Friday, May 22, 2015

On Other Homeschoolers

I'm part of a homeschooling group on facebook. I'm just about ready to quit it.

To just list a few reasons:
  • Way too many people are in love with homeschooling philosophies and/ or curricula that I think are dumb. 
  • A disturbingly large number seems to be anti-intellectual and anti-science
  • A lot of people in the group are kinda whiny and are always asking questions like, "is there a science curriculum where I don't have to do anything?" If you're not going to put in the effort to actually teach your kid, why are you homeschooling?
  • An annoying number of people keep asking for "educational apps" for their kids. Technically our household owns a smartphone and a tablet, but there are NO GAMES on them, and that is for a REASON.
I really like homeschooling, but thanks to facebook, I don't think I'm a huge fan of other homeschoolers. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sincere Compliments

I was the substitute teacher in Relief Society today - the lesson was on The Book of Mormon. I think I started out kind of rocky, but after I got into the rhythm of the lesson I relaxed a little and was able to speak more from the heart. After the lesson a friend of mine came up to me and said, "The one word that describes Beth is 'genuine.'"

I was very deeply moved. 

It reminded me a little of another compliment a guy gave me when I was a junior in high school. It really changed how I looked at myself - I wish now that I could track down that guy and thank him.

In my 11th grade art class at the American School of Kuwait, I shared a table with four or five other people - an American senior with a goatee and a few Kuwaitis. One day one of the Kuwaiti girls, by way of flirting with the American dude, told him all about the elaborate wedding and honeymoon that the two of them should have. Apparently they were going to circumnavigate the globe. I was very quiet and listened without commenting on anything.

I was pretty surprised when, seemingly out of the blue, the guy gestured at me and said, "In real life, I would probably want to marry someone like Beth. She would like me for me, not because I was rich or handsome."

I think I blushed but said nothing.

It was significant for me as a teenager because up to that point I was used to comparing myself to other girls - the ones who always looked perfect, dressed perfectly, always did the socially correct thing in all situations. The change didn't happen overnight, but when that boy said that, something clicked in my brain: That I looked and acted like a person who cared about substantial things; that I was the kind of person with whom someone could have a real relationship; that what I had to offer was valuable. I think he mostly said it so that the other girl would shut up, but that made the compliment more sincere to me.

I told my mom about it that day after school. She was so proud.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

TJEd Review, Part Two

It's been a couple days since I read the TJEd book and now the information has had time to sink in, I thought of a few more things I found wrong with the approach.

But first, a caveat. I have absolutely no problem with encouraging character building in a homeschool, nor do I have a problem with the idea of reading a ton of classic books. In teaching my 5th grade history student, we have read translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Illiad and The Song of Mulan.

Where I get disgusted with Oliver Van DeMille's book, apart from everything that I mentioned before, is the hopelessly vague way he defines what is a "classic." He has a whole chapter on "classics" but the whole thing just outlines why it's a good thing to read a classic. Well, duh. The best definition he offers for how to decide whether something is a classic is, "What books are your companions through life?"

The Aeneid, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Aristotle's Poetics don't even make the top 100 of "classics." Rhetoric and Politics are present, but I guess Poetics wasn't good enough to make the cut. The only representation from non-Western Civilization is Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Confucius' Analects. That's just silly. Those are the ONLY two you can come up with? What about The Shahnameh? Moses Maimonides? The Qur'an? (If he can include the Communisit Manifesto, he can stand to include the Qur'an.) I can think of scads of books that are more worthy of inclusion than The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Beowulf! The Song of Rowland! The Origin of Species!

Also the way DeMille organizes his list of classics for children and youth is confusing. He lists the collected works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, but then continues to name these fairy tales individually in the list. He lists the Dinotopia series as a "children's classic," but completely ignores all of Dr. Suess and Arnold Lobel. I disagree with the inclusion of "The Hobbit" on the list for Youth, when it is clearly a children's book. Actually there are several on the "Youth" list when I would put them firmly on the "Young Children" list.
Why on earth is Dinotopia included but not anything by Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume?

To me, this is further evidence that DeMille is not terribly familiar with the landscape of children's literature. If he has proven unreliable in this matter, how can I trust anything he says about child development?

Another thing I dislike about DeMille's model of education is how language-heavy and Liberal Arts it is. I enjoy reading very much, but if reading and writing and discussing had been my entire education, I would have dropped out of school altogether. In addition to being dyslexic, I am a kinetic learner. (That's why karate is still a thing for me.) I have to experience things with my body and my hands. It's not enough to just read about how people used to make paper, I want to actually make paper. I don't want to only watch a YouTube video of an experiment, I want to actually do it myself. I do that with my kids and my history student because that is what I also enjoy - it seems cruel to me to insist that they do nothing but read and write and discuss the classics for ten hours per day. But this is exactly what DeMille suggests, starting at age 12: 25-50 hours of "uninterrupted study time" per week. Snore.

And of course, this has to all be voluntary on the student's part, because you inspire, not require him do it. If the kid still can't write a coherent paragraph in 9th grade, it's because he didn't want to and it's supposed to be fine. Because you're supposed to "trust the process." And then of course parents beat themselves up for not sufficiently "inspiring" their children. If the parents were doing it right, then the kids would want to sit inside and do nothing but read Euclid all day, correct? And when we say "kids," we're talking age 12.

Maybe I've got a hedonistic streak in me, but that sounds completely awful. Learning should be enjoyable, not a huge slog, day in, day out. That's why I'm homeschooling in the first place! There is time for slogging, of course, but there should be a good balance from day one. The Squeaker (who, at almost 6 years old, is no longer terribly squeaky....I should change his name.) hates worksheets and workbooks, but I still make him do some. But not all of his schooling is workbook-centered.

Anyway, to boil it down into three basic points, here is how I feel about TJEd:
1) DeMille doesn't know anything about actual child development.
2) DeMille doesn't know anything about actual chidlren's literature.
3) Why do people look to him as a good model for education when he doesn't actually know anything?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: A Thomas Jefferson Education

Thomas Jefferson Education, or TJEd, as it is known, is extremely popular in the homeschooling community right now, particularly, it seems, among Mormons. I first heard about it from a friend, who gushed about how excited she was to incorporate more classics into her home school.

I was intrigued, so I joined a TJEd facebook group. I was immediately turned off by what I saw as incessant use of jargon and buzzwords, gimmicky language, and almost a religious reverence for "the process," whatever that may be. I left the group after two days.

The more I looked into it, the less impressed I was. Yesterday I became involved in a discussion in a comment thread with none other than the co-founder of the movement, Rachel DeMille. I told her simply that I wasn't impressed and I found that the approach lacked a sound foundation in math and science. She shared some materials from the website, with which I was unimpressed. I told her so, and she became angry as like the weaknesses in the approach were due to my failure to understand TJEd.

Later, I felt badly that I had formed an opinion on a book that I had not read in its entirety, so today I set out to rectify that, and accomplished my goal quite speedily. Now, my opinion much more informed, I can say with authority: "I am unimpressed."

I don't have a problem with the practice of reading classic literature, using it as a basis for writing and discussion. That is the basis of a lot of classical education and I think it's extremely beneficial. What I do have a problem with is now Oliver Demille, the Author of "A Thomas Jefferson Education," packages this age-old practice as a product that he can sell.

Things I don't like:

DeMille's writing style is narcissistic. He is trying to set himself up as one of the great Mentors (with a capital!) that will lead the next generation into a Golden Age. The book is written primarily in the first person. "I did this. I learned this. Aren't I wonderful."

I think the "phases of learning" are awful. According to DeMille, a child should have very little academic instruction until they are 8, and even then it's just playing around and exploring. He admonishes parents against fussing over backwards numbers or letters - at age 8. Excellence and quality are not required until age 12. I don't think that is based in good science. You should expect quality work from children from day one, so that quality work becomes habit.

I can't even say how much I dislike DeMille's emphasis on creating "Statesmen." It's clear that he means, "political science majors" - people who will become interested in politics and public affairs. Career politicians. I have serious doubts about his assertion that this is what we need for the next generation. We already have plenty of congressmen who were smart enough to get elected, but lack basic knowledge of female reproductive biology. I don't see TJEd as a way to fix that.

I think his approach to teaching mathematics is deeply flawed. He says that you should read Newton and Euclid in lieu of working from a workbook that will teach you actual math. Let's be clear on what math is for: we teach math to children because the higher sciences that govern everything in our daily life require knowledge of higher math. If a child, at 16, wants to be an engineer when he grows up but hasn't had so much as basic algebra, he's got a lot to catch up on. We require children to do practice equations over and over and over again because they have to be familiar enough with the formulae and methods that they can calculate velocity and trajectory of actual physical objects when they are working as technicians for NASA. Just reading Euclid is not going to cut it. Drawing swirly pictures is not enough. You have to require the actual work.

Which brings me to how much I disagree with several of the "Keys of Learning." Inspire, not require is one. According to DeMille, instead of telling a child, "you will not be allowed to watch television until you have completed this page of your phonics workbook," you need to give your child a pep talk about how important phonics is, and how it is so crucial to their learning to read so they can understand Euclid. Maybe that will work with some kids, but not any that I actually know - and I know a lot of children. Plus, for a 12-year-old, Euclid is going to be incredibly boring. How do you inspire a kid to read Euclid when they'd rather be reading The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton? That strikes me as not only developmentally inappropriate, but also a little mean.

Which brings me to "Classics, not textbooks." I really think An Illustrated History of Medicine, a college-level textbook that I have loved since I was young, is a better way to learn history, art, and medicine than Pliny the Elder. Prove me wrong. Now, in fairness, I think elementary school-level textbooks for subjects like history and science are mostly useless because they skip over so much and water so many things down. We check out tons of these giant picture-filled advanced textbooks from the library and devour them. But they are not classics.

DeMille has a contempt for mainstream universities that I find unattractive. Seeing as he, himself, dropped out of BYU to get dubious credentials from an unaccredited university, I can't say that I am surprised. 

How does he choose which works are "classics" and which are not? Ender's Game is on the list in Apendix A, but The Lord of the Rings is not. Also absent is Virgil's Aeneid, though Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is featured.

Conclusion

The idea of raising one's children to change the world is very compelling. It's a promise that I'm sure a lot of people want to believe in. But DeMille's approach to classical education is not classical education. It is wishy-washy touchy-feely nonsense. Maybe I'll change my tune when these droves of TJEd students magically appear in Congress in the next twenty years or so. But I don't think that will happen.

As I was reading this, I kept comparing it to The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. While this mother-daughter team do share personal experiences and personal philosophy, they let their method speak for itself instead of adding in self-congratulatory prose. The Well-Trained Mind is about three times as thick, but at least half of the pages are bibliography - huge lists of resources for homeschoolers. I feel that the WTM method has been proven; Susan Wise, who was homeschooled using this approach, now holds a Ph.D. and is a university (an actual university) professor.

Thomas Jefferson was a great man, and was highly educated and an amazing thinker. But I don't think he would appreciate having his name attached to a product like this - and it isn't just a book, it's a product.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Still too young, I guess

Before I had kids, but after I graduated from college and got married, people assumed I was a lot younger than I really was. When I was 24 and working at that horrible "prison school for troubled teens," visiting parents assumed I was a student, not a staff member. Actually, that happened a lot, even before I graduated college. Like when my little sister's Young Women's leader asked me if I was going to Girl's Camp. I was 20.

Walking around in public places with three small children in tow has pretty much put a stop to that. I guess they figure anyone who has three (obviously biological) kids must also be old enough to vote. I also figured that, at 31, I had accumulated a decent amount of laugh lines and other slight wrinkles on my face that let the world know that I am, in fact, a grown-up.

Sigh.

I went to the Provo Temple early this morning, by myself. It's Provo, right, so it's a college town. One woman asked if I was still going to school. (Graduated ten years ago. Ten.) And another asked if this was my first time at the temple since receiving my endowments. (No.) I think she misheard me because she said, "Congratulations! How exciting!" I smiled and said, "Thanks!"

I guess I do look that young. I should probably be flattered or something, but really it's a let down because I felt really proud of myself for turning thirty and being in "The Club" of responsible adults. I also feel surprised that the crazy antics of my insane children have not aged me more. (example: The Sheildmaiden wrecked my glasses this morning. "Hewe, Mommy," she said in her adorable sweet voice as she held out the twisted mass of eyewear in one hot, chubby hand.)

Speaking of the Temple, we went to the Payson Temple open house last week. The reservation print-out said to wear "modest clothing," so we thought, "Awesome. Jeans are totally modest, and so are T-shirts."

Well, I guess I must have missed a memo because we were like the only people there wearing casual clothing. Everyone else was wearing Church-type apparel. It was kind of embarrassing; I felt so underdressed. I suspect, based on their treatment of us, that the missionaries and volunteers thought we were non-members. Super extra kind, of course, but maybe assuming that we didn't know what a sealing room was. "We can answer any questions you may have! How did you feel when you were inside the temple?"

Next time, we will know. Church clothes.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Problem With Movies

I guess it's not really a problem with movies; the problem is in how I've begun to see them. I overanalyze everything, and the end result is that I can't enjoy anything anymore.

I used to really like The Italian Job, just because it's so ridiculous and fun. I watched it again about a month ago. Sigh.

