Wednesday, March 31, 2010


When someone told me ten years ago that she didn't like my voice, I figured it was just because I couldn't mimic Alison Krauss the way she could. I love Alison Krauss's work, so it was understandable that someone would prefer her performances to my old-fashioned semi-operatic sound (I can do a rather good Marlene Dietrich imitation, to my husband's annoyance--Der Blaue Engel is one of his least favorite movies ever). Then recently I realized that choral music has changed dramatically in the last decades, too; for an example, just listen to the difference between this older Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition of Handel's Messiah and their newest album, Heavensong.

As a child taking lessons and a teenager singing in school choirs, I did not realize that vocal technique specifics (e.g., placement, breathiness, volume, and vibrato) change over time even within styles. Now I believe that there is a faddish nature to what voices are considered "good" at a given time.

My mother is a trained singer who often sang solos for church events throughout her life. Her voice is quite powerful (i.e., loud), and I have inherited it (sadly to the annoyance of some people when singing next to me). She took some lessons later in life from an opera singer, whom she also paid to teach me a few lessons when I was a child. I took further lessons in the 80's and 90's from various classical teachers. As a result, I have a voice that now is hopelessly out of fashion. I feel rather like a castrato after the turn of the last century. At least my children still like to have me sing to them at bedtime. They will always be my favorite audience.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I'm sad to say my dh is not a curry fan. Even in chicken divan. Sigh.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Applying Montessori principles in our home, part 3

Chapter 7 of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline S. Lillard is about learning within meaningful contexts, which assists "learning by providing frameworks and motivation for the acquisition of new knowledge." (p. 256) Setting up learning experiences to be within meaningful contexts is part of Montessori's methods, but it can also be done in traditional schools. Obviously, it can be done very easily in a home setting: e.g., studying fractions while baking, researching botany for landscaping and gardening, learning civics and finance principles while doing the taxes, and composing letters to relatives that will actually be sent.

The next Montessori principle presented is the promotion of productive adult-child interaction styles. Studies suggest that child outcomes tend to be better where adults are sensitive to children's signals, interpret the signals correctly, and promptly respond to the signals in appropriate ways. The recommended parenting style is being "authoritative", a style characterized by high control (as opposed to permissiveness and neglect) in conjunction with high warmth (as opposed to being authoritarian or neglectful). The control should be tempered with an appropriate level of flexibility for older children and adolescents who can provide reasons for exceptions or changes to adults' rules. Montessori philosophy calls for giving children a great deal of freedom within certain limits, and Lillard presents this as consistent with an authoritative style. One of the most valuable insights I took away from this chapter is that adults need to be assiduous observers of children so they catch children's signals and respond promptly to them. It's a good thing our computer is in the room where our children usually play!

The last Montessori principle discussed in this book is order. In Montessori schools, the daily schedule is not ordered--the child has two three-hour blocks during which they are free to wander the classroom (or even over to another classroom) and choose what tasks they will engage in. However, each of the tasks is very ordered with specific steps to be accomplished in the dictated sequence. Montessori classrooms are intentionally clean, organized, and free of extraneous items, and the atmosphere is kept peaceful with just some quiet chatter or occasional classical music in the background. The Montessori curriculum is presented in a logical, coherent progression, an apparently unattainable goal in public schools in the USA which are always changing textbooks and dealing with students transferring in from all over the country. A lesson I learned in this chapter is that a flexible daily schedule is fine as long as I teach my daughter in an orderly fashion--no music with words or movies playing in the background while I am teaching her, a clean space at the table where we are working, an orderly and peaceful home, and adherence to a given curriculum for a decent length of time instead of being a curricula flibbertigibbet (of course, this means I have to do a lot of research before adopting a curriculum in order to be sure it's one we will want to stay with for a long time).

I recommend this book to parents and teachers looking for new insights in education and character development of children. Lillard doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but she is clearly very impressed with Montessori philosophy and practice and produces a great number of studies that support them. I am glad I read this book now as my children are still young enough for me to benefit from applying the insights I gained from it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Applying Montessori principles in our home, part 2

I finally finished reading Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, by Angeline S. Lillard. It is a meaty book filled with discussion of many interesting ideas and studies.

Chapter 6 deals with learning from peers. In Montessori schools, children are grouped together in 3-year age groupings (e.g., ages 3-6, 6-9, etc.), and they are free to interact with each other in constructive ways as they work on various learning tasks. The research cited by the author indicates that children are more likely to imitate peers than adults, so younger children gain by being able to observe and copy slightly older pupils. I've been amused to note how my dd3 wants to do everything she sees dd5 doing, so I don't doubt the research findings on this point. Unfortunately for children in traditional schools, they are nearly always with peers of exactly the same age until they hit high school, which means they have only each other to imitate instead of being regularly exposed to slightly older, more advanced children.

