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    a Hobbit Home with a round yellow door

    Treasures of Knowledge

    Family Reading Time as the Foundation for Home Education

    By Sally Clarkson

    September 2, 2020
    • Susan Kimmet

      This is the essence of good education, whether at home or in school... Children need to see reading/learning as fun and essential to learning. My children, now 40 and 42 still talk about the books I read to them while we ate breakfast and the books we read together. I have been so grateful to have had a mother who read to me. The very first Christmas gift she gave me, at 3 months old. was The Family Mark Twain, which weighed nearly as much as I did. She died a few years ago and the time I miss most is Christmas morning when there is no book waiting... Keep up the good work, it is worth it.

    You may have tangible wealth untold;
    Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
    Richer than I you can never be.
    I had a mother who read to me.

    —Strickland Gillian, “The Reading Mother” (one of my mother’s favorite quotes)

    He who walks with wise men will be wise.
    —Proverbs 13:20

    Large, feathery snowflakes spun round and round, waltzing through the pine forest outside our living-room window. Six inches were expected by nightfall. Celtic music played moodily through the room to match the dark mountain shadows beyond the trees. Always, every day, all the time, there was some kind of music wafting through the rooms. Piled against the bay windows, all four children were mesmerized by the elegance of the huge, soft flakes and captured by the quiet beauty of the snow as it began to pile up on our wooden deck just beyond the window.

    Hot cinnamon cider bubbled on the stove as I poured hot popped corn into five bowls to munch when we would hover by the warm stone fireplace to read together. This was not a day to leave the house, but it was a day to celebrate magical moments together.

    As I gently fetched the tray of festive mugs of steaming cider, my older son Joel offered to bring the popcorn as we settled in for the morning reading. Most days found us sequestered in this room, sharing and engaging in a rousing book together. Trained by the familiar routine, everyone knew what to expect. I always read first thing in the day, after breakfast and devotions, because there was always a chance I would fall asleep while reading out loud if I waited until the afternoon. Like most mamas, I rarely got enough sleep.

    Why not munch on popcorn and sip cider while reading? Not every day was graced with such fare. Other days I gave blank art paper for them to draw what they were listening to and wondering about, Legos to construct cities and cars for imaginary highways, play dough to create with, outlines of art classics to fill in using colored pencils. The rule was that everyone could do something while we read as long as they were able to listen and narrate back to me what was read. I always threatened to read the whole chapter over if they could not narrate. And of course some days were interrupted by “He sat on my side of the couch,” or “Her toe keeps touching my foot, and I can’t concentrate. Tell her to stop!”

    Yet, because this was an expected rhythm over time with understood standards for behavior, most days were predictably reasonable. What the oldest children have learned to accept and model becomes an unverbalized standard for the younger ones. All four cherished this daily rhythm as one of the favorite memories of their lives and as the habit that shaped their souls. Joel has even made a partial profession of dramatic reading by recording books on tape because of his love of reading aloud.

    The heart of a reading home brings joy to shared relationships, because we are all being shaped and formed by the imagination of what we are engaging in together. A sort of mutual intelligence and understanding through the discussions we shared and things we wondered about out loud formed patterns of imagination that fueled our children’s intellect. Pathways in our brains are forged as we repeat words and ideas over and over again. Intellect is developed as pathways connect from other brain roadways made over time. Exponential connections produce vocabulary and universal understandings of complex ideas, and the mental muscles become stronger with each practice of reading aloud.

    But more enthusiasm, more wonder, more excitement energizes listeners if the literature is well written, intelligent, heart- and mind-engaging. And because the corpus of what we are learning is not for a test but for the beauty, integrity, and intelligence of the story itself, there is great room for wonder to journey broadly in the mind.

    Having reasonable recreation or fun snacks to heighten our pleasure made our reading times the pinnacle of each day. I truly think that my children thought math and language arts were what encompassed home education, because they did not even realize that the reading was the core of their learning. Somehow, this time was pure pleasure shared amid varied personalities and eruptions of occasional immaturity and restlessness. And I must say, I was quite diligent to make our reading happen for thousands of days of our lives together.

    Long before this, I had realized that there was a limited amount of time in each day. I was constrained by this boundary and could only cover so much material. And I wanted my children to be exposed to the best artists, finest composers, outstanding writers, stimulating thinkers. I chose books that would engage my own interest as well.

    Determining the priority of reading thirty to ninety minutes every morning (depending on the demands of the day) helped me to cover a broad and deep smorgasbord of subjects, ideas, and interests through the years. Purposing to cover the corpus of our reading together meant that all were shaped in the community of like-minded thoughts. There never would have been enough of me or enough time to use “age-graded” textbooks for humanities (literature, history, biography, classical art, classical music, geography, science, and nature), which were the main subjects of our reading.

    I also considered this an important part of my mentoring time – to inform and lead them to wonder about great ideas and to encourage thought processes.

    If I had attempted to use an age-graded curriculum (texts especially for first grade, second grade, etc.) and focused on textbooks for each child according to their age, I am quite sure I would have been overburdened and frustrated. I never would have been able to cover all of the material. I knew I would be pressed to get through it all with four different ages of children; as a matter of fact, I knew I would never even be able to read through all the textbooks for each age. Wanting to have all of them swimming in the same waters of intellectual thought also meant there was a special connection, belonging, and community of sharing the same knowledge and scholarship.

    If we gave our children great food for thought, and gave them an appetite for how satisfying learning could be, they would be able to access anything they wanted to learn for the rest of their lives.

    Some of what were common in the genres we frequented were age-old classical literature, illuminating thinkers who specialized in their fields, captivating literary stories, the intrigue of world and American history, the principles of leadership and heroes, and science and nature writers we had grown to love.

    What I discovered was that entering into rousing tales, great adventures, historical battles, and romantic tales does open children’s minds to wonder about infinite ideas, dreams, and creative possibilities and to truly enjoy the beauty of learning and growing.

    If we gave our children great food for thought, so to speak, and gave them an appetite for how satisfying learning could be, they would be able to access anything they wanted to learn for the rest of their lives. Developing the desire to learn was foundational to our children’s growing in mental muscle and acquiring more education the rest of their lives as a personal habit and goal.

    We also knew that if we neglected their spiritual formation in our education model, we would have failed to pass on what was the most important knowledge of their lifetimes: to know, love, and serve God; to practice hospitality and reaching out to others; and to follow his kingdom purposes the rest of their lives.

    Conviction that a verbally rich environment is what nurtured the best of creative writers and intellectually equipped adults meant that we did not use textbooks for grammar or for creative writing. Often, curriculum is so comprehensive, sometimes tedious, and broad that to tackle a book of hundreds of pages is unnecessary and overwhelming. Math and simple language arts were primarily the only textbooks we used. We trusted our children to become great writers because of the rich verbal environment we practiced morning, noon, and night. We did have excellent resources in the books we used, and we did require discipline of study through our rhythms and routines.

    Creative, interesting, highly photographic, colorful, and artistic resources for basic reference books about cultures, science, nature, and geography found their way into book baskets all over the house.

    Discussing and writing about what they read was how they learned to talk and communicate, much as a child derives their vocabulary from the sentence patterns they are surrounded by. Great communication and message making followed naturally. The books we read together and the ones they read alone each day were what formed them into excellent writers and communicators. Great literary sources shaped the pattern for their brains.

    That I could read to everyone even though there were eleven years between the oldest and youngest had become a precious gift that we all shared together. Little Joy, who was six years younger than the next oldest sibling, always got a picture book at the beginning of our time together, and sometimes the kids would take turns reading it to her. This was to be sure she felt a part of what we were doing, and they actually took pride in becoming teachers to her. We set a standard of dramatic reading, enthusiastic voices. And of course, my older ones had their own reading and research lists compiled for afternoon reading on their own.

    Looking back, I better understand that even though her speaking vocabulary was not equal to her older siblings’, Joy’s capacity to understand stories, to integrate ideas, and to engage in a book was present. She had been inadvertently trained to sit still and listen with all of us since she was an infant because she wanted to be included in “the gang.”

