7QT: Beginning of School Edition

One: We’ve had two weeks of school so far. Week one, grades 7 and 12 started. (So far, 12th grade has consisted of my asking, “You good, bro?” several times a day in the 12th grader’s general direction.)

Two: This week, 11th grade began. I needed that extra week to pull together the final details of her AP Lit and (non-AP) economics classes. In order to prepare for Lit, I had about 834 hundred books spread out on the kitchen table. 11th grader came, picked up The Merchant of Venice, and announced, “I think I’ve read this one. Don’t they stand in the street and yell at each other?”

The next day, she said, “This can’t be the one I’m thinking of.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Duh, Mom,” she said, “it’s Venice. They don’t have streets.”

Three: Today’s economics discussion was on Specialization and Trade. We played Settlers of Catan as our class activity. Also: anyone who says economics is purely a descriptive science and is inherently amoral is full of it. I’ll go the mat on this one.

Four: Yesterday’s AP Literature discussion was on my all-time favorite essay, Expedition to the Pole by Annie Dillard. (Seriously. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s in The Annie Dillard Reader and in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Go ahead. I’ll wait…)

Oh, you’re back. Did you love it? My 11th grader did, and we spent an hour talking about the extended metaphors and how the structure of the essay led to the meaning. I think this is going to be my favorite class.

Five: 7th grade is doing “advanced botany” this year, which includes vermiculture (a.k.a, composting with worms.) I have been waking up in the wee hours of the morning imagining red wigglers taking over the house, which seems a little premature since the worms are still in a FedEx truck somewhere between here and Pennsylvania.

One of our dearest, earliest homeschool mentors told us a story eighteen years ago about a homeschooling talk they’d heard at a convention. The details have become somewhat apocryphal, but the gist was that one strategy for learning is to say, “Why not?” every time your kid wants to explore something new. We started with gardening, then added a cold frame, and now worms. I’ll keep you posted on where it lands us next.


preparing the worm bin

Six: The Denver Art Museum continues to be one of my favorite places. Their exhibits are so thoughtful, so thought provoking. The latest is Norman Rockwell: Imagining Freedom, and the curation of the exhibit taught me so much I didn’t know about WW2 and Rockwell as an artist. If there’s any way you can make it there (they’re doing timed entries and requiring masks), do.

Seven: Earlier this month, we visited one of our favorite local bookstores that had just reconfigured and reopened to make more distance in the store. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to browse bookshelves. We spent more than an hour seeing old [printed] friends and discovering future reads. All of us were so deeply happy to be there.

My job was to help them find the sections where books they’d been wanting were located. After I done that twice for my own kids, another random customer came over to me to ask if I could help her find a book, and I had to admit that I didn’t work there, I was just a mom.

Thanks for reading! I hope your adventures- be they homeschooling or with extreme botany or Adam Smith (that jerk)- are wonderful. Check out This Ain’t the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Making mistakes

Hey, friends. I’m still here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about white privilege and how it works inexorably in my favor, and against my neighbor. It’s hard to talk and think about, and I’ve been silent on this platform, because I’m uncomfortable with the conversation… so I’m listening and learning. This is work I have to do. Being uncomfortable is good for me, and I hope in the long run it will make the world a better place.

Also, I’ve been thinking about our home school- you know, looking back at this year and our successes and failures and all the meh moments in between. I’ve been thinking specifically about failure, and how important it is for learning. Julie Bogart of Bravewriter talks about how homeschooled kids never get a math problem wrong because their parents won’t let them. It’s funny here, but that was exactly how we worked in our house until I read that statement. Now after I mark their math work, I look for the patterns and decide which problems (if any) I want them to correct. Recently, it’s never more than one or two.

Likewise, I used to correct every little thing they did “wrong,” even when most of them were purely style. I did this in their reading aloud, in their writing, in the way they set the table, in the way they made their beds… all in the spirit of “learning to do it right.” How exhausting for them.

You know what? With most things, there are lots of ways to do it right. And who’s to say that my way of making the bed is better than theirs? Really, it’s just my preference.  My kids learn so much better from making real mistakes, whether it’s getting lost on their bikes, or not having enough money for something they want to buy because they spent some last week on candy.

But then I got to thinking about how my black friends don’t have the luxury of letting their children make mistakes.

