This is our main fundraiser for the year, so please help us in our mission to give a world-class, living, relational education to our students!
Raffle tickets are now on sale for $5 each! Support Willow Tree Community School and win a Shakespeare Excursion 7 IM6 Graphite Spinning Rod with Shimano Syncopate 2500 Spinning Reel, a Coach handbag, a 3-Month membership to the Ruby Hunt YMCA, a River Bend golf package, or a 1-hour massage at Salon Palazzo!
This is our main fundraiser for the year, so please help us in our mission to give a world-class, living, relational education to our students!
I wanted to take a few minutes to tell all of our friends about a couple of opportunities to help Willow Tree. First, our Form 4 students are traveling to Washington, DC in May, and they need your support. Please plan to come to our pancake breakfast this Saturday at Fatz in Shelby from 7:30-10:00. Plates are $7 per person, but children under 6 eat FREE! Our parents and students will provide friendly service, and someone will be there to give you information about our school and answer your questions.
A second opportunity to support our school will begin Monday, April 28. We will sell raffle tickets for $5 each for a chance to win one of several prizes, including a Coach bag, a massage at Salon Palazzo, and a fishing rod. You can purchase your tickets from any of our students, parents, or teachers, or you can send us a message with your contact information and we will be happy to enter you. We will also be selling tickets at the Foothills Farmers Market in Shelby on May 10 and at the Crossroads Festival in Boiling Springs on May 17. Be sure to come by our tables and say hello! The drawing will be held on May 17 at the Crossroads Festival. You need not be present to win.
Of course, some of you may live far away, or you may just wish to bypass the breakfast and the raffle and simply make a tax-deductible donation. That is easy to do through PayPal here, or you can mail a donation check to:
Willow Tree Community School
Attn: Jozel Kale
PO Box 753
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
This is our primary fundraiser for this school year, so we would like to invite all of our readers, from places far and wide, to consider showing your support for living education!
Willow Tree Community School is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization. All donations are tax deductible.
Last week, I wrote about the benefits of progressive math programs. Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, and even though it does not tell teachers how to teach concepts, in my opinion the wording of the standards encourages the adoption of superior math programs. When I look at the math standards for the early grades, I don't see the glaring red flags of developmental inappropriateness that are present in the language standards (which I will get to in a few weeks). As a Charlotte Mason teacher, I would love to see the standards for kindergarten taught exclusively through play, although in the present culture I know that is unlikely. I also wish that they were a collection of benchmarks (which are noted) rather than standards (which are mandated), so that instruction could truly follow the children's readiness. But as for the standards themselves, I think the authors did a pretty good job of laying concepts out in a logical sequence at about the right grade level. Some states probably won't even notice much difference from their old standards.
To me, it is not so much the standards that are the issue; it is the culture of standardization. Alfie Kohn discussed this issue at length here, here, and here. (Really, just about everything he writes is worth the reading, and you can find lots of it here.) He wrote that, while many people are against high-stakes standardized testing, hardly anyone questions having set standards in the first place. "Standard" is not even an education word. It is a word that is more appropriate in industry. Industry standards ensure that the products we buy are safe, reliable, and effective. I want things like tires, airbags, and pharmaceuticals to be standardized. But children are not products. They are persons. Each one is unique, and that is beautiful. Is it reasonable to expect every one of them to learn at the same pace? Why would we even want learning standardized in the first place? I think it is unlikely that even excellent math programs will make much difference until our education culture lets go of the idea that standardization is both possible and desirable.
Jean Piaget was a respected Swiss developmental psychologist. He studied children in order to identify stages of development. Although many early childhood experts now find his stages overly simplistic, he did contribute significantly to the conversation on child development. He called one of his biggest frustrations "The American Question." As he travelled around sharing what he had observed in children (descriptions), he found that people in this country wanted to turn these things into prescriptions and figure out ways to accelerate the progression. If the typical child can conserve number at age 7, then how can we train all children to do it at age 6? Or 5? Or 4? American reformers wanted to transfer the industrial ideal of producing more, faster, cheaper into the realm of education, and they succeeded. The same thing continues today, as preschools and kindergartens become more and more academic.
But here's the thing: It doesn't work. It turns out that a child will develop in his own time regardless of intervention, and attempting to speed the process up too much usually has negative effects. In addition to this, individual children develop at different rates. Just because most children can understand a concept at 6 does not mean they all can. Some will understand it much earlier, and some will need another year or two. That is why it is unreasonable to impose firm standards for particular grade levels and then make high-stakes decisions based on whether or not a child mastered them.
