Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are heading into spring and many of us are looking forward to growing vegetables in our own summer gardens. In my state we have a Cooperative Extension Service that provides lots of information and offers activities about farming in my area. With snow still on the ground, I’m dreaming of planting my garden. Since I’m in the city, I’m planning to start small this year with a few tomato plants in big pots, and some spinach and onions in a small bed. I look forward to my tiny harvest of spaghetti sauce!
We know that human activity does pollute the environment and that it can cause climate changes. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one way of helping to limit climate change. We also now know that driving a car is a major cause of climate change as the car emissions release carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. One way greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced is by growing one’s own food so that driving to market doesn’t happen so often. So, planting seeds is a great start to reducing the pollution of our planet!
Wishful thinking doesn’t make my garden grow, so first I have to buy some seeds and soil. Since my growing season is so short, I have to start my plants indoors. Many of you using the Oak Meadow science curriculum are planting seeds, recording their growth, and also exploring and reporting on different types of soils. This website from the Smithsonian National Museum of History is awesome: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil. I compost vegetable and fruit matter so I have some good soil to start with. I’ll also purchase some organic soil from a local landscape supplier to mix in. You may have studied the plant kingdom in the Oak Meadow 6th grade science curriculum and learned the difference between gymnosperms and angiosperms. I’ll be planting some angiosperms! My south facing windows will be a perfect place for starting my plants.
This student found a good spot outside to start the seeds!
If you are planting your own garden, and when you have a break from your farming, here’s a fun game to play to maintain a sustainable farm that grows healthy crops and reduces emissions! You might also enjoy reading Thor Hanson’s book The Triumph of Seeds. Visit his website to learn more about this.
What are you planting? What are some ways that you help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in your community?
“Every moment and every event of every man’s life plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them. For such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere, except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity, and love.” ~ Thomas Merton
For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the months of January and February bring us to a midpoint of the winter season. We find ourselves experiencing drastic changes in weather, along with different forms of personal attention and focus. It is a time of contraction, in which we turn inwardly and reflect within. Often times, this season can also initiate a sense of tiredness and discouragement. Even our children’s attitudes can begin to disintegrate, and the enthusiasm during the first few months of school starts to wear off.
Since 1986, I have had the great honor and privilege to know and work with Oak Meadow’s co-founder, Lawrence Williams. Over the years, I have developed an amazing respect for his boundless wisdom and timeless energy in providing a quality education for homeschool families. I have also collected a plethora of articles written by Lawrence. So, “from the archives”, I have the pleasure of offering his timely article on:
Winter, Contraction and Frustration
Now that we are in a new year, and in the midst of winter, let’s stop for a moment to consider what effect this is having upon our children, the learning process, and us.
The learning process has two phases: expansion and contraction. These same phases are also apparent in the seasons of the year. The season in which we are presently immersed, winter, is the season when the forces of contraction are prevailing.
The predominant effect of the contractive phase is the feeling of being closed in, and the feeling that nothing is moving. In terms of the learning process, we often feel that our children are not making any progress, and we begin to doubt our effectiveness as teachers. Of course, this closed in feeling is much more apparent in the extreme northern latitudes, where the temperature is much colder, and snow covers the ground for most of the year. However, even if we are living further south, we still experience this sensation, although its effect is modified somewhat, and it tends to become a more subtle inner experience, rather than an outer obstacle.
Another effect, which is most fascinating, is that during the contractive phase, things do not appear as they really are. The same thing is occurring in nature. If we didn’t know any better, and just arrived on this planet without an instruction manual (a familiar feeling?), we would look at the barren trees and the frozen ground and would suspect that everything was dead, with no chance of revival. However, since we’ve lived through many winters, we know that things are not as they appear. Underneath the surface of the earth wonderful things are happening and in a few months life will spring forth again, and everything will be green and growing profusely.
So the most important thing to remember while teaching children in the midst of the contraction of winter is that, while it looks as if nothing is happening, it is only because everything is happening under the surface. However bleak it may look, however hopeless your children’s progress may seem, however many times you feel as if you are totally frustrated, just remember that it is not really that way. Within your children, just as within nature, marvelous things are happening at this moment, and in a few months the growth that is occurring will become apparent, as we move into the phase of expansion, when all things become visible.
The best way to handle the contractive phase is to accept it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. There are many ideal learning experiences available at this time of year. Take advantage of them. Don’t stay indoors, trying to complete academic work with everyone irritable. Go outdoors and look for animal tracks in the snow. Even if you are living in a more temperate climate, and there is no snow, watch for the events that happen in nature only at this time of the year, such as various animal migrations. By cooperating gracefully and joyfully with the opportunities available within this cycle, you will be teaching your children one of the most valuable lessons in life: how to find opportunities within apparent limitations.
