Monday, February 14, 2011

Persian Fairy Tales, Small Worlds, Bananas, and the Power of the Internet

I love words (as regular readers of this blog might have realized, since I use so many of them!)  One of my favorite words is "serendipity," which Wikipedia defines as "denotes the property of making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated, or the occurrence of such a discovery during such a search."  And while I have long loved the word, and work it into my conversation and writings as often as is appropriate (another word like it that I love is "cacophonous," which the occasion to use arises, alas, all too often), it was not until tonight that, perhaps inspired by my recent post on the word history game Etymologic, I looked up the derivation of the term.  (Man, what a sentence.  And while I think it is grammatically correct, my homework is to try to diagram it.  It's what I tell my son to do, so I need to follow my own advice.)

Anyway, it turns that, according to my favorite etymology resource, the Online Etymology Dictionary, that serendipity was actually coined by a specific person--namely, Wallace Walpole--on a specific date--January 28, 1754.  He said he created it from a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip," within which the protagonists "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of thing they were not in quest of."

So I don't know what worked for the ancient Persians, but my favorite vehicle for serendipity these days is the good old hyperlinked World Wide Web.  I can easily begin with a simple task (like looking up the etymology of the word serendipity) and get lost for 30 minutes in Persian literature and foreign languages and translation difficulties and who knows what else.  But blogging is a particularly great vehicle for these serendipitous encounters, as people seek out your site while you seek out their posts, based on some common interests.

That happened to me today when, in following up a comment someone made on one of my posts, I discovered a marvelous resource.  Another homeschool mom out there is writing a great blog about her homeschooling adventures under the name of SmallWorld at Home.  I'm not sure where the name comes from, but to me it brings to mind William Blake's wonderful words:
To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.

Maybe that's just me, who has 19th century poets on the brain as we study them along with our 19th century history--but what a lovely way to describe what we do as homeschoolers, and, really, as parents in general.

But more to the point, however, is the fact that this past week, we've spent a lot of time on writing--fiction, non-fiction, and quasi-fiction (see my son's blog, The Madisonian Blog, to see how easily he can morph one into the other).  Specifically, we have been working on mastering the Five Paragraph essay.  He is taking a class at our homeschool coop on this topic, where the teacher has been doing a masterful job of trying to move the students from their preferences for storytelling to the tighter format of an essay. But the real work needs to be done at home, where they do their actual writing.  So we've done draft after draft after draft on my son's essay, which is about the history of bananas (which turn out to be a fascinating not fruit, but technically an herb).

So what do I find at SmallWorld at Home but a very useful post on writing an essay, with this oh-so-validating comment:
If you spend a whole year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay and its various types (descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.), you'll have accomplished much of what is covered in a basic freshman composition class.  Imagine how far ahead your student will be if he is familiar with the format in middle school and fluent by high school!

So bless you, Smallworld mom!  It's worth all the time and effort after all....

If you want to read her resources about writing essays, click here to read that post.  She also has a whole wonderful series about creative writing that is especially geared to beginning and reluctant writers.  Look at this neat link she has created for that resource:

SmallWorld's WordSmithery

So I'm really grateful that I live in a time of technology-facilitated serendipity, and for the support I get for my journey from all these other bloggers and web writers whose insight I soak up, even if we never meet.

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