A few years ago, I handed my two eldest children their very first math test. They sat together, side by side, and commenced. Within moments they were wriggling in their seats and soon the little game of “oops, I dropped my pencil” began. I asked them repeatedly to sit still, focus, and finish–to no avail. After an hour had passed the last answer was finally recorded. The boys were frustrated and cranky, I was overwhelmed and wondered what on earth I would do once they were middle school age. This pattern repeated itself throughout the fall of that year until we broke for our usual Advent rest.
Throughout Advent we would sit by our little electric fireplace (We don’t need a real one down here!) and read for long periods of time. One day my second born brought out paper and crayons after reading time and he began to draw the first story I read some forty five minutes earlier. I knelt beside him and asked him to tell me the story. Never taking his eyes off his work, he relayed the story with remarkable accuracy and feeling. Sure, he left a few things out, but I was amazed by all he recalled. He was able to narrate with greater depth and accuracy while drawing than when standing at attention during his narration lesson. His eyes and hands had purpose now and were no longer roaming about the room while he spoke.
This was the birth of our Friday Exam, though the children call it something else. Months of observing and adjusting and tweaking eventually produced our current methodology.A way to evaluate our children in a joyful and creative way.
I begin by covering our table in butcher paper (our roll has lasted a few years). I set out pastels, beeswax crayons and any other useful or necessary visual aides. Then I DO NOT say, “Come and take a test.” The word test is not used. Cuz… yuck.
I invite the boys over and say something like, “Lets chat a while” or “Show me…” or “Tell me about…”
Then they begin to draw their favorite concepts and ideas from our week of study. They love jumping in with something that excites them to get their creative juices flowing.
While I have them engaged and eager, we work through our drills and memory work. Perhaps they will recite a poem or passage from scripture they have learned, or they will work through their classical conversations memory work. Oftentimes I will have them spell words aloud (which is the best practice for my eldest son who is visually disorganized) or I will dictate ONE FAMILIAR sentence for them to write out next to their drawings. Then we move onto science. We are studying biomes this year under MFW Exploring Countries and Cultures scope and sequence. The boys draw the biome and relay its characteristics and then they get to make up a story about one animal that lives in the biome. I love hearing their creative storytelling! If the story gets off-track, I gently reel it back in by asking a question. Ultimately, I am looking for 3-5 facts about the biome and 2-4 facts about the animal. They have grown better at this over time. Next the boys will illustrate a scene from our family read aloud and we will discuss it. This is not a time for heavy handed literary analysis! We try and relate to the story, ask questions, work through difficult concepts or spend time comparing what we have processed to what scripture says. We are growing taste, discernment, and insight.
History, anatomy, botany, geography, art—we touch on a variety of subjects during the week with our “chase the spark” method and the place where I really see the full tapestry of their work is during Friday exam. It is always ENCOURAGING to me. Imagine that! An exam that brings consistent encouragement? Now, if there is a lull, which can happen from time to time depending on energy levels, sugar intake, will power of the preschooler to ignite anarchy or current lunar calendar, I will pick up a pastel and draw something and they have to guess what it is and then we discuss it. I cap the exam off after an hour. No need to strain every bit of information out of their heads. I want the children to leave feeling confident and happy and full, the same way they leave the dinner table each evening, that is what I aim for when they depart after their exam. I praise them for their work that week. We do not address any misbehavior or disappointments, that happens at another time. We end on a high note, praising what they did well so that they go into the weekend feeling encouraged.
As the exam progresses I take notes and once the boys leave I take more. These notes provide highlights from the exams and I am always sure to record what their current interests and delights are. I also jot down areas of struggle or things we need to revisit, perhaps in a new light or meshed in with one of the things they are currently enjoying.
The exam is not given to determine what they do not know. I already know what they do not know because my class is SMALL and I am with them everyday. Why give them a test I know they will not do well on? What does that accomplish? There is no room for a red pen and a bell curve here. Neither is the exam a way to ensure that everyone knows the same thing. As whole persons with unique souls, minds and hearts, the boys are naturally drawn to different aspects of subjects at different times—unstandardized! One brother may absorb his 11 times table rapidly through rote memorization at the beginning of term, another brother may embrace it six months later in song or story form. One brother will look at the Eiffel Tower and be drawn to its structure–the physics and mechanics of wind and steel. Another brother will look at the Eiffel tower and relate to the story of the man behind its creation, its history, and patriotic value. Both children have learned truth, goodness and beauty in ways that cannot be determined by bubbles or multiple choice. I do not need a paper trail to demonstrate who my children are becoming.
Can a person spend his childhood savoring knowledge, gaining wisdom and cultivating a lifestyle of intellectual growth without the presence of thousands of one dimensional tests marking the way? Yes. Yes, of course he can. There is more than one way to demonstrate competency just as there is more than one way to educate a person.
This is not to say that my children will never take a “normal” test. I am sure as the years pass we will have occasion to take a few. But for my children, especially in their tender growing years, I see little need, purpose, or joy in issuing tests for each subject every ten lessons.
So we unroll the paper and cover the table where we our minds and hearts meet throughout the week. A button is pressed and music floods the room. We spill pastels upon the table and with the guidance of our hands they convey the treasures we have gleaned that week. We laugh and color and sing and recite and tell and share and discuss. It is not a time for fear or nervousness. Its a time for joy and celebration and the formation of new questions.