• 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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An alternative education

First up on this morning’s CBC Radio “Sunday Edition” show, my favorite weekend listening, was host Michael Enright’s interview with film critic and writer David Gilmour, author of the just-published The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and a Son. Film Club is Mr. Gilmour’s account of his decision, several years ago, to let his son drop out of high school. What he kept coming back to during the radio interview was his son’s need for time.

I found a very good review by Ian McGillis in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette, entitled “Learning from film: A father, a son and an unusual education“. From which,

It’s the kind of thing a movie producer would label “high concept.” A father, at his wits’ end over his teenage son’s extreme aversion to anything classroom-related, suggests that the son drop out of high school on the condition that the two of them watch three films per week, together, for two years. [The other condition was no drugs.]

But this is no movie. The father is David Gilmour, award-winning novelist and former CBC film critic, the son is [16]-year-old Jesse. And their experiment, for which the term “hare-brained” might seemingly have been coined, has turned out against all reasonable expectations to make for a book that’s insightful, surprising and, yes, moving.

It’s a handy hook, of course, that the mere idea of what Gilmour has his son do is sure to cause the taking of mass umbrage by good parents everywhere. It’s not as though Gilmour isn’t aware of this. Even at an advanced stage in the program, when it’s too late to undo, he’s attacked by doubts: “What if I’d allowed him to f–k up his entire life under some misinformed theory that might just be laziness with a smart-ass spin on it?” What if, indeed.

On the surface, Jesse does provide plenty of cause for concern. He has very little sense of geography. (“The United States are right across the lake?” asks the lifelong Torontonian.) He takes his loves and his lost loves extremely seriously and — surprise, surprise — he wants to be a rapper.

But this young man, we come to see, has hidden reserves. The child may never quite become father to the man, but at many times, the dynamic is much more big brother-little brother than Pop and Junior.

The films they watch, handpicked by the father, range from undisputed classics (Citizen Kane) to French New Wave standbys (The 400 Blows) to outright kitsch (Showgirls). It’s a commendably catholic list, though Gilmour père proves utterly unable to predict which films might set his enigmatic son alight. Jesse’s blank response to A Hard Day’s Night, starring Dad’s beloved Beatles, is priceless. But then, the author surprises himself no less on revisiting some old touchstones. “Some films let you down; you must have been in love or heartbroken, you must have been wound up about something when you saw them because now, viewed from a different trajectory, there’s no magic left.”

An index at the end lists nearly 150 films mentioned, but the book somehow never feels weighted down with the references. In fact, in what may or may not be a coincidence, at about the time the reader begins to tire of the device, so do the participants. But that’s fine, because by then, it’s the relationship we really care about. …

In fact, after three years, Jesse rose off the couch and decided that he was indeed interested in further education. He is now 21 and attending university in Toronto.

And an excerpt from yesterday’s Globe & Mail review by Charles Wilkins:

…Gilmour’s intimate and free-wheeling book is, in large part, the story of the role he played in his son Jesse’s life (and vice-versa) when the teenager crashed out of high school at 16 and seemed headed for what Gilmour refers to as “a bad life.”

In a stroke of strategic educational genius (and of optimal deployment of his own fascinations and resources), the writer offered his son freedom from school and employment on the condition that the boy join him in watching and discussing a minimum of three feature films a week.

The deal was made, and over a period of three years, the films became a curriculum unto themselves, a varied and fascinating syllabus rich in ideas, social values, character study, history, geography, family, ethics, music — and, of course, in the import of filmmaking and art, of dramatic writing and acting and directing.

As Jesse learns, we learn — about Hitchcock and Kubrick and Truffaut; and Brando and Bogart and Hepburn; Annie Hall, On the Waterfront, The Godfather. Gilmour was once a film commentator for CBC Television, and his knowledge of the art and industry is both rangy and deep — and is happily charged with anecdotal vigour and gossip.

“I knew I wasn’t giving Jesse a systematic education,” he writes. “We could as easily have gone skin diving or collected stamps. The films simply served as an occasion to spend time together, hundreds of hours, as well as a door-opener for all manner of conversational topics — Rebecca, Zoloft, dental floss, Vietnam, impotence, cigarettes.”

The book is also the story of the travails of a middle-aged writer who, at the time the action takes place, was, by his own admission, down on his luck, and is painfully honest about it. At one point, when other options have been exhausted, he seeks work as a bicycle courier, and is turned down – too old. (It bears mentioning that Gilmour’s luck changed dramatically in 2005 when he won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for his novel A Perfect Night to Go to China.)

And a helpful caution from The Globe & Mail,

…there were points at which I felt as if I were reading through a keyhole and that, given the context, there was simply too much grovelling over “relationships,” over “the game,” over “chicks,” which unfortunately detracts from the book’s erstwhile innocence and integrity. …

In the end, a majority of the pages in the book might more appropriately have appeared under the title The Dating Club or The Mating Club than The Film Club.

And yet the book is meaningful, is insightful, is valuable. On a social level alone, it challenges our notions of education, of productivity, of high schools that have fallen catastrophically behind in their capability to inspire young men. It is, what’s more, a compelling, often tender account of a parent’s deep concern for his child.


Blogging from Burma

In some cases, you’ll need to scroll down through the question marks for photographs and posts.

Burma-Myanma Genocide 2007; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

ko htike’s prosaic collection; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

Sone Sea Yar; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

MoeMaKa — Myanmar Burmese News, Media and Literature Site; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

NIknayman; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

Myanmar Media, Education & Development Watch; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

Lwin Moe’s blog; last post, Saturday, Sept. 29

helen-louise’s Burma blog; last post, Friday, Sept. 28

Dawn’s blog; last post, Thursday, Sept. 27

Satedat; last post, Thursday, Sept. 27

Mogok Media; last post, Monday, Sept. 24

Burmese Daze; last post, Saturday, Sept. 22

Poetry Friday: A plea for the classics, for ambitious boys (and girls)

A Plea for the Classics
by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

A Boston gentleman declares,
By all the gods above, below,
That our degenerate sons and heirs
Must let their Greek and Latin go!
Forbid, O Fate, we loud implore,
A dispensation harsh as that;
What! wipe away the sweets of yore;
The dear “Amo, amas, amat”?

