Friday, December 14, 2012

Precious Objects: Children's Books and/as Technology

Portrait of a Boy (1790) by William Beechey*
As something of a tech-luddite (see my stance on screen-time for kids) and a book-lover, I found two recent essays on the relationships between children's books in print and in e-book format really fascinating: Marah Gubar's "Good Morning iPad: Technology in Twenty-First-Century Picture Books" critiques the winner-take-all battle represented between print books and science and technology in recent children's picture books.  As she writes of her son:
"From earliest toddlerhood, he had been chasing after electronic gadgets with all his might, resisting the protestations of adults who insisted that smartphones and computers were not toys. But he also loved books, so I decided to seek out picture books about modern technology to help distract his attention from actual screens and buttons. Or so I told myself, but clearly my motives were mixed. Even though, like many parents, I imposed strict limits on screen time, I also wanted to encourage his interest, as I would have done had he been fascinated by dinosaurs, music, or some other, more socially sanctioned subject."
After reading a selection of children's picture books about technology, she is "disappointed to discover how anxious these narratives are, how frequently they characterize modern machinery and even science itself as a menace to society and personal well-being."  Since electronica is so clearly a part of the world our children are growing up in, wouldn't it be nice if books helped them think through their relationships with devices rather than simply demonize them?

William Gleason's "Goodnight iPad: Children's Literature in a Digital Age" covers some of the same books that Gubar examines, while also summarizing some of the mixed messages that have emerged so far from studies of tech and reading in children's lives.  Gleason quotes an article in Time in Dec. 2011 describing one study:
“Instead of talking with their children about the content of the books, parents ended up spouting ‘do this, don’t do that’ directives about how to use the devices. All this chatter may interfere with comprehension. When Parish-Morris tested how well children understood the stories on electronic devices, the ­ e-book users did significantly worse than those who sat with their parents reading print. Parents may have interrupted more often because it was hard to get used to the device or too many images beckoned to be clicked. Either way, the kids ended up with ‘a jumbled version of the story in their brains,’ [Parish-Morris] said.”
On the other hand, for some struggling readers, digital mediation seems to improve literacy more quickly than traditional methods.  So far, there doesn't seem to be enough data to generalize broadly about what the rise of tech means for children's reading.

Both Gubar and Gleason discuss Press Here by Herve Tullet as a picture book that playfully alludes to the buttons of our electronic devices yet remains magical in its book-ness.  Printed books are themselves, of course, a kind of technology.  As a new form of technology when they first began appearing in eighteenth-century England, children's books were promoted by booksellers as revolutionary for their unique appeal to children's fancies and denounced by skeptics as objects that could undermine traditional modes of education, distracting children from the habits of mind they needed to cultivate (memorization and recitation, for example), concentrating children's reading on frivolous topics.  The two sides of the debate should sound familiar to us.  Just as today's parents often control how and when children use electronic devices, eighteenth-century parents sometimes controlled access to children's books (which were expensive status-objects), keeping them in cabinets and doling them out for prescribed reading sessions.  It amuses me to find that my attitude to electronic technologies mirrors that of the eighteenth-century cultural commentators who were so anxious about children's literature, a genre I love.
*Picture source: Yale Center for British Art Paul Mellon Collection.
Further reading: The Child Reader: 1700-1840 by M.O. Grenby (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What We're Reading Now

N.'s drawing of a sailboat inspired by We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea
We've been immersed in some wonderful books lately!  I just finished reading aloud We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea, the seventh book in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.  I have a lot to say about why we love these books so much, but for now I'll just note that we do.  So much!  N. adores the characters.  Don't let the unfamiliar sailing terms in the first volume deter you!  (I will note that we didn't finish the third book, Peter Duck, which is supposedly a tale the characters make up rather than an account of their own adventures.) I feel absurd levels of gratitude to the Internet for making me aware of these books, which I had never heard of before a few years ago and which have brought us such familial reading pleasure.  If you are already a fan of Ransome's books, you should read Roland Chambers' recent biography The Last Englishman.   

While we eagerly await the arrival of a recently ordered used copy of Secret Water, the eighth in the Swallows and Amazons series, I am reading aloud Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth.  It's even more fun than the 1950 Myrna Loy movie led me to expect.

Last week N. discovered Clementine on our shelves and has since devoured the first three books in Sara Pennypacker's series about the irrepressible redhead (are redheads in literature ever repressible?).  It's been a while since he has read fiction with such avidity (he gravitates to Trains Magazine, Classic Trains Magazine, and National Geographic, or he rereads Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for his pleasure reading), so I was happy to see him enjoying these so heartily.

Tim recently began reading N. a biography of Mozart.  Tim tutors two middle-school-aged homeschool students and he's studying Henry VI with one and Huckleberry Finn with the other, which means he's spending his evenings rereading those texts.  For his own pleasure reading, he's reading Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb.

I just finished Zadie Smith's NW on Sunday and last night I started Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  I loved Wolf Hall and am already loving this sequel.

[I'm linking to The Children's Bookshelf.]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One Shelf At A Time: Austeniana

Melissa Wiley has been taking photos of sections of her bookshelves and invited folks to play along.  So, here's a view of the most fun shelf in my campus office, right after the real Austen texts and scholarship.  These are fun things I take to class to demonstrate a bit of the wide range of Jane Austen spin-off products available in the universe (and if you want to be thoroughly amused, search "Jane Austen Soap" on Etsy). 


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Nice-Boy Heroes in Chapter Books

Books are always better when read with coonskin cap.
When I started reading chapter books aloud to N., it seemed to me that many of the classic children's books either have girls as the main characters (Betsy-Tacy, Pippi Longstocking) or feature boys who are troublemakers, don't like school, etc. (see a brief survey here).  While he enjoys the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, my son is generally disturbed when kids do "bad" things in books.  And as much as parents of girls might look for models of femininity beyond Barbie, I seek positive models of masculinity for my son (while at the same time reading him lots of books with spunky heroines).  So I started keeping a list of books we've read starring good/smart/nice boys.  I'm not talking Little Lord Fauntleroy goody-goodies here. But these boys don't hate school, they're aren't especially violent, they don't mind being friends with girls, they are independent, competent, and accomplished in their own ways... in other words, they're a lot like the boy I read to.
  • Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
  • Rufus M by Eleanor Estes
  • Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
  • Homer Price and More Tales from Centerburg by Robert McCloskey
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective (series) by Donald Sobol
  • Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  • Knight's Castle by Edward Eager
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  • Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager
  • The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton
  • The Well-Wishers by Edward Eager
  • The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
  • Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
  • Henry Huggins (and other "Henry" books) by Beverly Cleary
  • Swallows and Amazons (series) by Arthur Ransome
  • Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary
  • Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary
  • The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
  • The Magic City by E. Nesbit
  • Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
  • The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes
  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  • The Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
  • Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome
  • 26 Fairmont Ave. series by Tomie DePaola
  • The Adventures of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
  • Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George 
This isn't an exhaustive list, of course; it only covers what we've read aloud or N. has read himself to date.  There are additional good suggestions in the comments to my post on our 1st-grade read-alouds here.  What other nice boys are we missing?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The History, Mechanics, and Economics of the Piano

