Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review: Betty Lukens Through the Bible in Felt

For many years, Baptist and Evangelical Sunday schools have been using Betty Lukens felt figures as a simple, vivid, and attractive way to teach Bible stories to children. There being nothing inherently Protestant about feltboards, it's high time more Catholic parents (and maybe some CCD teachers) knew about these gorgeous, detailed, high-quality felt pieces.

There are a LOT of them: more than 600 pieces, including just about every character, major and minor, from the Bible (though of course some figures stand in for multiple persons); enough animals to sink Noah's Ark; and every biblical object imaginable, from plain rocks (large for sitting on; small for stoning people with) to the fantastic multi-materialed statue from the king's vision in the second chapter of Daniel.

The set comes with a Teacher's Manual, which tells each story in an elementary-level style, 182 stories in all. Each 1-2 page story is accompanied by two panels showing the feltboard at different points in the narrative, a numerical list of felt pieces needed to tell the story (the pieces are all numbered, though not always very clearly, and indexed in the back of the Manual--I recommend photocopying the numbered index and keeping it with your pieces), the scriptural references for the story, and a "memory verse" relating to the story. The Teacher's Manual makes using the massive set surprisingly uncomplicated.

Two caveats. First, this is not a cheap set: $80 for the basic, unmounted, small-size set; scenery backgrounds, feltboard, and filing case not included (though you can probably get a discount ordering through a homeschool catalog). A whopping $340 for the large, mounted set with backgrounds, feltboard, and filing case.

But. Did I mention you get 600+ ultra-nifty, high-quality felt pieces? The additional scenery backgrounds (you get the basic outdoors background with the basic set) are cool, but probably not necessary: my children have been perfectly happy to let their imaginations fill in the backgrounds. The feltboard is even less necessary: buy $2 worth of light-blue felt at the craft store, glue it to a large (roughly 20" x 26") board, and you have a perfectly serviceable feltboard. Go wild and make the reverse side dark blue for nighttime or Creatio ex Nihilo scenes. The smaller sized set is preferable unless you're teaching a large class of a dozen or so students. And the filing case, by all accounts, is more a time-consuming liability than an asset: zip-loc freezer bags, labeled "Animals 123-150" or "Buildings 200-210" and stuffed in a small cardboard box, make an ideal filing system.

Second, you have to cut out the felt pieces yourself. And after you've cut out all the pieces you've assembled for the first few Bible stories, you'll start wondering if you've committed to felt-cutting as your new lifetime hobby. But soon you start re-using pieces, and it will only take a few minutes to cut out new pieces for the next story.

Being a Protestant resource, there are the expected blips: no Deuterocanonical stories are included (though with so many, many pieces in the set, nothing is easier than to pull together the right pieces for, say, Tobit, Raphael, the miraculous fish, and even the dog). The stories as told in the Teacher's Manual include a brief and gentle moral at the end, which often benefit from some tweaking: I cross out the repetitive appeals to know God's plan for your life and replace them with reminders to form and follow your conscience, for instance. The only serious theological problem I've run across is in the story of the Second Coming, which combines an Evangelical "Rapture" theology with the heresy that only the saved will be resurrected. Catholics will have to skip, or radically re-tell, this lesson.

The best thing about Betty Lukens is that kids love the feltboard, and remember the stories. The myriad biblical characters suddenly have faces to go with the names; the bright colors give the stories a Technicolor-quality that makes me think of old Hollywood robes-n-sandals epics like The Ten Commandments. When I'm cutting out felt pieces in public while waiting for appointments, someone raised Baptist will always come over and tell me how much she loved the felt Bible stories of her childhood.

Finally, I discovered some unexpected bonuses. Older children find it fun and easy to enact non-Biblical classic stories with the pieces: Paul and Priscilla might as well be Philemon and Baucis; they're all in robes and togas after all. And while you really can't let small children go wild with the felt pieces, unless you're prepared to invest a few hours of your evening in re-sorting them while you ruin your eyes trying to make out the tiny numbers printed on the felt, you can certainly let them play with the pieces from a story after it's finished. The Peaceable Kingdom, once Mommy's done, goes wild and the bears eat the sheep while Adam and Eve have a Pythonesque fish-slapping fight. The pillar of cloud over Mount Sinai becomes a volcanic eruption--run, Israelites! Don't trip over that golden calf!

All right, maybe something's just weird about my children.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Chicken Chicken Chicken": Chicken Chicken in Chicken's Chicken Chicken

Offspring #1 turned in her first research paper this week, and I discovered I had no clue how to grade it. Now I always thought that, despite the badly cliche'd objection to homeschooling that "You can't possibly teach them everything they need to know through high school," I need never fret about literature and composition, being able to wave my M.A. around impressively and all.

But while I can comment on Stanley Fish, and explain my ennui with Bloom (is he going to coast on the Anxiety of Influence forever?), and even share my love of Udolpho with the Offspringen (#1 only made it through a few chapters before feeling compelled to write her own parody, upon which I promptly introduced her to Northanger Abbey), I cannot tell what a sixth-grade research paper on Pythagoras ought to read like. I gave her an 'A' on the theory that she did her own research out of actual books, without recourse to the internet; produced recognizable paragraphs, an intro, and a conclusion; and turned in a third draft free of egregious grammatical or spelling errors. I added a '+' for titling the paper "Pythagoras" and not using the standard MLA title format, i.e. "Sex, Lies, and Right Angles: Pythagoras' Role in the Queering of the Periclean Golden Age."

My difficulty is a lack of models. What does a sixth-grade paper look like? The usual grade-level descriptions give little help. About the only thing I could definitely determine is that she should be using approved citation format, whatever that is. I do remember being taught citation format in high school from an ancient publication--it explained, among its rapturous discourses on proper index card use, how to rotate the typewriter platen a half-line up, to get superscripts--and learning MLA format in one evening my freshman year of college. Besides the fact that MLA citation format changes every few years, and that it varies among academic disciplines, middle school seems a bit early to be getting started on mastering something that takes only a few hours to learn when it's needed.

Turns out there is, though, a resource for all your academic report and presentation needs (via Language Log). And there's a related video for the second-graders in our ISD who are supposed to learn how to assemble a Power-Point presentation (no, not kidding).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Put Down the Henty and Back Away Slowly

Rich Leonardi has noticed how good Barbara Willard's juvenile historical fiction is. Well, as they say, if you liked those, you'll love the whole Clarion Books series, where Willard's most popular titles started out.

Clarion Books were published by Doubleday in the late 1950's and early '60's as "a new fiction series by outstanding authors, featuring exciting events in Catholic world history, told in fast-paced adventure stories bringing the past to life, designed to appeal to boys and girls of today."

I've gotten hold of many of these titles, and Offspring #1 gives them unreservedly two thumbs up. They're about late elementary to middle school level and informative without being obtrusively educational. And they're generally less expensive used, even adding shipping costs, than the softcover reprints.

Finding the Clarion titles is made trickier by Houghton Mifflin's use of the "Clarion" name for their line of children's books, making "Clarion" unusable as a search term for the used book finding engines. Here's what I've been able to find over the years; I'd be grateful for any additions to my list from readers. Reprints are indicated; descriptions are (mostly) by Doubleday.

Boucher, Alan. The King's Men: A Story of St. Olaf of Norway
An Icelandic boy joins King Olaf in his struggle to unite Norway and establish a Christian kingdom.

Brady, Charles. The King's Thane
Beorn earns his thaneship by serving under the heroic hunter Beowulf in Northumbria.

Brady, Charles. Sword of Clontarf
A boy plays a man's role in the battle to preserve Christianity in Ireland.

De Leeuw, Adele and Cateau. Where Valor Lies
A young Parisian joins the crusade of King Louis IX and fights to free Jerusalem from the Saracens.

Garnett, Henry. A Trumpet Sounds
Political and religious strife during the reign of Elizabeth I involves a young English boy in a dangerous mission.

Garnett, Henry. The Blood Red Crescent (reprinted by Lepanto Press)
A young Venetian helps repel the Turkish invaders at Lepanto in 1571.

Hubbard, Margaret Ann. The Blue Gonfalon (reprinted by Lepanto Press)
A French peasant's son earns knighthood during the First Crusade in 1099.

Lomask, Milton Cross Among the Tomahawks
Two Huron Indian boys become Christians under the influence of Jesuit missionaries in early Canada.

Lomask, Milton. Ship's Boy With Magellan
A Spanish boy joins Magellan's crew on his famous circumnavigation voyage.

Pauli, Hertha. The Two Trumpeters of Vienna
Four young friends each play a part in the liberation of Vienna from the Turks in 1683.

Polland, Madeleine. Chuiraquimba and the Black Robes
An Indian girl and her brother from the jungles of Paraguay are aided by Jesuit missionaries.

Polland, Madeleine. City of the Golden House
St. Peter and the early Christians.

Polland, Madeleine. Fingal's Quest
Adventures of a young monastic student enslaved in sixth century Gaul.

Willard, Barbara. If All the Swords in England (reprinted by Bethlehem Books)
Twin brothers in the service of King Henry II and Thomas Becket witness the martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral.

Willard, Barbara. Son of Charlemagne (reprinted by Bethlehem Books)
The majesty and vigor of Charlemagne's reign unfold in the story of his favorite son.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

M'aidez! M'aidez!

Today is May Day, the socialist worker holiday; otherwise known as the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker.

I've gone on at length elsewhere about the accepted falsehood that "most Christian holidays are just pagan holidays made over; this was done to promote conversion in pagan countries." A pleasant and surprsing by-product of the internet is that, more and more, people are realizing that there are no actual historical grounds for the common claim, and in fact compelling historical reasons to think it untrue (like for instance the unrelenting hostility of early Christian missionaries to any traces of pagan worship among new converts).

Anyway today we have what is an exception to that rule. Pope Pius XII, at a gathering of the Catholic Association of Italian Workers in 1955, announced the institution of a new Josephite feast day expressly to counter the socialist holiday (which was itself supposed to counter religious holidays in socialist and communist countries):
Our intention in doing so is to bring all men to recognize the dignity of labour. It is our hope, that this dignity may supply the motive for the formation of a social order and a body of law founded on the equitable distribution of rights and duties… We are certain that you are indeed pleased, for the humble working man of Nazareth not only personifies before God and the Church the dignity of those who work with their hands, but he is also the constant guardian of yourselves and your families.
St. Joseph, patron of workers and of pregnant mothers, pray for us!
Thank You

I've been riding this particular hobby horse for a while now. Great article from Chemical and Engineering News.
More parents are also deciding to homeschool their children beyond middle school, and as they do so, they are discovering that the availability of already prepared chemistry curricula is quite limited. The situation is especially challenging for secular homeschoolers, who say there are virtually no secular high school chemistry curricula out there for the homeschooling community.
One caveat: please, no more of "the homeschooling community." As if you could have a "community" composed of people for whom the sole common denominator is that they don't want to be part of any educational "community," public or private. Especially annoying when some ignorant columnist or politico runs with that particular ball and starts calling on "the homeschooling community" to do this or that. But that's for another blogpost. Onward...

Many secular homeschoolers end up modifying one of the Christian curricula, simply because those curricula are the only ones available. Or, like the Strouds, they cobble together their own curricula, which many say is incredibly time-consuming and nearly impossible for parents without a science background. Some parents with older kids end up sending them to a community college for chemistry courses. Some join co-ops where they can pool their resources with other parents. Some gloss over or skip chemistry altogether....

Barrett says she would love for someone to come up with a secular high school chemistry curriculum that is academically rigorous yet parent-friendly. Even better, she says, would be for someone to produce an entire high school science curriculum, including chemistry, biology, and physics, and offer hands-on labs to go along. She wonders whether it would be possible for a chemist to adapt a college-level chemistry textbook for homeschoolers and include labs that can be done in the home.
Amen. We use the intro chemistry text used by our city university for non-science majors: it's thorough, accurate, comprehensible (things that couldn't be said for the high school chemistry text we tried briefly to use), and doesn't assume a high school chemistry background. Labs are a combination of experiments from an old chemistry set manual (from back in the days when they figured kids could take a few risks with chemicals) and the virtual interactive labs from the CD-ROM that comes with the textbook.

One failing of the article: while it does a good job of pointing out the frustration many homeschoolers have in trying to find decent non-Christian science curricula, the author makes it sound as if it's just convinced atheists who don't want any texts that mention God. Actually there are many of us who just object to a (very much) minority religious Creationist worldview that corrupts the majority of homeschool science texts, even chemistry materials. The "C"-word doesn't show up at all in the article; but it's the elephant in the living room.

Anyway, sounds like there are several promising curricula in the works. Hooray! Maybe Offspring #2 will be able to profit from them.

HT to Daryl.
Patron saint of fencers

"Nor was [Ignatius Loyola] the only swordsman turned religious.... Even more formidable was Philip Latini (1605-67) of Corleone, Sicily, an illiterate cobbler turned swordsman. He learned to fence from the Spanish mercenaries based in Palermo (Spain then ruled Sicily), and became so expert that he was known as "Corleone, the best blade of the Island." A local crime boss named Vinuiacitu (literally, "wine-turned-vinegar") sent one of his followers, Vito Canino, to see if the man could best Corleone at swordplay. The issue was soon settled: Corleone cut off the assassin's arm. Terrified that Vinuiacitu would wreak revenge, he took sanctuary in the local church until the coast was clear, staying there for a week, during which time he repented his swordfighting ways and in 1632, at age twenty-seven, became a Capuchin friar. In June of 2001, he was canonized for his piety and good words as Saint Bernard of Corleone."

~Richard Cohen, By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, 2002

Via the Holy Whapsters