I love lesson planning. There is nothing more satisfying to me than a few uninterrupted hours spent surrounded by amazing books, each carefully selected with a specific child in mind. I love anticipating their excitement just before we plunge into new subject matter. Watching imaginations take flight—it’s good stuff and just the incentive I need to keep moving forward on our family’s homeschooling journey. Sometimes the materials I’ve selected are a home run and all that good stuff happens, but sometimes it absolutely does not.
I don’t think I’m alone in this—my biggest homeschooling challenge is avoiding a tendency to get overexcited and hijack lesson plans with my own enthusiasm. My 5-year-old just received a new Star Wars Lego AT-AT Walker set. At 5:00 am yesterday morning my excited little guy stood at my bedside with a sweet smile asking, “Are you ready to play Legos yet?” I was not, but as we headed downstairs I put on my homeschool-teacher-thinking cap and thought of all the great ways we’d use this set to “learn.”
As I removed the instruction book from the box and carefully spread it onto the Lego table, I watched Jo Jo shake a colorful bag full of plastic pieces. His jibber jabber was exuberant as he thought aloud about the tools he’d build for his beloved friend, Luke Skywalker. As I read the Lego instructions, I realized that that this building task would be too much for him. I began constructing the model for him explaining the hows and whys behind it all. I figured he’d get the hang of it once he’d watched me for a few minutes. He smiled politely, but he wasn’t listening and so I stopped and poured my coffee. I rejoined him a moment later making no attempt to resume building. Instead I watched him assemble and reassemble a Yoda figure. Gleeful chatter resumed. He doesn’t yet have a fully constructed AT-AT Walker but he works on it bit by bit, sometimes letting his older brother help. There are pieces missing, and Luke might be a tad bit disappointed, but Jo Jo does not mind one bit.
There is a lot of talk in educator circles about the importance of mentors for students. I enthusiastically embrace this idea and seek such relationships for my own children. However, in observing my kids, I am drawn also to John Holt’s wise observations. In his ground breaking work, How Children Learn, Holt has studied what he refers to as competency models; children learn by observing people who can do things better than s/he can. Holt does acknowledge the value of such relationships assuming they are authentic and not contrived. However, Holt also challenges the assumption that children always benefit from trained, highly competent educators. He cautions that sometimes competence models can be too competent. His concern is that children may come to feel they can never hope to be as skilled as their parents or other teachers and subsequently decide there is no point trying the tasks before them.
With Holt’s teachings in mind, I’ve been watching Jo Jo play with his 3-year-old brother, Walden, who has become interested in letters. Not wanting to take the fun out Walden’s letter play, I resist an urge to get too excited. I don’t take out flashcards and letter games. Instead I am watching his wonder unfold and enjoying myself tremendously. However, Jo Jo, normally a relentlessly supportive sweet soul, takes his job as big brother very seriously and is rather disgusted that his brother is not yet reading. “Walden can’t even spell Star Wars,” he tells me this with heartfelt disgust. I am appalled and quickly praise Walden for his efforts and remind Jo Jo, the tyrannical teacher, that he is being unreasonable. But Walden loves it. He pleads with Jo Jo to show him more. Jo Jo is demanding, requiring phonics and relentless repetition. Walden eats it up.
So why can Jo Jo be so demanding of his brother as he teaches new skills, while my most gentle Lego tutorial shut down our activity? Age and temperament aside, I see it as a simple fact that siblings and adults have distinctly different roles in a child’s education. As the adult, I am the primary resource provider. I am also cheerleader and referee. Jo Jo plays a role closer to that of a traditional instructor and actually gets away with it! Walden is nearly as tall as his older brother. He knows that Jo Jo still has bad dreams and is afraid of the dark. He sees Jo Jo tantrum when we run out of honey and try to sneak out of brushing his teeth. This awareness empowers Walden. He assumes that if Jo Jo, a young kid he identifies with, can read and write then he can probably do it too.
These observations have changed the way I develop my lessons. I’m excited about the impact my kids have on each other’s learning. And to be perfectly honest, I revel in the freedom this gives me to have a little more fun playing Yoda without a lesson plan.
How about you? I’d love to hear more about sibling dynamics in your home. What works? Have you ever ruined a perfectly fun Lego game with your own good intentions?
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