Posts Tagged ‘homeschooler’

What We Study and Why: Language

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series we are looking at individual subjects and asking why and how we study them. So far we have discussed mathematics, science and history. Today’s subject is language. I am thinking here both of one’s native language and of foreign languages. Literature we will save till another time. My interest today is in all those things which one must learn to learn a langauge — the fun stuff like spelling (phonetics, phonology) and grammar which itself is a very broad topic including both how we form words (morphology) and how we put them together (syntax and semantics).

I think most people will agree that langauge is a necessary subject. But most also are just as happy to pass quickly over through the essential bits and to get on to something else. More than any other subject, we tend to have a very pragmatic approach to language; we see it as a tool, a very essential but very boring and often troublesome tool.

Why We Study Language

If langauge is a tool it is one so powerful it was used by God to create the universe. As I argued is this earlier post, words — those building blocks of langauge — are absolutely essential to our relationship with our Creator. God used them to create us and our world (Gen. 1). God the Son is identified as the Word of God (John 1:1-3) and it is through words (and distinctly not images) that God chooses to reveal Himself to us (Deut. 4:15). Words and names are powerful things (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). And it is through words that God continues to save His people (Rom. 10:14).

Education is sanctification. It is us confronting the things of God, drawing us closer to Him, and making us more like Him. Language is not just essential to almost all other learning – though it certainly is that — but it is also one of those things of God. If anything it is more closely associated with God than any other subject. Math, they tell us, is the code behind the universe, but the Word is God.

I don’t know how it works in the Godhead, but for us humans we don’t seem to be able to have ideas without the words to put them in. How could we understand God Himself without the word Trinity? Words and phrases like “nature” and “begotten” and “saved by grace through faith” are carefully chosen because they communicate very specific ideas. The words embody the ideas.

As we move beyond our own language, we also begin to see the possibilites in other languages. Biblical Hebrew is a language well suited to narrative but does not lend itself so well to philosophy and theology. Greek, on the other hand, is able to express complex ideas much more readily because it contains a case system and allows for much more complexly structured sentences. English, I have heard it said,  works very well for science and technology because, being a mash of so many other languages, it easily takes on new ideas.

Since there is such a tie between langauge and thought, when we learn another’s langauge we also learn something about how they think. This allows us not only to convey our own ideas to them but to understand their thought. If we know our God through langauge, we also know our fellow men through language. Being able to connect with others, both to communicate our own ideas and to learn from them, is a major goal of language learning.

If we too often view langauge as a tool and not as something that is beautiful in its own right, then the fault lies in our own educations. One of the major principles I have set forth in this series is that we need to let the beauty of knowledge (for all true knowledge is from God) shine through in its own right. We don’t need to dress it up to make it pretty but we must also not weigh it down and make it cumbersome and boring. Most of us have had langauge made boring for us.

We need to rediscover the beauty of language so that we can pass it along to our students. The primary way I know to do this is to read people who are themselves in love with language (I will add a brief bibliography at the end to get you started). In addition to reading about langauge, we need to read well-written books, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. I am thinking of those whose words just seem to roll off the tongue. I found when my kids were little that there were some picture books that I just enjoyed reading aloud. The words were a pleasure to say. The same is true of some big books as well. Authors that come to mind are: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Russell Hoban (of the Frances books), and Charles Dickens (though I am often winded by the end of his sentences). These authors clearly love language themselves.

How We Teach Language

I think one of the biggest problems we have in teaching language is that we do too much. Perhaps in this subject more than any other we provoke our children to frustration. I am convinced that we need to take the formal elements of langauge slowly. The most important thing is to read children those well-written books that roll off the tongue. If you don’t love reading a book, don’t. Say no. Throw it away or return it to the library and get books that you, as an adult, can enjoy reading. Set an example of reading and give them access to good books (and limit access to poorly written books).

