• 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."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Science with Tom Edison

John Holt, on helping a very young boy learn the names of different words, from How Children Learn:

I was careful, when I told him the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson, something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child does not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.

* * * *

A bit of a confession here from the would-be well-trained Farm School.

Literature-based studies work very well for us, especially for English (what newfangled types call “language arts”), and history. But literature-based science studies have been a bust. First, following The Well-Trained Mind‘s suggestions, with one discipline a year, life science or earth science/astronomy or chemistry or physics, and heavy on the narrating (with written “Narration Pages”) and notebooking (with written “Experiment Pages”). Then, in an effort to make things easier for myself, with more formal programs (Great Science Adventures, Living Learning Books), with fiddly little make-your-own booklets and worksheets. After a while, it occurred to me that while teaching science was more pleasurable for me this way, it wasn’t an interesting or effective way for my kids to learn. In fact, this rather bloodless approach was sucking the fun and fascination out of what would otherwise be very fun and fascinating subjects and ideas. They’re good books and curriculum, just not right for my kids, right now.

After a year or so of mulling the subject, a year in which we unschooled science and the kids learned a good deal (not to difficult to do in the country on the farm when dinnertime conversation tends to revolve around plant and animal genetics anyway) and in which I carefully studied Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook and read all sorts of things, including Natalie Angier’s new The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I realized that young Tom Edison didn’t have programs, curriculum, or lesson plans. No sirree. He just burned down barns and boxcars with his experiments and exasperated his teacher before being sent home to his mother for his education.

I knew we’d have to move away from a well-laid out, book-heavy program for my own sake — ever so much easier to plan and co-ordinate — to a more hands-on method for the sake of my kids (ages 10, eight-and-a-half, and almost seven) — not quite so easy to plan and co-ordinate — to keep them excited about and interested in science, before it turns into incomprehensible drudgery. And dare I say it and sound like an unschooler, but often the kids’ best lessons, and when they learn the most, is when things aren’t Planned – And – Co-ordinated. Of course not. That would be too easy.

This coming year, after much thought and reading, we’re trying something new — heavy on the experiments and experimenting, light on lab reports, narration, and even reading, especially when it comes to biographies and “the history of science” stuff, which I adore but which the kids regard as frilly extras. I figure there’s plenty of time for that later. What there’s little time for now, though, is hooking the kids on the magic and fun of science. And instead of spending the entire year on one facet of science — chemistry or physics or biology, etc. — which the kids with their many interests lose patience with quickly, we’re going to do both chemistry and physics, with the usual natural history thrown in, too; if we were following the WTM framework, we’d be starting our second, more in-depth study of biology, which just might send everyone here around the bend. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option, though I was sorely tempted by Noeo Science for chemistry and/or physics, but in the end realized I didn’t want us to be constrained by someone else’s lesson plans, though I have found some wonderful book suggestions on Noeo’s reading list (including, from Physics I, Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass, How Do You Lift a Lion? which I mentioned the other day; Fizz, Bubble & Flash; and and from Physics II, Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why)).

So here is the non-plan for science this year:

I’m going to take a page from Tom Edison and let the kids become boy and girl wizards. Messy, our-flasks-and-test-tubes-bubble-over experiments galore, no lab notes, and minimal books, mostly for experiments:

the old and dangerous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (which I wrote about here several months ago). Lynx at One-Sixteenth is using The Golden Book too, so we’ll be able to compare bangs and booms shortly.

Our old out-of-print How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen

Two older Dover books already on the shelf: Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner and Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier

Mr. Wizard’s World six-DVD set; though I think I’ll ask Tom to help the day we electrocute the hot dog.

There are so many good experiment books available, new and out-of-print, including a number by Mr. Wizard, aka Don Herbert, and even a dandy Thomas Edison one); I decided to go with what we already have on the shelf.

