Thursday, January 15, 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks week 2

I have no regrets about the roads not taken in my life, especially since I get to vicariously enjoy one of those roads, my abandoned career as a China scholar, through wonderful books written by other travelers. The Man Who Loved China is one of those wonderful books that takes me back to my college and grad school days when I was a student in the Department of East Asian Studies.

The Man Who Loved China is a biography of Joseph Needham, the author of the multi volume Science and Civilization in China, one of the main reference tools from my student days. I still have on my bookshelf a condensed version of it, and pull it out from time to time to look up some date or fact when I'm thinking about Chinese history. One of the things that amused me while reading this biography was the realization that as a student I never even stopped to consider who had written Science and Civilization -- what kind of man would be driven to do that sort of tedious research, how did he do it and when. It was one of those reference books that was a fixture in the library -- that the author was still alive and publishing further volumes while I was a student came as a huge surprise!

The book isn't just for washed up sinophiles like me, though. Simon Winchester is a very readable author who has captured both the brilliance and eccentricities of Neeham. He also brings to life the atmosphere at Cambridge, the chaos of WWII China and the paranoia of the Cold War. It is engaging and edifying when it could so easily have been a dry, stultifying read.

I especially loved reading about Needham's travels throughout China during WWII. He spent weeks following the old Silk Road, finally getting stuck in an outpost noted for a system of caves filled with Buddhist statues and paintings. In another trip to Fujian narrowly escaped being trapped by the Japanese. He was based in Chongqing with Chiang Kai-shek, but managed also to befriend Chou Enlai.

I learned while reading this book that the author of my Chinese textbooks, John DeFrances, had just passed away, and in reading some obituaries and memorials discovered that he had traveled along the Silk Road in the 1930s. His memoir about those travels, In the Footsteps of Ghengis Khan, was amazingly on the bookshelf in my branch library, and is my current read. I plan on staying in China for a while yet, as I never read The Good Earth, and there are a few other titles that have caught my attention.

People often say to me how sad it is that I never used my degree, but I truly enjoy settling down with good books on China and revisiting my old student days.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

I call this one "Mourning Rush Hour", as the Mourning Doves love to crowd around the feeder every morning. There are 7 doves in the frame, and 5 more were pecking away on the ground below!


The best part of teaching, whether for homeschooling or for a class, is the research and planning. I love wandering through the stacks at the library, or searching through all the books that are cataloged under the same call number as the title that brought me to that particular shelf. I can google for hours, cluttering my bookmark folders with links to all kinds of sites that I might never visit again. I love learning about things I never knew, and I love planning on how I'm going to share all this with my students. To me it is like the best part of grad school, without having to fret over formatting footnotes and bibliographies.

The current topic that has caught my attention is Beowulf, and the intended victim, er, student, is my 13yo son. He actually listened to the Seamus Heaney version a year or more ago, and was totally underwhelmed by it. How this can be, I just don't know. He is your basic fantasy geek -- plays D&D, World of Warcraft, collects dragon figurines and knows all kinds of dragon mythology. Has read most every fantasy novel shelved in the "Young Adult" sections of bookstores. Beowulf has all those elements, is the foundation for all the fantasy he loves, what was he missing when he first listened to it?

I've decided now is the time to do my best to bring Beowulf to life for him. I've read the material about it in the English curriculum we are using this year (Literary Lessons from Lord of the Rings), I've spent several hours on line and found a wonderful lesson plan (amid many awful lesson plans) that has taken one section of the poem and has it in the original Old English along with about 10 different translations. Coolest of all, in my opinion, was the recording of someone reading that same section in Old English.

So, yesterday morning, full of optimism, armed with great ideas, I launched us into a 2 week study of Beowulf. The lesson for the day, after going through an introduction to the work, was to listen first to the Old English recording, get a feeling for the alliterative meter, then compare 3 of the translations and decide which best captures the work and why. Is it better to have a prose version, or a more literal translation, or one that tries to capture the original meter?