When it comes to the nitty-gritty of how we teach langauge, I can only offer you some observations I have made; take them for what you will:

  • Don’t rush into spelling before the child has a good ability to read and don’t rush into grammar for a while after that. These are subjects which can be learned more quickly a few years later.
  • Many, but not all, students will naturally pick these things up if they are reading good books.
  • Spelling seems to be a visual skill more than anything else. Some kids take to it naturally; others need to be encouraged to “see” words.
  • My observation is that worksheets on both spelling and grammar translate very poorly into children’s writing. As much as possible, there should be a context to what we teach, a literary and a social context.
  • English is a tough langauge because it is such a hodge-podge but there are some rules, however arbitrarily applied. Especially for the child to whom these things do not come naturally, it can be helpful to learn these rules.
  • When it comes to spelling, etymology and history are often helpful. If we know, that “crochet” comes from the French, we may remember that the “sh” sound in the middle is spelled with a “ch.” This can help us as well with chef and chauffeur (at least the first part of it). If we know some English history, we may also understand that chef and chauffeur, those fancy words for people with servants, come from the French. In Greek words, on the other hand, like chaos and anarchy, the “ch” sounds like a “k” (and what does that say about the Greeks?).
  • Choose your approach to grammar wisely. Many of us had the experience of not learning English grammar until we took a foreign langauge. The truth is most grammars were originally developed for other languages (like Greek and Latin) and were applied to English. We need an approach to grammar that it suited to the language.

Kee scrolling for my list of resources to get you started. I am sure there are many other good books that inspire a love for and a real understanding of language. If you have others to add, please let me know.

Nebby

Bibliography

Eide, DeniseUncovering the Logic of English (Logic of English, 2012). I consider myself a pretty good speller but this book taught me rules I never knew. There is a curriculum which goes with it which I have never used. I foudn it was useful for me to read the book. I also got the flashcards of phonemes and went through them with my kids when they were littler. Then when problematic words came up later in life I would refer to the phonemes and rules (“remember that  ….  can also make the …. sound” etc.). Teens could also read the book for themselves.

Leonard, Mary Hall. Grammar and Its Reasons (1909; republished by Forgotten Books, 2016). It is the first part of this book, beginning in chapter two, that I really like. Hall discusses the history of the study of English grammar and though she goes on to discuss grammar I thought she actually made a better case that we should not do so.

Norris, MaryBetween You & Me (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016). Norris is an editor for The New Yorker. She discusses grammar and her own career. I learned (finally!) when to use which and when to use that.

Schmidt, Stan. Life of Fred Langauge Arts (Polka Dot Publishing). Life of Fred is known for its math books but there is also a four-volume langauge arts series for high schoolers. The idea is that the child reads all four volumes every year. I am not sure it is necessary to go through them all four times. My high schoolers enjoyed these books though they did come away doing annoying things like telling me I use the word nauseous wrong (which just makes me sick to my stomach).

Vavra, Ed. Professor Vavra has written a number of useful articles on grammar, but the most useful by far is the free grammar curriculum he has developed. KISS Grammar takes a functional approach to the English language, asking what words do in a sentence rather than focusing on parts of speech.  You can find this wonderful resources here and a document I have written in how to use it here (opens a Google doc). Other articles by Dr. Vavra include: “A Psycholinguistic Model of How the Human Brain Processes Language” (here; Click where it says “click here to get article” and you will be able to download a word document). This article explains some of the basis for his approach. He explains how we understand sentences and how words “chunk” together in units of meaning. I found it fascinating and had my high schoolers read it as well. Practically speaking, this article helped me think about how to do dictation with my children.

Warner, George Townsend. On the Writing of English (1918; republished by Forgotten Books, 2013). This is an older volume which speaks to teens on how to write essays. I like Warner’s approach because (a) it is very practical and (b) it favors language which communicates well rather than heaping up long, descriptive words.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2012). Though 30 years old, this is a more modern book on how to write well.

What We Study and Why: Mathematics

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time, we wrapped up the section of this series on practical details. You can find that summary post here. Today I’d like to begin a new sub-series on individual subjects. I have argued that the teacher’s attitude is paramount and so a large part of what we are doing here is just to frame each subject rightly. Whether you are a homeschooling parent or employed in a school setting, you may find yourself having to teach subjects that just don’t thrill you (what on earth does grammar have to do with the kingdom of God?). While we will touch on some practical details as well (why teach pagan myths? does everyone need calculus?), the main goal of this part of the series is just to show why we teach each subject.

There are a couple of big ideas behind what we are doing here, including: All truth is God’s truth; In education we lay before our students the things of God, primarily His general revelation which comes to us in many forms; and The purpose of education in the life of the believer is for the transforming of his (fallen) mind. (If you are just dropping in, I do recommend reading some of what has come before; see this summary post on the theory behind it all.)

