Saturday, February 4, 2017

Socrates and Current Events?

Whenever I need a little shake-up in my day, I like to post on Facebook something interesting that I have come across in my reading. I don't comment. Just put it out there and watch everyone react. It's entertaining. Most recently, I did this with a couple of quotes, one from U.S. President Kennedy and one from U.S. President Reagan. Although both quotes came from speeches delivered more than half a century ago, they were thought provoking within the context of the current political situation in the United States.

Shortly after putting up these two quotes, U.S. President Trump made his first statement regarding the Palestinian occupied territories, in response to two policy decisions by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Since I frequently expressed exasperation that during the campaign Trump neglected to comment on the Israeli/Palestinian situation--long a cornerstone of U.S. Middle Eastern policy--I received a number of messages today asking me what I thought of President Trump's message.

Responses to my Facebook quote posts earlier in the week and the questions from my friends on President Trump's statement, as diverse as those two things might seem, actually brought to mind a blog post that a number of homeschool moms (and a few of my friends in general) have asked me, numerous times over the years, to write. What, you might ask, could those two things have in common? The answer is critical thinking, and more specifically, using the Socratic Method and concurrent study of various news sources to reach a well-reasoned truth.

The catalyst was a comment made on one of my posts. The statement made was "Don't feed into the liberal media paranoia." Those of you who know me well are laughing right now. I know. I got a pretty good laugh out of it myself. However, let's be honest here, it is a statement made frequently by many people, from both sides of the fence; tacked on to another post it might well have been "Don't feed into the conservative media paranoia." The first is posited by conservatives and the second by liberals. In this case, with regards to me, it brought to mind a twist on an old phrase that a wise friend used to use frequently: don't assume, it invariably makes a bigger ass out of you than your target.

So how, and here begins the tie-in with my friends' questions today, do we as homeschool parents (or parents in general) teach our kids not to be influenced by the media? Or for that matter, how do we ourselves know when we are being fed the unvarnished truth?

I always find it very interesting that few of my friends tend to ask me to tell them WHY I might feel the way I do or from which sources I derive my conclusion, such as regarding today's example about the Israeli settlement statement from our president. Those who know my method for reading the news every day knew that it would be a subject that I would gravitate towards and decided that my opinion would suffice. How many of us do this every day with the news? You get perhaps ten minutes of talking-heads on the subject, and you decide that you have an educated opinion, that what they say sounds reasonable. So you don their sound bite as your stand on the issue.

No. Just no.

Yes, I have a scholarly interest in the Middle East. Those guys on TV or who write the newspaper articles also have a scholarly interest in their subjects. So what? Today, I am going to share with you my method for reading the news so that you can arrive at your own conclusions and teach your children to do the same. There is absolutely no reason why any person with beyond a sixth grade education needs to listen to talking-heads go on and on about their ONE opinion when there are a world of perspectives out there, just waiting to broaden your horizons.

And this is where we get to Socrates. (You knew I had to get to him sooner or later, because that's the way I educate.) The first rule of a Socratic education is to QUESTION EVERYTHING. That is so central to the point, that I'm going to say it again. QUESTION EVERYTHING. I love chatting Middle East foreign policy with my friends, and you might love your favorite talking-head, but seriously people, don't embrace what either the talking-heads or I say. QUESTION EVERYTHING (sorry, couldn't resist!). 

For those of you who aren't familiar with Socratic Method, it is a teaching method that doesn't involve lecture. It involves discussion where the leader asks a lot of probing questions in order to coax the students to their own opinions and conclusions. Sometimes the most difficult part of Socratic teaching is avoiding becoming a talking-head. My method for reading the news each day is simply to put myself in the role of both teacher and student. I ask myself the questions that I know need to be answered in order to arrive at a balanced understanding of the topic I am studying that day. Notice I said topic, singular, not topics, plural.

Another tenet of Socratic teaching is that you GO DEEP. No, sorry, there are no footballs here (Cut me some slack, it's Superbowl weekend). GO DEEP means touching on fewer topics and studying them more thoroughly, as opposed to skimming the surface of a lot of topics (which would be going wider). As a Socratic student of the news, I pick one or two topics that are boiling over in the media that day and study them thoroughly. This is very different from how most people approach the news, which is to watch it on TV or skim through the whole paper. When you do that, you are only getting what that particular media outlet wants you to have, in sound bites, with their spin on it. Essentially, what my friend meant when he felt I was letting the liberal media influence me. (I am accused in almost equal measure of the inverse to that--letting the conservative media influence me. I just cannot win.)

So how do I avoid falling into that sucking whirlpool of media spin? Once I have chosen my one or two topics for the day--usually first thing in the morning, as in Alaska most often things have hit the fan overnight, as the rest of the world awakes long before we do--I scroll through my favorite news sites on my phone and save things directly related to those topics to be read as the day progresses and time allows. This brings up another tenet of Socratic Method. The most important HOW question when dealing with news. HOW can I ensure that I am forming an educated, well-reasoned opinion? Since no news source is ever unbiased, you need to read the exact same story in many, many sources. What? You ask, how can I read the exact same story in a number of sources?

Someone has to break the story first. Many other media outlets will then use their breaking story as the base for their own report. Usually, that someone who breaks the story is Reuters, Associated Press (AP), Agency France Presse (AFP), or, believe it or not, Al Jazeera's English edition. (I kid you not. My husband told me Al Jazeera broke the Tom Brady under-inflated football scandal.) As you begin to follow my method, you will learn to easily spot the origin of a given story because everyone else will give them credit at the beginning of their article. Right under the headline you will see AFP, AP, etc. Do not be thrown off by the headline; quite often it will be different from article to article. Generally, they will list the breaking story's headline beneath their own, in a smaller font. Scan the intro sentences to the first few paragraphs; if they are the same or very similar, you have a match. Your next question is probably "Why would I want to read the exact same story over and over again?"

