Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Field Trip: Minneapolis

Sculpture Garden: "Spoonbridge and Cherry"
Before we arrived in Duluth we stopped to visit some good friends in Minneapolis for two days and we packed in a bunch of fun outings and activities.  We went to the Walker Art Museum, where we sauntered through the Sculpture Garden, played 9 holes of artist-designed mini-golf, puzzled over exhibits of contemporary art from the permanent collection, and watched about an hour of Christian Marclay's amazing video collage, "The Clock."  We had no idea what we were seeing when we wandered into the darkened screening room, but gradually realized that the piece was an assemblage of clips from movies and TV shows that showed clocks or mentioned time in the dialogue.  First I realized that it was progressing in real time as 5 minutes of screen clips was registered with clocks showing that five minutes had passed.  Then I realized that the time on screen was in sync with our time; in other words that when it said 2:55 on screen it said 2:55 on my watch.  It's hard to explain how cool this discovery was! I would imagine most people seeing this piece knew something about it going into it since it is rather celebrated, but we didn't, which only added to the wonder of the experience.  Part of the pleasure for the adults in our group was recognizing movies and actors; N. didn't get much of this since he's seen so few movies but he did recognize Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last," which he's seen parts of and read about in Hugo Cabret.  Despite his limited viewing history, N. loved the piece as much as we did. We all loved the visual jokes created by the conjunction of disparate scenes, like someone in a black-and-white movie opening a door followed by a color film scene viewed through an open door.  And the meticulously edited sound, with dialogue or music spilling from one clip to the next, is a crucial, gorgeous part of the work as well.  (You can read more about it in The New Yorker and The NYRB).

We also took the new Green Line light rail from Minneapolis to St. Paul -- end to end! -- and back, stopping to tour the newly renovated St. Paul Union Depot.  N. of course was very excited about this outing, and loved the depot.

St. Paul Union Depot
One of our favorite traditions with our Minneapolis friends is our evening jam sessions.  Our friend plays the electric guitar, he's taught me to play basic bass lines on the electric bass, and N. plays electric keyboard.  We played and sang some of the 50s and 60s classics N. became obsessed with this spring, like "Twist and Shout," "Chantilly Lace," as well as other rock and blues tunes.  N. absolutely loves doing this; it's thrilling to make music on the fly, and you can see his mind racing as he's working out chord progressions and improvising solos.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beethoven and Basset Hound

On our drive to Minnesota, we spent a couple days in Michigan visiting one of N.'s sisters and her family, which includes a basset hound who likes to howl along with the piano.  I posted this video on Facebook but thought I'd share it here too because it continues to make me giggle.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tadpoles, Spittle, Galls, Deer Beds, and More: Summer Nature Camp

N. is participating in a half-day summer program called "Forest Hideouts" at the wonderful Hartley Nature Center in Duluth, Minnesota, the city where Tim and I grew up and where we usually (except last summer when we spent a month in Paris instead, la-di-da) spend several summer weeks.  Hartley is the kind of place we do not have in Winston-Salem, and it's a great example of the spaces and activities that made Duluth a recent winner of Outside Magazine's online contest for best outdoors town in the U.S.  We love to come here to escape the southern heat and enjoy the gorgeous big parks, the Lakewalk along Lake Superior, the grand vistas of lake and sky.

N. has learned a fair amount about botany, gardening, and animal life (such as butterflies) with us, but we're not trained nature educators.  I was impressed when N. and I went for a hike yesterday afternoon that thanks to this week's program he was noticing new things in the familiar park (minnows, insects) and thinking about habitats that the unseen creatures might create among the tree roots along the creek's edge.  Summer programs like this seem to me to offer the best possible version of (non-homeschool) school: he spends 3 hours immersed in a topic with lots of fun, hands-on, collaborative, outdoor experience (his feet and legs were soaked yesterday from searching for tadpoles!), he gets social time with kids, participating in and observing the dynamics of kids learning together, all under the guidance of an expert, and he still has lots of time in the afternoon for his own pursuits.  Wouldn't it be great if school were more like camp?

Hartley Nature Center

Chester Creek -- our favorite!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What We're Reading Now: Summer Reading

Lots of summer reading going on in our family, and again, two out of three of us are reading multiple titles at once.  N. was introduced to the Emily Windsnap series by his good friend and he tore through the first two (he says he doesn't like this third one as well).  [Digression: is it necessary to make these books so very very pink?  I'm a big believer in boys and girls reading books about the opposite gender, but the styling of these books might make them a hard sell to boys who have been socialized to scorn pink.  Happily this is not the case with N., but it still annoys me!]  Henry Reed's Babysitting Service is the second N. has read in this series.  He's loving the Asterix omnibuses #7 and 8, which I got for our recent long car trip.  And I realized he'd never read Where the Wild Things Are (what kind of neglectful parent am I???) so we recently got it out from the library.  I'm reading Minnow on the Say aloud to N. and we are very much enjoying it so far; we loved Tom's Midnight Garden, another title we read by Phillipa Pearce a couple months ago.

I just finished How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain's Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore, a popular/trade (i.e. not meant for academics) account of the fascinating story of an 18th-century devotee of Rousseau who tried to mold an orphan into his idiosyncratic model of a perfect wife.  It's a quick read and a crazy story; I recommend it!  I've just started The Luminaries and am excited about it.  I'm supposed to be reading Hillary Clinton's new book on kindle for my book club but I just can't bring myself to start it (a friend pointed out this story about kindle tracking of reader highlights that suggest that a majority of kindle readers of Hard Choices so far have not made it past p. 35!).

Tim is simultaneously reading Zealot by Reza Aslan, Buyology by Martin Lindstrom, and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, as well as The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald.  He is enjoying them all!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Field Trip: Washington, D.C. -- Art, Streetcars, History, Old Buildings!

We recently spent a weekend in D.C. visiting my parents.  We've been many, many times, but we always find something new to do there!  This time we really packed in the fun stuff in addition to good family time, dog-walking, N.-and-Grandma Lego time, and good food (allow me to brag that my not-yet-10-year-old ate almost all of a huge bowl of mussels at Granville Moore, a Belgian gastro-pub.  I did not set eyes on mussels until my late 20s!).


We toured the Smithsonian "castle," the Smithsonian's original building which N. has long loved but we had never entered.  It has some cool exhibits on the history of the museums that make up the Smithsonian, and on the motley collection of relics and oddities that people have donated (Napoleon's napkin! Walter Scott's hair! a piece of wood from a rail split by young Abe Lincoln!).  In a room that looks like a gothic chapel is an exhibit of selections from the various museums's collections, from entymology displays to a place setting designed by Raymond Loewy.  N., lover of model buildings, especially liked the Lego Smithsonian and a wooden model built by the architect before the building was constructed.


We went to a special exhibit at the National Gallery of Art on the artistic relationship between Degas and Cassatt.  It was really interesting to see their works side by side.  N. and I especially appreciated the part of the exhibit that showed the two artists' print-making.  Degas taught Cassatt print-making and the exhibit collects multiple prints of the same image so you can really see how Cassatt experimented with the process.  We saw less familiar aspects of these very familiar artists' work.  And it's not a huge, overwhelming exhibit, but is well curated, which we really appreciated after going to many mammoth, exhausting special shows in London.

We went to the Capital Trolley Museum in suburban Maryland.  This is probably the worst museum I have ever been to, in terms of layout and presentation and would benefit greatly from a professional museum consultant.  For example, the first thing you see when you enter is the end of a series of wall placards about the D.C. streetcars during World War, only of course it takes you a few minutes of reading to realize that you are at the end of the series and you have to walk farther on to find the beginning.  There is no overview of the history of streetcars, or of streetcars in D.C. and its suburbs.  There are some very detailed accounts of the development of specific suburban lines, which only makes sense if one knows the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of D.C. quite well.  There is a collection of streetcars and trolleys from around the world in a locked car barn that you are only able view with a volunteer guide, who in our case told us "information" clearly contradicted by the placards he stood next to.  But you can take unlimited streetcar rides on a 1-mile loop through the woods next to the Inter-County Connector toll road, which N. of course enjoyed.

And we went to Frederick Douglass's last home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia.  This was a wonderful place and a rich and moving learning experience.  We loved it.  We were led through the well-preserved hilltop house by a very knowledgeable National Park Service guide, who gave a good overview of Douglass's life with a special focus on the latter years when he lived in the house.  His second wife preserved the house and its contents so that almost everything you see actually belonged to Douglass (this is so rarely the case in house museums!).  We looked at his shoes at his bedside and  heard that he felt chest pain and fell at this spot in the front hall as he died.  As we descended the stairs the man in front of me said quietly to his son, "He walked down these stairs we're walking down!"  We felt ineffably close to the presence of a brilliant, radical man who did great things for our country.

