Guest Post: Why Most Fantasy Novels Have The Same Setting

katniss fan art
The character of Katniss has inspired a wide range of fan art such as this drawing by yulss

by @thesk3tchbook, my daughter


It is curious to me that today many young adult novels take place in a rural world where people live in villages and hunt to find food and live in a state of lawlessness. It is very much unlike our current state of existence in which our daily lives involve forcing ourselves to get up in the morning to go to work and navigating various enclaves of the internet for both social and business purposes, and where much of our entertainment is from a screen. The rural poverty-stricken village of centuries ago becomes attractive as a scene for a story, first of all because it is exotic.

Characters in this kind of universe deal with severe hunger, disease, perhaps raids from invaders; and there is a lack of structure, predictability, or a middle class in this lawless storied environment.

Why do young readers romanticize such a place so much?  It seems a lot of people don’t realize how much happier they are in the modern world than they would be in such a crude setting. Or are they happier?

Decidedly one thing that distinguishes the rural world from the modern is the context in which skills are exemplified. It is much more interesting to highlight a character’s attributes through an exotic or centuries-old environment than today’s. For instance, let’s say the author wants to point out how intelligent a character is. Which is more interesting to read? “Thomas was known for his clever disposition all throughout the village due to his expertise in creating and placing hunting snares to maximize on prey,” or “Thomas got a perfect score on the SAT so his fellow students knew he was smart”? Let’s say the author wants to highlight a character’s beauty. The average reader would much rather read “She was indeed pretty; rumor had it that she had been pursued by many knights due to her astounding beauty” than “her beauty was undeniable; her selfie on instagram received an astounding five hundred likes!”. A rural old fashioned scene is just more interesting. In fact, we might even go as far as to want to live there instead of our own world due to the excitement.

Many popular novels in this type of setting center around a character we wish we could be: in the hit novel and movie series The Hunger Games, female heroine Katniss is a pretty and strong girl with a brave spirit and two handsome boys in love with her, and despite her humble background she rises to be an icon for rebellion against oppression in the book due to her generous and self-sacrificing nature. Is this book so popular due to its wish-fulfilling nature?  Most likely.

Modern youths (and probably youths in the past as well) are likely bored with modern life: after all, where is the excitement, the exhilaration, the passion that is so prevalent in these books with rural and fantastical settings? Ultimately escapism is the goal of everyone, not just novel readers. You see this frequently in video games as well.  We like these kinds of settings and storylines, I suppose, because we get to experience the excitement and wildness up close but the pain and suffering of any character is only imaginary.

So why are poverty stricken villages from the medieval times so popular in stories? It’s simple; they’re more interesting to write and more interesting to read. People don’t want to read what they already know and experieenc; they want to read what they know they want to experience. Besides, it’s much, much easier to watch excitedly from the sidelines than to experience it yourself.

What do we do in classical education for pre-K?

A friend wanted to get her child ready for kindergarten at a local classical school.  She wrote:


I am very interested in classical education for (3 year old son). I only taught in public school which did not teach classical education. I would love to hear more about it. I really feel like he could greatly benefit. There is a classical school near me, its a charter school and its k-12. I am thinking if I know more about it I could give him a good preschool education by homeschooling him with classical teachings. That way he will be all prepared for kindergarten.

I do want to add that he knows his alphabet, basic sounds for each letter, numbers to 12 by identifying, 1-25 by saying independently, shapes, understanding of patterns, and colors. I am a proud mamma bear!


It sounds like you’re doing a great job. I’m sure he will be fine in any school.

At his age, the classical approach would encourage nursery rhyme memorization, child’s song singing times, playing with blocks and Duplos, going on walks, drawing pictures, both of books and of what he sees outside, copying letters and words if he wishes to, learning good manners, reading aloud as much as he will listen, and orderly home routines (putting his toys in a toy box before coming to supper).

Also you might begin to practice counting with association (how many) and putting groups together just for fun. Though they’ll teach all that in kindergarten, he’ll be a little ahead.


I found the following blog post by Amy at Living and Learning at Home helpful.  Most of this is a detailed expansion of the same type of things I wrote about above, but she also includes narration, which I hadn’t thought of, and which would appear helpful as well: Five Days a Week Preschool.


Favorite Blog Posts of the Last Five Weeks

Many of which are from June …

Culture and Letters

Torching the Modern Day Library of Alexandria — from the Atlantic — in which it is explained that the Google Books Project,  which I might term “One World Library,” (not to be confused with Bernie Sander’s One World Netflix Password) failed due to … concerns with monopoly on the sale of out-of-print books.  Via  @philosophybites.

An article in Salon  asks “Is the Atlantic Making us Stupid?”  In case that title is too vague for you (clickbait?) the article accuses the Atlantic Monthly for publishing revisionist feminist dogma, and using women writers to do it.


I’ve been wondering what’s the deal with being a “google certified educator.”  But I never thought the googlian goal with this educator certification might be that which is suggested by the @nytimes … which is to get their products into the classroom by any means necessary and control the philosophy of education to a degree that reminds one of John Dewey …How Google took over the classroom.  Guess I was naive.

Accountability testing for charter schools may be taking the focus off of parent participation and educational innovation.  Via @matt_barnum.  Has the charter school movement gone awry?

Students’ test scores tell us more about the community they live in than what they know — from WTOP — this has been known to the teaching profession and university schools of education for some time (at least 50 years)  but apparently it’s now seeping into the news.  On the fringes like WTOP.  Via @thegrade.


From @RewardingEdu … A how-to article on how to participate in twitter education chats, grow your #pln, and meet interesting people.  Via @Edutopia.  Fear no more:  you don’t have to answer every question.

A plan for creating an editable schoolroom timeline … with notes on setup and downloadable forms … linked by @DoodleMom

When you don’t want to get the box of unifix cubes out, or, more likely, you don’t have the right type of counters — The power of digital manipulatives — this from .  And he has the link to the product, from

More on the positive effects of music study: How music in school and at home can help kids who struggle in language development — from @GCTutorials.     

Classical Education

A reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful, asking classical educators: is success in imparting the true and the good really enough?  Isn’t the beautiful required too? Via @dimitrios111               from  @circeins (Circe Institute).

An interview with David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility (1981) on the direction classical education should go.  This takes us back to the individual student’s needs and development vs. the desire of the World to create “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.  (T.S. Eliot)” Via  @GCTutorials  and also from @circeins

St Benedict Catholic School in Natick MA is thriving, and things are going well for classical schools in the nation today .. . Catholic Classical Education on the Rise.  From @firstthingsmag.

Almost but not quite off topic … Hobby Lobby has been fined for being in possession of stolen antiquities, which they were, apparently, planning to sell in that front part of the store where the décor items are offered.

That’s all for now.  Thanks for reading!


What the Bronte sisters read

Bronte_Parsonage_MuseumYou’ve probably heard of the Brontes, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann, sisters who were brought up in a remote parsonage on the English moor in Yorkshire and were responsible for several great gothic novels, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey.  My adult daughter was mentioning that she was re-reading Wuthering Heights and she felt a strong sympathy with the characters.  They seemed somehow familiar to her.

“Well you know the Bronte sisters, of whom Emily was one, were like you in a couple of ways. They were home schooled, and they didn’t have a lot of social life.  They became very close,” I said. I remembered this from my undergraduate English Literature before 1865 course.  I hadn’t read a biography, except the two page one in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

She was interested.  Though she was on her second reading of the novel, she had not read a biography either.  “Hmm.”

“And I think they felt socially isolated, you know, there was a story of how they were just in the house by themselves and they read and made up plays and created their own imaginary world. And went for long walks on the moor.”

“Yes, in Wuthering Heights Cathy is always going out on the moor.  Honestly, Mom, I think the moor in that book is rather an evil place … every time she goes out there, something seems to happen.”

“Well, that’s gothic for you, brooding, dark.”

“Yeah, that describes it,” she said.

