Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Happy Birthday, Great Girl
She observes that she is 10,000 years old today. (For the puzzled: there are 10 kinds of people in the world - those who understand binary, and those who don't.)

As a special present, she was notified of her acceptance into Big State U. today. Now she has to decide if she wants to go, or wait another year and apply to other places.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Confiscated from note-passing homeschoolers (okay, Great Girl and her girlfriend) at Math Team today, a conversation, copied verbatim:

Schreib nicht mehr im Latein.

Possum sī volo.

Du hast die Lebe gewonnt.

Gratias vobis ago omnes. Voluptas mea est.


Iam possum mori laeta.


Nescio quid sit verbum illud.

Diese Minute. Wenn wir hier sitzen.

Fortasse in multīs annīs sī non hodie. Spero non me mortūra esse hodie.

Das ist sehr schade. Vielleicht morgens?

Est tristissimam. Vive cum eo.

Ich lebe weil ich will und nicht weil du hast mir gesagt, dass ich soll.

Non intellego linguam Germanum bene.

[Non-math-related note-passing is brought up short at this point, and perhaps just as well.]

My personal favorite part is "Vive cum eo." Seems like I've heard that phrase somewhere before, and it wasn't in Horace....

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2011

In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped:
I said, Thou art God, my times are in Thy hands.

-Offertory prayer for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Image by Lewis Williams

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Notes From the 2011 Texas Drought
Woke up this morning with a pounding headache and the feeling of a massive head cold. Eudoxus had opened all the windows to take advantage of the freak low temperatures over night (low of 60!), and the house was full of the odor of smoke. When I stepped onto the front porch, I was assaulted by the heavy pall over the city. The sky is gray tinged with blue, and it smells like everything is on fire. The morning news said that the Bastrop County fire is now 30% contained. Two dead, at least half of Bastrop State Park destroyed, nobody knows how many homes and buildings.
It's so petty to complain about burning sinuses and headaches when people's homes are being destroyed, or while they wait in hotels to find out if they will have a home to go back to. Not people far away, but people I know, people I saw at church Sunday, or friends of friends. Then you hear on the radio that the AFD just got to a fire in a field uncomfortably near to the Opinionated Dwelling, and start to think about putting together the things you'd need if you had to evacuate fast. Last week, the highway nearby was closed down because someone's compost pile had ignited. They weren't burning brush nearby or anything; it just went up in flames. As one of our neighbors remarked, that definitely sets a hard-to-beat standard for composting.
Helicopters overhead all day yesterday and this morning: the Starflight helicopters from the local hospitals, scooping water out of Lake Travis to go drop it on the Bastrop fire.

Travis is already over 30 feet down. Some enterprising soul has put together boat tours of "lost towns," previously submerged by the damming of the Colorado, building foundations now again visible. There was similar excitement in 2006, when the lake levels dropped so low someone saw a woman's skeleton. Police were called, but it turned out she had drowned 700 years ago. Pretty awesome.

Bringing us to this thought: the news stations keep showing lists of the Top 10 Worst Summers in the city, and one can't help noticing that half of them start with 20--. Just saying.
We walk across our yard, where our lawn used to be, and there's just brittle crunching. We're just trying to save our big elm tree, but it's looking bad. All through the neighborhood are dead and dying trees. Water restrictions mean there's two kinds of citizens; the ones who obey the restrictions, and the ones who keep their trees alive. There's not going to be much left of the urban canopy by winter. All the hotter and drier next summer, then.
There is something very odd about clicking to the BBC News website and seeing the name "Bastrop" on the front page. For a moment I remembered the weirdness of living in California in the 90's and having Waco (and later, Jarrell) suddenly be places everyone knew about.
Everyone feels terrible about the loss of life (fortunately still low) and homes; but the wildfires are the death blow for Texas ranchers. A spokesman was explaining that the "bright side" of all this is that the loss of cattle and horses from the fires has been very low; because there aren't any left.
Cats have been found mutilated in nice suburbs in the north of the city. One cut in half; others torn apart. A few years ago, there was a young man doing this to cats, and everyone was afraid it was another disturbed soul. But it turns out to be coyotes, desperate for food and venturing into residential areas, even during the day. Besides coyotes, deer, raccoons, foxes, and opossums are being seen in broad daylight as they hunt for anything at all. The Parks and Wildlife Service says people are bringing in abandoned litters and fawns, as the mothers give up on trying to feed their young and just try to survive on their own.
Nearer the beginning of summer, it seemed like everyone was battling pest infestations. I've never seen the spiders and cockroaches (I mean, "palmetto bugs") so bad in the house. Great Girl's fencing salle was invaded by rats. After one of our scorpions boarded an airplane for Alaska and stung a passenger, an ABC Pest Control guy showed up on the local news, explaining that critters are being driven indoors to find "food" (anything--paper, insulation) and water. The pest control folks are doing a land office business. Or they were; the infestations have greatly died down, because the creatures are all dead. This is a summer without mosquitoes and without fire ants. Pet owners are rejoicing in the absence of fleas.