Frederick Douglass's study

Frederick Douglass's dining room

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Summer Unschool

In previous summers we didn't declare an "official" last day of homeschool and first day of summer vacation.  We just gradually drifted into a more relaxed schedule as activities ended, my semester ended, and the rhythm of our days shifted.  Tim and N. often kept "doing school" in some form into early July.  But this year as N. noticed his school friends anticipating the last day of school, he asked when his last day was.  I asked him when he wanted it to be, and he chose Thursday, June 12.  Thus on Friday June 13, his first day of summer vacation after completing 4th grade, he luxuriated, sleeping in a bit, having a late breakfast, and reading the 4th Harry Potter book for most of the day.  He didn't get dressed till 2 pm, and he loved it.

Since then, N. has done lots of reading (Harry Potter, Henry Reed, Inc., various Asterix and Tintin, London Underground by Design, etc.), had long days playing with friends, had pool time, played with trains and his beloved Kapla blocks. He draws daily, of course, and is working on some stories that he started writing and illustrating in England.  He's going to a half-day nature camp for a week later in the July and a one-week ballet day camp in August, but otherwise his summer days unfold as he determines.

At the same time, N. agreed to keep some elements of his school year in place.  He still has weekly piano lessons and practices piano daily.  I've asked him to work on writing down one of his many music compositions, breaking up this daunting task by writing at least two measures a day and he's enjoying making progress on this, marveling that he's written 42 measures so far.  He's still doing French lessons with me for an hour or so every Thursday morning (He completed the first level and is on to the second, and he and I both are so thrilled with how much he's learned.  I get no compensation for saying this, but I really love this French curriculum, expensive though it is.  N. thinks it is a lot of fun and he's proud that he's really learning to speak, read, and understand French!).  He does a page in his Daily Math workbook once or twice a week.  And once he even asked Tim for a morning of "school," craving a bit of their regular time together.

So in some ways, summer vacation doesn't actually look that different from the school year!  But the tide is a little lower, the pace more relaxed.  I love seeing N. luxuriate in reading, creating, and playing friends.  I think that's what summer vacation is all about!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nonfiction Books About Trains


NPR recently posted a "a reading list for riding the rails," which inspired me to put together some lists of the train books that have played a major role in our almost-ten-year-old's education for more than half his life.  Here's a list of nonfiction books about trains, railroads, and subways (list of fiction about trains coming soon!). N.'s favorites are The Great Book of Trains, the books of O. Winston Link's photographs, The Cars of Pullman, and all the books about the London Underground. Parents of railfans, do you have titles to add to this list?

  • The Great Book of Trains by Brian Hollingsworth and Arthur Cook
  • The Age of the Train: From the Rocket to the Bullet by Philip Marsh
  • The Big Book of Trains by DK Publishing
  • Encyclopedia of North American Railroads by Aaron E. Klein
  • Life Along the Line: A Photographic Portrait of America's Last Great Steam Railroad by O. Winston Link
  • The Last Steam Railroad in America by O. Winston Link
  • The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar
  • Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America by Sam Roberts
  • The Elegance of Edwardian Railways by Geoffrey Williams
  • Eat Steel and Spit Rivets: Norfolk Southern Employees Reflect on 30 Years of Change, Challenge, and Achievement
  • Amtrak: An American Story
  • Southen Railway's Historic Spencer Shops by Larry K. Neal, Jr.
  • Railroad Depots of Michigan: 1910-1920 by David J. Mrozek
  • Baldwin Locomotives by Schiffer Publishing
  • The Cars of Pullman by Joe Welsh
  • The Sea-to-Sky Gold Rush Route by Eric L. Johnson
  • The Missabe Road by Frank A. King
  • Railway Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden
  • Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden
  • London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden
  • The London Underground by Andrew Emmerson
  • Discovering Subterranean London by Andrew Emmerson
  • Discovering London Railway Stations by Oliver Green
  • What's in a Name by Cyril M. Harris
  • London Underground Facts by Stephen Halliday
  • Do Not Alight Here by Ben Pedroche

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Field Trip: Seagrove and the North Carolina "Pottery Highway"

Checking out the kilns

We spent a beautiful spring Saturday with friends exploring the Seagrove area, where the local clay has long inspired Native American, English, German, and contemporary potters.  We started at the North Carolina Pottery Center, an excellent small museum/ interpretive center that gave us a good foundation in the history of pottery in the area.  Then we drove around somewhat at random to a few of the 100 or so potteries in the area.  We started, fortuitously, at Ben Owen Pottery, where we were able to look at the kilns and watch Ben Owen III himself throw pots while describing his craft and answering questions.  This was the perfect introduction for N., creating context for all the pottery we proceeded to look at.  By the end of the day, N. was very interested in taking a pottery class!

