Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why Read Challenging Books? (Day One of Exam Week)

Pamela loves exams, or what she calls her term finale. She is still working on her ability to narrate orally and continuing to improve her communicate—imagine! She is in her early twenties and is making progress in her language! We keep questions pretty simple: tell me everything you know about . . . This first clip features snatches from some of the folk songs, hymns, and classical compositions from the term.

This year, Pamela read a couple of biographical picture books: one, a tall tale about John Henry, and two about Sojourner Truth and Sitting Bull. Because we have been doing exams at the end of every term, Pamela knows what is expected of her. Thus, she realizes that her daily narrations are not fodder for short-term memory because she will have to recall what she learned in the future.

Again, I see progress. Pamela's language is clear enough, and her train of thought is more connected. I think that even folks who do not know her can understand what she is saying. She can tell about a person's life from beginning to end (the Sitting Bull book focuses only on his childhood). She continues to supplement her words with gestures and emotion, strong emotion for Sojourner Truth, which we finished reading about six weeks ago. Now that Pamela is showing the ability to sequence in her narrations, I plan to focus on descriptions of people and places. At the end of the Sojourner Truth narration, I asked a few questions to tease out a description of her appearance.

Some books are very difficult for Pamela. Skeptics might wonder the point of reading material at the very edge of her ability to comprehend. But, then, I recall descriptions of Helen Keller's delight in books with language far, far, far beyond her ability. One of the teachers at a school for the blind noticed how much enthusiasm Helen had for reading a book in French when she had only a small vocabulary in the language,
Often I found her, when she had a little leisure, sitting in her favourite corner, in a chair whose arms supported the big volume prepared for the blind, and passing her finger slowly over the lines of Moliere's Le Medecin Malgré Lui, chuckling to herself at the comical situations and humorous lines. At that time her actual working vocabulary in French was very small, but by using her judgment, as we laughingly called the mental process, she could guess at the meanings of the words and put the sense together much as a child puzzles out a sliced object.
Researchers are finding that poetry and classic literature spark more electrical activity in the brain than abridged and modernized versions of the same. Unusual words, surprising phrases, and difficult sentence structures light up the brains of readers. Could novelty be part of the key? After the initial blitz, the brain shifts into high gear and is revved up for further reading. Poetry affects the area of the brain that processes episodic memory as readers "reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read." What did "the young and the staid alike" read? Passages from Shakespeare plays, including King Lear, Othello, Coriolanus and Macbeth . . . William Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes . . . The researchers will aim their next efforts at the reading of Charles Dickens. They conclude,
This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.

Walt Whitman was on the menu because of our readings connected to the Civil War. Pamela found his poems hard to memorize. In my efforts to learn "Aboard at a Ship's Helm", I completely forget "A Clear Midnight." Pamela, however, remembered the first few lines of it. While the poem about the sailor was too thorny, she captured the spirit of the poem in her narration. Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill was another challenging read. The last two chapters seemed particularly obscure, but Pamela persisted. She likes finishing her books, however difficult they may be. While typical students are able to glean far more than Pamela, she was pleased with what she did learn.

Thus, as we enter a new year of new books, I definitely plan to keep Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Robert Frost on the menu!

Taking this thinking a step further, we also read a book that had very difficult scientific ideas in it. While we were reading it, I wondered if Pamela would glean anything. Even though many concepts were beyond her grasp of science, Pamela picked up a good bit of vocabulary and understanding. In addition to being able to talk about the astronomer featured in the book, she could say something meaningful about supernovas, black holes, invisible rays, light, and the big bang theory. Can you?

One major point of reading living books is to develop lifelong interests. Pamela asked me if she could go to a planetarium. One of my homeschooling friends told me of Dooley Planetarium and Francis Marion University Observatory only forty-five minutes away. The planetarium offers free shows open to the public two Sundays a month (yes, I said FREE)! The observatory also has periodic open house events that we plan to attend in the coming term.

Hey, Pamela, I know you are reading my blog. When would you like to go?


Bonnie said...

so thrilled for Pamela and for you.
Isn't it wonderful to see some
fruit and real learning?!!!

Susan said...

Pamela is doing so well! Thanks for reminding me to have high expectations...