Last night I had a trial lesson at italki.com with a German teacher who currently lives and works in Taiwan. At the appointed hour he rang me on Skype and we had a delightful half-hour chat. We started with video but the connection was wonky so we switched to audio only, and that worked fine. Something I especially appreciated was that whenever I struggled with a word or phrase, Stephan corrected me and typed the correction in the chat window so I could see it as well as hear it. Afterward, the chat log provided a nice transcript of the things I’d learned.
Since this was a first lesson, it was largely conversational. Stephan spoke to me in German from the beginning (when I set up the lesson I’d had to fill out a form describing my current level), asking lots of questions and encouraging me to plunge in and answer as best I could. I loved it. He also sent links to a couple of resources—a German children’s book, the first half of which I read and translated with his help, and, when I mentioned that I often confuse which prepositions go with which verbs, a pdf with some preposition exercises.
Italki lets you choose between “professional instruction,” where the tutor will probably have you work through a textbook with homework, and “informal tutoring,” which is more the conversational kind of session I had with Stephan, practicing and improving my skills through dialogue. The latter is the less expensive option, but both kinds of lessons are pretty reasonable—downright cheap in some cases, depending on the language you’re studying and the exchange rates involved. Payment is all handled through italki; you purchase italki credits (ITC) at the rate of 1 dollar per 10 ITC, plus a small processing fee based on your payment method. When you book a session, italki holds your credits, and after you mark the session completed, they pay the instructor. If the session doesn’t happen for some reason, you get your credits back. Most lessons seem to be in the neighborhood of $10-15 per session.
The selection of language is fairly staggering. Basically, anywhere there’s Skype, there are italki tutors eager to take you on as a student. Most instructors have made short videos to introduce themselves. I love this one from Modabo in Spain. Many instructors indicate on their profiles whether they have experience teaching children, if you’re looking for a tutor for younger kids. For teens, pretty much any instructor is a possibility.
Many instructors offer trial sessions like the one I had at a special rate. Italki allows new users to sign up for three of these trials, so you have a chance to try out the interface (and the teacher) without spending very much.
The website also encourages connections among users; you can find language partners to practice with or do swaps—say, you help me with German and I’ll help you with English. After all, actually speaking a language—jumping in, trying to form sentences, making lots of mistakes and having someone correct you—is the best way to move toward fluency. Users are also encouraged to write notebook entries in their target languages, inviting native speakers to offer corrections and advice. There’s a handy markup system to use in editing others’ entries. All very friendly and low-pressure.
So far, in my limited experience (two weeks browsing the site and last night’s wonderful lesson), I give italki high marks. Rose is drooling over the language list. We’re thinking some italki Spanish lessons might be a very good option for her. Like me, she’s been using Memrise to build vocabulary in her target language(s), and she studies Spanish grammar in a print textbook. But there’s nothing, nothing, like speaking with a native speaker. I’ve been stuck at a sort of low-intermediate level in German for a very long time. As in: decades. It was exhilarating last night to discover how much I really can say and comprehend. I understood almost everything Stephan said, and when I didn’t, he repeated the phrase, typed it out for me, and told me the English. It’s a very organic way to learn. I would love to take more lessons with him, the informal tutoring kind. I see Sign Language is offered as well, which is a very exciting possibility.
MEMRISE. Free for computer, iOS, Android. Excellent for building vocabulary, not so much a grammar tool. (But read on.) You pick any of a multitude of courses in your target language. In small batches, words appear on your screen along with “mems,” mnemonic devices created by other users to help you remember the word. The best mems create some kind of visual image that helps fix the word in your mind, the way I was taught as a kid in the 80s to remember that Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense by picturing Caspar the Unfriendly Ghost defending a bottle of wine and a hamburger. I don’t remember which teacher planted that image, but the picture is still vivid. That’s what the Memrise folks call a mem.
You can scroll through all the existing user-created mems for each word or phrase, and if you don’t like any of the choices you can create one of your own. The interface makes it easy to select a public-domain image, and then you add whatever text you want. Here’s a mem I made to help me identify Chad on a map of the Countries of Africa:
It’s corny but it works. Not all mems have an image attached; a good word-picture can help just as readily. I remember Ceuta on the map (a place I’d never heard of until taking this course; an autonomous Spanish city on the North African coast across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain) by thinking of the Spanish pronunciation —thay-uta—and using the mem “they oota be in Europe but they’re in Africa instead.” Again, not exactly the height of cleverness but it was the hook I needed to remember how to spell the name of the city.
