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Reading The Grapes of Wrath

o-GRAPES-OF-WRATH-ARISTS-facebook“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Dear Readers,

One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager.  I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter.  But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother.  Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.

Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature.  As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.

I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart.  As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony.  So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan.  The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up.  Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.

The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many.  But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy.  It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality.  We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.

Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes.  Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”  It is a good question to ask ourselves.  The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.

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Early American History at GHC!

The sole substitute for an experience we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature. –Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Early American Primary SG CoverDear Readers,

At the Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California, June 12-14th, I will be presenting a session on Early American History Through Literature.  This presentation will explore the power of studying the history of our nation through literature, rather than standard textbooks. The joys and advantages of learning history when it is taught through narrative are too numerous to address in a blog post, but I will address a few here by way of a teaser for my upcoming session next month!

Dana Gioia, man of letters, poet, and social critic has written extensively on the importance of literature in society.  In an article he wrote a few years ago, titled “Why literature matters: good books help make a civil society”, Gioia notes how dramatic declines in the reading of literature have negatively impacted our society.  This decline has manifested itself in dismal historic knowledge, such that college seniors cannot pass a high school level American history test of basic knowledge; the corporate world laments that local schools graduate students with poor reading skills, and higher order problem-solving skills dependent upon imagination are at an all-time low.

Other studies cite that 42% of college graduates never pick up another literary work again.  The tragedy that this represents is hard to fathom but given an educational system that in many cases blights any love of reading through the imposition of dry lifeless textbooks, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the outcome would be exactly what we are seeing.

One extraordinary advantage of home education is the opportunity it provides families to choose a vast array of literary works and center their studies around those. The benefits of a literature approach are multifaceted and I believe, lifelong.  Students who have the option of rich, broad, and expansive literary choices become lifelong lovers of literature and creative problem-solving adults.

Other benefits of literature include a deeper connection and respect of our cultural and literary past.  Students who are exposed to a broad range of literary works see the world through a much more hopeful, optimistic, and understanding lens. Reading the thoughts of great minds who have gone before us, understanding and having empathy for their trials, and rejoicing in their triumphs, brings perspective and wisdom.

As Gioia notes in the aforementioned article, literature is also a powerful force for good in society.  Important literary works have changed the course of history and brought justice and truth to bear upon society’s ills.

 “Indeed we sometimes underestimate how large a role literature has played in the evolution of our national identity, especially in that literature often has served to introduce young people to events from the past and principles of civil society and governance.  Just as more ancient Greeks learned about moral and political conduct from the epics of Homer than from the dialogues of Plato, so the most important work in the abolitionist movement was the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Having read Uncle Tom’s Cabin a few times over the course of our home schooling years, I think I can understand in a small way why this novel was able to move a nation in the manner it did.  Harriet Beecher Stowe was gifted in helping her readers identify vicariously with the victims of slavery–not just the slaves, but even the inheritors of slaves.  Her characterization ghc_250x125of the evil effects of slavery on an entire society, slave and master alike, turned the conscience of a nation and became a powerful catalyst for change.

Literature is powerful.  For the homeschooling parent, there is no more effective tool in his or her tool chest.  This seminar at GHC will explore the literature that has impacted the course of American history, the books to read with your students, the best authors for children, and how to establish a literature-based curriculum that will encourage lovers of literature and life long readers. Sign up now to attend GHC in Ontario, California, June 12-14.  If you sign up through the BFB link (here) your registration will help to support the Blickenstaff family as they continue to adapt to life altering challenges.  Also, GHC has posted the schedule for the conference, so be sure to go online and check it out!  Hope to see you there!

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Classic Literature for Character Building

Dear Readers,

Just a little over six weeks from now, June 12-14, the Great Homeschool Convention returns to California for three days of wonderful workshops, keynote speakers, and tantalizing curriculum exhibits! At Beautiful Feet Books, we  look forward to connecting with you either at one of the three sessions I’ll be presenting, or at our BFB booth.

b4c4f95361719784b9d266fb5f2f0a79One of the topics I will be speaking on is: Classic Literature for Character Building (or Character Through Literature), so I wanted to take a moment to give a brief overview of what my session will cover as you make plans for your GHC weekend!

We can strip the knight of his amor, to reveal that he looks exactly like us, or we can try on the armor ourselves to experience how it feels.  Fiction provides an ideal opportunity to try on the armor. –C.S. Lewis

Over thirty years of reading aloud to my children has convinced me, more than ever, of the profound life-changing, life-equipping, and soul-nourishing importance of great books.  Recently I began reading Charles Dickens’s  A Tale of Two Cities to my youngest daughter, aged 14.  She was fairly ambivalent as we began, particularly because the 19th century English verbiage is challenging, to say the least.  Not being familiar with Dickens can stop even an avid reader from wanting to continue what can be a truly challenging endeavor.  Fortunately for me, an older adult son happened to be visiting at the time and remarked that A Tale of Two tale-of-two-cities-book-cover-450x600-1Cities was his favorite book in high school.  He even remembered writing his own Tale of Two Cities based upon Dickens’s great work. Haply, that helped cinch the deal, and we continue pursuing this remarkable novel knowing that the unforgettable characters that Dickens created in this work–the cruel Madame Defarge, the noble Charles Darnay, and the ultimately self-sacrificing Sydney Carton, will impact our hearts long after we close the final pages of this book.  As Lewis notes in the quote above, we can either choose to live cynical unimaginative lives, or we can, through our imaginative powers walk vicariously in the shoes of another, and through that identification, ultimately determine what kind of people we want to be.  Will we make noble, self-sacrificing choices like Darnay and Carton, or will we be unforgiving and vengeful as the cruel Madame Defarge?  In small ways, we have an opportunity to make these choices each day.

The best books inspire us, not by preaching lofty sermons, or by moralizing lectures, but by drawing us into stories that resonate with the human desire to love and be loved, and by our longing to live for something bigger and better than ourselves. In the novel Don Quixote, Cervantes states through his main protagonist that the ” . . . ultimate end of writing is both to instruct and delight” (476).1 Since Cervantes is credited with the invention of the modern novel, perhaps his perspective is one we should take to heart. Regarding the notion of “instruction” of course, as parents we get that, that is a given. In our parental role we are forever looking for resources to educate, inform, and instruct our children. But how often in that pursuit, do we neglect the notion of delight? When we make choices of literature,  do we adequately factor in the importance of delight as an essential medium of the most important kind of learning?  Consider how often Jesus used stories to teach moral lessons.  His stories were never dry, dull, or boring.  Rather they captured his listeners by their pure simplicity, their inherent truth and their clear applicability to everyone’s lives.  All great literature has these same inherent qualities, from the simplest children’s book like Make Way for Ducklings to sophisticated novels like Pride and Prejudice.  

In June I’ll be presenting the essential elements that make books delightful, and how stories have the power to truly mold ourselves and our children into the kind of characters we want to be in this great drama called life–written and directed by the master storyteller Himself. I hope to see you in June at the Great Homeschool Convention!

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BFB Retreat wrap-up

BFB Manual 1stpgHi Readers,
Last month in Santa Barbara, our new Beautiful Feet representatives came together from around the country to talk about vision, share our lives, and get better acquainted as we look to working together in the future.  It was a very special time for all of us, and we thought it might be encouraging to reflect a bit on our experiences and share some photos with you!

Here are some reflections of our time together:

How beautiful it was to spend a weekend surrounded by women who share the same desire to gift their children with a love for great books!  There’s something extraordinary in exchanging with another mom an experience we’ve had watching our children light up when they’ve read a story that prompts their minds to think about what they’ve read, and compare it to their own process of thinking or life choices.  What continually stands out the most from this weekend is, “there’s power in story”.  Over and over again, this theme rang through all of our conversations.  It’s this truth that inspired me the most, a truth I hope to instill in my two young warriors.  Thank you, Beautiful Feet Books, for your heart-felt desire to deposit something incredibly special into the lives of our family!                        –Karyn C.

I had such a glorious, refreshing, and magical time with all of you.  I am convinced that Beautiful Feet Books are not DSC_3094only the most fun and adventurous time of the day, but it’s our opportunity to bond and connect to each other and the human heart.  I am so grateful that God has led me too this.  I loved hearing everyone share their stories over laughter, and delicious beautifully arranged meals.  The Nicoise salad was just fabulous.  Kathy’s passion and quiet yet fiery spirit about her convictions just brought delight to my soul.  I along with her, am assured that I want to do every curriculum that is out there with my children or by myself if they are unable to.  These amazing stories teach my children, along with myself, the essence of compassion, forgiveness, redemption, and that they too, are part of a great story.  I will be shouting “Beautiful Feet” from the roof tops until I am old and gray.  I have stumbled upon treasure and look forward to seeing how many more families are impacted.   It’s so beautiful to witness the hearts being evoked through history and great stories through literature.  I had such a memorable and warm time.   –Vanessa H.

DSC_3101“Words are how we think; stories are how we link.” Christina Baldwin
As I sat around the patio table, I was awe struck by the stories which were being shared. Each woman’s story was different, but the stories linked us in a common bond. Our common bond is the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy through the use of “living books.” “Living books” nurture the imagination, feed the soul, and stir the conscience. It was amazing to see how one woman’s influence has rippled out and touched the lives of those who were participating in the discussion and those within each woman’s sphere of influence.  –Kathy A.

I had the privilege and  most extreme pleasure in being able to participate in a marvelous and inspiring retreat with Beautiful Feet Book’s Rea Berg, Rebecca Manor, Josh Berg, and a group of passionate moms!  So lucky was I!! The DSC_3114Beautiful Feet Book’s family is zealous about passing on the legacy of history and literature!! It was an honor to learn from their intensity to learn and grow and pass it on. I loved loved learning from Rea and her reinforcing that my ministry is influencing my children and what better way than through stories that lead to empathy. It is not about just mechanically reading a story but molding my children’s heart through them. Of course, this only happens with the best books and I am always and will be forever inspired by their desire to feed children’s minds and hearts with excellence. They are constantly trying to find new ways of doing this with their ideas of more literary guides of heroes for boys and girls. It was amazing to hear from Rebecca and her love DSC_3112and knowledge for history through her new Medieval guide. I am excited about my children learning from her! Their hearts to meet all of our needs was displayed through their teaching, hanging with family, food and fun! I am so grateful to learn from and pass on all that I have gotten from Beautiful Feet Books!!           –Lisa S.

I felt privileged to be part of such a sweet time of sharing our lives together as a group of women, mothers and teachers. Everyone brought something truly unique to the group dynamics and I believe all of us went away inspired and empowered to continue building the lives of our students, children, and grandchildren as we seek to implement CM’s core belief that true education is about life!

Remember that the Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California, is just 2 months away!  I will be speaking there on three topics:  Early American History through Literature, Classic Literature for Little Folks, and Charlotte Mason Meets Plato: Restoring the Joy of Education in the Home.  Remember that any registration through the above link, Beautiful Feet Books will make a $5 donation to the Patty Pollatos Fund.  Thank you so much for your support!

All photos compliments of Lisa Sulewski Photography.  All rights reserved.  Thank you, Lisa!

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Is Beautiful Feet classical?

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.