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!