If one of my kids talks back to a teacher in a classroom, I’m going to get a phone call. If my black friend’s kid talks back to a teacher, they’re much more likely to get embroiled in the criminal justice system, because we put police in schools.

If one of my kids is driving our car with a broken tail light, they’re going to get a warning or a ticket. If my neighbor’s black teenager gets stopped for driving with a broken tail light, who’s to say he will make it home alive?

This plays out in a million ways, most of which I’ve had the privilege never to consider.

Making mistakes is part of childhood.  It’s a necessary part of learning, and it’s an opportunity we’ve stolen from our brothers and sisters of color, and their children.  I don’t know how to change it, but I want to be part of the culture of change that will give everyone’s children the opportunities I’ve had.

Daybook: Mid-May, 2020

Outside my window: gray and green. The temperature today is supposed to top out at 41 degrees (F). I brought the fuchsia plants in so they wouldn’t go into shock. The trees are recovering from the late freeze and finally have some leaves.



I splurged on some hanging flowers for the porch. Normally I don’t,
because when we travel they all die, but… this summer we’re not traveling.

In the kitchen: Last night Phoebe’s first harvest of butter lettuce inspired me to make hoisin tofu lettuce cups and hot & sour soup, but my broth didn’t turn out right. It was a disappointment. However, not all was lost.

While I was trying to finish the final steps to put everything on the table, I had six hungry people chatting all around me and getting in my way. Once all the hungry people are fed, they want to disappear immediately into their own pursuits, though I would love for them to linger. I’m thinking a platter of hors d’oeuvres before dinner might prolong the pre-dinner linger. Please send me your favorite appetizer recipes in the comments!



My favorite part of Zoom school: Bob Ross-like
watercolor paint-alongs with the art teacher.

In the schoolroom: This week is the end of college finals for Jonah, and AP exam week (1/2) for Owen and Moriah. Phoebe had her first committee meeting (via Zoom) for an environmental action group she joined. It all sounds great on paper, but we are exhausted. According to the numbers we should continue school through May 29, but I going to call an audible (Omaha!) and wipe the final week of school off calendar. I figure we had less disruption to our school than, well, most of America, and we can just be done.

In my shoes: While all our lives are better when we move, we’re still struggling to do it.

On my mind: white privilege. It greases so many wheels in my life. I am beginning to see how systemic racism is much of the ground underneath my feet. I don’t know how to pull it up, but I am learning to look where I am walking. It’s not enough, but it’s a beginning.

Also: how health care system pays for procedures, not for thinking. For treatment but not prevention. We are seeing the effects of this in so many ways right now, from the failure to follow through on pandemic planning to the financial crisis in many health care entities.

Grateful:

  • for my neighbors’ creativity
  • for a weekend that managed to be both fun and restful
  • the technology that has made it possible to stay connected with friends and colleagues far (and near)
  • Sam’s hard work
  • my nephew’s college and MBA graduation
  • policy makers trying to thread the needle of economic survival in the face of loss of lives

Praying for:

  • clear answers and compassionate care for a hospitalized friend
  • family members who have to be advocates from afar
  • the lonely
  • safe spaces to grieve whatever we have lost, even if it’s smaller than what our friends/neighbors/communities have lost
  • students trying to show what they’ve learned during this much-interrupted year of learning
  • Mandy, Judy, Joanie, Eric & family, Jennifer, Clare

My child finished all their work. Now what?

Did we make it through week one?

By now you will have noticed the surprising truth about homeschooling: it doesn’t take the whole day.

2006. vinegar + baking soda + food coloring = happy child

When I started homeschooling, I thought that because traditional school occupied the child from 8:30-3, my home education was supposed to take the same amount of time. My effort to occupy my child for six and a half hours was excruciating. When he whizzed through his math worksheet, I added another. When he grasped the science lesson after ten minutes, I added three extra examples of the same principle. I heaped on assignments, thinking this was how it had to work. And still, we had hours each day where he looked at me, waiting for the next thing, and I had nothing. I felt like a failure.

As I read more and learned through experience, I discovered that less was more, especially during the younger years.

homemade Senet (ancient Egyptian funerary game), circa 2008

First grade “work” takes an hour. First grade learning takes all day.

You may have discovered the same thing this week by watching your own child.

