Friday, November 30, 2007

Narrating a Music Lesson

I haven't had the chance to blog lately due to the hours I've spent at my Mother-in-law's bedside and the additional hours required to administrate our homeschool cooperative school. As a result, I've a head FULL of assorted bits of interesting things that just beg to be set in order. I remember feeling a little like this when I had a colicky baby and no time to write in my journal.

In one of my recent reads, Writing to Learn, William Zinsser makes the challenge to write about something that is intangible rather than concrete. For example, a music lesson. It is one thing to write descriptively about a work of art or a photograph~~~the reader can LOOK at what is being discussed. But to describe a musical technique requires the ability to conjure up sensory information of a different sort. In the author's own words:
"Writing about music also made me a better musician. The need to write clearly about an art form that the reader can never see or hear; one that evaporates with the playing of each note, forced me to think harder about the structure of music--about what I was trying to learn."
Zinsser's approach here is related, I think, to the concept of narration. Homeschoolers, especially of the Charlotte Mason variety, are well familiar with this technique of "telling back" what has been learned. In a homeschool setting, this most often involves telling back an episode in a book. But I'm finding that this deceivingly simple exercise is valuable in other settings, too.

The music lesson is just one "non book" example. How about narrating the way in which a math problem is solved? Or describing how to do a flip on the trampoline? Have you ever tried to describe in detail an elegant meal that you enjoyed?

Oral "tellings" are perfect for young children, but writing the narrations adds a new level of learning. Even adults find it challenging! I know this because I've tried tackling some of the writing assignments I've given to my children.

Zinsser tells us that writing forces the brain to reason in a linear, sequential way and thus is ideally suited to help us tackle subjects that we might view as difficult. When we write, we must break it down into bite-sized morsels and that is far less intimidating than sorting through a huge mass of information.

I have two very excellent writers in the family. But I have noticed that when I choose the "Achilles Heel" subject as a writing assignment, the result is less-than-excellent. So I am taking Zinsser's advice which includes:
*Providing excellent models of good writing across the curriculum
*Taking the time to write across-the-board, even where symbols are commonly preferred
(math, music, physics, etc.)

J. Henri Fabre, the famous French writer and entomologist, honed his incredible writing ability over a period of 20+ years by writing textbooks. His care in writing enabled him to later pen books that have been described as the "Insects' Homer". His words sing, even after being translated into different languages.

The lesson I learn from Fabre is that writing is a lifetime pursuit! I'm excited that my own learning continues to unfold as I oversee the education of my children.

Life is rich!

For more on the subject of narration, take a look at Belinda's post entitled "Narration-but With No Books!"

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another Sky Picture

This one came across my desk as an e-mail entitled "A Smile from God".
I couldn't resist sharing it with you!
I do feel God's smile today. My Mother-in-law has been hovering between life and death for a week. Today was the day her breathing tube was to be removed, and there was concern over whether she could draw breath on her own. She did! We are rejoicing this Thanksgiving week that the Lord has graciously allowed her to remain with us a while longer.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Word Sculpting

"Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written."
~The Apostle John
John 21:25

Containment. That is the universal challenge of the writer. Mountainous masses of information must be sculpted, the pen wielded as a chisel to structure and shape the words into beautiful proportions.

If the Apostle John had to practice large- scale editing, how much more will be required of writers who live in the era of information-glut?

Biologist Lewis Thomas calls the random bits of information which envelope us "plankton". It's an accurate simile, because we are swimming in the midst of an ocean of information and are able to digest and utilize only a tiny portion of it. Good writers manage to scale down the serving size, avoiding the temptation to dish out an overwhelming array of ideas and words.

The New Testament gospel of John is an excellent model of good writing because it has been sculpted into beautiful form:

*Clear purpose~ "...but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name." John 20:31

*Strong declarative sentences~~In his book
Writing to Learn, William Zinsser says, "Writing is the handmaiden of leadership. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence."

The book of John has these in abundance. Here is a sampling:
~"the Word was God"
~ "He was in the beginning with God"
~"All things were made through Him"

John could have chosen to portray Christ from any number of angles, but he chose one perspective to zero in on: Christ as Deity
The streamlining of perspective eliminates clutter and confusion, and helps to weed out unnecessary information.

Though John asserts that the whole world couldn't contain the books that could be written about Christ's life, he pares down the subject matter to include only 7 stand-out miracles and 7 of Jesus' fabulous "I AM" statements. These hand-picked examples all serve to reinforce his purpose in writing the book. There is a pleasing symmetry in the structure of the book as a result of these choices.