N. reading The Piano Book.
This August, Tim, N., and I started shopping for a grand piano.  We bought a cheap Chinese upright when N. was 1 year old and it served its purpose well: he banged around on it for years before beginning lessons, getting to know it, and it had a bright, clear, pleasant tone that helped make the piano an appealing instrument.  He's been taking piano lessons for two years now; he's developed very good technical skill but also has a really strong musicality and expressiveness in his playing, which would only develop further on a better-made, more responsive piano.  Plus we'd read The Piano Shop on the Left Bank and got drawn into the romance of the piano!

So we spent a lot of time this fall reading about the piano.  We pored over Larry Fine's invaluable guide The Piano Book.  We learned the history of the instrument, how they were made in different eras, the histories of different piano companies world-wide, the different sounds preferred by different pianists and composers.  We learned about how the piano produces its sound, about manufacturers' experiments with different parts, materials, and shapes.  We learned about global economics as we read about the impacts of labor and material costs, consumer tastes, and corporate consolidations on piano manufacturing.

But books couldn't tell us everything.  We spent many many hours visiting new and used piano dealers in our region, returning to some repeatedly.  Several dealers ushered us into their repair-and-restoration shops and patiently explained parts and tools to a fascinated N.  N. played a wide range of pianos over and over as we learned to discern subtle differences in their sound.  Though all of these pianos were beyond our budget, we learned that I prefer the bright, clear upper register of European pianos like the Bechstein and Bosendorfer, while N. prefers the more robust lower register of the Mason & Hamlin and the Steinway.  We marvelled at the sound produced by the extra resonating string on the upper notes of the larger Bluthners.  We were wowed by the huge, bell-like tone of the Fazioli.  One evening when the pedal on our upright stopped working, N. and I opened the piano up to explore how it worked.  He loved watching the hammers move while he played.  Eventually N. figured out how to fix the pedal.

Playing our partially disassembled upright.
We talked about the tricky concept of value as we tried to pick information out of the sales pitches of dealers and the reports of our tuner-technician.  We were tempted by a 40-year old Bosendorfer with a crystalline upper register that brought tears to my eyes when N. played it, but the soundboard and pin-block were cracked.  The price was already at the upper end of our budget; what kind of restoration work would it need in a few years?  Tim liked a Kawai R that was at the lower end of our budget and made in the same factory in Japan where Steinway has its lower-priced line, the Boston, manufactured, but I didn't like the sound enough to feel it was worth even its low price.  There were several pre-war Steinways and 1980s Baldwins available in our area for a good price, but until they were restored it was impossible to evaluate their sound, touch, or action.  Tim was continually checking Craigslist and online used piano dealers just in case the perfect piano for us was somewhere on the internet.  For a short time I was obsessed with a Bechstein we'd seen and had worked out a justification of its price relative to the years of private school tuition we aren't paying (or the luxury cars other people buy!), but Tim and N.'s teacher both felt this was too much piano to burden an 8-year-old with, and it wasn't N.'s favorite instrument anyway.   Yet it was also hard to know how much weight to give N.'s opinion; we wanted to pick an instrument that he could grow with, but how could he, or we, know which best answered that mandate?

Finally, after flirting with the Bosendorfer, Bechstein, and several 1920s Steinways, we made a safer and more conventional choice: a Boston GP178 5ft. 10in. grand piano.  It seemed like the best value for the price.  If it is not the most interesting instrument, it will likely provide the most consistency over the next ten years, and if we ever need to it will be easy to resell.  N. really liked the sound and the feel of the action, and I think he still will as he gets older, assuming he continues to play.  I think it is very likely that he will keep playing because he really loves it, but Tim and I repeatedly told ourselves that buying this piano does not mean N. is married to the instrument.  Without holding its price over his head, we talked with N. about what it means for our other financial choices to buy this piano, and we talked more generally about what things cost.  N.'s favorite analogy was with comparing the price of the piano with a Prius hybrid car or other cars.  

Playing the new piano (with temporary marble run in foreground!)!
Our piano was delivered in mid-October and tuned and voiced a few weeks later after it had a chance to adapt to our house.  The day it arrived was so exciting, and for a couple weeks afterwards N. told everyone we knew about it and repeatedly stayed up late playing it.  It is such a pleasure for us to hear N. play the new piano; it's so beautiful! 

We had a lot of fun throughout this process and we all learned so much about the piano.  I am sure that N.'s playing will continue to develop in interesting ways not only because he now has an excellent instrument, but because he has a much richer understanding of its mechanics and its history.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

An Array of Art in Washington, D.C.

Model of the Smithsonian "castle" (one of N.'s faves) at the Botanic Garden
We spent Thanksgiving with my parents in Washington D.C. and enjoyed two fun museum outings.  Friday we went to the U.S. Botanic Garden to see "Seasons Greenings," the holiday model train display.  N. loves this because not only does it feature model trains, but they zoom along tracks in a lovely fairy-land made of organic matter (gourds, acorns, moss, etc.), and the main conservatory of the Botanic Gardens are filled with models of D.C. architectural landmarks made of leaves, twigs, gourds, etc.  This year (we go to this exhibit annually) N. was even more excited by the model buildings than by the trains.

