• 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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Define "recently", please

From a post today on The New York Times politics blog, The Caucus (emphasis mine):

Will Iowa’s conservative Christians turn out in force for Mike Huckabee? …

Despite a negligible organization here last summer, Mr. Huckabee pulled off his second place finish in the Ames straw poll in August with help from the strong support of Iowa’s home-school families. It is unclear how many evangelical Christians in Iowa teach their children at home — some estimates are over 10,000 — but the network of families is tightly connected and highly motivated. They come together in groups and online to share curriculum information, form sports teams, and stage other activities. And many, aware that homeschooling was illegal in almost every state until recently, fear that if they relax their vigilance politically[,] teachers’ unions will push to take away their rights.

While you could hold The Times‘s feet to the fire for such an inane comment and wish for a little more old-time New Yorker-style fact checking, I’m fairly certain that the little gem above resulted not only from the fact that Times reporters are so darned busy sorting out just how Stewart and Colbert are going to tap dance around the writers’ strike, but also from an organization that happens to be mentioned in the post’s very next paragraph, an organization you would think (are meant to think) has home schoolers’ best interests at heart. Heck, the organization even has the words “home school” right there up front in its name — Home School Legal Defense Association. So you might, just might, be forgiven for thinking that they want what’s best for homeschoolers.

But you’d be wrong. I’ll admit that when we first started home schooling, very abruptly partway through Laura’s first grade year, I had no idea of the lay of the land and which way was up, so in addition to a few particularly lousy curricula choices, I also signed up for a year with HSLDA. It took me about a year, until the subscription renewal arrived, to get my bearings and figure out that the organization has a vested interest in keeping homeschoolers fearful. Because the more afraid we are, and the more we’re made aware of just how far on the edge our educational choices are, the more willing we’re going to be, supposed to be, to cough up $100 each year. Do the math when HSLDA says it “is tens of thousands of families united in service together, providing a strong voice when and where needed.” That strong voice is supposed to help all of the little people, those home education families with quavering voices quaking in their shoes.

And for shame trotting out that ancient NEA bugbear. The determined but ineffectual old dears have been trotting out the same anti-home education resolution annually at the big convention since 1988, and HSLDA knows it. By the way, does anyone else find it amusing, even without considering HSLDA reaction, that Mike Huckabee and the NEA get along so well?

Once I’m again, I’m reminded that Raymond Moore, the pioneering home schooler who with his wife established The Moore Foundation and who died last year, was right when he wrote his White Paper on “The Ravage of Home Education Through Exclusion By Religion” 10 years ago, all about HSLDA. The last two links include a lot to read, but are most worthwhile. Mr. Moore, who was 80 or so when he wrote his White Paper, refused to quake and quaver or put up with HSLDA nonsense.

New Hampshire, here they come. You can have ’em.

If it’s January 2nd,

then tomorrow must be the Iowa caucus. And just in time for the last leg of the horrendously expensive marathon that is American politics, suze has put together a new blog, Homeschoolers For …, with the tagline, “Because there is no such thing as ‘the homeschool vote’ “.

Speaking of which, don’t miss the lovely, talented, and funny* Mrs. G.’s nifty campaign button.

Updated to add: *And incredibly generous, too. Thanks!

Home schooling for homebodies

It’s hard to home school when you’re not home much. I wrote last week that “I’m hoping to get back into a homebody routine again, with plenty of time for schooling at home (instead of out and about schooling, as we’ve been doing)”. With various lessons, rehearsals, and meetings (usually mine) occupying our Wednesdays and Thursdays, the rest of the week has become more precious.

