• 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.

The latest book buzz, or, For whom the bell tolls

Via wisteria, this Washington Post article, “Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway?: With Shelf Space Prized, Fairfax Libraries Cull Collections”, about literary classics on the chopping block in Fairfax County, Virginia, libraries:

You can’t find Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or The Education of Henry Adams at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson’s Final Harvest? Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.

It’s not that the books are checked out. They’re just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.

Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.

Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region’s largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.

Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system’s return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves — and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone — even if they are classics.

Biggest buzz? If you want to give yourself a truly buzzing headache, don’t miss the “bye bye” book list on the sidebar.

And via author and home educating father James Bartholomew comes the recent news from The Independent that “Millions of adults have such poor reading skills that they will struggle to keep up with karaoke lyrics at Christmas parties this year, government research has found”.

Oh dear.

Happy New Year [aka the Cybils shortlists are here!]

So happy new year, happy sledding, and happy reading ahead!

We’re off sledding today with friends from out of town, so in the meantime I’ll point you toward the Cybils website, where the five finalists for each of the children’s literature categories are being posted today. First up — Poetry!

It was a pleasure and an honor, not to mention a lot of hair-tearing hard work, to serve on the poetry nominating panel alongside Bruce, eisha, Elaine, and Sylvia, and under the able stewardship of Susan. And we had nowhere near the number of books to consider that some of the other panelists did. I’d also like to thank my three guinea pigs in the target demographic, who devoured about as many poems as candy canes in the past month. A special thanks to Anne Boles Levy and Kelly Herold for coming up with the idea of the Cybils and organizing everything.

I’ll have to figure out what we can and can’t post about our choices and negotiations, and write up a post or two on the consideration process, which I believe another blogger (I don’t think on the poetry panel) compared to “sweating blood”.

Another bonus of the Cybils: just before Christmas, the guinea pigs and I delivered a box of chocolates and some of the lovely hardcover children’s poetry books of 2006 to a surprised and delighted librarian.

Christmas week reading: "lovely interesting discussions"

My Christmas week reading so far:

Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik (thanks, Mom and Pop); my Upper West Side past and rural Canadian prairie present run into each other:

In my experience, at least, it is liberal parents who tend to be the most socially conservative — the most queasy at the endless ribbon of violence and squalor that passes for American entertainment, more concerned to protect their children from it. One migh have the impression that it is the Upper West Side atheist and the Lancaster County Amish who dispute the prize for who can be most obsessive about having the children around the table at six p.m. for a homemade dinner from farm-raised food. Morals and manners proceed in twisting spirals of contradiction more often than in neat sandwiches of sameness, and the attitudes of the prohibitive and the secular end up resembling each other. We try to find a way to say grace every night., too, although in our own way. We hold hands, and clink glasses.

The Making of Pride and Prejudice, found in the Deluxe Gold-Embossed Cloth Slipcase (wowee!) of the Pride & Prejudice 10th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition (a gift to myself, double wowee!); from Chapter 5, Music, an interview with composer Carl Davis:

Q: What were you trying to say with the opening music?
A: There were two main things I wanted to communicate. The first was to pick up the essence of the book — its wit and vitality, its modern feel, something of the character of Elizabeth and her family. I worked through something very lively and bright for this and then, without my being conscious of it, a slight hunting refrain crept in — which, of course, echoes one of the main drives of the book, the hunt for husbands! And this was linked with my second theme, which was marriage and affairs of the heart. This is what the story is about. …

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (one of my presents to Tom, which I couldn’t resist picking up before he did); from the title piece, the transcript of a 1981 BBC interview for the program Horizon:

Looking at a bird [my father] says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portugese it’s a . . . in Italian a . . . ,” he says “in Chinese it’s a . . . , in Japanese a . . . ,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name if that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

He had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it — I remember this — it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody nows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding — he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early. … So that’s the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions, no pressure, just lovely interesting discussions.

