Boys and Reading Monday, Sep 27 2010 

This is a must read from the Wall Street Journal if you either have sons, grandsons or nephews or know anybody who does.  The bold sections are my emphasis.

When I was a young boy, America’s elite schools and universities were almost entirely reserved for males. That seems incredible now, in an era when headlines suggest that boys are largely unfit for the classroom. In particular, they can’t read.

According to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy, for example, substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. This disparity goes back to 1992, and in some states the percentage of boys proficient in reading is now more than ten points below that of girls. The male-female reading gap is found in every socio-economic and ethnic category, including the children of white, college-educated parents.

The good news is that influential people have noticed this problem. The bad news is that many of them have perfectly awful ideas for solving it.

Everyone agrees that if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough. But why don’t they read? A considerable number of teachers and librarians believe that boys are simply bored by the “stuffy” literature they encounter in school. According to a revealing Associated Press story in July these experts insist that we must “meet them where they are”—that is, pander to boys’ untutored tastes.

For elementary- and middle-school boys, that means “books that exploit [their] love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.” AP reported that one school librarian treats her pupils to “grossology” parties. “Just get ’em reading,” she counsels cheerily. “Worry about what they’re reading later.”

There certainly is no shortage of publishers ready to meet boys where they are. Scholastic has profitably catered to the gross-out market for years with its “Goosebumps” and “Captain Underpants” series. Its latest bestsellers are the “Butt Books,” a series that began with “The Day My Butt Went Psycho.”

The more venerable houses are just as willing to aim low. Penguin, which once used the slogan, “the library of every educated person,” has its own “Gross Out” line for boys, including such new classics as “Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger.”

Workman Publishing made its name telling women “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” How many of them expected they’d be buying “Oh, Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty” a few years later from the same publisher? Even a self-published author like Raymond Bean—nom de plume of the fourth-grade teacher who wrote “SweetFarts”—can make it big in this genre. His flatulence-themed opus hit no. 3 in children’s humor on Amazon. The sequel debuts this fall.

Education was once understood as training for freedom. Not merely the transmission of information, education entailed the formation of manners and taste. Aristotle thought we should be raised “so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; this is the right education.”

“Plato before him,” writes C. S. Lewis, “had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

This kind of training goes against the grain, and who has time for that? How much easier to meet children where they are.

One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn’t go very far.

The other problem is that pandering doesn’t address the real reason boys won’t read. My own experience with six sons is that even the squirmiest boy does not require lurid or vulgar material to sustain his interest in a book.

So why won’t boys read? The AP story drops a clue when it describes the efforts of one frustrated couple with their 13-year-old unlettered son: “They’ve tried bribing him with new video games.” Good grief.

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.

People who think that a book—even R.L. Stine’s grossest masterpiece—can compete with the powerful stimulation of an electronic screen are kidding themselves. But on the level playing field of a quiet den or bedroom, a good book like “Treasure Island” will hold a boy’s attention quite as well as “Zombie Butts from Uranus.” Who knows—a boy deprived of electronic stimulation might even become desperate enough to read Jane Austen.

Most importantly, a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter’s husband—Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson?

I offer a final piece of evidence that is perhaps unanswerable: There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls. How many of these families, do you suppose, have thrown grossology parties?

Mr. Spence is president of Spence Publishing Company in Dallas.


It’s that time of year again… Tuesday, Aug 17 2010 

As everybody around us has already sent their kids off to school, many who home-school are still squeezing out the last few warm days of summer with their children.  They may be helping with the harvest, enjoying vacations or just relaxing before getting down to the business of studying once again.

There are many good home-school programs out there.  I am addressing this particularly to Catholic home-schoolers, because that is my primary focus.  If you haven’t quite decided what curriculum or supplemental materials to use, take a look here for some great ideas.   Aquinas and More carries curriculum materials for Mother of Divine Grace, Seton Home School, Kolbe Academy and St. Thomas Aquinas Academy.  In addition, they have some fantastic materials for imparting the Faith for all ages, from the Faith and Life Series to the Didache for high school, as well as other programs targeted to teaching apologetics and scripture.  For those who prefer, the popular books by Fr. Laux are available, such as Introduction to the Bible, Church History, Chief Truths of the Faith and Mass and the Sacraments.

