• 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.

Another red herring

Yesterday I quoted this section from a New York Times article about the tragedy of the Jacks family in Washington, DC,

Mitchell L. Stevens, an associate professor of education and sociology at New York University, said school officials, who are required by law to report suspicion of child abuse, were society’s best watchdogs of how parents treat children.“Home schooling removes children from a lot of that surveillance,” Mr. Stevens said …

And this afternoon while listening to the radio and folding laundry, I discovered that the topic of today’s CBC call-in show “Cross Country Checkup” is school safety, prompted by the release the other day of the Toronto District School Board’s School Community Safety Advisory Panel report. According to a CBC news article on the report,

A report on violence in Toronto schools says gun-sniffing dogs may be needed to combat a problem that is not restricted to troubled neighbourhoods in the northwest area of the city.Lawyer Julian Falconer, who led a three-member school community safety advisory panel, stressed there have been scores of incidents involving guns in schools in other Toronto areas.

“Ladies and gentlemen, nothing could be further from the truth than that this is a problem involving the black kids at Jane [Street] and Finch [Avenue],” he said Thursday as the report was officially released.

“That’s simply an utter, specious myth.” …

The panel was assembled by the Toronto District School Board after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in a hallway of C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in May. Falconer asked for a moment of silence in the boy’s memory before outlining the panel’s findings.

According to the panel, Toronto’s school system has become a place where violent incidents go unreported, and where there is fear among both students and staff.

The report says a “culture of fear, or culture of silence, permeates through every level of the TDSB [Toronto District School Board].”

The panel made more than 100 recommendations, one involving the creation of a website on which students could file anonymous reports of violence.

But the idea getting the most attention involves buying sniffer dogs that would seek out guns in student lockers and other hiding places.

The report says that “all potential storage areas for weapons” should be subject to “regular non-intrusive searches, including consideration being given to the random usage of TDSB-owned canine units that specialize in firearms detection.”

Falconer said the dogs would not be large or aggressive and would merely sit in front of lockers when they smelled guns inside.

In releasing the report, he highlighted the results of a survey of students at North York’s Westview Centennial Secondary School. Twenty-three percent said they knew someone who brought a gun to school in the previous two years, and six per cent said they knew four people who did so.

The danger is from “disengaged, marginalized youth” who are legally required to attend school, Falconer said.

He said the board needs more funding to ensure schools are safe, but stressed that hard-nosed enforcement is not the answer.

“We miss the point if we believe that the road to health involves punishing or using enforcement methods to try to re-engage youth. It doesn’t work. We suspend in droves. It fails.” Falconer said.

“We as a society failed these youths. The Toronto school board is downstream and houses these youths between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. from Monday to Friday.”

Among other recommendations by the panel:

* Transfers between schools should not be used as an alternative to discipline, and administrators should not urge judges or police to impose conditions that require students to be transferred from their home schools.
* School uniforms should be required except where individual school councils opt out. The uniforms should comply with the Ontario Human Rights Code and should be affordable, and the board should subsidize the cost where necessary.
* In cases of sexual assault on students under 16, school officials should report the crime to the police and, barring exceptional circumstances, notify the victim’s parents.
* In cases of sexual assault on students 16 or older, the decision to file a police report and/or notify parents should be left to the student “in order to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward and protect the school community.”
* Students should be required to wear identity cards on lanyards around their necks “for the purposes of quickly identifying students and intruders.”

The school board issued a statement saying it welcomes the report.

“These insights will, I am confident, guide us as we make our schools the safest and fairest learning environments they can be, for each and every one of our students,” TDSB director of education said in the statement.

Doug Joliffe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said he outlined the problems from his members’ perspective in discussions with the panel.

“I don’t think it’s such a culture of fear — more a culture of frustration,” he told CBC News before seeing the full report.

“There is bitter frustration that has been expressed to [the OSSTF] by members, that they don’t feel they get the support they need in dealing with the issues in the halls at their schools.”

“There’s been incidents where teachers have tried to enforce rules where they have instead been told not to do so. So the frustration happens.”

And from The Globe & Mail on the report, the article “Teachers face mixed messages“:

Educators across the country were undoubtedly rattled by the release yesterday of the School Community Safety Advisory Panel report, which suggests there may have been hundreds of incidents of violence within the Toronto District School Board that have gone unreported by teachers.But some teachers say they are not equipped or trained to deal with the serious array of behaviours and issues being exhibited by students today, and that zero-tolerance policies often directly conflict with the pressure to keep kids — especially those from at-risk backgrounds — in school.

