Tuesday, August 18, 2015

5th Grade Autobiography Curriculum

[I'm trying to catch up on blogging about things from 5th grade before 6th grade starts next week!]

As I've described in many previous posts, Tim and N. begin their "school" time each week day with reading aloud.  Usually this comes from an autobiography or biography.  Why autobiographies?  Primarily because the lives of others are so very compelling, and offer a great medium for learning all kinds of other things along the way.  I've mentioned that Tim read N. Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë, but I wanted to be sure to record the other autobiographies he read aloud over the course of N.'s 5th grade year.

They began 5th grade with an excerpt from Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, the account of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School .  I don't know if this was a random choice; at any rate, it was interesting to start the school year reading about the educational philosophy of this school reformer.

One Victorian led to another and next Tim read to N. the portions of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography that recount his childhood and young adulthood.  Mill was educated at home by his father, was precocious and academically accomplished from a very young age, but also suffered from the strain of his studies in his early 20s.

Another school headmaster led to their second autobiography of the year.  One of Tim's old friends was, until his retirement in June 2015, the head of Doane Academy in New Jersey and upon hearing of the improvised autobiography curriculum that is one of the foundations of our homeschooling, he gave Tim a copy of The Fire Within, the autobiography of Henry Rowan, the founder of Inductotherm Corporation and major donor to Doane Academy.  I was skeptical that this would be worth reading, but in fact Tim and N. found it engrossing and read it completely through.  It covered aspects of chemistry as Rowan developed induction furnaces, which synchronized well with Tim and N.'s ongoing reading of The Disappearing Spoon and their study of the elements.  They found the accounts of the business side of Rowan's career just as interesting as the chemistry; his travails founding and developing Inductotherm offered an inside view of the challenges of running a company.  He also discussed some aspects of his personal life, including the difficulties he and his wife weathered as parents of disabled children, and he detailed some of his goals in his extensive philanthropy.

Throughout much of the winter, Tim alternated reading Rowan's autobiography with that of Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1940).  This book resonated with so much of what Tim and N. have studied over the past couple years, and extended those lines of thought as they read of Hughes's accomplished family, his childhood love of books, his father's flight from U.S. racism to a life in Mexico, Hughes's experiences in college, the Harlem Renaissance, his world travels as a crewman on a cargo ship, his growing literary achievements... I am tempted to say that everything you need to know about America in the first half of the 20th century is in this book.

And then Tim and N. turned from Hughes to Brontë to conclude N.'s fifth grade year.  Since I always hear all about their reading at supper each night, I look forward to seeing what they read together in 6th grade.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fieldtrip: Wildwood

In late May we went to Portland, OR for a week to visit family.  One day we hiked some of the gorgeous Wildwood Trail in Forest Park.  N. was especially excited about this because he had just read the Wildwood Chronicles trilogy by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis.  It seemed pretty magical to step into the world of the books, still so fresh in his mind from reading.  He ran ahead of us so that our chitchat on the trail wouldn't burst the illusion he was enjoying that at any moment Prue or Colin or the Dowager Governess might cross his path.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Summer Socializing

I always think of summer as a time of retreat; at the end of the academic year after intense engagement with students and colleagues I want time for quiet reflection, research and writing.  For N, however, summer offers more opportunities for interactive, social learning than are sometimes available to him during the school year.  He's in activities throughout the year with other kids, but they maybe last an hour or two at a time.  He looks forward to summer when friends are more free to play all day and when he participates in full-day summer programs with other kids.  

This summer he attended an intensive 1-week chamber music day camp, a 1-week ballet intensive, and he and I went together to a Suzuki music camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  He learned tons of music and ballet, of course, but just as valuable was the practice he got in parsing social groups, navigating cliques at meal times, making friends.  Last summer, as the only boy in the ballet program, he ate lunch at a table by himself.  This summer I peeked in to the lunch room (near my office on campus) on the first day of ballet camp to see him enjoying his sandwich in the center of a group of girls.  Later I asked him if the girls were nicer this year, more willing to hang out with a boy? "Well," he replied, "I think I'm just better at going up and talking to people this year."

