Outdoor Classroom

I once enjoyed the use of an outdoor classroom for Natural History (aka Science).  A path along the woods led to a clearing where a number of seats were arranged--yes, just the weathered stumps of some old trees with a diameter of 24" or more.  Nearby there was a statue of St. Francis and a bird feeder which drew titmice, nuthatches, finches, jays and chickadees (and squirrels, sigh).  The braver birds would come even when the students were gathered.  The students had to come on their own for observations, but I wish we had done more silent observation as a class.  This place was great; even if the birds didn't come, you could listen for their different calls.  Anybody could set this up who had a little copse nearby or even just a quiet outdoor space that could be made to feel separate with a hedge or fence. It just needs to feel slightly enclosed so the birds are brave enough to come and the students less easily distracted by passing cars, foot traffic, etc.

Over the summer we did not fill the bird-feeder.  Look how the woods attempted to take over!

French Camp

A friend of mine once ran a week long morning "French Camp" for the young girls in her area.  They learned new vocabulary every day and ate steak frites and cherry clafoutis.  They learned, memorized, sang, and performed french songs--with accents so good I was envious.  They asked me to come over and teach them how to embroider Sacred Heart Badges and tell them about the Vendee.  What a great idea! And how about an Italian Camp or Latin/Roman/Greek camp?  Or a Spanish camp?  It is so much fun for the children attending, and a very easy way to tell wonderful stories, try new dishes, teach a little history and language.  At a young age, learning vocabulary and the proper accent are so much easier--take advantage! The more they take pleasure in French or Latin, etc., the more likely they are to attempt these languages in depth.  That will serve them and others in countless ways.

Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise the Rain

Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.
--Conrad Aiken

May Watts teaches Tree Identification with Socratic Questions!

Planning some outdoor classes for this spring, maybe next fall? I cannot recommend too highly this series of books by May Watts.  The Tree Finder comes in a handy size, about 3"x5" with good pen and ink illustrations, and a series of careful questions to help you identify what you are looking at.  To read this book is to gain an education in noticing.  Watts asks:  Does this tree have alternate branching or opposite?  If alternate, turn to page . . . Does this tree have simple or compound leaves?  If simple, turn to page . . .  Are the leaves smooth or toothed? . . .  It is like a Socratic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure in botany. She asks the right questions and teaches you to ask the right questions.  These books are a pleasure to use.  Try also the Desert Tree Finder, the Flower Finder, and the Winter Tree Finder.

The Nature Study Guild also has others like the Winter Weed Finder and the Track Finder.

Magnanimity, Mistakes, and Improvisation

If we turn from self towards God, our understanding and our will become nobler and readier to embrace all that is good: if we never rise above the slough of our own miseries we do ourselves a great disservice. . . . buried in the wretchedness of our earthly nature these streams of ours will never disengage themselves from the slough of cowardice, pusillanimity and fear. We shall always be glancing around and saying: “Are people looking at me or not?” “If I take a certain path shall I come to any harm?” “Dare I begin such and such a task?” “Is it pride that is impelling me to do so?” “Can anyone as wretched as I engage in so lofty an exercise as prayer?” “Will people think better of me if I refrain from following the crowd?” “For extremes are not good,” they say, “even in virtue; and I am such a sinner that if I were to fail I should only have farther to fall; perhaps I shall make no progress and in that case I shall only be doing good people harm. (Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, I, Chapter 2, 19, trans. E. Allison Peers)
These words from Teresa of Avila set the stage for a talk I gave at Theology on Tap this February. Starting with these words from Teresa of Avila, I asked, "What's holding us back from that 'life to the full' Christ wants to give us?" Telling about the mercies of God in my own recent past, I made a pitch for trusting in God and not letting fear of the future, mistakes, or mixed motives hold you back.

Songs about Your Home

Everyone needs a song (or a few songs) about where they are from.  Here are mine, starting with "Back to Indiana" by the Elms . . .

Hoagy Carmichael's "Moon Country" is lovely. You can tell he talking about his home state (sycamores, possums, and he LIKES that stuff.  I mean, I do, too.)  While I like Eddie Condon's version best, here is a great version of "Back Home in Indiana" in a version with Kay Thompson (yes, the one who played that wonderful Miss Prescott, fashion guru in Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire).  The best song is The Samples' "I Remember the First Time I Drove Through Indiana."  Relish your own songs . . . sing them and love your home!

For Theater or Dance: Easy Starry Sky Backdrop

Once when staging Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life is a Dream, I wanted to have a backdrop of stars, maybe even moving stars.  The plot of this play turns heavily on the king's fascination with astrology, and many speeches refer to the stars and the sky.  Have you ever priced a real starry sky theater backdrop?  Yikes.  Real ones, while spectacular, can run in the thousands.  But do you have a projector?  These can run from $300 to more than $2000.  If you don't have access to one, then you are still stuck.  But if you do, then try projecting a free planetarium via Stellarium onto a backdrop of white sheets.  When the stage lights were on, the stars were almost invisible.  Turn the lights off, and the entire room was plunged into a starry night.  We set Stellarium to simulate the passing of time, so the night sky shifted in the background during the play, not enough to be distracting, just enough to give a sense of what the play tries to capture--time is running out, we will all one day awake from this dream!  You can see the drawback, which is that the stars will be cast on anything before them.  The projector cast stars on the actors, on the backs of the heads in the audience.  And the audience members cast silhouettes on the stars.  I personally think this was cool.

