• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 16/Grade 11, 14/Grade 9, and 13/Grade 8.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Christmas in July

Bingo!

Even before we started home schooling, I started adding to the Golden Books, especially the Giant and De Luxe Golden Books, collection of my childhood.  I’ve been able to find more titles at garage sales and the Goodwill shop in town, and Abebooks when necessary. Some of our favorites are The Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson, and illustrated beautifully by Cornelius DeWitt — perfect for the grammar stage — and Ben Hunt’s crafts and lore books (which I’ve written about before, including here).

The two most elusive titles have been The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent and illustrated by Harry Lazarus, and  The Giant Golden Book of Biology, written by renowned children’s science writers Gerald  Ames and Rose Wyler, and illustrated by the even more renowned Charles Harper.  I’ve written about the scarce Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments before (here and here); that one is scarce because of the subject and because of nonsense (including much internet nonsense) that the book was once banned, by the government no less.

The Golden Book of Biology owes its popularity and high prices not to its content but to Charley Harper’s artwork and his popularity among graphic artists and designers, and the recent Todd Oldham-inspired Charley Harper renaissance.  Copies of The Giant Golden Book of Biology, published in 1961, the 1967 revised edition (The Golden Book of Biology), and the 1968 second edition have been selling for anywhere from $100 to $600. I’m not a collector of graphic design works* and didn’t want the book to put on the shelf, I just wanted a good quality working copy my kids could read.

Well, I finally lucked out  the other week with a 1967 copy at eBay, and while I didn’t pay anywhere in my customary 25 cents to $5 range, I didn’t pay anywhere near $100 either (or $500, yikes); little enough that I can leave the book on the coffee table for the whole family to enjoy and let the kids read it without encasing them or the book in plastic.  So the lesson here is that patience will pay off…

For me these books, and many of the Giant and De Luxe Golden Books, on astronomy (also by Rose Wyler and Gerald Ames), the human body, natural history, physicsworld geography (“A Child’s Introduction to the World”), world history, mathematics (another one with crazy prices), and the Golden Book encyclopedia set, are desirable because although they remain, after 40 to 50 years, some of the very best examples of children’s nonfiction. As MAKE’s Mark Frauenfelder wrote about The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children’s science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids’ science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today’s children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.

This blog post at Codex xcix shows a number of illustrations from the book, which gives you an idea of just why the book is so desirable for the art alone. Codex writes,

Charley admitted that he had to learn the subject while he was doing the illustrations, after all, he was an artist, not a scientist. The result, however, was a masterpiece – the quintessential mid-century children’s science text. It is widely seen as his magnum illustratus and has been widely influential to two generations of illustrators and designers. Todd Oldham described it as “…one of my favorite things I’ve ever had in my life,” and the illustrator Jacob Weinstein as “the world’s most attractive textbook.”

More illustrations from the book are at this Grain Edit post.

If you get the chance at library book sales or garage sales, keep your eyes peeled for books by Gerald Ames and Rose Wyler, who were married to each other and who together and separately wrote 50 or so children’s books, mostly on science but also on (science-based) magic tricks and other subjects.  Their publishers included Golden/Western, Harper & Row for a number of Science I Can Read Books, and Julian Messner. According to their individual obituaries in The New York Times, Mr. Ames died in 1993 at the age of 86,  Miss Wyler died in 2000 at the age of 80;

Ms. Wyler once recalled that as a girl she ”always had a collection of stones, bugs or leaves and always wanted to know more about nature.” She never could find books on nature as a child, she said, so at 11 she decided she was going to write them.

Among their best known titles: the highly recommended The Giant Golden Book of Astronomy: A Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space (1950), Magic Secrets (first published in 1954 and still in print as an I Can Read Book), Secrets in Stones (1954), The Earth’s Story (1957), First Days of the World (1958), The First People in the World, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (1958),  Inside the Earth (1963), Prove It! (A Science I Can Read Book, 1964), The Story of the Ice Age (1967), and Spooky Tricks (originally published in 1968 and not too long out of print).

The Messner books, written mostly by Rose Wyler, are lovely for young children if you run across them: the “Science Fun” series, including Science Fun with Toy Boats and Planes (1986), Science Fun with Mud and Dirt (1987), and Science Fun with a Homemade Chemistry Set (1988); and the Outdoor Fun series, including The Starry Sky (1989), Puddles and Ponds (1990), and Seashore Surprises (1991).

