Our grandson has a birthday coming up. Okay, two grandsons have a birthday coming up—the same day, in fact—but that's for the moment beside the point. The problem is that we were given a great gift idea, but I'm having an astonishingly hard time fulfilling it. He loves to read, and science books would be particularly welcomed. His current interest is planets but it's just as likely to become airplanes or frogs or the periodic table—just about any appropriate subject would be good. Reading/grade level is hard to determine. I'd have guessed maybe third, but I've seen plenty that Amazon has rated fifth through ninth that could be appropriate—I'm sure they're underestimating fifth graders, let alone ninth! But generally I'd say I'm looking for books aimed at elementary school age.
You'd think there'd be plenty, and there certainly is no dearth of apparently appropriate books. But oh, my. I don't want something obviously intended for schools, with questions and lesson plans. I don't want jokes, especially not dumb jokes, and most especially not jokes about flatulence. Flatulence? Really? In a discussion of Brownian motion? This was in an otherwise appealing book, and leads me to suspect the whole series; Amazon only lets you preview a few pages, and I'm left wondering what unpleasant surprises lurk, unexamined. Sad, because the series (Basher books) is otherwise one of the most attractive.
Condescension is almost as bad as flatulence. Isn't it possible to present facts simply without talking down to your audience? National Geographic books looked promising at first, but they don't have a lot of choice and are not free from condescension and stupid jokes. I'll probably get some nonetheless, but I'm hoping for suggestions from those of you with more experience. Bring them on, please!
In the first comment to Saturday's Pi(e) post, Kathy Lewis asked about the math legacy of my mother (the one who introduced Kathy to strawberry-rhubarb pie). This inspired the genealogist in me to answer the question visually. (Click image to enlarge. Family members, please send me corrections as needed.)
Math-related fields clearly run in the family, by marriage as well as by blood. Some other facts of note:
- Most of the grandchildren (and all of the great-grandchildren, not shown in the chart) have not yet graduated from college. Their intended fields, where known, are shown in italics. One is very close to graduation, so I've left him unitalicised.
- In each generation from my parents through my children, there's been an even split between mathematics and engineering. However, with the next generation at nine and counting, I doubt that trend will continue.
- The other fields don't come out of nowhere: both of my parents had a vast range of interests.
- With one short-term exception in a time of need, every woman represented here clearly recognized motherhood as her primary and most important vocation, forsaking the money and prestige that come with outside employment to be able to attend full time to childrearing and making a good home. Every family must make its own choice between one good and another; this is not a judgement on other people's choices. Nonetheless, homemaking and motherhood as careers are seriously undervalued these days, so it's worth noting when such a cluster of women all choose to focus their considerable intelligence and education on the next generation. As daughter, wife, mother, aunt, and grandmother, I'm grateful for the choices these families (fathers as much as mothers) have made.
- Engineering is a long-time family heritage. My father's father (born 1896) was a mechanical engineer, and the first chairman of that department at Washington State University. His father (born 1854) was a civil engineer.
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How do you get kids to practice their instruments?
That's the question of all parents who can't help having occasional misgivings about the large outflow of cash going toward music lessons. As far as I can tell, the only honest answer is, "I don't know. It's different from child to child, anyway." Nonetheless, I have made a couple of observations while visiting Heather and family and will set them down for what they're worth.
- Every child here over the age of three takes formal piano lessons. The just-turned-four-year-old is eagerly awaiting informal lessons in the summer, and the start of the "real thing" in the fall. They all enjoy their lessons, partly because their teacher is one of the best-loved in the area, and partly because she's also known to them as Grammy.
- Everyone over the age of six walks or bikes to Grammy's house for his lesson. Not only is this convenient for their parents, but I believe it helps them "take ownership" of the lessons. It also means that if they forget their music books, they're the ones who have to turn around and go back, so responsibility is naturally encouraged.
- Even with these advantages, practice time was hit-or-miss, until a simple change was made. All the kids have morning and afternoon chores, which they are (mostly) in the habit of completing with minimal fuss, "Practice piano" was simply added to the list, and voilà, regular practicing.
- Best of all, the piano is located in the middle of everything. You can hardly go from one place to another without passing the piano. It gets played a lot, because it's there.
- Here's something I'd never have thought of: practicing is a whole lot more fun because the piano is not just a piano. It's a "real piano" rather than just a keyboard, but it is actually an electric keyboard built into a piece of furniture. Thus it comes with all the extras of a keyboard: the ability to record one's playing, multiple timbres, the ability to split the keyboard (have different instruments in the bass and the treble), and more. Yes, this leads to a lot of fooling around, but how many times do you think the kids would practice a particular piece or passage on a mere piano, compared with playing it with the piano sound, then the bagpipes, then organ, then flute, then with various sound effects? Multiple repetitions, painlessly.
