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

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Flu vs the Coronavirus

This is the week that things got bad in several key hot spots for the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, particularly New York City. Congress passed the largest relief package in US history, at more than two trillion dollars. Much of the US population is under lockdown, with various state or city level orders for people to remain at home other than getting food or participating in essential work. And there are stories of swamped hospitals and paramedics starting to come out of the worst hit areas. And yet, for a lot of people, things still look relatively normal As a result, there are still a fair number of people asking, "Is this all an over-reaction? Don't more people die of the flu?"

I can't take credit for sounding an early alarm on the coronavirus. I'd heard of it early on, because the company I work for has offices in China and Taiwan, and so I knew about how it had affected our employees and customers. But I had assumed that it would not become a major problem in the US, not for any rational reason, but simply because there had been various pandemic scares before which had not turned out to be a major problem in the US. However, being a data person and someone who responds to big events by reading a lot of news, I have tried to do my own research over the last few weeks and it seems very clear to me that COVID-19 is worth worrying about. Yes, the isolation rules are having a huge effect on the economy, and I clearly recognize the risk of people trying to stop a massive pandemic and landing themselves in an economic depression in the process. I'm not going to address that question here -- though I will point out that an unchecked pandemic would probably cause a major recession anyway. My goal here is to show that the "what about the flu" comparisons miss how worrying the trends look.

The CDC lists Influenza & Pneumonia as the 8th leading cause of death in the US, with ~55,000 deaths per year, though it's well behind the leading causes, Heart Disease and Cancer, which account for 600,000 per year each. As people trying to argue that concern about COVID-19 is overblown have pointed out, we haven't had anywhere near 55,000 deaths due to the coronavirus yet, and flu also has a season during which cases increase exponentially.

The CDC provides data on deaths due to flu and pneumonia, and there are various sources that have been compiling the data on COVID-19. Let's start by looking at the data for New York State, which is currently the worst COVID-19 outbreak. I've pulled data on deaths due to flu and pneumonia by week from the CDC site here and I've compared it to data on New York State deaths due to COVID-19 here.

As you can see, pneumonia (which people often get as a result of the flu, but also results from other causes) is relatively constant through the year, ranging from 120 deaths a week in the summer to 160 deaths a week in the winter. Flu deaths range from zero a week during the off season to highs of around 20 a week during January and February.

In the last three weeks (coronavirus data is being updated faster than flu data right now, so I don't have flu data for the last two weeks) New York had zero COVID-19 deaths the week ending March 14th, 44 deaths the week ending March 21st, and 684 deaths the week ending March 28th. This virus is hitting New York much harder in the last week than the flu ever does.

If we look at similar data nationally, you can see why it's possible for people in other areas of the country to still wonder if we're overreacting. Just a week ago the number of COVID-19 deaths was lower than the number of flu deaths. But this last week it was well above flu and closing fast on pneumonia. (US COVID-19 data source here.)

The CDC also provides data on the hospitalization rate for flu and pneumonia in terms of the number of hospitalizations per 100,000 people. I compared this to the hospitalization data for COVID-19 for New York State. In terms of cumulative hospitalizations, there haven't been as many cumulative COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last three weeks as there have been during the 25 weeks of the flu season for flu and pneumonia:

However, compare the numbers for individual weeks you can see why they're concerned about hospital capacity:

We're still in the early stages on the COVID-19 pandemic, and we hope that the stringent measures that have been taken will slow the spread of the disease and eventually allow us to isolate it and let it die out. Because it's so new, and it's still somewhat regionally isolated in hot spots, the total numbers aren't yet as large as those for flu and pneumonia. However, when we look at the number of deaths per week and the number of hospitalizations per week, especially in the hard hit areas, it's easy to see why people are worried and taking major steps to stop this pandemic from getting worse.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 4 -- High School

It's the second day of the second week of school closures, here, and I'm only just getting around to writing the high school post. This is a testament to how upended the routine is. It's hard to feel settled about the day and the week. It feels like a long vacation, like off-time. Last week not much got done, by anyone, as we tracked news and read articles and updated our coronavirus map (more on this later). This week, we're trying to act like this is the new normal, and carrying on accordingly.

So: high school.

If you are a temporary homeschooler during this time, you want to do the best by your child while balancing the work that school might have sent home or assigned over this time. Video schooling, online worksheets, papers or essays -- what is important right now? What is just busy work? How can you help your teen learn what's important, while reducing stress on him and on your family in uncertain times? You already know how difficult it is for kids to learn in a stressful environment. You know how difficult it is for you yourself to get anything done right now, even stick to a regular routine.

What makes this more difficult is that your child's school can't necessarily require online classes because the work might not even count.
For all the talk of online learning during shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, many U.S. public school students will find that the work they do while at home is actually optional. It won’t be graded and it won’t count. 
Some public schools are calling online work “enrichment,” not part of the curriculum, because they can’t guarantee that all students will have access to it. Students without the internet or home computers can’t do it, and special-needs students may require accommodations to complete it. 
As a result, millions of schoolchildren risk missing weeks of school. Most states have closed schools, leaving more than 43 million children, in grades K-12, out of school, and some schools won’t reopen this school year. 
“It’s an equity issue. If you can’t guarantee all your students have online access, nothing’s graded,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesman in Seattle Public Schools in Washington, which closed schools and plans to broadcast not-for-grade educational activities online and by TV. “Our goal is to keep the students from going into a summer slide.”  
...Schools are expected to advance students to the next grade, come fall, even with all the months of missed coursework, though many administrators say they haven’t addressed it yet. Teachers already dread what they call “the summer slide,” or information children lose over summer vacation, and schools haven’t yet said how curricula in the fall may need to be adjusted to make up missed work. 
This is good news if video schooling has been a bone of contention at your house, or a headache on top of everything else you're dealing. It's bad news for your teen's educational motivation. And now the question becomes: how can you help prevent the "summer slide" and help your teenager take responsibility for his or her own work? Can you help them learn without having them be online all day? Is that really the best way to learn?

Something that's becoming more and more clear, I think: requirements are not education. Meeting state standards for classes and graduation, ticking all the test boxes, is one thing; learning, mastering material, and being able to participate in your education is another. Right now the requirements are all over the place. This is a golden chance to focus on education.


Last Friday, when I intended to write this post, the gospel reading was Mark 12:28-34. The scribe asks Jesus which is the first of all commandments, a common parlor game among students of the law.
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, He is One and there is no other than he. And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Jesus saw that he answered with understanding.

My 16yo daughter was asked the other day to sum up homeschooling in one phrase, and she said, "Homeschooling is about understanding, not accomplishment." What does it merit a student, to do set after set of problems, to finish the textbook, to check the graduation boxes, if the student doesn't understand what he or she is learning? Schools have different ways of measuring this understanding: tests, papers, quizzes, projects, science fairs, etc.

You, at home, have a simpler expedient: can your child tell you what they've just read? Can they synthesize the facts and theories in their textbook and put them in their own words? Can they tell you the plot of the novel, or what happened in the chapter they were assigned? Can they write one paragraph about it?

