Monday, July 29, 2013

Skipton Castle and the Yorkshire Dales

Burnsall, Yorkshire

We began our European adventure with a visit to western Yorkshire.  We went to York two years ago on our trip to England (and we love York) but this was our first visit to the Dales.  We attended a lovely family wedding near the village of Burnsall looking out over the Dales and thought a lot about N.'s beloved James Herriot tales, set in this general area.  We were overwhelmed by the warmth and friendliness of the west Yorkshire people we conversed with, as well as the stunning beauty of the landscape.  I wished we could have stayed and hiked for weeks!

One day we toured Skipton Castle, a very well-preserved medieval stronghold.  Parts of it date to the 14th century and other parts were added in the seventeenth century.  It was the site of a 3-year siege during the English Civil War!  The excellent self-guided tour was detailed and thorough and N. really loved it; he took charge and led Tim and me carefully through the whole structure.  He's long been a fan of Stephen Biesty's Castle cross-section book as well as David Macauley's Castle, so he was geeking out over all the features of the medieval fortress.  N. also appreciated the St. John's chapel at the castle site, which had been used as a stable since the Cromwell's forces subdued the castle after that long siege (this reminded us of Old St. Paul's Cathedral, which Cromwell also used as a horse stable during the Interregnum -- one of N.'s favorite St. Paul's facts).

(the chapel/stable)
As we were touring the castle, N. realized that it backed up against a steep precipice falling down to a creek below.  Out of one of the windows, we saw far below a walking path along the creek.  So after we finished exploring the castle, we wandered around till we found the entrance to Skipton Castle Woods and the path we'd seen from above.  We wandered the cool woods, circling around behind the castle and ending up back in the village.  It was a lovely walk.   

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Field Trip: Europe!

Dressed up for an English wedding!
Our homeschool has moved abroad!  We've begun a 5-month stay in Europe.  I'm teaching in my university's program in London for the fall semester, and Tim, N. and I came across the water early for two weddings, a conference on Frances Burney, and a month-long stay in Paris before the fall term begins.  We were filled with anticipation and anxiety for the past year as we prepared for this experience, and we are so excited that it has begun!  We've been abroad for a week so far.  We spent several days in Skipton, Yorkshire attending a family wedding.  Then we went to Cambridge where I attended my conference.  And today we arrived in Paris.  N. had been especially nervous about Paris because our French studies have been quite slow, but today he was pumped up as we walked the streets of the neighborhood where we've rented an apartment, bought some groceries, tested our language skills, learned new words. "This is going to be really fun!" 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Great Summer Library Challenge: Update

I recently mentioned here The Great Summer Library Challenge for Kids that Erica at What Do We Do All Day and Bethany at No Twiddle Twaddle are hosting.  I was inspired by their Non-Fiction Challenges to spend an afternoon with N. at the library browsing the children's nonfiction section.  We didn't exactly follow the suggested activities, but N. enjoyed exploring by Dewey Decimal number.  He found where the model railroading manuals were in both the children's and the adult sections, amassed a huge pile of books, and sat at a table utterly absorbed in them. 

He wants to build a model railroad layout.  I've told him he has to be in charge of this project himself, including drawing up plans, a budget, and figuring out what he skills he needs (carpentry, electricity) and who among our friends and acquaintances can help him (especially with the carpentry and wiring!).  So he was thrilled to discover many books on model railroads at the library and has been very happy reading up on things like how to make tiny fake trees from weeds.  Thanks to Erica and Bethany whose library challenge reminded me that my son did not yet know how to navigate library resources in the old-fashioned and (I think) most pleasurable way: browsing the stacks.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Great Brain

I've mentioned here that I am always interested in finding books to read to my son that feature good boys as main characters -- boys who are smart and not alienated or disaffected.  Megan at Inhabiting Books recommended The Great Brain series and I finally began reading the first one to N. this summer after we finished the last Swallows and Amazons book (boo-hoo).  Two books in, we are really enjoying them!  Tom D. Fitzgerald, the eponymous Great Brain, is not exactly a good boy; he regularly outsmarts kids into making deals with him that are against their own interest, for example.  But I love the books (which are at least partly autobiographical) because they raise complex ethical issues that are not easily resolvable.  I had hoped N. would choose to read the books himself but now I'm glad I'm reading them aloud so we can discuss the incidents together.  For example, N. was perplexed and saddened by the death of the lone Jewish inhabitant of the predominantly Mormon Utah frontier town and we talked about why he refused to ask for assistance and why his distress went unnoticed.  A chapter called "The Taming of Britches Dotty" led to discussion of gendered social norms then (1890s) and now.  The dynamics of the Fitzgerald family are complex and interesting too.  Lots of great stuff to think over together.  Thanks to Megan for reminding me of these books, which I'd heard of but never read myself.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Field Trip: Cape Hatteras Light Station

We recently spent a few days with my parents, siblings, and siblings-in-law on the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  N. has been especially fascinated with sailing, shipping, and all things maritime this year thanks to the Swallows and Amazons books, Captains Courageous, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (and before this, our summers in Duluth provided lots of Lake Superior shipping to ogle.  Oh and there was the long-standing interest in the Titanic and shipwrecks.).  So he was especially excited one day to climb the Cape Hatteras Light Station.  He loved learning about the history of the light station at that site.  He thought it was a beautiful building.  And given his interest in the relocation of historic structures, he loved learning about the moving of the light station in 1999.  After we climbed the light station's 248 stairs, he carefully read all the placards in the keeper's house exhibit detailing the move, the rescue operations launched from the site in years past, wrecks in the Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, and the threat of German submarines during wartime.  As we left the site N. immediately launched into a long, detailed story about a lighthouse in his imaginary world (pictured in his drawing at left); I am fascinated by the way he processes information this way through imaginative recreation.  When we got home that night he reread the facts about Cape Hatteras on the National Park Service website, and when we had dinner with friends the next night, he told them all about it, including the number of steps, distance the structure was moved, the date of the installation of the Fresnel lens, etc. (side note: he wants to learn more about Frensel lenses).   It's so fun to see him really dig into this new information in multiple modes: reading, storytelling, drawing, factual narration, sharing the experience with loved family and friends.  If we'd had time, he would gladly have driven up and down the Outer Banks to go to all the lighthouses.  He just could not get enough of them.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Summer Unschool

One of our veggie gardens, earlier in the summer
This summer has been both more and less unschoolish for our family, and I've been enjoying observing the different kinds of learning fostered by less and more structure.  We didn't have a formal "last day of school" but just dwindled into less structured days as scheduled activities such as art class and ballet class ended and other events began to disrupt the regular order of our days.  Then N. went to a day camp for a week, which wrenched us all suddenly into a more regimented rhythm for a few days (we had to get up early and pack a lunch!  How do people do this every day during the school year?!?), and now we're back to free-form days for a bit.  I'd planned to write individual posts about some of N.'s summer activities, and maybe I still will, but meanwhile, just a brief list and thoughts...

Summer unschool so far means:
  • Lego day camp for 1 week (the main example of more structure this summer)
  • More or less weekly piano lessons (depending in the teacher's summer schedule) and daily practice
  • N. is doing research to build a model railroad layout in a year or two
  • N. is writing and illustrating a long adventure story 
  • N. has gotten obsessed with a huge treasury of New Yorker cartoons and reads from it almost daily
  • N. reads nearly daily in Trains Magazine, as usual
  • Math workbook once a week or so, per N.'s request
  • Once or twice a week Tim reads N. from their current read-aloud, Bertrand Russel's autobiography
  • After I read him Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome, N. spent a few days reading about birds, looking up the birds that feature in Ransome's books and listening to bird calls  
  • N. has been reading library books about Paris
  • I read N. The Great Brain which led to some great discussions of ethics AND N. requesting to have more regular chores assigned to him (!)
  • helping Tim in the vegetable and flower gardens
  • listening to a "History of Jazz" Great Courses program and listening to lots of music
  • PLAY: alone and with friends; outside; inside with Kapla blocks and legos and toy cars and paper airplanes, model trains, etc.
  • daily drawing
  • house guests and long play dates = good social and creative time
  • weekly walks to the farmers' market, summer cooking together, lingering suppers and conversation outside in the screen house...
So, despite the lack of a regular daily routine, which all three of us crave during the academic year, N.'s learning doesn't look too different in summer than it does throughout the year!  Except for that last item, which feels to us like the height of summer luxury every night.