After lunch Friday at the excellent cafe at the nearby National Museum of the American Indian and a brief examination of several canoes in the lobby, we went the the Hirshhorn Museum to see an exhibit of work by Ai Weiwei.  The pieces in this show ranged from whimsical to distressing.  N. really got a lot out of the show even though some of it disturbed him.  He loved a sculpture made from bicycle frames and another made from old temple stools joined together in a kind of sphere.  He was saddened by an undulating arrangement of rebar from school buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 but also saw its beauty as sculptural form.  The piece N. really hated, however, was a series of three large photographs of Ai Weiwei in which he drops an ancient Han Dynasty urn.  In the final photo the urn lies shattered at the artist's feet.  N., despite his dread fascination with certain catastrophes that are at a safe historical remove such as the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1916 or the sinking of the Titanic, has a serious veneration for old things, and he just couldn't understand why Ai would break an ancient urn on purpose.  I liked seeing N. wrestle with this work.  He tried to deal with the challenge it posed by saying, "I hate Ai Weiwei but I like some of his art," but this clearly didn't satisfy him.  And none of us could resolve it for him.  I don't know exactly why he made photographs of himself intentionally dropping an urn, but we talked a lot about why he might have, what it might mean about art and value, old and new.

Saturday we went to the National Gallery of Art to see a new exhibit of 18th- and early 19th-century furniture.  N.'s love of architecture makes the period rooms in museums appeal to him.  He was really absorbed in this exhibit, looking carefully at all the chairs and tables, identifying the features of Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Empire styles that the wall plaques described.  He and Tim have been gotten up to Andrew Jackson in American History so N. had a good sense of the context for the ubiquitous eagle adorning the furniture and his eyes lit up at the unfinished portrait of Jackson himself, or "King Andrew," as N. informed me his critics called him.  I was happy because the exhibit included a large selection of card tables from the period, which I am obsessed with thanks to my book on 18th-century gambling.  My parents went to "The Serial Portrait" photography exhibit while N. and I wandered through some galleries of Italian late-Renaissance sculpture, furniture, armor, etc. and briefly in a period room from an 18th-century French chateau.  Then Tim took N. to see the Degas "Little Dancer, 14 years old" and we looked at some of Degas' smaller sculptures, which N. really liked.  That was more than enough art-viewing for one day for one eight-year-old!

While we've been to D.C. many times and we've gone to many interesting sites, we've seen relatively little art there with N. because he (understandably) seems to find art museums overwhelming.  As I found when we went to London in 2011, the key with him is to have a short, focused visit to an art museum, to choose one exhibit or room ahead of time, and to look for objects, which he is generally more intrigued by than paintings.  While I still want to try to see everything in the whole museum myself, I try to remember that a more focused visit may actually be more memorable, both for N. and for the adults, as was the case during these two rich days.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sourdough and Other Strange Creatures

Our jar of sourdough starter.
We have several ongoing fermentation projects that N. and I refer to as "Strange Creatures Growing in the Kitchen" (you have to say this in a spooky voice): our own kombucha, keifer, yogurt, and sourdough.  I abandoned the keifer because it grew faster than I could eat it and no one else in my family liked it.  The kombucha is a seasonal thing because in late summer I can't keep the fruit flies out of it; I've just restarted with a "mother" from a neighbor.  The yogurt is a new endeavor; for about a month I've been making batches of whole-milk yogurt in a small crock pot and it is super-easy and delicious.  The basic method is here (I used a cup of store-bought plain organic yogurt as a starter for my first batch and I don't use a candy themometer).  I am never buying yogurt again!

But the fermenting achievement we are most proud of is our sourdough.  We've kept the same batch of starter alive for 7 years!  I captured wild yeast with the water from boiled potatoes.  I don't remember where I read about the method or much about how I did it, but I think it was something similar to this (Be sure to use organic potatoes.  I used whole wheat flour.  And don't store food in plastic containers!).  Although I started it, Tim is the Keeper of the Sourdough and Maker of the Sourdough Bread (and Waffles, Pancakes, Rolls, etc.).  Here's how he cares for the starter, which we keep in a 1-quart (glass) mason jar in the fridge (loosely covered with a canning lid and ring):  Take 1/2 of starter out of jar and set aside to use in bread.  Add to remaining starter 3/4 c. whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup of water.  Stir well, return to fridge.  Could that be easier?  You feed it as often as you want to use it.  When we go away for a month, we ask our house-sitter to feed the starter once to keep it lively.

Here's Tim's delicious Sourdough Bread Recipe.  It takes 2 days (but requires no kneading!):

Day 1:
  • In a bowl, combine 1/4 c. lukewarm water and 1/2 tsp. yeast (or 1/4 tsp. instant yeast).
  • Grind 1/2 c. walnuts or almonds with 2 tsp. sugar in electric grinder (optional), add to yeast and water.
  • Add 2 tsp. salt to yeast & water.
  • Add 1/4 tsp. caraway seeds and fresh chopped rosemary (or seasonings/herbs of your choice) to yeast & water.
  • Stir in starter to yeast & water.
  • Stir in 1/4 c. ground flax seeds.
  • Stir in 3 1/2 c. whole wheat flour (sometimes we use a combination of whole wheat and "white whole wheat").
  • Stir in 1 1/2 - 2 c. water.  Mixture will be very wet.
  • Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Day 2:
  • Remove dough from fridge, split into two equal balls.
  • Line 2 sieves with well-floured towels, put 1 ball of dough in each sieve on floured towel, lightly cover dough with towel.  Let rise 2-5 hours.
  • Near end of rising time, place pizza stone in oven and heat oven to 450 degrees.  When oven is hot, turn each round loaf out of sieve onto heated pizza stone.  Toss 2-4 ice cubes into oven (makes a crispy crust).  Bake for 15 minutes; turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake for 25 minutes.  
  • Bread is done if it sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.
The homeschool aspect to all this: learning about bacteria and fermenting, where food comes from, slow food, following instructions but also doing it ourselves through experimentation.  Plus, the deep pleasure of a warm piece of bread topped with melting butter!

The next Strange Creatures I want to cultivate are vinegars, such as apple-cider vinegar and red wine vinegar... 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès

Still from A Trip to the Moon by Georges Melies [Source]
Last March, N. read Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007).  I didn't know much about it beyond this: it is about a boy who lives in a train station in early 20th-century Paris and the narrative is partly told through detailed, realistic pencil drawings.  I thought both of these features would appeal to N. and he said he liked the book a lot (in July he read Selznick's newest book, Wonderstruck, which he liked even more). 

N. didn't talk much about Hugo Cabret after reading it, but recently he asked several times if we could find the film "A Trip to the Moon" by Georges Méliès.  He wanted to watch it.  I had no idea what he was talking about, and it only gradually emerged that he'd learned about Méliès through Selznick's novel, in which the pioneering French filmmaker is an important character.  I found this incredible box set of 173 (!) of Méliès's films at the library, and we've been gradually working our way through them, a couple 2- or 3-minute films at a time.  We've already watch "A Vanishing Lady" and "A Trip to the Moon" multiple times.  It is astonishing to watch films made in the 1890s and early 1900s!  