We’ve fallen into a comfortable routine on the days we are at home, well, not including the hour or more it takes us to do winter livestock chores. Davy has been interested in learning more about Natives; what he would really like is to wake up one morning in an Iroquois longhouse c1600, but there’s only so much I can manage. Instead I pulled out Evan-Moor’s History Pockets: Native Americans. The kids work on their pockets while I read aloud, the latest installment of Paddle-to-the-Sea or some of our Lewis and Clark books. History Pockets has sections on eight nations: Inuit, Tlingit, Nez Perce, Maidu, Sioux, Navajo, Iroquois, and Seminole. Because I always need to fine tune and fiddle, I’m adding extra pockets — as well as increasing the challenge for Laura — by incorporating material from Donna Ward’s Canada’s Natives Long Ago and focusing on the nearby Cree and Blackfoot nations. The kids thought it would be fun to bind their pockets, and also their pocket dictionaries, with strips of leather from the deer and moose hides we’ve had tanned over the years. And Davy hauled back a deer skull found in the woods near our corrals so that he can make something (I hope not a candelabra for his mother for Christmas) out of it. And arrowheads out of the rest of the skull. As long as it all stays out of my house, I told him.

The kids have been going hunting with Tom early every morning just after sunrise, and again before sunset in the evenings. One morning the boys were trailing Tom when they came upon a doe and a fawn. To their great surprise, and the boys’ initial concern, the doe started approaching them, stopping when she was about 20 feet away. So far, no doubt to the great disappointment of my venison-loving mother, these have been more extended nature walks than food gathering expeditions.

Davy found a pair of homemade traditional mukluks, complete with fur and decorative beading, at the Goodwill shop, and I was happy with the price of $5. But he wants to be able to wear them outdoors and they have the same leather on the bottom as on the top, so we found a cobbler who is able to add rubber soles to the bottom and also warm liners. We visited him at his workshop yesterday, and he reports that they should be ready by next week, in time for Davy’s birthday.

There were a couple of warm days, but it went right back to being cold enough to skate on the slough, and when the kids finally make it back in the house we drink hot chocolate and eat Anna’s Swedish spiced biscuits with almond (thank you, Ikea). We’ve found that the slough is enormous, covering the better part of our neighbor’s pasture, meandering around for over a mile, past muskrat lodges, dried cattails and reeds, the occasional startled deer and snowy owl.

I’m rearranging the linen closet, still moving books around on the new shelves, helping the kids boil and shape their new mouthguards (I learn something new every day), and planning Davy’s festivities and figuring out when to cook the turkey, next Thursday not being anything approaching a holiday around here.

To make the most out of all of our time in the truck, we’ve been listening to audio CDs, including

Story of the World: Early Modern Times, volume 3 (I see a new edition is coming out in January)

Naxos Audiobooks’ Famous People in History, volume 1 (Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, Columbus, Horatio Nelson, Shakespeare, and Mozart) and volume 2 (with Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, George Washington, Beethoven, Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, and Ghandi); and if you’re as nutty as I am and can burn CDs with your computer, you can remix the two volumes so that all the stories are in chronological order.

And, because you’re never too young for Stan Freberg, Stan Freberg Presents The United States Of America. I finally broke down the other week and moved it from my wish list to my shopping cart and hit “send”. And am I ever glad I did.

Back to school

Tuesday is our first day back to school. I don’t get overly agitated by use of the word “school”, and I don’t go out of my way to avoid it, which is why I don’t bother with “back to not school” or “not back to school” or “back to homeschool” constructions. I liked school, adored it really, and so did Tom. Part of the reason we pulled Laura out partway through first grade is that we didn’t want to her to start loathing the idea of school.

While I had planned on the usual sort of first-day-back activities — admiring new school supplies and some fun new books and CDs — the local library made other plans, inviting an Alberta author who specializes in stories about farm life in the forties and his career as a Mountie. Since these are the sort of old-fashioned true-life tales the kids very much enjoy, I decided it would be a dandy way to mark the beginning of the new year. But I’m fairly certain there won’t be too many other kids, home schooled or otherwise, in attendance, and even with me we’ll probably be on the younger side of the age spectrum.

Wednesday won’t find the kids gathered around the kitchen table with their math and grammar books either. We’ll be back at the library, since I have a meeting to help plan its big 75th anniversary party, another nifty project for the kids to help with, considering that the library really is our home away from home. Later in the day, piano and voice lessons begin.

