Monday, January 28, 2013

Recent Local Art Outings

Vibha Galhotra, Untitled (2011).  [Source]
While we often go to art museums when we travel, sometimes we forget to take full advantage of the art in our little home city.  Recently we went to two exhibits that reminded us that thought-provoking art comes through town all the time and that we need to get out to see it.  First we saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibit called "Romare Bearden: Black Odyssey."  Bearden interprets iconic moments from the Odyssey in bright collages with black figures, giving the works layers of meaning that connect both to Homer's epic and to 20th-century life in America.  Three years ago, when N. was five-and-a-half, Tim read him the Odyssey; N. doesn't remember it in great detail, but he recognized the moments represented in Bearden's scenes, such as the Trojan horse and Penelope's loom.  Beyond the visual value of Bearden's art, perhaps the exhibit served to reinforce some of N.'s memories of Homer's text and to whet his appetite to re-engage with it some day.

Another day we saw two small shows at SECCA, the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art, which we'd never been to in the ten years we've lived in this city, even though admission is free (blush).  One exhibit was some incredible drawings by Frank Selby.  I thought these were amazing.  Despite his love of drawing, N. didn't engage much with these pieces.  He didn't know the iconic photographs many of them were riffing on, and perhaps they were hung too high for him to examine closely.  He was struck by one pair of drawings of a march in front of the Arc de Triomphe; in one the positive space was drawn in great detail, and in the other only the negative space under the Arc and above the marchers' heads was drawn.  The second exhibit showed the sculptures and tapestries of Vibha Galhotra made of tiny metal bells (you should go look at the pictures from the exhibit at that link).  N. loved these.  He walked all around them and marveled at how they seemed to change as you got closer or further away.  I think large-scale, sculptural art is often more accessible to kids than paintings hanging high on a wall.    

Friday, January 25, 2013

Field Trip: Salisbury, N.C.

(a historic house in Salisbury, N.C. that N. especially admired)
[I've got a few activities from 2012 that I was too busy to note at the time but I want to make sure to record on the blog for my own reference; this is one.]  Last March (2012), Tim, N., and I took a day trip to Salisbury, N.C., one of the older cities in our state.  It boasts a fairly well-preserved nineteenth-century downtown and a big, well maintained historic residential district featuring many, many Victorian and Queen Anne houses.  These, of course, are N.'s favorite kinds of architecture, the kind he draws over and over, so he was very happy walking for a couple hours around the quiet streets of this little city on a sunny mid-week day, exclaiming over towers and gingerbread trim.

This trip, along with our more recent visit to the N.C. State Capitol, is part of our effort to get to know our state history a bit better.  We gleaned a bit about this once-powerful hub city from the hour or so we spent in the Rowan Museum in downtown Salisbury.  We still have a lot to learn, but this spring day was a pleasant introduction.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gorgeous Grand Central Station

Last weekend I read to N. this article in the New York Times on the centennial of Grand Central Terminal excerpted from a new book, Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts; we also watched the accompanying video.  Grand Central is one of N.'s favorite buildings and one of the first we visited when we took him to New York for the first time.  On Wednesday Roberts's book arrived in the mail, a surprise gift from a dear friend, and N. immediately dove into it.  It involves both train history and old buildings!  What more could he ask for in a book? 

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight.  [Source]
After Thanksgiving I wrote about our visit to the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, D.C. in November, especially noting N.'s struggles to reconcile his contradictory feelings about the wide-ranging work of Ai Weiwei.  So I especially appreciated this lovely, long public radio piece on Ai's show, "According to What?" including the personal reactions of radio host Melissa Block and the thoughts of other viewers of the art.  The radio piece movingly conveys the power of Ai's work, which continues to haunt me.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Titanic and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Nautilus' route through the Atlantic [source].
Last summer, visiting my parents in Washington, D.C., we went to an exhibit about the Titanic at the National Geographic Museum called "Titanic: 100-Year Obsession."  I wrote last year about the rich learning opportunities that N.'s fascination with the Titanic sparked, and he enjoyed this exhibit a lot.  The exhibit featured a video in which explorer Robert Ballard described his quest to find the Titanic wreck site and his childhood fascination with all things submarine.  He thanked his parents for letting him indulge this passion fully in his youth.  As a child he loved to go to the aquarium, and he especially loved Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871).   

Making the 6-hour drive home from D.C. after that visit, Tim suggested we read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  On our road trips, I always read aloud something we can all enjoy and I read from my phone after dark.  So I downloaded the novel free from Project Gutenberg on my iphone (I use the excellent MegaReader app) and started in. 

