December 31, 2005

A new year

"There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful as expectation of something tomorrow."
O.S. Marden (1850-1924)

Our farewell to the old year and welcome to the new one includes lots of skating (the end of the month has brought some cooler temperatures, much beautiful hoar frost, but still no snow), and a meal tonight of fizzy drinks and hors d'oeuvres -- devilled eggs, shrimp and cream cheese on crackers (the kids' invention), smoked salmon (a delicious and thoughtful gift from some friends visiting for the holidays from B.C.), and such -- and decadent desserts. Then we watch old movies, I remember Guy Lombardo fondly, and we try to stay up until midnight, but if we can't we celebrate at New York or Newfoundland time. And I'm definitely in the "no New Year's resolutions" camp. Life is much too short...

A happy and healthy New Year to all!

December 30, 2005

"Viewpoint Discrimination"

Interesting article in the most recent issue of The Economist (December 17th) received here yesterday about an even more interesting California case with more than a couple of highly interesting ramifications for home educating families, secular and otherwise. Because the article is considered "premium content" and you have to be an Economist subscriber to get it for free, here's the long article, in its entirety. Rather more interesting passages highlighted by me.
United States: A new front in the culture wars: The Lord's word
"Are secular universities discriminating against religious schools? Or are they just setting high standards?"

(Los Angeles) In its opening pages, Biology for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press) comes straight to the point:

"The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second. To the best of the author's knowledge, the conclusions drawn from observable facts that are presented in this book agree with the Scriptures. If a mistake has been made (which is probable since this book was prepared by humans) and at any point God's Word is not put first, the author apologises.”

And that is precisely why a high-school science course using the 693-page book as a primary text does not meet the admission standards of the University of California (UC). It does not, argues the university, reflect “knowledge generally accepted in the scientific and educational communities and with which a student at the university level should be conversant.” The same, says the university, is true of some other courses—in history, literature and government—offered by Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, a small town south-east of Los Angeles. These courses also rely on books from the Bob Jones University Press and from another Christian publisher, A Beka Books.

Welcome to the latest front in America's culture wars. The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), the Calvary Chapel Schools and six Calvary Chapel students are suing the university, whose campuses include that traditional bastion of liberal thought, Berkeley, as well as the huge UCLA campus, for what they call “viewpoint discrimination”. The Christian schools add that the university is violating the students' constitutional right to freedom of speech and religion. The university naturally denies the charges, and this week a federal judge in Los Angeles began considering the preliminary arguments of a contest which could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

So far the UC case has had less publicity than the argument about whether high schools can teach “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution (currently being fought out in a courtroom in Pennsylvania) or even a ferocious dispute up in Cupertino, where a history teacher claims he was restrained from teaching about Christianity's role in American history (parents had complained that he was acting more like an evangelical preacher). In fact, all these arguments are part of the same battleground, which pits an increasingly self-confident evangelical America against a secular education establishment.

The ACSI, which represents almost 4,000 Christian high schools in America, including some 800 in California, worries that if the Christians' challenge fails, UC's intolerance might spread to other institutions and other states. Moreover, says a lawyer for the plaintiffs, victory would be “a major blow to the arrogance of the ivory towers and their attempt to say that kids from Christian schools can't be well prepared for university.”

There is a lot at stake. California, with its ten-campus UC system and the 23-campus California State network, has America's biggest—and best—system of public universities. The case has arisen because of the way that UC, unlike other systems, intrudes into high-school education. Its Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools assesses high-school courses to see if they meet its standards (known as “A-G requirements”, and ranging from a two-year history syllabus to one-year elective courses in subjects such as the visual and performing arts).

UC denies it practices secular intolerance and “viewpoint discrimination”. It notes that it has approved plenty of courses at Christian schools and in the past four years has accepted 24 of the 32 applicants from the Murrieta school. And it says that if the courses had used these textbooks “as supplementary, rather than primary, texts, it is likely they would have been approved.”

What is really being challenged, says the university, is its right to set its own academic standards and admission requirements. In which case the question is what that right implies. The Christian plaintiffs say they have no objection to science students, for example, being taught conventional wisdom, but “their constitutional rights are abridged or discriminated against when they are told that the current interpretation of scientific method must be taught dogmatically, and must be accepted by students, to be eligible for admission to University of California institutions.” In other words, what the case involves is not so much the now-familiar tussle over intelligent design, but a student's freedom of speech and thought.

All of which, counters the university, is bogus. As long as they satisfy the A-G requirements, students who are headed into the UC system can believe whatever they choose to and take whatever additional courses—including religious ones—they like. In any case, the university's lawyers point out, there is plenty of precedent establishing a university's right to control a student's speech: witness a court ruling three years ago that a UC student did not have a first amendment right to write “fuck you” to university administrators in his master's thesis.

In theory, the UC case stops at California's borders: no other state's public universities interfere so much in the high-school system, so their “secular intolerance”, real or imagined, is less potent. In practice, whatever happens in the current case, more such conflicts will follow.

For instance, when home-schooled children or students from private Christian schools apply to a public university, they are typically judged by their examination scores—and, typically, they are required to perform much better than their counterparts from the public schools. By the reckoning of the Calvary Chapel plaintiffs, a student from a Christian school in California needs to score within the top 2-4%, whereas a public-school teenager with good course-work could meet the required score almost by guesswork.

Given the growth across America in both home-schooling and Christian schooling, there will surely be more “viewpoint-discriminated” students and their parents contacting their lawyers. And evangelical America will keep pushing. Christian universities such as Wheaton, in Illinois, are proof that decent scholarship can co-exist with evangelical faith; and, given the rise of born-again Christianity across the nation, more evangelical scholars are now found in secular faculties.

