Archive for January 9th, 2007

Reluctant Narrators

January 9, 2007 @ 3:46 pm | Filed under:

Jennifer asked:

Here’s our problem. I ask "Can you tell me about what we just read?"
She answers, "No, I don’t remember anything." but when I ask her
questions, she CAN answer everything. When are they supposed to do this
without prompting?

"How do I handle a reluctant narrator?" is a common question in Charlotte Mason circles. For me, the answer involves two strands of discussion. I’ll tackle the more practical strand (the "how") first, and tomorrow I want to talk about the "why."

See, coming at homeschooling the way I did, via the writings of unschoolers—John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and others—any time I decide to require a schoolish task of my children, I have to give a lot of thought to the question, "Do I think this is important enough to make them do it even if they don’t want to?"

But we’ll tackle that question tomorrow. Um, you know, if all goes according to plan. Which it never does. Beanie has a 102 degree fever today, so there’s no telling what tomorrow will hold. Let’s just say I’ll tackle that question next.

Today, let’s tackle Jennifer’s question. I do have a bit of experience with a reluctant narrator. I don’t think Rose would object to my telling you that she was none too keen on the idea when I reintroduced it recently. Now, she was narrating enthusiastically a year ago, but this year, not so much.

I treat it the way I treat anything my children aren’t super-keen on doing but which I believe is important. Brushing teeth, say, or tidying their room. I expect compliance.  There are consequences for non-compliance.

Now, the last thing I want is for narration—or anything related to learning—to involve a power struggle. My whole platform about education is that it should be a joy. I emphatically do not want to find myself in the position of sternly insisting upon a narration. When I found myself in exactly that position with young Rose, I had to step back and look at what was behind her reluctance. (Answer: We’ve just uprooted our whole lives. She’s always had a hard time adjusting to change. Not only did we leave her beloved friends behind, but also our whole lifestyle was radically altered. Daddy works in an office now. Big changes all around. New people for this introvert to get used to. New activities, new house, new rhythm.)

Okay, so I’ve rooted out the reasons. None of it, you note, has anything to do with the actual process of narration. I mention this because my course of action was directed by the needs I perceived at the root of the conflict. In this specific case, I believed that Rose very much needed the comfort of some structure and expectation. She needed also to understand that although the walls are different here, the boundaries are the same.

So while under other circumstances I might have set aside my CM plans for a long "breathing-out" or "low-tide" period, in this specific case, for this particular child, I deemed it best to persevere through her reluctance. Since the rocky period only lasted a few days, I think I made the right call.

Once it’s established that "we are going to do this; your participation is expected"—and I think a bright, light, cheerful attitude is extremely important here—then comes the nitty-gritty of doing it.

Start small. Read a sentence, and ask the child to tell it back to you. Sometimes the child will say she can’t even do that, not one whole sentence. So break it down further: a phrase, a clause. Now she’s just parroting, sure, but this is a baby step on the way to real narration. Have her narrate a phrase at a time for two or three sentences, slowly lengthening the phrases. Think of yourself as a labor coach, rooting her on.

Spend no more than, say, five minutes on the exercise the first day. She might be surprised when you shut the book and announce, "All right, time to go for our walk!" right in the middle of the paragraph. That’s great. If she asks to keep going, use your own judgment about what would suit her best. A little teasing anticipation? Or continued immediate success?

From phrases work up to sentences, to paragraphs, to passages. This may take several days, but will probably NOT take weeks. I think that a firm, cheerful sense of expectation combined with a patient, steady approach will bear fruit in a very short time.

Something that worked for my Rose (but I don’t think this would work for every single kid): Once, when she said she couldn’t remember ANYTHING, Beanie (two years her junior) piped up, "I do!" and proceeded to chatter off the whole passage in perfect detail, oooh did that get Rose’s goat. Her narrations got noticeably better after that.

A shy child might prefer to be alone with mom for narration. Another child might feel too on the spot for that and be more open to it with her siblings around.

I try to follow Charlotte Mason’s advice about not asking questions—not detailed ones, at least. For example, I wouldn’t ask, "What happened when the woodsman killed the king’s pet wolf?"  But I might say, "Tell me the story of St. Brigid and the wolf."

Most often, though, I simply read something and then say, "Tell it back to me!"

It took some nurturing, but Rose is past the hurdle now and narrating in articulate and vivid detail. That’s not to say we won’t hit the stumbling block of reluctance again. Tomorrow, as I’ve said, is anyone’s guess.

But I know (and she knows, which is more important) that she can do it. She knows I think this is worth doing, or we wouldn’t be doing it. Most days, just knowing that is enough, because the heart of our homeschool is relationship. I strive for a sense of camaraderie and fun. I let her know I’m on her side, and that she is capable of anything.

I keep these CM lessons short and finite, and we spend the rest of our day keeping house, playing games, making things, and having adventures. Narration is one thread of the fabric of our family life, as is cuddling, singing, baking, praying, and going for long drives. 

I, Caroline, Take You, Charles

January 9, 2007 @ 7:20 am | Filed under:

Jennifer of As Cozy as Spring has me cracking up over her take on Pa Ingalls this morning.

Pa is driving me nuts!  Obviously, I would not have been out there
on the frontier.  I can see the conversation between my husband and

Him: "I honey, I’m bored.  I am going to drag you and our young
daughters away from our extended family to live across the country in
the middle of nowhere and you can sleep on the ground while I build you
a log cabin."

Me: "What will we eat?"

Him: "Well, I’ll go off hunting all day while you tend to the chores
and take care of the children.  I’ll bring home dead animals for you to
clean and cook."

Me: Baffled silence.

The conversation continues. Too funny. And I’m so with you, Jenn. As a child, I always thought Ma was a bit cold. The Ma of the books, that is, as compared to the smiling-eyed Ma on TV. In the books, it seemed like no matter what Pa did, no matter how narrow the escape or how great the accomplishment, Ma’s response was always just "Oh, Charles." My heart was with Pa of the grand gesture, the wanderlust, the thirst for adventure. I scoffed along with Laura at the quiet, settled types who were unaccountably reluctant to hit the trail again.

And then I had kids. The end of Little House on the Prairie gives me such a pang, now. Caroline had just gotten her garden going. It tore me up to leave behind my berries and butterflies in Virginia. Imagine if that garden was one of your primary food sources and you’d worked your tail off to get your carefully guarded seeds into the ground! And now you find out the house is three miles on the wrong side of the line, three miles. Jenn’s take on that scene is dead on.

Caroline Quiner Ingalls, I give you much more props now that I’m a mama too.

Submissions Due for Carnival of Children’s Literature

January 9, 2007 @ 6:47 am | Filed under:

It’s almost time for our monthly roundup of children’s literature posts. This month, Kelly of Big A little a is hosting. Submissions are due by January 15, and the carnival will go up on January 20.

We took the month of December off, so this January edition should be packed with great stuff!

If you would like to host a future Carnival of Children’s Literature, just drop me a note.