Since then, we've made two car trips to Minnesota and back, two more trips to D.C. and back, and at least one trip to Durham, N.C. and back and at the end of December we finally finished Twenty Thousand Leagues.  N. and Tim really loved it.  I enjoyed it, although I found reading aloud the long latinate catalogues of marine flora and fauna extremely tedious.  I haven't read much science fiction, so it was interesting to read this early example and we all learned a lot of unusual vocabulary from this strange tale.  The inconclusive ending surprised and maddened me, but N. and Tim were not bothered by it.  N., who never wants a book to end, liked that for months and months we had this book to return to when night fell in the car.  In some ways, it's the perfect book to listen to in the car with its evocation of entrapment in the hermetic space of the Nautilus.  I'm not sure any of us would have found it so compelling if we hadn't been on our own long voyage in a small vehicle in the dark!

Yet again, making connections with N.'s passions paid off in enrichment for all three of us.  In this case, the associative chain went from N.'s interest in transportation and disasters, to a bunch of magazines celebrating the Titanic last April, to a museum exhibit, to a nineteenth-century novel.  Although we don't formally do Project-Based Homeschooling, I like to think of the big topics that we keep returning to (trains, old buildings, music) as long-term projects that we circle back to again and again.  As homeschooling parents, Tim and I are always on the watch for ways to build on N.'s passions (our friends and family help with this too -- it was my mom's idea to go to the Titanic exhibit, and people are often pointing us to things they think N. will be interested in, which we really appreciate).  Where will the Titanic take us next? 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On Tintin and Reading Comics

It shouldn't be surprising that our son who loves to draw so much would be in his reading drawn to comics, graphic novels, and other illustrated texts.  Nonetheless, because I am a literature snob, I have had some difficulty adjusting to this and fully supporting it.  Since I can use our extensive reading aloud to engage him in books I like, I am trying harder to help him find books he especially likes for his longer independent fiction reading, including comics and other illustrated texts.  I am really glad he still loves picture books; some favorites of his include the amazing work of David Weisener and David Macaulay.  He loves to check out picture books from the library.  He also devoured Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, as I enthusiastically described here.

N. very much likes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series even though he thinks the drawings are lame.  I am not a fan.  I don't like the boy characters.  I think there is a strange disconnect between the books' reading level and the content-maturity level; the text is at 2-3rd grade reading level but tells the stories of middle-schoolers, which don't seem especially appropriate for my naive 8-year-old.  I feel about these books the way I think my mom felt about my childhood reading of The Babysitters Club series or Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl, which I remember her dismissing as "drivel."  I don't like Wimpy Kid, but of course my standards are entirely different from my son's, so I bite my tongue and buy him used copies so he can read and reread them as he loves to do. 

N. loves Calvin and Hobbes, which I also enjoyed as a kid.  Even though I know Calvin is funny, philosophically interesting, and rich in challenging vocabulary, I was a bit uncomfortable with my son's absorption in Calvin.  I don't want his sense of self to be limited to a conventional model of masculinity (see this), and I cringed when I heard him fashioning smart-aleck remarks and then explaining that he "was just trying to talk like Calvin."  However enjoyable the books, I don't particularly want to live with Calvin!  In addition, I worry that Calvin and Hobbes is appealing because it consists of short vignettes rather than a long developing narrative.  While N. reads some narrative fiction cover to cover (such as Harry Potter 1-3 [twice!], and the Clementine books), he reads many chapter books halfway and then abandons them.  (My list of books he's completed this year as a third-grader is here and last year's list is here.)  His reading habits continue to be not entirely linear.  I believe this shouldn't bother me, but it does.  Anyway, recognizing that my worries are absurd (long narratives are not inherently better than short narratives, and multiple books about Calvin must constitute some kind of long narrative anyway, and of course I must trust my son's strong sense of self and respect his right to try on personae such as Calvin's), I got him a bunch of Calvin and Hobbes books for Christmas to add to his well-worn collection, and he was thrilled.  

Also for Christmas, I got N. a Tintin book: The Secret of the Unicorn.  I've never read any of the Tintin comics, but I knew they were beloved classics and that they had long narrative arcs and beautiful drawings.  N. loved it, reading through Unicorn practically in one sitting.  I got one copy in English and one in the original French and he has enjoyed comparing them and adding fun French vocabulary to his small repertoire.  I didn't realize I was introducing him to Tintin in the middle of the series and he begged for the next book, Red Rackham's Treasure.  Our library didn't have it and I was having trouble differentiating online between the large format editions I wanted and the smaller anthologies I didn't so my sister kindly went to The Strand in New York and hunted up a couple volumes on either side of Unicorn.  They arrived on Saturday and as you can see in the photo above, N. sat right down on the front stoop next to the mailbox and began reading.  He sat there for at least an hour soaking up the book in the sun, and has since read all 4 books my sister sent.  All through the weekend I've heard him giggling to himself as he reads. 

I'm hoping to get more Tintin books for him, and I am considering introducing Asterix next.  I'd love to hear your suggestions for comics or graphic novels along these lines that N. might like and that aren't too mature for an 8-year-old.  He prefers the older-fashioned drawing style used to create Tintin or Calvin rather than the newer manga- or animé-influenced style of many graphic novels, and he prefers to comic to scary violence.

[The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Beyond What to Expect: Pregnancy and Parenting Books For Thinking Parents

When I was pregnant, I was appalled by the patronizing tone of the classic pregnancy guide What to Expect When You're Expecting.  I wanted real evidence-based information about what was happening to me physically and mentally.  I wanted to be able to tell fact from folklore.  Eventually I found some amazing resources and started keeping a list that I am always giving to my pregnant friends and former students.  I am a professor; I love to give people reading lists!   

Beyond What to Expect When You’re Expecting: A list of intelligent, thought-provoking books about pregnancy and child-rearing.

These are the essential, do-not-miss, life-changing books I read about pregnancy and parenting:
  • Our Babies, Our Selves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith F. Small. A comparative study in “ethnopediatrics,” looking at Asian, African, and Western cultures. This book was utterly transformative for me; I can't recommend it highly enough.  
  • The Baby Book by William and Martha Sears (I like all the books they’ve done, including The Pregnancy Book, The Sleep Book, The Discipline Book, and The Family Nutrition Book). This is a very useful resource for baby’s developmental milestones, advocates breast-feeding and “attachment parenting,” especially carrying baby in a sling. Our mantra during the first months, “his desires are his needs,” came from this book. Good to have on hand for baby illnesses and general information.
  • Raising Baby Green. By Dr. Alan Greene. An environmentally conscious guide to pregnancy and baby care.
  • The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp. This is a guide to comforting crying (“colicky”) newborns. The techniques are very helpful; I recommend watching the DVD rather than reading the book (the book is very repetitive).
  • Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Diane Eyer, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. One hopes people don't quiz baby with flashcards, but this book provides a very interesting summary of lots of studies and experiments showing what babies learn and when and how they learn it.  The authors were early critics of the "Baby Einstein" dvds.
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish. I love this book for dealing with toddlers (and people of all ages in your life!). Worth reading when you are pregnant and then rereading again and again.  I can't overstate how much I learned from this book.

 Other interesting books:
  • Mother’s milk : breastfeeding controversies in American culture by Bernice L. Hausman. Interesting academic book about why Americans are so weird about breastfeeding; same with the next one.
  • Breastfeeding : biocultural perspectives by Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine A. Dettwyler, editors.
  • The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley. If you care about sleeping through the night at some point, this book may be helpful (though I’ve come to the conclusion that sleeping through the night is over-rated and an American fixation – that’s what I tell myself any way!)
  • Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
  • The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth by Henci Goer
  • Transformation Through Birth by Claudia Panuthos
  • Active Birth by Janet Balaskas
  • The Familial Gaze edited by Marianne Hirsch
  • The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner. Another fascinating book about how little kids learn.
  • Montessori from the start: The child at home from birth to age three by Paula Polk Lillard
  • The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-reliant Children by Wendy Mogel
  • Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age by Dan Kindlon
  • Living Simply with Children: A Voluntary Simplicity Guide for Moms, Dads, and Kids Who Want to Reclaim the Bliss of Children and the Joy of Parenting by Marie Sherlock
Interesting Websites:
  • Babies (2010).  Makes for an interesting companion to Our Babies, Our Selves.    
What are your favorite pregnancy and parenting books?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Nonfiction and the Common Core Standards: Your Suggestions Wanted!

You may have heard that the new Common Core State Standards that are being phased in by the majority of states over the next couple years seem to recommend an increase in the reading of "informational text" (I say "seem to recommend" because I personally find the description of the Common Core State Standards on the official website nearly incomprehensible).  If this means reading more primary sources across disciplines (i.e. The Federalist Papers in History or Government class) and/or reading relevant secondary nonfiction across disciplines (such as The Botany of Desire in Biology class), I think it sounds great.  [Here's a moving description of the revolutionary impact of writing across the curriculum in a struggling high school; I think reading across the curriculum would also have a salutary effect].

But some educators are assuming the "informational text" reading will take place primarily in English classes or during what would be fiction-and-poetry-reading time; thus according to the Washington Post, they read the new standards as a "call for public schools to ramp up nonfiction so that by 12th grade students will be reading mostly 'informational text' instead of fictional literature" (italics mine).  Many English teachers are rightly alarmed that this interpretation of the new standards devalues literature (and the humanities more generally), depriving students of the wisdom they can gain from deep engagement with literary texts.  The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers devoted volume 5 of the publication Forum to critiquing the anti-humanities bias underpinning the Common Core State Standards and other education reform efforts.  This volume, "What is Education? A Response to the Council on Foreign Relations Report 'U.S. Education Reform and National Security,'" is described here and available for free download here.  I found it very compelling.

Sara Mosle points out in an op-ed in the New York Times that "informational text" can be part of the domain of the humanities, that "informational text" doesn't have to mean technical reports or train schedules, but that there is much wonderful literary nonfiction that students could read.  Indeed The National Endowment for the Humanities is crowdsourcing the creation of new summer nonfiction reading lists to supplement their popular summer fiction lists.  You can go to the NEH website to recommend good nonfiction titles for various reading levels. 

I've been surprised and pleased by how much my 8-year-old son N. enjoys nonfiction reading because I didn't discover its pleasures until adulthood when I was introduced to The New Yorker and other literary nonfiction prose.  My husband, who loves well-written nonfiction himself, has used it as a foundation of our son's education so far, reading aloud to him everything from autobiographies to science to history; he even recently checked out a book called The Best Writing on Mathematics to see if it contained anything that might be accessible to N.  For his own pleasure reading, N. is drawn to nonfiction even more than fiction, much as he loves the latter.  N.'s daily reading is most often Trains magazine, Classic Trains magazine, National Geographic, books about train history, and books about buildings.  And he loves to get what he calls "information books" from the library.  But I work to make sure he doesn't neglect fiction and poetry by reading both aloud to him daily and nudging him to make time for his own literary reading.  Since I've seen how much my son has enjoyed and learned from nonfiction, I hope that the Common Core State Standards will be interpreted by teachers and school administrators to widen students' exposure to good writing across fields of inquiry rather than to reduce their engagement with literature.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Familial Learning in Cheaper By the Dozen

I mentioned recently that I read Cheaper By the Dozen aloud to N.; I also read him the sequel Belles on Their Toes and we watched the 1950 Cheaper By the Dozen movie starring Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb (the 3rd feature-length movie N. has watched -- he loved it, even though the movie gives everything from the costumes to the sexual politics of the Gilbreth parents' pioneering 1920s career partnership a 1950s sheen).  As the books describe, the Gilbreth children attend public school but their father supplements their learning with an ambitious home education program.  In addition to taking responsibility for chores, shopping, and the family budget, the children learn French and German, various large-number arithmetic mnemonics, astronomy, and Morse code at home.  The children describe their father's various instruction projects with bemusement, but also appreciation.

Because the Gilbreth parents are motion-study experts who specialize in efficiency and time-saving, some of Mr. Gilbreth's educational schemes derive from his desire to make seemingly wasted time productive.  "He was a natural teacher, and believed in utilizing every minute" (22).  He paints the solar system on the dining room and Morse code on the lavatory walls at their summer cottage and installs Victrolas playing French and German language lessons in their bathrooms in their regular home.  I was especially struck with this emphasis on passive learning or learning through osmosis (in addition to the active learning Gilbreth inspires with games, family competitions, and prizes); it has surprised me how much my son has learned for example from eating supper daily on a U.S. map placemat and more recently lunch on a placemat showing the periodic table of the elements.  Children can absorb information almost without noticing. 

But passive learning is only part of Mr. Gilbreth's approach.  The Gilbreth family is shown to be  tight-knit and committed to each other from the father on down the line of twelve children.  They model their family life on that of an enlightened, well managed company, each member contributing to the successful attainment of the group's goals.  Though he is pioneering a field of work, Mr. Gilbreth is thoroughly engaged in lives of his family.  Hating what he calls "unavoidable delay" (such as eating meals!) to be wasted, Mr. Gilbreth always looks for ways to make educational conversation with his children.
"If a factory was nearby [when the family was picnicking] he'd explain how you used a plumb line to get the chimney straight and why the windows had been placed a certain way to let in the maximum light.  If the factory whistle blew, he'd take out his topwatch and time the difference between when the steam appeared and when we heard the sound.
"'Now take out your notebooks and pencils and I'll show you how to figure the speed of sound,' he'd say.  
"He insisted that we make a habit of using our eyes and ears every single minute.
"'Look there,' he'd say.  'What do you see? Yes, I know it's a tree.  But look at it.  Study it.  What do you see?'" (23).
The children seem to develop significant expertise in motion study because the entire family can't help but be immersed in their father's interests.  If their father was a relentless explainer of facts, however, their mother understood the power of narrative.  "It was Mother who spun the stories that made the things we studied really unforgettable" (23).
"If Dad stopped to explain the construction of a bridge, she would find the workman in his blue jeans, eating his lunch high on the top of the span.  It was she who made us feel the breathless height of the structure and the relative puniness of the humans who had built it.  Or if Dad pointed out a tree that had been bent and gnarled, it was Mother who made us sense how the wind, eating against the tree in the endless passing of time, had made its own relentless mark" (23).
 Such a lovely description of Mrs. Gilbreth's conversation.  As much as these books are funny (and they definitely are!), they are also studded with little gems of parenting and educational wisdom.

[Check out lots of other bookish posts at this week's installment of The Children's Bookshelf.]

Friday, January 4, 2013

Field Trip: D.C.'s Old Post Office and Basilica Shrine

The clock tower in this drawing was inspired by the Old Post Office, says N.
Shortly after Christmas we visited my parents in Washington D.C. for a couple days.  In addition to taking N. out to try ice skating for the very first time, we revisited one of his favorite buildings, the Old Post Office (completed in 1899).  A true Victorian at heart, N. loves its Richardsonian Romanesque styling, though this is part of what made the building obsolete almost as soon as it was built.  We've been to it several times and highly recommend the panoramic views from the clock tower.  I gather that there was talk last year of Trump turning this underused government building into a luxury hotel... 

 From the Old Post Office we took a Metro ride (a treat in itself for our train-loving boy) out to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  N.'s long-term passion for old buildings began with cathedrals, although his interests have since branched out to many other kinds of buildings, so I was interested to see what he thought of this neo-Byzantine behemoth, so different from the neo-Gothic National Cathedral which we visited several years ago.  He spent a long time going over what seemed like every inch of it, looking at one Marian side chapel after another.  When queried afterwards, he said his favorite parts were the 1920s Crypt Church and the tower.  He didn't much like the actual architecture of the rest of the building but he loved the elaborate art and decoration throughout, including what he called "the Greek God-Jesus" mosiac that dominates the apse ceiling.
Gingerbread Basilica!
N.'s favorite of the buildings he saw on the Catholic University campus, right behind the Basilica.
The official Basilica website is here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Field Trip: State Capitol in Raleigh, NC

Some dear friends, knowing of N.'s architecture love, gave him a book for his birthday about the capitol building in our state: A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina: The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis (2000).  Just before Christmas we toured the capitol with those friends.  We were led through the building (completed in 1840) by a knowledgeable volunteer guide and learned a lot about our state's history (as non-native residents of the Old North State, we are shamefully ignorant about its history, but are gradually working to rectify that).  Some highlights for N. were the cantilevered, self-supporting stairs leading to the third floor, the statue depicting George Washington as a Roman warrior in the rotunda, and the neat law library on the third floor. 

The elaborate faux-grain finishes on the huge pine doors throughout the building had recently been restored, and our guide pointed out that this paint treatment was originally applied when the building was constructed to make the pine doors mimic oak, which was scarce and expensive.  What she did not say was that this labor-intensive trompe-l'oeil could only be cheaper than oak because the artisans were unpaid enslaved people.  I assume that was the case, anyway.  I didn't ask.  There often seems to be an unspoken contract between guide and visitors at public sites that out of politeness we won't discuss the more shameful elements of the history the site commemorates.  Our tour was thorough, but I would have liked to hear more about the artisans and laborers who built the capitol, not only those who designed it.  In contrast, Monticello has in recent years made great strides in telling the stories of the free and enslaved laborers who worked on the estate.

North Carolina State Capitol links to explore:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Family That Reads Together...

Post-prandial reading. Tim: newest National Geographic; me: Bring Up the Bodies; N.: Clementine, Friend of the Week.