• 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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A Study in Silliness

The back-to-school silly season is upon us.

From The Guardian last week:

Arthur Conan Doyle‘s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, has been removed from reading lists in Virginia schools after a parent complained about its anti-Mormon sentiments.

The decision to pull the classic novel from sixth-grade reading lists in Albemarle County, Virginia, was made by the school board, local paper the Daily Progress reports, following a complaint from local parent Brette Stevenson, who said the novel was “our young students’ first inaccurate introduction to an American religion”. …

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Conan Doyle’s daughter said that her father “would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons”.

The Albemarle County school board made its decision after asking a committee to study the novel, which found that it was not “age-appropriate” for sixth graders, who are 11 to 12 years old. The ban was protested by more than 20 former students, with one teenager calling it “the best book I have read so far”.

The above link for The Salt Lake Tribune, by the way, goes to an interesting article by Vince Horiuchi on “The long history of Mormon satire”, prompted by the opening of the Broadway play, “The Book of Mormon”. Sad, dispiriting, and not at all surprising that the matter of the Conan Doyle story could not be addressed by having students read the article and discuss it in class with their teachers. No, much better to quash the matter entirely. Now there’s a capital lesson to learn when you get back to school.

Coincidentally I was reading this while listening to a repeat of Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Kinky Friedman, which starts off with a bit of Kinky’s song, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More”.

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The full impact

Pulitzer and Griffin prize-winning poet and essayist Charles Simic has a moving and thought-provoking blog post at the New York Review Blog this week, “A Country without Libraries”, from which:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak. “The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside. Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime. I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

How Simic’s library made him a more interesting, and interested, person:

In Oak Park, Illinois, when I was in high school, I went to the library two or three times a week, though in my classes I was a middling student. Even in wintertime, I’d walk the dozen blocks to the library, often in rain or snow, carrying a load of books and records to return, trembling with excitement and anticipation at all the tantalizing books that awaited me there. The kindness of the librarians, who, of course, all knew me well, was also an inducement. They were happy to see me read so many books, though I’m sure they must have wondered in private about my vast and mystifying range of interests.

I’d check out at the same time, for instance, a learned book about North American insects and bugs, a Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel, the poems of Hart Crane, an anthology of American short stories, a book about astronomy and recordings by Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet. I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

Simic on those who downplay the importance of libraries in our communities, our society:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

How many book lovers among the young has the Internet produced? Far fewer, I suspect, than the millions libraries have turned out over the last hundred years. Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries.

Read the entire post here. Read the NYRblog here, where you can find posts by everyone from Margaret Atwood, Diane Ravitch, and  Mary Beard to Harold Bloom, Michael Chabon, and Joseph Lelyveld.

Support your local library.  Visit often, with your children. Get library cards for the whole family, and use them. Join your Friends of the Library group to help with much-needed fundraising. Take boxes of chocolates and plates of homemade cookies to your librarian and the staff. Join your local library board.  Become volunteer or library page at your branch. Read deeply and widely. Imagine your town, city, or neighborhood without a library.

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Earlier Farm School handwringings about libraries:

Those pesky outdated and inaccurate books

Ray Bradbury on libraries

The latest book buzz, or, For whom the bell tolls

A hub for home schoolers

Those pesky outdated and inaccurate books

Oh, Canada.

From today’s Globe and Mail,

Today, many Canadian children have never even seen a school librarian and never will. Nova Scotia has none, and the full-time equivalent of just three are left in all of New Brunswick. At least one school board in Ontario hasn’t had a teacher-librarian in 15 years, and numbers have declined in Alberta and British Columbia as well [certainly in our part of Alberta].

Spring is a hard season for bibliophiles, as school boards across the country set their budgets for next school year. In recent weeks at least two Ontario boards have decided to cut library staff.

Teacher-librarians have been among the first to be sacrificed when boards make cuts, and the digital innovations they help students navigate are now being used as the justification for eliminating their jobs, and Canada is bucking an international trend of investing in school libraries.

People for Education, an Ontario advocacy group, will release a special report on the decline of school libraries on Monday.

