Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Midway in Love

Years ago, when I was a new, young lover, I stumbled on a curious book of poems at a used book store. I flipped through and read the title poem along with a few others and was charmed. Feeling slightly self-conscious about the questionable literary respectability of such a collection of narrowly niched poems, I bought it anyway: When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.

I happened to see it again this evening and opened randomly to a middle page to see what I might see. And this is the poem I saw:

Love at Fifty
by Marcia Woodruff

We come together shy as virgins
with neither beauty nor innocence
to cover our nakedness, only
these bodies which have served us well
to offer each other.

At twenty we would have dressed each other
in fantasy, draping over the damp flesh,
or turned one another into mirrors
so we could make love to ourselves.

But there is no mistaking us now.
Our eyes are sadder and wiser
as I finger the scar on your shoulder
where the pin went in,
and you touch the silver marks on my belly,
loose from childbearing.

"We are real," you say, and so we are,
standing here in our simple flesh
whereon our complicated histories are written,
our bodies turning into gifts
at the touch of our hands.

However literary or sentimental, the poem is wise. While I am not yet fifty, I'm no longer twenty either. My body also is scarred and silvered with stretch marks. The veteran lover of the poem heartens me to age graciously, to love courageously, to give my real and simple self. Her words, finding me midway, turn into gifts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

You Know You Have a Good Math Program When . . .

. . . your seven-year-old solves her first four-digit, three-number addition story-problem independently, without you telling her how, . . . and then says, "Can I PLEASE do another one? I want to do one of these every day!"

My daughter was positively thrilled with her own discovery, with her new-felt math prowess. With the first-grade book in Right Start Math, she was solving word-problems that would normally involve "carrying" in the usual algorithm. However, not yet knowing the algorithm or the concept of "carrying," she gleefully solved the problem in her head using an abacus. She thought it was as fun as anything.

I call that age-appropriate math play. The student is using her mind to form concepts and figure out creative solutions to challenging, hands-on problems. I like that there are lots of this type of figure-it-out, thinking activities in Right Start Math and that there are hardly any worksheets.

We've also been enjoying the TOPS Get a Grip kit which operates on a similar philosophy. Using guided discovery, Get a Grip develops math and science understanding through measuring play with a bunch of different sized containers and a big box of . . . lentils!

Sometimes my Kindergartener likes to complete the TOPS activity booklets, and sometimes he prefers to free-play with the lentils. Since kinetic free play is as important as any structured learning, especially at his age, I am just fine with that!

My older scholar likes to free-play but also enjoys the increasing difficulty of the activity booklets which will gradually guide her from easy comparison activities to "sneaky algebra." And the physical, hands-on element is important for her, too. With it's progression to more advanced concepts, the kit can meet the needs of students up to sixth grade.

But my hope here is not so much to recommend particular math and science programs as it is to highlight a kind of learning that tends to be highly effective for most students. And that is play.

With math as with other subjects, students at every grade level tend to learn and retain concepts well through interactive learning. At least this is what I've observed and read.

There is no sound dichotomy between "play" and "real learning."

For example, we might think of a good Socratic discussion of a classic text as age-appropriate play for highschool and college students. Some skeptics might suspect that less learning is happening in such a discussion than in a traditional lecture situation because prescribed content is not being "delivered" in a controlled way. But you and I know that deeper, more substantial learning does take place in a Socratic dialog, even if it might sometimes feel more like play to the participants. (And if you don't know this, perhaps you should give the dialectic a try!) There's a place for lecture, but there is at least an equally important place for the dialectic.

In the same way, real learning often happens in the primary grades through play, especially certain kinds of educational play. That kind of authentic, active learning sometimes sticks better than many "traditional" educational approaches which can devolve into "in one ear, out the other."

Since later is better, I like to start in on a formal math program no sooner than first grade, maybe even second grade. Sometimes we fly first with only the free, custom printables—mostly the time and money worksheets—from But first we get hands-on with actual coins and clocks around the home.

For other tips on getting started with math play in the early years, I liked Ruth Beechick's Arithmetic booklet. Inexpensive and brief, it covers both foundational theory as well as practical applications for homeschooling the early years.