It all started out well enough. The introductory material was interesting, so we moved onto the issue of translations. We listened to the Old English version which I thought was exceptionally cool and wanted to keep listening to. But my son wasn't so easily swayed by either the Old English or my enthusiasm. "Nah, I get it already. I hear the alliteration, I get it." Meaning, can we move on so I can hurry up and finish school?

I left him after that to study the translations and decide upon the best, and will hear back from him later today as to which he likes and why. Then we'll start actually reading and re-listening to the Heaney version, and if he still is unimpressed, then so be it. At least I know, after 9 years of homeschooling, not take it personally when the kids don't get excited over all this wonderful material.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks

In a euphoric fit of feeling like an integral part of the Well Trained Mind homeschooling-forum community, I joined the Book a Week club. There weren't any solemn oaths we had to pledge to join, so I'm not going to violate any codes of conduct by not keeping up, but I do feel a sense of duty with my reading now.

For that reason, I've been plugged into my iPod for most of the day listening to Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I love the ability to enjoy a book while doing mundane housework, although my kids find it disconcerting to hear me burst out laughing in the next room. And I'm laughing quite a bit with this book. Bill Bryson has a very dry sense of humor, uses the most unexpected adjectives when describing ordinary things, and best of all with this audio book, he is the one reading his book aloud.

So much of his 1950s childhood reminds me of my 1960s childhood -- the Dick and Jane books, the cloakroom in the classroom, kids having lots of unsupervised time roaming the neighborhood. I think things in my hometown stayed rooted in the 50s until the hippies at the University became a force to be reckoned with, probably not until 1968 or so. I also am enjoying all the history he weaves into this memoir, things that had no bearing directly of him but are part of the history of the time.

But what really has me laughing out loud is that my 13yo son has already listened to this book, and I now understand why he had told me somewhat cryptically that he only really liked parts of it and the rest hadn't been so great for him. I realized today that what he didn't like was when things turn toward girls, nudity and anything slightly sexual. Nothing is graphic or pornographic, and there is nothing I regret him hearing. I also figure much of it probably went over his head as he has had a rather sheltered life thus far. But after I finished one chapter in particular, I had to pull out my ear buds and comment to my son, "My but you got quite an education with this book!"

"Yeah," he said with a disappointed look on his face. "That chapter was one of the parts I didn't really like."

"Well," I replied. "You can look at it as a sort of an introduction to the health course you have next semester. You've got to learn some of the nuts and bolts of things sooner than later."

He groaned in disgust, then mentioned something about the section in the book where Bryson talks about his teen years.

Oh my.....I can't wait to find out what more he learned from this book!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

New Years Day 2009 marks a big anniversary in our household. 9 years ago today I decided to pull my 2 boys out of school and start homeschooling them. It was a very simple decision to make, though the reality of homeschooling has been anything but simple! But here we are, starting our 10th year of this life, with my oldest ready to graduate in June, and the youngest in 9th grade. How did we get here?

I kept fairly detailed journals of our first few years of homeschooling. It was such a simple and sweet time, sprawling on the floor and reading aloud Greek mythology or all the Harry Potter books (there were only 4 out at the time) while the kids did dive rolls over me. I used to stop reading in a huff, insisting that they weren't paying attention, but they'd give me a very detailed synopsis of the plot proving that audio/kinetic learners do indeed exist.

Life got complicated when the oldest hit middle school, and we had to face the real challenges of all his learning disabilities. Things got even more complicated as my mom's health started to decline and I had to become more and more involved in her care and affairs. That period is such a blur except for the hours I spent reading aloud -- Hound of the Baskervilles, Christmas Carol, Watership Down.

Life is still crazy busy -- I almost titled this blog scatterbrained because that is how I feel some days. But it is a good kind of busy. I'm blogging to keep a record of this special time before the kids fly the coup, and to share with other homeschoolers as we all learn so much from one another.

Happy New Year!