Thursday, December 10, 2009

Unschool in Kids' Books: Willow

Without at all trying to, we have stumbled upon many library books that depict school as an arid and rule-bound environment that squelches children's creativity. Maybe a disproportionate percentage of creative children who were unhappy in school grow up to write kids' books!

The art classroom at Willow's school is neat and orderly, and the children face front in tidy rows... all but Willow, who is reprimanded by the art teacher for turning around to gaze out the window. The teacher assigns art tasks (such as drawing a green tree) and Willow is scolded by the teacher and mocked by her classmates for the pink tree or blue apple she paints instead of following the model pictures. Willow brings her book of Famous Paintings to show her teacher paintings like hers, but the teacher merely mutters "Horrid little girl" under her breath!

For Christmas, however, Willow gives her beloved art book to her teacher. We see the teacher studying the book, then drawing and painting with increasing abandon. Her hair comes loose, her clothes are spattered with paint, her pictures are scattered all over her classroom floor. When the children return after the holiday break, they enter a room flooded with color and a woman they don't recognize, their transformed teacher, invites them to help her paint murals on the walls.

It's a bit didactic, I suppose, but what I liked about this book was that Willow gave her art book to her teacher not to prove a point, but to open up a world of creativity to her teacher; it was an act of generosity on the part of a child who wanted to share something that gave her pleasure with someone who was clearly unhappy. The image of the uptight schoolmarm is a bit sexist, and I wasn't terribly pleased by the visual representation of her transformation in the shift from her austere hair pulled back in a bun to a much prettier, happier woman with loosely flowing locks. But I like the book's basic depiction of the value of creativity, of the two-way street of education as the teacher learns from the student, and of a school environment transformed by child-led learning.

Drawings, Fall Semester Edition

Here is a small selection of the zillions of drawings N. has made since September. As I have mentioned before, he likes to draw every day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Old Buildings, Fall Semester Edition

N.'s deep interest in old buildings has continued and developed all this fall and winter. For example, he has learned about the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Thanks to the Random Encyclopedia Entry, followed up with library books, he learned about International architecture, which he enjoyed very much, though he still says he prefers old to modern. Thanks to our National Geographic subscription, he studied Angkor Wat intensely for a week. He has also become acquainted with Indian temples, primarily through the Taj Mahal. My sister and her boyfriend took a trip to Athens and we had been studying a bunch of books on the ancient buildings of Athens, so N. loved seeing those buildings show up in my sister's photos. Every trip to the library nets books about buildings, whether cathedrals or skyscrapers. One day we were looking at a picture of a building designed by Renzo Piano and I reminded N. that he was one of the architects of the Centre Pompidou; N. shouted "Renzio Piano Building Workshop!" and began excitedly paging through a book on skyscrapers to the final page, an architect's rendering of the London Bridge Tower (apparently also derisively referred to as The Shard), upon which construction began in 2009. He loves making these kinds of connections.

A colleague asked me what exactly N. likes about cathedrals and old buildings, what draws him to this study. I found it difficult to answer because I am really not sure myself, and that is not the kind of thing he could articulate if asked. I think part of the appeal is taxonomic, as with his earlier (and ongoing) passions for construction vehicles and trains; that is, he seems to really love to learn categories and types. He can tell you whether a cathedral is Norman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Neo-Gothic, and he knows a cathedral's different parts, from nave to apse/chancel to transcept, etc. He also seems to enjoy the interplay between type and variation, in other words when a building has most of the features of one type, but departs from type in a few details. This is especially true in his daily drawings of buildings, the seemingly infinite variations of cathedrals, churches, factories, etc. he comes up with (photos of this fall's drawings coming in a future blog post). And I think he enjoys thinking about and trying to understand the idea of history. He's commented repeatedly that buildings that we think of as old were new when they were built. It is exhilarating to begin to grasp the scope of the past.

Throughout the fall, wherever we go, we have been looking at old buildings:

Train tracks leading to abandoned tobacco factories in our city. We walk among these factories regularly because N. is fascinated by them.

A bit of very old cobbled street near the old tobacco factories.

The entrance to the grand Art-Nouveau headquarters of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, built in 1929. This 22-story building was the tallest in the South when it was built, and it was designed by the architects who went on to build the Empire State Building. (Incidentally, it is now for sale!) Last year, the receptionist wouldn't let N. and me in the lobby to look at the Christmas tree set up there and made us look at it through the street windows instead. The lobby reeked of stale cigarette smoke.

Salem College, the oldest educational institution for women in the United States (1772). I think this building dates to the mid-19th century, but I can't remember for certain.

N. was very intrigued by these typical Old Salem windows that are neither Gothic nor Romanesque.

The underside of a modern bridge built in the style of the late eighteenth-century Moravian settlers of Old Salem. N. and I regularly argue (in fun) about whether it is old or modern.

Entrance to what is now the Sun Trust building in Durham, NC.

Duke University Chapel.

Another view of the Duke Chapel.