At the music camp in the mountains, there was a group of boys around N.'s age who were fun but who tended to go a little wild.  I was interested to observe from a distance how N. skirted this group with an instinctive wariness, playing with them but peeling off just before they crossed the line into inappropriate behavior.

We took our annual road trip to the Midwest, and I saw evidence of his growing social skills there as well.  Visiting his half-sister and her children, who are 3 1/2 and almost 6, N. was much more patient and playful with his adoring but inevitably (to a 10-year-old) sometimes irritating niece and nephew than he had been the previous summer.  Visiting adult friends and relatives, I noticed with pride many moments when he joined in the conversation with apposite anecdotes, and especially praised him when he did so without interrupting, a particular challenge for him (growing up in a family of prodigious talkers as he is, interrupting is almost a necessary skill).

Homeschooling parents get annoyed by "the socialization question": people worry that homeschooled kids will be weird and unsocialized.  We have many ready answers to this concern: that weird is cool, that some forms of socialization are soul-killing, that outside of age-segreated conventional school settings, homeschoolers are comfortable with older and younger kids, etc.  But it is true that homeschool kids may have less experience of the complex dynamics of groups of kids interacting over the course of a day, day after day.  I've realized that summer programs and camps offer this experience to N. and I'm enjoying seeing him develop in this area.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Field Trip: Chattanooga

We have good friends who live in Memphis (a long drive for us) who suggested that we all meet up in Chattanooga (a much shorter drive for us!) for spring break.  So we spent a very full and fun few days together in early March (and I'm just now getting around writing about it).  We slept in converted train cars at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.  We walked on a converted railway bridge over the Tennessee River.  We went to the Hunter Museum of American Art.  We went to the International Towing and Recovery Museum (oh yes, a museum full of tow trucks!).  We rode the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway.  We went to an IMAX movie about whales.  

And we spent a full day at the Tennessee Aquarium.  While Tim and our friends went at their younger kids' quicker pace, I hung back as N. and our friends' oldest daughter (8 years old) made their slow, methodical way through the exhibits, looking carefully at everything, reading plaques, examining sea life.  I took tons of pictures like this one of them poring over exhibits together.  N. really enjoyed spending time with another kid who likes to take it all in, who has a very long attention span like he does.    

Friday, June 5, 2015

5th-Grade Independent Reading List

Every year at this time I post the list of books N. has read over the past year (I keep track throughout the year at Listography).  I'm quite proud of the quantity, quality, and wide range of books N. has read during his 5th grade year.  All my hand-wringing in previous years about his previous habit of dipping in to favorite books rather than reading new books straight from start to finish feels a bit silly now.  Not only did he read many many new books straight through this year, he also read some that I'd previously read aloud to him (for example, Knight's Castle), and he found this quite fun.  He still dips in to old favorites, especially Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, and Tintin.  And he regularly reads Trains Magazine, Classic Trains Magazine, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, Popular Mechanics, nonfiction books about trains, train stations, and other architecture.  So all that, plus the books below, made up his 5th grade reading.  He has really become a committed, passionate reader of both fiction and nonfiction.

This has been a slowly unfolding process and sometimes I have been less than patient.  But I think several factors made it all finally click.  First, time -- time during the day (and night) to read when a book grabbed him.  And time over several years to let fiction reading catch fire.  A tiny bit of nagging on my part if he seemed to have lost interest in a novel would push him either to pick it up again or move on to something else.  When he really likes a book and asks me to read it so we can talk about it, I do that.  We have a house filled with books and Tim and I are always reading both for work and for fun; we're each currently in book clubs, so we're modeling reading as a social experience as well as a solitary pleasure.  N.'s friends, both boys and girls, all like reading, and that's been an important element of his development as a reader.

As always, I welcome your suggestions for books N. might enjoy reading in 6th grade.

Books my 10-year-old read:
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling
  • Beowulf (translated by Burton Raffel) (read 1/4)
  • Tintin: Destination Moon by Herge (again)
  • Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson
  • Henry Reed's Babysitting Service by Keith Robertson
  • The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessel
  • Emily Windsnap and The Monster of the Deep by Liz Kessel
  • Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist by Liz Kessel
  • Asterix Omnibus #7
  • Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun by Herge (again)
  • London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden
  • Knight's Castle by Edward Eager
  • Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart ed. Mary Ann Hoberman
  • Paris Underground: The Maps, Stations, and Design of the Metro by Mark Ovenden
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
  • The Time Garden by Edward Eager
  • Captain Underpants #1-8
  • Wildwood by by Colin Meloy
  • The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson
  • Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
  • Emily Windsnap and the Siren's Secret by Liz Kessel
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein (read opening chapter)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid #7, #8, and #9 by Jeff Kinney
  • The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Ried Banks
  • The Return of the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Asterix omnibus #8
  • Bad Cat, Good Cat by Lynne Reid Banks
  • The Secret of the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast
  • The Mystery of the Indian by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Hardy Boys #1
  • Zita the Spacegirl #1 by Ben Hatke
  • Big Nate: In a Class By Himself by Lincoln Pierce
  • Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
  • Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
  • Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (first three chapters)
  • Big Nate Strikes Again by Lincoln Pierce
  • Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy
  • One Year in Coal Harbor by Polly Horvath (read 1/4)
  • Wildwood Imperium by Colin Meloy
  • Cat in the City by Julie Salamon
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #1, 2, & 3 by Maryrose Wood
  • Nancy Drew Diaries: Curse of the Arctic Star by Carolyn Keene
  • Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
  • Asterix: How Obelix Fell into the Magic Potion When He Was a Little Boy
  • Chi's Sweet Home by Kanata Konami #10 & 11
  • Superfudge by Judy Blume (in process)
  • The Spy Lady and the Muffin Man by Sesyle Joslin (in process)
June 2014-May 2015

Previous years' lists of independent reading are here:
4th grade
3rd grade
2nd grade

Here's my list of this year's read-alouds.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

5th-Grade Read-Aloud List

Every year at this time I post the list of books Tim and I have read aloud to N. over the past year.  You can see quite a few titles from Tim's improvised curriculum of biographies and autobiographies here, most of which I have not yet blogged about.  If I had to name favorites of those I read to N., I'd say he especially loved Minnow of the Say, The Wheel on the School, The Evolution of Calpernia Tate, and the two Alice in Wonderland books.  We also, at his request, reread a couple favorites, including two Betsy-Tacy books and Winter Holiday Tim reads to N. first thing every school morning but it gets harder and harder for me to squeeze in nightly read-aloud time as we go to evening music concerts, as N. does music theory homework and practices cello, as he wants to read himself before bed.  But N. still wants me to read to him, and I treasure sharing books with him, so we'll keep at it!  As always, I welcome recommendations of books to read aloud in the coming year.

Books we read to our 10-year-old:
  • Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (read by T.)
  • Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (read 1/2)
  • Prairie Town Boy by Carl Sandburg (read 2/3)
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
  • Minnow on the Say by Phillipa Pearce
  • Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace
  • The Wheel on the School by Meinert DeJong
  • All-of-a-Kind Family by Sidney Taylor
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (portions; read by T.)
  • "Thomas Arnold of Rugby" from Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (read by T.)
  • The Big Sea by Langston Hughes (read by T.)
  • The Fire Within by Henry Rowan (read by T.)
  • Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace
  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  • Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary
  • Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary
  • Emily's Runaway Imagination by Beverly Cleary
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
  • The Great Brain Does it Again by John D. Fitzgerald
  • Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright.
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell (read by T.)
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (first 4 chapters)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
June 2014-May 2015

Previous read-aloud lists:
4th grade
3rd grade
2nd grade
1st grade

Friday, May 29, 2015

Poets of the Moors

by Patrick Branwell Brontë  oil on canvas, circa 1834
NPG 1725  © National Portrait Gallery, London
On a recent Monday evening N. came bounding into the car after chorus rehearsal.  "Mom!  Something really sad happened."

"Oh no.  What?" I asked, bracing myself for some bad news about a kid in chorus, perhaps, or maybe some kind of social mishap that I'd need to respond to in an effective yet non-helicopter-parent fashion.

"Branwell died."

I was momentarily nonplussed.  Branwell, Branwell, do we know someone named Branwell?

Oh, right.  Branwell Brontë.  The bad-boy brother of the Brontë sisters.  Tim has been reading N. Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) for the past couple months, and they'd reached the part where Branwell's drinking finally does him in.

N. has really enjoyed hearing Gaskell's riveting account of the Brontë family with its vivid characters, Gothic-nightmarish schools, and intense familial creativity.  He loves Victorian England, especially its architecture, so that's a major point of interest in this biography.  And he loves the Yorkshire moors, thanks to James Herriot and The Secret Garden.  We began our semester abroad in 2013 in western Yorkshire at a family wedding, so we'd been to some of the villages mentioned in the book (though unfortunately we did not make it to Haworth, the Brontë home village) and it has been fun to virtually revisit them.
While reading this book, Tim and N. have had occasion to talk about the inevitable biases and omissions in biographies, as Tim has compared Gaskell's narrative to the more recent scholarly biographies of the Brontës, especially those of Juliet Barker, which paint a much more sympathetic image of Patrick Brontë, the father, who, for all his seeming neglect of his children, did cultivate an atmosphere of fertile creativity that may well have made the novels of his daughters possible.  Gaskell says nothing about the jointly authored juvenilia that so fascinates modern students of the Brontës.

Other interesting subjects of conversation that Gaskell's biography has raised include medical and scientific history in reference to the deaths of most of the Brontës from "consumption;" education and economics in relation to the Brontës' limited access to decent schooling as the children of a clergyman of limited income; the extremely limited life opportunities for the Brontë sisters as Charlotte begrudgingly taught school; and the discrimination faced by women writers as the sisters published their books under male pseudonyms.  Once again, I've been impressed by how many directions of inquiry biographies open for Tim and N.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Timeline Quiz

Most of the history we've studied with N. has been through reading aloud, and through travel.  Over the past few years, Tim and N. have read together most of Joy Hakim's History of US.  They've also read some British history.  We talked a lot about French history when we spent a month in Paris.  They dip into A History of the World in 100 Objects, with particular focus on prehistoric objects, every so often.  Tim has read many many biographies and autobiographies of famous and/or interesting people to N., which always involves history.  And of course N. learns history through his passions for trains, old buildings, and music.  Other than working through Hakim's set of books chronologically, none of the history studies we've done with N. has been particularly systematic.  We explore topics as they arise and arrest our attention, whether they are out of order or jumping from one geographical local to another.

N. has never done any history projects or processed his learning of history formally, other than through extensive conversation with us, as well as through play in his drawings and the stories he tells about his imaginary world.  He takes a yearly standardized test, but these Iowa tests seem to focus more on "social studies" skills rather than historical knowledge.  So Tim was curious earlier this year to see if N. could put some major historical events in their proper chronological order.  

Here are the events Tim asked N. to put in order:
A. French Revolution
B. Rise of domesticated crops and animals
C. Crusades
D. American Civil War
E. Columbus finds America
F. Napoleonic Wars
G. Modern humans arrive in Europe from Africa
H. World War I
I. English Civil War
J. Neanderthals settle Europe

We were quite pleased to see that N. correctly put all these events in their proper order (whether he could assign them dates is also an interesting question, but not one we've asked yet).  This confirmed for us that our primarily unsystematic approach to history is nonetheless working; through all our reading and talking and traveling N. is constructing an accurate mental history timeline that he will continually add to as he learns.  I think the recursive nature of homeschooling is especially conducive to building historical knowledge.  We circle back around topics and historical events from different angles over the years of reading and talking together.  We remind each other of what we've learned and make connections.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Favorite Books of Fifth Grade

I'll post my usual lists of the books N. read and that we read aloud at the end of the month, but I thought I'd note two series that have thoroughly absorbed him this year: The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood.  It took N. a little while to get into the first Wildwood book, but once he did he was hooked.  There were many days where he begged to read just a little more before his regular "school" time with Tim started, or just a bit more past his already long-gone bedtime.  He's been pestering me to read the Wildwood books so we can talk about them, and I'm planning to do that now that my semester has ended. 

We don't assign reading to N., or any activities related to his reading (reports, etc.).  We talk so much together about the books that we read aloud that I think we don't need to do any additional instruction in reading comprehension or analysis at this point.  It seems to me that approaches to reading in conventional school risk killing the joy of reading, and cultivating that joy is a primary priority in our homeschooling.  Even if N. doesn't explicitly analyze the books he reads, he's absorbing so much about how fiction works just by reading a lot.  

While we don't assign reading, I spend a lot of time looking for books I think he'll enjoy and putting them in front of him to pique his interest.  Since he learned to read, N. has always loved reading non-fiction; sometimes I've taken to nagging (or even ill-fated bribing) to get him to put down the Trains magazine and read fiction (he loves having fiction read aloud to him, however).  But that's as close as we get to forcing him to read.  And when a book really grabs him, I feel so grateful for his flexible homeschool schedule that allows him to read in bed for an extra half hour (or more!), morning or night, when he really really wants to.  

When I was in fifth grade, I remember getting caught reading a book on my lap instead of following the math lesson (I wish I could recall what the book was!).  I was startled to be called on to answer some math question and had to explain that I had gotten lost in my book and hadn't really even noticed that we'd started math (quite some time ago).   My kind teacher's tone of voice changed from frustrated to forgiving, and I've always felt gratitude to her for not punishing me for loving to read (and hating math).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cello Lessons

Earlier this year, N. began taking cello lessons from a friend of ours.  Given N.'s love of playing and writing music, Tim had been encouraging him to take up another instrument in addition to piano.  Why cello?  N. didn't want to play a wind or brass instrument, so Tim suggested cello because we already had my cello and N. liked it.  It turned out he isn't quite big enough for a full-sized cello, so we had to rent a 3/4-sized cello, but this means I can use mine to practice with him, which is quite fun.  On the day pictured here, April 1, N. suggested we practice outside in the gorgeous spring twilight, so we sat on our front walk and serenaded the tulips and cherry blossoms.  It was lovely!

If N. was to take up a second instrument, it needed to remain a low-pressure and low time-commitment project.  N. currently practices two hours a day on piano, sings in a chorus that rehearses two hours a week, and takes a weekly music theory lesson which has its attendant homework (plus weekly ballet class).  Enough!  He has to have free time too!  We explained our goals to the cello teacher, and she understood.  N. practices cello a minimum of 10 minutes a day, after supper (while he practices piano mid-day when he is at peak energy).  Sometimes he ends up playing longer as he gets interested in playing around on the instrument.

I started cello lessons in 6th grade at age 11, so just a year older than N. is now.  I've enjoyed comparing N.'s initial experience of the instrument with my own.  Piano and music theory have given him such a thorough understanding of the structure of music that he picked up right away how the cello is organized -- how the strings, positions, and intervals relate to each other.  At first he was frustrated with how hard it is to make a clean sound on a string instrument, but he's persisted and I think appreciates his slowly developing skill.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday French Lesson

I was very excited last week to read these sentences that N. wrote in his French workbook.  Real sentences!  "I want to go to Paris.  I'm going to visit the Eiffel Tower and eat in a French restaurant, ride the Metro, visit the Louvre, go to Parc au Buttes-Chaumont, and eat a croissant and a baguette."