*  *  *

Interview with Charley Harper at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

* Although I do have my mother’s old copy of Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cook Book, also illustrated by Charley Harper and held together with a rubber band for the past 40 years.

An important lesson for your children, whether or not you home school

just in case you and/or your kids haven’t figured out this whole internet thing yet: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” by Jeffrey Rosen in The New York Times.

Example #1 from the article:

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

Examples #2 and #3:

Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

As Rosen notes,

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts. …

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

Read the article, WITH your children.

Blogging with substance

I haven’t been very good about blog awards, and I think I missed acknowledging the last one which arrived last year some time (my apologies to whoever sent it along).  This time I thought I’d better be more timely about acknowledging it, so a big thank you to Subadra at Library of Books, Links & More for thinking of me along with nine others for the “blog with substance award”. Subadra definitely blogs with substance — head over to her blog for hundreds of home schooling links, especially for science and math.  Thanks so much to Subadra for thinking I blog with substance.  At this point I’m happy to be blogging, period!

I’m supposed to acknowledge the rules of the award:

1. Sum up your blogging motivation, philosophy and experience in exactly 10 words.

Oh dear, motivation, eh?  I haven’t exactly been motivated.  I suppose I have to give the award back now…

(I’m not very good at coloring within the lines, either. So much for 10 words, or 10 blogs.)

2. Pass it on to 10 other blogs with substance.

I’m going to do something different and instead of picking friends who blog — usually other home schooling bloggers, or kidlit bloggers — pick blogs by bloggers who don’t know me at all.  If you’re at all interested in science, you might already read some of the best contemporary science writers, many of whom have blogged at ScienceBlogs.  In which case you probably know about the recent PepsiCo blog fiasco, and if not, you can read all about it here, and at The Guardian too.  A number of ScienceBloggers decided the situation was untenable, opting to remove their blogs from ScienceBlogs.  They are the blogs with substance I’m choosing, and while they don’t need a pat on the back from a home schooling mother, I think their actions deserve recognition and their new homes deserve publicity.  And they are always science writers worth reading, wherever their blog homes are:

Bora Zivkovic  at A Blog Around the Clock; his farewell post at ScienceBlogs is a thorough explanation of the situation

David Dobbs at Neuron Culture

Rebecca Skloot at Culture Dish; Ms. Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Blake Stacy at Science after Sunclipse

PalMD at White Coat Underground

GrrlScientist, one of Farm School’s favorite science bloggers because she’s “an evolutionary biologist/ornithologist who writes about E3: Evolution, Ecology and Ethology, and the subtle relationships between these phenomena, especially in birds”

Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science; Ms. Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter and the author of the recent The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Maryn McKenna at Superbug; Ms. McKenna is an award-winning science writer and author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA

Suzanne E Franks at Thus Spake Zuska

Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math (no new home as yet)

Chris Rowan and Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous

Travis Saunders and Peter Janiszewski at Obesity Panacea

Eric Michael Johnson at The Primate Diaries in Exile

Dave Bacon at The Quantum Pontiff

Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority (no new home as yet)

Scicurious at Are You Scicurious?

Brian Switek; author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (to be published in November 2010)

Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata

Alex Wild at Myrmecos Blog

(Thanks to Carl Zimmer for his round-up post at his Loom blog — if only I had found it before getting halfway through the list piecemeal!)

Great good chemical fun

I was going through The Barnes & Noble Review the other day and came across Leonard Cassutto’s review of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean (Little Brown; July 2010). Mr. Cassutto says it’s full of “intriguing and edifying accounts” and is “an adventurous, far-ranging survey that offers great good fun”.

I also found author Michael Paul Mason’s review of the book for GalleyCat, from which:

Everyone who has ever sat through a similar chemistry class should write a “thank you” note to science writer Sam Kean, whose book, The Disappearing Spoon, brings the periodic table to life. It’s crammed full of compelling anecdotes about each of the elements, plenty of nerd-gossip involving the Nobel prizes, and enough political intrigue to capture the interest of the anti-elemental among us.

With 118 elements currently listed in the periodic table, the task of chronicling their discoveries and applications is nothing short of herculean, but Kean not only accomplishes the labor admirably, but structures it in such a way that makes the journey through the table a joy rather than a slog.