Rose, whose favorite pastime, I kid you not, is learning the first chunk of a new language, has absorbed beginner vocab in Dutch, Welsh, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, and who knows what else, in between her longer-term progress through a 1000 Spanish Words course. I’m taking several different German courses simultaneously—you can move as quickly or as slowly as you want. I too have a “1000 Words” course I use as my primary focus to add vocabulary, but there’s a “German Conversation” course as well that has lots of useful longer phrases like “I couldn’t care less,” “I completely agree with you,” and “he’s so reliable you could build houses on him.” Then there’s the short course on prepositions I whisked through as a review, and a challenging one on verb conjugations. And then—slowly, oh so slowly! probably only a hundred words over the course of a year!—I’m using the vast and comprehensive 5000 German words course which is packed with upper-level vocabulary.
But then, I thrive on variety. Other users might prefer to move steadily through one course at a time. There’s a fair amount of overlap in my assortment of courses, which helps cement things in my mind, but I can see that it might feel redundant or confusing to others.
Regarding mems for language, I’ve found that the best kind are those that help me work from the English to the German. I can usually remember the English meaning of a German word after a couple of repetitions, but it’s much harder for me to look at English and grope for its German counterpart. The majority of user-created mems seem to work the opposite direction—they’ll start with the German and use English puns to link the word to the English. For example, here’s a text-only mem I made for aufhören, German for “to stop doing something”:
It didn’t really work for me, not after some weeks away from the program. I couldn’t look at the English definition and get to the German word. What I really needed was something that starts with “stop doing something” and gets to “aufhören.” In this case, I tried to enhance the mental picture that goes with the above mem: I picture a Stop sign with Alf the TV alien perched on top holding a phone—the phone because the “hören” part reminds me of Auf Wiederhören, “until I talk to you again,” which you say when getting off the phone. Now, this revised image is working pretty well for me—but it requires me to remember to use the “stop” in “stop doing something” as my jumping-off point for memory. Will I remember that if I come across the word in another context a year from now? I don’t know. I do know that a vivid and specific mental image makes a tremendous difference in my ability to connect words in two different languages, and that after some repetition, the word is transferred to my permanent memory and I don’t need to rely on the mnemonic device anymore.
This repetition is part of what makes Memrise so successful: the program works by giving you the words at ever-increasing intervals as you demonstrate mastery. First you “plant” the words, a few at a time, and they give you a lot of interactions with it in different ways—English to German, German to English, multiple choice, type it in. This process only takes a few minutes for each new batch of words.
Here’s one example:
Now the words are planted in your short-term memory. Memrise locks them for a few hours (sort of—you can override the lock by clicking “overwater” for extra practice). After that, they are ready for “watering”—you come back and review them again. If you get a word right on the first attempt, next time there will be a longer interval before it’s ready for watering. Eventually, as the words move from short-term to long-term memory, the intervals may be many days long.
As you can see, most of the words in this lesson are in my long-term memory and don’t need “watering” (reviewing) for several days or even weeks. A phrase I missed yesterday, “auf diese Weise,” is ready for watering now. “Auf,” a common preposition I learned decades ago, is (obviously) in my long-term memory and only comes around every few weeks. If I wanted, I could tell Memrise to ignore it altogether—there’s a setting you can click that means I’ve got this one down and never need to review it again. I certainly don’t need “auch,” a word I learned on day one of German, popping up in my word list. I don’t always bother to mark words “ignore,” though, since it’s an extra step.
I mentioned above that what Memrise excels at is teaching you vocabulary, but it’s not as strong at conveying grammar. You won’t necessarily learn word order or grammatical cases from this program—for that we use other resources like Duolingo (about which, more in a future post). But what my kids and I have found is that Memrise is invaluable for building our vocabulary, and grammar is so much easier to nail down when you have a big word list to draw from. And when I was really struggling to keep straight which prepositions take which cases for object nouns, Memrise came to my rescue. I found a German course that focuses on that very thing—you have to enter +A or +D after each verb-preposition combo to indicate whether the noun will take accusative or dative. That’s the kind of drill I need to take me to the next level of fluency. I’ve been stuck in the middle of Level B1 (going by the Goethe Institut’s fluency scale) ever since college. My periodic reimmersions in German have prevented me from losing what skill I’d gained, but to move forward toward real fluency I need some more intensive drill. This course is helping shift my recall from groping to automatic.
