How wrestling, Lego and Star Wars role playing all help raise readers

My last retro-literacy piece. Enjoy.

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From Life’s Archives, Summer of 2008

I wrote the first draft of this essay sitting in the sunshine on our Common, scribbling with blue pencil crayon on scraps of drawing paper tucked inside a dollar store colouring book, as Cinder, Flora and their friend K raced around like mad, enacting a complex—and loud—re-enactment of the Star Wars saga.

The game is gorgeous and hilarious, made all the more so by the fact that Cinder & Flora haven’t actually seen any of the Star Wars oeuvre—bar a clip here and there—and get most of their information through the filter of Creeper, Star Wars products advertised on lego.com, and their daddy’s ancient The Empire Strikes Back bedspread. It doesn’t matter. They run, shout commands, engage in battle—occasionally forget which character they are or switch roles—return to base (the picnic table where I sit) to study the pictures on Creeper’s new Star Wars lego set—the inspiration for the game—and go back to running and shouting again.

Before this particular rambunctious game, Cinder and Creeper had spent a couple of hours wrestling, pillow fighting, fort-building and intermittently crafting funky lego creations. Meanwhile, Flora and I motored through 40 pages of “30-Minutes A Day Learning System Preschool Workbook,” tracing and matching letters and numbers, and unavoidably learning about colouring within the lines.

So, which do you think was time more valuably spent? Which is going to be featured in the notes I write up for the progress report required by our school board? And which constitutes reading and writing practice?

Both, without a doubt and without a question. Ditto, by the way, the Star Wars game. And not because Lego is nominally an educational toy. Can you follow me here? For some people, the connection is easy and self-evident; for others, it’s impossible. Flora was learning—she was doing work. Cinder was goofing off with his friend—and exactly how was he learning to read while pelting Creeper in the head with a pillow?

But this is the huge paradigm shift you have to make to understand the incredible power and potential of homeschooling—especially homeschooling the way we do it., inquiry-based, interest-driven, and curriculum-free, and rooted in the basic belief that children want to learn… and learn best, most effectively and most happily when they are free to learn what they need to and want to learn at that particular point in their individual development.

Nothing illustrates this principle better than the way Cinder and Flora are learning to read and write. You’ll recognize Flora’s way readily enough: it’s more or less the way you were probably taught at school. She pores over books, traces letters and words, laboriously writes out notes to her friends in crooked letters (To T Do You Want to Play Love Flora), sings alphabet and rhyming songs, makes list of words starting with the “f” sound, loves to watch old Sesame Street clips… And she’s been doing all this since she was three.

I’ve never had to, or been tempted to, sit her down and work on her letters and reading. She read her first little phonics book when she was three and a half. She was doing word searches when she was four. She doesn’t think she reads yet, because she can’t sit down with a full book and work her way through it, but all the building blocks are there, and it’s clearly only a matter of time.

The way Flora is pre-disposed to learn reading and writing virtually ensures no teacher, no matter how incompetent or how mired in “this is the one right way and timeline to teach ‘language arts’” dogma, could wreck her. In fact, he or she would probably take credit for the speed and ease with which Flora cracked the phonics code, mastered the alphabet, and progressed in reading fluency and writing skill.

And he’d be full of, pardon Flora’s mother’s unrefined language, crap. Much as I’d love to take credit for Flora’s aptitude in this area, none of it belongs to me (except insofar as I can take credit for passing on the relevant genes to her). I’ve done no “teaching”—she’s done all the learning. All I’ve done is give her time, space, and access to a variety of resources, some of which she needed (books, paper, crayons, stories, oral word games) and some of which she could perfectly well do without (alphabet blocks, ridiculously expensive Montessori sandpaper letters, the moveable alphabet).

The way I know—don’t suspect, believe or theorize, but really, really know—that the credit is all Flora’s and not mine is because of Cinder. And while Flora’s path to literacy is clearly discernible, trackable and understandable to most of us, Cinder’s is a mystery. Well, no, I should not say that—his clever parents think they’ve cracked some aspects of it. But it’s definitely vastly different from Flora’s path—and from the way most schools approach literacy. A bad teacher could do Flora no harm; even a competent teacher following a set timeline and curriculum could derail Cinder for years.