This chapter discusses peer tutoring, which is naturally part of a Montessori education as the pupils can interact and the teacher can't work with every student individually all the time. From the research presented, it appears that more effective tutoring happens when the tutoring is specific and structured (Montessori tasks are very structured) and done by peers who are just a bit more advanced than the tutees. Peer tutoring is something that is already being incorporated in traditional schools, but my impression from anecdotes and parental complaints over the years is that its usefulness in that setting is hindered by children's ego issues (at least where tutor and tutee are of the same age) and lack of mastery by the child tutor.

The last part of the chapter focuses on collaborative learning. I admit, I'm not a fan of collaborative learning for younger children. I recognize its usefulness when dealing with adults or advanced students who have learned some material on their own already, but I don't think younger pupils in traditional US schools have enough in their heads to make group work worth the time it takes. Perhaps my negative attitude towards group work comes from the first major group project I ever did, a "Pharaoh project" in my sixth grade class for which much of the grade came from making a life-size stuffed-pantyhose dummy of our assigned Pharaoh; I had a traumatic experience trying to make the stupid thing myself late at night only to realize when they were all displayed that most other groups had clearly had their Pharaohs made by mothers, not sixth graders. (Also, I got a "C" on the project, and that was after the mother of one of my team members remade the dummy. Grrr.) Or maybe my negative attitude towards collaborative learning comes from remembering how in school I often felt like I was doing most of the work for the group and wondering what the point was of other children receiving credit for work they didn't do and didn't understand.

Interestingly, according to Lillard, collaborative learning becomes more beneficial with age; she says it appears not to provide much benefit before age 5. Other factors that affect whether collaborative learning helps include children's level of usage of interpretive statements, readiness to learn the task being taught, and the degree of friendship among collaborators. The freedom of the Montessori class setup allows children to choose to work in self-chosen groups on tasks for which they are ready. However, traditional schools do not have this freedom, and Lillard reports that some studies have found that "performance under no-reward conditions is no better than in whole-class teaching arrangements." (p. 219) Since my oldest child is now five, I expect I will have the chance occasionally to observe her learning in self-chosen groups, and maybe I will grow to appreciate collaborative learning in such optimal conditions. For now, though, I am not bothered by the fact that as a mostly-homeschooled child, she will be spared regular, mandatory group projects for the next few years.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Love Languages

A very long time ago, I read a book about "love languages". It think it was The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The focus was on learning how your spouse expects love to be shown to them and then applying the insight to improve your marriage.

The five ways discussed are 1) praise, 2) quality time (paying attention to a spouse...novel concept!), 3) gifts, 4) service, and 5) physical touch. If there is a mismatch between how one person expects to be loved and how the person trying to show love does so, then hurt feelings will likely result. In my opinion, this principle is applicable in all relationships, not just in marriages.

I saw long ago how one sibling's failure to understand this contributed to worsen her relationship with our mother. This sibling tried to make amends for the lacks she perceived in my mother's life, first with a diamond ring (my father had never bought my mother one), and then with a huge gift basket full of color-themed toiletries (I doubt my mother has had a bubble bath in over 30 years). My mother likes gifts, but not expensive, relatively useless ones, so she didn't appreciate the gifts the way my sibling thought she should. My sibling was very hurt and thought my mother horribly unappreciative. What was intended to create happiness backfired because the giver didn't know or just didn't pay attention to how the actual recipient would feel about the items.

As Easter approaches, I've been thinking that I need to find an Easter card to send to dh's mother. After a few years of marriage, I realized she was sending us cards at Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Easter, as well as a few other random occasions. Since I don't care that much for cards (but my daughters like them, especially if they come with stickers attached), I didn't understand why she sent us so many of them. But on consideration, I believe that cards are something she considers a true expression of love and would therefore like to receive more of herself. Thus, even though I'm not "into" holiday greetings, I make the effort to send them to her because I genuinely do love her and want her to feel loved in a way she appreciates.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Homeschool Carnival is up

I'm grateful for the homeschool carnivals because they expose me to a variety of philosophies and approaches to teaching at home. This week's carnival is up at Homeschool Bytes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Applying Montessori principles in our home, part 1

I've been reading Montessori: The Science behind the Genius by Angeline S. Lillard. It pulls together various studies to determine how some of Maria Montessori's educational philosophies have been validated by recent science. The eight principles covered in the book are the following (from p. 29):

1) that movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning;
2) that learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives;
3) that people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning;
4) that tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in the activity when the reward is withdrawn;
5) that collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning;
6) that learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts;
7) that particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes; and
8) that order in the environment is beneficial to children.

