Thursday, April 28, 2016

From the Archives: Jerram Barrs on Raising Educated People

Today I want to share with you an article by a professor at Covenant Seminary in Saint Louis, MO. I was once able to sit in on several classes taught by Jerram Barrs while my husband was studying at Covenant over nine years ago. I was struck by Mr. Barrs' humility and kindness and engaged sense of wonder. His article, "Raising Educated People" speaks to the challenges faced by parents who are having to battle against the onslaught of television, postmodernism, and consumerism to engage with their children. We've talked quite a bit about these issues in the past but I wanted to share the wisdom of a man who has raised three sons and is now looking back on those memories. The article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it. You can access it here.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Author Feature: Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Today, Kathy is writing about one of our nation's favorite midwestern writers, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Kathy reflects on her first encounter with Wilder's beloved "Little House" books and gives us a detailed background on the history behind the series. 

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs…” began our third grade teacher, Mrs. Schrepfer on a cold, gray Monday in January. As she continued to read aloud to our class, I was transported from a 20th Century classroom, to the pioneer era of the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Wolves, wild cats, muskrats, mink, otter, bears, panthers, and fox roamed the vast, wooded landscape. A log cabin inhabited by Pa,
The Ingall's Family Log Cabin
Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie was located at the edge of the enormous, dark forest. Near the cabin was a wagon track that ran before the house, twisting and turning until it reached the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Life in the Big Woods was simple. Pa hunted, trapped, and farmed while Ma cooked, kept house, and took care of the children. Mary and Laura would help Pa and Ma with their work. They carried wood chips to the smoke house, dried the dishes, made up their trundle bed each day, and, with a little help from Ma, made candy from maple syrup and snow. Christmas was a time for fashioning homemade gifts, baking bread, crackers, pies, and cookies. It was also a time to spend with loved ones who came to visit for the holiday. Sundays were solemn, with the minutes ticking by slowly. Spring heralded the start of the maple syrup season which concluded with a dance a grandpa’s home. Summertime was for playing out of doors, while fall brought the wheat harvest. Jack Frost announced the arrival of winter while Pa’s fingers danced over the fiddle making music in the firelight. “She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” As Mrs. Schrepfer closed the book, she added that the book, Little House in the Big Woods was a historical fiction selection, based on the real life adventures of the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing desk
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, in the log cabin she would immortalize in her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods. Charles Ingalls, her father, was an outgoing individual who loved reading and music. He was an accomplished farmer, musician, hunter, and carpenter. Her mother, Caroline Ingalls, was a teacher before marrying Charles. Caroline was a devoted wife, mother, friend, and neighbor. Laura was one of four children. In her Little House books, Laura wrote extensively about her siblings Mary, Carrie, and Grace. However, she did have a younger brother named Charles, who died at the age of nine months. During Laura’s childhood, her pioneer family moved through the states of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota. Later in life, these moves would provide the backbone for her pioneer stories. It is interesting to note that Laura’s childhood education was eclectic. She was educated at home by her mother, attended a local school whenever possible, and practiced the discipline of self-education. In 1882, a fifteen-year-old Laura received her teaching certificate. Her first teaching assignment was at a one room schoolhouse located twelve miles from home. It was during this time that her parents sent a family friend named, Alamanzo Wilder to bring her home for the weekends. During their weekly wagon ride Laura and Almanzo developed a friendship which blossomed into a courtship. On August 25, 1885, Laura and Almanzo were married. Laura gave birth to a daughter named Rose in the winter of 1886.
Laura and Almanzo as newlyweds
1889-1890 was a year which brought one disaster after another for the Wilder family. The death of an infant son, diphtheria which partially paralyzed Almanzo, and the destruction of their home by fire were trials this pioneer family faced. The next four years would find the Wilder’s drifting through life. However, in 1894, Laura and Almanzo purchased a 200 acre farm in the Ozarks which they named Rocky Ridge.  Life at Rocky Ridge Farm consisted of building the farmhouse, raising livestock and establishing Rocky Ridge as a working farm.

