Thursday, April 30, 2009


Like Sidda Walker in that irritating novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, I don't know what exactly the Junior League is or who gets to join it, but every spring the charitable ladies hold a huge rummage sale in our city and since N. was born, this has become a sacred event on our spring calendar. We buy kids’ clothes, shoes, and books, and N. shops for toys. We go on Saturday morning when the admission price is reasonable, but this means the really choice toys have already been snapped up by shoppers who can stand the Friday night crowds. N. loves picking out a few trucks for 50 c. each, even though they are often half-broken and he already owns about a zillion trucks. We are very wary of the culture of consumption and especially of the way that kids are so effectively targeted by marketing so we avoid taking N. on shopping errands (except for the grocery store, farmers’ market, and hardware store); he has never been to the mall or a toy store (the unintended but predictable consequence of this is of course that The Mall and Toys R Us loom large in his imagination, and if they come up in conversation he asks me all about what these mysterious places are like! That’s okay; they are far more amazing in his mind than they could ever be in real life). I have found the tenet of Radical Unschooling that recommends saying “yes” to children’s desires and resisting the knee-jerk impulse to say “no” very liberating and rewarding in many areas of my parenting, but I do not feel bound to say “yes” to desires incited by corporations whose interest is solely their own profit. That’s why we don’t take N. shopping and also one of the reasons we don’t watch TV (maybe I’ll say more about TV some other time). Thanks to the Junior League, the poor child is not entirely deprived of the experience of shopping for toys for himself.

At this year’s Junior League Rummage Sale, N. got three trucks and a Barbie to add to those he already has (whom he has named Iris, Linda, Myrtle, and Violet – the new girl is Tulip. Maybe I’ll write about the Barbies in some future post as well.). Together we also picked out books, though I reserve the right to veto books featuring licensed characters for the same reasons discussed above, with the notable exception of Thomas The Train (another topic for a future post!) whose original stories snuck into our house a year or so ago thanks to an officious neighbor and turned out not to be quite as insidious as I expected. I like buying books at the rummage sale because the selection is so bizarre and unpredictable (though I do steer clear of any Terrifying Nixon-Era Children’s Books). As you can see, we came up with a truly eclectic group of books this time:
 So far, N.’s favorites are Sunken Treasure, a fascinating book about expeditions to recover a seventeenth-century Spanish ship, and the book about France, which feeds his current interest in old buildings. I am pleased that N. loves what he calls “Information Books” (i.e. non-fiction) as much as story-books. I have no memory of having non-fiction read to me as a child (though this may be inaccurate) and in later elementary and junior high school I was proudly averse to non-fiction, which I claimed was boring, though I was a voracious fiction reader. My prejudice against non-fiction was just one of the many irrational, strong opinions I cultivated as a young person under the mistaken impression that being opinionated in this way marked me out as a distinctive thinker, as gifted. In contrast, N.'s appreciation for Information Books gives him food for truly deep thinking, and the word “boring” is barely in his vocabulary. Of course, he’s only four and a half, but I hope he continues to find the world so interesting as he grows older.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


N. has been drawing trucks and trains with an obsessive daily dedication since October 2008 but as I mentioned in my previous post, he has suddenly started drawing buildings, and I think they are pretty cool.

Here is a typical truck. He's amassed reams (no exaggeration) of drawings like this.
(a delivery truck)

And one of a zillion train pictures:
(an electric cog-wheel train with pantograph going up a hill)

Here are some of the recent pictures of "old buildings":
(St. Paul's Cathedral, London. The third drawing is meant to be a close-up.)

(the Leaning Tower of Pisa)

(a bridge)

(My favorite: the "N. Cathedral," complete with stained-glass windows. Tim told him how to spell "cathedral." I'm fascinated by the fact that that as the letters wrap around the picture, they are backwards!)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Old Buildings

I enjoy seeing N.’s accretive learning process in action; I like seeing how new interests and ideas turn up across the whole range of his activities as he absorbs information. Sometime in the past couple months or so, Tim and N. got David Macaulay’s book Cathedral from the library. Although it seemed somewhat more detailed and technical than a four-year-old needed, N. loved it. Then on our recent trip to Richmond, N. happened to pay particular attention to the architectural features of the old buildings we saw. Then from another trip to the library came David Macaulay’s Mosque, which had lots of interesting drawings. Then came a story book called Iggy Peck, Architect (which, by the way, is a great unschooly book about a boy who loves architecture and a teacher who forbids all interests in buildings until Iggy Peck saves the day by building a bridge from shoe strings). Another day he asked Tim about the Coliseum in Rome, so they looked that up in the encyclopedia and later N. asked me, “Mom, do you know what the Romans used to do in the Coliseum?” “Umm, lion fights?” “No, Mom, they had chariot races and wrestling and things like that!”

One night after supper N. and I were reading Iggy Peck and talking about the buildings drawn on the book’s cover. N. thought that the picture of St. Paul’s cathedral looked more like a Capitol than a cathedral. So I got out the encyclopedia to show him more pictures of St. Paul’s; we ended up poring over the images of many other famous buildings for an hour or so, talking about different styles and features. The next day when I came home from work, there were block structures all over the living room. N. showed me the different kinds of buildings he had made, some of which were “ruins.” Another morning he showed me a drawing of a pyramid he’d made. I love to see him playing with the new information he’s gathered by trying it out in blocks and with crayons. This is the kind of learning a standardized test could never assess.
(don't know why this 2nd picture is showing up sideways...)

