If you only have time for one book this fall…

present-over-perfect-book-niequist

Several years ago, when I was in a newer social circle and lonely, a friend said I should wear fewer cardigans because people thought I was too put together to be approachable. I checked this with a college chum. “Yeah,” she agreed, “People are intimidated by cardigans.”

 

My early 30s self worried over that a great deal. But now, at 37, I’m ready to say “to heck with what other people think. I’m going to wear what I like.” I’ve heard that this is what happens when you come up on 40, and although I have a ways to go on this journey, I was interested to find Shauna Niequist’s new bookPresent Over Perfect, in which she chronicles her own reassessment of life at the crossroads of midlife.

As an aside: why do so many people insist that 40 is middle aged? I feel like 50 is the gateway. But no matter what your stage of life,  I think Shauna’s broader theme of evaluation and recentering are widely applicable and valuable for consideration.

At first, I wondered if the book was for me. The inciting incidents that got Shauna started thinking about these things were mostly about being too busy and being hyper-successful. I’ve made a lot of conscious decisions to avoid busy-ness and no one could accuse me of being overly successful! But the more I thought about it, I realized that even in my less busy life, I have a tendency to become overwhelmed by various things, to give in to stress, to push and push and push through exhaustion because it’s expected…and the results are not that far off from what Shauna experienced.

“There we were, women in our thirties. Educated, married, mothers, women who have careers, who manage homes and oversee companies. And there we were, utterly resigned to lives that feel overly busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted.”

Reading this book made me more mindful of all the times that I power through. Only four hours of sleep? Oh well, power through! Fussy baby, toddler tantrum, angry siblings, work deadline and dinner isn’t made? Power through! It’s been a long week and I’m exhausted and just want to read a book? Someone has to buy the groceries, power through! Once I began evaluating whether or not I am “utterly resigned” to the “busy and pressurized, disconnected and exhausted” parts of life, I found plenty of examples.

“That’s part of the challenge of stewarding a calling, for all of us…we have more authority, and therefore, more responsibility than we think. We decide where the time goes. There’s so much freedom in that, and so much responsibility.”

Not only did I find plenty of examples of powering through, I also found plenty of space to back off of some things. A wise friend advised me to relax about some homeschooling issues. I decided that no one is going to mind if I sleep until 7 and start school late one morning. I’ve simplified some meals, owned up to the fact that I absolutely HATE Twitter (even if it’s supposedly critical for small business marketing) and started to just say no to some standards I’ve internalized that aren’t really true to who I am and what God has called me to do. It has been pretty freeing.

I appreciated the way that Shauna wrote candidly about her own life and struggles, and welcomed the invitation to think about my own life and choices, even if they differ from hers, so I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of Present Over Perfect come up on Amazon. Many of them were of the “this author is too privileged” variety, which is funny since one of Shauna’s essays talked about what to do to when you find yourself saying, “Must be nice…” about someone else’s life. Rather than a simple discourse on envy, Shauna wrote about how to turn away from it by owning your feeling, thinking about what you’re really saying, bearing other people’s burdens, and owning your own choices.

Present Over Perfect gave me a lot to think about. I read it slowly, then went back and did some deeper thinking and writing about my responses. I get the sense that Shauna is coming out of the season I’m just entering, and for that reason I found the book incredibly helpful and ultimately encouraging. 

I am often asked for a book recommendation by people who don’t have a lot of time to read. In my view, if you’re only going to read one book per season (or so), you should make it one that has the potential to change your thinking and perspective on life. Present Over Perfect is that sort of book. I highly recommend it.

 

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“Ride Icelandic ponies”

schulte-quote-ponies

I love this quote from Brigid Schulte’s great book Overwhelmed. I have it on my desk as a reminder to be present in the moment. Whatever I’m doing, I should really DO that thing. If I’m riding Icelandic ponies, I should RIDE ICELANDIC PONIES and let the rest go.

You can read more about Overwhelmed in my longer review from last summer.

