Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning About Opera: Madama Butterfly

As I've written before, we've been to many operas as a family, both regional professional and student productions in our home city and major professional productions in London and Berlin.  N. really enjoys going to the opera, so he was excited recently to go to a regional professional production of Madama Butterfly.

We're often familiar with an aria or two from an opera before we see it, but we've never studied them before we attend.  Thanks to supertitles we can follow the plots and let the magic of the production work on us.  After we go to an opera, we sometimes read more about it and listen to bits on records, CDs, or YouTube.

On the way home from the theater after Butterfly's tragic death, N. asked what that book was in our living room that said "Madama Butterfly" on the spine.  "Oh, that's right," we said, "that's the score.  You might enjoy looking at that."  Because Tim was once the stage director of a regional professional production of Butterfly in Minnesota, we have a CD of the complete opera as well as a full score tucked away with a couple other opera scores in the bookcase in the living room with all the piano, cello, and miscellaneous sheet music.  It hadn't occurred to either Tim or me that N. would be interested in this, but he very much was.  For the next few nights, he listened to the CD and studied different parts of the score, sometimes playing phrases on the piano, examining what changes had been made in the production we saw (which combined Acts 2 & 3 into one, for example).

This was another example of the power of the fortuitous in learning, a favorite theme of mine.  I love those learning moments when an experience sparks an interest and the right materials are in the right place at the right time to make the most of that interest.  We could never be prepared for every such possible moment, for we could never predict them all.  But it is gratifying to watch when everything aligns seemingly naturally for maximum learning.

Poring over the score.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday French Class

This semester I'm supervising N.'s French study on Friday mornings. We're still loving Hachette's Les Loustics series.  In early October we took a long weekend trip to Montreal, where I attended a conference and Tim and N. thoroughly explored the city. It was so fun to see N. decode signs and listen to the French chatter all around us. But today's French lesson began with something more mundane but still culturally central: une boule de chocolat chaud pour le petit déjeuner!  N. thought this was très magnifique!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Milestones: Bike Riding

In late September, N. learned to ride a bike!

In the early years, I biked with him in a baby seat on the back of my bike for a long time (much longer than he technically fit in the seat!) and then I attached a trailing bike to mine, and he happily pedaled (or coasted like a dead weight!) behind me on many long rides on our local greenway.  But when he grew out of the trailing bike, his knees knocking the handlebars with every pump of the pedals, he didn't want to learn to ride a bike of his own.

Not wanting to push him into something he didn't feel ready to do, we waited to get him a bike till he said he was interested (maybe there was a chicken-and-egg problem here, but I thought he knew how fun biking could be because we'd done so much together).  Finally when N. was 8 years old, his pediatrician, who has strongly normative ideas about what children should be doing at every age, told us sternly that N. needed to learn to swim and ride a bike, as soon as possible!  We were amused by this directive, but used it to encourage N.  He was too tall for bikes with training wheels at this point, so I bought him a nice, barely used hybrid trail bike with lots of gears and hand brakes, thinking it would last several years as he became a competent rider.

Instead, this fancy bike intimidated N.; he tried it a couple times but was overwhelmed and couldn't get the hang of it.  After a couple initial forays, he refused to try it again. I sold the bike on Craigslist last summer before we went abroad for the semester.

This fall for his 10th birthday N. picked out a simpler cruiser bike (no gears or hand brakes).  He was still reluctant to try it out, but one day I finally convinced him to get on it. I told him I would hold the seat and run behind him.  Which turned out to be a benevolent maternal lie.  He got on the bike and took off on his first try, thinking I was back there, helping him stay balanced.  There he was, riding down the street with me jogging a bit behind, as if he'd always known how!  He couldn't believe it when I told him he was doing it all himself!

I got my bike fixed up (sitting unused in the garage for years while I waited for N. to join me on bike rides, the tires had rotted and the chain rusted through) and we've taken rides together on the greenway, to the farmers' market, around the neighborhood.  On every ride, N. calls out in wonder and disbelief, "Riding a bike is fun!"   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Solo Field Trip: Washington D.C.

N with his Gram at the Newseum
Recently N. spent a few days visiting his grandparents in Washington, D.C. all on his own.  This was the first time he spent more than one night away from home without Tim and me, and he had a great time.  He did lots of fun stuff with Gram/Bop, including visits to the Spy Museum, the Newseum, and a ride on the DC Metro's new Silver Line.  They went to a Nationals baseball game.  They went to Eastern Market.  They walked the dogs and played lots of Legos.

When I was 5 years old I started spending a week during the summers visiting my grandma, first by myself and then with one of my younger sisters.  At the time my parents and siblings and I lived in the country in northern Minnesota, outside of a town of 200 people and my grandma lived on a busy street corner in St. Paul.  I felt I was in a foreign, exotic place when I fell asleep at her house with the bright streetlights and traffic noise glaring and blaring (so it seemed to me) through the windows all night long.  Grandma took us to the zoo, took us "bumming" (her word for shopping!) so she, the mother of two boys, could buy her granddaughters matching frilly dresses, took us out for the greasy food she loved to indulge in at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sirlin's Sirloins, Mickey's Diner, and Ember's Restaurant.  None of these were things we did in our regular, rural, healthy, hippie life at home!  We loved visiting Grandma by ourselves.

It was easy for me to go on these visits.  I was a confident child and it never even occurred to me to worry about being away.  I loved my home, but I was never homesick when I visited my grandma, or later my aunt, or my friend in the country after we moved to the city, or when I went to camp.  When I was N.'s age I happily flew with my Grandma from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C. for a 2-week whirlwind bus tour of all the major sites in the capital, as well as Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello!

