Monday, December 19, 2011

The Nutcracker and an Un-Recital

We had an arts-rich weekend!  N. and I went to our fourth annual Nutcracker performance; the university arts conservatory in our city puts on an excellent production with an all-student cast, orchestra, and crew, and N. and I love it.  Before our first Nutcracker, we read and reread this longish adaptation of Hoffman's tale, which is not the original (despite the author credit) but is fairly close to it in spirit while also being close to the plot of the traditional ballet, so N. could follow what was happening onstage.  His favorite parts of the ballet include the party scene, the growing Christmas tree, the Snow Fairies, the Russian dancers, Mother Ginger, and the Sugarplum Fairy, not to mention all the music -- in other words, just about everything!

We go to one of the matinee performances, along with every other small child in the state, it seems, most of whom squirm, whisper, and sometimes even cry their way through the two hour show (some Nutcrackers are longer, but happily this production is streamlined and fast-paced!).  Their reaction is understandable, if preventable; The Nutcracker is a fairly odd story, and seeing it acted out via ballet can be confusing if you don't know what is going on or aren't used to watching ballet.  I think it is worth going because it can be a lovely visual representation of the magic of Christmas, but it is not worth the expensive tickets if your children aren't prepared to actually enjoy it.  Here are my (fairly obvious!) tips for having a successful Nutcracker outing.  Before you go:
  1. Read aloud a good, detailed version of the story that bears a strong resemblance both to the original and to the stage version many times.
  2. Listen to the music (full score, not the Suite) a lot and talk about which pieces go with which parts of the story.
  3. Prepare your child for watching ballet by addressing questions such as "Why are the men wearing tights?" 
  4. Talk about proper concert-going behavior!  Although no one expects classical-symphony-concert-level behavior from kids at The Nutcracker matinee, everyone pays a lot of money for tickets, so let's be sure they can all see and hear the performance. 
After watching this performance, N. participated in another the next day.  The students of N.'s piano teacher were invited to a party at a house in the country where they played the Christmas tunes they've all been learning on a gorgeous Steinway grand.  It was a lovely, low-key un-recital focused on sharing music, punch and cookies, and after making music the kids all ran wild outside through the rest of the crisp, sunny afternoon.

N. was nervous beforehand, and in the days leading up to the event, the ragtime "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" pieces he was going to play completely fell apart.  But he rose to the occasion, played beautifully, and really enjoyed performing (in fact he said he wished he'd been able to play more pieces!).  It was fun to see all the kids so focused and intent as they played their holiday songs.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Yet Another Train Museum: Roanoke, VA

For a couple years N. has longed to go the the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, VA, so we took a day trip there Saturday.  Although the collection was smaller than we expected, its stock was very clearly labelled (unlike that of the North Carolina Transportation Museum!) so we learned a lot.  The museum collection includes two important engines that are the sole survivors of their classes, the J class and the A class.  Both classes were built in Roanoke and were among the most powerful modern steam engines; they were the last steam engines in regular service in the United States (Norfolk & Western abandoned steam for diesel in 1960).  Another gem in the collection is the iconic Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotive, with streamlined sheath and paint scheme designed by Raymond Loewy in 1930s.  The J and the GG1 might be our new family favorites!

We then proceeded to the O. Winston Link Museum, housed in the former N&W passenger station in Roanoke (built in 1904 and redesigned in the late 1940s by Raymond Loewy!).  Link took incredible photos in the late 1950s of the soon to be defunct steam trains and life in the towns along the rail lines out of Roanoke.  Some of these are collected in The Last Steam Railroad in America, a longtime favorite book of N's.  (We'd also seen an exhibit of Link's photographs last year in a local museum; that show was the occasion for N's first movie, The General).

Another small gallery in the passenger station was devoted to the work of industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who is responsible for the look of so much of 20th-century American life, from Coke bottles, to trains, to Greyhound buses, to Studebakers, to the Exxon, Shell, Post Office, and Lucky Strike logos... We learned a lot and our interest was piqued enough to take a look at his autobiography Never Leave Well Enough Alone, for a possible text in Tim and N.'s autobiography curriculum!

Bonus reading: Wikipedia article about the GG1

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Second-Grade Science at Home: Experiments and Stories

For N.'s kindergarten and first-grade years, we took a very unschool approach to science, alert to all the ways small children build scientific knowledge through everyday experience and elaborating on concepts as they arose (for example, volume and displacement in bathtub play) while eschewing formal science lessons or experiments.  N. learned science through play outdoors and in, gardening, long walks, butterfly and cloud study, plant- and animal-kingdom classification.  Self-directed reading has been an important means of his science learning, from the concepts of physics and construction in David Macauley's Cathedral, Mill, and Castle, to the principles of engine mechanics in the many books we own about trains, to random topics such as simple machines that are explained so effectively in Macauley's The Way Things Work, to picture encyclopedias of insects, animals, and the planets.

Last year (first grade), Tim supplemented these unschool science experiences by reading aloud to N. the compelling narratives of scientific discovery in Uncle Tungsten and Madame CurieThese stories articulate the thrill as well as the grind of scientific pursuits, and together they offer a rich account of the history of chemistry from Humphry Davy onward.

Following their general trend toward more formal learning activities this year (though we continue to see science learning in all the ongoing unschool activities listed above), Tim and N. have been doing experiments from two workbooks several times a week.  The books are Hands-On Earth Science and Hands-On Physical Science.  We don't recommend these books: the experiments are not always clearly written, sometimes flawed in design, and occasionally even wrong (for example, suggesting that a cup full to the brim with water and ice cubes will overflow when the ice melts).  The explanations of the concepts that the experiments demonstrate are extremely brief and unsatisfying.  I'm sure there are much better books out there, but we happened to have these (bought cheap at a homeschool fair), so they've been using them as a first foray into home experiments.  These experiments introduce or reinforce concepts that Tim and N. will want to (in some cases have already begun to) pursue in the future in greater depth as well as simply giving them practice in conducting experiments.  Even when they don't produce the expected result, N. talks with Tim about experiment design and tries to puzzle out why they failed.  Tim and N. choose experiments to try at random, so their exploration of scientific concepts through experimentation is fairly haphazard.  They do an experiment when it appeals to them, which I think maximizes its learning potential.  Rather than approach N.'s science learning more systematically (i.e. learning about foundational concepts and then building on them), we try through conversation to reinforce and make connections among the concepts they have explored because they seemed interesting.  I hope that their next phase of at-home science experiments will move beyond simply reproducing experiments in a book to designing and executing their own experiments to explore scientific questions generated by N. 

