October 31, 2006

Boo! II

The spooky and scary children's author Neil Gaiman in today's New York Times (should work without the free registration; otherwise try Bug Me Not):
When I was growing up in England, Halloween was no time for celebration. It was the night when, we were assured, the dead walked, when all the things of night were loosed, and, sensibly, believing this, we children stayed at home, closed our windows, barred our doors, listened to the twigs rake and patter at the window-glass, shivered, and were content.

There were days that changed everything: birthdays and New Years and First Days of School, days that showed us that there was an order to all things, and the creatures of the night and the imagination understood this, just as we did. All Hallows’ Eve was their party, the night all their birthdays came at once. They had license — all the boundaries set between the living and the dead were breached — and there were witches, too, I decided, for I had never managed to be scared of ghosts, but witches, I knew, waited in the shadows, and they ate small boys.

I did not believe in witches, not in the daylight. Not really even at midnight. But on Halloween I believed in everything. I even believed that there was a country across the ocean where, on that night, people my age went from door to door in costumes, begging for sweets, threatening tricks.

Halloween was a secret, back then, something private, and I would hug myself inside on Halloween, as a boy, most gloriously afraid. ...

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.


We started the morning with the usual round pumpkin-shaped pancakes, gussied up with orange paste food coloring, triangular cutouts for eyes and noses, and pumpkin sprinkles for mouths. And orange milk, of course. Then, on the way to do chores, the annual Halloween morning tradition of posting the "No Hunting" signs, since deer and moose hunting season begins tomorrow.

The kids are doing their schoolwork in costume this morning, so I have Harpo Marx, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers around the kitchen table. After lunch it's off to town, in costume, for errands, music lessons, and then, finally finally finally the grand Halloween dinner and party at the spooky and horrorful house of friends, who've been pickling eyeballs and cultivating cobwebs for at least a week now in preparation .

Since you can't have a spooky and horrorful house without a jack o'lantern or two...

Mr. Macklin's Jack O'Lantern
by David McCord (1897-1997)

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.

Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack's, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is

Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack's skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful

As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack's face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where's the door?

Happy Halloween to all!

October 30, 2006

More on the CanCon front

(That's Canadian Content for our American friends.)

I don't read the newspaper everyday but I happened to get a hand-me-down copy of Saturday's Edmonton Journal, which gave me quite a turn. And I'm not even Canadian by birth.

When it comes to books, especially children's books and favorite books from my own childhood, I tend to be rather leary of the words "prequel" and "backstory". Not to mention, "the ... editor who conceived the idea". Hmmm....

Home Schooling

Carol Windley on deciding to become a writer: "I love the way language can be used to create a faithful facsimile of real people living real lives, although changed, of course, by fiction's magical prism. As a child I fell into the world of books with great relief and joy -- in a book's pages, life made sense. Perhaps it's a natural process to go from reading to writing, to want to join in that wonderful community of writers and words. Besides, it happens to be the only thing I can do reasonably well."
I've been a fan of Carol Windley's writing since discovering her first book shortly after moving to Canada 12 years ago. So I was thrilled to hear this summer that her newest book, Home Schooling, a collection of short stories, had just been published.

No, not about home education the way you might expect. And not nonfiction. Ms. Windley's latest is about looking "at how family is the place where we first learn about relationships and community," she said in a recent interview. She continued, "Parents hope to give their children a sense of family history as well as certain attitudes and values and while children are very receptive, very willing to learn, they're also very critical and sceptical. In a child's imagination, received wisdom can undergo startling changes. And in a family, everything is fluid and mutable, anyway, as a result of personality and temperament and circumstance, so trying to give of a sense of this in the fictional families in Home Schooling became my main concern."

Impatient for my interlibrary loan copy to arrive, I've been happy to discover two recent interviews, the one mentioned above and this one with the CBC; happier still to learn that she's working on another novel. Even in Canada Carol Windley has been rather overlooked, maybe because of the spans between books. It's been eight years since her last book, the novel Breathing Underwater, and that came out five years after her debut work, the short story collection Visible Light. But now Home Schooling is one of the five shortlisted titles for this year's Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced on November 7th (on live television no less), and I'm hoping that Ms. Windley will get more of the attention she deserves.

Carol Windley on what she would do with the Giller prize money ($40,000 CAN) if she wins: "If I were lucky enough to win, the first thing I'd do would be to go to a bookstore and buy a completely scandalous quantity of books. I'd also do what I think would be at the top of any writer's wishlist: buy the necessary time in which to write."

October 29, 2006

I'm late, I'm late...