Interestingly enough, as you do this a few days, you will come to see that the stories are not all exactly the same. And where they differ is where the game begins. Here you start asking yourself why certain sources left out certain paragraphs or added others in. You will notice that some media outlets will add in quotes from certain sources but neglect the other side. You will see very subtle changes in wording that slightly change the connotation of the sentence. In short, you will see the spin. After reading this breaking story, floated through a variety of lenses, you are ready to branch out and read the original report that each of your sources has put together regarding the same story. This is usually a follow-up story that comes later in the day, although if you are going deep on a Middle Eastern situation, given they are many hours ahead of the United States, you will often see those stories listed very close to the breaking headline on the media outlet's homepage or hyperlinked within the breaking story.

Two things are absolutely crucial. You must read both the breaking and the original reporting for each story in every media source you select. It is there that you will really see how each newspaper spins the story for their own readers. The second thing is that you must read, in equal numbers, sources that are considered "left," "right," and "centrist." Generally, I tend to read between eight and twelve separate sources.

One question that I get all the time is how a person can know going into reading an article whether they are going to be faced with a liberal or a conservative slant or if the paper manages to ride the fence. There is no better source for that information than Eddy Elmer's painstakingly constructed "Editorial slants of major newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media." He just revised it this week to reflect any bias changes due to changes in editorial staff, management, or ownership. His phenomenal chart covers news media from all around the globe and is, I think, one of the most accurate. Take a look at the chart, click on a couple links from each of the "slants," and find the relevant articles to your topic for the day.

The first ones that I read are the breaking outlet's original report and the closest major local paper to the event. Let's look at the story I followed today. The breaking outlet was Agency France Presse Jerusalem, so other outlets credited AFP below their chosen headline, which in some cases matched AFP's "US settlement remarks challenge Israel, alarm Palestinians." Sadly, for being one of the most outstanding outlets for Middle Eastern news, AFP has a truly terrible website and app. However, as you read through the versions printed on other outlets, it is easy to see what the original AFP story was. Because they are such a stellar source, it is not at all uncommon for many other organizations to run an AFP breaking story unaltered on their sites.

The largest local newspaper, printed in English, for the Palestinian side of the story would be the Lebanese paper The Daily Star (To read the stories, click on the highlights to be linked). As a point of interest, that first link for The Daily Star is for their widely broadcast ".net" site, which is read around the globe. There is another. This "" site is the one read by English speakers in Lebanon. It's rather interesting to compare those two stories.

Israel has a number of papers, each with their own agenda; at one point, virtually every one of their many political parties had their own media mouthpiece--thankfully that is no longer the case. Unfortunately for English readers, Israel's leading newspaper is only published in Hebrew. Because of this fact, the few English options available, despite their comparatively minimal local print circulation, command a very large online stage for influencing opinions in the United States. Although it tends to be very uneven in its coverage, sometimes taking strong stands in one direction or another, my preferred Israeli newspaper is Haaretz. Of the two major translated Israeli papers they seem to make more of an effort to ride the unbiased impossible line. Today, they ran two original stories. It is not uncommon for a local paper to decide against running a wire service story when the topic is very close to home. Often, this is because their writers have access to great local sources and they use that to give local quotes and opinions. Their first story unpacked President Trump's statement. Another story links President Trump, through financial contributions, both personal and from family, to one particular Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Ynet, a more liberal paper, used the AP and Reuters wire stories to form their main story on this topic. For a more conservative viewpoint (Remember that "conservative Israeli news source" isn't necessarily synonymous with "Trump supporter.") The Times of Israel's Washington correspondent put together an excellent article that clearly shows the prevailing feeling in Israel with regards to President Trump: they have no idea what to make of him.

After you have run through local papers, both liberal and conservative and papers that come at the issue from all angles, you should have a good feel for the temperature on the ground, and you can branch out. In the Middle East, that usually means Al Jazeera. Many Americans think violent, bloody videos when they hear Al Jazeera and flatly refuse to sully their browsers with the very name. That is really a shame, because their English language site has top notch reporting, both in the Middle East and beyond, and is in no way a mouthpiece for radical extremists. I also encourage regular reading of their opinion pieces, which draw contributors of all faiths and ethnicities from around the globe and are thoughtful, relevant pieces of journalism. They are as close as I will get to a talking-head.

As you branch further afield, another absolutely outstanding source is the United Kingdom's BBC. If AFP has the worst website, without a doubt the Beebs has the best. Their reporting rarely rides the coattails of others' stories, and they infuse their report with historical facts needed to put things in perspective and visual aids, such as today's maps, that lay the issue bare. Another very good source is The Economist, also out of the U.K.; however, they do not engage in daily flash journalism, so if they cover it, the story will not show up until it has had time to percolate its way through each layer of the issue at hand. If you want to get a feel for how the French, Germans, or other European nations are reacting to your story, you can go there next. If not, head for the U.S. news agencies and see what the reaction is here at home.

The first news source I always check in the U.S. is the Christian Science Monitor (CSM). Despite their name, their reporting is universally acknowledged to be among the least biased of any U.S. news source of any kind. Conservatives frequently complain they are "too liberal" and liberals frequently complain they are "too conservative"--usually a sign that a media outlet is doing their job. Today, instead of writing on the impact of President Trump's statement, the CSM opted to focus on the event that caused his statement: the forced removal of the inhabitants of an illegal Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. After the CSM, pull Eddy Elmer's chart back up and work your way through at least a couple U.S. papers from each column, finding the relevant stories in each.

