Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Man in Black


Recently we went to a book festival in our city and heard the writer G. Neri describe the process of writing his new picture book about Johnny Cash's early life and the beginning of his career in music.  Neri tells the story in free-verse poems that are laid out on the page like song lyrics on the back of a record cover facing A.G. Ford's rich illustrations that could be the front of the album. (Neri's other books [which I have not read] are for older kids, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought before reading this that Johnny Cash's life was picture-book material, but this is appropriate for ages 7 and up.)  N. was mesmerized by Neri's account of Cash and Neri's own path as he researched Cash's story.  We bought the book and Neri signed it for N., which N. thought was just about the coolest thing ever.  This was the first time he'd met an author (of a children's book, I should say -- he's met many authors of scholarly books, and indeed lives with one, but that's hardly as cool)!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Back to (Home)School: 5th Grade

N. declared last week to be the beginning of his 5th grade year, as all his friends were returning to their "regular schools."  He was, as every year, eager to begin, which always feels like the most precious confirmation that what we are doing in this homeschool adventure is working for him.  He started his first day by reading in Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart by Mary Ann Hoberman while he ate his breakfast (strategic "strewing" by me -- google if you aren't familiar with this classic unschool concept, and hat tip to Supratentorial, where I learned of this excellent and funny poetry anthology).

And from there, his and Tim's days unfolded pretty much as they did last semester (and as they have since at least kindergarten!).  Tim read aloud Lytton Strachey's account of Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, in his Eminent Victorians. Later in the week he started reading N. a new autobiography, that of John Stuart Mill (1873); they are enjoying his account of his childhood and early education.  This led to brief peeks at The Faerie Queene and Pope's translation of The Iliad.  They are continuing to read through Joy Hakim's A History of US as well as Rebecca Fraser's The Story of Britain.  Over the course of the week, N. did some math and geometry in his Daily Math workbook.  They read an entry in The History of the World in 100 Objects.  N. copied a Shakespeare sonnet for handwriting practice ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?").  He listened to a CD lecture on a Mozart piano sonata.  I  led our weekly French lesson.  N. practiced piano every day, he drew every day, he read fiction, comic books, and train magazines every day.

N. is continuing the same activities as last semester: piano, chorus, ballet, and music theory.  In October he'll participate in the Young Performer's Chamber Music Workshop that he enjoyed so much last spring.

So overall, the theme of this new school year is to keep doing what we've been doing.  As summer waned, many (non-homeschooling) friends asked us what our plans for the coming school year were, and I started to feel uncomfortable with my boring answer: "Pretty much the same stuff we've been doing!"  Is that lame? Should we be trying new things?  We have a few goals: to do more kitchen-science, more writing/composition.  I've suggested that N. undertake a long-term research project this year, but other than this, we're sticking in the groove that works.  

As I was feeling this slight anxiety, a friend fortuitously sent me the description of a book on education (Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling by Kieran Egan), with the comment, "You've said much the same!":
Real education, Egan explains, consists of both general knowledge and detailed understanding, and in Learning in Depth he outlines an ambitious yet practical plan to incorporate deep knowledge into basic education. Under Egan’s program, students will follow the usual curriculum, but with one crucial addition: beginning with their first days of school and continuing until graduation, they will each also study one topic—such as apples, birds, sacred buildings, mollusks, circuses, or stars—in depth. Over the years, with the help and guidance of their supervising teacher, students will expand their understanding of their one topic and build portfolios of knowledge that grow and change along with them. By the time they graduate each student will know as much about his or her topic as almost anyone on earth—and in the process will have learned important, even life-changing lessons about the meaning of expertise, the value of dedication, and the delight of knowing something in depth.
I was grateful for this timely affirmation!  N. has been building deep knowledge of topics he cares about for years already: trains, architecture, music.  These (sometimes interconnected) topics lead in all kinds of productive directions, and his recursive interest in them not only cultivates his expertise but helps him learn about learning itself.  Here's to more of the same!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ballet Camp

After we returned from our month in Minnesota, one of N.'s last events of the summer was a program we called "ballet camp" (its technical name is a "ballet intensive").  He spent 5 days dancing from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (with a short lunch break).  He's taken four semesters of a once-a-week ballet class and he has enjoyed it a lot.  I have no illusions that N. is going to become a professional dancer.  But I thought this intensive would help him get more out of the weekly class he takes during the school year.  Ballet has been his sport, his organized physical activity.  I had been suggesting it since he was five because I love ballet and knew that the community ballet program at my university was supposed to be very good, with an emphasis on love of movement and solid technique, rather than shows and costumes as at some dance studios.  I always thought it would be cool to be a boy in ballet, but for a long time N. was uninterested in trying it.  Then when he was seven he became friends with a boy in our neighborhood who had been taking ballet class since age five, and N. decided he wanted to join him.

The classes N. takes have the great luxury of live piano accompaniment.  Sometimes I think N. pays more attention to the pianist, who improvises all the pieces he plays, than he does to the ballet teacher.  The musical aspect of dance is probably N.'s favorite part of the activity, and I think experiencing the relationship between music and movement is great for his musical development.

Anyway, the one-week intensive class developed in N. a much greater awareness of the details of ballet technique, and it fired his ambition to master those details in order to be able to partner with girls who are better dancers.  It is amazing what intensive learning can do!  Just as in our homeschool studies where we try to emphasize depth over breadth, this immersion in ballet opened up N.'s understanding of what he might accomplish in this art.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Learning by the Lake

Almost every summer we go to Minnesota (Tim's and my home state) for a few weeks, and this time we spent one of those weeks at a rented lodge on a small private lake in central Minnesota with my parents, two of my siblings, and their spouses.  N. learned how to do some of the classic Minnesota summer pastimes: he learned to fish -- to cast and to bait the hook with nightcrawlers (though he was spared by his dad the task of taking the fish off the hook) -- and he caught a small-mouth bass (that he named Bass Tweed, and later ate) and many little blue-gills and sunfish.  He learned how to clean a fish.  He learned how to drive a pontoon boat!  He learned how to build a campfire.  He roasted marshmallows and looked for agates heard the wild, strange laughter of loons.  He got so much out of the week!  Thanks, Mom & Dad!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Betsy-Tacy Guide to Birthdays

About this time over the past few years (except last year when we were in England and away from our books), N. has asked me to reread parts of the Betsy-Tacy books to him as he gets ready to celebrate his birthday (I read him the first four books in the series over the summer he turned 5).  Three years ago we reread the opening chapters of the first book, Betsy-Tacy, in which Betsy becomes friends with Tacy, the new girl across the street, at Betsy's 5th birthday party.  Two years ago we reread all of Winona's Pony Cart, a novel ancillary to the main series, in which much of the plot involves the 8th birthday party of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib's vivacious friend Winona.  This year as he approached his double-digit birthday, N. asked to hear Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, which begins with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib turning ten, memorably singing (to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic") "O Betsy's ten tomorrow/ And then all of us are ten!/ We will all be ten tomorrow,/ We will all be ladies then!"

I think N. is drawn to these books at this time of year because they explore so effectively the complexity of birthdays.  The strange behavior of the new girl (which turns out to be merely extreme shyness) hangs somewhat darkly over Betsy's fifth birthday until Betsy gets to know Tacy.  Winona gets herself in a scrape by boasting about the pony she's deluded herself into believing she will receive as a birthday gift and inviting nearly all the children she knows to her party, rather than the select group her mother expects.  Later, Betsy is eager to turn ten and begin to be more grown up, but at the same time she worries that the fun of childhood will be over.  One's birthday can be a strangely emotional day, and Betsy, Tacy, and their friends seem to offer N. annual, familiar comfort and camaraderie.

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Bonus reading: I rant about reading Betsy-Tacy to boys here.  I enthuse about first reading the Betsy-Tacy books to N. here.

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