Science: Philosophy, History, Memoir, and Fiction

five great books to read about scienceI went on a bit of a reading odyssey on the subject of science this summer. Like math, science often gets a bad rap as being not for everyone or overly difficult. That’s a shame, because it’s truly such a fascinating and beautiful topic.

science bauerThe whole thing started because of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of Science, which attempts to get at the history of science through the writings of the greatest thinkers–the Great Books of science. I liked the approach, because instead of being lots of dates and formulas, Bauer wrote the history of science as a story of ideas. This will not surprise you if you’ve read her other histories. Bauer begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers, which was a fantastic reminder of how all subjects overlap and intertwine. As Bauer says, “The first questions were asked not by astronomers and physicists, but by theologians and philosophers.” Throughout the book, Bauer skillfully weaves in the ways in which thinkers influenced each other:

“Scientists who grapple with biological origins are still affected by Platonic idealism today; Charles Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological theories still influence our understanding of human evolution; quantum theory is still wrestling with Francis Bacon’s methods. To interpret science, we have to know something about its past.”

Each chapter covers the subject and time period of the pertinent idea, and then gives helpful–and helpfully short–lists for further reading if you want to dive deeper. The whole book is structured and written in such a remarkably excellent way. I highly recommend The Story of Science for adults and could easily see how this could make a science elective for high school students, or maybe a good book to augment general history reading.

About the same time that I remembered to pick up The Story of Science, my 9-year-old declared that he wants to be a physicist and asked if we could do physics for science this year. “Of course!” I said. “Oh no!” I thought. You see, in an effort to cram in extra AP classes and to be able to take AP Biology my senior year, I never took physics in high school. At all. I remember the conversation with my guidance counselor about whether or not I could take AP Physics if I had never taken regular physics, and if I could take AP Physics at the same time as BC Calculus. She said no. I wish I had pushed it. But anyway, here we are, and I don’t know anything about physics. So I began to dig.

sevenFirst, I found Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and really it’s a pretty marvelous introduction. The book is very short, and designed to pique your interest rather than load you with math. I really enjoyed it, and found all of the topics a source of great amazement. The author made even the most complicated subjects seem accessible and put the study of physics into context. For example, he writes,

“You would, of course, need to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics in order to master the technique to read and use this equation. It takes a little commitment and effort. But less than is necessary to come to appreciate the rarefied beauty of a late Beethoven string quartet. In both cases the reward is sheer beauty, and new eyes with which to see the world.”

I was surprised at the end when the author comes to a completely different metaphysical conclusion than mine–as if we both looked at the same narrative and yet chose opposite explanations for it. That was interesting to ponder, and would make for a great discussion topic.

poetsNext, I remembered that my freshman year roommate took a class nicknamed Physics for Poets in order to get one of her lab science requirements out of the way. When I found a book by that title, I dove in. In hindsight, I wish I had not. Physics for Poets is disappointingly not enough detail about physics and not enough beauty to satisfy even the most casual armchair poet. The author would attempt to simplify by giving a complex looking formula, but then not explaining it (frustrating!), or mention that a concept impacts technology but not explain how. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. The author ends with the following quote, “It is customary, in conventional physics courses, to equate understanding with the ability to calculate.” Sadly, the book failed to deliver either.

love physicsFortunately, my stack did not end there! For the Love of Physics got my attention with the cover picture of a wild-haired old man swinging on a pendulum in front of a blackboard, and Walter Lewin kept my interest throughout the book. A former MIT professor, Lewin’s enthusiasm and love for physics is contagious. The book is not only about physics, it’s also Lewin’s science memoir and his thoughts on teaching. His goal as a physics teacher was to inspire the student to see the world through new eyes. Lewin writes:

“I present physics as a way of seeing our world, revealing territories that would otherwise be hidden to us—from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vastness of our universe…To me that is teaching at the highest level. It’s so much more important to me for students to remember the beauty of what they have seen than whether they can reproduce what you’ve written on the blackboard.”