Fifty years ago there were only a handful of “megachurches”, drawing more than 2,000 each Sunday; today, there are more than 1,200 such churches, three of them with congregations of over 20,000. Not only is the nation's president a born-again Christian, but so (according to the Pew Research Centre) are 54% of America's Protestants, who are 30% of the population.

Will America's public universities take on a similar tinge? To the extent that educational establishments reflect cultural reality, it may be inevitable. After all, before the liberal era of the 1960s, there were no such things as courses in “Women's Studies” or “African-American Studies”. Now, no prudent American university would be without them. It would be odd if conservative Christians did not leave similar footprints on the syllabus.

Received and sent

Received in today's e-mail inbox:

RE: Make Money Off Your Blog

Hello Bloggers!

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Sent in reply:

Dear Angela:

Many thanks for the offer, but no thanks. Even were I more familiar with your publication -- I've seen a few issues, but so far haven't been tempted to subscribe -- I'm not interested in making any money from my blog, which I realize places me in rather singular and peculiar company. In fact, I started my blog more as a place to think out loud and share information about homeschooling and other subjects rather than as a money-making vehicle.

But I thank you very much for your interest.

With all best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year,

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Yours truly,

Becky Sharp

December 29, 2005

Narnia: Better than the book...

and I don't say that often. In fact, I don't think I've ever said that before. Ever. Then again, the book wasn't one of my favorites (rare for a children's book). And the movie was thin in parts -- the scene with Aslan at the Stone Table reminded me of the Star Wars bar scene -- and between the animation and the voice (as other critics have mentioned, Liam Neeson's voice coming out of a lion is rather disconcerting), not deep and noble enough I thought, the lion is more of a pussycat than the awe-inspiring wild cat he is supposed to be. But the movie has all of the richness, depth, pageantry (Peter, in full armor, on a unicorn!), feeling, and Magic I missed in the book. And the kids are wonderful.

December 28, 2005

Waiting for the Magic

Today, the kids and I are going to finish up with our reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and catch Narnia, possibly with Tom, at the local theater before it departs tomorrow.

I'm still waiting to get captivated by the book, and can't shake the impression that Lewis must have said to himself, "And now I think I shall write a children's book" (or the impression that the kids view the book not as a particularly good story but only as a means to an end -- our third trip to the movie theater). I'm rather disappointed by the lack of depth and detail, and by so much going on so quickly (perhaps a slower pace would have solved my need for more depth and detail) and by too much repetition, especially that bit about the importance of leaving a wardrobe door open; perhaps Mr. Lewis thought we wouldn't understand or realize that good, thoughtful children leave wardrobe doors open and bad, thoughtless children close them? And I know the Pevensie children, and we, are supposed to care innately about Aslan because the author says we are supposed to -- "the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different" -- but I just, er, don't. For the same reason none of us felt particularly sad or upset or involved, as we were supposed to, when Aslan ended up on the Stone Table, though the violence of the scene was certainly felt.

I can see the magic in the book -- witches, dwarves, talking wolves and lions and beavers (which, you'd think, should have some special hold on Canadian children), and a portal to to a different world -- but for the life of me I can't find the Magic, the same Magic that I find effortlessly (and the kids do too), or rather that finds us, in Understood Betsy, Blueberries for Sal, the works of E. Nesbit and E.B. White, Anne of Green Gables, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Maybe we're just missing the Narnia gene, she wondered with a sigh...

December 25, 2005

Christmas in the Country, Part 2

Here, as promised, is the rest of Justin Isherwood's magical holiday essay:
Christmas is a time that makes us believers in magic. We as a people are so touched by the season that the selfish find themselves generous and the quiet find themselves singing.

It is a time when people become a little crazy, a time when normal people take to hiding things in secret places. It is a time when country children sneak to the barn on Christmas Eve to wait in the dark so that they might hear cows speak in human tongues.

It is a time when the week pullers of summer walk their fields spreading thistle, sunflower, and rye seeds to gain the blessed flight of birds over their land, in belief that feathered prayers are best.

That the season is generous cannot be doubted. Cash register carols ring in the ears of the nation's GNP. While we have gained with invention a multitude of curiosities, we have lost something of self-expression, a quality thought quaint. Yet, it is personal expression that reinforces the bonds of friends and family and that repairs the rents made in the communal fabric. Its quality is one of goodness. For those having a generous solid character; what is put in will also flow out. Gifts make people as sure as people make gifts.

Remembered are all the knitted socks, caps, and mittens that mothers forced habitually on children, despite their best efforts to lose, mutilate, or outgrow them. Somehow mothers embodied good health in their children by the sheer number of such articles they could produce.

Flannel pajamas and quilts stuffed with raw wood or old wedding suits gave warm comfort in wood-heated, sawdust-insulated houses, which held pitifully little heat by morning.

Indeed, there were store-bought BB guns and toy trains that puffed flour smoke. There were Raggedy Ann dolls, and bicycles, and light bulb ovens, and baseball bats, and Flexible Flyers, and ice skates and, and, and -- and all so child necessary. Beyond store-bought things were those contraptions, those inventions of glue and jack plane, alchemies of counter-sunk screw and dovetail mortise. They were gifts of the sort remembered, which gave off an affection if only from the lingering warmth of their manufacture. The spokeshave conveyed the heat of the builder into the wood grain. It was caught there, enmeshed in the fiber and net of a tree's core, only to be released slowly, the effect left to ripple across generations. There were dollhouses with tiny doors and itsy-bitsy cupboards. There were bookshelves and basswood mixing spoons, breadboards and spice racks. A coffee table with purple blemishes testified to the fence staples some great grandfather had driven into the tree, the iron taken till all that remained was the tinted tattle of wood. There was a child's wagon and lathe-turned white ash wheels. The basement oozed to the rest of the house the aroma of woodworking king. A cradle birch headboard and rockers cut from wind-shaped limbs, a dulcimer of prized black walnut, a four-horse team with bobsled whittled from a block of white pine all took form there. Patient fingers made little ears and whittled almost breathing nostrils. The leather harness had all the lines; and the ironbound bobs were connected beneath by tiny iron rods so the bobs would swing opposite, just like the real bobsleds that hauled away the great trees of the once near wilderness. A gift of the early days, it ties together all the years. And a rocking chair -- made from homegrown pine, pegged, and glued -- lulled to sleep three generations and rocked away the anxious days of two world wars and one jungle fight.

There were simpler gifts of a pancake breakfast taken to neighbors, or the sudden appearance of two full cords of oak firewood, or snowtires mysteriously installed. Notes found in the bottom of stockings promised two Sunday afternoons of ice-skating adventures or three Saturday mornings without chores to go romp in the woods. Other simple notes promised to show a favorite fishing hole or a tree where flickers nested.

There was gift in all the cookies made and cut in the shape of angels, stars, and deers that flew. A haunting gift of powerful pride was given child, that they might decorate stars from the humble perch of a country kitchen, cloistered behind its steamed-up windows.

The season was popcorn, grown in the garden and wildly crossed with Indian corn to produce among the bright yellow kernels spotted ones of red and purple. Shelled on the living room floor, the cobs were tossed to the fire. Hazelnuts were just for kids sitting cross-legged to crack. Ice skating on the irrigation pit meant popple branch hockey sticks and granite stone pucks. Hot cider, suet pudding, black fudge, cranberry bread, popcorn balls, and oyster suppers punctuated the season.

And the great green tree brought home from the woodlot in the emptied honey wagon swelled the whole house with its vapors. Its fragrance and good cheer left few lives untouched.

Christmas in the township catches hold of the generosity first given by the land. It is a season that knows what a good gift is, one that keeps on giving, echoing down what hard walls time makes. It was in just such a country place that angels were heard to sing of a child lain in a feedbox. It was, as all farmers know, a good place to be born and a good place for a promise to begin.

A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

December 24, 2005

Christmas in the Country, Part 1

Our main holiday celebration is Christmas Eve, so, before I go off to bake lemon shortbread squares for tonight's dessert, here's my Christmas Eve present to all of my invisible friends, by way of Wisconsin farmer and writer Justin Isherwood, from A Farm Country Christmas:
Winter brings an armistice to the countryside. The fields lie frozen, resting from the marathon event of summer just run with the sun. A peaceful product grows now from the land.

Christmas is a farmer's holiday. The reason is one of logistics. Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day all come in the green season, at a time when farmers cannot take liberties with their vocation. That the nation does celebrate with mass exodus all the cars packed and outward-bound to some haven, makes little difference.

Christmas comes at a time when work has cooled its fevered pace; the mows, granaries, and warehouses attest to the fulfillment of spring, summer, and harvest. The great work is finished.

Christmas has a primitive heritage. Sky watchers, who by nature were farmers, have for millenia noted the autumnal declination of the sun, noted the days becoming both shorter and colder. Because they had a direct relationship with the earth, this no doubt caused a reverberate fear the sun would sink altogether beneath the horizon, never to rise again.

Perhaps their celestial instrument was a tree seen from their habitation, perhaps a large rock. One day, two-thirds of the way through December, notice was given the sun would rise high again. This observation of the sun rising on the north side of the tree assured the farmer of the return of the sun and its connected growing season.

Modern farmers are yet tied to such ancient solar rites; some small muscle twitches at solstice. A near universal time of celebration, feast days, dances, and gift giving, its importance is held within our blood as an almost genetic response to a tilted planet's return swing about a nearby star.

Winter always provides the struggle to survive. We have little difficulty in understanding why this is so, with blizzards and the worst cold yet to be told. The fall rush of canning, pickling, and hunting is but preparation to endure winter's coming, to survive to a distant spring.
To be continued tomorrow, Christmas Day. Merry Christmas!

December 21, 2005

Hip and trendy, or, Brother, can you pare a dime?

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I've never been trendy, not in clothing, books, or philosophy -- in fact, I tend to be more of the throwback/stick in the mud type, going for the tried and true classics (a black turtleneck, the Beatles, John Steinbeck), and my parenting and home schooling decisions haven't deviated from this path either.

Which is why I was surprised to read another tidbit from Core Knowledge's latest newsletter, Core Knowledge and the Coming Paradigm Shift by Jeremiah Reedy, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Macalester College, to find that classical education is the head of a new education trend. Well, well, well. Who knew that The Well-Trained Mind and others of that ilk would become the low-rise jeans of educational philosophy.

As Professor Reedy writes,
The history of public education in the U.S., since it was taken over by progressivists, is a history of fads and alleged panaceas. Recent fads that come to mind include: the new math, whole language, project learning, discovery learning, multiple intelligences, cooperative learning, the self esteem movement, and brain periodization. In fact, some of these, such as whole language and project learning, are decades old but have been recently refurbished and recycled.

As this list suggests, nothing seems to work, and I argue that nothing will work until progressive education is replaced by a philosophy based on a more realistic understanding of human nature. The fact is that progressivists have failed and are failing America. Their approach to education is especially ineffective for children from disadvantaged backgrounds — hence the "achievement gap." Such students need what is called "direct instruction." Marva Collins, who had inner city students in Chicago reading Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, DuBois and other classics, "traced the failure of the modern school to the theory of education that supported it," and she called for a new philosophy of education. Everyone who is concerned about public education should be praying for a paradigm shift.

Fortunately a "new" paradigm has appeared on the horizon. It is called "classical education." (See Classical Education: The Movement That Is Sweeping America, by Gene Veith and Andrew Kern [offering a distinctly Christian world view, by the way]. See also The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Jessie Wise and Susan Bauer.) Mortimer Adler's Paideia Program, the Core Knowledge curriculum, Marva Collins' approach, and that of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools and numerous parochial schools are all examples of classical education.
Indeed, says Professor Reedy, "classical education is not just the latest theory du jour. It is a return to what worked for millennia before the advent of progressive education with its naïve and romantic notions about children."

I can appreciate that the good professor, who according to the article is "currently working with a group to start a new charter school to be known as the Seven Hills Classical Academy", suggests that of all the possibilities, "the Core Knowledge curriculum is the best thought out and will in the long run produce the greatest improvements in student achievement in my humble opinion." Interestingly, the Core Knowledge Sequence specifically was also selected by the late scholar and literary critic Roger Shattuck in his New York Review of Books essay earlier this year (in April, several months before I started blogging, or you would have heard plenty about this damning indictment of the Vermont school board on which he served, and, by extrapolation, the entire state school system), "The Shame of the Schools," as the best hope for a public school system; you can read the article for free, here, with a bit of extra commentary, or straight from NYRB, but with a price tag of $3.

I liked Shattuck from the moment I started reading his article: "After forty years of college teaching, I had no particular agenda to promote on the board. Principally I was curious to find out what actually is being taught in this rural high school, which has the largest payroll within twenty miles. I soon learned that the board spends little time discussing curriculum. I was told that the best way to inform myself would be to visit a few core courses. I chose English and History, or rather "Language Arts" and "Social Studies." (A return to the earlier names became the first item on my agenda.)" That last part won me over to his side for good.

Shattuck went on to explain why, in his study of different curricula, he had chosen CK:
The New York State Board of Regents, the International Baccalaureate, New Standards, Success for All, the Edison Project, the Core Knowledge Sequence, Direct Instruction, America's Choice, New American Schools—all these programs make differing claims, including comprehensive school reform. I have spent much time in the past three years searching for and scrutinizing these programs and their curricula.

I have found only one curriculum that moves grade by grade (in this case K–8), that uses simple lists of specific content, that does not prescribe teaching methods, that is cross-referenced, and that turns out to be informative and even a pleasure to read. The Core Knowledge Sequence (now in its third edition), prepared and published by the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia, accomplishes all this in a no-frills two hundred-page booklet adopted since 1986 by 480 schools and under consideration by four hundred. The moving spirit here is the dedicated teacher-scholar E.D. Hirsch. Everyone concerned about what is being taught in our public schools should examine the Core Knowledge Sequence. The considered selection of such a curriculum by my district would represent the full and proper exercise of local control and a means of coordinating the preparation of students in the five elementary schools feeding Mt. Abe.
Rather more persuasive than Professor Reedy for my money (even though my money is on The Well-Trained Mind, where the studies and disciplines seem to be more thoughtfully arranged and interconnected) and without trying to convince me I'm trendy. But I've always been interested to read the late great Mr. Shattuck and the very-much-with-us E.D. Hirsch on the current state of American education. Whose latest effort, The Knowledge Deficit, is due out in the spring.

The shortest day

Before moving to the farm, the length of each day didn't have much of an effect on my life, lived as it was for the most part under the streets and in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Now I'm aware of even ten minutes of missing daylight, and the arrival of the winter solstice -- and the coming of longer days -- is a true cause for celebration in our little corner of Alberta. A very happy solstice to all. The kids, happy little agrarians, were pleased to see that today's episode of "Little Bear" on CBC Kids was all about the solstice.

I'm not a big fan of Jethro Tull, beyond the band's name that is, but I've always liked this one:

Ring Out, Solstice Bells

Now is the solstice of the year,
winter is the glad song that you hear.
Seven maids move in seven time.
Have the lads up ready in a line.

Ring out these bells.
Ring out, ring solstice bells.
Ring solstice bells.

Join together beneath the mistletoe.
by the holy oak whereon it grows.
Seven druids dance in seven time.
Sing the song the bells call, loudly chiming.

Ring out these bells.
Ring out, ring solstice bells.
Ring solstice bells.

Praise be to the distant sister sun,
joyful as the silver planets run.
Seven maids move in seven time.
Sing the song the bells call, loudly chiming.
Ring out those bells.
Ring out, ring solstice bells.
Ring solstice bells.
Ring on, ring out.
Ring on, ring out.

The Posse is no doubt very pleased

with Judge Jones's decision: "the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

Many thanks to President Bush for appointing such a credit to the bench.

Back to back to basics in the UK

"Schools to adopt 'phonics' style of teaching reading". But not entirely back to basics, since the phonics the children will be taught is now known as "synthetic phonics." Apparently The Guardian has the same reservations about this newfangled lingo -- or perhaps the collective memory of its younger readers -- because it offers a primer on the subject.

Heavens, if phonics and grammar are both popular again, can Latin be far behind?!

December 20, 2005

Grammar Geek

The recent issue of the Core Knowledge Foundation's e-newsletter, Common Knowledge, arrived in my inbox this morning. Found a very interesting article about the sad history of grammar instruction in America, The Naturalist Fallacy and the Demise of Grammar Instruction (with Practical Advice on Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics) by Robert D. Shepherd, the CK Educational Materials Director, which you can read here in its entirety. Shepherd writes that he owes debts to both CK founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and CK board member Diane Ravitch, who had asked Shepherd what teachers today could do about the teaching of grammar.

Shepherd writes,
The traditional grammar textbook disappeared because of the emergence of a new orthodoxy regarding child language acquisition. The orthodox belief promulgated in our education schools today is that grammatical ability is not something that has to be taught. A child’s grammar, or so many educational theorists have come to believe, is something that develops naturally, without intervention by teachers. ...

Where did the education theorists get this idea that a child’s grammar develops naturally, with little or no outside intervention? They got it by listening at the keyholes of linguists. ... It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, however, that the anti-grammar camp came into possession of the big guns that would blow grammar out of the classroom. Beginning with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957 and continuing to the present day, Noam Chomsky of MIT led what can only be described as a revolution in linguistics, one consequence of which was the widespread belief that language acquisition is largely an autonomic process dependent upon unconscious interactions between an innate, internal language acquisition device and the raw material of the child’s linguistic environment. It was this idea that led educators in the National Council of Teachers of English and editors in the major textbook houses to move decisively against traditional grammar instruction. ... Like many great thinkers, Chomsky started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns, within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate, and this learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has not been directly taught [all emphases in original]. ...

So, education professors began teaching their students that grammar textbooks contained nothing but irrelevant skill and drill, that the internal language-learning mechanism was autonomic, that “teaching grammar” made as much sense as teaching breathing, that what one should do was expose kids to language and let their grammar develop naturally.

There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, however. As Alexander Pope famously said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the education theorists’ bit of knowledge of linguistics turned out to be very dangerous indeed. Chomsky was right about language acquisition, but the theory developed by the education professors in Chomsky’s name is wrong in ways that turn out to be crucial.
Shepherd goes on to talk about children's brains:
The innate, or inborn, language-learning device is such a thicket of neural connections. Beginning at about the age of nine or ten and continuing until kids are around the age of fourteen, the internal mechanisms for intuiting syntactic, phonological, and morphological structures start breaking down. So, for example, if a small child is exposed to the liquid l sound in Russian, he or she will grow up being able to produce that sound, even if he or she does not learn Russian until much later in life. However, if a child is not exposed to that sound, then he or she will never be able to produce it as an adult. The machinery for hearing and producing that sound, that distinctive feature of a possible language, is weeded out. There is a window of opportunity for learning linguistic structures — for setting the parameters of the internal grammar. After that window is closed, it cannot be reopened.

Here’s the problem: if a child has “learned” a nonstandard version of his or her grammar, it is difficult or impossible for that child, past the age of ten or so, to learn a different, standard version using only the innate language-learning machinery, for that machinery has to a large extent stopped working by that time. That’s why it is much harder for an adult to learn a new language through simple immersion than it is for a child to do so.
Shepherd then asks, "how can we, in light of current linguistic knowledge, address the problem of teaching students how to avoid errors in grammar and usage or the problem of how to style shift when it is useful to do so? This remains very much an open question":
If you are a teacher, if you are in the trenches, if you face in your classrooms, every day, students whose syntax rarely exceeds the complexity of that used to be found in Dick and Jane readers, students for whom “Me and Jose love playing video games” is perfectly grammatical, students who sprinkle commas through their writing as though they were salt and for whom commas and end punctuation are interchangeable, what can you do, now, to improve your teaching of grammar, usage, and mechanics?

Unfortunately, contemporary textbooks will be of little help. As I mentioned earlier, the traditional grammar handbooks have all but disappeared, and at any rate, most of those were practically useless anyway because they dealt primarily with taxonomy of forms. In contemporary textbooks, especially those of the so-called “integrated language arts” variety, grammar instruction is a random, hit-and-miss, willy nilly affair. Typically, a few activities employing traditional terminology are scattered, according to no rhyme or reason, in exercises appearing at the ends of literary selections in integrated language arts and composition textbooks. These exercises are not, typically, presented in a systematic, incremental matter, and the learning that results from having students do them is minimal.
This is where a home educating parent seems to hold a distinct advantage over the average public school teacher. We have a wealth of materials available -- admittedly, some better than others, and not all secular -- in a discipline that is roundly ignored in the public school arena, the latest of which is Tamy Davis's excellent, new Growing with Grammar program, which is a wonderful follow-up to Jessie Wise's First Language Lessons, which gets those neural connections while they're still alive and snapping. Yoohoo, Mr. Shepherd...

December 19, 2005

Over the river and through the woods

"Quick, get your snow pants. Dad says it's time!"

The kids leapt into all of their layers and then into the truck, and Tom grabbed the old hand saw and a handful of Kleenex. We left the house around 3:30 yesterday afternoon and drove north for about an hour. On the way we spotted half a dozen deer, a couple of owls starting to fly around in search of dinner, and a porcupine who had just successfully crossed the road.

Finally we found THE tree. We could see it from the road, the only evergreen for some distance, surrounded by bare and rather forlorn looking poplars. "Stop, Dad!" Laura called. Tom, who has been suffering (loudly) from a head cold, muttered and swore a couple of times as he tripped over tree roots in the twilight, a definite contrast to the happy and excited kids. He sawed through the trunk, hoisted the tree, and off all four went with their prize, back to the truck. Partway home, Tom stopped sniffling and groaning long enough to say, "We should visit Auntie Nellie," his recently widowed, eighty-something-year-old great-aunt who still lives on the farm (her sons have tried to budge her toward the lodge in town but she isn't having any of that nonsense).

It was around five o'clock, already dark, and Auntie Nellie seemed very glad to see us. She had gone to church that morning, helped pack Christmas hampers (she is a cook and volunteer extraordinaire), then stopped off to visit Uncle Mike at the cemetery and leave a poinsettia with him. She speaks of him talking to her, which one of her daughters-in-law, one of our closest neighbors, finds morbid and creepy but I find sweet and comforting. After all, they spent almost every day since 1941 living together on the farm, taking all their meals together, working at chores side by side, almost in each other's pockets, as my mother would say. But Nellie said Mike didn't talk to her today.

All of sudden she jumped up, said Tom needed tea for his cold, and started bustling around the kitchen. In very short order and apparently out of nowhere, she magicked up a homemade, Ukrainian meal (she kept calling it tea, as though that would negate the effort -- "Stay, stay, it's just tea") of homemade bread, pehrehshke (savoury baked buns filled with buckwheat and potatoes), thin slices of studenetz (which is head cheese and is, if properly made, delicious -- yes, it is, you just have to take my word on it), dill pickles and pickled carrots. The kids and Rick sat there, mugs of hot tea and plates of food in their laps, munching and sipping happily. I think Nellie was pretty happy too.

By the time we got home, it was close to eight o'clock and we had to get the tree up in the living room. It smells even better than it looks, which is pretty darn good (very full and scraping the ceiling). Today the kids and I will decorate the tree and do some baking, and perhaps make some poppycock. Daniel has put himself in charge of lights and is sorting out strings and testing bulbs. Aside from one little incident this morning, after Tom left for work, when the tree tipped over, everything is going swimmingly. Christmas, here we come...

P.S. Though I'm not saying a word to the kids about the forecast I heard for Christmas -- no precipitation in the next week, and temps above freezing, so it looks as though we are having what's known around here as a "brown Christmas." Though if the nights stay cool enough, we can go skating on the pond Christmas Day.

December 15, 2005

Charles Darwin Has a Posse

Many thanks to the Stingy Scholar for the link to the Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page, the creation of the very public-spirited Colin Purrington at Swarthmore (one of my college choices many, many, many years ago, though in the end I chose Vermont). Make sure you check out all the links, and don't miss this clever little item: "If you are reading Voyage of the Beagle, or are planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, please consider using a bookmark that contains a map of the Galapagos as well as a recipe for a regional drink called canelazo."

I can't think of anything better for stocking stuffers for the whole family -- and not necessarily your own family -- than Charles Darwin Posse bookmarks, stickers, and tattoos (the temporary kind, of course).

As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, "Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue."

December 14, 2005

Beer and skittles

As I sit here, eating bonbons and painting my toenails, I continue to contemplate the weekend's comments of the Liberal Party's communication aide, Scott Reid, adding his two cents to the election campaign (we lucky Canadians don't have to worry about the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays fuss since we get think about which prime ministerial candidate we want on the doorstep or down the chimney this month).

Several days ago the Conservative party made the election promise of $100 a month to families for each child under the age of six, ostensibly for daycare provisions, which is rather nice because, unlike all of the parties' plans for some form of national, institutionalized daycare (don't get me started), the Conservatives of course assume that some parents might be staying home with their children. An amount like $1,200 isn't an overly big amount, certainly not enough to make up for any job outside the home I might have, but, as Tom likes to say, it's better than a poke in the eye with a short stick. And it assumes that Tom and I might have some inkling about what's best for our own kids, which by the way is a large part of why we home school.

Then, just when I'm thinking that this campaign promise sounds pretty nifty if it ever comes to fruition (several pretty big ifs involved), along comes a top Liberal (and I can't tell you how it rankles to have that word abused on such a regular, capitalized basis) aide who insults Canadian parents across the country by sneering, "Don't give them $25 to blow on beer and popcorn." Beer and popcorn, eh?

As The Globe & Mail wrote, "This off-the-shelf insult was more than just a political gaffe. It points to an important philosophical divide between [Conservative Leader Stephen] Harper and Liberal Leader Paul Martin." The difference is this -- the Conservatives assume that Canadian parents are entitled to a choice. The Liberals on the other hand, assume, as The Globe & Mail continues,
that there is a right and a wrong choice. The right choice is the one that the Liberal Party supports. To be fair, many Canadians support that choice. But in the Liberal program, it is one choice at the expense of others.

This was exactly the point Mr. Harper had hoped to make. He was offering recognition to those who feel shafted by a tax system that renders it almost prohibitively expensive to have a parent stay at home with the children....

At best, Mr. Reid's comment -- later amplified by Martin adviser John Duffy, who said the money might buy beer, popcorn, a car or a coat -- suggests he is simply missing the point about choice in child care. The biggest cost to families with a stay-at-home parent is the forgone income. Stay-at-home parents do not need to use the $100-a-month allowance to purchase a program of some sort; their presence in the home is the program. Put another way, the formal child-care programs are a substitute for the parent who stays home to rear her children. Mr. Reid seems to feel it's the other way round.

At worst, Mr. Reid's comment suggests that, as welfare mothers were to [former Ontario Premier Mike] Harris, stay-at-home mothers are to him. They are an unprotected target. Stay-at-home mothers are, in this interpretation, today's welfare mothers. They are not making a contribution. They will not get with the program. It is safe to ridicule them on national television.

Mr. Harper started a debate, but it was Mr. Reid (and Mr. Duffy) who touched a nerve. At least it can be said that, on child care, the two parties offer a clear choice.

December 13, 2005

A stake of holly through the heart

The fuss over the kerfuffle down south about putting things in and taking things out of Christmas and saying Merry Christmas vs. the more generic or neutral "Happy Holidays" (completely forgetting, of course, that "holidays" comes from -- gasp -- holy days) is starting to seep into my north of the 49th consciousness, especially as this nonsense starts invading, of all things, the secular home schooling groups, where some are finding themselves less secular than they had previously thought and others more politically correct than I had previously thought. Yikes.

Interesting that just last night what should catch the kids' attention but this bit from Dickens' A Christmas Carol,
"If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"
"Uncle!" pleaded the nephew.
"Nephew!" returned the uncle sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it mine."

December 10, 2005

My current weekend agenda, er, plan

Hmm. Have just realized that next week includes my rural ladies' club annual family Christmas party and dinner (Tuesday); Laura's Brownies Christmas party, with caroling at the nursing home (Wednesday); the kids' craft evening at the library (Thursday), meant as a "drop and shop" event to encourage economic excess in parents but craftily (ha!) co-opted by me to make sure that the kids can make something for Mommy because Daddy is gifted in everything but the art of buying and making gifts, generally waiting until Christmas Eve morning to swoop the kids off to town for an orgy of unplanned shopping; the homeschool group Christmas party (Friday afternoon); and Laura's and Daniel's holiday piano recital (Friday night). Did I mention that most of these require at least one potluck food item and one something or another for the gift exchange?

With thanks to our Loblaw's supermarket for adding the new President's Choice Natural Apple Juice (the unfiltered variety which is really cider, and reminds me of my beloved Red Cheek brand, with none of those pesky spices, either, thank goodness; do I admit that I waver between joy that my kids enjoy the flavor and dismay that they are guzzling up the good stuff?), which is lovely heated up on the stovetop, I would like to rechannel my energies and contemplate nothing for just a bit this afternoon. Okay, not nothing. Garrison Keillor's Christmas Exiles, which makes me laugh out loud and forget my cares:
It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Christmas. The exiles were home. It was pretty quiet, though you could hear the gritting of teeth, and there was a moment of poisoned silence at the Clarence Bunsen home that rang like a fire bell. Before the blessing, as they sat around the table and admired the work in front of them, a still-life Christmas Dinner by Arlene, before they ate the art, their daughter, Donna, in town from San Diego, said, "What a wonderful Christmas!" and her husband, Rick, said, "Well, if Democrats had their way, it'd be the last one." Silence.

Arlene said that if Rick had his way, the turkeys would be having us. Clarence bowed his head. "Dear Lord, the giver of all good things, we thank Thee." He prayed a long prayer, as a cease-fire. Arlene smiled at Rick: "Have some mashed potatoes." "Thank you, Mom." She winced. He is her son-in-law and she doesn't know why. He is not raising her grandchildren right, he comes to Minnesota and talks too much about the advantages of southern California, he wears silly clothes, he makes fun of Norwegians, he makes fun of women including his own wife, and he says "agenda" in place of "plan" -- "Did you have a different agenda?" he says. "Let's get our agenda straight." "I sense a hidden agenda here."

He piled his plate with Christmas agenda and chomped a big bite of it. He said, "Mom, this is the best dinner I ever ate. I really mean that." She smiled her brightest smile, the smile she has used all her life on people she'd like to slap silly. She'd like to give him a piece of her mind, but she can't because he has hostages, her grandchildren. So she kills him with kindness. She stuffs him like a turkey. Fresh caramel rolls for breakfast, a pound of bacon and smoked sausage and scrambled eggs, and two hours later pot roast for lunch and big slabs of banana cream pie. He has gained four pounds since Tuesday. Her goal is twelve. All day he sits dazed by food. "Fudge bars, Rick? I made them just for you. Here, I'll put the plate right beside you, where you can reach them." "Oh Mom..." She's found the crack in his armor, and it's his mouth. His Achilles mouth. Her agenda is stuffing him so he becomes weak and pliable and goes into a calorie coma, and she takes the boy and the girl for walks and tells them about our great presidents, our great Democratic presidents. And did you know they were all Norwegian? Yes, they were, a little bit, on their mother's side, and that little bit was enough to make them great.

December 09, 2005

John Lennon: Across the Universe

Twenty-five years ago, my sister and I awoke to our alarm clock/radio set to WPLJ, which for some reason early that morning was playing nothing but John Lennon songs; she and I had been playing the new Double Fantasy album for almost a month, so we thought it was just publicity for the record. Some time later, my mother came into the room and found us both sobbing, with Beatles music still coming from the radio. Unlike a lot of other New Yorkers that day, I didn't go to the Dakota, not that day, not that week, not that month. I just couldn't. And if you had told me then that 25 years on I'd still feel such a depth of emotion about what had happened at the Dakota that morning, I wouldn't have believed it.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,
Possessing and caressing me.

Jai Guru De va. Om.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on across the universe.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box,
They tumble blindly as they make their way
Across the universe.

Jai Guru De va. Om.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.

Sounds of laughter, shades of earth are ringing through my opened ears,
Inciting and inviting me.
Limitless, undying love, which shines around me like a million suns,
And calls me on and on across the universe.

