Friday, August 31, 2007

Curriculum Review: First Language Lessons

August 31, 2007

I was so happy, when going through my shelf of curriculum, to see that it's Duncan's turn to start First Language Lessons. I love this introduction to language arts by Jessie Wise of The Well-Trained Mind fame. The book covers two years--targeted to first and second grades--and is non-consumable, so is a great buy even at it's brand new price ($18). Of course, you can purchase this used for much less.

The approach is a gentle one but very thorough. The first page starts with a definition: "a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea." Over the next several weeks, this definition will be thoroughly explained, piece by piece--person, place, thing, idea. Throughout the two-year program, all the parts of speech will be covered, prepositions and helping verbs will be memorized, the basic rules of capitalization and punctuation will have been taught, and grammar will have taken root in the child's mind. Gently.

Poetry memorization is also a central focus of the program. On the second day, they learn Christina Rossetti's "The Caterpillar" and practice it for weeks. By the end of two years, they will have memorized 10 poems--or at least heard these 10 poems read over and over again! The poems do get harder as they go along, so I can't honestly say that Laurel memorized all of them. But she remembers the first few quite well, and I think it's always good to have a few poems tucked under one's belt. Also included are beginning storytelling and narration skills, although these are light and not at all overbearing. Writing exercises and enrichment ideas are included as optional activities, so you could definitely use this for two or more kids at different levels. And one of my favorite features: each lesson takes about 10 minutes.

First Language Lessons
appeals to me because it is such a gentle introduction to grammar. I love grammar. I love the written word and what you can do with language. I balk at programs that force dry chunks of nouns and verbs down a child's throat and chuck complex sentences at their little heads. No wonder so many grow up to proclaim, "Ahhh! I hate grammar!"

Jessie Wise now has First Language Lessons Level 3, a follow-up to her first for the next level. I wish that had been around for Laurel but will absolutely plan to use it for Duncan.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Book Review: The Book Thief

August 30, 2007

Tragic. Hideous. Beautiful. Those were the first three words that came out of my mouth when I finished this book by Markus Zusak and Dr. H asked "How was it?" How to describe a book written by Death himself as he tells the tale of the enduring force of love and death in the midst of World War 2 in Germany? The protagonist--the Book Thief herself--is Liesel Meminger, who faces tragedy early on but finds love through her new foster family. Their lives are hard. They are poor, hungry, and live in the bitterness of Nazi Germany; but Liesel feeds her soul with the words of stolen books, her foster father's tenderness, her best friend Rudy, and their hidden Jewish fugitive. Death is a compelling narrator as he carries away the endless souls in the mess of WWII but keeps an eye on the story of Liesel.

Zusak combines words and phrases in astounding ways. His imagery is sharp and unusual, impossible to skim. He is a lyric poet and a beat poetry slam in one:

"Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel's feet."
"He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist's suit collection."
Besides Zusak's amazing ability to play with language and images, he is a powerful storyteller. This is a not an easy read. The subject matter is emotionally hard, and Death-as-Narrator is sometimes overbearing and cold. But it is well worth the emotional energy.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Classic Literature

August 28, 2007

Yesterday was the first day for my Introduction to American Literature class at our support group's enrichment classes. I have 16 students in grades 9-12, and I absolutely love teaching literature. Teaching literature in this particular setting is a dream job. I get to pick the books. I get to write my own lesson plans. I personally know most of the kids--and their families--in my class. I don't have any government standards to which I have to adhere, and I don't have to teach to any particular test. And in this freedom, I believe we'll thrive together.

A month ago I gave my students their first assignment: to read The Scarlet Letter prior to our first meeting. They did. Well, a couple of them read a combination of the novel and Cliffs Notes, but we cleared that up right away. (That would be addressed in my course notes at #5 under "My Expectations": Cheating includes reading plot summaries of books rather than reading the novels themselves; and more specifically in the "what we're reading" paragraph: Please do not read the Cliffs Notes (or SparksNotes or anything like that) or watch the movie beforehand. ) But, to their credit, they readily admitted reading the Cliffs Notes and claimed "You didn't tell us!" Which is true. But now they know.

But I digress. The kids were quiet, as they normally are in the first few weeks. After that they all warm up and won't stop talking. Nonetheless, the question came up that I was anticipating: What makes a novel classic? I loved hearing their answers, ranging from "it's fun to read" to "it's long and old." So part of their journal assignment for this week is to ponder great literature. They are supposed to write about why they personally think it is or isn't important to read classic literature, and also to ask their parents/grandparents about what they remember about classic literature from their high school years. Ultimately, I hope this will lead to a further discussion of what makes a classic--and why it's valuable to read them.

So, what does make a novel classic?

Post A Comment!.....


Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - 2 words

Posted by DrHibiscus (

universal truth

classic literature speaks beyond the story. the story is but the context, the setting in which some universal truth, or universal human condition can be explored. true - many novels do this, but may not couch the universality in a compelling story. others may be great stories, but not contain that grain of universal truth. GREAT writers are able to do both.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - Classic

Posted by Tim Richardson (

Books are classics if they meet one of the following criteria:
1) Part of the card game "Authors"
2 If the books smells like it belonged in my grandmother's library (she only kept books that were good to read).
3) If you had to read the book in your 9th or 10th grade English class and spent weeks talking about the symbolism in the book (Great Expectations, To Kill A Mockingbird and ...yes The Scarlett Letter).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007 - It's a classic IF...

Posted by QueenoftheHill (

1. It serves as a standard of excellence in literature.

2. Or it is symbolic of a specific style in literature. (Didn't like "A Catcher in the Rye," but they do make you read it in high school.)

3. Or if I read it in high school and cannot possibly live without a copy in my home -- which is a challenge, because I think everyone else should read it and keep lending mine out. I have ordered so many copies of "The Little Prince" by Antoine de St. Exupery and continue to believe that no life is complete and no grown-up truly grown-up until it has been read, embraced and understood.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - won't wax poetic here, BUT

Posted by onfire (

the first thing that came to my mind, in trying to embrace more modern literature lately (and not finding much of worth, to be honest)
it does not have gratuitous explicit cheap love scenes or nasty unnecessary foul language.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Monogamy

August 16, 2007

btt button

One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?
(We’re talking recreational reading, here—books for work or school don’t really count since they’re not optional.)

I am absolutely monogamous, although my father is the most polygamous reader I've ever seen. He always had several books going at the same time: one in the bathroom, one in the living room, one in the kitchen, and probably another one somewhere else. (Add to that he could carry on a conversation and watch TV while reading.) I cannot bear to have more than one book going at a time.

If you'd like to play along with Booking Through Thursday, post your response on your blog and link here.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: Man and Boy

August 12, 2007

“You should never underestimate the power of the nuclear family. These days, coming from an unbroken home is like having independent means, or Paul Newman eyes… . It’s one of life’s true blessings, given to just a lucky few.”
--Harry, in Man and Boy

What a sad book. The story goes that Harry, facing 30 (thirty, for goodness sake! Couldn’t he at least have been facing 50?), has somewhat of a midlife crisis leading to a shiny new car and a one-night stand. So, surprise, his wife leaves him and wants custody of their son, but first she wants to try out a career in Japan. So ensues her finding someone else, him finding someone else, and a fight for custody.

At times I had a hard time grasping this book—relating to the characters—because the lives depicted here are lives I choose not to lead. I learn much from books like Hosseini’s Kite Runner, where culture and circumstances create powerful characters who face moral dilemmas and who strive merely to survive. I enjoy novels like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Thirteenth Tale that let me suspend my disbelief for awhile.

But characters like Harry in Man and Boy cause me to take a “Don’t be a whiner” attitude. I couldn’t really identify with the characters, yet I felt that I should because they were of my generation. For one, they were British. Nothing against the British, I just don’t always get British. For another, they swore constantly. And they lacked a moral compass (“oops, I guess I shouldn’t have had that one-night stand”). I understand that Harry is a flawed person. I understand that part of the point of the novel is that he is searching for identity and redemption and comes a step closer to redeeming himself because he is a good father and a good son. It’s just that everything in the novel happened too quickly with Harry. He had an affair, his wife left him, they both found new love in 4 months time. Maybe that’s how the world really works, but it didn’t ring true for me.

But a few things save this novel. Parsons’ writing is very good. And Harry’s love and expression for his son is beautiful and very, very real. I appreciate that Parsons explores the importance of the intact family and the havoc today’s selfish parents are wreaking upon their children. As Harry says, “Sorry about the collapse of the modern marriage. Sorry that adults these days are so self-centered and dumb that we can’t even manage to bring up our own children. Sorry that the world is so messed up that we think about our sons and daughters about as deeply as the average barnyard animal.” Also, crucial to the novel is Harry’s relationship with his father and his father himself, and this part of the story was wonderful. While others fall flat, Harry’s father is a richly drawn character.

There is a sequel to this novel called Man and Wife, and I won’t be reading it, because I find that I don’t really care, ultimately, what happens to Harry.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

August 10, 2007

Oh yes, my American Literature students are going to be kissing my feet for this one. I can't remember the last time I had to look up so many words in the dictionary. What authors today liberally sprinkle the pages with words like ignominy, panoply, abstruse, deleterious, importunate, propinquity, loquacity, obeisance, probity, and vicissitude? And right there is a reason for reading A Scarlet Letter: realizing that literature is much more than the action and intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel or the slice-of-life, contemporary novels I so often read. Great literature takes a love triangle and makes a statement about people, society, politics, and religion. And while an extensive vocabulary doesn't mean a piece of literature is a classic, it definitely forces the reader to do a little work.

If only my students can wade through Hawthorne's loquacity to be able to discuss this novel. But I think they'll have fun with some topics:
* How to religious beliefs and colonial laws mix in this novel? How do religion and law mix today?
* How does society demand that we conform to certain conventions? What expectations does society have about how we behave publicly and how we treat other people? What happens when we don't meet those expectations?

I enjoyed re-reading The Scarlet Letter. I predict this will be the most difficult of the novels I've picked for the class I'm teaching at our support group's co-op, but there's something to be said for getting the hard stuff out of the way.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Multiples

August 9, 2007

Booking Through Thursday* asks:

Do you have multiple copies of any of your books? If so, why? Absent-mindedness? You love them that much? First Editions for the shelf, but paperbacks to read? If not, why not? Not enough space? Not enough money? Too sensible to do something so foolish?

For many, many years, Dr. and I were book collectors. We didn't collect rare books or first editions, just books we liked and/or books that were considered classics. Our plan was to have a used bookstore/coffee shop. (This was way before bookstore/coffee shop combos were the strip-mall du jour.) We spent many hours scouring used bookstores and thrift stores for books. We always kept the first copy of any purchase for ourselves, and shelved duplicate copies next to our own. Because I take strange pleasure in keeping track of things, I kept a chart to record all of our books, even marking when a book was borrowed and by whom. (I would have loved LibraryThing back then; now I have no time for it.)

There are two problems with all these books: 1) the need for more bookshelves and 2) moving. Our assortment of odd bookshelves began taking over our tiny apartments. And boxing up all those books for each move, phew! What sweat.

And then there comes the having of children, who come readily equipped with books. What begins with Good-Night Moon and Pat-the-Bunny morphs into three children with another half-dozen bookshelves. And if children themselves didn't necessitate books, there comes homeschooling and, naturally, we must go with the literature-based Sonlight and its hundreds of books.

And so. At some point, I began giving away duplicates. I believe I gave a box to my niece, who is a fellow bibliophile. And I gave a box to a friend, who was missing some important books in her own collection. I don't remember the rest, but we have released ourselves from nearly all of our duplicates. More recently, I have actually begun going through our own collection and doing away with books I didn't really like or don't plan on ever reading again--and either taking them to our favorite used bookstore (for more book credit, of course) or trading them out on Paperback Swap. I am slowly coming to terms with this: I don't have to keep every book I've ever read. And I certainly don't need two copies of them.

But those empty spaces on the shelves are filled immediately, and we are always in need of another bookshelf.

(*Want to post your own ramblings on this topic? Click on the Booking Through Thursday link above.)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Book Review: Mrs. Mike

August 4, 2007

This book by Benedict and Nancy Freedman has been on my reading list for a few years, but our library doesn't have it. (I ultimately got it through And after reading it, I am absolutely amazed that our library doesn't carry this absolute gem of a book which, according to the many reviews I've read since, is an incredibly well-loved book! The story: Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a sickly sixteen-year-old, is shipped off to Canada at the recommendation of her doctor. She leaves Boston to live with her uncle in the Canadian wilderness. Within a short time she meets and marries Canadian Mountie Mike Flannigan, and the rest of the book is about their life together in rugged and remote Alberta in the early 1900s. Mike and Kathy cope with all kinds of tragedies and adventures, and their love story is vibrant and palpable. An absolutely wonderful book!