The Right Approach
by Laura Berquist - Summer 2001

Homeschooling with the children’s cooperation.

In 1994 I wrote Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum. It had a number of ideas for how to homeschool children and achieve good academic results. Almost all of the ideas had to do with curriculum and methodology. Soon I had a school, Mother of Divine Grace, and enrolled families who called regularly to discuss their academic programs. I expected these discussions to focus on individual children and the right curriculum choices for each particular child. And in large measure they did.

However, homeschooling is not only concerned with which materials are better, and how they ought to be presented. Homeschooling is also, and more essentially, about raising children, forming them in the right way, academically and spiritually, and achieving these goals with the children’s cooperation. For without the children’s cooperation, these goals can’t be achieved, because the goals are primarily realized in their hearts. So acquiring the cooperation of your children,
in the right way, becomes a matter of grave importance.

As my own six children have grown, I have seen a number of things that help achieve cooperation. Much of this has been learned by trial and error (lots of error), but also by watching the successes and failures of other parents, and listening to the families enrolled in Mother of Divine Grace School.

I have gathered the items that occurred to me as especially useful in encouraging cooperation under ten headings:

1.   The Right Approach

2.   Clear Directions

3.   Observing Limits

4.   Keeping Notes

5.   Formation vs. Information

6.   Respecting Individuality

7.   Training in Virtue

8.   Having Conversations

9.   Being Respectful

10. Encouragement.

In this issue I would like to discuss the first of these items.

The right approach to your school subjects will make a big difference in your children’s attitudes. You will notice that my suggestions in this area move from the specific to the general. One specific issue that comes up frequently in consultations with families is how to achieve cooperation with daily math lessons. If you’ve ever had a child who groaned when math was mentioned, assured you that it was too hard, and took two hours to do a lesson that could have been done in forty minutes, you are not alone. Here are some ideas that have helped other families.

Break up the math lesson. I don’t necessarily mean half a lesson in the morning and half a lesson in the afternoon, though that’s one possibility. My suggestion is more like this: say to your child, in an interested and pleasant tone, “Honey, I wonder how long it would take you to do two problems? Why don’t you do two problems, and I’ll time you. I just wonder how long that would take.” Then watch the time. Now, the novelty of doing only two problems, or the idea of timing, may already have made the child more cooperative, but even if he groans, it’s all right as long as he does the problems. When he tells you he’s done, say, “That’s great! You did those two problems in ten minutes! I wonder if you could do the next two in the same, or maybe less time?” Then watch the clock while he does the next two problems, and tell him the time. I usually find that each successive part of the lesson takes less time, and that the end of the lesson comes sooner than either of you would think.

This works because you have given your child short-term goals, so he’s not staring at all thirty problems and thinking about how long that’s going to take. You have also introduced the notion of timing, trying to move faster, but put it in terms that seem doable: “Can you beat your own best time?” And, of course, you have been pleasantly involved. That’s a big motivation for students. It’s also an important part of making this technique work. You need to say what you say pleasantly, even if you really want to snarl. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Now you couldn’t do this for every math lesson, all year long, but you could do it for a number of days at the beginning of the year, and help the student start getting the habit of doing his work in a timely, focused manner. And you could practice this technique on particular occasions throughout the year, when the student is particularly grumpy, or unfocused.

Here are some other ideas for math lessons: let your child do the work in his head if he can. Mental math is an important skill, and it gets better with practice. I’ve talked to a number of mothers who were having a daily fight with their children about showing all the math work. My suggestion is: don’t make him show his work unless he gets the problem wrong. In our house, this is the deal. I tell the children, “You can just write down the answers to your problems. Bring the lesson to me as soon as it is done. I will stop whatever I am doing, and take the five minutes required to correct the lesson. I’ll circle those that are wrong and give the lesson back. Any problems that are wrong should be re-worked, and for those problems you need to show your work.” This way there’s a reward for getting it right: less work.

Something else that has made a difference, especially with older children, in getting math lessons done in a timely way, is setting a time limit. I’ve been amazed what a difference this makes. Tell your child that he has to do only one hour of math (this works well with Latin, too). Set a timer. When the hour is up, stop. I introduced this in my house when I had decided to give up. I said to myself, “We will never get anything else done at this rate. I just have to make up my mind that this text is going to last two years – and hope it is not three.” Well, astonishingly enough, once the time limit was established, the lessons that had been taking two hours or longer began to take only one. I realized it was because I had changed the goal to something that seemed doable to the child. Thirty problems looked like an all-day project, but one hour looked possible.

My last specific suggestion with respect to mathematics is to be consistent. Have the math lesson done every day, and correct it every day. I mentioned earlier that the recommended approach is to tell your child to do the lesson and to bring it to you, and that you correct it right then. This is a matter of discipline, both for you and your child, but it makes a great difference in how well the math gets done. Math is a subject in which daily practice makes forty-five-minute lessons the norm, whereas the same material with the same child can take an hour and a half or more if he is out of practice.

If doing the math corrections regularly is something you have tried and found that it just doesn’t seem to work, I suggest that you tie the math corrections to something that does happen. For many years, with one of my children, I “did the numbers” daily. That is, each morning I wrote on his paper the number of the lesson and the numbers for the math problems, 1-25. This was something he could certainly do himself, but it got us started; he appreciated the help, and it took only three minutes. One year I had real trouble doing the lesson corrections immediately after the lesson was done (though I still think that’s the best way), so I tied the corrections to “doing the numbers.” That is, I would always correct yesterday’s lesson when I “did the numbers” for the current lesson. Then my son would make the corrections before he went on to the new lesson. That worked, because I tied the correcting, which hadn’t been getting done, to something that was already a permanent feature of our schedule.

Another area that comes up regularly in the consultations I do with families is the need for regular sustained silent reading. Good readers may be born, but they can also be made, and good reading habits are essential for good academic formation. I suggest you initiate what I call a directed reading time in your house. This is my title for the regular, daily reading time spent reading a book I have chosen for my child. He is welcome to read anything else he wants (within reason) for the rest of the day, but during this time, he reads what I have picked for him.

When the children are little and just developing reading fluency, the directed reading time is intended to help them do just that. I will have an early reader read three times a day, at first for five minutes each time, from a book that is actually below his reading level. There is a place for challenge in directed reading, but it comes after fluency has been acquired. People get better at reading only by practicing reading, and so I think you need to incorporate regular reading time in your child’s day. And five minutes, three times, is easier than one long fifteen-minute period. When five minutes becomes easy, make it ten minutes three times a day, and when that becomes easy move to fifteen. When that is easy, the child is usually ready to move to two half hours, or one full hour. That’s your target. Each child should, in my opinion, read for one hour of directed reading each day. In our house this is usually in addition to any reading the student may be doing for history. (I say usually, because I have had a reluctant reader, and asking for an hour of reading beyond the reading required in history would just have been too much.)

When the children get older, this directed reading time provides a place to introduce the classics. One of my children had gotten to the Hardy Boys stage, and seemed to be stuck. I suggested several times that if he liked Hardy Boys, he would like Sherlock Holmes, but he looked at my very large book, with very small print, and said, “No, thanks, Mom.”

Finally, I decided that Sherlock Holmes was going to be part of his directed reading time. So, that night after dinner, I handed him the book and told him he could read it for an hour. Every ten minutes of that hour, he asked me if his time was up. At the end of the hour I asked if he had liked the book. He said, “No,” and I said, “That’s too bad, honey, because you’re going to be reading it for a while.”

The following night after dinner, I handed my son the same book, and he sat down to read it. This time, however, he didn’t ask me every ten minutes if his time was up. In fact, when I told him his hour was up, he said, “Thanks, Mom,” and kept reading. He kept reading until bedtime, and when I got up in the morning, he was up before me, reading Sherlock Holmes.

I tell you this, both as an illustration of what I mean by directed reading time, and as an encouragement to you to go ahead and introduce your children to the classics. Classics are classic in part because people like them, and our children will like them if they persist in reading them. Occasionally, I admit, they don’t like something we have picked out for them to read; but that’s life, and everyone has to do a certain number of things that are just good for them. My own experience is that if you do something that is good for you often enough, even though you may not have started out liking it, your liking for it will grow as the action is repeated.

