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?
Bluebell Field in England (photo used under Creative Commons license)
Happy March Equinox Everyone!
Humankind’s imagination is as vast as the solar system we live in! Out of our imagination comes tools for working, farming, and building. If we let our imaginations soar we become inventors. In fact, inventive thinking and problem solving is something we do everyday. We see a problem and come up with a solution. In the Oak Meadow 5th grade science curriculum, students study technology and design and work on their own inventions. It’s so much fun to see what they imagine and bring into the world! They construct things that help with a job around the house, create toys for pets, and design many other practical and useful items. Humankind just seems to long for answers to questions!
Long ago astronomers sought answers to the many questions about the universe. When an answer wasn’t in sight, they imagined and created stories or guidelines for their lives. They imagined stories about the stars they saw in the night sky, imagined the sun went to sleep each night, and imagined the world was flat. In future years we have come to understand more about the universe through observation. In observing the rising and setting of the sun, astronomers imagined a great dome over the Earth’s sky and called it the celestial sphere. They imagined the celestial equator as being in the middle of the north and south poles and right above the Earth’s equator.
During the March equinox, when we have twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness, “the sun crosses the celestial equator, to enter the sky’s Northern Hemisphere. No matter where you are on Earth (except the North and South Poles), you have a due east and due west point on your horizon. That point marks the intersection of your horizon with the celestial equator, the imaginary line above the true equator of the Earth. And that’s why the sun rises due east and sets due west, for all of us, at the equinox. The equinox sun is on the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator crosses your horizon at due east or due west.”
I’ve just walked down to the path by the river and through the woods near my house, which I haven’t walked since before the winter hit. It’s sunny today, and another snow storm is coming tomorrow. This is what late winter is famous for in New England – the drastic flip-flops back and forth between warm sun, more snowfall, more sun. But I love that about New England. I love that we have no control over nature’s actions, that we must work with what we’ve got. I love how, in late winter, we can’t tell yet what the outcome will be. Everything feels in-between.
In New England, we call this time of year mud season (right around sugaring season!). I love mud season for all it represents–an uncovering, a messy digging, mucking through confusion and uncertainty. I love uncertainty because I love writing, and writing is about mucking through questions. It’s about walking the same old familiar path until you come to a clearing you don’t recognize, even though you’ve been there before. You suddenly feel lost, though you are standing still. You wonder how you got here. You wonder if you will ever find your way back.
Maybe it’s mud season that’s made me notice my students’ questions more lately–both the questions they ask over email, and the questions they include in their essays. Often over email, they will ask me direct questions that seek one clear, direct answer. But one correct answer is not typically what I send back. When the question relates to how they should approach a writing assignment, I can’t give them one correct answer because there is not one correct answer. I am looking for their own curiosities, their own questions, their own uncertainties. As a culture, we’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty that it has filtered into the way we teach writing–we’ve come to see essays as a space for demonstrating expert knowledge, instead of a place to write through one’s questions in order to discover truth.
When I walk in the woods in New England in late winter, I think about the essays of Thoreau, and Emerson, and Diderot, and Rousseau. Their essays straddle autobiography, educational philosophy, and reflections on nature. They are firm in their opinions and beliefs, and express them strongly, but through writing and walking, and walking through writing, and writing through walking, they often found themselves on the next page believing the opposite of what they’d said before–expressing some new opinion they never imagined they would express.
This is what I hope my writing classes can be for students–a late winter walk in New England, through snow and mud and sun, crunching through dried leaves and brittle twigs beside a frozen, yet melting, river. That in-between space. And so, it is this landscape that I try to conjure when my students ask me questions. Instead of telling them the one right way to write their essay, I try to conjure up the landscape that will help them come to find and see it on their own. Often, I don’t hear back from students after I have sent them my response. I wonder how they’re doing. Then, a few days letter, I receive their essay in my inbox. I open it and begin reading. In the essay, I see them walking, perhaps hesitantly at first, then more steadily, as their feet press into the leaves on the ground. A paragraph begins, and I see them standing in a familiar clearing, speaking to me. After a while, I see that we are somewhere new, somewhere I haven’t been before.
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?
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!
I had a student that submitted a research paper about the country of Japan. It was really well written, but I was especially taken by the font she used for typing her final paper. It was different from what she usually used. It made such an impression on me that I had to find out what font it was.
I was reminded of the 2005 commencement speech given by Steve Jobs at Stanford in which he spoke about how he came to learn about calligraphy and, inspired by that course, later developed fonts for the Mac. You can watch the speech here.
So. I’ve been thinking how important it is to understand that each of the fonts one may use when typing actually COME from somewhere! They have a history! In my search for the history of one font I see all the time, every where I go, I discovered that there was actually a movie made about the font! You can view the trailer for Helvetica the movie here, and you can also purchase it.
How interesting to know that certain fonts are used to impress the reader! So if I use comic sans, I’m pretty much setting a certain mood. In fact, I may investigate further what font this blog is typed in. (It isn’t possible for me to change it to another font.) I think I’ll also find out which fonts the Oak Meadow curriculum uses.
By the way, the font the student used was Philosopher. Next time you type a paper, think about the font you are using and what impression it may leave on the reader!
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?
Edgar Degas painting - "Dress Rehearsal of the Ballet"
One of my favorite traditions during this time of year is watching the annual production of “The Nutcracker Ballet”. This grand holiday tradition dazzles and delights the audience with spectacular choreographed dancing, beautiful costumes, glorious scenery, and pyrotechnical magic as the brilliance of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic music is brought to life. “The Nutcracker” production is a very special performance for me, as it always brings back warm and wonderful memories of a magical family event during my children’s early home schooling years.
If taking your children to see “The Nutcracker Ballet” is a part of your holiday plans, then I highly recommend filling your home with the amazing orchestral soundtrack before you attend the performance. Since the performance is “told” in the form of music and dance, I also recommend reading aloud the story so your children can better understand the storyline during the performance. There are many books written about the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. One of my favorites is the original tale of Nutcracker, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann (in 1816), translated by Ralph Manheim, and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Who would ever have thought that during WW II, three small-town Utah boys interested in ballet would have started this annual holiday tradition? “The Nutcracker Ballet” has retained its freshness because it appeals to the sense of wonder in both children and adults. It is a memorable and magical event that every family should enjoy together at least once, if not every year as a family tradition.
“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.