Friday, 21 July 2017

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (1956)

Gerald Durrell, (1925-1995) a pioneering naturalist, conservationist, and author, was born in India in 1925, the youngest of four children. Both his parents were of British descent but were also born in India, and having a limited experience of England, considered India to be their true home.
When Gerald was three years of age, his father died of a cerebral haemorrhage and his mother took the family and moved to England.
My Family and Other Animals is Gerald's account of his family's five year stay on the Greek island of Corfu.  He was ten years of age at the time, his eldest brother Larry was twenty-three; Lesley, nineteen, and Margo, eighteen.
From an early age Gerald possessed an ardent interest in the natural world and was obsessed with animals and all sorts of living creatures. During his time on Corfu he made a special study of zoology and kept a large number of various creatures as pets, much to the disgust and dismay of some of the other members of the family. My Family and Other Animals is one of the numerous books he wrote about his animal adventures and various exploits, but it is also a highly entertaining portrayal of his family and how they interacted. We enjoyed spending some time with the Durrell family as I read this book aloud although some editing was required for my 12 year old as we went.
We had a good laugh at his description of his mother's bathing costume which one of her sons said looked like 'a badly skinned whale,' and which inflated like a balloon when she went into the water...'an airship of frills and tucks.'

Mother was vague and incredibly mild for all she had to endure and tended to be dominated by her eldest son, Larry, a writer. It was he who decided the family needed to leave the miserable English climate and head for the Continent:

...Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people's minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences. He had become increasingly irritable as the afternoon wore on. At length, glancing moodily round the room, he decided to attack Mother, as being the obvious cause of the trouble.
'Why do we stand this bloody climate?' he asked suddenly, making a gesture towards the rain-distorted window. 'Look at it! And if it comes to that, look at us...Margo swollen up like a plate of scarlet porridge...Leslie wandering around with fourteen fathoms of cotton wool in each ear...Gerry sounds as though he's had a cleft palate from birth...And look at you: you're looking more decrepit and hag-ridden every day.'
Mother peered over the top of a large volume entitled Easy Recipes from Rajputana.
'Indeed I'm not,' she said indignantly.
'You are,' Larry insisted; 'you're beginning to look like an Irish washerwoman...and your family looks like a series of illustrations from a medical encyclopedia.'

Life sounded pretty idyllic for Gerry, and his naturalist bent had plenty of scope with scorpions, toads, snakes, various birds, bats, butterflies, geckos, sea creatures, tortoises and porpoises making their appearance during his stay on the island.  His education was conducted at home by various interesting & eccentric tutors. One of them, Peter, was more interested in Gerald's sister, Margo, than in his young charge, but I thought this description of the tutor's own education on the island was delightful:

'With the summer came Peter to tutor me, a tall, handsome young man, fresh from Oxford, with decided ideas on education which I found rather trying to begin with. But gradually the atmosphere of the island worked its way insidiously under his skin, and he relaxed and became quite human. At first the lessons were painful to an extreme: interminable wrestling with fractions and percentages, geological strata and warm currents, nouns, verbs, and adverbs. But, as the sunshine worked its magic on Peter, the fractions and percentages no longer seemed to him an overwhelmingly important part of life and they were gradually pushed more and more into the background; he discovered that the intricacies of geological strata and the effects of warm currents could be explained much more easily while swinmming along the coast, while the simplest way of teaching me English was to allow me to write something each day which he would correct.'

Durrell had a way with similes. These are a few that took our fancy:

'The plane, like a cumbersome overweight goose, flew over the olive-groves, sinking lower and lower.'

'...the three dogs hung out their pink tongues and panted like ancient, miniature railway engines.'

'The Magenpies had been through the room as thoroughly as any Secret Service agent searching for missing plans. Piles of manuscript and typing paper lay scattered about the floor like drifts of autumn leaves...The Magenpies could never resist paper. The typewriter stood stolidly on the table, looking like a disembowelled horse in a bull ring...'

'Then came Mother, wearing an enormous straw hat, which made her look like an animated mushroom...'

