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Monday, October 17, 2016

Finding Math in Literature

Note: This article originally appeared at Visit the Catholic Mom website for many other articles to support you in your vocation as a wife and mother.

I majored in applied mathematics in college, yet it wasn’t until I became a homeschooling mother that I discovered math in literature. I’d like to help you to also discover how you can introduce living books into your homeschool and take a break from the drill, drill, drill.
Have you ever said to your children, “I hated math in school” or “Math was my worst subject”? I’m challenging you, right here, right now, to never say those words again.
Emotions are contagious. If your personal fear of math is evident to your children, they’ll likely take on the same fear. If you’d like your children to succeed in their math studies, then make the conscious decision to find the beauty in math yourself. Yes, it’s true: there is beauty to be found in mathematics.
Just as God is orderly, mathematics is orderly. There is beauty to be found in its orderliness. You can find it in nature, in music, and in art. Reading how the great proofs came to be or how mathematical discoveries were made can be very interesting. Reading biographies of the great mathematicians, again, can be quite interesting. Take it from me, mathematicians tend to be quirky, colorful people. It can be fun to discover the meaning of such things as: harmonograph, Fibonacci sequence, golden ratio, Möbius strip, and Weaire–Phelan structure.
Think of it as Math Appreciation. We study art and music appreciation. We share Monet with our children before embarking on art lessons in watercolors. We listen to Beethoven with our children before setting them down to piano lessons. There is no reason why we can’t do the same with math.
There is a lot of terrific, fun math literature out there to help you enter the world of Math Appreciation. Here is a free book list for you to start: Math Lit for All Ages. I also wrote a book called For the Love of Literature that includes a lot of great math titles. You should be able to find the book in your library or through inter-library loan. In fact, the library is a great resource in finding living math literature. Go to the children’s section and then find the 500’s in the Dewey Decimal System and start pulling books off the shelf.
I encourage you to read books to your children such as Sir Cumference and the First Round TableThe Man Who CountedThe Phantom Tollbooth, and so on. Also take some time to work number puzzles and do fun things like create codes. Perhaps, together, you and your children will come to appreciate math through living literature, and therefore be more successful in math studies.
Do you have a favorite living math book? If so, leave a comment and tell everyone about it.
Copyright 2015 Maureen Wittmann

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dad's Role in Your Homeschool

Note: This article originally appeared at Make sure to check out the Catholic Mom website for many other great articles to help you in your vocation as wife and mother.

“My wife runs our day-to-day homeschool; what should I be doing?” This is a question I hear many times over as I travel to homeschool conferences every spring and summer.
There are homeschools where Dad is the primary educator, but for this article we will be talking about homeschools where Mom is doing the bulk of the homeschooling.
When I first began homeschooling 20 years ago, I had grandiose visions of my husband coming home from work each evening and sitting down with our children (all perfectly tidy in matching outfits, of course) while I prepared a nutritious dinner in my dress, pumps, and pearls, and he would teach them about the great mysteries of life. I envisioned my husband teaching our children French and theology. I envisioned him sitting down with me on weekends to plan the children’s week, reading all the latest homeschool books with me, and chatting casually about Charlotte Mason, the Trivium, and more.
Reality set in pretty fast.
You see, my husband works two jobs so I can stay home full time. He is busy slaying dragons all day while I tend to the castle. There is no time in his schedule for formal French and theology studies with the children. He’s exhausted when he walks through the front door. He looks forward to, no, he deserves, to sit down, have a drink, and watch hockey. Debating various homeschool philosophies with me isn’t going to happen.
Yet, my husband does contribute to our homeschool in a significant way. He didn’t teach a formal theology course but he did pray with our children, he did take them to Holy Adoration on Saturday, and he makes sure we get to Mass on time every Sunday.
He doesn’t help me lay out weekly plans, but he did build bookshelves. And, honestly, the way to my homeschool heart is more bookshelves.
If you’re a dad and you can teach a formal course or two with your children, that is an amazing gift to give your children. I can’t begin to tell you the positive impact you will have. However, if you’re too busy to teach an actual course, don’t beat yourself up. There are other ways to help build up your family’s homeschool.
First, be a support system to your wife. On those days when she’s exasperated, don’t say “Just put them in school.” Instead, listen. Let her talk it out. Help her find solutions. Remind her of all the positive reasons you chose to homeschool. Remind her, she is a gift to you and your children.
Back your wife up on discipline issues. If possible, be available by phone if she needs to have you talk to a child. Remind your children that their mother is to be respected and obeyed.
Let the children work with you on household projects. For example, when you’re working on the car, let your children see what you’re doing and let them help. Yes, it takes longer when they help, but the long-term benefits are worth it.
Read aloud to your children. Just 10 minutes a day. Those 10 minutes will make all the difference in the world. Even the simple act of your children seeing you reading for your own enjoyment makes a difference.
Play sports with your children and go for walks. Not only will you receive the benefit of stronger physical health, you will be creating bonds with your children. Sports teach children leadership skills, teamwork, how to play fair, how to be a good winner or loser, and more.
Ask your children about their day while having dinner. Show an interest in their studies. This helps your wife a great deal as the teacher of your children. It demonstrates to her students that schoolwork is important to dad and should be important to them too.
Get the children out of the house now and then to give your wife alone time. Perhaps take the kids out for an ice cream on Saturday so your wife can plan the school week in peace.
Most importantly, demonstrate what it means to be a godly man. Pray with your children at bedtime and at meals. Talk about God in everyday conversation. Live the Gospel.
And, of course, build all the bookshelves your wife’s heart desires. Let me know in the comments below how Dad is involved in your homeschool.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Ultimate Gift Guide for Homeschool Moms

