Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Read, Reflect & Respond in Our Home & Co-op Classroom

Dear friends,

The following article is an excerpt from the March 2009 issue of my Hope Chest e-magazine. It is a follow-up to my earlier blog post, the audio/visual workshop, Read, Reflect & Respond (The Real 3R's of Literature!)



To supplement the workshop presentation linked above, I would like to share with you just a small sample of the specific ways that we implement the Read, Reflect, Respond process in our home. I’ll start with what I do with my children, and then move on to how I use it myself.

BIBLE: My friend Heather was commenting the other day how she needed to be more consistent with teaching her kids to study the Bible. I realize that I need to work on this more than we have recently. Usually, I had just been reading a short portion of Scripture before moving on to our other books. This past week, I decided to teach them how to study it, starting with the book of Colossians. We are working through several verses each day as a group. Each of my younger kids (ages 11 and down) has a small pocket New Testament that we use at Bible time so they can all be in the same version (NIV) and on the same page. I also wanted them to be able to take notes effectively, so I went to the new Deal$ store that just opened up near us and bought five composition books for $1 each. These are good because my kids can sit on the couch with them and it’s stiff enough to write on without being as bulky as a notebook. Everything stays put in one place – no stray papers! Each one of my kids works at his/her own level. Melody, who is three, scribbles and puts stickers in hers. Occasionally I’ll write a phrase for her (“Jesus is God’s son”) and ask her to repeat it, or I draw a heart or a cross. That’s enough to keep her happy, though she still wiggles a lot. Ben, our six year old kindergartner can read and write, but not spell. I write out a list of short phrases from the verses for him to copy, such as “Bear fruit in good works” or “Pray for others.” Then he reads them back to me later. He is very pleased with his work. Naomi, our eight year old, writes down the same phrases as I say them to her. (In Charlotte Mason circles, this is known as dictation, whereas what Ben does is called copy work.) Andrew (age 11) and Micah (age 9) do what Charlotte Mason called written narration. This means they write down in their own words what they have learned. As we study, the kids read aloud the verses (recitation) and we do oral narration; that is, each child has the opportunity to comment to the group what the passage means. Dictation, copy work, recitation, oral narration. and written narration are all solid foundations for the “Read, Reflect & Respond” process. You can read more about the wonderful Charlotte Mason method in Karen Andreola’s book A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning as well as on Jeannie Fulbright’s web site.

CHILDREN’S NOVELS AND NARRATIONS: Our current pick for a novel, at home and in my 7th-8th grade co-op class, is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Part of a nine novel series on racism in Mississippi, this particular book is set in the 1930’s. It’s always been a “must read” in our house. The last time I read it aloud to my kids (several years ago) they made me do 85 pages in a stretch, without even stopping for lunch. It’s not exactly a jolly book; the end of it is very sobering. But it is a vital one for introducing key issues of life and how we deal with challenges and injustice. This book is one that I assign to my class in our Providence home school co-op the years when we study American literature. I wrote my own study guide for it, supplemented with information from the web. Instead of having my 11 year old son, who is in my class, write out all of the answers, I had him do them orally. The thoughts flow more freely this way sometimes, and it takes less time than writing it all out. (He already has a lot of other written assignments, so there is no loss there.) In January, I assigned the Civil War novel Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. As usual, I gave them my study guide for it, but after we “finished” the four weeks I had the hunch that some of them had rushed through it and not given it proper attention. So for the next week’s assignment, I told them to read the entire book over again. Each day, they were to write a response paragraph (a written narration) on something they had read. I told them it could be in the form of a summary, a description of a person or scene, an opinion, a poem, a journal entry or letter as written by a character, or a description of how this relates to something in their own lives. I told them to make sure each paragraph was complete, clear, convincing, and creative. Their paragraphs were absolutely delightful! I know that I will use this method again at least once a year. The second reading helps them pick up details they didn’t catch the first time around, and the response paragraphs require more creativity and critical thinking skills than just answering questions.

ESSAYS AND OTHER WRITTEN RESPONSES: Last month, I knew that I would be assigning a persuasive essay as a writing project. I wanted it to be something related to the either-or logical fallacy that we were covering in class. This kind of fallacy occurs when a situation is presented as “it must be either this or that” when in reality it could be neither or both at the same time. I wondered what to use as a specific topic for the essay. God graciously provided the answer through an e-mail conversation with a distant relative about the Great Commandment (love your neighbors) and the Great Commission (preach the Gospel). I realized that many Christians at different ends of the theological spectrum tend to focus intently on one to the neglect of the other. Some think that we should just meet people’s practical needs, and avoid sharing the gospel because they don’t want to “force their beliefs down their throats.” Others think they should just devote all of their ministry resources to communicating Scriptural truths because it takes too much time and money to try to keep up with social action and community service. My conviction is that we need both the good deeds (Great Commandment) and good words (Great Commission) fully integrated with one another for maximum effectiveness. So, I compiled a list of Scriptures on both, gave them to my class, and assigned them to write an essay on why we need both. I’ve been very pleased with what they have written so far! This is an example of examining the Scriptures, and reflecting on and then responding to the issues in them. I encourage you to use this approach in some of your writing assignments. You can find the Scriptures we used on at The Great Commandment & the Great Commission. Written responses don’t just have to be about something they have read. They have also done these for President Obama’s inauguration speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as fine art, poetry, and carols at Christmastime. I will be posting similar Easter week assignments on-line soon.

SHORT STORIES: Well over ten years ago, I started investing in the Miller story series by Mildred Martin. I may not be a Mennonite, but these books are treasures! Our copy of Missionary Stories with the Millers is completely dog-eared from heavy use. Joanna says she read it 12 times when she was younger. Last year, I had been reading bits of it to the 5th-6th grade history class which I assist in at co-op, and one of the moms asked if she could borrow it. A few weeks ago, one of my own kids asked where it was, and I remembered that I hadn’t gotten it back. My friend brought it to me the next week, and we’ve been reading a chapter or two at home since then, as well as in that history class again. My kids beg for this book! I think it has given some of them a real heart for global outreach, which may be evident when you read the family news section of this issue. The other books in the series are Wisdom and the Millers, Storytime with the Millers, Prudence and the Millers (about health and safety) and Schooltime with the Millers. We love them all! They are not at all expensive, and some of them have activity books to go along with them. (We haven’t bought these.) The place where we buy the Miller books is www.Timberdoodle.com. We have been ordering from this excellent family-run Christian home school supplier for almost two decades. I know they don’t have the same vast selection as Christian Book Distributors, but their service is stellar, their prices are discounted, and what they do have is a fantastic variety of high quality educational materials. They specialize in hands-on fun activities, Christian character building resources, great literature, and products designed for use with autistic and other special needs children.

INDEPENDENT READING: Our kids also read by themselves. Some of this is as assignments, such as Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens for Joanna’s high school co-op class, or Little House in the Big Woods for Micah’s 3rd-4th grade class. But they also read a lot just for pleasure or personal development. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and the Little House by Laura Ingalls Wilder have always been popular in our home! I try to leave ample time for my kids to just curl up on the couch and read. I’d much rather have them do this than endless worksheets!


Moms, you need this as much as your children do! Are you feeding your mind and your spirit so you can keep up with the many overwhelming demands of life? Are you going deep or just trying to get through the surface stuff? Take time to read, reflect, and respond -- and set the example for your kids! What books are you reading now? What do you want to read soon? Write a list! I think I’ve heard that the average American adult doesn’t even read one full length book each year, not including what they read for work or school or to their children. However, I think you would be surprised how many life-changing books you could read if you make a plan and take the time for it – even 15 minutes a day.

As part of the “Read, Reflect & Respond” process, I take notes in my journal for some of the books that I choose. I used to use a hardbound “diary” style journal, but last year I switched to a sturdy, full sized notebook, which is much more practical for me since I can insert or remove pages as needed. In the notebook, I have three sections. The first is for whatever household stuff I need to keep track of, like a “to do” list or a budget. The second section is for my chronological journal, which includes my own reflections on daily life, records of notable things that have happened, letters or e-mails, brief quotes and my own thoughts from books I am reading, prayer requests from friends, Bible study notes from quiet times or church sermons, etc. (I don’t carry the whole notebook with me to church; instead I carry a simple folder with lined paper, and then I put the pages in the notebook when I get home.) The final section is for more lengthy book notes. If I have decided to consistently take notes for a certain book, I like to keep it all together so I can more easily reread them later. Usually, my book notes consist of my favorite quotes, short synopses (summaries) of each chapter, and my own commentary and reaction to what I am reading.

I recently finished reading I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman's Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh. In 1966, a wealthy Pakistani Muslim woman started having strange dreams about Jesus. After reading the Bible and talking to missionaries, she trusted in him for her salvation and began to live a life of surrender to God and service to her people. She eventually had to flee the country because of persecution. This book is a huge blessing to me, especially because when I first picked it up to read, I was feeling so low and discouraged. Reflecting on God’s grace in Bilquis Sheikh’s life caused me to respond with fresh gratitude and resolve to persevere with my own puny trials. I didn’t take notes on this book; I was too tired and just trying to enjoy the story! My sweet second cousin Jean sent it to me. We often share Christian books with one another, and she always seems to know how to encourage me in the faith. Do you have someone like this in your life?

I am currently reading (and taking notes on) The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. My 14 year old daughter Lydia is working through this book as an English assignment using the Progeny Press study guide, the curriculum she prefers because it provides challenging questions and writing projects. (We usually buy the downloadable PDF version and print it out in fast draft mode to save ink.) Lydia is doing English independently this year, rather than with our co-op classes. Though in 8th grade, she has received permission from our home school enrollment program to get a high school credit early, since she is doing advanced work. All six of her titles this year are British literature. Since I found an extra copy of The Screwtape Letters at a yard sale, I decided to read along so we can discuss it later. Even beyond my daughter’s academics, it is a help to me spiritually as well. It’s an unusual book, a collection of (fictitious) letters written by a demon supervisor to his underling, instructing him on how to distract and discourage Christians. It takes a little extra thinking to translate from their viewpoint (such as God is “The Enemy” and Satan is “Our Father Below”) but it’s worth the effort. Even the process of reasoning it out is so valuable in stretching the brain and heart. I find that I don’t always agree with C.S. Lewis, especially the last two chapters of the otherwise brilliant Mere Christianity. However, I know that part of the reflection stage is realizing that we need to be very discerning and not just accept everything we read – but that we can still gain valuable insight even when we don’t agree with ever last bit of something. You can get a combined Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters volume; I think this is the one Lydia has since she asked for it for Christmas over a year go.

A few years ago, I wrote two articles related to the concepts above. You can find them at Learn to Discern and Busy, Dizzy & In a Tizzy: Christian Contemplation for Moms and Other Frazzled Folks.

The one last link that I want to give you is for a free 130 page downloadable e-book by Leigh Bortin of Classical Conversations. Even if you don’t use the classical approach to education, you’re sure to gain some great insight and ideas! You can find it here: Echo in Celebration: A Call to Home-Centered Education.

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