Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lighting Their Fires

My aunt suggested I read the work of inspiring teacher and author Rafe Esquith, and I was not disappointed when I read his book Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World .

Within the narrative of a nine inning baseball game field trip with five of his students, Esquith discusses nine concepts he thinks are important for raising kids to be extraordinary: time management, focus, television awareness, decision making, pride in work, empathy, humility, school, and delayed gratification. I know I need to work in several of these areas with my kids, and will be spending multiple blog posts on these topics.

I thought it was interesting that Esquith started his book with an emphasis on time management, because one of the things I love about homeschooling is not being on a schedule. A downside to this is that we don't always get to what I have planned for the day/week/year. (And by not always I mean rarely ever.) Bonnie and I have struggled with the issue of completing tasks on time, etc. Though we always start the day with a list of subjects and assignments we plan to cover, I don't usually include a time frame for any of the activities. As a homeschooler, it's very easy to stretch a school day well into the evening if other things have sprung up or if there have been unnecessary delays between subjects. Likewise, it's very easy to move something to the "tomorrow" pile because we're running out of time today.

I don't believe the above problem will disappear completely, (nor am I sure I want to abandon all of the free-spiritedness of our little homeschool experience) but with Esquith's suggestions, I do want to get more out of each day. He does an activity with his students on Friday afternoons to help teach them time management, and I've implemented a similar activity with Bonnie, so far with good results. Esquith sits down with his students and figures out how many hours they have until they will be back in class on Monday, then figures out how much is used by fixed activities such as sleeping, eating, homework, sports, free play, etc. Once time for all of those things are taken away from the total, he reveals the leftover time that can be spent "doing nothing" or used towards achieving excellence (reading an extra book, practicing an instrument, doing a community service, etc.) According to Esquith, extraordinary children learn to harness that extra time. (And it's not enough as a parent and/or homeschooler to tell the kids to do that extra work over the weekend, it's about showing the kids how that extra hour or two of violin practice can add up over the course of a month, year, and so on.)

Bonnie and I now do a similar activity in the morning before we start school. We start with the list I always had, and estimate (high) amounts of time for completing each subject on the list. Then we subtract that from the hours she has before bedtime. Next we take off time for eating meals, practicing piano (she finally started formal lessons in November), bathing, doing chores, watching a conservative amount of TV, and having lots of free play. Because I place a huge value on unstructured play, she probably has more built in to her days than Esquith's students, but I'm not certain. At any rate, after all of the above activities are completed, she has about an hour of time that is still unspoken for. She has so far used that time for reading above and beyond the hour and a half she already has assigned each day. An extra five hours of reading per week will have a huge impact by the end of the school year.

Most of the time on the weekends now, Bonnie has all free time except for family activities and a few chores. I've been hesitant to "assign" things to her over the weekend, because she and I really need a break from the teacher/student relationship after the school week. After reading this book, I do plan on sitting down with her on Friday afternoons like Esquith does with his students to help her make a game plan for herself. There are plenty of hours in the weekend for free time while still harnessing some of those hours for pursuing excellence in something. She almost immediately saw the benefit to using extra time for reading by finishing a book quickly. It will take a little longer to realize the benefit, however, of finding the time for two extra half hour piano practices a week.

An unexpected result of sitting down and doing these time activities with Bonnie has been a better personal awareness of time for me. For example, Tuesday I had 18 minutes after completing school activities before I needed to get in the car to head to my part-time job. Normally I would have used that time to look around on Facebook or "do something" online. That day I set the elliptical workout time for 18 minutes and had a mini-workout. And then later that evening, when I was exhausted I didn't have to find as much time for exercising, because I'd already done some of it that morning. In the evening, when all I really wanted to do was sit down with a book and go to bed, that little 18 minutes I saved meant a lot.

I've also been making a concerted effort to read more during the day. I read so much over the holiday break... it was wonderful! During the school week, it's just very hard for me to find the time for reading until late evening, and by then reading unfortunately makes me very sleepy. Now I am determined to find the time each day for it, because it's important to me. No, I'm not going to discover huge blocks of time to sit and read multiple chapters uninterrupted by my kids, but a few pages here and there between tasks add up by the end of the day, as Esquith shows with an example from author Stephen King, who was spotted on camera reading a book between innings at a baseball game: "When asked by a reporter why he was doing that, King answered that he could usually read eighteen pages during the game, but with Fox doing the broadcast, their longer commercials gave him time for twenty-seven!"

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