Category Archives: Too Cool for School

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Hi folks.

I am going to be closing down this blog in the next several weeks. There are many reasons for this, but I won’t get into them now.

What I would like to do, however, is compile the most useful posts into categories and bind them under an e-cover for download in case really, really interested folks still want to read them, or share them with others.

This is the compromise I’ve come to between just shutting down OR leaving the blog archives sitting here forever.

What I would love from you is some nominations for posts you’d like to see preserved in e-book form. I will try to edit and/or update any posts that go into that format, so if your favorite one is old and needs some revision that’s okay too.

I have in mind a total of say, 100 posts.

Help? (Please leave your suggestions in the comments so people can see each others’ okay?)

 

P.S. I’m also taking some of the posts from this blog (mostly since 2009) and backfilling Muse of Fire with them. So much of the more recent material will still be on a blog.

Homeschool Update Spring 2013

Well, technically spring, anyway…

IMG_2834

After a week or so, we got some sprouts. Those are yellow squash in the foreground.

It has been so cold for so long that I forgot to start the seedlings for this summer’s garden until two weeks ago. (Usually, I would start in late February or early March.) But while Cole was visiting her mother in Philadelphia for Spring Break, and Selina was with her, Nat and I got out the seedling trays and planted whatever we had left over from years past, including okra, yellow squash,cucumbers, sweet peas, mini sunflowers (called “teddy bear”), tomatoes (some kind of little ones–grape or cherry or something) and bok choi. I seriously doubt many of them will thrive after transplant. I usually end up at the garden center buying new starters after mine have failed. But I try every year anyway.

Working on the Winter Garden

Working on the Winter Garden

Whatever comes of our efforts, they won’t be as magnificent as our dreams. I started getting seed catalogues in January and rather than spend money on ordering anything, I handed them over to the kids, rolled out a big banner of plain paper and let them go crazy. We enjoyed our “winter garden” during the long, long, loooooong months of winter that stretched into…well, last week, actually. We had snow flurries all morning on 1 April. (It wasn’t funny.)

IMG_2758IMG_2764Both girls have really been wanting to take on big projects that require all kinds of planning and construction. Nat proposed making valentines for everybody at church and she and Selina both spent about a week of work-times (9-11:30 every morning) on this huge job.

Nat also spent quite a bit of time designing and making this sign for Josiah, after he had been away visiting friends in Brooklyn for about a month. There is a rumor that he burst into tears at the sight of it, upon his arrival home at about 5 in the morning:IMG_2785

A Page from one of Selina’s “Biscuit” Stories

Selina has been going gangbusters on her language these days. She would still much rather write than read, so she’s made another book of photos she took herself. She has also been enjoying copying pages out of some of her favorite books. I figure the good old nineteenth century “memorize, copy, recite” technique won’t hurt her–especially given that she’s the one who wants to learn that way.

Practicing Stacked Equations with Coins

Nat, on the other hand, has been enthusiastically working on Math ever since I gave her real money to work with. (She thinks this is a major coup.) We’ve been doing all kinds of things with concrete coins in the past couple of months that Nat has been reluctant to do in the abstract.

One of the best things about not going to school is that the girls (and I) have the time and energy to do a lot of what school would call “extracurricular” activities. Both girls are still taking dance classes on Saturday morning, but now Nat has added a mid-week private dance lesson with her adored teacher, Rosetta. The dance seems to be really helpful in developing her ability to focus and discipline herself to attend to instruction. Rosetta was kind of surprised to find that Nat knows all the stuff she’s been teaching in the beginning ballet class on Saturdays. Until she had Nat one-on-one she didn’t realize how much Nat knew, because in class, Nat is a distraction queen.

That’s pretty much what I’ve discovered in homeschooling too. Nat knows a lot of stuff, but it can be all but impossible for her to settle in and work if a social engagement is an option. Sometimes even having her sister just within hearing is too distracting for her. But when she can get a little peace and solitude, she will often get very deeply into what she’s working on. More and more these days, she comes up with her own projects too. Recently, she proposed making a list of words in her own best handwriting for her sister to copy. Both kids thought this was the coolest. thing. ever. And I was supermom for “letting” them do it. Ha!

This is a sweet retired pony who lives at our new favorite place.

Meanwhile, we’ve added another activity. There’s a down-to-earth horse ranch about 40 minutes away (by car) and we’ve started lessons there. They even offer a homeschool program in which the kids get riding lessons, then an hour of other horse-related learning and activities after the lesson.

I knew animal-loving Selina would have the time of her life with the horses, (and she did!) but I didn’t know for sure what Nat would think. Turns out Nat is hooked for life. The day after her first lesson, Nat sat down and journaled at great length about the experience. My favorite line from her account was, “My teacher told me that I had to trot my horse, but my horse trotted me instead.” Since that first day, every single night before bed, she counts the days left until the next riding lesson and tells me she loves “her” horse.

Yep. I remember all that.

In fact, I’ll be taking a lesson of my own while the kids are doing their non-horse activities. I used to ride a lot when I was a kid/teen and could use my spending money to pay for lessons. The older I got the less cash I had for it and the less I’ve been able to do it. So I’m thrilled to have an excuse to start earnest lessons again. Cole will be taking some beginner lessons with the girls when she has some time later this summer, too. I can’t wait to see my whole family on horseback!

Homeschool Notes October, November, December

We’ve been settling into our routine pretty well this fall. The interesting thing about routine–I always think the days I let it go will be easier than the days we stick to it and I am always wrong about that. The kids are in better moods (therefore, I am in a better mood) on the days we stay on schedule (at least roughly) than on the days we throw caution to the wind.

So we’re learning to make the schedule a priority.

Within the routine of the schedule, things are still pretty scatter-shot. It’s almost the opposite of the routine thing: I will decide “It’s time for Kid A to learn Thing B” and sit down to make this happen. It never goes well. On the other hand, if the kids decide they want to do something, they get really deeply into it start-to-finish and end up happy and proud.

This is something I believe is true from a theoretical standpoint, and it’s how I want to approach education with them. (And gee–it’s not just theoretical if I report that it’s working, right?) But I have the teensiest bit of control freakishness that creeps up from time to time and convinces me I am ruining the kids for life by letting them buzz from flower-to-flower at their own pace, rather than running them through hoops. So I up and try to control their learning and it goes horribly wrong.

I’m not sure how many times this will have to happen before I let go and trust the kids.

Here’s an example. This week, Nat found an iPad app that is a Montessori division board. She wanted to play with it. So I bought it for a dollar or whatever and she played with it. But she wasn’t in the least understanding the concepts involved and I could see that. I beat myself up about it for a while, convinced I should not have given it to her until she had a solid grasp of multiplication.

But she really wanted to figure it out.

Nat works on her division with sea shells.

Nat works on her division with sea shells.

So I told her I’d give her some division work, but not on the iPad. She was good with that. I gave her a big box of sea shells we collected on the beach when my parents were spending winter in the Gulf, and five bowls. I made a list of division problems: 50-:-5= ; 45-:-5= ; 40-:-5= etc. down to 5. Then I showed her how to count out fifty shells, divide them evenly between the bowls and count the number in a bowl to arrive at the answer.

She loved this. She did it for 50s, 40s, 30s, 20s and 10s and went through the whole process for every single problem, even after realizing that the answers were always 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

I still don’t think she has grasped the concept of division, but all that practice is getting it into her and the steps in the process are a challenge to a kid with distraction issues. It’s great for her to practice counting out 50 shells and learning that if you make a simple mistake and count out 49 or 51, the whole problem will fail.

If I had asked her to do this without her original interest I can only guess she would hate me forever. I mean, how dull can you get??? I would hate it, myself. But it was her project and she was all into it. And if she learns multiplication via division instead of the other way around, I guess the sky won’t fall.

Another Nat-inspired, Nat-produced activity this past week was a shrine to her Granddaddy. My father died last July (in case you managed to miss me blogging/tweeting/FBing about that constantly). His 67th birthday would have been this past Sunday (9 December) and Nat wanted to do something to honor him. I suggested taking an extra can of “sharing food” to put in the basket at church on his behalf and she was good with that, but had her own plan.

“I will make a birthday card, with his picture on it. It will say “Happy Birthday Grandaddy, we miss you!”

I told her that sounded like a good idea. Then she added, “I can put it up on a shelf and when I miss him, I can look at it and say a little prayer.”

This was all her own idea, mind you.

Nat's Shrine to her Granddaddy

Nat’s Shrine to her Granddaddy

And it’s exactly what she did. I gave her some card stock and printed out a few pictures of Daddy. She opted to use all the pictures and make multiple cards. Then she put them on the fireplace mantel and placed a sea shell (the same ones she used for the division project) in front of them to “make it pretty.”

I am kind of blown away by it, and really proud of her for coming up with her own little tribute and orchestrating it all in her own special way.

Selina has been doing lots of building lately. She makes elaborate cities with Lego blocks or wooden blocks, then dresses up all the people and animals and enacts little plays with them in her cities.

She finished the word book we started a month or so ago and she is very proud of it. In working slowly on that, she has also just started taking an interest in spelling out words throughout the day, and reading others as well. Her reading hasn’t started rolling on its own quite yet, but it’s going to soon, I think. She is a little linguist–always wanting to know what words mean, and using a wide vocabulary correctly in an easy, natural way. Once reading really clicks for her, she’s going to take right off.

(I have a little video of Selina reading her word book, but am having trouble uploading it for some reason. Watch this space. Maybe I’ll figure it out.)