'They squatted there like two obese, leprous Buddhas, peering at me and gulping in the guilty way that toads have.'

One day, Mr Kralefsky, one of Gerald's tutors, informed Mother that he had taught Gerald as much as he was able and the time had come for him to go somewhere like England or Switzerland to finish his education:

'In desperation I argued against any such idea; I said I liked being half-educated; you were so much more surprised at everything when you were ignorant.'

Mother was adamant and so the family returned to England with the words of a border official, 'One travelling Circus and Staff' written on their 'Desription of Passengers' document.

Linking to Back to the Classics 2017, Classic about an Animal and The Classics Club 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang (1997)

Red Scarf Girl is a young girl's account of her life between the age of 12 to 14 years during the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966 when she was in the sixth grade. Up until then, Ji Li Jiang had lived a comfortable and happy family life in Shanghai. She excelled in her school studies and athletics, and was looking forward to a bright future.
Almost overnight, her way of life fell apart, and she was faced with choices that were totally confusing to a young girl. Ji-Li later became one of those now known as the 'lost generation,' an entire group of young people who were separated from their families and forced to forfeit their education when they were sent into the countryside to perform manual labour.

'After ten years of sacrifice in the primitive countryside most of these young people returned to the city with little education, few skills, and no beliefs. All regretted the waste of their youth, and all have struggled to start over again.'

Mao Ze-dong had led the Communist Party since 1949, but when his economic measures proved to be calamitous for the country and his rivals began to be more powerful, he implemented the Cultural Revolution or 'The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' to re-establish his authority.
For ten years this policy produced absolute chaos and social upheaval as masses of young people were mobilised into Red Guards who waged war against the "four olds” - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
This is the true story of the impossible dilemmas Ji Li and her family faced as a result of Mao's policy, told simply with a child-like innocence and transparency.
For Ji-Li and others like her, Chairman Mao was God. It wasn't until Mao died that they realised they had been brainwashed and that the Cultural Revolution was basically a power struggle and they had been manipulated.
I've read numerous books on this time period but this is the first one I've read through a young girl's eyes. It doesn't go into great detail about the atrocities committed during this time period, but it does give a very personal account of what the author and her family and friends went through, including her father's imprisonment, beatings, humiliations, and the suicide of an elderly neighbour who threw herself out of a window.
At one point she describes how she thought that she didn't want to live but she had promised her mother that she would take care of her younger siblings if anything happened. She came to a point where her goals didn't matter to her and seemed unimportant:

'Now my life was defined by my responsibilities. I had promised to take care if my family, and I would renew that promise every day. I would not give up or withdraw, no matter how hard life became. I would hide my tears and my fear for Mom and Grandma's sake. It was my turn to take care of them.'

It's a little difficult but to know what age range it would be best for, partly because of the way it's written, (i.e. in a young girl's voice) but I think about age 13 or 14 years and up. The effect of the advent of the Red Guards on the school students would make for a valuable discussion, with bullies, troublemakers and lazy students gaining the advantage over the conscientious and those who were considered to be from a 'bad class' - Ji-Li's grandfather was a landlord, so that put her family in that category. Power was placed into the hands of those most unfitted for it.
It is frightening to read about how easily someone could have been accused of being an enemy of the people just because of jealousy, how a stray word could lead inadvertently to betrayal, and how the youth were manipulated and so quickly rejected their respect for older people that was inherent in the Chinese culture.
A simple but powerful story. 285 pages.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