How much time does Memrise take? It can be as little as five minutes a day, if you want—plant a couple of new words, maybe water some of your older ones. I tend to go in intense bursts of activity with long lulls between them—sometimes many weeks will pass without my checking in, and that’s fine. The whole point of the program is to plant the words in long-term memory. If I’ve forgotten them—the app can tell by how I answer—they get pushed back into a more active, frequent rotation in the list.
During my intense bursts, I add new words, level by level. Then, when my focus inevitably shifts elsewhere, I stop accruing new vocabulary but the program is there to help me maintain the vocab I’ve got. “Watering” your words can be really relaxing and addictive. Some people play Candy Crush; I water my German verbs.
The iPhone app is pretty sharp. I like to check in last thing before I go to sleep and see if any of my words need watering. It’s a good waiting-room activity, too, since the courses I’m taking work fine with the sound turned off.
Okay, I’ve talked a lot about how I use Memrise for my own learning. What about the kids?
My younger kids are very interested in it; Rilla begs to use it for French, but it’s a skitch above her level. Her spelling isn’t strong enough yet for her to be able to easily enter answers in English, let alone French. Also, and significantly, Memrise is designed for adults, and the mems are created by adult users, which means that occasionally you come across one that’s a bit off-color. For these reasons, I think it’s better saved for kids 13 and up, depending on your parental comfort level. For us, 12 or 13 is a good threshold.
Before heading off to college, Jane used Memrise to learn Japanese kanji. Rose, as I said, likes it best as a way to experience a wide variety of languages. She’s very interested in language and linguistics, and Memrise has allowed her easily to explore the rudiments of more tongues than I can keep track of. Meanwhile, she’s making steady progress through her Memrise Spanish course, which we supplement with a grammar workbook. (She’s not keen on Duolingo. Beanie and I love it.)
Also, Rose doesn’t bother with mems. She says she remembers better without them. What clicks for her is Memrise’s repetition cycle, the way the words you’re weakest on will appear more frequently in your practice sessions.
Beanie, like me, is into German. She does about 15 minutes of Memrise a day, 4-5 days a week. Her vocabulary is growing steadily and the program has the advantage of building excellent spelling skills as well.
There are also Memrise courses for the SAT and other college admissions tests, including SAT vocab builders. You can create brand new courses, too, and make them private or public as you choose. (Choose: wählen, she CHOOSES to wear a VEIL IN church. That’s someone else’s mem but it worked like a charm for me.) If I hadn’t found a course with the verb-preposition-case info I wanted, I was thinking about creating my own. I’m always happy, though, when someone else does the leg work.
The tide seems to be ebbing, as surely as tides do ebb. We’ve put away our science reading for the summer, leaving the world poised for dramatic change in the wake of Sir Isaac Newton. The history books aren’t yet officially shelved, but it’s a week or more since we picked one up. We got sidetracked by languages and kept conjugating the mornings away. Latin and German formally, the lot of us, and French informally via children’s songs (go ahead, ask us how many elephants can balance on a spiderweb), and Rose has me inching through Spanish grammar with her, and all of us have way too many plants to water daily on Memrise. And yet we keep planting more!
Ah, Memrise. Thanks to it, I can now list all the monarchs of England and Britain—with dates for all but a couple of sticky ones. Those two kings in the middle ages with interrupted reigns. One of the Henrys and one of the Edwards, I think. They’re still tripping me up—the specifics, I mean. I can wrangle them into their spots in the list. And I’m darn proud that I can keep all those Georges and Edwards and Henrys straight—even the one with long strings of names, since Memrise insists I use every doggone one of them. Edward VIII, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, even! (Edward Always Chases Girls And Parties Down—sorry, Ed, I know it isn’t very dignified but it works. Could be worse: think of poor Left-Leg Louie, aka King George I, George Louis. See him up there in the picture, with his left leg forward? The unfortunate nickname was someone else’s mem, and it worked.)
We’ve nailed the U.S. Presidents, too. We could sing them in order already—well, except for the bunch around Rutherford B. Hayes where we always got tripped up—thanks to an old (very old) Singin’ Smart cassette. (Cassette! That’s how old!) But now we’ve pegged them to dates. Ulysses S. Grant did not take the summer of ’69 for GRANTed. During James K. Polk’s term (1845-1849) the country POLKa’d its way to California just in time for the Gold Rush. The louder it makes you groan, the more likely you are to remember it.