By Maureen Wittmann

Husbands and children, listen up. The homeschool mom in your life could use a little extra attention. No, she needs a lot of extra attention. Let's go out of our way to make her day special. Whether it's her birthday, wedding anniversary, Christmas, or "just because we love you day", get thinking about what you can do to brighten her life and let her know how much she means to you.

Following is a long, long list of ideas to get you started. Gifts range from free (scroll all the way down) to pricey. So no matter your budget you can do this. The only other thing you need is time and desire.

In choosing gifts for the Homeschool Mom in your life, mix it up a bit. First, choose something nice and personal. More than likely she needs to be refreshed. Next, throw in a cool homeschool-related gift. A gift that will make homeschooling more fun and easier. This is especially important if she's been feeling some burnout. Let's get that homeschool fire going again! Finally, a nice kitchen or homemaking gadget is often a good idea, choosing something that will save her time and energy.

Click on hyperlinks if you need ordering information or reviews.

Coffee - If the Homeschool Mom in your life loves coffee, run, don't walk, to Mystic Monk. This is great-tasting coffee and my personal favorite. You can also purchase coffee mugs, gift baskets, and more.
Quality Tea - If she's a tea lover instead of a coffee lover, then treat Mom to high-quality loose leaf tea. She may also appreciate a tea set, infuser, or tea tin to go with it.
Chocolate - You can't ever go wrong with chocolate. Remember this is a special gift, so skip the candy aisle at the grocery store and get high-quality chocolate for her. And warn the kids not to bug her to share with them. Just this one time, Mom gets to have something all to herself!
Wine / Liqueur - If she enjoys a nice glass of wine or liqueur now and then, treat her to the good stuff. And maybe even throw in a couple of matching glasses so she can share with the Homeschool Dad in her life.
Beautiful Catholic Journal or Planner - Get one that is not only functional but pretty. I know this is picky, but I like my planner to start the weeks on Sunday. It's also nice if it's filled with inspirational quotes, feast days, and Mass readings. The best ones I've seen are from

Spiritually-Uplifting Book - Something to raise her heart to heaven and refresh her soul. Titles such as:

A Novel - A book she can curl up with in bed and escape from the world for a little while. A few ideas for you:

Coloring Book - Yes, I said coloring book. It's the latest craze and with good reason. Coloring can relieve stress and provide a creative outlet. The Catholic Company has some very nice Catholic adult coloring books online. Don't forget to include good quality colored pencils.

Jewelry with Meaning - Jewelry is always a good gift. Here are some ideas for jewelry that has extra meaning for a mother:
  • Floating Locket - These are all the rage right now. I have one with the birthstones of my children and it is quite lovely.
  • Charm Bracelet - Collect charms over time that have a special connection to your family.
  • Religious Jewelry - Find something pretty that is also spiritually uplifting. Try searching Etsy for other hand crafted religious jewelry.
Hand Crafted Rosary - Does Mom have a special rosary? The kind that gets passed down through the generations? If not, this may be just the gift. There are a number of talented craftsmen out there who can create a high-quality rosary to order. Here are three to check out:

A Chapel Veil - You can find a wide selection of beautifully handmade (and to-order) veils at Veils by Lily. Lovely!

