Sunday, May 18, 2008

Thursday, May 15, 2008

now what?

I was all set to post yesterday about how if I could just let go of my ambitions to write professionally, teach kids other than my own, and help teachers learn to be more flexible and inclusive in their classrooms, I would love this life.

I have incredible freedom. I can't believe that I can actually find moments in my day every day to spin, for fun. I can read what I want, I have enough yarn in my stash to knit for the next ten years, at least. I can enroll my kids in a class at the local science museum, and then we can play hookey if we like. We can spend the day gardening. We can sleep in, or get up early. We can walk to the grocery store, or we can set up a lemonade stand.

But some days, freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be. Some days, I get really cranky. Some days, I don't want to hear either boy call out, "Mama!" ever again. Ever. Some days, like yesterday, I realize I'm out of patience because I'm literally out of gas: I often forget to eat lunch because I'm so engrossed with gardening or spinning or a book I'm reading or even, sometimes, doing something with the kids. Eating turns out to be one of the least interesting things I do, so I skip it in favor of something else, but then that turns around and bites me on the butt because I actually do need to consume some calories.

And those are the days when I look around me and all I see are piles of books I should be reading, essays I should be writing, laundry that needs folding, and crumbs everywhere, again. I get conflicted: I think, if only I didn't care about anything other than the house and the kids, I might actually be able to get it all done, most days. If only all I wanted was just to do a really great job teaching them and spending time with them.

Those are the days I think I should try to ditch my professional aspirations, as well as my fiber hobbies. And that's what I was thinking yesterday: I should get some focus and get down to what's really most important, just the kids and their work, their needs. Yeah, that's the ticket. Just forget myself for the next fifteen years or so.

As you might imagine, this line of thinking gets pretty depressing, pretty fast, but there are days when it really does seem to be the path of greater sanity. The solution to having a life in which one is juggling too many priorities is to eliminate some of them, right? And since I'm not planning to give my kids away (this week) it seems clear that I should eliminate the priorities not directly related to supporting the kids and their learning.

And then I read this post. The inimitable and very talented prairiepoppins of Handmade Homeschool reminds us that not only do we need to keep our own passionate selves going for our own sakes, but that it's really what's best for the kids, too. Our children need us to be actively engaged with our own passions, not only because it feeds us, but because they need to see how an actively engaged person lives her life. Devoting ourselves exclusively to our children does them a disservice, because it gives them the notion that not only are they the center of the universe, but that mothers/parents can't do anything else but take care of kids.

Which is not so.

So now I want to hear from you: what do you do to keep yourself going? How do you keep it all together when everyone is coming to you for most of what they need? How do you get time for yourself? What do you do to feed yourself?

Tell me, please. I need to know.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

mark bittman=my hero

If you've been reading this blog for a while, or if you've clicked around a bit, you'll know that while many aspects of my crazy new unscheduled homeschooling life suit me to a T, I have really struggled with the unending requirement that I provide my family with reasonable things to eat at reasonable times. I don't mind keeping the house clean (probably because I've noticed that I can do it when I feel like it, and no harm done if I don't) and I enjoy reading books, making music, going for walks, and doing projects with my kids.

But I can't stand having to make food all the time. It just drives me crazy that no matter how many times I feed them, the kids keep wanting to be fed. If I were just taking care of myself, I'd probably skip cooking altogether and subsist on rice cakes, peanut butter, and salad, but the children protest. For a lot of families, this would translate into a dependence on prepared foods, but our budgetary restrictions (can't spend money on gardening, yarn, or roving if I'm spending it all on Amy's frozen foods) combined with our dietary restrictions (no wheat, no dairy) make this pretty much out of the question.

So cook I must. In my journey down this path, I have served some pretty lame dinners. Tortilla chips and smoothies is a good example. The kids have asked for repeats on that one. But I can't do that every night. Toast and eggs is also good, but again: can't do it every night. I've also discovered that while I have no objection to eating meat in most forms and from most sources, I am completely grossed out by the handling of meat that is required before it can be cooked.

