Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

A book review from Justin. This was written for Disciple Magazine, so his audience is mainly pastors. I have not had a chance to read this book yet, but hope to do so soon when life gets a little more routine. Enjoy! 

Update: I have read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave me much to chew on and allowed me to deal with my own didn't-grow-up-a-reader baggage. A must read.  

As the title implies, Jacobs, a professor of humanities in the honors program at Baylor University (before that, an English professor at Wheaton College for over 20 years), wrote this short volume to extol the virtues and joys of losing oneself in a good book. He suggests this as an antidote to the fast-paced, multi-tasking, media-saturated atrophy of our ability to hold our attention in one place. This is emphatically not another list of “great books” or a reading plan built around the preferences and vanity of its compiler. Rather, Jacobs adds a log to the fire of literary life, urging readers to read for the peculiar pleasure that only comes from being “rapt” in a narrative.

On a number of levels, this represents Jacobs’ attempt to write a counterpoint to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s classic How to Read a Book. While he does consider that work praiseworthy for refusing to take for granted that the average reader actually knows how to approach books thoughtfully, he takes issue with the “eat your veggies” approach to mastering the classics. Jacobs instead holds up the sheer joy of encountering ideas and imagination through reading as a higher guide to taste than self-improvement, cultural literacy, or any of the other reasons we are commonly taught to read great literature. If we can recapture that joy, he says, perhaps we wouldn’t always feel the need to make and check off lists of things we ought to have read.

The big ideas Jacobs unpacks here are, in his own terms, “Whim” and “Serendipity”. If these seem like impossible concepts to nail down, you’re tracking right along with his thesis. By Whim, he means the freedom to read not just what we are told to read, but those books that strike our fancy as they come across our path. If reading is nourishment for the soul, then we should approach reading as we might approach dinner—with one eye toward nutrition and one eye toward variety and flavor, built upon our previously established tastes but always willing to try something new. Under that umbrella, he suggests that we focus the direction of our reading upstream; that is, when we find a book or author that we do enjoy, we should look back to those who influenced them for subsequent reading choices.

Reading in this way, he proposes, helps us to begin to recognize the books and authors that speak most clearly to us, but also to grow in understanding of our learning style and the weaknesses of our ideas and character we should seek to challenge. This self-taught criticism is only cultivated by close and patient reading of those books we do choose, and this encompasses Jacobs’ concept of Serendipity—the openness to powerful gems of thought we were not even seeking as we read, but also the ability to recognize and properly appraise them. This idea of serendipity can even apply to reading Scripture, as we often discover the most treasured promises and exhortations only after slow and thoughtful reading and re-reading of passages.

If you, like me, are always surrounded by books that you are expected to read (whether as a part of your work, because of obligations to others, or even because of goals you set for yourself), Jacobs book may be the breath of fresh air you are looking for, giving you a better framework for organizing and making the most of the time you have to read. In the process, it just may inspire you to slow down a bit and read more deeply, turning off the computer or smartphone long enough to get fully absorbed in a text. Those we teach and serve depend on us to impart wisdom, and reading well is among the best tools God has given us to fulfill that calling.

Justin Lonas

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Summer Reading and Skip Counting

This has to be one of the busiest summers I have had in a LONG time. How do I know? See Exhibit A below. We did not even complete our library's summer reading program this year! If you know me, this would normally be an EPIC fail on my part. But, alas, I shouldn't let the library define my life anyway!   

It was a nice thought... 
This summer has been full of roadtrips and new schooling adventures for our family (namely me becoming a tutor for Classical Conversations at the end of the month), so I don't feel too bad about taking a break. I'm really looking forward to what this pseudo-schoolyear (my oldest is 4) holds for us! 

Did any of your summer reading plans go better this year?  

So as I said, I'm starting Classical Conversations with my 4 year old at the end of the month. I went to the training last month to hear more about classical learning. A big idea they push is mastery through repetition, not mere exposure. In other words, you don't do a lesson and never revisit the concept again in a meaningful way. It can also mean a lot of worksheets end up being time-wasters. I wanted to find a way to redeem worksheets and use them as repetition to supplement what my daughter is going to be learning in CC. 

Here's my first venture -- Skip Counting:         

It's a good thing this is landscape. My daughter is a lefty.
I found some great skip counting mazes from 2's to 12's here at Confessions of a Homeschooler. Notice how I have them arranged? I put them all in page protectors so my daughter can use dry-erase markers and wipe off when she's done. We get to use them over and over again, so I don't feel like I am wasting time or ink! I like these mazes because my daughter can practice skip counting on her own or we can do it together out loud. It's helping her understand place value and it's fun for her to use. 