When I explain how I research my news and why, people often tell me that if they spent that much time on one topic they would be totally ignorant of everything else that is going on in the world because they wouldn't have time to follow any other stories even superficially. Interestingly enough, that isn't at all true because as you are scanning headlines for your primary topic or two, you are also reading the little blurbs under the headlines from newspapers of every stripe from across the U.S. and the rest of the globe. And, I admit, often getting side-tracked by other topics, which isn't a bad thing, because you feel it when the vibrations begins to pulse through another topic and can often predict what is going to go haywire next.

If you do current events with your kids, or if you just want to give them a lesson in spin, follow this daily news research method with them, even if you just do it for a single topic for one day. They will learn about how a story breaks and is shared on the wire. Even more important, they will learn how various outlets strip or augment a wire story and how that affects the impression that the reader receives.

Which brings us to my friends' questions. You know I wrote this whole thing to encourage you to arrive at your own opinion, but if you really want mine, here it is: I think that Trump really needs to be far more cautious in what he releases with regards to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. My reading today clearly showed that his statement was so nebulous, so open to interpretation, that nobody knows what to make of it and is therefore interpreting it to suit their own journalistic or political aims. On such a volatile issue the results of that kind of fast and loose diplomacy could be catastrophic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What Reading Plato Taught Me About Memory Work

As classical homeschoolers, memory work has long been a mainstay in our day. Over the years we have memorized long lists of dynasties, monarchs, and art periods. Poems, speeches, and soliloquies have all found parking spaces in our brain matter. Along the path to memorization we have embraced many methods to ingrain the words into our very subconscious. We have used acrostics, memory palaces, and sheer dogged determination. In third grade, our middle daughter could sing you all the presidents of the United States.

It quite wowed the grandparents when Reagan could lyrically render all the presidents into a phrase of historical and musical genius, but aside from bragging rights, was there really a point? Did such exercises do anything really useful to further her education in the areas that are most important?

Those who are proponents of memory work will give as their reason that habitual memorization results in proven cognitive development. I am coming to realize that while I do not dispute the brain building effects of memorization, I question the things we have our children memorize. What is the point of memorizing long lists of rulers, countries on a continent, or tall mountains? We live in a world where those facts can be accessed in seconds on devices that we have at our fingertips.

The argument against memorizing long list of things that can be easily looked up is likely an easy one to support in our modern age, but I know that those who value poetry will dispute my suggestion that it be devalued as memory work. Yes, poetry is an essential element in our classrooms; I do not dispute that fact. Poetry distills what it is to be human into succinct phrases that speak to the everyman in each of us and renders things from alluring to repulsive into words that resonate. So too, can the same argument be made for great speeches and soliloquies. They are memorable because they toll the bells in our own spirits, awaken our own dreams, ambitions, and highest ideals.

How on Earth can any educator argue against the worth of such memory work?

My argument is this: when students are forced to memorize complete poems, complete speeches, and complete soliloquies, the truly profound is lost among the sheer volume of words. How many times have your children finished rattling off the Gettysburg Address only to look blankly at you when you ask them why the speech is so profound? If they don’t get that lines such as the one declaring “a new birth of freedom” and the idea that it is pivotal that a government be “of,” “for,” and “by” the people in order to ensure that it “shall not perish from the earth,” they have missed the whole point. And more importantly, they do not need to memorize the entire thing (okay, it is not that long, but you get my point) to focus on the meat of what Abraham Lincoln was trying to say. Lincoln, I am quite sure, would not care that scores of American children can recite his speech, which he wrote on the fly and delivered in less than two minutes. He would want them to be able to expound upon the central truths of which he spoke.

So, you might argue, what is the harm in memorizing the whole thing as long as they do get the central themes? If your homeschool is anything like mine, there are never enough hours in the day, week, or year to cover everything. How many mind and soul expanding ideas are relegated to the “didn’t quite get to that” pile that is on your desk as you wrap up your school year?

With this fact in mind, I have decided to restructure our memory time. Whenever I decide to take a second look at anything that we do in our homeschool, I always ask myself whether the change I am contemplating will bring that content area closer in alignment with my one main desire for my children’s education. The number one goal I have in educating my children is teaching them to question everything in order to more thoroughly understand the “why” behind everything they learn and everything they believe. Why did people fight the wars they fight? Why do certain scientific theories hold water? Why do we continue to read some books centuries after they are written? Why do we embrace our faith and our belief in a Heavenly Father? If people understand the “why” they have all the tools they will ever need to effectively structure an essay, confidently carry on a conversation, and convincingly defend their faith.

The question, for me, has become how to take memory time, which I do believe is very important—not only for cognitive development but for educational value—and bring it in alignment with my greatest goal for my children. The answer came to me quite organically (my favorite way to have a “eureka!” moment) as my boys and I read Plato’s “Apology” today. Several times as we read, we paused to discuss the “soul” of what we were reading. Why (that word again!) were certain ideas so riveting, even to two fifteen year old boys reading them nearly twenty-five centuries after they were first recorded? In reading Plato’s version of the thoughts of Socrates (who wasn’t one for recording his own teachings), the boys marveled that from this master rhetorician, pagan though he was, they could learn one of the most logical defenses for why death need not be feared, a defense that supports their faith-based ideals and yet would not be scoffed at by even the most virulent of atheists:

“…if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. (Benjamin Jowett, trans.)” 

