Friday, January 1, 2010

This Mommy’s Perspective: A Review of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise

Oh my! My two year old screams for more attention and my four year old tells me that I am not challenging him enough by creating his own – uh, shall we say, mildly dangerous, but creative – projects while I am busy theorizing about (as opposed to attending to) their developing skills. So, I need something tried and true... pragmatic, but pleasing... with enough guidance to keep me on track when my mind wanders, while still offering enough flexibility to allow me to tweak it to suit my own interests as well as those of my kiddos. More importantly, I need something straightforward. My “Mommy brain” simply cannot handle anything complicated these days... Where to turn? The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education!

Now, this 800+ page tome might seem a bit meaty for the lean time that two young children allow me for dedicated reading and research. But, its friendly tone, excellent index and well-designed organization, as well as its concise, yet practical, explanations and resource lists, allow me to feast on it as occasions allows. Indeed, I find that the guide is divided into bite-size chunks that are easily digested – satiating my hunger for both a “how-to” and a “you’re doing just fine” as I approach educating my young ones. (And, this is something I cannot echo in regards to some other resources I have tried to sink my teeth into!) Indeed, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education, offers a banquet ideas that can last 12+ years, but does so without causing any expected indigestion. For, rather than bloat one with unnecessary side bits, the volume lays out the main courses of a well-rounded education in an engaging, palatable way.

Now, as my children are but in their preschool years, I have browsed the entire book, but have only really chewed on the portions that pertain to pre-k and kindergarten education. In doing so, I have delighted in the simple pleasure of knowing how little is actually needed to nourish my young children’s minds. For, where many early childhood education curriculums, philosophies and programs seem to continually add new components and “necessary” subjects or interest areas, the classical education distills early ed. down to a few hearty portions – a very manageable amount for a busy mom like me!

What are these portions? Why, “the three R’s”, of course: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic (plus a good dose of every day natural learning thrown in for sustenance). And, as The Well-Trained Mind lays out these portions, proposing a simple daily 30-minute-or-under menu for preparing a child for first grade work, it also makes clear that a formal academic Kindergarten program is unnecessary for many under fives. With the 30-minute menu in mind, plus the informal teaching that happens as a family goes about its everyday life, the book (correctly, in my opinion) maintains that children in their first four or five years can learn all they need to without ever picking up workbooks or following teacher’s manuals. They can learn what is necessary for first grade success in the same way they learn speak, tie their shoes, dress or clean up -- simply by parents demonstrating basic skills, practicing them for a few minutes each day and talking about what’s happening while attending to the routines of life. What a relief! The seemingly grandiose “grammar stage” of the classical education’s trivium (the first of the three classical education stages and the one where students collect, memorize and categorize information at incredible rates) can be entered into with utmost success and simplicity! No expensive materials to scrounge for. No complicated curriculums to follow. Simply, common sense, communication and focus on the basics: Reading, Writing and Math. (For the record, The Well-Trained Mind does mention that using workbooks and other curriculum resources is not completely taboo. Some children, especially those with older siblings that are immersed in “book work”, crave such materials. Thus, in keeping with the book’s aim to help parents guide their children through an effective classical education, a brief, but useful list of such materials is provided.)

With the simple ingredients of the three ‘R’s and everyday life in mind, I feel less like a novice and more like a master chef when it comes to setting the table for my kids’ education. The Well-Trained Mind confirms that the recipe for success lies in a time tested rule: Simple is best! It also makes a statement that rings ever so true to me: “Young children are...sponges because they soak up knowledge... Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out...the sponge must be filled.” Oh, how I want to soak my youngsters’ minds and imaginations with a plethora of pictures, stories and facts so that they might later use these as the basis for their own creative and analytical thought! But, how can I do this – especially when trying to balance home organization and housekeeping, a new pregnancy and three part-time job commitments with my efforts towards home education? Simple! By setting priorities and keeping the The Well-Trained Mind’s easy-to-follow suggestions always at hand.

What priorities? Well, in addition to our family’s personal ones of putting faith first, closely followed by family needs and wants, I recognize the merit of focusing on the three ‘R’s. Yes, although my personality tends to lean towards creative pursuits – drama, music and movement, art, personal expression and the like, all of which I know I can incorporate as time allows – common sense and The Well-Trained Mind sharpen my focus on literacy (including math literacy!) Of all the possible early childhood education subjects and interest areas, literacy is, undoubtedly, the most essential. For, as most educators agree: the first years of education are about learning to read, and the remainder about reading to learn. So, as long as I focus on the main courses of Reading, Writing and Math in my children’s early years, I know I will be satisfying their hunger for learning and, just as importantly, teaching them how to learn. As such, I will be providing them with what they need in order to grow into happy, well-rounded, well-equipped adults. What could be more satisfying than that?

Menu set then, I commit to preparing my children for Reading, Writing and Math by spending 10-30 minutes of focused time each day this new year on each of these “subjects”.

As classical education relies heavily on the written word, my main goal will be to help my children become fluent readers by first grade, if possible. This may seem a difficult aim, but, as The Well-Trained Mind emphasizes, “reading is simple.” Through a commitment to immersing young children in language, any reasonably literate adult can teach a child to read. No magic formulas, nor expensive curriculums, are required. A dozen or so simple procedures, most of which I am thankfully already employing, will do the trick!

What are these?

- Limiting screen time to ½ hour or less a day and taking the time to talk, talk, talk, in order to lay and build upon the verbal foundation in my children’s minds.
- Repeating quality read alouds time and time again, as repetition builds literacy.
- Maintaining (multiple, in our home) reading nooks throughout the house where the kids can “read” books on their own.
- Reading picture books during laptime, while pointing to the words I am reading.
- Reading longer books without pictures as the children snuggle or play.
- Listening to quality audio books together.
- Simply enjoying reading on my own and letting the children see me do this.
- Encouraging my young ones to ask and answer questions about the content of books. Also, guiding them to make predictions and enjoy discoveries.
- Singing the alphabet song, reading alphabet rhymes and enjoying alphabet books.
- Exploring letter sounds and phonics.
- Noting “real world” print on signs, grocery store packaging, bumper stickers – you name it!
- As my children show readiness, as Luke is, beginning and systematically moving through a phonics primer for five, then ten, then fifteen minutes a day.

Yum! After digesting The Well-Trained Mind’s suggestions on teaching Reading for pre-K and kindergarteners, I am feeling full of can-do! None of the procedures proposed in the book are overly complicated. Rather, they involve the tired and true, and, better still, simplify the plans I already have in mind. Now that’s a spread I can handle!

And how about for Writing? The same thing goes. Simple is best and a few easy procedures can set the table for success!

- Teaching the kids the proper way to hold a writing utensil.
- Drawing lots of circles and loops in a counterclockwise direction, as this is how most printed letters are made.
- Having fun making letters by writing in rice, sand and other tactile mediums.
- Enjoying writing large letter shapes with chalk and crayons.
- Using regular diameter short pencils, rather than fat “preschool” pencils for writing.
- Teaching toddlers who can comfortably control a writing utensil how to do basic dot-to-dots.
- Once control and comfort in holding a writing utensil are noted, moving onto formal instruction of writing letters and numbers, one at a time, keeping a close watch on letter formation so bad habits are not formed.
- Copying familiar words (such as family names) and short sentences (think “I love you,”) in order to naturally learn beginning conventions of written language (such as capitals, spacing, punctuation, etc.).

Nothing demanding, and all at a child’s pace. Writing can be both swallowed and enjoyed!

And how about Math? Once again, the suggestions are easy to follow:
- Surrounding the kids with mathematical processes and language continually in order to promote math literacy by doing such things as counting toes, fingers, toys and treasures.
- Playing games that include counting and skip counting. (Think hide and go seek!)
- Counting backwards for “take offs”.
- Working on simple math sums, especially in the context of everyday life, such as figuring out how many plates to put out when setting the table.
- Cooking together, to introduce fractions and measurements.
- Playing games with numbers, such as Go Fish and War.
- Doing lots of addition and subtraction with manipulatives, like beans, blocks, buttons or chocolate chips.
- Learning about money, telling time, naming geometric figures (at least basic ones, such as circles, squares, triangles and rectangles).
- Reading math-related picture books. (We love Anno!)

In general, by treating math as a game and as a part of everyday living in the pre-k and kindergarten years, rather than as an academic pursuit, a parent can ensure a balanced diet of math literacy. And, in our house, we love games!

And so it is that The Well-Trained Mind, has done something for me and my homeschool planning that I never expected it would. It has simplified it. Indeed, when I first picked up the heavy volume I expected it to weigh me down. Instead, it has lightened my load. By distilling early childhood education expectations down to their tried and true classical roots – Reading, Writing and Math - The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education has outlined a manageable menu for me. This streamlined plan is one I know I will be able to manage in the coming year, even when life’s demands mandate fix it-and-run meals. Yes, stocked with the ideas in The Well-Trained Mind, I know I can pull together a diet of early home education that my family can bite into and enjoy!

Bon appetit! And, thank you, Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise for making a classical education so accessible and appetizing!


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