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One of the many long galleries at Balboa Park. Assignment: In a Row.
At Comic-Con two years ago (or was it three? they begin to blur), I dropped my camera in the street, and it has never been the same since. Even before that, I was finding myself more likely to reach for my smartphone than the camera when I wanted to snap a pic. I gather I’m not alone in this. As phone cameras have improved and apps like Instagram make uploading and sharing easier, more and more of us are relying on our phones to capture the memories we want to save.
At times, though, I’ve been frustrated by the frankly mediocre quality of my phone photos compared to the kind of pictures I used to get with my camera. When I saw that Big Picture Classes was offering an online course in phone photography—and furthermore, that my fellow former ClubMom blogger Tracey Clark was one of the instructors—I decided to take the plunge.
Oh you guys, I am SO happy I’m taking this class. The “Before and After” videos, in which various instructors walk you through the editing process on a single photo, using their favorite apps, made an immediate difference in my pictures. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the biweekly lessons with accompanying photo challenges, all based around themes like “In a Row,” “Lines,” or “Fill the Frame.” I’m much happier with the quality of the photos I’m getting out of my iPhone. Almost every image I have posted here in the past two weeks was influenced by the course.
The class runs through August 16 and you can sign up right until the end. You move through the lessons at your own pace. There’s a pretty active message board with lots of input from the instructors, and several bonus videos in which guest photographers spend some time talking about their phone-photography process.
Here’s a selection of my class assignments. There’s a gallery where students may upload photos, but the best place to see others’ work is on Instagram, where we’re tagging our work #bpcphonephotographyproject and adding tags for the individual assignments, such as #ppp2inarow or #ppp2shapes.
Taken at Seaport Village in San Diego. Assignment: Rule of Thirds.
I always swoon over the orchids in Balboa Park’s Botanical Building. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
Snapped in a corner of the music studio where my kids take piano. Assignment: Lines.
Another take on the Lines assignment.
I’m always admiring these beautiful succulents in my neighbor’s yard. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
There’s a man who stacks these rock towers at Seaport Village every day. Assignment: Shapes.
Another take on the guitars…Assignment: Black and White. (I think this may be my favorite of the bunch.)
Rose found this feather and we decided it was meant for my blue jar. Assignment: Light.
Another Seaport Village shot, but I’m not saying where exactly. Assignment: Fill the Frame.
I posted this one here last week, but I tried a slightly different edit when I shared it on Instagram. I think I like this faded version best. (I prefer the taller crop on the original, though.) Assignments: Vantage Point and Rule of Thirds.
I happened to read the Vantage Point lesson right before our trip to Seaport Village, and it’s what nudged me to get down on the ground underneath Beanie as she took a stab at flying this kite. I like how the kite is about to sail right out of the frame.
One of the things I’m appreciating most about this class is the way it makes me notice things in my surroundings that I might otherwise have glanced right past. I passed these cars in a parking lot behind the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con and was struck by the reflection of the slats on their windshields. Submitted it for the Black and White bonus challenge.
Thanks to the class I learned how to straighten the horizon in this formerly very tilted shot! I didn’t tag it for any of the assignments, but the way the wind was whipping that seaweed around, it could almost qualify for the Action challenge.
Last night I had a trial lesson at italki.com with a German teacher who currently lives and works in Taiwan. At the appointed hour he rang me on Skype and we had a delightful half-hour chat. We started with video but the connection was wonky so we switched to audio only, and that worked fine. Something I especially appreciated was that whenever I struggled with a word or phrase, Stephan corrected me and typed the correction in the chat window so I could see it as well as hear it. Afterward, the chat log provided a nice transcript of the things I’d learned.
Since this was a first lesson, it was largely conversational. Stephan spoke to me in German from the beginning (when I set up the lesson I’d had to fill out a form describing my current level), asking lots of questions and encouraging me to plunge in and answer as best I could. I loved it. He also sent links to a couple of resources—a German children’s book, the first half of which I read and translated with his help, and, when I mentioned that I often confuse which prepositions go with which verbs, a pdf with some preposition exercises.
Italki lets you choose between “professional instruction,” where the tutor will probably have you work through a textbook with homework, and “informal tutoring,” which is more the conversational kind of session I had with Stephan, practicing and improving my skills through dialogue. The latter is the less expensive option, but both kinds of lessons are pretty reasonable—downright cheap in some cases, depending on the language you’re studying and the exchange rates involved. Payment is all handled through italki; you purchase italki credits (ITC) at the rate of 1 dollar per 10 ITC, plus a small processing fee based on your payment method. When you book a session, italki holds your credits, and after you mark the session completed, they pay the instructor. If the session doesn’t happen for some reason, you get your credits back. Most lessons seem to be in the neighborhood of $10-15 per session.
The selection of language is fairly staggering. Basically, anywhere there’s Skype, there are italki tutors eager to take you on as a student. Most instructors have made short videos to introduce themselves. I love this one from Modabo in Spain. Many instructors indicate on their profiles whether they have experience teaching children, if you’re looking for a tutor for younger kids. For teens, pretty much any instructor is a possibility.
Many instructors offer trial sessions like the one I had at a special rate. Italki allows new users to sign up for three of these trials, so you have a chance to try out the interface (and the teacher) without spending very much.
The website also encourages connections among users; you can find language partners to practice with or do swaps—say, you help me with German and I’ll help you with English. After all, actually speaking a language—jumping in, trying to form sentences, making lots of mistakes and having someone correct you—is the best way to move toward fluency. Users are also encouraged to write notebook entries in their target languages, inviting native speakers to offer corrections and advice. There’s a handy markup system to use in editing others’ entries. All very friendly and low-pressure.
So far, in my limited experience (two weeks browsing the site and last night’s wonderful lesson), I give italki high marks. Rose is drooling over the language list. We’re thinking some italki Spanish lessons might be a very good option for her. Like me, she’s been using Memrise to build vocabulary in her target language(s), and she studies Spanish grammar in a print textbook. But there’s nothing, nothing, like speaking with a native speaker. I’ve been stuck at a sort of low-intermediate level in German for a very long time. As in: decades. It was exhilarating last night to discover how much I really can say and comprehend. I understood almost everything Stephan said, and when I didn’t, he repeated the phrase, typed it out for me, and told me the English. It’s a very organic way to learn. I would love to take more lessons with him, the informal tutoring kind. I see Sign Language is offered as well, which is a very exciting possibility.
MEMRISE. Free for computer, iOS, Android. Excellent for building vocabulary, not so much a grammar tool. (But read on.) You pick any of a multitude of courses in your target language. In small batches, words appear on your screen along with “mems,” mnemonic devices created by other users to help you remember the word. The best mems create some kind of visual image that helps fix the word in your mind, the way I was taught as a kid in the 80s to remember that Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense by picturing Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost defending a bottle of wine and a hamburger. I don’t remember which teacher planted that image, but the picture is still vivid. That’s what the Memrise folks call a mem.
You can scroll through all the existing user-created mems for each word or phrase, and if you don’t like any of the choices you can create one of your own. The interface makes it easy to select a public-domain image, and then you add whatever text you want. Here’s a mem I made to help me identify Chad on a map of the Countries of Africa:
It’s corny but it works. Not all mems have an image attached; a good word-picture can help just as readily. I remember Ceuta on the map (a place I’d never heard of until taking this course, an autonomous Spanish city on the North African coast across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain) by thinking of the Spanish pronunciation —thay-uta—and using the mem “they oota be in Europe but they’re in Africa instead.” Again, not exactly the height of cleverness but it was the hook I needed to remember how to spell the name of the city.
