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.