Sunday, January 14, 2007

January Book Review

The Moffats and The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes

Once upon a time, almost one hundred years ago, a family called the Moffats lived in Cranbury, New Jersey. There was Mama, a widow who made dresses for the town ladies in her living room, (her mannequin was referred to as Madame), and her four children: Sylvie, fifteen; Joey, twelve; Jane, nine; and Rufus, five and a half. They lived in a rented yellow house on New Dollar Street with Catherine-the-cat.

The Moffats, the first book in the series, introduces the family told mainly through the eyes of Jane, the middle Moffat. The second book picks up where the first ended – with the sale of the yellow house by its owner and a move to a new house.

I never read Mrs. Estes’ books growing up. I don’t know how I missed them since they were exactly the kind of stories I loved as a child: compelling but simple, realistic adventures that introduced a new and different world but one that was also intimately familiar. I happily stumbled upon The Moffats at the library not too long ago. My daughter, Dusty, a kindergartener who reads at a second grade level, fell in love last year with the Little House on the Prairie series and now enjoys anything that takes place in “old fashioned times.” So I glanced through the book, was captivated by the charming sketchy illustrations of Louis Slobodkin, and brought it home.

Estes prose is so fresh and modern it’s hard to believe these books were written seventy years ago (the first Moffats book was published in 1941). The language is straight-forward and funny. Jane’s adventures in her small town filled with ladies in hats and gloves, the chief of police, the corner grocery store, are timeless.

Estes based the books on her childhood in Connecticut in the 1910s (she was Jane) and clearly knew her audience. Years as a children’s librarian didn’t hurt either, and no doubt exposed her to the best and worst of children’s fiction during that time. She never left the Jane she’d been and writes like a good friend rather than a grown up, the mark of any skilled writer of children’s literature.

What made the books such a find for us, is that they offer a glimpse of an “old fashioned time” that are ready-made for impromptu discussions of history. They introduced Dusty to things like hitching posts, blacksmiths, bread boxes, drinking troughs for horses, coal stoves and oil lamps, trolley cars, scarlet fever, quarantine signs, hurdy-gurdy men, and a world where a nickel could buy enough candy for several children and automobiles were new and rarely seen. Our initial discussions about unfamiliar vocabulary words led to comparisons with other books and where certain of her favorite characters fit it to the history time line: Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up 30-40 years before Jane came along. What had changed? What remained the same? What aspects of Jane’s life are just like ours?

Jane’s “adventures” are normal, believable ones for young children. She does not get lost in a wardrobe and find herself in a snowy land. She does not fall down a rabbit hole or kill a witch with her house. Rather, she fears she’ll get sent to jail when the neighborhood pest, Peter Frost, catches her mimicking the gait of Mr. Pennypeppy, the rotund Superintendent of Schools, as he walks down the street. She encounters a Salvation Army man in a horse-driven wagon on his way to a revival. He stops to ask for directions and the Moffat children end up not only driving the wagon so the man can take a nap in the back, but they manage to get lost, drive the wagon into ditch (which throws the sleeping man out of the wagon) and get caught in a sudden thunderstorm.

Jane’s simple delights mirror those of all children:

It had been a good day in school because the drawing teacher, Mrs. Partridge, who visited every class in town once in the fall, once in the winter and once in the spring, had paid her autumn visit.

Everyone in Jane’s class had drawn an autumn leaf. Everyone in Rufus’ class had drawn a pumpkin. Everyone in Joe’s an apple. All the children in the grammar schools came home with a drawing fluttering in the wind – a drawing of a pumpkin, an apple, or an autumn leaf. It is true that sometimes the children grew tired of drawing leaves, pumpkins and apples. However, Mrs. Partridge never thought of letting them draw anything else.

There are several things about this passage I like. Estes’ use of repetition, “Everyone… Everyone…Everyone…” is reminiscent of books for younger children, of nursery rhymes, of poetry. Jane is happy to get a chance to draw even though she restricted to drawing one thing. But she’s also aware, at some level, that her teacher’s vision is limited and limiting. And yet, she is the “smiley teacher,” and is forgiven this shortcoming. I also can’t help feeling fortunate that, as much as some things stay the same, my daughter has art class once a week, not three times a year. And, she is allowed to draw more than just a pumpkin, an apple, or a leaf.

In The Middle Moffat, Jane encounters the oldest inhabitant, Mr. Buckle, who is 99 years old and a Civil War veteran. Jane is unhappy being “the middle Moffat” and accidentally introduces herself to Mr. Buckle as the “mysterious middle Moffat.” He plays along with this “mysteriousness” throughout the book and it becomes their inside joke. (Mr. Buckle references Hawkshaw the Detective, a popular comic strip character of the time who eerily resembles Sherlock Holmes.) They become fast friends, underscoring the importance of befriending the elderly folks in our lives. The book closes with a town celebration of the oldest inhabitant’s 100th birthday. Mr. Buckle invites the Moffat family to join him for a limousine ride through town.

There are four books in the Moffat series. Estes is also the author of The Hundred Dresses (winner of the Caldecott medal in 1944) and other novels. I look forward to reading them all to my daughter and exploring further a world we never knew. I invite you to do the same.

FreshHell lives in Virginia with her musician husband and two brilliant daughters, Dusty (6) and Red (2). She writes a lot and reads a lot. Occasionally she makes cookies. This is her first book review for AJ’s Clubhouse.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

School Cards

One of our challenges with AJ, an only child with two work-at-home parents, is encouraging him to play by himself. He is so used to being around all the time, that he would usually rather be entertained. It’s not that he doesn’t like playing alone – he gets into his own little world. But sometimes he has trouble getting started.

Yesterday we invented a new game, which AJ has dubbed “School Cards.” AJ loves to play school and we also want to encourage him to work on some of the subjects he doesn’t yet get at school. So we sat down together and came up with a list of all the things we could think of that you could do at school. My list included:

Language Arts
History and Geography
Foreign Language
Gym (indoors)
Recess (outdoors)

AJ added:

Rest time
Snack time
Story time

We got a stack of 3x5 cards and wrote the name of each subject on the back of one card. On the other side, we started writing lists of possible activities. For example, for Language Arts, we included things like “Read a book,” “Write a story,” “Write about something that happened to you yesterday,” “Do one handwriting worksheet,” “Take a vocabulary quiz,” “Play Mad-Libs.”

The process of writing our ideas was interesting for AJ, because he had to think about what kinds of skills went into some of the things he likes to do. We included some games like Uno and Sorry under math, because they require addition and subtraction. We put Rush Hour under Math too, because it involves spatial imagination. We also considered putting it under art, though, because AJ thought he cars were like sculpture and because spatial ideas are important in art too. We put other games under language arts (Guess Who) and gym (Twister, Hullabaloo) and even science (Mousetrap).

I didn’t have any particular plan for how to use the cards. I just wanted a tool we could turn to when we were short of ideas for things to do. I wanted it to be a tool we could use to play together but one that AJ could also use to jumpstart his own play.

AJ definitely has his own ideas about the cards. Yesterday he divided them into work and break time (the latter included gym, recess, snack, story time (because that’s when I read to him instead of him reading to me), and rest time). He alternated pulling cards out of each deck, balancing out work and play. It kept him busy all morning. At lunch time, he was begging to do “just one more.” In the morning, we practiced addition and subtraction to four columns, read a book about China and looked at it on our globe, wrote in his journal, read a book in English and another in Spanish, wrote down some new Spanish words, looked through the telescope and microscope, built an obstacle course in the family room and raced through it, had a snack, and played music and danced to it.

Today he tried another tack. He arranged the cards into a schedule and is going through it systematically. This morning we had science (more microscope investigations) and gym (his weekly gymnastics class) before we had to go run errands.

I like the way this game is making his mind work. He’s thinking about how skills learned in different activities relate to one another. He’s also aware of keeping some balance in his pursuits. I hope to keep adding to our activity lists over time.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Mission work

Thanks to all of you who have contributed your ideas and support for this site. We’re still in the formative stages and I want to encourage you to voice any and all comments, suggestions, etc.

At the moment, the plan is to focus this site on so called, “gifted and talented” kids, but I define that term broadly. I also hope that much of what is produced here will appeal to anyone with kids seeking to supplement or replace traditional school learning. Writing and reviews about all age groups is welcome. My own writing is likely to focus on AJ’s age group (he’s currently in kindergarten), since that’s the area with which I’m most familiar.

In terms of content, I hope to present periodic reviews of books, games, toys, websites, other activities. I also plan to write about some of the projects and games we invent for ourselves in hopes they might inspire others to try them to or to do some inventing of their own. And finally, I would like to see regular personal essays here. I envision a variety of subjects, and hope to solicit a few of you to write about your experiences for this page. Some ideas I’ve been thinking about: raising kids overseas; experience with Mensa, homeschooling vs. traditional schools vs. gifted schools; how do you talk about difficult subjects with your kids; getting what your children need from public schools; etc.

My inspirations for this site, aside from my own blogging about my son, have been brain/child magazine and Chicago Parent magazine as well as many e-mailed and guestbooked discussions with many of you.

I’m actively seeking writers. If you’re interested in writing a one-time essay or a regular feature, please contact me. And thanks to Claudia, who has agreed to write a book review and hopefully a monthly book review feature.

Saturday, January 6, 2007


AJ walks into my room every morning at 7 a.m. on the dot. The first thing he asks for is his good morning hug. The second thing he asks for is a glass of juice. The third thing he asks for are math problems. AJ’s brain seems to be at its most mathematically oriented first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, I need truckloads of coffee before I can think about numbers. What’s a mother to do?

