• 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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National Poetry Month 2013

I haven’t written a National Poetry Month post in a good long time, not since 2010, though poetry is still an important part of our lives, both reading and learning by heart (the kids all recited poetry for the music festival last month, and did wonderfully). What follows is pretty much a re-run of 2010’s post, with a few changes — some bits and pieces from some of previous posts on National Poetry Month, with a few updates, and at the end links to various Farm School poetry posts (most of which you can find at the green “Poetry” tab at the very top of the blog on the right):

April, as always, brings May showers and…

National Poetry Month

brought to you as always by the Academy of American Poets.  You can request your own poster, designed by Jessica Helfand and featuring the line, “Write about your sorrows, you wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful.” from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Poetry is like peace on earth, good will toward men.  It’s something we should read and enjoy year-round, not just in Spring and all, but for many of us, without the extra effort of a special day or month, it gets rather lost of the shuffle of daily living. The Academy of American Poets helpfully offers Poems for Every Occasion.

National Poetry Month is celebrated both in the US, under the auspices of the Academy of American Poets (whose page has oodles of links — some good ones are How to Read a Poem [often] and Tips for Booksellers), and in Canada, under the auspices of the League of Canadian Poets.

New for 2013:

Stefanie’s post, Celebrating Poetry, at her wonderful blog, So Many Books:

I know I kvetch now and then about how the designation does a disservice to poetry, corralling it into one month as though April is the only month one can bother to notice and read poetry. And while I still hold to that belief, at the same time I also think that if a month-long poetry blitz in schools and libraries touches just one child (or adult) and turns her/him on to poetry and inspires her/him to become a reader of poetry, then the month is worth it.

My old blog friend Gregory K. at GottaBook celebrates the month with his annual 30 Poets/30 Days celebration.  You can find last year’s celebration here.

Caroline Kennedy has a new children’s poetry book out: Poems to Learn by Heart, illustrated with paintings by Jon J. Muth. See below for CK’s other collections.

And don’t forget last year’s anthology, Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart by Mary Ann Hoberman (American children’s poet laureate from 2008-2010), illustrated by Michael Emberley.

The current Cybils children’s poetry book winner is BookSpeak!: Poems About Books by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon. The list of all the poetry nominees is here, and Ms. Salas has a free extras for the book here.

Crayola’s activity pages for National Poetry Month 2013 include coloring pages of Langston Hughes and Edgar Allan Poe and a Poem in My Pocket craft.

Poetry Friday is celebrated in the blogosphere all year, every year, and you can read more here and here (where you can also find the current schedule).  For all of the Farm School Poetry Friday posts, just type “Poetry Friday” in the search box above.

A few years ago, poet J. Patrick Lewis asked, “Can Children’s Poetry Matter?” in the journal Hunger Mountain. It’s aimed toward parents with children in school, but there’s still much that parents who home school can learn:

American children grow up in a country that poetry forgot—or that forgot poetry. The reasons are not far to seek. I have visited four hundred American elementary schools here and abroad as a latter day Pied Piper for verse, and I can confirm that too many teachers still swear allegiance to an old chestnut: the two worst words in the language when stuck side by side are “poetry” and “unit.” …

Children rarely gravitate to poetry on their own. It’s an acquired taste. They must be introduced to it early and often by their teachers and parents, the critical influences in their lives. And not in the way Billy Collins has memorably described — and vilified — by tying poems to chairs and beating them senseless until they finally give up their meaning. We do not look to poetry to find answers or absolutes. Nor do we investigate verse with calipers and a light meter, though at least one benighted school of thought has tried. …

But any genre buried in unread books is useless. Make poetry a habit with students. If children are reading poetry they find insipid or pointless, they naturally reject it for the playground. Let them choose their own verse favorites. Encourage volunteers to read them. Open a Poetry Café, no textbooks allowed. Ask students to ask their parents for their favorite poems. Then invite the parents to the classroom/café to read them.

Go to the source:  Seek out the poetry lovers among teachers and discover the strategies that have worked best for them.

Read the rest of Pat’s essay here, and then go back to the list of the Cybils children poetry book nominees, write them down or print them off and head to your favorite bookseller or library. I have to say, Crayola continues to surprise the heck out of me by doing this every year.

Some of our family’s favorite poetry resources:

Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read Their Work, from Tennyson to Plath (book and three CDs), edited by Elise Paschen (2007 saw a new expanded edition)

Poetry Speaks to Children (book and CD), edited by Elise Paschen

A Child’s Introduction to Poetry: Listen While You Learn About the Magic Words That Have Moved Mountains, Won Battles, and Made Us Laugh and Cry (book and CD), edited by Michael Driscoll and illustrated by Meredith Hamilton

A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children, edited by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon J. Muth

The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, edited by Caroline Kennedy

Poetry Out Loud, edited by Robert Alden Rubin

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows

Favorite Poems Old and New, edited by Helen Ferris

The Caedmon Poetry Collection: A Century of Poets Reading Their Work (audio CD); ignore the publisher’s sloppy labeling job and just sit back and listen

Seven Ages: An Anthology of Poetry with Music (audio CD) by Naxos AudioBooks

Voice of the Poet: Robert Frost (audio cd), from Random House’s “Voice of the Poet” series
Voice of the Poet: Langston Hughes (audio CD), from Random House’s “Voice of the Poet” series; search for “Voice of the Poet” at Powell’s, Amazon, B&N for the rest of the series.

