Series of happiness

Sandra turns 18 soon and was finding it hard to work up a sense of anticipatory happiness about the event.

We’ve been having a bit of a nostalgic winter, with lots of “remember when’s” and “oh, there was that time…” Sandra realized that if anything really defined her childhood in terms of fictional landscapes it was Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

Neither of my children has read Harry Potter, though. Thanks to the years of needing vision therapy, that was a series that they experienced as I read aloud. Sandra decided that this ought to be remedied and set about finding a set with artwork she wanted on her bookshelf. Because the family set was the family set, not the Sandra set.

And she talked Matthias into following her down the path. And they discovered that the North American sets are rather meh. And they ordered from England. And the sets arrived.


Now they have to wait for her birthday to start reading. Happy anticipatory feelings have been achieved!


What I’m listening to

Destiny Disrupted: a History of the World Through Islamic Eyes


It’s a great book. The author reads it, and while he doesn’t have the best voice I’ve heard narrate an audiobook, he does it well and it’s particularly nice to hear the names and words pronounced by someone who knows how. I do miss access to a map, but the audiobook format means I’m actually “reading” it rather than intending to, as I have for two years.

I think it’s a book that everyone in the West would benefit from. It’s clear that our world is fractured into several narratives/mind sets. Understanding -and possibly solutions to some modern problems – will start with knowing more about how others see the flow of history and the themes they identify.

Sandra is doing it as part of a current events/Muslim studies unit.

“The Last Maasai Warriors” teen book club


Today is our January book club and we are in Africa on our trip around the world. “The Last Maasai Warriors” is a startling yet simple account of two boys’ lives as they navigate the changing world around them, as they transition from herding nomads to educated leaders.

I’m constantly taken aback that these men are nearly my age. That Victorian-age explorers found tribes of people with ancient and very different lifestyles seems obvious; that there are humans my age who had never seen even a car is something I am dazzled and delighted by. We read so much about the pervasive nature of globalization and how there’s a McDonalds everywhere. But not everywhere, not really.

The strength of this narrative is the boys’ ability to negotiate the traditional and the new. Their dedication to finding solutions for their people while respecting and participating in the traditions and ceremonies demonstrates a wisdom and steadiness that I find admirable.

Admirable. Steady. Calm. Wise. These are the words I’d use to describe the authors.

Fascinating. Educational. Readable. Those are the words I’d use for the book.

Here are the discussion questions I plan to use:

Start by explaining we are going to cut our hands and not flinch as a method of cultural understanding…just kidding.

What was your favourite part of the book?

Was there anything frustrating about the book?

Maasai don’t know their ages. About 15 years belong together in a generation. Can you imagine your life like this? What would be different about your life if you didn’t know your age or your friends’ ages? Is homeschooling a little like this in terms of grade levels?

Why does age matter?

If you could be reincarnated, would you want to be reincarnated as a Maasai?

What do you like better about their society or lives? What do you like better about yours?

What did you think of the section where Jackson follows the mamas and gets a sense of their lives? Is that something that would make sense in our culture? (Even in households where both women and men work full time, women do more childcare and housework – often called The Second Shift)

What do you think would be the strangest thing for them when they came to Canada? (other than the weather!)

If you could wave a magic wand and fix one problem facing the Maasai, what would it be? (And do you have any idea what the solution would be?)

Wangari Maathai – Kenyan woman to win Nobel Peace Prize for tree planting – video Taking Root video This is a 3 min video about Wangari Maathai (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kenyan woman, tree planting radical), and it makes me want to see the whole 80 minute show.

Book begins: “The world is full of heroes.” What is a hero? Are these men heroes? Who are your favourite heroes – real and fictional? What would transform you into a hero – what situation do you see yourself rising to meet?

assorted links to share

A few good things have come across my version of the internet lately (ie, the portion of the internet I visit). I’d like to share. Some for homeschoolers and parents, some for readers, some for knitters. 😉

Melissa Wiley reviewed a paperless home organization book – and she’s someone I trust. If my brother-in-law, or some irritatingly smug mommy column recommended this book I’d glaze over, but Melissa, I get the feeling she’s my kind of human. Her recommendations are things I pay attention to.

The Cybils list of finalists are out. What are the Cybils? Well, you know how the Newberry Awards seem to give awards to books that nostalgic adults like to read? The Cybils give awards to books that young adults can’t put down. And the list of finalists certainly made me want to run out and buy them all in order to neglect everything but basic human functions while I read.

And now a link with really good worksheets and handouts for teaching German grammar. Is this exciting for you? No. But frankly the resources out there are a brain-bustingly dull group and this set is at least readable, to the point, and useful.

Knitters have probably already heard about this, but I can’t not mention the frisson of excitement that goes through me at the thought of sweaters made with CustomFit. Amy Herzog’s genius for pattern design married to her thousands of moments helping knitters find the most flattering fit. Amy’s basically put her brain into a computer and you can use it and your measurements to get a pattern written just to fit you. Actually fitting sweater. In so many styles.

