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Dear Readers,

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The giant clock at Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

On Saturday, June 27th I’ll be holding my annual Summer Reading Soirée! 

The theme will be “Summer Reading”–exploring the world of children’s picture books, folk and fairy tales, and best picks for family read-alouds. We will also explore the deeper meanings available in children’s literature as we look at how great stories have the power to bring catharsis, anagnorisis (self-knowledge), and promote the practice of a self-examined life.  As Socrates so poignantly recognized, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Children’s books can help us cultivate self-knowledge and lead our children to establish an understanding and recognition of this in their lives too! 

For those with teens, cultivating the family read-aloud time becomes more and more difficult–sports, evening activities, and homework all tend to take precedence.  Because teen’s opinions and perspectives are solidifying, these years can be some of the most rewarding for reading aloud together as we share more complex literary works. These times build emotional, spiritual, and intellectual bridges in our relationships–bridges that help us cross over the tumultuous tides of teen life into the adult world.  We’ll explore ways to continue the practice of sharing the best literature even as our children move through the teen years.

Those who attended last summer will remember that we had the distinct pleasure of having Bernadette Speakes bring the poetry of Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems, to dramatic life through her powerful readings.  Bernadette will delight us with her art once again! So, if you have a poem or a literary passage you’d like to suggest for Bernadette’s reading, please feel free to make a suggestion.  See Bernadette’s bio below.

Date: Saturday, June 27, 2015
Time: 9:30 am -3:30 pm
Place: 1306 Mill Street, San Luis Obispo
Cost: $30 (which includes lunch)
Make your reservation here.

Finally, I am currently reading the ancient philosopher Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life.”  Hereshortnessoflife is a passage that has really made me ponder how we use our time:

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response.  Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself–as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap–in fact, almost with out any value” (12).

 This sentiment has made me more cognizant of the incredible gift you are giving me (and hopefully yourselves) when you heroically carve out a full day of time to attend a literature Soirée.  I want to value your time as it should be valued.  In that light I intend to focus on the things that really matter–i.e. the things that can cause us to respect each day we are given, to nurture and build the relationships that are near and dear to us, and to focus on transcendent things. Because ultimately “when time is no more”, only those will have enduring value. I hope to see you on Saturday, June 27th!

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Bernadette Speakes graced the stage last winter, in the Elephant Theatre’s West Coast Premiere of the comedy, North Plan, directed by David Fofi. In the 2013 Fringe Festival, she portrayed Tituba, in The Crucible.  She created and produced the successful Get Up Stand Up . . . Clean Comedy 4 A Change–a showcase bridging the gap of laughter and charity together. Bernadette Bernadetteappeared in several acclaimed shows such as The Elephant Theater’s In Arabia We’d Be Kings, and The Fountain Theater’s West Coast Production of Direct from Death Row . . . The Scottsboro Boys. Bernadette will be furthering her film and TV credits with a key role in the upcoming film The Woods; A New Beginning. Other Film and TV Credits include: The Soloist, Heroes,  Parenthood, To Sir with Love II with Mr. Sidney Poitier, and the 1997 Sundance Festival Winner Love Jones. Awards include an Emmy Nomination for A Stage of Our Own with James Earl Jones, The LA Drama Critic’s Circle, and the LA Weekly.  Bernadette is a wife and mother of 2 beautiful children. She presently lives in Los Angeles.

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Dear Friends,

In Part IV of our series BFB Fundamentals, we are exploring the question of whether or not Beautiful Feet Books is classical in nature. As we noted in the previous post, until the definition of classical is clarified, the question can become one of semantics and may lead to simplistic conclusions.  Because classical is currently the homeschool paradigm de jour, examining some of its well-accepted tenets should prove helpful as you determine which path is right for you and the students you serve.

What does contemporary classical homeschooling mean?

Classical education as a home schooling model first became popular as the 20th century gave way to the 21st and has remained so since. For those of us who began home schooling in the 1980s, classical education was the new kid on the block.  As with any fad, it swept many in its wake and provided some folks with solutions to the failing standards they saw in public education as well as in the more relaxed homeschooling model.  Its emphasis on a rigorous academic approach seemed to guarantee the creation of scholars who would take positions of leadership in law, medicine, government and so forth.  This would be achieved through implementing the trivium as we noted in our previous post.

Stage One: The Grammar Stage

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages, but as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Early Greek educators did not view education as the process of three distinct stages; as soon as students could read and write they were reading the classic Greek texts.