Poetry for Young People series; includes volumes of poetry by Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Coleridge, Longfellow, and more.  Very nicely done and perfect for strewing about the house.

Emily by Michael Bedard and illustrated by the marvelous Barbara Cooney
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires (out of print now but well worth finding)
“The Belle of Amherst” on DVD; Julie Harris in the one-woman stage production about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934) on video or on television, starring Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Frederic March as Robert Browning; a travesty that it’s not on dvd
The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning, illustrated by Kate Greenaway

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You by John Ciardi and illustrated by the fabulous Edward Gorey
How Does a Poem Mean? by John Ciardi; out of print for some crazy reason…

Talking to the Sun: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems for Young People, edited by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell; another out of print gem
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children by Kenneth Koch
Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry by Kenneth Koch
Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry by Kenneth Koch

Beyond Words: Writing Poems with Children by Elizabeth McKim and Judith Steinbergh; out of print (try your library)

A Crow Doesn’t Need a Shadow: A Guide to Writing Poetry from Nature by Lorraine Ferra and Diane Boardman

Magnetic Poetry (something for everyone)

Poetry podcasts and other online audio poetry:

From my old blog friend Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Childrenpoetry podcasts

The Library of Congress’s guide to online poetry audio recordings

The Academy of American Poets “Poetcast”

The Poetry Foundation’s podcasts and audio selections

Cloudy Day Art podcasts

Houghton Mifflin’s “The Poetic Voice”

HarperAudio!, where you can hear Ossie Davis read Langston Hughes, Peter Ustinov read James Thurber, and Dylan Thomas read his own works

The UK Poetry Archive, which includes lots of American poetry and poets too

BBC’s “Poetry Out Loud”

PennSound

Learn Out Loud’s “Intro to Poetry” podcast

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s Poetry Series podcasts

Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac podcasts

First World War Digital Poetry Archive podcasts

Poetry at NPR

KCRW’s Bookworm podcast

*  *  *

Previous National Poetry Month celebrations and other Poetry Posts at Farm School (you can also click the green “Poetry” page link up above, second from the right over the carrot leaves):

National Poetry Month 2009: Essential Pleasures and Happy National Poetry month!

Something different, a list of poetry books and other poetic resources

How I got my kids to like poetry and broccoli

Poetry sings

More poetry aloud, with PennSound

Poetry Is Life, and some Great Books too

A monthlong celebration of delight and glory and oddity and light (National Poetry Month 2008)

Adding even more poetry to your life, just in time for National Poetry Month (NPM 2006)

“Feed the lambs”: On the difference between poems for children and children’s poetry, Part 1 and Part 2

Thoughts on The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems and classic poetry

An appreciation of John Updike and light verse

Langston Hughes, the “social poet”

Eugene Field, “the children’s poet”, and his plea for the classics, for ambitious boys and girls

Robert Browning, with another plea and an explanation of how children learn best

You can also use the “category” clicker on the sidebar at left to find all of the Farm School Poetry and Poetry Friday posts

Shhh…

One of the more interesting conversation topics among home schoolers isn’t socialization (though it is a favorite of non-home schoolers) but introverts vs. extroverts, especially since it seems that many introverted parents are teaching extroverted kids, as I am. The subject comes up fairly often in the Charlotte Mason and Well-Trained Mind yahoo groups I frequent, so it’s a situation a number of parents find themselves dealing with. I imagine an extrovert with three introverted kids would also have her challenges…

I’ve known since I was very young that I’m an introvert. In elementary school, I generally preferred books to people. In high school, I had much more fun getting ready for parties than at the parties themselves (I couldn’t wait to get home). The challenge for me hasn’t been figuring out what I am, or what the kids are. It’s been trying to meet my kids’ needs as extroverts without making myself crazy, and, considerably more difficult, to fit, as an intovert, into a mostly extroverted world. Figuring out this latter part is the focus of Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (just published by Crown, January 24, 2012). Our library system has about a dozen copies on order, and I’ve reserved one through interlibrary loan when they arrive.

If you haven’t yet figured out whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, Ms. Cain has a quick quiz on her website.  Some of the quiz statements (answer yes or no):

I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities

I often prefer to express myself in writing

I enjoy solitude

I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status

I’m not a big risk taker

I enjoy work that allows me to dive in with few interruptions

I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale with only one or two close friends or family members

I do my best work alone

I tend to think before I speak

I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself

If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled

I don’t enjoy multitasking

If you can answer Yes to most of these, according to Cain, “you are likely to be an introvert”. I do and am.

This is one reason why the last two years, which have been remarkable for their lack of quiet, have been so difficult for me. The more I’ve explained that I needed to get back to my own usual uninterrupted home- and farm-centered life, the more resistance, and outright dismissiveness, I’ve met. It reminded me of growing up as an introvert in an extroverted family, with parents who laughingly told others, “She’s shy” (though, as Cain notes, there is a difference between shyness and introversion). It’s one of the reasons why I was determined when the kids were young that I would rather help and prepare them than tease them, however good naturedly, and why we started with reciting poetry at the local music festival. Interestingly, last year, as part of her “Quiet Revolution”, Cain championed public speaking and Toastmasters to help some introverts overcome their fears. For kids, I can’t say enough about the benefits of music festivals, and also the 4H public speaking program.

From a Scientific American interview with Susan Cain by Gareth Cook [emphasis mine]:

Cook: How does this cultural inclination [toward extroverts] affect introverts?

Cain: Many introverts feel there’s something wrong with them, and try to pass as extroverts. But whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way. You especially lose a sense of how to spend your time. Introverts are constantly going to parties and such when they’d really prefer to be home reading, studying, inventing, meditating, designing, thinking, cooking… or any number of other quiet and worthwhile activities.

According to the latest research, one third to one half of us are introverts – that’s one out of every two or three people you know. But you’d never guess that, right? That’s because introverts learn from an early age to act like pretend-extroverts.

I was able to stop pretending once I began living on my on, in college and was able to act on my preferences. Which have included, as Cain notes, staying home to read, study, meditate, design, think, cook, “or any number of other quiet and worthwhile activities.” Not to mention gardening and tending chickens and cattle.

“Worthwhile”  to me is the most important word in that sentence, because the majority extroverts are very quick to assume that activities and preferences not worthwhile to them aren’t worthwhile at all, to anyone. This requires the introvert to do some fighting, or at least to stand her ground. Or, if you’re an extrovert parent of an introverted child, to accept your child’s differences and to teach your child to stand up for those differences.

More from the SciAm interview [emphasis mine],

Cook: Is this just a problem for introverts, or do you feel it hurts the country as a whole?

Cain: It’s never a good idea to organize society in a way that depletes the energy of half the population. We discovered this with women decades ago, and now it’s time to realize it with introverts.

This also leads to a lot of wrongheaded notions that affect introverts and extroverts alike. Here’s just one example: Most schools and workplaces now organize workers and students into groups, believing that creativity and productivity comes from a gregarious place. This is nonsense, of course. From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude, and in my book I examine lots of research on the pitfalls of groupwork.

And from Cain’s Toronto Globe & Mail interview:

At work you mention extroverts are showy and efficient; they’re often driven by status. Introverts, meanwhile, are slow and deliberate. Is that methodical process mistaken for lack of ambition or, worse, laziness?

Absolutely. The way you display your work or your ambition can often be misperceived. I interviewed [three-time Olympic gold medalist] Marnie McBean recently, this very dynamic, firecracker extrovert. She said that when she was first paired with Kathleen Heddle, a quietly steely, determined introvert, she was very upset and actually asked her coach to give her a different partner. She thought Kathleen was not up to snuff. Her coach said, ‘You do realize that Kathleen is the best rower on the team, and she’s even better than you, Marnie.’ She hadn’t realized that because she was so attuned to outside displays of ambition, competitiveness and fieriness, and Kathleen wasn’t displaying any of those. I’d advise [introverts] that they might take some of their hard work and think about ways of drawing attention to themselves, ways that are comfortable for them.

One of the items in Ms. Cain’s Quiet Manifesto, “16 Things I Believe”, is the following, which has a direct application to home schooling:

We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

And finally, also from the Manifesto,

If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

Yes. I’d just add, and to continue going where you want to go. Here’s to reclaiming quiet for those of us who need it, and to a growing appreciation for the intrinsic worth of quiet.

*  *  *  *

Since home schoolers as a group seem to be quite keen about Ted Talks, I thought I should mention that Susan Cain will be a speaker at Ted2012 in late February

An article from a 2009 issue of Secular Homeschooling magazine, “Guided by their Needs: Homeschooling Works for Introverts and Extroverts!”

An article from a 1998 issue of Home Education Magazine, “The Valedictorian Who Failed Socialization”

Daybook: January 23

Outside my window…

It snowed a bit Saturday but we’re still far away from a usual snowy winter, with only about 2″ on the ground. Thankfully, the snow accompanied some warming temperatures, and we’re out of the cold snap for now at least. Yesterday was -3 C, later this week we get just into the plus temps. So what little snow we have will do some more shrinking.

We’re enjoying an irruption of common redpolls, with about 40 who’ve taken up permanent residence at Laura’s feeders. There are usually four or five birds feeding, one sitting on top of the feeder, and 10 or so on the ground below the feeder cleaning up the fallen thistle seed. We learned from a display a few months ago by students at the local college that redpolls can survive in severe cold, down to about -67 C (-89 F below zero), and cope with warmer weather in part by pulling out some of their feathers. This is definitely feather-pulling weather in the redpoll world.

I am thinking...

about creating a new binder for organizing. I’m finding myself overwhelmed with various programs, internships, and such for the high school years. Every time we turn around it seems there’s something good to consider. Laura is putting together her application form for a birding internship due in April, I’ve been mulling over Encounters with Canada since the fall, the 4H exchange program to Finland sounds appealing, and friends with a daughter a year older than Laura have been passing along all sorts of interesting post-secondary information for Alberta.

I realized I need a place to keep everything, and think I’m going to start a new binder, arranged chronologically, by minimum age, and within that by month. I can print out information pages and application forms, add empty plastic page protectors with reminder Post-It notes for recommendation letters on their way, and so on.

I’m not sure if anyone else with older kids would find something like this useful, but coming from a position with local programs to more far-flung ones involving considerably more paper, I think this idea will help Laura (and later each of the boys) and me stay on top of what they’d like to do, the various options and deadlines. I’m also old-fashioned enough that I think I’d do better with something in a binder rather than something online, something we can flip through together at the kitchen table, though I’m sure for some families an entirely online version would work as well.

In the kitchen…

Apple Sharlotka (see previous post)

I am going…

on a bit of an expedition today. We heard on the news that a CN train with grain cars derailed on Saturday about an hour south of us. Seventeen cars left the tracks, and 11 cars plunged off the tracks into the valley below, with some damage to the bridge. It’s a little valley we know and love, and Tom wants to see what the damage has been.

And we went, from Thursday to Saturday, to the annual Farm Curl. Tom and the kids were a team, and did very well, winning all three of their games, getting fourth place, and winning some nifty prizes to boot. All capped off by dinner and a dance last night.

Upon arrival at the dinner last night, Davy wanted to inspect the prize table (as each team is announced, winners get to pick their prizes from those provided). He spied some earrings donated by the local jewelry store, and asked me if I’d like him to pick a pair when his turn came. I was touched, and told him to pick something for himself he’d enjoy. So he picked an angle grinder instead when his turn came.  It’s those little moments that continue to prove to me we get what we put in.

The kids and Tom, together and separately, have a few more bonspiels between now and early March and they’re all looking forward to the fun. Laura has been asked to curl with a high school team for next year, which she’s mulling over. It offers the possible opportunity of curling in the provincial championships.

A few plans for the rest of the week:

A library board meeting (getting a long overdue facelift underway), a bit of time to rest for the music festival now that registration has been completed (we adopted a different method this year and it seems to have been successful), kids working on 4H speeches and presentation, and I’m going to get started on our organic farming annual paperwork since I just had notification that the deadline has been moved up from April 1st to March 1st. Oy.

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.

High end

The great William Zinsser, in a recent “Zinsser on Friday” column/blog post, “Life and Work”, over at The American Scholar,

I’ve never been–perhaps to my shame–a citizen of writing. I don’t belong to writers’ organizations, or attend writers’ talks and panels, or lunch with publishing potentates. I don’t hang out with writers. Writers tend to be not as interesting as they think. What they mainly want to talk about is their own writing, and they also have a ton of grievances, their conversation quick to alight on the perfidy of publishers, the lassitude of editors and agents, and the myopia of critics who reviewed–or didn’t review–their last book.

I’m a lone craftsman, not unlike a potter or a cabinetmaker, shaping and reshaping my materials to create an object that pleases me–nobody else–and when it’s done I send it forth into the world. I don’t have an agent. I never show my writing to other writers; their agenda is not my agenda. For the objective judgment and emotional support that every writer needs I depend on the individual editors of my books and magazine articles–fellow craftsmen–and on a few trusted friends. …

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect. Just as I go to work every day with my tools, which are words, the plumber arrives with his kit of wrenches and washers, and afterward the pipes have been so adroitly fitted together that they don’t leak. I don’t want any of my sentences to leak. The fact that someone can make water come out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as a feat no less remarkable than the construction of a clear declarative sentence.

Read the entire piece here.

Find the Zinsser on Friday archive here.

Find a list of William Zinnser’s books here, and read them.  He is one of the best writing teachers around, for the price of a book, and, nowadays, a rare fount of common sense.  As his Zinsser on Friday pieces prove.

In search of lasting import

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Brooks writes, emphases mine,

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

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

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

And more, emphases still mine,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late philosophy, on-time engineering

I’ve been meaning to post an interesting article The New York Times ran several months ago about teaching philosophy to children, but that one’s old enough now it can wait until the end of this post.

In the efforts of being a little more timely, here’s a much more recent NYT article, from earlier this week, on how “Many Schools Teach Engineering in Early Grades”,

All 300 students at Clara E. Coleman Elementary School are learning the A B C’s of engineering this year, even those who cannot yet spell e-n-g-i-n-e-e-r-i-n-g. The high-performing Glen Rock school district, about 22 miles northwest of Manhattan, now teaches 10 to 15 hours of engineering each year to every student in kindergarten through fifth grade, as part of a $100,000 redesign of the science curriculum.

Spurred by growing concerns that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy, school districts nationwide are packing engineering lessons into already crowded schedules for even the youngest students, giving priority to a subject that was once left to after-school robotics clubs and summer camps, or else waited until college.

Supporters say that engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students not to be afraid of taking intellectual risks.

“We still hear all the time that little kids can’t engineer,” said Christine Cunningham, director of Engineering is Elementary, a program developed at the Museum of Science in Boston that offers ready-made lessons, for about $350 each, on 20 topics, and is now used in all 50 states, in more than 3,000 schools.

“We say they’re born engineers — they naturally want to solve problems — and we tend to educate it out of them.”

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which will distribute $4.35 billion in education stimulus money to states, favors so-called STEM programs, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

No surprise, the part about competing in a global economy and the “Race to the Top” makes me queasy.  But yes, yes, yes, to the quote about young children being born engineers.  The best part of the article:

“It gets your brain going,” said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. “And I actually learn something when I’m doing a project — like you can work together to do something you couldn’t do before.”

And really, ultimately, isn’t it about getting your brain going, and hang the global economy?

Read the rest of the article here.

