Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Learning

A renewed commitment to writing well

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Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

I have always thought of myself as a writer, one who would get serious about writing at some moment in the future. If reading is part of the training for becoming an effective writer , then I have been in training all my life. One cannot learn to write effectively without noting how and why some people’s writing catches your attention and draws you in; and how you mind wanders to other things when trying to read the words of others.

I feel that the moment to get serious about writing has come, and the place to start is to pull up the memoir of my faith journey and put it through the refining fire. If I were to publish it as it is now it would probably sell a couple hundred copies to people who know me or know a little bit about me. That’s nice, but the real test of writing is whether it is interesting to people who know nothing about me.

Here are some thoughts on writing well that I am putting down as an aide-memoire to myself. I hope others might find something here to consider.

1. Forget the Sergeant Joe Friday approach: “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” That may have been an effective police interview technique 70 years ago, but it doesn’t work in story writing. Not even when writing my own story. I know the story, I’ve lived it, I remember it because it had an impact on my life. How can I make it grab the attention of a reader who knows nothing about me and make him care about the outcome?

2. Don’t preach, don’t moralize, don’t explain. Let the story tell the story. Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster are two short books by British authors that make us think about our relationships with others. They are not Christian books, they don’t spell out any moral instruction, yet the messages are powerful.

3. Use simple words. A word with a single syllable is more powerful than one with six. Two adjectives to a noun cancel each other. Most adjectives and adverbs do more harm than good.

4. Eliminate jargon: Christian jargon or anything that is only understood by a certain group of people. It’s OK to use a little in dialogue to paint a picture of the character, but go easy.

5. Master the language you are writing in. Don’t use a word unless you are 100% sure of its meaning.

6. Respect the people you write about, whether real or fictional. Some of the people who appear in my memoir have made deplorable choices. That’s real life. People make choices that lead to unfortunate consequences and most don’t find their way home. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, or evil.

Another blind lady

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Rose Goodenough, widow of my cousin Ron, has written the history of her family and the community at Barrier Ford, Saskatchewan. Her parents were born in England, to families who lived comfortably, but were not wealthy. They thought to better their lot by coming to the Canadian prairies where free land was being offered.

Rose’s father, Fred Ham, was born in Devonshire in the 1880’s. He had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart. His parents were told that he would never be able to do heavy work. Nevertheless, he and his brothers came to Canada in 1910. Fred filed on a homestead at Barrier Ford in 1911 and worked hard all his life trying to make a living from the rocky soil in the bush country.

Eva Brown was born in London in 1890 with no vision in one eye and limited vision in the other. She received most of her education in a residential school for the blind, where she learned how to read and write with the braille system. She also learned to type, to weave and many other useful skills. Her mother, then a widow with two daughters, came to Canada in 1913.

In 1915 Fred and Eva married and this unlikely couple made a hard scrabble living, raised two children and came to love the country. By the time she married, Eva had 10% vision in one eye. Yet she managed to cook, sew, care for the two children and even milk their two cows.

I got to know Eva Ham in my childhood when we lived at Craik, Saskatchewan. Ron & Rose owned a grocery store and lived above the store. Rose’s Mom lived with them, having a couple of rooms of her own, including space for her loom. She was a sweet lady and got along well with my mother. I watched her read braille, write letters with a little frame and a punch to make the dots. I saw some of the letters she typed. Completely blind by that time, she said she could tell the difference between a window and a wall, she made very few mistakes when typing.

In 1954 she wrote an autobiographical sketch for a magazine for the blind. Here are a few excepts:

“I was almost eleven when I started to learn braille. Our teacher, a graduate of the Royal Normal College, was one of the finest Christian women I have ever known and had a lasting influence on us all. I had been rather spoiled at home and was not a ‘nice little girl.’ I remember my teacher calling me to her during the recess and kindly pointing out some of my shortcomings.”

After arriving in Saskatchewan: “Like all the English in those days, I had the notion there were no people as cultured as my countrymen. I felt myself superior to the neighbours who visited my uncle and I made up my mind to go home at the very first opportunity.”

Many years later: “Living in a mixed community, constantly coming into contact with people of different nationalities and creeds, has taught me that there are others just as cultivated as the English. I have learned to appreciate the views of different races and to acknowledge my own shortcomings. In my contacts with people I have found blindness to be an inconvenience and a handicap. Combined with deafness it is more serious – it is a double handicap. But even this double handicap can be overcome through developing patience and a good sense of humour, and through friendly co-operation with the many seeing and hearing friends who are always ready to lend a helping hand.”

