Creating Lifelong Learners - Setting RoutinesApr 29, 2022
When my son was in first grade his teacher wrote 4-7= on the board. He eagerly shared that the answer was -3. His teacher was caught off guard and realized that she had written the equation backwards. She told him, “There is no such thing as negative numbers.” He insisted that there was and started to tell the class about them. She was so frustrated with what she perceived to be insolence that she sent him to the principal. He came home in tears.
This incident was one of many that occurred that fall. Around November we had to make a choice as my son was learning so little and it pained me so much to send him to a place where I felt his love for learning was being squashed. We considered changing schools (not many other good options in our area). We considered moving to a new district (super expensive to purchase a new home). We considered homeschooling. I was open to anything that would help this little guy love school and be happy learning.
Our First Routines
In the end we came to a compromise. My son enjoyed the other students at school. He lived for the moments when he could chat with his classmates. He is a very gregarious guy and to this day can have a two-hour conversation with anyone he meets. He so enjoys talking to others. While I could teach him everything a first grader would need to know, I knew he would not be happy with me as his only social companion all day long. So we agreed that he would go to school and have his social time with his classmates and then when school was over we would go to the park, have a snack, and then do one hour of academic work at home. During that time he would read, he would write, and we would do math puzzles and games together.
Before too long we settled into this routine and it worked. It struck the perfect balance between time for learning and time for socializing. When summer came along, we stuck to our routine. Mornings we were spent at camp or at the pool or playing outside and then every afternoon we did some academic work together. For a few summers we hired a local high school science teacher to come do experiments with us in the backyard. Each day was filled with fun, friends, and learning. This continued for years.
Building Life Skills
While the routine arose out of necessity. I realized years later that we were building skills necessary for success in life. We were building Michael’s ability to sit quietly and focus on a task at home. We were building his stamina with longer tasks. At the beginning he could only write a sentence or two but over time he wrote many sentences and then paragraphs and then pages. The subject matter was not important but generating ideas and writing clearly about them was the goal. Finally, we built his perseverance skills. We worked on math puzzles together. Sometimes we could see the answer quickly, sometimes we couldn’t and would have to finish another day. Lastly, he developed a love of learning.
Our work at home was directed by him. I gave him choices of tasks but he chose which ones he wanted to do. As much as we could, we tied the work into the topics of our daily lives. We read stories about places we were going to visit. He wrote stories about our vacations. He counted items around our house and we made up story problems about his legos. A teacher tries to keep classroom work relevant to children of the same age but only someone who lives with the child can exactly pinpoint their interests each day and each week.
When she was old enough, Michael’s sister joined us in this family routine. Other parents thought I was asking too much of the children by having them doing some work each day. What I see now though is that work has led to two children with a love of learning. They are able to complete assignments on time and remember to bring them back to school. They ask questions about topics of interest and explore them. They are able to work on projects, a little bit at a time, until they finish them. Michael recently spent many weeks in the summer taking apart a floor cleaner and figuring out how to put it back together. His clearly written and photographed tutorial on repairing the vent hood for the stove is now on the internet and has hundreds of views. My daughter reads for hours each weekend and considers her Kindle one of her favorite possessions. I really think these skills developed because we started these routines early. I don’t think we could have built these skills if we had started these routines in fifth grade, because we started when the children were young they were quite willing to engage and then it became a habit that they continued even though their teenage years.
Necessary School Skills
I see so many students in classrooms now who struggle. Students are asked to engage in such different tasks at school than those they do at home that it’s difficult to switch gears and get into school mode. They cannot sustain their attention even for small periods of time. Perhaps it is from lots of time spent on computers where video games move quickly and prizes are offered often to keep students engaged. Perhaps students are used to doing so many fun things during their free time that they aren’t used to working steadily towards a goal.
On a similar note, children need to accept that not every moment of the day is going to be fun and exciting. Many moments are just low-key moments. Many tasks are not super exciting but by working on them, we can achieve larger goals. Research on a topic like city government might not be super exciting but the field trip to City Hall at the end is great fun and the students ask great questions due to their research. Working on writing a story is very hard work but sharing that story with all the other students and families at an author’s tea is very exciting.
I believe that if each family focused on fostering lifelong learners by doing some reading (parents too!), some writing, and some math games together then children will build their skills at focusing, maintaining stamina, persevering, and focusing on long term goals. Students will then see school as an extension of activities that happen at home and they will be more engaged in a life of learning.