Monday, October 29, 2007

The Santa Fe Trail.

A foray into 1830s-1850s western U.S. history leads us to a no-holds-barred study of the Santa Fe trail and life on the wagon trains. Here are the books we're reading. (We can already tell you that Commerce of the Prairies is a masterpiece of the genre.)
The trail ran between Missouri and New Mexico, opening in 1822-1823 after the first journey by trader William Becknell when the word spread of his success. About 780 miles long, the Santa Fe trail fell out of use in 1879, when the railroad reached (near) town. Much more to come!

The Santa Fe National Historical Trail bibliography (NPS) site provides a helpful list of resources.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Post-war fiction and the Red Menace.

A good starting point for explaining post-war psychology and anthropology to our middle schooler this week was The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of those movies people often refer to (Klaatu barada nikto and all that) but rarely seem actually to watch. So we viewed the film as a family and discovered that its message (as well as its production design and cinematography) stand up as well in 2007 as it did when made in 1951.

This is the kind of sci-fi that uses a robot and spaceship to make a moral and political statement -- in this case, "This is one planet. Unite. Stop being fearful instead of reasonable. Stop all the chaotic destruction or you yourselves will be destroyed."
There are classic visual references, such as the spaceship becoming the public's point of reference in Washington...rather than the Washington Monument, which fades into the background. And there are also historical cultural references, such as the craziness that ensued after Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast. It is EARLY sci-fi so there isn't a computer to be seen, not even on the spaceship.

Possible essay questions:

Explain the "Cold War" and how this film addresses the importance of learning to live peacefully in the nuclear age.

How might the film be seen as taking a survey of life in the United States in the 1950s?

Some people see the movie as a religious allegory, since Klaatu chooses to appear in human form, walk among humans, and adopts the name Mr. Carpenter. What other elements in the film might support such a reading? (We will examine other "alien messiahs" in science fiction cinema.)

Discuss The Day's story structure as a counterpoint to the science fiction of today, where special effects are preeminent and presenting a solid, well-told story has faded into the background. For instance, is there a climactic battle scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still? Why does the film's ending work, or not work, for you?

Robert Wise directed the film, and his astonishing body of work ranges from The Magnificent Ambersons to West Side Story to Run Silent Run Deep to The Sound of Music.

Movie music history: The Day was one of the first Hollywood films to include electronic instruments on its soundtrack. Why would Bernard Herrman have chosen this particular "sound" for his score? What moments of the film make particularly effective use of music to set the tone for the action? According to

The memorable music was written by the brilliant, tempestuous Bernard Herrmann. He used 2 Theremins for the otherworldly sounds, one pitched high and one low. The Theremin was an early electronic instrument that had occasionally been used with great effect in film scores, notably in Miklos Rozsa's music for Hitchcock's Spellbound. Herrmann rounded out the unusual instrumentation with electric violin, bass and guitar, along with 4 pianos, 4 harps and an unorthodox collection of brass.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fifty minutes per day.

E. spends fifty minutes each day drawing from observation. We hope this will strengthen her drawing skillls, but it is also an excellent way to get centered and focused, for example before writing an essay.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Growing up, I was weird. I was a bookworm."

In his first novel for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Tonight we had the chance to attend a reading by the author at the Indian Art Museum on the Plaza. He didn't do a reading in the traditional sense. Instead, he told stories based on the book.
Here are some of the highlights from Sherman Alexie's remarks in Santa Fe.
"Farm boys carry pigs around like they are already bacon."
"I'm an Indian, but when I go to NYC, I blend in and people think I'm half of whatever they are."
"We had only one Indian blanket. We needed Queer Eye for the Indigenous Guy."
When he went off-reservation to attend a private school, it was "the whitiest white place in the history of white places."
"When you're small, throw the first punch, because it might be your last chance."
"The res school was terrible. The only computer was a TRS 80 that I won in a raffle, and no one knew how to use it."
"I don't like to do appearances where I sit on panels with 'scholars,' guys in suits from Harvard and so on. I want to walk up to them [making a menacing gesture] and say, 'DECONSTRUCT THIS.'"
"At my school the white guys mixed up their knowledge of Indian names. 'Crazy Sitting Horse.' "
Here is an interview with the author from NPR.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This week's fiction...

...includes Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford.
2007 seems a particularly fitting year to read Bradbury's work of science fiction, written in 1953. Fahrenheit 451 warns of a future filled with non-readers and non-thinkers.
Thematically, we decided that it covers:
Conformity vs. individuality
Freedom of speech vs. the consequences of losing it
The importance of remembering and understanding history
Machines as helpers/hindrances to humans

Here are some questions we explored:
How different is our society from theirs? Are there current dangers we can associate with going along with the government without questioning?
Why would such a society make “being a pedestrian” a crime?

How does the lead character, Montag, change from a robot to a person who wants to save the world from ignorance? He learns to think for himself. He starts going crazy when he meets Clarisse ("clarity") because she opens his mind to questions.
In fact, Montag changes his attitude 180 degrees from the opening of the novel. Instead of burning books and the knowledge they contain, he becomes their arch-protector.

