Category Archives: education

Our tiny playground in the city.

Nearly every day Raj and I spend quite a bit of time on the balcony of the 13th-floor apartment where his family lives. It’s above a major intersection with a couple dozen lanes of traffic meeting and surging with cars, trucks and buses most of the day. To the east between the high-rises we can see a slice of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. When my grandson sees a jet take off he squeals; a few seconds later we see it emerge from behind tall buildings to the north, and much smaller to the eye. But he is still watching it.

Emergency vehicles sound their sirens in the neighborhood at least a couple of times every day, and sometimes we will hurry out and try to spot them. If not, we’re sure to see one or several of Raj’s favorite Metro buses waiting at a stop light just below. We’ve shared the delights of cement mixers, dump trucks, car transports and motorcycles. Once it was three police cars in a line, lights flashing. On the balcony itself is Daddy’s bicycle, a vehicle he can  even put his hands on, and examine small parts like wheel, reflector and pedals.

All of that transportation stuff would be exciting enough for a toddler, but there are a surprising number of experiences of flora and fauna as well. Pigeons and sparrows land on the rail. Spiders spin webs during the night and in the morning the birds swoop down and eat the spiders. One day we watched a slender and elegant fly as it crawled along the edge of the balcony for several feet, and as it made a left turn to cross the span and continue up the wall of the building. We watched it go all the way to the top of a window and disappear into a crack, and Raj waved good-bye. Then it came out of the crack again! He never lost his focus on that creature until it vanished again for good.

Raj doesn’t talk yet, but he uses many signs to communicate; some of these are standard sign language that many parents nowadays teach their babies, and others he has invented himself. By signs he can say “please,” “thank you,” “more,” “all done,” “Daddy,” “hot,” “cold,” “I like this food,” and at least several other things I can’t think of or that he doesn’t use as often. One experience he can indicate is of the wind.

Many times when we are looking over the balcony, a breeze will come up, and a few times when that happened I have mentioned it to him. One day we were standing at the railing in silent contemplation, punctuated by the occasional “Hmm!” from Raj that seems to be his    comment on anything positive. This time, when the wind came up, he was the one who first noted it, by making sweeping, large and circular movements with his arms.

The balcony is the place to experience (and “talk” about) the heat of the metal wall at one end, when he runs the length of its patio and bangs on it with both little hands. There is an overhang above — perhaps the balcony of the next apartment up? — but not extending so far that one can’t stretch an arm into falling rain, or find very shallow puddles to splash in. Even with many high-rise buildings all around, the sky is huge and ever changing, often with clouds that are well worth talking about.

Our boy is never on the balcony without an adult companion, and from my first time out there with him we have enjoyed and refined our game of copy-cat. First, he would merely run full speed from one end to the other and back, and I would follow exactly. Raj added a certain arm-swing to his choreography, and the next day dance-y hops. Lately he likes to lead me in walking backward the whole way, sometimes stopping suddenly to line up our feet just-so, so that we can look at our toes side-by-side.

I’ve been impressed with the richness of this child’s life overall — full of stimulation and human warmth and at the same time very ordered and routine. Having a nanny to push you to the park almost every day is a boon, and currently several adults to make sure that you can eat and sleep at regular times even when there is a new baby in the house.

For a short time in his life, his days will include this simple balcony with no furniture typical of a patio area. His parents don’t want any items that he might learn to climb up on. Until this week when a larger plastic fire truck came into the household, no toys were allowed out there, because they could fall through the spaces or be thrown over the top.

For an even shorter time Raj has this grandma to play our particular balcony games with him. That space is simple and plain, and many adults not carrying a phone wouldn’t know what to do there. But it’s a fun playground where a toddler can exercise not only his short legs but his attention span. He can tune his senses to the life of the city and participate in a vast world.

The burden of homey and shapely things.