High school is about preparing a child to go forth in the world, whether to college, to vocational school, or to the job market. It's about preparing her to confront new information and ideas, compare them with what she already knows, make comparisons, and make decisions. It's about teaching him how to learn as an adult learns. There are so many facts and tidbits of information out there. The internet is awash with them, pixels and pixels of attractive graphics and opinions laid out for the unfenced mind. Is your student prepared with the mental tools to sift through them and scrutinize them for accuracy, for probability, for truth?

And, as Pilate asked of Jesus, what is truth?

Here's a book recommendation: How to Read A Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.
Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and insofar as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understand as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding. 
One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements -- all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics -- to make it easy for him to "make up his own mind" with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and "plays back" the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.
If your teenager does nothing else during this time but learn how to read well, and to intelligently narrate what's he's read, he will be better prepared for school in the fall than if he'd done hours of classwork.

If she does nothing but a self-directed project, or spending hours working on building a new skill or trying a new hobby, starting, failing, picking herself up and trying again, she will be better prepared for life after high school than if she did hours of SAT prep.

The prep is important, and some time should be spent on it. But not all the time.


As in all these posts, this is a lot of theory when people are yearning for concrete resources. Here's what the 8th, 10th, and 12th grader are doing in these strange days, and their reading lists for the year.

8th grade

Darwin has a spreadsheet with booklists and general assignments, fine-tuned over several years of having 8th graders. Our 14yo is a type A extrovert, organized, very structured. She takes her spreadsheet and writes down her daily work in a planner.

In these locked-down days, she can't go to drama and dance, but she practices her piano, writes letters, crochets, tap dances in the attic, and sings with her sisters.

American History:
Land of Hope
Glory: One Gallant Rush
The Forgotten Man

One is One
Till We Have Faces
The Great Divorce
The Great Gatsby
The Man Who Was Thursday
End of Track
The Last Days of Night

Microbe Hunters
Born Free
The Selfish Gene

The Art of Problem Solving: Pre-Algebra

Warriner's English Composition

The How-To Book of the Mass
St. Francis of Assisi
The Story of a Soul

10th grade

The 16yo is missing her social whirl, and so is using this time to check in on school friends, video chat with all and sundry, and keep up with her bible study and prayer group. She's used Zoom for group calls, but we haven't tried it for online classes.

She's keeping a map of the spread of coronavirus in Ohio, and updates it everyday at 2pm with the governor's briefing. As a result, when the Amber Alert went off at 4am this morning, she knew just where Logan County was.

Instead of going to play rehearsal, she's sewing costumes in her room. She's also teaching her siblings archery in the back yard, and keeping up with her piano and voice and ballet stretches. She and the sisters are busy writing alternate lyrics to various songs for fun and profit. And, as always, there's letter writing.

Also, through incessant practice, the sisters are about ready to perform this note for note:

Starr, History of the Ancient World (selections)
Hadas, History of Rome (selections)
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
Virgil, The Aeneid
Roman Drama: Mostellaria
Cupid and Psyche (from The Golden Ass)
Acts of the Apostles
The Christians as the Romans Saw Them
Augustine, Confessions (selections)
selections from The Desert Fathers
Benedict, Rule of St. Benedict

online Astronomy course

The Art of Problem Solving: Geometry

The Transitive Vampire
Drawing Sentences

Pocket Catholic Catechism
How Far Can We Go?
What Catholics Really Believe

Plus, I just made her read The Great Gatsby so we could watch the movie.

12th grade:

The 17yo is an introvert who spends a lot of the day in retreat from the noise around here. She and the sisters are constantly wrestling over who gets the phone and the earbuds. Her attic bedroom is her retreat, and that's where she does most of her work. She plays piano, and is doing some nice jazzy work. Tap, singing, a giant cross-stitch project, and Pokemon take up her time.

Over her break, she's been sketching along with Withdraw2020, and has introduced the world to Corona Guy.


Medieval People
Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
Thomas More, Utopia
Bradford, The Great Siege of Malta
Galileo: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina
Bacon: Essays -- Of Truth, Great Place, Studies, Friendship
Norton Anthology: Sidney, Spenser, Donne
Milton: L'Allegro, On His Blindness, selections from Paradise Lost
Montaigne: Essays (selections)
Pascal: Pensees (selections)
Swift: Gulliver's Travels (selections), A Modest Proposal
Declaration of Independence
Federalist Papers (selections)
The Constitution of the United States
Washington's Farewell Address
Alien & Sedition Acts
Kentucky & Virginia Resolutions
Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address
Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Gogol: The Overcoat
Chekov: Uncle Vanya
Trollope: The Warden
Dickens: Bleak House
Douglass: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Writing Research Papers

Ratzinger: Introduction to Christianity
Libresco: Arriving at Amen
Sheed: Theology and Sanity

Art History:
Community College class

Give her a break. She's already taken her SAT and been accepted to college. She is done with math.  (And she took Statistics at the community college back in the Fall Semester.)

Saturday, March 21, 2020

If You Miss Some Schooling, You Won't Miss Much

A week ago, which seems a while at the moment, on my last day in the office I was talking with a co-worker about the school shutdowns. I opined that although local schools are theoretically only closed for three weeks I expected it to be more like two months.

"That'd be terrible," she said. "They'd have to work through July to catch up."

"Why bother?" I said. "They could just let it go and start fresh the following year."

As I explained in somewhat greater length: the truly new skills and pieces of knowledge one picks up in school are somewhat spaced out.

In preschool through Kindergarten you learn your letters and numbers. Between K and 1st you learn to read and you learn basic addition and subtraction. In 2nd-3rd grade you learn basic multiplication and division. Somewhere in the middle there you learn fractions, long multiplication, and long division. Then around 7th or 8th grade you start to learn algebraic concepts like solving for variables and balancing equations. And, of course, once you've learned to read, you read about actual subject matter in History, Science, Civics, etc. as well as reading some literature.

But cut half a year or even a year out of your school career and pick up against afterwards, and the chances that you've missed something irrecoverable are incredibly low. Did you miss learning about fractions? Well, luckily it only takes a couple weeks to nail the concept and you may not be learning any new concepts in the next six months anyway, so there's lots of time to pick it up. This could be tricky if you were the only person who was out when a key concept was covered, and came back after everyone else had moved on, but right now what we have is entire schools out of session. Teachers should know pretty clearly what got skipped and it wouldn't necessarily be hard to catch it up.

In subjects like science and history, the solution might well be to not even bother trying to catch up. Just move on and count on getting to the subject in more depth later. That's because in these subject areas the progress through grades is often one of repeatedly re-covering the same topics in greater and greater depth. Did you miss the second half of US History in 5th grade? Not to fear, you'll cover US History again in a couple years. Miss learning about the solar system in 3rd grade? You'll get to it within the next year or two anyway.

There's an advantage to covering topics multiple times with increasing levels of depth. It's not like you'd want to wait till a college astronomy course to learn that we live on a spherical planet that goes around a star which is composed of hydrogen undergoing fusion. But although these multiple passes do have a use, it also means that missing one pass is not catastrophic.

As a parent and an educator, I try to remind myself of this at times when I'm getting discouraged. Nailing every single thing every time is not a make or break necessity. What we do is important, but if we miss it or do it badly, there's a second chance and a third.