———–

Back in April, just after I returned from NYC (which might explain why I never got around to blogging about), The New York Times had an article on “The Examined Life, Age 8”, or teaching philosophy to the very young.  From which,

A few times each month, second graders at a charter school in Springfield, Mass., take time from math and reading to engage in philosophical debate. There is no mention of Hegel or Descartes, no study of syllogism or solipsism. Instead, Prof. Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from nearby Mount Holyoke College use classic children’s books to raise philosophical questions, which the young students then dissect with the vigor of the ancient Greeks.

“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”

One afternoon this winter, the students in Christina Runquist’s classroom read Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree,” about a tree that surrenders its shade, fruit, branches and finally its trunk to a boy it has befriended. The college students led the discussion that followed — on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects,” as Professor Wartenberg puts it — with a series of questions, starting with whether the boy was wrong to take so much from the tree.

“We don’t actually try to convince them that trees deserve respect,” he says, “but ask them, ‘What do you think?’ We’re trying to get them engaged in the practice of doing philosophy, versus trying to teach them, say, what Descartes thought about something.”

Dr. Wartenberg has a book, Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children’s Literature (September 2009), and his book has a website, Teaching Children Philosophy, with the usual resource pages for Educators, Parents, and Kids.

Professor Wartenberg and students use eight picture books to introduce children to the major fields of philosophy, including aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.

With Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together, in which Frog and Toad try to determine whether they can be brave and scared at the same time, the pupils examine the nature of courage — one of Aristotle’s central virtues. With Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose, about a moose who mistakenly assumes all his friends are also moose, they consider how someone can maintain a belief in the face of contrary evidence. And with Peter Catalanotto’s Emily’s Art, about a talented young artist who loses a contest, they debate whether there can be objective standards for evaluating works of art.

The Times notes that Dr. Wartenberg isn’t the first philosopher to work with children, citing Matthew Lipman, who in the 1970s established The Institute for the Advancement of the Philosophy for Children.  Many home schoolers are familiar with Dr. Lipman’s books, especially Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery and also Thinking in Education and Philosophy in the Classroom.

Okay, that’s it.  I’m glad I have that done.  Go, teach, learn, think, and make something useful out of the bits and pieces in the garage.

Carriers of arts, letters, and dumplings

I had a post yesterday on Rebecca Mead’s current New Yorker essay, “Learning by Degrees”, on the purpose of education, which I agree with her should not be to “compete in the global economy”, as our politicians like to natter on about, but as Ms. Mead wrote, to “nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.”

So I was interested last night to read in yesterday’s New York Times Wednesday food section the article, “Their Future, Made By Hand” about a new twist in the road for “young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, and unemployed” New Yorkers who now find themselves at “the intersection of the economic downturn and the rise of the local artisanal food movement”, leading to “the recent flowering of small culinary start-ups” and food entrepreneurs:

As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens [and possibly college…] altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

That “ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently”, learned in high school or in college (if not afterwards for many of us), can come in very, very handy. Keep your mind and your options open, and your future might well be delicious.  Read the rest of the Times article here. (And while you’re at it, go get the recipe for 1989 Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse.  Yummy.)

Related Farm School posts:

Moving in a common rhythm; from which one of my favorite Andy Rooney quotes, from his 2000 commencement address at the University of Virginia, “Don’t rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”

Craftsmanship

Hands

Tonic and toast

Further thoughts on self-esteem and self-confidence

All roads lead to home and hard work

More thoughts on independence and freedom

Carriers of arts, and letters

Rebecca Mead, in her latest comment piece, “Learning by Degrees” in the current issue of The New Yorker, writes,

The skip-college advocates’ contention—that, with the economic downturn, a college degree may not be the best investment—has its appeal. Given the high cost of attending college in the United States, the question of whether a student is getting his or her money’s worth tends to loom large with whoever is paying the tuition fees and the meal-plan bills. Even so, one needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

All these are habits of mind that are useful for an engaged citizenry, and from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth. For who’s to say in what direction a letter carrier’s thoughts might, or should, turn, regardless of the job’s demands? Consider Stephen Law, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, who started his working life delivering mail for the British postal service, began reading works of philosophy in his spare time, decided that he’d like to know more, and went on to study the discipline at City University, in London, and at Oxford University. (A philosophy graduate in the Class of 2010, by the way, stands to earn an average starting salary of forty thousand dollars a year, rising to a lifetime median of seventy-six thousand. Not exactly statistician money, but something to think about.) Indeed, if even a professionally oriented college degree is no longer a guarantee of easily found employment, an argument might be made in favor of a student’s pursuing an education that is less, rather than more, pragmatic. (More theology, less accounting.) That way, regardless of each graduate’s ultimate path, all might be qualified to be carriers of arts and letters, of which the nation can never have too many.

Read the entire piece here.

Of course, one nice think about home schooling is that you can start early nurturing critical thought, exposing the small individuals you love to the signal accomplishments of humankind; and developing that ability to respond intelligently.  You also have the chance to teach them basic economics, that expenses should not exceed income, so that they don’t find themselves with an enormous, unpayable bill at the end of four years; and also marketing 101, that there are wonderful professors to be found at institutions without snazzy T-shirts.

Fast and loose with sticks and stones and rocks and sticks

After Ann Coulter cancelled her speech in Ottawa, and before her travelling circus headed west thisaway, she told Maclean’s news magazine that the police

had been warning my bodyguard all day that they were putting up [messages] on Facebook: “Bring rocks, bring sticks, you gotta hurt Ann Coulter tonight, don’t let her speak.” And the cops eventually said, we’ve got a bad feeling, this isn’t gonna happen. And they shut it down.

She wrote yesterday, interestingly dropping the bit about rocks and sticks, that

The police called off my speech when the auditorium was surrounded by thousands of rioting liberals — screaming, blocking the entrance, throwing tables, demanding that my books be burned, and finally setting off the fire alarm.

Sadly, I missed the book burning because I never made it to the building.

The truth, unfortunately for Coulter, who has been quoted as saying “Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the First Amendment”, is nowhere near as violent or exciting.  I for one would be intrigued to find that I live in a country where the left is so lively that we have “rioting liberals”.  John Baglow, in The National Post of all places, has a very entertaining and accurate piece on what happened in Ottawa. He writes,

Now the Speech Warriors(TM) are outraged, or so they want to appear. Actually, I strongly suspect, they’re pleased as punch. They have a fresh new martyr, even if they’ve had to spin like mad to create one. Because Ann Coulter and her organizers, confronted by demonstrators exercising their own rights of freedom of assembly and of expression — pulled the plug on her themselves. …

Baglow also points to a CTV report that

CTV’s Daniele Hamamdjian said “a combination of overcapacity and utter disorganization” contributed to the collapse of the event.

Prior to the cancellation, Hamamdjian said only a small number of students were tasked with verifying the names of the people who had signed up to attend Coulter’s talk.

“It was a disaster in terms of just organization, which is probably one of the reasons why it was cancelled,” Hamamdjian told CTV News Channel from Ottawa on Wednesday morning.

Police eventually showed up to the scene and blocked the door to the building, but Hamamdjian said she doubted whether the combination of protesters and disorganization actually constituted “a physical risk to Ann Coulter.”

The event fuelled news stories that ran across the country, all of which fed on the apparent uproar Coulter’s visit caused on the Ottawa campus.

He concludes,

So is it fair to conclude, based upon mostly right-wing accounts, the following?

Ann Coulter had to brave 1) a polite note from the University of Ottawa Provost; 2) chanting demonstrators, mostly outside the lecture hall; and 3) a fire alarm, turned off after a few minutes.

Personally, I would have preferred to have her speak, and arrested if she broke Canadian law, by, say, advocating genocide. But when you look at the welter of accounts, some of which I have linked to above, what was stopping her?

Sounds like she encountered a robust, healthy exercise of free expression, except of course for the juvenile fire alarm prank, which was quickly remedied. But it was all too much for Coulter and her team. And now the myth will be perpetuated forever–count on it–that protesters “shut down” her speaking engagement.

Like hell they did.

And here’s Kady O’Malley’s piece for CBC, in which she notes that she spoke with

Ottawa Police Services media relations officer Alain Boucher this morning, and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was her security team that made the decision to call off the event. “We gave her options” — including, he said, to “find a bigger venue” — but “they opted to cancel … It’s not up to the Ottawa police to make that decision.” …

As for Coulter’s claim that the police “had been warning my bodyguard all day that they were putting up [messages] on Facebook: ‘Bring rocks, bring sticks, you gotta hurt Ann Coulter tonight, don’t let her speak,'” Boucher confirmed that the police were monitoring the situation – although how, exactly, he didn’t specify – but was unable to provide any example of such a threat, as he did not have that information, although he assured me that if a complaint were lodged, the police would “surely” investigate, but he didn’t know whether or not that had occurred. I haven’t been able to turn up any of those alleged threats — not on Facebook, and not on the unspecified “liberal blogs” that she has since cited as the source, so if anyone can point me to an example, please do so in the comments. …

Finally, an observation from a CBC reporter who was in the Foyer while Coulter was being interviewed by CTV’s Power Play: At approximately 5:15pm, he overheard a member of her security team tell a Conservative MP that her event “may be cancelled,” which would suggest that the decision to do so was already being considered before more than half the crowd had assembled outside the venue — hopeful speech-goers and protesters alike. Coulter herself, meanwhile, told Cosh that she never actually left the Rideau Club — where she was the guest of honour at a $250 per head private reception — for the university. Given the travel times involved, and the 7:30 pm start time, she would likely have had to do so by 7pm at the latest in order to make it in time.

Is it just me, or does Coulter seem to be shocked, shocked at the apparently engineered happenings the other night?  Because it wouldn’t lead to huge coverage and big ticket sales for today’s speaking engagement, where the topic as it’s been all week not so coincidentally (I’m shocked, shocked) is “media bias and freedom of speech”, would it?  You can’t buy this sort of publicity, but nowadays you don’t really need to.

If you want to see what threats of violence look like, try this.

The magic of reading aloud

Michael Winerip writes about a remarkable nine-year-plus readaloud streak in “A Father-Daughter Bond, Page by Page” in this week’s New York Times:

Their shared reading provided a shared language. When Mr. Brozina asks if Kristen’s absolutely sure, she’ll answer, “Certain there’s a jertain in the curtain” (Dr. Seuss). If Mr. Brozina orders a hamburger, Kristen will say, “I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit” (Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night” ). By high school, Kristen had a busy social life. “I’d be out with friends, and say, ‘It’s 11:30, we need to stop back at my house.’ A carload of teenagers would come in. They’d play some game or cards in the living room. I’d go upstairs to Dad’s room and he’d read to me.”

“Then she’d go back out with her friends and I’d go to bed,” Mr. Brozina said. …

Like all earth-shattering acts, there was more to The Streak than met the eye, although for years it was unspoken. About the time The Streak started, Kristen’s family shrunk from six to two in a year’s time. Her two surviving grandparents died. Her sister, who is seven years older, went off to Yale. And her mother left her father. “It was just the two of us,” Kristen said. “The Streak was stability when everything else was unstable. It was something I knew would always be there.” ..

Her father felt that, too. “With a family of two, I wanted her to be absolutely sure in her mind that I was here for her,” he said.

But he had other reasons. At 61, he’s part of a generation that held reading as an almost magical ticket to upward mobility. He’s been a school librarian here for 38 years, knows most everyone in this modest blue-collar town, and whenever he bumps into one of his former students, the first thing he asks is, “Are you reading?” followed by his mantra: “If you love to read, you’ll probably go to college, maybe for free. You’ll get a better job, get a higher income, live longer.”

Over the years, he has built a collection of 700 of the best books he and Kristen read together. “I don’t have much money to pass on,” he said. “But these books, she’ll read to hers and they’ll read to theirs. And they’ll read to the generations down the lines. It’s a means for me to touch generations I’ll never see. They’ll all be smart. I can’t imagine these books will never be used. Every single one of them is so good.”

Read the rest, aloud or to yourself, here.

Messing about in boats

I posted the following, part of the very famous first chapter of The Wind in the Willows, at one of my homeschool groups the other day, in response to a mother who’s been having so much trouble getting her young son to stay on course with their Well-Trained Mind studies that, as she wrote, she was ready to throw in the home schooling towel.  After receiving a variety of replies, including one from me recommending Melissa Wiley’s idea of “Tidal Learning”, the mother wrote, “It’s hard to know when to keep the boat in the current and when not to try and push the river and when to allow the boat to drift into an eddy.”

Which immediately brought this to mind,

“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a — you never — well I — what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the ONLY thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING — absolute nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing — about — in — boats; messing —-”

“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

“– about in boats — or WITH boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. “WHAT a day I’m having!” he said. “Let us start at once!”

Funny, isn’t it, the affinity between water and sailing metaphors and home schooling.  There’s also the famous quote from that other celebrated watery children’s book Swallows and Amazons — “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN”, our unofficial family and school motto.

“The King Canute playbook”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who is also scholar in residence at my old college and co-founder of 350.org writes in the February 25 issue of The Nation,

Twenty-one years ago, in 1989, I wrote what many have called the first book for a general audience on global warming. One of the more interesting reviews came from the Wall Street Journal. It was a mixed and judicious appraisal. “The subject,” the reviewer said, “is important, the notion is arresting, and Mr. McKibben argues convincingly.” And that was not an outlier: around the same time, the first President Bush announced that he planned to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”

I doubt that’s what the Journal will say about my next book when it comes out in a few weeks, and I know that no GOP presidential contender would now dream of acknowledging that human beings are warming the planet. Sarah Palin is currently calling climate science “snake oil,” and last week the Utah legislature, in a move straight out of the King Canute playbook, passed a resolution condemning “a well-organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome” on a nearly party-line vote.

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data. (You might not want to, though, since Hurricane Katrina demonstrated just how easy it was to rip holes in its roof.) Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All fifteen of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the United States, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet. At least partly as a result, Congress feels little need to consider global-warming legislation, much less pass it; and as a result of that failure, progress towards any kind of international agreement on climate change has essentially ground to a halt.

Climate-Change Denial as an O.J. Moment

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial, an event that’s begun to recede in our collective memory. For those who were conscious in 1995, however, I imagine that just a few names will make it come back to life. Kato Kaelin, anyone? Lance Ito?

Read the rest of “The Attack on Climate-Change Science” here.

McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, comes out next month.


The blossomest blossom

When I was in New York in November, I found the following one Sunday in a New York Times interview with Colin Firth.  I clipped the paragraph and have been carrying it around in my wallet ever since.

[Firth] mentioned a famous television interview in which the British playwright Dennis Potter, dying of cancer, marveled at the flower he could see from his window.  “It is the whitest, frothiest blossomest blossom that there ever could be,” Mr. Potter said then.  “Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were.”

The interview, with Melvyn Bragg, aired in April 1994, several months after Potter was diagnosed and several months before he died.  Here’s the original quote,

Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.

Colin Firth reminds me, because he starred in the film adaptation [which nowhere near approaches the quality of the book], of Blake Morrison’s achingly beautiful And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which I read a few years ago and think I’d like to reread one of these days, but not anytime soon.  Morrison too lost his father very abruptly to cancer.

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.

Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

The above is the title of the 2009 CBC Massey Lectures, given last month by Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, and now in book form too, as The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Dr. Davis is currently a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. The lectures begin their airing on CBC Radio tonight, on the program “Ideas” with episode/lecture one, “Season of the Brown Hyena”.

From the first lecture:

One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, the Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.

*  *  *  *

Episode/Lecture Two, “The Wayfarers”, airing November 4, 2009

Episode/Lecture Three, “Peoples of the Anaconda”, airing November 5, 2009

Episode/Lecture Four, “Sacred Geography”, airing November 6, 2009

Episode/Lecture Five, “Century of the Wind”, airing November 7, 2009

According to the “Ideas” website, audio files will be posted the day after each broadcast.

Wade Davis at TED Talks

A few of the many other books by Wade Davis:

The Clouded Leopard: A Book of Travels (having just seen a clouded leopard for the very first time, at the National Zoo in Washington, I’m looking forward to reading this)

Book of Peoples of the World: A Guide to Cultures, edited by Wade Davis and K. David Harrison (National Geographic, 2008)

The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes

 

A reminder for summer vacation

from author Michael Chabon, writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

As a kid, I was extremely fond of a series of biographies, largely fictional, I’m sure, that dramatized the lives of famous Americans — Washington, Jefferson, Kit Carson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Daniel Boone — when they were children. (Boys, for the most part, though I do remember reading one about Clara Barton.) [I would think this is the COFA series.] One element that was almost universal in these stories was the vast amounts of time the famous historical boys were alleged to have spent wandering with bosom companions, with friendly Indian boys or a devoted slave, through the once-mighty wilderness, the Wilderness of Childhood, entirely free of adult supervision.

Though the wilderness available to me had shrunk to a mere green scrap of its former enormousness, though so much about childhood had changed in the years between the days of young George Washington’s adventuring on his side of the Potomac and my own suburban exploits on mine, there was still a connectedness there, a continuum of childhood. Eighteenth-century Virginia, twentieth-century Maryland, tenth-century Britain, Narnia, Neverland, Prydain — it was all the same Wilderness. Those legendary wanderings of Boone and Carson and young Daniel Beard (the father of the Boy Scouts of America), those games of war and exploration I read about, those frightening encounters with genuine menace, far from the help or interference of mother and father, seemed to me at the time — and I think this is my key point — absolutely familiar to me.

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past. The land ruled by children, to which a kid might exile himself for at least some portion of every day from the neighboring kingdom of adulthood, has in large part been taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by the neighbors.

Chabon writes at the end about the consequences of losing this land:

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible. Recently, my younger daughter, after the usual struggle and exhilaration, learned to ride her bicycle. Her joy at her achievement was rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it — nowhere that I was willing to let her go. Should I send my children out to play?

There is a small grocery store around the corner, not over two hundred yards from our front door. Can I let her ride there alone to experience the singular pleasure of buying herself an ice cream on a hot summer day and eating it on the sidewalk, alone with her thoughts? Soon after she learned to ride, we went out together after dinner, she on her bike, with me following along at a safe distance behind. What struck me at once on that lovely summer evening, as we wandered the streets of our lovely residential neighborhood at that after-dinner hour that had once represented the peak moment, the magic hour of my own childhood, was that we didn’t encounter a single other child.

Even if I do send them out, will there be anyone to play with?

Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted — not taught — to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Read the entire piece here.

Back when Chabon had a website, which I remember a year or two ago, he had a very good piece on kids, Lego, and imagination.  Here’s where it was, in 2006.  Will have to see if I can use the Wayback Machine to get a better link. Aha.  Try this.

(By the way, Chabon is married to Ayelet Waldman, author of the recently published Bad Mother)

Ray Bradbury on libraries

In yesterday’s New York Times, legendary author Ray Bradbury on why, at age 88, he is campaigning hard to save the HP Wright Library in Ventura, California, from state budget cuts:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

According to the article, Mr. Bradbury “spends as much time as he can talking to children in libraries and encouraging them to read.”  As for the internet,

Don’t get him started. “The Internet is a big distraction,” Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

“Yahoo called me eight weeks ago,” he said, voice rising. “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’

“It’s distracting,” he continued. “It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Read the rest of the article here. For a different view, here’s a January 2009 post on closing the library from the Ventura City Manager’s blog.

The One-Straw Revolution

This month the New York Review of Books has published an anniversary edition of The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), about natural farming and permaculture, originally published in 1978 by Rodale Press. The new edition has an introduction by Frances Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet) and a preface by Wendell Berry. Michael Pollan calls the book “one of the founding documents of the alternative food movement, and indispensable to anyone hoping to understand the future of food and agriculture”.

One of the book’s translators and editors, Larry Korn, a student of Masanobu Fukuoka, is beginning a book tour of Washington and Oregon to celebrate the new edition.

The Fukuoka Farming Website includes a number of sustainable farming resources.

An excerpt from The One-Straw Revolution:

Look at this grain! I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw. Then take a look at these fields of rye and barley. This ripening grain will yield about 22 bushels (1,300 pounds) per quarter acre. I believe this matches the top yields in Ehime Prefecture (where I live), and therefore, it could easily equal the top ‘harvest in the whole country…since this is one of the prime agricultural areas in Japan. And yet…these fields have not been plowed for 25 years! …

For 30 years I lived only for my farming and had little contact with people outside my own community. During those years I was heading in a straight line toward a “donothing” agricultural method.

The usual way to go about developing a method is to ask “flow about trying this?” or “How about trying that?”…bringing in a variety of techniques, one upon the other. This is modern agriculture and it only results in making the farmer busier.

My way was opposite. I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming…which results in making the work easier instead of harder. “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?”—that was my way of thinking. By taking this approach, I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide! When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.

The reason that man’s “improved” techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them.

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface.

This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation.

For centuries, farmers have assumed that the plow is essential for growing crops. However, non-cultivation is fundamental to natural farming. The earth cultivates itself naturally by means of the penetration of plant roots and the activity of micro-organisms, small animals, and earthworms.


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.