Kelly from Big A little a has been working hard under her editor's hat, and the new October edition of The Edge of the Forest, the online children's literature monthly, came out earlier this week, full of reviews, interviews, and articles. I'm especially intrigued by Kelly's nonfiction reviews, for the new National Geographic Encyclopedia of Animals by Karen McGhee and George McKay, and --- ooooh! --- Exploratopia: More Than 400 Kid-Friendly Experiments and Explorations for Curious Minds by Pat Murphy, Ellen Macaulay, and the staff of San Francisco's Exploratorium (other Exploratorium books well worth searching out at your library or with Amazon's search feature).

The next issue will be out on November 22, in time for Thanksgiving reading. If you're interested in submitting an article or review, make Kelly happy and click the About Us link for details.

October 27, 2006

Poetry Friday: Halloween edition

A couple of spooky oldies but goodies, both from the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children, compiled by Edward Blishen and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, 1963 (the library ditched this one at a discard sale a few years ago, and their loss is our definite gain):

Witches' Charm
by Ben Jonson

The owl is abroad, the bat and the toad,
And so is the cat-a-mountain;
The ant and the mole both sit in a hole,
And frog peeps out o' the fountain.
The dogs they do bay, and the timbrels play,
The spindle is now a-turning;
The moon it is red, and the stars are fled,
But all the sky is a-burning:
The ditch is made, and our nails the spade:
With pictures full, of wax and wood,
The livers I stick with needles quick;
There lacks but the blood to make up the flood.
quickly, dame, then bring your part in!
Spur, spur, upon little Martin!
Merrily, merrily, make him sail,
A worm in his mouth and a thorn in's tail,
Fire above, and fire below,
With a whip i' your hand to make him go!

The Hag
by Robert Herrick (1591-1614), a member of the Sons of Ben, followers and admirers of Ben Jonson

The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride;
The Devil and she together;
Through thick and through thin,
Now out and then in,
Though ne'er so foul be the weather.

A thorn or a burr
She takes for a spur,
Witha lash of a bramble she rides now;
Through brakes and through briars,
O'er ditches and mires,
She follows the Spirit that guides now.

No beast, for his food
Dares now range the wood,
But hushed in his lair he lies lurking;
While mischiefs, by these,
On land and on seas,
At noon of night are a-working.

The storm will arise
And trouble the skies;
This night, and more for the wonder,
The ghost from the tomb
Affrighted shall come,
Called out by the clap of thunder.

And for something new don't miss Gregory K.'s Halloween Poem at GottaBook!


Costume Update: Daniel is still committed to Harpo Marx, thank goodness. Laura, however, has bounced from Shirley Temple to a scarecrow, and after watching a Fred Astaire movie last night, she and Davy (formerly the jester) have decided on Fred and Ginger. I'm not holding my breath, but then I'm not helping with costumes any more either. Less than a week out, they're all on their own!


Liz B. at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy has the day's offerings, along with a review of The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle. Thanks, Liz!

October 26, 2006

By the book, with not-so-great expectations

Last week JoVE and I had an off-blog discussion about great teachers of the institutional variety, and the general consensus was that the hallmark of a great teacher is a love for children, along with a deep and abiding belief in children's abilities. And then a few days later I read the thoughtful posts by Kelly at Big A little a and Monica Edinger at educating alice (don't miss the comments sections, either) about this Washington Post article, "Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big", on the latest from the reading experts. Post writer Valerie Strauss starts off,
If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they'd all be reading Proust.

Most don't.

So why, reading experts ask, do schools expect children to read -- and love to read -- when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?
Well, some adults do like to read exceedingly difficult books, or rather -- and more to the point -- challenging books, ones that make them think. Those who can't puzzle their way through alone often search out reading groups and books clubs, through friends, libraries, and even online and via television and the radio. As Monica correctly points out,
Most of all I’m troubled by her generalization (boy do I hate generalizations) that students are given material that is too hard for them. One of the bedrock ideas of my personal pedagogy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which he described as “… the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978.) That is, I guide my students through readings that would be perhaps a tad too challenging for them on their own. So the idea that teachers shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t assign books that need support, that are a bit beyond their students’ comfort levels disturbs me greatly. This is such an exciting way to both teach and learn. This is how we learn to appreciate literature, to dig deep into it, to learn how to read, really, really, really read!
Articles like this make me ever more aware of the differences between the way I was educated (at two NYC private schools very similar to the one where Monica teaches), the way most children are educated in the North American public system, and the education I want for my own children, where five-year-olds can strike up a friendship with and appreciation for Shakespeare and Beowulf. I still have fond memories of reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 11th grade English, even though some of us initially rolled our eyes upon finding that title in the course syllabus. By the end of the year, however, everyone realized that the skillful Mr. Z. had shown us an entirely new work, far from the simple young children's book we remembered from our childhoods. Fortunately, Mr. Z., who also had The Member of the Wedding and Pale Fire on the syllabus, was not a reading expert:
Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students' reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child's motivation.