Sam Kean has been blogging the periodic table this month at Slate in conjunction with the publication of the book — as good a way as any for readers to figure out if they’d like to sit down with the new title.  In fact, as Mr. Kean wrote in the first post,

You might wonder: If I’m giving the milk away for free here on Slate, why buy the cow? Well, I’m not giving the milk away, or at least not much of it. I’ll be covering only 25 or so elements here—the periodic table has (as of April) 118. This blog will contain mostly new material and will also cover newsier topics than the book does. So while the blog gives you a taste of the money, petty politics, quackery, sex, war, and, yes, science in The Disappearing Spoon, it’s only a taste. (If you’d like, you can see the table of contents and a sample chapter here.)

Some fun periodic table extras too at Mr. Kean’s website.

*  *  *

Also at Farm School, lots of periodic table fun with Review: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! by Basher and Dingle

Spreading the word

I belong to the Sciencesongs group at Yahoo and today had word from songwriter Monty Harper at the group:

I’m working on a new CD of unique science songs for kids, and I’m  writing to ask for your help.

The songs are unique because they focus on every-day scientists and  current scientific research. Most of the songs were inspired by the  scientists I’ve had as guest speakers in my “Born to Do Science”  program at the Stillwater Public Library over the past two years.

Specific topics include phototaxic bacteria, stress hormones, wheat genomics, bacterial biofilms, bat taxonomy, x-ray crystallography, and luminescence dating! The deeper messages are that science is a process done by real people; science is important, cool, fun, and relevant; and science belongs to everyone!

I’m trying to raise the money to make a really top-flight recording, one that families will want to hear again and again.

You can watch Monty‘s pitch video for his “Songs from the Science Frontier” here.  I figure home schooling families are a pretty natural audience for a project like this, so if you’re interested, let Monty know.

*  *  *

More science songs to listen to this summer:

Singing Science, science songs from 1950s-60s LPs; we love these.  EEK — no link any more!  Here’s the old link which apparently no longer works. Try this too, from the Wayback machine. I have these already, but have no idea where to send you so you can get them if you don’t already have them. Drat. If anyone knows, please leave information in the comments. You can read about the songs, from the six-LP “Ballads for the Age of Science” series by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer (covering space, energy and motion, experiments, weather, and nature) here.  You could probably, it occurs to me, find them somewhere online to download if you Google “singing science” and “torrent”.  Just an idea…

You can find oodles of science songs if you just Google “science songs”.  Some of the better sites:

Kiddie Records Weekly, where you can find some vintage LPs to download, including “By Rocket to the Moon”, “Space Ship to Mars”, and “What Are Stars?”

PhysicsSongs, more general than just physics; Prof. Walter Smith’s labor of love

Science songs at Songs for Teaching

And some Charles Darwin and evolution songs in my old Darwin Day post, which includes information on MASSIVE: a database for “Math And Science Song Information, Viewable Everywhere”. The database, which is maintained by Greg Crowther and is part of the National Science Foundation’s National Science Digital Library,

contains information on over 2500 science and math songs. Some of these songs are suitable for 2nd graders; others might only appeal to tenured professors. Some songs have been professionally recorded; others haven’t. Some are quite silly; others are downright serious.

A delight, which you can also listen to all day, all week, all year at MASSIVE Radio — many thanks to Greg Crowther (of the Yahoo Sciencesongs group) and the band Science Groove for putting it all together. Read more about them here.

And don’t forget the granddaddy of them all, the great Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements”, here and here.

Your own private writing seminar

with John McPhee, via the Spring issue (now online, thank goodness) of The Paris Review.

For example, the importance of using an outline, from the interview with Mr. McPhee by Peter Hessler, “The Art of Nonfiction No. 3″:

INTERVIEWER
Where did this method come from?

MCPHEE
It goes back to Olive McKee at Princeton High School, and the structural outline that we had to have before doing any piece of writing. It came up again when I worked at Time. My first cover story just floored me. It was five thousand words, and I really struggled with the mass of material. I was pretty unhappy. It was just a mess—a mess of paper, I didn’t know where anything was. So I went back to Olive McKee and the outline, sorting through this matrix of material, separating it into components and dealing with one component at a time.

INTERVIEWER
Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?

MCPHEE
It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Also in the Spring issue, Ray Bradbury interviewed on the Art of Fiction, by Sam Weller, from which,

INTERVIEWER
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?

BRADBURY
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.

INTERVIEWER
You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?

