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I joined Postcrossing a couple of months ago and now it’s taking over our kitchen wall—in the best way. This is a site for exchanging postcards with people around the world. Hmm, “exchange” isn’t the right word because these aren’t reciprocal swaps where you send a card to someone and get one back from the same person. Instead, you create a profile and then you’re given the name and address of another user. You send a postcard to that person. When he receives it, he registers the card, which prompts the system to send your address to someone different. In the beginning, you’re allowed to send up to five cards at once. As people begin to receive and register your cards, your maximum increases. Not that you have to send out five, six, seven cards all at once. You can do it one at a time if you like.
So far we have sent out ten cards and received eight—from Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Taiwan, India, Switzerland, Germany, and Finland! As you can see, we’re taping them to the wall above our world map. So much fun. This is a pretty delightful way to combine the joys of snail mail with a whizbang dose of world geography.
Happy November! Just a quick list (no commentary) for this week’s books recap—my weekend is running away again.
I finished The Search for Delicious. The kids were glued to every page. Stay tuned for a Periscope in which I will discuss what book I chose for our next read-aloud and how I arrived at this choice. I’ll also talk a little bit about how I approach character voices.
Speaking of doing voices, Scott just started reading the first Harry Potter book to Rilla. His Dumbledore is magnificent.
This Orq (He Cave Boy) by David Elliott. We received a copy of this book from a friend at Boyds Mills Press and it became an instant hit. I booktalked it on Periscope on Thursday, if you’d like to hear more about why we fell in love with it. (The link will take you to katch.me where my scopes are archived, or you can scroll to the bottom of this post and watch the replay there.)
I’ve launched a series on Periscope. I’m calling it “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something True” — this will be a regular feature in which I do my favorite thing: talk about books. A family favorite (that’s the “old”), a new gem, a library book, and a nonfiction title. I tried out the format last week and I think it’s going to work nicely! Here’s the first installment. I’ll announce future editions here and on Twitter.
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Our past few weeks have been a swirl of doctor appointments and deadlines. I had to skip a few of my weekly Books We’ve Read roundups because usually I put them together on weekends, and my last three weekends were quite full! Three weeks’ worth of books is too many for one post, but I’ll share a few particular standouts…and next Sunday I’ll be back on track with my regular “this week in books.”
Mordant’s Wish by Valerie Coursen: a family favorite, now sadly out of print (but available used). This is a sweet story with a chain-reaction theme. Mordant the mole sees a cloud shaped like a turtle and wishes on a dandelion for a real turtle friend. The windblown seeds remind a passing cyclist of snow, prompting him to stop for a snow cone—which drips on the ground in the shape of a hat, reminding a passing bird that his dear Aunt Nat (who wears interesting hats) is due for a visit…and so on. All my children have felt deeply affectionate about this book. The domino events are quirky and unpredictable, and the wonderful art provides lots of clues to be delighted in during subsequent reads. If your library has it, put it on your list for sure.
Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon. Review copy provided by publisher. A strange, snoozing beast shows up in the backyard, and the kids don’t know what it is. They ask around but the adults are busy, so they hit the books in search of answers. All the while, the sloth sleeps on. The fun of the book lies in the bold, appealing art, and in the humor of the kids’ earnest search unfolding against a backdrop of clues as to the mysterious creature’s identity. Huck enjoyed the punchline of the ending.
Possum Magic by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas. I’ve had this book since before I had children to read it to: it was one of the picture books I fell in love with during my grad-school part-time job at a children’s bookstore. Fox and Vivas are an incomparable team—it was they who gave us Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, which I described in 2011 as perhaps my favorite picture book of all time, an assertion I’ll stand by today. Possum Magic is the tale of a young Aussie possum whose granny works some bush magic to make her invisible, for protection from predators. Eventually young Hush would like to be visible again, but Grandma Poss can’t quite remember the recipe for the spell. There’s a lot of people food involved (much of it unfamiliar to American readers, which I think is what my kids like best about the book).
Rilla and I finished Dancing Shoes, our last Saturday-night-art-date audiobook. Now we’re a couple of chapters into Swallows and Amazons. She’s a little lukewarm on it so far—so many nautical terms—but I suspect that once the kids get to the island, she’ll be hooked. The Ransome books were particular favorites of Jane’s and I’m happy to see them get another go with my younger set.
After Charlotte’s Web, I chose Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious as our next dinnertime readaloud (for Huck, Rilla, and Wonderboy). We’re nearing the climax now and oh, this book is every bit as gripping as I remember from childhood. The kingdom is about to erupt in war over the question of what food should define “delicious” in the Royal Dictionary. The queen’s brother is galloping across the kingdom spreading lies and fomenting dissent, and young Gaylen, the messenger charged with polling every citizen for their delicious opinion (a thankless and sometimes dangerous task), has begun to discover the secret history of his land—a secret involving dwarves, woldwellers, a lost whistle, and a mermaid’s doll. So good, you guys.
My literature class (Beanie and some other ninth-grade girls) continues to read short stories; this month we’re discussing Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In November we’re doing Around the World in Eighty Days, so I’ve begun pre-re-reading that one in preparation. But I also found myself picking up a book I read, and didn’t get a chance to write about, earlier this year: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. The fact that I’ve read it twice in one year is probably all the endorsement I need give: with a TBR pile is taller than the Tower of Babel, I really shouldn’t be spending any time on rereads at all. But there I was stuck in a waiting room, and there it was on my Kindle, calling me. It’s an epistolary novel—you know I love those—consisting of letters (recommendations and other academic correspondence) by a beleaguered, argumentative university writing professor. His letters of recommendation are more candid and conversation than is typical. He’s a seriously flawed individual, and he knows it. But his insights are shrewd, especially when it comes to the challenges besetting the English Department. I thoroughly enjoyed this book on both reads.
