Sit in the front row.

As I watch the neighborhood kids push and shove at the bus stop each morning when they line up to board, I recall someone asking me, “How will they learn things like how to stand in line?” when I told her my children were home-educated. This memory still makes me chuckle. You see, my son, who attended school through second grade, actually needed to relearn the “standing in line” skill when we began homeschooling. At a museum event, I observed that he was expert at the jockeying and jostling that passes for lining up among most schoolchildren. “If you can’t find a spot without touching someone, move to the end of the line,” I said as I walked past the pile-up. Schooled children often believe that being last is a punishment, and he still had one foot in that world. I explained that it was not a punishment; it was almost a prize of sorts, a way to distinguish oneself, at the very least. “Trust me,” I told him. “They almost never pick a pusher or the shover to do the cool stuff.” He reluctantly moved to the back of the line.

When the coordinator was looking for a student to help with the animals later, he chose my son.

It wasn’t the last time I was spot on about something.

My daughters, who were home-educated until they enrolled at the local college this summer, learned to assess the jockeying and jostling and calmly move to the rear, too, but they also learned to line up for the stuff that matters in my favorite way: by arriving so early you’re nearly always first. Heh, heh, heh.

The Misses are fresh off a wildly successful fall semester at the local college. Over the last sixteen weeks, though, from the stories they’ve shared with me, I’ve learned that standing in line is not the only skill their same-age peers may have mislearned. If you know a student who is heading to a college classroom this spring, share the following with him. It can’t hurt.

Sit in the front row.
It is difficult to disengage or become distracted from this position.

Complete the reading before class.
It makes everything clearer.

Reread class notes before the day is out.
This improves retention.

Take advantage of any extra credit opportunity an instructor offers.
It can only help.

Remember: Strong performance throughout the semester is like an insurance policy taken out on the final exam.
Translated: It is rare that a subpar final will “ruin” a strong A or a strong B.

Show up, even if participation is not part of the grade.
What was the point of enrolling in a conventional course, otherwise?

Participate, even if participation is not part of the grade.
Engagement may improve retention.

Complete the homework, even when it is not part of the grade.
It is impossible to master the material without using it.

Go to bed early.
What a difference it makes!

Eat breakfast and bring a snack.
Again, what a difference it makes.

Know the syllabus.
It’s more than just a calendar of assignments.

Check the online gradebook and assignment system at least once daily and use its tools.
It is difficult to believe that students so devoted to technology must be told this, but apparently they do.

Inventory the backpack before heading to class.
Pen, pencils, paper, calculator, text, assignment? Good to go. Now throw in some change, a filled water bottle, a Kind bar, phone, and keys.

Do not talk during class. Do not use the phone. Do not nap.
It is hard to believe that college students would do these things, but they do. Don’t.

Do not cram the night before the exam.
Complete the reading before class. Show up, even if participation is not part of the grade. Do not talk during class. Do not use the phone. Do not nap. Reread class notes before the day is out. Complete the homework, even when it is not part of the grade. In the days before the exam, take the practice tests in the study guide (online or conventional). On the night before the exam, go to bed early.

Ask for help before it’s too late.
See the instructor during office hours. Get a “study buddy.” Visit the tutoring center. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. And blaming the professor is lame. Ask for help.

Learn about the college’s policies, deadlines, resources, etc.
They’re usually covered in the catalogue but are also on the website. Know the drop/add deadlines, for example. Know where the tutoring center is. How to reach campus security. The hours for the library. Etc.

If a course requires online quizzes or tests, familiarize yourself with the system before taking them.

Do not leave said online quizzes or tests until the eleventh hour. Ditto for assignments that must be submitted online.
What if there is a thunderstorm? Or the website is down for maintenance?

When entering major papers or projects into the planning calendar, choose a date at least one week before the actual due date.
Make this a habit now. It’s a scheduling insurance policy because emergencies and illnesses do happen, but they are really no excuse. Plan for them now.

Only thirteen days until Christmas? How can that be?

Ordinarily, we head to the zoo on Thanksgiving Day, but the Misses studied during much of Wednesday and Thursday, so instead, we hiked through one of our county’s conservation areas. It was absolutely gorgeous, and we had the entire place to ourselves. Over the the remaining three days of the break, we saw Porgy and Bess at the Lyric Opera and Iphinegia at Aulis at the Court Theatre, and toured the Frederick C. Robie House.