BRADBURY
You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

Read the rest of Mr. Bradbury’s interview, especially on why he refused to write the screenplay for War and Peace, here. (I wrote about Mr. Bradbury and libraries last year here.)

And don’t miss the Review’s interview index, with gems from 1953 to the present.

*  *  *

Books by John McPhee, wonderful wonderful stuff and the perfect living books to include in your home school studies with older children, especially for science.  If you have to choose only one, make it Annals of the Former World, Mr. McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of four books on the geological history of North America, published in a single volume in 1998.

Today in Canadian History

A new podcast from Calgary radio station CJSW: Today in Canadian History.  The podcasts began on July 1, Canada Day, and will last a year. The series is produced by Joe Burima and Marc Affeld. Original music created by Calgary jazz musicians Simon Fisk, Steve Fletcher, and Jon May, and original (very cute) artwork, which you can see at the blog, is provided by Reid Blakley.

From the initial blog post,

Today in Canadian History was launched on Canada Day of 2010. Each episode of the series contains an interview with a Canadian professor, journalist, author, or “everyday” historian and focuses on a unique event or moment that took place on that day in Canadian history. To date, the series has received contributions from over sixty individuals from across Canada.

As a podcast and radio series, Today in Canadian History presents Canada’s past in a unique and accessible manner. The series is designed to be a first step to learning more about our past. We would like to remind Canadians not just about what makes our country great, but what makes it complicated, beautiful, diverse, and ours.

Podcast subjects since the beginning of the month have included Canada Day, the Battle of the Somme, hockey player George Edward “Chief” Armstrong, Norman Bethune, Roy McGregor on the 1917 disappearance of artist Tom Thomson, Pierre Berton’s birthday, Rupert’s Land, and the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Think of it as a maple leaf a day…

Dread-ful children’s poetry

From poet Robert Pinsky’s article in today’s Slate on why “the best poems for kids aren’t the soft and saccharine ones”:

I have heard the superb writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak say that he does not set out to make works for children: He tries to make good stories and pictures. As someone who has read aloud to children many times, I feel grateful to Sendak and to Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss and other writers who have rescued me from the shallow stuff marketed as “for children” that I sometimes have found myself reading aloud.

and, on Edward Lear, Walter de la Mare, and Robert Louis Stevenson,

All three of these poets do not approach the experiences and interests of childhood with a knowing chuckle or a tidy closure of reassurance. They respect the imagination, including its elements of mystery and dread.

Read the entire piece here.  Very much of a piece with Mr. Pinsky’s 2007 article for Slate, “In Praise of Difficult Poetry”.  Today’s article includes pieces by all three poets, some read aloud by Robert Pinsky, who is Slate‘s poetry editor, and the former US Poet Laureate, and who will be joining in the discussion of classic children’s poetry in the comments section this week.  And Slate’s poetry podcast page is here.

*  *  *

Additional Robert Pinsky links:

As Poet Laureate, Mr. Pinsky created the Favorite Poem Project to encourage Americans to read their favorite verses aloud.

Last year saw the publication of Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, a book and CD set edited by Mr. Pinsky.

Also good to read: the 2007 Mother Jones article on Robert Pinsky the poetry popularizer, and Mr. Pinsky himself, “In Praise of Difficult Poetry” (mentioned above), and on “Poetry and American Memory”.

A laughing sound

That would be me, delighted because Colleen Mondor in her latest Bookslut in Training column recommends as her Cool Read The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: A Birder’s Journal by Sallie Wolf.  Delighted because next month is Laura’s 13th birthday, and the book — a “blend of poetry, field guide and nature notes” — sounds perfect for her.  Colleen, who also blogs at Chasing Ray, writes,

Wolf arranges her entries by season, and includes bird lists, haiku, observations, ruminations, watercolor illustrations and drawings on every page. Essentially, she is inviting the reader into her life, providing a space at her window and her desk. It is a very personal work, for all that it does not share about Wolf’s actual personal life. You are merely seeing what she sees, and perhaps altering your own conclusions about art and nature through her influence. Teen readers who might be wary of their own creativity, and are reticent to face the blank page, will find a sympathetic fellow artist here — someone who uses the barest of brush strokes to capture the creatures she sees. Exquisitely designed by Charlesbridge, The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound is one of the more elegant books to come across my doorstop in a long time. I hope a lot of young birders and artists and poets find it.