Writing is another area that comes into homeschooling conversations on a regular basis. The most helpful thing I have to say about that is the importance of using models, especially with younger children. Imitation is the first mode of learning, and is always a valuable practice. Children need to know what is expected. They need clear and defined goals. A model can provide these. One of the reasons I like Emma Serls’ Intermediate Language Lessons is because she uses models of writing to prompt the children in their creative writing stories.

A story is presented, the student recounts the story using an outline provided in the text, he is given an assignment to write a story very similar to the first story, and he is asked to verbalize the story first. Then he knows just what is expected of him and is free to be creative within that framework. A framework always encourages freedom, by releasing one from doubt and indecision.

Older children, though they may not need models of writing, do need to verbalize the material before committing it to paper. I have seen that high-school age children have a tendency to put off writing papers, waiting for the moment of inspiration to strike – when, they are confident, they will have the perfect opening, coherent arguments, and a striking conclusion. Unfortunately, the moment of inspiration may not come for weeks. To avoid this problem, we have developed the forty-five-minute essay. The children read about a topic, talk to me about it, so that it has already been verbalized, and then set a timer for forty-five minutes. They write “45 Minute Essay” on the top of the page, so that it is clear that this is not a studied work but an example of what can be done in forty-five minutes. Then they write as much as they can about the topic discussed in forty-five minutes. I have found this to be really helpful in getting a reluctant writer started. The forty-five-minute essay can form the basis for a longer paper, or it can stand alone.

All of these particular suggestions: timing math, doing mental math, setting time limits, doing directed reading, using models for writing, and verbalizing material before writing, have certain attributes in common that have to do with how one approaches difficult areas. They all employ doable, short-term goals, they are all clearly defined, and they all put the parent on the side of the student. These three qualities can make the difference between success and failure in homeschooling. So this is the first of the ten things that I think can make a difference. Pay attention to your approach. Make sure that it includes clearly defined, doable, short-term goals, and that it makes clear to the children that you are on their side. That is an important part of “the right approach.”

A mom once called me to ask a series of questions about her curriculum. She thought her younger boys needed more help with their writing, and I suggested the method I use all through the early grades, in which we read the story one day, the student re-tells it the next day, and the parent writes down the re-telling. This gives the student practice in oral composition, and an opportunity to see the story once again in its entirety. The following day the student copies what the parent wrote on the day before. Thus, the student both sees and writes his own composition, with the correct spelling and writing mechanics. The finished product is truly his work, both in terms of composition and the physical act of writing, but the two parts of the process have been separated.

Young children, particularly boys, can find writing very frustrating when these two parts of the writing process are not separated. Their thoughts move faster than their pencils can. When the parts of the process are separated, they can compose at the level of their ability for that skill and they can work on improving the physical act of writing.

The lady I spoke to liked that suggestion, and then asked about using science tests. I said I wasn’t too keen on the kind of test that had a great number of questions about particular facts, especially in the younger grades, and that I preferred to encourage the children to tell me what they had read and enjoyed in the science books. Similarly, I said, I like to test reading comprehension in most areas by inviting the children to tell me about what they have read, and I try to ask intelligent and interested questions. I pointed out that this way we were conversing in a comradely way, learning and exploring together, rather then putting the children in a situation in which I was simply testing them, trying to find out what they didn’t know. This way they were being allowed to show me what they did know.

The lady listened to all of this and then said, “You make it sound like what we’re supposed to do is work with the children, helping them achieve the goals we set, rather than telling them the goals and seeing if they can get there.” And I said, “That’s it, exactly.” Schooling is not and should not be an adversarial situation. It should be a situation in which we are working together with our children to attain one of the great gifts of nature and grace: an understanding of reality. We need to work together to achieve this goal. There is no room for an adversarial relationship in home education. Cooperation is the key and the right approach can help you achieve cooperation.

Laura Berquist is a homeschooling mother of six, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and director of Mother of Divine Grace Home Study Program. She welcomes your suggestions or comments. You can send them to her at the Mother of Divine Grace School office, Attention: Laura Berquist, P.O. Box 1440, Ojai, CA 93024; (805) 646-5818. 

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