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Any Charlotte Mason fan worth their salt is familiar with the concept of narration–the oral or written demonstration of knowledge and understanding as an alternative to the “memorize, regurgitate, repeat” model of testing used by the majority of public school systems. Narration is a uniquely profound way to discover what your child has absorbed, retained, and taken a deeper interest in during your work together. However, it can sometimes feel awkward or stilted, especially early in the game when your children are young, or the concept of narration is new to them.
In the summer of 2015, I bought my first Brave Writer curriculum–a copy of Jot It Down–to use with my oldest daughter, then four years old. This beautifully flexible writing program is filled with ideas and wisdom that we continue to use today. One of the most useful nuggets is a passage on narration, which Julie Bogart (the creator behind the Brave Writer programs) calls “Big Juicy Conversations.” In this passage, Julie advises parents not to “wring narrations from your kids like water from a sponge.” Rather, she encourages them to think about these big, juicy conversations as an invitation to explore a topic together.
This more playful and organic approach to narration has proven extremely useful in our homeschool. Simply by grabbing opportunities to discuss, and more significantly to listen, whenever they arise, I am able to garner great insight into my children’s inner landscape. My youngest has surprised me more than once by suddenly bursting into questions and insights into things I didn’t think she was paying any attention to. My oldest has expressed interest in a number of investigations we initiated, wanting to go deeper. We’ve had big, juicy conversations about everything from math to chemistry to Little Women to the moral implications of killing the amoebas in river water by boiling it to drink.
These conversations are how I discovered that my youngest knew all of her letters and sounds at two and half years old, despite the fact that she skittered away from the table to play nearby every time I started working on them with my oldest. They are how I learned to steer our course in a much more “sciency” direction than I would have instinctively, because that’s what my daughters wanted. They’ve covered everything from what courage means to the changing states of matter to the survival requirements of isopods. I feel very confident about how my daughters are “doing academically” without the need to test, drill, or quiz them. I know where things are fuzzy, where the understanding is pretty solid, and where they want to go deeper–all because I make space for these conversations, encourage them to share when I see enthusiasm or excitement, and practice patience with them.
It’s not always smooth-sailing. As parents, it can be easy to get caught up in the pursuit of the elusive “defining evidence” that they’ve got it. We’re coaxing a narration about how counting by fives applies to nickels, but they keep talking about what they want to spend their nickels on. Or we’re encouraging them to talk about the sequence of the scenes in their favorite Harry Potter book but they keep going on and on about the funny part when Dudley falls into the snake tank. It can be an exercise in patience to let them reveal their knowledge on their own time, in their own way, and at their own pace. But it’s well worth it. Big juicy conversations allow for so much interpretation, so much outside the “question-answer” equation, so much room for individual contribution that a test, drill, or even a traditional narration activity could never provide.
Then there is the biggest benefit of all: the gift of listening. Homeschool is so many wonderful things, and one of them is the opportunity to develop a beautiful relationship of trust with your child. One of the best things we can give to our children is our undivided attention when they are sharing their thoughts with us, and that’s what big, juicy conversations do. They give them that. They tell our children that we are present, that we believe their thoughts are valuable and important, and that we are listening.
One of the easiest ways to start the practice of the big juicy conversation is to try to engage in one intentional conversation with each child, every day. Look for the organic opportunities for these by catching them in the middle of excitement, interest, or curiosity about something. Ask them questions that lead the conversation deeper, stay present (even when they’re circling the same detail again and again), and be receptive. I know that, for our little homeschool, these conversations have changed the game and I have no intention of ever looking back.
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