Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

story and character formation, selfhood and book, self-image and books, girls and books,

Building a self. (andycarter’s flickr photostream)

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids aren’t fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Children are drawn to stories that resonate with the same challenges they’re facing. Authors know kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, establishing one’s own values, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years.

As I look back I realize two books I read over and over still echo in my life today. One of my favorites was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. It’s the story of a little girl who is taken to live in the mountains with her grumpy but kind grandfather. She loves to spend her days outdoors on the hillsides, playing with the goats, talking to Peter the goatherd and his blind grandmother, and eating simple wholesome foods like cheese made from goat’s milk. When Heidi is taken away to live in the city, a companion to her sickly cousin Clara, she’s deeply homesick. Although she happily learns to read, hoping she can go home to read to the blind grandmother, each day away from her beloved mountains haunts her. She convinces her uncle to let Clara come back with her for a summer visit. There they spend days outdoors, playing with the goats, eating her grandfather’s hearty food, and laughing. Her cousin recovers her health and Heidi is free to stay in the place she loves.

My other favorite book was so pivotal I’ve called it the book that saved me.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is about a lonely girl named Mary who lives on the moors of England. She befriends a boy, Dickon, who can speak to animals. She also insists on becoming acquainted with an invalid named Colin. Mary doesn’t want dolls or toys. She wants the joy of helping a hidden garden come alive. She wants to remain free of lessons so she can learn Dickon’s wisdom. She wants to understand the mystery that makes flowers grow, helping Colin find that strength in himself.

Both books are about a certain kind of justice, one that permits self-determination and self-definition. Both are about the value of staying rooted and feeling nourished by a sense of place. Both are about the restorative power of nature. I feel those elements in my life strongly. Yet I see even more of these books in my choices. My children have grown up without schooling, as Heidi and Mary did. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, insist on wholesome food, and speak to all the animals on our little farm (though I’m still waiting for birds to alight on my arm as they did on Dickon’s). I have Heidi’s passion for reading and Mary’s passion for watching things grow. And I hope I have what both characters had in abundance, the determination to speak up for what they believed was right.

What books made you who you are today?

Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life?

And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?

Book Zombie

zone out while reading, reading addict, can't stop reading, staying up late to read, tune out the world when reading,

L.G. Weldon, book zombie

book [book]  noun
1. a work of fiction or nonfiction bound within covers or digital version
zom·bie  [zom-bee] noun
1. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, inanimate, remote
 2. an eccentric or peculiar person.


I stayed up past two a.m. last night happily churning through a book. Reading seems timeless to me, a book-related fugue state that got me in trouble in elementary school.  Many days the class moved on from reading time to math while I remained completely absorbed in a book. I’d look up to find I’d been called on to answer an equation. My brain would scramble to move from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’s18th century manor house to third grade long division, the plight of children dealing with villians more real than dreary numbers chalked on the board.

This still causes me trouble. I have no idea how many minutes or hours have elapsed when I finally lift my eyes from the page. That’s not helpful. At night I tuck into an enticing stack of books, often enjoying non-fiction for a few hours and then finishing up with a long indulgent dessert of fiction. The evening me doesn’t care about the morning me, she unpages chapter after chapter oblivious of the clock’s reality. But no matter how late she stays up reading there’s still an early start. When the morning me looks at the stack of books she isn’t bitter. She may sigh, but she also looks forward to reading some more.

When my kids were tiny I only let myself read when they were asleep or nursing. Okay, I also read while they were safely strapped in the stroller, pushing it with a book propped against the handle. I hoped this would keep them safe from their mother’s zombie reading state. It didn’t. Now they’re zombies when they read. Or maybe they pretend to be, the better to filter out reminding parental voices.

I can’t recall a fraction of all the marvelous books, essays, poems, and articles I’ve read over the years. But I’m convinced that they’re in there, ready to provide a bit of insight or wisdom I might call on when the need arises. They are a part of who I am as surely as the experiences that make up my life.

Yes, today I feel pretty zombified with only a few hours of sleep due to the magical novel, The Night Circus. But if my schedule allowed I wouldn’t wait until this evening to finish it.

Perhaps because I’m tired, it occurs to me that books lure us into this zombification. Think about it. Close scrutiny of readers reveals that we willingly zone out, only our eyes moving in oddly repetitive back and forth motions. While reading we are out of our own minds, happily roaming through the imaginings of someone else’s. Perhaps our beloved books build brains to feed on them. If that were true I’d say, “Nosh away my dear books. Make a buffet of my mind. I am your happy zombie.”

Are you a fellow book zombie? If so, what are you reading lately? And if not, does something else cause you to zombie-out?

How The Secret Garden Saved Me

inner life of children, kids' religious worries, what kids hide from their parents,

My mother gave me an old clothbound book when I was nine years old.  It was her childhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I felt a sudden tug of connection to the little girl my mother once was, especially when I found her name carefully penciled on the inside cover.  Right away, I signed my name under hers.

Although written in 1911 and clotted with Yorkshire dialect, that book became an essential nutrient to me.  It told the story of orphaned Mary Lennox who was sent to live with her silent brooding uncle on the English moor. Little Mary had no lessons imposed on her and was given the opportunity to explore.  I envied her freedom.  A character named Dickon befriended animals so easily that they gathered at his feet and ate from his hand. I, too, liked to go in the forest behind our house in hopes that woodland creatures there would come to accept me.  And I understood Mary’s response when her uncle inquired if she wanted anything. He suggested toys or dolls.  Instead she asked, “Might I have a bit of earth?”

More than my favorite book, The Secret Garden provided comfort at a time when I could find no other solace.  The year I received my mother’s copy was also the year that one after another of my grandparents succumbed to long, painful illnesses. By the time I turned ten, all my grandparents had died.

I’d watched them struggle for each breath but it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t get better. That’s what doctors and medicine were for. That’s what prayer was for. Now we would never have Sunday dinner together again. The seasons would come and go without canning applesauce or planting bulbs or going to the lake with my grandparents as we always did. I couldn’t stop thinking about death.

children's literature and positive mental health, saved by a book, children find meaning in fiction,

Other children probably weather grief with more resilience but that year was a dividing line for me. The blithe happiness of my childhood came to a halt. I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone I loved would die some day—my pet rabbits, my friends, and worst of all, my parents. My mother assured me that God simply called people home to heaven when it was their time. I kept asking why, if God were all-powerful, would He allow people like my grandparents to suffer so horribly before they died. She said His wisdom was beyond our understanding. Her answers left me with more and more questions. I could see asking them only intensified the sorrow she felt. So I tried to keep my worries to myself.

Now added to my fear of this unknown thing called death a new bleakness was added. Where I once prayed and worshipped without doubts, I was set adrift somewhere beyond my parents’ beliefs. Religion seemed piteously small when confronted with bigger dilemmas. And more of them occurred to me each day. What was the purpose of existence in a universe of unimaginably vast time and space? How did everything start when it had to come from somewhere? How did our tiny lives matter? I didn’t like the thought that adults believed in something that made no sense. I felt I was standing in a blizzard outside the warmth of answers that faith provided. It was lonely.

I tried to reconstruct my comfortably safe worldview with the tools I’d been taught were the most powerful: good behavior and prayer. I knew I wasn’t really the good girl I seemed to be. I was a picky eater, I argued with my sister, and I was lazy about chores. So I tried hard to be better, to be so worthy that no one else I loved would be taken away. The effort was a useful distraction from my preoccupation with big questions about death, meaninglessness, and infinity.

And I prayed, fiercely and in my own way, using pictures in my head and silent words. It was a gamble because I was no longer sure that God existed or if He did how on the job He was, but I had to do my best to keep my family alive. Here’s how my keep-them-alive game worked. If I thought of people I loved I had to pray for them. This was somewhat less burdensome at school because I was busy. It was overwhelming when my parents went out for the evening. I thought of my mother and father constantly, each time silently praying that they would come home safely. I summoned up images of my parents driving, chatting with their friends, driving home, then walking in the door. My whole body could feel the relief of their imaginary return. But as the evening wore on my prayers got more fervent and I took up a position watching cars go down the street. Their return was always later than I expected, probably because I was constantly willing them home. As soon as their car pulled in the driveway I ran to bed, feeling a sense of blessed completeness I couldn’t explain. They were back. Everything was okay.

It was exhausting.

importance of stories to girls, what books mean to kids,

I couldn’t imagine how but my parents weren’t fooled by the cheery act I put on. My mother told me that sometimes people need more help getting over their grief. She made an appointment for me to see a psychotherapist. I knew full well what this meant. I’d read my share of children’s books where unfortunate characters are locked up in institutions or sent away for their own good. It rarely went well for them. I was determined to act as un-crazy as possible. The day of my first appointment my mother made me wear a summer dress, sweater, and saddle shoes—the clunkiest fashion statement imaginable even to my ten-year-old sensibilities.

My mother usually stayed with me in the pediatrician’s office so I expected the same. Instead I was ushered in to see the doctor by myself. An older lady sat behind a large desk. She asked me to sit facing her in a chair much too large for me. I sat, my throat clenched with so much tension that it was hard to swallow. She asked me how I felt about coming in. I knew it wasn’t polite to admit my true feelings. Kids constantly have to filter what they do and say to please adults. So even though I feared and despised everything about the appointment I told her I was fine and didn’t need to be there and I was perfectly happy except for the embarrassing outfit I was wearing. I said it nicely. In fact I thought my comment about the outfit was a light-hearted joke. The doctor turned it into the topic of a lengthy question and answer session. She seemed to think I hated my mother for making me wear clothes I didn’t like. I couldn’t imagine that she’d had a mother recently or she would know that mothers make you do all sorts of things you don’t want to do. Eat all your dinner, clean your room, write thank you notes, well the list was endless. Frankly a dorky outfit was the least of it. Clearly I would have to filter what I said even more carefully.

