In an article for The New Republic, editor Ryu Spaeth ruminates on his impromptu homeschooling due to Covid-19. In particular, he reflects on the experience of teaching his five year old daughter how to read. Spaeth writes self-deprecatingly that “teaching a child to read is hard” and “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
I loved reading Spaeth’s account, and I think it demonstrates just how important parents are in the learning process. He may not feel like he knows what he’s doing, but I think he’s doing a lot right. Regardless of what educational option parents choose for their children, parental engagement is essential. A large part of our mission here at Demme Learning is to encourage parents to trust themselves; you are doing a good job, and your investment into your child’s learning really matters.
There are three key features of quality at-home learning that stand out to me in my reading of Spaeth’s article.
1) The Best Learning Experiences are Embodied, and Rooted in Relationship
Often when people are first experimenting with home education, they are tempted to recreate the school at home. But the beauty of learning at home, whether full homeschooling curriculum or summer learning, is how deeply personal it is enabled to be given the familial context. Your home does not have to look like school to be a good learning environment.
Spaeth writes, “when my daughter and I first began this regimen, curling up on the couch with a book, it was an inversion of our usual routine: She would be reading the book to me.” There is obvious warmth in the texture of this experience, a texture made possible by the level of intimate connection in the parent-child bond. This kind of bond can be of particular help in inspiring perseverance in the learning process. Spaeth observes that “when facing a particularly daunting block of text, she will wriggle out from the nest I have made of my arm and lie stretched out on the couch, eyes closed tight.” And he subsequently reflects that “teaching her to read is less about helping her with the more difficult words and explaining how particular arrangements of letters are pronounced, than about urging her to sit up, to concentrate, to put her shoulder to the wheel.”
There are plenty of quantifiable academic metrics through which we could analyze the learning taking place in these interactions. Yet I think most of us can agree that the qualitative benefits here are of at least equal value as the academic gains. And the beauty is that the two kinds of benefits intersect.
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Every child develops and learns at an individualized pace. (This is why our programs are not based on grade levels: we want the learning experience to be fully customizable for the needs of each student.) We also believe that the visible effects of education are like the tip of an iceberg with layers of deeper learning lying underneath the surface. Those inspiring moments where something finally clicks are possible because of that much slower, less visible process of building understanding.
At school, there are schedules to keep, and efficient uses of time and resources to worry about. But at home, there is much more space and time for qualitative learning, rooted in an educational approach that isn’t in a hurry to get where it is going. Spaeth writes about how his “normally loquacious child was having trouble with her words. They came out slowly, haltingly, sometimes not at all. The finger tracing the page would hover for a ponderous moment over what was, apparently, a senseless jumble of letters. Sometimes, frustrated, she would have to reset her brain to proceed: “OK,” she’d sigh, then vigorously shake her head clean of its confusion like an Etch A Sketch.”
In this description, Spaeth draws our attention to that slow process of building understanding that happens under the surface. Whether it’s developing word sense or number sense, this process can feel tedious – for both instructor and student – but it is an important part of authentic learning. In the case of English, Spaeth notes that it isn’t surprising that his daughter struggles to learn to read the language. He explains that “much of English is basically ideographic, requiring readers to simply memorize the sound of an otherwise incomprehensible collection of dots and loops and strokes.” As an example, he considers the word ocean: “so lovely to look at, so strangely evocative of the thing it represents—is a phonetic catastrophe, the c suddenly switching to the “sh” sound, the ea inexplicably approximating a u.” Learning to read (or later to spell) in the English language really requires spending a lot of time fumbling, making mistakes, and slowly creating a web of connected learning, stored in long-term memory. (blog post here) As Spaeth explains, “mastering the ability to read, like so much else in life, requires practice and repetition.”
Your student is learning. Trust the process! You will see the fruits soon enough And when you let your student know that its okay to take her time, you are building the kind of confidence and resilience that will let your student grow as a lifelong learner..
3. Students are not blank slates, and learning is optimized when it is tailored to each child.
3) Students Are Not Blank Slates, and Learning is Optimized When It Is Tailored to Each Child
Every student is unique. We say this so often that it might sound cliche. But it truly is at the heart of our philosophy of education here at Demme Learning. Kids are not blank slates, and learning is not an automated assembly-line. Instead, every child is a dynamic learner with particular skills and weaknesses, whose particular learning preferences and individualized pace are all important factors to consider. The great news is that as a parent, you are more of an expert regarding your kids’ learning than anyone else in the world! Of course the expertise of others can be really helpful – for example speech therapists who are trained to help your student overcome a stutter – but no one has spent as much time as you have in observing how your kid learns. Trust the expertise that you have built up over the years.
I like how Spaeth incorporates family history and shared culture into the learning process. He observes that he and his daughter “have better luck with classic children’s books, the ones I used to read to her in her infancy: The Runaway Bunny, Green Eggs and Ham, Where the Wild Things Are.” For his daughter, these are not just any random books. Instead, these are beloved books with rich memories attached. All of these particularities enhance the learning experience, both the qualitative and quantitative outcomes. Of course, Spaeth is also right to note that “there is a rhythm to good writing that eases the passage from page to tongue, that makes reading more intuitive and natural.” Many of us fall in love with Dr. Seuss books as kids, for example, because they are truly exemplary books that help aid in our acquisition of language. But I also think that the specific books matter less than the fact that they are attached to important memories of shared delight.
You do not need an education degree to help your kids learn. All you need is a willingness to engage, to put in the time, to invest in your child with all your love and support. I hope that Ryu Spaeth’s article is a source of encouragement for dads (and moms) to lean in, and partake in the joys of the learning process. There are so many great memories just waiting to be made!