Something is different this year.
When we went through Cycle 2 three years ago, we were completing our first round through the cycle of Foundations memory work, and my eight-year-old daughter felt that she now understood all mysteries and all knowledge. Her hard-won memory master certificates stood alongside the chunky stacks of colorful, laminated memory work cards in mute testimony to the accumulation of facts and information. She was humble about her knowledge, knowing the intense effort invested in mastery, but she had the personal satisfaction of feeling that there was really nothing more to learn; it was all downhill from here.
For those first years, I had purchased the corresponding Classical Acts and Facts timeline cards and science cards with the thought that they would be a springboard for discussion and add a little depth to the information. Plus, they are gorgeous! Honestly though, as I gathered from her palpable lack of enthusiasm each time I pulled the cards out, I was the only one who was interested in them. She did love the rich images on the front, and those images were often helpful in recalling to mind a particular fact, but the paragraphs succinctly fleshing out the memory work on the back of the cards were of no interest. She was delighted to be spoon-fed the weekly memory work with little to no context. In fact, context often seemed irritating or burdensome to her. It sort of took the shine off a fresh piece of memory work. She wanted to master it, and there I was complicating it.
As I learned more about the classical model, I learned to respect rather than resent her preference in this matter. She was wholeheartedly devoting herself to the art of grammar, and it was appropriate that I not muddy the waters with expectations of dialectic discussion before she was ready for it. I quietly put the Classical Acts and Facts cards away, using them almost exclusively for my own reference.
After spending three days in history camp at our Practicum this summer, my now almost eleven-year-old daughter came home excited to pull out our old Cycle 2 materials. She enthusiastically asked me to test her on the memory work to see what she remembered from three years ago. I complied, warning her not to be too frustrated with herself if she had forgotten more than expected—after all, we have a whole school year ahead of us in which to review the information—but both of us were pleasantly surprised at how quickly most of the memory work came back to her.
When I asked her the first question from the science memory work regarding types of biomes, things began to get interesting. She got stuck on the term “biome,” not recalling what a biome was with certainty. She didn’t want me to list the types of biomes for her, however. She asked me to define biomes based on some of the information in the corresponding Classical Acts and Facts science card to see if that jogged her memory. I quietly marveled. That wouldn’t have happened last year, I thought to myself. Once she began to understand the term, and she had been able to successfully list the types of biomes, I expected that we would move on to the next question.
Instead, her brow furrowed. “How is a biome different from an ecosystem?” she wondered. We dug into the paragraphs on the back of the card to find out. The information there was helpful, but didn’t specifically answer that question. We decided we would work on that with our trip to the library planned for later in the week. Yet, she wasn’t completely satisfied because the card had mentioned that although the answer to the memory work lists seven types of biomes, more than those seven types actually exist. “Why would they leave some out?” she wondered. “And how did they decide which biomes to include and which to leave out in the answer?” she asked almost suspiciously. And then off she ran to her room. A minute later she returned with a nature reference book and an oversized atlas. The atlas helped to answer both questions. It turned out that the Cycle 2 memory work provided the most significant types of land biomes; the others not listed in the memory work were very specific variations on those broader terms. That made sense. She seemed to be satisfied. I flipped to the next card.
I was arrested by another query. “Why doesn’t the question say it’s only asking about land biomes? The answer doesn’t list any water biomes, so they should have said they were only talking about land,” she mused. “And there’s way more water on the earth than land, so I bet there’s tons of water biomes.” I told her I bet she was right and we would have to look into it. I explained that the memory work provided isn’t exhaustive, and shouldn’t be. It’s provided to build a foundation that will support further research and exploration. I showed her the next questions with terms like “omnivores” and “decomposers” and “natural cycles” and I asked her to imagine reading a book that included those terms and having to stop to look each one up. Would the reading be fruitful and engaging or frustrating and exhausting? Would she be moved to do more research on the topic, or would she feel like giving up if every page were peppered with completely unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts?
She could see my point, but felt an internal resistance to the idea that the information contained in the entirety of the three cycles was somehow incomplete. It had felt so comprehensive and all-encompassing. Yet she herself could see its limitations. I was watching a paradigm shift take place right in front of me. She decided to explore the nature reference book to see what it might have to say about biomes, and discovered that—as the shading on the atlas had indicated—similar creatures live in the deserts of Africa, the American southwest, and Australia including varieties of those adorable, large-eared foxes. That was pretty neat. Okay, we had exhausted the materials at hand on the topic of biomes. She was ready to move on.
When I asked her to list the natural cycles, she hesitated. “What? Do you mean like photosynthesis?” she asked. I told her that was a great guess and said yes, like photosynthesis, but explained that the memory work uses a different term for the same process, referring to it as the carbon and oxygen cycle. She didn’t remember hearing it referenced that way before, but we agreed that this term could be helpful in recalling what photosynthesis accomplishes. Then her eyes narrowed. “They had better include the water cycle,” she almost growled. I assured her that the water cycle was included. She was relieved and her faith in the memory work seemed to be restored. Then she wondered what other natural cycles could be listed. Photosynthesis and the water cycle were the only two she could think of. The third cycle, the nitrogen cycle, turned out to be unfamiliar to her. I asked her what she thought took place in that cycle and she wasn’t sure. We agreed that we would focus on exploring that particular natural cycle when we came to that week of memory work during the school year. She was glad to find a piece of memory work she didn’t feel she had outgrown. This one challenged her and invited her to dig deeper; it provided that old sense of fullness, of lacking nothing. This felt comfortable.
As we moved along and came to a question on stars—a recent fascination of hers—she marveled that yes, the list of types of stars was correct, but yet there was so much more to know. We exclaimed together over the fact that scientists can pursue doctorates in researching one very specific question about just one type of star. She began to see the possibilities. This question could be a springboard to reading in more depth about dwarf stars or novas. The list of stars wasn’t a list of answers; it was actually a list of questions. She was excited.
We began to talk about how we could plan out her school year based on the science memory work, selecting topics from each week that she wanted to research more fully. Then she stopped abruptly, remembering that there are seven subjects worth of memory work for each week. Suddenly, the Foundations memory work seemed exhaustive again as she realized she would have to limit herself; she couldn’t possibly go into depth for every term, topic, or individual referenced each week. For instance, in one week she certainly wouldn’t be able to read a biography of each of the five rulers listed in the question about the age of absolute monarchs. She would have to make choices and prioritize.
I think we have an exciting year ahead of us as she forges a new relationship with the memory work. This time through Cycle 2, she is unwilling to simply repeat an answer back to me without comprehension, but is beginning to wield the tools of dialectic to sharpen her understanding of both the question and the answer. In fact, without knowing it, she was using the five common topics to navigate her way through unfamiliar territory. She wanted to define biomes, compare them to ecosystems, explore the relationship between animals in the same biome across continents, establish that land biomes exist within the context of the earth which also includes water biomes, and confirm her opinions and findings with credible authorities—the Classical Acts and Facts science cards, the reference book, and the atlas.
We are off to a great start on our second trip through Cycle 2, and I can’t wait for all of the exploration and conversations that it holds.