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 We talked a bit on the trip about the sources of the Vanderbilt money that originally made such an estate possible; when we toured the servants' quarters we talked about the relationships between the rich and the working classes.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.