Flora learnt her letters from alphabet books. If there’s a book that deserves any credit for fostering Cinder’s interest in letters, it’s an ancient little Sesame Street book called Grover’s Alphabet, in which “furry, adorable, little Grover” contorts his poor little body into each letter of the alphabet. More credit probably goes to the plush set of giant alphabet letters Cinder got as a baby, which saw its first use when he hit five and we developed an assortment of games in which we pelted ourselves with them while calling out their names and sounds.

Flora learnt letter-sound association by humming, “The letter A makes tha ah-ah sound, ah-ah-ah-ah.” Cinder… I have no idea. Possibly he passively absorbed it at some point from either Flora or me—it was all around him—we never saw him working on it, one day, he just knew, and we knew that he knew, because when Flora would sit down with her electronic alphabet board (a present for Cinder, which he never showed any interest in), and be told by the machine to find the letter that makes the sound “fffff,” he’d shout out, from across the room—building Lego—“F!” (Ask Cinder to sing, ‘The letter A makes the ah-ah sound, ah-ah-ah-ah,” and he’ll give you a look—inherited, I freely confess, from me—that manages to convey that 1) he has better things to do with his time, larynx and lungs and 2) you’re an idiot for not recognizing this. And then he’ll go build with Lego. )

Flora loves workbooks, colouring books, and tracing books. When Babi brought a whole swack of them back from her trip to the US, Flora squealed with delight and asked which one we should do first. Cinder looked at them indifferently, and went to run outside. (Or play with Lego… or, best of both worlds in the summer, play outside with something built of Lego clasped in his hand.)

During his kindergarten and grade one years, all I knew for certain was that his body was not ready to slow down, sit and be still to “look” at letters or to “practice” letters. So we let him run; we worked that body, and every once in a while we did letter work with the body (“Can you make yourself into a Creeper? It’s tricky… hey, that’s totally different from how I’d do it. Cool.”). When it came to writing, I wasn’t even sure if he had the micro-muscle control and development you need to have before you can effectively wield a pencil with control—and for long stretches of time. So on the latter, we worked via… lighting matches (over the sink and under supervision; relax, Dad!). Bead-work (where we incidentally covered off a lot of math requirements). Occasional sowing. And, of course, building with Lego.

Every once in a while, he’d want to write a card or note. Every day, after he got his dose of exercise, he’d spend some time, alone, with Calvin & Hobbes or some other such book. When he discovered there was such a thing as www.lego.com, he had to learn to read and write www.lego.com to get onto it.

After a summer of running, pillow-fighting with Creeper, building Lego, and studying Rock Monster/Power Miners merchandise and videos on the lego website (the Internet is a glorious but scary thing), Cinder celebrated the school kids’ first day back in class by writing a movie script. It unfolded in his head as he raced up and down the Common, a rock monster in one hand and a “rock wrecker” machine in the other, and then he came to me and asked for help writing it.

So we sat in the sunshine on the Common—meanwhile, Flora intermittently coloured, rode her bike, or played “vet” with her friend—and for two hours, word by word, letter by letter, Cinder hammered out his script. He asked me to spell out every word—no phonetic, “incorrect” writing for Cinder, that’s agony (Flora, on the other hand, is very happy to experiment); he asked for reminders about periods and exclamation points. Some of his letters were plain; others, embellished to resemble rocks, or to convey the feeling of tremours or loud noises. It was incredibly rewarding for me to be part of this.

The script started with a trailer. (“Every good movie has to have a good trailer,” said the film buff’s son.) “Rock Monster: Grrr! Grrr! Yum, yum, that was a delicious crystal.” Next, the titlee: “Collision in the Mine.” And then, immediately, action! “BOOM! Suddenly, a giant machine appears in the cave. Suddenly, the rock monsters swing into action! “

The exercise offered me unprecedented insight into how Cinder is going to attain full literacy—and also an added confidence that we are dead on in our approach with him on this, that it is not through workbook work and enforced reading drill that the doors will open, but through Lego playing and wrestling and all that stuff that doesn’t look like learning, but is, because unless you actively turn your mind off, all of life is learning.

