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.

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Field Trip: England! Part 1: Trains

    We've just returned from a two-week trip to England.  I was granted tenure in the past year and my book was published last week (hooray!), so in part this trip was a celebration of having passed these important milestones in my career.  Although Tim and I traveled to England a lot while I was in the earlier stages of research for the book, we hadn't been since N. was born.  And N. is (like his parents) quite the Anglophile.  N. will be seven at the end of the summer, which might seem a bit young for such a trip; rather than worry about whether he is old enough to remember the trip later, however, we decided to go now while so many of his interests -- trains, architecture, history -- can be explored deeply in England.  He's really fun to travel with right now and he enjoys being with us; who can guarantee that either will be true when he is older?

    We were really proud of how N. handled the trip.  Although he said he was nervous in the days leading up to our departure, he dealt so well with the changes in routine, the overwhelming new sensory experiences of travel, the food, etc.  We tried to make room for occasional down time -- playing in parks, drawing, reading -- but for the most part he was on the go all day with us for two straight weeks, walking everywhere, interacting with almost no kids, and he had a great time.  We were relieved and pleased.
    N. and Duchess of Hamilton at the NRM
    So, one focus of the trip was trains.  We spent six days in London and of course took the Tube everywhere, which N. loved.  One day we rode the Jubilee line and got out at every stop between Westminster and Canary Wharf to see the new architect-designed stations.  We visited many of London's train stations: St. Pancras, King's Cross, Waterloo, Victoria, Marylebone.  We spent an afternoon at the wonderful London Transport Museum in Covent Garden where we climbed on old subway cars and buses and learned all about the history of the Underground, pre-Underground modes of transport, buses, and trains into London.  We bought three excellent books in the museum shop that we've been reading since our day at the museum that have extended what N. learned there.

    After London, we rode trains to York, Lincoln, Ely, and Cambridge.  N. loved every single train ride, pronouncing them all "so luxurious."  In York we spent a full day at the fabulous National Railway Museum where we saw many famous engines N. had studied in his beloved train books and in general reinforced and extended what N. had already learned about the history of steam power and railways.  He loved this place so much!

    We took a day trip from the Yorkshire town of Pickering to Whitby, a port on the North Sea, on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a "heritage" rail service on the old Whitby and Pickering Railway which opened for passenger service on May 26, 1836.  We happened to ride the line (in vintage 1930s coaches pulled by a steam engine!) on May 26th, its 175th anniversary.  It was so exciting to see the steam engine pull into the station!  And rattling slowly along the old track gave us an idea of how early train travel differed from that of today, as well as giving us a beautiful and leisurely view of the Yorkshire countryside (a place N. has special affection for because of his love of James Herriot's books).

    N.'s love of trains has been a cornerstone of his learning for the past three years (at least!) and we feel fortunate that we have been able to build on this passion so that he got so much out of his encounters with trains on this trip.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    A First Grade Year in Chapter Books

    Here's a list of the chapter books that Tim and I have read to N. from June 1, 2010 through May 31, 2011, in the order in which we read them.  (I posted last year's list here.)  We love reading aloud! 

    This list does not include picture books, which we still read to him occasionally (though less than in earlier years) and which he reads himself.  This list does not include books we've reread from previous years, although rereading is also a significant element in N.'s relationship with books; N. loves to hear favorite chapters from favorite books repeated.  As I have written before, although N. reads fluently now, most of his literary experience is still through read-alouds.  Indeed, listening to us read aloud constitutes a major portion of his daily learning.

    I am always looking for recommendations and suggestions.  Tell us what to read next!  I am especially always on the lookout for books about nice boys.  (Thanks to mouseprints at Thick and Thin Things for an excellent list that we are looking forward to exploring!)
    • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (read by T.)
    • Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright
    • The Giraffe, The Pelly, and Me by Roald Dahl
    • Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    • The Moffats by Eleanor Estes
    • The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes
    • Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes
    • On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    • The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes
    • Magic or Not by Edward Eager
    • Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren
    • Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
    • The Borrowers by Mary Norton
    • Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager
    • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (did not finish)
    • All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (read by T.)
    • The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day by D. Stravitz (read by T.)
    • By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    • The Time Garden by Edward Eager
    • The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton (did not finish)
    • The Story of a Cat by Emile de la Bedollierre (did not finish)
    • Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren
    • All of a Kind Family by Sidney Taylor
    • All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot (read by T.)
    • The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    • All Things Wise and Wonderful by James Herriot (read by T.)
    • The Well-Wishers by Edward Eager
    • Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
    • The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
    • Happy Times at Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
    • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
    • The Lord God Made Them All by James Herriot (read by T.)
    • The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
    • The Four Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
    • Every Living Thing by James Herriot (read by T.)
    • Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright
    • Spiderweb for Two by Elizabeth Enright
    • Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
    • Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks (read by T.)
    • The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
    • The Alley by Eleanor Estes
    • The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes
    • Stalky & Co. By Rudyard Kipling (first chapter only)
    • Matilda by Roald Dahl
    • Madame Curie by Eve Curie (read by T.)
    • The BFG by Roald Dahl
    • Henry Huggins by Beverley Cleary