Friday, May 1, 2009

A Different Way to Learn

My second son, Ben, was not built for the traditional classroom. He'd be the first to agree with this. Bright, inquisitive, and chatty, he was usually in motion. Sitting still was painful. He was the extreme version of a hands-on learner. Simply put, he needed to learn in a different way. This was hard for me to understand at first. His bent for learning and his interests were a mystery that would take me years to unwrap.

From the time he could walk, he had a fascination for machines and for building things. Recently, I was cleaning out the attic and found a cardboard box covered with wrapping paper. A pair of eyes was drawn on the lid, accompanied by the words, "Scientist's Treasure Chest." Inside the box, I found bits of wire and string, ear phones, magnets, pieces of small gadgets, a gyroscope, iron nails, and so forth. Ben had plans to build things from whatever he collected. I remember him trying to persuade us to keep a broken washer and dryer, so that he could take them apart. He wasn't sure what he'd do with the parts, but he knew they'd come in handy.

A sympathetic relative gave him a child's camera when he was six years old. The yellow plastic machine was his delight. He took pictures of everything. We have photos for posterity of the food we ate, Lego men in various postures, toy cars and trucks, our cat, and Mom with a mop. He also tried some investigative journalism. He took snapshots of people who looked interesting or suspicious, just in case. More than once, I realized too late that the little yellow camera was working in a restaurant, at the library, or on the street. From time to time, we studied light and optics and worked with lenses, but mostly the camera was a machine, and that was what fascinated him.

When we took our trip west for Joshua's birds, it was natural for Ben to become our trip photographer. This month-long odyssey across the country served as his hands-on unit study in geography and photography. We used a lot of maps and studied all the aspects of geography at each location. Ben learned to take clear, interesting photos of the scenery. Once we were home, he wrote a paper about the trip. But that wasn't all.

By the end of our month-long odyssey, Ben had become an amateur photographer with a deep appreciation for natural beauty. That fall, he used some money from his great-grandmother to purchase professional equipment. He began taking photos in earnest. Each year in high school, he designed and completed his own photography course. He studied books by his favorite photographers and steadily improved in competence and skill. When we moved to the Poconos, he discovered new spots where he could experiment with his camera in nearby ravines and woods. His pictures of local waterfalls are still a family favorite.

For his high school graduation present, he planned a trip for outdoor photography to
Olympic National Park. The detail in his arrangements was remarkable. He knew the light before he arrived -- the best time of day for a photo, the chances of clear or cloudy skies, the best angle for the sun, the average temperature and wind speed, the colors of the terrain, the quality of the air, the direction his camera should aim in, the spots he wanted to shoot, any special equipment he would need. He knew this for every single shot. His photos speak eloquently of his discipline and focus.

He had taught himself everything that he needed to know. He had worked hard, long hours to achieve professional results and to have an experience that many of us only dream about.

Just for the joy of it all.


  1. Ah, your last line sums it up very well. May many of the things we do be just for joy!

  2. This one had me LOL. Hope you still have some of those early photos. It would be fun to see some of those suspicious characters!

    Wonderful posts about how early interests developed into real passions for your sons. Homeschooling must have played a big part in that. Thanks, kr


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