Monday, January 3, 2011

On Reading

For the last several months, I have disappeared. We’ve gotten most of our schoolwork done, but everything else from cooking to cleaning and sometimes answering the phone, has dropped off my radar.

I’ve been reading.  I’m an odd bird when it comes to reading.  Although I’d never say so in front of my children, I don’t like to read.  I’m a literature major, for heaven’s sake!  But I like writing more than reading, and I have found that books too often disappoint me.  The writing is weak, or the climax is less than I’d imagined.  No matter what, a book requires tedious hours of sitting still and waiting.  I don’t wait well.  I peek at the last pages, I shake the boxes under the Christmas tree when everyone’s sleeping, and—don’t tell—sometimes I read the Spark Notes or watch the movie.  The disappointment of a bad book is so easily replaced with the thrill of getting away with not reading it.
So now you understand, and most of you have probably stopped reading in disgust.  To make things worse, I’m a classical homeschooler who likes to teach through literature.  I just don’t like to read.  Read-alouds here take anywhere from six weeks to a year.  My oldest two learned to read because they gave up on me sitting down with them.
But wait.  It gets worse.  All of that is just how I feel about fiction, and compared to nonfiction, I adore made-up stories.  My husband is the kind who enjoys the history channel and remembers odd facts about science and gets excited about new dinosaur discoveries and other such dry information.  At least fiction can be made into a good movie.  Nothing can be done to save nonfiction, and while I used to feign interest in such high-browed subjects in polite company, the truth is that I don’t care. Please don’t tell my children.
It’s a good show I pull off, and if you knew me in real life, you’d be laughing, thinking I was lying.  I’m not.
So I’ve spent the last several months feeding my kids frozen pizzas and sandwiches they make themselves because I’ve been busy reading, but the frightening thing here is what I’ve been reading.  Nonfiction.  Stacks of it.  I took a rolly cart full of books with me to Starbucks one day, lest I run out of books.  And to compound my poor husband’s confusion, it’s the worst kind of nonfiction: there are no pictures.  There are over 100 pages in each pictureless book.  The full moon has come and gone, and my rolly cart has been refilled again and again with books that I’m actually reading, ranging from the history of ancient China to the geography of Africa.
Last summer, I realized that I didn’t have a history program for next year.  We would be finishing Story of the World, and I couldn’t find a satisfactory program to use afterward.  Research led to reading which led to research which led to reading, and I’ve been lost in ancient China, dreamed I was a hieroglyph, and marched toward Stonehenge on the winter solstice.  From a handful of kids’ books—they may not have pictures, but I’m still sticking to the juvenile side of the library—I’ve learned more about ancient history than my husband, who actually reads and has a degree in history.
I felt guilty at first, to indulge myself to such a degree in my own meandering pursuit of information.  At first, there were no notes, no product, nothing but soaking my synapses in the information and reveling in the raw knowledge I was amassing, and the guilt was huge.  I’d hurry through grammar and tell the kids to help themselves in the kitchen so I could get back to my own reading.  I let my nine-year-old figure out the laundry while I read.  Dishes were washed on an as-needed basis, but my wise husband invested in paper plates and frozen meals.
Worse, I’ve been incredibly boring to talk to.  My in-laws took the kids for the weekend a few weeks ago, and when my husband wanted to go to a movie, I snuck a book in with us.  Over coffee afterward, I genuinely tried to talk about something other than the Derg, to no avail.
As I’ve been reading, however, my family has been sucked in.  The kids pick up books I’ve finished and read them.  My husband endures my conversations and helps me brainstorm the big picture.  At this point, it may not matter what we use for history next year: we’ve learned ancient history together this year.
And in the end, that is my point.  Even with all of our great insights into education and shiny curricula and nifty manipulatives, we tend to fit education into a kind of a box, in which we as educators present information and our children fill in the blanks.  We break out of this box from time to time, in some subjects more than others, but the box seems to always be there, pulling us back, offering us something easy.
I’ve begun to read, against my nature, and to learn ancient history and geography, even more against my nature, because I had a real-life problem to solve: finding or writing a history curriculum for my kids.  It may not be the most exciting problem to solve, but the problem provides motivation to do the work that needs to be done and a disguise for the least palatable aspects of research.  Like the self-discovery of hands-on exhibits at museums, I gave myself the whole of ancient history to dissect and touch and see.
I like boxes.  I like a list of objectives beside my jar of play-doh, or too often I find myself mashing the dough wondering what the point is.  On the other hand, a problem to solve is as exciting to me as a blank sheet of paper.  It’s like putting a door in the box, so that my imagination can take over, rescuing me, and with that imagination, I can free others, too.
Last night, we spent the evening fighting over raw meat and animal bones in order to survive the Stone Age, and suddenly the monumental nature of Stonehenge and the Sphinx and the terra cotta army has the power to bring us to our knees.  Instead of a sidebar in a history textbook, we see these things for what they are: time spent on something other than survival.  And we marvel at what it is to be human, to work day in and day out at the mundane while our spirits yearn for so much more.

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