In addition to experiments, since Uncle Tungsten and Madame Curie were so effective as narrative science "textbooks," Tim has been reading to N. several days a week this semester from Joy Hakim's The Story of Science, beginning with the Greeks in the first volume.  These books are written for children and N is really enjoying them.  He has absorbed both history of science and abstract concepts from this reading. 

So far then, our science curriculum has been made up of play & life + experiments & stories.  Do you have any favorite books of science experiments or stories to recommend to us?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Synchronicity in Newport

I had fun this morning reading a recent New York Times article to N. that I had "clipped" to my phone (I love the Instapaper app) to share with him over breakfast. In the article, "Plans for a Memorial Splits Newport's Old Guard," a disparate bunch of people of historic importance from 4 centuries collide in a surprising way, and N. has encountered them all recently in his various studies: Roger Williams, Edith Wharton, Doris Duke, and Maya Lin. The article describes how some wealthy residents of Newport disapprove of Maya Lin's commissioned design for a memorial to Doris Duke in a city park Duke developed in the 1970s. Other wealthy residents who'd hired Lin meet to plan their continuing support of her design in a house once owned by Edith Wharton. Lin says her design was in part inspired by the importance of public assembly to Rhode Island's founding father Roger Williams.

Over the past two weeks, N. and Tim have been reading about the founding of Jamestown and Plymouth, the Separatists and Pilgrims, and Roger Williams' role in the Rhode Island colony in A History of Us. Somewhere the other day N. and I encountered an image of Maya Lin and her cat, which led us to look up and discuss her Vietnam Veterans Memorial. N. has long been interested in Edith Wharton's various houses and he's pored over library books with photos of hers and other Gilded Age houses in Newport. And we've gawked repeatedly at "Doris," James B. Duke's private railcar named for his daughter, which is on display at the North Carolina Museum of Transportation.

N.'s mind was fairly blown as I proceeded through the article and read the casual references to each of these four figures. I enjoyed seeing him process this surprising historical remix. Such moments when our discrete tidbits of learning converge are so rich!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Betsy-Tacy for Boys

In a recent blog post on the New York Times website noting the publication of The Betsy-Tacy Treasury (an omnibus reissue of the first 4 Betsy-Tacy books) Pamela Paul writes,

"A ramshackle four-story brownstone in mid-20th-century Manhattan. A Lower East Side tenement at the turn of the last century. The woods of Wisconsin in 1964.

These are just a few of the landscapes that female readers of children’s literature cling to well after they cease reading the books that introduced them. ('The Saturdays,' 'All-of-a-Kind Family' and 'Caddie Woodlawn'for those who somehow missed these greats.) But there may be no world that provokes such profound girlish longing as the bucolic century-old Minnesota of 'Betsy-Tacy.'" [italics mine]

I found myself irritated by Paul's assumption that the readership for the classics listed above is exclusively female and that thus only women look back on them fondly, because these are all books that my son loves and that we have read and reread aloud together with great pleasure.  Some, like All-of-a-Kind Family or Betsy-Tacy are about girls, but in The Saturdays the two boys and two girls in the family take up equal space in the narrative.  If we assume a fun, charming book like The Saturdays, with two engaging boys as central characters, is a "girls' book," we are shutting boy readers out of whole swaths of children's fiction thanks to our own gender biases about what girls and boys enjoy.

As feminists, Tim and I have always emphasized with N. the fundamental equality of men and women, boys and girls.  Gender stereotypes that appear in our reading that imply essential differences in the abilities or interests of boys and girls never stand without critical comment from us.  Boys can cry.  Girls can fight.  Some boys like dolls.  Some girls don't ("Mom, I know," N. will say with impatience at my zillionth editorial comment to this effect!).  As an extension of this, we have tried to avoid gender stereotyping in our selection of books to read to N.  We don't assume that because he is a boy, he will be drawn to certain kinds of stories or bored by others.  When we began reading chapter books aloud, I was thrilled to begin sharing some of my childhood favorites with N., such as the Betsy-Tacy books, The Railway Children, and The Five Little Peppers and it never occurred to me that he wouldn't love them too; I did not love these books because they were "girl books" and I was a girl, but because they were great stories and I loved to read.  While I've looked to others for help generating a list of books with boys as heroes (because I read few such books myself as a child) my main goal in reading aloud with N. has been to share great stories with him, no matter the gender of the characters. 

We make a mistake when we assume that children (or we ourselves, for that matter) need to identify with the hero or heroine of a book in order to have a meaningful encounter with it.  Indeed, much of the pleasure of reading is in experiencing the unfamiliar, the strangeness of a book's world and its people, and our strong awareness as we read that these are not our lives or our selves.  We read not only to find kindred spirits, or rather, when we read we find kindred spirits where we might not have expected them.  We should beware of constructing boys as readers primarily interested in one kind of book or character so we don't deprive them of the opportunity to make connections with a diverse range of characters and types of stories.

As I've been thinking about all this, I asked N. why he liked the first four Betsy-Tacy books so much.  I think his reply sums up everything I've been trying to articulate above: they're about "3 wild girls who can go out by themselves and have adventures!"  We recommend them enthusiastically!

Bonus reading [updated link]: Other parents who read Betsy-Tacy to their boys, and also to a whole classroom of kids.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Letterboxing Redux

The very first post I wrote on this blog in November 2008 was about our first letterboxing adventure.  Since then we'd found about 20 boxes, but we hadn't hunted for any for the past year and a half.  Looking over all the neat stamps in our log book revived N.'s interest in the activity, so we set out on a gorgeous Saturday morning to search in a lovely park.  What I especially appreciate about letterboxing is the combination of purpose and wandering that it offers.  On this outing we only found two of the five stamps we were looking for, but we had a wonderful time exploring the park, kicking through the fallen leaves, and soaking up the autumn sun.

Bonus reading: Atlasquest, where we find our clues.  Letterboxing North America (lots of information, although the clues at this site seem less up-to-date).  The Smithsonian article that is said to have introduced letterboxing to Americans.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fun and Games: Puzzled by New York

Tim's daughter Anne gave N. an amazing 4-D Cityscape New York City Puzzle for his birthday in late August and he's been diligently working away at it.  He was thrilled to finally complete it last weekend (with some help from Grandma!).

It was a great gift because he loves New York, buildings, and miniatures.  He had a wonderful time working on it and he really learned the layout of the city from the tactile process of laboriously fitting the pieces together. 
First you have to put together the grid of the city.  This was the most challenging and time-consuming part of the puzzle.
Then you add the buildings.  The "fourth dimension" of the puzzle's title is time; the plastic buildings are numbered chronologically according to their date of construction and an accompanying timeline poster lists their names and dates as well.  Naturally, N. loved this: history and buildings!  He didn't start with Old City Hall and work his way towards the present when placing the buildings, however; he put them in as he happened to figure out where they went.  But he still learned a lot about the history of the skyline and the buildings of New York. 

And now that he's completed the puzzle, he spends a lot of time touching and looking at it, absorbing the shapes and outlines of the city.

Many children's museums and science museums have hands-on exhibits to foster tactile learning; such exhibits often seem to be less than effective or engaging for N.  But I think the difference with this puzzle is that "fourth dimension," time.  The time it took him to put the puzzle together and the time he has to come back to it again and again make it deeply engaging and productive as a learning experience.

Bonus reading: Here's an interesting meditation on the role of time in learning, by Lori at Camp Creek Blog.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Marie Curie!

[Image source]
Today is Marie Curie's 144th birthday.  Tim and N. loved reading Madame Curie, Eve Curie's biography of her mother together last spring!  We recommend this book enthusiastically.  N. was utterly absorbed by the story of Marie's childhood, her long years of hard work with Pierre isolating radium, and her navigation of the male scientific world.  Tim and N. will mark her birthday by doing a science experiment this afternoon, and recalling their favorite parts of her life story.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beginning French

We've been talking about beginning to study a foreign language with N. for at least a year. We encouraged N. to focus on Spanish and had even arranged for him to have weekly tutorials this fall with his best friend next door, whose mom is a Spanish instructor and whose dad is from Spain. But he insisted on learning French, thanks to Eloise in Paris and his love of French cathedrals. I studied French for many years and nominally have a reading fluency in it, so I'm in charge of this portion of our curriculum. Last year I didn't do my job very well; we had a couple picture dictionaries from the library but only cursorily glanced through them. This year I've vowed to make our French study really happen.

First I ordered a textbook, Discovering French, because I recognized its authors from my own studies of French in 8-12 grades. I bought a used edition of the textbook and a new workbook, but as soon as they were delivered I knew I'd chosen poorly. The books are meant for older students in a formal classroom setting and the lessons depend on a DVD or CD that was not included. N. looked them over and was turned off by them; they seemed intimidating to us both.

Then I ordered a copy of Madeline in French, thinking we'd use familiar picture books as an entree into the language (although buying numerous picture books would quickly get expensive and our public library's French language children's fiction collection is minute -- again, a good argument for studying Spanish!). I had some vague notion that Madeline was originally written in French, but it was not. When the book arrived, I discovered the translation was tortuous and wrought with difficult tenses that I wasn't even sure how to pronounce. This was not going to serve our purpose, and I sent it back.

After fruitlessly trawling Amazon for beginning French texts oriented toward younger children and being unable to differentiate among them, I finally remembered that Charlotte Mason advocated French study (although modern CM adherents are not limited to French). I looked at Ambleside Online and found a useful informal collection and review of resources for foreign language study in homeschool settings. I chose a curriculum written by the Canadian Norma Allen specifically for homeschool use, and I bought a used copy of a French-English picture dictionary she recommends published by DK.

We've just begun using the first level of Allen's curriculum, called L'Art de Dire, which focuses on speaking rather than reading French and is geared for K-2nd graders (it includes downloadable MP3 files). What I especially like about Allen's approach is her encouragement to use the French you are studying every day throughout the day, not only in a discrete lesson context. At first I was a bit freaked out by this; I suddenly was all too aware of the insufficiency of my French fluency for actual everyday speech. The commitment it is going to require to teach my child French staggered me momentarily. But we're falling into French pretty easily so far and taking it slowly (or, I am taking it slowly anyway; N. is eating up French words!*). N. has been poring over the picture dictionary and reading the phonetic pronounciation guides quite well all on his own, so he's adding vocabulary faster than I am. I'm trying to use the words I hear him saying in simple sentences so he hears pronouns and verbs even though we haven't gotten them in Allen's lessons yet. Tim is getting in on the French too, though his pronunciation is atrocious; yesterday he had N. looking up the words for hard-boiled and scrambled eggs while he cooked lunch. I've been trying to make sure we spend an hour or so at least once a week concentrating on French, but the more we can scatter it throughout our lives, unschool-style, the more effective our learning will be. For this approach, using a homeschool-oriented text rather than one designed for conventional school is especially crucial (and I'd love to hear about more resources for learning French that have worked for other homeschoolers).

We know two families in town who are raising their children bilingually in French and English, so one of my eventual goals for this year is for N. and I to have some French conversations with them. It's exciting to put your knowledge in action. This morning after N. and I had a short conversation he shouted "Daddy, I'm speaking French!"
*Bonus reading: This absolutely incredible, thought-provoking essay and video about the experiences of the 3 Brooklyn-born children of Clifford J. Levy and Julie Dressner immersing themselves for 4 years in a Russian-language-only school in Moscow. It's a fascinating meditation on children and language learning, approaches to schooling, autonomy, and resilience.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Last night at supper N. saw Alan Richardson's book Literature, Education, and Romanticism: Reading as Social Practice, 1780-1832 (Cambridge: 1995) lying at the end of the dining room table where various things that various family members are reading tend to pile up.

"Mom," he announced, "I am never going to be interested in that book Literature, Education, and Romanticism because I specialize in the era from 1890-1910."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Daily Math Practice

Daily math practice is part of the ritual of Tim and N.'s daily school time.  Usually right after their read-aloud and follow-up research (currently this is Ida Tarbell's autobiography), N. does a short 5-problem set in a workbook I bought called Daily Math.  Then Tim makes up a series of problems for N. to work, sometimes building on any mistakes he may have made in the Daily Math book.  Earlier this fall, as you can see at right, they were working on sequences, adding, and subtraction.  They also worked a lot on money recognition and money-related arithmetic.  Lately N. has been doing a variety of types of problems: big addition and subtraction problems, word problems, simple algebra (solving for x).

The workbook made it easy to incorporate some formal math into the daily routine and gives a nice platform for further work.  In addition it is giving N. some good practice in the conventions of typical math problems such as he will encounter when he takes the state-required annual standardized test.  Test-taking is not a focus for us, but it seems good for N. to be exposed to and have the opportunity to practice reading and working problems.  N. enjoys doing his math problems, and I like that Tim can tailor his additional daily problems to whatever N. is less confident in; earlier this fall, for example, that was coins/money.  When he makes up word problems, Tim always uses people and places and objects from our life, to highlight the relevance of math in the real world.  The variety of the problems also keeps N.'s interest.  As you can see in the picture, Tim and N. correct the problems together.  N. likes to report to me what his daily "score" in math is, and I remind him every day that making mistakes is how you learn!  Our assessment so far is that while N. is academically unusual in some subjects, in math he is quite typical for his age.  The second-grade Daily Math workbook is right at his current level.

The first two years of N's homeschooling our approach to math was very intuitive and organic.  We did a bit of formal written practice of math but mostly talked math a lot and provided many opportunities for the play and creative problem-solving that encourages strong numeracy.  We're building on that foundation this year with more formal problems, but we are still always on the look-out for ways to develop N.'s math facility beyond his daily math practice.  I'm feeling good that we're helping N. build his math skills in a gently rigorous way while maintaining a positive attitude about math in general and especially about making mistakes and getting things wrong in order to learn.  When you do a little math every day, it's easy to keep mistakes in their proper perspective.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

An Ida Tarbell Curriculum

[Source] Ida M. Tarbell
The Autobiography of S. S. McClure, which Tim read aloud to N. in September, led to the book that has been at the center of N.'s studies for the past couple weeks: All in the Day's Work: An Autobiography by Ida Tarbell (1939).  Tarbell was an editor for McClure's Magazine, a biographer, and an influential muckracking journalist.  Every day Tim (and sometimes N.) reads a portion of the book aloud, and then they follow up on subjects and ideas that arise in the day's reading. 

For example, today they read in Tarbell's book about her knowledge of the United States' economic transition from farming to industry and about William McKinley, who attended the Poland Union Seminary in Ohio, where she was later a teacher, as well as her alma mater, Allegheny College.  Then they read in both the Britannica and World Book Encyclopedias about McKinley's presidency.  They also read about McKinley's era in A History of US, the excellent history set I bought for our homeschool this fall.  Then they used the globe to find the territories the U.S. won or annexed in the Spanish-American War.  Later N. told me very clearly about the role played by the U.S.S. Maine in the beginnings of this war.  Tim and N. together wrote out the order of the military ranks from general to private.  N. did some of the reading in the encyclopedias and history books aloud and explored the globe further. 

Last week, they read in Tarbell's autobiography about her years as a student at Allegheny College.  Then they looked up the Allegheny Mountains, looked at images of Bentley Hall at Allegheny College, and looked up Louis Agassiz and the Agassiz Glacier. 

Another day Tim and N. read in Tarbell's book about women's suffrage and followed that up with further reading in the encyclopedia and A Story of US about the suffrage movement and about Victoria C. Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the U.S.  N. wrote up a math problem to figure out the year in which Tarbell reached age 70.

Tarbell writes compellingly about so many interesting aspects of American culture from the 1870s up to WWI, which happens to be an era that fascinates N.  Her autobiography is giving Tim and N. very rich days of learning together.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Field Trip: Biltmore!

N. and I recently visited Biltmore, the 1895 Vanderbilt estate outside Asheville, NC. N. has had the guidebook practically memorized for years, so he was thrilled to be able to tour the grand house in person. It was interesting to tour a site that N. already knew so much about, and to compare our experience of it with the expectations we'd formed from the guidebook. For example, he was fascinated by the asymmetrical floor plan (hard to get a sense of this from a book), some rooms were even more beautiful than they had appeared in photos, and we were both unprepared for the house's spectacular mountain setting. We loved being able to wander through Frederick Law Olmsted's various landscape designs, to enjoy the contrasts between the European-style formal gardens and the Central Park-style rambles.

The house was crowded with visitors, so we couldn't linger in each room as much as N. wanted. He comforted himself with plans for what he would be sure to do and look at on a repeat visit next year.

The occasion of our trip was the discounted admission price offered as part of the annual "homeschool festival" the Estate stages. So after touring the house and grounds, we went to the farm barns for the "homeschool festival," where artisans showed children how to dye, card, and spin alpaca fiber; how to wash clothes by hand; how to weave baskets from white oak fibers; blacksmithing; weaving; quilting; etc. N. enjoyed these demonstrations and the accompanying activities, although next year he might decide to focus solely on the house, grounds, and gardens.

The Biltmore Estate, which is still owned by Vanderbilt descendants, is a slick operation designed to maximize the visitor's expenditures. Not only is the regular admission incredibly expensive, but there are premium tours available for additional fees, as well as expensive food and shopping on site. We talked a bit on the trip about the sources of the Vanderbilt money that originally made such an estate possible; when we toured the servants' quarters we talked about the relationships between the rich and the working classes. N.'s love of architecture is both ahistorical and context-based; that is, he loves buildings as pure aesthetic objects, but he is also very interested in the history in which they are situated. In all our tours of fancy houses and our study of Gilded Age architecture, I try to resist the glamorization of the rich that can be so easy to indulge while at the same time not damping N.'s innocent pleasure in the beauty of grand old buildings.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reading Log

In May I collected a few of those summer reading forms that local bookstores and the public library give out to encourage kids to read.  I was curious to see if N. might be motivated to read 10 books from start to finish in order to earn a free book or a library prize.  But he most emphatically was not!  I explained the programs, but he simply wasn't at all interested.  He likes to read in his own non-linear way, which does not lend itself to completing a summer reading form.  And ultimately I don't mind that he rejected the programs; I am happy that he reads because he enjoys it, not in order to win a prize.

So, because I like making lists and keeping records, in May I started a log of N.'s daily reading (pictured at left) to replace the summer reading forms.  N. always reads for 30-60 minutes in bed before breakfast, so his reading has been easy to track.  While I record our read-aloud chapter books at Listography, I thought pen and notebook would be the easiest format for a daily silent-reading log.  There are no prizes, but it pleases me to be able to look over the log and see all the reading N. does. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Once More to Lake Superior

While our summer began with two weeks of new experiences as we traveled in England, we spent the rest of the season going to favorite places we've visited again and again.  We went to the Southeast Old Thresher's Reunion to ogle old tractors for the third summer in a row.  We went to the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. for the second time.  We went to the North Carolina Transportation Museum.  And we ended the summer with a return to the familiar shores of Lake Superior for our annual summer sojourn in Duluth, Minnesota, where Tim and I grew up.  For three years now, we've been spending about a month there in the summer, enjoying the lake, parks, creeks, museums, old buildings, trains, ships, and harbor, as well as catching up with family and friends. 