As I showered, I pondered this morning’s reading and discussion with the boys—Archimedes had his “eureka!” moments in the bathtub; a modern girl, mine always seem to come to me in the shower. This was not an exception. It became clear to me that this was the answer to my memory work question. Instead of filling their heads with a jumble of words—some admittedly very pretty—with nuggets of thought provoking ideas (perhaps) buried in the deluge, these experiences would give shape to a new method of choosing the things we memorize.

Take the above quote as an example. In the average course of a homeschool day, that quote would be remarked upon, discussed, perhaps underlined in the book or transferred to a journal. The student would then move on. If however we take the time to memorize it, the student is left with a thought-provoking quote that can be remembered in the course of conversations later in life, sparking discussions about attitudes toward death and what comes after. Perhaps that discussion occurs at the deathbed of one afraid to die but unsure of the answers faith alone can give. There is also a whole other argument, one explored as a major theme in “Apology,” that of what is true wisdom and who is truly wise. This could provide yet another stimulating topic of discussion, as the nudge from the quote would no doubt bring to mind the arguments used to plead the case of Socrates but relevant still in any discussion on the topic of wisdom.

Our path now seems so clear. Instead of spending endless hours memorizing the “old standards,” we will instead memorize the “great ideas.” That is not to say that many of our memorized passages won’t come from the poems, speeches, and soliloquies that others memorize. I believe very strongly in the important place all of those have in a complete education. Indeed, we are a whole book homeschool, and the sheer beauty of words has a prominent place in our lives, valued especially for the effect that reading them has on our writing. Our change in memory focus only means that we will zero in on the main ideas that “speak” and leave the rest in favor of more profound fare from other places. Sadly, great thought-provoking quotes, such as the one above from Plato, never make it into our children’s long-term memory banks because the time that could be spent on memorizing them is given over instead to such flashier pursuits as being able to recite The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner from start to finish.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Great Guatemalan Adventure II: Flying in and Antigua

Day 3 (31 March) Los Angeles to Guatemala via Mexico City:

Today was a bit more relaxed in that we were able to sleep in a bit before heading to the airport for our flight to Mexico City with a connector on to Guatemala City.

We made a collective decision that AeroMexico is our airline of choice. The seats are wider and give more leg room, for every seat they have wonderful entertainment consoles with new release movies (and a slew of other things) for every preference, and the windows have a push button system for tinting the glass. I had never seen anything like the windows. Instead of either getting blasted by the sun or shutting the plastic blind, you can choose the level of tint you want on the glass and they fade to what you dialed up. We were also fed a sandwich and sides, free of charge, on both flights, even our second connector to Guatemala City, which was quite short.

We had a wonderful layover in Mexico City, where we spent about four hours. We took in a museum in the airport that celebrated the contemporary art of Mexico’s indigenous people. Many art forms, including music, dance, painting, and sculpture were covered, but I donned my reading glasses to get a close-up look at all of the wonderfully diverse types of needle work represented: embroidery, weaving, crewel, etc.

As we wondered through the food area, we got our first taste of a third world hustler, trying to entice us with their various meats on tortillas. After checking out our other options, we went back to the enterprising gentleman, and he set us up with an amazing family meal of half a dozen shredded or cubed meats cooked in various ways. Included were glasses of rosa de Jamaica, a local drink made from brewing rose hips, creating a juice-type drink. He also brought us an assortment of hot sauces, the most aggressive of which literally made everything go numb from my lips to my esophagus. After polishing off all the delicious fare, we decided that getting hustled is not always a bad thing.

In typical third world style, our flight still did not have a gate listed 25 minutes before we were supposed to depart. But every board in the terminal still had our departure listed as “on time.” Even when our gate was finally announced and a departure time of half an hour after our scheduled departure was listed, they still had us listed as “on time.” A quick call to my brother to appraise him of our delayed status elicited a laugh and the comment that it was close enough for Central America.

My brother and his wife picked us up at the airport and brought us to our hotel, the Clarion Suites. We spent a bit of time chatting, getting some basic advice (such as do not even brush your teeth in the water, let alone drink it), and hashing out plans for tomorrow. It was decided that we would drive to Antigua, the former colonial capital of Guatemala and a city that is now a World Heritage Site.  

Day 4 (1 April) Antigua:

Today we didn’t get going until about 10:30, as we were all quite tired after our late night. Dave and Charm picked us up at our hotel and we headed out of town for Antigua. Our journey was uneventful, and soon we pulled into a wonderfully quaint town of small, colorful buildings and roughly cobbled streets.

We easily found street-side parking in the main part of town and began to stroll through this lovely town that just demands to be explored on foot. Initially, we began where every small town adventure should, in the main town square. The park was a combination social hall and mobile market, with craftswomen hawking their wares while their fellow countrymen and women relaxed and chatted together on benches and on the grass.

From the main square, we headed down one of the streets most often seen in pictures due to its imposing yellow arch which stands tall over the street. After the obligatory pictures, we stopped by one of Dave’s favorite spots, a traditional Guatemalan sweet shop, where we were able to view a huge selection of treats common to the area, all of which were displayed with pride in cases that would normally be used to showcase jewelry in the United States. Dave purchased us each one of his favorites: a jellied berry rolled in sugar. They were a bit of a fascination, as they still had the pits inside. Sweets sampled, we began our exploration of the many lovely things Antigua has to offer.

Over the course of the day we visited a number of churches, some just ruined shells and some still in use today. The main cathedral in Antigua is now on the main square and is a very fine representation of the local Catholic churches. Architecturally, its lines are a combination of arched doors and windows set in solid square buildings. However the buildings are by no means simple, as they are enhanced with sculptures and detail work that is very intricate, running down pillars, accenting doors and windows, and giving the otherwise solemn facades grace and artistic flair. 

Even in the ruins one can see the artistry that has typified these structures through the centuries. Antigua’s historical main cathedral, on another location from the current one, is now a still impressive ruin. Under the buttressing arches, which no longer support a roof, one can still see in the walls that remain, examples of sculpted column bases and heads, faded yet still lovely detailed painted themes, and sweeping lines that must have lent a feeling of grandeur in the cathedral’s 17th century heyday. Unfortunately, due to the country’s many severe earthquakes in the late 1600s and the early 1700s, the cathedral eventually reached a point where repairs could no longer stem the tide of the forces of nature upon a structure built far too grandly in an age of no rebar to reinforce its soaring heights. The historic structure was allowed to crumble and the new cathedral was built on the main square.

Like its ruined cathedral, a similar fate befell the town’s convent. It too must have been a very stunning complex in its day. However, it is still intact enough to allow visitors to see such things as the nuns’ personal cells, their baths, the kitchen, and the laundry fountain. Visitors can also walk along the upper level above the central courtyard. There is also a rather perplexing circular room, supported by a solid cylindrical central column and roofed in a lovely arching ceiling. None of us were sure what the purpose of the room was. It has a peace about it that made Dave and I surmise that perhaps it was a place for prayer and contemplation.

Even though its convent is gone, the town remains committed to its catholic foundations. Every year at Easter, townspeople participate in a parade of floats which they carry aloft for the considerable distance of more than 10 kilometers. On the floats are carvings of figures and places depicting the Passion of the Christ. During the night before the parade, townspeople cover the streets along the route in brightly colored sawdust. Atop the base layer intricate designs are laid down, with the help of wooden stencils, in a rainbow of other bright colors. These designs are a sort of offering, rather like the palm fronds laid down for the Savior to walk over. As those carrying the floats—a symbol of Christ carrying the cross—walk the parade route, the lovely sawdust designs scatter beneath their feet.

 As you explore through the town you have the opportunity to see many elements very typical to Guatemala. I loved the pila, or outdoor laundry area. If you picture a covered portico along one side of a fountain, as you see in many European cities, you get an idea of what these are like. Under the portico and along a flat side of the fountain are a number of basins that are flat on the outside and then extend out in an arching curve, giving dimensions of about a foot and a half by two feet. Along the flat side there is a sort of built in stone washing board. The ladies put a bit of water in their basins and then suds up and scrub their clothes. To rinse, they get pails full of water out of the fountain. The laundry basins here no longer appear to be in use. Dave and Charm said they are not sure why, as it was a bustling place twenty years ago when they had their first posting in Guatemala. It seems like it would be such a social activity that laundry could actually be fun.

People in general are very social. Their houses are even somewhat open to the street. They have a wrought iron gate into an entry area; after going through this small hall, you come into the home’s central courtyard, which is open to the sky and has the home wrapping around it. You can see people going about their day in their courtyards.

Transportation is also very open. The largest mode of transport in the smaller towns is via mopeds. Carter laughed and called one the Guatemalan mini van after he saw one of these tiny conveyances transporting a dad with one child perched in front of him while mom held another child in between her and dad’s back. On mom’s back was a baby slung in a wrapping of woven Guatemalan cloth. 

Cloth like the one used as a baby carrier is made by many local artisans who weave the fabric and then work magic on them with various embroidery techniques. There are also woodworkers, potters, and a number of other artists. Dave took us into an indoor market that was a sort of co-op of a wide variety of different artistic media. It was a great place to browse, but he recommended that we not buy, as the prices are aimed at high paying tourists and not open to negotiation. Negotiating prices is the accepted practice in most purchasing situations on the streets, but if a business has a fixed location, they are less likely to come down much. Since we are going to a local rural market tomorrow, he advised we wait to buy.

Our last stop of the day was a place where one definitely wants to buy. We went to the Choco Museo, a chocolate shop where they have a museum about all things chocolate and demonstrate how the cacao seeds become the basis for chocolate. They had excellent posters clearly illustrating the process of removing the outer shell, taking the white soft shell of the individual cacao seeds (traditionally done by sucking), and then separating away the seed’s skin. Once down to the bare seed, it is crushed to a pulpy powder which becomes the base ingredient for chocolate. Of course we had to wrap up our outing with the purchase of some of their product.

After concluding our time in Antigua, we went to Dave and Charm’s apartment for dinner and a sampling of peppers and sauces. I think all of the kids tried a bit, with Carter being the craziest and sticking a whole pepper in his mouth at one time. 

We all crashed at the hotel (Carter with his mouth still numb) and prepared for our busy two day trip to Lake Atitlan and its environs over the next couple of days.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Adventure Begins...Universal Studios

The Burpee’s Guatemalan Adventure
29 March—9 April 2016

Day 1 (29 March):
Our day began very, very early, as we were up at 3:00 a.m.! Yipes! We had two very ordinary flights (if you discount Chlo Maren getting squirrelly and spilling her ginger ale down the side of my pants and into her open backpack, and Mike spilling his drink pretty much everywhere as he got up to let Chlo and I out to take her to the bathroom). After landing in Los Angeles, we gathered our bags and began our big city adventure. First up: finding the shuttle to our smaller brand car rental place, Sixt. Wow! Outside the LA airport was crazy! Reagan remarked that she could tell we were no longer in Alaska, as the entire walk outside was a fruitless attempt to dodge the cigarette smoke; home must just have a smaller percentage of smokers, as she was correct in her observation—we do not have that problem at home. After some people watching and a bit of a wait, we hopped in the van to the rental place.

