altThe Brainy Bunch by Kip and Mona Lisa Harding (Gallery Books, 2014)

Facebook, like smartphones, can enslave or empower.  Or both at once.  At the moment I'm feeling grateful to Facebook, and the friend who posted a link that eventually led me to this Today Show feature about the Harding family and their book.

As most of you know, education has long been my passion, particularly the education of young children, and most especially my belief that most children can learn and do so very much more than we give them the opportunity to achieve.  It will thus come as no surprise that when I heard of a family where seven (so far!) of the children had gone to to college by the time they were twelve years old, I immediately ordered the book from our library, and finished reading it the day after I picked it up.  If read with an open mind, this is a book that can blow away a number of stereotypes and presuppositions, and not just about education.

Although a large number of homeschoolers are Christians, including many who have spectacular records both academically and socially, as the movement has grown there have slso been examples of less-than-stellar achievement, especially in academics.  It is unfortunate that when many people think of "Christian homeschoolers," it is the latter example that comes to mind.  The Harding family is a stunning counterexample, especially since The Brainy Bunch bristles with buzzwords that set off alarm bells:  Mary Pride, A Full Quiver, Josh Harris, early marriage, Michael and Debi Pearl (at least they label the Pearls' book "a bit legalistic"), creationism, the Duggar Family, and others that might send some running for the hills.  But hang on—they also mention John Taylor Gatto, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, unschooling, and the Colfaxes, quite on the opposite end of the spectrum (inexplicably leaving out John Holt, however).  Mona Lisa and Kip sound like people after my own heart, able to take the best from many sources and leave aside what doesn't work for them.  In any case, the family deals a clean blow to many prejudices, including that of the college student who once told them, "Children in big families have low IQs."

The Hardings insist, however, that their IQs are strictly average; their children are not geniuses.  This bothered me at first, as it seemed almost a reverse boast, as if there were something wrong with being smart.  But I think I know why they make this point, and it's important.  There are a surprising number of people who have gone to college at an extremely young age (here's a list of the ten youngest), but they are generally prodigies with super-high IQs and extraordinary skills.  This does nothing to encourage most families to believe that early college entrance is possible for their children.  Or desirable.  Despite its title, The Brainy Bunch shows that this higher-level work is well within the grasp of the average student, and why this is a good idea.

Some might even say the Hardings started out as a below-average family, or at least one with several strikes against it when it came to predicting their children's academic success.  Kip and Mona Lisa were high school sweethearts who married in their teens.  After high school, he went into the military and she started having babies.  Lots of babies.  Their life was not easy, requiring many moves, and times of great financial hardship.  And yet here they are, with their children not only college graduates but successful at a young age in many fields:  engineering, architecture, medicine, music, and more. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 14, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Edit
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For some time we double-dipped in choir, singing for two different churches.  We've only been back a couple of times to visit what I might call the secondary church, but we seem to be perpetually on their mailing list.  Recently I received an e-mail promoting their Youth Choir, which included the following paragraph (emphasis mine).

Elligibility for the Youth Choir is not based on age or grade in school. We welcome participants who are confident readers (grade two-level minimum) and who have the support of their families in making a commitment to attend rehearsals regularly and to be faithful in singing at the 9:00 am service on the third Sunday of each month (September through June). The Youth Choir also leads the singing at the 5:00 pm service on Christmas Eve.

This may not seem radical, but it is.  One of our frustrations in an otherwise positive experience with children's choirs is that choir placement was nearly universally made by age and/or grade, independent of musical or emotional maturity.  One choir director told me frankly that she wouldn't have it any other way, because age/grade divisions are unarguable, and she did not want to be in the position of telling one family that their child was ready for a higher-level choir and another family that their child of the same age was not.  Given that the director in question was a dedicated, self-sacrificing volunteer, I could hardly argue.  But that didn't make the situation any less frustrating.

