Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Madame Curie

Marie Sklodowska Curie [Image Source]
In his memoir Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks writes of his boyhood love of Eve Curie's 1937 biography of her mother Marie Curie.  [Sacks tells a lovely story of giving a lecture in which he mentioned his devotion to Curie's book and seeing an elderly lady nodding and smiling in the audience.  She introduced herself to him afterwards as Eve Curie and autographed his battered childhood copy of her book.]  Since N. loved Uncle Tungsten, he and Tim decided to read Madame Curie together.  As with Uncle Tungsten and the books of James Herriot, N. is riveted by the detailed account of life in an earlier era, and especially by the drive and passion Sklodowska Curie had for her study.  While Sacks' narrative describes an early passion for chemistry that later subsided in favor of neuroscience, Curie's is a story of lifelong tenacity and absolute dedication to scientific discovery.

N. continues to absorb the broad outlines of the history of science from these biographies, along with some specific facts about chemistry and physics (although of course some of the science is too complicated for him to understand fully).  We do many other more age-appropriate reading and learning activities with N., but we are pleased that our improvised curriculum has so far also included challenging works such as Uncle Tungsten, Madame Curie, the books of James Herriot, the King James Bible, and the Odyssey as they have crossed our path.  In the original New York Times review, Charles Poore called Madame Curie "a biography that stirs the heart and the mind by a fine counterpoint of sense and sensibility, a great story superbly told."  Even if some of the "great story" of Marie Curie is beyond N.'s comprehension, I think it is an excellent experience for him to encounter it not in a simpler children's version but in the "superbly told" narrative that so gripped the world when it was first published.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Screen Free

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood promotes "Screen Free Week" April 14-24th to encourage families to evaluate their electronic media habits.  So I'm taking this opportunity to write about our TV, electronic games, computer/internet, and movie habits.  If your habits and beliefs regarding electronic media are different than ours (and they likely are), please note that I am not critiquing your approach but describing ours.  

We're extremists about TV; there's no other way to put it.  N. has never watched TV.  I don't watch TV.  We have a satellite so that Tim can watch the Minnesota Vikings and occasional Twins games, which is the extent of his TV viewing.  So TV is not part of what Holly at Unschool Days calls our "family culture."  Tim and I are simply not interested in TV ourselves, and we don't think TV offers anything to our six-year-old right now that he can't get in richer, better form elsewhere.  I won't rehearse here all the reasons suggested by child advocates for limiting young children's exposure to TV; you are likely familiar with them.  Our top concern (among others) is with the aggressive marketing of a specific, gender-restrictive vision of childhood in order to sell stuff to kids.  The world of TV does not align with our values.

Most of our friends with kids regard our zero-tolerance policy towards TV as if it is a heroic act of parenting that they admire but could never achieve (at least that's what they say to us; privately they might well think we are totalitarian zealots!).  But it is actually much, much easier never to turn on the TV in the first place than it is to negotiate limits with a child who has developed a TV habit.  Just don't start!

It is easy for us to maintain a TV-free home because that's our family culture.  But what about all the TV outside our four walls?  We always sit away from TVs in restaurants, airports, the dentist's office, etc. (TVs are so ubiquitous!).  When N. plays at a friend's house, we tell the child and parents that N. isn't allowed to watch TV, movies, or play video games, and even if people think we are crazy they've adhered to this because they know it matters to us.  The result is that the kids always have lots of fun doing all the other things kids do together.  When a friend has turned to screen entertainment, N. has, of his own accord, left the room to play with other toys or hang out with his friend's parent (he loves talking with adults!).  I only recently learned that this was how he deals with his neighbor-friend's occasional screen time, and I was so proud of N. for having the fortitude to stick with our rule.

I think this fortitude is one of the great side-effects of our TV policy.  I grew up all but TV-free and I experienced my parents' restriction of TV as part of their larger 1970s-inflected program to resist mindlessly conforming to mainstream American culture, an approach I was very proud of.  I internalized their commitment to living their values as part of my identity, and I see N.'s ability to walk away from TV as a sign that he is internalizing this commitment too.