So what do you do with the rest of the day, after your child has blown through the worksheets their teacher sent home? Please don’t buy more workbooks.

some sort of engineering project, 2009

What’s missing from your child’s “school day” is all of the negotiation between the teacher and the other twenty (or thirty) students in the room: classroom management. You’re not spending any time on roll call, handing in assignments, hearing the excuses for missed work, putting boots in cubbies, people asking to go to the bathroom, discussing the announcements, lining up to go to P.E.—or rather you are, but only for one child (or four). Multiply the transition time for your one by thirty, and now you have the other five and a half hours of first grade.

So what are you supposed to do with your child all day?

May I suggest boredom?

Boredom is the secret sauce of learning. Boredom is what makes a child look for the answers to their questions. It’s what makes practicing the piano interesting. An occupied child isn’t going to practice piano for two hours because you told them to, but a child who has “nothing better to do” might go try to figure out the theme song from their favorite anime even after their half hour of obligatory practicing. A bored child is going to be the one to follow the rabbit trail from their question of “how do I make slime?” to cooking and making their own cleaning supplies and actually testing those in your bathroom. (Or not.) They might build the BIGGEST LEGO WORLD EVER. They might figure out how to program their own computer game. They might practice their pirouettes until they can finally do a triple on their left foot.

playing Ode to the Bored Child, 3rd movement

So embrace the boredom. Let your kids plow through the assignments their teachers send home next week and then let them sit and wonder what they’re supposed to do next. It might be a new experience for them. It might open up a whole new world.

"I'm never going to survive two months of this."

This was a text from someone dear to me. She asked for tips to survive at home with her kids. She’s not alone. I’ve gotten a whole bunch of texts and messages that are variations on this theme, and I have a few tips.

Social distancing: only one kid per tree.

I’m also going to refer you to some other homeschoolers I turn to when I think I’m not going to make it.

Kelly Mantoan is a Catholic homeschooler and possibly one of the funniest people out there. Both her faith and her humor feature in her writing. She posted the other day on How to get stuff done when everyone is home. Start there.

Julie Bogart has graduated five homeschooled adults into the world and offers a wealth of kindness, encouragement and practical help. I have linked here to her blog post announcing a free conference next week for Homebound learners that might be of help. She also has a ton of curriculum resources, both short- and long-term, and a great book, The Brave Learner.

Melissa Wiley is a writer and long-term homeschooler. She’s got great advice for us.

I also want to highlight an Instagram feed with practical and evidence-based help for parents on managing kids’ behavior. You can find Jennifer on Instagram at everydayba.

My tips for surviving being stuck at home to save the world:

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Remember why you’re home.

We all know someone whose risk with the virus is extremely high, whether it’s grandparents or neighbors or friends from school, and our temporary incarceration directly benefits them. Talk about this with your kids. Let them know that their actions matter. We have chosen to stay home to protect the vulnerable. It doesn’t feel heroic when your floor is covered with rice and ants and you’re yelling at your kids to set the table (um, me yesterday) but it is.

Adjust your goals.

This is code for “lower your standards.”

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This was immediately after some children finished “picking up.”

Perhaps your kids go to an elite school and are now trying to learn calculus off your television. Or maybe you have been in the habit of enjoying six hours of blessed silence every day while your kids are at school, and well… now there’s no silence and a house full of kid crap twenty-four hours a day.

Go back to tip #1 (remember why you’re doing this) and adjust your expectations. This may not be the year your kid masters calculus, but they are going to learn lessons of resilience, independence in time management, and creative mental health strategies that will benefit them their whole lives.

Likewise, you are now sharing your daytime work space with another person (or five more people), and it’s going to look different. But maybe this is the season when your kids finally learn how to pick up after themselves, do their own laundry and clean the house. (Their future roommates/spouses will thank you.)

A word about screen time: there are so many options emerging for fitness classes online, learning remotely, and connecting with loved ones. If you have strict screen-time limits, this is a good time to evaluate adjusting those. However, we should still be strict about WHERE screens live in our homes. There is good evidence that we eat, sleep and learn better if the screens stay out of our bedrooms, kitchens, and hidden corners of the basement.

Make a plan.

Humans like to know what’s going to happen next. This is what makes us different from dogs, and is probably why all of us are losing it right now.