One of N.'s drawings of the Duke Chapel. (There is a cloister on the side that you can't see in the above photos.)

The American Tobacco campus, now redeveloped as office space. I like the mixture of buildings in this photo.

Court House in Durham.

A church in downtown Durham that N. liked.

The old Kress department store, downtown Durham.

The Library of Congress, Washington D.C. N. LOVED this! It was so fun to take him to it!

The Old Post Office, Washington D. C. Another one N. really loved. We went up into the clock tower for a great view of the city. (Architectural style: Richardson Romanesque)

Side-view of the Old Post Office.

The National Cathedral, Washington D.C.!!!! (Neo-Gothic)

Another view of the National Cathedral.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Purity of Speculation

In J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003), which I am teaching this week, the title character discusses experiments performed on apes in 1917. In one experiment to determine mental capacity, food is withheld from an ape named Sultan, a bunch of bananas are hung on a wire three meters above the ground in Sultan's pen, and three wooden crates are brought into the pen.
'Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one's thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought -- for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? -- is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?' ....

'At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied....' (p. 72-73)
Such a poignant vision of what behaviorism looks like to its subjects as they must limit and reduce their thoughts to meet the low and limited expectations of their trainers! The account of Sultan's first "wrong" thoughts reminds me of one of my mom's methods of punishing misbehavior: we were told to "go to your room and think about it," and we later joked as a family that of course what we thought about during the brief banishment was anything but our actual transgression. Thoughts are wayward.

The experiment on Sultan is not meant to be a punishment; it is meant to measure what he knows, his powers of thinking. But he experiences it as punishment (What have I done?), as a withdrawal of affection (Why has he stopped liking me?), as a profound misunderstanding of his nature (What misconception does he have of me?). Given this account of the experience of behaviorism, I was so saddened by the recent light article in the New York Times about parents who apply Dog Whisperer tactics to their children as if they are merely animals to control. I don't know a thing about dogs, but I suspect Elizabeth Costello would find the use of such tactics on both dogs and children unjust.

I want both in my university classes and in my parenting not to create situations in which there is a single "right" thought or response, but to foster "the purity of speculation." Just as Elizabeth Costello calls for us to sympathize with Sultan, I want to sympathize with my students and with my son, to be open to all their ways of thinking.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Child's October, Part 2

[Another belated post!]

Before I had a child, I had never been trick-or-treating. My parents believed that Halloween was in conflict with their Christian beliefs, so we went to parties at our church instead. We wore wonderfully creative costumes that my mom made and we got plenty of candy at those church parties, so when I was a child I didn't feel deprived of anything. But now I absolutely love Halloween and I think there is nothing like trooping door to door. I love the festive feeling of the night as our neighborhood teems with costumed kids and adults. We live in an especially good neighborhood for trick-or-treating because the streets are on a grid and lined with sidewalks; people come over from the surrounding neighborhoods and this year Tim (who stays home to dispense candy while N. and I make the rounds) counted over 150 trick-or-treaters at our door (excluding accompanying parents). The scene is always enlivened by the students from the nearby local public arts high school/college who dress to the nines and sometimes sing for their candy.

This year N. trick-or-treated with one of his best friends and they had so much fun together. I loved seeing their glee at the spookily decorated houses. One neighbor is apparently a lighting designer at the school of the arts, and her house featured fog, lights, spider webs, a costumed man leaping out of a coffin, etc. It was so well done! Last year, N. wouldn't have enjoyed it, but this year he and his friend thought it was just scary enough to be really fun.

N. and his pirate friend. N. (at his insistence, of course) has been a black cat 4 years in a row.

We were proud of our simple ghost haunting our yard.

I like the traditional trick-or-treating, neighborhood Halloween more than any other substitute because we are out celebrating the season with our neighbors, both those who are our friends and those we don't know well. Halloween is a kind of antidote to our era's social fragmentation.

I love that it is a holiday of generosity and excess; when I was a kid I used to marvel at the very idea of trick-or-treating because it seemed it would violate all my social conditioning to ring a stranger's doorbell and ask for candy. How totally bizarre it must be to do that!! At the same time, our era's sanitized version of Halloween (parents and cars all over the place) is nothing like what Tim experienced as a child, when "Trick or treat, soap or eat" was a genuine threat. As much as it seems to violate social norms to ask strangers for candy, social rituals are strongly emphasized in today's Halloween as children are reminded to say "Trick-or-treat" when the door opens and then to be sure to say "Thank you!" (I was annoyed at myself for falling into this as I walked with my friends, the parents of N.s friend. We were repeatedly reminding the boys to say "thank you" and I really don't think that should matter much at Halloween!).

We haven't talked much yet with N. about the complex origins of Halloween, though these were exactly what disturbed my parents when I was young. But as the streets of our neighborhood are thronged with ghosts and witches and cackles and howls ring in the air, I like to think we are connected to an ancient way of marking the season as it turns, wondering what it will hold for us, and thinking of those no longer with us.

