Sunday, July 30, 2006

First Steps

"Learning is a process, not the static image provided by an intelligence test. It's an intrinsically hopeful process of improvement. As an animal, I am also perpetually beguiled by the bumbling folly of baby animals, while also understanding what I see is not stupidity, but an early stage of a journey toward grace, competence, and comprehension."

--Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild, by Susan McCarthy

Kitty Bill, our youngest child, stood up the other day and began to walk. He took two wobbly steps and fell. He pushed himself back up on his fat, little sausage legs and grinned at us. He took two more steps and fell. Undeterred, he stood back up and tried again. By the end of the week he can walk across the room.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how we learn new things. Not just how we teach our children, but how we teach ourselves. To me those ideas are connected because our children learn so much from watching us. If learning is a painful process for us... If we curse, or get frustrated when we mess up... If we chuck our knitting or statistics books across the room... If we are easily defeated and give up the first time we take a spill on the ice, they might see those things and adopt them as their own. If we make a fuss, they learn to make a fuss.

The opposite is also true. If we're sure-footed and excited about learning... If we're eager and interested... If we're accepting of new challenges and seek out new learning experiences, they will too. If they see us laugh at our own mistakes, our own follies, our own early attempts at mastering a new skill, and if we don't give up, they learn to try and try again. Of course it won't always happen this way, but we're the biggest role models our children have.

Kitty Bill isn't old enough to feel humiliated when he fails. He's still in that natural, unblemished phase of life where every moment holds some new discovery. In watching him I have to wonder if that's how each one of us started out, on shaky legs but eager to learn and discover. To taste the untasted and explore the unknown, without bias or fear or embarrassment or expectations. Imagine carrying that into adulthood and how empowering that would feel. I'm not saying that at age 35 we should go around mouthing shoes or licking the cat. But if we could hold onto our sense of wonder and eagerness and ride that horse of self-esteem into adulthood, goodness knows what we might accomplish.

As I watch Kitty Bill in this pure state of exploration, I can't help but ask myself where does he go from here? What pitfalls in learning might trip him up, and like ashes on the snow, mar his unfettered sense of discovery? When and how and why does this eagerness and self-motivation start slipping away?

I don't have the answers. I just know that I wasn't always eager to learn. Even in the recent past I have given up because I felt foolish and innane and simply not up to the task. It's not the newness of something that I find daunting, the idea itself. In reality I want to learn everything. I want to be perfect at it the first time out: bowl a 3oo game, play a symphony, hit the ball out of the park. Completely unrealistic, but there it is.

The part that trips me up is the falling. The failing. The making a complete ass out of myself part. If you're not the kind of person that can laugh at yourself, and most people aren't, then the hurdles of learning appear a bit larger than they actually are. It's like looking at your pores with a magnifying glass. Of course you're going to look hideous and pock-marked. But isn't that what we're doing when we critically examine each and every attempt at learning as a separate thing? When we focus too much on one critical aspect and lose sight of the whole, the bigger picture?

Learning isn't like that. That's like focusing on a two inch square of one of Monet's water lilies. We would think it was blurry crap. Maybe he did, too, since he painted so many of them. Maybe he was just trying to get it right. Maybe he didn't know the first one was outstanding. Maybe Manet came along and laughed at him, and said, "You call that a water lily? Ha!" Manet was dead by then, so it would have to have been his ghost. Or what if Rembrandt's ghost came along and fashioned a grade on Monet's water lilies. Imagine Rembrandt, with his exacting eye for the smallest detail, came along and put a big honkin' red F on Monet's sort of hazy way of painting the world.

What if you and I were graded on a daily basis, on each task laid out before us? Overcooking pasta might earn us a C, while forgetting to buy cat litter, yet again, would get a big fat F. Could you imagine living in that world? Two nights ago I finished knitting my first adult sweater. It took me months of agony, and it looks ok. It's not perfect. But I'm proud of it. Who knew I could follow the directions and knit a sweater?! But if some knitting genius came along and gave me a grade on it. If they turned it inside-out and examined every seam I guarantee they would find plenty of mistakes. It would not hold up to that kind of scrutinty. Would I ever dare to knit a sweater, or anything, ever again? If someone graded my first row of stitches, I might not have even tried knitting a dishcloth, let alone a sweater.

Learning is hard work. Those first steps can be traumatizing if we let them be. If we fall off the horse and never get back on, we may never know what it's like to gallop fearlessly on with the wind whipping through our hair. If we don't learn how to overcome our own hurdles, how can we learn to teach?
"Teachers and educators must be patient with their own self-education, with awakening something in the soul that indeed may sprout and grow. You then may be able to make the most wonderful discoveries, but if this is to be so, you must not lose courage in your first endeavors.

"For you see, whenever you undertake a spiritual activity, you always must be able to bear being clumsy and awkward. People who cannot endure being clumsy and doing things stupidly and imperfectly at first never really will be able to do them perfectly in the end out of their own inner self... If once or twice you have succeeded in thinking out a pictoral presentation of a lesson that you see impresses the children, then you will make a remarkable discovery about yourself. You will see that it becomes easier to invent such pictures, that by degrees you become inventive in a way you never dreamed of. But for this you must have the courage to be very far from perfect to begin with."

--The Kingdom of Childhood: Introductory Talks on Waldorf Education, by Rudolph Steiner

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Why Homeschool?

In the past two weeks I have met more and more families that are considering homeschooling. More than have crossed my path in the past two years. Way more than since I was first introduced to the idea of homeschooling over ten years ago, before I had children of my own. Today it is estimated that there are somewhere between 1 and 2 MILLION homeschooled children in the Unites States, increasing at a rate of 7-15% per year. The sheer number of us is astounding!

And it's no wonder. Homeschooling is not a new idea. It's the oldest educational system there is. Parents have always been teaching their children, from humans to wombats, it's cross-cultural and cross-species, and has been around for as long as there has been life on this planet. We're just returning back to the old ways, the natural way things used to be. There is nothing novel about it.

