Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thoughts on Teaching the Bible

After my husband published a post about the dilemma of reading all of the Bible to a five year old during our homeschooling lessons, he received a few comments back that definitely show different people's approaches. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I definitely have some opinions about teaching the Bible. Before I start spouting off on one or more of my soap box issues, it would probably be good to give a little background. That way you might be able to see a little bit of where I'm coming from.

I have a fairly conservative Christian upbringing. My parents raised me in the Church of Christ. One thing about the Church of Christ that many people (even some who belong to it) sometimes mistakenly overlook is that although many congregations appear to be the same, the reality is that there is no official connection to keep them all in cookie cutter unity. Each congregation is in control of its own affairs and tries to follow the Bible or get off track in its own way. The church I grew up in was a bit of a trend setter (at least during my childhood and high school years) that was usually middle of the road or slightly liberal leaning within "the brotherhood" of Churches of Christ. My parents' faith experiences also colored my religious background. My Dad grew up in the same faith background that I did. However, my Mom grew up going to any church that the most available family member with a car went to that week. She had a big extended family and they went to every church on the map. With that background, she helped bring a little perspective to what I grew up with.

When I say "conservative Christian," I know that many people will want to stop reading right there. And others, who have had bad experiences with my denomination, will want to stereotype me there. To that I can only say, if you wish to remain ignorant of another person's faith journey, so be it. Stereotypes are just that, stereotypes. They can't tell you about a specific individual. I think that it would be accurate to say that although I have encountered closed minds, faulty logic, and hypocrisy among my fellow faith travelers, I have also encountered plenty of open minds, well refined logic, and sincere faith among many of them, too. So, please give us a chance. I was raised to know the Bible. I was raised to follow God and my conscience to the best of my ability. I was encouraged to think critically and be well educated.

As a result of this background, I entered a long college career that took me to four colleges and four majors in completely different subjects. The one that applies to this post is my last one. I was a Bible and Theology major. For a variety of reasons relating to family responsibilities, work responsibilities, social life and such... I didn't finish my degree. I was about five classes away from my 2nd Bachelor's degree in Bible and Theology. I make no claims to be a famous scholar. I never even took Hebrew or Greek. But, I still think that I probably have a better religious education at the college level than your average person off the street. The education I have does impact some of my thoughts on teaching the Bible.

When we started homeschooling our daughter she was preschool. The Bible classes she got at church were fine. Then she was Kindergarten and I tried to supplement her classes by following up on the Memory verse work and asking her questions about her lesson. I could write another post solely on my opinions of church Bible classes. I did quickly determine that my daughter found the memory verse work so easy she was bored with it. And she was more interested in the crafts than the stories (unless they were "icky" stories such as those my husband mentioned in his post). In talking with the people in charge of the curriculum to know what was to come in the grades 1-6, I learned that they didn't start a systematic study through the Bible until second grade.

We didn't start homeschooling for religious reasons, but we are religious. And our faith is important enough to us that I knew that one class a week on Sunday morning was not going to be good enough for us. So I decided to add religious studies to the schedule when I was planning for this year. We are following a historical structure in our studies so, she will learn about world religions as we encounter them in history. In fact, we our learning some of what the Ancient Egyptians believed, in our current studies by reading some our their myths. But, for our own family's faith, we are reading the Bible since that is the core of our religion.

Some people think that collections of Bible stories are most appropriate for young children. I agree up to a point. I've been reading Bible stories to her from numerous books of compilations since she was interested in being read to. She knows all of those stories, but she is lacking in context. And all of those convenient compilations are paraphrases. They are not actual translations of scripture. On the plus side, they eliminate most of the scandalous violence, the breaking of sexual taboos, the grievous misdeeds of the heroes of faith, and the difficult to explain passages about God himself.

I have a strong bias toward reading primary source material. Don't slice and dice my literature, history or even religion please. There is so much to gain by listening to an author as he or she intended to be heard. So, I made the decision that if I am teaching our daughter world history and literature in first grade, then I will be reading her an actual translation of the Bible. This gives her the context for those stories she has learned. She learns the order that things happened. She learns a lot more about how God interacts with people, than the cut and paste version served up in story books.

In addition to this, she learns that there is usually more to the story than she has ever heard before. Some of that story causes me my dilemma of whether to read absolutely everything. I mean... she's only five after all. She doesn't need to hear about everything does she? So, since I make a detailed lesson plan, I started reading through the Bible trying to divide up the readings in appropriately sized chunks.

I was a little nervous about including Noah getting drunk (remembering some of the interpretations of that story that I've heard through the years), but It went OK. It helps that I went out and got a translation that aimed at a third grade reading level. Some of the more difficult phrases to explain become euphemisms. The next problematic story was the story of the visitation of the angels to Sodom and Gommorah. I haven't got to that one yet, so I can't tell you how I'll handle it yet. Either I will edit my reading to give the gist of the story (it is a major story that is revisited many times later and therefore necessary to my eyes), or I will read it straight and deal with any questions from my daughter as they arise.

Of course there are all the long genealogy passages... I'm reading them. Genealogies were important to the people of that time and you can learn the occasional tidbit from them. Then there are the long passages in Exodus where God describes in detail to Moses how to build the Tabernacle, then Moses describes in detail to the people how to build the Tabernacle, then the people build the Tabernacle and it is described in detail. Whether or not that section takes up half of the book of Exodus, it feels like it does. I'm planning on editing that down to give her the highlights and give her an idea of what Israelites were told to do in their religious practices. Then later on there are all of the Levitical laws about how to do the various sacrifices, how to do the various feasts, the day to day legal issues, cleanliness laws, etc. I will try to give her some of it, but not too much. These laws are brought up later. Every time I considered skipping something, I would be reminded how it is brought up later with the assumption that it is no longer new information. Yes, much of it is deadly dull to us. Yes, some of it is downright icky. But, I found that in small chunks, it didn't look so bad and the few sections that I had the most problem with probably should be skipped for attention span reasons. She is only five!

I do not feel guilty leaving out a few things. You see, I'm leaving most of it in. Very few things hit my don't read threshold. And those are mainly because of her age. This will not be the only time we read the Bible. As she gets older, we will read every bit of it. By the time she is in high school I expect reading the whole Bible to be at least an annual activity. We are going slower this time through. I plan to be most of the way through Numbers by the end of the school year.

Another consideration is that we are following an educational approach that encourages exploration of facts and information for the youngest kids. It is not to gain mastery at the beginning. It is to lay foundations for further study. I learned from my Master's program (Library and Information Science), that people learn things better if they have already been exposed to that information. But, the young age level is not necessarily very good at analyzing what they read. It's the older kids that wrestle more with why and wherefore. So I feel comfortable with providing a much bigger slice of the picture than most kids her age get, with the idea that the small bits I've left out, will fit better when she is old enough to handle a little bit more heavy-duty mental wrestling that some of those passages prompt.

One commenter at my husband's blog made the helpful suggestion of starting with the New Testament in our reading. I appreciate the helpfulness, truly, but the suggestion undercuts a basic premise in my teaching of the Bible. That premise is that it is almost impossible to get a full understanding of the New Testament without a firm grounding in the Old Testament. I'm sure that steps on a few toes, because I have known many people who think that the New Testament somehow overshadows the Old to the point of making it obsolescent. In my mind, reading only the New Testament is like reading the end of a story but not the beginning. Have you ever flipped channels on your T.V. and been sucked into a movie only to find out that you watched only the last 15 minutes. Yeah, you saw the climax and the way it ended, but you are completely oblivious to what put the characters in their situation to begin with. You didn't see the character development or the trials and victories that came before. And remember, the people who wrote and read the New Testament when it was new, thought of the Old Testament as their scriptures. The Old Testament was their Bible.

So...I suppose I should report on how it is going. After all, we've been doing Bible readings for the last three weeks. Well, I have found that by Genesis chapter 15, I have not had to edit anything out. My daughter likes some of the readings but not others. I can tell how much she likes it based on how eager she is to come up with a sentence for her narration page and whether she wants to illustrate the passage (this last being completely optional). Some of them are pretty bland, but some are hilarious. For instance, the story of Cain and Abel. She never mentions the fact that Cain killed Abel (the obvious point for most of us). Instead she was impressed that Cain farmed, so she wrote "Who likes crops?" and had a picture of a very happy-looking stick figure of Cain showing off a platter of vegetables. I keep all of her work in a binder to document her progress. But even without that motive, The Pillowfight Fairy's work shows a very amusing view of the Bible.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The First Week of School

I suppose I should share how our first week of school went. It actually went very well. A while back my husband shared an overview of what we planned for this year and we got a lot of feedback saying that we were taking on too much, our daughter would be at her schoolwork too much of the day and that I would burn out in no time. After just a little over two weeks into it, I think we planned well and that the doomsayers are wrong (so far).

Our daily schedule looks something like this:

  • 7:30 am Get up/breakfast/etc.
  • 8:30-9:00 am Go for daily walk/stroller ride (the earlier we get out the better as the weather is hot right now).
  • 9:30-10:00 am Start schoolwork (Bible reading, narration page, illustration page, math page, read an Aesop's fable, narration page, illustration page, spelling assignment, grammar lesson (3 days a week), Short history or science reading, narration page, illustration page, memory work (maybe once or twice a week), art lesson or free art time.)
  • 11:30-12:00 am School is over.
The list of lessons sound like a lot, but they are really short. The only days we have spent much more time than I like is when I've let my daughter spend as much time as she wants on her illustration pages. These were a feature of her schoolwork that she wanted and asked for. Sometimes a quick drawing is enough, but some days she takes her time to create an intricate masterpiece. We sometimes have to take a break for lunch and continue with whatever remains when the younger kids go down for naps. We have not gone any later than 2:00 pm and that was purely because of the time she decided to put into her artwork.

I have noticed a few things in the past week and a half that will have a bearing on the future:

First, we took a holiday for Mommy's birthday and it threw off the schedule. I noticed that other homeschoolers have mentioned that they plan by week instead of by day. My schedule was by day. The problem with this is that skipping a day in a carefully crafted week's schedule is that you either shift the whole week by one day, wrapping around to the next week, or you shift the work to other days, or you skip those lessons. While some lessons are not urgent in and of themselves, skipping lessons is not my first choice. I first thought that we would just shift the work by a day, but that was grating against my orderly personality. Besides, we have carefully planned library days that have to happen at their scheduled time. So I decided to shift the work of the extra day over the course of three days to catch up. That seems to have worked without putting an undue burden on my daughter. This will be an issue as we proceed since sickness and other needful interruptions will occur. We will just have to play it by ear. I hesitate to make my schedule less detailed, since I find it easier on me to have the preparation work finished to that level. I merely have to look ahead every two weeks to make sure we have the appropriate library books and craft supplies. Then I lay out the next day's work each evening and double check that I understand the teaching that I need to do.

Second, It will take a while for my daughter to get the hang of narration. At this point, I'm asking questions to get her thinking, but if she isn't in the mood to think, we stall pretty fast. I don't want to get in the habit of answering the questions for her. Nor do I want to reread the passages to help her learn what she missed. The point of narration is that she needs to learn to use her memory on one reading. It is a skill that takes some time to learn and she will need that time to learn it. Fortunately, I have experience that tells me that she will get it eventually. When I was a young whippersnapper (High school age or early college age), I annoyed my family by asking them questions about the Sunday morning sermon over Sunday lunch. You see most people forget the sermon almost immediately even if they liked it. At first, my family was simply annoyed that I kept pointing out to them how short their memory was for something they ought to be remembering. But, within a month we were having lively lunch conversations about the morning sermon. I'm looking forward to some lively conversations with my daughter about what she is being taught.

Third, It will be a challenge working more schooling for my younger daughter into the schedule. We have done some, but not to any set schedule. I have also taken time to read to my son. Both of the younger kids get some of Mommy's attention while the oldest is working mostly independently on some of her work (especially art). But, for the most part the younger two play the whole time and the room is a mess at the end of our appointed school time. On the plus side, the younger kids are playing independently or learning to play with each other without a lot of interference from Mommy. It is nice that Mommy does not have to do everything for them all the time. As they get older, I expect it will get a little easier to juggle teaching two kids set lessons.

Forth, I might want to reconsider the time of year that I start school. I've been in the midst of a nectarine harvest that couldn't wait. Traditionally, school started after most of the harvesting was over. A month ago we were drowning in plums. For the last two weeks it has been nectarines. The peaches are showing signs of being ripe any day now and the golden plums will probably be ready sometime soon as well. I've barely been keeping up with daily tasks and staying up late to preserve fruit. I have fruit frozen in the freezer for a more convenient time to make jams and jellies. I've sliced probably 200 nectarines for dehydrating and made fruit leather from nectarines and plums (3 gallon bags of fruit rolls; 3 quart bags of fruit chips). Our fruit loving kids are tired of the fresh plums and nectarines and we were giving the fruit away. Even if I don't plant a vegetable garden next year (although I do plan to), I still will have oodles of fruit from the trees alone.

Fifth, the purpose of all of this is to teach our daughter. Some useful questions may need to be asked. Is she learning anything? I think so, but the learning process is so gradual at times it can be hard to see. Is she enjoying her schooling? Yes, she was eager to get started and even plays school when she isn't actually doing it. Do I see evidence that she is maturing in her abilities? Yes, she is taking more responsibility for doing things herself. She is helping her sister by reading to her and teaching her. She is very proud of the fact that she is a "first-grader" and is thankfully oblivious that her skills are more advanced than her peers in many areas. She has an incredibly intense competitive spirit and would be an annoying braggart if she were aware of the differences. She has a way to go to get her social and emotional levels to match her academic ability, but I have confidence that a homeschooling environment is a more nurturing environment to work through the tough spots there. Having been in a similarly disjointed academic age/emotional age situation myself, but in a public school, I don't want her to have to go through some of the painful stuff that I had to go through. It took me about a decade to work past some the the emotional scars I got in public school (and that was in good schools, with good teachers, and generally good kids). And lest anyone thinks we are not "socializing" her, let me assure you that she is not isolated. She has classroom experience in church with her age peers. She has community involvement through the local parks and rec. programs. She is not shy and will often speak her mind to strangers to my mild embarrassment (as I am very introverted).

My conclusion is that we are not overworking our daughter. She has an appropriate amount of schoolwork. As it gets more challenging, she will probably spend more time on it, but at this point I have no concerns about that. There is room for improvement, but if there weren't our job would be done. It is sometimes hard to juggle it all, but that is because I have chosen to do so many things all at once. I am trying to be realistic and keep perspective on what is most important.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Gardening thoughts

We have lived in our home almost five years and this was the first year we have put in a garden. We have been adding trees little by little, but this is the first year that I feel like our garden is up and running so to speak. I guess it would be more accurate to say that it is in full production. This is an update on how our garden grows and what thoughts gardening has reminded me of.

We already have a decent fruit orchard: red plums, golden plums, cherries, nectarines, peaches, asian pears, standard pears. We also have a decent section dedicated to berries: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries. This spring, we planted a variety of herbs, salad greens, radishes, cabbages, carrots, onions, and brussel sprouts. Of those only about half germinated. We got a large crop of lettuce (two kinds), radishes, and carrots. We are still waiting on the brussel sprouts. They are currently forming the little edible sprouts, but it is taking a lot longer than we expected. We only got one cabbage, which sprung up where I didn't plant them.

Once we harvested most of these foods, we planted the summer crop: Sunflowers, pole beans, peppers, pumpkins, zucchini, crookneck squash and a cherry tomato plant. We also planted four grapevines which will be a permanent part of the garden. I'm planning on training them into a fountain form instead of the traditional way. About the time we put in the summer plants, we also put in a drip irrigation system. The plants did better at this point.