Modern classical proponents ascribe to the notion that learning takes place in three distinct 4-year phases of a student’s life. While these phases may seem to correlate to the physical and intellectual development of the child, the bland acceptance of them can prove problematic. In the grammar stage of the classical approach (also known as the poll-parrot stage), emphasis is placed on pouring into the student facts (indeed “masses of information”-as one promoter put it) as children are supposedly sponges ready and willing to soak up facts of every kind, and can easily memorize these facts. Theoretically, later on, in the logic stage, these facts will be drawn upon as the child begins to reason. While this approach fits some students well, especially those gifted in memorization, other students, particularly those not gifted with the ability to retain masses of disparate facts, flounder. The focus on pouring information into a young child is based on the notion that in the grammar stage children will unquestioningly accept what is offered.

But is this 4-year cycle based upon a truly classical approach to education?  Did the ancients view education through this 12-year paradigm to which modern classical proponents ascribe?  As Diane Lockman points out in her helpful article “Classical Education Made Easier“, the ancient Greeks did not separate the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Students became proficient in reading, reasoning and speaking as they studied the classic texts of Greek literature with an emphasis on copy work and reading and reciting aloud.

An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society.  Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.

The Charlotte Mason approach asserts that all children, regardless of age, are capable of reason, delight, appreciation of beauty, and  that “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). Pouring information into a child for the mere goal of “filling the brain with facts” defies the essential nature of classical education–the desire to teach children to think. True education cannot ignore the spirit of the child, his basic need to feel connected in some way to the studies at tumblr_moe00wJ7U91rrs6fio1_500hand.  At Beautiful Feet we believe this is done through literature’s emotional connection–the ability to identify with others through the power of stories of literary beauty and historical import.  A quick narrative read of historical facts (standard fare in most classical approaches) that offers no literary beauty and no connection to the great questions of the human condition, fails to meet the standards of a truly classical education.

Begin at the beginning: the four-year cycle of history study?

Additionally, the current classical notion that history studies must begin at the beginning (with ancient history in first grade) is another layer of artificial construction upon an already artificial 12-year model.  Classical education’s promotion of a four-year cycle of history instruction seems reasonable and the repetition (“what we don’t get the first time around, we’ll be sure to pick up next time!”) provides reassurance.  While the four-year cycle approach does provide that revisiting, it doesn’t consider the question of age and developmental appropriateness for subject matter. This concern is dismissed by promoting the notion that while studying ancient history with your first grader, one can just focus on mummification, gladiators, and chariot races; in effect this belies the basic notion that ancient history can be taught to a first grader.  The resultant “classical” studies are cultural in nature, not historical. Indeed, Oxford Reference defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”–the study of history necessitates the focus on events.

History, taught classically  . . .

So how does one approach historical studies with a truly classical view to nurturing in young students reading, reasoning, and speaking skills? In essence, this can be accomplished in much the same way as the ancient Greeks did it–by exposing children to the best age-appropriate literature which is relevant to their times and culture.  For a young American child this means the best children’s books on the early saga of America’s great story, much as the Greeks read Homer and studied Plato–the stories of their ancestors, the history of their nation.  A child gifted with the knowledge and appreciation of his own historical heritage better understands his or her place in the world and from that foundation can embrace the beauty and the heritage of other nations and cultures.

So, how does this answer our question, “Is Beautiful Feet Books classical?”  If one looks at some contemporary notions of classical, then the answer would be, “No.”  On the other hand, if one perceives classical as incorporating Socratic reasoning and discussion, engaging with timeless literature (age appropriate), eschewing the use of textbooks and bland narrative works, and involving students in the Great Conversation about the important issues of the human heart, then yes, Beautiful Feet Books is classical.

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History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle

Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg

In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching  history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1.  How has history been taught through the ages?  2. Why use literature to teach history?  3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?

How has history been taught through the ages?

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

Waves of immigrants posed challenges to 19th century educators

In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force.  Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved.  Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce.  These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.

Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It alparisso flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries.  From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history.  In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s.  In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English.  An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s.   This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.

Why use literature to teach history?

Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature.  There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times.  Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook.  As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116).  Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder.  A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.

Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?

Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.”  Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature.  Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind.  David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”9780684813639_p0_v2_s260x420

That’s what history is: a story.  And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.  That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)

The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”.  She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.

Works Cited:

“Knowing History and Who We Are.”  David McCullough.  Imprimis.  Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway

           Books, 1984.

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Happy Valentines Day and an early Happy Birthday to Galileo!  It is a historical fact that the Valentine we celebrate today was martyred by the Roman Emperor Claudius II (known as Claudius the Cruel), on February 14, circa the year 278.  Though much of Saint Valentine’s history is clouded by legend, the story that seems most likely, is that Claudius was intent on keeping his Roman soldiers celibate in order to enforce strict discipline and keep the troops from pining for their families while stationed far from home. He therefore banned all engagements and marriages for the troops.  As a priest, Valentine, could not abide this order and continued to perform weddings for the secret lovers. When this was discovered by Claudius, Valentine was arrested and sentenced to death.  While in jail, he is said to have healed the daughter of the jailer, who was blind, and before his execution sent her a note inscribed, “From your Valentine.” A sweet and simple children’s book about Saint Valentine that you may enjoy is Robert Subuda’s Saint Valentine.

Tomorrow, February 15th is the birthday of Galileo, and it was on February 13, 1633 that Galileo was brought to Rome to answer charges of heresy for believing that the solar system was not geocentric (revolving around the earth), but rather, was heliocentric (revolving around the sun).  The Roman ecclesiastics could not abide such an outrageous idea, which somehow seemed to upset their notions of man’s importance at the center of the universe.  The Catholic authorities forced Galileo to renounce his beliefs and sentenced him to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

But this, of course was toward the end of his life, and by that time, Galileo had not only substantiated through careful astronomical observations that the earth did indeed revolve around the sun, but he had also  invented a thermometer, a geometric compass, a compound microscope,  and a pendulum clock; he perfected the astronomical telescope, measured the rotation of the sun, and designed a way to test precious metals.  He wrote laws about falling bodies and floating bodies.  He was also a lover of art and an accomplished artist himself.  He played the lute and enjoyed working in his garden.  Galileo was truly a Renaissance man.

I had the distinct privilege of working with Jeanne Bendick on her delightful biography of Galileo, featured here.  Jeanne Bendick, who is best known for her hugely popular book, Archimedes and the Door of Science, applies her fun and whimsical way with words and illustrations to the remarkable life of Galileo.  In honor of Galileo’s birthday, pick up a copy of this book and discover the life of one of history’s most curious, inventive and courageous men.

When the church authorities forced the kneeling Galileo to renounce that the earth revolved around the sun, it is said after his forced confession, that the aged man struggled up from the floor and whispered, “Eppur si muove,”–which means, “and yet, it does move.”

“I do not believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect, has intended us to forego their use.” –Galileo Galilei

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The celebration of Epiphany occurs in the liturgical calendar on January 6th and marks the official end of the Twelve Days of

Christmas. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas begins with Christmas Eve on the evening of December 24 and continues until the feast of Epiphany. The actual Christmas season continues until the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, which in many Western liturgical calendars is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6th. So given that we are (at least liturgically) still within the Christmas season,  I thought it would be nice to highlight some of my favorite children’s books dealing with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Probably no other aspect of Christ’s birth has gotten more attention than the visit of the Magi to the infant King.  While many of our fictionalized notions don’t bear much resemblance to the actual story, there are a few children’s books that I think really enhance the story in ways that reflects back upon the truth of how marvelous, transcendent, and numinous the story of this visit is.

The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke is a fictionalized tale based on the Magi’s visit.  In this case an additional Magi is seeking the infant child in order to bring his gifts as well.  But along the way, the Magi encounters unfortunate souls that need his material help.  Despite being pressed for time and wanting to continue his journey, this Wise Man sacrifices his own wants to the needs of others.  The tale by Van Dyke has unfortunately been adapted and rewritten by a number of authors.  Be sure to get the original and curl up with a tale that evokes the meaning of a what constitutes a truly Wise Man.

This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar, and Song of the Camels by Elizabeth Coatsworth are both simple poems that describe the events surrounding the Star of Bethlehem using simple text paired with beautiful illustrations. The former uses the focus of the star to build the action in lovely rhyming verse, while the latter uses the perspective of the camels bearing the Wise Men to show another aspect of this transcendent night.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. Lizbeth Zwerger took O’Henry’s classic tale, The Gift of the Magi, to an entirely new level with her tender watercolors and keenly sensitive eye.  The story involves a very poor but happy young couple on their first Christmas as husband and wife. Living in a tenement house at the turn of the century, they each long to get one perfect Christmas gift to show their love for each other.  Their sacrificial gifts illuminate and reflect the profound lesson of the ultimate divine gift–the gift which costs that which is most dear.  No illustrator before Zwerger captured the pathos of this tale so evocatively and so completely in sink with the author’s exquisite tale.  Do add this one to your family library.  It will likely become a treasured Christmas (and perhaps Epiphany!) tradition.

