Monday, May 4, 2009

Natural Learning

You may recall the story of the blind-deaf girl, Helen Keller... She was trapped in her own mind, with no real means of communicating with the world around her until she was nearly seven years old. She says she "felt as if invisible hands were holding (her), and (she) made frantic efforts to free (herself),"1:14 and that the day her teacher came to her was the most important day of her life... that language "awakened (her) soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"1:17,20 Helen's teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her break down the barrier, bit by bit, until her mind was free to communicate and express itself fully. If you've read any of Helen's writing, you'll see that as an adult she had a very fluent, impressive command of the English language, and that she seems to be very well educated. 

What does this have to do with home schooling? Well, in a sense, everything. How did Helen transform from being unruly and unreachable, into a sweet, giving, good-natured, insightful, educated young woman? That's what I'd like to take a closer look at. I enjoyed reading Helen's story, as told by herself, but even more so as told by her teacher, who gives many details (that Helen likely forgot or didn't particularly make note of) concerning the day-to-day activities and methods used to reach and teach Helen. Many of Anne's discoveries parallel what home schoolers today are independently finding to be educational jewels for their own children. 

What a Teacher...

    To be able to break through to a once unreachable child, and educate her arguably better than any other blind-deaf child had been thus far... Anne must have been some sort of pro, right? Well... not exactly. She was an abandoned orphan who desperately needed to make a living in order to sustain herself, and was sent to the Kellers to try to reach Helen, although neither she nor those who sent her had any idea she'd have a knack for it, much less to do so well! She learned how to teach through trial-and-error. If something worked, she continued it and tweaked it. If it didn't, she threw it aside and tried something else. This is much the same as home school parents.     

Today people have the idea in their head that to teach you have to be taught to teach, but that just isn't the case. It was to Anne's benefit that she wasn't taught to be a teacher. She was free to form her own opinions of what constitutes a good education, and what was needful for her pupil, rather than feeling like she had to stick with a certain system in order to "do it right." 

Upon visiting a school for the blind (not blind-deaf), she noticed that the school children were very far behind Helen in their education, despite their advantage of hearing. She found this to be due to the teacher's classroom methods. Please excuse the long quote, but I think it illustrates the difference Anne saw between natural learning and classroom learning well, and I didn't want to break it up... 

"(The teachers) were astonished at her command of language. Not a child in the school, they said, had anything like Helen's facility of expression, and some of them had been under supervision for two or three years. I was incredulous at first, but after I watched the children at work for a couple hours, I knew that what I had been told was true, and I wasn't surprised. In one room some little tots were standing before the blackboard, painfully constructing "simple sentences." A little girl had written "I have a new dress. It is a pretty dress. My mama made my pretty new dress. I love mamma." A curly-headed boy was writing: "I have a large ball. I like to kick my large ball." When we entered the room, the children's attention was riveted on Helen. One of them pulled me by the sleeve and said, "Girl is blind." The teacher was writing on the blackboard: "The girl's name is Helen. She is deaf. She cannot see. We are very sorry." I said: "Why do you write those sentences on the board? Wouldn't the children understand if you talked to them about Helen?" The teacher said something about getting the correct construction, and continued to construct an exercise out of Helen. I asked her if the little girl who had written about the new dress was particularly pleased with her dress. "No," she replied, "I think not; but children learn better if they write about things that concern them personally." It seemed all so mechanical and difficult, my heart ached for the poor little children. Nobody thinks of making a hearing child say, "I have a pretty new dress," at the beginning. These children were older in years, it is true, than the baby who lisps, "Papa kiss baby--- pretty" and fills out her meaning by pointing to her new dress; but their ability to understand and use language was no greater.There was the same difficulty throughout the school. In every classroom I saw sentences on the blackboard, which evidently had been written to illustrate some grammatical rule, or for the purpose of using words that had previously been taught in the same, or in some other connection. This sort of thing may be necessary in some stages of education; but it isn't the way to acquire language. Nothing, I think, crushes the child's impulse to talk naturally more effectually than these blackboard exercises. The schoolroom is no the place to teach any young child language, least of all the deaf child. He must be kept as unconscious as the hearing child of the fact that he is learning words, and he should be allowed to prattle on his fingers, or with his pencil, in monosyllables if he chooses, until such time as his growing intelligence demands the sentence. Language should not be associated in his mind with endless hours in school, with puzzling questions in grammar, or with anything that is an enemy to joy. But I must not get into the habit of criticizing other people's methods too severely. I may be as far from the straight road as they." 1:265

What a Curriculum...

The Perkins Institute for the Blind sent Anne some kindergarten materials to use with Helen. After trying them, she wrote back that she didn't want any more. She said she was "beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to (her) to be built up on the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think. Whereas, if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, or plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of, before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences."1:233 (This thinking probably rings a bell with fans of Charlotte Mason's approach.) 

So what did she do? Anne says that "while not confining (herself) to any special system of instruction, (she) tried to add to (Helen's) general information and intelligence, to enlarge her acquaintance with things around her, and to bring her into easy and natural relationships with people."1:271 They spent hours outside exploring nature and learning new words on an as-needed basis. Helen learned much about the world around her through hands-on experience. Anne recommends to "lead them during the first years to find their greatest pleasure in Nature. Let them run in the fields, learn about animals, and observe real things."1:286

They also read... a lot! Anne remarked that the "constant companionship of good books (was) of supreme importance in (Helen's) education." The two of them often climbed a tree and read together while sitting in the branches. She didn't read childish school books (even though her vocabulary was, at first, behind that of hearing children), but instead read great poetry, classical writing, and history. She enjoyed Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others. Instead of completing schoolish writing exercises, Helen kept a diary, and wrote letters to many friends and relatives. 

What an Education...

In essence, Helen's education consisted of real life, real books, and real learning opportunities. She wasn't confined to a classroom with school books and artificial exercises to simulate learning experiences. I think much of what she did is consistent with the literature rich approach, like that of Charlotte Mason, who favors spending much time in nature, using real life learning and real, meaty reading in lieu of many school books and artificial exercises.

I think it's worth mentioning that Helen's advanced writing style is not a mimic of her teacher. In fact, she seems to have surpassed her teacher in writing. I point this out, not to negate Miss Sulivan, but to notice that a teacher doesn't have to be a pro in every subject, in order to foster excellence in their student. The home education environment is ideal for enabling children to flourish in the areas they have interest or talent in, because they can pursue them as deeply as they want, and learn a great deal through individualized study, reading, and exploration. 

Work Cited: 

1. Helen Keller, "The Story of My Life."

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