“There are kids whose behaviour is so bad that 20 years ago they’d be told to leave school — they don’t want to be there, they’re not respectful, they’re aggressive and quite prepared to be violent if they need to be – and yet the school system is trying to keep them in school and trying not to disaffect them by punishing them for everything,” said one Toronto teacher, who asked not to be named. “So consequently, there’s a bit of a mixed message.” …

But, he added, some teachers are finding that action is not always taken when they do report incidents to their superiors.

“A lot of the time, teachers’ actions could be nurtured by what has happened in past similar situations,” he said.

“Lets say that teacher X reported something and the administration chose not to do anything with it. If a similar situation came forward again, would that teacher be more hesitant to bring it to the administration’s attention? I think that would be human nature.”

Mr. Coran agreed that there is “tremendous pressure” on schools to increase graduation rates and success among students, a goal that sometimes conflicts with the reality of today’s school environments.

“A lot of this stuff is really more societal problems – there’s so much poverty, so much gang involvement,” he said. “Teachers are grappling with some really important and complex issues and I don’t think this situation is going to disappear overnight.”

Morven Orr, a teacher with 30 years of experience who works with the Toronto District School Board’s Beginning Teacher Coaches program, said she recommends that educators report all potential issues to their principal.

“They should have been given some advice in teacher’s college. You’re certainly made aware of your legal obligations,” she said. “I would immediately tell them to talk to their boss.”

But Ms. Orr said that being able to discern which problems require outside intervention can be extremely fraught.

“When a child presents with a problem, you have no idea what might have caused it,” she said. “And although as a teacher it’s important to keep the idea of abuse in your head, you can’t phone someone every time a child is sad, or depressed or crying. There’s a million reasons.”

Mr. Coran believes that school boards simply need more bodies, and that an infusion of teachers, educational assistants and support staff would go a long way toward helping teachers deal with the problems outlined in the report, including gun incidents, robberies and sexual assaults.

“All of these things require a lot of professional attention,” he said. “This behaviour needs to be corrected and not just ignored.”

Ms. Orr said many teachers are also mindful of making false accusations or suggesting any interventions when none is necessary, a move that can alienate students and anger their parents.”If you do phone [the authorities], the parent often knows it’s come from the school and they’re furious if there’s no reason for it,” she said. “They’re often furious if there is a reason for it.”

And finally, from another Globe & Mail article on the report, “Fears of career suicide stopped educators from reporting violence“,

Teachers and school staff are too intimidated to speak out about violence in Toronto’s public schools, a damning report charges.A school safety panel revealed yesterday that employees of the Toronto District School Board told them they feared that revealing school safety issues or anything that would reflect negatively on the board would be “a career-limiting move.”

As a result, hundreds of incidents that should have been reported were not. This “culture of fear” led to a failure of the system and its overseers to protect students from violence, including robberies and sexual assault, on school grounds, the report said.

“Jordan Manners died on May 23, 2007, of flat neglect, pure neglect,” panel chair Julian Falconer said yesterday, referring to the 15-year-old whose shooting sparked the inquiry.

The panel’s findings had officials at Canada’s largest school board facing uncomfortable questions about why so many violent incidents go unreported, and why it took the death of a 15-year-old to prompt a review of school safety.

“I think that until [the Jordan Manners shooting] happened, we probably thought we had a pretty good handle on it,” said John Campbell, chair of the TDSB. “And I think what that did is it really drew attention to the fact that we didn’t have a very good handle on it.”

Mr. Falconer said many officials within the school system are too intimidated to report violent incidents. Many of the school officials interviewed by the panel refused to go on the record for fear of reprisal.

“People are afraid and it’s not just students; it’s teachers,” Mr. Falconer said. …

But Mr. Falconer said there is no “quick fix” to the board’s problems.

“You could fill a Home Hardware with the amount of knives kids bring to school, but we don’t find them,” he said. …

At C.W. Jefferys yesterday, students didn’t seem too concerned about the dire condition the report says their school is in. However, some said that students simply don’t talk about violent incidents.

“The reputation going around is: when you talk, you’re basically a snitch,” said student Chandé Wilmot. “[People worry] that they might get beat up.”

Film Club interview

from The Canadian Press. Here’s an excerpt (emphases mine):

What [the book] details is a father’s struggle to connect with a beloved son who is totally disinterested in homework and who, at six-foot-four, is a man-sized adolescent frequently skipping out of high school to wander about the big city at will.

“All we ever talked about was his poor performance at school,” the Toronto author and winner of a Governor General’s award for A Perfect Night to Go to China explains in an interview.

