Saturday, February 26, 2011

John Coltrane's Giant Steps

John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Richard Jackson Books (Atheneum Hardcover))John Coltrane’s Giant Steps remixed by Chris Raschka, “A Richard Jackson Book,” Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2002

This is a book I’ve wanted to get my hands on for a while, and it did not disappoint. I love the simplicity/complexity of it, the way words and art synchronize to describe Coltrane’s music. This book doesn’t come with a CD, but I highly recommend listening to a performance of John Coltrane playing “Giant Steps.” (The text stands on its own, but it is about the music, after all. I shared this video with my children; they enjoyed the animation and were impressed with the music, even though they have much less experience with jazz than with classical.)

In explaining the piece, Raschka turns the book into a performance, one which doesn’t go perfectly the first time through. The performers are unusual: a box, (bass), a snowflake, (piano), some raindrops, (drums), and a kitten (saxophone). He sets things up, describes the role of each performer, and layers in the music, but things go awry on pages 18 and 19. Suddenly it feels as if we are sitting in on a rehearsal, and the author’s/director’s instructions to the musicians help us, the readers/audience, to understand the music even better. (And really, if I want to know a piece of music really well, I learn how to play it—it gives you the chance to interact with it on an entirely different level than you get to as an audience member.)

Mysterious TheloniousWhat a brilliant introduction to a jazz great. Author Chris Raschka has two other books I love about jazz musicians, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, and Mysterious Thelonius. These, too, display a genius for capturing the essence of the music with words and artwork.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hungry Souls

It is amazing to me that the shortest month of the year can be so interminable when you’re in the middle of it. The encouragement of friends is a blessing, and I recognize this year more than any other that these friends know to say encouraging things because they, themselves are stuck in the very same month. My friend Laura said the most beautiful thing the other day, and I gasped and said, “Oh, can I use that?” and wanted to grab my blank book out of my purse and write it down immediately. But even though she said yes, I felt awkward and figured I could just remember it. (I swear I remember times when I could remember stuff like that!) My little brain, though, feels awfully mushy right now, and I am still trying to recreate exactly what it was she said.

The essence of it, though, was that as homeschooling moms, as educators, we are in the business of feeding souls. Math facts, sentence diagrams, schedules, brushing teeth—all of that stuff is necessary and good and important to keep up. But she pointed out that if we feed the soul first, it is full and ready for other kinds of learning. When things are not going well—with homeschooling or violin or really anything else, the best antidote seems to be to stop and feed the soul. Breaking routine to listen to music, or read a book, or make a picture, or dance wildly—that stuff isn’t dessert, it’s steak!

The Magician's ElephantSomehow connected to that conversation is our latest read-aloud. I’ve been on a Kate DiCamillo kick recently, and just finished reading The Magician’s Elephant to the kids. (Oh, I love her voice and her themes of love and longing!) There is a passage I cannot get out of my head, where the magician from the title is in prison after a spell he said brought an elephant crashing through the roof of the opera house in which he was performing and crippled a woman in the audience. He is lying awake, staring up at a bright star (the planet Venus, actually) that appears outside his window at times, wishing he could show it to the injured woman, and wanting to ask her, “Have you, in truth, ever seen something so heartbreakingly lovely? What are we to make of a world where stars shine bright in the midst of so much darkness and gloom?” He learns later that there is much to make of the fact that those stars shine so brightly. But both his question and the fact that he wants to share what he sees and wonders continue to haunt me.

Yesterday morning, the morning after we finished the book, my dreamy Middle came downstairs with these words on her lips: “Mommy, what were the three questions the policeman kept asking? ‘What if…?’ ‘What if…?’ What were the others?” She found the book and looked it up herself:

“What if? Why not? Could it be?”

Food for the soul, I’m telling you.

Friday, February 18, 2011


When I go to a concert, I come home wanting to put together my own recital. When I go to a museum, my fingers itch to paint, draw, create. I guess those tendencies run in the family. This morning I took my kids to our University’s art gallery to see a wonderful little exhibit of Renaissance prints. While we were there we stopped into another exhibit that was decidedly different and postmodern, but also colorful and appealing. Everybody enjoyed themselves. There was no need to stay for a long time, but it made for a fabulous mini-field trip.

Did they understand everything there? Probably not. Did they love everything they saw? Definitely not. But it didn’t really matter.

When we got home, Youngest made her own gorgeous series of pictures. My favorite is this self-portrait:

Oldest sat down to write a story, and didn’t complain when I helped him edit and prepare a second draft. He showed me the folder he created on the computer to hold all his writing, and I couldn’t help but notice the pride with which he surveyed his accumulating work, not to mention the diligence with which he recorded the word count for every piece.