Your plan should work for all of you. Not just for the kids, and not just for you. Sit down together to set some goals and priorities, and then shoo them away while you make the actual plan. Follow it for a week or two, and then readjust.

Move often.

Seven times out of ten, when my kids start snarking at each other, it’s after a prolonged period of sitting or lying around. Ninety percent of the remaining time, it’s because they’re hungry or tired. You schedule your meals and add snacks when necessary. Do the same with movement.

Schedule regular movement throughout your day. And if you notice kids getting crabby, shake it up with some movement. The younger the kids, the shorter (and more frequent) the movement breaks need to be. Think: turn up the music and dance a song. Do five jumping jacks. Take a ten minute walk before lunch.

Dance break!

Be generous with praise.

Our kids are anxious. They may be reading the news, or just reading our moods, but they can tell things are not right. When we draw their attention (and our own) to what’s going well, the more of that we’ll get.

  • “I noticed how patient you were with your sister during Monopoly.”
  • “Thanks for waiting to talk to me till I got off the phone.”
  • “Thanks for unloading the dishwasher.”
  • “You’ve been working really hard on that math problem. Shall we work on it together for a little while?”

Keep a running tally of what went well.

I try to write down at least a couple things every day. My list is as simple as “P called Papa & Grandma, M unloaded dishwasher without complaining, crocuses by the front tree.” These aren’t major victories by any means, but they make all the difference in how my brain catalogs this day. A few small victories can move us from having a “bad day” to “good day.”

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Apologize often.

Say you’re sorry. Hug lots. Be consistent in your rules (whatever you all decide they should be) and have lots of grace for each other and yourself.

You can do this.

You are doing it. Thank you for protecting the vulnerable.

How routine can be your friend right now

These are challenging days, with lots of time on our hands and not a lot of structure. Perhaps your family needs a week or more of unstructured time to decompress from the pace you’ve been going for too long. But when your kids start picking at each other over nothing and you’re looking for a way to add some structure to your days, I have a suggestion.

Right now all our routines are out the window… or are they? We’re still getting up in the morning. We still eat meals and brush our teeth (hopefully). My teens still pick up their phones first thing. Some of us have dogs that need to be walked.

These routines can be harnessed to make your quarantine “school” more effective and pleasant.

Perhaps you have some online or assigned work from your child’s teachers. Maybe you have some of your own goals for your kids’ learning during this time. Today is NOT the day to roll it all out like some kind of new school in your living room. Expecting your child to jump into six hours of “school” at the kitchen table is a disaster waiting to happen, and we have enough of those circulating right now.

Instead, today is the day to make a plan.  Sit down with your child and set a few goals and priorities.

If your child’s goal for this time is to be able to hit a tennis ball against the wall 100 times without missing, and your goal is for them to learn their times tables, write these down.

If what you need is two uninterrupted hours to work from home each day, and your child really wants to be able to lie around in their pajamas, then write these down as your priorities.

Now write down a schedule with only your anchor activities. You don’t necessarily need the exact times, but the order is important. For example:

Take dog out
Breakfast
Get dressed/ready for school
 
Walk dog
Lunch
 
 
 
 
After school snack
Homework from school
Make dinner, eat
Walk dog again
Bedtime

Now I’m going to add in our “work”.

Take dog out
Breakfast
Kid: Times tables (10 minutes) Adult: clean up from breakfast
Kid: Free time Adult: your work
Walk dog
Lunch
Kid: Times tables (10 min) Adult: make a plan for dinner
Kid: Hit ball against garage Adult: work
Kid: Free time Adult: work
After “school” snack
Assignments from school
Make dinner, eat
Walk dog again
Bedtime

#First, did you notice I took out “get dressed/ready for school”? Throwing your kid this bone might work for your family as leverage for some of the harder things you’re going to ask them to do later.

* Did you see I said just 10 minutes for drilling times tables? This wasn’t an arbitrary number. A child’s attention span (on average) if their age in minutes, plus 3, so an 8 year-old cannot be expected to have an attention span of more than 11 minutes. Obviously, when we get into a state of flow or deep work, this may change, but we can’t expect that deep flow state to happen over something like times tables. As you plan your day, keep this guideline in mind. Eight minutes at the table is a good stretch of work for a five year-old. A fifteen year-old isn’t going to work in an uninterrupted fashion on something difficult for more than 20 minutes.

