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

A re-(re)-post to celebrate 30 years of “A Christmas Story”: I triple-dog dare you

acs

(This month marks the 30th anniversary of the modern classic, “A Christmas Story”, one of my all-time favorite holiday movies. In fact, the older I get, the more I like it. So I’m reposting this from 2006 and 2008. I’ve checked and updated the links, and there’s some new content, too. Not to mention blog snow, which my daughter the far more successful blogger told me about. Merry merry from Farm School!)

New content!:

“‘A Christmas Story’ Turns 30”

NPR: Cleveland Celebrates 30 Years Of ‘A Christmas Story’

Video of  ‘A Christmas Story’ Pole Scene Re-Created on NYC Subway

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (author of the new Eminent Hipsters) wrote a Slate article last year, “The Man Who Told ‘A Christmas Story’: What I learned from Jean Shepherd”. Twelve-year-old Fagen was introduced to Shep’s radio show by his “weird uncle Dave”, “a bit of a hipster” himself…

The 30th anniversary Blu-Ray edition

“A Christmas Story”: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic by Caseen Gaines

Tyler Schwartz’s A Christmas Story Treasury from Running Press, a short scrapbook with recipe cards for Mom’s Christmas turkey, a replica of the telegram notifying the Old Man about his “major award”, and so on.

“A Christmas Story” 2014 wall calendar

The musical version of “A Christmas Story” returns to New York City, at Madison Square Garden from Dec. 11 to Dec. 29, featuring Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) as the narrator

The tourist organization Positively Cleveland is celebrating the 30th anniversary, including a special Christmas Story run tomorrow (runners are encouraged to carry a Leg Lamp or wear a Bunny Costume), and a contest to Light up the Holidays in CLE. You can win (what else?) a Leg Lamp. Unfortunately, we’ve all missed the 30th Anniversary Celebration & Convention on Nov. 29-30.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Jean Shepherd’s original November 25, 1963 WOR radio evening broadcast, where he spent almost an hour talking about the impact of JFK‘s presidency, and his death, on American life. An MPR documentary produced by Matt Sepic with the assistance of Shepherd’s biographer, Eugene Bergmann.

Flicklives’ A Salute to Jean Shepherd, featuring A Christmas Story page

And, as always, TBS will be running its annual 24-hour “A Christmas Story” marathon from Christmas Eve to Christmas evening.

* * *

From December 1, 2006:

Just in time for Christmas, the cockles of my heart warm to learn that one of my favorite holiday movies has come to life:

Switch on your leg lamp and warm up the Ovaltine. The Christmas Story House and Museum will be ready for visitors starting Saturday. Imagine being inside Ralphie Parker’s 1940s home on Christmas Day. Stand on the staircase where Ralphie modeled his hated bunny suit. See the table where Ralphie’s dad wanted to display his tacky leg lamp. Gaze out a back window at the shed where Black Bart hid out. …

This past weekend saw the grand opening of The Christmas Story House. The house, used primarily for exterior shots in the 1983 filming, was renovated to look just like Ralphie’s home in the movie by owner Brian Jones, a lifelong Christmas Story fan.

At the museum gift shop, you can buy a chocolate BB rifle or a replica leg lamp from Red Rider Leg Lamps, started by Jones in 2003. And, I hope, a copy of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, on which the movie was based. Ho ho ho!

*  *  *

Interestingly, I had a comment on the post last month [2008] — while we were away — from the people at the tourist organization, Positively Cleveland, about their “What I Want for Christmas” essay contest, which had a December 3 deadline.

There were two contests, one for those ages 16 and under and one for those 17 older. Prizes for the junior set included, among other things, a $100 gift certificate to Pearl of the Orient, the official Chinese restaurant of A Christmas Story House and Museum; a four-pack of general admission tickets to A Christmas Story House and Museum; and a four-pack of general admission tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  No BB guns, however, because you’d shoot your eye out.

Prizes for the oldsters were pretty much the same, except a full-size leg lamp was substituted for the restaurant gift certificate.

Any fan of A Christmas Story has probably stumbled over the latest curiosities, two new fan flicks: Road Trip for Ralphie and Shooting Your Eye Out: The Untold Christmas Story.   Makes you wonder what Jean Shepherd might make of all this humbug.  Creeping meatballism, perhaps?

On the other hand, for pure unadulterated Shep, you can try the Jean Shepherd Netcast and The Brass Figlagee. Merry Christmas, fatheads!

Field trip

A week ago today we all went, along with Tom’s dad, on a field trip to the site of the CN train derailment not too far from here, near the hamlet of Fabyan. The bridge, which is 195′ tall, is the second longest steel trestle bridge in Canada, at 2,775 ft. long. It was built in 1908 over the Battle River by the Grand Trunk Pacific. We’ve walked around the valley and under the bridge in the summer, and so were interested to see what the site looked like today.

The road to the bridge was of course closed to all but official vehicles — CN, Transportation Safety Board, etc. — and we were waved along in the opposite direction. So we parked in an approach to a farmer’s field, and hiked through the snow and grass until we reached a point overlooking the bridge. Here are some of the photos the boys took, a few of which were published in a local newspaper.

*  *  *  *

A trackhoe getting ready to tow away one of the derailed grain cars (photo by Davy); we stayed long enough to watch the car get pulled around the bend out of sight,

*  *  *  *

CN workers repairing damaged track (photo by Davy); we believe this is the where the derailment began,

*  *  *  *

Scaffolding near the support structure with damage visible (pieces of steel bent and broken), as a result of falling train cars (photo by Davy),

*  *  *  *

Some of the train cars after they fell to the ground below (photo by Davy),

*  *  *  *

A Hitachi track hoe with mechanical jaw righting one of the fallen cars (photo by Davy),

*  *  *  *

Lifting a derailed grain car with two cranes; spilled grain visible on tracks (photo by Davy),

*  *  *  *

Another shot of lifting a derailed car off the tracks with two cranes (photo by Davy),

*  *  *  *

Working on the tracks above and in the valley below (photo by Davy)

The Lemonade Geography Tour

As you may know from the second to last post, 2010 wasn’t one of our better years.  Or as I recently overheard my husband explaining to a friend on the phone, “She’s had a hard time going from two parents to no parents in 11 months.”  Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, but because of circumstances, I spent the day busily preparing to leave home again, to clear out my parents’ apartment.

Thanks to the vagaries of New York City’s rent control, we have 90 days from the date of death to empty the Upper West Side apartment.  We started making plans after Christmas, having had a bit of time to unpack, rest, and sort through three months of mail.  I also started stocking up on bubble wrap (which I had sent to a friend and neighbor in my parents’ building), audiobooks (the CD version, so we can play them in the truck out loud), rolls of stretch wrap, and tape.  I also joined the Canadian Automobile Association and ordered a stack of maps and Trip Books, all of which arrived with incredible speed.

