August 31, 2005

For Beslan, School No. 1

No. 645
by Emily Dickinson

Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen --
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs -- between --

For Strangers -- Strangers do not mourn --
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first -- 'tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves --

Who, vital only to Our Thoughts --
Such Presence bear away
In dying -- 'tis as if Our Souls
Absconded -- suddenly --

August 29, 2005

Their Island Story

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
Rudyard Kipling

One of my favorite places to procrastinate, er, get ideas for our classical homeschooling is the Tanglewood Education website. One of the books I've been toying with adding to our collection is An Island Story by H.E. (Henrietta Elizabeth) Marshall, which Tanglewood uses as a main history text in part because it was used by Charlotte Mason in her own schools; the original British title is, of course, Our Island Story: A Child's History of England, from Tennyson's stirring and most English Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, "Not once or twice in our rough island-story/ The path of duty was the way to glory." I would use it as a supplement, since it's scope isn't broad enough for us, mainly because we're not English. Well, partly but not entirely :). I could just start printing the book from The Baldwin Project online, but there's something about a real, bound book, not to mention the fact that for what it could cost me in printer ink, I could have that nice bound copy.

I was surprised to read in the Economist the other day that Island Story has been out of print in England for over 50 years. But thanks to the think-tank Civitas, it's being reissued just in time for its centennial, with a publication date of September 22nd; the organization also has plans to give a free copy of the book to every primary school in the country, and is soliciting donations for the endeavor. In his fundraising appeal, Civitas deputy director Robert Whelan writes,
History teaching [in England] is in an equally bad way, but it has not received the same sort of attention. This is unfortunate, as the teaching of history is a vital part of the process of transmitting from one generation to the next knowledge of the events and the institutions which have enabled us to live in a free and prosperous society. In short, the health of our culture depends on each generation knowing where we have come from and how. [This, of course, was a very common theme after the July 7th London bombings, on the lips of Tony Blair and others.]

History is now not even taught in a chronological way. Instead of showing how one event influences others, and how the great men and women of each century have helped to make us to the sort of people we are, children are presented with all sorts of 'modules' about topics such as the state of the peasants, the role of women, slavery and the Empire, as if these things can be comprehended without knowing the order in which events occurred. Jumping from one century and one civilisation to another, children end up scarcely knowing if the Battle of Britain or the Battle of Hastings came first. ...

We at Civitas want to do something to improve this lamentable situation, and way to proceed is to identify really good material produced in the past but now out-of-print. In the course of our reading and discussions, one title kept coming up: Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall, a classic children's history book first published in 1905 and now long out-of-print. ...

We acquired several copies of different editions of Our Island Story and started reading through it. It was easy to see why the book is remembered with such affection! It is beautifully written, and tells the history of Britain from the Romans to the death of Queen Victoria. Everything is arranged in chronological order, with every chapter bearing the name of the monarch of the period covered. Wars and revolutions, plagues and inventions, great men and women, all parade through these pages, giving the young reader a brilliant picture, simple but accurate, of the way in which our ancestors made us the people we are today.
Leading British historian Lady Antonia Fraser, writing back in June in The Daily Telegraph, whose readers in particular have been particular generous in the fundraising effort, acknowledged her debt to Marshall: "It's not just the warmth of childhood memory that this book evokes. It was a direct inspiration for me in my career as a historian. It was from having read these stories that I came to realise that, as a study, history has all the best tunes." She also gave a nod to modern sensibilities,
While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today's climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children's eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation.

In the past couple of days, there has been a row about the Royal Navy's concern about perceived "triumphalism" over the Trafalgar bicentenary. Anyone approaching Our Island Story might also expect a blast of "triumphalism". But actually, it isn't there. Marshall is quite a pacifist, with a small "p". And her approach to history is very personal. ...

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of "chronological" history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote "empathy" yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology - it drives me mad when people can't place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say "I will tell you stories", an idea with which I profoundly agree.
Fraser (erm, Lady Antonia) goes on to say, "That said, in teaching terms, one should never go back entirely," but you can read the rest yourself. Nice to have my "ripping yarns" theory confirmed by the experts.

P.S. Canadians, you can buy your copy here next month. Though it's not cheap (cheaper than a plane ticket to London, though, but not as much fun). Chapters doesn't seem to have it listed yet.
P.P.S. Civitas, could we please have Our Empire Story next?
P.P.P.S. Yoohoo, Canadians, the ball's in your court now. Americans, you too. Joy Hakim's History of US is nice, but too long and too politically correct for a proper ripping yarn.
P.P.P.P.S. Carlotta, please tell me that Civitas is a reasonable organization lol. They seem reasonable from the website, and the book is certainly a worthwhile effort.

August 26, 2005

Give me the splendid silent sun

We've had about four inches of rain in the last two days, bad enough that there were "heavy rainfall warnings" on the radio and television. But it seems to be over. I hope. For now, at least. But there's been quite a bit of damage (nowhere near on the scale of central Europe though), and we heard that most of the houses in the west end of town experienced some flooding. The phone, of course, is ringing off the hook to get Tom to look at flooded basements or leaking roofs or at least provide an estimate for the insurance company.

If it just doesn't freeze during the nights, we'll have a nice end of summer. Please? The garden is just beautiful now, with zinnias and several different kinds of poppies in bloom. The poppies are mostly pinks and reds (though not the ladybird kind with black centers), with some orange California poppies thrown in the mix.

Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun
by Walt Whitman

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape;
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals, teaching content;
Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars;
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers, where I can walk undisturb’d...

August 25, 2005

Very loud, very slow, very simple -- and very busy

More coincidences in my life out here on the prairie. First I read about Edward Tufte in the "Low-Tech Chic" (yup, that would me) article in Maclean's magazine. Tufte and other "modern Luddites" (yup, me again lol)
make a clear distinction between rejecting technology a priori and test-driving innovations with a critical eye. In his infamous screed [now, now] The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, [Tufte] explains how there's nothing particularly innovative about software that "routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content. PP presentations too often resemble the school play: very loud, very slow, and very simple."
A few days later I read, over at Daryl's blog, about first graders learning to use PowerPoint ("PPT is evil", August 22). And then Tuesday I found this little gem, about a recent project with first graders and fourth graders at the local public school, in our weekly rag (bold elements are mine, all mine):
Mrs. W., who teaches grade four, and Mrs. T., who teaches grade one, teamed up [last year] on a Special Interest Group Technology (SIGTel) project within the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Along with their students, they created an online project entitled Kid Dictionary: Enhancing Student Learning Via Global Communication. ...

"What started it is I have keypals over in Sweden, and when we first started this project, we'd been writing back and forth. My students sent 10 English words over the Sweden and they sent us back 10 Swedish translations," said Mrs. W. With those translations, students created the online Kid Dictionary Alphabet Pages, illustrated with clip art, and also used the translations to create a word wall. Four students took the project a step further and translated the words into a third language, including Afrikaan [sic], Chinese and Ukrainian. The Swedish words were proofread by Mrs. W.'s keypal in Sweden....

Mrs. T.'s grade ones were able to get involved with the project as well. "The grade one involvement was an extension of the grade four projects. In January, they (the grade fours) brought down whatever word they had up that month on the word wall and brought down a picture of it and taught the meaning of the word to one of my students. When the kids understood the word, we went together and they took my [grade one] students on the computers and peer taught them how to use Microsoft Word to type a sentence that had the word in it, to show that they understood the meaning, how to add a border to page, how to send it to the printer, how to save it under their own name, and then my students took the page they had produced back to our room and illustrated it and then we had our own word wall in our classroom that we displayed those on," said Mrs. T.

"It was really neat for my kids to get to work with the grade fours. It was really neat for them to be given some peer coaching on the computers, but I think the biggest benefit was for the grade four students. To watch those kids teaching the little kids, and the excitement that went on for them and to get to be the teacher for once, that was really neat, really powerful," said Mrs. T.
Really neat? Maybe, if you're intrigued by make-work projects and have nothing else you could be learning. But for Tom and me, it's just more reassurance that the simple, low-tech way is the best, and most powerful, choice for our first grader, who's been learning to read, write, and use a dictionary* the old-fashioned way.

*Webster's Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys and Girls, 1945, with some lovely color plates; 50 cents and a bargain at twice the price from a garage sale

August 24, 2005

It's definitely not popsicle season any more around here...

We've had two inches of rain in the past two days (and the clouds look socked in for tonight) and the mercury hasn't budged above 50 degrees. And a heavy rainfall warning on the radio for tonight and tomorrow. Ah, August in Alberta. At least it's not snow lol.

But I have a pot of soup on the stove, cinnamon buns (one batch with raisins and one with pecans, because while all of the raisin-eaters around here will eat nuts, one of the nutty ones will not touch raisins...) and peanut butter cookies in the oven, and stacks of books and movies. Best of all, Tom got rained out of his current job in town (adding a false wall to a store for extra insulation) and so headed to our big shop building with his apprentice and both of the boys to build a new box for the big green dump truck; not only did the boys get to spend all day with Dad, but essentially locked in a candy shop, and able to get lots of exercise in there, too, leaping off assorted bits and pieces and chasing each other around vehicles and cabinetry.

Laura and I spent a nice quiet day working our way through the end of SOTW2 and reading extra books about Gutenberg, the printing press, and Galileo. And we watched "The Private Life of Henry VIII" and "In Search of the Castaways" with Hayley Mills yet again. Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Charles Laughton) as Anne of Cleves is a hoot. Now if I can just keep my child from chanting "Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived" out loud in the supermarket I'll be okay...

August 22, 2005

A coincidence?

I think not.

As the Kansas Board of Education gets ready to decide whether to allow the latest incarnation of creationism, this arrived in my inbox today:
Dear Reader,

In the annals of American humor, Will Cuppy (1884-1949) deserves a chapter all his own, but, with characteristic caginess, he instead lurks among the footnotes, now and then emerging to cast a jaundiced squint at the passing parades of history and nature. In "How to Tell Your Friends From the Apes," a wise-guy's guide to our fellow creatures, Cuppy does to the animal kingdom what he did to Hannibal, Columbus, and Miles Standish in "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody," namely, cuts it down to size. With nary a hint of reverence, awe, or wonder, Cuppy considers our fossilized ancestors, their ape-like progenitors, and assorted birds and beasts; the result is hilarious. His admirer, P.G. Wodehouse, who contributes an Introduction to this volume, gets quickly to the heart of Cuppy's peculiar genius: "He is the author of the best thing said about Pekingese, viz. 'I don't see why they should look so conceited. They're not better than we are.'" What else can I say? Illustrated.

What else can I say? (Maybe, "Something to read while we wait for the Neanderthals to decide"?) Get your copy from the wise-guys at A Common Reader.

Living history

For her birthday this year, Laura decided she wanted a family adventure instead of a party. More than happy to oblige instead of planning another tea party for half a dozen little girls and their mothers and assorted uninvited siblings, we spent a warm sunny Sunday yesterday at Fort Edmonton Park, 160 acres in the middle of downtown Edmonton. It's a living history museum, similar to but not as elaborate as Colonial Williamsburg, tracing the growth and development of Edmonton from its origins as a Hudson's Bay fur trading fort in 1700, to the early pioneer settlement of 1885, to the young city of 1905, and finally the 1920s, on the verge of modernity.

Many of the buildings are originals, donated or bought and moved to the Park. Others are recreations, and all are fitted together very nicely. The fort is a recreation of the original (torn down in 1915), surrounded by real palisades and bastions, and full of real furs and skins -- bear, bison, wolf, Arctic fox, raccoon, and even a wolverine or too. The other three eras are represented by "streets," some longer than others; the 1920s era is still very much an ongoing project. For some reason the official website, mentioned above, is chintzy. This unofficial website is delightful, and you can also learn more at the official Fort Edmonton Foundation website; the Foundation does a lot of hard work coming up with the money to keep the Park going.

The big family favorites were the the ride on the
Edmonton Yukon & Pacific Railway, from the entrance to the fort, the fort itself (reconstructed as it appeared in 1846), and 1885 Street, with more than two dozen buildings including period shops (selling souvenirs), businesses, houses, and a church. At the Hutchings & Riley Harness Shop, Laura was allowed to try a girl's sidesaddle she might have used over 100 years ago

Another highlight was the invitation, from the Edwardian costumed interpreters on 1905 Street, to a gunny-sack race and croquet game on the lawn of the Anglican church. Afterwards, the kids were treated to some homemade lemonade.

The most amazing realization for Tom and me was that the Park, which is tucked away in Edmonton's river valley, is that at almost no point are you aware of the city's existence surrounding the Park -- you can't hear it and you almost can't see it (except for the glimpse of a few houses backing onto the valley near the entrance). Walking around the fort, Tom tried to remember the only time he had been to Fort Edmonton -- around 30 years ago, shortly after the fort's reconstruction in 1970.

Interesting aside, even if you don't much care for Brad Pitt -- there's talk that the new movie, "The Assassination of Jesse James," which began filming today in Calgary, will shoot some of the town scenes at Fort Edmonton Park this fall.

An experiment

If this works, this is where we went and what we did yesterday. If this doesn't work, I won't be surprised at all and it's back to the Luddite drawing board.

August 20, 2005

From Bridget Jones to Shakespeare in one fell swoop

I was getting tired of the cool, rainy weather so feeling rather hopeful about encouraging an Indian summer I picked up the "Summer Double Issue" (August 1, 2005) of Maclean's magazine yesterday at the library.

Had fun reading Robert Mason Lee's article about the newish book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith; yes, her husband's grandfather was the British PM.
Asquith's premise is that nearly all of Shakespeare's work contains a coded reference to the politics of his day. This code would have been understood by his intended audience -- what Asquith calls the "educated but ordinary" people -- but would not have been apparent to his Elizabethan censors. This was crucial, for in Shakespearean times the performance of dissident works led not to the gulag, but to the gallows.

His intention, she believes, was not merely to amuse his audience with subterfuge. Surrounded by a repressive police state and haunted by spies, Shakespeare was concerned that the true historical record of his age would be lost, censored out of existence by the Elizabethan court. "He was much more like a journalist than a scholar," she told Maclean's. According to Shadowplay, Shakespeare was also a recusant Catholic [Asquith herself is Catholic] -- he refused to attend Church of England services -- with ties to similar-minded aristocrats.

"Even if only half of Clare Asquith's argument turns out to be correct," Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy has written, "she's written the most visceral, challenging, and compelling book on Shakespeare's place in history we've had for over twenty years." And if it all turns out to be correct, she will have single-handedly turned the mighty citadel of Shakespearean scholarship on its head.

Only in the past few decades have historians revised their assumptions about the period. Far from being a happy time of peaceful transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Tudor and Elizabethan reigns were in fact the most brutal and turbulent period in English history. Shakespeare required not only the wit to encode his plays and sonnets with historical references, but the confidence that his works would survive until the day their deeper meaning could be clearly understood by posterity.

Obviously, his works have survived. And Asquith believes that now, four centuries on, she has finally discovered the key to unlocking their hidden messages. If true -- and she makes a convincing argument of her case -- then it can only heighten appreciation of the Bard's manifold gifts. "Clearly," she says, "he is the cleverest man that ever writ." ...

Prior to Asquith, Shakespeare's works have been considered devoid of topical references, dealing instead with universal themes of love, power and ambition. But it struck Asquith as ridiculous to presume that someone of Shakespeare's intelligence and curiosity would ignore the momentous events around him -- or that the audience would tolerate such disregard.

She began to look for clues in his works, alive to the Elizabethan love of wordplay, puns and double meanings (a love which lives on in England to this day, whether in the endemic crossword puzzles or double entendres of English comedy). Her excitement mounted as she read the texts with new eyes: "I was simply blown away," she says. "Once I got into the zone, I knew every day, as I would pull the thread that much farther, it would yield something new." ...

Her theories have gained the endorsement of E.A.J. Honigmann, the esteemed dean of Shakespearean scholars [whose Lost Years always reminds me of Agatha Christie's disappearing act], who at first found them too incredible to believe. He returned her manuscript with the comment, "No, sorry, I can't accept this." He later came to stay at the Manor of Mells, where Asquith pleaded her case with what she calls a "full, Technicolor, wide-screen lecture." At the end of which, Honigmann bowed his head and replied: "You have persuaded me to change my position."

While I'm a bit put off by Lee's reference to the new book as "a real-life Da Vinci Code for people who think," I find the Honigmann support reassuring. I'm thinking that Asquith's work, perhaps along with The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode, would be lovely additions to the high school curriculum, especially for those seeking to study the plays in more context. Unsurprisingly, Shadowplay isn't in the library system yet (though I find 77 entries for SpongeBob). But I found this recent essay, "The Catholic Bard: Shakespeare & the ‘Old Religion’," by Asquith (herself a Catholic), adapted from the book, at Commonweal's website, which should be enough to keep me busy for now.

I'm also excited about an upcoming reissue of a Shakespeare book I heard about from one of the members at the Latin Classical Education group at Yahoo. The book is Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph. Yes, that Sister Miriam, who also wrote The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. According to the publisher's website,
In Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language, Sister Miriam Joseph teaches writing in the manner Shakespeare was taught—with a thorough grounding in the arts of language: logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the first three of the seven liberal arts, known as the trivium). In Shakespeare's time, every grammar-school student would have recognized the two hundred figures of speech that Renaissance scholars had derived from Latin and Greek sources (from amphibolgia through onomatopoeia to zeugma). Sister Miriam Joseph organizes these figures into simple, understandable patterns and illustrates each one with examples from Shakespeare.

Sounds like a wonderful addition to the classical homeschool, whether it's Latin-centered or history-centered. Books like these make me happy that my eldest is only just eight. I have more than a few years to wallow in them myself, and reread the plays, before sharing them with the kids.

Possibly a vg thing

I've been annoyed for a few weeks now after finding out (thanks to AustenBlog) that Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones's Diary in The Independent is a subscriber-only perk at the website. Bloody cheek. (Though why is it I don't seem to have a problem with the idea of paying for plane tickets to have Colin Firth serve me free-trade coffee? Serve me anything, for that matter.)

I wanted to see for myself if the Third Coming (er, Bridget's, that is) is a good idea or not. I found both books literally laugh-out-loud funny, very embarrassing because Tom would ask what was so funny, and then I'd try to read aloud a passage only to dissolve in more choking, snorting, weeping laughter so that I looked like a even more of a dolt, leaving Tom even more confused (about the source of the humor and his choice of wife) than before.

I'm not thrilled to hear that Bridget is still dithering between Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy, but then again, I'm not surprised either. After all, she is Bridget Jones and this isn't the Great Books we're talking about. The first column contained this glimmer of hope, which I was able to find excerpted online elsewhere for free: "Really wanted a little baby to love: though not, obviously, weekend nanny to shag ex-husband." And, after the London bombings, "[I have] pride at how well am personally handling the crisis. Not entirely sure where pride comes from as have not exactly done anything except resolving to take trainers to work when wearing unsuitable shoes. But still."

Caryn James in her New York Times* article yesterday hit the genre on the head, writing,
Still vacillating between Mark and Daniel, today's Bridget has not yet escaped her own shadow. But there is something better at work here. The new column is a reminder that Ms. Fielding is above all a social satirist, whose up-to-the-minute skewerings and sly literary voice are especially suited to the quick turnaround of a serial. The three diary entries that have appeared so far have become increasingly sharp, as she has addressed cultural issues central to our time: Jude Law's nanny problem, Madonna's tumble off a horse, terrorism.

Ms. Fielding's apparently offhand observations are crucial to the literary version of Bridget. It's not terrorism that Ms. Fielding sends up, but the clich├ęd responses to it. Bridget's mother, having just come from her neighbor's brunchtime karaoke, says: "You have to carry on as normal don't you? Otherwise the bombers will have won."

The books - "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" - may be short on novelistic structure, but Ms. Fielding's literary voice makes them more satisfying than the movie versions, and infinitely superior to her many chick-lit imitators.

In the meantime, I'm sitting tight with my Chardonnay (alright, my Merlot) for BJ3 or until some public-spirited blogger decides to share more snippets.

*you have to register, but registration is free, and you get those nifty recipes on Wednesdays, and Verlyn Klinkenborg's columns among many other nice things, though not (grumble, grumble) the new crossworld puzzles. Just the old -- or Classic, as the Times prefers to market them -- ones.

August 19, 2005

Good moon rising

I wasn't planning on blogging tonight but as I was sitting at my desk sorting through photographs I caught a glimpse, through the screen door, of an orange moon rising over the trees and into the navy sky. Absolutely gorgeous.

Makes it just the teensiest bit worthwhile that it's already dark enough (sob) at 9:25 p.m. And the house is completely still -- those swimming lessons have knocked the kids out but good.

My swimming stars

The kids spend so much time in pools and in swimming lessons that for the past few years I've been training them and me not to get too wrapped up in patches (received for passing a level) or stickers (received when you don't pass) or passing or levels. It's the skills and proficiency, and enjoyment too, that matter. I'm so delighted and proud that they leap into the water and get their faces wet bravely and exuberantly, sail off ropes, and cartwheel off diving boards.

Which is why I surprised myself by how giddy I got this morning when all three kids walked out of the weekly swim class with patches and certificates to show that they had each passed their respective levels this week -- Davy, level 3; Daniel, level 4; and Laura, level 6 (there are 12 levels in total in the Canadian Red Cross's Aquaquest program, geared for kids up to 14 years old, and my three have generally been the youngest and smallest in their classes). I am definitely one proud bragging mama now.

I had thought that the boys would probably ace their levels, this being the second attempt for both. We had talked after class last week (after receiving, ahem, stickers) about what they needed to do to improve. In Davy's case, holding those back floats and front floats for a few more seconds, and in Daniel's case, keeping his head down and practicing the 15-meter endurance swim. But I really thought that Laura would need several rounds in level 6 before passing, especially with the 50-meter endurance swim and more advanced life-saving skills.

We celebrated afterwards with enormous Lifesaver popsicles sold at the pool, and then promptly drove over to Dad's worksite to share the good news. And I have to admit that as tired as I am of sitting through two weeks in a row of swimming lessons, there's a teeny part of me that's ready to sign them up for round three on Monday, because they are so eager for more pool time and because they could so easily capitalize on this new momentum. Maybe I should just ask Tom if we can make it to the pool for the public swim tomorrow afternoon. Mmm, that's a plan. And I'm definitely reconsidering swim club for next spring, although we'll have to rejigger it to make it fit our schedule; Monday through Thursday, every week in May and June, from 5 pm until 6:30 is just way too much to be fun or nice.

Lions and elephants and reparations, oh my

Ordinarily I have a great deal of respect for Cornell but one Professor Josh Donlan is giving me, out here on the Canadian prairie, second thoughts. Not to mention the heebie-jeebies. Aren't coyotes, cougars, bobcats, and black bears on my doorstep enough? Will I really have to contend with lions, cheetahs, and elephants stalking the kids and me as we garden, go for walks, and do chores? I don't think I'd mind the camels too much, as long as they leave my vegetables and our crops alone.

As Scientific American reported yesterday,
Josh Donlan of Cornell University and his colleagues propose replacing the large carnivores and herbivores that disappeared from North America 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Noting that humans likely had a part in these extinctions and that our subsequent activities have stunted the evolutionary potential of most remaining megafauna, the scientists say we have an ethical responsibility to address these problems. But rather than just managing extinction, they argue, conservation biology should aim to actively restore natural processes.

Apparently Josh hasn't been locked in the old ivory tower too long because he does realize that "Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators...There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions."

If you're intrigued or don't believe me, you can read an interview with the professor here. Michael Crichton must be laughing and rubbing his hands with glee about this "ecological history park." Just please tell me there was no government grant money involved...

In the meantime, I'm off to build me a fence. A really, really high fence. As high as an elephant's eye fence, chortle.

August 18, 2005

An honest-to-goodness literary event in our neck of the woods

A real live author -- in fact, one the kids and I have read (and within the past year and for astronomy no less) and liked -- is coming to our library this evening for a storytelling presentation about stargazing and myths. We are excited, all of us, very much so.

Joan Galat is the author of the "Dot to Dot in the Sky" series: Stories in the Stars, Stories of the Planets, and most recently, Stories of the Moon. When we started reading them last fall, I was pleasantly surprised to learn not only are the books Canadian, but that the author hails from nearby Edmonton (and like me, she's a transplant from the U.S.). Laura loved the books' focus on Greek mythology, which had transfixed her the year before in SOTW1, to explain the planets and constellations. The pictures are quite nicely done too. Stories of the Moon didn't go over as well as the other two, maybe because we were using them for science and the kids were expecting at least as much science as story (the first two books struck an admirable balance, for us at least).

Blast off time is 7 p.m. tonight.

August 17, 2005

Hey, ME too...

Found on the Postscript page in the new issue of Real Simple magazine, an excerpt from Philip Done's 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching:
The main reason I became a teacher is that I like being the first one to introduce kids to words and music and books and people and numbers and concepts and ideas that they have never heard about or thought about before.

Did I already say me too?!

August 16, 2005

Eight is great!

Happy birthday, babycakes. How you went from being a tiny little thing in my arms to the long-legged, horseback-riding, swims like a fish, history-mad child with such eclectic tastes (Tchaikovsky, the Beatles, rhubarb, ancient Greece, Ukrainian dance, Milton Meltzer, "O Brother Where Art Thou") still mystifies Daddy and me :).

This with candles, and this, are for you, sweet pea:

Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake
(adapted from Country Living magazine, May 2005; originally titled Gianna's Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake)

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 tsp. salt (the original recipe calls for 1 tsp. salt)
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
[2 tbsp. anisette liqueur -- I omit this because in this household it would defeat the purpose of a lovely chocolate cake; however, I think 1 tsp. of real almond extract in addition to the vanilla would be very nice]
1 cup boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 9" round cake pans. Set aside.

2. Bring a small saucepan with at least one cup of water to boil, and maintain boil.

3. In a large bowl of a mixmaster, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, balking powder, and baking soda and whisk together. Beat in oil, milk, eggs, and vanilla and, with the mixer set on medium speed beat for 2 minutes. Reduce mixer speed to low and add 1 cup boiling water.

4. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the middle of each cake comes out clean. Cool the cakes in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes and return to the wire rack until completely cool.

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1-1/2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1-1/2 cups heavy cream, cold
1-1/2 tsp. confectioner's sugar
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Beat the heavy cream and confectioner's sugar until soft peaks form. Gently fold in granulated sugar and cocoa until combined.

To assemble cake: place one layer on cake plate. Spread a third of frosting over the layer. Sprinkle with half of the chocolate chips. Top with the remaining layer and spread the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle with the remaining chocolate chips. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Top with candles and serve, at the end of a long day of fun with family and friends, with sliced strawberries, a heap of birthday presents and lots of love.

August 15, 2005

Swimming Lessons (and a Rumplestiltskin-like fit at the end)

The kids have just started their second week of swimming lessons yesterday at the local college pool. They'd been looking forward all year to being in the pool again, and are quite the little fish. Most families around here sign up the kids for just one week, but I tend to think that one week for the whole summer is kind of chintzy. Three weeks at the pool on the audience side of the Plexiglas, however, sends Mom around the bend. I know this because back in 2003, after we had returned from our seven-month stay in the West Indies (where my parents have a house and where we spent most of this past February, too) and after living with a pool in the backyard, I signed them all up for three weeks of swimming lessons. I must have been nuts, and if I wasn't to start with, I sure was by the end.

The kids did wonderfully well last week. They always seem to be the youngest and smallest in their respective levels, and I wasn't sure if they would pass at the end of last week; Laura was the best bet, and sure enough, she did it. Pretty proud mama, and proud girl too for meeting all of the requirements, especially the 25-meter endurance swim.

Daniel was defeated by the 15-meter endurance swim, which I tried to explain to him was a very, very long distance for such a young boy. He said he's going to work on keeping his head down and not stopping. That's my boy. Davy was barely able to keep his nose above water in his class last week, which took place in the not-quite-shallow-enough end of the pool (he was the only preschooler in the class), though he didn't get any extra points for spending most of the hour-long class treading water. Of course, he would have passed had he bothered to float on his back and his front for more than five seconds at a time. But then Davy has spent most of the past four years hurrying to catch up to his big brother and his big sister. Going slowly is not something he does naturally; but I'd just as soon have him repeat the level one more time. And a different, more "sympatisch" teacher this week has them in shallower water (bless you, Twyla). By the time he gets to Level 4 next summer, maybe he'll have added a few inches. I hope.

Only we found out on the way out that there probably won't be a Level 4 after this month. I was handed a flyer today announcing the new Red Cross Swim program starting next month. Originally, it seemed to be mostly a change in name, from "AquaQuest" to "Red Cross Swim Kids." According to the Canadian Red Cross website, "The cornerstone of the Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety programs is AquaQuest, designed for youth aged 3 to 14 years. The 12 levels of AquaQuest ensure that swimmers progress gradually as their maturity, physical strength and abilities develop. Each level provides the student with swimming (strokes) improvement and water safety knowledge, for a well-rounded water experience."

According to the flyer, "Red Cross Swim Kids for children six years and older [uh oh -- if they are strict about age rather than ability, Davy will be sidelined for at least year in the Preschool program, which seems to involve "engaging animal themes" rather than actual swimming instruction] will replace AquaQuest with a fresh approach to swimming and water safety education [I always worry about this "fresh approach" business, especially when it comes to something as basic as learning to swim. How fresh can you get, really?]."

A lightbulb went off a few sentences later. Rather than teaching mainly swimming and water safety, the new program includes a big fitness component; the Red Cross has jumped on the overweight/obese children bandwagon. Sure enough, a quick trip around the website led to a press release from last month, "Obesity Rates Rise, but Red Cross Fights Back." While I agree that exercise for kids is vital, I don't know if swimming lessons are the right place to include this extra material. Maybe in addition to swimming lessons, but not in place of them, which is what this looks like. Of course, if you teach kids to swim and make the lessons enjoyable, they'll probably want to continue swimming for fun. Or is that just too easy? This rather reminds me of how the local public schools have elbowed out basic instruction in the three R's for trendy nutrition, anti-bullying, and anti-drug whatchamacallits. Oh yeah, initiatives (you know, the things families used to teach their kids).

Bells, not lightbulbs, started going off on the second page: "Recognizing Your Child's Achievement...We acknowledge that children's physical abilities develop at different rates, and the program will focus on participant's successes rather than areas for improvement."

Go away now if you don't want another Rumplestiltskin-type fit. And don't say I didn't warn you, because "self-esteem" sets me off.

Excuse me, Red Crossers, but how are my kids supposed to improve their swimming skills if you intend to focus only on their previous successes and not on the areas that need work? "Johnny, we're not going to work on teaching you to tread water longer [possibly useful if little Johnny goes on an unsuccessful summer boating trip at the lake]. Instead, I'd like to congratulate you for a fine job of getting your face wet, and beautiful rhythmic breathing, last week." I thought I was signing them up for swimming lessons, but it sounds as if the Red Cross is more interested in bucking up their self-esteem. No-one at the Red Cross (and no one at our provincial Ministry of Education -- you can see where my peeve started, and was then encouraged to grow by reading Charles Sykes) seems to have noticed that children derive oodles of self-confidence -- which comes from within, rather than self-esteem which is imposed from without -- from making marked improvement in any area. On their own! Without gold stars or stickers at every turn! Shocking!

I've already noticed that even under the current AquaQuest system, the instructors don't seem to spend any time helping the kids improve or refine their strokes or dives once they've learned the basics.

Private lessons at the college pool may be the way to go, if I can help call the shots, and I've heard they're not that much more expensive than the group lessons. Of course, she asked sarcastically and rhetorically, at this rate, why don't I just homeschool swimming lessons? And then someone will have the nerve to ask why my kids don't socialize with others at the college's swimming lessons....

August 14, 2005

Worn-out words

I was folding laundry, changing sheets, and listening to Cross Country Checkup on the radio this afternoon. The questions for today: "There are about half a million words in the English language. Some say it's the richest vocabulary in the world. Yet we hear the same words and catch phrases over and over again. What words do you think should be taken out of use? Which should be revived?"

My nominations are
  • impacted/impact (which I can't stand unless it's in connection with wisdom teeth)
  • back in the day
  • goes/went instead of says/said
  • myself instead of me
  • the peculiar fisher instead of fisherman or angler. I always picture one of these, with fishing rod in paw
The host also asked callers for their favorite words. Off the top of my head, for how they sound and trip off the tongue, curmudgeon, lagniappe, fiddlesticks, muffin. What about you?

August 12, 2005

The hard way to summon the Tooth Fairy

Pollyanna Laura fell out of a tree this afternoon.

We had gone up to our corrals to the potato/raspberry patch to do some weeding and get potatoes for supper, and the kids had gone into the woods to play "bear". All of a sudden there was yelling, a crash, and howling. The damage isn't as bad as I first thought, based (ahem) on all the blood. There's one lost tooth (it was loose anyway), a split lip, one neck scraped on the left side (she had scraped it on the other side just last weekend at baseball camp, and it was healing nicely), one dinged ear, and one shakey and upset little girl. The injuries wouldn't have been as bad if she had fallen out of a regular tree, you know, the kind growing on its own, surrounded by grass. But this pesky poplar is in the midst of a thicket, with fallen trees all around, too. When the branch gave way, I think she must have hit at least a few branches and a fallen log on the way down. Ouch.

To the boys' credit, they came running out to get me just as I went running in after hearing the commotion. I found her under a log, covered with blood from the neck up (as the mother of two boys, I've learned that any head wound bleeds a lot, and the amount of blood doesn't always correlate with the extent of the damage) and crying.

Besides the pain and all the blood, Laura was mostly concerned about losing the tooth and not having any proof for the tooth fairy, who was just here the night before last for a tooth lost the regular way (this latest extraction makes three in a row missing on top and three in a row missing on the bottom -- quite the gap). I nearly had to drag her into the truck because she insisted on searching the underbrush for the darn tooth. I told her that tooth fairies know when a tooth is lost as opposed to, well, "lost". Just in case Mom is wrong, she wrote out a note of explanation to go under the pillow; of course, if it's really good, I'll have to photocopy it and stick it in her binder (shameless home educating mother that I am).

I sure hope we have enough money around the house, because this is going to take some chunk of change after all she went through....

August 10, 2005

More summer beach reading and avoiding eyestrain

Made a fun discovery the other day -- David M. Bader's latest, Haiku U.: From Aristotle to Zola, Great Books in 17 Syllables. Bader is very silly, very funny, and a smart aleck, to boot.

As he writes in his website, "Why spend weeks slogging through The Iliad when you can just read the haiku? From Homer to Milton to Lao Tzu, the great books are finally within reach of even the shortest attention spans. Avoid eyestrain and show off your literary prowess at cocktail parties with minimal prep time!"

I can't help thinking it would make a perfect stocking stuffer for any high school student working through The Great Books, especially if he or she is finding it a tough slog. Or tuck it into the suitcase of your favorite high school grad, off to college soon.

Here are a few tasty tidbits:

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Tea-soaked madeleine –
a childhood recalled. I had
brownies like that once.

St. Augustine, The Confessions
This is just to say
I screwed around. Forgive me.
I enjoyed it so.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
O woe! His mad wife –
in the attic! Had they but
lived together first.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Lecherous linguist –
he lays low and is laid low
after laying Lo.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
What I learned at court:
Being more feared than loved – good.
Getting poisoned – bad.

And my favorite (thanks to AustenBlog, because it's not included on the Haiku U. list of excerpts),

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Single white lass seeks
landed gent for marriage, whist.
No parsons, thank you.

Blog Slut

(Or would that be "blogslut"?) I know, I know, this is a family forum.

But I went to read a friend's new blog about family nutrition and food (with the promise of recipes in the future) -- I'm not sure it's public yet -- and discovered Blogsome. The templates, or themes as they are called there, are beautiful. And it seems to be ever so much easier and faster to use than Blogger. And did I say that the templates are beautiful? And very much different from all the usual Blogger ones that we homeschoolers seem to use. It would be really, really nice to have something different.

I'm torn. I'm thinking about jumping ship. On the one hand, Blogsome is simple and better looking (sounds like most of the actors I've enjoyed over the past 20 years). On the other hand, I got my blogging feet wet with Blogger, and Blogger has a wonderful support system for Luddites and other assorted computer idiots. The other problem is that I'm having some trouble sorting out some of the File (Blogsome speak for "Template") appearance, especially getting the Link Categories to appear. If you have any ideas or are willing to walk me through this, I'd be ever so grateful.*

But if I have a feeling that once I figure out this HTML business and template tags (I sound as if I know what I'm doing, don't I?!), it'll be bye-bye Blogger. If I go, I'll be sure to post the link, er, forwarding address, for my new home.

*Oh. Oh yeah. And a big oh at that, too-- Blogsome has ads. Bah, bleh, gah, and feh. I believe I know where to delete them from the template/file area -- the place where it says, of course, "DO NOT DELETE." I wonder if the Blogsome police boot offenders out of Blogsome land. Must work on this, either removing ads without raising Blogsome's ire or coming to terms with becoming a billboard.

August 09, 2005

Teaching, and learning, history with passion

I just had a chance to read Dave Broder's column from the end of July about author and historian David McCullough's testimony before the recent Senate hearing on "U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?", called by Senators Ted Kennedy and Lamar Alexander. I also found a blog by Betsy Newmark, a teacher at Raleigh Charter High School in North Carolina, with some of her thoughts about Broder's column.

McCullough, who knows a few things about making history engaging and readable, places the blame on poorly-written textbooks and uninterested teachers (who probably weren't taught history well when they were in school, either):
McCullough said that the problem starts with the training that teachers receive. "Too many have degrees in education," he said, "and don't really know the subject they are teaching."

"It is impossible to love a subject you don't know," he said, "and without a passion for history, the teaching of history becomes a matter of rote learning and drudgery."

Without personal knowledge of history and enthusiasm for the subject, "you're much more dependent on the textbook," and, with rare exceptions -- he mentioned the great one-volume American history text by Daniel Boorstin [his Landmark History of the American People, now available new -- surprise, surprise -- only from the homeschool curriculum company Sonlight], the late librarian of Congress -- "you read these texts and ask yourself, 'Are they assigned as punishment?' " ...

The schools, he said, are also denying them "a source of infinite pleasure," a pastime that can enrich them throughout their lives. "I think we human beings are naturally interested in history. All our stories begin, 'Once upon a time . . . .' To make history boring is a crime."

Mrs. Newmark, who sounds like an especially able and passionate teacher in the public school system (though we definitely part ways on U.S. politics) adds her own thoughts on American students' dismal knowledge of their own history, but in the end, as with McCullough, it all comes down to putting the story back into history: "Another source of the problem started 30 or 40 years ago when we stopped teaching 'history' and started teaching 'social studies.' Feh! It is as if teachers and administrators had gotten together and plotted how to suck all the joy out of learning history. Gone were the many stories from history that can excite a child's imagination and inspire that child to want to learn more about an event in history. Instead, the classes became endless exercises in coloring in maps and labeling tables of exports from various countries."

Newmark also cites the lack of time in the school schedule: "Unless you're willing to throw out some of the tedious curriculum, teachers don't have time to spend on the subjects that will excite kids....Those kids will be coming eagerly to class every day wondering what stories they're going to hear and without their even realizing it, they'll learn the rest of the history and enjoy it. History classes should be the most interesting ones in the school, but too many times those classes are the dullest."

She closes with some recommendations on find elementary school teachers who have a passion for history: "[G]et teachers who loved history so much that they majored in it college. Hire people who in their spare time read books about history for fun.... If I were interviewing for a history teacher for middle school, I'd want to know what history book the candidates most recently read and what stories they learned from that book that would be most likely to share with their classes to excite kids' interest in the subject. If I can't get a good answer for that question, bye-bye." Bye-bye indeed! That Mrs. Newmark is one tough cookie. Good for her, and good luck to her this coming school year. Her students are some of the lucky ones.

Tom and I heard some interesting thoughts on the same subject, of the importance of history as story, from professional storyteller Jim Weiss this past spring at our homeschool convention. Of course, as far our family is concerned, Weiss was preaching to the converted. Interestingly, Weiss said he gets many of his history stories from Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization series; my family's set, with their colorful covers, are still on the shelf in my old bedroom, and I can't wait to bring them here for the kids to use when they get to upper-level history. That's one reason why we chose WTM, with its emphasis on a chronological and narrative approach to history (and one of the reasons we decided to homeschool, because history -- a subject our kids adore -- is reserved by the educrats at Alberta Education Ministry for students in grades 4 and up). When we started with the first volume of The Story of the World in January 2004, Laura looked up at me and asked, "These stories are great -- are they real?" When I answered yes, she enthused, "I like the stories so much, but knowing they're true makes them even better!" After we'd read a chapter, about Alexander the Great or Cleopatra, I'd hear her retelling the tales to her brothers. And always, as a postscript and a sort of guarantee, she'd end with, "And it's all true -- it really, really happened!" It doesn't get any better than that.

August 08, 2005

Curriculum Plans for the New School Year

Hurray! Our package arrived from Academic Distribution Services on Friday. I must be doing something right if the kids are excited about their new math and phonics books.

Our schedule for this year is again mainly determined by the fact that we're following The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. I take the title at face value and use it as just that, a guide full of suggestions rather than mandatory requirements, taking what works and leaving the rest. Some of the Wise and Bauer book and curriculum recommendations don't suit us or are out of print, and I've found a wealth of information -- substitute and additional books and curriculum, as well as the practicalities of implementing WTM -- at the WTM Discussion, WTM Secular, and SecularWTMHomeschoolers Yahoo groups; I've found home schooling parents to be, on the whole, an incredibly generous and thoughtful bunch when it comes to passing along tips, advice, and book and curriculum suggestions. I also like the article index at the WTM website for other ideas and a rather more realistic view, on some subjects, than what's found in the book. If it sounds as if I know what I'm doing, it's an accidental coincidence or a coincidental accident. This year will my first to homeschool more than one kid, and since the boys tend to function as a unit, I'll likely be jumping from one student to three.

When we start the next round in September (we are still schooling informally at the moment, but this doesn't seem to count), this is what we'll be using:

Third Grade/Laura (age 8):

Arithmetic: Singapore Math 2B, and some supplementing with Math-U-See

: Either Rod & Staff 3/Beginning Wisely, or a friend's almost-hatched secular program, which I am eagerly awaiting without trying to look too pushy ("Is it done yet? Is it done yet? Huh? Huh? Huh?"). Stay tuned to WTMS and the WTM boards, where I'm sure the announcement will be made with great fanfare. And a new find, Writing Trails in American History, which Laura is eagerly anticipating and which should dovetail nicely with our U.S. history studies (see below).

Spelling: our beloved Sequential Spelling (SS), which has given my perfectionist daughter the freedom to write, often and happily, with a dictionary by her side. What more can you ask? We tried Spelling Workout, but while Laura liked it, she didn't seem to retain anything. SS is indeed sequential and orderly, which makes the spelling patterns much, much easier to notice and recall.

Penmanship: finishing up Beginning Connected Cursive, and then moving on to Handwriting Skills Simplified, Level D/Improving Cursive Writing.

Literature/Poetry: Mostly co-ordinated with our history studies including works (variously from the original or decent abridgements) by Defoe, Swift, Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen, Dickens, Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper (I'll give it the old college try...), Jules Verne, Herman Melville; more fairy tales, especially French (Charles Perrault) and German (Brothers Grimm); and poetry, some to memorize, by Blake, Tennyson (Evangeline), Longfellow (The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere), Wordsworth, the Brownings, and so on.

Foreign Languages: Continuing with Minimus for Latin, and beginning Rosetta Stone for French; Laura's goal is to be able to understand the movie Peau d'Ane or to make her way around Paris, whichever comes first, without any of my help. There's nothing like a motivated student.

History & Geography: I'm beefing up the North American history this year for my little dual citizens (I wrote up the Canadian part in greater detail the other week, scroll down; American part still to come), so in addition to Story of the World 3: The Early Modern Times (1600-1850), we're also using Beautiful Feet's Early American History: A Literature Approach, primary level, substituting Joy Hakim's History of US as our spine; and Courage & Conquest: Discovering Canadian History and Canada's Natives Long Ago, both by Donna Ward, along with a very healthy literature selections from our own shelves and the library, which I'll have to detail in a separate post one of these days. Of course, there's no way we can possibly do all of this in one school year. Even SOTW on its own is hard to complete in 42 weeks, especially with kids who insist on delving further into Greek mythology, or how castles were built and destroyed. Also, I've found it easiest to study music and art history and appreciation chronologically by folding them into history. One of the nicest things I've come across for music is McGraw-Hill's Classical Music Stories by Cynthia G. Adams, which gives the kids some activities to do while listening to our extensive LP collection.

Science: Chemistry, with a concentration in kitchen chemistry, thanks to recommendations by Concierge. I'm excited, and a bit relieved, to have learned about Concierge's approach, since I'm the kind of person who a) managed to avoid chemistry in both high school and college, and b) already has such books as Kitchen Science by Howard Hillman on my cookbook shelf. And just the other day I stumbled across Loaves of Fun: A History of Bread with Activities and Recipes from Around the World which is now in my Chapters shopping cart. Living Learning Books, Level 3/Chemistry will be the main curriculum, supported by the aforementioned, along with Adventures with Atoms and Molecules, More Science Experiments You Can Eat, and Janice VanCleave's Chemistry for Every Kid (all of which I've stumbled across secondhand in the last year or so) and The Mystery of the Periodic Table, because I have a weakness for Jeanne Bendick, who drew the illustrations, and for the reprints and newer works (like Mystery) of Bethlehem Books' Living History Library series.

Independent Reading & Readalouds: I'll have to post a separate entry one day soon for literature, reading, and readalouds.

First Grade/Daniel (age 6):

Arithmetic: Singapore 1A, supplemented with Math-U-See as necessary
Phonics: Continue with The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading; Explode the Code, Book A for starters
Grammar: First Language Lessons (FLL), short and sweet, which worked very well for big sister. FLL poems for memorization, with liberal substitutions by Mommy based on Daniel's interests, the holidays, the seasons, and what we're learning in other subjects ("The wind bit hard at Valley Forge one Christmas./Soldiers tied rags on their feet./Red footprints wrote on the snow...").
Penmanship: Handwriting without Tears (HWT). Not because I'm expecting any tears, but because it's supposed to be good for lefties, which Davy is, and I can't see using two different programs for two otherwise similar kids. And being frugal, I decided to forego the entire program for one instructional manual, a couple of workbooks, and some of the HWT paper. We'll see how it goes.
Literature/Poetry, Reading/Readalouds, Foreign Languages, History & Geography, Science: same as above, with an extra emphasis on really big explosions in chemistry class

Kindergarten/Davey (age 4.5 and highly motivated to catch up to big brother):

Arithmetic: Singapore Earlybird 2A and 2B
Phonics: Ordinary Parent's Guide; Get Ready, Get Set, and Go for the Code workbooks (from the Explode the Code series)
Penmanship: HWT
Literature/Poetry, Reading/Readalouds, Foreign Languages, History & Geography, Science: same as Laura; really, really big explosions...

There. I feel much better having this all written down, and more or less engraved in stone, or as engraved in stone as a blog can get. That said, I reserve the right to make any changes I deem necessary for our collective sanity and happiness. Being willing to make changes, whether it's ditching whatever isn't working or throwing the entire lesson plan out the window when an unexpected trip comes up, is one of the reasons I think we've been fairly successful so far.

August 04, 2005

Why do we homeschool?

I found this by homeschooling dad Christopher Smith at Daryl's Home Education & Other Stuff blog today. Very funny and very true. I especially like number-- heck, I like them all. Even the Stars Wars one (number 22), and I don't particularly like Star Wars.

Christopher has a blog, too. May have to fiddle with my schedule, which includes large dancing Lipizzan stallions later today, to make room for daddy.


I've been doing some tidying, around the house and around the blog. Some new links to the right, especially under "What We're Reading, Watching & Listening To" and "Blogs to Enjoy". And with any luck fewer typos than last time...

Rejiggering SOTW1

Because I can't leave well enough alone, when we started homeschooling and following The Well-Trained Mind, I had to re-order the chapters of The Story of the World, Volume 1: Ancient Times (SOTW1). Truthfully, it was much easier on the kids, especially Laura -- number one student at the time -- to leave the more strict chronology behind in favor of a less chronological, more regional approach. It's definitely not rocket science; I just went through the Contents section and grouped the civilizations in rough chronology.

Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary. You might want to switch Egypt with
Sumer/Assyria etc., but my kids were very eager to study Egypt. By the way, the Weeks are a rough approximation, too; we spent more than one week on some chapters (Greek gods took about a month here and are still a favorite subject), and other weeks read several chapters in the seven days.

Week 1: Introduction (How Do We Know What Happened?/What Is History?)
Week 2: Chapter 1 (Earliest People)
Week 3: Chapter 2 (Egyptians Lived on the Nile)
Week 4: Chapter 3 (The First Writing)
Week 5: Chapter 4 (The Old Kingdom of Egypt)
Week 6: Chapter 12 (The Middle Kingdom of Egypt)
Week 7: Chapter 13 (The New Kingdom of Egypt)
Week 8: Chapter 6 (The Jewish People)
Week 9: Chapter 14 (The Israelites Leave Egypt)
Week 10: Chapter 5 (The First Sumerian Dictator)
Week 11: Chapter 7 (Hammurabi and the Babylonians)
Week 12: Chapter 8 (The Assyrians)
Week 13: Chapter 10 (The Far East/Ancient China)
Week 14: Chapter 32 (China, Writing and the Qin)
Week 15: Chapter 33 (Confucius)
Week 16: Chapter 9 (First Cities of India)
Week 17: Chapter 30 (The Aryans of India)
Week 18: Chapter 31 (The Mauryan Empire of India)
Week 19: Chapter 26 (People of the Americas)
Week 20: Chapter 11 (Ancient Africa)
Week 21: Chapter 15 (The Phoenicians)
Week 22: Chapter 16 (The Return of Assyria)
Week 23: Chapter 17 (Babylon Takes Over Again)
Week 24: Chapter 18 (Life in Early Crete)
Week 25: Chapter 19 (The Early Greeks)
Week 26: Chapter 20 (Greece Gets Civilized Again)
Week 27: Chapter 21 (Medes and Persians)
Week 28: Chapter 22 (Sparta and Athens)
Week 29: Chapter 23 (Greek Gods)
Week 30: Chapter 24 (Wars of the Greeks)
Week 31: Chapter 25 (Alexander the Great)
Week 32: Chapter 27 (Rise of Rome)
Week 33: Chapter 28 (Roman Empire)
Week 34: Chapter 29 (Roman's War with Carthage)
Week 35: Chapter 34 (Rise of Julius Caesar)
Week 36: Chapter 35 (Caesar the Hero)
Week 37: Chapter 36 (First Roman Prince)
Week 38: Chapter 37 (Beginning of Christianity)
Week 39: Chapter 38 (End of the Ancient Jewish Nation)
Week 40: Chapter 39 (Rome and the Christians)
Week 41: Chapter 40 ( Rome Begins to Weaken)
Week 42: Chapter 41 (The Attacking Barbarians)
Week 43: Chapter 42 (The End of Rome)

