Sunday, November 25, 2007

november 25, 2007

we never know we are going to say goodbye

even when we know this parting is coming
even when we practice again and again
the word may fall from our lips with ease
every scenario repetitively run through in our brains
and our hearts have braced against inevitability

we never know

just when the doorway down the hall will softly close
the window in another room softly slide into place
and something that was always, is now foreclosed

there is no grace in grief
only hard jumbled feelings
unexpected impassible barriers
sharp edges where once we were whole

Friday, November 2, 2007

National Novel Writer's Month has Officially Started

So just consider me a lost cause.

I have found in the few hours since it has started that I cannot eat limitless amounts of chocolate and write at the same time. Since I am slow but not entirely stupid I figured out the correlation between feeling sleepy and irritable and my bad diet after a couple of days. Bah humbug. I need to drop everything and run down for carrot sticks and celery...and how come eggplant is starting to sound appealing? And I have this almost overwhelming desire to kick the treadmill out of retirement. Hm.

On the other (and immensely warty) hand, I did get in a couple thousand words yesterday and there are still a few hours left in this day, so I don't think I'll fall too far behind. And if I actually get on that treadmill I'm going to feel a whole lot better. I won't necessarily be able to kick all the after-effects of a chocolate binge, but I'm going for mentally alert and that has a fighting chance.

Monday, October 29, 2007

NaNoWriMo starts soon.

62 hours, 24 minutes, 28 seconds.

But who's counting?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

I have been a firm believer in grayscale for a very long time. In life there are very few absolutes, and black-and-white examples of anything are rarely representative of the vast majority of occurrences. Want a mind-bending exercise in grayscale? Take a survey class about art. At the beginning of this sort of class almost everybody is absolutely sure about what constitutes art. Whether they've got hazy recollections of Rembrandt or fuzzy half-tone memories of Rodin, most students are very sure that they know what Art is.

And the teacher can't wait, because there are so many mindbending experiences to lead a class through. Is your coffee cup art? You know the one, the generic white vessel sold at arts & craft stores to gullible 8-year-olds, the one that persuades them that a cup decorated with squiggles and splotches and occasional fingerprints is the thing that Mom wants this year? You've fallen for it and I have too. How about your curtains? Does it matter that they came with the apartment or that you hunted through three counties and considered mortgaging your immortal soul for just the right pattern? Is it the pattern on the cloth that makes it art or the impossible amount of work you went through to get it?

It gets worse. Just about everybody thinks that what Da Vinci produced was art. We have several centuries' weight on that opinion. But consider White over Blue by Ellsworth Kelly, which features a white canvas hung slightly in front of a blue canvas. Is it art? If so, why? It doesn't seem to represent anything but a juxtaposition of color. How about Andy Warhol and his endless riff on mundane objects -- painting of a soup can, anyone? If you want a real mind-scrambling experience, look up Bottle Rack, 1963 on the Norton Simon Museum website. You will be told that Marcel Duchamp signed a mass-production bottle rack in 1914; Marcel's particular viewpoint was that anything signed by an established artist then becomes art, even if it's a mass-produced item. I've been told that he was poking an exquisitely sharp stick at the art establishment and its willingness to declare anything of high value simply because a particular person put a fingerprint on it. However, this isn't the oddest part of the affair -- you see, the 1914 bottle rack has disappeared into the mists of time along with the artist's signature. Bottle Rack, 1963 is a replica. A duplicate. I don't even know if the original artist was still breathing when this one was made. So what makes it art?

If you think this exercise is fun, walk into a family law class just as they're starting to debate what makes up a family. The higher the level of observation, the fuzzier the whole thing becomes.

That's sort of what it's like to homeschool. I know what I'm doing (mostly) and just about every homeschooling family I've talked to knows what they're doing, but defining it becomes an exercise in I know it when I see it, but don't ask me to put it in a dictionary. Unfortunately the average human being likes labels and definitions; life is complicated and pre-defined tags makes everything so much easier. That works just fine until something comes along that wears the tag but doesn't look anything like what the viewer associates the tag with.

School-at-home, unschooling, eclectic, etcetera. When those words roll into the optic nerve most people would swear on their favorite neice that they know exactly what they are looking at. But I know that I fit all of those tags once in a while, and two out of three several times a week, and none of the above more often than I want to admit. The person who looks at me in the bathroom mirror says things like Unschooling? HA, it's pure laissez-faire thanks very much. You just cut the cord to the television set and left the option of reading or running around outside. Of course I did, I say in return. Television is all very well for keeping them quiet when I have an article to write, but do I really need to hear the Compleat Works of Scooby Doo Unabridged...again? They need to look at something that doesn't bounce around unless they're doing jumping jacks in the middle of War and Peace. They need to go dig holes that lead to New Zealand -- although that might get interrupted by finding a new insect or crustacean that they want me to google -- or look for raspberries. They, above and beyond all of that, need to be out of the house so I can hear myself think. It's rare, it isn't often that strong, so I do need to be paying attention.

