Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Screen-Free Week 2013: Old Movies

The Kid
This week is the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood's annual Screen-Free Week.  As I've mentioned before, we are screen-free zealots.  Screen-Free Week has its critics, but I think it is useful for encouraging parents and teachers to be mindful about how children use screen technology, to use it as a resource for engagement, and in limited quantity.  I've written about our extreme restriction of N.'s use of TV, movies, and video/computer/iDevice/online games in absurd detail here.  As I've also noted, in the past couple years (beginning when he was 6), he's watched a few movies in the theater and at home, most recently The Kid, Top Hat, and Young Mr. Lincoln.
As we've slowly added movies to N.'s diet, N. has really enjoyed them.  I would posit (without any more than anecdotal evidence) that the less one watches, the more open one may be to a wider range of visual productions.  Because N. has not watched children's TV or been immersed in a visual world designed precisely for his demographic, he is not judgmental or dismissive of older works not focus-group-tested on 6-to-9-year-olds: silent films, black-and-white films, films in which people suddenly start singing and dancing.  In contrast, most of my college students (many of whom have never seen a black-and-white film) would find all the movies N. has seen except Mary Poppins unbearably strange.  (I know this from repeated experiences of showing clips of older films in class accompanied by students' protests).  My students have access to every movie on Netflix or in the library, but they tend to confine their viewing narrowly to the familiar: Hollywood fare of the past decade. 

Our viewing tastes are (at least to some extent) shaped by what we watch.  When we sat down to watch Young Mr. Lincoln after N. and Tim had been learning about Lincoln's life, N. was at first a bit disappointed to find it wasn't a silent movie, because he loved The General, The Kid, and the films of George Méliès.  But he loved Henry Fonda's portrayal of the jokey young Abe.  We restrict what and how much N. watches so that we, not Disney, Pixar, or toy companies selling products via movies, shape our son's visual experiences and taste.  Because N. hasn't seen many films, each one he has seen is memorable and visually powerful.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Day at the Library

Mondays tend to be N.'s most unschoolish weekdays.  On Mondays, he usually reads for a while before breakfast, finishes eating by 10 a.m., warms up for his piano lesson for 45 minutes, and goes to his hour-long piano lesson.  He's often so inspired by his lesson that he plays for a half hour more when he gets home.  After lunch, he reads or draws, then sometimes does a bit of math or history reading aloud with Tim.  Then he often plays with a neighborhood friend until supper.  After supper I read aloud to him and eventually he goes to bed.

Last week N.'s piano lesson was moved up to 9 a.m., which is practically dawn for us.  So when he came home a bit after 10, he felt like he had a wide open free day stretching ahead of him.  He asked me to take him to the library, so I dropped my work (giving Tim an unplanned day off!) and we took a long leisurely walk there in the cool breeze and bright spring sun, wending our way through downtown to look at N.'s favorite buildings.  At the library, N. found the picture books he'd come for and promptly read them all.  The children's room was completely deserted.  We often feel rushed at the library, having wedged our visit in with other errands, but this time we had no particular schedule, so we sat at the tiny table on tiny chairs and read silently.

Eventually we got hungry so we checked out our books and had lunch at a bakery-cafe downtown.  At one point while we ate N. said, "History quiz: what's the oldest English settlement in the U.S.?"  I guessed "Roanoke" and he didn't know what that was.  So I told him briefly, but then wasn't sure what in my account was myth, so I looked it up on my phone and read him this retelling.  We talked about why Jamestown counts as the first settlement and not Roanoke.

This conversation reminded N. that Sunday night he'd wanted to know more about the Henry Burden Iron Works in Troy, NY.  He'd been looking at a cool little book he has called Smithsonian in Gear and been arrested by a photo of a huge abandoned water wheel.  He wanted to know why and how the factory buildings collapsed.  Was there a fire or explosion?  So we decided to go back to the library to see what we could find.

I poked around in the library's online catalog while N. sat at a table and drew trains.  I'd prefer not to do research for him -- it's good for him to practice this skill himself! -- but he hadn't had any time to draw all day, and he simply needed to.  My computer search turned up nothing; while I waited for N. to finish his drawing so we could ask a reference librarian for help, I googled on my phone and found via the Library of Congress a wonderful 26-page essay on the Burden Iron Works written by historian Samuel Rezneck in 1969 for the Historic American Engineering Record.  I read it aloud to N. while he continued to draw.  Rezneck's account tell us not only about Henry Burden, his inventions, and his factory, but it effectively gestures at larger contexts.  For example, after describing Burden's invention of a steam-powered horseshoe machine that produced 3600 horseshoes an hour without a human hand, Rezneck notes that "unhappily machine-made horseshoes facilitated the conduct of large-scale wars in Europe and America during the nineteenth century, from the Crimean and the Austro-Italian wars in the 1850s on, and particularly the American Civil War..."  As I came to these kinds of analytical moments in Rezneck's essay, I paused in my reading and we talked about what they meant, about why machine-made horseshoes might facilitate large-scale war, or why in 1861 Burden built a huge expansion to his factory after receiving the Union horseshoe contract, or what was happening in elsewhere in the country at the turn of the 20th century to make water-power less economical than coal and to stop the great water wheel. 

Finally N. decided he was ready to go home, and we took the bus instead of walking, an uncommon treat for N. since our city's public transportation system rarely offers the most convenient way to get where we are going.  All in all, this was an ideal day, the kind that makes me so grateful that we are able to homeschool, learning interesting things and hanging out together.
MEN OF PROGRESS, by Christian Schussele (1824-1879).  National Portrait Gallery. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

"The quick, laughing gurgle of water under the forefoot of a boat of their own..."

I recently finished reading aloud to N. the eleventh Swallows and Amazons book, The Picts and The Martyrs. As I finished a chapter describing the first outings of the sailing neophytes Dick and Dorothea in their new little boat Scarab, N. said to me with a big dramatic sigh of pleasure, "Don't you just love sailing?!"

N. has in fact never been sailing. But so evocatively does Arthur Ransome bring sailing to life in this wonderful series of books that his own lack of any physical experience of sailing is to N. entirely irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Field Trip: Charleston, SC

Not a typical Charleston house, but one that N admired.
We drove down to Charleston, South Carolina, for a weekend visit in early March because I was participating in an eighteenth-century studies conference there.  We'd never been before and we loved walking all over the historic downtown and Battery areas, admiring the 18th- and 19th-century houses.  Though he still loved the few Queen Anne houses we saw the best, N. especially enjoyed the side porches hiding behind formal doors on the antebellum houses.  We went to two house museums, the Calhoun Mansion (a post-Civil War house packed to the gills, Victorian style, with art and objects collected by the current owner; the highlights for us were the gorgeous vaulted ceiling of the music room and the 1907 Bosendorfer grand piano that N. longed to play) and the Heyward-Washington House.  In visiting the Heyward-Washington House, I was happy to be inside an 18th-century structure (almost every house tour we've gone on with N. has been a late 19th- or early 20-century house!) and I especially appreciated the collection of Charleston-made late 18th- and early 19th-century furniture (including card tables, one of my obsessions due to my research on 18th-century gambling).  One of N.'s favorite moments in touring the Heyward-Washington House was when the guide brought up the Grimke sisters, Charleston-born abolitionists whom N. had read about in A History of US and who lived in the house for some time; it's fun to experience that reinforcing flash of recognition: "Hey, I know who they are!"

"In Memory of the Enslaved Workers..."
Tim and N. have been getting closer to the Civil War in their chronological reading in A History of US, so he was especially interested in that aspect of Charleston's history.  Although we didn't have time to visit Fort Sumter on this trip, N. liked seeing the cannons at the Battery.  As we walked through the city, we talked a lot about ways in which the history of African-Americans is both commemorated and effaced throughout the Charleston.  We learned from a historical marker on the waterfront about the remarkable achievements of Robert Smalls, an enslaved sailor who commandeered a Confederate steamship to deliver his wife, children, and other enslaved people to the Union and freedom and later served five terms as a U.S. Congressman.  But traces of the more ordinary lives of the enslaved were not as evident unless you seek them out.  We stumbled across this moving marker at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, which reads "In Memory of the Enslaved Workers Who Made these Bricks and Helped Build Our Church, C.1774-1787."

N. has long been interested in maps and geography, so he thought Longitude Lane was especially cool: a seventeenth-century stone-cobbled lane that runs exactly on the 79th parallel.  

The final highlight of our short visit was an evening concert we attended at the First Scots Presbyterian Church, which hosts the annual Bach Festival of Charleston.  We sat in the beautifully austere early nineteenth-century church and listened to an absolutely incredible performance of "Membra Jesu Nostri" (BuxWV 75) by Buxtehude.  The stunning sounds of seventeenth-century music sung in the plain early-music style and played on period instruments formed the perfect culmination to our weekend encounter with history in Charleston.

Walking down Longitude Lane