I shouldn't be surprised that others have come to similar conclusions that I have about the U.S. public school system. Some folks say that it sucks the life right out of their children. Others say No Child Left Behind sucks the life right out of the teachers, so it's no wonder. They're between a rock and a hard place, as the old adage goes. They have to teach to the tests to maintain funding. There is no time left to stop and smell the proverbial roses. No time for experiential learning or fun and games. Music and art and sports have been labelled extra-curricular rather than fundamental to the educational experience, and in some places done away with entirely. And many people say that the loss of those things, among others, turns our children into robots. They say that public school is a factory, a machine, and our children are squeezed through the process until they emerge on the other side, dumbed down, nondescript, submissive and spiritless. Or cynical and maybe even angry.

Me? I don't know. I'm a product of that system. It wasn't a fate worse than death, but it wasn't terrific. I got out before the major budget cuts, before the stringent testing, before anyone talked about viable educational alternatives. There are many reasons not to send your kids to school. We could bash the public educational system until the cows come home, but to what point? Who does it serve?

I think a more interesting question is: Why are people homeschooling? What's the payoff? What does it do for your children? For your family?

What could I say to all these people that are on the fence, or interested but overwhelmed, that would really give them a fuller sense of what homeschooling is all about? I've been thinking about it, and have come to realize that what's really key is not my curriculum choice. It's more about how I teach than what I teach. In that sense I don't think I'm really that different from the larger homeschooling flock. My reasons are simple, my findings are ordinary. Ordinary among homeschooling parents, and yet... they are phenomenal. Ordinary phenomena.

Subject matter aside, my children are learning:
  • to think for themselves
  • to question
  • to find their own answers or truths
  • that the right answers are often a matter of perspective
  • to trust themselves
  • to be interested
  • to create and explore
  • to develop relationships with each other, their parents, and the world
  • that they have a voice
  • that they're unique and special
  • to dream
  • to follow those dreams
  • and that they, and their dreams, matter
Even if they learn nothing else, I will have done my job.

But in my experience with other homeschooling families and teaching my own children, it's obvious that homeschooled children also learn the key curricular ideas of our time-- the three Rs. They also manage to learn physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, history, sociology, etc, etc. And they do it remarkably well because they love learning. Being able to learn something at your own pace and because you're interested in it is incredibly motivating. Initially I was worried that my children might not be interested in the right stuff, but the fascinating thing is that if you let them guide their own learning the content seems to just bubble up out their interests and questions. They manage to turn a pirate card game into a lesson of physics, world geography, geometry, history, and moral fortitude.

The bonus factor is that I'm learning all these things, too. It's no secret that most homeschooling parents find themselves repairing their own educational shortcomings, everything from physics to self-esteem, in the process of educating their own children. We're all learning how to stand up and follow our dreams.

It's not an education of facts. It's an education of spirit that no institution could ever hope to compete with.

Why Waldorf?

by Moonshine, age 3
Last night at the park I was talking with a friend about homeschooling, and I was reminded that Form Drawing was really what sold me on the whole shebang of Waldorf homeschooling. I knew Waldorf was lovely, but I vastly underestimated the deeper quality of the lessons. I blindly plunged forward and boy, was I in for a surprise!

I decided to start out simple, and chose our first lesson of Grade One to be Form Drawing. I took it straight out of Barbara Dewey's Form Drawing book. It's a lovely story that includes eight forms, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how simple and circular the story actually was. We told it as the Autumn leaves were dripping from the trees, and it was perfect.

The lesson starts out with a curved and straight line that represents an old grandmother and her walking stick: Cl

I was worried that it would appear too simple for Sunburst, but she loved it. I told her the story and showed her the form, and she lit up inside. She was eager and excited and bursting with joy about it. I didn't fully understand why she was so moved by this simple form, but we pressed on. We worked the form in the air with our hands and on the floor with our feet. Sunburst practiced it on the chalkboard with water and chalk, on scrap paper, and finally drew it on good paper. It didn't present too much difficulty. She was positively glowing.

Moonshine, who was three at the time, listened in on the lesson. While I was busy with Sunburst, Moonshine got out her own paper and set to work out of my sight. She made her own grandmother-- a multicolored, layered, and scratchy rendition of it that stopped me in my tracks. It was a deep, powerful image that left me speechless.

The next form represented the three blue-eyed granddaughters: lll

Easy, right? That's what I thought until I presented it to Sunburst. She took one look at the form and just crumpled. Her glowing light vanished. She tried to do it, but she couldn't. The three straight lines defeated her, and I just didn't get it. I thought it was easy, maybe even too easy. Even Moonshine could do it.

It was just straight lines. I wasn't asking her to make a copy of a Renoir, just to make lines. Three of them, parallel and stairstepped. And try as she might, in the air, on the floor, on the chalkboard, she just couldn't manage it. I was dumbfounded. What was going on here?

Sunburst is incredbly determined. She taught herself how to pump her legs on the swings at age 3, ride a bike without training wheels at age 4, turn cartwheels at age 5, and do front-handsprings and read the summer after she turned six. She's also fearless and fast. She thinks she's Susan, the cheetah, and runs FAST on four legs. She really does, and it's confounding to watch. It's her preferred mode of transportation.

I truly believe she can do anything she sets her mind to, but this particular drawing seemed to have stumped her. Her shoulders sagged and the light went out of her eyes. I was ready to scrap the whole idea of Waldorf homeschooling seeing her so completely unhappy, defeated, and out of her element. But I didn't. I let it sit with me for a day before I realized what had happened. I had presented the granddaughters as having blue-eyes, like Sunburst, thinking she would connect with them. But she didn't. What I failed to realize is that I had presented them as upright human beings, two-legged creatures, straight lines. Sunburst is NOT a straight line. She could not identify.

There's something to this Waldorf stuff.

I thought we were drawing shapes and telling lovely stories, and yet it seemed we were doing something so much deeper than that. Sunburst took that form to sleep with her, in a figurative sense, and emerged a few days later able to draw it. It had to work through her somehow, come to terms within her. The whole experience just blew me away. We were doing so much more than drawing forms here...

To read more about Form Drawing, I suggest visiting David Darcy, Kytka's site, and as always, Wonder Homeschool.

