• 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, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)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"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "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."

    "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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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

For Beslan, School No. 1

No. 645
by Emily Dickinson

Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen —
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs — between —

For Strangers — Strangers do not mourn —
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first — ’tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves —

Who, vital only to Our Thoughts —
Such Presence bear away
In dying — ’tis as if Our Souls
Absconded — suddenly —


Their Island Story

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
Rudyard Kipling

One of my favorite places to procrastinate, er, get ideas for our classical homeschooling is the Tanglewood Education website. One of the books I’ve been toying with adding to our collection is An Island Story by H.E. (Henrietta Elizabeth) Marshall, which Tanglewood uses as a main history text in part because it was used by Charlotte Mason in her own schools; the original British title is, of course, Our Island Story: A Child’s History of England, from Tennyson’s stirring and most English Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, “Not once or twice in our rough island-story/ The path of duty was the way to glory.” I would use it as a supplement, since it’s scope isn’t broad enough for us, mainly because we’re not English. Well, partly but not entirely :). I could just start printing the book from The Baldwin Project online, but there’s something about a real, bound book, not to mention the fact that for what it could cost me in printer ink, I could have that nice bound copy.

I was surprised to read in The Economist the other day that Island Story has been out of print in England for over 50 years. But thanks to the think-tank Civitas, it’s being reissued just in time for its centennial, with a publication date of September 22nd; the organization also has plans to give a free copy of the book to every primary school in the country, and is soliciting donations for the endeavor. In his fundraising appeal, Civitas deputy director Robert Whelan writes,

History teaching [in England] is in an equally bad way, but it has not received the same sort of attention. This is unfortunate, as the teaching of history is a vital part of the process of transmitting from one generation to the next knowledge of the events and the institutions which have enabled us to live in a free and prosperous society. In short, the health of our culture depends on each generation knowing where we have come from and how. [This, of course, was a very common theme after the July 7th London bombings, on the lips of Tony Blair and others.]

History is now not even taught in a chronological way. Instead of showing how one event influences others, and how the great men and women of each century have helped to make us to the sort of people we are, children are presented with all sorts of ‘modules’ about topics such as the state of the peasants, the role of women, slavery and the Empire, as if these things can be comprehended without knowing the order in which events occurred. Jumping from one century and one civilisation to another, children end up scarcely knowing if the Battle of Britain or the Battle of Hastings came first. …

We at Civitas want to do something to improve this lamentable situation, and way to proceed is to identify really good material produced in the past but now out-of-print. In the course of our reading and discussions, one title kept coming up: Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall, a classic children’s history book first published in 1905 and now long out-of-print. …

We acquired several copies of different editions of Our Island Story and started reading through it. It was easy to see why the book is remembered with such affection! It is beautifully written, and tells the history of Britain from the Romans to the death of Queen Victoria. Everything is arranged in chronological order, with every chapter bearing the name of the monarch of the period covered. Wars and revolutions, plagues and inventions, great men and women, all parade through these pages, giving the young reader a brilliant picture, simple but accurate, of the way in which our ancestors made us the people we are today.

Leading British historian Lady Antonia Fraser, writing back in June in The Daily Telegraph, whose readers in particular have been particular generous in the fundraising effort, acknowledged her debt to Marshall: “It’s not just the warmth of childhood memory that this book evokes. It was a direct inspiration for me in my career as a historian. It was from having read these stories that I came to realise that, as a study, history has all the best tunes.” She also gave a nod to modern sensibilities,

While the idea of a reprint is hugely welcome, you might initially wonder whether it stands up in today’s climate or whether it contains racist horrors likely to make one cover the children’s eyes. But actually there is not a great deal to cause modern liberal sensitivity to bristle.

There is the occasional eyebrow raiser: in one chapter, the Maoris are depicted as cannibals, which is not an account that would go down terrifically well in New Zealand today. But other than that, the general approach is not all that incorrect. Henrietta Marshall is, for instance, on the side of the colonists in the War of Independence; she believes that one should never have to pay tax without representation.

In the past couple of days, there has been a row about the Royal Navy’s concern about perceived “triumphalism” over the Trafalgar bicentenary. Anyone approaching Our Island Story might also expect a blast of “triumphalism”. But actually, it isn’t there. Marshall is quite a pacifist, with a small “p”. And her approach to history is very personal. …

The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed.

Indeed, the reprinting of this book brings the way that history is taught back into sharper focus. Much has been written about the decline in the learning of “chronological” history, of the fading out of narrative history, of the rise, at the cost to all, of social history that seeks to promote “empathy” yet robs history of its context. Marshall is a great reminder of the power of narrative history. I would regard myself as a narrative historian. I feel very strongly the need for chronology – it drives me mad when people can’t place figures or events correctly. This book sticks out now because it seems to say “I will tell you stories”, an idea with which I profoundly agree.