I’ll close with O’Henry’s profoundly simple and childlike conclusion to this marvelous tale.

“The magi, as you know were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents . . . and here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.  But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.  Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest.  Everywhere they are wisest.  They are the magi.

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The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...

Neo-Assyrian "Flood Tablet"

Dear Readers,

After a number of fits and starts, my colleague, Barbara Hawkins and I have just completed a brand new study guide for any teacher/parent/student interested in studying this most seminal work of literature!  We have incorporated the Charlotte Mason approach to studying great works of literature and we believe you will find this guide a truly helpful tool in understanding and appreciating this epic.

Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest epic and established many of the literary motifs we’ve come to expect in great epic works.  The story of Gilgamesh took place nearly five thousand years ago, but only became familiar to the modern world in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Hearing tales of wondrous treasures to be found beneath the stark desert sands of ancient Mesopotamia, a young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard (pictured above left) began digging in 1844 near the town of Mosul, Iraq.  There he discovered the remnants of the library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), a famous king from the Assyrian period.  Mixed among the twenty-five thousand tablets shipped back to the British Museum were the fragments of twelve tablets containing one of the most ancient masterpieces known to man.

However, since scholars had to learn how to decipher the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets, Gilgamesh continued its obscure existence in the basement of the British Museum until 1872 when George Smith, a curator with a common name, made an uncommon discovery.  He found an account of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia with details that eerily echoed the Biblical narration of the Flood.  “On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning.  I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge” (Mitchell 4).  Smith’s translation, published in 1876, sparked a frenzy to discover and translate the rest of the epic.   Even though no complete version has ever been unearthed, the adventures of this ancient king, no matter how whimsically interpreted, continue to enthrall each and every reader.

The good news for those interested in studying this epic with their young students (3rd/4th grade up to 7/8th) is that the children’s author, Geraldine McCaughrean–winner of the Carnegie Medal,  has written a lyrical and complete edition for the intermediate student.  McCaughrean’s work makes this epic approachable by even the uninitiated.  For those working with older students, or for high school students interested in this period, David Ferry’s A New Rendering in English Verse, is the perfect choice.  The newly completed study guide includes a thorough introduction to the heroic quest, insight on literary components and motifs, vocabulary, writing prompts, comprehension and analytical questions and much more.  As Geraldine McCaughrean notes in her introduction to her children’s book:

I feel a personal affection for Gilgamesh the Hero.  I just love that story.  It epitomizes all the reasons I like myth: because myth predates the whole Children’s Book/Adult Book divide. The stories are about things that mattered to everyone, regardless of age. They’re about the big things –passion and death and terror and God and friendship and heroism…

You can access a downloadable format of our new guide here.  Enjoy your trip to Ancient Sumer!

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Dear Readers,

As today is the Feast of Epiphany it is a suitable time to share some musings on the best children’s books on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child.  Garrison Keillor reminded me on today’s Writer’s Almanac that the word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, and of course, nothing in all of human history is more striking than the incarnation. You can read the rest of Keillor’s insight here.

Astronomers have long pondered the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and what kind of astronomical phenomenon could explain how a star could have led these seekers in the way it did.  Craig Chester, President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, published about 20 years ago a fascinating article about astronomical conjunctions occurring at this time that might explain the wonder of this star.  Below is an excerpt of his fascinating study, but you can read the entire article here.

In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings.  In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.  In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter also came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.  Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah.  The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel [ . . . ] Finally in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun.  This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi [ . . .] September 11, 3 B.C. is perhaps the most interesting date of aSong of the Camelsll.  Not only was Jupiter very close to Regulus in the first of their conjunctions, but the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (of obvious symbolism).”

There are so many ways in which the story of the Wise Men visiting the tiny child in Bethlehem is cause for wonder and awe.  Not remarkably, this awe has produced some really precious children’s books that can help explore that mystery with our children. A favorite of mine is the story written by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)  often entitled The Other Wise Man or The Fourth Wise Man. This story is based upon the fictional premise that there was another wise man who never made it to the nativity, precisely because he was acting the part of the Good Samaritan, and spent himself so completely ministering to those in need on his journey, that he missed his chance to actually meet the Christ child himself. The moral, as you can probably guess is Matt. 25:40.  There are a number of editions of this sweet tale, but I do like the illustrations done by Robert Barret in the edition above.

Another take on the visit of the Magi is entitled Song of the Camels: A Christmas Poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Anna Vojtech.  Coatsworth was a prolific children’s author for over 50 years and is best known for her Newbery Medal winner of 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. This tale in verse is told from the perspective of the camels that carried the magi to the Christ child. “Portents of glory and danger/ Our dark shadows lay/ At the feet of the babe in the manger/ And then drifted away.”  Anna Vojtech’s illustrations for The Song of Camels are filled with rich imagery of the Middle East and present another aspect of this marvelous story.

This is The Star by Joyce Dunbar and illustrated by Gary Blythe centers the action around the marvelous star that brings magi, shepherds, and angels in a confluence of wonder to a dark and humble stable. Blythe’s illustrations have an almost photographic realism to them that illumines the humanity of this night of all nights.

Finally, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger remains one of my most precious Christmas tales. Lizbeth Zwerger’s illustrations brilliantly illumine the pathos, simplicity, and sweetness of O. Henry’s story involving a poor but devoted couple desiring to bless their beloved with their very best gift. They sacrifice what is most precious to them in order to do so.  While its title would lead one to think it involves the magi, it doesn’t actually include them in the story, except to reflect upon the power of gifts given that require a deep measure of self-sacrifice.  O. Henry states, “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.”  I won’t give more of the tale away, as you must read it to appreciate it fully!  May the wonder of the visiting Magi inspire all of us to live in their spirit in 2011.  Happy New Year dear friends.

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Researching the early Middle Ages for an upcoming seminar, I came across this interesting tidbit which I thought you might enjoy.  It is a serendipitous connection with the ancient world of Aesop, in particular Androcles and the Lion, early Medieval history and the world of contemporary children’s books!  It is a fairly well-known and accepted fact that fables and fairy tales are adapted and transmogrified (don’t you love that word?) which means changed in appearance or form, sometimes in a bizarre way, by every culture that grows to know and love them. Aesop is told and retold by successive generations in a manner that reflects that generation’s worldview, beliefs, struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Aesop’s Tale of Androcles and the Lion involves a Greek slave who runs away from his master, comes upon a lion lamed by a thorn in his paw, removes the thorn and then the lion and Androcles live for a time in the den of the lion; here the lion brings Androcles fresh meat each day.  Later both the slave and the lion are captured and Androcles is sentenced to death in the amphitheater–where like may other unfortunates, he will die as sport of hungry lions.  But, in this case the lion happens to be Androcles’ friend, and despite his hunger he refuses to harm his friend, and rather fawns over him.  The astonished crowd demands the prisoner’s release and both Androcles and the lion are spared.  The moral of the story is that “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

After the dawn of Christianity, the tale was told in much the same way except that Androcles is now a Christian, rather than an escaped slave, and is condemned to die for his faith in the Roman coliseum.  The ending is quite the same, with the grateful lion refusing to devour his friend and both of them being spared.  Later the same tale is appropriated by the Catholic Church and in this case the kind thorn-remover is St. Jerome (327-420).  Now, St. Jerome is an important figure in the Church as he was the first to translate the Greek New Testament into Latin, and ultimately the entire Bible from Hebrew into Latin.  This version is the Latin Vulgate edition and is still used today.  He is famous also for being an eyewitness to the Visigoth sacking of Rome, where he lamented, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and sobs choke my speech.”  The painting at right is by Italian Renaissance artist, Niccolo Catalonia and is entitled, “St. Jerome in his Study.”  In the Jerome version of the lion tale, after the lion is helped by the saint, he remains at the monastery as a protector and pet and often even helps with household chores–the moral I suppose that “he who does not work shall not eat.”

Finally, that brings us the most contemporary edition of this tale–Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty. You may recognize Daugherty’s name as he is also author of The Landing of the Pilgrims, The Magna Charta, Poor Richard and Of Courage Undaunted–all excellent books.  But he is best known for his version of the Androcles tale. In every way this rendition is the most quintessentially American it could possibly be–involving a barefooted but benevolent American youngster who helps a lion that has escaped from a circus (where else?) and features the sort of kind-hearted, simple folks of small town life.  It is nostalgic to read, even if you’ve never lived in this type of rural setting, and is a rendition of which I think, even Aesop would have approved.  The moral of this story is “kindness remembered, or the power of gratitude.”

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I promised I would continue to address the importance of classical literature at the high school level for those doing ancient studies and in particular how these could be added into a current study using the Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide. While The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton is currently used in the above study, another treasure we found recently was the author’s work on ancient Rome in The Roman Way.  In validating for a high school student the importance of classical knowledge I appreciate Albert Einstein’s perspective. His notions of the modern tendency to cultural myopia—seeing the world only through the narrow constraints of our own contemporary lens—seem particularly apropos at this juncture:

Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the
prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.

A contemporary author who has made the classical works more accessible to this generation is Edith Hamilton.  Both her The Greek Way and The Roman Way can act as primers for those of us not well-versed in the ancient classics.  In The Greek Way Hamilton introduces students to the great minds of ancient Greece, shot through with a clear Judeo-Christian perspective. Lavish seminal quotations portray the ancient’s continual pursuit of truth and beauty, exposing the young scholar to an appreciation for the birth of philosophy—the love of wisdom. For Hamilton, an understanding of the Greek way is essential to true education. She shows deftly how ancient Greece established the Western foundations of art, literature, architecture, sculpture, drama, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and science, and overarching all is the relentless and intractable pursuit of truth. As Hamilton notes, these Athenians, “being free from masters they used their freedom to think. For the first time in the world the mind was free, free as it hardly is today.” We moderns would do well to sit with Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Their wisdom can inform and enlighten our understanding of God and the transcendent truth to which we ascribe as Christians in a postmodern world.

In The Roman Way, students will have the opportunity to see how Greek philosophy carried over to Rome and enabled Rome for a time to establish an empire built upon republican principles of law and civil order. Reading the letters of Cicero is instructive in light of the apathy and indifference that allowed Rome’s noble system of government to fall victim to usurpation and abuse of power. The poetry of Horace, his love of simplicity and gentle virtue, the love poems of Cattallus, and the war diaries of Caesar all form the foundations of modern history and literature. While this cursory overview is hardly reflective of the riches to be mined in studying this period, those that are fortunate enough to discover the treasures here will likely form a lifetime curiosity that will lead them into still greater discoveries.  A high school student (and his or her home schooling parent!) given the opportunity to sit with the greatest minds of all time will have an amazing lens through which to understand, judge, and discern, the universal issues of life, politics, and the human heart.

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Since a number of you have read my article in this summer’s edition of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, “Crossing the Educational Rubicon: Charlotte Mason through High School” some questions have been posed to me since the article has variations from my Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide.  So I will clarify some things here as well as give you some things to be looking for as the upcoming school year unfolds.

First of all, the Ancient History Study Guide will stand quite well on its own, and there is no need to supplement or enhance unless you chose to do so.  Since my experience in teaching these various subject areas is always evolving and since the world of book publishing is continually changing, I often discover new jewels that can be added to a particular historical period that either weren’t available when I wrote the guide or I just didn’t have the knowledge or confidence to attempt them. Such is the case regarding the ancient period, as in the last few years countless titles have come out for young people on the various topics related to the classical world of ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Also, I recently had the privilege of working with a wonderful and experienced teacher team-teaching this period to a class of high school girls!  That aroused a whole new level of research, interest, and delight in discovering the treasures of the ancients.  One work that was particularly meaningful was the Epic of Gilgamesh by Geraldine McCaughrean. McCaughrean–a British author, has been awarded the Whitbread Prize on the three occasions, as well as the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.  As a contemporary children’s author you cannot attain a much higher level of honor and recognition for a body of work. So I recommend her highly and in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh, she offers a wonderful way to introduce this historical work to your student in her book, Gilgamesh the Hero.

In the world of epic literature, Gilgamesh stands as the very first, and as a literary work offers a valuable way to introduce and learn the stages of the heroic quest (also referred to as the Hero’s Journey), a series of events that every heroic figure must go through to apotheosis or catharsis.  Once you’ve learned the hero’s quest you will never look at literature in the same way.  Indeed, analyzing heroic figures from the Bible takes on a richer and deeper meaning as well.  See my previous blog posting entitled “What is the Heroic Quest? under Ancient History.  So for those introducing this for the first time I recommend McCaughrean’s book or those teaching high school level can opt for a recent translation by David Ferry. Do preview before delving into this with your student.  Now, the exciting part is that in 3-4 weeks we will be offering a downloadable ebook with study notes for this epic which will make this approachable and user friendly.  So watch the blog for announcements.  We will also be working on notes for the Stanley Lombardo translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and making those available in the fall as well.  I will continue to post more on this topic in the coming days related to teaching this at the high school level and using the works of Edith Hamilton and Stanley Lombardo for those teaching at the high school level.

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