Later, we hosted a waltz/swing dance and projected the stars again.  What a magical effect and very little setup!

I Day-dream about the Nobel Prize for Home-Making . . .

I recently read Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington and was struck forcibly by the interesting-ness of one of the characters: Lucy Eyelesbarrow. The idea of "domestic service" has been kind of dismissed in the last century. I've seen a lot of criticism for "the new domesticity," as impractical or even demeaning. I was amazed to see this character, smart, creative, and likeable, choosing a life devoted to care of the home. Long live care for the home! And how about some honors for it? Here's the passage which introduces Lucy:

The name of Lucy Eyelesbarrow had already made itself felt in certain circles.

Lucy Eyelesbarrow was thirty‐two. She had taken a First in Mathematics at Oxford, was acknowledged to have a brilliant mind and was confidently expected to take up a distinguished academic career.

But Lucy Eyelesbarrow, in addition to scholarly brilliance, had a core of good sound common sense. She could not fail to observe that a life of academic distinction was singularly ill rewarded. She had no desire whatever to teach and she took pleasure in contacts with minds much less brilliant than her own. In short, she had a taste for people, all sorts of people;and not the same people the whole time. She also, quite frankly, liked money. To gain money one must exploit shortage.

Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God (Updated 2017)

If you have not yet read this essay by mystic Simone Weil, you might want to pick up a copy of her Waiting for God or The Great Tradition, (which incidentally contains an excellent collection of original texts with educational significance--see a table of contents here). Both books contain Weil's essay. (In 2017, I found this online pdf of the magnificent essay.)

Her essay is more a collection of thoughts which explores the connection between applying oneself to a tedious geometry problem and the ultimate attitude of the soul to God. For a teacher or student, this essay is provocative and searching. And for anyone interested in love of neighbor, this piece has some striking things to say. Hugh of St. Victor said studies were a road to God in his Didascalicon. Jean LeClercq did a historical-cultural study on the Benedictine connection between the love of learning and the desire for God. Here Weil meditates on the same theme.

Here is an excerpt:

The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough. In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, "What are you going through?"

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?" It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled "unfortunate," but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. . . . For an adolescent, capable of grasping this truth and generous enough to desire this fruit above all others, studies could have their fullest spiritual effect, quite apart from any particular religious belief. Academic work is one of those fields containing a pearl so precious that it is worthwhile to sell all our possessions, keeping nothing for ourselves, in order to be able to acquire it.

Finally, a School with a Weekly Reading Day

Why do schools push themselves so hard? The last forty years have seen thousands of new educational ventures spring up, and they all seem to adopt the five-day, all day work week.  In the Catholic and private schooling movement, it seems we could have decided for ourselves what makes a sufficiently rigorous study load. Isn't, as Josef Pieper says, "Leisure the Basis of Culture"?  Doesn't anyone else notice how easily Sunday becomes a day devoted to getting ready for Monday, instead of the greatest day of the week (see John Paul II, Dies Domini). Do we learn so much more by attending school five days a week? Really?

How delighted I was a few years ago to find this school in Louisville, KY called Immaculata Classical Academy bravely instituting a weekly Monday READING DAY.  Here's the text from its website.

Immaculata offers a four-day academic week which provides instruction time comparable to a five day school. Classes are held from 8:00am-3:30pm.  Our reduced academic week has these advantages: it lowers tuition and makes a quality education affordable for more families; it reduces the nightly homework burden and Sunday night blues by giving families Mondays as a reading and preparation day; it supports family life by increasing time spent at home and reducing time spent with peers; it enables parents to be more involved in their child’s education and provides one day for family enrichment activities; it reduces absenteeism by providing one day for doctor/dentist and other appointments; it encourages independent study skills, better preparing students for college; it gives families a three-day weekend for family trips. Read more here.

I also was impressed by the enormous practical advantages. I'm delighted to be presenting on February 9 as part of their speaker series and spending some time with the students and faculty.

Lenten Reading & Medieval Women Saints (Updated 2017)

A happy 2017 update -- it was only a matter of time before these meditations described below made their way into a user-friendly book form: Benedict XVI, Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages and Beyond.

My 2011 post:
Where have I been and how did I miss that Pope Benedict made medieval saints the subject of his Wednesday audiences throughout 2010?  Find all the meditations here.  First, he went through the Mendicant orders, then St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, St. Leonard Murialdo, St. Joseph Cottolengo, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Joseph Cafasso, John Duns Scotus--and then to mix things up a little early Christian martyr Tarcisius and 19th century Pope Pius X.

Then he launched into meditations on the following women:  St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Matilda of Hackeborn, St. Gertrude the Great, Bl. Angelina of Foligno, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Bridget of Sweden, Marguerite d'Oingt, St. Juliana of Cornillon, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, St. Veronica Giuliani, and St. Catherine of Bologna.

Cheat Out Diagram for Theater Directors

I drew this once upon a time to help some young actors staging a Shakespeare play.  I wish I'd had it a few years ago when staging Pedro Calderon's Life Is a Dream.  I kept saying, "You need to cheat out," but no one knew what I meant.  Since then, I've found my old diagram!  Of course, just as with poetry, it is okay to break the rules--NOT cheat out--for some chosen, dramatic reason which better conveys what the scene is trying to do.  But as a rule . . .


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