August 02, 2005

Blue-Ribbon Recipes from Blue-Ribbon Kids

Courtesy of the junior Agriculture Society members in the family:

Daniel's First-Prize Fudge
which won in both the kids' and in the adults' sections last week
(from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Thirteenth Edition, by Marion Cunningham, where it's known as "Million-Dollar Fudge" and described as "A very fast, very easy method, resulting in a fine, creamy fudge" -- the cook and the judges here agreed!). Daniel, by the way, has agreed to help mass-produce his fudge for Christmas gifts. Glad to have that sorted out already.
12 oz. semisweet chocolate bits, or squares, in small pieces
1 cup marshmallow cream [Marshmallow Fluff]
2 cups sugar
2 tbsp. butter
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1/8 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts [Daniel prefers pecans]

Oil a jelly-roll pan or a 9 x 9-inch pan. Combine the chocolate and the marshmallow cream in a large bowl and set aside. Mix the sugar, butter, and milk in a 3-quart heavy pot, stirring to combine well. Gradually bring to a boil over low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Dip a pastry brush in cold water adn wash down the sides of the pot. Continue to boil, sitrring constantly without touching the sides of the pot [not as difficult or dire as it sounds], for 5 minutes, then pour the mixture over the chocolate mixture and add the salt and vanilla. Stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth, then stir in the nuts. Spread on the cookie sheet or pan and let stand until firm. Cut into squares and store airtight. Makes 2 pounds.

Laura's First-Prize Brownies
entered and won in 2003
(from Brownies: Over One Hundred Scrumptious Recipes for More Kinds of Brownies Than You Ever Dreamed of by Linda Burum, where the recipe can be found as "My Favorite Fudgy Brownie")
I've read enough wonky cooking articles to know that fudgy brownies usually use melted butter rather creamed butter, which is more common for cake-style brownies, but this recipe calls for considerable creaming. Ten or so minutes of creaming may seem nuts for brownies, but give it a shot first and make and taste them first before deciding to skip that part. Laura and I think it's worth it; as Laura says, it's not as if you're mixing them by hand (so there!).
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/8 tsp. salt
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. almond extract [I think this qualifies as the secret ingredient]
1-1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup flour
2/3-1 cup nuts or chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375F for metal pan, 350F for glass, and line an 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper, lightly buttered (you can skip the parchment paper part if you don't have any).

In microwave, melt chocolate [medium level for one minute, then one minute more]. Add butter in 6 chunks, stirring until all is incorporated. Mix well, and let cool to room temperature.

In electric mixture, beat eggs, salt, vanilla, and almond extract until thick and light in color. Add sugar and beat 8 more minutes or until eggs reach the consistency of soft-peaked whipped cream. Thoroughly blend in chocolate mixture and then fold in flour and nuts or chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in center of oven for approximately 35 mnintues or until a toothpick inserted 1-1/2" from the edge -- NOT in the center -- comes out clean and top is dry. Cool brownies in pan on rack at least 6 hours before cutting into 30-36 squares.

Okay, that last bit about cooling the brownies in the pan for 6 hours is highly unrealistic and not to be recommended unless a fair entry is involved, especially if everyone is sitting around waiting for brownies. Most of my best brownie memories (yes, I have brownie memories) involve eating them shortly after taking them out of the oven. Six hours indeed...

Living with the Word Man

Words and sounds continue to explode out of four-and-a-half Davy, who is a) naturally curious, b) eager to catch up with his newly-reading six-year-old brother, and c) the lucky and osmotic recipient of two older siblings' experiences not to mention a resident in what educrat types call a "language-rich environment" (which is a nice way to describe all the talking around here as well as the piles of books on the floor, because though we have more than the usual number of bookshelves apparently allotted to Albertans, we still don't have enough shelves for all of our books, which seem to reproduce in the night; those boxes from Bookcloseouts smuggled in through the basement entrance, under Tom's radar, have nothing to do with it, at least I don't think so).

"Lunch is ready!" I call, and Davy strolls into the kitchen, "L-l-l-lunch starts with lllllllllll." And playing on the kitchen floor with our tub of plastic word tiles (Tub O' Word Blocks, I believe), he can be heard singing softly, "I'm the word man, I'm the word man." The word man isn't reading yet, but he loves to spell, so he's basically tackling reading from the ground up and without waiting for anything as silly as formal lessons from me.

"What does 'b-u-g' spell? What does 'r-u-g' spell?"

"How do you spell 'furnace'?"

"'Fox' ends with 'x'!"

"What does 'a-a-s-u-v-d-z-e' spell?"

"How do you spell 'macaroni and cheese'? Is it like 'maximum'?"

"Spell 'floor' for me, Mom. Mom? Mom!"

"Cow is c-o-w! Dad is d-a-d!"

M-o-m is having trouble keeping up with the word man, even with our handy dandy blackboard in the kitchen, which nowadays is very, very full. I can only wonder what my in-laws and the proselytizing Jehovah's Witnesses think when they stop by and see all of the above spelled out in different colored chalk, only to learn that all have exploded out of Davy over the course of one day.

I also don't remember the other two kids doing as much of this (or, in Laura's case, much of this at all) -- taking words "apart" to hear the individual sounds, associating the letters with the sounds. I don't know if this is normal, because six-year-old Daniel does this though not as much and certainly not a year and a half ago, and Laura didn't do much of this at all just before she started reading two years ago at around five-and-a-half. Of course, Laura was rather a special case, buffeted about by several teachers (and bookended by me) and several different schools of thought when it came to learning to read -- a couple of different phonics books and one whole language/guessing method (one reason why we started homeschooling) -- and the fact that she survived us all and learned to read anyway and enjoy it says much about the kid's stamina. But she was so interested in being able to read that she didn't have too much patience for the mechanics of reading. At least that's how it seems to me, though I may be too close to the whole thing. And Tom's just not interested in dissecting such things with me.

I'm more than a little surprised by the boys' effectiveness at being able to sound out words so far, spurred on more by interest than anything else -- because Daniel hasn't progressed too far in the Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading and because Davy has only half-heartedly sat in on Daniel's lessons. I've been wondering how usual this tinkering with words and all this spelling is, and if it's more usual for boys than girls, and if it's more usual for boys who like to build things and take them apart, whether it's a toy truck or a word, because Davy the Lego- and Tinkertoy- contraption-maker does seem to be building words and taking them apart to see how they're made or put together. I also wonder if this ability/facility early on plays any role in whether one is a naturally good speller. Is the ability retained, or is it just a natural part of the learning to read process for some that gets left behind as reading develops? I threw out some of these questions to some homeschooling friends, and got some interesting thoughts back, including information on visual-spatial learning I hadn't even considered. It looks as if Davy is doing his darndest to spice up the new school year, about a month away, for us both -- just when I thought I had Kindergarten down pat!