Friday, January 31, 2014

Busy Busy Busy

(The week before all the activities started)
N. is involved in more "after-school" activities than ever before, and we're feeling a bit frazzled.  He's in a youth chorus that rehearses two evenings a week, he has ballet class once a week, he has a piano lesson once a week, and he has a music theory lesson every other week.  

I feel torn.  On one hand, N. is getting deeper into music and wants to keep developing mastery by learning singing and theory (and he likes the social aspect of chorus).  And a structured physical activity like ballet is both good for him and something he very much enjoys.  Yet he's lost some of his free time for drawing and creating, playing with friends, and day-dreaming.  That will return in May as activities wind down, but he misses it.  I wanted to homeschool to avoid some of the American culture of over-scheduled kids, yet we find ourselves here anyway, because N. has interests he wants to pursue and because I want to continue to expand his social circle. 

I bought the notepad pictured above at Anthropologie and every Monday N. and I write down what he'll be doing that week and schedule some tasks into his school time (French lesson, travel-journal writing, etc.).  The Wordsworthian Romantic in me hates to see a 9-year-old with a schedule and a to-do list, but this helps us all feel less frantic and assures us that there is (maybe) time for everything.  How do you handle the temptation/threat/inevitability of over-scheduling?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Three Midsummers in Fall

While we were abroad we took N. to three very different productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  As it happens, Midsummer is far from Tim's or my favorite play!  But we all got to know it a lot better over the past 4 months.  As I've mentioned before, when we take N. to see Shakespeare (Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, and Othello) we don't read the play with him beforehand, but tell him a brief outline of the plot and hope the magic of theatre will do the rest.  He's started to express an interest in reading the plays, so I expect we will do so in the future.

[Grandage's production.  Photo by Johan Persson]
The first Midsummer we went to was a big West End production in London, directed by Michael Grandage and with Sheridan Smith as Titania and David Walliams as Bottom (English stars unfamiliar to me).  It was a very loud production, in all senses.  Perhaps due to the acoustics of the Noel Coward Theatre, the actors shouted a lot to express emotion (especially Helena). The fairy scenes were set and costumed as some kind of 1960s-70s orgy replete with pot-smoking, which required some delicate explaining at the interval!  And the rude mechanicals' play was as campy and over-the-top as it could possibly be.  I didn't love it, but N. enjoyed it.  He especially liked Puck.

[Britten at the Komische Oper.  Photo source]
Then on our 10-day trip to Berlin in October, we went to a production of Benjamin Britten's opera version of Midsummer.  This was sung in German, as all productions are at the Komische Oper; the unanticipated benefit for N. was that he could follow the words in the English translation on the seat-backs in front of us so he had a chance to read a version of the play and get to know it a bit better.  The libretto appeared to be fairly faithful to Shakespeare.  Although this was an utterly strange production (the boys in the chorus was costumed not as fairies but as old men, everyone on stage was randomly strewing enormous teddy bears around, the lovers reverse-aged over the course of the opera for no discernible reason), it gave us a lot to talk about as we compared and contrasted it to the version we'd seen a couple weeks earlier.

[Propeller's version.  Photo: Dominic Clemence]
And in November we saw a production of Midsummer in Bath at the Theatre Royal by the wonderful all-male company Propeller.  It was perfect!  It actually made me like the play!  It was lighthearted and delicate and affecting and funny and moving.  We all loved it.  The production design, nuanced acting, costuming, and music were all so well-calibrated.  In some ways it was even more off-beat than the West End production that was trying so hard to be edgy.  This was challenging without being gimmicky.  N. had fun thinking about how and why it worked to have men playing all the roles, and again we got to do lots of comparing and contrasting.

I can't imagine there will ever be another time in our lives when we see three different professional productions of the same play in three months.  N. was already a fan of Shakespeare, and this experience made him even more so.  Seeing three Midsummers initiated him into the seemingly endless interpretive possibilities a Shakespeare play offers.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Exploring Berlin

(Continuing to catch up on last semester's adventures...)  My university's study-abroad schedule includes two 10-day breaks for independent travel.  While my students mostly took the the "if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" approach to the first break in early October, Tim, N., and I spent the entire ten days in Berlin.  We'd never been and didn't know much about it before going, but we really loved our visit there.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.  Prenzlauer Berg reminded us of Park Slope in Brooklyn: family-friendly but also very hip, filled with charming historic buildings, parks, and lovely little shops and cafes.  We spent one day just walking the neighborhood, looking at various landmarks and buildings such as Mauerpark, the Kulturbrauerai, the Wasserturm (a water tower that was used as a prison by the Nazis and is now apartments), the park at Kollwitzplatz, etc.  We met up with a former student of Tim's who now lives in Hamburg and she took us to the Prater Biergarten for our first Berlin bratwurst!  We loved this neighborhood.