At bedtime, if I am not totally wiped out (which, let’s be honest, I usually am), we all take turns reading a book. Nat reads something aloud to us, I read something aloud to us and Selina “reads” something aloud to us. We have some great picture books without words that Selina especially enjoys and can feel really expert at “reading.”

We should do it every day, but I am not Wonder Woman. So to substitute, I often tell Selina to choose some books and have Nat read them to her. This works especially well. Selina wants to be like Nat and so it inspires her to work on her reading and Nat gets really proud of herself if she can teach Selina to recognize a new word or two from their reading together.

We’ve also found a lot of great apps for the kids’ iPad, but I want to do a whole separate post about how we are using those.

Selina is a whiz at jigsaw puzzles. So that’s one thing we try to keep on top of. (It is really hard to find puzzles in her current zone of 250-300 pieces. 100 is too easy and 500 is too hard, but they seem to jump between those two sizes, most of the time.) I found one recently that’s 101 pieces, but they are small pieces, rather than big, kid-friendly ones, so that upped the challenge a bit.

A New Puzzle!

A New Puzzle!

Selina tends to master a jigsaw after about two or three times doing it and it’s hard to keep ahead of her learning curve. But puzzles are an especially great way for her to exercise her weak eye when she wears her eye patch, so I want to indulge her as much as I can.

Speaking of puzzles, Nat is a big fan of Geo Puzzles. They are mostly fabulous realistic maps with the pieces shaped like the countries. (My quibble is that they put Mexico in with South America, then put the U.S. and Canada together in one puzzle.)

Her favorite thing for the longest time was her Africa puzzle. She chose that puzzle to begin work time every single day. So after a while, I started making her other Africa work, like matching countries and capitals, writing out all the countries for handwriting practice (she was really proud of this–so eager to get it done she actually woke in the middle of the night and got it out to finish it), African country word-search puzzles, and picture books and television documentaries (yea, Netflix!) about Africa.

Then, Cole found out that for work reasons, we might have an opportunity to take the kids to Brazil next spring. So I put Africa away for now and took out South America (plus Mexico…grumble, grumble…) and she’s been doing that one.

I told Cole that I remembered having to memorize the countries and capitals of every continent by rote in grade school, trace and color maps and be tested on it all. I hated the pressure of it. But Nat has learned all that stuff because it was fun for her. So I count that as a win.

We still aren’t getting enough physical activity in the week. The girls have ballet on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But they could really use a good vigorous hour of play or other movement every day. Next “semester” we are going to try karate at the Y in addition to the current ballet schedule. Hopefully that will help them in a number of ways. Nat’s sense of self-control is definitely showing improvement since she has turned a corner in ballet (according to her teacher). I am hoping karate will help her continue that improvement. And Selina just needs to run around!

Cookies!

Cookies!

Finally, some holiday notes… I am a bit of a control freak, as I mentioned above, and one of the ways that manifests is that I can’t stand cooking with anyone but myself. I had been cooking with Nat somewhat regularly last spring, but this had fallen off for a few months, as life just became too crazy for me to keep it up. It’s a challenge for me to let kids spill and lick spoons and mix poorly and all that normal learning stuff that happens in a kitchen. But I am trying to get back into the swing of teaching them to cook, so we did some holiday cookies.

The only real disaster in our cooking adventure was losing the 1/4 teaspoon down the garbage disposal. but it was my favorite measuring spoon! Alas.

The only real disaster in our cooking adventure was losing the 1/4 teaspoon down the garbage disposal. But it was my favorite measuring spoon! Alas.

It was the first time I ever made rolled cookies, so it was a new thing all-around. The kids did great and I kept my head on my shoulders (mostly). And the results were tasty, so that covers a plethora of kitchen sins.

I’m also teaching them to sing the Hallelujah chorus. Which really just means I’m introducing them (especially Nat, since she can read words well) to understanding a musical score, how to count musical time and follow your part. Actual singing is going to be another project altogether, since Nat has a habit of confusing

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah!

pitch with dynamics (ahem). But she loves to sing. So Hallelujah, it is.

Josiah is home again for several weeks (he spent the summer and much of the fall in a tepee in Iowa) and he is going to try reintroducing Nat to more routine guitar lessons. I think she’s ready to do that, as her attention and ability to focus has increased a bit lately. We are looking forward to lots of music in the house again!

Homeschooling Notes from August and September

Barack Obama and William Shakespeare Enjoy a Tea Party

Last week, Selina threw a little tea party for Barack Obama and William Shakespeare. I thought the irony was worth a photo.

Selina’s favorite thing is “imaginative play.” She puts on little dramas all day long with blocks, dolls, stuffed animals, dress-up alter egos, her sister, and whatever inanimate object comes to hand to be animated. You may remember she even used to do this with her feet.

Sometimes, she creates fantasy people to “help” her with work by changing her voice and talking her way through a problem. For example:

Selina’s Voice: “What comes after K?”