With these goals and ideas in mind, we will ask for each of the subjects we address: Why do we study it? How does it point is to God? How does God reveal Himself or His truth through this subject? In answering these questions, we will look at Scripture whenever possible but we will also look at quotes from many other sources.

Finding God in Mathematics

Let’s jump right in then to mathematics. Most would agree that some level of math instruction is necessary. Beyond the basics, there tend to be two camps — those who see no need to go beyond the basics and those who find pleasure and meaning in higher mathematics. The problem is that there is a gap — we don’t convey the beauty of math when we are teaching the basics and so those who do not naturally enjoy it drop it as soon as possible and never get to the part where it seems to expand and take on a wider significance. The solution is to show that math is lovely even at the lower levels (that’s where the teacher’s attitude comes in again). So if you have lost to joy of math, or never had it, here are some quotes to inspire you:

The laws of mathematics point us to the Law of God:

“We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence,––that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law.” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 230-31)

Mathematics conveys eternity:

“But education should be a science of proportion, and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with. Arithmetic, Mathematics, are exceedingly easy to examine upon and so long as education is regulated by examinations so long shall we have teaching, directed not to awaken a sense of awe in contemplating a self-existing science, but rather to secure exactness and ingenuity in the treatment of problems.” (Ibid., p. 231; emphasis added)

Math underlies the universe. It may even be called the langauge of God:

“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  —Galileo Galilei

Math is the foundation of many other fields, both sciences and arts. Its beauty can be seen even by non-Christian authors:

“Mathematical analysis and computer modeling are revealing to us that the shapes and processes we encounter in nature — the way that plants grow, the way that mountains erode or rivers flow, the way that snowflakes or islands achieve their shapes, the way that light plays on a surface, the way the milk folds and spins into your coffee as yo stir it, the way that laughter sweeps through a crowd of people — all these things in their seemingly magical complexity can be described by the interaction of mathematical processes that are, if anything, even more magical in their simplicity.

….

“The things by which our emotions can be moved — the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music — all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.

“That’s not a reduction of it, that’s the beauty of it.” [Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (New York: Pocket Books, 1988) pp. 182, 184]

That’s all fine, you say, I am inspired but I am still teaching long division to cranky eight-year-olds. A couple of thoughts: I argued recently that when educating we must be careful not to provoke children. Math is a field in which it is very easy to provoke. It tends to come with a lot of repetition. I do think we should all learn to do long division without a calculator. But if I have ten such problems to do, I get my calculator. Why should we ask a second grader to do so many at once? Sometimes more is less (how’s that for a math concept?).

There is a certain progression to math; one can’t do algebra before learning to count. But that doesn’t mean the beauty of math needs to wait until high school or beyond. There are resources which are accessible at younger ages but which either introduce concepts usually reserved for later or give more of a big picture understanding of math, bringing out its complexity and elegance. (I will add a brief bibliography of some we have used at the end of this post.)

Lastly, there is the elephant in the room question: When will I ever use this? And its corollary (there’s a nice math word): Why do I need to learn calculus anyway? As for the first question, I reject the premise. Our approach to education is not utilitarian. Whether we will use upper level math has nothing to do with anything. The end we have in view is not the balancing of checkbooks or even being able to do advanced physics (for which I hear math is useful) but to bring glory to God which we do by learning about Him as He has revealed Himself through creation, and (as the quotes above are meant to show) mathematics is an integral part of that creation.

As for the second question, not everyone needs to learn calculus. We are finite people and time and energy spent on one subject come at the expense of another. So while I do think it is good to learn these things, beyond a certain point we must recognize that we are different — indeed unique, individual — people and that we don’t all have to learn the same things (see this post on core curriculum). So perhaps you don’t have to learn calculus.

I’d like to end with a plea — as I work on this section of the series, I am giving you my best ideas and resources but I could use some help. Please reply to this post or contact me if you can help with any of the following:

  • What questions do you have about teaching (insert subject here)?
  • Do you have good quotes about math, or any other subject, that you have run across, particularly about why we teach them and how they point us to God and/or teach us about Him and His creation?
  • Any favorite resources? Since math was our topic this week, feel free to add in the comments your favorite big-picture math resources.

Nebby

A Brief Math Bibliography

Life of Fred Math by Stanley Schmidt (Polka Dot Publishing) — You may have heard of this alternative math curriculum. It takes a narrative approach and follows the life of 5-year-old math professor Fred. Though the author says the elementary books can be used as a stand-alone math curriculum, I was always hesitant to do so. They do, however, make a lovely supplement to whatever else you may be using. The stories and such may be overly silly for some but my kids always loved them. The elementary series is a collection of thin books with short chapters. It is easy to add in one chapter a week. Ages 10 and up could breeze through them pretty quickly. The upside of these books is that they introduce concepts that usually don’t come up until later such as set theory.

Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos

The Number Mysteries by Marcus du Sautoy

Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

These three books are all of a type. They are roughly middle school level books (and up) that have relatively short chapters which disuss math concepts like pi, prime numbers, and how people in Iceland count.  I am sure there are many other such books out there; these are just a few we have used.

 

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Summary Post

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post.

This series within a series — the practical details — began with an explanation of methods. As we move away from theory and into the nitty gritty, we are not going to be able to find Bible verses that bear directly on the questions we have (Are spelling tests inherently evil?). To the extent that we can, I have tried to elucidate biblical principles while acknowledging that we are on less certain ground here.  We must rely more on personal observation, scientific studies, and logical reasoning. And as good reformed people we also acknowledge that our reasoning has been affected by the Fall and that we think is unassailable fact is often tainted by our own experiences, emotions (also tainted by the Fall), and presuppositions.

With that firm foundation, we dove right in.

Before we even get to curricula, we must begin by looking at ourselves, the teachers. I began with a presupposition: that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. Therefore we must begin with right expectations and right attitudes. Simply put, the teacher should expect that God will work in the minds of his students. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them.

Once you’ve mastered that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to that one is no, there is not (note that we are not talking here about religious knowledge as such but about all those subjects it is still legal to teach in public schools).

After we have considered the what, we must ask how? There are various aspects of this. We began by considering what the materials we use should be like. I argued that they should be interesting but need not be designed to be entertaining. Since the things we place before children in education are the things of God, they should be inherently interesting, We must be wary, on the one hand, of curricula which suck all the inherent joy out of knowledge and, on the other, of curricula which try to dress it up in clown costumes complete with red honky noses thereby sending the message that it needs our dressing up.

I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil.

Lastly and most recently, we discussed what we do with this material— Do we ask kids to reproduce what they are learning and if so how and why? This includes testing but also more mundane things like worksheets, essays, and narration. Specifics will depend on the setting one is in (home vs. school, small vs. large class) but there are some principles we can seek to adhere to. First and foremost is not to provoke children with unnecessary and/or tedious work. Second is that we need to consider the benefit to the child. I argued for narration as a wonderful tool and discussed some pros and cons of other methods.

For the moment, I think these posts will wrap up the “practical details” portion of this series. I have been promising you that I will go through individual subjects one by one and my intention is to begin that next time.

Until then,

Nebby

Reformed Christian Education: Practical Details

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Thus far I have tried to demonstrate that when we educate we place before children the things of God. Our expectation as teachers is that the Holy Spirit will use these things in their lives, for their salvation if they are not (yet) regenerate and for their sanctification, specifically for the transforming of their minds, if they are. Our attitude should be one of joy and delight as we also revel in God’s truth. We should view ourselves as those who, while perhaps a little further along, are also being thus sanctified.  With this under our belts, we are now ready to jump head-long into the practical details of education.

I want in the coming weeks to go through subjects one by one and talk about how and why we teach them. But for today we need to cover some of the boring background stuff. This is another methodology post.

As we move more and more into practical details of education, in some sense we move away from Scripture as well. We can and should look to the Bible to tell us what the nature of the child is, but we are not going to find much there about whether we should use worksheets or how to drill math facts or whether to teach American or world history first. We need to keep in mind the principles we have gleaned from Scripture, but, in matters on which God’s Word is silent, we then turn to the other resources He has given us. Among these I count science and observation, and logic or common sense. By science I mean the science of education and of the human mind including such things as studies that tell us how we learn or how our brains work. Observation is not quite so technical; it is simply the experience we have of our own children or of the child in general. God has given us all some measure of logical reasoning. While acknowledging that our reason has been affected by the Fall and  that we cannot always trust it, we should also make use of this gift in our efforts to discern what to teach and how to teach it. All of these things, of course, if there is any contradiction, must be subservient to the Word of God.  Nor should we hold them too tightly. We need to be willing to change and adapt or just plain admit we were wrong as we get new information.

We also don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Many have come before us and, while there is no one (not even Calvin) who is always right, we should make use of their wisdom. I have reviewed a number of books on education in the course of this study and will continue to pull from them.  On the theological/theoretical side of things two of my favorites are J.G. Vos and Cornelius Van Til. Vos’s book is very short, more of a pamphlet. Van Til has more to say though is main emphasis is not on the education of children but on  higher education.

On the more practical side (though she certainly does not neglect theory), Charlotte Mason has been a major influence on my thinking. I feel this needs some explanation as it may seem I have spent quite a lot of time arguing against Charlotte’s ideas. If it’s not inappropriate to make the comparison — Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they were the sect whose ideas were actually closest to the truth. I keep harping on Charlotte Mason for the same reason — because she is actually the closest to where I want to be. I have not found any other  philosophy of education which fits so well with the Christian worldview and which is so distinctly Christian. Yet her Christianity is not mine (she is Anglican and I am a Reformed and Covenantal Presbyterian) and our very real theological differences make very real differences in our approach to education as well. Nonetheless, we are both Christians and what I am trying to do is what she tried to do — to build a philosophy of education based on my theology — and we will likely end up with a lot of overlap.

A final note before we leave the methodology aside — one of my informing ideas is that truth, God’s truth, can come to use through non-Christian sources.  When we are looking at the science especially but even the more philosophocal arguments, we must not neglect non-Christian sources. They should always be held up to the light of Scripture and taken with a greater degree of reserve but we should also not be surprised to find wisdom in them.

In this light, I’d like to end with a call. I have read some things but there is a lot more out there. If you have favorite books on education or things you think I really should read or consider, please let me know! I am in need of more input.

Nebby

CM Curriculum: Mater Amabilis

Dear Reader,

I have added one more installment to my charts of Charlotte Mason curricula overviews. This time we are looking at a distinctly Roman Catholic curriculum, Mater Amabilis:

CM curricula fourth

You can find all the charts comparing CM curricula here. Thus far I have restricted myself to fully CM curricula and not CM inspired ones. If you know of any I am missing, pelase let me know!

Nebby

 

Comparison of CM Curricula — updated!

Dear Reader,

I just updated my charts comparing Charlotte Mason curricula. Find them all here.

Nebby

Living Books for Environmental Science

Dear Reader,

I let my 11th grader pick her science this year and she chose environmental science. She is big into art of any kind and photography so she has been working on a project for a local Audubon sanctuary to make a bird watching handout for them. She also watched some Khan Academy videos (here; she only did the ecology section half-way down the page) and read a lot of books. The wonderful thing about this age if that you can find good adult books that are written to be interesting (as opposed to a lot of the books written for kids, sad to say). You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Environmental Science

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson — THE classic of the environmental movement. We hadn’t read it yet so I made sure she got this one in.

The Curious Naturalist by Sy Montgomery — Short essays on subjects from lichen to beavers. Divided up by season.

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale — I love Teale’s books. This one is part of a seasonal foursome. Also look for Circle of the Seasons and A Walk through the Year.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir — Nature lore. I’ve heard Muir was a Christian.

Anthill: A Novel by E.O. Wilson — I’m not crazy about Wilson’s view of evolution/creation (he is not a Christian) but when he talks about his subject, entomology, his love of creation comes through.

Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson — Another classic from Carson.

Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus — Why are the bees dying and why does it matter?

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Amusing anecdotes from the author’s walks on the Appalachian trail.

The Darwin Myth by Benjamin Wiker — I am going to make all my kids read this one. I love Wiker’s books. This one is a pretty easy read. Wiker tells the story of the man and how his life and personal views affected his famous theory. It is kindly but fairly done. He is not anti-evolution but is anti-Darwinian evolution. Wiker inspires hope for a godly view of creation ad evolution which will bring us closer to, not farther from, our Creator.

Our Only World by Wendell Berry — Ten essays from one of my favorite American fiction writers.

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro — A professor tells how we could, maybe, clone animals to reintroduce them and asks why and if we should. A little tough and technical in parts but good and engaging.

Happy reading!

Nebby

 

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