I ordered the K’NEX Simple Machines Set, and I plan to keep it in the living room and let the kids loose with it, with minimal assistance and guidance from me. Mechanically-minded Daniel will have a field day,

On the bookshelf, just in case:

Physics in a Hardware Store and Physics in a Housewares Store, both by Robert Friedhoffer and both out of print but which I found easily and cheaply secondhand; recommended in Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook. I can’t think of a better way to involve Tom’s carpentry experience and the kids’ love of tools with basic physics principles. And while we’re in the kitchen with the housewares, we can make use of kitchen scientist Harold McGee’s Curious Cook website — “exploring the science of food and its transformations”.

And on the reference shelf, if the kids want more information, though I will try not to push it, because I know that while I prefer to read about science, my kids prefer to live it:

How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond

David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, and the related DVD series which I found in the library system; 26 discs, 13 minutes each.

* * *

I’ll wait to see how this year goes before planning any more science. If the approach works this year with the kids, I have my eye on a couple of books following the same approach for the high school years, Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham. I think the latter would be well paired with the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000, which looks like one of the better chemistry sets available in these toothless times.

Just a bit more from John Holt on How Children Learn:

There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do — bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string. That is, if — and it is a very big if — he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations — and many, even most real life situations are like this — w here there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of educating him.

(L at Schola has been reading John Holt too.)

* * *

Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings:

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science summer school

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science


G is for guitar…and giddy

Our first two back-to-school days, which ended up being out-of-the-house days, proved to be a wonderful way to ease back into the swing of things. The local author reading, and getting to meet him, inspired Laura and she’s been scribbling away ever since, with plans to write up our adventure with the hawk. Afterwards, we dropped off Tom’s lunchbox with plans to head home for lunch ourselves, to find that his current clients had invited us to pick as many apples from their trees as we wished. Since the apples, some crabs and other quite good-sized ones, were already falling off the trees, the kids and I headed to the supermarket, picked up a couple of sandwiches to share and some empty cardboard boxes, and returned to pick apples. Nothing like an apple for the teacher and then some. We’ll press them for cider.

Yesterday it was back to the library for a meeting, home for lunch, and back to town afterwards for an afternoon of music lessons. Laura is taking piano and voice again, Davy has started with voice, and Daniel was absolved from piano lessons for evermore. In place of piano, Daniel, and Davy too, started guitar lessons, and were beyond giddy leaving lessons with their two guitars (one small, the other smaller). They adored the teacher, the lesson, the guitars, the picks, the music (a few chords of “We Will Rock You” to be followed, in the next week or two, by, of course, “Smoke on the Water”), and Davy was excited to learn that their new teacher also knows how to play and teach the banjo, instrument of his dreams for lo these past three years (the teacher and I decided that it would be a better idea to start with the guitar and then move to banjo). They would have played their new instruments in the truck on the way home if I had let them but had to wait until our arrival home, where they played for their sister, their father, and me. Then Davy wandered around until suppertime with his guitar in its case slung across his back, like a teeny tiny itinerant musician.

The boys were up unusually early this morning, to practice the guitar, of course (“I heard you rummaging around in bed so I figured you were still sleeping so I waited until I heard you open the sock drawer,” my almost-seven-year-old Woody Guthrie told me breathlessly, even before his usual “Good morning”, leaving me wondering a) if I really do rummage in my sleep and b) where did that kid learn that word). Later in the day, he spent a good 10 minutes in front the calendar, moaning that it would be “a whole ‘nother week ’til the next lesson”, darn it all, and why can’t we go back tomorrow? I plan on using most of this enthusiasm and interest for the kids’ science studies this year, as the kids explore the physics of sound and music with the help of their new instruments and Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass.

