Monday, March 16, 2015

Do Homeschoolers Get Snow Days?

(Steeper than it looks in this photo)
It's funny how many times people have asked us if as a homeschooler, N. gets snow days.  The answer is "Of course! But not as many as the kids here in North Carolina do..."

We've had two days this winter of real slide-down-the-hills-and-throw-snowballs snow this winter.  On those days, N. is up early and out the door along with all the other kids in the neighborhood.   Since all car traffic virtually stops in our city as soon as flurries begin and snow plows never make it to side streets, the kids gather with sleds at the top of a steep little street in our neighborhood.  Parents guard the intersections while chatting and drinking hot drinks in thermal mugs.  If the conditions are good and you have the right sled, you might get a two-and-a-half-block run downhill.  Adult neighbors catch up with each other while kids throw themselves down the slopes for hours.  The mood is festive because snow is rare and short-lived.

By the next day, the snow is mostly melted and the plow has probably come through.  There's no more sledding.  But the schools in town are still closed! And will continue to be so for days, due to fears of icy roads or unusually cold temperatures.  During a 14-day stretch in February, the public and private schools here had about 3 1/2 days of school, I think.

I love the festivity of the initial snow days, but this excessive fear of a little bit of snow, ice, and cold, drives me, a native Minnesotan, nuts.  Canceling school the moment the mercury drops below 32 is very hard on working parents and the many kids who depend on school for meals.  And I confess to feeling a little smugness along with sympathy as the snow days drag on, seemingly unnecessarily, wreaking havoc on the lives of our friends.  While other kids are home day after day driving their parents crazy, N. and Tim go easily back to their regular studies and routines.  We get all of the fun and little of the disruption caused by snow days in the South.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Would the Quimbys Do?

I recently finished reading Ramona Forever and Ramona the Brave (Beverly Cleary, of course) aloud to N.  He'd been asking to come back to a few of the Ramona books that I hadn't already read to him or that he hadn't read himself.  I resisted because these are easy books for him and I thought he should read them himself; I like to read aloud books that are more advanced, a bit beyond his own reading level.  But he begged and it seemed mean not to give in.  I didn't have another read-aloud in mind, and anyway Ramona is such fun.

I didn't regret reading these aloud because while they might be rather easy reading for a fifth-grader, the stories are emotionally complex.  The world isn't easy for Ramona to navigate!  We talked a lot as I read about her complicated reactions to her experiences.  She gets angry, envious, scared, and pouty.  These are great books for helping kids give voice to their own complex emotions, and the books represent for the adult reader what it feels like to go through the world as a somewhat fractious, complicated kid -- a kid who wants to be loved, wants to be thought "good," but who also has a strong sense of her own self, her needs, her wants.

As a  parent, I was especially struck by the way that Ramona's parents deal with her unhappiness at school, both in kindergarten (in Ramona the Pest, which I read to N. a couple years ago) and in first grade (in Ramona the Brave).  In her first two years of school, Ramona wants desperately to be liked by her teachers, and feels underappreciated by them.  For about a week partway through the year she boycotts kindergarten.  In first grade she begs her parents to get her switched to the other first grade classroom because she has had a series of misunderstandings with her teacher and has come to believe her teacher doesn't like her.  Her parents ascertain that the teacher is not actually a bad teacher, just somewhat formal and old-fashioned, so they make Ramona stick it out. I would probably be exactly the opposite kind of parent: rushing in to meet with teachers, demand changes, etc. to insure my child an optimal learning experience.  I can't even read the resolutions of Ramona's school crises without getting teary!  After all, this is at least in part why we homeschool: to give our child a learning environment better suited to his temperament.

But the point of these episodes in both books is Ramona's resilience.  She survives, even thrives.  Her essential Ramona-ness is not thwarted by being misunderstood.  The bravery of the title is not only shown when Ramona faces down a fierce dog on her walk to school, but when she exercises her "spunk" and shows her teacher who she really is: creative, artistic, resourceful.  She's able to do this because of her parents' confidence in her.  "Buck up, Ramona," said Mr. Quimby after refusing to intervene with her teacher. "Show us your spunk." Ramona was comforted by him singing "Oh my gal she am a spunky gal! Sing polly-wolly doodle all the day!" as he washed the dishes later that night.  Buoyed by this belief in her, Ramona walked to school the next day "filled with spirit and pluck." "She was determined that today would be different.  She would make it different.  She was her father's spunky gal, wasn't she?"

There's been so much research on the importance of inculcating grit, resilience, and determination in kids by letting them wrestle with challenges without parental interference.  Cleary's Ramona anticipates this research.  Though we've chosen not to send our child to traditional school, I hope we are are not depriving him of opportunities to test his ability to face challenges and solve problems -- to be spunky.

(Ramona's originality goes unrecognized)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I think I know my son's tastes pretty well, but I was utterly surprised by the book he's currently obsessed with: Roz Chast's memoir "Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?"  I don't think this was intended for a 10-year-old. It's an account told mostly through drawings of the last years of her parents' lives and of Chast's own efforts to care for them, clean out their apartment, move them to a care facility, etc.

N. had read an excerpt in the New Yorker and begged to get a copy of the book.  I can't really explain why he likes it so much and I have to wait my turn to read it!  But I think he likes the tragicomic tone, and Chast's wry drawings. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Little Help from a Small Bear

The other day we were talking about the new "Annie" movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis.  N. told me there's a girl in his ballet class named Annie who looks like the girl who played Annie in a local production of the musical that we saw a couple years ago.  I said, "Maybe they are sisters."  He said, "No, there wouldn't be two girls in one family named Annie."  I looked at him, puzzled, and then he started laughing, realizing his mistake: of course the girl in the play wasn't named Annie, she just played Annie!  

Then N. said, "Take your daughter back!  Take your daughter back!"  I had no idea what he was talking about, didn't even realize at first that he was quoting something, and certainly didn't recognize the quote.  N. said, "Remember when Paddington went backstage?"

Aha!  N. was referring to an episode in "A Visit to the Theatre" in A Bear Called Paddington that we'd read (probably several times) years ago, when Paddington doesn't realize that the people on stage at a play he attends are playing roles.  He goes back stage at the intermission to try to patch things up between the characters.  N.'s momentary mistake about the name of the girl who played Annie immediately reminded him of this moment in the story.  

I love how this conversation reveals unconscious cognition at work.  N. didn't consciously search his memory for something that would help make sense of a funny mistake that he was a little bit embarrassed about.  But the story jumped to the front of his mind through the power of association. Reading (and being read aloud to) gives us access to a wealth of life experiences through which we can understand our own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning About Opera: Madama Butterfly

As I've written before, we've been to many operas as a family, both regional professional and student productions in our home city and major professional productions in London and Berlin.  N. really enjoys going to the opera, so he was excited recently to go to a regional professional production of Madama Butterfly.

We're often familiar with an aria or two from an opera before we see it, but we've never studied them before we attend.  Thanks to supertitles we can follow the plots and let the magic of the production work on us.  After we go to an opera, we sometimes read more about it and listen to bits on records, CDs, or YouTube.

On the way home from the theater after Butterfly's tragic death, N. asked what that book was in our living room that said "Madama Butterfly" on the spine.  "Oh, that's right," we said, "that's the score.  You might enjoy looking at that."  Because Tim was once the stage director of a regional professional production of Butterfly in Minnesota, we have a CD of the complete opera as well as a full score tucked away with a couple other opera scores in the bookcase in the living room with all the piano, cello, and miscellaneous sheet music.  It hadn't occurred to either Tim or me that N. would be interested in this, but he very much was.  For the next few nights, he listened to the CD and studied different parts of the score, sometimes playing phrases on the piano, examining what changes had been made in the production we saw (which combined Acts 2 & 3 into one, for example).

This was another example of the power of the fortuitous in learning, a favorite theme of mine.  I love those learning moments when an experience sparks an interest and the right materials are in the right place at the right time to make the most of that interest.  We could never be prepared for every such possible moment, for we could never predict them all.  But it is gratifying to watch when everything aligns seemingly naturally for maximum learning.

Poring over the score.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday French Class

This semester I'm supervising N.'s French study on Friday mornings. We're still loving Hachette's Les Loustics series.  In early October we took a long weekend trip to Montreal, where I attended a conference and Tim and N. thoroughly explored the city. It was so fun to see N. decode signs and listen to the French chatter all around us. But today's French lesson began with something more mundane but still culturally central: une boule de chocolat chaud pour le petit déjeuner!  N. thought this was très magnifique!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Milestones: Bike Riding

In late September, N. learned to ride a bike!

In the early years, I biked with him in a baby seat on the back of my bike for a long time (much longer than he technically fit in the seat!) and then I attached a trailing bike to mine, and he happily pedaled (or coasted like a dead weight!) behind me on many long rides on our local greenway.  But when he grew out of the trailing bike, his knees knocking the handlebars with every pump of the pedals, he didn't want to learn to ride a bike of his own.

Not wanting to push him into something he didn't feel ready to do, we waited to get him a bike till he said he was interested (maybe there was a chicken-and-egg problem here, but I thought he knew how fun biking could be because we'd done so much together).  Finally when N. was 8 years old, his pediatrician, who has strongly normative ideas about what children should be doing at every age, told us sternly that N. needed to learn to swim and ride a bike, as soon as possible!  We were amused by this directive, but used it to encourage N.  He was too tall for bikes with training wheels at this point, so I bought him a nice, barely used hybrid trail bike with lots of gears and hand brakes, thinking it would last several years as he became a competent rider.

Instead, this fancy bike intimidated N.; he tried it a couple times but was overwhelmed and couldn't get the hang of it.  After a couple initial forays, he refused to try it again. I sold the bike on Craigslist last summer before we went abroad for the semester.

This fall for his 10th birthday N. picked out a simpler cruiser bike (no gears or hand brakes).  He was still reluctant to try it out, but one day I finally convinced him to get on it. I told him I would hold the seat and run behind him.  Which turned out to be a benevolent maternal lie.  He got on the bike and took off on his first try, thinking I was back there, helping him stay balanced.  There he was, riding down the street with me jogging a bit behind, as if he'd always known how!  He couldn't believe it when I told him he was doing it all himself!

I got my bike fixed up (sitting unused in the garage for years while I waited for N. to join me on bike rides, the tires had rotted and the chain rusted through) and we've taken rides together on the greenway, to the farmers' market, around the neighborhood.  On every ride, N. calls out in wonder and disbelief, "Riding a bike is fun!"   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Solo Field Trip: Washington D.C.

N with his Gram at the Newseum
Recently N. spent a few days visiting his grandparents in Washington, D.C. all on his own.  This was the first time he spent more than one night away from home without Tim and me, and he had a great time.  He did lots of fun stuff with Gram/Bop, including visits to the Spy Museum, the Newseum, and a ride on the DC Metro's new Silver Line.  They went to a Nationals baseball game.  They went to Eastern Market.  They walked the dogs and played lots of Legos.

When I was 5 years old I started spending a week during the summers visiting my grandma, first by myself and then with one of my younger sisters.  At the time my parents and siblings and I lived in the country in northern Minnesota, outside of a town of 200 people and my grandma lived on a busy street corner in St. Paul.  I felt I was in a foreign, exotic place when I fell asleep at her house with the bright streetlights and traffic noise glaring and blaring (so it seemed to me) through the windows all night long.  Grandma took us to the zoo, took us "bumming" (her word for shopping!) so she, the mother of two boys, could buy her granddaughters matching frilly dresses, took us out for the greasy food she loved to indulge in at places like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sirlin's Sirloins, Mickey's Diner, and Ember's Restaurant.  None of these were things we did in our regular, rural, healthy, hippie life at home!  We loved visiting Grandma by ourselves.

It was easy for me to go on these visits.  I was a confident child and it never even occurred to me to worry about being away.  I loved my home, but I was never homesick when I visited my grandma, or later my aunt, or my friend in the country after we moved to the city, or when I went to camp.  When I was N.'s age I happily flew with my Grandma from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C. for a 2-week whirlwind bus tour of all the major sites in the capital, as well as Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello!

Me, about to board a plane with my Grandma (1984).
N. is totally different and it took him a long time to feel ready to spend even a few days away from home.  I'm proud of him for getting to that point.  Should we have pushed him to go earlier so he could have the years of memories that I got to make with my grandma?  I think it's hard to say.  I know he would have been fine and had a wonderful time earlier.  Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert, believes that experiences such as going to summer camp even when you don't think you want to teach you resilience, teach you to be OK with your own discomfort, give you practice in managing complex emotions such as being homesick but also having a great time.  I can see how all that would be true.  And maybe going on a solo visit before he knew he was ready would have been a revelation for N.

But it seemed to me that pushing N. to go before he felt ready would not be honoring his emotions as real and legitimate.  For me, it was just as important that his concerns, feelings, and preferences are valued and respected by us as that he learn that his worries might be unfounded.  In the end, I just couldn't bring myself to force him to go before he thought he was ready.  He had such a good time on this visit to his grandparents, however, that I hope this will be the first of many independent trips and experiences, including more visits to family, and even summer camps!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Banned Books Week!

It's Banned Books Week, a great celebration of the American freedom to read.  This week N. discovered the Captain Underpants books, and has been reading them nonstop; as it happens, the author of this series, Dav Pilkey, produced a cartoon in honor of Banned Books Week:

I very much appreciate his message.  There's nothing wrong with exercising parental judgment about what is appropriate reading for one's own children (especially young children -- I personally think this parental right expires when one's children are in high school).  But parents should not impose these judgments on other parents or other parents' children by banning books!

Here are some lists of frequently banned or "challenged" books. Celebrate your freedom by reading a banned book today!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Man in Black

Recently we went to a book festival in our city and heard the writer G. Neri describe the process of writing his new picture book about Johnny Cash's early life and the beginning of his career in music.  Neri tells the story in free-verse poems that are laid out on the page like song lyrics on the back of a record cover facing A.G. Ford's rich illustrations that could be the front of the album. (Neri's other books [which I have not read] are for older kids, and I wouldn't have necessarily thought before reading this that Johnny Cash's life was picture-book material, but this is appropriate for ages 7 and up.)  N. was mesmerized by Neri's account of Cash and Neri's own path as he researched Cash's story.  We bought the book and Neri signed it for N., which N. thought was just about the coolest thing ever.  This was the first time he'd met an author (of a children's book, I should say -- he's met many authors of scholarly books, and indeed lives with one, but that's hardly as cool)!