children's books, fiction, homeschool, novels

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

Classics, educational, homeschool, In other's words, joys of reading, parenting

No Time for Reading Books?

More inspiration from the excellent classical educators at Circe Institute.

John Ehrett describes a recent phenomena of high school education that wasn’t common back during the dark ages when I was a high school student. Namely, that literature and language arts teachers are increasingly refraining from assigning classic works of literature as part of their curriculum.

Why you ask? Because of a growing belief that in the absence of the necessary time required to read the books, students are SparkNoting their way through the related assignments. Using the magic of the Internet, it is entirely possible to produce papers and test results which seem to indicate a thorough understanding of the literature even when they haven’t read it:

In my experience and that of many others, this precise problem is virtually ubiquitous across modern education. When it’s scheduling crunch time, “doing the assigned readings” is usually the first thing to go. And why wouldn’t it be? The savvy student motivated predominantly by grades has a whole range of resources at his disposal: Armed with readily available summaries and model answers, he can muddle through papers and exams with half-baked “analysis” that engages the work at the level of its most overt plot points. Viewed through this lens, a book like Anna Karenina becomes a story of infidelity interrupted by annoying digressions about farming rather than the comprehensive meditation on “the good life” that Tolstoy actually penned. Nobody learns anything in this scenario, but A-grades are awarded in due course and everyone moves on.

When grades are the holy grail on which everything of importance rests, the means becomes irrelevant. The ends are all that matter, and the deeper understanding of humanity, life, and nature that one acquires through reading great books is lost. It is not unlike those who are excellent at proof-texting their way through sacred texts to achieve whatever moral or psychological end they brought to the book before they ever picked it up. Winning the argument, the grade, or whatever we need to succeed becomes the goal. Whether that be a good job or peace with ourselves, we’ve learned how to get there. And clearly, we’ve taught our young people how to get there as well. This is not without cost, however:

Of course, eventually this habit catches up to a culture. Whenever I read about top-flight university departments jettisoning the classical canon in favor of more “relevant” offerings, I’ve comforted myself with the thought that most students at elite colleges have already read the Western core: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the rest. If my teacher friend’s experience is representative, though, the situation is graver than that: We now have an educational culture producing students—ostensibly trained in the “liberal arts”—who have no connection whatsoever to the great works of the past, or even the reading habits necessary to engage those works.

This is one of the reasons we have chosen a classical approach to homeschooling our children, although we do so with a veritable mountain of educational support. I could never do it on my own. There are things of far more value than ticking off of the appropriate boxes required to be an efficient cog in the economic wheel:

That is the paradigm that classical education affirms—and by juxtaposing a commitment to moral formation alongside the conveyance of information and data, classical education strikes at the root causes of academic acedia. Surely in the end what matters isn’t an admission letter to a prestigious college—a letter that appears, all too often, to denote compliance with certain procedural norms rather than real intellectual curiosity—but the capacity to live a contented and virtuous life. Speaking as the product of a classically inspired home education, I can attest that such an approach is far more likely to produce students willing to tune out the frenetic clamor of the college-prep-industrial complex and love learning for its own sake.

Click over and read the whole thing. It’s worth the 5 minutes, particularly if you are still educating children. As a slow reader with a very full schedule, I appreciate the pressures of life than encroach on one’s ability to find time to read, savor, and integrate the ideas of deeper works of literature. This pressure is even more pronounced among young people who are facing deadlines in various subjects to numerous teachers. But somehow, we have to find a way to strike a balance for the sake of the lives they have to live when schooling is done.

 

Culture, educational, homeschool, philosophy

Rabbit Trail: The Ways We Teach.

We often focus on what we’re teaching to the exclusion of why, and most importantly how, we’re teaching. As a result, there is a lot of instructional wheel-spinning. That’s my formally uneducated conclusion on the subject. I’ve considered this frequently of late; whether I am teaching my kids as well as other kids I teach, effectively.

Over the weekend I had occasion to be part of an encouraging and informative session facilitated by an intelligent young teacher on the subject of mimetic teaching. It added more blocks to the structure my mind is erecting around what it means to be educated, and what it means to teach to the appropriate ends.