Beanie finished Betsy and the Great World and is now reading Betsy’s Wedding (Rose insisted, and I fanned the flames) and Rilla of Ingleside, as our 20th-century history studies take us into World War I. Don’t Know Much About History continues to work quite well for us as a history spine, a topics jumping-off place, especially given the way it is structured: each chapter begins with a question (“Who were the Wobblies?” “What was the Bull Moose Party?”) that serves as a narration hook for us later. Then we range into other texts that explore events in more depth or, as with the Betsy and Rilla books above, provide via narrative a sense of the period. I probably don’t have to tell you I’m pretty excited about getting to include Betsy and Rilla in this study. Rilla of Ingleside is one of my most beloved books. The fact that my youngest daughter’s blog name—which I use nearly as much as I use her real name—is Rilla is probably a good indication of how much this book (and Rainbow Valley) means to me.
My late-September busy-ness put me in a bit of a slump with my sketching progress—it’s really the first time I’ve dropped the ball on my practice since I began just over a year ago. This week I pulled out our Illustration School books (Beanie and Rilla found them under the tree last Christmas) and decided that whenever I feel slumpy, I’ll just pick a page in one of those, or in a 20 Ways to Draw a… book (we have Tree, Cat, and Tulip) and follow those models. It’s an easy way to get some practice in and there’s something satisfying in filling a page with feathers, mushrooms, or rabbits—even when I make mistakes. Which I do. A lot.
This roundup doesn’t include much of the teens’ reading, and nothing from Scott although he has racked up quite a few titles since my last post. I’ll get the older folks in next time. And I suppose it goes without saying that these posts also provide a bit of a window into our homeschooling life, since I try to chronicle all our reading—a large part of which is related to our studies. If you’re curious about what resources we’re using (especially the high-schoolers, about whom I get the most queries via email), you’ll find a lot of that information here.
Speaking of which: any favorite WWI-related historical fiction you’d like to recommend?
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So very hot. We were languid this week and didn’t seem to read as much as usual, but maybe that’s just me. We had a lot of medical appointment stuff happening with Wonderboy and it’s possible I just didn’t do a good job keeping track of what people were reading. A few things, though, absolutely shone.
A Fine Dessert is one of those picture books everyone is talking about this year, for good reason. Four families, four centuries: mothers and daughters in Lyme, England, 1710; on a Charleston, South Carolina plantation, 1810; in Boston, Massachusetts, 1910; and a father and son in—we were all so excited to see the narrative arrive in our own backyard—San Diego, California, 2010. Each pair gathers the necessary ingredients for a most delicious-sounding dessert: blackberry fool. This is a deft and fascinating look at progress and culture: what changes over time, and what stays the same. Rich history, rich dessert: a delicious combination. Naturally, there’s a recipe for the dish in the back of the book—along with informative notes from author and illustrator. Is there a blackberry fool in our future? Absolutely.
Huck really enjoyed Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt. You walk through the year with a grandmother and child, tending the garden and watching the activity of a whole village of little creatures below the soil. Sounds like familiar territory, but this is a new presentation, gorgeously illustrated, and my kids loved watching the below-ground bustle of roly polies, earthworms, and other nibbling creatures.
Land Shark: everyone read it but me! I’ll have to report back later on that one. Seemed to be a hit, though.
Huck devoured Glorkian Warrior—a young graphic novel I’m told is most entertaining. Now, the Mother Goose was a tiny bit of a cheat. This is a much beloved book in my house—a gift from my sister when Jane was born, and considerably tattered from hundreds of readings. Huck knows it more or less by heart. Which is where the cheat comes in: I have a policy of requiring a kid to memorize a poem before he (it is nearly always my youngest who asks) may download a new iPad app. The neighbor kid turned Huck on to some free motorcycle game, but Huck couldn’t add it to our device until he recited a poem for me. He trotted off to the poetry shelf and came back—oh, it must have been seconds—later, triumphantly announcing he’d learned one by heart. Sure, he had. IN THE CRADLE, PRACTICALLY. He rattled off Jack and Jill and hustled away to download his game before I could muster an argument about loopholes. Next time I’ll have to be more specific about which end of the poetry shelf he may draw material from, the scamp.
The Supergirl graphic novel was a Rilla read.
Continued from last week:
I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the last two chapters of Charlotte’s Web. Just the sight of the next chapter title—”Last Day”—got me all choked up. And, you know, this is very likely the last time I will read it aloud to my own children.
Vanessa and Her Sister is so good, you guys! I’m reading pretty slowly, just because I’ve been so busy and I zonk out quickly most nights. But that’s all right because I’m happy to be savoring it slowly. Gorgeous writing. And I took Kortney’s advice and requested Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf biography from the library. It arrived and is about three inches thick. It doesn’t seem to be available on Kindle, more’s the pity. All fat books should be available on Kindle.
Beanie reread a bunch of Harry Potter books this week, and I don’t know what everyone else was into. Rilla checked out a stack of library books about the moon. She’s been spouting interesting tidbits at me all week.
I have two more crammed-full weeks ahead of me, and then I hope to get back to posting in between these Sunday book recaps. But for now, I’m just happy I’ve managed to pull this together four weeks in a row!
These graphic novels have wide appeal, as you can see by the range of ages enjoying them at my house—kids ages six through fourteen, this week! One morning this week, I left Huck home with Jane while I took the other kids on an outing. Now, normally Huck would jump at the chance for a whole morning of undivided attention from his big sister, but on this day I returned home to find him sitting on the couch, engrossed in the third Zita book. “The entire time you were gone,” said Jane, answering my inquisitive glance. “He read the whole series, one after the other.” When a six-year-old boy gives up the chance to trounce his grown sister in Mario Kart, you know you’ve got a winning series.
On to picture books. I never manage to track them ALL, because the boys read them in bed at night. You should see the stack on their floor right now. Actually, no you shouldn’t, it’s a mess.
Beanie and Rilla have been using this book for inspiration and instruction for at least a couple of years now. Seems like it is ALWAYS out on a desk or table beside a pad of paper. Has to be their favorite how-to-draw resource. I’ve been trying to add more pictures to my bullet journal and I decided (inspired by Sailor Mimzy, XX, and XX on Instagram) to try to design chibi figures for our whole family. Naturally I turned to my resident experts for advice. I’m still a rookie compared to my girls, but I’m getting there.
Another beloved graphic novel. Sara Varon illustrated my friend Cecil Castellucci’s wonderful Odd Duck, a great favorite around here. Bake Sale is a quirky story about friendship. Yes, that’s an eggplant and a cupcake making…cupcakes. Rilla almost missed our Saturday night art date because she didn’t want to put this one down. (I’m seeing an absorbing-graphic-novel trend this week.)
I guess I didn’t mention this one last week or the week before, but I should have! This is Rilla’s history spine. We read a couple of chapters a week, with Huck listening in—one of our narration texts. This week was the Trojan War.
Oh, I just love this book so much. I asked Beanie to reread it as context for our early 20th-century studies. Betsy’s tour of Europe involves a romance in Venice, a long stay in Germany, and a hurried departure for home from England when the Great War begins. The final chapters involve one of my favorite moments in all of literature. I mean that without any hyperbole at all. It’s even better than the end of Pride and Prejudice.
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Read by: Wonderboy (in progress).
This book makes the list twice this week! Rilla and I are still listening to the audiobook (below) during our Saturday-night art dates. I pulled out the hard copy to check how much we had left, and Wonderboy wanted to read it. He’s slowly making his way through. Fun fact about the edition pictured here: I’m pretty sure this was the first book I ever wrote cover copy for.
Storm Thief by Chris Wooding. Read by: me (in progress).
Rose asked me to read this—one of her favorite books. I’m only a chapter in so far, but it’s gripping. I’ll report back later.
My bedtime Kindle reading is this fictionalized tale of Virginia Woolf and her sister, as told by Vanessa. So far: fascinating and fraught. After I finished To the Lighthouse I was hungry for background on Woolf, and I found this in my queue of digital review copies. Perfect timing. More to come on this one too, I’m sure.
Books Continued from Last Week:
Beanie’s lit class (which I teach) finished a two-week discussion of An Old-Fashioned Girl. Alcott is so funny—this is such a heavy-handed, moralistic book, quite preachy in places, with absolutely zero subtlety in its contrast of simple, wholesome, “old-fashioned” ways of bringing up children (especially girls) and the unhealthy “modern” practices she observed in the middle- and upper-middle class East Coast society of her day. And yet…despite the many anvils she drops all over the place, I am drawn in, I get wrapped up in the characters’ ups and downs. My group of 14-year-old girls found much to discuss in the contrasting upbringings of Fanny and Polly, and in the vision Alcott paints of a “future woman”—”strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-bodied, strong-souled,” she says—envisioning us, the girls and women of generations to come.
Next up for this group: Sarah Orne Jewett.
We’re nearing the end of Charlotte’s Web—too soon, too soon! When we left off, the crickets were singing about the end of summer, and everyone’s preparing for the county fair. “Summer is over and gone,” sang the crickets. Good-bye, summer, good-bye, goodbye!”
We first read this absolute gem of a picture book last year during the CYBILs. Fell so utterly in love with it—the lot of us—that a library copy wouldn’t do; we had to have our own. Huck and Rilla were overjoyed when I pulled it out this morning. Sophie’s instant bond with a butternut squash is utterly believable, and not just because Huck formed a similar attachment once upon a time, long before we encountered this book! “Bernice” becomes Sophie’s best friend and closest confidant, all through a bright and beautiful autumn. But as winter approaches, Bernice begins to get a bit squishy about the edges. Sophie’s parents make gentle attempts to convince Sophie it’s time to let her friend go, but since their suggestions involve treating the squash like, you know, a squash, Sophie’s having none of it. Her own solution is sweet and heartwarming, and it makes my kids sigh that contented sigh that means everything has come out exactly right.
Well, I was sure I had posted a video of Huck reading this book last March. He was enchanted by the story from the first—a little step-by-step guide to enjoying a book with your best reading buddy, charmingly illustrated—and one day I caught him reading it out loud to himself, putting in all the voices. ::melt:
Another of the texts Beanie, Rose, and I are using for our 20th-century history studies. We continue to enjoy reading history texts aloud together, which allows us all to stay on the same page (literally) and—even more important—fosters discussion and fruitful rabbit trailing. We try to reserve two 45-minute blocks a week for this, supplementing with other books (including graphic novels, historical fiction, and biographies) and videos.
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’s talk on habits seemed to go over very well. I was astonished that we had forty moms in attendance! We set up chairs and blankets in my backyard. Several of you have asked for a write-up of the talk, so I’ll work on that during the week. Thanks so much for your interest!
Playing catchup tonight, so this will be another quick one. I’ve been making my way through Mystie Winckler’s Simplified Organization eCourse (affiliate link, and I think the “backtoschool” discount code still works), and I really enjoyed her video on Google Calendar. Same thing happened with gCal as happened with Evernote when I read Mystie’s Paperless Home Organization book: in both cases I thought I was already using the platform in question in a fairly savvy manner, but Mystie taught me some tricks I didn’t know. In the case of Google Calendar (my lifeline for years now), I already had multiple calendars set up that I toggled on and off for various views: Appointments, Kid Activities (including, this summer, Jane’s work schedule; also includes family birthdays), and a Deadlines calendar I share with Scott. But now I’ve added:
• a Household calendar for tracking my daily chores, the ones assigned to specific days of the week a la Flylady;
• a Readalouds calendar (a brainstorm that came to me after Mystie’s video; I’ve tried many ways of logging our numerous picture book readalouds through the week and I always wind up dropping the ball; we’ll see if this one works );
• and a very simple Zones calendar that displays the Flylady zone of the week. I’ve been using Flylady’s schedule, modified, on and off for some fifteen years now! When I follow it, the housework flows so much more smoothly. Until now I never thought of having a gCal dedicated solely to announcing the week’s zone.
The Household calendar has already proven its merits. I created it over the weekend and made recurring entries (not pegged to a specific time, so they appear in bands of color) for the rotating daily chores. Then, for extra tasks such as the ones associated with hosting a houseful of moms, I assigned times (somewhat arbitrary, but I did find it kept me progressing through the tasks through the day) so that those would show up without the orange background.
I’ve never tried anything like this before—listing the individual chores necessary for a non-routine event—and it worked amazingly well for me. I was able to work through the list in a pretty calm manner, not the frazzled frenzy that is my usual state when preparing for company.
I didn’t put our regular morning/afternoon/evening chores on this calendar because those are routine now, for the kids and me. This is only for my jobs that come around weekly or less often.
I got carried away there and wrote more than I meant to. I’m thinking about adding yet another gCal for our High Tide studies. I have it marked out in colorful chalk and propped on the mantel where I can see it from my favorite chair, but I think I might enjoy seeing it laid out this way too.
This morning we returned to our (still new) schedule. We’re having a good time with Latin, brushing up on what we learned last go-round. For some reason Latin brings out the merry in all of us. Rose and Bean and I are back to our Romantic poets, so you know I’m in heaven. We’re reading Lear aloud—Rilla is doing a bang-up job as Cordelia—and today (at long last) Rose and I started Paradise Lost. Beanie and I, meanwhile, are spending a few weeks in the company of my beloved Mr. Twain. She’s knee-deep in Connecticut Yankee at the moment. I need to catch up to her.
Obviously we’re going heavy on Lit at the moment. There are other things afoot, of course. Including a whole lot of D&D character-building among the girls. For Rose’s birthday last week, I gave her a new adventure module with a promise to DM for them. In a momentous gesture, Rilla has been invited by her big sisters to join the game. This necessitated a lot of poring over manuals to find the perfect combination of character race and class. I believe she settled upon half-elf paladin. Backstory in progress. I think Rose may enjoy creating characters and fleshing them out even more than playing the game. A girl after my own heart.
Famous Men of Rome. Rilla’s first time. Rose and Beanie are listening in—they know these stories well and enjoy them, and it’s amusing to them to watch Rilla encounter them for the first time. She’s doing a lot of narration afterward, mostly at dinner in the guise of “tell Daddy all about Romulus and Remus.” Sometimes during or after a chapter, I use the whiteboard to help her remember names.
Whiteboards in general. You guys, I use them for EVERYTHING. A million years ago I made the brilliant move of buying a whole bunch of scratch-and-dent markerboards for a song. The larger size are perfect as painting boards, underneath our paper—they wipe up easily and can be moved elsewhere while the masterpieces dry. We also use the big ones for things we’re trying to learn by heart. Presidents and their terms, British monarch family trees, and so forth. The smaller ones fit handily beside my chair and are great for our Latin lessons. I’ll write out a sentence and let them parse it. Meanwhile, Huck is keeping himself busy nearby with another markerboard and my best dry-erase pens.
Creativebug. The other day I happened upon this rather amazing site. It offers video tutorials in a zillion artsy and crafty pursuits, everything from embroidery to cake decorating. I signed up for a free two-week trial subscription, and if you’re my friend on Facebook you know I’ve been having a whale of a time. Rilla and I have already devoured illustrator Lisa Congdon’s Basic Line Drawing course, and we’re three-quarters of the way through Dawn Devries Sokol’s Art Journaling class. We have Art on our schedule twice a week after lunch, but that’s not been nearly enough to accommodate the creative outpourings inspired by our Creativebug explorations. I’m finding the Lisa Congdon class has been particularly inspirational and instructive, spurring me to do a bit of sketching when I hit a snag in writing. Sometimes my other jobs—raising kids, educating them, managing a household, editing—plant me pretty solidly in my left brain and I need a right-brain pursuit like drawing (even though I’m no visual artist, as the whiteboard above attests*) to exercise my creative muscles. I’m enjoying, too, painting backgrounds in the art journal and returning to them later to practice line drawing. Rose plans to watch all the cake decorating videos. Beanie’s interested in the embroidery. Right now Creativebug is offering a whole MONTH of free trial (use promo code “CRAFT,” good through Sept. 14, and thanks Kortney for the heads up on that!), so if your interest is piqued, now’s the time to give it a try. After the trial, a subscription is $9.95/month for unlimited courses, or $9.95 to buy individual courses that you can access forever.
*In my defense, I did draw a lot of it upside down.
20 Ways to Draw a Tulip. Lisa Congdon mentioned this book of hers during her line drawing tutorial. I’m in love with it. It’s tulips and 44 other flowers. Twenty ways to draw each of them, from simple-and-sweet to highly detailed to stylized and folk-arty. Wonderful, wonderful, out of all hooping.
And guess what’s back. ModPo!!! The best Coursera class I’ve taken, and I’ve taken some darn good ones. Modern and Contemporary Poetry with Al Filreis and his MFA students at University of Pennsylvania. Last year I watched about 75% of the videos. This year I’m hoping to tune into the entire course, but listen, even if you only manage a single video all semester, you’ve gained something. The discussions are engaging, thoughtful, and lively. My highest recommendation.
Best of all: Wisteria and Sunshine, Lesley Austin’s lovely membership site, has reopened its doors. There’s nothing else like it on the web. Lesley’s posts and pictures are nourishment for the soul, and I always come away with something to ponder, something to act on, something to cherish—just like in the Charlotte Mason motto about how a child should always have Something to Love, Something to Think About, and Something to Do.
Today I forgot to blog first; it’s nearly bedtime.
Melanie has begun a link-up for sharing daily learning notes, always an engaging topic (if you’re anything like me). I used to have an entire side-blog for my daily notes, and then a different one, and then a different one. These days I’m tracking things on paper, but I do like to compile some of our best resources and rabbit trails here pretty often, as you know.
Selvi asked in the comments the other day why we were working on memorizing the English monarchs, because I’ve mentioned that several times. The main reason, as I replied to her, is because they make very handy pegs for hanging other historical events on. So often in our history, literature, and science reading we come across some incident involving Great Britain and we used to always say, “Who was king then? Or was it queen?” So we set about learning the list (and American presidents as well, but that was easier because these kids grew up on the Singin’ Smart CD with its infectious tune for the presidents) and it turned into a really fun family accomplishment. Oh the triumph now when we can all get through the Horrible Histories song without a hitch!
Our various readings continue to interconnect in satisfying ways. We spent a couple of weeks on Wordsworth (you don’t leave this house until you know a good bit about the Romantics, that’s just the way it is) and are reading Coleridge this week, and that has created excellent crossover with our readings about the French Revolution. Except a MOST UNFORTUNATE THING happened and that is: while (continuing on in the juggernaut of world history) reading aloud about Napoleon, my tongue got twisted and his name came out BonaFART. Never, never, never shall I be allowed to live this down. Never, never, never shall I be permitted to read another word about him without a ripple of giggles across the room. Waterloo can’t come fast enough, believe me. I might have to move to Elba myself.
ANYWAY, back to Coleridge. We began a discussion of “Frost at Midnight” today, which is one of my most beloved poems. It’s a good many years since I’ve lived where there’s frost, but I still look at a winter sky and inhale the cold air and think of silent icicles quietly shining to the quiet moon. We found so much to discuss in the first stanza that that’s as far as we got for now—and the best is yet to come.
Today during our after-lunch block (that’s when I focus my attention on Huck and Rilla), we did cornmeal letters. Uppercase printing for Huck and lowercase cursive for Rilla. This was a new activity for Huck and he enjoyed it tremendously. (And ate a whole lot of dry cornmeal, gah.) He’s not yet shown much interest in writing or drawing—loves to paint big swirls and stripes of color, but crayons interest him not at all—but we have a Montessori Letter Shapes app that mimics this kind of tactile finger-tracing, and he used to play that quite a lot. When I put the plate of cornmeal in front of him today and showed him what we were going to do, he asked, politely puzzled, “But how do we reset it?” No reset button, you see. Oh my digital-era child.
He got the hang of the analog method pretty quick.
Rilla, as you know, is eight years old, which means it’s her turn for the family tradition called Daddy Reads Mommy’s Martha Books to You. Which for all four of my daughters now has meant, as sure as the sun will rise, a sudden burning need to learn how to spin. I understand; the passion gripped me, too, when I was writing those books. I never did score myself a spinning wheel (it’s on the Someday list) but I had to have a drop spindle so I could know what it felt like to fumble along like beginner Martha. She got good at it way faster than I did, though. In my defense, she had Auld Mary for a teacher, whereas I? Didn’t even have YouTube yet. It was 1997, which means the internet helpfully told me what books to read.
Join the club and on the 13th of every month you’ll get a brand new, never-seen before pattern!
The pattern in January will be for a new Dress Up Bunch doll (a human girl).
Every month after that for the rest of the year, the pattern will be for an outfit and some accessory (or accessories) to go with the doll. I don’t know what they’ll be yet (though I have some ideas) but at least some of them will tie in to seasons or holidays.
You’ll receive the pattern by email. You can start sewing that very day!
This isn’t an affiliate link or sponsored post, just a gift idea I thought some of you might enjoy.
Plus other wordplay games like the one where you pretend you’re packing for a trip and the first person packs an A thing (apple), second person adds a B thing (brush) + says the A word, and so on—see how far through the alphabet you can get. (I am blanking on the name.)
If you have cable you might have a karaoke channel, surprisingly entertaining.
Good time to work on a foreign language
Impromptu spelling bee
Round robin storytelling—one person starts and you take turns going around the room. I can see your girls having a great time with this!
For times table practice sometimes I make them run up and down the hall while I call out problems. For beginners you can give the problem and they give you the answer when they get back, it gives them time to think.
Count all the squares/rectangles/triangles etc in the room. This can get tricky! Doors and windows can have many subdivided rectangles, etc. (I remember once looking at a large window at our church in Virginia. Jane asked how many rectangles I could see. I counted something like 16. She then pointed out to me a total of 37 different rectangles!)