And now another much-anticipated break is upon us. Bliss.

Since I last wrote, Miss M-mv(ii) “graduated” from the “Saturday Morning Physics” (SMP) program at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.  SMP comprises nine two-hour lectures and eight behind-the-scenes tours to “further the understanding and appreciation of modern physics among high school students.” She positively relished the experience. She and her sister also wrapped up their semester; they took the last of this semester’s finals yesterday. They have already received their grades from that and from the exams taken earlier in the week. (And, yes, we’ve indulged in our share of high-fiving, exploding fist bumps, and happy celebration.)

We also enjoyed the first of our winter break adventures: We visited the Art Institute for “Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor,” “Strokes of Genius: Italian Drawings from the Goldman Collection,” and “Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints.” And then we headed to Victory Gardens Theater for The Testament of Mary, which was beautiful and fierce and achingly sad. (Reviews here and here.)

In the coming weeks, we will see five more plays, visit at least four museums and a zoo, hike in several county conservation areas, and spend time at the indoor archery range. Miss M-mv(ii) plans to build a robot; Miss M-mv(i) plans to prepare for an advanced statistics course; and all of us have music to practice and towering piles of books to read.

I may even have time to visit this site again before the New Year! Heh, heh, heh.

The fall semester is barreling toward its conclusion.

IMG_4254Only the rest of this week, a two-day week before our much-anticipated Thanksgiving respite, a full week, and finals remain.

At the risk of jinxing it, I will confine my “mommy brag” to something on the order of, “It’s going quite well for them.” Heh, heh, heh. As I’ve mentioned before, Miss M-mv(ii) is a high school senior participating in the local college’s dual enrollment program, and Miss M-mv(i) is a freshman. They are taking a full load (fifteen credits this semester; fourteen, next), working on weekends, and continuing with music lessons and practice (violin and guitar, respectively). This semester, Miss M-mv(ii) has also spent most Saturday mornings at a program for aspiring physicists.


They are not just looking forward to Thanksgiving. Bring on the five-week winter break. Please.

In the midst of all of this, Miss M-mv(ii) and I have been working on college and scholarship applications. May I just say? It is not easy to get all of those essays and forms complete when you’re already carrying a full load of college courses. But she’s managing. Of the three colleges to which she applied during the priority application period, all have offered admission and two have offered generous merit scholarships and invitations to compete for additional merit awards. (We’re awaiting the official packet from the third university but suspect it will be the same story.) She’s working on her application to a fourth college in the interstices her studies and the requirements of the additional scholarship packets permit.

And frankly? I don’t know how it’s all getting done, but it is. She amazes me. They both amaze me.

As for their plans, well, at this writing, I’ve said just about everything that can be said with any certainty. If all goes as well as it has been, they will have accumulated thirty-three transferable credits at the conclusion of the spring semester, and the plan is to take at least two more classes (six to eight credits total) over the summer session. Miss M-mv(i) will complete her transfer applications to the three colleges to which Miss M-mv(ii) has already been admitted as soon as fall semester grades are official, and once she receives their responses, serious discussions about what comes next will ensue.

Until then, I am collecting their “You will not believe what happened in class today!” anecdotes for a special “Advice — take it, leave it” post.

Where we’ve been

In July, as I mentioned, we saw the accomplished Larry Yando in the Writers’ Theatre’s production of The Dance of Death. Reviews here and here. Unsurprisingly, Yando and Shannon Cochran (Alice) were nominated for Jeff Awards, as was the director, Harry Wishcamper. (By the way, when you read over the nominations, remember that I (sort of) predicted Kate Fry’s nod, too.) There is no question that Yando’s superior performance as Edgar presaged his searing turn as Lear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, a production we saw earlier this month. Reviews of the CST’s King Lear here and here. Highly recommended.

In August, we also saw Brigadoon at the Goodman Theatre. Reviews here and here.

■ Before the fall semester began, we visited Fermilab. It had been four years since we were last there. Wonderful stuff, particularly since we were assigned an engaging and knowledgeable docent.

