Quick Update: Books, Students, and Life


61ewc29wj8lAs part of our exploration of the human body, I selected a lot of materials.  Far too many materials, really, but one book I really enjoyed using is called My Bodyworks, which is filled with song lyrics (CD included) for songs about different aspects of the body.  Many of these songs encourage movement while singing, and the end of the book has details about the human body as a reminder to the content of the song lyrics.  I haven’t played the CD yet (I’m afraid to, given the frequent disappointment or annoyance I have with for-kids music collections), but reading the lyrics to my son as I would poetry, and engaging our bodies in some of them was a lot of fun.  We’ll be hanging on to this one for a while.



My new students and I had our second meeting, which involved their first projects and detailed discussions of our readings.  The readings were hard, most of them weren’t able to finish “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and one couldn’t get through “The Lottery.”

I apologized and admitted the selections were a bit of a cruel test.  The first four were among some of my absolute favorites.  Ones I think everyone should read, and three of them are hard.  Emotionally brutal.  I shared with them the story of my experience taking a class at university titled “The Anthropology of Rock and Roll.”  I didn’t go into too many details, but on the first day, our professor played videos of a particular rock star renowned for his grotesqueries — he was violent, gross, brutal, repugnant, and did vile acts on stage for attention and to cause a visceral response to his art. The professor said, if we could get through the first day and still want to come back, the rest would be easy, and he was right.

While these stories were difficult reads for sensitive souls, my students proved themselves.  The projects were insightful, diverse in ideas, and all showed they grasped the readings well.  One wrote an essay analyzing their choice in “The Lady or the Tiger?”  Another wrote a poem about “The Lottery.”  One baked “puppy biscuits” inspired by the grocery list in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and related to the main character’s rich imaginative life amidst banality.  Another baked a social experiment to life, making one person choose what another would get to eat, knowing one was a “lady,” and another a “tiger.”  And the fifth student pulled out a box with two doors.  They’d used straws, tape, brads, cardboard, and hand-drawn pictures to create an ever-changing box of chance, since the options could be changed at will by the student before the next person chose a door.

If these kids aren’t amazing, then I must not understand the definition of the word.  I love, love, love them, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with at our next meeting after they’ve sunk their minds into some Halloween treats.


Amidst all the chaos, house and car woes, and the endless cycle of chores, Daughter scored well on her first Japanese test, my son is starting to recover from his unexplained viral infection, I started a Patreon account.  Come November 1st, I’ll be taking the Flash Dash Challenge again, writing one flash fiction piece a day for thirty days, AND it looks like I’ll be a panelist and presenting my debut novel at Norwescon 40.  I’m “nervcited” (my daughter’s term).

Reading Selections Renewed

Excited and nervous, I welcomed six new students to Reading Selections, five of whom are entirely new to me.  It’s a full class, and I’m over the moon to introduce them to the short readings I love most.  There’s a full range of ages and personalities, though I think all of us are on the introversion side of the spectrum.  After the first run of these classes, I’ve organized the readings to have more solid themes, and better thought out flow from month to month and piece to piece.

For a long while, I worried there would only be two students, which while still feasible, doesn’t allow for as many perspectives to add to the richness of the discussion.

Though many of the selections have changed or shifted position, the first month of the first year of literary shorts remains the same as the first time I ran these courses:

  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber
  • The Lady, or the Tiger? by Frank Stockton
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin

Give our introductory discussions, getting to know a bit about one another, I’m quite certain these young people will surprise me with a wide variety of projects and perspectives, even among the siblings participating.  My most fervent wish for this class is to be a good guide and resource to them, to help them flourish, and find magic within the words they’re reading.  I remain nervous, yet the excitement builds.

My biggest obstacle right now is technical.  The cost of even self service copies has become a joke, and to print a full year of selections at a shop would cost over $40 per packet.   Thus, to be practical and economical, I’m stocking up on printer ink.  My little printer can’t do hundreds of pages a minute, especially double sided, but it’ll be worth it in the long run to do it the more tedious way.  The selections are laid out for the full three years, now all I need to do is compile and print them.

Expanding Reading Selections

In making plans for the summer and coming fall, I’ve put myself out there as available to teach Reading Selections beyond the scope of my previous classes.  

I’m a bit nervous about it, because this time around, I’ll only know one student.  Part of my summer will involve refining my earlier selections and working on clarity of expectations with kids who aren’t my own or those of a close friend.  One parent interested has already asked me to completely gut my selections of any genre pieces outside literary fiction and teach her children exclusively; I declined to do so.

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery are all part and parcel to a diverse literary education.  They invite us to safely speculate upon history, the future, and the human condition without necessarily having to plunge into the gory depths of what we actually do and have done to one another. Many of the classics I use fall into genre fiction, at that.  Phillip K. Dick, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, Hans Christian Andersen … are these not literary enough authors to warrant mention?

But I digress.  The point is that, in preparing files for scrutiny, in preparing for my daughter’s impending party (mere weeks away now), and in preparing for my friend’s death with dignity schedule for this week, I’d let slip my blog writing once more.

On the theme of literature and reading, though, I wish to share an important article on the common practices for teaching literacy that utterly fail our children: What Doesn’t Work on Edutopia.com. These five points are valid whether in a class or at home, and I’ve managed to avoid these mistakes, though I’ve made plenty of others in my time.

My literary analysis class certainly touches on some of the article’s points: children learn new vocabulary (and how to spell the words they learn) through active use and discussion.  The latter helps with comprehension of content and seeing a piece from different perspectives, which allows for deeper questions to be asked during future readings. 

Small group learning is something I wish I could provide my own children more opportunities to engage in, but with their ages so far apart, starting local discussion groups is the best I’ve got so far as a homeschooled.

A Linguistics Project

artist unknown; Source: Kwantlen.ca Linguistics course offerings

My friend, Kris McAlister presented me (among other friends) with a challenge:

What 50 English* words would you keep if you were trying to preserve your native tongue, with enough functionality to reseed it?

I present this challenge here for any who wish to attempt it. Post your answers below (and your children’s answers, if they wish to respond).

For a language and linguistics lover like myself, my mind immediately started asking questions: could English function without articles? What about conjunctions, pronouns … adverbs? I’d filled half the quota in my head in five seconds flat, and hadn’t added a single noun, verb, or adjective. The hardest part is the parameter for being able to reseed it; if English were a dying language how would we preserve its essence so that it might be revived.

Like me, Kris is a language buff, and this project is borne of a desire to consider for a moment what it might feel like to be one of the many indigenous elders in the world whose languages are losing fluent, native speakers. In the anthropological world, a language is only considered living if it has at least two living native speakers.

When Boa Sr died in 2010, she was the last living resource for linguists to record a 65,000 year old living, evolved language of the Andaman Islands. Conservation efforts to record and renew several indigenous languages of North America are experiencing mixed results and are often dependent on the willingness of younger generations to commit to preserving their native languages. In the UK, Welsh resurgence has been a success story in part due to a government mandate it be taught in schools alongside English.

As a tie-in to this project, if you choose to present it to your children, I recommend offering the following short story (used in my Reading Selections project with my kids), “We Have Always Spoken Panglish” by Suzette Haden Elgin**.

So take up the challenge, and if you come up with your fifty, post them below. Kris and I are eager to see the results!

*If your native language is another widespread modern language, what would be your fifty words? How would they differ from necessary words in English?

**Suzette is author of The Native Tongue series and originator of the constructed, now flourishing, language known as Laadan.

Reading Selections 2011 – 2012

In my previous post, I promised I’d provide you with the list and links for the reading selections I gave to my students this past school year.  So, without further ado (dammit, now I want to watch a Shakespearean comedy again) . . .

November 2011:
This year, I’d decided we would focus more on poetry, hence the “How to Read a Poem” as the very first entry.

December 2011:

January 2012:
In January, I took us in the direction of their beloved genre: sci-fi, to discuss the surrealism in reading and enjoying poetry supposedly created by fictional characters.  We also discussed the reality of technology on the way we read, and argued (and laughed at) the many contradictions and heavy bigotry in Emerson’s famous “Self-Reliance” (it reads a bit like a less subtle Ayn Rand novel, really).

If you look at the first link for “Ode” you’ll find a scrap of handwritten text.  Why give them that for their assignment?  To prove my point about the importance of learning both cursive and symbolism.  Neither child had practiced much cursive writing, and thus, it was nearly impossible for one and difficult for the other to decipher English text, simply because of the method used to write it.  Given that they both seemed heavily focused in areas where decryption and an understanding of handwritten materials may be important to them in the future, I figured it was a good idea they start exploring it now.

Atwood’s poem here plays heavily on a common theme in many of the Grimms’ fairy tales where maidens were often relieved of their hands, usually for something their father, brother, or husband did.  As part of this month, instead of completing standard projects, I asked them to search for the poem read on air on NPR’s Writers’ Almanac on the day, month, and year each one was born, and to reflect on whatever feelings or thoughts the poem inspired.

*My friends’ poems are not available for public viewing at this time.
**The December poetry selections were the following: “Toward the Winter Solstice” by Timothy Steele, “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” by Shakespeare (from As You Like It), “Winter: A Dirge” by Robert Burns, “A Leaf from the Tree of Songs” by Adam Christianson, “Lord of the Dance” (traditional), “Reflections on a Scottish Christmas” by Johnny Cunningham, and “An Old Man’s Winter Night” by Robert Frost (a cousin).

Project: April & May Reading Selections

April’s review of March reading selections included performance art on the part of friend’s son.  He took There Will Come Soft Rains, spent hours drawing the house as he saw it from the description using various architecture examples from web images, and then . . . he took us outside and lit it on fire.

He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the pictures I took before, during, and after, as he pointed out that he was making a statement about the loss of human civilization as described in the story.  He added that it took him hours to make it and only minutes to destroy it; he had intended to leave no record behind of all his work. He did, however, give me permission to show the end photos, but not the before image.

My daughter chose Kate Chopin’s A Pair of Silk Stockings and provided a sensory experience.  She made a box into which each blindfolded person placed their hand to find something new.  She included a stocking to stroke, a glove to touch, a wine cork to smell (we could have freshened it up a bit, as the scent was all but gone), and a piece of Blanxart dark chocolate to taste.

We discussed each story as usual, and I let them each lead the discussion of the story they chose for projects. In the end, it was Longing to Die of Old Age that won out on discussion time, as there was a lot about food security, community, and mortality that they wanted to talk about.  Before heading off to their swimming lessons, I assigned them the following . . .

April Reading Selections:

So then last week, we got together to discuss the above stories.  Both of them had chosen the Ticktockman, because, you know, this is just a fun story, even if it has a classic Ellison ending.  Both of them had created pictures of said Ticktockman.  A. handed me a two page short story in his composition book to show the perspective of a young boy whose father’s time runs out, and showed me the picture the “boy” had drawn.  Daughter had a pair of watercolor paintings, a before and after, of the Ticktockman and his association with the Harlequin.

When I saw what was presented, I said to A., “I was expecting a jar of jellybeans from you, or something,” and he said, “oh, right,” and stood on his chair.  A moment later, his fingers having unsealed the plastic baggie attached to the ceiling I’d failed to notice, we were pelted with hailing jelly beans.  His brother helped “clean up” by gathering them all and stuffing them into his mouth.

We covered the story, I read the poem about Paul Revere, breaking it down because some of the events mentioned needed clarifying for Daughter, and then a sober review of The Shawl.  I kept that one brief only touching on the exact events going on in the story that were poetically detailed so as to avoid ambiguity.  We agreed it was dour, and the moment I mentioned Dahl’s story, both of them laughed with relief.  They loved it (yay!), and thought the whole thing very clever.  We detailed more about Harlequin, and decided after a quick recap of Rip Van Winkle that the story was rather boring and could be shortened to anecdote or old WB cartoon.  I did point out some of the cultural notes that were important in the story (current location, mythology, the culture of the people who had colonized the area, and relations to other stories/authors in their readings).  I pointed out, too, that as a young nation, our legends and folktales are only now becoming myth in our collective minds; Rip Van Winkle, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed are just some of those that have fallen into the hands of animated comedy and parody and pretty much out of everyday discussion.  Except among homeschoolers and “history” teachers it seems.  😉

Then I announced that the following were the last selections before a reprieve for summer.  Well, not really a reprieve, but a shifting of gears.  Taking a page from formal school teachers, I’m giving them a book reading project, but those details will come in June.

May Reading Selections:

Dorothy Parker

Image by anyjazz65 via Flickr

*I tried to find three selections without a man-hating theme, because honestly, I love Dorothy Parker, and I want A. to have a chance to enjoy her, too without feeling constantly attacked.

Projects: March Reading Selections

Run around the cone three times.

The Obstacle Course

Both children chose Harrison Bergeron for their projects, and while my daughter opted to make her own “handicaps” that she might have to wear in Harrison’s world, my friend’s son, try to replicate the feeling of being placed under such restrictions.

My daughter learned papier mache techniques, made an “ugly” mask over an aluminum foil mould made from shaping it around her face, and then when the paper had dried into the shape she’d chosen over the course of a few days, she painted it in acrylic paints.  I gave tips where necessary and acted as an assistant occasionally.  She also put on a pair of broken headphones that hooked around her ears to simulate the device that would buzz in her ears whenever she had deep thoughts.

Younger Brother = Guinea Pig

My friend’s son set up an obstacle course and created his own handicaps with the intention of having each person run through twice–once without the handicaps, once with–and his hope was to see if we all ended up with similar completion times with the handicaps than without.  The obstacle course involved running three times around a traffic cone, race forward, kick the second cone, stand on a “platform” (in this case, a collapsed yard goal) and throw a wiffle ball into a bowl on a windy concourse.  When the ball finally reaches its destination, each person had to catch the ball, and then complete a problem on the white board.

He created a weighted bag filled with books that needed to be worn across the chest, a pair of old glasses smeared with grease, and headphones attached to an iPhone that played a soundtrack he made that repeated on a loop; it was filled with creative commons sound effects that were disruptive and came every 15 to 20 seconds.  He said he’d send it to me to share on the blog, so it’s forthcoming.  🙂

Squirelflight’s Ugly Mask

We discussed the other stories.  They both had trouble with Brer Rabbit, and mostly because of the dialect it was written in; we talked about why an author would choose to write an entire story (and not just the dialogue) in something outside of “standard” English, its intent as an oral story, and how it would sound if a native of the dialect read it out loud to us instead of me in a halting manner.  We talked about abolitionists and feminists and how the latter was left behind by the former, causing divisiveness within the feminist movement since the nineteenth century. We even talked cyberpunk.

With little time left before we needed to get out for the kids’ swim class, we wrapped it up, and I showed them the very light amount of reading for March, but with the expectation that they’d get their projects done by the start of April.  I also told them I left out two essays that went together with one another and the sandwiched February/March months that squeeze in African American History Month and Women’s History Month all in one neat chunk, sort of a two month minority marathon to be ignored by public schools the rest of the year.  They both looked at me with gratitude that I hadn’t saddled them with another one of my diatribes.  Ahem.  I’ll save it for another time.  😉

March Selections are as follows:

Projects: February Reading Selections

Once again, I’m remiss in getting this posted on time, but my schedule has changed significantly, and I’ve still not found my rhythm.

My friend’s son challenged himself to draw in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and he came up with three very different portraits in ink:

MLK Portraits in ink, property of A.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Portraits in Ink: 1 & 2

Portrait in Ink, propert of A.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Portrait in Ink 3

My favorite is the second one.  While the first and third look nothing like MLK, Jr., the second one could be interpreted as an abstract portrait, which was in line with the art classes I started teaching both older children a couple of weeks ago.  Perhaps, though, if he’d remembered MLK’s mustache, it might bear a closer resemblance.  😉

Squirelflight decided to use the 18 rules in Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” as the basis to writing her own short story.  While she spent hours every day for almost a week pounding out hen-pecked keys, the format was all in a block and almost unreadable.  She is currently editing her piece by hand, complete with editor’s marks I taught her, so she can reformat the story for our next session.  Speaking of which, here are the selections for February:

Previous Reading Selections:

January Reading Selections

Eep!  I’m more than a week late posting this, so I’ll get right to it.  A week ago Tuesday I met with the kids and we discussed December’s reading selections.  They both chose “Runaround” by Asimov, and true to their comfort zones, the girl chose to draw a map of the station on Mercury, while the boy chose to write a short story from the perspective of the damaged robot.

While the discussion was brief for each story, I decided to push them a bit.  Their reading selections this time around are incredibly short (literally!), but I told them that they both had to decide on a project outside their comfort zones.  This means that my friend’s son will likely take on an art or crafty project, and my daughter–who tried to b.s. her way into a crafty project herself–will likely be writing something.  Of course, there are other options open to them, but they seem rather stuck and a slight push outside their individual realms of “easy” might get them thinking about something outside writing/art ideas for projects from February’s readings.

Also, because one of the selections is actually a list of six word stories from famous authors, I told them they had to write three of their own, as well as pick three to five (preferably less) they think of as their favorites from the list.  Friend’s son was finished less than twenty minutes from completing our discussion.  Squirelflight tried, but only came up with one I considered viable (the others were cop-outs).

So what are they assigned?

January Reading Selections

Not a darn short story (except for the six word minis) among the whole lot!  Not sure how that happened, but it did.  When I was a bit younger than my daughter is now, MLK, Jr. became one of my heroes, to the point that I did a project on him in school, my mother helped by editing video footage of him to support my speech, and she took me to his memorial because he wasthat influential on my developing self.  Walt Whitman’s poem is one I loved and used frequently for auditions through elementary and middle school, and of course, it was used in Dead Poets Society, which also was influential.  It seemed appropriate to pair the poem with Lincoln’s speech, as he was the inspiration for Whitman’s words.

The six word short stories are just fun, I’ve written several myself, and joined a Livejournal community based on the concept.  I only waited this long to share them with the kids because there was so much piled up for previous months.  The final piece is one recommended by my partner as an excellent–nay, probably the most biting, slicing, ruining–example of a critical look at someone else’s work.  While I doubt my own writing is a insufferable as Fenimore Cooper’s appears to have been, a part of me is quite happy to know that Samuel Clemens is long dead, and can’t read my own stories.

As always, please let me know if you have suggestions for further reading selections, I’m actually seeing a lot of bare spots in the coming months and am open to short stories, speeches, essays, poems, critiques, and other inspiring or important or silly works that might challenge these kids to think.  Thanks and be well!

Previous Reading Selections: