• 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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More BirdCasting

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Exciting news for us — Laura is in Washington, DC to help celebrate the 500th show of Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds, and will be part of the live broadcast tomorrow from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Talkin’ Birds is a live interactive half-hour radio show about wild birds and nature, airing Sunday mornings at 9:30 Eastern, on WATD (95.9 FM); you can read more at the Facebook page and listen with live streaming on Sundays here. They’ll be joined by Smithsonian ornithologist Bruce Beehler.

Ray has been an extremely generous, kind, and encouraging mentor and friend to Laura ever since she discovered the show about five years ago and then started calling in. I wrote back in June 2009 (“BirdCasting”), when she was 11,

Laura has developed an interest in, and growing passion for, birds since last summer when I helped her put up some bird feeders around the yard. Her interest in the Christmas Bird Count last year is what got our family in touch with the local naturalist society. She spends much of her free time feeding, watching, listening to, and reading about birds. And recently she realized that there might be birding podcasts she could make use of on her iPod; she’s become a big fan of podcasts. So with my researching and her vetting, we came up with this list of her favorite birding podcasts…

It didn’t take long for Talkin’ Birds to become her very favorite. And for the past while, she’s been part of the crew as a far-flung correspondent; when Ray gives her advice on how to speak on the radio, he knows what he’s talking about. I keep thinking how I, at her age, would have taken an invitation to take part in a live broadcast in front of a theatre full of people. I’m fairly certain that I would have said, thank you so much for asking, but no, and spent the rest of my life kicking myself for missing such a wonderful opportunity. The differences between extroverts and introverts!

Tom is with her, since while we have no problem sending her alone to the wilds of Ontario, we figured a major city is probably more enjoyably and safely negotiated with an adult travelling companion (the show staff are in town just for 36 hours), and Tom needed a holiday anyway. Good reports back from the hotel, the Liaison Capitol Hill (which has a pillow menu believe it or not), and also their restaurant last night, Cafe Berlin. They’re hoping to get to Bistro Cacao, not too far from the hotel, before they leave on Tuesday. Huge thanks to Talkin’ Birds for underwriting her flight and part of the hotel stay.

I’m writing this post as a thank you for so many things that have become an enormous part of my daughter’s life, and also as a reminder for any other home schooling parents who might still be reading — if your child has a particular interest or passion, even if you as the parent have little knowledge of (or interest in) the subject, modern technology has made it possible to reach out and find those who can inspire, guide, and teach your child. And if you teach your child about internet safety and writing skills, he or she can do much of the reaching out himself or herself, which is a good skill to learn. Living on a farm in rural western Alberta hasn’t been any sort of impediment, and a flexible home schooling schedule has meant Laura could take advantage of spending a month last fall as an intern at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, banding birds and working on an independent research project, or participate in an event like tomorrow’s festivities. Age isn’t a barrier either, as most home schooling families know; she’s been able to write bird book reviews, receiving printed and e- books regularly, and when she realized that there wasn’t a Facebook group for Alberta Birds (and birders), though most of the other provinces and states had something, she started one; the group now has more than 2,000 members who share their photos and videos, as well as sightings, birding stories, and blog posts. She’s made lifelong friends and learned more than my husband and I could have ever taught her, and we continue to be touched and amazed by the support and generosity of so many adult birders so eager to take young people under their wings and nurture this budding interest. It reminds me very much of gardeners I’ve met the world over who are always so quick to offer seeds and cuttings, in order to spread not just a love of nature but the joy of a passion shared.

In their absence, the boys and I are holding down the fort and farm, more like hunkering down, since winter finally arrived today, with a high of -5C and some snow that won’t be melting any time soon. Tomorrow’s daytime high is to be -11C with an overnight low of -15C. Welcome, winter. I think…

Birds, classes, hearts and more

Laura did a four-week internship from mid-August to mid-September at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, on Lake Erie, helping with migration monitoring as a volunteer field biologist. It was a follow-up to the 10-day young ornithologists’ workshop she did there last summer. This year’s internship was considerably more intense, not just because it was longer, but because Laura and the other interns and volunteers were working out of a bird banding station located on the tip of the Long Point peninsula, accessible only by motorboat. While they had electricity and running water, they didn’t have cell phone or internet service (so Laura was incommunicado for the first three weeks, which was an interesting experiment for me), and bathing and laundry happened in the lake.  They worked long days, seven days a week, doing bird and Monarch butterfly censusing, banding, data entry, as well as facility upkeep and maintenance (which meant that all the work around the house and farm, ability to cook and do chores, and a cheerful attitude came in handy). While I didn’t know about the incommunicado part, I did know that Laura would be out in the wilds for several weeks, and figured a first aid course might come in helpful, not only for her but for the people around her.

In May I started looking into the two-day St. John Ambulance first aid course. It’s generally offered as part of a local continuing education program, but they weren’t offering the course when I wanted it (late June, after 4H and theater wrapped up). A friend teaches the course and when I asked about hiring her privately, she asked if the boys would take it too. I figured why not, and then the course turned into a home schoolers class, with at least half a dozen other kids. It was a certificate course, which all three kids achieved, but I’m more interested in them having the knowledge and information they can use than the certificate. Very reassuring knowing that the kids, who are often on their own around the farm and the countryside (the boys each have a quad and motorbike now), have this knowledge, and it was one less thing to worry about with Laura several provinces away.

So it was interesting to hear a CBC radio news report this morning that more people survived cardiac arrests in Denmark after the country encouraged bystanders to step in and perform CPR. The study’s lead author, Dr. Mads Wissenberg of Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte, said, “The main message from this study is that national initiatives to improve cardiac arrest management seem to have an impact with an increase in bystander CPR rates and survival rates.”

Medical officials in Denmark had noticed about 10 years ago that few people stepped in to perform CPR, with only a minority of cardiac arrest victims surviving for more than 30 days. In the United States, and I imagine numbers are proportional for Canada, about 300,000 people go into cardiac arrest every year and around 90 percent of those die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Heart Association says immediately starting CPR when a person goes into cardiac arrest  can double or triple that person’s chances of survival.

Denmark decided to start a campaign to increase the number of people who could perform CPR. The campaign included introducing mandatory training for elementary school students and driver’s license applicants, as well as distributing instructional training kits, offering telephone assistance to bystanders, and putting defibrillators in public places.

The radio show host discussing the news showed considerable surprise that elementary students would be targeted, and the show’s medical contributor said there’s some evidence that kids that young aren’t strong enough to do chest compressions. But from my own experience, not only are younger kids able to absorb and remember this information well — better than most distracted, multi-tasking adults can — but more enthusiastic than most adults about their knowledge. And if you start with elementary age kids, who take refresher courses as necessary, those without the strength will soon (by junior high and high school) have the strength to go with the knowledge.

