7QT: Baby, It’s Hot

One: I know I was just complaining about how cold it was, but that was two whole weeks ago and I can’t remember back that far. At least the roses like the heat.

Two: We had a grill fire the other night. It smelled GREAT, but the peach tree immediately behind the grill was not happy about it. I texted the neighborhood group chat to ask for a fire extinguisher and I had two at my door in 30 seconds. (I like to think of that as neighborliness and not self-interest.) We seriously have the best neighbors.

Three: I’m giving a talk on physician burnout later today. It’s not pretty. Most of my creative/mental energy this week has gone into preparing it, and I’m simultaneously alarmed and exhausted. Instead of sharing it with you, here’s a photo of kids and cats. You’re welcome.

Four: The good news is that it’s cherry and apricot season, and we got both in our farm box this week. Yum.

Five: We had a picnic at church on Sunday. I love our church. A friend tried to take a new family photo for us. We have probably nineteen of these gems. To be clear, we’re the knuckleheads. Don’t blame the photographer.

Here we were trying to take a photo with everyone facing right…
Here we are discussing who will be on the bottom of the pyramid.
(Spoiler: No takers.)

Six: Meanwhile, life continues: advanced ballet intensive. Diving. Lifeguarding. Piano, violin, cello, harp, writing.

When Sam and I got married, I prayed we would have a musical family. I was imagining the von Trapp family singers (who surely knew how to stand still and all look in one direction for a photo). It’s different than what I imagined. Better.

Ballet feet.
She assures me that this face is not unhappiness.
It’s focus. Concentration.

Seven: Meanwhile, I’m in the throes of planning school. We’re in that awkward phase right now in which the books are arriving, but I haven’t put away last year’s books, so there’s nowhere for them to go except my floor.

I just finished rereading Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which I’d been planning to use for our lit class and decided not to, because a character opts for suicide as a solution to her problems. Now I’m not sure what I want to substitute. I’m looking for a mystery, and I’d love an unreliable narrator. Suggestions?

Go check out This Ain’t the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

June thoughts on homeschooling

It’s the second day of official summer, and it’s 47 degrees and raining. I can’t decide if that means it’s still winter, or it’s already next winter.

June is usually when I do much of my school planning. I begin by looking back the year (you can find my thoughts on our specific curriculum choices in the 2018-9 tab above, or on the sidebar). Here’s the bird’s eye view:

What went well:

Phoebe playing Copeland, her cello
  1. We all survived the year. You think I’m kidding, but depression is no joke. I am SO grateful for our mental health team (two good therapists, a responsive doctor and an army of people supporting and praying for us every day).
  2. Music lessons. We have three teachers who are a good match for the three kids, everyone playing an instrument (or two) that they are excited about. A long time ago we decided that playing an instrument would be part of our kids’ education. We knew they’d resent us now for making them practice, or resent us later for letting them quit, so we opted for resentment+music. Today, it feels like we chose well.
  3. Learning testing. It took 9 months, but with the help of a great psychologist, we got a better understanding of P’s learning challenges and how to work with her many strengths.
  4. Poetry tea. (Almost) every Thursday, the girls and I went out to a coffee shop to drink tea and read/write poetry. Two years ago, I never seemed to get around to reading poetry with the kids, but because we pinned it to a little treat, it happened almost every week and man, was it fun!
  5. More ownership of their learning. I could put this in both categories (what worked, and what didn’t) but I think the benefits outweighed the downsides. My sophomore really owned their learning and managed their own time.
  6. Cooking as low-pressure reading. While we do have power struggles over whose turn it is to use the kitchen, following recipes has been a useful (and tasty) tool to show the benefits of careful reading.
Momo made a cake for Jonah’s 19th (!!!) birthday

What didn’t work well:

  1. Time management: This was a year of struggle over screen-time creep. I felt like every time I turned around, the kids “needed” more time on their phones/computers. Some of them did better than others, but it’s something I’m going to have to be more vigilant about next year. Our online classes make limiting this tricky.
  2. I don’t know what to call this. I love watching my older kids grow up and embrace their passions and opportunities, but I still have an eleven year-old who is home. I would love to give her the same warm, fuzzy, everyone-on-the-couch-in-our-pajamas school experience the older kids had, but that’s not what it looks like. And it makes me sad.

