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

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

For Daniel’s eighth birthday last month, his grandfather sent him the UK edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. The book, an oversize red-covered tome, is an appealing jumble of activities and projects (make your own battery or tree house or the greatest paper plane in the world, learn basic first aid, five knots every boy should know), as well as useful knowledge — there are chapters on grammar, some of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, Latin phrases every boy should know, and stargazing. Rather like E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your 4th Grader Should Know”, but in one volume with matches, alum, and copper batteries.

Snitching it from my son to read, at first I wished that the like chapters were lumped together, all the Famous Battles chapters and Extraordinary Stories (about extraordinary lives) together, and the various astronomy chapters (Astronomy, Charting the Universe, The Moon, The Solar System) together too, but then I realized I was looking at the book as a home educating adult woman in her forties, when what the average seven to 12 year-old boy (or girl — and anyone who lets the title of a book stop her has other problems) probably wants is the surprise of discovering what’s next. And that means chapters on codes and ciphers (including charts for Morse code and the NATO phonetic alphabet), making crystals, the story of Scott of the Antarctic, making a go-cart, and insects and spiders, side by side, by side by side. Enough to keep one happy on “Sunday afternoons and long summer days”, as noted on the book’s back cover, as well as winter days and tucked under the covers with one’s torch, er, flashlight, reading about Joe Simpson’s harrowing 1985 mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes with his friend Simon Yates.

The Dangerous Book reminds me a bit of an old but very useful doorstop I have on the shelf, the 1931 edition of The Volume Library: A Concise Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for Both Instruction and Reference, with sections on Education, Language & Grammar, Literature, History, Geography, Trade & Industry, The Atlas, Biographical Dictionary, Dictionary, Mathematics, Science, Hygiene, Government & Law, Fine Arts, and Useful Miscellany (which, like The Dangerous Book, includes Answers to Puzzling to Questions). More than half the fun lies in not knowing where a turn of the page will take you, and knowing that you are also certain to learn something new and fun. But dangerous only in the sense that a little learning, even about knot-making, is a dangerous thing.

Likewise, there’s little dangerous or even brand-spanking new in the Igguldens’ book for old-fashioned, or I suppose “retro” (sounds less conservative and more trendy, doesn’t it?), families, where childhood still includes a bicycle, a patch of green to run around in, with some Latin and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have the fortitude or constitution to let the running around be fairly unfettered (that would be those of us whose kids have all needed stitches and whose idea — the kids’, that is — of fun is leaping off stacks of big round straw bales), Dangerous is more of a remedial summer camp (and summer school) in a book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for those last children in the woods. Which is probably why the book has been so popular in the UK and now the US.

Daniel, always one of the first children in the woods, in the mud, and into his father’s tools, reports that his new book “is good and it’s fun, but it’s more of a reading book than a doing book”. His first choice for a “doing” book is still The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreword by the late Noel Perrin), which is on target with my thoughts last year.

So I was interested to learn that both Daniel and I are in complete agreement with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, who wrote last week in his post Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women): “While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn’t contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest.”

To remedy that, Mark suggests a list of his favorite “dangerous” books, including a couple by his friend (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle; also on the list is the Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, originally published by Popular Science Magazine in 1932, which I think is the volume still on my parents’ kitchen shelf; I read it often but didn’t use it much because it required so many exotic, um, ingredients. (Though Davy might find the information on how to re-ink typewriters useful.) In a similar vein is Lee’s Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, which I discovered in the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue. The 1998 facsimile edition is a handy dandy size, 4-1/2″ by 6″ (and just under an inch thick), just right for keeping in a pocket or storing in, oh, say, a tree house, and was a bargain at under $8 Canadian; not surprisingly, the new edition comes with the following warning:

This is a reprint of a book compiled in 1895. It describes what was done and what was recommended to be done in accordance with the knowledge of the day.

On the medical side, some of the proposed remedies would not only be considered inadequate today, but would also be considered potentially harmful.

ON ALL MEDICAL ADVICE, CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN. DO NOT TAKE THE ADVICE GIVEN HERE.

It would also be advisable to treat all corrosive, explosive, and toxic materials with greater caution than is indicated here, particularly any materials that come in contact with the body.

Not a bad idea when some of the recipes, only a few for food (ice cream, lemonade, beer, etc.), include how to make “camphorated tincture of opium” for whatever ails you, and the book has an entire section on “Fireworks and Explosives”, with instructions on how to make dynamite. Dangerous doesn’t begin to cover it.

What caught my eye in Mark’s list of books was his mention of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, first published in 1960 by the Western Publishing Companty, in part because the kids spent the better part of the winter enjoying Golden Book’s Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by W. Ben Hunt, and in part because the book is said to have influenced the Radioactive Boy Scout. Mark writes [emphasis on the third paragraph mine],

Dangerous projects [in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments] include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.

The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive (Amazon.com has used copies for over $100). Of course, in today’s litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued. I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$100 copy. I got lucky and found a $0 copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here’s a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.

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.

Which ties in nicely with a point Natalie Angier made last week in her CBC interview about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which I forgot to mention in my post the other day, that the worrying drop in children’s scientific literacy is due in part to the idea kids have of science as dry and boring, brought home to them daily by dry and boring textbooks.

Unfortunately, BitTorrent doesn’t work for those of us with Macs. So try this free PDF file here, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments; I discovered another PDF link (since disabled) in this nifty post about retro science books, which also mentions Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis (the post also laments the absence of Mr. Wizard on DVD, though the kids and I discovered recently via Zip.ca that Mr. Wizard is indeed available on DVD). In some brief email correspondence, Mark at Boing Boing was kind enough to mention that The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments can be had in book form from Lulu for under $30 US, which does appeal to the Luddite in me, not to mention handier for handing to your child. And spark an idea for more chemistry for school next year, especially if I remember to take a look at the online catalogue of the homeschool-friendly Boreal Northwest lab supplies (which operates in the US as ScienceKit.com). Now if only I could get Tom to build us a small lab building, separate from the house, where the kids could make messes and things could go bump (and boom) in the night.

I’ll leave you with a bit of Noel Perrin‘s foreward to the 1983 centennial edition of American Boy’s Handy Book, on the book’s author, Dan Beard:

…of all the attempts to preserve wildness that he made in a long life (and he lived to be 90), the most successful was the book you are holding. It began as a series of articles for the old St. Nicholas magazine, designed to encourage city boys to recover their natural independence and self-sufficiency. It first became a book in 1882. For the next half-century it went through edition after edition, as innumerable fathers gave it to innumerable sons. Then as the new concept of boyhood gained strength, interest in the book faded, and now it has been hard to find for fifty years.

The book will be interesting to contemporary boys (and some girls, too, which would startle Mr. Beard) in two ways. First, like Huckleberry Finn — or William Dean Howells’ A Boy’s Town, or Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, or even like some TV programs on the “Little House on the Prairie” model — it gives a picture of a kind of childhood now quite rare. Being a manual or handy-book, it gives an unusually faithful picture. Beard describes nothing that American boys weren’t really doing a century ago — in fact, nothing that it didn’t seem to him almost any boy could (and would want to) do. It’s like being given a glimpse of your great-grandfather’s boyhood, only with none of the romantic haze the old man would cast around it, if he were alive and telling the story. Or it’s like a look behind the scenes in Mark Twain. So that’s how Huck and Jim cooked catfish; that’s how he and Tom Sawyer must have made fire-balloons.

But the book is even more interesting as an actual manual to use right now. It is possible — in fact, normal — to watch “Little House” in an entirely passive mode, with no thought of clicking off the set and going out to dig a well or catch prairie dogs. It is not possible to read The American Boy’s Handy Book without feeling a desire to try some of the things Beard talks about.

Parts of the book are, of course, outmoded. No one can go to the village glazier now and pick up free bits of surplus glass to use in making a home aquarium, or trot down the street to the blacksmith with directions for a couple of metal parts you want him to forge. …

But because nature itself has changed hardly at all over the past century, however much our attitude toward it has, and because jackknives, axes, and fishhooks remain readily available, a good half of the directions are as useful today as they were in 1882. And as fascinating.

Not to mention dangerous.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have to teach my six-year-old how to burn a hole in a leaf with a magnifying glass.

UPDATED to add: I forgot to mention one of our favorite out-of-print chemistry books, The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series. The books are generally paperback, large format, more than 48 pages, profusely illustrated (with maps, charts, and drawings, rather than photographs), and begin with a narrative approach followed by a question-and-answer format. The Chemistry volume covers subjects from “What Is Chemistry?” and “The Ancestors of Chemistry” to “The Language of Chemistry”, “Some Interesting Elements”, “Organic Chemistry”, and “The Branches of Chemistry”. Well worth the (Canadian) quarter I spent, considering the original price was 59 cents. We’ve got quite a few How and Why Wonder Books, and I’ve been keeping my eyes open for “The How and Why Wonder Book of Beginning Science” and “The How and Why Wonder Book of Science Experiments”, among others.

New to me

Sylvia’s Classical Bookworm blog, where the Sidebar Menu includes such tasty treats as “About the Great Books”, “Great Books Online”, “Great Publishers”, “Libraries”, “Reference”, “Reading Guides”, “Reading Groups”, “Book Arts”, “Illuminated Manuscripts”, “Appurtenances”, “Other Good Stuff”, “Art”, “Latin”, and “Just for Fun”. Worth noting that “Appurtenances” includes a link to the Antioch Bookplate Company, whose bookplates have graced my books for more than 30 years and now grace my children’s.

Worth checking the archives for Sylvia’s first posts from December 2004.

The beautiful basics of science

Listening to CBC radio while working in the garden last week, I heard an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which sounds very worthwhile. I take most Amazon reviews with a grain of salt, but I’m intrigued by the reviewer who called Canon “a prose-poem of science”, which reminds me that the new book is also available unabridged on audio CD.

A transcript of the CBC interview isn’t online, but I found this interview from yesterday’s Boston Globe. From which:

IDEAS: What was your goal with “The Canon”?

ANGIER: In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand.