Reagan managed to trip over one of those low concrete bumpers used to let drivers know when to stop pulling into a parking spot. She did it with grand style, virtually splaying herself out flat, water bottle, coat, and stuffy flying out in all directions. Another thing we noticed about California—they don’t paint those concrete thingies yellow here.

After some speedy and excellent service, we drove out of there in a Mercedes minivan, with which we are not all that impressed. We would take our Toyota Sienna any day. Mike quickly got into the swing of the aggressive LA driver mentality and we found our hotel, the Sheraton Gateway, without any mishaps.

After checking in at the hotel we decided to go looking for a restaurant in Mike’s old neighborhood (he grew up in Compton—yes, you read that right, Compton of the rapper movie fame). We never found that restaurant, but we did find one very similar, called Tom’s, where Quinn gave a thumbs up to his first ever pastrami sandwich. The rest of us went for Mexican fare; the burritos were the biggest I have ever seen and were excellent.

After eating, we headed back to the hotel to crash—given our very early start to the day, we were beyond ready.

Day 2 (30 March):
Mike began his day with an early run for water, as we all found the tap water undrinkable to the point of not even wanting to brush our teeth with it. Between last night and this morning, our initial impression of LA was not the best. It is very polluted in addition to the water quality. My feelings about the water situation were not improved by my shower experience. When you turn on the shower and it barely makes a whisper hitting the bottom of the tub, it is a pretty good sign that it isn’t going to shape up to be the best shower ever. Probably not even the top 100. After struggling to get my hair wet, I made the prudent choice to use as little soap and shampoo as possible to get the job done. Even so, I ended up abandoning the shower in favor of water coming out of the spout and was still unable to get all my bits and pieces rinsed, resulting in my filling the tub. If the goal for the dismal water pressure is to save water, I think my 25 minute shower followed by filling the tub is probably a pretty good sign that their objective is not being met.

Our day, and our impression of Los Angeles, improved greatly as we drove through the city heading for Universal Studios. We all loved the huge variety in the architectural styles found in both homes and businesses. There is also a huge variety in trees, shrubbery, and flowers here that we don’t come anywhere close to matching; everything was green and blooming where back home we still have bare winter branches. We drove a little way down Hollywood Boulevard, looking at the shops, the theaters, and the stars in the sidewalk. After this short detour we headed for Universal Studios, our reason for extending our layover in LA.

Parking at the park was very organized, even during this the spring break season, although, I cannot imagine what the park must be like in July. We were less than five minutes away from the front gate, where we breezed through the line with our pre-purchased tickets.

Our first encounter was none other than Dracula, who insisted on all four of the kids being drawn under his cape for a pre-snack picture. Chlo Maren was a bit dubious about the whole thing, but Reagan thought he was awesome.

Immediately after Dracula, we were excited to see the Waterworld show about to start. Feeling adventurous, we snagged some seats in the soak zone. Carter is one seriously prepared kiddo where ever he goes, so he put the rain fly for his pack in place as soon as we sat down. Taking the cue from him, I threw my gore-tex rain jacket over the rest of our packs, a precaution that would prove to be quite prudent.

Waterworld is a fun show, featuring a number of working actors and stunt people. It is a typical bad-guy-gets-the-girl-hero-comes-to-the-rescue kind of plot, although the girl in this case is a pretty self-sufficient chick who does a bit of rescuing of her own. The show was fast-paced and full of great stunts. We would highly recommend it. 

On our way to our next chosen activity, the Studio Tour, we were astonished to see the gates open to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! Chloe was so disappointed when she heard that this new Universal wonderland was not going to open until 7 April. We approached the gates in disbelief, thinking surely this was too good to be true. True it was! The park had opened sporadically for a few hours on unannounced days, and wouldn’t you know, they chose our day at the park to be open all day for the first time, as their pre-opening full “dress rehearsal,” after which they will close again until 7 April’s grand opening. They were using the day to access things like traffic flow and which souvenirs where most popular. There were a couple of areas draped in black cloth, but we didn’t feel like we were missing anything. 

It was so realistic that it was almost surreal. Whereas the rest of the park, aside from the Simpson’s area, was basically a ride, a shop, and a photo area for each movie, Harry Potter is truly an experience. You begin your journey as you enter what is clearly a mix of Hogsmead and Diagon Alley. Among the shops you can visit are Honeydukes candy shop, Zonko’s Joke Shop, and Olivander’s Wand Emporium. In each shop, items are sold that match the items that would be sold in the shops in the books and movies. For instance, in Honeydukes, we bought Exploding Bonbons, Fizzing Whizbees, Chocolate Frogs (complete with trading cards), and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Out in the street there are in character staff members to point you towards where you want to go and help you cast spells.

Chloe knew immediately that she wanted to get a Ginny Weasley wand from Olivander’s, so we headed there first. They had replica wands for every character from the books and movies. The next thing on the agenda was trying Butterbeer from a vendor kiosk. They sell both regular cold Butterbeer and a slushie version. Most of us preferred the slushie. Be warned: whichever version you get, its combination of cream soda and butterscotch is very, very sweet. Another word of caution: Go on the rides BEFORE you get your Butterbeer. Quinn and Mike drank most of the two that we bought, and they were feeling pretty pukey after our first ride.

The main ride at World of Harry Potter is inside the castle. As you go through the line, it is as if you are getting a castle tour. Another piece of advice that we would give that holds true for the whole village is to look up in every building that you enter. This is especially true in the castle, as many elements, such as a gallery of moving pictures, would be missed if you only look ahead. The ride itself is a sort of roller coaster/3D/virtual experience kind of ride. We all loved it! You feel the wind as you ride your broomstick, reach out for the snitch, and duck away from the heat of the dragon’s fiery breath.

