Summer reading.

“Is it really possible to detect talent in fourteen-year-old children?” Bernard asked.

“Yes, but it’s rarely possible to predict whether the divine spark will keep burning with enough steadiness to survive the world.”  From “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.

Our summer reading menu has been a bit paltry thus far, I’ll admit.  Who has time to read with all the traveling we’ve been doing?  It’s been especially hard since the kids and I do some of it by listening to books on tape in the car, and we haven’t been doing much driving these days.  There’s been a lot of flying, but little driving.  In fact, we’ve been listening to the same two books for over a month now, and that is unusual for us.  Ordinarily, we finish them quickly.  We can’t stand not to, even if that means sitting in the car in the driveway while the neighbors wonder about our sanity.

But one of the books that I have managed to read this summer stands out.  This book spoke to me in such a way that I can’t bring myself to return it to the library yet; it feels like I will be losing a friend when I do so.  The overdue fines are racking up along with the guilt at being a book hog; this unwillingness to return it isn’t coming from a logical place, I assure you.  Since I’m finally writing down what it meant to me, though, I should be able to let go soon.  Maybe today…

In any case, the book is called “Clara and Mr. Tiffany,” by Susan Vreeland.  It’s historical fiction, which is a favorite genre of mine.  The author has done an excellent of job of fleshing out the characters, so much so that I really did feel like they had become my friends by the end of the book.

The book is about the history of the Tiffany Glass Co., but from the viewpoint of one of the women artists who worked for the company back at the turn of the last century.  What a beautiful perspective it offers on so many aspects of New York in the late 1800s:  the plight of immigrants, the difficulties faced by women, in particular single women who needed to support themselves.  A main point of the book is in fact the main character Clara Driscoll’s singleness; a Tiffany company policy doesn’t allow women to work once they are married.  Early in the story, Clara marries, leaves the company, and then comes back a short time later after the death of her husband.  She is an artist, and finds so much fulfillment in the work that she pleads for her job again so that she can go back to doing what she loves.  I find it hard to imagine a time when a woman would have to choose either marrying or continuing to have a career.  Oh, wait, maybe I can imagine it…

But I digress.  In the end, the choice in many ways is made for her.  I won’t spoil the book, but when the man she has been friends with for years finally admits his feelings for her, she describes it thus:

“Breathless and half frightened at the prospects, I glimpsed my larger self shining in his eyes, and I loved him for showing it to me.”

Isn’t that what we all want, even if we don’t realize it?  Someone, friend or lover, to show us the best in us, our larger selves?  And yet, for someone who has kept the divine spark of artistic talent glowing within herself, what a terrible thing to be forced to give up. Ah, the beautiful dilemma of it!

Okay, now that I’ve shared about the pleasure that this incredible book gave to me, I feel better.  I think I can now quit being a library delinquent and finally give it back so that others can enjoy it as well.  If you live near me, here in Atlanta, Georgia, go check it out at once.

I just happen to know of a copy that will be available later this week.

 

Vreeland, S.  (2012).  Clara and Mr. Tiffany.  New York:  Random House.

 

 

PS-  I did finally return it and pay my overdue fines on all our books from this summer.  It was an all-time high $8.50 for me, but my debts are now paid.  I can sleep at night.  But I probably should have just bought a copy of it!

The idea drawer.

Bella, utah
This photo actually has nothing to do with this post, except that it gives me such fabulous ideas… this is my daughter last fall on their hiking trip to Utah. My husband took this- with his iPhone, of all things. So much for my expensive, fancy camera!

I’m slowly working my way through a book titled “Acts of Teaching:  How to Teach Writing”, by Joyce Armstrong Carroll and Edward E. Wilson.  In many ways for me the book is a reinforcement of the way we already do things- process versus product!  Read to learn!  Literature instead of textbooks!  But more than that, and I mean way, WAY more than that is what the book is teaching me.  Naturally, I got the book from my private educational consultant, Ed.D., otherwise known as my mom.  She is, quite simply, the best source of help I could ever possibly want.

But this book, oh, this book.

It’s terrific.  We had already started implementing some of the strategies, such as the daily journaling and just getting your pencil down on the paper and writing. Which I must confess is actually more like 3 days a week journaling because the science and math classes that we take on Mondays and Tuesdays fill those days to the exclusion of anything else.  But anyway, our 3 days a week journaling is quite fun, and has led to a couple of the recent blog entries posted here because when my daughter is allowed to run with whatever she feels like writing about at the moment, I see great things.  My son, however, is having a harder time with it.  His constant complaint:  “I don’t know what to write about!”

