Thursday, July 31, 2014

If you liked our previous Plutarch lists...(link added)

I've just gone through a few more vintage P.U.S. programmes, mostly looking for Plutarch studies (okay, some people go shopping instead).  If you're interested in knowing what the favourite studies seemed to be, way back when, here's an updated list.  These are all from Form III programmes (middle school), and I know that occasionally Form IV (grade 9ish) did something different, but I haven't had a chance to look at the corresponding Form IV's yet.

Programme 110, Jan-March 1928: Paulus Aemilius, from the Cambridge Press edition  (a book of four Lives, edited by P. Giles--that's why it is used only for these few terms)

Programme 111, Spring 1928:  Agis and Cleomenes (Cambridge Press)

Programme 112, Fall 1928:  Tiberius and Caius Gracchi (Cambridge Press)

Programme 113, Jan-March 1929:  Cato (Blackie edition)

Programme 114, Spring 1929:  Aristides (Blackie)

Programme 115, Fall 1929:  Alexander (first half) (Blackie)

Programme 116, Jan-March 1930:  Alexander (second half) (Blackie)

Programme 117, Spring 1930: Julius Caesar (Blackie)

Programme 118, Fall 1930: Themistocles (Blackie)

Programme 119, Jan-March 1931: Nicias (Blackie)

Programme 120, Spring 1931: Solon (Blackie)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Plutarch never stops being relevant. (Cool phrase for the day)

"Now Timoleon being busy in levying of men, and preparing himself : letters came to the Corinthians from Hicetes, whereby plainly appeared, that Hicetes had carried two faces in one hood, and that he was become a traitor."  ~~ Plutarch, Life of Timoleon (Thomas North translation)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Teacher training this week

"Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you're not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning."  ~~ Sir Ken Robinson

Consider This, by Karen Glass (done re-reading)
The Seashell on the Mountaintop, by Alan Cutler (done and reviewed)
All for Love (done)
Why Geology Matters, by Douglas Macdougall
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch

Sir Ken Robinson, How to escape education's death valley  (TED talk)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Seashell on the Mountaintop (Book review)

The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth, by Alan Cutler.  Dutton, 2003.

In Dr. Jay Wile's Exploring Creation With General Science, my seventh grader and I read about the principle of superposition, along with other basic geologic principles.  It wasn't a hard concept to grasp: the older things are lower down in the ground than the newer things. We compared it to a hypothetical bedroom floor that hasn't been picked up in several years and that holds an accumulation of clutter and debris relating to the owner's life over that time period.  Birthday cards from two years ago would be found somewhere below last week's dirty socks, and so on.  The scientist who is honoured by having those principles named for him, is Nicolaus (or Nicolas) Steno (1638-1686). In the 1600's, names were somewhat fluid, and Steno started out with a Danish name, but it changed depending on where he was and who he was writing to.

When we think of creationism today, there are certain points that we assume that Christians taking the Bible either "literally," or at least seriously, believe. But in the seventeenth century, taking the Bible literally included ideas that even creationists today would find strange; for example, that extinction of any species was Biblically impossible, because that would mean that God wasn't taking perfect care of his Creation. Any suggestion that any part of creation could change over time, or at least since the time of Noah's flood, was viewed with disdain and suspicion. It was impossible to imagine that dry land, especially high places and mountains, could at one time have been seas, and that those seas had deposited sediment that had become rock, and that inside that rock were the fossilized remains of creatures that were sometimes familiar, sometimes not. God's world a) just wasn't old enough to have gone through that much change, and b) wasn't supposed to change anyway. Everything was where it had been put at Creation, or possibly where it had gotten dumped in a short period of time during the Flood. Anything that didn't fit those parameters...well, there were always explanations. Fossilized sharks' teeth, seashells far from the sea, even stones must have fallen from the sky, or maybe grew from the ground. After all, didn't farmers find a brand new crop of stones in their fields every spring?

And this is where Nicolaus Steno entered the story.  He began as an anatomist, and quite a well known and skilled one; he discovered tear ducts and a few other important things about the human body. But a chance opportunity to dissect a very large shark's head forced him to notice the similarities between all those rows of teeth, and the petrified sharks' teeth that were popular for their "medicinal properties" but which were believed to be just tooth-shaped stones.  He gradually abandoned his anatomical studies for geological ones...except that there really was no such thing as geology, until he invented it, or specifically, stratigraphy.

There is much more to his personal story, his travels, his writing, and his discoveries; and as the author says somewhat regretfully, this particular book could not spend as many pages as he would have liked discussing Steno as an anatomist, and Steno as a priest (he converted to Catholicism, became a priest and then a bishop, and was beatified in 1988).  However, we do get quite a bit of those different sides of Steno's life, and I don't think most readers would find the story unbalanced.

I was a bit put off at first by a tone of  "people used to believe this, but we don't mix religion with science now," but as the book went on it seemed that the author expressed more respect for Steno's strong religious beliefs. As Cutler points out at the end of the book, in the post-Galileo world it was often not the church that argued with new ideas in science, but other scientists--physicists, for example, who wanted everything to line up neatly and rationally. He makes this comment in the epilogue: "Until very recently, religious and scientific arguments were advanced by both sides in every important scientific controversy. Too often what filters down to us in the history books are the scientific arguments of the winners and the religious arguments of the losers. Thus the picture of a long-standing rift between the two."