When the boys found out that the continuing education program in town was offering a two-night/seven hour Canadian Firearms Safety course (a requirement to acquire non-restricted firearms, though not for a hunting license, which the kids are working toward, some more diligently than others). While I don’t expect the kids to be acquiring firearms any time soon, I did like that the course teaches basic firearms safety practices; safe handling and carry procedures; firing techniques and procedures; care of non-restricted firearms; responsibilities of the firearms owner/user; and safe storage, display, transportation and handling of non-restricted firearms. Laura returned just before the course and asked to take it too. Definitely a worthwhile course.

Daniel got his learner’s permit recently, and Laura will be able to get her graduated license next spring, two years after getting her learner’s permit (age 14 around here).

And later this month Laura takes a two-day women’s self-defense course, which seems like a good idea if she’s going to (as seems likely) spend more and more time far afield, in fields and elsewhere, on her own. So just a few courses and an internship the kids have taken since June.

In other course news, Laura has made arrangements to borrow a copy of the out-of-print, horribly expensive to purchase secondhand Handbook of Bird Biology so she can take the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course in bird biology this year; it’s generally a six- to eight-month course.  A new, third edition of the the textbook (which is a doorstop) has been in the works for several years now, and Laura has been disappointed several times as the publishing date gets pushed off again and again. She doesn’t want to take any chances (the current publishing date is listed as spring 2014, but if they’re wrong, she won’t get a chance to finish the course by the time she graduates from high school, which is her goal), which is why she’s borrowing the book. Which wasn’t easy, either, and required considerable networking in the provincial birding community.

June

Harder

Saw the above today at Grain Edit by Muti and I love it. Available from Society6 as prints and as stretched canvases.

April and May zipped by alarmingly quickly. April was winter and May was summer, and spring somehow vanished. We’ve had hail already, and some fairly ominous weather.

The kids had the play (Wizard of Oz) which went very well, we all survived three days of 4H Beef Club achievement days/show/sale combined with a celebration of 4H’s centennial (the kids sold their steers, Laura won a showmanship award, Daniel received his silver award of excellence and Laura her gold, Davy and Laura won awards for their project books), we seeded our crops, planted and watered 985 little trees, planted two gardens and the potato patch, got the greenhouse up and running, are moving cattle to the various pastures, sorting out bulls, fixing fences. And oh, yes, school, along with some college/university planning, estate matters, and a variety of bird-related projects and trips for Laura. Our nest boxes are almost all occupied (Laura kicked some house sparrows out), and we have eggs and hatchlings everywhere.

Speaking of which, Laura was thrilled to that see her favorite birding radio show, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds (which we first discovered as a podcast before wifi let her listen live on Sunday mornings), was the subject of a lovely feature article in The Boston Globe. There might be a quote from a young birder we know…

Also, if you’re in Canada and feeling inclined to support Bird Studies Canada in their national, provincial, and regional conservation and research efforts, Laura is participating in their annual Baillie Birdathon; her 24-hour birdathon was last week (she saw 84 species, four more than her stated goal), but donations will be accepted until the end of July.

This weekend the kids have their 4H Outdoor Club’s achievement day overnight camping trip, which they’re all looking forward to. Much scurrying about, sorting out sleeping bags and making their survival kits. Next week Daniel might be taking his learner’s permit test, which means that between him and his sister, I won’t be driving myself too much.

Some good books we’ve discovered:

Letters to a Young Scientist by E.O. Wilson (April 2013): somehow I stumbled across this in March and ordered it before publication. An inspiring, very personal little book for young scientists and their parents by the celebrated biologist and naturalist. Particularly helpful if the young scientist in your household happens to be especially keen on biology.

Two Laura found for her work with a Young Naturalists group, trying to get younger kids outdoors and interested in nature:

Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, March 2013): brand new and delightful. Perfect for kids who think they might be interested in birds, and also for those who think there isn’t anything particularly exciting in their own backyard.

The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book: 448 Great Things to Do in Nature Before You Grow Up by Stacy Tornio and Ken Keffer (Falcon Guides, April 2013). For parents rather than kids, just the ticket if you need specific ideas on how to get started with your kids in the great outdoors.

I’ll leave you with another nifty poster, by Biljana Kroll, also available from Society6. Words to think about as some families’ formal studies come to an end for the summer.

NeverStop

February fun

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We had a full weekend here — a six-hour hands-on calving course for the kids at the local agricultural college (which meant missing 4H district public speaking, which no-one minded because the class was likely the much more educational endeavor, and good fun to boot). They were the only kids registered, along with four adults, only two of whom made it. The instructor had a fiberglass model of the back end of a cow available, one cow in the college herd conveniently calved during the class, and there was also an actual cow’s reproductive track on hand, provided by the local butcher (it’s kept frozen in between classes). The course also covered some medical procedures, including injections and tubing a calf, and artificial insemination. Kids found it all fascinating and helpful.

Also dogsledding with the 4H Outdoor Club (Sunday afternoon), and the Men’s and Ladies’ bonspiels at the curling club from Friday evening to Sunday evening.

Tom and the kids had planned on curling together in the Men’s (girls and women can curl in the Men’s, but men can’t curl in the Ladies’); they curled together Friday night, and during the kids’ class he found two substitutes. But Saturday evening, after the big dinner, Laura was “borrowed” to curl on one of the ladies’ teams. Tom and the boys, and Laura and new team all made it to second place after curling two more games on Sunday afternoon. Tonight the kids are in the finals of the junior league playoffs.

Next up with the Outdoor Club — building bird houses for the local Habitat for Humanity project to use as a fundraiser.

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Campaigns, stickers, and a happy belated birthday

I missed Charles Darwin’s birthday last week, so I thought I’d tell you, in case you hadn’t already heard, about 19-year-old Zack Kopplin, who’s been an anti-creationist campaigner for five years now. Zack just won the Troublemaker of the Year for 2012 award. From the Troublemaker website:

The TroubleMaker Award Committee has named 19 year old activist, Zack Kopplin, the TroubleMaker of 2012 for his leadership and advocacy efforts to prevent the spread of creationism in publicly funded education. Zack has been selected among many exceptional applicants who demonstrated creativity, spirit and dedication in working on a broad range of issues, including women’s rights, poverty, bullying, environment and nuclear energy.