High-pitched voice: “Is it M?”

Selina’s Voice, singing: “A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J,K,L…”

Low-Pitched Voice: “No, it’s L!”

High-Pitched Voice: “Whoops!”

Then Selina will find the “L” and put it on her alphabet project. She may or may not ask aloud again until she gets stuck and needs some more “help.”

Listening to her when she doesn’t know you are around is an absolute gas.

Last week, she let me know in no uncertain terms that although she has been asking to learn to read, she cannot abide out-of-context phonics lessons. Sooo…I went back to the drawing board and this morning she took the iPad around and snapped photos of some of her favorite things, like her Pooh bear.

Pooh

Tomorrow, I’ll print her photos and let her label them all and bind them into a “Selina’s Words” book.

Given her love of creating little dramas and characters all day long, I think she is going to be a write-first reading learner.

Teaching reading is fun for me, because Nat didn’t ever really “learn” to read, she just started doing it.

Perhaps Selina would do this eventually too (though I do think Nat’s brain was just prewired to read, at birth), but she has been complaining lately about not being able to read, so I’m stepping in to help her move along. She’s five and a quarter, so I feel it is perfectly reasonable to let her at it.

Speaking of Nat, though, and particularly of her reading, she recently picked up a slightly simplified version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (it amounts to a middle-grade novel as it’s been edited) and started reading it every night before bed–and any other time she could steal. It’s the first “chapter book” she’s shown a sustained interest in reading independently, though we’ve done a few together as read-alouds and she has always enjoyed picture books independently. She got so into Alice,though, that I have been able to pick up on her interest in the story to do a lot of work besides reading.

At Work on the Alice Chart

The first Alice work she did was thumb through the book and put sticky notes on each page where Alice changed size (this was her favorite aspect of the story). She found and recorded the page number, and Alice’s height on that page, then I gave her a roll of paper and a tape measure and she charted out “life-size” pictures of Alice throughout the book–from three inches to “taller than a tree.” Selina and I both helped color and decorate the Alices.

Nine-Foot Alice

One of my favorite aspects of the completed project is that Nat made Alice African American, in spite of her pervasive blondeness in so many of her popular incarnations. We taped our Alice chart to the wall in the hallway so we could admire it for a while.

The day after that, I gave Nat a list of household stuff and had her measure each item in inches and feet, using a tape measure or a ruler, depending on what worked best for the job.

But the next day, she wanted to get back to her obsession, so I had her write a “book report” (though I didn’t call it that), and she enthusiastically did so, raving about her love of Alice and drawing a lovely picture of her favorite scene.

She has seen three different movie adaptations of Alice and she likes the Disney animated one from 1951 best, because it includes scenes and characters she likes that the other versions she’s seen leave out.

Full disclosure: I have never been an Alice fan. In fact, I have always pretty much loathed Lewis Carroll. I mean, he was a dirty old man, and most of the book is a thinly disguised drugged-out political commentary. Plus, I just don’t like the weirdness. I am not a Kafka fan either. I don’t like my own wacky-to-nightmarish dreams and don’t care to read others’. But hey, that’s just me. Clearly this is a book, if not a genre, that Nat adores. So now I’m compiling ideas for other books she might like. Do leave your suggestions in the comments. Keep in mind that she is only seven, so stuff like Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, or Holes, while just the right reading level, are not going to ring a bell for her, in all likelihood.

One thing that has struck me since I started thinking in terms of school at home, is how much we can get done (academically, I mean) in a short amount of time. This is something I’ve heard a lot about from homeschoolers. I’ve heard more than one anecdote about blasting through a year of curriculum in four months, for example. We aren’t using a curriculum (unless “stuff Mama Shannon thinks would be good to introduce this month/week/today” counts as one), but if we were, I dare say we would be blasting too.

One of Nat’s downfalls in life is that she is highly distractable. One of her gifts is a love of and compassion towards people. I think this was tricky for her to handle in the classroom–even a classroom that allowed her lots of teacher attention and long periods of time to work on what interested her most. The simple fact is, if a kid walks by, she is more interested in that kid and what he’s doing than in the most interesting work of her own.

Last week I was plotting some subtraction practice work for her. (I have been using this websiteto make her crossword puzzles, including ones with written-out math problems. She likes to work the puzzles and I have found all kinds of ways to get her to think about different topics and disciplines via crossword.) Nat finds counters and fingers useful in doing addition and subtraction, but the problems I was doing went up and down from 100, and I didn’t want to have to deal with that many counters, so I decided to make her what Montessorians call a “Hundred Board.” Then of course, I realized that I ought to ask her to make it. More ruler work, lots of fine motor practice, reinforcement for counting to 100, etc. etc., right? So the next day I sat her down and gave her paper and a ruler and a pencil and eraser, gave her brief instructions to begin the chart (make a 10-inch square) and at each subsequent step (make ten one-inch columns…make ten one-inch rows…write out the numbers in alternating colors…cut out the chart…) and with me poking my head in the room every ten minutes to check on her progress, it was completely finished (including erasing and re-figuring out how to make the lines straight) in under an hour.