So we’ll gather around the kitchen table with the math and spelling books on Thursday, in our one-room schoolhouse. I’ve always had a fondness for one-room schoolhouses, probably dating back to the Little House books. I can see one from my kitchen window — though it’s now a neighbor’s grainery — the very one after which we’ve named our home school.

* * *

“To fit the individual to live and to function in the institutional life of his day.”

This statement on the purpose of education kept bouncing about in my head. We’d had to memorize it at Normal [teacher training] School along with the bit about all learning being specific. But how, I wondered when I faced my first class, was I to achieve this in Willowgreen School?

In the first place these children could function pretty well already. From the smallest to the largest they could milk cows, feed them, clean out the barn, harness and drive horses, burn Russian thistle, plough, plant, and harvest. From their mothers the girls learned how to sew and bake and even how to deliver babies. The one bitter lesson they had to learn and I couldn’t teach them was how to exist without funds in the harshest climate in the world.

But I realized that even in that small group there would be some who didn’t want to be farmers. Who had a compulsion to get out of this mess into an environment where people lived like human beings. How about them?

For many years the old cry “Go West, young man” had been completely reversed so that New York, Toronto, Boston, and other eastern cities were filled with young people from the West seeking careers in journalism, advertising, drama, broadcasting, and business. How could I help prepare them to fit in to this world of culture, competition, and status seeking?

To complicate my problem the “modern trend” in education had finally seeped up to Saskatchewan so that the Department of Education had made extensive changes in its curriculum. The history courses, for instance, had been completely transformed to put more emphasis on living than on dying. Instead of nice, clean-cut facts about wars and generals and kings, such as I’d learned in public school, I was supposed to teach about such vague things as the development of towns, fairs, and guilds. And it wasn’t to be called by the opprobrious name of History any more. Combined with Geography it had become Social Studies.

Similarly other subjects had been mutilated. Instead of notes to be dictated, copied, and memorized there was all this nonsense about projects and research. To further compound my confusion, no textbooks had yet been produced to cover the new approach. I had to get by with a tattered set of readers, some spellers, and the good old Elementary Arithmetic, parts I and II.

The library consisted of a book by James Oliver Currwood, a big tome called “Beautiful Joe’s Paradise” and, of all things, a green-covered volume entitled “White Slavery — The Horrible Traffic in Young Women”. I removed it from the collection.

I solved the problem in the only practical way possible. After a couple of hours of futile fussing over a time-table that would include all the subjects for all the grades, I chucked the whole business and decided to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Naturally, the four beginners who couldn’t read or write a word were my first, biggest, and most challenging task. What I did with them in Grade One would affect their whole school career. So I gave them about one-third of my teaching time. …

All things considered, teaching those beginners to read gave me more downright satisfaction than anything else I’ve ever done. They couldn’t read a word when I began with them, and when I finished each could stand up beside his seat and read words and sentences and stories. That’s the kind of progress you can see.

But finding something for them to do while I was busy with the other grades presented a real problem. Thank Heaven for plasticine! Each child had a tattered match box full of it and a piece of oilcloth to roll it on. After each lesson out came the sticky green stuff and they proceeded to model the animals featured in the lesson [“The Little Red Hen”]. The first time this happened, I found little Sarah Friesen with a perfectly proportioned pig. So amazed was I that I almost asked her the silly question “Did you make this yourself?”, until I realized that it would be equally amazing if her neighbour had done it for her. Her skill at drawing turned out to be equally startling. From what far-off ancestor had such a talent come?

And at the conclusion of each number-word lesson they took our their little post-shaped pegs, coloured green and red, and practised counting or whatever else took their fancy. Sometimes I’d glance over and see a tired head resting on a skinny arm and the weary, undernourished owner fast asleep. This was the best seat work of all.

Just moving across the room from grade to grade, reader to reader, took up the full morning. Most of the afternoon went in the same way with arithmetic. For reading and arithmetic are the two subjects on which you can’t skimp without bad trouble later.

What about the other subjects? Well, my stolen encyclopaedia took care of them. I’m not fool enough to divulge the name of this set of books (I don’t want to get a bill at this late date) but I will say that they are the finest every printed.