Lady Antonia goes on to say, “That said, in teaching terms, one should never go back entirely,” but you can read the rest yourself. Nice to have my “ripping yarns” theory confirmed by the experts.

Canadians can buy their copy here, and can reading it while waiting for the reprinting of Our Empire Story next.

Unabridged audiobook versions of Our Island Story are available for purchase from Naxos Audiobooks in three CD sets, and for free from LibriVox, here and here.

Give me the splendid silent sun

We’ve had about four inches of rain in the last two days, bad enough that there were “heavy rainfall warnings” on the radio and television. But it seems to be over. I hope. For now, at least. But there’s been quite a bit of damage (nowhere near on the scale of central Europe though), and we heard that most of the houses in the west end of town experienced some flooding. The phone, of course, is ringing off the hook to get Tom to look at flooded basements or leaking roofs or at least provide an estimate for the insurance company.

If it just doesn’t freeze during the nights, we’ll have a nice end of summer. Please? The garden is just beautiful now, with zinnias and several different kinds of poppies in bloom. The poppies are mostly pinks and reds (though not the ladybird kind with black centers), with some orange California poppies thrown in the mix.

Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun
by Walt Whitman

Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling;
Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard;
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows;
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape;
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals, teaching content;
Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars;
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers, where I can walk undisturb’d…

Very loud, very slow, very simple — and very busy

More coincidences in my life out here on the prairie. First I read about Edward Tufte in the “Low-Tech Chic” (yup, that would me) article in Maclean’s magazine. Tufte and other “modern Luddites” (yup, me again lol)

make a clear distinction between rejecting technology a priori and test-driving innovations with a critical eye. In his infamous screed [now, now] The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, [Tufte] explains how there’s nothing particularly innovative about software that “routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content. PP presentations too often resemble the school play: very loud, very slow, and very simple.”

A few days later I read, over at Daryl’s blog, about first graders learning to use PowerPoint (“PPT is evil”, August 22). And then Tuesday I found this little gem, about a recent project with first graders and fourth graders at the local public school, in our weekly rag (bold elements are mine, all mine):

Mrs. W., who teaches grade four, and Mrs. T., who teaches grade one, teamed up [last year] on a Special Interest Group Technology (SIGTel) project within the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Along with their students, they created an online project entitled Kid Dictionary: Enhancing Student Learning Via Global Communication. …

“What started it is I have keypals over in Sweden, and when we first started this project, we’d been writing back and forth. My students sent 10 English words over the Sweden and they sent us back 10 Swedish translations,” said Mrs. W. With those translations, students created the online Kid Dictionary Alphabet Pages, illustrated with clip art, and also used the translations to create a word wall. Four students took the project a step further and translated the words into a third language, including Afrikaan [sic], Chinese and Ukrainian. The Swedish words were proofread by Mrs. W.’s keypal in Sweden….

Mrs. T.’s grade ones were able to get involved with the project as well. “The grade one involvement was an extension of the grade four projects. In January, they (the grade fours) brought down whatever word they had up that month on the word wall and brought down a picture of it and taught the meaning of the word to one of my students. When the kids understood the word, we went together and they took my [grade one] students on the computers and peer taught them how to use Microsoft Word to type a sentence that had the word in it, to show that they understood the meaning, how to add a border to page, how to send it to the printer, how to save it under their own name, and then my students took the page they had produced back to our room and illustrated it and then we had our own word wall in our classroom that we displayed those on,” said Mrs. T.

“It was really neat for my kids to get to work with the grade fours. It was really neat for them to be given some peer coaching on the computers, but I think the biggest benefit was for the grade four students. To watch those kids teaching the little kids, and the excitement that went on for them and to get to be the teacher for once, that was really neat, really powerful,” said Mrs. T.

Really neat? Maybe, if you’re intrigued by make-work projects and have nothing else you could be learning. But for Tom and me, it’s just more reassurance that the simple, low-tech way is the best, and most powerful, choice for our first grader, who’s been learning to read, write, and use a dictionary* the old-fashioned way.

*Webster’s Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys and Girls, 1945, with some lovely color plates; 50 cents and a bargain at twice the price from a garage sale

It’s definitely not popsicle season any more around here…

We’ve had two inches of rain in the past two days (and the clouds look socked in for tonight) and the mercury hasn’t budged above 50 degrees. And a heavy rainfall warning on the radio for tonight and tomorrow. Ah, August in Alberta. At least it’s not snow lol.