Nat’s Hundred Board

Now, this may make most of you shrug, but for Nat it’s an amazing accomplishment. I can only imagine the same task would have taken her a week of “work” periods in school last year, simply due to her tendency to get constantly distracted by other kids. As it is, she is super proud of her hundred board. Tomorrow I’m going to have her make a number line from 0-100, with a half-inch between the numbers and put it on the wall too. Then I’ll show her the subtraction puzzle and she can complete it with her math reference tools.

As for me, I’m really enjoying doing this with the kids. It isn’t a far step from my usual parenting style anyway, I just spend a little more thought on how we spend the two and a half hours set aside each morning for “work” (meaning academic work, though all day long we are working and learning in all kinds of ways). We follow a schedule every day, and I don’t mind sharing it with you:

Wake Up

1. Make your bed. 2. Clean up your room. 3. Eat breakfast. 4. Clean up the dining room. 5. Brush your teeth. 6. Get dressed. 7. Read quietly in your room.

9:00

Quiet Individual Work Time

11:30

Lunch/Clean up dining room

12:30

House Cleaning Time

Josiah calls this “Cinderella-ing.” But hey, scrubbing things is VERY Montessori. That’s what I’m gonna tell the authorities, anyway.

1:00

Afternoon Activities (different every day)

4:30

1. Supper/Clean up dining room 2. Evening Activities (different every day)

6:45

Begin bedtime routine.

“Afternoon Activities” might be continuing a project begun in the morning (Alice took all day). Or it might be free play in the girls’ room or a trip to the playground.

About once a week, Nat and I make a trip to the grocery store that entails a list of “things we need” and a list of “things we want” and a budget. Nat adds up the price of each “need” item as we put it in the cart and figure out how much we can afford from the “want” list, once we’ve got what we need. I sort of orchestrate this so that we can never get everything we want. This is probably good for me, as I haven’t been able to “afford” my favorite potato chips in weeks.

In a couple of weeks, the kids begin a soccer program that just teaches the game without any competition. This is good because my kids are not athletes just yet (Selina may well become one though). Chicago Parks and Recreation has all kinds of introductory sports programs and I just want them to get the basics of many things and see if any in particular strike them as special. They are doing dance on Saturdays too. Really, they need (Nat especially really truly needs) an hour of high-aerobic activity every day, but that’s a tough one for non-sporty me. We joined the Y too, though, so when the weather is too cold for the playground we can go there.

I could probably go on about this for another six posts, just about our first six weeks or so of earnest homeschooling. But I’ll wrap this up for now and check in again in a few weeks.

A Homeschool Post at BlogHer

Why do people tend to jump to the conclusion that homeschooled children will grow up to be anti-social freaks? Here’s my response to that assumption.

 

 

Home Again, Home Again…

For those of you who haven’t heard it yet via the grapevine, or Twitter (which is the grapevine), I have news: We are homeschooling next year. And we might be homeschooling for a year or two, or three, though at this time, we are hoping to put the girls back in the school we have come to love, once it’s within our economic means to do so again.

The bottom line this year, is that we just can’t afford tuition.

I admit that there is that perverse part of me that enjoys being the wrench in assumed binaries like pro- versus anti-homeschooling. You and I both know there are strong feelings and opinions at the far ends of those supposed poles. But in our case, an initial plan to homeschool was changed when we found a school we really loved and could afford. Now we can’t afford it and have jumped onto the homeschooling track again.

I have always held that all good parents homeschool, they just think of it more or less as homeschooling, per se, depending on their position between those assumed opposite poles. So we’ve been homeschooling all along, and now we are stepping up the “school-like” nature of home to transition the girls to leaving school for awhile.

It’s funny, really. One of the things I like best about their school (which is an intensive Montessori, preK-8th-grade, private school), is that it seemed, as I put it only days before I realized we would be coming back home “like homeschooling off-site.”

Maria Montessori set up her initial school–which was in fact a residential facility for needy children–as a “children’s house” and much of the Montessori “work” in classrooms is based on life skills and the work of running a home. In the girls’ school, for example, there are not only table-washing, and buttoning “works” in the preschool classroom, but a full working kitchen (sans dishwasher, because doing it by hand is part of the lesson!) in the upper elementary (4th-6th grades) classroom where children frequently make meals for themselves and/or the school faculty and staff.

So home fits a Montessori style and/or a Montessori style fits home. And since we do hope to send the girls back to school, we won’t be quite “unschooling” as we had initially planned, because I want to keep the Montessori vocabulary and work style familiar to the girls. I have set up a new bookshelf with shelves labeled for each of the girls and some labeled “share” and have already put some “works” there and the girls have been working at home quite happily when they are not at school. I plan to gradually step this up to a more formal level over the summer, week by week until we are doing about two hours of free-flow “work” in the mornings, then doing field trips, outside lessons and household work in the afternoons by autumn. I plan to change out the works available as needed, probably every week or two.

Of course, who knows what will actually happen. But given the good work the school has done in preserving the kids’ self-motivation to learn and produce work they are proud of, taking advantage of that for a homeschool year or two will be easy enough, as long as I keep a close watch on their interests and learning-style preferences.

One of the pros about coming home is that we will be able to do more activities. Both of the girls have really been enjoying ballet lessons (which sort of shocks me, as I had never planned to put them in ballet. It just sort of came up on a lark and now Nat, especially, really loves it). But that hour on Saturday morning, and two hours of church on Sunday have been all the kids could handle after 6 hours/5 days of school for Nat and 3 hours/5 days of school for Selina. School wipes them out completely. But Nat has been asking for a violin for a while (which gratifies me because I did always plan to put her in Suzuki music lessons) and now we can A) afford it and B) have time for it without exhausting her. We will also probably do either swim lessons or some introductory martial arts or perhaps both, depending on how things go.

So, after fretting about finding a better job, with super-flexible hours so I could continue to solo parent in the coming academic year during the weekdays when Cole is out of town at work, I am now off the market. Suffice it to say, I have a job. And we have reduced financial pressure, so I can breathe easier about that job paying $0. The girls will undoubtedly miss school, because they love it to death. But they love home too, and we will hold onto the friends we’ve made at school for play dates  and summer camps and whatnot while finding a bit of flexibility in the business of making some new friends in new venues.

And that is our biggest news of late. Now you know!

Home School Update

Yes, yes, we put the kids in school. But I have mentioned before that this does not mean we are not still home schooling just about 24/7–as most parents do, without thinking of it in those terms.

One of the down sides of school for Nat, in particular has been that she is absolutely wiped out by school and we don’t have any time left to do much of anything else. That said, school is good. It about covers most of the things we want the kids to be doing anyway. It’s just that some of those things would be nice to do–or also do–at home, or otherwise within the family.

So. Weekends.

Cole signed the girls up for dance lessons on Saturday mornings and they do “creative movement” and “pre-ballet” and “hip-hop” for a total of an hour. I have to confess here, that if Selina were not the “Me Too!” baby sister of the family, I wouldn’t bother signing her up to continue. She wants to do what Nat is doing, but she really doesn’t seem all that interested in the dance classes per se. But it’s not a huge thing and so they go along with Cole and I sleep late on Saturday mornings. Sundays, one or both of them go to church with me and Cole gets the morning off.

So that has been about it as far as any official activities are concerned. Anything else you might call “home schooling” has been easy-breezy unschooling in the sense of just looking for chances to push their little brains a bit further in whatever direction they are wandering in at any given moment. Yesterday, Selina and I brainstormed jobs one can do when one grows up that involve spending lots of time with animals. We discussed being anything from a veterinarian to a rancher.

But lately I’ve been feeling guilty, given the importance food has in my parenting philosophy (which is the philosophy of MY parenting–not yours, so please do not misread here and think that I am being prescriptive for anyone else!), for not spending more concerted time in the kitchen with, at least, Nat, who is over six and a half now.

The recent BlogHer Book Club selection I’ve been reading and discussing (Lunch Wars)  has done nothing but deepen my chagrin. After reading about Jamie Oliver in Lunch Wars, I looked up Food Revolution on Hulu and Cole and I watched it obsessively. Now, it definitely has its shortcomings. Cole’s family is from West Virginia and the cultural and class aspects of the problem were, essentially, not discussed at all. But, it was network television, so they are hardly going to take on The Man, now are they? Otherwise, we found the thing moving and educational (if a little grand stand-y at times–but again with network television) and motivating.

Now, our poshy-posh-posh private Montessori school (for which we are exceptionally grateful every minute of every day) doesn’t do food service for most kids. But for the whole-day preschoolers, they cater in meals from a local company that provides all-organic, mostly locally-sourced food with a complete and attractive vegetarian option to schools and nursing homes and other institutions. I don’t know what it costs the parents at our school because we are not its market. But I pored over the website and discovered that the company won a grant to participate in programs to get food like theirs (and indeed their food) into the most underserved public schools in our area too, so that made me feel good about it. They are not just a luxury item for the wealthy, but a movement of a sort. Their food service also includes visits from a truck carrying veggies growing in pots and field trips for the school kids to visit farms, so it’s a very wholistic approach.

