First Things First, Next Things Next
Whether you are educating children at home or at school, you’ve got to put first things first. God is first. Knowing God, loving God, serving God: these are first.
Elisabeth Elliot - missionary, author, and speaker - famously said that when we don’t know what to do, we should “do the next thing.” Of course, anyone working with children, and perhaps especially at home, knows that it is not always easy to determine what that “next thing” is, or ought to be! When I was home schooling my own four young children, it was a constant contest between “kitchen,” “laundry,” “bathroom,” “cooking,” and, yes, educating the children. I landed on my own protocol of sorting things out according to whether I could be teaching while it was happening (i.e. laundry, some cooking, etc.) Finally I adopted my personal priorities: Kitchen, a Load of Laundry in, Something into the Crockpot, TEACH.
But we started our day with an actual breakfast together – usually oatmeal or eggs – accompanied by a scripture verse and a praise to the Lord. Then: Morning Chores and Job Charts. Everyone’s morning chores were the same. They were the things meant to become “auto-pilot” – making the bed, getting dressed, brushing teeth and hair. Job Charts consisted of divisions of labor to make our home a setting in which we could think, read, write, study, and experience some degree of “shalom,” despite its being a small home with a big family. The Job Chart assignments changed and adjusted as our household needs evolved, and as each child grew in skill and responsibility. These jobs included the typical tasks like “unload dishwasher” and “feed the cat.” They also included tasks like “wipe out the bathroom sink” or “vacuum the mud room” or “sort laundry from the girls’ room” or “water the tomatoes.”
We gathered at the kitchen table by 9 a.m. and the house would be tolerable. I would have been an opportunist myself during Morning Chores and Job Charts, tackling those tasks that could be working on themselves as I prepped to organize and instruct my little flock. Then, we engaged with our studies.
It all sounds hopelessly old fashioned. We were actually pioneers at the time, since I knew no one else who was home schooling and it hadn’t yet become a “thing.” I home schooled my children with varying degrees of effectiveness and success, for about two decades. Then – ha! – I went into education in a more official way, teaching in a faltering little private Christian school, then teaching in a thriving private Christian school, then leading that school, and finally, devoting myself full time to establishing the Center for Redemptive Education. Not one struggle, not one experience, not one success and certainly not one failure was wasted: God used every one of them to forge what became Redemptive Education. I still draw on those decades of endeavor: of striving and rejoicing as I offer support to teachers and administrators, moms and dads who are dedicated to the quest to align with God’s design in their children’s education.
Whatever your school or your home school setting, whatever your particular circumstances, finding a simple basic protocol for how to approach your “next thing” can provide focus and clarity. In her children’s classic The Important Book, Margaret Wise Brown discusses common objects such as a spoon, or snow, or an apple. She launches the discussion by stating, “The important thing about a spoon is . . .” She then lists other things that are true about the spoon, but concludes the discussion by restating, “BUT the important thing about a spoon is . . .”
You might take this approach in figuring out what “the next thing” should be. What’s the thing that will mess up everything else if it doesn’t happen first? Or what’s the thing that’s going to “bite” you if you neglect it one more hour or one more day? What’s the thing you want to share with your children above all else? What’s “the important thing”?
If you are a teacher in a school or in your home, there are more “important things” to do than you can possibly accomplish! Rest in the fact of your limitations. Rest in the fact of God’s power made perfect in our weakness. Rest in the space between “Apart from Him I can do nothing” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Rest in the space between “He knows our frame, that we are but dust” and “He makes me bold with strength in my soul!” Put first things first; do next things next, and at the end of the day, or the week, or the semester, or the year, rest in this exhortation: Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
The Birds Anticipate Good Friday
Cacophony of crows marks the morning.
Tufted titmice invite
the errant “peter peter peter” to return.
Chickadees chide our unbelief;
doves predict our mourning,
while the pileated woodpecker
tattoos a reveille of resurrection
on a tree.
Spring seemed far as a myth
Til sudden against the sky a shift -
The tips of stark gray branches slip
Their sheathes; a rebel sparrow trills,
A sleek black slab of magpie cries:
All we lost
In the empty dark and aching chill
Of Winter is killed. It's true.
Now, in the new morning's sun
The cherry boughs burst their buds unafraid,
Blooming bold into the still-cold air,
Their incense a protest,
Heavy and sweet as justice,
Every pink and white tree in all
The jubilant parade
What Makes You Say That?
