Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guilt-Free Learning Notes, Sept. 30

Thanks to Melanie, our hostess.

I tried to take notes by the day, in my handy-dandy planner, and I made up until Thursday of last week, so I'm just going to attempt to summarize by subject.


We've been continuing our daily Mass readings, along with the meditation from One Bread, One Body, a Catholic devotional booklet with a teaching based on the day's readings.We happen to use this, instead of Magnificat or any other of the fine devotionals out there, because my dad is one of the editors of One Bread, One Body, and has been for many years, and often if it states at the bottom of the page that the teaching was submitted by a member of the editorial team, there's a pretty good chance that Dad wrote it. So we learn more about scripture, and we feel close to Grandpa on days when we're reading his reflection on scripture.

Some people in this house feel that they've moved beyond reading their religion books, because they already know everything in them; these people would be well advised, then, to know the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter when Mother quizzes them.

Religion classes at church started this week; I'm writing up my reflections on teaching 6th grade religion class (yes, I'm a catechist this year) elsewhere.


Still Khan Academy, but we had multiplication drill this week because come on, people.


Ah, my favorite. Jane Eyre is a big hit, and Mr. Brocklehurst a satisfying villain. The kids follow along well and are keen to spot the hypocrisy of the Misses Brocklehurst in their plumage and finery touring shabby Lowood. Jane is a great favorite with the girls -- Julia is ready to paint a Jane Eyre doll.

Reading it out loud causes me to pick up on new bits of the story I'd never noticed before, such as Mr. Brocklehurst forgetting the darning needles and then complaining a second later that the stockings are all in bad repair, or how young Jane exults in wild, romantic landscapes and the lonely howling of the wind -- the kind of atmosphere she will meet later, at Thornton.  Today we read the death of Helen, and I had to stop because I was all choked up. It's so simply and effectively done.


The girls finished independently reading Njall's Saga this week. (Eleanor's summary: "A bunch of people killed each other, and his wife didn't give him hair for a bow string.") On to William the Conqueror! I quote the driest bit of history from Alice in Wonderland all the time: "In 1066, William the Conqueror..." The kids really could care less. Perhaps we should do an in-depth study of the Bayeux Tapestry, since needle arts apparently have the ability to move where all other erudition fails. I even pulled out Alice in Wonderland to read about William the Conqueror there, and discovered that all these years, I've been quoting it wrong. "William the Conqueror, whose cause was favored by the Pope..." Where did I get the 1066? At least it's accurate, and if nothing else, the kids know the correct date.

Julia is on a painted peg doll kick, and I just bought her a bunch of blanks. A bright idea occured: "Julia, what if we painted dolls for history? You could make Charlemagne, and William the Conqueror, and we could research their clothes..."

"Would I still have to read the history?" she demanded.



This goes apace. People like spelling this year, a welcome change from the past I-don't-know-how-long. The girls are working hard and memorizing their words, and taking it as a challenge when they get one wrong, instead of an occasion to collapse in sobs or sulks. We're using an old Calvert spelling book that was my sister's; perhaps it has the right feeling of authority. Isabel is inspired by the older girls and is keeping a spelling notebook too.


I like this part too, where we learn about adverb phrases and complex sentences and how language fits together. (Also, I just learned -- just learned! -- that when you write the plural of a letter or a number, you use an apostrophe: A's, 3's. All these years I thought that was incorrect. The more you know!) I am noticing better sentences from the young pupils since I've sat with them every day over Voyages in English and made them answer every practice exercise orally and complete every writing prompt.


We joined the Drama Club at the local Catholic school! This warms the cockles of my drama-major heart so much. The girls love it. In the fall, Drama Club is basically acting class, with a number of exercises I remember from my own acting class days, culminating in scenes at the end of the semester, and in the spring they do a play. The group is 6th-8th graders, and the girls have friends in the group, and everything is awesome.


Organ starts this week. Cue whining about practicing in 3, 2, 1...

The thing is, I wish I had all this time to play music now. Ever since Betty Duffy and I made music, I've been itching to be musical again. I dusted off (literally) my copy of Rhapsody in Blue and am getting almost proficient on the first few pages, even when it gets to that fiddly series of runs on the third page. I didn't used to play piano! I do play piano! Even though I have no time to play the piano! I still can't jam to save my life, but I can do a few sweet Gershwin moves. Here's to the kids feeling the same way in 25 years.

Isabel, Jack, Diana

I worry that I give these guys short shrift, so let's write up the week and see.

Isabel has been journaling, and she has a knack for storytelling and for writing a good sentence. I am happy to spell any word she asks me for, within reason; how do you learn a word without hearing it first? Her handwriting is improving too, which makes me happy. Both she and Eleanor have started curling the tails of their y's and g's, and I like to see it -- I'm all for small beautifications of handwriting. She's reading Harry Potter 1 right now, pushing through it slowly but surely, and she's picking up other chapter books and moving through them much more quickly. I'd issue a ban the execrable, content-free Magic Tree House books, except that she's picking up on that herself.
"Mom, why does every book start with, "Jack wiped his glasses"?"
"Because these books are formulaic, honey."
"Oh. Okay."
I took the younger ones to the park while the big girls were in drama club, and we looked at the fish in the surprisingly clear lake, and the ducks doing their ducky thing (everyone could identify which were male and which were female, so I was pleased), and feathers were collected, and creeks were splashed in, and waterbugs observed. Even William cooed at the ducks and tracked the progress of an ant on a rail and sweated amiably in my arms.

Jack and Diana just rattle around the house all day, playing and living it up. I did get a bit alarmed at the thought of Jack going to his first grade religion class and not being able to write his name clearly, so we did some drill there and touched up his a's a bit. He asked for some copywork the other day, and suggested the phrase, "Amen, amen, I say to you," which he remembered from our Bible readings. We had a protracted spat about the best way to lay out his copywork, but finally I was given to understand that he wanted me to write out the line darkly in pencil, then he would erase it so that it was just an outline, and then he would trace it. Okay.

Here's a note from last Monday: "Jack, Diana -- book about the solar system; talked about life int eh universe and God's love." Yep, did that. It was one of those Magic School Bus books, which I could also live without. Any book about education that has Magic as the series gimmick, I'm about done with. Parse that sentence.

Also: could Thomas the Train Engine be any more creepy? I don't care if it gets him reading. I'd rather put up with crappy Star Wars prequels than Thomas.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

For the Norman Conquest The Striped Ships is a fun historical novel that follows a Saxon thane's daughter who is orphaned by the invading Normans as she journeys to Canterbury with her brother and then finds work stitching on the Bayeaux Tapestry. It's got some violent bits ( I had to edit a bit with the actual invasion scene) but I liked how it focused on daily life and on the details of the tapestry. Bella liked it, though I skipped chunks to make it work for her.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Also, I can't stand the Magic School Bus books, but the kids do seem to love the few that have made their way into our home. Why?

Julia said...

You know about this, no?

Kate said...

There are some hilarious commentaries and analyses of Thomas the Tank Engine floating around on the internet. The utilitarianism makes me uncomfortable, until I remind myself (and my kids) that utilitarianism is an appropriate standard for judging objects--just not people. So if Thomas and his friends really are just trains, their value can be based on their utility. In which case, being a bunch of steamies, they'd all be out of date. But anyway...

Do you know, I loved learning about William the Conqueror, but I think it was because I picked up my father's copy of "1066 and All That" at an impressionable age. It's very funny, and reading it before learning the actual history may have given me some odd and unhistorical impressions of various historical characters, but it made learning the history later on much more fun. Like having instant in-jokes.

lissla lissar said...

I learned lots of history through getting really into costume history, about grade seven through twelve. I'll recommend books if you give me half a chance!

Jenny said...

I can tolerate Thomas more than others, but just the show not the books. Advertisement masquerading as books make me want to tear my hair out.

It is funny how Thomas seems to draw so much commentary. I have seen passionate screeds declaring Thomas is a communist plot. I have also seen passionate screeds declaring Thomas is a capitalist plot.

I only see a cartoon about a train who thinks like a toddler.

Jenny said...

Oh why can't we edit comments?


entropy said...

I like the Magic School Bus (the show more than the books) but Thomas is banned everywhere, on screen and print.

Great learning notes. You gave a good feel for how things flow at your house.

Michael said...

these notes I always find amusing and full of great anecdotes — I'll have to tone down on my apostrophe-possive absolutism!

funny my wife and I are also 6th grade catechists (in the SF Bay Area). We're coteaching with another couple to spread the commitment. Your theme is also Old Testament?

Where are you posting the reflections you mention?

mandamum said...

We like Magic School Bus here - the original, with the extra characters and extra info on the edges. The magic only makes it possible to get small/large/far away fast, which works for me. Like a microscope or telescope....

As for Thomas, get the original stories, not the "Thomas series". They're called "The Railway Series" by Rev Awdry (? I think?) Our library has a bound book of all the old stories, complete with drawings, and I don't find them to be utilitarian/communist like the "Thomas" series books.

MrsDarwin said...

Michael, I'd started including the religion class notes in this post, and then they became so long I opened a new tab and put them into a separate post draft, and then the computer ate them wholesale. So I need to type them all up again, sigh. I'll try to write that post tonight.

Sarah said...

