Posts Tagged ‘living books’

Living Books on Asia for Middle and High School

Dear Reader,

The first two terms of this year we were studying the Middle Ages (see this list). That was really all the time we needed on that so I thought I’d use the third and final term to look at various Asian cultures. I had each of my three currently-homeschooled children pick a culture and in our time together we looked at Asia more broadly. If you are looking for books for younger kids, I had an earlier booklist on China here and some books on the Boxer rebellion in this list. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Books on China

 

My 9th grader studied China. For the historical side of things I had him read The Pageant of Chinese History by Elizabeth Seeger. This is a lovely older book. For historical fiction he read Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis. It is the story of a young boy who becomes an apprentice coppersmith and has various adventures. Based on his narratuons, it didn’t seem like the best book, though I am finding he is a poor narrator for fiction especially so that could be just him. I also threw in The Long Rampart by Robert Silverberg because I love this author. There are various smaller books on Chinese inventions and the like. I had him read Made in China by  Suzanne Williams. It is probably not the most living book — it is short readings on a variety of subjects — but it fit our purpose. Other, slightly lower level books, which are similar are The Technology of Ancient China, Arts and Crafts in Ancient China, and Science in Ancient China.

Other books to consider:

The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong — a wonderful histocial fiction book but we had already done it as a read-aloud. Probably middle school level or even upper elementary, though imo living books are ageless.

Revolution is not a Dinner Party by Yin Chang Compestine — We had also already read this one and it is about communist China, not ancient China, but it was quite good.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck — a classic I usually have my high schoolers read for literature. I didn’t think my 9th grader was up to it. Does have some adult content.

Li Lun, Lad of Courage — I don’t know much about this historical fiction book.

Other authors with historical fiction books on China: Katherine Paterson, Laurence Yep, Gloria Whelan (my girls have loved this author but her books do tend to be girl-y)

Missionary biographies of Eric Liddell, Gladys Alward and others. We just didn’t have time for more. I also recently read The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun. See my blurb on that here.

Books on Japan

My 8th grader studied Japan. I couldn’t find one book on the history that covered the whole period so she read Japan Under the Shoguns: 1185-1868 by Mavis Pilbeam and Japan from Shogun to Sony: 1543-1984 by John R. Roberson. She also read Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg. This book is often on lists for younger kids but is a good one and we hadn’t had a chance to use it yet. I found fewer books on the culture and science of Japan but had her read Technology of Ancient Japan by Meg Greene. Again, this is not truly a living book.

For historical fiction, she read The Master Puppeteer by Katherine Paterson and The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard. They are set in the 18th and 16th centuries respectively.

Other books to consider:

Japanese Castles by Turnbull – Ichecked this one out from our library but it seemed too detailed and dry. If you have a kid that loves castles though it could be a good choice.

Other historical fiction I considered but didn’t use: Bamboo Sword by Preus (set in 1853; 335pp); Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes (younger ages; 80pp), Born in the Year of Courage by Crofford (set in 1841), The Big Wave by Pearl Buck (about a tsunami; 80pp), Shipwrecked by Blumberg (set it 1841; middle school level); Heart if a Samurai (set it 1841; 300pp). Also other books by: Paterson, Crofford, Haugaard, Preus, and Hoobler (who has a mystery series set in Japan apparently).

Books on Mongolia

IMG_0104

My high school senior wanted to study Mongolia which was easier in the sense that there aren’t many books out there so they weren’t many decisions to make. For history she read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. This author also hs other books on Genghis.  For historical fiction she read I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson which she said was not very good or well-written. I also had her read the story of a missionary in Mongolia, There’s  a Sheep in My Bathtub by Brian Hogan which she seemed to likke much better.

Books on Asia more generally

In our time together we read selections from The Travels of Marco Polo. I have an edition illustrated by Corbino that I had picked up somewhere. There are lots of versions of this, some simplified for younger readers as well.  For “spines” I used two books from  a series: The Asian World: 800-1500 by Roger Des Forges and Marjorie Wall Bingham’s Age of Empires: 1200-1750. These books are written in a fairly engaging way without a lot of sidebars (and those there were I tended to skip). I foudn them a bit heavy on dates which tends to bog a book down and deplete its living-ness (if you know what I mean) but since I was reading them aloud I could skip some of the details which I think made it actually easier to take in the information. Lastly, we read the chapter form Van Loon’s The Arts on Asia. I am in love with this book now. It is like Hillyer’s art history but for a higher level and includes a lot of history and culture/religion too.

Happy Reading!

Nebby

My Nature Lore Booklist

Dear Reader,

This is a question that came up on a discussion board and it’s one of those things I probably should have gotten together a while ago. You can find all my lists of living books here.

