• 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)
  • Categories

  • Archives

  • ChasDarwinHasAPosse
  • Farm School: A Twitter-Free Zone

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

Successful rhetoric, and a Godine garden of fresh possibilities and rediscoveries

Back in March, I wrote about a new book, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth, a professor at the Boston University School of Law, which had recently received a strong review in The Wall Street Journal.  As I wrote, “from everything I’ve read, it’s a very good and useful book indeed, especially for classical home schooling types who enjoy their grammar, logic, and rhetoric.”

Now comes a June 2 article from Publisher’s Weekly on the success of the book:

That a book on classical rhetoric could sell well enough to go into multiple printings even surprised its publisher, David Godine of the eponymous Boston-based [and independent] press, David R. Godine Publishers [which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010]. Initially, he doubted whether Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric by Boston University School of Law professor Ward Farnsworth could sell out its first printing of 4,000 hardcovers. After all it’s filled with terms like litotes, avoiding making a claim directly; erotema, a question that doesn’t require an answer; and anaphora, repetition at the start. But since its late December release, the book has gone back to press twice for a total of 12,000 copies in print. It’s in the top 100 at Amazon for both Education and Reference, words and language.

“When I signed this thing I thought I was doing this guy a favor. And it turns out he’s doing me a favor,” says Godine, who was approached by Farnsworth to publish the book. Since then the press had one of its biggest sales days in its 41-year history for a single title for Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric when Michael Dirda’s review ran in the Washington Post. “Should you buy Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric?,” Dirda asked, unrhetorically. “If you’re at all interested in the techniques of writing, yes.”

Farnsworth, who became interested in rhetoric as a Latin student, has continued to study and teach rhetoric as part of his work as a law professor. The book is structured around repetition of words and phrases, structural matters, and dramatic devices. Each rhetorical terms within those areas is illustrated with examples from Shakespeare, Dickens, Paine, Churchill, Lincoln, and other writers and speakers. “We live in a time when most books about writing are largely about how to make prose simpler,” says Farnsworth. “I agree that simplicity is probably the most important virtue in a writer. But when you read speech and writing that has stood the test of time, you realize that its authors understood much more about their craft than the typical modern book on writing ever explains.”

While reviews continue to come in six months after its release, sales for Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric got a kick start when the Wall Street Journal jumped pub date by a couple months and ran a review three days before Christmas. “The most immediate pleasure of this book is that it heightens one’s appreciation of the craft of great writers and speakers. . . . But more than anything Mr. Farnsworth wants to restore the reputation of rhetorical artistry per se, and the result is a handsome work of reference.” In addition, Farnsworth has appeared on several radio shows, including “The Hugh Hewitt Show” in Los Angeles. Godine hopes to keep sales rolling through father’s day for the dad who never got the classical education he wanted.

The Dirda review from last month’s WaPo is here.

*  *  *

Some other gems, new and old, from the David Godine catalogue:

:: For Canadians and northerners at heart, a very good and useful book for nature studies, Bright Stars, Dark Trees, Clear Water: Nature Writing from North of the Border, edited by Wayne Grady; featuring the words of John James Audubon, Henry Beston, John Burroughs, Gretel Ehrlich, Florence Page Jaques, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, Farley Mowat, John Muir, Grey Owl, Roger Tory Peterson, Ernest Thompson Seton, Henry David Thoreau, Catharine Par Traill, Walt Whitman.

:: DRG’s gorgeous children’s and young adult titles, including

Daniel Carter Beard’s books

The new Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel: Bringing Matisse to America by Susan Fillion

David Weitzman’s books: Rama and Sita: A Tale from Ancient Java, Superpower: The Making of a Steam LocomotiveThrashin’ Time: Harvest Days in the Dakotas  

Not to mention family favorites Mary Azarian, Edward Ardizzone, Ring of Bright WaterStudy Is Hard Work, and Swallows & Amazons

:: For adults and older readers:

The Superior Person’s Field Guide: to Deceitful, Deceptive & Downright Dangerous Language by Peter Bowler, illustrated by Leslie Cabarga; and other Bowler books

Noel Perrin, Noel Perrin, Noel Perrin

Henry Beston, Henry Beston, Henry Beston, Henry Beston

Will Cuppy

A Year with Emerson: A Daybook, selected & edited by Richard Grossman, with wood engravings by Barry Moser (psst — a steal of a deal in paperback for $10)

:: For foodies:

Elizabeth David

Bemelmans (beyond Madeline…)

The Kitchen Book & The Cook Book by Nicolas Freeling (beyond the murder mysteries…)

:: For music lovers:

Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs for Broadway Shows and Hollywood Musicals by William Zinsser