As I've now learned (thanks to the material accompanying the DVDs), Méliès was a practicing magician and he was one of the first to grasp the non-realist potential of cinema while others were using the new medium for documentary realism.  For example, in "A Vanishing Lady," Méliès makes a woman disappear, replaces her with a skeleton, and makes her reappear, all through stop-action filming.  Since N. has only watched 3 full-length movies in his life, including one silent film (Buster Keaton's "The General"), he is not much more sophisticated a viewer than those who first saw Méliès's films at the turn of the century and he is absolutely charmed by them.  They don't seem quaint to him, but amazing.  When N. first watched "A Vanishing Lady," for example he had no idea how the illusion was achieved!  He laughs uproariously at films' physical comedy, marvels at their illusions, and hums the accompanying music all day.  

So we've had a lot of fun learning about the early history of cinema.  I finally read The Invention of Hugo Cabret last week after we'd begun watching Méliès's films, and while I think the writing itself is quite pedestrian, I am grateful to Selznick for sparking N.'s interest in Méliès and leaving clear trails throughout the text and in the Afterword for further exploration.  In an earlier post explaining why we severely restrict N.'s screen time, I describe our view of our parental role as "curators" offering quality visual experiences.  While our restrictions may have made N. more receptive to Méliès's films than more media-saturated kids might be, it's also true that our exploration of Méliès and other early filmmakers was driven by N. and was not "curated" by his parents at all.  I had never heard of Georges Méliès before last week!  The list of things I've learned about through my son's interests is ever-growing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Introducing The 18th-Century Common

Since many of you who read and comment on my blog seem to be bookish sorts, I want to tell you about The 18th-Century Common (, a new public humanities website that my colleagues and I have just launched.  It's a public space for sharing the research of scholars who study eighteenth-century cultures with nonacademic readers.  The site will present short digests of the research of 18th-century scholars in many disciplines in accessible, non-specialized language, along with links to original texts, objects, images, and resources for further reading.  Scholars will also write blog posts making connections between 18th-century studies and contemporary events.  The site is not aimed at students, but at the sorts of readers who make bestsellers of trade books such as The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009) or new biographies of the Founding Fathers -- adult readers who are interested in the ideas, history, art, literature, music, and science of an earlier era. 

We want to tell such readers about our research and the scholarship that we produce.  We think the work we do is really interesting and we want to share that with readers beyond the academy and outside the confines of today's challenging publishing climate.  Furthermore, we hope to build a responsive community among scholars and nonacademic readers, so that eventually the content we post will be generated by interactions on the site as readers ask questions and suggest ideas they'd like to explore.

I hope you'll browse The 18th-Century Common, comment, sign up for updates, follow us on Twitter (@18common), tell your friends, and come back to read more as we add content.  We're excited to take the eighteenth century beyond the academy to the internet!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Frank Lloyd Wright Doghouse!

Letters of Note recently featured a letter that a 12-year-old boy wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 asking him to design a doghouse that would go with the house Wright designed for the boy's father:

June 19, 1956

Dear Mr. Wright

I am a boy of twelve years. My name is Jim Berger. You designed a house for my father whose name is Bob Berger. I have a paper route which I make a little bit of money for the bank, and for expenses.

I would appreciate it if you would design me a dog house, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house. My dog's name is Edward, but we call him Eddie. He is four years old or in dog life 28 years. He is a Labrador retriever. He is two and a half feet high and three feet long. The reasons I would like this dog house is for the winters mainly. My dad said if you design the dog house he will help me build it. But if you design the dog house I will pay you for the plans and materials out of the money I get from my route.

Respectfully yours,

Jim Berger

You must go look at the images of the original letter, Wright's reply, the boy's follow-up letter, and Wright's plans for the doghouse at Letters of Note!   We thought the gas station in Cloquet was the oddest FLW building, but this doghouse is even more surprising.  We really enjoyed reading about it!

Big thanks to Melissa Wiley for alerting me to this post on Letters of Note.

Our previous Frank Lloyd Wright encounters:  his Autobiography, his gas station, his estate in Wisconsin.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Artist Trading Card Swap 2012

In October I signed N. up for an Artist Trading Card Swap run by the blog bright eyes + blue eyes.  We'd never participated in one before, but N. had a lot of fun drawing tiny buildings, trains, and cars on 2.5-by-3.5-inch cards and mailing them out to the list of seven 8-year-olds we were given.  Even more fun was receiving a whole bunch of mail with colorful cards enclosed!  He immediately wanted to find another swap to participate in.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Morning Monopoly

Enjoying a mellow Sunday morning game of monopoly, practicing math and perfecting our vulture capitalist ploys...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Learning to Love Learning in Jane of Lantern Hill

(Drawing by N.)
In the comments on my post on architecture in children's books, Melissa Wiley mentioned Jane of Lantern Hill, one of the few novels by L.M. Montgomery that I'd never read, so I indulged and read it practically in one sitting recently.  Of course I love it, and it is indeed centrally concerned with the architecture of "home."  I was also struck by the description of how Jane's father uses narrative to make learning appealing for the emotionally abused heroine for whom school had been simply another venue for humiliation and failure.

Jane had been forced to read the Bible aloud to her grandmother and consequently hated it; in contrast her father (with whom she has recently reunited) reads the Bible aloud with deep feeling and love for its language.  As Jane engages with the Bible freely and experiences her dad's fascinating observations about it, she comes to love it. 
"When dad had converted her to the Bible, he set about making history and geography come alive for her.  She had told him she always found those subjects hard.  But soon history no longer seemed a clutter of fates and names in some dim, cold antiquity but became a storied road of time when dad told her old tales of wonder and the pride of kings.  When he told the simplest incident with the sound of the sea in his voice, it seemed to take on such a colouring of romance and mystery that Jane knew she could never forget it.  Thebes... Babylon... Tyre... Athens... Galilee... were places where real folks lived... folks she knew.  And, knowing them, it was easy to be interested in everything pertaining to them.  Geography, which had once meant merely a map of the world, was just as fascinating."
 Such a moving account of Jane's intellectual awakening!  This poor girl who has had almost no friends and almost no love blossoms when, after she has made friends and felt love, she discovers that learning is yet another form of friendship  -- with her father, with the people of the past.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Political Learning

(N.'s quick rendition of the Obama campaign symbol)
Our recent hands-on lessons in government and politics culminated with a thorough reading of the newspaper over breakfast this morning!  Although some of our state results disappointed us, we were thrilled that equal rights for gay couples fared so well in several states, and we were relieved and excited about Obama's victory.