Zack’s bold campaign to repeal the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) has made waves in state politics and in public education. Kopplin has gathered the support of 78 Nobel Laureate scientists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the New Orleans City Council, and other major organizations. His petition to repeal the law has 74,000 supporters across the US. Working with Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, Zack has fought for two bills to repeal the LSEA. He has spoken out before the Louisiana legislature and State Board of Education, debated creationist politicians, held rallies, and had been covered in hundreds of interviews in national and international media. Kopplin is preparing to fight for a third repeal bill.

Zack plans to use the $10,000 awarded to him to increase the impact and reach of his campaign. The funds will greatly aid Zack’s most recent venture to call for accountability on the issue of millions of dollars in school vouchers being spent to fund schools across the US that teach creationist ideas. He also plans to use this money to help build the Second Giant Leap movement, which calls for a permanent end to science denial legislation and for a trillion dollars of new science funding in the next decade.

Kopplin said, “We need a Second Giant Leap for Mankind and we need a student movement of troublemakers and truth-tellers who are willing to stand up and speak out to make this a reality.”

Zack’s website, Repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act, is here. His open letter to President Obama, calling for a Second Giant Leap for Mankind, is here. He argues that “Denying and misteaching evidence-based science like evolution and climate science will confuse our students about the nature of science and stifle future American scientists and scientific innovation.” More (all links are Zack’s, from his letter):

The politics surrounding science also must change. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee recently called evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory “lies straight from the pit of hell.” The former Chairman of this same committee believes that climate change is a massive conspiracy that scientists created to get more funding. He then tried to cut science funding. Another member of this committee suggested cutting down more trees as a measure to reduce global warming. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) attempted to sneak a creationism law into President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and others hosted a Congressional briefing called “Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design and its Implications for Public Policy and Education.” Campaigns are being led against vaccines. The current cuts to federal funding for basic scientific research could prevent our country from launching the next Hubble Telescope or the next Human Genome Project. We would never have created the Internet or launched the Manhattan Project if we had cut science funding.

Zack was a National Center for Science Education’s 2012 Friend of Darwin award winner, too, and his campaign even inspired a Doonesbury strip in 2011.

You can support Zack’s efforts by going to his website, and, if you do such things, by following him on Twitter and Facebook. I recently found another nifty way to help support Zack’s campaign, on Colin Purrington’s website. (I first discovered Colin back in 2005, with his Charles Darwin Has a Posse stickers. You can find the stickers here.)

While I was trying to fix the Darwin Posse button below left (it went wonky), I learned that Colin now also offers textbook disclaimers you can print out as stickers; there’s a series of 15 distinct stickers:

If you live in the United States, you probably live in a school district that is dominated by people who don’t publicly accept evolution.  Over the years, teachers and School Boards have found ways to undermine the teaching of evolution to appease the parents that have pitchforks and charmingly Neolithic views of reality.  Some districts have even placed evolution disclaimer stickers in biology textbooks… . Please consider downloading the PDF to make actual stickers with inkjet sticker paper, then give to your kids to use at school.

Some of my favorites,

TxtbkStickers3

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Go get yours and start stickering. Oh, and Colin now has a Charles Darwin/Posse store at Cafe Press.

By the way, if you have science students at home, you should know that Colin has a new, very helpful section on his blog with Academic Tips. These include

Maintaining a laboratory notebook

Designing conference posters

Writing science papers

Giving science talks and presentations

Requesting letters of recommendation

Laptops in class? (tips for students AND teachers)

Great stuff. Thanks very much for all of it, Colin!

*  *  *

Since we’re on the subject, here’s Farm School oldie but goodie (I haven’t gone through all of the links, so I’m sure there are some that are now broken. If you find any, please let me know in the comments below):

Darwin 200: Charles Darwin’s Day, from February 12, 2009: “”To celebrate this year, Farm School offers a highly subjective, not at all comprehensive Charles Darwin bibliography and list of resources for the entire family, with serious and lighthearted offerings; remember, I’m not a trained scientist or a biologist, just a very amateur naturalist who likes to read.”

(Previously posted, in 2008, as “Funny, you don’t look a day over 198″)

Happy belated birthday, big guy. Love always from Farm School.

*  *  *

By the way, the Troublemaker Award was founded by Semyon Dukach, a self-styled “angel investor” and a protagonist of Busting Vegas, who immigrated to the US from Russia with his family in 1979 when he was 10. Semyon is also a judge for the Lemelson / MIT student inventiveness prize, as well as for Mass Challenge.

Canadian Curlews

After 17 years in Canada, I’m still not entirely up on my CanLit and find lots of surprises. The latest one is Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, published in 1955. So for anyone looking for some modern CanLit for older students, a living book on extinct/endangered species, and a modern classic movie (adapted from the book) for younger children about extinct/endangered species, we have a couple of recommendations.

A bit of background to explain. For her two 4H clubs, Laura is writing two speeches, one on birds that are extinct, the other on birds that are virtually extinct. Going over her speeches with her, I learned about birds I’d never heard of (not hard for me, since unlike Laura, I don’t sleep with a copy of Sibley’s and read almost exclusively about birds). One of the extinction stories I found quite moving is about the Eskimo curlew. I’ve borrowed a bit from Laura’s speech.

The Eskimo curlew, a medium-sized shorebird in the sandpiper family, is said to have been among the birds that guided Christopher Columbus to the new world. But the curlew is so rare now from overhunting 100 years ago that it’s very probably extinct. If there are any still in existence, scientists think they number fewer than 50 adult birds, when once the population was in the millions and they flew in flocks so thick they formed dark clouds one kilometer wide and long.

If it sounds rather like the story of the passenger pigeon, there are parallels. Nineteenth century American market hunters in need of a replacement for the pigeon, which they had hunted into extinction, looked about and proceeded to do the same sad thing to the Eskimo curlew, which they called “doughbirds” — the birds, heavy from gorging themselves on berries, fruit, and insects in their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and Alaska, would put on a thick layer of fat in preparation for their journey. The curlews, again like the passenger pigeons, were so tightly spaced as a flock that a single shotgun blast could easily kill about 20 birds. The survivors had an unfortunate habit of circling back for their injured or dead flockmates, giving the hunters yet another chance. Hunters first starting shooting the birds on their spring migration, then, looking for even more, headed for the curlew breeding grounds, where men would blind the birds with lanterns and then club them.

The Eskimo curlew’s migration, we read, was one of the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. The winter journey involved a large clockwise circle, starting at the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the western hemisphere, east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic, across the southern Caribbean, and finally to the Argentinian pampas and Chile.