Hand in Hand – Book Review

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Canadian author Jean Little wrote over 50 books, mostly for and about children. Many of them featured children who were newcomers to Canada, orphans or in other difficult circumstances. The books all have positive outcomes, often through discovery or rediscovery of the value of family.

She was born in 1932, the daughter of medical missionaries in Taiwan, and died April 6 of this year in Guelph, Ontario at the age of 88.

Almost all her books have a Canadian setting. Her last book, Hand in Hand, illustrated above, is set in the USA and is about the childhood of Helen Keller. It was published in 2016. The photo is obviously of a library copy and will have to go back to the library, whenever it opens again.

The book is fiction, but almost all the people and many of the events in the book are real. The subtitle, partly covered above, says, The real-life story of Helen Keller and Martha Washington. Helen Keller mentions Martha in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, written when she was 21. Martha was the young daughter of the Keller family’s cook and Helen’s only playmate.

All the servants of the Keller family were black. This was after the days of slavery, but conditions for black people in Alabama were not vastly improved. Yet Martha Washington learned to understand Helen Keller’s wishes and signs and played a role in her early years.

Based on the facts available, Jean Little has written a believable story of how it might have been, from the viewpoint of Martha Washington. The book ends at the point when Helen finally grasps that the lines Annie Sullivan is making with her finger on Helen’s palm form the word for the water that is pouring over her hand.

Jean Little herself was blind all her life. Her recounting of interactions between sighted people and a little blind (and deaf) girl have an authenticity that grasps and holds the reader’s attention. The book is written for younger readers, but this old guy found it a fascinating read.

Hand in Hand, The real-life story of Helen Keller and Martha Washington. © 2016 by Jean Little, published by Scholastic Canada

The power of small

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Thus begins the gospel of John in the Authorized Version. This is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the English language. There are 54 words, 50 of them are words of one syllable.

The wording of this statement can not be improved. There are layers of meaning here that would be submerged if we used longer words, or added adjectives and adverbs.

H. W. Fowler put it this way:

“It is a general rule that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour. This is especially so in English, where the native words are short, and the long words are foreign. . . . Good English does consist in the main of short words. There are many good reasons, however, against any attempt to avoid a polysyllable if it is the word that will give our meaning best; moreover the occasional polysyllable will have added effect  from being set among short words. What is here deprecated is the tendency among the ignorant to choose, because it is a polysyllable, the word that gives their meaning no better or even worse. Mr. Pecksniff, we are told, was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. He still has his followers.”

From love of the long word, page 394, Fowler’s Modern English Usage,Second Edition, © 1965 Oxford University Press.

School at home

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Man homeschooling young daughter – shutterstock_283575290 (2)

It looks like children will have to learn at home at least until the end of April. Does that seem overwhelming? Here are a few thoughts that might make it easier.

  • Begin the day with God. Read from the Bible and pray with your children.
  • Children have more time in the day now, since they don’t ride the school bus. Don’t let them sleep in. They should get ready for the day as usual, do their school work, and have more free time later.
  • If Mom is now the teacher, the children should help more with the meal planning and preparation, house cleaning and laundry. Home Ec is a legitimate life skill.
  • If there are multiple children, in multiple grades, the older ones should help the younger. This is also a valuable life skill.
  • Improvise. Age segregation is not needed for all subjects.
  • Don’t try to replicate the setting of a school classroom.
  • Do establish a schedule.
  • Don’t let Dad off the hook. If he is home, the children will be thrilled to have him help with their school work.
  • Learning to learn is an essential life skill. Let the children figure things out for themselves and do their own research as much as possible.
  • Don’t forget to have fun; children need recreation and physical activity to keep their minds clear.

Misfits

School tends to be a one size fits all proposition, and some children are misfits.

Despite the best efforts of schools and teachers, some children just do not do well in a large classroom. Home schooling parents have more freedom to find ways to adapt the curriculum and environment to make learning work for their child.

Children are hard-wired to learn from their parents, and parents know their children better than anyone else. Parents do not need special skills or training to teach their children, they just need to be parents.