One of the main themes of our stay in Berlin turned out to be history, especially of the mid-twentieth century.  Everywhere we went, we encountered important landmarks in World War II and Cold War history, which we were constantly talking about with N.  There are many kiosks on street corners identifying local sites associated with Berliners who had been persecuted or killed by the Nazis.  We went to a train museum (of course!), the Deutsches Technikmuseum, where the (troubling) role of railroads in German history from the Prussians through World War II was carefully explained.  We saw Checkpoint Charlie.  We saw fragments of the Wall throughout the city, and especially at Mauerpark.  We walked down Karl Marx Strasse and read plaques about the Communist architectural ambitions that informed the look of the grand avenue.  We saw an exhibit at the Deutscher Dom about the bomb destruction and eventual restoration of Gendarmenmarkt and a similar exhibit at the Berliner Dom.  We went to the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park.  We walked down Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and looked at the restored Reichstag building.  We went to the 1990s Potsdamer Platz and the 1960s Kulturforum.  I was proud to see how much of city's complicated history N. absorbed as we made our way around the city.  It was confusing and sometimes overwhelming and he worked very hard at trying to understand the significance of what we were seeing.

We only went to two of Berlin's many art museums; we wished we could have seen more, but it was so fun to explore the city that we were loath to spend a lot of time in art museums.  N. loved the Pergamon Museum with the reconstructed Pergamon Altar, the gorgeous blue Ishtar Gate, and massive Assyrian sculptures.  And we spent several hours in the Neues Museum among the ancient Egyptian sculptures and Mediterranean objects, lingering especially at Nefertiti!  In both museums, we not only encountered amazing ancient art, but were forced to think about questions of looting, cultural appropriation, war, and the role of archeology in the rise of modern Germany.  At the Neues Museum, placards note the absence of objects that were taken to Russia and are still being held there "in violation of international law."  These objects themselves of course were taken by Germans from their Mediterranean or Egyptian contexts in the nineteenth century.  The recent restoration of the Neues Museum keeps the war ever-present in the museum's history; the building was damaged extensively during World War II.  The bullet-pocked facade has not been smoothed out, and the partial, faded nineteenth-century murals and ceiling paintings in the galleries have not been retouched.

Music was another recurring theme of our visit to Berlin.  We went to the Musical Instrument Museum one day and spent a long time ogling old harpsichords and strange early pianos.  We went to a Chopin concert at the Franzosischer Dom (Dmitri Demiashkin played Chopin's 1st and 2nd piano concertos with soloists of the Berliner Camerata).  We went to a candlelit baroque concert at Schloss Charlottenberg (the musicians were wearing 18th-centuryish costumes -- it felt manufactured for tourists).  We went to a bizarre and unforgettable performance of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream (in German!) at the Komische Oper.  And, most exciting of all, we heard the Berlin Philharmoniker at the Berlin Philharmonie (with guest conductor).  N. loved going to these concerts, even though the succession of late nights brought challenges as the week wore on!

For N., the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and streetcars were a major highlight of our trip to Berlin.  N. loves to get to know a city through its public transportation system.  We rode the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and streetcars as much as we could.  We spent one evening exploring the historic Klosterstrasse U-Bahn station, which has an old subway car installed on one end of the platform.  And since we've come home, N. has been reading up in Transit Maps of the World on the "ghost" stations that were closed in East Berlin.

Trying out new foods is one of the pleasures of travelling, of course.  We loved eating bratwurst and varieties of German cheese, buying fresh warm pretzels from vendors after music concerts.  It wasn't easy to find restaurants specializing in German food, however!  We had one splurge Italian dinner, two falafel lunches, two bratwurst lunches, various German pastry snacks, and one amazing vegetarian lunch at a fabulous place called Seerose.  We had fun decoding the local grocery stores and cooking most of our meals in our flat.

So, Berlin was a revelation for all three of us, and we found ourselves at the end of ten days eager to learn more about the city, the German language, and Germany itself.  It was especially rewarding to travel there with N.  He was so interested in everything he saw and his enthusiasm lent an extra intensity to our experience.  I don't think I would have learned half as much on this trip without him.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Encore en Fran├žais

We're trying a new curriculum for French.  I had been using Nallenart's L'art de dire, but I found it was a bit too much fussing around with downloading audio files and printing pages so that I would forget to do it before our appointed weekly classtime and N. consequently wasn't making much progress beyond vocabulary building.  I'm too old-school; I need books and CDs!  I might go back to Nallenart for the more advanced levels because I've had trouble finding a text beyond the beginning level that is not written for junior high or high school kids.  But for now we needed a fresh start.