And as we think about unusual times like this, it's also a usefully reassuring perspective. We don't need to plunge the kids from the worry of a pandemic isolation into the worry of working on school all summer to "catch up". Sure, try to get schoolwork done during the coming weeks. I'm sure we've all see already how crazy kids get when they have totally unstructured time. But at the same time, if we miss stuff during this time, or do different stuff than planned, it's not going to have a big impact on our kids' education in the long run. It's much more important to keep people sane and happy during this time than to try to get every little thing done in terms of school plans. That's one extra worry we don't need to shoulder.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Type Zs, Unite!

Comic by Eleanor, 17.

Looking at the blog, I'm shocked to see that we haven't posted anything since Monday. For us, this has been almost a busier time than usual. My teens are checking in with their school friends, scheduling calls and group chats, watching livestreams of Mass or youth group at usual times -- things that cut into our normal family schedule. And we're in a bit of vacation mode. My 16yo printed off a map of Ohio, and we've been tracking cases by county each day and keeping a tally. Our county has seen its first case, and Columbus to the south of us had seven cases as of yesterday.

This has been, in general, an easy time. I'm not prone at all to anxiety, and it doesn't faze me to have the routine upended a bit by a global pandemic of an intensely contagious disease. We homeschool anyway, so I'm used to being home with the kids and directing their work when they need it. We've been kept inside, but it's been raining, so the kids wouldn't have been outside playing in any event. We stocked up on toilet paper and paper towels and cleaning supplies when we had the flu three weeks ago, so the bare shelves aren't a problem. We can bake our own bread. We have lots of socialization -- lots and lots, by phone and by family. The greatest sadness is the loss of Mass, but we also have not yet missed a Sunday mass, so that deprivation has yet to kick in.

This is a very good time for me to be pulled back from social media. Many of my acquaintances are frightened by the state of the world, and their lack of control over circumstances, and are having strong anxious responses. This is not my struggle, and I don't want to be dismissive or insensitive to friends who are having a difficult time right now.

At the same time, I want to say: if you're not freaking out right now, it's okay! This is a time that plays to the strengths of us Type-Z people in other ways than it plays to the strengths of the Type-A planners and organizers. The world, the neighborhood, the family needs people who can be cheerful, unafraid, easy-going, roll-with-the-punches. I'm not talking about risk-takers, but about having a balanced outlook even in unprecedented circumstances. We love our families, we take precautions, and then we know: what's going to happen is going to happen.

All shall be well, said Julian of Norwich, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. May all manner of thing be well with you, my friends.

Monday, March 16, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 3 -- The Middle Grades

I wrote most of this earlier today, but my husband is now working from home and needing to shut off the library with the main computer in it, and my daughters are using my laptop for schoolwork. Ah, quarantine.

Welcome to the first Monday morning of the rest of your quarantine, with your olive branches gathered around your table when they'd ordinarily be at school. You're willing to let your younger children run around and do their own thing, but what about your middle-grade kids? They've come home with assignments, and the school likely is talking big about online classes.

And you might have to do this for the rest of the school year, without field trips, without play groups, without outside help. Just you and the kids.

First things first: I believe in you. I believe that God has given you, as a parent/foster parent/caregiver, graces to care for and teach these particular children that he's given you. And if you find yourself in charge of other children during this time, these too are children that he's given you during this time.

This episode is not a distraction from life, something getting in the way of what you ought to be doing. It is life, and so this, right now, this moment, is what you're called to be doing. Even if it's teaching your children when you never in a million years wanted to homeschool.

Fine, MrsDarwin, you say. But what exactly am I supposed to be doing with these young minds for two months? They have skills they need to be learning. They have assignments. I don't understand the math. How do I guide them?

I want to give you this encouragement: if the video classes and the online work your child's school has sent home becomes a source of great stress and frustration, fights between you and your child, a monster that eats your day, feel free to walk away. What are they going to do, fire you? Hold your child back a year? Refuse graduation? You always, as the parent, are the final authority, but right now you are the immediate teaching authority, and you know your child. And you're all stuck together in a house for weeks and weeks. Stress over schoolwork is not the way to build strong family relationships, and it's a bad environment for any kind of learning.

Let me repeat that: children do not learn well, do not retain information well, in a stressful environment.

Right now, what is key is building rapport with your child -- trust and love and respect -- so that as you teach, they can hear you and learn. And these middle grades -- 3rd through 8th, say -- are times of great change for children. Growing pains, anxiety, new hormones on the older end, etc.

The great saint of educating difficult children, John Bosco, begged his teachers to employ gentleness over harsh correction, patience over punishment, understanding over legalism. I struggle with this myself, but I have found, time and again, how right he is, and how training myself to temper firmness with mercy and gentleness have borne repeated fruit.

You can find Don Bosco's writings here -- I particularly recommend How A Saint Corrected Children and The Preventative System in the Education of the Young -- both only five pages long, but loaded with sound and encouraging advice.

Fine, MrsDarwin, you say again. But what I am supposed to do with these children! Give me specifics!

First off: if you're worried about covering grade-level content, consult the Core Knowledge Foundation (unrelated to the Department of Education Common Core standards). I've used their resources in the form of grade-specific books: What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know, What Your First Grader Needs to Know, and so on through What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know. The books are arranged by subject, and are full of literature (stories and summaries of great books), poetry, proverbs and common sayings, history, world religions, music topics, science topics, and math standards. It's not a textbook, but a child could read a section from each topic each day, narrate it back to you, and get a pretty good education that way.

The Core Knowledge sequence at the website goes through eighth grade.


My 9yo daughter is in 4th grade, technically. "Technically", because for the past year we have been doing intensive work because she has dyslexia. We're following a special reading program called Barton. My daughter has jumped a lot in her reading comprehension since we started working on her dyslexia, and although it requires a lot of patience on both our parts some days, her previous inability to learn to read has vanished. If your child is displaying a lot of resistance to reading and not retaining any instruction, forgetting even the most basic facts right after being taught them, it may not be their fault. Here's a simple, less-than-15-minute screening to see whether your child is able to hear and process the basic units of sound in words. (Doing this counts as an entire day's worth of education, in my book.)

And we've dropped math.

Yes, I said it. For the 4th grade year, we're not using a math textbook, and our math education is gentle and brief. Math is a struggle for a child whose brain is wired differently, and while we're working on that rewiring, some things need to take a back seat. That's okay! These middle years are times when concepts are repeated, relearned, and forgotten overnight. You know this with your own kids. Fortunately for us, there's fifth grade, and sixth grade, and seventh grade, to solidify this knowledge.

So, for math, we're memorizing the times tables by singing the songs from Multiplication Motivation. This is what my mom used with my younger siblings, and truth be told, when I get stuck on the 7 facts, I still sing through the song in my head.  (Bonus: my 6yo is learning his times tables by hearing these songs too.)

All of our formal reading, grammar, writing, spelling is wrapped up in our dyslexia program. This past year, we made great strides in handwriting, especially cursive, through level 3 of Handwriting Without Tears. I think the font is hideous, but it resonated with my daughter in a way that the beautiful handwriting of the Italics program (which I used with my other children) did not.