Never seen the Magic Schoolbus books (didn't even know they existed), but the shows were awesome! (Or at least I thought so as a kid). I didn't know there even were people who disliked it :)

No argument about Thomas the Train though. Something about the cartoon style is super creepy.

Maria J. said...

I second the note on the original Thomas stories by Rev. W. Awdry. The Scottish twins are my favorite. Reading them aloud with an accent brings back memories of reciting Robert Burns at Franciscan during a poetry reading. I also like the rhythm of the speech that mimics train rumblings. We've never brought the new ones (books or movies) into the house, but have the entire original 26 book set and Gabriel and Blaise (ages 5 and 3) love hearing them.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your reactions to the Magic School Bus books reminds me of a teacher's guide that I read right before I started teaching and which has been very influential to me: Keeping Kids Reading by Mary Leonhardt. Her point, in a nutshell, is that easy books with silly characters and plots are necessary training wheels. Let them devour Sweet Valley now and they'll be ready for Sense and Sensibility sooner rather than later. And that is why I've never really minded my students' or brothers' choice of reading material, unless it was deliberately ugly or malicious.

But it occurs to me that I've never asked anyone else involved in education about Leonhardt's advice. How does it strike you, Mrs. Darwin?

Melanie Bettinelli said...


I can't speak for anyone else, but my big objection to Magic School Bus is that none of my kids are independent readers yet. So it's really me objecting to having to read the Magic School Bus books *to* them.
I agree about the training wheels. I do think letting kids read a certain amount of fluff is fine and even helps them to develop a sense of what is good and bad. As long as they are being exposed to really good stuff too. Since I'm already reading the kids great literature, having them pick up the occasional pieces of cotton candy stuff doesn't worry me. But I refuse to read them over and over and over again. Because then it's in my head too. Ugh. But if my kids wanted to read Magic School Bus for themselves, I'd say have at it.

Actually, I was rather pleased the other day when the kids were discussing the Berenstein Bears and Bella said something about how she used to like them but not doesn't much any more. Pleased because I'm not very fond of reading them and she was for a while and I always groaned when I saw them in her pile. She's actually started just asking me to pick out books at the library half the time because she knows she's more likely to enjoy the books I select than those she's grabbed off the shelf because they had a pretty cover.

Jenny said...

I can't completely get on board with the idea that you let a kid read whatever he wants and it doesn't matter as long as he is reading. There is plenty of room for dumb fluff for him to read, that's true, but he must also be exposed to higher quality material. I don't believe a reading diet consisting only of "Sweet Valley" necessarily leads to "Sense and Sensibility" but often leads to the abandonment of reading.

The schools today thoroughly approach reading with the idea of "as long as they are reading" and the students are never exposed to higher quality material until it is dropped in their laps in high school and then they usually have a decided dislike because it is not fluff.

My biggest complaint about my girls' school is that all of their assigned reading has been junk. The library is filled with junk. The book fairs only have junk available for sale. They are not being formed; they are being pandered to.

Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie -- Hmmmm. I'm starting to understand why my mother hated reading aloud to me. LOL! I had practically all the Berenstain Bears books. =P

Jenny -- To clarify, Leonhardt wasn't saying that "subliterature" (her word) would lead to great literature in the sense that the former would give children a taste for the latter, but in the sense that the simple prose and storylines of the former help strengthen children's reading muscles for when they finally decide to take on the classics.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I do agree with Jenny that the taste for good literature must be cultivated deliberately. One can't assume that it's just going to happen by itself. I'm fine with children flexing their muscles on easier stuff (Though even there, I'd stress moderation and think they should alternate the fluffy subliterature with short selections of higher quality prose and even poetry.) But I'm very strongly of the opinion that it's crucial that while children are still learning the mechanics of decoding text and achieving fluency that their imaginations be fed plenty of high quality literature via read alouds. They need to learn to appreciate great literature early. Waiting until they can read it on their own is putting it off until tragically too late for most kids. But if they've had a steady diet of the really great stuff then the Sweet Valley High cotton candy stuff will eventually pall and they will know where to turn to find the meat and drink that will truly satisfy.

So no, I don't think the subliterature-- great word!-- should be anathema. In reasonable amounts it can help a child who is mastering proficiency to gain confidence with the written word. But I think it's foolish to assume that it will eventually pave the way to reading literature. That's like hoping a grand garden will grow all on it's own with no cultivation if you just scatter some random seeds in unprepared soil.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for the feedback, Melanie and Jenny! But now I'm starting to feel worried that I'm misrepresenting Leonhardt's book, so I should add that I've only mentioned one piece of advice from it. She had other things to say that I didn't bring up because they weren't relevant to this Magic School Bus discussion. =)