Thursday, July 25, 2013

Assigned Reading or Great Conversation?

Over at one of my favorite blogs, Gerontion, inhabited by Prof Hartley who teaches econ at Mount Holyoke, I found the good prof's latest post, The Widening Gyre thought provoking, not for his insightful review of Things Fall Apart, but for his mixed thoughts on summer reading requirements, and, more profoundly, his description of his relationship with his daughter. He writes:

"First, though, can I just say that this whole idea of assigned summer reading makes me very happy?  My kids all hate it, but I love it.  Just think, in the old days, I never had homework during summer vacation.  Never—not once in all my years of schooling did I ever have a single summer assignment.  This change is proof that civilization is not totally in decline—some things are improving."

He continues,

"I actually liked Things Fall Apart in ninth grade—indeed, it was one of the very few assigned books I enjoyed.  As I have noted in this space previously, over the years I have reread most of the books I was assigned and hated in high school—I have enjoyed them all.  The books were good—the method of assigning them sucked all the joy and life out of them.  Why can’t schools just let kids read the books and enjoy them?"

At first read, I didn't "get" it.  Hartley loves the "idea" of summer reading.  It makes him happy.  But how does it prove that civilization in not totally in decline?  Now, before you point out that his tongue was in his cheek, at least halfway, and that this is merely a bit of hyperbole on the part of Hartley, please know that I recognize that possibility.  But if civilization is not actually at stake, what is it that he likes about assigned reading?  If, as he says in the second paragraph cited above, "the method of assigning [books] sucked all the joy and life out of them" (and there we agree wholeheartedly), why, oh, why does he rejoice at their assignment?  Is it the assignment itself, or the method he rejected as a youth and now embraces?  And what exactly is he embracing?  The key to his conversion, I think, is not the assignment, but his desire to share his love of books with his daughter.

Towards the end of the post, he talks about the questions which round-out his daughter's reading assignment, pointing out that those questions are leading, and won't actually take much time, though he predicts his daughter will complain (who wouldn't?) .  Again, what is it about assigned reading and the trappings that go with the assignments that he likes?  Ambivalence resounds in the piece as he asks the most profound question in the post:  "Why can't schools just let the kids read the books and enjoy them?"

Perhaps Prof. Hartley is trying to convince himself that he loves summer reading requirements, but there I don't think he succeeds, until he speaks specifically of his daughter:

"...I just reread it so that I can talk with Clara about it.  (Not that she will want to talk with me about it.  She won’t.  She is 13, and for reasons I cannot understand having a sprawling hour long discussion about a book is not something which causes young Clara to experience paroxysms of joy... "

Ah.  There it is.

As a homeschooler, and more specifically, as an unschooler in the classical tradition for whom freedom to read and share is as natural as breathing, I was profoundly saddened when I read this.  This assigned reading does suck the joy out of books.  A joyful reading makes one want to share and talk about a book, perhaps privately with a best friend, in a family (common among homeschoolers), or perhaps publicly on a blog, in a book club, or in a lecture hall.  I read aloud to my children because I want to share good books and great books with them, and launch discussion after discussion, naturally, around the dinner table, in the car, before bed (a way of procrastinating?) before the lights go out.  I want to consider what an author has written without forced and stilted questions determined by a committee or computerized algorithm, but with real insight (as Hartley does in his discussion of the prepared questions his daughter must answer rather than the question he would choose that is real and dear, and as personal in nature as a booklover's love for his daughter ) and passion.  The joy is in the understanding, the discussion, the argument, and the shared knowledge.

I asked my own grown daughter about assigned reading, something she did not experience until college, and she agreed that it "divorces learning from love."  We did not experience that divorce at home, but instead renewed bonds in the free land of living books that I describe above.

Perhaps Clara is that falcon who cannot hear the falconer.  Disguised as a book review, Hartley has written a call to the discussion, in invitation to the great conversation, to his daughter.  I do not know if that is his intention in writing the post, but if he finds an opportunity to reach her through assigned summer reading, I suddenly see why he loves it.

Honestly, I hated Things Fall Apart when it was assigned.  I think I, too, will listen for the falconer and pick it up again.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nature of Man? A Turtle Tale

(All photos taken this week, when we returned with a camera, but none of the same human characters could be found.)

Last week, Libby and I had some time to kill between her teaching hours, so we decided to take a stroll on the grounds of the public library and a nearby pond.  Sounds lovely, doesn't it?  It was!

Calopteryx maculata (male)
We came to a run-off creek downstream of the small pond.  Peering into the creek we saw some large black insects.  At a glance they seemed to be butterflies, but as we observed them, we saw that they are actually a species of damselfly.  I took some photos with my tablet (once again, the naturalist's lament rang true in my head--why did I not have my camera with me?) and we admired the insects for a while.

That's when things got weird.

A woman walking her two soft-coated wheaten terriers came over and asked us what was wrong.  Wrong?  Nothing, we answered.  She looked too.  Another woman came by, and asked, "What's wrong?" and then another woman walked up and asked--you guessed it--"Is something wrong?"
Libby at the creek's edge.

 Why, we wondered, must we be looking at something "wrong" just because we are paused by a creek? Don't folks stop and admire nature around here? We patted the terriers and chatted with the first woman. She told us a bit about the breed, and since we were interested in nature, she suggested we look for the swallow nest nearby.  Pointing to the pond, she complained, "That fountain has been broken for over a year!  I called the town and complained about it.  I told them that algae was going to build up in the pond and they would have to clean it out and that the fountain ought to be on, and they said, 'What pond?' Can you believe it"  To be honest, we were not from the area, so I just said, "Huh."  It really is a tiny pond, in a town with many ponds and streams.

Things got weirder.

A week later, the snapper followed us around the pond.
 We walked to the edge of the pond, where we saw a father and his two young sons.  The father was hauling a struggling snapping turtle out of the water by the tail.  He had used a bagel for bait, and his son had snagged the large turtle with his net.  The turtle was bigger than a football.

The terrier woman began to yell frantically.  "That does not look like fun to me!!" she said.  The man looked coolly at the woman and said in a voice that reminded me of Lewis' Weston in Perelandra, "It does to me."  OK.  Maybe he didn't sound as demonic as all that, but it was a pretty creepy reply.  

She and her dogs scurried off in a huff and we joined the man and the two boys, maybe 4 and 7, and watched as they returned the unharmed turtle to the pond.  The turtle swam away deftly, and the man explained how to hold a turtle--by the tail--so it could not bite.  I laughed and showed him my snapping turtle bite scar. He turned away silently.  Undaunted, I tried to initiate a conversation again. "Now you can follow-up by reading Minn of the Mississippi."  He sneered--really, he did!--and said, "We read Shakespeare."

"That's nice, too," I said, trying desperately not to laugh at his misdirected intellectual snobbery.

He and the boys walked away and met up with his wife under the gazebo where the swallows were nesting, sending the parent-swallows into a frenzy.

The woman with the terriers had rounded the pond (did I mention that it is quite a small pond?) and her dogs were trying to attack two other dogs on the far side.

We were left wondering, perhaps in a most Chestertonian sense, "What's wrong?"

The end.