The sweetest hour the student knows
Is not when poring over French,
Or twisted in Teutonic throes,
Upon a hard collegiate bench;
‘T is when on roots and kais* and gars**
He feeds his soul and feels it glow,
Or when his mind transcends the stars
With “Zoa mou, sas agapo”!***

So give our bright, ambitious boys
An inkling of these pleasures, too —
A little smattering of the joys
Their dead and buried fathers knew;
And let them sing — while glorying that
Their sires so sang, long years ago —
The songs “Amo, amas, amat,”
And “Zoa mou, sas agapo”!

* “ands”, in Greek
** “fors”, in Greek
*** More Greek (the refrain from Lord Byron’s poem Maid of Athens, “Zoë mou, sas agapo”, or, “My life, I love you”)

* * * *

Known during his brief lifetime as “the children’s poet”, Eugene Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850, the son of lawyer Roswell Martin Field and Frances Reed Field; Roswell M. Field defended the fugitive slave Dred Scott in the first trial of 1853. When Mrs. Field died three years later, Eugene and his brother, Roswell Jr., were sent to Amherst, Massachusetts, to be raised by a cousin and a paternal aunt; of his upbringing there, Field wrote, “It is almost impossible for a man to get rid of his Puritan grandfathers and nobody who has ever had one has ever escaped his Puritan grandmother.” According to his teachers, Eugene was an intelligent boy but more fond of pranks and practical jokes than studying. However, after Eugene’s death, his brother Roswell recalled,

It is in no sense depreciatory of my brother’s attainments in life to say that he gave no evidence of precocity in his studies in childhood. On the contrary he was somewhat slow in development, though this was due not so much to a lack of natural ability — he learned easily and quickly when so disposed — as to a fondness for the hundred diversions which occupy a wide-awake boy’s time.


For a few years my brother attended a private school for boys in Amherst; then, at the age of fourteen, he was entrusted to the care of Rev. James Tufts, of Monson, one of those noble instructors of the blessed old school who are passing away from the arena of education in America. By Mr. Tufts he was fitted for college, and from the enthusiasm of this old scholar he caught perhaps the inspiration for the love of the classics which he carried through life. In the fall of 1868 he entered Williams College — the choice was largely accidental — and remained there one year

until the death of their father. Eugene moved to Illinois to attend Knox College, where the college’s Children’s and Young Adult Literature magazine is named Wynken, Blynken and Nod in Field’s honor; according to the magazine’s website, “His independent, free-spirited personality was apparently too much for the conservative college of the 19th century and he left without completing a degree” after one year. Brother Roswell agreed, writing about “the restlessness which was so characteristic of him in youth.” Eugene Field transferred for the final time, also without graduating, to the University of Missouri. After dabbling a bit in acting and the law, he proposed marriage to fourteen-year-old Julia Sutherland Comstock and embarked on a tour of Europe during which he spent his entire $8,000 inheritance from his father; as he told friends upon his return, “I spent six months and my patrimony in France, Italy, Ireland, and England.”

In 1873, he joined the staff of The St. Louis Journal as a reporter and married Miss Comstock, with whom he would have a happy union and eight children. He moved on, as writer and editor, to The St. Joseph Gazette (Missouri), followed by The Kansas City Times and The Denver Tribune. In 1883, he was enticed to join The Chicago Daily News with the promise of writing “exactly what I please on any subject I please”, which turned into his column “Sharps and Flats” (1883-95). Indeed, Field is considered the first newspaper columnist, and one of the most successful.

Eugene Field’s column, along with books such as A Little Book of Western Verse (1889) and Love Songs of Childhood (1894), brought him national fame. In 1892, he and his brother, a journalist and critic, collaborated on a translation from the works of the poet Horace, Echoes from the Sabine Farm (the nickname of Eugene’s Chicago house). Field’s love of the classics and sense of humor led him to write some verses that were most certainly not for children, including “The Truth about Horace“.

Field was further celebrated, and remains known today, for his whimsical children’s verse, including the poems “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod“, “The Ride to Bumpville”, “The Duel“, “The Sugar Plum Tree“, and “Little Boy Blue“. His works for children came out of his fervent belief that the young imagination should be encouraged with fancy and make-believe, and according to all reports Field was an indulgent husband and father, and his home and family life were remarkably happy.

Eugene Field died in his sleep of heart failure in 1895, at the age of 45. In 1902, Mark Twain dedicated a plaque marking the St. Louis, Missouri, house in which Field was born; earlier this year the building was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1922, a bronze statue in Eugene Field’s memory was erected in Lincoln Park, Chicago, of a winged fairy and two sleeping children (inspired by Field’s poem “The Rock-a-By Lady“. The statue, by American sculptor Edward McCartan, was raised with the help of children in Chicago and across the country.

More of Eugene Field’s poetry can be found online here.

Gina at AmoxCalli has today’s Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, Gina! Speaking of classics, don’t forget that AmoxCalli has the feature, “Reviewing the Classics of Children’s Literature” — good stuff!

Gearing up for the Cybils

As I wrote last week, the Cybils are back, the Cybils are back!

I’m delighted to be on the Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction committee, wrangled and organized by Jen Robinson, on the nominating panel along with

Mindy at Proper Noun Dot Net
Susan Thomsen at Chicken Spaghetti
KT Horning at Worth the Trip
Vivian at HipWriterMama

Following up later will be the Judging Panel, comprised of

Tracy Chrenka at Talking in the Library
Emily Mitchell at Emily Reads
Camille Powell at Book Moot
Alice Herold at Big A little a
Jennie Rothschild at Biblio File

As a reminder about how wonderful this category is, last year’s winner was

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman

and the rest of the short list included

Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman
Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh
Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet’s Life by Alan Wolf
Isaac Newton by Kathleen Krull (from her Giants of Science series)

For information on all of the other categories, including poetry (which has a fond place in my heart, and where I see Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader and Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children are holding down the fort!) and interviews with various participants, head over to the Cybils blog.

Nominations in all categories open on Monday, October 1st, so put your thinking caps on. The categories include picture books (fiction), picture books (nonfiction), poetry, middle grade & young adult nonfiction, middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, graphic novels, and fantasy & science fiction.

