• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

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

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

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

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

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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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!