What is the job of firemen in this society and how are they “custodians of peace of mind?”

Does Montag gain any benefits from books (considering they cause him to lose his wife, job and home, to kill a man, and to become a nomad)?

Since the government is opposed to readers, thinkers, walkers, and slow drivers, why does it allow the procession of men along the railroad tracks?

Will the books these people carry inside themselves make a difference?

Why would mirrors be important in the new society?

The Phoenix rising from the ashes – how does that symbol relate to this story?

Why does he “become” the book of Ecclesiastes? Perhaps because of these lines: “And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

Bradbury thought burning books was similar to censoring or even condensing books. Why?

We are also doing artwork and an essay to compare the meaning of "hero" in Bradbury's work and Ford's film. More to come!
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom Donophon is the hero because he tells Rance what really happened so Rance doesn't have all this guilt flying around in his head. And he also lets Rance have Hallie, the lady that he, Tom, wanted for a long time because he knows she is probably better off with Rance, the literate lawyer. Hallie wants to know how to read and write and she worries about Rance more. I don't agree with the essayist that she loves Tom Donophon and not Rance. She is strong and true to herself so I think she loves them both.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The art of Charles Schulz.

We are looking at the early work of Charles Schulz, which offers reflections on human nature that our middle school philosophers appreciate and understand.

For background as an appreciation of the cartoonist and his work, here in its entirety is Bill Watterson's recent review of the new biography of Charles Schulz. (Watterson drew the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.) The article is reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2007.

The Grief That Made 'Peanuts' Good

SCHULZ AND PEANUTS: A BIOGRAPHY By David Michaelis (Harper, 655 pages, $34.95)

The comic strip "Peanuts" was more than a decade old when I started reading it as a kid in the mid-1960s. At that time, "Peanuts" was becoming a force of pop culture, with best-selling books and a newly burgeoning merchandising empire of plastic dolls, sweatshirts, calendars and television specials. The overwhelming commercial success of the strip often overshadows its artistic triumph, but throughout its 50-year run, Charles Schulz wrote and drew every panel himself, making his comic strip an extremely personal record of his thoughts. It was a model of artistic depth and integrity that left a deep impression on me. While growing up, I collected the annual "Peanuts" books and used them as a personal cartooning course, copying the drawings with the idea of someday becoming the next Charles Schulz.

At that time, most of the strip went over my head, and I certainly had no understanding of how revolutionary "Peanuts" was or how it was changing the comics. "Peanuts" pretty much defines the modern comic strip, so even now it's hard to see it with fresh eyes. The clean, minimalist drawings, the sarcastic humor, the unflinching emotional honesty, the inner thoughts of a household pet, the serious treatment of children, the wild fantasies, the merchandising on an enormous scale -- in countless ways, Schulz blazed the wide trail that most every cartoonist since has tried to follow. David Michaelis's biography, "Schulz and Peanuts," is an earnest and penetrating look at the man behind this comic-strip phenomenon. With new access to Schulz's personal files, professional archives and family, Mr. Michaelis presents the fullest picture we have yet of the cartoonist's life and personality.

Born in 1922, Schulz always held his parents in high regard, but they were emotionally remote and strangely inattentive to their only child. Schulz was shy and alienated during his school years, retreating from nearly every opportunity to reveal himself or his gifts. Teachers and students consequently ignored him, and Schulz nursed a lifelong grudge that so few attempted to draw him out or recognized his talent. His mother was bedridden with cancer during his high-school years, and she died long before he could prove himself to her -- a source of endless regret and longing for him. As a young adult, he disguised his hurt and anger with a mild, deflecting demeanor that also masked his great ambition and drive.

Once he finally achieved his childhood dream of drawing a comic strip, however, he was able to expose and confront his inner torments through his creative work, making insecurity, failure and rejection the central themes of his humor. Knowing that his miseries fueled his work, he resisted help or change, apparently preferring professional success over personal happiness. Desperately lonely and sad throughout his life, he saw himself as "a nothing," yet he was also convinced that his artistic ability made him special. An odd combination of prickly pride and utter self-abnegation characterizes many of his public comments.

"Peanuts" launched in 1950, appearing in just seven newspapers. The comic strip grew slowly at first, but as its vision expanded and the characters solidified, it caught fire with readers. Schulz's fixation on his work was total, and his private life suffered as a result. Mr. Michaelis uncovers quite a bit of Schulz's more personal tribulations. Schulz's strong-willed and industrious first wife, Joyce, grew disgusted with his withdrawal, and she often treated him cruelly. As the marriage finally unraveled, Schulz had an unsuccessful affair, and he later broke up the marriage of the woman who became his second wife. Schulz's life turned more peaceful after he remarried, but he never overcame the self-doubt and dread that plagued him. Work remained his only refuge. At the end, deteriorating health took away Schulz's ability to draw the strip, a loss so crushing that it can only be considered merciful that he died, at age 77 in 2000, the very day his last strip was published.