But of course, we're missing the higher parts of the food chain, too. When I put out the bird feeder in July, it would be swarmed by starving birds and emptied in hours. Now I put it out, and only a few grackles and jays show up. I should be hearing songbirds and mockingbirds every morning, and mourning doves and cicadas in the heat of the afternoon. But it's weirdly silent.
Rick Perry says he doesn't believe in man-made global warning, that it's just a natural warming trend. Then he's pretty savvy to be trying to move to D.C., because if this is an irreversible natural trend, Texas is just going to spontaneously combust. Come to think of it, though, Perry's own house burned down three years ago, so maybe he's just learned to cowboy up.

So have we all, really; people talk with straight faces about "cold fronts" bringing the temperatures a little below 100. It seems natural for the children to be inside all day, every day: the heat is dangerous, plus the ozone (and now the smoke) polluting the air. And when they do try to go out, they're back inside in minutes. We've done a good half-year of homeschooling since May; what else is there? Even folks with kids in school have had their kids doing review and early preparation work over the summer, so they won't go stir-crazy when the computer games have gotten old. Some have wondered if this year's TAKS scores won't take a measurable boost from the drought.
I love this city. I love Texas. But the charm is starting, just a bit, to wear off.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Not much posting lately due to lack of internet access other than my phone; but I had to link to this controversial article in the NYT--by a mathematician who ought to know better--advocating a rerurn to the educational policies of the 1950's that ruined American math. All in the name, of course, of "21st century skills." Read it, and if it starts to sound like a good idea, slap yourself and then read Robert Pondiscio's excellent commentary. Don't neglect the comments on Robert's post.

Friday, August 19, 2011

6 Things I've Learned in 10 Years of Homeschooling

It occurred to me the other day that I've been officially homeschooling for ten years come this September. These things are hard to calculate--how many moms have we all met who announce bubbily, and probably with some truth, that they're homeschooling their three- and one-year-old children?--but since Great Girl is beginning Tenth Grade this year, I'm happy to call it ten years. And somehow I've begun to feel like a veteran: I was invited this summer to give a talk at a homeschooling convention on "classical" homeschooling (My first convention! Good Lord I wish I'd had a shot of whiskey before I got up to talk. It went pretty well, but that's another post, one that might or might not get written), and moms of Wee Girl's age-peers often have a disconcerting confidence that I have advice to give. So, then, behold my accumulated wisdom.

1. The only real advantage of homeschooling over every other educational method is one-on-one tutoring. So don't sacrifice it easily.
Not very pithy, but the most important thing I've learned. Every civilization that has educated children knows that tutoring is top choice. Every study that's been done has shown that individual tutoring beats classroom learning, no matter how good the classroom teacher. So while there may be reasons to choose that co-op, or that popular math series that promises it will teach your child all by itself without your ever having to sit down next to him and get your brain dirty (*cough*teachingtextbooks*cough*), think carefully about where the proven advantage of homeschooling lies. It's not having better curriculum than the lousy public school committee-designed textbooks; it's not the better environment; it's you, sister. In the only words of John Holt that I ever agreed with: Teach your own.

2. The best curriculum is the one you actually use.
Yes, you recognize this one because I stole it. It's still true. You know it's true. Please ponder it before you place that $2,708 order from Rainbow Resource.

3. Books are your dearest friends.
It's so easy to replace them with screens. E-books, The History Channel, Khan Academy, iPod games ... and this isn't to say these are always bad choices. My own children all mastered reading early with the help of the relentless positive reinforcement of the old-school CVC phonics of Reader Rabbit. Languages are natural candidates for computer learning, as is any sort of drill (flash cards, touch-typing). Electronic technology can be the right choice. But it can also be a crutch and an addiction. Let's wire their little brains for the printed word first, then use screen-time when it makes sense.


4. Silverfish are your deadly enemies.
Exterminate. Exterminate. Raid has a fantastic product, Max Bug Barrier Spray With Auto Trigger. It's like automatic weaponry for bugs. I don't know its effectiveness versus other options; but I can assure you it's the most emotionally satisfying silverfish repellent on the market, until they invent tiny nuclear devices.

5. No one learns anything from posters.
I finally realized this when I asked Great Girl a question on taxonomy, and she had no clue. I reminded her that it was on the taxonomy poster that had been on the stairway landing for five years. She didn't recall that the poster even existed. Similar incidents have convinced me to give away all those lovely educational posters I acquired over the years, keeping only the ones that are pretty and create an aura (however misleading at times) of this being a House of Education. Also the Periodic Table with pictures of each element, and my cleverly made reversible large wall maps of the world and U.S., which are frequently used for reference. Oh, those maps do deserve their own post, with photos. (/smug)

It surprised me to come to this realization, since I recall so vividly every word of every poster in every elementary school classroom I ever attended. In retrospect, I think it must have been the sheer boredom that drove me to find something to look at and read and contemplate. The same reason, I suspect, that Great Girl knows the twenty-odd saints depicted in stained glass at our parish church in intimate detail.

This may seem like a very minor Thing To Have Learned; but I believe it relates to points 1 and 3. It's so easy to convince ourselves that children will soak up their education passively from the environment, so an hour in front of a worthy cable show, or the perfect wall timeline, will cause learning to happen. But everything we know about learning points us the other way: it's a dynamic process. You have to do something, you have to engage in some way for the little synapses to dig deep enough trenches (neurology is not my field, but you know what I mean). I'm betting that if I had had the girls play Pin the Tail On the Geographic Feature with the map I just took down from the dining room wall and tossed in the Giveaway box for this weekend's Curriculum Share, they would have gained something from it. But when it just hangs there, it's literally just wallpaper.

6. The Three R's are Everything
Yes, yes. Languages are best learned from the cradle, if you're in a position to make that happen; music should be started early; science and art make a child's heart sing. No one is saying to do nothing with your children but reading, writing, and math. But these are the things that must be taken seriously. If it's not realistic to sit next to every child at every moment for every subject (see Point 1), then do so for the Big 3. Make these the focus of your one-on-one time, your curriculum research, your self-study if you're afraid you didn't receive a good enough education to teach them yourself. A young person leaving high school who has achieved genuine mastery of letters (such that he can read broadly, comprehend, criticize, synthesize, and extrapolate), composition with ease in a variety of styles, and mathematics through calculus, will be able to handle anything. Don't you wish you had? I do. Let's get going.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Love 'em and Libum
Ho ho. A little Latin humor there. In an uncharacteristic attempt to be like one of those homeschooling Catholic mommybloggers who posts pictures of beautiful craft items or baked goods, accomplished by her well-groomed eight children in an immaculate house (wearing clean clothing even) between their studies of Latin and medieval history, as a tie-in to our whirlwind tour through world history we have baked Roman libum.

Libum is a kind of hard-baked mini-cheesecake, flavored with bay leaves and soaked in honey. The photo here shows exactly how they came out in my imagination. I would have taken a photo of how they came out in actuality, but "cheesecake soaked in honey" was a phrase ensuring their demolition shortly after their existence was announced. I am pleased to say that Middle Girl did all the work except the putting-into and taking-out-of the oven, which partially accounts for their less than photo-perfectness. The lack of crucial culinary details in the recipe, which came from Calvert's workbook accompanying Hillyer's Child's History of the World, was also an element. But really, there's not so many ways you can combine ricotta cheese, flour, egg, and honey (and one bay leaf) that will not be popular with the populus.

Note: The Calvert workbook is really quite good, the first half being fill-in-the-blank outline pages for each CHOW chapter, and the second half being a wide variety of auxiliary activities designed for those with no instinct whatever for craft/activity tie-ins. At $33 new, I found it was worth the $17 I paid for it used.