Tim hoped to ward off swine flu with this sick jack-o-lantern.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Child's October, Part 1

[This isn't timely, but I didn't have time to write it when it was timely...]

In August, N. and I were talking about events we were anticipating in October, a momentous month: his sister Anne’s baby was due mid-month, and of course there would be Halloween.

“There’s something else, Mommy,” N. reminded me.

“What? I can’t think of anything else.”

You know!”

“No, really, I don’t think there’s anything…”

“THE FAIR!!!!”

How could I have forgotten? N. loves the Dixie Classic Fair, the major agricultural fair for the western region of North Carolina, with a deep passion. This year we spent two whole days there, and I mean arriving at 9:30 a.m. and leaving at 5 on our first day, and that day only included 2 rides (we saved rest of the rides for another day when you could buy a pass for unlimited kiddie rides). N. attacks the fair with his usual thorough meticulousness. Our first day we wandered through Yesteryear Village, a permanent assemblage of historic farmsteading buildings from around the county that have been moved to the Fairgrounds as suburban development displaces them. We watched the blacksmiths working for an hour; we watched woodturning and eventually N. tried it for himself.

Checking out an old barn in Yesteryear Village
He examined the glass cases holding prize-winning collections of antiques: eyeglasses, medicine jars, postcards, tobacco ephemera. He insists on inspecting every one of the large dioramas constructed by various Boy and Girl Scout troops illustrating the fair’s theme (this year: “Taste the Thrill”), then the Lego entries, paintings, quilts, jars of preserves, etc. We looked at the animals – pigs, goats, and chickens on the day we were there. We watched farm kids in different age groups herd pigs in a ring in a showmanship event. We walked through the midway to marvel at the rides some crazy adults love. We sat on the grass and listened to a wonderful bluegrass band. We marveled at the state-record-setting pumpkin (1,258 lbs!)… and more!

Prize-winning chickens...
...and pumpkins!

I know many sophisticates and intellectuals who scoff at the fair. Though I didn’t notice any reference to organic farming methods at the fair, I might expect that my locavore friends would take an interest in the agricultural displays. But the agricultural aspects of the fair are geared toward farmers and 4-Hers, not urban dilettantes. All other elements of the fair seem appealing to the intelligentsia only as camp or with a thorough sense of irony. Thus I saw plenty of Facebook photos mocking Fair kitsch and the vast array of signs advertising fried foods; the most notorious are fried pickles and fried butter.

How much more pleasant it was to be able to see the fair through the eyes of my five-year-old instead! I felt lucky to be there with him. Not only does he unabashedly enjoy the fair, but unlike my sophisticated friends, it seems, N. really marvels at the labor that the fair celebrates, from Lego creations to farming to blacksmithing to music-making. Added to this, it is so much fun to see his sheer enjoyment of the rides, an enjoyment that has blossomed from very tentative to wholehearted over three years of fair attendance. It's great to be a kid at the fair.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sitting Still -- or Not

I started reading Little House in the Big Woods to N. a few nights ago. Tonight, we read Pa's story about his father's difficulty being still as a child on Sundays, and the time he and his brothers snuck outside to try their new sled. N. had a hard time understanding the extreme version of the Sabbath practiced by Laura's Grandpa's family. They can't cook, hitch the horses to the wagon, or do anything else resembling work. The children have to sit quietly and study their catechism. I tried to explain that they dedicate Sunday to reflection and prayer, to thinking and studying. N. cried out, "No! You have to fidget to learn! You have to move all around and play to learn!"

Amen, baby.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Supply and Demand

N. had his five-year-old medical check-up yesterday, and was scheduled to get the H1N1 vaccine. But since his pediatric practice doesn't have as much vaccine as they were expecting to have, they are only giving it to the highest-risk children. N. didn't qualify because he's homeschooled! Now, I realize that the vaccine is in short supply nationwide, but I thought it was a little annoying that he was ruled out just because he's homeschooled. It's that old socialization canard again, right? As if he's in total isolation and never interacts with other kids! In fact, he plays almost every day with our next-door neighbors (who go to preschool and thus presumably are exposed to the flu). Plus, we've had well over 100 cases of H1N1 on my campus this semester and I would think that my proximity to all those germy college students whose immune systems are compromised by their excessive imbibing would give us extra points in the vaccination rationing. Apparently not.

Well, I know we're not the only ones who want the vaccine for our kids and can't get it (except for those in New York who can get it but are declining it), and I do think its fairly likely that we've been exposed already. Maybe that little on-again, off-again fever N. had for a couple days two weeks ago will inoculate him for now.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Say Uncle!

About a week and a half ago, N. became an uncle when his (half)sister gave birth to Baby F! We are so excited to have this beautiful girl in our family! Here are three generations -- proud Grandpa Tim, Uncle N., and Baby F. when she was 1 day old:

And here's me getting some precious baby-snuggling time:

N. is moderately excited about Baby F.'s arrival. He hasn't been able to hold her yet because of concerns about flu and colds, but I hope he'll get more interested in her as he gets to interact with her more. Since he's the only child living in our house and has no cousins (yet!) on my side, I hope eventually he and Baby F get to be good friends. For now, her birth has made him want to hear again all his favorite stories about his own birth and first year of life.