It's fairly easy to apply the first principle in our own home--dd5 moves around a lot, so I let her. No school desks here. Any written lessons requiring a table are done while we sit (sometimes standing or wiggling for her) in various positions at the coffee table. I only admonish her to stay still when she has a word to read and, due to wiggling, is not even looking in the direction of the book. She must have a lot of excess energy, so why not let her move her body? It's not like she is disrupting a classroom full of other students.

The discussion of studies showing increased interest in and performance of freely-chosen activities was eye-opening. I am going to increase the amount's of choice in dd5's day. Until now, I've been requiring a small amount of formal academic time in the morning before she is free to choose her own activities. She used to be happily energetic in learning during that time, but she has definitely been losing motivation to work for even twenty minutes. So today I put the schoolbooks out on the table and didn't force her to do the work. As a result, she has only done her work in one of the four subject areas so far. It's only 11:30 a.m., though. I'll gently suggest we do the rest of the work throughout the day and see how that goes. In the meantime, she has dusted the living room (of her own initiative), read a story to dd3, made a tent, and started cutting up a box to make a boat.

The third principle helps me understand why "unschooling" can be so effective. While I accept as a premise that people learn better when they're interested in a subject, I think the studies cited here didn't adequately take into account the contribution of prior knowledge to learning performance. Knowing something about a subject both lessens the amount of working memory required to process new information about that subject and seems to increase the likelihood of finding that subject interesting. After all, don't your eyes skim right over headlines that deal with places you've never been and topics you've never learned about? Mine do. In helping my daughters obtain good educations, I need to make sure that--regardless of interest level--they have wide exposure to all kinds of topics, and then I should let them seek deep subject matter knowledge about subjects they find interesting.

I am still in the middle of the chapter on the fourth principle, but I am finding lots of food for thought. Apparently, rewards and evaluation tend to negatively impact motivation and performance. While I'm happy to see that I don't need to feel guilty for not giving my children gold star stickers for accomplishing tasks, I realize now that I could do even less to artificially motivate (i.e., bribe) them. Another interesting concept is that I actually hinder my children's learning to mastery by interrupting their work to praise, evaluate or even observe them.
Montessori said

Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched....The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.

I know I always hated to have my mother listen to me practice singing when I was internally motivated to sing a piece well. Her compliments were just as unwelcome as her constructive criticism--after all, I wasn't doing it for her. I think I need to apply that lesson to my own mothering style by being more "hands-off".

Recipe to try

I love curry made with coconut milk. I pulled out the crockpot recently to make a dish my husband loves - rice, kielbasa, and cream of mushroom soup. Since there are leftovers of that dish, I'm going to indulge my own curry appetite (one not shared by dh) with this Crockpot Thai Curry recipe Monday night. Mmmm.

Update: I made it, and it didn't turn out very well. Too much eggplant, I think. Or else the coconut milk was too thin? Sigh.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Again, juice isn't the problem

Drinking sugar-sweetened beverages daily linked to diabetes. My mom always gave us milk, water or 100% juice to drink. So far none of us are diabetic. :) Good job, mom.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A challenge

Try not to laugh at this.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Very cool

According to this, 'World's Most Useful Tree' Provides Low-Cost Water Purification Method For Developing World, there is a simple help to the problem of dirty surface water right under people's noses in many areas of the world where too many people still die because of lack of clean water:
A low-cost water purification technique published in Current Protocols in Microbiology could help drastically reduce the incidence of waterborne disease in the developing world. The procedure, which uses seeds from the Moringa oleifera tree, can produce a 90.00% to 99.99% bacterial reduction in previously untreated water, and has been made free to download as part of access programs under John Wiley & Sons' Corporate Citizenship Initiative.

"Moringa oleifera is a vegetable tree which is grown in Africa, Central and South America, the Indian subcontinent, and South East Asia. It could be considered to be one of the world's most useful trees," said Lea. "Not only is it drought resistant, it also yields cooking and lighting oil, soil fertilizer, as well as highly nutritious food in the form of its pods, leaves, seeds and flowers. Perhaps most importantly, its seeds can be used to purify drinking water at virtually no cost."

This is yet another reason why we need to be careful to prevent species extinction. Who knows what uses may yet be found for the many, many kinds of plants out there?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010