Archive for January, 2006

Tidal Homeschooling, Part 3

January 26, 2006 @ 3:09 am | Filed under: , , ,

I found a major flaw in my metaphor.

I’ve been writing about what I call “tidal homeschooling,” the way my children experience an ebb and flow of alternating periods of deliberate study, directed by me, and periods of what is sometimes called “natural” learning but which I more often describe as “accidental” learning—the enormous quantities of facts and ideas children are wont to soak up when given time and freedom in which to do so. I’ve described the periods of structured study as our “high tide” times, when I charter a boat and lead my merry little crew on a fishing expedition in quest of a particular skill or subject, in contrast to our “low tide” times when they wander off, each in her own direction, to explore the shores and tide pools of the world, eager little beachcombers gathering sackfuls of treasure. Because of the high-tide voyages, I cannot accurately call us unschoolers; but because of the frequency and fruitfulness of our low-tide times, which sometimes last for months, I have shied away from various other home-education labels as well, finding more in common with the outlook of the unschoolers than with any other group. Since no label fit, I coined my own term which seems to aptly describe the rhythm and manner of learning that takes place in our family.

But I was mulling over this excellent post at The Common Room (subsequent mulling-over being the usual pleasant result of reading a Common Room post) and it struck me that my metaphor breaks down when I come to the beachcombing part.

“The adults in the child’s life,” writes the Headmistress, referencing Charlotte Mason,

“have the ‘power of appeal and inspiration,’ and the responsibility to act ‘the part of guide, philosopher and friend’ to these young people with wonderful minds but no knowledge to speak of.

“Or… we can just abandon them to their uninformed judgment about what’s important and what isn’t, leave them to their own devices, and allow them to believe that their own judgment about what is and is not important to know is just as well informed and solid an opinion as Mortimer Adler’s, Thomas Jefferson’s, Peter’s, Paul’s, or…. yours. Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly, is not doing them any favors. It isn’t respectful of their situation as newcomers to the world or to the adults they will grow up to be. And if we don’t do our job as the adults in their lives when they are small, the adults they grow up to be will have a malnourished background upon which to build.’ “

For a brief moment, the unschooler in me bristled defensively. Not that I think the Headmistress was denouncing unschooling with this statement—she has made gracious remarks about the philosophy in the comments section here on Bonny Glen and elsewhere. But this statement jumped out at me: “Leaving children to pick up what scraps of knowledge they think to ask about, willy nilly…” Is this, I wondered, exactly the sort of experience I have enthusiastically hailed as our low-tide times? Allowing children the freedom to learn by undirected exploration of the world? To be sure, what I have witnessed and described as the collection of a sackful of treasures is a rich and bountiful harvest of knowledge, not an aimless scrounging after scraps. And yet…is there a willy-nilliness to their education? Am I—are unschoolers—leaving too much up to chance?

Then it occurred to me that I’ve overlooked an aspect of my beachcombing scenario. I’m the one strewing the beach with treasures for the children to discover. You see, this is where the metaphor breaks down. Sometimes, yes, I am simply the person bringing the children to the metaphorical strand and turning them loose to explore. But other times—a lot of the time, when I think about it—I have visited the beach in advance and filled the tide pools with interesting creatures; I have hidden the treasures behind the dunes.

This strewing is something unschooling parents talk a great deal about. It is the same thing Charlotte Mason meant when she said, “Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas…we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food,” urging parents and teachers to provide hearty feasts of ‘living’ books and firsthand encounters with the natural world. Of course, Miss Mason recommended regular and orderly mealtimes, while an unschooler would probably say that the human mind thrives best when allowed to graze. But in both cases, we see a committed, thoughtful parent doing the shopping and preparing the food. I am doing just as much preparation (to jump metaphors again) during our low-tide times as I am during high tide. Whether I am piloting the boat on a fishing trip—as I am doing now with our studies of German and Shakespeare—or whether I am hiding bits of sea glass in the sand for a wandering child to discover (or not), my role is indeed that of “guide, philosopher, and friend.”

And so I see that my metaphor needs tweaking. And I continue to chew on these ideas (with apologies to the gentle Headmistress for running off with her post in my mouth), which—like everything connected with Charlotte Mason that I have come across in the past ten years—provide such stimulating nourishment for my own mind.