Having finished Seashell, and chewing on some of Steno's observations that would seem to cause trouble for young-earth creationists today (perhaps more than they did in his own time?), I did a short Google search for Nicolaus Steno plus creationism. I was not surprised to find a Christian Science Monitor article referring to him as "the saint who undermined Creationism"; but I was very surprised to see a page praising him highly on the Creation Ministries International website. I think that is due to the fact that although Steno opened the doors to a new understanding of the earth's history, which eventually led to the more problematic doctrines of geologists like Lyell, he did not get specific about when all this might have happened. What was revolutionary enough in his time was simply saying, first this, then this.

The book isn't difficult to read, and I think it would be quite suitable for students in middle school and up. It offers such a good introduction to the state of European religion, science, and life in general in the late seventeenth century, that it would be an excellent addition to a study of that time period.

Charlotte's Lean and Mean Curriculum (School Education)

Charlotte Mason frequently refers to the Parents' Review School curriculum as wide and generous, but, paradoxically, it achieves some of its power by what it does NOT include.  There is a certain spareness to its subjects and its presentation that may not have been as noticeable at the time, but in comparison to many educational plans now, seems like a streamlined racing bike set up against one of these.

As I said in the last post, both school administrators and homeschooling parents can still be frightened off by a lack of detailed instruction, especially for difficult or unfamiliar books.  But there seemed to be (at least) two reassurances in this area:  first, if you weren't up to choosing your own books in 1903, you could join the Parents' Union and take advantage of experienced teachers recommending books that had, often, been used successfully for many terms already. Second, if you had at least that much confidence in the books, and some awareness of the "Charlotte Mason" philosophy and methods, you could feel free, in most cases, to jump in and read.

In The Art of Reading, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gives a wonderful lecture to his English Literature students about "Children's Reading." Here's an excerpt, and please notice that he follows both the careful choosing and to the just-go-ahead, don't-interrupt style of reading also favoured by the P.U.S.:

If, then, you consent with me thus far in theory, let us now drive at practice. You have (we will say) a class of thirty or forty in front of you. We will assume that they know their a—b, ab, can at least spell out their words. You will choose a passage for them, and you will not (if you are wise) choose a passage from Paradise Lost: your knowledge telling you that Paradise Lost was written, late in his life, by a great virtuoso, and older men (of whom I, sad to say, am one) assuring you that to taste the Milton of Paradise Lost a man must have passed his thirtieth year. You take the early Milton: you read out this, for instance, from L’Allegro:
        Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and Becks, and wreathed Smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides….
Go on: just read it to them. They won’t know who Hebe was, but you can tell them later. The metre is taking hold of them (in my experience the metre of L’Allegro can be relied upon to grip children) and anyway they can see ‘Laughter holding both his sides’: they recognise it as if they saw the picture. Go on steadily...

So if Charlotte's curriculum is generous but not weighed down, what does it not include?  As already seen, verbose instructions to either the teacher or the students. Word-by-word scripts to follow.  Complicated methods of evaluation. But also, without constant dependence on readers and textbooks that include chapter questions and end-of-unit tests, there is a lightening of the expectation to teach the book rather than the child (Ruth Beechick's phrase).  If it's there to be used, you can feel very guilty about not using it. You paid for the program, you want your money's worth.

Last year I looked (briefly) at a contemporary grade 7 language-arts-and-literature textbook, which was basically a reader but with assignments included.  I kind of liked some of the assignments, but this is where I got stuck: if we spent all year working through those relatively few poems, short stories, and pieces of non-fiction writing, when would we have time to get through the Shakespeare play, the novels, and the rest that I expected would make up the meat of our grade 7 literature course?  So here's the crux: which approach is "leaner and meaner?"  Cutting down what the students get to read to a few poems and stories (and not particularly amazing ones), and a couple of newspaper articles?  Or cutting out the weight of the assigned projects, the chapter questions and so on, and just spending that time reading and narrating?

I guess it depends on whether you define "lean and mean" as skimpy and lacking, or as classic and powerful.

Friday, July 25, 2014

So, a curriculum? What does Mrs. Krabappel think? (School Education)

 "The curriculum which should give children their due falls into some six or eight groups--Religion, Philosophy (?) (question mark is hers), History, Languages, Mathematics, Science, Art, Physical Exercises, and Manual Crafts." ~~ Charlotte Mason, School Education (1903)
This seems like kind of a funny list, or at least one that has some strange gaps in it, especially after all Charlotte's talk about education based on books.  Where are Literature, Writing, Grammar, Geography, and so on?   They're in there--these are just broad headings.

Bible, is, obviously, Bible; but it's not clear what she meant just here by Philosophy (with the question mark), since there isn't any discussion of it.  History, in this era, included Plutarch.Under Language she mentions English grammar and literature, although if you look in the included sample programme, literature selections for the term are included under history.  She then discusses "Practical Instruction," with comments on Science (meaning mostly natural history, and that includes the books they were reading in that area); and finally Drawing and Picture Talks.