"If you made me education magician and I had one thing that I could pull off, it would be that every kid in this country had a desk full of books that they could actually read accurately, fluently, with comprehension," he said.
Mr. Allington, meet education magician The Marvellous Marva, aka Marva Collins. But you don't need magic powers to understand that the usual reading instruction/reading education argument is flawed; rather than supplying fifth graders in Detroit and Baltimore with dumbed down twaddle, why not teach them to read properly in the early years and then give them inspiring, well-trained teachers who understand, appreciate, and know how to share good literature with their charges? As Mrs. Collins wrote, with Civia Tamarkin, almost 25 years ago in Marva Collins' Way,
The curriculum changed with the passing of each fad. And the textbooks changed. Somebody, somewhere decided to water them down. Textbooks were being written two years below the grade level they were intended for. Why? Because students couldn't read. ... Instead of challenging students with materials that might improve their skills, the new books made it easier, using more pictures and fewer words. And simpler words. One textbook that used enormous and apprehension in a story came out in a revised edition that replaced those words with big and fear. The standards fell lower and lower.
On the subject of comprehension, here's the Marvellous Marva approach (not so coincidentally not vetted by most reading experts); you can feel her love for "her" children shining through:
On the second and fourth Fridays of the month Marva chose a book for each child, handing out copies of The Jungle Book, Pride and Prejudice, O. Henry's Tales, Mysterious Island, Spring Is Here, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Great Expectations, among others. Marva seemed to dispense the books arbitrarily. However, her policy was the older a child, the more difficult the book, even if the child's reading level was not quite high enough. Children used to failure needed goals if they were going to succeed. That was her rationale for giving Theodore, her twelve year old with the third grade reading ability, one of the thickest books on the shelf, Moby Dick.

"Hey, Mrs. Collins, I got the wrong book."

"No, sweetheart, I gave you the right book, Moby Dick."

"But it's got so many pages and so many words on a page. It's got no pictures. This is a book for big kids."

"I think you're big enough."

"Naw, in the old school I always got easy books."

"Well, in this school we don't give young men like you easy books. We don't expect you to do the same work the little children do. Give this book a try. You don't have to understand everything in it, but see what you can do. It's made up of words and words are made up of what?"

"Sounds," Theodore grinned.

"That's right. And as long as you remember your sounds and know how to use a dictionary, you'll do fine."

At the end of the day Theodore left the school clasping the copy of Moby Dick so that everyone could see the title and the thickness. Marva wanted him to show it off. As far as she was concerned, all he had to do at the end of the two weeks was tell her the book was about a big fish. As it turned out, he told her Moby Dick was a big, white, man-eating whale."
Most disheartening in the Post article was the comment from a seventh grader in "the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program" at a Maryland middle school who said that "she would like to be assigned books that speak to her": the previous year in English class, "graphic novels [were] excluded, which annoyed many of us," she said.

I was reminded again about what Mrs. Collins had to say about "relevance":
According to the curriculum experts, everything has to be "relevant." One mathematics textbook has a chapter on probability that asks students to determine: What are the odds that cabdriver will get a counterfeit $10 bill? What is the probability that a girl will become pregnant if she is taking birth control pills that are 97 percent effective? What is the probability that a person living in a certain community has either syphilis or gonorrhea?

All that "relevance" undermines the very purpose of an education. It doesn't expand the children's horizons or encourage inventiveness and curiosity. Instead it limits perspective to the grim scenes they see every day of their lives. Children do not need to read stories that teach "street smarts." They learn enough on their own. What they need are character-building stories. They need to read for values, morality and universal truths [emphases mine]. That was my reason for teaching classical literature.
And that, kiddies, is why you read graphic novels and other "relevant" and/or fun stuff during free time. That's what it's for, after all -- recess, lunchtime, after school, weekends. In grade school, I used to read one Nancy Drew book every day between recess and lunch. Unplug the computer, the TV, and put away the cell phone, iPod, portable DVD player, and your handheld game-playing thingamajigs, and curl up with a not-so-good book. And remember always that learning is meant to be annoying, prodding, and challenging, or it isn't doing its job. It's worth considering, too, that kids raised on a steady diet of twaddle, including graphic novels and even my beloved Nancy Drew, might not grow up to become adults who read, or want to read, Proust in their free time.

Here's the thing...

It's not a debate, great or otherwise, just because Phil McGraw says it is -- or allegedly says it is, because while the show has been taped, it hasn't aired yet and for some no doubt very interesting reason isn't scheduled to air tomorrow as originally planned -- especially with no proper rulebook for arguments, just a one-sided tease of a Texas playbook.

Home education, like the public, private, or parochial school system, is not a debate but a choice, a great choice for many of us. And I refuse to debate our family's choice with anyone, not bushwhacking, ambushing doctors and behavioral psychologists, the neighbor down the road, or the nosy lady in the supermarket.

For those interested in proper debating skills, unlike what passes for debate in the rarely edifying and not always entertaining entertainment industry, here are some resources:

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, edited by Harold Holzer

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors

A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston

Basic Debate by Leslie Phillips, William S. Hicks, and Douglas R. Springer

Forensics: The Winner's Guide to Speech Contests by Brent C. Oberg

Pros and Cons: A Debater's Handbook by Trevor Sather

Speak Out! Debate and Public Speaking in the Middle Grades by John Meany and Kate Shuster, published by the International Debate Education Association (IDEA)

And last but certainly not least, the aforementioned International Debate Education Association

Minding the (grammar) gap

Two articles this week about the importance of good grammar, though the first seems to indicate that good grammar is useful mostly for passing tests, the SAT in particular. The Washington Post holds that "Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback". Well, in some places:
The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as "a deterrent to the improvement of students' speaking and writing."

Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of Fairfax and Howard [Counties in Virginia] and other high-performing school systems throughout the region. To diagram a sentence is to deconstruct it as if it were a math problem, with the main noun, verb and object written on a horizontal line and their various modifiers attached with diagonals.

"Our time has come," said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from "kind of a revolutionary cell" into standard-bearers.

The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of "knowing about grammar" and encouraged teachers to "experiment with different approaches," including traditional drills and diagrams. ...

An informal survey of Virginia and Maryland school systems suggests that grammar education is re-emerging slowly. The Loudoun County school system offers an annual summer staff development session called Grammar for English Teachers, tailored to teach the basics to teachers who didn't learn them in college. "It usually fills up pretty quickly," said Carrie Perry, supervisor of English language arts in Loudoun.

The Howard County school system "has returned to the importance of teaching grammar" in the past two or three years, said Zeleana Morris, a language arts coordinator.

The revolution might never reach many classrooms. The newest English teachers are products of a grammarless era, unprepared to distinguish an appositive from an infinitive.

"What you have is a generation of teachers from the early to mid-'70s who don't know grammar, who never learned it," said Benjamin, an author of the national council's publication. "We have armies of teachers, elementary teachers and English teachers, who don't have the language to talk about language. It's kind of their dirty little secret."
And, with thanks to the Old Curmudgeon for passing it along, this article from the The Guardian, "Mind Your Language -- It Matters!", an excerpt from the new book by John Humphrys:
Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live. It reflects our attitudes about the way we see things and how we are seen by others: in public life; in politics and commerce; in advertising and marketing; in broadcasting and journalism. Yet the prevailing wisdom about language seems to be that "anything goes".

Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we're happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings.

That, of course, would be rather convenient for the snake-oil salesmen, unscrupulous estate agents and (dare I say it?) even some politicians who might prefer not to be pinned down to anything too precise. But why should the rest of us settle for the lowest common denominator communication?

At this point, it's also important to be clear about what should not worry us. I don't get all agitated when a young lad is discussing the merits of one MP3 player against another in a language that may be alien to me. And he hardly needs to speak formally correct English when he's chatting up girls in a pub. He has his world and I have mine and we each speak our own kinds of English in them. But we also have a shared world where we need a dependable common language if we're all going to get by.

It is not a case that language should never change, because of course it always does, but that grammar matters. One of the daftest things we have ever done in our schools was to stop teaching it to children. Academics who should have known better came up with the absurd notion that rules somehow confined children, restricted their imagination. Understanding the basic workings of grammar – even if you don't observe all the rules to the letter – can liberate. If you don't know how to construct a sentence, how can you express yourself?

October 20, 2006

Ever eager to help separate Gentle Readers from their money...

If you or your kids are keen on good quality colored pencils, the fine folks at the Canadian company Lee Valley, who sell some nifty woodworking tools, hardware, and garden tools have an even niftier autumn mail order special, not available at any of their stores; I get no kickbacks, discounts, or other remuneration. Just a nice warm glow, now that I've ordered enough for our own use and have determined that the Lee Valley warehouse has an adequate supply on hand for everyone else.

The Goldfaber watercolor pencils from Faber-Castell that Laura enjoys so much have been discontinued in favor of a new style with grip dots and triangular handles. So Lee Valley is selling off the old sets of undotted, allegedly less grippy pencils -- though we've never had any problems with them sliding out hands onto the floor -- for very good prices. The tin of 12 pencils is now $10.15 CAN (formerly $14.50); the tin of 24 is now $19.25 (formerly $27.50); and the tin of 36, which comes with a brush, is now $27.65 (formerly $39.50).

For reference, the new, more grippy sets are priced at $14.95 CAN for the tin of 12, $29.50 for 24, and $39.50 for 36 (the website can convert to U.S. dollars for you).

While you're at the website, take a peek at their Gifts selections, and request the print catalogue. The gift catalogues around Christmas always have some gems. Something for everyone, especially with the holidays much too close at hand, and always excellent quality and value for the money.

A virtual education

From today's New York Times:
When the Internet was just beginning to shake up American education, a chemistry professor photographed thousands of test tubes holding molecular solutions and, working with video game designers, created a simulated laboratory that allowed students to mix chemicals in virtual beakers and watch the reactions.

In the years since, that virtual chemistry laboratory — as well as other simulations allowing students to dissect virtual animals or to peer into tidal pools in search of virtual anemone — has become a widely used science teaching tool. The virtual chemistry laboratory alone has some 150,000 students seated at computer terminals around the country to try experiments that would be too costly or dangerous to do at their local high schools. “Some kids figure out how to blow things up in half an hour,” said the professor, Brian F. Woodfield of Brigham Young University.

Now, however, a dispute with potentially far-reaching consequences has flared over how far the Internet can go in displacing the brick-and-mortar laboratory. Prompted by skeptical university professors, the College Board, one of the most powerful organizations in American education, is questioning whether Internet-based laboratories are an acceptable substitute for the hands-on culturing of gels and peering through microscopes that have long been essential ingredients of American laboratory science.
Read the rest of the article, "No Test Tubes? Debate on Virtual Science Classes" by Sam Dillon, here. NYT registration is free, but should be able to use Bug Me Not, too.

Children's history book bonanza

I've been behind in my blog reading as well as posting about the good tidbits I've come across, so I'll start now. Consider it my belated Canadian Thanksgiving gift or early Halloween treat.

Chris Barton at Bartography has a post, U.S. History is for the birds, where Chris explains why he and his kids are going to continue their picture book study of American history but change from a chronological approach to a more thematic one. And the current theme is birds (something I can appreciate, with three kids who wanted to have "Bird School" all summer), with some terrific titles, including The Bald Eagle's View of American History by first-time children's author and stamp collector C.H. Colman and illustrated by Joanne Friar.

Karen at lightingthefires has a post stuffed with suggested Canadian historical fiction picture books, and if the books in that list aren't enough, she closes with a few other lists for good measure. I see some old favorites on Karen's list, and some exciting new prospects.

Then, there's the unflagging Fuse #8, in a category all by herself, who's been on a historical fiction roll that I hope isn't coming to an end anytime soon. These are all new titles, brand new for 2006. For each title, listed in no particular order, I've put the link to Fuse #8's review first, followed by a link to the book itself:

Review of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Lawson, about Hattie, age sixteen in 1917 and an orphan with her own Montana homestead.

Review of Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium by Carla Killough McClafferty

Review of Escaping into the Night by D. Dina Friedman, about a young Jewish girl's escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Review of A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant, set in Restoration England

Review of Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy, set in the early days along the Erie Canal.

Review of Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters by Patricia McKissack; not exactly historical fiction, but sounds like a dandy yarn with good pictures to boot.

Review of Hero of the High Seas: John Paul Jones and the American Revolution by Michael L. Cooper; from National Geographic Children's Books.

Review of Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson, inspired by the 1912 "Bread and Roses strike" in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Review of The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, set in 1943, about young Dewey Kerrigan whose father has been working in Los Alamos on a top secret and mysterious “gadget” that will help America win the war.

Review of The Wonder Kid by George Harrar, set in the 1950's and touching on the golden era of comic books, polio, and fallout shelters.

Review of Homefront by Doris Gwaltney; life for 12-year-old Margaret Ann, who lives in a small southern town during WWII, is difficult enough even before the arrival of her pretty but scheming English cousin.

Thanks, all!

Two down, one to go

Halloween planning is in full swing around here, and two out of three kids have their costumes decided upon, which means they haven't changed their minds for whopping three days in a row: Harpo Marx (Daniel), and a jester (Davy). Daniel put his outfit together with a $2 yellow clown wig and a $1.50 plastic top hat, both from the drugstore,and one of his father's jackets, and if I'm feeling generous I just might spring for a bicycle horn from the hardware store. Davy's costume, complete with hat, was discovered at the Goodwill shop for $10, and is lovely. Just needs some more jingle bells around the collar, wrists, and ankles. Laura is considering Little Red Riding Hood, but the jury's still out.

