Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Convention Season: In Which I Learn to Ask Questions (or What are the Liberal Arts, Really?)

Why Writing is Not a Subject and Why Every Subject Needs Writing To Be Properly Taught - Andrew Kern

Last year was the first time I'd heard Andrew Kern speak. His seminar I heard then was called "How to Read a Good Book and a Hard One" which used Anna Karenina as an example. I'd never wanted to read Anna Karenina until hearing that talk and I was blown away by Kern's thoughts. So, I wanted to hear him again this year. When I saw he was speaking on writing integrated into the whole curriculum, I knew this was the seminar for me.

Andrew Kern is founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, the founding author of The Lost Tools of Writing, and a co-author of the best-selling book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America.

Andrew seems a bit scattered as a speaker, but really that is not the case. He just takes a while to tie everything together. Let's see if I can do any justice to the six pages of notes I took in this meaty seminar.

He began with the image of a tree with its branches broken on the ground. He then mentioned the tree of learning and asked what is the trunk of that tree.

Next, he discussed "subjects" which at present we usually describe as the things we study in school. Do we learn subjects though? Our educational vocabulary has been hijacked.

What we actually should be teaching is not random subjects, but the deliberate, imaginative, and patient teaching of the seven liberal arts. (Since he mentioned the list of seven a few times, but never gave the complete list, I looked it up. Here it is:  grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium).)

Aspire to the truth, gaze upon the truth. The soul of your child needs to perceive the truth. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

Use logic well. Think coherent clear thoughts.
Rhetoric: push the argument and specify the disagreement, but be a harmonizing person.

A liberal art is different from a subject.
Science - is knowing ("to know") an area of knowledge. Branches of the tree, a domain of knowledge.
Art - a way of *making* something. Taking something abstract and making it visible.

The glory of humans is that we are made in the image of a God who creates. We have not instinct, but artistry. We are incarnating a Logos.

Homer described "winged words" flying between souls. Those words still have the power to change us 2700 years later.

Humans are imitators. We are all always artists. We are expressing something always.

The liberating arts make knowledge of the truth.

So, the trunk of the tree of learning is the seven liberal arts and writing (rhetoric) is the pith (the center of the trunk), Another definition of 'pith' is the essence of something.

Writing - if you can't write, you can't succeed. In modern society, you can't do anything if you can't write. "Writing is the life-giving core."

The most important thing you can teach children is to ask questions. The quality of your learning (and your life) is determined by the questions. The questions are simple, obvious, God-given.

  • What is this I see?
  • What is it for?
  • How did it become what it is?
  • How did we get here?
  • How does it change?
  • How is this like that? (comparison precedes thought!)
  • How are things related?
  • What was happening around it?
  • Who has something to say about this?

Our souls are asking these questions before we think them.

Coaching may slow you down at first. You look at what you are doing. You over-think, repeat the behavior. In the long run, you get better.

Writing is thinking in Super-Slow Motion.
When you do it more slowly, you are thinking about what you are doing.

Write before bed.

Most writing is subconscious. When you write, in a way you are studying yourself.

The Five Topics of Invention aka The Common Topics
(a 'topic' is a place to go to get thoughts)

1 - Comparison
How is this alike/different from that?
Quantities, qualities

2 - Definition
Who or what is that?
What kind of thing is that?
What are its parts?

3 - Circumstances/Context
What was happening at the time?

4 - Relation
Why did you do that?
Why is that what it is?
What caused that to be?
What were the effects of that?

5 - Authority
What do the experts say about that?
What do the witnesses say about that?

These questions are the heart and soul of human thought. They are the life of every subject.

Learn to enjoy thinking.

Dante's Paradiso (written while he was in exile by the sea)
Much worse than uselessly he leaves the shore 
(more full of error than he was before) 
Who fishes for the truth but lacks the arts.

Every soul fishes for the truth and NEEDS THE TOOLS.

We owe this to our children.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Convention Season: In Which I Feel Validated (or The-Book-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named)

Witches, Wizards, and Wands, Oh My! A Parent's Guide to Fantasy, Fiction, and Faith - Adam Andrews

A chance to hear my favorite convention speaker, Adam Andrews, is so welcome! I always leave his seminars motivated to go and teach literature RIGHT! He makes it seem so easy. 

Adam and his wife Missy are the directors of CenterForLit which "offers curriculum materials, online classes, live teacher-training, and parent-teacher support networks, all dedicated to helping readers understand and revel in the beauty of classic books." My friend Darlene and I are teaching a high school literature class this fall using their materials.

Beginning the seminar, Adam acknowledged that some may be attending looking to vilify fantasy literature and some may be attending hoping to validate their literature choices. 