Enter Mark Bittman. Most of the rest of the world already knows about him, but my first exposure was three weeks ago, in the book section of a WholeFoods in Philadelphia. I was there with friends, but I didn't need to shop, so after I'd exhausted the entertainment options of the lotions and potions section, I settled in with this book:

I liked it a lot. The recipes were simple, and arranged by ingredient. This is a brilliant innovation to me, because of the way I shop. I don't plan meals (this might be a big part of my problem, I know, but I just can't bring myself to plan, most of the time) so I shop according to what looks good. And I don't plan meals around a big piece of meat, as many do, because of the aforementioned gross-out factor. So I tend to bring home several bags of assorted produce, and imagine that somehow, this week, inspiration will strike and I'll be able to magically pull together some interesting dinners. Totally unreasonable, I know, except that with this book, it looked like this "strategy" might actually work.

Only problem: $35 price tag. No way. So I got home and checked, and found it for a lot less. Then I dithered for a while, wondering if what I really needed to do was just get off my butt, plan ahead, make some dinners. Did I really need this book? So I dithered a little longer, and then I just ordered it. It came over the weekend, and I've used it twice, and folks, let me tell you, this book is the answer to my particular conundrum.

Both times I've started with an ingredient: shiitake mushrooms on Saturday, green beans last night, and both times I've been able to make something delicious without fussing over it. The recipes are simple, quick, and easy, and didn't call for anything we didn't already have in the house. Last night I was happy about what I'd cooked for dinner, for the first time in longer than I care to really think about.
That's herbed rice with chopped red pepper in the foreground. This is my own recipe, and possibly the only thing I still make from my many years making food in restaurants. Just saute a finely-chopped onion with some herbs, add leftover rice and mush it around.

The oval dish contains green beans with miso-walnut sauce, recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Delicious. And I'm serving salad in my salad spinner (why waste a dish?) but that's homemade salad dressing in the peanut butter jar to the left.

Big One and I enjoyed this meal very much, and Papa enjoyed it too, when he got home. Here's how Little felt about it:
'Nothing to eat, Mama.'


'Okay, I'll have some salad, but then I want a glass of soy milk.'

But people, I was excited about this meal. I was invested in this meal. I am happy to respect his desires to eat a very bland diet (I remember exactly what this felt like) but I also know that one of these days, his palate will change, and I want him to keep trying things until it does.

So I insisted. I didn't insist he eat an entire serving, but I told him he would have to take a tiny taste of both the rice and the beans before he could have some soy milk. Much negotiation ensued, but I held firm. The rice went down easy, but the one tiny slice of a single bean he was obligated to eat before he got his soy milk, that went a little like this:

He's goofing a bit in that last one. He is well aware that he is not only cute, but charming and hilarious, even when he's refusing to eat his dinner. In the end, the bean went down, the universe was saved, and he got his soy milk.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

happy mother's day

You'd never know it from my gracious aplomb (snort) and my general state of well-adjustedness, but my mom and I used to have a really rough time together. From about age 13 until, um, well into my twenties, uh, thirties, I barely tolerated her. She was the parent I could count on to love me no matter what, so I took advantage of her and was not very nice. In the guise of speaking my mind, I said mean things and generally took her for granted. I was difficult. I hurt her feelings.

Things started to get better when I had my first child. It really annoys me that this is exactly what everyone said would happen, but happen it did. She was a good resource, who sometimes gave me unwanted advice, but never expected I would follow it. When I learned about new ways of parenting (breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping, babywearing) she didn't judge, but was interested in my reasons, curious about the effects. She was really, really nice about it.

As time went on, and we at the Deluxe house tried to learn to parent without spanking, and eventually without punishment of any kind, (not easy when you're the first generation to parent this way) she was, again, open and interested. It has been like we are having a kind of ongoing mothering seminar, in which we are comfortable talking openly about the parenting I got, and the parenting I am trying to give. We haven't always done it without rancor, but we always find our way back to understanding each other.

And now I can honestly say that my mother is one of my best friends. (The ghost of my seventeen-year-old self is rolling around in her grave. She simply cannot believe that this is possible.) My mom is someone I count on to talk me through difficult decisions, one of the first people I want to share exciting news with, and my absolute favorite person to go shopping with. Sometimes we don't even really shop much: we just cruise the mall, talking, looking, talking, walking.

A list, for fun. The top ten things I love about my mother.