As if he doesn’t have anything to write about.

I mean, the kid’s not exactly locked into a white, soundproof room with nothing to do.  No way.  This family does stuff.  We just got back from the Hill Country for our yearly family golf tournament, complete with golf cart crash and ambulance ride to the hospital…  Does this sound boring to you?  Quite frankly, after this weekend I could use a little boring.  I am tired.

But the concept I just came across in “Acts of Teaching” is the idea drawer, which is how one poet that is discussed in the book handles her prewriting.  The idea is that you simply collect up things that move you, or inspire you, or simply remind you of your life and what’s been happening to you in a drawer.  Bits of the stuff of life.  And then you go back to your drawer, and see what becomes something in your brain that you want to write about.  This is, essentially, the prewriting stage.  It’s actually something I’ve done for years, in a way, myself, to inspire paintings.  I take images from magazines or photos and hang onto them until they inspire something that simply must be put onto paper in my own way.

So here’s what I’m thinking for our own idea drawers:  We’re traveling again in a couple of days, to San Francisco this time.  I’m going to require each kid to keep their journals with them, and to jot down things that they see that are interesting or pick up bits of things that interest them, and then when we get home, to deposit these things into their own personal idea drawer (I’ve already got the perfect place).  We’ll let those things stew if necessary.  Then we’ll see what we come up with as we take our ideas (prewriting) and try to organize them on paper (writing).

Wish me luck- I’ve got a seriously reluctant writer on my hands in my ten year old son.  But I think this next stage of our adventures in writing is going to be fun.

Things We’re Reading.

Another year, still happily homeschooling.  And with that goes lots and lots of reading- Charlotte Mason really knew what she was talking about, and I keep on following her philosophies as much as I can.  I wish I had more energy, more time in the day, more, well, discipline.  But I do my best, and I think we’re rocking along pretty well here at the Wright household.  And it’s been a good reading year for us.  The library is our best friend, and in our new home, it’s so close by that we could walk there!  Not that we have, but we could!  Perhaps I should set that as a goal for the spring, when the weather is nicer…

But even though we’ve gone by car, we’ve managed to pick some fantastic reads out.  We do a lot of books on tape- why not fill that driving time or time stuck in Atlanta traffic with a book?  And one of our recent favorites has been “A Single Shard” by Linda Sue Park. I think I’ll seek out more books by her.  This one was wonderful- full of life lessons and lessons in morality, lessons in hard work.  We loved it- this was one of those that had us sitting in the car in the garage because we couldn’t bear to turn it off.

Another favorite was just for fun, a book by John Grisham called “The Accused”, which is part of his series for younger folks.  This book got us home from Texas, which is a 12 hour drive, with a minimum of the question dreaded by all parents being asked:  “Are we there yet?”  Yep.  That’s a good book.  Of course, who else can tell a story like John Grisham?

IMG_3590
A normal morning at the kitchen table- cat in chair, dog under table, books piled high, my son eating an entire jar of homemade peach jam straight from the container… Except that we’re not really antique color. I added that effect because I thought it looked cool.

And as for me, I decided that if I’m going to live in the South, I’d better read “Gone With the Wind.”  While I expected it to be a bit of a slog through a classic (you know, one of those that is kind of like taking medicine- you do it because it’s good for you?), it was anything but.  What a book!  What a story!  Yes, I’m perfectly aware of its shortcomings- Margaret Mitchell definitely does some glamorizing of some of the uglier aspects of Southern history, but still a wonderful story.  Scarlett- you hate her and love her all at once.  And I certainly didn’t expect to like Rhett Butler as much as I did!  This was such a treat for me.  I read the whole thing over Christmas break.  I didn’t want it to end.

And we are continuing with “Al Capone Does My Shirts”  by Gennifer Choldenko that we are reading together out loud, as well as Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, of course.  Are we the only folks to read more than one book at a time?

Fall reading.

Perhaps Heidi saw windows like this when she went to Frankfurt!