It's not just children's choirs that have this problem.  Age discrimination is one of the few forms of prejudice still acceptable today.  Grouping by age has never made sense to me—as if the most important factor that any group might have in common is the year of their birth.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, August 29, 2014 at 7:18 am | Edit
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There are a thousand things I could write about related to my trip to Switzerland, but time is short and people at least want to hear something, so to appease both them and L'il Writer Guy, I'll mention one thing that has struck me while observing Joseph's and Vivienne's speech patterns.

Joseph, who is less now than a month from his fourth birthday, was clearly delayed in his speech when I was last here, nine months ago.  Maybe, as I wrote then, "different" is a better descriptor, but in any case he was not as verbal as the majority of children his age.

Today is a different story.  Where he is in terms of "average" I don't know, but his speaking ability has clearly exploded, from understanding pronouns (saying "it is mine" rather than "it is Joseph's," for example) to being able to answer questions about the past and the future.  It reminds me again of how tricky it is to decide when a problem is best solved by intervention (and the earlier, the better) and when it is best simply to let the child develop in his own way, at his own pace.  We'd heard a variety of advice, from simple exercises to a radical diet; no doubt each would be appropriate for some situations, but in this case, trusting and waiting were the best medicine.

There's no doubt that Vivienne is developing differently.  At 29 months she is nearly as verbally competent as Joseph.  She has a good grasp of pronouns, speaks fluently, and works with determination and persistence to correct her own vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.

All this is hardly news; even within a single family, children develop differently.  What makes it especially fascinating for me is that all this development is taking place in two (or more) different languages, and that, too, differs from one child to another.  Joseph was slow to speak each language (though he clearly understood both English and Swiss German extremely well), but now is fluent in both and never mixes them up.  He can translate from one to another (a very different skill from just speaking) and to some extent from French and High German as well.  Vivienne, on the other hand, mixes the languages freely and with enthusiasm, chattering one moment in Swiss German and the next in English, pulling words from the other language as the spirit moves her, a happy experimenter.

I'm reminded of the two types of computer programmers I've observed:  one who meticulously plans every detail, "measures twice, cuts once," and whose programs often work the first time; and the other, who works iteratively, putting forth one version after another and converging on the solution.  Both approaches work, though each kind of programmer frustrates the other kind no end.  Not that Vivienne and Joseph experience any of that sort of frustration in their speaking.  But it's a good analogy of how it seems to be working for them.

Enough.  It's past bedtime again—but L'il Writer Guy is happier.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 at 10:23 am | Edit
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I still have not read Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, recommended to me by a knowing friend, because (1) our library, which has otherwise been marvelously responsive to my suggestions for books to acquire, declined this one with the inexplicable excuse, "I'm sorry but this title does not fit our collection guidelines and we are unable to order it. It is a scholarly, university-level book."; and (2) while I expect I'll agree with much of what he says, I also suspect a sexist vein in his philosophy that would drive me nuts the way John Eldredge did.  Someday, maybe.

In the meantime, Esolen continues to fascinate me.  I can't personally say much about the new Common Core standards and all the kerfuffle they have generated, because I am blissfully beyond that stage of life in its practical application and therefore have not given the mess much attention.  Nonetheless, I harbor an automatic suspicion of anything that moves educational decisions farther up the food chain, and so Esolen's How Common Core Devalues Great Literature sounds great to me.

The Common Corers get things exactly backwards. You do not read The Wind in the Willows so that you can gain some utilitarian skill for handling “text.”  If anything, we want our children to gain a little bit of linguistic maturity so that they can read The Wind in the WillowsThat is the aim.  I want my college students to read Milton so that they can enter the world that Milton holds forth for us.  I show them some of his techniques as an artist, since they’re mature enough to appreciate them, but not so that they can reduce the poem to an exercise in rhetoric.  I show them those techniques so that they may understand and cherish the poem all the more.  I want them to become “friends” with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  I want them to climb with Dante and Virgil the glorious mountain of Purgatory.  I want them to stand heart to heart with the Geats as they watch the flames devour the body of their deceased king Beowulf.

