What Your 8th Grader Needs to Learn

My friend asked advice on what curriculum to use with her 8th grader who has been in school until now, but will be homeschooling this coming year.  Everyone shared their favorite programs, which is super helpful, because when you haven’t homeschooled for a while, or never, it’s great to get a list of all the things people like.  I’ll mention at the bottom a few things I’ve liked for 8th grade over the years.

But to start, here’s my general list of recommendations for 8th graders:

The Two Big Skills

Make sure your child learns how to write a 5 paragraph essay.  It doesn’t matter what you personally think of the genre.  This skill is your child’s ticket through high school.  If you could only teach one thing, teach this.

Make sure your kid has mastered arithmetic and pre-algebra.  It’s not a race on doing Algebra 1 in junior high.  Don’t sweat that.  Get your kid as fluent as possible in the foundations, and then algebra and geometry will go much more smoothly when the time comes.

Science & Social Studies

A good physical science class can be very helpful as preparation for high school science if you haven’t done one lately and it isn’t scheduled for 9th grade. Alternately: Any science class your kid is super excited about.

If you’ve never done an overview of world history and world geography, now’s a good time to do that, unless it’s going to be your 9th grade. Alternately: Any social studies topic your kid is super excited about.

I prefer physical science and world history as 9th grade classes, but many schools have dropped them from 9th grade and go straight to what used to be saved until 10th grade.  Find out what your local school system does, what your state graduation requirements are (for example: 9th grade physical science doesn’t usually meet the college admission and high school graduation lab science requirements), and what the most likely course sequence is for your kid’s expected high school program.

The Important Parts

Do at least one thing your child enjoys.  If your kid hasn’t lately studied something just for the pure pleasure of it, do that. High school is gonna be long and will probably require a lot of intellectual self-denial, unless the kid really lucks out.

Your faith matters.  If you are coming from a den of atheism and returning to a den of atheism, take advantage of the time out to choose curriculum things that reinforce the faith. What that is will depend on your kid. My most recent 7th grader and I spent a semester volunteering at a clothing closet and a homeless-people-shower-and-laundry facility.   It’s not always textbooks that are the thing.

But do note that the Bible, church history, Christian authors, and the like can be legitimate ways to study literature and social studies, so you can really do some shoring up intellectually on the faith without overloading yourself. If you have a kid who wants to read Tolkien, let the kid read Tolkien, this is the moment.

Teach your kid to think.  If it won’t be happening in high school (see: “den of atheism”), consider doing a book like The Fallacy Detective that teaches you how to think clearly. I prefer to wait until high school, but junior high is better than never.

The Most Important Part

But mostly: Stay sane and don’t hate each other. Build your child’s confidence. Whatever it takes, that’s what you want.

 

***

And now for a few things that I’ve liked, having gotten 2.5 children through homeschooled 8th grade.  (#3 transitioned to school mid-year.) I’ve taught high school and middle school classes with a homeschool cooperative, so my sample size is a little larger than just my own kids.  For the coming year I’ll be teaching 6th and 7th grade humanities at a local private school, so I’m drawing on a little of what I’ve learned in prepping for that as well, though I’m not commenting on texts I’ve never used myself.

These are just things I’ve used and liked.  There are other good choices out there.

For 8th grade math  Saxon 8/7 has done us well. I like Math-U-See in general, but for getting a kid ready for algebra and geometry, 8/7 has proven itself.  I’d stay away from Saxon if your 8th grader has a super hard time with learning new concepts and needs lot of intensive time building the foundations.  But for kids who do okay, the dizzying spiral of Saxon works well in 8/7 as an unrelentingly thorough prep of every dang thing you need to know before getting to Algebra 1 and geometry.  You can start 8/7 after doing some other program your entire life, and you can transition to yet another program afterwards.  It’s a good 8th grade year solid choice for the average kid.

I’ve never regretted time spent on IEW.  As writing programs go, it’s intense.  Not everyone loves it.  But for mastering those 5-paragraph skills, it does the trick.  For the longterm, IEW is like calisthenics or martial-arts forms practice.  You aren’t going to grow up to write like you learned in junior high, but IEW does teach you how to take total control of your words, sentences, paragraphs, and the organization of your document.  That’s a necessary skill.  My youngest’s parish school teachers taught the kids that skill using something that wasn’t IEW, but that was also very effective.  So there are other ways.

If you’re looking for parent-friendly language arts, I like what Catholic Heritage Curricula has on offer in their Language of God series.  I like the Sadlier-Oxford vocabulary workshop books.  If you are that kind of person, both the old Voyages in English — now called Lepanto – and the new VIE currently being put out by Loyola Press are solid.  But you have to be that kind of person, because they are for-serious.