For the students using a classical curriculum, the Latina Christiana series offers not only Latin studies, but books on handwriting, Logic, Rhetoric and studies in Ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle Ages.   As the students move into high school, the series of classical study guides will prove very helpful to help the students unlock the mysteries of the classical literature they will read.  These guides are soon to be available in digital form for individual download.

If you want a curriculum that spells everything out for you complete with lesson plans, check out the Mother of Divine Grace program.

If you are new to homeschooling, you might want to take a look here for suggestions and encouragement in this most worthwhile endeavor of teaching your children.   You are not alone–many people are opting to teach their own children, and if you have questions, you only have to ask.

May God bless you as you enter the wild wonderful world of home education.  Don’t forget to begin every day with prayer and to ask St. Anne, who taught Our Lady, to intercede for you for patience and wisdom.

On tradition Monday, Mar 29 2010 

As our society becomes ever more utilitarian and traditions fail to be passed from one generation to the next, I tend to cling more and more to those things which give texture to daily life and which mark the days in special ways.   Perhaps that is why one of my all-time favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye clings to tradition while his children one by one set it aside and embrace new ways.  He is bewildered at it all, but in the end, he is powerless to do anything about it.  I feel his angst at seeing what he holds dear put aside by the next generation.  We do not know if the children put aside the religious practices of their parents or if, in their new “mixed marriages” with gentiles, communists and free thinkers, they somehow manage to practice their religious traditions.  I kind of doubt it.

I feel blessed that our children like family traditions and are passing them on to their children,  even though they entail planning and effort, as well as cleanup when finished.  The scene in Fiddler where the family gathers around the table is for me the most poignant of the whole film.  I think that is because so many of our family traditions center around sharing food, laughter and conversation around the table.  Looking over thousands of family slides, pictures and movies,  we have noted that they are overwhelmingly focused around the table. And many of them have not only family, but friends who have been welcomed into the family circle and who have enriched the celebrations.

When our daughter got married, she wanted a large table that would accommodate her husband’s and her own family at one time.  Obviously she embraced the notion that food was to be shared with lots of people.  That gives me a lot of comfort, because somehow, she “got the memo” and has made it her own.

Yesterday we celebrated the Seder.  We are not Jewish, but our religious roots are certainly in Judaism, and for the last 20 or so years, we have been doing a Seder and introducing our Catholic friends to the tradition.  If one listens carefully, he recognizes in the Mass many of the prayers he hears in the Seder which is not at all surprising, because Jesus was a Jew who celebrated Passover and was at such a meal on the night before He died.

I have heard more than once that it just isn’t worth all the effort it takes to do these things, but I would question what could be more important.  At the end of our lives, are we going to remember the special things we did as families, or are we going to remember the countless television programs we watched or the hours we spent alone wasting time?  I don’t deny the work involved–but again, it brings so much satisfaction.  Everybody can work together to make these gatherings special.  We bring out the china, the silver and the glasses, all which have to be hand-washed.  Even the youngest children can help set the table and when everybody participates, the work is a joy.   Many valuable unspoken lessons are learned in the process.  When so much effort is put into the preparation,  food and the table-setting,  it says “this is important.”

I know our children value the tradition because two y ears ago I announced that I was retiring from doing the Seder dinners.  Their response? They bought me a beautiful Seder plate, no strings attached.  But what was I to do with it but host a Seder?  I am glad we did and in the process, we got to know another wonderful family.

In  addition, we enjoyed the extraordinary culinary talents of our guests.  Who could resist a dessert like this?  It was obviously lovingly made with care and attention to detail.  We won’t soon forget it.

Our daughter has moved to another city and I was thrilled to hear that she took our Seder tradition with her.  She introduced a whole new group of people to it, made the programs, set the table and more important, I know the tradition is safe for yet another generation!

