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Dear Friends,

Many of you know that I authored a study guide and maps  for teaching geography and history using the well-loved Holling Clancy Holling classics Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree-in-the-Trail, Seabird and Minn of the Mississippi.  My friend and former professor, Anita Silvey, has written a delightful biography of Holling Clancy Holling in honor of his birthday, today August 2.  I think Holling’s books will be more dear to you than ever after reading Anita’s lovely tribute to Holling on her Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac, which you can access here.  I highly recommend subscribing to her blog for those who are as enamored with children’s books as I am, and are always eager to learn more!

What Holling Clancy Holling seemed to understand intuitively is how children learn.  Children learn when their senses are completely absorbed, when they are alive and intrigued.  By perfecting a beautifully crafted story, infusing it with important facts (things children need to know about history, science and geography) and then bringing it fully to life in gorgeous art, the minds of children are respected, nurtured and engaged. This is the gift that Holling Clancy Holling gave to us and to the world through his work.  And Holling’s approach, I think, is what Sir Ken Robinson makes an appeal for in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.  I am just about half way through this, and will post some more when I’ve finished his intriguing and inspiring book!  In the meantime, pick up one of Holling’s classic works, sit down with a son or daughter and enter the beautifully crafted world of Paddle-to-the Sea, Seabird, Tree-in-the-Trail or Minn!  You’ll be happy you did!

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Medieval History Through Literature

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...
Book of Kells

Dear Readers,
As many of you know, I also write for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (TOS) on topics related to history, literature and the Charlotte Mason Approach.  For the first time, TOS is offering a free digital link to their magazine, so that you can read the entire issue online!  So I am posting this by way of providing the link to you to read my latest article on “Teaching Medieval History Through Literature.”  This is great timing for those of you planning to teach this historical period in the fall!   Here is the link.

I have two additional postings on Medieval History that might be of interest.  For those interested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet I’ve provided some background notes which you may find helpful here.   Also, some insight into King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table here.  Study of the Medieval period should offer each and every student and teacher/parent a delightful journey into the past full of character lessons, adventure, pathos and insight into our cultural heritage.

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Developing New Educational Paradigms

Dear Readers,
My daughter Rebecca recently sent me the following link regarding how educational paradigms are being challenged across the globe.  This is due to countless factors, but for those who have chosen to depart from institutionalized education, to create their own educational experience, I think you’ll find this talk by Sir Ken Robinson inspiring, challenging, and motivational.  Robinson is the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, which is on my book list for summer reading. His talk on new educational paradigms seems timely for me personally, as I have determined to devote this summer to a neglected pursuit of the arts in our home.  I intend to intentionally pursue music, drawing, art history, and literature in a new and fresh way.  Robinson’s presentation has further convinced me of the importance of the arts and I think you’ll see why.  One thing he notes is that children are being anesthetized in unprecedented numbers through the overuse of Ritalin; this presumably to enable them “to learn.”  But Robinson notes that the opposite of anesthetization is aesthetic experience.  This occurs through the arts (and even through science and math) when the human faculties are totally engaged, “senses are operating at their peak  . . . when you’re resonating with the excitement of the thing you’re experiencing . . . when you’re fully alive.” This is what art, drama, music, and literature can do for us, and should do for us.  So by way of encouragement, consider how you might devote this summer to a pursuit of the kinds of engagement that Robinson advocates here.  Remember that the parts of the brain  developed through engagement with the arts, can eventually help to build the capacity for those lagging academic connections.  And even if that were not true, the emotional and spiritual connection provided by  times of renewal, reflection, and refreshment through art, will be a beautiful end in and of itself.  Here is the link.  Let me know what you think!

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Studying Hamlet

There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first time and said, “I don’t see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.”             –Issac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare

Studying Hamlet in the grammar school years can be a tremendous boon to a young person.  The themes that Hamlet presents are so timeless and profound that only by repeated readings over many years can one truly come to appreciate the depth of richness and pathos which this work of art holds. Indeed the various seasons of life will lend even more understanding to life issues presented in this play. Children who have a head start are truly fortunate.

Those who have read Beowulf in their studies of Medieval History, will find it interesting to note that Hamlet derives its original story from Norse myth. Indeed much of the plot comes from the Norse myth Ameleth–and one can easily see how Shakespeare merely transposed the “h” at the end of the word to arrive at Hamlet. While in Beowulf there is a very clear mix of Norse superstition with emerging but primitive understandings of Christianity, one will not see monsters like Grendel in Hamlet. Of course, the ghost of Hamlet’s father plays a key role in this tale, but clear understandings of Christian notions of morality are evident in Hamlet’s constant wrestling with his conscience.

Cover of

It might be helpful to note that while there are adult themes in this play, Shakespeare’s version is significantly sanitized from the original Norse. It is also important to note that our American Puritanical heritage often makes us uncomfortable with the plain and frank approach to issues like sexuality, brothels, incest, cuckoldry, and so on.  If parents are sensitive to these issues, (and understandably so for younger students), the Marcia Williams edition of Tales from Shakespeare and the Beverly Birch edition Shakespeare’s Tales, does not include these elements.

Harold Bloom in his scholarly, dense, but thrilling (to English majors) analysis of Shakespeare’s works in The Invention of the Human, defines Hamlet as

the prince without the play, unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature.  Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr. Pickwick approximate Hamlet’s career as literary inventions who have become independent myths.  Approximation can extend here to a few figures of ancient literature: Helen of Troy, Odysseus, Achilles among them.  Hamlet remains apart. [. . .] Rare in secular literature the charismatic is particularly (and strangely) very infrequent in Shakespeare. . . Hamlet, first and last vies with King David and the Jesus of Mark as the charismatic of charismatics.

Hamlet is the quintessential tragic hero, but a tragic hero blessed (or cursed) with a keen intellect and an exceedingly tender conscience.  Hamlet’s struggle is with fate, but is also a moral wrestling, the struggle of one  who has been dealt an unusually cruel hand.  Bereft of a beloved father, tied devotedly to his mother and his love, Ophelia, Hamlet loses everything when his father’s ghost visits him in the night and reveals to him the circumstances of his death–murdered by his brother Claudius who now reigns in his father’s stead and has married Hamlet’s mother, not even two months after his father’s death.  Hamlet’s conundrum is that his father’s murder demands retribution yet Hamlet is torn by his own unanswerable questions, his deeply penetrating and intellectual mind, and his reluctance to act, as he continually second guesses himself and others. As Hamlet laments, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.188-189). Bloom notes:

Whoever Shakespeare’s God may have been, Hamlet’s appears to be a writer of farces, and not of a comedy in the Christian sense.  God, in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Job, composes best in rhetorical questions.  Hamlet is much given to rhetorical questions, but unlike God’s, Hamlet’s does not always seek to answer themselves.  The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist.  Hamlet, certainly an ironist, does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other.

Hamlet has four soliloquies–each worth visiting with students, and each marking a particular point of torment in his mind.  His most well-known is of course the “to be or not to be speech” which occurs in Act III.i.55-88, and is actually his third soliloquy.  These lines powerfully display Hamlet’s rhetorical questions to himself about the nature of life, its toils, pains, and heartache, and how tragedy can tempt one to quit this life (lines 74-75) with a “bare bodkin”–i.e. a mere dagger. Hamlet knows that only the fear of the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn (boundary)/ No traveller returns” makes us “bear those ills we have,/ Than fly to others we know not of?/ (76-81).  Suicide is not far from his thoughts as is true of his first soliloquy as well.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.ii.129-159) is another worth visiting with students. It takes place just after his mother’s wedding, but before he is visited by his father’s ghost.  It is a penetrating view of Hamlet’s state of mind, his weariness with life–”Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst  [self] slaughter! O God, God/ (131-132). Even before Hamlet learns the truth of his father’s murder we see the depth of his grief over this loss, and his agony over the “wicked speed” with which his mother has married Claudius, “Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes” (154-156).

