This blog was originally posted by Dr. Spencer for the Willow Tree Community School.
I have written before about how all of the pictures that we post here can be a bit misleading. Of course, we do stay busy with activities that keep our hands and bodies working, and we do spend a great deal of time outside compared with other schools. A picture can capture all of those things very well. What it cannot capture is the inner-working of the mind. Anyone who has looked at our book list knows that we read. Copiously. Widely. And the books we read are challenging. We cover a lot of ground in a term, but the word “cover” can also be misleading. That word could imply that there is simply a list of “stuff” that the students have to read and do–answer a question here, write a paragraph there–and that is the end of it until we finish (and forget?) that list of “stuff” and start the next one. This is what many people think of when they hear the word “school.” Whether this model is followed under Common Core, state standards, Core Knowledge, or in a college syllabus really does not make much difference, except perhaps in the types of “stuff” the students cover. That model lends itself well to testing–a measuring of how full the student’s mental “bucket” is compared with the buckets of others. But just as the camera has limits as to what it can capture, so do tests. All tests have these limits, but standardized tests are particularly narrow in their scope, which is why teachers get so upset when test scores are used to make important decisions for students or to assess a teacher’s effectiveness.
As we read all those wonderful books, we are not thinking about how they will impact test scores or even how full of “stuff” our students’ mental buckets will be (and how good that will make us look). That is too short-sighted. We are in it for the long haul, and we are in it for the children’s sake. Rather than being guided by the question, “How are we going to make sure our kids outperform other kids?” we choose to be guided by different questions: What kind of people are we sending out into the world? Are they the ones who are going to care enough to step outside themselves and change humanity for the better? Are they going to be loving and attentive parents to their own children one day? Can they discern Truth and Beauty and allow those things to guide their consciences and their choices? Are they well-read and broad-thinking people who can find something in common with anyone, and thus have compassion for anyone? Are they equipped to lead purposeful, reflective, and balanced lives and to work to the best of their abilities and to the glory of God?
Those are difficult and messy goals. It is much easier to say that all students need to master 70% of the “stuff” we have put on a list. It’s cleaner. It makes us feel that we have control. But we have found that when we relinquish that control–when it is just a child, a book, and a caring adult, without the comprehension questions and tests–that wonderful things happen. Relationships are built. The conscience is instructed. The child begins to think on a deeper level about what she can take away that will improve her life. We call it the Grand Conversation, and it is so easy. After we read, someone retells (narrates) the passage. Then I just ask, “What did you think about that?” A conversation ensues, in which students share insights and connections, and sometimes they ask questions. Sometimes a child pulls out a life-giving idea, which we call a “golden nugget,” and we talk about that. For example, this week we were reading Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat. After we narrated the passage, one child said, “I noticed a golden nugget when Edward said, ‘It is an old saying, that you must not work a willing horse to death.’” Another child chimed, “Yes. I noticed that, too.” We took a moment to copy the passage in our commonplace books (where we collect ideas we want to remember), and then we had a lovely conversation about Beethoven, our composer for this term, who’s father almost beat the love of music out of him by making him practice so much until his mother stepped in. And how much richer is the world in which Beethoven did not lose his love of music?!
Other passages that have lent themselves to Grand Conversation in the last week or two include:
“There are people who take up a lot of space, not in the body–they are not bigger than we–but in their pretensions and their ambitious manoevers. Do they live in peace, are they preparing for themselves a venerable old age? It is doubtful. Let us remain small; that is to say, let us content ourselves with the little God has given us; let us beware of the temptations of envy, the foolish counsels of pride; let us be full of activity, of work, and not of ambition. That is the only way we are permitted to hope for length of days.” (from The Storybook of Science by Jean-Henri Fabre)
“To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.”
(from “Lines Written in Early Spring” by William Wordsworth
“Thus did the blundering old fellow of a chairman, for the lack of a few kindly words, turn away the hearts of the Indians, and lose their help at a moment when it was sorely needed.” (from This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall)
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature. If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insight you do not already possess.” (from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler)
Books that contain ideas like this provide abundant fodder for reflection and sharing. On Friday mornings, we begin our day with a Grand Conversation with all of the students from elementary through high school present. This allows them to share and make connections across classes. The conversation begins with me asking, “What did you read this week that you found interesting?” or “What did you think this week that you had never thought before?” Sometimes the answers begin with some bit of trivia, such as, “I didn’t know that you could make paper out of cotton rags,” or “I didn’t know that river otters were so aggressive.” Then they often turn to a discussion of connections and ideas: “I thought it was interesting that in Utopia, the people used gold to make the lowest things, like chamber pots and chains for slaves.” “Yes. And when people from the neighboring town came to visit, the Utopians felt sorry for them because they were covered in gold and jewels.” “I thought it was interesting that Sir Thomas More was cheerful and joking when he was about to be executed.” “Yes, if anyone had a reason to be angry and sad, it was someone like him, who was being killed for doing the right thing.” “It’s like what we read in Ourselves: Joy is a choice.” And to this, one of the younger students replied, “Can we learn about Sir Thomas More?”
This, my dear readers, is what living education means. It is not about test scores, grades, or getting into an Ivy League college; it is about helping children learn to find the golden nuggets in their reading and experiences that will help them grow not only in knowledge, but in wisdom.
If you would like to follow Willow Tree Community School you can find Dr. Spencer and the children at www.wtcschool.org. This blog can also be found at http://www.wtcschool.org/1/post/2013/12/golden-nuggets-and-the-grand-conversation.html.
© 2013 by Dr. Jennifer Spencer