A Tiger’s Pursuit: Mastery

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job,” intones Fletcher, the monomaniacal music instructor in the film Whiplash. Isn’t good, after all, the enemy of the best? Fletcher’s psychopathic devices sucked me right into the vortex of the questions I ask as my son’s teacher. How much do I push? And how? With the promise of Pokémon cards? There’s the drum student Andrew in the movie. His single eye upon Whiplash, the jazz piece he determines to conquer, he denies himself even the distraction of girlfriends. Would I have my boy bleed in the pursuit of excellence? Of course not. Except – the first time Andrew plows right through practice as the blood on his finger oozes from useless bandaids would’ve been cinematic cliché if he were Korean. Because falling short would’ve hurt more. So logic and genes say I should at least allow my son to bruise a little.

Last year when he was not yet eight, we went for the optional Memory Master challenge in our Classical homeschool program. Tennyson had to recite the hundreds of facts he had learned in seven subjects (English Grammar, Latin, History, Science, Math, Geography, Timeline of 161 events in human history) through four rounds of testing. Beyond the one mistake allowed per subject in the second round, he had to come through with 100% accuracy in the last two proofs. He was so close but made more than the one error in the second sitting. He had rocked the memory review games in class and the teacher told the director he knew his stuff. The director was willing to give him a chance at the next round of testing. I bowed out.

I could see he’d felt the pressure – from me. After some yoga out back under a full moon, his hippy dippy mother had suddenly shapeshifted into Tiger Mom (from New York at that, double jeopardy). She kept putting raw meat in front of him. Testing season came and I was my Old Self again, the one who unblinkingly had bled for grades at his age, the one who was now oh, ambitious for her son. On the cusp of the third test, I realized I simply should have started reviewing the material with him sooner. We were running short on time and though the potholes were few, we were cramming. I was drilling Tennyson in the little time remaining and overwhelmed, he got headaches and spilled tears of frustration. Sigh. He had bruised enough. I chewed the last of my raw lamb liver, the mineral taste and feel of flesh a sad memory in the swallowing. And in the privacy of my backyard morphed back into the California homeschooler who wanted to honor the sacred whole child and spare him the pain of that great modern evil, stress. What I really didn’t want was to get in – make the hallowed halls of Memory Masters – by the skin of our teeth. I could’ve kept pushing him and been able to applaud as his name was called in the awards ceremony. But I didn’t want to barely make it. I wanted him to own it. Mastery means mastery, not hope crossing fingers that he doesn’t slip in the testing. I loved how high we set the bar in the program, that we had such tall demands to aspire to. I would submit to them. And when my son reached for them again, they would be his without question.

So he went for it again this year. And he did it. He went up on stage recently, where one-eighth of the students in Kindergarten-Grade 6 received their Memory Master certificate.

I paced the material in such a way as to prepare him months in advance and by the time testing rolled around, the countries and their capitals, the math multiples and linking verbs, each continent’s highest mountain and the history of Western Africa were in his bones. I found myself at peace in the third proof – fingers uncrossed – where he could’ve lost it all. After an hour-and-a-half, he came out of the room smiling. I had told him to enjoy himself and the teacher said yes, he had himself a grand old time. Two days later, he did the Hokey Pokey as we got ready to leave for the final test. So I’m not Fletcher. I didn’t throw chairs at my son for him to get it right. But Fletcher had zero tolerance for mediocrity (well yes, if you despise it) and that’s something to appreciate. I’m still trying to figure out just what it is Tennyson needs to give up while we uphold those standards but I can’t sit with the majority and tell my child he’s doing a good job when he can – and should – be doing an outstanding job. It wasn’t recognition I was after. At the most practical level, the journey was about nailing down a solid foundation of knowledge he can retrieve at will and use in the older years. But the process was really about self-respect. That whatever his resources and abilities, he discovers he can use them to extend into his outer world of possibility and turn it into reality. I love the scene where Andrew’s got it. He’s mastered the impossible Whiplash and, when he finds himself in the band competition, it’s a part of him. He sails through the piece, sticks dancing on the snare still stained with blood. His new reality.

Here’s a glimpse of what Tennyson learned this school year. I threw random questions at him from the year’s work for you. I am proud of him for keeping the joy and must say, of myself for not ruining it.

Math: Counting by 12s

Science
What are the major groups of invertebrates?
Sponges, stinging cell animals, flatworms, roundworms, segmented worms, mollusks, sea stars, arthropods

What are the major groups of vertebrates?
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds

Latin Noun Cases
Nominative – Subject
Genitive – Possessive
Dative – Indirect Object
Accusative – Direct Object
Ablative – Object of the Preposition

First and Second Declension Noun Endings, Singular and Plural

English Grammar
A preposition relates a noun or a pronoun to another word.
About Above Across After Against Along Amid Among Around At Atop Before Behind Below Beneath Beside Between Beyond But By Concerning Down During Except For From In Inside Into
Like Near Of Off On Onto Out Outside Over Past Regarding Since Through Throughout To Toward Under Underneath Until Up Upon With Within Without

History
Tell me about the Age of Imperialism.
During the Age of Imperialism, the British established rule over India in 1858, and Queen Victoria was declared the Empress of India in 1877. Before his assassination in 1948, Mohandas Gandhi led the passive resistance movement, which helped win India’s independence.

Tell me about the Heian empire.
As the Heian government weakened in Japan, Shoguns began to rule and expelled all foreigners during the period of isolation. Circa 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. restored trade, allowing the Meiji to modernize Japan.

Science
Some kinds of leaves and leaf parts?
Spines, needles, tendrils, bracts, bud scales, palmate

What are the four kinds of volcanoes?
Active, intermittent, dormant, extinct

What are the five major circles of latitude?
Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, Antarctic Circle

We Underestimate The Human Brain

I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.

Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.

The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:

The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.

timeline1

timeline2

timeline3

timeline4