Thursday, January 29, 2015

From My Commonplace: Let the King Reign!

One of the books currently under discussion over at the Ambleside Online Forum is Tennyson's Idylls of the King, a poetic re-telling of the King Arthur legend.  I've never been a big poetry person (although reading it aloud daily with my children these past several years is helping)…I even had to ask someone to explain to me exactly what it meant that the Idylls are written in blank verse!  But now that I've gotten into it, I'm finding that I really love it.  Here's one bit from the end of "The Coming of Arthur" to whet your appetite.  This is what is sung by his knights after Arthur's marriage to Guinevere:
"Then while they paced a city all on fire
With sun and cloth of gold, the trumpets blew,
And Arthur's knighthood sang before the King: -
'Blow, trumpet, for the world is white with May!
Blow trumpet, the long night hath roll'd away!
Blow thro' the living world – 'Let the King reign!"
'Shall Rome or Heathen rule in Arthur's realm?
Flash brand and lance, fall battle-axe upon helm,
Fall battle-axe, and flash brand! Let the King reign!
'Strike for the King and live! his knights have heard
That God hath told the King a secret word.
Fall battle-axe, and flash brand! Let the King reign!
'Blow trumpet! He will lift us from the dust.
Blow trumpet! Live the strength, and die the lust!
Clang battle-axe, and clash brand! Let the King reign!
'Strike for the King and die! And if thou diest,
The King is king, and ever wills the highest.
Clang battle-axe and clash brand! Let the King reign!
'Blow, for our Sun is mighty in his May!
Blow, for our Sun is mightier day by day!
Clang battle-axe, and clash brand!  Let the King reign!
'The King will follow Christ, and we the King,
In whom high God hath breathed a secret thing.
Fall battle axe, and clash brand!  Let the King reign!"
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Coming of Arthur" Lines 478-501, Idylls of the King
Beautiful, isn't it?

In My Bookbag This Week:
Devotional/Theological: Revelation, with a commentary The Final Word (Wilmshurst)
Practical Christian Living: Ourselves (Mason)
Book Discussion Group Titles: Inferno (Dante), Idylls of the King (Tennyson), The Everlasting Man  (Chesterton)
On Education: The Abolition of Man (Lewis), How to Read a Book (Adler)
Special Interest: The New World (Churchill)
Novel/Biography/Memoir: Heatherley (Thompson)
Read-Alouds with the Children: Little House on the Prairie (Wilder), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Lewis), Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold (Benge)
*In the interest of full disclosure, Inferno and The Abolition of Man are currently on the back burner, at least until I finish The Everlasting Man.  I got a little too excited and bit off more 'heavy' books than I could chew at one time.   I do intend to finish them eventually, though, so in the pile they stay. :)

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

What Happens When the Boxes Don't All Get Checked

We didn't check off all the boxes on our school list last week.  
Now, there's a fairly good reason for that – we've all been fighting a pretty nasty sinus bug.  No one's really been 'lay in bed all day' sick, but no one's felt in top form either.  My love-to-check-the-boxes-self tried to push through anyhow - tried being the operative word.  It was a fail.  Those boxes still didn't get checked.  And there was stress and yelling and tension in our home.  Double fail.
That said, I can tell you a couple of things we did do.
We sat outside in the backyard on a blanket as still and quiet as we could to see if we might see any birds.  After a few minutes, we saw three crows (at least we think they were crows, it was too far away to know for sure) flying in the sky overhead, soaring and swooping gracefully.  Later we saw a sunbird gathering nectar from the flowers in the rose-apple tree.  Sunbirds are magnificent.  So are the flowers on the rose-apple tree.
We talked a little about what  it is exactly that makes a bird a bird anyhow.  It was the children who posed the question.  They haven't yet come up with any definitive answers.  They have wings – yes, but so do bats.  They fly – yes, but what about flamingos? Ostriches? Penguins?  The discussion is underway. 
Michelle read a section in a book about Leonardo da Vinci.  At the end of her narration she asked: "Did Leonardo da Vinci live before or after Christopher Columbus?"   "Why do you want to know?"  "Oh, I'm just curious about whether or not people knew the world was round or not yet when Leonardo was alive."   We looked it up after lunch: they were born only a year apart from each other.  Who knows if they ever met or not, but they were certainly men of the same age.  We added them both to the same century page in her timeline book.
Charlotte Mason tells us that education is the 'science of relations'….that learning takes place when connections are made….that it's not so much about how much we know, but how much we care.
We didn't check off all our boxes last week.   But we stopped and looked and wondered.  We related this week's reading to previous reading.  Connections were made.
Perhaps last week wasn't so much of a fail after all.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From My Commonplace: Words vs. Pictures