We’re coming to the end of what is the “school year” for most families, and often thoughts are on what options will be best for the children next year. I offer excerpts from what I found to be a very encouraging article, for all of you loving and diligent parents out there! (And “excerpts” from the lives of homeschoolers I’ve known. 🙂 )

From “Easy Burden” by Graeme Hunter in Touchstone Magazine, Sept/Oct 2012 issue:

“Homeschooling is only countercultural because our culture is suicidal. Homeschoolers stand for what our culture was when it was serious about living . It affirms our Christian tradition, our Christian morality, and our highest cultural achievements. To affirm such things today is countercultural only because our culture has turned its face to the wall.”

“…No doubt there are conservative and conscientious redoubts here and there in the bleak landscape of public schooling, but if it seems to you that your child is being transformed for the worse by attending school, you are likely correct.

“Here are some reasons why:

“First, education means struggle and achievement, but schools are egalitarian. Achievement presupposes discipline, but schools shun discipline, and pretend students are high achievers no matter what they do.

“Second, children arrive in the world as bundles of impulses and desires. Part of education is to teach restraint, a process known as civilization. Schools encourage pupils from the earliest years to act upon their impulses and to be, in the jargon of the education industry, ‘spontaneous.’ Schools are therefore the enemies of civilization.

“Third, one of the finest fruits of education is to become a discriminating person, able to tell good from bad, whether it be in art, in political proposals, or in human conduct. Schools treat discrimination as the only mortal sin.

“‘The wrong of unshapely things,’ says the poet W.B. Yeats, ‘is a wrong too great to be told.’ He explains that when we fail to cultivate discrimination in ourselves and others, we wound the entire human community. Real educators see something beautiful in us, and long to bring it into the light. Yeats calls it an ‘image that blossoms, a rose in the deeps of his heart.'”

“…When we homeschooled, there was a cross to be borne each day, but family life was a delight to us, education was thrilling for pupil and teacher alike, and we had joy in our family that has not diminished even now that our children are grown.

“Furthermore, none of the dire consequences predicted came to pass. Our children are well-adjusted. They love God, and they love life. And they are doing well enough in life, even as the world measures these things.

“Homeschooling did not bankrupt us. How could it? We invested our talents in the children God gave us, and the investment paid off a hundredfold.”

“….The road, then, is cruciform, but the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Homeschoolers: seize the day!”

–Graeme Hunter

As the soul, so the education…

Five years ago I posted this quote and comments as part of a blog-along about the author. Today as I read it I am half terrified at the tone of Chesterton’s statement, how he makes education sound like the most natural and effortless, even unstoppable thing. The health of the sub-cultures we nurture is more critical than ever, so that the “soul” of these little societies may continue to nurture us and to educate our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Education is simply the soul of a society
as it passes from one generation to another.

–G.K. Chesterton

People who aren’t used to thinking in a Chestertonian way may think this statement extravagant, or overly poetic and ephemeral. I forgive them, because they likely are recipients of a societal soul that lacks perspective and understanding. It takes time and tradition to build a healthy society, and the modernists who taught many of us have lost the moorings of our Christian past. Many people don’t have a concept of passing something on to their children; they just want them to have a college degree so they can get a Good Job.

I have done most of my growing up in the little society of the family my husband and I created many decades ago, and the culture and nourishment has been good. The word soul didn’t come to mind as a descriptor of what we were trying to impart to our children, while we were trying to give them the best nurturing, the best culture for healthy growth, but now that I have for so long been focused on cultivating life in my children and my self, Chesterton’s way of describing it seems perfect.

Of course, it’s frighteningly full of possibilities. How would you characterize the soul of American society? Or the society of your extended family? Are you in a church that is unified and close-knit enough to constitute a society, and is it one that you can feel good about the next generation continuing? The process that GKC hints at brings to mind images of some ghost-like being floating over the globe, and I wonder how much control I can have over that?

At any rate, this thought makes me gladder than ever that my husband and I were able to homeschool our children for many years, and pass on to them thousands of small bites of hearty soul food. We can’t even know for sure which were superfoods and which were maybe just as nourishing, but harder to digest, seeing how God redeems and uses even our failures. But we cooked up the recipe ourselves, in our home kitchen, so to speak, and after all this time, it is still tasting very good.

 

A pheasant disappearing in the brush.

poem-wynken-etcI was a child when poetry was still “taught badly,” according to some people. In fifth grade we had to memorize a poem, choosing from a collection that our teacher had compiled. Before that I remember reading some poems at home, like “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” which I came to love. It was in a children’s literature anthology my grandmother had given us.

From the options my teacher presented I chose “The Children’s Hour” by Longfellow. It seems that we had some weeks to learn our poems, and the practicing and reciting of the poet’s metered verse are a very pleasant memory for me. I did enter vicariously into the scene the poem describes, of a father surrounded by his affectionate and beloved daughters. I can still hear the music and feel the happiness even if I can’t remember many of the words past the first line.

Now, when I read about that particular poem on Wikipedia, I find that it serves as an illustration of one aspect of poetry that educators debate about: “More recently, the poem has been called overly-sentimental, as have many of Longfellow’s works. Scholar Richard Ruland, for example, warns that modern readers might find it ‘not only simple and straightforward, but perhaps saccharine and overly emotional,’ though he concludes it is a successful poem. Scholar Matthew Gartner, however, uses the poem as an example of how Longfellow invited his readers into his private home life in New England to refine them and teach them lessons in virtue.”

I have been lightly musing over these questions since reading a recent article by California’s Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who has for as long as I’ve known him been intensely interested in education, and how to restore among the populace the love for poetry that used to be commonplace.

dana-gioia-with-cat-photo-by-web-824x549In the article “Poetry as Enchantment” the poet discusses the huge changes that have taken place in the world of poetry over the last few generations. I can see how my own experience reflects some of the losses that occurred. After the one poem that I memorized (not counting lyrics of hymns and folk songs) there was to be no more reading aloud in school, or memorization. In high school I know we analyzed some poems, but nothing grabbed me. Despite this, our small rural high school retained vestiges of the past in the form of a literary magazine in which students might publish poems or stories that the student editors selected.

I tried writing some poems, of which I was of course ashamed soon after they were published in the magazine. Maybe the magazine was not actually a leftover from a previous era but a “progressive” thing, packed with material from untaught writers, screened by writers just as unqualified. And likely it was an attempt to hold on to a fuller experience of poetry than we were getting in the classroom. Gioia says that textual criticism and analysis is all well and good and can be very helpful — he does quite a bit of it himself — but that we require an encounter with poetry that engages more than our intellect. We amateurs should not be underestimated as readers of poetry:

Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.

poem-fisher-mizzly

Less than ten years out of high school, I was teaching poetry to my children. That was when I fully fell in love with many a good poem. Maybe all the analytical skills my high school and college teachers had tried to teach me came back and helped me appreciate the art, but I think much of the good effect came from starting from the ground up: teaching toddlers the fun of a sing-song nursery rhyme; reading A Child’s Garden of Verses to older children so many times that we couldn’t help but learn several by heart (skipping a few that didn’t seem to be teaching “a lesson in virtue,” to use the words of Matthew Gartner above); working the copying and memorization and reciting of poems into our homeschool curriculum; reciting/memorizing Frost’s “The Figure in the Doorway” as a family in the car while on a camping trip. We didn’t try to analyze or figure out hidden meanings, but I think we often intuited deep things. Probably many times we missed the primary intent of the poem, but we still were enriched in our humanity and our connection to the poet, and the world.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
-T.S. Eliot, as quoted by Dana Gioia

More from the article:  Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.’ It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.’

poemstevenson-fairy-bread

In the passion of 20-yr-old pride I tossed out my copies of the high school magazine, but I can remember the first line of one verse I wrote: “Must we tear apart the thing, and analyze and criticize?” Even then I had no leanings toward being a literary scholar. But I am still in the process of getting a literary education.

“The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors;
its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.”
-Dana Gioia

Against much resistance, when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia managed to implement a program he designed to restore some of the practices that encouraged a love of poetry in bygone years. Many of you are probably familiar with Poetry Out Loud, but I only learned about it in this article. High school students are having fun learning poems and reciting them in competitions, and this has been going on for ten years now! I’m hoping to attend the recitations in my area this coming January. It will do my heart good.

Get the fuller story of Gioia’s thesis and suggestions, and of the Poetry Out Loud events, by reading the entire article here.