Those are the important things, the permanent things.  If you are not reading The Wind in the Willows as Theodore and Edith Roosevelt and their children were reading it, then you should not read it at all.  If you are turning Tom Sawyer into a linguistic exercise with a veneer of intellectual sophistication, then you should not read Tom Sawyer—in fact, you cannot have understood a blessed thing about Tom Sawyer.  If you are reading The Jungle Book for any other reason than to enter the jungle with Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, then you had best stay out of the world of art, keep to your little cubbyhole, cram yourself with pointless exercises preparatory for the SAT, a job at Microsoft, creature comforts, old age, and death.

Preach it, brother!

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Edit
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I'm always complaining that we—and by "we" I especially mean our schools—do not expect enough of our young people.  This morning, however, while doing a Khan Academy mastery challenge, I ran into the following problem (click to enlarge):


Did you notice the grade level for this problem (in the black line, at the top)?

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 6:51 am | Edit
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Fifty years makes no difference in the susceptibility to parody of elementary mathematics education in America.

Elementary school mathematics, 1964:

Elementary school mathematics, 2014:

My apologies:  I can't get the embedding to work on this Stephen Colbert video, but you can click on the link above.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 18, 2014 at 8:49 am | Edit
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My go-to example of what young people can accomplish has always been David Farragut, midshipman in the U.S. Navy at age nine, given charge of a prize ship at 12, later the Navy's first admiral.  But the Occasional CEO has provided some other examples for my list:

In 1792, the trading ship Benjamin departed Salem, Massachusetts, loaded with hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco and Madeira wine.  The ship and crew would be gone for 19 months, traveling to the Cape of Good Hope and Il de France.   All the while they bargained hard from port to port, flipping their freight several times “amid embargoes and revolutions,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “slipping their cables at Capetown after dark in a gale of wind to escape a British frigate; drifting out of Bourbon with ebb tide to elude a French brig-o’-war.”  In 1794, the Benjamin returned to Salem with a cargo that brought 500% profit to its owners.

The ship just happened to be captained by Nathaniel Silsbee, 19 years old when he took command.  His first mate was 20 and his clerk 18.

I know we expect a different sort of education for our young people today, but surely we can do a better job of helping them get it more efficiently.  No wonder today's teens are restive!

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 14, 2014 at 7:00 am | Edit
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Mallard Fillmore, from yesterday:


From what little I've read about the changes, there are some positive ones as well.  Still, the move to make the test more aligned with what students are actually learning, and to what they will likely encounter in general life, is part of a disturbing trend.  To my mind, the Scholastic Aptitude Test is only useful if it measures what is not taught in school, nor in "test-prep" courses.  Otherwise, it's just another achievement test.  A mastery of so-called arcane vocabulary is an indicator of the extent and quality of a student's outside reading.  Success in the analogy section, which to my chagrin was dropped long ago, was an indicator of a certain kind of mental agility.  A widely-read, mentally agile person is more likely to be successful in college, hence the putative value of the test.

Granted, an exam based so strongly on the English language puts foreign students, and those from difficult backgrounds, at a disadvantage, but that's only an argument for why the SAT should be but one part of many criteria for college acceptance, not for altering the test itself.

Except for a short lesson in proper test-taking strategies and the specific structure of the exam, I'm of the opinion that test-prep courses simply undermine the purpose of the test.  Sorry for pulling the "old" card, but in my day we went into the SAT cold, knowing that the best preparation was years of good habits.  In fact, we were told that it was impossible to study for such an exam!  Easier all around....

