When Philip Jackson heads back to class this fall, he won't tell his students at the Chicago Grammar School that the countless hours of SpongeBob SquarePants they watched over the summer were a complete waste of time.
"We are in a modern world and they need to know SpongeBob to fit in socially with other kids," Jackson says. "That's a good thing."
Jackson's philosophy, a classical method on which his school's curriculum is based, is that learning happens best when it's part of a continuum-when each bit of learning is placed into social context. The more seemingly unrelated connections kids can make between history, literature, science, math-and even television-the more tools they have at their disposal to become creative thinkers.
As a prominent speaker and self-described "research junkie," Jackson, a graduate of the University of Chicago's master's teaching program, says modern educational studies are focusing on the effects of music and visual arts on the way children learn. Unlike many traditional schools, where arts and music programs are being scaled back, the Chicago Grammar School makes the arts part of the core curriculum.
"People always have said if you're good in music, you're good in math," Jackson says. "Research has come out that makes that tie." It has shown that doing rhythm work in music classes increases a child's ability with spatial and temporal tasks, which can have an effect on math.
"Think of all of the nonverbal reasoning that has to be happening when someone plays the drums," he says. "They are doing different things with each hand as well as an entirely different task with the foot. Sure it's applied to drums, but think about all the other life aspects to which a child can apply those lessons."
Reading is also demanding for many children. Jackson says it's important to provide children a huge array of books and then pay attention to what they're plugged into. He even recommends removing the books they don't like from the shelf so that they start making the connection that books are interesting and not a bore.
He also recommends finding a good story, which is usually all it takes to keep them excited.
"That's why we use history as a basis for teaching," Jackson says. "It's filled with good stories. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek; these stories are all based on mythology. It speaks to kids today, and if you use these familiar, engaging history lessons as a starting point, they have a more positive attitude about reading."
His methods appear to be working. Last year, the school's inaugural third-grade class (the school adds a new grade level each year) took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills: 73 percent of the students ranked in the top 6 percent of the nation in math and more than 50 percent of the students were in the top 8 percent in reading comprehension.
"I am really pleased that the theory of our program is showing up in test results against national norms," Jackson says. "I hope more people plug into the value of what we're doing because it is working."
Matthew M.F. Miller is a Chicago dad and freelance writer.
Four ideas to get your kid school-ready
1 Get cooking: Philip Jackson says nearly every aspect of being in the kitchen could be a math lesson-and your kid won't even initially understand it's about math. Talk to them about how measurements add up to a whole. Explain the chemistry of heat-changing molecules, so that instead of a puddle in the oven you get cake.
"Connect the most mundane stuff to everyday living," he says. "Even telling them what makes up water is a great lesson."
2 To the dogs: Feeding the dog doesn't have to be simple. Talk to your child about why dogs need different nutrients than humans, and what kinds of foods dogs like to eat and which ones they shouldn't. When it's pet bath time, discuss the anatomy of the dog as you wash her. Even grooming a dog can be a learning opportunity, Jackson says.
"If the dog has burrs or weeds stuck in her fur, talk about how seeds spread from place to place. Ask your child, 'What do you think the dog would do to get clean if she was in the wild?' It's all bigger than just brushing the dog."
3 On remote: Contrary to popular belief, television is not evil. Neither are video games. Jackson says that many times parents put their kids in front of the TV as a way to get more done around the house. Turning "passive entertainment" into a learning experience should be the focus. He recommends that parents talk to their children about what's occurring on television as it happens.
"Talk about why SpongeBob is doing what he's doing," Jackson says. "Talk about why fish can breathe under water or how a sponge works. It takes a conscious effort to spend time talking and having engagement, expressing ideas, but it helps to expand vocabulary and to establish correct grammar."
4 Rewards: Getting your kid to pay attention to schoolwork doesn't mean they have to be driven toward a long-term goal. Jackson says kids don't know they want to be lawyers or accountants, but they do know they want to please you. Set up a points system that buys your child more exposure to their favorite leisure activities.
"A reward can be as mundane as the fact that they really like playing ice hockey and they'll do anything in order to do that," he says. "Know what motivates your kid and reward them accordingly."
Even if you think they shouldn't do homework just for the reward, start out that way. As they get older they won't need it. Jackson says they'll begin to do it for other reasons that aren't so mercenary. You want to help kids develop good habits and a parent should use any means possible to get it started, he says.