reflective learning

The Dragon’s Breath: Inspiring Learning Through the Every Day

INSPI’RE, verb transitive To breathe into.

  1. To infuse by breathing.
  2. To infuse into the mind; as, to inspire with new life.

inspired learning homeschool

Micah’s sitting upside down on the couch, his feet on the headrest, his head hanging over the edge. Asa’s wearing a pink apron backwards because it makes the best cape, but he’s long since given up flying around the front room. The kids are all passive, reflective, maybe even a little bored. Not that I don’t appreciate the value of boredom. But I’m feeling it a little, too.

“Hey, there’s a meteor shower tonight.”

I instantly have their attention. The last meteor shower they saw meant popcorn at one in the morning with the neighbors.

It’s kind of a minor meteor shower. But there are two really cool things about it. First, the meteors look like they’re coming out of the mouth of Draco the Dragon. Second, it’s visible in the early evening so you don’t have to stay up so late.”

Their sighs indicate that the second really cool thing I mentioned isn’t really all that cool in their minds. They return to their previous positions and, for a moment, it seems like they have all just switched themselves off.

“Ok, let’s do it.” Nisa finally announces.

A flurry of activity and they are ready. I take them to the north side of the house, doubt out loud  my ability to find Draco, assure them that it doesn’t really matter. They just need to look up and to the north to see the meteors. If there are any. But the whole fire breathing dragon thing is kind of lost if you never find the dragon.

And we want to see the dragon’s breath.

“Alright. You guys see the Big Dipper, right?”

They point to it, verifying their knowledge.

“Ok. You draw an imaginary line through the two stars on the outside of the ladle of the dipper and follow it straight out until you hit a bright star. That’s the North Star, or Pole Star. Near the middle of that line, there’s a faint little star and that’s the last star in the tail of the great dragon.”

I rack my brain for some mythology. Cultures around the world have used the night sky as a canvas for their stories. I again resolve to look some of them up so that I can give the children at least tidbits of the stories whenever we look at the stars.

It is in these quiet moments of discovery that they are most open to the stories I tell.

But all that comes to mind is history.

“The funny thing is, the North Star wasn’t always the Pole Star. The earth wobbles. 2,500 years ago, while the Egyptians were building the pyramids, they used another star to anchor their directions. And interestingly enough, you use the Big Dipper to find it, too.”

The stars we were straining to make out suddenly popped forward in the night sky and the Milky Way materialized overhead. All the kids immediately wonder what just happened. It is strange what you notice when you focus all your attention on one thing. Like how the sky doesn’t get steadily darker after sunset. It seems to darken in small leaps.

“You take the other side of the ladle, draw an imaginary line between the two stars and follow it to Thuban, the former pole star in the tail of Draco. From there, you just sort of follow the snake around to Draco’s head. It’s kind of a crooked quadrilateral that looks a little like ladle of the Little Dipper.”

Finding Draco seemed like an accomplishment. I wasn’t sure any of them were actually looking at Draco, but we all stood, staring above. Watching. Waiting.

There’s this incredible feeling of expectation when watching for meteors. And most of them are gone so quickly that you scarcely realize you are seeing one before it is already gone. So you stand there, waiting for the next one, anticipation building, as you hope for another one.

But the dragon doesn’t breathe fire for us this night. He gives us a little hiccup. I see one. Nisa and Micah each claim a couple. But he does not fail us for there is a different kind of breath. The breath of life, the breath of wonder, the breath of inspiration.

For that’s all inspire really means . . . to breathe into.

And what more could I ask for but to breathe life into my children’s learning on a clear October evening?

Building a reflective homeschool, sharing the wonder

Picking up from where I left off last week with Koysdar’s poem, To Know a Thing, I have been reflecting on how to encourage my children to “look closer.” I found it interesting that in a quick google search, I found numerous sites discussing the benefit of observing children in education, including some research papers. I am yet to find anything about encouraging your children to observe. It is time-consuming, and seemingly unproductive. After all, how much more quickly can a teacher transmit information to a child through lecture than through even the best crafted opportunities in discovery learning? But as Professor Seymour Papert (pioneer of artificial intelligence) once said,

You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.

In other words, you give them the tools they need. And observation is perhaps the foundation of learning. More than simply seeing, observing requires attention and perception. It is noticing fine details and subtle differences. It is looking closely. When you see a fern, do you see a fern, or do you see “tiny worlds framed in dew drops?” Observation is the beginning of wonder. The closer we look, the more we see and the more we find there is to know.

For a simple exercise, lay under a tree and watch the breeze rustle the leaves. All of my children loved this as infants. It is nature’s mobile, something I never appreciated until I joined my then six month old son lying under a tree. The light dances and the undersides of the leaves appear to change shape and color in a fluid gambol.

To observe takes practice. It takes time. And it takes the patience to look at the same things in in new ways. The Impressionist Claude Monet practiced capturing moments and the impressions of those moments. As the first “painter of light,” he explained,

I know that to paint the sea really well, you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place so that you can understand its way in that particular spot and that is why I am working on the same motifs over and over again, four or six times even.

In many ways, children seem natural observers. A simple walk through the neighborhood used to take an hour because my son would stop every few feet and lie down to watch an ant. He studied it, touched it, felt its tickle. He placed obstacles in its path to see what it would do. It was in tearing him away from these observations that I began to wonder how much we train our children for a short attention span.

From this, I’ve discovered a few simple ways to encourage my children to observe the world around them, making discoveries and collecting experiences:

  1. Get out of the way and give them time to explore.
  2. Study an object myself.
  3. Take things apart. Study their parts and the whole.
  4. Draw things. It is amazing how often in a sketch you tend to draw what you “know” is there rather than what is actually there.
  5. Ask questions. Draw attention to shape, color, texture, scent and even taste.
  6. Play with nature. Looking at the plants around our home as potential play things has changed the way my children and I look at plants.

To know a thing, we must first observe it. Patiently, frequently, thoughtfully.

What do you do to encourage observation in your children?

For more posts in this series:

Horizontal learning vs. vertical learning
The treasure of experience
Sharing the wonder
Unanswered questions
The grace of a hippo
Tools Not Toys