Some days will work better than others. You may find your child wants to learn something else entirely. You may find that your child’s attention span is half of what you thought it was. Some days will fall apart. That’s okay.

Even if during the morning, your kid has a tantrum during their ten minutes of running their times tables and you spend a chunk of your own “work time” trying to help them with their anxiety, your world reverts to normal again with your pre-lunch dog walk. Or at lunch. The anchors fix our schedule, even when the new part is a challenge.

Once you have a bare-bones routine like this working, you might be able to add another activity or two into the mix, always keeping the anchors steady.

Take dog out
Breakfast
Kid: Times tables (10 minutes) and read a chapter of a book
Adult: clean up from breakfast, make a plan for dinner
Kid: Face time with Grandma, then Free time
Adult: your work
Walk dog
Lunch
Kid: Times tables (10 min)
Adult: 10 min of prepping ingredients for dinner
Kid: Hit ball against garage, then 20 min of a YouTube nature documentary
Adult: work
Kid: Free time
Adult: work
After “school” snack
Assignments from school
Make dinner, eat
Walk dog again
Bedtime

Routines are good for us. Kids like to know “what’s next.” While we can’t answer so many of their questions right now (When will school open again? What will we do this summer? What about the school play? Will the Olympics still happen? What about graduation?) we can ease some of the daily angst with routines. All the better if our routines include time to accomplish small goals, daily exercise, and time together.

For some suggestions of small goals and other ways to fill this time, check out this post. Or if your child (or you) are experiencing anxiety right now (and who isn’t?), read here.

Hang in there, friends!

Seven Quick Takes: Welcome, instant homeschoolers

I started this post yesterday and was writing about how concerned I was that people weren’t taking the idea of social distancing seriously enough. But then my phone exploded with texts from worried friends and family wanting me to put my doctor hat on and tell them they really could still go on vacation/attend the concert/play that tournament, and I didn’t finish writing.

Now, twenty-four hours later, schools (and sports, club and the school play) are canceled, church is canceled, dance classes/recitals are canceled, and for some reason the entire US strategic stockpile of Charmin is gone. So now I’m writing a different post.

ONE: Are you a parent who is suddenly thrust into the world of schooling at home? WELCOME!

We’ve all been there. Even if homeschooling was our choice to begin with, please know that there have been days and weeks and months that we have not wanted to be at home with our children 24/7. You are not a bad parent for looking at the days ahead and wondering what on earth you’re going to do.


You too can have a house that looks like this!

Know that your child is likely just as freaked out about the situation as you are. I recommend trying to treat this time as a temporary normal as much as you can. Do not try to replicate in your living room the school experience your kids are used to. Instead, recognize that this disconnection from your/their normal life is hard, and offer lots of grace.

As much as you can, be patient with yourself. Offer yourself grace. All of the kindness you give yourself will spill over onto your nervous children. Likewise, all the ways that you beat yourself up because the house is a wreck and you ran out coffee (why did we spend all that time looking for toilet paper when what we really needed was COFFEE???) will spill over onto your family.

As my children remind me when I lose it and then they lose it, everything rolls downhill.


The medal ceremony from our 2010 LegOlympics.

TWO: Here are a few suggestions to keep from strangling each other while you’re at home. Whatever you do, don’t try to do them all.

(Studies show that accomplishing small goals actually gives us an endorphin boost (like a runner’s high), and couldn’t we all use that right now?)

  • play every board game in the house at least once
  • work through your puzzles
  • spring cleaning
  • NaPanNoWriMo (my own invention: National Pandemic Novel Writing Month): can you write an entire novel before we all go back to our regular programming?
  • let your kids write and film a movie
  • make a LEGO world
  • work your way through a cookbook together
  • build a Minecraft (or other computer game) world and all of you play it together (this is way more exciting if you, the adult, choose to participate and let your kids introduce you to their world)
  • paint a room together
  • choose a topic you know nothing about and learn everything you can together

Your kids may not be used to having unstructured time together. With all the scheduled activities we’ve given our kids over the years, some kids have never had an opportunity. They may need some modeling of what creative play looks like. The best way to teach them how to do it is to join them in it.

THREE: Welcome the spring. Depending on where you are in the country (world), spring may have already come and gone. But if the spring is headed your way, use this interruption in life to pay some attention to the renewing of nature that long predates both this pandemic and our society. Outdoors is likely the healthiest place for us, and the numerous studies show the link between time outdoors and decreased anxiety.

Do you have a garden? Start one. Do you have a landscaping project you want to take on? This is the hour!

FOUR: Support local businesses. Part of the reason many activities have been slow to cancel is because so many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. There is a role for social distancing, but there are ways to stay connected that don’t have to mean economic collapse for our neighbors’ businesses. For example, our dance studio is going to offer private classes. They’ll wipe down the ballet barre between students, and the teachers can effectively teach from six feet away. I want them to be in business at the end of the pandemic, so I’m going to support them. Ditto for our music teachers, whose other lives as teachers and performers have been canceled.

Maybe you have parents or grandparents who are also isolated right now. This is great time for your kids to start a project with them. Interview them about what school/childhood/early life/the war was like for them. Do they have a skill? Ask them to teach it to you!

Also, the US mail is still delivering letters. Kids love pen pals. Grandparents, aunts/uncles and cousins all make great pen pals.

Google and Zoom are making their services free, and this is a great time to find a neighbor/teacher/friend who has a skill your kid wants to learn and let them teach it. Hire a Skype Spanish/knitting/writing tutor for your child and let them learn something totally new.


Here we covered the table in big paper, pulled out the art supplies, and drew/read together.

FIVE: Y’all know I love books. This is a great time to discover books you’ve never read. While your library may be closed for business, their online catalog is open. Likewise, your local bookstore would probably appreciate your business. Some of our best memories as a family come from books we read aloud together.

Remember that time we were halfway through the Little House books and drove past Vinton, Iowa, and I said, “Look- there’s the school Mary went to after she went blind!” There was a moment of horrified silence, and then all my children howled from the back seat, “Mary goes BLIND???!!”

SIX: Do you have vulnerable neighbors? This is a great time to check in with your neighborhood. Perhaps your kids could take on the grocery shopping for them.

SEVEN: Your family may not have medically fragile or elderly members right now, but your community does. Our willingness to comply with social distancing is going to make the difference in how this pandemic plays out. Thank you for doing your part!

During the upcoming weeks I’ll be posting links here to online tutorials, activities and learning we can do at home during this unusual time. Feel free to share this blog with anyone you think might need a little extra support during their brand-new homeschooling adventure.

You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.

Clara Barton

Hang in there, friends!

Seven Quick Takes: How to Survive February

February has always been a hard homeschooling month for me.  We’re not far enough through any curriculum to feel like we’re in the home stretch, and yet it feels like we’ve been going forever. It took me years to figure out that it wasn’t just me, or just because I homeschooled. February is the month that my friends whose kids are in traditional school ask, “Could I enroll my kid in your school?” February is deep in the throes of work, weather, and whining. February is hard.

So anyway, here’s what we’re doing to keep our sanity during the longest shortest month.

One: Stick to the routine.

February is not the month to jettison the math book in favor of the new, shiny program with $1500 of consumables you just found online. It may be true that you need a new math program, but February isn’t the month to make that decision.

My sixth-grader always dreads doing her dyslexia program, but once we’re actually in the midst of it, she says, “This isn’t so bad.” Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I am seeing slow (incremental) progress. Yes, we keep it up. Here and there I have shortened it for the day, but we are staying the course.

When we hold the course, somehow we turn the corner into March and find ourselves “mostly done” with all sorts of things. All that incremental progress has paid off. Read-aloud books wrap up, we realize we’re near the end of the math book, and we start working on recital pieces in music. All of that seems impossible in February.

Two: Chunk it. “Chunking” (not to be confused with chucking or crunking) is breaking a large goal into small, manageable pieces.

Right now both my high schoolers are staring down the barrel of multiple AP exams.  They have heavy loads. They do so much better when I (or they) break down their weekly tasks into specific assignments of reading, review, taking practice tests, etc.

Three: Move more. Even fifteen minutes outside is enough to warm me up and change how I look at my day and my life.

In December I had been struggling with motivating myself to exercise. I know in my head it’s good for me, but I just couldn’t get going.  I was starting to have all sorts of random aches and pains, which is usually a sign I need to move my body more. But it was cold and dark, and I wanted to be warm on the couch.