Eclectic, my conscience snorts. You're just throwing different things at them and seeing what sticks. Yeah? I think as I shake my toothbrush at her. And how's the junior set of thumbscrews working out? Because I know these kids. They did not come from a cabbage patch, they were not miraculously delivered by storks -- they have DNA from two of the most stubborn people on the face of the planet. Lead, follow, or get out of their way, but there is no way of forcing them to understand something they aren't ready to understand. Yes, she says smugly, except for those occasions when you do. Which is a stumper, because there are rare occurrences of textbook behavior where I haul out something and say something to the effect of Thou Shalt Learn. And on vanishingly rare occasions it actually works. But it isn't my preferred modus operandi.

If I happened to be painfully honest with myself, something I try valiantly to avoid, I really don't think that learning should be an excrutiating process. Hard, yes; sometimes learning is unbelievably difficult. Sometimes it can be frustrating, as it is when I try to pry open yet another secret from that 'intuitive' computer program (you know the type, it's pretty and you know people who play with it like they were born with the algorhythm, and it doesn't even come with an owner's manual because it's supposed to be SO user friendly. Dante didn't know squat about torment.) So I poke and prod at it every few months. I spend a weekend learning how to move pixel A to point B, and I'm inordinately proud about it. Don't laugh, this is how I eventually taught myself how to knit. Linux can't be too far behind. Learning isn't always easy and it isn't always fun and sometimes you just have to slog through it. But it doesn't have to be boring, it doesn't have to be numbing, it shouldn't be at the point of dire consequences, it shouldn't be the mental equivalent of bamboo under the fingernails or ripping your eyelids off.

So I don't know exactly what you'd call what I do. It's between eclectic and unschooling and school-at-home with a bit of google addiction thrown in on the side. The Banshees learn in the circle of their family, which is as close to a definition of homeschooling as I'm ever going to get.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

There might be a SMALL change in plans

We may have to rebuild the old computer first, after all. It appears that my cd-writer-thingitt has bitten ye olde dust and it has to be replaced if I'm going to back up some of my backuppable things.

I think. This is where the spouse comes in with hot Earl Grey (or Dragonwell green, depending on the pitch of the fit) and speaks soothing words until I quit crying quite so hysterically. He's not worried, so I suppose I shouldn't be.

But it's an old system. And I haven't backed up the way I should. Even though I've already had one computer crash and go boom in a very very final way. Okay. No panic. Deep breaths. Think peaceful, happy thoughts. Do NOT think about the issue that needs to be worked on like, yesterday. Do NOT think of the unhappy children missing math assignments. Everything will be all right.

As soon as I get my new computer. Which I can't afford but want anyway -- but that's a semi-sort-of-larval-stage computer geek for you. I really need to get over the deep desire for the
ultimate computer case. The thing is big, it's cool, it's....expensive. I don't need it. I'm not going to be killing off mutant bug monsters in a galaxy far, far away. I'm going to be editing, blogging, corresponding, writing, occasionally getting into something like a video game. I don't need it. This is more my speed. Yeah, and tell it to my howling, fit-throwing inner child.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Okay, when does National Blow-Your-Computer-Up Day begin?

And if there isn't one, can I be the first to suggest that there really, really needs to be one?

How about hack-it-to-pieces day? Drop a heavy object on it day? Take it to a monster truck rally and accidentally leave it on the field of battle week?


Really, in this time of there-outta-be-a-law frenzy, there ought to be a law saying that you can drop a desktop with impunity from the 405 overpass onto the 605 freeway and watch a long string of 18-wheelers run it over. Except of course that there is only about 10 minutes of any given day that anything with wheels gets up to any sort of speed at that interchange...and there might be a computer geek who would suffer long term emotional damage from witnessing such a spectacle...although a true computer geek has had his or her share of problems that would have them dancing on the hood of their car shouting You go girl!!


I want to mention that my current desktop is not really doing anything wrong. It just got old and now newer, more modern star-belly programs don't want to play with it. Which leaves me with a couple of options. I could go option number 1, the 405/605, except that would leave me without a functioning computer (the laptop works just fine if you don't count the motherboard refusing to connect to the internet) and I hear that the local constabulatory sort of hates this kind of venting. I could go option 2, some preassembled bit of gear from a big name with a lot of options I don't want (can we say, avoiding Vista as long as humanly possible? I knew you could!) and a few things I want that I can't get with this configuration. Or, we can go with option 3: Build My Own.

