Math Book Confidence

Boy Studying1

This is a math book review, but also a talk about motivation.

My lone homeschooler (this year) is prone to worrying.  Concerning math, her chief worries are that there will be too much work, that it will be too difficult, or that it will all be futile.

Now I don’t believe in rushing math.  Other than the odd prodigy you read about in the news, I’ve seen very little benefit to rushing students into upper level math at an early age.  Experience teaches that engineers should complete one year of high school calculus in high school.  For everyone else, getting through algebra 2 or trig by the end of high school seems to be sufficient.  They do, after all, offer college math classes in college.

What this means is that for most kids, doing algebra 1 in 9th grade makes sense.  Their brains are far more capable of abstract thinking at that age than at earlier grades.  I’ve known, on that count, a number of engineers who found it far better to take geometry in 10th grade or later, even if it meant taking both algebra and geometry in the same year (concurrently or doing geometry over the summer), because geometry requires mature abstract thinking.

Therefore, our goal for our kids is for them to have a sound understanding of arithmetic, elementary geometry concepts, and simple pre-algebra by the end of 8th grade.  I would rather them finish middle school fluent in 8th grade math than floundering in algebra.

I wrote here in 2012 about how we handled elementary math (verdict: Math-U-See for us), and here in 2015 about why we switched to Saxon (because the primary teacher changed).  Here’s a quick comparison of what I like about each:

Instructional DVD’s, Dive into Saxon vs. MUS:  Equivalent.  Not identical, but both walk you through the lesson and give example problems.  The Dive videos are more like an actual math class, both longer and with more conversation than the MUS videos.  The Dive videos contain explicitly Christian content (Bible verses, assorted theistic comments).   FYI – Math-u-See materials don’t contain explicitly Christian or theistic content except in select courses such as the Stewardship course.

Word Problem Solving: Math-U-See wins hands down. My three kids who spent their elementary years in MUS have a much better ability to read a word problem and know how to solve it, because MUS teaches math concepts from a real-life-problem point of view.  Saxon uses many similar teaching aids, but the approach to word problems is to teach children to analyze the script in the word problem as if it were an abstract code.

Math Facts: Saxon.  MUS does tell you to memorize your facts.  It assumes you are working whatever drills are necessary on your own.  Saxon builds in daily fact drills so that you cannot escape math fact practice.  In addition to the four arithmetic operations, Saxon drills geometric principles, ratio equivalents, and simple algebraic equivalents.

Review: Saxon.  The sheer quantity of daily practice problems is notorious.  Every review problem is labeled with the chapter where you can look up that type of problem, so it is very useful for children who need to go back and remember how to solve a given type of problem.  Math-U-See, in contrast, works from the idea that you will master a topic before moving on.  Problems build in complexity over time.  Saxon does not assume you mastered one lesson before moving on to the next.

Mental Math: Saxon.  In addition to the “mental math” practice at the start of each lesson, the sheer variety of problems practiced on any given day demands mental flexibility.  In contrast, I’d say that Math-U-See provides better overall mastery of math concepts, and MUS pre-introduces concepts it isn’t officially teaching yet.  For example, students know fraction equivalents in MUS years before they actually crack the Fractions book.

 

Saxon Math 8/7 3ED Homeschool KIT | Main photo (Cover)

My Overall Preferred Strategy

I like Math-U-See for the elementary years, because of the way it teaches comprehension.  People like me, however, need something to help with math fact memorization, and honestly I don’t know exactly what that is.  Memory work is not my strong suit in teaching.  But if you’re using MUS, you’ll want to plan some kind of supplemental drill.  However, because Saxon spirals through topics, it is easier to move into a Saxon book at any time, no matter what you’ve been using before.

You can also skip a level in Saxon, which gives you the flexibility of, say, taking three years to complete two math books with some alternate learning in between. For example my current 8th grader did Saxon 6/5 in 6th and early 7th grade, paused to do some Life of Fred and some real-life math applications, then picked back up with Saxon 8/7 later in 7th grade with no difficulty; she’ll complete 8/7 by the end of 8th grade.

(Why no, I feel no need whatsoever for the kids to do their Saxon books at the earlier of the two grades in a given book title.  See below to find out why.)

For this particular student, I’ll probably go back to Math-U-See for Algebra 1 in 9th grade.  The uncluttered format and arrow-like focus of Math-U-See will probably work better for her in upper level math.   More philosophy of education: It’s more important in math that you master what you do study than that you dabble in greater depths than you can truly handle.

There are other subjects where floating in the depths has its benefits.  I don’t believe that is the case with math.

Math Book Confidence

Coming back to the title of this post: My current 8th grader is easily intimidated by a math book.

One of the reasons I like 8/7 as an 8th grade pre-algebra book is that I’ve seen it work.  The spiral, scattershot nature of Saxon means that you are very likely to fill in any little gaps that might have sneaked into the elementary years.  The memory work is focused on preparing for high school.  The perpetual review pounds the concepts into your brain.  So, in the hands of a student who actually does the homework, it’s a very effective tool.

Seeing the book work gives us confidence that it will keep working.  The current 8th grader knows that her older sister did this book in 8th grade and went on to ace Algebra 1 at the corner high school.  That makes a big difference in helping the younger sibling, who finds math books daunting, to keep her chin up and grind away.  It helps me to be motivated to make the child stick with it when she gets daunted (or I do).