I wish we had time to work on French together more than once a week, because N. enjoys and is easily learning what he's studying now and I know he would easily make quicker progress if we could do more lessons.  Maybe in summer.  Meanwhile, I'm very happy with the foundation he's building now.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Our Little Free Library

N. received a Little Free Library from his grandparents for Christmas.  We mounted it in our front yard in January and we've had so much fun rummaging our shelves to stock and restock it.  We've also made trips to the local used book store to find favorite titles when we don't want to give away our precious personal copies.  We regularly check to see what's been taken and what new titles appear overnight.  Neighborhood parents of young children have told us their kids love walking over to check out the selection regularly.  Both N. and I are really enjoying spreading our love of books throughout our neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


N. received several months of a Tinker Crate subscription for Christmas from his grandparents and he's really enjoyed it.  He especially liked last month's kit, which was all about hydraulics.  He experimented with various configurations of the syringes and tubing.  I've been impressed with the construction of the kits: they begin with a basic project, and then suggest several modifications to make the kit more open-ended.  The projects are structured to encourage tinkering, not merely following directions.
Building an automatic drawing machine
Making slime
Though we have quite a few educational science/engineering kits, such as SnapCircuits, and Lego Crazy Action Contraptions, along with chemistry and physics sets, the Tinker Crates have been more successful with N. for both learning and play.  Partly I think this is because they arrive in the mail and get his attention, unlike a box that sits on a shelf for months (or years!).  I've talked before about the learning power of the fortuitous moment; when something piques our curiosity, we are primed to learn more. 

Building hydraulic systems

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do Homeschoolers Get Snow Days?

(Steeper than it looks in this photo)
It's funny how many times people have asked us if as a homeschooler, N. gets snow days.  The answer is "Of course! But not as many as the kids here in North Carolina do..."

We've had two days this winter of real slide-down-the-hills-and-throw-snowballs snow this winter.  On those days, N. is up early and out the door along with all the other kids in the neighborhood.   Since all car traffic virtually stops in our city as soon as flurries begin and snow plows never make it to side streets, the kids gather with sleds at the top of a steep little street in our neighborhood.  Parents guard the intersections while chatting and drinking hot drinks in thermal mugs.  If the conditions are good and you have the right sled, you might get a two-and-a-half-block run downhill.  Adult neighbors catch up with each other while kids throw themselves down the slopes for hours.  The mood is festive because snow is rare and short-lived.

By the next day, the snow is mostly melted and the plow has probably come through.  There's no more sledding.  But the schools in town are still closed! And will continue to be so for days, due to fears of icy roads or unusually cold temperatures.  During a 14-day stretch in February, the public and private schools here had about 3 1/2 days of school, I think.

I love the festivity of the initial snow days, but this excessive fear of a little bit of snow, ice, and cold, drives me, a native Minnesotan, nuts.  Canceling school the moment the mercury drops below 32 is very hard on working parents and the many kids who depend on school for meals.  And I confess to feeling a little smugness along with sympathy as the snow days drag on, seemingly unnecessarily, wreaking havoc on the lives of our friends.  While other kids are home day after day driving their parents crazy, N. and Tim go easily back to their regular studies and routines.  We get all of the fun and little of the disruption caused by snow days in the South.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Would the Quimbys Do?

I recently finished reading Ramona Forever and Ramona the Brave (Beverly Cleary, of course) aloud to N.  He'd been asking to come back to a few of the Ramona books that I hadn't already read to him or that he hadn't read himself.  I resisted because these are easy books for him and I thought he should read them himself; I like to read aloud books that are more advanced, a bit beyond his own reading level.  But he begged and it seemed mean not to give in.  I didn't have another read-aloud in mind, and anyway Ramona is such fun.

I didn't regret reading these aloud because while they might be rather easy reading for a fifth-grader, the stories are emotionally complex.  The world isn't easy for Ramona to navigate!  We talked a lot as I read about her complicated reactions to her experiences.  She gets angry, envious, scared, and pouty.  These are great books for helping kids give voice to their own complex emotions, and the books represent for the adult reader what it feels like to go through the world as a somewhat fractious, complicated kid -- a kid who wants to be loved, wants to be thought "good," but who also has a strong sense of her own self, her needs, her wants.

As a  parent, I was especially struck by the way that Ramona's parents deal with her unhappiness at school, both in kindergarten (in Ramona the Pest, which I read to N. a couple years ago) and in first grade (in Ramona the Brave).  In her first two years of school, Ramona wants desperately to be liked by her teachers, and feels underappreciated by them.  For about a week partway through the year she boycotts kindergarten.  In first grade she begs her parents to get her switched to the other first grade classroom because she has had a series of misunderstandings with her teacher and has come to believe her teacher doesn't like her.  Her parents ascertain that the teacher is not actually a bad teacher, just somewhat formal and old-fashioned, so they make Ramona stick it out. I would probably be exactly the opposite kind of parent: rushing in to meet with teachers, demand changes, etc. to insure my child an optimal learning experience.  I can't even read the resolutions of Ramona's school crises without getting teary!  After all, this is at least in part why we homeschool: to give our child a learning environment better suited to his temperament.

But the point of these episodes in both books is Ramona's resilience.  She survives, even thrives.  Her essential Ramona-ness is not thwarted by being misunderstood.  The bravery of the title is not only shown when Ramona faces down a fierce dog on her walk to school, but when she exercises her "spunk" and shows her teacher who she really is: creative, artistic, resourceful.  She's able to do this because of her parents' confidence in her.  "Buck up, Ramona," said Mr. Quimby after refusing to intervene with her teacher. "Show us your spunk." Ramona was comforted by him singing "Oh my gal she am a spunky gal! Sing polly-wolly doodle all the day!" as he washed the dishes later that night.  Buoyed by this belief in her, Ramona walked to school the next day "filled with spirit and pluck." "She was determined that today would be different.  She would make it different.  She was her father's spunky gal, wasn't she?"

There's been so much research on the importance of inculcating grit, resilience, and determination in kids by letting them wrestle with challenges without parental interference.  Cleary's Ramona anticipates this research.  Though we've chosen not to send our child to traditional school, I hope we are are not depriving him of opportunities to test his ability to face challenges and solve problems -- to be spunky.

(Ramona's originality goes unrecognized)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I think I know my son's tastes pretty well, but I was utterly surprised by the book he's currently obsessed with: Roz Chast's memoir "Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?"  I don't think this was intended for a 10-year-old. It's an account told mostly through drawings of the last years of her parents' lives and of Chast's own efforts to care for them, clean out their apartment, move them to a care facility, etc.

N. had read an excerpt in the New Yorker and begged to get a copy of the book.  I can't really explain why he likes it so much and I have to wait my turn to read it!  But I think he likes the tragicomic tone, and Chast's wry drawings. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Little Help from a Small Bear

The other day we were talking about the new "Annie" movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis.  N. told me there's a girl in his ballet class named Annie who looks like the girl who played Annie in a local production of the musical that we saw a couple years ago.  I said, "Maybe they are sisters."  He said, "No, there wouldn't be two girls in one family named Annie."  I looked at him, puzzled, and then he started laughing, realizing his mistake: of course the girl in the play wasn't named Annie, she just played Annie!  

Then N. said, "Take your daughter back!  Take your daughter back!"  I had no idea what he was talking about, didn't even realize at first that he was quoting something, and certainly didn't recognize the quote.  N. said, "Remember when Paddington went backstage?"

Aha!  N. was referring to an episode in "A Visit to the Theatre" in A Bear Called Paddington that we'd read (probably several times) years ago, when Paddington doesn't realize that the people on stage at a play he attends are playing roles.  He goes back stage at the intermission to try to patch things up between the characters.  N.'s momentary mistake about the name of the girl who played Annie immediately reminded him of this moment in the story.  

I love how this conversation reveals unconscious cognition at work.  N. didn't consciously search his memory for something that would help make sense of a funny mistake that he was a little bit embarrassed about.  But the story jumped to the front of his mind through the power of association. Reading (and being read aloud to) gives us access to a wealth of life experiences through which we can understand our own.