But if you really want to know what they were doing in the different subjects, at all the different levels, you have to read the Appendices.  The specific subjects for Form or Class III are Bible Lessons and Recitations (Poetry and Bible passages); English Grammar, French, German, and Latin; Italian (optional) English, French, and Ancient History (Plutarch's Lives); Singing (French, English and German); Writing, Dictation, Drill; Drawing in Brush and Charcoal; Natural History (included a book on animals), Botany (practical work and readings from two or three books on plants), Physiology (one book), Geography; Arithmetic; Geometry, and Reading (books from Geography, English history, French history, and "tales" (not explained here)). Literature, including Scott's poems in this term, is included under History, but the examination question seems to expect knowledge of Scott's novels, and it isn't clear how this was to be covered. Composition is not taught as a subject, because "no considerable writer was ever taught the art of 'composition.'"  "Writing" meant copywork.  "Dictation" was given from a book not scheduled elsewhere, Growth and Greatness of our World-wide Empire.  There are some "work" (craft) suggestions at the end of the programme.

And if you're at all familiar with Charlotte Mason's methods, you can fill in a lot of what is not specifically listed there--narration, nature notebooks and so on.

Actually, what we do ourselves isn't too far off from that, if you subtract the multiple languages and Drill.  But I'm trying not so much to compare this to our own family's middle school work as to think about how that would fit into one of those overblown government curriculum descriptions, or with certain other conceptions of education.  Assume that we have up-to-date, excellent books in all those areas, so we are hypothetically eliminating the problem of "Victorian books."  Who can you imagine objecting?
My thought is that the educational establishment we have in North America would take a long time to accept a term programme that simply says, for Physiology, "Read and narrate this book."

It doesn't seem like enough work for the teacher; it sounds like Mrs. Krabappel gets to put her feet up even more than she already does. It doesn't provide enough work for the curriculum writers and packagers.  It's not specific or extensive enough.  There aren't enough reproducibles. There isn't enough accountability.

But what if they did?  What if they tried it?  What if the confused kid in Bart's class actually learned something?
In the end it isn't about teaching, teachers, administrators, or textbook committees.  It's about learning. It's about the students.
Theodore shouted, 'Hey, Mrs. Collins, that's cool.  Everything links into something else, doesn't it?'  Marva beamed.  'Now you've got it.  Every scholar, every writer, every thinker learned from those who came before.  You are all becoming so erudite, we are going to have to dub you MGM--'Mentally Gifted Minors.'" ~~ Marva Collins' Way

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How to fail at teaching--and it's more work to fail (School Education)

At the end of School Education, Charlotte Mason does talk very specifically about what a curriculum based on her "educational manifesto"--she jokingly refers to it as the Children's Magna Carta--would look like.  Or what it did look like in 1903, twelve years after the Parents' National Educational Union had begun to offer a formal curriculum.  I tend to think of this time in the P.U.S. as sort of its adolescence, if childhood was the beginning period in the 1890's, and maturity was sometime in the teens through the time of Mason's death in 1923.  Middle age?--the still-going-strong nineteen-twenties, thirties, forties, probably till after the war.   Declining years would be the time of increasing school standardization, changing culture, and other things that seemed to de-popularize PNEU methods, at least for a while.

But anyway, what she's describing here is not too far off from the format of the term programmes I'm more familiar with, those of the 1920's and early 1930's.  There are some book differences, especially in subjects like mathematics and grammar, and some of the subjects aren't as fleshed-out here as they were later on, but the overall shape of the curriculum had been pretty much set by this time.  In fact, she suggests that the PNEU had now been "beta-tested" enough in private homes to be recommended to classroom teachers.

Buried in those notes just before the end of the book, she gives a list of six causes of failure in education.

a)  Too many oral lessons.
b)  Too many lectures.
c)  Too many "text-books."
d)  Focusing on any intellectual motivation other than the desire of knowledge, e.g. prizes, liking the teacher
e)  Too many gadgets, manipulatives and models
f)  Too many "Readers."

Four out of those six items on the list are basically the same thing: read books, real books.  Isn't that a relief for teachers?  Maybe not such good news for textbook publishers, but doesn't that actually take the pressure off the rest of us?

You do not have to know everything. You do not have to spend hours Googling information and activities to teach the circulatory system or the Elizabethan stage. You do not need to buy out the teacher's store, or have every science kit in the homeschool catalogue. You do not need a rack of expensive teaching posters, or a boxful of stickers. You do not have to depend either on your own superior knowledge, or on the availability of the latest technology.  It seems to me that you'd have to put more effort and money into these less productive activities, than you would in simply offering a generous serving of books, sauced with some real things and other "affinities."  It's less burdensome to do what's more let the students dig for themselves.
For some reason that reminds me of one of John Holt's books*, where he had bought a Polaroid camera and decided, on the spur of the moment, to unbox it and try it out right there in the classroom. Here's a package, here's what's in it, here's the camera, here's the instruction booklet, let's try it out together. What's this for? What if we try that?  Can I do it too?  This may sound like it's getting away from Charlotte's emphasis on books and natural objects, but here's my point:  this activity came out of something real.  It did not take John Holt hours to plan.  It did not come with worksheets or a quiz afterwards.  It did not come in a package marked "Afternoon with a Polaroid Camera: Oral Communication and Technology Objectives."   It wasn't a lecture, it wasn't even an oral lesson--it was an experience with a real thing that grownups were using. Yes, the kids enjoyed it partly because they liked John Holt, but what they really wanted to know was what was in the box and how it worked.

Charlotte repeats her point on page 247, the last page of the main text:  "that the young people shall learn what history is, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know."  Yes, she says, many of the best schools did use books, but, in her opinion, not enough of them, and they didn't make full use of them.  So she adds appendices to show "how a wide curriculum and the use of many books work in the Parents' Review School."**

*Holt's book What Do I Do Monday? has some fantastic ideas for getting kids engaged with concepts such as size, speed, and strength, using "real" measurement tools.

**What the Parents' Union School was called at that time.

(For related posts, click on the Volume Three label below.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Probably the first time anyone used "ectoplasmic" in a literary book review

I just found this and thought it was cool:

" 1922, the year that Proust died with his great mythical Recherche complete, the appearance of The Waste Land, Ulysses, and the more ectoplasmic Fantasia of the Unconscious startled the literary public also into realizing the importance of myth.  It was the next year that Cassirer began to bring the problem into systematic philosophy, and in the thirty years since then the word myth has continued to produce that uninterrupted flow of talk which is generally called, and sometimes accompanies, a steady advance in thinking."

(Northrop Frye, 1953 review of Ernst Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 1, trans. Ralph Manheim.  Included in Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays, edited and with an introduction by Robert D Denham.)

What's for supper? Pizza and pasta

Tonight's dinner menu, on a hot evening:

Frozen pizza, baked in the toaster oven on a piece of foil (because none of our round pans fit this toaster oven)

Pennine Primavera, made with zucchini, mushrooms, and chickpeas

Partly-thawed strawberries, very cold yogurt, and yesterday's zucchini cake.

Ruskin and Wordsworth go under Charlotte's microscope (School Education)

Did you ever read an autobiography and wish you could have lived in that person's family? Or not, as the case may be?

In the last several chapters of School Education, Charlotte Mason gives a sort of bucket list of the things that children need, the relationships (intimacies, affinities) they need to form; she's been over this ground earlier in the book.  She then spends a number of pages setting up her list against the childhood memories of William Wordsworth and John Ruskin, from Wordsworth's Prelude and Ruskin's Praeterita.  As a little postscript, she includes Wordsworth's advice on prigs.

That's it, that's what all that poetry and quoting is about.  Ruskin wanted to ride a pony, a real pony, just ride it outdoors and imagine he was really going somewhere and doing something; he thought afterwards that that might have made him a bit less of a wuss.

His parents signed him up for indoor riding lessons, but those were a failure, maybe because his heart wasn't in it.  He also spent a lot of time by himself, and he didn't have anybody to take him on nature walks and tell him the names of things, so he settled for collecting pebbles.
Wordsworth, on the other hand, spent most of his time with his friends, skating and swimming and stealing birds' nests. (What Charlotte calls Dynamic Relations.)
They both had books that fascinated them; they both had more-or-less similar opportunities to see art and experience a few of the other things on the list. Wordsworth appears to have had a more balanced, less neurotic upbringing than Ruskin, but in the end they both achieved greatness, contributed to the world.

Charlotte's final point: Ruskin and Wordsworth were each intelligent enough to overcome childhood difficulties, to make the most of what they had.  Even Ruskin's pebbles were the beginning of a lifelong interest in geology. But what if Ruskin hadn't had so many disappointments, had had more time to just play outdoors, make friends, have a few more of those affinities in place? What more could he have become? We'll never know.

And all that sounds like a recipe for pure parental guilt, especially if we can't send our children to kindergarten in the woods.  As Charlotte says in her first volume, a quick daily march around the square won't do either.  So what can one do if one doesn't live in a nature-friendly area or one doesn't have sympathetic neighbours or one has babies and toddlers, or illness, or blizzards?

The answer is, the best one can.  After all, knowing what children need is what opens our eyes to opportunities.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Teacher training this week

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (done that; lots of discussion about women's education)
Re-reading the last half of Charlotte Mason, School Education (got through that in one morning)
Making Sense of Adult Learning, by Dorothy MacKeracher (taking me longer)
Wendell Berry's poems
A surprisingly relevant newspaper column today about the science of relations (maybe I'll write a post about that)

Listening to:
Dr. Gwendolyn Starks, "Creative Writing with the Inklings and Friends"

Using all that to:
re-edit some of our Grade Eight plans.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's for supper? Make-your-own taco salads

Tonight's dinner menu:  Make-your-own taco salads, with sides and/or toppings. Meatless or not, whatever you want.

Main components:

1 lb. ground beef, browned and with a bit of seasoning added (salsa, not much because the jar was almost empty; chili powder, water, and cornstarch)
Homemade "refried" beans, made from pressure-cooked pinto beans that I combined with a can of black beans, onion powder, cayenne and black pepper, salt, and a bit of cumin (an idea that I got from Miss Maggie's old Frugal Abundance website--the recipe isn't there anymore, though)

Taco chips, olives, chopped lettuce, chopped peppers, grated cheese

Brown rice and two sweet potatoes
Plums, and cookies from the Eurostore.

