This is the eleventh article in the series How to Get an Elite Prep School Education on a Homeschool Budget.
More than ever, American society needs leaders who are well formed, not only academically and professionally, but also spiritually. Catholic homeschoolers are in a unique position to produce men and women of faith and integrity to meet this need, and support is available for this important task.
A great source of wisdom and inspiration is master teacher John Taylor Gatto who has identified fourteen themes that elite private schools use to prepare their students to take on leadership positions in the professions, business and government. You and I may not be able to swing the hefty annual tuition in private schools, but Catholic home schooling parents enjoy the freedom to integrate some or even all of Mr. Gatto’s themes into our home learning.
Among the British Upper classes, Gatto asserts, it was axiomatic that if persons could not accurately draw what they had seen, then they could not have actually viewed it properly. Drawing was seen as a way, not to kill time, but rather to sharpen perception.
John Taylor Gatto’s eleventh principle of elite private schools is to develop students’ ability to accurately observe what is around them, and to record their observations with precision. Children may “record” the results of their inspections in several ways, including recounting them orally, writing about them, or drawing them.
1. Observation and Recording during Preschool Years
Parents naturally work on this skill with preschool children, by asking them the name of body parts, for example. Expand vocabulary, improve observation and teach oral recounting by asking your toddler to describe his arm, for example, in greater detail: hand, finger (thumb and pinky), fingernails, knuckles, wrist, forearm, elbow and shoulder.
Ask him if his hand is bigger than Daddy’s or smaller than baby sister’s. A typical two or three-year old can certainly recognize a car. Now ask her to locate the windshield, steering wheel, glove compartment, tire, hood, engine, and trunk. Ask her what color the car is and if there are any other cars like it on your street.
Try to build detailed observation by teaching description and variety. If your child points to a pretty flower, identify it as a tulip or a pansy. Ask the child to describe it. It’s a pink tulip, or a pretty tulip, or a drooping tulip.
Get a picture book of from the library of local birds and look for them in your neighborhood. Again have a conversation with your children. The cardinal is red; it is building a nest; it is singing; it is lively. Use lots of prepositions. The robin is on the branch, or under it, or next to it.
Keep colored pencils, crayons and paper on hand, and when the nature walk is over, ask your children to draw the flower or the bird that you talked about. Press them to add more details. For example, “The cardinal was sitting on a branch, why don’t you draw that.”
2. School Years
Students learn simple paragraph writing in the second grade, so this is a good time to add descriptive paragraphs. Ask your child to look closely at your china cabinet, for example, and then draw a picture of it. Using techniques from English class, help the student write a short paragraph. Insist on close observations and a detailed description.
A 2nd grader should be able to note that the china in the cabinet is blue with a pattern of white flowers. They might describe wine glasses with a flower design cut into the glass, and write that there are three shelves in the cabinet.
By 4th grade, your student should be able to both observe more closely and record more details. Now they might describe the cabinet as made of dark wood with two glass panels on the door and three drawers beneath the glass.
They can identify the blue china as Wedgewood, with a raised white flowered pattern on dishes with scalloped edges. Wine glasses are made of etched crystal with an ivy design.
But I can’t even draw a stick figure!
Gatto stresses the desirability of drawing to observe and record, but many of us have little natural artistic ability and no idea how to teach this skill.
Seton Books sells videos made by Ginger Himes to help with this. If you are interested in adding drawing to your school day, not just as part of art class, but also to teach careful observation and recording, check out Ms. Himes’s offerings.
3. Speaking of Seton and Art
The beautiful reproductions of master paintings and stained glass windows in the Seton workbooks delight the eye while teaching students an appreciation for the best of Christian art as well as important religious lessons. Photographs of historic churches teach students to value Catholic architecture. An added educational advantage of these illustrations is the opportunity to look closely and study the details of each one.
For example, there is a lovely oil paint of the Education of the Virgin on page 1 of the third grade-spelling book. The Blessed Mother is a child, kneeling on a red cushion next to her elderly mother who is holding a scroll with Hebrew characters. St Joachim is looking over their shoulders and angels are watching from heaven.
Other women in the picture are working on what appears to be textiles, and fabric has spilled from a basket to the floor. One woman seems to be warming her hands over an unseen fire. What do we see that causes us to think that? The architecture looks more like a grand public building than a private home.
Focusing on visual details of paintings will help children develop observation and thinking skills.
Benefits Beyond Education
It is easy to understand how the ability to carefully observe and reproduce or recount observations is important to developing, not only excellent students, but also first-rate citizens and future leaders.
A successful professional, business owner, priest or religious, require the ability to carefully assess a situation by closely scrutinizing it. Then the lawyer has to be able to articulate the legal question, the priest the theological issue, the entrepreneur the business need.
People that have this aptitude will go far in life. It will come more naturally to some than others; nevertheless, it can be taught to everyone.
Elite prep schools teach it and so can homeschooling parents.