Another strike against the Eskimo curlew, just as it should have been rebounding from overhunting, was the loss of one its important prey species, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, you might remember the almost biblical plague of locusts in the chapter, “The Glittering Cloud”:

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.  The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground an dthe house with the noise of a hailstorm.

… Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet. …

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings.

“The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.

The locusts were the farmers’ scourge on the Great Plains in the 1870s, and their obliteration was as accidental as it was complete, as well as devastating for the curlew population. In fact, entemologist Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood has called it “the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species”. What happened, Dr. Lockwood discovered, is that

Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of [the Monarch butterfly’s] Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

For the rest of the fascinating story, you can read Dr. Lockwood’s article here.

Last summer, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, and will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct. The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987.

Getting back to the point of this post, while helping Laura, we discovered a celebrated Canadian novel written in 1955, Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, which is part of Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library line; I just ordered a copy. I like the idea of the book as a bridge to fiction, especially modern classic Canadian fiction, for her since she reads so much nonfiction (especially so much bird-related nonfiction), and also as an entree into CanLit for an older student who’s ready for a bigger challenge, but not quite ready for some of CanLit’s heavier offerings — though like most CanLit, this book is sad.  Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One:

The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.

The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.

The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.

Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

It sounds as if it would make a wonderful living book choice for conservation and natural history studies, too. There’s another edition, a 1990s reissue, which came about because “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the ‘plain, succinct evocation and beauty’ of Fred Bodsworth’s writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher.” That volume has a foreword by Merwin and an afterword by Murray Gell-Man, with J.J. Audubon’s painting of Eskimo curlews on the cover.

And for younger children, Last of the Curlews was made into a one-hour animated movie in 1972 to teach children about conservation. I was surprised to learn that it not only featured Vincent Van Patten (I’m old enough to remember “Apple’s Way”), but was also the very first ABC Afterschool Special, winning an Emmy for children’s broadcasting. I don’t read entries at IMDB much, but the reviews for, and memories of, Last are poignant. The animation by Hanna-Barbera is lovely, not at all what comes to mind when I think of H-B (primarily the Flintstones, etc.). We were hopefully optimistic when we heard about this, and delighted to find that it’s available, in several parts, on YouTubePart 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. But a warning that the cartoon version doesn’t sugarcoat the story, which is not a happy or hopeful one. Extinction is extinction. We found a box of Kleenex helpful.

Also on YouTube is a little video blurb by Canadian eco-photographer Edward Burtynsky on Last of the Curlews for the Toronto Public Library.

Digging around online, we learned that Charles Frederick (Fred) Bodsworth is an internationally renowned naturalist, journalist, and novelist. Born in Port Burwell, Ontario, in 1918, after apparently spending some time working on tugboats and in tobacco fields, he became a reporter for the St. Thomas (ON) Times-Journal at the age of 22 and later was a writer and editor both at The Toronto Star and at Maclean’s magazine. Mr. Bodsworth left Maclean’s in 1955 to focus on magazine and nature writing, and novels. He also served as president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1964 to 1967. In 2002, he received the prestigious Writer’s Trust Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t see any mention online of an obituary or his death, so I hope he is still hale, hearty, and watching birds at 94.

In other school-related news, work on the other speeches and presentation is going well, we’re in the midst of musical festival registration (both as registrars and registrants), the kids are happily galloping through more of Life of Fred, and in the phys ed department, curling season has picked up dramatically and the kids are curling quite well. Laura is also working on a summer internship application, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for that. Oh, and roles have been handed out for Spring’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland” so there is lots of singing throughout the house.  That and Davy’s cooking — he made baking powder biscuits yesterday and today some delicious gravy from our moose roast — are keeping us warm in this week’s cold snap. And -51 is verrrry snappy.


Not so light listening

With all of our recent truck travels, we became even keener audiobook listeners than usual.  So upon arriving home, I was sent off in search of more and browsing through the Naxos offerings through interlibrary loan, I found

Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell, read by Simon Prebble, unabridged on four discs (based on the book)

Though I think we’ll have to reserve this one for the house rather than the truck…

I’m not sure if this project was Naxos’s impetus for their other “Nutshell” offerings which I’ve found, which include

Darwin — In a Nutshell

Afghanistan — In a Nutshell

Tibet — In a Nutshell

The French Revolution — In a Nutshell

The Renaissance — In a Nutshell

Not a substitute for a good book, or two or three, of course, but as a brief introduction or review, great stuff.

Christmas in July

Bingo!

Even before we started home schooling, I started adding to the Golden Books, especially the Giant and De Luxe Golden Books, collection of my childhood.  I’ve been able to find more titles at garage sales and the Goodwill shop in town, and Abebooks when necessary. Some of our favorites are The Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson, and illustrated beautifully by Cornelius DeWitt — perfect for the grammar stage — and Ben Hunt’s crafts and lore books (which I’ve written about before, including here).

The two most elusive titles have been The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments by Robert Brent and illustrated by Harry Lazarus, and  The Giant Golden Book of Biology, written by renowned children’s science writers Gerald  Ames and Rose Wyler, and illustrated by the even more renowned Charles Harper.  I’ve written about the scarce Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments before (here and here); that one is scarce because of the subject and because of nonsense (including much internet nonsense) that the book was once banned, by the government no less.

The Golden Book of Biology owes its popularity and high prices not to its content but to Charley Harper’s artwork and his popularity among graphic artists and designers, and the recent Todd Oldham-inspired Charley Harper renaissance.  Copies of The Giant Golden Book of Biology, published in 1961, the 1967 revised edition (The Golden Book of Biology), and the 1968 second edition have been selling for anywhere from $100 to $600. I’m not a collector of graphic design works* and didn’t want the book to put on the shelf, I just wanted a good quality working copy my kids could read.

Well, I finally lucked out  the other week with a 1967 copy at eBay, and while I didn’t pay anywhere in my customary 25 cents to $5 range, I didn’t pay anywhere near $100 either (or $500, yikes); little enough that I can leave the book on the coffee table for the whole family to enjoy and let the kids read it without encasing them or the book in plastic.  So the lesson here is that patience will pay off…

For me these books, and many of the Giant and De Luxe Golden Books, on astronomy (also by Rose Wyler and Gerald Ames), the human body, natural history, physicsworld geography (“A Child’s Introduction to the World”), world history, mathematics (another one with crazy prices), and the Golden Book encyclopedia set, are desirable because although they remain, after 40 to 50 years, some of the very best examples of children’s nonfiction. As MAKE’s Mark Frauenfelder wrote about The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children’s science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids’ science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today’s children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.