It was during the Wilder’s farmsteading in the Ozarks that Laura began her career as a writer. She kept track of their travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas in a journal. The journal entries were then submitted to the De Smet News for publication. Later, Laura’s journal entries would be published as the book On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, in 1894. In the 1920’s through the encouragement of her daughter Rose, Laura began to write the story of her childhood which was entitled Pioneer Girl. Although the manuscript was submitted to various publishers, it was not accepted for publication. Rose Wilder Lane saw the potential her mother’s book possessed. As a journalist and novelist, she provided her mother with constructive criticism on how to improve and expound on the manuscript of Pioneer Girl. This mother-daughter collaboration resulted in the 1932 publication of Laura’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods which tells the story of the author’s childhood in Wisconsin. The next book in the series, Farmer Boy, tells the account of Almanzo’s childhood in New York State. Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years were published subsequently. Originally, the Little House series was illustrated by Caldecott nominee, Helen Sewell. In 1953, Garth Williams was commissioned to create new illustrations for the Little House books to coincide with the series reissue by Harper Collins publishing. Laura was seventy-six years old when she finished writing the last book in the Little House series. In her later years, Laura remained at her beloved Rocky Ridge Farm with Almanzo. It was here that both of them lived out their “happy golden years” together, and where they both passed on from this world into the next.

The Ingalls Family
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series has been enjoyed by children of all ages for eighty-four years. Her legacy is a first-hand narrative account of the westward movement as seen through the eyes of a little girl named Laura. I know of no other series that gives a detailed account of this particular historical time period. As a third grader, I was captivated not only by the storyline, but also by the author’s style of writing. After our teacher would finish a book in the series, I would check it out from the school library. As I re-read the story, I would study the author’s  characterization, plot, theme, setting, atmosphere, mechanics, and writing quality. I would copy portions of the story to get a feel for how Laura wrote. I would author my English writing assignments emulating Laura’s narrative literary tone. My teacher even remarked on one of my papers that “Your writing style is reflective of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s. Keep up the good work!”  

Since the first publication of Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, the Little House series has been on the best seller lists for children’s literature. The books are available today in hardcover, paperback and e-book formats. Many families, like ours, choose to visit the historical sites and museums while reading through the series.

After eight decades, you may wonder what special ingredient makes this series still appealing to children and adults alike. I believe it is Laura’s comment which provides us with the answer: “It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.”

Thank you Kathy! Do you have any special Laura Ingalls Wilder memories. I'll never forget the time my dad was reading Little House on the Prairie aloud to me and my siblings and we read about the Ingalls' beloved dog Jack getting lost. We were all crying, even my dad. It was one of those special moments that are part of reading aloud as a family, where we're all feeling the same thing and learning empathy. What's your favorite Little House memory?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

From the Archives: Motherly Encouragement

We live in what is commonly described as the "Age of Information". As a parent and someone concerned with education, the vast amount of information available to me at the click of a mouse can be illuminating. It can also be overwhelming. Studies on brain development in infants, reports on educational trends, ongoing debates on child rearing styles–it can all leave a parent feeling wholly inadequate. For all its wealth of information, the digital age is often short on encouragement and long-term perspective. So it was extremely refreshing to have my sister-in-law, Grace, forward an inscription she'd found on the inside cover of a tattered parenting book. From one mother to another, the writer conveyed something I think our mother-hearts long to hear: that we are immensely important to our children but there is someone greater guiding their little hearts. I want to share these sweet, faded words with you because I think they speak to something we know deep down but is often lost in the cacophany of parenting advice and research. 

