Like most other children, I really liked to draw when I was young.
At the age of nine, my mom enrolled me in a YMCA art class, where I learned about various artistic styles and did the requisite imitations. For example, here’s my Mondrian,
and the Kandinsky.
Later, as a teenager, I traded piano lessons for art lessons from a friend, and along with drawing and painting, I tried my hand at such varied artistic activities as Ukranian Easter eggs (several of which still hang on our tree each Christmas), wood-burning, and printing.
In fact, ten years or so later, when Tony discovered several versions of this print as we were packing my stuff before getting married, he finally relented and agreed to get married in the San Diego Temple, rather than the Salt Lake Temple (his preference) or the Oakland Temple (the most convenient).
Sometime later, I decided that I was actually not an artist. I’m not sure why; I guess it was one of those things we mistakenly leave behind with childhood, like St. Exupery’s boa eating an elephant. It’s funny, but I would get really embarrassed when at the age of two or three, Axa went through a stage where she would ask me to draw her things. I felt like a deficient parent because I couldn’t draw. She eventually stopped asking.
Then I learned about Charlotte Mason, and started implementing her ideas in our homeschool. One of her foundational precepts is nature study. This is accomplished through plenty of time outdoors, close observation of flora and fauna, and then documentation in a “nature journal.”
The epitome of wonderful nature journals is The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a beautiful nature journal kept for the year of 1906 by a young woman named Edith Holden. Exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations decorate each page, accompanied by observations of wildlife or vegetation, and poems.
When she recommended that mothers keep their own nature journal to inspire their children, I’m sure that a book like Holden’s must have been what Charlotte Mason had in mind. Unfortunately, I’m no Edith Holden. So while Axa has two nature journals (an online one and a paper one), I have yet to start one of my own.
I’ve been teaching the lessons in Drawing With Children to Axa and Raj, and generally feeling like a hypocrite for not trying out the techniques myself. I just didn’t think I could bring myself to draw anything.
I have had a little box of nice, unused watercolor pencils sitting in my roll-top desk since we moved here. Every so often I look over at it and think about going outside to draw. But then I decide that I’m far to busy, and not quite pysched up enough to do it.
Until today. Today, for some reason, I picked up my pencils and a pad and wandered outside to the front yard. I sat down in my beach chair and looked around, considering what I could draw. I figured it would be too difficult to essay a close-up of anything, even blades of grass, so I settled on the house across the street. Here’s the view:
And here’s my picture. (Yes, I noticed that the house is actually not fuchsia and orange in real life, but I wanted to use more of my colors.)
This is my deconstruction of the experience:
* After I’d been drawing for about five minutes, I started feeling insecure, and deciding again that I couldn’t draw. But I decided to tough it out, and finish the picture.
*I used several of the ideas I’d learned in Drawing With Children, like choosing a starting point and then planning the rest of the drawing around it, drawing things in front first, and turning mistakes into something else (yep, that was my favorite).
*About halfway through, I actually started enjoying the process, even though I was still afraid that I would do something irreparable and my drawing would be destroyed.
*By the time I was nearly done, I looked at my picture and felt a little thrill of excitement that the scene had somehow magically transferred itself onto my paper. I’m still no Picasso, but I think maybe I could make friends with this art thing again.
June 19, 2012 2 Comments
I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but before I came to Florida, I thought that screened-in porches were just a really ugly way to obscure the entrance to your house, and make it seem dark, spooky, and forbidden. However, when I saw the screened-in porch at our new house, I changed my mind.
It reminded me a little of those gorgeous soaring aviaries in the San Diego zoo. And yes, my first thought was that we could get a pet sugar glider and keep it out there (Florida’s rules on exotic pets are much more relaxed than California’s). Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you ask Tony), our landlord won’t let us have any pets other than Axa’s birthday betta.