We have two pumpkins in the house, both on the small side, and will probably pick up something bigger and carveable next week. Along with a stash of candy corn and tiny Hershey bars, since we're foregoing trick-or-treating for the first time ever in favor of a party at our friends' soon-to-be very spooky house.

I had no idea that you could find noncarveable Lego pumpkins, which are rather cute.

Something new: The Cybils, the first annual children’s book awards, blog edition

Kelly at Big A little a announced earlier this week,
"This month we’ve seen a spate of book awards, some of which have left us wondering: couldn’t we, the intelligent, savvy members of the kidlitosphere do better? Or, at least, differently?

"So, we’re inaugurating our own book awards, honoring books published in English for children in 2006. Anne Boles Levy, of Book Buds, will launch a site this week and administer the awards process."
The new awards are the Cybils, created by Kelly and Anne, and you can read all about them here. Because I'm old and crotchety, and not one of the savvier or even more frequent blogging members of the kidlitosphere, I have to admit that a) I hadn't even realized the existence of a spate; b) I have a hard time remembering which books (and movies and music) are current and which came out a year or more ago; c) I'm not quite sure how I ended up involved in this when in 2006 the Farm Schoolers have probably read more out-of-print children's books rather than brand spanking new offerings published this year; and d) the award name reminds me of everything from ancient oracles to a children's book I didn't particularly care for, an adult book that scared the pants off me more than 20 years ago, and Peter Bogdanovich's sneaker-wearing ex. But then I'm old and crotchety.

The eight categories of children's literature under consideration are Middle Grade (I keep thinking this should be Middle School, because Middle Grade brings to mind middling) Novels, headed up by Betsy at Fuse #8; Nonfiction Picture Books, headed up by Chris Barton at Bartography; Young Adult Novels, headed up by Jen at Jen Robinson's Book Page; Picture Books, headed up Cybils co-creator Kelly at Big A little a; Graphic Novels, headed up by Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy; Middle Grade and YA Nonfiction, headed up by Mindy at Propernoun; Fantasy and Science Fiction, headed up by Sheila at Wands and Worlds; and Poetry, headed up the clever, charming, and talented Susan at Chicken Spaghetti.

I found out about the awards because Susan was kind enough to drop me a note earlier this week, before I had read even word one about the new awards, asking me to volunteer myself (I told you she's clever, charming, and talented) for either the Poetry nominating or judging subcommittee. I chose the former, because although we read lots of children's literature around here, I tend to get most books well after they've been published through interlibrary loan, and I can't be sure I'll be able to get my mitts on all of the finalists when the time comes.

I believe there are still some open slots on the subcommittees for each category, so step right up and volunteer, possibly before you, erm, get volunteered. For those who are committee- and commitment-shy, you can still participate by nominating your favorite 2006 titles (just one in each category, please) here, by November 20.

Poetry Friday: Gee, this snow is a tad early edition

When the Year Grows Old
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

I cannot but remember
When the year grows old --
October-- November--
How she disliked the cold!

She used to watch the swallows
God down across the sky,
And turn from the window
With a sharp little sigh.

And often when the brown leaves
Were brittle on the ground,
And the wind in the chimney
Made a melancholy sound,

She had a look about her
That I wish I could forget --
That look of a scared thing
Sitting in a net!

Oh, beautiful at nightfall
The soft spitting snow!
And beautiful the bare boughs
Rubbing to and for!

But the roaring of the fire,
And the warmth of fur,
And the boiling of the kettle
Were beautiful to her!

I cannot but remember
When the year grows old --
October-- November--
How she disliked the cold!

from Edna St. Vincent Millay's Poems Selected for Young People, with woodcuts by Ronald Keller. Since that one, published in 1979, is now out of print, I'd recommend this one, from the wonderful "Poetry for Young People" series.


I don't dislike the cold (I'd be miserable in this part of the world if I did), but October has come in like a lion, and I can't say I'm ready yet for temperatures around freezing during the day, all day, and the first frosted flakes. This morning our world was white, and while the kids are so delighted that I had to call a snow day, I'd prefer warmer, more colorful, more traditional autumn weather. At least until November. Please?

October 18, 2006


that President Carter or former Secretary of State James Baker had accompanied the current Secretary of State on her latest trip, to talk rather than to threaten discuss the hows and whys of sanctions, reminds me of these lines from Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things", written during another time, another crisis:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. ...

Time to go and lie down.

October 16, 2006

Changing with the times,

or, this is when I start to think about home schooling them through university.

Either that or inventing some small canteen, maybe with a nice college logo, that would be more hygienic to carry off to the washroom (that's the bathroom for you Yanks).