What is Nature Lore and How do you use it?

Simply put, “nature lore” refers to books that tell about nature and science-related topics in a literary way. I use the term because it is popular in Charlotte Mason circles. In reality, “creation lore” might be a better term. I fear that nature lore makes one think that we must read about nature only — animals especially and maybe a little about plants. I use “creation” to draw our attention to all that God has made, from the stars to the rocks, from weather to physical laws. Really any science related topic presented in a literary form is fair game.

If I could go back in time, I would do a lot less with my kids when they were little, but one thing I would definitely keep is reading nature creation lore aloud. The goal of science in the early years particularly is just to keep alive and feed children’s innate curiosity and love for knowledge. Most kids have a love for the world around them in some way. It may be a passion for dinosaurs or panda bears or a penchant for filling up your car and their underwear drawer with rocks and sticks, but one way or another it comes out.  Feeding this love requires two things: time outside and good books. (The former I hope is obvious but at any rate would be the subject for another post.) Books give us the knowledge to dig deeper into what we see with our eyes (and feel and smell and hear). They expand out horizons. We don’t all live near volcanoes and kangaroos. Books take us to the places we can’t go ourselves. Good authors communicate their own passion and inspire ours. They draw us in through their own enthusiasm for their subject. (For more on science and why and how we study it, see this post.)

The actual process of doing nature lore with your kids is simple: read and narrate, read and narrate. If you have multiple kids, have them take turns narrating what you read. Read chunks that are appropriate to their age and ability to retain. With the littlest kids, you may be reading a paragraph or two at a time only. If you have multiple ages, I usually gear my reading to just below the level of the oldest child participating. The oldest can still get something out of what it read but so can the next one or two. Don’t worry too much about littles. They will get more than you expect. One nice thing about science-y topics is that they often lend themselves to alternative forms of narration. Charts, pictures, and diagrams can be good ways to reproduce what one has heard. For instance, if you have just read about types of volcanoes, each child can take a few minutes to draw the various kinds and, depending on age and ability, label them.

Nature lore and time outside are really all you need for science in the elementary years. I know this can be hard to swallow and that you want to add in more but remember the goals — to encourage a love for creation, to build relationships with the things God has made, to encourage curiosity and observational skills. If your child wants to do some hands-on experiments, that’s fine, but you don’t need such things. (They will be getting some hands-on experience in their time outside as well. It is fun to make slime and watch things explode and I would not deprive any kid of those joys, but often science experiments made for young children are pretty preachy and basic anyway.)

Nature lore does not need to end. As my kids got older, meaning into middle school, I would often pick a topic for the year or the term. Things like meteorology or geology (again, look at my other booklists for some of those). Even in high school we continue to use living books as the basis of our science, adding in labs and definitely being more topical (a year each of biology, chemistry, physics). But that doesn’t mean you need to abandon nature lore. There are many wonderful books written for adults that keep alive that sense of wonder and that transport us to new places.

This is not going to be a complete list (if that were ever possible!). There is just too much out there and I am sure I have forgotten a lot of what we used when they were little. If you have other suggestions, please let me know and I will add them. Don’t be afraid to find your own books. Some of the best ones we’ve used were garage sale or thrift store finds that are not on anybody else’s nature lore list. After you have done this a bit, you will become more adept at judging books for yourself. You can usually pick up a book and read the first few paragraphs and get a sense if it is going to be an engaging book and if it is the appropriate level for your kids. If you get a little ways in and for some reason don’t love it, drop it and move on to another.

The books below are roughly sorted by age level, from the youngest to the oldest. I am very hesitant to give specific age ranges. Good nature lore often appeals to a wide range fo ages. Older children can still get something out of simple books and young ones will get more than you expect from books that seem over their heads.

Nature Lore Books for All Ages

Among the ………..People by Clara Dillingham Pierson — This series of books focuses on various environments — meadow, forest, etc. Each reading is fairly short, maybe 2 pages, which can work well with younger children. We had a one volume set that included all the books. My daughter did get tired of them after a while. I do think the whole lot might be a lot to do all at once.

Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know by Edwin Tenney Brewster — This was one of those thrift store finds for me. It covers a wide range of topics (including reproduction!) at an elementary level. I include not because I expect it to be easy for anyone to find (though certainly pick it up if you do) but because look at that title — if you see an old looking book with a title like this, you should always buy it.

Millicent Ellis Selsam — Some authors are so good it is hard to pick one book by them. Selsam’s are fairly brief, mostly of the easy reader variety, and cover a variety f topics. She has books on seeds, microscopes, turtles, and more.

