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I had an a-ha moment today.

And who would have thought that it would come from two very different experiences happening on the same day?


I’ve posted before about the initial struggles I had with our math curriculum.  Since that first-year learning curve, it’s been pretty smooth sailing.  Until this week.

Our curriculum made some huge leaps this week, as far as I’m concerned.  My oldest son struggled with two separate lessons that took his addition skills and subtraction skills up a few notches.  And by a few notches, I mean like FIVE.  There were some tears, and I decided to split his work for one lesson over two days.  “Short lessons” is one of many principles of education promoted by Charlotte Mason, a British educator at the turn of the 20th century, whose methods I have been reading about in For the Children’s Sake.

We would revisit his worksheet tomorrow, I said. In the mean time, I did some digging.

Looking back over our lessons, I realized that while the jump in addition may simply be larger than I agree is appropriate (at least for a child who is young-for-grade-level), the leap in subtraction was mostly difficult for two reasons:

  1. I didn’t exactly understand what I was to be teaching, since it is something that simply isn’t taught in a traditional approach to elementary math (let me know if any of you are used to learning to mentally subtract two-digit numbers with borrowing BEFORE learning the pencil-and-paper algorithm, k?).  Once I did MY homework, however, and began to really understand the strategies for myself, I realized that I had made things more complicated than they were intended to be. 
  2. The curriculum did not focus on subtraction for nearly 30 lessons!  Sure, there was occasional practice in a warm up or on a review sheet, but the concepts were not discussed in the slightest.  I had to realize that the lessons alone were NOT sufficient to prepare my son for the challenge of mental subtraction with borrowing.  But, as I examined my text book, they weren’t intended to.  Our curriculum, you see, is more than lessons–it includes many suggested math games and facts practice sheets.  The lessons introduce new material.  The games provide the bulk of the practice.  But we rarely played the games if they weren’t already included in a lesson’s activities.

My conclusion from this negative experience is that I’ve been too focused on getting to the next lesson.  Or to the next child on a given day.  My son is slow to get his work done, so we’ve not had time leftover for games.  Instead of seeing that as a hint to slow down, take a day off for a “Game Day”, and build the skills that would help him work faster, I’ve plowed forward, getting us further in the book but not necessarily further in skills and understanding.

As all of that was sinking in this morning, I had the pleasure of a very positive experience with my younger son.

Today I got to introduce my five-year-old to “one-thousand”.  Place value may not seem that exciting to adults, but when you’re five, and you’re the little guy, it’s pretty exhilarating to finally feel like you are catching up with your big brother.  After the concepts were introduced, one of the exercises was to write in his math journal “5000 dogs”, “8000 pigs”, “3000 cats”, etc.  This little man is just beginning reading lessons, and we’ve been stuck pretty much at the beginning.  He often forgets his letters and their sounds, and the idea that sounds, once identified, can be blended together to form words has been pretty much lost on him.

But today…

I helped him say each sound of each word in turn, then write the correct letter.  He actually guessed the letters correctly most of the time.  Then we worked on sounding out the words he’d written.  He blended sounds together rather painlessly for the first time ever!

We were both thrilled!

He happily copied his name and the words “can read!” right next to where I had written them on his paper.  A math lesson turned into our most successful reading lesson yet!

We were so excited and felt so full that it seemed silly to do anything more!  In the past, if we had made some progress on reading I would have thought “more is better” and pressed on to do the next lesson–or at least tried to re-focus us on finishing the math lesson.  But today I realized that the joy of learning is the ultimate goal.  And I saw very clearly how pushing for more would have ruined the moment for both me and my son.

It made me wonder:  How often has my son had a “moment” in his learning, but I didn’t detect it?  How often have I squelched his joy in learning by trying to move ahead too quickly?

With my oldest’s recent painful math lessons, I saw how my desire to “finish this today” and “check off a box and move on” over the past several months has done him a disservice.  We would have done much better to have played more games by insisting on less arbitrary “progress”.  Behold, the negative effects of ignoring Charlotte Mason’s concept of short lessons.

Once I got around to my second-born, I was ready to put the rubber to the road, and we had the incredibly awesome experience of seeing the joy of learning spill over into the rest of the day because we didn’t bury it in any more school work.

Less is more.  Especially when you’re five.  And maybe even in your thirties, but that’s another post for another day.

We are forging ahead, but our destination is now a more distant consideration.  Stopping to smell the proverbial roses along the way is now on my list of “objectives”.

I have learned today that I am teaching a child, my child–not a subject or a curriculum.  I’ve heard others say that before, but now I own it by experience.

Any other teachers or homeschool mamas out there?  Have you had this “a-ha” moment, too?  If you’re into Charlotte Mason’s philosophies, how has implementing the principle of short lessons helped you and your students?