Rose scoffs at mnemonics and just plain memorizes. Not I. I gotta have a hook. Richard I and Richard II both had reigns that closed out a century, did you know that? 1199 and 1399 respectively. Charles I (the Merry Monarch) and George III began their reigns in 1660 and 1760, and somehow that link makes them both easier for me to remember. William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841; James A. Garfield ditto in 1881. Another peg.
As always happens when you set “separate” chunks of history side by side, surprises hit you. I had never put it together that Teddy Roosevelt became President the year Queen Victoria died! His two terms align almost exactly with the reign of King Edward VII: you know, the Edwardian era. This is one of those connections I should have made earlier, and probably did make a time or two, glancingly, somewhere along the line, but I can’t say it really stuck. When I’m reading the Betsy-Tacy books (set during that very decade; Betsy graduates from high school in 1910, I think) I’m not thinking about who’s on the throne over in England. Nor, when watching Upstairs, Downstairs (in which, if I recall correctly, a whole episode revolved around the death of the King), was I picturing Theodore Roosevelt gallivanting around the U.S. creating National Parks. Connections are everything in education, and here’s one I hadn’t made until now. Teddy and Eddie. Got it.
I meant to make a list of all the books I’ve seen people reading, and books I’ve read aloud. Failed again. Missed some good ones, too! As for me, I read the first big chunk of The Goldfinch and found it so thoroughly harrowing I had to put it down for a little while. At this rate, it might take me the whole summer.
I mentioned that the kids and I share a Minecraft world. Its name is Calpurnia, after a favorite book. When I got a dog in the game, Rose offered to name it for me. The next time I logged in, “Darwin” was running around my attic—Darwin because of Calpurnia Tate, get it?
Then I wound up with a second dog. It ran around my house nameless for a day or two; then one day I returned home from a grueling shift at the ruined castle we’re building in the mushroom forest, and there, wagging its tail alongside Darwin, was “Newton,” newly monikered by Beanie. It seems I’m raising a bunch of scientist dogs, which is fine by me.
One day I accidentally fed both Darwin and Newton too many pork chops at the same time, and you know what that means: a puppy. I couldn’t wait for this new pooch to grow up, so I could see what name the girls would give it.
When I came home this afternoon, half dead after a skeleton ambush, the pup was waiting beside the front door, all grown up and sporting a new blue collar. Her name was Annie, the hover-text informed me. I was a little surprised that the girls hadn’t continued the scientist theme.
Shows what I know.
Rose, evidently aware of this gap in my education, had helpfully left some signage on the living-room carpet:
The dog’s name is Annie ’cause of Annie Jump Cannon, who
was one of the greatest female scientists; she organized the
stars. We still use her system today. Also, she was deaf.
I learned a lot more about Annie (the human, not the canine) after I logged off. She featured in a recent episode of Cosmos and my girls were quite impressed by her accomplishments. Her lifetime spanned the period between the Civil War and World War II, and as Rose explained, she was instrumental in the creation of the star classification system that is still in use today.
The girls have yet to account for the pig in my living room.
It’s possible this is a you-had-to-be-there moment, and if you speak French or know anything about French songs, this won’t be as uproariously funny to you as it was to us this morning. But boy did we howl. See, every day we’ve been starting out by listening to a couple of tunes off our Lucienne Vernay Songs in French for Children CD—this started as a thing for Rilla but the truth is we all get a kick out of learning French ditties. We don’t speak French, you understand. This is important to the story.
Well, today Beanie asked for the Train song. “Le Petit Train,” you can hear a piece of it here. It’s sprightly and cheerful, with an enjoyable “ch ch fff, ch ch fff” repetition laced throughout. I decided to look up the lyrics, but my first click seemed to turn up a different Little Train song. “This can’t be it,” I murmured, scanning the lyrics. A quick comparison of the first lines confirmed the obvious. Totally different song. Laughing over the incongruity—the juxtaposition of these bleak, melancholy words with our chipper little tune—I read the song, so obviously not OUR song, out loud.