But it’s hardly a wide-spread phenomenon, and Jamie Oliver’s TED talk about this stuff suggested that every public high school graduate ought to be leaving school able to cook ten easy, healthy meals. That sounds wise to me. (Again with our poshy-posh-posh school–the 4th-6th grade room has a full kitchen where the kids cook meals for themselves and the staff and teachers on the reg.) I didn’t really learn to cook until Cole and I decided to adopt. Then I knew I wanted to give my kids a different food culture from the one I grew up with and I bought The Joy of Cooking and learned to boil an egg.

The upshot of my investigations into and thinking about all this is that I started feeling really guilty about not cooking with Nat.

So today we have started at the very beginning–”Get the colander” “What’s a colander?” Then we cleaned and chopped broccoli and cauliflower and potatoes (I helped her with the chef’s knife and am going to teach her to use it). We learned about how sometimes we put stuff into the compost, but sometimes (given our limited compost space and long winter) we put it down the garbage disposal. Yes indeed, we do. She and I are making a delicious soup.

The plan is to do this every Saturday.

Wish us luck.

Tiger Jo-Jo

They say that kids who live in a “language-rich environment” do better in school (whatev!) than kids who live in a language-poor environment. It think it’s safe to say my kids live in a language-rich environment, if the language is English. There are books in every room (this is an understatement–there is a whole library in every room) of the house, both parents have larger than average vocabularies and use them when speaking to the kids. We post signs to remind the kids of household mores, put notes in the lunch boxes, read the bulletin at church, the menus at restaurants, the advertising on buses, and stop and discuss new words and their meanings when we encounter them. We dictate their writing and/or let them do it themselves (whether fantastical, invented, or Webster’s perfect).

But I always wanted my kids to also grow up in a music-rich environment. I think of music as a language and had hoped my kids could learn it as a mother tongue. The trouble is, I can sing, but I can’t play any instruments. So I played recorded music for them a lot in babyhood, danced and counted time, sang the scales and all kinds of songs. I got a realistic toy piano and put the note letters on the keys with scrapbook stickers.

But none of that was really going to teach my kids music in a natural way and I knew it. At some point, I gave up and just banked on doing Suzuki when they were old enough.

Then Josiah came into our lives.

When we met Josiah, he didn’t know he was a musician, so music had nothing to do with our decision to welcome him into the family. But over the first year we knew him, he taught himself to play the guitar, and it was revealed that he is profoundly gifted in the music department. When I say “he taught himself to play guitar” I mean, he picked up a guitar, looked at YouTube, and within six months, was playing as well or better than people who’d been doing it for years. He has the kind of gift that makes people think a task is easy for everyone because it comes to them like breathing. Since learning guitar, Josiah has dabbled in ukelele, mandolin, banjo and is now branching out to saxophone and wants to get some keyboards and on and on and on.

His new Life Plan is to learn to build and repair guitars from this guy, make a living that way, and make music with his friends for fun.

Suddenly the kids live a super music-rich environment.

I would estimate that Josiah plays around the house–often directly for the children–about 3 hours per day on average. A lot of this is learning time–teaching himself new things–while the kids just “hang out” with him or nearby, overhearing the whole process.

Now he’s been taking Nat one-on-one with the little kid-sized guitar we bought her and helping her learn actual chords for a few minutes every single day. She did not enjoy this much at first. She liked to strum and had good form according to Josiah, but hated doing the chords because it hurt her fingers. But after about six weeks of 5-10 minutes an evening, she’s finally rounded a corner and they are learning to play “You are my Sunshine” together.

A big part of rounding this corner, I must reluctantly admit, was the acquisition of a Wii. Cole, Josiah and Nat scored it while Selina and I were out of town and I came home to a kid who now says “I beat the level!” whenever she accomplishes something. I don’t think she actually knows what this means, but she talks like this and it freaks me out. All the same, I have the Wii to thank for the new guitar enthusiasm.

You see, I declared, upon arriving home to the new regime, that Nat could play Wii for exactly the same number of minutes per day she worked on guitar with Josiah. Now she tries really hard to extend her practice time. Last night it was 12 minutes. (I know these are tiny times, but for Nat, both guitar-wise and Wii-wise, they work just right.)

It only took a week of Wii-inspired extra guitar work to get Nat to stop complaining about sore fingers and excited about playing guitar for its own sake. Josiah estimates that in a month HE will be enjoying it too. For now, he says it’s like pulling teeth.

I guess we’ll still probably do Suzuki, but it can wait a bit. And meanwhile, the kids are getting exactly what I had hoped for them when they were babies. All through the dumb luck of finding Josiah.

I have also learned that a Wii can be a powerful motivator. I have all kinds of plans to use it strategically in the future.

How about you? Do you have a Wii or the like? How do you regulate/strategically make use of it?

Charter Schools and All That

A couple of days ago I got myself in a little trouble on Facebook for my strong anti-charter, anti-voucher notions about public schooling.

Today I am asking for more, with a post at BlogHer on the same topic.

In the interest of full disclosure, I attended a three-hour event last night in downtown Chicago (along with a room full of teachers, education professors, grant makers, and maybe a few other parents) to learn more about a new charter opening in the fall. It will be a Chicago version of the Quest to Learn Academy in New York, which really does look like a fabulous program.

As most of you know by now, I’m quite sold on the Montessori model of education (interest-led, hands-on, whole life, student-centered, cooperative, etc. etc.) and the Quest school and smaller, less ambitious programs modeled on it look to me a lot like Montessori for older kids with lots and lots of new media and technology added to the tools of the classroom. So I was definitely interested.

By the time my kids are in high school (we are committed to our Montessori school through 8th grade if at all possible), Chicago Quest will have been around long enough for us to know whether and how it is working. And we might well end up sending the girls there.

So see? I am a pragmatist when it comes to doing what you have to do to get your kids the best education possible.

And yet…

I woke up this morning feeling sad about the kids left behind. Even if Chicago decides to implement a lottery system, nominally giving every kid an equal chance to go to this school, there are plenty of kids who really won’t have that chance. I still think about Nat’s siblings (in her first family) who don’t have the social capital to even know about the school, let alone fill out the application, enter the lottery or whatever. And why should the kids with the very fewest resources be penalized? And even if they did enter the lottery–even if they got in–what about the kids who don’t get in? Why should a great education be based on chance in a participatory democracy in which we are all supposed to have an equal shot, regardless of background?

So I started arguing a little bit with Cole (who is in love with Quest, having studied it for over a year now, for the Media Studies part of her academic identity) this morning, saying that maybe all the money McArthur is putting into two schools in two big cities (so far) could be distributed to more kids and more schools if it went to support one laptop/one child programs and after school tech programs like Digital Youth Network and YouMedia, both of which were highlighted in last night’s presentation, to sell us all on Quest. Yet the shining star students presented to us didn’t go to a Quest school. They went to one laptop/one child schools and participated in after school media programs at the main library downtown.

Why not give every kid in the public schools a laptop and bring the resources of the library media program into the schools?

Cole argued that Quest isn’t just about providing computers or other tech, but is all about changing the very model of pedagogy, and I agree and think it’s awesome. I would love to see that model changed. But when I think about who I want to see it changed for, it’s not really my own kids. Because my own kids have me and have Cole and have Josiah teaching them guitar (more on that soon) and Whitney teaching them art (you should see how Nat’s vision has grown in her artwork since Whitney started spending concerted time on it with the girls). Our kids have the resources to go to a private school, have parents well equipped to home school them, etc. etc. My kids are going to be just fine, no matter what happens to public schools.

But I think about the unmotivated, hungry, barely literate kids I taught in a D.C. public high school and the utter hopelessness of their vision of their own futures and I know that a radical pedagogical change like the one Quest is making would absolutely revolutionize their lives. I want THEM to have it–not just the kids whose professional, well-educated parents who are hip to the system enough to get their kids into a tiny program (they’re starting with two grades and about 300 students next year).

And in a side note that is actually sort of central to my sadness about all this, I find myself wishing, wishing, wishing that our open adoption in theory was an open adoption in practice and Mama Rose would get in touch with us. Because we would love to help her get her brilliant kids into Quest. As it is, I’m going to dash off a letter with all the information and hope she looks into it herself.

Close Encounters of the Barbie Hair Kind

I have managed to protect Nat from Barbie exposure for nigh on six years. But yesterday, the day before her sixth birthday, we were playing at a friend’s house and that friend had a big sister with a Barbie.

Nat was drawn to the Barbie with some kind of bizarro 6-year old homing instinct and immediately began stroking and combing her long, yellow, plastic hair in a trance-like state. The older girl, E, had only just found the Barbie herself, her father having hidden it with other objectionable toys given to his children by others, in a secret cabinet. E’s mother rolled her eyes. “it’s like crack,” she lamented.

E herself is a half-Southeast Asian, half-white girl with parents in an interracial marriage. Her hair is straight as a stick, but she longs for African American hair. Her mother told me that she wanted braids with beads and when she saw Nat’s locs (Nat and E’s brother are in the same class and she is at the same school a couple of years ahead of them), she wanted some, too. Her mother said “honey, it would just take a very long time for your hair to lock. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you.” All the same, the kid was as enraptured with Nat and Selina’s hair as Nat was with the newfound Barbie.

I was watching Nat, trying to downplay the whole thing, yet squirming with unease internally, when little E took the Barbie from Nat and declared, “I know, Nat! Let’s put locs in Barbie’s hair!”

“Okay!” said Nat. And off they ran to E’s room.

I was never so grateful to a child in my life. Here’s hoping this relationship sticks over the years.

And no, I have no idea how one goes about locking Barbie hair, but I’m sure where there’s a will, there’s a way.