Monday, July 30, 2012

Seven days of summer

We just experienced seven days of sunshine here in England.  I feel a petty and ridiculous need to document it, but there it is.  Our summer sunshine finally came.  It lasted for seven days.  Then it started raining.  Again.

I think something must happen to a person's brain when they're required to live through three and a half months of crappy, wet weather that encroaches into the middle of summer.  It's no secret that it rains in England; you can sense it in the British mindset-- keep calm, carry on, stiff upper lip and all that.  But this year, even the locals are weary.  When we heard the jet stream shifted and there was the barest glimmer of hope that England might actually see some sunshine, the locals hesitated.  They only spoke about it in whispers, as if mentioning the possibility aloud would jinx it.

I can't blame them.  England had floods and tornadoes and Texas-sized hailstorms this year.  I kid you not.  Hail the size of baseballs fell on Leicester, a city that has me stumbling over the pronunciation like a true American.  We had hail at our place too.  Not rip-the-roof-and-siding-off-your-house-and-crack-the-birds-out-of-the-trees hail, like the kind that destroyed our house in Texas eight years ago.  Leicester got that kind.  But still, our hail was big enough to shred the carport roof.

If truth be told, that was my last straw with this England summer and the impetus to pack bags and head to Italy.  England saw rain the entire week we were gone, and the weather was just as miserable when we returned.   It was oddly validating, that weather.  But remarkably, a week later the sun came out.  We went from mid-60s to mid-80s, and there was nary a cloud in the sky.  It felt unprecedented.  All that complaining and whining and pouting was for naught.  Summer came, and I actually felt guilty for running off to Italy.  I felt guilty for my impatience with England while everyone in the US was enduring sweltering heat.  I felt guilty for my indulgence.

Well, seven days of sunshine does not a summer make.  While the clear skies held out just in time for the Olympic opening ceremony, the weather turned chill yesterday.  The dark clouds rolled in, and the sky opened up.  Surely  it was all that drumming at the ceremony.  If anything was going to beg for more rain, why not that?

Now that my Italian-holiday guilt has passed, damped down even further by today's intermittent downpours, I'm ready to share a few more pictures of our week in Italy to bring my tally of sunshiny summer days to a whopping grand total of 14.  After leaving the medieval, hilltop village we boarded two trains and stepped off the tracks in a very special place.

Venice, the city of light.

It was also a city in the possession of immense power and influence during the late middle ages to the renaissance, so it was a bit of a homeschooling field trip to boot.  But I'm not going to feign that my intentions were purely educational-- it's Venice!  It has been on my list of places to visit for as long as I can remember.

Perhaps it was a combination of the sun and the wine and the reflective quality of the water, but it left me speechless.  I'm not even going to try to capture it in words.  And the pictures hardly do it justice.

Venice by day.

Venice by night.

We saw the sights... including the Piazzale San Marco.

We saw the gondolas... and then had a little ride.

 It even rained once, and hard, for about fifteen minutes.

But even that wasn't terrible.  We hid out under an alcove and waited for it to stop.  And then the kids splashed happily in the Venetian puddles.  Without wellies.  A week without wellies felt celebratory, indeed.

Accidentally showing up in the middle of the Venetian Festa del Redentore means that Venice comes with fireworks.  Completely unplanned.  Incredibly amazing.  Fortuitous and resplendent.

It made up for the terrible English weather and then some.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Today's frog

It is turning into Wild Kingdom around here.

This big guy (or gal?) decided to come to breakfast this morning.  What a surprise to find a frog hopping around under the dining room table!  To our dismay, he did not ask to sit in our chair and eat out of our golden dish.  He didn't want to sleep in our beds, either.

We stared wide-eyed in bewilderment as he crossed the length of the room, and then Sunburst jumped up and grabbed him.  He was cold and clammy.  I expected that he'd struggle and jump out of her hands, but he just sat there.  Complacent.  As if he had done all this before.

However, the look on Sunburst's face assured me that she had never held a frog before.  She wrinkled up her nose waiting for me to grab the camera.  Both Moonshine and Kitty Bill refused to touch him.  There was no kissing, no confessions of unkept froggy promises.

Unless you're royalty, frogs don't just hop into your house by themselves.  Someone brought this frog in for some fun and games.  But who?

Oh yeah.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Morning owl

Shortly after ten this morning we heard a terrible racket coming from the garden.  Sunburst ran outside to investigate. She darted back in to grab the camera and zoomed back outside before I knew what was happening.

She had found a tawny owl perched in the evergreen.  So much for being nocturnal.  She watched it stretch its wings and turn to look at her with wide eyes before taking flight.  Her guess is that it was having a little nap and the awful sound (wood pigeons fighting with the squirrels) woke it up.

Who knows for sure, but wow!  A tawny owl in the garden?  Really?!


Destination: sunshine!

You know the weather is bad when you wake up in the middle of July and need to put on your jacket to cut the chill before you stumble into the kitchen and make the coffee.  And while you’re making said coffee, you realize that you can’t remember the last time you didn’t need to wear a jacket and shoes in the house all day.  And try as you might, you just can’t remember the last day it wasn’t raining.

I have never experienced a summer quite like the one we’ve been having in England.  Growing up in the desert, I've lived through countless ones where it was so hot I thought I’d die —the kind that necessitate swimming pools, tank tops, and a truckload of popsicles.  It was never exactly fun when the temperatures sat between 105 and 115 F for weeks on end, but heat was just part of the summer recipe.  We expected it.

But this cold and the endless rain?  Our England summer is an imposter that I'm completely incapable of dealing with.  It’s more like fall, as if we skipped a season entirely; it just feels wrong.  Summers are for playing outside and relaxing, letting our minds sleep a little in the hot sun so they can rejuvenate themselves.  The sunshine and warmth brings such a balance, not only to the seasonal cycle, but to the spirit.  Honestly, I have never felt so out of balance in my life.

We decided if the summer sunshine wasn’t going to come to us, we had to go find it… So we loaded up our backpacks and hopped on a plane to the nearest sunny place we could think of: Italy.

I am pleased to report that the Italian weather did not disappoint.

Our first stop was to visit one of Einstein's colleagues near Lago Maggiore, an Italian lake near the border of Switzerland.  He lives with his family in a medieval village overlooking the lake.  It was built in the late 10th century as a kind of fortress village on a high rocky outcrop-- a sheer granite cliff surrounded by forest.  It boasts just a handful of privately-owned homes and a magnificent old church with well-preserved frescoes from the late middle ages to the renaissance.

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  That’s what I thought, too… but of course there was a catch.  This village is really hard to get to.  We had to take a long bus ride from the airport, then we were picked up by car and taken to buy groceries (because there isn’t a market anywhere near the village) before being dropped off on the main road.  From there we had to hike on foot, up a winding, craggy hill carrying both our luggage and groceries.

The hike itself is all of perhaps 20 minutes, and fairly steep at times, with railing keeping you from sliding off into the abyss of the ravine.  We were advised not to bring anything with wheels, so we stuffed half of what we'd normally take on holiday into backpacks.  It was definitely an exercise in learning to pack light and purchase only the groceries you will absolutely need.

The village is so secluded, that passing by on the main road below, you would miss it if you blinked.  From the main road, with my camera zoomed in, it looks something like this:

As we got closer, I started to really get a sense of the place.  It was like nothing I had ever imagined, not even in my wildest dreams.

Once inside the village, we were treated to other views, including the old church, dedicated to San Gottardo.  If I'm remembering correctly, it was built in the 1300s and then later expanded to hold about 70 parishioners in the village's heyday.  Both the outside and inside are covered with frescoes which were covered in mortar or plaster when the plague hit the village in the 1600s.  The frescoes were long forgotten, and they weren't discovered again until the 1930s, when the church fell into such disarray that the plaster began falling off.  The church has since been restored, and it is such a wonder to behold-- both inside and out!

Though not comparable to the beauty of the church, the rest of the small village held its own kind of charm.  There were only perhaps three skinny streets, or passageways, in the entire village.  They were stone-tossed and old as old.

Inside was a different story.  Some of the houses boasted modern conveniences-- flush toilets, sinks, stoves or hot plates-- while others looked vacant and in various stages of disrepair.  The most remarkable part of the house we stayed in was perhaps the old servants' kitchen and the view from the uppermost floor.

Because it’s only reachable by foot, and the path is not for the feint of heart, you can imagine how safe this village felt.  The kids ran barefoot in a wild pack-- sneaking around corners and having water fights, playing chess at midday in the shade of the church, and scaling the rickety ladder into the belfry.  How many children can fit in belfry at the same time?  All eleven of them, apparently.

All of the kids spoke German, and the girls were delighted to speak with them and so thankful that mom has been encouraging them to keep up with German lessons.  It certainly paid off.  We even picked up a few words of Italian while we were there, thanks to some remedial lessons from a gregarious, trilingual five-year-old.

In the late afternoon we made our way down the hill to the lake, and the children had so much fun splashing around in the cool water and canoeing with their new friends.  They played until the sun set, and then we put our shoes on and hiked back up the hill to cook dinner.

We packed so much into such a short time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.  It was absolutely breath-taking and amazing— the village, the views, the church, living in a medieval house, the lake, the Italian weather… all of it.  Our short visit there was exactly what we needed— sunshine, new friendships, easy conversations, and beautiful views.  I left feeling completely rejuvenated, and as expected, we cannot wait to go back!

Monday, July 09, 2012

Homeschooling and synesthesia

This morning I came across a new study in the journal PLoS One from researchers at the University of Amsterdam that involves creating synesthesia in non-synesthetes.  After a lengthy chat with Einstein, my resident cognitive scientist, I can see now why it's important work; one result, one small crack in the pavement, leads to others.  But as a homeschooling mother of a synesthete, my initial reaction was bewilderment.  Why would you want to turn anyone into a synesthete?  In my opinion, navigating such a thick world of sensory impressions makes everything harder.  Everything.

And then I realized that I've never actually talked about synesthesia in this space.  Not even once, although my homeschooling thoughts have been consumed by it for a couple of years now.  The more I learn about it, the more there is to learn.  And the longer I homeschool, the more I realize how every part of the child comes into play in education, and nothing can be taken for granted or overlooked.  Especially when it comes to the senses.

Moonshine, my "middlest child" as she calls herself, is a synethete.

In simplest terms, this means that when she senses one thing in the world, she has a strong and  involuntary additional sense perception.  Not exactly simple, is it?  Synesthesia itself is very ill-defined.  The range of cross-sensory possibilities is too large to fully identify and not always consistent between synesthetes.  According to the wikipedia entry for synesthesia, there are so far over 60 reported synesthetic relationships.  Who knows how many forms there truly are and to what effect any of them have on a synesthete's abilities to navigate through the world.  I suppose that's what science is trying to figure out.

As a homeschooling mother of a synesthete, I'm trying to figure out the same thing.  Now that we've identified Moonshine's synesthetic tendencies, what part do they play in her education?  Are they a hindrance?  And if so, how can we turn them into a benefit?

Like the researchers, my first task was to try to understand the parameters.  This wasn't easy.  I'm not sure that I still understand the scope of Moonshine's cross-sense perceptions, but the more common ones I have managed to identify.

For example, Moonshine senses colors with letters and numbers.  They have a name for this form-- grapheme-color synesthesia.  For example, if you asked Moonshine the colors of the alphabet, as I did, she would tell you that the alphabet looks like this:

Or actually, she would argue that the color palette I used isn't quite right--the hue differences are inadequately represented and some of the color combinations I came up with (ie. dark purple) hardly come close.  But overlooking the palette shortcomings, this is how Moonshine senses the alphabet.  We've quizzed her randomly over a two-year period, and it's always the same, without fail.

She senses numbers in color, too.

The list goes on, and again, the hues aren't perfect representations.  Luckily, she's forgiving and understands the palette limitations of the app I was using to recreate them.

To me, it all seems fairly random.  (While G is green, O isn't orange, P isn't purple, R isn't red, and B isn't blue.  The numbers seem random as well, until you get to double digits, and then a pattern seems to emerge.  The teens seem to take on the color of the second number.  Beyond that, they appear multi-colored, with the first color dominating the number, and yet not overpowering the other color(s) completely.)  But to Moonshine, and other synesthetes, there is nothing random about it.  This color perception is a "truth" that they feel to their very core.  And of course, it's made even more interesting because while two synesthetes might agree on a few letter/color perceptions, no two will agree on all of them.  And to take it a step further, some synesthetes actually see the colors when they are reading, while others only sense them inwardly.

Now, if you're an educator, perhaps you have already begun to recognize how this sense perception might lead to difficulties, especially when it comes to reading or mathematics, and especially for those synesthetes who actually see the letters and numbers in color when they read.  It might not make a whole lot of sense to synesthetes when the sum of two yellow numbers is actually a blue number.  You can understand how the sense perception might dominate the equation, especially when combined with another form of synesthesia called personification.

In personification, letters, numbers, colors themselves, months, days, even toilets might elicit a sense of personality and gender.  For Moonshine, this is one of her truths that we face on a daily basis.  Almost everything is imbued with personality, gender, and color.  It's fascinating and mystifying and completely overwhelming at times.

In my recent attempts to understand and explore this personification sense, I took notes.

All letters have gender, though some of them are a bit androgynous.

Although not a complete list, all numbers also have gender.  For Moonshine, there is definitely a pattern to it when you get to double digits.  The teens go by the gender of the second digit, while the 30's and up go by the gender of the first digit. The 20's are girls, even though 2 is a boy.  Go figure.

Both letters and numbers have personalities as well.  And again, these personality perceptions are automatic and intense-- they're nothing short of "truths" for synesthetes.  I asked Moonshine to tell me about the ones that were most interesting.  Here's what she told me.

This is where it gets a little more confusing.  I had to ask a lot of questions to fully understand what was going on here.  In the first row, E and F love each other.  Their relationship had stumped Moonshine for years until she discovered that some boys marry other boys, and then the relationship between E and F made perfect sense to her.  They love each other as if they were married-- even if I did draw the heart in the wrong color (apparently hearts are red and they are not outlined in black).

In the second row, it's clear that L and K are enemies.  Moonshine had me write the gender names in their correct colors.  Boys are blue, girls are green.  Apparently lowercase L is a girl, which takes us back to the androgynous business. You can also see that the symbols (+, =) have color representations. 

The third row is interesting because both 3 and 13 are horrible, and while both numbers are green, horrible is a yellow word.  While letters have independent colors, words tend to take on the dominant color-- it's almost like a math equation of sorts.  To me, it's something I have to go and add up-- 3 yellows, 3 greens, 1 light blue, 1 black-- uh, okay, maybe yellow dominates because it starts with a yellow?  But to Moonshine, it's automatic.  She doesn't stop and count-- she senses the word as yellow without thinking. The drawing of Z is also fascinating, because the personality changes with the angle of the top line.  This is not something I would have ever thought about had she not pointed it out to me.  Because we're doing Waldorf education at home, it brings up so many questions I have about sense perceptions of different form drawings.

Just as letters and numbers elicit colors and personalities, so do months.

And days of the week.

And colors.  Moonshine senses the rainbow, for example, like this:

Fascinating, no?  I noted an inconsistency where Moonshine told me that Purple (a 2yo girl) is the youngest, but then informed me in the next breath that Yellow is a baby.  Maybe you're wondering about that, too.  In any case, I'm told that Purple is the youngest child-- and babies don't really count in that ranking system.  Babies are babies.

But what about toilets?  I told you that some synesthetes perceive personification with everything.  And by everything, I meant just that.

My drawing of the large and small wine glasses isn't so great, but I think you get the general idea.  And if all of that wasn't fascinating enough, food and soap also have gender and personalities.

Peas are mean girls?!! It is enough to make my head spin at times.  And if everything is imbued with sense perceptions for Moonshine, including music, what do you think that does to her learning?

There is an effect for sure.  She has always been dreamy, but now I can't help but wonder how much of that is her navigating these automatic sense perceptions.  In my mind, it must be a noisy sea of color that she has to wade through whenever she's faced with anything-- from words she reads or ones I read to her, to math problems, to music and foreign language (in which words present in different colors than in English), to spelling... it's endless.  And how much of that time is spent trying to make peace with things in the wrong color?

She points them out to me in the world.  Just yesterday we were shopping for clothes, and Moonshine remarked that the sizes (numbers) were color-coded in the wrong colors.  And when something is represented in the correct color, it's almost a relief to her.  When she tells me about it, it's as if her whole body relaxes, and she often wonders aloud, "How did they know to make it green or yellow or...?"

In hindsight, this explains so much about how Moonshine experiences the world-- why she fell apart at age two when we changed the color of our roof; why two seemingly identical purple balloons are very different; and why having to change her shirt in the middle of the day is a shock to the system.  

For Moonshine's synesthesia, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is still more to come.

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