Sunday, November 27, 2011

"I Need to Be Inspired"

Every Wednesday afternoon, I get to enjoy "the delightful commerce of equal minds" with first through third graders in our church afterschool program. In a blogpost for ChildLightUSA last summer, I described how children outside a Mason paradigm can learn to embrace the science of relations. In that post, I voiced a hope that we could transition to reading from the Bible, line by line, so that they could directly connect to God through His word. In September, we started the first verse of Mark's Gospel and, next week, we will finish the fifth chapter of Mark. Every Wednesday, I leave inspired by watching children read passages straight from the New Testament and ask questions like "Why did Jesus send the spirits into the pigs?" "How could Jesus sleep through a storm?" "Why do the lawyers want to kill Jesus? He's healing people!" "Why did Jesus tell the leper he couldn't talk about how he was healed?"

I love their questions and often give them time to try to answer them on their own. Sometimes, I have no answer and we continue to ponder from week to week. Their insight stuns me.

To give them a sense of place in which Jesus ministered, I drew a map and add new places to it when we read about them. One day, the children asked how the Dead Sea got its name. The next week I showed them pictures of people floating in it, and we applied trial and error to figure out how many tablespoons of salt would make a boiled egg float in water. When we read about the fishermen, I found pictures of the first century A.D. fishing boat revealed during a drought near the Sea of Galilee in 1986. When we read about the healing of the paralyzed man in Peter's house, I showed them pictures of the archealogical digs in Capernaum.

We read from a verse-by-verse translation designed for children with its clear language and storyboarded illustrations. I encourage curiosity by weaving it into our class activity. The picture of the parable of the new wine in new wineskins grossed them out. "Why are those people stepping on grapes?" I researched winemaking and answered their questions the following week. We explored a cousin of the winemaking yeast (Baker's yeast), so they could see the temperature and food needs of yeast. The children marveled at the bubbles released once we properly activated the yeast, and one little girl commented, "That smell reminds me of dance class!" One little boy narrated to his mother what one should and should not do with yeast when she came to pick him up. The following week, we made bread and some children kneaded for the first time in their lives. One little girl told me, "I asked my mother if I can have some pet yeast." Before they left that day, I showed them how much it had risen. I froze the dough and the week after that they made rolls.

Since I avoid worksheets and contrived activities explicitly connected to the lesson, I try to help them learn about God through His world. One week I brought my bird for the children to study and draw. Another week I brought a dead sad underwing moth and a dead swallowtail. Sometimes, the children draw what I have planned, but at other times they draw what inspires them. One boy brought in a book about Mozart (one of those twaddly series books) and I happened to have my classical CDs with me. I played the overture to the Magic Flute as well as other music by "Wolfie." He ended up drawing his own magic flute that day. I always have some yarn on hand to teach anyone interested finger-knitting. One of the teenagers who volunteers to help the children with their homework asked to learn. The following Sunday, my son came home from church wearing a hot pink scarf made by finger-knitting three scarves and braiding them together.

One child in particular excels in the "friction of wills." Rather than forcing total compliance, we offer several options: do the activity or something with the materials on hand, help a classmate, or quietly watch. We have learned that this child will seem reluctant at first and, when allowed to make the choice to join us, will participate with great gusto. One day, our church secretary loaned me some mounted insects she had purchased from Ben the Butterfly Guy. Ben, who lives in Peru, pays friends and families to gather dead butterflies for him to sell. By making butterflies an economic resource, people have the incentive to care for the eco-system that sustains them. I knew my class would love observing and drawing these ginormous insects!

As usual, our strong-willed student was adamant about wanting to do homework to maximize playtime. We stuck to the game plan we always use: do, help, or watch. One by one, I pulled out an insect and walked around the room for each student to get a close look. Then, I set them in different spots around the table so they could get out materials (watercolor or markers) and draw or paint whateve caught their eye. At the sight of the pink-winged grasshopper, the eyes of our headstrong kiddo nearly popped. We heard "I have to draw that grasshopper" and twenty minutes of steady concentration yielded a colorful and accurate drawing. The child was quite pleased with the results and could not wait to show the family.

Later, we gently chided the child. "Look at you! You wanted to do homework and look how much you enjoyed drawing your grasshopper." The child smiled and talked about all the details that generated the most interest and thoughtfully concluded, "I need to be inspired."

What a revelation and insight into the mind!