After that great experience, Mike, the girls, and Quinn were up to try the rollercoaster, but Carter and I took a break and watched a live show depicting the Goblet of Fire teams doing an introductory dance. Once the others got back from their rollercoaster ride, which Reagan said was just alright in comparison to the castle experience, we decided that it was time to leave Harry’s World and experience some of the other things the park had to offer.

I suggested the Studio Tour, which I remembered from when I was a kid—we came to Universal the summer I was nine, on our way moving from the Orient to Europe. It was as informative and fun as I remembered, with a nice mix of classic movie info and sites to more contemporary movie lore. The kids really enjoyed the experience of going into the sound stage where they film earthquakes and experiencing what it would be like. They drove the bus into the studio and stop on a special section of flooring. as pillars flex, flood waters rush, and trucks come sliding towards you, the ground beneath the tour trolley buckles and surges, giving the feeling of being in an earthquake. It was also very interesting to see what appear to be whole towns, only to go around a corner and realize they are just building facades. Another hit with the kids was a virtual reality experience developed by Peter Jackson involving King Kong and dinosaurs.

After that tour, the kids were all eager to head to the lower lot of the park to see what kind of ride was created for Jurassic Park. Getting to the lower lot is an experience in itself, as you journey down four incredibly long and steep escalators. The view is amazing. For the Jurassic Park ride, you are in boats. It begins peacefully, but you begin to see that things are not quite as they should be. The ride is one the park is very proud of, utilizing over 1.4 million gallons of water, and one of the steepest and furthest boat drops—84 feet. We all enjoyed it and admitted to jumping at least once.

The boys wanted to go on the ride for The Mummy, but the girls and I chickened out as none of us are into creepy scary. When I saw that it would cost us about $15 for lockers for the one ride ($5 each), I quickly pounced on that excuse for not going. The girls just straight up said they didn’t want to. We made a wise choice. The boys said it was pretty freaky, but a disappointment as far as the experience was concerned.

We all followed up with the Transformers ride, which was very similar in concept to the main Harry Potter ride: a sort of swooping, whirling 3D/virtual reality experience. We all loved that ride, rating it a toss-up with Harry Potter for our favorite.

One of the high points in Chloe’s day actually happened at the end. We went back to Harry Potter World to eat dinner at the Three Broomsticks, where, incidentally, the food is quite good. In the spirit of realism that the park does so well, even the plastic forks and plates have the look of pewter. Be sure to look up into the balconies, as house elves are known to lurk and scurry about up there. After our meal we had a bit of time, so we decided to do the Olivander’s wand experience. Everyone in the group is brought into a very dark room lined floor to ceiling in shelves full of wand boxes. This is the domain of Mr. Olivander himself.

Imagine Chlo Maren’s awe at being selected by him to come forward and be matched with her wand. It was very fun; after measuring her and asking her a number of questions, he gave Chlo a number of wands to try out. with each one, something went amiss with the spell she tried to cast. One is particularly memorable. Chloe was supposed to cast a spell to water a plant; instead, the plant wilted and drooped. Chloe looked at Mr. Olivander and in all seriousness said, “Well, that was a disaster!” Everyone laughed and Mr. Olivander agreed that that was most certainly not her wand. Finally, the wand chose the witch, and Chloe’s amazing day was capped off by trading the wand she purchased earlier for an interactive one. 

All around the village there are markers in the cobblestone streets that correlate with spots marked on a lovely vintage looking map that comes with the special wands. The map gives you the spells that need to be cast in that location (and shows how to do them and what to say). If you do the spell correctly, something will happen in the shop window, such as a mysterious box unlocking and folding out. We were a bit sad that we didn’t have time to try the wand in more locations, but the kids all had fun using both Chloe’s wand and the one that Quinn decided to purchase as well after seeing the spell map that came with Chloe’s.

To wrap up our amazing day, we caught the final showing of the Special Effects show, which we all would recommend highly. As with the studio tour, it is a great mix of old school simple tricks, such as smacking boxing gloves to give the sound needed for slapping during fights, and some of the newest technology used for motion capture animation. They recruit some audience members to participate, and it is a bit interactive. Overall, it was a great ending to our day.

On our way out of the park, we went into the gift store to get items for whoever hadn’t already purchased souvenirs in the park. We let everyone choose two items: a shirt and one other item. Carter chose a Jurassic Park t-shirt and a Gryffindor tie. Quinn got a Hufflepuff t-shirt and a Sirius Black interactive wand. Reagan chose two Hufflepuff items: a t-shirt and a mug. Chloe chose a Ginny Weasley interactive wand and a Ravenclaw t-shirt. Mike got a Universal Studios sweatshirt with the classic logo and a Ravenclaw lanyard for his work ID. Unlike the kids, I have never taken one of the tests online that tells you which Hogwarts house you would be in, so I chose a t-shirt with the Hogwarts crest and a Marauder’s Map mug. It was fun to see the items the kids chose and close out our day with tangible reminders of this fun experience.

On the way back to our hotel, Mike took a detour so that we could drive by the imposing Los Angeles Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. After that it was off to the hotel to crash after a long day in the park and the prospect of the long travel day to come. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

And then there were four...

In "Switchbacks to the Top," I talked about how our homeschool journey has been anything but a straight line. Two weeks ago, our path hit a decisive fork in the road.