The antithetical aims of education, as a pragmatic tool for potentially securing wealth on the one hand versus a vehicle through which we pass on virtues to produce well-formed human beings on the other, confound me on a regular basis. This is not because I am unclear on which is more important. I am also fully aware that is possible to do both, and that we must do both.

Rather, it leaves me scratching my head because the former aim -education as a tool for securing material comfort- is accomplished via a mapped path where the destination is reached through checking the appropriate boxes at designated checkpoints along the way. Check off the right boxes at the right time, then you reach your destination. Based on the checked boxes you are declared educated, thus fully formed; or at least formed enough to embark on a responsible adult life.

The latter and less pursued aim- education as the vehicle through which we pass on virtues to produce a well-formed human being- feels more like meandering a scenic route. It includes many of the checked boxes, but also other disciplines of higher value, which are not as easily quantified. This is the understanding of education defined much more aptly in Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1828:

The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

This is where I fear myself doing a less than stellar job educating my children. It isn’t the acquisition of the checked boxes as outlined by the current education model that is difficult. Further, if we view “usefulness in their future stations” solely in postmodern economic terms, I’d dare say I’m doing pretty well, and certainly no worse than most. I know plenty of parents who are doing an even better job than we are at box-checking, religious education, arts, and manners.

For reasons I couldn’t quite grasp until very recently, I still hadn’t been able to shake the notion that somewhere there is a huge gap in my kids’ education and it has absolutely nothing to do with academic achievement or economic readiness. I’ve no doubt I’ll leave some gaps there too, but the gap I fear we are leaving is the one we won’t see until it too late to fill except by letting our children learn the hard, painful way. It’s the gap of learning to make decisions and be at ease and secure apart from us, a skill we value far too little in our culture which insists we make our children the center of our worlds; the be all and end all of our existence, lest they be damaged. Or worst of all, have low self-esteem.

Ironically, the technology which makes our lives so much “easier” is the very thing that is creating a generation of young adults who are incapable of navigating simple decisions on their own. It was a conversation in a grocery checkout lane with random, strange women where the only apparent shared experience is the fact that we are all mothers, that crystallized for me many of the things we fail to teach. More than that, however, are the ways we teach. In this particular case, it was the fact that most of our kids could barely stand to allow us a simple quiet trip to the neighborhood grocery store to buy milk or eggs without numerous calls and myriad text messages.

I was raised by a generation of parents who wouldn’t even allow us to enter the living room to interrupt conversation among adults unless someone was “sick, dead, or dying”. While I am not advocating that level of extreme separation of spheres between parents and children, we did learn at least two things. The first was what was worthy of interrupting our parents for while they were busy. The second was how to decide for ourselves if it would be more appropriate to have an apple or a banana for snack. The number of young adults -and not so young adults- I have encountered who are incapable of living life and making relatively simple decisions without the consultation of experts via Google or approval via Facebook is a repudiation of the ways we as parents are teaching them.

The greater implications of refusing to cut the apron strings in the appropriate ways and times strikes at the heart of Webster’s definition:

series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations.

It encompasses a whole lot more than anything which can assessed via the SAT or ACT tests.

Christian, educational, homeschool

Religious education handicaps.

Educating with a religious focus, while well-intentioned, often emphasizes the wrong things.

Just as I was considering the marriage of technology, reading, and education, it occurred to me how often in the early years of our homeschooling journey I wasted money on what is regarded by many Christians as excellent educational curriculum. Judging by the number of books these curriculum producers sell, a lot of people love them.

Over our past 7 years of home education, I’ve dabbled with Sonlight’s curriculum; rudimentary. A beka; hated it. Bob Jones; blech. Most I bought used, so we didn’t take a major monetary hit on them, but I didn’t really like them. For the longest time, it was hard for me to figure out why.

Until we enrolled in our current academic program, a classical one which relies heavily on The Well-Trained Mind and Circe Institute for its educational philosophy, I never found a comprehensive Christian curriculum that worked for us. The only one I like and continue to use is Apologia science.