But I have a pot of soup on the stove, cinnamon buns (one batch with raisins and one with pecans, because while all of the raisin-eaters around here will eat nuts, one of the nutty ones will not touch raisins…) and peanut butter cookies in the oven, and stacks of books and movies. Best of all, Tom got rained out of his current job in town (adding a false wall to a store for extra insulation) and so headed to our big shop building with his apprentice and both of the boys to build a new box for the big green dump truck; not only did the boys get to spend all day with Dad, but essentially locked in a candy shop, and able to get lots of exercise in there, too, leaping off assorted bits and pieces and chasing each other around vehicles and cabinetry.

Laura and I spent a nice quiet day working our way through the end of SOTW2 and reading extra books about Gutenberg, the printing press, and Galileo. And we watched “The Private Life of Henry VIII” and “In Search of the Castaways” with Hayley Mills yet again. Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Charles Laughton) as Anne of Cleves is a hoot. Now if I can just keep my child from chanting “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” out loud in the supermarket I’ll be okay…

A coincidence?

I think not.

As the Kansas Board of Education gets ready to decide whether to allow the latest incarnation of creationism, this arrived in my inbox today:

Dear Reader,

In the annals of American humor, Will Cuppy (1884-1949) deserves a chapter all his own, but, with characteristic caginess, he instead lurks among the footnotes, now and then emerging to cast a jaundiced squint at the passing parades of history and nature. InHow to Tell Your Friends From the Apes,” a wise-guy’s guide to our fellow creatures, Cuppy does to the animal kingdom what he did to Hannibal, Columbus, and Miles Standish in “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody,” namely, cuts it down to size. With nary a hint of reverence, awe, or wonder, Cuppy considers our fossilized ancestors, their ape-like progenitors, and assorted birds and beasts; the result is hilarious. His admirer, P.G. Wodehouse, who contributes an Introduction to this volume, gets quickly to the heart of Cuppy’s peculiar genius: “He is the author of the best thing said about Pekingese, viz. ‘I don’t see why they should look so conceited. They’re not better than we are.'” What else can I say? Illustrated.

What else can I say? (Maybe, “Something to read while we wait for the Neanderthals to decide”?) Get your copy from the wise-guys at A Common Reader.

Living history

For her birthday this year, Laura decided she wanted a family adventure instead of a party. More than happy to oblige instead of planning another tea party for half a dozen little girls and their mothers and assorted uninvited siblings, we spent a warm sunny Sunday yesterday at Fort Edmonton Park, 160 acres in the middle of downtown Edmonton. It’s a living history museum, similar to but not as elaborate as Colonial Williamsburg, tracing the growth and development of Edmonton from its origins as a Hudson’s Bay fur trading fort in 1700, to the early pioneer settlement of 1885, to the young city of 1905, and finally the 1920s, on the verge of modernity.

Many of the buildings are originals, donated or bought and moved to the Park. Others are recreations, and all are fitted together very nicely. The fort is a recreation of the original (torn down in 1915), surrounded by real palisades and bastions, and full of real furs and skins — bear, bison, wolf, Arctic fox, raccoon, and even a wolverine or too. The other three eras are represented by “streets,” some longer than others; the 1920s era is still very much an ongoing project. For some reason the official website, mentioned above, is chintzy. This unofficial website is delightful, and you can also learn more at the official Fort Edmonton Foundation website; the Foundation does a lot of hard work coming up with the money to keep the Park going.

The big family favorites were the the ride on the Edmonton Yukon & Pacific Railway, from the entrance to the fort, the fort itself (reconstructed as it appeared in 1846), and 1885 Street, with more than two dozen buildings including period shops (selling souvenirs), businesses, houses, and a church. At the Hutchings & Riley Harness Shop, Laura was allowed to try a girl’s sidesaddle she might have used over 100 years ago

Another highlight was the invitation, from the Edwardian costumed interpreters on 1905 Street, to a gunny-sack race and croquet game on the lawn of the Anglican church. Afterwards, the kids were treated to some homemade lemonade.

The most amazing realization for Tom and me was that the Park, which is tucked away in Edmonton’s river valley, is that at almost no point are you aware of the city’s existence surrounding the Park — you can’t hear it and you almost can’t see it (except for the glimpse of a few houses backing onto the valley near the entrance). Walking around the fort, Tom tried to remember the only time he had been to Fort Edmonton — around 30 years ago, shortly after the fort’s reconstruction in 1970.

Interesting aside, even if you don’t much care for Brad Pitt — there’s talk that the new movie, “The Assassination of Jesse James,” which began filming today in Calgary, will shoot some of the town scenes at Fort Edmonton Park this fall.

An experiment

If this works, this is where we went and what we did yesterday. If this doesn’t work, I won’t be surprised at all and it’s back to the Luddite drawing board.