Time and time again I hear how uninspiring education is today, however through the power of story, it is possible that meaning and learning can powerfully coexist.”  Laura Fleming

We read everywhere we go.  One of my biggest goals as a homeschooler is to instill a love for reading in my children.  I want them to love learning, so therefore I want them to love reading- it’s hard to separate the two.  You kind of can’t help learning when you read, right?  That said, we’ve been really busy with our reading thus far this school year.  As part of our preparation for traveling to Germany, for example, we read “Heidi” together.  I read it myself as a child, but I didn’t remember how wonderful it was.  We all loved it, and it has been the basis for a lot of discussion as we traveled around where she would have lived.  Okay, I know that the main part of the story takes place in Switzerland, but she did travel to Frankfurt, and Switzerland is nearby, after all.  So we traveled around close to where she would have lived.  But it was such fun to hear “Oh, that reminds me of Heidi- when she…” coming from the back seat.

The next book we’ve finished this year is “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.”  Wow, what a terrific piece of historical fiction for kids about the Stalinist era in Russian history.  I’m pretty sure that my kids know more about that period of time now than most American adults do (which probably isn’t really saying that much because I suspect that most Americans know little about Soviet history.  Why would you?  I’m an oddball, I know, with a minor in Russian history).  But it was a very good book, and we zipped right through it.  That’s the real test for a good book at least in my house- when we can’t wait to get back to it but it’s teaching us valuable things through story.  This one taught not only history but the value of thinking for one’s self, among many other powerful lessons.  And I got to pull out my own Pioneer scarf from when I traveled to Kazakhstan in 1991 and stayed in a Pioneer camp for several days!

“The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate” was next, and it was wonderful.  I let someone else read this to us, meaning I checked out  the book on CD and we listened to it while in the car.  Which meant that we found ourselves sitting in the driveway because we couldn’t bear to leave the story.  This book is set in Texas in 1899, and follows an almost 12 year old girl named Calpurnia Tate as she learns about the world and about herself.  In particular, she is learning from her grandfather to be a naturalist, and thus this book has inspired much learning about science around our house, in the quest to be like Calpurnia of course.

And now, we are in the middle of “Fever, 1793,” which I read as we were driving around Germany.  It’s another page-turner!  Set in Philadelphia during the late summer of 1793, it is the story of a young girl who survives the plague of yellow fever that hits the city during an unusually long and hot summer.  I love historical fiction- what a great way to learn history!  Again, we have found ourselves driving a little slower and taking scenic routes so that we can finish a chapter, and we’re about halfway through the book right now.

That quote at the top sums up pretty well how I feel about learning through story.  I realized, as I was searching for yet another book to go along with our schooling, that what I remember most vividly from my elementary school days (besides playground time) are the books that my third grade teacher read to us.  She read “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Old Yeller.”  And I remember how much we all loved them and couldn’t wait for more.  I’m counting on the same being true for my kids.

Ah, the power of story… I’d take that quote at the top even further:  not only is it possible for meaning and learning to coexist, it is imperative for meaning and learning to coexist.

That is, if you want the learning to be genuine.

Anderson, L. Fever, 1793.  New York, NY:  Simon & Schuster.

Fleming, L.  (2011).  Connecting meaning and learning through storytelling.  Huff Post Education. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-fleming/connecting-meaning-and-le_b_843923.html

Kelly, J. (2009).  The evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  New York, NY:  Henry Holt and Co.

Spyri, J.  (1880).  Heidi.  New York, NY:  Sterling Publishing Company.

On boys (Or more reasons why we homeschool).

Boys do not need to be rescued from themselves. They need to be boys and be nurtured as boys. If that means running and screaming and getting dirty at recess, then get out the Band-aids and ready the Tide. Boys need nurture just as much as girls, but often it is a different kind of nurture.” (Borgman, 2005)

My son was in trouble at school a lot.  I’m not saying he didn’t deserve some (or even most) of it, but he was in trouble for something or another just about every day.  Now, academically he has always done extremely well, but, you see, he just couldn’t sit still.  And being able to sit still while in public school is pretty much a requirement.  But what if boys aren’t really meant to sit still?

In an interesting book I’ve been reading called “Wild at Heart,”  the author addresses that very thing.  There are truly some major differences between boys and girls and how they learn and what levels of activity (or inactivity, as the case may be) they are capable of sustaining.  I also really think that the largely female staff at most schools often just doesn’t really know how to handle boys and their energy…

And the punishment of choice at the school where my kids were?  Taking away or shortening recess.  Making them sit still. Talk about shooting off your own foot.

