Friday, May 31, 2013

Finishing Up Fifth Grade (Notes from a Learning Life!)

We’ve had a busy final month or so of the school year, so busy that I’ve not had much time to write anything about schooling!

As she is growing and changing so much physically and emotionally, the sweet girl has been struggling with increased anxiety related issues (in general, not specific to school) which have also been taking up a good bit of our time and energy as a family. We’re in the process of getting some guidance and putting some things into place for ourselves as we pursue some mental health goals for her and for all of us, and I remind myself that is all a huge and important part of life and of learning.

School subjects have not fallen by the wayside though. We’ve had a good strong finish to the year in language arts and math and a sort of limping finish to science and history, though they both had their highlights this year too. When I look back on everything, I am pleased with S’ academic progress in many areas, especially her continued passion for math and art and her growing confidence as a writer. I am pleased with the progress she made in taking more strides as an independent learner. The areas I think she has struggled with most (and I have struggled with most as her teacher) have to do with some of the broader anxiety and perfectionist issues. What gives me hope is to remember the fruit we have seen already, and to know that more fruit will bloom as we continue to plant needs, water and nourish the soil, and trust the Gardener of our souls.

The standardized tests are done (she has to take them certain years in compliance with state requirements) and she passed with absolute flying colors. Her overall marks in Language and Mathematics were given a “highest level” rating, which makes this mama/teacher’s heart very happy. (I don’t actually mind standardized tests, which show me areas in which I can improve instruction, and the sweet girl actually finds them fun!)

Although we’ve sometimes marked the end of a school year with a special lunch or something like this, this is the first year we’re doing a little bit of a “graduation” ritual. Thinking over the fact that she is moving into the middle grades, S. asked if it might be possible if we mark the occasion of her finishing up elementary studies in some way. I tend to break our learning into four year cycles (because of the classical influence on our schooling approach) but I know what she means – this does somehow feel like a turning point year. And I don’t see any reason to not give her the kind of affirmation and encouragement she needs about what a good job she’s done! So I just finished taking brownies from the oven and creating a diploma (which will be signed by me, her teacher, and her dad, whom we like to call the principal) and we’ll celebrate after dinner. A little bird told me that someone has prepared a speech about her first six years of homeschooling…

Six years! Midway through next year, we will be exactly half-way through this home learning journey we officially set out on. There are days when I’ve wondered if we’ll ever make it, a few days when I’ve been ready to quit, and many, many more days when I’ve just felt so incredibly blessed that we’re doing this and so affirmed in our call. We really are doing this…through the hard parts and the amazing parts…building a learning life.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Holmes and Watson

It's been a Holmes and Watson kind of week as my husband I have finally seen (and loved) the first season of Sherlock, the creative modern-day update starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

I am loving the show for itself -- such great pacing, witty writing, intelligent plots, terrific acting! -- but I'm also loving it because it's nudging me back to Doyle.

 I confess that I have never been a huge Sherlock Holmes reader. Despite having enjoyed movies about the great detective, despite having read some of the stories and even a recent biography of Doyle, I've just never quite been able to immerse myself totally in the stories. That may be changing as I am currently racing my way through The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I confess, I checked it out of the library. This despite the fact that we own the complete Holmes in one volume. I realized that one reason I might not have been too successful at past immersion is that the darn book is too heavy to hold. And it has rather itty-bitty type.

So I checked Hound out in paperback form, and oh, the fun!

I'm also finding that the creative update is helping me "get" Holmes' voice better than I have before -- the energy behind it, the humor, the total genius-like self-absorption. And I can visualize Watson, the quiet sidekick, much better than before. Cumberbatch and Freeman are that good at keeping their characters in the spirit of the originals.

I have a feeling I may need to credit this series for helping me know how to read Doyle the way I now credit the 1995 A&E Pride and Prejudice with helping me to know how to read Austen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

10 Years as a Reviewer

Yesterday I reached a fun milestone: 10 years since I became a reviewer on Epinions.

I had fun reminiscing about how I "stumbled" onto the site, not knowing precisely what it was. I was looking for reviews of children's books, particularly books for very young children, since the sweet girl was not quite a year old at the time. I discovered a site where I could not only read reviews (of any number of things) but write them too.

I still recall the fun I had tossing out that first four-paragraph review of one of the sweet girl's board books. The only reviews I'd written, up until then, had been for newsletters and college classes. I had no clue what I was doing, and *really* no clue that I would get bitten by the review writing bug and still be writing for the site a decade -- and over 1200 reviews -- later.

I've learned a lot in my time there, some of it to do with crafting reviews, and a lot of it to do with listening to the passions of other people...some of them a lot like me, and a lot of them not at all like me. It's been enriching. It's been a help to our homeschool budget. It's been frustrating (especially when the site has gone through growing pains, changes, and technical glitches). It's been fun.

I also had no clue that I would meet one of the friends of my heart there, a couple of years or so into my Epinions sojourn. Yesterday, Erin wrote a review of the 1994 film version of Little Women in my honor. It's a lovely review from a lovely human being whom I'm grateful to call my friend. That friendship is one of the best blessings to come out of my decade as a reviewer.

Wonder what the next ten years will hold for my writing life? 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Writing from Minor Character POVs: Getting Your Fiction Muscles Working

I miss writing fiction.

I'm thankful beyond words that I am writing as much as I am right now. I enjoy writing reviews and even, in a strange way, boring web content. Writing is writing. I love crafting sentences. I'd rather do it than anything else I do, even the workhorse parts of writing.

But oh, I miss writing fiction. It's not just a matter of finding the time to do it, though that is a perpetual challenge. It's a matter of being able to dive in and do it in the seven minutes here, three minutes there that I can squeeze in. It's feeling frustrated when I only have a little bit of time and discover that a lack of writing fiction over the past couple of weeks has made my fiction muscles rusty. We all know that sometimes it can take a couple of pages to warm up and even get to a place where you're writing anything worth keeping, and sometimes the warm up time is all I can manage.

The other morning I woke up from a dream about the characters in my novel -- the novel I haven't had time to work on for several weeks. Dreaming about characters is a lovely gift to any writer. You wake up hearing echoes of their voices, and if you're really blessed, you've got the contours of a scene all ready and waiting to make the leap to paper.

Dream scenes fade quickly though, and in this particular case, I had "one of those days" where I simply could not grab any space or time to write. The scene slithered away from me. Argh.

When it's been a while since I've been in story mode, I sometimes find that playing around in someone else's story world is just what I need to get my fiction muscles working again. It takes less creative and mental energy than diving into something completely original, but it can definitely provide terrific writing practice.

Yes, this is what most people call fan-fiction, and it can be fun to write it just for the fun of writing it (nothing wrong with that)! But I've been discovering lately that in addition to a mental health break, writing this kind of fiction can be a great exercise in story crafting.

It's especially helpful if you approach a story from the perspective of a minor character. Give this a try the next time you only have a few minutes to write and need to get yourself in gear quickly. Pick a favorite movie or a book, one you know really well, and dive into an already established scene. But dive into it from the perspective of a minor character --- someone who doesn't have a big role to play, someone in the crowd observing the action, someone completely on the sidelines. Maybe it's a character from another part of the story who isn't there in the original action, but whom you put there, eavesdropping behind a door. Maybe it's a character in the original scene who says one thing but looks like they're dying to say something else, and you, the writer, can climb inside their head and think through their unvoiced thoughts and motivations. This kind of writing becomes an exercise in thinking through character as well as plot and tone.

Writing a scene you already know but from an entirely different perspective is a great exercise -- both in thinking through what you want to include, and what slant you want to give it, and thinking through why the original author of a scene wrote it they way she or he did. Once you get going, you may find yourself inventing new scenes for the story -- scenes only hinted at but never shown, scenes that you wish had been there, scenes that must have been there in the skeleton background but were never brought forward.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why Do We Learn?

This list is from a brainstorming session at our house today. I thought it was worth sharing!

Why do we learn?

We learn in order to….

Try new skills
Appreciate the past
Look at the future
Gain wisdom
So we can teach others
Practice paying attention
Gain patience
Have our questions answered
Ask new questions
Have new questions answered
Ask more questions!
Try new skills
Help us later in life with jobs
Practice listening
Try hard things
So we won’t be bored
Exercise our brains
Exercise our hearts
Exercise our bodies
Enjoy new ideas
Enjoy beauty and order
Learn from failing
Learn from succeeding
Practice following directions
So we don’t keep making the same mistakes
Have something to do
Appreciate how people different from us do things