So, what we’ve been doing since radio silence in July:

The answer is the usual thing. I found out I was pregnant and took to my bed like a Victorian lady, as per usual, but with extra trepidation and gratitude after our 2019 loss.

I had just finished my second annual Mama Retreat planning our 2021-22 school year and you know what they say about God and plans. The week we were meant to start (so that we could be done in time to lead study abroad, which we immediately canceled) happened to be Week 6 of pregnancy: When Things Get Real.

Rather than postponing the school year, I faithfully downed a Zofran each morning with breakfast and slogged through our year from my couchside nest, abandoning Spanish and most of music appreciation, neglecting any science that required anything as taxing as standing, vocally resenting the excellent Kate Snow math that required me to (gasp!) use manipulatives and games to make math fun. (But I did do that, at least.)

I got sick, and got sicker, and felt better because that suggested the pregnancy was ok, but also, bleh.

First trimester, homeschooling was all I did. And I mean all. Laundry? Extra credit! Any kind of food prep beyond microwaving a frozen pretzel? Kudos to you, good woman! And it felt like nothing. The best and worst part of my day, maybe two or three hours total for both kids, and the rest of the day just killing time between naps.

But here’s the thing. A trimester of four-mornings-a-week school is actually not nothing, once it accumulates. Ideas were introduced. Facts were learned. I even had fun with some of the readings! They even did fine on their end-of-term exams with J.

It turns out most of the important things are incremental, difficult to measure. I grew eyeballs for this here baby, and I can’t tell you how or when, though I could tell you, less usefully, how often I threw up in the process. Pip learned about the Tudor era and his penmanship gradually became less murderer-y, and, kicking and screaming, he learned how to do double narrations with Scout. Scout built up familiarity with addition facts (just to be betrayed by subtraction) and heard a couple fairy tales she’d somehow missed, and attained the Drinking Game Stage of Literacy.

They also learned important things like what is worth waking Mama from a pregnancy nap, how to make lunch on their own, and gestational development.

I am better now, 20-some-odd weeks in, but not dramatically. I am glad I didn’t wait to feel better but began the difficult slog when we did. It gave structure to our days and distracted me, a bit, from the misery of this process. God willing, this spring our baby boy will join us, with all the associated return to health and energy that usually brings me — not to mention J’s glorious parental leave. Maybe we will do grand projects then, in-depth nature studies where I hobble farther than the backyard park, catch up on those dozen lessons of science and try a bit of family Spanish. Maybe we will just stare at the baby in wonder and get to know him. But incrementally, I trust, we will work our way to where we need to be.

Our school is a combination of Ambleside Online, Mater Amabilis, and my own odd brain.

Low-Bar Homeschooling: Music Study

A music appreciation study by someone who doesn’t understand music for people who also don’t understand music!! What could go wrong?

For the last two years, I’ve been trying to create my own vaguely Charlotte Mason-esque music study units with varying degrees of success. This one, on Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is the one that has gone best without running out of steam mid-term. I’m a librarian by trade, and librarians are all about saving effort and sharing their projects, so in this spirit, I offer you what I’ve done.

It helps to think of this piece as a guide in the sense of a tour, as described here, like you enter the lobby of a building and are led through it all, ta da, ta da.

  • Vocabulary (For me, the music-naive — I don’t dwell on the terms with the kids, just mention them in passing.) Definitions from this site:
    • Theme: main tune
    • Variation: alterations to the theme or “the tune in different ways— faster, slower, happy, sad, even upside down!”
    • Fugue: a melody with many voices entering at different times, a little like a round.
  • Versions of “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” We Watched
    • Trippy cartoon — I led with this to give them some visuals when listening to this piece, which is longer and less narrative than Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker, which we’d studied before.
    • Performance. We usually just watch several performances of our piece, one per week, because it seems to help all of us to have something to look at while we listen. I know some families listen while driving but my kids are usually already looking at books or chattering, so this works better for us.
    • Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra — empowering because kids! Filmed during lockdown, so you really see how the pieces fit together as they were all filmed separately.
    • Royal Philharmonic — also filmed during lockdown.
    • Really lengthy but helpful recording from the New York Philharmonic — lots of good explanations (like using the “Happy Birthday” to explain variations) and some funny parts. There are also interactive features.
    • Truly insane rip-off Muppet tour — ok, so my girls loved this, but I’m pretty sure it would fall under Charlotte Mason definitions of “twaddle.” Still, it taught me that a spit valve just has water from respiration (probably still spitty but STILL), which is a huge relief and something I wish I knew earlier so I wouldn’t have spent so many years haunted by the idea of spit valves.
  • Purcell’s Original
    • Scene from 2005 Pride and Prejudice featuring Purcell’s original rondeau, which Britten wrote his variations around. My early music expert brother-in-law pointed out the instrumentation elsewhere in this movie doesn’t reflect historical reality (I guess they’d still be playing harpischords rather than piano fortes? IDK), but I think it still gives a taste of the stripped-down look at the smaller piece of music that informs Britten’s larger piece. (And I love to show movie clips featuring our music selection because it really emphasizes how music literacy plays into other media and art forms — like the references to Peter and the Wolf in A Christmas Story. You can ask, “What does knowing this music tell you about this scene?”)
    • You can also see Purcell’s original performed as Purcell would have composed it in this clip.

What I don’t do in music study:

  • the aforementioned car listening
  • worksheets of any kind
  • sitting or lying still just listening, because no one is that good at concentrating among my littles and I for one would fall asleep

How has music study looked in your family?

February Books

Real Learning Revisited by Elizabeth Foss

Synopsis: More or less a tour through the Foss family homeschool, both at the time of the book’s original publication and now (thus the “revisited”). Foss’s whole-life approach is Catholic, Charlotte Mason-inspired, and, as a wry friend noted, very “NoVA.”

I struggled a bit with the tone of this for some reason. Maybe if I had read it earlier in my homeschooling research I would have found her a little less superwoman and smug in some sections — it really seemed like she was able to spin all the plates effortlessly most of the time. This is a critique of the book’s voice, rather than the actual content, or, heaven forbid, poor Elizabeth Foss’s actual character. (Maybe if I were a longtime blog reader I’d cut Foss more slack — Kendra Tierney is similarly super-capable and she doesn’t annoy me.) Still, this was the first book-length synthesis of Charlotte Mason philosophy and Catholic educational theory I’ve read, and valuable for those early philosophical sections, as well as for some of the closing sections. (I especially liked “What I’m Not Going to Tell You.”) Also, she may have softened my heart just slightly toward team sports. (But seriously, ugh.)

Takeaway Passage: “[P]arenting will always be more about self-discipline than it is about bending or shaping a child’s will.”

On to Oregon by Honoré Willsie Morrow

Synopsis: When his parents both die suddenly along the Oregon Trail, 13-year-old John Sager takes responsibility for his six younger siblings, including a newborn, as they press on to Oregon despite many obstacles.

A book recommendation I got from Real Learning Revisiting, so there’s value right there. We worked through this as an audiobook whenever I needed to run errands and everyone was enthralled to varying degrees, with Pip being the most enthusiastic. (Foss had mentioned it appealed most to her eldest son and improved his attitude to his younger siblings — my initial reason for trying it!) I found the historical detail interesting and it tied in well with our current work with Classically Catholic Memory — as a librarian, I also appreciated how the author cited diaries and letters from her research so my kids could see research in action. On the other hand, I found the constant peril of the newborn baby sister painful (probably a legacy from my miscarriage) and the attitude toward Native Americans required a lot of conversations — probably good to have those, but also a little painful. (Then again, original publication date: 1926.)

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Synopsis: Explores the lives of the Mirabal sisters and the enormous impact their lives and deaths held on the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic.

I know nothing about the Dominican Republic! Except that maybe some good baseball players come from there (?) and also that it’s on the same island as Haiti! (I mean, I think?) Still, In the Time of the Butterflies completely engrossed me, though: the political intrigue, the nuances of four very different sisters, the question of what we owe our families, our faith and our nation. Lovely prose, lovely book.

Takeaway Passage: “‘Dictatorships,’ he was saying, ‘are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.'”

The Half-Acre Homestead; 46 Years of Building and Gardening by Lloyd Kahn and Lesley Creed

Very aspirational hippie stuff about a couple out in California who built their own home in the 1960s and have been tweaking and modifying it as a self-sustaining tiny piece of land for the last four and a half decades. J would panic if he leafed through it — lots of sections on greywater (maybe someday) and roadkill taxidermy (never), but it has some clever solutions and inspiration for living a frugal and handmade non-Instagram life. It is more like a magazine, a glancing and wide-reaching overview, than a how-to manual on any particular subject, but with a lot to interest in the breadth it covers and the life it describes.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: On the winter solstice, at a merry pub on the banks of the Thames, a badly beaten man comes to the door bearing a dead little girl. But is she dead? And to whom does she belong?

I can’t begin to say how much I loved this one. Such a lovely surprise — I didn’t go into it with any kind of recommendation, just happened upon it in the library e-audiobooks, and, having loved Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Middlemarch, decided to give it a go. Well, Juliet didn’t point me wrong. The book just felt old-fashioned, even a little Dickensian, with any character who cropped up once appearing before the end, and its strict and merciful distribution of satisfying justice, but also peppered with very of-the-moment discussions of what parenthood and children call forth from a person.

Takeaway Passage: “A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” (Also, Robert Armstrong may be one of my favorite literary creations of recent memory.)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

This was a struggle. I listened to it as an audiobook and it just felt like a complete assault of information, coming too fast for me to process it. Massacre, treaty, migration, massacre, massacre. I could’ve gone slower, of course, if I’d read it as a book, but I’m skeptical I would have made it through. The last section, about the repatriation of artifacts and remains, was the most interesting to me, probably because I was best able to understand it, with less hopping around geographically, historically, and culturally, and with my limited knowledge of the subject from my sister-in-law’s work. I’m hoping this is a step in the right direction of correcting my woeful ignorance, and that more fiction like Even as We Breathe and heck, even counterexamples like On to Oregon, will populate my imagination and give me a better framework to build on.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Synopsis: Nora has nothing to live for. So when the last few threads holding her to other humans finally fray, she makes a rash decision at midnight and awakens in the Midnight Library, where she will live different variations on her life until she finds the one that makes her want to keep on living.

Despite the macabre start, a really charming, life-affirming little novel with shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, and Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Very cinematic, and full of humor and pathos. Enough philosophy to not make it completely superficial, and honestly a little too much physics for me, but maybe that’s your thing.

Takeaway Passage: “You’re overthinking.” “I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.”

7 Ways Anne of Green Gables Prepared Me for Homeschooling

(I’m joining in this week with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for 7 (not so) Quick Takes. You can visit the other posts in this link-up here!)

When it comes to figuring out this life of mine, particularly the homeschooling aspect, sometimes I feel like I’m navigating without a roadmap — and if you know me, you know I’m absolutely dependent on GPS for my continued survival. I enjoyed a fairly conventional suburban childhood and attended public school straight through. Lucky for me I had Anne of Green Gables to prepare me for home educating my kids.Read More »