Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review: Positive Discipline

I've written before about some of the parenting books I found useful, and I have one more to add to the list! I found Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems (Positive Discipline Library) at the library. It seemed to fit my general parenting philosophy (no spanking or harsh punishments, but modelling/teaching good behavior), so I thought it would have some good tips.

What I love about the philosophy behind the book is that it's so respectful to children and parents. Too often, parents demand obedience and respect from their children, while constantly modelling and demonstrating disrespectful behavior. It's a recipe for resentment and power struggles. Instead, positive discipline is about treating children with kindness and firmness, so that you neither indulge them or disrespect them. How do you do that? The authors suggest that parents use actions and follow-through to curb misbehavior. For example, if a child refuses to hold hands when crossing the street, parents shouldn't argue or plead, but simply grab the child's hand. Follow-through might mean having a talk with your child about safety, and asking for their cooperation when you're in a busy area with a lot of cars. If a parent shows with their actions how important safety is, children will take it more seriously than if a parent yells or argues.
I read this entire book, even the sections on teenagers (I do teach kids that age, after all), and I was impress by the author's emphasis on learning, listening, and loving. We want children to listen to us, but we forget to teach them good listening skills. Children learn to listen when we model good listening each time they talk to us, especially by asking "curiosity" questions and validating their emotions (even if we disagree with their actions). We also forget how important it is to let children learn from their experiences, including the consequences of their actions (natural consequences, not ones we impose). If we let children figure things out themselves, that's usually a much more powerful learning experience than if we lecture them. That's why its important not to constantly over-protect or pamper children--it makes them feel anxious and incapable, since they never learn to handle negative emotions or consequences.

Finally, the authors strongly advocate for treating children with unconditional love. Especially if they've made a mistake or acted very badly, children need to know they're loved. It's perfectly fine for parents to say "I love you, but I'm very angry that you did this thing," or "I love you, but that is not how we should act." When children feel their parents' love is conditional, they may become desperate people-pleasers who lack independence, or they may rebel and fight back against their parents' expectations. It's important to remember that we can disapprove of a child's behavior without disapproving of the child herself.

I'd strongly recommend this book to parents and teachers everywhere. I've already started using some of the techniques with my daughter and my students, and I feel like it's helped my relationships with them. The book's focus on solutions is a good reminder that while punishment might sate our anger, it doesn't usually have the effect on behavior that we'd like. But positive discipline corrects children's behavior in a firm, loving way, guiding and teaching them to be confident, capable, and to find their own unique strengths.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

How Do You Find Time to Practice?

When I was a music student, I practiced dutifully every day, often for hours at a time. Sure, I might have to cut back on practice occasionally if I had other pressing concerns--rehearsals, final exams, a part-time job. But I could hardly imagine a time in my life when finding the time to practice at all would become horribly difficult.

The first indication I had that practice time was about to become a precious commodity was my first full-time non-music job. I worked as a public school teacher, and it exhausted me so much I hardly had the energy to break out my viola. It didn't help that I didn't have a good place to practice anymore, since it was hard to practice in my apartment (where my neighbors complained and my husband got very good at distracting me), but I didn't have access to the practice rooms at school anymore. But after I decided that public school teaching wasn't for me, I thought I could go back to practicing like I had before. And I did, for a while. Then I had a baby.

Babies are exhausting and demanding, and require constant attention. Of course, they do take naps, but then you spend your time tip-toeing around trying not to wake them up (or catching up on much-needed sleep yourself), not breaking out the Richard Strauss excerpts.

What saved my practice time was teaching private lessons. As a private lessons teacher who teaches public school kids during their orchestra class or after school, I have the use of a practice room, or at least a space of my own, on the days that I teach. Most of my practice takes place on my lunch period or during the orchestra director's planning period. If I have an empty lesson time or an absent student, I use that time to practice, too. Of course, I also give my students plenty of demonstrations, which at least allows me to brush up on my basic technique (teaching does help you learn!).