A final note: I usually include links from Amazon.com when I write about books, not because I think that’s where you should buy your books, but because their listings seem to be the most comprehensive of the ones online, more so than the wonderful Powells which continues to be a dandy place to buy books in the US and the terrific Chinaberry which is thorough but highly selective (not a bad thing at all), and more so even than Amazon.ca, whose website is a shadow of its American self. Amazon.com’s “Search Inside this Book” feature is pretty nifty, too, especially for those of us living in the back of beyond, far from any bookstores, independent, big box/chain or otherwise. Well, as long as we’re not limping along with dial-up service.

Fall fun around the kidlitosphere

All aboard to Take a Ride on the Reading Railroad, the latest Carnival of Children’s Literature hosted by Charlotte’s Library. So put away the Monopoly board for now and get reading!

And a bit late (sorry…) — the September issue of The Edge of the Forest is up, with many features. I was delighted to find Kelly Herold‘s discussion of the different Anglo-American versions of Baba Yaga tales in her article, “Baba Yaga Heads West“. Lots of other good stuff, too!

Also, a reminder that the deadline for LiteracyTeacher‘s Picture Book Carnival, Part 3 is coming up. Submissions are due by Friday, October 5.

And two new blogs of note from new-to-me homeschoolers,

Learning. Living. Books!, with two posts so far, “What Are ‘Living Books’?” and “Twaddle Dee, Twaddle Dum”

A Storybook Life, KalexaLott’s thoughts on nature, children’s literature, poetry, and simple wonder.

Lawn darts, slingshots, and pellet guns, oh my…

Not to mention lead-filled toy soldiers.

“Hasbro gets Dangerous”, Toy News Online reports. But no fear of boys putting their eyes out or requiring stitches, because Hasbro’s idea is to “develop board and travel games based on the hugely successful book brand”:

Andrew Lane, licensing director at Hasbro, said: “The book is fantastic, a fabulous concept and rich in material with which we can develop some great games”.

“We have established a key partnership with Hasbro, the first of many internationally renowned licensees we shall be signing. Our aim is simple, to make The Dangerous Book for Boys the best boys licensed brand ever” said Charlie Donaldson at Rocket Licensing.

Dessert time

For Karen, because it’s chocolate, it’s as easy as a boxed mix, and a six-and-a-half year-old can make it (also a mother with a head cold and cough who needs to put dessert on the table for company now):

Wacky Cake (from The New York Times, sometime in the early 1990s…)

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
½ cup cocoa
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vinegar
2 tsp. vanilla
⅔ cup vegetable oil
2 cups cold water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a 9-by-13-inch cake pan [I do ours in a 9×9 or 10×10 metal pan], mix all dry ingredients with a fork; be sure to get in the edges. Smooth them out and make three holes. Put the vinegar in one hole, the vanilla in another and the oil in the third. Then cover the whole thing with the water. Mix it all up with a fork until the lumps are gone.

3. Bake 40 or 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

And some autumnal treats from Baking for Britain, one of my favorite baking blogs, inspired by the 30-pound box of apples in my kitchen (next to the 30-pound box of Bosc pears, to be canned and poached, and the 10 pounds of Oxheart plums — and yes, they do look like bloody hearts):

Welsh Harvest Cake (Teisen y Cynhaeaf), best served warm

Apple Gingerbread with Cinnamon Icing

Herefordshire Cider Cake

Dorset Apple Cake

The pears, and all this talk of chocolate, remind me that it might be time for Laurie Colwin‘s chocolate pear pudding recipe, which she originally found in Josceline Dimbleby’s Book of Puddings, Desserts and Savouries (out of print but still sounding delightfully English and onm the verge of made-up), “a treasured text now falling apart. … The recipes are uncomplicated and delicious.” The recipe as Laurie Colwin wrote it up in More Home Cooking,

You peel, core, and slice think (or cut into chunks) 1 pound of pears, which you arrange on the bottom of a buttered baking dish, sprinkle with sugar, and dot with about 2 tablespoons of butter. You then mix together ¾ cup floor, 1 generous tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, ½ teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon baking powder, a scant ¾ cup dark brown sugar, 2 tablespoons Lyle’s Golden Syrup (now generally available), 1 large egg, beaten, 4 tablespoons melted butter, and ¼ cup milk and beat it all into a batter. The whole performance takes about 20 minutes. Pour the batter on top of the pears and bake the pudding for 45 to 50 minutes in a 325 F. oven. This pudding can be eaten hot, cold, or at room temperature and is especially good with ice cream.

Look what I just found: two of my very favorite things together, Laurie Colwin on Chocolate.

The latest news from deepest darkest Peru

I thought it was bad enough when I heard the other day that my beloved Paddington Bear was going to get the live action treatment (just thinking of poor Stuart Little makes me shake). I went to the, erm, official website and not only was the movie business confirmed but there for all to see was the gloating about Paddington shilling for Marmite of all things. Of course, what do you expect of a beloved children’s literature figure who has become a licensing opportunity? In fact, the home page of the “official website” has four main buttons — “Paddington’s activity area”, “Mrs. Brown’s bear facts”, “Mr. Gruber’s collector’s corner”, and, in bright red lest you fail to notice it, “Mr. Brown’s company info”. That Paddington has become a company with important info to share (“For companies or individuals interested in acquiring a licence to make or sell Paddington products then you should choose Licensing Information.”) is just, sadly, a fact of modern commercial life.

But here’s the latest “Company Info”, from The Times:

The creator of Paddington Bear has criticised those responsible for putting the world’s best known duffel-coat-wearing immigrant from Darkest Peru in an advertisement for Marmite.

Michael Bond was not consulted about the advert – in which Paddington breaks a lifetime’s reliance on marmalade sandwiches and decides he “ought to try something different” – and feels that it was a mistake.

Fans have been outraged by what they see as a betrayal of the character’s integrity, many telephoning Bond to harangue him. Like them, the author feels that the advert was a mistake because Paddington’s characteristics are “set in stone and you shouldn’t change them”. The bear’s preference for marmalade sandwiches, often stored under his hat is “fundamental”, he said yesterday.

During the 1980s, when Paddington’s popularity was at a peak thanks to the television series narrated by the late Sir Michael Hordern, Bond retreated from the growing commercial operation to concentrate on writing books.

Karen Jankel, his daughter and managing director of Paddington and Company, now has final approval on all merchandising decisions. Despite strong reservations she agreed to the proposal from the Copyrights Group, Paddington’s licensing agents, because she believed the advert would lift Paddington’s profile and bring him back to British TV. But Bond would rather the whole thing had never happened.