Now I know I'm lucky to be obscure and to have changed my name once in my lifetime because I tell you this; there is an old boyfriend who would drop dead of massive apoplexy if he ever read that last sentence. Back when we dated I was about as phobic about computers as anyone is ever likely to be. Avoided them like the black plague. Thought that an electric typewriter was as high up the electronic mountain as I was ever going to climb. My brother was the computer genius. I preferred calligraphy over keyboards. But yeah, option 3 is beginning to sound better and better. We can call it a science project and let the kids help, or I can send them to my mother-in-law's for a couple of days and have a functioning computer. They can help me rebuild the old computer when the new system is stable.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Random Collection of Thoughts

We're having our two days of autumn this week. Here in the desert we have two primary seasons, otherwise known as summer and winter. Spring and autumn have devolved into transitional seasons that last anywhere from two days to a week, but never any longer. Last week we were having 90 degree weather and this week the temps are dipping into the high 40's at night.

But I like fall weather, transitional or not. It has always felt like something brand new and exciting was about to happen. The dragging heat of the summer is over and the nights are getting crisp; the days are getting shorter and there's all of the planning I start to do when darkness starts happening earlier. I never ever get everything done that I plan to do, but that's what happens when you have three kids, two cats, a dog, a husband, a house (the last of the guppies died last night, but it was nearly two years old which is positively ancient for a guppy.), and the sort of hobby-habit that earns nicknames like Stash Mountain. (I swear, I really do not have that much yarn. It's an optical illusion. Really.)

After a little introspection this feeling of anticipation probably dates back to elementary school, when the beginning of the school year was a time of exciting change; new school clothes, paper that hadn't been written on yet, the feeling that this year was going to be new, different, better somehow. I think maybe in elementary school those things were possible. It was when I went into junior high that everything went into a non-recoverable tail-spin. It was in high school that I began to have the feeling that formal education left a lot to be desired. Or maybe I'm just one of those critters who is hard-wired to like autumn weather and has a predisposition to over-analyze things.

I want to start being a little more formal with the Banshees and their education. The main problem with this, of course, is not the Banshees. It's me. I take to formal anything like ceramic takes to sky-diving. It isn't natural. On the other hand, a little structure will probably be good for me. I may have to be convinced.

Or we can just do what we keep doing, planning on one thing and ending up with something completely different. We were supposed to do history today and ended up researching black holes. EB is a little concerned that a black hole will come by and wreak all sorts of damage; she's somehow convinced herself that black holes were responsible for the disappearance of dinosaurs. (No, dear, the current theory is that meteorite had a lot to do with the lack of large lizards. Or it might have been climate change. Or maybe both. Which devolves into what theories are and why scientists use them. She's still giving me odd looks.) So we find a neat website that says that our sun will never get to be a black hole (not massive enough) and that black holes aren't really black, they just swallow light, and my own personal favorite, that they range in size from a couple of miles across to millions of miles across. It's my personal favorite because I didn't know that before. I knew all about massive stars exploding and collapsing in on themselves, but I didn't know that black holes are also found at the heart of huge galaxies. History gets to wait, but we got a heckuva lot in on astronomy. MB even went on to explore a little of the Solar System before losing interest and wandering off to other, more entertaining activities. (No, you may not pull dresser drawers out just far enough to use them as a step-ladder. It's one of those side deals that physics has with the universe; gravity is a constant and if you overbalance the furniture it will fall on you. Go check out why ladders work when you climb on them and dresser drawers won't. Just as soon as Mommy quits hyperventilating and screeching in painfully high registers.)

Oh yeah, and we had a cougar-alert yesterday. I've lived here for the better part of two decades and this is the first time that I've had the city call me to tell me there were mountain lions in the area and would I please keep an eyeball on any outdoor pets? Now, I like that dog of mine. She's cute and she's intelligent and she's an excellent companion, but she also outweighs all of my children and if a mountain lion is going to think anything is cougar-chow, it's probably not going to be the critter with the functioning fangs. EB spent this morning discovering the difference between the common housecat and their larger cousins.

So we've covered astronomy, scientific methodology, physics, a bit of metallurgy (did I mention they bent the drawer slide when they put their full weight on the drawer?), biology, public service and governmental theory, and a soup├žon of evolutionary theory. But no history.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

One of the Top 5 Unexpected Breakfast Conversations

From my four-year-old: "Mom, can I go play with the human head?"

Which sounds very odd even around here, and especially as I'm riffling through my emails and putting off dishes as long as possible. It turns out that she wanted to play with a...toy? lesson? The Smithsonian Anatomy Lab ("Includes 10 Removable Body Parts!"), a human torso with all sorts of interesting secrets.

So the correct answer is, "Yes, as soon as you finish your milk."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

When You Finally Want To Run Screaming Into The Night manage to catch the Banshees' illness and are too headachey/feverish/itchy-eyeballed to go. But no one ever said that life was fair.

I did manage to fix the tea cooler (a modified 5 gallon igloo). With no working ac and 107+ temps we go through a lot of liquid around here. I could fix the ac if the relative who understand ac was standing over my shoulder but he isn't available, and even I know when to throw my hands up and call in a repairman. Except that the dh and I have already decided that the ac unit needs to be replaced and that isn't going to happen until next summer. And that brings us to the bad news/good news portion of the program: the ac isn't working -- but the electric bills are the lowest they've been in the better part of a decade.