The rest of the day wasn’t nearly exciting, especially as I insisted on getting back to our usual schedule, hitting the books and such. Though we started the day without math books and with a new multiplication board game (from the Frank Schaffer folks), simple and fun. Then moved on to penmanship for the boys, and Laura wrote a letter. We started our new readaloud, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, while the kids decided to map out on the chalkboard what Almanzo’s family’s farmyard must have looked like with the three big barns. Then some world history with Story of the World (volume 3) and my new summertime find, the out-of-print Golden History of the World by Jane Werner Watson, 1955; Davy likes it and its illustrations almost as much he likes guitar lessons. Now that Davy is just about seven, I’ll see if we can get through World War II by the end of the year. I’d like to get through the second part of the 20th century with just Laura thereafter, and I’m mulling over an idea already for her history studies next year, when she’ll begin the cycle again with ancient studies. My idea is something along the lines of “History, heroes, and hubris”; the thought started percolating quite against my will, and after some recent conversations and a radio interview on modern heroes, within the past month, and then just last week I ran across a copy of the May 2007 issue of Calliope Magazine all about the Epic Heroes of ancient history, with a number of articles by editors Rosalie F. Baker and Charles F. Baker (poking around the Calliope website, I learned that a free teacher’s guide is available for that issue and others as a PDF). I’ll have to check History Odyssey ‘s Ancients, Level Three (meant for the rhetoric stage), to see if it fits the general idea of what I’m looking for, or if I’ll have to cobble together something for Laura on my own. Though it’s early days and the plan is just a glimmer in my eye, I’m leaning toward the latter, but using two books HO/Ancients/3 does, Classical Ingenuity: The Legacy of Greek and Roman Architects, Artists, and Inventors and The Classical Companion, both by Callipoe editors Rosalie and Charles Baker. Must see if I can find the books at the library.

Sorry, I think this post is much too rambly. I guess the boys aren’t the only giddy and distracted ones…

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.

Worth reading

o Stephanie at Throwing Marshmallows has a terrific post about Feminism and Homeschooling.

o David Harsanyi of The Denver Post writes that Adults, not boys, have changed. Just a sampling:

What makes The Dangerous Book for Boys somewhat contentious, though, is its implicit assertion that boys and girls are very different. That boys and girls are interested in different things and, gulp, excel at different things as well.

And according to Jim Hamilton, a program coordinator with Colorado 4-H, it’s the adults who need help, not the boys.

Hamilton contends that in his 20 years of involvement with Colorado youth development, boys haven’t changed very much at all. What’s changed, he claims, is the reaction adults have to the activities boys tend to engage in.

“What boys do isn’t necessarily what I’d call dangerous, anyway,” explains the father of four. “But they have a need to push their own limitation. And it hurts them when we won’t allow that to happen. Sometimes it forces them to learn and deal with those limitations on a bigger stage – where it’s much more difficult. Then people overreact. Boys are often on the edge. And that’s basically what adults react to in a poor way.”

o The BBC’s correspondent in America, Justin Webb, this past Saturday, on America’s great faith divide and his visit to the creation museum:

There is nothing remotely convincing about the Creation Museum and frankly if it poses the threat to American science that some American critics claim it does, that seems to me to be as much a commentary on the failings of the scientific establishment as it is on the creationists.

There is a reason, I think, why theocracy will never fly in the United States and it has been touched on, inadvertently, by George Bush himself.

Mr Bush often makes the point that the philosophy of the Islamic radicals, full of hate and oppression, would not be attractive to people who truly had the freedom to choose.

Similarly the philosophy of the Old Testament, so much celebrated by some evangelicals here, has a limited power to enthral free people.

At the Creation Museum, goggle-eyed children watch depictions of the Great Flood in which children and their mums and dads are consumed, because God is cross.

In a nation of kindly moderate people I am not sure this is the future.

I put my faith – in America.

It must be Spring…

because it’s Carnival and fair time! In chronological order,

  • Doc announces that The Country Fair, complete with new look, will be up and running next month, with the first one of the year scheduled for Monday, June 18; submissions are due by Saturday, June 16. Tentative publishing dates for the Fairs are the third Monday of each month. See both of the previous links for how to submit an entry (or two) or even nominate a post you’ve enjoyed on someone else’s blog. (N.B. I’m having a bit of trouble with the Country Fair link, and if you are too you can always go through Doc’s blog or email until things are fixed.)

UPDATED to add: Dawn at By Sun and Candlelight is requesting submissions for her next Field Day, the Late Spring Edition, due by June 6th:

Let’s celebrate these final weeks of late spring, and share the world of nature around us. What’s happening in the garden, woods, fields, by the pond or the shore? How about through your windows or just a step or two outside your back door? Nature happens everywhere, in ways big and little. What does late spring look like where you live? I hope you will consider telling us, for our next Field Day will run on Thursday, June 7th, rain or shine!