Book scavenger hunt: assign a subject, like a lion. Everyone goes off to look for a book with a lion in it.
Oh how this makes me miss our baby days! Huck turned SIX today, how can that be possible???
I’m always amused when the Coursera “recommended for you” email arrives and I get to see who their algorithm thinks I am this time. Coursera-Melissa has wonderfully eclectic tastes, doesn’t she?
I must say that Australian literature class looks mighty enticing. I’m sure the Planet Earth course came up because of the several climate change classes I’ve taken. Proooobably not going to squeeze any Econ into my schedule, though. And as for learning C#, I’ll leave that to my daughter the computer science major.
If you’re looking for a lit class, I can highly recommend “Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” with UVa prof Bruce Holsinger. I took that one last year and found it top-notch. Holsinger is an engaging lecturer and he brought in a lot of interesting writers for Q&A interviews.
I’m afraid to click around on the site too much right now, since I have a crazy amount of stuff on my plate this spring and I’m not likely to have much extra reading time. Still…I find the course lectures are most excellent listening material while I’m cleaning or (lately) sketching. Couldn’t hurt just to sign up for the Aussie lit class, could it? A little something to listen to while I’m scrubbing the bathroom floor?
“I like that too,” said Christopher Robin, “but what I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say ‘Oh, nothing,’ and then you go and do it.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.
“This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing now.”
“Oh, I see,” said Pooh again.
“It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.
We order wonderful little homemade soaps from Julie at The Parsonage, whom I met via Lesley Austin’s Wisteria and Sunshine community. Julie’s soaps smell heavenly and last a long time (much longer than the bottles of liquid soap we used to tear through). One of my favorite things about them is that they come wrapped in strips of fabric—so simple and pretty. Rilla saves these cloth strips and this morning she started to sew them into a little blanket. I was reading our chapter of House at Pooh Corner (we’re almost finished, sob!) and got such a smile out of the scene at my feet—these two each so intent on their separate pursuits. I couldn’t resist laying down the book and snapping the moment with my phone. Rose allowed Huck access to her Snap Circuits set a couple of weeks ago and he has played with almost nothing else since. He has worked through all the projects in the book and is beginning to invent his own whirring, buzzing, siren-blaring arrangements (and to drop extremely broad hints about needing more parts).
Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was Still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“When I’m–when– Pooh!”
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
I think I’m not going to read them the final chapter of Pooh Corner just yet. We started with this volume because I couldn’t find our copy of Winnie the Pooh, which comes first. But now I want to go back and read them that one (it’s bound to turn up). I flipped ahead to the end of Pooh Corner today and got teary at the goodbye scene…I’m not ready for these two, my last small fry, to contemplate leaving behind the Hundred Acre Wood. At least I know that no matter how Old they get, and how Busy with Important Things, they’ve been raised to appreciate the value of Nothing.
About once a week I bring my fountain pens to the kitchen tape for refilling. My reason for making this rather quick, benign chore a public affair is to take advantage of the great parenting truism: If you do it, they will copy. Huck isn’t the kind of kid who would be too keen on formal handwriting practice (does that kind of kid even exist?), but if I get busy with some nifty writing utensil, he’s at my side in a flash, begging for a turn.
Fountain pens are awesome enough, but dip pens? There’s nothing better. A bottle of ink, a nib with just the right amount of skritch…there’s a happy kid. I didn’t suggest the alphabet practice; he filled up the page as he chose.
That’s my beloved metal brush pen he’s holding, the $1.49 treasure acquired during my surprise trip to the art supply store on Mother’s Day. (The plastic Speedball pen holder was another buck fifty. We live large.)
(That’s an Amazon link to show you what it looks like, but as you can see, you’re much better off buying local for this one. That’s some markup, eh?)
I tumbled to the metal brush pen (aka my new best friend) in Jonathan Twingley’s rather amazing class at Sketchbook Skool. It was swoon at first site. You get a broad line from the flat nib, or you can turn it on its side for a fine line. It’s on the messy side—likes to spatter ink if you change direction midstroke—but for me that’s part of the appeal. I use it when I’m in the mood for rough, bold lines and a bit of ink spray. Jonathan Twingley likes to fill pages and pages with large drawings and then cut out selected images and collage them together into a new piece of art—really quite magical to behold him at work.
We also have a pair of glass dip pens that my parents gave me years ago with more typical pointed nibs. You can see Huck’s page of orange squiggles on the table. I know somewhere in my archives I’ve talked about the magical powers of colored chalk and a little slate, or a whiteboard and dry erase markers, for transforming otherwise dull writing into fun. Dip pens are the same principle times a hundred.
The other day I mentioned that I was putting together some shelves of books to use for Huck and Rilla this year. Huck is 6 1/2, and Rilla is 9, and according to the boxes I will have to check on the form I file in October, they are in the 1st and 4th grades respectively.
(Of course you know we have more of an Understood Betsy approach to grades around here.)
‘What’s the matter?’ asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.
‘Why–why,’ said Elizabeth Ann, ‘I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?’
The teacher laughed. ‘You aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in? And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?’
‘Well, for goodness’ sakes!’ ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.
I don’t think Rilla has any idea what grade she would be in if she went to school…my kids don’t usually pay attention to grade level until they reach an age—usually around 12 or 13—when they want an answer to the question that comes from just about every new adult they encounter.
But back to my booklists. I compiled these selections according to my patented, highly scientific method of Walking Around the House Grabbing Things Off Shelves™. These are books we already own, favorite tomes I have read with the older kids in the past but which my younger set haven’t yet heard or read—due in large part to the abundant inflow of new treasures that have come our way for review. (Oh you guys, I have so many good new books to share.)
