A Lifetime of Refried Beans and Molasses

Here’s your breakfast!” said Mom, as she cheerfully placed in front of her awakening children a plate covered with smooth refried beans and a little dollop of molasses.

The children went suddenly silent. This was new. However, they had been taught not to complain, so they dutifully ate what was put before them. Yet, each secretly looked forward to lunch. At noon the children eagerly waited to see what tasty treat Mom would produce. Once again there appeared another plate of refried beans and molasses. Lunch was a rather quiet affair, except for Mom, who burbled quite happily about giving only the best to her family. Dinner—same story. Three days and nine meals of beans and molasses later, Dad finally spoke up.

“Hey, hon, what’s up with the beans and molasses diet we seem to have gone on?”

“Well,” she replied excitedly, “I read this great book, Better Nutrition by Selective Feeding. I answered all the survey questions about our family, you know, and found things like how I always need something sweet around 4 p.m., and you need more fiber every three or four days, and Joey needs protein in the morning or he can’t concentrate, and how Julie feels woozy after one whiff of broccoli—and when you put them all together, the book says we’re in the Sweet-n-Bean Cuisine group.”

Stunned silence met her wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Can you imagine a sillier idea? Who would feed their family a steady diet of one thing, even if it were proven to be complete and efficient? The idea might look good on paper, but this formulaic approach would certainly be a loss for their palates. Yet, some advice on learning styles would have you doing the same thing. Typically you go through a series of questions, narrowing down your child’s learning style until you have the tightest, cleanest, most efficient vehicle for delivering new information to this exacting young mind. Even more, you get to give him a really cool name too!

“My son’s a PLOD—you know, a Pre-abstract, Localizing, Oblivious Diagonal.”

“Wow, you must be so proud. My daughter’s a Bilateral, Retrieving, Anti-linear Timid. You know—a BRAT!”

“Oh, how wonderful! BRATS are so easy to teach.”

The problem with much of the available material is that it seems to devote most of its pages to delighting us with new and clever things we may call our students. Then far less time is spent telling us what to do next. In other words, how do we teach to this clever new title? What should we do when our son has reviewed long division for months and the process just does not stick? What should we do when our little girl can produce four completely different ways of spelling “bovine,” and they all look perfectly fine to her? Just how are we supposed to teach anything to the child who simply cannot sit still?

Many books seem to stall out after helping us come up with the really cool name. The advice that often follows is sometimes a bit vague. I read things like, “Keep your child focused on the lesson.” “Get them more physically involved.” These were great ideas, to be sure, but what I did not know was how. I did not know different ways to teach the math so that it would stick, different ways to teach the spelling so that the correct way would be learned.

Therefore I put the books down and decided I had a new mission. I was now in an earnest search for teaching methods. I collected them much like others collect matchbook covers or salt and pepper shakers. I took methods that were fun, or odd, or unlikely—methods that would never work on me or were even out of my comfort zone to teach. I searched for and grabbed any ideas I could find. I passed no judgment on anything until I had given it a whirl. That is when I began to discover a wonderful thing about my own previously struggling child: He could learn. He could learn well, and fast, and with enthusiasm, once I found ways in which he did learn. Along the way there were many surprises that most learning style programs would never have predicted.

I learned that my child, who most definitely is not a visual learner, was nonetheless able to work through material better when it was color-coded. Go figure. We have learned to emphasize visual input in several ways:

I found that information about people in history was more easily learned if first I provided a face or image of the person.

Another child struggled to remember the “gh” in right or fight, so as he practiced it, he boxed in the “gh” with a bright green marker. This additional step, plus the bold reminder in green, made it easier to remember the otherwise forgotten silent letters.

Another child, in his haste to finish math, often added when he should have subtracted. I had him start by boxing in all plus signs with a bright blue color and circling all subtraction signs with a yellow marker. This extra step helped him pause long enough to catch the symbol’s required action before he plunged ahead.

We also learned the value in “becoming the lesson.” In other words, ask: if you could magically go anywhere or do anything that would enhance today’s study, where would you go? Then just recreate the trip, using stuff around the house. We have traveled the planets. We built the tower of Babel (till God came, scattered us through the house, and left us speaking different languages; mine was Pig Latin). We even created and traveled through a crawl-through digestive tract. That was a memorable day.

Another unexpected teaching method emerged when I one day discovered my son repeating his spelling words over and over until a natural rhythm developed. This one really surprised me, as I had been absolutely certain, at least up to that moment, that he was completely without musical ability. Thus, I had totally ignored rhythm as a learning vehicle. Yet there he was—bopping away to his own spelling words. I tested this idea and set several things to either rhyme or to a beat. Wow! It burst open a new avenue for learning. The result was that we now have a simple daily recitations section in our schooling. (We call this Ditty Time.) During our home schooling years, my son (and all my children) has learned the names of the presidents in order, many different rules of math, the books of the Bible, the elements of the periodic table, parts of speech, Bible verses, state capitals, the planets in order from the sun, and a gazillion dates and events from history. Quick! Finish this sentence: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two …” See? Ditties are powerful things.

We will not be having refried beans and molasses for dinner tonight. We should all give our families a wide variety of foods in our meals, not only for the value in nutrition, but also for the sheer pleasure of diverse flavors and culinary experiences. In the same way, we should teach with methods that bring a rich, layered, and fun experience to the student. We just need to open our minds to all the different ways there are in which material could be presented. Find the oddest, strangest, most unlikely of possible methods of teaching, and then—give it a whirl. It is in such whirls that learning takes flight.