And right here I’d like to say a word for encyclopaedias in general and for the men who reap calumny for their efforts to sell them from door to door. The value of a good encyclopaedia to a family is second only to that of good parents. “Look it up,” is the best counsel an inquisitive youngster can get from an oldster. Which is larger, New York or Tokyo? Look it up. What is a crustacean? Find out for yourself. Who was president following McKinley? It’s in the book.

It’s also a fact that few people go out and buy this handy home pedagogue of their own volition. Like insurance, books aren’t bought; they are sold. And of all the hard things to sell in this world an encyclopaedia set is the hardest. A man who buys a new are every year, whose liquor bill runs into three figures, and who wouldn’t be caught dead in last year’s suit, will kick a book salesman into the snow and be horribly indignant, because he may have been “taken” for a couple of hundred. . . .

But to get back to my pilfered volumes. I still have them, and besides saving my life at Willowgreen School, they’ve been manhandled to tatters by my own five children. In the front fly-leaf is a statement to the effect that the purpose of the work is to inspire ambition, provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style, stimulate the imagination, and thus lead to broader fields of knowledge. Amen!

Besides all this, they are easy for any child of Grade Five or better to read or understand.

So, to fill the spaces between arithmetic, reading, spelling and grammar lessons, I assigned research from the encyclopaedia. The pupils looked up a subject, read what there was to read about it, and wrote a report. At first their efforts were pretty bad, but gradually they became surprisingly adept. Actually, each child spent about 80 per cent of his time working on his own. There’s just a chance they gained in self-reliance more than they lost in lack of attention from me.

from Why Shoot the Teacher, 1965, by Max Braithwaite (1911-1995), an account of his first teaching assignment in a rural Saskatchewan one-room schoolhouse in 1933 and the first volume in his autobiographical trilogy; next came Never Sleep Three in a Bed (1969), followed by The Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car (1971), which won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Braithwaite was a Saskatchewan boy himself, born and raised in Nokomis.

Braithwaite sold his first article, a collaboration with a friend, to Maclean’s magazine in 1937; it was a critique of the Saskatchewan education system entitled “School Drought”. With his half of the check, he bought a secondhand typewriter and never looked back. After a stint in the Canadian Navy during World War II, he earned his living thereafter as a freelance writer.

For more on the life and works of the very funny, very moving Max Braithwaite, click here and here.

Why safer isn’t always better

Listening to CBC Radio’s “Sounds Like Canada” show last week (podcast here; let me know if the link doesn’t work), I heard summer host Kevin Sylvester interview Matt Hern about the new U.S. edition of his book, Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better, out last month in paperback; it was published in Canada last summer, but both Amazon.ca and Chapters list it with 4-6 week and 3-5 week availability, never a good sign, I’ve found.

The radio conversation, which was continued on today’s “Sounds Like Canada” show, and subject of the book, are right in line with my own thoughts about childhood fun, danger, acceptable risk, responsibility, and independence. From the publisher’s website:

From warnings on coffee cups to colour–coded terrorist gauges to ubiquitous security cameras, our culture is obsessed with safety.

Some of this is drive by lawyers and insurance, and some by over–zealous public officials, but much is indicative of a cultural conversation that has lost its bearings. The result is not just a neurotically restrictive society, but one which actively undermines individual and community self–reliance. More importantly, we are creating a world of officious administration, management by statistics, absurd regulations, rampaging lawsuits, and hygenically cleansed public spaces. We are trying to render the human and natural worlds predictable and calculated. In doing so, we are trampling common discourse about politics and ethics.

Hern asserts that safer just isn’t always better. Throughout Watch Yourself, he emphasizes the need to rethink our approach to risk, reconsider our fixation with safety, and reassert individual decision–making.

Much more conversation on the radio than the website about the effect of all this caution on our children.

Looking up the book and author online, I was interested to learn that six years ago Matt Hern founded the Purple Thistle Centre for Youth Arts & Activism, a “deschool” in Vancouver, BC with “alternative ways of taking in information or learning skills”. Hern has written more about his thoughts of learning and deschooling in two books, the out-of-print Deschooling Our Lives (shades of Ivan Illich) and Field Day: Getting Society Out of School.

On a more lighthearted note on the subject of danger, I ran across this post, The Borderline Sociopathic Book for Boys, at the new-to-me and very enjoyable blog Sippican Cottage. The post has inspired Sippican’s new blog, The Borderline Sociopathic Blog for Boys, guided by the words of Mark Twain, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.” And, just in time for back-to-school season, don’t miss Sippican’s post last week on schools and education.

letters to the editor

A couple of different responses to The New York Times article on unschooling, Nov. 26 — one ahem, one amen:

To the Editor:

I am shocked and saddened to read about the growing numbers of parents who are joining the unschooling movement.

I consider “child-led learning” to be an incredibly foolhardy philosophy. Not even older teenagers, much less the very young, should be put in the position of making unalterable decisions regarding their future welfare.

Achieving a satisfying and rewarding career is tough enough for those with a mainstream education that encompasses the breadth and depth of subject matter.

Many unschooled children may very well become deeply disappointed when, as adults, they find that the doors leading to exciting endeavors in disciplines like science, medicine and technology, among others, are forever closed to them.

Somehow, tossing precious potential to the winds seems a costly and irresponsible way to provide a freedom-filled childhood.

Mary K.

and this:

To the Editor:

We are home-schooling our children. Although we’ve opted to pursue a classical, college preparatory approach to our children’s education, we know many “unschooling” families, including several whose unschooled children have gone on to college and who seem to be well-adjusted adults leading happy, productive lives.

We see no reason to heed the concern and call for regulation expressed by Prof. Luis Huerta of Columbia University. As your article noted, there is little data suggesting that the unschooled population is at risk.

Also, given how many barely literate children graduate from government-run and supervised schools each year, it would be imprudent to divert the attention of our legislators and officials toward unschoolers.

We would rather see our taxes used to address the well-documented and distressing state of our country’s schools and the millions of children who leave them unable to pursue basic college work or to perform skills necessary to support themselves.

Margaret M.
Charles S.

Home Schooling

Carol Windley on deciding to become a writer: “I love the way language can be used to create a faithful facsimile of real people living real lives, although changed, of course, by fiction’s magical prism. As a child I fell into the world of books with great relief and joy — in a book’s pages, life made sense. Perhaps it’s a natural process to go from reading to writing, to want to join in that wonderful community of writers and words. Besides, it happens to be the only thing I can do reasonably well.”

I’ve been a fan of Carol Windley‘s writing since discovering her first book shortly after moving to Canada 12 years ago. So I was thrilled to hear this summer that her newest book, Home Schooling, a collection of short stories, had just been published.

No, not about home education the way you might expect. And not nonfiction. Ms. Windley’s latest is about looking “at how family is the place where we first learn about relationships and community,” she said in a recent interview. She continued, “Parents hope to give their children a sense of family history as well as certain attitudes and values and while children are very receptive, very willing to learn, they’re also very critical and sceptical. In a child’s imagination, received wisdom can undergo startling changes. And in a family, everything is fluid and mutable, anyway, as a result of personality and temperament and circumstance, so trying to give of a sense of this in the fictional families in Home Schooling became my main concern.”

Impatient for my interlibrary loan copy to arrive, I’ve been happy to discover two recent interviews, the one mentioned above and this one with the CBC; happier still to learn that she’s working on another novel. Even in Canada Carol Windley has been rather overlooked, maybe because of the spans between books. It’s been eight years since her last book, the novel Breathing Underwater, and that came out five years after her debut work, the short story collection Visible Light. But now Home Schooling is one of the five shortlisted titles for this year’s Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced on November 7th (on live television no less), and I’m hoping that Ms. Windley will get more of the attention she deserves.

Carol Windley on what she would do with the Giller prize money ($40,000 CAN) if she wins: “If I were lucky enough to win, the first thing I’d do would be to go to a bookstore and buy a completely scandalous quantity of books. I’d also do what I think would be at the top of any writer’s wishlist: buy the necessary time in which to write.”