Hamlet’s second soliloquy reveals his agony regarding his reluctance to act in avenging his father’s death.  After viewing the actors playing the fall of Troy and the death of Priam, he is overwhelmed with self-loathing “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”(II.ii.550). He feels ashamed that players can work themselves to tears in the parts they play while he has a “dear father murthered” whom he cannot bring himself to avenge .  He cannot trust himself that the ghost he saw was truly his father, and wrestles with the fact that it could be “a devil” assuming “a pleasing shape” in order to deceive him into murdering his uncle and thereby bringing “damnation”  upon himself (II.ii. 599-603).  Thus, Hamlet determines to present a play that will catch the king if he is guilty–”the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (604-605). This is the “framed narrative” that occurs within the play and of course, provides a play within a play.

The love story between Ophelia and Hamlet is one of tender pathos and tragedy.  They are the star-crossed lovers who, caught in the swirling whirlwind of events beyond their control become its most innocent victims.  Hamlet and Ophelia’s most heart-rending exchange comes just after Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech.  It is a subtle exchange with double meaning, turns of phrase, and enigmas.  I can not get through it without a tear springing to my eye!  The tender nature of this young couple’s love for each other is intertwined with the intrigue and rottenness of the Danish court and ultimately succumbs to it.  The tragedy of Ophelia’s ensuing madness and death is compounded by her burial in unsanctified ground, due to the “doubtful” nature of her death.  Death by suspected suicide meant burial in graveyards not blessed by church prefects. Hamlet’s agonized cry at the grave site “I lov’d Ophelia.  Forty-thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” brings a close to the tragic love affair (V.i.269-271).

Abraham Lincoln was a constant reader of Shakespeare and the plays Hamlet and Macbeth were two of his favorites.  While most literary critics consider Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy his finest, Lincoln felt that Claudius’s lament over his inability to repent deeply moving. “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murther.  Pray can I not / Though inclination be as sharp as will” (III.ii.36-39).  The entire soliloquy (to line 72) is a powerful reflection of the murderer’s heart and his inability to find a place of repentance and forgiveness.  This would be a fine study for memorization and recitation.

Finally a brief monologue that Hamlet recites to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the “What a piece of work is a man” and reflects the humanism of Shakespeare’s Renaissance era (see II.ii.303-310).  I also love Hamlet’s lines when he uses the metaphor of music to describe how Guildenstern is trying to play Hamlet like an instrument.  Shakespeare’s use of each aspect of music–frets, stops, plucks, voice, organ, notes, pipe, instruments, all combine to create a moving passage that powerfully describes his false friend’s attempts to manipulate him (see III.ii. 345-372).

There is so much here in Hamlet, that this brief overview only provides a place to start.  A recent interview with Ben Kinglsey on NPR reminded me of why studying Hamlet is so important. Kingsley notes,

I think it’s very important to embrace tragedy as a real part of our lives. David Mamet in his book Writings in Restaurants [says], ‘Western civilization is a civilization determined to outlaw tragedy.  If you remove the interpretation of tragedy and the presentation of tragedy, you’re telling the tribe nothing of real life, and it doesn’t prepare us as adults. It infantilizes us, it doesn’ t prepare us for real life.  All great mythology that we love and respect has included loss and tragedy as well as great moments of salvation.  It’s braided in.

Aids to help:  For mature audiences, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, I think most closely approximates the great Bard’s original masterpiece. It is a full length version (4 hours) which is rare.  It is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and violence.  These parts could be easily skipped by previewing beforehand. Mel Gibson also played the role of Hamlet in a Franco Zeffirelli production which is rated PG.  This is an abridged version.  Listening to audio editions in the car also help students to grasp the beauty and poetry of the language.  Remember that since this is a play it is meant to be read aloud!  John Gielgud’s audio edition is a classic and many others are available as MP3 downloads.  Enjoy!

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Lincoln’s kindness, laughter and love for literature . . .

In tribute to President Lincoln, who we honor (along with Washington) on this President’s holiday,  I’d like to reflect upon the spirit of the man who ruled as President over our nation during one of the country’s most difficult and trying times.  It seems significant that Lincoln, who became a political force in his time, was able to achieve what he did, while still hanging onto a gentle kindness, an appreciation for laughter and a devotion to literature.  When he was a young man, working as a clerk in the Springfield store, a gentleman came into the store badly in need of money.  He had a barrel full of old things that he wanted to get rid of. As the D’Aulaire’s note in their biography of Lincoln, ” Abe had no need of the barrel, but he bought it for half a dollar to help the man.  When he opened the barrel he found at the bottom the book he needed to study law.”  Abe had been hankering to begin the study of law, and by this simple act of kindness found exactly what he needed–Blackstone’s Law.  He would be devoted to Blackstone for the remainder of his life, but the lesson here is in his very simple act of wanting to help someone else, he also helped himself.

Lincoln was also devoted to learning to laugh, and spent considerable time perfecting this art.  He studied Aesop’s Fables faithfully and found in them the insight he needed to understand life, and to take a humorous slant on many of its more difficult aspects.  He used this humor to tease his stepmother, whom he loved dearly.  The D’Aulaire’s note that as Abe sprouted to his six foot four height during adolescence she teased him,

"If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?"

“I can always wash your muddy footsteps from the floor, Abe, but keep your head clean so you won’t be leaving tracks along my whitewashed ceiling.”  Abe grinned, scratched his head, and thought of a joke.  When his stepmother went out for a while, he took a little boy with muddy feet, lifted him up and walked him like a fly across the ceiling.  “Abe, I should thrash you,” said the stepmother when she came back.  But she laughed at the joke instead.  And with a pail of whitewash Abe made the ceiling white and clean again.”

During his debates with Stephen Douglas, the senator accused Lincoln of being two-faced.  Lincoln quipped back, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”  And during the Civil War when General McClelland refused to march on Richmond, Lincoln wrote him, “Dear General, If you do not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a day or two.”

Other pithy statements of Lincoln include:

You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.

During his time as clerk in Springfield Abe made the acquaintance of Jack Kelso–the village philosopher.  Though Kelso did little work, he was the first to open to young Lincoln the beauty of Shakespeare and Burns.   Lincoln nurtured his love for Shakespeare throughout his life and took the plays with him to read whenever he traveled. He also memorized quantities of Shakespeare and found reverberations within the plays that spoke to deep places within his heart.  In a letter to a friend, comic actor and Falstaff-specialist James Hackett, Lincoln mused,

Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offense is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be or not to be.”

James Daugherty notes in his biography, Abraham Lincoln, that after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln and his cabinet were returning to Washington on the River Queen steamboat. It was Palm Sunday. “All day the talk had been about literature, and he [Lincoln] had read aloud for hours to friends from a volume of Shakespeare’s plays.  Macbeth was speaking with a soft Kentucky drawl.  He read and reread the lines, and paused to comment here and there on favorite passages.”  The lines that seemed to strike Lincoln most intently and ones he repeated and commented upon were:

Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further.          (Macbeth, 3.2.19–26)

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...
Lincoln as President

The man who had led the nation through its most horrific war, whose life had been marked by countless acts of kindness and clemency, doubtless felt deeply the loss of the thousands of young soldiers that had made the ultimate sacrifice.  Did the lines “whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace” speak to him on that score? Having laid two of his own beloved sons to rest, Lincoln doubtless identified deeply with the mourning of a nation bereft of its sons. Did Lincoln also have a strange presentiment of his eminent rest?  These things occurred just five days before his death.

As we remember Lincoln’s life it behooves us to follow in the footsteps of one who lived his life so well.  His life was marked by kindness, laughter, and a deep appreciation for the complexity and pathos of life.  He loved literature because it helped him make sense of life’s greatest challenges and find laughter, joy, and ultimately peace in the midst of them.