An as-yet unsettled question is what to call the step-grandparents. Anyone in blended families have suggestions? Despite all that gray hair I'm rocking at age 35, I'm not quite ready to be called "Grandma Fanny Harville." I want a name that signals the significant relationship I hope to have with this baby, but I can't yet imagine what that term would be, just as there's no good name for the meaningful and long-standing relationship Baby F.'s mommy (my nominal step-daughter) and I have. I hope something will suggest itself to us!

And about that gray hair, if I may digress entirely from the homeschool theme of my blog for a moment: I got my first gray hairs when I was 15, and started getting a noticeable quantity in my mid-20s. In the last two years, the pace of graying has really accelerated. Supposedly its a myth that stress makes you gray, but I wonder... I'm a little vain about the fact that I've never dyed my hair, so I thought it was really funny when last week the employee in my university library's new Starbucks who knows my habitual order (venti London Fog tea latte with whole milk -- an expensive habit I need to break) asked me if I dyed it gray or if it was natural! Does anyone actually dye their hair gray? From time to time people will tell me they love my hair and I always think at first that they are complimenting the cut and style and I feel pleasantly flattered and then I realize that what they are really saying is exactly what my Starbucks friend was saying: "Wow, you really have a lot of gray hair!" At least the Starbucks lady tried to backpedal by telling me that the gray actually made me look younger! Ha ha. Who knows how old she thinks I actually am and what she meant by "younger."

End of solipsistic digression! The point of this post is not me and my hair, but Baby F. and her lovely full head of newborn hair! We look forward to watching her grow and to getting to know her.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rainbow Laundry Line

This doesn't have much to do with homeschooling, except that it is one of the regular household tasks that Tim and N. spend time on: laundry. I thought of these pictures when I saw this colloquy in the Times today on the subject of line-drying clothes and energy consumption. Tim and N. have taken to hanging the laundry in a rainbow pattern!

Fortunately we live in a shabby old neighborhood with no rules about hanging out laundry (the idea that some places have such rules just infuriates me!), but I like to think that our colorful clothesline would convert the skeptics. It's laundry as art!

I love it that Tim has turned a mundane "chore" into something beautiful, even though it takes even longer to put the clothes on the line when he has to sort by color as he goes. Instead of trying to get through the laundry task as quickly as possible, he makes it meaningful. This approach is part of what makes him such a good homeschooling dad: he is a very intense person yet he is extraordinarily good at being in the moment and appreciating each moment's rich color.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Unschool Swimming Lessons

I sometimes joke that it is a good thing that there wasn’t a water-birth option at the hospital where N. was born, because from his first bath onwards he has hated being in the water. N. has eczema, so our pediatrician encouraged us to bathe him infrequently, and I was more than happy to follow this recommendation – the fewer screaming bath sessions, the better! This was an early but defining moment for me as I began to discover how I would parent. One approach would suggest that I should have bathed N. frequently when he was an infant in order to get him used to baths, that maybe he would even have come to like them. But I simply couldn’t bring myself to subject my baby to something that he definitely found so terribly uncomfortable for the uncertain possibility that he might someday feel differently about it. I kept him clean, but rarely gave him a full bath. Today he still prefers sponge baths to immersion.

Despite N.’s aversion to water, or really because of it, I think it is important that he learns to swim. Tim is not a big fan of being in the water either (and I believe this is one of his many genetic bequests to N. – they are so similar in so many ways!). He is not a comfortable swimmer and hates putting his head underwater; in fact he was saved by his sister from near-drowning at age 12. So, I have occasionally taken N. swimming in the past few summers, and at first he would cling to me with an iron grip, then if we went often enough he would agree to stand on his own feet in the water, still holding my hand, then eventually walk on his own in the pool. Oddly, even when he was clinging desperately to me he really enjoyed going to the pool. But at the beginning of every summer we’d have to start the process of familiarization and getting comfortable in the water all over again. The first time Tim took him to the pool this summer, N. refused to get in, and sat on the edge dangling his legs in the water and happily scooping and pouring for a couple hours.

Clearly N. is not yet ready for formal swimming lessons; in addition to his hesitancy about getting in the water, he resists joining in group activities and following group instructions. He likes to watch on the sidelines for a long time before participating. So, I proposed that we institute “homeschool swimming lessons,” setting aside at least one afternoon a week for a Mommy-and-N. swimming date at the Y (this means that now he swims more often than he bathes!). So far, this has been really fun, and N. has been making great progress. He’s enjoying it so much that it’s been hard to convince him to get out of the pool to go home for supper! While we play in the water together and practice dipping our chins (working up in baby steps towards blowing bubbles and eventually putting our faces in!), we see kids in swimming classes in another part of the pool and we talk about what they are doing as the goal that we are gradually working up to. Sometimes as I shiver in the water, I look enviously at the moms reading their books on the pool deck while their kids take lessons from the teenage lifeguards; it looks a lot easier! But I am grateful to have the opportunity to help N. learn to swim at his own pace, and when we come home from our swimming lesson, Tim always tells me I am giving N. a great gift by helping him become comfortable in the water.

The “Unschool Swimming Lessons” might exemplify our family’s approach to unschooling, a label I find needs qualification and elaboration in order to convey accurately what we do in our homeschooling (but that’s a subject for another post). I’m not going to put N. in a swim class because I think he needs to learn to swim or because that’s what other kids his age are doing. But I am also not willing simply to follow his lead in this instance, as perhaps a “true” unschooler would; it is safe to say that he has never once said to me, “Hey Mommy, let’s go swimming!” I do think swimming is an important life skill best learned in childhood through practice and repetition (oddly, I seem to think swimming is more important than immersion bathing!) and I am not willing to leave it to him to learn whenever in life he might express the desire to do so. So I’ve tried to come up with a way to satisfy my concern that he develop a consistent level of comfort and skill in the water, a way that is fun and enjoyable for him and that respects his feelings, temperament, and learning style. That, at least in part, is what unschooling means for us.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Random Encyclopedia Entry

In September, Tim and N. started reading a randomly-selected encyclopedia entry (or several entries) just about daily. I bought for very little money a complete set of 1997 World Book Encyclopedias and a complete set of 90s Britannica at my university library’s deaccession sale a couple years ago. This is a fairly self-explanatory activity! N. picks a volume from either set of encyclopedias, and they open it and read whatever they alight on, as well as other nearby entries that grab their attention. We love the fortuitousness of bibliomancy; there's just nothing like randomly happening on things as you flip through a book, and we much prefer the book versions to online encyclopedias for this reason. This activity violates the principle of contextualized learning that usually guides our studies, but N. seems to enjoy it very much, and to retain a fair amount of information from these snippets. At supper, Tim and N. tell me together about what they learned, reinforcing through conversation. N. is already very curious and eager to learn, and I think the random encyclopedia entry reading reiterates that inherent wonder in the vastness of interesting things in the world that makes young children so much fun to be around.

Bonus reading: The Know-it-all: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A. J. Jacobs, in which Jacobs sets out to read the complete abridged Encyclopedia Britannica. Very, very funny.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

“No governess! How was that possible? Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education.”

Elizabeth could hardly help smiling, as she assured her that had not been the case.

“Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess you must have been neglected.”

“Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.”

Lucky me, I have the pleasure of teaching Pride and Prejudice right now and I’ve been thinking about whether the above conversation between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet suggests the Bennet family practices some kind of unschooling avant la lettre. Jane Austen attended formal school (2 mediocre boarding schools) for only about 3 years; her father, a clergyman, educated 4 of her brothers as well as the sons of some neighboring gentry in the Austen home. We don’t see in Austen’s work the kind of longing for women’s access to educational institutions that appears in, say, Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth and her sister Jane (perhaps like Austen and her sister Cassandra?) seem to have thrived under the approach to education that Elizabeth describes.

Yet Pride and Prejudice seems somewhat ambivalent about the exercise of pedagogical authority over children. On one hand, it seems likely that the novel critiques the authoritarian approach to learning by making the obnoxious Lady Catherine its advocate: “I always say that nothing is to be done in education without regular and steady instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it.” Lady Catherine’s approach doesn’t seem to have been terribly successful with her adult daughter, who is utterly dependent on her governess and barely speaks a word in the novel. The cringing, self-deluding Mr. Collins had been brought up by his “illiterate and miserly father” in a state of “subjection” that seems only to have enhanced, not remedied, his “deficiency of nature.”

On the other hand, Elizabeth finds herself wishing her father would play the conventional role of authoritarian patriarch toward his hedonist youngest daughter Lydia: “If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself and her family ridiculous.” Of course Mr. Bennet disregards Elizabeth’s advice, and Lydia runs off with Wickham, but it is not at all clear that Mr. Bennet could have done anything to prevent this. As they all see when she comes back home as Mrs. Wickham, “Lydia was Lydia still.”

However successful the Bennets’ approach to education was with Jane and Elizabeth, it was certainly less effective in the cases of Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mary is sanctimonious and sententious, and Kitty blindly follows the lead of her wild younger sister. In the end, though, the novel doesn’t indict the Bennets’ approach to learning per se, yet it seems to advocate stronger parental involvement, especially when it comes to a child’s moral character. This most optimistic of Austen’s novels also suggests, unlike perhaps any of her other works, that errors in parenting and education can sometimes be rectified. Mr. Bennet, having learned a hard lesson from his laissez-faire response to Lydia, takes a slightly more active role with Kitty, refusing to allow her to visit Lydia and Wickham and sending her to spend most of her time with Jane, Elizabeth, and their husbands; “in society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great… She became… less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid.”

