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

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Behind the Ewing Cultural Center with the Misses.

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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

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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.

“Why then, ’tis good to be a post.”

JAQUES: Why, ’tis good to be sad and say nothing.
ROSALIND: Why then, ’tis good to be a post.

More from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

Act One, Scene Three
CELIA: Why, cousin! why, Rosalind! Cupid have mercy! not a word?

ROSALIND: Not one to throw at a dog.

CELIA: No, thy words are too precious to be cast away upon curs; throw some of them at me; come, lame me with reasons.

Act Two, Scene One
DUKE SENIOR: And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

Act Two, Scene Seven
JAQUES: Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.

Act Three, Scene Two
JAQUES: God be wi’ you: let’s meet as little as we can.
ORLANDO: I do desire we may be better strangers.

Act Three, Scene Five
ROSALIND: But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.
So take her to thee, shepherd: fare you well.

Act Four, Scene One
ROSALIND: But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

Whoosh! It’s July!

Some of the things we did last month:

■ Bike rides
We aim for two or three each week, mostly over the weekend. We’re not setting the trail on fire, but we are definitely stronger than we were when we ventured onto it a few years ago.

Driving Miss Daisy via “Broadway on Screen”
Starring Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. Simply wonderful.

Henry V at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Sigh. Perhaps it was not in this production’s best interests that we saw Tom Hiddleston as Hal in The Hollow Crown just a week or so prior. And then there is our fondness for the 1989 Branagh film. In any event, we all thoroughly disagree with the reviews (here, here, here): For us, this was a Henry V in which titular character was o’ermastered and outdone by nearly every other character on stage. As Miss M-mv(ii) put it at intermission, “He’s a minor character in his own play,” and his lack of gravitas and charisma pointed to an underlying want of vision that deeply disappointed us.

■ Long-course meets
Neither swimmer is hitting her stretch goals, but both have managed to cut a few times and may do so again in their last regular LCM meet mid-month. They are both swimming in the summer regional championships, too,

■ “Kandinsky: A Retrospective” at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Completely, thoroughly, and totally worth the drive. If you’re in the area before September 1, make time for this exhibition.

Speaking of art… We had planned to attend a members’ preview of “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary” at the Art Institute of Chicago but instead relished a thoroughly unscheduled Sunday. We will be downtown later this month and will catch the exhibition then.

■ Volunteer service at the local library
Mr. M-mv and I do this together, one evening a week. Later this summer, we will also begin training to become literacy volunteers.

■ College courses
The Misses are in the fourth week of summer session at the local college. Their second course, which runs for only four weeks, begins after the holiday weekend. In early June, they completed new student orientation and registered for their fall semester. Miss M-mv(ii), a high school senior now, has selected the colleges to which she’d like to apply, and Miss M-mv(i) already knows to which colleges she will apply for transfer admission. Exciting times for both students!

■ MOOC
“When I’m not here,” Isabella of Magnificent Octopus writes, “I MOOC too much.”

I’m not certain that what I’m doing qualifies as “too much,” but I am working on two courses (programming and statistics) and am registered for another (about comic book art), and this next bit from that same entry describes some of my thoughts about the work:

What I am establishing in taking these courses is some kind of discipline: setting a goal, sticking to schedule, completing the task. The trick now is to carry this ability over to the rest of my life, remove the MOOCs from the equation (wean myself away), but transfer the energy and focus to something else. (But what?)

But what, indeed. For nearly eighteen years, home education, parenting, and my paid writing and researching gigs (as well as the occasional “real” parttime job), structured my days. When I retired in 2008, home education and parenting continued to order the daily. Now both of my students are enrolled in college — about three months earlier than we had planned — and the ninety or so days that I had thought would give me a gentle transition from homeschooling to, well, not homeschooling anymore await my plans.

The MOOCs have quickly, easily, familiarly filled a void while I ease into what comes next.

Looking ahead…
We have several adventures on the calendar, including five plays (three of which we will see at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival) and the aforementioned exhibit at the Art Institute. We’re also looking forward to the Bristol Renaissance Faire and a trip to Fermi Lab.

With excellence and heart

Several years back, it caused many a twisted panty and no small amount of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing when I posted the February 29, 2008 Wall Street Journal article, “What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?” to a homeschooling message board. The article simply asserts that “well-trained teachers and responsible children” are the key to that country’s educational success.

There had been a similarly angst-y flurry a few months earlier, when I posted The Economist‘s “How to be top,” which asserts, “The quality of teachers affects student performance more than anything else.”

Begin with hiring the best. There is no question that, as one South Korean official put it, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Studies in Tennessee and Dallas have shown that, if you take pupils of average ability and give them to teachers deemed in the top fifth of the profession, they end up in the top 10% of student performers; if you give them to teachers from the bottom fifth, they end up at the bottom. [Emphasis added.]

Why the knicker knots? you wonder. Because I posited that the same could be said about homeschooling — that is, for the most part, the endeavor will only be as successful as the parent-teacher.

I was reminded of these two articles (and the irritation my insistence on drawing analogous conclusions about home educators inspired) yesterday, while reading a lengthy discussion about homeschooling and using resources and teachers in co-ops and other settings.

For about seventeen years, I’ve maintained that I am the opposite of a homeschooling evangelist. In short, I don’t think everyone can do this. I don’t think everyone should. And I most certainly have met people — in person and online — that I fervently wish weren’t attempting this since they, their children, and the stereotypes they perpetuate are the reason my family rarely announces that we homeschool.

That’s not a popular position, of course, because it’s not all daffodils and sunshine and “You can do this!” It’s not particularly encouraging or affirming. But sometimes, the kindest thing is the truth, and the truth is not everyone who decides to attempt this thing will be good or even adequate. You see, it simply is not enough to love your children. It’s not enough to design a school room, wallpaper your homes in books, buy memberships to museums, and collect curricula. Nope. You must also teach, and to teach well, you must be capable, smart, engaged, and certain.

The wonderful Marva Collins Collins wrote plainly but enthusiastically about the call to teach well:

Many of us can be excellent for a day, but we find a lifetime of excellence to be just a bit difficult. Good teachers leave their egos and problems at the door each morning. They become so immersed in the children they teach that they forget time, problems, who they are, or what they can’t do. They believe that they exist for their students. They hear with their hearts, they see with their souls, and they teach with their conscience.

Parker J. Palmer also defined the essence of teaching well:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are not in their methods but in their hearts — meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.

Let’s face it: Palmer is describing a level of expertise here, isn’t he? You can’t, after all, “weave a complex web of connections” if you don’t possess information and experience — expertise.

This is, of course, why teaching the upper grades is difficult — which is why we must introduce our students to other teachers, other learning settings. Many may be able to teach with excellence and heart in the elementary grades, but only some can do so in the secondary school grades, and then, only in some subjects. At that point, it becomes critical to identify resources — virtual schools, co-ops, dual enrollment programs, community mentors, or, if nothing else is available, the local high school — for the subjects in which we are unable to weave a complex web of connections. Oh, and by the way? This is a good thing socially, too, since some (not all, but some) homeschoolers and their parent-educators seem to have a tough time adapting to conventional classroom habits and expectations.

So, how are you doing?

Just as the students of the good and wonderful teachers we remember from our own school years did not all enroll in a “big name” college (or in college, at all), did not become prodigious accumulators of wealth or heroes on the battlefield or whatever, our own students may not, either. So if success in this endeavor will not be measured by where / if they attended college or what profession they enter, by what will it be measured?

I thoroughly believe that if you are doing this thing well — with excellence and heart — you already know the answer to that question.

Good luck, folks.

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