Rose, whose favorite pastime, I kid you not, is learning the first chunk of a new language, has absorbed beginner vocab in Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, and who knows what else, in between her longer-term progress through a 1000 Spanish Words course. I’m taking several different German courses simultaneously—you can move as quickly or as slowly as you want. I too have a “1000 Words” course I use as my primary focus to add vocabulary, but there’s a “German Conversation” course as well that has lots of useful longer phrases like “I couldn’t care less,” “I completely agree with you,” and “he’s so reliable you could build houses on him.” Then there’s the short course on prepositions I whisked through as a review, and a challenging one on verb conjugations that I like because it includes the preposition that goes along with each verb plus the case nouns take after the combo. And then—slowly, oh so slowly! probably only a hundred words over the course of a year!—I’m using the vast and comprehensive 5000 German words course which is packed with upper-level vocabulary.
But then, I thrive on variety. Other users might prefer to move steadily through one course at a time. There’s a fair amount of overlap in my assortment of courses, which helps cement things in my mind, but I can see that it might feel redundant or confusing to others.
Regarding mems for language, I’ve found that the best kind are those that help me work from the English to the German. I can usually remember the English meaning of a German word after a couple of repetitions, but it’s much harder for me to look at English and grope for its German counterpart. The majority of user-created mems seem to work the opposite direction—they’ll start with the German and use English puns to link the word to the English. For example, here’s a text-only mem I made for aufhören, German for “to stop doing something”:
It didn’t really work for me, not after some weeks away from the program. I couldn’t look at the English definition and get to the German word. What I really needed was something that starts with “stop doing something” and gets to “aufhören.” In this case, I tried to enhance the mental picture that goes with the above mem: I picture a Stop sign with Alf the TV alien perched on top holding a phone—the phone because the “hören” part reminds me of Auf Wiederhören, “until I talk to you again,” which you say when getting off the phone. Now, this revised image is working pretty well for me—but it requires me to remember to use the “stop” in “stop doing something” as my jumping-off point for memory. Will I remember that if I come across the word in another context a year from now? I don’t know. I do know that a vivid and specific mental image makes a tremendous difference in my ability to connect words in two different languages, and that after some repetition, the word is transferred to my permanent memory and I don’t need to rely on the mnemonic device anymore.
This repetition is part of what makes Memrise so successful: the program works by giving you the words at ever-increasing intervals as you demonstrate mastery. First you “plant” the words, a few at a time, and they give you a lot of interactions with it in different ways—English to German, German to English, multiple choice, type it in. This process only takes a few minutes for each new batch of words.
Here’s one example:
Now the words are planted in your short-term memory. Memrise locks them for a few hours (sort of—you can override the lock by clicking “overwater” for extra practice). After that, they are ready for “watering”—you come back and review them again. If you get a word right on the first attempt, next time there will be a longer interval before it’s ready for watering. Eventually, as the words move from short-term to long-term memory, the intervals may be many days long.
As you can see, most of the words in this lesson are in my long-term memory and don’t need “watering” (reviewing) for several days or even weeks. A phrase I missed yesterday, “auf diese Weise,” is ready for watering now. “Auf,” a common preposition I learned decades ago, is (obviously) in my long-term memory and only comes around every few weeks. If I wanted, I could tell Memrise to ignore it altogether—there’s a setting you can click that means I’ve got this one down and never need to review it again. I certainly don’t need “auch,” a word I learned on day one of German, popping up in my word list. I don’t always bother to mark words “ignore,” though, since it’s an extra step.
I mentioned above that what Memrise excels at is teaching you vocabulary, but it’s not as strong at conveying grammar. You won’t necessarily learn word order or grammatical cases from this program—for that we use other resources like Duolingo (about which, more in a future post). But what my kids and I have found is that Memrise is invaluable for building our vocabulary, and grammar is so much easier to nail down when you have a big word list to draw from. And when I was really struggling to keep straight which prepositions take which cases for object nouns, Memrise came to my rescue. I found a German course that focuses on that very thing—you have to enter +A or +D after each verb-preposition combo to indicate whether the noun will take accusative or dative. That’s the kind of drill I need to take me to the next level of fluency. I’ve been stuck in the middle of Level B1 (going by the Goethe Institute’s fluency scale) ever since college. My periodic reimmersions in German have prevented me from losing what skill I’d gained, but to move forward toward real fluency I need some more intensive drill. This course is helping shift my recall from groping to automatic.
How much time does Memrise take? It can be as little as five minutes a day, if you want—plant a couple of new words, maybe water some of your older ones. I tend to go in intense bursts of activity with long lulls between them—sometimes many weeks will pass without my checking in, and that’s fine. The whole point of the program is to plant the words in long-term memory. If I’ve forgotten them—the app can tell by how I answer—they get pushed back into a more active, frequent rotation in the list.
During my intense bursts, I add new words, level by level. Then, when my focus inevitably shifts elsewhere, I stop accruing new vocabulary but the program is there to help me maintain the vocab I’ve got. “Watering” your words can be really relaxing.
The iPhone app is pretty sharp. I like to check in last thing before I go to sleep and see if any of my words need watering. It’s a good waiting-room activity, too, since the courses I’m taking work fine with the sound turned off.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about how I use Memrise for my own learning. What about the kids?
My younger kids are very interested in it; Rilla begs to use it for French, but it’s a skitch above her level. Her spelling isn’t strong enough yet for her to be able to easily enter answers in English, let alone French. Also, and significantly, Memrise is designed for adults, and the mems are created by adult users, which means that occasionally you come across one that’s a bit off-color. For these reasons, I think it’s better saved for kids 13 and up, depending on your parental comfort level. For us, 12 or 13 is a good threshold.
Before heading off to college, Jane used Memrise to learn Japanese kanji. Rose, as I said, likes it best as a way to experience a wide variety of languages. She’s very interested in language and linguistics, and Memrise has allowed her easily to explore the rudiments of more tongues than I can keep track of. Meanwhile, she’s making steady progress through her Memrise Spanish course, which we supplement with a grammar workbook. (She’s not keen on Duolingo. Beanie and I love it.)
Beanie, like me, is into German. She does about 15 minutes of Memrise a day, 4-5 days a week. Her vocabulary is growing steadily and the program has the advantage of building excellent spelling skills as well.
There are also Memrise courses for the SAT and other college admissions tests, including SAT vocab builders. You can create brand new courses, too, and make them private or public as you choose. (Choose: wählen, she CHOOSES to wear a VEIL IN church. That’s someone else’s mem but it worked like a charm for me.) If I hadn’t found a course with the verb-preposition-case info I wanted, I was thinking about creating my own. I’m always happy, though, when someone else does the leg work.
The tide seems to be ebbing, as surely as tides do ebb. We’ve put away our science reading for the summer, leaving the world poised for dramatic change in the wake of Sir Isaac Newton. The history books aren’t yet officially shelved, but it’s a week or more since we picked one up. We got sidetracked by languages and kept conjugating the mornings away. Latin and German formally, the lot of us, and French informally via children’s songs (go ahead, ask us how many elephants can balance on a spiderweb), and Rose has me inching through Spanish grammar with her, and all of us have way too many plants to water daily on Memrise. And yet we keep planting more!
