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Calm in the face of chaos, otherwise known as modern parenting

I just got back from a refreshing and fun homeschooling conference. Homeschooling conferences are their own sort of thing: part conference, part costume party, part mass therapy session. This one was no exception.

During the Q&A part of a talk I gave, one of the moms in the audience told me something like “I feel so reassured by how calm you are.”

I was a bit taken aback.

People have said this about me before, and all I can think is that I must be a really great accidental actress. It’s not like I try to put on a persona or try to broadcast something that’s not true, but calm?

Really?

Calm?
My sister gave me a weird, tingly facial mask for my birthday. Calm. I am calm. As long as I can get those crawling bugs washed off my face Right Now, I am calm!

My sister gave me a weird, tingly facial mask for my birthday. Calm. I am calm. As long as I can get those crawling bugs washed off my face Right Now, I am calm!

Like all parents today, I feel like there is way too much coming at me, way too fast. Just a few facts of modern parenting will suffice:

  • We grew up in a world that seemed like it was going to last forever (or at least “billions and billions of years,” said in a Carl Sagan voice). Our kids are living with global warming and homegrown terrorism.
  • We grew up with toys that seemed wonderful and sometimes magical, but we knew how they worked. Our kids play with magic of a very different sort every time they turn on a screen.
  • We grew up in a world where you had a menu to choose from—the TV Guide and the limits of what your town (and the Sears catalogue) had to sell you. Our kids can get everything, nearly everything they can imagine. Instantly, or at least with two-day free shipping.

Our kids don’t just have their own slang for the world we know; they have their own world which didn’t exist when we were kids. The rate of change is fantastic. The rate at which we are acquiring knowledge about ourselves and the natural world seems boundless.

My parents had Dr. Spock to turn to for advice. We’ve got Drs. Galore—not just MDs but PhDs, LMFTs, PsyDs, and PhGs (Philosophers of Google, that is). Everyone is telling us that whatever we’re doing is wrong, and they’ve got all the answers.

Our kids are being diagnosed with disorders that didn’t exist when we were kids. We just used to have weird kids. Now we’ve got Asperger’s replaced with Autistic, Sensory Processing Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder…

We’ve got more disorders than we’ve got orders.

We’ve got public schools, private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, schools of choice, and homeschooling.

Heck, when I was a kid, you just went to school.

And if you’re homeschooling, you’ve got Christian homeschooling, secular homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, classical homeschooling, unit studies homeschooling, not to mention outschooling and hybrid schooling.

Calm? Am I calm yet?

We parents have too much choice. We have too much input. We have too many people telling us to do too many things. We are both supposed to sign our kids up for Kumon and let them play in the mud. We are both supposed to inspire our kids and teach them to toe the line. We are both supposed to give them strong self-esteem and not praise them too much.

It’s a lot. It’s a very large lot in which we are playing at parenting, never sure we are doing the right thing.

I keep coming back to the word “calm.” If I appear calm, it’s not a charade. It’s not me trying to reassure you that it will be OK.

Calm is just me in the midst of the chaos we call modern life. I know that there’s very little I can do outside of that little space I operate within, so I just do what I can. If I can help one other parent feel self-assured enough to be a slightly better parent, I guess I’ve done my job in the world. If I send my kids out into the chaos with a few tools to use for their survival, even better.

I am calm, because what’s the point of adding to the chaos? We have no idea where this world is going, so we might as well enjoy what we have around us and try to spread a little bit of goodness out from our tiny space.

Calm. I am calm.

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.


The Value of Competition

I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am re-publishing mine here on my blog.

When I first became a homeschooler, I was surprised by the number of parents I met who were against allowing children to compete in any way. Activities in our public homeschool program were designed as “everyone wins” events. We hardly saw any homeschoolers at our county science fair, despite the fact that it was very welcoming to our kids. Parents were always on the lookout for cooperative games so that their children wouldn’t have to compete with each other.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

Other homeschooling families I know also love to enter the science fair.

The rare competitive homeschooler seems to be the exception: often they are homeschoolers specifically because their achievements leave little time for school. A high-level competitive gymnast seems more common amongst homeschoolers than a child who just likes the challenge of competition at any level.

In our family, however, we have an instinctive enthusiasm for competitions. It isn’t that our kids are generally high-achievers; in fact, they don’t necessarily place in competitions they enter. But we all feel the excitement and fulfillment of identifying a target, working toward it, and seeing our work alongside others who share our interests.

Science mania!

The science fair is a good example of a competitive event my children love. It is a huge payoff for project-based learning. Whereas other projects might gather dust on a shelf or become presents for Grandma, the science fair moves from independent exploration, to documenting the work, to sharing with fellow young scientists, and on to speaking with (and hopefully receiving awards from) judges.

My kids enter almost every year; they often win awards, but not always. The big payoff for them, however, is the experience as a whole. As an unschooler, I’ve become a sort of pied piper for the science fair. The first year my child entered, she was the only student in our public homeschool program who was interested. Over the years, I gushed enough about it that we’ve seen a bigger participation level, but nowhere near what I would expect for a well-managed, free, and inspiring educational event.

Shunning competition

So what’s up with avoiding competition? It turns out it’s not just homeschoolers. In “Losing is Good for You,” Ashley Merryman (New York Times) explores the phenomenon of parents shunning competition. She cites sports leagues in which all the children receive trophies, regardless of participation or performance.

“By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies,” Merryman writes. “They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.”

When adults deny obvious differences between children, they send a confusing message. On the one hand, it’s a message of conformance: Don’t try to be different because even if we know you are, we’re going to pretend you’re not. On the other hand, it’s a message about the futility of working hard: Don’t try to improve because Johnny who didn’t even bother to come to practice is going to get the same reward as you.

Starting with the self-esteem movement in the late 1970’s, Americans altered how praise—both verbal and token-based—is given out. We wanted kids to feel good about themselves, so we started to say “good job” when our parents might have said “how could you miss such an easy pitch?” We wanted to celebrate kids who had been traditionally at the bottom, so we phased out games that would point out physical differences, competitions that would point out intellectual differences, and pretty much any situation in which a child might get the message, “you’re a loser.”

Growth mindset

The work of psychologist Carol Dweck has made waves across education in the United States, but when it came out, lots of parents and teachers looked at it and felt like they ought to say, “Well, duh!” It turns out that you can empirically prove that all this mindless cheerleading is bad for kids’ self-esteem. In a very simply designed experiment, Dweck asked kids to solve math puzzles. To half of the kids, the researchers said, “You are so smart!” To the other half, they said, “You worked so hard on that!”

Not surprisingly, the “so smart” kids suddenly had something to protect. They were so smart, and they’d better not let on when they had trouble with something. The “so smart” kids went on to perform miserably on a slightly harder task, whereas the “hard working” kids were pumped up by the researchers’ enthusiasm for their hard work, and they worked even harder and achieved more.

It’s true: in competitions, a few kids win and lots of kids lose. The thing is, in well-run competitions any kid who has a solid foundation of self-respect is not going to be fooled. When my kids and I look at the winners in a competition, we discuss whether we think the judging was fair. More often than not, my kids admit that the winners simply put in more work, had a more original idea, and did a better job of explaining what they did.

Competing for satisfaction

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

We love Santa Cruz Soccer, which emphasizes cooperation in competition.

Recently I read an article about cultivating intrinsic motivation that was making the rounds amongst teachers. I noticed that the author pointed out the value of fair competition.

“Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where students gain satisfaction from helping their peers and also in cases where they are able to compare their own performance favorably to that of others,” writes teacher Saga Briggs.

She says “favorably,” but I would broaden that: I think that my kids gain satisfaction just from seeing where they lie in the continuum of human achievement. My daughter still plays soccer, even though she’s never been MVP. She celebrates the achievements of the great hitters on her softball team, pointing out how much they practice. My son sometimes declines to enter a competition that he judges himself unprepared for. It’s not that he has poor self-esteem—it’s that showing his work alongside the work of others who share his passions has given him a good perspective. He knows how hard he’s going to have to work to compete, and when he honestly isn’t willing to do the work, he would rather sit on the sidelines and cheer people who were.

Of course, a child who doesn’t enjoy competition shouldn’t be pushed into it. But by the same token, denying children the right to stand up and proudly declare their achievements does not bolster their self-esteem. Our kids are just as smart as we are….if not smarter. They know when people are putting them on, so if we continue the charade that kids’ achievements are all the same, we’re not doing them any favors. Yes, it’s great to celebrate all children’s abilities, but avoiding competition puts our children into a manufactured world where hard work is not acknowledged and their achievements are just another thing to gather dust up on a high shelf.

References:

Losing is Good for You” by Ashley Merryman

25 Ways to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation” by Saga Briggs

Posted in Culture, Homeschooling, Parenting.


Goal-setting full circle

In homeschooling and writing, things have a way of intertwining themselves without any sort of prior intent. Here are two topics that I’ve written about before:

Topic #1: learning about goal-setting is of particular importance to teenage homeschoolers. [Read more here.]

Topic #2: Homeschooling changes the adults who do it as much as the kids. [Here, here, here… heck, just read all my posts about homeschooling and you’ll see it’s a theme!]

This summer: The melding of two of my favorite topics.

I decided [why, oh why do I decide these things?] that first of all, I was going to write a book on goal-setting explicitly for homeschooling teens.

Secondly, I decided that I would offer an online class in the fall based on the book. [Read about it here.]

GSLogo

So, what did I inadvertently do? I set myself a goal, and then forced myself to be accountable for it. Paying students are already listed in my classroom, expecting to get their copy of my “book” in October.

I actually do know why I do these things to myself: When I was young, I thought that people “just did” things and how their work got out into the world was a mysterious process that hopefully I’d be swept into at some point.

I am spending more time on music, less time on trying to help every wayward organization function more efficiently.

I am spending more time on music, less time on trying to help every wayward organization function more efficiently.

In other words, I had never noticed that people who get things done actually set goals, figure out the steps to get there, and make themselves accountable in some way for reaching those steps and, hopefully, the final goal. This is not something I’d ever done, not as a child, a teen, a young adult, or even a mother of small children. I apparently thought that whatever life threw at me was what I would get.

But homeschooling (and parenting in general) has a way of getting you to look at yourself and notice things you hadn’t bothered to think about before.

Why didn’t I set goals? Why didn’t I make myself accountable for them? What was stopping me?

I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself (fear of failure? low self-esteem? the alignment of the planets?), but I have noticed a change since I’ve been forced to look more carefully at how I’m raising my children. I’ve started to look at the things I’m doing with a little more of a critical eye. It was a huge step for me just to go through a series of simple questions:

  • Is this activity fulfilling for me?
  • Is it taking up time that I should be using for something else?
  • Is it leading me in any particular direction, or am I just spinning my wheels?
  • Do I have any particular goal here?

Thinking like this got me to making a few changes in my life. I self-published my chapter book, Hanna, Homeschooler, knowing that it wasn’t really suited to a mainstream publisher, anyway. I am spending more time on music and less on trying (futilely) to help every organization I come into contact with work more efficiently.

Full circle

Writing this book on goal-setting is sending me full circle back to what I think is most important about goal-setting: being self-reflective, focusing our attention on what matters, and realizing that “success” is all about feeling like we’ve done our best, and not at all about being declared “successful” by someone else.

I still spend plenty of time on non-goal-oriented activities (never discount the value of a glass of wine with family or friends in helping you reach your goals!), but I feel more focused, less like I’m putting out fires and more like I’m setting fires for myself!

Posted in Homeschooling, Parenting, Psychology, Writing.


From the HEM archives: The Feminist Homeschooler

I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am going to start publishing them here on my blog.

The Feminist Homeschooler

friendSuzieWhen my daughter was in kindergarten, it was politely suggested to me that she might do better in homeschool. I shrugged it off. Me, homeschool? I had thought of the first day of kindergarten as the first day back to my “real” life—my writing career.

Then, all of a sudden, we were homeschoolers.

If I’d imagined anything about my future daughter, I may have imagined a little Gloria Steinem.

Not a little Emma Goldman.

My daughter’s personality is way too big for a quiet little Montessori school room. That I learned over three months. But it took me years to understand that homeschooling was not just what we did because we had to, but a positive choice for her…and me, a lifelong feminist.

It has been four years since we reluctantly left school with nothing but the wish to find a better way. Homeschooling is now an integral part of my life. I have found wise, funny, intelligent, and—true to the stereotype—nurturing women in my homeschooling community. Most of the homeschooling parents I know are extremely dedicated to their educational choice.

All of us know that we’re doing the right thing, until someone drops the F-word: feminist.

Where did all the men go?

The role of women is the elephant in the room in homeschooling circles. We don’t really want to talk about this, but there it is: all of the parents who are on the board of my homeschooling cooperative are women. All of the teachers in our public homeschool program are women. Dads support their families through their work and through evening childcare so the moms can get together and commiserate. Dads show up to homeschooling events sporadically, mostly on weekends. A relative few take part in the actual homeschooling, and only a smattering out of millions stay home full-time.

One mom I know relates a story of a dad walking into a homeschooling campout and all the women stopping what they were doing to gawk: “It’s a man!”

But I’m not terribly comfortable with just letting this issue lie around unquestioned. I asked a wide list of my homeschooling correspondents, some of whom I know personally but most of whom I only “know” online, to respond to a few pointed questions in an anonymous, online survey. Within hours, 93 people had offered their thoughts, from taciturn “yes” or “no” to rolling text that sometimes spilled over into passionate direct e-mails to me.

Not surprisingly, almost all my correspondents said that they believed it was important to teach their kids about equal rights and opportunities for both boys and girls. Divorced from divisive political arguments, this issue is pretty uncontroversial amongst educated parents. But I was also not surprised that a full quarter of my correspondents don’t consider themselves “feminists,” disowning the label while believing in the tenets behind it.

Disowning the F-word

I purposely asked the first question without using the F-word, to remove any conflicted feelings respondents might have about the word. Divorced from the baggage of “feminism,” it’s clear that most of my fellow homeschoolers feel that what they’re doing is a positive, feminist choice for themselves and their children.

“I don’t have any conflicting feelings because it is a choice, not something I or any other woman has to do because she is a woman,” said one correspondent, summing up what most of them said.

“I feel that I have a huge impact on the world by homeschooling, and I am enjoying it personally.”

Once I identified the purpose of my survey, many of the women forcefully argued that staying home to educate their children clearly falls within the definition of a feminist choice.

“I have been the sole/main breadwinner for my family at different times,” one mom explained. “I didn’t feel any different than when I was at home. Either way, I’m exercising my choice. That is what the early feminists fought for.”

“Forcing women to follow a traditionally ‘male,’ linear career model is just as bad as keeping women out of the paid workforce,” pointed out another mom.

Others stressed that homeschooling is work, and important work at that.

“Nurturing, raising, and educating children is an incredibly important job—possibly the most important job I’ll ever have in my life—and feminism is about supporting a woman’s right to choose her path—it’s not about restricting her life in new and different ways!”

“I view it as the most important ‘work’ I’ve ever done. Maybe because I already had a career, and didn’t feel that I needed to prove anything to anyone any more.”

The conflict

Like that last correspondent, some homeschoolers are clearly conflicted because of how they fear others perceive them. It’s not that they themselves have a problem with their choice, but that they hear a negative message from family and friends.

“There are times that I have felt less interesting to others because I am not working outside the home,” explained one mom. “However, I also know that I am living my life for myself and my family and so I must make choices that will benefit us.”

“I do have trouble with the whole perception of the ‘homemaker.’ I often feel embarrassed to describe myself as SAHM, and will augment it with other adjectives,” confessed another.

Others admitted that they felt at war with their own upbringing by second-wave feminists who believed it was a woman’s duty to prove that she was equal to men in the workplace.

“I had questioned [homeschooling] at first, only because of my upbringing. I was raised by a single mom with strong feminist views. But after looking at what was right for me and my family, I felt more grounded with my decision to stay home.”

“I try to let go of these feelings because my homeschool community is largely SAHMs, women I love dearly, but I do often feel a sense of privilege/feminine dependence from these traditional families that I haven’t been raised with,” another mom confessed. “I was raised by a very strong feminist mother who’d have a conniption fit if I’d decided to be financially ‘cared for’ by my husband while losing my job skills and raising the kids!”

My circle of homeschoolers does not include a large percentage of radicals on either side of the political spectrum, but the Fox News view of feminism was certainly represented:

“See, that’s the thing that makes absolutely no sense at all,” pointed out one correspondent, for whom the F-word was obviously a heavily loaded bomb. “Is feminism about being pro-female, or is it about being politically correct to the latest flavor of girl-power?”

Actually, it’s not about either of those things.

Another correspondent confused the push for quality childcare with a mandate that all children must be taken from their homes.

“I guess feminism = socialism, where kids are raised in a factory while every adult goes and does their specialized work.”

My other correspondents did a pretty good job of answering those voices, which they have clearly heard in their own lives:

“I think that women who feel that staying at home with their children is a non-feminist act are reacting more to their own personal circumstances than they are to what is feminist and what isn’t,” suggested one homeschooler. “If I’m a feminist must I have a job/career outside my home? I don’t think so.”

What do the girls think?

Clearly, some homeschooling moms feel uneasy about the message they are sending to their daughters.

“I feel bad that I can’t personally model a professional working woman,” one woman regretted. “Fortunately, I have several working mom friends to do that for me.”

Other homeschoolers believe that because they haven’t been steeped in a culture of fixed gender roles, their homeschooled children have become natural feminists, seeing women’s choices as choices, not gender-based obligations.

“One day, my daughter was talking to my mom, who is a Rabbi, and my daughter was getting very confused in the conversation,” related one mom. “Finally, she looked at my mother and said in astonishment, ‘You mean MEN can be Rabbis, too?’”

“I think my home educated kids will be well prepared to continue working for equal respect, dignity and human rights while pursuing their passions,” stated another.

Some moms believe that by keeping their daughters away from the corrosive effects of popular culture that start to eat away at girls’ self-esteem in their tween years, they are taking an active role in creating feminists.

“The bottom line, though, is I think the only way I have the hope of raising a girl who is confident and comfortable being as smart as she is, is to homeschool her.”

Most of my correspondents, no matter how they identify themselves, seem to be women with their heads screwed tightly on in the right direction. A general theme was that homeschooling was a family decision in which both spouses acknowledged the skills and needs of the other. One correspondent pointed out that conflicted feelings may stem from deeper problems in a marriage:

“When we decided to homeschool these children, we decided together and we decided together that I’d be the one at home with them,” she said of her choice.

And on the subject of careers, not a single homeschooling mom mentioned feeling that she had “given up” on her own career. Many of them work part-time while homeschooling, or are furthering their own education with an eye toward their post-homeschooling careers.

This mom shines with self-confidence that can’t possibly be lost on her children:

“When my son is grown, I’ll reinvent myself once again, on my terms with the support of my husband.”

We are part of the spectrum

One sad aspect of so many smart women not feeling comfortable with identifying themselves as feminists is that they clearly don’t have a sense of themselves as part of the ongoing revision of women’s roles. There is a confusion about what feminism is, whether someone can have conservative social views and still be feminist, and especially how other feminists would view their choices. One self-identified feminist mom worried that women don’t know how they benefit from the work of those who came before them:

“It disturbs me more than I can say when I see young women, who have benefited from the hard, hard work of the women who went before them, dismissively say ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’.”

As with feminism in any aspect of life, feminism in homeschooling comes down to the lens we look through. In my case, I am not worried. I am a feminist because I am.

I also believe that my children are seeing great role models in the women we spend time with: they are hard-working, talented, smart, and many of them also have gainful employment outside of homeschooling. Yes, many of my sweater-knitting, yogurt-making friends lead lives that would confuse first- and second-wave feminists who placed such a high emphasis on rejecting the womanly arts in favor of paid employment.

But I believe that all of them are perfect specimens when seen through the modern lens of feminism: they have chosen the lives they live with great deliberation, and they live those lives knowing what their choice means for them and their families.

My naive self

As for me, I have to laugh at my pre-homeschooler self who thought that dropping my daughter off at kindergarten would be the day I could get back to my real life: my writing career.

In 2012, my first book was published by Great Potential Press.

Its subject?

Homeschooling.

Originally published in Home Education Magazine, 2012.

Posted in Homeschooling, Sexual Politics, Writing.


Favorite picture books

In our house, picture books have a very long life. My thirteen-year-old refuses to get rid of her favorites, still!

Here are a few of the most memorable, with some memories to go along with them.

  • Goodnight, Gorilla
    We’re a family of words, so what’s this book of very few words doing on our list? Someone bought it for us. We would never have bought a book with so few words. Our son became obsessed with it. Once our daughter came along, we introduced it to her and she was similarly entranced. I think it’s a combination of things that make this book so wonderful: Excellent illustrations, a bit of naughtiness, lots of tension in the plot even though there are no words. Degen is primarily an illustrator—I just learned that he illustrated the Magic School Bus books, one of my daughter’s favorites, and he also did Jamberry below.
  • The Napping House
    Like so many picture books, the illustrations make this book. Husband/wife team Audrey and Don Wood clearly do what is so hard for us non-illustrating authors: The text doesn’t say anything that the illustrations can’t say better. So the text doesn’t say what a lovely and weird relationship Granny has with her grandchildren. It doesn’t mention how charming and unusual their home is. It doesn’t say what time of day it is or that it’s raining. (There may be errors here; I am doing this all from memory and my children are now 13 and 17!) But the text adds the rhythm, building with a musical crescendo to the end (I won’t add any spoilers here). Beautiful book to look at; wonderful book to read out loud.
  • Eating the Alphabet
    Alphabet books are ubiquitous and largely boring. This one is an exception. Ehlert makes collage illustrations that are endlessly cool to look at. They both look very realistic, and at the same time are clearly not realistic. She chooses a wonderful variety of vegetables to feature here, many that we had to look up and discuss. Both of my kids are [for the most part] good vegetable eaters, and I think part of that is due to celebrating vegetables as fascinating and exciting. (The other part is due to keeping a garden, and cooking well.) When I first typed the title of this book, I mistakenly called it Vegetables A to Z, one of my favorite cookbooks!
  • Where the Wild Things Are
    What can be said about this wonderful book has been said. It’s been a part of my life since I can remember—I just learned that it was published before I was born! I love how it’s both of its time and out of its time. A boy when it was written might just have one monster suit to play in. He didn’t have gadgets and Chinese plastic junk filling his room. He needed his imagination. But the book is also outside of time in that it addresses that fundamental frustration of childhood: lack of control. He can’t control his parents, he can’t choose what to eat for dinner. So he chooses to control the one thing only he has control over: his imagination.
  • In the Night Kitchen
    Also Sendak, perhaps a less-read book than Wild Things. Again, Sendak doesn’t shy away from hard themes. Again, his specific is also our universal. Mickey’s dream is specific to Mickey, and the illustrations are charmingly old-style. But the dream as hyper-reality is real for all kids. And the mix of humor and slighly menacing elements is why children continue to love these books long after they grow up. Sendak doesn’t ever feel the need to explain, so you never quite reach the end of his books.
  • Love You Forever
    I never thought I would put this on a “best of” list. The first time I read it out loud to a child, I was horrified. What an awful book! Its basic plot is this: A mommy loves her baby so much! She loves him even though he unrolls all the toilet paper. She loves him even when he’s an annoying teen. She loves him when he grows up, so much so that she brings a ladder and climbs in his bedroom window. Uh…what was that? She is so attached to her now-grown baby that she’s stalking him? I have to say, I was truly offended at first reading. And maybe second, third, fourth, and fifth! Yes, of course I understood the underlying philosophy of this book. Unconditional love is a wonderful thing. But like all the best children’s books, this one is just plain weird! The funny thing is, my daughter was obsessed with it. She made me read it over and over. She made me sing the song. So it counts as a great book, though just looking at the cover still gives me the willies.
  • Jamberry
    Another great one from Bruce Degen. This book practically screams “summer!” The wordplay is fantastic. Do you ever have days with your kids where some word seems to dominate the day and get attached to everything? Like for some reason “fruit” is said and then along the day you have “shoefruit” and “carfruit” and (ick) “nosefruit”? That’s what this book is like. Lines like “Hatberry, Shoeberry in my Canoeberry” and “Boomberry, Zoomberry, Rockets shoot by” are so fun to say that they become participatory as you read them.
  • Yum Yum Dim Sum
  • My First Book of Sushi
    These two books are from the “World Snacks” series by Amy Sanger. I guess the publisher might say that the idea is to foster interest in unusual foods. However, for our kids, unusual foods were the usual. We still go to the dim sum restaurant which we call the site of our son’s “first meal.” Why? We had been going through all the usual steps to introduce him to single food purees, and he was having none of it. Yech! He’d just spit them out. But one day when he was nine months old we brought him to this restaurant and the smell clearly excited him. He was sitting there in his bucket seat smacking his lips. I asked my husband, “So…how far away is the nearest hospital?” and we just went for it. His first solid meal was dim sum, and there was no going back. I feel like these books celebrate multicultural America better than almost anything. If we eat each other’s foods, we gain a little more understanding of each other.
  • Where are you, Blue Kangaroo?
    Losing things dear to you is a common theme in childhood, and this book playfully helps children normalize that fear. That darn Blue Kangaroo keeps getting away from Lily, till one day she devises a clever way to keep him close. I like that she solves her problem herself, and that Blue Kangaroo himself seems independent. (I’m surprised to see that it’s apparently out of print?)
  • Olivia (series)
    Olivia is a wonderful series of books to read with your strong-minded girl (or a girl you hope to encourage to be strong-minded). Olivia has opinions about everything, she has a big, loud voice, and she loves to accessorize. She’s a girly-girl in a pig’s body who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Go, Olivia!
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo
    This was a favorite from my childhood. Like Wild Things, it’s both a book of its time and a book for any time. According to Wikipedia, “The book is controversial because it appears to retell a Japanese story and because it does not portray Chinese culture accurately.” I think sometimes people take things a little too seriously! This is clearly not a book of history, but rather a sort of fairy tale/origin story about Chinese names. I never took it literally as a child, and neither did my children, as far as I know! Set in China, with stunning illustrations that I remembered vividly from when I was young, the book follows two brothers, one of whom is named in “ancient Chinese tradition” with a hugely long name (which consequently is very fun and funny for children to say). The book is about how silly parents can be (giving their children such cumbersome long names) and how reasonable they can be (“don’t play on the well”). It’s about the absurdity of being a child who isn’t taken seriously, and it’s about remembering that real actions do have real consequences. Cultural inaccuracy aside, I think it still deserves a place on our bookshelf.
  • Voyage to the Bunny Planet
    Rosemary Wells wrote many great books. We loved this little three-book set both for the concrete images they contain and also the theme. All the kids in these books are having problems. Life is not perfect. But somehow, little things in life can make it all better. A miserable trip to see relatives becomes a voyage to the Bunny Planet. The imagery—moss pillows, the smell of ripe tomatoes, the salt of the sea—are immediate and visceral. Great bed-time reading.
  • Madeline
    This book is like a gift from the past. The incredible drawings. The strange clothing and manners. The almost-stilted, unusual language. It’s a book not associated with our culture at all, yet strangely an indelible part of it.
  • Frederick
    Another one-name character who remains indelible. I love all of Lionni’s books, but this one especially. We have my childhood copy, and when I first read it to my son, I felt like I was revisiting a place I knew well as a child. With so little detail, the illustrations are vividly emotional. And shy, quiet children will feel comforted that Frederick finds his place in his little society of mice.
  • Dr. Seuss
    There’s almost no need to praise Dr. Seuss because it’s all been said. His rhymes are like no one else’s. And like the best children’s books, life in here isn’t all sunshine and roses. The Cat in the Hat is quite menacing. Some of the creatures are unsettling in their strangeness. When will those darn Sneetches ever learn? Children get to experience the full range of life’s pleasures and frustrations in these books, all with amazing rhymes and clever made-up language.
  • DK Books
    If you have kids who love words, you have to go out and get some DK books. These books are deceptively simple. They have a theme, lots of photographs, and words. Often there’s no explanation, no whimsy whatsoever. Just words, words, and more words. Clear, obvious photos (some of them charmingly British, at least in the DK books that were available when my son was small). My kids used these books to make up their own stories. On the food pages, they’d decide what to eat for lunch. On the clothing pages, they’d decide what to wear. And of course, vehicle maniacs in your life need these books. DK loves anything on wheels!

Posted in Books, Culture, Parenting.


Woman types into blog software. And the next thing that happens is mind-boggling.

Do you respond to clickbait? I really

really

really

really

want to.

I want to click on that headline, which always has the same sentence structure:

[Person] [verbs] [object]. And the next thing that happens will [outrageously over-stated verb] you.

Are we done with this yet? Has Facebook yet inured us to to charms of that headline?

The answer is no. Here I am:

  • I started using the Internet when it was still called the Arpanet.
  • I got involved in my first flame-war when most people thought that anyone who was “flaming” needed a fire extinguisher. And quick.
  • I saw a demo of the Web very shortly after it had been invented. OK, I admit it: I thought it was inconsequential.
  • My husband invented the first animation app for the Web. I used it on one of my first websites.
Cute cat

This is an unbelievably cute cat picture I got by googling “cut cat photo.” Isn’t it unbelievably cute?? Don’t you want to click on it? Well, so there. I didn’t make it clickable. You’ll just have to look at its shining eyes and cute little white paws and sigh a big, deep sigh before you follow my instructions and go pay attention to your family, friends, or dog. (Or cat. We have cats, by the way. No dog-centricity here. None whatsoever.)

I’m not saying all this to brag. (In fact, I believe that the above facts may place me somewhere on the spectrum between “geek,” “dork,” and “really, really old.”)

I just want to lay things out here. I am not a neophyte. I used the word “newbie” before you were ever close to being a newbie. Perhaps before you were born.

Yet, I want to click on those links.

You know the ones. I see them on Facebook but I bet you see them all over because you’re cooler than I am and you actually know what the heck people use Instagram and Pinterest for.

[Person] [verbs] [object]. And the next thing that happens will [outrageously over-stated verb] you.

It’s like they have found the secret sauce of headlines.

Here’s today’s:

Man Pours Couscous On The Table, But The Next Thing He Does Is Mind-Boggling

Never mind the fact that the writer doesn’t understand capitalization rules. The reason I didn’t hotlink that is because You Want To Click On It.

So do I, so don’t feel so bad.

We all do. My clickbait headline of today is this:

Woman Wants To Click On Stupid Clickbait. What Happens Next Will Blow Your Mind.

Here’s what happens next:

I take my empty wine glass and leave my office. I go downstairs. I kiss my husband, who is making paella (god bless him). I find out what my children have been doing today. I refill my empty wine glass (god bless the winemaker). We sit at our dinner table and we talk. We talk of inconsequential things. We talk of consequential things. But never,

ever,

do we say to  each other:

“The next thing I’m going to tell you will

blow

your

mind.”

Because let’s face it. It’s clickbait. We all have better things to do with our lives.

Please stop reading this. Stop reading Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest. (Do you “read” Instagram and Pinterest or do some other verb to those?) Go to your family, your friends, or even your dog, and do something real.

Please, I implore you.

Woman Implores Readers To Stop Reading. And What Happens Next Is Really Not Very Important At All.

And that’s the way life should be.

Bye.

Posted in Culture.

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Are we doing better? A mom, a daughter, and a small press.

I went to a reading the other night at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was the most fabulously successful reading I’ve seen there, literally standing room only. But it wasn’t Jonathan Franzen or Suzanne Collins that pulled them in.

It was a mom, a daughter, and a little independent press.

The mom is Dena Taylor, famous in Santa Cruz for her many-year run with the great gathering of women writers, In Celebration of the Muse. (I read at The Muse once. I got to wear my fabulous red dress, a color which I admit that redheads should not wear, but I felt pretty darn fabulous and I got a laugh out of the friendly audience of local women and some of their men, so it was great!)

The daughter is Becky Taylor, also somewhat famous in Santa Cruz for being amongst the first mainstreamed disabled people in our public schools.

The press is Many Names Press, which has been run for years by my friend Kate Hitt. Kate selects poetry and prose by mostly local writers who write from the heart and with a unique (and usually not very marketable) point of view.

Kate introducing Becky and Dena at the reading. I had to crop this photo pretty seriously because of the sea of grey and balding heads that were in the foreground! What a crowd! (And a few were neither grey nor balding!)

Kate introducing Becky and Dena at the reading. I had to crop this photo pretty seriously because of the sea of grey and balding heads that were in the foreground! What a crowd! (And a few were neither grey nor balding!)

Kate has been telling me for months that she’s been so excited about working with Dena and Becky on their memoir, Tell Me the Number Before Infinity. The book is written in alternating chapters by Dena and Becky about their experiences. The first experiences are Dena’s, finding out that her daughter had suffered brain damage at birth and would be disabled, then realizing as her daughter grew that her “differently abled” daughter’s abilities included a very advanced aptitude for math. Then we start to hear from Becky as she learns to navigate a world that assumes that a woman who uses crutches and speaks slowly and with a stutter must be stupid, deaf, or a combination of both.

Dena and Becky’s story was familiar to me. I have written before about the term “twice-exceptional” and the difficulties of raising a child who has both unusual disabilities and unusual gifts. Becky’s differences were at the extreme ends. At a time when Americans were unused to disabled people expecting to be allowed into the mainstream, Becky was unique—and often unwanted. And although our public schools in the 70’s were sadly probably better equipped to handle a brilliant child, she faced the stigmatism and misunderstandings that many gifted children face.

Listening to them talk about their experiences made me wonder: Have we improved at all? Are we doing better at accepting twice-exceptionality?

I think to a certain degree, things have improved. Certainly, the general public is much more likely to have interacted with a disabled person now than 30 years ago. Most people are at least aware that physical disabilities don’t necessarily correlate with intellectual disabilities.

On the other hand, schools are probably doing a worse job at integrating brilliant children of any flavor. Our focus on tests and standardization comes at a price: creative, unusual thinkers are devalued. They are bored at the repetition and emphasis on rote knowledge. And teachers often note that such intellectual brilliance doesn’t always correlate with high test scores, so these kids are often dismissed as unteachable.

I am glad, in any case, that Dena and Becky wrote their book, and that at their first reading they—and Kate’s press—were received so warmly. I hope that this book adds yet another little bit of strength in the resistance to the corporatization, standardization, and dumbing down of our education and our literature.

Related:

Posted in Books, Culture, Education, Writing.

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8 Essential Homeschooling Ingredients

I am in the process of writing curriculum to go with my chapter book, Hanna, Homeschooler. (If you’d like to be notified when it’s available, please join my email list.) In the process, I got thinking about what made our early homeschooling years work. Here in no particular order are the ingredients that made our homeschooling recipe sweet, spicy, comforting, complex, and zesty!

#1: LARGE Paper

hannagraduationFor younger children, very LARGE sheets of paper are great! I recommend buying a roll of butcher paper like Hanna has. It can be cut in shorter lengths to serve as a large canvas, or longer pieces to create timelines, maps, full body outlines, and anything else you might think of.

#2: A Digital Camera

Digital cameras saved my homeschooling life! My son was born at the end of the film camera era; my daughter was fully of the digital world. I definitely saw the difference once we didn’t have to pay to take photos. As a homeschooling friend said to me, “the digital camera is your friend.” Take pictures of everything you do and notice during the day. It costs nothing, and in a pinch you can use the pictures for projects.

#3: Marker Set

An enormous set of every color of marker. You can buy such things online for quite cheap, and the array of colors can be very inspiring to children. By the way: don’t leave this out where your kids can access it anytime. Save it somewhere not visible so that when it comes out, it’s special.

#4: Notebooks

Notebooks. Our favorites were homemade using a friend’s spiral binder. We made them for specific purposes, such as “Science Notebook,” “Japanese Notebook,” and even “Sierra Notebook” for when we went to the mountains. Unless your child really needs lines, these should have blank paper and should be bound so they can easily be drawn in under any conditions. (A hardcover book-style binding is rather inconvenient in the woods!)

#5: The Internet

IMG_9846.JPGEven if you don’t want your kids to play on computers, start them early learning that it’s a valuable tool. (Our family had a no-screen policy in our house when our kids were little and continued with a limited-screen policy for a few more years.) “I don’t know–let’s look it up” is the most empowering thing a parent can say to a child. These days it doesn’t take a trip to the library (unless that’s where you get your Internet access). Starting very early, make sure to talk to them about how to decide whether to trust Internet sources.

#6: A Library Card

A great as electronic sources are, kids live in the tactile world. A real book that they can pick up anytime is much more important to have in your house than ten e-books on your tablet. Check out lots of books, even ones they didn’t choose. Unschoolers talk about “strewing”—leaving things around for your kids to discover. If you can go to the library without them, get books on subjects you think they’ll be interested in and “strew” them around the house.

#7: Craft Supplies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These should be separated into two categories. You should always have craft supplies within reach that your children can access at will. If this means a messier house than you’d like, well, just remember that one day your kids will be teens and you will wish they’d be making messes at home more often! The other batch of supplies should be kept out of reach. These are things you should save for those “I’m bored” moments, or times when you are feeling tired, sad, cranky, or any other emotion that makes you a less-than-stellar homeschooler that day.

#8: Friends

When I started homeschooling my daughter, we were in a crisis. We had invested so much in trying to get school to work for her. We didn’t know a single homeschooler. And because of our daughter’s special needs, we didn’t really have school friends with kids her age, either. Our first few months of homeschooling were pretty darn awful. We sat around being angry at each other and lonely for friends. Finally, we joined a homeschool program to meet people. If you’re more outgoing, you might not need a formal group, but introverted me and my unusual daughter needed this. It changed our lives to be part of a group that offered both structured and unstructured time, and through this group we finally made friends.

Posted in Books, Homeschooling, Parenting.


Approaching formal writing

This post continues the discussion of teaching writing that I started with Healthy Writing Habits for Children. In that post, I discussed how to encourage younger children to write freely and comfortably by not stressing what is wrong with their writing. In this post, I’ll address the topic that parents are so often concerned with: preparing children for formal writing.


The most natural formal writing to approach with kids is letter-writing, both digital and physical.

First off, let’s admit it: Formal writing doesn’t yell out “this is fun” to most kids. In fact, teaching kids formal writing too early is often what makes them hate writing in general. Traditional schools excel at making kids hate writing, and the more kids they force writing lessons on, the more kids end up hating writing. Then they justify moving formal writing lessons even earlier, because so many students end up poor writers in high school.

One of the things that many people notice about homeschooled kids, though, is that excepting kids with a specific disability, homeschoolers often end up being proficient writers with little instruction.

The less instruction the better

Is this really true? Should we stop teaching kids how to write? Certainly, this isn’t what I advocate. But I do believe that formal writing lessons need to be left until formal writing is a reality in students’ lives, not just something that school makes them do. This doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be learning to write, but they should be doing it in the developmentally appropriate ways:

  1. Read a lot of great writing
  2. Write a lot about things they are interested in
  3. Value the creation of narrative in any medium—audio, video, illustration, etc.

Don’t jump into formal writing too soon

How do you know a student is ready to approach formal writing? The answer is pretty simple: When the student’s life demands it.

The first formal writing kids do are things like letters to Grandma, Santa, or the Tooth Fairy. This formal writing is perfectly in line with a young child’s life. The next thing a child might want to do is start a blog about something the child is passionate about. Again, this is formal writing but it draws from a need within the child.

As students progress, they might have to do small amounts of formal writing such as:

  • send an email asking for information about a program
  • send an email to a teacher about a class assignment
  • write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper on an issue they’re passionate about

Parents can encourage students no matter how young to write these communications themselves, with some parental guidance.

Bridging the chasm

But aren’t these simple types of formal writing terribly far from a formal essay? Well, not really. As kids mature, they start to see the need to communicate as part of their education and/or work. You don’t have to teach students the execrable 5-paragraph essay format in order for them to understand how to write.

Kids go through the analytical process anytime they ask for a raise in their allowance or permission to get a new pet:

  1. break the issue into its basic parts
  2. analyze it
  3. offer supporting information
  4. present the conclusion

Although the gap between the daily writing that your student does and formal writing may seem wide, kids are learning a lot that you will be able to draw on once they approach formal writing.

A child who is not afraid of writing will start developing formal writing skills as a matter of necessity, as long as the parents are encouraging and supportive. The first few times my son had to send an email for a formal purpose, I would ask him to send me a draft first. We’d go over it, then he’d rewrite and send. After that, he stopped asking for help with emails.

The first time he had to write something longer than an email for a serious purpose, it was simply second nature to him that he’d write out his ideas, we’d look at it together and discuss it, he’d edit and send it.

Writing assignments encourage the worst writing

The times I’ve had real trouble getting my son to write were the times that I simply assigned something to be written for me, to prove that he could do something. And each time I’ve done that, I’ve regretted it. His formal writing that had real purpose was so much more inspired than anything I ever assigned him.

There comes that day…

Eventually, as students recognize the need for formal writing in their lives, they will be willing to tackle the challenge.

What day is that? When your teen is mature enough to realize the point of formal writing without being told. The other day my son casually said to me, “You never read the essay I wrote for history class, did you?” Then he handed it to me. It was a beautifully written, college-level piece of writing about the history of immigration to the US. Yes, it was assigned writing, but he found a topic of interest to him, broke it apart and found supporting documentation, and presented it to his teacher because it was expected of him in the class he was taking.

The process he went through uses what I see as the three developmental stages in developing formal writing skills:

Developmental stage 1: Write about topics of interest and learn to love communication

Developmental stage 2: Learn to analyze, support, and argue an issue so that you can interact with the world

Developmental stage 3: Learn that formal writing has a real, immediate purpose in your life

Not every student is going to be an inspired, enthusiastic writer. But every student who can learn to communicate effectively can learn to do it in textual form. Our biggest job as homeschooling parents is not to make them hate it before they even start to learn.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Writing.


Healthy writing habits for children

One of the hardest things for homeschoolers to work on is writing. We all carry baggage from our own education that colors how we see the writing process. There’s always that nagging voice that says that if we don’t subject our kids to something similar, we will fail to teach our kids to write well.

I have homeschooled two kids, one of them a natural writer, the other reluctant. I also teach kids writing at Athena’s Advanced Academy, and my students come in all flavors. Starting with my own kids, and now even more with my online students, I have rejected the traditional approach to teaching writing. In this post, I will discuss writing strategies for younger (pre-teen) children.

handwritingpenThe tradition: Focus on shortcomings, follow rules

Traditional writing instruction teaches that writing follows rules, and that the teacher’s job is to show students where their writing fails. Students are forced to write:

  1. for no purpose
  2. non-creatively
  3. about subjects they have no interest in
  4. without an audience

Then teachers look at the product, point out what’s wrong, and tell the students to do it again. The result is bad writing, and kids who hate writing so much they will only produce it under duress.

The new approach: Follow passions, focus on the positive

notebookWhen I started homeschooling, I took cues from homeschoolers and from special education teachers. Homeschoolers said that integrating learning into life made for deeper, more meaningful work. Special education teachers, faced with kids who have such severe shortcomings, have to focus on their students’ abilities, whatever they are.

I came across the writing of Patricia Zaballos, who blogs extensively about teaching writing and also wrote a handbook on teaching writing. The crux of her approach is, like special education teachers, to focus on the positive.

My approach to teaching writing is an about-face from the traditional. My students write:

  1. with a clear purpose
  2. creatively
  3. only about their interests
  4. for an audience of fellow students or a general audience on the web

I am there to guide and nurture them, but instead of focusing on their shortcomings, I encourage what’s good about their writing.

Why focus on the positive?

Everyone who has ever had their writing critiqued in a traditional way carries psychological scar tissue that colors their writing. Writing, though necessary in business and academics, is an art. It comes from someplace more personal than the answer to a long division problem or remembering the cause of World War I. To be told that one’s writing is “wrong” is painful and results in negative feelings about writing.

When critiques focus on the positive, students are encouraged to do more of whatever is good in their writing. They are energized by success to find more success.

What if there is no positive?

Sometimes it’s very, very hard to find something good to say about student writing. But it’s worth delving as deep as possible to find encouragement. One student of mine was a very reluctant, poor writer. I had to struggle to find something good to say, but I pointed out that some sentences made me want to know more about what was happening. He responded by developing those sentences into full paragraphs. His writing blossomed. Within a month he was producing writing levels above his original pieces, and I could help him continue to improve by finding new positive points to encourage.

How will students fix the problems if we don’t point them out?

notebookThis is where it’s hard for me to shed the baggage of my own education. I had learned that no one will learn how to write a good paragraph unless we point out that they write bad ones. However, the reverse is actually true. In order to encourage positive development, I point out the very best a writer has produced (even when it’s quite poor). The writer works from her own level to build on her own successes.

I don’t completely ignore lessons in grammar, spelling, and writing structure. But in my classes, I separate these issues from the writing itself. It’s much more fun for students to savage a pretend piece of bad writing generated by me than their own work, which comes from their own souls.

What about preparing for college?

Stay tuned: Once students are preparing to write for college or work, they need a different approach…

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Writing.

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