“Oliver Twist” book club

It’s never the books I expect that get the teens talking. I expected “Oliver Twist” to be a bit of a ‘broccoli’ book – good for you, but not something you can go on and on about. Instead, we had lots to talk about.

In general, everyone disliked Oliver as too weak, feeble, and just unknowably…there. We had a great debate about whether the book was too simplistic or whether there were nuances that brought life to characters and situations. We laughed at all of the fainting Oliver did. We talked about Nancy and Sikes and came to no neat conclusions about them.

Here are a list of the questions I had prepped. We didn’t use them all in our hour-long discussion. Some are from Book Club Questions, some are from Classics Reading Group, and others I came up with. I really, I mean really, loved the “Oliver Twist” section on Shmoop. It’s not a resource I’d come across before this, but the sections on characters, themes, imagry, all really helped me feel like I understood the book enough to lead the discussion. I’ll be frank – this was my first reading of “Oliver Twist” and while I followed most of it, there were sections with vague enough allusions or convoluted enough passages that lead me to look for solid footing.

Oliver Twist Book Club

Briefly go over Poor Laws, Industrial Revolution, Workhouses for background.

Who was your favourite character?

Why is Oliver the flattest character in the book?

Who is the bad guy in this book?

Is Fagin bad, opportunistic, immoral, clever, or something else?

Some modern readers are uncomfortable with Dicken’s portrayal of Fagin as “The Jew” – snivelling, greedy, manipulative. How do you feel about this? Did you notice? Is this in the book or in their heads? …Fagin as a Jew: Does anti-Semitism influence Dickens’s portrait of Fagin? What does Fagin represent? (“Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a Jew, because it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” letter from Dickens to a Jewish friend 1863, qtd in Norton Critical Edition, p 378)

Why doesn’t Nancy accept the help and sanctuary that is offered? Did she really love Bill or are her actions more of a self-imposed punishment often given by those who believe they are not good enough for redemption?

What do you think Dickens was trying to tell us about class? about gender? morality? For instance, think about the scene in which Nancy goes to Miss Rose Maylie. There is a lot going on in this scene about gender, about class, and about choice.

Main question seems to be – where does criminality come from? Is it inherent? Is it environment?

Nature versus nurture. Oliver resisted thievery throughout the novel. Which characters showed an honest nature, despite their circumstances and “low birth”? Or, conversely, did everyone have a chance to choose for themselves?

Why does Oliver have to be the inheritor of great sums of money, wouldn’t Dickens’ point about a person’s virtue being based on who they are, not how they come into the world be more effective if Oliver really had been born of the scum of the earth?

How does Dickens’s portrayal of women compare to his portrayal of men?

Consider Noah Claypole and Charlotte. What is Noah’s role in the plot of Oliver Twist?

Why does Dickens include the character little Dick?

Why does Dickens include Mr. Bumble’s courtship with Mrs. Corney?

How important is Bill Sikes’s dog?

Science reading

Currently reading

One of the things that Sandra and Rainer did during Take Your Kid to Work Day was meet with the Head of the Environmental Science program. Sandra wants to study Environmental Science in combination with Disaster Studies. It would be a great undergrad degree for the kind of questions she likes to ask and the kind of ‘big systems problem-solving’ career she’d like to have. While talking with the Department Head, she was given a copy of Science³: A Science Student’s Success Guide.

It looks like it will be an incredible resource. In particular, I was drawn to a segment on the back of the book which talked about how the authors all felt that the divisions between scientific disciplines had actually impeded their progress as scientists. It is a book to read in your first year of university, or before, to gain maximum use out of it. Here’s a description from the website:

–Here you’ll learn the skills not normally taught in the classroom; effective post-secondary study skills, how to think critically and communicate in science, using mathematics as a scientific tool, how to leverage the use of word roots, prefixes and suffixes when reading scientific papers and texts and how to highlight your science skills to create opportunities for a job or graduate school. Science3 also shows you how Chemistry, Physics and Biology interrelate and demonstrates how you can effectively apply the same study strategies to all three disciplines. —

A few tidbits:

-Key concepts and scientists are outlined for biology, chemistry, and physics.

-It addresses how to write for the sciences.

-I really like that they cover the idea of mathematics as a tool for scientists.

-The sections on studying are brief but marvellous: they recommend evidence-based study methods (ie, ones that scientific studies support).

I haven’t had time to read it cover to cover, but from the bits I’ve dipped into, I can say that I recommend it for homeschooling students no matter whether they’re on a path to science or not. It is approachable, useful, well-written, and the kind of blatantly fundamental tool every student should have.

Round the World Teen Book Club

Here are my plans for our homeschool teen book club this year.  There is  a shelf dedicated to it on Goodreads, for those of you looking for a set of easy links.