For many years scientists had been trying to grow human cells outside of the human body in order to have a continuous (immortal) line of cells that would constantly replenish and that could be used to study any number of things,  especially viruses. Mouse cells had been cultured successfully, but every attempt to culture human cells had failed.
That was, up until 1951. That year, Henrietta Lacks, a 30 year old black mother of five young children, was admitted to the coloured ward of John Hopkins Hospital to have a biopsy of her cervix. A sample of tissue from her cervix was sent to George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins.
At that time, if doctors wanted to use tissue from patients for purely research purposes, patient consent was not required, although it is now.
Henrietta Lack's tumour cells were put into culture and they didn't merely survive, but grew like nothing else had before.
The tumour turned out to be a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, and before long, millions of the cells had reproduced themselves in the laboratory. Gey and his assistants had grown the first immortal human cells which they named 'HeLa,' for Henrietta and Lacks. These cells became one of the most important tools in medicine and have been used in the development of the polio vaccine, in gene mapping, cloning, cancer research, and researching the effects of zero gravity and radiation on the human body.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a real page turner of a book and quite fascinating generally.
Rebecca Skloot is a journalist, which partly explains the readability of her book, and also the style in which she writes the story. To me this was both positive and negative. Positive, in that the scientific concepts were explained well enough for a lay person to understand and in a narrative style; negative, where the author injected certain incidents, such as the abuse of Henrietta's children by family members after she died, and other intimate family details, throughout the book.
I wondered whether this was really necessary, but an important aspect of this book is the recognition that behind all the science and research, there are real people. The author certainly portrayed this well.

I'm not American, so I didn't come to this book with any personal background experience of USA race relationships or much knowledge of the history and implications of segregation, therefore my reactions to this book are as an outsider looking in.
I had the impression at times that the culture of Henrietta Lacks' cells and the subsequent profits derived from their use (that the family never benefited from) was blamed for everything that went wrong with the Lacks family afterwards, but there was some serious dysfunction in the family before Henrietta ever went to hospital.
It was tragic that five young children lost their mother, but she had fairly advanced cervical cancer by the time she presented to John Hopkins' Hospital, and the treatment of cervical cancer wasn't clear cut at the time. She had the standard treatment of the time: radium and X-ray therapy. (See my comments on Cancer Ward, set in the 1950's.)
The author reveals scientific research that went beyond the bounds of decency, although not in Henrietta's case: research using cancer cells perpetrated upon unsuspecting black patients (see the infamous Tuskegee Study) that were likened to the Nazi experiments of WWII. Prison inmates were used as human guinea pigs, and the conditions of the 'Negro' mental institution where Henrietta's eldest girl was sent before her mother died were disgusting. Were other mental institutions at the time any better? I don't know.

There were also privacy concerns raised by the family. Henrietta's medical records were released without their consent, and blood was taken from various family members for research purposes without full disclosure. In fact, the family had no idea what was happening.

Henrietta's family were uneducated and ignorant of science so when they found out that her cells were 'alive' it was very confusing for them and this misunderstanding caused them a lot of unnecessary anguish. They thought that parts of her were still alive and that she could feel pain when experiments were performed on her cells.
The family also wondered, if Henrietta had been so important to medicine and scientists were buying her cells, why couldn't the family afford health insurance?
This is one of those areas where science leapt ahead before the ethics had been worked out. And this still happens.
The author included a very informative afterword that addresses tissue research and patient rights at the time the book was first printed in 2009, and gives examples of other individuals who took action against medical practitioners who profited by the sale of their patients tissues.
Cell research is vital. It needs to be done ethically and in an informed manner, but what a huge can of worms we've opened up!

Some other thoughts:

Henrietta Lacks was an uneducated woman from an impoverished background and like most black patients at the time, she only went to hospital when she thought had no other choice. As I mentioned above, there had been some very unethical research conducted at the Tuskegee Institute, and other incidents, that generated suspicion of the medical profession amongst black communities.

Many doctors back then used public patients for research, generally without their knowledge - these patients were being treated for free so it was considered fair enough to use them as research subjects.

In the 1950's "benevolent deception" was commonly practiced and so it was not uncommon for patients to have no idea of their diagnosis, especially if it was something as distressing as cancer. This was also the practice in the USSR in the book I mentioned above.

Henrietta was not told that her cells were replicating themselves in a laboratory and her family only found out inadvertently about twenty years later. By this time HeLa cells were a huge business and were sold and sent all over the world.

When the family realised that people were making money out of their mother's cells, they became angry, especially when they couldn't even afford medical insurance.