I enjoyed Lewin’s obvious delight at the beauty and intricacy of the universe and the way things work. This is the really, really fun part about science, just learning how amazing even the most mundane things are. Plus, you’ll learn a ton about rainbows and those little circles of light you sometimes see on walls. I may have startled my whole family when I recently pointed to some light dancing on a wall and shouted, “Oh my word, this is a camera obscura; y’all this is a PICTURE OF THE ACTUAL SUN!” Science!

when-you-reach-meAs you probably know, I am never reading only one book at a time. In fact I usually have at least half a dozen scattered around at any given moment. So I did not choose When You Reach Me because of science. In fact, I pulled it from my To Read shelf because I saw a mention of it on Hope is the Word and I thought I might pre-read it before giving it to Hannah since Amy mentioned that it has some fantasy/scifi elements at the end and I wondered what those were. But as I read the book I jumped (figuratively) because oh my goodness, it’s not fantasy, it’s PHYSICS! Well, it’s sort of fantasy, in that the physics is theoretical (my dad, who is an engineer, probably just snorted “all physics is theoretical!” Sorry, Dad.). But this reminded me of something I read in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction books–she got the idea for the Wrinkle in Time books after reading a bunch of things about…wait for it…physics!

Don’t things run together in such interesting ways sometimes?

In my latest newsletter, I mentioned an idea I have for a Book Atlas–this is the sort of great tie-in that a Book Atlas delivers. I’m writing up a short PDF on how you can set up a Book Atlas of your own and I’ll send it out free to the newsletter list later this month. Plenty of time to sign up if you haven’t already! Thanks to those who wrote to talk about the idea.

What interesting rabbit trails has your reading taken you down this summer?
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A couple of resources for writers

course_badges_Starting_yesOnline courses are A Big Thing right now, which you’ve probably noticed, and I’m not sure how I feel about them. As with anything, there are great examples and also lackluster offerings. In general I don’t think they match my learning style as well as reading a book. But in some cases, for certain topics, I think courses really, really work. One case in point: Upstream Field Guide, and a new favorite, Christine Gilbert’s Starting Your Book.

I got the course as part of an incentive package Christine offered for pre-ordering her book, which made the price a great deal. I’m not sure I would have pulled the trigger at full price then, although having completed the course, I am convinced of the value.

As you might guess from the title, Starting Your Book takes you from your idea to a fully outlined book.  Although I think it’s structured more for a non-fiction book concept, it also works well for fiction projects. You learn about tools to help you collect your thoughts, organize your premise, and develop a well plotted, complete outline you can actually write from. I was skeptical of the idea, because I’ve tried to outline novels before, but this time? I actually accomplished it! It did take a lot of work, but I felt challenged, encouraged, and best of all, equipped to get the thing done.

If you need the course, Starting Your Book is an excellent choice. It worked well for me because it’s entirely online and it’s written down, which meant I could consume the content as I had time and mental space, but also at my own pace, versus the slooooow pace of a video or audio. Each day packs in a lot of material, with several assignments each day. At first I was thinking, “There is no way I am going to get this done in 30 days, there is no way.” But then, lo and behold, I actually did.

pressfield-book-coverAbout three weeks into the course, when I had a pretty well fleshed out outline of 30 chapters, I read Nobody Wants to Read Your S***. OK, I know, crass title, and people who can’t think of better titles than those involving words requiring asterisks are usually annoying, but the book turned out to be helpful. I got it as a free download so there was little risk involved. I think the book was helpful for me because I was neck deep in plotting a story, so I had very concrete ways to envision the advice. For the most part, it’s good advice. And it’s better than Pressfield’s other non-fiction books (The War of Art, Do the Work) although it covers lots of similar ground. Pressfield has a formula, and clearly it works (he’s a best-selling author) but you can take or leave what you like of that. I did think he had some interesting ideas about themes, particularly one about how American authors tend to (maybe subconsciously) write the American Dream–defined by Pressfield as the belief that if you do the right thing and play by the rules, you succeed–into their books.

I looked at my outline. OK, apparently I am not an American because I wrote the exact opposite. I guess you could say I sub-themed that the American Dream isn’t true?

Whoa.

But that’s honest, because I don’t believe it, if you go by Pressfield’s definition. I guess those four years I lived abroad while growing up had a bigger impact than I thought. Anyway, onward.

During the last week of the course, I started to have major panic. The daily content and assignments tapped into some insecurities I have about the outline and I started thinking I had wasted all of that time because the whole thing was a hopeless mess and irrevocably broken. So I almost missed out on THE MOST VALUABLE PART of the entire course.

Christine reviews your outline.

I very nearly didn’t send it in, but at the last minute I said what the heck and pressed send. And Christine reviewed the entire outline (it’s a 17 page single-spaced Word document, so this is not paltry) and sent back the most thoughtful, helpful, lovely response letter. I did not expect anything so encouraging.

I think the final review is an incredible value, because having another person–a person who doesn’t know you or your story and has no vested interest in your being a writer at all–look at your ideas and evaluate them is incredibly helpful.