“And it really was turning him into a liar. And it was creating antagonism between the two of us. And finally I just said ‘I can’t do this, I’ve already done Grade 10. I can’t do your homework for you. I can’t do this. You’re going to have to make a choice.’ And to my horror, he said ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore.”‘

Gilmour makes a deal with Jesse, telling him he can quit school as long as he watches three movies a week with his dad and absolutely stays away from drugs.

“I was trying to salvage my relationship with him because I thought not only am I going to lose the school battle but I’m going to lose him over it.”

Jesse Gilmour, now 21, is doing a few interviews alongside his well-known father as the book about his sometimes tumultuous adolescence is launched, and he concurs that dropping out was the correct — and probably the only — course of action for him.

“I hated high school, I hated it. I was completely happy to get out of there. And even now, I’m going to university now, which I like, but even if I could go back, I probably would do the same thing again,” he says emphatically.

“For some people high school just doesn’t work for them. It’s just terribly straining and boring in a way that it becomes unhealthy to you.”

But if high school was a strain for Jesse, the decision to let him opt out was nothing short of terrifying for his dad.

“I spent about a year waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning with my heart thumping thinking, my God, he’s going to end up in a cardboard box in Los Angeles … where can you go in this world with a Grade 9 education?” Gilmour says.

People of his own generation went to school out of fear because they were terrified of what would happen if they didn’t have an education, he notes.

“Most of us got a B.A. because we were frightened of the consequences,” Gilmour says. “His generation isn’t frightened of that stuff at all. I don’t know why they’re not. But they’re really not.”

Gilmour, who has worked as a film critic and cautiously served up erudite observations about plot, direction and acting techniques to his son, doesn’t even attempt to describe the three films per week as a substitute for an education.

“He really didn’t get anything out of it except he got to spend time with his father, and what teenage boys really need is to spend time with their fathers,” he says.

“We could’ve gone skydiving, or we could’ve gone scuba-diving. It wouldn’t have made a difference. It wasn’t really the films. It was an opportunity for the two of us to spend time together before he was gone for good.

As it turns out, the films worked as a kind of conversation-starter, and father and son would go outside on the porch, smoke cigarettes and “talk about everything under the sun” – including Jesse’s attempts to sort out matters of the heart when he falls hard for one girl, and later, for another. There are troubled times, too, when Jesse breaks his vow to stay away from drugs.

But Jesse’s opinion diverges somewhat from that of his father when he talks about the “nourishment” he got from seeing a range of movies, including some he describes as “great art.”

“On The Waterfront,” “Notorious” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” were among the many films the pair watched together.

“The more you learn about it the more you can appreciate it. So it’s true the movies were more just kind of a jumping off point that me and my dad could spend time together, and have a real relationship during that time. But yeah, I think I got a lot out of the movies.”

A few years after the film club began, Jesse decided to go back to school and signed up for a crash course in the required subjects, with tutoring by his mother. Last month, he began studying Italian cinema, classical mythology and world religions at the University of Toronto. …

Gilmour, 57, says that during those “film club” years, his professional life was “a catastrophe.” Now, he calls it an unbelievable stroke of luck because it gave him time at home with his son at a time when teens are “gradually shutting the door on their parents and they’re keeping their private lives to themselves.”

“It was like winning the lottery, and not recognizing it until about halfway through that this was actually a victory, not a life catastrophe.

You can read the rest here.

An alternative education

First up on this morning’s CBC Radio “Sunday Edition” show, my favorite weekend listening, was host Michael Enright’s interview with film critic and writer David Gilmour, author of the just-published The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and a Son. Film Club is Mr. Gilmour’s account of his decision, several years ago, to let his son drop out of high school. What he kept coming back to during the radio interview was his son’s need for time.

I found a very good review by Ian McGillis in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette, entitled “Learning from film: A father, a son and an unusual education“. From which,

It’s the kind of thing a movie producer would label “high concept.” A father, at his wits’ end over his teenage son’s extreme aversion to anything classroom-related, suggests that the son drop out of high school on the condition that the two of them watch three films per week, together, for two years. [The other condition was no drugs.]

But this is no movie. The father is David Gilmour, award-winning novelist and former CBC film critic, the son is [16]-year-old Jesse. And their experiment, for which the term “hare-brained” might seemingly have been coined, has turned out against all reasonable expectations to make for a book that’s insightful, surprising and, yes, moving.

It’s a handy hook, of course, that the mere idea of what Gilmour has his son do is sure to cause the taking of mass umbrage by good parents everywhere. It’s not as though Gilmour isn’t aware of this. Even at an advanced stage in the program, when it’s too late to undo, he’s attacked by doubts: “What if I’d allowed him to f–k up his entire life under some misinformed theory that might just be laziness with a smart-ass spin on it?” What if, indeed.

On the surface, Jesse does provide plenty of cause for concern. He has very little sense of geography. (“The United States are right across the lake?” asks the lifelong Torontonian.) He takes his loves and his lost loves extremely seriously and — surprise, surprise — he wants to be a rapper.

But this young man, we come to see, has hidden reserves. The child may never quite become father to the man, but at many times, the dynamic is much more big brother-little brother than Pop and Junior.

The films they watch, handpicked by the father, range from undisputed classics (Citizen Kane) to French New Wave standbys (The 400 Blows) to outright kitsch (Showgirls). It’s a commendably catholic list, though Gilmour père proves utterly unable to predict which films might set his enigmatic son alight. Jesse’s blank response to A Hard Day’s Night, starring Dad’s beloved Beatles, is priceless. But then, the author surprises himself no less on revisiting some old touchstones. “Some films let you down; you must have been in love or heartbroken, you must have been wound up about something when you saw them because now, viewed from a different trajectory, there’s no magic left.”

An index at the end lists nearly 150 films mentioned, but the book somehow never feels weighted down with the references. In fact, in what may or may not be a coincidence, at about the time the reader begins to tire of the device, so do the participants. But that’s fine, because by then, it’s the relationship we really care about. …

In fact, after three years, Jesse rose off the couch and decided that he was indeed interested in further education. He is now 21 and attending university in Toronto.

And an excerpt from yesterday’s Globe & Mail review by Charles Wilkins:

…Gilmour’s intimate and free-wheeling book is, in large part, the story of the role he played in his son Jesse’s life (and vice-versa) when the teenager crashed out of high school at 16 and seemed headed for what Gilmour refers to as “a bad life.”

In a stroke of strategic educational genius (and of optimal deployment of his own fascinations and resources), the writer offered his son freedom from school and employment on the condition that the boy join him in watching and discussing a minimum of three feature films a week.

The deal was made, and over a period of three years, the films became a curriculum unto themselves, a varied and fascinating syllabus rich in ideas, social values, character study, history, geography, family, ethics, music — and, of course, in the import of filmmaking and art, of dramatic writing and acting and directing.

As Jesse learns, we learn — about Hitchcock and Kubrick and Truffaut; and Brando and Bogart and Hepburn; Annie Hall, On the Waterfront, The Godfather. Gilmour was once a film commentator for CBC Television, and his knowledge of the art and industry is both rangy and deep — and is happily charged with anecdotal vigour and gossip.

“I knew I wasn’t giving Jesse a systematic education,” he writes. “We could as easily have gone skin diving or collected stamps. The films simply served as an occasion to spend time together, hundreds of hours, as well as a door-opener for all manner of conversational topics — Rebecca, Zoloft, dental floss, Vietnam, impotence, cigarettes.”

The book is also the story of the travails of a middle-aged writer who, at the time the action takes place, was, by his own admission, down on his luck, and is painfully honest about it. At one point, when other options have been exhausted, he seeks work as a bicycle courier, and is turned down – too old. (It bears mentioning that Gilmour’s luck changed dramatically in 2005 when he won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for his novel A Perfect Night to Go to China.)

And a helpful caution from The Globe & Mail,

…there were points at which I felt as if I were reading through a keyhole and that, given the context, there was simply too much grovelling over “relationships,” over “the game,” over “chicks,” which unfortunately detracts from the book’s erstwhile innocence and integrity. …

In the end, a majority of the pages in the book might more appropriately have appeared under the title The Dating Club or The Mating Club than The Film Club.

And yet the book is meaningful, is insightful, is valuable. On a social level alone, it challenges our notions of education, of productivity, of high schools that have fallen catastrophically behind in their capability to inspire young men. It is, what’s more, a compelling, often tender account of a parent’s deep concern for his child.

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.

More news from across the pond: Lynne Truss on "Why arnt childrun being tort how 2 rite?"

My father was darling enough to send me this morning Lynne Truss’s latest article from The Telegraph.

The actual headline, “Why arnt childrun…”, is rather misleading since the article deals not with spelling — which isn’t taught anymore either, at least here in Canada — but with the mechanics of writing. I would have subtitled my post “Why Araminta and Philip Can’t Write,” only Dakota, Denver, and Chelsea in North America are no better off. Each year I spend an inordinate amount of time at the local country fair perusing the school displays, mostly gaping at the high school collages (not essays) about popular movies like “The Truman Show” (not books). Very adept with scissors and glue, not so adept with words, sadly, which are apparently optional. Or at least not as decorative.

