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Rea Berg and her husband, Russ, have been serving the homeschool community since 1984 when they formed Beautiful Feet Books. In addition to providing “living books” to homeschool families, Rea has authored many of the best-selling Beautiful Feet Study Guides. A homeschool mom of six, she is completing her master’s degree in children’s literature. She and her family live on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

CBD: You are the homeschool mother of six children and are currently completing a master’s degree in children’s literature. Frequently teachers are also lifelong students. How has your experience as a student affected and/or enhanced your role as a homeschool teacher?

RB: Returning to school at this season of my life and having homeschooled for 18 years have convinced me more than ever of how vital education is in our day and in the culture in which we live. When we think of education in terms of stewardship of the gifts and talents we’ve been given, then we have a responsibility to develop and invest in those gifts to the greatest degree possible, that we might be more serviceable to God and to our fellow man. Pursuing excellence in education or in any arena of life gives us greater opportunity to impact the world with truth, justice, and grace. Raising students to be scholars can bring salt and light to academia—an arena that has been largely abdicated to secularists.

My recent studies have enhanced and sharpened my commitment to the canon of Western literature for so many reasons. The more one is able to study the writings of countless Renaissance writers, the metaphysical poets, and 19th-century authors, the more one is able to discover the way in which these great writers affirmed, enriched, and enlarged the Judeo-Christian worldview. Students who have a Christian foundation will come to the study of these great writers and find there not only affirmation, but also inspiration and challenges to their journey of faith. In this way we learn that our struggles are universal and that we are part of something far greater than ourselves.

CBD: Usually history and literature are taught as two separate subjects. Yet your award-winning Beautiful Feet study guides reflect an interdisciplinary approach. What are the advantages of teaching history through literature? Is the traditional method of memorizing dates and facts nonessential to learning history?

RB: The birth of the modern textbook is a fairly recent phenomenon and coincided with the establishment of mandatory public education at the end of the 19th century. This occurred simultaneously with a great influx of immigrants from all over the world, prompting school officials to desire to create standardized texts that would assure them that students covered basic historical facts that would make them good American citizens. While these textbooks may have done that, the reduction of history to a dry compilation of facts really spelled the death knell for creating any love of history. History is essentially the story of people, and ought to be told as a story, with the human elements of conflict, drama, and passion. That is why teaching history through literature is effective and humanizing. As readers, we can identify vicariously with the struggles of our fellows, even if they were great historical figures who faced far greater challenges than we ever shall. Neil Postman in The End of Education notes that textbooks are concerned with presenting the facts of the case as if there can be no disputing them, as if they are fixed and immutable. And still worse, there is usually no clue given as to who claimed these are the facts of the case, or how “it” discovered these facts. There is no sense of the frailty or ambiguity of human judgment, no hint of the possibility of error. Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward truth. Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning. They may save the teacher some trouble, but the trouble they inflict on the minds of the students is a blight and a curse.

Additional advantages of learning history through literature include reading works by authors that are well regarded in their field, either as authors of literature or as true historians. Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe when studying the Civil War will acquaint the student with not only the issues fomenting prior to the war, but also with the ways in which slave owners justified their ownership of black men and women, the faith of slaves themselves, and the heartbreaking human cost of slavery. Readers will also learn of the faith that prompted those who helped escaping slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and of the price they paid to participate in this “illegal” activity. And in watching the tragic death of Uncle Tom, readers will learn empathy, something a textbook can never teach. In this sense, literature can effectively teach historical facts while teaching far more important lessons about life.

CBD: You are the author of an early American history study guide for primary school-aged children. How do parents go about building a solid foundation of historical knowledge by basing their curriculum only on children’s books?

RB: It has been my experience that reading a wealth of literature to children, starting from an early age, is the very best way to lay a solid foundation of historical knowledge. In this way, children come to know the key players in the historical drama and begin to identify with them and the part they played in history. When our youngest son was just two or three years old, someone had given him a penny and was amazed when he identified Abraham Lincoln on its face. We had never told him who was on the penny; he simply recognized him because we had read Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln to him so many times. When almost half of our high school seniors don’t know who wrote the Gettysburg Address, this is a good place to start. If we are choosing truly fine literature that is not only well written but also beautifully illustrated, we capture our child’s imagination, creating a love for learning. Creating a love for learning is the most important foundation in education—insuring that our children become lifelong learners.

CBD: Looking at history through the lens of literature no doubt motivates your students to love history. But what about other subjects that may not lend themselves as well to that approach? How do you, as a homeschool teacher, motivate a reluctant math student, for example?

RB: The Berg family as a rule has not been genetically gifted in math—although there have been a few exceptions. But because this happens to be one of my least favorite subjects, it was particularly challenging to me as a homeschooling mom. When my children were younger, we did do lots of creative hands-on learning with Cuisinaire Rods and Miquon Math, but, of course, that was over 20 years ago when there was very little to choose from! With one child who struggled painfully with math facts, we found that hop-scotching the facts helped her to memorize more easily. Also drawing the facts in a desk-sized sandbox was helpful. By learning kinesthetically as much as possible, she was helped along the way. Many families have found similar ideas that have helped individual children. The beauty of home education is that there is the time and the impetus to discover what works when there are bumps along the way. Also, the homeschool marketplace has added so many wonderful curricula that there is certain to be something just right for your individual child. Many of the better ones do use creative ways of teaching math that help the student to recognize math’s practical application. Without going overboard, it is always possible to teach basic principles creatively by giving students an opportunity to manage finances even at a young age. Our children bought fresh lemons, sugar, and ice, and sold fresh-squeezed lemonade from their little red wagon; made small floral bouquets from our garden and sold them; and helped in our family business. These opportunities are one of the great strengths of home education.


 

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Geography: A Literature Approach
Geography: A Literature Approach
Rea C. Berg

Early American and World History
Early American and World History
Rea C. Berg


 

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