Ah, Memrise. Thanks to it, I can now list all the monarchs of England and Britain—with dates for all but a couple of sticky ones. Those two kings in the middle ages with interrupted reigns. One of the Henrys and one of the Edwards, I think. They’re still tripping me up—the specifics, I mean. I can wrangle them into their spots in the list. And I’m darn proud that I can keep all those Georges and Edwards and Henrys straight—even the one with long strings of names, since Memrise insists I use every doggone one of them. Edward VIII, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, even! (Edward Always Chases Girls And Parties Down—sorry, Ed, I know it isn’t very dignified but it works. Could be worse: think of poor Left-Leg Louie, aka King George I, George Louis. See him up there in the picture, with his left leg forward? The unfortunate nickname was someone else’s mem, and it worked.)
We’ve nailed the U.S. Presidents, too. We could sing them in order already—well, except for the bunch around Rutherford B. Hayes where we always got tripped up—thanks to an old (very old) Singin’ Smart cassette. (Cassette! That’s how old!) But now we’ve pegged them to dates. Ulysses S. Grant did not take the summer of ’69 for GRANTed. During James K. Polk’s term (1845-1849) the country POLKa’d its way to California just in time for the Gold Rush. The louder it makes you groan, the more likely you are to remember it.
Rose scoffs at mnemonics and just plain memorizes. Not I. I gotta have a hook. Richard I and Richard II both had reigns that closed out a century, did you know that? 1199 and 1399 respectively. Charles I (the Merry Monarch) and George III began their reigns in 1660 and 1760, and somehow that link makes them both easier for me to remember. William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841; James A. Garfield ditto in 1881. Another peg.
As always happens when you set “separate” chunks of history side by side, surprises hit you. I had never put it together that Teddy Roosevelt became President the year Queen Victoria died! His two terms align almost exactly with the reign of King Edward VII: you know, the Edwardian era. This is one of those connections I should have made earlier, and probably did make a time or two, glancingly, somewhere along the line, but I can’t say it really stuck. When I’m reading the Betsy-Tacy books (set during that very decade; Betsy graduates from high school in 1910, I think) I’m not thinking about who’s on the throne over in England. Nor, when watching Upstairs, Downstairs (in which, if I recall correctly, a whole episode revolved around the death of the King), was I picturing Theodore Roosevelt gallivanting around the U.S. creating National Parks. Connections are everything in education, and here’s one I hadn’t made until now. Teddy and Eddie. Got it.
I meant to make a list of all the books I’ve seen people reading, and books I’ve read aloud. Failed again. Missed some good ones, too! As for me, I read the first big chunk of The Goldfinch and found it so thoroughly harrowing I had to put it down for a little while. At this rate, it might take me the whole summer.
I mentioned that the kids and I share a Minecraft world. Its name is Calpurnia, after a favorite book. When I got a dog in the game, Rose offered to name it for me. The next time I logged in, “Darwin” was running around my attic—Darwin because of Calpurnia Tate, get it?
Then I wound up with a second dog. It ran around my house nameless for a day or two; then one day I returned home from a grueling shift at the ruined castle we’re building in the mushroom forest, and there, wagging its tail alongside Darwin, was “Newton,” newly monikered by Beanie. It seems I’m raising a bunch of scientist dogs, which is fine by me.
One day I accidentally fed both Darwin and Newton too many pork chops at the same time, and you know what that means: a puppy. I couldn’t wait for this new pooch to grow up, so I could see what name the girls would give it.
When I came home this afternoon, half dead after a skeleton ambush, the pup was waiting beside the front door, all grown up and sporting a new blue collar. Her name was Annie, the hover-text informed me. I was a little surprised that the girls hadn’t continued the scientist theme.
Shows what I know.
Rose, evidently aware of this gap in my education, had helpfully left some signage on the living-room carpet:
The dog’s name is Annie ’cause of Annie Jump Cannon, who
was one of the greatest female scientists; she organized the
stars. We still use her system today. Also, she was deaf.
I learned a lot more about Annie (the human, not the canine) after I logged off. She featured in a recent episode of Cosmos and my girls were quite impressed by her accomplishments. Her lifetime spanned the period between the Civil War and World War II, and as Rose explained, she was instrumental in the creation of the star classification system that is still in use today.
The girls have yet to account for the pig in my living room.
“Isaacson takes the reader on a leisurely, respectful tour of buildings around the world: churches, houses, museums, lighthouses, all kinds of structures, from the humble to the magnificent. In simple, straightforward prose he discusses various architectural concepts such as the impact of building materials, the interplay of light and color, and the significance of roof shape. His stunning photographs turn even the roughest earthen hut into a work of art. His lyrical text helps us see in the pictures what we might otherwise have missed:
‘These buildings are part of the Shaker Village at Sabbathday, Maine. On an afternoon in late winter they are warm and creamy, but in December, shadows thrown at them make them look haunted. A building only a few yards away fades into the land on a hazy morning.’”
Round Buildings, Square Buildings was edited by my first boss in publishing, the great Stephanie Spinner. It was near completion by the time I came on board; I don’t think I did much more than look over galleys and jacket copy, and probably put through the request for Mr. Isaacson’s author copies. It’s one of those books I sat at my desk reading, unable to believe my good fortune: This is my job now; I’m getting paid to read.
Before Round Buildings I hadn’t done much real seeing of architecture. There were buildings I loved: the sandstone administration building (formerly a convent) of my first college, Loretto Heights, with its red tower soft-edged against a blue sky, and inside, a gorgeous mosaic floor—tiny tiles set into place by wagon-training nuns, so the story went. But even there, I was drawn more to story than to form. Most of the buildings that captured my imagination, pre-Isaacson, lived in books: Green Gables, the House o’ Dreams, Jane’s Lantern Hill house with its “lashings of magic.” The Muskoka cabin. (No one does houses better than Montgomery.) Plumfield. Juniper’s cottage. Miss Suzy’s tree-house with its acorn cups. Vicky Austin’s grandfather’s house-in-a-converted-stable with the stalls full of books. A great many English houses in a great many English novels.
But most of the time, my eye was drawn more to nature than to man’s edifices. I had next to no vocabulary for understanding architecture. Isaacson changed that in a paragraph with his description of the creamy walls of the Taj Mahal changing colors as the sun moved across them—the very passage I read with Beanie and Rose this morning. He writes about harmony and you find yourself looking for it everywhere you go. He made me see my world differently—just as John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic changed how I looked at just about everything else: power lines, rain gutters, a sculpture garden, the line at the DMV. The way Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain changed the way I see faces.
Clicking through these old posts, I see I’ve made a connection between these three books before. They’re transformative, all three.
Funny also to see in the old Stilgoe post I linked above, “Way Leads on to Way,” that I’d been reading Fifty Famous Stories Retold* to Beanie that year—in March, 2008, when she was seven years old. And now here’s Rilla seven, and I’m reading it to her. (Today’s tale: Androclus and the Lion. It drew cheers, and a narration with gusto. Because LION.) I have to laugh: way doesn’t just lead on to way; sometimes it leads right back full circle. I didn’t choose Round Buildings for the older girls and Fifty Famous Stories for the seven-year-old at the same time—again—on purpose; I guess it’s just that I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know what works for us, and these things have worked time and again. It did strike me this morning, reading the Isaacson, that the Stilgoe might be a satisfying read for Jane and Rose right about now.