I still don't know the secret to getting kids to practice. But I can recognize good tools for a parent's toolbox when I see them.
I'm still enjoying the Life of Fred math series, as you can see from my booklist; I hope to finish all that the Daleys have before I leave here. Despite what the author claims, it's not really a complete curriculum, but it's a fun supplement, it covers a lot of math, and there's really nothing like it. It covers a lot more than math, too, as five-year-old math professor Fred Gauss makes his way through his busy days. For obvious reasons, the following excerpt from Life of Fred: Jelly Beans caught my eye:
It is not how much you make that counts; it is how much you get to keep. Taxes make a big difference.
In the United States, the top federal income tax is currently 35%. The top state income tax is 11%. The top sales tax is 10%. TOTAL = 56% (56 percent means $56 out of every $100.)
In Denmark, the top income tax is 67%, and the VAT (which is like a sales tax) is 25%. TOTAL = 92%.
If you want to keep a lot of the money you earn, Switzerland's top income tax rate is 13%, and the top VAT is 8%. TOTAL = 23%.
Yes, it's an over-simplification (the book is meant for 4th graders), but it certainly helps distinguish Switzerland from Sweden.
Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. This movie needs no more review than this: See it.
But of course I can't leave it at that. There are so many films, shows, books, and even Great Courses lectures I'd love for my grandchildren, especially the older ones, to experience, but there's always something that turns a great story into something NSFG. We used to be able to portray the rawer side of life in a way that left something to the imagination, but that sensitivity is now out of style. Gifted Hands, despite being non-rated, is a happy exception. There are some difficult situations and heartbreak, but nothing to detract from the story.
Ben Carson from inner-city Detroit, raised by a single mom (but what a mother!), failing in school, headed for trouble. Dr. Ben Carson, world-famous director of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Gifted Hands tells the tale—fictionalized and condensed, but remarkably accurate for all that—of the transformation. The movie is enjoyable on many levels, from watching Ben's mother inspire her children to learn, to getting a glimpse of the Biltmore House library (professor's house in the movie), to realizing that it's possible to be both a top-notch neurosurgeon and a humble and good-natured person.
Great story. No caveats. Much inspiration. Enjoy!
The two best things about Geneva, Florida may be our friend Richard and the Greater Geneva Grande Award Marching Band, but thanks to Jon I've discovered a third: Stephen Jepson. Take time to watch this Growing Bolder video. It's less than eight minutes long and will show you why I'm enthusiastic about this 73-year-old man's ideas.
I'm looking forward to exploring his Never Leave the Playground website. After watching the Growing Bolder interview, my only negative reaction was that keeping so mentally and physically fit takes up so much of his time he can't possibly fit in anything else, and few people can (or would want to) live that way. But clearly that's not true—he's an artist, an inventor, and a motivational speaker—and his website promises you can begin with easy baby steps.
I wonder if we've passed him among the spectators at our Independence Day parades. Nah, he'd more likely be in the parade himself. But I'll keep my eye out this year for someone juggling on a skateboard.
I hope you all had a very merry Christmas. Ours began with a live cello carol concert and included the opportunity to serve Christmas dinner at the community kitchen where my nephew volunteers. Although the church was packed, there were actually more hands than work to do, so after a while Porter and I found ourselves part of the entertainment: singing Christmas carols for an appreciative audience. That was great fun, though pehaps a litte too much of a workout for my throat. Now we're enjoying the peace and rest of a Christmas evening at home.
But on to the business at hand.
I may have to amend this if I finish another book before the end of the year, but since I made my 52-book goal and have lots of other things going on this week, I'm going to go ahead and publish my 2014 reading list post now.
It's amazing that I can read at a pace of a book a week and still make so little progress on the shelves and shelves of unread books lining our walls. Some are gifts, some are books I bought because they looked promising, and most are from the many boxes of books I brought here when my father moved out of his large home into a small apartment. All of the books are ones I want to read, eventually. But a book a week is only 52 books read in a year, and what with all the new (to me) interesting books that come to my attention, plus books that are so good I want to reread them on a regular basis, the "unread" stack is growing rather than diminishing. Yet I keep on keeping on.
One particular feature of 2014 was the beginning of my determination to read all of the books written by Scottish author George MacDonald, in chronological order of their publication. This is an ongoing project, as there are nearly 50 books on that list. I didn't make this decision until April, which resulted in my reading a one of the books twice—once early in the year, and once when it came up in its chronological ranking. I have no problem with that.
I own beautiful hardcover copies of all these books, a wonderful gift from my father, collected over many years. I would prefer to be reading them book-in-hand, with my family all reading around me, enjoying a toasty fire in the fireplace or cool back-porch breezes. But in reality, this year I have read most of the MacDonald books on my Kindle (or the Kindle app on my phone), in spare minutes snatched here and there from a busy life, or in the few minutes between crawling into bed and falling asleep. George MacDonald's books are public domain and thus free on the Kindle, and are very good material with which to end the day on an uplifting note. This also liberates other time for reading books that I only have in physical form.
Here's the list from 2014, sorted alphabetically. A chronological listing, with rankings, warnings, and review links, is here. I enjoyed most of the books, and regret none. Titles in bold I found particularly worthwhile.
- 2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut
- Adela Cathcart by George MacDonald
- Alec Forbes of Howglen by George MacDonald
- Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood by George MacDonald
- At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (read twice)
- The Blue Ghost Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #15 by John Blaine
- The Brainy Bunch by Kip and Mona Lisa Harding
- The Caves of Fear: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #8 by John Blaine
- David Elginbrod by George MacDonald
- The Egyptian Cat Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #16 by John Blaine
- The Flaming Mountain: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #17 by John Blaine
- The Flying Stingaree: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #18 by John Blaine
- The Golden Skull: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #10 by John Blaine
- Guild Court by George MacDonald
- Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People by Calvin R. Stapert, audio book read by James Adams
- Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
- Life of Fred: Australia by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Cats by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Dogs by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Edgewood by Stanley F. Schmidt
- Life of Fred: Farming by Stanley F. Schmidt (all the Life of Fred books are worthwhile, but I particularly enjoyed Edgewood and Farming)
- The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens
- The Locust Effect by Gary A. Huagen and Victor Boutros
- Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robingson
- The Miracles of Our Lord by George MacDonald
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
- Not Exactly Normal by Devin Brown
- The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
- Phantastes by George MacDonald
- The Pirates of Shan: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #14 by John Blaine
- The Portent and Other Stories by George MacDonald
- The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
- The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
- Ranald Bannerman's Boyhood by George MacDonald
- Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
- The Scarlet Lake Mystery: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #13 by John Blaine
- The Seaboard Parish by George MacDonald
- The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
- The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R. Lawhead
- The Silent Swan by Lex Keating
- Smuggler's Reef: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #7 by John Blaine
- Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler
- Sometimes God Has a Kid's Face by Sister Mary Rose McGeady
- Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets by Michael Smith
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- Unspoken Sermons Volume I by George MacDonald
- The Vicar's Daughter by George MacDonald
- The Wailing Octopus: A Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story #11 by John Blaine
- Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey (Wool 1 - Wool 5)
- Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley
Onward to next year!
Not to mention a great lesson about cotton, and a potential field trip for some New Hampshire homeschoolers we know! Check out the Occasional CEO's article this morning.
I'm not a big fan of going to the dentist, but yesterday's visit paid an unexpected benefit: the hygienist, a former neighbor of ours, shared this video with me.
Heather, this is especially for you, but I think Janet will appreciate it as well, despite her memories being less happy than yours. I enjoyed it a lot despite my own mixed feelings. There are plenty of good memories for Porter as well. :)
This video is just the trailer for a documentary project promoting music education, Marching Beyond Halftime. As such, it has relevance to many outside of our immediate family. Enjoy!
I haven't written much on the Common Core school standards mess (just this), but since Florida give us the opportunity to take sample tests, I couldn't resist checking out what was expected of third graders in mathematics. I was a math major in college and usually enjoy taking standardized tests, so it should have been a piece of cookie, as we say in our family in honor of one of Heather's college math instructors, who was, Ziva-like, idiom-challenged in English.
I'm strongly in favor of holding students, teachers, and schools accountable for what is learned in school. What's more, I have always had little sympathy for those who whine about the standardized testing that comes with a welcome concern for such accountability. For endless years schools have failed to work with parents, to open their doors and records to parents, and to provide parents any reasonable assurance that the massive amount of their children's time spent at school is not being wasted. They brought it all on themselves with their high-handed, "we know best, you just have to trust us" attitude.
And to those who complain that too much time is being wasted in school with teaching to and practicing for the tests, I always say the fault is not in the test, but in teaching to it and practicing for it. Any generalized testing system worth its salt should be able to count on the fact that test results are a representative sample of a student's knowledge; teaching to the sample undermines its reliability.
All that said, this is a test that requires practice, and specific, test-related teaching. First, doing math by mouse clicks instead of paper and pencil is a non-trivial exercise. In this I was aided by my hours of Khan Academy math work. But certainly students need time and practice to learn the specific testing interface.
Second, and most important, even with a bachelor's degree in math I found questions that made me stare blankly at the screen. I don't just mean i didn't know the answer: I hadn't a clue how to begin answering the question. (More)
The 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)
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.
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.
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 Willows. That 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!
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)?