In Lawrence William’s book, The Heart of Learning, Chapter 7 offers additional information on “Rhythm and Learning: Expansion and Contraction”. If you haven’t read this chapter recently, it might be a good time to add it to your reading list.
We are deep in the heart of winter up here in Vermont, and many of our most recent blog posts focus on one of my favorite topics / winter activities: reading.
I recently ordered an enormous stack of books to keep me occupied through the cold evenings and snow storms. It seemed like every day, the FedEx truck was stopping outside my house. Books by my favorite authors, books I’d been meaning to read for ages, are slowly, beautifully taking over my living room table. In the mornings, evenings, and on precious weekends, I dive in and out of them, embodying the words and worlds in those pages.
One of my favorite writers, who also lives in semi-obscurity in Vermont, has written in her essay, “Someone Reading a Book,” from her book, Madness, Rack, and Honey:
“Is there a right time to read each book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match?” -Mary Ruefle
I always think about this quote when I happen to read a book at what feels like precisely the right time. I thought about it this weekend three times:
1) I read the chapter from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard about how it feels to sit and read by the fire on a snowy evening in a country cottage, while reading by the fire on a snowy evening in my country cottage.
2) I talked to a friend in Chicago about a new project we plan to start: writing letters to each other while reading the same book at the same time. She told me she would “reveal the book we’re going to read presently.” A few hours later, I posted a picture on Instagram of several books I planned to read over the weekend. This friend commented: “Are you kidding me! I was about to mail you the book we’re going to read. You already have the book.”
3) While working on one of my current creative projects, a collection of essays called “On Reading,” I get stuck on an essay about a female writer from the Surrealist movement, and start to do more research. Later, I am rereading another of my favorite books, Heroines by Kate Zambreno, aand I come across a section about the same female Surrealist writer I am trying to write about. I Google interviews with Kate Zambreno and read in one about how much she values those points of correspondence, when she discovers that another writer she admires is writing about the same topic she is writing about too.
From Mary Ruefle’s essay:
“There was one book I read not only at the right age but also on the right afternoon, in the right place, at the right angle. I read The Waves on an island, on a plotless day, when I twenty-two years old, sitting on a terrace from which I could see in the distance the ocean, and the horizon where it met the sky and the changing light that played there as the sun climbed to its zenith and descended again while I thumbed the pages and my blood pressure washed up and down with the words. The Waves is not one of my favorite books. But my memory of reading it is. I was very silly when I was young. I have that to be thankful for.”
The Waves by Virginia Woolf actually is one of my favorite books of all time (although, how many favorite books have I listed here? No matter, there is always room for more!), and my experience of reading The Waves is also one of my favorite reading memories. I read The Waves on the back deck of a house where I lived in Vermont in college, when I was twenty-one, on a plotless day, sitting on that porch from which I could see, very close, a mountain range, and where it met the sky, and the changing light that played there on that August afternoon as the sun reached its highest heat and cooled again, and I decided then that I would be a writer.
I wrote a letter to a friend recently, and before he read it, he told me where he planned to read it and said, “It matters where and when you read things.”
One thing I love about teaching for Oak Meadow is how much I know my students are reading “outside of school” – in environments away from a desk. And I hope my students experience these cosmic correspondences with books too – that they build lasting associations between themselves and the books they read, the days they read them, the landscapes they read them in.
Mary Ruefle’s book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, in which she writes about reading The Waves, was published by Wave Books. How many times will you make the match?
This is a guest post by Hannah Westbeld, a homeschooling mama of 3 who is active on Instagram as @myheartshomestead. She lives in Tennessee and her whole family loves using Oak Meadow curriculum, especially the math gnomes. Thanks, Hannah!
Sometimes I wish I could rewind time to bestow upon my earlier self the elusive gift of perspective. Having a healthy perspective is an incredibly powerful viewpoint that, once attained, can change our approach to almost every aspect of life. But in homeschooling particularly it is a tool unlike any other. It gives the parent, as the teacher, the ability to see and connect with their child’s unique learning abilities. It releases them from the constraints of mainstream educational standards and frees the child and the parent to learn together in a setting and at a pace that best suits their individual needs and interests, while allowing the process of education to unfold in a beautiful and natural way.