“Now there’s no going back,” he said. “Paddington likes his food and tries anything but he would certainly never be weaned off marmalade.”

In a letter published in The Times today, Bond, 81, defends himself against allegations that he sold-out his best-loved creation. He writes of an “ill-founded rumour that I was responsible for the script of a commercial featuring Paddington Bear testing a Marmite sandwich” and “that one of the reasons may have been that Marmite paid me a truly vast sum of money.

“I should be so lucky – particularly since I didn’t write it,” he says. “Although Paddington found the sandwich interesting, bears are creatures of habit. It would require a good deal more than the combined current withdrawals from Northern Rock to wean him off marmalade, if then.”

The advert, by DBB London, features the animation format in which Paddington made his TV debut in 1975. He finds Marmite “really rather good”, before stumbling into a chain of unfortunate events. Unilever, the makers of Marmite, hope the campaign will appeal to the nostalgia of older viewers while encouraging younger ones to try the spread.

Nicholas Durbridge, of the Copyrights Group said: “Paddington has always been inquisitive. Now he has tried Marmite. It’s unfortunate if Michael’s not completely happy but Paddington will always be associated with marmalade and our client supported our recommendation to make the advert fully.”

Ms Jankel said last night: “From my father’s point of view, he’s the creator and wrote the books. The Copyrights Group are doing their job, looking to do what they think is best from the commercial point of view. I think Paddington is so strong that he will rise above all of this.”

Someone certainly needs to rise above all of this, but I don’t think it’s Paddington. And I think I need something stronger than either marmalade or Marmite to recover from all the news.

Poetry Friday: To remember for ever and ever, as if it were always now

How to Make a Memory
by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

The rain was ending, and light
Lifting the leaden skies.
It shone upon ceiling and floor
And dazzled a child’s eyes.
Pale after fever, a captive
Apart from his schoolfellows,
He stood at the high room’s window
With face to the pane pressed close,
And beheld an immense glory
Flooding with fire the drops
Spilled on miraculous leaves
Of the fresh green lime-tree tops.
Washed gravel glittered red
To a wall, and beyond it nine
Tall limes in the old inn yard
Rose over the tall inn sign.
And voices arose from beneath
Of boys from school set free,
Racing and chasing each other
With laughter and games and glee.
To the boy at the high room-window,
Gazing alone and apart,
There came a wish without reason,
A thought that shone through his heart.
I’ll choose this moment and keep it,
He said to himself, for a vow,
To remember for ever and ever
As if it were always now.

Sara Lewis Holmes at Read Write Believe has today’s Poetry Friday round-up here and here. Thank you, Sara!

* * *

(Robert) Laurence Binyon, the English poet, playwright, and art scholar, was born in 1869 at Lancaster. While at Oxford University’s Trinity College, Binyon was awarded the undergraduate Newdigate prize for English verse for 1890. His first volume of verse, Lyric Poetry, was published four years later.

Upon graduation in 1893, Binyon went to work at the British Museum in the Department of Printed Books. He married a Museum colleague, Cicely Margaret Powell, in 1904 and together they had three daughters, Helen, Nicolete Mary, and Margaret. In 1912 a separate sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings was created under Binyon, by now “a connoisseur of Persian and Indian miniatures.”

Binyon’s most famous work is his World War I poem, For the Fallen, published by The Times in September 1914 in the earliest months of the war, while Binyon was still working at the British Museum. The poem continues to be recited at Remembrance Day services around the world and is inscribed on countless war memorials. Already in his forties, Binyon volunteered for the Red Cross and was sent to the front in 1916. He returned to the British Museum after the Armistice, working as Keeper of the new sub-department of Oriental Prints and Drawings. Binyon retired from the Museum in 1933, succeeded by the art historian Basil Gray, the husband of his daughter Nicolete, a medievalist; Gray would be assistant first, then Keeper.

After his retirement, Binyon taught at Harvard University as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry in 1933-34. In 1939, Binyon was invited to give the prestigious annual Romanes lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford; he spoke of “Art and Freedom”. In 1940 Binyon was appointed to the Byron chair of letters at the University of Athens, narrowly escaping Greece after its invasion by the Germans. He died in an English nursing home at the age of 73; at his death he was working on a major three-part Arthurian trilogy, the first volume of which was published posthumously as The Madness of Merlin.

His was an artistic spirit that found expression not only in writing and painting but also in music; after 1916, Edward Elgar set some of Binyon’s poems — The Fourth of August, For the Fallen, and To Women (all from his The Winnowing Fan) — to music as the requiem, The Spirit of England.

Binyon’s daughter Helen (1904-1979) was an artist who studied with landscape painter Paul Nash. She was a friend of noted English wood engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), who died on an RAF rescue mission while working as a war artist. Helen remembered him with her work Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist. She was a keen puppeteer, teaching and publishing Puppetry Today (1966) and Professional Puppetry in England (1973). And in 1938 she provided the wood engravings for an edition of Pride and Prejudice for Penguin Illustrated Classics.

Biographies of Laurence Binyon at:


Counter-Attack (Michele at Scholar’s Blog‘s comprehensive World War I poets website)

the online Dictionary of Art Historians

A new dimension to science studies

Rebecca at Ipsa Dixit reports that her family has the brand-spanking new title, Einstein Adds a New Dimension (Smithsonian Books, 480 pages), the third volume in Joy Hakim‘s wonderful Story of Science series.

From a recent Edutopia article (Edutopia’s “Daring Dozen” profile of Ms. Hakim last year is here):

Journalist and textbook author Joy Hakim is still writing, adding to her textbook catalog with continued brilliance. Her latest opus is a contemporary science book for secondary school students called Einstein Adds a New Dimension, due in print this September. It’s the third in a series she has written that approaches science through its history and stories, rather than focusing exclusively on its theorems and formulas.

“This is the greatest scientific era ever,” she says, “and yet we don’t teach kids much about it. No wonder school science often seems irrelevant.” Though Hakim admits this is the toughest book she has ever written, it’s also the most exciting. Thanks to help from Edwin F. Taylor, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she’s keeping things on target when it comes to quantum theory, relativity, cosmology, and many other realms of cutting-edge science. Most of all, though, she’s achieving her real purpose: “To get readers to grapple with ideas, do critical thinking, and get an intellectual life.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine noted that Ms. Hakim “has been called the J.K. Rowling of textbooks.”

