Saturday, October 27, 2012

Unschooling Middle School and a Book Review

Middle schoolers--yuck.  What a dreadful curricular system to inflict upon students who are dealing with daily physical and mental changes.  Compounded by the compulsory school factory model with students herded into peer segregated classrooms, the typical middle school experience is  made worse than it needs to be.  I often say I don't believe in middle school.

And it's true:  I do not believe in middle school, but not quite in the same way I don't believe in the tooth fairy.  When my homeschooled kids are of that middle school age, I back off formal schooling in any form and suggest alternative, real world, things for them to do.  With one student, is was easy--she was exploring the possibility of becoming a professional musician.  My inventor took to electrical wiring and installed lights or rewired much of our home as a middle schooler.  My archaeology-minded student read history and excavated part of the back yard.  And the computer geek and gamer spent hours learning some programming skills, and helped me install a toilet, too!

Kids need to do real things.

Those were the big projects, but of course, there were other smaller projects, too.  As unschoolish as we are, the kids were always into informal things in the middle school years.  No one was ever bored (a banned word).  Yet, when I mention our plan for middle school, many moms are skeptical, thinking their children will fall behind or get into trouble without some very specific guidelines.  While I say, "Be not afraid," I understand that's not too reassuring coming from me.

I hate writing reviews of books with problems that preclude me from recommending them. I thought I had found a book that might help middle school unschoolers, with the memorable name Unbored, authored by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, et al.  It could supplement any minimalist unschooly sort of curriculum without seeming overwhelming, and as the subtitle suggests, it could be a field guide to serious fun. Like other books in the genre, The Dangerous Book for Boys, Totally Irresponsible Science and The American Boy's Handybook, it is full of short, easy explanations  and suggestions for things to do--real things--of a sort that middle schoolers with freedom to explore will love.  This is a book geared towards middleschoolers, but I cannot recommend it without serious caveats.  Unlike the aforementioned others, this book has a definite ultra-left-wing slant; but this is a hurdle that may be overcome with a bit of wit.  Unbored runs just over 430 pages divided into but four chapters:  You, Home, Society and Adventure.  Perhaps something useful is in there.  

They need freedom, and mixed-age associations.

That middleschoolers are self-absorbed is a given in the first chapter, and there is some unusual fun here--exploding things, LED light "graffiti" and inventions.  But you'll find a very typical list of "puberty advice classics" and a list of young adult novels.  The bit on flatulence is mitigated by excerpts from Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, and the bit on not cursing is actually historically interesting, while the list of books considered "historically" young adult is dubious as "young adult" is a relatively recent category.  Taking the anything goes attitude towards family, in "Your Funky Family Tree" the author claims that a government's view of "what makes a family" is pretty limited.  Huh.  Adoption situations aside, I would call the author's view extremist and absurd, and demonstrably detrimental to children and society, in light of actual scientific research.  But anything goes, because no one should ever feel bad about anything your grown-ups do (unless, of course, they go to church).  This is definitely a section to skip at some ages, though it might spark lively discussions with older students, perhaps in preparation for a debate.

They need challenges.

The Home chapter is rather better, though hardly original.  Architecture, forts, room decor and reading food labels?  It's been done, and often better.  But, this section is mostly harmless.

The same cannot be said of Society.  Yes, your middleschooler can support his favorite cause, by working in a soup kitchen! How original.  He can do things to save the planet, including "Fool Your Friends" into doing so; spread the now ubiquitous LGBT blather; and learn a useful lesson from a curious excerpt from Tom Sawyer in a section called "How to be a Con Artist".  (Progressives don't seem to get the point--without a worldview that insists on right and wrong, the scene is not funny, but cynical.  Or, maybe they do get that.  Hm...Now I'm being cynical.) I can see how this society-changing chapter could be useful, but the author's views about what needs changing society are not mine.  Instead of hugging trees and otherwise latching onto every left-wing bramble-ramble, engage in some serious pro-life work every time the book suggests something contrary to our beliefs.  Yes, then the book becomes useful.

The last chapter, Adventure, is fun.  Book excerpts include first person narratives and interviews with mountaineers, explorers and that sort of person.  Fun ideas include orienteering and geocasheing, traveling tips, a decent list of sci-fi, and knot-tying.  A long section on gaming is included, too.  Computer games can be an adventure of sorts, depending upon the game, though when I think of adventure, I am usually heading outside for the real thing.