Now that my daughter is a bit older, I can also practice a little bit at home. She loves to see me play my violin or viola, though that does make her want to grab at it and try to play it herself (soon...).

While I may not be able to practice four hours at a stretch, as I did during my college days, I find that's made me learn to use my time more efficiently. I no longer have time to waste in mindless repetition, so I work to make my practice as focused and effective as possible. Even a five-minute break between students can be helpful.

How do you find the time to practice? Any tips would be appreciated!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sherwood Forest Faire 2016

For the fourth year in a row, my family and I went to Sherwood Forest Faire, a Medieval Fair outside of Austin. We had a great time, and were happy to see some new performances as well as old favorites!
This was my first time seeing Wolgemut, a band that performs period music on instruments like Medieval bagpipes and the Rauschpfeife, a German reed instrument in the shawm family. Their show was enthusiastic and fun, so much my little girl started dancing! I bought one of their CDs, and we've enjoyed listening to it at home.
My daughter dancing to Wolgemut's music, with her sword and shield. That's my warrior princess.
We were delighted to visit one of our fair favorites, Como Ristorante Italiano. The weekend we were there, they brought back one of the most delicious fair foods we'd ever had--arancini, or fried risotto balls. We tried both the beef and the spinach versions, and they were amazing! 
Arancini, or fried risotto balls.
My sweet girl loves going on the pony rides!
I got my hair braided!
My daughter pets one of the jousting horses.
We all enjoy bird shows, though I think this was the first time I'd seen the one at Sherwood. This is a little barn owl--my daughter loves seeing her and the other birds.
My husband bought a set of Medieval-style utensils. He can use them for Viking reenactments, too.
My husband and I, listening to Saxon Moon.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Reading The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Jan/Feb 2016)

Since I enjoyed reading the last issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction so much, I decided to get the next issue as well. This is the issue from Jan/Feb of this year, so I'm not sure if it's still available in stores, but you can certainly find in on Amazon and on the magazine's website. 

Like the previous issue, the Jan/Feb magazine contained plenty of brilliant and engaging stories, each as different in tone as the authors themselves. The issue is themed around the planet Mars, and the first three stories are set there, yet each of them has such a unique vision of the planet it hardly seems to be the same place each time. Gregory Benford's "Vortex," which opens the 'zine, is my favorite of these. The author's conception of the Marsmat, a completely alien, possibly intelligent life-form, intrigued me completely. On the other hand, Mary Robinette Kowal's "Rockets Red," also set on Mars, is a sweet, heart-warming tale of community and teamwork. The last Mars tale, Alex Irvine's "Number Nine Moon," is more of a survival story set during the evacuation of the first and last human colony on the red planet. 
The rest of the stories in the magazine were quite good as well, with a few that stand out as exceptional. Albert Cowdry's haunting and creepy tale "The Visionaries" stayed with me more than some of the others. If the first couple of paragraphs didn't initially grab me, Cowdry certainly built up tension from there, until the final horrifying reveal. What's more, his characters are lovable and fascinating, down-to-earth Jim and sensitive Morrie playing off each other in great ways. Their gentle conflict, as well as Cowdry's subtle references to current political events, make the story feel real, which deepens its frightening, unsettling finale. Likewise, E. Lily Yu's "Braid of Days and Wake of Nights" alternates between brutal reality and a surreal, lovely vision of an alternative world. Its ending was as ambiguous as it was heart-rending. I loved it so much, I wonder if it won't get nominated for a Nebula award this year.

Overall, I'd highly recommend The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to anyone who loves, well, fantasy and science fiction. I've enjoyed the stories in it so much I'm considering getting a subscription, which is more affordable than buying it in Barnes and Noble every couple of months. One last thing--I loved the science article "Welcome to Pleistocene Park," which contained such fantastic and interesting ideas about ecology and woolly Mammoths I've been mulling it over ever since.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: The World of Byzantium, on Audible

It's been a while since I listened to anything on audible, mostly just because I'd gotten so busy and distracted I didn't even think about it. But recently I decided to listen to Kenneth Harl's "The World of Byzantium," one of The Great Courses series. I chose it because while I've read a great deal about ancient Greece and Rome, I realized I knew very little about the latter part of the Roman empire and even less about Byzantium, the heir to the Roman empire that survived in its Eastern half for nearly a thousand years.

