Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning About Opera: Madama Butterfly

As I've written before, we've been to many operas as a family, both regional professional and student productions in our home city and major professional productions in London and Berlin.  N. really enjoys going to the opera, so he was excited recently to go to a regional professional production of Madama Butterfly.

We're often familiar with an aria or two from an opera before we see it, but we've never studied them before we attend.  Thanks to supertitles we can follow the plots and let the magic of the production work on us.  After we go to an opera, we sometimes read more about it and listen to bits on records, CDs, or YouTube.

On the way home from the theater after Butterfly's tragic death, N. asked what that book was in our living room that said "Madama Butterfly" on the spine.  "Oh, that's right," we said, "that's the score.  You might enjoy looking at that."  Because Tim was once the stage director of a regional professional production of Butterfly in Minnesota, we have a CD of the complete opera as well as a full score tucked away with a couple other opera scores in the bookcase in the living room with all the piano, cello, and miscellaneous sheet music.  It hadn't occurred to either Tim or me that N. would be interested in this, but he very much was.  For the next few nights, he listened to the CD and studied different parts of the score, sometimes playing phrases on the piano, examining what changes had been made in the production we saw (which combined Acts 2 & 3 into one, for example).

This was another example of the power of the fortuitous in learning, a favorite theme of mine.  I love those learning moments when an experience sparks an interest and the right materials are in the right place at the right time to make the most of that interest.  We could never be prepared for every such possible moment, for we could never predict them all.  But it is gratifying to watch when everything aligns seemingly naturally for maximum learning.

Poring over the score.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday French Class

This semester I'm supervising N.'s French study on Friday mornings. We're still loving Hachette's Les Loustics series.  In early October we took a long weekend trip to Montreal, where I attended a conference and Tim and N. thoroughly explored the city. It was so fun to see N. decode signs and listen to the French chatter all around us. But today's French lesson began with something more mundane but still culturally central: une boule de chocolat chaud pour le petit déjeuner!  N. thought this was très magnifique!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Milestones: Bike Riding

In late September, N. learned to ride a bike!

In the early years, I biked with him in a baby seat on the back of my bike for a long time (much longer than he technically fit in the seat!) and then I attached a trailing bike to mine, and he happily pedaled (or coasted like a dead weight!) behind me on many long rides on our local greenway.  But when he grew out of the trailing bike, his knees knocking the handlebars with every pump of the pedals, he didn't want to learn to ride a bike of his own.

Not wanting to push him into something he didn't feel ready to do, we waited to get him a bike till he said he was interested (maybe there was a chicken-and-egg problem here, but I thought he knew how fun biking could be because we'd done so much together).  Finally when N. was 8 years old, his pediatrician, who has strongly normative ideas about what children should be doing at every age, told us sternly that N. needed to learn to swim and ride a bike, as soon as possible!  We were amused by this directive, but used it to encourage N.  He was too tall for bikes with training wheels at this point, so I bought him a nice, barely used hybrid trail bike with lots of gears and hand brakes, thinking it would last several years as he became a competent rider.

Instead, this fancy bike intimidated N.; he tried it a couple times but was overwhelmed and couldn't get the hang of it.  After a couple initial forays, he refused to try it again. I sold the bike on Craigslist last summer before we went abroad for the semester.

This fall for his 10th birthday N. picked out a simpler cruiser bike (no gears or hand brakes).  He was still reluctant to try it out, but one day I finally convinced him to get on it. I told him I would hold the seat and run behind him.  Which turned out to be a benevolent maternal lie.  He got on the bike and took off on his first try, thinking I was back there, helping him stay balanced.  There he was, riding down the street with me jogging a bit behind, as if he'd always known how!  He couldn't believe it when I told him he was doing it all himself!

I got my bike fixed up (sitting unused in the garage for years while I waited for N. to join me on bike rides, the tires had rotted and the chain rusted through) and we've taken rides together on the greenway, to the farmers' market, around the neighborhood.  On every ride, N. calls out in wonder and disbelief, "Riding a bike is fun!"   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Solo Field Trip: Washington D.C.

N with his Gram at the Newseum
Recently N. spent a few days visiting his grandparents in Washington, D.C. all on his own.  This was the first time he spent more than one night away from home without Tim and me, and he had a great time.  He did lots of fun stuff with Gram/Bop, including visits to the Spy Museum, the Newseum, and a ride on the DC Metro's new Silver Line.  They went to a Nationals baseball game.  They went to Eastern Market.  They walked the dogs and played lots of Legos.

When I was 5 years old I started spending a week during the summers visiting my grandma, first by myself and then with one of my younger sisters.  At the time my parents and siblings and I lived in the country in northern Minnesota, outside of a town of 200 people and my grandma lived on a busy street corner in St. Paul.  I felt I was in a foreign, exotic place when I fell asleep at her house with the bright streetlights and traffic noise glaring and blaring (so it seemed to me) through the windows all night long.  Grandma took us to the zoo, took us "bumming" (her word for shopping!) so she, the mother of two boys, could buy her granddaughters matching frilly dresses, took us out for the greasy food she loved to indulge in at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sirlin's Sirloins, Mickey's Diner, and Ember's Restaurant.  None of these were things we did in our regular, rural, healthy, hippie life at home!  We loved visiting Grandma by ourselves.

It was easy for me to go on these visits.  I was a confident child and it never even occurred to me to worry about being away.  I loved my home, but I was never homesick when I visited my grandma, or later my aunt, or my friend in the country after we moved to the city, or when I went to camp.  When I was N.'s age I happily flew with my Grandma from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C. for a 2-week whirlwind bus tour of all the major sites in the capital, as well as Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello!

Me, about to board a plane with my Grandma (1984).
N. is totally different and it took him a long time to feel ready to spend even a few days away from home.  I'm proud of him for getting to that point.  Should we have pushed him to go earlier so he could have the years of memories that I got to make with my grandma?  I think it's hard to say.  I know he would have been fine and had a wonderful time earlier.  Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert, believes that experiences such as going to summer camp even when you don't think you want to teach you resilience, teach you to be OK with your own discomfort, give you practice in managing complex emotions such as being homesick but also having a great time.  I can see how all that would be true.  And maybe going on a solo visit before he knew he was ready would have been a revelation for N.

But it seemed to me that pushing N. to go before he felt ready would not be honoring his emotions as real and legitimate.  For me, it was just as important that his concerns, feelings, and preferences are valued and respected by us as that he learn that his worries might be unfounded.  In the end, I just couldn't bring myself to force him to go before he thought he was ready.  He had such a good time on this visit to his grandparents, however, that I hope this will be the first of many independent trips and experiences, including more visits to family, and even summer camps!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Banned Books Week!

It's Banned Books Week, a great celebration of the American freedom to read.  This week N. discovered the Captain Underpants books, and has been reading them nonstop; as it happens, the author of this series, Dav Pilkey, produced a cartoon in honor of Banned Books Week:



I very much appreciate his message.  There's nothing wrong with exercising parental judgment about what is appropriate reading for one's own children (especially young children -- I personally think this parental right expires when one's children are in high school).  But parents should not impose these judgments on other parents or other parents' children by banning books!

Here are some lists of frequently banned or "challenged" books. Celebrate your freedom by reading a banned book today!

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.