem was not realistic so he did not like it. Wordsworth was more realistic so it was better. His favorite was the Emily Dickinson poem which he found most realistic even though she used “metaphors” and “similes.” I asked what metaphors and similes were and he said metaphor “is what something looks like, like the sea is silver” and simile is “something that is similar to something else.” Good enough. I left his ideas as they were. I neither asked why he thought one poem was more realistic than another, nor why he preferred realistic poems, nor asked him to find metaphors and similes for me.
We moved on to the stories I had assigned him to read and the discussion of things one learns from stories. This time, however, I made a distinction between learning the “moral” of a story and learning other things from reading the same story. I introduced some ideas.
Discussing the Grimm fairytale I brought up the topic that some people think some fairytales are too gory and violent and children should only read the cleaned-up versions of them. Jack said: “Kids should know what’s real, including violence. But it also depends on the kid. Kids will eventually be exposed to gore.”
Other pieces I had assigned were the stories of musical compositions by Edward MacDowell and Charles Gounod. I made the point that you can tell stories in words, but also with music. I meant us to listen to those pieces and hear the story in them, but we didn’t get around to it. I reminded Jack of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” which he had liked as a young kid. We got inspired to listen to that again, but haven’t gotten around to doing that yet either!
Then we went over a couple of stories by Chaucer. These were retellings in modern English with a few lines in the original language here and there, just to give the reader a taste of the language of Chaucer and his time. And we ended our lesson with the story of Moses. We had a brief conversation about the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and even touched a little on modern Middle East politics.
My purpose? Just to point out some things, throw out ideas, and get Jack thinking. I believe that kids learn by picking things up, absorbing them into what they already know, and grow in response. Jean Piaget called this process assimilation and accommodation. Kids don’t need to be beaten over the head to learn, or to prove what they have learned by some kind of demonstration. I like to leave things as they are.
After our lesson an interesting thing happened. Jack said that he noticed a pattern in the order of my assigned readings. He saw a progression in there. These are his exact words describing this progression:
1. Beginning of life/creation (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing”)
2. Growing up (the Grimms’ “The Little Girl and the Hare”)
3. Life coming to an end (Wordsworth's “Kitten and Fallen Leaves”)
4. Old age and a final experience (MacDowell’s “Tailor and the Bear”)
5. Your death (Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette”)
6. Ages of life (Dickinson’s “The Sea”)
7. First ever colony and creation of man (the story of Moses)
8. Next age of man/Knights of the round table (Chaucer’s “Chanticleer”)
9. Former-day man who believes in this (Chaucer’s “St. Valentine’s Day”)
Well…! First of all, the selection of the pieces was completely random as far as I had anything to do with it. I just picked some pieces and Jack read them in the order that they appeared in the book. And as for the particular pattern and wisdom he saw in the pieces, I’m not quite clear. Nor is he probably. But so what! The kid is reading and thinking. That’s what I want.