Me, about to board a plane with my Grandma (1984).
N. is totally different and it took him a long time to feel ready to spend even a few days away from home.  I'm proud of him for getting to that point.  Should we have pushed him to go earlier so he could have the years of memories that I got to make with my grandma?  I think it's hard to say.  I know he would have been fine and had a wonderful time earlier.  Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert, believes that experiences such as going to summer camp even when you don't think you want to teach you resilience, teach you to be OK with your own discomfort, give you practice in managing complex emotions such as being homesick but also having a great time.  I can see how all that would be true.  And maybe going on a solo visit before he knew he was ready would have been a revelation for N.

But it seemed to me that pushing N. to go before he felt ready would not be honoring his emotions as real and legitimate.  For me, it was just as important that his concerns, feelings, and preferences are valued and respected by us as that he learn that his worries might be unfounded.  In the end, I just couldn't bring myself to force him to go before he thought he was ready.  He had such a good time on this visit to his grandparents, however, that I hope this will be the first of many independent trips and experiences, including more visits to family, and even summer camps!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Banned Books Week!

It's Banned Books Week, a great celebration of the American freedom to read.  This week N. discovered the Captain Underpants books, and has been reading them nonstop; as it happens, the author of this series, Dav Pilkey, produced a cartoon in honor of Banned Books Week:



I very much appreciate his message.  There's nothing wrong with exercising parental judgment about what is appropriate reading for one's own children (especially young children -- I personally think this parental right expires when one's children are in high school).  But parents should not impose these judgments on other parents or other parents' children by banning books!

Here are some lists of frequently banned or "challenged" books. Celebrate your freedom by reading a banned book today!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Man in Black


Recently we went to a book festival in our city and heard the writer G. Neri describe the process of writing his new picture book about Johnny Cash's early life and the beginning of his career in music.  Neri tells the story in free-verse poems that are laid out on the page like song lyrics on the back of a record cover facing A.G. Ford's rich illustrations that could be the front of the album. (Neri's other books [which I have not read] are for older kids, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought before reading this that Johnny Cash's life was picture-book material, but this is appropriate for ages 7 and up.)  N. was mesmerized by Neri's account of Cash and Neri's own path as he researched Cash's story.  We bought the book and Neri signed it for N., which N. thought was just about the coolest thing ever.  This was the first time he'd met an author (of a children's book, I should say -- he's met many authors of scholarly books, and indeed lives with one, but that's hardly as cool)!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Back to (Home)School: 5th Grade

N. declared last week to be the beginning of his 5th grade year, as all his friends were returning to their "regular schools."  He was, as every year, eager to begin, which always feels like the most precious confirmation that what we are doing in this homeschool adventure is working for him.  He started his first day by reading in Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart by Mary Ann Hoberman while he ate his breakfast (strategic "strewing" by me -- google if you aren't familiar with this classic unschool concept, and hat tip to Supratentorial, where I learned of this excellent and funny poetry anthology).

And from there, his and Tim's days unfolded pretty much as they did last semester (and as they have since at least kindergarten!).  Tim read aloud Lytton Strachey's account of Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, in his Eminent Victorians. Later in the week he started reading N. a new autobiography, that of John Stuart Mill (1873); they are enjoying his account of his childhood and early education.  This led to brief peeks at The Faerie Queene and Pope's translation of The Iliad.  They are continuing to read through Joy Hakim's A History of US as well as Rebecca Fraser's The Story of Britain.  Over the course of the week, N. did some math and geometry in his Daily Math workbook.  They read an entry in The History of the World in 100 Objects.  N. copied a Shakespeare sonnet for handwriting practice ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").  He listened to a CD lecture on a Mozart piano sonata.  I  led our weekly French lesson.  N. practiced piano every day, he drew every day, he read fiction, comic books, and train magazines every day.

N. is continuing the same activities as last semester: piano, chorus, ballet, and music theory.  In October he'll participate in the Young Performer's Chamber Music Workshop that he enjoyed so much last spring.

So overall, the theme of this new school year is to keep doing what we've been doing.  As summer waned, many (non-homeschooling) friends asked us what our plans for the coming school year were, and I started to feel uncomfortable with my boring answer: "Pretty much the same stuff we've been doing!"  Is that lame? Should we be trying new things?  We have a few goals: to do more kitchen-science, more writing/composition.  I've suggested that N. undertake a long-term research project this year, but other than this, we're sticking in the groove that works.  

As I was feeling this slight anxiety, a friend fortuitously sent me the description of a book on education (Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling by Kieran Egan), with the comment, "You've said much the same!":
Real education, Egan explains, consists of both general knowledge and detailed understanding, and in Learning in Depth he outlines an ambitious yet practical plan to incorporate deep knowledge into basic education. Under Egan’s program, students will follow the usual curriculum, but with one crucial addition: beginning with their first days of school and continuing until graduation, they will each also study one topic—such as apples, birds, sacred buildings, mollusks, circuses, or stars—in depth. Over the years, with the help and guidance of their supervising teacher, students will expand their understanding of their one topic and build portfolios of knowledge that grow and change along with them. By the time they graduate each student will know as much about his or her topic as almost anyone on earth—and in the process will have learned important, even life-changing lessons about the meaning of expertise, the value of dedication, and the delight of knowing something in depth.
I was grateful for this timely affirmation!  N. has been building deep knowledge of topics he cares about for years already: trains, architecture, music.  These (sometimes interconnected) topics lead in all kinds of productive directions, and his recursive interest in them not only cultivates his expertise but helps him learn about learning itself.  Here's to more of the same!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ballet Camp

After we returned from our month in Minnesota, one of N.'s last events of the summer was a program we called "ballet camp" (its technical name is a "ballet intensive").  He spent 5 days dancing from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (with a short lunch break).  He's taken four semesters of a once-a-week ballet class and he has enjoyed it a lot.  I have no illusions that N. is going to become a professional dancer.  But I thought this intensive would help him get more out of the weekly class he takes during the school year.  Ballet has been his sport, his organized physical activity.  I had been suggesting it since he was five because I love ballet and knew that the community ballet program at my university was supposed to be very good, with an emphasis on love of movement and solid technique, rather than shows and costumes as at some dance studios.  I always thought it would be cool to be a boy in ballet, but for a long time N. was uninterested in trying it.  Then when he was seven he became friends with a boy in our neighborhood who had been taking ballet class since age five, and N. decided he wanted to join him.

The classes N. takes have the great luxury of live piano accompaniment.  Sometimes I think N. pays more attention to the pianist, who improvises all the pieces he plays, than he does to the ballet teacher.  The musical aspect of dance is probably N.'s favorite part of the activity, and I think experiencing the relationship between music and movement is great for his musical development.

Anyway, the one-week intensive class developed in N. a much greater awareness of the details of ballet technique, and it fired his ambition to master those details in order to be able to partner with girls who are better dancers.  It is amazing what intensive learning can do!  Just as in our homeschool studies where we try to emphasize depth over breadth, this immersion in ballet opened up N.'s understanding of what he might accomplish in this art.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Learning by the Lake

Almost every summer we go to Minnesota (Tim's and my home state) for a few weeks, and this time we spent one of those weeks at a rented lodge on a small private lake in central Minnesota with my parents, two of my siblings, and their spouses.  N. learned how to do some of the classic Minnesota summer pastimes: he learned to fish -- to cast and to bait the hook with nightcrawlers (though he was spared by his dad the task of taking the fish off the hook) -- and he caught a small-mouth bass (that he named Bass Tweed, and later ate) and many little blue-gills and sunfish.  He learned how to clean a fish.  He learned how to drive a pontoon boat!  He learned how to build a campfire.  He roasted marshmallows and looked for agates heard the wild, strange laughter of loons.  He got so much out of the week!  Thanks, Mom & Dad!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Betsy-Tacy Guide to Birthdays

About this time over the past few years (except last year when we were in England and away from our books), N. has asked me to reread parts of the Betsy-Tacy books to him as he gets ready to celebrate his birthday (I read him the first four books in the series over the summer he turned 5).  Three years ago we reread the opening chapters of the first book, Betsy-Tacy, in which Betsy becomes friends with Tacy, the new girl across the street, at Betsy's 5th birthday party.  Two years ago we reread all of Winona's Pony Cart, a novel ancillary to the main series, in which much of the plot involves the 8th birthday party of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib's vivacious friend Winona.  This year as he approached his double-digit birthday, N. asked to hear Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, which begins with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib turning ten, memorably singing (to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic") "O Betsy's ten tomorrow/ And then all of us are ten!/ We will all be ten tomorrow,/ We will all be ladies then!"

I think N. is drawn to these books at this time of year because they explore so effectively the complexity of birthdays.  The strange behavior of the new girl (which turns out to be merely extreme shyness) hangs somewhat darkly over Betsy's fifth birthday until Betsy gets to know Tacy.  Winona gets herself in a scrape by boasting about the pony she's deluded herself into believing she will receive as a birthday gift and inviting nearly all the children she knows to her party, rather than the select group her mother expects.  Later, Betsy is eager to turn ten and begin to be more grown up, but at the same time she worries that the fun of childhood will be over.  One's birthday can be a strangely emotional day, and Betsy, Tacy, and their friends seem to offer N. annual, familiar comfort and camaraderie.

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Bonus reading: I rant about reading Betsy-Tacy to boys here.  I enthuse about first reading the Betsy-Tacy books to N. here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Field Trip: Minneapolis

Sculpture Garden: "Spoonbridge and Cherry"
Before we arrived in Duluth we stopped to visit some good friends in Minneapolis for two days and we packed in a bunch of fun outings and activities.  We went to the Walker Art Museum, where we sauntered through the Sculpture Garden, played 9 holes of artist-designed mini-golf, puzzled over exhibits of contemporary art from the permanent collection, and watched about an hour of Christian Marclay's amazing video collage, "The Clock."  We had no idea what we were seeing when we wandered into the darkened screening room, but gradually realized that the piece was an assemblage of clips from movies and TV shows that showed clocks or mentioned time in the dialogue.  First I realized that it was progressing in real time as 5 minutes of screen clips was registered with clocks showing that five minutes had passed.  Then I realized that the time on screen was in sync with our time; in other words that when it said 2:55 on screen it said 2:55 on my watch.  It's hard to explain how cool this discovery was! I would imagine most people seeing this piece knew something about it going into it since it is rather celebrated, but we didn't, which only added to the wonder of the experience.  Part of the pleasure for the adults in our group was recognizing movies and actors; N. didn't get much of this since he's seen so few movies but he did recognize Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last," which he's seen parts of and read about in Hugo Cabret.  Despite his limited viewing history, N. loved the piece as much as we did. We all loved the visual jokes created by the conjunction of disparate scenes, like someone in a black-and-white movie opening a door followed by a color film scene viewed through an open door.  And the meticulously edited sound, with dialogue or music spilling from one clip to the next, is a crucial, gorgeous part of the work as well.  (You can read more about it in The New Yorker and The NYRB).

We also took the new Green Line light rail from Minneapolis to St. Paul -- end to end! -- and back, stopping to tour the newly renovated St. Paul Union Depot.  N. of course was very excited about this outing, and loved the depot.

St. Paul Union Depot
One of our favorite traditions with our Minneapolis friends is our evening jam sessions.  Our friend plays the electric guitar, he's taught me to play basic bass lines on the electric bass, and N. plays electric keyboard.  We played and sang some of the 50s and 60s classics N. became obsessed with this spring, like "Twist and Shout," "Chantilly Lace," as well as other rock and blues tunes.  N. absolutely loves doing this; it's thrilling to make music on the fly, and you can see his mind racing as he's working out chord progressions and improvising solos.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beethoven and Basset Hound

On our drive to Minnesota, we spent a couple days in Michigan visiting one of N.'s sisters and her family, which includes a basset hound who likes to howl along with the piano.  I posted this video on Facebook but thought I'd share it here too because it continues to make me giggle.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tadpoles, Spittle, Galls, Deer Beds, and More: Summer Nature Camp

N. is participating in a half-day summer program called "Forest Hideouts" at the wonderful Hartley Nature Center in Duluth, Minnesota, the city where Tim and I grew up and where we usually (except last summer when we spent a month in Paris instead, la-di-da) spend several summer weeks.  Hartley is the kind of place we do not have in Winston-Salem, and it's a great example of the spaces and activities that made Duluth a recent winner of Outside Magazine's online contest for best outdoors town in the U.S.  We love to come here to escape the southern heat and enjoy the gorgeous big parks, the Lakewalk along Lake Superior, the grand vistas of lake and sky.

N. has learned a fair amount about botany, gardening, and animal life (such as butterflies) with us, but we're not trained nature educators.  I was impressed when N. and I went for a hike yesterday afternoon that thanks to this week's program he was noticing new things in the familiar park (minnows, insects) and thinking about habitats that the unseen creatures might create among the tree roots along the creek's edge.  Summer programs like this seem to me to offer the best possible version of (non-homeschool) school: he spends 3 hours immersed in a topic with lots of fun, hands-on, collaborative, outdoor experience (his feet and legs were soaked yesterday from searching for tadpoles!), he gets social time with kids, participating in and observing the dynamics of kids learning together, all under the guidance of an expert, and he still has lots of time in the afternoon for his own pursuits.  Wouldn't it be great if school were more like camp?

Hartley Nature Center

Chester Creek -- our favorite!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What We're Reading Now: Summer Reading

Lots of summer reading going on in our family, and again, two out of three of us are reading multiple titles at once.  N. was introduced to the Emily Windsnap series by his good friend and he tore through the first two (he says he doesn't like this third one as well).  [Digression: is it necessary to make these books so very very pink?  I'm a big believer in boys and girls reading books about the opposite gender, but the styling of these books might make them a hard sell to boys who have been socialized to scorn pink.  Happily this is not the case with N., but it still annoys me!]  Henry Reed's Babysitting Service is the second N. has read in this series.  He's loving the Asterix omnibuses #7 and 8, which I got for our recent long car trip.  And I realized he'd never read Where the Wild Things Are (what kind of neglectful parent am I???) so we recently got it out from the library.  I'm reading Minnow on the Say aloud to N. and we are very much enjoying it so far; we loved Tom's Midnight Garden, another title we read by Phillipa Pearce a couple months ago.

I just finished How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore, a popular/trade (i.e. not meant for academics) account of the fascinating story of an 18th-century devotee of Rousseau who tried to mold an orphan into his idiosyncratic model of a perfect wife.  It's a quick read and a crazy story; I recommend it!  I've just started The Luminaries and am excited about it.  I'm supposed to be reading Hillary Clinton's new book on kindle for my book club but I just can't bring myself to start it (a friend pointed out this story about kindle tracking of reader highlights that suggest that a majority of kindle readers of Hard Choices so far have not made it past p. 35!).

Tim is simultaneously reading Zealot by Reza Aslan, Buyology by Martin Lindstrom, and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, as well as The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald.  He is enjoying them all!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Field Trip: Washington, D.C. -- Art, Streetcars, History, Old Buildings!

We recently spent a weekend in D.C. visiting my parents.  We've been many, many times, but we always find something new to do there!  This time we really packed in the fun stuff in addition to good family time, dog-walking, N.-and-Grandma Lego time, and good food (allow me to brag that my not-yet-10-year-old ate almost all of a huge bowl of mussels at Granville Moore, a Belgian gastro-pub.  I did not set eyes on mussels until my late 20s!).


We toured the Smithsonian "castle," the Smithsonian's original building which N. has long loved but we had never entered.  It has some cool exhibits on the history of the museums that make up the Smithsonian, and on the motley collection of relics and oddities that people have donated (Napoleon's napkin! Walter Scott's hair! a piece of wood from a rail split by young Abe Lincoln!).  In a room that looks like a gothic chapel is an exhibit of selections from the various museums's collections, from entymology displays to a place setting designed by Raymond Loewy.  N., lover of model buildings, especially liked the Lego Smithsonian and a wooden model built by the architect before the building was constructed.


We went to a special exhibit at the National Gallery of Art on the artistic relationship between Degas and Cassatt.  It was really interesting to see their works side by side.  N. and I especially appreciated the part of the exhibit that showed the two artists' print-making.  Degas taught Cassatt print-making and the exhibit collects multiple prints of the same image so you can really see how Cassatt experimented with the process.  We saw less familiar aspects of these very familiar artists' work.  And it's not a huge, overwhelming exhibit, but is well curated, which we really appreciated after going to many mammoth, exhausting special shows in London.