But the best feature of all at CAA/AAA is the online TripTik Travel Planner, which is free and immediate. For someone who remembers trundling down to the NYC office at Lincoln Center where a staff member would pull out a little printed plastic comb-bound map of, say, the Northeastern United States and then proceed to mark the best route with a highlighter, the online planner is a revelation and great fun.  You can find out instantly how many miles/kilometers and hours between locations, among other things. And allows me to show you our route to the east,

and back home, to the west,

We’re going to drive as long as we can each day without making ourselves crazy, and stop every night to sleep in a motel, preferably, the kids say, with a swimming pool, so I’ve packed the bathing suits.  We figure it that, weather permitting, it should take us about five to seven days there, and five to seven days back.  Some of our tentative stops on the east include Brandon, Manitoba; Dryden, Ontario; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Sudbury, Ontario; and Toronto, to see Tom’s sister and her family quickly.  On the way back, our tentative stops are Cleveland (our first stop after NYC); Beloit, Wisconsin; Alexandria, Minnesota; then into Canada by way of Winnipeg; Regina; and home.

We are going to spend most of our time looking out the window to see the sights, and listening to CBC Radio and various US stations across the continent, for news as well as weather and road conditions. UPDATED to add: I just found out at their website that the helpful folks at NPR offer NPR Road Trip for those planning a long drive.  You can “print turn-by-turn directions for your drive and know which NPR stations are available throughout your driving route.”  Or just get a printable list as a PDF.  Nifty.

But for evenings once it gets dark and that long, rather less interesting stretch across the Canadian shield, we have the following audiobooks:

::  Simon Winchester’s Atlantic (unabridged, read by the author); we all enjoyed “Krakatoa”, and Winchester is a marvelous reader

::  Several from Richard Peck, a big favorite with all of us: A Long Way From ChicagoA Year Down YonderA Season of Gifts

:: Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, a new Naxos production

:: Watership Down, new on audio CD, which I’ve been waiting for for years now

:: Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes an Returning to America after Twenty Years Away

It’s been liberating planning a cross-country drive — no plane departure times to make at the airport three hours away; all the toiletries where they belong without separating out liquids and gels, nail files and clippers; no planning of meals to combat inedible and expensive airline food, since whenever we get hungry we’ll stop at a supermarket, cafe, or coffee shop for provisions; and, compared to our trips to the small island, no laying in a supply of particular things we can’t find there.

When we get home, aside from arranging for a Sea-Can container in which to store my parents’ furniture and other belongings, we are going to distract ourselves by commencing our long-awaited kitchen addition, which will give us more eat-in kitchen space and storage for some of our home school books, and then finalizing blueprints for our new house.  We were going to break ground last spring until we were overtaken by events and I ended up out of the country for much of the first few months of the year.  The main thing that helped me through all that happened, aside from reading and gardening, was planning my new kitchen and my new bathroom in my head.  If your tastes run that way, I highly recommend this kitchen book (I got my copy cheap at BookCloseouts), which makes dandy and relaxing reading with a cup of of Mariage Frères Rouge Bourbon Vanille tea.

Cross your fingers, please, that the weather behaves and the roads are clear. We’ll be making the trip with our Ford F250 pickup truck and a 16′ cargo trailer, and a stack of maps…

An important lesson for your children, whether or not you home school

just in case you and/or your kids haven’t figured out this whole internet thing yet: “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” by Jeffrey Rosen in The New York Times.

Example #1 from the article:

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

Examples #2 and #3:

Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

As Rosen notes,

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts. …

It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

Read the article, WITH your children.

The Idle Parent

I’ve been waiting to read some North American reviews of Idler Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, finally published on this side of the pond in May by Tarcher, but they’ve been pretty thin on the ground.

I did find a mini review in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Keith Goetzman wrote,

Most parenting books lack three elements that The Idle Parent has in spades: an intellectual bent, a distrust of the status quo, and a robust sense of humor. Despite the title, this book celebrates not laziness but the opposite, a deep engagement with the world outside of plastic toys, mind-numbing television, and craven capitalism. Author Tom Hodgkinson borrows heavily from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in both words and ideas, grounding his modern alt-parent outlook in the classics.

but that was about it.

I’ve been intrigued by Tom Hodgkinson’s idling for a while now (see June 2008’s Tonic and Toast) and was intrigued last year by the idea of his book on raising children, out in the UK in Spring 2009 with the original subtitle “Why Less Means More When Raising Kids” (I’m a big believer in less is more when it comes to raising and teaching kids), and excerpted in Slate shortly thereafter; unofficial subtitle, by the bye, is “Parents first”. From which,

This last summer holiday, quite remarkably, we found ourselves lying in bed till 10 or 11 on several occasions, and this with children aged 3, 6, and 8 in the house. Sometimes, agreed, they would come and wake us by doing horrible things, jumping on our legs, “rampaging” as we called it, and hitting one another. But after we’d chucked them out a few times, they began to look after themselves. They are all quite capable of pouring milk on cereal, and Arthur, the oldest, can make tea and porridge.

Children actually have an inbuilt self-protective sense that we destroy by over-cosseting. They become independent not so much by careful training but in part simply as a result of parental laziness. Last Sunday morning, Victoria and I lay in bed till half past 10 with hangovers. What a result! And the more often you do this, the better, because the children’s resourcefulness will improve, resulting in less nagging, less of that awful “Mum-eeeeeeeh” noise they make. They can play and they will play.

So lying in bed for as long as possible is not the act of an irresponsible parent. It is precisely the opposite: It is good to look after yourself, and it is good to teach the children to fend for themselves. Our offspring will be strong, bold, fearless, much in demand wherever they go! Capable, cheerful, happy.

I got rather distracted by gardening last month, and pretty much forgot about more reviews of the book, not to convince me of the book’s merits but to see how Tom’s parenting ideas would be received in the United States.  And then a friend, another former New Yorker, sent me a link to a recent New York Magazine cover story on why parents hate parenting,

Before urbanization, children were viewed as economic assets to their parents. If you had a farm, they toiled alongside you to maintain its upkeep; if you had a family business, the kids helped mind the store. But all of this dramatically changed with the moral and technological revolutions of modernity. As we gained in prosperity, childhood came increasingly to be viewed as a protected, privileged time, and once college degrees became essential to getting ahead, children became not only a great expense but subjects to be sculpted, stimulated, instructed, groomed. (The Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer describes this transformation of a child’s value in five ruthless words: “Economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”) Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses. [Remember the part about “Parents first”?]

Which explains why Tom’s book hasn’t made much of a splash.  Because nowadays a good many North American parents are running around rather than idling, putting themselves last.  In addition to abandoning the (very helpful) component of benign neglect, parenting has become professionalized, as Jennifer Love writes in the NYM piece,

When people wait to have children, they’re also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They’ve spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they’re applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they’re surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea. “And what’s confusing about that,” says Alex Barzvi, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU medical school, “is that there are a lot of things that parents can do to nurture social and cognitive development. There are right and wrong ways to discipline a child. But you can’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others and constantly concluding you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Compare the two on the subject of “choices”.  Ms. Senior writes,

A few generations ago, people weren’t stopping to contemplate whether having a child would make them happy. Having children was simply what you did. And we are lucky, today, to have choices about these matters. But the abundance of choices—whether to have kids, when, how many—may be one of the reasons parents are less happy.