October 13, 2006

Poetry Friday: Historical Associations

Here's a lesser-known choice from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, which I was reminded of yesterday by a peachy homeschooling friend whose son decided to turn a Playmobil figure into Don Quixote...

Historical Associations
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Dear Uncle Jim, this garden ground
That now you smoke your pipe around,
Has seen immortal actions done
And valiant battles lost and won.

Here we had best on tip-toe tread,
While I for safety march ahead,
For this is that enchanted ground
Where all who loiter slumber sound.

Here is the sea, here is the sand,
Here is the simple Shepherd's Land,
Here are the fairy hollyhocks,
And there are Ali Baba's rocks.
But yonder, see! apart and high,
Frozen Siberia lies; where I,
With Robert Bruce William Tell,
Was bound by an enchanter's spell.

There, then, awhile in chains we lay,
In wintry dungeons, far from day;
But ris'n at length, with might and main,
Our iron fetters burst in twain.

Than all the horns were blown in town;
And to the ramparts clanging down,
All the giants leaped to horse
And charged behind us through the gorse.

On we rode, the others and I,
Over the mountains blue, and by
The Silent River, the sounding sea,
And the robber woods of Tartary.


Our edition of A Child's Garden of Verses is small and leatherbound, just the right size for small hands. It has lovely, simple line drawings by Hilda Goldwag that don't detract from the poems, and a moving introduction by Elizabeth Goudge:
Because he set himself to be happy R.L.S. can make us happy. He is one of those writers who accompany us through life. The child enchanted with the verses in this book becomes the boy or girl thrilled to the marrow by Kidnapped and Treasure Island, the man or woman delighting in all the novels and adult poems, in the Vailima Letters and the prayers that he wrote in his exile. He goes with us right through from youth to age, and then we find that we are back again where we started, with A Child's Garden of Verses, and perhaps they are the best after all.

Liz B. over at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy is on the case very early with the day's round-up -- thanks, Liz!

October 11, 2006


Just this morning I was listening to a CBC radio story (scroll down to "Feature Story from Wednesday's Show") about one public school in Edmonton where the students in the Grade 5/6 class "are using laptop computers at their desks all day" (oh my stars) and taking them home at night, too. In an audio snippet, one teacher is overheard telling the class to "write down everything you know about Canada". Oh my double stars. At the end of the story, the reporter natters on about how the laptops help reluctant writers, especially the boys.

And then making the rounds through my homeschool groups later in the morning, I found the same article popping up everywhere: today's Washington Post story "The Handwriting Is on the Wall: Researchers See a Downside as Keyboards Replace Pens in Schools" (all emphases mine):
The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it's threatening to finish off longhand.

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive. The rest? They printed. Block letters.

And those college hopefuls are just the first edge of a wave of U.S. students who no longer get much handwriting instruction in the primary grades, frequently 10 minutes a day or less. As a result, more and more students struggle to read and write cursive.

Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it's important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.

Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy. ...

At Keene Mill Elementary in Springfield, Debbie Mattocks teaches cursive once a week to her gifted-and-talented group of third-graders -- mainly so they can read it. All their poems and stories are typed. Children in Fairfax County schools are taught keyboarding beginning in kindergarten.

"I can't think of any other place you need cursive as an adult other than to sign your name," she said. "Cursive -- that is so low on the priority list, we really could care less. We are much more concerned that these kids pass their SOLs [standardized tests], and that doesn't require a bit of cursive." ...

The loss of handwriting also may be a cognitive opportunity missed. The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one. Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit. Children who don't learn correct technique find it harder to write by hand, so they avoid it. Schools that do teach handwriting often stop after third grade -- right after kids learn cursive. By the time computers are more widely used in classrooms for writing, perhaps in fourth or fifth grade, many children already have decided they don't like to write.

In one of the studies, Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.

But Graham worries that students who remain printers, rather than writing in cursive, need more time to take notes or write essays for the SAT. Teachers may say they don't deduct for bad handwriting in class, but research tells another story, he said.

When adults are given the same composition written in good handwriting and poor handwriting, "they still give lower grades for ideation and quality of writing if the text is less legible," he said.

Indeed, the SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, according to the College Board.

It doesn't take much to teach better handwriting skills. At some schools in Prince George's County, elementary school students use a program called Handwriting Without Tears for 15 minutes a day. They learn the correct formation of manuscript letters through second grade, and cursive letters in third grade.
This article is a variation on one in The Calgary Herald a few years ago about the decline in penmanship education, coincidentally published on last day of the first homeschooling convention and trade show Tom and I attended, where we watched hordes of home educating parents head out the door under mounds and mountains of books and other curricula, including Handwriting Without Tears material. That article mentioned that while some Canadian public schools were solving the fairly simple problem of poor handwriting by throwing laptops at children -- a rather expensive and not particularly permanent solution -- more than a few parents, concerned that Johnny might not be making enough at MacDonald's after graduation to afford his own laptop and share his written thoughts clearly and effectively, are hiring independent physical therapy consultants to teach Johnny to write, from how to hold a pencil to how to form each letter. After all, those hands and fingers will be dangling from those wrists for a lifetime.

While most of the teachers interviewed for that article made dismissive comments about "drill and kill" and rote practice and spoke glowingly of the 21st century and embracing new technologies, all of the consultants echoed the last paragraph quoted from the WP article, that "it doesn't take much" to teach proper penmanship, just a program like Zaner-Bloser or Handwriting Without Tears and 15 to 30 minutes of practice a day. Magic. But not as sexy as laptops.

Proud mother moment

Had word over the weekend that seven-year-old Daniel's story about the Charter Oak had won author Jennifer Armstrong's first writing contest just for homeschoolers; the contest had been the kids' writing project for the month of September, a way of easing them back into school and writing with a fun assignment. The prize is an autographed copy of Jennifer's new book, The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History, which makes all of us here very, very excited. Daniel, my hockey fan, is especially thrilled that Jennifer promised to mail the book from Detroit, home of the Red Wings. Thank you, so much, Jennifer! This is the second writing contest Daniel has won this year, and a big boost for a boy who most times would rather be outside with a penknife rather than a pen.

Jennifer has been busy lately; besides two new books and all of the associated travelling, which you can read about at her main blog, she has revamped her website and started a new blog just for contests (bookmark and Blogline it!) with the promise of new contests each month.

October 10, 2006

Teaching history with more narrative and fewer "tiny gobbets of chewed-up material"

Found this interesting post from writer (and new home educating father) James Bartholomew, based on this interesting article from The London Times last week.

Worth noting too that The Times article is based on an interview with historian David Starkey before last week's premiere of the film version of the play, The History Boys, which "depicts the clash between two teachers, one who values learning for its own sake and one who sees teaching as a series of artificially selected exam techniques. It is a debate that Dr Starkey believes is worth having, not least because he fears that the current system of exams, targets and league tables is destroying Britain’s education system."

October 09, 2006

Farm School lesson #632

while listening to the radio on the way to Thanksgiving dinner:

That would be "nu-kle-er", kids, not "nu-ku-ler". As in,
The pronunciation (nky-lr), which is generally considered incorrect, is an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one. The usual pronunciation of the final two syllables of this word is (-kl-r), but this sequence of sounds is rare in English. Much more common is the similar sequence (-ky-lr), which occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular.
There, I feel better now. Well, not about North Korea.

October 08, 2006

Grammar g(ir)affe: A glimmer of common sense on the horizon

This bit of good news, thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends, must mean that Lynne Truss is pleased, though no doubt puzzling over the existence of a "childrenswear technologist".

But there really is an Apostrophe Protection Society. In England, of course. And would you believe the German Apostrophen-Katastrophen? Which will be rolling trippingly off my tongue for the rest of the day.

October 07, 2006

Blogger Beta

I decided to switch to Blogger Beta today, and now I can not blog in Blogger Beta...

Have been playing around with it a bit, but the biggest headache may be getting my comments, from HaloScan, to reappear. Oy.

October 06, 2006

Poetry Friday: Vegetables

This is the poem Davy is memorizing right now, and might recite at the homeschool declamation day later this month. I'll post Laura's and Daniel's selections on other Fridays.

The kids and I dug up our potatoes, all 100+ hills, on Wednesday; white ones, red ones, and a special pink-skinned Ukrainian variety for which my mother-in-law had seed potatoes. Earlier in the week, there was a frost one night cool enough to wilt all of the remaining tomatoes and tomato plants, so all that's left in the garden are some carrots and a few beets. The petunias and gazanias in the container boxes are still hanging on, though.

A happy Thanksgiving to all the Canadians!

by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)

The country vegetables scorn
To lie about in shops,
They stand upright as they were born
In neatly-patterned crops;

And when you want your dinner you
Don't buy it from a shelf,
You find a lettuce fresh with dew
And pull it for yourself;

You pick an apronful of peas
And shell them on the spot.
You cut a cabbage, if you please,
To pop into the pot.

The folk who their potatoes buy
From sacks before they sup,
Miss half of the potato's joy,
And that's to dig it up.


The Poetry Friday round-up is over at Kelly's Big A little a this week. Thanks, Kelly, and happy belated Friday to you, too!

And I don't think Karen at lightingthefire's perfect autumn quote and Blade of Grass poem made it into the official list so I'm adding them here.