–> Neither of the girls are especially math-loving students; they have decent intelligence, but they aren’t staying up late at night playing math games or anything.  Another book might be better for a different kind of child.

So I would say that above all in picking a math book, to choose one that has been successful for students similar to yours.  It’s just easier to work through a book if you have good reason to believe your work will bear fruit.

South Carolina Catholic Quiz Bowl

Something fun if you are in striking distance of South Carolina (you don’t need to be in-diocese to participate): My friend Carol Pelster, who is a tremendous pleasure to work with, is organizing a SC Catholic Quiz Bowl to be held in Columbia, SC in early November.  Her daughter Veronica writes:

My mom and I are happy to announce a date for the first annual Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina! The date is Saturday, November 11 at 1 pm at Our Lady of the Hills.

What is a Catholic Quiz Bowl? This idea comes from our experience participating in the RC (Roman Catholic) Challenge in Oregon. This is a jeopardy style game for 5th through 12th graders with questions pertaining to the Catholic Faith, the Bible, the Saints, the Liturgy, etc. My siblings and I all thoroughly enjoyed this friendly competition and benefited immensely from this motivation to study our Faith. As a seminarian in Nebraska my brother started something similar there. Now, we are hoping to spread it to the South East!

What do we need to make this happen? What we need most is volunteers for the day of the game. Volunteers will ask the questions, keep score, time the games, and be door monitors. The more volunteers we have the smoother this will go. If you would like to volunteer please let my mom or me know. . . .

How does the game work? Players will be on teams of 3 to 4 players. Two teams will play against each other with the moderator asking the questions. There will be two types of questions: toss up, which anyone can answer, and bonus questions. For bonus questions the team members will be able to consult with each other to come up with the answer. Each round will be about 20 minutes. Multiple games will be going on at the same time (hence the need for many volunteers). Winners play off against each other until there is champion. More details and sample questions will be discussed at the planning meeting.

How does your child sign up to participate? My mom is working on a registration form [see below]. However, it is not too early to start talking to your friends and getting teams together. Each team will need a name and 3 to 4 players within the same age range (5th-8th grade or 9th-12th grade). This is not just for homeschoolers [parish groups, etc] –anyone in the appropriate age group is welcome. Also, don’t forget to study!

Please let me know if you are interested in helping or have questions.

God bless.
~Veronica

 

The registration form is now ready:  Catholic Quiz Bowl SC 2017 Entry Form

Here’s a poster you can share liberally: Catholic Quiz Bowl SC 2017 poster

A Facebook page and other web presence is in the works, and I’ll update this post when that time comes. Meanwhile, you can share this post with anyone you think would be interested.  Remember that your team can be put together with whomever you like — it’s a good activity for youth groups, religious ed classes, or Catholic schools, but you can also just create your own mishmash team.  If your parish or family or poker club wants to send multiple teams, that’s super.

How to Prep for the Quiz Bowl

Carol writes:

For studying, kids should refer to a good catechism, Bible, Mass Missal, Lives of the Saints, and   Church History.  For some questions to practice with (though ours will be rather less obscure)  you can look at this:  http://traditionallearning.com/rcchallenge/.

I would guess (I haven’t seen the question bank, and won’t) that any flash cards or Catholic trivia games you happen to own would be good for practicing.  Also brush up on your go-to lists (12 Apostles? 10 Commandments? Gifts of the Holy Spirit?), and so forth — the appendices of most religious ed textbooks contain good starting points.

Good luck, and get your entry forms in early so you don’t have to pay the late registration fee.

File:Copper question mark 3d.png

Image courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

Castles in Alsace, Part 3

Do not trust me if I say to you, “I know there’s a castle around here somewhere . . .”

Unless you want to be taken for a ride.

A long ride up a windy mountain road, and then back again by a different way, with a stop for photos in a picturesque village because it isn’t fair that the children get to take all the photos out their windows while I keep my eyes on the road, so humor me we are going to stop and park so the mother can get out and take pictures . . .

Eventually we did end up in Katzenthal (also picturesque), home of the Château de Wineck.  FYI, Wikipedia seems confused about this castle, in both French and English.  The place we visited, as you’ll see, is the one I’ve linked to — hit the Google translate button and scroll down for some history.

I’m not sure whether I would have marched myself up the hill or not, but a tired child dug her heels in at yet another evening-after-a-long-day castle hike, so the two of us walked the other siblings as far as the trail at the edge of the village, then ambled back towards our car.  We were halfway across the village when the two hiking children raced back and intercepted us excitedly: “There’s a road!  We can drive up!”

Foolishly, I believed them.

We loaded up and headed towards where I’d left them.  The “road” begins with a teeny-tiny alley between two buildings, ample for pedestrians and more than sufficient for those narrow tractors that the farmers drive through the vinyards, but not the sort of place Americans drive automobiles.  Warnings from the rental contract flashed in my head.

Conveniently, I have rented a French car.  It knows the way French drivers behave, and so it has sensors that beep ruthlessly at you if you get anywhere even vaguely French-like in your parking habits.  I really wanted to see this castle.  Possibly an addiction is forming.  So I sucked in my gut (as if that would help) and thought French thoughts, and threaded the needle.

No furious beeping.  No scratches for the rental car guy to charge to my credit card.  Apparently it is a road.

Except that the “road” never turned back into a full-sized road.   As we wound our way up, I grew increasingly suspicious that I was on a private road belonging to the vinyard owner.  Also: I wanted to see that castle, and anyway there was no place to turn around.  So up we drove, and sure enough there was a wide spot for parking right at the castle, and that, too, was probably meant for castle custodians and not for us, but the place was empty because it was late, so if we were supposed to get in trouble the villagers were slacking off on that job.

***

The remains of Wineck are small – here’s the keep and tower.  You can go inside on the occasional opening hours, but we declined to trespass (we’re like that — our ambiguous vehicle situation not withstanding).

Castle Wineck Keep

Here’s a detail from one of the walls at the base of the structure:

Castle Wineck - Wall detail

And here’s a wall cross-section:
Castle Wineck - Wall Cross-section

There are some slight but distinct differences, you’ll note, between this wall cross-section and the cross-section of wall from the Eguisheim castles in Part 2 of this series.  If you are just joining us on the castle tour, Part 1 is here.  The last thing I  have planned for the  (Alsatian) castle series is a look at the furnishings in Haut Koenigsbourg, coming next.

The Epic Vacation Archives:

Alsatian Castles Part 1
Alsatian Castles Part 2
World War 2
Alsace Scenery

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

The next place we went after Ribeauvillé was the Ecomuseé  d’Alsace, outside of Mulhouse.  (Say it: Moo-Lose, as in, “the first cow to moo loses the game.”  Resist the natural urge to prounce it “Mull-House.” You are not mulling the house wine, you are playing the quiet game with cows.  Also recall: Google Translate is your friend.)

There are no castles at the museum, but there is a strong house – une maison forte – built on site from salvaged 15th century components rescued from Mulhouse.

Medieval "Strong House" reconstructed at the Ecomusee d'Alsace

The tower is not a perfect reconstruction.  The curators took the remains of the original building parts and gave their best rendering of what it might have been used for, and what would be most interesting or educational for museum-goers.  Like Kaiser Wilhelm’s reconstruction of Haut Koenigsbourg, it’s an interpretation, not a replica.  It’s useful for thinking about how fortifications were made for various purposes.

After a full day at the museum (topic for another post or two), we drove north towards our home village and of course we spied castles on the western horizon.  There was no other choice but to hop off the autoroute and pick a departmental road that pointed in the general direction and try our luck.  After several missteps we succeeded in the following the promisingly named Route des Cinqs Châteaux to the parking lot for Les Trois-Châteaux du Haut-Eguisheim.

There are two trails out of the parking lot, one of which will take you in five or ten minutes to the three castle ruins above the town of Eguisheim.  The other trail will take you all kinds of places far, far, away.  It was only obvious in retrospect which trail we should have tried first.  Eventually, however, we reached our goal.

As you come up the trail from the parking lot, the first castle is this rectangular tower.  We’re viewing it in this photo from the north, standing in the ruins of the second castle, but you actually arrive on the site from the west.  (These photos are from about 6:30 in the evening, beginning of July, so the sun is informative for directions.)

Rectangular tower of the first of the three castles of Eguisheim

To the right of all those low walls of Castle #2 in the foreground are two towers.  Below you can see the remains of the northern of those two towers.  Both are closed (for safety reasons) but trespassers with decent climbing skills do go up to recreate. (Not us, thanks for asking.  All these easily-accessible high places along the edge of the Vosges are popular with local teenagers.)

One of the towers of the second of the three Eguisheim castles

You can see in the above photo a bit of broken wall between the sites of Castles #2 and #3.  Here’s the cross-section of that wall:

Cross-section of a wall between Castles 2 & 3 at Eguisheim

In case you tend to wonder, like I do, how the insides of walls are built.  And finally, here are the foundations of Castle #3:

Foundation of the third ruined castle at Eguisheim

The three castles are right up on top of each other.  It’s more like a castle complex.  Or one of those castle-subdivisions where the neighbors all complain about how they have no side yard and you can see into each other’s kitchens.   It’s enough, though, to make you wonder about the other two châteaux implied by the road name.  There was plenty of daylight, so we decided to keep driving up the mountain.

The parking lots at Château du Hohlandsbourg were all packed at 7pm, which at the time we resigned ourselves to hiking up from the farthest of the parking lots seemed like no big deal.  What do we know about castle popularity?

So we haul ourselves ten minutes straight uphill, which after already having walked around all day took a lot of castle-hunger, and were rewarded by this massive impenetrable edifice:

Entrance - Chateau Hohlandsbourg

Wait.  Except that we’re looking at a wide open door, right?

What you don’t see is the hired security guy whose job is to inform us that under no circumstances can he let us inside, because it is now 7:15, and the castle closes at 7:00, and there’s a big government meeting going on inside.  Ah.  So that’s why all the parking lots are full.

We resigned ourselves to staring out at the view of Colmar in dazed dejection at our fifteen minutes of misfortune, and took photos for a bit, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave.

View from Chateau Hohlandsbourg

The security guy was, however, fine with us walking around the exterior of the building.  After enough landscapes and selfies and group portraits and eavesdropping on the sorrows of other rejected hikers, we were feeling energetic again.  We scrambled up an informal trail and started our tour of the walls.

For the most part, Holandsbourg looks like long stretches of blank wall, which make for horrible photos, and a few of these on the corners:

Corner of Old Holandsbourg

You can, however, look in through the arrow slits down at ground level, which from some angles gives you a view of the governmental party-tents, and into other holes you see things like this:

View into Hohlandsbourg castle

Honestly I think we had more fun scrambling around the perimeter of the castle than we would have had if we’d been let inside.  We never would have circumnavigated the place if it hadn’t been our only choice.

