Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York Times Sunday School

As I have mentioned before, print media subscriptions are a major learning resource for us, introducing N. to all kinds of ideas and topics of study.  N. and I read our tiny local newspaper together every morning over breakfast.  Tim reads Scientific American over his breakfast and N. occasionally likes to look at it with him even though it is very abstruse.  We subscribe to National Geographic and recently added Smithsonian Magazine.  My parents gave N. a subscription to Trains Magazine for Christmas a year ago; although it is a highly technical publication for adult train enthusiasts, N. loves it.  He also loves getting This Old House (even though his parents are the last people who would ever be fixing up or DIYing anything), and every month we fantasize about the "Save This Old House" feature.  Now that N. reads fluently and independently, the various magazines are getting even more use as N. dips into them and reads and rereads favorite articles.  He consumes these magazines (especially Trains and National Geographic) in a long, slow, accretive process that often takes months: first he looks at the pictures, then at some point he might read the photo captions, and eventually he'll read the articles.  We keep the magazines out and accessible to facilitate this process (one of the many reasons our house will never resemble those pristine rooms in This Old House!).  I've been pleasantly surprised by how much he's learned from this reading, often without Tim or me being aware of it, when he makes connections between something we're talking about or reading and something he's learned from National Geographic (these moments of surprise always involve N. running to his pile of NGs to proudly show me the article). 

We also get the Sunday New York Times, and N. and I ritually read the Travel Section together (although we get annoyed when it is focused on spas or ski vacations); usually the rest of the Times is still over N.'s head.  But recently we've enjoyed several fascinating articles and spent long portions of our Sundays on them.  Last November I read N. the complete article about the history of bulldog breeding ("Can the Bulldog Be Saved?"), which led to lots of conversation about breeding and genetics, as well as animal welfare.  More recently we read most of another NYT Magazine piece about dogs, "Wonder Dog," which describes the training of service dogs, the struggles of a boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and his relationship with his service dog.  We aren't dog people, but we were so moved by this story, and we talked about FAS, about the connection between the boy and dog, and about a program in our city through which prisoners train service dogs. 

Last Sunday we read an article about the future of Penn Station.  The opening sentence arrested N.'s attention as I read it over our Sunday pancakes: "It's time to address the calamity that is Penn Station."  This calamity is one of N.'s obsessions, since it involves trains, old buildings, and their wrongful destruction.  We read the full article, then reread a favorite picture book (helpfully recommended by Mom &  Kiddo) called Old Penn Station by William Low, and reread big swaths of one N.'s favorite architecture books, Lost America, a catalog of historic buildings that have been demolished, including Penn Station.  We also read the original piece in the Times from July 14, 1966 lamenting the station's destruction.  Our previous discussions of Penn Station have centered the founding, inspired by Penn's destruction, of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  But in the Times Michael Kimmelman suggests another important element of the story.  The station's architect, McKim, convinced the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad not to build a lucrative hotel over the train station, but that "the railroad owed the city a 'thoroughly and distinctly monumental gateway.'"  Thus, Kimmelman concludes, "The lesson to be gleaned from the destruction of the old Penn Station is about the importance of preserving McKim’s public-spirited ideal for urban splendor as much as it is about preserving venerable buildings."  This gave us a chance to talk about buildings not just as aesthetic objects but as spaces that shape people's lives.  Are corporations obliged to create beautiful spaces for the people from whom they profit?

I also read aloud another really interesting article Sunday about the discovery that a supposed portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln is a forgery.  The humorous headline on the front page caught N.'s eye: "Mrs. Lincoln, I Presume?  Well, as It Turns Out..."  We enjoyed reading about how the forgery was detected as well as the circumstances surrounding its original sale to Lincoln's descendants, and we played around with the interactive feature online that makes it easy to compare the retouched portrait with the restored version.  N. was especially struck by this phrase at the end of the piece: "It has lost most of its value (it is insured for $400,000)..." and I found it very challenging to explain that the portrait of an anonymous woman was not worth nearly as much as the same canvas had been when the woman was thought to be Lincoln's wife.  In N.'s view, the painting looks much better now that it has been cleaned than it did before, so why would it be worth so much less?

 All this reminds me of what N. told a neighbor when he was 4 years old and being questioned about why he wasn't going to attend kindergarten: "I learn a lot more from magazines!"

Bonus reading: I describe Tim and N.'s reading of a Scientific American article about bats that prompted N. to make this proclamation about magazines here.


Megan D. Neal said...

We love magazines around here, too. We subscribe to the Cricket Group magazines, plus the Smithsonian magazine. It's not cheap, but it's very worth it to us because the girls inhale them, and they've learned so much from them. Heck, I've learned so much from them. They're great for taking out and about when we have to go anywhere. All three girls can swap because even non-reading Susanna likes to look at them.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff! I just read an article in the New Yorker that mentioned a crappy building that had been hurriedly thrown up as temporary quarters at MIT (i think in the 40s) but ended up being a hotbed of innovation largely because it wasn't your ordinary office building--an example of how buildings can shape interaction.