Musings from the Starting Line

by Erica Layon

My husband and I have known that we want to homeschool since before we had children. Now that our oldest is old enough for kindergarten in the fall, the homeschooling journey just got real. We don’t need to file a letter of intent this year, as he won’t be 6 before September 30, 2017. We will, however, need to file our one time notification in 2018. We will probably use their best friend’s private school as a participating agency, simply to allow them to do extra curricular activities together.

Knowing where to start is tough. I love the idea of so many learning paths: classical, student-led, unschooled, unit studies. The Trivium continues to appeal to me, as it focuses first on learning how to learn and then on developing expertise in particular areas. Knowing when to transition from casual play-rich learning and acquisition of numbers of letters is hard. I want to delay “serious” study until each boy is properly equipped to enjoy a more rigorous learning experience. My husband and I both feel grateful that our love of learning wasn’t extinguished by our schools, though we both acknowledge it was a close call. We do not want that for our boys.

Early in my learning about learning, I came across an essay written by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 called “The Lost Tools of Learning”  This essay appears to be an underpinning of many classical approaches to education today, particularly those that describe themselves with the term “trivium.” In the essay, the syllabus of the Schools from the medieval era was split into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium taught the student how to learn, and the Quadrivium delved into specific areas of study and is akin to University study. The Trivium is composed of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. First one learns the structure of a language in the study of grammar. Secondly the student learns how to use the language - how to define terms and make accurate statements to construct an argument and detect errors in arguments in the Dialectic phase, which can also be called Logic and Disputation. In the final chapter of the Trivium, Rhetoric, the student learns to express himself elegantly and persuasively. At the conclusion of this Trivium, the student would present and defend a thesis. Of course, these early years of learning how to learn aren’t void of subjects outside of language. In the Middle Ages debating subjects were drawn largely from theology and the ethics and history of antiquity. Miss Sayers presents a breakdown of memorization work early when the natural tendencies of the child are to enjoy repetition, collections, and identification. She moves on when the student begins to question the why’s of the world, digging into both the whys and logic as well as constructing and improving arguments. This stage ends as the student realizes the gaps in their knowledge and wants to go back to reexamine all those things they memorized or argued earlier in their education. The ages for these stages are roughly 9-11, 12-14, and 15-16.

In our journey, I see the subject matters expanding upon my boys’ growing interest in the world around them. When the aim is to learn how to learn, there is less pressure to check off certain traditional school subjects from a list in neatly proportioned bites year after year. In Miss Sayers’ essay, she postulates that the Trivium can begin as soon as a student can “read, write and cypher.” At first glance I would consider the acquisition of spoken and written English as fodder for Grammar, but when the focus is on learning how to learn a language the student should be properly equipped with an initial language. Ask anyone who has had to relearn how to walk how much their first acquisition of walking skills helped them learn it again.

Clearly, the initial acquisition of reading, writing and math should not be a high pressure situation. In our house we continue to expose both boys to both words and numbers, and to increase the challenges presented as they show mastery of each stage. Our fun pre-bed ritual is addition flash-cards with dad. The boys compete to go first. The three year old just identifies the numbers on the card, but the day will come when every equation doesn’t equal either five or nine.

Children are always learning. Revisiting this essay, which has made an indelible impression on my mind, gives me greater confidence that my inclination to “play” with numbers and letters and to explore the world around us in these early years makes sense. Looking to more modern times, in Finland children don’t start school before 7 and finish secondary school at age 15 or 16.

I may dig through the box of phonics materials I asked my mom, a third grade public school teacher, to send me in order to help my boys learn to read. I also may not. We read together all the time, and recent playground discussions have included my oldest son asking for words that start with a particular letter or sound. We also correct their spoken language, fixing the “hims” from the three year old and incorrect tenses from the four and a half year old. While my data-driven mind and PhD husband will probably always feel a pull to “do more” with their education, I already have strong evidence that what we are doing now is working for them. I think we will continue to do what we do, and reassess our approach this time next year. I am excited about the idea of an education based upon the Trivium, and I am hopeful that it will be a good fit when my boys reach the appropriate stage of development. It is exciting, and a little bit scary, to be at this stage in our journey. I’m so grateful to the community of new and seasoned home educators I have found at Granite State Home Educators. The recent discussion on Facebook with advice from veteran home educators (here and here  was so encouraging for me to read. Being a part of this community makes the process of taking on the task of educating our boys just a little less daunting.