So, how do you know if you need a course like Starting Your Book?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. I’m a fairly Type A person who gets things done. Couldn’t I just outline my book on my own without a 30-day course? Well, yes. Except I’ve been working on this idea for, oh, seven years or so, and still didn’t have a good outline. I’ve read all the books and listened to all the podcasts and written reams of scenes and partial ideas. I’ve even written an entire 80,000+ word draft! It was terrible. I wasn’t keeping at it in anything resembling a consistent fashion because I wasn’t sure if it was a good use of my time–in short, I have a serious case of Imposter Syndrome about writing, even though it’s what I do for a living. The course gave me a needed push to buckle down and really apply myself to combine ideas and sort everything out and get it done.

If you’re in a similar position–you write but drafts don’t shape up well, or you can’t seem to get over the mental hurdles to be diligent on the project, or you have an idea but aren’t sure where to go with it–I’d recommend Starting Your Book. It’s a bit of an investment, but might be just what you need.

 
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Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are to my previous book reviews, but one is an Amazon affiliate link and I am also an affiliate for the We Create courses. Thanks for clicking through from A Spirited Mind!

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Family-friendly audio books for long car trips

family-friendly audio booksBecause my family lives half a continent away, the kids and I have long car trips down. Yes, twelve-hour drives as the solo adult with five kids including a nursing infant are possible. One reason this works is because four out of the five are potty trained and three of the five can not only take themselves inside a bathroom stall, but can also wash their own hands AND hold the baby (not simultaneously, of course) during a stop. Much easier than the days when I traveled with three under three.

Another reason this works is audiobooks.

Whether you’re making a long car trip or simply motoring about town, a good audiobook series can make a ride much more enjoyable for you and the children. Here are a few of the series we’ve enjoyed of late (all available through our library’s OverDrive app, which you should ask your library about, but also easy to find through Audible–a 30-day free trial might be a good choice if you’ve got a big trip coming up!).

mysterious-benedict-societyThe Mysterious Benedict Society series combines a mystery with a quest and riddles and teamwork and very clever wordplay to create a bang-up story that the kids and I loved. We listened to Book One on audio and have the next on hold, but meanwhile Jack enjoyed it so much that he spent his own money to purchase a copy of the first book for himself, and Hannah liked it so well she asked if she could give a copy to a friend for a birthday present.

Apart from being a thrilling tale, I particularly like that the main characters in The MBS are all kids who are a little unusual. They are kind of weird or have unusual abilities or are lonely, and yet they come to see how their unique skills and life experiences put them in exactly the right spot to do great things. This is a fantastic message for kids, especially if you have some who feel odd sometimes.

wingfeatherI’ve heard about The Wingfeather Saga for a long time, but we finally began it this summer and we are hooked. If you’re looking for an adventure series that is also well written, very funny, and excellent to read aloud (and who isn’t?) these are the books for you. We listened to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, then switched to reading aloud for North! Or Be Eaten! and I’m not sure if we will proceed with audio or reading aloud for the rest of the series, or if I will just turn the big kids loose to read for themselves.

If you’re nervous about the whole “darkness” and “being eaten” themes, rest assured that the bad guys (for example, the Fangs of Dang) are scary, but offset by the silliness of their names and the fact that the good guys fight for Truth and Justice and Right and are never forsaken.

Not only did the big kids and I like it, but even Eliza (3) is engrossed and asks for more chapters.

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia should go without saying for read-alouds, and we have read them all aloud together. The big kids have also read them individually. But we still really enjoyed listening to them on audiobook. Several of the readers were uncommonly excellent.

There are a couple of versions out there, so you want the unabridged. I haven’t tried the dramatized versions to know if they are any good. And please, whatever you do, please do not put The Magician’s Nephew first even if it is chronologically accurate. Read or listen in published order–it does make a difference to when you discover things!

I think of all the books, my favorite is probably The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, although I found The Last Battle particularly poignant as we listened to the part about Aslan’s Country after my grandmother died, so the allegorical Heaven was touching for me.

What have you been listening to this summer?
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How Dante Can Save Your Life

danteWhat a title, right? I love the premise of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life–it’s a personal memoir structured around a book (well, three books actually, but part of a set) that deeply changed the way the author sees the world.

Although Dante’s Divine Comedy (note: I have the Mandelbaum translation–there are many) may not strike you as hard as it did Dreher, most readers will identify with the transforming power of literature. My aunt who recommended the book to me was also taking a class on Dante at the time, so she enjoyed the memoir alongside a deep dive into the source material. I read Dante in college and didn’t really feel the need to re-read it, so you can certainly read the memoir as a stand-alone.

On the other hand, I might suggest that you not read Dreher’s book and assume that you now know about Dante. Although the book does contain information about Dante and clips from the Divine Comedy, it’s really a book about Dreher. And whether or not you like the book may come down to whether or not you wind up liking Dreher.

I didn’t, much.

I’m not sure what threw me off, but I wound up rooting for the antagonists in Dreher’s narrative. I wanted to like him–he’s a writer and a deep reader and a homeschool dad and his story is actually pretty interesting–but the tone of the book kept veering toward whining and the histrionic. I’m not sure if that’s just my reading of it or if the structure rubbed me the wrong way. Dreher opens each section with a segment from Dante that applies to the next step in his own narrative, and ends each section with an abrupt text box of vague application, here’s-how-YOU-can-change-YOUR-life type of prompts. That was an odd choice, and I think it asked too much of the book–like Dreher (or his editor, maybe–they felt tacked on) was making the book do too much at once and the structure couldn’t handle it.

I don’t want to pan How Dante Can Change Your Life, because the premise is great and the story is interesting. If you’re familiar with Dante and can get past the structural hiccups you might enjoy the book. My aunt, who is a great judge of books, really liked it. Even though I had issues with the book, I might still recommend it, especially to anyone considering writing memoir–different structures are always interesting to consider. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know your thoughts!

 
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Do you always finish a series?

silo

You may have heard of Hugh Howey–the one-in-a-million author who put a short story up on Amazon and wound up with a serialized best seller and a book deal–and his Silo Series. I hadn’t planned on reading it, but when a book club I’m part of (I wonder how many meetings one can miss and still style onself “part of” a book club…this one is hard for me to make for some reason) chose Wool for the July book, I decided to give the series a whirl.

The series–set in a dystopian future–uses terrific world-building and Howey managed multiple angles simultaneously in a way that drove the plot rather than getting confusing. As I read I wondered how much Howey changed his idea along the way, since he was getting feedback after every installment.

The first book, Wool, is the strongest. In it, Howey establishes the setting and introduces characters who slowly unravel just enough of the complicated mess to move the ball down the field a bit and leave the reader wanting more.

Then comes Shift, which delves more into how the mess got started. It’s still good, but a little less compelling. Sometimes backstory should stay backstory. The second book definitely felt like, “fans are demanding to know more about this fascinating scenario!” rather than a solid story in its own right.

By the third book, Dust, I was getting sick of the main characters. The bad guy is too bad (and I kept mentally thinking of him as Snow from the Hunger Games) and the heroine is too annoying. Several other characters felt two-dimensional and either too saccharine or too clueless. There were some plot elements that came out of nowhere and went nowhere (fast, at least) and at several points I asked myself why I was devoting my limited lifespan to continuing this series. And then the ending was too pat.

I know, the point of diminishing returns and everything. But it’s hard to let go of a series once you get started. If I were you, and if I were looking for a good summer read with a strong plot and fast pace, I’d read Wool. But then I’d let Shift and Dust go and move on to other things.

Once you start a series, do you always finish it?

 
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On reading with my grandmother

IMG_5928I’m trying to recall the first book my grandmother offered to discuss with me. It may have been The Little Colonel, or it might have been Freckles. I’m almost certain Christy came later, but the order doesn’t really matter. In any case, she would sometimes recommend a book to me, and tell me we could talk about it once I was done.

I don’t remember the details of the initial conversations, but we did continue to trade books off and on when I would visit. Once I got to be an adult, I would mail Grandmama a copy of a book once or twice a year, and she would send letters suggesting other titles I might like. I still remember the phone call when we discussed The Help. We talked for nearly two hours about the maids that had had an impact on her life in one way or another.

IMG_5929That was about the time Alzheimer’s was taking hold of Grandmama and walking her away from us slowly so I hardly realized it. We discussed a couple of other books after that, but soon it seemed she wasn’t really able to read anymore, or not all the way through a book.

It was harder to talk on visits, once we didn’t have shared reading. And once she stopped always knowing who I was exactly. At my cousin’s wedding two years ago she saw me and said, “Now, who are you?” My aunt reminded her that I’m Little Catherine. I’m always Little Catherine in family gatherings, no matter how old I get.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled so brightly at that, and said, “Well, you turned out beautifully!” Like it was such a happy surprise to see me all polished up.