:: For gardeners and naturalists:

The Once & Future Gardener: Garden Writing from the Golden Age of Magazines, 1900-1940, edited by Virginia Tuttle Clayton

Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities!: Notes from a Gloucester Garden by Kim Smith

Songs to Birds by Jake Page, illustrated by Wesley Bates. From DRG’s description: “Jake Page is one of those rare and refreshing naturalists with a palpable gift for writing. Here he concentrates, more or less, on his favorite subjects: birds. And in these essays, they are presented in every stripe, the swaggering starlings, the querulous gulls, kingbirds, blackbirds, and crows. But birds only provide the skeletons upon which Page hangs the real meat of the pieces: how animals behave with each other, with us, and with the world at large. His real story is how life evolves and interacts, how ponds gradually support an ecosystem, how birds migrate, how animals communicate (even how toads copulate).  Page asks questions and gives answers with a marvelous wit and the curiosity of a humanist and the insight of a scientist. It is this combination of his scientific curiosity and his ability to express himself so stylishly that makes him a writer of such charming felicity. His is a mind of uncontrolled inquiry, one attuned to the natural (and often unnatural) world around him, a sensiblity that delights us with is intelligence and insight.”

:: For typography types 

And last but not least, the Words & Humor category, perhaps my favorite.

That should keep you busy.  I can’t mention, or even read, all the books, but maybe between us we can give it a good try!

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Campaign, or, Hot air, baloney, and twaddle

We classically home educating types are known to enjoy diagramming sentences, so JoVE sent me the recent Slate article by Kitty Burns Florey, “Diagramming Sarah”.

Why do we attach such importance to sentence diagramming? Because, as Ms. Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, explains, “diagramming a sentence provides insight into the mind of its perpetrator. The more the diagram is forced to wander around the page, loop back on itself, and generally stretch its capabilities, the more it reveals that the mind that created the sentence is either a richly educated one — with a Proustian grasp of language that pushes the limits of expression — such an impoverished one that it can produce only hot air, baloney, and twaddle.”

From the article,

One thing we can’t learn, of course, is whether [Sarah Palin’s] words are true or make sense. Part of the appeal of diagramming is the fact that just about any sentence can be diagrammed, even when it is gibberish. Cats chase mice and Mice chase cats present the same kind of entity to the diagrammer. So does Muffins bludgeon bookcases. If it’s a string of words containing a certain number of parts of speech arranged in reasonably coherent order, it can be hacked and beaten into a diagram.

Once we start diagramming political sentences, the diagram’s indifference to meaning can be especially striking. Stirring words like “I have a dream,” the magisterial Declaration of Independence (a staple of diagramming teachers), bald-faced lies (“I am not a crook”), and crafty shadings of the truth (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) can be diagrammed with equal ease. But some politicians—our current president included—offer meanderings in the higher realms of drivel that leave the diagrammer groping for the Tylenol (“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”) or the gin bottle (“I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office”).

Read the rest, including more diagramming, here.

And good news — Ms. Burns Florey has a new book coming out in the new year, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, on January 23, National Handwriting Day and John Hancock’s birthday (there’s also a new novel). Which makes me very glad I decided over the summer to practice handwriting along with the kids, thanks to my own home educating purchase.

Discover books and read, and learn, forever

Last month historian David McCullough addressed graduates at Boston College’s 132nd commencement.  You can watch a video of the speech or read the text.

I had a hard time excerpting because I found so much it tremendously worthwhile and inspiring, so here is a good deal of Mr. McCullough’s speech, “The Love of Learning” (links and emphases mine, as always):

It’s said ad infinitum: ours is the Information Age. There’s never been anything like it since the dawn of creation. We glory in the Information Highway as other eras gloried in railroads. Information for all! Information night and day!

A column of air a mile square, starting 50 feet from the ground and extending to 14,000 feet contains an average of 25,000,000 insects…. James Madison weighed less than a hundred pounds, William Howard Taft, 332 pounds, a presidential record…. According to the World Almanac, the length of the index finger on the Statue of Liberty is 8 feet.. .. The elevation of the highest mountain in Massachusetts, Mount Greylock, is 3,487 feet…. The most ancient living tree in America, a bristlecone pine in California, is 4,700 years old…

Information is useful. Information is often highly interesting. Information has value, sometimes great value. The right bit of information at the opportune moment can be worth a fortune. Information can save time and effort. Information can save your life. The value of information, facts, figures, and the like, depends on what we make of it — on judgment.

But information, let us be clear, isn’t learning. Information isn’t poetry. Or art. Or Gershwin or the Shaw Memorial. Or faith. It isn’t wisdom. Facts alone are never enough. Facts rarely if ever have any soul. In writing or trying to understand history one may have all manner of “data”, and miss the point. One can have all the facts and miss the truth. It can be like the old piano teacher’s lament to her student, “I hear all the notes, but I hear no music.”