From Bridget Jones to Shakespeare in one fell swoop

I was getting tired of the cool, rainy weather so feeling rather hopeful about encouraging an Indian summer I picked up the “Summer Double Issue” (August 1, 2005) of Maclean’s magazine yesterday at the library.

Had fun reading Robert Mason Lee’s article about the newish book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith; yes, her husband’s grandfather was the British PM.

Asquith’s premise is that nearly all of Shakespeare’s work contains a coded reference to the politics of his day. This code would have been understood by his intended audience — what Asquith calls the “educated but ordinary” people — but would not have been apparent to his Elizabethan censors. This was crucial, for in Shakespearean times the performance of dissident works led not to the gulag, but to the gallows.

His intention, she believes, was not merely to amuse his audience with subterfuge. Surrounded by a repressive police state and haunted by spies, Shakespeare was concerned that the true historical record of his age would be lost, censored out of existence by the Elizabethan court. “He was much more like a journalist than a scholar,” she told Maclean’s. According to Shadowplay, Shakespeare was also a recusant Catholic [Asquith herself is Catholic] — he refused to attend Church of England services — with ties to similar-minded aristocrats.

“Even if only half of Clare Asquith’s argument turns out to be correct,” Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy has written, “she’s written the most visceral, challenging, and compelling book on Shakespeare’s place in history we’ve had for over twenty years.” And if it all turns out to be correct, she will have single-handedly turned the mighty citadel of Shakespearean scholarship on its head.

Only in the past few decades have historians revised their assumptions about the period. Far from being a happy time of peaceful transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Tudor and Elizabethan reigns were in fact the most brutal and turbulent period in English history. Shakespeare required not only the wit to encode his plays and sonnets with historical references, but the confidence that his works would survive until the day their deeper meaning could be clearly understood by posterity.

Obviously, his works have survived. And Asquith believes that now, four centuries on, she has finally discovered the key to unlocking their hidden messages. If true — and she makes a convincing argument of her case — then it can only heighten appreciation of the Bard’s manifold gifts. “Clearly,” she says, “he is the cleverest man that ever writ.” …

Prior to Asquith, Shakespeare’s works have been considered devoid of topical references, dealing instead with universal themes of love, power and ambition. But it struck Asquith as ridiculous to presume that someone of Shakespeare’s intelligence and curiosity would ignore the momentous events around him — or that the audience would tolerate such disregard.

She began to look for clues in his works, alive to the Elizabethan love of wordplay, puns and double meanings (a love which lives on in England to this day, whether in the endemic crossword puzzles or double entendres of English comedy). Her excitement mounted as she read the texts with new eyes: “I was simply blown away,” she says. “Once I got into the zone, I knew every day, as I would pull the thread that much farther, it would yield something new.” …

Her theories have gained the endorsement of E.A.J. Honigmann, the esteemed dean of Shakespearean scholars [whose Lost Years always reminds me of Agatha Christie’s disappearing act], who at first found them too incredible to believe. He returned her manuscript with the comment, “No, sorry, I can’t accept this.” He later came to stay at the Manor of Mells, where Asquith pleaded her case with what she calls a “full, Technicolor, wide-screen lecture.” At the end of which, Honigmann bowed his head and replied: “You have persuaded me to change my position.”

While I’m a bit put off by Lee’s reference to the new book as “a real-life Da Vinci Code for people who think,” I find the Honigmann support reassuring. I’m thinking that Asquith’s work, perhaps along with The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode, would be lovely additions to the high school curriculum, especially for those seeking to study the plays in more context. Unsurprisingly, Shadowplay isn’t in the library system yet (though I find 77 entries for SpongeBob). But I found this recent essay, “The Catholic Bard: Shakespeare & the ‘Old Religion’,” by Asquith (herself a Catholic), adapted from the book, at Commonweal’s website, which should be enough to keep me busy for now.

I’m also excited about an upcoming reissue of a Shakespeare book I heard about from one of the members at the Latin Classical Education group at Yahoo. The book is Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph. Yes, that Sister Miriam, who also wrote The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. According to the publisher’s website,

In Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, Sister Miriam Joseph teaches writing in the manner Shakespeare was taught—with a thorough grounding in the arts of language: logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the first three of the seven liberal arts, known as the trivium). In Shakespeare’s time, every grammar-school student would have recognized the two hundred figures of speech that Renaissance scholars had derived from Latin and Greek sources (from amphibolgia through onomatopoeia to zeugma). Sister Miriam Joseph organizes these figures into simple, understandable patterns and illustrates each one with examples from Shakespeare.

Sounds like a wonderful addition to the classical homeschool, whether it’s Latin-centered or history-centered. Books like these make me happy that my eldest is only just eight. I have more than a few years to wallow in them myself, and reread the plays, before sharing them with the kids.

Possibly a vg thing

I’ve been annoyed for a few weeks now after finding out (thanks to AustenBlog) that Helen Fielding’s new Bridget Jones’s Diary in The Independent is a subscriber-only perk at the website. Bloody cheek. (Though why is it I don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of paying for plane tickets to have Colin Firth serve me free-trade coffee? Serve me anything, for that matter.)

I wanted to see for myself if the Third Coming (er, Bridget’s, that is) is a good idea or not. I found both books literally laugh-out-loud funny, very embarrassing because Tom would ask what was so funny, and then I’d try to read aloud a passage only to dissolve in more choking, snorting, weeping laughter so that I looked like a even more of a dolt, leaving Tom even more confused (about the source of the humor and his choice of wife) than before.

I’m not thrilled to hear that Bridget is still dithering between Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy, but then again, I’m not surprised either. After all, she is Bridget Jones and this isn’t the Great Books we’re talking about. The first column contained this glimmer of hope, which I was able to find excerpted online elsewhere for free: “Really wanted a little baby to love: though not, obviously, weekend nanny to shag ex-husband.” And, after the London bombings, “[I have] pride at how well am personally handling the crisis. Not entirely sure where pride comes from as have not exactly done anything except resolving to take trainers to work when wearing unsuitable shoes. But still.”

Caryn James in her New York Times* article yesterday hit the genre on the head, writing,

Still vacillating between Mark and Daniel, today’s Bridget has not yet escaped her own shadow. But there is something better at work here. The new column is a reminder that Ms. Fielding is above all a social satirist, whose up-to-the-minute skewerings and sly literary voice are especially suited to the quick turnaround of a serial. The three diary entries that have appeared so far have become increasingly sharp, as she has addressed cultural issues central to our time: Jude Law’s nanny problem, Madonna’s tumble off a horse, terrorism.

Ms. Fielding’s apparently offhand observations are crucial to the literary version of Bridget. It’s not terrorism that Ms. Fielding sends up, but the clichéd responses to it. Bridget’s mother, having just come from her neighbor’s brunchtime karaoke, says: “You have to carry on as normal don’t you? Otherwise the bombers will have won.”

The books – “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” – may be short on novelistic structure, but Ms. Fielding’s literary voice makes them more satisfying than the movie versions, and infinitely superior to her many chick-lit imitators.

In the meantime, I’m sitting tight with my Chardonnay (alright, my Merlot) for BJ3 or until some public-spirited blogger decides to share more snippets.

*you have to register, but registration is free, and you get those nifty recipes on Wednesdays, and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s columns among many other nice things, though not (grumble, grumble) the new crossworld puzzles. Just the old — or Classic, as the Times prefers to market them — ones.

Good moon rising

I wasn’t planning on blogging tonight but as I was sitting at my desk sorting through photographs I caught a glimpse, through the screen door, of an orange moon rising over the trees and into the navy sky. Absolutely gorgeous.

Makes it just the teensiest bit worthwhile that it’s already dark enough (sob) at 9:25 p.m. And the house is completely still — those swimming lessons have knocked the kids out but good.

My swimming stars

The kids spend so much time in pools and in swimming lessons that for the past few years I’ve been training them and me not to get too wrapped up in patches (received for passing a level) or stickers (received when you don’t pass) or passing or levels. It’s the skills and proficiency, and enjoyment too, that matter. I’m so delighted and proud that they leap into the water and get their faces wet bravely and exuberantly, sail off ropes, and cartwheel off diving boards.

Which is why I surprised myself by how giddy I got this morning when all three kids walked out of the weekly swim class with patches and certificates to show that they had each passed their respective levels this week — Davy, level 3; Daniel, level 4; and Laura, level 6 (there are 12 levels in total in the Canadian Red Cross’s Aquaquest program, geared for kids up to 14 years old, and my three have generally been the youngest and smallest in their classes). I am definitely one proud bragging mama now.

I had thought that the boys would probably ace their levels, this being the second attempt for both. We had talked after class last week (after receiving, ahem, stickers) about what they needed to do to improve. In Davy’s case, holding those back floats and front floats for a few more seconds, and in Daniel’s case, keeping his head down and practicing the 15-meter endurance swim. But I really thought that Laura would need several rounds in level 6 before passing, especially with the 50-meter endurance swim and more advanced life-saving skills.

We celebrated afterwards with enormous Lifesaver popsicles sold at the pool, and then promptly drove over to Dad’s worksite to share the good news. And I have to admit that as tired as I am of sitting through two weeks in a row of swimming lessons, there’s a teeny part of me that’s ready to sign them up for round three on Monday, because they are so eager for more pool time and because they could so easily capitalize on this new momentum. Maybe I should just ask Tom if we can make it to the pool for the public swim tomorrow afternoon. Mmm, that’s a plan. And I’m definitely reconsidering swim club for next spring, although we’ll have to rejigger it to make it fit our schedule; Monday through Thursday, every week in May and June, from 5 pm until 6:30 is just way too much to be fun or nice.

