Home Education Magazine
January-February 2000 - Articles
Ready Reference - Kim O'Hara
When the encyclopedia saleswoman came to my childhood home, I remember how easily I caught my mother's near reverence for the wonderful volume she held in her hands. My twin sister and I sat next to her on the couch as she opened it. "You can look up anything you want to," she told us, "as long as it starts with A."
I think I said, "ant," and my sister said, "apple," and we drank information the way we'd sip hot cocoa after being out all day in the snow... slowly, savoring every mouthful, but feeling like we could never get enough. "Can we do B too?" I remember asking, eagerly.
I had to wait for B, though, till those volumes sat on their own bookshelf in our living room, all twenty of them. My parents deliberately put them in the most accessible place in the house, and they became part of our lives. We watched movies and ran to look up the public figures in them. We saw something outdoors and had to know more about it. We settled arguments, satisfied our curiosity, and widened our world with our set of encyclopedias.
What can compare with really good reference material, after all?
Today, I have encyclopedias in my own home, and the whole family has ready access to them. But we also have another, more modern source of information: the computer that sits on a desk just fifteen feet away from our encyclopedias. My children have always been encouraged to plunk away at its keys, since the day we brought our first one home. (My youngest was two years old.) They have each made their own acquaintance with the computer, with as little adult interference as possible.
My younger daughter taught herself the relationships between upper and lower case letters by typing on the keyboard and watching what happened on the screen. She learned to spell her name on our old DOS system because I renamed her favorite game "Jennifer," and she had to type it exactly to play. My son, Jon, has taught himself to type. Kirsten, my older daughter, has corresponded with people in England and Germany.
I don't think a day goes by but someone comes up with a question that sends us to the Internet for an answer. (Sometimes we stew about it for a while and then suddenly remember: "We could check the computer!") We look up weather forecasts, research vacation spots, get great deals on plane fares, and reserve hotel rooms (at discounted prices). We answer sticky grammar questions, get background (and illustrations) for essays, and research settings when we write fiction. We check the traffic conditions before we head north on the freeway to Seattle. We signed up for a "free" (ad-sponsored) telephone long distance service. We've printed out information on how to train the new puppy. We've bid on CD's on "eBay." We've participated in consumer surveys and researched political issues. We've found lyrics, and guitar chords, and even public-domain sheet music. (If we can't find it on the web, we send instant messages to all our musician friends and ask them.)
One useful website offers a word-pattern look up function that makes building crossword puzzles a snap. Another provides rhyming words (for composing poems) and synonyms (for writing just about anything). Yet another will translate whole passages into one of several foreign languages (which can be great fun when you translate it back into English and see the errors!)
The other day, we downloaded the entire text of The Taming of the Shrew to compare it to the movie adaptation, Ten Things I Hate About You, and found that, "I burn, I pine, I perish!" is a direct quote from Shakespeare. We also found lots of differences in the plots. (Don't tell anybody, but we didn't like the original ending as much as the adaptation.) We've checked out cast lists when we see an actor we think we've seen before, and read movie reviews to decide whether the theater offerings were the sort we'd want to see. One day, when we learned a movie we planned to go see had stopped playing locally, we found the one theater nearby that was still showing it and discovered when its discount times were... all by using our computer.
Recently, we were able to get legal forms for a friend, print out precise directions to my older daughter's new apartment at college, and find the mailing address of a long-lost friend of my mom. When the power goes out, we reset our clocks to the one online.
Through email, we've been alerted to local, one-of-a-kind opportunities when ships and exhibits and speakers came to town. We've kept in touch with friends who've moved away, and made new friends, as wonderful as those we know in person. We've found specific teaching helps, entered contests, tutored other people's kids, and had writing critiqued by professionals. My kids learned to write friendly letters and business mail via the Internet. (The response time is gratifying!) My older daughter keeps in touch from college.
Are we computer addicts? No. We just find our electronic friend to be a very helpful tool. Do my kids have other interests? Absolutely. They ride bikes, go roller skating, swim, read books, listen to music, go camping, play cards and board games, and spend lots of time with friends. Right now, my son is busy playing a video game on his Playstation. But the computer is always there, a ready reference if we have any questions.
"Mom?" Jon asks, matter-of-factly, as I type. "If you're online, will you look up some codes for me on the Internet?"
© 2000, Kim O'Hara
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