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
Above the roofs
Slowly through the windows I see him
Slowly and doesn’t come back
He has nothing to say
He has nothing to do
He has nothing to say
And I don’t care
About the time which goes by
About the time which hurries
The illness of my youth
I had never loved anyone else than myself
Even not you
And I was so happy with you
And I was also happy without you
I don’t care about the wind
Which comes which goes away
I don’t care about the life
Which ends or not
I don’t care ‘bout your crazy stories
I don’t care if the rain comes through the roof
I don’t care about misfortune about happiness
And all this time which is fading away
I don’t care about sad songs
The keys which open the lock
I don’t care about the life which slips away
I don’t care about the earth which closes again
I don’t care about karma of stars
About collapsing sun and the days without tomorrow
I don’t care about grief
I don’t care about grief
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
He bumps and continues straight ahead
I didn’t need anyone and no one needed me
And I abused the time and now it’s abusing me
The little train of my youth
The little train is fading away
And I said nothing.
“Ahh,” sighed Rose with satisfaction, “the French are my kind of people.” Nobody savors existentialist ennui like a fifteen-year-old.
Grinning, I continued my search. Our perky little train ch-ch‘d its way through what seemed to be some happy pastures, judging by the encouraging moos in the background. Clearly our tune was a celebration of the French countryside, of shiny engines gaily chugging through a bucolic landscape. True, the mental picture presented by the melody is perhaps a bit English, the conjured images perhaps a bit too reminiscent of the Island of Sodor, but—don’t you hear those happy cows, that blithe and bonny whistle?
Aha, there it was. “Le Petit Train” by André Claveau. The same lively melody, the playful lyrics, ch ch fff, ch ch fff, a tune that radiates joy!
I found the lyrics on another page and had to run them through Google Translate to get at the English. And immediately dissolved into helpless giggles.
Here, slightly mangled by the translation bots, it what our song REALLY says. I’m not going to bother to clean it up. You’ll get the drift.
A little train goes in the countryside
Train p’tit goes in the morning
can be seen spinning towards the mountain
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy
Lots of goes … In the fields, there cows always surprised to see even pass p’tit
This train that loose plumes
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy smoke …
The gatekeeper waved his red flag to say bon voyage old mechanic
But wagons zero travelers do not move because they all take the bus and the train is useless …
The train p’tit who wants to believe in miracles
The air of nothing goes whistling and calves enjoying the show
chee chee chee chee crazy mad are happy …
Unfortunately, there are people who think it’s overkill
To give so much money for a P’tit Train
So they told him this time it is well finished
Enjoy it, it’s your last outing …
A train p’tit goes in the countryside
Train p’tit goes in the morning
can be seen spinning to mountain
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy goes …
It reviews the fields and rivers and pathways that feel good summer
It reviews all humble cottages
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy …
In the near Train slows down near the firewall and the mechanic waving
She sees the red light on the rear car who slowly away and is lost in the distance …
The train p’tit lost the battle
This is the end of these beautiful strolls
He goes to the scrap heap
chee chee chee chee crazy crazy It’s over …
But later, tired of long trips
We often will think train
Who sauntered among the green groves
chee chee crazy crazy chee chee tchiiiiiiiiiii
We … regret … the … well …
So. There you have it. The cheerfulest train song you ever did see.
The weekend: Jane headed back to college, the rest of the kids succumbed one by one to a fairly-short-lived-but-obnoxious-in-the-short-term cold, and I cleaned house all day Saturday to avoid finishing my taxes. And then gardened all day Sunday to avoid same. Did not read much, in part because sitting still and doing something besides taxes was harder to justify than, say, scrubbing floors or mowing the lawn. I mean, I can’t possibly be faulted for procrastinating going through expense receipts when I’m washing walls, can I? You guys, I was even washing walls. My ability to be intensely industrious at all the wrong tasks is unparalleled.
Monday: all but one of the kids have kicked their cold. We’re still in high tide, have got a very groovy groove going, in fact. Rose, Beanie, and I are all enjoying the books we’re reading together, and Latin has been really fun lately. Also, it happened that the episode of Cosmos everyone watched the night before Jane left was all about Sir Isaac Newton, about whom we’ve been reading in The Story of Science. Extremely considerate of the show to time things so conveniently.