N. knocked on doors with me in 2008 and this year he hung out with me at our local campaign headquarters on Election Day while I waited to drive voters to polling places.  In 2008 he echoed our passion for the Presidential campaign without a deep understanding of what it was all about and this year I found it fascinating to discover through our many conversations about politics what he now understood and what he was still confused about.

Politics has been a model for me of family-based learning (which is essentially what homeschooling is) since my own childhood.  My dad has worked in politics for most of my life and the two-year election cycle of the U.S. House of Representatives was the circadian rhythm of our family.  I remember my dad joining us late at a rented cabin some Junes when the Minnesota DFL nominating conventions ran long; in later years our family vacations were timed to the Congress's August recess.  My three siblings, my mom, and I couldn't help but learn a lot about government and politics from my dad.

Even though our national political discourse often leaves much to be desired, politics is a great learning vehicle.  Whether you care about the big picture or a particular issue, there is something in politics for everyone to get passionate about and there are always opportunities to get involved locally.  N. has been really interested this season in parsing the visual symbolism of the campaigns, especially as he's been learning about Raymond Loewy's visual branding techniques.  We can think about international relations and national and world history though politics.  We learn how to respect differences as we discover that friends and family members don't share our views.  I grew up caring about politics because my family talked about it and family conversation is an excellent way to learn.  I've mentioned before that I love the long learning trajectories of homeschooling, the opportunity to revisit ideas and engage more deeply; election cycles give us the chance to re-examine issues, reinforce learning, and build on knowledge every couple of years. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Celebrating Halloween

Red Riding Hood and a bat
I love Halloween!  I love the crowds roaming the neighborhood at night.  I love watching our son and his friends revel in the spooky decor that used to terrify them.  I love Halloween's defiant spirit of excess. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and the Challenges of History

N. has been learning about the first 7 U.S. presidents this autumn, reading The History of Us with Tim.  So I thought he'd be interested in the recent Smithsonian Magazine cover story, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek (based on his new book Master of the Mountain).  I read it aloud to N., and we had a long conversation about the disturbing picture it paints of slavery and of Jefferson's actions as a slave-owner.  The fundamental, irreconcilable contradiction between Jefferson's words and his actions is a hard lesson, and N. was troubled by it.  Samuel Johnson put it well in his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Wiencek's article offers to resolve this contradiction by purporting to show that Jefferson simply embraced slavery in the 1790s as the most profitable economic system that would support Monticello.  Wiencek's Jefferson is no longer troubled by the distance between his famous words and his private actions on the mountaintop of his estate.  He offers as evidence records from Jefferson's Farm Book, private letters, and his declining an inheritance that would have given him means to free his slaves.  Wiencek quotes a letter from Jefferson to Washington which he says shows Jefferson acknowledging "for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children" (oddly, however, Wiencek omits entirely the scholarly consensus that Jefferson fathered some of those children).

Yesterday, however, I read two damning critiques of Wiencek's book by scholars with strong credentials as Jeffersonian historians: Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Ellen Lewis.  They point out that the "4%" letter was not describing Monticello's economy but was a generalization in "response to a request for a comparison of free labor to enslaved labor" (Gordon-Reed).  They point out that Jefferson declined to act on the will that would have given him money to free his slaves because the would-be benefactor wrote three more wills after that, and the competing claims from these wills were not resolved until 1852 (Wiencek omits these details entirely)!  They point out that Jefferson continued to lament slavery till his very deathbed.  They have much more to criticize; I recommend you read their essays.  As Lewis puts it:
"It is inarguable that Jefferson lived off of the labor of his slaves all the time that he was decrying slavery as 'moral and political depravity.' We can call that many things. One of them is tragedy, for the slaves most especially, but also for the nation. Another is paradox —but maybe that’s too complicated."  
I was frustrated with Smithsonian Magazine for publishing something that seems at the very least to need better vetting or peer-review.  I told N. about these critiques at supper last night, and we talked about the challenges of history.  Both Gordon-Reed and Lewis highlight the importance of context for creating historical narratives.  Wiencek's account of Jefferson's thinking is undermined by the larger contexts from which he pulls his selective quotes.  I think N. felt a bit perplexed.  History suddenly seemed very hard.  I tried to point out that this very perplexity is part of what makes history valuable.  There are no easy answers to the complexity of the past (or the present!)  Wiencek's Jefferson is simply a monster who callously abandoned his ideals.  While not excusing or apologizing for slavery in the slightest, it is much more honest to explore how Jefferson continued to believe in those ideals while failing to live up to them.  Surely in our own lives we all face the same challenge.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Flights of Fancy

Although I've been writing a lot of highfalutin posts lately about classical music and architecture and grit and reading Shakespeare and Ben Franklin in their original forms, we also love homeschooling for its long stretches of free play time.  I was struck by the continuing interconnectedness of play and learning recently.  For the past week and a half or so N. had been reading The Chronicle of Flight: A Year-By-Year History of Aviation, a book he recently rediscovered on his bookshelves.  Trains are usually his vehicle of choice for reading material and for play, so I noticed when he suddenly became absorbed in airplanes.  I kept stumbling over the book lying open in different rooms.  Soon I started seeing long-neglected toy planes around the house.  Then I came home to a paper airplane airfield all set up in the living room.  Another day N. took the paper airplanes (made from an old collection of paper planes N. tortured various houseguests into making a couple years ago) outside for test flights down a neighbor's hill.  Planes showed up in our conversations and in N.'s stories about his imaginary world. 
 Instinctively, N. was processing his reading through play; the information he read enriched his make-believe, which sent him back to the book for more, which led to new forms of play.  We know that play is the primary learning mode for young children, which is why we didn't want to send N. to an "academic" preschool, but observing this process last week reminded me how important play still is for an 8-year-old. 

This playing-and-learning, which I believe is so crucial, is also entirely unmeasurable.  I can show you the pictures I took, artifacts of a process that I was only tangentially part of (through conversation).  But most of this took place in N.'s head.  No project or composition or product (much less a test score) came out of it.  Nonetheless I believe that not only did he learn many specific nuggets of information, he also flexed his creativity, something alarmists warn us children have less and less opportunity to do.