As we made the rounds of all our favorite Duluth places, I thought about the pleasures of repetition, especially for children.  It seems common for adults to continually search out new experiences, so I've been glad to be reminded by my son that repeating a beloved book or experience is also very satisfying.  For N., going to England was no more wonderful than going to Duluth; both trips were equally rich for him.  

And of course repetition is a crucial learning technique.  Every time we go to the train museum in Duluth, we revisit our favorite engines and relearn their histories, as well as noticing new things we'd missed on earlier visits.  Enforced repetition through learning drills can be dull and thus counterproductive, but it's easy to take advantage of my son's natural love of repetition in order to learn.  He's not bored by doing something he loves for the millionth time!  The biggest challenge as a parent is to cultivate patience and rediscover the child's pleasure of repetition.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Further Thoughts on Non-Linear Reading

Since I recently wrote about N.'s nonlinear reading, his habit of dipping in favorite books again and again, I was especially struck by Lev Grossman's meditation on the codex and nonlinear reading in Sunday's New York Times Book Review: 
The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell’s "Cloud Atlas" if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.
God knows, there was great literature before there was the codex, and should it pass away, there will be great literature after it. But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games. The codex won out over the scroll because it did what good technologies are supposed to do: It gave readers a power they never had before, power over the flow of their own reading experience.
In the past week as I've begun my fall semester literature classes, I've been coaching my students on how to read a novel since many of them find the long, dense works of the eighteenth century challenging.  I love Grossman's idea here that true novel reading is not simply getting through to the end (that's what seems so daunting to students) but navigating the connections between pages, moving from Robinson Crusoe's island, back to his father's warnings, forward to his relations with Friday, back to his relations with Xury.  I might say that so much of college literature teaching (mine, anyway!) is leading linear-reading students through nonlinear reading, helping them discover a text's "network of internal connections."  And I see in N's nonlinear reading evidence of Grossman's claim that novel readers have a unique control of the text; N. revels in the "power over the flow of [his] own reading experience" as he moves among his favorite chapters in his favorite books.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Autobiography of S. S. McClure

Tim has had great success reading biographies and autobiographies aloud to N.  This reading is a central part of their morning "school" time.  In the past year they've read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, the fictionalized autobiographical works of James Herriot, Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten, and Madame Curie, learning so much history, science, and life wisdom along the way.  They've begun this second-grade year with The Autobiography of S. S. McClure, ghost-written by Willa Cather in 1912.  It's a wonderfully written, thoroughly compelling, rags-to-riches story of an Irish immigrant who became a powerful publisher in early twentieth-century America. 

One of the notable traits of young Samuel McClure was his absolute thirst for knowledge.  His simply loved learning and adored going to school; he did whatever he could to be able to attend.  I think boys in today's rather anti-intellectual boy culture, even those who love learning like N., can benefit from hearing the stories of boys like McClure who crave learning and who become important men because of that learning.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Browsing

Last week, N. and Tim formally began their second-grade studies together.  It's a high-tide time of year at our house.  After a busy summer with lots of travel and little structure, N. craves a return to routine.  He celebrated his seventh birthday recently, his friends returned to school, and I began my fall semester; all this signals the start of the school year to him.  He was eager to dive back into more formal studies, and I'll write here soon about what he and Tim are working on.

Meanwhile, to get ready for the school year, we recently undertook a major reorganization of our home library.  Now that N. is reading, and given his particular approach to reading right now, I wanted our books to be very accessible to him, easy to browse.  The precarious piles on the floor of my study were neither.  So we got a bunch more IVAR shelves from Ikea and dug in.  The adult books are now in groupings by nation or discipline (British, American, History, Religion) and all the literature groups are in chronological order (Chaucer to Ian McEwen, for example).  I rearranged books in double rows on some shelves, with the books likely to be more interesting to a child reader in the front and the more scholarly books (such as The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice) behind.  Obviously my fantasy career is librarian!  Look, I even have a library-style Kik-Step stool, acquired from a local thrift store -- I've always wanted one!

Most importantly, I set up a group of shelves (pictured) for all the books I've been accumulating for N. at the awesome used book store in town.  One shelf has a double row of books that he can read when he is older, and the lower shelves are full of books to read now, arranged alphabetically by author for easy access.  He also keeps a bunch of favorites in a bookcase in his room.

Though this project was disruptive and chaotic, now our shelves look so orderly and browsable!  I feel that we've accomplished a crucial "preparation of the environment" (to use Montessori terms) for the next stage of N.'s learning.  I look forward to seeing what he discovers on the shelves.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reading Update: Dipping In or Reading Through?

Reading Paddington Helps Out on a car trip
 As I have written before, I was convinced by John Holt's Learning All the Time and the Finnish kindergarten model that in a text-rich environment N. would learn to read without any explicit instruction in reading.  So we have not taught N. to read with formal reading lessons, computer reading games, worksheets, etc.  We have a lot of books and we read to him all the time, and that's all.  But as an English professor who is passionate about reading, I have struggled to be patient as he made his own way in his own time through the stages of his independent journey toward literacy.  N. loves books, has known the alphabet since about 3 1/2 years old, has long been able to read individual words on signs, newspapers, etc., and was reading Dick and Jane a year ago at nearly 6 years old.  I assumed that after Dick and Jane, N. would move on to the other "easy reader" books that I carefully strewed about, but he was uninterested and often actively rejected them.  Instead, all this past year he's spent a lot of time looking at more difficult favorite picture and chapter books.  I was never sure how much he was reading these or whether he was simply looking at the illustrations (probably some of both), but I now believe this was a kind of silent reading practice as he immersed himself in favorite books we've read to him over and over.  Every morning he spent long stretches of time "looking at books."  He could read familiar picture books aloud if asked to but didn't like doing so, and he didn't want to read new unfamiliar books by himself, so we didn't push either.  We didn't want to make reading a site of conflict or negative associations.  I managed to keep my impatience to myself, but nonetheless I had a specific model of what it looked like for a child to be a fluent reader, namely independently reading unfamiliar books, and I wondered (however unfairly) when I would see my now nearly 7-year-old son conform to that model.

