Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Book Review: A Superb Living Book on Medieval Town Life

This week, we read Walter Dragun's Town, by Sheila Sancha, which depicts the English town of Stanford in 1274. The author based the work on her research of the Hundred Rolls, so many of the characters and events were actual. The wool and cloth trade is the axis on which the town turns, and Sancha does a wonderful job intertwining educational material (industry, economy, trade, market life, vocations, daily life) into the narrative. We all learned a lot about market town life in the middle ages, but also enjoyed the story. A true living book, Walter Dragun's Town is suitable for elementary ages and up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Escaping the Trap of Motherhood Martyrdom

The other day, I was feeling dispirited and unappreciated by my children. I'm certain this never happens to you. But it does to me and, instead of snapping out of it, I decided to wallow in it for a little while. I was in that kind of mood; the same mood that grips a mom with the need to screech out, "The bulk of what I do in my life I do for you! And you don't even care!" I call it Motherhood Martyrdom, and it's quite a morass.

But, frankly, it's also true. I most likely wouldn't be a Girl Scout leader, a children's Bible teacher, a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher, a homeschooling parent for crying out loud, et cetera, et cetera, if it weren't for my daughters. Never mind that these pursuits bring me joy and often teach me a thing or two. That is not the point right at this moment, not while I am in the throes of MM. (It's easier to abbreviate the words, and acronyms are nifty, anyway.)

But I am never allowed to wallow for long, and here's why: a memory floats to the surface, one I'd prefer to forget but can't because of moods like this. Back in the early to mid-1980s, there was a movie of such cinematic doggerel that only teenage girls cared to see it. I'm of course speaking of Endless Love, starring Brooke Shields and Some Guy. My BFF (who turned out not to be, but that's not part of this story) and I talked my mother into taking us. It was rated R and we were underage, so her compliance was necessary. However, we decreed that she could not actually sit with us, as that would be too totally uncool. (I cannot believe I am admitting this.)

So here's the specific memory I can't banish from my brain: the picture of my precious mama, sitting several rows ahead of us at a movie she has absolutely no desire to see, eating her wretched popcorn, all by herself. Just the thought makes me cringe and squirm. It's simply too awful to contemplate (sort of like the movie itself, come to think of it). To my mother's immense credit, she never once complained, sneered, gagged, or in any way kvetched. That would have ruined my enjoyment of the day, which she would never have done.

It's only now, with the clear vision of both hindsight and more than 20 years, that I understand what I once took for granted. Mothers love and mothers serve, and those two verbs encompass many, many things. It's not just what I do but how I do it that will make an impact on my daughters.

When I was a child, I thought like a child, just like my children now think. So if I'm waiting for my girls to rise up and call me blessed, like the Proverbs 31 woman, I'm in for a long wait. But if I'm waiting for grace to change my heart and my outlook and my raison d'etre, it's only a breath away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I AM Speaking English

I have always had a love for words and spoken accordingly, to the amusement (one might say glee) of those around me. I remember in particular one occasion at work many years ago. A co-worker informed me that part of a project had been completed ahead of schedule, to which I replied, "Splendid!" After the knee-slapping hilarity of the others in the room had passed, another person asked me, jokingly, "Why don't you just say 'cool,' like everyone else?"

Why, indeed.

A couple of years later, my dh asked, more than once, essentially the same thing. "Why don't you just speak regular English?"

In my humble defense, I am speaking regular English. English is a rich, complex, and heavily nuanced language, and I intend to speak as much of it as I can. It reminds me of the scene in Sophie's Choice in which Sophie complains about all the English words for "fast," while in French there is only "vite."

I love all the different nuances in English. For example, She put the letter away hastily is very different from She put the letter away quickly. Is it just me, or does the first sentence imply a sense of guilt or subterfuge? The difference of one word opens up vast avenues of new possibilities.

This past summer, my neighbor gigglingly relayed to me something Miss Priss said while visiting her house. My two girls and her two had just eaten some fabulous peanut butter fudge, and then laughed at how quickly they'd wolfed it down. Miss Priss said, "I didn't take time to savor mine." It was the "savor" that threw my neighbor for a loop. "I don't think my girls have ever heard that word before!" A few weeks later, Miss Priss remarked to me that we had enjoyed "a day of splendors!" I had to agree.

Weird? I don't think so. While I can "talk American" with the best of them, I've never felt it necessary to dumb the language down for my children's ears. We limit the amount of t.v. they watch, and they listen to "my" radio stations in the car. Also, the books we read tend to use elevated language. So it's only natural that my children pick it up.

And I think that's cool.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: Good Masters! Sweets Ladies!

We are studying the medieval period of history right now, one of my favorites. In fact, I think I'm taking too long to cover it with the girls, but I can think of worse problems to have. The girls and I have enjoyed reading many great literature selections depicting the middle ages, and one that stands out particularly is Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Past winner of the Newbery Award, the book is a collection of nineteen short plays, most of which are monologues. Each character is between 10 and 15 years old and lives on an English manor in the year 1255; Schlitz leaves it up to the readers to decide for themselves the age of each character. Some characters are members of the nobility and some decidedly are not. Yet each one has his or her own unique voice, which Schlitz creates with wonderful accuracy for the period.

