Sunday, May 31, 2015

Just as Geeky as my Grandmother

One of things I sometimes miss is being able to afford magazines. While I know there are many cool things that can be seen and read about online, I still love the feel and look of a magazine, especially one with good writing and gorgeous photographs.

When we recently got an offer to subscribe to Smithsonian magazine for less than a dollar an issue for a year, I confess I leaped at the chance. Our first issue came yesterday, and I gave myself some late Saturday evening/Sunday afternoon time to enjoy a few of the articles, including a great cover story about lions and a fascinating look at the current NASA mission due to fly-by Pluto next month.

It dawned on me somewhere along the way that I had a very clear picture in my mind of someone else devouring articles with a Smithsonian magazine in her hands: my grandmother, in the years she lived with us when I was growing up.

Apparently I am just as geeky as my grandmother. Which makes me absurdly happy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Sorting Papers: Quotes and Poem Scraps from the Daybook

I'm spending part of today sorting through a mountain of papers (a long overdue chore). Most of these have been stuffed into boxes over the past few years, but some of the papers go back much longer. In and among the boxes, I'm finding old student papers, scraps of poems I've written, love notes and drawings from the sweet girl from when she was little, photocopies of articles I saved for teaching or writing purposes, mission newsletters, old sermon notes, and collections of quotes and images. It's a plethora of stuff that looks like spillover from my overactive and far too busy writer-teacher brain.

Every once in a while, when I'm going through mountains like this, I pause to jot down a few of the things I'm finding. I thought I'd share a few quotes from what would be a daybook if I ever had time to make one!

"Don't feel like a failure if you're finding it difficult to pursue God's call or can't discern fruit." (~That's from some very scattered sermon notes from 2004! Eleven years ago...and I still need to hear it. Maybe more now than then.)

"Use what talent you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best." (~Henry Van Dyke, not sure what source)

"The little purple house
with a roof like a cap
perched on the hill
and took a little nap

It shuttered its eyes
and dozed in the sun
and when it woke up
it was almost one

It yawned a big yawn
and its door opened wide.
It invited some friends
to come inside

And into the house
with a roof like a cap
we went right inside
and we too took a nap"

(~EMP, original/undated poem scrap, next to a doodle of a little purple house with a roof like a cap)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Planning for 8th Grade Science (First Semester)

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a homeschooling post on the blog. We’re wrapping up 7th grade year in the next week or two, so I’m busy pulling together the portfolio of the year (made more fun this year by not having a working printer in the house)! But that means I am also in one of my favorite parts of homeschooling: planning coursework for the fall.

We rely rather loosely on a classical framework, which among other things has meant that we’ve done history and science in four year cycles. The history cycle is ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern, and the science cycle is life science, earth science, chemistry, and physics. In the grammar years, it was basically an introduction to those topics, while the logic (mid-grade) years have given us a chance to press deeper into the topics and focus a bit more within each. For instance, last year (roughly 6th grade) we spent part of the year on general earth science, covered geology in a more in-depth unit, and then did close to a semester of astronomy. 7th didn’t lend itself to quite so many nifty detours, as we basically stuck to mid-grade chemistry the whole way, but chemistry lends itself to more lab-work, which the sweet girl enjoys.

For 8th grade, I’ve been going back and forth for a while about what to do. Our introduction to physics, back in the grammar years (4th grade) did not go too well. It was due to a lot of things: a harder year overall as we moved toward the logic stage, a curriculum I bought with great enthusiasm, thinking it would work for us, only to find that it really didn’t, and the fact that I have very little aptitude for teaching physics. The bottom line may simply be that it’s also the branch of science that holds almost no interest for S. I’m sure it would have helped if I could have lit a metaphorical fire under her and sparked that interest early, but alas, it didn’t happen.

Knowing that we’re approaching what should be a physics year in the cycle again, I think we’ve both been feeling a bit worried about what we’ll do. Since part of the beauty of homeschooling is that we get to play to our strengths, part of me thought of just dropping it entirely and moving straight back into the life sciences. Then again, another beauty of homeschooling, at least from my perspective, is that we can encourage a student to try something again or to stick with things that may feel harder without too much grading pressure. The learning is the adventure. If it turns out not to be your favorite subject – eh, that’s okay. But at least you can say you gave it a try and got a taste of it.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to compromise. For eighth grade, we’re going to do one semester of physics, and one of botany. The botany will give us a jump on biology in high school, and will also give the sweet girl something to look forward to in spring semester after working hard in the fall at something that isn’t as much her cup of tea.

This has turned out to be incredibly freeing for me as a teacher too. I find that planning in semester implements can feel much less daunting than planning a whole year. It helps me to think outside the box in turns of resources, including the use of resources that might make a great unit or cover several weeks, but wouldn’t work for a whole course. And I’m very happy with what I’ve managed to put together so far, though I can’t actually build the course schedule until I get some things ordered, which probably won’t be till part-way through June.

Here’s what I’m planning to use:

Physics for Middle School by Rebecca Keller, PhD
Despite the fact that they’re a bit pricey for our budget, we love these resources from Gravitas. We’ve used both their astronomy and chemistry books for the mid-grade year. Basically the text provides ten lessons and the accompanying lab book provides labs that go with each of the ten lessons. One of the things I appreciate about them is that they are well-organized, covering important topics in the field at age-appropriate levels. Because they’re good at covering important/key concepts, I can use them as jumping off places to help the sweet girl find other reading and resources that build on the information in the text. They’re also nicely designed, with colorful images and good-sized text in a slick looking paperback that feels approachable to hold and read. Finally, the teacher’s guide actually offers some further information and some possible stepping-off points for discussion.

Developing Critical Thinking Through Science, Book 2
(Critical Thinking Company)
Since S. is a hands-on kind of learner, I wanted to make sure we have at least one more good lab resource on hand, and I’m hoping this will prove to be useful. The description I’ve read indicates that most of the labs can be done with household items and a few other things you might need to buy ahead. I think it’s technically listed as “grades 4-8” which means there are probably some easier/some harder lab options throughout, which will give S. a chance to ease into things.

Exploring the World of Physics by John Hudson Tiner
(Master Books)
I can’t tell you how happy I was to discover Tiner’s Exploring the World of Chemistry this year. We found it late, alas, but we’re still trying to get it all in because we’ve enjoyed it that much. He does a fine job of looking into the history of a scientific discipline, stopping along the way to explain concepts that were discovered or developed. The writing is an interesting combination of straightforward and yet complex when it comes to the actual science being described or explained. S. enjoys exploring the history of science and has liked the Chemistry book, so I’m planning to weave the Physics book in and around the lessons and labs from our other resources. I’ve also discovered that Memoria Press provides supplemental questions and even quizzes/tests based on Tiner’s series, so I plan to pick that up as well.

I’ve already got Botany plans in the work for second semester, but I’m still exploring resources, so I’ll share more about that later.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Caring for the Vulnerable Among Us

Watching someone you love struggle with dementia is never an easy thing. My mother-in-law's challenges in the past few years -- and prior to that, her challenges as a caregiver for her husband, as he struggled with Alzheimer's -- have made me do a lot of thinking and praying. They've also made me recall the years my grandmother lived with us when I was young. How do we care best for people we love who struggle with memory loss and confusion? How do we show our love and care for them from afar, when we can't be with them all the time? How do we support the people who are their main caregivers if we're not?

There's a very helpful and thoughtful article that deals with those kinds of questions posted at the her:meneutics blog on Christianity Today. One the things I appreciate is the honesty of Benjamin Mast, the author being interviewed, when he talks about the vulnerability of elderly people with dementia and memory loss, and how easy it is for the church to overlook them. They are part of what he terms as an almost invisible demographic.

I've been wrestling with this a lot since our last family visit to Virginia to see my mother-in-law. She has been part of a moderately large non-denominational Bible church for over forty years. Yes, the same church for over forty years. While I was touched at how warmly she was welcomed to her Sunday School class when we took her to the Easter Sunday service, it was apparent that no one had been in touch with her much at all in the intervening months since she'd last been able to make it there. She struggles a great deal with loneliness, and yet from all I can ascertain, it is very rare that she receives calls from anyone at this church, and much more rare for her to receive an actual visit.