It is important to note that "more, faster, cheaper" does not equate to "better." Like so many things in life, we can either choose to teach quickly or teach thoroughly, and America has historically preferred to teach quickly. Teaching math--or anything else--in a way that honors the child is a slow process, but we (as a culture) don't want to give the time. Taking too long to master one skill can result what we have been told should be our worst nightmare: that our kids will be behind. (As Alfie Kohn suggests, it might be prudent to ask, "Behind what?") Math concepts build upon one another. If a child is forced to move onto the next set of objectives before he has mastered the prerequisite concepts, he has been set up to struggle with math indefinitely. Since it takes less time to just have kids memorize the algorithms than it does to help them really understand mathematical concepts, this is what schools tend to default back to when the pacing guide says that it is time to move on. It is a short-term solution with long-term consequences.
Implementation of better math instructional methods will inevitably come with a lot of frustration, because students, parents, and teachers will be forced to rethink what they thought they knew. It will be uncomfortable for a while as we find that our kids who always got good grades in math did not, in fact, always fully understand the algorithms and formulas they memorized. Growth is always uncomfortable. But in order to implement a great math program well, we must be willing to meet students where they are. That means that if a fifth-grade child has gaps in her understanding that are part of the second-grade standards, we have to be ok teaching her below her grade level until mastery of the lower concepts is secured. What is called for is a more individualized, as opposed to a more standardized, approach.
In my last post, I surprised some readers by saying that I thought the changes in the way in which mathematics was to be taught under Common Core was a good idea. I have noticed a general outcry from parents in social media about "Common Core Math," probably because it looks so different from what we grew up learning. The pattern of protest usually goes something like, "Why would you take something so simple and make it so complicated?" That's a fair question, and I am glad parents are asking. This post is an attempt to clarify things a bit.
The Way We Learned Math
First, let me say that I, like many of you, grew up with pretty deplorable math instruction. I remember as a child hearing a few of my peers say that they loved math because it made sense. Either the answer is 52, or it is not. There is no gray area. Those are the students who likely went into math and science fields in college. Me? I would think to myself, "Makes sense? Are you kidding?!" I thought that math was just something that one was either born good at or not, and I was obviously not. Now, the students who loved math likely were naturally gifted in that area, but that does not mean that I could not have learned it well as a child, too. I just couldn't easily see the "sense" that they saw, and so I was left hanging desperately onto steps, formulas, and algorithms that I did not understand. Not having a solid foundation in even basic math concepts, I muddled through the fewest number of higher mathematics courses I could in both high school and college. I don't think I am alone in this experience.
What Changed My Attitude
When I began teaching, I taught math the same way I was taught, because that is all I knew. (My dirty little secret was that I chose early childhood as my major because I was afraid to teach math above a fourth grade level!) That is, until about ten years ago, when I attended a math methods workshop with Dr. Uecker from Columbia International University using a concept-centered curriculum called Math-U-See. Dr. Uecker spent the day taking attendees all the way back to the most basic math concepts, number and place value, and then used those to give us real understanding all the way up to algebra. I felt like a whole new world had just opened up for me. I was not "math dumb"--I just needed help seeing the sense that mathematicians can see naturally. Now, higher math is not intimidating to me, because I know there is sense in there, and I have the tools to find it.
It's Not the Math That Has Changed, But Our Approach to Children
The viral photos and videos going around the Internet talk about this newfangled "Common Core Math," as if the government is trying to change the universal laws of mathematics. In this one, a father who is an engineer expresses his frustration over trying to help his child with homework. It looks to me like this teacher was working on number sense and mental math. We do something similar as a warm-up before most lessons. We don't generally write out a number line, but we do break numbers up to make them easier to work with. In the problem in the picture, Jack broke 316 up into 300, 10, and 6 and then subtracted them separately. Here are a couple more examples of number manipulation strategies that increase number fluency:
It may seem convoluted, but being able to manipulate numbers demonstrates that the student understands how number and place value work. That is the foundation upon which future mathematics study will rest. Strategies like the ones above give students more tools in their store, making it more likely that they will be successful once the math becomes more abstract.
