April 2, 2011

How we made it through the Strait of Magellan without ever leaving our sofa...

“Mom, you know how Harriet Tubman was called 'Moses' because she led people out of slavery?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, I was thinking about it, and the way she followed the North Star at night and the moss on the north sides of the trees by day is kind of like how Moses and the Israelites followed the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day.”

Audra Wilbur, literary analyst
This was not the observation of a teenager after reading about this extraordinary woman on a page or two in a history textbook.  This was the thoughtful parallel drawn by my sweet little six-year-old Audra as I read aloud to her and my twin eight-year-old boys from an engaging biography of Harriet Tubman written for middle school children, Freedom Train by Dorothy Sterling.   I elected not to point out the distinction between the temporary and miraculous provision the Lord gave Moses and His people as opposed to the natural ones in His creation upon which Audra’s new-found friend Harriet depended.  I simply told her it was an excellent observation.  And it was.  I hear these sorts of comments from these three little ones of mine on a regular basis.

Are they geniuses?  Their mother thinks that may be the case.  But they are also learning how to analyze the books that cross their paths.  They read plenty on their own, but reading aloud to them selections that are intended for older children is a vital component of our homeschooling.  Hearing the challenging vocabulary words and complex sentence structure helps them begin to employ those very things in their language, just as babies learn language best when we speak to them in something more advanced than “goo-goo ga-ga”.  By reading aloud to them accompanied by thoughtful follow-up conversation, not lecture, my kids have the opportunity to enjoy and learn from books that might be a struggle to read on their own.  Hearing the books aids in their language capability; discussing them together encourages and provokes their thinking capability.
The boys listening to the story from their perch;
education trumps laundry every time
We always have two books going at once.  One is a fun story closer to their grade level that requires no deep thought.  That’s the dessert at the end of the school day.  But each morning we begin with a meatier selection of historical fiction or non-fiction.  It’s a much more interesting way to learn history.  Reading articles in textbooks with dates and quick facts is lifeless, dry, and mind-numbing to me.  Not wanting to subject the kids to such torture, we instead like to read about it in the form of a personalized story riddled with dialogue and action.  Whether the characters are actual figures from history as in Freedom Train or fictional, the important historical events that create the backdrop of the story come to life.  We learn geography as we see where they travelled. We learn the causes of famous events as we hear the characters’ conversations.  And we see what day-to-day life was like in that particular time thanks to details woven seamlessly into the story that demonstrate it subtly and in a relevant way.

As with any good book club, our lively and informed discussion after our reading is essential.  I believe that children can participate in this in a meaningful way.  While admittedly my kids may more often learn something new from me as I expand on the details brought out in the story, I learn from them too.  Though I had known before that the heroine of our book had been compared to Moses even in her own time, I had never thought of that detail Audra noticed concerning how they each knew where to go next on their journey.  With a willingness to hear my children and treat them like the thinking individuals they are, my education continues on alongside theirs.  I look forward each morning to our literary guild meeting.  We’re all the richer for it.
Harriet Tubman has now taken her place in history and in the minds of my children.  Having finished that biography we’ve moved on to a treasure of a book set during the Gold Rush, By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischmann.  In this work of historical fiction, our colorful cast of characters suffering from gold fever have set off from Boston for San Francisco by way of the ocean, south for a long while, taking a sharp right, and heading north.  It’s silly and funny but jam-packed with information about that time in history.  It has captured my children's attention and mine, even though I read it years ago to my older son.  And should you wonder what “Tierra del Fuego” means or what perils lie in sailing the Strait of Magellan, ask my kids.  They can tell you all about it.

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