This blog post at Codex xcix shows a number of illustrations from the book, which gives you an idea of just why the book is so desirable for the art alone. Codex writes,

Charley admitted that he had to learn the subject while he was doing the illustrations, after all, he was an artist, not a scientist. The result, however, was a masterpiece – the quintessential mid-century children’s science text. It is widely seen as his magnum illustratus and has been widely influential to two generations of illustrators and designers. Todd Oldham described it as “…one of my favorite things I’ve ever had in my life,” and the illustrator Jacob Weinstein as “the world’s most attractive textbook.”

More illustrations from the book are at this Grain Edit post.

If you get the chance at library book sales or garage sales, keep your eyes peeled for books by Gerald Ames and Rose Wyler, who were married to each other and who together and separately wrote 50 or so children’s books, mostly on science but also on (science-based) magic tricks and other subjects.  Their publishers included Golden/Western, Harper & Row for a number of Science I Can Read Books, and Julian Messner. According to their individual obituaries in The New York Times, Mr. Ames died in 1993 at the age of 86,  Miss Wyler died in 2000 at the age of 80;

Ms. Wyler once recalled that as a girl she ”always had a collection of stones, bugs or leaves and always wanted to know more about nature.” She never could find books on nature as a child, she said, so at 11 she decided she was going to write them.

Among their best known titles: the highly recommended The Giant Golden Book of Astronomy: A Child’s Introduction to the Wonders of Space (1950), Magic Secrets (first published in 1954 and still in print as an I Can Read Book), Secrets in Stones (1954), The Earth’s Story (1957), First Days of the World (1958), The First People in the World, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (1958),  Inside the Earth (1963), Prove It! (A Science I Can Read Book, 1964), The Story of the Ice Age (1967), and Spooky Tricks (originally published in 1968 and not too long out of print).

The Messner books, written mostly by Rose Wyler, are lovely for young children if you run across them: the “Science Fun” series, including Science Fun with Toy Boats and Planes (1986), Science Fun with Mud and Dirt (1987), and Science Fun with a Homemade Chemistry Set (1988); and the Outdoor Fun series, including The Starry Sky (1989), Puddles and Ponds (1990), and Seashore Surprises (1991).

*  *  *

Interview with Charley Harper at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

* Although I do have my mother’s old copy of Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cook Book, also illustrated by Charley Harper and held together with a rubber band for the past 40 years.

The Book of Life

This has long been on my wish list at Amazon.com for the kids — The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth, edited by Stephen Jay Gould.  A few times a year, it goes back and forth between my wish list and shopping cart, and it was in my shopping cart in January when I hit send to order a few things for my mother to help spruce up the kitchen.

Since I missed Darwin Day 2010, I’ll offer this book as my belated many happy returns to the great man.  And a reminder for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, my big Darwin Day roundup from last year is here at Darwin 200: Charles Darwin’s Day.

The Science of Christmas

Since 1825, December has been the month for The Royal Institution of Great Britain’s “Christmas Lectures for Young People”, established by Michael Faraday, who presented 19 of the early lectures himself. According to the RI, the lectures “serve as a forum for presenting complex scientific issues to children in an informative and entertaining manner, and are particularly well-known for students’ participation in demonstrations and experiments”.  Since 1966, the lectures have been on television thanks to the BBC, and many are available free online; registration, which is free, is required and highly recommended.

Some notable lectures and lecturers: in 1964, Desmond Morris on “Animal behaviour”; in 1973, David Attenborough on “The language of animals”; in 1977, Carl Sagan on “Planets”; in 1991, Richard Dawkins on “Growing Up in the World” (which is also free online here).

This year’s lecture is “The 300 million years war” presented on Saturday, December 5th by Prof. Sue Hartley:

Plants might seem passive, defenceless and almost helpless. But they are most definitely not! Thanks to a war with animals that’s lasted over 300 million years, they’ve developed many terrifying and devious ways to defend themselves and attack their enemies. Vicious poisons, lethal materials and even cunning forms of communicating with unlikely allies are just some of the weapons in their armoury. Using these and other tactics, plants have seen off everything from dinosaurs to caterpillars.

You can watch a number of Royal Institution lectures for Children at the RI’s web archives.

Also available online at the RI website: games (What’s Inside an Element?, The Science of the Elements Quiz, Build Your Own Skeleton, and more) and pages of educational resources for teachers and others.

Trip report, part 2: NYC, still wild

On our second day, Sunday, we were up bright and early to go birding in Central Park with Deb Allen. We met what seems to be a devoted group of regulars by the Turtle Pond dock near Belvedere Castle, where I spent many high school Saturdays climbing the castle and the rock walls below. Laura was delighted to be in the midst of the fall migration, surrounded by her favorite warblers, and found it interesting that some of the birds we take for granted and enjoy in full summer plumage, such as goldfinches, are simply visitors in New York in the autumn.  Also novel was birdwatching as a large group activity.

We started off at the Turtle Pond,

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Laura with her new binoculars, a belated birthday gift from Grandpapa,

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The lack of binoculars didn’t hinder Daniel,

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and I can tell you that by the end of our birdwatching, that backpack was full of acorns, all of which made the journey home with us.

The group zeroes in on a new specimen,

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Laura in her element,

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We walked through the Ramble, then out onto the very new Oak Bridge (which is really steel and aluminum), and toward Strawberry Field,

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Laura kept a list in a notebook of all her sightings for the day, which included ruddy ducks and gadwalls at Turtle Pond, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglets, a swamp sparrow, a northern water thrush, winter wren, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, and pine warbler. I’m sure there were more, but I’m not the official birder in the family. Between the birds and the lovely New York birders we met, it was a wonderful morning.

We left after two hours (the walks usually last three hours) to head over to my parents’ apartment to make pancakes for brunch. As it was, we ran into a 10-block street fair at Broadway and 86th Street, which slowed us down considerably,

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Physics at home

You might already know that author and home educating mother Kathy Ceceri has a couple of very nifty home school science blogs, Home Chemistry (“Making science fun for my homeschooled kids”) and Home Biology (“for homeschoolers and anyone else who wants to learn about life science without a lab!”).  

Now she’s added Home Physics to the collection, billed as “All kinds of info on teaching and learning physics at home for homeschoolers, students, and hobbyists”.  Be sure to check out her collection of physics links in her sidebar.

*  *  *

You can also find Kathy at her Crafts for Learning website, her Family Online blog, and at Wired’s GeekDad, where she’s one of the few GeekMoms.

Science for all, and all for science

I’m still catching up on my online reading, so I only just saw Bob Thompson’s especially thorough August 1 piece at Make: on choosing a microscope, along with exciting news from the Make: folks,

We’re in the process of working on a new area of Make: Online that we’re really excited about. It’s called the Make: Science Room. We’ll have a full announcement and launch in a few weeks.