By the book, with not-so-great expectations

Last week JoVE and I had an off-blog discussion about great teachers of the institutional variety, and the general consensus was that the hallmark of a great teacher is a love for children, along with a deep and abiding belief in children’s abilities. And then a few days later I read the thoughtful posts by Kelly at Big A little a and Monica Edinger at educating alice (don’t miss the comments sections, either) about this Washington Post article, “Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big”, on the latest from the reading experts. Post writer Valerie Strauss starts off,

If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they’d all be reading Proust.

Most don’t.

So why, reading experts ask, do schools expect children to read — and love to read — when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?

Well, some adults do like to read exceedingly difficult books, or rather — and more to the point — challenging books, ones that make them think. Those who can’t puzzle their way through alone often search out reading groups and books clubs, through friends, libraries, and even online and via television and the radio. As Monica correctly points out,

Most of all I’m troubled by her generalization (boy do I hate generalizations) that students are given material that is too hard for them. One of the bedrock ideas of my personal pedagogy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which he described as “… the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978.) That is, I guide my students through readings that would be perhaps a tad too challenging for them on their own. So the idea that teachers shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t assign books that need support, that are a bit beyond their students’ comfort levels disturbs me greatly. This is such an exciting way to both teach and learn. This is how we learn to appreciate literature, to dig deep into it, to learn how to read, really, really, really read!

Articles like this make me ever more aware of the differences between the way I was educated (at two NYC private schools very similar to the one where Monica teaches), the way most children are educated in the North American public system, and the education I want for my own children, where five-year-olds can strike up a friendship with and appreciation for Shakespeare and Beowulf. I still have fond memories of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 11th grade English, even though some of us initially rolled our eyes upon finding that title in the course syllabus. By the end of the year, however, everyone realized that the skillful Mr. Z. had shown us an entirely new work, far from the simple young children’s book we remembered from our childhoods. Fortunately, Mr. Z., who also had The Member of the Wedding and Pale Fire on the syllabus, was not a reading expert:

Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students’ reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child’s motivation.

“If you made me education magician and I had one thing that I could pull off, it would be that every kid in this country had a desk full of books that they could actually read accurately, fluently, with comprehension,” he said.

Mr. Allington, meet education magician The Marvellous Marva, aka Marva Collins. But you don’t need magic powers to understand that the usual reading instruction/reading education argument is flawed; rather than supplying fifth graders in Detroit and Baltimore with dumbed down twaddle, why not teach them to read properly in the early years and then give them inspiring, well-trained teachers who understand, appreciate, and know how to share good literature with their charges? As Mrs. Collins wrote, with Civia Tamarkin, almost 25 years ago in Marva Collins’ Way,

The curriculum changed with the passing of each fad. And the textbooks changed. Somebody, somewhere decided to water them down. Textbooks were being written two years below the grade level they were intended for. Why? Because students couldn’t read. … Instead of challenging students with materials that might improve their skills, the new books made it easier, using more pictures and fewer words. And simpler words. One textbook that used enormous and apprehension in a story came out in a revised edition that replaced those words with big and fear. The standards fell lower and lower.

On the subject of comprehension, here’s the Marvellous Marva approach (not so coincidentally not vetted by most reading experts); you can feel her love for “her” children shining through:

On the second and fourth Fridays of the month Marva chose a book for each child, handing out copies of The Jungle Book, Pride and Prejudice, O. Henry’s Tales, Mysterious Island, Spring Is Here, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Great Expectations, among others. Marva seemed to dispense the books arbitrarily. However, her policy was the older a child, the more difficult the book, even if the child’s reading level was not quite high enough. Children used to failure needed goals if they were going to succeed. That was her rationale for giving Theodore, her twelve year old with the third grade reading ability, one of the thickest books on the shelf, Moby Dick.

“Hey, Mrs. Collins, I got the wrong book.”

“No, sweetheart, I gave you the right book, Moby Dick.”

“But it’s got so many pages and so many words on a page. It’s got no pictures. This is a book for big kids.”

“I think you’re big enough.”

“Naw, in the old school I always got easy books.”

“Well, in this school we don’t give young men like you easy books. We don’t expect you to do the same work the little children do. Give this book a try. You don’t have to understand everything in it, but see what you can do. It’s made up of words and words are made up of what?”

“Sounds,” Theodore grinned.

“That’s right. And as long as you remember your sounds and know how to use a dictionary, you’ll do fine.”

At the end of the day Theodore left the school clasping the copy of Moby Dick so that everyone could see the title and the thickness. Marva wanted him to show it off. As far as she was concerned, all he had to do at the end of the two weeks was tell her the book was about a big fish. As it turned out, he told her Moby Dick was a big, white, man-eating whale.”

Most disheartening in the Post article was the comment from a seventh grader in “the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program” at a Maryland middle school who said that “she would like to be assigned books that speak to her”: the previous year in English class, “graphic novels [were] excluded, which annoyed many of us,” she said.

I was reminded again about what Mrs. Collins had to say about “relevance”:

According to the curriculum experts, everything has to be “relevant.” One mathematics textbook has a chapter on probability that asks students to determine: What are the odds that cabdriver will get a counterfeit $10 bill? What is the probability that a girl will become pregnant if she is taking birth control pills that are 97 percent effective? What is the probability that a person living in a certain community has either syphilis or gonorrhea?

All that “relevance” undermines the very purpose of an education. It doesn’t expand the children’s horizons or encourage inventiveness and curiosity. Instead it limits perspective to the grim scenes they see every day of their lives. Children do not need to read stories that teach “street smarts.” They learn enough on their own. What they need are character-building stories. They need to read for values, morality and universal truths [emphases mine]. That was my reason for teaching classical literature.

And that, kiddies, is why you read graphic novels and other “relevant” and/or fun stuff during free time. That’s what it’s for, after all — recess, lunchtime, after school, weekends. In grade school, I used to read one Nancy Drew book every day between recess and lunch. Unplug the computer, the TV, and put away the cell phone, iPod, portable DVD player, and your handheld game-playing thingamajigs, and curl up with a not-so-good book. And remember always that learning is meant to be annoying, prodding, and challenging, or it isn’t doing its job. It’s worth considering, too, that kids raised on a steady diet of twaddle, including graphic novels and even my beloved Nancy Drew, might not grow up to become adults who read, or want to read, Proust in their free time.

Celebrating the right to read and the joy of reading

Jennifer Armstrong, author of the new The American Story, was kind enough to send me an email with the artwork for this year’s Banned Books Week poster, because as it turns out it’s an illustration by Roger Roth from the new book, selected by the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression for the official poster.

Banned Books Week this year is September 23-30. For more information on Banned Books, including lists of banned, censored, and Bowdlerized books, go to the websites of the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, the Online Books project at the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Library Association.

At the end of the week, on September 30th, head over (virtually or otherwise) to Washington, DC, to celebrate the National Book Festival with the likes of Douglas Brinkley, John Hope Franklin, Doris Kearns Goodwin, U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, Elise Paschen, Louis Sachar, Alexander McCall Smith, Judith Viorst, and many, many others.

And so I leave you with these thoughts:

“I never knew a girl who was ruined by a bad book.”
New York City Mayor James J. “Jimmy” Walker (1881-1946)

“I am going to introduce a resolution to have the Postmaster General stop reading dirty books and deliver the mail.”
U.S. Senator Gale William McGee (1915-1992) of Wyoming

“The sooner we all learn to make a distinction between disapproval and censorship, the better off society will be. … Censorship cannot get at the real evil, and it is an evil in itself.”
American writer and critic Granville Hicks (1901-1982)

“If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

“To limit the press is to insult a nation; to prohibit reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.”
French philolsopher Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-1771)

“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”
Oscar Wilde

“The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.”
Walt Whitman

“The price of freedom of religion, or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson