Saturday, September 17, 2011

Celtic Harvest Festival

We decided to head out for a little family fun today. I highly recommend the Edgewater Celtic Harvest Festival to those in the area with small kids. It was really, really low key and fun. And the only thing we paid for was $1/person for the sword play.

This kid was mean. I had to intervene and tell him to stop jabbing Henry in the crotch. 
Not sure where his parents were!

My leprechaun!

Watching hurling. Or some other Irish ball and stick sport. I told you it was a chill festival.

Kids playing bagpipes and drums. Very cool.

Cutest baby ever.

So we were watching a puppet show which, honestly, I was a little bored with. In another area they had started up a little Irish weapon demo and I suggested Henry might prefer to watch that. I should have known better. He was way into the puppet show. Here he is, balloon sword drawn, ready to face the evil Nick-a-Brick. He moved behind his daddy before a bit of protection before drawing his sword.

They had a lovely little arts and crafts area where Helen enjoyed painting 
blarney stones and popsicle sticks.

Here's part of the weapon demonstration. We were able to catch the end of it.

Henry and Ryan are currently in the back yard running at each other with swords and shouting "huzzah!" We'll definitely be going back next year!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

So we've been "back to school" for a couple of weeks now. And our life doesn't look any different than it did before we "started school." Except the neighborhood kids aren't as available for playing. Which means I've had to suck it up and engage in some light saber fights. (When I'm feeling schooly, I call this physical education.)

We've started our Five in a Row curriculum. The first week we read the book 3, maybe 4 times. The second week the kids revolted, I got angry, and we read two pages of the book one time. I decided it wasn't worth it to push, so we just let it go. This week, we read the book once on Monday and we read half of it in the waiting room at the doctor's office this morning. We're having a book themed dinner tonight, but that's really the extent of our activities.

Henry is obsessed with Star Wars/Clone Wars at the moment, and I'm going with it, but I must admit to some discomfort on my part.

I feel like I should be doing more. He's making progress in his reading. He's starting to read signs and stuff. I don't know what he's reading in books, because he's not sharing that with me. I don't have the first clue where his mat skills stand at the moment, except that he's developed a new interest in money because he wants to safe up for a rifle so he can complete his Davey Crockett costume.

I guess I need to read some more John Holt or something. Honestly, many of the unschooling blogs leave me cold. And yet I'm seeing some of the same things play out in my own home. I'm raising a Star Wars obsessed kid whose greatest skill is his agility with a light saber.

Help me find some perspective.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mary!

Today the Church celebrates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Last year we made a cake for Mary, and Helen still talks about it. So this year we threw a birthday party with some friends.

The kids wanted to make a red cake and decorate it with roses. Our roses were inspired by Lacy's awesomeness over at Catholic Icing. I'm not sure how Lacy got hers to look so cute. But the kids had fun making them anyway.

We decorated the dining room with our various Marian icons and statues, and had our friends bring their own to add.

Henry spent much of the morning running around involved in sword play, and in an effort to tie his play to the feast day, I told him about the Seven Sorrows of Mary and showed him this picture:

Helen then decorated the picture and hung it on the wall as part of our decorations. And Henry created his own drawing to add. That's Jesus in the middle on top and Mary on his right and Joseph on his left.

Then he added his own depiction of the Trinity:

How cute is this little guy? He looooooves Mary!

Notice the gorgeous statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Le Leche. 

I didn't get any pictures of the primary party games. The girls played house and the boys were engaged in light saber fights in the back yard. What? Don't you have light saber fights at your Marian feast celebrations? 

Happy Birthday, Mary!! 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Zone of Proximal Development Part 2: The ZPD and Learning to Write

In my last post I explained a bit about what the ZPD and scaffolding are and what scaffolding looks like when "teaching" babies how to roll over. In this post, I'll provide a couple of examples of scaffolding the writing process.

I'd like to start by pointing out that writing is not a single skill, but rather a number of skills that come together into a finished product. In order to write, say, a thank you note that you would like your friend to read, you must 1) conceive of the idea of writing the note, 2) choose the words you need to express your gratitude, 3) decide which letters are in the words you want to write, 4) form the letters on the page, 5) plan ahead so you don't run out of room and 6) put the words in order. I'm sure I could think of more skills involved, but we'll leave it at that.

So that's at least 6 things your child is doing if he's trying to write something on a piece of paper. It's a big task.

The first trick to scaffolding is identifying when your child is on the verge of moving up the skill ladder and determining what kind of support he needs to make that step. The next trick to scaffolding is recognizing when your child needs to just hang out and get comfortable on the rung he's on before trying to make the next step.

For example, my son has recently learned to write. If you check the list above, he's pretty good at steps 1 through 4. Steps 5 and 6 are still a struggle for him. Frequently throughout our day he will bring me something he has written and ask me to read it. He still writes pretty big. He hasn't developed the fine motor skills he needs to neatly form tiny letters on the page. So he can fit two, maybe three words neatly on a page before he runs out of room. At this point, he just starts putting the letters for the words anywhere they might fit on the page. The result is something like this:

Which is fine if you have some context (that's a drawing of Abraham Lincoln), and there's only one word climbing up the page. But when the message is longer, it becomes a huge mess:

I have no idea what those say, though I do spot the word "the" in the second picture.

One day, feeling a bit frustrated, I told him that you have to write from top to bottom and left to right or people can't read it and it doesn't make sense. I wanted to show him. I wanted to have him rewrite what he'd written. He wanted to punch me in the nose.

I really should have kept my mouth shut in that situation. I wasn't scaffolding, I was pushing. He's not ready to move to the next step. He's still getting comfortable with steps 1 through 4. The effect of my "help" was to make him feel incompetent and angry. I shut down all learning opportunities at that moment and replaced them with a flood of frustrated tears.

So there's a great example of what not to do. But every once in a while my instincts are better.

My little girl is also learning to write. She's not really "writing" as defined in the 6 step process above; she's pretty much just forming letters on the page. Her fine motor skills are more mature than her brother's and she is able to form letters quite small and neatly. She doesn't know all of her letters, but she is very interested in writing her name and has picked up that "H" is the first letter of her name.

Helen had been writing "her name" for several weeks. Here's an example:

Note that I am aware that you do not spell "Helen" HOI. But I hadn't said anything to her about it. She'd tells me she'd written her name and I'd say, "wonderful!"

She kept practicing and made the following progression:

Note that she is practicing. She's doing the same thing over and over. Not because I told her to. Not because she has a worksheet to complete. She's doing it because writing her name is important to her right now. Also note that up to this point, I hadn't given her any instruction on writing her name. We'd talked about how Henry and Helen both start with H. We'd pointed out H's. Everything else she'd picked up just from living our daily lives.

Then one day she was no longer satisfied with the progress she was making on her own. We were at the library and while I was showing Henry how to find books using the computer, Helen requested her own scrap of paper and teeny golf pencil from the basket by the computer. She then pouted, "I don't know how to write my name." I asked, "Do you want me to show you?" She nodded. So I wrote her name on the piece of paper and she copied it. She has been practicing her name, again without prompting, for several days now and it now looks like this:

So in this case, the scaffolding I provided was a model for her to copy. Note that it still isn't quite right. But it's a lot closer than HOI. The letters aren't in the right order, the "L" is backwards, and there's no "N" at all (probably because she doesn't feel up for tackling that diagonal line), but the model I gave her bumped her up to a new level of competence. My job now is to stand back and let her get comfortable at this level until she's ready for my help to move up the next rung of the ladder.

How will I know she's ready? More than likely it will be because she asks me. If I felt I just couldn't hold back, I could ask her if she wants to learn to draw an "N." Because I know she's capable of tracing small letters on a page, I could print a handwriting worksheet for her and show her how to do it. But if I did that, I would be careful to present in a pretty nonchalant way. "Hey Helen! I put a worksheet on your writing table that shows you how to write the letter 'N.'" And leave it at that. If she asked for help with it I would help her. If she ignored it, I wouldn't bring it up again. I'd just leave it there.

The essence of scaffolding is waiting until a child is super ready to take the next step and offering just enough assistance to get him there. It's holding a child's hand as she jumps across a little stream. As opposed to pushing her across a river in a canoe. Either way she'll reach the other side, but if she makes the leap herself, the experience will be much more rewarding.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Zone of Proximal Development: When to Push, When to Hold Back

Recently in my homeschool circles, there has been much discussion of when it might be appropriate to push/encourage/nudge our children. How can we discern whether a little encouragement or guidance from us will help them jump to the next level of competence, or push them over the edge of frustration?

Lev Vygotsky, the great educational theorist, posited that there exists what he called the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD in the educational jargon. Vygotsky believed that the ZPD is where the greatest learning occurrs. The ZPD is that area of competence just beyond a person's current level of achievement - a level that one can reach with just a bit of the right help. He called this help "scaffolding."

Scaffolding is something we all do more or less naturally with babies. Imagine playing on the floor with a baby who is lying on his back and rolling to his side. He's just about to roll over. He's almost got it. He just needs a liiiitle encouragement. You hold out a favorite toy just beyond his reach. He reeeeaches for the toy and - woop!- he rolls over. Yay! You've just scaffolded rolling over for the baby.

Now notice, if that baby was not yet reaching for toys, or was not yet capable of getting most of the way over on his own, or wasn't interested in rolling or reaching at that moment, your efforts would have been fruitless.

Again, this comes naturally for most of us when we're working with babies. But it is much less intuitive when we're working with older children. With older children who have more or less mastered the art of walking and talking, we tend to push a little harder. If a 5 year old can't write his name, we may feel compelled to put a pen in his hand and use our hand over his hand to walk him through the steps. This isn't scaffolding. I'm not sure what I would call it, but it isn't scaffolding.

Our tendency to want to push to this extent comes in large part from a system of schooling that has tricked us into thinking that all kids need to learn the same skills at the same time and at the same rate in order to be at "grade level." If a 5 year old can't write his name, he is "behind" and we must push him to "catch up."

Nah. The problem with this kind of pushing is that it makes learning harder than it has to be. I could start coaching a baby on rolling over from the day he comes home from the hospital, but he's probably not going to roll over any sooner than if I'd just waited until he was ready. But in the mean time, I may make him think that this rolling over business is a lot of stupid hard work that he's not really interested in doing.

Okay. So what does scaffolding look like beyond the babyhood? A big question that keeps popping up in my circles, and one I've written about before, is teaching writing. I'm not sure why we're so preoccupied with writing, but it seems that we are. So in my next post I will look at what scaffolding looks like when teaching a kid to write.