We went to the Capital Trolley Museum in suburban Maryland.  This is probably the worst museum I have ever been to, in terms of layout and presentation and would benefit greatly from a professional museum consultant.  For example, the first thing you see when you enter is the end of a series of wall placards about the D.C. streetcars during World War, only of course it takes you a few minutes of reading to realize that you are at the end of the series and you have to walk farther on to find the beginning.  There is no overview of the history of streetcars, or of streetcars in D.C. and its suburbs.  There are some very detailed accounts of the development of specific suburban lines, which only makes sense if one knows the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of D.C. quite well.  There is a collection of streetcars and trolleys from around the world in a locked car barn that you are only able view with a volunteer guide, who in our case told us "information" clearly contradicted by the placards he stood next to.  But you can take unlimited streetcar rides on a 1-mile loop through the woods next to the Inter-County Connector toll road, which N. of course enjoyed.

And we went to Frederick Douglass's last home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia.  This was a wonderful place and a rich and moving learning experience.  We loved it.  We were led through the well-preserved hilltop house by a very knowledgeable National Park Service guide, who gave a good overview of Douglass's life with a special focus on the latter years when he lived in the house.  His second wife preserved the house and its contents so that almost everything you see actually belonged to Douglass (this is so rarely the case in house museums!).  We looked at his shoes at his bedside and  heard that he felt chest pain and fell at this spot in the front hall as he died.  As we descended the stairs the man in front of me said quietly to his son, "He walked down these stairs we're walking down!"  We felt ineffably close to the presence of a brilliant, radical man who did great things for our country.

Frederick Douglass's study

Frederick Douglass's dining room

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Summer Unschool

In previous summers we didn't declare an "official" last day of homeschool and first day of summer vacation.  We just gradually drifted into a more relaxed schedule as activities ended, my semester ended, and the rhythm of our days shifted.  Tim and N. often kept "doing school" in some form into early July.  But this year as N. noticed his school friends anticipating the last day of school, he asked when his last day was.  I asked him when he wanted it to be, and he chose Thursday, June 12.  Thus on Friday June 13, his first day of summer vacation after completing 4th grade, he luxuriated, sleeping in a bit, having a late breakfast, and reading the 4th Harry Potter book for most of the day.  He didn't get dressed till 2 pm, and he loved it.

Since then, N. has done lots of reading (Harry Potter, Henry Reed, Inc., various Asterix and Tintin, London Underground by Design, etc.), had long days playing with friends, had pool time, played with trains and his beloved Kapla blocks. He draws daily, of course, and is working on some stories that he started writing and illustrating in England.  He's going to a half-day nature camp for a week later in the July and a one-week ballet day camp in August, but otherwise his summer days unfold as he determines.

At the same time, N. agreed to keep some elements of his school year in place.  He still has weekly piano lessons and practices piano daily.  I've asked him to work on writing down one of his many music compositions, breaking up this daunting task by writing at least two measures a day and he's enjoying making progress on this, marveling that he's written 42 measures so far.  He's still doing French lessons with me for an hour or so every Thursday morning (He completed the first level and is on to the second, and he and I both are so thrilled with how much he's learned.  I get no compensation for saying this, but I really love this French curriculum, expensive though it is.  N. thinks it is a lot of fun and he's proud that he's really learning to speak, read, and understand French!).  He does a page in his Daily Math workbook once or twice a week.  And once he even asked Tim for a morning of "school," craving a bit of their regular time together.

So in some ways, summer vacation doesn't actually look that different from the school year!  But the tide is a little lower, the pace more relaxed.  I love seeing N. luxuriate in reading, creating, and playing with friends.  I think that's what summer vacation is all about!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nonfiction Books About Trains


NPR recently posted a "a reading list for riding the rails," which inspired me to put together some lists of the train books that have played a major role in our almost-ten-year-old's education for more than half his life.  Here's a list of nonfiction books about trains, railroads, and subways (list of fiction about trains coming soon!). N.'s favorites are The Great Book of Trains, the books of O. Winston Link's photographs, The Cars of Pullman, and all the books about the London Underground. Parents of railfans, do you have titles to add to this list?

  • The Great Book of Trains by Brian Hollingsworth and Arthur Cook
  • The Age of the Train: From the Rocket to the Bullet by Philip Marsh
  • The Big Book of Trains by DK Publishing
  • Encyclopedia of North American Railroads by Aaron E. Klein
  • Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America's Last Great Steam Railroad by O. Winston Link
  • The Last Steam Railroad in America by O. Winston Link
  • The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar
  • Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts
  • The Elegance of Edwardian Railways by Geoffrey Williams
  • Eat Steel and Spit Rivets: Norfolk Southern Employees Reflect on 30 Years of Change, Challenge, and Achievement
  • Amtrak: An American Story
  • Southen Railway's Historic Spencer Shops by Larry K. Neal, Jr.
  • Railroad Depots of Michigan: 1910-1920 by David J. Mrozek
  • Baldwin Locomotives by Schiffer Publishing
  • The Cars of Pullman by Joe Welsh
  • The Sea-to-Sky Gold Rush Route by Eric L. Johnson
  • The Missabe Road by Frank A. King
  • Railway Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden
  • Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden
  • London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden
  • The London Underground by Andrew Emmerson
  • Discovering Subterranean London by Andrew Emmerson
  • Discovering London Railway Stations by Oliver Green
  • What's in a Name by Cyril M. Harris
  • London Underground Facts by Stephen Halliday
  • Do Not Alight Here by Ben Pedroche

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Field Trip: Seagrove and the North Carolina "Pottery Highway"

Checking out the kilns

We spent a beautiful spring Saturday with friends exploring the Seagrove area, where the local clay has long inspired Native American, English, German, and contemporary potters.  We started at the North Carolina Pottery Center, an excellent small museum/ interpretive center that gave us a good foundation in the history of pottery in the area.  Then we drove around somewhat at random to a few of the 100 or so potteries in the area.  We started, fortuitously, at Ben Owen Pottery, where we were able to look at the kilns and watch Ben Owen III himself throw pots while describing his craft and answering questions.  This was the perfect introduction for N., creating context for all the pottery we proceeded to look at.  By the end of the day, N. was very interested in taking a pottery class!

Watching Mr. Owen at work

An egg separator!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

4th Grade Independent Reading Book List

Browsing in the wonderful children's section at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Rd., London
Here's my annual list of "chapter books" that N. read this year (my list of the year's read-alouds is here).  He was 9 years old and in 4th grade this year.  As always, this doesn't include picture books, which he still very much enjoys.  It also doesn't include Trains Magazine and Classic Trains Magazine, as well as National Geographic, Smithsonian, or our local newspaper, all of which feature in his daily reading.  He also reads widely from our collections of books about trains and architecture, which I have not listed here, since they've been part of his book diet for years (I will make a list of trains books and another of building books sometime though!).  This year I also noted books that he began but put aside because I am intrigued by this practice.  Some of his favorites on this list include the Cat Club books by Esther Averill, Asterix, and Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms.
  • On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells (first 1/3)
  • Secret Letters from 0-10 by Susie Morgenstern
  • Tintin: The Black Island by Herge
  • Superfudge by Judy Blume (read about half)
  • Tintin: Red Sea Sharks by Herge
  • Tintin: Tintin in America
  • Asterix #1
  • The New Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
  • Asterix #2
  • Five Go Adventuring Again by Enid Blyton
  • Asterix #3
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
  • The Zack Files: Great-Grandpa's in the Litter Box by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: Through the Medicine Cabinet by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: A a Ghost Named Wanda by Dan Greenburg
  • Asterix #4
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
  • Asterix #5
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Rides Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Asterix #6
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time by Frank Cottrell Boyce (read 1/2, abandoned)
  • Asterix #7
  • Roland Chambers' unpublished MS
  • Asterix #8
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read 1/4)
  • Asterix #9
  • Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms by Lissa Evans
  • Asterix #10-12 omnibus
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster (selections)
  • Bird in a Box (started, put aside)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney
  • Asterix #13-15 omnibus
  • Jane Austen's juvenilia (selections)
  • Horton's Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans
  • King Solomon's Mines(read 1/4)
  • The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
  • The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee by Eleanor Estes
  • Captains of the City Streets by Esther Averill
  • The School for Cats by Esther Averill
  • Jenny's Moonlight Adventure by Esther Averill
  • A Word to the Wise by Alison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali
  • Calvin & Hobbes: The Days Are Just Packed by Bill Watterson
  • Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
  • Jenny's Birthday Book by Esther Averill
  • The Fire Cat by Esther Averill
  • Jenny Goes to Sea by Esther Averill
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
  • Whittington by Alan Armstrong
  • The Wizard of Oz (graphic novel) by Eric Shanower and Scottie Young
  • Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (3rd time!)
  • Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitrou et. al.
  • The Zack Files: Dr. Jekyll, Orthodontist by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: I'm Out of my Body... Please Leave a Message by Dan Greenburg
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart (read 1/4)
Previous lists of independent reading are here:


Previous lists of read-alouds are here:


Do you have any recommendations for N.'s reading in the coming year?  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

4th-Grade Read-Alouds

At this time every year, I post a list of "chapter books" we've read aloud to N. over the past year.  I track our reading at Listography.  This year, we read fewer titles overall because we had less read-aloud time (many late bedtimes due to outings!) during our five months in Europe and because N. reads so much himself.  But we are committed to continuing reading aloud to N., and he loves being read to.  Though he's a very advanced reader, there is still a gap between his reading ability and his comprehension ability so we can read aloud more complex (and more old-fashioned!) books than he might read on his own.  I love the social aspect of reading aloud, the shared experience of the book that we can talk about as we read and remember  together with pleasure.

The highlights of our reading this year were the Great Brain series and Nesbit's Bastables books.  We also really loved Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce.  Reading Great Northern at the start of last summer was bittersweet because it was the last of the beloved Swallows and Amazons series.  But we reread a couple favorites this year (The Secret Garden and The Railway Children), so we may well reread the Swallows and Amazons books (actually we've already reread a couple of the early books in the series in previous years).
  • Great Northern? By Arthur Ransome
  • The Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • More Adventures of the Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Me and My Little Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (read half, then it got too sad!)
  • The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
  • The New Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Oswald Bastable and Others by E. Nesbit (read half)
  • The Great Brain at the Academy by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • The Avion My Uncle Flew by James Fisher
  • Act One by Moss Hart (read by T.)
  • The Great Brain Reforms by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Mary Poppins in the Park by P.L. Travers
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce
  • The Return of the Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle (read by T.)
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (read by T.)
  • The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
  • Grayson by Lynne Cox
  • The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald
June 2013-May 2014

Monday, June 2, 2014

Field Trip: Streamliners

N. and I went to a special event last week at the North Carolina Transportation Museum called "Streamliners at Spencer," a gathering of historic streamlined engines from the 1930s to the 1950s.  It was billed as "primarily a photography event," which meant we couldn't get particularly close to the engines, and there were lots of (generally older, white, male) photographers everywhere angling for their shots.  The day featured a lot of waiting around in the sun and the heat generated by the engines as various locomotives were moved around for photos.  I thought it was terrifically boring, and I have developed a pretty high interest in train history over the years of my son's life!  But N. had a good time.  He enjoyed seeing various E- and F-units that he's interested in.  He tried out a diesel train-driving simulator.  He loved the displays in the visiting Amtrak Exhibit Train, especially one demonstrating the different Amtrak train horn signals over the years and listing their chords (our favorite was the signal that came just before the current signal in use; I think it was a C# diminished 7th chord).  There were model train layouts to admire, and old restored private passenger cars to tour.

N. also got to meet railroad artist Andy Fletcher, who kindly told us a bit about the paper and pens he preferred for his meticulous drawings of locomotives, cars, and cabooses.  N. was quite inspired by his work, and by seeing so many locomotives.  As soon as we got home, he immediately set to work on a drawing of a GG1 engine.

A "GG1" electric locomotive, drawn by N., 2014.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tout Ensemble

Over the past four weeks N. participated in a chamber music workshop for young musicians.  He played two Bagatelles by Dvorak (with two violins and a cello) and Faure's Sicilienne (Op. 78, with a flute player).  The groups had several rehearsals before their performance this past weekend.

I'm always seeking out opportunities for N. to make music with others because I think this is such a thrilling experience (especially rare for young pianists), and it enhances your musical development in unique ways to listen to the other musicians and truly make music together.  So I loved how this workshop was conceived: each ensemble worked together for two hours per rehearsal, half of that time with an adult coach, and half of that time without a coach.  On their own, without a coach or teacher telling them what to do, the kids had to talk with each other about which parts of the music they needed to work on, make decisions collectively about tempo, dynamics, and other aspects of interpretation.  Just like grown-up chamber musicians!  We were proud of their performance, but I think these collaborative rehearsals were the most valuable part of the experience.

I'm so grateful to the organizers for putting this workshop together!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Current Reading

I don't like to read more than one book at a time, so I was amused today to realize that we are all reading multiple books right now.  I am reading two books aloud to N. at bedtime and throughout the day: Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield and Grayson by Lynne Cox.  Understood Betsy, published in 1916, tells the story of a girl who moves from a coddled, overprotected urban life to a rural life where she develops competence and self-sufficiency.  N. and I are really enjoying it; N. has remarked several times that it reminds him of Mary Lennox's transformation in The Secret Garden.  Grayson tells the true story of extreme swimmer Lynne Cox's encounter with a baby whale when swimming off the California coast when she was seventeen.  Cox's account is both lyrical and scientifically rich.

N. is alternating among Whittington by Alan Armstrong, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart, and Logicomix, a graphic novel about the life and work of Bertrand Russell (whose autobiography Tim read to N. over the past year).

In his reading aloud to N., Tim alternates between Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (which he read to N. several years ago, though N. doesn't remember it) and The Case for Pluto.

I am reading The Mysterious Benedict Society (at N.'s request) and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Tim's reading isn't pictured here but he just finished The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd for the literature tutorial he does with a high-school-aged homeschooler and he's about to start The Answer to the Riddle is Me.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Who wrote the book on love?

 N. spent 4 1/2 hours in the car on a road trip with my parents in March, and apparently most of that time they listened --on repeat-- to a 3-CD box set called The Golden Era of Rock 'N' Roll, 1954-1963. We were reunited with a 9-year-old who was suddenly obsessed with The Platters, The Penguins, The Five Satins, The Elegants, The Monotones, etc.  My parents then got him his own copy of the box set and he's well on his way to having the entire thing memorized.  One night he and Tim stayed up late watching a seemingly endless stream of Chuck Berry clips on YouTube.  Another night was devoted to an old compilation CD of doo-wop hits.  I hear him singing snatches of these old tunes around the house, or when he's supposed to be going to sleep.  I admire and marvel at the voraciousness of children's passions.  It's not enough to merely enjoy something; N. consumes it single-mindedly it till it is completely internalized!

Monday, April 28, 2014

More and More Mysterious


N. has been utterly absorbed for the past week in the Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.  I bought the book at our local used book store a couple years ago after hearing good things about it but decided it would be more fun for N. to read it himself than to listen to it read aloud.  He was hooked from the first page and spent as much of the past week as he could reading.  He even sent a friend a letter all in Morse Code (puzzles to be decoded figure prominently in The Mysterious Benedict Society).  He finished the book this morning, marveled that he had read more than 400 densely printed pages in a week, and immediately began reading the sequel.  I love that homeschooling gives him the freedom and the time to dive deep into whatever he's excited about.  And obviously I need to rescind my previous hand-wringing about his reading books through to the end!

Friday, April 18, 2014

"I'm so glad it's wick!"

A few years ago an acquaintance mentioned that she reads The Secret Garden every spring with her daughters.  I was inspired to copy this lovely tradition and this is my third spring reading it aloud to N. We are loving it as much as ever.

Yesterday Tim had N. write an essay on the topic of the blossoms in our neighborhood.  Here is my transcription of what N. produced in his neat little printing:

"The Blossoms of XXX XXX" An essay by N.
Springtime comes.  The leafless trees burst into bloom.  The daffodils flower, showing their pretty yellow faces.  The dogwoods, white and pink, are bringing the old mansions of XXX Avenue to life, same as the cherries on XXX Avenue, both puffball and regular, light up the sidewalks.  The trees in the park itself are getting leaves now, making the park have the air of shade, letting you feel a sense of comfort, instead of the feeling of not being protected.  Everything is showing off it's beauty.  A light breeze blows some blossoms off, but does it matter?  No.  The trees are just as beautiful as before.
A "puffball" cherry tree in bloom. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Music Theory

I mentioned earlier that N. is taking music theory lessons every other week this semester.  He loves music theory and understands it in a thorough and holistic way that is quite beyond me.  Tim is trying to keep up with him but doesn't really get it to the extent that N. does.  I've given up the pretense.

Here's a picture of the homework he completed for a lesson last month: 


And this is the textbook his teacher uses to reinforce the material she covers in her lessons with N.:


I'm so glad Tim found this lively and engaging theory teacher to work with N.  Now I wish I knew a way to use N.'s facility with music theory in his math studies.  I've heard that the two subjects can be quite complementary but haven't seen N. make that connection yet.  Suggestions and recommendations are welcome! 