Recently it occurred to me why I prefer The Well Trained Mind, and Circe in particular. It’s because they are not contrived. They don’t make up poorly written, “Christian friendly” books with the intent of cocooning students. Our kids read real literature, from real books. Books with competing world views and different religious traditions, books where the hero is often not the good Christian hero. Peter Pan is one example; Taro from The Samurai’s Tale another. Teachers converse with the students, walking through the ideas, allowing them to think, compare and contrast what they are reading with what we believe.

If there is one thing that Christian homeschool curriculum developers get wrong (we’ll start with just this one), it’s that in their zeal to impress a Christian “worldview” onto the student, they take away the very thing the kids need in order to bolster their faith: the chance to wrestle with it.

As if on cue, Joshua Gibbs, of whom I am quickly becoming an intellectual groupie, penned his thoughts on what classical educators can learn from stand-up comedians. His entire piece is well worth the few minutes it will take to read it, but about halfway through he explains why much of what is offered in the way of Christian comedy and satire falls woefully short:

When I bring up stand-up comedy, someone invariably says to me, “I love stand-up comedy. Have you seen Brian Regan? He’s good, and his stuff is clean, too.” I do not find Brian Regan funny. I am skeptical of anyone who thinks a comedian worthy of acclaim simply because his routine is not vulgar. While I have no special fondness for dirty jokes, I do believe that comedy is simply a kind of offense— a very controlled offense shared between friends. Brian Regan’s material might be clean, but it is also too friendly, too safe, and accordingly banal. Good comedy is an insult which a man longs to hear. There is an anarchy to good comedy which suggests the poor are being given bowling pin-sized turkey legs to eat and the rich are being sent away with fistfuls of Cheerios. Comedy marvels at the dual nature of man— immortal spirit, farting body— for comedy always involves the juxtaposition of high and low, friendship and shame, dignity and embarrassment. The punchline to the oldest joke in the book is a mockery of man’s desire to overthink and over-intellectualize everything. To get to the other side. Comedy employs laughter to fill the chasm between high and low. Laughter is a bridge.

For this reason, there is usually an element of danger in good comedy, for every joke the comedian tells has three potential victims: himself, his audience, and all mankind. The best comedians are metaphysicians, for in minutely observing their own words and deeds, they can determine which of their sins are universal. We laugh (in fear) at the audacity of a man who confesses the finest nuances of his selfishness, his ignorance, and his laziness, for, in laughing, we are admitting we have done the same, and that we have no defense for our actions. Good comedy is “high-wire truth-telling,” as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen once put it. The laughter of the audience is a veil which both conceals and reveals they are complicit in everything the comedian confesses.

Clean comedians (at least the ones who market themselves that way) are rarely willing to genuinely insult anyone, and their audiences laugh as though they are being skewered when they are actually getting off scot-free. In the first several months The Babylon Bee was up and running, the satirical news site ran a dozen stories with headlines like, “Local Calvinist Drinks Dark Beer and Has Beard,” as though this was really sticking it to those bearded, dark beer-loving Calvinists out there. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out the writers were Calvinists themselves, and somewhat squeamish at that. If The Bee had opened with stories about Presbyterians trading exclusive rights to the Epistle of St. James to Roman Catholics in exchange for Matt Walsh and half a dozen of the more savage Flannery O’Connor stories, it would have been a different story— but that’s someone else’s joke to make. To their credit, over the last year The Babylon Bee has proven willing to test the thickness of readers’ skin. Comedy proves human community is built on something other than flattery, but this means comedy is necessarily confrontational. When I am finished watching a stand-up special, I want the same feeling of self-awareness which attends an anxiety-inducing, no holds barred sermon. Brian Regan joking about the phonetic pronunciation of “phonics” just doesn’t cut it.

Read the whole thing.

We’ve discussed here before the limitations of explicitly Christian entertainment which I believe are rooted in the fact that Christians shouldn’t be about producing entertainment. Today however, I am considering something different. Namely, how the admirable desire to protect our students can shield them to the point of defenseless when taken too far, as it often is.

