Susan C. Anthony

What Your Elementary Child Really Needs to Know Transcript


This is Susan C. Anthony speaking.  Welcome to my workshop on what your elementary child REALLY needs to know.  It was prepared for a Christian homeschool audience, but I welcome anyone who teaches to listen and take from it what you can use in your situation.

About Me

SusanA little about me, so you know who’s talking

I grew up in the Colorado and always wished I was a boy, because the Boy Scouts got to spend more time in the wilderness and go camping, whereas we Girl Scouts learned to cook.  I still can’t cook, but my husband made all my adventure dreams come true so now I’m perfectly happy to be a girl.

I moved to Alaska in 1979 and  taught for ten years with the Anchorage School District before resigning to write books and spend time with my husband who was retired.  For awhile, I traveled and spoke at home school conventions around the country, but Alaska is a long ways from anywhere and we love it here, so I’m happy to put everything on the web site so people can access it from anywhere, anytime without me having to travel.  I am an idea person and I love sharing ideas that worked for me, to hopefully make your teaching more rewarding.  I’ve always loved education.  One way I can continue to contribute to the younger generation is by assisting and encouraging people on the front line, like YOU.


My goals in this session are to:

  • Take a step back to look at the big picture.
  • Share information to help you prioritize.
  • Encourage you to view "failure" as opportunity.


A handout is available for free download on my web site.  I won’t follow the handout point for point and it contains some things I won’t talk about at all, so I encourage you to print it out and take a look at it.  On the first page here, I listed my four top priorities, some of God’s priorities with Scripture references, and the five basic questions kids need to have answered before they graduate and enter the world as adults.

The second page summarizes learning objectives for reading and language as well as mathematics.

The third page outlines what I call the “flesh and bones” curriculum.  Bones provide structure and flesh is more free-flowing.  I organized my schedule around this concept, and I’ll talk more about it in this workshop.

The last page has a list of ideas for cross-curricular units. To make these summary lists, I went through standardized tests, scopes and sequences, everything I could find about what kids need to learn or at least be familiar with by the end of 6th grade.  I’m not an authority.  I just put together what I could find to hopefully save you some trouble and give you some guidance.

Why this Workshop?

You’ve probably seen the Calvin cartoon that says, "God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things.  Right now I am so far behind I will never die." Boy that’s me.  Sometimes it seems the harder I work, the behinder I get. 

Why this Workshop?  Well, as a teacher, I was constantly frustrated by expectations.  Every year I was asked to teach more content and curriculum.  Every year students came to me less prepared.  I had to prioritize to stay sane.

In 1998, I was assigned to 4th grade after a year in 6th grade.  I was amazed to see that the math books were almost identical.  There was an additional chapter or two at the end of the sixth grade book!  Maybe the reason my 6th graders couldn’t add was because their former teachers zoomed through addition and pushed them into multiplication before they were ready.  They’d succumbed to the tyranny of the texts.  One year when I was tearing my hair out reviewing addition with fourth graders, I walked by a second-grade classroom and overheard the teacher talking about multiplication.  I had a little talk with her.  She said she felt parental pressure to move on long before she felt her students were ready.  She appreciated my feedback.  It gave something to tell those parents who were pushing her to move faster.

I think a lot of the push in the younger years has more to do with parent’s bragging than with what’s best for the kids.  “My first grader is studying algebra!”  Oooh! thinks another parent.  That must mean my child is way behind!  I’m exaggerating, of course, but it’s not as much of an exaggeration as I wish it was.

Many people claim that what kids need more than anything else is self esteem.  From self-esteem, they think, will come accomplishment. 

I found this Calvin cartoon in a newspaper in the teacher’s lounge my last year of teaching, and it hit home.

Hobbes:  Aren't you supposed to be doing homework now?
Calvin: I quit doing homework. Homework is bad for my self-esteem.
Hobbes: It is?
Calvin: Sure! It sends the message that I don't know enough! All that emphasis on right answers makes me feel back when I get them wrong. So instead of trying to learn, I'm just concentrating on liking myself the way I am.
Hobbes: Your self-esteem is enhanced by remaining an ignoramus?
Calvin: Please! Let's call it "informationally impaired."

Calvin:  See, Hobbes, we shouldn't need accomplishments to feel good about ourselves.  Self-esteem shouldn't be conditional.  That's why I've stopped doing homework.  I don't need to learn things to like myself.  I'm fine the way I am.
Hobbes: So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they're already met?
Calvin: Right. We should take pride in our mediocrity.
Hobbes: Remind me to invest overseas.
Calvin: I think that snowman is good enough, don't you?

That line, Lower your expectations to the point where they’re already met, was what I was feeling pressure to do.  I knew at some level that I wasn’t doing anyone any long-term favors, but the pressure to lower standards was unrelenting.