Bob Thompson is the author of the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer, as well as the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture, which we like very much and which I’ve written about here and here. To go with the home chemistry book, Bob maintains the good HomeChemLab website.

Here’s to an imminent launch of the Science Room!

Dipping a toe

… back into blogging after what has turned out to be a two-month sabbatical.  No apologies, no regrets.

It has been a marvelous summer, and at the moment we’re marveling that, here on the prairies six hours north of Montana, not only is summer still hanging on but we’re having a heat wave —  high 20s Celsius, with a forecast 33 C for Thursday.  The farmers’ crops are are drying in the fields, but the weather is perfect for the tomatoes and peppers as long as I can keep the water coming.  And it’s getting dark now disturbingly early, just after eight o’clock.

Our own crops are harvested, such as we could this year.  After we finished cutting and baling the alfalfa for hay, we cut and bale our barley crop early, several weeks ago, for greenfeed, instead of combining the grain. The boys are out as I type, with the water trailer, giving the shelterbelt trees a good soaking, and weeding the rows.

Speaking of the shelterbelt, in early July we took our first ever summer vacation, a whopping two-and-a-half days through Saskatchewan.  Our main destination was the shelterbelt tree center at the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in Indian Head, SK, which holds an open house every summer.  It’s the first time in the four or five years since we’ve started planted trees that we’ve been able to make it, mainly because of the drought which meant the hay wasn’t ready yet for cutting.  We attended seminars, took a tour of the center, watched demonstrations of the equipment — including the where-have-you-been-all-my-farming-life Weed Badger, which we are thinking would mean an end to endless weeding — and went home with all sorts of goodies, including notepads, water bottles, posters, and more little trees to plant. The town of Indian Head not only has a lovely ice cream parlor on Main Street, but has some of the most gorgeous Victorian houses, and beautifully tended gardens, on well-treed streets I’ve ever seen in a prairie town. We also stopped at Moose Jaw for a tour of the Tunnels and (even better) the Burrowing Owl Interpretive Centre at the edge of town, where we met and handled George, the ambassador owl, fed grasshoppers to some others, and were able to buy very inexpensive owl pellets for dissection.  Next stop was Rouleau aka Dog River for the kids’ sake, though admittedly we were about two years late with that one.  On to Regina, where we managed to make a 6 pm tour of the legislature building and afterwards strolled through the lobby of the Hotel Saskatchewan since Laura has inherited from her mother and grandmother a love of grand old hotels.

Various other goings-on since my last post, but not in any sort of order (not much for pictures though, because either the camera hates the computer or vice versa and I can’t figure out which or why):

— Tom directed the kids to take the majority of the new-crop kittens to the fair, to Old MacDonald’s barn where they would be adopted. Only to turn into a softie when at said barn said kids discovered rabbits.  Laura asked first — “Dad, could I have a rabbit please?” But instead of a direct “No”, Tom mumbled something about having to make sure she’d do all her other chores first, etc. Which sounded, to Laura’s ears (and to mine) very much like “Yes”.  Which is all the boys needed to hear.  Which is why we now have two bunnies, Verbena and Claudia, happily munching on carrot tops, kohlrabi leaves, and other garden scraps.

— The rest of the time at the fair was equally exciting.  All three kids showed pens of chickens, their calves (on what turned out to be an exceedingly hot day), won prizes, spent two days riding the rides on the midway, showed off their handiwork at the exhibit hall (Laura displayed an example of handwriting, flowers, her quilling, and other things I know I’m forgetting; the boys displayed Lego creations, including Davy’s manure spreader made out of bricks, as well as first-prize winning birdhouses, one shaped like a grain elevator, and other assorted items; and all three and Tom displayed pint sealers of threshed grain, and sheaves of grain and forage).  We all ate homemade pie from the United Church booth and drank lemonade, and watched the show on the grandstand with good friends who came in from out of town to take in the festivities. And, as usual, we brought home the chicks hatched out at the incubator display.

— The kids spent the latter part of the summer getting ready for children’s day at the Farmer’s Market in town, when anyone under 14 can get a table for free, instead of the usual $10.  The boys decided to take what they learned from making my birthday present, a plant cart made from an old barbecue (I had seen the idea in the June 2008 issue of Harrowsmith magazine, and kept reminding the boys that it would make a dandy Mother’s Day or mother’s birthday present), and turn it into a business.   The first project they did with Tom’s supervision and help, and then they knew enough to set out on their own.

— Davy fractured his wrist in early August, jumping off a swing at a friend’s house.  His first injury in six or so years of professional swing jumping.  But the new doctor in town said all he needed was a splint and an ace bandage for three weeks, which was very easy to manage, especially for showers and baths. The splint and bandage just came off, and the wrist seems to be as good as new.

— Tom’s aunt and uncle in town took off for a 10-day vacation, telling us we could pick all of their raspberries.  One of the  most delicious presents we’ve ever received.  I went in every other day for an hour and a half of picking, and by the time they returned we had eaten as many fresh raspberries, and raspberry crisps, crumbles and clafoutis as we could, and I had canned the rest as jam and preserves to enjoy until next summer.  Ditto with saskatoons, some which we picked wild and others from friends’ bushes. Chokecherries, Evans cherries, peaches, and pears are up next for syrup, jelly, and canning.

— We started up our formal studies yesterday, a bit earlier than usual, but then we’re taking off for a few weeks next month to visit grandparents in NYC, and then on to Washington, DC.   Since Farm School is going to Washington, it seemed appropriate to spend our first day watching “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, which will be a springboard to the next two months of civics, folk songs, vocabulary, and more.  Next up, “Much Ado About Nothing”, in preparation for the Folger’s new production.  Oh yes, and math, grammar, writing, spelling, science…  For Laura, science will be based on around one of her recent 12th birthday present from her grandparents, Birds of Central Park. I’m looking at a bird walk or two with Dr. Bob DeCandido, and have already found the perfect city souvenir for Laura.

Many thanks to the two or so readers, in addition to my parents, who’ve stuck it out over here in the barrens. Any point in a (not) back-to-school roll call in the comments, just to see who’s still here?

Speechless and scary

The New York Times‘s account of the arrival of a busload of paleontologists last week at the Creation unMuseum in Kentucky.

Tidbits:

“I’m very curious and fascinated,” Stefan Bengtson, a professor of paleozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, said before the visit, “because we have little of that kind of thing in Sweden.”

*  *  *

The scientists received the group admission rate, which included lunch.