"Sometimes when you are tired it is hard to be conscious of God's grace and presence guiding your nurturing of the new life in your family. This book has helped and encouraged me more than any other when my foggy and worn consciousness cannot quite get to the truth of the situation. My biggest leap of faith has been to know that while I am a very important tool in helping my son grow into who God has made him, there are other factors in every part of my son's life that will shape and form him and God's grace surrounds him and us no matter how confused, or blind, or tired we are. 
"So don't worry about what you don't know...yet. The new situation that demands new understanding of us is also the channel through which that understanding may come. You are about to get your first glimpse of Agape love. The love that teaches us to invest our best selves selflessly with the detachment of seeking nothing in return. From the moment she is born your task is one of letting go of the thing you love most. You will have so much fun learning about this amazing love together. If you are not enjoying yourself and at least at peace, ask yourself this: What am I holding on to? And let go! It's like a roller coaster."
What a cogent reminder of our role as parents. I'm a firm believer in the importance of boiling things 
 down to the basics. While it's so easy to get caught up in checklists, educational outcomes, long-term goals, at the heart of the matter we, as parents, are here to love and care for our children. As a Christian the most important outcome for me is that my children carry on my faith, that they know God's love, and love those around them in a selfless way. What more could a parent want? The challenge is remembering this in the midst of all the distractions.

The author's ability to show that parenting should be something we can accomplish with peace and joy helps me reframe my mental state when my six-month-old is cutting his 6th (!!!!) tooth and the nights are long and exhausting. What am I holding on to? What am I allowing to rob me of taking solace in these moments when my baby needs me with a ferocity that I'm sure I'll miss in a few years? I know that being able to stop and ask myself that question will become increasingly important with each passing year. On days when homeschooling has caused tempers to rise and the threat of tears is looming, what am I holding on to? Is it that important that my child figure out the answer to this math problem right now? Or do we need to take a breather? What course of action will be more important to the development of his character? These are the questions I struggle with as a mother and they're the questions that do not have easy answers but encouragement from someone who has walked this path before me is more valuable than a dozen peer-reviewed studies on teaching styles.

When Grace first read the inscription to me over the phone, I was struck by the unknown writer's ability to speak to moms that she had never met. And it made me want to be like her! Graciousness is something one has a very difficult time finding on the mommy discussion boards, in the articles written by researchers, in the opinions of experts. Finding it anywhere is always a surprise, a gift. As she stated, motherhood is the "task of letting go of the thing you love most." Maybe it's also the task of letting go of my ideals, my expectations, my desires and leaning into hard (and happy) moments with my child. Maybe it's letting go of my desire to spout off some wise-sounding advice to an overwhelmed mom and just let her know that she's not alone. Maybe it's the daily discipline of recognizing my limitations as a mother and trusting God to graciously turn the messy chaos of my parenting into something beautiful. Yes, this adventure is like a "roller coaster" with its highs and lows and I'm so encouraged that there are people out there who will remind me that it's not all up to me. 

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

From the Archives: Making Time as a Family

It has been heartening to me to see a recent resurgence in the recognition that allowing children time to play is extremely important. Maybe it's a reaction to the Tiger Mom phenomenon. Maybe it's a recognition that it is possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to extra-curricular activities. Maybe it's just a greater humility in parents who can recognize that their child will probably not be the next Steve Jobs or Yo-Yo Ma no matter how many classes and specialty camps she is enrolled in. Maybe its realizing that testing standards are by their nature arbitrary and result in classrooms where the natural learning processes are not only curbed but often destroyed. Maybe it's frustration with ever increasing homework loads. Whatever the cause may be, there is a growing movement that advocates for giving children time to play. Time to be kids. Time to get into scrapes and exercise their imagination.

I know we have talked about this before (if you missed these posts, check them out here and here and here) but today I want to take a different tack. The benefits of play have been well documented. There is even an article from The Atlantic extolling the benefits teaching your children to daydream. It's an excellent read and well worth your time.