Darcy too suggests his parents could have taken a more active role in shaping his character. Reflecting on his parents’ approach, Darcy says “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing.” Luckily for him – and for us – he gets to learn “a lesson, hard indeed at first” from Elizabeth herself, a woman whose education has given her true independence of mind and the fortitude “to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Sometimes it seems that all my extracurricular interests show up in the New York Times Style section about 4 months after I get into them, making me feel like a trendy little sheep (that’s what I get for being snide about conformity in my previous post!). For example, urban chicken- and bee-keeping (which are still only my fantasies unlikely to actually be realized), urban gardening, Alfie Kohn, even unschooling itself. Canning is no different; you can read all about the canning craze here. But I swear I was into it way last summer! That’s when I asked my mom for a pressure canner for my birthday.

I wanted to start canning for several reasons. Last year I proscribed grocery-store tomatoes after reading about the virtual enslavement of the laborers who pick almost all the winter tomatoes consumed in this country (see below for sources. And I realize that a one-family boycott isn’t doing those laborers much good, but it’s all I can manage right now). We eat a primarily vegetarian diet (deviating for ethically raised meat twice a month or so) which means a lot of legumes; as busy people we used to rely very heavily on canned beans but last year’s Bisphenol-A scare made us determined to eliminate tin cans from our grocery list. So, no fresh tomatoes that aren’t locally grown in season and no tin cans meant learning how to can for myself.

Last year I canned lots of whole tomatoes, fresh beans such as crowder peas and limas, and dried beans such as chick peas, black beans, etc., plus some beets. This year I decided to branch out, and I had a willing helper in N., who loves to help with cooking in general and who got much more interested in the canning this year than he was last year.

Watching the 9-day pickles ferment... Little hands shelling crowder peas...

My brother, knowing us well, surprised us with a tomato press for Christmas, so we canned tomato puree as well as whole tomatoes, and N. loved operating the press (part of what he likes about canning is the machinery involved!). We also canned rhubarb and strawberries, and we experimented with 3 different kinds of pickles, as well as zucchini-orange marmalade, two kinds of salsa, pumpkin, and a zucchini relish. We had an excellent science lesson when N. took too long to fill a hot pickle jar; when we put it back in the boiling water to process, the cooled jar broke. The hardest part of pickling, though, was explaining to N. that we can’t try any of the pickles yet because they need to sit and get flavorful! We are both really excited to see how they come out.

Ginger zucchini marmalade

Bonus reading on tomatoes:
"The Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes" [Gourmet Magazine]
Follow-up in Gourmet on Tomatoes and Slavery
Recent news [The Atlantic]
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers
New Yorker essay about Immokalee from 2003

Bonus reading on canning:
Small Measure
Blueberries for Sal (I love the picture of Sal's mother's old-fashioned kitchen on the endpapers of the book!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

We are Family

When you have children, you must realize, if you hadn’t already, how conformist mainstream American culture can be, and the relentless blue and pink/truck and doll gender divide is only the most obvious example. Despite the fact that there are as many kinds of families as there are people, it seems that a stereotype is still many people’s default image of a family. Our family make-up is somewhat unconventional: Tim is 60, I am 35, and he has two wonderful daughters who are only a few years younger than me. Many of our friends, even those who have known us for a long time, stumble over what name to give the relationship between Tim’s children, often referring to his daughters as N.orris’s aunts; we call them what they are – N.’s sisters. And we assiduously cultivate their sororal relationship with him; he has deeply bonded with them. We are lucky that one lives only 80 miles away while unfortunately for us the other lives on the West Coast. They are both huge parts of our life. In late October, N. is going to be an uncle. “But I’m not a grown-up yet!” he said when we told him that his sister’s pregnancy means he’ll be an uncle. “That’s just the way it works in our family,” was our reply.

Tim and I have been married for 12 years, so we are used to new acquaintances’ poorly disguised looks of surprise when they meet us as well as their terribly discreet questions about how we met. But we have not yet gotten over getting irked when strangers assume that Tim is N.’s grandfather and don’t restrain themselves from unnecessary commentary. Tim came up with a great response to this: when someone asks N. if he’s having a fun day with grandpa, Tim says loudly and heartily, “We fooled them again, N.!” But he doesn’t always have the patience to respond this gracefully; people throwing your age in your face gets old! Today Tim and N. were at a doctor’s office and a nurse was making conversation with N. while she checked on Tim. I wasn’t there, but this is more or less how the conversation was reported to me.

“So, where do you go to school?”

“I go to homeschool!”

“Oh, so your mommy teaches you at home.”

“No! I teach myself! My mommy goes to [XY University] every day.”

Tim, perhaps wanting a little credit for all he does with N., says, “But N.orris, you’re not home alone, right?”

“Yes,” the nurse joins in, “your grandpa probably helps you learn things.”

Tim, irritated, says somewhat snippily, “Well, that would be tough, since one of his grandpas is dead and the other lives in Washington D.C.!”

“Oh,” replies the nurse, slightly nonplussed, “well, you must learn things with your… friend… here.”

“That’s my dad!” N. shouts incredulously.

He’ll have to get used to making this explanation, just as he’s gotten used to telling people he’s homeschooling.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Music is a really important part of our family culture. We listen to a lot of music of all sorts, and Tim and I go to a lot of concerts, mostly classical. I play the cello (though very infrequently in the past couple years), I love singing, and in the past year I started learning to play the clawhammer banjo. I really want N. to take piano lessons and have found a teacher who I think would be compatible with our learning philosophy, but N. is resistant to the idea, so I am restraining myself from pushing this at present. I want him to take lessons because he loves music and being able to play music is so soul-satisfying; I want to give gift that to him, but I recognize that it has to be something he wants and that enforced music lessons can kill the joy of music rather than foster it. Meanwhile he plays around on the piano almost daily, making his own music by exploring the instrument’s sounds. Sometimes he picks out tunes (like “Be Still My Soul” from Finlandia). I hope his piano-playing leads to a desire for formal instruction at some point, but right now he is perfectly satisfied with what he does on the piano, and I have to admire and respect that.

So, as I was saying, we go to a lot of concerts. I wanted to be able to share this with N., so from an early age, I took him to outdoor concerts, childrens’ choir and youth symphony performances, and I’d occasionally sneak him into the second half of the Sunday afternoon performances of our city’s symphony. We’d sit in the back, and just hear a movement or two and then leave. (We’d do the same with the UNC School of the Arts dance performances.) N. always liked going to concerts with me and he had no trouble sitting still (I’d bring something for him to hold on to like a matchbox truck or stuffed animal); his main difficulty was not liking anything too loud. Once I took him to the second half of an afternoon symphony concert only to discover that the 1812 Overture was on the program, so we had to leave before the cannons boomed!

Tim and I subscribe to the symphony and during the year that N. was 3 he started asking regularly why he couldn’t go to the concerts with us. So when he was 4 we switched our subscription from Tuesday night to Sunday afternoon and bought three season tickets. The concerts are often challenging for N., yet he still wants to go. Last year, he would sometimes fall asleep on my lap during the second half of the concert. The music director of our city’s symphony often does very gimmicky programming and picks pieces that adhere to the theme he’s chosen for the concert rather than simply choosing really excellent music, and it seems to me that N. is least engaged when the music isn’t really moving or striking. For example, the mushy movie-music of the score to The Red Violin didn’t capture his attention, but when they played Beethoven’s 9th (on another day), N. was literally sitting on the edge of his seat for the entire piece.

Last Sunday we went to the first concert of the season. It opened with The Star Spangled Banner (a Southern symphony tradition to start the season this way, I think?). He enjoyed the first half of the program immensely, especially the Suite from Swan Lake. He was bobbing his head in time and looking eagerly around the stage from our balcony vantage point, watching the musicians carefully. It was fun to see him enjoying it so much! At intermission he wanted to know what “that organ sound was” and we determined he was referring to the oboes and bassoons. The second half of the concert was Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto (featured in the film “Shine”), and N. got restless during this; when it was over he said, “Whew, that was hard!” meaning it was hard for him to sit through it! When he is restless or sleepy, I start to doubt the wisdom of bringing him to the symphony. I worry about whether he’s distracting other people, and this distracts me from the music. But overall I think it is worth it. I hope going to the symphony is fostering habits of patience and attentiveness as well as support for and participation in cultural performances, not to mention learning about music. Most importantly, he wants to go and he enjoys it. For the rest of that day, he was humming bits from Swan Lake, and this week we’ve been teaching him the national anthem!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Duluth: Museums, etc.

One of the reasons we wanted to spend a whole month in Duluth, MN this July rather than our usual week-and-a-half summer visit was so that we could take full advantage of all the city’s museums and museum-type places.For us, taking full advantage means multiple visits to a museum or at least one long languorous visit during which N. can indulge his long attention span. Here are some of the places we enjoyed:

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum at the Duluth Depot. A truly excellent train museum (and we've been to 5), happily unchanged since my own childhood, which means it is gimmick-free and has nary a Thomas the Train in sight. It has not been updated in any effort to make it "educational" (which often means dumbing things down); in fact I imagine it was designed to appeal to adult railroad buffs, and that's why we like it.

There are all kinds of little displays tucked between tracks: a historical range of track maintenance vehicles, collections of train bells, of track of different widths, of the logos of the many lines that served the upper midwest. You can climb up in many of the engines, cars, and cabooses; the holdings span the history of trains in Minnesota, from the two first steam engines in the state ("Old Betsy" and "The William Crooks") to logging, mining, passenger, and mail trains. N. loves this place. In fact, last year we happened to be captured in the local newspaper as we visited the train museum!

The Lake Superior Marine Museum, run by the U. S. Coast Guard (free admission!!) is another favorite place and we go there repeatedly. It is tucked right next the the Aerial Lift Bridge under which the big ships pass to reach Duluth's harbor, so in addition to the treasures inside the museum, you're in a great location for ship- and bridge-watching.