When I first started teaching, my standards were in the stratosphere.  The kids fell short.  I lowered my standards.  The kids fell short of the lowered standards, too.  I lowered them again.  The kids still fell short.  I noticed a pattern.  No matter how high or low the standards were, the kids fell short.  But when the standards were high, they learned and accomplished a lot more objectively, even though they still fell short of the standards.  I tried an experiment one year.  I wanted to see if I could lower the standards to the point where all kids reached them and the answer was no.  Even when the homework assignment was to bring me a piece of paper with their name on it, some kids didn’t do it.  I decided I might as well maintain high standards because the kids learned more even though they fell short.

Not only that, self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  I was interested to find this article that was published some years ago in the journal Psychological Review  (Psychological Review. 1996 Jan;103(1):5-33. Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: the dark side of high self-esteem. Baumeister RF, Smart L, Boden JM.)

Conventional wisdom has regarded low self-esteem as an important cause of violence, but the opposite view is theoretically viable. ... Violence appears to be most commonly a result of threatened egotism—that is, highly favorable views of self that are disputed by some person or circumstance.  Inflated, unstable, or tentative beliefs in the self’s superiority may be most prone to encountering threats and hence to causing violence. 

Wow, I thought.  By succumbing to pressure to pump up kids’ self esteem, I might actually be contributing to criminal behavior in some of them.  That REALLY got me thinking.  I changed my focus from self-esteem to self-confidence.  There is a difference.  I want kids to have confidence in their ability to face challenges and overcome obstacles.  I want them to learn to persevere through discouragement and failure and to believe in themselves based on something real.  Self-confidence that’s based on objective accomplishment leads to healthy, realistic self-esteem. 

So why is there so much pressure to teach more and more in less and less time? One reason is the information explosion.  More information was generated between 1960 and 1990 than in the previous 5,000 years.  Since the 1980s, information has been doubling every five years.  People have more choices available.  When everyone is bigger, stronger and faster, there's pressure to become even bigger, stronger and faster.

The information explosion was actually prophesied in the Daniel 12:4.  Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased (explode).

Here’s one comment by a scholar at the University of London (Brian Holmes, 1987):

So great, indeed, has been the explosion of man’s knowledge that everywhere one of the most serious problems facing teachers is that of selecting, from an enormous stock of information, what is worth preserving and handing down.  Each society makes a decision on the basis of its educational aims.

One thing that’s interesting about this quote is that it was written way back in 1987, before the Internet, when life was comparatively simple.

What's Worth Preserving and Handing Down?

So what is worth preserving and handing down to the next generation?  To answer that question, I did some research and a lot of thinking.

What is the purpose of education?  It depends on your philosophy, but I say one purpose is to transmit culture, to pass on the values and body of knowledge that adults of a group know and assume others know.

These days, with the multicultural movement, there are heated battles about which culture should be passed on.  In the old days, immigrants from anywhere to America were expected to adapt to American culture and become Americans, regardless of their heritage.  That is no longer the case.  One teacher said it this way:  First there was the melting pot, where everybody came together from all over and became one.  (e pluribus unim, meaning “out of many, one” is our national motto).  Then America changed to be a kind of stew, where you could still see the difference between carrots, potatoes, and so on.  Now it’s a salad, where everyone keeps their unique heritage and it’s all tossed together.  She thought that was a good thing, but historically speaking, it’s a recipe for conflict.

One’s philosophy of education helps clarify what is worth passing on.  Some people believe teachers should “educe” or draw out knowledge that is inborn, others believe teachers should instill, or put in, knowledge.

In looking at a variety of textbooks, I was dismayed.  There was WAY too much in every textbook than anyone could teach or learn in a school year!  There were lots of activities to teach every objective and there were SO MANY objectives!  It makes more sense to me to use every activity to teach a lot of objectives.

Scope and Sequence documents had the same problem texts did.  Way too much, way too soon.  I found no help there in sorting out priorities.

Standardized tests are often designed to spread kids out over a normal curve.  In order to separate the most brilliant kids from the merely brilliant kids, they HAVE to ask questions they don’t expect most kids of that age to be able to answer.  It’s tempting to think that if there are fractions problems in a third grade standardized test, your kids should know fractions by then.

It was very interesting to look at what employers want to see in an educated worker.