I think there are probably lots of reasons for this. Chief among them may be the contemporary, post-modern mindset that assumes that individuals would rather muddle along privately than rely on others for help. I think there is an assumption that family will do the caring, and absent that, that social services and retirement communities (my mother-in-law lives in one) will plug any care deficit. While it's true that there is a chaplain at my mother-in-law's care facility (maybe more than one?) that person is responsible for a great number of people. It also seems odd and painful to me that the local church, which would seem to be the best representative of "family of faith" there is, would so quickly fade out of the picture, even when someone has been a faithful member of that church for decades.

It may call into question how our churches can lack inter-generationality (is that a word? Well, it is now...) By that, I mean generations spending intentional time together. I don't think this has to be all the time. There are certainly times and places where it is appropriate for people to gather with people of their own age and life experience to learn at levels that fit the seasons of their lives. Young children and teenagers aren't the only people who could benefit from that. I think fellowship groups or Sunday School classes for middle aged people could be very beneficial, partly to learn and pray together over the challenges of aging! But when churches are very age-segregated, that can lead to other challenges. I know for many years that my mother-in-law had felt most at home in her own Sunday School class for older people. More and more, she felt out of place at worship, which had grown more casual and contemporary than she felt comfortable with. The people she was most connected to were her age or older, and now when she is struggling, probably many of them are as well.

All of this has made me feel deeply grateful (again, and for yet another reason) to be a part of a historical, liturgical church tradition. Anglicanism, steeped as it is in the threefold ministerial offices of bishops, priests, and deacons, reserves a very important and biblical role for deacons as leaders in pastoral and practical care for the people of God. (I love deacons! And not just because I consider many of them good friends, and have been blessed to teach in the diaconate study program in my diocese for a number of years.)  My dear husband and I have reflected lately on how glad we are to belong to a church tradition that has a long, historically-enriched, biblical practice of pastoral care. It doesn't mean that each and every church we've ever been part of has always practiced it perfectly...that's not possible. But it means that there is a much greater chance of such care being available and humbly and lovingly offered and practiced than in traditions that are shaped more by contemporary values than by historical and biblical ones.

As the body of Christ, we are to rejoice when another member rejoices and suffer when another member suffers. We are also to carry one anothers' burdens and practice loving care amongst the household of saints. And that's true no matter how old and frail the saints may be. Our love for the most vulnerable and "invisible" among us is surely a mark of our love for God. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mansfield Park Revisited

Over five years ago, I posted a reflection on my re-reading (and love of) Austen's Northanger Abbey. At that time, I dubbed myself "fully 5/6 an authentic Janeite," because I hadn't yet fallen head over heels in love with Mansfield Park. At the time of writing that post, I full expected to be re-visiting Mansfield for another read within a few months. Alas, it took me over five years to get back to the book, but re-visit it I finally did.

I think it's been re-reading Pride & Prejudice with my husband and daughter (my umpteenth time to read it, but the first time I've ever read it aloud, and their first time to encounter it) that made me realize I was up for a fresh look at the only Austen novel I've never felt completely at home with. I was a tad bit worried that I might not be able to lose myself completely in its pages. This mirrored the worry I felt back in 2009 when I did my second re-reading of Northanger. As I said then:

I confess I felt nervous as I took the book off my shelf. It felt too smooth, the binding too uncreased, the pages too new to be one of my beloved Austen books. And what if...perish the reading experience remained the same as the first time and I still didn't "fall into it completely"?

Silly me. If Jane is an acquired taste, then I have so long ago acquired it that reading her now feels like second nature. I should have realized that I've spent so much time with Jane in the intervening years that I would recognize her voice as soon as I began reading. I should have known that one can never really have the same reading experience twice, because wherever one is today is not where one was ten years ago (or five, or one, or possibly even last month).

I could have essentially written those words again this time out! 

I was definitely "ready" for Mansfield Park in a way that I wasn't when I first read it many years ago, still new to Austen's music and her way of looking at the world. Gone was any sense of stiffness or unfamiliarity. This was simply Jane again, Jane whom I love to spend time with, and I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of the novel this time out.

That said, may I confess -- and still consider myself fully a Janeite -- that I'm still not sure I fully "get" Mansfield Park? I don't mean I don't understand the plot, but there's something about the characters and the underlying tone that still doesn't quite work for me on some level. My memory of Fanny Price, from my one long-ago read, was that she lacked the sparkle and vivacity of some of Austen's other characters, and while that's true, I didn't feel the loss of that so much this time, maybe because I've now come to know and love the complexities of some of Austen's other heroines (Anne Elliot doesn't precisely "sparkle" either, but I love her dearly -- and really, how many of us sparkle in real life?).

In fact, this time out I found myself impressed with just how authentic Fanny Price's character feels. Yes, she's insecure and naive and perhaps a trifle rigid and judgmental, but what else can we expect her to be, given her life situation? She also shows a marked amount of determination not to give into social pressures and romantic intensity, even when she's being wooed with seeming sincerity by Henry Crawford.

It's the men I don't fully understand this time out, both Henry Crawford and cousin Edmund. Mary Crawford I understand more -- she's a schemer and a social climber but underneath it all, not an awful human being. She's easily swayed and led into error by others and there's a part of her who would like to be a lot more noble and real than she is, but she just doesn't have much backbone. Fanny's got the backbone and a much deeper heart, which is one reason why I wondered about Edmund's inability to see that (can he really be as smart as he's supposed to be if he's that dense about women)? Even though he claims, in the end, to realize Fanny's worth, I've got an uneasy feeling that somehow there's a part of him that might feel like he's "settling."

Henry's truly the one I don't understand. I'm not sure how Austen wants us to feel about him. She gives us far more time with him than she gives with with Wickham or Willoughby, scoundrels in other novels. Like them, he is the immature schemer who trifles with women's emotions -- at least at first. But at some point in the novel, he actually appears to grow. He sees Fanny's real worth, falling for her in spite of the fact that he'd initially looked upon her as just a conquest to pass the time. It feels as though Austen wants us to take him on the level at this point. At least I can't help feeling that she does. He is trying to change, he wants to be a better man, he wants to be the kind of man who perseveres and actually deserves a woman like Fanny. In the end, he fails, but -- and here's the problem with the way my emotions felt engaged -- I felt sad that he failed. There was a part of me rooting for Henry to actually become what he claimed he wanted to become. The fact that we see his spectacular fall from grace off-scene (just through letters and hearsay) made it all seem sadder. Fanny was proved right not to trust him, and while I was glad she'd been wise enough to not succumb, there was a part of me that wondered if her inability to forgive his past wrongs didn't have something to do with the fact that he ended up failing. I'm not putting the responsibility for changing him on Fanny. Getting into a relationship with the intent of trying to change someone doesn't seem healthy. But what if she'd at least taken him at his word when he was telling her how much he loved her? What if she'd found it in her heart to speak the truth: "I don't love you that way because I love someone else. But I recognize that your feelings for me are respectful, tender, and good, and I hope that you will find someone else to love that way some day."

Meanwhile, I knew I was supposed to be rooting for Edmund (and I know if I get around to watching the film adaptation with Johnny Lee Miller in the role, I no doubt will!) and I did find him endearing on many levels, not least of which was the fact that he was the only person at Mansfield who was truly kind to Fanny from day one. But he felt so incredibly big brotherly in his role of older cousin that it was harder for me to root for the romance. Added to which, as I already mentioned, he drove me a bit batty with his inability to realize the depths of Fanny's feelings. He looked right past her and latched onto the pretty but shallow Mary Crawford, although he knew at almost every turn that the two of them weren't right for each other. Unlike Fanny, he falls into the trap of thinking that he can love someone so much they will change their essential nature. Austen seems to be telling us, in both love stories, that such change doesn't come easy.

And that makes me a little uneasy. Granted, I think on one level she's right. We are who we are, often for better or for worse, and it takes a lot to truly change us. Austen may be saying something deeper here (without actually saying it) about the limited powers of even the best romantic love. It can be a wonderful thing to love another person, but ultimately, it's the grace and love of God that can change us from the inside-out. What I'm stumbling over is the fact that often that love is mediated to us through other human beings. It's through being forgiven and embraced, even in our messy brokenness, that we often find ourselves most changed.

I've been coming to realize that's one of the things I love about Darcy's character in P&P. It feels stronger to me this time much his love for Elizabeth changes him. It's true that Darcy's failings are not the kind indulged in by Wickham or Crawford. He's not a flirtatious trifler with emotions. But he is unbending in his opinions and highly condescending. He has a hard time looking past appearances and confessing his own weaknesses and shortcomings. His love for Lizzy changes him in good ways, partly because he has to learn to bend, to become more fully human. Interestingly, it's really his love for her (before she ever understands how to return it; she's changing too!) that begins the changing work in Darcy. Because both characters change and grow, there is something about their union that is highly satisfying. Edmund and Fanny, likable as they are, don't seem to change much. Their temperaments are also more alike than not (they both have trouble with the whole notion of play acting and its potential impropriety, when no one else in their circle can see that at all). You could say that Edmund grows wiser, I guess, but somehow there just doesn't feel like there's as much movement in their characters. They don't move toward each other so much as they both stand still and finally manage to see past what they need to in order to come together in the end.

All this is merely my "second impression" (to slightly mangle an Austen reference) of a novel I'm sure I will turn to again. Perhaps on a third reading, I will come to an even better understanding of the characters and its overall tone. There's a lot here to enjoy and love, including the wonderfully sketched background characters like Fanny's Uncle Bertram and her conniving Aunt Norris. And as always, some truly artful scenes.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Austen Spring

Last year we had a Tolkien summer, and this year it's an Austen spring. We're reading Pride and Prejudice in the evenings as a family. It's the sweet girl's first encounter with Austen, her dad's first encounter with an entire Austen novel (he's seen numerous movie adaptations with me, and I've read him excerpts). It's also my first time to read an Austen novel aloud. So we're all enjoying something new and fresh in the experience!

Having pretty much internalized P&P after multiple re-readings, it's interesting to read it aloud and discover how challenging it actually is to read aloud. Austen's long sentences, which meander a lot in the middle before reaching their main point, are harder on the tongue than I expected. They flow more easily when I read silently, but I'm enjoying the challenge...and remembering how Alison Steadman, the actress who played Mrs. Bennett in the 1995 A&E version, said she thought Austen's lines were harder to deliver than Shakespeare's.

And speaking of Steadman, hers is the acting voice that influences me most when I read. It's almost impossible for me not to read Mrs. Bennett's without her cadence, which isn't a bad thing perhaps!

The sweet girl has found it interesting, but has been surprised at the sheer number of words she needs help in defining. I confess I had almost forgotten, due to long familiarity, just how gorgeously dense Austen's vocabulary is. And sometimes I am stymied when faced with defining a word (especially a few of the more archaic ones) because I realize I have spent years understanding it from context but not really knowing its precise meaning. With some of the denser passages, she has also required a little help of that "could you explain what just happened there please" variety, but we don't mind stopping and providing a little extra help. I feel like a tour guide! And that's fun too.

There's also the delight of realizing anew how many words Austen loves with such relish that uses them frequently. ""Felicity" and "amiable" (or "amiability") being two of her very favorites, though S. keeps noticing how often prejudice and pride crop up too.

I've not tried much in the way of voices -- too busy just trying to read it in a lively and engaging way to promote clarity -- but it strikes me how much fun it would be to play Lady Catherine in a stage version. Such commandeering condescension! Lizzie is also a wonderful role -- a tad bit snarkier than you realize when you read her quietly on the page. Some of her lines just drip caustic wit. Despite the fact that Austen gave Lizzie's sister Jane her own name, you can't help but feel that she must have seen something of herself in her main heroine. Though the older I get, the more I think I empathize with Jane Bennett and her attempts to see the best in others. I think I am somewhere between Jane's naivete and Lizzie's cynicism. And I think part of Austen's underlying message is that both can get you into trouble. Lizzie thinks of herself as a realist, but there are bits of underlying bitterness in her dealings with the world and the unfairness of her own situation that color some of her prejudices and help make the plot go.