The book is jointly published by Smithsonian Books and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Thanks to NSTA, you can download and read a sample chapter from the book, A Boy with Something on His Mind.

Grammar resources

I’ve been remiss in not posting about the latest Growing with Grammar program by my friend Tamela Davis, for Grade 5. More good stuff for home educating families looking for more choice. And more Growing with Grammar posts and reviews (for Grades 1&2, 3, and 4) here, here, and here.

I’m a big fan of Patricia T. O’Conner‘s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, which I consider an essential reference, but wasn’t much impressed by the recent Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, which I found tried too hard to appeal to kids, overly laden with references to popular children’s culture, from Shrek to Lemony Snicket and, of course, Harry Potter, with Garfield the Cat thrown in for good measure, as if to recognize that yes, grammar is indeed a vile thing (though not vile in a good sense like noxiously flavored jelly beans) and like broccoli must be dressed up with Cheez Whiz. My Spidey sense/hip-trendy-ironic parent alert started quivering as soon as I read Garrison Keillor’s “This is, like, cool” on the cover. Oh dear. Borrow it from the library, but to buy for your son’s or daughter’s desk I’d definitely consider handing anyone age 12 and up a copy of O’Conner’s original Woe Is I. While you’re at it, add a copy of her Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing, too. Both breezy and informal and not at all overwhelming, And not twee, either.

And much as I enjoyed Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, the illustrated children’s versions so far — last year’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! and this year’s The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage without Apostrophes! — have left the kids and me a bit cold. Though I have no doubt that Penguin/Putnam is enjoying parceling out the ideas from the original in 32-page picture books; I believe the hyphen is up next. Stay tuned. As an aside, Laura (age 10) has found the Eats, Shoots & Leaves 2008 Day to Day Calendar, meant for adults I think, more intriguing and appealing than the picture books.

The grammar reference book that seems to get the most use around here by the kids is The Usborne Guide to Better English by Robyn Gee and Carolyn Watson; it’s what Usborne calls a “bind-up” of its three books on grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and like some of the publisher’s books it’s also “Internet-linked”. It doesn’t seem to be in print in the U.S. anymore, though it is in Canada; perhaps check with your friendly Usborne rep. A book this good and helpful should certainly be more widely available. It is, indeed, included on the Plain English Campaign suggested reading list.

Americans will find in the Usborne Guide some noticeable differences — in some of the spelling and terminology (what we call a period the British call a “full stop”, which does make good sense, especially when you’re teaching youngsters to read) — but nothing insurmountable. Lighthearted without being silly or goofy, and illustrated with small cartoons and comic strips, the book is full of easy explanations and handy dandy tricks; Davy particularly appreciates the following in the section on nouns: “Nouns can usually have the, or a, or an in front of them. Try putting the in front of the words on the right to find out which of them are nouns.” (saucepan, finger, happy, rocket, sometime, heat, daffodil, never, sky, have)

Cybils Season

It’s Cybils season again, the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards celebrating the best titles of 2007. Established and organized by Anne Boles Levy of Book Buds and Kelly Herold of Big A little a, the Cybils are ready for year two!

As of October 1st, you’ll be able to leave your nominations for the different categories — picture books (fiction), picture books (nonfiction), poetry, middle grade & young adult nonfiction, middle grade fiction, young adult fiction, graphic novels, and fantasy & science fiction. It’s time to start reflecting on your, and your children’s, favorite new books of the past year.

I’ve started going through our interlibrary loan titles from the year to put together our own list of favorite new books of 2007, and a few of the very best the kids are still talking and talking about. Though we don’t have a bookstore in our nearby town, everyone in the family gets very excited walking into the library to see the goodies glittering on the new arrivals table, or reading reviews in the newspapers and blogs and adding them to our wish lists and shopping carts.

If you’re not familiar with the Cybils, you can read about last year’s finalists here, and last year’s winners here.

And lastly, a special thanks to Kelly and Anne for letting me participate again this year. I’m on Jen Robinson‘s middle grade and young adult nonfiction book panel, which I’m very much looking forward to.

(Sneaking back to the fields now…)

Combining combining and pirates

We started combining the crops, wheat and barley, today. And I understand tomorrow is supposed to be Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I’m not the first person to notice that combines look rather like ships, sailing steadily and majestically through waves of grain. And while you wait on the truck, or run up the combine ladder to check how the wheat is coming in, and the warm wind blows through your hair, you do feel as if you could be on a ship or even up the mast, especially when you scan the horizon to see if you can spot your neighbors in their combine.

So for all the western Canadian pirates out there, I offer hearty harvest wishes, and the words of this little ditty, written and performed by the Canadian musical comedy group The Arrogant Worms; and also performed lustily by the Edmonton band Captain Tractor (you can’t combine farming and sailing any better than with that moniker):

The Last Saskatchewan Pirate

Well, I used to be a farmer and I made a living fine,
I had a little stretch of land along the CP line.
But times got tough, and though I tried, the money wasn’t there.
The bankers came and took my land and told me, “Fair is fair”/
I looked for every kind of job, the answer always no.
“Hire you now?” they’d always laugh, “We just let twenty go!” (Ha ha!)
The government, they promised me a measly little sum,
But I’ve got too much pride to end up just another bum.

Then I thought, who gives a damn if all the jobs are gone,
I’m gonna be a pirate on the River Saskatchewan! (Arr!)

And it’s a heave (ho!) hi (ho!), coming down the plains,
Stealing wheat and barley and all the other grains,
And it’s a ho (hey!) hi (hey!), farmers bar yer doors
When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores.

Well, you’d think the local farmers would know that I’m at large
But just the other day I found an unprotected barge.
I snuck up right behind them and they were none the wiser.
I rammed the ship and sank it and I stole the fertilizer.
Bridge outside of Moose Jaw spans a mighty river
Farmers cross in so much fear, their stomach’s are a-quiver
‘Cause they know that Captain Tractor’s hiding in the bay.
I’ll jump the bridge, and knock ’em cold, and sail off with their hay.

And it’s a heave (ho!) hi (ho!), coming down the plains,
Stealing wheat and barley and all the other grains,
And it’s a ho (hey!) hi (hey!), farmers bar yer doors
When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores.