Adapted from Wind from the Sea: Essays in Redemptive Education, by Amy E. Imbody
Recently, I was talking with a mom who shared that in trying to cultivate communication with her introverted child, she has to invest two and a half hours of just “hanging-out-doing-nothing-special-time-together” before his responses move beyond, “Mm-hmm,” “Uh-uh,” or “I don’t know.” While initially tempted to feel impatient, eventually this wise mom realized that two and a half hours of quiet availability, with no press of expectation, no intensity of attention, are what it takes to convey to her introspective offspring her authentic readiness to share whatever he wants to share, whether companionable silence or soul-baring. Her demonstrated willingness to enter his silence is exactly what enables him to believe her interest in his soul-baring. But she has to be willing to receive either one - after two and half hours of what seems like “nothing much.”
With my four children, all it took was my turning out the light and sitting on the side of their bed for a few moments. The “goodnight routines” were not complete without the story, the prayer, the kiss, the attempted parental departure, and the urgent, “Wait, Mommy – can I tell you something?” Sure, it was sometimes an ingeniously manipulative plot to further forestall inevitable bedtime – but often it was the opening line of a six-year old’s tale of woe, a ten-year old’s account of adventure, a twelve-year old’s ponderings of perplexities, or a fourteen-year old’s existential angst. If I had not lingered, I’d have missed the whole story.
Some of you, however, cannot relate to either of my anecdotes because your child is perfectly happy to talk to you, to anyone, on any topic, on no topic whatsoever, all day long, all night long, in the car, in the store, in the church pew, in the yard and (so you hear) in class at school and you have no sympathy either for me or for the Wise Mom in my first account above. Stream-of-consciousness is your child’s modus operandi and you would like to encourage me and other mothers of introverts to thank our lucky stars for a moment’s peace and quiet. You wouldn’t mind a sentence or two of substantive dialogue, but the seemingly endless and possibly meaningless monologue coming from the back seat is about to drive you nuts.
Parents aren’t the only people facing challenges in this department. Teachers spend many hours every day either trying to get children to talk or trying to get them to stop talking. Both can be a problem.
But whether you find yourself teetering on the brink of two and half hours’ companionable silence or teetering on the brink of a tucked-in-child’s bedside story (again) or teetering on the brink of sanity because your child will not curtail her cheery if indiscriminate prattle, you may appreciate the counsel of the good folk from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In their fascinating book, Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners (2011) authors Ritchhart, Church and Morrison advise the use of a key question in the quest to stimulate and elevate both thinking and dialogue with children. This powerful question may transform “Mm-hmm” into elaboration, “uh-uh” into explanation, and “I don’t know” into exploration.
Are you ready for the Powerful Question? (Drumroll...) It is, as you might have guessed from the title of this article, the simple query:
“What makes you say that?”
I add to this two other effective tools for drawing out thinking and dialogue with children (and other people):
“Can you tell me about that?”
and the innocently uttered phrase:
“I wonder ...”
When Melissa says, “I hate this stupid book. I’m not gonna read it,” you quietly ask, “What makes you say that?”
“It’s stupid. I hate it. Ms. Fribble is making us read it and I hate it.”
“Can you tell me about that?”
“The other kids can read it but I don’t know what the words say. It’s stupid.”
“I wonder if Ms. Fribble has some other books you might read?”
“Well, she said we have to read it.”
“Hmmm... I wonder what she would say if you told her the problem.”
“Well, probably she would help me find a different book.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because she helped Lisa find a different book yesterday.”
“Can you tell me about that?”
“Lisa was mad and Ms. Fribble said what’s wrong Lisa and Lisa said this book is too hard and Ms. Fribble said really and Lisa said yes and Ms. Fribble said let’s see if we can find one that is just right for you and Lisa said OK.”
When Theo predicts during a science demo, “It’s going to sink! I know it’s going to sink in the water!” you extend his thinking and assess his real understanding by asking, “What makes you say that?” If he says, “Because everything sinks in water!” you can follow up with, “Tell me about that.” If he says, “Well, at least rocks always sink in water,” you are then in a position to hand him a piece of pumice and ponder, “I wonder if this one will sink?” and then, “I wonder why it didn’t?” and then, “I wonder how we could find out about that?” and when he looks it up in his rock book and shouts, “I know why!” you then say, “Can you tell me about that?”
Some of you may be bothered right now. You’re saying, “Yes, yes, yes ... that’s all very well. But what about ... you know...”
For the parents of the cheery Constant Commentators, let me just say that while use of these questions may not curb excessive talking, it is almost guaranteed to elevate its content to something you can tolerate for an hour at a time and possibly even enjoy. After that, and a goodnight kiss, you might just have to turn off the lights and run.