Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Notes on Madam How and Lady Why: Ch. 1 The Glen

Scientists, if they are doing their jobs, are constantly refining their theories. As a result, science books tend to go out-of-date fairly quickly.

Charles Kingsley's book of natural history, Madam How and Lady Why, is kind of an exception in my opinion. Some of his geological ideas are now obsolete, but his philosophy of science still provides insight today.

I have been fascinated with Madam How and Lady Why since Aravis and I first read it six years ago. I often find myself thinking about Kingsley's way of looking at science as I read things in the news and in other books.

I wanted to read the book with Mariel and Cornflower this year, but also wanted to avoid having to wade through out-of-date portions with the kids, so I went through the book taking notes and finding supplementary information online. For the next few days I will post my (by no means exhaustive) notes on the first four chapters, in the hope that it will help someone else who wants to use the book. My plans is to accomplish the notes for the second four chapters before Thanksgiving, and the notes for the third four chapters by New Year's.

My thanks to Cindy Gould and Ambleside Online for providing some of the links. I apologize in advance for listing the entire web address for links rather than embedding them. These are rough notes.

Ch. 1 The Glen

 Winter on a moor east of London in England (Windsor-to-Aldershot-to-Hartford-Bridge-Flats-- see p. 17-- is east of London according to Google Maps).

 Mountains and Hills of England with topographical map: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountains_and_hills_of_England
Our interest is just inside Area 12, North Downs, in the county of Surrey.

 P. 5 The difference between How and Why

 P. 6 Madam How is at work making and remaking natural things. Kingsley has personified the concept of how nature works, and attributes everything that is done in nature to this “fairy”, which he calls “The Housekeeper of the Whole Universe”. Madam How is employed by another fairy, Lady Why, who represents Wisdom, and both are under the authority of another Master, whom we can assume is God.

 P. 6 Using his fairy terms, he discusses the Butterfly Effect—an idea put forth in Chaos Theory that “small differences in the initial conditions of a dynamic system may produce large variations in the long-term behavior of the system.” (Wikipedia)

 P. 6 Everything eventually reduces to its elements, which Madam How uses to make something else.

 Glen: a narrow and deep mountain valley (Free Online Dictionary) Glens are similar to what we call canyons here in the Western United States.

 P. 14 He talks about water erosion.

 P. 17 Heath, fern

 P. 18-19 Bournemouth Chines: Bournemouth is on the south coast of England; a chine is “a steep-sided river valley where the river flows through coastal cliffs to the sea.” (Wikipedia)

 A beautiful picture of a chine on the Isle of Wight, southeast of Bournemouth:

 A great photo of a sandstone cliff in Bournemouth: http://www.soton.ac.uk/~imw/jpg-Bournemouth/4BM-Branksome-Sand-Canford.jpg

 P. 20 brief allusion to the Ice Age

 A glen in Scotland that was formed by a glacier:

 The same glen in winter:

 Another glen with interesting conical mounds and a towering tableland: http://www.scotland-flavour.co.uk/fairy-glen.html http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/Scotland/Western_Isles/Uig/photo192105.htm

 A webpage on an area of glens in the UK: http://www.angus.gov.uk/history/features/glens.htm

 P. 22 Figure out the answers to your questions with experimentation and observation.

 P. 22 He mentions Madam How “lifting Hartford Bridge Flats”, but does not
say how it was done. He will address this later.

 P. 23 He suggests an experiment: start with a flat area of clay, top it with a layer of sand, then ‘rain’ on it with a watering can, and see what forms. Then try different soils, or put the clay on top of the sand.

 Clay, chalk, limestone, slate—these are all different kinds of rock, or soil. Water erodes these as well.

 P. 25 “…such a chasm…” a set of pictures of Avon Gorge in Bristol with the River Avon running through it): http://www.yourlocalweb.co.uk/city-of-bristol/pictures/page3/

 P. 25 The Matterhorn, Weisshorn, Pic du Midi (pics easily found online)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Liberty and Constraint in Writing

When we began AO/HEO, I thought that narration, dictation and copywork would cause my children to simply blossom into amazing writers. I remember explaining my point of view to a living-books friend whose part-time job is grading standardized test essays. Her response was gentle but a little disturbing. She looked at me doubtfully and said, "Well, that isn't going to be enough for my kids."

That was two years into our Ambleside experience. The kernel of doubt thus lodged in my mind was nurtured by the lack of structure I found in my kids' writing. They were imaginative, yes. They had things to say, absolutely. But they were not succinct or cohesive. Sometimes they were not even coherent.

By that time, my oldest was beginning Year 7. I saw that there were specific books recommended for composition. They were commendable, trusted commentaries and celebrated writing handbooks. I had heard of these.

But I wanted systematic assignments. I wanted someone to lay out the work for me. I didn't have the experience to know how to order the work to be done with these books. My student and I read them through and tried to implement them in the narration process, but our efforts were sporadic.

As we went through Year 7 and into Year 8, I began to panic a little. Some of my panic was public, which is rather embarassing to recall. I started purchasing any and every writing handbook I could find for cheap. Anxious to stay away from 'formula' writing programs, I shunned IEW and purchased BraveWriter. It was good for making me calm as I taught the kids writing, but didn't fill that gap I perceived in our writing program.

In Year 9, desperate, I purchased Jensen's Format Writing and had my oldest work through that. It wasn't a complete success, although she dutifully wrote dry essays in the 'proper' five-paragraph format. She rewrote Lamb's Essays of Elia for dictation at the same time, which are definitely NOT 'proper' five-paragraph essays-- Jensen and Lamb are as different as night and day. In comparing the two, I finally saw the difference between writing for an "A" and writing for the joy of expression.

The rewriting of essays in the last year-- a recommendation given at AO/HEO Year 9-- has probably been the best thing that we have done at our house to improve writing skills. I am following the HEO Year 10 plan of having her rewrite eighteen more essays from various authors this year. But slogging through Jensen's was helpful too, in terms of making her aware that structure is not optional. She eventually discovered structure in the Lamb essays, but I do not know that she would have seen it without having to outline and bullet-point her way through a format writing curriculum.

I asked Aravis what she felt helped her the most with writing essays and articles. She thought perhaps writing for the science fair, since it was the only 'report writing' she did for so many years. I think this is funny because after last year's science fair, students were told in no uncertain terms that if they were writing their project speeches in literary style, they needed to stop that and be more brief and technical. You can't please everyone.

But Aravis had a point. In writing for the science fair, she had a purpose, she had a goal, and she had to be coherent.

Good writers write. They read and they research and they live, and then they write and write and write. Some of the writing is motivated by the writer's own desire to express, to get it out of the mind and onto the page. Sometimes the writer is given a job to do, with boundaries and requirements, but inside those limits the joy of expression can still be found.

Aravis has been learning the art of the 25-minute SAT essay this summer. It is difficult to impossible to freewrite through the SAT essay. The tight time limit and complicated writing topics practically require the student to quickly develop a thesis and bullet points as framework before composing. It is not a leisurely exercise. But these assignments will present themselves despite my efforts to allow my students time to think. I now hope to teach my kids how to discover writing liberty within the constraints that will be imposed on them by their guides, overseers and rulers.

(Related note: I am still looking for an excellent writing program to help us on our journey, and am currently interested in-- read: drooling over-- Andrew Kern's Lost Tools of Writing.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I sent the following note to a dear, sweet mother of two primary students and one toddler child who expressed frustration and sorrow for her struggling efforts the other day. Then I realized I know other moms with kids in the early elementary and toddler/preschool years that might like to hear about our journey, so here it is:

Dear _____,

I wanted to let you know that I was standing right in your shoes seven years ago. My daughters were 9, 6 and 3. I felt guilt for the time I didn't spend with the 3yo, frustration with the 6yo because she simply *would not* learn how to read, and exhaustion trying to keep up with the 9yo who was extremely curious about the world and wanted to read everything before I could preread it.

It was a tough time. People told me, "These years pass so quickly. They don't stay small forever. Enjoy it while you can."

I thought, "I *know* these years pass quickly, but I need to get through *today*." I even felt guilty that I wasn't enjoying their younger years more!

Fast-forward seven years. I have three children who are almost 16, 13 and 10. They are independent, intelligent, and fun. I did some things right, and many things wrong (including yelling and the manipulative mama guilt trip). I cried out to the Lord, and many times felt like I couldn't pray. I learned to put little islands of calm into each day-- a promise that we would definitely read a chapter from a favorite book (with no narration), a trip to the park after violin lesson every week, a day in which we did no chores but the necessary. I learned to evaluate what went well and what needed tweaking—without a self-inflicted, judgmental guilt-trip/pity-party combo—at the end/beginning of each term, and to adjust to the reality of our immediate situation, appreciating idealistic scenarios, but understanding that sometimes they just aren’t practical.

It's a lot to think about. At one point in those elementary years (I think it was the year my youngest began Year 0), I confessed to a friend that I just *could not* do this. She laughingly said, "You know we're crazy, right?" Then she suggested that I stop grabbing guilt out of the universe and go easier on myself.

I want to suggest that you stop grabbing guilt out of the universe and go easy on yourself.

I try hard not to vent at my kids when I get frustrated or overwhelmed, but when it happens, I humbly ask their forgiveness. And move on. They know their mom is not perfect. Sometimes it takes a day or two for me to climb down from my 'mad' enough to talk to them about it, but the Lord doesn't let me rest until I have made reparation. Then He wants me to move on as well. God doesn't want us dwelling on our sinful parts. Go forth and sin no more, right? Forgetting those things that are behind, we press for the mark of the high calling in Christ Jesus. He paid for those sins. They are as far away as the East is from the West.

One time we were visiting in the home of friends who also homeschool. Her oldest son had been having some behavior issues, and the evening had been rather bumpy as a result. I will never forget the prayer she prayed as we sat down to dinner. "Lord, please redeem this evening."

He redeems our efforts. He knows our frame, that we are dust. He knows we need Him in order for anything good to grow.

I *so* feel your pain. I have been there many times. As the girls get more independent and less in need of constant supervision, puberty, teenage hormones and college preparations come into the mix. But God is faithful. He has done so much with my girls. They are fascinating and funny and smart. They certainly have their flaws, but I am amazed at what the Lord has wrought. My oldest is getting through college testing with flying colors (we've done living books all the way through-- ha!), and my younger two are blossoming and revealing their potential in spite of my mistakes. They are His kids, too. :)

Blessings, sweet mother! Rest assured that "no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should, and after all, you are just one woman-- a person, not superhuman after all." Keep your eyes on your Maker, abide in Him, and He will give you the desires of your heart.

With Love,