It is a joy to see our children develop their own traditions while at the same time seeing that they value traditions from home.  Those traditions give all of us a sense of who we are in ways that material things can’t.  They keep us connected with one another and they all go toward creating those memories which we all cherish.  The mother of my sister-in-law always says it is important to create memories because in our later years, that may be all we have.  Do we want them to be richly textured and happy?  If so, we have to create them while we are able and while our children’s hearts are receptive.

Fungi Monday, Aug 17 2009 

We used to have a man from Poland living with us who loved to go out in the area and hunt for mushrooms.  People who study fungi are called mycologists, but I don’t know what you call people who just know all about them, pick them, and then actually have the confidence to eat them.  Maybe you call them Smart, or Reckless, but I hold them in awe, even though I absolutely forbade my children from eating anything that our Polish guest offered them.

We have had a lot of rain here in Black Forest this summer.  So much so, that we have many species of fungi in abundance that are beautiful and interesting.  Recently when my sister was visiting, we took a walk with my granddaughters on our property and saw a wide variety of fungi.  I don’t know if they are technically called mushrooms but that is what I call them because I don’t know any better.  Homeschooling idea  The study of these interesting oddities would be a great homeschooling science project, providing proper precautions were taken.

Here are some we saw

Giant pink mushroomGiant Pink Mushroom

Giant white mushroomGiant White Mushroom

Large toadstoolsGiant Toadstools

Tiny brown mushroomTiny Brown Mushrooms

Yellow mushroomMedium Yellow Mushroom

Fairy lightsFairy Lights (according to Margaret)

Please try not to be too impressed with my clever naming of these fungi.  My knowledge of mycology is so limited that I don’t know a psychotropic from a morel or even a bolete or a pore from a gill, but I am fascinated with the variety that pops up after a bit of rain on the dry earth.

Oh.  Those hands which served as size markers belong to these lovely young ladies

Marie and Grandnieces

Georgia, Day 3 Monday, Apr 20 2009 

Georgia, Day 3

Our day began early with another Mass of Vatican II celebrated by Fr. Fessio.  There were very few people in attendance—maybe 20.  That is such a shame because it contains the best elements of the Pre-Vatican II Mass and the Novus Ordo.  The best part of the Novus Ordo has not been experienced  by most people, unfortunately.

We spent the morning at our table in the vendor hall talking to people.  One feature of this conference was that it was made up of a very young crowd.  Almost all of the parents either had a baby/toddler in tow or one “in the oven, ” with a few older siblings as well.  I enjoyed visiting with the people and hearing their experiences.  Many are homeschooling and having children in the face not only of societal pressure not to, but also in the face of familial pressure which is almost harder to deal with than the societal pressure.    They are brave souls indeed, trying to live in fidelity to the Church and raise good families. 

We realized at 1:00 that we needed to hit the road in order to be able to mail the unsold books.  Well we missed the post office deadline and had to go to a UPS store instead.  That cost way too much because of their surcharge, and besides, we are not impressed with UPS right now.  But they had us, so we left the boxes and headed for our destination of Dobbins Air Force Base where we had a room reserved.  

We drove into Atlanta, spent $10 to park our car and then walked down to the Peachtree Center.  marriot-marquis-hotel-2






When we lived in Georgia 30+ years ago, we loved to go see the Marriot hotel which has an atrium from the top to the bottom. You can see by the pictures how dizzying the view is.  We took one of the glass elevators to the top but quickly went back down because we felt unsteady on our feet at that altitude looking down to the lobby below.

We found a nice Italian restaurant “Scallini’s” and had a relaxing dinner before heading back to the base for our last night in the Atlanta area.

Georgia, Day 2 Saturday, Apr 18 2009 

We left Warner Robins early and drove 2 1/2 hours to Acworth, north of Atlanta. My goal was to arrive before the first speaker took the podium so that I could ensure that there would be no technical glitches between my computer and the college media system.  Bill was there to help me and we were not able to stabilize the picture on the wall where it was being projected.  So they called in the campus IT guy who diddled for a good 45 minutes trying to figure out the problem.  Turns out it was a broken jack on the stage which had to be replaced. tech-problem-solver-daniel

Moral of story–always arrive early enough to check out the AV system.  To do anything else is to court disaster.

Once that was settled we went to a speaker’s luncheon.  Unfortunately the restaurant was closing for good that night–the economic downturn has hit everywhere.  So we had a harried lunch and then went to the conference.

The conference was beautifully organized but not well attended unfortunately.  Fr. Joseph Fessio was the keynote speaker but his plane was delayed and once he finally landed, he got stuck in traffic.  So when he finally arrived, he combined his talk with the Mass.  He did a beautiful explanation of the Mass of Vatican II and then celebrated it.  If this Mass had not been hijacked, I doubt there would have been so many problems after the Council.  As he explained it, most of the options allowed after the Council were ignored, and people took the most simplified, stripped-down path for the Mass, leaving it lacking in beauty and reverence.  fr-fessio

It was quite late after the Mass but the organizers had planned a delightful dinner for us at an Italian restaurant called Fusco’s.  We were in a building that had been a jail a long time ago–the building is over 100 years old.  It was good to relax, talk and laugh after a long day.  fuscos-restaurant-acworth-ga


The only creature to ever escape from the jail was a donkey.  The jail is now being used for restaurant storage.


A tired but uplifted group after a long day.

Off to Georgia Wednesday, Apr 15 2009 

We are venturing out a bit further than usual for the Georgia Catholic Homeschool Conference where I’ll be speaking about Beauty.   We used to live in Georgia so we are looking forward to going back after 30+ years.  I am not a fan of flying but have a special intention I am offering up the flight for.   Please say a prayer that all goes well.  Thanks, in advance.

Catholic Culture and homeschooling Wednesday, Jan 7 2009 

I am fascinated with Catholic Culture.  As the years have gone by,  I have tried to instill it in my children and bathe our family life in it.  Homeschooling affords us the time to teach Catholic Culture, but it doesn’t have to be done in an academic way.  It is more effectively taught if it is lived.  I didn’t realize how much Catholic Culture has been lost in the last 40 years until I started attending a Tridentine parish recently.  So much of what I grew up with is lost to all but a few.  Some examples:

My mother never let anybody leave the house without her vaya con Dios blessing, and when we would talk about something planned for another time, she always said con el favor de Dios.  It was just part of who she was to put things in God’s hands and to ask His blessing on our comings and goings.  We never went to bed without her blessing, even as adults.  We prayed for the Pope every time we entered a Catholic church for the first time, we avoided meat on Friday, we wore scapulars, prayed the rosary, looked to the bishops’ rating in choosing movies,  we fasted, we abstained, etc.  We were Catholic, and yes, our practices were different than those of most of our neighbors. 

A friend recently asked me to teach a class about Catholic culture.  She is a convert and did not receive any teaching on the culture of Catholicism.  She had not heard the word sacramental or many other terms that are part of Catholicism.  She truly wants to learn to live a Catholic life, but what does that mean?  How do people learn about it?

I don’t feel called to go out and teach a class on Catholic culture, and there are many people who are far better qualified than I to do so, but I can share what I know and point people to sources of information.  I humbly submit to you that there is far more that I don’t know than I know.

So where do we begin?  How about with a definition of sacramental?  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

a sacramental is a sacred sign which bears a resemblance to the sacraments.  It signifies effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church.   Sacramentals always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water.  (1667, 16680)

Since we are in the liturgical season of Epiphany, I will begin with one of the sacramentals of Epiphany.  In my Epiphany post I explained what Epiphany is and when it is celebrated.  One of the sacramentals associated with Epiphany is blessed salt.  There are special prayers which the priest says to bless salt for individual use.  Fr. Hampsch has a wonderful explanation here of the importance of salt in our religious history and its use today as a sacramental.  No point my trying to summarize his words, because his explanation is complete and fascinating.  After Mass last night, we were given blessed salt to have in our homes.   We do not look at this wonderful sacramental as something magical.  The salt points us to the saving, healing power of Christ, as do all sacramentals.  Grace does not flow from sacramentals as it does from the sacraments, but the sacramentals help prepare us to receive grace.  Isn’t our Church wonderful in giving us so much to help us on our earthly journey?

The Rule of St. Benedict, part 4 Sunday, Dec 7 2008 

To an outsider, the monastery seems like a very orderly place where a well-ordered life is lived.  St. Benedict’s Rule is Ora el Labora, or Pray and Work.  Prayer, or the Divine Office, is known as the opus Dei, or the work of God.  In addition to the prescribed periods of prayer, the nuns have periods of work, fulling the second half of the rule.  At St. Walburga, in addition to the housekeeping in which all participate, the nuns work the land, “man” the gift shop, care for cattle, make rosaries and greeting cards, run retreats and some write and edit Magnificat magazine, the monthly guide for morning and evening prayer as well as for the daily Mass.  I marveled that with the work they do, they always arrive for the Divine Office dressed in their habits.  Yes, they have work clothing, but they didn’t wear it into the Church.  Which says that care should be taken when going before Our Lord in formal prayer.  It is a courtesy to Him. 

This is the Abbey Church.    The cloister is to the back.  The retreatants stay about 3/4 of a mile away.  We walked back and forth during the day, but because of the warning about local mountain lions, we drove at dawn and after dark.


The nuns have created several little “parks” on their property–they didn’t build this dam though–the beavers did!




From our vantage, we thought the doors to the root cellar were round, but they aren’t.  This reminded us of a hobbit hole.


There are several buildings and lots of land to take care of, as well as people who go to visit. 

It was a wonderful experience, and we are thinking about the next opportunity we will have to go back.  The peace, the prayer and the quiet all beckon us to return.

Rule of St. Benedict, part 3 Thursday, Dec 4 2008 

I have been processing our experience of St. Walburga’s, and keep returning to the idea of peace and joy.  For the most part, the faces of the nuns were so calm and joyful.   They entered the church which is at the heart of their monastery without hurry, and they left the same way.  Much as we did in Catholic school, they line up to process in and out.   They face each other in the choir stalls on either side of the front of the church and sing the Office antiphonally.   And as the Rule states “if we wish to ask a favor of those who hold temporal power, we dare not do so except with humility and respect.  It is far more important that we present our pleas to God with the utmost humility and purity of devotion.”  (Chapter 20)  That devotion and humility were everywhere present. sisters-at-prayersisters-at-prayer-2


 To the right of the church, in a separate chair, sits the Abbess, identified by her crozier and large pectoral cross.  Either at the head of the flock, or behind, Mother Maria Michael shepherds her flock of nuns.  I cannot adequately describe the feeling that came over me to see her in that role.  She seems like a wonderful mother, and she has a most pleasant smile which she uses freely, not only with her daughters but also with the retreatants.  St. Benedict stated about the Abbot “To be qualified to govern a monastery an abbot should always remember what he is called (Abba = Father…In a monastery he is Christ’s representative, called by His name.”  (Chapter 2) 


She is young and elected for life, until death or illness or the infirmities of age make it impossible for her to continue effectively.  In the prayers, she often leads, and when she sang the “Our Father” we knew she was singing for all of us. 

When we were studying Benedict’s Rule, we saw the considerable attention Benedict gave to the Abbot, for the Abbot, or in this case the Abbess, carries a heavy responsibility for the souls and wellbeing of his/her charges. 

Utmost care was taken to insure that the church was presentable for liturgies, even mopping up the flies which seemed to spontaneously generate and die by the dozens.  There were flowers lovingly arranged and placed around the altar, and all aspects of the liturgies were prepared in advance so as to present only the best to the Bridegroom.  There is so much we can learn about refinement in the things that matter from those who embrace this life.

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