Despite the difference in their ages, we’ve taken to teaching the three older kids all together. They still do skills-based work (math exercises and so on) at their respective levels, and our expectations differ from kid to kid when we give them all the same assignment, but by and large they’re learning the same stuff. As N says (about everything,) why not?
I’m using a grade 7 book for our writing class. In the past few weeks we’ve covered allusions, metaphors, thesis statements, and transitional sentences. This week I introduced them to their newest assignment: a comparative essay.
I’m a big believer in what Montessori called “isolation of difficulty”: each material or lesson is designed to teach one thing. That’s it. The Suzuki Method does this as well, at least in the beginning books: each song introduces only one new skill. Likewise, I’ve taken to thinking carefully about what specific thing I want the kids to learn so that I know what I should be nitpicking about and what should be deferred to another lesson.
For this essay, I wanted them to focus on the skill of putting together an essay; writing an introduction and conclusion and stringing the paragraphs together so that there’s a smooth transition from one to the next. If that was to be the challenge, content had to be super simple to write. I decided to have them write an essay about Animal Farm and its similarities to the Russian revolution.
(Before you ask, I’ll tell you that yes, they have learned about the Russian revolution. I’ll also remind you that the point of this assignment was not to have them generate content.)
In the spirit of not having them focus on research or content generation, I found and printed a comparison chart between Animal Farm‘s main characters and the historical figures of the Russian revolution. I gave each kid a copy and told them to use those notes to write an essay (we’ve already covered how to write compare/contrast paragraphs.)
Naturally, there was a problem (of course there was): Two of the three kids didn’t want to write about this topic.
R asked if she could write a comparison of something else. She then eloquently laid out to me all the ways in which Gravity Falls (an animated TV show) was just like Land of Stories (a popular kids’ book series.) At this point I threw up my hands and said, “Sure, fine. I was trying to make this assignment easier by giving you the content, but you go ahead and do your idea instead. It sounds way more interesting.”
K wasn’t keen on the assigned topic, either. “Does it even have to be a comparison? Can’t it just be an essay based on a story? And doesn’t a TV show count as a story?” (She might have a point there—Shakespeare is literature even though what he wrote was intended to be watched, not read.)
This is where knowing the real purpose of the assignment comes in very handy. I could have tried to force K to write about Animal Farm, or I could have required her to write a comparative essay; but neither the content of Animal Farm nor writing a comparison was the purpose of the assignment. The whole point of the essay was to write an essay with an introduction, a clear thesis statement, and good transitions between paragraphs. The content was really beside the point—so I let K pick her own topic. Problem solved.
N was the only one who chose to write the essay as assigned. He has a tendency to do only what’s required and not an iota more, in schoolwork as well as at home. In his calculating way, he determined that using the notes I’d given him would allow him to get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
All three kids have worked diligently on their essays this week, and they have until next Friday to finish them. I’m still floored by the lack of resistance from K, the-kid-who-swore-she-couldn’t-write. I’m still astonished at R’s clarity and descriptive word choices, although I should be used to her writing ability by now. And N’s philosophy makes me chuckle and then shake my head in chagrin as I remember that I, too, used to calculate the absolute minimum grade I’d need on the exam to pass the course. It’s obvious he’s Mr. December’s mini-me in so many ways, but if I stop to consider it, he’s pretty obviously mine too.