Here at home during the school year, we try to begin our day with exercise in addition to our morning devotionals.  And then, once we finish our school day, it’s outside they go, for bike riding, zip-lining, trekking around the woods- whatever.  As long as they’re outside moving their bodies.  My daughter did occupational therapy for a while to help manage her ADHD.  One of the things they had us doing every morning as part of her therapy was a series of exercises.  She had to wheelbarrow walk around the house, jump up and down, and then spin around in circles an equal number of times each direction, to name just a few.  It sounds silly, but the therapist explained that engaging those large muscles sort of activates the brain- sets it up for learning.  Let me say that again:  sets it up for learning.  I kind of think all kids could use this sort of thing, not just those dealing with ADHD.

And especially boys.  I’ve noticed with my own that on days when he can’t get outside and get out that energy, he will not only be rather awful, he also won’t be able to go to sleep at night.  We’ve had constant rain here in Georgia for what feels like the entire summer, and it’s been hard to get him outside some days.  Believe me, we’ve all felt the pain of his lack of outdoor activity!

At the school where my kids used to be, during standardized testing time they have all the kids go outside onto the track and run or walk laps in the morning before the school day begins.  My question is this:  why do they only do this during testing time?  Why not all year?  Most of the year, before school the kids have to sit at desks and do “morning work,” otherwise known as busy work.  And then the bell rings at 8 for them to start their day of real work.  Meanwhile, the nation wrings its hands about childhood obesity and how many kids are on medication- come on!  What about just letting them get outside and run around a little?!  I’m not saying it will solve all kids’ problems, by any means, but it sure wouldn’t hurt!  And it wouldn’t cost us a dime in taxpayer money.  After all, fresh air is free.

Borgman, L. (2005). Girls excel, but boys need nurture, too. MENSIGHT Magazine. Retrieved from: http://mensightmagazine.com/Articles/Borgman,%20Lori/2006/022006.htm

Eldredge, J. (2010).  Wild at heart: Discovering the secret of a man’s soul.  Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson.

Connecting to the land.

Well, last week was extremely busy around this house, and then this week has been eerily quiet.  The kids are at camp, you see, in Texas.  Which is home to me, and which is where we spent this past weekend: at my family reunion out in the far reaches of Texas.  Since we don’t live in Texas anymore, I had this brilliant plan that it would simplify our lives if we scheduled camp week immediately after the family reunion, so we would have to fly out only once.  In the long run, it has worked out nicely.  But there was that brief period of complete insanity of trying to get ready both for a weekend at the lake and a week at camp AND get on a plane to Dallas with all that stuff, traveling standby of course.  I pulled it off- I’m not sure how, but I did!

Anyway, last weekend, I was out in West Texas.  Go to Dallas, skirt around Fort Worth, and then keep going west for another 2-plus hours.  You’ll go through towns that look like they got stuck in some sort of time warp, and through one that has an incredibly beautiful old courthouse smack in the middle of a town square  (Texas is known for its fancy courthouses in these little towns).  You’ll pass through Mineral Wells, which used to be a destination for its mineral waters and baths.  It has this amazing old hotel that is now just languishing- check it out here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Former_Baker_Hotel_in_Mineral_Wells,_TX_Picture_2224.jpg  This old place makes the Historic Preservationist part of me want to cry- anybody got a few million they want to throw at restoring it to its former grandeur?   But then, you stop going through towns- it’s just trees and hills and more trees and hills.  The trees, of course, aren’t really trees- they are mostly mesquite and cypress- which means they are short and scrubby, and it was just as hot and dry as you’re probably imagining. Fences mark where people’s ranches are, and I saw a couple of places that actually had REAL longhorn cattle!  If you just keep driving through that wilderness for a while,  you’ll eventually come to Lake Possum Kingdom.

I love it out there.  I’ve been going out there since before I can remember.  We’ve had our family reunion every year  at Lake Possum Kingdom for at least the last fifty years, and you see, it kind of feels like home to me.  I think it’s important to have that kind of connection with place, and so does the author of the book I’m slowly working my way through, called “The Last Child in the Woods.”  The author talks about his own attachment to the land in Southern California.  As he says, these places enter our hearts.  And it is important for our children to have places that enter their hearts as well; as he puts it so beautifully:  “…children need a quality attachment to land not only for their own health, but in order to feel compelled to protect nature as adults, not only as common sense conservationists, but as citizens and voters” (Louv, 2005, p.155).  I believe that.  My parents gave it to me, inadvertently, when they moved our family from super-urban Houston, Texas, to a small town in East Texas.  We were outside of town, and though it wasn’t totally rural, it felt like it to me.  I had complete freedom to roam the woods and hills outside our house, and my brothers and I did just that.  We built tree forts and climbed stuff, and got really, really dirty just staying outside all day long.  I knew every trail, tree, rock, and hill by heart.  I collected frogs with abandon.  Talk about a quality attachment.  I doubt my parents knew they were growing a future environmentalist/conservationist by letting me keep amphibians in my bedroom overnight.  Actually, I don’t even think they know I did that (sorry, Mom!)

