Talking Crusades with a Second Grader
Where Texts Come From
I have been off the grid for a while, kept busy by the fall of Rome, Vikings, Charlemagne, and the strange nicknames of old English and French monarchs. Charles le Gros, for example, and everyone's favorite, Aethelred the Unready. It is a new school year at the homestead, and, still in Texas in a city plagued by cheating scandals, financial shenanigans in multiple available school districts, and combat between teachers wholly despairing and others wholly enamoured of their ability to teach at all, the homestead is my boy's school. When I believe that the school district is capable of providing an adequate education to children, I will send him out amongst his wild peers, but until then I would be failing him if I did so.
So, this year he is in second grade. Reading, math, science, spelling...all that is quite normal, only we choose books to read that tie into history and science, rather than relying only on short excerpts in anthologies. His history curriculum is my primary responsibility, and it is divided into world history at the beginning of the year and American history during the second half.
Working this way my son has discovered that he likes to read biographies, at least those of warriors, like King Alfred the Great. Finding biographies written for the young that are not completely daft is quite a trial, especially if you are seeking biographies of European figures. The biography of King Alfred I have I found at a Goodwill for 25 cents. It was published in England by Ladybird Books. I found two others along with it: Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. He may read those later.
He has also read Jennie Hall's Viking Tales. He likes that book, too. I accessed this book through the Gutenberg Project, and have access to it on my computer through The Baldwin Project (www.mainlesson.com). Having a sustained narrative to work through has improved his reading immensely, and the extension of the story over several chapters forces him to pay attention and use his memory. We use texts on my Kindle as well as physical books, and he is now entranced by the ability to look up the definition of a word on the Kindle simply by moving the cursor. Sometimes this becomes a problem, as he wants to look up every word, not just the words he does not know, because he can.
Much of the texts we are using in world history this year are on-line through the Baldwin Project. The texts are old, most date from before 1940, and many are by English historians and authors. Dealing with these old texts as teaching material requires attention. On the positive side, the authors do not write as if children are dull, frightfully fragile mental defectives. On the negative side, the books are dated, and some of the information provided by the authors, and especially their personal biases about various peoples, do not meet modern standards. How do you, as a teacher, address the flaws in these materials? You discuss and correct as you teach. You supplement the old with the new.
Old Holy Wars
We have just begun the Crusades, or rather, we are getting ready to begin the Crusades. First, we had to cover Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Old books are not the best sources on either subject. Muhammad and Islam in the writing of most historians of old Europe, the Europe that existed before its empires were lost to it, were both religious and political impossibilities and frauds. The conquest of Christian cities in the Middle East by Arab armies are provided with their own "stab in the back" legend, accusing the Jews of betraying their Christian neighbors to the Arabs, immediately followed, strangely, by the admission that relations between Arab conquerors and Christian residents was relatively peaceful most of the time. The violence, greed, and intolerance of European Christians of the time are not seriously addressed, and, when they are, they are made attributes of a wrong-headed Christianity, i.e. Roman Catholicism. Ah, the Protestants were so much more civilized, witch-trials be damned.
What do we do then to look at the Crusades without being trapped in the prejudices of our sources? Well, first, we have to find out about Islam. I focused on some basic essential knowledge: Allah, hegira, the Pillars of Islam, the People of the Book. Then, my son, my wife, and I discussed the ways we should judge other people. Should we judge people by the group they belong to--all Christians, all Jewish people, and all Muslims are exactly the same--or as individuals? After deciding that he was not exactly like other people, not even exactly like other people who look very similar to him and believe some of the same things, my son declared we should judge people as individuals. Okay, that is good, but then what do we base our judgment upon? Do we judge people by what they believe, or by what they do? We judge by what they do, by the evidence of their character that is visible to us. So far, so good, and we can take this with us into the Crusades to bring some common sense, and an ethical center, for our address of that difficult period.
More to See than Time Allows
I was a big fan of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Knights Templar, castles, sieges, catapults, battle axes, longswords, and everything medieval. I still indulge in medieval roleplaying games and the occasional new biography, history, or study of medieval art and culture. I do not know if my son will develop a similar taste. It is more difficult guiding your child through the introductory, light and entertaining, version of a history you enjoy than through similar material focusing on an area in which you have far less interest--like, say, ancient Egypt, which is not the most entrancing period to me. When my son declared ancient Egypt boring, I told him he had to trudge through it and together we looked for something he liked in the time period (mummies, of course, especially King Tut, but only when he could read the book himself), but I really wasn't too disappointed. If he doesn't find the Middle Ages exciting, I will be crushed. What about the Templar curse? What about the wonderful animosity of the Plantagenets for the kings of France and for one another? What about the duplicity, the greed, and the miracles of the Crusades? What of noble Saladin and despicable Richard I? Really, there is just so much to love in the middle ages, and it won't all fit in the time we have. All I can hope is to feed an interest that he might pursue on his own.
Computer Protecting Pooch
One of the worst mistakes a parent involved in homeschooling can make, for their children and for themselves, is to think that it has no real intellectual requirements upon the parents. It does. If you have not educated yourself in the topics your children will study, then you will fail them. Parents who decide also to be teachers take upon themselves the responsibility to do the work involved in presenting and understanding the material they offer to their children. It is not easy, but it is not so difficult that the ability to homeschool lies only in the grasp of those who had the good fortune to earn college diplomas and would be teachers of other people's children if they did not have their own.
1. Know what you are going to teach before the school year begins. You should have a plan, and you should be prepared to lead discussions and answer questions dealing with the topics and time periods you have chosen to cover.
2. Learn the jargon. Every study has special terms and words that a person must master. A noun is not a "naming word", it is a noun. Learn the correct terms and teach the correct terms. The youth of a student does not justify our making the child speak and think like Elmo with a brain injury.
3. Learn how to research. You will not always know the answers to your child's questions, nor should you be expected to. You should, however, learn how to find the answers to your child's questions, and help your child to find answers for themselves. In the modern climate, Wikipedia is the go-to source for all information, but you should train yourself not to use it. University instructors do not accept it, and in many areas of academic life it has absolutely no standing. Instead, focus on using other sources: encyclopedias, especially those devoted to specific areas of study; dictionaries; art books; websites associated with university programs and museums.
4. Learn how to attribute, and teach your students to do the same. It is important for you to know where you found information, and be able to reveal the source. It is also important that you teach your children the difference between writing something out of their own head, and copying or taking the ideas of someone else. When they copy or take the ideas of another, teach them to use quotation marks where appropriate and always to say where and from whom they received the information. Plagiarism is not learning, it is stealing.
5. Keeping pace is the least important issue in homeschooling. There are very few students in the class; I have only one. Everything can be slowed down, or sped up, as suits his progress and needs. I have goals for my son's achievements in each subject, but when he achieves them is not my main concern. Where he lags, we may devote more time to the skills required, while we work less in areas in which he has exhibited mastery. For example, it looks like he will be in third grade math by March, way ahead of schedule, while he has the handwriting of an apoplectic gnome. We're working on it, but the boy resists.
6. Arm your child. There are many homeschoolers, and not all of them have chosen to keep education within the home for the same reason. Some are religious, while others are secular in their outlook. There are homeschoolers from the full range of political viewpoints, and economic brackets. However, all of us should arm our children with the basic skills which will allow them to continue their educations throughout their lives, wherever they may find themselves. Our children must be able to read critically and well. They must be competent in math. They must have an understanding of the sciences and the specialized terminology of the sciences, so widely misunderstood by laymen. They must have a broad view of the history of our country and of the world. They must be able to, in the end, teach themselves, as we all, should we decide to do so, may teach ourselves.