The Banshees, by the way, are a bit disappointed that Mom isn't going up on the roof again. My reputation has taken a bit of a hit. I'm making that up to them by repairing the toilet.

The books that we bought at the conference are batting .500 -- LB's book has disappeared into the ether and we haven't broken out the How to Read book yet, but MB's anatomy book and EB's origami book are great hits. In fact, I had to put a moritorium on paper penguins and pianos. So far the biggest spash has been the anatomy coloring book, which MB thoughtfully took to a recent family gathering. While he was there he curled up with a great-grandfather and they went through it together, with MB pointing out his favorite bits. Great-grandfather was impressed all out of proportion, which is understandable since you really have to live with the Banshee's to have the proper perspective. GGF saw all of the fancy words and advanced concepts; MB sees it as a really neat coloring book.

That was a family gathering of disconcertion. GGF asked me what grade-level the anatomy book would be considered. I'm not sure that has a definitive answer. Most people would probably consider it high school or even college level. However, it belongs to my would-have-been-second grader so in our house, it's a second-grade textbook. Great-grandmother wanted to know what grade level the Banshees were. I gave that my best thoughtful look and said that it was an impossible question to answer. There's grade-level according to age, there's grade-level according to learning, and there's grade-level according to school districts. The best answer I can give is that they are way ahead of themselves in reading speed and comprehension, and even better than that, they love to read. They won't write unless forced to or if it's a current correspondence with a friend or favorite relative. Math is very much catch as catch can at this age and can be anywhere from simple addition to the explanation of credit cards and income tax. History and science and politics creep in wherever and whenever there's a niche to put them. "And spelling?" she asked. "Are you teaching them spelling? Because schools aren't teaching spelling these days." Yes they are, actually. I know that because EB's ex-teacher gave me the homework assignment of teaching spelling to EB. It's one of the reasons we're homeschooling now, under the theory of cutting out the middleman. (Or, as my beloved spouse said at the time, "If the teacher is expecting you to do her entire job, we might as well bring the children home.) But no, I don't teach them formal spelling right now. That will probably come later when they get more into writing. GGM looked faintly shocked.

This is the sort of thing that is going to get me the reputation of being the family bore. Creating a common lexicon takes time and most people don't understand why they can't just be answered in public school terms. With a little time and practice I'll be able to tell when they're genuinely interested and when they're just making polite conversation and trim my information accordingly.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Somewhere on the top 10 list of Things To Be Grateful For

The attendance record that I'm required to keep is set up so that only comas and detectable alien abduction are recorded as absences. Which is good for days like today, where all of the children are running triple-digit fevers and no one is much interested in eating, let alone any sort of formal instruction. I'm not sure they would even regard ice-cream with much favor.

It isn't much fun, dealing with a house full of sick Banshees. They aren't bad patients -- they don't even complain as much as I do when I get a garden-variety cold. It's just difficult to see such bundles of energy temporarily sidelined. The house will get cleaned today and stay clean. The hole in the yard that may eventually reach Australia will get not one inch deeper. No one is arguing over who touched who and what may eventually happen to make who STOP touching who. They're just listlessly watching The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe yet again and waiting to feel better.

From a purely selfish point of view, these are days when I'm so glad they're home with me on a full time basis. I no longer have to contact schools and explain that no, my children are not coming in with 101+ degree temperatures. I don't have to listen to some well-meaning teachers chirp about how they can send the missed schoolwork home for the children to work on so no one will fall behind. These people aren't sadists but they do have clockwork to mind; if a 6-year-old can't color his worksheets on time there will be very large irritating grains of sand in their oyster of a world.

I don't have to rearrange my plans to accomodate the sudden advent of children, either. I just have to tweak them to deal with unenergetic children; no field trips today and we'll go light on the history of chicken soup. (Although it can be fairly said that chicken soup in my family has a bit of history; I'm a child of the suburbs that has actually plucked the chicken that went into the stock pot.) We've had a bit of discussion on Celsius and Fahrenheit and the merits of home-made bread and that's been about it. EB is concentrating on knitting a bear for a friend whose birthday party she's probably going to miss. They're all a bit wary that I'm actually going to try to feed them the hummus I've been experimenting with. And Narnia plays in the background (Mom, how do they get the wolf to speak like that? Diction lessons, honey.)

What's a Diction?

A horrendous pun your mother should be ashamed of.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Survived Expo

And the kids did too, so that's all right.

I'm remarkably proud of myself for limiting new textbooks to just four, three of which are slim little tomes picked out by the target audience. The last is a how-to-teach-your-kid-to-read book that I'm hoping my nearly-five-year-old will humor me about.