The view from a recent run.

So my BRF and I signed up for a race this spring, so now I have to get off the couch and little by little, put in the miles. (There’s that chunking again.)

Four: Simplify. In the dark of winter, I find meal planning and prep is harder for me. February is a good time to cook double and stick half in the freezer to pull out later.

I’ve also resorted to pulling out past years’ meal plans so that one part of the task is already done for me.


2017: puzzle while we listened to The Martian by Andy Weir

Likewise, if you’re struggling, February is a great time to pull out the audiobooks and a puzzle to work on together as a family, instead of trying to do a huge hands-on history project like the great Chicken Mummification Debacle of 2015.

Five: Focus on fun. (I know this seems to be contradicting #2, but work with me here.)

Our weekly poetry tea is one of the most fun parts of our week. This month is no exception. Last week we used my mother’s Palestinian pottery tea set, and the girls made a delicious tea for us at home while I took a nap. Yesterday we went to the Milkshake Lab for our “tea.”



Why yes, that is a bag of PopRocks dangling from a milkshake
by glow sticks and slap bracelets.

In past years, we have stripped February’s routine to the bare bones (only math and reading, for example) in order to add skiing and adventure days into the mix. This February happens to include a few weekend trips for me and another for Sam and our sixth-grader. Instead of trying to cram five days of work into four so we can travel, we’re just letting those days go.

Maybe you have the energy for a unit study this month. Last February we did a unit study on chocolate and Central America. It doesn’t have to be elaborate to be fun.



At the Botanic Gardens looking for chocolate plants.

Six: Look for beauty.

Hang up your kids’ art, especially if the colors are bright. Treat yourself to fresh flowers from the grocery store.  Put the bowl of lemons and oranges out on the table. Set a candle next to the math book. These things mean more to me in February than in September.

They’re also a part of the highly-hyped Hygge that I can’t pronounce but totally see the wisdom of.  (An aside: why are we not worried about cultural appropriation from the Danes?)

Seven: Be gentle with yourself. Take a few days off (and don’t use them for cleaning!)

Sometimes February is just a low part in the year’s cycle; sometimes it’s more. If February blues are more than just blues, don’t beat yourself up. Ask for help. None of your current plans or curricula are more important than your mental health.

What are your ways to beat the February Blues?

Hard work pays off

The past 3 years have been particularly humbling for me as a parent. Gone are the days when my kiss heals a boo-boo, or an extra-early bedtime fixes most things. My kids have struggles I can’t lift from their shoulders, and I see in so many ways how my own good intentions went wrong in the execution.

But the past month or two, a few things have turned around, and I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. Perhaps I am more tuned in to small victories. With that in mind, for the rest of January I’m going to share a few of our celebrations.

One: Hard work pays off.

A million years ago (in the last decade, at least), one of my kids was in the Cub Scouts. My recollection is that we, as parents, put in a ton of volunteer time, and my kid had zero motivation to do any of the activities. He just wanted to hang out with his friends. The boys got badges for attending the mostly passive activities the parents put on, and my kid was more or less a sponge. I wanted some sort of activity to demonstrate to him the power of hard work.

When the Pinewood Derby came along, I thought it would be the perfect vehicle to show him how important hard work was. The troop had a marathon session to design and build the cars, and our kid showed up, cut a triangle out of wood with the assistance of a grown-up, and slapped some wheels on a chunk of wood. The most interesting part to him was painting it. I was sure that his car, though shiny, would come in last, and he would learn the valuable lesson that hard work counts.

His car won the Derby.  He happily accepted the shiny trophy and learned nothing about hard work.

Fast forward many years. I have watched my kids grow up in a culture that rewards even reluctant participation, and I wonder what we’ve taught this generation. As my kids have gotten older, each one of them has encountered the jump in expectations, where the “it’s enough to participate” suddenly turns into, “only the best players get time on the court.”  It has shocked each one of them and has ended many activities. I wonder if there’s a place for a more gradual transition, but I don’t see it happening.

As a homeschooling parent, I have gone too far the other way. When they get an A on an exam I know they didn’t study for, I find it hard to respond. I have erred on the side of calling out their hard work (“I see how hard you studied. Great job”), instead of congratulating them on results (“You got an A! Well done.”)  All the parenting articles told me this was the way to go. My kids tell me the message they heard through my praise is, “What you do is never enough for me.”

Anyway, you see my dilemma. Recently I’ve been trying to shut my mouth and let the consequences of their actions alone give my kids the feedback they need.  Jury’s out on what will happen.

My daughter routinely spends nine or ten hours a week in dance classes and rehearsals, but gone are the days when showing up to class means you get more than a minor part in the performance. It’s now about auditions and turn-out and strength and lines. She was sorely disappointed in August not to move up in ballet with some of her friends, and not to get the part she wanted in the Nutcracker.

After some moping, she sought out a new pointe shoe fitter. I had my doubts, but he was great. He acknowledged both her strengths and weaknesses and took a completely different approach than the previous fitter.  He gave her exercises to work on her turnout, and she has faithfully done these every day. She has set up to barter as a teacher’s assistant with the littlest dancers in order to attend an additional ballet class (!) every week.

Last night at class, her teacher said she’s noticed her progress and is going to advance her. My daughter was so excited to tell me, she was dancing. That’s feedback I can get behind.

This is only one take- more to come if I can keep my gratitude glasses on my face. Check out Kelly for more quick takes.

What worked for me in 2019

A few years back, I started a year-end review framed by the two questions, “What worked for me this year?” and “What didn’t work for me this year?” (The questions came from Modern Mrs. Darcy; the answers are my own.) Here’s what worked for me this year:

  1. Leaving the twinkle lights up all year

All right, so this photo is from this morning. But imagine the room
without the stockings and still with the lights. Cozy, right?

When we took down all the Christmas decorations last Epiphany, we left the twinkle lights up.  They make those long winter nights (and long, dark mornings) so much cozier.

2. Asking, “How can I support you in this?”

I’m a problem solver, and my go-to response when someone tells me they are hurting is always to try to fix things. This might work most of the time for my own problems, but it’s counterproductive as I try to support those around me. The last thing I want to do (especially for my kids) is make them think that they don’t have the resources to find solutions to their problems.

Asking “How can I support you in this?” has been especially helpful with my kids. It shows I trust them to find a solution, and that I have their backs as they figure it out, whether “it” is advanced academic work, dating, mental health, taking up cello, dancing, travel, or balancing school and work.

3. Writing questions down and leaving them up for everyone to think about

This idea comes from Julie Bogart’s book The Brave Learner: Finding Everyday Magic in Homeschool, Learning and Life. She suggests writing questions of all kinds on sticky notes, posting them somewhere you’ll see them a lot… and that’s all. She promises that seeing them every day will produce multiple answers and follow-through, even without intentionally revisiting the questions. Our two “how” questions have prompted significant changes in our driving:biking ratio, the trade-in of our larger minivan for a more gas-efficient vehicle, and a reduction in the plastics we bring into our home. (One of our other questions was, “What will happen to Spiderman now that Sony and Disney split?” I’m not saying that they worked it out just because I put it on a sticky note, but…)

4. Listening to audiobooks

I have three different audiobook apps on my phone (two from the library in addition to Audible), and while it’s confusing, using them has made my reading life so much richer.

5. Bowls

I have changed our cooking to include many more “bowls.”  It has made the challenge of cooking for two vegetarians and 3-4 omnivores easier. (By “vegetarian,” I mean a teenager who won’t eat meat but doesn’t necessarily eat vegetables. By “omnivore” I mean a person who will eat meat but on the whole is just as picky as the aforementioned vegetarians.)

Our bowls are built with a base (salad, roasted vegetables, rice, quinoa, farro or pasta), a variety of toppings (fried eggs, roasted tofu, meat, vegetables, seeds and nuts) and a sauce. My two favorite sources for bowl ideas are Run Fast. Eat Slow and Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow by Elyse Kopecky & Shalane Flanagan. I think it’s the variety of sauces that make this feel like you’re not eating the same thing twenty-one times each week.

  • The kids’ cleaning schedule

A few months ago, I told our kids I was frustrated with how much cleaning I was doing, especially when I saw them sitting around having screen time. They came up with a plan and have faithfully followed through with it. It has been a real gift to me, and seems sustainable.  I’m trying to be as faithful in using my free time for the writing and studying I was missing.

What worked for you in 2019?