And then there’s Tom Hodgkinson,

Oh, how we whinge, we pampered parents of the West, attacked by choices, condemned to strive always to do the right thing, to get it right. We complain about money; we complain about lack of sleep; we complain about our partners, our co-workers, the newspapers, social networking sites, the government. We stamp our feet and shout at the usurers in the banking corporations and the swindlers and avaricious cheats on Wall Street, but most of all we complain about our own children.

The first few months after the birth of the first baby are fairly blissful. Then the competing elements of the artificial constructions that we grandly call our “lives” become locked in mortal combat. We try to “get the balance right” between unenjoyable and enjoyable activities. But we are moaning about the very lives that we have created for ourselves. We took that job, we bought that house, we chose that boyfriend or girlfriend, we had that baby, we bought that car, we live in this city, we live in this country. We were free to go and retire alone in Goa and live on the beach for the rest of our lives, childless and free. But we chose not to do that. And then we complained!

This excerpt on choices and complaining/whingeing is one of the favorite pieces I’ve read from the book,

Whingeing is the adult’s mirror image of the child’s whining. When they hear us whingeing about things, they assume that it’s normal to complain, and therefore they whine. Indeed, we encourage them to whine and complain by continually probing them for their judgment on things: “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Is it a good book? What did you think of the film? How was school?'”

It’s what the ancient Chinese called the “discriminating mind,” the false setting up of good things and bad things. This discriminating mind is really a way of making children into consumers, because consumers are the biggest whingers of all, always ready to fire off complaints and always ready to buy better products.

We are not obliged to have children. We choose to have them. Now, instead of whingeing and moaning and wishing that things would somehow change, take my advice and learn to say “Yes!” to your kids. This very simple idea was suggested to me by … John Lloyd [the producer of Black Adder and Spitting Image]. He said that he had noticed in his own life how much he was fobbing off his kids: from the early days, when he would linger late at the office because that seemed preferable to facing the mewling infant and general chaos of home, to later, when the kids were a little older, when he would become angry if disturbed by a child in the middle of a phone call.

I have noticed this tendency in myself: Sometimes I am staring at my computer screen and a child comes into my study and asks to play a game: “Will you play Tractor Ted with me?” Self-importantly, I sigh and say something along the lines of: “I’m working” or worse, a querulous: “Can’t you see I’m working?” The child persists for a while and then gives up. I then look at my screen again and wonder whether checking the Amazon ranking of my last book can really be considered to be important work. Can it not be left for five minutes?

Lloyd pondered these questions and decided to start saying “Yes” to his children when he was on the phone or working and they asked him for something. He realized too that their repeated requests and irritating behavior toward him were a sort of demand for recompense for earlier love starvation. So he would put the phone down and go and play with the child. Isn’t this rather a lot of work for the idle parent? Not really. The child will be delighted with its five minutes of mucking about. And in any case, it’s actually a pleasure for the parent. After all, you’ll have plenty of time to work and stare at the screen as they grow older and less interested in you.

Read the rest here, which includes the Lloyd Plan for Happy, Stress-Free Parenting.

Should you need to apply some “less is more” to raising children, Tom has a website for the book, “The Idle Parent: How to Enjoy Family Life: Tips, Discussion, Resources, Links”, which includes lots of excerpts, such as “Discover how to intersperse loafing with Latin”. And really, if the point isn’t enjoying life as a family, what it is it?

*  *  *

By the way, over at The Idler’s main website, you can learn about The Idler’s Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment (motto: Libertas per Cultum, or “freedom through education”).  You will also learn about such intriguing things as Latin tea towels, which I think I want.  For the children to do the washing up, of course. And practicing their Latin after dinner won’t hurt, either.

Spotera!*: Recapturing a writerly fairyland

A few weeks ago The Guardian featured a lovely article by Valerie Grove as part of the marvelous “Life in Writing” series, an overview of her new biography of Kaye Webb, So Much to Tell, to be published in Canada next week in time for Puffin’s 70th anniversary.  Miss Webb established the Puffin Club for young readers in the 1960s, and I was a devoted member across the pond in the early seventies.  I wrote a bit about the Puffin Club just over a year ago, here.  And while I didn’t get Mars Bars from Roald Dahl, I did spend afternoons with Ezra Jack Keats and author Ben Lucien Burman and his wife, illustrator Alice Caddy, who gave us Puffineers autographed copies of the Catfish Bend books.

Miss Webb rather fell into children’s book publishing, having read only few children’s books in her youth,

Her luck was to arrive at the dawn of a second “golden age” in children’s books in the 60s. Enduring classics were being written by authors such as Philippa Pearce and Rosemary Sutcliff. Improved colour printing brightened picture books and inspired illustrators such as Brian Wildsmith and Quentin Blake. American publishers (Grace Hogarth, Marni Hodgkin) infused the scene with transatlantic know-how. New magazines gave guidance for parents on the best new books for their children; soon there was the Bologna children’s book fair, and the broadsheet papers were devoting whole pages to reviews of children’s fiction.

What Webb brought to the changing scene was her enormous personality. She acquired new titles, brokering deals with the enterprise of an innocent. She cajoled hardback publishers – still sceptical and snooty about paperbacks – to yield up rights. She founded a Children’s Book Circle, wooed librarians and booksellers. She commissioned in her distinctive style: “Darling! I’ve got this wonderful idea, you have to do it, come straight round, it’s your big chance!”  …

Only months after taking the position at Puffin, Kaye Webb’s mother died and her husband, the celebrated cartoonist Ronald Searle, abruptly left her and their two teenaged children, for his lover in Paris, informing her by letter.  But, Ms. Grove, writes,

The Puffin job proved the making of her: she set about establishing the brand as the marque of excellence in children’s literature, and increased sales by 300% within a year. To the Narnia books and Noel Streatfeild she added Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians [Grove has also written biographies of Dodie SmithLaurie Lee, and my father’s beloved John Mortimer]. Soon, authors needed no persuading: “I could have all the authors I wanted,” Webb said. Roald Dahl, who had taken years to get his children’s books published in Britain in 1967, actually asked to be in Puffin (at a 17.5% royalty, which he repaid in astronomical sales.)

And then things get truly exciting:

Webb had always encouraged her son, John, to be fearless. She once drove him to Chesil Bank in Dorset, the setting for J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, and suggested he dive in and test out the fierce undercurrent that had wrecked many ships. Children liked to have adventures away from their parents, as children do in books. Heedless of health-and-safety, she took readers to see real puffins, on the precipitous Yorkshire coastline. In fact, the first Puffin Club adventure, a trip to Lundy Island, could have been disastrous. The boat almost capsized in choppy seas. Webb had to tie the children down and pray that none were flung overboard. After that she collaborated with Chris Green, the schoolmaster founder of Colony Holidays, lifeline to many frazzled mothers confronted by long school holidays in the 60s and 70s. There were Puffin holidays, winter and summer, at castles such as Featherstone in Northumberland, or vacant boarding-schools, where the children (benignly supervised) could scamper in fields and woods, write and perform plays, bird-watch, build boats, produce newspapers, sing round campfires. Webb scorned parents who apologised in advance that their “shy” children would be reluctant joiners-in. There was no such thing, Webb said, as the shy child.

Nobody doubted that Webb enjoyed her jamborees as much as the children did. Conflating Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes, she would dress up as a wizard, a cat or a silver fairy queen at “Guyween” fireworks-and-bonfire parties. The chaotic Puffin office seemed to hold endless celebrations; it was always someone’s birthday, an excuse for balloons, jellies and “Puffins pleasure” cocktails, filling the Penguin HQ with shrieks of laughter. Every Puffineer got a personalised greeting, each birthday. They were effusively grateful. “Thanks awfully for my purple bag,” wrote one prize-winning child. “I think it’s super and a marvellous prize. Did someone make it specially? If they did, could you thank them terribly?” Puffineers became substitute grandchildren for Webb, before she had one of her own.

After which come the late seventies, and the end of that second golden age,

doubts began to be voiced at Penguin about whether Webb was sufficiently aware of deprived children whose homes were not book-lined. Was she doing enough to attract the reluctant boy reader, or appeal to ethnic minorities? Webb bridled in self-defence. She cared little for social engineering, only about upholding the high standards, and imaginative writing of the kind adults could enjoy reading aloud time and again. …

In 1978, aware of the threat to literacy from television, she organised a Time Capsule containing books, messages from authors and from readers, ceremoniously buried (by Patrick Moore) in the garden of Penguin headquarters at Harmondsworth, to be opened by the grandchildren of the “Puffin Guardians” in 100 years’ time. Only 10 years later, noting the rise of the computer and a less biddable, less bookish generation, Webb told me the capsule would probably have to be exhumed much earlier.

Her successor at Puffin, Tony Lacey, launched the popular Fighting Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons books aimed firmly at boys, to Webb’s dismay: what had become of literary merit? Puffin Club membership dwindled, the magazine was no longer cost-effective, and was closed down in 1987. Her long retirement was afflicted with crippling arthritis – she had often had to conduct Puffin business from her hospital bed – and she died at 82 in 1996. She did not live to witness the Harry Potter phenomenon. She would certainly have been horrified to learn that in 2009 it was reported that many children go through their schooldays without ever reading “a whole book”.

Read the entire article, “Queen of the Puffineers”, here.  Long live the Queen.

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* The reply to the secret Puffin password “Sniffup!” Together, they spell out, backwards, Puffins are tops.  Indeed.

High school chemistry in a box

I’ve been poking around MAKE Magazine‘s Maker SHED online store lately, and just discovered something interesting. Actually, a few interesting things. Since we don’t live in the US, we can’t make use of it, but there’s no reason why American home schoolers or after schoolers can’t.

First, there’s the First-Year Chemistry Kit, which Maker SHED calls a “laboratory in a box” and “contains the lab equipment and chemicals you need to complete a comprehensive series of more than 30 first-year chemistry laboratory sessions described in the best-selling and critically-acclaimed Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (included in the kit).”  The kit is “designed for home school parents who want their children to benefit from a rigorous first-year chemistry laboratory course, as well as for public school parents whose children attend schools with minimal or no lab facilities and want to provide their children with an enriched chemistry experience.” Nifty, eh?

The product helpfully notes the difference between the First-Year Chemistry Kit, for high schoolers, and the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000 (also sold at Maker SHED), for late elementary through middle school students.  And there’s a complete list of everything in the kit noted here.

Second, once you get done with the First-Year Kit, you can move along to the Advanced (AP) Chemistry Supplement Kit. Almost worth moving to the US for, now that health care is less of a concern…

Lastly, Maker SHED has a Spring clearance sale (there are a few Snap Circuits kits in there), and is offering free US shipping on all orders over $125 (code: CLEARME) and, for international customers,  US$10 off shipping (code: MAR-10).  HowToons still available at Maker SHED, too. (Psst — according to Amazon.ca, HowToons Two by Saul Griffith is coming in August, but I can’t seem to find any other online mention.  Odd. If you know anything, please post in the comments!)

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I wrote about the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson back in 2008 here: Do It Yourself Science.  Highly recommended.  Kevin Kelly‘s review is here.

And a reminder that almost all of my Farm School science posts are located under the green Science tab at the top of this page on the far right (over the carrot leaves), including more on chemistry with In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs.

Not happenstance

From Frank Rich’s spot-on op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, “The Rage is Not About Health Care”:

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

Rich’s rather worrisome conclusion:

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, some responsible leaders in both parties spoke out to try to put a lid on the resistance and violence. The arch-segregationist Russell of Georgia, concerned about what might happen in his own backyard, declared flatly that the law is “now on the books.” Yet no Republican or conservative leader of stature has taken on Palin, Perry, Boehner or any of the others who have been stoking these fires for a good 17 months now. Last week McCain even endorsed Palin’s “reload” rhetoric.

Are these politicians so frightened of offending anyone in the Tea Party-Glenn Beck base that they would rather fall silent than call out its extremist elements and their enablers? Seemingly so, and if G.O.P. leaders of all stripes, from Romney to Mitch McConnell to Olympia Snowe to Lindsey Graham, are afraid of these forces, that’s the strongest possible indicator that the rest of us have reason to fear them too.

Read the entire piece here.

Hornblower at HMS Indefatigable is blogging about this too, and has a link to a thought-provoking BBC article from January, about why people vote against their own interests.

A perfect school for learning

Last Thursday, Tom’s already unreliable helper — the Alberta advantage continues in the face of the recession — failed to show up for the first day of a big reshingling job.  All of the shingles needed to be removed and the roof tarped, and it was hot (31 Celsius) so moving quickly with several pairs of hands was much better than moving slowly with only one.  So I suggested he take the boys along, since we’re done with school for the summer.   The three of them worked long days, until seven pm or so, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Monday with Laura along to make sure the job got finished by the end of the day. Tuesday, the boys begged to go along for Tom’s new project — renovating two bathrooms, which included the demolition of walls, which couldn’t be any more fun if you’re eight-and-a-half and ten years old and are smashing down drywall with hammers and wrecking bars.  And under Tom’s supervision and tutelage, the boys finally got to use the air nailer.  They’re very pleased and proud of themselves.