If information were learning, you could memorize the World Almanac and call yourself educated. If you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird!

Learning is not to be found on a printout. It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books. And from teachers, and the more learned and empathetic the better. And from work, concentrated work. Abigail Adams put it perfectly more than 200 years ago: “Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” Ardor, to my mind, is the key word.

For many of you of the graduating class, the love of learning has already taken hold. For others it often happens later and often by surprise, as history has shown time and again. That’s part of the magic.

Consider the example of Charles Sumner, the great Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, whose statue stands in the Boston Public Garden facing Boylston Street. As a boy in school Charles Sumner had shown no particular promise. Nor did he distinguish himself as an undergraduate at Harvard. He did love reading, however, and by the time he finished law school, something overcame him. Passionate to know more, learn more, he put aside the beginnings of a law practice and sailed for France on his own and on borrowed money, in order to attend lectures at the Sorbonne. It was a noble adventure in independent scholarship, if ever there was. Everything was of interest to him. He attended lectures on natural history, geology, Egyptology, criminal law, the history of philosophy, and pursued a schedule of classical studies that would have gladdened the heart of the legendary Father Thayer of Boston College. He attended lectures at the Paris medical schools. He went to the opera, the theater, the Louvre, all the while pouring out his excitement in the pages of his journal and in long letters home. Trying to express what he felt on seeing the works of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre, he wrote, “They touched my mind, untutored as it is, like a rich strain of music.”

But there was more. Something else touched him deeply. At lectures at the Sorbonne he had observed how black students were perfectly at ease with and well received by the other students. The color of one’s skin seemed to make no difference. Sumner was pleased to see this, though at first it struck him as strange. But then he thought, as he wrote, that maybe the “distance” between blacks and whites at home was something white Americans had been taught and that “does not exist in the nature of things.”

And therein was the seed from which would later arise, in the 1850’s, before the Civil War, Charles Sumner’s strident stand on the floor of the United States Senate against the spread of slavery. From his quest for learning he brought home a personal revelation he had not anticipated and it changed history.

But perhaps, overall, John Adams is as shining an example of the transforming miracle of education as we have. John Adams came from the humblest of beginnings. His father was a plain Braintree farmer and shoemaker. His mother was almost certainly illiterate. Because a scholarship made possible a college education, the boy discovered books. “I discovered books and read forever,” he later wrote and it was hardly an exaggeration. At age 80, we know, he was happily embarking on a 16-volume history of France. When I set out to write the life of John Adams, I wanted not only to read what he and Abigail wrote, but to read as much as possible of what they read. We’re all what we read to a very considerable degree. So there I was past age 60 taking up once again, for the first time since high school and college English classes, the essays of Samuel Johnson and works of Pope, Swift, and Laurence Sterne. I read Samuel Richardson’s Clarisa, which was Abigail’s favorite novel; and Cervantes — Don Quixote — for the first time in my life. What a joy! Cervantes is part of us, whether we know it or not. Declare you’re in a pickle; talk of birds of a feather flocking together; vow to turn over a new leaf; give the devil his due, or insist that mum’s the word, and you’re quoting Cervantes every time.

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Adams late in life, knowing Adams would understand perfectly. Adams read everything — Shakespeare and the Bible over and over, and the Psalms especially. He read poetry, fiction, history. Always carry a book with you on your travels he advised his son, John Quincy. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

In a single year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, among all Americans with a college education, fully a third read not one novel or short story or poem. Don’t be one of those, you of the Class of 2008.

Make the love of learning central to your life. What a difference it can mean. If your experience is anything like mine, the books that will mean the most to you, books that will change your life, are still to come. And remember, as someone said, even the oldest book is brand new for the reader who opens it for the first time.

You have had the great privilege ofattending one of the finest colleges in the nation, where dedication to classical learning and to the arts and sciences has long been manifest. If what you have learned here makes you want to learn more, well, that’s the point.

Read. Read, read! Read the classics of American literature that you’ve never opened. Read your country’s history. How can we profess to love our country and take no interest in its history? Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history ofscience and medicine and ideas.

Read for pleasure, to be sure. I adore a good thriller or a first-rate murder mystery. But take seriously — read closely — books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again. Make use of the public libraries. Start your own personal library and see it grow. Talk about the books you’re reading. Ask others what they’re reading. You’ll learn a lot.

And please, please, do what you can to cure the verbal virus that seems increasingly rampant among your generation. I’m talking about the relentless, wearisome use of the words, “like,” and “you know,” and “awesome,” and “actually.” Listen to yourselves as you speak.  Just imagine if in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy had said, “Ask not what your country can, you know, do for you, but what you can, like, do for your country actually.”

The energetic part so many of you are playing in this year’s presidential race is marvelous. Keep at it, down to the wire. Keep that idealism alive. Make a difference. Set an example for all of us.

Go out and get the best jobs you can and go to work with spirit. Don’t get discouraged. And don’t work just for money. Choose work you believe in, work you enjoy. Money enough will follow. Believe me, there’s nothing like turning to every day to do work you love.

Walk with your heads up. And remember, honesty is the best policy; and yes that, too, is from Cervantes. Travel as much as you can, and wherever you go, before checking out of a hotel or motel, always remember to tip the maid.

My warmest congratulations. In the words of the immortal Jonathan Swift, “May you live all the days of your life.” On we go.

See?  I told you so.

More McCullough:

John Adams (the HBO miniseries is now on DVD)

1776 (and also the illustrated version, apparently one copy still available at BookCloseouts)

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt (11 copies at BookCloseouts)

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Johnstown Flood

Truman

Farm School posts: “Education Truly Begins at Home” and Teaching, and learning, history with passion

A daily gift for National Poetry Month

Sherry at Semicolon is offering a post a day for National Poetry Month.  Here’s the initial post, and you can find the others by searching the blog (under the “Picture Book Preschool” block on the right) for the term “NPM”.  From Sherry’s first post,

April is National Poetry Month, and I intend to give you a gift this month: a poem a day and a suggested poetry activity or poetical thought each day. If I miss a day, forgive me. If my poetical selections displease you, again forgive. If you enjoy deceptively simple poetry and light verse that’s not always so light and meaning cloaked in the language of poetry, you might have a good time celebrating Poetry Month with me.

Speaking of semicolons, while Canadians debate the future of the penny, the French are up in arms over the semicolon.

Conditional love, or, Going, going, gone

Maybe I missed the memo, but when oh when did “had went” and “would have went” become so popular? Perhaps when teachers quit writing verb conjugations on the blackboard?

I realize I live in the boonies in the back of beyond, and I know the local school system, erm, needs work (there’s a reason we home school, you know — and that we have a blackboard in the kitchen, which I’m not afraid to use).

This is, after all, rural midwestern Canada, a place where it’s not uncommon to hear people you know, old and young, say things such as “Her and I went shopping together”, “Me and her can’t make it that day”, “I seen him at the store, ” and, “Me and her seen them at the store.” Even from provincial politicians and cabinet members, and 4H public speaking events, where the judges don’t say anything because a) their knowledge of grammar is just as limited or b) they don’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem*. There are even people around here who say “tooken” when they mean “taken”, and believe me when I tell you it takes all my inner strength to find a spot on the horizon and stare at it hard.

But all of a sudden not too long ago I realized that I was hearing adults who should know better — some of whom live in big cities back East and have jobs on the radio and television and some of whom are supposed to be, oh say, broadcast professionals — saying things such as, “I had went to the doctor”, or “We would have went along if it had been possible.” I heard one example on CBC Radio this week.

I also realize that there are those who say that the English language is a fluid, ever-changing living thing, and invoke Shakespeare when discussing that fact that it has been standardized for a relatively short period of time, and call those of us who find the changes upsetting or grating old-fashioned.  This is more than just the pet peeve of a curmudgeon.  George Orwell began his landmark 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” so:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Read that last sentence again.

In America, Richard Hofstadter in 1963, John Taylor Gatto, and most recently Susan Jacoby in her Age of American Unreason (which easily could be The Age of North American Unreason) have famously and variously written about anti-intellectualism in modern Society. Todd Gitlin wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education after the American election of 2000,

Thirty-seven years have passed since the appearance of the last substantial book to take seriously, in the words of its title, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter’s tour de force, appearing in 1963, is actually a product of the 1950’s. Like many intellectuals, Hofstadter was disturbed by the general disdain for “eggheads,” haunted by Joseph McCarthy’s thuggish assault on Dean Acheson and his Anglophilic ways, and dismayed by Eisenhower’s taste for Western novels and his tangled syntax (which was not yet understood to be, at least sometimes, not simply incompetent but deliberately evasive). Had not Eisenhower himself in 1954 (no doubt in words written for him by another hand) cited a definition of an intellectual as “a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows”? (How much more congenial was Stevenson, who once cracked: “Eggheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks!”)

Probing for historical roots of a mood that was sweeping (if somewhat exaggerated by intellectuals), Hofstadter found that “our anti-intellectualism is, in fact, older than our national identity.” He cited, among others, the Puritan John Cotton, who wrote in 1642, “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee”; and Baynard R. Hall, who wrote in 1843 of frontier Indiana: “We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness.”