    It was a part of the expectation of her mind, emotions, and thought processes to sit with all of us. She would rather sit and play with a Beanie Baby or color in a book and be with us than to be by herself playing somewhere else. I learned that we often underestimate capacity when we only attempt what is the normal expectation.

    Planning my reading year was always fun, and each year was different. Units of world or American history were a foundation for each year. Exploring reading lists and books about books, I would choose a couple of picture books on the subject, at least one nonfiction book, and one or two historical fiction books to read aloud.

    Next, I would take a few weeks to read a work of literature, a biography or other nonfiction book of my choosing. This way, I covered essential history and literature, our core, systematically. Yet I was also able to read aloud hundreds of fiction books. Because I did not put myself under pressure to do both at once, we were free to enjoy history and geography and world issues and then just enjoy great literature for its own merit.

    Before I started a unit of history or a book of fiction, I would always plan, excavating, digging for an understanding of the context of the place in time, culture, and circumstances. These were the places where exploration into the subject and excavating interesting details about the subject or places of the book we were going to read helped the book come to life.

    For example, if we were reading Treasures of the Snow, one of my favorite pieces of children’s fiction, I would have everyone participate in developing an understanding of the background of the book. Patricia St. John was the author, so I would assign someone to do a short report about her life. (She lived through World War II, lost her fiancé to the war, and never got married. She had spent time as a child in Switzerland, where the story takes place, and eventually became a missionary to Morocco. She wrote children’s books to help them understand and imagine their relationship to God.)

    Because the book takes place in Switzerland, we would find it on the world map and learn its context in Europe. Then I would assign one or two children to do short excavating research about Switzerland. This led to them finding out that Switzerland was neutral in wars and made a political commitment not to take sides. While exploring, they found the folk story of hero William Tell. I found a beautiful, artistic, illuminated book with his story, and we read and enjoyed that together. This led us to listen to the William Tell Overture, a piece of classical music written by Rossini. Listening to it throughout the week, we would read a short biography on the composer from our resource book of composers.

    Finally, the time period in which St. John wrote this book was directly after World War II. We looked into short articles that described post-war Europe, the devastation, the disheartenment of the people, and the bitterness that was developing as a result.

    As we read the book, we found that the themes were about hateful, hurtful circumstances; difficult responses; and the issue of bitterness or forgiveness. I won’t give the book away. But St. John found herself swimming in the waters of great disillusionment with loved ones and friends after World War II, and she wanted to write a book to show the destruction that a bitter heart reaps, as well as the healing of a heart willing to forgive.

    Reading this book also led us to read L’Abri by Edith Schaeffer, also set in Switzerland, where her family established a community and center to help children and families adjust to life and to heal after World War II.

    Instead of spoon feeding each child by being the lecturer-teacher, I sought to develop them into treasure seekers, using their own imaginations to research and find interesting facts. There was also value in giving them the opportunity to add to the interest of the subjects, seeing themselves as having something to offer to one another. Sometimes there were no assignments. We just enjoyed reading.

    A lifetime of researching the context and background of books we read would fill the treasure chest of my children’s minds with facts, data, ideas, philosophy, convictions of all sorts. Then, when they added layer upon layer of knowledge by doing this again and again with countless books, their brains connected the dots and extended pathways of connection to all sorts of knowledge they had explored. And though we did not do an extensive study of geography or details of all the history of each culture, they connected their memories of countries and historical progressions to all of the books and ideas we read over the years.

    Of course, many times, especially when reading great books of fiction, classics, the kids would often beg for “just one more chapter.”

    Our souls and mutual appetites for life were shaped by the same stories, same ideas, same moments shared. We feasted on a banquet of books of every kind: all varieties of fiction; historical novels; classic literature; also captivating tales such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost; biographies of leaders, missionaries, inventors; science and nature; an endless list of subjects.

    Historical biography was a favorite genre. Science and nature helped us enjoy our world and foster curiosity about it. Reading biographies of great classical visual artists throughout the ages while observing their famous renderings inspired appreciation of eras of art. Classical musicians and their stories accompanied by their rousing music also captured my children’s imaginations.

