We had an interesting situation this past summer with one of our daughters. She ended up in an activity that was really, really hard for her. So hard, in fact, that she was begging us to let her quit. We seriously considered it. It hadn’t crossed our minds that it was going to be so hard for her. Had she been five-years-old, we likely would have concluded that we had signed her up for something that she just wasn’t ready for, pulled her out, and left it at that.
But she wasn’t five.
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Sometimes, the most important lesson is the perseverance — it’s the doing of the hard thing, even though it’s really hard, and even though you don’t ever get very good at it.
So our daughter had to stick it out. We did whatever we could to help and support her, and in the end, she still didn’t really like what she was doing. But you know what? I think she learned not to quit something just because she’s uncomfortable and out of her element, and that’s a super important lesson to learn before you leave home.
One of the temptations of homeschooling is to so perfectly tailor the curriculum to the child that the child never has to struggle — and this means he also misses out on the triumph of conquering a thing that was difficult.
Over the years, I’ve heard the discussion again and again about dropping books. These conversations are mainly when I’m talking with people about the AmblesideOnline curriculum, but I’m sure it happens with other curricula as well. Moms see their child struggling with a book. Or the child doesn’t like it. Or she’s not connecting with it. Or narrating it is really hard for her. Is this is a sign that the book ought to be dropped?
Well, of course, this is a possibility. Sometimes, the child is too young for the curriculum he’s been given. Maybe the child was started early because he seemed gifted, but now he’s 10, and the books are really hard for him. In this situation, yes, adjusting the curriculum is probably called for.
But that’s not the situation I want us to consider today. What I want us to think about is the situation where the child is placed in an appropriate year for his age and ability, he’s already been trained to narrate, and yet one or two of the books are difficult for him. What do we do?
Each child is different, but I do think there are a couple principles that we can consider in this situation.
First, we need to remind ourselves that the book teaches us to read it. Shakespeare is hard — at first. Kipling is hard — at first. Plutarch is hard — at first. Churchill is hard — at first. I don’t know about you, but I learned to read these authors by reading these authors. There wasn’t a real shortcut. At the end of the day, I just had to struggle through, and the more I read, the better reader I became.
Second, we need to remind ourselves that a curriculum like AmblesideOnline builds upon itself. The word curriculum comes from the Latin word for course — as in a course that a runner runs through. There is a sense in which we can think of this as training. Each year of AO has its more difficult books, and each difficult book we read builds the muscles we need to read a future difficult book. So, for example, in Year 1, we read Parables from Nature. It’s hard. But we do it. And that helps us face the challenge of reading The Little Duke in Year 2. Which helps us face the challenge of Pilgrim’s Progress in Year 3 — and Robinson Crusoe in Year 4, and Madam How and Lady Why in Year 5, and The Illiad in Year 6, and then Churchill starting in Year 7, and so on and so forth. I honestly don’t know how we get to the place where a 12-year-old can read Churchill without building upon prior difficult books. Even after reading the previous difficult books, some can’t do it!
At my house, we usually have one book a year that this happens with for each student, and I have found it very valuable to push through. If a child is struggling with everything, then yes we need to make adjustments — possibly major ones. But if he has one single book that is hard, then this becomes his challenge book — his chance to grow and tackle something that is hard. To me, this is an intersection between our educational trinity of atmosphere, discipline, and life.
In atmosphere, we are learning how to interact appropriately with the world around us. In discipline, we are building good and healthy habits. And in life, we are receiving living ideas from the curriculum.
When my children come face to face with their challenge books, all three of these things come into play. First, atmosphere: they are learning to face a challenge with the right attitude. I help them, yes, but they must do it for themselves. Second, discipline: they build the habit of overcoming rather than quitting just because something is hard or not to their taste. Third, living ideas: they get what they can out of the book.
I relish the joy I see on a child’s face when he finishes a hard book. It’s a beautiful thing, and in the process of conquering these difficult books, the child becomes, truly, a reader.
Last year, I had to read Robinson Crusoe aloud to my daughter because it was above her reading level. Even with me reading it aloud, it was difficult for her to narrate … in the beginning. We read slowly, and it took us twice as long as it should have — I actually had to drop another book because of how long it took us. But no matter. Robinson Crusoe was our challenge book for the year, and I was determined that we would finish it. She didn’t like it at first, but that changed over time. A couple months in, she started to show real interest, and her narrations improved greatly. She had finally adjusted to the difficult language, and now she didn’t find it nearly as hard.
These days, she sees allusions to Robinson Crusoe everywhere. And when she hears people refer to “my man Friday,” she gives me a knowing look. She told me she loves The Swiss Family Robinson because it reminds her of Robinson Crusoe (that book she thought she hated when we first began it).
This education we’re giving our children is about more than rattling off perfect narrations. And while, yes, we generally want our children to enjoy learning, this doesn’t mean they have to be madly in love with every book. There is a big picture here that we are working towards — a well-read child that doesn’t quit just because a book seems hard (or boring) at first.
I have dropped books before. I’m sure you have, too. I’m not saying that curriculum is a holy canon and mustn’t ever be altered. But we do need to think about what we are changing and why. Are we letting our children quit when things get hard? Or are we quitting because the books are hard for us? (That happens, too, you know.)
I guess what I’m saying is that we learn to read hard books by reading hard books and if we are dropping books from the curriculum (any curriculum — even one we made ourselves) because they are too hard, we might want to consider whether perseverance is in order.
Just something to think about.
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