Robert McClung — McClung will reappear below as well. His easier books are fun, easy reader level books. We particularly liked the one about Stripe the Chipmunk.

In the Land of the Lion — Another thrift store find. Again, this is the sort of title you should perk up at if you see it. This book discusses various African animals which brings up another point: nature lore can also often be geography. It’s good to learn more details about nature close to home, but books also open the world to us.

Toklat: The Story of an Alaskan Grizzly Bear by Alfred Milotte — Some books are surveys of a time or place; some take us in depth on one animal. The title kind of says it all for this one. A quick search on Amazon shows me Milotte wrote others as well and I suspect they are all worthwhile.

How’s Inky (and sequels) by Sam Campbell — The story of a porcupine (if I am remembering correctly). Told with humor.

Tale of …………….. by Thornton Burgess — Burgess will reappear below as well. His books that are along the lines of “the Story of so-and-so animal” are wonderful for children learning to read chapter books. Each section is very short but manages to advance the story so one doesn’t get bored.  I prefered his books that stick to animals and was less enamored of the ones that feature Mother West Wind.

The Storybook of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre — This is one of my must reads because it covers so many subjects, from bees to volcanoes, even including some history as I recall. I am not actually crazy about its modus operandi which is to set the information as stories told my an uncle to his nephews and nieces, but is it still a good book. Fabre has many others though I am less enamored of those that stick to a single subject.

Jack’s Insects by Edmund Selous — There are some guides to go along with this book and it is quite popular on living book lists. We used it. I wasn’t crazy about it. Honestly, it might be a bit too much on insects.

Spotty the Bower Bird by Edward Sorenson — This was out foray into Australian animals. I lovely book if you can manage to find it.

Jacques Cousteau — The famous French diver and oceanologist has written a number of books for kids. We stumbled across two, one on dolphins and one on walruses and seals. Both were fairly well done and worth getting. They are from the series the Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I believe there are other series under his name that are a bit more textbook-y.

Naturally Curious by Mary Holland — This book focuses on New England (my area) and gives what to look  for in each month, what is blooming etc. It tends to list a few things and then go in-depth on one or two. This would not be an every day or even every week book but is good to check in with every month to get an idea of what one might expect to see.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot — Herriot’s tales of a vet and the people and animals he encounters are quite well-known. My daughters really enjoyed them. He has various volumes and you can also find shorter versions of his books that focus on one topic, cats for instance.

Forgotten by Time by Robert Silverberg — Silverberg is a favorite author of mine. He also has books on history and one called Scientists and Scoundrels. This one is on all those animals (and a few plants) that don’t quite fit our usual categories.

The Rhino with the Glue-on Shoes by Lucy Spelman — Tales from a zoo-keeper, I believe. My daughter liked this one when she was in middle school.

Curious Naturalist by Sy Montgomery — This book has short readings organized by season. It is good even for high school. The chapter on beavers is worth the whole book.

The Animal Book and  The Bird Book by Thornton Burgess — I told you he would reappear. These two books are longer and a bit more of a haul. We found the bird book a bit much all at once though my one bird-living daughter read some of it on her own. Beware that sometimes things change in science: rabbits are no longer considered rodents.

Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson — Silent Spring is quite famous and tells of the effect of pesticides on the environment.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Tells the author’s adventures on the Appalachian Trail.

A Walk through the Year, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  and Circle of the Seasons by Edwin Way Teale — Teale has a number fo wonderful books. They can be read by adults but I also read one aloud to my elementary kids. Circle of the Seasons gives daily readings. A Walk Through the Year is organized by seasons and can also be found as four separate volumes. A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm  is more anecdotal and the title pretty much tells you where you are going with this one.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir — Muir is famous naturalist and I have heard he was a Christian. His love for nature comes through. This is the book of his we have used but I suspect his others are also worth the time.

Tristan Gooley — Gooley has a number of books that are good reads for high school boys who might be les enthused by nature books. They cover things like finding your way in the woods.

Lost Wild America by Robert McClung — McClung reappears with a book for the older crew. This one is on endangered animals and includes some historical context for each.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell — I loved this book. I laughed aloud in parts. It is an upper level book because, well, the family is included and there is some adult content. Read it yourself if you don’t want to give it to your kids. The Durrell family moved from England to Cyprus and the boy, Gerald, was quite the collector of animals. There is also a PBS series about them, though it strays quite far from the book.

As a reminder, if you are looking for specific topics like geology and environmental studies, click on the “lists of living books” link above and scroll down to the science section. There are other choices there that would work well for nature lore also but I didn’t want to repeat myself too much.

Happy Reading!

Nebby

 

Living Books on Diseases

Dear Reader,

My eighth grader asked to learn  more about diseases for her science this year. Since it’s her last year before high school hits, I indulged her. She had studied medicine and anatomy last year; you can find that booklist  here. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on Disease

IMG_0013Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery by Richard Hollingham — As its title suggests this book gives a history of surgery. It is fairly engaging and what tween/teen doesn’t love to read about all the gory mistakes of the past?

Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti — The story of typhoid in America and the mystery that led to the one carrier who spread it all.

Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif — This book is often recommended on homeschool lists and is well worth it. It is something of a history of microbiology through the stories of the scientists who advanced its study.

When Plague Strikes by James Cross Giblin and David Frampton — This book covers a number of “plagues” including the black death, small pox, and AIDS.

Breakthrough by Jim Murphy — Murphy’s books are good, fairly brief treatments of various issues, Breakthrough is about blue babies and the struggle to save them. She also read An American Plague by Murphy about yellow fever. Though we didn’t have time for it, his other books include The Invincible Microbe about tuberculosis.

The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson — The 1850s cholera epidemic in London told as a mystery story. Another book I considered in this particular epidemic is The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.

Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams — The story of smallpox in Boston and how Puritan preachers helped by preaching the need for immunization.

Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart — This is slightly off topic but I had checked it out and my daughter really wanted to read it. It is really more of a catalog with one page or so each on a variety of plants classified as deadly, intoxicating, etc. I’m not at all worried.

A couple more books we considered but didn’t have time for:

Hot Zone by Richard Preston — The story of an Ebola epidemic told as a suspense novel. Written for adults.

The Radioactive Boy Scout by Ken Silverstein — The true story fo a boy who plays with nuclear energy and poisons himself with radioactivity.

Happy reading!

Nebby

 

 

Living Books on Geology

Dear Reader,

My senior chose geology for her science this year. She had a pretty busy year and she is aiming for an art school so I didn’t feel the need to make her science too tough. You might want to add additional books or some labs or other activities if you are looking for a more robust curriculum. You can find all my lists of living books here and a list of geology books we used at younger ages here.

Living Books on Geology

Secrets from the Rocks by Albert Marrin — Marrin is a favorite author of mine. He writes more often on history but has a few books, like this one, on science. This is a fairly simple book, ceratinly not high school level. It tells the story of one particular man in search of dinosaur bones.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee — This is a thick volume intended for adults and combines a number of works which the author published separately originally (I believe). McPhee is a well-known writer who has written for The New Yorker and other publications.

A Grain of Sand by Gary Greenberg — The story of sand and what we can know from different kinds of sand.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester — The story of how one man noticed and deciphered layers in the earth and made a map to depict them.

Beneath Our Feet by Ron Vernon — An introduction to some of the basics of geology including basic forces and types of rocks. Includes lovely microscopic photos of rocks. 

The Rock Book by Carol Lane Fenton and Mildred Adams Fenton — A fairly detailed catalog of different kidns of rocks and minerals.

Happy reading!

Nebby

Living Books on the Middle Ages

Dear Reader,

The first two terms of this year we have been studying the Middle Ages. I have gone back to Heritage History for a lot of our resources. If you are willing to use older books (which are often better anyway) and don’t mind have them in a digital format, this is a wonderful site.  As we did when the kids were younger, we went through the Middle Ages once in broader perspective in the first 12-week term and then once focusing in on specific countries in our second term.  The third term of this year we will spend on other, non-western cultures before moving on to modern history next year. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on the Middle Ages

History of the Middle Ages in Europe —

My high school senior read The Story of Europe by H.E. Marshall. I really like Marshall’s books for history. I skimmed a number of others and though this one is easier than some (it could even be used for elementary though Heritage History puts it in the middle school category) it is one of the most engaging and covers a lot of ground. [She also had a lot of other things going on this year so I was trying not to overburden her.]

My middle schooler read S.B. Harding’s Story of the Middle Ages and Eva Marie Tappan’s When Knights were Bold. Tappan is another favorite author (I much prefer her books on Greece and Rome to those of Geurber). When Knights were Bold  is more about the culture and society of the time.

My ninth grader read The Middle Ages by Dorothy Mills. I haven’t been equally pleased with all her books but Mills is a solid author popular in homeschooling circles.

Church History and Art —

The first term I read aloud a book that we happened to hae picked up somewhere which focuses on the interplay of church and government in the Middle Ages called The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History of the Church from 900 to 1300.

IMG_0022

This is probably a middle school level book or even upper elementary. The chapters are short, about a double-sided page each, and there are lots of pictures. It is actually quite good for having a group narrate as you can read one chapter/page, have a child narrate, and then another and the next child narrates and so on. Though perhaps not the most living book, it definitely gives you a feel for the issues relating to the church in the Middle Ages.

We also read through the relevant portions of V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of Art. Though this is an elementary level book, it does a good job of introducing the art of a certain time. Note that there are various versions of this book. You may see slim volumes that cover one subject, architecture or painting or sculpture. We have a thicker volume which includes all three.

My two younger children also read Monks and Mystics by Mindy and Brandon Withrow. This is volume two of a four-volume series on church history which is very good. My one criticism of it would be that it is a bit undiscriminating in whom it considers a hero of the faith, including people from a wide range of theological positions.

Literature from the Middle Ages

We read a version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales together. I happened to find the version edited by Peter Ackroyd used so that is what we used. The original tales are bawdy and this version includes those bits so I was discriminating. We did not read every tale and I occasionally edited on the spot while reading aloud.

My ninth grader read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. There are a lot of versions of the tales  of King Arthur but White’s is a classic.

My senior read James Baldwin’s The Story of Roland. This seems to be a good retelling of the classic story.

In the second term, we read  Ian Seraillier’s Beowulf, the Warrior. Again, there are many versions of this story. This one is fairly short. I was very pleased that my children seemed to remember the story from our previous bout through the Middle ages.

We also began The Story of Abelard’s Adversities, a fairly short version of the story edited by J.T. Muckle. I was not very familiar with this story and we ended up giving up on the book. It was not the castration bit which turned me off. That part of the story was actually exciting. Most of the book Abelard spends talking about how much smarter he is than everyone else and it is rather tiresome.

We did not read any Robin Hood this time but in the past we have read Howard Pyle’s version.

Historical Fiction about the Middle Ages

My middle schooler read Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray. This is a solid book that you will find on many lists I am sure. She also read The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books.

My ninth grader read Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle. Pyle is an older author well-known for his historical books.

There a quite a number of books on this period; it seems to have captured the imagination of authors. Some that we have read in the past in various contexts are: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli; the Crispin books by Avi; The Midwife’s Apprentice and other books by Kate Cushman; The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (an absolute must read); and  The Road to Damietta (about Francis of Assisi) and Hawk that Dare Not Hunt (about Tyndale) both by Scott O’Dell (I haven’t read these two but we’ce enjoyed O’Dell’s historical novels in the past).

IMG_0021

The Middle Ages in Specific Countries

Because he is studying German this year, I had my ninth grader focus on the Middle Ages in Germany during the second term. He read H.E. Marshall’s A History of Germany.. For historical fiction he read The White Stag by Kate Seredy, a relatively brief book which tells the story of Attila the hun. He also read some Norse myths (because it was hard to find anything else close to literature or historical fiction on Germany specifically) from Padraic Colum’s The Children of Odin. I highly recommend Colum’s books anytime you need mythology.

My middle schooler focused in Ireland and Scotland. She read Peeps at History: Ireland by Beatrice Homes. There are a number of books in the Peeps series and I have not always been crazy about them but looking at Heritage History’s options, I found this to be the best on Ireland. Also on Ireland she read Brendan the Navigator by Jean Fritz. Fritz is a favorite author. This is one of her relatively short books. Then I let her pick from some volumes I had gotten from our local library with Irish tales —

middle ages books (2).JPG

On Scotland she read H.E. Marshall’s Scotland’s Story and for historical fiction Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.

IMG_0012

I had my senior focus on Spain (because she has studied Spanish) and on Islam as well. Since the Moors were in Spain during this period, there is a natural link between the two. She read A Child’s History of Spain by John Bonner and The Moors in Spain by M.Florian (both Heritage History books) and Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. I haven’t liked all the short history books I’ve looked at equally but some are quite good. She also read a book I have read and loved: The Crusades, Christianity and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. This book is nice because it relates the events of the Middle Ages to what is going on in the world today (in a very reasoned, scholarly way).  For historical fiction she read Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy.

In our time together we focused on England. As the mother country of our own, this seemed like a good choice for everyone to do together. We read H.E. Marshall’s well-known Our Island Story. Though again this is a lower level book, it is hard to beat for an engaging overview of English history.

Happy Reading!

Nebby

 

The Power of Narrative, for Better or Worse

Dear Reader,

Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has recently published a book entitled How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories which describes why we are so attracted to narrative and how it can lead us astray. I have not (yet) read the book but only some articles on it. The two I have run across are: Rosenberg, Alex, “Humans are Hardwired to Tell History in Stories. Neuroscience Tells Us Why We Get Them Wrong,” Time (Oct. 10, 2018), and Chen, Angela, “A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history,” The Verge (Oct 5, 2018). Though my introduction to his work has been brief, I would like to examine Rosenberg’s ideas a bit.