It's a strange and interesting story, and Mr. Michaelis, the author of a 1998 biography of artist N.C. Wyeth, paces the narrative well, offering many insights and surprising events from Schulz's life. Undoubtedly the most fascinating part of the book is the juxtaposition of biographical information and reproduced "Peanuts" strips. Here we see how literally Schulz sometimes depicted actual situations and events. The strips used as illustrations in "Schulz and Peanuts" are reproduced at eye-straining reduction and are often removed from the context of their stories, but they vividly demonstrate how Schulz used his cartoons to work through private concerns. We discover, for example, that in the recurring scenes of Lucy annoying Schroeder at the piano, the crabby and bossy Lucy stands in for Joyce, and the obsessive and talented Schroeder is a surrogate for Schulz.

Reading these strips in light of the information Mr. Michaelis unearths, I was struck less by the fact that Schulz drew on his troubled first marriage for material than by the sympathy that he shows for his tormentor and by his ability to poke fun at himself.

Lucy, for all her domineering and insensitivity, is ultimately a tragic, vulnerable figure in her pursuit of Schroeder. Schroeder's commitment to Beethoven makes her love irrelevant to his life. Schroeder is oblivious not only to her attentions but also to the fact that his musical genius is performed on a child's toy (not unlike a serious artist drawing a comic strip). Schroeder's fanaticism is ludicrous, and Lucy's love is wasted. Schulz illustrates the conflict in his life, not in a self-justifying or vengeful manner but with a larger human understanding that implicates himself in the sad comedy. I think that's a wonderfully sane way to process a hurtful world. Of course, his readers connected to precisely this emotional depth in the strip, without ever knowing the intimate sources of certain themes. Whatever his failings as a person, Schulz's cartoons had real heart.

The cartoons are also terrifically funny and edgy, even after all these years. The wonder of "Peanuts" is that it worked on so many levels simultaneously. Children could enjoy the silly drawings and the delightful fantasy of Snoopy, while adults could see the bleak undercurrent of cruelty, loneliness and failure, or the perpetual theme of unrequited love, or the strip's stark visual beauty. If anything, I wish Mr. Michaelis's biography had devoted more space to analyzing the strip on its own terms as an art. Knowing the sources of Schulz's inspiration does not explain the imaginative power of the work.

I was also surprised that Mr. Michaelis largely glossed over the later years of the strip, despite major shifts in its focus and tone. As newer characters developed into dominant voices, Charlie Brown receded, becoming almost avuncular, and "Peanuts" abandoned much of its earlier harshness. It would have been interesting to learn how Schulz's conception of the strip changed over the years and what Peppermint Patty, Spike and Rerun offered him in the way of new expressive possibilities. I was not always enthusiastic about Schulz's later choices, but it says something for Schulz that he resisted the simple, robotic repetition of a successful formula. In this, too, "Peanuts" was unlike most other comic strips.

For all the influence that "Peanuts" had on me, I was content to admire Schulz from afar, and like most of his millions of readers I never met him. Mr. Michaelis has done an extraordinary amount of digging and has written a perceptive and compelling account of Schulz's life. This book finally introduces Charles Schulz to us all.

Mr. Watterson is the creator of the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."
Peanuts cartoon: UFS, Inc.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962.

Directed by John Ford. Starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Andy Devine, and Edmond O'Brien. Here is an insightful essay on this underrated film, a thought provoking movie for middle-schoolers and a good starting point to discuss the role of newspapers in society; the accuracy of history; and what, exactly, makes a hero.

Monday, October 15, 2007

E's art class is near Old Santa Fe Trail. A vase she recently made depicts the Chinese character for "peace" on one side.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

China studies.

In the hopes that this blog helps others who are taking on the challenge of homeschooling or unschooling their middle schooler, I'm listing only the books that are Big Hits with the kid in question. This week, Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is making the grade. It won the Newbery medal in 1933 and provides a perspective on that turbulent time in China. It works well with our previous American History studies because it addresses a time parallel with the Depression and Dust Bowl in the U.S. However, Young Fu has what might be called "colonial overtones" and thus has fallen out of favor on reading lists. All the better. Our approach is to read the book in an unschooled manner and directly address that point of colonial contention.

Here is an excellent Wiki entry on the book.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Conclusion of World War II.

In examining the end of World War II, including the German surrender and the complex time before the Japanese surrender, we found this balanced and informative link from the Department of Energy concerning The Manhattan Project and the Second World War.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Tale of Desperaux.

We need a break from the intensity of Second World War studies, so we're discussing the difference between the terms story (the king died and then the queen died) and plot (the king died and then the queen died of grief) in this week's fiction.

A mouse in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea is The Tale of Despereaux, a Newbery medal winner by Kate DiCamillo (who also wrote Because of Winn Dixie), and a big hit with the resident seventh-grader. The link at leads to a helpful study guide and detailed questions.

Vocabulary words: