Overheard

9780374524524My kids surprise me. A fly on the wall would have heard this conversation last night:

Younger Daughter (12): Mom, I don’t think I can read Men of Iron. It’s sooooo boring!

Me: Really?? Aren’t you liking Ivanhoe? [Our current knights and castles read-aloud.]

YD: Yes!

Me: If you like Ivanhoe, trust me, you’ll like Men of Iron. And anyway, sometimes you have to push through. Do you think [Older Daughter] is enjoying reading The Inferno? Do you think she likes reading about a trip to hell?

Older Daughter (14): Yes!!

Me: Huh?

OD: I read eight cantos this morning when I was supposed to be doing math, and I only had to read two! It’s intriguing… I have to go back and reread it and make sure I’m really getting it all…

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So on the one hand, I have a daughter rejecting what I felt sure would be a winner, a home-run, a pure pleasure read. On the other, I have what I felt sure was going to be drudgery-requirement-push-back material — and it’s turning out to be an unexpected hit.

It’s an adventure, that’s for sure!

Education — or Brainwashing?

970346_20910252-1024x768You know, it’s funny. Christians are often perceived and represented as brainwashed. They refuse “the facts.” They shelter their kids from “scientific knowledge.” Their “faith” is just another word for “willful ignorance.”

Or so they say.

The “they” I refer to, in this case, is the educational bureaucracy of this country. It dominates public education and extends, often, into the college level. Over the last few months, I’ve heard some news stories on NPR that indicate just how enslaved this entity is to a faith perspective of its own, and just how much “education” amounts to brainwashing.

This is one of the stories I heard: When Should You Introduce a Child to Evolution? The reporter reviews a new picture book called Grandmother Fish, which purportedly introduces children 3-7 years old to “evolutionary concepts.” The conclusion makes it clear, however, that this is not about microevolution or species adaptation, but a secular theory of origins about which its proponents feel a sense of urgency:

We all know by now that more than 40 percent of Americans say that God created human beings in our present form in the last 10,000 years. That is, 4 in 10 Americans reject the knowledge that anchors our scientific understanding of the world and all its creatures. That dismal situation cries out for big efforts in science education and… there’s hard evidence to show that the storybook route can be effective in kids’ mastery of evolutionary concepts.

The phrasing alone conveys a very mixed message. On the one hand we have sciencey lingo like “evolutionary concepts” and “scientific understanding of the world.” On the other hand, we have the notion that a complex scientific theory can be “mastered” by children younger than 7.

As long as we are wondering how complete such an “introduction” can be, another question arises: Does this picture book acknowledge any of the holes in evolutionary theory? — Controversies over dating methods, say? Or lack of intermediary fossils? Or does it represent one highly tentative way of understanding nature as the only way, the “proven” way?

This sure sounds like brainwashing to me. In fact, given the target age group, and given the explicitly stated goal of rebutting the alternative faith perspective — the one that does not rule out God, because in fact there is nothing in any of the evidence available to us that does so — how could we conclude anything else but that this is an effort to brainwash young children in the name of “education”?

But young children, it seems, are not the only ones in need of such “enlightenment.” What about college students? When I was a college student myself, and when I taught college, part of the goal of education was to present the knowledge in different disciplines, teach students how to access and evaluate that knowledge for themselves, and work to synthesize it into a coherent big picture. Education was about equipping them to join the “great conversation” for themselves, and to make a contribution that reflected an awareness of the moral dimensions of any given subject.

But there is another view, it seems — the “information control” approach. And not surprisingly, Bill Gates is funding it. This story detailing the notion of “Big History” discusses the approach of (ironically enough) Professor Christian, who believes the teaching of history should begin in the highly theoretical and unknown shadows of prehistory. “Big history” began as a college course at San Diego State, and thanks to $10 million from the ubiquitous Mr. Gates, it has been taken into the high school classroom as well:

Students like the way it weaves different disciplines, from cosmology to biology, into a coherent whole. A modern origin story, Christian calls it, told through the prism of science. Big history expands not only the scale of history but also the sort of questions historians and their students are encouraged to ask… His lectures are peppered with phrases such as Goldilocks conditions and smoothie state, plucked from the lexicon of big history. It’s a dizzying pace, 14 billion years of history in a single semester. Humans do play a role, of course, but a relatively small one.

It begins with “the Big Bang” and extends to today. One wonders what of any value could actually be learned with such an impossibly broad focus — in time, and in discipline. History, science, and religion all are interwoven in the content of the course. Yet it purports to make all the connections for students, making claims about nothing short of the meaning of life.

Its critics argue that this is not history at all, much less “Big History.” Its supporters argue that it is popular, so how could it not be wonderful?

Of course, it carries its own set of assumptions, which are apparently hammered into kids’ heads relentlessly enough to create existentialists before the end of the semester, as one fifteen-year-old demonstrates:

It made me think a lot more about just the whole universe itself because it all started from the big bang, of course. And when you think about it, he was saying that it would all come to an end soon. So when you really think about it, what are we doing here? It just makes you think that really everything will be meaningless soon.

Of what possible value is this? And how is it anything short of brainwashing when, instead of teaching in-depth knowledge of specific information within a definable historical timeframe, it presents students with a philosophical interpretation of an inconceivably sprawling range of experience, beginning in the purely speculative era of pre-history?

Above all, both stories make me wonder when we elected billionaires and elites to define what our citizenry should believe. This goes far beyond teaching facts and information, and it fails entirely to teach people to think and learn for themselves.

Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of brainwashing:

  1. a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes and to accept contrasting regimented ideas

  2. persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship

It seems obvious that we have brainwashing, in both senses of the word, promoted in the name of public education. The result, if the fifteen-year-old’s conclusion is any indication, should mobilize parents to step into the fray and protect the humanity and hope of our children.

School Year Eve

It’s that time again: the school year is about to start, and the new books and other materials are looking shiny and attractive. Picking out materials is always a favorite part of home education for me! By May (earlier than May, if we’re going to be brutally honest), the bloom will be off the rose, but I like to savor this feeling of anticipation I always have on the brink of a new year.

IMG_0535This year I’ll have a 6th and a 9th grader, and the year will see some new directions for us in terms of curriculum. The main innovations will be in science, history and writing.

I’ve chosen Apologia General Science for this year, complete with text and tests, student notebooks, and the audiobook version of the text for my auditory learners. We have really enjoyed Real Science-4-Kids in the past for biology, chemistry (we used RS4K along with Ellen McHenry’s The Elements), physics and astronomy. But for a full-year course suitable for our grade levels, I thought I’d try something different. I approach science with some trepidation, knowing that Apologia takes a more literal view of Genesis than I do. But if my kids were in public school, chances are they would be getting different worldviews from different teachers, and my philosophy is that we have nothing to fear as Christians. Differences are opportunities for discussion and further examination of our own assumptions. Why should I feel any differently about this? I’m looking forward to the structure and general meatiness of the course, and my youngest has wanted to start for over a month due to the appeal of the student notebook. She’ll get her chance soon!

In history, we’re still taking the chronological approach advocated in The Well-Trained Mind. This year we’re up to the Middle Ages and will be trying out Biblioplan. I ordered the textbooks as hard copies and the four companion books (geography, planning resources, activities, discussion guide) as digital copies that we printed out here. It reminds me a little of Tapestry of Grace, but without being quite so overwhelming. Much of our literature and writing for the year will come through our history study.

In writing I’m taking the leap from Rod and Staff to Brave Writer, using Julie Bogart’s Writer’s Jungle. Rod and Staff has served us well in grammar instruction, and I’ll continue using it with Younger Daughter till she’s through 8th grade. But for Older Daughter I feel that Vocabulary from Ancient Roots, copywork and dictation provide sufficient focus on the nuts and bolts of language. Brave Writer appeals to me as a former writing instructor because it doesn’t advocate teaching writing through formulas. It doesn’t hide the difficulty of writing behind a facade of checklists and rules. Instead, it focuses on helping the student to face that terrifying blank sheet of paper by reaching down into herself and sorting out her own perspective and voice. It will be a new adventure for us, but one that includes more writing than Rod and Staff has required. The writing will also be more varied than the book summaries we’ve been doing for years.

State history and critical thinking for YD, Spanish and health for OD, and a few other subjects will round out the year. We’re enrolled in a co-op for music, art and gym, and it has been a good fit for us in the past. But lately I have had the sense that it’s not working as well for us, and though there are other co-ops around, I’m not sure what we would do to replace it. I remember that early in my home schooling endeavor, I read in The Well-Trained Mind that it can be difficult to find group opportunities that really fit. We have chosen this co-op for its social opportunities for the girls, rather than for its school-related content. But to me the ideal is interest-centric socialization, where you join with others who share your interests and the social life falls into place around the shared activities. 4-H has provided a great social framework for our interest in horses. I’d like to find (or help to create) its equivalent in our other areas of interest (art and nature).

For the moment, though, we have a fair amount of new experience sitting on the shelf downstairs, waiting to be used. I hear the books calling — but for just a little while longer, I’m going to enjoy a summer that has flown by all too quickly!

Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)

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My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…

 

Beauty in the Word

Beauty in the Word covThough Catholic schools are the ostensible audience, Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word is a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the subject of education — or worried about current trends. The book explores the classical trivium and shares many insights into the nature of learning as well as the power of language, story and tradition. It’s a great read for anyone who needs a refresher on the purposes of homeschooling or other educational pursuits.

I liked it partly because it presented to me some things I already believe. One is that stories are important — perhaps more important than the much vaunted “informational texts” that form an increasingly large proportion of the required reading in the common core. Stories matter because they link us to the past, they compress and layer meaning, and they provide us with the tools we need to creatively interact with our own lives, reorganizing our experience into narrative so that we can better understand it.

Caldecott draws many threads into his argument. In discussing the role of tradition, for instance, he considers the subtle alterations our technologies bring to our understanding of knowledge. Technology, he writes,

tends to eliminate tradition, and with it the possibility of a truly human living in time. If human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace, the past too becomes something we treat as external to ourselves, something other than us, something we sit back and observe… [as] a detached observer of the grid of knowledge, an insatiable consumer set loose in an infinite supermarket of information… The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man. But the purpose of the mechanical order that currently dominates education is for man to serve the growth and further evolution of the machine.

Sobering words, especially when we consider the heavy-handed presence of Bill Gates in promoting the common core. It sounds laudable to speak of developing software tailored to individual learning styles, but are we teaching children to think and master knowledge, or merely to be competent technicians, dependent on the rapidly changing and expensive world of I.T.? Better to educate in such a way as to help children recognize that they have a stake in a world of ideas much older than they are. Moral sensibility grows from this perspective.

I also liked Caldecott’s casting of the purpose of education as a conversion of heart and mind — a pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. It’s not to prepare us to do our share for the global economy. It’s not to fit us for a career and provide us with an income. It’s to make us more fully human in the way God intended us to be, and ultimately to pursue him — the source of all truth and beauty. As I read, I thought of the young Calormene warrior who worshiped Tash in Lewis’ The Last Battle. He recognized and loved the truth, and ultimately he discovered that he’d really sought Aslan all along. However relentlessly the modern world paves over our innate spiritual inclinations, we can educate in such a way as to encourage a love for truth and beauty. As Caldecott puts it, “The kind of education we want is one that fits us to know the truth that will set us free.”

I’ve only barely scratched the surface in this review. There was a good bit of discussion of some favorite authors in these pages — Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald — that I’d like to reread. As I expected from the book description, there was a fair amount of discussion of Catholicism as well, but one doesn’t have to be Catholic (I’m Protestant myself) to find much of value in Caldecott’s argument. As happens all too often in this season of my life, I reached the end of this book feeling that I had not attended to it, or paused to reflect, nearly as well as it deserves. All I can do is recommend it as a worthwhile read for the educator or parent who senses a need for insight and inspiration.

Factory or Garden?

I thought this was an interesting article about ADHD. It discusses the insights yielded by recent research on children with ADHD. Apparently, in these children the connections between the area of the brain largely responsible for focus and other regions are slower to develop.

factory-chimney-1445484-mThis suggests that it’s simply a matter of brain maturity occurring at a slower pace in these children. Time takes care of it. But I find it interesting that the emphasis in researchers’ responses is on “treatment.”

We wouldn’t normally “treat” a process occurring naturally. Treatment implies illness. But because our public education model is essentially a factory, we have to do what we can to make everyone the same — not just by mass producing a certain product, but by making sure that the raw materials are as nearly identical as possible.

I prefer a different model — one that was presented to me by my reading this morning:

Thought in a child arises naturally. The job of the teacher is to encourage and defend it from being blighted and destroyed, to strengthen it and enable it to flourish. Education is more like gardening than manufacturing. (Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education)

seedling-1262982-m

Challenges

Homeschooling with a new puppy and a bum foot is quite the experience. I’ve wondered before how folks with a newborn or a toddler manage to homeschool the older siblings. I think I have just the tiniest taste of it now.

For one thing, my recovery from foot surgery got a setback when my appointment to have the stitches removed revealed that I’d had an allergic reaction to mastisol, the adhesive they paint over the incisions to fasten the surgical tape.  Let’s just say it’s involved blisters and lots of soreness, and it has meant a longer recovery time. This means I continue to move at a fraction of a mile an hour despite having many things to do.

One of these things is taking care of a puppy. Another is spending uninterrupted instructional time with my 4th and 7th graders. These two imperatives haven’t really worked together very well. Hundreds of breaks in concentration for puppy potty trips and cuteness interruptions. There is also laundry that I have trouble keeping up with, and vacuuming that seems always to be desperately needed — thanks to all the trips outside in a sloppy season. I still need to cook, and going to the grocery store is daunting — unless I defy my self-consciousness and use the little motorized carts to whiz around the store.

And yet… blessing. Wonderfully cooperative daughters. A husband who brings home the bacon and stays on duty once home. A sister who is a nurse and has generously helped me deal with the mess at the end of my leg. And of course, Lucy.

pup

The end is in sight! She’s almost housebroken; my foot is almost ready to start soaks and lotion; so far, everyone has had clean clothes to put on every day; school is happening despite resistance. But I will never take for granted two strong feet again!

Random School Musings

I used to do “Homeschool State of the Union” posts in which I wrote about all of the resources we were using, and evaluated how things were going. The longer I’ve schooled, the less I’ve written. Part of it is that our educational efforts become a way of life, along with what we had for supper or what appointments are on the schedule for the week or what we wear. None of these seem like blog post fodder. And part of it is that the book work is within an increasingly detailed learning context. I could “review” our materials till the cows come home (if we had any cows), but it would comprise only a part of the total educational picture. There are academic skills to master and content to learn, but there are also study skills and character goals and “extracurricular” activities and field trips and spiritual growth and family relationships and friends… You get the picture.  It’s very hard to evaluate the whole thing. I did want to note a few reflections here though — bits of the big picture that I’m able to take account of.

The first is my thankfulness for our school space. Last summer we moved the piano out of our walk-out basement, and its spaciousness was all the more noticeable. Initially we moved our two desks out as well, into storage, but a few weeks ago we brought mine back, and it’s so good to have a space for paperwork and a writing/computing surface designated for me. Our walk-out basement is kind of a hodge-podge of furniture that doesn’t match perfectly, but it’s all comfortable, bright, and well stocked with evidence of everyone’s hobbies. There are couches for reading, several writing surfaces, and many bookshelves. There is a fireplace we’re excited about using more, now that we don’t have to worry about the piano soundboard. I am really enjoying having such a pleasant space to locate our materials and book work!

schoolroom1

schoolroom2

I posted recently about a change in my 4th grader’s spelling curriculum. We’ve used Apples and Pears for about two weeks now, and I’m feeling very optimistic about using this different approach. It’s very different from Spelling Workout, but so far the results are good in several ways. It’s scripted, very open-and-go for me, and the lessons include several components each day that don’t demand a long attention span, but that do require concentration. All the books are available to view online at the Sound Foundations shop, for anyone who might be interested.

I begin to feel anxious about my 7th grader’s schooling. I’m entering the phase in which I wonder if I’m challenging her enough. The material in her texts — Saxon math and Rod and Staff English, as examples — is certainly difficult enough, but I wonder if I require enough reading, research, and writing for her level in subjects like history. Noeo science is nicely laid out, but on the whole I enjoyed the combination of The Elements and Real Science 4 Kids better the last time we focused on chemistry. So I struggle with really building in more substance and depth, rather than merely repeating emphases, in science and history for her.

Their independent reading, assigned and for pleasure, seems to be going well, though they are not the book geeks their mother is. Reading aloud, we finished Pinocchio last week and I’ve wondered what to pick up next. For some reason, I grabbed Great Expectations off the shelf and read them the first chapter last night — rather a dark but exciting chapter! — in an effort to introduce them to some unabridged Dickens. I think it’s going to work for us — it’s certainly fun to read aloud!

A cartoon by Norman Thelwell
A cartoon by Norman Thelwell

In the extracurricular realm, we’re enjoying co-op as well as riding lessons at a local morgan farm, 4-H horse club activity, and some limited piano lessons with Yours Truly as the teacher. I love hearing the piano but am not nearly disciplined enough at reminding them to practice.

