Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A glimpse of our son

We had our second little peek at our son on Monday. Yes, we "found out" this time. With our first I thought I had all-out decided that I would never find out the gender of the child before birth, but for some reason I was just very excited this time around to know, and to be able to love and prepare for our little one as a son or daughter rather than as a mysterious "baby". We waited until birth to find out about Gabriel, and who knows, I might do the same again with (God willing) the next baby. But for now we are getting our hearts and our home ready for this little guy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Those sharp little eyes...

[Father to son:]

Gabriel, I see four noodles left on your plate! Let's finish them up.

[Gabriel, frowning, inspects his penne noodles, which have spaghetti sauce on them as well flecks of spinach "hidden" in the sauce. He holds one up critically, not liking the sight of that extra green stuff:]


(Yes, it's a year-old photo, but the look on his face was VERY similar to this...)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Education is a Life

Except for a couple intermittent years, and my most recent degree at the John Paul II Institute, I am (academically) the product of public education, from elementary school through my undergrad days at UVA. I must admit that much of the rote memorization, fill-in-the-blanks type learning that Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century English educator, seems most concerned about seemed to have fallen out of style, at least when I was in school. Perhaps with the heavy emphasis on standardized testing (coming back just as I was leaving for college) there has been a renewed interest in memorization? In any case, in both my elementary and high school experiences, there was a heavy emphasis on creative writing, group projects, problem-solving, skits, and role-playing, as well as hands-on experimentation. I remember my parents even expressing concern about the fact that we were not forced to drill much of what we learned into our minds through rote memorization. By the time middle school rolled around I used a calculator for all of my math classes, so the necessity of recalling even basic math was for the most part eliminated. Yet there were still plenty of history, vocabulary, and grammar textbooks with bold-faced words and questions at the end of the book that told you “what you needed to know”; I became an expert at attacking tests armed with this somewhat formulaic knowledge.

Emotional Connection
I have been skimming through Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion in company with Education Is.... She points out that a key element in making education truly a “life” for a child (or adult) is forging an emotional connection to the subject matter. She quotes Charlotte Mason as she describes successful education as that which kindles a “touch of emotion” in the child with regard to a particular subject matter. Certainly this rings true with common sense– anyone dedicates themselves more diligently to that which they care about, rather than to that which they are bound only by duty or the pressure of evaluation.

I tried to ponder what has stuck with me most in my educational life. Literature, history, and language classes were always fascinating to me and received my primary attention; math, science, and any technical or computer classes elicited a “who cares?” feeling from me. I did the work out of duty; I always got “good grades,” but what I perceived as a lack of “human interest” in these classes made me feel that they were irrelevant to my life. Even now I am somewhat at loss to figure out how to present such subjects, particularly at higher, post-elementary levels, to someone without a natural affinity for them, in a way that they might care about them.

Recently my interest has been peaked by different environmental issues; I realize how much science of all kinds (biology, chemistry, statistics, etc.) goes into identifying and creating approaches for solving different environmental problems. Perhaps if my chemistry class had begun with a “big picture” such as the environment, describing how changes in the environment impact us and others directly, then moving from this to the necessity to understand the hidden chemical workings behind it, I might have been more inclined to care about it than I was when we began with the abstract “little picture” of the elements, their atoms, etc.

Gender differences?
One question I have regarding this particular topic (the important of emotional connection) has come to me because so much of what I have read about Charlotte Mason has been from the female point of view. In much of my studies of late, (interesting books like What Could He Be Thinking? by Michael Gurian, The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen, and Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven E. Rhodes) I have found a lot about the differences in the male and female brain and the best ways that, on average, males and females learn and engage in the world. From what Baron-Cohen writes, I think it may be more important for the feminine brain to forge emotional connections with subject matter than for the masculine brain. Why is this? Baron-Cohen describes the typical female brain as one with neural connections built more strongly for empathizing. What is empathy? He describes it as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion” in order to understand, connect, or resonate with another person emotionally. On the other hand, the typical male brain is built with neural connections that promote a higher degree of systematizing–analysis, exploration, and construction of systems, in order to predict the behavior of the system or to invent a new one. Systematizing requires a degree of detachment, whereas empathizing requires a degree of attachment. There is much more that could be said–his book is a fascinating read–but I think the short conclusion I’d like to draw here is that my above inference about females vs. males and emotional connection to subject matter is probably true to a certain extent.

My husband is my “common sense” case study for this: he enjoys figuring out problems (physics, chess and other similar games, math equations, etc.) just for the pure joy of solving problems. This baffles me, as it is so different from my own natural inclinations. Yet his insistence that this is why he enjoys solving problems proves to me that there is another way of being, learning, and acquiring knowledge out there that is very different from my own. (My husband is not a purely “technical” guy by any means–his main pursuit is teaching and learning music; he is a singer, an excellent artist, and a not-too-shabby writer as well.) In addition to my own little “case study”, I recall that most of the more enthusiastic members of my computer classes and physics classes in high school were male. Certainly there were many women at my school who also excelled in these classes (I went to a science and math-based high school; that’s another story for another time!), so these male and female brain differences are not a hard and fast rule.

In light of all of this would be quite interested to hear about CM-style education from the perspective of a male educator, or from those who have educated males through the high school level in this fashion, given that I may be in the position of guiding the education of my son, who quite possibly has a mind that will work and learn in ways very different from my own.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Happy Father's Day (Week), Daddy!

It's been a Father's Day "week" at our house. Gabriel shared his first ice cream cone ever with his Daddy on the porch on Wednesday night. (Note: this was mostly fun, but slightly stressful because of the constant squeals of "Gabriel HOLDS IT!!" Next time he got his own cone. He's definitely not a baby any more!) On Thursday night I took my "lazy boys" who had just slept for a 3.5 hour nap together out on a "family date" to Huong Que (Four Sisters) a yummy Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church. Gabriel was quite excited and continually requested to eat "noodles at the restaurant" as we were driving there. After dinner we visited Home Depot, A.K.A The Man Store, to buy Daddy his Father's Day present. I'm not sure who was more excited, father or son!
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Happy Father's Day, Grandpa!

Gabriel cruises on his Great-Grampi's old tractor (lawnmower) thanks to 100% Grandpa horsepower.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Poetry in the heat

Present: An entire shelf in our living room filled with poetry books from my various lit classes, writing classes, and used bookstore adventures.

Problem: Their woeful loneliness and lack of attention over the past few years.

Solution: A tall glass of ice water, the resolve to ignore a couple things around the house, and a quiet moment on the couch during nap time to contemplate a few poems each week.

The beginning: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz

A thought from today's reading: From Milosz' introduction to a poem: "In a way, poetry is an attempt to break through the density of reality into a zone where the simplest things are again as fresh as if they were being seen by a child."

Monday, June 09, 2008

Gratitude and shadows

Yesterday I went through my nightly ritual of opening Gabriel’s door and peeking in on him before retiring for the night. It is always a gentle, sweet moment, to see him sleeping with his arms tucked up around his head and his legs for once relaxed, but on this night in particular I was just overwhelmed with God’s generosity to me in blessing me with my little family. Michael, Gabriel, and our “baby-in-the-belly”, all with a roof over our heads, fresh and abundant food to eat, and a circle of generous family and friends extending out around us.

My husband and I have committed to pray the Magnificat daily as a couple (part of the endeavors of the Teams of Our Lady group we are a part of) and so often saying this prayer can seem like just dutifully reciting a stream of words together after dinner. Last night, however, it was a gift that I knew these words by heart, because they seemed to fit my sentiments so precisely–the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name!

One thing I struggle with, however, is that my moments of gratitude are often tinged by fear, a shadowy fear that seems to whisper that I shouldn’t rejoice in these moments too much because they are precariously perched on the edge of an uncertain future, and an accident or sudden unforseen circumstance could change things instantly, bringing suffering and sorrow.

I was comforted and challenged by the words of C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (the recent discussion book for our Team). He speaks of how in all of our earthly loves and joys are really just faint echoes of the heavenly life of love that is the Trinitarian communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which we will hopefully one day participate in. This is a consoling thought, because it is so often hard for me “desire heaven” when I consider it as an unknown, unexperienced “place” rather than something I have known and desired–in all of my desires–all along. I think this is all tied to the fact that for me emotional, affective love of God has of late been an elusive element of the spiritual life. (Lewis himself characterizes such “emotional” love–attachment to God that basically “feels” the same as our attachment to our loved ones on earth– as a supernatural gift, and thus not something to be attained or acquired by virtue of our own effort or willing.)

I thought Lewis’ thoughts below on this topic seem like a good elaboration on St. Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:12: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.”

“We were made for God. Only by being in some respect like Him, only by being a manifestation of His beauty, loving-kindness, wisdom, or goodness, has any earthly Beloved excited our love. It is not that we have loved them too much, but that we did not quite understand what we were loving. It is not that we shall be asked to turn from them, so dearly familiar, to a Stranger. When we see the face of God we shall know that we have always known it. He has been a party to, has made, sustained and moved moment by moment within, all our earthly experiences of innocent love. All that was true love in them was, even on earth, far more His than ours, and ours only because His. In Heaven there will be no anguish and no duty of turning away from our earthly Beloveds. First, because we shall have turned already; from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain, from the creatures he made lovable to Love Himself. But secondly, because we shall find them all in Him. By loving Him more than them we shall love them more than we now do.”

Friday, June 06, 2008

Continuing thoughts on Charlotte Mason

These thoughts continue the online discussion that was started over at Elizabeth Foss' blog on the free e-book Education Is... I've been using my reading of this book to try to develop a "big picture" vision of how Michael and I can best care for Gabriel, because I have found the parenting books filled with step-by-step strategies and tactics and ways to respond to different behaviors to be somewhat dissatisfying. Better to have a vision, I think, and develop strategies that fit in with this vision, than use things that other people suggest haphazardly.

Education is a Discipline
The second prong of Charlotte Mason's educational approach is "education is a discipline", and by this she meant to highlight the importance of cultivating good habits that our children will continue into their adult lives. Good habits are central, she emphasizes, to the forming of good character. She has seven main points regarding education as discipline:
  1. We should put intentional thought and effort into forming habits.
  2. It's not always easy to administer consequences, but our children's futures depend on our faithfulness and efforts to do so.
  3. Habits can become stronger than natural inclinations.
  4. Education should deal with character issues, not just acquiring a certain amount of knowledge.
  5. Incessant watchfulness and work are required for forming and preserving habits.
  6. Cultivating good habits makes up one-third of our children's education.
  7. The effort is in the forming of a habit; once it is formed it is no longer strenuous.
Mirror, mirror...
There are a limited number of habits that it seems Gabriel (22 mos) can work on right now. I have slowly been realizing, as I reflect on his most bothersome behaviors, that if I translate them into my own life, I could stand to work on the same things myself! Surprise, surprise, right? He's young but certainly quite perceptive; perhaps if I start putting some intentional thought and effort into improving, he'll start improving too, with our help, of course.
  • Gabriel is easily frustrated--to the point of moans, groans, squeals, and sometimes tears--when he sets a task for himself that he can't do in the time or the way he wants it done. For example: putting on a hat that keeps falling off, or setting some of his toys up in particular arrangements when they keep falling down.
  • Mommy is easily frustrated in similar situations--throughout my life it has been tough for me to persevere when a task doesn't come easily or quickly to me. Recently I have been particularly frustrated and easily defeated when trying to get Gabriel to nap/sleep in a reasonable amount of time. (I'm pretty sure Gabriel can sense my frustration...)
We both need to work on perseverance and patience under trial, I think! It is not always convenient or easy to figure out the best way to facilitate his growth in perseverance, but I think knowing that I need to work on the same habit will help clear the clouds some when I am faced with Gabriel's frustration in particular situations.

Consequences and Reactions
I must admit that I am stumped about how to teach Gabriel not to act in a way that is inappropriate. In other words, what consequences are appropriate for an almost-two-year old? I am getting the feeling that the key for this age--at least for this little boy-- is in #5 above--incessant and consistent watchfulness and work on the part of mother and father to physically keep him from running into the street, pushing other children away from toys, throwing objects, or standing on furniture. Verbal reprimands seem only to reinforce the precise behavior we are trying to prevent, and to encourage him to do it with more glee, awaiting our reactions! I continue to search for wisdom from other more experienced moms for appropriate methods of response to such behaviors, so if anyone has any ideas, let me know!

Discipline brings Freedom
This point, highlighted in Education Is, reminds me of a point from my moral theology class. It is encouraging when I begin to worry about the repetitive nature of my "teaching" interactions with Gabriel. There will come a point that this instruction enables him to reach a greater stage of freedom!

The first stage of education in the moral life is to practice adherence to the commandments, which often, from the outside, can seem "constraining". Yet it is this first stage that is the bedrock for the true moral life, which is the life of the virtues, as developed to the point of becoming "habitual". "Habitual" virtues are those that can be exercised repeatedly and with creativity in diverse situations. They are not necessarily exercised with ease (although they may be) as even great saints are troubled by great temptations and moral quandries. It is only by complying with the beginning steps of discipline--adherence to the commandments, or in Gabriel's case, to our physical requirement that he not run into the street or push his cousin, that a person is able to experience true freedom in action. This freedom for Gabriel is one of the great hopes that sustains my everyday work of teaching and guiding!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back to the Blog.... With scraps of a vision for our home

Thanks to an abundance of grace and constant support from my husband and my family, I have emerged from beneath the heavy yet illuminating stacks of theology books and finally finished my Master's degree, even miraculously passing my comprehensive exams in March amidst the throes of an admittedly mild (but still tiring) first trimester of my second pregnancy! I'm back to the blog to facilitate a turning of my intellectual mental energies towards home again.

I was inspired by a post over at Elizabeth Foss' blog to dive into a reflection on the educational ideas and theories of Charlotte Mason, via a short (but substantial) e-book called Education Is... Much could be said about this, certainly, and I hesitate to throw my 2-cents in with seasoned mothers who have much more experience and wisdom than I, particularly because I am only beginning to learn about CM's thought. But perhaps because of my lack of experience it seems like a privilege and a gift to have time to reflect on ideas that ring so true while my son is still so young. My challenge to myself will be to synthesize the ideas I encounter in the upcoming months with some of those I had time to ponder at the JPII Institute these past few years.

Education Is describes Charlotte Mason's approach to education as "three-pronged": "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." The first prong--"atmosphere"-- is what has most provoked my thought, particularly because Gabriel seems to absorb and mimic behaviors , placement of objects, and words so easily. The book points out six elements of Charlotte's thought on education via atmosphere:
  1. Children should grow up in a natural home setting, not an artificial, adapted environment.
  2. Character traits can be learned through the atmosphere of the home.
  3. We must be careful how we live, because our children will pick up attitudes and ideas from us that will affect them the rest of their lives.
  4. The atmosphere of our homes is formed out of the ideas that rule our lives as parents.
  5. Atmosphere is only part, not all, of a child's education. We must also give the discipline of good habits and the living ideas of a generous curriculum.
  6. The atmosphere of the home should encourage freedom under authority and obedience.
In light of these six points, I contemplated what words I might want to describe our home. I kept coming back to these :
  • ordered
  • rhythmic
  • peaceful
  • simple
In other words, in the best of all possible worlds, our little domestic church might echo something of a monastic lifestyle, with adaptations, of course, because the family, just as the monastic community, is called together by God to fulfill man's vocation to love. I spent 30 pages writing a paper for my Patristics course on how St. Benedict's monastic Rule might inspire and structure family life, so I'll try to hit the highlights. Perhaps this is a tangent from CM's atmosphere, but it is the direction my brain went...!