Well, Mountie Bob he chased me, he was always at my throat,
He’d follow on the shoreline ’cause he didn’t own a boat.
But the cutbacks were a-comin’ and the Mountie lost his job,
So now he’s sailing with me and we call him Salty Bob.
A swingin’ sword, a skull-and-bones, and pleasant company,
I never pay my income tax and screw the GST (Screw it!).
Prince Albert down to Saskatoon, the terror of the sea,
If you wanna reach the co-op, boy, you gotta get by me! (Arr!)

And it’s a heave (ho!) hi (ho!), coming down the plains,
Stealing wheat and barley and all the other grains,
And it’s a ho (hey!) hi (hey!), farmers bar yer doors
When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores.

Well, the pirate life’s appealing but you don’t just find it here,
I hear in north Alberta there’s a band of buccaneers.
They roam the Athabasca from Smith to Fort MacKay,
And you’re gonna lose your Stetson if you have to pass their way.
Well, winter is a-comin’ and a chill is in the breeze,
My pirate days are over once the river starts to freeze.
I’ll be back in springtime, but now I’ve got to go,
I hear there’s lots of plunderin’ down in New Mexico.

And it’s a heave (ho!) hi (ho!), coming down the plains,
Stealing wheat and barley and all the other grains,
And it’s a ho (hey!) hi (hey!), farmers bar yer doors
When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores.

When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores!
When you see the Jolly Roger on Regina’s mighty shores!

Cow, girl, cowgirl

This one has been halter broken. And thoroughly spoiled.
(The one on the left, that is.)

Cows, boys, cowboys

Interestingly, the black heifer in the top three pictures hasn’t been halter broken. She’s just an unusually placid and patient young cow, who seems to enjoy being around kids.

Poetry Friday: the week that was

Harvest started this week with swathing (cutting the crops — the row they fall in is called a swath), and the first killing frost arrived Wednesday night. The second one, last night, and the furnace kicked in for good measure. Goodbye tomatoes, cosmos, and zinnias, and hello, happy pantry and busy days. Or busy pantry and happy days. My week in numbers:

Poem for Poetry Friday: one, and it’s a short (anonymous) one:

There was once a young lady of Ryde
Who ate a green apple and died;

The apple fermented

Inside the lamented,

And made cider inside her her inside.

Oh heck, make it two:

A maiden caught stealing a dahlia,
Said, “Oh, you shan’t tell on me, shahlia?”

But the florist was hot,

And he said, “Like as not

They’ll send you to jail, you bad gahlia.”

HipWriterMama is hosting today’s Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, HWM!

The rest of my week in numbers:

Apples and crab apples picked in the past week: 15 boxes

Cider we pressed ourselves the other night on the deck: 16 four-liter pails, stored away in the deep-freeze

Evans cherries picked Wednesday night before the killing frost: three four-liter pails. Today I’ll make cherry preserves, to use later on as pie filling or sauce for ice cream or cheesecake.

Vases full of cut flowers from the garden while I can still enjoy them: eight

Apple pies baked: two

Roasts cooked: three (two chickens, and one enormous pork roast, served with homemade apple sauce)

Boxes of tomatoes in my kitchen: three, one with green tomatoes, one with red ones, and one half-and-half, on the way to red, one last big box picked before the first frost.

Remaining cucumbers and zucchini left on the vines, discovered before the frost: one each.

Pumpkins we are trying to keep warm and growing: three

Number of meals featuring freshly picked or somehow preserved apples and/or tomatoes and/or berries: all of ’em

Enormous “Farmer Boy”-style meals prepared to feed the swathing crew, around the kitchen table and hauled to the field to be eaten as a tailgate supper: three

Evening meetings out of the house: two, last night and tonight.

“Nice Matters” award from Frankie at Kitchen-Table Learners: one, which made my week. Thanks, dear. It’s always nice to be nice, especially when people in town seem to be giving you sidelong glances because your fingernails look black (but are really stained from chokecherry juice) and your palms are green and smell funny (from picking tomatoes), no matter how hard you scrubbed with the nail brush and half a cut lemon.

Science with Tom Edison

John Holt, on helping a very young boy learn the names of different words, from How Children Learn:

I was careful, when I told him the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson, something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child does not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.

* * * *

A bit of a confession here from the would-be well-trained Farm School.

Literature-based studies work very well for us, especially for English (what newfangled types call “language arts”), and history. But literature-based science studies have been a bust. First, following The Well-Trained Mind‘s suggestions, with one discipline a year, life science or earth science/astronomy or chemistry or physics, and heavy on the narrating (with written “Narration Pages”) and notebooking (with written “Experiment Pages”). Then, in an effort to make things easier for myself, with more formal programs (Great Science Adventures, Living Learning Books), with fiddly little make-your-own booklets and worksheets. After a while, it occurred to me that while teaching science was more pleasurable for me this way, it wasn’t an interesting or effective way for my kids to learn. In fact, this rather bloodless approach was sucking the fun and fascination out of what would otherwise be very fun and fascinating subjects and ideas. They’re good books and curriculum, just not right for my kids, right now.

After a year or so of mulling the subject, a year in which we unschooled science and the kids learned a good deal (not to difficult to do in the country on the farm when dinnertime conversation tends to revolve around plant and animal genetics anyway) and in which I carefully studied Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook and read all sorts of things, including Natalie Angier’s new The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I realized that young Tom Edison didn’t have programs, curriculum, or lesson plans. No sirree. He just burned down barns and boxcars with his experiments and exasperated his teacher before being sent home to his mother for his education.

I knew we’d have to move away from a well-laid out, book-heavy program for my own sake — ever so much easier to plan and co-ordinate — to a more hands-on method for the sake of my kids (ages 10, eight-and-a-half, and almost seven) — not quite so easy to plan and co-ordinate — to keep them excited about and interested in science, before it turns into incomprehensible drudgery. And dare I say it and sound like an unschooler, but often the kids’ best lessons, and when they learn the most, is when things aren’t Planned – And – Co-ordinated. Of course not. That would be too easy.