Here’s the moment that, so to speak, “sold” me: We get to hour two and page five, and he writes “NEXT…” then turns to me and says,, “Hey, that’s the first time we used the letter X. It’s too bad; it’s just about the easiest one to write. And we’ve only used one V so far, and no Z at all. I’m going to write NEXT again so we have two Xs.”

He writes a few more words.

“You know what? The liney letters are way more common than the curvey letters. Like four times as common. I’m writing the most Es, and then Hs and Ts. But I think only two Fs, that’s weird. Actually that T-H-E word, what does that spell again? Yeah, that’s the one I’ve written the most. And I’ve only done two Us and two Cs.

“And I’ve done a bunch of Ss—maybe 10 or 12? (he had done 11; his anal-retentive mother went back and counted afterwards)—but most of them are at the end of words, I’ve only done two words that begin with S.”

My brain does not work like that. Does yours? If someone didn’t tell me, once upon a time, that E was the most common letter in English writing, I’d never have noticed. For Cinder, these facts jumped out, were self-evident, interesting. (How would Flora react if I asked her what the most common letter on a given page was? I’m not certain, but I think she would have given me that look—inherited from me—that manages to convey that 1) she has better things to do with her time and brain, and 2) I’m an idiot for not recognizing this. And then she’d go back to setting a list of “f” words to the music of a Beatles’ song.)

The next day, Cinder, Flora and I paint and construct a movie set, and, a couple of days later, Cinder and Sean, with some help from friends Nate and Creeper, film Collision in the Mine. Daddy adds special effects. Cinder ponders episode two. Then, Creeper gets a Star Wars set, and the boys discover the Star Wars section on Lego.com. Rock monsters get supplanted by clones, droids and storm troopers. Cinder laboriously copies the model numbers and names of Star Wars sets he covets and wants to get for Christmas on scraps of paper.

He also tries to figure out how to apportion them amongst his family. Would Daddy and I want to each get him a set? Or just one? How about Babi and Dziadia? Or is there a dollar cap he should be working with? If he chooses the cheaper sets, would he get more sets? Of course, the biggest and most expensive ones are the most fun to build—but it might be better to have more smaller ones. That would be more interesting for the movie.

Because there’s a new movie in the works. No longer episode two of Collision in the Mine. No, a mega-Star Wars production. It will require a fog machine and, Cinder dreams, some dynamite. He hasn’t sat down to write the script yet. It’s unfolding in his head as he and Creeper grab some light sabers and go to pound on each other in the playground.

Meanwhile, Flora asks for my help with her new project: a book. It’s about MagicLand. She draws grass, a unicorn’s horn, a rainbow. She asks me to write the words above the pictures, very lightly, so she can trace them. And she asks if the words horn and corn are related, and why is it that little g and big G don’t look anything alike?

2013: Almost five years later: You can read more about Cinder’s path to literacy in the Paths To Literacy category: 

Fuck, the only word I can read here is moo

Obsessing about not reading / Not obsessing about reading

Growing readers, organically

“How do you spell nincom?”

Flora’s story’s pretty simple: she learnt her letters and her sounds before she was three; she could read anything and everything by 5, now that she is 8, she goes through a hefty chapter book a day–but, artist and lover of pictures that she is, there is no book out there yet that is better than Bone. Cinder’s path is still unique. And I am so grateful we are able to let him walk on it at his own speed, with all the detours his mind needs.

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3 responses to “How wrestling, Lego and Star Wars role playing all help raise readers

  1. Pingback: Turning No into Yes: Jane gets played big time | Nothing By The Book·

  2. Pingback: Undogmatic Unschoolers: How wrestling, Lego and Star Wars role playing all help raise readers et al. | Marzena Czarnecka, Writer·

  3. Pingback: “I was really patient with my late reader, but now he’s eight!” or, why (and how) to be patient still | Undogmatic Unschoolers·

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