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By Heidi Schulz
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Allen all day. I remember the first day of his class, High School Sophomore English, more than 20 years ago. He was slightly crippled and used a cane to help him walk. Each leg swung far to the outside with every step he took. Slowly, he made his way to the front of the classroom. Like I did with all teachers, I quickly summed him up: slow walk, John Lennon glasses, long red beard, kind of “hippy” looking… Mr. Allen would be easy. I should be able to get away with a minimum of work and a maximum of goofing off.
I remember the first thing he asked the class, “How do people learn?” I wondered what the “right” answer to that was. How do people learn? By going to school? By taking tests? By doing homework? All of these answers were submitted by the class, but quickly rejected by Mr. Allen. After many more guesses, someone in the back called out, “We don’t know. You tell us.”
Mr. Allen replied with a “You don’t know how to learn? How sad.”
After the laughter died down, he told us the answer: “People learn through stories.”
I didn’t really believe him. Even as he went on to talk about ancient tribes gathering around the cooking fire to share their histories, legends and oral traditions, to the transformative power of religious texts, Shakespeare and even Dr. Seuss, I remained largely unconvinced.
I had always loved reading. I grew up in a troubled home and reading was my escape. From an early age, I read every kind of story I could get my hands on… but that wasn’t learning. That was fun, relaxation, or relief from the pressures of my life. Learning happened at school, right?
Fast forward a few years and you would find me sitting in an American History class in college. I was taking notes on a lecture about the Civil War. When I read the chapter in the textbook I felt intrigued, but listening to the passion coming from the professor was more than intriguing; it was inspiring. I wanted to know more about the Civil War. I wanted to be able to speak with such informed passion. The problem was I didn’t know how to get there. The thought of walking into a library and just picking up a book was overwhelming to me. With a subject so wide and deep, which books would give me the information I wanted? What I really needed, but didn’t recognize at the time, was a mentor, someone to help me find quality sources that would enrich my understanding and guide me through my effort to earn the knowledge I desired. I remember leaving the class that day feeling frustrated at wanting to learn more, to be more, but not knowing how. I got an A in American History, but didn’t gain much else.
I didn’t know how to learn. How sad.
Fast forward again, many years later, and you will find me as a wife and mother. My husband and I do not send our daughter, “Newt” to school, but have chosen to help her seek her education at home. I consider myself blessed to have been acquainted with the principles of Thomas Jefferson Education early in my journey, though I feel that even three years later, I am just now beginning to gain an understanding and appreciation for them.
Earlier this week, I tried to answer the question, “What is TJED?” It was a hard question. I wrote two pages about the 4 phases of learning and the 7 keys of great teaching, but never got to the essence of what a Thomas Jefferson Education really is.
Last Sunday I made banana bread. My TJED essay was like being asked about my banana bread and me replying that it had some bananas, sugar and flour, eggs and yogurt, crystallized ginger, chocolate chips and some other things I don’t remember.
A partial list of ingredients doesn’t even begin to tell what that banana bread was. It doesn’t mention the way that I personalized the recipe to fit my family’s tastes and values, like the farm fresh eggs and homemade yogurt I used in place of commercial products. It doesn’t tell about how the comforting smell of bananas and cinnamon filled my home while it baked. It certainly doesn’t mention how dense and rich the final product was, or how the spicy bite of ginger perfectly balanced the bittersweet coolness of melting chocolate on my tongue. And how could that sad little list ever begin to convey the feeling of warm satisfaction my family had after eating that delicious banana bread? Indeed, the only way for someone to really get a sense of what that treat was like is to cut off a big slice, slather it with freshly whipped cream and experience it for yourself.
The same goes for a Thomas Jefferson Education. The only way to really know what it is is to dive in and experience for yourself. All I can do is try to relate what it is to me.
TJED is freedom.
All morning as I’ve contemplated this idea, I’ve had a few lines from The Lion King’s I Just Can’t Wait to be King running through my head:
No one saying do this
No one saying be there
No one saying stop that
No one saying see here
Free to run around all day
Free to do it all my way!
I have come to recognize that even as young as she is, Newt has a right to choose what she learns. I could (and have tried to from time to time) force facts into her head, but that is not learning, that is submitting.
Of course, this freedom does not mean a free-for-all anything goes mentality – not in TJED philosophy and not in our home. We are guided by the principles and values we learn in our personal core classic. For our family, the core classic is the twin works of the Bible and Book of Mormon. As we study and discuss these works daily, they give us a framework on which to build our lives. From there, we can choose other good works and pursuits to further inspire and build us.
Through the principles of TJED, I have the freedom to study. It is not selfish to fulfill my own desires to learn and to know. As my daughter and I each progress in our personal studies, there is freedom to become whatever we desire and to learn what we will need to fulfill our individual life missions. There is freedom to learn at our own pace without the artificial limits imposed by the hourly bell, semesters and grades. Without those constraints, we are free to explore our individual passions and interests, whatever they may be.
Last summer, my daughter and I were jumping on our trampoline together when our conversation turned to books. I remember it clearly because it was one of the first fruits of TJED I had been able to really experience in our family. “Mom, you know what I think? I think The Lord of the Rings is kind of like the scriptures. You know when Sam carries Frodo? That’s a lot like Jesus sacrificing for each of us. Harry Potter is like that too, when he is willing to die for his friends. They make me want to try to be better. Do you know any books like that?”
What if I had not deemed those books “worthy academic pursuits”? Or worse, what if I had killed them with endless worksheets and literary analysis? I know they would not have become a part of my daughter’s soul the way they have, nor would she trust me with any feelings that survived the “educating” process.
TJED both builds and requires trust.
As I consciously try to keep from imposing my own will upon my daughter’s studies, she gains a greater trust in me. She trusts me to guide and teach, not dictate or require.
Trust is required in those dark times I lie awake at night fighting the demons of worry.
Is she learning enough?
What if she never decides to learn long-division?
Am I doing enough?
Am I doing too much?
Would she do better in school?
Is she behind?
And then I think of the children of A Wrinkle in Time’s Camazotz. Each was required to be perfect. Every citizen had surrendered his freedom to It. There was no worry, but there was no joy. That was the price of absolute conformity, of giving up their rights to choose.
I can not know that this path will lead my child to worldly standards of success, but I can know, because I see growing evidence of it each day, that it will teach her to think and to choose for herself. I know that freedom can be messy, painful, and challenging, but also joyful and immensely satisfying. I trust that with the help of her mentors, my daughter will choose the education she will need to be who she is meant to be.
TJED is hard work, but that doesn’t always mean drudgery.
Reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer together we learned
Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help [Tom] to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill is work, while rolling ten pins or climbing Mount Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and they would resign.
Once again, it all hinges on freedom.
TJED is relationships.
It always saddens me when I hear people wishing that their children’s vacation would come to an end and they would go back to school. Working and studying together, having meaningful discussions and playing all contribute to a rich and full family culture. Though our relationships are far from perfect, we truly love to be together. My husband and I have recently sought to strengthen our daughter’s familial relationships beyond our own home with weekly Family History lessons at Grandma’s. While she may be learning about family group sheets and the census, the deeper lessons are about belonging. Today she came home with stories about one great-grandfather who was one of the forest rangers to rescue Smoky the Bear and another who made the coffin for the man who killed Billy the Kid. These stories become a part of who she is and how she views the world.
TJED is classics. The scriptures, Shakespeare, Dickens, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, Tom Sawyer, mythology, poetry, biographies and histories, mathematics and science – all classics have a way of getting inside of us and we can not remain unchanged. The more we study, together or on our own, the more we learn about ourselves. When confronted with a difficult situation, we can draw on the character attributes of Pollyanna, Ralph Moody, Jane Eyre, Sophie Germain or even my own Grandpa Hill and gain strength. To paraphrase what my daughter told me, good books make us want to be a better people.
To a certain degree, each person is the author of his own life. We have chosen that TJED will be a central theme in our family’s.
It may have come twenty years later, but I have discovered the truth: people do learn by stories.
I think Mr. Allen would be proud.
What is TJED to you?
Meet Heidi, our newest TJED Mothers contributor.
Heidi is a stay-at-homeschooling mama to “Newt” age 10 and a best-friend, partner and wife to Walt. Nothing else she does will ever be as important.
Heidi blogs at Frantically Simple about homeschooling, parenting, real food, and life in general. Check out her new series there – For Thy Sake: Teaching Children to Value Family Work.
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