Scented Candles - Most moms enjoy scented candles. For some reason they bring a little peace after a busy homeschool day and help create a relaxing atmosphere. Especially if you combine it with praying your family rosary!


Fashionable Book Bag - This cute bag is a cross between personal gift and homeschool need. Mom can be fashionable while toting around books, tablet, diapers, and what have you.

Laptop Satchel - I love mine, which often doubles as my purse.

Wicker Baskets - Who doesn't love baskets?! They're a great way to keep things organized and neat while making our homes pretty. A large basket for collecting books and a small basket for remotes or game controls will make a nice gift.

Homeschool Equipment - These tend to be larger ticket items. However, they're also very good to own and make homeschooling easier on Mom.
  • Copier / Scanner - Number one necessity in the equipment category. Make sure the printer doubles as a scanner. This comes in handy if you take online classes as well as for record-keeping tasks. Make sure you purchase one that is compatible with your computer and can be hooked up wirelessly. 
  • Laminator - What homeschool mom doesn't covet her own laminating machine?!
  • Comb Binder - I've used my comb binder off and on over the years. I originally purchased it for business purposes but soon discovered it's pretty helpful for homeschooling too. I can create books from the children's writings and art work. This is great way to create keepsakes for your children or to give away as gifts to grandparents.
  • Electric Pencil Sharpener - Necessary time saver. 
  • Label Maker - This is on my own wish list. Click on the link and check out all the neat things you can do with this label maker.
Sling Book Rack - This is good for picture books. It looks nice and it's easy for little hands to remove and put away books. It may be delivered in pieces, so make sure you put it together for Mom first!

Storage Bins with Shelves - This is a cute way to store and keep track of toys and/or craft materials. And, it keeps things looking neat and tidy too.

Local Memberships - When my kids where all little, I loved our science museum and other memberships. It was a great way to get out of the house and keep learning alive (and fun!). Just a few ideas for you:
  • Museums
  • Zoo
  • Theme parks
  • YMCA or other family-friendly gym
Online Memberships:

Local Gift Cards - Maybe Mom loves the movies, has a favorite restaurant, or could use a day of pampering:
  • Movies
  • Restaurants
  • Spa Day

Homeschooling Gift Cards - Get her a gift card for her favorite curriculum provider:

Homeschool Books - Does she need a little encouragement in her homeschool? Here are just a few to get you started:

Classroom SuppliesCreate a gift basket with all those little supplies that we can never seem to find: sharpies; gel pens; highlighters; Post-It Notes; scissors; etc. (See "Wicker Basket" above.)

Cool Classroom Equipment - A quality microscope (plus slide set) is one of my prize possessions. It has come in pretty handy over the years - not just for me but for the co-ops and friends I've lent it out to when a need arose. I'd love to also own a top-notch telescope, and I'm certain your Homeschool Mom would too.

One-Year Subscription to Unlimited Access - This is a game changer that will free up Mom's time and give her a big hand up in the family homeschool: Unlimited Access to 273 recorded homeschool courses for grades six through twelve, all taught with a Catholic ethos. Woot!


Kitchen Appliances - Is there a kitchen appliance or gadget she's been wanting? Choose something she'd use often and that will save time in the kitchen.
  • Instant Pot - This single appliance has changed the way I prepare meals. I never thought I'd find something that I loved more than my Crock Pot, but I did, and this is it.
  • Crock Pot - Or Hamilton Beach or other slow cooker. This is a must-have in a homeschooling household. Set it on low in the morning and dinner is ready by the time you put the books and science experiments away. Just make sure you get one with a lid that can be latched down -- this makes taking it to the Homeschool Pot Luck easy peasy. 
  • Bread Maker - Another big time saver. Enjoy homemade bread with little effort. I would use mine to mix and prepare the dough but bake the final product in the oven. Just don't try gluten-free yeast bread in it. Most bread makers can't handle the heavy GF dough.
  • Kitchenaid Mixer - My husband bought my Kitchenaid for me for Christmas. It is quite pricey and he had to save for a number of years, but it was worth it. 
  • The NutraBullet - I use mine exclusively for smoothies. Super easy clean up and it holds up. I got mine for next to nothing at a Christmas sale so there are deals to be found if you shop around. 
  • Vitamix - Another pricey appliance we had to save up in order to buy. If you buy it refurbished, you can save a good amount.
Household Appliances - Again, emphasis on need and want. What will make her life easier?
  • Handheld vacuum - I don't know what it is about these things but put one in the hands of a child and a lot of vacuuming gets done. 
  • Spot remover - Homeschooling is hard on a house. Our children live and school in the same place, so a lot of messes happen! My sister swears by this Bissell and it's on my own wish list. 
  • The Shark - Light weight and works great.
Last but not least ... the best gifts are often the ones that are free, the ones made with your precious time, talent, and love.

Homemade Card - Every mom loves a homemade card. Get out the crayons and the card stock, and get creative.

Make Dinner and Do Housework - (This is my favorite gift ... in case my kids are reading this!) Do it without being asked and without making a fuss. Do it silently, when she's not even looking.

Bake Her Favorite Dessert - Not your favorite, her favorite. You may have to ask her what it is since it's likely she always makes your favorite dessert and not hers. Oh, and don't forget to clean up the kitchen when you're done baking.

Wash and Detail Her Car/Van - Inside and out! Do a meticulous job, vacuuming every crumb. It'll feel so good to get in the car next time and you'll be on her good list for a long time!

Lastly .... A Coupon Book - This is perhaps the very best gift Dad or children can give to that special Homeschool Mom in their life: Personalized Coupons (click for a free template). You can never fail with coupon books that will be exchanged for your time. You can have a coupon that exchanges for an hour of tutoring a struggling child, making dinner, taking the kids out while Mom plans the semester, back massage, foot rub, cleaning the bathroom, free hugs ... use your imagination. What does your mom/wife need most?!

If I've missed any brilliant ideas, let us all know in the comments.

NOTE: Some, but not all, links above are affiliate links.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Do Homeschool Programs Need to Be Accredited?

Note: This article originally appeared at March 9, 2015. Visit the Catholic Mom website where you'll find a treasure trove of articles to lift you up in your faith as well as help you in your everyday vocation as wife and mother.

Do I need to sign my children up for an accredited home study program? This is a frequent question among homeschoolers, especially as their children approach the high school years. The answer depends upon the family’s individual dynamic. Here we’ll explore what accreditation is and when it is necessary.
What is Accreditation?
Accreditation of kinder is a process voluntarily initiated by schools, performed by private agencies, to ensure they meet minimum standards. It helps parents make sure a school is not merely a diploma mill or part of an educational scam.
There isn’t a central control or government organization that oversees accrediting agencies. Because there are both good and bad accrediting agencies, parents need to make sure the accrediting agency is legitimate itself.
Accreditation alone is not assurance that an educational institute is superior to a non-accredited institution. There are great schools that are not accredited. Conversely, there are bad schools that are accredited.
Why Wouldn’t a School or Homeschool Program Seek Accreditation?
Accreditation is an expensive and time-consuming process. It adds to the cost of tuition and therefore puts an added financial burden on parents.
Accreditors may restrict a school from offering nontraditional programs in order to be approved. A school that wants to offer an “out of the box” curricula, or give parents more authority in choosing curricula, may find their hands tied by their accrediting agency.
Accreditation itself does not create or develop curriculum, it only gives a “stamp of approval”. Therefore, the staff of non-accredited schools and programs sometimes find that marketing and recruiting are the only advantages to accreditation.
When is Accreditation Necessary?
Generally speaking, accreditation is not necessary for homeschool programs. However, there are some cases where an accredited transcript or diploma will be required.
If you plan to put your child into a site-based high school after homeschooling a few years, check entrance requirements with the prospective school. Some public and private high schools will require an accredited transcript before accepting your child. In most cases, the school will have an option of allowing your child to test into their grade level without an accredited transcript.
Children seeking scholarships from the NCAA (National College Athletic Association) may be required to have an accredited diploma to be accepted. Speak with your NCAA contact first as the rules have changed over the years.
Many parents assume that accreditation is necessary for college acceptance. Always check with prospective colleges, as requirements can change, but it is extremely rare that accreditation is necessary. Colleges have a long history of accepting students from private schools and homeschools that are not accredited. They will instead base acceptance on an evaluation of the student’s application, the results of their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) scores, and their high school Grade Point Average (GPA).
What if I want to design my own curriculum or use a non-accredited program, but am one of the rare cases where accreditation is necessary?
There are several accredited agencies that will review your course of study and issue an accredited transcript or diploma for a fee. These programs include, but are not limited to:
West River Academy
As always, do your research to find the best accrediting agency for you.
In Conclusion
Accreditation is an issue that unnecessarily burdens parents. In most cases, it is not required. You as the parent are the ultimate authority when it comes to your children and their education. Homeschooling does not involve attending a school and the focus should be on providing the best education for each individual child. Sometimes the best education will be enrolling in an accredited home study program and sometimes it will not.
As private homeschoolers, parents are the ones who provide “accreditation” for their children’s education. The quality of home education should be assured by parents first and foremost.
Note that this article refers to accreditation of kindergarten through high school programs and not accreditation of colleges and universities. 
Copyright 2015 Maureen Wittmann.
Image copyright 2015 Maureen Wittmann.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Educational Benefits of Reading Aloud

How Fifteen Minutes a Day Can Change Your Child's Life ... For the Better
By Maureen Wittmann

This is the second of a three-part series. Part One: The Joy of Reading Aloud. Next Week: The Art of Reading Aloud. 
I’ve taught literature for local homeschool co-ops for more than a decade now. During this time I’ve witnessed, up close, an extraordinary number of families who value read-aloud time in their homes. Recently, when my students read the Sherlock Holmes books, one 17-year-old boy asked if it was okay that his mom was reading the books aloud to the family instead of him reading silently to himself.
“Yes!” I told him, “Not only is it okay, it is encouraged.” I then asked him if he, as the oldest child in his family, helped with the reading. I was thrilled to hear he regularly helps his parents by reading aloud to the younger children.
Research shows that homeschoolers score far above their public school peers on standardized tests. Analysts believe there are many reasons for this phenomenon. I believe one reason is that homeschool parents and children are reading together more than the average American family. It’s a lesson for all parents that is easily imitated, no matter where our children get their academics.
Raising a Reader
Research has also shown that reading aloud is the single most important factor in raising a reader. Not whether you have a Ph.D. or a high school diploma. It’s whether or not you’re reading aloud to your children. It’s caught, not taught.
I’m not talking about just about how to read, but raising a child who wants to read. Filling your child with a love for the written word and the desire to open a book.
Children need to find joy in their lessons. Phonics is hard for some children. When children see the purpose of their phonics lessons is to be able to read their own books, they become more engaged in learning.
Some children learn to read simply by sitting in the lap of their parent and looking at the words as they are read. I have a couple of children like that. I sat down to teach them how to read and they already knew.
However, it was a different story for my dyslexic child. He did not begin to take off in reading until he was 10 years old. Today, as a 26-year-old man, he loves to read even though it takes him significantly longer to read than the average person.
I believe his love for the written word goes back to the days when he couldn’t read himself because of his dyslexia. I read everything aloud to him. Everything. We cuddled on the couch and worked on school lessons together. When you’re a little child, it is comforting to be able to cuddle with your mom and have her full attention.
If reading is pleasurable, children will read without a fight. After all, it is human nature to be drawn to what is pleasurable.
Writing and Grammar
Writing and grammar lessons will be easier with a solid foundation of read aloud time. If you’re reading good literature, then you will more likely write good literature.
My dyslexic son is an excellent writer. I remember asking him once, when he was 14, “Christian, how did you get to be such a good writer?” He answered, “Because you give me books like Lord of the Rings and Narnia.” He knew.
Speech and writing are basically copycat activities. We imitate what we see and hear. It goes in through our ears and eyes and comes out our mouths as well as our keyboards.
My second child had severe speech impediments. It was a hereditary problem and at 5 years old she was difficult to understand. When Mary first saw a speech therapist, I was told many children with speech problems have them for no other reason than they don’t have a significant amount of verbal communication with adults in the home.
The therapist also shared that speech problems were on the rise and studies showed children with two working parents were twice as likely to develop speech problems than those with a stay-at-home mother. More recent studies show speech problems continuing to rise todaydue to the increased number of children spending time in front of screens instead of interacting with others.
Vocabulary and Comprehension
When my young daughter tested off the charts for vocabulary, the specialist told me, “You may struggle to understand Mary’s speech, but boy can she understand you!” She asked if I read aloud to Mary on a daily basis, knowing full well my answer would be yes. The specialist told me that she never saw children with good vocabulary who weren’t read to by their parents.
A year later, Mary tested in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension. Again, the specialist was excited about the results. She told me it was because of our daily lessons where I read to Mary and had her retell the story. This exercise took fifteen minutes a day. In kindergarten, we read from the children’s Bible. In first grade, it was saints’ stories. Fifteen minutes a day made all the difference in the world.
An important thing for us to consider is that listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. Children understand the verbal before they understand the written. In Jim Trelease’s book, The Read Aloud Handbook, he uses this example – the word “enormous.” If a child has never heard the word enormous, he’ll never say the word. If he’s never heard it or said it, imagine his displeasure when he attempts to read it. Imagine the frustration of encountering it for the first time on the written page.
During read aloud time, if a child hasn’t heard a word before, he’ll often figure out its meaning through the context of the story. If the story reads, “The giant was so enormous that he towered over the houses in the village,” it is easy to figure out the meaning of “enormous.”
If he can’t figure out the meaning of a word as you read, make sure he is comfortable in stopping you and asking for a definition. Keep a dictionary close to you for such instances.
Expanding Attention Spans
Reading aloud also helps children and their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Our current society conditions children to have short attention spans: 1-minute YouTube videos; TV commercials; Facebook memes; Twitter’s 140-character limit; and Snap Chat. Sitting down with Mom or Dad to read from the time when children are little will help grow their attention span. It will help them read for long periods of time on their own when they need to. It is, wonderfully, unforced learning.
When to Begin and End
You can never start reading aloud too early with children. I suggest beginning at the same time you begin talking to your child. All you need is a library card and the willingness to do it.
Conversely, children are never too old to be read to. Most parents stop reading aloud once children learn to read on their own. Please, don’t be one of those parents. The research shows that children who are read to through the adolescence years do significantly better in vocabulary and comprehension.
Again, listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. For example, a child who soaks up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe read aloud, may only be able to read simple sentences such as “the cat in the hat” to herself. If you stop reading aloud as soon as a child begins to read herself, you’ll both miss out on many great stories.
The Importance of Fathers
It makes a big difference if Dad is reading and not just Mom. Studies show that boys with fathers who read to them score significantly higher on standardized tests. Second are boys whose fathers read recreationally. Boys need to know that reading is not an activity only for girls, and that can happen if Mom is the only one reading.
Dads, make sure your children see you reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Make sure they hear you talking about what you’re reading. Emotions are contagious – if they see you’re excited about reading then they’ll be more likely to get excited about reading themselves. Make sure you’re making time to read aloud to your children. Make it a habit.
Dads are busy, but all I’m suggesting is fifteen minutes a day. You can make an incredible difference in your child’s life with only few extra minutes.
In my opinion, reading aloud is more important than worksheets, homework, flash cards, book reports, and the rest. Those things may have their place, but for them to work at their best potential you need to first build a solid foundation with good books.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Why Christians Should Read Tolkien

This article is an excerpt from the book Why Should I Learn This. To order click here:

Why Should Christians Learn Tolkien? 
Henry Russell, Ph.D. 

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Father Robert Murray, SJ, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”1  
In response to the poet W.B. Auden’s review of The Return of the King, Tolkien noted, “In the LOTR the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”2  
Since these two quotations, from among many similar ones, reveal Tolkien’s deepest intentions, then why should it be at all necessary to write of why Christians should learn Tolkien in the third millennium? One reason is silly: The author wrote some provocative words about detesting allegory, which have been taken far too seriously. When examined clearly, all Tolkien meant was that he hated bad allegory—or at least obvious allegory, like John Bunyan’s great Pilgrim’s Progress. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 115-130)3 makes it clear that allegory is fundamental to all of being. Tolkien might as usefully have hated the law of gravity. A somewhat better reason is that Tolkien wanted to write a tale that had a complete and fully realized vividness on its own terms, without reference to even the greatest of books, the Bible. He also knew this kind of tale might fascinate even those who claimed to hate the greatest of books, as more and more moderns who have never read the Bible pretend to do. 
There is a third, less compelling, reason. In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the enemies of Christ used to appeal to reason in foolish attacks on Him. In practice, the word reason was anemically narrowed to mean that an “educated” person should feel obliged to state as fact only what could be proven by scientific experimentation. This obligation rather narrows serious intellectual debate, since science has nothing meaningful it can prove about justice, love, beauty, God, or most of the things that make life worth living. One was not supposed to start with God, since He did not allow Himself to be seen, touched, or tasted in a petri dish. Miracle was viewed as gauche precisely because it is about the impossible. Science, remember, demands permission to deal only with the naturally possible. Yet, some people then expect men to talk about nothing else but what science can prove! It is as if humans and dogs should all agree to say nothing that cannot be expressed by barking.  
Christians, for complex reasons that may never have made any sense, in large measure acceded to these demands to speak of the supernatural in mostly natural terms. To paraphrase what Flannery O’Connor wrote in her short story Greenleaf, gentlemen of this time believed that the name of Jesus, like sex, was fit to be discussed only in the privacy of the bedroom. Great scholar-writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien seem to have followed these rules rather scrupulously in their teaching and scholarship. Lewis did rebel with gusto, however, in his fictional works, ranging from The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Screwtape Letters to The Chronicles of Narnia to The Redemption Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandraand That Hideous Strength). Tolkien, on the other hand, tried to keep to the old gentleman’s agreement to a large extent, even in his fiction. To fill his world with spirit and the miraculous, he decided to resort to the vehicles of fairy tales and cultures full of warriors and wizards, tales that he knew flourished in medieval Catholic soil, but most of his readers did not. Perhaps this was a fault. If so, it was a happy one. 
Since the 1960s, the enemies of Christ have more and more overtly abandoned any belief in reason; it always was the province of those who believe in stable cosmic ordering (that is, a universe with a God). Reason only makes sense when God ensures there are indeed laws and rules to the game. Once a person swallows the camel of atheism, the gnat of reason will soon follow downward into humanity’s vast well of self-regard. It is ironic then that the best answer to those who believe in no reason is precisely the supernatural and the miraculous. It is thus time for criticism to show just how (even to his own surprise) Tolkien’s Catholicism insisted on welling up and creating the internal combustion of his immortal works.  
If we begin with Tolkien’s simplest workThe Hobbit (originally written to amuse his own children), we find an astonishingly original work with profound moral themes lurking beneath its “children’s book” surface. Just five out of ten and more of these themes include the following:  1) The desire in the completely comfortable and materially satisfied person for a better self and a greater world. This desire, which shocks Bilbo Baggins when he discovers it in himself, is the intimation of heaven that exists in the most spiritually dull modernist.  2) The fact that what seems the far, far past continues powerfully to shape the present.  This is true, whether what emerges from the past are great contributions of the Elves or the continued traces of their greater and forgotten wars with Sauron, behind the struggles of Bilbo’s own day. For us, of course, such powerful ideas range from the great revelations of God to the contributions of Plato and the Founding Fathers of the United States. The war is the same war as in Tolkien: the constant battle between those who worship God and those who follow Satan.   
3) The way evil beings habitually make a strong pretense of concern for justice and fairness, and how the long-continuance in evil habits brings inevitable degradation. Here, we think of the sly words of the dragon and his own complacent stupidity about his invincibility.   
4) Perhaps most important to Tolkien was the discovery of his own belief in Providence and man’s need for fortitude to cooperate with it. The Hobbit constantly returns to the theme of how events, big or little, fair or foul appearing, all seem to help direct Bilbo’s paths to good, if he only keeps up his courage. After all is done, Gandalf chides the great Halfling, “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck?” And in the end, as a wiser Hobbit, Bilbo thanks goodness, not himself.   