At the time this book went to press, blood samples and body bits taken during procedures such as removal of moles, ovaries, appendices, and tonsils - which are given voluntarily - are often kept indefinitely and later used to develop things like vaccines and drugs and no permission is required.

Rebecca Skloot first heard about HeLa cells when she was sixteen and doing a community college biology class. She spent a decade researching Henrietta's background including time spent getting to know Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter, who helped provide much of the information for the book.

The documentary below, The Way of all Flesh was filmed in 1998 and is a very interesting account of the science behind the HeLa cells:

I read somewhere that a version for younger readers was published in 2012: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: The Young Reader's Edition by Gregory Mone, Rebecca Skloot, 256 Pages, Published in 2012, but it looks like it's out of print.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Starting Out With Home Education - Advice to a Young Mother

I was asked recently what advice I would give to someone just starting out in home education. I made some comments off the top of my head but I thought I'd delve into this a bit more fully. I've linked to other posts I've written or related articles that I thought would be helpful.

Philosophy - I once read this statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction." I thought how well this fits with the idea of having our philosophy of education established before we start teaching our children. Not that we have everything all worked out, but that we know our direction, because ideas lead us along a set course; they do have consequences.

Not long after my first child was born, I read an article that summarised the main homeschooling philosophies with their pros and cons. I was interested in Charlotte Mason's ideas after reading 'For the Children's Sake' by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and this article stated that a Charlotte Mason education was child-centred. This bothered me because I don't believe education should be child-centred. A careful reading of Charlotte Mason's own words showed that while we respect the personhood of a child, the child isn't meant to be the centre of the universe. Moral of story: find out for ourself. Go to the source if you can. Get on the right train.

Preparation - this goes hand-in-hand with Philosophy. If you have the foundation provided by a philosophy it enables you to prepare. What books, resources and ideas can I use as building materials? The preparation may have to come before the philosophy, depending on your circumstances. I had a good idea of what I wanted to do, and had prepared my mind over a number of years, so my search was to find a philosophy that fitted with my beliefs and ideas.

What does Gods Word say? - about children, about mothers and fathers, about responsibilities, teaching, and roles. Does my philosophy line up with what God's Word says about these things? Have I imbibed my ideas from the culture around me or have I thought them through in the light of God's Word? When I became a Christian at age nineteen, I was pretty shocked when I realised how much my view of life was unintentionally shaped by the culture I was steeped in, but just because you've been a Christian all your life doesn't mean you are exempt from absorbing the current cultural norms.

Learning from the Body - for different reasons there is sometimes a tendency for home educators to form a sub-culture, but if you're a Christian, the Body of Christ, the Church, is your culture. We all need people around us who 'get' what we are doing and who support us, but we also need those other members of the Body to provide a balance and who can speak into our blind spots.

'Anything works if the teacher works.' - so said Marva Collins, the educator and activist who started her own school and welcomed the 'unteachable' students who had been rejected by other schools.
I often think of this comment in the context of curriculum. If we're having a hard time teaching maths or our child isn't doing well with writing, it's common to blame the curriculum. And sometimes what we're using is not a good fit and we may need to change to something else, but often we just need to persevere and find a way to make it work. Between the abundance of advertising and someone's praise of the curriculum they've just found, it's tempting to believe that a change will solve all our problems. It probably won't. I appreciate Collins' words because we didn't have a lot of choice when we first started out, but our children received a great education anyway, and we spent our money on quality literature instead.

Less is more - there are so many activities homeschoolers can get involved with now that weren't available in the early days of homeschooling in Australia. I always advise not committing to too much if you have young children, or lots of them. There's time enough later and it's hard to form habits and routines if you're always out. If I needed some time out, I tried to make it in the evenings or a Saturday morning when my husband could be home with the kids so I wasn't dragging everyone out.

Outdoor Life - being outside gives you a certain disposition of mind and a different perspective. If you can't do anything else, take a blanket outside, lie down for awhile with a book, and let the kids loose. I had a couple of nearby parks I'd venture out to when I thought my boys needed to burn up some energy and where I could keep an eye on everyone without too much trouble.