One thing we're doing right now, with all age levels, is journaling. If my daughter wants help in figuring out what she should say, I help her work out a topic or even a sentence. And then I help her spell any words she needs. If it's a word that she should be able to spell, phonetically, I have her finger spell it. Starting with the thumb of the left hand, we work through the sounds.

"Fast. F-A-S-T. Just like it sounds."

"Dear. D-EEEE-R. What makes the E say it's name? In this word, it's EA.

"Beautiful. That's tricky, so I'll just tell you how to spell it."

Finger spelling, a trick we learned from our dyslexia program, has been so useful that my 11yo and 14yo improved in their spelling last year by picking it up.

Because my daughter's reading has improved so much, she's reading much more for fun. I don't assign her textbooks to read because I don't want her guessing at words. For many students, guessing is part of learning, but for the dyslexic it's a shortcut that we want to train the child out of. However, during our morning readalouds, I make sure to ask her to tell me what's going on in our story, what an unusual word might mean, why this character made that choice. Even though she's not reading with her eyes, she is reading with her ears, and processing story and language.


My sixth-grade son has recently had a reading click, and now will pick up a book himself for fun and to learn. He loves reading us strange facts from a Guinness World Record book, or playing trivia with his sisters from a book about the presidents. Right now his reading assignments are a biography of Alexander the Great and, for literature, The Swiss Family Robinson, and, as always, I ask him for narration. This isn't an in-depth book report, but just a brief summary so I know that he's doing the reading each day. Next up for history is a book about Ancient Greek civilization.

For fun he's reading a book about four friends who fight in the Vietnam War, one of these American historical fiction series that are popular right now for tweens. And he loves graphic novels.

We do a lesson of Saxon Math each day. We talk through the teaching section and the practice problems at the beginning of the lesson. He can get through the problem sets quickly, but if I leave him to do it himself I find a lot of fudged answers and questionable solving strategies. So I often find myself sitting with him, making sure that he remembers that when we add or subtract fractions, the denominators have to be the same, or that the way to find area is height times width, or that when you divide fractions you multiply by the reciprocal.

This is about the level of math I'm still capable of supervising and teaching, and my main job is to be patient but firm. "Show your work!" is my constant refrain. He'll feel like he knows what he's doing and try to solve everything in his head, but working out one problem on paper, step by step, and then talking me through it is better than pages of unsupervised drill.

He's journaling daily with his younger sister. The grammar isn't always great, but that will come with practice. I'm still having to emphasize that sentences start with capitals and end with punctuation, and I help him with spelling. Words are meant to be used in context, not in isolation, so we don't write out lists of spelling words. He learns spelling rules through his sister's dyslexia program, and I encourage him to think through the rules when he's finger spelling.

Copywork is also a good thing at this age -- a sentence from a book he's reading or a quote he likes, written neatly, for quality, not for speed.

He loves building block towers with his younger brothers and watching fun engineering videos on YouTube. If he gets too zany I send him out to run laps in the back yard, or set him doing jumping jacks, or make him do a workout video. Right now Scouts is canceled for the foreseeable future, so he needs to look through his handbook and see what badges he can be working toward at home. Something he's been working on in his spare time is teaching himself coin tricks and card tricks from a magic book, and there are plenty of YouTube videos on the topic as well. I encourage him to read about what he's interested in, and I try to limit computer game time because it makes him and his siblings cranky when I shut it off.

Both the 9yo and the 11yo practice their piano each day -- not always willingly, but sometimes they'll hit upon a song they like, and play it incessantly. Recently he had me help him pick out the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean, so we hear that a lot. As long as kids aren't actively annoying their siblings, I'll let them play the piano as long as they have the stomach for it.

Since we read and discuss the Bible daily, I don't do a separate religion program with them, except the chapters that are being emailed from their Sunday school class right now. That's just busy work -- I don't feel like the content is extremely deep or fascinating. Sometimes when we read them it leads to good discussions, but otherwise it's just checking the box.


Next up, the high school kids (in which I'm including the eighth-grader.)

The Face For Radio!

Comic by Eleanor, my 17yo
Welcome to all listeners of the Son Rise Morning Show! As per my point about getting rest, I didn't get up to listen, but my sister-in-law Anna Mitchell tells me that our interview about homeschooling temporarily during quarantine ran at 6:35 this morning. For all readers here, I'll update this post with the recording when it's up on the Morning Show website.

UPDATE: And here's the audio! I can't stand listening to myself, but I hope you find the interview mellifluous.

Here is the post we discussed: How to Homeschool Temporarily (in the Event of Quarantine).

Tomorrow morning I'll be on with Anna discussing my followup post on working at home with young children: How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 2 -- The Little Kids.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Social Networks and Pandemics

I haven't written about the COVID-19 situation to date because I haven't felt that I have a great deal to contribute. Being able to understand the nature of exponential growth is not a very unique ability, and infectious disease is not something I'm greatly knowledgeable about. However, as people move into cancelling events and reducing their social networks in order to stop the spread of the disease, and talking about "flattening the curve", I wanted to write a little bit about how this kind of "social distancing" affects the spread.

Think about society as involving a set of social spheres. Each of these spheres is a group of people who see each other regularly. Each person belongs to multiple social spheres and they thus serve as the connection between these social spheres. You see the people you're around at work. You see your family. You see people at your church, your book discussion group, your play rehearsal, what have you. And within each of those spheres, there are other people who belong to a different set of spheres. I see people at work who spend time with their kids, whose kids spend time on a sports team, etc. Just like the game of "three degrees of Kevin Bacon" where you try to establish that every actor has been in a movie with someone who's been in a movie with Kevin Bacon, you're in close contact with all the people who are in close contact with someone you are in close contact with.

When our social spheres are large and we belong to lots of them, we're in second or third degree contact with lots of people. And if a disease is spreading through your area, you'll pretty quickly be in contact with someone who's been in contact with someone who's sick.

With large groups and many connections between groups, the virus spreads quickly through all the social spheres.

The goal with all this effort around "social distancing, as well as reminding people to wash their hands frequently, not touch their faces, etc. is two fold. On the one hand, good sanitary procedures and less physical contact result in less person to person transmission. On the other, having people break into smaller social spheres and belong to fewer social spheres (plus encouraging people to self-isolate if they or someone they know becomes sick) slows the spread of the disease as well, meaning that there are more steps between any given person and someone with the disease. However, just slowing the spread through having to take more steps would not actually solve our problem. Although the talk about "flattening the curve" makes sense and supports doing the right things, we do not actually have remotely enough intensive care unit beds to deal with everyone being exposed to COVID-19 more slowly -- unless by slowly we mean over the course of a dozen years.

So the point of social distancing is not just to slow the spread, it's to break up the connections between social networks sufficiently that whole networks simply don't get exposed to the virus. Isolating the disease and no having it spread through the whole population is key.

This means that the key to successfully limited the spread of the disease is not necessarily to see no one, but to break into fairly discrete social nodes that do not have as many connections with each other. As with the characters in Boccaccio's Decameron, in which seven young women and three young men retreat to a villa outside of Florence to wait out the Black Death, it's okay to be around a consistent set of people on a daily basis. The key thing is not to have many connections between your consistent social group and other consistent social groups. That way, if someone in one group gets sick, it won't spread beyond that group. If connections between groups are infrequent, it's less likely that what occasional interactions there are will fall during that dangerous period when someone has the virus and can spread it but is not yet showing symptoms.

So find your plague buddy, and like Boccaccio's merry crew, settle in to tell each other stories and otherwise pass the time. Flatten the curve, but also break the network. We want to keep as many social notes COVID-19 free as possible.

Friday, March 13, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily, Part 2 -- the Little Kids

Hello, if you're a new reader! The number of eyeballs on my post about How to Homeschool Temporarily (in the Event of Quarantine) has been an anomaly for our sleepy blog. "I finally wrote something relevant!" I crowed, as a flurry of texts came in yesterday announcing that Ohio was shuttering schools for three weeks.

My 16yo daughter rolled her eyes. "You're so vain, Mom."

"Child, you don't understand," I said. "For once the world wants the arcane knowledge that I've been accumulating over years and years of labor. This is what I've been prepping for my whole life."

My 16yo was not impressed, but maybe I'll get a better reception from parents who are suddenly, with a weekend's warning, thrust into the homeschooling lifestyle.

Good news! You don't need specialized curriculum. You have your own set of interests and abilities and talents, your own history and loves, and you are uniquely suited to hand them down to your children. And you know your child. The privilege and burden of parenthood is to be gentle when others would be strict, and to be strict when others would be lenient. (You know this in the grocery store, at the park, in church -- when to give a tired, cranky child leeway when others are giving him the stinkeye and muttering about "manners" and "behavior", and when to glare at the kid and tell him, "Excuse me, you are capable of doing better," when others around you are saying, "Oh, it's all right! He's just a kid, I don't mind!")

And you are already homeschooling. At the dinner table, when you hold forth about the influence of Kurt Cobain on the music scene of the 90's; in the car, when you explain the rules for a stop sign and how that guy totally ignored them; at bedtime when you're reading a book to your youngster and you ask, "What does that letter say?" You know this in the reverse, also, if you've ever heard a vile word come out of your child's mouth -- one that she learned from you. Our children are watching us, constantly, absorbing our attitudes and our ethics. Teachers understand this, which is why there is so much emphasis put on the home atmosphere. If a classroom lesson is not bolstered at home, either with tutoring or with support for homework, the teacher is fighting an uphill battle to instill it in a child.

But let's talk about the purpose of education. It is the flourishing of human persons. It is helping each individual to reach their full potential, for the good of themselves and of society. And society is crucial, because we don't exist in a vacuum. We exist for others -- to care for others, to love others. The world of knowledge, which is bigger than any one person, which all persons can participate in, allows us to build bonds with other people, across space and across history. We exist in a family -- an immediate family, and the family of humanity, and we are more alike than we know. History, philosophy, literature -- all these disciplines help us to understand people throughout time, and so understand ourselves better. Through the wisdom and experiences of others -- some experiences we know intimately, and some we could never take part in personally -- we grasp what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

How does this help you, stuck at home for three weeks during coronavirus, with a houseful of children bouncing off the walls, moaning for computer time, while you, perhaps, are trying to work from home? (And indeed, as I write this, I have a 2yo on my lap, trying to prod the keys, with whom I have just had a long discourse in which I finally ascertained that he wanted to play "Star Wars Game" on my phone.) I want to tell you about how life works here, normally, to give you a sense of what homeschooling can look like.

First, some background. I myself was homeschooled from 4th grade on, in the wild days of the 80's when homeschoolers were few and far between and parents were just figuring this lifestyle out. My husband's background is similar -- he started in 5th grade, because he had a brother with special needs and his mother found it easiest to teach everyone from home. We're both the oldest, so we grew up watching our younger siblings start out with reading and writing. Homeschooling wasn't something scary to us as we started our own family. In fact, we thought we knew a lot more than we did. (Everyone is like that in their 20s, about something.)

Now we have seven children, ages 17-2. Our oldest is a senior, headed to college next year; the youngest is years off from any formal schooling. That's a lot of kids to go through, so here's what the day looks like for the two little boys, ages 2 and 6.


This guy is becoming a chatterbox, working on complete sentences. We're used to him, so most of the time we understand what he's saying, but there are still times when I need to repeat what I think he's asking: "Is that what you're trying to say?" You'd think that seven children in, I'd know all about raising toddlers, but I recently read and gained a lot from The Montessori Toddler, which reminded me that young children are capable of doing a lot of things for themselves, if we help create conditions which are conducive to their flourishing. For example, I've been helping my little guy brush his teeth on his own, and I was astonished at how much he'd absorbed already from watching me. I let him hold the toothpaste and put it on his own brush, scrub around, and then rinse it out himself. He has a little stool to stand on, but alas, and probably in direct contravention to all Montessori directives, our old bathroom has mirror low enough for a child to see himself in. So sometimes I lift him up to stand on the sink, and sometimes I just let him stay low, and often I give him one final brush after he's finished brushing himself. Then he knows to go to the towel and dry himself off, and there we are.

We're going through the same steps for handwashing. He sees me do it, and tries each step himself. Very topical.

I've been trying to let him take more responsibility for setting up his lunch at his little table, and learning to bring me the dishes when he's done, and neatening up his space. Some days we're good about this. Some days it's too much work for me, and I just do everything for him. But I'm trying to be more aware of how he learns.

We read aloud at naptime and bedtime. Dr. Seuss is a favorite, and we've just discovered Mo Willem's Pigeon books, which are a lot of fun for the small child who gets to shout "No" to the Pigeon's every stalling tactic. The fellow also absorbs a lot of reading with the older kids, and so has learned to amuse himself, for good or ill, through a lot of verbage that's over his head. Every child has their place in the family structure -- the oldest gets a lot of personalized, age-appropriate attention; the youngest picks up a lot through being with older kids. It's just the way it is.

Screen time. Yes, yes, I was raised in a home in which we didn't have a TV for many formative years. My husband's mother was excellent about setting screen limits and sticking to them. My kids watch more stuff than either of us ever did growing up. When the little boys are bouncing around and I need to get things done, you bet your sweet bippy I'm putting on a video. I have older children; I'm not relegated to the tyranny of kids' programming, and you needn't be either. If I can't stand it, I don't let it play in the house. One thing that's constant viewage right now for the younger set (and I've got the library's copy for three extra weeks now, haha!) is Walking With Dinosaurs: The Ballad of Big Al (here in convenient bite-sized segments on YouTube). Narrated by Kenneth Branagh (extremely easy on the ears), it's dinosaur heaven for the small fry, and so much more palatable than watching another stupid episode of Dinosaur Train. (The special feature about the making of the show is also essential viewage, but I can't seem to find it on YouTube.)

If you need some substitute for kids' shows that set your teeth on edge, and you have Disney Plus or a good library collection, let the younger watch Phineas and Ferb. When it used to be on Netflix, many was the time when I walked in to say, "Time to shut the screen off!" and ended up watching the rest of the episode myself.

(Note: We do not have Disney Plus, nor Netflix anymore, and so have to either watch on Amazon or get stuff at the library, which is now closed for three weeks.)