Jen looking into the Forbidden Castle (Hohlandsbourg)

Me, looking into an arrow slit of the Forbidden Castle.  There is glass behind this particular slit, hence my reflection, but you can see into the meeting space that’s been created within.  Two more castles still to come in this series.  And for those who are wondering, all the photos in these posts are mine, all rights reserved.  See the copyright notice in the sidebar.

 

Castles in Alsace, Part 1

After Haut Koenigsbourg, we transitioned to compulsively hiking up to any ruined castle we saw from the road.*

Castles tend to be built in sets, it turns out.  The first group of ruins we visited were the three castles above the town of Ribeauvillé.  You park at the base of the mountain and walk up through the woods, and though the trails are well-marked, if you aren’t sure which trail you are supposed to be following, that can create a nagivational difficulty.  But we eventually got to all three.

Giersberg is the lowest, smallest, and you can’t go into it.  But it’s pretty satisfying if you’re not from around these parts.  (Tip: For any of these links that take you to French-language sites, Google Translate does pretty well. Just hit the magic button in Chrome and you’re set.)

Giersberg castle as seen from St. Ulric castle

Giersberg seen from the trail.

St. Ulric is next to Giersberg, and you can go inside and climb all over the place.  We did that.

St Ulric castle seen from Giersberg

Here are details from above and below of that room full of windows.  You can see where timbers were supported to make a floor.

Hall, from above, St Ulrich

Hall, from below, St Ulrich
This is a view looking up to the main tower from within the castle.

 

 

Tower, Haut Ribeaupierre

Here’s looking down from the tower into the valley.
Tower view St Ulrich

And here is looking down from the tower into the other parts of the castle.
Interior Birdseye St Ulrich

Here are wall details.  You can see there are multiple construction techniques going on over the years.

Wall detail St Ulrich  Wall detail #2 St Ulrich

 

After that we took the wrong trail towards Haut-Ribeaupierre, but quickly figured out that going down the mountain was not going to gain us any elevation, and turned around and picked the correct trail the second time.

Haut Ribeaupierre main non-entry

Canon hole? Haut Ribeaupierre

Wall detail with contrast, Haut Ribeaupierre

Goth arch side entry Haut Ribeaupierre

Haut Ribeau Pierre round tower.

After that it was late and we were pretty happy to descend and go home.  Here’s a view of our car from about 2/3rds of the way up the mountain:

View of Ribeauville from St. Ulrich

Yes, I walked all that!  I know!   Part 2 of the Alsatian castle tour coming in the next post.

 

*Tourism tip: An advantage of visiting Alsace during June or July is that you have until nine or so to be off the mountain each evening, which means you can head off on a hike anytime you see something interesting as you’re driving home from your main event activity that closed down at some civilized hour.   FYI this practice can interfere with dinner.

 

What It Takes Not to Be a Nazi

Fourth of July a fellow on a bicycle saw me photographing the parish war memorial in Sigolsheim.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him the US, and he proceeded to thank me for coming.  Periodically throughout the conversation he thanked me again, and before leaving he repeated merci about seven times.  There was a reason for that, which I’ll get to.

A typical way of inscribing a war memorial in France is to write Mort Pour La France, but in Alsace that’s not usually the case, for the obvious reason.  A Nos Morts is the common alternative that glosses over the whole question of whom you died for, and gets to the point: You died.  Here’s the memorial outside the parish church in Uffholtz, A Ses Enfants Victime de Guerre:

Uffhotz War Memorial

Here’s Sigolsheim, in two parts.  You’ll notice WWII was disproportionately bloodier than WWI for Sigolsheim, including a significant number of civilian deaths:

Sigholsheim War Memorial 1

Sigolsheim War Memorial 2

That’s because the Nazis dug in and held hard, and a giant set of battles were held in the village itself, which you can read about in extensive detail here.  When German empires decide to assert themselves, annexing Alsace is the default method.  (And why not throw in Lorraine while you’re at it?)   This is the reason that headquartering European postwar peace initiatives in Strasbourg is so symbolically important.

Persuading the Third Reich to retreat from Alsace was bloody-difficult, and American soldiers played a major part in that work, which is half the reason the fellow on the bicycle was so profuse in his thanks for my coming to visit and taking an interest in the local history.

Here’s the village of Kayserberg’s thank-you plaque:

Kaysersberg Allies LIberation Memorial

The American flag flies above Sigolsheim at this war memorial:

US War Memorial Sigolsheim

Everything in red on this map of the the Allies’ Alsatian offensive is American forces:

Map of the Allied Offensive to Retake Alsace

American soldiers aren’t buried at the Sigolsheim memorial (there are American war cemeteries elsewhere).  There is a cemetery, though, for the French forces killed in battle in the immediate vicinity:

French war cemetery Sigolsheim

You’ll notice in the picture above that most of the graves are crosses, and a few are not.  Here’s a detail of the rounded-rectangle gravestone in the bottom right:
Detail of Jewish headstone

It would obviously not be kosher (pun intended) to use a cross to mark the grave of a Jewish soldier.   It is not only American and native-born French soldiers, however, who were instrumental in liberating Alsace.   The Zouave soldiers buried at the Sigolsheim war cemetery have grave markers like this:

Detail of Muslim headstone

In other words, if you’re grateful France is free, don’t just thank an American — thank a Muslim.  Ah, but how much did those Muslim soldiers contribute?  About like this:

As the video shows, the cemetery is built on a hill in a half-circle, and the graves are laid out in four equal sections.  The two flanking sections are Muslim graves, and the center two sections are mixed Christian and Jewish graves.  History is complicated.

Whether the fellow on the bicycle would have thanked me so profusely if I were a North African tourist I couldn’t say.  I’m not one.  What we do get mistaken for in Alsace is German tourists.  We look the part and come by it honestly, if distantly.  German tourists come up and ask us directions, in German, which doesn’t get them very far.  Locals either attempt to speak German with us or else apologize that they have no German (neither do we — how about French?).

So here are a couple of my cute German kids walking towards the gate out of the KL-Natzweiler Concentration Camp, up near the village of Struthof in the Vosges mountains:

Walking towards the gate - KL-Natzweiler (Struthof) concentration camp

People who didn’t walk out might have died here in the cell block:

Cell block, Natzweiler-Struthof

At which point they would have been incinerated in this crematorium:
Crematorium Natzweiler - Struthof

When we talk about concentration camps and the evil of the Nazi regime, the usual thing is to tell kids, “If you were Jewish . . .”

Struthof, as KL-Natzweiler is often called locally, is different, in that it was chiefly used not for eugenic purposes but for those who resisted the Nazi regime.  Thus more to the point for our nice German boy in the photo above: Let’s talk about the draft.

His great-grandfathers were all about his age (17) at the start of World War II.  They had the luxury of being second- or third- or more-generation Americans, and they all volunteered and served in the War for the US.  It was not a difficult decision.  They were the age your brother is now, I told the girls.

Had he been seventeen and American, the boy would have signed up too, I’m fairly certain.  But what if he had been seventeen and German — which, after a week of being mistaken for a German tourist (or an Alsatian local), is not at all a stretch of the imagination?  He would have had to decide between going into the Nazi army, or going to Struthof.

Which is why a guy on a bicycle, about my age, resident of a nearby village, passing by on July 4th evening outside the war memorial in Sigolsheim couldn’t stop thanking me for being an American who came to Alsace.  He saw I was interested in history, and started suggesting sites.  “Do you know there’s a US war memorial up on the hill?” he said.

Yes.  Just came from there, actually.

“And have you seen the three castles down by Eguisheim?”

Yes.  And the other one, and some other ones . . .

“Let’s see, so maybe you should go to –”

“Well actually,” I tell him, “we only have a few more days here.  We’re going to try to go to Mont Sainte Odile and to–” I try to remember the name —  “Struthof–?”

He stops.  “Oh.  Struthof.  That’s hard.”

I know.

But you can’t really appreciate the significance of the war unless you know the whole story.

“The concentration camp,” he says.  “Struthof.”

“Yes.”

“My grandfather was there.”

White flowers with red centers.detail of white blossom with magenta-red center.

Flowers at the Sigolsheim war memorial, in bloom on July 4th.

How to Turn On Your Foreign-Language Reading Brain

When I first showed up in France as an exchange student in high school, my host sister asked me, in English, “When you speak French, do you think in English first and then translate, or do the words just come?”

At the time I’d had two years of high school French — just enough to make French people want to try out their English, that was not something French people of that era were too excited about doing.

I wasn’t sure.  I was somewhere in between, after a couple weeks in-country, and a lot of hours spent passing notes in bad French to my friend in geometry class the year before.

Brendan at DarwinCatholic writes about the challenge of being stuck in translation-mode as a student of German.

He is almost certainly paying the price that comes with being analytical and diligent.  I am neither (not to the degree he is, anyhow), and so I strongly favor a different approach to learning languages that will leave you with horrible holes in your grammar, but significantly better reading fluency than a slacker like me could ever deserve.

Here is what I told Brendan to do, and if you are in his shoes, it might help you, too.

#1. Relax.

This is not personal advice, it is mechanically necessary for reading fluency.

There are different parts of your brain that carry out different tasks.

If you are deep in analytical thought, the part of your brain that lets words flow effortlessly gets put on the back burner. Even though my French is fluent (not perfect, just fluent), if I’m nervous or distracted by contrary thoughts, it’ll bog down.  Here’s a real thing that happened to me once which made this clear:

For about five minutes back in the ’90’s, I studied Italian.  That’s like an actual five minutes, not a metaphorical five minutes — my husband had some Italian books I was putting away.  I run into Italian here and there on the internet because I’m Catholic and I read Amy Welborn, and since I’ve studied other romance languages, it’s something that kinda sorta makes sense.   So I can sometimes read easy Italian pretty well, if it’s a topic that I’m familiar with, heavy on the cognates.

Thus one day I was reading this magazine article in Italian, no big, hey, who doesn’t read magazine articles in Italian?  Totally rocking it.

It was religion or something, or else I got to thinking about religion or something, and I put the article down and set my brain to articulating a series of arguments on a tricky topic.  When I went back to the article with my analytical-brain in high gear?  It was all gibberish.  I literally went from reading fluently to having to painfully pick apart word by word — and the latter is not a good technique in a language you’ve never formally studied.

So anyway, I learned from then on that totally relaxing is the key.  Pour yourself a drink.  Think about picturesque villages and parts of the world where decent coffee is a birthright, and then amble on in like you don’t really care.  Makes a big difference.

#2. Gorge on the spoken word.

Part of developing fluency is getting the rhythm of the language into your head.  When you learned to speak your native language, you began by spending a year and some just listening to people around you say things you mostly didn’t understand.  The first part of it you were listening underwater, for goodness sake.

True story: My eldest came into this world crying like a normal newborn does.  Newborns have a distinctive just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck amateur quality to the way they cry.  #2 gestated in an environment flooded with her older brother’s loud and emphatic toddler tantrums echoing into the womb.  She thus entered this world not crying like some neophyte, but with all the intonation and rhetorical sophistication of a veteran whiner.   Woken in the middle of the night by some child carrying on, I could not know without looking whether it was the toddler being himself, or the newborn sounding eighteen months older than she was.

To get the rhythm of a language into your head, you have to swim in it, bathe in it, and guzzle it down with supper every night.  Understanding all the words is not the important thing at first.

–> The inner fluency you gain from hearing language more sophisticated than you have personally mastered is part of why read-alouds are so important to helping young children learn to read.

#3. Practice saying the patterns.

Brendan writes about the grammatical construction in German that’s giving him a hard time.  To get over the hump, what you have to do is use that construction.  Except that whoa, he’s only a couple years into this.  So what you do is learn some phrases and sentences of daily usefulness that incorporate the tricky grammar.

He has some children on whom he can inflict his practice sentences, if only he chooses commonly used expressions, such as whoever changes the baby’s diaper doesn’t have to take out the trash.  Or whatever else might be applicable.

Languages are collections of patterns.  Once you have a basic pattern into your head, subbing out a noun for a noun or a verb for a verb is pretty easy.

–> This is part of why building words with magnet-letters, building sentences with flashcards, and playing word games where parts of words or sentences are interchanged are so helpful to learning to read.

Edited to add: Erin at Bearing Blog has a superb technique for working odd language patterns.  I do this a lot in my head, but she’s methodical and diligent like Brendan is, so she does it for serious.

#4. Read lots and lots of easy stuff

When I say easy, I mean ridiculously easy.  Pick topics that are heavy on cognates of vocabulary you already know, and covering topics you already understand. (I recommended economics, history, politics, and religion for Brendan.)  Read these things in short sessions.  By short I mean: About the size of a paragraph in a church bulletin, or an article in a tourist brochure, or R.R. Reno’s paragraph-sized observations at the back of the print edition of First Things.

Edited to add: Reader Bill Hauk points out that children’s books are excellent for this.  I couldn’t agree more.

Be warned that micro-messages, such as billboard advertisements, are usually not that helpful.  They tend to require lots of inside cultural knowledge and grammatical sophistication.  You want a big enough chunk of text that you can miss a few words here and there and still know pretty much what was being said.

These are not a complete method for learning a language.

Brendan’s already got the grammar side of things under control, and I bet he pays attention to spelling too. For building technical translation skills, the sorts of training I’ve described here will basically ruin you.  You’ll absorb the language straight through the skin, and if you are reading anything produced by a half-decent writer, the thought of exchanging something said so perfectly into some pale imitation will become anathema.  No translator will quite get it right again, ever, as far as you’re concerned.

But you’ll be able to read, so that’s good.

FR_Colmar_20080828_005.jpg (2550×2025)

La petite Venise, Colmar, France.  By HNH (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Easter Report: Five Good Things

#1 Fr. Gonzo finishes strong. I probably shouldn’t call him that, it might encourage him.  The man who gave me this thing forty-something days ago decided to launch, his words, the “Mother of All Easter Vigils.”  If that man left out even a single speck or jot of an option, as found or legitimately inferred in ye olde Roman Missal, please, not a word.  Also next year, I’m having a nap and a cup of coffee before the vigil.  Or else just doing like last year and going to the Sunday evening Easter Mass, which was quite nice and ought to be offered more widely.

#2 There was a bacon accident.  Sometimes people are like, “Oh you’re a homeschooler? Could you make me a craft and a casserole?” These are the very same people who would squirm if I said, “Oh you work in an office?  Could you make me a 1040x and a manuscript proposal?”  So anyway, I tried making bacon in the oven Sunday morning, and I did it by following the directions on the package.  More or less.

The difficulty is that it came out perfect.

Perfect bacon is cooked to the point of extreme crispiness, just short — but nearly to the point — of crumbing at an untoward glance.

Sadly, the man I married and many of our offspring are under the impression that bacon is meant to be sort of chewy and moist.  I’m okay with that.  All bacon is good to me.  I will totally put on my inner St. Therese and eat wet bacon.  No problem.  Canonize me now.

But I accidentally cooked the bacon too long, and it was extremely, very, astonishingly good.  The difficulty is that there wasn’t any spare bacon to undercook for the other people, and that was kind of sad.  I’m open to continuing practice on this art until I nail it.  Eight weeks of Easter calling my name.

#3 First child trained in the ways of the IRS! It’s pleasant having Easter after the taxes go in.  I literally dropped off four envelopes at the post office on the way over to the Vigil.  Mr. Boy got A Real Job last summer, which means he had a real tax return (two – one federal, one state) this spring.  I had him do the process step by step on his own, and then I’d check it and show him what he did wrong (if anything — a 1040EZ isn’t that hard, even if it’s more complicated than it used to be), and he’d fix it, and we’d move on to the next thing.

It is well worthwhile to start doing your taxes on your own right from the beginning, and to keep with it year after year as things slowly get more complicated.  Pays off in the long run.

#4 Fedex is a wondrous thing.  It’ll be three kids and I on the big trip this summer, and I ordered those three some useful books to prep for the trip and work on their French.

FYI of all the suppliers I found, Decitre.Fr had the best deal on international shipping if you’re looking at many low-budget books rather than one expensive book.  Each kid received a book on the Mass. The boy received two history books and an atlas.  The girls each received a coloring book on Alsace (primary destination), a second coloring book on a relevant topic (history for one, all-things-Christian-faith for the other — between the two, they’ll have encountered most museum, historical site, and art-related vocab), and a book of personal interest for motivating the reading practice (cats or rabbits).

I went with cheap books because I wanted them physically light and compact, and intellectually not too intimidating.  That also allowed for a slight overflow on the order, so duds could be culled and everyone still get good books.  –> Not true duds, but a couple of the books that looked nice on the internet turned out to be either too little-kid or else too difficult for a beginning student of the language; I set those aside for me.

Anyhow, on international orders there’s not an option (with Decitre) to have books sent in sub-packages, and I knew a few of the books would take a couple weeks to be ready to ship.  So when I got the shipping notice Spy Wednesday, I figured it would be a late Easter?  Nope.  Packaged Wednesday morning, queued at CDG by Wednesday evening, onto a plane and into my local Fedex office Thursday morning.  I went out for a walk Thursday morning, and as I was coming back to my yard at 9AM the Fedex mini-van showed up with a package for me to sign.

You didn’t used to be able to get foreign books this easily.  I like the modern world.

#5 Journaling Bibles.  So that left one child with no books in her basket, because: Poor planning.  The Easter Bunny was pretty pleased she’d gotten to Aldi to pick up Not-Slave-Labor chocolate, thanks.  So then the bunny remembered this argument from a month earlier.  The girl is in the FCA at school, and apparently all her friends have “journaling” or “notetaking” Bibles.  These are Bibles with wide margins or other white space where you can essentially illuminate your own manuscript.

Could she have one for Confirmation please?  And how about right now, so the Holy Spirit can get to work ASAP?

The difficulty is this: Apparently Catholics have given up on illuminating, or else we just don’t publish trend-Bibles — I’m sure our publishers are full of good excuses for the lapse.  The situation is bad enough that Catholic Icing has a great tutorial about how to convert your Catholic Bible into a journaling Bible by covering up the footnotes with bits of paper.

A girl I know does not want to cover up footnotes with bits of paper

Thus in the spirit of Easter is For Heretics, Too, I caved.  On the way home from Costco with all the Easter food, I did check my local Catholic bookstore to see if there was something, anything, that I could pass off as a journaling Bible, but no dice.  (There are lots of great Catholic Bibles out there, by the way.  Just not ones for coloring in.)  But after that, into the breach: Walmart for Bible-shopping it would be.

[Sheesh, guys, I’m buying some unapproved-translation, books-missing Bible for coloring in, I’m not shelling out a lot of money on this, really??]

Walmart is smarter than a Catholic publisher.  They carry a mass-market, paperback version the HCSB Illustrator’s Notetaking Bible, and it’s easy to find if you go to the book section — shelved both with Bibles and with adult coloring books, since it’s both a Bible and a coloring book.  The inside looks like this:

My child wasn’t looking for one that was pre-illustrated, but we both secretly like it.  Some of the illustrations are very apropos, such as the image of Christ Crucified in the margins next to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant prophecy.  I could do without Mary With Rosy Cheeks, but Catholics have done far worse to the Blessed Mother and somehow the Church still stands.

My teenager spent her afternoon working on her Bible.  Her younger sister said, “We should have brought these to that retreat last month!”  I think I can work with this trend.

Easter Egg Wreath by #3.  Leaving a child alone with a hot glue gun has its advantages.  For more on the cost of becoming a Pinterest Parent, see here. Okay, I see the photos aren’t loading anymore.  I’ll fix that and update. [Update: Okay – all fixed now, I hope!]  The text explains the less-pretty parts of the crafting life. 

 

Inside My Apologetics 101 – Faith, Evidence, and Objective vs. Subjective Truth

Today I was subbing for my daughter’s apologetics class, and thought I’d share the letter I sent home to parents, since it covers topics that come up online a bunch.  You blog readers don’t get to see the whiteboard photo referenced below because it has students’ names on it from a chart we made at the top of the hour, and I’m not smart enough to figure out how to blur them out of the image.  For your viewing pleasure, I’ve posted completely different photos at the bottom.  Close your eyes and imagine a whiteboard of illegible black scrawl instead, and you’ll know everything you need to know.

Dear Parents,

Attached is the photo of the whiteboard from apologetics at the end of class. Parents, the kids were starting to get the general concepts we went over, but were still having a hard time articulating the key ideas and applying them. It might be helpful for you to have them go through the picture with you and tell you, as best they can, what it is everything refers to. For your convenience I’ve written all the text in slightly illegible lettering so that students have to rely on their memory to fill in the indecipherable bits — you’re welcome.

None of this is in the book, since I was subbing for our regular teacher (Mrs. K) and just working off notes from a different apologetics class I taught a few years ago. But it’s all important stuff and well worth mastering if you enjoy life as a sane person.