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A solid historical fiction audio book

new-york-book-rutherfurdAfter finding his novel Sarum exceptionally overlong, I didn’t think I’d give Edward Rutherfurd another chance. However, I think I’ve found a better way to deal with the crushing length of his saga style–audio books.

The things that bothered me about reading Rutherfurd were his not giving me enough story where I wanted it but too much boggy detail where I didn’t want it, and also his penchant for tying multi-generational characters together by giving them shared characteristics (as in “oh yes, this is the family who is stingy”). These factors probably were present in his novel New York too, but since I listened to it instead of reading it, they didn’t bother me at all.

As is Rutherfurd’s way, New York traces the intertwining stories of several families from the earliest settlements in New York City through roughly the present day. I listened to the book while exercising or when I was in the car by myself, and although it was something like 37 hours of audio (less for me, since I listened at 1.75 speed), I managed to follow the story line pretty well and stayed interested.

Audio books are tricky to choose. For many non-fiction books I prefer a physical volume so that I can mark places and take notes. Most of the time I prefer fiction in hard copy so that I can savor the words and structure. But in the case of New York, I think the audio version worked well because it’s not a work of fantastic literature, and hearing it helped me to avoid being annoyed by the pacing so I could enjoy the story.

To find New York (or another audio book), check if your library has OverDrive–I love this app for free audio books I can play through my phone. Or, you can sign up for a free trial of Audible and get two free audio books. Just remember to cancel if you don’t want to keep adding to your audio book library!

What books have you listened to lately?

 

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Pros and cons of reading books about books

Pros & cons of reading books about books

Perhaps, like me, your childhood experience with books about books leaves you cold to the idea. In general, and even (perhaps especially) for children, I prefer to read the actual thing. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Truly great books are part of a conversation about ideas, so in order to be worthwhile, a book about a book can’t be didactic–it has to draw you into the conversation in a deeper or more accessible way.

And that can be a great experience. Here’s one example (followed by some tips):

This summer I purposed to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor presents important insights and cultural analysis, but this work of philosophy clocks in at 896 pages and if you aren’t used to reading the genre you might get bogged down. I love reading philosophy, and greatly enjoyed the book, but even so it’s length made it difficult for me to keep track of all of the threads of the argument.

And so I was delighted to find that James K. A. Smith wrote a book based on a class he teaches on A Secular Age. So it’s a book about a book, but in the best possible way. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular, engages with Taylor’s work in a succinct but comprehensive way. Smith brings his own (slightly different) perspective to the work and ties the arguments a little more closely to applications from our current cultural moment.

So, how do you know if it’s worth your time to read a book about a book? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Can you read the books together? I’d generally avoid a summary or a book that attempts to replace the original with a watered-down version. However, if you can read the two together (as I did with Taylor’s and Smith’s books) and it forms more of a conversation, that’s a great thing.
  • Does reading the second book enrich your experience or understanding? Well-done books about books help you read more deeply and interact with original ideas more completely.
  • Is the second book a must-read on its own merit? In my example above, Smith added enough of his own spin and insight to make his book able to stand on its own. So while I’d wholeheartedly recommend both of the books I mentioned if you are interested in philosophy, history, or culture, I also think that for those who don’t have time for Taylor’s monumental tomeSmith’s book would still be a worthwhile read that would expose you to Taylor’s ideas and pull you into the conversation.

What do you think about books about books? (And is there a better way of saying that phrase without resorting to so much repetition?!) I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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A perfect book for graduates, 30-somethings, and probably retirees, too

perfectgraduationgiftMaybe this is how selecting graduation presents goes at your house too.

Me: We need to get a graduation gift for so-and-so.

Josh: OK.

Me: I was thinking…something like…a journal?

Josh: Oh geez, a journal? That’s like the boring tie of graduation gifts. Get something they need.

But what do college students/grad students/young professionals really need? Cheapo Target decor? Caffeinated water? Their heads screwed on straight?

Since there’s really no way to predict where a person’s tastes run when it comes to spangled wall hangings and inflatable couches, and we trust that the aforementioned young person can source their own stimulants, maybe a tool for clear thinking would be in order.