Bet you didn’t know I read "Chemical & Engineering News"

Just for the articles, though.

Three of them, in fact, from tomorrow’s issue. The first is on homeschool science curricula, especially high school chemistry:

It’s Monday night at the Strouds’, and David is at the dining room table with his two daughters, Fisher, seven, and Ripley, nine. On this particular evening in February, David is performing an electrolysis experiment using a battery and a penny immersed in water. Monday night is chemistry night, and David and his wife, Annemarie, have invited C&EN to join them for the evening. Fisher and Ripley giggle as bubbles begin to form on the coin.

The Strouds are among a growing number of families in the U.S. who homeschool their children. An estimated 2 million students now are being homeschooled in the U.S., and that number is growing at a rate of 7 to 10% per year, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.

More parents are also deciding to homeschool their children beyond middle school, and as they do so, they are discovering that the availability of already prepared chemistry curricula is quite limited. The situation is especially challenging for secular homeschoolers, who say there are virtually no secular high school chemistry curricula out there for the homeschooling community.

The market is slowly responding to these trends, and several high school chemistry curricula that cater to a diverse audience of homeschoolers now are in development. In addition to helping families teach the fundmental concepts of chemistry, these curricula address an important practical question: How do you carry out lab experiments that are challenging and informative yet safe to be carried out in the home? …

Read the article for the rest, including some more on the programs under development.

Another article is on “Help For Homeschoolers: Opportunities abound for learning science outside the home“:

As awareness of the problem grows, more opportunities for learning science have become available to homeschoolers around the U.S. For example, the Maryland Science Center, in Baltimore, for the past eight years has been offering several weeks of educational programming in September specifically for homeschoolers. Students visit the planetarium, watch IMAX films, participate in discussions of various exhibits, and do hands-on experiments in subjects ranging from biochemistry to archaeology.

In upstate New York, the Cornell Center for Materials Research, in partnership with the Ithaca Sciencenter Museum, offers hands-on materials science workshops for homeschoolers. The workshops are led by Cornell faculty, postdocs, and graduate and undergraduate students. …

The American Chemical Society doesn’t offer any formal programs for homeschoolers, but it offers educational opportunities through its student affiliate groups and other programs. For example, the ACS student affiliates at Waynesburg College, in Pennsylvania, offer a laboratory program in which they do chemistry experiments with homeschoolers. And ACS member C. Marvin Lang, as part of his speaker service tour last November, provided an afternoon of chemistry demonstrations to students and parents of the Marshfield Area Home Educators Association in Marshfield, Wis.

The third article, “Former homeschool students reflect on their educational experiences“, profiles several former homeschoolers who continued on with college studies and careers in science, including Seth Anthon, who

… grew up in rural North Carolina, where the nearest public school was an hour’s drive away. So his mother, who had worked as a teacher, decided to homeschool him. When Anthony reached high school age, his mother began taking a chemistry course at North Carolina State University as a prerequisite for entering pharmacy school. His mom would bring home her assignments, and they would do the chemistry problems together. “Homeschoolers have a tendency to turn all sorts of situations into learning situations,” Anthony says.

For the chemistry labs, Anthony came up with a lot of his own experiments, many based on simple household chemistry. “When you’re doing household labs, you don’t go to the store and buy glacial acetic acid; you use the vinegar you have in your kitchen cabinet,” Anthony says, adding that through his experience he gained a greater appreciation for how chemistry fits in with the real world.

In contrast, he remembers being frustrated with the general chemistry labs when he entered college. “It was very cookbook,” he says. “Everyone was attuned to the procedural way of doing things. I was thinking in a different mind-set.
“Honestly, I can’t say I learned a whole lot about chemistry from the labs,” says Anthony, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Colorado State University.

Supersize me?

“Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters (1967)

“Include me out.”
Samuel Goldwyn

Earlier this week, I discovered I’d been nominated for a blogging award, but being the crabby type and a Marxist (Groucho, not Karl) as well as a Goldwyn Girl, I wrote to the organizers as soon as possible to ask that my nomination be withdrawn. I never heard back from anyone, and voting ended the other day, with Farm School mercifully at the bottom of the pile. Since a few oblique words about the award made it into some of the recent comments here, I thought by way of explanation I’d post the gist of the letter, edited and amended, that I sent as soon as possible:

Dear All,

While I’m very, very pleased that someone likes my blog well enough to nominate it for an award and that a few others would even vote for it, and while I understand the spirit in which the category, SUPER-HOMESCHOOLER (yes, all caps like that) and its description are meant and am accordingly touched and flattered, I’m also exceedingly uncomfortable with both the category and its description. Which is as follows:

“Ever feel like a looser [sic] after reading someone else’s lesson plans, seeing their field trip photos, listening to them talk about what they got done today, or seeing pictures of their children’s accomplishments? You were probably feeling the effects of visiting a SUPER-HOMESCHOOLER’s blog. These are the A-list homeschool parents that just BLOW YOU AWAY with their enthusiasm. We all have our good days, but this blogger has us all beat.”

Oh dear.

First, while I realize the description isn’t supposed to be literal — the only lesson plans I’ve ever posted are those by other homeschooling parents, I haven’t posted any field trip photos (and only recently, in fact, figured out how to use my digital camera), I post long lists of what I’ve done only when I’m making excuses about why I haven’t blogged lately, and certainly can’t take full credit for all of my kids’ accomplishments — I’d hate to think that anything I’ve ever written on the blog or elsewhere would make anyone feel like a loser, loosely or otherwise. And if I have, I certainly don’t want an award for it. I don’t like the idea of comparing, especially another homeschooling mother comparing herself to me, when all of our families, our children, our circumstances, are so different. And while I didn’t start my blog to be an encouragement to others — my family comes first — I didn’t start it to show others up, either; first, I wanted to see if I could master the technology, and then I thought it could be a place where I could record some of the things the kids and I have done, and note possible things we could do, read, watch, and listen to in the future. Along the way, it became a place where I could share interesting bits of information, such as new book titles, resources, and the occasional news article, and a place to put thoughts and opinions that just come spouting out because there’s really no other place to put them.

Plus, I’m just not a Super Homeschooler, or even, like Mary Poppins, Practically Perfect. I don’t have X-ray (let alone 20-20) vision, I could be much more diligent with the kids about certain schoolwork subjects (most of the time, I tend to let life on a farm and in the country, with field guides galore, substitute for the dandy, formal science curriculum that watches us from the shelf), I’m not as consistent with the kids as I’d like to be (as I should be), the kids probably watch too many movies, my house could be cleaner, my backside could be smaller (speaking of supersizing), I’m woefully behind in The Great Conversation about The Great Books, and, to top it off, I haven’t blogged much lately since real life has been so busy. And sometimes the things that I do do well have a habit of backfiring on me, which is why I still have a nine-and-a-half year old who believes mightily in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. If I had to describe the kids and me, I’d call us all “bright and motivated” rather than “gifted and talented”, which I think puts us squarely, and fairly, in the non-Super category.

There’s a reason Farm School wasn’t nominated in the Nitty Gritty category, because I don’t do Nitty Gritty. Both by nature and by nurture, I’m predisposed toward keeping it in rather than letting it all hang out, in part because I’m never sure just who is out there reading this and because I’m not as comfortable sharing our private thoughts and deeds as other bloggers are. I’m purposefully very careful, selective, and stingy about what I choose write on my blog and it’s certainly not a comprehensive record of our days and our homeschooling, not like some other dizzyingly dazzling home educating bloggers (you know you who you are, and you know who I think you are, too), including single working parents, each of whom makes me look like a piker by comparison.

If I overwhelm any readers with my enthusiasm, it’s probably because I prefer to write about our high points, which just seem more interesting to write about. Which automatically means the low points don’t get much coverage, so my blog really isn’t a fair way to assess our family’s homeschooling or our life. And to think of using it as a measure for anyone else’s homeschooling is just crazy-making. As I write in every so often to a couple of online homeschooling groups, my idea of following any method is to take what works fand leave the rest behind, far far far behind, without qualms or guilt or comparisons. Don’t make yourself and your kids crazy trying to do everything in The Book or The Program, The Guide or The Website, and certainly not on Another Woman’s Blog.

