Amy Tan’s Third Grade Essay


I love school because the many things I learn
seem to turn on a light in the little room in my mind.
I can see a lot of things I have never seen before.
I can read many interesting books by myself now.
I love to read.
My father takes me to the library every two weeks,
and I check five or six books each time.
These books seem to open many windows in my little room.
I can see many wonderful things outside.

~ excerpt of essay written by Amy Tan at age 8
quoted in Reading Rooms

Major and Minor

Introducing the idea: I’m having too many “if I were teaching (insert subject), I would use (insert example) to explain (insert principle)” moments. But my teaching days are on the left hand side of the timeline. It’s a bit deflating to find something so usable and yet have no way to use it. So I blog.

Background: Today (6/28) is Tau Day. What?  Tau (τ) is the circumference of a circle divided by the radius, approximately 6.28.  [Pi Day was 3/14, celebrating π, the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter.]  Michael John Blake has put Tau, the infinite number, to music on this video. The tune is the wistfully mysterious; for me it also captures the order and structure and design in something as elementary as a circle.

Getting closer to the point: I am a sucker for the sidebar.  After I watched the Tau video I noticed a video posted by the same musician/guy: Carol of the Bells (major key).

Bring it home: The familiar Carol of the Bells is, of course, written in a minor key.  [If you were sitting next to me, we’d hum it together.]  The carol has such a different mood played in a major key.  Raising or lowering the third, the middle note in a chord, greatly alters a tune.  This video would be a perfect way to teach major/minor keys to piano students. I have this urge to round up the street urchins and explain it to them. 

Winding down: When I play the piano, I often take a familiar song written in a major key, say Great is Thy Faithfulness or even The Star Spangled Banner, and play a middle verse in the minor key. Because life is sometimes that way. In a minor key. And the music captures that sense of struggle and strain and difficulty.  The video above, however, goes in a different direction: the minor to the major.

Concluding question: Minor keys make a lot of people gag. They complain, “What is with the dirge?”  I’m quite fond of minor key tunes.  But that is a topic for another time. Which version of Carol of the Bells do you prefer: major or minor?


String, Straightedge, and Shadow


Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.

—Robert McKee

Facts and theorems can be difficult to swallow.  They often get gunked up in the throat, remain lodged in the esophagus, useless for nourishment or growth.  But stories!  Stories get gulped down with eagerness and along with them much useful knowledge is digested.  Julia E. Diggins tells the compelling story of geometry in String, Straight-Edge, and Shadow.  Written for children, it would be beneficial to anyone interested in learning geometry. 

They used the string to trace a circle, to lay off a right angle, to stretch a straight line.
They used as a straightedge anything else with which they could draw a straight line.
They came to realize that shadows are the sun’s handwriting upon the earth to tell the
secrets of order in the universe.

Diggin’s story would be a great stand-alone read; individual chapters, however, could supplement studies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Babylon, or Greece.  The solutions that geometry offers are told in the context of the problems people faced.  In the question of ancient property rights and surveying farmer’s fields, boundaries could not be casually (by freehand) drawn.  They needed to know how to trace an accurate right-angle corner.  The answer is in roper-stretchers, knotted rope, stakes…and the 3-4-5 right triangle.  Corydon Bell’s illustrations make geometry easier to understand.  What a pleasant introduction to Thales, Pythagorus, Eudoxus, Archimedes and Eratosthenes. 


You can read sections of the book herehere and here.  I leave with you the opening quote of this book, from Plato.

But by beauty of shape
I want you to understand
not what the multitude generally
means by this expression,
like the beauty of living beings
or of paintings representing them,
something alternatively rectilinear and circular,
and the surfaces and solids
which one can produce
from the rectilinear and circular
with compass, set square, and rule.
For these things are not like the others,
conditionally beautiful,
but are beautiful in themselves.

~ Plato



Yesterday, I made a page for this blog at Facebook.

I wondered, again, why I chose such a difficult name for my blog. Magistra is Latin for (female) teacher; Mater means mother. I was telegraphing my bent toward classical home education. I was deep in my Latin Stage, in which I interrupted you whenever you used a word whose Latin root I had recently learned.

You: “My kids don’t pay attention when—“

Me: “Attention literally means to stretch toward.”

You: (questioning stare) (pause)

You:  “…well, I need to monitor their—“

Me: “Monitor literally means to warn.”

You: “…um, so I’ll just put in a video…”

Me:  “I see.”

If I were to start a blog today, Nana Babe would be a better moniker.  My grandsons call me Nana, my husband calls me Babe

I could shorten it to N.B. which is also short for Nota Bene which, ahem, is (I blush to say) Latin for pay attention.