All right. I’m off to plan for next year: more counseling, more poetry, more tea, more music, less YouTube, more pajamas.

Seven Quick Takes: May Madness

May Madness: it’s like March Madness, without a bracket.

One: Last year I made mental notes (and paper ones) about how crazy May was, so that we would never do it like that again. And now it’s May, and it’s just like last year, only worse.

May is when my head is full of “finishing well” and what that looks like, and instead of executing what’s in my imagination, I am usually swept away by the avalanche of recitals, school dances/concerts/plays, and award ceremonies.

Blurry photo of Annie, Jr., featuring Phoebe as the diminutive tycoon, Oliver Warbucks
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Piano recital
Spoiler alert: they played beautifully

Two: We haven’t quite recovered from April yet. Between robotics tournaments (including an amazing week with a trip to NASA), illness, swim meets, and piano recitals, we came into May pretty depleted.

I think the trip to Houston was worth it for the trip to NASA alone.

Three: So we’re focusing on good nutrition (read: Easter candy from the clearance aisle) and exercise.

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These are the disgusting jelly beans left over after my children picked out all the good ones. They weren’t quite as bad as Berty Botts Every Flavour Beans… but they were close. (Not that that stopped me from eating them.)

Four: Okay, we could do better on the nutrition. But exercise, yes.

I’ve been running and doing yoga. I bribed the children to ride bikes for ice cream. We’ve been playing Kinect Sports in the basement. (I’m filing virtual bowling under the heading of Something Is Better Than Nothing.)

Best part of bowling at home: bowling in bathrobes.

Five: Now we’re just trying to focus on finishing well. This year (as opposed to last year), that includes embracing the art and music and time outside that I so easily leave behind in the push to finish all.the.things.

Denver Art Museum (yet again) for the win: the printmaking studio open right now is so cool. (The DAM is kind of like Duke or UConn: almost always makes the Final Four.)

Six: Finishing well (for us) means saying Yes to Giant Jenga and ice cream.

Seven: Finishing well means leaving time for reflection in the midst of all the doing.

What does finishing well mean for you?

Be sure to check out This Ain’t the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Daybook, mid-January (2019)

Outside my window: snow on the rooftops, but the paths are clear, which means I have no excuse not to go for a walk today.

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As long as I keep moving, I won’t freeze over.

In the kitchen: oatmeal and yogurt. Two of the kids became vegetarians (again) last week, so all my stockpiles (i.e., a freezer full of locally-sourced organic meat) are less useful than they normally would be. The other child eats like a bear (80% berries, 20% meat and candy) so we’re having some growing pains again. They tell me not to prepare anything differently, but then I bear the brunt of the hangry when the carbs they ate for lunch wear off. This is fodder for lots of discussions about nutrition.

In the school room: yesterday was our first ski day of the year. (The teen who doesn’t like to ski had a full day with work in the morning and robotics in the afternoon.) I managed not to zip my pocket, so I lost my credit card somewhere between the living room and parking lot of the ski area. (It could be worse- I could have lost it on the lift!) I said a prayer I would find it, and we skied anyway. When we got back to the car at the end of the day, I found the missing Visa inside my ski boot. No wonder my calf was unhappy.

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Blue skies and snow for miles

Today it’s back to geography and spelling, Chagall and biology, Sense and Sensibility and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the Medes and the Persians, adding and subtracting fractions, precalc and stoichiometry. In no particular order.

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The cat could be working harder.

On my reading shelf: I just finished listening (again) to Connie Willis’s Crosstalk. Such a great book. I’m about halfway through Michelle Obama’s Becoming (it’s so good I keep stopping to write things down). Also a reread, and well worth it: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

Grateful: for a few miles in my shoes thus far, and some yoga. It’s been a struggle to get out there (and I have a million excuses) but I’m always glad afterwards. And during.

An eleven year-old’s birthday party a few weeks ago. She felt very loved.

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This was a hard core game of spoons.

Friends who have kept in touch, across miles and years.

We had a lovely three weeks with Jonah before he went back to school, which he’s clearly loving. I’m grateful he comes home, and I’m grateful he goes back to a place that’s a great fit for him.

On my mind: we’re looking at school plans for next year, specifically AP classes versus dual enrollment. We’ve had good experiences with both, but with different goals. I’ll try to post about this in a few weeks.