When we were in Paris in July I went to the English-language bookstore WH Smith near the Louvre and asked someone in the children's section what she recommended for an English-speaking child who wanted to learn French.  She suggested Les Loustics published by Hachette because it is completely immersive; all text in the books and workbooks and all instructions on the CD are in French.  So I bought two levels of books and CDs and N. started working on the first lessons of the first level yesterday.  

Although he was restarting with things he already knows (greetings, numbers, saying your age), N. freaked out at first when he heard the CD because it really is all in French!  He literally tried to run out of the room and I had to pause the CD to convince him to calm down and give it a try.  After doing a few exercises (sometimes repeating them numerous times), he brightened and said, "So, I'm really going to learn to speak French?!"  The textbook is colorful and the exercises in the accompanying workbook were fun (including stickers!  Stickers make everything more fun).  I was impressed with the way the activities reinforced the material being taught in multiple modes, through listening, speaking, drawing, stickers, and writing, while still being fun.  

I hope this series will get us in a regular weekly French habit that we can sustain throughout the semester.  It will be a fun review and will, I hope, get N. more comfortable speaking French, not just saying isolated words.  And I'm already getting ahead of myself trying to decide what we'll use at the next level when we need to get more serious about grammar.  In addition to Nallenart, I'm tempted by Valette's French for Mastery, which I used ages ago in junior high myself!  Maybe I could supplement this with weekly conversation lessons with a college student on my campus?  All suggestions and recommendations are welcome!  Should I be exploring apps and online programs?

---P.S. Collins French Club is a beginner series that is similar to Les Loustics, although it does offer all the printed directions in both French and English so it is not as immersive.  But it's cheaper and more readily available in the US (lots of used copies on US Amazon, while you need to go to the French Amazon to get the full Les Loustics package).

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Back from Abroadschool to HOMEschool!

Oh, hi internet.  It's been a long time since I posted anything here because it got too hard to keep up while we were in London with one computer between Tim and me, lots of late nights, teaching prep, travel planning for various short trips, lots of knitting... N. fell behind on his travel journal too, and we decided that we'd each write regularly when we got back about our semester abroad as a way of processing our experiences and memories.  N. is going to write about the trip in his journal once a week, and I'll try to write here a bit more often, both about what we did last semester and what we're doing now that we're home.  

We had wonderful, rich experiences abroad and we were so proud of how much N. got out of our five-month-stay in Europe.  But we (especially N. and I) are also really happy to be home.  We left England in mid-December, were home for 12 days, then travelled right after Christmas to Washington, D.C. and Michigan to see family, and just returned home again, with great relief.  We've been thrilled to catch up with all the friends, family, and neighbors we missed so much.  And we are enjoying settling back in our nest and luxuriating in our piano, our favorite books, music, toys, nice cooking pots, cozy beds, etc. 

Yesterday, Tim and N. started their old school routine, much to N.'s delight.  At N.'s request we set the alarm, he read in bed for an hour and a half (Trains magazine and Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney), we ate breakfast, and he was at his desk in the sunroom by about 9:45 drawing while listening to Tim read from The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar.  N. worked in his Daily Math workbook, they tried out the new microscope he got for Christmas, they read about neon in The Elements, they took a walk, ate lunch, practiced piano, and went to N.'s piano lesson.  It was a full day and N. kept saying all day how happy he was to be back to regular school, which warmed our hearts.  

Given N.'s love of routine, I was surprised at how well he thrived when we had almost no regular routine in London.  The one daily constant was piano practice, but even this happened at different times of the day depending on what outings we had planned.  In London, we were much more like "real" unschoolers.  Aside from a weekly check-in with the math workbook, all N.'s learning was experiential.  Museums, outings, siteseeing, plays, concerts, reading (independently and aloud), and self-directed writing (postcards, letters, comic books, and stories) formed the curriculum.  It would have been a shame to do anything but absorb London (and Paris, Berlin, and Florence) as fully as we could.

While I was surprised that N. enjoyed the infinite variety of our days in Europe so much, I was also surprised at his gleeful embrace of his old routine now that we are back in our quiet little city.  He loved being abroad and he misses it, but he's happy to be home.  He and I have been talking about this; how it's useful to learn about yourself that you can be happy (at least for a time) in two very different modes of life and learning.  Extended travel can give you more complex feelings about your place in the world.  We learn that we can be more flexible than we thought, but we are also left with an unresolveable wish that we could be in two places at once, that we could have the richness of our daily experiences in London and the comfort of our home life at the same time.  When we were in London, N. and I talked about how much we missed our life, but also didn't want the semester to end.  Now that we are here, we talk about how happy we are to be home, and yet we miss the inspiration of London.  While N. revels in the return to normal, I am curious to see if the old routine will in fact continue to hold or if it will be adapted as N. continues his post-Europe half of fourth grade.    
Figuring out the microscope among the comforting clutter of home!