Middle likes to let things simmer for a while, but I know she has a head full of new images and ideas just waiting to be turned into something concrete. Her eyes are shining with the fullness of her thoughts.

There are people in my town who think the university here is an elitist institution. There are people in the university who think that music and fine arts have no part to play on a liberal arts campus. My kids don’t know anything about these discussions. What they do know is that the desire to create, to express, to communicate, and to share is a basic part of human nature. They saw art and responded with their own. And nobody needed to ask or tell them to join the Conversation.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Making Sparks

Bright eyes. Lit-up face. Alert body. The world expands. You can almost grab the light bulb over the child’s head and hand it to her. Sometimes his whole body springs into action, ready to do, try, create. I really, really, really love being part of these moments—they are a gift for everybody involved. So it’s more than worth it to me to take notice of when and how learning happens:

When there’s appeal
When there’s beauty
When there’s humor
When the child takes some initiative
When everybody is relaxed
When learning doesn’t feel like learning
When everybody is having fun
With repeated exposure
With good tools
With questions
With incentives/tangible rewards
With structure
With modeling
With encouragement

In my experience, there’s more than one way to create a spark. What works with one child, or for a particular subject, or at a certain stage, is not guaranteed to work across the board. I find that I have to be willing to continually evaluate, shake things up, switch things around, and generally get crafty.

So talk to me. When do you see sparks? When do they really start flying?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Carnival of the Animals

The Carnival of the Animals (Book and CD)The Carnival of the Animals, music by Camille Saint-Saëns, new verses by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Mary GrandPré, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

You probably know by now how much I love picture books like this. Combine whimsical poetry, illustration, and classical music, add one or more children and a cozy spot for curling up to look and listen, and you’ve got a real treasure. This kind of learning—environmental, multisensory, relaxed, purely enjoyable, simple—is a winner all the way around.

A big thank you to my friend, Christy, for loaning me her family’s copy of this book—I’ve wanted to get my hands on it for months. Jack Prelutsky’s poems are familiar, playful descriptions of each animal featured in Saint-Saën’s sparkling music, and Mary GrandPré’s colorful illustrations create a perfect backdrop for both. You really can’t lose.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Never-ending Lesson

Apparently I need to have the same revelations over and over before they really stick (tell me you’re like that too—that you don’t figure something out and bam, on to the next thing because this one is no longer an issue for you.) Through teaching, parenting, being a wife, daughter, friend, sister—I keep coming back to two things: grace and process. As in, nobody’s perfect, and life is all about the journey. I know—can you get any more cliché? I’ve been hearing stuff like that for years, and it tends to sound inane when other people say it, but I’m starting to think that’s only because it’s one of those lessons everybody has to learn for themselves.

It’s sort of like how everybody says that being a mother is the hardest job in the world, and you nod and say, of course, of course it is, but you really have no idea what that means until you are lying awake in bed at night wondering how somebody as unqualified for the job as you was allowed to become a mother. And then it hits you, that this is why everybody says that. But at the same time you are thinking, why didn’t anybody tell me it was going to be so hard? I mean, they said it would be hard, but nobody warned me about THIS!

Nobody’s perfect. You learn by doing. You learn from your mistakes. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way. We’re all in this together. I’ve secretly scorned these over-used words. I knew they were true, but I didn’t get it. I was oblivious to the fact that these things I heard over and over again were like cries into the darkness—that people who had been there before me were trying to help me learn it a little sooner than they themselves did. But even though it’s possible to hear a thing once and take it to heart, I think more often we really do have to learn things for ourselves, and (oh, sometimes I hate this part!) we’re all on a different time frame.

I learn about grace because I find I personally need truckloads of it from others. I discover that my children and my students need to hear certain things a million times for the same reason I do—because some things apparently just need to be heard a million, maybe even a million-and-seven, times. I realize that you can’t rush things because the more I rush, the more I stumble. I accept that mistakes and wrong turns are part of the learning process mainly because I’ve learned so much from my own mistakes and wrong turns.

It is all a process. Much grace is needed. I tell myself over and over, and then I forget. The sooner I remember again, the better, but then I have to also remember that these things apply not just to others, but also to myself. That seems to be the main difference between panicking and moving forward from where we are.

So the clichés were all true. The only thing left is to go live out those truths—and learning how to do that, I guess, is a process. Grace to us on our journey.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

10 Bits of (Stormy) Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. The very first snowflakes
2. The sound of wind
3. The curve of drifted snow
4. The feel of a hot mug in your hands
5. Marshmallows melting in hot chocolate
6. Wool socks
7. Blue shadows
8. Shelter
9. Setting “life” aside for the weather
10. Sunlight the next day

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?