And that is why I think from now on we will gift graduates with a copy of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book, Just Do Something. I love the alternate title too, “Or: How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing In the Sky, Etc.”

As you might guess from the alternate title, Just Do Something is funny and wry. But it’s also incredibly solid, Biblical advice for a culture where a surfeit of possibilities and a deficit of responsibility inclines us to falsely spiritualize indecision.

Yep, I said “us.”

Because, when I first began reading I immediately thought the book would be perfect for graduates, but after a couple of chapters I realized that I was under conviction as a 37-year-old too. And really, the mirror DeYoung holds up in Just Do Something reflects our entire milieu, not just millennials, my nameless generation, Gen X, Baby Boomers, or whatever we’re calling ourselves.

We want to know God’s will, DeYoung says, for all the wrong reasons. We want to know what’s coming next so that we won’t be out of control or uncomfortable. We are obsessed with what house to buy, what job to take, who to marry, and so forth because we think those things are going to make or break us, but the Bible says God is after our sanctification. Instead of being frozen in indecision, DeYoung asks if we’re living 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

“Are you joyful always? Are you praying continually? Are you giving thanks in all circumstances? You ought to be. For this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.”

Basically, DeYoung boils seeking God’s will and looking for your purpose (which he discusses in very helpful detail) down to knowing God, praying for wisdom, and then, as long as our options aren’t unbiblical, just taking the leap so that we don’t waste our lives.

“If we had done something—almost anything, really—faithfully and humbly and for God’s glory for all that time, we could have made quite an impact.”

Because I’m a product of my culture and milieu just like everyone else, I really needed to read this book. I wish I had read it when I was 18/22/28/32 too. So I’ll be buying Just Do Something for graduation presents, but I’d highly recommend it for just about anyone on your list, and for yourself.

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Reading the new Harry Potter out of order

readnewharrypotterbookA classic bookworm dilemma presents itself:

Sarah, age 7, has read the first Harry Potter book, but not the rest of the series (yet, Sarah would have you know, she has not read the rest of the series YET).

And now, after waiting for a veritable plethora of people in line before us to read it first, we have finally received the new book from the library.

Because I am the mom and I drove us all to the library to collect it, I got to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child first. Since it’s a script and not a novel, that only took about an hour and a half. Hannah and Jack followed with alacrity.

Then the debate commenced. Should Sarah read the new book, having not yet completed the series? In case you or someone in your household faces the same conundrum, here are our thoughts on the matter.

  • The new book is a play. As previously mentioned, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a novel, but rather a play. Thus, it is shorter and contains fewer details. So kids who weren’t ready for the detail of the whole series or adults who weren’t ready to commit the time could easily handle it.
  • The new book was not exactly written by J.K. Rowling. If you’re one of these purists who can’t stand to break rank with a series (one of the children here stands with that camp), knowing that the play is based on a story by Rowling but not technically written by her may help you overcome your reluctance to read it out of order.
  • The new book includes familiar characters, but takes place decades after the original series. Because the timeframe is so different, you won’t miss details or episodes the way you would reading one of the first books out of order.
  • The new book does contain spoilers. Several parts of the play do refer back to previous books, which could spoil the suspense when you do get to the original series.
  • The new book is really not as good as the original series. We hate to say it, but the play has faults. Ron is portrayed as a dufus. Several characters were missing or written a bit incorrectly in our opinions. The play lacked the same depth of theme and language we liked in the original series. So if you haven’t read the novels, we wonder if the play might sour you on the series.

After much conversation, we left the decision up to Sarah. We hope our lengthy deliberations may prove illuminating to you in your own decision about whether or not to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child out of order. Let us know what you decide!
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Brains, brawn, and bodyweight

books about brains, brawn, and bodyweightAlong with reading about sleep, I read a lot this summer about health. Although much of what I read tracks with what I already knew, I did wind up making some fairly significant changes in my routine. If you don’t have time to read about all six books reviewed in this post, the one I recommend most highly is last, so feel free to scroll. I added in headers so you can pause on books that make sense for you.