All of this gardening has prompted a variety of thoughts:
  1. Food grown in your yard tastes better than what you get at the store. The flavors of everything, even the most hum-drum foods, are stronger.
  2. We spend a lot less on produce these days. One of our daughters thinks she can't go a meal without fruit and our son is starting to think the same way. We used to buy a lot of produce, not anymore.
  3. When you decide to plant food crops, and land, water, and sun are sufficiently supplied, God will provide an overabundance. I'm inclined to believe that this is because He is generous. I am also inclined to believe that he expects us to be generous with his bounty. Thus some of the food should be given away. Unless you are selling it for a profit, this is a necessary activity if you don't want perfectly good food to go to waste. I'm pretty good at using and saving, but we can only eat and preserve so much. I've got a quart ziploc in the fridge filled with fresh green beans ready to use or preserve. I've made apricot jam (from a neighbors donation). I've made two blackberry pies. I've made dried plum chips (not exactly prunes). I'm making plum fruit leather (my first try at this as I'm desperate to use a huge supply). I've made plum pie (rather tart, note to self... use more sugar). We're having trouble keeping up with the strawberries despite the children's fondness for them so strawberry jam will be made in the next few days. I'm contemplating drying some of the green beans to use in soups this winter. I am so glad my Mom gave me her dehydrator. Thankfully, the blackberries, cherries and plums are finishing up or done. But the Nectarines are starting to ripen. The tree is full. One branch broke the other day and we lost 50-100 nectarines. That was a small portion of what is still on the tree. We will have to work harder at thinning the fruit earlier in the season.
  4. Gardening helps me refocus on time in a different way than we are accustomed in our culture. You prepare the ground at the right time of year. You plant the seeds when those seeds need to be planted. You water and weed without any sign of growth for weeks. Only then, with patience, do you get the new plants sprouting. You tend and watch them grow. All you can do is water, weed and wait (some people add some fertilizer). You can't make plants grow faster than they do. You can't rush the new fruits or vegetables to form at your convenience. They are ready when they are ready. Once it is time to harvest, you harvest or lose it. Once you harvest, you use it, give it away, or preserve it for later use. If you don't let the garden guide your time-table, you will be doing the needed things at the wrong times and therefore getting a bad result.
  5. Farming is hard work. I already knew this and I'm not considering myself a farmer. Both of my parents grew up on farms and I visited my grandparent's farm on many occasions. I do not have an idealized view of farming. It is hard work. It is hard on the people working in the fields. It is hard on the people processing the food for later use. You have to be the right kind of person to thrive in this setting. My grandpa was one of those people. He loved being a farmer. He loved trying new crops, working with the animals, keeping bees, going fishing in the pond. It was harder on my grandma, but she managed to run the kitchen, raise six kids, and help sell some of the food to the neighbors (she also learned to paint and became a income tax preparer in her later years). Having a big garden like we have, I understand better what my grandparents were doing with their kitchen garden (about the size of our entire backyard). They fed themselves all year with what they grew in that garden. The field crops were for market. Besides the honey, milk, meat and eggs that they got from the animals (of which they kept only a small portion for themselves and sold the rest), the kitchen garden was what they lived on. My Dad remembers that they would supplement with wild berries and a few fruit trees in the summer. I remember my grandparents had a huge pecan tree in their front yard. They would send us a box of pecans at Christmas time which would last us most of the next year in my Mom's baking of desserts. I realize that we could create a similar kitchen garden to help us lower our food purchases. However, such a garden is a full-time job throughout the growing season. As the kids get older, it is more feasible to do this. Right now, it is just an intense hobby.
  6. My kids are learning about plants and where food comes from. A garden is a great way to teach botany. The kids can help plant, water, weed and watch the plants develop. They also get to taste the results of the work. Young kids like ours, don't have a lot of patience for the everyday stuff like watering and weeding. But they are fascinated with planting and harvesting. The Pillowfight fairy loves to help me harvest berries. She has plenty of patience for that since she loves to eat them. I'm glad that I'm passing along some of what I learned when my family had a garden when I was a kid. Maybe, at least some of my kids will show an interest in growing some of their own food as they grow up. I will try not to expect them to love it as much as I do.
  7. Being outside in the garden and just outside in general, is good for us adults. In many ways, our backyard is becoming a little oasis from the cares of the world. That is a very worthwhile thing.