I was in town by myself yesterday and Tuesday, and at every stop at least one person asked, “Where are the kids?”  Each time I explained that Laura was home (yesterday she took her bicycle off to the corrals and with newborn kittens in her lap wrote her 4H essay) and the boys were working with Tom.  Twice I was asked, “Are they old enough already?”  I was torn between replying “Old enough for what?” and mentioning that our junior apprenticeship program started a long time ago.  The kids have been going off to work with their father, and doing farm chores with both of us, since they were old enough to walk.  When I was pregnant with Daniel, Tom took Laura, who was not quite a year-and-a-half old, to work where he was building a new house.  She would help him by passing tools to him, and kept busy for hours at a time hammering nails into a large styrofoam block.  When Daniel was six months old and Laura two years old, we took off for Toronto so Tom could help his sister and her husband build a  new garage.  Laura had no interest in spending her time in the house with her baby brother and newborn cousin when she could be outdoors helping her father, which she did, much to the consternation of her uncle who wasn’t used to useful and capable young children.  Really, the question shouldn’t be, “Are they old enough?” but “Are they able enough?” And the answer is yes.

It was last night while the boys were enjoying a well-deserved sleep after a hard day’s work at their father’s side that I read Holly Robinson‘s heart-breaking story of her sixth grade son’s experiences in his Massachusetts public school, with school as “a necessary evil instead of an inspiration”.  I want to write to her and say “break the rules”, or “send him to us, sight unseen, for a summer at the farm”.  Here’s some of the article, at The Huffington Post, including the beginning of the article which I confess confuses me:

A couple of weeks ago, I was volunteering at my son Aidan’s elementary school after hours. The building was empty but for a knot of teachers clustered in the hallway. As we entered his classroom, Aidan leaped up to touch the door frame. Immediately, one of the teachers scolded him about safety.

Aidan apologized. As soon as we were alone, though, he rolled his eyes at me. “Teachers don’t like boys, Mom. If I was a girl, she never would have said anything.”

“They’re just trying to keep you safe,” I said.

Aidan is in sixth grade, no doubt old enough to be safe no matter how he leaps or touches a door frame, no? Also confusing, and just plain misguided on the part of the teachers, who seem to have little understanding of classroom management and the nature of children in general and boys in particular,

Aidan earns A’s and B’s in school, yet I’m constantly fighting battles like this one: When he misbehaves, his teachers take away recess. Please. Are they out of their Vulcan minds?

The less confusing, more heart-breaking part:

Now that Aidan, the youngest of our five children, is in sixth grade, I have little hope that the system will change. Our public school curriculum in Massachusetts, as in so many states, is designed to help students conquer basic skills and prepare for the state-administered MCAS exam. Not a bad goal. Just one problem: our teachers now scramble to teach to the tests. This means lots of worksheets get handed out and there’s little time left for creative, hands-on projects.

This is a tragedy, especially for boys. Research tells us what most parents know: boys are apt to be “kinesthetic learners.” That’s educatorspeak for the fact that most boys learn best while they’re in motion. Boys want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. They want to build things and take them apart, trap small animals and climb tall trees. Or jump up and touch whatever they can.

As Aidan observed once, after spending an entire science class watching a movie about the life cycle of frogs, “We’d learn a lot more if the teacher just brought tadpoles and frogs into the classroom and we could look at them.”

“Send him to us.” Or let him go pond dipping near home, if possible.

Ms. Robinson writes,

But I can’t help seeing school as a necessary evil instead of an inspiration. It’s great that Aidan has learned how to do algebra, read a map, write an essay and navigate social situations without a black eye. Outside of school, though, is where Aidan does most of his real learning. He pursues his interests with passion: rock climbing, coin collecting, fishing, engineering, snowboarding. Our house is one big science lab; in recent months Aidan has built a hovercraft in the driveway, figured out that you could shrink potato chip bags in the microwave oven, and erected a K’nex roller coaster taller than he is. He has memorized the periodic table and taken apart an old computer. He surprised me in the kitchen by saying, “Here’s a cool invention for kids, Mom,” and pushing a cup of milk onto the ice dispenser of our freezer. Instead of dispensing ice, cereal came pouring out of the freezer and fell into his cup of milk. Messy, but way cool.

What would a perfect school for boys be like? Classes would be small and held outside half the time. Boys of all abilities and temperaments would build, paint, draw, take things apart, play computer games and listen to music while reading if they felt like it. If they wanted to write about volcanoes instead of the weather, or study the Civil War in January instead of September, why not let them choose? And, if they wanted to do math standing up or run a few laps between exams, why not?

Oh, wait. Our boys couldn’t do that. That would be breaking the rules.

Yes, break the rules.  Perfect.

Down a lazy river

BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.
from “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome

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As I wrote the other day, the boys were eager to take their new inflatable dinghy (on sale at the hardware store last week) down the river.  I did have some doubts about sending an eight-and-a-half year-old, ten-year-old, and even a 12-year-old, with only informal paddling and sailing experience but strong swimming skills, off for three hours on their own on the river.  No cell phone either.  But they did have life jackets, common sense, and enthusiasm, and the river couldn’t have been any calmer.  Saturday night, after a long, hot (31 degrees C) day most of which was spent helping their father shingle a roof, the boys along with their sister set sail on the river about two miles south of our house, where the river valley backs on to a farmer’s pasture.  The plan was for the kids to paddle the eight to 10 miles in the dinghy to the provincial park in town.  With leisurely paddling along the very quiet waters and lots of animal-watching, the trip took them about three hours.  We collected them just before 10:30 pm, and they were all grinning broadly.  By their count, they noted 30 sightings of beavers (Davy figured only 18 beavers in total, with lots of repeats including one who kept swimming just ahead of the dinghy), six beaver lodges, five muskrats, two deer (one mule, one white-tail), two mother ducks with ducklings, one dead female mallard in the reeds during their only portage, and 20 geese.

The kids were inspired by hearing Tom regale them again and again with his story of paddling contest down the North  Saskatchewan River when he was in his twenties, and by the Arrogant Worms/Captain Tractor song, “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate”.  Here’s to many more summer adventures.

Some pictures from the beginning of the trip.  It was getting too dark for photos at 10:30.

Loading up the dinghy,
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Laura surveying the river valley,

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A curious muskrat,

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Around the bend and away,

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Related Farm School posts:

Paddle your own canoe

But will they change Titty’s name?

A manual for childhood

Why safer isn’t always better

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

Risky business

Engineer, author, and Maker (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle‘s latest book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, is just out from Chicago Review Press and made a big splash in this week’s New York Times, reviewed with enthusiasm by Dwight Garner.  From which,

Mr. Gurstelle exactingly describes how to make your own gunpowder, a substance he calls “the most significant chemical compound mankind has ever developed.” It’s the foundation for many of his book’s activities, the same way the perfect fish stock undergirds dozens of recipes in a cookbook.

Making even small quantities of gunpowder, he adds, “puts you in the rarefied company of such important historical figures as Joan of Arc, Roger Bacon, Mark the Greek, Lammot du Pont, Black Berthold and Leonardo da Vinci.” From there, he’s on to making things like fuses, rockets and an eprouvette, or small cannon.