Lions and elephants and reparations, oh my

Ordinarily I have a great deal of respect for Cornell but one Professor Josh Donlan is giving me, out here on the Canadian prairie, second thoughts. Not to mention the heebie-jeebies. Aren’t coyotes, cougars, bobcats, and black bears on my doorstep enough? Will I really have to contend with lions, cheetahs, and elephants stalking the kids and me as we garden, go for walks, and do chores? I don’t think I’d mind the camels too much, as long as they leave my vegetables and our crops alone.

As Scientific American reported yesterday,

Josh Donlan of Cornell University and his colleagues propose replacing the large carnivores and herbivores that disappeared from North America 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Noting that humans likely had a part in these extinctions and that our subsequent activities have stunted the evolutionary potential of most remaining megafauna, the scientists say we have an ethical responsibility to address these problems. But rather than just managing extinction, they argue, conservation biology should aim to actively restore natural processes.

Apparently Josh hasn’t been locked in the old ivory tower too long because he does realize that “Obviously, gaining public acceptance is going to be a huge issue, especially when you talk about reintroducing predators…There are going to have to be some major attitude shifts. That includes realizing predation is a natural role, and that people are going to have to take precautions.”

If you’re intrigued or don’t believe me, you can read an interview with the professor here. Michael Crichton must be laughing and rubbing his hands with glee about this “ecological history park.” Just please tell me there was no government grant money involved…

In the meantime, I’m off to build me a fence. A really, really high fence. As high as an elephant’s eye fence, chortle.

An honest-to-goodness literary event in our neck of the woods

A real live author — in fact, one the kids and I have read (and within the past year and for astronomy no less) and liked — is coming to our library this evening for a storytelling presentation about stargazing and myths. We are excited, all of us, very much so.

Joan Galat is the author of the “Dot to Dot in the Sky” series: Stories in the Stars, Stories of the Planets, and most recently, Stories of the Moon. When we started reading them last fall, I was pleasantly surprised to learn not only are the books Canadian, but that the author hails from nearby Edmonton (and like me, she’s a transplant from the U.S.). Laura loved the books’ focus on Greek mythology, which had transfixed her the year before in SOTW1, to explain the planets and constellations. The pictures are quite nicely done too. Stories of the Moon didn’t go over as well as the other two, maybe because we were using them for science and the kids were expecting at least as much science as story (the first two books struck an admirable balance, for us at least).

Blast off time is 7 p.m. tonight.

Hey, ME too…

Found on the Postscript page in the new issue of Real Simple magazine, an excerpt from Philip Done’s 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching:

The main reason I became a teacher is that I like being the first one to introduce kids to words and music and books and people and numbers and concepts and ideas that they have never heard about or thought about before.

Did I already say me too?!

Eight is great!

Happy birthday, babycakes. How you went from being a tiny little thing in my arms to the long-legged, horseback-riding, swims like a fish, history-mad child with such eclectic tastes (Tchaikovsky, the Beatles, rhubarb, ancient Greece, Ukrainian dance, Milton Meltzer, “O Brother Where Art Thou”) still mystifies Daddy and me :).

This with candles, and this, are for you, sweet pea:

Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake
(adapted from Country Living magazine, May 2005; originally titled Gianna’s Chocolate Whipped Cream Cake)

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 tsp. salt (the original recipe calls for 1 tsp. salt)
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
[2 tbsp. anisette liqueur — I omit this because in this household it would defeat the purpose of a lovely chocolate cake; however, I think 1 tsp. of real almond extract in addition to the vanilla would be very nice]
1 cup boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two 9″ round cake pans. Set aside.

2. Bring a small saucepan with at least one cup of water to boil, and maintain boil.

3. In a large bowl of a mixmaster, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, balking powder, and baking soda and whisk together. Beat in oil, milk, eggs, and vanilla and, with the mixer set on medium speed beat for 2 minutes. Reduce mixer speed to low and add 1 cup boiling water.

4. Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the middle of each cake comes out clean. Cool the cakes in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Unmold the cakes and return to the wire rack until completely cool.

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
1-1/2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1-1/2 cups heavy cream, cold
1-1/2 tsp. confectioner’s sugar
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Beat the heavy cream and confectioner’s sugar until soft peaks form. Gently fold in granulated sugar and cocoa until combined.

To assemble cake: place one layer on cake plate. Spread a third of frosting over the layer. Sprinkle with half of the chocolate chips. Top with the remaining layer and spread the remaining frosting on the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle with the remaining chocolate chips. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Top with candles and serve, at the end of a long day of fun with family and friends, with sliced strawberries, a heap of birthday presents and lots of love.

Swimming Lessons (and a Rumplestiltskin-like fit at the end)

The kids have just started their second week of swimming lessons yesterday at the local college pool. They’d been looking forward all year to being in the pool again, and are quite the little fish. Most families around here sign up the kids for just one week, but I tend to think that one week for the whole summer is kind of chintzy. Three weeks at the pool on the audience side of the Plexiglas, however, sends Mom around the bend. I know this because back in 2003, after we had returned from our seven-month stay in the West Indies (where my parents have a house and where we spent most of this past February, too) and after living with a pool in the backyard, I signed them all up for three weeks of swimming lessons. I must have been nuts, and if I wasn’t to start with, I sure was by the end.

The kids did wonderfully well last week. They always seem to be the youngest and smallest in their respective levels, and I wasn’t sure if they would pass at the end of last week; Laura was the best bet, and sure enough, she did it. Pretty proud mama, and proud girl too for meeting all of the requirements, especially the 25-meter endurance swim.

Daniel was defeated by the 15-meter endurance swim, which I tried to explain to him was a very, very long distance for such a young boy. He said he’s going to work on keeping his head down and not stopping. That’s my boy. Davy was barely able to keep his nose above water in his class last week, which took place in the not-quite-shallow-enough end of the pool (he was the only preschooler in the class), though he didn’t get any extra points for spending most of the hour-long class treading water. Of course, he would have passed had he bothered to float on his back and his front for more than five seconds at a time. But then Davy has spent most of the past four years hurrying to catch up to his big brother and his big sister. Going slowly is not something he does naturally; but I’d just as soon have him repeat the level one more time. And a different, more “sympatisch” teacher this week has them in shallower water (bless you, Twyla). By the time he gets to Level 4 next summer, maybe he’ll have added a few inches. I hope.

Only we found out on the way out that there probably won’t be a Level 4 after this month. I was handed a flyer today announcing the new Red Cross Swim program starting next month. Originally, it seemed to be mostly a change in name, from “AquaQuest” to “Red Cross Swim Kids.” According to the Canadian Red Cross website, “The cornerstone of the Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety programs is AquaQuest, designed for youth aged 3 to 14 years. The 12 levels of AquaQuest ensure that swimmers progress gradually as their maturity, physical strength and abilities develop. Each level provides the student with swimming (strokes) improvement and water safety knowledge, for a well-rounded water experience.”

According to the flyer, “Red Cross Swim Kids for children six years and older [uh oh — if they are strict about age rather than ability, Davy will be sidelined for at least year in the Preschool program, which seems to involve “engaging animal themes” rather than actual swimming instruction] will replace AquaQuest with a fresh approach to swimming and water safety education [I always worry about this “fresh approach” business, especially when it comes to something as basic as learning to swim. How fresh can you get, really?].”

A lightbulb went off a few sentences later. Rather than teaching mainly swimming and water safety, the new program includes a big fitness component; the Red Cross has jumped on the overweight/obese children bandwagon. Sure enough, a quick trip around the website led to a press release from last month, “Obesity Rates Rise, but Red Cross Fights Back.” While I agree that exercise for kids is vital, I don’t know if swimming lessons are the right place to include this extra material. Maybe in addition to swimming lessons, but not in place of them, which is what this looks like. Of course, if you teach kids to swim and make the lessons enjoyable, they’ll probably want to continue swimming for fun. Or is that just too easy? This rather reminds me of how the local public schools have elbowed out basic instruction in the three R’s for trendy nutrition, anti-bullying, and anti-drug whatchamacallits. Oh yeah, initiatives (you know, the things families used to teach their kids).

Bells, not lightbulbs, started going off on the second page: “Recognizing Your Child’s Achievement…We acknowledge that children’s physical abilities develop at different rates, and the program will focus on participant’s successes rather than areas for improvement.”

Go away now if you don’t want another Rumplestiltskin-type fit. And don’t say I didn’t warn you, because “self-esteem” sets me off.

Excuse me, Red Crossers, but how are my kids supposed to improve their swimming skills if you intend to focus only on their previous successes and not on the areas that need work? “Johnny, we’re not going to work on teaching you to tread water longer [possibly useful if little Johnny goes on an unsuccessful summer boating trip at the lake]. Instead, I’d like to congratulate you for a fine job of getting your face wet, and beautiful rhythmic breathing, last week.” I thought I was signing them up for swimming lessons, but it sounds as if the Red Cross is more interested in bucking up their self-esteem. No-one at the Red Cross (and no one at our provincial Ministry of Education — you can see where my peeve started, and was then encouraged to grow by reading Charles Sykes) seems to have noticed that children derive oodles of self-confidence — which comes from within, rather than self-esteem which is imposed from without — from making marked improvement in any area. On their own! Without gold stars or stickers at every turn! Shocking!

I’ve already noticed that even under the current AquaQuest system, the instructors don’t seem to spend any time helping the kids improve or refine their strokes or dives once they’ve learned the basics.

Private lessons at the college pool may be the way to go, if I can help call the shots, and I’ve heard they’re not that much more expensive than the group lessons. Of course, she asked sarcastically and rhetorically, at this rate, why don’t I just homeschool swimming lessons? And then someone will have the nerve to ask why my kids don’t socialize with others at the college’s swimming lessons….

Worn-out words

I was folding laundry, changing sheets, and listening to Cross Country Checkup on the radio this afternoon. The questions for today: “There are about half a million words in the English language. Some say it’s the richest vocabulary in the world. Yet we hear the same words and catch phrases over and over again. What words do you think should be taken out of use? Which should be revived?”

My nominations are

  • impacted/impact (which I can’t stand unless it’s in connection with wisdom teeth)
  • back in the day
  • goes/went instead of says/said
  • myself instead of me
  • the peculiar fisher instead of fisherman or angler. I always picture one of these, with fishing rod in paw

The host also asked callers for their favorite words. Off the top of my head, for how they sound and trip off the tongue, curmudgeon, lagniappe, fiddlesticks, muffin. What about you?

The hard way to summon the Tooth Fairy

Pollyanna Laura fell out of a tree this afternoon.

We had gone up to our corrals to the potato/raspberry patch to do some weeding and get potatoes for supper, and the kids had gone into the woods to play “bear”. All of a sudden there was yelling, a crash, and howling. The damage isn’t as bad as I first thought, based (ahem) on all the blood. There’s one lost tooth (it was loose anyway), a split lip, one neck scraped on the left side (she had scraped it on the other side just last weekend at baseball camp, and it was healing nicely), one dinged ear, and one shakey and upset little girl. The injuries wouldn’t have been as bad if she had fallen out of a regular tree, you know, the kind growing on its own, surrounded by grass. But this pesky poplar is in the midst of a thicket, with fallen trees all around, too. When the branch gave way, I think she must have hit at least a few branches and a fallen log on the way down. Ouch.

To the boys’ credit, they came running out to get me just as I went running in after hearing the commotion. I found her under a log, covered with blood from the neck up (as the mother of two boys, I’ve learned that any head wound bleeds a lot, and the amount of blood doesn’t always correlate with the extent of the damage) and crying.

Besides the pain and all the blood, Laura was mostly concerned about losing the tooth and not having any proof for the tooth fairy, who was just here the night before last for a tooth lost the regular way (this latest extraction makes three in a row missing on top and three in a row missing on the bottom — quite the gap). I nearly had to drag her into the truck because she insisted on searching the underbrush for the darn tooth. I told her that tooth fairies know when a tooth is lost as opposed to, well, “lost”. Just in case Mom is wrong, she wrote out a note of explanation to go under the pillow; of course, if it’s really good, I’ll have to photocopy it and stick it in her binder (shameless home educating mother that I am).

I sure hope we have enough money around the house, because this is going to take some chunk of change after all she went through….

More summer beach reading and avoiding eyestrain

Made a fun discovery the other day — David M. Bader’s latest, Haiku U.: From Aristotle to Zola, Great Books in 17 Syllables. Bader is very silly, very funny, and a smart aleck, to boot.

As he writes in his website, “Why spend weeks slogging through The Iliad when you can just read the haiku? From Homer to Milton to Lao Tzu, the great books are finally within reach of even the shortest attention spans. Avoid eyestrain and show off your literary prowess at cocktail parties with minimal prep time!”

I can’t help thinking it would make a perfect stocking stuffer for any high school student working through The Great Books, especially if he or she is finding it a tough slog. Or tuck it into the suitcase of your favorite high school grad, off to college soon.

Here are a few tasty tidbits:

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Tea-soaked madeleine –
a childhood recalled. I had
brownies like that once.

St. Augustine, The Confessions
This is just to say
I screwed around. Forgive me.
I enjoyed it so.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
O woe! His mad wife –
in the attic! Had they but
lived together first.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Lecherous linguist –
he lays low and is laid low
after laying Lo.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
What I learned at court:
Being more feared than loved – good.
Getting poisoned – bad.

And my favorite (thanks to AustenBlog, because it’s not included on the Haiku U. list of excerpts),

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
Single white lass seeks
landed gent for marriage, whist.
No parsons, thank you.