  • Work cooperatively with fellow employees (only 57% of entry-level workers were reportedly able to do that)
  • Desire to learn more and capable of doing so (46% could)
  • Deal well with those under them (42%)
  • Dress and behave well (only 39% of workers did so)
  • Have a good attitude toward supervisors (39%)
  • Able to read and understand directions (33%)
  • Able to concentrate on long-term projects (30%)
  • Give all they have to the job they are doing (25%)
  • Capable of doing arithmetic functions (only 25% could adequately add, subtract, multiply and divide)
  • Disciplined in their work habits (19%)
  • Able to solve complex problems (10%)

These are some very basic things that have more to do with a person’s character and work ethic than with academic knowledge.  Employers of entry-level workers in a different survey complained that workers lack vigilance, the ability to focus and concentrate, patience, perseverance, and the ability to draw on past knowledge and apply it.  Above all, they lacked a work ethic. 

So that is something your kids really need to know, how to work!  To succeed, they need a work ethic.

I also looked at what other people said was important, particularly E.D. Hirsch, the author of Cultural Literacy.  My mom sent me this chart of what E.D. Hirsch says kids should know at various grade levels.

  • Kindergarten:  Native American peoples; counting 1 to 31, the seven continents.
  • First grade:  Early civilizations in Africa and Mesopotamia; Christianity, Judaism and Islam, three states of matter.
  • Second grade:  The United States Constitution, civil rights, the 50 states, cells.
  • Third grade:  Ancient Rome, the 13 colonies, classification of atoms, muscular and skeletal systems.

I have to admit I didn’t know anything about early civilizations in Africa and Mesopotamia in first grade. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that important for first graders to know.  They need to learn how to read.

It seemed to me that Dr. Hirsch made a comprehensive list of what adults in America need to know, then divided it into twelve equal piles, one for each grade level.  In fact, taking time to lay strong foundations pays huge dividends in the long run.  Pushing kids through accelerated curriculums can backfire, not with all kids, but with most of them.

A big question to consider when deciding what’s most important for kids to learn is what will the future hold?  We can only guess.  Here are some guesses people made in the past about their future, which is our present.

  • The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.  —President of Michigan Savings Bank, 1902
  • Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months.  People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.  —Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946
  • What use could this company make of an electrical toy?  —William Orton, president of Western Union, rejecting Alexander Graham Bell’s offer to sell his struggling telephone company
  • There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.  —Kenneth Olson, President and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
  • Everything that can be invented has been invented.  —Charles H. Duell, U.S. commissioner of patents, 1899
  • I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years.  Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions.  —Wilbur Wright, 1908

It’s probably safest to avoid making predictions because the future will more likely surprise us than meet our expectations.  We want kids to be flexible, and know HOW to learn.  The odds are good they’ll need to continue learning and adapting to new situations throughout their lives.  Do what you can to prepare them to adapt to new situations and roll with the punches.

Of course, as Christians, we should always check out what God has to say before making important decisions.  What does the Bible say is most important for kids to know?

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  —1 Corinthians 2:2

For Christians, your #1 priority is the eternal salvation of your children.  You can’t push any decision on your kids. They’re individuals who will make their own decisions.  But you can teach and nurture them, and most important, be a living example for them to follow.

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  —2 Peter 1:5-8

2 Peter 1:5-8 almost sounds to me like a scope and sequence.  Most important of all is faith, which we’ve already mentioned, then goodness.  A person who has knowledge without goodness can be more dangerous or criminal than an ignorant person.  Instill goodness in your children, to the best of your ability. Teach them to care about those less fortunate than themselves.  Emphasize the value of servant leadership.  Knowledge is power, and power can be good or bad.  That’s why goodness is of higher value than knowledge.  To knowledge add self-control, and to self control, perseverance,

Self-control, which could also be called self-discipline, is one of the most important things your child needs to know.  It will give him or her the ability to persevere through thick and thin.  Remember what employers said was lacking in too many of their entry-level employees?  Self-control, self-discipline, perseverance,

Next on the list is godliness, brotherly kindness and love.   Notice that kindness comes before love!  In other words, kindness leads to love, not the other way around.  A sage once said, “Act as you would like to be and soon you will be the way you act.”  Teach your kids to love by appreciating them for being kind.

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.  —1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 talks about the value of work in God’s estimation.  Work allows people to depend on themselves, not others, for their needs, and gives us an opportunity to win respect from outsiders.  One thing your kids really need to know, though not necessarily in the elementary grades, is what they want to do in their lives as far as gainful employment.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  —Mark 12:30-31

The great commandment in Mark 12:30-31 is the most important thing of all.  LOVE God.  Love people.  Love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and put hands and feet on that love in this world.

Priorities Depend on Purpose

Our priorities depend very much on what we perceive to be our purpose.  Without purpose, life automatically defaults to being about pride or about pleasure.  Most people are primarily motivated by the desire to look good or to feel good.  Most people long for their lives to serve a higher purpose.

We are all going to face death someday.  We need to know what is worth dying for, or we won’t know what is worth living for.