Deciding last spring to leave the private school they had attended for two years and bring our girls back home was a pretty simple, straightforward choice. Our boys were another matter. My husband had a very social high school experience, one remembered more for the conviviality of band and theater than for its academic rigor. Despite a decidedly less than stellar secondary education, my husband not only attended college but went on to earn a graduate degree and successfully provide for our family. My background was very different. My father is an academic who believes very strongly in the importance of a rigorous education. My mother, a farm girl from a poor family that depended upon the labor of their children to run their dairy, received a very inadequate education in her youth and worked hard to graduate from college in middle age. The combination of my parents' views resulted in a home were education was not only valued, but a source of camaraderie and enjoyment.

Given our different viewpoints on secondary education, the choice of an academically sub-par public high school or our homeschool was a difficult one. My husband felt strongly that education is what you make of it and that if the boys took what they were offered and maximized their learning, they could still receive an adequate education while also experiencing all the positive social aspects of public high school. Since our boys are solid young men, well-grounded in their value system and faith and surrounded by quality friends, neither of us were too concerned about the influences of the more concerning population of the school.

While I agreed with my husband about the social influences, I was not at all impressed by the academic rigor of the program. My concern was the lack of a laudable curriculum and the fact that the teaching model used in the vast majority of classes was one which used many methods I find both tedious and ineffective. However, I agreed to let the boys take the helm of their education and make their own choice. 

In the end, like most parents, my husband and I reached a compromise. Carter was vehemently opposed to attending the local high school, and his twin brother, Quinn, was very excited about the prospect. We all agreed that they would both give it an honest try and that we would re-evaluate the choice either at semester or the end of the year. What ensued in the following month was surprising for all of us.

Of the two, Quinn is the quiet academic and the social butterfly. Carter takes his studies very seriously and puts a great deal of stress upon himself to do well. Given those facts, I thought that Quinn would take what education came his way and thrive in the social high school atmosphere. Instead, he was the first to become disenchanted with what the school offered, and his reasons were sound. Quinn said that the teachers "yammered at" the class for fifty minutes about things that he "either already knew, could grasp in half the time reading for himself, or couldn't care less about" and rattled off the homework assignment as the bell rang. In short, he was bored, uninspired, and felt like his class time was being wasted, only to have his evenings filled with busy work.

Carter found the work to be lamentable in its lack of academic merit. Both boys were registered in a special program called the World Discovery Seminar. We chose the program for its similarity to the model of teaching that both I and their school of the last two years used. Instead of teaching to a test, as honors and AP classes do, the boys and I felt that the model of collaborative projects, primary source materials, and discussion would be a better fit for both boys. It sounded good in theory, but the reality was far below expectations. As one example of something the boys complained about: they were given portions (not complete) of primary source documents and writings to study. One of the things they were told to do--one of the few generally useful things--in the course of perhaps the silliest method of analysis I have ever seen, was to annotate any vocabulary with which they were unfamiliar. Neither boy found a single word, in a month of school, that they didn't know. I believe them, because I read some of the pieces. Carter kept getting marked down for not highlighting any words; Quinn just picked a few so the teacher would get off his back. Eventually, Carter took a picture of the running vocabulary list that I keep on our white board, defining words from the girls' read-aloud, to show his teacher that his third and sixth grade sisters' vocabulary far exceeded anything in his assignment.

The abysmal standards to which their writing assignments were held--Carter turned in one quickly written paper in science, worried that he would be lucky to get a "C," only to be appalled that it actually earned him an "A"--was a constant source of frustration for both boys. Coming from strong writing backgrounds, and holding themselves to high standards of performance and their teachers to high standards of expectation, they were repeatedly shocked by what was deemed perfectly acceptable.

Both young men quickly came to the same conclusion. Making the most of what you were offered was one thing, but what about when no one was offering anything that even remotely pushed the boundaries of what you already know? How do you improve your vocabulary when the words aren't new? How do you grow as a researcher and writer when work that you do not feel proud of earns you the highest grade in the class and no suggestions for further development? Why is a textbook, with its dull prose and surface knowledge questions at the end of each section, seen as an acceptable way to teach science and history? What good does it do to learn about the beliefs and practices of people and societies in the past if you never coexist with their ideas and philosophies, processing them in relation to your own tenets?

Perhaps the most disturbing element in this whole scenario is the fact that neither of our boys would be classed as academically gifted. They both work very hard for a "B," celebrate an "A," and settle for the odd "C" now and then. The only thing that sets them apart from their peers is that for their first seven years in our homeschool and the two years they spent at private school, they learned that they could be more, do more, experience learning at a different level. They know that even the best student still has more to learn and it is a teacher's job to mentor them towards even greater accomplishments.

And so they chose to come home. Home to the mother who, while I celebrate their achievements, also knows that every paper can be elevated to the next level, every discussion can go deeper, and personal research will trump a textbook every time. They want to be challenged, to feel like their ideas have value, and to understand why their assignments are relevant to who they are and who they are becoming. They need an environment where critical thinking, not just the ability to put the textbook's key points--and other's ideas--into the correct blanks, is fostered.

We welcome the chance to grow and learn together in our homeschool that is now twice the size it was when we all optimistically launched our various academic efforts six weeks ago. Major changes are in the wind for the girls, as we merge their pursuit of knowledge with that of their brothers. We are letting go of some of the elements of our curriculum that have been a mainstay in past years, in favor of new materials that we are opting to explore.

In the coming year, we look forward to sharing our journey, with all its switchbacks, with all of you. Good and bad, we hope that our stories, projects, reviews, and experiences enrich your homeschool, too. If you don't homeschool, we hope you enjoy following us along the trail and learning how education happens for one family who embraces whole books, Socratic Method, and collaboration with other homeschoolers.