“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

Continue reading

Hanukkah family fun, night 8: Find the fun & SNAP, the job’s a game

Click here if you missed Night 7.

Mary Poppins* fans may have caught the quote in the title for this post. In the “Spoonful of Sugar” song from the movie, she makes the point that one can lighten a chore by adding a little fun.

Our boys aren’t working graveyard shifts in a factory, but we do see practical applications for teaching them about electronics. Tonight’s gifts come from the series of educational toys from Elenco, Snap Circuits

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits 300Snap Circuits do great job of easing a task that some would categorize as work. They are packaged sets of pieces that allow kids“from 8 to 108” per the boxto do experiments with real, working circuits without any messy, skin-singeing soldering.

Go on: ask me why I’m concerned about singeing oneself with solder. No, don’t, because I’m clumsy and easily distracted, and burning flesh is gross. I loved my electrical engineering classes, but lived in fear of implementing what I learned. I would’ve enjoyed these Snap Circuit sets in college!

Instead of soldering wires, the connections are made with oversized snaps like you would find on common garments. They’re as easy to click together as Lego bricks. Unlike a simple Lego connection, however, one must develop an understanding of how electricity flows in order to create working circuits that make electronic projects work.

Never studied electronics? Don’t worry! There’s a very specific manual to walk kids through the different projects.

The boys have had a Snap Circuits starter set for years, and the SC-100 Junior Starter Set is a fine place to begin at any age. Once you have your kid has a grasp on the basic working of the components, you can add on additional kits that either continue with a general education in electronics, or follow a particular theme that might appeal to the user.

For the eighth night of Hanukkah, my older son and possible future game designer received the SCA-200 Snap Circuits Arcade kit. His brother opened up the UC-30 Upgrade Kit SC100 to SC300.

Hanukkah 8 gifts Snap Circuits AAs a parent, one of my favorite things about this company and these kits is the commitment to keeping the sets modular and re-combinable to extend their value. I really appreciate having the choice to buy just the additions I need to move from a beginner’s set to one with more advanced experiments and projects.

Unlike some other company’s products, I’m not forced to either:

  • pay extra for parts I don’t need, or
  • carefully work through lists in tiny print on the back of the box for multiple, similar sets to determine whether or not I’ve missing anything that sounds fun and/or important.

And it isn’t all work with no play! The kids genuinely enjoy fooling around with Snap Circuits kits because they can make real, working models that do stuff. Lights will light up and buzzers will sound, and they will do so more reliably than most kids can manage with regular electronic components even in an educator supported environment.

Naturally, the stuff my boys want to do usually includes “make a loud, obnoxious buzzer in Mom’s ear” or “try to launch the spinner into my brother’s face,” but Elenco isn’t selling magic beans or the promise of more perfect kids. With Snap Circuits, they are selling appealing sets that let children experiment with—and learn about—real electronics without too much muss or fuss.

A supportive adult could be helpful for a total novice or a younger child, but no supervision is necessary to make these kits diverting for kids who like to take stuff apart and/or build things.

Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah Gifts are generally things that we can enjoy as a family. These fit the bill because they give the kids something to play with that leads naturally to learning experiences we like sharing with our boys.

How does that project work? Why did it fail before? What else can you do with those elements? What does that inspire you to try next time? What’s the correlation between this toy and the circuits you can see in household electronics?

I worried a little about ending eight days of holiday giving with the “educational” present, but I shouldn’t have. Snap Circuits are too good. The boys were genuinely pleased to expand their collection.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 8 hanukkiah extinguishing itself - 1


*If you’ve never read P.L. Travers’ novels about Mary Poppins, which served as inspiration for the popular 1964 Disney film, please consider doing so. The books were much darker and weirder than the film version, and I loved them as a little girl. This is a case where I think the film is a real classic, but almost a completely different creature from the original work.

Some people on GoodReads seem to find old-fashioned child rearing methods so inappropriate, they can’t even enjoy the books. All I can say is that none of it bothered me as a girl. I would gladly put up with an imperious guardian to enjoy magical adventures; why not let today’s children make that choice for themselves, too?

Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.


*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.

Summer vacation isn’t the enemy of modern parents, but it reveals social boundaries

Last week, I saw an ad predicated upon the idea that summer vacation is a nightmare for parents. It wasn’t even Memorial Day yet, and, already, they’d infected the airwaves.

Do parents really bemoan summer break?

I despise commercials that attempt to advertise products based upon the perverse notion that I loathe spending time with my children.

The Back to School ads are even worse than the End of the School Year set. Parents dance in the streets because they are unable to contain their joy at giving up the burden of spending entire days in the company of their own kids.

Are these the same kids Americans were so desperate to have that more than 10% of US women of childbearing age have used infertility services? Bah, humbug!

My kids are cool, and I enjoy their company. Summer means no alarm clocks and more opportunities to say yes to their (admittedly, sometimes goofy) requests. Summertime equates to free time.

Or are parents with limited resources desperate for better solutions?

I’m crying foul. I think this is primarily a lame advertising trope.

But, of course, there is added stress for families where all available caregivers work outside the home. Finding appropriate summer camps or childcare is a pain. That’s true 365 days a year in America for kids too young for public school.

This isn’t a summer problem, or a parenting problem. It’s a political problem, and an economic one. This is not proof that parents want their kids to stay locked up indoors year ’round.

Instead, we see a sign of a childcare problem in a society expecting high rates of worker participation from able bodied adults. (Those would be the same adults who most frequently produce offspring!)

Really, how many of us resent watching the kids pour out of the schools and into the home, onto the beaches, and into the parks?

Most parents work their butts off attempting to earn the best for their kids, and that includes fresh air, exercise, and time and space to dream the biggest dreams. That’s where summer vacation can really shine, but only for those with the time and resources to let it happen.

My family’s summers include travel, museums, hours poring over books of our own choosing, and lots of time with extended family. I don’t even have to question whether or not this is a good use of my kids’ time. Of course it is!

I can barely express how grateful I am for this privilege.

We supplement our lazy summer days with hours of Khan Academy and specialty family camps, not because we feel compelled to keep up, but because learning new things is awesome and we want to share the joy with our kids.

I don’t believe for one minute that there are legions of caring parents in America who want more testing, more trivial comparisons, and more common core for their beloved children.

Parents want their kids to have access to opportunities. Parents want their kids to learn useful stuff. Parents want their kids to grow up well and be successful and happy.

I can’t even say how much I wish summer vacation was an equal opportunity benefit for all children.

Who really hates summer break?

Parents today—like most people today—struggle under a burden of technology and schedules seemingly designed to detract from a fulfilling life.

Theoretically, we live in an era of reduced physical effort and greater access to information, leading inexorably to an easier life. In practice, maybe not so much.

These commercials are lazy work on the part of advertisers, but they do reveal a modern day American tragedy.

Some of us have to get a little desperate when school lets out for summer.

Some of us get to enjoy our kids’ company in the same situation.

Spit it out! Memorizing phrases & the parroting process for improving foreign language fluency

Rote memorization won’t make you a fluent speaker of a new language, but it can be a powerful tool for increasing your foreign language fluency.Pimsleur

You often resort to routine phrases in your native language

Imagine this common scenario.

You’re hurrying into a familiar place, surrounded by people you know. Someone asks casually, “Hi! How are you today?

Most likely, you answer without a thought:

Fine, thanks.”

You answered with a learned response. You weren’t engaging the higher functions of your complex brain and its multiple intelligences. You went by instinct. That’s rote.

This kind of verbalization isn’t going to make you a master public speaker. It isn’t the rich, nuanced stuff of great oratory or literature. But words and phrases like these make up a huge proportion of the words spoken every day.

If you cultivate your knowledge of simple, canned responses to common questions and scenarios in a target language, you can really accelerate your comfort with speaking and your eventual progress toward fluency.

Fluency only comes if you actively use the language

I’ve always been a good student. The strength of my short term memory and my classroom skills made it fairly easy for me to get good grades in high school and university classes in Spanish and German. In spite of this, even after years of study, I was nowhere near fluent in Spanish, though I could read written materials fairly well.

By contrast, in only one semester of purely spoken Japanese taught by an immersion method, I learned a handful of phrases that stick with me in their entirety (and at full speed) to this day.

After that course, I never studied a language the same way again.

Do you intend to read, write, or converse in your target language?

Before Japanese, I improved primarily in the area of language my classes tested: reading and writing.

Sure, the students in my classes engaged in dialogues, but these were a small fraction of the time spent, and conversational skills were almost never on the test. With 15 pairs of high schools students talking to each other simultaneously, ostensibly in Spanish, there was no way for the lone teacher to notice—let alone correct—errors, omissions, or even a total failure to complete the assigned dialogue.

If your interest in acquiring a new language is to read, say, Descartes in his native French, or Don Quixote in the original Spanish, the American classroom experience may serve you well. For everyone else, read on! Continue reading