One of my Christmas money purchases was Karen Swallow Prior's book: Fierce Convictions, a biography of Hannah More.    More was a contemporary of William Wilberforce –they worked together closely in the struggle for abolition in Great Britain and in the movement towards social reform more generally.  Besides her contribution to the cause of abolition, she was also an accomplished writer and established many schools for the poor working classes.  Many of her views on education made me wonder if she and Charlotte Mason would have been friendly had she lived a century later. J    Prior brought up the point several times in her book that More and her colleagues relied heavily on the 'moral imagination' in their reform efforts.  Consider:
"The allusion to Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I illustrates how More and her cobelligerents – her partners in this great war – were sustained in their long efforts not only by religious faith but also by the vitality of a moral imagination.  In commenting on the power of poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1821, more than a decade before the abolition of slavery in Great Britain, 'The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature…A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.  The great instrument of moral good is the moral imagination."
"She [More] and her fellow reformers considered reading in particular as central to moral reform because of the ability of reading to cultivate empathy deeper than what the senses can communicate, whether the issue was slavery or animal welfare.  For example, following the defeat of a parliamentary motion by Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade, a poem by Anna Barbauld lamented that even the 'sight' of 'the negro's chains' had not been enough to sway the nation.  To be sure, images – such as those of the inside of a slave-ship that More was using to expose the horrors of the slave trade – had their place.  But reformers whose faith centered on the written word naturally tapped into its particular ability to transform thinking."
~Karen Swallow Prior, Fierce Convictions
So, what do you think about that idea?  Does the written word have greater power than images to change hearts and transform thinking? Is this as true in our modern visual-stimulus-driven times as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when More was fighting for reform?  Has our negligence of reading and literature been detrimental to us in the sense that the development of the moral imagination is stunted?   These are all questions that I've been pondering.   What do you think?

In My Bookbag This Week:
Devotional/Theological: Revelation, with a commentary The Final Word (Wilmshurst)
Practical Christian Living: Ourselves (Mason)
Book Discussion Group Titles: Inferno (Dante), Idylls of the King (Tennyson), The Everlasting Man  (Chesterton)
On Education: The Abolition of Man (Lewis), How to Read a Book (Adler)
Topics of Special Interest: The New World (Churchill)
Novel/Biography/Memoir: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bradley)
Read-Alouds with the Children: Little House on the Prairie (Wilder), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Lewis), Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold (Benge)

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Monday, January 19, 2015

My Commonplace Book

In my 2014 reading round-up post, I mentioned that last year I started keeping a Commonplace Book.  Today, I thought I'd give you a little glimpse of it.
First of all, though, perhaps a bit of explanation might be in order.  What is a Commonplace Book?  Laurie Bestvater describes it this way in her excellent book The Living Page:
"The Commonplace collects student-selected passages but from any and all reading on any and all subjects.  Mason also refers to it as a Reading Diary.  Though a Commonplace may contain student writing in the form of the odd character sketch or plot summary, it generally consists of other people's writing. Like a graduated form of the copybook, it is begun in earnest by the student at middle or high school age when his learning is becoming more and more under his own direction and, ideally, used throughout life….the syllabus instructs Form IV [high school aged students] to 'keep a Commonplace Book for passages that strike you particularly.' And likely students would have known exactly what was meant: a personalized notebook that crossed subjects and was meant to go with them everywhere as a dear companion and a record of their reading/learning."
~Laurie Bestvater, The Living Page, p.32-33
So really, it's just a book in which to jot down interesting quotes from your reading.  Charlotte Mason encouraged her older students to develop the habit during their school days with a goal of continuing as a lifelong practice.   I started mine last year in part because I hated to mark up my lovely, old, rare (expensive!) copy of Essex Cholmondely's The Story of Charlotte Mason, and in part because I do much of my reading on the Kindle.  While I do use the 'marks' feature frequently to highlight passages as I read, it doesn't have the same impact as highlighting and scribbling marginal notes in a real book.  Jotting those quotes and notes down in a separate notebook seemed a good solution to that little issue.
So here it is.  It's actually just a hardback composition book that I purchased during back-to-school season at one of the supermarkets in our city here in Africa.  I'd love to be able to have a really lovely, classy notebook for this purpose (someday…), but for now kinda-cutesy composition books will have to do. (I actually loved seeing some photos of one of Charlotte Mason's own Commonplace Books over at Afterthoughts last week…and was very gratified to see that she just used an ordinary composition book too.)  I do use a nice pen to write in it though:
Here's a peek inside:
And a closer up quote, a selection from Charlotte Mason's Ourselves (which is highly quotable by the way…lots of entries from the past couple months have come from this book.  I wonder if Charlotte ever dreamed that people would be Commonplacing her words?) :
And that's it.  It's pretty simple.  I don't tend to put much other than direct quotes, other than occasionally a sentence or two to explain the context if that seems necessary.  I've found this to be a wonderfully helpful practice.  Taking the time to stop and write out by hand the interesting or beautiful or thought-provoking passage from a book has caused me to reflect and retain more than just reading and marking in the book.   Looking back over previous entries jogs those memories too.   It also forces me to slow down and read more carefully rather than just rush right through, something that is right in line with my reading goals for this coming year.
I'm sharing this post over at Celeste's new Keeping Company link-up at Joyous LessonsClick on over and check it out for more 'Keeping' inspiration!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Socratic Moment