“A bumpy line of buildings stretched like castles along the horizon. They were grain elevators at Port Arthur and Fort William filled with mountains of grain which trains had brought from the plains of western Canada. The ships now passing Paddle would carry the grain to other lake ports and other lands…”
(She decided to draw stalks of wheat to represent the grain. She’s charting Paddle’s journey through the Great Lakes in blue.)
Our Round Buildings, Square Buildings reading took us to the Flatiron Building, which led to the Chrysler Building (cue “Hard Knock Life”), the Empire State Building, the old and new Manhattan skylines, and much discussion along the way. I got a bit homesick for NYC. Somewhere around here I have a copy of a letter I wrote to friends back home during my first year in New York—a long description of the view from the top of one of the Twin Towers. Ouch. It would be a good thing to post tomorrow, if I could find it, but them’s slim odds.
A friend posted a caterpillar pic on Facebook, looking for an ID. Beanie was game, and we wound up meandering around this ID site for a good long while. Didn’t find our friend’s critter, but I learned a whole lot about ghost moths…
Rilla is interested in French, which led to an hour on YouTube this afternoon, listening to French children’s songs (and marveling at their unabashed gruesomeness, some of them). It all began with Alouette:
Little lark, nice lark, I am plucking you?! Who knew? (French speakers, that’s who.) Oh, the belly laughs this generated.
Many videos later, we discovered the Most Persistent Earworm of All Time.
Les crocrocro, les crocrocro, les crocodiles will be haunting my dreams tonight.
Some quick notes on things we’re using a lot lately:
• Spellosaur app (Rilla and Huck). With the paid version, you can enter lists of spelling words for each kid. They both ask to play it daily, which is fine by me. Huck’s favorite part is recording his own audio for the words, which he then laughs at on playback during the activities. I wouldn’t normally be working on spelling with a five-year-old but he enjoys the app so much, it isn’t work. For Rilla, I’ve been entering word lists from an old copy of Spelling Power. She also created a second user account to use for French words. Here, too, she loves recording the audio herself.
• I couldn’t find our Chronology game (I know it’s around here somewhere), but Rose and Beanie have been absorbing a lot of history this year, in a jumble of time periods. Science history in the Renaissance, American history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, medieval English literature (now heading into Renaissance there too), all sorts of non-coordinated reading going on. We took our old timeline down last year—it was up too high and we weren’t really adding to it anymore—and I wanted some way to make chronological sense of all these events they’re soaking up. So I had a brainstorm and made our own custom Chronology set, sort of. We got index cards and wrote various key events and people on them, with a little stripe of colored highlighter on one side to indicate science, literature, arts, or political history.* They put the dates on the back of each card. We play the game just like Chronology: I put down one starter card and then they take turns calling out the date of the next event, and putting it down in a row in chronological order. If we can keep it up, we’ll build a nice collection of the main points of our history/science/literary studies this year. They get pretty giggly and competitive in the game, so it’s been way fun so far.
*A fifth color denotes fictional works related to a period we’re studying. There are certain novels and films that will always represent a particular time and place—Betsy in Spite of Herself, for example, popped immediately into the girls minds when we read about German immigrants building a home away from home in Milwaukee.
• The other thing we do quite a lot in our history studies is link whatever we’re reading about to our own family history, as far as we’re able. This applies mostly the 18th century and on, of course (although we do have a couple branches on the family tree traced back to the 16oos). I like to pull up our tree on Ancestry.com and take a look at who among our ancestors was living in a particular area at a given point in time. The big waves of Irish and German immigration in the first half of the 19th century, for example, became much more vivid to the girls when they got a look at the names and disembarkation dates of their forebears who were among those masses.
Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.
Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.
Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.
You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.
Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”
Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.
“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.
In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the British color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.
Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.
I’ve written before about our great experiences with various MOOCs one or more of us has taken via Coursera. Here’s another list of offerings, this time from FutureLearn.com. Courses that have caught my eye include:
• Moons— “Explore the many moons of our Solar System.” This has Beanie written all over it. Eight weeks, starts March 17. The Open University.
• Kitchen Chemistry— “Along the way you will use fruit tea to identify acids and alkalis, investigate chemicals that speed up reactions and experiment with electron transfer reactions. This should give you a feel for the world of molecules and an idea of some reactions. It should also introduce some methods to separate chemicals, to find out what chemicals are present in a mixture and ways to change chemicals from one form to another.” Six weeks, starts in April. University of East Anglia.
• England in the Time of Richard III! Exclamation point mine. “Explore 15th century England through archaeology, history and literature against the backdrop of the excavation of Richard III.” Yes, please. Methinks it’s time to introduce Rose and Beanie to Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time—a compulsive reread for both Jane and me—as a backdrop to this course. Six weeks, starts mid-2014. University of Leicester.
Those plus the Courseras we’re already signed up for—including a History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers via CalArts, which is just getting rolling—may tide us over until the next iteration of ModPo kicks off in September. Boy do I love sending my kids to college around the world in our own living room.
Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations. Sarah Burch & Sara Harris, University of British Columbia. Did about 75% of the course—videos and readings. Showed several of the video lectures to my teens. I wish everyone I know would take this class. Hope it will be offered again.
Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Al Filreis, University of Pennsylvania. Watched about half the videos, did corresponding readings. I adore this course and look forward to taking it again—in full this time—in the fall.
The Modern and the Postmodern. Michael Roth, Wesleyan University. Weeks 1-5. The reading load got to be more than I could juggle at that point in time but I very much enjoyed the lectures I watched.
There are so many appealing courses in literature alone (see this big list at Open Culture), not to mention all the classes I’d like to take in anthropology, history, art history, and various sciences. The Tolkien Professor’s Faerie and Fantasy class sounds especially fun! We were discussing these courses on Twitter this evening and a friend mentioned that she’d love to take one of these, but would be unlikely to finish. I seldom complete an entire course, as my Coursera record above demonstrates. But that doesn’t concern me; I consider each lecture I listen to a gain. I ran out of time to listen to all the Human Evolution lectures, but I learned a vast amount from the ones I did manage to watch. Ditto all the above. I’m exactly halfway through Amy Hungerford’s series on the modern American novel, and while I certainly hope to listen to the rest of the lectures, even if I don’t get back to them I’ve already gained a tremendous amount in terms of new knowledge and food for thought. This is unschooling for adults, and it’s exhilarating—learning as process, not product (that same philosophy that informs our homeschooling life).
The weekend: Jane headed back to college, the rest of the kids succumbed one by one to a fairly-short-lived-but-obnoxious-in-the-short-term cold, and I cleaned house all day Saturday to avoid finishing my taxes. And then gardened all day Sunday to avoid same. Did not read much, in part because sitting still and doing something besides taxes was harder to justify than, say, scrubbing floors or mowing the lawn. I mean, I can’t possibly be faulted for procrastinating going through expense receipts when I’m washing walls, can I? You guys, I was even washing walls. My ability to be intensely industrious at all the wrong tasks is unparalleled.
Monday: all but one of the kids have kicked their cold. We’re still in high tide, have got a very groovy groove going, in fact. Rose, Beanie, and I are all enjoying the books we’re reading together, and Latin has been really fun lately. Also, it happened that the episode of Cosmos everyone watched the night before Jane left was all about Sir Isaac Newton, about whom we’ve been reading in The Story of Science. Extremely considerate of the show to time things so conveniently.
