Apr 30, 2011

No, not every child is Gifted...

though it is true that every child is different. 



Wondering if your child is gifted is not elitist. Having them tested is not arrogant or "acting above your station". It just makes sense if you want to parent YOUR child appropriately...

Recognising those differences and catering to the individuality of your child is the essence of being a good parent.



Our story
It has been four-and-a-half years since the "G" word was introduced to us by an observer outside the family. I felt somewhat prepared because my lovely sister (qualified teacher and early childhood carer, mother of 3 "G" kids herself) had pointed out a few times where November (and later July) was ahead of the usual milestones (talking at 7 months was one of the stand-outs). It was suggested to us that we should look into an assessment as November was not going to fit into the average school starting timeline.

Be prepared for bitterness, controversy, and meeting people who are instantly your best friends
The Gifted issue brings up a lot of fear in a lot of people.

For us, the nastiest comments came from two family members who were convinced that even looking for more information was wrong, and that their opinions HAD to be considered: these amounted to dire warnings that letting our child start school early would encourage inappropriate sexual experimentation, drink driving, and the formation of a teenage drop out!

This was extra pressure we did not need. So we looked for more information elsewhere and left the doomsayers behind...


We went searching online and in person for more information, experience, ideas. We met some gorgeous people who were really supportive - the "been there done that" (BTDT) parents who were very generous with their time and ideas. We sought out Gifted Kids associations that offered fun workshops for kids that really wanted to know about the magic properties of circles.

We got more confident and spoke to our friends to see, yes, they too were dealing with school boredom, frustration, bush lawyers that could argue you blue in the face, kids that were pretty darn quick. Thank you good buddies!

Here follows a list of places we have "been" online that are not fearful but celebrate what is a truly wonderful "gift" - a clever child!



Email lists - subscribe to receive a daily digest of posts/messages
Here are some gifted email lists that have been terrific for us. If you need advice, reassurance, or a sounding board these are the places to tap into.

Though some are in Australia, and some in the USA, all nationalities seem very welcome all over. Most of these lists require applying to join, which is very straight forward. I usually select the digest option to avoid being swamped by individual emails flowing into the inbox:









Must visit web sites
Your first stop should really be Hoagies - but don't get lost in there - it is huge! Here are a few favourite links:






who also put together the following guides to giftedness levels



Above: The Five Ruf Levels of Gifted (Levels 1-5) plus Average & High Average levels and their associated IQ ranges.
 Testing and Assessment - an IQ score is not just a score, it depends on the test itself (among other things)






Books
There are many books and articles on gifted kids, interventions, educational strategies etc but the most resonant for us were written by Miraca U.M Gross PhD. "Exceptionally Gifted Children" is highly recommended if you suspect your child is exceptionally to profoundly gifted (Levels 4 and 5 in Ruf).


Here is an excerpt from an address given by Miraca Gross on the importance of differentiation in educating gifted students:





From “the saddest sound” to the D Major chord:
 The gift of accelerated progression.

 Miraca U.M. Gross, PhD

Keynote address presented at the 3rd Biennial Australasian International Conference
on the Education of Gifted Students,
Sunday, 15 August, 1999, Melbourne, Australia.


In her book Counseling the Gifted and Talented, Linda Silverman (1993) proposes an interesting exercise.
“Imagine that you live on another planet in another solar system in which everyone is convinced that in order for children to have appropriate social adjustment they must be grouped with children who are of similar height. That way no one feels bigger or smaller than anyone else, and it is easier to play team sports.  You happen to be extremely short.  In fact, you are in the bottom two percent in height, so you have been grouped with children three years younger than you who are the same height. You are nine years old and they are six. You will be with this group for the next 12 years. There is no way out of this situation because everyone on the planet agrees that this is best for your social adjustment.
What does this feel like to you?
What do you do to survive?
(Silverman, 1993 p. 295)
I regularly lead teachers through this exercise in professional development inservices.  Some teachers are so appalled at the prospect of a child being subjected to such as a serious grade misplacement, on such inappropriate criteria, that they find it difficult to engage in the task. In general, however, the task groups come up with responses very similar to those that Silverman encounters when she herself asks teachers to engage in this exercise.
The more mature child will have to learn:
(a)  How to explain ideas in simple terms that the other children can understand
(b)  How to wait patiently while the others struggle with concepts he or she has known for some time.
(c)  How to delay the gratification of answering all the teachers’ questions, so that the others have the opportunity to participate.
(d)  How to fit in socially with children whose games are uninteresting, and who play by rules that seem crude and unfair.
(e)  How to live without any real friends or understanding from others.
At the close of the exercise Silverman reveals the truth of the scenario through which she has just led us. This is not a story about a 9-year-old misplaced in a class of 6-year-olds - a scenario which would scarcely exist in real life.  It is a story about a highly gifted 6-year-old with a mental age of 9 - misplaced in a mixed-ability class of 6-year-olds with a mental age of 6.  And the frustration, the days after days after days of “waiting for something to happen”, the loneliness and the feelings of profound difference, indeed of alienation, are exactly what many gifted children experience in such a situation.
These children spend much of their schooling feeling like fish out of water or, more tellingly, like the captive bird in Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa which, tethered to the ground, gives the world its saddest sound.
[end extract]