The museum houses models of all the different kinds of ships that have sailed on Lake Superior, from schooners to self-unloading "thousand-footers." A model ore dock shows how iron ore and taconite brought down from the mines on trains were loaded into the ships. There are several real engines from fishing boats and an old harbor tug boat. N. especially likes to play with the model lock-and-dam and he enjoys the reproduction of a ship's captain's house with its wheel, map tables, and radar devices.

The William A. Irvin was for 40 years the flagship of U.S. Steel and now a museum moored in a slip in the harbor. We went there twice. The guides are retired sailors and what they lack in professional tour-guide demeanor they amply make up for in arcane knowledge. This was one Duluth museum I had never been to as a kid, though it's been open since the 80s.

We also went once to the Duluth Zoo and the Great Lakes Aquarium. I generally find zoos fairly distressing, though we've been to quite a few in the past couple years. The Duluth Zoo is at least small enough to make for a manageable visit, and it has been updated to conform fairly well to today's standards of more humane habitats. In general, I've never observed N. to get much out of a zoo visit. In more humane habitats, the animals are often difficult to see, and even when he can see them up close, N. doesn't seem very moved by the novelty of being able to see an ape or a tiger, which is the main reason people go to zoos, I imagine. It never seems like he learns or retains much about the animals in that setting either. The main exception to this I can think of is the Duke Lemur Center, where we had an excellent guided tour by a Duke student who was majoring in biology. I want to like the Great Lakes Aquarium because building an aquarium on the lakefront that specializes in Lake Superior fish seems like a great idea. But it epitomizes the modern museum-type place, full of didactic little plaques bearing random snippets of information that, for me anyway, don't cohere into a big picture. Kids all totally ignore these, which make sense, but the aquarium design discourages observation and reflection and instead seems to foster racing around, not really seeing anything.

is a robber-baron's mansion built in 1908 on the lakeshore. Of course, N. loved it -- the carved doors, stained glass windows, interesting antique bathrooms, and old-fashioned kitchen appliances (i.e. a huge mangle), the carriage house! Here we are out on the terraced gardens (it was really cold that day and if you look closely you can see that the peonies were still blooming in late July!).

Probably the dorkiest thing we did in Duluth (what? more than everything already listed?) was visit the Granitoid Memorial Park, a monument at E. 7th Street commemorating three blocks of the second oldest concrete-paved street in the nation! We had to go here after learning about it from a friend who is a passionate advocate for its preservation; it combines transportation and old things -- perfect!

Last: we went to Minneapolis for a couple days and spent two days exploring the old mill area on the Mississippi. One day we rambled for a couple hours around the mill ruins and walked along the Stone Arch Bridge, and we were so intrigued by the place that we went back the next day to go to the Mill City Museum, where we learned an incredible amount about flour milling.

This was one of our favorite museum experiences of the month and I wouldn't be surprised if we go back next year.

The museum is built within the preserved ruins of an abandoned mill that burned in 1991, so it provided another appealing combination of N.'s interests: old building and industrial machines.

Here N. is playing with a turbine simulator. This museum made me realize I need some serious brushing up on physics; I only barely understand how these early water-powered mills worked.

[Updated 9/14 -- I forgot one!] We went to one conventional art museum, The Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus. We've taken N. to a few art museums before and he's generally found them very overwhelming (which is certainly understandable). We've been able to make art museums a moderately enjoyable experience for him if we limit ourselves to just a few paintings or sculptures and if we leave as soon as he's ready to (often quite soon). But for some reason, our experience of the Tweed was totally different (maybe because Duluth is magical!?); we spent a good hour and a half there and N. was totally absorbed and enjoying looking at everything. He was drawn in by the many smallish sculptures on pedestals at his eye level, as well as an exhibit of paintings by "Big Al" Carter, many of which incorporated glued-on popsicle sticks, paint-stirring sticks, and tinkertoys. Somehow these sculptures and paintings seemed to unlock the whole museum for him, and he became interested in looking at everything.

Phew! It was a busy month! It was interesting to depart so radically from our usual mode of unschooling. Instead of spending most of the day at home reading, drawing, talking, playing with toys, taking walks, listening to music, we left the house almost daily in order to enjoy Duluth. The house we stayed in in Duluth was not the primary site of N.'s learning, nor was it adequately stocked to be. It made me appreciate all the resources we have at home which make our unschooling such a pleasure: encyclopedias, myriad books, toys, art supplies (surely one can effectively homeschool with less, but these luxuries make it easy to foster an environment of curiosity, an atmosphere of learning). In Duluth N.'s days were more actively directed by us as we suggested outings he might like, and then scheduled them. I recently discovered Melissa Wiley's blog and her term "tidal homeschooling" and I have been thinking about that term as I've been reflecting on our month away. Being in Duluth was a kind of high-tide time in our homeschooling, and now the tide has turned and N. is taking great pleasure in the treasures it has made visible again.