Though we can't quantify what exactly N. learned as he read about and played with planes, we can note what we provided that made this process possible: we bought a book, years ago, on the $3 discount table at Borders and stored it on an accessible shelf for the unpredictable moment when it might be appealing.  We made those paper airplanes (nominally with N.'s help) from that excruciatingly difficult kit his half-sister gave him for his birthday one year, and we kept all the planes in a bag in the play room even though many times we really wanted to toss them as so much clutter.  And most importantly, we made sure he had unstructured time to explore the bookshelves, read, and play without interference.  We trusted that there was something good happening, and we didn't try to turn this sudden interest into a Thing.  Sometimes it's just good to play!    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Loewy

[Source] Loewy posing with the Pennsylvania Railroad's GG1

Last year we discovered the industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) on a visit to Roanoke, VA.  He more or less invented the profession of "industrial designer" and transformed the 20th century aesthetic.  It is hard to overstate his influence on American culture, from trains, tractors, cars, buses, refrigerators, toasters, Coke bottles, fonts, corporate logos... You can see a long list of products whose look he designed here, and an assemblage of some of his corporate logos here.

I suggested Tim read Loewy's autobiography Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) to N. for the next installment of their autobiography "curriculum" and they've been enjoying it a lot.  (You can see N.'s brief composition work incorporating Loewy in my recent post about nouns).  Loewy describes a free-wheeling childhood in France (he came to the U.S. after World War I) under the mentorship of two older brothers: 
 "My brothers were watching me closely, and they encouraged me to try new things on my own, to rely completely on myself, and to work hard.  They were a good influence and I owe a great deal to their constructive tutoring.  They had confidence in me and they gave me confidence in myself.  They were appreciative of my efforts and I never felt that I was working in a void.  Georges and Max established the proper climate for their young brother and they never let me down.  I was living in an atmosphere of passionate research, fascinated by anything new, unusual, or merely promising -- whether it was a paradoxical new theory, a different automobile horn, a witty expression of Parisian slang, the mouvement Dada, a new play by Rostand, or a decor by Diaghilev."
In his youth Loewy was already attuned to the ugliness or beauty of objects; for example he designed a prize-winning model airplane (and started a successful company manufacturing them as a 15-year-old) because while he was entranced with flight, he hated the look of the airplanes of his time.  This became his lifelong passion: to make objects look as beautiful and modern as they were in concept.  He had a voracious enthusiasm for the modern world he was entering: 
"The life of a young man around 1905 was an exciting one.  Can you imagine a young boy who in rapid succession sees the birth of the electric light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the cinema, and the radio?  How could a child born in my time wish to become anything but an active participant in one of these new earth-shaking developments? I couldn't see it.  I knew I wouldn't live happy in anything not directly connected with these momentous discoveries."
Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951) by Raymond Loewy
 Even the form of Loewy's autobiography reflects his passion for design, from its elegant cover to his use of myriad fonts and layouts on the chapter title pages to teach mini-lessons about design. 

This book makes a provocative pairing with Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and the two narratives have helped expand N.'s appreciation of architecture and design beyond his beloved late Victorian/Queen Anne period.  Yesterday he pointed out that even though he likes our ottoman, Loewy would label it "schmaltz!"  Beyond this, N. is learning lots of cultural history of 20th-century America through Loewy's account of his redesign of iconic products such as the Sears Coldspot refrigerator and the toaster.  His corporate logos lead us to conversation about marketing and commercial culture.  This is such a fun, integrated way to learn history of several different kinds (cultural, business, political) while barely even noticing that's what you are doing. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

His First Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Saturday we took N. to a student production of The Comedy of Errors at the arts conservatory in our city; it was his first Shakespeare play (not counting the opera version of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai that he saw last spring).  Since so much of the play depends on the physical humor of mistaken identities, it was fairly easy for N. to follow the plot and he really enjoyed it.  The students did not communicate the meanings of play's language particularly well, so I was relieved that the action was nonetheless clear to N. 

Tim wanted N. to experience The Comedy of Errors without any preconceptions so he deliberately did not give him any preparation other than to tell him that it involved two sets of twins.  I can't say I agreed with this approach; I would have read N. Charles and Mary Lamb's retelling of the plot, at the very least.  But Tim was sure that N. would get the basic gist of this relatively simple play and he wasn't wrong.  Still, our opinions of the value of Shakespearean retellings differ.  Tim thinks that a student should read the original Shakespearean text and only the original (putting aside the vexed question of which text counts as the original in the case of some plays!), and not until she is ready to really engage with its complexity (he has resisted reading Shakespeare with the older homeschooled children he tutors until they are into their teens).  I think that the retellings can whet a child's appetite for Shakespeare and are therefore valuable.  Of course they may be sometimes slightly inaccurate, and they certainly emphasize plot at the expense of other facets of the texts.  Nonetheless, the long use of retellings since the early nineteenth century suggests their efficacy. 

Such are the arguments of a two-literature-Ph.D.-household.  Internet: buttress my cause!  Tell me why you use retellings of Shakespeare with your children.
"Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak..."  --The Comedy of Errors

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Magnetic French

For this week's French lesson, we sorted our French poetry magnets into adjectives, verbs, nouns, and pronouns, building on last week's English grammar learning and exposing N. to new French vocabulary.  I hope this sorting will make it easier to start building a few sentences.  These magnets are cool because they give the English on the back, as well as whether the noun is masculine or feminine, whether the adjective is in its masculine or feminine form, or what pronoun goes with the conjugated verb.  We're taking baby steps, but definitely making more regular progress so far this year with French.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Making Musical Connections

One of my favorite modes of learning is to follow loose chains of associations that bring discrete objects into surprising conjunction (and this is why academic humanities research is so seductive... there is always another article to read or archive to dig into).  Child-led, interest-led learning is all about seizing the fortuitous moment of curiosity, fostering connections among ideas, and building those chains of associations together.  As we began homeschooling I enjoyed reading Melissa Wiley's "connections" posts recounting such moments; below is an account of a series of musical associations we followed last week.   

Last Wednesday, we listened as we often do to the Piano Puzzler on Performance Today before N. went to bed.  The object is to figure out the composer whom the amazing pianist and Puzzler-constructor Bruce Adolphe is imitating and the well-known tune he's embedded in the piece.  Last week, he fit "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi into an adaptation of the second movement of Ravel's Sonatine.  I figured out the Puzzler tune pretty quickly because it is one of the two ravishing arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa on the soundtrack to the Merchant-Ivory film of A Room With A View.  My mild obsession with that film in college led me to listen to lots of Kiri Te Kanawa's  recordings and consequently to come to love opera.  When the Puzzler was over, I played "O mio babbino caro" for N., with visions of Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands dancing in my head. 

None of us guessed the composer being quoted in the Puzzler, but Fred Child, the host of Performance Today, always plays a recording of the piece being imitated right after the Puzzler, so we enjoyed listening to a bit of the Sonatine, which was new to us.  N. said the Sonatine's big left-hand chords in the second movement reminded him of a tune on a CD he likes called "Ultimate Big Band Collection: Great Theme Songs."  He put it on: a 1941 recording by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra of "Piano Concerto in B Flat (Tonight We Love)."  This is an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky concerto by Freddy Martin and Bobby Worth, so naturally I then had to look for a recording of the Tchaikovsky, but we didn't have one, and it was past bedtime.  The next morning, however, I found the 16-year-old Evgeny Kissin playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan on YouTube, so we listened to that.  N. noticed immediately (although I didn't!) that "Tonight We Love" puts Tchaikovsky's 3/4 theme in 4/4 time.  We really enjoyed comparing the two pieces, not to mention Kissin's playing.

While rummaging in our records and CDs for the Ravel Sonatine and the Tchaikovsky, I found a CD neither Tim nor I realized we own and that we may have never listened to: Helene Grimaud playing Gershwin and Ravel piano concertos (with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra).  Tim had recently bought a compilation of Grimaud's recordings and we had just watched this promotional video for an album she's released with cellist Sol Gabetta so we were amused to find that someone we thought was new to us was already in our collection.  Thursday night after supper I idly started reading aloud the liner notes for Grimaud's Gershwin and Ravel CD.  The short essay by Robert Schwarz describes Gershwin and Ravel's relative positions in the music world in 1928 when they met, and then goes back a few years to recount Gershwin's composition of his piano concerto in F major a year after the controversial premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.  About halfway through my reading of the Gershwin section of the notes, after stopping to talk about the divides between popular and classical music in the 1920s and Gershwin's anxiety about properly following the concerto form, we realized N. had never heard Rhapsody in Blue so Tim pulled out the record and we listened to Rhapsody and American in Paris, both of which N. loved.

As it happens, our Rhapsody in Blue record is especially interesting because it features the original (and infrequently performed) version of the piece scored for jazz band rather than symphony orchestra and the jazz band on the record (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976) is accompanying a ghostly soloist: a reproducing piano playing a piano roll made by Gershwin himself in 1925.  I read N. the record notes describing the process of making this unusual recording and then we hit the encyclopedia and the internet to learn more about how player pianos work. 

Part of what makes these associative chains both fun and effective as learning experiences is that we are all making discoveries together.  None of us began this particular series as masters of all the material we examined; we each had interests and expertise that helped us make additional, deeper connections.  I can hardly think of anything more satisfying than delving into music with my two favorite guys.  Besides delving into books, of course.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

DIY Grammar: Nouns

 Tim and N. have been working on identifying parts of speech in English (and N. and I have been talking about this in our French lessons as well).  When Tim taught eighth grade English, he found real-life examples of writing more interesting than textbooks, so he had N. underline nouns in a bunch of articles in Vegetarian Times and in a bit of his own writing.

Another day N. and I reinforced this lesson with a long session of Mad Libs: I asked him for adjectives, nouns, and verbs, wrote wrote his words in the blanks, and read him the funny results.  He found it much easier to identify parts of speech in printed text than to come up with his own words in each category.  In particular, the fact that nouns can sometimes function as adjectives made it hard for him to think of adjectives other than colors, but it was good practice.  I like the idea that with the magazine task and the Mad Libs, we looked at the same concept from opposite ends.  

I've written this before about math, and I think it's true about "language arts" as well: you don't necessarily need an expensive curriculum to teach or learn its concepts.  Language is all around you.  "Language arts" is simply learning to name what you already do every day as a fluent speaker of your native tongue. 


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Electricity from Lemons

According to my phone I took this photo at 7:38 a.m.
Last week, N. and Tim did that lemon-battery thing that the internet tells me every homeschooler in America does at least once.  And it worked!  They used a kit similar to this one that friends had passed down to us (unused!).  Earlier in the summer, N. had tried this unsuccessfully, at a science summer camp, no less, so we were all quite pleased that it worked this time.  And N. actually explained to me how it worked when I got home from work to marvel at it.  He now knows more about electricity than I do.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Field Trip: Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin

Our guide pointed out how Wright structurally framed this lovely view.
Shortly after I wrote about our summer visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's gas station, we piled in the car for our second road trip of the season between North Carolina and Minnesota.  We broke our two-day trip in Spring Green, Wisconsin so we could visit Taliesin, an estate that Frank Lloyd Wright created over many years on land owned by his extended family.  We knew we would not be able to tour the main house Wright designed at Taliesin because children under 12 are not allowed (N. was deeply offended by this.  He loves house tours and hated the thought of having to wait four years for this one).  But we spent a beautiful windy morning touring the Hillside School and Theater that Wright built for his aunts who ran an innovative experiential boarding school in the late nineteenth century and gave Wright his first architectural commissions.  As we toured this well-worn building that later became the locus of his own apprenticeship-model teaching, Wright's mode of work felt tangible.  The Hillside School buildings have a handmade, DIY-feeling to them that made Wright seem very immediate to us, as if he had only recently cantilevered this beam or replaced those windows.  The fact that the Hillside complex is still in use as an architecture school enhanced our feeling that it was more living structure than museum.

 Today architecture apprentices and fellows continue to work, as they have since the 1950s, in a large studio where the words of Emerson carved in wood across the front of the room reinforce Wright's philosophy: "What a man does, that he has" (Spiritual Laws).  I was struck by the long heritage of experiential learning centered in the Hillside buildings from Wright's aunts' school to his first youthful experiments with architecture on their property to the apprenticeship learning model that still governs the Taliesin Fellowship.  You learn by doing, and what you do is yours.