The study shows that less [erm, fewer…] than 12 per cent of Ontario elementary schools have a full-time librarian, and small communities, particularly in the north, are most likely to go without. Today, barely half have even a part-time librarian, down from 80 per cent in 1997/98.

The group’s concerns are about more than nostalgia: School libraries and librarians have been linked to several measures of student achievement, including standardized test scores and a love of reading. Most studies have come out of the United States and Australia, but Canadian researchers confirmed in 2006 that these benefits transcend borders and remain strong in a post-internet world.

“It’s not surprising that when you’ve got engaged teacher-librarians, they’re going to engage the students more and the more they engage our children the better they learn,” said Donald Klinger, the Queen’s University professor who led the new study.

What did surprise Prof. Klinger was the strength of the association between students’ performance on standardized tests and the presence of school librarians: His study showed scores were boosted by as much as 8 per cent.

If reading all of that makes you sad, this will make you even sadder [boldface mine]:

In April, declining enrolment forced the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board in southern Ontario to make up a projected $8-million to $10-million reduction in provincial funding. Trustees voted to lay off 16 secretaries, several teachers, and nearly all 39 library technicians. At the same time, Peterborough’s Catholic school board, east of Toronto, also said it is cutting library staff.

“We have to get past the old concept, the old tradition of what libraries used to be…” said Cathy Geml, associate director of education for the WECDSB. Books quickly become outdated and inaccurate, and the board is focusing its resources on internet research.

“We have people in various capacities in the secondary schools that are teachers and administrators who could support and teach digital literacy throughout the day.”

It gets worse.  According to The Hamilton Spectator, the decision was made behind closed doors and with no public input:

In a controversial decision — which even some students are protesting — the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board has laid off all but four of its library technicians and is dismantling all its libraries.

It has started to divvy up the library books in its elementary schools and distribute them to individual classrooms instead.

Among the board’s reasons, according to Ms. Geml:

schoolchildren spend time walking to the library, choosing books and returning to class. “That’s lost instructional time,” she added.

Lost, indeed. I’m not quite sure how much anyone in the Windsor-Essex Catholic school district has been learning over the past few generations if school board members believe that that books are purely for research, reference, and information. Whatever happened to wisdom, knowledge, and a great story?  How disappointing that there are trustees who think it comes down to Stephen Leacock vs. Google, Jane Austen vs. the current edition of the World Almanac, Billy Budd vs. Bing.  Am I really surprised to find that there are school board members who believe this?  No.  It’s one of the reasons we home school, and one of the reasons we’ve made a good home library a priority.

The good news, if there is any, is that not everyone in Windsor agrees:

“We believe students’ physical well-being is important, so we have a gym. As a Catholic school, we believe religion is important, so we have a chapel. If we believe literacy and reading is important, why wouldn’t we have a library?” said Windsor-area parent Donna Tonus, who is banding together with others to fight the board’s decision. A student protest is also planned on Monday.

Interestingly, one of the links provided by The Globe & Mail in a sidebar is for a story last December about Victoria, B.C.’s booming public libraries — because, as reporter Tom Hawthorn wrote, “The Greater Victoria Public Library embraces technology while respecting the time-proven value of that fine medieval invention, the printed book”.

Question of the week

‘Why, exactly, is a reader who comes to the website via Google or Facebook more desirable than someone who types in “www.nytimes.com”?’

Asks The Economist.

The New York Times has always been my hometown newspaper.  It was one of the few things I was sorry to leave behind when I left New York, even though it was getting smaller and skinnier by the year, even then, realizing as I did that home delivery of the Times would no longer be possible living in the country in western Canada. When we finally got internet, especially wifi the other year, it was wonderful to have daily, or depending on my schedule, weekly access to the Times again.  But now I may be losing it again, or at least if I want to read more than the five articles a day I can access for free via Google.

Lucky Canada is the guinea pig of the experiment.  As Arthur Sulzberger wrote on March 17,

Today, we are rolling out digital subscriptions to our readers in Canada, which will enable us to fine-tune the customer experience before our global launch. On March 28, we will begin offering digital subscriptions in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The cheapest option, nytimes.com and smartphone app, is $15/month or $180 a year.  I don’t have a smartphone, and it occurs to me a nytimes.com only and/or foreign resident option, for those of us who are unable to buy a print subscription to the Times (which automatically nets you digital access), would be a nice thing.  But it took the Times a year to figure out the newly premiered three-tier plan.