According to the review, Mr. Gurstelle was inspired in part by a 2005 op-ed piece in The Times by David Brooks, who wrote about the new age of the lily-livered, in which we find ourselves, “I blame parents. Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They’re drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.”  Garner notes that Absinthe and Flamethrowers ends with its own call to arms,

Mr. Gurstelle’s own kind of Declaration of Independence, one perhaps worth reading aloud on the Fourth of July, ideally after strapping a battered football helmet onto your head so you look a bit like B. D. from “Doonesbury. “We, the intellectually curious, may soon find ourselves trapped in a pen, fenced in by rule-bound sticklerism and overzealous concern for our personal safety, unless we exercise our civil liberties and our curiosity,” he declaims. And so, “It’s time to retake authority from those whose goals are to limit, not expand, intellectual and physical pursuits.”

Bravo, sir. It’s the kind of speech you want to punctuate with a potato cannon blast.

And which gives new meaning to “the land of the free and home of the brave”.

For some families, the new book sounds like a dandy Father’s Day present or a good way to start off summer vacation.  As for us, well, I have to have a talk with Tom, who the boys informed me last night has plans to take them and their new inflatable dinghy (on sale at the hardware store this week) down the river this weekend. I don’t think Tom or the boys need any more convincing.

By the way, speaking of Father’s Day, Bill Gurstelle recently finished a stint guest blogging at GeekDad (don’t miss his post on “25 Movies with Catapults”, complete with Latin quote) and is in the midst of guest blogging at BoingBoing.

Related Farm School posts (all of which can be found under the “Courting Danger” tab above)

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

Fun with gunpowder

Other fun William Gurstelle links:

Bill Gurstelle’s website

Bill Gurstelle’s blog, “Notes from the Technology Underground”

Bill Gurstelle on Twitter, which I still don’t care for, but he’s there if you want him

Make Magazine checks in with Bill Gurstelle (March 2009); with a link to Mr. Gurstelle’s King of Fling catapult contest

Make: television on PBS, which we don’t get but would like if we did (we don’t get even get our two channels anymore, since the wind twisted our antenna the other weekend; Tom and the kids zipped over to his parents’ last night to watch Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, the first hockey they’ve watched in weeks.)

A recent interview with Bill Gurstelle by Harry Sawyers at Popular Mechanics. In response to Sawyers’ question, who is the book for, Gurstelle replies, “ We’re all the progeny of generations of people who took risks. The immigrants who came to America were incredible risk-takers. As a society, we’ve gotten comfortable, and fewer daily risks are necessary. This book is for someone who wants to become a risk taker.”

You don’t say

The New York Times discovers after 75 years that in hard times, people “just want to hide in a very dark place”, particularly a movie theater.

Researchers have discovered the shocking news that children learn better if they’re allowed to have recess, and “other research suggests that all children, not just those with attention problems, can benefit from spending time in nature during the school day.”

— However, all bets are off if you live in the North where recess is apparently dangerous. According to another study, this one in the Journal of School Health based on 2002 figures, more “than 4,000 children between the ages of five and 19 were injured in a year in Ottawa-area schools”. Then again, this is no longer the country of the intrepid Sam Steele and  Laura Secord (she could have put an eye out or twisted an ankel running through the woods) but the safety tuque and the campaign to wear helmets while sledding.

— Apparently the “most popular” emailed article at The New York Times this weekend was Friday’s op-ed column, “The Great Solvent North” by Theresa Tedesco, chief business correspondent of the Canadian newspaper, The National Post, in which she writes, “Canada, whose banking system had long been notorious for its stodgy practices and government coddling, is now being celebrated for those very qualities.”  Of course, there’s banking and then there are pension funds, and interestingly this week brought news that “Canada’s largest pension fund — Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec — lost a quarter of its $155-billion pension fund asset” in 2008.  According to The Toronto Star, the Caisse’s “recent ambitions have led it to aggressively sink billions into novel financial instruments, such as nonbank asset-backed commercial paper – short-term corporate debts that turned toxic.”

— Not surprisingly, not many Canadian politicians or oil and gas executives seem to subscribe to National Geographic.  Which is the only way to explain why the hullabaloo over the current issue’s photo essay on Alberta’s tar sands, “Scraping Bottom”, was raised only when the issue hit the newstands last week, not when it hit mailboxes earlier.  What is surprising is how the lines have been drawn over the article, though it helps to remember that line about politics and bedfellows: new Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff* not coincidentally looking for votes on a swing through Alberta and quirky CBC commentator Rex Murphy calling foul, and the Alberta government and The Edmonton Journal‘s editorial page calling fair.  And silence from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, last seen at an Ottawa press conference with President Obama throwing the Bush regime under the bus,

We will be watching what the United States does [regarding the environment] very — with a lot of — with a lot of interest for the obvious reasons that, as we all know, Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone in the context of a integrated continental economy. It’s very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competed with — competing with an unregulated economy south of the border.

Also interesting to note that it’s an article with photographs, including two large foldouts, that makes such a splash.  And not any of the equally dramatic but more or less pictureless articles on the oil sands over the years, such as Elizabeth Kolbert‘s “Unconventional Crude” for The New Yorker in 2007 and The Guardian‘s “Mud, sweat and tears” the same year.  A thousand words, indeed.

Better late than never department: I have a post in my draft folder about this, but each time I pull it up I start to gnash my teeth.  Here’s what the non-Canadian The Economist has to say on the subject, with less teeth-gnashing and garment-rending on my part (I’ve added some links to the original article),

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was brief and not all that bloody, but it was historic. On September 13th 1759, France’s loss of its colonial territories in North America was set in motion when British redcoats scaled cliffs protecting Quebec City and defeated troops and militia loyal to Louis XV. A modern-day battle over the battle, which concluded on February 17th, lasted somewhat longer and ended very differently. It flared up over plans to mark the battle’s 250th anniversary with a re-enactment, and ended with Quebec separatists crying victory and Canada’s federal government beating a hasty retreat.

The re-enactment was to have been the centrepiece of a summer-long commemoration of 1759’s events. But to some Quebeckers commemoration sounded like celebration. “Dancing on the graves of our ancestors,” was how the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois (RRQ), a group of sovereigntist hardliners, described it. They demanded the re-enactment’s cancellation. For several weeks debate raged. The re-enactment was an exercise to pay tribute to the fallen and educate the living about one of Canada’s most important episodes, said its supporters. These included 2,000 or so mostly American “re-enacters”, the federal government and Quebec City’s mayor, who was loth to lose millions of dollars in tourist spending.

Opponents, and most of the French-language press, cursed the proposed re-enactment as a “repugnant federalist propaganda operation”. When it reached a point where its organisers were receiving threats—including having “our bayonets shoved up our butts”, according to their leader—the National Battlefields Commission, which administers the Plains of Abraham, cancelled the mock battle and other activities planned for the summer. Or, as the Gazette, Quebec’s only English daily, wrote, it “cravenly surrendered the field”.

If there was an edifying component to the brouhaha, it lay in displaying the different light in which the Conquest, as it is known, is seen by those on opposite sides of the Quebec independence debate. For many sovereigntists it was the beginning of domination by the wretched English, and of the struggle for cultural survival. Federalists, however, both Francophone and Anglophone, argue that after the Conquest the French of New France got rights they could only dream of under the exploitative, authoritarian ancien régime.

Whatever the case, the re-enactment was probably doomed from the moment in mid-January when the RRQ pledged “to go on the warpath” against it. Support for Quebec’s sovereignty spikes whenever it is felt that English Canada is taking it for granted or not respecting it. Wise federal politicians are thus wary of anything that may rile Quebec sensitivities. Nevertheless, a few cabinet ministers took opposing positions on the re-enactment.

Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, was shrewd enough not to get involved. He simply announced that he would not attend. This is a decision Generals Wolfe and Montcalm, the commanders of the British and French forces in 1759, should probably also have made; both died of wounds suffered on the Plains of Abraham

A few thoughts. First, outside of Quebec in the rest of the country this article didn’t make much of a splash at all. Second, how disappointing to live in a country, a world, where some can confuse commemoration with celebration, and where hundreds of years later there are still such sensitivities over historical facts. I can’t help but think of the bicentary commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar four years ago, when the famous sea battle was re-enacted, as the BBC noted, “between a blue and a red team, rather than Britain versus France, in order not to offend the French”.  And yet there’s the feeling that confusion has been raised over the meaning of words, the prospect of insult to ancestors has been raised and bandied about merely to make separatist, sovereigntist hay. And the rest of the country, especially the part scratching its collective head every so often over Quebec, doesn’t know enough of its own history to care.  As Hugh MacLennan wrote in Rivers of Canada in 1974 (almost 30 years after his Two Solitudes), “Ours is not the only nation which has out-travelled its own soul and now is forced to search frantically for a new identity. No wonder, for so many, the past Canadian experience has become not so much a forgotten thing as an unknown thing.”

Anyone moved to learn more might be interested to know that the other weekend The Ottawa Citizen excerpted part of D. Peter Macleod’s new book, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham.  You can read the excerpt here.

UPDATED to add: I knew I forgot something. Here’s a birthday present from the National Film Board of Canada: “The Fate of America: Two well-known Quebec artists, a filmmaker and a playwright, look at various aspects of the story of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Whose version should prevail? Is history best served by documentary or fiction?”

Here’s mud in your eye

and on your hands and on the shelf.

It occurs to me that while the kids are mucking about out of doors boosting their immune systems, you could make it an educational experience as well.  Some Farm School favorites, from the shelves (our own and the library’s) and wish lists:

For children:

Life in a Bucket of Soil by Alvin Silverstein and Virginia Silverstein (Dover Publications, under $6); geared toward children ages 9-12, from the authors of A World in a Drop of Water

One Small Square: Backyard by Donald M. Silver, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne and Dianne Ettl

For older children and adults:

Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan

Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life by David W. Wolfe, a plant physiologist at Cornell University

and because while you’re all out playing in the soil, you may as well do something with it:

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

Although we do wash our hands before meals…

“Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” [Dr. Joel V. Weinstock] said. He and Dr. [David] Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Also helpful, he said, is to “let kids have two dogs and a cat,” which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system.

When Laura, my firstborn, arrived, a dear friend of the family then in her eighties invited both of us to tea.  Before we left, she leaned over and told me, “You know they’ve got to eat a peck of dirt before they die!” She’d be happy to know that the medical experts in today’s New York Times agree, though she’d be shaking her head to think that people nowadays need to buy a book explaining Why Dirt Is Good.

The compromise for the insistence on handwashing before meals is that we have one dog, 20 cats, a herd of cattle, four horses, and three dozen or so chickens (joined in summer by collections of grasshoppers, salamanders, frogs, and the odd gopher). None of them in the house, though.  No antibacterial soap in here, either. And in winter the kids wear their Baffin boots.  Bare feet when it’s -39 C, even without the wind chill, is just too much to bear.

Courting Danger

Farm School blog posts

Do It Yourself Science

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

Fun with gunpowder

Dangerous Things

A manual for childhood

How can you resist “the Anarchist Cookbook of the nursery”?

Still searching for danger

Paddle your own canoe

Science with Tom Edison

Retro-progressives of the world, unite

Why safer isn’t always better

New for dangerous girls and daring boys

Other blogs:

Home Chemistry

The Borderline Sociopathic Book for Boys post introduces The Borderline Sociopathic Blog for Boys

The Dangerous and Daring Blog for Boys and Girls

Wisdom of the Hands

Self-Sufficient Living

Craft Blog

Make Blog

Geekdad

Lenore Skenazy’s blog Free Range Kids (not to be confused, by the way, with the nifty and dangerous home schooling blog Free Range Academy)

Websites:

Boing Boing

Make Magazine and Maker Faire (where the motto is “Build, Craft, Hack, Play, Make”)

Craft Magazine

Traditional Scouting

TedTalk “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do” by Gever Tulley ofThe Tinkering School, a summer program to help kids ages seven to 17 learn to build things; the talk comes from Tulley’s book in progress,  Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do

Recommended books, some for adults and some for children, from the Farm School shelves and wish lists

The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreword by the late Noel Perrin)

Shelters, Shacks & Shanties: And How to Build Them by Daniel Carter Beard (also with a foreword by Noel Perrin

Field and Forest Handybook: New Ideas for Out of Doors by Daniel Carter Beard

Camp-Lore and Woodcraft by Daniel Carter Beard

Boat-Building and Boating by Daniel Carter Beard

Daniel Carter Beard’s Online Books

Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger

Woodcraft and Indian Lore by Ernest Thompson Seton

Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton

Scouting for Boys: The Original 1908 Edition (Dover Value Editions) by Robert Baden-Powell

Boy Scouts Handbook: The First Edition, 1911 (Dover Books on Americana)

Canoeing with the Cree, the late reporter Eric Sevareid’s account of the expedition he, then 17, and 19-year-old friend Walter Port embarked upon several days after graduating from high school. The boys paddled 2,250 miles in an 18-foot canvas canoe, from the Mississippi River at Fort Snelling to Hudson Bay.

The Boy Mechanic, a four-volume series by the editors of Popular Mechanics, reprinted by the good folks at the Canadian woodworking and gardening institutionLee Valley, which also offers the reprint Boy Craft

Another, one-volume, version of The Boy Mechanicthis one subtitled “200 Classic Things to Build”

Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices by William Gurstelle

The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery by William Gurstelle

Whoosh Boom Splat: The Garage Warrior’s Guide to Building Projectile Shooters by William Gurstelle

Forbidden LEGO: Build the Models Your Parents Warned You Against by Ulrik Pilegaard and Mike Dooley

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson

Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Mad Professor by Mark Frauenfelder

Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes by Raymond B. Wailes (Popular Science Publishing)

Lee’s Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, from the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, available free online as a PDF file and a bit torrent file, and for under $30 as a reprint from Lulu

The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series; out of print but worth looking for

Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis; and don’t miss Mr. Wizard on DVD, especially the episode where he electrocutes the hot dog. Danger at its finest!

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better by Matt Hern

Miscellania:

The Canadian classic film Song of the Paddle (1978); “Outdoorsman Bill Mason, his wife, and two children set out on a wilderness canoe camping holiday. In this film, the art of canoeing is more than technical expertise; it becomes a family experience of shared joy. Along the way there are countless adventures and much lovely scenery, including the Indian rock carvings of Lake Superior.”

Remember: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.

 

More booms in the backyard

The boys were standing behind me this morning as I was quickly clicking through my Bloglines subscription and I could hear audible gasps and “Put that back up again!” when I clicked on today’s GeekDad post by Kevin Kelly on Rubber Band Machine Guns.  So they were beside themselves when I clicked the post’s link to Backyard Artillery.  Kevin’s not familiar with the company and neither am I — are any readers? — but that didn’t stop us from having a great deal of fun admiring their wares.

Related links:

The Courting Danger page here at Farm School, featuring links to the following books, which you really should have on the shelf before contemplating a purchase from Backyard Artillery:

Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices by William Gurstelle

The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery by William Gurstelle

Whoosh Boom Splat: The Garage Warrior’s Guide to Building Projectile Shooters by William Gurstelle

And this opinion piece from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Why Safe Kids Are Becoming Fat Kids”.  Nothing new except for the tidbit that New York kids have a new risk to deal with on hot summer playgrounds — the rubber safety matting installed for their protection gets hot enough to burn tender tootsies.  You’d think it would be easier to tell your kid to put on shoes than to hire a lawyer to sue the Parks Department, but I’m the wrong person to ask, since I traded an office with a view of the Empire State Building for the chance to let my kids knock out their loose teeth falling from rope swings (which is what Davy did the other month) and out of trees.

So put on some shoes, kids, build an onager, get some exercise, and tell the secretary to cancel that call to the lawyer!

More fun things to make and do

My father sent this along for the kids, to make sure I didn’t miss it: yesterday’s New York Times article by Jessica Bruder, “My Belt Sander Can Beat Your Circular Saw”, all about power tool drag races:

The premise is simple: Take a hand-held power tool. Rebuild it into a racing machine.

Will it run? Maybe. Will it crash? Could be. Will it entertain? Most definitely.

Since the kids have been using power tools since they were toddlers, I suppose this is the logical next step.  Maybe I had better warn Tom so he can lock up his tools…

Reviewing the new chemistry book

I wrote about the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson as soon as I read about it. Earlier this week I ordered it, and a number of other books, and it should be here shortly.

Now this morning I see at GeekDad that John Baichtal has a comprehensive review of the new book, which comes as an antidote to “‘spa science’ and ‘candy chemistry’ and other pseudoscientific pap”.  As John points out,

Today is the DIY era, and we don’t need a set to learn about chemistry. All we need is the internet and the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments by Robert Bruce Thompson.

In the book’s introduction, Thompson makes two basic points: that commercial chemistry sets are dying, and that science education is getting worse. He tells the story of Jasmine, his young neighbor who told him that her middle school only teaches 15 minutes of science per day. He thought he’d let her use the pro-quality chemistry lab he has in his basement, but without a guidebook she’d be lost in all the possibilities. It was this situation that induced him to write the book.

Read the rest here.

Do it Yourself Science

Via Boing Boing and Pharyngula, word of a new, subversive (that’s PZ’s term) chemistry book, just out this week from the Make Magazine folks:

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson, part of O’Reilly Media‘s DIY Science series.

Thompson is also the author, along with his wife Barbara Fritchman Thompson, of the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer, first in the DIY Science series. Both now added to the Farm School list of books to buy.

Mark Frauenfelder’s review, with an extensive excerpt from the preface, at Boing Boing is well worth reading if you’re considering buying the book. And if you’re not considering it yet, Mark’s post just might push you off the fence. By the way, we’re very much enjoying our new copy of Mark’s experiment book for younger children, Mad Professor, which I found at BookCloseouts when I saw that our usual online booksellers had a several week delay listed (usually a sign that the book is out of stock). There are still a few copies left at BCO.

And if you’re going to be at Make’s Maker Faire this weekend, here’s something to note: Robert Thompson will be there too, “doing demos of lab experiments from the book on Saturday (1pm – 1:45pm) and Sunday (3pm – 3:45pm) at the MAKE Demo stage in the Maker Shed.

Updated to add: Geekdad has a post too, “Bright Colors and Stinky Smells” by Dave Hinerman

Call of the wild

One of my Google Alerts picked up this article, “German Tots Learn to Answer Call of Nature” from The Wall Street Journal earlier in the week. From the article,

Each weekday, come rain or shine, a group of children, ages 3 to 6, walk into a forest outside Frankfurt to sing songs, build fires and roll in the mud. To relax, they kick back in a giant “sofa” made of tree stumps and twigs.

The birthplace of kindergarten is returning to its roots. While schools and parents elsewhere push young children to read, write and surf the Internet earlier in order to prepare for an increasingly cutthroat global economy, some little Germans are taking a less traveled path — deep into the woods.

Germany has about 700 Waldkindergärten, or “forest kindergartens,” in which children spend their days outdoors year-round. Blackboards surrender to the Black Forest. Erasers give way to pine cones. Hall passes aren’t required, but bug repellent is a good idea.

Trees are a temptation — and sometimes worse. Recently, “I had to rescue a girl” who had climbed too high, says Margit Kluge, a teacher at Idstein’s forest kindergarten. Last year, a big tree “fell right before our noses.”

The schools are a throwback to Friedrich Fröbel, the German educator who opened the world’s first kindergarten, or “children’s garden,” more than 150 years ago. Mr. Fröbel counseled that young children should play in nature, cordoned off from too many numbers and letters.

Interesting how the idea of kindergarten has changed, isn’t it?  By the way, all three of my kids have either been stuck in, or fallen out of, a tree (in some cases, both), and it’s generally not a mistake they make twice. Outdoor schools aren’t anything new (back in 2003 The Christian Science Monitor ran an article about the “forest kindergartens”), but I’m glad to see that the idea is still striking a chord with North Americans, and that there those who believe that nature in general, and mud and winter in particular, are not to be avoided or endured but enjoyed and celebrated. It reminded me of the outdoor winter schools I’d read about perhaps 10 years ago, in one of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark or Sweden I think, where the children spent all day out of doors in the depths of winter — playing, learning, eating lunch, and even answering the call of nature too.

A bit of Googling and I found that Forest Schools have also become quite popular in the UK in the past 10 or so years. In 2006, all 49 pupils at Pott Row First School, Norfolk, received waterproof suits (I just love the accompanying photo of the child in the rain clutching a pencil); at the time the school’s goal was to provide half of all lessons outside within two years. In England you can find special weather gear at places such as Raindrops, which offers children’s outdoor clothing from Scandinavia. The company’s director, Nikki Horne, writes on the website,

Having a Finnish mother I spent many years in Finland and always admire how well dressed Scandinavian children are whilst playing outside – no matter the weather. It is not an unusual sight to see children dressed from head to toe and playing outside in thick snow or harsh rain in sub zero degrees. If the clothing is right there should be no reason why not to play outside in such conditions.