"In a contest, David scored 101 points. Daniel scored 25 points short of 120 points.  How many points did they score in all?"
"That's easy," she said.  "That's adding.  But first I need to subtract…"   She began to work out 101-25 on her paper.
"Wait a minute.  That's not right," I thought.  I resisted the urge to point this out to her directly.  "So why are you subtracting those numbers?" I asked aloud.
"Because I want to know how many points Daniel scored.  I need it to solve the problem."
"Right.  So, what is 101-25 going to tell you? Is it going to tell you what you want to know?"  
She looked at it for a minute, puzzled.  Then all of a sudden her face brightened up and she began scrubbing out 101-25 with her eraser.   "No!" she smiled.  "101 tells me about David's points.  I need to do 120-25 if I want to know Daniel's." 
"That's right, kiddo.  You've got it now."

This conversation took place between 9 year old Michelle and I the other day as we were working through a page of math problems.  Math has never been her strong subject, and problem solving especially not so.  We've actually gone through a couple of different math curricula trying to find a good fit with enough emphasis on teaching problem solving strategies since she isn't a naturally 'mathy' sort of thinker.  I've always been at a bit of a loss knowing how to help students with poor problem solving skills – this was as true in my classroom teaching days as it is with my own daughter.  I'm afraid that I often have the bad habit of jumping in and doing the thinking for her – telling her what she was doing wrong and what she needed to do to fix it.   I'm not even sure exactly what it was that stopped me from doing so this time and using thoughtful questions to help her realize and correct her own error instead.  But something did stop me, and after the fact I realized that I had successfully guided her using the Socratic mode of instruction.
Say what?!  Hang with me here for a few minutes.
The classical modes of instruction have come up a lot recently in my reading and listening.   Over on the Teaching page at Expanding Wisdom, Jennifer explains these three modes: narration, mimetic instruction, and Socratic instruction. (I encourage you to head over there if you want to read up on these in more depth as I don't have time to delve into that here.)   Narration – we use this all the time as it is a cornerstone of Charlotte Mason's methods, which we have followed more or less from the beginning of our homeschool journey.  No problem there.  Mimetic instruction makes sense to me – to teach by drawing on the student's prior knowledge, and then showing them examples of the new concept you want them to learn. Got it.  But Socratic instruction has often left me scratching my head.  It has always felt to me that the Socratic mode is something associated with big theoretical and philosophical ideas, and as such something difficult to wrap my mind around.  Maybe in a big literature discussion, probably with students older than mine are? But not something to be used in the nitty, gritty every day working-on-math-with-my-third-grader moments.
In her article on Socratic instruction, Jennifer offers some helpful distinctions about what the Socratic mode of instruction is not:
"True Socratic dialogue is not a literature discussion. It is not a predetermined set of questions used to analyze a text, and it is not a circle of students discussing a book or topic, these situations are simply discussions. They are good, beautiful, and valuable discussions and many times lead to situations where a Socratic dialogue is called for, but they are not Socratic dialogues.  In addition, a Socratic dialogue is not a planned lesson; one never knows when it will come up."
She goes on in the article to describe in detail what the Socratic mode really is – the ironic stage in which questions are employed to help a student understand they are making an error, the metanoia or "aha" moment when they realize it, and the maieutic stage where their minds are guided back towards truth. (Does that terminology intimidate you a little bit?  Yeah, me too.  Maybe another reason why the idea of the Socratic mode scared me?)
So, in other words, the Socratic mode of instruction involves the use of questions to help guide a student away from falsehood or error and back towards the Truth.
It's really that simple.  It's not that big complicated thing I had built it up to be in my mind.   And it is highly applicable to every kind of teaching situation, as I discovered when I unwittingly used it to guide my daughter in solving her math problem the other day.   It was natural – the questions I asked weren't the result of intense lesson preparation, they came to mind in the moment, suggested by the nature of the problem and the mistake she was making.   It was powerful – it put the onus of thinking through the problem squarely back on her, rather than her waiting for me to point out her error.  (Perhaps this is the key to our problem solving woes?)  And now that I've seen in played out in a simple, everyday situation I finally understand what the Socratic mode is supposed to look like so that I can begin to apply it elsewhere.
Who knew that a simple math lesson could be so profound?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

From My Commonplace: On Living Books

During our rather lazy holiday-at-home week between Christmas and New Years, I read and enjoyed Christopher Morley's two lighthearted books about the adventures of the eccentric bookseller Roger Mifflin: Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop.   Good fun and recommended if you are looking for some light reading.  In among the adventures, Mifflin likes to wax eloquent about good literature.  I can't help but think that Charlotte Mason would approve of him:
"If you let yourself think you are satisfied with husks, you'll have no appetite left for the real grain."
"I insist books are not absolutely dead things: they are as lively as those fabulous dragon's teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men."
~Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
(and thanks to AO, I got the reference there. J)
"A good book ought to have something simple about it.  And like Eve, it ought to come from somewhere near the third rib: there ought to be a heart beating in it.  A story that's all forehead doesn't amount to much."
~Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels
In My Bookbag This Week:
Devotional: Revelation, with a commentary The Final Word (Wilmshurst)
Theological or Christian Living: Ourselves (Mason)
Book Discussion Group Titles: Inferno (Dante), Idylls of the King (Tennyson), The Everlasting Man  (Chesterton)
On Education: The Abolition of Man (Lewis), How to Read a Book (Adler)
Topic of Special Interest: The New World (Churchill)
Novel/Biography/Memoir: Northanger Abbey (Austen)
Read-Alouds with the Children: Little House on the Prairie (Wilder), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Lewis), Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold (Benge)
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Monday, January 12, 2015

Why I'm Not Going to Share my "Books to Read" in 2015 List

I had my list of "books I want to read this year" all typed up and ready to post.  I already shared its prototype over on the Forum, and I've revised it several times in the attempt to have something to share here.    But I'm not going to share it.
Truth be told, there are about a million books (okay, so I exaggerate a little bit, but there really are lots) that I want to read.  Some of those I will get to this year, some of those I won't.  The list I had typed up was my attempt at narrowing down the choices to a select, high-priority few.   But the problem was that I kept thinking of more and more that I wanted to add in each category.  And as the year goes on, there will be other books that come up that aren't even on my radar right now.  Hang out with Ambleside ladies for any length of time and that's what'll happen. J   I don't want to box myself in.  So I will keep some loose personal lists of things that I would like to read sometime, and then see what happens this year.
I think perhaps a better goal than a list of 20 or 30 or 40 or more titles that I want to try and tackle this year is a goal to read slowly, read thoughtfully, read carefully.  That's probably more realistic.  It means being a little less enthusiastic about joining every new book discussion that pops up over at the Forum.  It means rather than having 3 or 4 titles going in all the various categories that I like to read, I probably ought to limit myself to 1 or at most 2 in each, depending on the depth and complexity and pacing of the book.  It means taking the fact that this year is likely to be a very full year seriously – 2 weeks in and I'm already realizing that the amount of time I have for reading isn't going to be as much as I had last year.  Family needs and dynamics are changing.  We're headed to the States in a few months…that'll really shake things up.  (Oy, will it!)  It means limiting myself to the best, and letting the rest go.    At the same time it means setting aside the heavy books for some occasional 'just for fun' reading when it's called for.  It means not buying every interesting title that presents itself to me, but making purchases judiciously and carefully.
So, there you have it, my reading goals for this year.
Something tells me that this is going to be a good year in books.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Few More Thoughts on Imitation

