a few words on hand-work and home-work - UPDATED


This is what narration looks like at our house:  bean bag chair, hunter's cap, antique typewriter.  

We are working hard on first-time attentiveness and recall with our narration this year.  This doesn't come naturally to either boy, so we are being very methodical and slow about it.  On this day, we read a rather long passage about Adolf Hitler that I knew would be too hard for them to remember clearly when they began the process of translating their thoughts onto paper.  So we broke the process down into several steps, still aiming for first-time recall.  I read one or two paragraphs at a time, then stopped to allow each boy to narrate orally.  One would tell all he could remember from the paragraph and then I would ask the other if he would like to add anything.  Then we read the next short section and narrated again.  When the whole passage had been done this way, we narrated again.  I asked them to tell me everything they could remember from our reading and I wrote it down on the white board.   For a child that struggles with writing, this is a vital step.  It takes a lot of complicated manuevering to get those memories into sentence form, to remember how to spell and punctuate, remember names and dates and complicated events and to order them all into a paragraph.   When I write down their narrations, I am acting like a bridge between their minds and hands.  When it is time to write, they can focus on the mechanics of the keyboard (or the pencil, if they like, but both boys prefer typing) and structuring their sentences without getting tangled up with spelling and remembering dates, etc.   Eventually, I will work my way out of being this bridge, but that will probably be some time yet.  

Don't be afraid to go slow at this kind of learning.  It's not important that they be able to write a page-long essay at 12, or 15, or even 17.  What is important is developing their ability to listen attentively and remember:  concentration.   We set so many artificial timelines for children, but if you talk to adults you'll find that many people didn't gain the ability to write and process clearly until much later in their lives.  There's no need to panic.  With narration we are building the firm foundation the child will need for their work all their lives. 

Oh my, I am going to have to take a break here and come back later to finish my thoughts.  Our lone computer is needed for a class this morning.  Thanks for your patience!  I'll update and add to this post tonight or tomorrow. 

EDITED TO ADD...oh dear, this is long:

My confidence in handwork arises from Newton's first law of motion:  a body at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  If you are the parent of say, a male child over the age of 12, you have probably seen this law in action.  I could write many posts on my frustration with the way our culture both handicaps and coddles young people by first, not expecting them to make meaningful contributions to work and society and second, by indulging their natural impulses towards laziness and selfishness - but I'll try to stick to the mechanics of the topic. 

For a long time I thought of handwork as something that was desirable, but not necessary for education.  And truthfully, a child doesn't need to know knitting or wood-burning to get into college.  It was only when I started thinking of education as the development of the whole person, rather than just a ticket to a paycheck, that Charlotte Mason's insistence on handwork was illuminated for me.

For the purposes of our post here, I define handwork as any art or skill that is portable, useful or beautiful, and demands some level of attention and effort.  (This may seem like an amusing definition, but trust me, it will come in handy.   Just yesterday one child wanted to know if playing with a slinky was considered handwork...you know, since it involves your hands.) 

The idea here is to keep the child engaged in forward motion.  Keep the brain working, the curiosity stirred.  By working with their hands they not only gain new skills that they will enjoy through their lives, they are also resisting the gravity of apathy.  Older children in particular have a tendency to want to be acted upon when it comes to things like education and work.  They want you to tell them exactly the minimum they have to do in order to get back to navel-gazing or texting or listening to really bad music or whatever.  We provide a little inertia through handwork. 

Now, if you are going to introduce this idea to a teenager, you will face a battle.  Something along the lines of pushing a rock uphill.  It's far better to start when your children are very young and never let them know there is any other way to listen to stories or watch movies or spend free time except with something useful or beautiful being crafted in their hands.  But if you, like me, sent most of your children to public school for the first part of their childhoods and really didn't start until they were already beginning to sag down into adolescent lumps, then you are going to have to be satsified with small victories and the knowledge that everything we introduce and teach our children will bear fruit at some point in their lives.

But on to the mechanics, as I said.  I think the single, most effective way to create a desire in the child for this kind of work is to model it.   Always have a project going.  Make the same rule for yourself that you've made for the kids:  have something in your hands whenever you watch a movie or listen to a book or sit around the woodstove talking at night.   I worked on crocheting the same blanket for several years.  I have knit stacks of dishcloths.  It doesn't have to be glamorous, but keep your hands busy so that the kids see this as a normal part of life.  

Charlotte Mason insisted that handwork be useful.  No child should be "making futilities such as pea and stick work, paper mats, and the like."  I think this is especially important with older children.  Respect their intelligence and the value of their time (even if they don't!) and help them find activities that are worth their time. 

As part of my school planning, I made a list of seasonal activities that I thought might appeal. Costume-making and pumpkin carving are on the list for this month.  Next month I hope to make some simple cloth napkins (hand-sewn) for Thanksgiving.   If you give kids an excuse for handwork, it makes it more palatable.  Another idea is to get them to make something for someone else.  All my kids are motivated by the idea of making Christmas gifts and are willing to try a lot of different things with that in mind.   Tasha Tudor used to say she would start making Christmas gifts in January, so that alone can keep your kids busy year-round.

Possible resources for ideas:

Simply Charlotte Mason's list of handicrafts and life skills

Soulemama: books and blog

Alicia Paulson (gorgeous embroidery kits, crochet and knit ideas, fun blog)

Sew Mama Sew  (look in the categories for handsewing ideas and handmade gift ideas)

The Purl Bee  (the side bar is full of knit, crochet, sewing and felting ideas)

Rhythm of the Home

The Children's Year (for younger children especially, Waldorf-inspired and arranged seasonally).  There's also a blog.

Scout Craft  (Ideas for boy scouts.  Some of these look like "pea and stick work" but there are some wood carving and leather crafts in there.)

I'm sure some of you have good ideas too.  I'd love it you'd share in the comments.

Two things that have been enormously successful for my boys:  fleece (or felt) and wire.  With fleece and needle and thread, they have made masks, sword sheaths, action figures (which are created for the purpose of beating them up and making them die horrible deaths.  I'm sorry if that offends, but if you read the classics to your children they will become closely acquainted with horrible deaths), bags for carrying treasure, capes, hats, and more.  I don't tell them they are designing costumes and making dolls and purses.  That would be wrong.  *hee*

A roll of floral wire from the grocery store can be twisted into all kinds of good stuff.  One year my teenager made Christmas ornaments as gifts by twisting the wire into initial letters and hanging them on ribbon (e.g. "P" for Peckover).   He also makes cross necklaces that he has given away to friends and family.  It's simple, useful and beautiful.

I also allow drawing, painting and other more traditional art work.  Right now my younger son is completely immersed in drawing a stick figure comic book.  It's not challenging from a technical perspective, but it is incredibly imaginative and engaging to him.  

What I don't allow is "slipshod work."   One of my children is famous for grabbing a piece of paper, scribbling something on it and then sitting back and dozing off during reading.   He's not allowed to "draw" now unless he produces something I think is worthwhile (bummer isn't it, when your laziness leads to parental intervention?)   And truthfully, there are some days when I don't engage it at all for the peace of the whole family, but we are moving in a more consistent direction and he is stretching some unused muscles and waking some sleepy creativity.  Newton's first law in action; very satisfying.

I hope that answers some of the questions you have asked in the comments and via email.  I'm going to go ahead and hit "publish" on this without even editing it.  Yikes.  If something doesn't make sense or you want to talk more about it, let me know.   Have a wonderful weekend!