Rebecca, another Waldorf homeschooler, recently had her own moving experience with drawing forms. I've been thinking about her post all week, as it has reminded me that while I think I'm just teaching my children, I shouldn't underestimate the deeper work that is happening within myself.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Teaching the Alphabet

In Waldorf education, the capital alphabet is taught one letter at a time using the medium of story and art to really bring the letters alive for each child in a memorable, meaningful way. The letters emerge out of the story, usually a Grimm’s Fairytale (but it doesn’t have to be,) and come to life on the chalkboard and page. For example, to introduce the letter M many people tell Simeli Mountain and draw a mountain that resembles an M.

While it’s not the quickest way to teach the alphabet, I found it to be the most rewarding. Not just for Sunburst, but for myself, as well. Every bit of it seemed important. The stories engaged our hearts. The artwork (drawing a story picture and letter) engaged our hands, and the learning of each letter awakened her thinking. That’s what the lesson is designed to do, but really it did even more than that. It awakened my creativity and belief in my ability to teach my own children. It deepened her respect for me as teacher and storyteller, and it awakened this magic world between us, steeped in goodness, beauty, and adventure.

There are many ways to go about this lesson. Some people just tell each letter story as a separate piece, and others weave a larger story that incorporates smaller stories for the letters. The idea of a larger story really appealed to me, but in my searching none of the complete stories I found really seemed to fit Sunburst’s needs and my own. If I was going to make a story come to life, it needed to work for my child and had to be engaging for me as well. In the end, I made one up.

I combined ideas from Path of Discovery Grade 1, Genii of Language by Alan Whitehead, Christopherus First Grade Syllabus, postings on various Waldorf e-groups by other homeschoolers, and mixed them with my own thoughts and what we were emoting based on our own personalities and the season (we started the lesson in late Fall.) It turned out to be a huge success in my house.

Seeing how others go about a lesson always helps kick my own creative gears into motion. It’s my hope that a glimpse into our story will do the same for others.

Here’s how it began:

* * *

Once upon a time there was a great kingdom with a brightly shining lantern, for all who lived there were happy and prosperous. The King of this land was kind and generous—he had a great castle and plenty of land and riches, but his greatest treasure by far was his only child, the Prince, whom he loved above all else.

Once day this King noticed that the light of the lantern was growing dim. He noticed the people of his kingdom were not as happy as before. Things just didn’t seem right. So he sent out his royal page to make inquiries around the kingdom, and the news he received was not good. Not only were the people of the kingdom unhappy and feeling lackluster,

1. The hens had stopped laying eggs.
2. The cows had stopped giving milk.
3. And even the grain had stopped flourishing in the fields.

So the kind and thoughtful King sat down and scratched his head and tried to fix the problem. He declared that the people should:

1. Feed the hens more food.
2. Pet the cows.
3. Water the grain.

Of course the good people of the kingdom followed his orders at once. The hens were given plenty of food. Children spent all day in the fields petting the cows, and the farmers watered and watered the grain. But it was to no avail. Nothing seemed to work, and everyone grew unhappier with each passing day, even the King himself.

Now it just so happened that there was a Wiseman who lived at the edge of this vast kingdom. He was quite old and wise and knew all about the healing ways of stones and plants, the ways of the stars and planets, and many, many stories of the land and its people. He was often called upon to solve the more difficult problems, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and so he kept on him always a blue satchel that he wore at his side—a place to put all things of importance and magic that would help him do his work.

The King, in his desperation, called upon the Wiseman for help. The Wiseman and his daughter Clara came to the royal castle in great haste, whereupon the King told him the details of the grand problem.

The King said, with a great sigh, “Our bright lantern is growing very dim. My people are unhappy, my family is unhappy, and I, myself, am unhappy, and yet I know not why. Furthermore, the hens have stopped laying eggs. The cows have stopped giving milk. And the grain no longer flourishes in the field.”

The Wiseman listened with great concern, and told the King he would be glad to try and help, but he would need three days to think the matter over. The King, having come to his wit’s end, quickly agreed.

On the first day, the Wiseman visited the hens. He spoke to them and asked them why they had stopped laying eggs, but they did not answer. On the second day the Wiseman spoke to the cows. He asked them why they had stopped giving milk, but they did not answer. And on the third day the Wiseman spoke to the grain. It was dry and brittle in the field. When it did not answer, the Wiseman plucked three pieces of grain and placed them in his satchel.

That night, the Wiseman took three smooth stones from his blue satchel and tossed them on the ground. He studied them carefully, and then reached back into his satchel for the three grains. He tossed those onto the stones and looked up into the night sky. Three stars shone brightly, and with a sudden flash, one of them shot across the sky, like a brilliant flame, leading West.

The Wiseman told the King, “The answer you seek lies outside of the kingdom. I must go on a quest, and I will take with me three things:

1. my wise daughter Clara
2. the kingdom’s lantern
3. the thing which you love the most (Prince)

Make the necessary preparations. We will leave in a fortnight.”


The characters set off on their quest to restore the light in the lantern, and thereby they would restore happiness and prosperity in the kingdom. But they didn’t know how they would do this, they sort of blindly set off on the wings of faith. That seemed to me to mirror the start of our formal educational process. In raising a child, or choosing to homeschool a child, you don’t get any guarantees that it’s going to work out. You have to rely on faith. For a child starting out on a formal path of learning, she can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. She just knows she has to sit here and pay attention-- to have faith that something worthwhile will come of this.

As for the light in the lantern, well, we started this lesson late, around Martinmas. And restoring happiness and prosperity, restoring the light in the darkest time of the year, that’s a goal everyone can agree on and get behind. It was an unspoken something we could feel and relate to on the inside. This story took us through the bleak days of winter and culminated with the arrival of Spring, a return to happiness and prosperity.

On the journey, the specific tales emerged in direct relation to feelings and encounters, like the swan on the lake, the bear in the woods, or waiting for the heavy rains to let up. Sometimes the stories were told by people they met along the way, like the Queen and her jester, or Pirate Jack looking for buried treasure. Each of these people had their own stories to tell, as well, and it gave the greater story a sense of fullness.

We covered one to three letters a week. The map of our drawings and stories follows below.

J=Jug (Water of Life -Grimms)
~ O ~ (surprise)
T=(Three Little Men in the Wood - Grimms)
M=Mountain (Simeli Mountain - Grimms)
D=Door in the mountain
~ E ~ (fear)
H=House (Mother Holle - Grimms)
N=Needle (The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle - Grimms)
Q=(The Jolly Queen – own)
G=(The Golden Goose - Grimms)
C=Cave of Mysteries
----> Intro to Numbers ---->
Z=Zigzag of lightning
R=(Rapunzel - Grimms)
B=Bear (Masha and the Bear – Spindrift)
~ U ~ (concern)
S=Swan (Six Swans - Grimms)
~ A ~ (wonder)
X=X on treasure map (Pirate John - own)
F=(Fisherman and His Wife - Grimms)
Y=Yew tree (Birth of Christ)
~ I ~ (understanding of one's place in the world)

For the vowels I used the magical idea from Christopherus First Grade Syllabus of writing the letters on golden star paper from an art store. The vowels represented different feelings, and the Prince represented the kingdom. So when the Prince felt the fullness of these feelings along the way, in our story the stars fell from the sky. Each time a star fell, the light in the lantern would grow stronger. The Wiseman told the Prince to put the stars next to his heart, but at the end, when he reached into his pocket for the stars they weren’t physically there. There was only a happy warm feeling –they had become a part of him.

Sunburst pasted the stars into her book, which was great, except that the stars themselves posed a problem for any other drawings that would come next. We had to put an oil cloth between her pages to prevent an etching of the star to come through on the next several pages when she drew. Otherwise, it worked out great and seemed really magical.

At the end of our story, when the light shone as brightly as could be, our travelers hitched a ride back home on the back of a dragon they had met in the Cave of Mysteries when we segued into the Intro to Numbers.

Sunburst wanted to fill up the end pages of her main lesson books (we filled TWO of them with our letter drawings,) and so we drew a few pictures and sentences that brought the story to a close.

Sunburst was sad to see the characters go. She deeply connected with Clara, so I resurrected her to travel along with us into our Maths lesson. That’s the great thing about homeschooling and making it up to suit your own child. When you find or create a story or character that really engages their heart you can take it with you into other lessons. It’s all about making it your own, making it work for you and your child.

Here are some examples of our work:

This one shows the progression from my chalkboard drawing (using crayola chalk), to Sunburst's rendition of it in beeswax crayon, and her drawing of the letter T.

I switched to Mercurius blackboard chalk partway through the lesson, and it made the chalk drawings appear much more intense and captivating.

The Cave of Mysteries was one of my favorite drawings. The orangeness was inspired by our visits to Southern Utah.

Here is the Wiseman for W, the King for K, an ancient Yew tree for Y, and a sample of a golden star/vowel pasted into the book.

I'm a sucker for happy endings.

We also made up fun little sentences for each letter and marched around the house repeating them ad nauseum. Here are a couple examples:

"Katie kindly kissed the king of kangaroos."
"Ten toads with twisted tounges drank tea in Timbuktu."

*For a great online list of Grimm’s Fairytales worth considering for your own First Grade lessons, check out David Darcy’s article.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Unschool Zoo

This week two things became vastly apparent:
  1. Unschooling is a force to be reckoned with.
  2. Animals are curious, amazing creatures.

Freedom and the cat
Our cat Holstein is an Unschooler. He's determined to teach himself things.

Our week began with Holstein, that crazy cat of ours, getting in trouble with yet another neighbor for preying on birds in her yard. It's not his fault entirely, it was that terrible hailstorm in Texas that whacked dozens of birds out of the trees as well as the siding off our house, and helped Holstein remember his true catlike nature and develop a taste for critters. Hailstorms are sometimes called an "Act of God," and with this in mind, perhaps there is a greater plan at work on the cat? I keep waiting for it, but in the meantime we decided to bring him inside the house after a brief deworming period locked up in the laundry room.

On Holstein's first night in captivity, he escaped, or rather he was sprung by a band of raccoons. They broke into the laundry room again, completely busting the lock off the cat door, and letting Holstein out in the process. He promptly returned the next morning, and we locked him up again, fixing the cat door and remembering to pull the storm door shut tight.

A main key to unleashing the amazing power of Unschooling is exposure to the possibilities. If you pay attention well enough, you'll begin to see possibilities everywhere.

The following morning I was prepared to let him inside the house, but he was nowhere to be found. The lock on the cat door was now open and yet the storm door was still shut tight. The food dish was full, so we had not had a raccoon visitation. Very curious. Later in the day, after Holstein had returned for a snack, I locked him up again.

There is an old saying that holds, "We are each teacher and student." In this case, Holstein had been learning lock-picking from the raccoons. As soon as I left the room he unlocked the cat door, squeezed himself out between the two doors and somehow, God only knows, managed to climb up the storm door, reach the handle, and fling himself towards freedom. Our cat can open doors! He wants to be free!
Insectivores and what they eatBetween our readings of The Far Side of the Loch and my niece's blog of life in France, Sunburst has been very interested in the idea of hedgehogs as pets. She looked them up in our Encyclopedia of Mammals and read for awhile. There are several different types of hedgehogs, they have wild skeletal systems that enable them to fold up, and they don't live anywhere close to us, either in North or South America. She desperately wants one for a pet, but unless we get a job overseas, she's out of luck. However, they are in the order Insectivora, and thus, are related to shrews.

We do have shrews here. So many shrews, in fact, that the same neighbor who was irked about our cat Holstein, said she would prefer it if he caught only the shrews and left the birds alone. Obviously the cat isn't willing to sign a treaty or anything, but it did peak a curiosity in shrews. We don't want our cat to harm any living creature, really, but what makes a shrew's life less worthy than a bird's to our neighbor? They both serve the greater good by eating insects, don't they? We read until we found a possible point of contention.


Yes, unfortunately our book even had a picture. Apparently shrews do quite a bit of rectum-licking to absorb lost nutrients. Never in my wildest homeschooling dreams did I forsee a discussion about rectum-licking, anal tissues, and creamy anal secretions. Digestion and absorption, yes, but not in regards to the great world of nutrients contained in feces. Mmmmm-mmmm.
Pigs: to rot or not?
"What exactly is pepperoni?" We were snacking on leftover pizza slathered in artichoke hearts and pineapple, no pepperoni in sight, when Sunburst threw this question on the table. The simple reply of "spicy sausage" did nothing for her. From pepperoni she branched out to other pork products-- ham, bacon, hot dogs, pig ears at the pet store.

We talked about preservatives, since in this country all those things are kept from rotting by either drying, as for pig ears, or the application of chemicals, mainly sodium nitrate. My kids are fascinated by the idea that as a child I couldn't eat most meat products because of an allergy to sodium nitrate. I get wicked migraines from it, and it shouldn't be a surprise to my parents that I find it easier to avoid these migraines by being vegan.

This conversation took us into a lengthy discussion on fresh vs. cured, animal husbandry, history, shipping, commodities, and consumer choices. Is there such a thing as asking too many questions? Sometimes I wonder.

Playing with vomit
Yesterday Sunburst carried out her latest McGuffey Reader and asked if we could play "school." She taught herself to read using the beginner book of this series written in the 1870's, Primer Reader, and has, of her own volition, managed to work through the First Reader and almost to the end of the Second Reader. She can read anything at this point, but she's bound and determined to get through the entire set. There are seven in all.

Playing "school" with these Readers means that she wants to play school as it were in the 1880's. Go ahead, I told her, and she began her recitation of the particular lesson, remembering to read it slowly and enunciate. The story was about an owl that some children had taken from its roost during the day, when owls are nearly blind, and included a host of interesting owl observations ending with an owl's ability to eat an animal whole, digest the fleshy bits, and regurgitate a compact ball of fur and bones. I'll give these readers one thing, they never fail to peak a child's interest.

Our 1880's school concluded on that note, and Sunburst compelled me to tell her everything I knew about owl pellets and my experience with them. She was enthralled with the idea that she could dissect one, too. My public school education didn't broach this subject until Grade 9 when my interest in the natural habits of animals had been usurped by my interest in the natural habits of boys. It took me about two seconds to conclude that wiring a child for scientific inquiry is probably easier before the onset of puberty, and I headed to the computer to search out information on ordering owl pellets.

I found them HERE. On a different site we read all the interesting information on pellets, learned that other birds make them too, and could hardly contain our excitement when we discovered the virtual pellet dissection opportunity. We spent quite a bit of time checking out every clickable thing on the site, and from THIS page you can look inside the pellets of different birds and see what was for dinner, including a fact-filled question and answer segment to help you hone your scientific mind.

* * *

I'm learning to expect the unexpected when it comes to homeschooling and really just go with the flow of interest and see where it takes us. In this, Sunburst isn't any different from our door-opening cat. She wants to be free. Free to ask questions. Free to partake in new experiences, new adventures-- and free to learn. Free to have fun with learning.

Amen to that.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

From Aesops to Zappa

Today we headed over to Einstein's office to pick up some paperwork before we headed over to have a little stroll at a nearby pond. While we were there, admiring the piles on his desk, Sunburst noticed our copy of Aesop's Fables Coloring Album by Brad Foster. It's an old book with exquisite celtic-like drawings, and rather than let the kids go to town on the book, he had taken it to work to make xeroxes for them to color.

In the past Sunburst hasn't noticed the text that accompanied each drawing, but today she picked right up on it. I diverted her attention from the book several times, having only gotten halfway through my reading of The Fables of Aesop, in preparation for her Grade 2 lessons. I wasn't even sure how I was going to present these fables yet, but my lack of preparation is no match for Sunburst's curiosity. While I was taking four-year-old Moonshine to the bathroom, Sunburst had pulled the book back out and started a discourse with Einstein on at least two of the stories.

I was a bit miffed, though whether it was at my own lack of forsight and preparation or something else entirely, I don't know. But I'm entirely open to suggestions from beyond, and once I got over being miffed, I realized that maybe, just maybe this is my universal kick in the pants to go ahead with these fables now-- one of those 'Start where you are' type of messages.

With Aesop's in tow, we pressed on towards the pond which was enveloped in a huge cloud of mist. On such a hot day as this, I assumed it was just moisture in the air, excessive evaporation off the pond. As we neared it, a gassy fog stopped us in our tracks. The air hung thick with chlorine. At least I'm assuming it was chlorine, as there were no warning signs posted. It was noxious and frightening how it just loomed in the air like that, and we beat a hasty retreat away from the pond.

In our retreat, we stumbled into an art museum. It was open and air-conditioned. Small kids in an art museum is kind of an oxymoron, and as far as morons go, well, I've played that bit before. Can anyone say organ recital? In a museum you're also supposed to be quiet and not touch anything. Surely this endeavor was not for the faint of heart. Bravely, we pushed open the doors and dragged our wilting bodies inside. It was cool and colorful and surprisingly, we all had a great time.

We managed to meander through two galleries. The first was full of ancient horse art, and the second was a mixed bag that spanned early jewelry, carvings and gospel paintings all the way through Dadaism and more modern creations. It was interesting to me to see what the kids picked up on.

Sunburst looked at everything and had more questions than we could answer. Really, some of the paintings took us places I wouldn't have elected for us to go yet. "Who is that man covered in blood and why are they beating him with big sticks?" "What's happening in this picture?" Was asked about a painting of two women in front of a bed with the headless body of a man prostrate on the bed behind them. Veins and blood were spewing from his neck. It was lovely, and very, very old. "What's going on there?" Was asked about a huge painting of St. Christopher bearing the Christ child on his back... yes. Another lesson I was planning on presenting this Fall. Curious thing, that. And I have to wonder if there is a message in this for me.

Why am I waiting for Fall? Be here. Be here now. Teach this? Teach this... now?

Moonshine had her own kinds of questions. "Who's the mommy in this picture?" "Is that a boy or a girl?" "Was Jesus a girl?" and "Is that lipstick?"

Perhaps the most amusing question of the exhibit was when we discovered the found art of Marcel Duchamp, including a "What's that?" aimed at his most famous and controversial piece, entitled The Fountain-- a men's urinal turned on its side, signed R. Mutt, 1917.

We saw a real, live Picasso painting.

and even a painting by Diego Rivera. So many lovely, lovely ways of looking at the world and making sense of it. We should really do this more often.

At the end of our tour, I asked the girls what their favorite pieces were. I thought it would be interesting to chronicle their tastes as they grow, and glean some more insight into who they are. Sunburst had two favorites: a 14th century French sculpture of a King's Head and a display of Slinkies wrapped in red yarn, Floor Slinky: Thirty-two Elements by Claire Z. 1971. When asked to expound on her reasons for choosing them, she said things like "pretty, cool, and weird." I tend to agree.

Moonshine liked the old jewelry best. Of course.

We rounded out our adventure with dinner at an artsy food joint. The walls were filled with random found toy art arrangements and a Frank Zappa room. The girls each noticed different Frank paintings* that were Picasso-like.

From A-Z, Aesops to Frank Zappa, all in one day!

After dunking our souls in all this artistic expression, it seems only right that we should drag out our paints and canvases and DO SOMETHING. It's time to breathe out.

*Frank Zappa paintings by Joel Washington.

Be sure to check out Your Daily Art -- an artful blog. Goes well with vitamins.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Foreign languages

This is our good friend Poppy. She's a little shy, but when we can coax her to come out and play, she sings with us.

Poppy has been helping me teach the girls German this year. I'm no expert, so I'm glad to have her help. I took three semesters of German in college, but that was years ago. I'm so rusty and out of practice, that I wasn't sure I should even attempt to try to teach it to my kids. That perfectionsim held me back until this year when I finally realized that it was okay if I didn't get the grammar quite right. If I messed up the gender or verb tense, my kids would live through it.

I'm not here to be the expert. My kids don't have to walk away from their childhood with a perfect and fluent grasp of a foreign language. There is no test. This isn't about being perfect. The way I see it, it's about making different sounds with our voices. It's about listening to those sounds, adjusting our senses, and having fun with it. Yes. Having fun. Isn't that what learning is all about?

Once I stopped trying to get it just right, Poppy and I ran with it. So far (and forgive my lack of umlaut-making, etc.) we have learned:

"Where is Thumbkin?" or "Wo ist der Daumen?"
(alternating an English version with one in Deutche)

Where is Thumbkin, where is Thumbkin?
Here I am. Here I am.
How are you today, Thumbkin?
Very well, I thank you.
Goodbye. Goodbye.

Wo ist der Daumen, wo ist der Daumen?
Ich bin hier. Ich bin hier.
Guten Tag wie geht's du?
Danke schon, mir geht's gut.
Auf Wiedersehen. Auf Wiedersehen.

And then a song Poppy made up to teach the girls Deutche, and in turn, they sing it in English to teach her English (she convieniently only speaks Deutche.) At the end of each verse Poppy pops back into her cone.

Poppy's Song
Hallo, hallo, hallo mein freund

Hallo mein freund wie heiBt du?
Wie gehts, wie gehts, wie gehts mein freund?
Auf Wiedersehen! Bis bald!

Hello, hello, hello my friend.
Hello my friend. What's your name?
How are, how are, how are you friend?
Goodbye. See you soon.
For Christmas (and beyond) we sang O'Tannenbaum. Mary Thienes-Schunemann does a lovely job with this song in The Christmas Star, a book of Christmas carols from the Naturally You Can Sing series. There is at least one other German carol in the book, but we haven't tackled that one yet.

More recently I picked up a copy of Teach Me... German, booklet and cd, and so far Poppy has taught us to sing Bruder Jakob, which has fast become a family favorite. Sunburst even tries to play it by ear on the piano.

There are also plenty of German songs/poems for kids on the web HERE and HERE.

In the Fall I'm hoping to introduce a bit of Spanish into the mix, maybe crafting a companero for Poppy. I only took one semester of that in college, so I had better get cracking.

**To create your own Poppy doll, check out the punch-in-cup pattern from Making Dolls by Sunnhild Reinckens.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Night of Soup

One night last week dinner was a two-course soup-a-thon.

Sunburst made this:

Strawberry soup from a children's magazine, My Big Backyard. Made with organic strawberries, apple juice, and soy yogurt.

I countered with this:

Potato-kale-leek soup topped with nutritional yeast and flaxseed oil.

When we rule the world, it will be wet... with soup.


I seem to be regressing over here. In the past week I have managed to trip over, whack into, and step on just about everything in my path. I look like someone took a stick to me-- cuts, scrapes, bruises. One step forward, three steps back. Luckily I feel physically better than that.

Sunburst feels better than that, too. Her throat-clearing has almost cleared-up entirely thanks to a reassuring visit with the family doctor on Monday. It seems that the lump on her head is indeed a lymph node, which presumably could be caused by something as small as a scratched mosquito bite on the scalp. Who knew?

Last week I painted the living room yellow, enlisted the girls help in cleaning the carport and the car, finished up a pile of knitting projects, made three batches of pesto fresh from the garden, and plowed through a stack of mending on the sewing table. This week I haven't done nearly an eighth of all that. It has been hot, humid, and overcast. Aside from an amusing retelling/reinactment of Iron Henry, our only homeschool-like moments were confined to a long overdue trip to the local library on Tuesday afternoon. We managed to check out 26 books, and in less than 24 hours we read 23 of them, including three Kirsten books for Sunburst.

It feels like we're taking in a large, nourishing drink. Our thirst for reading material, if nothing else, is a great preparation for our Saints lesson on Columba in the Fall.

Since our formal "schooly" time has slowed down lately, I thought I'd stick with the current manner of all things retrograde and summarize some of our Grade One lessons from earlier in the year. We had a heap of fun with them. So stay tuned for those.

Until then, we have three more books to read...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Normal, freaky children

Something is going down at our house.

Sunburst seems to have developed a tic. She came home from the pool yesterday clearing her throat, "Ughm." She didn't swallow a frog or inhale any overwhelming amounts of chlorine, at least I don't think so. It appears to have just, ughm, happened on its own in this sudden, constant, and irritating way.

Einstein and I both noticed it right away.

"Ughm," we said to her. "Ughm. Ughm, ughm."

She looked at us with complete cluelessness and kept on ughming.

"Why are you doing that?" asked Einstein.

"Will you, ughm, stop, ughm. It's irritating." I said to her.

"Ughm," she said to us. "I can't, ughm, help it." And she was right. She couldn't. Her sudden reflexive throat-clearing noise was as much an unconscious part of her now as blinking. But goodness knows it was driving the rest of us insane. I googled around and found a lot of information on Tourette's Syndrome. And although it's one of those things that has a childhood onset, after only two hours of constant throat-clearing, it seemed a little fast to me to be making that kind of leap.

I only panicked for a minute before some dark recess of my brain remembered reading about normal childhood tics in the Ames and Haber books. They studied children for years at the Gesell Institute of Human Development and have a series of books out for each age. Yes, there are actual yearly manuals to help navigate the terrain of childhood, such as Your-Seven-Year-Old. When a friend first turned me onto these books, I thought she was crazy. A book is going to tell me about my child? My special, amazing, and unique child that these authors have never met? Yeah, right. And the moon will grow a thousand arms and start dancing the samba.

I was surprised how wrong I was. These books are great. I read them and sigh and know that my children are just as freaky as everybody else's children. That crying jag Moonshine went through because we changed the color of the shingles on our house? Normal. That phase Sunburst went through when she started pilfering vegan marshmallows out of the fridge? Normal. That cheetah persona she adopted years ago including running on four legs and pretending her friends were gazelles for the biting? Really weird and NOT normal, but we got through it anyway.

And what of this more recent urge to pee when faced with something difficult? I've been noticing this for a few months with Sunburst-- when we draw a new form or work on math or I ask her to help wash dishes., suddenly she has to pee. I figured it was an escape tactic, and was secretly pleased when she used it on Einstein the other day over practicing a new song on the piano. "She does this all the time, " I told him. "She's one of those Hall Pass kids... you know, the ones who were always running off to the bathroom in school." Apparently that's normal, too. Freaky, but normal, according to Ames and Haber:
"At eight, the most common of these outlets is a need to urinate when taxed with somethig he does not like or is unequal to. Dish-wiping is sure to be interrupted almost immediately after it's begun by a trip to the bathroom... A difficult school subject such as reading may produce a distended bladder in a very short time. This reaction may be thought of as "internal perspiration," emotionally induced. It is not just an alibi, as shown by the copiousness of the ensuing secretion."
Aside from specific behavioral tidbits, these books also describe the ages as going through times of equilibrium and disequilibrium, spiraling between the two, so that a child might spend half the year being pleasant and the other half acting like some monster from another planet. So far that seems to be how it works around here. And really it makes a lot of sense. The diseqilibrium helps them to make huge developmental leaps, just like sicknesses and short phases of completely aggrevating behavior, tantrums and so forth. A method to the madness, so to speak. And these books remind me of that and just make me feel better about everything, including throat-clearing.

Under the "Tensional Outlets" section of the Seven-Year-Old book I was pleased to read:
"There is, however, a certain amount of muttering and mumbling, loud breathing, and little throaty sounds."
Throaty sounds. Check. But little? No. Sometimes these books are off by a year, and you have to read the year before and after. The Six-Year-Old book actually has 'tics' listed in the index, as well as the section on Tensional Outlets:
"Facial grimaces, sometimes almost tic-like in nature, are frequent, and many make numerous, irritating throaty noises or throat-clearing."
Irritating throat-clearing? Check. But why? I racked my brain to figure out what triggered this sudden anxious reaction. Just before she went to the pool she overheard me on the phone with the doctor's office trying to get her an appointment. She's got an odd, tender bump on the back of her head. I think it might be an occipital lymph node, but just to be safe, we want someone to check it out.

At bedtime last night Sunburst asked me about the doctor and her bump. Bingo. She was worried. I tried to allay her fears the best I could and this morning she was tic-free until I brushed her hair and she remembered about the bump and started ughming all over again.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Midnight Marauders

It's true. We've got coons.

For the past 45 days or so, we've been feeding a tribe of raccoons unawares. It has been prime eating at our house. Top of the line cat food- $30/bag. Free for the taking. An all you can eat buffet. Bring your friends.

And they did. They came in droves. And ate. And ate. And ate. We were going through cat food so fast that I thought my cats had worms and we de-wormed them. Twice. It didn't help. Obviously. Unbeknownst to me, Einstein, and the children, we were being robbed. Nightly. Masked bandits were sneaking into our house through the cat door and pillaging our food supply. For almost two months we let them get away with this... somehow we missed all the signs.

Exhibit A: the water dish.
In a constant state of funk, sometimes filled with shiny treasures.

Exhibit B: the food container.
Apparently they can read the instructions on the handle. It says, "Press to Close; Lift to Open." We found it open on a daily basis. (Note the tooth and claw marks)

Exhibit C: strange hair (of the non-cat variety, all over the place.)

We also heard frequent, strange/loud noises which we largely ignored because frankly, with three kids and four cats, strange/loud noises are par for the course around here. On the occassions when I did pursue the noises I was greeted with the swinging of the cat door. Zoooom! Whatever it was it did NOT want to be seen.

A few days ago I heard the unmistakable chatter of raccoons outside. Then we read the raccoon chapter in The Tarantula in My Purse: and 172 Other Wild Pets by Jean Craighead George. And of course I have been hearing the ongoing tales of my mom's baby raccoons out West... Finally we started putting the pieces together. It sounded like a preposterous idea. Raccoons! In our house?! Bwah! But... maybe?

We decided to do some detective work. We came up with a plan:

1. Lay out some flour on the laundry room floor to check for animal tracks.

One of our cats assisted by making cat tracks all over it immediately.

2. Pursue the noise in a smarter way.

The noisy critter was fast, and we needed a two-person team to catch a glimpse of it. We decided that one person would open the laundry room door, and the other person would be watching out the window to see what ran out of the door.

We didn't count on the fact that it was going to be hard to see out of that window at night. The flashlight didn't do much but create a glare that bounced off the window, but we tried anyway.

I heard some sounds and Einstein manned his post at the window. He couldn't see a thing. I was going to have to be fast then and run in to catch sight of it zooming out the cat door. I tiptoed over to the laundry room door and as fast as I could, I opened it and ran in... and I screamed. A surprising, loud "WHOOOOOOOOAAAAAAA" escaped from my mouth like a siren and I ran back out and slammed the door. The room was dark, and I had almost run into it-- a large raccoon, big as a dog! Massive sucker. It did NOT look friendly. Had it stood up on its hind legs in defensive mode I would have peed myself.

It wasn't alone. The other(s) were busy squeezing their fat bodies out the cat door. Einstein didn't see them, but he heard my scream and joined me. We cautiously opened the laundry room door again and tiptoed in the room with the flashlight and turned on the overhead light. Sure enough, the food was eaten, the water bowl was a mess, and the floured floor was a disaster. But there, alongside the cat prints, were unmistakable, five-fingered, raccoon tracks.

Outside our cats were leisurely laying out on the driveway, giving the laundry room door a wide berth. "There's plenty of food to share. Don't mind us. We'll just be over here, minding our own business. Help yourselves." Smart cats. Those raccoons could swallow them whole. We gathered them in and locked them up safely for the night.

Next morning the kids were excited to hear about our exciting discovery and see the tracks. They had questions, and we ended up dragging out our animal tracks book and reading the raccoon section in the book The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Apparently they can congregate in groups of up to 30 if food is plentiful. Hmph!

We rounded out our studies by cleaning up the flour and drawing some pictures together, Moonshine, Sunburst, and myself:

Remember our Raccoon Envy? As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Yakkety Yak

Moonshine threw up in bed last night. All over the place. So I cleaned her up, cleaned her bed up and set things right for her. She was as chipper as can be for someone who just yakked on herself. At 4 am no less. So I just put her back to bed and threw a towel on the floor next to the bed with instructions to yak on the towel if she needed to yak.

As a child, everytime my mom gave me a towel or a bag or a pan--that was a guarantee that I wouldn't yak. It was anti-yak voodoo. BUT... this morning Moonshine came in my room as chipper as ever to wake me up. I asked if her tummy felt like throwing up and she said it was a little bumpy, but no. She was done throwing up. She already threw up lots of times on that towel.


Sure enough I go in there and the towel is a yakking mess! But the bed? Clean as a whistle. Moonshine? Fine and dandy. How on earth? She's 4 and she didn't even get it in her hair! AND she didn't even think to wake us up. How weird is that?! Mind-boggling. Just yesterday she was throwing tantrum after tantrum, which should have been my first clue, and now she has suddenly crossed over into a new plane of maturity where she can yak unassisted and uncomforted. (There goes my job.)

This new maturity continued on into the morning when she sat down on the couch next to me while I was knitting and asked if she could knit. She has asked to knit a dozen times but has never really grasped the concept. Not even finger knitting. But I figured if she could yak unassisted on a towel, sure, she could knit. Why not? Really, the directed yakking trumps a knit stitch every time. So I showed her, again. We said the rhyme:

In through the front door,
Run around the back.
Out through the window,
And off jumps Jack!
And she did it! She actually got it! She took my blueberry hat and made stitch after stitch. It was amazing! It was... I was... speechless. She's four. FOUR! And she can knit. This isn't news to anyone a few generations back, surely four year olds could do many things then. But to me this is astounding! This is a huge breakthrough for Moonshine. This is power.

Of course she doesn't have the stamina to do more than ten stitches in one stretch. She's not going to knit herself a wardrobe or anything. But if she wants to, she can. I'm not going to push her to knit, but I won't say no.

She's so proud of herself today. Proud and capable and not yakking. She's definitely thinking ahead to all the things she might possibly want to knit. In her words:
  • a doll
  • a kilt
  • a garbage can
  • curtains
  • a pretend window
Apparently the sky's the limit.

From there our day has only gotten more interesting.... we discovered raccoons... in our house!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Tough choices

We reached a milestone in education today.

At the Farmer's Market this morning Sunburst was faced with the tough decision between purchasing Lacinato or Red Russian kale. To help her make the decision, the seller did a bit of choosing hocus pocus, otherwise known as "Eeny Meeny."

You remember:
Eeny meeny miney moe
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he howls let him go
Eeny meeny miney moe
My mother said to pick the very best one
And you are not it.

I don't remember the first time I heard that as a kid, but this was it for Sunburst. She was taken, smitten, truly enchanted by the power and charm of Eeny Meeny. I heard her chanting it under her breath for the better part of the day, over and over again, trying to conjure up the magic spell that puts all mindless choosing up to a simple draw.

When I figured out what she was after we staged some fake choosing with random items on the table: scissors, a sparkly pencil, purple thread, and a press 'n play dress. It was great. We were choosing up a storm, reciting Eeny Meeny over and over, at least a dozen times. Sunburst's face lit up each and every time, and you know, it was fun. I can't believe she never heard Eeny Meeny before. I used to Eeny Meeny all the time as a kid. What happened to me? What about my magic?

I know what you're thinking-- I'm thinking it too. The time has come for me to take my Eeny Meeny powers back.

While Sunburst and I were sitting at the table choosing, Einstein came out of the kitchen with a life-altering question of his own: dinner. He was making some concoction of red rice, potatoes, corn and faux sausage. His quandry was sauce: Tomato or Cuban Mojito? I gave him my expert advice...

Eeny Meeny Miney Moe...

It isn't good to overuse that kind of hocus pocus though. Sometimes you have to branch out and use other forms of choosing, especially when there is more at stake than kale or sauce type. Usually those times are marked by folks having deep and differing opinions, stubbornness, and/or a special talent in the tantrum throwing category. We encountered just that situation today when sitting down to play the cooperative game Let's Go Sailing.

I love cooperative games. There's nothing better than sitting down to play a game with the kids and instead of winning, losing, and discusions about throwing pieces and sportsmanship, you can just peacefully work together to achieve a group goal. Cooperation. Joy. Peace. It was going to be great.

We sat down to play, and the first thing you do as a group is decide what to name your ship. It's a sailing game after all.

"Ladybug," offered Sunburst.
"Shoeburger," said Moonshine.
"Shoeburger?" Einstein and I echoed in unison.
"Ladybug," said Sunburst.
"I change my mind," said Moonshine. "I want Rose."
"Shoeburger." I said.
"We like Shoeburger," said Einstein. "It's funny."
"I want Ladybug," said Sunburst.
"No! ROSE!" squealed Moonshine.
"How about Ladybug Rose?" I offered.

Apparently our ability to cooperate was deteriorating before our ship left port. It was obvious we were not going to agree on a name, so I introduced a more impartial decision-making system: the lottery. Four slips of paper. Four different names. We put them in a knit cap and tried to get Kitty Bill to choose as the innocent bystander. Ha. He wanted nothing to do with our reindeer games so I was forced to pick. It was with great relief that "Lady Rose Shoeburger" finally headed out to sea.

P.S. Dinner was good too. You can find the Cuban Mojitos at Trader Joes.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Site Meter