Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Feeling Shaken

This past Saturday our family utilized our gift membership and went to the Science Center downtown. Roaming its four interactive floors is always an exciting adventure for the sweet girl. This time around there were some new exhibits on the first floor so some of our old favorites had been moved. We found one, the Earthquake Café, now housed on the top level. Of course we had to sit down and let ourselves get all shook up.

The Earthquake Café is a booth made to look like a table in a diner. You get into the booth and choose, from the “menu” on the wall, which earthquake simulation you want to feel. There are a few to choose from, varying in their intensity. We let the sweet girl pick, and she chose a 7.1 variety (simulating the California earthquake from the late 1980s – remember the one that took place during the World Series)? You push the button and sit there, grinning uncertainly at each other, as the ground beneath your table begins to shift. The booth works on a levered system and gets jerked back and forth in a very realistic fashion. (I know that now, having actually experienced a small earthquake in our area a couple of months ago.)

Sitting in the Earthquake Café, I found myself realizing anew just how shaken my life has felt in recent months. Sometimes the shaking that has gone on has felt small and subtle, the way an earthquake sometimes can feel at the very beginning, or when you’re not near the epicenter. I still recall the day we did feel the ground shake here, for real, and how disorienting it was to feel that shift – but also how quickly it was all over. By the time we’d asked ourselves the questions “what’s happening?” and “what is that?” and even “did a truck just hit the building?” the motion had pretty much stopped. It was only in retrospect that we realized what we’d felt.

Life can be like that sometimes. While some “shaking” comes quickly and violently, and other shaking is more subtle and hard to define, it often seems like the ripple effect lasts a long time. People who live near the epicenter of a quake experience multiple aftershocks. Even those who don’t often find themselves so “moved” (literally and in other ways) that they need to talk about the earth-shaking experience they lived through for days to come.

Most of us, thankfully, don’t live through actual, physical earthquakes all that often (though our family prays often for those who do). But all of us live through some sort of figurative shaking in our lives. This shaking may be caused by sudden traumatic events we never expected, or by long unsettling “shaking” that seems to go on and on, with multiple small aftershocks, uprooting our sense of who we thought we were and even our sense of how steady we are. All of those things can cause mental, physical, emotional, even spiritual stress, and that can take its toll. I’ve been going through some of this sort of “shaking” in recent months and it’s exhausting. I’ve discovered that if I let it, if I focus on the things that seem to shake me most, it can make me feel alone and afraid.

As followers of Christ, however, we know that in times of shaking we can cling to something that is steady, far steadier than our usual stable (but sometimes surprisingly unstable) earth. Or rather we can cling to Someone. When our lives feel full of seismic activity, we have a person we can run to who is truly our shelter and refuge. The shaking may not always stop right away, but when you are held in the strong arms of Jesus, you’ll find that you won’t worry so much about whether you manage to stay on your feet. Because you know He will.

You’ll find the word “shaken” in the Scriptures. Sometimes it’s translated “moved.” (I still need to ask my Hebrew scholar husband to help me find the original word thus translated.)

The Psalmists love the image: “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” (Ps. 16:8) And in one of the most powerful Psalms that speaks of God as our refuge, we hear this: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.” (Ps. 62:2) I like the way the ESV renders that last one “not greatly shaken.” It seems to help my heart to know that the psalmist, perhaps, like me, admits to feeling some real shaking…though he knows (as I know deep down) that I am never ultimately shaken when I am sheltering in God.

And the writer of Hebrews reminds us (powerfully, in the context of speaking of the final shaking): “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…” (Heb. 12:28).

A kingdom that cannot be shaken. In the midst of unsteady days, I’ve been trying to let the reality of that wash over me. We have been loved into a kingdom that cannot be shaken, by a King whose faithfulness is always steadfast, more solid than the most solid rock we’ve ever known. It’s the writer of Hebrews who also reminds us (at the beginning of the same chapter that ends with the declaration of the unshakable kingdom) to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author (or founder) and perfecter of our faith.” We are to fix our eyes on, to look intently and faithfully at Jesus who "endured the cross.” He endured real shaking, real pain, in order that we might know the deep, solid steadiness of his mercy and grace.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collecting Words: Vocabulary Building the Natural Way

There are a lot of vocabulary building ideas and curricula floating around the homeschool world. I've seen some of them, and even picked up a workbook for free now and again, though I don't think I've actually used one.

A couple of years ago I took a deep breath and decided that for our learning environment, it made the most sense to weave vocabulary building into the fabric of what we're already doing. Because we read. A LOT. That doesn't mean that one day I might not yet introduce a more systematic or formal approach. It also doesn't mean that I'm not intentionally fostering a love of words and a richer vocabulary. It just means that I'm trying to find a way to foster that naturally, instead of sitting my child down in front of a workbook where she has to use certain words in sentences or memorize definitions.

A lot of vocabulary is picked up by osmosis. If you read a lot, and come across certain words enough times, you will eventually pick up on their meaning. This is yet another endorsement, by the way, for encouraging re-reading. There are multiple benefits involved in revisiting a story again and again, and enhancing vocabulary is just one of them, but it's a good one.

Kids are natural collectors. They love to collect all sorts of things: cards, coins, stamps, action figures, dolls, rocks, shells. For some people, that love of collecting grows with them into adulthood. Grown-ups collect all sorts of things too, including sometimes the same things they started collecting as children. In my life, I've been particularly passionate (in different seasons) about certain collections: baseball cards, books, and small bits of green glass have been three of the biggies for me.

It dawned one me one day, a number of years ago, that I had always been a word collector. It was one reason I kept a journal. Not just to write down memories, thoughts, and feelings, or to play with bits of poems and stories, but to actually collect words. I kept lists of them. I still do. One day I came across a book called poemcrazy that inspired me to begin collecting words in even more physical ways. I started cutting words I liked from magazines and newspapers. I kept them in small jars and boxes, often along with small scraps of pictures. I still do. I went to an office supply store and bought a big roll of tickets, the "admit one" tickets you might sell at a play or movie. I started pasting words onto tickets. I called these word tickets "tickets to the imagination" and I started using them on those rare but wonderful occasions when someone would ask me to lead a writing workshop.

So you see why I began to realize a couple of years ago why vocabulary building could be a natural thing to build into our learning time. Put together my love of collecting words, our family's love of reading, and a child's natural curiosity and propensity to collect -- and you've got the potential blocks for a towering vocabulary.

This year I made the sweet girl a word book. You could easily create this from any notebook or just from stapling together notebook paper. I decided it would be fun to make it as homemade as possible, so I pulled together a little notebook based on a template I found over at Donna Young's website (my favorite free printables site). The lined pages made a neat little notebook and she even provided a cover with the title "My Word Book" in flowing script. I went hunting and found an alphabet in lovely, fancy scripts. I cut out each letter and pasted them, in order, on the notebook pages, leaving extra room for the letters I thought might get used most often. At the beginning of the school year, I gave it to the sweet girl and showed her that we'd keep it in a purple folder along with her list of independent reading. The word book and reading list stay next to our DK Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary.

Now that she has a place to "collect" words, the sweet girl is enthusiastic about doing so. (We did this last year too, in third grade, just in a composition book. It worked well and got the idea rolling, but it's snowballed this year and is really taking off now that she has this little word book to tuck her findings inside.) I've encouraged her to ask about words she comes across when she's reading or when we're reading together. If she doesn't know what it means, we look it up and it goes into the word book.

There are weeks when not much goes into the book. We can have days when we both forget it. But then words will pop up all over the place. "What does that mean?" and "Remember when we were reading so and so and we heard that word?" have become more frequent parts of conversation. She's eager to get to the dictionary (even when it sometimes fails us, as I'm discovering even a very good children's dictionary can do with certain complex or old-fashioned words of the type we come across in older literature...thank heavens for online dictionaries!) and she loves to write them down in her homemade-but-kind-of fancy word book. Just this morning three more words went into the word book: visage, sporadically, and aggravated. Visage came from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" which she's been memorizing. (Sometime I want to devote a whole post to the joys and benefits of poetry memorization!) The other two came in a review lesson in our grammar book.

I share these thoughts, not to disparage any of the more formal programs out there that teach/increase vocabulary in more systematic ways, but rather to share that I think it can be done, especially in the early learning years, in ways that are simple, organic, pleasurable, and that ignite a love of both the sounds and meanings of words.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Week in Review (6): Patricia Polacco; Shakespeare Meets Marvel Comics; Narnia Code

Hmm...the last week of September was an odd reviewing week. Three movies, completely different from one another, and a Civil War picture book that made me cry.

The Narnia Code is an hour-long documentary based on Michael Ward's literary theory regarding C.S. Lewis' use of medieval cosmology in the Chronicles of Narnia. It provides a great introduction to his ideas, which are unpacked at length and with great scholarly elegance in the book Planet Narnia.

Thor is a totally enjoyable (and action-packed!) feature film based on the comic book character Thor, a sort of Norse god/superhero. The particularly fun twist is that this summer blockbuster kind of movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh, the director who has brought us Shakespearean delights for years. Shakespeare meets Marvel Comics. And it works.

Soul Surfer
is an inspirational film based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her left arm to a shark, survived, and went on to become the world's best woman surfer. The movie asks good questions and walks a lot of potentially cliched lines without falling off any of them entirely. Not a great film, but a solidly good one, with the real story of the young girl's courage shining through some inspired performances.

I don't often cry my way through picture books, but that's what happened when I read Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say. There is a power and beauty to this simple story of the friendship that developed between two young men, one black and one white, who found one another in the midst of the chaos and pain of the Civil War. It's a story of heroism and courage, and it's brought home the Civil War to my nine year old in real and moving ways. The fact that it turns out to be a true story -- a story passed down in Polacco's family for several generations (Say was her great-great grandfather) adds even more powerful punch to the tale.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Loving Lincoln

The sweet girl and I have been wending our way through a study of the Civil War. I'm thankful that we had a chance to attend a Civil War day back in July at the historic site near us. That gave her a great preliminary "taste" of the period, especially experiencing the costumes, tents, soldier's kits, period music, etc.

But as usual, it's been books that have carried us through. We've been particularly taken with books about Abraham Lincoln. Even though we've technically finished the unit (we've moved forward into other areas in Story of the World) we keep reading more. And I find myself wanting to read a good adult biography of Lincoln now too. Any suggestions welcome!

Loving to read about Lincoln reminds me, of course, of one of my favorite fictional characters, Emily Webster. Emily of Deep Valley is set in 1912. Emily too loves to read about Lincoln, especially with her grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Maud Hart Lovelace never seems to tire of telling the tale of the brave Minnesota regiment at Gettysburg. Emily and her grandfather end up reading, at the recommendation of her former high school teacher Miss Fowler, "Herndon's Lincoln." If you google that, you'll discover it's an actual biography of Lincoln written in 1888. It's still available today and still garners glowing reviews from most readers. It's also, however, huge. So I've never been sure if it's where I want to start -- although I often find big ol' biographical tomes to be just the right kind of reading for winter. Hmm...a sentiment I probably originally learned from Emily Webster, but have discovered the truth of myself over the years. (Dorothy Kearns Goodwin kept me going one winter with her biography of Roosevelt.)

My list of favorite children's books about Lincoln continues to grow. This week I've added Lincoln Tells a Joke to that list -- Kathleen Krull, Paul Brewer, and illustrator Stacy Innerst's marvelous picture book biography that focuses on Lincoln's humor and down-to-earth manner. It's such a delightful fact that such a deeply profound man, living through such a sobering and heavy time, managed to stay afloat because of laughter.

My very favorite Lincoln book for children may well be Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells. I first read it when it came out in 2009 (and reviewed it here) but this week the sweet girl and I read it together. I cannot get through the final chapter without tears, whether reading silently or aloud. It manages to capture that lighthearted side of Lincoln while also perfectly capturing the heavy emotional weight he carried due to both personal and national tragedies. P.J. Lynch's illustrations in this book are just stunning.

This will likely be our year to do Little Women as a family read-aloud. The book of my childhood. I get shivers of anticipation just thinking about reading it with my husband and daughter. So our Civil War theme will stretch later into the fall and winter. We will probably not start it until around our Thanksgiving trip (if we're able to make that trip this year) as we'll have lots of time in the car that no longer has a functioning CD player. In other words, Mom gets to be the audio book! But I'm glad of it in this case. I love reading aloud, and Jo March's voice...well, it's practically part of my own.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Week in Review (5): Schmidt's Retelling of Pilgrim's Progress; Prequelitis with Enterprise Season 1

A week late is the new normal! Apparently I am destined to run a full week or more behind on posting links to my reviews. All right, maybe destined is too strong a word, but for now, this seems to be the pace that works.

Here are reviews from a week or so ago.

I finally posted my review of Gary Schmidt's lovely version of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Schmdit's writing and Barry Moser's illustrations make this a wonderful book to savor. We've read it together twice this year during family devotional time. My review was actually drafted months ago, after the first time we read it, but my opinion on the story's quality hasn't changed a bit after a second time through.

A few weeks back I chatted a bit about the creative challenges of prequels. That was partly born of the fact that D and I have been wending our way through Enterprise. Enterprise has a unique place in Star Trek's history: it's the last of the Star Trek television shows to air, but the first in terms of interior Star Trek chronology. An interesting combination. Here's my review of Enterprise, Season 1, which had some bumps along the way but nevertheless drew us into the story.

And in the completely "just for fun" category, two quick reviews of things the sweet girl has enjoyed much in recent months: Bob Phillips' Awesome Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids and a lovely paper doll set made by Eboo ~ Thoughtful Girl Paper Dolls, Sasha and Jasmine.