All of which is a very long way around of saying thanks so very, very much for the honor, but I’d be much more comfortable as an observer than as a nominee. Anyway, that’s what makes horse races.

Some weekend questions for homeschoolers in general, and Charlotte Mason types in particular

from a couple of children’s literature blogs I enjoy:

The first bunch from Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book, from his blog Read Roger; and the second bunch from Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy.

My blogging has been sporadic as it is, likely even more so over the holiday weekend and with calves possibly popping like Peeps, so I’ll try to get back to this with a proper post in (I hope) the next few days. In the meantime, the short answer to Liz’s question is “Of course not!”

A late winter Field Day

Here, with great thanks to Dawn!

Ciao to the Chick

I get kind of nervous when military family types say things like “I hate to drop a bomb like this…but…”.

Jill, aka The Crib Chick, has decided to stop posting to both of her blogs (here and here),

When I started this blog, almost two years ago, it was a sort of extension of our circumstances; new location, new place in life.

Now, the ending of it is much the same. Different time in life, different commitments, different needs.

I understand completely, but I still feel all sniffly. The Crib Chick has been on the blogroll at right since I started blogging, and on my list of favorite reads even longer. I don’t know whether she plans to zap the blogs or just discontinue posting, so you might want to sashay over and catch up if you’re not already a fan, before any possible zapping. Breezy, wisecracking, homeschooling, hip, and always full of heart, she — and her adventures with her family — will be missed. Thank you for sharing your family, your friendship, and the books and movies in your life (and my boys will thank you forever for The Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library).

Great good luck, CC, to you, Mr. Crib Chick, and the Peeps in your new place in life…

Bits and bobs

Blogging will be intermittent and sporadic for the next, possibly long, while. We’re planning to visit my parents, and Tom and I have a ton each to do before we get on the planes (not to mention locating 100mL/100g/3oz. mini bottles of unguents, potions, and toothpaste for onboard use).

Here are some fun and useful things I’ve found in the past few days:

The indefatigable Kelly at Big A little a has ready the January issue of The Edge of the Forest online magazine of children’s literature; of special note is the article on leveled reading, Helping Children Choose Books Beyond Level by Franki, a teacher and mother of two:

I am a mother of a first grader and a tenth grader. Both have learned to read during the era of, what I call, Level-Mania. I want both of my daughters to have more than going higher/higher, faster/faster in their reading lives. I want them to find the joy in reading and to read because it sustains them. I think it is time that we think about what messages these leveling systems are giving to our children. What are we teaching them about lifelong reading, book choice, and learning? What can they learn if they are scoring points and getting prizes for reading? How can they fall in love with a character when their goal is to get to the next level?

Next month, February 10, is the Edge’s anniversary issue.

LaMai, a single working indefatigable mother in NYC, has a great post about why homeschooling is for you; take a look at her previous post to see that for her son, homeschool rarely means staying home.

I know there are other things I meant to post about, but after our third trip to town yesterday (morning/appointment; afternoon/homeschool gym day for the kids; evening/4H meeting for Laura followed by remnants of homeschool support group meeting), this is all I can recall for now. Besides, I’m supposed to be buying five plane tickets. Back with more as I remember…

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.

Grammar Geek

The recent issue of the Core Knowledge Foundation‘s e-newsletter, Common Knowledge, arrived in my inbox this morning. Found a very interesting article about the sad history of grammar instruction in America, The Naturalist Fallacy and the Demise of Grammar Instruction (with Practical Advice on Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics) by Robert D. Shepherd, the CK Educational Materials Director, which you can read here in its entirety. Shepherd writes that he owes debts to both CK founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and CK board member Diane Ravitch, who had asked Shepherd what teachers today could do about the teaching of grammar.