By Galilea at de.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Here's a final angle to consider: Who is the "real" mathematician doing "real" math? Is it the folks who successfully apply the symbolic algorithms like the Pythagorean theorem? Is it the people like Pythagoras who play with shape, measurement, and relation in order to discover the principles and create the symbolic algorithmic formulas that the rest of us use as ready-made tools? How can we best prepare students to think like a mathematician?

Do you play math with your budding mathematicians? What works well in your home?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Katernican Revolution

Since my own history education was so lacking in school, I have loved (re-)learning it along with my daughter. We've enjoyed our journey so far through Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World series.

When we got to the chapter on Copernicus and Galileo in Volume 2, I read ahead and supplemented with some research of my own to try to get a clearer picture of what happened between the church and the scientists at that time.

It struck me how similar it all seems to the contemporary tension between young- and old-earth creationists. See for example, the recent hot pot stirred up in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Or examine the speaker list and session descriptions for many a regional Evangelical homeschool convention.

On the one hand, there is the sincere and pious group who believes that faithfulness to the Word means sometimes denouncing data that seems to contradict our current understandings of Scripture. Some act as if even peeping at the naked data would be an infidelity. Some of Galileo's contemporaries, for example, refused to look through Galileo's improved telescope to see the newly-visible moons around Jupiter:
"My dear Kepler," Galileo wrote to a friend, "I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."

On the other hand, we have Christian scholars who fearlessly (if sometimes pompously—see Galileo's comment re: the common herd) embrace new data and wrestle to understand how the faith and the universe can be reconciled to each other with fidelity to both.

The essential tension seems to be hermeneutic: How are we to interpret and understand certain puzzling passages in Holy Writ?

During the Copernican Revolution, exegetical debate focused on the passage wherein Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14). For some authorities in the church, affirming heliocentrism amounted to "distorting the Scriptures in accordance with [one's] own conceptions," and was considered "likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false."

Copernicus, Galileo, and their like-minded contemporaries saw it differently. In a letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo studiously demonstrates an exegesis of Joshua that harmonizes the truth of the faith with the newly-discovered astronomical realities. Galileo also warns of the ill that can come of authoritatively wielding Bible passages to dismiss scientific theories:
It seems to me that [. . .] such men [. . . ] who, being either unable or unwilling to comprehend the experiences and proofs used in support of the new doc­trine by its author and his followers, nevertheless expect to bring the Scriptures to bear on it. They do not consider that the more they cite these, and the more they insist that they are perfectly clear and admit of no other interpretations than those which they put on them, the more they prejudice the dignity of the Bible—or would, if their opinion counted for anything—in the event that later truth shows the contrary and thus creates confusion among those outside the holy Church. And of these she is very solicitous, like a mother desiring to recover her children into her lap. [. . .] [T]he Bible [. . .] was not written to teach us astronomy.

I laid out the key facts in simple terms for seven-year-old Katherine: Some people in the church at the time [including Martin Luther and other Protestants, btw] thought that the Bible said the earth had to be in the center of the universe. They thought believing what Copernicus said would mean saying the Bible was false—for example, in this passage in Joshua where it says the sun stopped moving across the sky and "stood still" for a while.

"What do you think?" I asked her.

"Well, maybe," she mused after a moment's reflection, "the person who wrote Joshua was just saying how it looked to him. It looked like the sun moved and stood still. He didn't know about the earth going around the sun, since Copernicus hadn't discovered it yet."

Perhaps we understand both special and general revelation less well than we might like to think. Perhaps a childlike wonder—a revolutionary humility—could lead us to perceive more purely and insightfully both Word and world.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fourth Year of Formal Homeschooling Underway

This is the time of year when I pinch myself and realize again how blessed I am to spend my days learning alongside my sweet babies.

And it's also the time of year when I remember how much those sweet babies need to use their Pencil Grip Crossovers with their Pens. (Forgot to add these items to the original version of my Kindergarten Take 2 list. The omission has now been corrected.)

I wish all my fellow homeschoolers delightful learning adventures in the new school year.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education, continued

In the previous three posts (1, 2, 3), we've identified several goals of a classical liberal arts education. We've noted that students should acquire organized knowledge of language as well as an understanding of a wealth of interdisciplinary subject matter.  We've also seen that there are certain essential skills that a student should master: A student should learn to listen, speak, read, write, and think well. Additionally, we've seen, with help from C. S. Lewis, that students ought to develop good habits of feeling and valuing—what he terms "sentiments."

We've touched briefly on a variety of approaches for developing knowledge and intellectual habits, but how are we as parents and educators to assist students in developing habits of sentiment?

Perhaps Sayers did not discuss values, attitudes, or sentiment because she knew what Lewis knew from Aristotle, namely, "that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics." If the parents or initial caregivers do not establish a wholesome atmosphere and convey ethical attitudes and habits to a child from the cradle, no amount of scholastic study will make that child moral.

On the other hand, in undertaking the writing of Abolition of Man, Lewis demonstrates hope that by changing how we educate we might encourage (or at least avoid discouraging) proper sentiment.

Lewis doesn't say how exactly we might go about an education that engenders right sentiment, but he does give some hints.

First, Lewis observes that, barring an omnipotent state, personal autonomy allows individuals the freedom to discover and determine for themselves who they will be, what they will value, and how they will live. In the face of absurd theoretical schemes of education, Lewis thanks, "the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses." When we acknowledge and respect the autonomy and free-will of children, we create an appropriate environment for the development of noble sentiment.

Second, Lewis commends a system of child-rearing and educating wherein the teachers' aims and motives are themselves directed by the first principles, what Lewis calls, for shorthand, "the Tao." To rightly approach sentiment formation in the young, teachers must see the student not as a project or an experiment to control but rather as a fellow initiate "into the mystery of humanity which over-arches him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly."

Old birds fly before teaching young birds to fly. Likewise the first step to engendering virtuous sentiment in one's student is to develop it in oneself. We teach the mystery by living the mystery, by modeling more than by instructing in any pedantic way.

In other places (notably, "On Stories" and, in the same collection, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"), Lewis extends the idea of modeling and initiation when he describes the power of story to engender proper sentiment. Stories provide models for the reader to imitate, but they also give us experiences that we could not otherwise have. Through the noetic-psychological power of image and metaphor, stories (and other literature) awaken the moral imagination. Moreover, in a phrase used by Eleonore Stump, narrative gives us "second person experiences." Such personal encounters convey knowledge that cannot be reduced to propositional knowledge.
Stories stir imagination. Stories impart irreducible knowledge. Stories ignite love of beauty, of goodness, of truth. Stories inspire desire and action. Students can encounter stories through hearing oral tellings or in reading on their own, as well as by watching stories enacted on stage or screen.

While great books are used, as Sayers says, as material for praticing and honing language and thinking skills, Lewis reminds us that stories are also, throughout the trivium and beyond, valuable as experiences in themselves. Through the word, we come to know—deeply and experientially, as we can know no other way—humanity, ourselves, history, culture, even the Divinity. The Divinity, knowing how we know, thus sent us the Word and secured his revelation in poetry and narrative.

So we see another reason why, as Adler notes, the material we give to students should be worthy. The texts, like the live teachers, must respect the autonomy of the student, must model rather than preach, must initiate rather than manage. The texts ought to be beautifully and skillfully written, offer experiences worth having, and be ultimately redemptive (or, failing that, at least culturally or historically significant). In the selection of material, there is much more at stake than merely language and communication skills. The texts students read, like the influential people in their lives, will inform their sentiments, will color their attitudes toward themselves and the world.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education

(This is the third in a series. Click here for the initial post and here for the second.)
In the brightness of C. S. Lewis's Narnia, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and other popular writings, it may be easy to forget that Lewis was, by profession, a scholar in medieval and renaissance literature. Beginning as a fellow and tutor at the appropriately-medieval Oxford, Lewis was eventually elected to the position of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, as they say, "that new school." In any event, Lewis was quite sharp at his vocation, and he wrote the book on the Medieval model, (more than one, in fact) including a chapter on "The Seven Liberal Arts" in The Discarded Image.

