Friday, August 21, 2009

the wrong side of the nerve endings

I'm feeling awful and small and skinless today. Things affect me that shouldn't and normally don't, and I have to put in a lot of effort to tell the echo-y script in my head to shut up, shut down, go away. It makes me tired and I'm already unhappy. But...

The Banshees worked on their own set of comic books today. Not reading them -- that's my job -- but drawing them and working out the scripts. This is entirely their idea and while the subject matter isn't exactly what I'd pick out, what the heck. This is their project, not mine, and their enthusiasm is the exact sort of contagious I need to be around. Roughly three weeks ago I sat all of them down at the kitchen table and said, "We're going to start on your writing." Why?! Because your spelling, grammar, and penmanship is atrocious, that's why. And because 24/7 exposure to them has taught me the warning signs, I took off my glasses and gave every child their very own individually-tailored hairy eyeball while I posed this question: "Do you believe that I can make you do this?" There was a flurry of nods and Yes Moms. "Then let's cut out the the 6 hours to 2 weeks of protest, because that's a lot of time and effort to put into a battle that you're destined to lose anyway, and just. get. this. done."

I'd be lying if I said they didn't give me some resistance, but for once they seemed to believe that compliance was the only viable option. So they started writing, and except for a couple of hiccups at the beginning of this exercise, I saw no evidence of their brains being empty of any creative idea whatsoever. I remember being so frustrated as a child when my mother made me write my dutiful little paragraphs. I didn't know what to say and my head, usually full of all sorts of maybes, what-ifs, and what-could-bes, felt like as if it had been filled with sand. Dull, grey/beige/dusty sand. There doesn't seem to be anything like that for the Banshees. In fact, LB didn't have any of the same reservations about the process that her siblings had. She wanted to write, wanted it so badly she started writing what she thought the words should look like. That's what finally propelled me into the penmanship wars. LB reminds me of a coworker I had once, of whom it was said that a foreman needed to get him lined out correctly at the beginning of a job or else there would be a lot of work to be redone. LB and my former coworker are highly intelligent, very motivated, and most of the time their instincts about how to proceed are the right ones -- but all it takes is that one time they get the wrong end of the concept. Spelling is certainly one of those, "Let's get her lined out correctly" sort of jobs.

There was the skirmish of the alternate lines. I wanted them to write one every other line; they considered that a horrendous waste of space. It took the better part of an afternoon to convince them that 1. I had my reasons; 2. they were good reasons; and 3. even if they didn't agree with those reasons they needed to ask themselves whether or not they thought I could make them do it. So far number 3 is my most persuasive number, but they're slowly learning my reasons and to appreciate the logic behind them. The Banshees' penmanship is, quite frankly, just awful, and I need the room of the alternate line to correct spelling and grammar. The penmanship is something I'm still working on finding a solution for. I'm sure that it includes lots and lots of practice; I'm more uncertain where the programming my computer in Linux fits in with things.

(In a nutshell, here's how the Linux tangent works: Banshees need penmanship practice --> need penmanship font with outlines, arrows, whatever it takes to get them to trace the proper shape at the proper size with the proper spacing, etc. --> such fonts are available on the web, even down to the solid upper/dashed middle/solid bottom lines that I remember so fondly from my grade-school days --> but they only appear to work with Mac or PC and usually only PC. There has to be a way of getting these fonts to play nice with Ubuntu-form Linux. Which is how I ended up with an Ubuntu Bible and a friend who is telling me that it's probably just how I've got my X-environment configured. Now I have to translate that from geek to English, because I'm still just a proto-geek and don't speak the langage well at all.)

While the Banshees are still more likely to spend the afternoon drawing endlessly or trying to cadge more television time out of me, or trying yet another variant on the infinitely entertaining game of poke the sibling, more and more often the notebooks come out and words are patiently scribed onto a page. Mom, how do you spell 'there'. "Give me a sentence." There once was a knight.... "Okay, t h e r e." I just wanted to make sure, because I remember you told us there were three words that sounded alike but had different spellings and meanings. Oh kid, I could kiss you. There aren't any more major battles about fixing spelling or grammatical errors since the War of Mid-August, when I explained that I didn't care if they erased and rewrote or transcribed the entire piece with the revisions in place but that the right words and the right grammar were going to happen. I've introduced the concept of spelling lists and we've dug into Kathryn Stout's Natural Speller without too many incidents.

This is my first foray into structured schooling and I'm rather astonished that we all have the patience for it. But if I had to venture a guess, I'd say that at this point we're all ready for the slight formality this venture brings. This is also my first real, concrete evidence that this teaching 'em at home business is going to work out all right after all. Up until now, they've pretty much taught themselves or each other -- that's the only thing that can account for LB being able to read -- but I've never worn my Formal Instruction hat with any comfort. Now I know I can, and that they'll learn, and that Life, The Universe, And Everything won't suddenly end from the shock of it all.