Lessons From Our Table

One of the blessings of the past holiday for this Maine parent was the return of adult children home for Christmas.  Humorists console some of us with tales of dysfunctional families to help dispel the mixed emotions conjured up by the holidays.  A largely functional family is also a blessing.

Ours has slogged its way through rough patches, and survived with humor and love intact, and more intelligence than when we started.   My three ’30-something’ children appear happy, have graduated from good universities, and are well on their way in their chosen professions—which might help to pay a few jaw-dropping student loans.

For their travels they were rewarded with a white Christmas (and New Year’s), not to mention the Portland Stage’s splendid performance of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’  ‘Wow!’ said one of the three at the end, as he replaced the tissue furtively dug from a pocket to vanish the tear that no one noticed but his Mother.

The greatest pleasures were the conversations while dining with family and friends, and this year conversation often returned to those things that combine to form an education.   What transpires in Maine’s many varied K-12 schools will occasion a good bit of heat in 2013 (as it does every year) and, often more heat than light.  So, here is what attentive guests at our holiday meals might have taken away from our chatter:

‘Schooling’ is useful, but over-rated, whether one is schooling at home, or in a classroom.  Basic literacy and numeracy are essential, of course, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that when the little ones traipse off to school—or we put away the breakfast dishes and haul out the ‘do it yourself’ teaching materials—that we are educating our children in the fullest sense of the term.

We learn less by instruction or persuasion, than by example.  Children regularly exposed to curiosity and wisdom in the adults who surround them will learn to recognize curiosity and wisdom not only in others, but as something to emulate in themselves.

With the possible exception of the ‘STEM’ subjects [science, technology, engineering and math], which by their nature require extensive systematic preparation to master, there are other vital qualities we invoke when we talk about education—qualities which, like the Christmas ghosts who escorted Mr. Scrooge on his painful journey—cannot be conjured up  from lesson plans.

“Critical thinking skills” and “creativity” —these important concepts have become the overused and under-examined bromides of our education debates, offered in contrast to the rigid accountability of standardized testing.  But neither critical thinking nor enduring creativity can emerge from vaporous language or vacuous minds.

The minds of children and the young need furnishing.  Woe to the child whose mind is furnished by the gargantuan marketing machine we call the ‘entertainment industry.’  The best furnishing comes through direct experience—broadened, deepened, and examined through reading.

It will be said that many children do not come from families where books and reading are a fact of daily life.   That may be so; but it is not insurmountable.  One of my children’s favorite memories is of Mrs. Zuidama, a warm and wise woman at their day-care center, who set aside an hour every day for story time.

Even earlier, as soon as the youngest could sit up in a stroller, we went several times a week to the children’s corner of the Bangor Public Library to paw through the shelves for our ‘take home’ books.  We rarely missed a weekly morning story time led by one of the librarians.

Read to children until they insist on reading for themselves.  What to read?  Ask your school or public librarian—who will appreciate the question.  Browse through the books yourself.   At our dinner table, the titles tumbled out, beginning with “Pat the Bunny” and “Goodnight, Moon.”  We have our favorites, but children are entitled to discover theirs.

E-readers and tablets?  They are no substitute for a child’s beloved jam-encrusted, page torn, spine frayed, and bed cover-buried book.  When the e-reader has run out of battery and we can’t find the dang charger, Charlotte will still be spinning her web.


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