March 31, 2010

Teaching in Secret

This week Maria pulled a textbook off the shelf in our home library and asked me why she has never had Literature as a subject? She said "I need to have that so why don't you teach me that, other 5 graders have it as a subject, why not me?" It is true I have never taught "literature" as a separate subject. I thought this was ironic coming from a girl who reads non-stop and I continually run out of good reading material for. I responded by asking the following questions.

What is a protagonist?
What is an antagonist?
What is a character foil?
Can you tell me about exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement of a book?
What is theme? Character? Setting?

It was then she realized I have been teaching her this subject just secretly for a long time. She knows how to answer those questions for both books and films. She has to answer these questions regularly this semester especially in her book club that I organize, in her film criticism coop class that I teach and just in regular conversation about books she is reading.

I told her I do teach you this subject I just call it Star Wars or Narnia and you never realized the formal name for what seemed easy to you was actually a subject called literature. I recently taught two classes at our homeschool cooperative - one about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the other a film class looking at the films of the Star Wars saga. We used the Freytags pyramid in both these classes often while I never called it that or introduced it as that.

I reminded her that when we go to the library I hand her a selection of books I want her to read before she gets to read one of her choice. We read aloud a book together and talk about what the meaning of certain passages are or we compare one author to another in our regular discussion. All of these things are teaching you literature.

So why did I never introduce it as a separate subject? Why no text? Why no big deal about it? I suppose because it was easier and more fun this way. There was never anything scary about learning or teaching it this way. It was natural and easy and truthfully fun. When we get around to her reading Shakespeare later it will be easy to understand who the protagonist is because she already understands Anakin Skywalker and why he played that role in the Star Wars saga. Charting a book or film using the above triangle will seem easy because she has done it for so long and learned the triangle and terms after she already understood what would go on there just because she understands how a story is written and plays out.

This past year we have been very fortunate to have a great group of her friends who really love reading meeting once a month for a book club. We have been part of book clubs before and none of my kids really enjoyed them because they felt they were more play dates then book discussion. This one is different. These kids can easily talk 45 mins to an hour each time about the book, author, literary terms and all the above mentioned topics and it is not like pulling teeth. Why? They all love to read and they get to pick the books. They all pick big thick and often fairly well written books that are filled with lots of great discussion topics. We tend to spend a lot of time in the fantasy and science fiction genres because they are most interesting to this particular group of kids. It has been a joy.

So yes I often teach in secret and later on my kids realize I was teaching. I prefer to do it this way whenever possible, though it is not often possible I know. Going back to my college studies I always had an affinity for Socrates and his approach of teaching the student by leading them naturally down a road until they realize they already knew something themselves. It seems to hold more weight with a student when they discover something for themselves. So I teach in secret and later will admit I was teaching all along.

When my kids were really little and learning their letters I would play the letter of the week game. Each week we would literally "play" with a letter. I had a cardboard box where we kept new household items each week all starting from just one letter. We would read books all week with topics and names that all started with the same letter. It was fun and it was easy. All through our week we would keep track of all the words around us we could think of that started with the letter of the week. This did a lot of things. It helped teach my kids their letters and sounds but it also built their vocabulary quite a bit and made our reading branch out into a wider variety of areas. I might not have picked up a book on armadillos had it not been a week, and I am not sure we ever would have tried quince if it had not been for Q week. Mostly though it started a habit of teaching my kids without them realizing I was teaching them through having fun together.

I need to get back to doing that more with my younger kids especially. Board games are a great way to teach in secret as are nature walks which we do a lot of. I suppose teaching in secret sounds bad or deceitful which is not my intent. Others will call it using teachable moments. Sometimes though if my kids discover I am trying to do a "Teachable moment" they will shut down where if I can keep it more natural and indiscoverable they seem more receptive. What subjects to you find you often teach in secret on?

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