That is the beauty of the stories: each character is so finely depicted, his voice is so vivid, her circumstances so carefully constructed that the medieval era comes to brilliant life. Far better than any dull textbook rendering of "Life in Medieval Times," these plays vividly re-create the social strata and living conditions of a typical feudal-system manor, from the desperate situation of a runaway villein to the frightening expectations of the lord's nephew and all those in between.

The book includes several explanatory essays that give background information on issues of the day. These include "The Three-Field System," Medieval Pilgrimage," "Jews in Medieval Society," and "Towns and Freedom." Well-written and just thorough enough, the essays shed light on aspects of some of the characters' lives. Also, there are notes alongside the text whenever further explanation of a term or situation is warranted.

As we know, medieval life was difficult and often cruel, and these plays do not shy away from tough topics. There are brutal drunkards for fathers, dishonest millers, rank poverty, and other ugliness. I have not felt the need to skip or edit any of the selections, and the girls and I have had some good conversations following particularly difficult monologues; but your family may feel otherwise. Use your own discretion. That being said, there are also moments of self-awareness, clarity, and honesty so poignant that it almost hurts to read them.

My daughters are developing a love for the medieval period, and I'm delighted to watch it blossom. This book is one of the reasons they've become so intrigued.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Our Homeschooling Journey: Studied Dictation

This past week, Miss Priss and I began the practice of studied dictation as part of her lessons. I gleaned all the how-to's from Lindafay's superb blog, "Higher Up and Further In." She has several posts about studied dictation/spelling from a Charlotte Mason viewpoint, and I encourage you to give these a read-through. Here's how it worked at our house:

Since it was our first time, I had Miss Priss "prepare" only two sentences from the first paragraph of The Princess and the Goblin (by George Macdonald), which she is reading. She read the two sentences and identified troublesome spelling words. For each word, I wrote the word on our whiteboard, asked her to study it, and then picture the word in her mind. I also asked her to spell it out loud a few times with her eyes closed. Then I asked her to go over the passage independently, making note of punctuation, capitalization, etc. Finally, I chose one of the sentences for her to copy as I read it aloud, breaking it up into clauses. I warned her to pay close attention, as I was going to read each part only once. When we finished, I had her compare what she'd written with the original, marking any errors with a red pen. She then corrected her errors, of which there were three.

It was a grand success. Her handwriting was better than usual, she attended closely, and she enjoyed correcting her own work. She even asked if we do the activity more frequently than once a week. Even Tiny Girl asked if she could do studied dictation.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our Homeschooling Adventure: French

One of the (many) neat things about homeschooling is that you can "offer" subjects that are not generally offered, either at a certain age (my children are elementary-aged) or at all. French has been a part of our curriculum since we began our adventure. But I have to admit it's been catch as catch can, and we've missed more than we've caught. Until now.

After messing around with small French books and workbooks, I finally purchased Rosetta Stone French Level 1 for this school year. Yes, this is a pricey curriculum, but it's worth every penny so far. Its multimedia/total immersion approach is outstanding. Termed "Dynamic Immersion," the approach combines images, intuition, interactivity, and instruction. In effect, students learn the new language much as they learned their native language. As students move through the lessons, they select images when prompted, speak syllables and phrases, and write (by typing on the actual keyboard or an on-screen keyboard) in the new language. (If you want more information on this methodology, read this review from Rainbow Resource, which includes a link to a demo of the program.)

It gets a big thumbs-up from me because the girls work on it independently. They sit at the computer, pop on the headphones/microphone headset (included), click on their program of study, and off they go. Each child works for about 15 minutes a day.

I even included myself as a student on our Rosetta Stone and am completing the lessons myself for a refresher. I took four years of French in high school and three years in college, and I did rather well with the old-fashioned translation approach to learning a foreign language. But I can see that Dynamic Immersion is by far the superior method.

Finally, I feel like my daughters are really learning French, as opposed to dabbling in it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Camping Out Equals Staying in a Cheap Motel

That's the way I used to feel, anyway. My family and I did quite a bit of backcountry camping when I was a child; in fact, that's the only kind of camping we did. So a few years ago, when Dh mentioned camping to me, I said, "Not interested, thanks." But that's when I learned about camping in a state park. There were toilets! There were hot showers! There were grills! There were concrete picnic tables! And the ultimate amenity: each campsite had a water spigot AND electrical outlets! This was more like it. We've now been camping a few times. We're practically professionals.

This past weekend, we camped at Tallulah Gorge State Park in northeast Georgia. The gorge itself, with the Tallulah River running through it, is astounding. After an initial spell of vertigo passed (at the first overlook), I was able to stand at the guardrails and look out at the cliffs across the gorge and down at the river and several waterfalls below. It was all simply stunning.

That evening after supper, we drove into the town of Tallulah Falls for an outdoor bluegrass "jam," complete with bonfire. It was chilly once the sun set, but worth it. The music was fun, and the scene couldn't be topped for small-town local color.

Now, I know lots of people for whom camping really does mean a stay at a cheap motel. But the truth is that camping is sort of quirky, and I like quirky. When we camp out, we necessarily drop the artifices that are so much of our daily lives. No one wears fancy clothes. Make-up is practically non-existent. People are friendly, waving at you as they drive slowly by, saying hello while they brush their teeth at the sink next to yours in the restrooms. And where else will you see complete strangers in their pajamas except at a campground? For a few days, we drop the masks that hide us from the rest of the world. We freely offer and accept grace. For a little while, we can see each other as we really are.