This coming year, after much thought and reading, we’re trying something new — heavy on the experiments and experimenting, light on lab reports, narration, and even reading, especially when it comes to biographies and “the history of science” stuff, which I adore but which the kids regard as frilly extras. I figure there’s plenty of time for that later. What there’s little time for now, though, is hooking the kids on the magic and fun of science. And instead of spending the entire year on one facet of science — chemistry or physics or biology, etc. — which the kids with their many interests lose patience with quickly, we’re going to do both chemistry and physics, with the usual natural history thrown in, too; if we were following the WTM framework, we’d be starting our second, more in-depth study of biology, which just might send everyone here around the bend. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option, though I was sorely tempted by Noeo Science for chemistry and/or physics, but in the end realized I didn’t want us to be constrained by someone else’s lesson plans, though I have found some wonderful book suggestions on Noeo’s reading list (including, from Physics I, Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass, How Do You Lift a Lion? which I mentioned the other day; Fizz, Bubble & Flash; and and from Physics II, Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why)).

So here is the non-plan for science this year:

I’m going to take a page from Tom Edison and let the kids become boy and girl wizards. Messy, our-flasks-and-test-tubes-bubble-over experiments galore, no lab notes, and minimal books, mostly for experiments:

the old and dangerous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (which I wrote about here several months ago). Lynx at One-Sixteenth is using The Golden Book too, so we’ll be able to compare bangs and booms shortly.

Our old out-of-print How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen

Two older Dover books already on the shelf: Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner and Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier

Mr. Wizard’s World six-DVD set; though I think I’ll ask Tom to help the day we electrocute the hot dog.

There are so many good experiment books available, new and out-of-print, including a number by Mr. Wizard, aka Don Herbert, and even a dandy Thomas Edison one); I decided to go with what we already have on the shelf.

I ordered the K’NEX Simple Machines Set, and I plan to keep it in the living room and let the kids loose with it, with minimal assistance and guidance from me. Mechanically-minded Daniel will have a field day,

On the bookshelf, just in case:

Physics in a Hardware Store and Physics in a Housewares Store, both by Robert Friedhoffer and both out of print but which I found easily and cheaply secondhand; recommended in Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook. I can’t think of a better way to involve Tom’s carpentry experience and the kids’ love of tools with basic physics principles. And while we’re in the kitchen with the housewares, we can make use of kitchen scientist Harold McGee’s Curious Cook website — “exploring the science of food and its transformations”.

And on the reference shelf, if the kids want more information, though I will try not to push it, because I know that while I prefer to read about science, my kids prefer to live it:

How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond

David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, and the related DVD series which I found in the library system; 26 discs, 13 minutes each.

* * *

I’ll wait to see how this year goes before planning any more science. If the approach works this year with the kids, I have my eye on a couple of books following the same approach for the high school years, Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham. I think the latter would be well paired with the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000, which looks like one of the better chemistry sets available in these toothless times.

Just a bit more from John Holt on How Children Learn:

There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do — bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string. That is, if — and it is a very big if — he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations — and many, even most real life situations are like this — w here there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of educating him.

(L at Schola has been reading John Holt too.)

* * *

Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings:

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science summer school

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science

Poetry Friday: A bit of Browning and a huge delight

A poem for back-to-school season for all parents who teach, guide, educate, explain, discuss, and develop.

Most of the great English poet Robert Browning’s education took place at home, centering around his father’s library of some 6,000 volumes in English, as well as French, ancient Greek, and Latin. He began composing rhymes even before he learned to read and write by the age of five. Browning wrote the following poem, toward the end of his life, a loving thank you to his first and best teacher. I can easily picture father and young son, gallumphing around the library floor, sofa cushions stacked nearby, surrounded by books and surprised family pets.

by Robert Browning (1812-1889)

My Father was a scholar and knew Greek.
When I was five years old, I asked him once
“What do you read about?”
“The siege of Troy.”
“What is a siege and what is Troy?”
He piled up chairs and tables for a town,
Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat
— Helen, enticed away from home (he said)
By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close
Under the footstool, being cowardly,
But whom — since she was worth the pains, poor puss —
Towzer and Tray, — our dogs, the Atreidai, — sought
By taking Troy to get possession of
— Always when great Achilles ceased to sulk,
(My pony in the stable) — forth would prance
And put to flight Hector — our page-boy’s self.
This taught me who was who and what was what:
So far I rightly understood the case
At five years old: a huge delight it proved
And still proves — thanks to that instructor sage
My Father, who knew better than turn straight
Learning’s full flare on weak-eyed ignorance,
Or, worse yet, leave weak eyes to grow sand-blind,
Content with darkness and vacuity.

* * *

Make your way to Semicolon for today’s Poetry Friday round-up. Thanks, Sherry!

G is for guitar…and giddy

Our first two back-to-school days, which ended up being out-of-the-house days, proved to be a wonderful way to ease back into the swing of things. The local author reading, and getting to meet him, inspired Laura and she’s been scribbling away ever since, with plans to write up our adventure with the hawk. Afterwards, we dropped off Tom’s lunchbox with plans to head home for lunch ourselves, to find that his current clients had invited us to pick as many apples from their trees as we wished. Since the apples, some crabs and other quite good-sized ones, were already falling off the trees, the kids and I headed to the supermarket, picked up a couple of sandwiches to share and some empty cardboard boxes, and returned to pick apples. Nothing like an apple for the teacher and then some. We’ll press them for cider.

Yesterday it was back to the library for a meeting, home for lunch, and back to town afterwards for an afternoon of music lessons. Laura is taking piano and voice again, Davy has started with voice, and Daniel was absolved from piano lessons for evermore. In place of piano, Daniel, and Davy too, started guitar lessons, and were beyond giddy leaving lessons with their two guitars (one small, the other smaller). They adored the teacher, the lesson, the guitars, the picks, the music (a few chords of “We Will Rock You” to be followed, in the next week or two, by, of course, “Smoke on the Water”), and Davy was excited to learn that their new teacher also knows how to play and teach the banjo, instrument of his dreams for lo these past three years (the teacher and I decided that it would be a better idea to start with the guitar and then move to banjo). They would have played their new instruments in the truck on the way home if I had let them but had to wait until our arrival home, where they played for their sister, their father, and me. Then Davy wandered around until suppertime with his guitar in its case slung across his back, like a teeny tiny itinerant musician.