Following the Gifted Trail





One of the clearest realisations I had was the day I saw that for each of us our intelligence comes first...



Intelligence is the filter of every perception, every understanding, every interaction you have with the world. You can no more change your intelligence as your age! To insist that you can't be gifted until a certain age or grade, or can alter your speed of understanding, or temper your curiosity, or that you can "stop thinking so deeply!" is ignorant. 


Celebrate our kids' differences - just don't say they are all gifted - because they aren't. But every child does deserve someone in their lives to advocate for their individuality.








I wish you well finding the niche for your children - the journey of the Gifted family is an amazing quest. For us as a family it required (at times) enormous courage, determination, persistence, dogged determination, and - now things have settled down for us I can see we really needed a good sense of humour! 



Apr 27, 2011

"A wedge tail eagle's got my chicken!"



We love our chookies - not as much as our babies, naturally, but kids and chickens make great playmates and make a great team. From before we had babes we had chooks and once the kids arrived our black hens were delighted to eat up all that soggy early home-made vegetable mush and half chewed rusks to pay us back with great golden yolked eggs. A relationship that has continued in happy balance, give or take the occasional chooky substitution.



Eggs for eating, and eggs for science too.


But at the Mansted Family Project we live on 16 hectares (40 acres) in w-i-l-d surroundings of sub-tropical rainforest. The predators of our humble domesticated chicken are legion.



We have had chooks killed by neighbours' dogs, wild dogs, goannas (hungry for eggs), pythons, goshawks, brahminy and whistling kites, and wedge tail eagles. Not to mention the ravens in their continuous race with us for the eggs.



But yesterday it was a wedge tail who took one of our 4 survivors of our usual 6 hens, leaving to the ravens and butcherbirds two ragged little legs to pick over, and for the ants a little head. It dove straight through the bird netting roof and then trapped inside, it charged the gate in panic, pushing and distorting the gate until it popped all the wire from the timber gate frame, leaving a bird shaped hole like something out of the roadrunner cartoon. Oh dear.

We have tried many homes and systems for our hens in the last 10 years.

  • Free range chooks who wandered through the rainforest happy and content, nesting in a semi-circular dome = the dome collapsed after a cyclone blew through, and dogs terrorised the chickens. 
  • We had a large octagonal pen with the wobbly dome inside = dogs dug under, snakes wriggled through, and wedge tails and kites flew in and flew out with our birds.
  • Put a skirt around the fence to stop digging animals, and built a new small henhouse with a high entrance door at 1.5 metres from the ground, where the chickens jumped up three progressively higher posts to get in = a really large python learnt how to coil around the nearest post and extend its body out and into the door, and the eagles still flew in and helped themselves
  • Finally we have totally covered the pen and henhouse with bird netting = success until yesterday. 



Back to the drawing board for more amendments. Remaining chickens confined to their henhouse until eagle proofing complete.



So Mike set off to fix the pen roof and gate this morning while we got stuck into spelling and reading Egyptian mythology. Suddenly he was back "there is a wedge tail in the pen!"



The joys of homeschooling! Here is nature study and agriculture rolled into one event...

Afterwards we looked up our copy of "The Graham Pizzey and Frank Knight Field Guide to the Birds of Australia" to confirm our field identity. I highly recommend this book for those interested in bird identification - clear illustrations, logical organisation of similar species, and succinct yet rich evocative language. We discussed predator and prey relations and the morality of animal relationships. (Not long ago, while studying aboriginal culture, we read information of the eagle as totem in our area. The girls then drew their own totems.)

November has always identified with the wedge tail (as shown here in the wonderfully stuffed old-fashioned Queensland Museum). July (more of a penguin girl herself) has decided that for a predator species, this particular eagle is pretty silly.



Maybe just an opportunist? Packaged fresh food for predators - like shooting fish in a barrel.

Yes - the wedge tail eagle did survive - thank goodness. Here is a tiny clip of its escape, with a scary acrobatic moment that all came out well in the end. Hopefully the only harm done to the eagle is a new fear of our hen pen! This is one visitor I don't want to see in there again.




In case this post's title looks like particularly poor grammar, it is cousin to "A dingo's got my baby!" - a quote from an infamous murder trial in Australia some 30 years ago...and yes, the dingo was guilty.

Apr 25, 2011

Why do we homeschool?





There are as many reasons to homeschool your kids as there are kids who are homeschooled.

It is a contentious, natural, socially disruptive, socially uniting, easy, hard process to choose your child's educational path.



Just like planning and actually going through childbirth, only longer.

Here is a quick run down our path in the hope it will be useful to someone trying to make the agonising (awake in the middle of the night sweating) decision of what to do when your child is unhappy with their current education...or when you are trying to think it all through with "what to do?".

For the chilled "always knew we would" homeschoolers, I salute you! I really, really do...I wish I knew then what I know now and I'd be there with you chilling out, staying calm night after night knowing the answer and just getting on with it rather than agonising.



Our accumulated parental emotional baggage
As the teenage precursors of the parents we have become, Mike and I had vastly different experiences. Mike went to an exclusive, expensive, ridiculously well-resourced private high school. I went to the same local state high school that my parents taught at.



What was the same? Our academic achievements meant we had the pick of tertiary institutions, and we were both at times miserable and lonely, feeling like we didn't fit in.

Virtually every adult I have spoken to about their school experiences has talked about those feeling of being lost in the machine, trying to fit in, looking for challenges, feeling under pressure to look a certain way, act a certain way. And yet we naively consign our own precious kids into that same system. I know, because I did that too.



Welcome to the sausage factory
Schools are designed for the greater good, the smooth flow of kids in, young adults out.



Economically the school allows parents to work and contribute socially while their littlies are shaped into happy little sausages. Learn how to sit, how to respond to an adult that is not your parent, smooth your edges off against other little sausages as you proceed lock-step through the system. Age is the determinant of your progress (everywhere other than the most enlightened schools) rather than ability, temperament, achievement.



I can see how the sausage factory works, and can appreciate its efficiency (well, as a child care provider) and in some instances it is an opportunity for kids to make connections with wonderful learning mentors BUT what if your kids are not long, linked, smooth little objects?

The gifted factor
Our eldest, Miss November was an early everything baby and child - early talker, reader, writer. We negotiated for Early Entry and all went well for the first year in a multi-grade, multi-aged class.



But by the first term of Year 1 she apparently "looks like a dead fish" as her Literacy teacher explained to me (I helped out in the class one morning a week). November was sitting in class five days a week working on easy worksheets yet again, staring out the window wishing she was elsewhere.

Incredibly, that same teacher didn't think for a moment what measures she could take to re-engage our child in learning in her classroom.



More disappointments followed...an insistence that children had to stay 3 weeks on each level of peg spelling even if they got all the words right every time...suggestions that our daughter wasn't soooo bright as she didn't know all of her maths facts when drilled by the teacher as he wandered past in the playground (she was 5 years old and doing Year 2 maths without being taught)...and on and on infinitum. This was one little girl who wasn't complying with the local factory school principal's ideas.

As parents, we saw our bubbly, socially confident child get into the car every afternoon and cry tears of anger and frustration.


So we applied for the state-run Distance Education and were allowed to access it as the local school in actuality had no gifted program and in our state every child is entitled to an appropriate education...



Distance Education saves the day
This was a wonderful healing experience. By now, July also had trotted the same path, and also ended up at Distance Education. Great things happened - our kids were happy, extended, challenged, accelerated...



Moving on to independent homeschool
But there was a happy fly in the ointment. Set free of the rigours of the boring classroom by the Distance Ed teachers and shown how much fun learning really was, our girls started to get ambitious. As did Mike and I. We all hankered for the juiciness of the Big Bang, ancient history, foreign language, evolution, physics, music theory, circus, chess, hands-on science experiments, and philosphy...at our own speed.



Time to take responsibility ourselves
As parents, we had to grow up.

We had to move out of the tight restraints of the state curriculum and a "school knows best" mindset that we had learnt at our own childhood primary schools. We needed a more natural flow of learning that was consistent with our family's life - and to give our kids the education we now knew they needed and wanted.

We did it - became independent home educators - and you know what, I have learned more as a homeschooling parent in the last 2 years than all my time in my own old sausage factory. It is a lot more fun. And I have never seen that dead fish face - not once.



Great Article on Homeschool socialisation from Diane Flynn Keith



Need more food for thought? Watch this from Sir Ken Robinson...

Apr 21, 2011

How to make butter

I make butter once a week with the skimmed cream from the raw dairy milk. If you don't have access to raw, fresh cream (pasteurised) from the supermarket will work almost as well. Don't use adulterated cream - that is where all kind of yucky things are added like gelatine, stabilisers etc.

How to skim milk...
Firstly leave the raw milk in the fridge for 2 days at least so the cream rises to the top. 



We are very low-tech with skimming our milk, just using a dessert spoon to gently whoosh the cream out of the top of the open-necked glass jar into another jar or bowl while holding it the unskimmed milk jar at an angle of 45 degrees. We like a bit of cream in our milk so leave about 1cm or 1/2" of cream on top to stir in as we use the milk.

To make butter you will need...
  • food processor (best), blender (ok), mixmaster with whisk (ok), or hand mixer (desperate)
  • fine wide mouth wire strainer
  • wide mouth jar or bowl to catch the buttermilk from the strainer
  • smooth wooden board
  • two wooden spatulas (like a wooden egg flipper) or butter pats
  • flexible bendy silicone scraper
  • butter ramekin or dish
  • a clean sink - good food hygiene is important with butter as it is a raw product
  • lots of cold water (from the tap is fine)
  • cold cream - the older the cream the more flavoured it will be (those still passing the nose test)





Let's get started
I pour the cream into my food processor bowl (careful to keep below the maximum liquid level), turn it on. Just using the usual blade.



After 7 minutes or so (in my KitchenAid FP anyway) you will hear a major change in sound as the heavily whipped cream suddenly solidifies into butter and splashes LOUDLY in the swirling buttermilk. Time to turn it off, and take the processor bowl to the sink.




You will see lots of yellowy golden lumps of butter in a thin watery looking buttermilk. I strain the little buttery clumps through a wire strainer, catching the buttermilk in a jar and freezing for later use in baking. 


At this point your butter needs a good rinse to wash out as much buttermilk as you can. 


I usually pop the butter clumps back into the food processor bowl for a bath in cold water, then when the water has run clear (block the bowl's hole or you will lose all your precious golden butter down the sink and you will cry!) strain again and plonk it onto a rinsed timber cutting board for patting.


Its important to wet down the board and timber spatulas so that the butter doesn't stick.

Push the clumped butter down onto the board, scraping it flat as you go. You will see pale milky liquid squish out of the little pockets in the butter as you smooth it out. Rinse your butter down with cold water as you work, sitting the board on an angle so that the liquid runs down into the sink.


When you have squished out the milky water and made the butter smooth and gleaming, scrape it off the board and flip it over so the un-rinsed surface that was against the board is now the top surface, ready to rinse as before. 

Finish rinsing and either pat the butter into a tidy compact block, or using the soft silicone scraper, lift off the board and push into your ramekin or lidded bowl. Ready to eat!




 If you don't use much butter, pop it in the freezer until you need it.



Enjoy...we especially love fresh butter on home made sourdough. Mmmmmm.












Apr 20, 2011

Helping our kids when clouds are gathering...

The following post was written in response to a gifted e-list following an Australian TV show about a family whose teenage daughter had suicided...This show had a huge effect on parents worried about how to deal with even the tiny precursors to self-harming behaviour - for example a child of 12 saying “I want to die”. I wrote this post to help other parents with general tactics and ideas to help in the early stages of depression and anxiety, when fears about suicide arise. It is not advice designed for individual situations - see a qualified therapist or doctor if you need specific help for your own situation.
(FYI - I am not practicing at this time.)



As a counsellor with many years of experience with suicidal and self harming clients (both anonymously on the phone at Lifeline and with private practice clients) I wanted to share a few thoughts. Apologies for the heavy tone in places!

"I want to die" is often the way of saying "I want the pain to stop"... try, if you can, to respond as though you heard the second statement rather than get caught up in the horror of the first statement. Don't be afraid to reflect the feelings of your child - "I can hear when you say that, that you are feeling really overwhelmed about..."

Make an available space in your lives for this big stuff to be talked about - washing up, hanging the washing out, cooking together etc where busy hands help loosen tongues rather than "I want to talk to you..." formality.

Cultivate a family framework that is is ok for Everyone to talk about the bad stuff; yes, even perfectionist mums and dads!

If at all concerned, don't hesitate to reach out to counsellors at school, a phone crisis service like Lifeline, recommended therapists, even if only for you to have a sounding board.

Aim to build a realistic notion in your family of "Life" . There are good days, and bad days, and just average days.





Resilience is the number 1 survival tool for kids (indeed, everyone).  Accentuate the positive, but also when you are through the negative - "whew - we got through that!".

Life is hard sometimes, but also wonderful, boring, funny, silly, fulfilling. This also applies to us and our behaviours - that our choices can be good, bad, silly, but just like a new day, there will always be another choice to make.

Being "good enough" is to be real, and flexible, and forgiving of self and others.

A thought about depression: some believe that it is "old, frozen anger". In my experience, this is quite a helpful way to look at it, as working on ways to express the anger/frustration usually attendant in depression can really move it along.

I have observed lots of clients who believe they are not entitled/allowed to be annoyed, or heard or ungrateful - and often this dynamic started in childhood (yes, just like the cliches!).

Being truly honest with how you feel, even if that is only with yourself in a journal, is freeing. I have worked with many adult clients on "safe" means of expressing angry feelings (purposefully smashing old crockery alone, kicking cardboard boxes, writing down angry thoughts then burning and "releasing" them etc). So teaching ways of self expression to our kids is paramount - art, music, writing down how they are feeling... a great tool that most adults could use too.





Try to own your own feelings, and let your kids own theirs too.

Daily enjoyable forms of exercise is a great way of moving back into balance from depression.

I also saw [that TV show] - what a brave family and a tragic unusual death. From my very superficial observation there appeared to be attendant issues there also of anger and frustration (the brave family battle for the troubled brother), fear of communicating "bad" feelings with the family (letting them down), perfectionism (God wants me to overcome this depression), and overwhelming feelings that were tragically dominant the afternoon she died so rapidly - the method of self-harm is very linked into suicidal ideation survival.

What does this mean? That when a person is feeling suicidal (suicidal ideation) the method they choose to harm themselves has a direct link to survival chances. This is why a lot more  people survive an overdose with drugs, as compared to by gun shot, or hanging. Tragically the child as featured in the TV show had no time to be saved, unlike some other methods (such as OD).





Well, there is probably a book's worth of info I have just typed here. Hope it helps someone - it is easy to be frightened about suicide/self harm/depression especially in relation to our wonderful precious children... but there are strategies and techniques and plans to be put in place.

Best wishes and hugs to all. As an old community health ad used to say “have you hugged your kid today?”





Apr 18, 2011

The Joys of Michael Clay Thompson

Michael Clay Thompson is a teacher, writer, academic and classical education enthusiast. With the Royal Fireworks Press he has written and designed a wonderful Language Arts curriculum.



We love MCT in our homeschool classroom - they are beautiful and simple in appearance yet wonderfully complex in content. Our girls are intrigued and engaged! Using "Building Language" to explore word stems November and July were shrieking with excitement to give their take on "re" words, and "ex" words. Here is 7 year old November's aqueduct she built at The Corner - a wonderful play space for the Under 8s in the State Library of Queensland. This is how her conversation with a worker went...




Worker: "Wow - that is great! What is it exactly?"
November: "It is an aqueduct."
Worker: "A what?"
(at this point the 5 year old July runs over to interrupt help)
November: "Its an Ancient Roman structure..."
July: "...used to carry water from the hills down into the towns!"
November: "Its name comes from aqua for water and duct...
July: "...for lead! They lined them with lead and they all went mad!"
Worker: [looks dizzy at this point] "I am 25 and I have never even heard of them before..."
All three of them then proceeded to knock the aqueduct down, while the woman next to me asked where do they go to school? and looked politely and nicely interested while I raved happily about homeschool and the fun we have with MCT.

Recently Michael wrote a series of insights into his approach. These were posted at the Royal Fireworks Press Support Group - find the Forum here - and here they are...I have just labelled them Part 1, 2 and so on for my own clarity -

[Part 1:]
Anyone who is new to the MCT programs will gradually find that the questions in these books are often or even usually different from the questions in more traditional books. The tradition in textbooks is typically cognitive and flat in affect, and the question is what we would call CONVERGENT, meaning that it is about finding the right answer in the book and transcribing it. Look at those words: FINDING. THE. RIGHT. In such questions, the student really does not have to think about the idea itself or grasp its meaning or nature. It is just, SEARCH the book until you FIND the answer, then copy it. The student has to follow orders. To obey instructions. The workbook of doom effect. The questions in this book are usually not like that. In these often Socratic questions the student does not obey; the student has to lead. These questions typically put students in intellectual situations where they first have to pay close attention to what is being asked, then perhaps go back and reread a section of the text, and then do a short creative think piece that demonstrates or illustrates the idea that is at issue. They are not finding and copying, they are working out an understanding and then creating their own examples. The entire process is much deeper, and much more personal. In the process of grappling with the curious details of the assignment, the student is brought to a deeper reading of the book. In these kinds of questions, there is no recipe of correct steps to follow; the concept can be discovered in individual ways. I would recommend a light-hearted feeling about such assignments, treating them as fun and experimental. Tell the student to read the question carefully, think about what part of the book might help, and then give it a shot. I do not, NOT, want to say, "Turn to page 79 and read the first paragraph" and so forth. I want the student to have to use his or her mind to think about what information is most important to the question. This entire mode of assignment is therefore more exploratory, creative, individual, open-ended, and experimental. The student will be trying things. This then lets the parent follow up with a dialogue about "What did you learn from doing this?" "What did you realize about the sentence?" What I have found through forty years of teaching is that these advanced questions create much deeper student learning and involvement in the knowledge than workbook-style, follow-instructions, right-answer questions. Students have to think for themselves, they are not told what to do in precise terms, they have to decide what to do, and there are indeed spots of frustration when they have to create their own instructions and think it through for themselves. As much as possible, let the student work it out. Just say, "Oh, I think you will come up with something interesting," and let the student puzzle it out. This was a long comment, but I hope that it shows some of the question theory that is concealed in the MCT books. Best to all.

[Part 2:]

Here is another dimension that is working below the obvious surface of the curriculum: it is structured to force the student to reread the text. The research shows that the best readers are rereaders. The ordinary student reads something one time and then says, "I've already read that," assuming that he or she has gotten whatever is important in the very first encounter. The more advanced reader reads something the first time and learns much, but knows that he or she is missing things on the first sweep. I have often noticed, in my own reading of novels, that it takes me one reading just to figure out how to read the book. The first time I underestimate the importance of a character, and discover too late that I was not paying sufficient attention to the details when I read about that character in early chapters. I do a much better job on my second reading. The very great books I have read many times, seeing deeper levels every time. These textbooks are like that. I have noticed in my online teaching that almost all students miss crucial points the first time they read a chapter. They THINK they understand, but when I ask comprehension questions, we discover that the student did not really understand. So here is a crucial element of the MCT curriculum: no serious curriculum can be read once and completed. In this curriculum, you read the chapter but then the questions are such that they turn your attention to things you may not have noticed, to subtle details, to what a term means, or how it can be applied. We all probably have a tendency as parents and teachers to do much of the organization and digging for the student, to try to simplify it for the student, but the paradox is that this well-intentioned process can be overdone, excusing the student from doing it himself. I do not want the student to avoid rereading. I really do want the burden of thinking and rereading to fall to the student. It is the very purpose of many of the questions in this program to send the student back to the book, to reread a particular section again, this time at a deeper level. We cannot do that rereading for the student; our role is more to join in a good discussion after the student has gone back and read and thought and searched and created a conclusion. We want to teach the student to reread, with thoughtful focus. We want to teach the student that rereading is a good thing, a normal and usual thing among advanced readers. Rereading is one of the best, most enjoyable, parts of being a real student. Great students always reread.


Part of this involves a sense of time. This curriculum is not one where you have to hurry and get the blanks filled in. There is no hurry. Let us stop on a thought. There is time to understand it truly. Let us be with the thought, take it in, discuss it and enjoy it. Let us take the extra time to realize its meaning and importance. It is this deeper, more authentic engagement with beautiful academic thoughts that I hope is the core of the MCT curriculum for children. I hope that this will help show the strategy of the books, why there are comparatively few blanks and comparatively more Socratic questions. Blanks can be finished; thoughts are opened, and left open for life.


Here is another element of my textbooks. The speed of reading is not the same as the speed of thinking. When we read, our eyes and minds pass from word to word to word, moving quickly forward. The next word is always there, visible, slightly to the right, and we irresistibly look at it, and then at the next, and the whole process drives us forward. There are no thought stops available, where we pull over and ruminate about ideas. 


If the process stops there, the learning is unavoidably shallow. If all the student has to do is look backwards, find the exact words a question requests, and copy them, then that is shallow. You can copy words, even when you have no idea what they say, or what they mean.


What must happen is that after the reading, the curriculum sends the student back to those same sentences, one thought at a time, to reflect and assess, to figure out what they really mean, to see why they are important--often far more important than they may have seemed at the speed of reading. These questions cannot be copy-and-paste questions where the student FINDS the answer, all tidy, and copies it to a worksheet. To be effective, these questions must be such that the student rereads, thinks, talks, notices, applies. 


The speed of reading and the speed of thinking are different. Reading is quick and forward moving, horizontal, but thinking is slower, punctuated with stops, and vertical. 


A student who comes to the MCT curriculum from a find-and-write-the-answer model may well be unsettled or even frustrated at first as he or she discovers that the curriculum is working at the level of ideas, requiring more comprehension and deeper articulation.


The MCT books are designed to create vertical academic experiences, where the students think down into the ideas. Many times there will not be a right answer, with the exact right words, because the very assignment is to get the student to produce an individual articulation of the idea. This does not mean that whatever the student says is right; you can articulate a misunderstanding. It does mean that these books include a prominent thinking dimension that can be missing from worksheet-oriented assignments. MCT students are less busy filling in blanks, and more busy rereading, thinking, and explaining.


The speed of reading is not the speed of thinking.


White space, margins...ideas.





[Part 3:]

Once you have a sense of how the MCT curriculum works, that it is not just a hurrying horizontal curriculum but one that creates vertical, deep explorations of powerful core academic concepts, you begin to notice elements that contribute to that process, and they begin to make sense. For example, Tom Kemnitz has given serious attention to the white space and margins that I design into the books, and I would like to comment on that too. Think about a normal page of text. You finish one idea--which may reach its clearest expression in one sentence--then there is a period, and an eighth of an inch to the right of the final word in that sentence is the first word of the next sentence. It is impossible to stop your eyes from leaping the gap and catching a ride on the next sentence. And so reading goes, pell mell, from one sentence to the next. The thinking you might have done recedes into the rear horizon. It is the difference between spending a week in a town and passing through it on a train, trying to take it in through the window of your cabin.


The meaning is clear. The book must say its thought, and after the period, there must be no word to its right. 


The page must stop the mind. This may mean that the entire page must be devoted to a single sentence, as though the page were a slide. At this point, the beleaguered publisher has a printing expense blackout and sinks to the floor of his office. 


The margins and the white spaces organize and focus the ideas. They point the eyes. 


This principle extends even 
to the way the text is broken into lines. 
When I am arranging a passage on a page, 
I try to break the lines at grammar joints, 
rather than in the middle of grammar elements. 


For example, I try to keep a prepositional phrase together on one line. I try to keep a dependent clause on its own line. When a sentence takes three lines, each line is a thought within a thought, and it helps clarity to keep the words with the words they go with.


I worry sometimes that my pedagogical strategies are too invisible, that people think I just want a page to be pretty, or they look at a page that has one sentence on it and think of that as lacking in substance. No, the other sentences are there, but not on the same page. On this page we will take time for this sentence. The purpose of a one-sentence page is to zoom and hold, giving a visual structure that supports vertical reading. These principles are intense pedagogical strategies, implementations of a theory of teaching; they are designs, and we can do a better job implementing the curriculum if we know that they are good things that support learning.


The books stop the children's minds. The long-term difference of this approach, as the student studies book after book in level after level, is that that the student has a feeling of understanding everything, rather than a vague awareness of having read everything.

[Part 4:]
Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano.
Here is a question that I have thought about, and you may have too. Even for me, I knew the answer, but I had to think about the reason. Q: Why do students have to keep doing four-level analyses in every level of the MCT curriculum, in the grammar and practice and writing books, once they know how to do it? If a student has already done level one or two, is it not better to skip the practice book or the four-levels in the writing book? (No.)


This is a good question. Why should a student have to keep doing it? Am I not opposed to students having to prove and prove and prove that they know something? 


Yes, I am opposed to that, but this is different. Four-level analysis is different. It is not like having to show repeatedly that you know the capital of Tuvalu (Funafuti). That is a scrap of knowledge, a concrete detail that is verifiable in its entirety in a single question.


Four-level analysis is different because it is an expansive--almost cosmic--inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.


Four-level analysis is in part a mode of inquiry. When I think of using four-level analysis to approach and examine language, I think of a little space probe, with four little instruments onboard, approaching an enormous, unknown planet in the dark depths of space. Beep? Beep? Like the planet, language is enormous, and like the probe, four-level analysis is little, and it can only find out so much. The gigantic language is too big to be described completely; it will always have paradoxes and unnamed phenomena and never-before-seen objects that keep pushing our ability to comprehend what we are learning.


Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are. You go out beyond the rules to the usually darkened reasons for the rules. You come upon sentences such as Shakespeare's "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," from Macbeth, and after you solve the grammar, you sit for a long time, looking at its perfection, wondering why it is so beautiful. After a long thought, you do not know.


Four-level analysis is in part a logic of sentence construction. With each example you see more clearly how and why to make a verb agree with its subject, how to structure a good introductory participial phrase, how to punctuate a complex sentence, how to edit out junky modifiers, how to do the ten thousand things that writers want to do.


What I have learned myself after using four-level analysis for decades in my own teaching and writing and workshops and conferences and personal reading and thinking about language is that I am still growing in it. Not a week goes by that I do not discover something I had not thought of before (phrasal interjections this week). Not a week goes by that I do not more deeply realize the integral connection between grammarthink and poetry or literature or writing. 


What I have seen in a consistent process during a period of decades is that by continuing to do four-level analysis, my thinking about language keeps getting clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Every month I am able to do more, see more, share more, enjoy more. Every month I find new grammar things, like shells on the beach.


I have been trying to find the way to explain this, and here is the analogy that finally occurred to me, the most precise analogy. You keep doing four-level analysis in your pursuit of language just as a pianist keeps practicing piano in the pursuit of music. Both music and language are vast, bottomless, hopelessly beyond our abilities to understand them completely. They are more than the work of a lifetime. They cannot be finally mastered. And both piano playing and four-level analysis are skills that keep increasing, keep getting easier, keep becoming more joyful and exciting, the more you do them. No great piano player ever gets to a point of, "I have arrived, and now I no longer have to practice." 


You do have to practice. And as you get better, you can play harder and harder pieces, and do so with greater depth and comprehension. It is exactly the same with four-level analysis. I am at a point now that when a sentence containing a gerund phrase as the subject of a sentence flies by, I watch it just as I might pause for a second to enjoy notes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. I read my wife this paragraph, and she laughed and left the room.


Four-level analysis is like Julliard in a box. A few years of it, and you are different.


Four-level analysis is not a little skill that you learn and discard. What students can acquire is a four-level mind, an ongoing and exciting awareness of how words and sentence structures and phrases and clauses operate in their language environment, which includes everything they hear and read and write. It is a dramatically expanded form of language consciousness that makes writing and punctuating easier and more joyful. 


What you will see as you get to know the MCT curriculum is that it introduces and then permanently incorporates four-level analysis as a mode of language consciousness, with examples that become increasingly subtle, or paradoxical, or beautiful, or architectural. As the student's four-levelness increases, the stronger examples increase, and the entire process builds all of the language elements together into a coherent ability. 


Each level of the MCT curriculum takes the student forward. If you have done the previous level, you are in a position to do the new examples more quickly and easily and to spot the paradoxes and mystery phenomena--to enjoy them. If you have not done the previous level, you have some learning to do, but you can still catch the train if you jump.


A final thought to punctuate the end of the comment: it takes about three minutes do do a four-level analysis. You can incorporate them as homework, groupwork, Socratic discussion, daily warmup activity...you can pick a sentence out of a poem...it is incredibly flexible but not disruptive of your schedule. And each one you do is a thumbnail review of all of grammar. 


I hope that this helps explain the importance of four-level analysis in the MCT books. I keep reading comments by parents to the effect of, "Just trust the curriculum." Just trust the four-levels.


What are your experiences with Michael Clay Thompson?
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