Friday, March 27, 2009

Audio books

My 14yo loves listening to books. Always has. He can't get enough of them, re-listens to his favorites over and over. He listens while building legos or drawing, he listens while just hanging out. His working vocabulary was impressive at an early age, due largely, I think, to his hearing the words in use from his audio books. When he was 8 he was correctly using words like "affronted" and "resolutely". His syntax varies depending on his current favorite author as does the rhythm of his speech. He currently is sounding like Bill Bryson, and what is even funnier is that his older brother, who hasn't heard those audio books, is picking up on it and now is sounding like Bill Bryson too.

I really enjoy audio books, too, though I'm not able to listen for the endless hours like my son. I like how a good narrator can bring a story to life with different voices for the different characters, or how their phrasing can clarify the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. I like that hearing a book aloud, or for that matter, reading a book aloud, prevents you from being an impatient reader and skipping past the descriptive paragraphs or tedious expositions to get to the action.

The only problem with them is that you can't dog ear a page, or underline a particularly striking sentence. You can't stop and look at how that striking sentence is constructed, or stop to think about it's deeper meaning -- the narrator just carries you on to the next page, the next plot point.

I just finished listening to Northanger Abbey, and found myself laughing aloud quite often. The narrator was fabulous, but I need to get a print copy and find some of those sections that made me laugh. For instance, there was some very astute satirical commentary by Austen -- I don't think it was in the dialog -- about the perceived attractiveness of women who act dumb, or are dumb or stay uninformed on purpose. I was driving the car and laughing when I heard this bit, but I need to find it again to get the quote right.

I'm also reading aloud The Lord of the Rings to my 14yo, and am amazed at how much more I am getting out of the books by reading them aloud. I read them when I was a teen, but I've only re-read my favorite sections since then, and I had no idea how much I was missing such as plot points and characters. All that geographical detail still bogs me down, though! We're having a good laugh, too, over the biblical sounding language in the 3rd book. "And lo! Aragorn did crush the athelas. And the scent filled the room filling all hearts with gladness." Or something like that -- it gets to be a bit much!

Friday, March 20, 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks: update

If my 14 year old son has his way, I'm going to be reading mostly science books for the rest of the year. It is really sweet that he wants me for his reading buddy -- he told me last night that he needs me to read the same books so he will have someone to discuss them with. Problem is, I can barely keep up with him!

Since February, we've read To See Every Bird, by Dan Koeppel, A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, and The Pluto Files by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Quite the diverse range of topics, going from hard core birding to the far reaches of the galaxy to everything in between, but what ties these books together is one of the fundamental challenges of science -- how to define and categorize the things around us.

To See Every Bird, which isn't really a science book, but a memoir of the author's life with his birding obsessed dad, has a chapter all about "splits and lumping". It simply means that a single bird species can be split into 2 distinct species or conversely two can be lumped back together into one. It matters greatly to hard core birders as it changes the tallies of the numbers of species they've seen. Birders don't particularly care about the details that make one species distinct from another -- they have the single obsession of keeping a count, but it is the work of ornithologists who must decide what makes a parrot distinct from a pigeon from a peregrine falcon. Is it something structural? Is it their song? Their diet? It was a fascinating chapter.

Bill Bryson goes on at length in several different chapters about how many things in the world still defy classification. He seems a bit obsessed about the all the microbes and lichen and hominid fossils that have yet to be definitively labeled and classified, as if scientists are slacking off on the job. He also has very colorful stories of the lives of scientists, their mistakes and foibles, and the mistakes of the greater scientific community when they are reluctant to embrace a new discovery or theory. The book is a result of Bryson's own endeavor to educate himself. His enthusiasm is infectious and the twists and turns of his curiosity are unexpected and delightful, making all 500 pages go by quickly and effortlessly.

The Pluto Files is all about classification as it chronicles the discovery, naming and demotion of Pluto, which has gone from being "Planet X", to being the 9th planet, to being a simple dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was in the thick of it all in his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. He was in charge of the team designing the new exhibit space, which does not display our solar system as a line up of 9 planets, but instead displays them according to like characteristics. As Pluto is neither a rocky planet nor gas giant, it got left out of the display and a media fire storm ensued. The issue of Pluto's classification was finally voted upon by the members of the International Astronomical Union, who had to come to grips with the defining characteristics of what makes a planet.

Reading these three books has had me thinking about what science is and what should constitute a science education. Not that I'm thinking the work of science is only about classification, but rather I'm struck that science is a very active discipline which requires constant questioning and continual observation and lively debate. It has made me more convinced than ever that learning science solely through the passive activity of reading text books is a huge mistake, especially in the earlier grades, as it makes science seem like a static subject of memorizing terms and data. Good scientists and young children share the characteristics of observing the world then incessantly questioning why, qualities squashed by forcing learning from dull text books.

My son's science text book this year isn't helping my opinion on the matter, either. He dutifully reads each assigned chapter, but finds it dull, not in depth enough and written to confuse rather than enlighten. These books I've just described are, on the other hand, making his eyes light up, making him ask for more like them. He has already finished a book on Black Holes and is currently on Temple Grandin's book on animal behavior and is impatient for me to read them as well. I truly may never catch up with him!

I've been keeping up with my 52 books by balancing the non-fiction with fluffy non-fiction. Maybe I'll get back to serious fiction over the summer...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

It's springtime and the mallards are out shopping for a cozy cement pond for two...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Measuring Success

The child that triggered our entry into the homeschooling world 9 years ago is going to graduate in June. He is a terrific young man, and I am for the most part satisfied that I've done the right things for him.

Yet I have to admit his education never quite lived up to all my hopes and aspirations. The detailed plans I had laid out, all the great books I had listed to read in each grade, and all the tomes on art, philosophy and science I had bought were put aside in resignation, one by one. We went from great books to "pretty darn good" books, to "dear God just let him read something" books. My dreams crashed head on into his reality somewhere in 7th grade. It shouldn't have surprised me as we had a similar crash when he was in 2nd grade that led to the decision to pull him out of school.

That decision to homeschool was the first radical adjustment I made to accommodate his educational needs, but it was an easy adjustment in those elementary school because he was a little sponge. But between his puberty and my increasingly grand educational plans, things stopped working in 7th grade and I had to readjust my expectations of what his education should be. But we hit a wall again in 8th grade and again in 9th, even 10th. Each year I'd have grand plans for hard core academics, get-him-ready-for-college academics, and each year I'd get frustrated and angry that it wasn't working. But I also knew enough to realize the fact that his interests are the best way to get through to him, the best way for him to connect with a subject and learn. He actually tests as gifted, but is hard wired differently than most. Somehow I had to make math relate to Disneyland, 20th century American history to theater, or theater lighting relate to science, that was the only way he would learn and thrive.

I finally raised a white flag during 10th grade and decided to just let him have lots of theater electives, pile them on and graduate him early so he can get out into the world and start working. The kid has not been typical since the day he was born -- what was I thinking in expecting him to be typical now?

I know he has at least some basic academic and life skills. He can write a decent 5 paragraph essay and writes with a passionate voice. With the help of ritalin he can read, take notes and study, but he will always need every accommodation a school can offer. He can clean a bathroom and cook some food, balance a checkbook. He may yet learn how to drive. But where he really shines is in the theater where he can easily put in a 12 hour day, singing, acting AND programing lights, and be happy as a clam.

Other moms congratulate me all the time, saying what a great job I've done, about what a neat kid he is. I don't know quite what to say. I don't know if I can take any credit as I feel like I've just been trying every creative way I can to keep up with this kid for 17 years now. He wasn't cut out for the typical school, so I have just tried to create an education where he can succeed. It is absolutely terrifying to have given him such an unorthodox education when everything in me screams for the traditional route.

The biggest credit to his success I think goes to the wonderful mentors who for the last 4 years have patiently let him explore lighting design, who have coached him in singing, and who have loved him through his ups and downs. Those same mentors now trust in and rely on his expertise. He has earned the respect of all the adults with whom he works because he takes his work seriously, is talented and has a tremendous creative energy.

So how do I measure my success in homeschooling him? If it had to be measured with SAT scores and college acceptance letters, then I am a dismal failure. But if I get to measure it by the kind of young man he is, then guess I am a success. Even if I can't quite take all the credit!