Bigger Leaner Stronger – if you want to know about lifting heavy weights

biggerFirst, I read Bigger Leaner Stronger after seeing a good review from Crystal at Money Saving Mom. It probably seemed funny to GoodReads followers that I was reading a book subtitled “…building the ultimate male body.” No, gentle readers, I was not going all Frankenstein 101 on my husband. It’s just that our library doesn’t carry the Michael Matthews book for women, and I figured I could get the gist from the guy book.

This was the first book I read extolling the fitness virtues of jettisoning endless cardio and “high weights low reps” workouts in favor of slow heavy lifts. I was skeptical, but gave it a shot. Instead of my usual Jillian workouts, I picked up some (for me anyway) really heavy weights. And it actually made a pretty solid difference. For one thing, I really enjoy the weights workouts. It takes about the same amount of time, and I’m still working hard, but I like it more and feel better afterward than I did doing fitness videos.

Does it matter if you get Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger? I’m not sure. From reviews it sounds like the difference is more about diet, but if you’re fairly well versed in nutrition and math, you could probably figure out your BMI and protein needs and so on using the same framework Matthews suggests whether you’re male or female.

One aside on tone: my husband thinks Matthews “sounds like a tool” (although he didn’t fault him on information) so if you are sensitive to that, be forewarned. 🙂

The Hormone Reset Diet – if you are a moderator and don’t like lots of explanation

hormone-reset-dietNext, I read The Hormone Reset Diet. If you’re a moderator and can’t stand cold turkey approaches, you might really like this book. The author’s premise is that hormones are involved in our ability (or inability) to lose weight, and so she suggests that you target seven of these critical hormones with what winds up as a cumulative elimination diet.

As an abstainer who is also a questioner, I had a hard time with this. If I need to eliminate dairy, why would I wait until Day 16 to eliminate it? If I need to eat more alkaline foods, shouldn’t I start adding lemon to my water and eating more greens on Day 1? Unable to answer these questions satisfactorily, I went ahead and cut everything she suggests in the whole book from Day 1.

Well, almost everything. What I did not do was cut caffeine. Gottfried’s approach to caffeine may strike you as completely nuts if, like me, you are a person who is highly affected by caffeine. In my experience, cutting caffeine means a 3 week headache and near inability to do anything. I do not have time for that at this point in my life. But Gottfried says you’ll eliminate all withdrawal if you cut caffeine in half on Day 1, cut to only 1 cup of coffee on Day 4, cut to 1 teacup of tea on Day 7, and cut caffeine entirely on Day 10. I did cut my coffee intake from 3 teacups of 3/4 strength coffee to 2 teacups of the same (roughly one mug’s worth) and suffered a headache for one week. After that I decided I was ok with that 2 teacup consumption level and elected not to undergo any further painful reductions.

I also freely admit that I did not follow the plan perfectly for 21 days. I took a couple of detours, such as our family Saturday movie nights when we have a fancy cheese plate supper. I also never stopped eating butter because I hate eggs cooked in coconut oil. Still,I did lose seven pounds, which may have been from this diet, or may have been the weight lifting, or may have been because of other tweaks I made based on other diet books I read the same month. Sorry I was hasty and thus can’t give a completely scientific review; I was essentially cobbling together my own diet plan for the summer.

Overall, I would say that The Hormone Reset Diet had good points (eat a ton of vegetables, get protein in every meal, cut sugar and carbs and eat more greens, etc), but was vague at times and probably would only work if you like the idea of a phased approach and don’t require a whole lot of explanation before making changes to your diet.

The Wild Diet – if you are really into bio-hacking

wild diet

If tone trips you up, you might also want to watch out for Abel James. The Wild Diet was a helpful book in many respects but I had a hard time with the writing. There was a lot of “Big Food is after you!” rhetoric, including reference to “the guys with the $400 haircuts.” Um, wait, is this an issue of food quality or class envy? Especially coming from an author who does not hesitate to tell us that after he graduated from Dartmouth he was a consultant and had a million dollar house and a Porsche and whatnot.

Anyway, once you get past all that, I do think the book is solid. James follows similar lift-heavy-do-HIIT exercise prescriptions to what I was hearing from other sources, and also advocates eating a ton of vegetables and enough protein. His main distinction seems to be his advocacy for fat fasting, which was never super clearly explained but seems to involve eating fat in the morning and through the day until you mostly load up on vegetables and protein in the late afternoon and evening. I tried it because you know I LOVE TO TINKER and I was grouchy and exhausted. Could be because I’m nursing, but James notes that fasting doesn’t always work as well for women so who knows.

However, I did shift how I do mornings after reading this book, in that I’m having a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee with a green smoothie, then after my workout I have protein.

The Wild Diet contains a lot of recipes–some of which turned out great like the AMAZING cucumber basil green smoothie–and a lengthy discourse on how to feed your pets a wild diet, if you are into that sort of thing.

Don’t Just Sit There – if you need to integrate more movement into your whole day

Dont-Just-Sit-There

Katy Bowman’s short book Don’t Just Sit There provides an excellent resource not only for transitioning to a standing workstation, but really for integrating movement into your whole day. Bowman says that it’s not really sitting that’s the whole problem, it’s lack of movement generally. So you could get a fantastic expensive standing desk and still have issues if you stand in the same position  all the time.

Instead, Bowman advocates a dynamic work habit. Sometimes you sit, sometimes you stand, sometimes you walk around, sometimes you sit on the floor leaning forward propped up on your elbows…but you change it up.

Bowman provides lots of suggestions and exercises, but the simple motivation of the book was most helpful. After reading it, I brought a tray into my office that lets me type while standing, and I also started doing more of our school day from a standing/walking position rather than sitting. I also do a lot of work with my laptop on the kitchen island, so one way or another I’m standing and moving a lot more than before thanks to this helpful book.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life – if you are considering contact sports or don’t have kids or need a reference for who to see for serious brain issues

change your brainDiet and exercise also play a huge role in brain health. With Alzheimer’s disease in my family, I am pretty interested in how to keep our brains going strong. So when I heard Daniel Amen on a podcast talking about the connection between physical health and brain health, I thought I would check out his book.

This was probably a mistake.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life does have some really fascinating points. I love finding out how things work, and the visuals of brain scans were quite interesting. I learned some fascinating facts. For example, letting your kid play high school football is roughly as terrible for his brain as letting him do cocaine. Amen works with loads of ex-NFL players, and makes no bones about how wrong he thinks it is to let your children play contact sports. After looking at the brain scan pictures, I’m not going to disagree with him. Some people walk away from football just fine, but some people smoke and don’t get lung cancer and some people are functional cocaine users. Still not behaviors one would want to recommend.

The main reason I am hesitant about Change Your Brain is that, as a parent, I found it very distressing. I had a really hard time not feeling terrible about all of the times my kids have hit their heads. All of them have fallen down stairs, Jack once got a concussion when another kid slammed him into a concrete floor, etc. The book does have some hopeful points about how to rehabilitate your brain, but I found that it gave me a lot of anxiety about my children as I read it.

And, as it turned out, the diet and exercise aspect was really, really light. It basically boils down to: eat vegetables and high quality protein, eliminate sugar and most carbs, and do HIIT exercise. The suggestions for specific changes to make for problems in different areas of the brain were likewise simple–take Omega 3 supplements, drink green tea, some basic behavior modifications, and otherwise you need a specialist.

Overall, I felt like the book was mostly an advertisement for Amen’s clinics. And that’s fine–if you need brain help, definitely go to the experts who are actually studying brains rather than prescribing you medications without looking at your brain at all. But if you’re a (mostly) normal layperson, I’m not sure Change Your Brain is the best use of your reading time.

The Calorie Myth – if you only have time for one book on nutrition and fitness

the-calorie-mythI think the most helpful book I read in this entire array was The Calorie Myth. Again, this really goes back to temperament. In this book, author Jonathan Bailor cites tons of studies and research findings, quotes experts, and gives thorough reasons for what he claims. People like me need that. And despite the volume of information, Bailor also maintains a readable tone and doesn’t indulge in too much name calling, even as he clearly points out where government recommendations are based on bad science (or, more often, no science) and he’s up front about where food lobbies are financing policies.

I loved the simplicity of the guidelines Bailor draws out from his research.

  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (at least 10 servings per day)
  • Eat 100-200 grams of high quality protein per day depending on your size
  • Eat 3-6 servings of good quality fats per day (but don’t go crazy)
  • Eat 0-3 servings of low sugar fruits per day, depending on whether you’re trying to lose weight and how you feel.
  • Eat good quality seafood daily for Omega 3s.
  • Drink a ton of water and green tea, plain coffee if you need it, and don’t get calories from liquids otherwise.

I also really got good results from Bailor’s discussion of weight lifting. He takes the whole lift-heavy thing farther by talking about different types of muscle fibers and how to get at the ones that really make a difference (Type 2B). Basically, you want to focus on very, very slow lowering of the weight, rather than letting it just drop. There’s more to it than that, but I got wildly improved workouts when I implemented his suggestions. To be fair, this may have also been in the Matthews book and maybe I was just too new to it to absorb that, but could synthesize it in Bailor’s book after reading so much about it.

And so, to boil down a 2000 word post into one recommendation–I’d say The Calorie Myth is the best, most helpful book in this bunch. If you’re still interested in the topic after that, I’d suggest Why We Get Fat, which is an excellent nutrition book along these lines, although it doesn’t get into fitness.

Have you made any changes in your life based on what you’ve read recently?
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Tools for deeper Biblestudy

To make a short story long, I inadvertently read three books about Biblestudies this summer. Theology is one of my usual reading categories, but this sub-theme did not follow my usual reading plan. In June, I went to a conference and wound up in a break-out session that I thought was going to be about ways to study the Bible in your own personal study time. But it was actually about how to get the women’s ministry at your church into deeply studying Scripture rather than relying on a lot of fluffy “Bible Lite for Girls” type programs. I read a lot on that idea a couple of years ago, so I felt in the wrong place entirely, but having parked the stroller with my (finally) sleeping baby at a point in the room furthest from the door, I couldn’t really slip away.

As it turned out, the session was really challenging and yielded several book recommendations. Through a confluence of circumstances, I wound up buying them and here we are.

dig deeperDig Deeper would be a helpful reference if you’ve never really dug into just reading the Bible for yourself. I found it to be a helpful refresher, but plan to use it more for my children, who are getting to the stage when deeper Biblestudy is the next step.

This would make a great book for a middle school or high school youth group–especially as the methods for study are nicely explained and easily synopsized. Learning to read deeply is not a given in our culture, so learning to do this with the Bible is helpful for faith but also just an all-around good life skill. I’m thinking about taking one of the book’s suggestions and making some sort of laminated card of study tools for the kids to put in their Bibles.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this is a book for children–it’s not. It’s just presented quite clearly so I think it would be helpful for a wider age range. It’s a good resource for close reading of the text.

one to oneOne-to-One Bible Reading takes less of an academic tack and explains how you can just get together with someone one-on-one (as opposed to a highly planned or off-the-shelf study) and read the Bible together. It offers a very simple framework you could use on your own, with a child, or with a very learned person, and still get a lot out of your reading.

I really like this model, especially for our culture of superficial community and runaway busy-ness. I wonder if one-to-one reading might be a great way to make a church more relational and more of a community, and also be a realistic way to answer people who are asking a lot of questions about faith.

I think this method would work really well for a family study–because different people can get different things out of it at their level–but it also might lend itself well to a small group in a situation where people aren’t sure how long they can commit.

There are several copies of One-to-One Bible Reading available on Amazon right now for a penny. I’m not sure why the glut in the market, but this would be a good time to scoop up a copy because this book is a great reference.

unleash the wordIn the past I have led Biblestudies and small groups, but for various reasons (primarily related to pregnancies and scheduling) have not done that recently. So I really didn’t intend to read Karen Soole’s Unleash the Word, although I wrote it down in that break-out session I mentioned. Our library doesn’t have it and it’s published in Britain, but apparently not in the US, so it’s about $40 on my version of Amazon.

(I know, there are SO MANY reasons I should move to England. Readier access to British publishing is only one of the myriad.)

Given the prohibitive price and lack of library availability I planned to skip the book, but while sadly perusing the conference book booths instead of listening to a speaker because Margaret was crying (note to self: do not try to attend cerebral events with an infant in tow), I spotted Unleash the Word on special for $5. So I bought it.

And I’m still not sure how I will use it, but I have to say that the book is quite good. If you’ve ever led or been part of a Biblestudy, you will appreciate Soole’s insights. One thing that I appreciated was her exploration of why canned study materials sometimes don’t work with a group, and how you can evaluate and use them more effectively. Her thoughts on how to handle group dynamics and how to promote deeper relationships while keeping a lid on distracting sidebars were also helpful. Most interesting to me–although this could be a British thing since it’s not the way most groups operate here, at least in my experience–was the idea that application is best done independently. That is, while in the group you read the Bible, discuss it, and pray about what you read, and then everyone goes home to ponder deeper application questions personally. I really, really like that approach, because it would keep people from jumping to quick conclusions and encourage people to really be open to conviction rather than assuming a text doesn’t apply to them based on a cursory reading.

If you lead Biblestudies or small groups I would highly recommend finding a copy of Unleash the Word.

studyOn a related note, Hannah has been working through Starr Meade’s The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study for her Bible reading over the past couple of weeks and I am really impressed with it. I think it’s designed for a middle to high school audience, and is a guided way to read through the entire Bible and really learn to study it. It’s not a quick program, and could easily take several years to complete, but I like the format and it has been a great tool for Hannah (age 10) so far. If you’re interested, you may want to watch the price–I found the set for a solid discount on Amazon this summer, although the price is a little higher now. You might catch it on CBD with a coupon code at some point, but the books are consumable so I doubt you’d get a clean copy used (but you never know!).

Did any of your usual reading categories run away with you a bit this summer?

Speaking of reading categories, here’s a brief update on the Book Atlas. I put together a 19-page ebook explaining the concept and how to set one up, which you can get for free when you sign up for the newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll get a link to the ebook in your August newsletter this coming Monday. I’m so interested to hear what you think!

 
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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links–when you click through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind and make a purchase I get a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thanks for supporting A Spirited Mind!

Posted in Reading, Week in Books 2016 | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

On starting school, NOT planning, and knowing yourself

starting-school-not-planningWe started school again on August 1, having enjoyed the month of July for vacation. It was a shorter break than many choose, but for us it was just right–a couple of weeks at the lake with my parents, a couple of weeks at home.

A few people panicked on my behalf because how could I have time to plan a whole school year on only one month of summer break!?!?! Well, it’s simple really. We added a couple of new procedures and a few new subjects. I made clipboard checklists for the kids to encourage them to be more independent. I thought about goals and came up with some solutions to persistent problems. Other than that, I didn’t actually do any school planning.

There are three reasons this works for us.

1) I do not make detailed lesson plans. Or any lesson plans, really.

Yes, I said it. I see people online posting these incredible plans that list page assignments for every single day of the year in every single subject for every single child. Clearly some people love that sort of thing, and if it works for you, go for it! But please know–especially if you are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed–that it is not necessary.

That’s not to say that I go into each day loosey-goosey. We have a set number of subjects and a threshold for completion–we pack a lot of learning into each day. The difference is that my plan looks like “Sarah is using Saxon 5/4 for math”and we do math every day, rather than “Sarah will complete Saxon 5/4 Lesson 16 on August 19.”

After several years of being at this, I’ve realized that my teaching goal is mastery. Every day we move the ball down the field in each given area. Sometimes a kid is on fire and does three math lessons in a day. Sometimes something isn’t clicking and we spend five days doing one lesson. It doesn’t matter. It all comes out even in the end. The goal is for the child to learn math, not to complete a textbook in a given amount of time.

My decision has two facets:

  • I don’t want to hold my kids back. If she is ready to move on, we move on. Does the kid have that concept down? Great, I say, let’s not beat it into the ground. Who says you have to spend a year in a text book just because that’s how they would do it in a classroom? I don’t want to kill the child’s love and wonder for something just because my checklist says get through each and every lesson as written–or just because I made an elaborate plan that requires me to only do one lesson per day.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want to breeze over something that requires more time. In a classroom of 20 kids, you have to do that sometimes. In a classroom of a homeschool family, you don’t. If someone doesn’t get something, we camp out. I don’t get stressed because no one is telling me we had to make it to page 87 today. It’s more important that the child really understand the concept than that we track to a plan.

I do think you have to be careful not to fall behind too badly if your goal is to put a child into a traditional school at some point, or to graduate by a certain point, or to follow a certain academic path. So far, for us, following the goal of mastery has played out mostly in the sense of jumping ahead (for example, Sarah is a 2nd grader in a 5th grade math book) but I think even in areas where a child is behind, it makes more sense to work to mastery than to push ahead for the sake of a schedule.

There are probably notable exceptions and I may change my mind in the future, but that’s how it seems to me from here.

 

2) We do the same things every day.

The second reason minimal planning works for us is that I spent time up front thinking through what we do every day. I carefully considered how much each child should do independently. I changed our daily flow of events to see if that helped smooth some rough spots. But when it comes to actual teaching, we do different lessons and amounts of each subject, but we do accomplish those subjects daily (or several times a week, depending on the item). So each child has a checklist of independent work that I just print out weekly with no changes. He or she knows to do the next thing, or whatever specific instruction I gave during individual teaching time. The only thing I change on my record-keeping checklist are specific book titles by category for read-alouds, vocabulary words, and art projects.

For some people, doing different things every day really helps. For my kids, it’s easier to make the school day a given. I don’t want to fight battles over whether or not it’s the day for math or cursive or whatever. Is it a school day? Then you are doing math, writing, cursive, etc. This makes things easier for me, but it also makes the kids feel better because expectations are clear.

3) We stick with what is working.

Yes, I know there are simply gobs of different ways to teach math. I’m sure lots of them are more colorful, more fun, more modern, and more hip than Saxon. But after trying lots of different things, hopping around from book to book hoping to find the magic and mysterious One Perfect Fit, I decided that my goal is to teach math. And Saxon does just fine. I don’t use the books exactly as written, so I can tailor the lessons to each child, but for the most part we just truck through each level.

The point is, I find that most of the time I can make what I have work for what I need. Because I’m not casting about for the latest and greatest grammar, writing, spelling, math, and so on anymore, I don’t have to spend time learning new systems. Other than new subjects I add for my oldest student, I’m not having to reinvent the wheel.

So, for me, school planning is really about evaluating systems and considering goals.

I think through pain points in our school days and try to come up with solutions. I consider where each child needs improvement or more challenge, and whether he or she is developmentally ready for more. I make general checklists and the details fall where they may.

That said, I’m an ENTJ (side note for MBTI nerds: I once thought I was an ENTP in spite of always testing ENTJ, but then I realized that I’m actually not spontaneous, I just have an extremely low tolerance for inefficiency so I change things up as I go–now I’m wondering if I’m really an E or if I’ve become an I in my 30s? Is that possible?) so big picture planning appeals to me. Maybe the detail planners are different personality types? As with many things in life, it’s important to know yourself. 

If you like personality typing, you might enjoy the homeschool personality post at Simply Convivial. I found it helpful, and even freeing, to realize that I do things a certain way because it works for me.

Maybe you plan (or not) in a totally different way, and that’s great! As always, this is just the way we do things around here. I think it’s nice to get a window on how other people do life.

How are you tackling the new school year?

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