Father Brown Reader

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Not too long ago we finished The Father Brown Reader as part of our bedtime reading. Nancy Carpentier Brown basically takes a selection of the Father Brown mysteries of G.K. Chesterton (available in the public domain) and lightly redacts them, simplifying the language to make them accessible to kids.

Here’s an interview with Nancy Brown on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast, which has lots of good additional recommendations around GKC:
https://readaloudrevival.com/63/

We really enjoyed the The Father Brown Reader, and I’ve just ordered the follow-up — The Father Brown Reader II. They’re not heavily religious in nature — though they gently hint at Chesterton’s preoccupations with wonder and grace — and they’re not particularly difficult as mysteries either. Perfect, really, for bedtime reading … and a very easy introduction to G.K. Chesterton for the uninitiated.

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Mein Pants

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This week is Banned Books Week, bringing public awareness to demands for censorship, especially within public libraries.

Common Sense media has a couple of good articles on the importance of broaching this topic with your kids and the kinds of books that often get asked to be taken off shelves:

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/blog/why-your-kid-should-read-banned-books

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/frequently-challenged-books-for-kids-and-teens

We celebrated in our co-op by sharing Shel Silverstein poems and talking about why some people might have been offended by them — and why it would be a loss to be missing such voices and viewpoints.

The day before I watched the Captain Underpants movie with E1 and E2. Because my children have a sense of humor, they thought the movie was hilarious. To their chagrin, though, I had them talk to me about why Captain Underpants is one of the books that libraries receive the most complaints about.

They could see that humorless prigs could have a problem with potty humor and an adult authority figure prancing about in his underwear. With some prodding, they grudgingly admitted that the two prankster protagonists, George and Harold, basically teased and bullied the supervillain, Professor P, before he did anything wrong.

And then there’s the whole issue of hypnotizing their principal, Mr. Krupp, to be Captain Underpants, which is essentially forcing a person to act against his own interest without his consent. E1 could see how the same sort of action in a very different story would clearly be an act of evil.

This didn’t lead him to the conclusion, though, that Captain Underpants was deserving of being banned. Art uses distortions of the truth to make you notice aspects of the truth that were hard to see. Professor Poopypants’ (and Krupps’) absolute lockdown on transgression and humor is not an act of justice but a will to power. Their censorship does not make the world safe and orderly, just limited to the scope of their own imagination. Harold and George are agents of chaos — but that is because they are kids, and they are human — and they thrive and grow under grace, not repression. We ignore their joie de vivre at our peril. But we also ignore their ugliness at our peril.

So my next move is to veer into Cosby. I’m pretty sure they don’t know about him as a troubled sexual predator, so I hope to introduce his comedy in a state of innocence. They deserve to hear the joy and mastery of his storytelling before I stain it with the context of his personal shortcomings. You can watch his 1983 standup film Himself on Youtube. I’ll then play his bit about Spanish Fly (also on Youtube).

Then I’ll drop the bomb about the multiple allegations of him forcing himself on women over the years — very carefully, of course. I’d be interested to see if E1 still thinks the artistic ends justify the means. I myself would have considered myself a free speech absolutist a few years ago. A number of things that have come up in the past year, though, has complicated my feelings on the subject… and it’s too important a topic not to talk through and think about time and again.

Make way for the factotum of the city

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One of the true pleasures of homeschooling has been to learn and explore for myself. Call it supply-side education; I believe that being a curious and passionate learner myself will trickle-down to my kids. So I’m happily going to all the museums and events and shows that I want to see and never normally get to.

Two notable recent examples: going to see The Barber of Seville and Kiss Me Kate.

I’ve always admired but never really got into opera. Classical music itself always required a certain sustained concentration for me to appreciate, and I’ve never really known enough about opera as a genre to know what I should be appreciating. I’m not one of those people that have an immediate visceral response to those vocal virtuosities.

When the OperaNoVA company put on The Barber of Seville for local schools and homeschooling groups, however, that gave me a chance to drag my kids into learning more.

I knew the Teaching Company had a course on appreciating opera (by Robert Greenberg), so I checked out portions of that from the library, along with some relevant books from the juvenile section. (The Random House Book of Opera Stories by Adele Geras and The Young Person’s Guide to the Opera).

I left the books in the car for my son to peruse, and I played the Greenberg lectures as we drove around. Learning by osmosis.

Just before the show, we watched two synopses of the plot on YouTube:

The show itself went out of its way to be kid-friendly. It started with an introduction of some of the instruments in the orchestra and their unique tonal qualities:

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And the performances emphasized physical humor and exaggerated gestures to make clear some of the developments in plot and relationships. The opera was also abridged and included some slightly bizarre surprises (like a child in a parrot costume), which nevertheless helped manage the attention of its young crowd.