Mother Culture - growing your soul, strengthening your mind, educating yourself, are areas we need to work on. This becomes more necessary as our children get older but it's also important to start early so it becomes a habit in your life. Our children need to see that we're not stagnant; that we are growing and honing our skills, and not just requiring it of them.

It's the little foxes that steal the grapes - we've had a few dramas or crises over the years that definitely impacted our homeschooling but it was mostly the little things, day in, day out, that sucked away at our peace. I heard this the other week: 'If you focus on the negative you empower it.'
Depending on the type of person you are, it's possible to find the negative on a regular basis. It's common sense to acknowledge that, 'Yes, there is some work to be done here,' but whether it be habit training, a disagreeable character trait, or whatever, finding a way to deal with the problem without giving it more power takes some creative wisdom.
'If any of you lack wisdom...' James 1:5


*  We do all this calling on the Grace of God

*  He gives wisdom to those who ask

*  He gently leads those that have young (Isaiah 40:11)

*  Seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)

*  To the faithful He shows himself faithful (2 Samuel 22:6)

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is a collection of nine essays that were transcribed from talks or sermons that Lewis gave during World War II and the years immediately afterwards, with the last (A Slip of the Tongue) delivered in 1956.
The HarperCollins edition I have, pictured above, has an introduction by Walter Hooper, an American who corresponded with Lewis for some years. In 1963, Lewis invited Hooper to visit him in England and they met at least three or four times a week, sometimes at his home, or sometimes in a pub with Lewis's group of friends called 'The Inklings.' Hooper was later to become Lewis's literary assistant and personal secretary and also his companion when he was ill.
Hooper's anecdotes of his time with C.S. Lewis give a wonderful glimpse into Lewis's character. He describes him as a 'ruddy, six-foot, genial man,' and that one of the most attractive things about him was his uproarious sense of fun.

' would take someone of Boswell's talents to give the right idea to the completeness of this remarkable man, to show how naturally the humour blended into the more serious side, and indeed was one of the causes of his greatness, his large intellect, and the most open charity I have ever found in anyone.
He was a man, many of us have come to see, of common instincts combined with very uncommon abilities...I just knew - that no matter how long I lived, no matter who else I met, I should never be in the company of such a supremely good human being again.'

I've always appreciated C.S.Lewis but this personal account of what the man was really like increased my regard for him.
I'm only going to comment on four of the essays in this book. They were all exceptional but some were philosophically difficult for me to get my head around so here are my thoughts on those I was able to get some sort of handle on.

The Weight of Glory

The weight or burden is glory is that, because of the work of Christ, any of us who really chooses shall one day stand before God and find approval:

' be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son - it seems impossible, a weight or burden of Glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain.
But it is so.'

Lewis states that our desires are not too strong, but too weak.

In the New Testament and early Christian writings, Salvation was associated with palms, crowns, thrones  - i.e. Glory. These things don't appeal to the typical modern but they did to Christians in times past.
The divine accolade of "Well done, good and faithful servant," is a scriptural view.

'For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.'

There are no 'ordinary' people. These words open up a whole new dimension when it comes to relating to others. Which destination am I helping this person, or that one, to reach?

'It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations...'

Learning in War-Time

C.S. Lewis delivered this sermon in October 1939, about six weeks after World War II started. He asks whether, given the circumstances of war, we should continue to spend time on such things as literature, art, mathematics or biology, which seem relatively trivial. His perspective is that life has never been normal. Life has always been full of crises and emergencies in even the most peaceful times. There have always been reasonable instances to curtail our merely cultural activities but humanity has chosen to ignore those instances so we find Man conducting 'metaphysical arguments in condemned cells' and making 'jokes on the scaffolds.' Lewis himself, in the previous war, found that the nearer you came to the front line, the less you thought and spoke of the campaign or the cause. I remember this was the case when I read All Quiet on the Western Front.