5) It was while writing this book, I believe, that Tolkien discovered how deeply he believed in the necessity for an earthly king, someone who can be the standard bearer for a whole society or for the world of moral values. In The Hobbit, he gradually made Thorin Oakenshield, with all his defects, the first kind of king. Gandalf the Grey became the second kind. While we may look in vain for Thorin’s courage and goodness of heart in the political rule of our own time, the great pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI certainly have been true portraits of the moral sovereign.  
If one can find such treasures in what Tolkien started as a children’s book, what might we find in his magnum opusThe Lord of the Rings? How majestic is the author’s intent when he tells us, “It is about God, and his sole right to divine honour.”4 Who could write a book with a better purpose? What literary men have had such a vision beside Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Lewis? Again, we will begin to see just why Christians should indeed read Tolkien, if we take five out of some fourteen clear patterns which I have traced elsewhere in LOTR 
First and most obvious is the ever-present theme of the importance of self-sacrifice for good—and not merely the good of one’s own beloved self, family, or country, either. Each of the hobbits, the elves, Aragorn, the men of Rohan and oGondor, the Ents, and Gandalf all exhibit a kind of unselfish giving of all they have, just as Christ taught all humans to do, even unto sacrificial death for the good of others one has never seen. This sacrifice may take the form of Crusade, as with Gondor and Rohan, or it may be the quiet self-immolation of Frodo and Sam.  
Second, an intimately related theme is that of resurrection: Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Eowyn all tread the paths of death and darkness only to be returned to life again. Each in his or her own way reminds the reader that the immortality of the Elves is the base line of Middle Earth.  
 Third, the Ring of Sauron, itself, made as a vile imitation of rings that sustain and nourish life, is one of Tolkien’s greatest creations, a perfect symbol for the fallen creature’s desire to be as God. Yet, always, that God-play turns from sustaining life to creating foul parodies of true creation—parodies which the wielder of the Ring desires to master in every detail, and which can only hate and fear their demonic master. It is a desire that infects every creature that comes near the Ring (except Tom Bombadil of course), just as each sinful human both desires to rebel against true authority and set himself up as his own lawless God over others. 
Fourth, a great counter-symbol of Tolkien’s is the mysterious quality of lembas, the way-bread of the Elves. It tastes like dust and choking ashes in the mouths of the wicked, burning Gollum to his soul, but when taken as the only food by Frodo and Sam, it seems enough to sustain their whole journey against the dark Lord, as the Holy Eucharist has sustained numerous saints for many years. In the end, this Eucharistic gift is all that is powerful enough to sustain the hobbits in the epicenter of the kingdom of evil.  
And, finally, it is well to consider the whole existence of the Elves in Tolkien. The author says that the journey from Hobbiton to Gondor is really the journey from the insularity of England to Rome. Yet Gondor is not only the habitation of men; the Elves were the ancient co-founders with men of the Numenorian and Gondorian kingdoms. Most of what is best in them comes from the Elves. The wisdom, the merriment, the sheer indefectibility of the Elves, combined with their role as innovators and conservers of all that is beautiful, good, kind, and useful makes them, to the meditative mind, a type of the Christian Church itself. They made the culture of Middle-earth just as the Catholic Church made the culture of the West. And if, at times, the Elves seem more like angels than men, we must remember that men are both spirit and flesh, so they are like us and unlike. 
Many homeschools will never ask their children to read The Silmarillion or The History of Middle-Earth (assembled by Tolkien’s son Christopher)volumes which elaborate the vast history Tolkien conceived of as being behind The Lord of the Rings. Yet, it is good to know that here, Tolkien created an analogue to the Biblical creation story—one that, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, went freely beyond the sources. Tolkien’s story is the same saga of the glory of God (Iluvatar), the love of the Angels, the Fall of Satan, and the spreading of evil through Middle-earth. It is, therefore, also a story of God’s work to recall and redeem His creation, a story that, like Jaweh’s pursuit of the House of Israel, is deeply beautiful and tragic, involving not just one fall, but also the falling of created beings over and over. It is in these works, where Tolkien creates his own mythology, that he is seen to be truly closest to the great sources of Greek tragedy and Biblical comedy in which we see all the depths of life reflected.  
Tolkien wrote tales that were designed not to sound specifically Christian, but were structured to the very bone on the principles and wisdom of Christian teachings. It remains good and helpful that they can thus call homeward those who are ready only for the four cardinal virtues, for honor, and for the sheer intuition of Goodness behind the universe. But it is more important than ever that Christians see the power and the glory of the kinds of literature that their faith has inspired. As the forces of evil are incessantly heard in the media of the disappearing word, it is high time for Christians to claim their own in the pantheon of words that will last as long as the English language can still be read. 

Dr. Russell offers several online courses for middle and high school students that are based on books by J. R. R. Tolkien. These courses can be found at