Then in May 2011, N.'s independent reading suddenly took off.  He no longer said he was "looking at books" in the morning but that he was "reading books" and would we please stop interrupting him.  I discovered while reading aloud The BFG that he had read ahead several chapters.  One morning he read 3 chapters of Henry Huggins.  Another morning he read a chapter of Russell and Elisa; another he read a chapter of The Indian in the Cupboard.  I was elated!  We bought three new Paddington books in England and in the last few days of our trip he was devouring Paddington Here and Now (listed reading level: grades 3-5) on the train, subway, and airplane.  Now he reads at least a chapter of some book or other every morning: Pooh, Thomas the Train, Pippi Longstocking, Rufus M., The Tough Winter, The Time Garden.  Most of these are books I've read aloud to him at least once before, but now that I know he's reading this challenging material, I am less obsessed with whether he's reading unfamiliar books (although I am still perplexed by his randomly reading single chapters in the middle of unfamiliar books).  I recognize that dipping in to these favorite books all by himself is an incredibly rich experience for him.

N.'s mode of reading -- "dipping in," I'm calling it, randomly reading a chapter in a new book or looking for a favorite chapter somewhere in a book, reading it, and then repeating the process with a different book -- surprises and intrigues me.  My model of "proper" reading is linear; you start at the beginning and read through to the end!  In coming to terms with the difference between my model and N.'s current mode of reading, I remembered that one of my favorite eighteenth-century writers, the very learned Samuel Johnson, excoriated pedants who demanded linear reading.

In James Boswell's Life of Johnson (published in 1791) he describes Johnson's reaction to an instructor's advice that his pupil "read to the end of whatever books he should begin:"
'This is surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life.  A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?' (Life of Johnson p. 1304)
On another occasion a friend asked Johnson his opinion of a recent and much admired book.  "I have looked into it" said Johnson.  "What," said his friend, "Have you not read it through?"  According to Boswell, "Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, 'No, Sir, do you read books through?'" (Life of Johnson p. 520). 

Johnson also believed strongly that both children and adults should read what captures their attention.  "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good" (Life of Johnson p. 303-4).  "He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to, though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance.  He added, 'what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression.  If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read'" (Life of Johnson p. 747).  Johnson makes the important distinction that when one is learning a particular discipline (a "science" of any sort, including literature) one must read methodically through the major works in the field, but he describes so poignantly the wasted mental effort of trying to focus the mind on required reading.  He goes so far as to say that you must seize the precious moment when your attention is captured, no matter what: "He said, 'if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning.  He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination'" (p. 747).  Johnson, like other eighteenth-century writers on education (Locke, Maria Edgeworth), believed strongly in the pedagogical efficacy of the chance encounter.  There is something about coming upon an idea or book by chance that makes us especially receptive to learning.

For children (or rather, boys, the subject of Johnson and Boswell's conversations about reading and education; although Johnson appreciated and encouraged learned women writers, he does not as far as I know comment on girls' education), Johnson advocates free-range reading:
I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good.  I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book.  He'll get better books afterwards. (Life of Johnson p. 1020). 
Again he acknowledges that eventually one must read deeply to be a true scholar, but Johnson maintains that dipping in to books can have particular benefits for the child learner: 'Snatches of reading (said he,)  will not make a Bentley or a Clarke.  They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous.  I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice.  A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach.  If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains from the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.' (Life p. 1080).

I love it that Johnson imagines a child encountering something too difficult as he browses a library, and that for Johnson this can only be good for him.  In fact, to bring this all back to N., I suspect that difficulty is at least in part behind N.'s dipping in to books, that he wants to read silently at our read-aloud level but can't yet sustain it beyond a chapter or two.  Perhaps as he gains confidence and facility he will read a chapter book through.  Or perhaps he'll remain like Samuel Johnson, dipping in to books as the inclination strikes him.  N. could do worse than follow Johnson!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sharing Music

N. has been taking piano lessons with a fabulous teacher since late September 2010 and he's really been enjoying it and has learned a lot.  We wanted him to take lessons because we thought he would like it and because being able to make music is so life-enriching over the long term.  One of the the true joys of music is to share it with others, whether by making music with other musicians or by playing for willing listeners.  N. has recently had some great experiences making music with and for others and I never expected he would do either so early in his study of the piano.

Unlike Suzuki strings instruction, for example, where children play "Twinkle, Twinkle" with other beginning violinists, I think piano instruction tends to be solitary.  But one of N.'s really good friends is learning to play violin and when he and N. get together to play with Legos, blocks, etc., they end up jamming together, just improvising on the piano and violin, listening to each other and trying to match tones or moods.  They are not self-conscious and play together with freedom and joy, having fun creating sound together without caring about the product. I love it that they both love music and without any adult intervention they've figured out that they can share that with each other.

We recently visited friends in Minneapolis and N. got to participate in a slightly more sophisticated electric-keyboard-and-electric-guitar jam session.  N. played some of the ragtime and blues tunes he's learned this year, calling out the left-hand chords to our guitarist friend who improvised licks as they went along.  N. loved it and I think our friend had fun too.  It was interesting to see N. experiencing these tunes (which are some of his favorites) in a new way as he played them with our friend.

One of the many things I love about N.'s teacher is that she doesn't hold student recitals.  I suppose there's a time and place for recitals, but I think a recital would have been counterproductive for N. this year.  Instead he's had a lot of fun playing spontaneously for friends and family.  He always volunteers (we never make him do it!) because he really likes the pieces he plays and loves sharing them with our guests.  He plays with a lot of verve and skill for a beginner and I think he enjoys the surprised and positive response this elicits from his listeners.  In playing for friends, the emphasis is on the fun of sharing a favorite piece of music rather than on the perfection and performance that might be the focus of a recital.

When we began N's piano lessons, I primarily imagined the benefits for N. of learning the instrument.  Recently I was reminded, however, that music isn't just for him, but a means through which he can give joy to others.  We've been visiting his elderly paternal grandmother in the care facility to which she has moved, and N. gives her great pleasure by playing for her on an electric keyboard we'd brought along.  On another visit, his grandma was listening to a resident play an organ in the common area, and both women encouraged N. to try it.  Both women had a wonderful time showing him how the instrument worked and listening to him play.  I was so grateful to N.'s piano teacher for all she's done during the past year to give N. the means to make his grandma and her fellow resident smile.  Here's a bit of the moment I captured on my phone:

Friday, July 1, 2011

An Afternoon at the Train Museum

N. at the museum in 2009
N. at the museum in 2011
Last week N. and I went to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC.  We went there two years ago and it was fun to see how much N. remembered from that visit.  The museum is on the old maintenance yards for the Southern Railway; there is a cool round house, repair shops, turntable, lots of engines, and a short train ride available.

