Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Reading as Education in Mansfield Park

I've been teaching a graduate course on education in eighteenth-century England this semester.  We are currently studying Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), a novel whose wide-ranging exploration of modes and effects of education I had not paid close enough attention to before now.  For example, this description of Edmund Bertram's mentorship of his cousin Fanny Price:
"Kept back as she was by every body else, his single support could not bring her forward, but his attentions were otherwise of the highest importance in assisting the improvement of her mind, and extending its pleasures.  He knew her to be clever, to have a quick apprehension as well as good sense, and a fondness for reading, which, properly directed, must be an education in itself.  Miss Lee taught her French, and heard her read the daily portion of History; but he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise."  (Chapter 2)
Fanny's accomplishments in the academic subjects of French and History are less important than her mentored reading for shaping her character (her "taste" and "judgment").  The nature of that mentoring is especially interesting.  "Fondness for reading" can be "an education in itself" if that reading is "directed" by a sensitive interlocutor whose conversation helps the reader learn interpretive skills.  Affection plays a crucial role in Fanny's learning-through-reading as well; she loves Edmund for paying her the attention no one else at Mansfield will, and thus is eager to learn from him and to earn his "judicious praise."

Want to know more?  June Sturrock's excellent edition of Mansfield Park published by Broadview Press elucidates the novel's contexts by reprinting excerpts of treatises on manners, conduct, and education, as well as the theatre, religion, estate improvement, and the West Indies.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: In Praise of Poetry Anthologies for Kids

Thursday we had one of those idyllic mornings that make me so happy to be able to homeschool.  Wednesday night, Tim read to N. before bed from A Child's Anthology of Poetry edited by Elizabeth Hauge Sword.  N. especially loved T. S. Eliot's poem "Macavity the Mystery Cat" and wanted to read it with me immediately when he woke up in the morning.  So we curled up in bed and read it together.  The poem made me think of a little collection I used to read from when N. was much younger called The Poetry of Cats, so I hunted that book down and read him a couple poems, trying to remember which had been our favorite.  Suddenly N. recalled it: "Cats Sleep Anywhere!" by Eleanor Farjeon:
Cats sleep
Any table,
Any chair,
Top of piano,
In the middle,
On the edge,
Open drawer,
Empty shoe,
Lap will do,
Fitted in a
Cardboard box,
In the cupboard
With your frocks---
They don't care!
Cats sleep
N. excitedly paged through another anthology, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children edited by Jack Prelutsky, to show me that "Cats Sleep Anywhere" is reprinted there too.  Then we spent over an hour reading poems aloud to each other, until we reluctantly had to eat breakfast and I had to go to work.  

We haven't made a concerted effort to read poetry with N., but he loves that Random House anthology and will often read from it on his own.  It is organized by subject matter: food, animals, ghosts, etc. and includes many funny poems and appealing illustrations by Arnold Lobel.  The Child's Anthology includes more serious poems, and no illustrations, but it too is organized thoughtfully.  I'm grateful we have these rich books that have introduced N. so happily to the pleasures of poetry, and grateful to share a quiet morning of poetry reading with him.

Poetry Friday Roundup is here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Titanic Trifecta

It's just possible that you've heard that Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic

We've been inundated with all things Titanic for the past couple months thanks to our various magazine subscriptions.  N. has a bit of a dread fascination with disaster (for example, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Fire of London in 1666) and he's been utterly absorbed in the Titanic story.  Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and Archeology all explore the Titanic from different angles, so it's been a rich subject for N.  In Smithsonian, he read about an optical illusion generated by the peculiar weather conditions at the time of the accident which may explain both why the ship hit the iceberg and why a nearby ship didn't rescue stranded passengers.  Last weekend I read him most of a long article in the same Smithsonian issue about the survivors and about earlier film renderings of the event.  National Geographic includes several pieces about recent attempts to capture images of the wreck, about filmmaker James Cameron's abiding interest in it, and about the politics of salvage and Titanic tourism.  Archeology describes the challenges of treating the wreck as an archeological site.  Some details that are prominent in one magazine's retelling recede to the background in a different magazine's perspective and we've talked a little about how the narrative feels different if the focus is on the people on board or on the ship itself.  N. has enjoyed cross-referencing among the magazines when a tidbit of information he read in one magazine pops up in another.

This spontaneous Titanic "unit" is a good example of how our version of unschooling works.  We provided the magazines and N. read them in bits and pieces over the past few weeks.  We noticed he was especially interested in the Titanic stories.  N. pulled off the shelves a book he absolutely loved a couple years ago called Sunken Treasure by Gail Gibbons (a random rummage sale find) which gives an interesting and detailed overview of the history of shipwrecks and their recovery and preservation; he was especially keen to compare Gibbons' account of the technology used in searching for wrecks with the new equipment described in the magazine articles.  All of this happened outside N.'s regular "school" time and I pieced together his exploration of this topic mostly by following the trail of magazines and books strewn in his wake.  I followed up by reading aloud one of the articles that N. had said was "boring" (the piece about the afterlives of survivors); it turned out he had only read some of the opening paragraphs but when I read more, he found it quite interesting.  By reading this piece aloud I pushed a bit to expand beyond what he thought he was interested in; I believe it's crucial (no matter what your educational philosophy) to help learners build on what they know and resist the temptation to stay in familiar and comfortable territory. 

At the same time, however, I didn't want to invade his Titanic exploration too much.  It's been his thing, to do as much or as little with as he likes.  We might suggest related reading, if we see some or if he asks for some but we're not going to take over and suggest projects or writing assignments, etc.  Teaching moments are everywhere, and as professional educators Tim and I can be somewhat obnoxious in our desire to take advantage of them.  But too much hovering can kill both the interest a subject holds and the independence that drove its exploration.  As N.'s learning independence increases, it will be an exciting challenge to discern when we can jump in and explore with him and when we should hang back.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bed of Bricks

Tim gets the "project" bug in the spring.  Although we have two quite large vegetable beds in our yard (one of which you can see here), he was yearning for a third.  He and N. had the idea of teaching themselves some basic masonry techniques and building a new raised garden with brick walls.  Since N. loves old buildings and learned the different masonry styles a year and a half ago, this seemed like a fun practical extension of his interests.

It was a challenging project because they learned as they built, and it was hard to keep every brick in alignment.  But they had a lot of fun working together at every stage: planning and calculating quantities of bricks, mortar, and dirt; developing a rhythm as they laid bricks together; dumping barrows-full of dirt over the walls; and buying and planting seeds.  The end result is solid and some of the new seeds they planted last week have already begun to sprout!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Greens 2012

March was a busy month!

Thanks to the warm winter, our kale was bursting out of the garden, so we enjoyed one of our annual rites of spring: harvesting, blanching, and freezing kale.

In the past, N. has enjoyed washing, weighing, and bagging the greens after they've been blanched.  This year he did a huge portion of the picking.  He's a really hard worker and we had fun making our way through the garden together.

Tim, N., and I are ambitious and enthusiastic but not always successful gardeners.  Kale, however, we have totally mastered.  It's not fussy, and it loves our climate.  What luxury to eat homegrown greens nearly every day, year round!

Bonus reading: I gush about our greens in 2009, 2010, and 2011!