I also found some skip counting connect-the-dot pages from a huge workbook I bought at used bookstore. NEVER underestimate the potential of cheap/free things people give you as a resource. I've hodgepodged all kinds of things to find different ways for my daughter to practice her mastery in numbers so she can have a good foundation for math.       

And finally, the official math curriculum we're using for her is the Primer from Math-U-See. She has really enjoyed using the blocks to understand place value. Although the Primer has a lot of good review in it, I found some worksheets that reinforce the place value concept where she can have another excuse to use her blocks. I stuck it in her notebook again with the page protectors.  

Now, I have said all of this as a homeschool mom, but this is an idea for ANY household. Any of you can make folders to help your child master a subject. I'm not suggesting you burn your child out on education if they've been at school for 8+ hours, so use discretion. However, I know of friends who were afraid of their child being bored in Kindergarten (the mom worked with the daughter A LOT before she went to school) and wanted to find ways to enrich what she was learning. I think the idea of a folder with repeatable concepts could help with that! As a parent, it would be a great way to be involved in what your child is learning every day. 

I am really liking the protector cover notebook idea, so I'm sure you'll see this idea come up again. 

Any of you have other ideas to achieve mastery in a subject?  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My Education: Ron Clark's "What Teachers Really Want To Say To Parents"

This is a first for this monthly feature... I'm telling about someone's experiences whom I've never met! 

Matthew Perry and the real Ron Clark
The month's educational story is from a man who has been in the classroom for almost 20 years and even has a made-for-TV movie based on his life -- Ron Clark. His story is similar to the Dangerous Minds/ Freedom Writers/Dead Poets Society genre (i.e. inspiring teacher with unique methods helps students reach their fullest potential). I haven't actually seen The Ron Clark Story, but it was well-received and Matthew Perry (of Friends fame) got a few award nominations out of the gig.      

Clark wrote an article entitled "What Teachers Really Want To Say To Parents" where he asks parents to trust and respect their children's teachers. Clark has seen it all and details all kinds of scenarios where the student-teacher relationship gets unnecessarily broken down because the parents refuse to model respect for authority. If the parent doesn't trust the teacher and is disrespectful or dismissive of him/her (especially in front of the child at a meeting), guess who else is persuaded to follow suit? The child.

If you want to play devil's advocate you could say, "But what about the really bad teachers that are just cashing paychecks and doing serious damage to our children's knowledge of a subject?" I think in those instances, if you're a parent with a child in a regular classroom you still need to expect your child to be respectfulYour child can see how you handle the situation in an appropriate way.You can talk to the school's administrator about issues with a teacher; I believe you can do that in a respectful way and they should know your concerns, but don't hang all your hopes there for educational reform. I suggest finding other ways to engage the teacher's material if possible. If the teacher is lazy, don't stoop to his level and be satisfied with a letter grade that does not reflect a mastery of the subject. Find ways for enrichment outside of the classroom where possible (and those possibilities are endless if you look for them!). You don't have to settle just because one bad educator already has. Thankfully, I know there are more of the dedicated teacher types than those teachers just cruising to retirement.

Regardless of your educational preference, I encourage you to read his article to see what today's teachers are up against. I briefly scrolled down on the comments and there were many people talking about how this article got to the heart of why, after decades of teaching, they felt they had to leave the classroom though they desperately wanted to stay for the children.  

I will leave you with a quote from Clark's article that really resonated with me (as I discussed in this post about part of my reasons for leaving teaching): 
"I feel so sorry for administrators and teachers these days whose hands are completely tied. In many ways, we live in fear of what will happen next. We walk on eggshells in a watered-down education system where teachers lack the courage to be honest and speak their minds. If they make a slight mistake, it can become a major disaster.

My mom just told me a child at a local school wrote on his face with a permanent marker. The teacher tried to get it off with a wash cloth, and it left a red mark on the side of his face. The parent called the media, and the teacher lost her job. My mom, my very own mother, said, "Can you believe that woman did that?"

I felt hit in the gut. I honestly would have probably tried to get the mark off as well. To think that we might lose our jobs over something so minor is scary. Why would anyone want to enter our profession? If our teachers continue to feel threatened and scared, you will rob our schools of our best and handcuff our efforts to recruit tomorrow's outstanding educators."

Can any of you current/former teachers relate? How about you parents out there? Feel free to share your experiences (both good and bad) here.  

And while you're at it, check out this blog post on how to pray for the new teacher in your child's life. This was a rare find. You don't see too many people saying things like this to kick off the school year! What if more parents stopped to pray for their teachers rather than criticize them? Praying allows you see your own shortcomings when you're tempted to assume the worst about others:

Every teacher is a real person who goes to the grocery store, does laundry, has dinner with friends, cries, hurts, and worries. She needs the Kleenex and the hand sanitizer, but most of all, she needs your prayers."