I’ve been getting some questions about scheduling lately, both from real-life friends and blog readers, and since I’ve completely dropped the ball on my separate homeschooling blog (if you’ve asked for the login info and I haven’t replied, it isn’t that you’re not welcome; it’s simply that I’ve dropped that ball too, and I haven’t posted there in weeks anyway so you aren’t missing a thing…but feel free to ping me again for the info!) maybe I can give a quick sketch here of a “typical day”—of course we all know there isn’t any such thing, really; they’re all a little different. But we do keep the same rough structure four days a week. The fifth day, which falls in the middle, is for piano lessons and errands and (for Beanie) volunteering at Wonderboy’s school.
6:30ish—the boys wake up, Scott turns on a show for them to watch.
7am—Scott and I get up (sometimes he’s up already). He fixes breakfast for the boys and cocoa for me, and I take my laptop to the couch where the lads are watching their show. Email, etc while I come alive.
7:35—supposed to be 7:30 but I always push it as long as possible. I get up to get dressed, put my contacts in, pack Wonderboy’s lunch. By now he has already gotten dressed and getting ready for school.
8am—I’m in my bathroom brushing my hair and I hear the first bell ring on the other side of our back fence. I jump into my shoes and walk WB around the corner just in time for school.
8:15 (is this too granular? LOL)—I’m back home and now Scott and I leave for our walk. Beanie and Rilla are by now up and dressed (well, Beanie’s dressed), finished with breakfast most likely, and the TV is off. Rose waits for us to leave before dragging herself out of bed. Usually someone is playing piano when we leave and someone else is playing when we get back.
8:45ish—the teens have done their morning chores, Scott and I are back home after our walk (we call it our daily staff meeting), and I grab a yogurt and Scott makes a cup of coffee and we drift to our separate computers to eat/drink/read.
9am sharp—Scott starts work, back in the boys’ bedroom, which doubles as his office during the day. Rilla will likely spend the next hour puttering through her morning chores, which are few and simple but easily interruptible, it seems. Huck is dressed and running around. Mostly he’s counting down the minutes until 9:30, when (after two rounds of breakfast) he gets a snack. Rose and Bean join me in the living room for our lesson time. Now, the sequence of the next 3 hours varies day by day, but here was today’s. 9:00, we started with Poetry. First Poetry 180, two poems today because after we’d read Roethke’s “The Bat” they saw what came next and remembered especially liking that one when we did a chunk of this series with Jane, a couple of years ago: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything.” Then John Donne, Meditation XVII (No man is an island…), in our continuing exploration of the metaphysical poets.
9:30? more or less?—Story of Science, the Newton chapters continued. I read aloud, we discuss. 1666, “The Year of Wonders” (Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis designation for the year of the Great Fire, which later came to be applied by scientists to that same year when Newton developed his theory of gravitation, oh and invented calculus, oh and figured out about color and light—that little old year), is a perfect choice for one of our history cards. Have I talked about this here, or only on Facebook? It’s pretty much the most successful idea I’ve ever had, history-wise. We used to keep a giant timeline on one wall, but in this house there’s no perfect spot for it; it was up too high; we never added anything new. A couple of months (?) ago, on a whim, I grabbed index cards and started writing down events or people we’d been reading about, in all our various books. Science stuff, history, literature, music, art, anything I could think of that we’d recently discussed. Person or event on the front, the year on the back. We have had such fun with these cards! Once or twice a week we play a game with them—Rose likes the competition—where I hold up a card and the girls take turns calling out the date and arranging them in sequence. We’ve all nailed down a great many dates that were quite fuzzy even for me before. My original goal was simply to have them be able to identify events in rough sequence, and there were only a few major dates I said they had to absolutely memorize. But the game has hammered nearly all the dates into our heads, mine included. And the cards themselves provide an excellent record of what we’ve studied, and how the different eras we’ve read about this year (19th century American history, Renaissance science, Elizabethan literature) fit together. We’ll be able to keep on adding to the stack: a game without end. Rose was pretty lukewarm on history before, and now she says she wants to minor in it at college.
Anyway, no cards today, I just got onto the subject because we remarked upon 1666 as an important year to make a card for.
All right, so now it’s around 10am, I think?—or a little before? I think next we did math. Beanie watched a MUS video and since Rose didn’t remember that bit, she watched too. By now Rilla and Huck are outside playing, having consumed their snack. Rose likes me to go over the new lessons with her, so we did that. She’s only got two more in this book (geometry), hurrah! (We made cards for geometry last week, too, since she has found them so useful for history. Wrote out all the postulates and properties, with matching cards containing examples. And one very cool thing was that after she’d spread them all out and matched them up, we realized she’d just done all of geometry right there. I mean, all of it that’s covered in this book. The last few lessons are a preview of trig. It was gratifying for her to see the scope of her accomplishment.)
Beanie didn’t need help with her math, so once Rose got on to working her problems, I went out to mow the front lawn. Beanie finished and practiced piano.
10:30—Rilla and Huck went in to get their half-hour on the iPad. I usually reserve this for when I’m reading with the older girls, but today I was still finishing the yard. Rose finished math and did some Memrise.
11am—littles are off iPad, back to playing. Rose downloaded a metronome she needs for a song she’s learning in 5/4 time, but I don’t think she had much time to practice before I called her for the next thing. (She plays for a good bit most afternoons while I’m working, though.) Beanie did 15 minutes of freewriting while I read through a lesson with Rose in an essay-writing book we’re going through. Then Rose went to do the exercise for that chapter while I looked over Beanie’s freewrite.
11:30.—Latin with all three girls. We’ve been using a different book for new vocab but right now we’re using the rather old Latin Book One for some real reading and translation practice. We’re all really enjoying this.
12pm.—Lunch. Huck begged to watch Ponyo. Generally we don’t do any TV or videos at this time of day, but he’s been on a real Ponyo kick lately and was still getting over that cold, so I said yes. He ate his lunch and then fell asleep on the couch, watching the movie. I sat on the front stoop with Rilla, doing a subtraction lesson. Then she went in to eat, and Rose was eating, and Beanie had already finished. Bean and I went into the backyard and dug out a dead plant, and talked about Romeo and Juliet, which she was about to begin reading.
12:30ish?—Somewhere in there, I ate my own lunch. Then Rose and I started Gulliver’s Travels. I gave a bit of background and we read the first chunk together. She’ll continue on her own, but she really likes doing things in tandem. Beanie was reading R&J by this time, and Rilla was doing magical Rilla things.
1:15pm—Rilla’s turn. She was itching to garden, because Mary Lennox. We weeded the front-yard flowerbed and found a snail. After about a half hour, we were both hot and thirsty. Went in for a drink and then read two chapters. Met Dickon! The roses are wick!
2:30—time to pick up Wonderboy. Rilla walked with me, Huck was just waking up. Got home, unpacked, Beanie was doing her afternoon tidy and Rose had the dishes ready. I wash, she rinses. Wonderboy and I chatted, and then he turned on Word Girl.
3pm—Scott came out, and it was time for me to go to work.
Things unusual about this day:
• the Ponyo viewing and Huck’s nap, which meant I didn’t read to him at all!
• gardening with Rilla and reading an extra chapter of Secret Garden meant I didn’t do any of my own reading, which I usually try to squeeze in during the last half hour before Wonderboy gets home. But then I never read as much in spring, do I?
• Most mornings, Rilla sets up camp at the kitchen table with all her drawing supplies while I’m reading to her sisters. She absorbs quite a lot of history and lit that way. But today she was very busy with Huck all morning.