All this is not to say that we will never watch a single moment of TV in N.'s entire childhood.  We taped a couple of speedskating races (2-3 minutes long) during the Winter Olympics and watched them together and N. has watched an occasional Twins at-bat with Tim.  I have very fond memories of watching The Cosby Show with my family as an older child so I recognize that watching TV together as a family can be fun, though I can't imagine there will ever be another such sweet and wholesome show!  In the meantime, who even has time to watch TV?

I have an implacable prejudice against electronic games of all sorts.  It makes me sad to see kids playing DS games while out and about, utterly absorbed in their own world and missing entirely the real world in which they are nominally moving.  Multi-player online games strike me as a poor facsimile of real social interaction.  I don't believe that supposedly educational electronic games are particularly effective.  I don't understand why you'd want to play a simulacrum of a sport on a Wii instead of actually going bowling or playing tennis.  I am convinced by the argument that violent video games are detrimental to players' humanity, and I think boys are especially susceptible to this.  I was not convinced by Steven Johnson's apologia for video games in Everything Bad is Good For You.  [In addition, I don't play Angry Birds or anything else on my iphone, I don't let my son play with my iphone, and I carefully monitor my own use of it so I don't fall into the habit of constantly checking my phone.]  So, we are unabashed in our absolute restriction of electronic games.

Computers and the internet can be good homeschool resources but we are nonetheless wary of giving the computer a prominent role in our daily life.  We always look things up in books first (we have two awesome encyclopedia sets) and we use the internet as a supplement rather than a primary source.  Partly this is just to reinforce bookish habits over screens.  We feel that we interact with each other more through book research and we feel somewhat passive and isolated when using the computer.  I haven't read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows yet, but I am very sympathetic to his claim that the habits of mind fostered by the internet may be antithetical to deep concentration and sustained thought.  N. doesn't use the computer/internet himself at all and has expressed no interest in doing so.  We don't use reading or math programs on the computer because I don't think they provide anything he can't get from paper methods.  At some later point in his education we'll certainly work on learning how to do effective internet research, to navigate and evaluate resources (a skill my conventionally educated, supposedly computer literate college students sorely lack!) but there's no rush for him to acquire these skills.  Until then, there is much reading, learning, and playing to be done away from the computer.  In fact, I could benefit from spending a lot less of my work day staring at my computer!

N. before entering the theater to see The General.
All these restrictions may sound so... restrictive, as if we spend all our time policing what N. is exposed to.  But we think of our role as curators.  We want to present a rich selection of material that is fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and consistent with our values; for us, electronic media is only going to be a very small element of that selection.

By limiting N.'s exposure to electronica we actually give them more power.  He's not visually jaded.  Because I watched very little TV as a kid, I found movies exciting, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearably frightening.  Film is a powerful medium!  And while Tim and I watch no TV together, we absolutely love movies and watch at least one almost every weekend.  Until recently, N. had never seen a movie or DVD.  We wanted him to have the awesome experience of seeing his first movie on a big screen, so we were waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.  In March, a local museum showed Buster Keaton's 1927 classic silent film "The General" complete with live piano accompaniment.  It's about a man and his beloved steam engine!  What could be more perfect for N.'s first movie?  He absolutely loved it, and it was so fun to share his huge laughs at all the train stunts.

Is our largely screen-free life inconsistent with the philosophy of unschooling?  Some people would certainly say that it is.  As I have written before, we define "unschool" for our family in a more limited way than some do.  We work with N. to follow his interests, but we also offer guidance.  By curating N.'s media experiences, we are able to offer powerful visual encounters that are consistent with our values and meaningful to N.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greens 2011

We've started our annual kale harvest!  N. loves helping with processing the greens we grow over the winter, stuffing freezer bags with blanched, cooled kale, weighing and labeling each bag, and popping them in the freezer.  As I wrote last year, he takes over more of the process each year.  I was surprised by how excited he was to do the greens with me; although he was outside playing, he insisted on coming in to do his part.