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 8:16 am | Edit
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It's still worrisome that our president does not consider directing the education of one's own children to be a fundamental human right, but today I'm offering thanks and respect for the Department of Homeland Security's decision to allow the Romeike family to stay in the U.S. "indefinitely."  (Previous posts here and here.)  That decision is not as satisfying for legal precedent as a positive court decision overturning the administration's efforts to deport the family—on the grounds that Germany's heavy-handed anti-homeschooling laws are not sufficient reason to grant asylum—but the Supreme Court refused to review the case.  The TSA's decision, while still leaving the Romeikes in a somewhat tenuous position, at least also leaves them safe in their Tennessee home.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 10:53 am | Edit
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My sister-in-law's "books read in 2013" post has me itching to work on my own, but re-entry chores after our vacation are taking priority (with difficulty).  In the meantime, enjoy this post from the Occasional CEO.

In high school I studied the Civil War.  A few weeks later, we tackled World War I.  Those two wars seemed to me ages apart, in entirely different eons.  In one, ancient soldiers rode horses and wore funny hats.  In the other, ancient soldiers drove tanks and wore funny helmets.  The distance in time between the two events was, to me, like that between the Punic and Vietnam Wars.

As I arise on this snowy morning in the new 2014, I am reminded that the death of the Archduke is only six months away and the guns of August eight.  I realize too that I was in third grade when the Civil War ended.  Said another way, my living memory has now spanned the period between the Civil War and WWI, and it turns out they were not fought in different eons at all but in a very short, very connected period.  Brad Pitt was born the same year as Gettysburg.  We saw Google launch when the USS Maine sunk in Havana and we declared war on Spain.  Americans lost President Garfield to an assassin when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered, and President McKinley when Apple introduced its first iPod.

Porter is always placing historical events in this kind of chronological context, which may explain why he has such a good sense of history.

There is a sense I now have of historical "connectedness" that I did not when I was young, or even when I was studying history in college.  It is something, I suppose, that truly gifted historians can create in their writing. Sometimes it comes upon us abruptly ... as it did for me last year when I watched the video of a man who witnessed Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater appearing on TV's I've Got a Secret.  More often than not, though, this sense of connectedness probably just comes with age.

That it comes with age makes sense—how can a ten-year-old really grasp a time span of more than a few years?  Yet it seems worth the effort, given that apparently the graduates of 13 years or more of (mostly) compulsory education are even more ignorant of history than they are of geography.  I'm not mocking the younger generations:  almost all of my own historical and geographical knowledge was gained after I graduated from college.

(On the geography side, it didn't help that what I did learn in school went rapidly out of date.  Once I could identify all the countries on a map of Africa.  I can today—but few of them are the same countries.  Learning must never cease, and knowledge always be refreshed.)

How to help young learners develop a sense of history?  Timelines, certainly.  I don't mean just memorizing dates, but a clear visual representation of the relationships between events.  Perhaps something like Hillyer's Staircase of Time, or the huge timeline my sister-in-law created that took up most of their front hall.  Not hidden away in a book, but a part of the home or school landscape that confronts us daily.  Something frequently referenced, though, so it doesn't fade into the background.

It might be possible, also, to develop Porter's self-taught habit of translating bare historical dates into personal events, e.g. "When I was your age, we were fighting in Vietnam," or "Grandpa was born exactly 18 years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk."

What other ideas can you think of?  If you are one of those blessed with a sense of history, do you know how you developed it?


Aargh.  I thought I could get a quick post by just putting up a link to someone else's.  Apparently I'm incapable of not adding my own two cents.  Especially since my refusal to set up a Google + profile keeps me from being able to comment on the Occasional CEO itself.

Back to post-vacation chores.  (I did say it was "with difficulty.")

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 3, 2014 at 10:00 am | Edit
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The process whereby a child learns to read continues to fascinate me.  Three months ago, Noah, who had just turned seven, demonstrated great progress in learning to read.  But he was not yet a reader.  Back then, he did a good job of making his way through his simplified, beginning readers.  But just now he read to me Curious George Gets a Medal, with its much more advanced vocabulary and structure, and he read fluently, nearly effortlessly, and with great expression.

Similarly, in the time between two years, four months and two years, seven months, Joy's language abilities have exploded.  In that time she has made the transition from two-word phrases to full, mostly clear communication, including correct use of pronouns.  Amazing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to large families, but surely one of the greatest is the example of older siblings.  I'm certain Joy has no idea that her youth should hinder her keeping up with her big brothers and sister.  Her size, maybe:  Jonathan executed a neat vault over the porch railing, and Joy announced that she was not going to follow suit because she would get hurt.  Quite fearless, as a rule, she knows the difference between courage and foolishness.

Quote of the Day, from Noah:  "Grandma, I think you're old enough to wear tie shoes now."  To which I responded, "I'm old enough now to choose to wear Velcro shoes because I like them better."

Bedtime.  It's been a long but fun day.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Edit
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alt alt

Better Than School by Nancy Wallace (Larson Publications, 1983)

Child's Work:  Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace (Holt Associates, 1990)

These stories of the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace have been high on my list of favorite books since our own homeschooling days.  Recently I re-read them both, confirming my suspicions that the Wallaces—flying by the seat of their pants in an era when homeschooling was almost unheard of, and often illegal—discovered many of the principles now refined in Project-Based Homeschooling.

The last time I read about the Wallaces' struggles with onerous regulations and imperious school boards, I noted how blessedly out of date it was, for although there are still those in the United States who would make homeschooling illegal again if they could, for the most part homeschoolers here can rest in the knowledge that the right to direct the education of our own children is recognized in all fifty states.  This time, however, I read those parts of the books with renewed interest, since Switzerland, while much more advanced than the U.S. in some areas, is woefully behind us in this.  Some of the Wallaces' experiences and arguments may turn out to be relevant, or at least to give inspiration.

Don't you just hate it when you read an inspiring story from the past and have no idea what happened to the characters in subsequent years?  With Vita and Ishmael, at least, that question can be answered by visiting their Orpheo Duo website.

Here are a few, somewhat random, quotations.  You really need to read the books to get a good sense of the story, however.

Walking into the meeting knowing that we had a majority [of the school board] on our side was a lot better than not knowing what to expect, but I guess I really wanted more than that.  I wanted the whole board to admit that we were doing a terrific job with our kids and to be interested in our approach to education.  After all, there was a lot the public schools could have learned from us.  What disturbed me the most was that not only were two of the board members completely uninterested in what we were doing but they seemed to want the kids to go to school no matter what.  When I wrote about this to John Holt, he responded with some very insightful remarks that I'll never forget.  "One of the saddest things I've learned in my life," he said, "one of the things I least wanted to believe and resisted believing for as long as I could, was that people in chains don't want to get them off, but want to get them on everyone else.  'Where are your chains?' they want to know.  'How come you're not wearing chains?  Do you think you are too good to wear them?  What makes you think you're so special?'"  (BTS, 114-115)


Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 23, 2013 at 6:57 am | Edit
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altProject-Based Homeschooling:  Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert (independently published at CreateSpace, 2012)

Janet's enthusiasm over Project-Based Homeschooling led me to be sure I read the book while I had access to it in Switzerland.  I had to get over some misconceptions, and I found the ideas intimidating, but I agree:  it's a must-read for homeschoolers, and in truth important for all parents.  Maybe for everybody.

The Misconception  Way back when, in our homeschooling days, a popular approach was called Unit Studies.  Here's an essay on unit studies as they relate to what's now called Classical Education; it give a pretty good idea of what they are about.  Basically, you pick a topic you hope your child will be interested in, and integrate the teaching of all subjects into a study of that topic.  At the time, I found the method too structured, too school-at-home, and too much work.  I assumed project-based homeschooling was a re-working of unit studies.

I was wrong.  There are similarities:  a child working on a project is integrating many disciplines and skills together.  But project-based homeschooling is an excellent example of why unschooling, well done, is absolutely not the "let the kid play video games all day" approach its detractors think it is. 

Projects of this sort are the child's idea and the child's responsibility.  That doesn't mean, however, that the parents are off the hook.  It seems to me that the work involved in observing and coaching a project is much harder than following a curriculum.  Which leads me to ...