A few weeks ago, my oldest son asked if he could read to me from his current favorite book. We snuggled up, side by side on the couch, his head resting on my shoulder, as he read his favorite passages aloud, one by one. I listened intently to his words, my mind flashing to images of the times we had spent together just like that in years past. The earliest images were, of course, reading to him when his little fingers couldn’t yet turn the pages of his favorite board books. I saw him as a toddler pointing to his favorite images in picture books, slowly mastering the pronunciation of words. I saw us side by side on the couch when he began kindergarten, staring down at the pages of our first book of reading lessons. I saw the tears of frustration and sadness on his cheeks over the following two years when he simply couldn’t master the art of reading. I felt the anxiety I placed on my own shoulders as I questioned what I was doing wrong and wondered if I was qualified for this important role in his life.
But then I remembered how it felt as I allowed my own mind to change, grow, and adapt to his needs. I saw myself tucking away the lesson plans, gently wiping away his tears, and assuring him that I would read to him for as long as he needed. For the next several years I read to him and his younger siblings every chance I got. We lost ourselves in entire imaginative worlds, we discussed fairy tales, we read silly picture books. We read through novels. We stumbled across the power of phonograms and spent a few moments each day learning their sounds. And then one day he flawlessly read a street sign. Another day he read an entire paragraph of C.S. Lewis’ writing on his own. He began pulling familiar picture books from our bookshelves and reading them with an ease and excitement that stunned me. And then one day, not long ago, he read through his very first novel entirely on his own.
We’ve been on quite a journey together, he and I. Even though I look back wishing for better perspective when he first began Kindergarten, we were both given the gift of “the process” together. Together we learned what was best for him as an individual, and gifted each other one of life’s most beautiful things – perspective – and along with it the knowledge that learning is not defined by one moment or one grade level, but is, rather, a journey that occurs over the whole of our lifetime.
The winter season is my favorite time of year to curl up in my coziest reading chair by the warm fire and indulge in a good book. I have especially fond memories of snuggling in the oversized chair with my children and reading storybooks as the snowflakes fell softly outside the window. Perhaps this scenario is also familiar to you and your family.
When I hear the exciting news that a child has just begun learning how to read, it brings a great joy to my heart. This child has now entered a new realm of learning and a new way of discovering the world. Learning to read is like receiving a gift of a lifetime!
We are fortunate that our modern-day world makes books so readily available. There is a numerous assortment of amazing classics for children, including many Newbery and Caldecott Award winner and honor books. The American Library Association recently announced 2017’s Caldecott and Newbery Awards.
Each year the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) also creates a “Children’s Notable” list that identifies the best in children’s books, recordings, and videos.
I recently asked some of my local homeschool students to share the names of their favorite books. It was both entertaining and educational for the other children to hear which book titles were selected. Many were familiar favorites, while the new titles sparked interest in a desire to read some of these unfamiliar books. It was also delightful to listen to each child’s oral summary of their favorite book. We even discussed how our “favorite” books often change because there are so many unknown books that are just as fantastic as the ones that have already been read!
In Oak Meadow’s fourth grade syllabus, a suggested activity for Natalie Babbitt’s book, The Search for Delicious, offers doing a poll for the most delicious foods. It could be inspiring to poll the choices your children and their friends’ favorite books. We can even create a list of your children’s favorite books right here on the blog. My all-time favorite children’s book is Gwinna, beautifully illustrated and written by Barbara Berger. If you haven’t read this story to your children, I highly recommend it!
Quotes on ceiling of Michel de Montaigne's study in France.
“Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that liberates us…”
Michel de Montaigne wrote these words in the late 1570s, when he withdrew from public life to hole up in a tower where he read, wrote, thought, paced, and ultimately, transformed the landscape of writing altogether.
Montaigne was a French nobleman and former magistrate whose life prior to his writing career has been called “unremarkable.” But it is precisely the things society has always called unremarkable that he fixed his mind on when he chose to sit down and begin writing in a style and form the world had never seen before.
Actually, he didn’t even sit. He felt his mind was more active if he paced around his library and dictated his thoughts to another person in the room. When he moved his books into the tower, he had his favorite quotes painted on the wooden beams that held up the ceiling. In this way, he could gaze up at them while walking and allow their ideas to inspire him as he walked.
“For our boy, a closet, a garden, the table and the bed, solitude, company, morning and evening, all hours will be the same, all places will be his study.”
This active approach to writing and thinking makes sense when we consider what he was writing about—ordinary, mundane things that everyone experiences but which no one ever talks about, to this day and certainly not in 1580. These were topics like: “Of thumbs,” “That we laugh and cry for the same thing,” “Of smells,” “Of sleep,” “Not to counterfeit being sick,” “Of the resemblance of children to fathers,” “Of liars,” “Of the custom of wearing clothes,” and so on. They weren’t informational articles, nor were they fictional stories or poems. They didn’t fall into any category of writing that anyone recognized. So what were they?
They were the mind in active work on the page—exploring, questioning, doubting, contradicting, and meandering, through the halls of sciences, poetry, fashion, law, history, morality, and a hundred other topics and disciplines, all with one unifying factor: the pursuit of curiosity.
Montaigne called them his essais, from the French word essayer—to try, or to attempt. Montaigne wasn’t an expert in the topics he was writing about or disseminating his superior knowledge. Instead, he was thinking and writing with a passionate rigor and a humble acknowledgement that learning and the pursuit of truth and discovery are never-ending processes.
“Put into his head an honest curiosity to inquire into all things; whatever is unusual around him he will see: a building, a fountain, a man, the field of an ancient battle, the place where Caesar or Charlemagne passed.”
This active, questioning, doubting, failing, and persevering definition of the word essay has been completely discarded from the American education system (if it was ever really present at all) through the industrialized uniformity of traditional curriculum design. When I say the word essay, I doubt you think to yourself, “Oh yeah, questioning and imagining, meandering and exploring! So fun, I love essays!” but rather, “Five paragraphs, same structure every time, topic sentences, plan the ending before I begin writing, never say the word I, hamburger method, makes me hate writing and feel like I am a bad writer.” At least that is what every writing student has told me the first time I asked them what an essay was.
The five-paragraph essay is one kind of essay, but it is not the only kind of essay, and it should not be the first kind of essay we learn how to write in school. I’ll tell you why: because it does not teach you how to think. In fact, it teaches you the opposite of thinking. It does teach organization of thought—but why should you learn how to organize your thoughts before you have been given the opportunity to think?
What Montaigne got so right in his essays that we should remember in our writing today is that essay writing is not so much about convincing your readers that you are an expert, but rather demonstrating the avenues, sidewalks, flight patterns, maps, and trajectories you’ve traveled to arrive at your discoveries. It’s about crafting a question (such as, “Since it is philosophy that teaches us to live, and since there is a lesson in it for childhood as well as for the other ages, why is it not imparted to children?”), reflecting on your initial knowledge about that question, researching the question, staging a conversation between your thoughts and your research, and reflecting on the discoveries that you made. By learning to think and write rigorously in this way, you also learn all the formalities of grammar and mechanics, and gain a comfort in writing in specific forms like lab reports or the five-paragraph essay.
In the spirit of Montaigne, and this rigorous, independent learning, I’ve designed a new writing course for Oak Meadow high-schoolers called Composition: Expression & Understanding, and you can enroll in the first semester now! Semester two will roll out this summer. This course will prepare you for the independent learning style of Oak Meadow, and it will strengthen your writing abilities in preparation for studies in all disciplines. But most importantly, this course will help you discover who you truly are, what you believe in, and how you want to pursue your own full and meaningful life. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?
“I’m very sensitive to the English language. I studied the dictionary obsessively when I was a kid and collect old dictionaries. Words, I think, are very powerful and they convey an intention.” Drew Barrymore
For those of you in 5th-8th grade, I hope you have your very own dictionary! I don’t mean a digital one. I mean a dictionary that you can hold in your own hand, turn the pages, mark it up, and carry it around with you. Get a dictionary to keep next to you as you study. Make it your constant companion and it will serve you well!
With a dictionary you can find the proper spelling of a word, what a word means, how to pronounce it, the part of speech that it is, and where the word originated. If you are looking for a good dictionary that will last you through the junior high years and into high school, find a Merriam-Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary. Also recommended is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. (Try to get the most recent addition.) For a good thesaurus, try Merriam-Webster’sCollegiate Thesaurus. Both the dictionary and the thesaurus will become your best friends as you go through the year.
Also really useful will be a good atlas for discovering new places in the world. I like Rand McNally’s Goodes World Atlas, but look through a bunch at the bookstore or library until you find one you like. These three items will serve you well for many years to come!
While you are using the dictionary, why not make a dictionary of your own? Keep track of the new words you looked up or found while you were reading:
Get a notebook or put some lined paper into a binder.
Mark a page with each letter of the alphabet leaving about 10 pages in between each letter.
Make a beautiful cover to your dictionary.
Start filling in those pages with the words and their definitions!
“I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream.” – Sleeping Beauty
Fairy tales and other traditional stories offer children many chances to witness the struggle of “good” versus “evil”. By introducing this in oral story form, children can connect with the parts that are important for their individual development at that point in time. When told in a matter-of-fact way, and from an adult who believes in the story’s merit and its place in child development, children will naturally relate to the underlying, archetypal themes of the stories. With this approach, the child’s imagination will not be taken to a place that is too frightening or disturbing, or be forced to focus on elements that are emotionally-charged in the adult perspective.