What a hodge podge of homeschool notes. I could go on and on, but I’ll save it for another day — except to say that all of this happens under two clouds. One is our sense of being without a church. I feel so disillusioned and guarded and adrift. I’ll probably write more about that eventually, if I can find a way to do it.

The second is our dear dog’s cancer. This is my first experience with the day-to-day awareness of a fatal illness. Every day she seems to struggle a little more to breathe, and every day I pray more urgently that the Lord will take her quietly rather than leaving it up to us. He could do it; he could simply stop her heart quietly in her sleep, a mercy to her and to us. It weighs on me so much.

State Capitol

My daughters and I were fortunate enough to accompany some other homeschoolers on a field trip to our state capitol in Albany. The field trip included a program for the kids at the state museum, followed by lunch and a tour of the state capitol building.

I’ve lived in New York State for most of my life, but both of these places were new to me.  It was amazing to hear the story of our capitol building, which took many years to build and ultimately cost more than the White House. I took a few photos of the splendor, none of which really do the place justice — but they give a suggestion, anyway.

thecapitol

hall1

The senate meets here, surrounded by gold-coated walls.
The senate meets here, surrounded by gold-coated walls.

ceiling

Several beautiful staircases
Several beautiful staircases

hall2

Tile
Tile
Peering faces were everywhere...
Peering faces were everywhere…

carving

arch

assem

clock

pillar

Leading into the "war room," where a sobering mural on the ceiling displays the many conflicts in New York's history
Leading into the “war room,” where a sobering mural on the ceiling displays the many conflicts in New York’s history

I’m not especially happy with our government in any way, shape or form right now, but I really enjoyed seeing where good governance is supposed to happen. I think my favorite story was the tale of Teddy Roosevelt coming into office, surveying the many years of labor and money that had been poured into the still unfinished capitol building, and saying, simply, “No more.” He shut it down; its tower was never built, and the stone carvers packed up their tools and left before all surfaces were carved. But he made a solid, common sense decision. It can be done! People in office, take heed.

Challenges

21“Perhaps I can be of some assistance — a-s-s-i-s-t-a-n-c-e,” buzzed an unfamiliar voice, and when Milo looked up he saw an enormous bee, at least twice his size, sitting on top of the wagon.

“I am the Spelling Bee,” announced the Spelling Bee. “Don’t be alarmed — a-l-a-r-m-e-d.”

Tock ducked under the wagon, and Milo, who was not overly fond of normal-sized bees, began to back away slowly.

“I can spell anything — a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g,” he boasted, testing his wings. “Try me, try me!

 

The other morning, I came out to the kitchen and saw that someone had added an item to my whiteboard grocery list:

bagelse

The telltale “e” on the end alerted me to the identity of the culprit. That “e” is a flail, an insurance policy tacked on “just in case.” If she wrote the word again, she might spell it differently. It’s occurred to me that this child would have thrived in the Renaissance, when non-standard spelling was the only rule to remember. Unfortunately, we live in the 21st century.

Everyone says that one of the great advantages of home education is that you can tailor your instruction to the learning style of each child individually. Lately it’s really registering with me that I have to do something different in spelling with Child #2. Child #1 has used Spelling Workout with good results. But Child #2 has been using it for 3 years (this is the fourth), and she has learned nothing. And it’s largely my fault, with my desire to stick with the known. Where’s the Spelling Bee, from Norton Juster’s Phantom Tollbooth, when I need him?

Child #2 is very smart, but very different than her sister in a number of ways. In math she’s sailing along, and in her conversation she often startles me with sophisticated vocabulary and deep insight. But with the written word — handwriting and spelling — it’s a very different story. Coming to terms with this — and also with the discomfort of having only the most intuitive understanding of how she might learn more effectively — I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few days researching different spelling curricula online. I wanted to use SRA Spelling Through Morphographs, but the cheapest used version I could find was $189 on ebay. Finally I decided on Apples and Pears, a program originating in the UK but available here in the states. Like the SRA program, it breaks words down into their smallest units and focuses more on word construction than memorizing lists and rules. It uses short lessons and LOTS of repetition, spiral fashion.

Last night, having made my decision and printed out the placement tests, I went to bed. But not before passing the whiteboard once again, and seeing yet another item added to the grocery list:

ice creame

I’ve put off a change for a long time. Now it can’t happen soon enough.