I do worry that my kids aren’t going to have that kind of attachment without me really working at it.  They love to be outside, but where they can go and explore is pretty limited here in our suburban neighborhood, and I have a feeling that our HOA would frown upon tree forts (though I encourage them to do it anyway! Small rebellions!)  That makes me a little sad.  However, it’s worth it to me to try- part of our “curriculum” last year were regular nature walks, and we will continue that.  It’s part of the Charlotte Mason philosophy after all, and, as I’ve pointed out before, she really knew what she was talking about.  We take it to the next level by hiking the mountains as much as we possibly can.  Hopefully, my husband and I will help them to form their attachment to the land here in North Georgia, and by doing that, we will shape them into future conservationists.  They will come to love the mountains north of Atlanta just like I love the hills of Texas.  I believe, just like the author “Last Child…,” that it is critical to both their health and to the health of our planet.

And, I think they are forming an attachment to Texas as well.  After all, it’s the place where a lot of happy things happen for them: Family reunions! Camp! Grandparent visits!  I shudder to think of how filthy the two of them are right now, as they basically spend the entire week outdoors in the East Texas heat (thank you, God, for camp counselors.  For so many reasons).  Actually, I hope that they are learning to love it.  Texas is and always will be home to me, even though I haven’t lived there for years and probably won’t live there again, not for a long time anyway.

Okay, just writing this all down has me feeling better.  Maybe they are learning to love nature and the land as much as I do after all.  Even here in the suburbs.

What are my children becoming?

There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.  

The early lilacs became part of this child, And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe bird, And the third-month lambs and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal and the cow’s calf…”

– Walt Whitman

I picked up a book recently that I’ve had on the shelves for a long time and started reading it.  It’s called “Last Child in the Woods,” and I have to admit that the reason I’ve put it off was that I was afraid it would be too upsetting.  And it is a little upsetting, but it’s also, thus far, a pretty incredible book- it has certainly made me remember fondly my days of tree-fort building and woods romping.  The basic premise of the book is the fact that kids today don’t play outside.  They don’t.  I can vouch for this.  I’m SURROUNDED by children in my neighborhood, and I haven’t seen many of them all summer.  None of them are out building tree forts or doing any romping.  I don’t think it’s good for them, and neither does the author of this book.

If I allowed it, my son would play Wii all day long.  I do not allow it- let’s just get that clear right now.  But he would.  I have a live-in, electronic babysitter anytime I want her.  I’ve noticed, however, that if he plays Wii or watches TV too much, he can’t go to sleep that night.  The author of “Last Child in the Woods” believes that nature is an effective antidote to the things, like ADHD, that plague many of our children these days, and I think he may be on to something. I worry that our current addiction to all things electronic is doing more harm to our kids than we realize.

I say that as I sit in front of my beloved Mac, of course, and believe me- I have no intention of giving it up anytime soon!  I also realize that our kids are what have been called “digital natives,” which is to say that they were born into the world of electronics that can give them instant access to everything in the entire world 24 hours a days.  I don’t think we need to keep them from it entirely, but I do think we need to be careful and limit their use of it, and especially we need to counteract their 2D experiences with real-live, 3D, outside playing and getting dirty time.  It’s kind of like hitting the reset button, or, to use electronics terminology, doing a reboot on their little brains.  Or at least that’s been my experience thus far.

The Walt Whitman poem really struck me- the first object is what he became?  Yikes.  There are days from this summer when a poem about my son would read instead, “Sponge Bob Square Pants became part of this child, and Wii Sports and Skylanders…”  That can’t be good.  I’d rather he became an early morning bike ride or a visit out to water the garden.  Or morning devotionals and a healthy breakfast with NOTHING turned on!  I’m ready for the structure that comes with the school year, that’s for sure.  We’ve all needed our down time, but I for one have had enough of it.  Especially since this has been one of the rainiest summers that I can remember.

I’m ready to start back to school, you can tell.  Is it really only July?  Sigh.

But anyway, I highly recommend reading this book.  And then I recommend shoving your kids outside to play.  Like mine, they probably could use it.

 

Louv, R.  (2005).  Last child in the woods:  Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, North Carolina:  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.