I love that the God of the Universe chose to communicate to me via the written word, and that He took the great care and patience to arrange those words in the most beautiful way. Although I'm sure His primary intention was not to provide me with a writing textbook, still His Word has been refined seven times and is perfect. There is no other book that can make that claim! I hope that as I remain immersed in it, I will be able to use my own pen to express clearly the wonders I encounter on my life journey.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

More on Studying Smart

I have been listening to a series of lectures with my high school students, a Teaching Company DVD series by Tim McGee, entitled "How to be a Superstar Student. In one session he tackles the subject of how to read a textbook. I listened with interest to this one, because we have learned almost entirely without textbooks the past 10 years, using whole or "living" books almost exclusively. The transition into high school brought with it a biology TEXTBOOK that made me sweat (I wrote about that experience here). Although I don't anticipate putting down the living books and switching to a textbook, still I understand that my students need to expand their horizons to include textbook learning. So the focus on textbook learning in this lecture was well-timed.

McGee begins by explaining that there are two kinds of reading: social reading and academic reading. Academic reading, the kind you use when you are reading a textbook, requires a little more than a cursory look. It requires
* taking notes
* writing and underlining in the book (gasp!)
* pausing frequently to put the concepts in your own words

Because we have practiced narration skills for many years, that 3rd suggestion will be easy. It's the note taking and underlining that we will need to work on; learning how to glean the most important ideas and vocabulary words from the reading.

It is also helpful to know that nearly all textbooks are set up the same way, whether it be a science, history, or language arts textbook. They always begin with objectives, then move to explanatory material, and end with a summary or review.

I liked McGee's note taking suggestions~~which include using different colored inks and drawing original diagrams to enhance understanding.

He has come up with some good illustrations for high schoolers, such as the example of a star football player who goes into the game without a helmet. McGee likens this to the student who comes unprepared to class~unable to find his completed assignment, without a pencil, etc.

It's back to habit training; the simple habits of organization smooth the way for academic learning. I find I have a lot of work to do in this regard! It's still a struggle to get everyone to pick up their papers, pencils, and put everything away after a day of learning. Sometimes I wonder if there will ever come a day when I don't have to remind?

I'm hoping that this DVD series will reinforce my investment in habit training.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Study Smart

British educator Charlotte Mason played a big part in my mental preparations for homeschooling. When my oldest was about 2 years old, I read through her Original Homeschooling Series, and have been repaid over and over for that investment of time.

One thing that CM emphasizes is habit training, without which it is nearly impossible to make academic progress. She is not the first to make the observation that once a habit is formed, it frees the mind from having to grapple with minutiae, allowing it to go fishing in deeper ponds.

I like the way this concept has been reinforced to my teens in the excellent Teaching Company DVD series by Tim McGee, entitled "How to be a Superstar Student." He suggests that students visualize their minds as a blackboard. Upon awakening each morning, it is clean and uncluttered. But with each conversation, each interaction, each activity, an "X" is placed on the board. By the end of the day, the mind has accumulated a lot of clutter. There is little or no room left for substantial learning. His point: make study one of the first priorities of the day. Make a habit of utilizing that morning burst of mental energy. Study smart rather than studying long.

Friday, November 02, 2007

His Mighty Firmament

North (Printer's Proof V)
Keith Jacobshagen
Lithograph 1990
Kiechel Fine Art

Praise the LORD!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
~Psalm 150:1

I have been fascinated by sky paintings and photos ever since our local art museum featured an exhibit comprised of sky photographs from each county in our state. The colors, cloud patterns, textures, and moods held endless fascination for me.

Biologist Lewis Thomas added to my fascination in his book, The Lives of a Cell. In it, he compares the atmosphere of the earth to the membrane of a single cell. Without a membrane, chaos would reign. It is this sky membrane that "edits the sun"~~protecting us from harmful ultraviolet light, and nucleic acids and proteins. Amazingly, it permits the full penetration of the specific kind of light that is required for photosynthesis.

More from Thomas:

"It is hard to feel affection for something as totally impersonal as the atmosphere, and yet there it is, as much a part and product of life as wine or bread. Taken all in all, the sky is a miraculous achievement. It works, and for what it is designed to accomplish it is as infallible as anything in nature. (snip) We should credit it for what it is: for sheer size and perfection of function, it is far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature."

Thomas calls this "fantastic luck".

Good writing. Good biology. Bad theology.

I can forgive him for that and enjoy his observations, just as I can enjoy the exhibit in the museum. I am so thankful that the "totally impersonal" atmosphere he marvels at has a voice of its own:

"The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament show His handiwork.

Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world."
Psalm 19:1-4