Of course, it kept all the highlights of the opera, and I was impressed at the quality of all of the performers, particularly Figaro himself. It was a great introduction to the opera–for my kids and myself.

Unfortunately, I’m writing this a little too late; the run for The Barber of Seville is long over, but OperaNoVA’s web site states that they’re going to do Cosi Fan Tutte in February and an intriguing opera by Scott Joplin, Treemonisha, in March.

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I did less prep work for Kiss Me Kate, mostly because I already knew it so well. Call me bourgeois, but I’m a sucker for all things Shakespeare, and I used to teach Taming of the Shrew for several years. I could give them a rundown of the play–and the musical–off the top of my head.

Even before we saw the play, I signed us up to attend a Page & Stage discussion at the Shakespeare Theatre. It’s a sit-down panel discussion between the director of the show and a local scholar. Alan Paul, the director, gave a lot of great contextual information about the musical in particular and how he saw the influence of all of the original creatives in shaping the themes and subtext of the work. It was all a bit over the heads of my 7- and 2-year olds, but they managed, for the most part, to be a good sport about it.

Kiss Me, Kate

We got a ticket to a noon showing of the musical on a Wednesday. It’s a long show — two hours with an intermission in between — and it tested the antsiness of my kids, but they made it through and they enjoyed it.

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And I enjoyed it! It’s a really smart, snappy production — one of the best I’ve ever seen. The leads, in particular, are perfect, and the direction is really wonderful. I’m not sure I’d be able to see much improvement if I saw it on Broadway. I highly recommend it (even if you’re not homeschooling).

Watership Down, Phantom Tollbooth To Go

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I’ve written before about how I use bedtime reading to seed Biggie’s reading with more challenging material. Nowadays we don’t do it as consistently; some nights we make exceptions because we’re watching (as a family) a show on PBS or, as we did last night, Penn & Teller’s Fool Us (Biggie’s really into magic right now).

We just finished Watership Down by Richard Adams, one of my personal favorites and, I’m happy to report, now one of Biggie’s. Often called “Lord of the Rings with rabbits,” it is a good stepping-stone into Tolkien but immensely charming on its own merits. It brings wonderful attention and heightens awareness about the natural world since most of the book is told from the rabbits’ point-of-view. Richard Adams conceived of it as tales he improvised for his daughters on long car journeys, and there’s a real masterful yarn-spinning aspect to it—it’s full of imagined folklore and strange societies and dangerous heists and other derring-do. The language can be advanced but Biggie had no trouble going along with it, and its rhythms are perfect for evening readings. Truth be told, I sometimes rued that my son would sneak off to read chapters on his own, depriving me a little of the delight of reliving the story once again.

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Next on the slate is The Phantom Tollbooth, which came to mind because I’ve recently been considering dragging Biggie into a youth bookclub at a local library. There’s one in Sherwood that read Tollbooth last month. A little easier than Watership Down but breaking some new territory in the kind of books Biggie reads. And it’s another book with a map in it.

Milo navigates The Kingdom of Wisdom

Using Core Standards as a Homeschooler

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As a teacher and citizen, I’m ambivalent about the Common Core and national standards in general. There’s often a lot of good work and thought that goes into these initiatives, and it can be very useful to have guidelines for both curriculum content and pedagogy. Many teachers can look at these core standards and confirm that it is indeed what is already happening in their classrooms—or reflect on why their approach diverges. On the other hand, as a matter of policy, the Common Core is impossible to extricate from its political and historical context, which makes it problematic as a piece of reform.

I found it difficult to find an articulate, succinct, balanced, and relatively impartial rebuttal to the Common Core in a single video, so here instead are two videos that touch on some of the major concerns:

If you want to wade into the world of the Common Core, you can do worse than start at Edutopia’s resource page on it, which has lots of links to pro’s, con’s, evaluations, lesson plans, and so on.

Once I started homeschooling, however, I realized that I could circumvent a lot of these issues, and think about these standards documents as useful pieces of research and curriculum development. Especially since I have un-schooling tendencies, the Common Core and its ilk gives me an extremely useful telescopic view outside of my insular little home-lab. I don’t doubt my children are usually learning something, but if the learning is somewhat whimsical, I begin to worry if it is as broad and deep as it needs to be. For me, it’s not a matter of whether my kid is keeping up, but rather if there are gaps in his knowledge that I’m overlooking.

The national standards programs have gone through the trouble of sitting down a swath of teachers and experts, taking a 50,000-foot look at disciplines from K through 12, ascertaining what is currently reasonable for kids in different communities in our country, and mapping out a coherent scope and sequence. And putting it online for free. We can take advantage of that.

This is what I did for Biggie, my 7-year-old. I took a look at several different sites:

I also have a good deal of familiarity with the standards developed by the National Council for the Social Studies, but they are broader and less useful for my purposes. I could have also checked out Virginia’s state standards, which I’ll probably do next year, but I wanted to keep the process somewhat more manageable for me right now.

For each set of standards, I used the web site to drill down to what was outlined for second grade. This I skimmed and summarized or cut-and-paste into a document:

Knowing my child, these are my takeaways:

  • Biggie is a pretty advanced reader, and he’s going to be doing a lot of reading, so I’m not too concerned about literacy skills like word recognition, fluency, or vocabulary
  • I’ll try to target specific issues of language mechanics as they seem relevant in his writing
  • In terms of critical reading, we want to be purposeful about identifying major ideas and topics (who, what, when, where, how, and why), connections between major points, and rudimentary notions of narrative structure (beginning, middle, and end)
  • Make sure he gets exposure to fables and folklore, especially different versions from around the world
  • He should be getting practice writing opinion pieces, short narratives, and explanations
  • I’ve also got to provide him opportunities to have discussions with other kids
  • As for math, I’m pretty comfortable with where he is, but make sure he gets continued reinforcement on topics of arithmetic, place-value, measurement, and shapes
  • I want to steer him to topics and experiments in changes in matter, changes in Earth, plants, and habitats
  • Give him projects in inventing to emphasize problem-solving, design-thinking, and hypothesis-testing
  • In the arts, I should give him lots of exposure to different forms, styles, and techniques of both visual and performing arts

Now I have a one-sheet reference that I can refer to when planning field trips, borrowing library books, setting routines, and picking classes. This approach is loose enough that there’s a lot of freedom to meander and follow rabbit trails. If Biggie gets a sudden interest in astronomy, I have no problem putting all the other science stuff on hold. More often than not, though, we have trouble figuring out what to do next, and having a simple reference like this gives us some direction and orients the year.

Go see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Shakespeare Free for All in DC

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Tuesday morning, I found out, to my joy, that Biggie and I scored lottery tickets to Shakespeare Free for All, an annual tradition of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. This year is actually the 25th anniversary of Free for All, and the play is a revival of 2012’s season production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as directed by Ethan McSweeny. The last time I saw a Free for All was 20 years ago with Kelly McGillis as Viola in Twelfth Night at Rock Creek Park. Nowadays it’s at the Company’s regular stage at Sidney Harman Hall.

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It was Biggie’s first real introduction to Shakespeare, and Midsummer Night’s Dream is perfect for that — it’s funny, lively, and fantastical. It’s also confusing, so the first thing I did after I got the email was sit Biggie down with this Youtube video:

I drew out a diagram of the different characters and paused frequently to make sure he understood how the different relationships and attractions shifted. Then I had him watch this charming video to review:

He was into it! I had to make last-minute arrangements and reorganize the day to give us a father-son evening to nab the tickets and catch the show. There’s two basic ways to get tickets: apply for a lottery drawing the day before a show or to wait in line for available tickets on the evening of a show. We got the lottery tickets but didn’t really know what to expect, so we showed up early to collect our tickets at 5:30. There was already a settled line waiting for that-day tickets, but I checked back later and at around 6:30 the line had disappeared, and there were still tickets available. Be warned, though: there was a palpable anxiety in the air up until the doors opened regarding getting tickets and seats, which underscores the fact that these tickets are often very much in demand.

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The theater is a good one, though, with terrific visibility of the stage from almost any seat.

Biggie and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. The beginning seemed a little iffy to me; I generally don’t like the trend of incoherent, inconsistent postmodern updates of Shakespearean plays, and I was a little afraid from the first scene that this production might be a bit of a hot mess.

The rhythm gradually and assuredly accelerates, though, and by the time everyone is catfighting in the woods, there’s a number of really inspired touches. (Won’t spoil it for you — let’s just say Puck gets to play a real instigator). The performance was very athletic but also loose and fun. And the Mechanicals Play is just one of the best and funniest I’ve seen, ever.

The production’s a little risqué; the fairies in particular look like a Vanity Fair photoshoot of Cabaret-cum-Louis XIV, but I think it’s in keeping with Shakespeare’s innate ribaldry. Hey, if you can’t handle a little sex and violence, the Bard is not for you. And the worst references tend to go over Biggie’s head.

Also, read Drew Lichtenberg’s short essay in the program; it’s got several good insights that made me appreciate this production even more.

Bonus: Ryan Sellers, who teaches dance at Burgundy Farm, was in the cast as a member of the ensemble!

All in all, really worth it; see if you can’t catch it before it’s gone. Performances continue until September 13