Let's talk about the film's treatment of women:  Poor Becky the Cable Girl! Duped by an idiot like Handsome Rob. What happened to her when she came to work and found that her van and her work shirt were missing? What went through her mind when she put two and two together and realized she had been taken advantage of? And then the girl at the end who was interested in "The Napster." She was probably really nice girl with brains and morals, who was really interested in this quirky and brainy guy. What if she didn't want her clothes blown off by his sound system? The movie doesn't show the immediate aftermath, but I can imagine her humiliation. Any jerk who would do that to a woman and just laugh should be thrown in jail.

Of course, these guys are super criminals, so they really belong in jail, anyway. The premise of the film is that they have to retrieve "their" gold from the person who stole it from them. Except...it wasn't theirs in the first place. It rightfully belongs to the Italian guy with the daughter who goes to preschool. Their quest to obtain the gold has nothing to do with justice ("I want to see the look on that man's face when he finds out his gold is gone"), and everything to do with the characters' childish sense of revenge. If it was really about justice, they would send an anonymous tip to the police; the murderer would get jail time, and the gold would go back to the rightful Italian-speaking owner.

Also, even though the traffic system got hacked, they blew a hole open in the middle of the street, and they were driving mini coopers on the sidewalk and down into the subway system, police never show up. Does L.A. not have a police force? I guess not in this alternate universe.

I could blame my high school English teacher for teaching me to overanalyze things at the expense of enjoying them, but that seems like an oversimplification.

Also, did you know that Tron: Legacy is secretly a Christian film? It totally is.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Andrew Lang will Challenge Your Preconcieved Notions of Fairy Tales

I haven't seen the new Cinderella movie yet, but I am sure it's fabulous. There are, however, two things about the film that already annoy me:

1) Another Cinderella movie? For real? How many Cinderella movies do we need? There's Rogers And Hammerstien Cinderella, Anime Cinderella, Disney Cinderella (plus all the Disney Princess Merchandise), Ever After Cinderella, Hilary Duff Cinderella, and that one version with Brandi and Whitney Houston where Whoopi Goldberg and some white guy inexplicably have an Asian son (maybe he's adopted?). When will our lust for Cinderella finally be slaked?

2) Everyone is freaking out about how ground-breaking this film is for ditching the "damsel in distress" stereotype, as if it had never happened before.

Sigh.

Let me introduce you to a man named Andrew Lang. He was a folklorist who is best known for his "Color Fairy Book" series. Among these are The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, the Olive Fairy Book, etc. There are twelve, and they are all free online and easily found in well-stocked libraries. He did not write the stories in these books, but rather collected them from around the world. You'll find many familiar stories within the pages, like Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty, but also tons that you have probably never heard of, like The Story of Little King Loc, and Kupti and Imani, and Dorani.

These were published between 1889 and 1910, when the Victorian Era was in full swing and there was a lot of dialogue about math being too taxing for women's delicate brains.

It might surprise you, then, to read the kinds of stories that appear in Andrew Lang's collections. These tales feature - very prominently, in fact - women who take their fates into their own hands. These are not damsels in distress. I can rattle off some examples for you right now.

In "The Enchanted Pig," the heroine must wander the earth for three years in search of her husband, while carrying her child in her arms. In the end, she must cut off one of her own fingers to complete a ladder that is her only hope of finding him again.

Imani, the heroine of "Kupti and Imani," is cast out of her father's palace and made to live in a hut with a crippled man. She sets to work building a successful textile business, and becomes good friends with the king of a nearby country. When the king falls ill, she heals him and becomes his bride.

Here is the last sentence of "The Nettle Spinner:" He had lost two years of happiness, but comforted himself with thinking that his wife was a clever spinner, and, what was much more rare, a brave and good woman.

And those are just the ones whose titles I remember. Other stories feature women who have wizards' duels, and women who must take a vow of silence for a number of years to break some spell. Brave women in fairy tales is not a recent phenomenon. It is not earth-shaking or unusual for a fairy tale girl to have a spine and a mind of her own. I've read many, many fairy tales in my day, and I would venture to say that it is more common than not for a fairy tale to feature a brave and intelligent heroine. All these stories were published over a hundred years ago, but the stories themselves stem from a much older tradition.

I would also suggest that the idea that fairy tale women are useless is a fairly modern construct. Somewhere along the line, someone chose only a few of these stories to feature prominently in the "canon" of Western European folklore, very conspicuously choosing the ones that featured weak, or literally unconscious, female characters.

The thing is, we don't have to remake Cinderella a million and one times. Those brave women already exist in our literary tradition! That is why I think we should instead make "The Nettle Spinner" into a movie.

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