Saturday, May 13, 2006

Experience vs. Being Taught

by Tracy Million Simmons

“Can’t you give me some brains?” asked the Scarecrow.

“You don’t need them. You learn something every day. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge.”
The Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum

“Pump your legs like this. Okay. Now forward. Now back. Now forward. Now back. Don’t lean so much. Now forward. Lean into it. This way. Now back again. There you’ve got it! Very good. No back. When the swing goes back, you lean forward. When the swing comes forward, you lean back.”
I was witnessing a “lesson” on how to swing – a well-meaning grandmother and a poor, befuddled, four-year old boy.

“I’m done,” the boy whined.

“You’re not done. You haven’t learned how to swing yet. How is grandma supposed to teach you how to swing if you don’t pay attention and practice? Now forward. Now back.”

Perhaps this is an extreme example, but whenever I step outside of my unschooling community (which I do often), I am always a bit surprised by the still prevalent attitude that children are empty vessels needing to be filled. How will they ever learn if we do not teach them?

“Let the boy swing,” I wanted to tell the grandmother. “Let him feel the wind in his face and experience the dizzying joy of falling through the air until the swing catches him and pulls him up again. His body will begin to understand the necessary motions. His legs will know what to do. Forward. Back. The experience is enough. He’s entirely capable.”

What should we do, as parents or grandparents, until that act of discovery takes place? Just push the darn swing! Swing with him. Find your own joy in the act of reaching your toes to the sky and tumbling back down again.
Children learn. There is no stopping them… and it doesn’t matter if the subject is as trivial as the act of swinging or as complicated as properly punctuating a written paragraph. Children will get further – more joyfully – if we allow them to discover for themselves rather than determining to fill them with the bounty of our own wisdom.

Unschooling families understand this. These are the beliefs that guide our journeys. Children are capable. Children are wise. Children are scientists and great thinkers, artists and inventors. Yet, fears crop up among us. Some days we may wonder if we could make things easier by just giving them a lesson or two.

I recently stumbled over spelling words.

Evie, my nine-year-old, enjoyed reading, but was reluctant to write independently. Maddie, my seven-year-old, who has taken a completely different approach to language and literature, was reading—somewhat—and writing—somewhat—and her wanna-do list was filled with items that required reading and writing at a level much higher than she possessed. There were days when I felt like a frazzled secretary stranded at the keyboard, typing furiously as my children dictated their letters, stories, emails, birthday lists…

Spelling words – tests.

The thought kept running through my head like a pesky critter. If I would TEACH them how to spell, we’d cross this hurdle faster and they’d be freer, right? They’d be able to pursue their interests even better if I could just give them this tool – spelling.

I explained my theory to them and they were open to it. For about two weeks we practiced almost daily. We made word lists and reviewed them. They practiced writing words, and even though I suggested 5-10 times each as I remembered doing in school, they usually opted for three times each and sometimes near the end of the list they opted for one time, or to quit altogether. But surely this was progress.

Maddie started opting out first. One day she decided she’d rather color than practice words. The next day she decided she’d take the test, but she didn’t want to practice the spelling any more. Evie experienced a surge in confidence at the beginning, she already knew how to spell a lot more than she had been giving herself credit for, but soon made it clear that this was a task she did not look forward to each day.

Then the holidays came along and distracted us.

One of my personal rituals for the New Year has long been creating a calendar/journal type book. It has pockets for special items I want to keep, areas to keep track of what I am reading or projects I am working on. The content changes year by year, but I always enjoy the very act of making the book – deciding exactly how I want each page to appear and choosing the papers to print it on.

The kids took an interest this year, and before long we were having calendar/journals bound at the print shop for all of us. We brought them home and we each absorbed ourselves in turning the pages of our very own books. The girls decorated their covers with new markers. Evie began filling in a page with her favorite television shows, the days of the week, times, and channels they were on. Maddie began a “secret” diary entry that had her running between her dad and me for the spellings of things.

We updated our calendars as a family – logging everything from dentist appointments to special date nights with mom and dad. In only one week, I was marveling at the hours my girls had spent writing, unprompted, and the joy the experience was bringing them.

Beyond the work in their calendar/journals, the girls have typed and sent emails, blogged and started “books” entirely on their own. There has not been a single spelling test in our house this year. Nobody has written lists of words for memorization and nobody has sorted words by the sounds of the vowels.

Yet, page after page of real and purposeful writing has taken place. We’ve had discussions on the use of quotation marks. We’ve examined sentence structure and the use of periods (which doesn’t mean Maddie has decided to use them just yet). I am still called upon to spell often, and my days at the keyboard aren’t over (Kaman, my five-year-old has “written” three superhero stories in three weeks, and he doesn’t believe in “short” stories). We’ve discussed the meaning of words, word origins, pronunciation, the structure of a dictionary, and spelling… of course. One experience leads them joyfully to another. Not only are they learning to write, their eyes are filled with a light and zeal that I never saw when we were doing the spelling lists.

In a recent email to her sister, Maddie wrote, “hi evie i love getting e mail do you love getting e mails love maddie ”

She didn’t ask me to spell a thing.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Live Free Learn Free.