The return

We returned home late on February 14th, after about a month away.  While the rest of North America was celebrating Valentine’s Day with chocolate, cards, and crafts, we were driving west from Regina and just relieved to be home, from which we have been absent for four months since October, which seems crazy when I think about it.  My husband and kids have been absolute rocks to put up with all of this coming and going, emptying almost 50 years’ worth of furnishings and memories from a New York City apartment, getting on a first name basis with the staff at the nearby Salvation Army, and, the worst part of all, driving on the NJ turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey City, the trip’s true low spot.  We left last Wednesday, and made it to DuBois, PA the first night; our other stops each night, after driving about eight hours a day (except in North Dakota, where we had to keep driving past Fargo and Grand Forks until we finally, finally found a hotel room) were Danville, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa; Grafton, ND; Regina, Saskatchewan; crossing the border into Canada north of Grafton south of Winnipeg, and home.

To counter the lows, which also included unhelpful apartment building staff (thanks to co-op board regulations and union regulations) and legal action taken by the landlord against us although my sister and I tried to explain that we had no interest either in the apartment or in prolonging the clearing out process (thank you co-op board and union), some of the highs:

* the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Shield, and the beauty of northwestern Ontario, especially Kenora, where we spent a night (all photos by the kids, often from a moving truck),

* some other sights we saw, including the Terry Fox statue in Thunder Bay, where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope by the return of cancer; the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario; and the CN Tower in Toronto,

* the magic of Niagara Falls in winter, when everything in the path of the mist is transformed into an ice sculpture,

* Le Roy, NY, the home of Jell-O, which I discovered just a few miles outside of LeRoy while reading through the AAA guidebook, because Davy has always been a keen fan of Jell-O.  We made it to the Le Roy museum just minutes before their 4 pm closing time, and the staff were gracious enough to let the kids have a quick look around the Jell-O gallery while I made a quick tour of the museum shop and made some purchases. Le Roy is a beautiful village in Genesee County, with lovely old houses

* AAA guidebooks and maps, which are all free when you join CAA/AAA, and the free online Triptik service, which was a great help in planning our route;

* meeting Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti after about five years of online friendship, because she was kind enough to let us park our 16′ cargo trailer in her driveway for more than a week, and during a crazy snowy month which shrank driveways considerably.  We also got to meet her husband, and son Junior (who quickly took in the boys and shared some Lego with them, much needed and appreciated after a week in a truck), and inlaws, who were all so warm and welcoming.  And we saw her chickens, and she and Laura talked about birds together. Thank you for everything, Susan!

* Laura’s and Tom’s bird walk with “Birding Bob” DeCandido, through a snowy and icy Central Park, where they saw an adult male Cooper’s hawk, brown creepers, a white-crowned sparrow, brown-headed cowbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and wood ducks.  Laura and Tom were the ones to spot a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Although Laura was disappointed not to spot the celebrated varied thrush, she was pleased with all the other birds.

* the kindness and pleasantness of motel clerks to NYC and back, despite our lack of reservations, and modern m/hotel thinking that makes a swimming pool, free wifi in rooms, and free hot breakfasts the new standard.  A special thank you to the woman at the Travelodge in Kenora who let me use the coin-operated laundry well past the 9 pm deadline to wash clothes after Davy lost his breakfast outside of Regina; and to front desk staff at the AmericInn in Des Moines, Iowa, who gave me two rooms with queen beds for $50 each, so that the kids each had a separate bed for the first time since leaving home.  If we are ever in your neighborhoods again, we will be back.