This made me go down to the used book shop and look for Wuthering Heights.  But before I started that, I was lured by another book, Charlotte Bronte: A fiery heart by Claire Harman. This new (2016) biography was just what I wanted to read about to learn more about the childhood that created these famous writers.  Were they really home schoolers?  And what exactly was it that happened at the parsonage in Yorkshire in the early 19th century?

As I read I was re-acquainted with the nightmare privations of a charity girls school attended by the four oldest girls in the family and reprised by Emily Bronte in Jane Eyre.(after attending, the oldest, Maria, and the second, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis).  After such a tragedy, the children’s father (of four remaining children, there having originally been five girls and a son, and their mother having died as well) asked his sister-in-law to come and help raise the girls.  It was she who oversaw the schooling they received, which included reading and writing, and housekeeping tasks such as needlework and making of clothes, and French, although only the son, Branwell, received education in Latin and Greek from his father. This brooding and domineering father was part of the situation indeed, and though he provided a literary environment, it cannot be said for from the first three chapters of Harman’s text that the children received much paternal warmth.

The books they are known to have been familiar with, according to Harman, include:

Aesop’s Fables

Tales of the Genii

The Arabian Nights

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Gulliver’s Travels

The Bible

Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets

The Seasons by James Thompson

The History of Rome by Oliver Goldsmith

Grammar of General Geography by Rev. J Goldsmith

and the History of English by David Hume.

Also there were editions of Shakespeare, Cowper, Southey and anthologies of contemporary poetry. In addition the children read from their father’s periodicals, which included Blackwood’s magazine, and The Leeds Intelligencer .

One detail that Harman includes in her book is that the creativity of the Bronte children was engaged because as Charlotte described in a recollection, they were bored.  There was little to do but read, create plays, and go for long walks on the moors.  This, even more than the list of books, engaged my curiousity. Of course, effective as their education may have been for creating great novels, it’s impossible to wish on your children a childhood as dark as the Bronte’s appears to have been.  And in the end, I have to say that while my own children spent much of their time alone together in the house, and read from a set of classical and contemporary books, the analogies with the Brontes are incomplete, to say the least.  The entire gothic angle is missing.


The Modern School and the Trivium and Quadrivium

While classical education has roots going back 2500 years, the trivium and quadrivium hark back to the Middle Ages, about 700 years ago.

Much ink has been spilled (or, one might say, much CRT, LED, LCD and touch screen space has been displayed) in classical education circles about the trivium and quadrivium model of classical education, which was noted by Dorothy Sayers in the Lost Tools of Learning and harks back, ultimately, to the middle ages.  The trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) conforms to what we think of as elementary school learning, where students read, write, and learn to form basic explanations and descriptions, and, hopefully, argue in favor of simple prepositions.  (“Why do you think Huck Finn is a ‘bad boy,’ Johnny?”  “Because he wears rags instead of clothes and lives in a barrel by the river instead of a house.”  “But does that make him ‘bad?’  “Well … )

I digress.  The point is, a modern classical school can hew quite close to the traditional grammar school “trivium” curriculum.  It is when we get to the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) that we run into trouble. I have not heard of any modern classical schools that claim that they are focusing the middle-ages quadrivium by itself.

We still study math — though these days arithmetic is generally considered to mean the four basic functions (addition, subtraction, division and multiplying) and thus falls into elementary school, and geometry is considered an extension of arithmetic, often taught in 9th grade or thereabouts.  Then there’s music.  We study music, usually mostly in middle school and high school, but it’s now considered voluntary, an elective.  And finally, astronomy, a topic that is now only studied in college, and by few. What can we say, then, about the “quadrivium” in the modern school?

Well, the quadrivium, which represented the applied sciences and the university studies of the middle ages, is now too abbreviated to cover what students should study to be considered fully conversant with the current day’s knowledge. You now tend to see in classical high schools, in addition to an augmented math program and music, the subjects of science, ancient and possibly modern language,  and history.  At a minimum.

The utility of the quadrivium in the current day, then,  is to allow us to see the two-stage progression in the classical education structure:  mastery of the tools of thinking, and applying the tools.  The fact that the quadrivium’s original topics are somewhat antiquated does not change the fact that the basic premise of trivium and quadrivum still hold, the difference being that the quadrivium’s place is now held by a wider and more developed group of applied sciences, studied in high school and college, concordant with our greater modern knowledge base.

Favorite Blog Posts of May

effects of exercise on human brain
The potential gains for those students allowed to attend recess more are clear from this diagram. Thanks to

Education Policy

America desperately needs to redefine college and career ready, according to  @dintersmith .  “The reality is that we’ve turned schools into college prep factories, leaving the vast majority of kids ill-prepared for career or life … ” 

Also, Colorado’s teacher evaluation review doesn’t seem to be working as it was designed  … via @matt_barnum. Principals do not seem to be willing to rate teachers as “ineffective.”  The reason is unclear but speculation might be that more-effective teachers are not readily available. 

On the Ed Tech Debate:  Ed Tech Makes No Significant Impact on Learning?  via @EduWells I was taught in grad school last year that there was an effect, albeit a small one.  Why is effect relatively small?  Because it is the teacher, not to tech, that’s critical.  “Teachers are only truly successful when focused both on the design of and the locus of control within a social learning environment.”   For more, watch the YouTube video on the last 100 years and the claim that “This will revolutionize education.” Via @veritasium


From @eduleadershipIs the Instructional Leadership movement undermining the teaching profession?  Well, maybe not, but there is a need for principals to give more instructional leadership to new or struggling teachers.

The Toughest Part of Teaching is the constant whipsaw changes in ed theory, according to . “Be it teaching the textbook or teaching to the test, dumbing down or top-down management, homework or homeschooling, curricular mandates or mandated reporters, skillsets or mindsets, dittos or data… teachers have endured and experimented a lot–and not always by choice.” Preach brother.

Another reflection on the same theme, English Grammar School Debate revisited is from @TeacherToolkit.  Given the edthink revolution of the past 50 years, the author asserts that the ‘expert, top-down’ model of decision-making suits those that believe they know best for whatever reason … ” but not the teachers and students or other citizens of any given country.

They walk among us:  the children of incarcerated parents, and the effect a parent’s incarceration has on the whole family.  By via @ncte, the National Council of Teachers of English.

An alternative to endless worksheets:  End of the year cooperative learning idea for middle school from    Eco-regions of Texas student-led conference.

Teaching, Subgroup:  Humor

Five Education Ideas Applied to Alternative Contexts: via @greg_ashman.  No comment, just laughter.  He who ears, let him hear.  

Teacher Gets through week of fidget spinners alive “The fidget phenomenon has officially reached Khartoum.” Via @MrZachG 

Classical Education:

A scholar’s daily schedule, cribbed from the boyhood days of C.S. Lewis.  Comes complete with a reflection on growing and developing the ability to concentrate on “deep work,” or meditative study, and notes on the effects of digital media, with suggestions for further reading. Via @GCTutorials

What Classical Education is not:  from the Circe Institute, @circeins, in which it is argued that, yes, classical education is whole child education, and no, we do not intend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  

Idiological bullying, Anne of Green Gables, and The Handmaid’s Tale, by Sara Masarik at Plumfield and Paideia.

Finally, for the armchair traveler, Taking a walk across the English countryside with  in which @JacyBrean visits the grave of Robin Hood’s Little John.

That’s all for this month, and thanks for stopping by!


Higher-Engagement Ideas for the Last Week of the Year

End of year activities and supplies
Use up the rest of the supplies at the end of the year.

Usually, at the end of the year I try to rely on either:   1) staying in traditional instruction even as it becomes almost impossible due to the schedule interruptions and students finding it hard to focus.  Or 2) I  plan to stay in traditional instruction and when it doesn’t work I desperately improvise on the fly.

This year I’ve got a few new ideas thanks to discussions on the #teachmindful Thursday evening chat on Twitter.  This is how it looks in my first grade classroom.

  1.  Return to units we’ve enjoyed in the past, but for which I ran out of time.  Our plants unit was particularly interesting, and we returned to writing about plants and now I’m making them a digital plant book from what they wrote.
  2. I also had a few cut and paste projects we never had time for, so I re-showed a youtube video to support the lesson (on the frog life cycle, for example) and then they did the cut and and paste.
  3. If you have students that want to work on independent projects, let them.  Two GT students are working on a book about Easter Eggs using a teacher-made blank book.
  4. Review the material they didn’t get yet.  I had my struggling readers group doing phonics exercises I had done with the rest of the class in the fall but which these kids were just now ready for.
  5. Dig in the closet and see if there’s anything you didn’t do or that you want to do again. We got out the clock puzzles which they couldn’t do back in February but now they can.
  6. Do the art or building projects you couldn’t do because of time constraints earlier in the year.  Stuff like marshmallow and toothpick buildings and plaster of paris Bigfoot tracks.
  7. Use up all the stuff in the supply cupboard! We had extra construction paper, so they made woven paper place mats.  No more “mindless busywork,” but now, a maker space!  Let them draw big pictures with the leftover markers.  If you need a curriculum link, tell them their work has to respond to a book they liked this year.
  8. Don’t forget to give away any remaining consumable books. To get them started on using the books over the summer, have them spend half an hour doing whatever page they like before putting them in the backpacks.

For more ideas about the end of the year you could visit this post:   Student research projects and presentations by Colliding with Science: ( 🙂




Book Review: Robert Ward’s A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents

A Teacher's Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward
A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward

Robert Ward has turned his 23 years of experience teaching and reflection on middle school youth into a  handbook for parents perplexed by youth behavior, perhaps because we’ve forgotten to reflect on things from the standpoint of the child. This book has changed the way I parent and the way I teach.  Every time I read five pages I have stop and change what I’m doing to fix a problem.

In its own modern way, this book is a restatement of Dale Carnegies “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in which Carnegie shows that people don’t actually want what you want, they want what *they* want, but if you figure out what *they* want, you can use it to get what you want too.

The competent parent, according to Ward, provides a household with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning.  These characteristics of the family environment will result in the young person’s needs being met, and once their needs are met, problems of all types will dissipate.  For you and for them.

Parenting, my mother used to tell me, is not for the faint of heart, but with Ward’s book, you can expect yourself and your young ones to be strengthened by his positive practices that prepare people to be successful adults!  And to see that happen is why we all started raising these small people, isn’t it?  No, it’s not an easy fix, but I believe that, if you take his steps, a fix it will be, and when we’re talking book about parenting self-help, what more could you ask?

This review originally appeared as a reader review of the book an

Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum Exhibit Review

Gladiators.  Even to non-classical civ people, gladiators are a draw.   I reflected on this, along with why I love museums and why the science and history museum is so dimly lit,  as we walked up to the exhibit.  The dim lighting puts one in the mood for reflection, for imagination, for stretching ones mind. The first thing we saw was an actor in the costume of a retiaurius (net and trident man).

Actually, I wasn’t sure he was real at first.  Could he be just a really realistic simulation?  No. Tempted to ask a him question, I refrained, thinking that it might be rude:  I know no etiquette for approaching a live model at an exhibit of historical artifacts.  My initial uncertainty about whether he was real or a moving statue was an excellent way to prepare to enter the exhibit.

Passing through an arch, we entered a small display on Roman hunting traditions, then a larger room with drawings of and stone fragments from the Collosuem.  I’ve been there in actual life, a huge structure bearing up through the ages, its antiquity sitting like a heavy weight, immense, and at the same time, it wears the veneer of the modern day in the air conditioned and glassed-in ticket booth and the cars speeding by.  The fragments in the exhibit, on the other hand, are mostly drawn from the bastulades where the audience would file into the amphitheater through stairs from below.  A dragon’s head, a cornucopia, the carvings are of another era.  As I stare at them, I reflect that although the interest in the violent and dramatic is no different in our current day, in the Colloseum there was nothing virtual.  The blood was a real as the stone of the stairwells.

As I stare at the blocks, I feel as if the impressions drawn from movies like Gladiator and Ben Hur are falling away, and I am “communing with the stones.”  The stones can speak, but you have to know how to listen.  Whereas in movies, a story is fed to you bit by bit, and if the average man can’t follow along, the movie is a failure, with ancient relics, you have to construct the story, and you have to maintain in yourself a reflective spirit. Others give you information, but you are the one who creates your belief.  I sat in the room with the stones for some time, thinking of Ovid who once wrote an essay about how to pick up unattached women at the Colosseum.  I thought about the wild beasts that are pictured in mosaics along the walls, tigers, boars, and lions.  I imagined history:  A young woman wearing a stolla put her hand on the dragon head carved to my right, and walked up the stairs to take her seat.

In the next room we “visit” the ludus, the training camp of the gladiators. The coach or trainer is the lanista, and he is a cross between a football coach and an overseer of slaves, because most of the men are bondsmen and prisoners.  Bowls from which the gladiators ate their gruel, and a picture of a mosaic of the dinner before the fight, a kind of combination cast party and last supper, catch my interest.  And then I go on to the next room.

Here are marble statues of editors (producers of gladiatorial games) and the armor of the gladiators themselves, dressed according to gladiatorial traditions of form and function:  the Provacatour, the Retriarius, the Thracian, the Secutor, all have placards describing their weapons and armaments.  The cards at this point seem like author intrusion to me now, but of course they are necessary, since the artifacts have been removed from where they were found.  The ultimate historical museum experience would be going to a dig, I surmise.

This Roman culture is like ours in wealth.  They had exceeded meeting basic needs, and had gone on to indulgence, entertainment, spectacle.  And then they met the ancient desire for death.  Thanatos, the Greeks called it.  The gladiator’s helmet is the intersection of myth and Thanatos.  It is in the Retiarius’ net too, and in the intricate bronze sandal from a statue of a legionary.

I stop and stare at the closed and latched helmets which literally locked the head in. The round grids over the eyes give the helmet the look of a human fly.  Over the crown are mythic figures.  It is worked with such care, this could not be the helmet of a single man.  It would have belonged to the ludus.  It would have been worn by several, by many.  The gladiator would put in on, say his prayers (to a pagan god) and go and face potential death.  I look again at the helmet, seeking an answer:  how do you do that?  How do you face such a desperate fight?

When there’s no other way, you do what you have to.  The gladiator reminds us of this.  And this, win or lose, makes him a hero.  He is an alter-ego to the Roman woman ascending the stairs of the Colosseum, to the museum visitor who stops and stares at ancient armor.  He is what Jung would call an archetype, a hero, and reflection piece so powerful that he can still draw people 2000 years after he died, and even though they don’t know his name or whether he won or lost.  Perhaps that lack of story is part of the draw.   It’s the reflection on the other, on the past, on the strange and unbelievable, but also to the fact that you have to make your own story in your mind, that draws us to the spectacle in the first place.

Conclusion?  First rate exhibit.  Thanks to the organizers for an excellent hour’s reflection.



Favorite Blog Posts from April — Better Late than Never

This solid gold graphic is from the twitter feed of @KyleneBeers

This graphic to the right is solid gold:  The difference between top reading scores and bottoming out could be just 20 minutes of daily reading.  Via @KyleneBeers.

…  Next up:  This article was a standout, questioning the way we structure school and our attitudes about so-called failure:  Standards, Grades And Tests Are Wildly Outdated, Argues ‘End Of Average.  Via @anya1anya

Just a quote from my friend Robert Ward which gave me this top tweet with 24 engagements:  “Kids do not need abundance of gifts, they need frequent bouts of undivided attention.” This is from ‘s book A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents.

I have been reflecting and reflecting on what learned when I read Agatha Christie’s biography.  Ten ideas about writing that helped make her great:  What Agatha Christie taught me about novel writing .  The most important one, I think, is that it’s clear she didn’t worry over revising or criticism too much.

This fine article about parenting an LD child through a crisis also has a kernel of wisdom about the unreasonableness of allowing oneself to be consumed by fear: Learning Disabled- Weathering The Storm Within via

Finally, an old question in a new wineskin: To Extend the School Year/Day or not: That is the Question. via 

To prevent this April post from running any later into May, that’s all I’ve got.