'The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never gave begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal.'

And this gem:

'Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue in your happiness to the future...
It us our daily bread that we are to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.'

The Inner Ring

This was one of my favourite essays in this book and I immediately understood what Lewis meant by this and could call to mind the numerous 'Inner Rings' I've been aware of, or perhaps even been a part of throughout my life.
The Inner Ring phenomenon is an unwritten system with no formal rules. Lewis uses some lines from Chapter 9 of Tolstoy's War & Peace to explain this system which 'compelled a tightly laced wait respectfully for his turn while a mere captain...chatted with a mere second Lieutenant.'
The second lieutenant decided that the unwritten system was the one he was going to be guided by. He knew he was a member of the Inner Ring and the general was not.
Lewis realises that Inner Rings are necessary at times:

'I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions, and it is not only a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together...'

But he also points out that,

'...the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.'

The longing to be inside takes many forms and this desire, according to Lewis, 'is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action...
Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life.'

So, Inner Rings are to be found in the schoolyard, in the work place, in university, in politics, in home education groups and sadly, in some churches.
Some questions to ask ourselves regarding this are:

Have I ever neglected a friend I loved in order to court the friendship of someone who appeared more important or 'esoteric'?

Have I ever derived pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the 'outsiders' after I have been on the inside of that Ring?

Do I want to join a certain group because I want to be in the know?

If I am 'in' this Inner Ring, do I make it hard for the next person who wants to be a part if it?

'Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things...
Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain...'

'The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.'

Ultimately a genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion and as Lewis points out,
'The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.'

Highly recommended!


The Church is the Body of Christ and we are members of one another.
Lewis explores the community aspect of Christianity and points out that in our age the individual is exalted and religion is seen as belonging to our private lives.
This is a paradox and a strategy of the enemy as the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion and the modern world wants everyone to be a part of a collective.

'When the modern world says to us aloud, "You may be religious when you are alone," it adds under its breath, "and I will see to it that you never are alone."'

 Another stratagem of the enemy is for us to react by transferring our spiritual life into the same collectivism that is already part and parcel of our secular life.

'...the Christian life defends the single personality from the collective, not by isolating him but by giving him the status of an organ in the mystical Body.'

In conclusion: 

As with just about everything I've read by C.S. Lewis, these essays were top notch. If you don't get to read the whole book I'd recommend at least The Inner Ring which is free to read online here and The Weight of Glory, here
Some biographical details.

Linking to 2017 Cloud of Witnesses Challenge and The Classics Club 


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Notes from the 2017 Newcastle Mum Heart Conference

This is a post to address some questions that came up during my Charlotte Mason Workshop and also in personal conversations over the weekend.


* Older children can start their work independently so you may spend time with the youngest ones.
The subjects that worked best for us with this were Maths, Copywork, Music Practice & regular jobs e.g. emptying the dishwasher or bringing down the washing.

* Keep lessons short but don't let them waste time.

* If I don't cover some things during a week, I schedule them first thing the next day/week. This way we get to cover everything & don't send the message that some areas are less important than others. It seems to be the more 'unpractical' things that miss out otherwise. Poetry, picture study etc are not extras that we tack on if we have enough time.

* Alternate the type of lessons so there is a natural 'rest' between lessons. 'When Children Love to Learn' edited by Elaine Cooper (see pg. 215) divides subjects into Inspirational and Disciplinary subjects. By alternating subjects between the two groups we provide this rest:

Inspirational Subjects  
Composer Study
Nature Study
Picture Study
Read Aloud

Disciplinary Subjects

Physical Education


The question came up regarding finding the time to listen to multiple narrations.
Some ideas if you have a few children & they all have to narrate:

*   Combine some books & they take turns narrating

*   If you follow Ambleside Online there can be around 4 or 5 readings per day, depending on how you schedule your week.  If they’re older one of those re-tellings could be a written narration, another a science notebook entry (write up an experiment/draw what happened etc); an entry on their history timeline; an oral narration; a picture narration; a diagram. They could also record their own narration (Voxer is something I’ve heard others talk about but have never used myself).

*  I made out a weekly schedule for everyone & allowed them to choose what they wanted to do from that & checked during the week to see that they were getting through it. My older ones would often tell me before they were going to do a reading then I knew that around 15 or 20 mins later they would be ready to narrate. If I read aloud to them I got them to narrate as soon as I’d finished.

*  I found with my older children, that their oral narrations were usually short and to the point, so it didn't require a great deal of time to listen to them. My younger ones tended to be more verbose.

*  An older child could listen to a younger one's oral narration & write it out. You check it later. Multiple children could act out a scene from a book or a Shakespeare play. We had a few historical battles acted out...

*  I had them do most of their oral narrations in the morning when I had less distractions, then after lunch we had a time all together where we did devotions, read aloud, poetry & maybe something else I chose such as picture study or composer.

*  If you have a child who is a good writer & enjoys it, you can increase their written work & not have as many oral narrations. I’d only do this if they had spent a few years honing their oral narration.

*  Late readers – oral narrations will prepare them for written work when they do learn to read; read aloud good quality literature; use audio books & have them follow along with the book.

*  If you don’t get to hear an oral narration for some reason, before you read the next chapter in the book, ask them what happened in the previous chapter. I usually do this anyhow.

* Children need a rich & varied background of reading to be able to express themselves. If they can’t narrate a book it’s often a sign that the book isn’t ‘living.’

* Children don’t have to completely understand everything for a book to have done its work. My daughter has just finished reading The Mystery of the Periodic Table (AO Year 6). A couple of times when she came to narrate what she'd read she'd say, "I didn't really understand that." So I asked her to tell me something about what she had understood. There was always something she could tell me. Charlotte Mason used the analogy of a bountiful feast, a tantalizing smorgasborg, that we spread before our children - they won't be able to eat everything on the table but they will come away satisfied.

*  Written narration with boys - teach them how to touch type & let them use the computer if they are hampered by the physical act of writing. Some of our boy's narrations improved dramatically when we did this. Typing narrations was also helpful for my youngest daughter who had poor spelling but loved writing.

As they get more confident, make the requirements a bit higher. In the earlier years they start with a straight re-telling. Progress to different forms of writing e.g.creative narrations – write a poem, illustrate part of the story, draw a picture, write a newspaper article, write a letter.
Turn a poem into prose; re-write (paraphrase) a passage from a book in your own words – good for short essays; write a summary – eg a battle or historical event.

* In Volume 6 Charlotte Mason writes:  ‘Forms V and VI. (Grades 10-12) In these Forms some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life.’

I've used Wordsmith Craftman or Jensen's Format Writing at this stage to cover essay writing.
Try googling 'Expository writing' if you want some free resources to help with this. 
Transitioning from written narrations to essays:
I posted some ideas for written narrations here.


There is a tension between requiring children to work hard versus not requiring enough of them. The temptation is to give children less work if they’re struggling, but often they don't need less but just different. They need a broad curriculum with enough of a challenge to give them a push without overwhelming them. One of my children was very advanced for her age & I was talking to an older lady I knew about how to work with this. She suggested to go broader rather than pushing her ahead. I did this and it certainly didn't hinder her in any way.

One thing is certain in homeschooling whether you have a large family family or not - the only constant is change! At least that's what I've experienced. Children grow and develop, the mix of ages and stages change. We change. Life changes.

Some things to remember:

'The Lord is my Shepherd' - Psalm 23. He doesn't drive me, He leads me.

'He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young. - Isaiah 40:11

'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.' Matthew 11:28



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1966)

Russian author and Nobel Prize winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, completed his book Cancer Ward in 1966. English translations were published in 1968, and although book was banned in the Soviet Union, unauthorized Russian copies were distributed in samizdat.
The story takes place in a male cancer ward of a Soviet hospital in the mid-1950's and revolves around a number of characters, the central one being Oleg Kostoglotov. Kostoglotov's life mirrors that of Solzhenitsyn in that he was imprisoned for his criticism of Stalin, and after being diagnosed with stomach cancer, was transferred from the concentration camp to a cancer ward. And like Solzhenitsyn, he later recovered.
I was totally absorbed by this book's 570 pages and despite the fact that Russian literature is often notoriously hard to read, this book definitely wasn't.
The most fascinating aspect of Cancer Ward for me wasn't so much the allegorical links to the Communist regime and the descriptions of life in a dictatorship. As interesting as they were, there have been other books I've read that addressed this, one of them also written by Solzhenitsyn. (See One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich)
What was so interesting to me was the medical treatment of cancer and the attitude of the medical staff to patients and treatment.
Kostoglotov believed that he had the right to choose what form and how much treatment he should have. The medical profession believed that information should be withheld from patients, 'for their own good.' They didn't understand the technicalities and should leave the decisions to those who do. This is really no different to what used to happen in Australia, for instance. It wasn't uncommon to leave a patient ignorant of their impending doom. Relatives could make the call on whether to let a member of their family know that their disease was terminal. Even now, to question the standard method of treatment for something like cancer is to bring down the ire of the establishment upon yourself, as a friend of mine recently found out when she decided not to undergo chemotherapy after her cancer surgery.
The medical staff in that Russian hospital were conscientious and sincere and believed they were doing the right thing by Kostoglotov. They were tight-lipped about the hormonal therapy he was receiving and its long-term effect of impotency, but he didn't want to be saved 'at any price.'
Kostoglotov also did some of his own research and discovered that concern was beginning to surface in medical circles regarding the long term effects of radiotherapy.

The gist of it was that X-ray cures, which had been safely, successfully, even brilliantly accomplished ten or fifteen years ago through heavy doses of radiation, were now resulting in unexpected damage or mutilation of the irradiated parts.

...ten, fifteen or eighteen years ago when the term 'radiation sickness' did not exist, X-ray radiation had seemed such a straightforward, reliable and foolproof method, such a magnificent achievement of modern medical technique, that it was considered retrograde, almost sabotage of public health, to refuse to use it and to look for other, parallel or round-about methods.

Solzhenitsyn explores the relationship between doctors and patients and between fellow cancer sufferers as they go through their various forms of treatment.
There are numerous Translator's notes throughout the book that explain some of the historical background needed to understand the context of the author's writing, such as this:

Khrushchev had just become Party leader. He believed that wide cultivation of maize in the north of Russia would solve grain and fodder problems. He called upon Young Communists to fight those who didn't believe maize could be grown there. His scheme, however, was defeated by the climate.

Although Solzhenitsyn insisted that his book was simply about cancer, there are seemingly allegorical statements that contradict this:

A man dies from a tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and exiles?

I highly recommend this book, especially if you have some sort of  medical background. Solzhenitsyn was perceptive and prophetic and his insights into human nature were superb.

Some favourite passages:

It is not our level of prosperity that makes for happiness but the kinship of heart to heart and the way we look at the world. Both attitudes lie within our power, so that a man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy, and no one can stop him.

Nowadays we don't think much of a man's love for an animal; we laugh at people who are attached to cats. But if we stop loving animals, aren't we bound to stop loving humans too?

Soon it will be summer, and this summer I want to sleep on a camp-bed under the stars, to wake up at night and know by the positions of Cygnus and Pegasus what time it is, to live just this one summer and see the stars without their being blotted out by camp searchlights- then afterwards I would be quite content never to wake again.

As the two-thousand-year-old saying goes, you can have eyes and still not see.
But a hard life improves the vision. There were some in the wing who immediately recognized each other for what they were...It was as if they bore some luminous sign on their foreheads, or stigmata on their feet and palms...The Uzbeks and the Karakalpaks had no difficulty in recognising their own people in the clinic, nor did those who had once lived in the shadow of the barbed wire.

The Penguin translation I read was first published by The Bodley Head in 1968.

Linking to Back to the Classics 2017: Classic in Translation; The Classics Club and Books You Loved