The history of the Eastern Empire, and its evolution from a classical Roman society to a Medieval Christian society (though one conspicuously lacking in the ignorance and feudalism of Western Europe), is a fascinating and engaging part of history that I'd never studied before. Yet without the Byzantine Empire, much of Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and culture would have been irretrievably lost. The lecture series begins by examining the divisions within the Roman Empire that lead to its split, and eventually to the loss of its Western half. Harl explores the career of the great Emperor Constantine I, who builds the great city of Constantinople in what is today modern Turkey. The wealthiest and greatest city in world for thousands of years, Constantine and his successors would use the city to spread Christianity throughout the empire and to rule the Eastern empire long after the fall of Rome.
Yet despite the vibrancy, strength, and wealth of the great city, called "New Rome" by Constantine himself, the rulers never quite have the ability to retake the rest of the former empire. Nonetheless, the power of Constantinople shapes the world as it transitions from late antiquity to the dark ages, through the crusades and the emergence of the Ottoman empire, Byzantium's successor. Much of Western culture, from the works of Plato and Aristotle, to the histories and law codes of Rome, survived in Byzantium and were only rediscovered in Western Europe during the crusades. Byzantine history is also full of fascinating characters, including the Emperor Justinian I, a brilliant man who fundamentally shaped the Byzantine state and its religious character, yet who ultimately could not reconcile the religious and cultural differences between the Eastern and Western halves of the former Roman Empire. 

I'd recommend this course to anyone who's interested in history. The Byzantine Empire and its demise had a profound influence on the modern world, and Harl depicts its wonders and its sophistication as well as its occasional savagery. As a narrator, Harl is clearly passionate and knowledgeable about his subject, which makes listening to him engaging.    

Friday, March 11, 2016

Are American Music Teachers Too Nice?

The Strad recently published an article online about how U.S. music teachers are too nice, and how their lack of high standards and strict discipline is harming students' long term achievement. Many of the teachers interviewed for the article expressed frustration over the inability of American students to accept correction or criticism. As a teacher (and a former student, of course), I see both sides of this issue, and I understand the crucial balance teachers must find between tough love and compassion. However, I think the article misses some important points.

1. Not Every Student Wants to be a Professional

Considering how saturated the music profession is today, and how few jobs are available, this is perhaps a good thing. Some students are learning an instrument for enjoyment, or to give themselves a challenge, or because all their friends are in orchestra too. While I try to hold all of my students to high standards, I don't demand rigorous practicing from kids who have no intention of playing professionally. Many of them won't even end up playing in their high school orchestra, so why stress them out and drive them out of my studio?

2. Lack of Respect for Teachers is a Huge Problem

I started a new job this past fall teaching mostly middle school children instead of elementary-aged kids. Maybe it's the age difference, but I find I have to "prove myself” to the middle school children before they will listen to me, much less do what I ask. It's frustrating to have to explain to a kids who's played violin for less than a month that, yes, I do know what I'm talking about when I give them instructions. I think that one reason American children don't take correction well is that many of them have a massive sense of entitlement that makes them resist listening and following directions without arguing back. It doesn't help that teaching is often considered a low-status, low-prestige job. Students aren't immune to the lack of respect that our culture shows teachers. It takes tons of patient effort for a good teacher to overcome resistance and earn students' respect. Sadly, that effort means we often don't have as much time to spend on the subjects we're teaching!

3. Parents Focus on Success, Not Effort

I can't tell you how many parents, even after only one or two lessons, ask me if their child has "talent." What I hate about this attitude is that it discourages hard work. Even extraordinarily talented musicians practice regularly to hone their craft. I wish that parents would ask me what their child needs to practice, or how they can help their child meet practice goals, instead of asking about "talent." What's more, this destructive attitude makes teachers hesitate before giving their honest opinion about the student's abilities. Parents often mistake "little Johnny isn't practicing hard enough or paying enough attention to succeed" for "Johnny won't ever amount to anything in music, so he should just quit and find something easier." But quitting because things are difficult teaches children to be quitters, instead of teaching them that to be great at something takes effort.

I think that teachers should show students compassion, and wise teachers understand how to support students emotionally when they need it. But I think we should re-examine our culture, especially the distrust and disrespect we show teachers, before we blame them for being "too nice."

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reading The Song of Roland

 I picked up a copy of the French epic poem "The Song of Roland" to use as research for a project I was working on. Since I had the book, I figured I might as well read the whole poem (in English translation, though the book also has the French original). As someone who loves Renaissance Faires and finds Medieval history fascinating, I thought it sounded interesting and would perhaps give me some insights into the Medieval world. What I did not expect was how much insight it gave me into the modern world.

The Song of Roland is beautifully written, full of action and interesting characters. Yet it thoroughly reflects a set of values so ancient and foreign that it took me by surprise. For example, its depictions of masculinity. Throughout the poem, men, including and even especially manly, idealized men, show the type of intense emotions that modern men are supposed to forgo. Charlemagne, the wise, great emperor, one of the greatest Christian knights, falls to the ground in a faint and openly weeps when he sees how his most gallant knights have been betrayed and slain. Indeed, all the poem's heroes, including Roland and his noble companion Oliver, weep and mourn in a way that modern society too often frowns upon. Clearly, Medieval warriors did not believe that "boys don't cry."
The strong contrast between men's expected behavior today with the Medieval ideals shows just how unnatural the modern "stoic" ideal is. In the past, men were expected and encouraged to show strong emotions, including crying and mourning.
The poem seems strangely modern in other ways. The enemies that Roland and Charlemagne face are Muslims, though they're called pagans in the poem and shown worshiping a variety of gods, from Apollo to the made-up god Termagent. What's even stranger, the original battle that inspired "The Song of Roland" wasn't against Muslims at all, but against Christian Basques in the Pyrenees. The choice of Muslims as the enemy, despite its historical inaccuracy, and the complete lack of understanding of their religion, is all to common of the ignorance people express towards other religions even today. At least the poem depicts the Muslims as brave warriors and noble knights, despite their lack of the "true" faith. Still, it's easy to see how this poem reflects the deep roots of Islamophobia in Western culture.

I'd recommend this poem to anyone interested in understanding the perspectives and worldview of Medieval France. Its gripping depictions of brutal combat and the idealized versions of feudal life make it a compelling read, though there are long sections of descriptions that can get a bit tiring. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Our Telescope

My husband and I decided to buy a telescope as a mutual present for Valentine's Day. After significant research and a bit of an odyssey through the Byzantine returns process of telescope companies, we finally received our scope yesterday. We eagerly took it out and set it up, and spent a good part of the evening exploring the night skies.

I've always liked the idea of getting a telescope. I love looking at the stars, and they feel like something a science fiction writer should have. The reality of owning one actually far succeeded my expectations. For one thing, it was much easier to use than I'd expected. With a laser to guide us, we easily found some awe-inspiring sites, including the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades star cluster. We could see Jupiter's bands, as well as its four major moons (Io, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto).
Seeing planets, star clusters, and nebulae with my own eyes through my own telescope was an incredible feeling that left me humbled and awed at the beauty and immensity of the universe. It's an experience I hope we can share with our daughter as she gets older--a fun family activity that involves science! We let her look through the telescope a little, but she goes to bed too early to see much right now.

For anyone who's interested, the telescope we got is a Meade Lightbridge Mini 130. It's a lovely piece of equipment, very easy to set up and use even for beginners. We used the book Nightwatch and a phone app to orient ourselves in the sky at first, and it became easier to recognize constellations as we worked. I had read a bit of the National Geographic's Guide to the Night Sky to help get me started as well.