I think the book might be a bit young for Laura but I still think she’d enjoy having it, and she can always use another journal.  There’s another bird book I’d really like to get her, too, and while it shouldn’t be listed at an online bookseller for a decent price, it is.  I’ll post the title if I manage to get my mitts on it*.

The publisher’s page with various links and downloads is here.  Sallie Wolf has a blog and a website (where I learned that much like Davy, as a child Sallie loved Ben Hunt books and wanted to be a Mohawk. Davy wants to be an Iroquois, but why quibble?)

You can find all of Colleen’s warm weather reading titles for your favorite children and young adults in this post, Summertime, and the Reading Is Easy.

* Apparently the book is still in stock and winging its way to me:  the hardcover edition of Tim Birkhead’s The Wisdom Of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, for $10.11 CAN, much cheaper and sturdier than the paperback edition coming out in March.  And for some reason the copies at Amazon.ca are  $26.92 and $39.57 — odd.

The Idle Parent

I’ve been waiting to read some North American reviews of Idler Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, finally published on this side of the pond in May by Tarcher, but they’ve been pretty thin on the ground.

I did find a mini review in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Keith Goetzman wrote,

Most parenting books lack three elements that The Idle Parent has in spades: an intellectual bent, a distrust of the status quo, and a robust sense of humor. Despite the title, this book celebrates not laziness but the opposite, a deep engagement with the world outside of plastic toys, mind-numbing television, and craven capitalism. Author Tom Hodgkinson borrows heavily from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in both words and ideas, grounding his modern alt-parent outlook in the classics.

but that was about it.

I’ve been intrigued by Tom Hodgkinson’s idling for a while now (see June 2008’s Tonic and Toast) and was intrigued last year by the idea of his book on raising children, out in the UK in Spring 2009 with the original subtitle “Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” (I’m a big believer in less is more when it comes to raising and teaching kids), and excerpted in Slate shortly thereafter; unofficial subtitle, by the bye, is “Parents first”. From which,

This last summer holiday, quite remarkably, we found ourselves lying in bed till 10 or 11 on several occasions, and this with children aged 3, 6, and 8 in the house. Sometimes, agreed, they would come and wake us by doing horrible things, jumping on our legs, “rampaging” as we called it, and hitting one another. But after we’d chucked them out a few times, they began to look after themselves. They are all quite capable of pouring milk on cereal, and Arthur, the oldest, can make tea and porridge.

Children actually have an inbuilt self-protective sense that we destroy by over-cosseting. They become independent not so much by careful training but in part simply as a result of parental laziness. Last Sunday morning, Victoria and I lay in bed till half past 10 with hangovers. What a result! And the more often you do this, the better, because the children’s resourcefulness will improve, resulting in less nagging, less of that awful “Mum-eeeeeeeh” noise they make. They can play and they will play.

So lying in bed for as long as possible is not the act of an irresponsible parent. It is precisely the opposite: It is good to look after yourself, and it is good to teach the children to fend for themselves. Our offspring will be strong, bold, fearless, much in demand wherever they go! Capable, cheerful, happy.

I got rather distracted by gardening last month, and pretty much forgot about more reviews of the book, not to convince me of the book’s merits but to see how Tom’s parenting ideas would be received in the United States.  And then a friend, another former New Yorker, sent me a link to a recent New York Magazine cover story on why parents hate parenting,

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses. [Remember the part about "Parents first"?]

Which explains why Tom’s book hasn’t made much of a splash.  Because nowadays a good many North American parents are running around rather than idling, putting themselves last.  In addition to abandoning the (very helpful) component of benign neglect, parenting has become professionalized, as Jennifer Love writes in the NYM piece,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Compare the two on the subject of “choices”.  Ms. Senior writes,

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

And then there’s Tom Hodgkinson,

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

This excerpt on choices and complaining/whingeing is one of the favorite pieces I’ve read from the book,

Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?'”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by … John Lloyd [the producer of Black Adder and Spitting Image]. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

Read the rest here, which includes the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting.

Should you need to apply some “less is more” to raising children, Tom has a website for the book, “The Idle Parent: How to Enjoy Family Life: Tips, Discussion, Resources, Links”, which includes lots of excerpts, such as “Discover how to intersperse loafing with Latin”. And really, if the point isn’t enjoying life as a family, what it is it?

*  *  *

By the way, over at The Idler’s main website, you can learn about The Idler’s Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment (motto: Libertas per Cultum, or “freedom through education”).  You will also learn about such intriguing things as Latin tea towels, which I think I want.  For the children to do the washing up, of course. And practicing their Latin after dinner won’t hurt, either.

Summer garden tour

In 16 years, I haven’t had the same gardening weather two years in a row.  This year we’ve had very strange weather, first quite dry, which has been standard for the past long while, but then quite wet (though not as wet as Saskatchewan, thank goodness), and some very warm days and fairly cool nights.  Which has all resulted in some things growing like gangbusters, but other things rather  more slowly than in previous years.  I’m as confused as the plants.  The carrots took forever come up (though I didn’t have to seed them three times, as so many of us had to do last year), but they’re already considerably larger than at this time last year.  Apologies for the wonky light, which is different in almost each picture, which I took at various times of day beginning several weeks ago and ending today.  I’m putting these up for me for next year and also for my mother, so she can see what I spend most of my day doing (not including cutting dead branches off shelterbelt trees and running to town for baler parts).

My dipladenia, which spends fall through early spring indoors,

A mimulus,

Behold, papyrus on the prairies! An experiment this year, a small water garden.  Last year I noticed the nursery was selling plastic baskets already planted with water plants, and was intrigued. This year, I succumbed. The garden seems to be happy and doing well because the one plant is blooming with lovely yellow flowers,

Some of my many pansies,

My rose starting to bloom last week; I think told Sheila it’s the Explorer rose, Alexander Mackenzie, but now that it’s in full bloom, I think it’s Explorer David Thompson; it’s my Alexander Mackenzie coming back slowly from a bad winter kill, down to about four inches,

Mr. Thompson just before bursting into bloom,

My ornamental rhubarb has never, in all of its five or six years, looked like this — it has never put out such flower stalks, or been so tall.  And until this year it was always more horizontal than vertical.  I like the leaves on the stalks, which rather remind me of flying birds.  Here’s Davy with the rhubarb one evening last week,

I took this picture of just the stalks the week before,

Poppies everywhere,

I can’t for the life of me remember the name of this perennial, which is growing under my nicest peony, and I can’t find my tag (though the writing is probably faded anyway, drat).  Sheila, do you know?  It’s one of my favorite plants, easy to grow, lovely to look at, goes with everything, and fairly uncommon (which of course is why I can’t remember its name at the moment). The flowers look like little drawstring pouches,

Peony and mystery flower,

My other peony plant, with blooms just opening today,

The columbines, which seem to be thriving with our weather.  Some of the older plants seem to be a riot of blooms,

The simple, elegant white columbines square off against the gaudy, two-tone fuchsia hussies,

Some recently planted lettuces and dill,

The irises several weeks ago, at the height of their bloom.  They’re gone now,

My strawberry beds, on the south side of the garage (tomatoes in pots in front), newly mulched with chipped trees,

My new experiment this year — red-painted “rock strawberries” to discourage the robins,

A day’s pickings,

Earlier in the spring, I needed an extra plant stand while potting up my plants, and found the following, which Tom had rescued from garbage pile behind the supermarket; once I removed the signs/posters on the side and front for all the breads, it was quite spiffy. And it’s on wheels!

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.

In search of lasting import

Over on the right, in one of the sidebars (“Our Curricula/For the Parents”) ever since I started this blog about four years ago has been a link to Jane Healy’s book, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, first published in 1999. It was one of the first books I read after we decided, fairly abruptly, to begin home schooling, and it dovetailed neatly with our choice of a classical education.

As Dr. Healy wrote back in 1991 (here),

Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning. In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today’s students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally, and to attend to complex problems.

Recently, Dr. Healy’s ideas have been supported by Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the new book arising out it, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; and last month’s report from Duke that high speed internet and universal access to home computers “widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores”.  Worth noting that the study took place from 2000-2005, before MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter took off.

And in today’s New York Times came David Brooks’ column, ‘The Medium Is the Medium”, about a new study; from the column,

Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

…there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

As Brooks writes, emphases mine,

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

And more, emphases still mine,

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.

I’d tell you to read the rest, but I’ve included pretty much the entire piece above because I think David Brooks wrote such an important essay that supports what so many of us are trying to do with a classical education. There will always be two camps on this — witness one of the column comments that a friend’s son improved his reading by playing World of Warcraft — and neither side will be much convinced of the other’s merit, but I’m happy to be in the Brooks camp.

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