As Ms. Truss — “Designated Worrier for the English Language” since the publication of her zero-tolerance Eats, Shoots & Leaves — writes,

Last year, only 71 per cent of girls and 56 per cent of boys aged 11 reached level four – the standard of writing expected for their age. School inspectors were themselves recently e-mailed some guidelines by Ofsted on the difference between “its” and “it’s”, and how to spell words such as (useful in the circumstances) “under-achieve”.

“But what about all those lovely A-level results?” you object. Well, a few months ago, the Royal Literary Fund published a report, Writing Matters, that put those A-levels into perspective. Since 1999, the fund has been placing professional writers in universities, to work one-to-one with students on their writing skills, and their report was full of plain, staggering shock at the state of students’ entry-level abilities.

From every angle, the same message arrived: students who are arriving at university, many with multiple A grades at A-level, simply don’t know how to write. Many of them actually resent the idea that suddenly they are expected to be able to….

Why isn’t writing – not reading – given more prominence in schools? I really don’t understand it.


No one just picks up the mechanics of writing, just as we don’t pick up how to play the piano simply by listening to it. Theory, moreover, is no substitute for practice, or for learning through making mistakes.

For decades, there has been an ideological reluctance to point out mistakes in written work. Pointing out “errors” was seen as discouraging to children, as well as unacceptably judgmental. But, when you look at it, what a patronising attitude that is.

Don’t kids have the right to know if they are getting something wrong? Then they can either have the pleasure of getting it right next time, or they can make an informed decision that, actually, they absolutely don’t care. It is patronising not to correct someone who is supposed to be learning; in fact, it’s quite a good idea occasionally to force people to confront the scale of their own ignorance.

It’s not just people’s self-esteem that’s at stake, after all. It’s the future of written English.

Is this an elitist point of view? No, it’s quite the opposite. To me, it’s very simple: being good at English means you’ve been taught well. The idea that “correct” or standard English belongs only to rich and privileged people is preposterous from every angle.

The English language doesn’t belong to anybody: it certainly doesn’t trickle down from the top. Mark Twain said it brilliantly 100 years ago: “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the shares.”

Go on, read the rest. Read it and weep.

Autumn is a-cumin’ in

Saturday evening we headed for town to help celebrate our little town on the prairie’s 100th birthday. Not a great age compared to many, even in eastern Canada, but quite an achievement and a thrill for the kids especially to be a part of the occasion. There was a big dance followed by fireworks, then more dancing, and oodles of food throughout. And a chance to remember the pioneers who started it all with their hard work, and those who carry on. To whom we all say a well-deserved thank you.

Speaking of thank yous, Tom arrived home on Friday with a case of very, very ripe peaches. I’ve come to be very wary of this sort of gift when I’m least prepared and usually up to my armpits in some other garden preserving activity, and I’ve told Tom in previous years on various occasions that yes, dear, I will buy and can cases of peaches and pears — Davy calls them “hot sugared fruit” — but on my own schedule, dear, since that I had planned to deal this weekend with the last of the green beans, rhubarb, and a few other housekeeping projects. The peaches were well on the way to beyond ripe, so I had to do something fast. And quick and easy, to, which meant one cobbler, one pie, and peeling, chunking, and sugaring the rest for pie filling.

The leaves on the Virginia creeper have turned bright red already, harvest is in full gear in the fields around us, geese are honking and ducks gather on the dugouts and sloughs and the hunters from the U.S. are starting to circle too, our neighbor’s famous end-of-summer “corn supper” is next week, and though it’s still unusually warm for this time of year (we watched the fireworks at 10:30 pm in light shirts), the light definitely looks like autumn. I’ll miss the carefree summer weather and schedule, my garden especially — I’m enjoying great big blowzy bouquets right now, zinnias, cosmos, hollyhocks, cornflowers — but there’s something exciting about the change in seasons, especially this next season. Autumn usually means a withering and a decline, but as someone who always loved school (Tom and I decided to homeschool Laura in part because we wanted her to love school and learning as much as we had), this time of year to me signifies not only an ending but also a beginning, marked by kraft-paper covered books, new knee socks and art supplies, the excitement of new friends and activities. Now that the days are dramatically shorter — it’s getting dark before nine now — even the kids are starting to show a bit of curiosity and interest in our new schedule, not as freeform and out-of-doors as it’s been. Where and when will the 4H meetings be held? What will the new piano and voice teachers be like? What new books will be using? It’s all part of the new adventure!