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A lot of people, both left and right, like to condemn our educational system. Teachers don't do a good job. Teachers don't have sufficient resources. Class sizes are too large. School buildings are too old and unmaintained. They're not teaching what students need to learn. They don't teach about anything but what white corporation owners want their drones to learn.

home schooling

Now, with schools closed, a lot of parents are learning more about what teachers actually do. And they are getting the opportunity to put into effect all those backyard barbecue and Christmas break party pontifications about, "What I would do, if I were teaching those kids."

Sitting in my own quarantine enclave, with no children around making noise, interrupting at-home work schedules, and no pets needing to be walked, I can't really imagine how much satisfaction there must be in these recent weeks of putting into practice all that decisive wisdom which seemed so obvious when spoken over a cold Corona or a hot eggnog toddy.

There may be parents who, now having a duty to try to contribute to their children's schooling, beyond merely helping crib their math worksheets, might be interested in considering the educational possibilities of relating today's Covid-19 pandemic with history

I can imagine, however that there may be parents who, now having a duty to try to contribute to their children's schooling, beyond merely helping crib their math worksheets, might be interested in considering the educational possibilities of relating today's Covid-19 pandemic with history, the development of science, and how different cultures handle similar issues.

Schools, with their standardized testing, formal curriculae, and tight scheduling may not be able to integrate cross-subject topics. And may not have time to allow individual students to develop their own thinking about issues. But parents with children at home have the flexibility to allow, and guide their students. And the opportunity to make learning less of rote memorization and more of an adventure.

As an initial, easy step in this process, I suggest two books which parents might find useful in home teaching efforts. One is a young adult novel, and one a history book. The young adult novel is one which can be read to younger children, or by middle school children. The history book can give parents insights with which to teach their children. Both books deal with American history, at times of smallpox epidemics. Each also deals with our history, and with our long tensions between different cultural views of how to deal with problems.

The first book, the young adult novel, is Louise Erdrich's 1999 The Birchbark House. Louise Erdrich is the author of 2020's The Night Watchman, which has been talked about for various awards. The Birchbark House was her first young adult novel, after a series of other novels. Erdrich is an Ojibwa writer who lives in Minnesota, where she studies her own family's history.

Her novel is set in 1847-8, following one year in the life of a young Ojibwa girl who is 7 when the novel opens. Starting in the spring, the book follows the year 'til the next spring. During the winter, the girl's community is hit by smallpox. By 1847, fur hunters and French missionaries were in Minnesota, and the book deals with some of the interactions between native and colonial cultures.

Teachers teach students, often by allowing students the freedom to explore, question, and make mistakes. In contrast, many parents instruct their children. Like many progressives, who already know the answers, parents can be less attuned to ideas like allowing children to develop their own ideas by exploration and experimenting. But the exercise of home schooling might be useful to parents in learning more about how children learn.

Parents might read the book with children and then ask the children to expound on what individual episodes of the story mean. What do children today think about the story's little girl talking to animals, and believing that animals and people can communicate? How familiar are the 7-year-old girl's feelings of antagonism toward her 5-year-old brother? How do those feelings affect family life, both in 1847 and today?

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The setting of the book, just southwest of the western end of Lake Superior, might be an anchor for talking about geography, and about the movement of colonial exploration. Why does the Native American group live on an island? Why were white explorers and hunters more prevalent in the northern plains than the southern?

The second book I suggest is Tony Williams' 2010 The Pox and the Covenant, about the work Cotton Mather did in response to the 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston Colony. Smallpox epidemics tore through all the American colonies, on a regular basis. As with Corona virus today, many churchmen of the early 18th century saw smallpox as god's judgment on wicked, sinful people.

Cotton Mather might be best known to most Americans as a Puritan minister who was one of the most zealous proponents of the Salem witch trials. He believed in spectral evidence at trials and the devil's influence on people, particularly women. But he was also part of the enlightenment religious belief that god created men (if not women) with brains and minds that could use science to learn things previously unknown.

While Cotton Mather believed that witches could fly on broomsticks, he also believed that evidence showed that smallpox could be controlled and defeated by inoculating people against the disease. He worked to prove his belief that there were forces, invisible to him, that could defeat an evil in the world. And he promoted his belief, and his scientific proof of that belief, against the opposition of other Puritan ministers and political leaders, who saw Mather's work as a challenge to god's inscrutable plan in creating smallpox.

Parents might use the book to sponsor discussions of life in the American colonies, including the repeating smallpox epidemics, and what features of early 18th century life made such epidemics inevitable. When the 1721 epidemic hit, Benjamin Franklin was only 15 years old, and not the great wit and diplomat he would become. Children who have been taught about him as a rotund profundity might enjoy the chance to think of him as a youth in the process of laying the foundation of his great future.

Questions about the role of religion in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and tensions between the religious establishment and the emerging "Enlightenment" movement, flow naturally from the progression from witch trials to inoculation experiments. The facts of one man (Mather)'s involvement in both could help students learn about things that we think are certain, and how real knowledge develops, over time and often against resistence.

These books might also be reassuring in a time of national terror about tiny, invisible invaders, attacking our bodies without warning, and without our having defenses, either natural or scientifically developed. The smallpox epidemics that swept the North American colonies, and decimated Native American groups, killed much higher percentages of those populations than any projection of the Corona virus doing.

It is no consolation to any individual victim or family. But history shows that people and societies survive such epidemics. It is possible, maybe even probable, that we will have a first and then second wave (in the fall) of Covid-19 deaths. But in this moment, learning about how epidemics arise, spread and are survived could be reassuring and empowering for children. Learning about them in the context of our own national history might make the lessons more accessible.

Both of these books are available, used (new as well) on Amazon. Local bookstores, like Vromans, are closed to foot traffic, but still filling orders online ( Other bookstores are also trying to maintain contact-less sales. Fun fact, Louis Erdrich owns an independent bookstore in Minnesota, which is still active during this epidemic, and can ship The Birchbark House, and four sequel books featuring the same Ojibwa girl. Support local businesses. Support Native American businesses.

Sadly, it appears that the L.A. Public Library is not making books available for borrowing during the pandemic, although both books are on the shelf in various branches. Both books are also available from the LAPL as e-book downloads.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall

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