Obviously, it is not the math itself that has changed, but rather our approach to teaching children. And this is good. It means that those who are choosing curricula are paying attention to the research on how children learn. Programs like Math-U-See and Right Start Mathematics (which we use at Willow Tree) are based on an understanding that students need to begin a new concept with something very concrete, then, when they thoroughly understand the concept, they can move to a pictorial representation of the same idea before finally letting go of the scaffolding to learn the algorithmic shortcut. When I was growing up, I was only taught the shortcut, and so I had no idea what things like "borrowing" and "carrying" meant. Why do we mark out some numbers and put other numbers over them? I wondered if my teachers knew, either, because they just kept telling me to memorize the steps. And I made the same kinds of mistakes that I have seen so many children over the years make--things like just subtracting the smaller number from the larger number instead of borrowing, borrowing when it wasn't necessary, or forgetting to carry. And when I got to a word problem, I had difficulty knowing which operation to use. What good is it to even know the steps for a subtraction problem, if you don't know when to use it? Contrast that picture with the one in this video. These children were in second grade. I had invested time in helping them develop number sense, and we had spent weeks concentrating on place value using a wide variety of manipulatives and practicing "fair trading" of ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The very first day I introduced what most would call addition with carrying on paper, it was with 4-digit numbers, and they needed no instruction from me at all. They understood the concept so thoroughly, that they immediately saw the sense. Their approach was unorthodox, but I was soon able to show them the algorithmic shortcut, and they were ready to appreciate it.
It is important to keep in mind that Common Core is a collection of standards, not a curriculum. The standards tell teachers what to teach, while the curriculum tells them how to teach it. States still adopt their own textbooks, and they are just as free to choose a traditional, algorithm-based curriculum as they are to adopt a more progressive, concept-based program. But I, for one, am glad that all the big, scary changes are getting the public thinking about research-based best practices, because they are good for the children. In my next post, I will discuss why I think the public school system will have a very difficult time making these practices work.
Common Core: The super-villain of the education world that everyone from Tea Partiers to Occupiers loves to hate. It certainly is the hot topic of the day in the education sphere. From the biting satire of “curmudgucator,” Peter Greene, to the anti-corporatization and privatization arguments of Diane Ravitch, to the parent-led iRefuse movement, the conversation is full of anger and disillusionment. I, too, am disillusioned. Actually, I first became disillusioned when Diane Ravitch was helping to lead the charge for standardization under the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative. That is when I left public education in favor of the private sector, where I felt I could remain true to my professional mission and be more humane and respectful to children. Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, includes her mea culpa, as well as some very compelling arguments against Common Core. She continues her crusade on her blog, which includes both original pieces and collections of articles on the demerits of Common Core.
Lately, when parents call to inquire about Willow Tree, they will often say that one of the reasons they are thinking about removing their children from public school is that they do not want them taught under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). This seems to lend support Ravitch’s suspicion that one of the purposes behind CCSS was to make parents so dissatisfied with the public school system that they would abandon it in favor of charter schools and private school vouchers. But when I press a little and ask them what, exactly, they don’t like about the CCSS, these parents are often unable to articulate their views beyond the sound bites that they have picked up here and there. There is a lot of confusion, which leads to a lot of fear—and it is never a good idea to make decisions from a place of fear. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to assist people in stepping back and considering Common Core—the good and the bad. “Good?” you ask? Yes. There are some good things in the CCSS, we just hear less about those. One of the good things, which I will talk about in a future blog, is the change in how math is taught. If you have seen some of the viral photos and videos about Common Core Math going around social media, this may come as a surprise. But research bears it out, and we already use a similar program at Willow Tree because it matches how young children learn mathematical concepts.
If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “Well, I don’t have to think about Common Core because I homeschool/have my kids in private school,” I want to encourage you to stay in the conversation. The reason is that David Coleman, co-author of the CCSS, is now President of the College Board, and his latest project is aligning the SAT to the CCSS. That means that we are all affected. Does it mean that everyone should scrap what they are doing and align with the CCSS? Absolutely not. Willow Tree certainly won’t. But in order to be able to participate fully in meaningful and productive dialogue, it is necessary to let go of our preconceptions and party colors and think for ourselves using the data that is available to us.
Like mom and blogger Tresta Payne, “I’m tired of feeling cynical and pessimistic and slightly paranoid” about Common Core. What is needed is a levelheaded and informed conversation that will empower parents toward meaningful action, whether they choose to place their children in public, private, charter, or home schools. I want to take some time in this blog to look at the CCSS and compare them to what I know about child development, epistemology, and, of course, Charlotte Mason’s educational principles. I invite you to join me here over the next few weeks and leave your comments.
We were very disappointed to hear that a judge in Wake County temporarily suspended the implementation of the new Opportunity Scholarship program, which would have allowed low-income families to have the option to send their children to private school. After the state legislature approved the measure, more than 4,000 families applied for the scholarship in the first weeks. This demonstrates that there is a demand in North Carolina for a program like this. It is our sincere hope that this temporary suspension will be lifted soon, and that those who applied in the hope of having their children attend Willow Tree next year will indeed be given the opportunity to use their own tax dollars to place their children where they see the best fit, rather than having the state choose for them.