Shepherd writes,

The traditional grammar textbook disappeared because of the emergence of a new orthodoxy regarding child language acquisition. The orthodox belief promulgated in our education schools today is that grammatical ability is not something that has to be taught. A child’s grammar, or so many educational theorists have come to believe, is something that develops naturally, without intervention by teachers. …

Where did the education theorists get this idea that a child’s grammar develops naturally, with little or no outside intervention? They got it by listening at the keyholes of linguists. … It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, however, that the anti-grammar camp came into possession of the big guns that would blow grammar out of the classroom. Beginning with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957 and continuing to the present day, Noam Chomsky of MIT led what can only be described as a revolution in linguistics, one consequence of which was the widespread belief that language acquisition is largely an autonomic process dependent upon unconscious interactions between an innate, internal language acquisition device and the raw material of the child’s linguistic environment. It was this idea that led educators in the National Council of Teachers of English and editors in the major textbook houses to move decisively against traditional grammar instruction. … Like many great thinkers, Chomsky started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns, within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate, and this learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has not been directly taught [all emphases in original]. …

So, education professors began teaching their students that grammar textbooks contained nothing but irrelevant skill and drill, that the internal language-learning mechanism was autonomic, that “teaching grammar” made as much sense as teaching breathing, that what one should do was expose kids to language and let their grammar develop naturally.

There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, however. As Alexander Pope famously said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the education theorists’ bit of knowledge of linguistics turned out to be very dangerous indeed. Chomsky was right about language acquisition, but the theory developed by the education professors in Chomsky’s name is wrong in ways that turn out to be crucial.

Shepherd goes on to talk about children’s brains:

The innate, or inborn, language-learning device is such a thicket of neural connections. Beginning at about the age of nine or ten and continuing until kids are around the age of fourteen, the internal mechanisms for intuiting syntactic, phonological, and morphological structures start breaking down. So, for example, if a small child is exposed to the liquid l sound in Russian, he or she will grow up being able to produce that sound, even if he or she does not learn Russian until much later in life. However, if a child is not exposed to that sound, then he or she will never be able to produce it as an adult. The machinery for hearing and producing that sound, that distinctive feature of a possible language, is weeded out. There is a window of opportunity for learning linguistic structures — for setting the parameters of the internal grammar. After that window is closed, it cannot be reopened.

Here’s the problem: if a child has “learned” a nonstandard version of his or her grammar, it is difficult or impossible for that child, past the age of ten or so, to learn a different, standard version using only the innate language-learning machinery, for that machinery has to a large extent stopped working by that time. That’s why it is much harder for an adult to learn a new language through simple immersion than it is for a child to do so.

Shepherd then asks, “how can we, in light of current linguistic knowledge, address the problem of teaching students how to avoid errors in grammar and usage or the problem of how to style shift when it is useful to do so? This remains very much an open question”:

If you are a teacher, if you are in the trenches, if you face in your classrooms, every day, students whose syntax rarely exceeds the complexity of that used to be found in Dick and Jane readers, students for whom “Me and Jose love playing video games” is perfectly grammatical, students who sprinkle commas through their writing as though they were salt and for whom commas and end punctuation are interchangeable, what can you do, now, to improve your teaching of grammar, usage, and mechanics?

Unfortunately, contemporary textbooks will be of little help. As I mentioned earlier, the traditional grammar handbooks have all but disappeared, and at any rate, most of those were practically useless anyway because they dealt primarily with taxonomy of forms. In contemporary textbooks, especially those of the so-called “integrated language arts” variety, grammar instruction is a random, hit-and-miss, willy nilly affair. Typically, a few activities employing traditional terminology are scattered, according to no rhyme or reason, in exercises appearing at the ends of literary selections in integrated language arts and composition textbooks. These exercises are not, typically, presented in a systematic, incremental matter, and the learning that results from having students do them is minimal.

This is where a home educating parent seems to hold a distinct advantage over the average public school teacher. We have a wealth of materials available — admittedly, some better than others, and not all secular — in a discipline that is roundly ignored in the public school arena, the latest of which is Tamy Davis’s excellent, new Growing with Grammar program, which is a wonderful follow-up to Jessie Wise’s First Language Lessons, which gets those neural connections while they’re still alive and snapping. Yoohoo, Mr. Shepherd…