Our greens are a funny reminder that you don't always know what will become a meaningful family tradition.  We grow kale because it is easy, it suits our climate, and we love to eat it almost daily.  I did not set out to create a significant ritual out of our spring greens, but it seems that's what has happened!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Art Class

N. drew this at home, not in his art class!
Since N. loves drawing so much, I thought he might enjoy taking an art class for homeschoolers at a local arts center housed in an old textile factory (old building -- an added bonus!) so I proposed it in February.  His initial reaction, of course, was that this was the worst idea he had ever heard of.  He told me he already knew how to draw, he didn't want to do other kinds of art, he didn't want to have a teacher or do what the teacher told him to do.  And if he did take a class, all he wanted to learn about was drawing people and perspective drawing, two areas he wants to improve on in his drawing.

I said the usual things in response: it might be fun, you'll meet other homeschool kids, you'll learn new things, if you don't like it after the first class you don't have to continue.  He agreed to give it a try.  N. said he was nervous in the days leading up to the first class, and I couldn't really allay his concerns since I didn't know what the class would be like.  Although I had phoned to make sure the class wasn't going to be a bunch of cookie-cutter "projects," I didn't know the teacher's name, how many students there were, or even where in the building the classroom was.

When the day came N. put an unusual degree of care into choosing his clothes, as I remember doing for the first day of school as a child myself.  He pondered bringing samples of his drawings with him to show the teacher, for he wanted her to see what he liked to draw (he ended up not bringing anything because the task of choosing something representative was too daunting!).  He was still nervous, but excited too.

Tim and I were nervous too, as I suppose parents are when they send their children to kindergarten on the first day.  This was one of those iconic moments of parent-child separation that we have mostly avoided so far.  Because N. never went to preschool, summer camp, or taken any other classes, this was his first group instructional experience (and our first experience, besides piano lessons, not learning together with him).  I eagerly awaited word at work about how the class went.  As it turned out, he loved it.  The teacher was a sweet young woman whom he immediately liked and the 5 other kids in the two-hour class were all boys, which seemed like fun.  Over the course of 5 meetings, the class introduced him to a wide variety of materials and methods of making art.  He didn't get to learn much about drawing people or perspective, but he didn't seem to mind that.  He's hoping to take a class in the next session (although right now there are not enough students enrolled to enable the center to hold the class).

As with piano lessons (which, by the way, continue to be a huge success!), it seems that mildly encouraging N. to take this art class turned out well.  I am not convinced that the art instruction itself was maximal, but it was good enough, and the class has been a positive experience in other ways.  It gave N. an experience of a kind of classroom environment, with its norms and expectations (however loose these are in an art class!); in fact, after the first couple classes N. said, "I like my art class.  Maybe I would like going to school."  I didn't bother to tell him that a two-hour intensive art class one day a week with six homeschool boys was not much like "real" school (at least not like any schools in our city)!  Trusting us that he really could quit the class if he hated it, he learned to face something he was nervous about, and that his fears and the actual event may not have much in common.  He gained confidence that he could take a class without us, learn from someone besides us.

Kids in our area have so many opportunities for "enrichment" experiences, and thanks to their flexible schedules, homeschool kids can take advantage of these without their days becoming too hectic.  Instead of taking a class for school kids at 4 pm on a weekday or on Saturday morning (during what is sacred chill-out time at our house), N. got to attend a two-hour class at 10 a.m. on a weekday when he was fresh and ready to delve deeply.   I'm glad we've begun to sample our city's enrichment offerings and although we are wary of getting too over-committed (in fact, Tim was a bit frustrated because the 10 a.m. art class fell in prime learning time for him and N.), we look forward to continuing to supplement N.'s learning at home with learning of all sorts in our community.