I’ve had a goal most of my life not to have regrets.  I don’t want to regret doing something that I shouldn’t have done.  I don’t want to regret not doing something that I should have done.  If I make a bad decision because I don’t have all the information I need to make a good one, I’m OK with that, as long as I did what I could reasonably do to get the information I could.  No regrets, even if I’d do something differently knowing what I know now.

Your child needs to find his or her purpose in life.  According to the Bible, a central purpose of life on earth is to choose our authority.  Will God be our authority, will we be our own authority, or will submit to some other authority.

Some years ago, a long-term study of child geniuses was conducted to see how the most brilliant youngsters fared in life.  Here’s what they found:

Exceptional intelligence doesn’t guarantee extraordinary accomplishment.  Instead, it seemed clear that what distinguished spectacular achievers from low achievers was that the former were focused on their purpose in life.  —Stanford University study

Low achievers with purpose can blaze past high achievers with no purpose.  Intelligence is a blessing, but it’s less important than we might think.

Crazy linesLineupI hate to say it, but when I first saw this, it reminded me of my life.  So many details pulling me this way and that, tangling me up.

Compare that to what's on the right.  Once we are committed to a larger purpose, the details in life start to line up.  You might think of iron filings on a piece of paper.  When you put a magnet under the paper, the filings line themselves up in response to the force they feel.

Which of these two has power?  Which moves?  Clearly the second one.  As human beings, we will never have perfect integrity.  Only God has perfect integrity. The more our thoughts match our words and the more the words match our deeds, the better.  Purpose simplifies and enriches life.  It helps us have integrity it gives us power.

This verse can help us achieve balance in our educational efforts.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 
—1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Let’s talk about heart, soul, mind and strength.


First of all, we are to love and honor God with our bodies.  The Greek word for body, as distinct from mind and soul, is “soma”. 

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, whom you have received from God.  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.  —1 Corinthians 6:19-20

This covers the subjects of physical education and health.


We are to love and honor God with our souls as well as our bodies. The Greek word for soul is "psyche".  It includes a person’s mind, heart and will, his or her thoughts, emotions and choices.

Mind:  Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  —Romans 12:2

Heart:  I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.  —Ezekiel 11:19

Will:  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.  —1 Peter 2:13

You aren’t just to educate your child’s mind, you’re to educate his heart and will as well.  The mind is sometimes called the cognitive domain and the heart is called the affective domain.  Strive for balance.

Just an aside here.  The all-important salvation decision is not made with the mind or the heart, but with the will.  People can be intellectually convinced God is real but not be saved.  People can have a spiritual high and a great feeling about God but not be saved.  The key to salvation is the choice to submit yourself to God, to align your will to His will, to submit yourself to His authority.  God tells us to submit ourselves to authorities instituted among men, and that includes parents.  You can’t force your kids to submit to you, but one of the things they really need to learn is that submission to earthly authority honors God and benefits them.  Those who submit to righteous authority gain the trust of their authority and with it a lot of freedom. 

Kids might scream “It’s not FAIR” and they may even be right. Those in authority will answer to God for how they wield that authority.  If an authority does something unfair, he will answer for it to God.  If we are under authority, we will answer to God for our submission or lack of it.  I teach kids how to respectfully approach me with grievances, because though I have the authority, I’m not always aware that something’s bothering a child.  Sometimes I’m perfect happy to change something they don’t like.  Their attitude is the issue, not their right to respectfully request change.  If you think about it, even God invites us to respectfully request change, through prayer.

You might have a child with a very strong will, or, more likely, a very strong WON’T.  A strong will can be an asset or a liability in life, depending on how it’s directed.  In programs to select Army Rangers, Navy SEALS, and other special operations groups, what the authorities look for is an iron strong will.  Don’t despair if your child is strong willed.  Just keep on keeping on and be as consistent as possible.  Patiently and persistently do what you can to direct and train that will. It may end up being a great blessing in the long run.


May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  —1 Thessalonians 5:23

The Greek word for spirit is “pneuma” which also has the meaning, breath or wind.

Not everyone agrees that the soul and the spirit are distinct things, but it seems clear to me that souls (minds, emotions, wills) can be either saved or lost. Spirits, by contrast, are dead on arrival in this world.  It takes an act of God to breath life into them.  As humans, we can’t possibly tell where soul ends and spirit begins, but God knows.  According to Hebrews 4:12, there is a difference between soul and spirit.  It says, “The word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.”

Spiritual education includes Bible study and regular prayer.  As disciples of Christ, Christians must discipline themselves to do what He says.  Have you ever noticed the relationship between the words disciple and discipline?

Instill good habits in your children from the youngest ages.  Habits are hard to break, whether good or bad.  Make them good and you’ll have done your children a huge favor that will serve them all their lives.