This interest in old buildings is not exactly a “unit studies” approach to home school; we didn’t plan it, it happened spontaneously, and we have no idea where it will take us or how long it will last. In fact the whole point of this accretive approach is that the “unit” doesn’t end, but that it gets added to and developed over a whole life time, whether N. continues to be explicitly interested in old buildings or not.

Not only is this interest in architecture unplanned, it also has no boundaries. We can’t foresee what other interests or “subjects” it might introduce. Thus far, I’ve seen N.’s developing sense of history (and of his own taste and preferences) come into play when he adamantly asserts that he doesn’t like modern buildings, he only likes ancient buildings. The complexity of belief or non-belief in different religions is elicited by the comparison of mosques and cathedrals (and especially when we talked about the complicated history of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (not Constantinople)). Macaulay’s books explain the basic engineering and physics of buildings in very engaging ways. This all sounds high-falutin because as an academic I enjoy seeing how many areas of learning emerge from N.’s open-ended pursuit of his interests. But for N., it’s just play!

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The climate in North Carolina makes it easy to garden, and we love growing veggies and flowers. Our gardening style would most charitably be described as haphazard (we never manage to chart out what we’re going to plant, and often are pleasantly surprised to find things we’d forgotten that we planted or puzzled by mystery plants that we can’t identify). Someday we’ll get more meticulous. But in the meantime, we’ve got a lovely crop of kale and mustard greens that have been growing all winter and are just finishing up now. We harvested a bunch of kale on Easter Sunday (a nod to the ancient pagan roots of this spring festival) and N. helped me blanch and freeze them. And by help, I mean he played in the cooling water and scooped handfuls of greens into a sieve to be squeezed out before I chopped them.

By growing our own greens, we are eating locally and chemical-free, as well as learning about plant life cycles and where our food comes from. Plus, they taste so good!

Next up: arugula and cilantro (photo by N.).

And here's a book we like on this subject: How a Seed Grows, by Helene J. Jordan.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


We spent four days last week in Richmond, Virginia, where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS!). Since Richmond is a relatively easy driving distance from where we live, Tim and N. came along. It was a luxury for me to have them there, though it was a lot of work for Tim, as the jobs of figuring out the city, what to do, and where to eat fell entirely to him while I attended panels and hobnobbed with other dix-huitièmistes. I’ve learned that the key to having an enjoyable academic conference experience is not to attend every session, but to choose panels selectively and be sure to get out of the conference hotel to see the sights; having Tim and N. there forced me to adhere to this.

We’d never been to Richmond despite it being one of the major landmarks on our regular drives up I-95 to D.C. to visit my parents. Now that I’ve been there, I want to learn much more about its history, and I am sure that eventually we will now that we’ve been alerted to it by this visit. It struck us as a strange and fascinating city, and seemed much more Northern than we’d expected, much more akin to Newark or Trenton than to Raleigh, for example.

Tim and N. went to the Children’s Museum of Richmond, the Science Museum of Virginia, the Virginia Aviation Museum, and Maymont Park, a historic house. One afternoon all three of us toured the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Jefferson. Normally we don’t like to be so destination/activity-oriented, but it rained most of our visit, so Tim and N. were driven indoors and couldn’t do as much walking and urban exploring as they would have liked. I’m not convinced that children’s and science museums offer as much explicit learning as they often claim to, but that’s not why we go to them. N. had fun (despite the throngs of screaming school groups), and that was the main goal for us. He really enjoyed the Aviation Museum, which apparently specialized in WWI planes. It amuses me to list to myself the traditional school subjects that his passion for transportation leads to; in this case, starting to understand the physics of flight, how machines work, the history of ideas such as flight, the history of events such as the world wars, the design of objects, etc. But this all arises naturally in the course of looking at and talking about the planes rather than being explicitly taught.

N. is very attentive to the features of buildings, so he is especially engaged by the architecture of urban environments where there are so many striking buildings. There were many gorgeous abandoned Deco buildings near our hotel that caught his eye as we walked to lunch. He loved the soaring rotunda of the Jeffersonian Capitol, especially because it is not visible from the outside. He had asked why there wasn’t a dome as we approached the building (all those trips to D.C. having created the impression that a dome is an indispensible feature of a Capitol), so we were all pleasantly surprised to see that there was one after all, and we admired its loftiness (picture above). N. always enjoys house museums, and at the Maymont House he was especially interested in the kitchen. Even in the car, N. is not a passive passenger but works hard to put together a mental map of the places we go. So, he always pointed out Old City Hall (which seemed to be his favorite building in Richmond) when we drove past it, he was excited by the grand three-story houses on Monument Avenue, and he called out “brownstone!” every time we passed one, because that term was new to him.

As exciting and fun as all these experiences were, one of the highlights of the trip for N. was a quiet hour and a half spent at a coffee shop with his dad. They took a break from the noisy crowd at the Children’s Museum and sat together in a cozy spot on a drizzling day, talking things over, reconnecting to their more usual mode of being in their quiet life at home. Subsequently, every time we passed that coffee shop, N. would point it out to me and tell me how nice it was inside, how lovely the big red lamps were.