Bonus reading: Tim and N. read Wright's Autobiography last year. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Architecture in Children's Fiction

My 8-year-old son loves buildings, especially if they are old.  This passion drew my attention to the prominence of interesting buildings in much of the children's fiction we've read together, and I started to keep this odd list.  In these books at least one building plays a  significant role in the plot:
  • Iggy Peck, Architect  by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
  • Eloise [The Plaza!]
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder [maybe all the Little House books, now that I think about it]
  • Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright
  • The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
  • Betsy-Tacy; Betsy, Tacy, & Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace [Tib's chocolate-colored house]
  • Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald [Mrs. P-W's upside-down house]
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren [Pippi's crazy house]
  • The Boxcar Children (#1) by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • The Giraffe, The Pelly, and Me by Roald Dahl
  • The Five Little Peppers by Margaret Sidney [the Little Brown House!]
  • Magic or Not, by Edward Eager
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton
  • The Thyme Garden by Edward Eager
  • The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
  • The House of Arden by E. Nesbit
  • Wonderstruck by Brian Selznik [Museum of Natural History]
What are some other examples of children's fiction in which the plot revolves in some way around a building?

[I'm linking to The Children's Bookshelf]

Monday, September 24, 2012

Another Historically Significant Gas Station

After visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's gas station in Cloquet, MN earlier this summer, N. suggested we check out an unusual gas station closer to home: the Shell Service Station, which was built around 1930 by Frank L. Blume & Co. to draw attention to the Shell Company.  There were once 8 of these stations in our city; this is the only one remaining.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was recently restored.  The structure is a bent-wood frame covered with hand-sculpted concrete (N. was surprised that the frame wasn't made of metal).

Here's a "lesson plan" from the National Park Service on Roadside Attractions that starts with this station and includes some other odd American novelty buildings.  I read somewhere that this was the first gas station to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but I don't know if that's accurate.

I'm adding Gas Stations to my ever-growing List of Things I Never Thought I'd Be Interested in Before I Had A Son and Started Homeschooling!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Drawing Update, 2012

It's been more than a year since I posted any pictures of N.'s drawings, but he continues to draw nearly every day.  Whenever we go somewhere, he brings his drawing bag and sketchbook; it's his favorite way of amusing himself when the adult conversation gets tedious or the restaurant food takes too long to arrive.  He almost exclusively draws the trains and buildings of his elaborate imaginary world, and his drawings have become very detailed and miniscule.  He enjoyed taking several art classes over the past two years where he got to explore other media, but he didn't get any instruction in the two aspects of drawing in which he most wants to improve: perspective and the human figure.  I'm in the process of arranging a few private drawing lessons to this end. 

From the beginning, one of the reasons we didn't send N. to conventional school was to preserve for him the daily time to draw that was clearly so important to him.  I'm sure somehow he'd find time to draw if he weren't homeschooled, but I'm glad that this activity that matters so much to him gets pride of place in his day.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How To Raise a Music-Lover

N. playing around on the piano at age 4 1/2
A musically inclined friend with a 5-year-old recently wrote to ask what sorts of things we did to expose N. to music at that age.  For us, it was easy to raise a music-lover because we really love music and it's been so much fun to share that with our son.

Here's what I told him at (great!) length about how this unfolds in our family:

First, we listen to a LOT of music at home and talk about it, especially during meals, not really didactically but just because we like music.  We listen to a wide range of stuff (although not really any current pop) from medieval through 20th-c.classical to jazz to traditional/folk/old-time to musicals and Hollywood themesongs to 50s classics.  Being home all day means lots of music-listening time!  N. goes through phases of obsessing about particular songs or CDs and we go with that till he moves on, however tired of the CD we may be (for a long time when he was 2 he was obsessedwith track 11 on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack: "In theHighways, In the Hedges.").  We prefer older kid-type music to contemporary more treacly artists; our favorites are Sam Hinton ("Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts" on SmithsonianFolkways), Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins (she is so good!).  One contemporary album we like is Elizabeth Mitchell's "You are My Little Bird." In the past year we've started listening to the weekly Piano Puzzler on public radio, which is a great way to build your musical knowledge about composers' styles and popular American song history.  Listening to music is a big part of our daily life, so it would have been hard not to expose N. to that.

Second, Tim and I love going to concerts and I wanted to share this with N., so I started taking him from an early age to the second half of afternoon symphony concerts or other daytime concerts (if you go to the second half only, you usually don't have to pay, which made me feel OK about leaving whenever N. needed to because I hadn't just spent a bunch on tickets).  I would sit in the back with him to minimize disruption to others and bring something quiet for him to hold, such as a small stuffed animal. Gradually he got comfortable sitting for longer portions of the concerts.  I found that adult concerts are better suited than special children's concerts to developing a child's appreciation for concert-going because children's concerts are often a total zoo with so many kids in one place.  When N. was 4 he wanted to start going to the symphony with us regularly, so we got season tickets for the Sunday afternoon concert.  That first year he often fell asleep during the 2nd half of the concert but he still enjoyed going.  This year we're switching to the weeknight subscription because he's old enough to stay up for it.  Sometimes we talk about or listen to what's going to be on the program in advance, but not too often.  It's fun for him experience the music live first.  (I wrote at length about the process of taking N. to the symphony here.).  During his second-grade year N. went (voluntarily!) to six symphony concerts, six or seven chamber music concerts, a Richard Goode piano recital, his first opera (The Merry Wives of Windsor), a bluegrass festival, a cowboy music concert, and a concert of Hoagy Carmichael hits.  There are probably more I am forgetting.  As I said, we love going to music performances.

Third, making music. We sing around the house a lot and I play around a little on the banjo and cello, so N. has heard and joined in our music-making.  In addition to the kiddie music-makers we all accumulate (so many maracas!), we bought a piano when N. was 1 year old and encouraged him to play around on it as much as he wanted to, which was a lot.  It's great to have that experience of just playing with an instrument for awhile before beginning formal lessons, especially an accessible instrument like a piano.  We never took him to any of the "kindermusik"-type of general music classes for kids because N. didn't like participating in groups when he was younger.  We wanted to begin piano lessons when N.was 4 but one trial lesson revealed the teacher we'd chosen to be an authoritarian jerk, so we didn't continue (and 4 was probably too young).   We found his current teacher when he was 6 (he's 8 now) and she is absolutely wonderful.  I wrote about the beginning of N.'s piano lessons here, and have written about his wonderful teacher here, here, here, and here.  He's had some fun opportunities to play with and for other people and I'm glad he's had the chance to experience the joy of sharing music with others. 

It's possible that N. would have loved music even if we were uninterested in it, just as it's possible he could have hated music despite (or even because of) our passion for it.  But as it happens, he loves music and loves sharing it with us as much as we love sharing it with him.  N.'s inherent attraction to music has been developed by our family's saturation in it.  Spending so much time together as a homeschooling family inevitably does, our passions rub off on each other.