This guy has been doing kindergarten work this year, which for us is very low key. I don't believe in massive amounts of curriculum at young ages, which is always just busywork for the parents. Why make life more difficult for everyone? Kids this age need to

  • hear lots of language, through books and conversation 
  • can start decoding phonemes, which is basically putting sounds with letters ("Here's the 'A'! It says 'aaaa'. 'C' and 'A' and 'T' -- we put that all together. Do it with me. 'Ccccaaatttt'. What does that say? Cat!").
  • start with mathematical concepts -- more and less, bigger and smaller, counting, adding and subtracting. You can do this with expensive manipulatives, and have your 2yo sitting on the table trying to throw the Cuisinaire rods while your older child only wants to build towers and stairs with them. 
  • need to get familiar with holding writing implements and, if they have the aptitude, try forming letters. Otherwise, let them color and doodle and scribble, in coloring books or workbooks or any scrap paper you have sitting around.
  • Learn life skills like picking out clothes, getting dressed, making their bed (if that is important to you), clearing their own plate from the table, etc. 
NOTE WELL: I am in a blessed stage of life in which I have multiple in-house babysitters, and two drivers. I don't apologize for my privilege; I've put in my time in the trenches of rearing many small children with no back-up. But I do find myself forgetting how hard those years of no older kids were, with no one to come grab the baby while I was trying to work with another child. If you're in that stage of life, I want to you know: it is a stage, and the kids will get older, and it will get easier (in some senses, and harder in others). If, for these weeks, you have a lot of small children at home, giving them the time to play with each other, and learn to enjoy each other's company, is worth more than any small hard-fought gains in phoneme decoding or math fact memorization.


Family Read-Alouds

Someone has said that homeschooling is like running your own charter school based around your interests. We are not a STEM charter at our house. We are a dramatic and literary academy, because I was a theater major and love reading aloud.

You don't have to be a theater major to read to your children, though. You need a book, and a couch, and a room, and a time. Here's how our morning time works.

Regularity. We read together every morning. There's not a set time, but the kids all know that we'll be doing readings, and they need to drop what they're doing and be present. 

What's most important. If I believe that knowing, loving, and serving God is the nexus of my life, through which everything else I do takes its meaning, then I want my children to learn to love God too, and to see me practicing this love. To that end, the first thing we do together is say our morning prayers -- a few set prayers, and then a time for the kids to mention anything they want to pray for -- and then we read the Bible. We follow the Catholic daily mass readings, which I look up online and then read out of a physical Bible. After each reading I ask the kids what they just heard, and we talk about how the readings fit together and what Jesus is doing/teaching us in the gospel. Then I read a short reflection (we use Bishop Robert Barron's gospel reflections, which are emailed daily). Then we have a moment of silent prayer. With small children you can start with ten seconds of silence and work up to longer times.

Good books. Since we have a large mix of children, our literature reading tends to skew older. There is one rule for reading time, drilled into the children through daily repetition: be quiet while Mom is reading. They can play with toys, build block towers and Lego ships, color, do dot-to-dots, cross-stitch, do origami, crochet -- anything they want, as long as it's quiet and they can listen. This precludes headphones or quiet reading of other books. 

Right now we are reading Perelandra, which is the second volume in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. In the past we've read fairy tales, the Little House series, Anne of Green Gables, selections from St. Augustine's Confessions, Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, the first part of David Copperfield, some Shakespeare plays, Three Men in a Boat, etc. 

This is the stuff I like to read aloud. Each family has their own focus, their own significant books, their own style. Read what you love. Read the books that were important to you as a child. If reading aloud is not your jam, listen to audio books in this time.

Narration. This is probably the major point of all homeschooling, of all education, really. Ask the kids, "Tell me about what you just heard. Can you tell it back to me?" Can they remember and assimilate what they hear? Why do they think the characters acted the way they did? If the chapter was long or too complex, or the child too young, ask for one incident, one detail, one word. Can they draw a picture about the story? Would they rather write a sentence than recount it orally? 

You already do narration daily, when you ask your child what they did at school today, or how was sports practice, or what their principal said in assembly this morning. Now you're just turning it consciously to the books you're reading aloud, the podcasts you're listening to, the math concept you're trying to teach, the movie you just watched. It's a chance to build memory skills -- and to correct misconceptions right at the start. And it's an excellent introduction to the world of literature, because it's a chance to think about story, about character, about choices, about what decision you would make if you were the character, about how other people live and think and love.



Play is the job of young children. Through playtime, they're learning how to interact with each other, how to follow social rules and the rules of the game, how to live. Let them play!

My little guys have a game we call Chicken Parade, in which all the miniature characters in the house -- little people, lego dudes, dinosaurs, farm animals, peg dolls, you name it -- are lined up in a long procession, headed by a turkey (hence the name). I remember playing this game myself as a child, and it was very complex and involving, though my childhood game involved moving everyone, one step at a time, through a Little People castle. I love Chicken Parade. It's absorbing and buys me a lot of quiet time.

Nothing buys you playtime so well as putting the kids in their room and telling them to clean it up. Check back in ten minutes -- you will never see your children so wrapt in cooperative play. Go have a cup of tea and read your book.

Perhaps you have big playsets that the kids got for Christmas. Now's the time to use them! If your house is anything like ours, however, the kids would rather play with loose odds and ends than the big fancy magnet building toy set. That's okay. These random games make the best memories.

If you can get outside play time during the day, take it. If your backyard is fenced, kick them outside and supervise out of a window. If you can take a walk around the block, walk at their pace and let them look at trees, cars, dogs, fences, sidewalk, shops. If you are quarantined in a house or apartment and can't go out, have window time. Observe, draw, play I Spy. Plant a seed and watch it grow -- that's what they'd be doing in school anyway.


At some point, your child is going to be cranky or moody or angry or fighty, and he or she will need you -- your time, your attention, your love. Give it! Have a snack together. Snuggle under a blanket and read or talk or sing a song. You love this child intensely. Let that love shine through!

And maybe the kid will fall asleep, and you'll get some nap time out of that, and what is more conducive to education than being well rested?

Next up: middle grade kids and high school age students.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

How to Homeschool Temporarily (in the Event of Quarantine)

I read an article in the WSJ the other day about families in China, self-quarantined in deference to the coronavirus, who are "homeschooling" -- basically doing on-line charter school stuff, video classes, the same books as in the classroom, schedules, etc. The kids were bored, and the parents were stressed and exhausted trying to keep up with all the classroom-style filler. One mom, trying to work from home at the same time, bemoaned the fact that supervising the projects that her very young child was assigned was taking up all of her day. Another parent was considering sending her children to stay with their grandparents in Chicago, but worried that after two or three months of missing school, they'd be behind the children who were keeping up with the assigned classwork. "Intensive" was the word she used, I recall, to describe the work being done.

Friends, I am here to say: online charter school is the worst way to homeschool. It's the worst of both worlds -- the boredom of classroom work and textbooks without the mitigating influence of a good teacher (video/online discussion is a poor patch on in-person interaction), with none of the freedom and flexibility of homeschooling. It's not a good way to inspire a love of learning, or to try out homeschooling. It is good for nothing but checking the education box, and neither school and home benefit from it.