Throughout the book, those people we antediluvian conservative types call "your parents" are referred to as "your grown-up" (in the singular, as though it were more common for a child to have budded off from an adult like a yeast cell).  That's the authors' charming way of pointing out that the children-who-think-they-are-so-smart must submit, at least somewhat, to rules set forth by adults.  The book is chock full of prog-subtleties...many of which are not so subtle.  It recommends many great reads and good movies, but also sprinkles in books and films that many of us would find inappropriate for some ages. It introduces obscure "social critics" like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, making one wonder if the author isn't a frustrated doctoral candidate dropping names to find some use for years of under-appreciated study.  But I can give him a pass on that account.

Ultimately, I would opt for any of the other books listed above.  While there may be a few novel ideas in Unbored, most are either variations on tried and true projects that kids have been enjoying for years, updated to inclusively include inclusiveness, or projects that push progressive propaganda on our kids.  Who needs more of that?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Inks, Links, and Drinks

(A blog post in which I muse without purpose, but suggest books, articles, music, and beverages.)

The NYTimes has a lovely article about a the work of a biology prof at A's university:

     “You can live a perfectly happy life never having heard of Shakespeare,” he says, “but your life is in some ways a  little diminished, because there’s such beauty there.
      “And I think the same is true of nature. Much of it is useless to us, and that’s O.K. It’s not true that every species that goes extinct is like another rivet off the plane and the plane’s going to crash. We lost the passenger pigeon and the U.S. economy did not tank. But we lost the passenger pigeon and we lost some of this remarkable music made out of atoms and DNA.”

(h/t to Melanie for pointing out those lines)  Read the article with an autumnal beer; but if you get the book (The Forest Unseen, highly recommended) see if you can get some of Tennessee's own Jack Daniel's Gentleman Jack to sip while you read it by the fire.  For the kids?  Eggnog (non-alcoholic, or course) with plenty of nutmeg.

Looking for another great read by the fire reminds me that a new issue of Touchstone is here!  From the announcement:

-Two articles by Anthony Esolen: One on the Theological Depth of Spenser's Neglected Wedding Hymn and another on the ninth-century Advent hymn, Conditor alme siderum, "Creator of the Stars of Night." 

So, because the husband claims he is trying to eliminate paper, I buzzed onto Amazon and found that I could subscribe via Kindle for Android (and most other Kindle devices) and get a free 1-month trial of Touchstone, cancel any time.  The going rate for the paper magazine is around $30 for 6 issues, but e-mag style via Amazon, it's only $1.99 a month.  Touchstone, for those who are not familiar with it, is "A Journal of Mere Christianity" with a variety of authors writing from a Christian perspective.  As one might expect from the description, the publishers have a fondness for Lewis.  As do I.  So, cider with this issue?  I think so.

Speaking of Mere Christianity, the (audio) book  itself is keeping P awake at night.  Warm milk may be the remedy.

Also?  This photo made me happy today; photographing a more elusive common yellowthroat did not.

Don't get angry, get even, as the saying goes.  I thought this might make me laugh, and it did.  It's a great first birding book for the toddler/preschooler who plays Angry Birds better than you do on your smartphone while waiting anywhere.:

Finally, a little Byrd:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Church Restoration

One of our local parishes (I hate to remind my fellow Catholic earthlings that there are 5 Catholic churches within walking distance of my house for fear that I sound as if I am bragging) has recently been renovated.  Most of the time, when one says that, a look of horror in anticipation of a description of the "wreckovation" comes over the face of the listener, but in this case, the wreck was over, and renewal had begun.  The "old" church was redone in 1970, to specification that were outlined in no church document, ever.  The recent work is in fact called a "restoration" and the church truly has been restored.  Gone is the dark brown paneling (who ever thought that was beautiful?).  Gone is the hideous (and I mean hideous-looked like the Brady Bunch bread box) tabernacle placed waaaaaaay off to the side of the church.  Gone are the wooden table and lecterns.  In their place?  Just look at the photo.  It's gorgeous.  They say there was much resistance, but resistance is futile.

My youngest son was at the dedication Mass, and told us how lovely it was, but it is not our parish, so I had not visited until last Sunday.  I saw as I walked in that it was just beautiful and reverent...but then I saw--and I admit, I gasped and whispered the word guitar* to my son--the music ministress up in the sanctuary.  He reassured me as he saw the celebrant enter, that it would be worth it to hear this priest.  And he was correct.  I endured "Gather Us In" and Gloria with refrain, but heard a homily on the anniversary of Vatican II with emphasis on the documents, not the spirit, an exhortation to read these documents during the Year of Faith, an explanation of the restoration of the church, and more.  Worth it.

In contrast to this, the music, which nearly no one sang but the song leader, seemed like a series of protest songs.  They just didn't fit the setting.  I wonder if anyone else had that feeling.  And have they restored the organ, too?

*I have heard guitar played very well and reverently at Mass.  This was just a lot of loud strumming on two chords, and the music choices were dreadful.  My apologies to liturgical guitarists, but those of you who know what you are doing know what I mean.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Sermons

We were more than delighted to spend Family Weekend with daughter number 2.  Her college is a beautiful place to learn, with Gothic architecture, acres of forest, some of the finest fog you have ever seen, and a vibrant faculty.  In fact, a highlight for me was sitting in on her humanities class and listening to a professor who sounded like an American version of C. S. Lewis.  It was wonderful, and the round of applause after the lecture was not initiated by thankful parents, but by students.

Fog on campus.
Since the college is Episcopal, we had to go off-campus for Mass on Saturday evening in a nearby (for the south) town. A 30 minute drive brought us to a small church where the only priest for the county says Mass twice on a weekend at the parish, and for early risers, there's mission chapel where he says 8am Mass.  The priest is from the Congo, and, unfortunately, is in the hospital with malaria after returning from a visit home.  Last weekend there was no Mass, but only a communion service.  This weekend, the local diocese sent a priest to take his place. And it was an odd experience due to the odd homily.

Now, let's leave aside the fact that his name was odd...yes, indeed, Fr. Odd*.  I looked him up just to make sure.  It was his homily that was really stunning and surprising.  You see, Fr. Odd, before he was ordained, had been married with at least one child (he spoke of his daughter).  He is divorced, and his marriage was annulled.  And since the gospel this week was from Mark 10.2-16, the topic of divorce was on his mind.  He talked a bit about annulment, about children who stray from the church and how it is not the fault of the parents, about loving ones self...lots about loving ones self.  He told people who are divorced (rightly) not to stay away from the Church.  His homily was all about love. Love, love, love, went a bit over the top, and I thought he might burst into song at one point.  After all, Jesus was just giving us guidelines, and he knew we would fall short, so whatever you do is fine.  I paraphrase...but only a bit.

[NB:  The prayers of the faithful were terrific and strongly pro-life, read by a German prof from the college.  And the music was rather good this week, too.]

We came out of Mass a bit weirded out, if you know what I mean.  It is not every day one encounters a divorced priest giving a self-esteem-boosting motivational homily.

Sunday, we attended the Episcopal service so we could hear daughter number 2 sing in the University Choir.  Every time we tell folks that she chose an Episcopal University, they shrug and say, "Well, the music will be good."  And it's true.  The setting for the psalm was gorgeous, and offertory polyphony nearly made one cry.  The familiar hymns were sung by the whole congregation (parents' weekend means a full house for service).

The homily was preached by the chaplain of the college, who sounds like Al Gore (he is from TN, so that makes sense), and began by declaring that divorce has had an impact on everyone in the room.  Well, I suppose that is so.  But in a more literal way than I think is typical in a group of Christians.  One notices that there are a good number of families with infants or babies at parents' weekend.  Well, I have plenty of friends with college aged children as well as infants, and every age in between!  And there is a freshman who is the eldest of 9 who had his whole family there for the weekend.  But for the most part, the families with infants were second marriages or blended families.

The chaplain explained that the Episcopal church had struggled with the idea of divorce for years, and was now struggling with so-called "gay marriage" and the conversation about these things is ongoing and we should discuss them amongst ourselves, etc.  Essentially, he declined to admonish anyone about anything.  It was a pretty harmless sermon, as he declared he would not "beat anyone up" as he spoke on these topics.

So, both sermons left me thinking:  Is there anything right or wrong according to these churches?  Is the main mission of the Church to make folks feel good about themselves and their choices?  Wasn't this the "lukewarm" Christianity that will be spit out, according to Revelations?

One more thing.  A new study has named this college #3 for spirituality among top colleges in the US.  Numbers 1 and 2 were Georgetown and Notre Dame (I forget which came first).  That ought to tell you something about all three, yet I could not help but feel that this college was more faithful to the teachings of the Episcopal church than either Georgetown or Notre Dame is to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

And I'm sorry to say, I'd rather have her at this college than either of the other two.  As we left, my husband and I were wistfully wondering why there can't be more Catholic colleges that are more like this--academically rigorous, blissfully rural, gorgeously appointed, faithful to the teaching of the Church...

*not his real name...but it could be.