I’ve been getting some questions about scheduling lately, both from real-life friends and blog readers, and since I’ve completely dropped the ball on my separate homeschooling blog (if you’ve asked for the login info and I haven’t replied, it isn’t that you’re not welcome; it’s simply that I’ve dropped that ball too, and I haven’t posted there in weeks anyway so you aren’t missing a thing…but feel free to ping me again for the info!) maybe I can give a quick sketch here of a “typical day”—of course we all know there isn’t any such thing, really; they’re all a little different. But we do keep the same rough structure four days a week. The fifth day, which falls in the middle, is for piano lessons and errands and (for Beanie) volunteering at Wonderboy’s school.
6:30ish—the boys wake up, Scott turns on a show for them to watch.
7am—Scott and I get up (sometimes he’s up already). He fixes breakfast for the boys and cocoa for me, and I take my laptop to the couch where the lads are watching their show. Email, etc while I come alive.
7:35—supposed to be 7:30 but I always push it as long as possible. I get up to get dressed, put my contacts in, pack Wonderboy’s lunch. By now he has already gotten dressed and getting ready for school.
8am—I’m in my bathroom brushing my hair and I hear the first bell ring on the other side of our back fence. I jump into my shoes and walk WB around the corner just in time for school.
8:15 (is this too granular? LOL)—I’m back home and now Scott and I leave for our walk. Beanie and Rilla are by now up and dressed (well, Beanie’s dressed), finished with breakfast most likely, and the TV is off. Rose waits for us to leave before dragging herself out of bed. Usually someone is playing piano when we leave and someone else is playing when we get back.
8:45ish—the teens have done their morning chores, Scott and I are back home after our walk (we call it our daily staff meeting), and I grab a yogurt and Scott makes a cup of coffee and we drift to our separate computers to eat/drink/read.
9am sharp—Scott starts work, back in the boys’ bedroom, which doubles as his office during the day. Rilla will likely spend the next hour puttering through her morning chores, which are few and simple but easily interruptible, it seems. Huck is dressed and running around. Mostly he’s counting down the minutes until 9:30, when (after two rounds of breakfast) he gets a snack. Rose and Bean join me in the living room for our lesson time. Now, the sequence of the next 3 hours varies day by day, but here was today’s. 9:00, we started with Poetry. First Poetry 180, two poems today because after we’d read Roethke’s “The Bat” they saw what came next and remembered especially liking that one when we did a chunk of this series with Jane, a couple of years ago: Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything.” Then John Donne, Meditation XVII (No man is an island…), in our continuing exploration of the metaphysical poets.
9:30? more or less?—Story of Science, the Newton chapters continued. I read aloud, we discuss. 1666, “The Year of Wonders” (Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis designation for the year of the Great Fire, which later came to be applied by scientists to that same year when Newton developed his theory of gravitation, oh and invented calculus, oh and figured out about color and light—that little old year), is a perfect choice for one of our history cards. Have I talked about this here, or only on Facebook? It’s pretty much the most successful idea I’ve ever had, history-wise. We used to keep a giant timeline on one wall, but in this house there’s no perfect spot for it; it was up too high; we never added anything new. A couple of months (?) ago, on a whim, I grabbed index cards and started writing down events or people we’d been reading about, in all our various books. Science stuff, history, literature, music, art, anything I could think of that we’d recently discussed. Person or event on the front, the year on the back. We have had such fun with these cards! Once or twice a week we play a game with them—Rose likes the competition—where I hold up a card and the girls take turns calling out the date and arranging them in sequence. We’ve all nailed down a great many dates that were quite fuzzy even for me before. My original goal was simply to have them be able to identify events in rough sequence, and there were only a few major dates I said they had to absolutely memorize. But the game has hammered nearly all the dates into our heads, mine included. And the cards themselves provide an excellent record of what we’ve studied, and how the different eras we’ve read about this year (19th century American history, Renaissance science, Elizabethan literature) fit together. We’ll be able to keep on adding to the stack: a game without end. Rose was pretty lukewarm on history before, and now she says she wants to minor in it at college.
Anyway, no cards today, I just got onto the subject because we remarked upon 1666 as an important year to make a card for.
All right, so now it’s around 10am, I think?—or a little before? I think next we did math. Beanie watched a MUS video and since Rose didn’t remember that bit, she watched too. By now Rilla and Huck are outside playing, having consumed their snack. Rose likes me to go over the new lessons with her, so we did that. She’s only got two more in this book (geometry), hurrah! (We made cards for geometry last week, too, since she has found them so useful for history. Wrote out all the postulates and properties, with matching cards containing examples. And one very cool thing was that after she’d spread them all out and matched them up, we realized she’d just done all of geometry right there. I mean, all of it that’s covered in this book. The last few lessons are a preview of trig. It was gratifying for her to see the scope of her accomplishment.)
Beanie didn’t need help with her math, so once Rose got on to working her problems, I went out to mow the front lawn. Beanie finished and practiced piano.
10:30—Rilla and Huck went in to get their half-hour on the iPad. I usually reserve this for when I’m reading with the older girls, but today I was still finishing the yard. Rose finished math and did some Memrise.
11am—littles are off iPad, back to playing. Rose downloaded a metronome she needs for a song she’s learning in 5/4 time, but I don’t think she had much time to practice before I called her for the next thing. (She plays for a good bit most afternoons while I’m working, though.) Beanie did 15 minutes of freewriting while I read through a lesson with Rose in an essay-writing book we’re going through. Then Rose went to do the exercise for that chapter while I looked over Beanie’s freewrite.
11:30.—Latin with all three girls. We’ve been using a different book for new vocab but right now we’re using the rather old Latin Book One for some real reading and translation practice. We’re all really enjoying this.
12pm.—Lunch. Huck begged to watch Ponyo. Generally we don’t do any TV or videos at this time of day, but he’s been on a real Ponyo kick lately and was still getting over that cold, so I said yes. He ate his lunch and then fell asleep on the couch, watching the movie. I sat on the front stoop with Rilla, doing a subtraction lesson. Then she went in to eat, and Rose was eating, and Beanie had already finished. Bean and I went into the backyard and dug out a dead plant, and talked about Romeo and Juliet, which she was about to begin reading.
12:30ish?—Somewhere in there, I ate my own lunch. Then Rose and I started Gulliver’s Travels. I gave a bit of background and we read the first chunk together. She’ll continue on her own, but she really likes doing things in tandem. Beanie was reading R&J by this time, and Rilla was doing magical Rilla things.
1:15pm—Rilla’s turn. She was itching to garden, because Mary Lennox. We weeded the front-yard flowerbed and found a snail. After about a half hour, we were both hot and thirsty. Went in for a drink and then read two chapters. Met Dickon! The roses are wick!
2:30—time to pick up Wonderboy. Rilla walked with me, Huck was just waking up. Got home, unpacked, Beanie was doing her afternoon tidy and Rose had the dishes ready. I wash, she rinses. Wonderboy and I chatted, and then he turned on Word Girl.
3pm—Scott came out, and it was time for me to go to work.
Things unusual about this day:
• the Ponyo viewing and Huck’s nap, which meant I didn’t read to him at all!
• gardening with Rilla and reading an extra chapter of Secret Garden meant I didn’t do any of my own reading, which I usually try to squeeze in during the last half hour before Wonderboy gets home. But then I never read as much in spring, do I?
• Most mornings, Rilla sets up camp at the kitchen table with all her drawing supplies while I’m reading to her sisters. She absorbs quite a lot of history and lit that way. But today she was very busy with Huck all morning.
• No German for Beanie, and barely any piano time for Rose. Usually Rose is pounding away every time I turn around. She likes short bursts of practice throughout the day, whereas Beanie will sit down for one long concentrated session.
I imagine any day I picked for this exercise would have about the same number of (totally different) “things that are different about this day.” An orthodontist appointment, a Journey North meeting, a muddy little boy in need of a bath.
Coursera courses on my own, in progress or last fall:
Scandinavian Film and Television. Multiple instructors, University of Copenhagen. Course in progress. Have watched vids for weeks 1-3 so far. Will probably not get all the way through before the course ends, as these lectures are a bit drier than others I’ve tried, but they’re quite interesting and I’m enjoying them—they just require a bit more focus because the visuals are very important (obviously).
Human Evolution: Past and Future. John Hawks, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Course just ended. Watched about half the videos. Loved how the professor traveled to various digs and fossil sites.
Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations. Sarah Burch & Sara Harris, University of British Columbia. Did about 75% of the course—videos and readings. Showed several of the video lectures to my teens. I wish everyone I know would take this class. Hope it will be offered again.
Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Al Filreis, University of Pennsylvania. Watched about half the videos, did corresponding readings. I adore this course and look forward to taking it again—in full this time—in the fall.
There are so many appealing courses in literature alone (see this big list at Open Culture), not to mention all the classes I’d like to take in anthropology, history, art history, and various sciences. The Tolkien Professor’s Faerie and Fantasy class sounds especially fun! We were discussing these courses on Twitter this evening and a friend mentioned that she’d love to take one of these, but would be unlikely to finish. I seldom complete an entire course, as my Coursera record above demonstrates. But that doesn’t concern me; I consider each lecture I listen to a gain. I ran out of time to listen to all the Human Evolution lectures, but I learned a vast amount from the ones I did manage to watch. Ditto all the above. I’m exactly halfway through Amy Hungerford’s series on the modern American novel, and while I certainly hope to listen to the rest of the lectures, even if I don’t get back to them I’ve already gained a tremendous amount in terms of new knowledge and food for thought. This is unschooling for adults, and it’s exhilarating—learning as process, not product (that same philosophy that informs our homeschooling life).
I’ve written before about our great experiences with various MOOCs one or more of us has taken via Coursera. Here’s another list of offerings, this time from FutureLearn.com. Courses that have caught my eye include:
• Moons— “Explore the many moons of our Solar System.” This has Beanie written all over it. Eight weeks, starts March 17. The Open University.
• Kitchen Chemistry— “Along the way you will use fruit tea to identify acids and alkalis, investigate chemicals that speed up reactions and experiment with electron transfer reactions. This should give you a feel for the world of molecules and an idea of some reactions. It should also introduce some methods to separate chemicals, to find out what chemicals are present in a mixture and ways to change chemicals from one form to another.” Six weeks, starts in April. University of East Anglia.
• England in the Time of Richard III! Exclamation point mine. “Explore 15th century England through archaeology, history and literature against the backdrop of the excavation of Richard III.” Yes, please. Methinks it’s time to introduce Rose and Beanie to Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time—a compulsive reread for both Jane and me—as a backdrop to this course. Six weeks, starts mid-2014. University of Leicester.
Those plus the Courseras we’re already signed up for—including a History of Art for Artists, Animators, and Gamers via CalArts, which is just getting rolling—may tide us over until the next iteration of ModPo kicks off in September. Boy do I love sending my kids to college around the world in our own living room.
Searches for this phrase (minus the comma) keep popping up in my stats. It’s a Downton Abbey quote, Violet mocking Isobel: “I wonder you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance ’round it, painted with woad and howling.” She didn’t pause for a comma, which has some folks confused. ‘Howling’ here is a verb.
Here is a person who is painted with woad, and is also howling.
Woad is a blue dye extracted from a the plant Isatis tinctoria or “dyer’s woad.” Its flowers are yellow but you can get blue from its leaves. I learned a lot about it while researching my Martha books—woad would have been one of Auld Mary’s staples. Indeed, it was a staple in European textiles through the Middle Ages, until it was gradually replaced in commercial use by indigo.
You chop the leaves into a paste, let them dry, crumble them into powder, then sprinkle them with water and allow them to ferment, a process known as “couching.” Then you add a mordant, something to help fix the color into the cloth. In days of yore this was most commonly stale urine. (The ammonia in the urine serves as the fixative, as you probably learned from The Mammoth Hunters.) Fun fact: according to this dyeing site, the urine of male beer drinkers was most effective. The collection and sale of urine from certain cities was big business, at one time.
Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase “taking the piss.”
Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.
“No – you’re taking the piss” was the usual rejoinder.
In ancient Scotland, so the story goes, the Picts liked to paint or tattoo themselves with woad, especially before going into battle. In fact, that’s how they came to be called Picts by the Romans, from the Latin word “pictus” or painted. Julius Caesar wrote in his The Conquest of Gaul, “All the Britons color themselves with glass, which produces a blue color.” Over time his word “vitro” (glass) came to be associated with woad, and the image of blue-painted Scottish warriors stuck. Some modern scholars dispute the association, saying Caesar meant something else entirely; it is widely accepted that the early Britons did engage in body art but the contemporary thinking, as far as I can tell, seems to be that the paint was probably not made from woad. However, other experts will point out that woad has antiseptic properties, which could well explain its use in painting the skin before or after armed conflicts. And so woad lives on in battles (of the scholarly sort) to this day.
Whatever the truth may be, the blue body paint is exactly what the Dowager Countess had in mind when she tossed her barb at Isobel. If I had any kind of Photoshop skills you would be looking at Maggie Smith’s face painted with woad (and howling) right now.