Boys, School, & Reading


We have a simple checklist of morning chores for each of our big kids.  If they complete the chores without having to be reminded 50 million times, they get a check in the box.  If not, they get an X in the box.  


Come dessert on Sunday night, we count up the Xs.  No Xs?  Ice cream + 3 toppings for dessert.  The toppings drop off as the Xs increase, until finally at 6+ Xs, you lose the ice cream altogether.

Last Sunday afternoon, as I watched Marie race from her last chore to check off the final box on yet another chart full of perfect rows of checks, I looked at Nathaniel and said, “Just another day in the life of a 6 year old girl!”  Meanwhile the boys were, as usual, scrambling to see if they would get any ice cream this week. You know we don’t have chore charts because of Marie, and she gets a lot of ice cream + toppings out of being the only girl in a family of distractible boys.

Sometimes I get discouraged at how difficult it seems year after year to get this passel of boys to do simple chores efficiently.  So I was pretty interested when I read in Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Motivating the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men that the gender gap in shirking chores and wanting to please parents is present in other species too.  

Apparently little girl chimpanzees follow their parents around all day and eagerly imitate adult methods of catching bugs to eat.  Little boy chimpanzees?  They won’t sit still, and they won’t be taught.  They spend their days wrestling with each other and figuring out their own ways to catch bugs.  

Leonard Sax has a lot to say about the ways boys play, work, and learn, and how our society has become less and less organized in their favor.  From the expectation that kids learn to read in kindergarten (as opposed to 1st grade a generation ago and 2nd grade a century ago) and the elimination of competition from most P.E. programs, school particularly has become a place where many boys are being set up to fail. 

At the same time, having recently had one of our boys diagnosed with dyslexia, I’ve also been reading what’s supposed to be a definitive guide to dyslexia–Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level, by Sally Shaywitz.

Dr. Shaywitz and Dr. Sax both mention the high percentage of boys who struggle with and dislike reading, but they have pretty different ideas about how to tackle that problem.  Shaywitz seems to think that diagnosing reading problems at the earliest age possible and beginning intense phonics instruction in kindergarten or earlier if possible will remedy the problem.  She’s very firmly against the practice of “red-shirting” kindergarten-age boys, which means delaying their entry into school an extra year if they don’t seem ready to sit still and learn to read at the age of 5.  Her argument is that boys who struggle with reading at age 5 do not outgrow their difficulty and will never catch up with their peers.

This argument didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  The whole point of keeping a boy back a year is that his parents don’t expect him to catch up with his peers.  They are moving him to a younger peer group.  And anecdotal evidence says that a lot of little boys who aren’t ready for kindergarten at age 5 do just fine if they begin school at age 6.  Otherwise parents, particularly parents with the financial resources to keep their boys home, wouldn’t do this so frequently.  I know that for the gifted and talented program in our neighborhood elementary school, 5-year-old boys have a hard time getting in because there are so many red-shirters (where did that name come from?) testing into the program as 6-year-olds.

We haven’t red-shirted any of our boys because homeschool kindergarten is pretty light (Texas doesn’t even require  kindergarten), and grades don’t really matter in homeschooling until high school anyway.  William is young for his grade but had already taught himself to read by age 5, and Louis and Ben are both old for their grade.  Teddy has an August birthday, so maybe we’ll red-shirt him.  In any case, Dr. Sax is a huge fan of red-shirting and has neurological research behind his argument that most boys are not ready to learn to read as early as girls.

Anyway, there were other reasons I didn’t take to Shaywitz’s book:

While a parent should not become her child’s primary teacher, she can become her child’s biggest helper. … In most instances I strongly caution parents against setting out to teach their child all of the phonics rules or a complete reading curriculum.  Teaching reading is a complex task and one that should be left to a professional.

Now she’s talking here about parents undertaking a complete curriculum after school hours, but to not even mention homeschooling as a plausible alternative for a dyslexic student while going on and on about the need for one-on-one phonics instruction seems pretty silly to me.  And I’ll admit that teaching a dyslexic child to read is a lot harder than teaching a non-dyslexic child, but it’s still not rocket science, which she does compare it to in this book.

I also had to laugh when Shaywitz recommended a particular reading testing program used in the Texas public schools at the time the book was published (2003).  Nathaniel was teaching first grade in a Texas public school while this book was being written, and I will never forget his lamentations over the utter futility of those tests and the mountains of red-tape they required.

I much preferred The Dyslexic Advantage to Overcoming Dyslexia.  And since most dyslexics are boys, I’d recommend Boys Adrift as a big P.S. to both books and as a great resource for any and all parents and teachers.

Linking up with Jessica @ Housewifespice as usual!


WWRW: Shakespeare & The Secret Garden


A couple weeks ago, N. and I had the chance to see a performance of The Taming of the Shrew.  We had read the play along with the BBC film version a few days prior and I had forgotten (since high school) how strange this play is, and how open to interpretation.  I read everything from “The Taming of the Shrew depicts the development of Aristotelian virtue” to “Shakespeare was a proto-feminist” type critical essays during that week trying to understand this play.  So I’d like to watch a few more versions.  The BBC film portrays Petruchio’s project as completely serious and rather harsh, while the stage performance we saw depicted a much more affectionate mutual taming between Kate & Petruchio (kind of a spicy Beatrice and Benedick).  

At the same time, we were reading The Secret Garden with the kids.  I also had not read this book in many years and had completely forgotten how much I love it.  Having gone to high school in the Himalayan Mountains, Nathaniel was pretty annoyed by the constant references to the damp, languid, sickly air of India vs the clean, pure air of Yorkshire, and I’ll admit that the book was definitely down on humid climates.  But I also have to admit that English gardens are hard to beat. :)

We alternated between reading aloud at home and listening to the audiobook in the car on this one again.  With all the Yorkshire dialect in this book, I highly recommend an audio version read by a Brit (I think ours was Harper Audio) who can pull off the accents!

Linking up with Jessica of the desert island this week…

WWRW: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz & More


Linking up with Jessica and her beautiful baby today!


Sometimes our family has an audiobook going in the car and another chapter book going at home on the couch.  But with a little one underfoot at home and less driving all over town during the summer, it can take us a long time to get through two books that way.  When we’re really enjoying a book, we like to listen to it on CD or the Hoopla app in the car and then continue on with the paperback on the couch (or stretched out on the trampoline) in the evening.  We did this with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden this month.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1)I loved the old Judy Garland film as a kid but had never read the book before.  I didn’t like the book that much, but the kids LOVED it and got irritated at everything the film left out.  The big difference is that Dorothy’s journey is not a dream in the book.  And her three friends actually believe Oz grants them brains, a heart, and courage, although he’s just as much of a sham in the book as in the movie.

Our paperback copy claimed to be “complete and unabridged,” but it is actually lacking the author’s introduction that we heard in the audio.  In the intro (which is short and can be read here), L. Frank Baum basically says that since modern public schools now teach kids all they need to know about morality, fairy tales no longer need morals and can be produced purely for entertainment.  Okay!

The problem with stories without any kind of moral is that they often don’t have any kind of point, either.  Everything in this story seems pretty random.  The good Dorothy accomplishes (getting rid of the wicked witches) happens by accident.  She doesn’t seem to have learned any lessons or grown on her journey.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) PosterThe film improved on the book, in my opinion, by taking the word “wonderful” out of the title (since he isn’t), by introducing a simple moral (don’t run away from home!) and by adding just those things Mr. Baum wanted to do away with: “the stereotyped genie, dwarf, or fairy” and some “horrible, blood-curdling incidents.”  The Wicked Witch is a lot more scary in the film!

But, for pure entertainment, Baum’s idea seems to have worked.  The kids have picked up the book many times since we finished reading it and have asked to listen to parts of the audio again and again.  Baum also went on to write more than 20 Oz sequels!

It’s getting late, so I think I’ll tackle The Secret Garden next week.  But, I did write a review of a grown-up book, My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead, earlier this week for Blogging for Books.  You can read that here.



My Life in Middlemarch: A Book Review


I first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch as an earnest high school sophomore, eager to impress my English teachers and myself by reading through an 850-page 19th-century novel.

MiddlemarchI didn’t understand most of the plot, but I got the most important part for a teenage girl down: the love story.  I read it again in college, where I tried to figure out the plot line about Bulstrode’s finances and began to wonder whether the love story was as great as I’d first thought.  And then I came back to it again as a young wife and mother, where I began to pay attention to some of the other love stories, happy and unhappy.

Although Middlemarch spoke to me as a young adult, it is a book that improves with re-reading, dealing as it does with the theme of middle age: disappointed dreams.  Rebecca Mead has read Middlemarch many times, every 5 years for at least 25 years, and her memoir My Life in Middlemarch artfully weaves her own history with the novel with the history of its writing by George Eliot.  In many ways, her book is even more a biography of Eliot than a personal memoir.

Front CoverMead first read the book as a teenager in a provincial English town she was eager to escape.  As she re-read the book through college, the beginnings of a career, marriage, and motherhood, always the book’s wisdom illuminated her journey.  Now, as a middle-aged writer, she returns again to the story and even more to the story of its writing.

My Life in Middlemarch began with this excellent article Mead published in The New Yorker in 2011.  There she describes the irony of a quote often (falsely) attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”  Mead points out that although Eliot did find happiness and wrote her masterpieces in her middle age, her fiction is all about how it is too late for most all of us to be what we might have been, and yet how beautiful the “unrealized” life can be.  Eliot provides a model of living an ordinary life with dignity.