At any rate, the tidal homeschooling metaphor is not a method; it does not shape what we do. It is useful insofar as it is a way of answering the many variations on the question, “How do you do it?”—which is to say, “What does homeschooling look like in your home?” This is a question homeschoolers are constantly asking one another, and it is a root question in many discussions between homeschoolers and folks whose children go to school. And perhaps a better way of answering it is to apply the Writers’ Rule: Show, don’t tell. I think this is why we love blogs and discussion boards: we crave these peeks into other homes.

One of my favorite “peeks through the window” is Elizabeth Foss’s lovely book, Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Here we have an entire book full of examples both practical and lyrical to the “How do you do it?” question. The Common Room family lives in another house full of enticing windows. This post at Cottage Blessings is a glimpse into a cottage that is truly a blessed place—so much so that I am daily tempted to pack up my little brood and move right in. (Wouldn’t Alice be surprised!)

Other recent peeks-through-the-window I have enjoyed:

Castle of the Immaculate
Living Without Schooling
Relaxed Homeskool
Mental Multivitamin
Every Waking Hour
Karen Edmisten

And these books:

Homeschooling With Gentleness by Suzie Andres
Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves by Alison McKee
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola—like Real Learning, this is a book I return to over and over
• The about-to-be-published Catholic Homeschool Companion, edited by Maureen Wittman and Rachel Mackson—a glimpse through many windows!

Oh, But There’s More

January 25, 2006 @ 6:03 am | Filed under:

"So, Bean," I ask, "what would you like for your birthday lunch and dinner?"

Her eyes light up. This is a family tradition; the birthday girl or boy gets to choose the day’s menu. She ponders.

"For lunch, French toast!" she announces, fairly crackling with joy. Then her expression shifts: now she is virtuous. "And for dinner, a good meal. You know, something you make that I won’t eat much of."

More on that National Curriculum Bill

January 24, 2006 @ 4:48 am | Filed under:

Cobranchi is covering this one, too.

The New York Times reported that an unnamed appropriations bill in the Senate has this nice little amendment that will basically force a turnover of all g-school curricula to federal control.

Here’s the Times article.

When Republican senators quietly tucked a major new student aid program into the 774-page budget bill last month, they not only approved a five-year, $3.75 billion initiative. They also set up what could be an important shift in American education: for the first time the federal government will rate the academic rigor of the nation’s 18,000 high schools.

The measure, backed by the Bush administration and expected to pass the House when it returns next month, would provide $750 to $1,300 grants to low-income college freshmen and sophomores who have completed “a rigorous secondary school program of study” and larger amounts to juniors and seniors majoring in math, science and other critical fields.

It leaves it to the secretary of education to define rigorous, giving her a new foothold in matters of high school curriculums.

Apparently, this draft of the bill does not include private-school students or home-educated kids. Which is an interesting oversight, but one for which I am grateful. But I think the idea of a federally “defined” public-school curriculum is a bad idea with dangerous possibilities, and I’ll be watching this one like a hawk.

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Geography Homeschool-along

January 24, 2006 @ 4:23 am | Filed under:

For those who may have missed Love2Learn Mom’s comment the other day: The Map Guy is a blog where homeschoolers share ideas and resources for the study of geography. The current study is on Europe. Loads of good links there—check it out!

Thanks for the heads-up, L2L Mom.

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Writing for a Living: Q & A

January 24, 2006 @ 3:39 am | Filed under: ,

I get many letters from people with questions about writing children’s books and getting published. A very nice young woman wrote me this week, and I thought I’d share some of her questions and some of my answers.

Might I ask you a question (or 5!!) about getting published? What sort of process did you go through? Who did you talk to (editors, publishing companies etc.)? Were you approached to write the Martha and Charlotte books or was it something that you decided to try on your own?

I got my start in children’s books when I was twenty-three, after graduate school. I knew I wanted to write for a living, and I knew it was very hard for newbies to get their manuscripts read, so I took an extremely low-paying, coffee-fetching editorial assistant job at Random House Books for Young Readers in hopes of building relationships with editors. I fetched a lot of coffee, but the strategy worked.

I spent a year at Random House, a year at HarperCollins, and by then I was married & expecting our first baby, so I quit to stay home and write. While on staff, I had volunteered for every grunt writing task I could get my hands on—catalog copy, jacket copy, all the stuff editors hate to write but have to do. When I left, I had a chapter-book adaptation job lined up, and that led to another assignment, and it went on from there.

I had been freelancing for a few years when I got a call from an editor asking me if I’d be interested in researching Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother and writing novels about her. It’s safe to say I was very interested, indeed!

Of course not everyone can go to NYC and do slave labor at a publishing house to get a start. The more usual route is to write write write and submit submit submit (to specific editors* or agents—this is very important—you’ll have no luck submitting to a generic “Editor” at a publishing house). And then you wait wait wait for six months or more for an answer. Which, unfortunately, is usually no. When I was on staff, one of my jobs was to read submissions, and we got them by the thousands. If I passed one manuscript in two hundred to my boss for a closer look, that was a banner week.

*Visit Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon site for a peek at the comings and goings of editors at various houses. The Verla Kay message boards are another good place to lurk for insider info.

How long does it take, on average, to get a book published once the manuscript has been accepted by a publisher?

It depends on the kind of book. Six months to a year is typical. Illustrated books may take even longer.

Do you have to pay the publisher up front or do they give you a ‘loan’ of sorts until the book catches on and you both make a profit?

The publisher pays me, not the other way around. (Beware any publisher who wants to charge you money—that’s a vanity press—stay away!) Loosely speaking, there are two kinds of book contracts. Work-for-hire projects are for more commercial/mass market kinds of books, like some Carmen Sandiego mysteries I wrote in 1995. In those cases, the editor calls a writer and says, “We need a writer for such-and-such a project. We’re paying a flat fee of X dollars.” The writer does not get a royalty in a work-for-hire deal.

My Hanna’s Christmas picture book is an example of a work-for-hire project. I was paid a piddly sum and asked to come up with a story that fit within certain parameters. The publisher wanted a picture book about a little Swedish girl who moved to America and was homesick, and there had to be a tomten in the story. The rest was up to me to create. I had a good time with that one! I’ve done other work-for-hire projects for which the requirements were much more rigid. Work-for-hire stuff is how some writers pay the grocery bill. My husband does a great deal of work-for-hire, and some of the projects he has accepted have been excruciatingly challenging. He was once hired to write some Justice League mini-comics for Burger King kids’ meals. The publisher wanted a complete story for each character—which had to correspond with the toys included with the meals—in a format so tiny there could only be four thumbnail-sized panels per page, and only four pages, with very little space for dialogue. And the real kicker? As I said, the publisher wanted a “complete” story for each comic—”but,” the hiring editor added, “the stories should also be open-ended, so that the kids can continue them on their own with the toys.” Riiiight. Scott pulled it off, however (no surprise to his proud wife). As a matter of fact, he still gets enthusiastic reviews from collectors of those mini-comics.

A royalty contract is usually offered for a book you have written on your own, and submitted, and an editor has fallen in love with and offered to buy. Books like this are published in hardcover; this is considered the “trade market,” not the “mass market.” (My Little House books are a royalty contract, but they’re an unusual case. The editor came to me, not the other way around—more typically a work-for-hire situation—but they are literary novels requiring painstaking research; trade fiction, not mass-market. I was offered an advance against a royalty, just as would be the case if I’d submitted a novel and the editor wished to buy it.)

An advance means the publisher knows you need something to live on while you’re working on a book and waiting for it to come out. You are offered a particular sum as advance against a specified royalty. The royalty is a percentage of the book’s future earnings. When the book is published, it may take several years for your royalty earnings to catch up to the amount you were paid in advance. After the publisher has recouped the advance, all subsequent royalty earnings are paid directly to the author (usually in a lump sum twice a year).

And, lastly, and very much off topic, how old are you? How old were you when you first got published? Were the “Little House” books your first works?

I am 37. I was, let’s see, 25 years old when my first books (a series of chapter-book adaptations—not an original work) were published. (OK, technically I guess I was first published at 23, when one of my poems appeared in the literary magazine Quarterly West.)

My first original publications were the two Carmen Sandiego books I mentioned. I spent the next year or two doing other work-for-hire projects like Hanna’s Christmas—some ten or twelve books in all, I think. Then I was asked to write the Martha and Charlotte books, and those have kept me busy ever since. Those books and my four-soon-to-be-five babies, that is!

Hooray for Henry and Mudge

January 23, 2006 @ 10:55 am | Filed under:

Cynthia Rylant’s beginning readers are fiercely loved around here by the seven-and-under crowd. Heck, make that the thirty-seven-and-under crowd. I’ve found myself chuckling over many a Mr. Putter and Tabby episode with nary a child in the room. I am, therefore, delighted to report that Cynthia’s Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas is the first winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Beginning Readers.

The Newbery went to Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins.

This year’s Caldecott Medal winner is The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster (author of The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Chris Raschka.

For a complete list of this year’s Dr. Seuss, Newbery, and Caldecott Honor Books, along with a rundown of all the other awards announced at ALA today, visit Kids Lit.

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