But today I want to focus on an intangible that is difficult to measure. How would your home life change if you were to actively resist the compulsion to over-schedule? When I think about my own life and look back on my childhood, the times I most treasure were those in which life was less hectic. Now, I have to make allowances for the fact that I am an introvert in a family of extroverts, but I don't think any personality type enjoys the feeling of frenzied chaos. And yet, many of our homes feel like Grand Central Station, where we pass those we love the most in a rush, making our way to one meeting or co-op class or music lesson or sports tournament or church event. And yes, this is the nature of modern life. But, I wonder what we're sacrificing, especially in terms of our family life, with this constant on-the-go lifestyle. Is living this way conducive to being available for one another? Does it allow for time to ask your sulky 14-year-old why he's acting withdrawn instead of just telling him to "Snap out of it!"? Does it allow for spouses to connect in ways that ensure they still know one another when their nest is empty? Does it allow for setting aside time for spiritual investment and growth? Does it allow for you to take a break from worrying about academic achievement and just lay in the grass with your kids and watch the clouds go by? Does it allow you to be there for a friend in crisis?

Of course, every family has obligations and commitments and some are unavoidable. But is it possible to introduce a bit more play and time together into your family life? Homeschooling can prove to be a double-edged sword in this respect. There is the pressure of ensuring your children stay on track and are performing at grade level. There are more hours spent together but this can also be a bit crazy-making! So, how to balance the need to give your children time to play while ensuring they don't fall behind and you can maintain your sanity?

Incorporating play into schoolwork is a great place to start. One family that uses our curriculum does a wonderful job of creating fun projects based on books used in our study guides - like making Karana paper dolls during the unit on Island of the Blue Dolphins, or creating a board game based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. What fantastic ways to allow your children to play and create, all while learning more about history. Choosing curriculum that gives you the flexibility to chase down rabbit trails of creativity is key to ensuring your children do not get bogged down in drudgery. And that you all enjoy what you're learning together.

For families that have a difficult time setting aside family time and down time, it may be a good idea to actually schedule
it, like you would any other obligation. A well-rounded childhood will incorporate extracurricular activities. Sports, art lessons, musical training - these are all wonderful things to provide for your children and I don't want that to get lost in this discussion. Just make sure your children also have time to be with you. And this means time to just be with you - not doing anything obligatory. The gift of availability is one that cannot be overestimated in its importance to your children. Sometimes I hear from other parents who never consider the fact that their children do crave time with them. Don't make this same mistake. Your children want to be with you and the moments you are able to give them will have more of an impact on their lives and how they see themselves than any lesson or extracurricular activity. So celebrate that and try to keep it in mind when you're looking at that family calendar and trying to decide whether or not to add another activity.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Medieval History through Literature: Joan of Arc to the Philosopher's Stone

Audria is back with an update on her family's journey through the Middle Ages using our Medieval History Through Literature! I always love reading her updates–she find such creative ways of implementing activities and her family loves reading together so they all get in on the action. Read all about it:

After our delightful study of the Canterbury Tales with Beautiful Feet Books we started studying Joan of Arc and The One Hundred Years’ War between France and England. The story of St. Joan is so very sad. My children were not familiar with her at all and so had no idea of the amazing and heartbreaking story they were about to embark. As we read her story the kids bombarded me with questions…hard questions too! I had to explain the veneration of relics, asking saints for prayers, and the nature of visions. As we continued to read her story the kids struggled to understand why she was abandoned by her king, condemned by the church and burned alive.
cats and catapults...
Cats and catapults!
“Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years.”  –Winston Churchill
Of course, the kids really wanted to know if I believed the Maid of Orleans. Did she really have visions? Did God send her to save France from the English? I cannot have an answer for every question and someday they will make up their own minds on such mysteries. I choose to simply accept Joan of Arc at her word.
“She is the Wonder of the Ages. And when we consider her origin, her early circumstances, her sex, and that she did all the things upon which her renown rests while she was still a young girl, we recognize that while our race continues she will be also the Riddle of the Ages.” –Mark Twain 
required books from the study
Required books from the study

We moved on to the study of the printing press, movable type and Johannes Gutenberg. We enjoyed both the
 books for this section and the recommended Stephen Fry documentary from the guide. We spent time discussing the importance of this moment in history. This invention laid the corner-stone of the Reformation, Renaissance, the scientific revolution and the spread of learning to nearly all people. For this part of the study I bought a paper making kit. We plan to make paper later this week and try our hands at making a homemade book. While we studied about Joan, we built a catapult and looked through a picture book (from the library and I forgot to note the title or take a picture of it!) of medieval warfare tactics and siege engines. The boys built some Lego models (I didn’t take pictures again) and we watched several documentaries on YouTube and Netflix about castles and medieval warfare. Currently Netflix has a series called “Secrets of Great British Castles” that the family enjoys watching together.
20160410_131541 (640x480)Our last read aloud for these past six weeks was The Trumpeter of Krakow. Oh wow did we love this book!!! It follows the story of a family in the Ukraine that has to travel to Krakow as refugees (a topic still relevant on the news today) and they just happen to be in possession of the philosopher’s stone. Of course the kids were shocked to discover that JK Rowling didn’t come up with the idea all her own!!! We discussed alchemy and the theory that whomever possessed the stone could turn other metals into gold. While we were reading about the alchemists in the story I pulled out The Mystery of the Periodic Table (by Benjamin D Wiker) and read the couple of chapters on alchemy to my crew.
We are currently working through a felting project to go along with our studies of the Mongols. Making your very own felt sheets from wool roving is a bit messy! We finally have a nice sunny weekend coming up so that we can work on our paper making and felting projects outside.
We only have four weeks left and our medieval study will be all finished! We’re in the process of making our Robin Hood hats, choosing recipes and other projects for our final feast. We are looking forward to sharing the end of our study celebration with you soon!
Thank you again for sharing your experience with us, Audria! It's always so inspiring to how studying history this way brings up issues that children can discuss with their parents in the safety of a gentle learning environment and how you encourage this intellectual curiosity.

If you're interested in teaching your children about history using the best literature available, check out our study guides here.

We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

From the Archives: Brain Training with Jane Austen

We all know that exercise is good for your body. Now research confirms what we've known all along, reading is brain exercise! Neuroscientists and radiologists and humanities scholars have put together a fascinating interdisciplinary study to determine what happens to the brain when you read. It's always been assumed that reading helps develop the parts of your brain associated with executive function (decision making skills). What was surprising about this test, in which participants read sections of Jane Austen novels while laying in a MRI machine, is that blood flow increased not only to the executive function areas of the brain but also other areas showing that reading is good for the entire mind. Additionally, different areas lit up if the subject was reading closely or more casually  showing that both types of reading have value. So different areas benefit differently depending on whether the subject is paying close attention or simply reading for pleasure.

As one of the study authors stated: "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value, and that literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people's brains." In an era when the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are given (in my opinion) an outsized importance, it's good to see research that emphasizes the importance of reading. What makes this study so interesting is how it highlights the benefits of rigorous reading. This is important to keep in mind when our children and students complain about the difficulty of a book. Difficult reading becomes easier over time and this science shows why. So, encourage your students to press on in their reading of tougher titles. It's a discipline that will pay off in the long run. Of course, if your student is getting discouraged and wanting to quit reading entirely, peddle back and choose books that she enjoys to balance out the more difficult titles.

On a personal note, I remember being 11 or 12 years old and my mom assigning me Ivanhoe. This was the original. It's a tough read, especially for a youngster. And before the first chapter was over, I was in tears. It was ridiculously detailed (in my young expert opinion, ha!), the author used far too many fancy and long words and there was nothing enjoyable about spending 45 minutes reading
multiple pages that described a shepherd. I wanted to quit. But I was not allowed to and as I tearfully persevered it got easier. Soon I was looking forward to learning more about Rebekah, the Black Night and all the other colorful characters that dance through the pages of Sir Walter Scott's classic. Even now as an adult, if I've spent too much time away from the difficult classics, I know I have to push through the initial shock to my brain and that the reading will become less labored as my brain gets used to a more elevated style of writing.

To read more about the study, click here. And if you've experienced something like this, share below. Or if you have advice for encouraging young readers to tackle more difficult writing, chime in!

We would love to hear what you think! Chime in below in the comments section and share your thoughts. Don't forget to check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages.  To learn more about Beautiful Feet Books, click here.

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