Quote for the day: some Zen of cooking

"There is completely no secret: just plunging in, allowing time, making space, giving energy, tending each situation with warm-hearted effort.  The spoon, the knife, the food, the hunger; broken plates and broken plans.  Play, don't work.  Work it out." ~~ Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Cooking (1973)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What are the really basic cooking skills?

This is not a new post, but I'd never seen it before, and the comments are interesting (and I don't think there are any really rude ones). What should everybody (that is, not every cook, just every normal person) know how to do in a kitchen?

I agree with the one comment that everybody, no matter what their circumstances or food style, should know how to make three different main meals more or less from scratch, something simple but decent enough that they could also feed a friend or two. It's a reasonable-enough don't-leave-home-without-it goal, and it's one that they could probably learn from just one issue of a family or food magazine. If you have and use tools like a slow cooker, this can be even easier. Our Treehouse classic: open lid, put in sauerkraut, put in meat, put on lid, plug in, turn on.  Cook.

What's your personal survival list?  What do kids need to learn so that they don't end up like this poor guy on the Possum 911 line?  (Fast-forward to 13:27.)

What I learned from a French teacher

I was watching an online video produced for Canadian public-school French teachers in one of the western provinces.  Because that province has several different options for French teaching, they have produced a series of 15-minute videos explaining and comparing them.  This one was about core French (so just "regular" French classes) at the middle school level, and it showed both students working and comments from teachers.  One of the teachers said something like this:  "I used to plan my lessons around what I wanted the students to hear me saying.  Now I plan around what I want them to be able to say."

To clarify that, she did not mean parroting back phrases or canned dialogues.  Her students now spend a lot of their class time talking with partners and in groups, asking questions and answering them, in planned "situations" or just in friendly French chitchat.  The middle schoolers in the video were having conversations on the level of "What time does the movie start?" "6:30."  "I can't come then, I have to do my homework."  "Should we go later?" and so on.  This may not seem particularly profound, but it certainly beats only being able to talk about the plume of your tante.  She (and other teachers) mentioned the challenge of getting students to take risks in the target language--being encouraged to try.  It's a bit like being given a verbal blank page, instead of a worksheet.

I thought that what she was saying made perfect sense, in situations outside of language teaching.  Sometimes the way school subjects are taught seems like a swimming class where the teacher talks about swimming and demonstrates swimming, but the students never go into the pool themselves.  Of course we wouldn't put up with such a silly class at the Y--so why does it seem like such a fresh idea for school classes to take a hands-on, or in this case mouths-on, approach?

When I used more open-ended math materials with my Squirrelings, I found that evaluating what they were actually learning each day was not always obvious or immediate; but they really were learning.  It would be nice to think, even with math, that every answer has one method and one solution, that there are arithmetic and algebra and geometry and they're quite distinct; and that, really, all you have to do is keep assigning lesson after lesson and that sooner or later they'll know everything they're supposed to know.  In other words, that everything has an answer key, that you can check everything off and move on to history.

You can either settle for routine and memorization, or you can take some risks, let the students go right into the water and see if they've learned enough to at least dog-paddle. Teaching in a more natural, open-ended way is more challenging, riskier, than just filling in the blanks.  But the rewards are also greater...what we struggled to achieve using traditional methods, we may find now coming naturally.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mama Squirrel's Library Pile

From the public library, reading and leafing through:

The Map That Changed the World, by Simon Winchester
Why Geology Matters, by Doug Macdougall
The Seashell on the Mountaintop, by Alan Cutler
Eric Sloane's Weather Almanac

Monday, July 07, 2014

Quote for the day: Two sorts of men

"I have tried to hint to you two opposite sorts of men. The one trying to be good with all his might and main, according to certain approved methods and rules, which he has got by heart; and like a weak oarsman, feeling and fingering his spiritual muscles over all day, to see if they are growing. The other, not even knowing whether he is good or not, but just doing the right thing without thinking about it, as simply as a little child, because the Spirit of God is with him." ~~ Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

If it weren't for them

Who or what were your early (or middle, or late) influences on homeschooling?  I was thinking today that if certain people hadn't been around, hadn't written books or magazines or blogs, hadn't tried new things, new ways--or rediscovered old ones--the way I taught my children could have taken a different course.  So here's a list of, especially, my early mentors and influences.  Some of them might surprise even regular Treehouse readers because they've never come up here before.

The late Nancy Wallace, who wrote not only about the adventure of unschooling her children before homeschooling was cool, but about life in general with gifted and eager little ones.  She gave me permission to read big books to little bodies.

Mary Hood, who wrote a little book called The Relaxed Homeschooler.  Not that we ever put a lot of her specific ideas into practice, but during a time when it felt like you were either a secular unschooler or a Christian textbook user (or unit study groupie), there was an acceptable place between the two.

A Canadian offshoot of Lifetime Books and Gifts, which became known as Maple Ridge Books.  For the relatively few years that they were in business, they carved out a unique little niche here with their excellent catalogue and great book reviews. One Christmas I loaned my mom their catalogue, with a bunch of books circled as gift possibilities.  She bought EVERYTHING I'd circled, for the Apprentice.  We still have most of those books, too.

The "guest stars" who helped train our team for a summer library job, years ago.  We were so lucky.  We had children's music makers, puppeteers, and I think even a mime artist come in to do workshops--and we were getting paid to be there.  Minimum wage, but still.

For The Children's Sake, of course.  But again it wasn't so much for the homeschool aspects that I first read it--it was the idea of a different way to look at learning, even for very little children, and how that connects with what we believe we are, and our relationship with God and the world.

My husband's grandmother, who told us that parents were idiots to send three-year-old children to school, and who was surprised when we agreed with her.

Ruth Beechick.  John Holt.  Valerie Bendt.  Diane Moos (The Frugal Homeschooler).  Mary Pride. Cathy Duffy, who published one fat curriculum guide that had a short chapter about homeschooling on the mission field, which stuck in my head as a reminder that less can be more, especially when real life is happening all around us.

The homeschooling families at church when we were first married...did they know how big an influence they were just by being there and doing what they were doing?

The homeschoolers in the local group...those with big families and happy crunchy lifestyles, and those with one child (like us, for awhile) and who didn't like kneading bread so much.

And, in the end, my "peeps" on the CM email lists and message boards, which became websites and newsletters, and eventually online curriculum and blogs and FB pages and other things I don't keep up with.  Brenda, if you're reading, you were one of them.

There are others that will occur to me after I've hit Publish.  Maybe a Part Two sometime.

Linked from the Carnival of Homeschooling: Thank You Edition, at Notes from a Homeschooled Mom.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Using School Books, Part Four: Hammering the point home

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Let's take a history book, says Charlotte Mason.  Or it could be a science book, or a story of travel, or an essay of Bacon's, but let's use a history book as our example.

Let's really use it.  Let's narrate it, yes, but as we go on we may find there are other equally valid ways to use school books. Maybe we don't have to have older students constantly narrating in the usual sense, if they're also learning to question and analyze what they see and read.

Let's "analyse a chapter." Not just observe and tell back, but, since we have bigger students now, they're allowed to look at the underpinnings, how things are put together, how writers work and how thinkers think. Mortimer J. Adler spends quite a bit of time on analysis in How to Read a Book.  Can the students pick out and line up the points of an argument?  Can they take a chapter and make up subheadings for the different sections?  Can they discuss how a character's character drove the plot (or the historical events)?  Can they see how one event caused another?  On getting to the point in Ivanhoe where the castle lies in ruins and several people are dead, does it occur to the students that the whole mess was caused by De Bracy's mischievous kidnapping plot, and more than that, by his lack of Will?  And who is the real villain of the story?--Brian de Bois Guilbert, because of his own defects of character; or the master of the Templars, who uses even Brian to further his own agenda?  But these questions are not necessarily to be asked by the teacher and responded to (in a double-spaced paragraph with a topic sentence and conclusion) by the student.  The student should be learning to ask the questions for him/herself.
"Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself."
And oh yes, a P.S. from Charlotte:  what do the teachers do?

"The teacher's part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils' mental activity."  We are responsible for making sure that the students have lots of opportunity to engage (that favourite new word of educationalists) with the material--that they have to think.

And then when the bell rings, or our homeschool equivalent?  Do the students then run off into the sunshine and throw off what belongs to school time and the teacher?  If that's what happens, something has gone wrong.  The lessons are to inspire life and conduct, or, as Charlotte Mason says elsewhere, they are to instruct our consciences, to teach us how to live. She also points out (in Ourselves) that consciences are kittle cattle--capricious, unpredictable, and able to sniff out a lecture and stuff up their ears (so to speak) in rebellion. It is not a case even of "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"--that's twaddle. We are not looking for medicine at all, or even energy drinks, but solid food.  And we need to beware of sacrificing the "soul of books" to the demands of Analysis.
"Let us not in such wise impoverish our lives and the lives of our children; for, to quote the golden words of Milton: 'Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was, whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. As good almost kill a man, as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a good reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself––kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.'" ~~ Charlotte Mason, School Education

Using School Books, Part Three

Part One is here. Part Two is here.

Charlotte Mason never wanted to give too-pat answers about anything.  By her ambivalence here about listing particular books, she unintentionally fostered a long-standing gulf between those who say that "Charlotte Mason refused to list particular books for children so there is no such thing as a Charlotte Mason curriculum," and those who point to the fact that she did indeed spearhead a complete curriculum, with a long list of books, some of which is included in this same volume under the heading of work suitable for a twelve-year-old.

But in general, in the sense that she is meaning here, she leaves the choice of school books open to the (assumed) educated and intelligent adult who should be able to make those choices. Even in those days, though, one imagines the quick reaction--"Make it easier for us! Give us some examples!"  She insists that "we cannot make any hard and fast rule––a big book or a little book, a book at first-hand or at second-hand; either may be right provided we have it in us to discern a living book, quick [meaning full of life, not speedy], and informed with the ideas proper to the subject of which it treats."