IMG_5980On the last good visit we had, about a year ago, we looked at photo albums together. She didn’t know who I was, but she remembered stories from the pictures. It was so sweet to see pictures of her when she was young and happy. And to read notes from her friends during World War II when they were so brave and idealistic and certain that their friends and brothers were dying for a great cause.

We bring all of that to what we read, you know? Who we are and where we’re from and what shaped us. I wish that I had really known my grandmother as an adult, before she got sick. I’d love to talk to her about what it was like to have four daughters and one son back then (the same family mix I have now), or how her life changed her perspectives on what she read. In my memory she’s a pretty complex person–fun and vivacious but also a person of…shall we say…strong will. There are pros and cons to that inheritance.

IMG_5925Even though I didn’t get to be friends with her as an adult–maybe that’s never how generational ties work–I’m so glad that we read books together. I wish we had done that more. A big reason I keep writing book reviews is in hopes that my kids (and maybe grandchildren, down the line!) will someday know me a little better, or have some insight into who I am as a person, not just as Mama.

My grandmother died this week, at 93 years old. Even though I feel like I’ve already been missing her for years now, it’s still hard to know I won’t see her again when I drive through the mountains.

So I think I will go home and pile the kids on the couch and introduce them to some of those old favorite books. And I will tell them how I read those stories with my grandmother, who was complicated, but pretty wonderful.

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Two odes to food: a novel and a cookbook/memoir

Ruth-Reichl-My-Kitchen-YearThere is something so wonderful about reading a book written by an author who is deeply passionate about her subject. And when the author is Ruth Reichl and she’s writing a cookbook/memoir like My Kitchen Year? It’s perfect.

Reichl is my favorite foodie memoirist (Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples) because of her grace and humor, as well as her strong voice and keen sense of structure. In My Kitchen Year, Reichl covers the year following the unexpected closing of Gourmet, the iconic food magazine of which she was the editor. From shock to depression to re-evaluating her life, Reichl works through her emotions and problems in the kitchen. Drawing on her background and the freshest local ingredients, she weaves in personal memoir with excellent recipes that are unique and intriguing without being overly precious or fussy.

What I love about Reichl’s recipes is her unusual ability to drop a note where someone (ahem) might be tempted to cut a corner. Instead of just throwing out ingredients and instructions, Reichl explains why not to make a substitution if you really shouldn’t. Having been at this whole cooking-three-meals-a-day-for-a-large-family gig for years now, I have learned a lot about what can and can’t be done, but I appreciate not having to guess and check. This is how we learn and improve as cooks!

Unlike her other memoirs, My Kitchen Year is more of a cookbook. I marked so many recipes to try, and have set myself a goal to try one of them per week as seasonal ingredients allow. The few I’ve tried so far have been excellent.

REICHL_DeliciousHaving read My Kitchen Year, I was interested to see the Reichl also wrote a novel based on her experience. While there were some parts that could have been edited better, for a first novel I thought Delicious was pretty fun.

What made the book so enjoyable for me was again the clear sense of how much Reichl enjoys food! You can’t help but want to taste everything she describes. The book also conveys Reichl’s love for New York, especially NYC food culture. I considered making a list of things to search out when next I visit (I say that like I go to New York frequently, but in fact I have not been since 2001, sadly).

Delicious is a mystery of sorts, and has an interesting epistolary component, but really it’s an ode to food culture, and worth reading for that reason!

I enjoyed both books so well that I have already gifted them once! So if you have any foodies on your list, I think My Kitchen Year or Delicious (or both as a set!) would be a great choice.

 
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The Awakening of Miss Prim

the-awakening-of-miss-primI find it interesting that The Awakening of Miss Prim is an international best seller. The book takes a setting reminiscent of the movie The Village, adds a Mr. Rochesterish male love interest, and turns a love story kind of like Sound of Music, plus it’s a paean to classical literature and hybrid homeschooling and faith, and includes a lot of Quotable Deep Thoughts (QDT).

What’s not to like?

I expected to love this book. The premise is really interesting–a throwback community in a staunchly secular modern world, communal education based on classical principles, combined conversion to faith and love that is decidedly counter-cultural. And yet, I felt the book was a swing and a miss. Why?

Upon reflection, I think this book suffers from being too short–had the QDTs been spread through a long story it might have come across as less preachy and didactic. In such a short volume, the story is totally overwhelmed by talkiness. While the length probably contributed to sales, it really detracted from the book’s development. The author missed opportunities to flesh out the characters, describe the intentionally isolated village and its benefits and pitfalls, and make us care about Miss Prim. I didn’t buy her change of heart, but I think that’s because I didn’t have time before the book was done. Moreover, the child characters are not believable, even as presumably gifted kids who are exposed to great educations. They came across like that annoying little boy in The Sixth Sense who stage whispered about seeing dead people. Overly precious and two dimensional. Perhaps this is a problem with the translation?

While I pretty much agree with the author and should be the target audience for Miss Prim, I can’t really recommend it because of the problems in the writing. I partially enjoyed it and wanted to love it but overall was disappointed.

 
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A couple of things about sleep

a-spirited-mind
A friend of mine broke her arm and had to have physical therapy to help her regain full use of her hand. The therapist told her that the motion we use to pull apart a sealed bag (like the ones inside of cereal boxes) is terrible for our hands and no one–regardless of injury–should ever pull one of those bags apart. I don’t have any problem with my hands now, but after talking to my friend I am absolutely using scissors to open those sealed bags from here on out!

Sleep is like that. I am a terrible sleeper. Sometimes I have stretches of decent sleep, but more often I have problems of various sorts, whether or not I currently have a waking baby. Many people, however, seem to have little trouble sleeping. Obviously people like me need to read up on sleep research, but what about people like my husband who–in spite of really bad sleep habits–inexplicably sleep soundly whenever they want to? After reading a couple of books on sleep lately, I think it’s probably wise to understand sleep better even if you’re not having trouble with it.

sleep revolutionIf you’re totally new to healthy sleep, of if you’re not convinced that sleep is important, you might want to start off with Sleep Revolution. The book is kind of like a compendium report of the latest and greatest sleep research, mixed in with all of the reasons you can’t get by on too little sleep (really, even if you think you’re pulling it off, you’re not). While it’s informative, the book lacks much practical punch. The suggestions for getting better sleep are pretty thin, or the sort of thing you could find online in those “10 Ways to Sleep Better” slideshows. Still, if you need convincing or an overview, Sleep Revolution could be your book.

Sleep-Smarter-book

Lots of resources will tell you that sleep is important, so do things like get to bed on time and don’t drink caffeine after 4pm. Those are great tips as far as they go, but some of us need more than that to get good sleep. If you’re going to get REALLY SERIOUS about sleep, I’d recommend Sleep Smarter. This book is chock full of action items to improve your sleep. Some of them are easy to implement, some of them are a little out there, and all are fully discussed in enough detail to really put them into practice. There is a good amount of research included, but it’s readable, and it moves quickly into things you can actually do to improve your sleep.

I’m making several changes to my routines to take action on things I learned in Sleep Smarter, and I’m working on them for me and for my kids.

Of possible interest, Gretchen Rubin linked to this article on insomnia that suggests not eating if you wake up at night. Sleep Smarter suggests a before bed snack high in fat and low in carbs so you won’t wake up hungry. I do find that if I eat something like a hard boiled egg right before bed, I sleep better.

What works for you when it comes to getting good sleep?
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Wrapping up the school year

Another one for the books! If you only count Kindergarten forward, this was our fifth year of homeschooling, but if you go by the fact that I’ve been keeping records since Hannah’s pre-K-3 year (I know, I know) this is was our seventh year of homeschooling. In many ways, things that were once difficult are easier, but in other ways, the things that are difficult have gotten more so. I do find that having taken time to articulate WHY I am doing certain things, I have found many areas that work well and require very little planning now.

What worked this year:

  • Convocation – Starting the day with prayer, singing, Bible study, and memory work sets a good tone, and makes sure we get to these things.
  • Checklist – Mine, that is. I’m highly motivated by this to actually get things done, and it also gives me visual permission to stop when we’re done.

What didn’t work this year:

  • Table Time – The consistent accomplishment thereof, anyway. We enjoy Table Time, but it’s hard to make it happen, especially on days when we have a hard stop time and need to get core subjects done.
  • Artist and composer study – We were really good at this for the first three months of the year, but once I went to the hospital it sort of fell by the wayside. Still, we did get some good study in for those three months, and listened to classical music and did some art after that.

At any rate, here is the breakdown by subject and student. I like to read this sort of post because it helps me get ideas, but please DO NOT READ ON if you are going to be tempted to do the whole comparison thing. This is what works for our family, with five kids including a baby and a mom who works part-time. Other families school much longer, or much less, or in vastly different ways, and that is fine. Again, this is what school looks like for us, at least for now.

Subjects we do together:

  • History – We covered the 20th century (Tapestry Year 4) by Easter, then started Ancient Times (Tapestry Year 1) again. We put the bookmarks in part way through the Trojan War and we’ll pick back up again in August. It’s SO fun to hit the ancient world again for the second time. It’s amazing how much Hannah and Jack remember. We will move through at our own pace–and will probably linger with the Greeks and Romans because they are awesome. I like not having to keep up with–or wait for–other people as we work through integrated subjects chronologically. We take a literature-based, living books, ideas and integration approach.
  • Literature – Our literature integrates with history, so has also been 20th century and then back to ancient times. The 20th century was a little rough, as I was trying to stay true to the issues and use living books, but also remain age-appropriate. There is so much excellent literature for children about the Greeks and Romans, so Year 1 is easier to navigate.
  • Science – To tie in to the lab class Jack was taking at co-op, we did Apologia Swimming Creatures this year, and learned many fascinating things about sea life. We then took on Nature Anatomy for more of a natural world angle), and recently started Apologia Chemistry and Physics (covering current interests for Hannah and Jack) after we finished Swimming Creatures. We read some good biographies about scientists, and also picked up Childcraft Mathemagic, which turned out to be a very fun read-aloud with math games (not technically science, but sort of related).
  • Geography – We study maps as they integrate with our history and literature study. We reviewed states and capitals, although I’m not a stickler for that given that I didn’t ever memorize them in school myself. I know, that’s not a good excuse. 🙂
  • Poetry/Memorization – We memorized lots of good poems together this year, with the latest–and by far the most dramatic–being The Destruction of Sennacherib. We render that one with tremendous emotion. 🙂  We also learned several chapters of Scripture and kept reviewing previous ones as part of our convocation time. We learned some new hymns to add to our rotation, and added catechism memory tied to our morning Biblestudy. 
  • Art – I mentioned dropping the ball on artist and composer study in second semester. The kids do a lot of art stuff on their own, which is great, and I’m past the point of feeling guilty for not being a craft mom. Still, we can strive to improve!
  • Vocabulary/Dictionary – Two or three times a week during table time (or, more realistically, during lunch) each kid looks up a word in the dictionary. Often they already know what it means because we discuss definitions when we come across an unfamiliar word in our reading, but it builds good skills to look things up.
  • Latin – I should do a post sometime on our Latin journey. Suffice it to say, we are now doing I Speak Latin together during table time, and enjoying it. It’s fun, and I intend for the kids to do Latin independently starting at age 10 (see Hannah’s section below) so fun is good for our group!

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Hannah – 4th Grade

Hannah has made great strides in handling her work independently. This semester she seemed to make a huge jump up across the board, such that I’m now sort of thinking of her as being in her middle schooling years (if you break the pre-college education into three parts, which is arbitrary).

  • Math – Having completed Saxon Math 6/5, Hannah is about a quarter of the way through Saxon Math 7/6. She is really being challenged by this book, which is great! I’m being very careful about checking all of her problem sets and having her re-do things she missed, so as not to skip important concepts.
  • Language Arts – Hannah finished First Language Lessons 4, which pretty much wraps up grammar and diagramming, at least for now. This quarter she started Writing With Skill, which builds on FLL and Writing With Ease. It seems like a great bridge between written narration and advanced composition. Although she continues to struggle with spelling (the woes of not being a natural speller!), Hannah did finish All About Spelling 4 and is in All About Spelling 5, with significant improvement over last year. She does copywork in cursive, and I sort of think she spells better in cursive since she has to think about it more as she’s forming the words.
  • Latin – In addition to the Latin we do together, Hannah started Visual Latin 1 and is doing great with the program. I investigated this at length, and am pleased with the overall scope of Dwayne Thomas’s approach. Visual Latin is structured as a high school Latin course, and can be graded and recorded thusly, but they also say you can start it as a 10 year old if you grade it a bit differently, and we have found that to be true. It’s sort of amazing to me that concepts that are stretched out over YEARS in various early start Latin programs are covered in a few short lessons in Visual Latin–and covered well, and actually retained. Lesson learned for Mama! It’s also a big relief to have most of the in-depth teaching for her level out of my court.
  • Typing – To facilitate faster writing and revision, Hannah started learning typing with some free online programs. We started with the BBC’s Dance Mat Typing, then moved on to Typing.com. Both work fine and get the job done.
  • Independent study – I’m assigning Hannah readings in history and literature each week, with the thinking and accountability questions/topics from Tapestry’s Dialectic (middle school) level. So far this is working fairly well, although I’m still trying to get a feel for how best to structure our discussions on what she has read. I’ve assigned her writing projects based on the independent reading but I’m still thinking that through.
  • Other – Hannah continues to take piano lessons, and she took Spanish, Indiana State History, and BizTown (economics/civics) at our co-op this year. We also tried out swim team this spring with great success, and intend to take that back up in the fall. Hannah reads like a maniac, taught herself to make soap, and enjoys making up imaginary worlds and inventing games to play with her friends and siblings.

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Jack – 3rd Grade

Jack is one of those people who, when he takes an interest, goes after it with full gusto. Whether it’s birds, physics, World War II, exactly how original sin works, or what-have-you, Jack is one to dig deep. But when he does not feel personal interest…he goes after it with…umm…double-plus-UN-gusto. This presents a challenge. I spend a lot of time trying to balance encouraging his interests with equipping him to do hard things even when he doesn’t want to apply himself. We want him to be a good steward of his potential, but don’t want to break him of his temperament, which is, after all, how God constructed his personality. Parenting only gets less and less simple, doesn’t it? But the rewards are many and so we press on!

  • Math – Jack finished Saxon Math 5/4 and proceeded to Saxon Math 6/5, which is not challenging him.  However, at this level I’m reluctant to skip things in case he misses something critical, so I let him do only every other problem and keep reminding him that once he puts in his time he can get to really cool things in math and physics and inventions. Although he’s able to do math easily, he still hates to write things down, so math is often a struggle.
  • Language Arts – About how Jack hates writing things down…we come to language arts. He finished First Language Lessons 3 and likes how grammar works but loathes putting actual whole words into the diagram he’s drawn. He is a decent speller and is neck and neck with Hannah in All About Spelling 5, but, again, abhors writing things down. So we figured out a lot of ways to do things out loud, which is time-intensive for his individual teaching time, but it gets the job done. I’ve read that a lot of boys resist writing even up to age 12. That is simultaneously encouraging and terrifying! 🙂 For some reason, cursive is easier for him than printing, which I think is because cursive feels more like drawing to him. And because he only has to do small chunks of copywork in cursive.
  • Other – My husband is teaching Jack guitar sporadically, and Jack likes messing around with the guitar he got for his birthday. He took Spanish, a science lab class, and PE at our co-op this year. Swim team was a hit, so he will do that again this fall. Other than that he likes reading, keeping notebooks of random things he learns (the one time he doesn’t mind writing things down), constructing models and inventions and giant pieces of art, building with Legos, and running around yelling and jumping off of things.

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Sarah – 1st Grade

Sarah is such a dedicated student, and is the sort of person who gets up early to get her independent work done without being reminded. I’m not sure how long this phase will last, but it has been lovely!

  • Math – On the last day of school, Sarah took the final test for Saxon 3 and completed the book. She catches on to new concepts quickly and didn’t have any trouble with this level.
  • Language Arts – Sarah finished First Language Lessons 2, and it was fine for basic grammar. I put her in Writing With Ease 2 this semester because I noticed she was not being as careful with narrations, and WWE does a great job of training the student to listen attentively and both narrate and summarize. Having worked through several books of cursive, I finally just started giving Sarah cursive copywork like I give the older kids. Being more of a natural speller, she’s about halfway through All About Spelling 4. I still had Sarah read out loud to me every day–just a chapter from a Laura Ingalls Wilder book–because reading out loud is a different skill than reading to yourself.
  • Other – Sarah takes piano lessons, and took art, Spanish, and PE in co-op this year. She also liked swim team, so will continue that this fall. She’s looking forward to playing soccer this fall in our church soccer program (one day per week–perfect). She likes to read, make pretty things from art supplies, play dress-up and dolls, and play with the baby. She also has a great Broadway singing voice, which she never consents to perform for anyone outside the family.

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Eliza – Pre-pre-pre-K and School Mascot

I did much better this year at getting preschool time in with Eliza. This is really simple–just reading from a children’s Bible, an Aesop fable, some Mother Goose, five or so picture books, and practicing saying ABCs and counting to 20. She sits in on everything else with us, so she also gets memory work and singing and read-alouds, either while sitting on my lap or doing lacing cards or playing with Legos or something. If anything, I’d like to read more to her, but for now having a dedicated 20-30 minutes just for her seems like a win.

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Margaret – Official Baby and Vice Mascot

Everyone reads to Margaret. She listens in on lessons while I hold her, or while sitting around on her toy mat. Sometimes, she naps. Other times, she yells. In short, she is a baby and we have acclimated to doing school with her in the mix.

AND NOW, LET THE WILD RUMPUS START! SUMMER VACATION IS ON FOR JULY!

 
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