Setting Priorities

In the course of setting priorities, we have to know four things:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How fast do we have to get there?
  3. Who's in the driver's seat?
  4. What's the power source?

These four questions apply to a lot of things.  If I’m going to a luncheon, for example, I have to know where I’m going and what time I need to be there.  My speed en route depends on what time I leave home, so I need to leave in time not to have to speed.  I need to know who’s going to be in the driver’s seat (me), and what will be the power source to get me there.  In this case, gasoline in the car, which means the tank needs enough gas to get me to my destination. 

RobertoI’ve mentioned Roberto in some other workshops.  Roberto was a top competitor for years in Alaska’s Iditasport, which takes place before the Iditarod sled-dog race along the same trail.  Racers choose either skis, bicycles or foot and snowshoe, then set out from Anchorage and travel more than 1000 miles to Nome through some of the wildest wilderness on earth.

The interesting thing about Roberto is that he is invariably in last place for the first several days.  He was 56 years old when this photo was taken.  He just plods along at a comfortable pace. Other racers go zooming off like hares to his tortoise.  But this is a marathon, not a sprint.  It’s no advantage at all to be first early on.  One by one the other racers tire or lose heart.  Roberto plods on past them and wins the race.

  1. Where is he going?  To Nome, Alaska, 1100 miles away.
  2. How fast does he have to get there?  Record time is 22 days, 6 hours, 6 minutes.  No hurry, but he has to keep going.
  3. Who's in the driver's seat?  Roberto.
  4. What's the power source?  Food!  That's what's in the little sled he's towing.

Where Are You Going?

To do a good job, you have to know where you're going.  For that, you need to clarify your philosophy.  I have a whole workshop on philosophy so just listed the five basic questions here.

  1. Who am I?  (What is the nature of man?)
  2. Where did I come from?  (Am I here on purpose or by accident?)
  3. Why am I here?  (What is the purpose of life?)
  4. Where am I going?  (What is human destiny?)
  5. How, then, shall I live.

If you aren’t clear about the answers to these five questions, make it a goal to get clear.  These are foundational.  All the questions are answered by the Bible, but you might find you need evidence to strengthen your faith.  It’s there.  Seek and you will find.

Confucius said:  "If a man does not know where he is going, he will only end up where he is headed."

How Fast Do You Have to Get There?

I want to talk especially about how fast you have to get to the destination of being an educated person.

Learning is not a sprint!  It's a marathon. There is no evidence that learning “pushed” into a child has any long-term benefit.  There’s lots of evidence that it does damage.  Children who read first don’t necessarily become the best readers.  Children who are pushed to read before they’re ready often flame out and are passed by others who moved along more slowly, like Roberto, or the tortoise and the hare.

Pressure to hurry may come from pride, which is a sin!  Sometimes I think God gives us children to teach us humility.  Pets can do the same thing.

Allow kids time to play, reflect, imagine, and ponder.  Fence out the crazy world once in awhile so you can breathe. My husband and I like to celebrate what we call “Sabbath”.  We set aside a time of rest, put on some beautiful music, start a fire in the fireplace, and intentionally rest.  Anything that feels like work is off-limits.  No TV or radio.  We might read poetry or look through old family photos.  I clean house for the occasion and fix a special meal.  We sometimes put fresh flowers on the table.  It amazes me how deeply refreshing it is to set aside a couple of hours to rest and reflect.  It’s like hitting the “reset” button on life.  Just knowing we can get off the treadmill once a week gives us a sense of peace.  It's not a traditional Sabbath celebration, just a time of rest.

Use “wait time”.  Allow for reflective thought.  “Wait time” is the time between a question and an answer.  Extend that time.  Become a master of the pregnant pause.  After a child answers, wait more.  Research shows that kids often expound on their answer and do a lot deeper and better thinking when they are allowed plenty of time to think.

Readiness is a physical phenomenon.  As children grow and develop, different areas of the brain are “softened” by a substance called mylein.  Researchers have determined that the schedule of myelination appears to put boundaries around “appropriate” forms of learning at any age.  For example, in my experience, 4th graders soak in facts like sponges.  That’s not the case with 6th graders.  There are “openings” or best times to learn certain things.  I’ve heard it said that children who learn to make the sounds of a foreign language before the age of five can later speak it without an accent.  Before brain regions are myelinated, they do not operate efficiently.  Trying to drill higher-level learning into immature brains may force them to perform with lower-level systems and impair the long-term mastery of the skill.

Hurry allows bad habits to develop.  Once an area of the brain firms up around a bad habit, such as the wrong way to hold a pencil, that habit may become impossible to change.  Take time to teach good habits.  If you take time to build strong foundations, you'll get that time back later.

This is an illustration my mom always used:  The brain is like a narrow-necked bottle.  It has tremendous capacity, but you can only pour so much into it at a time!  If you try to pour in too much at a time, what happens?  It spills over and is wasted. 

Some kids’ brains have a narrower neck than others.  One way you can test for readiness is to push a little, then back off, push a little, then back off.  When the child is ready, you’ll get an encouraging response.  If he or she is not ready, you’ll meet resistance.  Back off and try again later. 

Different people have different learning curves, but a geometric curve like this, in my experience, is most common.  I haven’t taught really young children.  It might be different at that level.  Kids learn a lot FAST in kindergarten and first grade!

My experience was that I didn’t necessarily see much progress early on.  It took awhile for kids to understand and be able to apply what they’d learned.  Sometimes it took a lot longer than I thought it should, but if I persisted, generally progress would gradually gain speed and in time I’d see a transformational change.

An example I use is ice.  When it’s 30 degrees below zero, water is ice.  If it warms up to 20 below, nothing apparent changes.  If it keeps warming to 30 degrees above, there’s still no apparent change, but things actually HAVE changed.  We just can’t see it.  Two more degrees of warmth and you’ll see transformational change. 

Who Is in the Driver's Seat and What's the Power Source?

Who should be in the driver’s seat?  The text, the test, the teacher, or the student?

With rare exceptions, children should not be in the driver’s seat, though, depending on your child, you can turn over the wheel once in awhile at your discretion.  The teacher should be in the driver’s seat.  Texts, tests and other resources should be used by the teacher rather than shackling her.  Nobody, no matter how brilliant they are, can write a book that perfectly fits your child and his / her special needs.  As teacher, you are the bridge between the curriculum and the child. 

What’s the power source?  Too often, it’s the teacher.  When possible, you want the power to come from your child’s interest, motivation and curiosity.  There will be times you have no choice but to serve as power source, but when you catch a breeze, hoist a sail.  Don’t worry that if it’s not pushing exactly the direction you have in mind at the moment.  If it moves you toward your overall goal, great. Take advantage of your children’s energy in order not to deplete your own.  You’ve probably noticed they have a lot more energy to spare than you do!  Learn to harness it.

Mastery of Fundamentals

True expertise requires a mastery of fundamentals.  Even concert pianists practice scales and it’s not because they don’t know them!  They realize that the highest heights can only be reached when the foundation below is solid and dependable.

 A person might not even put a foundation under a woodshed, but if you want a skyscraper, you need a strong foundation attaching it to bedrock.  The Sears Tower in Chicago is 1,454 feet tall. Its foundation is 100 feet deep.  A poor foundation support only a small building, and even then you might see cracks in the walls as it moves and shifts.

It is my strong opinion that the American public school system rests on the weak foundation of the flawed human philosophies of Jeans-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey and others. The poor academic achievement of so many American students is not their fault or their teacher’s fault so much as it is the fault of the flawed philosophy upon which the entire system is built. Think again about the emphasis on enhancing kids’ self-esteem.  It’s backwards.  Self-esteem doesn’t lead to accomplishment; accomplishment leads to self-esteem.  Kids aren’t corrupted by others; they’re born sinful.  We shouldn’t be surprised when they act in accordance with their nature and we shouldn’t blame others for kids’ sin.  We don’t do kids any favors when we make excuses for them.

Facts, Skills, Creativity

Because we teach different types of things, we have to use different approaches. Think of facts, skills and creativity as represented by bricks, a bricklayer, and an architect.

To memorize facts, it helps to drill, drill, drill.  Be selective about which facts kids need to learn because it takes a lot of time and effort to memorize.  Some things are better looked up than memorized.  Which phone numbers do you have memorized?  The ones you use all the time.  If it would take more time to keep looking something up when you need it than to invest the time to memorize it, it’s best to take some time and memorize it.

To learn a skill, it helps to practice, practice, practice.  Researchers recommend that people who are learning a skill frequently observe experts performing it, practice it often, receive continual constructive feedback followed by immediate further practice, gradually increase the number of actions they view as a single behavioral unit, and integrate mastered prerequesite skills into the mastery of the more advanced skill.

Facts are relatively easy to learn but are also easy to forget.

Skills take a long time to learn but once mastered, are hard to forget.

Creativity itself cannot be taught, but it can be fostered and nurtured.  Everyone is different when it comes to creativity so your goal as a teacher is to try different things.  Find where your child’s creativity lies, then work with that.  Some people will never be artists, but they can learn basic things about art and enjoy doing it even if the result isn’t impressive.  Some people are musical prodigies but almost anyone can derive pleasure from learning to sing or play an instrument.  You might be surprised to discover latent creativity in your child in some area.  Think of “teaching” creativity as a treasure hunt, a voyage of discovery.

Disorganized Knowledge

An educated adult has been defined as a person with enough knowledge that everything new he learns can be connected in some way to something he already knows.  One goal of education is a vast interconnected network of knowledge.  Unorganized knowledge is actually worse than no knowledge.  If all the books in a library were strewn on the floor like in the picture, the same amount of information would be there, but you’d have a really hard time finding the information you need when you need it.

Kids need “pegs” on which to hang things.  Help and encourage them to connect anything new they learn to what they already know in as many ways as possible.  The more connections, the better.  Think about trying to recall someone’s name when you see a familiar face.  Your mind goes into search and scans through people at work, your kids’ parents, people at church, childhood friends, friends of friends.  The more ways a name is connected, the sooner you’ll be able to recall it.

Have kids write frequently.  Writing forces kids to organize their thoughts.

Flesh and Bones Curriculum

Flesh and Bones CurriculumI mentioned earlier the idea of a “flesh and bones” curriculum.  Our bodies need both flesh and bones.  Without bones there’s no structure.  Without flesh (muscles), there’s no movement.  If all you do is drill, drill, drill and practice, practice, practice, learning will be dry as a bone.  But if you insist everything educational has to be fun and exciting, kids won’t learn everything they need to know.

The bones provide the structure for your day.  Make a schedule that’s consistent for a portion of the day.  I always liked to take care of the bones in the morning so the rest of the day would feel comparatively unpressured.  In the bones part of the day, schedule in the drill drill drill and practice practice practice kids need to master facts and skills.  I wanted this to happen efficiently.  I wanted to get the best results for the least time and effort, because although facts and skills are important and necessary, they don’t rivet my interest.

The “flesh” is more interesting.  Unit studies and science experiments can be FUN and motivating.  I found school moved a lot more smoothly for me when I focused on one cross-curricular unit at a time, alternating between science and social studies topics, and incorporating research, creative expression, and field trips into units.  When I tried to teach something on every subject every week, I had too many balls in the air at one time and I’d start dropping some.  It might be different for you.

Dealing with Failure

As we bring to a close this talk about What Your Elementary Child Really Needs to know, I have to share that in my opinion, the most important thing your child needs to learn is how to fail.

What? You might say?  Fail?  I want them to succeed!  If they fail, I feel like a failure.  I’m not saying you should plan failure, just know how to deal with it when it happens.

This was the narration on a commercial that aired some time ago.

An athlete is seen arriving at a game, heading to the locker room.  His stride is easy, his smile secretive and knowing as he moves down the gauntlet of fans and well-wishers. 

Yet in the voice-over he says:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost more than 300 games.  Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot—and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

Who do you think was doing the narrating?  Michael Jackson.  He said failure is why he succeeded!

This paragraph is from an article I read in a dentist’s office during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. 

The grit it takes to stand up against the psychological pressures of competition—and even draw power from the tension—is what separates the champions from the also-rans.  Long thought to be merely a problem to be minimized or eliminated, psychological stress is now considered crucial to top-level performance.  Ultimately, people’s best defense against stress is a belief in themselves.

So we’re circling back to self-confidence.  People’s best defense against stress is a belief in themselves.  That belief is forged by failure, by overcoming failure, by standing back up again and again after you’re been knocked down and trying again, again, and again. 

Norman Vaughn is an Alaskan who as a young man in 1928 accompanied Richard Byrd on his first Antarctic expedition.  He always dreamed of going back and climbing the mountain that Byrd named after him. He was 87 by the time he raised the money and made all the preparations.  Everything went great until a supply plane crashed, killing some dogs.  Vaughn’s party had to be rescued and the expedition was scrapped.

We saw Norman in a store some months later and told him we were sorry his expedition had failed.  He smiled brightly and said, “I’m going back next year. You haven’t failed until you quit, and I haven’t quit, so I haven’t failed.”  He went back and was the first man to climb Mount Vaughn, three days before his 89th birthday.

Vaughn’s motto was “Dream Big and Dare to Fail.” "If you don't look for challenges,” he said, “you become a follower... Challenges are self-satisfying for a person, testing himself on whether he can do it or not, analyzing for himself his character."

John Elway.  I grew up in Colorado.  I’ll never forget John Elway’s third Super Bowl loss against Joe Montana and the 49ers.  He’s #7 there in the picture.  The Broncos with Elway as quarterback had lost badly in Super Bowls 22 and 23. Super Bowl 24 wasn’t just a loss, it was a humiliating loss with the most lopsided score in Super Bowl history, 55-10. Elway’s performance was terrible, 10 out of 26 completions for just 108 yards. No touchdown passes. Two interceptions. 