Vendor halls are tricky places, mainly because their very existence will dredge out the second-guessing and worrying that normally lives stuffed under a mental waste-paper-basket with a very large and heavy brick making sure escape doesn't happen often. It usually happens in vendor halls. How am I ever going to exist without xyz gadget? How will my precious bundles ever figure out science without this latest doohickie? Goodness knows they're going to turn into cretins if I don't get that doubles-as-a-doorstop math text. And while I don't know what use we have for beakers in this house, it's hard to say no to those big, begging eyes my son developed. Being the next thing to paupery is usually what saves the household from finding yet more shelf-space.

This Expo was more about reassuring the Banshees that I wasn't going to drag home just anything a salesperson waved under my nose. It took two circuits of the hall before I got through to them that just because I thought it was interesting didn't mean I was going to foist it off on them. My efforts at conversation, God Save the Mark, were all about finding out what the Banshees were interested in. This was followed by an impromptu lesson on the art of negotiating with Mom. Nobody is rioting quite yet over the choices, although there were a few skirmishes over the origami book.

Most of the Expo I spent spinning, or knitting, or fishing various Banshees out of nooks and crannies and inquiring as to whether they were having a good time. I didn't attend a single session although I had meant to. I'm learning, however, that going to sessions and looking out for three wiggly children are a bit incompatible, even for such family friendly places as a homeschooling conference. The debate is not whether I'm going to the next one, it's whether we are going to the next one. I may decide to treat it as a mini-vacation for a mom who desperately needs one.

The other fun part of Expo was my first experience with feeding children out of a cooler for three days. It went remarkably well, nobody died of food poisoning, and I got to play with my new obsession over Bento lunches. Most of the time the Banshees think I'm dotty if well-intentioned but they really like the new hobby. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, they also picked up my prediliction for the pretty little boxes. I outgrew that when I accidentally found Lock & Lock boxes; those unpretentious little bits of plastic are now my Bento box of choice. The Banshees think that this is all well and good, but prefer the cute little boxes that are either hideously overpriced on Ebay or sold in local markets that have no online presence and therefor are generally invisible to me.

I can't really explain the new obsession. Part of it is, shall we call it persistance?...when confronted with something that I think I ought to have access to but don't (call it the whaddaya mean I have to pay $40 for a $1.50 piece of plastic?!? syndrome). Part of it is also the weight I gained over multiple pregnancies that has been notoriously hard to shed. Some of it is about having to cook everything from scratch because it's 1. cheaper and 2. healthier. A lot of it has to do with a recent medical diagnosis (nothing life-threatening, just altogether prosaic and boring) which is greatly influenced by diet. So, for the first time in my life, I really have to think about what I'm putting on my plate. Bento is all about balance, proportion, and beauty. If I have to play with my food, I ought to have pretty stuff to play with, right? Like every other interest under the sun, there is an online community that supports those of us who find ourselves wondering how to parse up the rice and properly present the broccoli. It's turning out to be the best cook-book experience ever. I'm sure if I really want to lose weight I'm going to have to dust off the clothes-hanger (also known as the treadmill) and go a few rounds, but eating better is a good start. And the Banshees are going to learn something about diet, not to mention the genetic component, persistance.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Teaching Conundrums

It really isn't fair sometimes, this teaching gig. I shouldn't grumble about it, because the worst day of parenting is far, far better than the worst day of parenting in addition to public school. But I'm human. I admit abject humanity and thereby my tendency to grumble when I find I don't know what I'm doing or how I'm going to do it.

I think it's time for my oldest child to have just a smidge, just a wee bitty slice of structure in her learning. Not that I want that. I take to structure like a polar bear to hot tubs. It isn't natural and it isn't me. And yet, I need to find some way of measuring something for which I have no natural way (yet) of measuring. I need to know where she is with her knowledge. It doesn't feel like a need to keep up with the Joneses, or a need to figure out if she's on par with little Janey at the local elementary. It's more like a dance where you need to know your partner's skill range. I don't particularly care how many lists of words she has memorized, but I do care if she knows what a suffix is, or a prefix, and how and why they can change a word, and where they are used. What's a root word and does it make a good soup? What's the difference between a verb and an adverb, and if you catch a wild gerund should you shoot it or tame it? I'm not sure I would know a gerund if I saw it, wild or not. What's a participle and should it really be dangling like that? I know how to split hairs, but can I really mend a split infinitive?

Since she isn't applying for grad school quite yet we may have time to figure out whether it's really wise to kill your average adjective. Some of them might really be nice creatures.

Monday, July 9, 2007

On Being Hit By Lightning

Granted, I am speaking metaphorically. I'm sure that if I had been hit by an actual bolt of wild electricity I would be wandering around with my mouth hanging open like a grouper trying to figure out what in the world just happened.

Wait. That does pretty much sum up what I've been looking like this month.

Really, it is a most undignified look for someone who has just been elevated to the grand title of Editor-in-chief (who is also, by definition, chief cook and bottle washer, not to mention beater-of-brush in the authorial fields. Did I mention I volunteered for this? Did I also mention that I only did that because I was sure they'd find someone more qualified? HA. We hold forth that this is exhibit A in proving that the Universe has a sense of humor.)

My spouse has no sympathy whatsoever. My children rally round and tell me that they still love me and that everything is going to be all right. Which goes to prove that they really don't know what's going on, but bless their little bitty hearts anyway. And my first thought on receiving the news that I'd been picked was, geez, this is going to make NaNoWriMo an even hairier challenge.

So why take on this challenge? Because it would have been so much easier to say no, but it wouldn't have been wiser. Because it is possible to do this and it is entirely possible that I can do this, and with this being so it was impossible not to try. I've managed to pull off the impossible before. Because it's a chance to work with adults again in a way that will not compromise my ability to be a mother to my children. I also need to do this because my children need to see mom working with other adults, doing adult things. I wish they could see their father doing that as well, but their dad's line of work sort of precludes that. Not every job can be made kid-friendly! In all fairness, it's also because this is the biggest brain-candy I have come across in a long time. Did I mention that I'm a learning junkie? If it's new, different, unknown, potentially dangerous (at least to my ego) and intellectually challenging I'm a lost cause.

All hail to the chief cook and bottle washer, and let's hope for a plentiful season on authors!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

NaNoWriMo Claims Another Victim

I shouldn't have told the Banshees about it.


But they caught me in an off moment, the sort of moment where they've done something they shouldn't have and they know they shouldn't have and I've just caught them red-handed doing it and I'm squalling like a cat in a mangle about how I should be able to relax after they are supposed to be in bed and just because I'm in training for a contest doesn't mean that they are entitled to run around the house like I'm deaf and can't figure out that they're up to something.....

Yeah, like they heard all of that.

What they heard: Mom.

In Training.



Immediately I had their full, undivided attention and they wanted to know all of the particulars. So now the entire house is in training for a contest that I don't think I'm going to be able to get through without copious amounts of chocolate, coffee, and possibly mead, not to mention dead silence and the fervent hope that the spouse has decamped to his mother's with children in tow. What the heck. Life is a gamble so let's throw the dice.

The Banshees have opted for a set time every day for writing, writing, and nothing but writing. They've declared an earlier bedtime (yeah, let's see how long that lasts, shall we?), the need for more books, and hand exercises because they think that if they're going to write for long periods of time they just might need them. Huh. Smart Banshees. I wouldn't have thought of that.

The set time for writing went of with only a minor hitch: youngest Banshee (who can't write yet anyway) was sent to bed early and was sleeping like a contented brick. The real time consuming activity was convincing children that spelling did not matter. Grammar did not matter. Plot and characters did not matter. My only requirements were lined paper and a collection of connected letters. They finally got into the swing of things but I swear I thought I was going to have to pry that dictionary out of Middle Banshee's hands with a 6-foot crowbar.

Oh yeah. Bedtime didn't quite go off as planned. But it's only the first day in a 6-month training period, so I'm sure we'll improve.

Just as soon as I unload that bridge I bought a while ago.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Just A Thought

My father and I routinely solve the world's problems every other week or so, or at least get into some rousing debates while trying to do so. It's a challenge and a brain sharpener. We routinely go into hunger, world peace, global economics, and anthropogenic global warming -- we only agree on roughly half the issues, so they are very lively discussions! One of our thorniest knots, of course, is the public school system.

Obviously it doesn't work for the betterment of either the children or their society anymore, but only a small percentage of the population wants to change it drastically. Why? My theory is that everybody is deathly afraid of...well, leaving a child behind. The system is broken. The system is chewing up more children than it's benefitting. And yet the system is a known devil as opposed to an unknown one; we keep tinkering with and poking at the evil we know because the unknown could possibly condemn an even larger number of children than this one does. I also think the public school system, like any other successful organism, is very good at protecting itself. It has managed to be the only game in town for several generations; most people alive in the United States today are products of the system. They can't imagine anything else, and the system has told them that everything will crash and burn if the system isn't perpetuated. A little more money here, or a few stricter standards there, whole-word as opposed to phonics perhaps, or maybe if teachers held Phds instead of Masters degrees, then everything would be just rosy.

No, the system as an educational system is broken beyond all mending. So how do we fix it? I haven't the faintest clue in the world about how to fix the entire problem. On the other hand, I also don't believe we've been accurately describing the whole problem; we've been the blind men and the elephant, grappling with only part of the difficulty and never quite seeing the whole.

Part of the difficulty is that everybody wants to save everyone and believes this is possible. However, not everybody can be saved, not even if you spent your last dollar and your last drop of blood trying. Not only that, but the more centralized and distant the 'saving' authority is, the fewer children are going to be saved because further and farther means more ignorence and inefficiency. Being forced to attend an ill-fitting institution means that, at best, many campuses have apathetic ghosts that are just shuffling around doing their time, and at worst have levels of violence that would make prison guards pale. It's rare to hear of expulsions for anything short of murder or an ill-timed essay. My solution to this is to do away with compulsory attendance. Don't make people be where they don't want to be and conversely, let's get rid of people who are problems to those who do want to be in a public school setting. If we as a society want to make public schools better and safer, then we have to weed out people who don't belong in them. Harsh? Oh yes. And I speak as someone who would have been invited to leave on an academic basis.

What would happen to children who were disinvited from the public school system? I can only speculate. Our society hasn't developed cultural outlets for people considered too young to work as adults and yet who do not fit into the traditional school roles. Would there be an uptick in crime? Unless and until those outlets form, I would bet on it. Would it wake some parents up to what's really going on in their children's lives? Oh, you'd better believe it. How they would react and what they would do -- I'm utterly ignorent and freely admit it. My guess would be that the reaction would range from child abuse/abandonment to the formation of differing types of schools and apprenticeships, to the homeschooling option in all of its glorious permutations. Will children be lost? It's an absolute certainty. Would fewer children be lost than are lost now? I would say that different types of children would be lost and that it's impossible to say beforehand who they would be, how many, how badly, how permanently.

What I know is that one size never fits all, no matter what the label says. Those who believe it about the public school system are the very people who, unbeknowst to themselves, have been destroyed by it.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Did I Mention I Don't Have A Clue?

A poster on one of my home school lists asked for an account of a 'typical day' in the life of a home schooling family. I have to admit that I stared at the monitor for 30 seconds wondering rather bemusedly what that would look like. I'm still struggling to have a typical day as a parent, thank you very much.

I have morning people as offspring. I, unhappily enough, am not, not, NOT a morning person. So my typical day involves getting up several hours before my brain is prepared for it and suffering the usual consequences of being far, far behind the curve of whatever is going on. Fortunately the offspring have figured out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and where the fruit bowl is. They aren't going to starve and they'd prefer to wait on me to cook the vegetables anyway. After that we're in free-for-all for the rest of the day. I'm still trying to work myself into a housekeeping routine. I hate the stuff, I'd prefer not to do it, but I have had to live with the consequences of not doing it -- believe me, that's worse. When you're healthy and childless it doesn't really matter as much how big the laundry pile gets, or whether you're gnawing on something nameless from the back of the freezer, or how high the paper mountains get before you decide to heck with everything and shred it all. When you have more than one child organization gets pretty attractive BUT by the time you have more than one child you are operating at a distinct disadvantage to getting organized. You have a sleep deficit. You're trying to keep them from killing themselves in their exploratory zeal. You're trying to cook healthy meals when it's a struggle to even locate the refrigerator. The short list of advice I'd give to prospective parents is 1. Whatever it takes to stay sane, keeping kids, spouse, and various small animals safe, do it. You'll thank me later. 2. Get organized now. Later, you won't have the time.

All right, I'm not a Martha Stewart Convert, and I'm not about to get into semi-monastic decorating esthetics. Nothing in my house will ever be color-coded, my filing system will always look suspiciously like the one out of Real Genius, and my hobbies will always be battling it out for floor space. (Did we mention books? I'm a candidate for L-space*. I'm not kidding.) But as I would prefer my science experiments directed as opposed to serendipitous, the kitchen has got to be cleaned every once in a while, and sooner rather than later is the operative. The laundry cannot be allowed to form its own zip code. Projects cannot be left wherever they were at when their various authors got distracted by other projects. Clean up as you go is becoming less of a mantra and more of a Thou-Shalt, because if thou doesn't shalt, Mom is going to go even crazier and start talking to walls all of the time. At piercingly loud volumes. My version of neat will not always have the floors swept, nor will all of the books be on the shelves at all times. My version of neat is that everything has a home and finds its way back to that home on an almost daily basis. There is an educational purpose behind the late-life conversion to an abbreviated neatness. I find that teaching is easier in a neat house. My patience actually exists when I can see the color of the carpet and when there are flat surfaces that aren't piled to gravity-defying heights with what-nots and whatchamacallits. There is more room for projects and new ideas. It would have been unthinkable to my younger self, but I find that I work, think, and create better in a picked-up house as opposed to one on the verge of bedlam.

There are also lessons that I'm struggling to teach my children even as I am learning them myself. I'm learning that it's all right to let some things go -- even things that I've been carting around from pillar to post for the last 3 decades. Even if it's sentimental, if it's broken or used up maybe it's time for it to be gone. The importance of teaching this to the children was brought home when I found myself confronted with a child who treated throwing away a broken paper-clip, a pine cone picked up at play, even rocks, as major emotional traumas. Better to tackle it now before she has to move the same boxes three times without unpacking them.

In between all of this there is a lot of reading. Lots. See books, above. (Our secondary motto is Reading Is The Key to Everything. That's right below All Conditions Subject To Change Without Notice.) There is some writing, as I encourage them to write to friends or to write stories about their imaginary dragons (all gifted when the Banshees turned three or so and started having inexplicable nightmares. Dragons eat monsters, whether they are in the closet, under the bed, or hanging out in hallways. Useful creature, the dragon!), there is math, of the "Mom, I'm bo-o-o-o-o-ored" variety. One of these days they'll either learn not to say that around me, or they are going to be certifiable math wizards, as well as very good at folding laundry. Thus far, however, no typical days. I am so looking forward to one.

*Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett. Any place (us. libraries) where the sheer volume of books and their accumulated knowledge distort time and space. All libraries, past, present, and future, are connected by L-space.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Give Them the Tools of Learning

I'll readily admit I haven't been home schooling long. Officially it has been less than a year since I walked into my children's public elementary and airly announced (quivering violently in my tennis shoes the whole while) that they wouldn't be back the next fall. Where are they going? the friendly secretary asked. "We're putting them in a private school," I replied. Oh, which one? It was a friendly question, one of personal and not school interest but I wasn't prepared to be that open. Courageous I am after I have a few miles of experience, not when I haven't taken more than a half-dozen steps. "It's a new one and pretty small," I said vaguely, and that was that. I asked them what their procedures were for disenrolling students, followed them to a T, and O My Goodness the kids were mine again. The next October I followed our state procedures and filed a Private School Affidavit, and Starlake Academy was a reality.

I scared the the heck out of my friends and relatives. It was one thing for me to have lost my mind, but this time there were children involved. No one knew if they should take me seriously when I announced that Summer Vacation was officially being extended to Christmas. The announcement garnered some nervous giggles and I have a sneaking suspicion that more than one relative looked at another and said, "She's joking. I'm sure she's joking. She has to be joking, right?" Let me set the rumor to rest: despite my unusual sense of humor I wasn't joking. I was completely, thoroughly, and dead-set serious. My children loved school but school wasn't loving them back. The homework load was a ridiculous burden for 6- and 7-year-old to bear. Not only was there way too much of it, but it appeared utterly arbitrary and nonsensical. I can handle not being able to answer all of my children's questions about the workings of the universe, but having my bright little ones ask me to explain the importance of some of their homework was beyond me. I didn't know why they were supposed to color the baby chick yellow and the fox's tail orange on one page and figure out double-digit addition on the second. I didn't know why there were so many pages, why so many of them were beneath my children's ability, and why all of them appeared to be the same level of do-or-die importance. I was ill during that year of public school and it took all of my energy to get them up, dressed, and fed. Forcing them to do homework and having to deal with all of the animosity and trauma involved with that was more than I was willing to face. So that October I declared a No Homework Zone in our house. If they wanted to do it, I was fine and I would help. If they didn't, I wasn't going to lift one miserably exhausted finger to make them. The teachers weren't happy. Later, after the children came home, I found that my daughter had been kept in at recess to finish the homework that Mom wouldn't make her do. They called it detention. I called it a lot of things, most of them not printable. The odd part was that her final report card had only one bad mark on it -- for not turning in enough homework. On every other level she met or exceeded their expectations.

What I learned from my children's public school experience was what I feared would happen, based on my own experiences with the system some 20 years ago. They were killing my children's love of learning and replacing it with a fear of being wrong, a fear of taking chances and making mistakes. There was no right answer unless a teacher gave it to you -- even Mom and Dad were not trusted to know the right answers. Only the teacher knew. My daughter threw a hysterical fit when asked to come up with the answers to an assignment. She wanted to copy them verbatim from the textbook if she couldn't get the answers directly from a teacher. She knew the answers, she could recite them to me chapter and verse, but she had no confidence in her own knowledge because the teacher wasn't there to validate it. She was seven and already her confidence was destroyed.

So when I said vacation was going to last a long, long time I had every reason in the world for being serious. It was time to take the pressure off. It was long past time that I figured out how my children operated, how they learned, what methods worked and what wouldn't (forcing them to do anything wasn't going to work, we'd already had that with public school homework). It looked like goofing off. It looked like a lot of playing in the yard and much too much television. My kith and kin kept telling me that I needed to start getting discipline in my teaching methods or the kids were going to be as ignorent as yams. Maybe. But I do know that they read for pleasure, that they are reading a little more every day, and that I don't have to assign it or force it. I have learned that "Mom, I'm bo-o-o-o-ored" is the sweetest sound on the face of the planet. They'll read, they'll write, they'll beg me for math concepts, they'll even fold the laundry if they're bored enough. They do what I do, not what I say. If I'm reading, they read. If I'm pulling out math, they think that's cool. All of them want to knit or crochet or spin. It's going to be another couple of years before they can help me with the soap. But they're doing it because they're curious, not because someone arbitrarily decided that this was what 6- and 7-year-olds needed to learn.

I call it Sustainable Learning, the encouraging of this curiousity and talent. I've always felt that the keys to creating a lifelong learner is to give someone the love of learning, to give them the tools of learning, and then to get the heck out of their way -- because at that point, you have to work very hard to get them to quit learning. I want to nurture autodidacts, just the way my parents did (despite great obstacles) with my brother and I.