The Monastic and Familial "Milieu": Physical, Temporal, Auditory
The monastic enclosure is designed with the recognition that man is both body and soul, and so both physical and spiritual elements of a home must be oriented towards God. Each of Benedict's monastic communities were to have an oratory, a physical space dedicated particularly to group and individual prayer and nothing else. In a similar way, the physical space of the home could be filled with sacred objects and pictures, and a special place might be created for family prayer. This physical space can be the place where the family gathers at specified times, creating a rhythm of daily prayer which fit into the daily schedule of the family. I think in particular the "tide" of monastic life--flowing in and out of the oratory to other tasks and occupations--is what I would like our home to be like. Certainly it will be a challenge as schedules become more complex and little ones start their own activities, but I think such an "objective order" centered on specific times of prayer is important. One of my professors always said that the more one enters into an objective order, the more the order shapes who you are, the way you live, and the way you think. (A chaotic order in life creates a chaotic, scattered person; on the other hand, a rhythmic, prayerful life forms a careful, prayerful person. I know this is true in my own life so I can only imagine my children might be the same way!)

Another element I found fascinating was the reverence with which the Benedictine rule treats material objects. All objects must be treated with the same reverence as the "holy bowls of the altar"--even the most "lowly" bucket or scrub brush used for cleaning. Each item is seen as a gift which God has allowed the monks use of for the purpose of their survival and flourishing. Since we've been married we've tried to keep our home "simple" in terms of the stuff we have and the way we have it arranged in our home (books are our major stumbling block here). What I think has been challenging to us is in this realm is to maintain a proper appreciation for material things in the midst of a proper detachment--in other words, to maintain an appreciation for what we have such that we take the proper time to care for it, rather than adopt an attitude of carelessness with the excuse of detachment. Treating what we have and are able to use as the "holy bowls of the altar" helps keep us away from such carelessness, I think. Reverence towards material goods is also tough to cultivate when so much of what is out there is created really to be "disposable". We try to use as few disposable items as possible (although we really could still do better), not only out of "environmental" concerns but also with the above reverence in mind. It is hard to cultivate reverence and gratitude when we can throw away something once it has been dirtied or used once.

The monastic year as structured by Benedict in the early Christian era was quite dependent upon the seasons for both timing of prayer (due to available light and scarcity of oil and candles) and work (harvesting vs. planting, etc). One might pass over this detail regarding the temporal environment of the monastery as irrelevant to modern families, but it seemed particularly important with regards to the type of attitude it cultivated towards life: a Marian attitude of receptivity and dependence upon God and creation as He designed it. Certainly family life now might not revolve around available hours of sunlight, but the Marian virtues of active, patient receptivity and dependence might be cultivated in other ways--an obvious example might be planting and tending a vegetable garden, as my husband has tried to do these past few years. Such an activity seems to go hand in hand with "eating with the seasons"--possible not only for gardeners but by frequenting local farmer's markets, or at the very least, respecting what is reasonably and locally available in grocery stores (rather than eating Chilean strawberries in January, for example).

The Benedictine monastery was not completely silent, but it adopted specified times of day for silence. Further, the monks were encouraged to avoid "bawdy laughter", gossip, and pointless chatter. Certainly in light of the presence of small children a "rule of silence" even if for particular times is challenging, and even the practice of reading Scriptures at table rather than talking during certain seasons as the monks do has been a tough one for our family, even though I think we have made a valiant effort. I think the most successful way I have tried to "cultivate silence" in our home is to avoid excess noise--certain children's CD's with synthesized backups and annoying vocals can tend to fit in this category--and ensure that the sound that is present is beautiful and uplifting. (Although this isn't too tough when we have got a pianist for a husband/daddy, a nice piano taking up most of the living room, and lessons and practicing echoing through the little house throughout the day!)

Obedience, Service and Hospitality
...are further ways the monastic life and familial life can be paralleled, and further elements that I think would fit into Charlotte Mason's "atmosphere as education". I'll save discussing these for another post, because I think I've gone on long enough today. Gabriel is bound to wake up from his nap soon, and the "rhythm" of our little domestic church is currently quite determined by his sleeping and waking hours, so I must be finished with this post for now!