I remember watching him walk off the field looking in dismay at the scoreboard.  I’d have crawled in a hole and never come out.

Elway didn't hide from the media or downplay his dismal performance. Someone asked if he wanted to go back to the Super Bowl after losing three times. He said he wanted to go back every year, even if his team lost every year. Most people doubted that he would ever win a Super Bowl.

He went on to become one of the top quarterbacks in football history with 142 career wins, 82 losses and one tie. 

He said:  “I've experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows. I think to really appreciate anything you have to be at both ends of the spectrum.”

My point here is don’t despair when your kids fail.  Teach them to get up and give it another go.  It’s OK for them to cry and feel bad for a bit as long as they regather themselves and move on.  Notice and admire them when they do that.  Have them read biographies of people like Michael Jackson, Norman Vaughn, and John Elway, so they learn that success usually entails a lot of failure along the way.

The character qualities they develop will be a lot more important in the long run than any academic knowledge they absorb.

Thomas Huxley was called Darwin’s bulldog for his advocacy of the theory of evolution.  One thing he said in 1885, though, I agree with 100%.

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done whether you like it or not.

Focus on Your Strengths

Some years ago, Reader’s Digest published an article entitled Win with Your Strengths, reporting on a Gallup study of over 250,000 highly successful professionals.  The object was to learn what high-achieving people had in common that contributed to their success.  This was their conclusion:

The highest levels of achievement come when people are matched with activities that use their strengths.  Instead of spending time trying to correct your weaknesses—as many of us are taught to do—our experience suggests you should focus on your special talents.  For every strength you have, you also possess a multitude of non-strengths.  It would be a huge waste of energy to try to fix all your weaknesses.

This applies not only to the kids but to you.  Focus on your strengths and teach your kids to focus on theirs.  Acknowledge your weaknesses and work to bring them to a point where they don’t handicap or get in the way, but nurture and develop your strengths. 

I'm going to conclude with a true story about a person I met when he was just four years old. He was the little brother of my best friend in high school and it wasn’t until decades later that I heard his amazing story.

Mark was the fourth of five children in his family.  Mark's dad was a diplomat with the United States Information Service. They moved a lot from country to country as he was given new assignments.  They had slides and artifacts that really interested me.  Although they were in Colorado for only a year while Dad earned his Master's Degree, our families have been in touch for the last 30 years.

A few years ago, I received word that Mark's parents were driving up the Alcan Highway and would give us a call when they got to Anchorage.  During their stay, I heard Mark's story for the first time.

Because he was the fourth of five children, his parents knew from early on that he was different from the other kids.  He didn't catch on to things as quickly.  He had trouble learning to speak. When he went to first grade, they fully expected to get a call from the teacher.  When no call came, they called her and were told that Mark's doing fine.  At the first parent-teacher conference, they pressed for details, but were told again that everything was fine.

At the end of that year, Mark's dad was transferred and Mark started second grade in a new school system.  This time, the teacher called right up.  He was not at all ready for second grade, she said.  He should be tested for special services, and he should repeat first grade.

Needless to say, the parents weren't very happy with the first grade teacher. There was nothing to do now but address the situation.  Mark struggled through elementary school, never doing that well.  Because of his speech defect, he wasn't verbal or especially popular.  He was fortunate, however, to have a valued place at home.  His family loved him and knew there was a lot more to life than academic success.

His sixth grade teacher was especially concerned about his shyness.  She called his parents in and said, "Is there anything Mark can do especially well?"  She wanted to focus on his strengths.  "He can ride a unicycle," they said.  So the teacher talked to Mark and asked him to bring his unicycle to school to show the other kids.  He was an instant hero.  The other kids saw him in a different light and he began to see himself in a new light.  He was even featured in a local TV news show riding his unicycle.  This was a great boost to his confidence.  He began to study harder, and his learning improved.

Before he entered ninth grade, the family moved to Spain.  There, Mark chose to attend a demanding British prep school rather than the American high school.  Again, the teacher called the parents right up. "Mark really doesn't fit in well with the other students at this level," she said.  "He knows so much more than the other ninth graders that we recommend he be moved up to tenth grade."

So Mark graduated on schedule and went on to college.  He continued to do well and was even elected student body president his senior year.  From there, he joined the Navy.  He became a fighter pilot, and earned the distinction of becoming a Top Tail-Hooker by making ten consecutive perfect landings on an aircraft carrier.  He is happily married with two children.

He never overcame his speech defect completely.  He still has some problems.  But he's made a good life for himself, in large part because he had a family who loved him for being himself and parents who didn't give up on him, even when he was tempted to give up on himself.

None of us have any idea what God has in store for your children in the future.  Be prepared to be surprised.  Do the best you can and trust God for the results.

Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony