My son looked up from his math, pointed his finger in the air, and exclaimed, “Kid’s grades could be in danger!” He had found a mistake in his text. You might think that is a unique reaction to finding a mistake in a textbook, but I knew exactly why he said it. We had recently finished reading aloud Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. In it, Nathaniel Bowditch, who wrote The American Practical Navigator, was furious when he found a mistake in the mathematical calculations of Moore’s Navigator. He declared, “Men’s lives depend on these figures!” knowing that sailors navigated the dangerous oceans based on the accuracy of those calculations. Often some phrase has caught the attention of our family during a read aloud, and it isn’t uncommon for us to begin quoting it around the house. My son had just put his own twist on it.
One of my favorite times of the day when it comes to educating my children at home is reading aloud. When my oldest son, Ben, began his freshman year I chose a curriculum that was designed to be done independently. While reading to my youngest son Daniel, almost daily we would hear a comment—actually multiple comments—from the other room about what we were reading. I finally gave up and let Ben come listen, too. It wasn’t like he was really paying attention to the assignment he was supposed to be working on.
That was when I realized how much I value the time to read aloud with both of my boys. To me it is one of the most beneficial things we do as a homeschooling family. Why? There are multiple reasons, but one is the chance to spend time together—to have a shared experience. In her book, For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macauley explains it this way: “A family, a class, or any group that reads aloud has a sense of communion as they share together ideas and human experiences.” Reading together deepens our relationships through the many discussions that naturally occur during that time. The topics we talk about vary as much as the books we have enjoyed together.
Many homeschooling parents I know are as concerned with character development as academics. Let’s face it, what difference does all the knowledge in the world make when someone lacks the character to handle it well? Reading aloud, and discussing different topics that naturally come up, is a non-threatening way to talk with kids about worthy character traits we want them, and ourselves, to develop. Just as Jesus used stories to teach his disciples, we can use stories to teach our children. For example, when we read Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, we talked about Johnny’s struggle with pride and how he was humbled. We talked about how the prank of one character, Dove—a boy who was jealous of Johnny, and whom Johnny had looked down upon—ended with more severe consequences than he ever imagined. We’ve observed disobedience, selfishness, and fear in the lives of some characters, but we’ve also seen perseverance, courage, faith, and hope in the lives of others. We have seen how imperfect people can grow and change. Sometimes they are fictional characters and sometimes they are real, but all the people we have met through reading have affected us.
This year we have been reading biographies of inventors while working through Paths of Progress. So far our discussions have centered on three main topics: how these great men were able to overcome various obstacles in their lives, how their earlier circumstances influenced their accomplishments, and how they were able to learn, even without formal schooling, and then take what they learned and apply it in new ways.
The biographies featured in the Trail Guide to Learning Series show us how difficult circumstances and even tragedy developed the very characteristics that we remember people for today—the characteristics that allowed them to be successful. And that has given us the opportunity to talk about how we never know how God might use our present circumstances in our future endeavors. Samuel Morse’s desire to create a quicker way to communicate was born from both personal and national tragedies. Michael Faraday overcame a speech impediment with the help of a stranger he met on the streets of London.
I’m going to be honest here: my kids don’t always value the education they are receiving. Sometimes they even complain about doing schoolwork. I know—gasp! So reading biographies together has allowed us to talk about the fact that these men valued education to the point that they sought out opportunities to learn in ways we might not consider fun. Nathaniel Bowditch from Carry on Mr. Bowditch taught himself several languages by placing a Bible in the language he wanted to learn by his own. Then, he went through it verse by verse, comparing the two versions, to learn the new language. Michael Faraday learned through copywork, taking notes and drawing diagrams, going to lectures, talking with mentors, and corresponding with others interested in the same subject. All valuable ways we can learn today, too.
Noticing how these men learned about new things has inspired discussions about how to learn. Many copied passages from the books they were reading and developed relationships with those who were interested in the same things. We noticed how Morse first wrote down all he knew about subjects such as electricity and magnetism as he began to develop an idea for how people might communicate more quickly. Ben said “Well, he had a lot of time to think since he was stuck on a ship for months.” This, of course, lead to a discussion of how it takes time—quiet, uninterrupted time—to learn and to be creative. We talked about the importance of not filling up all our days at the expense of time to think.
I’m praying the lives of these great men speak louder than my words about how privileged we are to have education so readily available to us. I hope they can see that characteristics such as tenacity, perseverance, creativity, along with hard work are traits they, too, can develop. Like Faraday, may they—actually we —“stand on the shoulders of giants.”
My boys aren’t the only ones learning in this process. Through Michael Faraday’s mother, I have been confronted with the importance of faith and encouraging my children to pursue their God-given talents and interests. Yes, by reading with my children, I have learned probably more than they have. The discussions we have give me a window into my children’s minds. I have the privilege of hearing their perspectives and ideas. They have had some pretty amazing insights over the years, and, yes, there have been times I’ve had to ask “Did you even hear what I was just reading?” (Just want to keep things real here!) But whatever the responses are, we get to share it—together.