Monday, January 21, 2008

Beating It To Death

Several weeks back I saw this post at a Carnival of Homeschooling and I commented about it at the time. The post, from a blog entitled The Not Quite Crunchy Parent, recommended a way to get kids interested in great literature and great art. That method was to beat it to death. The idea was that kids--especially the younger ones--like the familiar much more than the unfamiliar. So if you present a story to youngsters that they like, then you can give them a slightly more advanced version of the story not too long afterward, then another. You start, perhaps, with a children's illustrated edition of the story, even in comic book form; then perhaps you move on to a children's novel; maybe you watch a decent movie version; eventually, the kids have become familiar enough with the whole story that they can take the real thing. The author of this post was having her son go through an Ivanhoe audiobook at the time, and was preparing her family for the Magic Flute. (Being a former opera guy myself, I'm quite interested in people's experiences of introducing kids to opera. If you have any stories--especially if your attempts were successful--I'd love to hear from you.)

(As a side note: check out this blogger's latest post, entitled Why We Eschew Kid's Productions; not to spoil too much of the post for you, but the big reason is that their kids know the story so well by the time they go that they start complaining about all the scenes these productions cut out.)

I've been tossing over this idea in my head, and comparing and contrasting with other approaches. For one thing, the approach the Not Quite Crunchy Parent presents is not universally accepted. There's a school of thought out there, especially strong among the Charlotte Mason and Classical Education factions within the homeschooling movement, that no literature or art should be given except the real thing; that anything else is to be considered twaddle, and is unworthy of the child being educated. This viewpoint can be read here--scroll down to the section entitled "Abridged Versus Unabridged Works" to get a taste of the argument.

Nevertheless, I think I'm seeing signs that the Not Quite Crunchy Parent is on to something, at least with the younger children. I have two observations I've made of the Pillowfight Fairy that seem to support her thesis.

Here's number one. We have a whole bunch of Baby Einstein videos. Yes, yes, I know; there are recent studies out that show that they're not particularly good for the development of young minds. Cut us some slack; most of them were given as a gift in a big set four years ago. And I don't mind the earlier ones, at any rate; the earliest Baby Einstein videos were little more than classical-music-delivery-devices. The images would hold the attention, while Bach or Mozart or Handel infiltrated the brains of the wee bairns. And with our kids at least, they remembered the music and can still recognize it. We throw on our CD with Handel's Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and the Pillowfight Fairy calls out: "That's from Baby Neptune!" We play Beethoven's Sixth, and she recognizes it as the music from Baby Galileo (and from Fantasia).

But if I throw on some music she's not familiar with, it often makes no connection. We have a CD with both the Nutcracker Suite and excerpts from Swan Lake, both by Tchaikovsky. She loves the former, because she recognizes it from Fantasia; but she has no patience for the latter. It doesn't matter that the music is by the same composer, and is of the same quality, or that Swan Lake even has a more coherent plot; she tolerates only the music she recognizes.

Well, just for kicks, a couple weeks back I threw on a CD of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The Pillowfight Fairy of course recognized it as being from Baby Van Gogh. But then I began to narrate the scene, since Pictures at an Exhibition is a very visually evocative piece. I told her to imagine a great, majestic hall, with many paintings on the walls; and that main melody you hear, represents the viewer as he stands in the hall and walks from one painting to the next. But each separate movement represents what you see as you look at a specific painting. And as each movement would start, I would read the name of the movement from the liner notes, and have her imagine the painting that the music was describing: the Gnome, the Old Castle, the argument between the rich and the poor man, the "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" (her personal favorite, as I described lots of eggs running around on little protruding feet), Baba Yaga's hut up on chicken legs. The more the music played, the more the Fairy became enthralled by all these ideas.

(Side note; later, when I wasn't there, she asked Mommy to play the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Mommy had no idea what she was talking about.)

But this exercise wouldn't have worked if the Fairy hadn't already been familiar with the music. So while I don't particularly like the Baby Einstein videos, I have to give credit where credit is due; they helped introduce my little girl to some really great music in a nonthreatening form. Now that my daughter recognizes these pieces of music from a watered-down, oddly-orchestrated children's version, she is a bit more open to hearing, discussing and even contemplating the real thing.

Here's number two. Starting about a year ago--when the Pillowfight Fairy was four--I decided to try reading some chapter books to her, to see if she was mature enough to enjoy them. The results of this experiment were mixed. I read a few of books from the Chronicles of Narnia to her; and I started in on The Wind in the Willows; but it was very much hit-or-miss. Now, part of that could certainly be the fact that she had just turned four; but I think that much of what came out of these books was so strange and exotic that she had little point of connection with it.