I am a homeschooler of long-standing, both as a student and as a parent. For that reason, I've long since ceased giving homeschooling advice, since I've realized 1) how little I know anymore, and 2) how individual children and families are. What works for my family may not work for yours, or may not be your style, etc. But I think there are a few general principles at play here, that can make things easier for families who find themselves in a temporary homeschool situation. If your children are sent home from school, or you choose to pull them for health reasons, and you are considering homeschooling for some indefinite yet finite amount of time, here are a few ideas for making this a liveable and interesting time, a treasured memory rather than a tale of boredom and agitation.

Don't do the textbooks. Don't do the classes. Don't do the online charter work. 

First, sleep in a bit. Your kids probably get up ungodly-early to go to school. Let them rest! What's the point of being off school if you can't spend some extra time in bed? Your growing children need their sleep, and you need the morning peace. Ease into your day.

There is a wealth of knowledge, of information, of literature out there, well-written, gripping. Dive in! Take this time to read your child books that you loved as a kid. Find out what they love reading, and let them read it. Send one person to the library, and disinfect the books that come in, and wash your hands, and dive in.

Do they have trouble reading? Audio books are your friend. And then ask them, "What was that chapter about? What did I just read?" Learning to narrate back something you've just read is a life skill, and a great mental exercise, and just about every good thing you can think of, educationally.

Keep some structure. All free time and no schedule makes everyone nuts. Have a morning gathering time, where you read together and talk about what goes on today. If the math needs to get done, set a time (not so long that you all go insane) to work on it. If bedrooms or bathrooms or the kitchen need to be straightened, have a time when that happens. If the kids are old enough, have them make family meals. Eat dinner together, and discuss what your evening will look like. Schedule movie time. Have a regular quiet hour.

Learn a skill or a handicraft? Always wanted to try knitting? Want to make great cakes? Try a big cross-stitching project? Now's your chance! They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Allow your child the space to work on something intensively: drawing a web comic, learning origami, memorizing Pokemon facts. My homeschooled brothers spent all of those hours during their teenage years learning to play the piano/guitar. Now they're musical gods.

Let them write. Have 15 minutes of journaling time each morning. If you need to drill basic grammatical units (nouns, adjectives, verbs), play Mad Libs. Write letters to grandparents, to friends, to international pen pals, to the editor, to your senator. Here's a primer if you've forgotten how. This is a great time to memorize the Morse code and write secret notes, plan a novel, write up life goals that will be hysterical when you find them in five years.

Put on a show! Have the kids write a script and perform it. Memorize monologues from Shakespeare to impress the teachers when school starts again. Try some improv. Have a tongue twister battle. Make a costume out of random stuff from closets and the kitchen. Then make the kids put everything away, because that's a valuable life lesson.

Learn to make phone calls. Having a conversation is a learned skill. Call grandparents, call other quarantined friends. Have them role-play, and take turns leaving messages or making appointments or demanding to see a manager or providing customer service. (Have ground rules about civility so this game doesn't get out of hand.)

If you have a backyard the kids can spend time in, kick them outside for a while and let them grub in the dirt. If you're stuck in an apartment, have them observe nature through a well-placed window. Keep a notebook at hand and have them make lists of what they observe -- animals, people, weather, traffic patterns. Draw leaves and birds. Plant a seed in a plastic cup and watch it grow.

You're stuck at home, and you've got the internet. Watch videos! My 11yo son has worked through most of the oeuvre of Mark Rober, NASA engineer turned YouTube experimenter. For fun, dopey, awesome experiments, you can get a lot of value out of The Backyard Scientist. If your kids are old enough to handle profane yet erudite takes on classic lit, Thug Notes with Sparky Sweets, Ph.D, is your jam. My children have amazed me with the literary info they've picked up by watching Overly Sarcastic Productions. Of course there's plenty of straight-up scientific and literary analysis, but hey, you're quarantined. Watch something fun.

Speaking of fun, you could do a lot worse educationally than to watch the entire output of Studio C and then JK Studios. I mean, this sketch is funny, but if you know classic literature like The Count of Monte Cristo, it's hysterical.

If nothing else, you'll gain a lot of family catchphrases.

Ask yourself: what's important to me? What do I want to pass on to my children? Look through old family photos. Research your heritage. Teach your children to cook your favorite family recipes. Sit them down with you each morning and read the Bible or whatever sacred text informs your life.

Do not discount the benefits of your children just being in the same place with each other, and with you. Take away the phones, the computer, the internet, and let the kids learn spend time together. Learning how to navigate, accommodate, and tolerate the different personalities in a family helps knock the rough edges off of humans. And parents have a major influence in the building of well-rounded humans. Help your young humans to flourish without killing each other.

And remember, on the hard days -- you get to send them back to school eventually. Raise a glass for those of us who live like this all time.

Part 2: Homeschooling the Little Kids

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Great War, Volume 2, Chapter 7-1

Here we are back with Natalie with the field hospital on the Eastern Front. This installment was originally put up as a part of Chapter 3, but in revisions I re-cut the installments and made this the beginning of Chapter 7, and in the process it's been revised again.

Near Trzeszczany, Galicia. June 22nd, 1915. At normal times, with one surgeon handing off responsibility to another, the transition would have been accomplished away from the nurses’ view, between the two men. These were not normal times, and so Doctor Kalyagin arrived in the middle of the morning routine, escorted by Lieutenant Popov. The two men stood awkwardly in the middle of the ward as the nurses moved from bed to bed, checking dressings and temperatures. The orderlies carried away bedpans and dirty dressings. The housekeeping sisters brought food and changed sheets.

The doctor cut a rather unmilitary appearance next to the infantry lieutenant. His uniform tunic was clearly standard issue rather than the more expensive tailored versions most of the regimental officers wore. Its loose fit only served to accentuate a stomach which bulged above his belt. A rather thin mustache gave no military bearing to his broad, round face, which was boyish in its smoothness, though a receding hairline suggested he was no longer young.

Natalie broke off from her tasks and approached the two men.

“Doctor? We’re very glad to have you here.”

He started to extend a hand, as he would have to a colleague, then stopped himself, withdrew it, and gave a bow instead. Lieutenant Popov made introductions.

“I understand that you’ve been working without a surgeon for several weeks now,” Doctor Kalyagin said. “That must have been difficult.”

“It has. Particularly yesterday, when the fighting became heavy and we received a lot of casualties. There are some cases you’ll want to examine for surgery as soon as you’re settled. The most we could do was trim, stitch, and bandage.”

“Trim and stitch? Who was making incisions and performing sutures without a surgeon?”

Perhaps it was reasonable enough that the doctor would be against nurses going beyond their training, but she would at least make sure that any consequences were not unfairly focused on Sister Gorka, who had only been obeying her orders.

“We had casualties pouring in and no idea that we would have a doctor so soon. I gave directions that the minimum be done -- cutting away ruined tissue and suturing wounds before bandaging -- so that the patients would be able to survive the train journey to a regional hospital and receive better care. None of us have any desire to go beyond our training now that you are here.”

She met his gaze and held it. It had been the right thing to do. If he couldn’t see that… Well, he would have to see it.

He nodded. “Of course. Well, now that the hospital is staffed again, our first priority will be to set procedures and abide by them.”

