Sunday, April 28, 2013

Welcoming the Struggle

from March 2008


It started with a math lesson today. Janessa and I read about binary numbers in a book by Theoni Pappas. We made sense of the explanation, and Janessa was able to respond to questions such as, "If 1011 is a base two number, how is it written in base 10?" No problem. Pappas claimed that any number can be represented with these 0's and 1's in the binary system. Since I've had almost no exposure to the binary number system, I was skeptical. I extended the lesson by suggesting a number which we needed to represent with 0's and 1's. 


Enter the problem.


I knew what I was asking of Janessa was within her reach. I also knew the process would require her to struggle. She wasn't interested in a struggle; she desired ease. At that point, she would have much preferred to mindlessly fill in a page of simple multiplication and addition problems. When I said I wanted her to struggle, she thought I had cursed her, and began to cry.


Fast forward to this afternoon. A local store is offering a savings of 50% on all of their games this week. The girls and I browsed the store, hoping for nothing more than a new deck of Dutch Blitz cards. With the cards in hand, I continued to look. I spotted Settlers of Catan, a game my friend recommended years ago. I hadn't purchased it for two reasons: it's expensive, and it looks daunting. The sale removed the first reason. But the second reason remained. This appeared to be a game which would require a lot of study prior to playing. Frankly, I wasn't interested in the struggle; I wanted ease. I showed it to the girls, though, and they were up for the challenge. Within an hour of opening it, we became the game's newest fans.

How do binary numbers and Settlers of Catan relate? In our little world, they both represented struggle. Both required effort. Both wrinkled our brains. At first. Once we pressed through, however, we experienced gain. Janessa's gain was unlocking the secret binary code and accomplishing something she thought impossible. Our group gain was learning a game we anticipate giving us many hours of fun family time.

It didn't take more than a moment of reflection to discover spiritual application as well. How I prefer ease in my life! I want a happy (tidy) family, a healthy savings account, a husband who leads flawlessly, friends who adore get the idea. It is when I have all these things, however, that I see very little growth in my relationship with the Lord. When trials come, even small ones like a child crying over her math, I am tested, refined, disciplined, humbled--all for God's good purpose of producing righteousness and steadfastness, a genuine faith and maturity in me. When life is easy, I forget my Lord and unwittingly place myself on His throne. Trials knock me down and impel me to seek my Savior.

In dependence upon my mighty Savior is where I want to be. It's where I need to be. Therefore, I welcome the struggle, knowing gain will be right around the corner.

See Hebrews 12:11; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7. 

Out of the Maze

 from June 2008

Almost daily I read what other moms and teachers write on the Living Math Forum, a Yahoo group I enjoy. The following quote snagged my attention.

"Sometimes I laugh to myself because my undergrad friends would say, 'You are SO smart.' Really, I was pretty dumb. I was like a rat in a maze--just do what you're taught, don't even think."

I was--am?--one of those rats in the maze. I learned the material presented to me for the sole purpose of earning an A (and all the benefits which accompanied it). Once I accomplished that, I turned the corner, sniffing around for my next one. Somehow I missed the reality outside the maze. My husband, who is one of the clearest thinkers I know, couldn't be bothered with a silly, old maze. He didn't play by the rules, as his GPAs reflected, but he knew how to think, and he knew how to communicate his thoughts.

In the early days of my teaching career, I began a quest to learn how to teach outside the maze, to keep students from mindlessly meandering through the maze. My insights are shallow, my implementation is imperfect, and my learning is ongoing, but here is what has helped our family thus far.

~We keep W. B. Yeats' wise words before us: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

~We avoid workbooks and other rote memorization methods which can program a child to turn off her mind as she fills in the blanks.

~We fill the house with living books of all kinds to encourage reading. We avoid fluffy books which lack content, have a a controlled vocabulary, or include poor writing.

~We visit the library regularly.

~Writing for real purposes is vitally important. We have a large collection of the girls' own books, portfolders, and projects.

~We try to give the girls many and varied experiences to help them connect their learning to the world.

~We encourage creativity and decision-making.

~We try to teach skills in context rather than isolating them.

~We encourage the girls to set their own goals. We are here to help them learn in whatever ways we can, but their education is ultimately their responsibility.

~As they play, the girls re-enact what they've learned.

~The girls don't work for grades; they work for excellence.

~We talk together a lot.

~Our girls observe our continuing desire to learn.

~We teach them how to learn, so they may continue to do so when they're no longer at home.

Marilyn Burns says in Math: Facing an American Phobia: "And to learn with understanding, students' curiosity about mathematics must be tapped, their thinking must be stimulated, and they have to be actively engaged in learning and doing mathematics. It's not okay to do anything less than that and call it education" (79). Burns is primarily focused on math, but the principle can be extended beyond math. Curiosity, stimulation, and active engagement are the breeding grounds for students to grow as thinkers, not in a contrived maze but in a big world where learning has no end. 

Risky Business

from August 2008

While I watched the girls at their swimming lessons today, I had an Ah ha! moment: learning is risky.

Let me give an example. Michaiah's teacher wanted her to learn how to flip turn. She talked Michaiah through the steps. She demonstrated the process. Michaiah tried but couldn't do it. The teacher, forgetting what it was like NOT to be able to flip turn, tried other strategies but eventually called the neighboring teacher to her aid. As Michaiah practiced, she bashed her head, she botched her flips until, finally, she succeeded.

From my comfortable perch on the sidelines, I imagined myself in her place. I would have been nervous. I would have felt threatened. I would have been in a rush to prove myself. Not Michaiah. With concentration, determination, and an obvious peace with the process, she persisted toward the goal.

This is the life of children whose full-time job is learning. To progress, they must face the unknown, trust the one guiding them, potentially (and probably) look stupid, and try, try again. That sounds risky.

It sounds like something else, too. For those of us who teach, patience is required. 

Chester Cricket on School vs. Education

from June 2009

So by Thursday Chester Cricket was the most famous musician in New York City. But now here is a strange thing: he wasn't really happy--not the way he used to be. Life didn't seem to have the fun and freedom it had had before.

For one thing, although he thought that glory was very nice, Chester found that it made you tired. Two concerts a day, every day, was an exhausting program. And he wasn't used to playing on schedule. Back home in the meadow, if the sun felt nice, or the moon was full, or if he wanted to have a musical conversation with his friend the lark, he would chirp because the mood was on him. But here he had to begin performing at eight and four-thirty whether he felt like it or not. Of course he was very glad to be helping the Bellinis, but a lot of the joy was gone from his playing.

In this excerpt from The Cricket in Times Square, I see a metaphor for something I think about often: school vs. education. Chester's concert schedule in the city reminds me of school. It's tiring, scheduled, restrictive, rigid. School demands 180 days, specific subjects, standardized tests, daily logs, medical records, and, and, and.

Education, in contrast, is a meadow of fun and freedom. It doesn't care whether it's fall or summer, Sunday or Tuesday, 10:30 am or 10:30 pm. It can happen whenever and wherever, alone or with company. It needs no curriculum or grades. Motivation comes from within not from without.

School can teach us these lessons.

  1. Do the bare minimum.
  2. Learning means pleasing the authority figure.
  3. Learning, schooling, and studying are no fun.
  4. Playing is when you don't have to learn.
  5. To be a good student I have to study somebody else's interests.
  6. My own interests must be pursued on my own time, and they aren't as valuable as the "accepted" topics of study.
  7. If nobody is making me study, I'd rather be entertained than learn.

Education gives us different lessons.

  1. There is so much to learn and it is so exciting.
  2. Learning is more fun than almost anything.
  3. I can learn on my own, in a group, or with help from a teacher or parent.
  4. All I need is a book and I can learn.
  5. In fact, I can learn even without a book.
  6. I love learning!
  7. I am passionately interested in.....
  8. If I do more than is assigned, I'll learn more and have more fun. The assignments are just minimums.
  9. My thoughts and ideas are as valuable as anybody else's. 

School is not inherently confined to buildings with whiteboards and desks (although it does exist aplenty there). Similarly, education doesn't automatically flourish in a home with a mother and her children. Some classrooms encourage education; some homes dispense school; some have a combination of each.

In my ideal world, our home would be a meadow of inquisitiveness, exploration, and excellence. By God's grace, it is much of the time, but always ready to encroach on our fun and freedom is the yoke of school. I know it has us in its grip when I hear (or say) comments such as:

Does this count?
Was that a full day?
How many weeks of school have we finished?
You counted THAT?
You need to do your math first.
Can I go play now?

It's then that I ponder the school/education tension so intently that I find myself identifying with a cricket.

We are taking a brief break from school (oh, there it is again!), but I am so glad education continues. I've captured some of those moments on the camera.

Rebekah making gravel cakes for a doll she's sewing.
Janessa drawing and painting on the computer.
Rebekah dying socks in tea for the doll she is making
Michaiah laying out the pieces for a quilt she designed
The girls dancing the "Cha Cha Slide"
Janessa in bed knitting while listening to The Hiding Place
Michaiah reading

Rebekah playing piano, with her makeshift microphone next to her
I'm fully aware that tension will remain for me. Realistically, the pull toward school will only increase as we march toward the high school years. But as much as possible, I want to encourage the girls toward the meadow, where they can enjoy musical conversations and chirp as they so please.

The numbered lists are taken from A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century by Oliver Van DeMille.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Writing Process

You're familiar with the five steps or stages of the writing process: prewriting (brainstorming), drafting (writing), revising, editing (proofreading), and publishing. While it may seem that they are linear--do step one, then step two, etc.--they are not. The writing process is fluid, the different stages happening in fits and starts, one overlapping another.

Follow the process by clicking on the links. 

prewriting     drafting     revising     editing     publishing


For many students the battle starts here because they “don’t know what to write about,” and they are intimidated by the blank piece of paper laying in front of them.

Ways to bring ideas to the surface:


Give students a blank screen or sheet of paper, set a timer for five? ten? minutes, and tell them to write without stopping until the timer dings. They can write about anything they want. If that is too much to ask in the beginning, give them several prompts, simple ideas that ignite the brain and move the fingers.  When they can't think of anything else to write, they can write, "I can't think of anything else to write" until a better thought penetrates the fog. The goal is to dump the content of the brain onto the paper and mine for something that is worthy of the writing process.  Not every freewrite will become a finished piece, but each one allows the writer freedom to express whatever is stirring around in his head without concern for mechanical correctness. Did you get that?  Freewrites are not corrected or critiqued. They are a safe place to experiment with language, with no rules or restraints.

Although freewrites are not typically published, 5 Minute Friday: Kids' Edition is an exception.

It's amazing how much of the writing process happens in the head. Instruct your student to think about the idea, wrestle with it, let it marinate. When they are ready to write, the words will spill out a little easier.

Make a list.
Have students make a list of everything they can imagine about their topic. They don't need to evaluate the ideas that emerge.  They can simply write them down and figure out what stays, and what goes, later.

Graphic organizers
You can find scads of organizers on the web to help kids figure out what they think before they start writing.

Sometimes it helps to discuss ideas with another person (or a group of people) to figure out what we think. Talk with your students, or put them in a setting where they can talk with others.

What do I know? What do I want to know?  What have I learned?
To lay a foundation for drafting, it may be helpful to answer the first two questions.  If the student researches for more information, the third question can be answered. With all of that groundwork, drafting can begin.

This one is appropriate for every stage, for apart from God, what can we really do?


Writing a rough draft gets the thoughts from the head to the paper. It's okay if paragraphing is wobbly, organization is unclear, and spelling is atrocious. Revising and editing will take care of all that later.

A writer’s journal
Give your kids a composition book, a place to add impromptu writing pieces. While some of these entries may end up being polished for publication, that is not necessarily the goal. The composition book invites the budding writer to fill its pages. Whether kids dabble in poetry, write their observations from a nature walk, compare two characters in a book, write a list of synonyms, or make up some jokes doesn't matter. What matters is that they are writing, and doing so consistently.

Be well supplied.
Create a literate environment. Lined, unlined, colored, and white paper, pencils, pens, markers, erasers, a dictionary, thesaurus, books--whatever it takes to grab a child's interest for writing, have it available and accessible.