IDEAS: Is there any special reason why Americans are poorly educated in science?

ANGIER: Our obsession with money plays into it. I think there is some truth to David Baltimore‘s observation that people used to making a lot of money don’t get that interested in science, science being a sort of blue-collar profession that requires a lot of hands-on work and that is probably not going to make you rich.

Found in the garden this morning

Happily and busily planting, transplanting, and moving things around in the flower garden early today, I came across this

which on closer inspection

proved to be a robin’s egg. But why the female robin chose to lay it out in the open, with no nest in sight and far from any trees or shrubs, is a mystery. The grass at left was provided by me, and after taking pictures I recovered the egg to protect it from marauding magpies.

Thought of the day

If we shouldn’t depend on our husbands financially, should we then expect them to fight our battles for us?

Just wondering.

Wired world of education

From yesterday’s New York Times, “Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops”, (or get past free registration with Bug Me Not):

The students at Liverpool [NY] High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

Liverpool’s turnabout comes as more and more school districts nationwide continue to bring laptops into the classroom. Federal education officials do not keep track of how many schools have such programs, but two educational consultants, Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, conducted a study of the nation’s 2,500 largest school districts last year and found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not. …

In the school library [at Liverpool], an 11th-grade history class was working on research papers. Many carried laptops in their hands or in backpacks even as their teacher, Tom McCarthy, encouraged them not to overlook books, newspapers and academic journals.

“The art of thinking is being lost,” he said. “Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.”

From Ireland, via Reuters, the other week:

The rising popularity of text messaging on mobile phones poses a threat to writing standards among Irish schoolchildren, an education commission says.

The frequency of errors in grammar and punctuation has become a serious concern, the State Examination Commission said in a report after reviewing last year’s exam performance by 15-year-olds.

“The emergence of the mobile phone and the rise of text messaging as a popular means of communication would appear to have impacted on standards of writing as evidenced in the responses of candidates,” the report said, according to Wednesday’s Irish Times. “Text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing.”
The report laments that, in many cases, candidates seemed “unduly reliant on short sentences, simple tenses and a limited vocabulary”.

In 2003, Irish 15-year-olds were among the top 10 performers in an international league table of literacy standards compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And in related news, “Teen pockets $25,000 in texting contest“, and plans to spend her winnings on…not books.

A new point on the reading compass

“Books are like neighbors, and your personal library is your neighborhood. Take a look at your bookshelves. What kind of neighborhood are you living in? Are you in a slum or in the suburbs? Who are your neighbors? Are they trash talkers or shrewd sages? If you live next door to Socrates, then invite him to dinner every night. If you live next to Dan Brown, then put your house on the market. …

A book is a friend who’s always ready with a story or some advice. And if your friend is named Tolstoy or Shakespeare, then the stories are going to be transforming as well as entertaining. If your friend is named Plato or Aquinas, then the advice is liable to be life-changing.”
from ROMAN Reading by Nick Senger

The other day, someone in one of my Well-Trained online groups forwarded a link for a new, free eBook on reading and literature, ROMAN Reading: 5 Practical Skills for Transforming Your Life through Literature (see this post too for additional download information) by Nick Senger, a reader of great literature and eighth grade teacher, who blogs at Literary Compass (“Reading the Great Books from a Catholic Point of View”) and at now at RomanReading.

The ROMAN in the title, aside from a reference to faith, stands for Read, Outline, Mark, Ask, Name (no mention of religion in the text, by the way); as Mr. Senger writes, “With these five skills you can read any book, no matter how difficult”, which would seem to make the brief book (73 pages, and short ones at that) a useful guide for those just beginning their literary careers. I think Laura, who’ll be starting fifth grade in the fall, would be able to digest most of the information well, and the ideas in the book would certainly give her something to think about as she moves from the grammar stage to the logic stage, and as the focus in some of her reading — no longer just for pleasure or for information — begins to change.

An online friend with whom I’m supposed to be having a conversation about Great Books, and I would if only milkmen and matchmakers left me alone and the washing machine’s spin cycle would reappear as dramatically as it disappeared, calls ROMAN Reading “a simpler and more contemporary version of [Mortimer] Adler’s How to Read a Book“, which strikes me as bang on. Not only will How to Read a Book make more sense in a few years, and possibly be less head-bangingly difficult, but you can probably avoid the need for How to Read ‘How to Read a Book’ if your kids start off their middle school years with ROMAN Reading. My only quibble so far is Mr. Senger’s preference for taking notes in books with green pen; I like pencil better, and can still read my old college notes from 25 years ago. You can’t go wrong with a Mirado Classic Black/HB 2.

Also worthwhile at Literary Compass, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike:

101 Essential Web Sites for Readers of Literature

Nick’s Great Books reading list (which is also an appendix to the eBook): Introduction, and Parts I and II

Nick Senger’s motive for sharing the book for free is is mission to change

lives one page at a time. I want to make the world a more literate place, a place where people think for themselves, learn about their world, and share their ideas with each other.

A literate world is a world of peace, tolerance and vision. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

A most worthy mission. Many thanks.