Mr. M-mv and I volunteered one evening per week at the local library throughout the summer months. We have been on hiatus from that gig, though, while we complete the orientation, classes, observation sessions, and practicum required for certification as literacy volunteers.

Speaking of Mr. M-mv, he and Miss M-mv(ii) gave a performance at a local venue in late August. They were amazing in a mandolin and ukulele duet followed by a guitar duet. They are continuing their lessons and plan to perform again in the spring.

And speaking of music, because Miss M-mv(i) is able to continue violin lessons with her current teacher. They had thought their lesson in mid-August was their last, but the college course load, while time-consuming, is not at all overwhelming. They were so delighted to begin working together again last week.

My flute lessons began the week before that, and, yes, I am thoroughly enjoying the pursuit.

The Misses have just entered the sixth week of their fall semester at the local college, and all is well. They experienced great success in their two summer session courses and have made a strong beginning in this one. They’re full-time students there — Miss M-mv(i) is a freshman; Miss M-mv(ii) is a high school senior participating in the college’s dual enrollment program — and at this writing, it looks as if they will have either 34 or 38 transferable credits when they head into the Fall 2015 semester. They have narrowed their list of colleges to four (which has made this season of college visits less stressful), although [insert name here] University emerged as a particular favorite this past week, following meetings with the chairs of their respective departments, a long talk with the director of the University’s honors college, and a compelling description of the scholarship package Miss M-mv(ii) will be offered.

As they did last year and the year before, the Misses will work as swim instructors and lifeguards in the community swim program during the academic year. They are also looking for a meaningful volunteer project. They met the service coordinator at a college program last week and were invited to visit the office for help making contacts.

■  We’ve all been walking, biking, and reading, too. (My reading list is kept here.)

Illinois Shakespeare Festival


Behind the Ewing Cultural Center with the Misses.

In Timothy Findley’s historical fantasy Elizabeth Rex, the Earl of Essex awaits execution for treason, and on the eve of his death, his queen has commanded Shakespeare’s troupe to entertain the court with Much Ado about Nothing. Afterward, she makes her way to the stables where the actors are passing the night, and there, she learns, among many other things, that the playwright’s as yet unfinished Antony and Cleopatra is patterned, to a degree, on her own reign.

In a wonderful piece of theatrical symmetry, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival presented all three plays this year, and we were fortunate to see them in the an order that ensured full appreciation of all of the clever casting decisions and related doubling of roles: the “original practices” production of Much Ado, featuring an all-male cast; followed by Elizabeth Rex, which offered the same cast, now “themselves” — actors passing a long evening in the court stables; followed by Antony and Cleopatra, in which Elizabeth becomes, in fact “the serpent of the Nile.”

We first saw Elizabeth Rex at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in late 2011, after which I accurately predicted that the regal Diane D’Aquila would receive a Jeff Award. To us, it seemed improbable that any actress could approach D’Aquila, but Milwaukee actress Deborah Staples met her, line for line, and then dazzled the next day as Cleopatra.

While nearly all of the Festival company were strong, another standout was Christopher Prentice. In one of those moments in which time folds in upon itself and leaves me breathless, I read in the program that Prentice is a founding member of the Signal Theatre Ensemble, where, in 2003, he played Benedick in Much Ado. Eleven years ago, my son and I saw that production at a studio of the Anthenaeum Theatre on the grounds of St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago. Prentice was a wonderful Benedick but a far more impressive Beatrice and then a perfect Ned in Elizabeth Rex.

The Festival runs through August 9. Highly recommended.

And whoosh! Now it’s August.

Since my last post, we’ve seen The Dance of Death at the Writers’ Theatre (reviews here and here) and the Globe-to-Globe production of Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (reviews here and here). The former, which featured the formidable Larry Yando, made us anticipate his Lear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater next month. The latter employed a worn-out framing device but also offered a new (to us) perspective on the titular character: What if he weren’t melancholy at all? It took several scenes for us to embrace the idea fully, but we did, and it made for spirited conversation on the (long) trip home.

When we were in town for Hamlet, we finally saw Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary at the Art Institute. While there, we are certain we espied Naveen Andrews, who was in Chicago to film “Sense8″ for Netflix. Not wanting to be one of those fans, I refrained (barely) from squealing, “Sayid!” I know the actor is not the character, but perhaps he would have enjoyed knowing how much we enjoyed his portrayal. We’ll never know.

Other than than that, our little group has been working and studying, reading and biking, volunteering and really? Just relaxing. Which, I can assure you, is a good, good thing.

“It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester.”

From In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic (Professor X; 2011):

p. 38

Over the years, I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms. It is very difficult to make up for gaps in a lifetime of reading and practice over the course of a fifteen-week semester. As Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, says, “Writing involves abilities we develop over our lifetimes. Some students are more advanced in them when they come to college than are others. Those who are less advanced will not develop to a level comparable to the more-prepared students in one year or even two, although they may reach adequate levels of ability over time.”

p. 88

I am actually surprised that a larger sprinkling of good students doesn’t turn up in my Huron State classes. I have come to think of two-year colleges as a great bargain. If you are a particular type of good student – someone who is in it for grades and low cost, someone who can sit through rudimentary lectures without falling asleep, who can listen to the rambling and disconnected answers of your fellow students without wanting to bludgeon them, who can listen to your teacher’s repeated attempts to pull answers out of a class without wanting to scream out the bleedingly obvious response – if you are someone who can avoid falling into despair when college classes have high-school-type problems, and the library is so lightly usesd, and no one really ever reads of word of anything, then a place like Huron State is a great buy.

p. 93

There are many things to love about teaching writing and literature. It happens that I enjoy nothing more than trying to convey to a class something of my passion for a great short story, or the satisfaction a writer can feel upon nailing a point with a phrase that tells.

p. 135

First of all, twenty-first-century American culture makes it difficult to fail people. Our society, for all its blathering about embracing diversity and difference, really has no stomach for diversity and difference when it constitutes disparity. We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking – simply a better student – than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. […] Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.

p. 150

I understand how we got to such a place. I understand the impulse to make college a welcoming and unthreatening environment. I can’t even say that I think, in theory, it’s a bad idea. Who would endorse the idea of anyone, under any circumstances, being frightened? And I understand the economic factors: that if we’re admitting to college hordes of students who have no business being there, college really has to be welcoming. The effect, though, is to leech all authority from the instructors by having them dance attendance on the students, and to render them impotent.

p. 152

I find myself viewing the study of literature as one more indignity visited upon the proletariat, like too-frequent traffic stops and shoes with plastic uppers and payday loans.

p. 154

I had an art teacher in high school who once said something I think is very important. He was teaching us to sculpt clay, and he said as we began, “There are several important things you want your sculpture to do.” I was young at the time, and enraptured with my newly acquired vocabulary of art. I thought he was going to talk about form and function, about depth and resonance. He went on: “Here’s the first one. Your sculpture has to stand up solidly. It can’t wobble.” I was disappointed at the time, but have since come to see his instruction as profound, and the words of not just an art teacher but an artist. Art can’t wobble. We expect our houses to plumb, our tables solid – why not our paragraphs?

Where we’ve been

Over the Independence Day holiday weekend, Family M-mv attended opening day at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, where the falconer is one of our favorite stops.

The following two weekends were consumed by swim meets. You know, sometimes things end in a sigh, not a shout. So it was with this summer swim season — and perhaps even this chapter in our lives. The short story is that they swam beautifully this season but missed their goals. The longer story is that the team is finalizing its winter practice and meet schedule, and my swimmers wonder — just as their brother did at about the same age and the same point in his studies — if they really want to continue in the sport.

They have been knee-deep in their college courses throughout most of the summer season and know that they can do both, but neither intended to swim competitively in college. While Miss M-mv(i) will be a bona fide college freshman, Miss M-mv(i) will only be a high school senior this fall, and a young one, at that. (Her conventionally schooled peers will be juniors this year.) Her ambivalence is understandable, then, especially since leaving the team now renders her ineligible for the senior scholarship.

That said, theirs are not necessarily easy rosters. Over the next two semesters, they have trigonometry, calculus, college composition I and II, physics, introduction to psychology, and electives. They work ten hours weekly during the academic year, and Miss M-mv(ii) has already committed to continuing her piano and guitar practice, lessons, performances, and competitions.

So, we may have attended our last swim meet this past weekend. Sweet, bitter. Bitter, sweet.


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