1. She loves my boys, in a very active, intentional, concrete way. She doesn't love them from a distance, but actually does things with them, and takes an interest in them. She cares about what they care about, asks questions, follows up.

2. Whenever she buys yarn from someone's destash list, she always gets a little something for me.

3. She lets me shop from her yarn stash, too.

4. Ditto her vast Clinique collection. Anything I want, I can have.

5. She has bigger feet, so when I make a pair of socks that is too big for me, she is happy to take them off my hands. Uh, feet.

6. She has learned to communicate clearly about when she doesn't like something, and can do it without hitting below the belt. A great example to me.

7. She lets me borrow her clothes.

8. She'll try anything. She learned to knit only a few years ago, well into her retirement. She takes and teaches classes in needlework, and is quite accomplished with a needle and thread. She's less accomplished in knitting and quilting, but doesn't let that stop her from experimenting and playing.

9. She majored in math in college, at a time when most girls didn't even go to college, let alone major in math.

10. She is my number one fan. She has this unending ability to see me as a fascinating, intelligent, competent teacher and mother. If I say I want to reform the educational system of the entire US, she believes that I can do it.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

And to all of you as well.

Friday, May 09, 2008

in which elsie spins

You may have noticed from Monday's post that I've acquired a spinning wheel. I've now had it for almost a week, and I think it's time for a proper introduction. Here she is. I may name her (actually, I may already have named her) but I'm embarrassed to admit that I seem to have become the kind of person who ascribes gender and then names an object, as charming as that object might be, so I'm not quite up to telling you that her name is Jennie. So just forget all that, will you?
Jennie has been moving all over the house. She's a Baynes, and she's small, so I can spin out on the front porch, upstairs in my nook, downstairs in the living room, even outside in the backyard.
I got her second hand, after I tested a Baynes wheel at Susan's Spinning Bunny last Friday. Susan didn't have any in stock, which was just as well, since the retail price on a Baynes was just slightly out of my price range. I would have had to wait another few months, if it weren't for craigslist. A nice lady with four kids who needed the money sold the wheel to me on Sunday. It may be the first time in my life I haven't dickered on the price of a second-hand object. The lady really needed the money.
She has an integral lazy kate, which seems like a nice feature, and it is, but I've been learning to ply from a Schacht lazy kate with tension, and this is not as easy. I have to be much more careful and pay more attention when I'm plying. I essentially have to apply the tension with my fingers.
I've been a little disappointed with my first efforts, but I'm chalking it up to experience and moving on. Here are my first skeins, taking a bath.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

kill your television, Lewis and Clark

As a result of my thinking about the need for some kind of final synthesis, I asked the kids to think about what they wanted to do as a cumulative project to convey what they've learned about the Lewis and Clark expedition. I told them they could write a book, make a poster, put on a play, make a television show, write some music, create a dance, or anything else they could come up with. Wide open: whatever you want to do, whatever you feel moved by the material to create.

They want to make a television show.

Does this stop you in your tracks? No? Seems like the logical choice for a couple of kids in a television-obsessed culture, does it not? Yes indeed.

Except guess what? We. Don't. Have. Television.

I haven't talked about this much, because it's not something I think about much anymore. We don't have tv in our house because advertising is bad for kids (and everyone else) and that's what I've told them. They are not television virgins: their grandparents have cable, and they watch at their house. When we travel, I let them watch tv in hotel rooms. It's not a big deal to me, particularly, but I don't want it in my house.

We do have a DVD player, and we do watch movies. But there's no broadcast television in our house, and there never has been. (full disclosure: Joe and I follow a few shows on DVD and download: Lost, The Wire, and House. That's it. No advertising, and we watch after the kids are in bed.) And days and even weeks often go by in which the thing does nothing but gather dust. Of course, it gathers dust whether it's in use or not, but you know what I mean. Sometimes it just sits there, unused, for long periods of time.

So I have to ask myself: do the kids want to make a tv show because it's really the best medium for the topic (I'm open on this; it may well be.) Or is it because television has become a kind of ultra-exciting forbidden fruit?

I can tell you this: the next time this question comes around, and I start asking them what kind of final project they want to do for a unit of study, if they want to do another television show? My answer is ready.

We did that last time, kids. Let's do something new this time.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

does any of this matter?

Evenspor over at Spors in the Desert posed a great question recently, in a post about gifted education:

There is one question that I still wonder about despite all of this. How much of this really matters in the end? Don't most of us still become productive and relatively happy adults, despite public schooling? I believe there are at least a few cases where the difficulties with the system are so great that they can cause lasting emotional and motivational damage if not dealt with. However, for most kids, is it good enough to just go through the system, as long as parents are paying attention - supplementing education and looking out for signs that things are not all well with their child? Do we need to fix a broken system, or do we need to focus more on simply being the parents our children need us to be?

It's certainly so that most of us turn out all right, in spite of (or independent of) our schooling. I would agree that in situations where it is possible to separate the influence of the schooling and the parenting (i.e. not my home, and not the home of anyone who is homeschooling), it is the parents who have the greater influence.

I'm going to take myself as an example, because as it turns out, it is my own experience that informs my decisions about these matters. (Isn't that astonishing? I would apologize, but really, what other experience could I possibly use?)

I had a very traditional elementary school experience. I sat in rows and did lots of worksheets. I had deadly boring drill and kill math homework. I learned (or rather, didn't learn) social studies from dry-as-dust predigested text books. We took maybe one field trip a year, and it was to the zoo, not related in any way to anything we were learning. There was no effort made to make any of our learning relevant to our lives. We were vessels to be filled. It was as if the outside world didn't exist.

I like to think I turned out okay anyway. I did well in high school, and I went on to my first choice and relatively competitive college, where I did well enough to graduate in the usual amount of time. I eventually went on to graduate school, where I did very well, and became a teacher, a profession that I loved. I am, in the words of Evenspor, a productive and relatively happy adult.

It's probably because of the influence of my parents that I remained intellectually awake enough to survive those stultifying years in elementary school. We had interesting discussions at home. We went to museums, a lot. We did lots of logic puzzles and mental math. We watched the news together and talked about it. We played games together. My parents, both of whom are teachers, took the time to talk to me about and introduce me to the real world: the world of people who are curious and interested.

But here's the thing: for eight years of my very young life, I was miserable. Miserable. I clearly remember the day I realized, with horror, that my life revolved around going to school. I rebelled in various ways: I refused to do the math homework (didn't need it: did fine on the test at the end of the week without it) and got in LOTS of trouble for that, on a regular basis. I cried. I yelled. I stomped. I was not an easy kid to have around, I'm sure.

So yes, I believe that this stuff matters. I believe my kids would be fine in public school, and they would both turn out to be productive and relatively happy adults. They, like me, are smart, but not so smart that public school would be a total disaster. I'm sure they could handle it. But I'm also sure it wouldn't be much fun, and they would probably not enjoy it. I don't know whether they would be as utterly miserable as I was, but I don't have any urge to find out.

Here's the radical thing I've decided: the quality of their lives right now matters. I believe my kids should be allowed to ask questions and seek the answers, that they should be allowed to get outside more than twenty minutes a day, that their lives should be free of the political agendas of NCLB and its attendant tests.

It's not about the outcome. It's about giving them a good life, now.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

process or product?

Sandy, a fellow teacher and the parent of one of my former students, asked a really good question about my post about constructing curriculum out of children's questions. She writes:

My problem is getting caught up in product and assessment. Should we write a report about Lewis and Clark, or make a play or draw a picture... I have to let go of that and see process as important. But how to balance that - how much am I doing For her, how much should she be doing for Herself. See, I'm a unit planning kind of person - it makes me feel safe and like I know what is going on. I guess that's why people like systems, so they don't feel like they're just doing a bunch of random unconnected stuff that doesn't get synthesized at the end (into a research paper!) That final synthesis of learning seems like an important step.

This is something I struggle with, too, and I'm not at all sure I'm doing this right. I am really just starting out on this home schooling gig.

First of all, I'm open to the kids writing a report, or putting on a play, or making illustrations for a book of some kind. We're not done with Lewis and Clark, and I don't yet know where it's going to take us. I may even insist on it: a recent post at Mother Crone's Homeschool has got me thinking a lot about the importance of developing kids' ability to persevere, and seeing a project through to its logical conclusion, even if they're excited about something new, can help kids learn to develop that persistence. When I was teaching, I would have certainly insisted that every child participate in some kind of final project.