Get comfortable.
It doesn't matter where and when writing happens as long as it's optimal for the writer. Does he like background music or silence? Does she prefer a straight-backed chair, a sofa, or a bed? Is it easier for him to draft with pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? When does she focus best--early morning, afternoon, or evening?

Snippets of time
A draft doesn't need to be written from start to finish in one sitting. Writing a little bit, taking a break to do something else, then writing a bit more may make the process less painful.


Revising and editing are sometimes confused. Revising deals with content and includes changing the order of paragraphs, rewording sentences, reworking the introduction, developing the body, scrapping and rewriting the conclusion, omitting unnecessary words, improving diction, varying sentence structure, combining sentences, eliminating redundancies....

It is in revision that a student's writing develops and matures. Don't skip it!

Set it aside.
Let students know that, after writing a piece or part of a piece, they can temporarily leave it.  When they pick it up again, they will not be as attached to it.  Since attachment is what keeps us from seeing our pieces clearly and making the necessary changes, separation is our friend.   How long should the separation last?  It depends on the time frame. They can leave it for a few hours, overnight, or several days, coming back to it and revising with fresh brain and eyes. (Watch out for procrastinators, though. The piece can't be left indefinitely. : )

Read it aloud.
When students read the words aloud for their ears to hear, they will likely notice the awkward sentences, the repeated words, the places that don't flow. They can make the changes as they find the problems.

Use Post-It Notes.
Students can assess the progress of their paper as they look at five traits: idea development, organization, voice, word choice, and sentence fluency. You can find templates and an explanation here.

Ask for help.
Let them give their draft to someone else for questions and comments, someone who will be honest but gentle.

Remember that revising can happen simultaneously with pre-writing and drafting. As we think about what we want to write, we make decisions about this word vs. that word, this thought vs. that thought, this sentence structure vs. that sentence structure.

Hire a mentor.
Pick me. Pick me. : )  You can find out more here.


Editing, the last step before publishing, focuses on the nitty-gritty: the spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and overall appearance of the piece. Spending time with it earlier in the process is not advisable because anything that is revised needs to be rechecked.

Backwards reading
When your student knows his piece well, it's hard to back away from it and see the mistakes. Reading from the end--the last sentence, then the second to the last sentence, and so forth--to the beginning of the piece will remove the sentences from the flow of meaning, allowing him to recognize mistakes he might otherwise miss.

Change the font.
If the composition is on the computer, your student can give it a new look which will force her to look at it differently. Have her change the font style or size and read it again, looking for errors in mechanics.

Ask for help.
Let students ask someone with an eye for detail to review the piece.

Don't rely on spell-check.
In a goofy response to a friend, I typed, "Ewe just knead too no eye halve you're back."  Spell-check didn't notice anything was amiss.


 Pieces and projects that have gone through the full process need to go public, allowing students to share their work with an audience beyond themselves.  When we know others will see our final products, we have a greater desire for excellence. Suddenly, the purpose of revising and editing is clear.

A pool of ideas

  • Write and send a letter to a pen pal, business, author, athlete, musician, public official, newspaper, etc.
  • Display finished work in the home--on the coffee table, end table, bookshelf, bulletin board, refrigerator--somewhere that attracts readers to notice and read. 
  • Arrange with a local office to display student work in the waiting room.
  • Take select pieces along when you visit aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
  • Host an authors' party (once? monthly? quarterly?), inviting your children's friends to bring their favorite piece to share. Students can be given stage time, reading aloud their piece to the group, or students can swap pieces, reading and enjoying them all privately. You may want to build in time for feedback, either verbal or written, and snacks. : )
  • Enter a writing contest.
  • Libraries display art from local schools. See if the librarian will do the same with student writing. 
  • Announce project themes (e.g. biography, poetry, heroes, personal testimonies) to a group of student writers. Collect submissions for inclusion in a group book.
  • Start a blog.
  • Begin a public speaking club. Invite students to share speeches they have written.
  • Design a photo book online with informational or story text and accompanying photos.
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