Yet, according to the historian Lawrence W. Levine, the illiterate Rocky Mountain scout Jim Bridger could recite long passages from Shakespeare, which he learned by hiring someone to read the plays to him. “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville found on his trip through America in 1831-32. Here lay a supremely American paradox: The same Americans who valued the literacy of commoners were suspicious of experts and tricksters.

By the way, it occurs to me that Gitlin’s Media Unlimited (originally published in 2002 and revised last year, and which seems to have come out of the Chronicle article) ties in with the conversation over at Sippican Cottage, which is all of a very large piece.

I have to wrap this up to try out my repaired clothes dryer, so I’ll get back to grammar and quote Jacoby from American Unreason,

It is all reminiscent of the exchange among Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare tells Alice. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.” The Hatter chimes in, “Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’.” In an ignorant and anti-intellectual culture, people eat mainly what they see.

That explains a lot. I must have sympathetic indigestion.

* That strong sense of self-esteem no doubt will come in handy as an adult when you find yourself reporting the national news on live television: “The President would have went to Camp David but the helicopter was broken.” Because there will be a few of us who notice.

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)

The Growing with Grammar collection is growing

My friend Tamy Davis finished just before Christmas with the latest in her Growing with Grammar (GWG) series, the combined First & Second Grade volume, and we just received it in the mail.

I used First Language Lessons with Laura for first and second grade, and while she was quite enthusiastic about the book, there was an awful lot of eye-rolling from her brothers at all the repetition, and that was with a fair amount of judicious pruning on my part.

I’ll definitely start Davy with the new book after we get back from our trip, and just might switch over Daniel, who’s in second grade and has been working slowly through the third grade GWG book.

I haven’t had the chance to look very closely at the new GWG so far, but here’s what I do know: unlike the 3rd grade and 4th grade programs, for the Grade 1 & 2 program, the student’s manual and workbook are combined. Tamy writes at the website, where you can also view the new book’s index and some sample lessons for each grade, that the Grade 1 & 2 program

is based on a 36-week school year for both grades (72 weeks in all), and there is a new concept introduced each week. There are three lessons to reinforce each concept. This program assumes a three-day work schedule for grammar. The
program, however, is easily modified to suit your family’s needs. At the beginning
of the book, we have assembled an index that lists the 72 concepts (36 per year)
and the lessons that pertain to each. Review questions are strategically placed
throughout this book. There are also comprehensive review lessons at the end of
each section.

Just as with the Grade 3 and Grade 4 books, what I like best about the GWG programs is that they foster independent work from the start. The books are all spiral-bound at the top (especially handy for lefty Davy) and stay open easily, and the text is addressed to the child. And the new volume is printed in a nice large font perfect for first graders just beginning to read on their own. For instance, the examples for the first lesson, Introduction to Sentences, are

“Linda ate peas.”

“The frog hopped.”

Perfect for new readers or those just learning.

Davy is excited to start, and I’m excited to have one more high-quality secular, classical program available for our home education adventure.

Minding the (grammar) gap

Two articles this week about the importance of good grammar, though the first seems to indicate that good grammar is useful mostly for passing tests, the SAT in particular. The Washington Post holds that “Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback”. Well, in some places:

The National Council of Teachers of English, whose directives shape curriculum decisions nationwide, has quietly reversed its long opposition to grammar drills, which the group had condemned in 1985 as “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.”Now, even the sentence diagram, long the symbol of abandoned methodology, is allowed, if not quite endorsed, in the classrooms of Fairfax and Howard [Counties in Virginia] and other high-performing school systems throughout the region. To diagram a sentence is to deconstruct it as if it were a math problem, with the main noun, verb and object written on a horizontal line and their various modifiers attached with diagonals.

“Our time has come,” said Amy Benjamin, who presides over a council committee that concerns itself with grammar. In 17 years, her Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar has evolved from “kind of a revolutionary cell” into standard-bearers.

The nascent movement to restore overt grammar instruction began subtly. A 2002 council publication reasserted the importance of “knowing about grammar” and encouraged teachers to “experiment with different approaches,” including traditional drills and diagrams. …

An informal survey of Virginia and Maryland school systems suggests that grammar education is re-emerging slowly. The Loudoun County school system offers an annual summer staff development session called Grammar for English Teachers, tailored to teach the basics to teachers who didn’t learn them in college. “It usually fills up pretty quickly,” said Carrie Perry, supervisor of English language arts in Loudoun.

The Howard County school system “has returned to the importance of teaching grammar” in the past two or three years, said Zeleana Morris, a language arts coordinator.

The revolution might never reach many classrooms. The newest English teachers are products of a grammarless era, unprepared to distinguish an appositive from an infinitive.

“What you have is a generation of teachers from the early to mid-’70s who don’t know grammar, who never learned it,” said Benjamin, an author of the national council’s publication. “We have armies of teachers, elementary teachers and English teachers, who don’t have the language to talk about language. It’s kind of their dirty little secret.”

And, with thanks to the Old Curmudgeon for passing it along, this article from the The Guardian, “Mind Your Language — It Matters!”, an excerpt from the new book by John Humphrys:

Language is more than a tool for expressing ourselves. It acts as a mirror to our world, reflecting back to us the way we live. It reflects our attitudes about the way we see things and how we are seen by others: in public life; in politics and commerce; in advertising and marketing; in broadcasting and journalism. Yet the prevailing wisdom about language seems to be that “anything goes”.Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we’re happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings.

That, of course, would be rather convenient for the snake-oil salesmen, unscrupulous estate agents and (dare I say it?) even some politicians who might prefer not to be pinned down to anything too precise. But why should the rest of us settle for the lowest common denominator communication?

At this point, it’s also important to be clear about what should not worry us. I don’t get all agitated when a young lad is discussing the merits of one MP3 player against another in a language that may be alien to me. And he hardly needs to speak formally correct English when he’s chatting up girls in a pub. He has his world and I have mine and we each speak our own kinds of English in them. But we also have a shared world where we need a dependable common language if we’re all going to get by.

It is not a case that language should never change, because of course it always does, but that grammar matters. One of the daftest things we have ever done in our schools was to stop teaching it to children. Academics who should have known better came up with the absurd notion that rules somehow confined children, restricted their imagination. Understanding the basic workings of grammar – even if you don’t observe all the rules to the letter – can liberate. If you don’t know how to construct a sentence, how can you express yourself?

Grammar g(ir)affe: A glimmer of common sense on the horizon

This bit of good news, thanks to J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends, must mean that Lynne Truss is pleased, though no doubt puzzling over the existence of a “childrenswear technologist”.

But there really is an Apostrophe Protection Society. In England, of course. And would you believe the German Apostrophen-Katastrophen? Which will be rolling trippingly off my tongue for the rest of the day.

More news from across the pond: Lynne Truss on "Why arnt childrun being tort how 2 rite?"

My father was darling enough to send me this morning Lynne Truss’s latest article from The Telegraph.

The actual headline, “Why arnt childrun…”, is rather misleading since the article deals not with spelling — which isn’t taught anymore either, at least here in Canada — but with the mechanics of writing. I would have subtitled my post “Why Araminta and Philip Can’t Write,” only Dakota, Denver, and Chelsea in North America are no better off. Each year I spend an inordinate amount of time at the local country fair perusing the school displays, mostly gaping at the high school collages (not essays) about popular movies like “The Truman Show” (not books). Very adept with scissors and glue, not so adept with words, sadly, which are apparently optional. Or at least not as decorative.

As Ms. Truss — “Designated Worrier for the English Language” since the publication of her zero-tolerance Eats, Shoots & Leaves — writes,

Last year, only 71 per cent of girls and 56 per cent of boys aged 11 reached level four – the standard of writing expected for their age. School inspectors were themselves recently e-mailed some guidelines by Ofsted on the difference between “its” and “it’s”, and how to spell words such as (useful in the circumstances) “under-achieve”.

“But what about all those lovely A-level results?” you object. Well, a few months ago, the Royal Literary Fund published a report, Writing Matters, that put those A-levels into perspective. Since 1999, the fund has been placing professional writers in universities, to work one-to-one with students on their writing skills, and their report was full of plain, staggering shock at the state of students’ entry-level abilities.

From every angle, the same message arrived: students who are arriving at university, many with multiple A grades at A-level, simply don’t know how to write. Many of them actually resent the idea that suddenly they are expected to be able to….

Why isn’t writing – not reading – given more prominence in schools? I really don’t understand it.

And,

No one just picks up the mechanics of writing, just as we don’t pick up how to play the piano simply by listening to it. Theory, moreover, is no substitute for practice, or for learning through making mistakes.

For decades, there has been an ideological reluctance to point out mistakes in written work. Pointing out “errors” was seen as discouraging to children, as well as unacceptably judgmental. But, when you look at it, what a patronising attitude that is.

Don’t kids have the right to know if they are getting something wrong? Then they can either have the pleasure of getting it right next time, or they can make an informed decision that, actually, they absolutely don’t care. It is patronising not to correct someone who is supposed to be learning; in fact, it’s quite a good idea occasionally to force people to confront the scale of their own ignorance.