Praying for: Mandy. Judy. The Neals. My kids. Refugees. Furloughed friends. The ability to choose our response to hard things in our lives… it looks easier than it is.

Charlotte Mason and Mother Culture

Charlotte Mason talks about Mother Culture. It’s a funny play on words. Is the culture supposed to be my mother? Is she talking about socialization for mothers?

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The Domain of Arnheim, Rene Magritte

I like to think of it in a Julia Cameron Artist’s Way kind of way: in order to keep feeding my children a rich diet of art and music and thought, I need to be feeding myself. Like an oxygen mask for a home educator.

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The Happy Donor, Rene Magritte

Or, like the yogurt starter (aka culture) I use every week to make my yogurt. While the recipe books tell me I can use keep using last week’s yogurt to start this weeks, I find the yogurt tastes better if every 2-3 batches I use some fresh starter.

Mason encourages home educators to keep reading books for themselves, not just with their children. She says we should have 3 books going at all times:

Besides my Bible, I always keep three books going that are just for me – a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel or one of poetry. I always take up the one I feel fit for. That is the secret: always have something ‘going’ to grow by.”…

While I don’t strictly adhere to this recommendation, slipping into a book for a few minutes each day helps me immensely. But sometimes I need more than that.

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Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

This month I had a chance to slip away (twice!) to an art museum without my kids. At the beginning of the month, my friend Amy and I hit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Magritte exhibit. It was a great collection of works. (I also listened to audio tour through their free app and was able to show my kids a few of the pictures that way. I think it’s freely available even if you can’t make it to the museum in person.) The day was delightful on so many levels: reconnecting with an old friend, amazing art, time away…

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Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet

Then for my birthday, we happened to be in Chicago. I met my friend Gina at the Art Institute of Chicago. My kids had expressed interest in going, but I said no, not without a twinge of guilt. We had just a few hours, but we hit a whole bunch of my favorites: the Chagall windows, A Rainy Day in Paris, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Cezanne’s Apple and Oranges. While her conversation was the biggest blessing of that day, the art itself filled me up in ways I’d forgotten I needed.

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Still Life with Basket of Apples, Paul Cezanne

My kids have recently put up some resistance against Picture Study, but the joy I felt at seeing the originals of pictures we’ve studied reminded me it’s worth it. Their disappointment in not going told me it’s worth it. I have renewed motivation to keep up with the daily work.

What’s your oxygen mask/yogurt starter right now?

Seeing the details…

We are fully in the throes of autumn here. Red leaves, frost on the grass in the morning, cold noses and toes.

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With a new school year comes new patterns. With Jonah’s departure for college, we have had a major shuffling of responsibilities at home.

I have written before about chores and teaching them to my children. At different times, I organized chores by capacity. Then, once the kids reached a certain age, I assigned the same chores in rotation to all the kids and gritted my teeth when their capacity was vastly different.

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Today’s version of “clean.”

What I want now is to teach my children to see what needs to be done without being told.  This is completely different than what we have previously done.

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I want my kids to be able to look at the kitchen and see that not only do the dishes need to go in the dishwasher, but the counter needs to be wiped and the questionable organic matter growing inside last week’s lunch bag should go in the compost (and the bag in the washing machine.)

I think this ability to see what is front of us is necessary for all kinds of work, both at home and in the wider world. This skill translates into:

  • a landscaper who makes sure the sidewalk is clear after the job is finished
  • a chef who prevents a diner’s anaphylaxis by keeping ingredients separate in the kitchen
  • the CEO who can balance the needs of the workers with the company profits
  • a host who can see not only who is the life of the party, but also who is on the fringes

I have the vision for what I want, but we’re not anywhere near that yet. My theory is that it starts with the area of one’s passion (which, ahem, is not cleaning the kitchen) but then practiced by extension in other areas.

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For one child, the means to this end will be through music. For another, it’s going to be through following all the details of a complicated recipe.  For another, it will be the small adjustments needed to make no splash when she dives. But I don’t know how to make that attention to detail spread to other areas.

Any ideas?

How about a different kind of science curriculum?

I love science. I want my kids to love science, but the way it’s taught in the US recently is a travesty.

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Here’s what science looked like in our house in 2007.

In the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, I’m going to offer  my thoughts on teaching science at home.