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Exploring the Pluto Debate

Tim ran across "The Case for Pluto" by Alan Boyle at a rummage sale recently and started reading it aloud to N. today.  N. was very excited about it, telling me all about it when I came home from work.  Written by a journalist, it seems quite accessible and engaging, at least for this child listener.  Maybe after this they should take a look at Neil DeGrasse Tyson's "The Pluto Files," which I believe also accounts for the controversy surrounding Pluto's reclassification but (unlike Boyle) defends its  demotion.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wordsmithing

N. is reading a funny kids' novel from 1982 called A Word to the Wise by Alison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali.  It's about a bunch of kids stuck in the "bad" reading group at school.  They discover a thesaurus that their teacher says they aren't ready to use yet.  One by one each kid sneaks the thesaurus home...  I haven't read it but N. says it's a really good book.

I realized today that N. had never seen an actual thesaurus, so I brought an ancient one home from my office. I've had this one since junior high.  I think I bought it at a rummage sale.  (Someone wrote on the edge of the pages "I HATE DOING PAPERS!! JAMES T. O'GRADY" and someone else wrote "moron - writing on your thesaurus.")

N. was absolutely thrilled to see what a thesaurus is like and immediately began reading out words and synonyms.  He thought it was the coolest thing, which made my word-loving heart glow, shine, gleam, flush, burn, blaze, flame.



Monday, April 7, 2014

Field Trip: Colonial Williamsburg

recently attended a conference at Colonial Williamsburg and Tim and N. spent a day there with me.  N. enjoyed seeing the buildings and listening to the patter of the costumed interpreters.  He suddenly wished he had a tri-cornered hat and colonial outfit!  He found the "history" presented in the house tours somewhat hokey but he loved the craftsmen and women and the militiamen.  He saw a shoemaker, tailor, and bookbinder.  Since he's interested in knitting and weaving, he lingered for a long time watching demonstrations of spinning, dyeing, and shuttle-winding.  The day concluded with a regimental march and test-firing of cannons.










Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"O Fortuna!"

N. joined a local children's chorus in January and he has really enjoyed it.  He loves the singing and he also likes the socializing.  In March the chorus participated in an all-day chorus festival that included 6 regional children's choruses.  It was a powerful experience to sing with more than 200 other kids.

Later in March his chorus sang the children's parts of Carmina Burana with a symphony in the region.  N. -- and all the kids -- were thrilled by the big booming sounds of this piece.  The conductor had to continually remind the children to watch him and not the percussionists banging the bass drum and tinkling the triangle next to them.  And who can blame them?  It was pretty wild to suddenly find themselves right in the middle of a huge piece of music as it was being brought to life.

Since that performance, N. has been working out a piano accompaniment to the children's parts, banging those big chords and belting out "O Fortuna," recreating a bit of the experience of the concert every couple days in our living room.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"I gazed and gazed..."

On Sunday N. was inspired by the springy, sunny weather to take out the nature journal one of his sisters made for him a couple years ago and which he has used intermittently.   The nature journal pages include boxes for drawings, descriptions, and identifications of specimens.  We sat out on our patio while N. drew clover, violets, and a daffodil.  (I drank tea, read fluff articles in the Sunday Styles section, and then read aloud from The Return of The Great Brain)  He commented on how the sustained attention required by drawing made him notice features of the plants he'd previously missed.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
             --William Wordsworth (1804)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Act One by Moss Hart

Hearing about Tim and N.'s ongoing autobiography curriculum last year, a friend recommended the playwright Moss Hart's Act One (1959).  Tim is now reading it to N. and they both love it.  Every night at supper I get to hear about the latest episodes in Hart's rise from office boy to playwright.  Who could resist this timeless story of grit and luck in bygone New York?

But its appeal is not only the story of an unknown making it on Broadway against the odds.  Hart's account of his mother was especially resonant for us:
"With my mother the gulf that parted us was even wider, and it remained so forever.  I felt sorrow for her, I admired her, but I did not like her.  If this seems like a heartless impertinence I do not mean it so.  It is said in terms of compassion and not of complaint.  Within her limitations she was a woman of decent instincts and exemplary behavior, and her lot was a hard one.  The days of her life were spent in a constant battle of keeping peace between her father and her sister, and later on, after my grandfather died, between her sister and her husband.  The struggle robbed her of her children -- people who spend their lives in appeasing others have little left to give in the way of love.  It was her tragedy, as well as my brother's and my own.  At a certain age, sometimes early, sometimes late, children make up their minds about their parents.  They decide, not always justly, the kind of people their mothers and fathers are, and the judgment can be a stern one; as cruel, perhaps, as mine was, for it was maintained through the years and was not lessened by the fact that to the end of her days my mother showed not the faintest sign of understanding either the man she had married or the sons she had produced" (25-6). 
Tim recognized in this much of his relationship with his mother, who died in late February.  Reading this passage shortly after we attended her funeral gave Tim and N. an additional way of thinking through our mourning of N.'s grandmother, a feisty woman who didn't understand her son but who warmly embraced her youngest grandchild.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Networks of Learning

A dear friend gave us Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language (1977) a couple years ago, and recently brought to my attention his Pattern #18: Networks of Learning, which reads like a description of my ideal home/urban un-schooling environment:
"In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students -- and adults -- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching.... Therefore: instead of lock-step of compulsory schooling in a fixed place, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on younger children, museums, youth groups traveling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on.  Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process..."
 It is reassuring and exciting for homeschooling parents to think of themselves not as the primary teachers of their children, but as the facilitators of their learning networks.