It’s not just people’s self-esteem that’s at stake, after all. It’s the future of written English.

Is this an elitist point of view? No, it’s quite the opposite. To me, it’s very simple: being good at English means you’ve been taught well. The idea that “correct” or standard English belongs only to rich and privileged people is preposterous from every angle.

The English language doesn’t belong to anybody: it certainly doesn’t trickle down from the top. Mark Twain said it brilliantly 100 years ago: “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.”

Go on, read the rest. Read it and weep.

Growing with Grammar 4 is here!

Great good news from my friend Tamy Davis at Growing with Grammar: she’s finished with Growing Grammar 4, for fourth graders! Laura enjoyed using GWG3 this past year, and is looking forward to the next book. My Farm School review of GWG3 is here.

Don’t forget, Canadians can find GWG at Academic Distribution Services (ADS) in B.C. The new volume was only just released, so ADS may not have it just yet.

I don’t get any commission for spreading the word about Tamy’s new series — I just get a solid, grammar program for my kids, one that independent readers can use more or less on their own, and one that even reluctant writers won’t find too taxing. And it’s secular, too, which means you can spend your time teaching and learning instead of tinkering. Thanks, Tamy.

Growing with Grammar, now in Canada

Just received the latest homeschool curriculum catalogue from the folks at Academic Distribution Services (ADS) in B.C. and am delighted to see that they now carry Growing with Grammar/Grade 3, on page 19, and at a price of $37.50 CAN (for the student manual, workbook, and answer key), which compares very, very favorably with the GWG website price of $29.99 US.

While GWG isn’t on the ADS website yet, you can request a free catalogue here or by calling 1-800-276-0078. Worth noting is the annual Spring sale on now until the end of June, which features no GST and free shipping on orders over $200. This is when I usually stock up on Singapore math and Explode the Code workbooks.

No, I don’t get a commission from GWG (or ADS), but author Tamy Davis, a homeschooling mother of two, is a friend, and, most importantly, with three kids I have a vested interest in a rigorous, enjoyable, and secular grammar program. My full, pleased-as-punch review from November still stands, and Laura and I are both looking forward to the release of the new Grade 4 material in the fall.

Grammar Geek

The recent issue of the Core Knowledge Foundation‘s e-newsletter, Common Knowledge, arrived in my inbox this morning. Found a very interesting article about the sad history of grammar instruction in America, The Naturalist Fallacy and the Demise of Grammar Instruction (with Practical Advice on Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics) by Robert D. Shepherd, the CK Educational Materials Director, which you can read here in its entirety. Shepherd writes that he owes debts to both CK founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and CK board member Diane Ravitch, who had asked Shepherd what teachers today could do about the teaching of grammar.

Shepherd writes,

The traditional grammar textbook disappeared because of the emergence of a new orthodoxy regarding child language acquisition. The orthodox belief promulgated in our education schools today is that grammatical ability is not something that has to be taught. A child’s grammar, or so many educational theorists have come to believe, is something that develops naturally, without intervention by teachers. …

Where did the education theorists get this idea that a child’s grammar develops naturally, with little or no outside intervention? They got it by listening at the keyholes of linguists. … It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, however, that the anti-grammar camp came into possession of the big guns that would blow grammar out of the classroom. Beginning with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957 and continuing to the present day, Noam Chomsky of MIT led what can only be described as a revolution in linguistics, one consequence of which was the widespread belief that language acquisition is largely an autonomic process dependent upon unconscious interactions between an innate, internal language acquisition device and the raw material of the child’s linguistic environment. It was this idea that led educators in the National Council of Teachers of English and editors in the major textbook houses to move decisively against traditional grammar instruction. … Like many great thinkers, Chomsky started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns, within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate, and this learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has not been directly taught [all emphases in original]. …

So, education professors began teaching their students that grammar textbooks contained nothing but irrelevant skill and drill, that the internal language-learning mechanism was autonomic, that “teaching grammar” made as much sense as teaching breathing, that what one should do was expose kids to language and let their grammar develop naturally.

There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, however. As Alexander Pope famously said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the education theorists’ bit of knowledge of linguistics turned out to be very dangerous indeed. Chomsky was right about language acquisition, but the theory developed by the education professors in Chomsky’s name is wrong in ways that turn out to be crucial.

Shepherd goes on to talk about children’s brains:

The innate, or inborn, language-learning device is such a thicket of neural connections. Beginning at about the age of nine or ten and continuing until kids are around the age of fourteen, the internal mechanisms for intuiting syntactic, phonological, and morphological structures start breaking down. So, for example, if a small child is exposed to the liquid l sound in Russian, he or she will grow up being able to produce that sound, even if he or she does not learn Russian until much later in life. However, if a child is not exposed to that sound, then he or she will never be able to produce it as an adult. The machinery for hearing and producing that sound, that distinctive feature of a possible language, is weeded out. There is a window of opportunity for learning linguistic structures — for setting the parameters of the internal grammar. After that window is closed, it cannot be reopened.