The bedrock of Charlotte Mason’s science education was keen observation. She emphasized the practice of nature study, every day if possible, with nature notebooks full of detailed illustrations and diagrams. For teachers she advised not trying to explain everything. Not giving the answers. Asking questions and letting the students explore the material for themselves, without bulky textbooks. When books were used, she advocated living books—whole books, written by a single author with a passion for his or her topic.

She said that teachers should not make connections for the student. “Education is a science of relations,” she wrote. That means that we are offering copious material (living books, art, music, experiences, a rich home life, and opportunities to observe nature anywhere we can find it) and allowing our students to connect the dots between Mendel’s pea plants and CRISPR, or marble towers and Newton’s theory of gravity.

Sounds like all of the science curricula I’ve bought, what about you? Actually, it sounds like none of the books or materials I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on.

If I were of an entrepreneurial spirit, I would make this into a homeschool science curriculum and tour the country to sell it to you. I’m not an entrepreneur, so I’m going to present this idea like all my other ideas here—freely—and hope that you may adapt it to breathe some new life into your study of science at home.

Here are the foundational ideas I’d like my kids to learn from science:

  • Science takes teamwork.
  • Science requires us to pay close attention to details, and then to step back and ask “why?” or “what then?”
  • Science requires trying again, and again, and again.
  • Science is not about knowing an answer up front, but using the available data to make judgments to predict behavior of physical objects.

And I’d like to teach these ideas with inspiring stories, great characters, and examples.

My proposal is a book-and-movie study of October Sky (book: Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickman, Jr.), Apollo 13 (book: Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger), and The Martian (book: The Martian by Andy Weir). All three are about the space program, but you could apply these ideas to any books with good science in them.

Apollo 13October SkyThe Martian: A Novel

I recommend you and your student(s) read each book bit by bit. When you get to a part that has an experiment or a question, STOP. Take the time to understand the problem and work it. You might need to do some other reading to gain the knowledge you need to solve the problem, or you might need to experiment yourselves. The stories are all suspenseful, so you’ll have to have some strong self-control not to rush ahead and finish the book or watch the movie. Finish the problem. Then keep reading until the next one. When you finish one of the books and all its science, watch the movie and decide for yourselves if they got the science right.

Rocket Boys tells the story of 4 middle school/high school friends in a small, West Virginia coal mining town, who built rockets. There is lots of great history (the Cold War, Sputnik, coal mining, JFK) in the story as well (and some stuff about the teenage obsession with sex, which I skipped when I read it aloud to my middle schoolers). In addition to being a great story, the book exemplifies the scientific method: make an observation, form a hypothesis, and test it. When you’re wrong, change one variable and try again. This book would be a fantastic companion to chemistry, since a lot of their experiments involve rocket fuel. Also, rocket design (aka aerodynamics). A helpful companion text would be Backyard Ballistics (Gurstell).

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 is an example of why working the problem is so important. 55 hours into Apollo 13’s voyage to the moon, an explosion caused a critical failure of the spaceship. “Houston, we have a problem.” The combined efforts of NASA engineers and the astronauts (both in space and on the ground) were needed to save them. The problems encountered in their voyage include the amount of oxygen needed for survival and basic engineering (with a fun puzzle problem you could simulate with a bunch of supplies from the hardware store). Apollo 13 is one of our family’s favorite movies.

Finally, the book that inspired this idea: The Martian. Weir’s story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is a bonanza of problems to solve, including biologic (how many calories does a human need to survive? What about vitamins? What about water? How much water do crops need?) chemical (how to make water), and physics (astrodynamics, vectors, velocity). All of it requires math, and the math really matters in this book. I realize I’m making it sound boring, but this is a fantastic story that had my whole family on the edge of our seats- first on audio, and then in the theater. The character Mark Watney has a delightful sense of humor and a problem with swearing (full disclosure), so be warned.

I have no idea how long this would take- maybe one book would be a semester, or most of a year. If you try it out, please come back and tell me how it goes!

For a unit on pandemics, I would recommend Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, and Gina Kolata’s Flu. (You could add the movie Contagion to this list.)  Obviously, you couldn’t be working with deadly microorganisms to work the problem, but you could study the medical principles behind virulence and attack rate.  Two games to play in this unit would be Pandemic (a board game) and Plague, Inc (on your phone or tablet).

The Andromeda StrainFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused ItThe Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola VirusPandemicPlague, Inc