The Intimidation  I love the ideas.  I really do.  But even as a do-it-yourself, lone wolf kind of homeschooler, this is out-of-my-comfort-zone thinking.  Probably because if Earth is my comfort zone, art projects are somewhere around Neptune, and so much of the examples here involve using art materials.  The author seems to think it natural to work through one's ideas by making a painting or modelling in clay.  I don't believe I've ever in my life even thought about doing that—and I've live a lot of years—so the idea of coaching a child to do so leaves me queasy.  Fortunately, Lori Pickert was kind enough to explain, in a comment on Janet's review, that "if drawing and painting make you nervous, there’s still building, writing, designing t-shirts and websites, putting on skits, making brochures and posters, etc. etc. etc.—it’s more about helping kids figure out a way to help others learn and along the way that reinforces what they know/don’t know and how you collaborate, share, etc."

Also, she's careful to give the neophyte a break:

Surprisingly often, people will champion self-directed learning for children but not allow those children's parents the same freedom and respect.  It's their way or the highway, and you had better start doing it the right way (their way) right away.  Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they'll eventually learn everything they need to know.  You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else.  You don't need to have your own opinions or ideas; ours will suffice.  There's no time to experiment and see if these ideas work for you; take it on faith or you're part of the problem.

If your child deserves to learn at his own pace and have his own ideas, so do you.  Whatever you champion for your child, make sure you also give to yourself:  the right to follow your own path, work at your own pace, follow your own interests, make mistakes, and try again.  Whatever you want for your children, you are far more likely to help them achieve it if you live it yourself.

It's hard to do justice to the project-based homeschooling concept without taking a lot more time and effort than I'm willing to put forth at the moment—not to mention that I'd need the book, which presently is some 4500 miles away.  However, I do have some excerpts, which I copied down before relinquishing the book. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 6:55 am | Edit
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While I've been here for Daniel's birth, I've had the privilege of joining the family for their noontime and evening family times.  They begin with a general picking up of toys, followed by the meal.  Family devotions, based on those in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, come immediately after lunch, and again in the evening after bedtime preparations and some play time (if the former haven't taken too long).

Two of the most amazing parts of the procedure are individual prayers with the children—Joseph spontaneously started praying for Daniel as he is prayed for by the adults—and singing time.  The latter has been a growth opportunity for me despite all my choir training, because it's done a cappella.  Normally I don't find singing the alto line of hymns to be difficult, but singing without accompaniment is much more of a challenge.  Nonetheless, it's been awesome.  Even our three-part harmony is lovely, and it was really great when Porter was here to add the tenor part to our soprano, alto, and bass.  The kids don't sing with us—yet—but are taking it all in.  Joseph has memorized several of the hymns and can occasionally be heard singing parts of them as he goes about his daily activities.  (We have another grandson who sings or whistles a lot, too.  Recently he was overheard moving seamlessly between Funniculi, Funnicula and Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.)

With all due respect to Sunday School/Children's Church, Vacation Bible School, and the many and varied children's music programs available, I think this integrated family prayer and singing time is an unbeatable foundation for a strong spiritual and musical education.

Not to mention a whole lot of fun.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Edit
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Vivienne's post is overdue, but it's long, and getting written in bits and snatches.  So today I'll record a Joseph story before I forget it.

Early this morning, Joseph awoke and went into the bathroom to get dressed.  He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in there, so I peeked in (the door was open) to discover him sitting naked, counting the holes in the laundry hamper.  In French.  I backed out and left him alone, though I made a point of listening.  He counted 115 with no trouble, which was impressive, given how squirrelly French counting gets past 69.

But this hamper might have been designed just for Joseph, because the air vents are not just holes, but shaped into circles, triangles, and rectangles.  After the first enumeration, Joseph began again, this time counting the triangles....

There's never a dull moment around here; it's time to write them up that's scarce.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 2:42 am | Edit
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