“Yes, sir.” He was right, of course, but the words stung like a rebuke.

[continue reading]

Eat The Rich

In one of those incidents on which the conservative takes write themselves, a member of the NY Times editorial board participating in Brian Williams show on MSNBC this last week quoted approvingly a tweet claiming that with the $500 million which he had spent trying to capture the Democratic presidential nomination, billionaire Mike Bloomberg could have given every American one million dollars. Brian Williams and his production crew apparently also didn't realize the basic math error, and the discussion went forward as if this was somehow true. Via Buzzfeed (which I found doing the one minute of googling that apparently the show producers didn't do on the subject at hand):
On MSNBC's 11th Hour with Brian Williams on Thursday night, guest Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, brought up a tweet with a glaring mathematical miscalculation while discussing former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg's decision to drop out of the Democratic primary.

"Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The US population is 327 million. He could have given each American $1 million and still have money left over. I feel like a $1 million check would be life-changing for most people. Yet he wasted it all on ads and STILL LOST," writer Mekita Rivas tweeted on Super Tuesday. (Rivas has since made her Twitter account private.)

Bloomberg had bet on big Super Tuesday returns, spending half a billion dollars to flood the airwaves in states that voted on March 3. He ended up winning in only one place: the US territory of American Samoa. He dropped out the next day.

"When I read it tonight on social media, it kind of all became clear," host Williams said, reading the tweet on the air as a graphic of it floated onto the screen. "Don't tell us if you're ahead of us on the math...It's an incredible way of putting it."

Gay agreed, then made a point about the outsized influence of money in politics.

"It does suggest what we're talking about here. There is too much money in politics," she said. "What we want in politics — the point is to have competition."
Obviously, the numbers here don't come close to adding up. There are roughly 330 million Americans, so 500 million divided by 330 million is about a buck fifty. Did the average American get a dollar and fifty cents in value out of Mike Bloomberg's political campaign? Who's to say. Personally, I consumed more than that value in beer during the one half of one democratic debate that I watched featuring Mike Bloomberg.

As Charles Cooke pointed out over at National Review, the idea that a billionaire could flush on a vanity project an amount of money capable of changing the lives of every American fits very well with a current assumption in the progressive world that we could easily remake America if we could only have the courage to take some of the ill gotten spare change away from the country's billionaires.

So I got to thinking, it would perhaps be interesting to see how much of a difference liquidating the wealth of all the billionaires would make. "Eat The Rich!" has become a half serious slogan of the progressive left, and candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have attempted to make the case that that we could pay for massive new social programs simply by instituting a basic wealth tax.

According to the Wealth-X Billionaire 2019 Census (which I found via a Guardian article from a year ago which linked to a previous edition) there are 705 billionaires in the US with a total wealth of $3.0 trillion dollars. That's an average of $4.3 billion per billionaire, though obviously even within billionaires there's considerable inequality. Mike Bloomberg himself is worth about $56 billion this year, which means some "poor" billionaires must be just barely making the cut. The Billionaire Census provides a nice little graphic of the pyramid of billionaire wealth tiers worldwide.

So imagine that we were going to create massive change in the US by confiscating the entire wealth of the all the US billionaires. There are a few things we should briefly think about in relation to doing such a thing. Our modern wealthy don't tend to hold onto huge piles of non-circulating gold coin, like good old fashioned Smaug, who had accumulated the wealth of his neighbors and then was literally sitting on it.

If we wanted to confiscate the wealth of Jeff Bezos, we'd need to make him sell the roughly 11% stake that he still owns in Amazon (plus whatever other investments he has) and give us that money as liquid currency that we could then use to pay for your medical bills or school teachers' salaries or some other similar good cause. Of course, we if were doing this to all billionaires at once, there would be the difficulty that they'd all be trying to sell their investments and they'd need to sell them to people who were not billionaires, since all the other billionaires would also be in the process of selling all their assets in order to give the money to the government. We know pretty well what happens when a lot of people are trying to sell a stock and not many people are buying: the price drops until the people who are buying are able to buy up the available supply. So while Bezos currently owns Amazon stock worth about $100 billion, he probably would not get $100 billion in cash by selling it. He might get a lot less. Amazon shares which currently sell for ~$1,900 each would drop in value as the market was flooded by Bezos, his ex-wife, and other billionaires who hold the stock selling their assets. Among the collateral damage of such selling would be pretty much any person or institution with money invested in mutual funds. So the billionaires would be seeing their wealth evaporate even as they sold it in order to have it confiscated, and all the rest of us would see the value of our retirement accounts and other investment accounts drop too.

Perhaps, some might say, Bezos could simply transfer his Amazon shares to the government instead of selling them. Well, that's fine, but if the government then wants to spend the money on paying school teachers or paying health care expenses, the government would need to sell the shares. So the problem would remain.

But let's wave a wand and say that somehow that's all solved. We have the $3 trillion in billionaire wealth. What does that do for us?

Well, it could pay for about one year of Medicare For All (which was estimated to cost something on the order of $30 trillion over ten years.

We could pay for operating the federal government at current scale for about nine and a half months (the total federal budget is $3.8 trillion.)

Given the MSNBC discussion about giving every American one million dollars instead of Bloomberg's political campaign, maybe the best way to visualize it is: We could give every man, woman, and child in the US about $9,000 in cash.

That's a lot of money for most people. For a family of five that made $45k a year, that would mean that they'd get an extra year's income. It could pay off debt, make a down payment on a house, help pay for college. All sorts of things would be possible. But we would have eaten our entire population of billionaires and there would be no more to get.

Here's another comparison which is worth keeping in mind, however. While the total value of all US billionaire wealth (and remember, wealth means the total value of all their assets, which for the rich is much more than the value of their yearly income) is about $3.0 trillion, the total federal revenue every year is greater than that. For 2018 the IRS shows that total tax receipts were about $3.5 trillion. And while confiscating all billionaire wealth would be a one time move, the federal government successfully collects taxes (primarily income, payroll, and corporate taxes in that order) every year.

To hear people talk, you'd think that the wealth of billionaires was a vast untapped amount far greater than the our current sources of government revenue. However, total US personal income in 2018 was $17.5 trillion, 5.8 times the total wealth of all US billionaires combined. The average federal tax burden applied to personal income in the US is 21%. That's how the US population as a whole is already able to supply in taxes every single year more than the one time value of totally liquidating all billionaires. We don't have nearly the wealth that they do. But the amount of money that passes through our hands each year is much greater than the total value of all billionaire wealth.

And that, in turn, is why we should be skeptical of the idea that we can do things as a country by "eating the rich" that we can't afford to do with ordinary income taxes. There is simply much more money and much more sustainable money to be found in taxing income than there is in liquidating the wealthy. We would raise more money over ten years by increasing the federal income tax effective rate by 2% than we would by confiscating all the wealth of all the billionaires in the country.

In the end, people trying to pay for expansive government programs (like bank robbers) will go where the money is. That money is to be found in taxing the broad American income earning population. So in the end, if we put in place big new expensive programs, expect that they will be paid for out of taxes on income. It's where the money is. If a politician wants to be honest in proposing a big new program, that is the basis on which the politician should propose to pay for it.