She wants us to look for books that, like the Bible stories read to De Quincey, have the power of "giving impulse and stirring emotion." What seems to matter is whether a book has the power to awaken ideas, stir up children's curiosity, help them to look outside themselves and see the world in new ways. "The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea."  
So our pile of good books is something like a mine full of many kinds of treasures, although we can't always be sure which ones are going to be wanted or picked up at any time.  And the work of mining them is what each student has to do for him or herself.  Here is where Charlotte does get specific, because it is clear that this "labour of thought" is a complex task. She wants the books to be used in such a way that the students can "dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book." "He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher."  The "single, careful reading," here described as "which the pupil should do in silence," although we know that some books were also read aloud, is key, as is requiring the child "to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading."

If you can read attentively, you should be able to give the main points of a description.  You should be able to tell a series of events in the right sequence.  You should be able to explain how someone argued a point.  You are a reporter!  You are a lawyer!  You are a historian!  You are a Scout studying first aid, and what you are reading and remembering about snake bites or burns will save someone's life.  You are a business person and if you miss something in a report--or fail to report it yourself--you could lose a lot of money or get fired.  You are, potentially, the mayor or the governor or the president, and if you can't make sense of the reports on a situation, and communicate those points to your people, you are going to put everyone in danger or, again, cost them lots of money and trouble. Or you just might not get re-elected.

To engage with the book (or, as Adler puts it, to play ball with the author, learning to catch what he throws); to pay close enough attention to verbally map out a, b, and c for someone else, and to do it "intelligently," is a power which even adult scholars "labour to acquire."  This is true literacy; this, Charlotte Mason says, separates readers from non-readers.

Part Four will finish the chapter.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

What's for supper? And how to make a spaghetti squash cake

Yesterday's ranch-spiced chicken, chopped smaller, wrapped in tortillas and heated in chicken broth mixed with a bit of tomato paste
Choice of frozen spinach or frozen beans and carrots
Short-grain brown rice

Spaghetti squash cake!

(How do you make spaghetti squash cake?  Basic sour-milk muffin batter; run some cooked spaghetti squash through the blender along with all the rest of the wet ingredients; blend in a bowl with dry ingredients, including half a cup of rolled oats; sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar before baking.  Spaghetti squash is so mild and almost flavourless that you do need to add a bit of cinnamon or other spice; the cake won't be the colour of pumpkin or butternut squash, but more like an applesauce cake.)

Using School Books, Part One

This month's Charlotte Mason blog carnivals are based on her Volume 3, Chapter 16, How to Use School Books.  The first one was posted yesterday at I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills, but there will be another on the same chapter in two weeks.  So I'm going to work through that topic too, over the next few posts.

Point One:  Charlotte says that first we should have "cleared our minds as to the end we have in view." 

In some cases, discussion could stop right there while we work that one out.  Do we know where we're going?  What's it all about?  But she assumes that, having read and given thought to the previous fifteen chapters, we're good to go.

Point Two: "We ask ourselves––'Is there any fruitful idea underlying this or that study that the children are engaged in?'" The key word here is "idea."  "Some great thought of life."  We are looking for subjects and studies that encourage the development of intellectual habit and "muscle," but (she says about three times here), it's not about "faculties," it's about "persons" and relationships.  Making connections.  Discovering "other minds."

Mr. Fixit and I were watching Foyle's War the other night, and there was a scene in which a character named Willis is being interviewed for a position with the secret service.  The department head turns Willis down because he didn't go to the right schools, but Foyle remarks, "I understand we're looking for people who are astute, with an ability to see the other person's point of view."  (Later in the episode, Willis has the opportunity to prove Foyle right.)   

That's the definition of "education" that this chapter is taking.  You cannot make wise judgments if you do not have the imagination to see that there can be more than one side to an issue.  And you cannot develop that imagination without wide experience, both real-life and through the medium of books (even if it's just Jemima Puddleduck). It is not even, always, an imagination that allows only pleasant, sympathetic, optimistic views of people and their motives.  For fictional detectives like DCS Foyle, Brother Cadfael, and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, it's imagination that allows them to try to think like the criminal and (usually) solve the case.

But, assuming that we're not applying to MI5, what kind of goals do we have for ourselves and for our children?  According to the next paragraph, we need to care about being:

responsive and wise,
humble and reverent,
recognising the duties and the joys of the full human life.

Charlotte optimistically adds, " I suppose every life is moulded upon [that] ideal."

In her upcoming book, Karen Glass points out that classical education teaches that moral or right thinking must lead to action.  It's not enough just to be imagining ideals and recognizing duties; a verb is implied there. In the Foyle episode, Willis shows exactly what he is made of by risking his own life to rescue someone else. Conversely, Charlotte Mason mentions (years later, after the war) that she is disappointed in the way that "education" seems to fail so many:
"If we ask in perplexity, why do so many men and women seem incapable of generous impulse, of reasoned patriotism, of seeing beyond the circle of their own interests, is not the answer, that men are enabled for such things by education? These are the marks of educated persons; and when millions of men who should be the backbone of the country seem to be dead to public claims, we have to ask,––Why then are not these persons educated, and what have we given them in lieu of education?" ~~ Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education

Using School Books, Part Two...this wasn't what we were expecting?

Part One is here.

I just finished re-watching Disney's Frozen with Dollygirl.  If you haven't heard and seen it multiple times by now, one of the supporting characters is a snowman named Olaf, who "hasn't had much experience with heat" but who sings a song about all the things he's looking forward to in summer.  At the end of the song, one of the watching humans mutters, "I'm going to tell him," and the other replies, "Don't you dare."  It is a cheerful song, but of course it has implications of the snowman's expected eventual end, and of the increasing perils of the human characters as well.

And on the next page of School Education, chapter 16, we have a quotation from writer Thomas de Quincey, something about his early memories of hearing Bible stories and thinking of hot weather and Palm Sunday.  Charlotte Mason, perhaps because she thought we would already know it or perhaps because it wasn't part of her point, has given it to us without much context. But the rest of the story is readily available in De Quincey's Autographic Sketches.  He is remembering the sudden death of his sister, when they were both children. He is told that she has died, and creeps into her room, wanting to see her once more, but the bed has been moved and all he can see is an open window: "through which the sun of midsummer, at midday, was showering down torrents of splendor. The weather was dry, the sky was cloudless, the blue depths seemed the express types of infinity; and it was not possible for eye to behold, or for heart to conceive, any symbols more pathetic of life and the glory of life."

He then explains why, then and afterwards, he made such personal connections between summer and sunshine, mortality and death, and this is the quotation about early Bible impressions that CM includes, that through the "younger nurse's" comments on the Bible stories, the impression he had gotten of Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, was that it seemed to be a place of everlasting summer, but a summer particularly connected with death (because of the death of Christ). He seemed to think of death before resurrection, saying, "There [in Jerusalem] it was, indeed, that the human had risen on wings from the grave; but, for that reason, there also it was that the divine had been swallowed up by the abyss; the lesser star could not rise before the greater should submit to eclipse. Summer, therefore, had connected itself with death, not merely as a mode of antagonism, but also as a phenomenon brought into intricate relations with death by scriptural scenery and events." (italics mine)

Now obviously De Quincey was a more than usually perceptive and sensitive child.  But what is Charlotte Mason's point in including this story, which in its briefer form implies there is some value in reading the Bible to young children, but which, put in context, gives us a possibility of an even deeper sense of life (and perhaps death) given through those early impressions, and the gift of that understanding when death became real?  Clearly this is one of those places where, "if only we were wise," we would draw back from tampering or commenting on the stories as much as we often do; and at the same time, she seems to imply that we dare not deny our children the opportunity to hear them, and to know them deeply.

Olaf the snowman enjoys his dreams of summer, but he also recognizes his own fragility (he keeps breaking apart and getting put back together), and he sees the mortality of the humans around him--he tries to keep Princess Anna from freezing, and tells her that "some people are worth melting for."  Can we learn as much from a Disney supermovie as we can from Genesis?  No, although it might be worth thinking about the fact that such stories may be the only source of discussion material that some children have.  But we have the opportunity to give our children something much, much richer and more mysterious--a sense of eternity that must be given, as for little Thomas De Quincey, with reverence, and without much explanation and comment.

     But who shall parcel out

His intellect by geometric rules,
Split like a province into round and square?
Who knows the individual hour in which
His habits were first sown even as a seed?
Who that shall point as with a wand, and say
'This portion of the river of my mind
Came from yon fountain'? (William Wordsworth, Prelude II 243–249)

To be continued in Part Three.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Our Canada Day Weekend

What have we been doing?

Well, we visited two museums in two days, one of them free for Canada Day.  The first one had both a special exhibit of Egyptian replicas (all the classic stuff), and the Cosmopolis Toronto exhibit by photographer Colin Boyd Shafer. "Shafer set out on a yearlong journey (June 2013 – June 2014) to photograph someone born in every single country of the world who now calls Toronto home. For each person participating in the project, a portrait is taken of them in a place where they feel  ‘at home’. A second photograph features them holding an item that connects them to their birthplace." The personal objects, particularly, are so carefully chosen and photographed that they do seem to tell a thousand words. 

The museum had a map of the world on one wall, with red dots you could use to add your country of origin or ancestry.  Ponytails puzzled over where to put our dot, but settled for a point between Germany and France, because we are from "'everywhere."

The other museum is more about the history of this area--natural, industrial, ethnic, everything.  Most of the Squirrels hadn't been there since before it opened properly a couple of years ago.  (We had seen some of the exhibits before the official opening.)  It was really packed--both with Canada Day visitors taking advantage of free admission, and with permanent and special exhibits.  I would like to go back when it's quieter, and have another look at some of the photographs and artifacts.

We got pizza from our favourite place down the street where they don't mind making it with half one set of toppings, half another.  The advantage of "buy local" is that when I phone in the order, the owner asks if we want our usual half and half, and when I pick it up she wants to know if we're going to the fireworks tonight.

No, not this year.  But Mr. Fixit and I are entertaining ourselves by listening to an original 1957 boxed record set he bought for a dollar, Satchmo.
(Enthusiastic review of the reissued version here.)