I am fully aware that a classical approach to education isn’t the right fit for every student, family, or school. But I do believe that an education which fails to offer its students the opportunity to question and think deeply fails the student.

For what it’s worth, secular government education doesn’t do any better job of helping  students think either. In fact, they are the worst offenders. There is far more to helping someone learn to think than repeatedly telling them that their parents’ views are wrong.

 

American history, coming from where I'm from, educational, Florida History, homeschool

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark

joseph E Clark book

The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark: From Slavery to Town Father, by Olga Fenton Mitchell and Gloria Fenton Magbie. Published in 2003, 112 pages.

This is the biography of the man who founded the oldest incorporated black municipality in the United States of America. It is definitely a niche book and topic, one that interests me on a purely personal level. I almost declined to review it because I know there is no universal appeal attached to it. However, it matters to me, so I decided it was worth reviewing.

Joseph Clark was born into slavery in the year 1859. He was the son of slaves, but his father William was a man of keen sense with a deep desire to see his children be as successful as life would allow. So after the Civil War ended and his family was freed, he moved them to East Tennessee (a Union friendly southern area) and began working in earnest to see to it that his children were educated. Always a man of hard work and frugality, the authors of the book recount that 1870 census records list William Clark as a drayman with a net worth of $400, a financial feat rarely accomplished by the newly freed African descended slaves!

With this as his legacy, Joe Clark grew up and stepped into the part of his story that I was mostly already familiar with. The founding of Eatonville was a momentous and ground breaking event in the South. Joe Clark’s dream of a town founded, inhabited and most importantly governed by freed black men became a reality in 1887:

 

eatonville-founded.jpg
Joseph Clark 4th from left. Photo Credit.

Covering every aspect of Joseph Clark’s life including the tragedies and hardships as well as his victories, The Life & Times of Joseph E. Clark filled in some of the blanks of his history that I was unaware of. Knowing much of the information beforehand didn’t make the book any less enjoyable to me.

This was a good little book. It covered a lot of ground in a very succinct and matter of fact way. It eschewed political commentary and stuck to the facts, and was well done overall. I am glad I stumbled on it while doing some research in our local library branch.

5 out of 5 stars.

Els' Rabbit Trails, family, homeschool, humor

El’s rabbit trails: Kombucha science

I have a very engaging book review in draft. It may even get up later this evening. Meanwhile, it’s been some time since we’ve hopped off on a rabbit trail and my kids and husband produced an entertaining one for me this morning. I figured in the spirit of getting ready for back to school, we’d talk some kombucha science.

A little over a year and a half ago, a friend of mine brought me a SCOBY. I was just getting into the kombucha craze (you know how we chicks love a good bandwagon), so she figured I would enjoy brewing my own. And I did. At first.

However no one else in our house liked the stuff, and the sight of the SCOBY jar was, to quote my husband, “like a science experiment gone bad”. I kept brewing it and kept the SCOBY alive. I even gave one or two away to fellow bandwagon chicks so they could start brewing their own. We talked kombucha. We compared flavors. It was a kombucha paradise.

After a while, as I am prone to do, I grew weary of my growing SCOBY hotel, and my man was not under any circumstances going to allow his kitchen to be overrun with jars of multiple SCOBYs. It was more than enough asking him to look at one or two. Couple that with my tendency to be ever on the lookout for a new bandwagon, and it wasn’t long before my poor SCOBYs went longer and longer periods without fresh tea being added.

Somewhere along the way my man and our two youngest kids developed a taste for the stuff, and my neglected SCOBYs found a savior in my husband’s willingness to make new brews of different flavors. This morning he and the younglings got busy bottling up different flavors, cutting off layers of SCOBY for the fall planting soil, and having an all around good time making several bottles of the stuff:

img_20180723_151314~21098936724..jpg
Individual flavors of kombucha on their second ferment.

Ever the teacher, it occurred to me that perhaps we should have an impromptu lesson on what a SCOBY is, fermentation, the meaning of symbiosis, and why things work together the way they do to produce the fizzy flavored teas that they enjoy so much.

“Way to suck the fun out, MOM!”

No, no one said that, but their faces said it all.

children's books, genres, homeschool

On morals in children’s books

In addition to books we are reading individually, I like the idea of having something we are reading aloud together. Over the years, we’ve had some very memorable experiences reading aloud. The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite, as well as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and more recently Peter Pan.

Currently, our read aloud book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women is interesting in that the morality and lessons to be learned from the daughters’ struggles are laid bare; often complete with a sermonette from their mother.  I myself am not particularly fond of what is known as “preachy” entertainment, but in this book, I have determined that the detours are a net advantage to the story. I and my children rather enjoy the brief, overt moments in the book which extol virtue, but not everyone does.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to muse on this issue of “preachy” or overt morality presented in children’s books as writers far more articulate than me have tackled the subject. First, Krysta at Pages Unbound makes the very astute point that despite any protestations, most people do prefer children’s books with moral. Indeed, the problem most people have with the older children’s books is not that they are overtly moral, but that the morals presented are out of step with our postmodern sensibilities and current morality.

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

She is absolutely correct. In fact, our moral lessons of today actively discourage cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic if those virtues in any way conflict with our ability to be a confident individual. Hence, it’s not particularly hard to see why Little Women’s overt moral lessons might be offensive to contemporary readers.

Additionally, there is the presumption that Marmee, the mother of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers her lessons and sermonettes in a way that is unrealistic or stilted. I find the assertion curious as it is not at all unusual in our home for events to evolve into teaching lessons complete with reminders of what our faith and the rules of our family demand. Our children seem to connect with, enjoy, and be enriched by those moments. we do our kids a disservice when we project our hardened resistance to being influenced to a higher standard onto them. The teachable, open hearts of children are much more receptive to such messages than adults tend to be.

In addition to Krysta’s post, there is another well presented argument in defense of preachy children’s books by Lindsay Brigham Knott at Circe Institute. One of the thoughts she offered is our error in presuming that children’s books are to be read solely for entertainment in the first place:

As near as I can tell, the arguments against preachy children’s stories range from shallow to significant. On the shallow end is the argument that children will, by nature, “tune out” anything that smacks of a sermon. The following excerpt (again, compliments of Google) typifies this argument:

Adults patronize kids almost all day, so as an adult ourselves, it is too easy to make this mistake. The key here is to make your point without going too preachy or didactic. Nothing can turn children off faster than a lecture, or worse, a moral lesson. Kids want to be entertained and delighted. The first thing you can do is erase the words moral, teach, message, and lesson out of your vocabulary. Instead, trust your readers to figure it out through the storyline and actions that your characters take. Another tip is to keep authoritative figures, like parents, teachers, or older siblings, in the background. Lastly, never let the adults in the story tell what the main character should do. Remember, it is a sin to preach in fiction.

I shall let that argument stand for itself, and not belabor a rebuttal; anyone already committed to classical education likely does not need to be convinced that kids’ desire for entertainment should not determine the content of their reading, nor that authoritative figures ought to be honored rather than stuffed in the closet.

Over the course of the recently ended school year, our 11-year-old, in her fulfilled assignment of writing a short story, was admonished by her teacher that her story didn’t direct the reader to draw a conclusion with regard to the behavior of her characters. Because I was stuck on my concern that it sounded so much like a Disney movie, that particular aspect of her presentation eluded me.

Rather than ask her what she wanted to convey, I read the story again, and again was struck with the notion that the problems inherent in the behavior of the characters was evident because of the troubles their decisions wrought. The fact that there was no overarching, ultimate consequence could certainly be perceived as problematic.

However, on the heels of having read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which was also very matter of fact in its presentation of behavior and consequences, I was prepared to accept my daughter’s presentation as valid. What to do about the canned plot development is another issue.

It left me wondering what positions others general have when it comes to presenting morality and life lessons in children’s books.

What say you?