Key ideas to draw out of your child:

1) Objective vs. Subjective truth. In apologetics, we need to be able to listen and identify when the person we’re talking with doesn’t understand the difference between unchangeable truths and those facts that are genuinely a matter of opinion, experience, etc. We need to be able to *explain* the difference between subjective and objective facts to friends who don’t realize there is a difference, or don’t realize when they are treating an objective matter as a subjective one. We need to know whether a given statement is a matter of subjective opinion or objective truth.

2) Types of evidence. There are different types of evidence for different types of things. Scientific laws, or laws of nature, are discovered and proven using the assorted tools of science to verify repeatable tests and observations. The facts about historic events and persons are established using the types of evidence that apply to persons and facts. You can’t, for example, do a series of scientific tests to know that Christopher Columbus existed — but you can collect historical evidence for that fact. We need to be able to know, therefore, what *kind* of evidence is suited to proving which kinds of facts. Because God is a Person, and because God acts in history, the types of evidence we are looking for are the sorts of evidence we use for determining historical events and the existence of persons.

In apologetics we need to be able to identify when someone we are listening to has the notion that God is a force of nature that should be subject to scientific evidence, and clarify and explain that God is a person and therefore a different type of evidence is valid. We want to be able to walk our friend through the rational, evidence-based types of proof that one would use in determining whether or not a person exists or an event took place. A useful tool is to walk the person through the types of evidence for or against their own existence.

Not on the board, but an important idea which we discussed in class: Faith is the action of taking the evidence we’ve gathered and using it to come to a conclusion. I can gather all kinds of evidence about the existence of gravity or the existence of Christopher Columbus, but ultimately if I believe in either of those, it is an act of faith. My faith isn’t separate from and certainly not opposing evidence and reason; rather it is the follow-on to gathering evidence and using my reason. Think of it as the third step: Evidence + Reason (logic) + Faith = Belief.

I might be a person who comes to faith easily, requiring very little evidence and logical analysis before I take the leap of faith. For example: I believe in asteroids even though I’ve never had any personal experience with one, and know almost nothing about them. I have an even stronger faith in the existence and power of tornadoes, which I’ve also never seen, because I’ve got even more evidence and experience and knowledge about them — even though all my knowledge is second- or third- hand. Ultimately, though, if I wanted to disbelieve in their existence, I could. Faith is the leap I make to assert that I do in fact believe in these things.

I might, in contrast, be a very skeptical person. Imagine if I decided I would only accept a belief in tornadoes after extensive study and firsthand experience. All the same, even if I were very skeptical, if I’m a rational person there will be some level of evidence that is eventually sufficient to allow me to make the leap of faith and affirm that yes, tornadoes do exist. I can be very skeptical — that is, be a person who requires large amounts of evidence and long periods of logical analysis (reasoning) prior to coming to faith, but still make a decision to affirm or deny a fact. Faith is the act of affirming or denying facts.

[I didn’t use tornadoes or asteroids as examples in class, so that’s new fodder for you in chatting with your child.]

We acknowledged as well, in class, that there are people who simply refuse to accept any level evidence. In class we imagined someone who might, for example, dismiss my (Mrs. Fitz’s) existence, even if they met me in person, on account of how perhaps it was a hallucination, or an actor was paid to pretend to be me, or some other thing. Likewise you could imagine someone explaining away the existence of tornadoes by offering some alternate theory of why they thought they saw a dark whirlwind and heard loud noise right before their possessions were blown away. In apologetics it’s important that we distinguish between someone who is simply looking for more evidence to work through rationally prior to coming to a conclusion, versus those who would never be satisfied with any level of evidence, because they have made a decision in advance about the truth of this or that assertion.

(We didn’t practice this, but a good method for finding out where someone stands on this is just to ask them. Listening is the #1 skill in apologetics.)

Finally, a point that came up in class a couple times is that in apologetics we must be very precise. Please assure your students that in class it’s good to be brave in discussing ideas even if you aren’t sure of the right terms or facts; we will simply pause and clarify definitions as necessary. We learned the word omniscient, and affirmed that none of us humans are omniscient, so it’s okay if you have to acknowledge you don’t know something, and it’s okay if your friends help you clear up any misunderstandings you have.

Have a great weekend!

Jen.

File:Líneas de Nazca, Nazca, Perú, 2015-07-29, DD 46.JPG
 Eerily apropos photo by: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And here’s a tornado, because: I’m a believer.  No tornado-deniers at my house.
File:F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007.jpg

Photo by: Justin1569 at English Wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chastity in a Box? (with a Glimpse at YOU from Ascension Press)

Continuing with Book Week.  Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?

My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:

YOU from Ascension Press.  I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely.  A first glance at YOU is similarly positive.  It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.

As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:

  • The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
  • The parent booklet gets right to first things first.  It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
  • The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
  • YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work.  (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)

It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series.  Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.

Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?

If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’s Leading and Loving program.  There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event.  This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere.  It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents.  It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.

–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns.  At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.

2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program.  There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there.  You need the parents totally involved and on board.  Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents.  Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.

3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith.  Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.

Hint: Check out the Jesus is Lord program, which works for college students too.  Just sayin’.

4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.

I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching.  Good things can happen.  But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville.  More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.

Making disciples is work.  YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now.  But making disciples is long, slow, constant work.  There are no short cuts.

Related:  Registration for the Theology of the Body Congress (9/23-25/2016) is still open.

YOU by Ascension Press - Catholic Teen Chastity
Image courtesy of Ascension Press.