My friend and former colleague, the creative and awesome mother Susan (Ellsworth) Jaehn, offered this activity during an apple unit brainstorming session. I loved her idea. She suggested using a Venn diagram to examine the phrase “comparing apples and oranges.” Her children are older than mine, and there will be more take-away value in Susan’s lesson about idiomatic speech.

For us, I thought this was  a really solid, thematically fitting idea via which to introduce Venn diagrams. I don’t believe I encountered a Venn diagram until middle school, but why not teach Katie a useful organizational schema now? I strongly believe that content should often be secondary to paradigm in our home school. By this I mean: any content can be made interesting, and a truly curious, intellectually vital person will spend her life searching out new content to learn, regardless of how erudite or humble that particular knowledge may be. A curious student of life is curious about everything, and she will seek it out, either by pursuing new courses of study and/or by reveling in the constant mysterious beauty that surrounds all of us and setting her mind constantly to the questions of how and why. So content is abundant, it is everywhere and in everything, it is always at the ready—everything in life can be engaging.

Paradigmatic thinking, however, must be taught in order for the student to have something on which to hang the content. It is a device by which the curious student may begin to make connections between seemingly (yet really not—in my experience, all fields of knowledge, from poetry to physics, is deeply and beautifully connected) disparate fields of study. So paradigms and processes are the most important part of the curricula we teach at the McGaugh Academy.

The Venn diagram has long been a favorite of mine. It is elegant in its way, you know? This was Katie’s first experience with it.

An apple and an orange (I cut the orange so she could see inside of it better).

Making the Venn diagram… I made the first circle, and she made the overlapping circle.

Labeling the pieces

Our finished diagram… I wrote down what she said in the regions.

This was a highly successful lesson. I wondered, going into it, how much teaching might be needed to convey its function: would Katie understand the significance of the three regions?

It turned out that, not only did she understand it, but she practically intuited it after we had labeled the parts. I only said a couple of sentences about it…and she instantly understood how this device was to be used. She had no trouble at all determining where to put the similarities and where to write the contrasting points.

Later, I tested her authentic knowledge. I asked her what other things we might compare/contrast using the Venn diagram. She had several good examples. Then came the real test. I asked her to imagine a Venn diagram in her mind. One circle was labeled “Dumbledore” and one was labeled “Lord Voldemort.” (We finished the 6th book today, incidentally). I asked, “These characters seem very different, but what could we write in the middle of the diagram?” The middle is for similarities, and she responded, “That they are both the most powerful wizards.” Yes. Dumbledore is the most powerful good wizard, and Voldemort is the most powerful evil wizard.

So, Venn diagrams and character studies merging… This was an extremely satisfying day of preschool!

Then it was lunchtime:

Eric finished up his lunch listening to a lecture by Stanford professor and string theory superstar Leonard Susskind. Do I believe the kiddos really have any idea what he is talking about? Can they understand his discussion of the velocity of recession or black holes? Certainly not. How about the advanced mathematics (well, actually, not terribly advanced today—it hovered around some basic calculus for awhile, it seemed)? They are still working on counting to large numbers… So why have it on?

First, I don’t turn TV on much when they are awake during the day. That is why I hardly follow any prime time programs. I would have to DVR it, and I don’t want to have it on with the children awake for a variety of reasons. I do watch some TV after bed, sometimes, but it is enough of a squeak to fit in Project Runway (and I do LOVE Project Runway) when there are so many other fun things to be done after they retire for the night.

Sometimes, though, I do get in the mood for a little background noise, depending on my mood. In that case, I am most likely to put on the Food Network or something equally innocuous. I do love Peep and the Big Wide World, I must admit.

But the other day I was thinking: why not have something on in the background that has the real power to change their lives? Just as we talk, or listen to music, or listen to French and Spanish in order to have the children absorb different languages, I thought, let’s listen to the language of math and physics repeatedly. We know that at this age, children absorb language almost innately and intuitively. Why not give them a really awesome, really hard language? They must have heard the phrases “x-axis” and “Hubble constant” (along with others) several times in just one hour alone. What if, by a constant repetition of Leonard Susskind, we could equip Katie and Eric with this language? What if, by knowing the vocabulary and structure of this language long before ever encountering courses in calculus and physics, we could give them a distinct advantage of familiarity? I imagine, too, how being familiar with this language will also boost their confidence in those courses when those studies get really difficult. We do not have to be afraid of those courses, or of that language—this is our message to our children. It is a little experiment, my Susskind Conjecture.

So, a little shout-out to Leonard Susskind. I cannot believe I lived on his campus for four years and never mustered the courage to see one of his classes. Silly 20-year-old me. I should have gone, should not have thought I couldn’t, should not have been afraid of not being a virtuoso in his language… I want to give Katie and Eric the gift of knowing that they have the right to wander in whatever language and wherever their beautiful minds take them.

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