But recently we obtained the recent Charlotte's Web movie on DVD, and the girls loved it. (Of course, they loved the antics of Templeton more than anything else--we've been trying to get them to stop pretending that they're jumping off of the sofa arms and into a big puddle of slop.) And we just happened to have the book on hand, though we hadn't been brave enough to try to read it to her. But since she took the movie so well, I decided to see if the five-year-old, at least, was mature enough to handle being read the book.

We're three chapters from the end, and the experiment has been a smashing success. Now again, this could be that the Fairy is finally mature enough to handle chapter books. But I think it also has to do with the fact that she already knows the story. The movie does follow the book pretty well, and we can tell that she is connecting the scenes in the movie with the corresponding chapters in the book (by, for instance, quoting movie lines at the appropriate places as I'm reading).

Now, I'm actually hoping that her acceptance of the book is more a maturity thing than a familiarity thing. After all, there are a whole lot more decent books out there than decent movies, and we don't want the girl becoming dependent on movies before she'll find interest in a book. We're going to run another little experiment after we finish Charlotte's Web: we'll launch into another E.B. White novel, Trumpet of the Swan, and see how she does. (Apparently there was a 2001 animated version of this book made, that wasn't particularly faithful; we don't have any desire to find it and show it to our kids.)

Anyway, it's all food for thought.


Chris said...


Great post. Too much to respond to except this:

1) We too appreciated (for what they're worth) the Baby Einstein videos. Belle (age 8) still recognizes music (the "real" version) from them. Carolyn and the kicds frequently have "music lunch" where they have classical music playing in the background while they eat. It's non-threatening, but establishes the key composers and works in their minds. (how many 8, 6 and 4 year olds recognize Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" after 30 seconds?)

2) We LOVED "Trumpet of the Swans". There is an audio book narrated by EB White himself that was our first introduction to the book. We listened in the car while driving the absurd distances between home and ballet / choir / etc. (plus one long family trip to Ohio, which helped dramatically).

Live from yet another business trip,


Crimson Wife said...

My oldest was born in 10/02 as well & I took her a few months ago to the San Francisco Opera's production of "The Magic Flute for Families". It was sung in English and it was abridged but still had all the major scenes. She loved it!

To prepare, I had played our "Die Zauberflöte" CD in the week leading up to the performance and I also read her the guide sent out with our tickets.

I don't know about Charlotte Mason, but Susan Wise Bauer recommends quality children's versions of the classics in "The Well Trained Mind".

The Not Quite Crunchy Parent said...

OK where do I start? Terrific post!

Thanks for the link love. I also have heard the abridged vs unabridged argument- you have to do what works for you - my feeling anyway.

You know though, we too have baby Einstein videos which are NOT BAD - what's bad is propping an infant in front of them and thinking you're educating them - I wonder if Julie Aigner Clark was really thinking "infants" when she developed these? I think they are fine for a 3 or 4 year old. My son loved them and called classical music "Baby Einstein" music for quite awhile until we went to the next step of Classical Kids CD.

We've STILL on Ivanhoe BTW - after a chapter book and then the abridged 4 tape) audio set now he wants the unabridged version - 14 tapes.

I've become really fond of starting small. With Narnia, we started with a kid's picture book, then went on to the unabridged audio CD (at 5). We have yet to read the chapter books- that's next!

Anonymous said...

Our kids get the classics because that is what we listen to and read. I often use elements of stories to illustrate things in real life- like telling an ungrateful child the story of "Oliver Twist". I am not against abridged versions or movies- my firstborn became fascinated with Shakespeare after seeing Mel Gibson in "Hamlet". It's just that when it happens, it happens- I don't use an 'approach'.

They have embraced various styles of music and dance because of "Singing in the Rain", "West Side Story", and "The Lord of the Dance". As for opera, my kids got interested because they liked the soundtrack to ALW's "Phantom of the Opera", and Charlotte Church CDs(the kids liked her because she was one of 'them':D)

For us, audiobooks are a tremendous way to share great books- I don't lose my voice reading them out loud, and we can stop the CD and discuss what is going on. They also hear whatever books I might be listening to (right now it is "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" by Maureen Corrigan). Since they are curious (charitable word for nosy) they want to know what she is talking about all the time. Open door right there.

Valerie said...

Long before "Baby Einstein," I had a similar experience with music by the Cambridge Buskers, a duo whose instruments of choice were an accordion, recorders, ocarinas and other usually-non-classical instruments.

Their versions of classical pieces are tres amusant. ;>

One of the pieces was from Swan Lake, and it was a selection my kids referred to as "The Duck." At the end of the death scene, the piece is hilarious because one of the musicians blows a mournful duck call. "The Duck" was a popular request when we were out riding in the car.

Familiarity can also breed appreciation.