Fairy tales provide a reference for all the fears conjured up in a child’s world. Facing these fears at a young age can help the child to move through different challenges in later years and stages of life. Fairy tales are a way for the child to imagine—in the safety of the mind’s eye—what it feels like to be scared, honorable, brave, selfless, selfish, frustrated, wicked, embarrassed, silly, giddy, left out, confused, and more. This is one of the ways in which social and emotional intelligence is fortified. Many parents feel the need to sanitize stories to remove all the challenging elements, and yet stories that are grounded in archetypal themes can help children grow into strong adults.
Parents can often be at odds with the fairy tales because the characters are narrowly defined, known for their beauty, cruelty, foolishness, cleverness, or other singular attribute. Their actions are also, to the adult mind, frustratingly stereotyped: a princess waits for her prince, a simpleton loses his way, a wicked person tricks an innocent. While it’s tempting to attach these characters to their genders, orientations, or race, it is important to remember that archetypes speak to the universal traits that all human beings have within: the valiant solider, the trickster, the loving nurse, the wicked witch, the noble prince, the sweet and caring mother, the beautiful maiden, the knowledgeable father, and the lonely hero. We all are every character inside.
Fairy tales and traditional stories show that good overcomes evil, and provide children with an unconscious sense of empowerment when they face their own personal struggles. It is important for children to have an inner sense that good will prevail. We want young children to believe and embrace that the world is good.
Of course, not every story will resonate with every student or every parent. For this reason, Oak Meadow parents are asked to read the tales before telling them to their child and to modify or substitute when necessary. In addition, you are encouraged to read and choose stories that will meet the needs of your individual child. That’s the challenge of teachers in any educational setting: to meet the children where they are and to encourage them forward from there.
This post was co-written by Leslie Daniels and DeeDee Hughes, Oak Meadow’s Director of Curriculum Development.
Welcoming a new school year is exciting! Here in New England I think I can actually feel the excitement in the cooling air of autumn. Getting ready for a new school year can mean finding the best spot for studying, getting your supplies in order, and setting up your desk space. Setting up your own “work space” allows for you to separate work from play. Look for a quiet, comfortable space with few distractions, and good lighting. Looking ahead in the curriculum to see what supplies you may need is a great way to set yourself up for successful learning. Get out your favorite pencils, pens, crayons, and notebooks!
For those of you in the middle grades (ages 11-14), if you don’t yet have your very own dictionary and thesaurus, now is the time to find them! Both will become your best friends as you go through the year. Printed book versions are great to just have next to you as you read and write. With a book at hand you won’t be distracted by your device (computer, kindle, phone, ipad) and you can mark up the pages any way that you like! You can often find used ones at second hand book stores. If you are looking for a good dictionary that will last you through the junior high years, look for Merriam-Webster’s Intermediate Dictionary. Also recommended is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. (Try to get the most recent additions.) For a good thesaurus, try Merriam-Webster’sCollegiate Thesaurus.
Also really useful is a good atlas for discovering new places in the world and helping you illustrate maps. I like Rand McNally’s Goodes World Atlas, but look through a bunch at the bookstore or library until you find one you like. These three items will serve you well for many years to come!
“People should think twice before making rude remarks,” said Mrs. Lambchop. “And then not make them at all.” ― Jeff Brown, Author of Flat Stanley
Author Jeff Brown created the beloved character of Flat Stanley as a bedtime story for his sons before it was first published in 1964. If you or your children have ever read the Flat Stanley books, then you will know that Stanley Lampchop had a mishap that made him famously flat. Rather than viewing his new physique as an unfortunate circumstance, this paper-thin boy turned his life into an amazing adventure of sliding under doors, flying like a kite, and traveling by mail.
In 1994, Canadian Dale Hubert created The Flat Stanley Project. He encouraged children to create their own Flat Stanley paper cutouts and mail them to friends and family members around the globe. His original idea was shared with his class of third grade students to help foster literacy activities and to introduce creative writing. Hubert also suggested that other teachers participate by hosting Flat Stanley visitors who arrived by mail. Now children (and adults) from all over the world are making their own versions of Flat Stanley from templates and mailing them to friends and family during their travels.
I took The Flat Stanley Project a step further and photographed the bright cheerful faces of my local home school students. They then each created their own Flat Me. We had a great time creating colorful outfits and then sharing with friends and families by talking, tracking, and writing about their flat character’s journeys and adventures.
May 8 celebrates Flat Stanley’s fifty-third birthday. So, enjoy this world-famous story character by reading one of Jeff Brown’s books or creating and sending your own Flat Stanley or Flat Me to someone special!