Standard achievement tests show that home-schooled children score well above their peers in public schools. Even children with cognitive  limitations do better when home-schooled.

Now this is just a personal observation, but the home-schooled children that I know have much better social skills than their peers in school. Think about it: at home a child has to get along with her siblings and her parents. She learns how to communicate clearly with them all and this prepares her to communicate freely with anyone else, of any age.

Learning to learn

It looks like parents will be teaching their children at home for awhile. Here is something to keep in mind:

Education is not about teaching, it is about learning.

And the great advantage that home-schooled children have is that they learn how to learn.

Gifts my mother gave me

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

The Nelson Gage Dictionary has this note about teaching: Teach emphasizes giving information, explanation, and training, by guiding the studies of the person who wants to learn.

Every little child is a question box, wanting to learn about the world in which he finds him/her self. The questions become wearisome for parents. We don’t have all the answers; we don’t have enough time; sometimes the questions are embarrassing, such that we don’t know how to give an answer that fits the level of understanding of the child.

Let us beware lest we stifle the desire to learn of this little child of ours. Once that desire dies, it is very difficult to rekindle it. It never completely dies, but the child may redirect it to subjects and sources of information that are neither wholesome nor useful in developing a successful life.

Schools deaden the “want to learn” of a child. They teach literature and history in particular in a way that makes them deadly boring. Grammar and arithmetic are boring, unless the child sees their usefulness. When a child struggles in school, the teacher is not the first one to blame. A child is not a receptacle into which a teacher pours information; a child needs to be an active participant in learning. He/she must have the “wants to learn” mentioned by the dictionary.

A child learns step by step, each step built upon the one before it. If a child has not learned phonics, finds it hard to understand what is on the page before him, he will agonize over every succeeding step and find it near impossible to master.

We are often told that phonics are useless in English because so many words do not follow the rules of phonics. Children who have a good grasp of phonics can decode 85% of English words without hesitation. Another 12% of words in English have one sound that does not follow the rules of phonics. That sound is usually a vowel; by a combination of phonics and the context in which they find the word, children can successfully decode those words. That leaves only 3% of English words that present difficulties. Does it make sense to abandon phonics and force children to memorize 100% of words because 3% are difficult?

My mother did not speak English when she started school and only spent six years in school. She was the best teacher I ever had. Perhaps I owe that to my grandfather. He was nearly blind and depended on my mother to help with the financial affairs of the farm. She read the farm papers to him and when she read a book; she had to retell the story to him. She continued to be a reader, studied the dictionary, spoke English without an accent and with a larger vocabulary than many others. When she married my father, she took over managing the family financial affairs.

I never knew that she was teaching me. She gave me this big set of alphabet blocks and let me do whatever I wanted with them. When I asked about the symbols on the blocks, she told me what they were and what sound they made. I wanted to know more and more; she put a few blocks together to make words like CAT, DOG, MOM, DAD. From there I went on to larger words, even spelling my name (which took a lot of those blocks). Soon I was reading little books for beginning readers and anything I could get my hands on. Then I started school.

She taught me numbers, too. How to read them, how to add and subtract. I have no memory of how she taught that, I just remember that I knew it when I started school.
Above everything else, she taught me I could learn anything I wanted to learn. She didn’t teach these things explicitly, she just guided the “want to learn” of her little boy.

The greatest gift of all was that I always knew that Mom loved me. Even when I disappointed her, I still knew that she love me and believed in me, and believed that I could overcome my failures. That gave me the courage to try again.

When the schools fail, what are parents to do?

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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The leaders of the public school system claim that only they have the tools and the understanding to prepare children for life in the modern world. It should be clear by now, to anyone who is not sleep-walking through life, that the schools have done a proper botch-up job of all things wherein they claim to be the experts.

Is it time for parents to rethink their own place and responsibility? The responsibilities of parents are the same as they always have been. We have allowed the public school system to usurp some of those responsibilities and thought we were doing what was best for our children.

A child’s first heroes are Mom and Dad. Young minds are hardwired to learn from their parents. That affords a precious opportunity for parents to establish a foundation for their child’s life. The opportunity slips away if we are intimidated by the confusing jumble of psychological opinions about how best to raise a child. If we squander that opportunity, our children will suffer the consequences throughout life, unless they can grasp hold of that foundation from some other source.

The public school movement has for years spread the propaganda that children can only learn how to get along with others by being together with their peers, children of their own age. How has that worked out? Honestly, does anyone see evidence of children learning consideration for others from children their own age?

Gordon Neufeld, a child psychologist in Vancouver, B. C., believes children must learn social skills from their parents. “The belief is that socializing–children spending time with one another–begets socialization: the capacity for skilful and mature relating to other human beings. There is no evidence to support such an assumption, despite its popularity. . . If socializing were the key to socialization, gang members and street kids would be model citizens.”

That brings us back to parents as the best placed people to teach their children respect and consideration for others. To parents who fear they are not qualified for such responsibility, Neufeld says: “We miss the essential point that what matters is not the skill of the parents, but the relationship of the child to the adult who is assuming responsibility.”

Bruno Bettelheim, a child psychologist who died thirty years ago, considered the ecological concerns that were being increasingly talked about and applied them to the family. He wrote that we should be concerned about raising children in the ecological setting that was most natural and helpful to their growth and development. That was a home with a mother and father. I believe we can safely ignore those psychologists who say anything different.

-Gordon Neufeld quotes are from Hold on to Your Kids – Why Parents Should Matter More Than Peers, © 2004 by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté.

How did our education system get where it is today?

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Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The best description I have read of the thinking behind our public education system is Les déshérités (The Disinherited) by Francois-Xavier Bellamy, published in France in 2014. Bellamy traces the root of modern educational thinking to the philosophies of René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that all knowledge could be attained by deduction. The human mind has the capacity to discover all truth, solely through reasoning with no outside input.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1798) went a step further. He believed that we are all born pure and all the problems of mankind are the result of impure ideas taught by our society. Therefore it would be best to let a child grow with the least restraints and the least teaching possible. In the purity of his simplicity he would be able to discover all that he needed for a fruitful and happy life.

In France, Pierre Bourdieu taught that the inequities in society were a result of the things inherited from the past. If we could avoid passing on the antiquated ideas of civil society, morality and religion, those inequities would disappear. In the English-speaking world, each country has had its own Bourdieu, but Descartes and Rousseau laid the foundation for the philosophy that prevails in most of the world.

Teachers in France today are told that they have nothing to pass on, their job is simply to help students discover for themselves how to read and write, how to do math and science, and to determine for themselves what is right and wrong. Those ideas are not unique to France. Wherever we live, we can see evidence of that kind of thinking and what it has led to.

M. Bellamy writes that we have finally come to the era that Rousseau dreamed of. People today have been disinherited of all the values of the past, and the result is not the benign bliss imagined by Rousseau. He dreamed of the noble savage (le bon sauvage in French), an outsider who has not been corrupted by civilization and thus symbolizes the innate goodness of mankind.

What we have wound up with is a generation of savages who are not very noble. The inequities in society have not disappeared, but rather seem to have become worse. The thinking of our day goes so far as to say that it is wrong for gender identity to be imposed on children. They must be free to choose their own gender. This is not liberating them, it is setting them loose in a labyrinth with no exit.

Bellamy says we urgently need to resume teaching our intellectual, moral and religious heritage. It does not liberate children to leave them free to discover math, grammar and spelling on their own. In fact, it tends to perpetuate divisions in society. Children of more prosperous parents will get help at home to make up for the shortcomings of the education system, while children from poorer families, or immigrant families, will not be taught the skills they need to escape poverty.

When one has been taught a value system which they believe to be liberating, they are blind even to such self-evident truths. Beyond that, they are blind to the values of history, culture and religion which enabled society to function in a more or less orderly fashion in past generations.

I found this book illuminating. It explains so much that is happening around us today. It explains why those who graduate from university with a bachelor of education degree have not been taught anything about the subjects they are to teach, or how to teach them. That’s not their job. Their job is to stand back and facilitate “discovery learning” in the children in their classes.

If we think that the public educations system has strayed far from its original purpose, we are badly mistaken. If we read what was said by the founders of public education we see that today’s system is what they had in mind all along. They saw family, religion, history and tradition as barriers to freedom. That teaching began in universities and has taken a century and a half to filter down to all levels of society. Useful, practical education was never the primary goal of public education. Public schools were intended to be the means of introducing modern thinking to society. By modern thinking they meant the philosophies of Descartes and Rousseau.

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