I had never seen a porch like this before, but in Florida they are very common. I think it’s because of the pervasive insects, which are theoretically kept out by the screen. It’s actually not a Florida room. “Florida room” is a synonym for sun room, so they are supposed to be enclosed by glass, not screen. Still these screened-in porches are so synonymous with Florida to us out-of-towners, that we like to call it our Florida room. In any case, I see a lot more screened-in porches than real Florida rooms here. And it makes sense. I really don’t know why someone would want to attach a greenhouse to their home in a tropical climate. It’s hot enough on a breezy porch with its own ceiling fan.
The children also like to just sit out there in their little chairs, watching the birds. And yes, if I count their time on the porch as “outside time,” we’re getting Charlotte Mason’s 4-6 recommended hours. We even have lunch out there most days, which is just delightful. The porch is also right off of our homeschool room, so it’s perfect for a quick turn on a tricycle if people have too much energy to concentrate on math, for instance.
In fact, it’s fortunate that we like our porch so much, since it’s pretty much equivalent to our backyard. They don’t really do fences here, as you can see (we learned at the ecology center that fences disrupt the fragile Florida scrub habitat). So we have a strip of lawn, the obligatory small tree, and then the woods. I’ll tell you about the woods in a future post.
About a third of it the porch (the normal porch part) is under a roof, which is nice, since it rains here fairly regularly. I love sitting on the porch and watching the rain come down. The rest wraps around and projects out from the house like this:
I haven’t really considered how I might decorate the porch. I’m not very good with plants, and we have the woods right outside, so we don’t lack for green. But I think it might be nice to get some adult-sized lawn furniture, or even a table where we could eat dinner outside together.
During the day, the porch belongs to the children, and they ride bikes, trap centipedes (yes, we need to get a door sweeper. It’s amazing how many bugs get through that little crack), listen to woodpeckers, and play endless games about Narnia. But at night, I like to slip out through the other porch door, which goes straight into my bedroom. It’s just the right mix of indoors and outdoors, and a perfect place to watch the evening unfold.
March 1, 2012 3 Comments
This week I’ve been playing around in Goodreads. I have this problem with checking out books from the library, reading them, and then not being able to find them again when I want them. Goodreads keeps track of all the books I’ve read and whether I like them or not. And since lots of those books are available on Kindle now (have you checked out Amazon’s new book-lending program?) It’s kind of like my own virtual library.
Sometime when we have a house and I get all my books out of storage, I’ll reorganize my non-virtual library. But for now, my brain needs some help, and Goodreads is a great solution. So I’ve tried to remember off the top of my head all the books I’ve ever read (ha ha) and input them into Goodreads. I guess the ones I don’t remember don’t really matter. So here are some book reviews from my brain’s archives for today:
I’m often asked what are the best books to read to get started with homeschooling. There are almost as many “flavors” of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers, so my book picks will of necessity reflect the fact that the sort of homeschooling we do at our house is what falls under the category of Charlotte Mason or Classical Homeschooling.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This series of six densely-packed books contains the developed educational philosophy of my dearest homeschooling mentor, Charlotte Mason. Writing at a time when the educational system had not yet abandoned the systematic study of classical languages and history, Mason retains these and other elements of the classical education that had been standard in Britain for hundreds of years. She adds to it her own inspired understanding of how children learn, and how we can best facilitate that learning. Part of her genius is her recognition that children are born complete persons, and should be intellectually respected, provided with a full and generous curriculum, and encouraged not to simply imbibe “facts” but to develop real relations with things and ideas. These are books to read again and again.
Charlotte Mason Study Guide by Penny Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar given by Penny Gardner on the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling. I had already read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on (including Mason’s original books), but Penny’s presentation made it all concrete. After listening to her explanations and personal experiences and watching her demonstrate some of the concepts, I could actually picture myself doing narration, picture study, nature journals, etc.
This Study Guide is like a little summary of the seminar. Penny pulls together many helpful excerpts from Mason’s books, and organizes them topically to provide a clear synopsis of each academic subject and element of a Charlotte Mason education. I consider it the best quick introduction to this homeschooling method, and also a useful guide for implementing Charlotte Mason’s ideas.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Climbing Parnassus is one of the major influences on my educational philosophy. Simmons traces classical education from its roots in Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and on into its great decline during the 20th century. He contends that facility in ancient Greek and Latin have shaped minds and thought for millenia. His book is significant for arguing that it is not only the translated literature of the ancient world that is formative, but the acquisition of the languages and the experience of these works in the original. I was most fascinated by his description of Renaissance humanist education. My ultimate goal is for our homeschool to be a sort of modern-day “Casa Gioiosa.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Campbell has written a how-to guide for those who aspire to the lofty educational vision of Climbing Parnassus. I really wanted to love this book, and in fact I did love this book. It presents an excellent and ambitious curriculum plan focusing heavily on ancient Greece and Rome (one year for each in the early grades). I am just not quite sold on the “multum non multa” idea of focusing on a few key areas and going deeply into them. I don’t feel like you have to give up “wide” for “deep.” However, I’ve incorporated some aspects of this curriculum into mine, notably the serious focus on classical languages. I also subscribe to the associated email list (on which the author is active), and find it very enlightening.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is the book that originally popularized the idea of “classical education” among homeschoolers. After writing it, Ms. Bauer went on to write multitudes of other books, which many homeschoolers use with delight. Me, not so much. Sigh. Susan Wise Bauer lost one star right off for being so annoyingly pedantic. By far the best thing about this book is the resource lists, which are extensive and well-organized. I don’t buy into the whole grammar-logic-rhetoric stages of child development (Charlotte Mason had a much better understanding of how children are, in my opinion), and the suggested schedules in the back of the book would probably drive any normal homeschooling family insane. However, Bauer at least does advocate bringing back Latin and chronological history, and the idea of academic rigor for homeschoolers. “Classical education” in this case is something of a misnomer, since Bauer’s methodology and curriculum are not in line with classical education as practiced for the past two millenia. The more accurate and currently accepted nomenclature for Bauer and her ideas is “neo-classical.”
November 7, 2011 No Comments
When I was a kid, my mom would take the five of us to the library every week. Each child had a large plastic crate in his/her room for library books, which crates we took with us to the library when we went. With six library cards in the family and a limit of 20 books per card–well you can do the math for how many library books we went home with most weeks. The really hard days were the ones where the library computer system was down, and you could only check out five books on each card. It was like a mini version of “If you were stranded on a desert island . . . ”
Now that we are back in the United States, we make a Saturday morning family outing of library day. I relish going to the library with my children and seeing how much they love books. However, I am often dismayed at the (lack of) literary quality of the books on my library’s shelves. Goosebumps, rehashed Sesame Street and Disney movies, Babysitter’s Club, Magic Treehouse, etc. You know, all those books about which parents and teachers say, “well, at least they’re reading.”
Charlotte Mason had a word for these sorts of books. She called them “twaddle.” Which are the books that actually fall under her expansive definition is a subject of endless debate, and one into which I won’t delve here. The folks over at Simply Charlotte Mason have compiled a nice little collection of helpful Mason quotes on the subject. To be short, I’d characterize twaddle as empty-headed books that talk down to children and lack any really interesting or thought-provoking content.
Unfortunately, a fair percentage of children’s picture books these days fall into that category. So one of the first questions often asked by a Charlotte Mason homeschooler (besides the definition of twaddle) is how to navigate through all the twaddle at the library and keep it from coming home with you. So here’s what I do to help keep our home twaddle-free while still not being too mean of a mom.
First, I do seek out picture books from the general picture-book section by non-twaddly authors like Arnold Lobel, Tomie dePaola, and Verna Aardema. But I spend most of my time with the children in the junior non-fiction section, which in our library also includes illustrated folk and fairy tales, mythology, poetry, and Bible stories. Most of our story books come from these genres, and they’re typically books I also enjoy reading myself.
We also like checking out books about things we’re interested in/studying. Axa has been systematically checking out every frog book in the library (she also spends a fair amount of her nature study time catching, observing and releasing frogs). Raj likes books about outer space and the planets.
My kids also love Greek and Roman mythology, so I get a lot of books about that (we have the D’Aulaire book out right now), and also books about archaeology, because they generally have a lot of pictures of artifacts that depict stories from the myths. Mythology is also a very common subject for art, so my children like looking at photographs of paintings and sculptures and deciding which one is Venus and which one is Persephone.
Both of my children know the definition of twaddle, and that I consider it literary junk food, O.K. to eat occasionally, but not a proper diet for a healthy mind. Still, four-year-old Raj will often pick out twaddle. I let him bring it home, but I also bring home a lot of books of my choosing, and he generally reads the twaddle once and then moves on to the other books (sometimes because I’ve hidden it. We check out so many books he doesn’t miss the odd twaddly book I’ve put away).
I also check out “math literature” (picture books on mathematical topics) to supplement our math curriculum. These go into our homeschool reading schedule once a week, as do composer and artist biographies, selected of the frog books, and books in our target foreign language (Italian).
Audiobooks are a huge hit as well. But I reserve absolute veto power over those. Axa was thrilled to find the Chronicles of Narnia this week on audiobook. We’ve already read them all as family read alouds, and she’s now listening to them again as bedtime stories.
I have not even mentioned to my children that it is possible to check out DVD’s from the library. The only screen time they get at our house (other than the occasional family movie night) is 10 minutes per day of Planet Earth. It is a wonderful BBC documentary series about wildlife and ecological systems around the globe. I get incredibly detailed narrations from them about this series, and they make many connections to it during nature study.
No doubt my library twaddle strategy will change as my children grow older, but I hope I’ve at least given them a taste for the “good stuff.”
November 3, 2011 No Comments
Sometimes I get so upset about all the problems in the world that I just want to write an endless stream of depressing rants. It’s nice to focus on the positive sometimes too, though. And homeschooling is usually positive for us. Learning happens in the least expected places, and my children are always surprising me. They seem to breathe in knowledge like air. I guess I should have expected it, but children begin as such an extension of oneself that it is a startling delight to see that they’ve developed their own unique ways of looking at the world.
I think four-year-old Dominique expressed it best a few weeks ago when he informed Tony, “I know a lot of things; and not all of them are from you.”
How true. And how wonderful.
It’s wonderful for a lot of reasons, not least of which the (little known) fact that I am not an expert on everything. Take math, for instance. I was pretty much the stereotypical lit geek as a teenager. I read voraciously. I wrote poetry and stories, organized my siblings into a literary club called “The Live Poets’ Society,” and edited my own county-wide homeschoolers’ newsletter. I also did math every day, but I wouldn’t really have classified it as my passion. Maybe my Saxon math book killed my soul. Maybe nobody ever informed me that math is poetry too, or that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”
Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t say I had severe math anxiety. It was more like math apathy. I was perfectly happy to take foreign language and logic classes in college to satisfy the advanced mathematics requirement.
Fast forward a dozen years or so, and I’m a homeschooling mom who wants her children to love math. I want them to love everything, in fact. Is that too much to ask? Charlotte Mason would say no. “Education,” in her words, “is the science of relations.” From her point of view, teaching is not about stuffing knowledge into children’s heads. It is about helping them to develop relationships with different aspects of their world. And those relationships imply emotional attachment.
Unfortunately, I’m not one of those cool moms, who does cute, artsy math lapbooks:
or makes homemade pi-shaped chocolates:
Maybe someday I’ll grow up to be one of those moms.
In the meantime, though, I’ve read exhaustively about different math programs: Math Mammoth, Miquon, Making Math Meaningful, Math-U-See, Ray’s, Life of Fred, the list goes on and on. Some people love Singapore Math, which supposedly takes advantage of the methods Singapore uses to rank so highly when it comes to worldwide math achievement (besides exacting parents, drills at home, and a culture in which math is highly valued). There’s also the various literature that recommends not starting formal math until the age of eight, or even ten. MEP, an experimental British math program based on a Hungarian model, is widely lauded in homeschooling circles as helping children to really understand math. And then there’s Living Math, which advocates teaching your children math by reading them picture books like Anno’s Magic Seeds and How Much is a Million.
Let’s face it, I’m a bit paralyzed by the choices. Fortunately, my children are obsessed with fairness, so we get quite a bit of practice with informal division (five cookies divided by four people, etc. Yes, they are happy to work it out to the bitter end, rather than just settling for one person getting the last cookie). But I’m ready to move on from that, O.K.?
The other day somebody mentioned Khan Academy to me. That’s not strange. About seven or eight people have mentioned it to me in the past couple of months. But this time I decided I’d pop over to the website and check it out. And Khan Academy turns out to be pretty amazing. It is the brainchild of Sal Khan, a math guy who is actually good at teaching math to other people. His website has over 2000 videos (all in Charlotte Mason-friendly 10-20 minute lengths) explaining concepts from algebra to chemistry to economics. He and a dedicated team work full-time making learning accessible to people all over the world.
And unlike many online e-learning sites, Khan Academy is completely free. Why? Well, in the words of its founder, “When I’m 80, I want to feel that I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world. Sounds a lot better than starting a business that educates some subset of the developed world that can pay $19.95/month and eventually selling it to some text book company or something. I already have a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, two hondas and a decent house. What else does a man need?”
Yep, Sal is on my personal list of the most awesome people in the world. He is great at explaining things, and helping people feel comfortable even with difficult concepts. His videos are not really aimed at the primary school set, but I decided I might as well give the Arithmetic videos a try with six-year-old Axa. I was a little skeptical. I HATE educational programs aimed at kids that try to make everything so “exciting” and “cool,” and use dumbed down vocabulary and silly songs, and I was hoping Khan Academy wouldn’t be like that.
It wasn’t. We watched the first lesson, and she was fascinated with the concept of the number line. In fact, she hung on Sal’s every word. Even though I already knew the stuff he was talking about, his low-key conversational manner and obvious interest in the subject made it interesting for me to watch too. In fact, I’m planning to spend some time this week with his videos on Current Economics and the Credit Crisis. And then maybe Geometry, which I never found that fascinating, but actually really must be. After all,
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.”
Maybe Sal Khan can give me that elusive passion for math.
August 5, 2011 5 Comments
I like to read treatises and how-to books on education. But I also enjoy distilling educational theory out of books that have nothing to do with education. It fascinates me, for instance, to hear the Mock Turtle’s summation of the subjects offered at his school: Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, Mystery (ancient and modern) with Seaography, Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils, Laughing and Grief, as well as Dancing the Lobster Quadrille. That’s Lewis Carroll’s whimsical but accurate summation of the typical education of his day (for boys. You’ll notice that in the same chapter Alice carefully mentions her French, but earlier as she tries to think how to address a mouse in The Pool of Tears, she can remember the vocative only from her brother’s Latin Grammar).
It’s a curriculum that modern classical educators in the U.S. are trying to revive. Here in Italy, whatever other complaints there may be about the school system (and no, I’m not sending my kids to Italian schools any more than I’m sending them to American schools), my husband’s coworkers all at least took Latin or Greek in high school. In fact, Italy has always been at the forefront of Classical Education. You’ll notice in The Taming of the Shrew (set in Padua) that Baptista, to distract his daughter Bianca from her suitors, engages the services of two tutors (who turn out to be the suitors in disguise); one for music and mathematics (preserving the traditional Ancient Greek identification of the two) and the other for Latin and Greek. In Climbing Parnassus, my new favorite book on education, Tracy Lee Simmons paints a similar picture of the rich education available to both boys and girls (of means) in 15th Century Italy. It was this same education, transported to Britain shortly after, that prevailed there virtually unchanged (and was later exported to America) for three hundred years, until the end of the Long Nineteenth Century.