A few more thoughts that crossed my mind as I continue to contemplate this idea of imitation.
Recently, I read 3 John and noticed particularly verse 11:
"Beloved do not imitate what is evil, but what is good.  The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God."
That word 'imitate' jumped out at me, given all the Circe lectures on this topic that I've been listening to and thinking about lately (these and these).  We learn by imitation – we are to imitate what is good and not what is evil.  Therefore, we need to hold what is good (and true, and beautiful) before our children and students – in ourselves, in our learning materials, in our media choices and so forth.   But then we need to stop and trust the Holy Spirit to work.  Charlotte Mason makes the remark that the virtue that is borne of the instructed conscience "…has come to him through his books and his prayers – not through books alone, and not through prayers alone." (Ourselves, Book 2, p.69).  Ultimately all this 'cultivating wisdom and virtue' isn't up to me.  Ultimately, it's up to Him.  Wisdom and virtue are the products of a changed heart, and only He can change hearts.  I plant the seeds, He brings forth the harvest.   I set the Good, the True, the Beautiful before them and then step aside to let Him work.  I can't actually 'cultivate wisdom and virtue' – but He can and He invites me to cooperate with Him.  
Humbling thought, that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

From My Commonplace: On Shakespeare

So...we're back to 'normal' at our house this week, whatever that means.  I guess it means not sitting around eating more sugar and chocolate than is good for one and reading....anyhow.  One book that I read over the Christmas/New Year's break was Marchette Chute's Shakespeare of London.  This was an interesting look into his life and times.  The author apparently only used period documents for her research.   A couple of interesting thoughts I gleaned:
"…Shakespeare never concerned himself about being in the forefront of any literary movement.  He was no innovator, and to the end of his career he was willing to take decrepit, old-fashioned stories as the basis for his plays while his colleagues dealt in glossy new inventions of their own."
"Less and less as he continued his career was he able to simplify – to look through half-closed eyes and record only a few effective characteristics.  Even in his folk-portraits he was unable to prevent himself from seeing real human beings…"
"…he did not read Plutarch with respect, but with delight."
~Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London
The theatre was a huge deal in England in Shakespeare's time.  New plays were being written and produced all the time.  Shakespeare was one actor-playwright among many, many others.   And yet his plays are the ones that we still have – most of the others from his era are relatively obscure or lost completely.  I can't help but wonder if the secret to his genius lay in these distinctive characteristics of his. 
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Friday, January 2, 2015

What are they Imitating?

Not too long ago, I found this laying around the house:
On the left, is my to-do list.  On the right, is 4 year old Elizabeth's to-do list.  Cute, isn't it?  I thought so anyhow.
Later that same week, I found these.  On the left is a drawing that 9 year old Michelle did, on the left is 4 year old Elizabeth's copy.  She's pretty good for 4, isn't she?  Maybe I'm biased, I am her mother after all. J
Now, I don't share these just because they are cute, even though they are.  Finding both of these things within a few days of each other was a reminder to me that these little ones in my care are imitators. They are watching, and they will imitate what they see around them.  I've been chewing on the implications of that ever since. 
Some of those implications are educational.  The theme of the Circe Conference this past summer was "A Contemplation of Imitation".  I've been slowly listening my way through the audio recordings of that conference over the past few months, so this theme has been running through my mind anyhow.  I  also really liked Jennifer's article on narration over at Expanding Wisdom – one of the points she makes is that narration is a form of imitation.   What are we holding before our children for them to 'imitate'?  Are we using books and materials that show them the good, the true, and the beautiful?  It's worth thinking about.
I think perhaps the most profound reflection I've had on this topic over the last few weeks, however, is that these little ones are imitating ME.  This isn't a new insight – I've even written about it before.  But it was a much needed reminder – a very convicting one.  They are imitating me.  What am I showing them?
I've seen this played out in different ways in the past few weeks.  The last couple of months have been busy and at times stressful for our family.   There have been times that I have let that stress get the better of me and I've snapped at a child and barked orders as we've hurried out the door or tried to get everyone tucked into bed (finally!) for the night.   And you know what?  More often than not, that results in cranky, ornery, reluctant children.  On the other hand, when I've chosen to stay calm, be patient, go with the flow and let go of my (sometimes unrealistic) expectations things have generally gone more smoothly, even under pressure.  They feed off my attitude - they imitate my attitudes.
Charlotte Mason once said: "…the child's most fixed and dominant habits are those…which the child picks up for himself through the close observation of that is said and done, felt and thought, in his home."   The Apostle Paul said: "Therefore, I exhort you, be imitators of me." (I Corinthians 4:16) 
Lord Jesus, infuse the atmosphere of our home with peace and joy and life.  Mold me and shape me into someone who, like the Apostle Paul, is worthy of imitation.