• 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.

Boo! II

The spooky and scary children’s author Neil Gaiman in today’s New York Times (should work without the free registration; otherwise try Bug Me Not):

When I was growing up in England, Halloween was no time for celebration. It was the night when, we were assured, the dead walked, when all the things of night were loosed, and, sensibly, believing this, we children stayed at home, closed our windows, barred our doors, listened to the twigs rake and patter at the window-glass, shivered, and were content.

There were days that changed everything: birthdays and New Years and First Days of School, days that showed us that there was an order to all things, and the creatures of the night and the imagination understood this, just as we did. All Hallows’ Eve was their party, the night all their birthdays came at once. They had license — all the boundaries set between the living and the dead were breached — and there were witches, too, I decided, for I had never managed to be scared of ghosts, but witches, I knew, waited in the shadows, and they ate small boys.

I did not believe in witches, not in the daylight. Not really even at midnight. But on Halloween I believed in everything. I even believed that there was a country across the ocean where, on that night, people my age went from door to door in costumes, begging for sweets, threatening tricks.

Halloween was a secret, back then, something private, and I would hug myself inside on Halloween, as a boy, most gloriously afraid. …

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.


We started the morning with the usual round pumpkin-shaped pancakes, gussied up with orange paste food coloring, triangular cutouts for eyes and noses, and pumpkin sprinkles for mouths. And orange milk, of course. Then, on the way to do chores, the annual Halloween morning tradition of posting the “No Hunting” signs, since deer and moose hunting season begins tomorrow.

The kids are doing their schoolwork in costume this morning, so I have Harpo Marx, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers around the kitchen table. After lunch it’s off to town, in costume, for errands, music lessons, and then, finally finally finally the grand Halloween dinner and party at the spooky and horrorful house of friends, who’ve been pickling eyeballs and cultivating cobwebs for at least a week now in preparation .

Since you can’t have a spooky and horrorful house without a jack o’lantern or two…

Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern
by David McCord (1897-1997)

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.

Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is

Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful

As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?

Happy Halloween to all!

More on the CanCon front

(That’s Canadian Content for our American friends.)

I don’t read the newspaper everyday but I happened to get a hand-me-down copy of Saturday’s Edmonton Journal, which gave me quite a turn. And I’m not even Canadian by birth.

When it comes to books, especially children’s books and favorite books from my own childhood, I tend to be rather leary of the words “prequel” and “backstory”. Not to mention, “the … editor who conceived the idea”. Hmmm….

Home Schooling

Carol Windley on deciding to become a writer: “I love the way language can be used to create a faithful facsimile of real people living real lives, although changed, of course, by fiction’s magical prism. As a child I fell into the world of books with great relief and joy — in a book’s pages, life made sense. Perhaps it’s a natural process to go from reading to writing, to want to join in that wonderful community of writers and words. Besides, it happens to be the only thing I can do reasonably well.”

I’ve been a fan of Carol Windley‘s writing since discovering her first book shortly after moving to Canada 12 years ago. So I was thrilled to hear this summer that her newest book, Home Schooling, a collection of short stories, had just been published.

No, not about home education the way you might expect. And not nonfiction. Ms. Windley’s latest is about looking “at how family is the place where we first learn about relationships and community,” she said in a recent interview. She continued, “Parents hope to give their children a sense of family history as well as certain attitudes and values and while children are very receptive, very willing to learn, they’re also very critical and sceptical. In a child’s imagination, received wisdom can undergo startling changes. And in a family, everything is fluid and mutable, anyway, as a result of personality and temperament and circumstance, so trying to give of a sense of this in the fictional families in Home Schooling became my main concern.”

Impatient for my interlibrary loan copy to arrive, I’ve been happy to discover two recent interviews, the one mentioned above and this one with the CBC; happier still to learn that she’s working on another novel. Even in Canada Carol Windley has been rather overlooked, maybe because of the spans between books. It’s been eight years since her last book, the novel Breathing Underwater, and that came out five years after her debut work, the short story collection Visible Light. But now Home Schooling is one of the five shortlisted titles for this year’s Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced on November 7th (on live television no less), and I’m hoping that Ms. Windley will get more of the attention she deserves.

Carol Windley on what she would do with the Giller prize money ($40,000 CAN) if she wins: “If I were lucky enough to win, the first thing I’d do would be to go to a bookstore and buy a completely scandalous quantity of books. I’d also do what I think would be at the top of any writer’s wishlist: buy the necessary time in which to write.”