While we play a lot of more active math games at other times of day – things like multiplying window panes while I wipe off fingerprints or doubling and halving cookie recipes – in the morning we’ve been turning to the internet to assist us. Here are some of the websites we’ve found particularly helpful. Our criteria for what makes a good math website is somewhat flexible, but generally 1. It has to be fun; 2. There has to be some kind of reward (fake applause, points, cheering) for doing well and 3. The website is set up in such a way that it allows AJ a certain amount of autonomy. This last criterion is key, not so much because we’re not around to help – I’m generally just a few feet away, if that – but because AJ needs to feel like he’s in control of the technology in order to feel like he’s in control of the math.

To give you some idea of the level of the websites we’ve been looking at, AJ’s currently pretty solid on addition and subtraction, including borrowing. He does okay with multiplication, but still has to count it out sometimes. We’re working on fractions and division and also on how to convert word problems into equations. He’s also getting interested in geometry, God help me. Mostly the latter interest seems to lie in a more artistic direction – he likes drawing cubes. Many of these sites offer a variety of math games and quizzes at a variety of levels. My brief reviews, however, are based solely on my experience with AJ’s level.

1. Math is fun!. This website is pretty low-res as sites go and its name always serves to remind me of the Barbie flap from a few years back (“Math is hard!”). But the basics are there. AJ likes “Who wants to be a mathionaire” game especially. There are other, glossier versions of the mathionaire (or mathonaire) game elsewhere, but most are higher level math – more complicated equations, algebra, etc.)

2. Math Arcade at Funbrain. This site is a little confusing to navigate, requiring more intervention from me than is ideal, but AJ likes it because the progress is marked through a board game. What AJ doesn’t like, however, is that you are expected to go through the game in order. He doesn’t like going in order – whether on websites, or in workbooks. He likes to find the most interesting-looking things first. He is coming around to working in sequence in his workbooks as he learns that jumping ahead often means you’ve missed something important. But on websites he still expects free play. Still, the games are good and the graphics are more sophisticated than mathisfun.

3. Cool Math 4 Kids Arithmattack at Cool Math 4 kids offers a range of customization – choose your operation, the largest number, and the level of difficulty. You then solve as many problems as you can in two minutes. There are other games too, but we have yet to explore them. This requires a little adult supervision to get it set up, but once he gets going, AJ can manage this site on his own.

4. Maths Year 2000 This site is relatively new to us and many of the games require a knowledge of more complex math than AJ can handle at the moment, but the Maths Activity Pack and Maths Circus are both entertaining and have more compelling graphics than the typical online math games.

We have discovered some of these sites through other sites with good lists of educational websites for kids.

Internet 4 Classrooms is a well-organized list of sites organized by topic and grade level aimed at teachers looking for ways to supplement classroom learning with computers.

This site is run by the Mifflin County School District in Lewiston Pennsylvania. If you click on the “Curriculum” button at the top of the page, you can access site lists for other subjects as well.

Any of these sites should have enough math activities to keep your child busy through at least one cup of coffee. Maybe even two.

Thursday, January 4, 2007


My name is Harriet M. Welsch. It is not, of course, my real name. It is the name of one of my favorite childhood literary heroines, a name that's served as my favorite pseudonym since I started blogging at spynotes four or five years ago. I'm a musician and a writer trying to complete a Ph.D. in musicology and ethnomusicology. AJ is my five-year-old son. We live in the Chicago suburbs. You can read more about us at spynotes, which I continue to update more-or-less daily.

AJ demonstrated early that he was going to be a tough kid to keep up with intellectually. He learned to read at age 2. He knew all the state capitals and nicknames by age 3 (I still don't know all the nicknames). He loves to play baseball and you can't say a word against the White Sox in his presence. He knows more about space and human biology than I do. He plays basketball two days a week and is learning to play hockey. He loves math and science and playing the piano. He regularly beats me at chess and demands quizzes with his breakfast Cheerios.

Our public school says he has no intellectual peers in his grade. Our public school has labeled him "gifted." But as for me, I see a pretty normal kid with a wide range of interests and an incredible curiosity and drive for learning. AJ's school has a great attitude about giving him what he needs, but they have few resources. My intention is that this page become a place where we report on some of the activities, websites, projects, etc. that we've found particularly interesting, challenging and fun. I'd also love it to become a place where parents of similar kids (or kids themselves) can share their experiences and resources and educational philosophies.

I'm tired of reading books and websites that whine about the plight of the gifted child in school. What I'd like to read is something more practical. I hope my experiences can help some of you. And I hope you'll share what works for you with me.

I plan to begin by trying to update once a week or so or whenever I have something to report. If you might be interested in becoming a regular contributor, drop me an email to the username harri3tspy at gmail.