When I started Willow Tree Community School, I decided that I wanted to do as many things as possible the way Mason did, even if I wasn't sure why. It was a big experiment, really, because I love research so much and I wanted to see what would happen. Luckily for me and my students, all turned out well (else I wouldn't be sharing!). One of the most confusing things I implemented was forms. Of course, here in the states, we are used to grade levels. As Sir Ken Robinson says in one of his talks, "It is as though the most important thing children have in common is their date of manufacture." You move through the system with other children your age, and then you are educated.
Anyone who has studied Mason's works knows that she used forms instead, and that the forms contained multiple ages. Now it would be easy to transfer how we deal with grade levels to how we deal with forms. For example, if Form 1 is supposed to be comprised of children ages 6-9, then when the child turns 10 he moves to Form 2. Or, you could say Form 1 equates to Grades 1-3, Form 2 equates to Grades 4-6, etc., and it would be essentially the same as the grade level system. Roughly, the forms do coincide with age as follows:
Form 1--Grades 1-3
Form 2--Grades 4-6
Form 3--Grades 7-8
Form 4--Grade 9
Form 5--Grades 10-11
Form 6--Grade 12
But then Mason throws us a curve ball on p. 19-20 of Ourselves with this quote on being slothful:
Sloth, a Tyrant.––I daresay you are glad to hear of an Esquire of the Body who is not followed by a black shadow threatening Mansoul with ruin; but, alas! we cannot be let off. Rest, too, has his Dæmon, whose name is Sloth. 'A little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep,' is the petition with which he besieges the Prime Minister. Once Sloth is ruler in Mansoul, the person cannot wake up in the morning, dawdles over his dressing, comes down late for breakfast, hates a walk, can't bear games, dawdles over his preparation, does not want to make boats or whistles, or collect stamps, drops in all his lessons, is in the Third form when he ought to be in the Sixth, saunters about the corners of the playing-field with his hands in his pockets, never does anything for anybody, not because he is unkind or ill-natured, but because he will not take the trouble. (emphasis mine)
So what does this mean for our idea of forms? Did the poor lad "fail" third form? The kid is supposed to be graduating and he is still in middle school? Surely that can't be right, especially considering a statistic I remember hearing in one of my undergraduate classes that every time you hold a child back, it cuts his chances of actually finishing school in half. So if we can't just lay our ideas on top of Mason's and assume they will fit, what are we to make of forms?
Well, after experimenting with forms at Willow Tree and thinking about child development, I think forms were benchmarks of both development and academic attainments. They were much more fluid than our grade levels are. If you look at how she grouped children, you can see that generally children those ages have certain characteristics in common, and they are focused on the same things academically. But child development can be a tricky thing. It is too tempting to take something that researchers have published as descriptive (e.g., "Most 7 year olds are able to ___.") and make it prescriptive (e.g., All 7 year olds should be able to ____." This is what has gotten us in trouble in the age of standards. Whenever a child developmentalist like Chip Wood or Arnold Gessell describes an age, it is important to remember that real children could be two or more years on either side. There is no such thing as a "standard child."
Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, let's look at Mason's forms. I will even split the forms as Mason did. Since my specialty is language arts, I will focus mainly on that. I invite experts in other areas to weigh in with their observations, as well. Now that would make for a fun conversation!
Form 1b (1st grade)--This is when formal instruction begins. The teacher's job is to help children develop their powers of attention, observation, and oral language while also teaching them beginning reading. The exact way Mason taught reading can be found starting on p. 199 of Home Education. Every first grade teacher should read this. Lessons should be kept short (10-20 minutes each) and varied between quiet, still activities and things that are more active, so that children are not sitting doing seat work too long. You can expect children at this age to tire easily. You want to stop any activity at the first sign of this and change to something completely different. They need lots of time outdoors (read the section on Out-of-Door Life in Home Education, starting on p. 42).
Form 1a (Grades 2-3)--By the time children get to Form 1A, they should be able to read easy books. They spent their time in Form 1B learning lots of sight words and learning how to use phonics meaningfully, though some children may need more time with these. (For more information, see the section on learning to read on p. 199 of Home Education.) The major part of their work in Form 1A is to build fluency in reading and to automate skills in letter formation and spelling simple and high frequency words. This is accomplished through copywork and dictation. Children should gradually take on the responsibility of reading for themselves both orally and silently as they can. (Only give them as much as they can be successful with. This will probably mean using reading groups.) Books that are beyond their ability should be read aloud by the teacher.
Form 2b (4th grade)--Students entering Form 2B should be able to read for themselves fairly fluently. In Form 2, they will transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” They should also have enough experience with copywork, penmanship, and dictation that simple writing conventions have become automated. This means that they may begin writing assignments (mainly narration of stories), though they do tire quickly. Allow them to write a part and then tell the rest, so that they can gradually build up to writing a whole narration.
Form 2a (Grades 5-6)--Students in Form 2A are more fluent in writing, and so their writing assignments can be expanded a bit. They have also read widely enough that they should be able to make connections easily. The main foci in this form are continuing to build fluency and depth in writing and increasing their depth of thinking and reflection on what they read.
Form 3 (Grades 7-8)--Students at this age are beginning to think more abstractly. They also are interested in issues and can see both sides of an argument, so beginning analysis of text becomes appropriate. They may be able to better express themselves in writing than orally.
Form 4 (Grade 9)--Students at this age are better at abstract and creative thinking, but they don’t always show the best judgment. They are very interested in justice and social issues. This is a big transition year. They begin to show more adult traits, but often seem to have more in common with middle schoolers than high schoolers.
Form 5 (Grades 10-11) and 6 (12th grade)--Students mature rapidly during these years. They need to begin delving deeply into fields of interest to them. They are good at analysis, making connections, seeing implications, and abstract/complex thinking. This makes research projects appropriate and important.
So what are we to make of the poor boy who was so far behind? Well, I don't think it was due to a developmental delay, since Mason attributes it to sloth. Perhaps he was reading or writing at a much lower level than his peers because he just didn't care. I've seen that, but it's a subject that deserves it's own cuppa.
So what do you think? Are there any math or science people out there who can tell us what characteristics and patterns they have noticed in children of these ages? I look forward to hearing from you! Have a great day, and enjoy your morning cuppa!