Wednesday, May 28, 2008

After Monet

I've not had much time to blog recently, as I'm closing out the school year on all fronts: the sweet girls' kindergarten year, and final grades for my seminary course.

But S. and I are still doing "picture study" on Fridays. This past Friday we enjoyed looking at Monet's painting entitled Spring, and after we looked at it and talked a little bit about impressionism, we tried our hand at our own spring pictures. Here are our "After Monet" efforts:

I liked the sweet girl's work here. It's splashy and colorful and definitely captures spring, I think! I gave her an initial pencil sketch of the tree -- I basically just sketched a squiggly line or two to give her the idea of a tree and to get her oriented on the page. She added paint to that, and then took off and created her own beautiful piece, completely on her own.

And here's my attempt. I really enjoyed this!

Friday, May 23, 2008

April Anniversary Roses

My April anniversary roses have long since faded, making me so glad I got some truly lovely pictures of them. Aren't they gorgeous? How blessed I am, by the beauty of the gift, and by the love of the giver. So grateful for 16 wonderful years with my sweetheart.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Literary Girls

Not long ago I had an idea for a writing project. It's still very much in the embryonic stage, and given my life these days, I suspect it might stay there for a while, as so many other projects have been stuck in the mental playground lately. (Sigh. I keep hearing Dorothy Sayers in my head, about the need to actually bring words to paper, since that's the only way they can become incarnate...)

At any rate, as a tiny, tentative first step toward maybe actually DOING something about this idea, I thought I'd throw out this question to elicit your help...when you think of favorite girl characters in fiction, who comes to mind?

I am asking particularly about literary girls, not women...though if you want to share some of your favorite grown-up heroines, I'd love to hear that too. I am particularly interested in hearing which girl characters, say between the ages of 4-18, have had the most staying power for your mind, heart and imagination.

Here's a few that came to mind in my initial brainstorming. Please remind me or introduce me to other characters! Or let me know if you resonate with any of these choices...

Jo March (and the other March sisters from Little Women)
Lucy Pevensie (Chronicles of Narnia)
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)
Ramona and Beezus Quimby (Ramona and Henry books)
Sal (from Robert McCloskey's picture books)
Trixie Belden (mystery series)
Petrova Fossil (and Pauline and Posy, from Ballet Shoes)
Bella (Diane Stanley's Bella at Midnight)
Meg Murry (Wrinkle in Time, et al)
Vicky Austin (L'Engle's Austin books)
Miri (Princess Academy)
Eowyn (Lord of the Rings...okay, now I'm cheating on my own guidelines, as I'm guessing she's older than 18?)
Anne Shirley (Anne of the Green Gables series)
Gilly Hopkins (Kat Paterson's book of the same name)
Laura Ingalls (Little House books)
Wanda Petronski (Hundred Dresses)
Betsy Ray (and Tacy and Tib, from Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series)
Emily (from Lovelace's Emily of Deep Valley)
Jill Pole (Chronicles of Narnia)
Jane Penderwick (and all the Penderwick sisters from the recent Penderwick books)

That's an incredibly off the top of my head listing...I know I'm forgetting some obvious ones (I had a longer list jotted somewhere the other day, but don't have it handy). But it's enough to start. Looking forward to any and all comments!

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Come Look With Me": Picture Study

We've been using Gladys S. Blizzard's book Come Look With Me during our "relaxed Fridays" when we focus on music and art during school-time.

Come Look With Me is a terrific book, inviting children (and their parents/teachers) to explore art together. This particular book, which I believe is first in the series, focuses on paintings that feature children. The sweet girl and I have enjoyed looking at a number of paintings in very different styles. Each painting is reproduced in beautiful color on one side of a two-page spread; the accompanying page includes a paragraph or two on the artist's life and a series of questions you can ask about the picture. Excellent discussion starters.

I learned a thing or two myself today, as we explored the final two paintings, both by Pablo Picasso. I confess I've never been much of a fan of Picasso. Today we looked at his painting "Le Gourmet" (from his blue period) and "Maya and Her Doll," an illustration of cubism. Now I am not in any way, shape or form a fan of cubism, and I was wondering how the odd painting would go down with the sweet girl, but she was totally intrigued by the geometric shapes used to make up the painting. She was so game to look at it and so enthusiastic that I found myself looking at it in new ways too, and actually learning quite a bit from Blizzard's helpful notes about the way in which the girl's face was shown as though we were viewing it in two ways: face on, and in profile, all at the same time. (We had an interesting discussion about profiles...) The sweet girl also seemed intrigued by the notion that how one felt could affect the way you painted, or the colors you chose. The text notes mentioned that when Picasso painted "Le Gourmet" (with the predominant blue) that he was very young, only 19, and feeling very sad. S. wanted to know what he was sad about.

Since we were finishing the book today, and it's due back at the library tomorrow, I asked the sweet girl to choose her favorite painting from the whole book. Given her interest in Picasso today, and the fact that we'd just discussed him, I wondered if she might choose one of those. But she didn't. She picked this:

It's called "The Nut Gatherers." Painted in 1882 by the French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau. She loved that there were two girls (when we looked at it a few weeks ago, she told me she thought they were sisters...she has very much been wanting one of those!) and that one had dark hair and one light. She smiled brightly when I pointed out that you could see one girl's face almost full on, and the other only in profile.

Highly recommend this art resource for picture study. Our library has some of the other books in the series, and I hope we get a chance to use them all between this year and next.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"The Inspiration of Necessity"

Yesterday our box from Peace Hill Press arrived. It felt like Christmas for this curriculum planning Mom, as I opened up the package and reveled in several of the main books we'll be using this fall for the sweet girl's first grade year. After the enjoyment we've gotten out of The Ordinary Parent's Guide To Teaching Reading, I decided to go with Jessie Wise's First Language Lessons for English/Grammar. And I long ago decided that we would begin our study of ancient history with Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World: Volume I. The press was running a good discount on the "combo" pack, which means I got the book itself, plus the activity guide, answer guide, and student pages. Did I mention it felt like Christmas?

Making the decision to customize curriculum (pick and choose from various resources and build our own) was the right decision for us, both from the perspective of how I best teach and S. learns, and from the perspective of our incredibly limited homeschool budget. I know that there are probably people out there operating on even more of a shoestring than we are, who are also more disciplined and savvy than I am about finding online resources (although I'm getting better at that as time goes by). Still, although I cannot (and choose not) to go the route of spending hundreds of dollars on ready-made curriculum in a box, I still think it's important that we invest in some good books. Hence my excitement yesterday when some of those good books arrived.

The other thing that struck me yesterday was how good opening the box felt knowing that I had earned every cent of the money to pay for the books by hard labor as a book reviewer. Okay, you can giggle now: I confess to some tongue-in-cheek tone here, equating "hard labor" with "book review writing." But self-publishing reviews on a consumer website really is fairly labor intensive when you consider how little most of the reviews earn. It's become one of the few sure-fire ways I can bring in "extra" income, meaning income that doesn't come directly from one of our paychecks already earmarked for rent, utilities, paying down debt, food, or medical expenses. It's also why I've been writing reviews like crazy lately, trying to take advantage of a promotional season at Epinions when they're paying reviewers slightly more per review.

"These," I told D. last night, holding the history books in my hand, "are the reason why I've been reviewing everything from Jane Austen to shampoo."

"But have you reviewed Jane Austen's shampoo yet?" my husband asked, which of course cracked me up.

Of course, it's not entirely true. I write reviews first of all because I enjoy writing them, most especially the literary ones. The main reasons I began writing them in the first place was to push myself to write and write more often, and because I hoped that my reviews might actually help other parents and teachers out there who were looking for good book recommendations. But I confess that lately many of them have gotten written for more teleological reasons :-) -- because I have an end goal in mind. These checks I receive from time to time get spent, at least in large part, on good books for our homeschool. And that's a joy.

Once upon a time, I think I might have scorned this kind of "practical writing." I went through a long season where I had romantic notions about writing being all about process, whether or not I ever got paid for it. Well, it's actually still something I believe to a certain extent...the joy of writing is its own deep reward; the process both exhilarating and exhausting. But many years ago I also came to the conclusion that writing is not primarily self-expression but communication, and communication requires that someone on the other end is listening. Which means you've got to get the writing out there somehow, find ways to share it. It also means clarity matters. Writing can be art, but it should always be a skill...and I confess it's very nice when someone pays you to hone your craft.

Remember this moment from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women? I remember thinking "how funny" when I read this as a child, that Jo would think of her beloved short stories in terms of what she could earn by selling them...

So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work
with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her`rubbish' turned into comforts for them all. The Duke's Daughter paid the butcher's bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and the Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.

Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand, and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world.

Hmm. Despite the slightly moralizing tone, there's something akin to truth here, methinks.

Enough rambling for one day! I'm off to see if I can discover what sort of shampoo Jane Austen used....

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tolkien and Austen

File this under the category of too funny not to post.

It's a cartoon captioned Ents and Sensibility.

Click and enjoy!

(Hat tip to AustenBlog)

No Ordinary Beans

The lima bean has sprouted.

Yes, the one in the cup of soil on the windowsill in the sweet girl's room. We planted it a few days ago, and it was tremendously gratifying to see it curling up and out of its soil bed just a couple of days later. When we checked it again this morning (in what's becoming a morning ritual) it's grown noticeably taller, a pale green little bean unfurling and looking just like the drawing of the sprouted bean plant in Anne Rockwell and Megan Halsey's picture book One Bean. Since that was the book that sparked the sweet girl's interest in planting a bean, it's been exciting to see the sprout do "just what it's supposed to," especially since we've been following the book's instructions quite carefully.

Planting a bean has led to all sorts of interesting conversations: about how things grow and how plants "eat,"; about patience growing in us as we wait for things to grow; and about how amazing it is that God has made a world where things grow by relying on other things (soil, light, moisture). We've been talking a lot about trees this week too, and S. has been fascinated to learn that trees produce oxygen which we need to breathe.

It is fascinating, when you stop to consider it all. And it's been occurring to me that we hardly ever do.

That's another conversation we've been having: one filled with laughter. What makes something ordinary? Or extraordinary? The sweet girl recently watched Veggie Tales' Lord of the Beans, a spoof on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In a nice nod to its young audience, the magic ring was replaced by a magic bean. At one point Randalf (yes, the equivalent of Gandalf) sings a song that starts "This bean is not an ordinary bean." We got to joking about the song while we were planting our own bean, and now the sweet girl warbles the song for all its worth almost every time we water our sprouting plant. It cracks me up every time, not least because she tries to intone it just like the singer in the video: "This BEAN is not an ORD...I...NARY....BEAN."

"What's ordinary?" she asked me. And then she learned the word "extraordinary" which opened up a whole new conversation. An interesting one, because when you think about it, the word "extraordinary" seems like it would mean the opposite of what it actually does.

Good questions, good conversation, good laughter. All because we planted an ordinary bean, which is doing exactly what it's supposed to do.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"I Drem of Flying"

Since it's spring, the sweet girl is once more pretending to be a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly each evening. She started this last spring, and all through the rest of the year kept telling us that when spring came round again, she planned to be a caterpillar/butterfly once more.

The other night she threw her blanket over her head (her "chrysalis"). From inside, I heard her muffled voice. "I'm a caterpillar. My name is 'I Drem of Flying.'"

"What's your name?" I asked, not sure I'd heard her correctly (between the cotton-y folds of her cocoon and my continuing hearing problems)!

"I Drem of Flying," she repeated.

"Drem? Don't you mean DREAM?" I inquired.

"No, drem. Drem is a fancy way of saying dream."

It wasn't until later, when she brought "drem" up again, that I discovered the creative connection she'd made in her brain. She was recalling a poem we'd read weeks ago that used the word "dreamt" -- I had explained then that it was a fancier, poetic way of saying "dreamed."

I get to be a caterpillar too, by the way. She wanted me to pick a name as well. So I am now "I Wish to Soar."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Mrs. Jaffee

I just found out that my 11th grade English teacher, who was also my high school creative writing teacher, passed away last week. She was 75 and had been ill with pancreatic cancer.

I haven't seen Mrs. Jaffee in years, probably not since I graduated in 1986. But when my mother sent me the news via email (she and my Dad still live in the town where I grew up, and she had seen the obituary in the newspaper) I felt real grief at her passing. Mrs. Jaffee was the kind of teacher who knew how to shape students for the better by challenging us to be our best. She could drive you a little crazy, yes, but her enthusiasm was catching. She demanded excellent work. And she believed that the best way to help people love reading and writing was to make them read and write. A lot.

I went digging deep down into the oldest layers of my writing files to find a handful of papers I'd saved in high school. A handful of these have Mrs. Jaffee's comments written on them in her bold, red cursive. On the cover sheet of a story I wrote for Creative Writing in October 1984, I find this: "You captured the essence of excitement and wonder and put me there with you." Followed by "Fix awkward areas." :-)

On another short story I wrote for the creative writing final exam the following June, I find these words: "I got chills reading this. It's beautiful."

She was one of the first people to ever read and respond to things I wrote in a way that made me feel I could really write. In ways that helped me to know I could move someone emotionally. In ways that helped me know I could learn to write better.

And yes, I did say creative writing final exam. Bizarre, I know, but hey, my high school never made sense. Every class we were in enrolled in (except perhaps gym or study hall) was assigned its mid-term and final exam periods, even a subject like Creative Writing which would seem to be nigh unto impossible to 'test' students in. But Mrs. Jaffee found a way to make those exam periods count. In fact, she made them downright enjoyable and exciting, at least to a student like me who loved to write. Her "exams" consisted of bringing out a big bag full of clippings: photos, headlines, tiny little feature story bits from the newspaper. She'd spread them all over the table, call us up in little groups or clusters to choose an image or some words that inspired us, and send us back to our desk with pen and as much paper as we needed. And for the next hour and a half, we'd write our little hearts out, producing a story.

During my junior year, I had her for English. That was the year we focused on American Literature. At one point in the course she had each of us choose one modern American author on which to really focus -- we had to read 1,000 pages, I think, of the chosen author. She wanted me to tackle Michener, I seem to remember, and was a little disappointed when I went for Ayn Rand instead (don't ask...adolescents make odd choices sometimes!). That was the year I had a short story and a poem appear in the literary magazine for the first time. My short story won a school-wide contest (one of my best friends, who last I heard has become a published horror novelist, won second place with a story about a kitten). Based on that work, she invited me to become prose editor of the literary magazine (she was the faculty advisor) during my senior year.

But my senior year was something of a disaster. I got ill with mono and spiraled into one of the only seasons of my life of some serious depression. Mrs. Jaffee gently wrested the prose editorship from me, a decision I remember respecting (I wasn't consistently showing up to meetings) but also one that hurt. I think she knew that though. At any rate, in the spring she came to me and announced, in her calm but confident way that would brook no opposition, that she would not let the literary magazine go to press unless I submitted a story. To make things even worse, she told me she felt the magazine was lacking humor -- could I please submit a funny story?

What a thing to ask a depressed teenager! I'm not sure it ever occurred to me until today, 22 years after the fact, that Mrs. Jaffee was giving me the best gift she could. She was challenging me to write during a period when I felt so emotionally lethargic I could barely do anything. And she was challenging me to look for the lighter side. How could I refuse Mrs. J? I wrote her the funny story and she published it. It got recognized by the county school system and turned into a script that was performed the next year downtown (I was in my first weeks of college then, in another state, but my parents saw it...and even sent me a video).

The more I jog down memory lane today, the more I realize how vividly I can recall this terrific teacher, and how easily I can track her influence in my early writing life. Mrs. Jaffee was one of the first people who helped me to understand that one becomes a writer by writing. Writing often, writing poorly, writing well, writing when the mood strikes and when it doesn't, writing when you have to, writing when you feel inspired, writing when you don't. Just writing.

Thank you, Mrs. Jaffee. May you rest in peace.