A realization that Adam had while playing golf: We are all just struggling to make par (just good enough) in life. We need to "raise our eyes to the hills and look for help." In other words, our peace must come from God's provision, rather than our efforts at par.
When Adam was with a good friend, he began telling him of this enlightenment he had while playing golf. But the buddy interrupted, saying how much he hates golf. Adam told him not to change the subject.

Yes, this relates to literature! The point of reading is to join a discussion with the author. Metaphorically, ask the author, "What do you want to talk about today?" and then don't change the subject. 

Sit still, pay attention, and don't change the subject. It's rude to change the subject. Instead, recognize which discussion the author is having in the work of literature.

How to we find out the author's real theme? Identify the essential issue by asking the essential questions. 

Adam then related the story of an ancient king in search of wisdom regarding a war. The king's trusted advisor was dead, so he went in search of answers. Since he had driven all magicians from the land, he had to go far and in disguise, looking for a witch who could put him in touch with the spirit of his dead advisor. Having finally found a woman to call forth the spirit, he listens to the voice of his dead advisor who berates him and tells him he will lose the upcoming battle. The next day, the prophecy comes true and the despairing king takes his own life.

Let's ask the essential questions. 

What does the king want? Power, control, independence from the gods.
What kind of conflict does this story show? At least, Man vs. God and Man vs. Self.

But an additional thing to consider is that the supernatural element in this story is incidental to the plot. This is not a story about the evils (or benefits) of witchcraft. The supernatural element here is a symbol of rebellion. This is a story about a power struggle, a rebellion against God, about human frailty. This is what we see when we look carefully and ask the right questions.

In case you didn't recognize the story, it is a story from the Bible, found in 1 Samuel 28. The king is Saul. 
Saul and the Witch of Endor Benjamin West

A human being is a supernatural being. So, the supernatural or the occult in art (including literature) should not be surprising. It's actually more surprising when it is absent, such as in The Hunger Games series. Materialistic art (with the absence of the supernatural) is the real sign of the decay of a civilization.

Adam referred to C.S. Lewis stating that the world must be re-mythologized before it can be saved. (I cannot find this original quote, so if anyone knows it, please comment.)

We have been taught that a myth is something that is not true. However, another way to define a myth is that it is larger than life and usually as true as true can be.

Salvation is a miracle. Minds and hearts that know the spiritual can hear the word of God. Recognizing the supernatural prepares our hearts for the other-worldly heart of Christ.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an occult bargain, hidden from the eyes of the materialistic. 

We need to recognize the universal urge put within us by God to "raise our eyes to the hills" where our hope comes from.

Develop a spirit of empathy rather than judgment when reading. 

At this point, Adam opened the floor to questions from the audience. Here are some excerpts from that Q&A.

In all great books, the setting is tangential to the theme. However, issues of setting *can* be a concern. 

Finally, someone asked about the book which must not be named, which Adam referred to several times in the talk. Adam recommends that we have the conversation with J.K. Rowling that she wants to have in the Harry Potter series.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Aeneid were mentioned as books that were seen as dangerous by the public at the time of their publication.

I asked Adam: How do you handle objections from parents to specific works of literature in a homeschool co-op setting? He recommended discussing the Socratic List (of essential questions) with the parents. Tell them that the best hope for our students is to teach them to be good readers and teach them *how* to read. (Not phonics, but discernment, is what I assume he meant looking at my notes now.)

He quoted someone as saying, "Every story is a bridge to the gospel." (I didn't catch the name.)

Someone asked about the addictive nature of some book series which then makes the classics seem boring. Adam answered that when they have been taught *how* to read, a good book will delight them and a bad book will repel them.

I highly recommend the audio of this talk, since this recap can barely scratch the surface of what Adam was communicating. If I find a link to it, I will post it. It would be worth the download fee!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Convention Season: In Which I Begin To Cry (or Reflecting on Beauty in the Homeschool Life)

Beauty and Delight in the Ordinary Chaotic Homeschool - Sarah Mackenzie

Every seat was filled at 11:30 on Friday morning as a perky Sarah Mackenzie greeted us all with a sincere, "I'm so glad you're all here." Sarah has six children, ages 14, 12, 10, 4, 2-1/2, and 2-1/2. She is an author and blogger that also hosts the Read-Aloud Revival podcast.  Her book is called Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler's Guide to Unshakable Peace. I was not familiar with Sarah before this weekend, but another mom who was with me clued me in to her and her message.

Here are some highlights from her talk. (which, by the way, made me cry, though that would not surprise my kids. They say I cry at everything.) 

These first thoughts sound rather random written down, but I promise they were both coherent and cohesive.

Efficiency = Maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort & expense.

Homeschooling is not efficient. Nor is mothering. Relationships aren't efficient.

Twenty years from now, what will you wish you had spent more time doing? We need that long-range perspective every day.

Thoughts on consistency: Focus on doing a few important things consistently rather than consistently doing too much. 

Relationships Trump Accomplishments.

Lots of quotes flavored Sarah's speech and I noted a few that I wanted to include here. Not surprisingly, many of them were from C.S. Lewis, further strengthening my resolve to read all of his writings.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Don't damage the relationship.

Moments pass me by every day. Beautiful small moments that we miss in waiting for the Big Beautiful ones.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them,and what came through them was longingThese things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols,breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

" become what you behold." -Andrew Kern

Very few of us need to ADD something to our homeschool day. Instead how about small shifts or tweaks that line up with our vision?

Here are the three Tweaks she recommends:

1 - Ritualize something you are already doing to make it more meaningful and more beautiful.
- Play music in the morning.
- Greet your child with a hug every morning.
- Sing the Doxology.
- Candles at mealtimes to emphasize enjoying the moment together.
- Poetry at breakfast (recommended book: Melissa Wiley, The Prairie Thief)
-  Habit apps 
- Two minute mysteries
- Daily audio Bible readings
- "Listening Lunch" (Listen to audiobooks while eating. This allows Mom to eat too.)
- Fragrance!
- Reading on the move... (take a book somewhere and read)

2 - Reading Aloud
Choose Good Books
“We do not want merely to see beauty... we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.”
― C.S. Lewis

Recommended: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson (inspires heroic virtue) 

TEXT GHC to 444999 for a book list (and to be added to Sarah's encouragement emails)

3 - Relishing
- Spend more time with the kids.
- Have a "Just Because We Can" Day.
- You can skip something.
- Do the things you know your kids will remember. (Doing them once or twice is often enough for them to say, "Remember when we used to....".)
- The point is the connections made, NOT the learning.

Rest and Rigor? How do they work together?
Kern & Perrin say - Don't try to give your child a rigorous education. Rigor evokes the stiffness of death. Instead be diligent. Diligere (root word) = value highly, appreciate, prize, etc... So, not rigor, but diligence.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life." - Charlotte Mason

School is not about school.
Homeschool is not about school.
It's about pursuing wisdom. 
It's about becoming virtuous human beings.
It's about soul transformation. 
- Andrew Kern

I was really encouraged by this talk because these tweaks are things I can do and the perspective is one that I need.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Convention Season: In Which I Practice Discernment (or which seminar was the stinker)

Immediately after the successful first seminar on teaching the reluctant writer, I headed over to a seminar that was supposed to help both children and adult writers get published. My goal here was to find some information on writing that would help me personally. The three speakers were all published authors of Christian fiction. Since I was unhappy with the seminar in general, I am leaving off the names of the speakers and the title of the seminar.

Let me first say that, after this seminar, I searched out the booth and looked at the books of these authors and they seem like perfectly fine Christian literature. My problem with the seminar was not with their books or their methods specifically.

Making me uncomfortable was the definition given in this seminar of "good literature". Here is the list of items that characterize "good literature" according to the speaker.
-Spiritual content (meaning it is supposed to turn the person toward Jesus)
-The message (same thing, I suppose)
-Sparking good conversations
-Well-constructed plot
-Good character development (and this may not be what you are thinking it is)
- Proper grammar & punctuation
-Quality literary style
-Moral tone of Philippians 4:8 
-Incorporates a Christian worldview
-Stimulates thought
-Positive lessons
-True to the period
-Does it glorify sin or show its horrible consequences?
-Does it promote worldliness or godly character?

While I have nothing against stories that promote godly character or incorporate a Christian worldview, I do take offense to the idea that *all* "good literature" does so. I think that a discerning Christian reader can learn from many stories that fall outside of the Philippians 4:8 filter. In fact, that verse does not limit us to only things that are pure, noble, right, etc...; it merely instructs us to think about those things. If we were honestly to *only* think of those things, then why are stories such as Judges 19:22-29 or Judges 11:30-39 in the Bible?

The rest of this seminar was intended to encourage writers in their craft and help them get published. However it was quite general in tone and not very practical. Here are the remainder of the tips:
  • Good readers make good writers. 
  • Set the example. 
  • Read as a family.
  • Discover students' interests.
  • Teach students to critique (other people's writing).
  • Enter a contest.
  • Generate creative ideas.
  • Read in your genre. See what works, what doesn't work.
  • Carve out space and time to write. Decide to write. No excuses. Take your laptop wherever you go.
  • Continue your education. 
  • Join a writer's group of like-minded writers. (With a warning to avoid writers who go against the "good lit" criteria above)
  • Write for publication, such as a blog, letters to the editor, travel articles, Sunday School take-homes (suggested for teens to do this specifically).
  • Check the Sally Stewart Christian Market.
  • Prepare your manuscript. 
  • Use beta readers (term was not explained). 
  • Send to a paid editor. 
  • Find an agent/publisher. Do your homework first.
So, there you have it - how to get published in the Christian fiction market.