I imagine there will be a lot of crossover: Huck will listen in on Rillabook readalouds and vice versa. Both collections also include a good many read-alone possibilities. If you’ve been reading Bonny Glen for a while, then you know that read-alouds are the core of my homeschooling method, especially in the younger years. (But continuing on, you know, into high school. We still read aloud together lots of history, science, and poetry.)
I know a lot of you are as addicted to booklists as I am, so my project this weekend is to type up these collections to share here on the blog. I hope to post them on Sunday or Monday. When they’re ready, I’ll update this post with links.
So what else does high tide look like in my house for ages 6 and 9?
In no particular order:
• Lots and lots of art, especially watercolor painting and Sculpey fun.
I keep watercolors handy on a shelf by the kitchen table for easy access. These days, they are doing a lot with acrylic paints, too—I caught a sale at Michael’s when those little Folk Art bottles were three for a dollar. I grabbed a set of small plastic palettes (six for $2) and filled a jar with our older, more battered brushes. (We reserve the nicer brushes for watercolors.)
I’ve written about this before*, but for watercolor paper I use large sheets I bought in bulk a good many years ago, folded and torn into smaller sizes. And then cheap recycled paper for drawing. Plus everyone has a sketchbook to do whatever they want with.
About 15 years ago (!) I bought half a dozen scratch-and-dent whiteboard seconds from a discount site. We use these as painting boards. Not only do they protect the kitchen table from spatters, but they are large enough that I can stack them on toy blocks to save space while paintings dry.
* In that 2009 post, I mentioned that for littles I use good paper and cheap paints. That was back when Rilla was three years old. ::sniff:: Nowadays we tend to experiment with artist-quality tube watercolors quite often, because that is what I myself am learning to paint with, and both Rilla and I are pretty addicted to color-mixing and the way colo. We still keep basic Crayola or Prang kids’ paint sets around, though, like the ones in the photo, because they’re quick and fun and easy and portable. They’re what the kids use for casual, everyday painting.
I pulled some of my favorite anthologies for this year’s Huck and Rilla shelves. They’re also in the room for a good bit of the poetry reading and discussion I do with the older kids. I work in lots of opportunities for low-pressure memorization (if you read the same poem out loud a few days or weeks in a row, before you know it, everyone has it down)—including my recent brainstorm to require Huck to learn a new poem by heart before he gets a new iPad app.
• Handwriting practice* with fun materials like dip pens or slates-and-chalk.
I asterisked practice because I need to qualify that term. I subscribe to the John Holt school of thought about the misleading way we often use the word practice. He argued that when you are doing what we call “practicing” piano, you are really playing piano and we ought to think of it like that. You are making music. When I am “practicing” drawing, I am actually drawing. Huck is learning to write. When he sits down with a marker or crayon and makes some letters, he is writing—not some separate intermediate activity that leads up to writing. I think that word “practice” can set up a feeling that what I’m doing right now isn’t real, it doesn’t count. But it all “counts.” If you’re doing it, it’s real. Another way of putting it is that writing letters to friends is a form of handwriting “practice.”
• For Rilla, a third year of group piano class
And yes, despite the above paragraph, you will from time to time hear me ask her if she has practiced yet today.
• Nature study and narration.
My old Charlotte Mason standbys. Re narration: casually for Huck, more deliberately and regularly for Rilla. All oral, still. We add written narration at age ten.
Nature study isn’t something we have to work at. Both Rilla and I enjoy adding new plants and bugs to our sketchbooks. You’ll see a fair number of nature-themed nonfiction on both booklists.
• A little bit of foreign language.
Beanie is ramping up her German studies this year. My younger set pick up whatever the older ones are working on, sponge-style.
Via games, money, dice, and daily life for Huck; Math-U-See for Rilla. Works for us.
• Folk songs and other musical fun.
Including daddy’s guitar-playing. The recorders seem to have made a comeback around here, too; and Rose came home from her Colorado trip with a pair of ocarinas.
• Baking, sewing, and other handcrafty activities.
Sometimes this is simply a part of daily life; in other cases we may undertake a special project, such as making clothes for a cloth doll with the Dress Up Bunch Club.
• Games of all sorts.
Board games, word games, Wii games, iPad apps, you name it. Together or alone. And lots and lots of Minecraft.
• As much outdoor play as possible!
All the small fry on the block seem to congregate at my house in the afternoons: they know when my kids get their Wii time. Afterward, they troop outside to bike and scooter and make secret hideouts and chat with passing dogs and help Miss-Joanie-down-the-block rake leaves. (She’s a treasure. She keeps a stash of child-size yard tools in her garage! She saves all those little stickers and calendars and bookmarks that come in junk mail! She has cups labeled for all the kids on our street and sometimes mixes up fruit drinks to fill them with instead of water. Everyone should be so lucky as to grow up down the block from Miss Joanie.)
• What about history and science?
See above re: readalouds and narration. Lots of good stuff on our booklists.
And if I don’t stop gabbing and start compiling, these booklists are never going to get written. More later, my dears. Feel free to fire away with questions below, if you have any!
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009. Review copy received from publisher. Read to: Huck.
Gorgeous art in this sweetly captivating tale of a boy who, wandering the sterile streets of a bleak city, finds a little outpost of thriving weeds and wildflowers on an abandoned elevated rail track. He begins quietly tending the green and growing things, and his found garden begins to spread, gradually transforming the city—and its people.
