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).