The boys were up unusually early this morning, to practice the guitar, of course (“I heard you rummaging around in bed so I figured you were still sleeping so I waited until I heard you open the sock drawer,” my almost-seven-year-old Woody Guthrie told me breathlessly, even before his usual “Good morning”, leaving me wondering a) if I really do rummage in my sleep and b) where did that kid learn that word). Later in the day, he spent a good 10 minutes in front the calendar, moaning that it would be “a whole ‘nother week ’til the next lesson”, darn it all, and why can’t we go back tomorrow? I plan on using most of this enthusiasm and interest for the kids’ science studies this year, as the kids explore the physics of sound and music with the help of their new instruments and Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass.

The rest of the day wasn’t nearly exciting, especially as I insisted on getting back to our usual schedule, hitting the books and such. Though we started the day without math books and with a new multiplication board game (from the Frank Schaffer folks), simple and fun. Then moved on to penmanship for the boys, and Laura wrote a letter. We started our new readaloud, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, while the kids decided to map out on the chalkboard what Almanzo’s family’s farmyard must have looked like with the three big barns. Then some world history with Story of the World (volume 3) and my new summertime find, the out-of-print Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson, 1955; Davy likes it and its illustrations almost as much he likes guitar lessons. Now that Davy is just about seven, I’ll see if we can get through World War II by the end of the year. I’d like to get through the second part of the 20th century with just Laura thereafter, and I’m mulling over an idea already for her history studies next year, when she’ll begin the cycle again with ancient studies. My idea is something along the lines of “History, heroes, and hubris”; the thought started percolating quite against my will, and after some recent conversations and a radio interview on modern heroes, within the past month, and then just last week I ran across a copy of the May 2007 issue of Calliope Magazine all about the Epic Heroes of ancient history, with a number of articles by editors Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (poking around the Calliope website, I learned that a free teacher’s guide is available for that issue and others as a PDF). I’ll have to check History Odyssey ‘s Ancients, Level Three (meant for the rhetoric stage), to see if it fits the general idea of what I’m looking for, or if I’ll have to cobble together something for Laura on my own. Though it’s early days and the plan is just a glimmer in my eye, I’m leaning toward the latter, but using two books HO/Ancients/3 does, Classical Ingenuity: The Legacy of Greek and Roman Architects, Artists, and Inventors and The Classical Companion, both by Callipoe editors Rosalie and Charles Baker. Must see if I can find the books at the library.

Sorry, I think this post is much too rambly. I guess the boys aren’t the only giddy and distracted ones…

Retro-progressives of the world, unite

A call to arms in today’s Globe & Mail, from Kate Tennier (who by the way is founder of Advocates for Childcare Choice and a former primary school teacher):

On Being a Retro-Progressive
by Kate Tennier

I’ve recently discovered the joy of baking cookies. Although Hillary Clinton famously does not want to make them, I do.

Producing homemade snacks may not bring world peace but it has brought an unexpected degree of empowerment to my domestic life: Knowing the ingredients that go into them, smelling the home-baked aromas wafting through the house and hearing the appreciation expressed by my family are all reason enough for me to put in the extra time it takes to make them.

So, if the most famous feminist in the world doesn’t want to bake cookies and I do, does that relegate me to the status of fifties housewife? No. I’m just being “retro-progressive.”

The term is most often used to define a category of music, but it can just as easily apply to any behaviour that draws from past “best practices” to create a better life in the world we inhabit now: a retrieving of the baby from the proverbial bathwater, if you will.

The problem, though, with reclaiming anything from the past is that it takes a lot of work to persuade others that it really is “back to the future” — emphasis on future — and not just a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Take laundry and the return of the humble clothesline. You know there’s a trend afoot when a movement has sprung up to promote it. The Right to Dry campaign — also known as Project Laundry — emerged after dust-ups between homeowners trying to conserve energy and municipalities that enforce bylaws protecting citizens from the sight of their neighbours’ skivvies.

I recently bumped into an acquaintance reading a book in front of a local laundromat. When her dryer broke down several months ago, she simply decided not to replace it; although cost was not an issue, she opted instead to put her family’s clothes “on the line.”

Her visit to the laundromat that day was because truckloads of sheets needed a wash after a recent family vacation.

While she gets points for being a clothesline user, points for reading a book (how retro-progressive is that?) and even more points for using a laundromat powered by — of all things — solar energy, it was another, different retro-progressive action that pushed her into the vanguard of this movement.

After I asked where her kids were — standard greeting for anyone with children under 12 — she told me they were playing at the nearby park on their own.

This was followed by the “parent glance” — that little look one parent gives another when the first parent feels she may have gone too far out on a parenting limb and is seeking affirmation from the other. Not only did she not go too far, I envied her confidence in knowing that her kids would, in all likelihood, return unscathed and happier for the experience.

It was nice to see a bit of activity from The Dangerous Book for Boys in my own corner of the woods, and equally appealing and retro-progressive to see that when her kids returned — in high spirits from their adventures at the park — they pitched in to help fold the laundry.

There’s a lot more than homemade cookies, air-dried clothes and free-range children that are making comebacks. Farmers’ markets, car-free days, 100-mile diets and counter-consumer movements have all grown in popularity.

Perhaps no trend illustrates the retro-progressive ethos of going to the source more than Britain’s fastest-growing hobby, that of keeping laying hens. Yes, hens — for eggs!

Weekend hen-keeping courses are all the rage in England and even Madonna is rumoured to be in on the act. Cholesterol concerns and fox frustrations aside, it is an illustration of just how far (or in this case just how close, considering the hens live in people’s backyards) city dwellers will go to reclaim a practice from the past that gives them some control over their lives in the present.

Like all complex and nuanced labels, there is an element of subjectivity that prevails when deciding if something is retro-progressive. What is considered progressive by one person may be reactionary to another, and what is retro to some may never have been discarded by others. It is a thinking person’s term, one that compels people to reflect on the value and validity of actions in their own lives.

As with Jews for Jesus, Catholics for a Free Choice, Feminists for Life, Crunchy Cons and the Libertarian Left, retro-progressive, with its counterintuitive paired words qualifying each other, creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. These terms also serve as powerful examples of the maxim that quite often, “the truth lies somewhere in between.”

Getting back to my cookies: I was recently shown up by a friend of the family less than half my age (less than a third if truth be told), who, although I’m reluctant to admit it, makes better chocolate chip cookies than I do.

Can it get any more retro-progressive than a teenaged boy making homemade cookies? I wonder how he is at building root cellars.

Hey Susan, you and Junior the chicken whisperer are in good company!