Rosenberg’s contention is that we humnas “like to have all our knowledge packaged in stories — narratives with plots that involve people (and animals) with reasons and motives, carrying out their aims and designs, in cooperation or conflict, succeeding or being thwarted” (Time). This instinct, he says, leads us astray because we attribute emotions and motives to people when we cannot possibly know if they are accurate. His theory has a distinctly evolutionary basis — we have this propensity to ascribe motives to others because it helped us in a primitive environment (he mentions the African savannah). But to do so is false because: “neuroscience shows that in fact what’s “going on” in anyone’s mind is not decision about what to do in the light of beliefs and desire, but rather a series of neural circuitry firings” (Ibid.). “So,” he continues, “the brain can’t “contain” beliefs at all.”

Now obviously there is a lot here that from our Christian context we must reject wholesale. But there is also a kernel of truth that I think we need to acoount for.

On one level, I respect Rosenberg’s science. Most godless [1] evolutionists end up inconsistent. They want to believe in something beyond the physical though their presuppositions do not allow for a spiritual element. Rosenberg admits that his worldview is a purely physical one and that physical causes must account for all things — even what we term beliefs and emotions. Because of this, he does not just say we wrongly guess others’ motives; he actually says we cannot guess motives because there are no motives, only the products of neural firings.

As Christians,it is pretty fundamental to our belief system that there is a spiritual element to creation, and to humans in  particular, for which the physical alone cannot account. We also believe that we humans are capable of true belief [2] and that we do have motives, i.e. reasons we do things, even if our reasons are not always reasonable.

We may agree with Rosenberg, however, that narrative is instinctual to our race and that it is powerful. Charlotte Mason (whose educational philosophy I have blogged on extensively though I do not agree with her in all things) relies heavily on narrative as the basis for learning for just the reason Rosenberg cites — because we are programmed to learn informaiton through stories. The biblical text supports this view; narrative more than any other mode is how God Himself has chosen to communicate with His people. Our faith is largely belief in a story and this story is a powerful one (Heb. 4:12). So, while we do not come at the issue from the same direction, we can agree with Rosenberg that narrative is both fundamental and powerful for people.

Rosenberg goes one step further and argues that narrative is deceptive and even manipulative. As mentioned above, we do not need to reject all narrative as false as Rosenberg does because we do believe in motive. But he is correct is saying that narrative can be deceptive, whether deliberately or unintentionally. To that extent that such deception is deliberate it is also manipulative. In all honestly, even true narratives can be to some extent manipulative in that they are used to create a change in the audience.

Though there is a spectrum, narrative is apt to add to its subject matter. A historical novel often invents entire characters and situations. A biography may stick to real people and events but may makes unfounded surmises about how people felt and why they did things. A textbook may not take such liberties but often ends up as a dry compendium of facts which, as I think Rosenberg would agree, is hard to learn from.

Those of us who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations of others or from various lists which circulate and do not consider whether what they have to say is true. I remmeber reading two books about the pilgrims when my children were little and finding that they gave some very different versions of basic facts, even names and dates. These things were relatively easy to fact-check, though if I hadn’t been reading both books I would never have known there was anything to fact-check. And the more a book gets into motives, the more we are at the author’s mercy.

We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those whose worldview differs from our own. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge).

On a day -to-day in the trenches basis, this is a pretty thorny issue. If I were a university professor developing a class which I would be teaching again and again, I would spend a fair amount of time researching my sources and making sure that they balance narrative with truth. As a homeschooling mom who needs to find new books for multiple kids to read in about eight subject areas every twelve weeks and who is limited by what’s available at the local library and used off Amazon, I don’t have the time or resoucres to find the best of what’s out there every time.

I do think we can use a little discernment, however. With practice and with an awareness of the problem, we can make some fairly educated guesses about which books seem to give accurate acocunts and which clearly are supplying lots of suppositional information.

In sum, then, Rosenberg has raised some concerns which we need to take seriously. Though there are apsects of his theory which Christians cannot accept, he is correct that narrative is fundamental to how we learn and that it is powerful. Like most power, it can be used for good or ill. While I do not agree with him that all attempts at finding motive are in vain, it is true that we often make wrong suppositions about others’ motives and that narrative can thus be deceptive and even manipulative.

Nebby

[1] I do not mean this term derogatively. I am simpy refering to those who accept an evolution without any divine mind behind it. Those who believe in a divinely-guided evolution would not fit in this category.

[2] This is not a statemnt about total depravity and our capacity for good, but simply about our ability to believe in anything.

Principles of Reformed Education: Living Books and The Living Word

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 series is to define a reformed Christian theology of education and to give you practical principles which can be used in selecting materials for that education. Thus far, we have spent a good deal of time on the theoretical side of things (see this summary post). On the practical side, we have discussed the need for a broad education and for an approach that is interesting but not entertaining. Today I’d like to talk about one of the most essenatial parts of any education — books.

Words and The Word

Here is one of the most patently obvious statements of the day: Books are combinations of words. So in trying to get at why we use books and what books we should use, we need to begin with words. And, because everything is ultimately theological, we need to begin with the theology of words.

The Bible has quite a lot to say about words. It starts in Genesis 1 — God creates by the power of His Word (Gen. 1:3). We find out later that this Word is God the Son so that we may say that Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1:1-3).

Beyond Creation, words in the Bible are quite powerful things. To name something is to have power over it. Thus God names Day and Night (Gen. 1:5), Heaven (v. 8), and Earth and Sea (v. 10). But it is Adam who names the animals and the woman (Gen. 2:19, 23). Later on, when God establishes a relationship with a person and changes their life trajectory in some way, He also changes their name (Gen. 17:5; 32:28; Mk. 3:16).

Words are not inert. A word has power. We have already seen the power of God’s Word in Creation, but even human words have power. Words cannot be taken back. Blessings and curses in particular are powerful things (consider, for instance, the story of Balaam in Num. 22-24).

It is through words that God chose to reveal Himself to us. He makes a deliberate choice not to use images but to speak (Deut. 4:15).  The Bible, God’s written Word, is His complete revelation to us. The things we see of Him in Creation may reveal His character (Rom. 1:20), but it is His written Word which tells us the things we need to know for salvation. It is “the only infallible rule for faith and life.”  And this written Word again has power; it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12; ESV).

The Power of Words in Education

The primary way our Creator, the One who formed our natures and knows them best, chooses to communicate with us is through words. I have argued that the purpose of education is sanctification, or better put that education is a subset of sanctification. As such it is a work of God. The stuff of education is general revelation. We may learn from what we see and hear and feel, but the information that we gather and pass along to one another is communicated primarily through words. This is not to say that there is no role for pictures and charts and graphs and even music and other media, but in the end when precise communication is needed we fall back on words.

A picture is worth a thousand words. I believe this is a true statement but the connotation it implies — that pictures are therefore superior — is not necessarily true. Movies are usually shorter than the books they adapt. There a number of reasons for this. A movie maker can depict in one image a scene that takes an author pages to describe. He does not need to say what each character looks like or what the scene is because he can convey these details in an instant. In this way images are more efficient.

But images also have their flaws. On one hand, they are too specific. An author may intentionally not tell what a character looks like or what she is wearing. The movie maker has to show the character somehow so he chooses an actress and wardrobes her. In so doing, he makes interpretive decisions that may change our opinions of that character and ultimately may change the story. At the very least,  he makes decisions that the author intentionally left to the audience.

On the other hand, images are often not specific enough. God reveals Himself to us in Creation but when He wants to communicate specific truths He uses words. Pictures are open to interpretation. We can look at the same piece of art and get different messages. This may happen with words as well, but the more we use our words the more clarity we give.

For all of these reasons, I am going to take the completely radical position that words, and particularly books [1], should be the backbone of our approach to education.

“Living” Books

If books are to be the primary means of education, the next question is: Which books?

If you are in homeschool circles, you may have heard the phrase “living books” [2]. Because the term is used in different ways, I am hesitant to jump on the bandwagon and use it as well. Depsite this, I am going to do so because I think it conveys an important truth.

In the verse from Hebrews quoted above, we are told that the Word of God is “living.” In the context of the Bible, to be “living” is to be life-giving. [Recall that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman “living waters” (John 4:10).] The Scriptures are living words in a unique way. Nothing else is on par with them.  Nonetheless, I am arguing that, insofar as education itself is the work of God and is part and parcel of our sanctification, the books we use should be living as well (living with a little “l”).  That is, they should be able, through the work of God the Holy Spirit, to give life.

How do we recognize a living book? There are not going to be hard and fast answers. We cannot go through our local library and make two stacks, living books and non-living books (though there may be some which clearly fall in one category or another). There are guidelines and criteria we can consider, however, among which I would list the following:

  • God tells us what sorts of things we should fill our minds with:

 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8; ESV)

Living books should be true and lovely and pure. They should not be false or blasphemous or smutty.

Caveat: There are circumstances when we may want to read things that we know are untrue or have our children read books that we don’t agree with 100%. It is always good to know what the other side thinks and to consider new arguments. But such things should be read a) by those who are more mature and b) with discernment, knowing that all we read may not be true and that we are commanded to test all things.

  • Living books should be interesting. In my previous post, I argued that the education we give should be interesting but not entertaining. Our subject matter, which is the revelation of God, is inherently interesting, but many authors have a knack for making the interesting dull. On the other hand, many books written for children are designed to be overly entertaining in a way that adults think will appeal to children but which does not actually add content or value. Living books are written by people who love their subject and can convey that love. Because they find their subject interesting, they do not need to use gimmicks to sell it.
  • A corollary to the above: The fewer authors, the better. Because we look for books in which a knowledgeable author conveys his love for his subject, books written by committee are unlikely to fit this criteria. This is not to say all living books only have one name on the cover, but as a general principle books with fewer authors are likely to be better.
  • Living books do not need to be written by Christians. We have discussed previously that all truth is God’s truth and, as God uses the efforts of non-Christians, with or without their cooperation, truth may come to us through non-Christian sources. On the other hand, we should expect Christian scholarship to be better because Christians should have a superior understanding of truth (sadly, this is not always the case).
  • We are sinful people and we are not always attracted to what is best for us. This is particularly true if we have been accustomed to a diet of (intellectual) junk food.  Living books may not always be the most attractive books, and we may need to push our children to read something other than Captain Underpants.
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. When we read the Bible (the only capital “L” Living Book), we find ourselves getting new meaning even from familiar passages. Though no other book can approach it, little “l” living books are often enjoyable when read more than once. They may also have layers of meaning so that it is worth our time to revisit them.
  • Corollary to the above: A good test for picture books is whether the adult wants to read them again. If you groan when your child brings you THAT book once again, say no. On the other hand, if it is a joy to read aloud and the words roll off your tongue, it is probably a living book.
  • Living books can come in all genres and reading levels. They do not have to be non-fiction to be educational. They do not have to be written as fiction to be engaging. Prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, picture books and tomes can all be living.
  • To some extent, a living book is in the eye of the beholder. Many young boys can spend hours poring over what seem to adults to be very dry encyclopedia-like volumes on reptiles (or bugs or cars). If the child is soaking in knowledge, it is living to him. On the flip side, there may be a book you love but the child may just not connect with it. [But note that this requires discernement– the child may just be lazy and used to junk food (see above).]
  • The ultimate test of a living book is its effect: Does it draw us closer to God or reveal more truth to us?  If it makes you say “Wow, that is so cool,” it is probably a living book. The truth we get doesn’t necessarily have to be profound. It could be a small detail about the lives of ants. It could be a quite depressing yet realistic depiction of human nature from an unbelieving author. It could be a mental picture we get of another time or place we would not otherwise have known about. The size of the truth is not as important as whether it tells us something about God, His creation, or our own natures.

Which brings us to a final point: the power of living books is ultimately not in the books themselves but in God the Holy Spirit who enables us to apprehend the truths in them and to understand them within the context of His greater work. Just as the truths of the one Living Book (there’s that big “L” again) cannot be understood without the working of the Holy Spirit, so the truths found in other living books cannot be rightly understood apart from the work of God in our hearts and minds and a right understanding of the bigger picture of God’s creative and redemptive work.

Nebby

[1] I use the term books somewhat loosely here. Shorter works such as essays and pamphlets would fill the same role. There is value as well in the spoken word, aka lectures and talks, especially in a day and age when we can presreve them and return to them at will. The great value of books, however, is that they are timeless. They allow us to “hear” the words of a great variety of people from all points in human history.

[2] Charlotte Mason’s approach relies heavily on living books but classical educators will also use the term.

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Desiring That a Sabbath Mood Rest on Your Homeschool

A Work in Progress Productions

Learn•Grow•Shine || Based in Attleboro, Ma

dayuntoday

my musings, wise or otherwise

Festival Fete

locally grown art, food, and merriment

StrongHaven

A Literary Homestead

journey-and-destination

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Harmony Fine Arts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Sage Parnassus

Blogging about education, theology, and more

A peaceful day

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Living Charlotte Mason in California

Blogging about education, theology, and more

weeklywalrus

Weekly Walrus Whatevers

Creations by Maris

Handwoven Textiles

Fisher Academy International ~ Teaching Home

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Afterthoughts

Blogging about education, theology, and more

Leah's Bookshelf

Book Reviews You Can Trust

Duxbury Art Boosters

Supporting the visual arts in Duxbury Public Schools