  1. North America: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  2.  South America: “Finding Miracles” by Julia Alvarez
  3. Europe: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
  4. Africa: “The Last Maasai Warriors” by Meikuaya and Ntirkana
  5. Asia: “Red Scarf Girl” by Ji Li Jiang
  6.  Oceania: “In a Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson
  7. Antarctica: “Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World” by Jennifer Armstrong
  8.  “Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne
For those of you looking for interesting companion reads for yourselves or older teens, “Something Fierce”  won the Canada Reads contest a few years ago and is fantastic.  I wish, wish, wish I could  use this as the South American book , but there is a little bit of frank sexuality in it that rules it out for other families.  It is about a girl who grew up in a family of South American revolutionaries. There is a lot to learn in here, about politics and history, yes, but also about sacrifice, personal choice, the meaning of struggle, the implications of living out a false identity.
“Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China” is a great compliment to “Red Scarf Girl”. I was stunned by the lack of rationality and compassion in China’s history again and again. I kept looking up from the book, saying to my husband, “This is crazy.” The most valuable piece was the understanding it brought me of what indoctrination by such a system does to the heart and mind – the way the mind learns to deal with contradiction, the way questioning ends, the way that playacting on the outside can creep inside. Jung Chang’s journey to question the system is so revealing. Her breakthroughs are such tiny pieces of logic; their smallness reveals how thoroughly her mind had been saturated with a stew of indoctrination and how compartmentalizing experiences and ideas can stunt thought.

Things that Worked: Part 1

I’m going to start mentioning programs or techniques that really worked for us in our past year’s homeschooling.


First up: Vocabulary Vine. This is a simple, cheap, and effective vocabulary program that teaches 108 Greek and Latin roots.  I liked that the words chosen were words my kids were likely to know or encounter, and the spiral nature of the program both previews and reviews continuously.  It was something we could just ‘pick up and do’ in a few minutes.  Now that’s a winner!


We didn’t do any of the games, and maybe my kids need more review because of that, but that’s neither here nor there for you.


Reading in bed

Reading ‘in’ Bed

Ender’s Game gets four thumbs up from our family. I picked it for our teen book club, before it was announced that there would be a movie.

Some of the kids in our group don’t read sci-fi, and one of my goals for this year was to explore various genres. I think this book is a shining example of why sci-fi exists, of what it can do that regular literature can’t. It excels at setting up structures that force us to enter into a dialogue with the narrative about morality, ethics, possibilities, and more. Sci-fi is made up of ‘What if’ questions in an engaging package; my first year philosophy class given characters and plots to turn the questions into page-turners.

Normally, Matthias, who is 13 now, doesn’t join us. He’s still working up his confidence in reading, not to mention his reading stamina or interest. This time, I told him he had to. I put my foot down, an unusual thing for me to do with him, my force-of-nature son. Then I sweetened it with an offer to pay him. Sigh. Don’t tell the homeschool police.. And at first he struggled along. Then I noticed he was picking the book up on his own. Then he was picking it up first thing in the morning. Still reading his page quota each day, but with interest.

He has 8 pages to finish tomorrow before 1 pm. He’ll make it. He’s loving it. He thinks it’s awesome. Reading with italics. That doesn’t happen too often for him.

Do you have recommendations for books he might like? He’s seen ‘Hunger Games’ but not read it.

I should go. It’s a busy day: soccer game to coach, supper to cook, pets to brush before the whole house fills with hair, Othello to prep for tomorrow’s Shakespeare co-op with another family, and I have 3 pages worth of questions to sift through before tomorrow for book club. There’s just so much we could talk about.

wandering off the track a bit

Sandra and I are off on a bit of an unexpected topic. We’re watching World War II in HD Colour on Canadian Netflix. WWII is a very troubling topic and I’m a total wimp when it comes to anything that plumbs the depths of humanity’s capacity to be horrible. I read the description of the plot of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and that alone was enough to set me weeping. This series of documentaries, however, focuses on the tactics and the events. It is informative and balanced. We’re 9 episodes into the 13 and really enjoying it.

Part of why we’re homeschooling is to raise citizens rather than consumers. I believe that understanding 20th C history is an essential part of understanding modernity, understanding decisions in a global setting, and understanding the huge trends and tensions of our world. I’m very pleased with the contributions this series is making toward that goal.

I’m reading How the Girl Guides Won the War at the same time, an unexpected glimpse into the war. Girl Guides and Brownies formed a kind of trained and eager backbone for England during WWII, not to mention Poland, China, and many other countries. They were organized, dependable, and skilled in all sorts of areas from cooking over a fire (think of the Blitz and the destroyed houses) to Morse code. The author has unearthed all sorts of anecdotes and voices to bring the varied experiences to life.

I’m even thinking I might be ready to read “Anne Frank’s Diary”. The idea of reading it has always intimidated me. I worry my heart will break. What do you think?