As a museum, it is woefully underfunded and underdeveloped; there are missing explanatory signs and aging exhibits that are just beginning to be replaced.  It also does a poor job "interpreting" the era.  I was struck by the sea of white faces in all the old photos of the workers at the Spencer works and wondered what role African-Americans played in the rail history of that area.  But the museum is entirely mum on the issue of race relations.

Despite the fact that it was difficult to learn as much as we would have liked to about the development of railways in the South from this museum, N. enjoyed seeing lots of magnificent train engines, which was really the main attraction anyway!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Field Trip: England! Part 4: Drawings

drawing a cathedral while riding the train!
Because N. loves to draw daily, we take art supplies with us when we travel.  For our trip to England (Part 1, 2, 3), I refreshed his "drawing bag" with new markers, colored pencils, and sketchbook.  It was interesting to see how the trip showed up in the drawings he made while we travelled.  Of course there were trains, cathedrals, and airplanes...

Do you see the arrow that's just been shot out of the castle? Love it!

This picture of "ruins" was a new type of drawing for N.  He made it after we spent a morning walking the ancient city walls of York.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Field Trip: England! Part 3: Museums

N. loves to draw and is generally interested in art and is even familiar with the work of some specific artists, but he has often been overwhelmed by traditional art museums and unable to tolerate spending much time in them.  He can't articulate why this is so, but perhaps his strong interest in the visual makes museums too stimulating.  We've been careful not to push museum visits when we travel, which is a bit hard for Tim and me because we love spending hours wandering through museums!  When we travelled to New York in March, however, we all happily spent several hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Egypt rooms, the Temple of Dendur, in the musical instrument collection, and a bit in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting galleries.  The objects attracted N. more than the paintings, but I was glad he wanted to look at a few paintings.

National Gallery, London
On our recent trip to England (Part 1, Part 2), we went to a few museums but with low expectations; because the art museums in London are generally free, we could leave right away if we wanted to without feeling that we'd wasted money on admission fees.  Wandering in Trafalgar Square, we decided to go in the National Gallery primarily because we thought N. would enjoy the architecture of the building, which he did.  But he was arrested by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English paintings and some of the French post-Impressionists as well, so we spent a really rich hour or more looking at the paintings in a couple galleries and talking about them.  The paintings that especially grabbed him were:
  • Gainsborough: his lovely pictures of his daughters -- N. was intrigued that the latter is unfinished and loved looking for the bare outlines of a cat on the girl's lap
  • Joseph Wright of Derby: we talked a lot about "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" -- N.'s first observation about the painting was the smoothness of its surface and he wondered how the painter achieved that; we made connections to some of the science history N. studied earlier this year (what is a vacuum, when did people figure out what was in "air"); could we tell what the artist's view of the scientific experiment might be?; Wright's use of strong light/dark contrasts
  • J.M.W. Turner: N. was really struck by his luminous skies and seas and his strong brushstrokes, and enjoyed the contrast of these paintings with his earlier, more conventional paintings of ships.  I thought N. would like "Rails, Steam, and Speed -- The Great Western Railway" but he dismissed it out of hand as not detailed enough for his taste and "too abstract!"
  • Degas: a brief look at his dancers
  • Seurat: N. was very taken with Seurat's pointillism method, and also very interested in the tiny studies that are hung alongside the large paintings.  It was interesting to think about how the artist prepared to make the full-sized painting via the studies.
  • Renoir: N. liked "The Umbrellas" -- so much packed into this picture!
  • Van Gogh: Tim pointed out "Sunflowers" and mentioned the high auction price of the various versions, but N. was interested in "A Wheatfield with Cypresses" because of its swirling sky; he commented on the difference between this painting and the smooth surface of Wright's.
The V&A
Another day we went to the Victoria & Albert Museum.  I was excited to take N. there because it is such a fabulously Victorian building, plus he likes the work of William Morris, so I wanted him to see the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter cafe in the museum.  This is a museum of objects, so I thought N. would enjoy whatever we saw there; even so I was pleasantly surprised by our experience.   I was disappointed that the fashion and textile rooms (my favorites) were closed, but we went to the Architecture Gallery.  We got there via the Glass exhibits, and I was surprised that N. was so intrigued by the cases of jars and vases (I assumed we'd walk right through this room to get to our destination).  He spent a long time looking at the glass, and liked guessing the time period in which the objects were made. 

When we finally got to the Architecture room we discovered that in addition to drawings and floor plans, it consisted of models of famous buildings.  N. was in heaven!  He loves models, miniatures, dollhouses, etc., I presume because with  a model he can grasp the building in its totality.  There was an amazing huge cross-section drawing of St. Paul's Cathedral hanging on the wall that we all admired as well.  We spent a lot of time in this gallery!

Then we went to a few of the  nineteenth-century galleries (full of Gothic revival stuff, which N. loves and I despise), where N. found a model of another of his favorite buildings, the 1851 Crystal Palace, as well as paintings, drawings, and plans for it. Very exciting!  And there was a children's room nearby where he played with acrylic blocks to build his own Crystal Palace.

 Another day we went to a different museum run by the V&A: The Museum of Childhood.  This museum displays collections of toys from the late 16th century to the present, as well as some clothes.  To supplement the cases of objects, there are some related playthings that children can use (without this, I think it would be hard for a kid to look at all these objects and not be able to play with them!), such as rocking horses near a case of various old rocking horses, or a model train layout that you could make run for 20 p.  N.'s favorite things here were the model train sets and the doll houses.  We had a really lovely afternoon there.

One day we went briefly to the British Museum, but only to see three things: the Great Court that was built in 2000 over the Reading Room, the Reading Room itself (which turned out to be closed for the installation of an exhibition), and the Elgin Marbles.  There is so much to see in the British Museum and it was quite crowded, so we decided to save a more extensive exploration of it for another trip.  The Parthenon was also one of the earliest buildings N. got really interested in; he likes its form, it led him to learn column and capital styles, and he's fascinated by its history of neglect and partial destruction.  So most of his interest in the Parthenon frieze and pediment sculptures was related to their damage.  He wanted to hear over and over again about the Parthenon being used by the Turks in the 17th century as an ammunition depot, and to figure out what was damaged by the munitions explosion and what was damaged by the passage of time.  He's also perplexed by the problem of whether these sculptures should be in England at all.  I tried to draw his attention somewhat to the quality of the sculptures themselves and to their ritualistic significance for the Greeks, but it was hard for him to look at them outside the context of their later history. 