But now that I'm not teaching other people's kids, I have to ask myself why that final synthesis was necessary. One obvious purpose of an end-project is to assess a child's learning. In a classroom of 15 kids, I needed that. I was pretty familiar with what every kids was learning, but not completely on top of every little detail. Not so with teaching my kids at home. It would be pretty hard to miss seeing where they're missing something.

Another purpose was always to report to parents about what the kids were learning. We would make posters, or put on a presentation, or write a book, and that became something I could show parents when they were wondering what we were doing. This, obviously, is completely out the window. I'm the teacher-parent, I know exactly what we're doing, and Joe, bless him, trusts me completely.

There's another important feature of classroom learning that is just missing from our experience at home. Lots of final synthesis projects were designed to give kids who hadn't yet taken part a piece of the action. It's the same reason we would do the same topic in lots of different ways: a hands-on experiment, books from the library, a field trip, an expert from the university visiting the classroom. These are called 'multiple entry points' in the trade, and they really serve to make sure that every kid gets something out of a unit study. Some kids are more into book learning, some are more into field trips, some kids need a hands-on experience, and some kids will only pull it together if you ask them to write a report or a book about it.

My kid is like me: he's a book learner.

But I am having this sinking feeling right now, that even though I know that's true, and he's perfectly capable of gleaning huge amounts of information from books, that we'd all be having more fun if we were doing some of those other things I just described.

So, thanks to Angela and Sandy, looks like I need to rethink some of what we're doing.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

free advice, my specialty

Almost twenty years ago, a good friend of Joe's from college told us that his grandfather had given him two pieces of advice. This conversation has really stuck in my head, because even in the inexperience of my early twenties, it seemed like really sound advice, and it still seems so now. Anyway, here's the advice.

1. Always have a project.

2. The most important decision you'll ever make is who you marry.

See? Isn't that brilliant advice? There may have been a third thing, I don't remember. But it doesn't matter, because I'm about to add a third thing of my own:

3. If you have the urge to fix up an old house, purchase it and fix it up before you have children.

This is our wedding anniversary, and as is traditional, my parents have both kids for the weekend. As is not traditional, we are not away at the beach. Rather, we are at home, working on the house. And let me tell you, we have made outrageous progress on several long-standing projects, made possible only by the removal of the two short people who live here.

Here's what Joe did:
That's the corner of our porch, and unfortunately I don't have a before picture, but the length of fancy cut-outs that hasn't been painted yet was missing. The other three railings of the porch have also been secured, so I can relax when kids are climbing around the outside edge of the porch. Yahoo! I might paint this tomorrow, or I might continue working on inside projects.

Here's what I did today:
This is before. The treads have been refinished, and the stringers and risers have been sanded and are ready to paint. They'd been ready to paint for, oh I don't know, months. More than just a few months. Way too many months.
Here's how they look now, after two coats of primer, some spackle in the nail holes, and a finish coat of trim paint. We got all this done even though we took lots of breaks for hanging out, eating, watching the new LOST episode, and going to two garage sales!

We're having a great time together, and it is sheer bliss to be uninterrupted as we go about our day. The house is quiet. Nobody complained when we decided to walk to the garage sales. Nobody fought over the latest Lego magazine. Nobody asked for a snack sixteen thousand times.

Next we're going to go grocery shopping, just the two of us. Isn't that a romantic thing to do on the evening of our 12th wedding anniversary? We can hardly wait.

Friday, May 02, 2008

some finished socks

I'm feeling too glunky to create any kind of intelligent post today. I'm reduced to mindless knitting and posting about socks.
Uptown Boot Socks, from Opal 6-ply. These are comfy and warm. I was concerned that they might end up too thick or not fit comfortably because of a strangely narrow heel, but they are quite perfect.
Cat Bordhi Sky socks, from Trekking XXL. I misjudged where to start the expansion gusset, so I ran out of yarn and used some leftover Lorna's Shepherd Sock for the toes. I'm pleased with these, although they are just slightly too big. Not big enough for me to part with them, though. Sorry, mom.

And that's all I've got for you today.

Have a great weekend.