• No German for Beanie, and barely any piano time for Rose. Usually Rose is pounding away every time I turn around. She likes short bursts of practice throughout the day, whereas Beanie will sit down for one long concentrated session.
I imagine any day I picked for this exercise would have about the same number of (totally different) “things that are different about this day.” An orthodontist appointment, a Journey North meeting, a muddy little boy in need of a bath.
It’s possible this is a you-had-to-be-there moment, and if you speak French or know anything about French songs, this won’t be as uproariously funny to you as it was to us this morning. But boy did we howl. See, every day we’ve been starting out by listening to a couple of tunes off our Lucienne Vernay Songs in French for Children CD—this started as a thing for Rilla but the truth is we all get a kick out of learning French ditties. We don’t speak French, you understand. This is important to the story.
Well, today Beanie asked for the Train song. “Le Petit Train,” you can hear a piece of it here. It’s sprightly and cheerful, with an enjoyable “ch ch fff, ch ch fff” repetition laced throughout. I decided to look up the lyrics, but my first click seemed to turn up a different Little Train song. “This can’t be it,” I murmured, scanning the lyrics. A quick comparison of the first lines confirmed the obvious. Totally different song. Laughing over the incongruity—the juxtaposition of these bleak, melancholy words with our chipper little tune—I read the song, so obviously not OUR song, out loud.
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
Above the roofs
Slowly through the windows I see him
Slowly and doesn’t come back
He has nothing to say
He has nothing to do
He has nothing to say
And I don’t care
About the time which goes by
About the time which hurries
The illness of my youth
I had never loved anyone else than myself
Even not you
And I was so happy with you
And I was also happy without you
I don’t care about the wind
Which comes which goes away
I don’t care about the life
Which ends or not
I don’t care ‘bout your crazy stories
I don’t care if the rain comes through the roof
I don’t care about misfortune about happiness
And all this time which is fading away
I don’t care about sad songs
The keys which open the lock
I don’t care about the life which slips away
I don’t care about the earth which closes again
I don’t care about karma of stars
About collapsing sun and the days without tomorrow
I don’t care about grief
I don’t care about grief
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
He bumps and continues straight ahead
I didn’t need anyone and no one needed me
And I abused the time and now it’s abusing me
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
And I said nothing.
“Ahh,” sighed Rose with satisfaction, “the French are my kind of people.” Nobody savors existentialist ennui like a fifteen-year-old.
Grinning, I continued my search. Our perky little train ch-ch‘d its way through what seemed to be some happy pastures, judging by the encouraging moos in the background. Clearly our tune was a celebration of the French countryside, of shiny engines gaily chugging through a bucolic landscape. True, the mental picture presented by the melody is perhaps a bit English, the conjured images perhaps a bit too reminiscent of the Island of Sodor, but—don’t you hear those happy cows, that blithe and bonny whistle?
Aha, there it was. “Le Petit Train” by André Claveau. The same lively melody, the playful lyrics, ch ch fff, ch ch fff, a tune that radiates joy!
I found the lyrics on another page and had to run them through Google Translate to get at the English. And immediately dissolved into helpless giggles.
Here, slightly mangled by the translation bots, it what our song REALLY says. I’m not going to bother to clean it up. You’ll get the drift.
A little train goes in the countryside
Train p’tit goes in the morning
can be seen spinning towards the mountain
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy
Lots of goes … In the fields, there cows always surprised to see even pass p’tit
This train that loose plumes
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy smoke …
The gatekeeper waved his red flag to say bon voyage old mechanic
But wagons zero travelers do not move because they all take the bus and the train is useless …
The train p’tit who wants to believe in miracles
The air of nothing goes whistling and calves enjoying the show
chee chee chee chee crazy mad are happy …
Unfortunately, there are people who think it’s overkill
To give so much money for a P’tit Train
So they told him this time it is well finished
Enjoy it, it’s your last outing …
A train p’tit goes in the countryside
Train p’tit goes in the morning
can be seen spinning to mountain
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy goes …
It reviews the fields and rivers and pathways that feel good summer
It reviews all humble cottages
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy …
In the near Train slows down near the firewall and the mechanic waving
She sees the red light on the rear car who slowly away and is lost in the distance …
The train p’tit lost the battle
This is the end of these beautiful strolls
He goes to the scrap heap
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy It’s over …
But later, tired of long trips
We often will think train
Who sauntered among the green groves
chee chee crazy crazy chee chee tchiiiiiiiiiii
We … regret … the … well …
So. There you have it. The cheerfulest train song you ever did see.
On Saturday I took the three oldest girls to the San Diego Science Expo at Petco Park. Throngs of people, dozens of nifty hands-on exhibits and activities, a mental overload of Very Cool Stuff. My favorite part was when we’d made it about halfway around the circuit inside the stadium and came to a large ring of booths in a park just outside, and Beanie and Jane were practically cheering with enthusiasm: Look at the guy making smoke rings with that gizmo! Look at the motorized robot-car built out of Legos!
And Rose and I were like: OOH, LOOK AT THAT BUILDING OVER THERE THAT SAYS CANDY FACTORY.
I took my camera to the Expo but neglected to take it out of my bag. I did snap one quick pic of the smoke-rings guy on my cellphone (which happened to be in my hand because I was googling the Showley Bros. Candy Factory).
The smoke rings didn’t show up in the photo, but I do believe that’s a bit of Beanie’s hair in the lower left.
Freshman year of college, my Voice and Diction instructor assigned a very long poem for memorization. I don’t think we had to recite the whole thing (she’d have had to spend the entire rest of the semester listening to us) but I do recall cramming a massive chunk of it. This came up in the car the other day in a conversation with my girls about words with confusing pronunciations. Without thinking about it, I found myself chanting,
“Dearest creature in creation, studying English pronunciation…”
I didn’t get much farther. Remembered a few more fragments. “Something something who can tell/ Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.”
Strangely, the Pall Mall line isn’t included. But I vividly remember Sally Waldman-Klauser staring disdainfully at us students over the tops of her enormous dark glasses, and blowing cigarette smoke out of the side of her mouth before informing us that the London Street was pronounced ‘pell mell.’ We were a bunch of Colorado kids who only knew the name as a cigarette brand and didn’t understand why “tell” was rhymed with “Mall” in that couplet.
The poem is called, I believe, “The Phonetic Labyrinth.” Really quite delicious, when no one is breathing smoke at you for flubbing a line.
But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century…
In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins.
That last bit cracked us up and we had to spend a while proclaiming the title in sonorous tones.
We enjoyed the story of the Book of the Dun Cow even more than the story in the Book of the Dun Cow, if you see what I mean. Marshall drops in intriguing details and doesn’t explain them: “But a learned man carried away that book to the East.” Who? Why? Where?
We’d have liked to hear more of Mary A. Hutton’s poem, “The Tain,” of which only a snippet was included—the Brown Bull’s death:
“He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, ‘midst his own hills, he died.”
Later we decided it was time for Rilla to meet The King of Ireland’s Son, and Padraic Colum’s rollicking, lilting prose swept us off on a grand adventure. Oh, such chills when the Eagle looks at the King’s Son with the “black films of death” covering her eyes!
Hmm, this is all sounding rather gruesome, but I guess I’m just calling out the gruesome bits. We were laughing ourselves silly at certain parts of the morning’s reading. And Colum weaves in such irresistible poetry:
His hound at his heel, His hawk on his wrist; A brave steed to carry him whither he list, And the green ground under him,
I put the fastenings on my boat For a year and for a day, And I went where the rowans grow, And where the moorhens lay;
And I went over the stepping-stones And dipped my feet in the ford, And came at last to the Swineherd’s house,– The Youth without a Sword.
A swallow sang upon his porch “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,” “The wonder of all wandering, The wonder of the sea;” A swallow soon to leave ground sang “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”
I’m a longtime fan of the Brave Writer writing program for homeschoolers—as this gushing review from (gasp) 2005 will attest. I’ve borrowed many an idea from Julie Bogart’s The Writer’s Jungle and I’ve ordered a number of issues of The Arrow and The Boomerang over the years. These monthly newsletters, which you can purchase individually or by subscription, are focused around a particular novel that you read aloud to your kids. For each book, there are copywork and dictation passages, a discussion of a literary element that appears in the reading, and writing prompts for your students. For my kids, I’ve found these downloads to be great discussion starters—and for me, they’ve been an easy way to introduce my kids to the tools of literary analysis.
So it’s a tremendous honor to see one of my own books on the list of Arrow titles for 2012-2013. The Prairie Thief, which comes out in late August, will be the October selection. Thanks, Brave Writer!
Julie Bogart has some fun plans in mind for October, such as a podcast interview with me…I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. Here’s next year’s Boomerang list (aimed at ages 12-15), if you’re interested. The Arrow is for kids ages 8-12. And this year Brave Writer is adding a new tool for early readers: The Wand.
So says Rilla. Her father does not approve. Her father is not a fan of tarantulas.
But he’ll forgive me, because he knew what he was getting into when he married me—the runaway train of my enthusiasm. How did we get on to spiders this morning? Rose said something about liking them; I think that was it. Beanie shuddered; she sides with her daddy on this one. Rose and I had a sudden impulse to go outside and see how many different kinds of spider we could count. Oddly, the pickings were slim: we only found two. Usually, they’re everywhere you look, causing some small child or other to shriek and run away. But there were two tiny ones of a species we’ve yet to identify, teensy oblong things with thin stripes of brown and tan, poised on webs stretched between the stems of the rose bush. Look, said Rose, I found this out yesterday: if you put a bit of twig in the web, the spider will come and snip it out. We waited, but the spider was on to us, frozen, silently glaring. Ten minutes later, after we’d roamed the yard in search of others, the twig was gone.
By chance—or maybe this is what put spiders on Rose’s mind this morning?—I’d pulled Fabre’s Life of the Spider off the shelf a day or two ago, thinking it might make a nice nature-study read for the summer, and added it to the high-tide stack in the living room. At the time, I wasn’t at all sure it would grab my girls—read-alouds are a challenge, these days, with one sweet boy endlessly butting in with questions, and the other impish one endlessly butting you with his head. But they were interested, so I gave it a try. Note to writers: If you want to hook an audience of 6-13-year-olds, “Chapter 1, The Black-Bellied Tarantula” is a sure-fire way to begin.
The Spider has a bad name: to most of us, she represents an odious, noxious animal, which every one hastens to crush under foot. Against this summary verdict the observer sets the beast’s industry, its talent as a weaver, its wiliness in the chase, its tragic nuptials and other characteristics of great interest. Yes, the Spider is well worth studying, apart from any scientific reasons; but she is said to be poisonous and that is her crime and the primary cause of the repugnance wherewith she inspires us. Poisonous, I agree, if by that we understand that the animal is armed with two fangs which cause the immediate death of the little victims which it catches; but there is a wide difference between killing a Midge and harming a man. However immediate in its effects upon the insect entangled in the fatal web, the Spider’s poison is not serious for us and causes less inconvenience than a Gnat-bite. That, at least, is what we can safely say as regards the great majority of the Spiders of our regions.
Nevertheless, a few are to be feared; and foremost among these is the Malmignatte, the terror of the Corsican peasantry. I have seen her settle in the furrows, lay out her web and rush boldly at insects larger than herself; I have admired her garb of black velvet speckled with carmine-red; above all, I have heard most disquieting stories told about her. Around Ajaccio and Bonifacio, her bite is reputed very dangerous, sometimes mortal.
Well played, Monsieur Fabre.
Of course we had to look up these twin terrors, the malmignatte with her thirteen red spots, and the tarantula, about whom Fabre’s predecessor, Leon Dufour, waxes quite lyrical: “…when I was hunting her, I used to see those eyes gleaming like diamonds, bright as a cat’s eyes in the dark.” Off we trotted to Wikipedia, for pictures, and YouTube, for pictures that move.
With Beanie: did our first week’s charting for Journey North. Mystery City #1 has very nearly the same latitude as ours, judging from its photoperiod, and Bean entertained me with a list of the countries around the globe at roughly our parallel. You see why I love this project so?
(FWIW, here’s how I described it to my local homeschooling list this morning, wanting to make it clear you don’t have to be some organizational goddess to pull this thing off: “If Mystery Class sounds daunting to you, let me just add that I forgot all about it until this morning and am sitting here in my pajamas, coughing my lungs out, hair not yet brushed, huddled on the couch calculating photoperiods with [Beanie]. A few simple math problems—she’s doing most of the work. [Huck] is climbing on the back of the couch. Scott’s got Elvis playing. I’m checking Facebook while [Bean] does the next calculation. In case you were picturing some super-organized activity requiring a ton of preparation and concentration—this isn’t that!)
With Jane and Rose: watched the first video lecture (very short) for a Coursera class we discovered yesterday, and which Jane has signed up for: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. (I loved the reading list. Some great stuff there, and a number of things I’d been meaning to read with the girls this year anyhow.)
The first text is the Lucy Crane translation of Grimms’ Tales, available for free download at Project Gutenberg. The instructor (Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan) mentioned the intriguing fact that the illustrations (beautiful, just my cup of tea, see below) in this edition are by Crane’s husband, Walter Crane, who wrote about book (explained Dr. Rabkin) about the role of illustration in books. Which! Got! Me! Very! Excited! And when you put ‘Walter Crane’ into Google it autosuggests ‘Walter Crane arts and crafts movement’ Which! More! Excited! Still! My cup of tea? More like my bathtub of tea, my swimming-pool of tea. And now (having spent a bit of happy, albeit sniffly, time on teh Wikipedia and other avenues) I have added Yet More Things to Read to my impossible list.
You see what I mean?
So we zapped the Lucy Crane text to the Kindle, and I read the first story aloud to Rilla—”The Rabbit’s Bride,” which I didn’t remember at all, though I thought I’d read Grimm backwards and forwards, including some of it in German. (Digression: true story: my friend Caryn and I got banned from the high-school library for a full semester in tenth grade due to uncontrollable outbursts of giggling over an assignment for our German class. Look, you spring the original version of Rapunzel on a couple of unsuspecting sophomore girls and what do you expect? Suddenly she had twins! Zwillinge! So that’s how the witch knew she was entertaining a visitor!)
(Thing is, I fervently believed I loved that library more than anybody in the whole school. Me. Banned from a library. I couldn’t believe it. My intemperate book-hoarding habits probably spring from this brief and interminable period of deprivation.)
Anyhow, “The Rabbit’s Bride.” I did not see that ending coming. Nor the middle, for that matter.
At Huck’s naptime there was cuddling (cautious, on his part: “I don’t want to get sick, Mommy”) (sigh) and at his request, another round of the much-loved Open This Little Book, which gem I’ll be reviewing for GeekMom one of these days. (Talk about illustrations to swoon for. Delicious.)
Then lots of Japan Life with Rilla and Beanie—a game we like to play, which involves massive amounts of casual math and spatial reasoning, but of course they aren’t seeing it that way, it’s just fun.
I missed out on some of my favorite parts of the day—walking Wonderboy to school and back; my long morning ramble with Scott—but by mid-afternoon I was feeling better than I have all week, and I got outside to water my neglected garden. Was relieved to see my young lettuces are looking spruce. So are hordes of weeds.
A hummingbird, a funny solar-powered grasshopper, a cup of mint tea with honey. “I can’t believe how much I’m not sick of you,” says the mug, a gift from Scott.
Two very dirty children scrubbed clean after concocting Mud Soup or some such delicacy in the backyard.
Tonight I’m missing the much-anticipated reception for the San Diego Local Authors Exhibit at the downtown library, very sad not to be there but it wouldn’t be nice to carry this cough out in public. But I’m sure there will be something nice on TV with Scott later (he DVRs the best things) and I have two compelling books in progress on my Kindle at the moment: a gorgeous collection of Alice Munro stories given to me by one of my favorite people in the world, and a review copy of a book called Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America’s Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever—how’s that for a title that grabs you and won’t let go? So far, so gripping. The levee just broke in Dayton, Ohio. Entire houses are floating away with people on the rooves. (Roofs? What are we saying these days?) I’m chewing my nails off.
I’m reviewing some new apps for GeekMom, including one I think is going to be quite popular: Mystery Math Town from Artgig. You may recall that I gave high marks to Artgig’s Marble Math & Marble Math Jr. over at Wired a while back. I’ll link to my Mystery Math Town review when it goes live, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up. Fun, absorbing, and is proving an engaging way to slip in some math-fact practice for my Beanie-and-under crew. Including Huck. You can customize for addition, subtraction, multiplication, single digits, double digits, etc.
Yesterday Rilla and I needed to choose our next read-aloud. We decided to spread all the contenders out on my bed. Turned out there were a lot of contenders. I see a couple of repeat-requests snuck in there. (Odd Duck, for example—a graphic novel by Cecil Castellucci, art by Sara Varon. Rilla adores it.)
(I rotated the photo so the titles would be easy to read, and Facebook friends thought I was displaying a giant wall display. I wish!)
After much deliberation, Rilla chose a new arrival, The Big Bad Wolf Goes on Vacation (which I’ve now read aloud three times in two days—once each to the 9yo, 6yo, and 4yo), and then settled in for Ramona the Pest. Her first acquaintance with Ramona. That perfect first sentence—”‘I am not a pest,’ Ramona Quimby told her big sister Beezus.”—had her at hello.
The Story of Science: Newton at the Center by Joy Hakim. Our history spine for the high-tide parts of our year. Yup, history: Hakim’s Story of Science series takes a historical-biographical approach to science, tracing the development of ideas in the context of the lives of the great thinkers and scientists, and the cultural and political events surrounding them. This is book two in the three-partseries, beginning in the 1450s: the printing press, the fall of Constantinople. My heart goes all pitty-pat when I think about some of the books I can pull off the shelves this year to go along with this one: The Apprentice by Pilar Molina Llorente; The Second Mrs. Giaconda; Twain’s Joan of Arc; Diane Stanley’s Michelangelofor starters.
Jenn asked for the titles of some of the natural-history books Beanie has been enjoying, so I’ve started a list in the comments of this post.
Only some of them, you understand. Most of the game-playing and show-watching and walk-taking happens during my work time.
Wonderboy started back to school on Tuesday. That kicked the rest of us into—perhaps not high tide, but the tide coming steadily in.
We watched the first twenty minutes of that Vermeer documentary I posted a link to the other day. It’s riveting so far. The only reason we didn’t view the whole thing in one gulp was because I didn’t want to overwhelm the kids (especially Rilla, who was entranced) with too much information. We’ll take our time with it…a sort of Slow Reading philosophy applied to YouTube.
(“Master of Light” indeed! I learned a lot in that first third of the video—learned to see some things I hadn’t known to look for.)
Earlier this summer, Jane asked Scott to give her a course in the history of rock and roll. So after our busybusy July was past, he put together a playlist for her and commenced the seminar this week. All three of our older girls showed up for class.
Rilla learned a little Latin (dry-erase markers and a whiteboard continue to be a sure-fire way to ensure enthusiastic vocab practice…ditto colored chalk and a little slate). And I love getting to dip back into the stories her sisters loved at this age. The Sword of Damocles went over like gangbusters. And the “Albion and Brutus” opening chapter of Our Island Story, which she’s heard before but likes because mermaids!
Which made it extra fun when “the white-cliffs-of-Albion” showed up in our Just So Stories pick today—”How the Whale Got His Throat.” I’d forgotten that bit, and my Mariner of infinite-resource-and-sagacity was an Irishman until he mentioned his natal-shore. Hasty accent-change required. At the end of the tale, Rilla peered closely at the grating the Mariner had lodged in the Whale’s throat (you didn’t forget about the suspenders, did you?) and commented: “So that’s why whales eat krill. They’re filter-feeders.” I’d been prepared to launch into an exploration of baleen, but I’m informed Octonauts beat me to it.
I was then required to read “Dingo! Yellow Dog Dingo!” (exclamation points very much a part of the title), which is how she refers to “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo.” Try as I might, I can’t make that inordinately proud creature sound remotely Australian. Gotta step up my game.
(Tangent: upon reflection, if I absolutely-please-don’t-make-me HAD to choose one single storybook for all future readalouds, I do believe I’d go with the Kipling. Playful language, magnificent vocabulary, surprising and amusing narratives, magnetic subject matter, sense of humor, discussion-fodder, colorful locales, magic, and crocodiles. You really can’t go wrong.)
Let’s see, we also spent some time with this book: Assembling California by John McPhee, the fruit of my hunt for something to satisfy the local-geology itch created by our drive to Denver last Month.
First chapter quite promising. Begins at Mussel Rock off the shore of San Francisco, and dropped us right into the San Andreas Fault. Perfect. Then of course we wanted to see Mussel Rock for ourselves. YouTube obliged with this gem:
Those lingering shots on the uneven pavement of the parking lot, and later the cockeyed houses on a San Francisco street, really bring home the reality of shifting plates. And from McPhee we learned that the science of plate tectonics is quite new! Just barely older than I am.
Rilla is learning “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by heart. She had the first three stanzas down last spring but we forgot about it over the summer. She likes to practice when we’re walking around the corner to pick Wonderboy up from school.
There were other things…the visit to the Mammoth and Mastadon exhibit at the Museum of Natural History on Monday (and a carousel ride, mustn’t forget that), and the hopeful rescue of some withering veggies from our sunbaked garden. We relocated the cukes and canteloupe, and both tomato plants, and a poor, parched blueberry bush. Something’s quite different in that corner of the yard this year. Everything’s struggling. Or maybe it’s just that I’m off-season. I don’t usually do much out back during the late-summer months. January’s when my garden really perks up and starts producing.
We’ve got loads of monarch caterpillars, though. And goldfinches galore.
Rose got her ears pierced. Jane and Wonderboy and I cleaned out a Staples. Her college pile is growing.