Learning local

Thwarted in a late-August weekend vacation by the threat of Irene, we consulted our list of the local attractions we never get around to exploring.  The result was a trip to the historical society museum, which among other stories tells of the shipbuilding that occupied a corner of the city before and during World War II.

I must admit that I get uneasy committing to print a historical reference of any kind.  As many adults I know shield themselves from any need for interacting with numbers, for fear of having their mathematical shortcomings revealed, I tend to steer clear of history beyond the highlights.  The bits of history I know well are thanks not to the curriculum of my childhood but to the path my life took and the opportunities that have arisen to pick up those stories that bear on the work I do.  My commitment to getting dates and particulars of various eras straight came first with a book about the history of women in the teaching profession and later from the need to understand what brought us to the current precarious and deplorable state of education in the developed world.

When I moved here, I found another way in.  I’ve lived many places – places with the kind of pasts that beckon history buffs to come running from far and wide.  But those histories were always hard for me to connect to – lists of dates featuring characters in costume rather than anyone I could relate to.  Here, where I now make my home and plan to stay, there are stories that feel closer.  A map of the neighborhood from the mid-1800s, the story of the man who made the map, what brought him here, the roads that are now named after his family, these are stories I can locate in my own reality.  And the stories start local, but they don’t stay that way. As soon as I know the part the man’s daughters likely took in the building of ships here, I wonder about their connection to what was unfolding across the sea where the ships were headed.  The stories of the map and the welders lead to Hitler, to the war, to the way nothing would ever be the same.

How would my relationship to history be different if – when I was a small child – instead of the names of three Spanish ships and a rhyme with which to remember the year they sailed, I’d been offered first a picture of the hill where our house was built, before they ran the road through a wild pine forest?  What if I’d taken in first a view of history like that one, that my field of vision could hold?  The young people I know are intrigued by what they can see, experience, connect to.  They’re like that without having to be told to be.  They ask questions that can’t help but expand and deepen their knowledge and understanding.

We imagine that we are their only shepherds, but we are at our most effective when we share the shepherding with the formidable forces of human curiosity and craving for connection.

Things people say

From Czeslaw Milosz (via Anne Lamott): “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

We’ve been pretending for a very long time that we have no choice but to proceed as always when it comes to schooling and learning.  The questions we would have to face (if we were to admit that the whole business has come entirely apart and no longer really serves kids or families or cultures or economies) are so mind-boggling that we barely even let ourselves think them, much less begin to address them out loud.  We just keep trying to make sure our kids get through the established routes and hope it turns out OK. We can’t conceive of how we’d confront what’s really happening and what it would take to bend the future in another direction, so entrenched are we in what we’ve done for so long.

A pistol shot can be very hard on the ears, even the ears of those who are looking and listening for the truth.  Keep that in mind as you go about making intentional and mindful choices for your children – choices that challenge what we as a culture go blindly about from day to day.  Others will find myriad ways to remind you not so gently that you’re out on a limb and in the minority; that they think you’re making big mistakes.  But it doesn’t mean they’re not interested in what you’re doing; in fact it means they are interested. The ones who engage with you about what you’re doing and not doing – even in not particularly pro-social ways – are the ones who are the most concerned but haven’t figured out where to find the courage and means to do something about it.  If they weren’t concerned they wouldn’t bother to bother you about it.  They may even be receiving some of what you offer by finding the courage to make the choices you make.  It’s just that it’s all very hard to hear, against a heavy background of history, habit, and fear of the unknown and uncharted.

If you imagine that their critical words are just the sound of the truth hurting their ears, it might make the exchange easier on both of you.

Readable reference

I discovered a reference series at the library this morning: Everything You Need to Know about ******** Homework (the asterisks are for the kind of homework, not an expletive that might precede the word).  I looked at the American History volume, but there are others on other subjects.  This one seemed the most genuinely useful to me, because it lends itself well to the desk reference, while the others tackle things like “English” and “math.” My guess is that those volumes are less helpful as references because their content is less look up-able. (All  of these volumes declare suitability for grades 4-6; make what you will of the publisher’s choice to target and market them that way. You can see sample pages on amazon of the various volumes and decide if the readability and content would be useful in your house.)

The one I looked at was very easy on the eyes (not too many words, not too crowded pages), and was light enough to be held by a young child (and therefore less likely to be abhorred or otherwise shied away from by a person of any age or strength).  It’s written as though the person who wrote it wants the person who’s reading it to understand what it says and means.  I think this is a good way to offer information. Have a look if you might be able to use something like this.