Thursday, November 12, 2015

Narration: Deceptively Simple, Extremely Powerful

There is nothing more simple than narration, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

It is simple, because you read a book to your child, and then you expect him to tell it back to you. There is no textbook, there are no comprehension questions. There is no script.

And yet, narration is not easy. It may not be easy for the teacher. She has to let go of the curriculum and the scripts and trust that reading and narration will be enough. She has to choose well-written “living” books full of ideas, not just facts. She has to stand back and let the learning happen…let the mind of the child meet the mind of the author without mediation from her. Narration also means she requires work from the child, and sometimes there is resistance to that work. Steadfastness in forming habits of attention and self-discipline in your child is also not easy.

Narration is also not always easy for the child. It requires attention, and hard work. In some ways it is natural. Any time your child comes running to you full of enthusiasm to tell you all about something, he is narrating. But narration is also a discipline, and there will be days he will not feel like paying attention or doing the work.

A Meeting of Minds

When you read a living book to your child (or he reads it himself), it is as if your child meets and forms a relationship with its author. The author’s enthusiasm is catching. The way he describes things captures your child’s imagination, because it has captured the imagination of the author. It is a direct relationship between your child and the author. It is not mediated by you, the teacher. Actually, it is your job to facilitate this meeting, but then to get out of the way.

Getting out of the way does not come naturally to us as mothers. We hover. We wonder if our child caught this or understood that. We explain and explain. We add teaching tools and gimmicks to capture their interest.  The author can hardly get a word in edgewise, and we do not realize that our children would be captivated if they could just spend some one-on-one time with him.

So how do you facilitate a meeting of minds without getting in the way?

You get to know the author’s mind yourself by pre-reading. This is not so you can now mediate that knowledge to your child. Now you know the author’s intent, and you know your child, and you are ready to facilitate that meeting!

You prepare your child for the meeting. The author uses some language that your child doesn’t know. Your child may not be familiar with the time and place the author is going to tell him about, and maps and timelines may be brought out. Sometimes a picture or two may be necessary. We recently had to look up pictures of cathedrals, as SA(7) had never seen one. You may need to prompt him to remember what came before and the context of what will be read today. Preparing your child does not mean beginning to tell him what the author is going to teach him directly.

Now comes the meeting. You read to your child (or have him read). Because you have prepared him, his mind is not distracted with questions like, “What does that word mean?” You are not interrupting the meeting of minds with further explanations. (I have to admit that this is sometimes easier said than done, but it is what we aim for.)

Immediately after the reading, you require your child to tell you about it. This requirement is essential in your role as teacher, and it is yet fairly passive. You listen to what he learned from the author without distracting him with questions and comments. You know that if he can formulate his thoughts and tell what he knows, he really knows it.

Sometimes, if no narration is forthcoming, you can prompt. This is not easy to do well. Your goal is, after all, for him to collect his thoughts and know and tell what he knows. I prompt by reiterating in one sentence what came before today’s reading, and ask, “Then what happened?” Often this is enough to get him started. If still nothing is forthcoming, I will say, “I remember something about (character, or event)…” If after all that, there is still nothing, I say, “If there is nothing you remember, I’ll go on.” Often he will suddenly have something to tell me at that point. SA(7) often needs a little time to collect his thoughts before he narrates. I prompt when I see that his attention has drifted from collecting his thoughts to something else. It is really just a gentle reminder to get back to his work.

In reading and narration, most of the work of learning has taken place. Then, and only then, is the time for questions and conversation about what was read. If you feel there was a major point that was missed, you can draw it out then with a question or an observation. I have to be very careful not to overdo it on the teaching with my son. Too much explanation really turns him off. Usually I don’t have to catch myself, though, because he lets me know! J

Why narration, and not comprehension questions? As soon as you ask a question or make a comment, your child’s attention shifts from the knowledge he has gained directly from the author and shifts to you, the teacher. It adds an additional (and distracting) consideration in his narration. Instead of just asking himself “What did I learn?” he has to ask “What did mom expect me to learn?” as well. That second question is much harder to figure out than the first, and it can cause the narration process to shut down. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have expectations, just that your part was to choose the book and prepare him well so that he could do the work of learning. I’m also not saying you have to completely let go of what you expected him to learn, just that you have to wait until he tells you what he did learn so you don’t distract him.

Recently, I took a detour from narration in our Bible lessons, using another method to teach. Today, we went back to narration. As we went through the simple process of reading and narration, I felt content. I knew that my son had learned something, that his hunger for knowledge was being satisfied. Contentment, mind hunger satisfied regularly...these keep me going when narration is not easy. They keep me from looking with longing at all the creative and colourful curriculum there is out there. Reading living books and narration are enough for me and my family. They are more than just enough. They are powerful and effective.