"They sailed well and the old man soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. There were high cumulus clouds and enough cirrus above them so that the old man knew the breeze would last all night. The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true."
I paused in my reading – the hot sun creating empathy for the Cuban fisherman. Five warm, sweaty faces looked up from their sketchbooks and waited expectantly – the first reading of a book always brings the greatest response.
"It was an hour before the first shark hit him."
Ten words that had an electrifying effect on my young children for, by this point, they felt like they knew the protagonist. They had felt sympathy for the poor old man who was mocked for his run of bad fishing, suspense as the old man fought the enormous marlin, excitement as he finally won the great battle, and now....sharks?
When I first read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to my children, their ages ranged from three to eleven. Despite the age range, every single child knew the implications of the word "shark". And although it has been over a year since we read it, each of them still remembers the book.
Multiple ages? Multiple grades? Yes, it's workable. In fact, it can be much better than that – it can produce a wonderful education in your home.
We had been studying World Geography and when we came to Cuba I knew there was one great, classic book that I had to share with them – although a few minor edits would be necessary. Hemingway was one of my favorites in high school and I was curious if it would have the same appeal for my crew.
A brief disclaimer is in order: we are absolutely not classic literature nuts. I've never read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy and have no intention of it. But there are plenty of well-written books, accessible to the humble masses, which can greatly enrich your children's education.
We have found the best way to incorporate multiple ages is through reading books together.
Great literature levels the playing field.
When you limit your child's education to dry, boring textbooks followed by mind-numbing tests and worksheets, you keep them from developing a relationship with the material. So rather than becoming interested in the lives of fascinating people in history and developing a hunger to learn more, they are limited to memorizing monotonous facts that have no true meaning to them.
Textbooks are greatly prohibitive in a homeschool setting because each child is isolated to their own particular studies and the parent's instruction and time is spread thin between each age subject and grade.
But a great book, like The Old Man and the Sea, can be read to a wide variety of ages. Each child takes something different from it, but each child learns. There are many benefits: they learn to appreciate well-written books; they are being immersed, in this example, to Cuban culture and history; and they are seeing that education is not the act of sitting in a desk filling in the blanks.
Plus, I get to learn alongside them – learning far more in the past several years of homeschooling than I did in all my years of being an above average student.
Well, above average except for that unfortunate semester of sophomore geometry.
Using literature in this way encompasses many subjects: history, geography and language arts. We've used Kjelgaard's wonderfully engaging dog adventures, Linda Sue Park's enchanting Korean tales, and Patricia St. John's character building stories.
For our family, sitting around on the living room floor or outside on the patio with a great book is a comfortable, familiar way of learning. Each child listens in their own way – some with a sketchbook, some with a piece of clay to keep their hands occupied, some with nothing but their own mind.
My expectations vary for each child according to their level. With The Old Man and the Sea, I would ask my older children to "tell me about what we read today" in true Charlotte Mason fashion.
At that point I am the one waiting expectantly to hear their own interpretation of the reading -- and I know that, if they can process the plot and narrate back to me in their own words, they truly comprehend the material.
It's a much better measure of comprehension than an exam where facts are easily memorized and even more easily forgotten.
An end of the week spelling bee or penmanship exercise, words tailored to individual levels, can easily be adapted for multiple ages. And then the ultimate home schooling test: striking up a conversation at supper – "Dad, did you know..." -- what a joy to see them develop a passion for learning.
Literature read together as a family has developed bonds and relationships, produced a love for learning and richly enhanced our children's education. Even when the sharks eat the marlin.
The Toliver family spends many days on the road for their ministry with Wycliffe Associates. Gwen finds that traveling with nine in a van is the best way to accumulate great material for her blog ToliversToTexas.blogspot.com and to appreciate the flexibility of homeschooling.
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