Tuesday, April 10, 2012
We've been inundated with all things Titanic for the past couple months thanks to our various magazine subscriptions. N. has a bit of a dread fascination with disaster (for example, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Fire of London in 1666) and he's been utterly absorbed in the Titanic story. Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and Archeology all explore the Titanic from different angles, so it's been a rich subject for N. In Smithsonian, he read about an optical illusion generated by the peculiar weather conditions at the time of the accident which may explain both why the ship hit the iceberg and why a nearby ship didn't rescue stranded passengers. Last weekend I read him most of a long article in the same Smithsonian issue about the survivors and about earlier film renderings of the event. National Geographic includes several pieces about recent attempts to capture images of the wreck, about filmmaker James Cameron's abiding interest in it, and about the politics of salvage and Titanic tourism. Archeology describes the challenges of treating the wreck as an archeological site. Some details that are prominent in one magazine's retelling recede to the background in a different magazine's perspective and we've talked a little about how the narrative feels different if the focus is on the people on board or on the ship itself. N. has enjoyed cross-referencing among the magazines when a tidbit of information he read in one magazine pops up in another.
This spontaneous Titanic "unit" is a good example of how our version of unschooling works. We provided the magazines and N. read them in bits and pieces over the past few weeks. We noticed he was especially interested in the Titanic stories. N. pulled off the shelves a book he absolutely loved a couple years ago called Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons (a random rummage sale find) which gives an interesting and detailed overview of the history of shipwrecks and their recovery and preservation; he was especially keen to compare Gibbons' account of the technology used in searching for wrecks with the new equipment described in the magazine articles. All of this happened outside N.'s regular "school" time and I pieced together his exploration of this topic mostly by following the trail of magazines and books strewn in his wake. I followed up by reading aloud one of the articles that N. had said was "boring" (the piece about the afterlives of survivors); it turned out he had only read some of the opening paragraphs but when I read more, he found it quite interesting. By reading this piece aloud I pushed a bit to expand beyond what he thought he was interested in; I believe it's crucial (no matter what your educational philosophy) to help learners build on what they know and resist the temptation to stay in familiar and comfortable territory.
At the same time, however, I didn't want to invade his Titanic exploration too much. It's been his thing, to do as much or as little with as he likes. We might suggest related reading, if we see some or if he asks for some but we're not going to take over and suggest projects or writing assignments, etc. Teaching moments are everywhere, and as professional educators Tim and I can be somewhat obnoxious in our desire to take advantage of them. But too much hovering can kill both the interest a subject holds and the independence that drove its exploration. As N.'s learning independence increases, it will be an exciting challenge to discern when we can jump in and explore with him and when we should hang back.