They're finally here!
We want to make sure that everyone knows about the new Opportunity Scholarship program in North Carolina. Applications go online February 1 (to be returned by February 25 for priority consideration), and if your child is currently enrolled in a public school/charter school and qualifies for free or reduced lunch, you qualify! This is real money--NOT a reimbursement. The checks come from the state to you, made out to us, and you just sign them. That's it! $4,200 per student per year!
So here is what you need to do:
Just so you know, our high school is just about full. However, there will likely be a spot for your child in the lower school or middle school. Please share this blog freely with your friends and family. We are so excited about the opportunity to serve a larger base of students!
In this post, 9th grader Marley Spencer writes her response to one of the books she is reading. The Eternal Argument by R. Robin Finley is an introduction to philosophy and Western culture through literature. It is helping our students begin to think about things that will allow them own their faith for themselves and develop largeness of mind.
The Eternal Argument is written by R. Robin Finley. It’s about getting people to understand what things different people believe in, some things that describe their religion, and why she thinks they believe in them. In the first chapters she starts out by leaving the whole point of the book out. Then she reveals what “the eternal argument” actually is. It’s about religion.
She says that what got her interested in literature and writing books is when she was at a restaurant celebrating her high school graduation with some friends of hers and she ran into one of her old teachers who saw her and asked her about her favorite things she learned about over the school year. She didn’t have much to say to him. She had forgotten about all of the books she had read, because she thought school was learning about something, taking a test, then forgetting about what she read. That’s when she decided to have an English major in college.
Robin gives references to different books that she thinks her readers have heard about or read so that we can understand what she is talking about, which I like. She refers to children as ”little stinkers” and says it most likely depends on how the “little stinkers” grew up as to what they chose for their type of religion. She suggests that children read a book called The Lord of the Files in 6th 7th or 8th grade. Some people think that that’s too young of an age for some one to read a book like that, because it has a lot of violence and they think it’s a bad influence on their kids. But Robin, the author, believes that it teaches them lessons, for example, how it’s okay to have different opinions on religion.
She says that the "little stinker" hardly grows out of us, and that what is left is evil if it is left to itself. That’s the part that leads us into temptation to do bad things, have too much pride in ourselves, etc. It does this if it's been spoiled all of your life and thinks it’s the boss. Robin says that literature makes us believe certain things and see things differently, and those things are different depending on when the literature was written. She also gives examples of different books with the title and author that influence that part of us if we would like to read them.
When you do decide on a religion there are usually aspects of it that you disagree with, and you may not do that part. There's also part of the book which is accepting different people’s opinions and respecting which religion they choose. If you don’t respect or accept their religion that can lead to arguing and sometimes war.
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.
This year we have been reading a book called Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell. The book basically teaches you how to write a book. It talks about the basic elements of writing a book. This book is one of my favorite books of all time.
The introduction talked about the ingredients of a successful book such as: balance, reader empathy, dramatic question, the why factor, intimacy, obstacles and layered conflict, resonance, unity, and a satisfying ending.
Balance keeps the book strait. You do not want too much of one thing but not that much of the other. You must balance everything in order to have a well-written book.
Reader empathy is what makes the reader want to keep flipping the page. It makes the reader want to read the book to the end to see what happens to the main character.
A dramatic question is the question the book asks at the beginning. If the dramatic question is a good one it makes the reader want to read on to the end of the book to find out the answer to the question.
The why factor is a statement in a book that makes the reader ask for example; why did he just do that? Or why did she leave him? It makes the reader want to read more to find out the answer to their question.
Intimacy is what describes the characters and settings in a story. This lets the reader know what the main character looks like or any emotional scars or anything like that. This helps the reader understand the story a lot better.
A book has to have some conflict or and obstacle the main character has to go through. If a book has no conflict then there is no story, at least not a good one. Conflict makes the reader pay attention while reading the book. If there is no conflict the reader will not be interested and stop reading the book.
Resonance is what makes the book flow. It’s what the reader feels in a certain situation. The writer has to ask himself when he’s writing the book; “What do I want the reader to feel when he’s reading my book?”
Unity is basically what unites the book together. It helps the reader to understand certain scenes and it leads up to the satisfying ending.
A satisfying ending is a terrific ending to the book. You don’t want the reader to read through the entire book and then when he gets to the end of the book he or she doesn’t like the ending. A reader likes it when he reads a book and he gets to the end he likes the ending.
Those are the basic elements to writing a successful book. I would like to recommend the book Between the Lines to all people who would like to write a book. It is a great book for all readers. So far this is my favorite book at school this year. It makes me want to write a book. I hope it makes you.