We as teachers depreciate ourselves and our office; we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend.
– Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education
I‘m prepping this week for my first Plutarch co-op class of the year. (We were supposed to start earlier this month, but sickness delayed our start.) Naturally, I’m using Anne White’s guide, The Plutarch Project Volume 1. We’re doing Philopoemen this time, a life I’ve never read before and so an adventure for me, as well!
Pre-reading and preparation are always the hardest for the first couple classes because I don’t really know my class yet. I don’t know what their speed bumps or road blocks are. What will trip them up along the way — slow down their understanding, or even bring it to a halt? What things get between them and the ideas in the reading? Here are a couple examples:
- Child A is completely distracted by unfamiliar big words. He insists on stopping the reading — raising his hand and demanding to know what the word meant. This leads us off track; some of the students have trouble picking back up with the story line by the time I’m done answering the question, but if I don’t answer the question, Child A will be the one not following the story.
- The life contains many persons with similar names who are closely related. As I read the story aloud, the main ideas and line of thinking are lost because no one knows who is whom.
There are a million ways for a lesson to get off track — for there to be a disconnect for one or more of the students. When you don’t know your class yet, it’s hard to predict where those are going to happen, and prepping often feels like shooting in the dark. I do the best I can, but with a couple weeks under my belt, I’m much more efficient.
When I think of pre-reading and preparation, I think of the guide part of the teacher’s role. If I were hiring a guide for a hike, I would have certain expectations of the guide. He would need to have traveled the path beforehand — he’d need to know the dangers along the way and how to avoid them, the sights to see and the best places to stand to observe them. Yes, I want to tackle the hike myself; I don’t want him to put me in a wheelbarrow and haul me up the mountain. And, yes, I want to see for myself; I don’t want him to stand before me and block that beautiful view. But I hired a guide and I expect my guide to know more than me and to help me navigate, even if it’s as simple as the admonition to watch my step.
You have to know your students.
As it would not be advisable to interrupt the reading too often in order to explain hard words, such should be introduced beforehand.
– D. M. H. Nesbitt, Parents’ Review Vol. 12
The need to know your students is the oft overlooked key to good pre-reading and preparation. Let’s take Child A above. He’s going to require a lot more vocabulary prep than your average student. Anne White’s guides are wonderful — she’s tracked down the meanings of the many archaic words in the text. Does this mean that I as the teacher have to go over every single word on the list during the lesson? No! (I’ve heard Anne herself say that she didn’t do that.) But the words and meanings are there if I need them.
Some students need zero vocabulary preparation. They are capable of gleaning the meaning from the context, exactly as Charlotte Mason said would usually happen. But Child A? He’s a different case. If I don’t want him interrupting during the reading, I’ll need to cover some words.
When you know your students, you can also prepare the length of the reading. With a class of all high schoolers who have been doing Plutarch for years, this probably isn’t necessary. But with a class of new fourth graders, the lesson needs to be divided into multiple readings so as to foster good narration. That’s one of the things I’m looking for as I read — where are the natural breaks, and do I need to stop there and take narrations for the sake of my class?
You have to know your subject.
Proper names are written on the blackboard; and, at the end, children narrate the substance of the lesson.
– Charlotte Mason, School Education
You don’t have to be an expert. I’ve been teaching Plutarch for six years and I’m far from expert. But just as the guide needs to know the path to qualify as a guide, so I need to have read the assignment, digested it, researched it, and generally prepared the lesson.
Remember the speed bumps analogy: it is only through reading and thinking our way through the assignment that we can answer the question of what is going to trip our students up (as well as be prepared for a good discussion post-narration).
When you pre-read and notice the messy family situation with all the convoluted names, you’ll know you need to map all of this out on a white board (or even better, a large sheet of paper). We have had a couple Plutarch lives where we built a family tree. With each reading, we drew lines noting who married whom, who died, who adopted whom, and who was referred to by a new name. If you keep the family tree map with you, you can refer to it with each class, and use it during your review time.
You don’t have to over prepare.
– Charlotte Mason, The Story of Charlotte Mason
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of pre-reading, especially if you have been mostly flying by the seat of your pants. I remember reading through Charlotte Mason’s early volumes and feeling so free — I wanted there to be no formal aspect at all. Let’s just read and narrate! Hurrah! Imagine my shock when I saw all the lessons at the end of School Education.
After I reconciled myself to the need for preparation, I decided homeschooling need not be as formal as classroom schooling. I prepare a lot more for my Plutarch class than I do for an average homeschool lesson. Group lessons require more because there are so many more needs to be met, so many more souls to watch over.
Clearing the path for an individual child can be simple. Last year, I assigned a biography of Gladys Aylward to Daughter A. When I pre-read it, I reached a chapter on Chinese foot binding. The book assumes you know what it is — it never explains or defines it. You can tell from the context that it’s a bad thing, but without some sort of definition, an ignorant person wouldn’t know why.
Did this mean my daughter needed a lengthy lesson on foot binding? Ha. No. All I did was write a note at the beginning of the chapter explaining briefly what foot binding was and the type of damage it did to feet. I didn’t make any judgments about it being “good” or “bad” because I knew she’d be able to draw her own conclusions from her reading.
Easy peasy, and it cleared the road for intelligent reading. Had I not done this, she either would have interrupted her own reading to come and ask me what in the world the book was talking about, or (and this is more likely) she would have read it without understanding and complained afterwards that the chapter was “confusing.”
Preparation must be fitting. It can be as elaborate as maps and complicated family trees, or as simple as a note written in the margins. We do what seems necessary, and nothing more. The purpose is simple: be a good guide and clear the path.