But a couple decades before he wrote The Discarded Image, Lewis produced a small but potent book on education. In 1943, four years before his friend and colleague, Dorothy Sayers, gave her "Lost Tools" address, Lewis published The Abolition of Man originally subtitled, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. Rather than elucidate the medieval trivium or outline any specific plan of education, in Abolition of Man Lewis turns a laser-like spotlight on precisely the question that Adler left us with at the end of "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice": "how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students."  

Both Adler and Lewis point to the reality that all the discursive reasoning powers in the world are not sufficient to protect one against the "animal organism" of appetite. Adler hints at it. Lewis cuts to the chase: If we embrace an "extreme rationalism" that fails to accept moral truths as the first principles of practical reason, what Lewis refers to as "the Tao," then the only path open to us (apart from suicide) is "wholly irrational behaviour," namely, obedience to impulse. 

Lewis recognized that more had gone awry in modern education than a simple straying from the liberal arts. Modern educational revisionists, such as the pervasively influential John Dewey, had challenged the very philosophical and anthropological foundations of education. Pragmatists, as they have been called, had rejected the traditional understanding of what it means to be human and to flourish. Some of the revisions they brought about were helpful. For example, Dewey did much to correct the view of the student as a passive absorber of didactic information. However, many pragmatists drew on empiricist and utilitarian schools of thought and rejected metaphysical realities including the existence of universal ethical truth and universal aesthetic value.

In opposition to empirical pragmatism, Lewis argues that an education that debunks traditional values, attitudes, and ethical sentiment in favor of such a misguided "rationalism" leaves students unequipped for human flourishing. Students raised on such a deficient educational model are likely to become "Men without Chests": "It is not excess of thought," writes Lewis, "but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so." 

In contrast, a fully human education requires attention to the entirety of the tripartite soul. Lewis explains it succinctly: "The head rules the belly through the chest." By head he means reason. By belly he means appetite. By chest he means "the seat . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments." A well-ordered soul has habituated rationally-guided feeling-turned-sentiment. Such a well-ordered individual more easily avoids falling into base impulse or appetite and more reflexively chooses what is best and right. For example, if one feels strongly and persistently that one ought to give alms to the poor, it is more likely that one will be driven by that habit of thought and feeling to actually hand some cash to the beggar on the corner.

Perhaps we could speak of these "stable sentiments" as revealing or stemming from our basic attitudes toward the world. In contrast to those peripheral beliefs to which we give a mere token mental assent, sentiments direct our actions in practice. Because of the way a person views and feels about the world, she either is moved to give alms or is not.

In another way of looking at it, we could say that our sentiments align with what we habitually and affectively value. The Tao (the platitudes or first principles of practical reason), says Lewis, "is the sole source of all value judgements." If we truly value beautiful music, for example, we will be more likely both to pursue occasions to hear it and also to feel pleasure when we do.

These habits of acting and feeling, the value we ascribe, these come from sentiment or attitude.

In "Lost Tools," Sayers does not make any explicit reference to the necessity of imparting to students the values, attitudes, or proper sentiments that are constituent in the moral-rational-intellectual treasury of our human heritage. This is most likely because Sayers herself was standing firmly within the Tao and rightly assumed its existence as that within which we live and move and have our being.

Defending the ethic and aesthetic foundations of human life and thought was beyond the scope of Sayers short 1947 address. With prophetic vision, however, Lewis dedicated an entire book to the problems that result when curriculum designers neglect or reject axiological underpinnings.

Looking at Sayers' essay as in conversation with thinkers like Adler and Lewis allows us to gain a fuller picture of what education involves. With hints from Adler and freight-train-like insight from Lewis, we see that we must expand our educational goals. In addition to knowledge sets, communication skills, and intellectual habits, we need to aim for formation of sentiment—values, attitudes, habits of feeling and acting and appraising.

But how?

See the next post in the series here.