Jai Guru De va. Om.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.
Nothing's gonna change my world, nothing's gonna change my world.

Jai Guru De va.

Repeat and fade.

December 08, 2005


For Concierge, because a) she's back, b) she was kind enough to give me Colin Firth the other day (though for some reason my thoughts have been straying to George Clooney, perhaps because he's back in the news, and no, the beard and 30 extra pounds don't bother me overly) and c) she loves Christmas carols performed on steel drums.

Besides Christmas in the Caribbean: Holiday Songs Performed on Steel Drums, we also have Mas! A Caribbean Christmas Party in heavy rotation. Track 2, Nwel La Rive (Noel arrive) by Lionel Benjamin, is an especial favorite around here.

Word of the day

From A.Word.A.Day, from the folks at Wordsmith:

schmendrik (SHMEN-drik) noun, also shmendrik, schmendrick, shmendrick

A foolish, clueless, and naive person.

[After the name of the title character in an operetta by Abraham Goldfaden

December 07, 2005

The Stingy Scholar

A new discovery -- the Stingy Scholar blog, for "university-caliber educational materials on the cheap." The latest entry is all about grammar ("The Grammar Shack") and mentions Strunk and White. What's not to like? Stingy is now on permanent retainer at the blogroll at right...

Found about about Stingy because it's the official blog of Textbook Revolution, a collection of the existing free textbooks and educational tools available online. I'm not too keen on textbooks, but I do realize they have their place, especially for upper level math and science.

Consider this part of your virtual Christmas present from me to you.

December 05, 2005

Baby, It's Cold Outside

This morning at 8 a.m. it was still dark, still snowing, and only -22 Celsius, which translates to around -8 Fahrenheit. That's without any wind chill factor, by the way.

So this little item from last week's paper seems appropriate:

50°F - New Yorkers try to turn on the heat. Canadians plant gardens.

40°F - Californians shiver uncontrollably. Canadians sunbathe.

35°F - Italian cars won't start. Canadians drive with the windows down.

32°F - Distilled water freezes. Canadian water gets thicker.

20°F - Floridians wear coats, gloves & wool hats. Canadians throw on a t-shirt.

15°F - Californians begin to evacuate the state. Canadians go swimming.

0°F - New York landlords finally turn up the heat. Canadians have the last cook-out before it gets cold.

-10°F - People in Miami cease to exist. Canadians lick flag poles to see if their tongue will stick.

-20°F - Californians fly away to Mexico. Canadians throw on a light jacket.

-40°F - Hollywood disintegrates. Canadians rent some videos.

-60°F - Mt. St. Helens freezes. Canadian Girl Guides begin selling cookies door to door.

-80°F - Polar bears begin to evacuate Antarctica. Canadian Boy Scouts postpone "Winter Survival" classes until it gets cold enough.

-100°F - Santa Claus abandons the North Pole. Canadians pull down their ear flaps.

-173°F - Ethyl alcohol freezes. Canadians get frustrated when they can't thaw the keg.

-297°F - Microbial life survives on dairy products. Canadian cows complain of farmers with cold hands.

-460°F - ALL atomic motion stops. Canadians start saying "Cold 'nuff for ya?"

-500°F - Hell freezes over. The Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Here's to the Winter Solstice, only 16 days away -- onward and upward toward more light, more sun, more warmth.

December 03, 2005

Where do I get the t-shirt?

Or maybe I should just have it turned into a little sign to hang on the front door knob, for our afternoon readalouds in bed...

December 01, 2005

My father's latest addiction...

Laura is very lucky to have a very attentive Grandpapa. All she asked for was a videotape of the latest American Girl movie (which aired on Tuesday, about Colonial Girl Felicity and her Loyalist Friend Elizabeth), because she knows, especially after our NYC trip last year, not to ask anyone remotely related to her for a doll that costs around $100 US.

All of a sudden, Grandpapa asked Mommy what AG doll Laura might prefer to find under the Christmas tree. Well, of course she has a preference. She sleeps with the catalogue (and I'm still trying to find out how they found me on the prairie) under her pillow, and dreams of Elizabeth.

Then Grandpapa asked what size nightgown Laura might wear, so that she and the doll of her dreams might be similarly attired for evening. And then he discovered that the doll has a doll of its own.

Now he's talking about getting her a second doll, for her birthday. In August. The argument being that it would be twice as fun. That's what Grandpapa says.

I've had to train myself (and I'm still working on it) to let my parents spoil the kids with gifts. First, they aren't spoiled, and second, they get it from just one side of the family. My parents, who are still fortunate to enjoy good health and are still working, have a grand total of four grandchildren, while Tom's parents, who've been retired for a while, have 12. And we don't get to see, or spend as much time with, my parents as we would wish. Tom's parents live down the road. My parents live on the Upper West Side, and we're lucky if we get to see them once a year, though when we do we try to make it for an extended time.

The other thing that dawned on me just the other day is that I didn't have a grandfather when I was growing up. By the time I was born, only one grandparent, my mother's mother, who would come to live with us, was still alive. And I'm beginning to see how magical the bond between grandfather and granddaughter is. My fondest memory of our last visit is petite Laura sitting in a newly-bearded Grandpapa's lap, reciting her latest bit of poetry to him, and him beaming. I'm glad they're having so much fun together.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

What my father couldn't resist buying for his farmer son-in-law of Ukrainian extraction. Don't ask me where he heard of it lol.

I'm supposed to hide it when it arrives in the mail shortly.