The English, though, were a bit behind the Italians when it came to equality of education. To read what young women were expected to learn in England at the time, we can turn to Jane Austen. A few months ago, I happened to pick up a lovely complete edition of her novels at a thrift store in Ireland for three euros, and I must say it made a welcome change from Thomas Hardy, who seems to be the favorite author in Ireland. Austen’s books are all peppered with references to female education. In fact, Pride and Prejudice could be profitably read as a treatise on the proper education and upbringing of young ladies.
Aside from the lessons on the importance of moral education implicit in the story of the Bennets’ disastrous parenting style, we have the famous conversation in which the “accomplished woman” is defined. In fact, we have three successive definitions, offered respectively by Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and finally Darcy. By the time Darcy offers his, the bar has been set so high for accomplished women that Elizabeth is “surprised at [his] knowing any.”
Let’s take a look at these different ideas of women’s education. Mr. Bingley (always easily pleased) is content with the merely decorative woman who can quietly “paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses.” Miss Bingley in turn eagerly lists her own carefully acquired accomplishments of “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages [i.e. French, German and Italian],” as well as the all-important “certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” For her, and the society of the day, the point of all these pursuits (which Austen continually ridicules as likely to be given up as soon as a woman marries) is to catch a husband. Not until Darcy speaks do we hear something a trifle more academic: “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
The genius of my favorite 19th century educator, Charlotte Mason, is that at her school she effectively took this list of accomplishments for women and combined it with the traditional classical curriculum that created the educated men of the day. But she also added something more–the conscious cultivation of proper moral habits whose lack is so evident in the Bennet household. The result was a happy synthesis (offered equally to both boys and girls) that developed a cultured, well-informed, well-rounded person of high moral character.
Charlotte’s junior-high-aged students studied the following: Old Testament, New Testament, Plutarch, Arithmetic, Geometry, Dictation, Recitation, Geography, Botany, Physiology, Natural History, German, French, Italian, Latin, Writing, English Grammar, English History, French History, Literature, Singing (in multiple languages), and Physical Education. I am not joking. This is taken verbatim off of a weekly schedule from a class in her school. Their education would also have included drawing and painting, handicrafts, and studies of composers and artists. Greek would have been added in high school, along with Geology, Astronomy, and European history. (And don’t worry, they were only in school for four hours per day.)
My goals and methods are in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s, and the curriculum I am using is basically the same as hers. I want both my daughter and my son to be educated AND accomplished. I want them to to be fluent in other languages so that they can learn from and communicate with not only the Classical authors but also with people they meet all over the world. I want them to grow up equipped not only with the mathematics and science and technology skills to be competitive in our global economy, but also with the ability to appreciate (and create) music, art and literature that will enrich their own and others’ lives. And I want them to understand that it is not how much they know, but how well they apply their knowledge to make the world a better place that matters. Is this too high to aim? I think not. Of course there will be ups and downs, good days and bad, but it is an ideal that has been attained before in previous centuries, and I firmly believe can be attained again. In the words of Charlotte Mason, “Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.”
October 21, 2010 No Comments
We were at Lough (Lake) Ennell yesterday, and it was beautiful. It barely rained on us at all. And, I discovered the macro button on our camera (actually, Tony showed it to me). What joy and delight! I snuck up on every bug in sight, not to mention dozens of very obliging flowers. Maybe I really could do a nature journal. I’ve been stuck on that point for some time, as my repertoire of feminine accomplishments does not include brush drawing. I was just about to capture a slug when the camera battery finally died. From above, the slug looked as sedentary and blobby as slugs are wont to look. But from below! He was ravenously devouring a leaf. His prodigious lips engulfed it alarmingly. Raj and I had been watching him for five minutes when Axa came over to investigate. I pointed out his sharp tooth, of which I had caught several glimpses. In fact, we could even hear the little snip as he cut off each piece of leaf. Axa said, “I read in a book that slugs cut leaves with their sharp tongue.” She’s right, of course. She knows all sorts of things like that. I looked it up when I got home. The tongue of a slug is called a radula, and it’s covered in tiny teeth.
August 5, 2010 No Comments