[…and if you want to follow the blog through Facebook you can find me there at Magistra Mater…]

The Music Pushed Me Over

“The problem with you is that you are a two buttock player.
You should be a one buttock player.”

“We have a B.
And next to it is a C.
It is the job of the C to make the B sad.”

Not since Robert Greenberg of The Teaching Company (How to Listen to and Understand Great Music) have I enjoyed such a passionate appeal to the power of music.

Of course, “the choir” will gladly listen.  But.  If you have this idea that classical music is just not your thing, you are precisely the person for this video. Benjamin Zander will make you care. 

A Lifetime Learner’s Plan for 2011



I love to learn. 

Heh heh.  That is I love to learn when I’m in control of the learning and it’s going according to my plan. In short, when it is my idea.  Many lessons have to be foisted upon me, more than once, before I get the point. The acquisition of knowledge, the advent of understanding, the getting of wisdom…it’s like gathering armfuls of flowers.  

2011 will open a new vista for me.  After fifteen years of educating my boys at home, I spent two years working full-time while we pressed toward the goal of being debt-free.  My retirement day is fast approaching; my heart is beginning to gurgle with joy at the possibilities.

There is so much to learn.  And here is my short list of learning goals for 2011:


•  Learn musical notation software.  Finale is the version friends declare I need.  Get it. Use it. Love it.  And perhaps do a bit of composing.

•  Learn how to track investments correctly in Quicken.  I have “Placeholder Entries” which need to be fixed. This goes under the broader heading of paying attention to finances, learning more about the stock market, bonds, etc.

•  Learn profound contentment with one serving of food.  Ahem. Practice, practice, practice!

•  Learn how to take pictures with my new camera, a Nikon D3100.  I’m drooling to make bokeh.  And to be able to toss around words like aperture, depth of vision, f-stops and those lens numbers with the smallest measure of intelligence.  As my brother says, “Get out of auto focus.” This also falls under the larger goal of spending more time outside.       

•  Learn ten new Bach pieces on the piano.  If I were ambitious I’d include Chopin, because Chopin always killed me as a girl.  Not that Bach is an easy walk on the tundra. The last few years I’ve only played piano for the joy and comfort of playing. I’m actually itching for some disciplined study.

•  Learn how to listen without thinking of what I’ll be saying next. 


•  Learn to make time for regular letter writing.  Ink on paper letters.  Goodness, I have the cards and stationery!

•  Learn the value of daily stretching.  It’s bizarre to get up in the morning creaky.

•  Learn to look through the microscope.  We have a worthy one.  I’m a bit science-phobic, but I think I could handle this.  I don’t need to keep a journal (or perhaps I do).  I just need to look.  Sort of on a daily basis.  Are there enough things available to put under the lens?  Surely there must be.

•  Learner’s option: learn how to knit.  Or.  Learn how to quilt.  I love the idea of knitting. But I love reading more.  

How Teaching Piano Made Me a Better Reader

When I taught piano lessons, I assigned different levels of music to each student.  One piece was below their reading level; in short, easy to play.  The student didn’t have to strain over which notes to play; instead she could concentrate on phrasing, dynamics, expression.  So even though the music was easy, it needed to be quality, worthy of expressive playing. 

The bulk of the music was bread and butter.  Working from white bread to 10-grain, it got chewier in increments.  Not effortless, but with regular practice the music could be mastered by the next lesson.  Like bread, this was the daily sustenance of the art of playing piano. One bite at a time.

The long-term focus was the challenge piece.  This was music which, at first glance, seemed overwhelming.   Beyond the beyonds.  Too much black print.  Flat out unplayable.  But we broke it up into manageable chunks, slowly worked through the notes, the rhythm, the key signature.  Row by row, I watched my students get the job done.  Some lessons were work sessions, pounding the notes.  Eventually, it coalesced into a polished piece. 

Reading is like this.

Easy books are a good thing if they are good books.  That’s why, when I want a light read, I go to my stack of quality children’s literature.  Wind in the Willows is ever so much more satisfying than Whence Comes the Hunk.

Most reading is of the bread and butter variety.  Whether you have eclectic tastes or you gravitate toward a particular genre, there are books a plenty to read.  Memoirs, mystery, devotional, relational, informative, helpful books.  We all love stories.

Here’s an easy definition of a challenge book:  a book you have to push yourself to read.  A worthy challenge book will reward you and keep you at it.  Slow the pace down, take small bites, and row by row, you’ll bring in the crop. 

Sometimes it became apparent that the piece I assigned my student wasn’t a good fit.  So I unassigned it.   The same goes with books.  A hard-to-read book is not necessarily a good book.  It may just be poorly written.

These three levels of effort can apply to most occupations:  jogging, friendships (when you hear the word challenge friendship does a face come to mind? she asks smiling), mechanics, cooking, thinking….life.