Friday, March 29, 2013

The Passion(s)

We're not religious but we do believe that knowledge of the Bible is central to Western cultural literacy.  Tim read to N. from the Old Testament a couple years ago, which N. really enjoyed.  This week he's been reading him each gospel's version of the Passion, one per day.  They began with Mark and ended today with John.  Tim reads to him from the King James translation and they occasionally look words up in the NRSV.  N. loves the King James language, and he likes comparing the four accounts.  They talk about context, audience, and effect: Luke's telling is longer and gives more details about Jewish rituals for his later non-Jewish readers, for example.  N.'s favorite line is Mark's "before the cock crow twice thou shalt deny me thrice" and we've talked about why Peter denies Jesus.  We also talked about the dramatic effect of Luke's differentiation between the two sinners -- one jeering, one repentant -- crucified on either side of Jesus.  What kind of dimension does this detail bring to the scene and the depiction of Jesus that is absent in Matthew and Mark?

Now we're off to enjoy some of the ancient pagan rites of the spring festivals onto which the Christian celebration of the Resurrection was grafted: egg dyeing!  Bunnies!  And around three a.m. on Sunday we'll be woken by the Moravian brass band that circles through our neighborhood playing hymns to (as a horn-player once explained to me) "waken all the sinners" and call them to sunrise service in the nearby Moravian cemetery.  Even in this we can see a wonderful amalgamation of ancient traditions reinterpreted by Christianity.  For me, this is the essential value of historicism, to examine the accretion of custom and to marvel in our constant adaptation and reinterpretation of our fundamentally human passion-tales. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ballet Shoes Read-Along

Melissa Wiley started a Noel Streatfield read-along and I was eager to reread Ballet Shoes.  I remembered loving this book and others by Streatfield as a child, but little else other than that it was about performing orphans.  I was a bit disappointed on rereading, I'm sorry to admit, because the novel seems to focus more on plot than on representation of interiority or reflectiveness.  That is, I found myself wanting to know more about how the girls felt as their lives changed radically, as they encountered the enormous challenges of becoming child performers, as they developed their distinct identities.  One of Melissa's readers mentioned that Streatfield wrote an adult version of this story first, The Whicharts, and I'd be really interested to read that and compare the two. 

That said, I enjoyed so much about this novel.  Pauline's lesson in humility is an excellent scene.  The description of the girls' daily schedule of lessons and classes at the arts academy is compelling and interestingly unsentimental.  There's no lamenting their lost childhoods but instead a rather British, no-nonsense account of the girls' ability to put their shoulder to the wheel as needed for the family finances, whether they have inborn performing ability or not. 

Ballet Shoes offers rich food for thought on the relationship between talent and work, or between genes and practice.  All three girls, genetically unrelated adopted sisters, have distinct natural abilities and interests: acting for Pauline, engines and mechanical things for Petrova, and ballet for Posy.  Each girl is driven by her natural talent to practice hard; none is ever tempted to rest on her innate ability.  Posy goofs off when forced by circumstance to take a ballet class that is below her ability only because she is so frustrated not to be able to take a more challenging class that will really help her develop; she's bribed to behave and get something out of the easier class by the prospect of tickets to the performance of a major ballet star from whom she is sure she will learn much.  Petrova spends every spare moment reading about cars and airplanes, and she lives for the precious Sundays when she can work in the mechanic's garage owned by one of the family's boarders.   

Petrova doesn't like acting or dancing, but she becomes quite proficient in both (especially ballet, which requires a physical precision that hours of practice provides) nonetheless.  So the book offers an example of becoming technically proficient without any natural talent as a complement to the depictions of talent- and passion-driven achievement.  Posy and Paulina become successful performers because they've worked incredibly hard to develop their talent.  Petrova becomes a proficient chorus actor and corps-de-ballet dancer by dint of hard work without any talent or desire, and she "practices" as hard at her passion -- engines -- as ever Posy does at ballet.  It's the 10,000 hours rule long before Gladwell. 

For a book about dancing girls, I found Ballet Shoes refreshingly free of gender stereotypes.  There's surprisingly little sense that Petrova's love of engines, cars, and planes might be odd or outside the gender norms of the time.  No one frets that she's unladylike in her interests.  In fact I can't imagine her mechanical passion passing with so little notice in our own era of highly polarized pink-or-blue gender norms, for all we think we're superior to the gender politics of earlier times.  The other Fossil sisters downplay their own achievements as mere performers compared to the historical greatness they expect of Petrova.  She's the one who will do something truly important.

Finally, as an academic, I loved the depiction of the two women professors who board at the Fossil house (again, the book makes no comment on how uncommon women with literature and mathematics doctorates were in the 1930s, not to mention two women in some sort of domestic partnership).  My favorite lines in the whole book were clearly written by a woman who knows literary academics well:
"In the dress circle, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes enjoyed themselves as true Shakespeareans always enjoy themselves, arguing between each act about the reading of the parts, and the way the lines were said.  Fortunately they found plenty to disapprove of, or they would not have enjoyed themselves at all."  

Taking Notes

N. works in daily math workbooks and several times a week he writes little compositions or works in a grammar workbook, but most of his absorption of new information during formal "school time" takes place through listening to Tim read aloud.  Tim reads to him from history or science books while N. listens (and draws).  Tim usually asks N. to take a turn reading a few paragraphs aloud as well.  This information gets reinforced through lots of conversation Tim and N. have with each other throughout the day and with me in the mornings and evenings.  But Tim was curious to see what would happen if N. tried to take notes while listening.  So Tim read about Lincoln from A History of US and N. wrote.  Both Tim and I were surprised and impressed by the result:

N. told Tim he really learned the information when took these notes.  Later I asked N. if it was hard to figure out what to write down while he was listening.  "Did Daddy give you any tips on how to take notes before you did this?" I asked.  No, N. said, he just knew that you have to focus on the important ideas.  He said he'd learned this in the week-long science day camp he'd participated in last summer.  "Oh," I said, so they taught you how to take notes there." "No," he said impatiently, "I just figured it out."   Duh!

We were pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this little experiment in note-taking.  It's not likely to become a daily exercise, but Tim and N. both said they'd do it again whenever it feels like a fun thing to do.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

We're Learning to Knit!

I've wanted to learn how to knit for ages and ages, and several weeks ago my neighbor started a knitting club and began to teach me.  I'm so excited!  I'm making N. a scarf out of a soft lovely wool-alpaca blend yarn he chose and trying to figure out how to surreptitiously knit through as many boring campus meetings as possible.  N. picked up my enthusiasm and said he wanted to learn too, so he started on a washcloth.  It reminds me of little Rufus Moffat handing his wonky handknitted washcloth to a soldier departing on a train for the Great War in Eleanor Estes's wonderful Rufus M. (have you read The Moffats series to your kids?  They are the sweetest books!  We love them.).

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chi's Sweet Home

Angry Chicken recently mentioned her girls eating up the Japanese pet-manga series (pet manga?  Is this a thing? I had no idea!) Chi's Sweet Home by Kanata Konami.  I was surprised to find that our public library actually stocks the series, so in my continuing quest to feed his appetite for comics and graphic texts, I brought home volume 1 for N.  He completely adored it and we've since made two more trips to the library to check out all 9 volumes.  It's not as text-dense as, say, the Tintin books, but nonetheless N. observed Konami's use of an important literary feature.  We've talked a lot about point of view recently and unbidden he told me that the Chi books alternate between the kitten's point of view and that of the adults, who often completely misinterpret the kitten's meows.  The kitten's thoughts are represented in English for the reader, but of course for the adults caring for her, she is simply meowing, and the reader immediately sees how wrong they are as they state what they think she is communicating.  This gap in understanding between kitten and people give the book a sweet and funny poingancy.  Unbearably kawaii!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lord of the Flies Kid's T-Shirt

I wonder if the people in the marketing department at CrewCuts maybe didn't read the book before they decided it was a good idea to (try to) sell a Lord of the Flies kid's t-shirt.  Surprise, surprise: now it's on clearance.
I love the Out of Print Clothing tees in general, but the Lord of the Flies is the last thing I'd put on a kiddo!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Bragging and Blogging

At a party last fall, a good friend said (a little bit in jest, maybe?) that my blog makes her feel like a bad parent.  My sister (lovingly!) calls my blog "self-congratulatory."  Someone I don't know pinned my 2nd-grade read-aloud list on Pinterest with the comment "This blog has some great lists of read-aloud books - perhaps a little intimidating, but very inspiring" (italics mine).  I was chagrined by a fluff piece in the New York Times Sunday Styles section that describes how much everyone hates parents who brag online (even worse: "humblebragging").

So, I want to say: I'm not trying to make you feel like (and I certainly don't think you are!) a bad parent.  I don't intend to intimidate you when I list what we read.  But am I bragging when I blog about our new piano, our trips to New York, London, and elsewhere, the concerts we attend, our garden, the sophisticated books Tim reads to N., etc.?  Well, of course.  That is to say, I'm proud of our homeschool, and I write this blog to celebrate it.  In my posts I try not only to list what we do but to examine how learning happens through our activities, especially in seemingly nonacademic experiences such as travel.  As an educator (and home-educator), I'm interested in a broader definition of education than conventional schooling accounts for; I write about what we do both to explore and to demonstrate that broader vision of learning. 

I don't write much about our inevitable difficulties as we homeschool, even though they are common.  Such difficulties are more personal and I don't often experience them directly as the non-stay-at-home parent so they don't seem to be my stories to tell.  The picture painted by my blog would be more complete if Tim wrote about his occasional feelings of under-utilization as a stay-at-home parent or if I wrote about our challenges working with our son's very intense temperament.  I'm willing to write here about N.'s interests, but not his personality, even though temperament looms large in learning.  Inevitably, these omissions augment the boastful tone of my blog, but for privacy's sake, you'll just have to take my word for it: we have bad days along with the good.

I know that we homeschool from a position of social and economic privilege that makes a lot of what we do possible.  We're not solving the larger problems plaguing American education; in fact we may well be contributing to them by not participating in the public school system.  While I hope I'm not as blind as Sheryl Sandberg, implying that the differences between the more and less advantaged are insignificant and suggesting we all simply "lean in" rather than demand systemic change, I also hope that in writing about our homeschooling we add to the many examples of alternative approaches to learning that may someday change the experience of school for other children beyond our own.  Wishful self-justification?  Probably.  Thanks for reading here despite all the self-congratulation!

Bonus reading: My previous soul-searching on the strange enterprise of blogging is here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Getting to Know the Periodic Table

(leftover saag paneer for breakfast!)
For Christmas, N. asked for a periodic table placemat (another proud moment for the homeschooling parents!).  We duly ordered one from Amazon.  Then naturally he kept asking us all sorts of questions about it over breakfast.  I continually had to reply, "I don't know.  I really don't know anything about the periodic table at all.  I don't know why it is arranged that way, what the notations mean, why these are called noble gases and those are all colored green.  I don't know.  I don't know!" 

Although he reads Scientific American every morning with his breakfast, Tim couldn't answer N.'s questions any better than I could, so he decided to incorporate the periodic table into their daily school time.  First they looked up an element per day in the encyclopedia.  After a few days of this, Tim found Theodore Gray's The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, a gorgeous and informative account of the periodic table which they are now slowly working their way through.  And they've also started reading together Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

Non-homeschooling parents are often skeptical that homeschooling parents can adequately teach their children science.  As graduates of otherwise quite good schools, neither Tim nor I had anything resembling a decent education in science, particularly in chemistry and physics.  But rather than disqualify us, I think this makes us particularly apt for the task, not as science teachers but as co-learners.  We're quite excited by this chance to get it right, to learn together the scientific foundations we never got as kids ourselves.  I hope that as we do so, especially with the narrative accounts of science that appeal to all three of us, N. may not need to relearn all this as an adult.  Although as Tim and I can both testify, relearning science as an adult is actually pretty fun.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Yesterday morning, I pulled the hair around my face up and back into a ponytail holder at the crown of my head.  (To properly visualize this, you need to know that I have big, puffy hair).  N. walked into the kitchen for breakfast, looked at me, and said, "Hi Mom, I like your 1940s hairstyle."

I hadn't intended a 40s look, but I realized he was right; that was just what I'd done (quite like the picture at left, only bigger).  And then I thought, "Yes! My 8-year-old son knows how women wore their hair in the 1940s!  Hooray for homeschool!"