* the kindness, pleasantness, and professional manner of staff working at truck stops throughout the U.S. Remarkable people who probably don’t receive enough thanks and appreciation;

* being in NYC and being able to go to Barnes & Noble on the publication day of  the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring without Mustard by Canadian Alan Bradley.  I bought it for Laura who started reading it as soon as possible, and it’s at the top of my “to be read” pile now.  And now that we’re home, I’ve ordered, from the library, the Book Depository, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca, for my own reading, which at the moment seem to be limited to escapism (of the genteel and also the more murderous sort); sentimentality and nostalgia about leaving New York, the apartment which my parents had lived in since I was born, my parents; and planning our new house*:

* lobsters at Fairway, which are inexpensive and which the staff will steam and crack for you.  It was Laura’s idea, and made for a delicious dinner on one of our last nights in the apartment;

* our overnight in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which I didn’t know until our arrival was the hometown of Tom Mix — my father would have laughed;

* our afternoon visit in Moline, Illinois to the John Deere Pavilion in the city’s downtown and to Deere’s world headquarters, which also had a nice display. Laura found mute swans swimming in the lake near the building.

* the beautiful barns, graineries, and corn cribs in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, and I know the kids have more pictures, so I may have to have another post.  I just wanted to post a bit about the journey, and say thank you to

* which will be a combination of these two house plans, this one for the outside details, and this one for the inside floor plan (though it needs lots more rejiggering), especially on the main floor.  Work to begin in late May, and all I can say is that after having a new house as our five-year plan for the past 17 years (oy…) and everything we have gone through in the past 18 months, I am beyond excited to plan the new house.  Even better is the fact that we decided the other year to keep our current house, so we get to live in it during the building process and not live in a trailer or  a shipping container.

Dread-ful children’s poetry

From poet Robert Pinsky’s article in today’s Slate on why “the best poems for kids aren’t the soft and saccharine ones”:

I have heard the superb writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak say that he does not set out to make works for children: He tries to make good stories and pictures. As someone who has read aloud to children many times, I feel grateful to Sendak and to Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss and other writers who have rescued me from the shallow stuff marketed as “for children” that I sometimes have found myself reading aloud.

and, on Edward Lear, Walter de la Mare, and Robert Louis Stevenson,

All three of these poets do not approach the experiences and interests of childhood with a knowing chuckle or a tidy closure of reassurance. They respect the imagination, including its elements of mystery and dread.

Read the entire piece here.  Very much of a piece with Mr. Pinsky’s 2007 article for Slate, “In Praise of Difficult Poetry”.  Today’s article includes pieces by all three poets, some read aloud by Robert Pinsky, who is Slate‘s poetry editor, and the former US Poet Laureate, and who will be joining in the discussion of classic children’s poetry in the comments section this week.  And Slate’s poetry podcast page is here.

*  *  *

Additional Robert Pinsky links:

As Poet Laureate, Mr. Pinsky created the Favorite Poem Project to encourage Americans to read their favorite verses aloud.

Last year saw the publication of Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, a book and CD set edited by Mr. Pinsky.

Also good to read: the 2007 Mother Jones article on Robert Pinsky the poetry popularizer, and Mr. Pinsky himself, “In Praise of Difficult Poetry” (mentioned above), and on “Poetry and American Memory”.

In search of lasting import

Over on the right, in one of the sidebars (“Our Curricula/For the Parents”) ever since I started this blog about four years ago has been a link to Jane Healy’s book, Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, first published in 1999. It was one of the first books I read after we decided, fairly abruptly, to begin home schooling, and it dovetailed neatly with our choice of a classical education.

As Dr. Healy wrote back in 1991 (here),

Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning. In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today’s students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally, and to attend to complex problems.

Recently, Dr. Healy’s ideas have been supported by Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the new book arising out it, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; and last month’s report from Duke that high speed internet and universal access to home computers “widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores”.  Worth noting that the study took place from 2000-2005, before MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter took off.

And in today’s New York Times came David Brooks’ column, ‘The Medium Is the Medium”, about a new study; from the column,

Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

…there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

As Brooks writes, emphases mine,

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

And more, emphases still mine,

These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”

But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.

Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.

I’d tell you to read the rest, but I’ve included pretty much the entire piece above because I think David Brooks wrote such an important essay that supports what so many of us are trying to do with a classical education. There will always be two camps on this — witness one of the column comments that a friend’s son improved his reading by playing World of Warcraft — and neither side will be much convinced of the other’s merit, but I’m happy to be in the Brooks camp.