I’m late, I’m late…

Kelly from Big A little a has been working hard under her editor’s hat, and the new October edition of The Edge of the Forest, the online children’s literature monthly, came out earlier this week, full of reviews, interviews, and articles. I’m especially intrigued by Kelly’s nonfiction reviews, for the new National Geographic Encyclopedia of Animals by Karen McGhee and George McKay, and — ooooh! — Exploratopia: More Than 400 Kid-Friendly Experiments and Explorations for Curious Minds by Pat Murphy, Ellen Macaulay, and the staff of San Francisco’s Exploratorium (other Exploratorium books well worth searching out at your library or with Amazon’s search feature).

The next issue will be out on November 22, in time for Thanksgiving reading. If you’re interested in submitting an article or review, make Kelly happy and click the About Us link for details.

Poetry Friday: Halloween edition

A couple of spooky oldies but goodies, both from the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children, compiled by Edward Blishen and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, 1963 (the library ditched this one at a discard sale a few years ago, and their loss is our definite gain):

Witches’ Charm
by Ben Jonson

The owl is abroad, the bat and the toad,
And so is the cat-a-mountain;
The ant and the mole both sit in a hole,
And frog peeps out o’ the fountain.
The dogs they do bay, and the timbrels play,
The spindle is now a-turning;
The moon it is red, and the stars are fled,
But all the sky is a-burning:
The ditch is made, and our nails the spade:
With pictures full, of wax and wood,
The livers I stick with needles quick;
There lacks but the blood to make up the flood.
quickly, dame, then bring your part in!
Spur, spur, upon little Martin!
Merrily, merrily, make him sail,
A worm in his mouth and a thorn in’s tail,
Fire above, and fire below,
With a whip i’ your hand to make him go!

The Hag
by Robert Herrick (1591-1614), a member of the Sons of Ben, followers and admirers of Ben Jonson

The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride;
The Devil and she together;
Through thick and through thin,
Now out and then in,
Though ne’er so foul be the weather.

A thorn or a burr
She takes for a spur,
Witha lash of a bramble she rides now;
Through brakes and through briars,
O’er ditches and mires,
She follows the Spirit that guides now.

No beast, for his food
Dares now range the wood,
But hushed in his lair he lies lurking;
While mischiefs, by these,
On land and on seas,
At noon of night are a-working.

The storm will arise
And trouble the skies;
This night, and more for the wonder,
The ghost from the tomb
Affrighted shall come,
Called out by the clap of thunder.

And for something new don’t miss Gregory K.’s Halloween Poem at GottaBook!


Costume Update: Daniel is still committed to Harpo Marx, thank goodness. Laura, however, has bounced from Shirley Temple to a scarecrow, and after watching a Fred Astaire movie last night, she and Davy (formerly the jester) have decided on Fred and Ginger. I’m not holding my breath, but then I’m not helping with costumes any more either. Less than a week out, they’re all on their own!


Liz B. at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy has the day’s offerings, along with a review of The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle. Thanks, Liz!

By the book, with not-so-great expectations

Last week JoVE and I had an off-blog discussion about great teachers of the institutional variety, and the general consensus was that the hallmark of a great teacher is a love for children, along with a deep and abiding belief in children’s abilities. And then a few days later I read the thoughtful posts by Kelly at Big A little a and Monica Edinger at educating alice (don’t miss the comments sections, either) about this Washington Post article, “Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big”, on the latest from the reading experts. Post writer Valerie Strauss starts off,

If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they’d all be reading Proust.

Most don’t.

So why, reading experts ask, do schools expect children to read — and love to read — when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?

Well, some adults do like to read exceedingly difficult books, or rather — and more to the point — challenging books, ones that make them think. Those who can’t puzzle their way through alone often search out reading groups and books clubs, through friends, libraries, and even online and via television and the radio. As Monica correctly points out,

Most of all I’m troubled by her generalization (boy do I hate generalizations) that students are given material that is too hard for them. One of the bedrock ideas of my personal pedagogy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which he described as “… the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978.) That is, I guide my students through readings that would be perhaps a tad too challenging for them on their own. So the idea that teachers shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t assign books that need support, that are a bit beyond their students’ comfort levels disturbs me greatly. This is such an exciting way to both teach and learn. This is how we learn to appreciate literature, to dig deep into it, to learn how to read, really, really, really read!

Articles like this make me ever more aware of the differences between the way I was educated (at two NYC private schools very similar to the one where Monica teaches), the way most children are educated in the North American public system, and the education I want for my own children, where five-year-olds can strike up a friendship with and appreciation for Shakespeare and Beowulf. I still have fond memories of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 11th grade English, even though some of us initially rolled our eyes upon finding that title in the course syllabus. By the end of the year, however, everyone realized that the skillful Mr. Z. had shown us an entirely new work, far from the simple young children’s book we remembered from our childhoods. Fortunately, Mr. Z., who also had The Member of the Wedding and Pale Fire on the syllabus, was not a reading expert:

Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students’ reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child’s motivation.

“If you made me education magician and I had one thing that I could pull off, it would be that every kid in this country had a desk full of books that they could actually read accurately, fluently, with comprehension,” he said.

Mr. Allington, meet education magician The Marvellous Marva, aka Marva Collins. But you don’t need magic powers to understand that the usual reading instruction/reading education argument is flawed; rather than supplying fifth graders in Detroit and Baltimore with dumbed down twaddle, why not teach them to read properly in the early years and then give them inspiring, well-trained teachers who understand, appreciate, and know how to share good literature with their charges? As Mrs. Collins wrote, with Civia Tamarkin, almost 25 years ago in Marva Collins’ Way,

The curriculum changed with the passing of each fad. And the textbooks changed. Somebody, somewhere decided to water them down. Textbooks were being written two years below the grade level they were intended for. Why? Because students couldn’t read. … Instead of challenging students with materials that might improve their skills, the new books made it easier, using more pictures and fewer words. And simpler words. One textbook that used enormous and apprehension in a story came out in a revised edition that replaced those words with big and fear. The standards fell lower and lower.

On the subject of comprehension, here’s the Marvellous Marva approach (not so coincidentally not vetted by most reading experts); you can feel her love for “her” children shining through:

On the second and fourth Fridays of the month Marva chose a book for each child, handing out copies of The Jungle Book, Pride and Prejudice, O. Henry’s Tales, Mysterious Island, Spring Is Here, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Great Expectations, among others. Marva seemed to dispense the books arbitrarily. However, her policy was the older a child, the more difficult the book, even if the child’s reading level was not quite high enough. Children used to failure needed goals if they were going to succeed. That was her rationale for giving Theodore, her twelve year old with the third grade reading ability, one of the thickest books on the shelf, Moby Dick.

“Hey, Mrs. Collins, I got the wrong book.”

“No, sweetheart, I gave you the right book, Moby Dick.”

“But it’s got so many pages and so many words on a page. It’s got no pictures. This is a book for big kids.”

“I think you’re big enough.”

“Naw, in the old school I always got easy books.”

“Well, in this school we don’t give young men like you easy books. We don’t expect you to do the same work the little children do. Give this book a try. You don’t have to understand everything in it, but see what you can do. It’s made up of words and words are made up of what?”

“Sounds,” Theodore grinned.

“That’s right. And as long as you remember your sounds and know how to use a dictionary, you’ll do fine.”

At the end of the day Theodore left the school clasping the copy of Moby Dick so that everyone could see the title and the thickness. Marva wanted him to show it off. As far as she was concerned, all he had to do at the end of the two weeks was tell her the book was about a big fish. As it turned out, he told her Moby Dick was a big, white, man-eating whale.”

Most disheartening in the Post article was the comment from a seventh grader in “the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program” at a Maryland middle school who said that “she would like to be assigned books that speak to her”: the previous year in English class, “graphic novels [were] excluded, which annoyed many of us,” she said.

I was reminded again about what Mrs. Collins had to say about “relevance”:

According to the curriculum experts, everything has to be “relevant.” One mathematics textbook has a chapter on probability that asks students to determine: What are the odds that cabdriver will get a counterfeit $10 bill? What is the probability that a girl will become pregnant if she is taking birth control pills that are 97 percent effective? What is the probability that a person living in a certain community has either syphilis or gonorrhea?

All that “relevance” undermines the very purpose of an education. It doesn’t expand the children’s horizons or encourage inventiveness and curiosity. Instead it limits perspective to the grim scenes they see every day of their lives. Children do not need to read stories that teach “street smarts.” They learn enough on their own. What they need are character-building stories. They need to read for values, morality and universal truths [emphases mine]. That was my reason for teaching classical literature.

And that, kiddies, is why you read graphic novels and other “relevant” and/or fun stuff during free time. That’s what it’s for, after all — recess, lunchtime, after school, weekends. In grade school, I used to read one Nancy Drew book every day between recess and lunch. Unplug the computer, the TV, and put away the cell phone, iPod, portable DVD player, and your handheld game-playing thingamajigs, and curl up with a not-so-good book. And remember always that learning is meant to be annoying, prodding, and challenging, or it isn’t doing its job. It’s worth considering, too, that kids raised on a steady diet of twaddle, including graphic novels and even my beloved Nancy Drew, might not grow up to become adults who read, or want to read, Proust in their free time.