Watching Mr. Owen at work

An egg separator!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

4th Grade Independent Reading Book List

Browsing in the wonderful children's section at Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Rd., London
Here's my annual list of "chapter books" that N. read this year (my list of the year's read-alouds is here).  He was 9 years old and in 4th grade this year.  As always, this doesn't include picture books, which he still very much enjoys.  It also doesn't include Trains Magazine and Classic Trains Magazine, as well as National Geographic, Smithsonian, or our local newspaper, all of which feature in his daily reading.  He also reads widely from our collections of books about trains and architecture, which I have not listed here, since they've been part of his book diet for years (I will make a list of trains books and another of building books sometime though!).  This year I also noted books that he began but put aside because I am intrigued by this practice.  Some of his favorites on this list include the Cat Club books by Esther Averill, Asterix, and Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms.
  • On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells (first 1/3)
  • Secret Letters from 0-10 by Susie Morgenstern
  • Tintin: The Black Island by Herge
  • Superfudge by Judy Blume (read about half)
  • Tintin: Red Sea Sharks by Herge
  • Tintin: Tintin in America
  • Asterix #1
  • The New Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
  • Asterix #2
  • Five Go Adventuring Again by Enid Blyton
  • Asterix #3
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
  • The Zack Files: Great-Grandpa's in the Litter Box by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: Through the Medicine Cabinet by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: A a Ghost Named Wanda by Dan Greenburg
  • Asterix #4
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming
  • Asterix #5
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Rides Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  • Asterix #6
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time by Frank Cottrell Boyce (read 1/2, abandoned)
  • Asterix #7
  • Roland Chambers' unpublished MS
  • Asterix #8
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read 1/4)
  • Asterix #9
  • Horton's Mysterious Mechanisms by Lissa Evans
  • Asterix #10-12 omnibus
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster (selections)
  • Bird in a Box (started, put aside)
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney
  • Asterix #13-15 omnibus
  • Jane Austen's juvenilia (selections)
  • Horton's Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans
  • King Solomon's Mines(read 1/4)
  • The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
  • The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee by Eleanor Estes
  • Captains of the City Streets by Esther Averill
  • The School for Cats by Esther Averill
  • Jenny's Moonlight Adventure by Esther Averill
  • A Word to the Wise by Alison Cragin Herzig and Jane Lawrence Mali
  • Calvin & Hobbes: The Days Are Just Packed by Bill Watterson
  • Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill
  • Jenny's Birthday Book by Esther Averill
  • The Fire Cat by Esther Averill
  • Jenny Goes to Sea by Esther Averill
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
  • Whittington by Alan Armstrong
  • The Wizard of Oz (graphic novel) by Eric Shanower and Scottie Young
  • Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (3rd time!)
  • Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitrou et. al.
  • The Zack Files: Dr. Jekyll, Orthodontist by Dan Greenburg
  • The Zack Files: I'm Out of my Body... Please Leave a Message by Dan Greenburg
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart (read 1/4)
Previous lists of independent reading are here:


Previous lists of read-alouds are here:


Do you have any recommendations for N.'s reading in the coming year?  

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

4th-Grade Read-Alouds

At this time every year, I post a list of "chapter books" we've read aloud to N. over the past year.  I track our reading at Listography.  This year, we read fewer titles overall because we had less read-aloud time (many late bedtimes due to outings!) during our five months in Europe and because N. reads so much himself.  But we are committed to continuing reading aloud to N., and he loves being read to.  Though he's a very advanced reader, there is still a gap between his reading ability and his comprehension ability so we can read aloud more complex (and more old-fashioned!) books than he might read on his own.  I love the social aspect of reading aloud, the shared experience of the book that we can talk about as we read and remember  together with pleasure.

The highlights of our reading this year were the Great Brain series and Nesbit's Bastables books.  We also really loved Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce.  Reading Great Northern at the start of last summer was bittersweet because it was the last of the beloved Swallows and Amazons series.  But we reread a couple favorites this year (The Secret Garden and The Railway Children), so we may well reread the Swallows and Amazons books (actually we've already reread a couple of the early books in the series in previous years).
  • Great Northern? By Arthur Ransome
  • The Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • More Adventures of the Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Me and My Little Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (read half, then it got too sad!)
  • The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
  • The New Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Oswald Bastable and Others by E. Nesbit (read half)
  • The Great Brain at the Academy by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • The Avion My Uncle Flew by James Fisher
  • Act One by Moss Hart (read by T.)
  • The Great Brain Reforms by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • Mary Poppins in the Park by P.L. Travers
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce
  • The Return of the Great Brain by John Dennis Fitzgerald
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle (read by T.)
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (read by T.)
  • The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
  • Grayson by Lynne Cox
  • The Princess and Curdie by George Macdonald
June 2013-May 2014