    Daily, after our reading time, everyone would disperse to their own corners of the world (bedroom, den with toys, outdoors, etc.) and breathe in the free time they needed to digest all of the input of the reading.

    Having a good romp outdoors after our reading times gave everyone a time to breathe, to enter into the recesses of their own “mind palace,” as Sherlock Holmes suggests. Creative outlets of their own making make play an important part of their accessing what they have thought and experienced, giving them time to wonder alone. They wrote plays, put together costumes from the era, stapled paper together and wrote their own small books, etc.

    Play is an essential part of ingesting information. Pretend, dress up, acting out stories – playing deeply solidifies ideas that are rambling in a child’s brain from all the stimulation they have received. The mind needs time to rest, to refresh, to restore in order to store up the ideas rolling around.

    a Hobbit Home with a round yellow door

    Shan Li Fang, Hobitton House (Public domain)

    I believe our family is part hobbit. We loved to eat, we loved to feast and talk, celebrating merry moments together, wiling the night away in sharing opinions, ideas, humor, conviction, and friendly community.

    Our meals were often simple. “Someone heat up a box of organic tomato soup.” “Would one of you kids slice some of my homemade bread and cheese and make some grilled cheese to munch with the soup tonight?”

    Candles would be lit, music would always be wafting in the background (only instrumental would do for a background to conversation), and then the important part of all of these readings would take place.

    “Tell Daddy about what we read today.” “What did you like about Patricia St. John’s story?” “What do you think it would have been like to live in England after World War II with cities and homes destroyed, marriages destroyed by so many deaths, heritages lost?” “What did you like about the story of William Tell?” “Shall we play the overture while we are sitting here?”

    Developing a culture of a love of words and a value for expressing opinions also helped each of our children develop life convictions, a commitment to virtue and character, and an understanding of the value of morality lived out in a real life and of the meaningfulness of hard work and self-sacrifice. Our dinner table was playful, with games of intellectual imagining and romping through countless millions of ideas.

    Developing a culture of a love of words and a value for expressing opinions also helped each of our children develop life convictions, a commitment to virtue and character, and an understanding of the value of morality lived out in a real life and of the meaningfulness of hard work and self-sacrifice.

    Because we shared so many endless hours swimming in the same ideas, reading the same books, discussing the same messages where every opinion and engagement was valued, in the process of eating together day after day and making it a time of shared heart and soul community, the strength of our mutual values and commitments became a part of what defined us as a family.

    It takes time to carve out an ideal. When there are a lot of littles, dinnertable discussions may only happen once in a while and may be about what Little Bear said to his papa. Don’t try to force things too early that you want your children and husband to eventually love. All in good time.

    Our minds and souls were shaped on the same appetites because we invested together in a community of reading and discussing daily for years on end. As my younger son Nathan commented recently, “We were building our own intimate community, laying lifetime foundations of friendship and co-mentoring.”

    When we create a home to meet needs and to enable growth, we will be amazed at the invisible shaping that is taking place in the lives of all growing in the lifegiving environment. It only requires our wonder at the possibilities we cannot see but imagine.

    Please do not assume that this was always an orderly process. Arguing broke out from time to time, and immature and selfish attitudes sometimes surfaced. Disagreement and hurt feelings had to be dealt with (training manners!). Personalities clashed. And yet the commitment to shaping a loving and generous soul community by this habit was one of our most profoundly influential practices. It gave a broad and strong foundation to our children’s intellectual development. So manners and relationship skills were built in the swirl of more than sixty thousand meals shared together!

    As I see my adult children flourishing, I must say that sometimes I am surprised. The life of our home did not always look like it was producing intelligence, character growth, faith, maturity. Yet when we create a home to meet needs and to enable growth, we will be amazed at the invisible shaping that is taking place in the lives of all growing in the lifegiving environment. It only requires our wonder at the possibilities we cannot see but imagine.

    This is excerpted from Awaking Wonder: Opening Your Child’s Heart to the Beauty of Learning (Bethany House, 2020).

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