Here’s the problem: if a child has “learned” a nonstandard version of his or her grammar, it is difficult or impossible for that child, past the age of ten or so, to learn a different, standard version using only the innate language-learning machinery, for that machinery has to a large extent stopped working by that time. That’s why it is much harder for an adult to learn a new language through simple immersion than it is for a child to do so.

Shepherd then asks, “how can we, in light of current linguistic knowledge, address the problem of teaching students how to avoid errors in grammar and usage or the problem of how to style shift when it is useful to do so? This remains very much an open question”:

If you are a teacher, if you are in the trenches, if you face in your classrooms, every day, students whose syntax rarely exceeds the complexity of that used to be found in Dick and Jane readers, students for whom “Me and Jose love playing video games” is perfectly grammatical, students who sprinkle commas through their writing as though they were salt and for whom commas and end punctuation are interchangeable, what can you do, now, to improve your teaching of grammar, usage, and mechanics?

Unfortunately, contemporary textbooks will be of little help. As I mentioned earlier, the traditional grammar handbooks have all but disappeared, and at any rate, most of those were practically useless anyway because they dealt primarily with taxonomy of forms. In contemporary textbooks, especially those of the so-called “integrated language arts” variety, grammar instruction is a random, hit-and-miss, willy nilly affair. Typically, a few activities employing traditional terminology are scattered, according to no rhyme or reason, in exercises appearing at the ends of literary selections in integrated language arts and composition textbooks. These exercises are not, typically, presented in a systematic, incremental matter, and the learning that results from having students do them is minimal.

This is where a home educating parent seems to hold a distinct advantage over the average public school teacher. We have a wealth of materials available — admittedly, some better than others, and not all secular — in a discipline that is roundly ignored in the public school arena, the latest of which is Tamy Davis’s excellent, new Growing with Grammar program, which is a wonderful follow-up to Jessie Wise’s First Language Lessons, which gets those neural connections while they’re still alive and snapping. Yoohoo, Mr. Shepherd…

Growing with Grammar: a review

A friend of mine, Tamy Davis, has just finished her new third grade grammar book, Growing with Grammar, the first in what will be a series. Homeschoolers, especially secular homeschoolers in search of a rigorous grammar program, will be delighted.

Since we were lucky enough to be part of the test group, we’ve been using the program now for about a month. I, and others who’ve already started using the program, have shared our thoughts on it here, in a testimonial at the GWG website, and here, in a review at The Denim Jumper.

The timing of the test group couldn’t have been better. Laura had been working in Rod & Staff’s Beginning Wisely grammar program since September. While grammar is one of her favorite subjects, she was beginning to balk at the the unending religious references, even when we changed names to brothers, aunts, favorite dolls, and book and movie characters. I had thought that we could work with R&S knowing that it was religious but not proselytizing. I had hoped that we could, because I really want something thorough for the kids.

Tamy saved our bacon. I had hoped secretly in my heart that GWG would be “as good as” R&S’s highly touted (even by secular hs’ers) program. Guess what? It’s better, yes, better. This, aside from the secular aspect — which means it can be used by families of any faith or no faith — is why:

— it doesn’t involve a lot of writing, which is especially nice for reluctant writers. But the exercises are incredibly thorough, and include a lot of review of previously covered material (and each exercise contains references to the original lesson in the manual, so you or your child can go back for more review if necessary). In fact, the 230-page workbook is just seven pages shorter than the manual. How’s that for thorough? But it’s fun, sort of like a Mad Libs book but educational and not disjointed or overly silly. The student exercises are a combination of rewriting sentences as well as underlining, checking or circling the right answer, and completing sentences with a few extra words.

— both the manual and workbook are spiral-bound, so they lie flat on the table. Why should something so small make me so happy? Because books that flop shut of their own volition despite your best efforts do not make for extended, happy, learning periods. And the spiral-bound workbook is bound at the top, which makes it very nice if you have a lefty. I have a lefty and two righties, so this is much appreciated.

— there’s no teacher’s guide, because one isn’t needed. Just the manual, which you read through with your child, and the student workbooks. Very nice to get your budding grammarian doing more independent work.

I’ll give Laura the last word: “I like that the activity pages [workbook] are fun, I can work on them by myself, and it’s about kids like me and families like mine.” And she’s getting a solid foundation in third grade grammar. Sold!