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One of the pained questions bandied about on social media over the past two weeks since the election has been the soul-wrenching…But what do we tell the children?

The issue, being, I suppose, how do we explain to children and young people that a person of questionable character is now their president?

Well….

You got me!

Which is apparently just one more instance of my absolute lack of empathy for that particular bubble (since we’re also talking a lot about bubbles nowadays).

Because…well, I mean….what have you been telling your children? About politics? About leaders? About the history of these United States? About the history of the world?

That Dear Leader loves them will take care of them and that they should seek to emulate Dear Leader in all of life?

Or, if you haven’t reached those fascist lengths, have you actually been presenting political leaders to your children as first-tier, go-to role models?

Really?

Gene Healy said it well:

For most families, however, the “conversation” needn’t be so fraught with angst. It might even be the occasion for a valuable lesson: Tell your kids the truth: the president can be a bad person, even a terrible one. You don’t have to admire him if he doesn’t deserve it. And just because he’s a creep doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be one too.

Up to a certain age, belief in Santa Claus is charming, and entirely harmless. Blind faith in presidential benevolence is neither. If you’re teaching your kids that the president reliably tells the truth and does the right thing, then the future citizens you’re raising may turn out gullible and easily led.

Why lie to them? After all, in living memory, presidents have conducted themselves abominably in their personal relationships, lied us into war, and, in former Nixon aide John Dean’s memorable phrase, “use[d] the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies.” Trump, who seems positively gleeful about the prospect of turning the federal machinery against his enemies, seems unlikely to set a higher standard of presidential character.

In a more innocent time, Americans raised their children to look up to the president—and they did. The political scientist Fred Greenstein interviewed hundreds of grade-schoolers for a 1960 article in the American Political Science Review, “The Benevolent Leader: Children’s Images of Political Authority.” The children evinced “strikingly favorable” attitudes toward political leaders, especially the president.

In fact, Greenstein found it almost impossible to elicit any skepticism from the children he interviewed, despite “a variety of attempts to evoke such responses.” Far more typical were statements like “[the president] gives us freedom” and “he has the right to stop bad things before they start.”

That pattern of “juvenile idealization of the President” persisted in subsequent studies of children throughout the 1960s. Nor was it limited to juveniles: writing in 1970, presidential scholar Thomas Cronin observed that even college students’ textbooks of the era offered a comic-book vision of presidential “omnipotence” and “moralistic-benevolence.” “The student learns that the presidency is ‘the great engine of democracy,’ the ‘American people’s one authentic trumpet’”; moreover, “if, and only if, the right man is placed in the White House, all will be well, and, somehow, whoever is in the White House is the right man.”

Americans grew up fast in the years that followed, however. Throughout the early 1970s, the public learned that presidents had lied about Vietnam, turned intelligence agencies against U.S. citizens, and abused their powers for political gain. Americans came to grips with the revelation that their president, our national father figure, could be a foul-mouthed, [expletive deleted] crook.

 

We hope political leaders are of good character, just as we hope this for all people. But there is no reason to plant the expectation that they will be saints, and in fact, as Healy points out, there is a danger in doing so. Perhaps it is not the best path to encourage little citizens to be complete cynics since…

…because…

Huh.

Yes, as the daughter of a political scientist and one raised in a highly politically aware household during the 1960’s and 70’s no less, I’d say we as a citizenry are better off with more cynicism rather than less.

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And I do wonder, for those who are stressing out about the exquisite agony of the present teachable moment…what have you been teaching your children? What have you been telling your kids about the ebb and flow of American history anyway? That’s it’s been nothing but a divinely-ordained glorious stream of…glory?

I don’t. My formal and informal conversations with my kids about American history and society over the past 30 + years have been conducted over the following lines, which, I might add, are a bit more skeptical than those my parents conducted with me and in my presence…but not much.

  • The American experiment in human liberty has been radical, breathtaking and important.
  • At the same time, the relationship between American civic ideals and Catholic social and political philosophy are fraught, evolving and frankly, sometimes in conflict, as uncomfortable as it makes us feel to say it.
  • The history of the United States that they will be taught, even in Catholic schools, was written, first by Protestants of English origin and then by secularists. The actual history of the Western hemisphere, of which the United States is only a part, is far richer, complex and less linear when you include the stories of indigenous people who were here first and then the Catholics who were here second.
  • Ideals are one thing, but the reality of American history courses with injustice: against Native Americans, Africans and now the unborn most of all.
  • Abortion. This nation declares its dedication to the equality of all persons, but not only allows but celebrates, funds and exports legalized killing of the most vulnerable and voiceless. Abortion.

Walker Percy’s novels, especially Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome are precise and telling satires informed by an honest, pained assessment of This American Life:

What a bad joke: God saying: here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye, because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers.
      But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you had already passed the big one.
      One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you had to do is not violate him. That’s all.  You flunked!