*  *  *

“I’m speechless,” said Derek E.G. Briggs, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, who walked around with crossed arms and a grimace. “It’s rather scary.”

*  *  *

Many of the paleontologists thought the museum misrepresented and ridiculed them and their work and unfairly blamed them for the ills of society.

“I think they should rename the museum — not the Creation Museum, but the Confusion Museum,” said Lisa E. Park, a professor of paleontology at the University of Akron.

“Unfortunately, they do it knowingly,” Dr. Park said. “I was dismayed. As a Christian, I was dismayed.”

* * *

By the end of the visit, among the dinosaurs, Dr. Briggs [of Yale’s Peabody Museum] seemed amused. “I like the fact the dinosaurs were in the ark,” he said. (About 50 kinds of dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark, the museum explains, but later went extinct for unknown reasons.)

The museum, he realized, probably changes few beliefs. “But you worry about the youngsters,” he said.

* * *

Dr. [Tamaki] Sato [a professor of geology from Tokyo Gakugei University in Japan] likened the museum to an amusement park. “I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Disneyland,” she said.

Did she enjoy Disneyland?

“Not very much,” she said.

*  *  *

Do yourself and your kids a favor this summer.  Visit and support a real natural history museum, and return often.  I have a brief listing in this old post from 2007,

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

and there’s a good listing at Natural History Museums by Location, brought to you by Paleoartisans.

(While you’re waiting to go to the museum, read Carl Zimmer‘s February 2009 article in Seed Magazine on “The Awe of Natural History Collections”)

BirdCasting

Laura has developed an interest in, and growing passion for, birds since last summer when I helped her put up some bird feeders around the yard.  Her interest in the Christmas Bird Count last year is what got our family in touch with the local naturalist society.  She spends much of her free time feeding, watching, listening to, and reading about birds.  And recently she realized that there might be birding podcasts she could make use of on her iPod; she’s become a big fan of podcasts.  So with my researching and her vetting, we came up with this list of her favorite birding podcasts:

BirdNote, on NPR

Birdwatch Radio, with Steve Moore

For the Birds and here too, with Laura Erickson

Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds

This Birding Life, with Bill Thompson

WREN Radio

If you have any other favorites, please let us know and we’ll add them to our iTunes list.  Thanks, and happy listening!

Alberta takes one step forward, two steps back

From Paula Simon’s column, “One step forward, two steps back”, on this week’s introduction of Bill 44 amending the province’s Human Rights Act, in today’s Edmonton Journal:

Under Bill 44, school boards must provide parents and guardians with advance notice any time instructional materials or courses of study that deal explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation are going to be taught. Parents will have the right to pull children from such classes.

That may not seem so dramatic. Schools already send home permission forms that parents must sign before their children take classes in sex education. Parents can already pull their children from school programs that deal with religion. I pulled my own daughter from the classroom when the Gideons came to hand out New Testaments. Parents should have their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) respected. And in our multicultural, pluralist society, we have to balance carefully, to make sure we protect both the civil rights of gay and lesbian Albertans, and the cultural rights of those who are made sincerely uncomfortable by homosexuality.

Yet enshrining parental rights in the Human Rights Act marks a dramatic departure. Before now, parents who had concerns about a teacher’s teachings might complain to a principal or school board. Now, teachers and boards could be called before a human-rights tribunal. But it goes further. On Tuesday, Ed Stelmach was asked whether Bill 44 meant parents could pull their children from classes on evolution. “The parents would have the opportunity to make that choice,” he said.

Though Stelmach tried to back away from that point in question period Wednesday, Blackett confirmed parents would have the right to opt out of evolution classes.

Does this mean schools will be required to provide advance notice, any time a teacher discusses dinosaurs, fossils, continental drift, or sedimentary rocks? You can’t possibly teach science with intellectual honesty, if you’re constantly self-censoring to avoid offending strict Creationist sensibilities.

Read the rest here.

New and very good

We just finished reading and heartily recommend the newish Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial by Jen Bryant (no relation, I believe, to William Jennings…), published by Knopf in February 2008, a novel in verse for older children about the Scopes Monkey Trial.  Jen Bryant has written the book from the perspective of those at ringside, or rather courtside, including the biology pupils of the young substitute teacher John Scopes’s class at Rhea County High School. A very good addition to any evolution and Darwin readings.

Jen Bryant is also the author of the equally excellent A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams and the new Abe’s Fish: a Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln.

Tentative high school science plans

I’ve been working for the past few weeks on what I’m going to do for science with Laura from grades 9-12; she’ll be starting 7th grade this fall, but like many home schoolers I feel more comfortable starting to plan sooner rather than later.  Of all three children, Laura, the eldest, has struggled the most with math (though this year has begun to enjoy the subject, perhaps because she’s also now finding it easier), and is also a keen naturalist, animal lover, and excellent young farmer.  Science, as well as math, are the two high school subjects I feel least comfortable winging and feel best having set out as some sort of plan.

My tentative plan, always subject to change, has involved cobbling together my own choices of books, some of which are already on the shelves at home, along with Teaching Company DVDs, based more or less the Well-Trained Mind rotation of biology (9th grade), earth science/astronomy (10th), chemistry (11th), physics (12th).  There’s also the option, I decided the other day, which I’ll give Laura for 12th grade of another year of biology instead of physics, concentrating on something she’d find interesting; in that case, we’d probably work through one or both of the Teaching Company physics courses (see below) over a couple of summers. She can specialize in ornithology, animal behavior, evolution, botany or whatever she chooses. We’d probably sort that out at the end of 10th grade, after two years of high school science.

I’ve selected completely secular textbooks where necessary (rather than “living books”), but I have tried to make sure they are written by experts in their respective fields who, preferably, are also good writers who make the subject engaging, rather than by committee.

A note: there are so many excellent, worthwhile and worthy books and documentary series on the sciences that I had a hard time winnowing things down.  There is probably more winnowing ahead.  As always, my choices were informed by own preferences.  I’m keen on the works of Chet Raymo, Isaac Asimov, and have recently become a fan of Timothy Ferris.  You might have your own favorite scientists and writers, and I urge you not to be confined by my own preferences and prejudices.  This is science, not rocket science, and there’s more than one way to do this.

OVERALL: We’ve been unschooling science for the most part.  Starting this year and next with Laura for 7th and 8th grades, and of course the boys will be around (so they’ll have two sessions), I’d like to go systematically through one of the first Teaching Company courses I bought, “Joy of Science” with Professor Robert Hazen, along with the book Science Matters by Prof. Hazen and James Trefil; I think their textbook version would be overkill for us at this point.  Also, with Laura’s love of her iPod, perhaps too the audiobook version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Aside from the four-year breakdown, over the course of high school I’d like to do a light survey of the history of science using the book and new-on-DVD series “The Day the Universe Changed” by James Burke, of “Connections” fame. I’d also like to see each of our children involved at least for one year in high school on the executive of our local naturalist club

BIOLOGY (9th grade): We’re actually going to do a fairly specific farm study, using the provincial Green Certificate program for young farmers, with the specialization of cow-calf beef production.  She’ll also be able to use the program as her 4H project for the year. I’d also like to see if the each of the kids could take a course at the agricultural college in town in connection with the Green Certificate program, in the animal sciences department (anatomy and physiology or genetics of livestock) and/or an internship at the vet clinic. Like most good cattle farmers, we have a copy of Beef Cattle Science by Ensminger on the shelf, for the kids to work through. Also to read: Cattle: An Informal Social History by Laurie Winn Carlson and Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef by Betty Fussell; possibly the new Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World by Rimas and Fraser.

The more general stuff we’ll use, especially if we can’t manage to arrange for courses at the local agricultural college: the Teaching Company class “Biology: The Science of Life” taught by Stephen Nowicki of Duke. To read: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas; The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson; if we weren’t planning on the beef cattle approach, I think I’d use Hoagland’s textbook version of The Way Life Works. Also, In a Patch of Fireweed: A Biologist’s Life in the Field by Bernd Heinrich (not as good as his later Snoring Bird, but more manageable for ninth graders).

EARTH SCIENCE/ASTRONOMY (10th grade): the combination “Nature of Earth” courses from the Teaching Company (“An Introduction to Geology” and “Understanding the Universe: An Introduction to Astronomy”), along with 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year by Chet Raymo; Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe by Timothy Ferris; The Crust of Our Earth: An Armchair Traveler’s Guide to the New Geology by Chet Raymo; A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist: Tools and Activities for Exploring Our Planet by Alan M. Cvancara or The Practical Geologist: The Introductory Guide to the Basics of Geology and to Collecting and Identifying Rocks by Dougal Dixon; Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (for general reference); and The Natural History of Canada by RD Lawrence, for Canadian content. Also perhaps one of New Yorker writer John McPhee’s series on North American geology, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, The Control of Nature, and Assembling California; if you don’t have the individual titles, as I do, you can by the one-volume collection, Annals of the Former World which includes all but Control. Additional DVDs: Timothy Ferris’s “Seeing in the Dark” and “The Creation of the Universe”, and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”; and Iain Stewart’s “Earth: The Biography”

CHEMISTRY (11th grade): working through Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson, with the help of his HomeChemLab website; and either Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham or what WTM recommends (Chemistry: Concepts and Problems: A Self-Teaching Guide by Houk and Post). I don’t know that we’d need the TC course (High School Chemistry) for this, but perhaps. Also to read: Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks; Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley; Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite. Also, if necessary, by the co-author (with Basher) of The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!, high school chemistry teacher Adrian Dingle’s chemistry pages; and my own periodic table round-up.

PHYSICS (12th grade): I was leaning toward the WTM recommendations (this and this) until I ran across How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life by Louis A. Bloomfield; while/before Laura works through the textbook, I would work through Dr. Bloomfield’s How Everything Works: Making Physics out of the Ordinary. At his reassuring website, Dr. Bloomfield has a guide to physics homeschooling and an instructor resources page.  Plus either “Physics in Your Life”, “Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists”, or “Great Ideas of Classical Physics” course from the Teaching Company, and the puzzle/brainteaser books by Franklin Potter and Christopher Jargodzki.

I have to admit I’m also intrigued, more for the boys than for Laura, by Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” course (with webcasts) and books (there’s a textbook edition and a general trade edition).  Also intrigued, more for Laura than her brothers, in the classic Physics for Poets by Robert March, which is also an option depending on how things go through high school; I like this additional bibliography. To read: Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov; First You Build a Cloud: And Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life by KC Cole (recommended by JoVE); and, if manageable, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics By Its Most Brilliant Teacher by Richard Feynman.  On DVD, NOVA/“Einstein’s Big Idea” and NOVA/”Physics: The Elegant Universe”. Free online from MIT, Physics I: Classical Mechanics with Prof. Walter Lewin.  And some Leon Lederer links: FermiLab, and QuarkNet.

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Other useful links:

MIT OpenCourseWare

Free online MIT course materials for high school (biology, physics)

Writer, home educating mother, and GeekMom Kathy Ceceri’s Home Biology blog and Home Chemistry blog; be sure to check all the links in the sidebars

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style! co-author Adrian Dingle’s Chemistry Pages

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The Farm School Science page (at the top above, to the far right, over the carrot leaves)

More learning by ear

Laura asked me to find some more podcasts for her so I thought I’d list some of the goodies we’ve come across lately:

Dr. Temple Grandin is giving interviews to help publicize her latest book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals; she was on CBC’s “Quirks & Quarks” science show last week, speaking with host Bob MacDonald (there’s a link on the page to download the program on mp3).  Dr. Grandin is giving a talk at our agricultural college in a few weeks and the kids are looking forward to hearing her.

Poking around at iTunesU, I learned that the following new-to-me items are available:

— The New-York Historical Society has its public programs from the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Distinguished Speakers series available as podcasts

—  The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History offers podcasts of historians’ lectures: Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”, as well as Joseph Ellis, James McPherson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jill Lepore, Arthur Schlesinger, Eric Foner, and Richard Carwadine.  Upcoming podcasts include Walter Isaacson on Ben Franklin and Kenneth Jackson on the New York in the Gilded Age. The Institute has more for teachers and pupils of American history here.

— If you scroll down the main iTunes U page at iTunes, you’ll see they have “Spotlight” sections, for both Abraham Lincoln and Charles  Darwin.  The Spotlight section for Lincoln includes some of the NYHS lectures as well as some podcasts/videocasts at Stanford University, including one by Simon Schama on The Abolition of the Slave Trade.

— The Spotlight section for Darwin includes podcasts from Stanford U. on “Darwin’s Legacy”; Cambridge University’s “Darwin College Lecture Series”; Case Western Reserve’s videocasts for their 2008-2009 “Year of Darwin” lectures; and Arizona State University’s Darwinfest/Darwin Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring E.O. Wilson and others.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art podcasts, including “Episodes for Families” (with Aesop’s fables, an Anansi tale, etc.); and various talks connected to exhibits, including Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”; Philippe de Montebello on the face in medieval sculpture; the story of Hatshepsut.  The Met’s page at iTunes has a longer list of available podcasts and videocasts.