Books, Catholicism, Life, politics, refugees, Women

What should we read, right now?

9781408855706_309035.jpegDolores Umbridge: I am sorry, dear, but to question my practices is to question the Ministry, and by extension, the Minister himself. I am a tolerant woman, but the one thing I will not stand for is disloyalty. 
Minerva McGonagall: Disloyalty? 
Dolores Umbridge: Things at Hogwarts are far worse than I feared. 

If I were homeschooling now, in this age of fear of immigrants, of wishing to publish (weekly) crimes of ‘aliens’, of the rippling effects of such decisions across the world, I would re-read the Harry Potter books with my children. Heck, I’ll probably re-read them now myself, anyway.

J.K. Rowling got it right. The Ministry of Magic and Dolores Umbridge are perfect characterisations of swift, reactionary, dare I say populist policies delivered under the guise of protection. So that when others criticise the policies and actions, these others are criticised as simply being ‘others’, as being ‘disloyal’, as anti-ministry (anti-government) rebel rousers.

‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, in particular, demonstrates the creeping effect of policies and culture that choose to focus on what appears to be good, or even on what is actually good, while ignoring that which is also bad in the regime. Indeed, the swift action in trying people who are against the Ministry of Magic, of picking targets for fear and hate, allows the Ministry to create a culture of fear with misinformation.

Harry Potter: But if I keep popping in and out of the Ministry, won’t it look like I approve of what they’re doing? 

Rufus Scrimgeour: It would give everyone a boost to think that- 

Harry Potter: No, sorry. I don’t think that will work. I don’t like some of the things the Ministry are doing. Locking up Stan Shunpike, for one. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I would not expect you to understand. These are dangerous times. You are sixteen years old- 

Harry Potter: Dumbledore’s a lot older than sixteen, and he doesn’t think Stan should be locked up either. You’re making Stan a scapegoat, just like you’re trying to make me a mascot! Later. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: I see. You prefer – like your hero Dumbledore – to disassociate yourself from the Ministry. 

Harry Potter: I don’t want to be used. 

Rufus Scrimgeour: Some would say it’s your duty to be used by the Ministry! 

Harry Potter: Yeah, and others might say it’s your duty to check people actually are Death Eaters before you chuck them in prison! You’re doing what Barty Crouch did. You never get it right, you people, do you?! Either we’ve got Fudge, pretending everything’s lovely while people get murdered under their noses, or we’ve got you, putting the wrong people in prison and pretending you’ve got the Chosen One working for you!

The parallels with the current immigration crisis and subsequent vetos on immigration and dislike targeted towards groups of people, as though a few speak for the many, is evident.

And J. K. Rowling again got it right. Because the novels offer hope. Hope in the actions of those concerned for truth, compassion and mercy. Hope that we, too, like Harry and his friends, can make a positive difference in the narrative of fear. To fight for mercy, to be merciful, again and again.

[Harry thinks to himself] …’how they had talked about fighting a losing battle, and that it was important to fight, and to fight again, and to keep fighting, to keep evil at bay, though never quite eradicated.’

We can take positive action, in both small and big ways. Read, write, share information. Pray. Volunteer. Donate. Discuss. Take political action even. Look carefully at how we treat others and for whom we vote.

Remembering the dignity and respect that should be offered to all of humanity, even when it may be difficult or inconvenient or have an economic cost. For not everything can be counted in economic terms. Not everything is political. Most everything involves humanity, and remembering that people, you, me, mums, dads, sisters, brothers, not objects but people, are affected and are involved.

So that we keep on working for that which is good for all. There is no turning back once we realise the good.

You’ve said to us once before that there was a time to turn back if we wanted to. We’ve had time, haven’t we? (Hermione, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’).

Life

A learning habit?

One thing we homeschoolers and unschoolers are often asked is ‘How do you teach your kids?’… Or, ‘Are you a teacher?’

What I have found it that it matters less what and how or if we teach.

What matters more is that we develop a learning habit and a learning environment. A habit where we peg activities onto other activities rather than a mad rush through the day .A habit that reinforces that which we know is most important – books, free time, family time, discussion, time outdoors.

A habit of reading and talking together. Sharing books and thoughts.

I have often felt that it is this learning habit, some rhythm in our days or week, with lots of reading and talking that has ‘made’ our education. People ask how it is that my sons do well at undergraduate and postgraduate study. I think it is because they have developed that learning habit, borne out of rhythm, experience, passion, and love.

It was gratifying to read of the importance of these factors (habit and reading) in a book called ‘The Learning Habit’. Yes, it is written to help parents and children with school homework and with establishing patterns of learning for school and college success. Yes, there are issues I have with the book concerning screen time and bedtime (but I also acknowledge that these issues are more important for families with children at school then they are for unschoolers).

However, it was encouraging to note the studies, experiences and anecdotes that describe the positive effect on children of ‘a learning habit’, namely a routine or rhythm in their life (not necessarily every day) and a value placed on reading and reading aloud and family time.

Almost a recipe for unschooling.learning habit

Books, Life, Unschooling

Woman vs Woman

A colleague of mine was due for her yearly student review, at the university where she works. In student reviews, students in your classes complete a questionnaire about your lecturing and teaching, with space for additional comments concerning performance, if required. My colleague was upset, however. Why? A young female student came to her after completing the review, to let her know that she was the one who criticised the lecturer’s dress in additional comments

Now, let me say one thing. Many male lecturers dress casually and no student ever comments on their clothing. Yet, when asked to review a woman lecturer’s lecturing and teaching performance, another woman feels she must comment on dress. And fashion.

Why do women do this to each other? Why are we our own worst enemies?

Recently, researchers in North Carolina in the U.S. ran online courses for students. The lecturers ran one course under their actual names and gender and, simultaneously, the same course under a different name, changing their gender. The results? When students were told the lecturer was male, they rated their lecturer higher in performance rankings. When students were told their lecturers were female, well, the lecturer performance ratings took a dive.

And female students rated female lecturers more harshly.

Now, some have posited that this animosity among women is a natural thing….boys will be boys and women will be haters…to other women. However, it seems to me that it is more learned behaviour than natural behaviour. And thus, if it can be learned, it can also be unlearned.

Unfortunately, as Juliette Frette writes, much of the tension between women, much of the general meanness, concerns looks, weight, beauty. You know, you attend a class and afterwards, over coffee, your female friends around the table start criticising another woman’s body, or fashion choices, or makeup, or…

As though looks define our femininity.

On the other hand, in some circles, it is not our looks that are considered suitable fodder for dissecting and discussing and just general dissing.

No, in other circles, it’s our qualifications, our intellect…we are seen as too smart for our own good, in completing our PhD, or not quite making the grade because our thesis is on women and family related issues.

In still other arenas, it is our mothering style. Having been labelled as unattractive, a poor housekeeper and a poor mother by a woman I admired, I know the hurt that such tensions creates. These are the so-called mommy wars – debates over breastfeeding, working, homeschooling, ways to homeschool (unschooling? School at home? Should her kid start university courses so early?), parenting styles, wifely duties (“Did you hear they split up? He left her. I bet it’s because she was too busy for him/spent too much time on the kids/works/homeschools/you name it”…ignoring the fact that this is private information and, just perhaps, it wasn’t that the husband left her…).

Seriously, this has to stop. Frette lists ways we can change the tensions among women. My stance is to become pro-woman, pro other women. To take the other’s side. To change the topic of conversation. To have a meta-discussion about discussing other women.

To remember, in the words of Harriet Vane, in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, that we are ‘cursed with both hearts and brains’, with the responsibility of using both wisely; especially in resolving the women vs women debates.

Books, Life, Unschooling

Promiscuous reading

Author (Paradise Lost) John Milton argued for promiscuous reading.

Now, the word promiscuous has certain connotations in our culture. Yet, promiscuous, removed from sexual connotations, initially implied random, casual, indiscriminate behaviour.

It is the idea of random reading that I am exploring here, under the banner of promiscuous reading. That kind of reading that just happens, casually, because books are strewn around the house. Or on your bedside table. Or on the higgledy-piggledy bookshelves, so that when you go to search for one book, you become lost in a book-savouring haze, and come away with another six books that you want to read and re-read, in addition to the original book for which you were searching.

This is promiscuous reading at I'd like to see you have a little direction.its best. Reading from a variety of books, different genres, unrelated authors, prose, poetry, non-fiction, biography, classics, graphic novels,  apologetics. Whatever it is that strikes your fancy, rather than working through a prescribed booklist.

In some ways, the prescribed booklist limits the experience of reading. It limits the reader’s exploration, and blocks mental conversation with a number of contradicting  ideas. When we read promiscuously, however, we explore a number of ideas, we stretch ourselves mentally, we enter into dialogue with authors, ideas, writing styles; and with others, our colleagues, friends, family. Is Dumbledore right, for example, in asking Snape to kill him, to protect Draco? Does the act of killing affect us, as explored in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? We make connections with Nietzsche’s discussion of man as a ‘sick animal’ and contrast this with the hope of St John Paul II’s ‘theological anthropology’, viewing humanity as a complex whole, body, soul, heart and conscience, mind and will, with a vocation to love.

These kinds of links are made with promiscuous reading. Indeed, promiscuous reading often manifests itself in ‘having more than one book on the go”. It has been likened to being a ‘book-adulterer’ but I think it has more worth than that.

In my case right now, that means Woman by Edith Stein, The Brokers by John Grisham, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Trials of Theology by Brian Rosner and some Advent/Christmas reading – Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Pope John Paul II and The Christmas Mouse by Miss Read. An eclectic bunch, a promiscuous bunch, with books picked up to read at disparate times, according to mental agility and/or tiredness in the moment. It’s those reading rhythms of life.

Promiscuous reading was something I encouraged in our homeschooling. Strewing books on the table, in baskets, near the computer. Sharing books avidly. Reading picture books and contemporary fiction alongside classics and  books like Supertrucks and The Way Things Work. Coming to realise, as Donnalyn Miller describes in The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,  ‘that every lesson, conference, response, and assignment I taught must lead students away from me and toward their autonomy as literate people.

Promiscuous strewing and sharing of books can lead to promiscuous readers, whose lives will be made richer through their contact with a range of topics, genres, authors. And I agree with Ms Miller (hers is a great book, by the way, on encouraging reading in children): ‘the purpose of school (I would say education) should not be to prepare students for more school (or only for possible future needs). We should be seeking to have fully engaged students now.’

Life, Unschooling

Reading fiction.

“If you feel . . . that well-read people are less likely to be evil, and a world full of people sitting quietly with good books in their hands is preferable to world filled with schisms and sirens and other noisy and troublesome things, then every time you enter a library you might say to yourself, ‘The world is quiet here,’ as a sort of pledge proclaiming reading to be the greater good.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Slippery Slope

I’m here to proclaim that reading can be part of the greater good.

Seriously, Leonie, you might say.

Yes, seriously.

And wait. I’m not just proclaiming that reading is part of the greater good. I am also proclaiming that reading fiction is part of the greater good.

I knew this instinctively as a child, I knew that when I read literature, really good literature, I was beamed to another world. It was not merely an escape from an often chaotic childhood (though it could be argued that this was part of it). It, reading fiction, presented new ideas, new situations, allowed me to face good and evil, to formulate hypotheses about life, to decide on a code or rule of life, to be who it is that I am today.

My vocabulary changed after reading fiction. My style of speaking and writing changed after reading literature. I felt better, I acted better. I thought in different ways.

Then life stepped in. Suddenly, there was less time for “me” reading amongst reading for work and study.

I solved this problem , in part, by reading children’s literature. I love children’s literature, the pathos, the evocative turn of phrase, the sheer delight.

And reading aloud to my children brought extra joy, in shared delights.

But still, reading literature had become a sorry second or third or fourth or….. In my life.

And I think I paid the price , with less delights to share and ponder.

Reading a blog post, shared on Facebook, at the start of the year,has changed all that. The post reiterated eleven ways to be healthier and happier. And one was “Read fiction “. What?

Apparently , reading fiction improves connectivity and brain activity.

Yes! It hit me! This I already knew. I knew the effect of literature on me and on my life and in my family, I knew the delight.

So this is what I have been doing: reading more fiction. Without judgement. Without telling myself that I must. Without a pre-arranged booklist.

Just reading. When and where I can. What I want.

Plus, the other day, in discussing the current murder mystery novel of choice, I noticed my sons’ fiction lying around. Turns out that they, too, love fiction . And In noticing my reading of fiction, they have been reminded and encouraged to read more fiction themselves.

The power of story.

20140303-232133.jpg

Life, Unschooling

Movies as literacy

Where would our homeschool, our life really, be without movies?

We have spent so many hours watching movies, discussing moves, having heated debates over movies, and simply enjoying our time together as a family.

Homeschooling is family time, family education.

Building memories and adding net to those mental scaffolds are what unschooling is about.

One of my education units at university discussed the role of debate, of language, of arguing, of comparing and contrasting and sharing ideas in building students’ capacity for intellectual thought.

Hey, I thought. That debate and discussion over movies describes our unschooling,

Families have different standards for movies and children have different sensitivities so I won’t list favourite movies here.

I will say that you may be surprised at the depths of movies and qualities of movies that even young children can watch and discuss.

And I will add note that we did spend a whole season watching and discussing romantic comedies in our homeschool.

Here is a link to a legal studies curriculum, related to the movie Legally Blonde. We found it fascinating to read after the movie! Legally Blonde

And a blog post about media and movie and discussion questions.
Movies and media literacy

And, finally, a link to some unschooly movies! Yay!

Unschooly movies

Unschooling

The Book Whisperer

“Because reading has more impact on students’ achievement than any other activity in school, setting aside time for reading must be the first activity we teachers write on our lesson plans, not the last. It is said that we make time for what we value, and if we value reading, we much make time for it.”

From a recent read. “The Book Whisperer” by Donnalyn Miller.

And it is true.

Reading impacts thinking.

Reading impacts experience.

Reading builds relationships.

And so, if reading is so important, are we making sure that there is time for reading?

Snatches of time, here and there, interspersed throughout the day.

And concentrated time, when we sit, and our children sit, and our students sit, and our families sit. And just plain read.

I can search Facebook . Or I can read,

Or I can do both.

But is reading first?

It is a challenge to choose a book, e book or otherwise, over the ease of more immediate information on the net or on TV.

However, if what we do forms who we are and speaks of that which we value, let’s sometimes, at least, choose the less easy path.

Let’s read. Let’s enjoy.

Our actions shout out our values, as mothers, as educators, as colleagues.

“Reading ultimately belongs to readers, not schools, and not schoolteachers.” The Book Whisperer.

If we believe this to be true, then we should read.