I found especially poignant the passages about how Eliot acknowledged the loss she felt by choosing not to become a mother, and how she recognized the impossibility of combining writing with mothering.  There’s so much pressure today for women to combine a successful career with a bustling home life, and I always appreciate a writer who acknowledges that it just isn’t always possible to have both.

If you haven’t read Middlemarch yet, start there!  But if you have, I think you’ll really enjoy Rebecca Mead’s book.

I am very grateful to Blogging for Books, which provided me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.  If you’re a blogger who loves books, you should definitely check out this program: free books to review on your blog!

Sweet Summer


If my blog is quiet, it’s usually because things are either too good or too bad to write about. Thankfully, lately they’ve been too good (and busy). We’ve had a happy summer so far.

Sharing his Father’s Day breakfast


For our 12th anniversary in June, the kids (with a little help from Papa) set up a candlelit “restaurant” dinner

…in our closet, the only private space in the house!


Some high class wait service at this restaurant.

Roasting marshmallows for Pentecost (see the sunflower forest in the background?)


William’s version of Van Gogh’s masterpiece


This year’s black bean harvest, which I completely scorched on the stovetop that evening.


Lots of fishing this summer!


An 11th birthday

IMG_1159 IMG_1168

William drove the ATV for the first time on his birthday (Louis is just posing here :) ).


Blueberry picking


Beach days


Our dog found this little (lifeless) guy.  I don’t know what type of shark it is, but to us it actually looked exactly like a toy great white.



Fishing for crabs by moonlight


He didn’t catch any that night, but the boys did on an all-boys camping trip a few weeks earlier. And roasted them!


At home we’ve been reading lots of library books, learning to play chess,


planning for next school year, and spending our afternoons at the pool.  When I was growing up in Houston, I used to hate the summer heat.  Now, while I still don’t want to hang around in the sunny backyard in the middle of the day, I am learning to appreciate the good, hot, straightforwardness of Houston summers.  Especially since I can’t stand swimming in cold water!



Essays and the Trumpet of the Swan


Recently, we listened to a recording of The Trumpet of the Swan, read by the author himself, E. B. White.  It was so good I actually listened to it twice, once with the older boys while the twins spent a week at my mom’s, and then again the following week with the twins while the big boys went to a day camp.

The Trumpet of the SwanE. B. White is one of my favorite writers, and this book displays the very best of his nature sensibility and dry wit.  The book tells the story of Louis (pronounced Louie by the author in the recording), a trumpeter swan born without the ability to make a single sound.  A trumpeter swan who can’t trumpet!  His father attempts to remedy the situation by procuring a brass trumpet for Louie in a most remarkable way, and the story takes off from there.

It’s a classic and very funny.  We loved it, but I will note that Louie makes a bizarre deal with a zookeeper at the end of the book to insure his mate’s freedom, and it disturbed us all.  It seemed completely out of character.  I don’t know what to say about that except that the rest of the book is worth the strange ending.

E. B. White’s collection of essays Essays of E.B. Whiteis also one of my favorite books, and I was excited to find one of his essays available online here.  I love reading essays; they are so much less work than novels, which often either draw me in so completely that I can’t concentrate on anything else until I finish the story or bore me to tears.  Essays can be picked up and put down quickly and so are a good genre for busy moms, in my humble opinion.  This is why I love First Things.  And blogs.  Just a little something to think about until the next free moment.

Lately I’ve read two books of essays by one of my favorite professors from college and contributor to First Things, Alan Jacobs.  He taught at Wheaton for many years but just moved to Baylor this past fall.

First came The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  This was a fun book that felt like being right back in one of his lectures.  His point: reading isn’t dead or dying.  It’s alive and well, and ebook devices actually help us read more.  I have found this to be so true of my Kindle.  It has probably doubled my reading output (input?).

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The second book was Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant In the intro, Jacobs argues that the essay is the best genre for charting the way the mind actually works–not necessarily stream-of-consciousness writing, which attempts to mimic our sensory experiences, but writing that represents how the mind jumps from an idea to a memory to a question and so on.  The essays here meander from witty book reviews to meditations on trees and the reasons friendships end.  All good reads.

And now, let’s all stop and say a prayer that the reason Jessica hasn’t yet posted her link-up today is that she is having a baby!



Journal of a Soul: A Book Review


In honor of Pope St. John XXIII’s recent canonization, Image Books has recently reissued the saint’s spiritual journals under the title Journal of a Soul: the Autobiography of Pope John XXIII.

John XXIII grew up in a poor family of 14 children in rural Italy.  His family was too poor to have even bread (they ate a corn mush instead), yet his mother always offered a place at their dinner table to beggars who came to the door.  He became a priest, served as a chaplain in World War I, and as a bishop in Eastern Europe, which enabled him to help Jews escape the Nazis during World War II.  During and after the war, as a Vatican diplomat, he negotiated the retirement of bishops who had cooperated with the Nazis.

Despite this extraordinary life which gave him a front seat to just about every major event in 20th century European history, when he was elected pope in 1958, his cardinal electors hoped he would be a “transitional pope,” which is Vatican code for “old pope who won’t cause trouble for any of us because he won’t live long enough.”

Image credit: Vatican Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

John XXIII didn’t live long as pope (he contracted stomach cancer in 1962), but he did shake things up during his 4 1/2 years in Rome.  Among his accomplishments were removing anti-Semitic language from the liturgy, receiving the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Vatican for the first time since the Protestant Reformation, and initiating the Second Vatican Council, which was one of the most important religious events in modern history.

Journal of a Soul is a marvelous book, but I need to begin my review with a disclaimer.  The title is completely misleading; this book is not an autobiography.  When I requested this book from Blogging for Books, I was expecting something along the lines of Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which was intended for a general audience.

Instead, this book is a compilation of the private journals St. John XXIII began as a teenage seminarian and continued throughout his entire life.  He lived a long and active life and was a very prolific diarist.  The book also contains many of his written prayers, personal letters, notes he made towards an autobiography, several apostolic letters, and his last will and testament.  In other words, this is a tome.  This book would be invaluable to a papal biographer or Vatican historian, but it was next to impossible for me to read it quickly in order to write a review.  This book would be best digested over a long period of time, such as reading one or two entries at night before bed.

That said, as slow, spiritual reading, I highly recommend it.  It’s quite amazing to read this examination of conscience of an earnest 16-year-old seminarian:

I have let my thoughts wander, especially during Vespers; I have given way to the languor that the hot weather brings.  In a word, I find that I am still at the very beginning of the journey which I have undertaken, and this makes me feel ashamed.  I thought I could have been a saint by this time, and instead I am still as miserable as before.

As a 33-year-old military chaplain during World War I:

Tomorrow I leave to take up my military service in the Medical Corps.  Where will they send me?  To the front perhaps?  Shall I ever return to Bergamo, or has the Lord decreed that my last hour shall be on the battlefield?  I know nothing: all I want is the will of God in all things and at all times, and to work for his glory in total self-sacrifice.

As a 58-year-old bishop in Turkey:

Every evening from the window of my room, here in the Residence of the Jesuit Fathers, I seen an assemblage of boats on the Bosporus; they come round from the Golden Horn in tens and hundreds; they gather at a given rendezvous and then they light up…These lights glow all night and one can hear the cheerful voices of the fishermen.


I find the sight very moving.  The other night, towards one o’clock, it was pouring with rain but the fishermen were still there, undeterred from their heavy toil.


Oh how ashamed we should feel, we priests, ‘fishers of men,’ before such an example! …What a vision of work, zeal and labour for the souls of men to set before our eyes! …We must do as the fishermen of the Bosporus do, work night and day with our torches lit, each in his own little boat.

As a 79-year-old pope:

Above all, one must always be ready for the Lord’s surprise moves, for although he treats his loved ones well, he generally likes to test them with all sorts of trials such as bodily infirmities, bitterness of soul and sometimes opposition so powerful as to transform and wear out the life of the servant of God, the life of the servant of the servants of God, making it a real martyrdom.

At age 80, shortly before his cancer diagnosis:

I await the arrival of Sister Death and will welcome her simply and joyfully in whatever circumstances it will please the Lord to send her.

I think this book might be more accessible to us common readers if it were issued in volumes.  For example, the first volume, containing St. John XXIII’s youthful journals could be very inspiring to teens serious about the spiritual life or considering the priesthood.  Later journals would be interesting to anyone studying 20th century European history, and everyone would be inspired by his journals, prayers, and letters written when he was pope.

There are so many gems in this book that I am tempted to go over my 500 word copyright limit on quotes in a blog post!  I’m going to close with one last one, from a farewell letter to his family explaining that he does not have the means to support them financially.

I am well aware that you have to bear certain mortifications from people who like to talk nonsense.  To have a Pope in the family, a Pope regarded with respect by the whole world, who yet permits his relations to go on living so modestly, in the same social condition as before! …At my death I shall not lack the praise which did so much honour to the saintly Pius X: ‘He was born poor and died poor.’ …


I bless you all, remembering with you all the brides who have come to rejoice [in our] family…and oh the children, the children, what a wealth of children and what a blessing!


Thanks to Blogging for Books, which provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for this review.