So….you are distressed and conflicted about what to tell the children about these United States, its ideals, reality and leaders?

Welcome to my world.

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I’ll go a bit a further, play on a previous post, and suggest that if you want to inoculate your children against future crushing disappointments about the shape of American civic life, you might consider doing this:

Get yourselves back to church.

Sorry. I know you thought it was a prison, and maybe you truly experienced it that way, and maybe the people in charge fed that by acting like they were the prison guards, but maybe now you see the Big Picture consequences, and that raising kids God- and transcendent-free isn’t raising them to be free at all.

Ironic!

No guarantees, but it might help.

So why not try engaging with the Real instead of constantly trying to recreate it. Worship the Ultimate instead of the idols your yearning has constructed in trying to fill the gap you’ve created as you’ve pushed the Transcendent away, leaving only cracked clay idols crumbling in its place.

What to tell your children?

Tell them about God. It makes explaining human non-godlike behavior a lot easier.

Offer them some good news that frees them from enslavement to worldly powers as they seek life’s meaning and purpose.

Tell them that the yearning and hope they feel has a source and an object that won’t crumble or die and, even better, really, really loves them.

Tell them that they were put here on earth because God wants them to be, loved them into existence so they  can love Him back and love and serve all other beings that God also loved into being, and that because all of us are creatures and none of us are God, we can do much, but we can only do so much, and what we can do when agape  is at work is good and holy and enough.

In other words, God is God so…big relief…you don’t have to be, and neither do I, neither does the president, so let’s smash those idols.

Tell them that it is good that we are all here, now, and that this present moment glistens but briefly as past flows into the future in an amazing, complex, dense, beautiful universe, and this moment is not forever, but it is real, and it is mystery, it is glory and it is Cross.

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The taxi had dropped us a couple of blocks away from the Campo dei Miracoli.  He had brought us from the airport through the streets of Pisa, across the Arno river, then on more narrow roads until it made no sense to go any further. He had talked non-stop since picking us up, offering suggestions on how to spend our time and telling me, in answer to my query on his excellent English, that twenty years ago he had thought he would leave Italy for the United States, but, his voice trailed off to say, it hadn’t worked out. It was too bad, he said, for over there, you get paid more money and things cost less. Here we get paid less, and it costs so much more to live.

It was not hard to find the Field of Miracles after that, for all we had to do was follow the crowd, and once we arrived, that is what hit us. That: so many…people. And two other things: it’s going to rain and we don’t have an umbrella and it really does lean.

And it does. The Leaning Tower of Pisa really does lean, and it is much more dramatic in person than in photographs, since the straight right angles of the rest of the world are so much more present in contrast.

Even in the rain, even before the height of tourist season, so many people. Look at all of them.  Why are they here? To see an iconic image – and it is fun to be there with everyone else, most of us experiencing it for the first and probably only time in your life – that sense of community you experience in tourism. We are here, you are here, seeing this thing, and together we will remember it too and you – speaking English, Italian, German, French, Japanese, Madarin, Hindi..you’ll be a part of the remembering. I won’t just remember a white tower of marble. I’ll remember drizzle and security guards and the child scampering ahead of me and the older couple puffing behind me as we trudge up, leaning.

So yes, there we were. As we finished with the tower and moved to the church and then the baptistery, I was struck by what these crowds were about on this spot. They were walking around and in, studying, photographing and contemplating just those things: a church. A baptistery. And a tower with bells that for centuries had called not tourists, but worshippers and seekers, not just to see and gawk, but to be. To be with.

I thought of the other sights we had seen over the past three weeks – this was our last night in Italy.  All of the crowds we had joined, all the tickets we had purchased and photographs we had taken? Most of them had been of places where people had been baptized, where they had come to seek what is real, to connect with it, to have hope. All of these places had been heavy with images, and not just any images, and really the same images from place to place: Jesus hanging on a cross. Disciples following, listening. Saints gazing out, looking up, reaching. All of these had been places where even now, people touched by the hands of others who had been, back in the mists of history, touched by the apostles in the stained glass windows still talked about that Jesus. Even now, in most of those places, seekers still came to meet that Jesus hanging on a cross, to find life in his life, offered to them to eat and drink.

People don’t come to church anymore.

But they do, don’t they?

I travel a lot, and everywhere I travel, I end up in churches, for there are churches everywhere. The United States is not as heavy with historical and artistically-significant churches as Europe is, of course, but still, in every major city, you’ll find a downtown Catholic church or two of historical import.

And most of the time, you will find scores of people streaming in and out of that church during the day, perhaps even hundreds.

People don’t come to church anymore.

A few weeks ago, we were in New Orleans, and the scene I witnessed there is similar to what I’ve witnessed in other American Catholic Churches of this type.

It’s St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, as iconic as they come. We popped in mid-day on a Saturday, and of course we were not alone. Dozens were in and out during the short time we were in there. A small group was being led on a tour by a Cathedral docent. It was a busy place.

People don’t come to church anymore.

What struck me, as it does in most similar situations, was the absence of printed materials that would help people understand the building. (Not to speak of actual human beings there to welcome and answer questions) There was a trifold pamphlet available for a dollar that had the most basic information about the building, but no detailed guides to the interior, to explanations of symbolism or structures.

It’s astonishing to me.

St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans

I think every church should have the materials I’m about to suggest – every one – but particularly churches that experience a lot of tourism. There’s no excuse not to have these. None. Not if you are serious about evangelization, that is. Not if you really and actually believe the stuff.

  1. A detailed guide of the historic and artistic aspects of the building.
  2. A guide identifying the important aspects of the structure and interior and explaining their meaning. As in: statues, crucifix, tabernacle, altar, confessionals, baptismal and holy water fonts, candles, altar rail, episcopal chair, choir stalls…whatever you’ve got. Explain it.
  3. A basket of rosaries. Holy cards, at the very least, and possibly medals related to the church’s patron saint.
  4. Copies of the New Testament, or at least the Gospels.
  5. Lots of bulletins or other parish information, presented with a welcoming “y’all come back!” and “let us know if you need anything” sensibility.

And yes, all of this should be free.  And there should be  a person sitting at a table with a smile on his or her face, answering questions. All day.

Listen. When have a parish of a thousand families, are thrilled when thirty adults show up at your religious education program and totally ignore the hundreds that come through to visit your historical church on a daily basis…you’ve got some blinders on and you might want to think about removing them.

Of course, the first immediate object relates to cost. Catholics hate giving anything away. We even charge parents to teach their children about Jesus. Go figure. But, as a long-time observer of this Catholic scene, I can safely say…it can be done. This is how you do it:

You make it a priority, you tell everyone that this your priority, and you invite them to join in the mission.

You say, “We have this amazing evangelizing opportunity. We have thousands of people come through our church every year to tour it. We are going to make presenting them with the truth and beauty of faith in Christ a priority. We need ten thousand dollars a year for free materials. These are the materials. Who’s in?”

I’m certain that when people are presented with a very specific pledge on how their funds are going to be used, and it is a valuable step in evangelization like this, they will step up.

And sure, if you want to produce something glossier with photos, do – and charge for that. But materials that invite people into a deeper consideration of the meaning of the objects and structures around them, a deeper consideration that might lead them to salvation?

Yeah, those should be free.

My point: I’ve been in historic Catholic churches all over the United States and rarely, if ever, seen materials like this available for tourists. And I’ve looked. Believe me, I’ve looked.

(Here’s last year’s rant on a similar score, inspired by a visit to Savannah, where hundreds come daily to the Cathedral during the Christmas season to see the Nativity scene.)

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No one comes to church anymore.

Of  course, I think these kinds of materials should be in the vestibule of every Catholic church, even if it was built in 1973 and looks like the banquet room at the Holiday Inn. You still get seekers, every Sunday, and maybe even every day.  There are many ways to meet those people and begin to draw them to Christ. Personal encounters are important. But so is the simple act of just having information freely available and invitingly presented.

In fact, I believe I have written before about a related idea: someone (publishing company, diocese, what have you) coming up with a basic template for, say, “A guide to our church” – that would have the theological and spiritual meanings already written up, perhaps with basic schematic sketches of say, a statue or altar or tabernacle – that would be customizable by an individual church.

Or, you know, you could just make one.

What is a “welcoming church?” Is it one in which elderly ushers accost latecomers and force them into the pew of their own choosing? Is it one in which we are ordered to awkwardly greet our neighbors or raise our hands and share where we’re from?

Or is a “welcoming church” one which:

  1. Has open doors as much as is practically possible.
  2. Has a congregation formed in the ways of simple Christian hospitality: don’t glare at children. Scoot your tail over and make room for other people in the pew. When Mass is over, make eye contact with strangers, smile, and say, “Good morning.” If you note possible confusion or hesitation, offer help in a friendly way. Don’t glare at children.
  3. Has free materials available: What to do at Mass. This is what the Stuff in Our Church Means. Here’s who Jesus is. Here are some good prayers.
  4. Has bulletins/cards/flyers and people sending the message: Here’s who we are. Come and talk. Let us know if we can help you. Here’s how you can join us in helping others. Maybe even a newcomer’s/seeker’s coffee once a month.

In essence:

Once a week, someone different on staff or in the volunteer corps should walk into your church with the eyes of a seeking, curious, nervous stranger.  What questions would that person have? Is there any attempt to answer those questions? What vibe would they be picking up? Would they have easy, non-threatening, non-awkward access to information that will make it easy for them to return and dig deeper?