We’ve loved every Peter Brown book that has walked through our doors, and this was no exception. It’s the art that makes it magical, the wave of vibrant green creeping across the city. Makes a lovely companion to an older picture book that has long been a favorite here: This Is Your Garden by Maggie Smith (now out of print, alas, but available used).
Took: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn. Clarion Books, to be published Sept. 15, 2105. Advanced review copy received from publisher via Netgalley. Read by: me.
Middle-grade horror story about a (formerly) wealthy Connecticut family who moves into an old West Virginia house near a haunted cabin in the woods. Every fifty years an evil, ancient ghost—known locally as Auntie—kidnaps and ensorcels a young girl. The main character is Daniel, a 13-year-0ld boy who doesn’t believe the wild tales he hears from kids at school—until his little sister goes missing. A suitably creepy tale which will appeal to readers of Vivian Vande Velde’s Stolen.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. HarperTrophy. My copy: purchased with my employee discount at the children’s bookstore I worked at during grad school—with a dream in my heart of one day having children to read it to. Read to: Huck and Rilla (chapters 1-4).
After we finished Winnie-the-Pooh, my youngests picked this for their next read-aloud. Great joy is mine because they are the perfect ages (six and nine), just absolutely perfect.
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes. Harcourt Young Classics. My copy purchased when Jane was about eight years old. Read to: Rilla.
This was Rilla’s first read-aloud pick from the Rillabook shelf. She was quite keen to have me read it just to her (no brothers involved). She giggled mightily over the meet-cute of Mr. and Mrs. Pye (with Jane popping in to shriek over the startling fact—which went over her head at age eight—that Mrs. Pye was just seventeen when she married. We began this book the day after Rose’s seventeenth birthday, which put it into stark perspective). Methinks Rilla and I will have fun with this. I’m not sure I’ve read it aloud since that first time (gulp) twelve years ago.
D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Read to: Huck and Rilla. Rose’s copy, purchased some years ago to replace her first copy, which was read to tatters. Read to: Huck and Rilla.
Monday and Friday are our Greek Myths days. This week’s selections were about Hera and Io, and Hephaestus and Aphrodite.
Tuesday and Thursday are folk and fairy tale days.* This week, they picked “Tortoise Brings Food: A Story from Africa.” A grumble with this otherwise charming book: that nonspecific from Africa. The other stories are “from Greece,” England, Finland, Puerto Rica, Australia, Wales, Japan, and so on. How about “from Kenya” or Ethiopia or Nigeria? Native American stories get a similarly vague treatment: “from North America.” I’d like a word with this book’s editor. But the stories themselves are amiably written and a good size for reading aloud.
*Any day is a great day for a fairy tale or Greek myth. I just assign them days in my head to ensure that I make the time. The kids don’t know about it.
Among the Dolls by William Sleator. Knopf Books for Young Readers. An old copy I brought home from work. Read by: Rilla.
Me: So how do you like it so far?
Rilla, emphatically: I DON’T.
Me: Too scary?
Rilla: It’s terrible! She’s trapped in the dollhouse and they’re being mean to her AND HER MOTHER WALKED RIGHT BY WITHOUT EVEN HEARING HER.
Me: Are you going to keep reading?
Rilla: ::doesn’t hear me, is already immersed again::
This is a digest-sized compilation of several Batman Adventures stories. The Batman Adventures and Gotham Adventures comics of the 90s were aimed at kids, unlike most Batman comics. It’s nice to see them a book-sized edition that can survive on a library shelf.
Huck enjoyed this collection too, and it only took him five times through to notice that his daddy was listed as an author.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second Books. Copies received from publisher. Read by: me. On deck for Rose this week. Bean has already read them.
Gene is a friend of ours whom we see far too seldom (mainly at SDCC). He is spectacularly talented, but no one on the internet needs me to tell them that. I’d been meaning to read Boxers & Saints, his graphic novel duo about the Boxer Rebellion—told from two different points of view, thus the two books—since the day they were announced. Reaching this time period in my teen’s history studies meant now was the perfect time. Deeply absorbing, unsettling, moving, and educational. I always appreciate Gene’s thoughtful exploration of people’s motivations, and the fearless way he unpacks his characters flaws along with their strengths. Beautiful, beautiful books. Highly recommended.
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Audiobook. Listened to by: Rilla and me.
The current pick for our Saturday night sketchbook date. After all the Roald Dahl we enjoyed all summer, this Streatfeild gem got off to a bit of a slow start for Rilla, but she’s well and truly hooked now. Hilary is about to perform her Dulcie-Pulsie dance in the talent competition. Pulses racing. Delicious.
Woolf is one of my gaps, which is odd when I think of it—she’s so right for me. I’m sure we did A Room of One’s Own in women’s lit, but somehow she never appeared on a syllabus after that. I’ve been determined to rectify this glaring omission and this summer I have finally found the time. And OH MY. She’s just…she…I want to quote everything. Her prose—I mean, I knew that about her. But only from the outside. Now I’m inside and I can barely speak. I’ve highlighted so many passages, it’s a bit ridiculous. I’ll pull some quotes into a commonplace book when I can.
Scott is rereading Sandman, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what my older girls are reading these days—I can only keep up with so much. Rose got a bunch of T.A. Barron’s Merlin novels for her birthday, I know that. (Since I wrapped them.) Beanie pops up with interesting tidbits gleaned from National Geographic (her favorite magazine). Jane was toiling through some Kant in preparation for a philosophy class she’ll take at school this year. I’ve also seen some Maggie Stiefvater in her library pile.
Do you know, I thought this would be a quick and easy post? I’d just dash off a list of things read around the house this past week. Turns out I am delusional. But it was fun!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.