Next she got out a series of large black and white photographs. She said it was a fun kind of test. I always got good grades on tests at school but the rules were pretty flimsy for this one. All I had to do was look at the pictures and tell her a story about what was happening. That included what happened right before the picture was taken and what would happen immediately afterwards. The first picture showed a dark-haired woman walking by herself on a beach. She didn’t look all that happy.Right behind her was a man with his arms reaching up in such a way that he seemed ready to choke her. The look on his face was creepy as well as dangerous. But I put the lightest tone possible in my voice and told the doctor that it was the woman’s birthday and she didn’t know her friend had come to surprise her. He was going to put his hands over her eyes and ask her to guess who and she’d be delighted. Nearly every picture was equally disturbing. I churned through them with Pollyanna-ish stories in my attempt to demonstrate just how mentally healthy I could be.

Next she brought up my grandparents’ deaths. The questions she asked were so upsetting and intrusive that I couldn’t answer. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. Having a stranger try to get me to tell her things about those who were dead alarmed my whole body. I could feel every inch of the chair touching me. The smell of the office, dusty and airless, made me want to choke. Although I willed them away, tears kept springing up in my eyes, and I set my mouth as tightly closed as I could.

The doctor changed her tactics back to the earlier conversation about my mother. I tried to unlock my mouth into a polite smile but I desperately wanted to run out the door. I knew my mother would be waiting and ready with a comforting hug. All I needed to do was just hold on until the appointment was over. Then the doctor made a statement so insane that it seemed whole adult world might be slipping away on a raft built without logic. She said I was upset because I wanted my mother dead.

That was it. I was willing to sacrifice the time I’d invested in good girl behavior but I would never go back there. I would do whatever it took. I would throw fits if necessary but I would not speak to that doctor again. On the drive home and all through supper I tried to figure out how to best make my stand. I decided to be logical and calm, although I wanted more than anything else to climb into my mother’s lap. That evening I sat with my mother, the person I prayed for most often, and lost my struggle to keeping from crying. I told her the unspeakable thing the doctor had said. My mother was gratifyingly appalled. She hugged me for a long time and then we talked as if we were on one side and the doctor on the other. It was delicious.

My mother called the doctor the next day and afterwards confirmed that I was a good judge of character. I would not have to go back. I overheard her telling my father that the doctor “didn’t have her head screwed on tight.” But my mother did think the doctor was right about one thing. I wasn’t getting over my grandparents’ deaths.

That wasn’t it. The loss of my grandparents had tossed me into a realm of questions I couldn’t ask and worries that faith couldn’t explain. I knew my parents were concerned about me so I ramped up the cheerful act. Masking my fears actually helped, at least during the day. But at night I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t work hard to steer my mind relentlessly toward peaceful thoughts I’d feel as if I were falling into dark nothingness. The galaxies we learned about in fourth grade, black and endless, seemed like a void that would swallow up everything I knew. On the worst nights I could feel the fabric of the ordinary world stretched thin over a much larger unknown. Then I couldn’t even cry myself to sleep.

So I resorted to the distraction of reading. As soon as the rest of my family went to bed I turned my light back on. Most often I chose The Secret Garden. I turned to the same passages over and over. I read about the garden that seemed dead in the early spring chill until Mary cleared away branches and leaves to find tender green sprouts in the soil. I read about the crippled boy whose limitations Mary refused to accept and of his triumphant recovery in that garden. I read about her sorrowful uncle who awakened to joy after years of despair. Then I could sleep.

~

I don’t regret the fears and doubts of my childhood. They set me on a richly rewarding lifelong path of seeking answers to big questions. But I didn’t realize why I turned to The Secret Garden until I found the book years later. I opened it to see two childish signatures, my mother’s and my own. Rereading it, I recognized the passages that sustained me when I felt most lost. Each one was about about redemption, nature’s wisdom, and offered what I needed most of all, simple hope.

If I could meet a person from history I’d choose Frances Hodgson Burnett. I now know about the losses she suffered, the despair she fought, and the writing that was her life’s work. I’d tell her, a bit shyly, that I make a living as a writer too. I don’t think I could express how profoundly her book calmed a little girl too upset to sleep but I’d want her to know that her words were a soothing balm during those dark nights.

And I’d tell her that The Secret Garden didn’t just save me, it also shaped my future. Today I live on a small farm where my children have no lessons imposed, just like Mary. The animals here eat from my hand, as those in the book did from Dickon’s hand. Maybe I’d simply say, “Frances, our land is named after lines you wrote. We call it Bit of Earth Farm.”

Laura Grace Weldon

Six Ways Introduce Fine Arts Using The Happy Idiot Method

Artwork by Samuka

“You’re a frigging idiot.”

That’s what the guy behind us said. He spoke so loudly that two rows of concert-goers heard it. He didn’t even wait until the intermission to announce he considered us boorish.

I’m still not sure what upset him so much. My seven-year-old daughter had begged to attend what she called a “real performance” after enjoying a number of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Musical Rainbows concerts for young children. Nearly every day since she’d been three years old she put on recordings such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs,
Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf,  Song of the Unicorn, and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.Sometimes she played,  sometimes she danced but mostly she drew pictures as she listened to compelling music woven around stories.

Going together to the concert was a rare night out for the two of us but I knew her three brothers weren’t as entranced by classical music. So that evening she and I dressed up, taking our eagerness to velvety seats not far from the stage. As the concert hall filled many people greeted us kindly. The musicians began to tune up and my daughter nodded at me. She knew this was her cue to be quiet until intermission.

Then the man behind us arrived. He squeezed past others, sat down and said aloud, “Oh no.” Because he exhaled so repeatedly and in such an exaggerated manner I wondered if he’d sat on something awful. Nope, the something awful was us.

Just as the conductor lifted his baton, the man behind us leaned forward as if to whisper, but his hissed words weren’t quiet at all. He said, “I paid good money for this seat. Your kid better not wreck it.” Then he muttered “idiot” under his breath. I turned around to look at him, more surprised than annoyed, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring hatefully at my beautiful child.

The performance started and my daughter was enraptured. At times she looked over at me, squeezed my hand or leaned her head against me. Sometimes her hands floated just above her lap as if carried by sound. I paid close attention, hoping to hold the whole experience in my memory.

As the applause died down after the first piece the man behind us started sighing in exasperation. And he kept it up. I tried to notice what might have been bothering him. My daughter didn’t speak, didn’t hum along. She simply adored the music. But when the man started bumping my seat I turned my head to look at him. He was still glaring at my child.

For reasons of his own he was fed up. He looked at me and said loudly, “You’re a frigging idiot.”

The moment intermission began he stomped off and didn’t return. I hoped he’d find some peace despite possession by keep-children-out-of-concert-halls demons. But I’m no saint, I was pretty thrilled he left.

The woman next to my daughter assured us we weren’t the problem. An elderly gentleman at the end of our row, an orchestra patron for thirty years, said he hoped to see more children who loved classical music. By the time the musicians filed back some people had chatted with my daughter, happy to learn about her specific knowledge of that evening’s program. Others said, quite tactfully, that it was rare to see youngsters attend an evening concert.

A common perception is revealed by this experience. Fine arts and eager children don’t go together.

It’s not just one guy convinced the presence of a kid will ruin his evening. Most people set the arts aside as something special or worse, something for those who really know what they’re reading/seeing/hearing.

To me that’s the sort of separatist thinking that keeps fine arts in the underfunded, under appreciated realm where nearly extinct things go to die. But that’s how they’re introduced to most young people. Arts are imposed using the old “eat this spinach or you’ll be punished” method. Great way to inspire a hatred of spinach. And art. It isn’t woven into their lives and it doesn’t grab them (or at least many of them) in a way that’s personally meaningful. Instead fine arts are introduced in later grades. Students are lectured, assigned work, and graded. If they’re lucky they get extra doses of the arts doled out in guided museum visits and a class trip to see Shakespeare performed after weeks of preparation. The vitality is bled right out.

In Shakespeare’s time his plays were part of popular culture. People from all social classes crowded into the Globe Theatre where they enjoyed the bard’s social commentary, melodrama and comedy. Chances are they didn’t bother to analyze a thing. Chances are those plays did for them what art does when it means something to any of us, it illuminates.

I love the way young people discover and appreciate art when it isn’t imposed on them. These days my kids are older (teens and young adults). They enjoy fresh visual arts on YouTube, soaring new classical music scored for video games, and performances everywhere. Better yet, they aren’t passive. They connect and engage with it. During a recent discussion I overheard my kids relate the theme of a recent movie to Homer’s Odyssey, tie that to quotes from a Terry Pratchett book, then they were off parodying the theme using quotes from movies and song lyrics. Lightening fast, funny, and sharp. No curricula could possibly keep up.

My kids swam in the current of fine arts from the very beginning, as it flowed naturally with all the other influences in their lives.

Here’s the enjoyment-based, jump-right-in way we’ve always gotten comfy with fine arts in my family. (Caution, some may deem it idiotic.)

  1. Build in some fun. If you’re going to a concert in the park take along silent amusements for small people—a tiny stuffed animal that just might want to dance on its owner’s lap, drawing materials to capture impressions of the performers or the feeling of the music, a small treat that’s specific to concerts (consider bending that no lollipop rule). And if it isn’t much fun don’t stick around. Mosey off and wait until your children are older. And once your kids are older the experience is a greater pleasure for them if you let them invite a friend. We were often surprised to find that our 10th trip to a museum, where my kids clamored to see favorite sculptures and new exhibits, was the first trip for their friends.
  2. Make it an adventure. When you journey any distance to see a music performance, attend a play, or ramble through galleries make that stop one of several anticipated events.  Try to spot murals or other public art on the way. (When they were little my kids knew we’d arrived when they waved at the Guardians of Traffic pylons as we drove over the bridge to Cleveland.) Take a break in an ornate big city library, eat a packed lunch in a park, stroll through an open air market, pick up unusual snacks at an ethnic grocery, and let your child’s curiosity help guide the day’s events.  If part of the day incorporates a lot of sit down time (including the ride to and fro) be sure to balance that with movement, exploration, and sensory adventure.
  3. Tune it to the child’s level. Let preschoolers stroll as interest leads them through museums, especially art museums. You might decide to look for something specific on the way (one of my sons liked to spot animals, another son made it his quest to find anything airborne—birds, planes, angels, flying carpets).Make galleries a place of discovery. chat, ask questions, and when they lose interest it’s time to go.
  4. Make it an ordinary part of life. As with anything, it’s what you pay attention to that you magnify. Conversations about music, philosophy, or logic are just regular mealtime topics, brought up with the same casual interest as sports or the weather. Literary discussion with a four-year-old is easy. Simply talk about the picture book you’ve just read together. How could it have ended differently or gone on longer? Why do you think the main character acted that way or made that decision? Which character would you like to be in the story? Why?
  5. Start early. Listen to music as you nurse babies to sleep, imagining the wonderful association that child is making between sound and comfort (whether Bach or the blues). Hold up tiny ones to get a better look at paintings or sculpture. Indulge in sock puppet conversations with your toddlers. Dance and sing together unselfconsciously. Display your child’s artwork in frames and on shelves. Make CD’s available to kids for bedtime listening or quiet time, especially those by professional storytellers such as Odds Bodkins (who started my kids’ love of Homer’s Odyssey) and Jim Weiss. A great selection is available at Gentle Wind, Chinaberry, and your local library.
  6. Enjoy it the way you choose. Shakespeare’s work may spark fascination in a lavishly illustrated picture book such as Coville’s William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Picture Yearling Book), an early chapter book such as Mayer’s The Tempest, or maybe a graphic novel like The Tempest The Graphic Novel (American English, Original Text). See The Tempest in any number of movies from productions done in 1928 to the newest, recasting Prospero as a woman. Check out how The Tempest has been interpreted by artists throughout the years. My kids appreciate a stage performance best after they know the story well, on their own terms, after bumping into it in books or movies or music. After seeing the play, one of my kids noted that it was written 400 years ago but names from The Tempest are still popular today— Miranda, Ariel, Antonio,Iris, Sebastian. That reminds me that the roots of what we care about today go much farther back than we imagine.

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Find more suggestions in Free Range Learning.

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Gathering Fifty Wise Homeschoolers in One Place

Award-winning Home Education Magazine has been published since 1984 by Mark and Helen Hegener and their third-generation homeschooling family. Each issue inspires, informs and invigorates readers.  Of all the magazines our family receives, this is one we keep. The copies are timeless. I share them, refer to them and treasure them.

A “best of” volume titled The Homeschool Reader: Series 1995-1999: Collected Articles from Home Education Magazine has just been released. It gathers nearly 50 homeschooling experts in one place.  I was honored to serve as editor for this project.

For a glimpse of what this very full little book offers, take a look at the bounty promised by the table of contents.

Starting Out

“Revelations of a Homeschooling Mom” by Carol Wanagel

“Keep It in the Family” by Catherine Daughton

“The Early Years Child’s Learning Assets” by Linda Dobson

“Leaving Public Education” by Ellen C. Bicheler

“Decompression – Frequently Asked Questions” by Cafi Cohen

“User Friendly Homeschooling Records” by Larry and Susan Kaseman

“Make Learning Fun” by Katie Fawcett

“A Word of Encouragement If Needed” by Rebekah Freedman

Family Life

“When Everything is a Mess…” by Katje Sabin-Newmiller

“And Baby Makes Trouble?” by Cindy Gaddis

“The Fabric of Home Education” by Kathy E. Waldorf

“My Kids Won’t Let Me Teach” by Ann Leadbetter

“On His Own Time” by Robin Ohlgren-Evans

“Anecdotes” by Helen Hegener

“All Play and No Work?” by Linda Kidwell

“Handmade, Homespun and Homeschooled” by Robin Ohlgren-Evans

Fathers’ Viewpoints

“The Forest Floor Theory of Love” by Odds Bodkin

“Notes From a Homeschooling Dad” by Jeff Kelety

“Homeschooling Fathers” by Gary Wyatt

“When Dad Homeschools: from Breadwinning to Baking” by Jim Dunn

Socialization

“Socialization” by Helen Hegener

Different Needs

“You’re Going To What?” by Melissa Wagner

“Personal Notes on ADD” by Janie Bowman

Math

“Learning to Love Math” by Alison Moore Smith

“Ten Counter-Intuitive Math Teaching Tips” by Cafi Cohen

Reading

“Learning to Read” by Sue Smith Heavenrich

“Learning to Read” by Christine Lozano

Reading Recovery Program” by Martine Palmiter

“A Family Book Club for Readers and Non-Readers” by Melinda Roth

Writing

“Getting It Down: Ways to Encourage a Reluctant Writer” by Sue Smith-

Heavenrich

“The Writing Club” by Jill Boone

“Haiku in my Pocket” by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Art

“Art for the Younger Child” by Jan Brewington

“Art for the Older Child” by Jan Brewington

Physical Education

“Time For Family Baseball” by Earl Gary Stevens

Science

“Learning and Doing Science” by Cafi Cohen

“Learning High School Science Outside a Lab” by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

“Learning Nature’s Way: With Open Arms and Ample Interruptions” by

Gail McClelland Fenton

“Natural Nature Learning” by Deborah Taylor-Hough

History & Social Studies

“History At The Old Huff House” by Diane Huff

“Meet Travis The Traveling Bear” by Julie Hart

Philosophy & Ethics

“Philosophy and Learning at Home” by Jana Mohr Lone

“From Empathy to Altruism: Community Service” by Shalynn Ford

Discussing Unschooling and More Structured Homeschooling

“Unschooling” by Cheri Howard

“Keys to Successful Unschooling” by Susan Jordan

“What Do I Do?by Eileen Yoder

“Unschooling or School-At-Home?” by Chris Sims

“In Defense of Workbooks” by Joanne M. Billmers

First Day” by April Montgomery

Learning, Working and Heading Out on Their Own: Teen and Young Adults

“Ten Reasons to Homeschool Through High School” by Cafi Cohen

How to Help your Child Choose a Career” by Dr. Ferne Cherne

“Preparing for College: An Insider’s View” by Maggie Bryson

Travel Homeschooling

“A World of Learning” by Barbara Theisen

“A Year Abroad: A Family Learning Together” by Lantien Chu

Perspective

“Redefining Basics” by Earl Gary Stevens

“Reflections of a Homeschooled Homeschooler” by Rebecca Bangs Amos

“On Self-Doubt” by Lenita Harsch

“When Being a Mom Isn’t Enough” by Amy Hollingsworth

“I Told You Not to Do That” by Kathleen Creech

“Bad Homeschooling Days” by Selena Montoya

“My Kids Aren’t Geniuses!” by Sally Hunt

“Letting Go of the Reins” by Helen Hegener

“The Door’s Wide Open, Come Out and Play” by Kathleen Creech

Anyone Hear A Horn Tooting?

book release, free range learning, hope, peace, natural learning, sustainability, I’ve been filling this space with hope, concern, peace and some attitude.

When I come across little-known books , music, documentaries and new research it’s a pleasure to share them.

I admit to feeling bashful when my publisher insisted I establish this site.  Sure, the net is teeming with people shining spotlights on themselves but I was raised to be polite and avoid attracting attention.  Not that I’m a credit to my upbringing. I’m too opinionated and sarcastic to qualify as polite. I’d be happy to avoid attracting attention but I can’t help it due to problems with gravity and a history of being attacked by vegetables.

But I know this site is a way of extending the work I do as a writer. Except…. I haven’t posted anything about my writing!

Well, I’m giving that a go right now.

That’s because today is the release date for my book. It’s titled Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. What’s it about?

Free Range Learning celebrates the promise found in each person’s abilities and interests. It emphasizes community enrichment, connection to nature, purposeful work and much more.  This handbook on educating the whole child provides a wealth of ideas and resources that help to preserve curiosity, awe and intellectual vigor as lifelong attributes.

Free Range Learning doesn’t shy away from data. It cites research by neurologists, child development specialists, anthropologists, educators, historians and business innovators. And it offers insights and experiences shared by over 100 homeschoolers from around the world.

The book also takes a look at the impact of our educational choices. It asks the reader to consider alternative education as a cultural shift that is redefining success and reshaping the future of schooling. Free Range Learning asserts that innovative and ethical young people who are accustomed to critical thinking will be the best equipped to meet the challenges of our changing world.

Attention given the book hasn’t risen to a thunderous clamor by any means. I did enjoy two recent moments of attention, for the following reasons:

Participating in Writer’s Read gave me a glorious opportunity to promote the work of other authors (click “read on” to see all five books I’m reading).

And Campaign for the American Reader’s Coffee with a Canine let me talk about my hound friends ( click “read on” for photes and details).

If clamor erupts, I’ll share links to reviews (and rants too) on the main page. Right now you can find endorsements, an interview and a few articles based on the book.

Free Range Learning is published by Hohm Press, a wonderful independent press committed to books promoting harmony and integrity for the last 35 years. They don’t, however, do anything in the way of marketing.

So it’s up to me. I want this book to do a world of good. I’m trying to get the word out to people interested in educational alternatives, community enrichment and natural parenting. That may include parents, educators, administrators, policymakers, sustainability groups, homeschool groups, anyone who might be open to more holistic learning . If you are inclined, please help me spread the word.

And stay tuned, a book trailer is in the works!

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Image courtesy of Fantasy Stock

Horse Boy: Because Autism Pushes Past Definitions

autism changing definition of normal, autism gifts,

We live in a time when limited definitions and restrictive boundaries no longer apply.

For example, autism.

People with autism themselves are changing what it means to be “normal.” The wild artist, the radical theorist, the creative scientist have long been held at arm’s length from the rest of us. So have many others who push the boundaries.

Amanda Baggs,  who doesn’t speak aloud but does speak through her keyboard, says that autism is a “constant conversation” with one’s surroundings. Ms. Baggs also actively communicates with a network of people around the world through her articles and forum posts. Videos she’s made have been viewed over a million times. Her voice makes a difference.

Which brings me to a powerful new documentary, The Horse Boy (and companion book The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing).

It shows the parents of five-year-old Rowan dealing with his tantrums, incontinence and most upsetting to them, their son’s distance. The mother, a psychology professor and the father, a human rights advocate who works with indigenous people around the world, apply diets, therapies, supplements and remarkable patience. Rowan’s screaming outbursts isolate the family. The couple, once world travelers, can barely manage a trip to a nearby park.

Although the father is a life-long equestrian, he keeps his unpredictable son away from horses. But one day Rowan runs to the next door neighbor’s horse. There an old mare reaches her head down and nuzzles the child as if he were her colt. Instinctively the father puts his son on the horse’s back. Rowan relaxes, lies down and talks easily.

A brief experience with a shamanistic healing ceremony that seems to be beneficial stirs Rowan’s parents to wonder where in the world they might find help for their son that pairs horses with shamanism. They end up going all the way to Mongolia.

There they don’t find miracles. But the journey, the horseback riding, the shamanic healing and the wide open landscape precipitates something beyond their understanding. Something happens that has to do with the mystery of autism itself. Although Rowan’s tantrums don’t go away, he also laughs, plays with other children, talks freely and becomes toilet trained. These improvements persist.

Autism is, whatever your perspective, now part of the human experience.  According to some studies, the incidence has risen to epidemic proportions of one in every 110 children. That’s a 50% increase from 1994. Other studies say the incidence may be a great deal higher.

This has been linked to heavy metals  such as mercury and aluminum exposure, to inflammatory syndrome affecting the gut, to a whole range of interrelated environmental factors which may disproportionately affect people with specific genetic or epigenic factors.

autism evolution, autism rights

A friend with two sons whose behavior puts them at the low functioning end of the autism spectrum says her boys, with their overt preference for screen-based technology, make her wonder if we’re pushing the envelope of evolution. “This is what more of our next generations will act like,” she tells me. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It’s where our choices have led us.”

 

Rowan’s father said a prayer before a wind-swept shine in Mongolia for all people touched in any way by autism. He asked that it be understood. He asked that the unknown gifts of autism be revealed.

May it be so.

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image titled “Autistic” courtesy of Tyora

image titled “People Are Not Puzzles” courtesty of hgmuffin_stuff

How to Raise Global Learners

raising global learners

Living on a farm we don’t have the time or the means to travel. But we want our children to be global citizens. We want them to truly understand how fully they are linked to their fellow beings on this beautiful blue green planet.

When they were small we read stories, ate the foods, played the games and celebrated festivals from far-off lands. As they got older we paid close attention to a rich variety of in-depth materials that helped us discover the global fibers that run through history, art, science, literature, really through any field of interest.

More than any materials we introduce, the connections my kids find most pivotal are those they make on their own, person-to-person across any distance. For example, one of my musician sons got interested in acoustics. He joined special interest forums to talk with fellow aficionados around the world about technical details of repairing historic microphones, the artistic nuances of found sound recordings, and other topics. Friendships developed. Now they converse about everything from politics to movies. Some day, when he travels overseas, he plans to take them up on their offers to stay in New Zealand, Finland, Brazil and elsewhere. Already he’s visited friends made online in the U.S., finding the rapport they developed holds fast in person as well.

Perhaps the most important connections any of us can make are lasting, caring relationships with people who live far away. For our family, one of the most enduring relationships we made was with an effervescent girl from Belarus named Tatiana. She came as part of the medical program Children of Chernobyl. Even in her first week here, the strength of her personality more than made up for the few words of English she knew and our poor pronunciation of Russian words we thought we knew. Tatiana was horrified by my vegetarian meals, refused to participate in the activities my outdoor-loving children preferred and let us know that she hadn’t traveled so far to live like a peasant. She wanted to be entertained! Like anthropologists to our own culture, we explored shopping malls and tourist sites, we bought kids’ fast food meals for the prizes and went to amusement parks rather than wilderness areas. Tatiana displayed her brilliance in many ways, typically beating any of us at board games we’d played for years and she’d just learned. Tatiana lived with us for five summers. She became a member of our family, a family which feels to us as if it extends to Belarus.

Each connection made of understanding and caring warms our planet—but in a good way. Which leads me to recommend two new books about raising global citizens.

Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World by Homa Sabet Tavangar is packed with enrichment ideas, games, service activities and resources to help raise children with the world in mind. Here are five great ideas from Tavangar’s book:

*Boost cultural understanding and fun by listening to pop music from around the world.  (I suggest using online translation to figure out the lyrics.)

*Talk about the origins and trading routes of products used every day in your home. Try tracing back a chocolate bar or t-shirt.

*Discover what foods are said to heal common health conditions. Lime juice in armpits is recommended in Paraguay to solve odor, ginger and green onion tea is recommended in China to cure a cold.

*Learn about practices for welcoming newborn babies into the family and community. Consider adapting customs to commemorate a new arrival in your family.

*Make humanitarian work a family affair. It’s possible to extend benevolent choices even to the search engine you use. Try http://www.ripple.org where 100% of search revenues help alleviate urgent global issues.

And for a vigorous “go there” perspective, give The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education by Maya Frost a read. A cure for any but the worst helicopter parents, Frost shows how learning in other countries best prepares today’s teens for the real global workplace. That means choices resulting in self-reliant, confident and bold adults.

Here are five great perspectives from Frost’s book.

*Stories throughout by young people who live and study abroad. Frost calls them “bold statements” and they offer invigorating examples of what travel can provide.

*Why Rotary International Youth Exchange program www.rotary.org offers the best exchange programs. Frost says it has to do with the network of volunteers around the globe providing support to families and students, the affordable price and the commitment to humanitarian work.

*The stage of life between fifteen and twenty, when pivotal life skills are being developed, the reach of our young people tends to be limited. As Frost writes, “They zero in on the fit of their jeans rather than on the fit of a cultural identity within a larger population, and they devote hours to enhancing the clarity of their skin instead of the clarity of their thinking. They are digging into a plate of pettiness because that is precisely what we’ve served them. They deserve–and are ready for–so much more.”

*How to arrange study abroad credits outside of university affiliated programs for more freedom and frugality.

*Ways to connect with helpful people in countries around the world.

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May your children become global learners. May our shared home be one of peace and goodwill.

Open-Eyed Optimism

hillside

Our dinner table topics tend to be obscure and in-depth because my kids delve deeply into their own interests. Detailed conversations about plant classification, advanced computer cooling methods, arachnid behavior and diesel fine-tuning require little from me except that I keep my eyes open.

But elections are coming up and we also tend to talk a lot about politics. These are conversations I can get into. These are also conversations where I need to temper myself. I know it’s important to stay open to everyone’s perspective around the table so I can hear what they have to say. This is difficult when I have strong opinions built on years of activism.

It’s easy to utter pat answers and give what may seem like trite explanations. It’s more valuable to build bridges of understanding than to be “right.” So I try, often unsuccessfully, to keep myself from snorting in derision about moneyed interests and short-sighted politicians. I want my family to continue to care deeply about things.

I also have to temper myself because politics are one of the few areas where my natural optimism wears thin. Still, it’s terrifically important to me that my family remain optimistic. According to The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and BuildLifelong Resilience by Martin E.P. Seligman, there are major differences between pessimists and optimists. People who are cynical believe negative conditions will last a long time. They give up easily and tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. In contrast, optimistic people look at negative conditions as a challenge and look for ways to prevent the next misfortune.  In fact optimists find life more fulfilling and rewarding. That’s an outlook worth cultivating.

Seligman recently spoke about infusing meaning and optimism into education. In one study, high school students not only read the classics but focused on the strengths of main characters. They also turned good intentions into actions benefiting others. The result?  Greater love of learning and increased social skills.

Looking for what’s valuable, what works, what brings joy is something we can do in all aspects of our lives.

Every day our children observe the direct kindness we demonstrate. They also witness the generosity of spirit we express as we talk about others, discuss issues and yes, listen. Our words and actions show them how to approach to the world.

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light.

Gary Snyder

from Turtle Island (A New Directions Book)

Edible Knowledge

cherrytomatoes Living on a farm we can’t help but be connected to the food on our table. We’re by no means perfect when it comes to eating locally. We’ll never come close unless chocolate and coffee start sprouting up in Ohio.

While more of us are paying attention to adopting better habits for our own health and planetary health, it’s easy to overlook the vital and wondrous learning that is directly related to food. For my family, those lessons often have to do with shared experiences.

~Many years we head out to pick apples together on a bright fall day. After an indulgent week of eating and baking with as many apples as possible, we devote a day to applesauce. We cook the remaining bushels of fruit down, cranking Grandma’s Victorio strainer that pushes with sauce out one side and pulp out the other (pulp eagerly eaten by the chickens), then can jars of applesauce to eat all winter long.

~We have encouraged each child to choose his or her own “crop” to plant and tend in the vegetable garden. Harvesting and sharing the bounty of one’s own fresh green beans teaches the satisfaction of work right along with lessons in botany and soil health.

~We try recipes from around the world, not only while learning about other cultures, but also because we freely trade garden bounty with friends, and have to do something with unfamiliar herbs, roots and fruits.

~We visit nearby farms. Observation and conversations with those who live on the land have been instructive, teaching us practices we want to emulate and those we hope to avoid.

~We eat meals together every day. Cooking frugally by choice as well as necessity has brought us myriad conversations about health, trends, politics and defining worth for ourselves. Of course our meals also precipitate family humor related to home ground grains that result in breads darker than wet cardboard and yes, we’ve had one or two loaded spatula chases around the kitchen. Oh wait, that didn’t involve the kids, just me thinking it might be funny to fling frosting at my husband.

~Unintentionally we learn by making plenty of mistakes. Ordering 25 pounds of organic buckwheat from the food co-op before knowing if anyone would eat it, raising our first flock of turkeys on faith more than fact, repeatedly attempting to make cheddar cheese although we can’t maintain the temperature needed to age it, well, this list could go on.

10 Things We Should Teach Every Kid About Food, recently posted on Every Kitchen Table, offers a handy list of important food-related categories to explore with our children.  The ideas are important and too often overlooked, such as the precepts of the industrial food system and the insidious effect of food advertising.

Here are some related resources:

Improve School Lunches With Locally Grown Food This article offers information plus strategies to bring positive change to your school district, whether you have children in school or not.

Don’t Buy It A non-profit site with learning games to help kids evaluate and analyze media messages.

I Buy Different A website sponsored by New Dream and World Wildlife Fund with tools to help tweens and teens be, live, and buy differently to make a difference.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children

I Love Dirt!: 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature

What are some ways that learning, growing and eating work best in your family?100_5960