When we walked across the Millennium Bridge one day, we popped in to the Tate Modern so N. could see how the Bankside power station had been repurposed as a museum.  Again we decided to save the exploration of the galleries for another trip.

On the last day of our trip we went to the Museum of London, which again is full of lots of models; N. especially liked the models of Roman Londinium.  We all were wowed by the preserved sections of the Roman city walls around which the museum is built.  You can learn a lot about the history of London here, (although I personally don't absorb information terribly well in this format).  This museum was really crowded the day we were there because it was a bank holiday, but N. was so happy to see a model of Old St. Paul's Cathedral as well as a famous painting of the Great Fire.  N. would have liked to linger longer in the Museum of London but I found the crowds oppressive. In this case I was the one feeling overwhelmed by the museum and needing to leave!

I hadn't expected museum visits (beyond the London Transport Museum and the National Rail Museum, of course) to play such a big role in our trip but I was pleasantly surprised by how much N. enjoyed London's museums.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    The Butterflies Are Back

    We're excited to see the butterflies back in our front garden.  Last fall Tim and N. spent a lot of time identifying and learning about butterflies, and I am pleased to see how much N. remembers from this.  He really enjoys observing them.  This morning while we breakfasted on the patio we watched a trio of what N. informed me were silver-spotted skippers breakfast on the bee balm.

    Monday, June 6, 2011

    Field Trip: England! Part 2: Cathedrals

     "Railway termini and hotels are to the nineteenth century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the thirteenth century." -- Building News, 1875 (quoted in Discovering London Railway Stations by Oliver Green, p. 37)
    As it happens, in addition to trains one of N.'s major passions is old buildings, especially cathedrals and churches, so this was another major focus of our recent trip to EnglandSt. Paul's Cathedral was one of the first buildings I noticed N. get interested in, back in 2009, so we were all excited to tour it together.  N. cares about every bit of information related to the history of St. Paul's: the earlier Norman cathedral on the site, the toppling of its tower in the 16th century, Cromwell's stabling of horses in it during the Interregnum, the Great Fire that destroyed it, Sir Christopher Wren's various designs for the current building, its escape from damage during the Blitz... N. noticed new details of the building's exterior that he didn't know about and he hadn't known much about its interior, so he enjoyed seeing it. And we climbed hundreds of steps to the interior gallery around the dome (the "Whispering Gallery"), the exterior gallery around the dome (the "Stone Gallery") and even a little balcony up at the base of the spire (the "Golden Gallery," which was pretty scary!).  We got great perspectives on the building and beautiful views of the city.

    After touring St. Paul's, we wandered around the City to see some of the other churches Wren designed after the Great Fire.  Many of these were severely damaged in and most gradually rebuilt after World War II, so we admired Wren's inventiveness while also pondering the traumas of the Fire and the war (N. has something of a morbid fascination with both).  These churches were all new to N., and he asked that we find a book about Wren's career so he can learn more about his City churches at home.

    Another of N.'s favorites has long been St. Martin-in-the-Fields, designed by the Wren disciple James Gibbs, so he was excited to see that church as well.  Again, seeing the interior and other sides of the church (besides the main front pictured here) was really exciting for N.

    We also spent part of an afternoon at Westminster Abbey.  We wandered through the building and then were lucky enough to sit in the nave while the choir rehearsed for an evening concert.  N. had not studied this building a lot in advance and is now interested in learning more about it.  At one point a verger asked N. if he spoke English and if he'd like to do a  "Children's Trail."  We didn't really know what he was referring to (although now that I've looked it up on the Abbey's website, it looks potentially interesting) and N. was offended!  "Why didn't he know that I just want to look at the building?" he asked us repeatedly.  Tourist sites have to walk a fine line between providing basic information to ignorant visitors and excessively mediating those visitors' experience of the site; their material for children tends to do the latter (in my experience), providing "treasure hunts," etc. that construct the child visitor as someone who must be distracted from the site itself and entertained, who won't be interested in the site without this entertainment.  Even material for adults runs this risk.  I like to get a leaflet or paper guide when I visit a site or museum, but I absolutely never get the audio guides.  I like to experience things on my own and look up additional information later rather than have my experience of a site or a work of art shaped by an audio guide.

    Anyway, the rest of our England itinerary after our London stay was structured by cathedrals.  We went to York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral, and Ely Cathedral, as well as King's College Chapel (not a cathedral, obviously, but an exquisite example of fan vaulting).  At York, we learned a lot about cathedral construction from an interesting exhibit in the crypt showing excavated remains of the Roman and Norman buildings on the site.  At both Lincoln and Ely, we paid particular attention to the clear differences between the Norman, Early English Gothic, and Decorated Gothic parts of the buildings.  This was a real revelation to N.  Even though he'd been really interested in this element of cathedral construction (that is, the differences in architectural style in different periods) from the start of his cathedral obsession, he seemed to appreciate and understand these differences in a whole new way after seeing them up close.

    Right before going on our trip, N. and I read a slew of books on Ely Cathedral from my university library and gleaned an account of Oliver Cromwell storming into the Cathedral in the middle of a service in 1643 and driving out the congregation (the cathedral was then closed for 20 years); this incited in N. a dread fascination with Cromwell that first started when N. learned of Cromwell's abuse of Old St. Paul's Cathedral and reappeared every time we learned the fate of an ecclesiastic building during the Interregnum.  I think we'll be studying both Cromwell and William the Conqueror (the other hero-villain whose name was inescapable in the histories of English cathedrals) in the coming months.  At any rate I certainly felt the need after this trip to brush up on my Norman and medieval English history.  N. has asked that we get books on Lincoln, York, and Westminster Cathedrals to follow up on what we viewed.

    This portion of our trip was thus a stimulating combination of seeing cathedrals N. has long loved and seeing new others that prompted the desire (of all of us!) to learn more.  Regardless of what more we may learn after this trip, seeing the cathedrals in all their massiveness, pondering the feats of their engineering, helped us grasp their worldly function as monuments to church power and authority in the middle ages.  We had the incredible privilege to hear Evensong at Lincoln, Ely, and King's College; the ethereal sounds of the English boy choirs highlighted for us the cathedrals' ongoing spiritual function.  Even as nonbelievers, we were transfixed by the beauty of thunderous organ and soaring voices.