If you have a child who needs customized spelling help, Spelling Power works great, but it is teacher-intensive.  For certain learning disabilities you’ll want Sequential Spelling instead.

For Catholic religion textbooks, you want Faith and Life from Ignatius Press.  There are reasons your parish might need a different program, so don’t be down on your DRE about it . . . but you want F&L.  No really.  It’s the best.

UPDATED to throw in a comment on Literature: I’ve had one 8th grader do the Secret Code of Poetry, a workbook text I loved but she did not.  She wanted to read rescue thrillers.  Your mileage may vary.  The boy read a selection of choices off of Kolbe Academy’s reading list and used their study guides to go with; some of that he enjoyed and others he didn’t.  L. spent her fall semester of 8th grade on a drama unit and then The Hobbit studied from a novelist’s point of view, and that was good.  (My friend and I wrote the curricula on those, sooo, sorry, nothing to hand you off-the-shelf.)  She enjoyed Animal Farm in the spring at school, but in contrast the boy hated that one in middle school because the pigs made him so stinking furious.  8th grade is a good year for heroism.  The Hiding Place comes to mind as an example of a book that isn’t so very “literary” but can be a good selection, depending on your child.

I’d suggest you mine the reading lists of all the reputable Christian homeschool curriculum providers, and pick based on what interests your child.

The various history books from The Catholic Textbook Project absolutely rock.  I’m not just saying that because Mrs. Darwin is writing one (though hers is gonna be superb.  Whoa!  Yay!!!).  For geography, I still love the Map Skills series from Continental Press.  I like the history timeline flash cards from Classically Catholic Memory.  I also very much like picking a topic and going to the library and checking out bunches of books and learning about it that way.

I don’t have a favorite science program.  The books I’ve used that are recommended by various Catholic homeschool curriculum providers are all fine, sift through them based on your needs.  The library method combined with hands-on activities is my preferred science method, but it may or may not work for your 8th grade situation.

That’s all I can think of for now.  I’ve done reviews on this blog before, and written a little bit at CatholicMom.com way back when, if you want to search around.  There’s all kinds of good stuff out there.  Look for things that you like that match the personalities and constraints specific to you.  8th grade should not be miserable.  It’s not for that.

 

File:Jan van Scorel - Portrait of a Young Scholar - Google Art Project.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

 

Why We Homeschooled So Long

At The Washington Post: The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues.  Reading this article was a moment of revelation for me.  Way back when #2 was about seven or so, I can remember walking down to the corner elementary school to play on the playground after hours, and we looked into one of the classrooms.  It looked ideal.  It practically called her name.  There was a wooden play kitchen, and child-sized tables, and loads of art supplies, and of course the wonderful playground just outside the big windows that filled the classroom with natural light.  For my little extrovert, this classroom was her people.

And I thought to myself: Maybe I should not be homeschooling this child.  Maybe I should send her to school.

Then I came to my senses: This was was the kindergarten classroom.  By the time you are seven, it’s rows of desks and standardized tests for you.  Not to mention we’d had dealings with one of the neighbor-kindergartners, and so we were acquainted with the long list of “reading words” that five-year-olds at the corner school were somehow expected to memorize and supposedly “read,” at an age when, developmentally, not all children are even capable of learning to read.  All four of my kids went on to become fluent, competent readers who read for both pleasure and information, but none of them would have been able to read that list of words at age five.  They were physically unable.  Since they were at home, instead of being embarrassed by their supposed stupidity, they received the kinds of pre-reading instruction that educational research shows actually helps.

Some of things that help are language-based — read-alouds and rhyming games and stuff like that.  Something else that helps kids learn to read is learning about the world.  This is important because you can’t make sense of words on a page if you have no idea what those words are referring to.  You won’t understand a scene taking place in a grocery store if you’ve never been to a grocery store.  You won’t understand a nature scene if you’ve never been out in nature.  Playing teaches some important reading skills. It teaches you about the physical world, because you are physically doing stuff. It teaches you about human interactions, because you are creating scenarios and living them out.  Playing teaches you to think, because all play requires imagination and initiative and problem-solving.

***

(If you want to understand the great Maria Montessori vs. Charlotte Mason wrestling match, the missing piece is this: Charlotte Mason’s audience had access to the real world; Maria Montessori’s students were kids who would otherwise have spent their day alone in a tiny working-class flat while their parents put in 14-hour shifts at the local factory.  Much of Montessori is about providing Mason when Mason can’t be had.  At The Register I’ve got up a piece that is an example of that kind of adaptation, in this case for teens.)

***

I’m still a big believer in homeschooling.  I agree with Ella Frech’s philosophy of education.  For various reasons, though, my kids at the moment like school.  As a homeschooler I always involved my kids in decisions about their education. I’d propose some possibilities for the year ahead, and the kids would give me feedback on what they wanted to learn or which approach they preferred of the choices I put on the table.  I was open to suggestions if they had ideas different than what I was planning.  When I held firm on a curriculum choice, I had solid reasons that I could explain to everyone, kids and spouse alike, and they could see why that particular choice was the one we needed to pursue.

So each of the kids, at various points and for various reasons, deciding to go to school has been a natural extension of that philosophy: If I was open to you choosing a different science book, why would I not also be open to you choosing a different science teacher?

The WaPo article, though, underscores for me why the youngest any child of mine has gone to school was fifth grade — and at that point, she happened to choose our local parish school where the early-grades teachers seem to have a pretty strong grasp of what early-grades learners need.  When you are little, you needs hands-on and interactive experiences.  Homeschooling let us do that.  Inasmuch as I’m happy with the school decisions we have in place right now, it is because the schools are, in their various ways, providing the bigger-kid versions of that for our children.

Anyhow, all this to say: Let your kids play.

 

Related: On the Forming of Young Christians

File:Kids playing Pallanguli.JPG

Not my children, but mine play this game too.  Photo by Abi Blu, courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

Not So Bewuthered

What started last week and has been keeping me busy and happy is my literature class on The Hobbit.  It’ll run six weeks, and the students range from devoted fans taking the class purely for fun to poor, downtrodden middle-schoolers being forced to drudge through worthwhile art and write about it for actual English lit and composition credit.  Homework assignments vary per the student (at the parents’ direction), which promises to make grading much more interesting and the class less of a slog for everybody.

I’m not a Tolkien expert, I’m a writer, so that’s how we’re looking at the book.  I do think one of the most important parts of studying literature is making sure that the kids understand what the heck they’re reading.  So before each reading assignment we go through two sets of vocabulary.  The first set is Landscape of Middle Earth, because if you don’t know what laburnums are, how can you possibly visualize them?  Wikimedia is my fast friend in finding images for the tour.

The other set of vocabulary is non-landscape words that the kids are unlikely to know, or for which they might not know the intended meaning in context.  (The fender on a fireplace rather than one on a car, or a porter that you drink, not one that you hire.)

In looking up vocabulary, I’ve noticed Tolkien is assumed to have created a few words that he didn’t invent, or didn’t quite.  A few that get attention:

Flummoxed – bewildered, confounded, confused.  Not a Tolkien-built word: Merriam Webster notes its appearance in The Pickwick Papers.

Confusticate – (slang) – to confuse, perplex, bewilder.  Notes on the presumed origin (American) are here and here.  Where the word came from is not very clear, but it’s quite clear it wasn’t Tolkien’s invention.

Bebother – to bring trouble upon (someone).  Wicktionary has citations from 1896 and 1908.

Bebother follows the same pattern as bewilder, as in the famous description of Bilbo as being “bewildered and bewuthered.”

Bewuther, the fan pages tell us, is a fabricated word that means the same thing as bewilder.  I disagree.

Look up the word wuther:

verb (used without object), British Dialect. 1. (of wind) to blow fiercely. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/wuthering

1846; variant of dial. and Scots whither, Middle English (Scots) quhediren; compare Old Norse hvitha squall of wind

Someone who was, say, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, would know the word wuther.  Such a person would also know how to use the prefix “be-” to build related words, such as bewilder, bedraggle, bespoke, bespeak, become, bemuse, and so forth.

Bewilder, if we look at its etymology, has a sense of someone going astray or getting lost.  Think of it as being led into the emotional wild-lands.

We should infer, using the logic that Tolkien knows what English words mean and that he builds English constructions accordingly, that bewuther means something slightly different than bewilder.  It means to be wuthered – to be blown about.

→ Bewuthered is to be blown about, in a figurative sense in this case.

One can therefore be both bewildered and bewuthered, but one is not necessarily both at the same time.  You might be thoroughly bewuthered and yet entirely sure of where you’ve landed, for example — not bewildered at all, just well-tossed and reeling a bit from the blow.

Or, if you take my literature class, hopefully you end up neither.  In addition to going over tricky words before the reading, we’ll do a plot summary at the start of class each week to make sure the kids understood the reading.  There’s no sense talking about writing techniques and stunning poetry until you know who did what, when, where and how.   After that?  Bring it on.

 

My partner in crime came up with a project for the fankids, writing their names on stones in runes.  It was pretty cool.  This artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

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.