In my limited experience, European churches can sometimes be a bit – just a bit  – better about providing informative materials, and of course many have porters who function more as guards and may not be the friendliest human beings on the planet, but at least they are there to answer questions.

So, for example, this, the first couple of pages from the free guide from Florence, which at least sets the tone. You can click on the images to get a clearer, readable, view.

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Do you have evidence that I’m wrong? I hope so! Share it! I would love to see what your church provides, especially if it’s a tourist destination.

This was one of my favorites – I found it lovely and charming. It was at a small church in northern Arizona. St. Christopher’s in Kanab – very welcoming, aware that it’s a tourist stop – not because of its history, but because it’s on the way to and from the Grand Canyon and other place:

So simple to do. But it communicates: We believe.  It’s important. And we want to share it with you.

People do come to church. They come out of curiosity. They come to seek. They come to experience beautiful music and art. They come to find Pokemon. They walk by on ghost tours. They come because they’re hungry and homeless. They come to find shelter from  the sun, the cold or the rain.

They’re about to come in great numbers because it’s Christmas. Are you ready? Are you excited that they’re coming? Are you thrilled to know that there are people who are going to meet Jesus in a deeper way because they come to Mass at Christmas at your parish? Or are you irritated, resentful, dismissive, and already ready for it to be over and things to get back to normal?

So yes, they come.

The question is…do we really even care? 

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Why, yes, I do have homeschooling takeaways, but can’t seem to process them enough to put them down on paper in a coherent way. That will be tomorrow morning’s project – to get that going.

I’ll just say that things are going well so far, although I am already enjoying my fully-expected constant low-grade seething about the quality and quantity of various (not all) assignments at both levels (middle and high school).

And yes, homework for elementary – even middle school – students is a bug, not a feature. The school might respond, “Oh, but how can we get everything done without homework?” I respond, to quote another, Think Different. Begin your curriculum and class preparation and planning with the assumption, “We are not going to give homework” and work from there. You will teach differently, and class time will be spent in different ways, but I doubt the results will be worse.

But as to here – in general, people are content, apparently having internalized my “life is a tradeoff” lectures, and understanding that if you want the good things that school offers – friends, instruction from Interesting and Capable People Who Are Not Mom – well, you have to get up earlier, and you’re going to have to do homework.

You’ll be hungry. You’ll be tired!

I will also say that I certainly hope this is not the end of homeschooling. I can definitely see it – or something else – happening again in different forms as they get older and (I hope) as different modes of schooling make their way into our area (Alabama just approved charter schools last year, so in a few years, something interesting might pop up).

In the meantime, I am adjusting. It is very, very weird to finish cleaning the kitchen at night and not have the next day’s kid activities on my mind and it is very, very weird, to drop off the younger one at school and return to my house before 8 with a full day, free to work in front of me.

I’m not going to say that I’m ecstatic about it. They are in good situations, but homeschooling was good, too, and I miss it a lot.

I am also not sure what to do with this time. It’s not that I don’t have projects. I do, with hopefully a biggish one being confirmed soon that will occupy my fall. But for four years, my creativity – such as it is – has been focused on homeschooling and engaged, all day and every evening, with conversations on learning with one or both of those boys, and now it’s very quiet, during the day at least.

And yes, how much I yearned for quiet for four years, and yes, I knew from experience that once I got it, I would be a bit at sea – because that’s how it goes with life. You live for the semester to just be over, but once your life isn’t filled with going to class, studying or teaching, you have to recalibrate and you don’t know what to do with yourself at first. People retire and then just…die because their beings can’t compute life without the job.

So yes. In a day or two, more of what I’m taking away from homeschooling, both in specific and more general terms.

One thing I’m doing – besides going on rants about Arthur Miller, The Crucible, the Hollywood Ten and the Salem Witch Trials for the benefit of a 15-year old person who is probably thinking, “Uh…I just need to do my powerpoint now, but thanks” – is reading more, more and more.

And reading more…books.

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I had written about this a few weeks or months ago: as much as I appreciate e-readers – and I do read a lot of public domain stuff I would never be able to access otherwise that way – I am consciously trying to redirect my reading energy to actual paper books.

First, I really do believe I retain what I read better via books. Research is showing that this might be generally true, and I definitely feel that it is true for me. Part of it has to do with the fact that reading a book is a physical experience in a way that holding a tablet is not. It engages more of my body and more of my senses, which deepens the experience. As I have said before, my memory of what I read is often tied to where a sentence was located on a page and what that book felt like in my hand.

And I think that my way of reading on a tablet is different than reading a book. Since childhood, I have always been a fast, gulping kind of reader, and e-readers just exacerbate that tendency, since I’m definitely susceptible to the quick, superficial get-on-to-the-next-thing-because-everything-is-here-on-the-Internet reading habit that the Internet seems to engender, and reading e-books are not exempt from that tendency. I read them faster, I don’t linger, I don’t go back and reconsider what I’ve read because it’s kind of a pain to find my place again.

Secondly, I am very conscious of what I’m modeling for my kids. I can’t very well be super-restrictive with them about screens if I’m on a screen all the time, and sorry, the “but it’s a book” doesn’t wash. Because yeah, it might be a book one minute, but it’s probably going to be Facebook or Instagram the next. So it’s much more helpful on that score for me to settle down in their presence with a book in hand rather than one more damn screen.

(And I will say like many kids, they prefer to read “real” books. The only time they’ve read ebooks have generally been when we are traveling. My adult daughter, who is typical of her generation in her relationship to screens, has gotten to the point at which she prefers to read paper books as well – I think we’re all feeling it. We spend enough time on screens. Give us a book again.)

So…library trip. I went downtown to find a copy of a couple of books for my high schooler, and walked away with a stash.

They had a bunch of Mauriac I had never read, I thought I would read some more img_20160816_134216.jpgMaugham, and they very nicely went to the stacks to get the only copy of Priestley’s The Good Companions available in the whole system. An original, published in 1929, still intact, the subject of some commentary by the librarian who fetched it for me.

I started with the shortest – Mauriac’s The Little Misery. Oh, what a FUN read!

Not really. Quite sad, almost unbearably so, but with a hint of redemption at the end. As is often the case with Mauriac, the story concerns a bunch of terrible people who are concerned with status and wealth more than anything else and who either ignore God or promote some perverse image of God that supports their bigotry, selfishness and cruelty.

I was thinking that with Graham Greene, characters see the truth when they are challenged to do the right thing, at a great personal cost. In O’Connor, the protagonist usually experiences some personal injury, humiliation or other sort of pain. With Mauriac, it seems that characters (finally) see a glimmer of truth when the horrible consequences of their actions on others can’t be denied any longer.

In every case, sure, God may have a wonderful plan for you life, but your resistance is strong, and breaking things is painful.

Such is the case here. The novella (I read it in an hour or so) concerns a woman, Paula, who has married into a somewhat aristocratic family simply for the sake of that. Her husband seems to be suffering from some sort of intellectual disability, we’re going to assume, at least in some symbolic way, from inbreeding. Her mother-in-law despises her and she despise the son who is the result, it is implied, from the one time she and her husband came together In That Way. Paula is bitter, feels trapped, sees nothing but misery for the rest of her life, and is seen as the enemy by the others in her household.

The boy has been treated in a way that has rendered him, seemingly at the same level of intelligence as his father, he is sometimes incontinent, and he is regarded as ineducable. Something must be done, however, so the suggestion is made to seek the help of the village schoolmaster, a married man with known Communist sympathies. During an evening with the schoolmaster and his wife, it is clear to us that there might be hope for this boy, but for various reasons, that won’t do, and…well, you have to read it to see what happens. As I said, it’s very sad, but the events, as they do in Mauriac, make clear to these horrible people in a way that nothing else has, how horrible they have been. It is now too late for some things to get better, but not too late – never too late – for a touch of grace, somewhere.

I always finish a Mauriac novel thinking…don’t be that way. Untie the knots, open your eyes, shake it off, and love generously.

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Almost done, now.

One more practical post, and then next week, Big Thoughts.

Oh, and how is it going? Seems to be going well. It is very interesting to hear the experiences of a child experiencing school for the first time in four years, and with only the faintest memory of the last time, which was first grade. He’s been in classes in other settings, but of course, two hours once a month at the science museum or every other week at the zoo is a little different from…school. He’s pretty intrigued by the process. Aspects of classroom life that other students probably either take for granted or are tired of he finds interesting. It’s hard to explain. 

All right, I need to finish this part up. Let’s go. Yesterday, I outlined how we approached religious instruction. I probably should add that year before last was Confirmation year for the then-8th grader, and that was handled through an excellent school program.

As I have indicated so far, I didn’t homeschool so I could sit my kids down with books and worksheets. I was wanting to provide them with something different than what school was giving them, because I had come to see that school – as it was constructed, as they were experiencing it and as the Forces That Be are determined to make it – is not learning about the world in its complexity and depth, but about being rewarded for making the educational system’s priorities your priorities. Or at last pretending that they are.

What a way to spend almost every day of your life for twelve years.

So in terms of daily life – you can get a taste of it in the Daily Homeschool Report posts, which are all over the place – we did certain things almost every day, used a few textbooks in a few areas, did some drilling in things like cursive and math facts, but other than that tried to prioritize reading, discussing what we were reading and then experiencing life outside the home.

One or both of themselves participated in a lot of outside classes and activities.

McWane Science Center homechool classes

Birmingham Zoo homeschool classes

A Lego robotics group up in Madison, which is close to Huntsville. There was probably one in Birmingham, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it, so I’m thinking there probably wasn’t one after all at the time. Both of them did it at first, but then the younger one lost interest, so we would go up there, J would do Lego robotics and M and I would go explore – we went to the Rocket Center a lot that fall.

Art classes at the Red Dot Gallery

An art class at Samford Academy of the Arts

Piano instruction through Samford

Boxing at Juarez Boxing

St. Thomas Aquinas Academy – drama and history of science

Weekly homeschool gym and social time on Friday afternoons

Those (except for the Red Dot classes and Piano) were for homeschoolers, particularly. During the time, they both did basketball every year, the older one did scouts, the younger one did children’s schola at the Cathedral for a year, they served Mass in the parish and the convent, and this past year, the younger one has become involved in Fraternus, a new Catholic boys’ and mens’ group.

Those were just the various regular activities. They also participated in various single events – like a rock climbing class, a class at the Birmingham Museum of Art, a field trip the Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

So…books. Interspersed in the post of photos of some of our bookshelves. To save me time.

Handwriting

This is important and awful to teach, unless you have a kid who gets into it. (I once was making conversation with a teen-aged homeschooled girl and I asked her what her favorite subject to study was. “Handwriting,” she said. So there’s one for you.)

But we forged on.

Writing our Catholic Faith

Wacky Sentences Handwriting Workbook

The older a kid got, the more work was done in cursive.

Copywork

I became a huge fan of copywork while homeschooling. If you want to read about the rationale behind it, go here. I think it is a very effective way of practicing the mechanics of handwriting and internalizing good writing. There are a lot of ways to use copywork. img_20160812_102749.jpgSometimes I took passages from books they were reading, interspersed into a more general schedule of that rotated Scripture passages, poetry, passages from literature and sayings/aphorisms. Fridays we did not do copywork – we either did “Friday Freewrite” – from the Brave Writer method – or they illustrated one of the previous week’s copywork passages.

Copywork is so much better than the stupid and invasive trend of beginning-of-class journaling writing prompts that you see in so many classrooms. Here’s a sample I pulled off of a website just now:

10. Persuade a friend to give up drugs.

11. Five years from now, I will be… 

12. Write about a day you’d like to forget. 

13. Invent and describe a new food. 
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14. Describe an event that changed your life forever, or make up and describe an event that would change your life forever.

15.  Describe someone who is a hero to you and explain why. 

16.  Write about a time in your life when you struggled with a choice and made the right one. 

First of all, answering these prompts teach nothing. I suppose the purpose is to unleash the right brain or get juices flowing, but you have 50 minutes to teach – I don’t know if this is the best use of time.

But that’s not even my most serious problem with this type of activity. Look at those questions – and they are not atypical.

We have become accustomed to schools and educational systems getting personal with our kids. After all…we’re a school family. They’re given surveys on their family lives to fill out, they’re told to put personal information on tests, and they’re tested for drugs. Their reflections about and reactions to material they’ve learned rather than simply learning it and moving on. They’re asked “how do you feel” or “how would you feel” or “have you ever felt.”

Do you know what?

My kids’ memories of a day they would like to forget or an event that changed their lives forever or when they struggled with a choice….is none of their teachers’ business.

What a great day it would be, the day that a class began with kids copying out a passage from, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, noting the specifics of grammar, punctuation and appreciating the mode of expression – instead of being required to share their feelings about some aspect of their personal life with a 27 (or 45 or 60) -year old adult stranger who has a certain degree of power over them.

How about this? How about we tell our kids that if they are asked to “journal” in class in away that violates their privacy that it’s okay for them to just…. make stuff up? I have no problem with that.

People, I taught religion and I never crossed that line. I constantly made connections between what I was teaching – Scripture, history, theology – and the rest of life, and I invited and challenged my students to think about those connections and told them that faith was indeed, all about making those connections and living them, but I never asked them to write personal reflections on anything for me to read. I consider that kind of stuff inappropriate and even an abuse of authority in a classroom setting where students are required to attend and are giving you work on which you will give them a grade that will go on their transcripts.

Also, lazy.

Grammar

I did a bit of grammar with them the first year or so, then tapered off. I think grammar is very interesting and think that sentence diagramming is a powerful tool, but at some point, everyone understood what adverbs were and I decided they were better served by img_20160812_102739.jpgreading more literature rather than parsing grammar – we were also doing more Latin, and doing grammar in that context. I didn’t use one single curriculum for this, but various workbooks. Sometimes I just pulled things of the Internet, but I did make use of these:

We started off with Seton’s English for Young Catholics – grades 2 and 6. I thought they were pretty good. We did those in Europe.

Then we went to the Critical Thinking Company’s Language Mechanic and Editor-in-Chief. Both were fine. I did a lot of skipping around, because some exercises were just too simple.

The Grammar Minutes workbooks are good review.

I would not recommend the English grammar materials put out by Singapore Math.

Now, we never used Singapore Math. Yes, it’s the gold standard that all the Intense Homeschoolers use, but I was told early on that it was too challenging and too different to plunge into midstream and, in short..stay away from the Singapore Math unless you are a img_20160812_102622.jpgTrained Professional!

Okay, that’s fine. I wasn’t really tempted anyway. It looked complicated, with all those bars and such. But then I saw that they had grammar materials, and I thought…well, they must be pretty good! So ordered a few of the books. Received them, looked them over..and filed them away to sell or give away.

I don’t have them anymore, and it’s been three years since I looked at them, so I can’t recall the specifics, but the problem was essentially that the materials were written to teach aspects of the language to non-nativeEnglish speakers. The issues highlighted were not those that a native speaker would be dealing with. I’m sorry I can’t piece the specifics together, but really, if you go to a ESL website and look at the exercises, you’ll probably see what I mean.

Upshot? I think we “did grammar” for a year and half, then I stopped and focused on just writing.

Math

Speaking of math…

As I mentioned in a previous post, we began with what their old school used: Pearson’s EnVision Math. There is a lot of hate for this program on the Internet, even from teachers, but I confess that I, a non-math person, did not hate it. It was deeply flawed, but I actually could see the rationale behind it.

Yes, the program sometimes breaks down problems in what seem to be strange, counter-intuitive ways. But what was interesting to me about it was the presentation of different problem-solving strategies for a single problem or area of study. Given that there are, img_20160812_102633.jpgindeed, different ways to look at mathematics problems, and different ways that make sense to different people, I saw this as helpful.

But where the program collapsed, I felt was in expecting the student to demonstrate mastery of all of the techniques and strategies. That seemed to me to contradict the first premise: that different approaches are all valid and more helpful to some than others.

By the time we had finished those books, I had discovered The Art of Problem Solving programs, and I was all in. I had Joseph (6th-7th) grade do the Pre-Algebra program which was very challenging, but excellent. Michael was a bit young for Beast Academy at first, so we transitioned by using Math Mammoth – which is good, and the Life of Fred which is certainly popular among homeschoolers, quirky and interesting reading for a child, but not a comprehensive math program by any means. It’s good because it gives a narrative understanding of mathematics, but it is really not sufficient.

Wait, you’re saying. You’re a humanities person. What are you doing, talking and teaching math?

Well, I managed, and believe it or not, I was so convincing in the charade that last year, my son would come to me with questions about his high school honors Geometry class expecting me to have the answers! Ha!

But do you know what? I could help him, most of the time. I’ve never considered myself math-y at all, and I never took anything higher than what we called “Advanced Math” back in the day, but I suppose was some sort of basic pre-Calculus and Trig, but I don’t find math impenetrable. And the Art of Problem Solving stuff is so good, you really don’t img_20160812_102644.jpgneed “help” in understanding it, and it’s very well-presented that even I found it interesting. The program digs so deeply, yet effortlessly into the foundations of math, what had been taught to me in a way that seemed just random, actually made sense.

Oh, and I have a theory about education that pertains here.

People become educators for various reasons, but specialists get involved because they love their specialty. Which is great!

The problem, however, can be, that if you are a specialist, and if you are really good at something, if you have a gift for understanding or processing a certain subject…you might not be the best person to teach others, others who don’t look at the subject with a flash of intuitive understanding, but have to slog through the fog of confusion to reach the point that you just “get.”

So no, I’m not a mathematician. But I have had to think through the processes in a way – not only when I was in school, but in helping my older kids – that makes me, at the very least, not useless in accompanying my sons on their Math Journey. As we say.

So..yes to Art of Problem Solving. Even if your kids are in school…consider looking at img_20160812_102902.jpgBeast Academy for younger kids as a supplement and the high school classes and other resources on the website for kids who like math and are not being challenged in school. I consider it one of the best, most valuable discoveries of our homeschooling.

Oh, and since the younger one was learning his multiplication tables during part of our time together, I’ll mention that the best drilling app I found was this one: Quick Math.

Latin:

I started them both with …Getting Started with Latin – one in 6th and then the younger one in 5th grade. It’s a super casual, easy introduction. You are probably not going to remember what you learn in this way for the rest of your life or maybe even longer than a year, but as I said, it’s painless and somewhat entertaining. If an authorial sense of humor can shine through in workbook translation exercises, it does here.

We then moved to Visual Latin with the older one, and while the videos were entertaining at first, we both found the course wearisome after about ten lessons. The instructor’s schtick gets old and there was just something about the mode of watching videos and doing printed off worksheets that made retention a challenge. I don’t recommend it, but if you are determined to use it, I can sell you the DVD’s of the first course for cheap!

When it came time for the younger one to hit Latin more seriously, I moved to Latin for Children I had briefly reviewed a friends’ copy and it looked good. I was generally pleased with it, and the lessons stuck. The only thing I would say is to not bother with the activities book. It almost seemed as if some of the puzzles had been computer-generated rather than pulled together by hand, and they were in general either too simple or needlessly tedious.

Okay, that’s it. There’s more, but I’m getting tired of writing about this. I may pick up a few more areas on Monday, but if I don’t, check out the Homeschool Daily Reports. Most of the rest of it – the history, science and literature – involved non-textbook books and activities, anyway.

Are you a homeschooler? How many quarter-filled out activity books do you own?!

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As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.

And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.

I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:

School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.

In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.

And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.

In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.

The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?

But today, background:

My parents were both educators.

My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.

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(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.

My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.

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Deep in study at Paris Junior College

His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.

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Between them, they taught thousands.

There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, aEPSON MFP imagend his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.

(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)

Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else.  Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.

All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th

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If you look at the next image..you’ll see the same picture. Almost 50 years later.  

through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.

Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.

But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.

No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.

We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.

Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.

So what am I saying?

My  family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.

My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.

Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.

And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.

 

So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject.  I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.

In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic.  I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get  out of the way.

Deal?

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50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways. 

 

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Frustrating, but not surprising:

The incorrect association of “Make me an instrument of your peace” with St. Francis runs so deeply now, no, it’s not surprising to see a bishop mention it or even it presented that way on the USCCB website, but still. It shouldn’t be this way. Truth matters, in areas great and small.

I explored the matter in my book The Words We Pray.  There are a couple of pages available for perusing online.  I think the actual history of the prayer makes it even more interesting than it is as a mythical pronouncement of St. Francis. Also, when Make me a channel of your peace comes to define the saint, we miss out on even more challenging words. Try it. Read his letters and Rule. 

 

If you want to learn more about St. Francis of Assisi, I recommend this biography by Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP. And for kids? My Adventures in Assisi takes kids on a journey with the saint on the roads of his home town. 

More, related, from an old post: Who didn’t write what. 

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….or not.

Georgetown University Law School will now fund all student internships …no matter what the advocacy group involved.

From the university’s student newspaper:

Administrators at the university’s Law Center reversed earlier this month a policy prohibiting funding for students at summer internships at organizations that promote abortion rights, after a widely publicized case in the spring which drew protest from hundreds of students.

Under the new policy, announced by Law Center Dean T. Alexander Aleinikoff in a letter published in the Law Center’s student newspaper, the university will no longer consider the mission of each organization when determining grants provided by a student-run organization to students for summer internships.

The student-run organization, the Equal Justice Foundation, provides money for some students who take unpaid summer internships, and receives funding from the Law Center. In March, the Law Center required that the group deny funding to Jenny Woodson (LAW ’09), who had applied for an internship at Planned Parenthood, a group that supports abortion rights. The Catholic Church opposes abortion rights.

Woodson accepted the internship after members of the Law Center’s administration and faculty helped her raise money through the Women and Law in Public Policy Fellowship.

In a letter published in the Sept. 11 edition of Law Weekly — the weekly, student-run newspaper for the Law Center — and dated Sept. 7, Aleinikoff announced that the policy had been changed.

“In partnership with the Equal Justice Foundation, the Law Center will provide grants to all students who work on law-related issues at a public interest organization or government agency. … The program contributes in important ways to the Law Center’s academic program, both by expanding meaningful opportunities for students to engage in reflective experiential learning and by inculcating a commitment to public service,” he said in the letter.

Aleinikoff could not be reached for comment for this report.

Deborah Epstein, associate dean of clinical education and public interest and community service programs at the Law Center, attributed the decision, at least in part, to the outcry that resulted from the Woodson decision.

“When this issue arose on campus last semester, we began to look at the EJF program in a broader context,” she said.

After the incident became well-known, students from Georgetown’s Law Students for Choice circulated a petition that demanded that the Law Center alter their policy, issue an apology to Woodson and hold an open forum to discuss the issue. According to Joy Welan (LAW ’08), president of Georgetown’s Law Students for Choice, 360 students signed this petition.

Welan said her group and Aleinikoff met several times over the summer to discuss the policy.

“We think that this compromise is fantastic news, for students who are interested in pursuing careers in reproductive rights advocacy, and for all students, who will now be able to pursue public interest internships without worrying about finding funding,” Welan said. “The dean has taken a huge step forward in advancing Georgetown’s commitment to public interest law, and we applaud him for it.”

From the blog of the organization Law Students for Reproductive Justice:

The proof is in the pudding: on-campus advocacy can get things done. And fast.

Extend your mercy towards others, so that there can be no one in need whom you meet without helping. For what hope is there for us if God should withdraw His Mercy from us?  (St. Vincent de Paul, feastday 9/27)

(BTW – Compare and contrast with Villanova’s treatment of the same issue.)

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