Had we turned the "friction of wills" into a "battle of wills" our friend might have never made such important self-discovery. We would have missed the chance to learn how best to appeal to our friend's mind with inspiration rather than harassment. What an important lesson on personhood for us all!
We as teachers depreciate ourselves and our office; we do not realise that in the nature of things the teacher has a prophetic power of appeal and inspiration, that his part is not the weariful task of spoon-feeding with pap-meat, but the delightful commerce of equal minds where his is the part of guide, philosopher and friend. The friction of wills which makes school work harassing ceases to a surprising degree when we deal with the children, mind to mind, through the medium of knowledge. (Pages 237-238)

Pictures of the Critters:
Giant Brown Grasshopper (Tropidacris dux)

Pink-winged Butterfly (Lophacris cristata)

Owl Eyes Butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Pamela's Nature Notebook Entries:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Avoiding a Culture of Overload

"More is better" thinking is everywhere. When making calls to set up wireless Internet at Steve's apartment, I stunned sales peeps by declining bundles. How could anyone turn down all those channels at such low prices? They laughed when I suggested calling me back when they offer the few channels that I really want for a lot less.

It is so hard to avoid "More is better" thinking. We stuff ourselves on Thanksgiving and follow it up shopping until we drop on Black Friday. Our textbooks are getting heavier and curriculum, more extensive because every topic a student could possible learn must be covered during the K-12 years. We even feel guilty if we do not hit every single ride, attraction, or exhibit when on vacation or touring a museum.

That is why the "more is less" thinking behind a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education is so liberating.

Yesterday was Black Friday. Except for books, I am neither browser or shopper. When I buy clothes, I go in like a SEAL team. I know my mission, and I get in and out of the store as fast as humanly possible. Black Friday doesn't tempt me in the least. So, how did Pamela, Steve, and I spend the day? We spent our Black Friday bucks on lunch at an authentic Thai food restaurant, two McCoffees, parking and a donation at an art museum, four postcards, notecards, a can of whole cranberry sauce, and a can of fruit cocktail. We even applied "more is less" thinking at the museum, skipping outdoor sculptures and the exhibits upstairs.

So, how does one avoid overload at a museum in which it just wouldn't feel right if one didn't hit each and every room? We focused on the science of relations, or the relationships that we already have with items in the gallery. I scouted the website for artists we have already studied through picture study. Our top priority was to see the works of people we know well (Monet and Millet). We strolled from room to room until we found three paintings by the former and one by the latter: Boulevard des Capucines, View of Argenteuil—Snow, Mill at Limetz, and Waiting. Pamela's favorite was Monet's Boulevard des Capucines, but mine was Millet's Waiting. I loved the story behind Waiting, illustrated by Tobit's blind father with his walking stick and his mother Anna, eagerly waiting for their son. I admired the details of rural life: a beautiful sky, the perching crows, the sheep poking their heads out of the pen, etc. I kept looking at the ginger cat, wondering what was causing it to hiss and arch its back. Will we ever learn the source of the cat's discomfort?

As Pamela has not been formally introduced to van Gogh, our artist for the next term, I opted for a picture study in reverse. I described to her the picture of interest (Olive Orchard) and let her find it from all the ones in the room. I managed to record this digitally and I love how carefully Pamela listens and looks for the painting I'm narrating. After she spotted it, we sat on a bench and enjoyed the view.

This picture of Pamela cracks me up for it reminds me of Rodin's The Thinker. And, whose exhibition do you think is visiting Kansas City? Rodin! One Facebook friend asked if Pamela's mirror neurons kicked in, but I couldn't recall seeing The Thinker. But, indeed, it was there and somehow we missed it!

"True painting is only an image of the perfection of God, a shadow of the pencil with which he paints, a melody, a striving after harmony." Michelangelo

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This morning started out like any other Sunday morning. Pamela and I headed to Sunday school class with a devotional about the hymn Count Your Blessings printed out. Our class has spent the summer studying hymns, their history, their meaning, and their impact on the lives of people. The author of this hymn was a retail and insurance salesman and, if he had time to compose 5,000 gospel songs, he probably had many down cycles in his work life. In the class discussion, I brought up how people can be going through similar circumstances with very different outlooks on life. I gave the example of autism and how some families become bitter and angry while others find blessings in disguise. What helps me do the latter is to keep my focus on God, not circumstances.

Right now, Steve is working in Kansas, so we do not get to spend as much time with him as we would like. His absence has unfolded a disguised blessing for us. While I am in the choir room practicing and sitting with the choir until the sermon begins, Pamela sits in the pew alone. If Steve were there, his careful vigilance would prevent her from doing something distracting and the people around her would miss the joy she brings to the service. Here are the blessings I am counting today:
  • Before the service began, one of the elders gave Pamela a happy meal toy. He knows she is on a special diet, so he collects toys to give to her from time to time. She smiled and told him, "That's a good one!"
  • She sat in the same pew as our associate pastor's family. Today, his wife was caring for their four-year-old granddaughter. Pamela sat next to the girl, sweetly held her hand, and kissed it. When asked about the little girl at lunch, Pamela told me, "We're friends."
  • She exuberantly and loudly recited "The Lord's Prayer." There was a time when reciting in unison with a large group was impossible because Pamela found it difficult to time her actions with others. Today, she was just a hair's breadth behind everyone else, which meant I heard her from the choir. After everyone said, "Amen," she bellowed, "AMEN!" So many people came to me after the service to share how inspiring they find her recitation. "If only we all could recite like we really mean it."
  • With Steve gone, Pamela has taken the responsibility of turning in our offering envelop. Pamela was so excited she stood up as soon as the deacons headed down the aisle, got tired of waiting, sat down, and then stood up again. "If only we all could give with such joy."
What strikes me most is not only the small miracles I see in Pamela, but it how people respond to her. I have read stories that break my heart about how poorly God's people treat families with special needs. Our kids can be awkward. Their behaviors disrupt the well-oiled machine of church ritual. They remind us that God doesn't always heal the way we want.

My church family really does get Ephesians 3:17-18, which our pastor quoted in his sermon today. They delight in sharing sweet moments with Pamela and telling me about them later. They see the blessings in what Pamela does, not the distractions. The "wide and long and his and deep" love of Christ pours out of their hearts when they see her doing something atypical.

I will not deny that sometimes life with autism is difficult beyond belief. On days like that, blessings are next to impossible to see. Just as life inspires the great truths in hymns of yesteryear, the ups and downs of life inspire hymns being written today. If you are having one of those days, I encourage you to warm yourself with your favorite hot beverage and read the story behind the song, Blessings. Singer-songwriter Laura Story may not know autism but she knows how to see blessings in the most difficult of circumstances.
Ephesians 3:17-18 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Images of Delight

Charlotte Mason visualized the art training of young children along two lines: the ability to express himself and the ability to appreciate. "His appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees or imagines" (page 307).  Through picture study, Pamela learns to appreciate the work of master artists by observing their masterpieces carefully and describing each work in her own words. We focus on one artist at a time, studying their pictures and reading of their lives when we can find a living book. Pamela is already making connections of her own about art, that the style of Millet and Monet look similar and that painting really became alive with da Vinci as the Middle Ages waned.

Pamela is also learning to express herself through art, and watercolor classes with a wonderful teacher are helping Pamela develop a lovely sense of style and color. On Sunday, the local artisans held an open house and reception to meet all of the artists and their students. They were kind enough to display the artwork of students to encourage people interested, but perhaps hesitant about taking classes. As she isn't quite the conversationalist, we popped in for about 45 minutes. We checked out all the artwork, took pictures of her with her own display, and greeted some of the artists. Then, she sat in her favorite spot (the yellow couch) where she takes little breaks during class.

I overheard one artist describe the most important aspect of drawing: the ability to see, truly see an object, which is exactly what we try to do in a Mason philosophy of education:
This is what we wish to do for children in teaching them to draw––to cause the eye to rest, not unconsciously, but consciously, on some object of beauty which will leave in their minds an image of delight for all their lives to come. Children of six and seven draw budding twigs of oak and ash, beech and larch, with such tender fidelity to colour, tone, and gesture, that the crude little drawings are in themselves things of beauty. (Page 313)
Our friends are very kind and encouraging about the scans of Pamela's watercolors that I post on Facebook. The other artists were sweet to Pamela too, even though she didn't quite know how to work a crowd. After we made an early exit as planned, a potter from Edisto toured the gallery. She loved Pamela's framed turtle enough to ask about buying. Wow! A real person who is not a friend thought that highly of her painting.

These classes have been indispensable. Pamela and I have learned so much about watercolor, drawing, and technical elements of art. She started in the spring of 2010 and took a year hiatus when her teacher gave birth to her third child. She jumped right back into classes as soon as they started up again. Here are two monochromatic landscapes; she painted the before in 2010 and the after in 2011. These two watercolors show clearly how much more refined Pamela has become in her painting and her style.

Before (Spring 2010)

After (Fall 2011)

Pamela at Her Display

The Watercolors of Classmates

Watercolor Pieces in Chronological Order

Studies - Sometimes, before starting a project, Pamela's teacher will have the class do a study that improves their ability to see and express what they see. At the beginning of the year, they tried out different kinds of brush strokes. The color value strips prepared Pamela to do the shading and shadows of the pink cake. The warm/cool colors were for the apple: the warm colors for the fruit and the cool colors for shading and shadows. The fronds taught us all lessons on what not to do for the palmetto tree. The bold green with salt sprinkles helped her see the effects of salt for the monochromatic landscape. The color star showed complementary colors for her pumpkin.

This is the background of the palmetto tree. The cloud studies she did in the first term of the school year have paid off. Pamela painted this background confidently and quickly.

Friday, November 04, 2011


Pamela never, I mean NEVER, ceases to amaze me. She read this passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s retelling of King Midas and the golden touch in The Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls.
He took up a book from the table. At his first touch, it assumed the appearance of such a splendidly bound and gilt-edged volume as one often meets with, nowadays; but, on running his fingers through the leaves, behold! it was a bundle of thin golden plates, in which all the wisdom of the book had grown illegible.
When she narrated it, Pamela corrected his anachronistic description of the greedy monarch turning a book into gold by substituting the word scroll for book. She knew very well that these stories date back to ancient Greece, which are in B.C. times as she calls them, and that people read from scrolls, not books!

For the past two weeks, she has asked me to pick books randomly, out of chronological order. She turned it into a game by covering her eyes with her hand and asking me to make a sound to give her a clue. When I made the sound, she giggled and screamed with delight. All that changed yesterday for Pamela went back to asking for books in chronological order with a slight refinement of her old system. She inserted a hymn about Jesus between the readings on Caesar andAlfred the Great, followed by a reading set in the 11th century and music by a Baroque composer.

Then, Pamela really amazed me. Yesterday, she made four fascinating time charts in her free time. Starting at 10,000 B.C., she broke up time into thousand year chunks. You can tell what two persons and what great book have impressed Pamela. Once she hit A.D. times, Pamela shifted to century blocks. She shifted to decades once she hit the twentieth century. You can see Pamela's keen eye for the development of her favorite kind of technology. I chuckled when I saw the final block: 2010 - ???? AD.

Did I mention she did this in her free time? The best feedback on how homeschooling is going happens when you aren't homeschooling!

Some find it hard to believe that children can learn to put people and events in proper order when we have several threads of history going at once. In her book addressing children between the ages of six and nine, Mason recommended using a timeline, which we did when our children were younger, or a table of centuries. While we have never done a table of centuries, what Pamela did today looks a great deal like what is illustrated in an article on teaching chronology. I love that Pamela's own brainchild dovetails so nicely with our philosophy of education!

But, even better than that, Pamela continues to make progress in her social thinking:

On Halloween, we delivered meals on wheels in the pouring rain. It was wet and miserable, and Pamela was recovering from a mild cold. A few hours before sunset, Pamela told me to go to Walmart to get candy. Then, she promised she was taking her babies trick-or-treating in 2012.

On Tuesday, our study group was meeting. One of the moms was out in the hall, holding her baby. Pamela smiled and watched them. Then, she walked over to them and held the baby's hand. My friend knew I had brought one of Pamela's babies to show everyone the scarf she had fingerknitted, so the mom asked, "Where's your baby?" Pamela ran off, went to my box of stuff, grabbed her baby, ran back to my friend, and showed off her baby.

And, if that wasn't enough, on Wednesday, I was teaching at our church's afterschool program. Pamela looked in the window of the door to the classroom and all the kids said, "There's Pamela!" She walked into the room, waved her hands, and said, "Hi, kids!" She stuck around long enough for several to tell her their names before she bolted. Fifteen minutes later, one of the boys struck up a conversation with her while he was on his way to the restroom. Someone else was escorting him, so I have no idea what was said. However, there were several exchanges back and forth.

Of course, face blindness (not being able to recognize people by faces, especially if they are in the "wrong" place) did rear its ugly head too. After watercolor class on Thursday, we bumped into one of the ladies from the class in the checkout line at Walmart. We started chatting and, when Pamela came up to us, I asked Pamela, "Do you remember Mrs. X? We just saw her." Pamela looked puzzled and asked, "Is it church? Meals on wheels?"

Oh, well, you can't win all the time!

P.S. About an hour ago (in her free time),  Pamela said, "11th century is Middle Ages. What about 1500?" So, I explained to her that when it was changing to the Reformation and Renaissance. She added, "Yes, and painting!"