Saturday, February 6, 2016

Oysters of Learning

I have seen parents, both homeschoolers and not, search the library for optimal resources for educational enrichment. They look in all of the usual places -- study guides, shiny new canned curricula, classic stories, leveled readers, etc.-- to find those pearls of wisdom that will set their children off on the straight and narrow path to college, a "safe" career, and economic stability. 

I'm probably the wrong person to ask when they come up to the desk looking for a way to get their kids excited about the subject of the day.
Pearls don't come pre-strung. Every pearl starts its life as an irritation inside of an oyster. Oysters are not beautiful. They are rough and grungy gray. They don't move a lot. Think about it. They spend all their time in beds. And yet this very plain creature will take years building layer upon layer over a grain of sand until it carries a treasure within. 

That thing that irritates us might be building the pearl of our children's future.

I find learning in unusual, rough places. That movie that everyone panned might tell a story that was inspired by a classic. Watching it might make me curious about the original story, so I go and read it. That comic book that makes parents roll their eyes might show how very different people learn to work together and combine their strengths for a common cause. That video game kids spend hours trying to master might give more concrete lessons on physics, geometry, and strategy than a semester of science, math, and logic.

Just because you can't see the pearl, doesn't mean it isn't there.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Cutthroat Kitchen and Creativity

My family loves Alton Brown from the Food Network. I think I owe a lot of their cooking ability to his shows, especially Good Eats. If you ever want some good lessons in chemistry, do yourself a favor and get some episodes of Good Eats. The food science is explained in a way that I could understand it. Believe me, that is impressive. Alton is right up there with one of my other favorites, Beakman.

One of Alton's latest shows is Cutthroat Kitchen. I know a lot of fans were turned off by this show, where contestants bid on sabotages for their opponents (imagine Survivor with cooking), but we find it fascinating. A contestant without sabotages isn't as interesting as the ones who get them. You can really tell who the creative players are. They are unafraid of a sabotage. They may not win, but they try. My family likes to figure out how we would beat some of the sabotages. I think the tool and work station sabotages are easiest. It's fun to think how you would mix all of your ingredients in colander or prepare food on an odd surface, like a rocking counter or in a ball pit. The sabotages that replace their ingredients vary in difficulty. We watch and discuss what the players could do to work around their food sabotages, especially when they get canned items to replace fresh food. Of course, there are the players who sabotage themselves by forgetting an ingredient or straying too far from the dish they were asked to prepare. Forgetting staples like eggs or cream can really hinder your chances of making it to the next round.

Hardest are the challenges that force you to collaborate with an opponent, especially when they are tied together in some way or need to rely on the other player. There was an episode where two players had to cook each others' meals. They couldn't see the preparation, they could only give instructions to prep and cook it. It was a good lesson in clear communication and good listening skills.

Once the food is plated, a judge (who does not know who was sabotaged or how) samples their offerings and decides who goes on to the next round. Even at this point, creativity can help a contestant who is best able to convince the judge that the meal came out exactly the way it was supposed to. There is a joke on the show that when it doesn't come out right, the chef refers to his dish as "deconstructed." I recently made muffins that got stuck in the tins (I had rushed and didn't grease the pans enough.) I told my son they were deconstructed muffins. He asked what sabotage I got.

It's the little "in" jokes that keep a family together.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Another Rant on Testing

I heard a report the other day that gave me hope for the future of education. Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is recommending that colleges put more emphasis on community service rather than personal achievement. This is significant because among the recommendations it calls for a reduction of AP courses and making some SAT scores optional. Optional testing? This is an amazing development!

I've spent most of my homeschooling years expressing my concern over the workload students face from grammar school through their high school years. I lamented how we only saw neighborhood children for one or two weeks every year, in that nebulous space between the end of school and the start of summer camps. It seems as if children are subjected to nine to five jobs before they know their alphabet and numbers.

The same day I heard the report above, I read another article about how kindergarten has become the new first grade. This is not a surprise to me. I still remember being shocked fifteen years ago when a mother complained to me about her daughter having an hour's worth of homework in kindergarten. I see parents at the children's library who take out piles of leveled readers to prepare their children for first grade. What happened to reading for fun? What happened to reading together? Play is the work of the child. They learn through all of their senses. They need to move and explore as much as they need to sit and think. No one seems to have the time for such frivolous activities. Because of No Child Left Behind and Common Core standards, everyone is busy preparing for the tests.

I raised my kids with the understanding that the tests were done to figure out where there were academic weaknesses, but even I have started teaching to the test. I get nervous about unschooling my youngest and afraid that if she doesn't do well on the tests, I will be told to put her into school. The fear has increased since I started working part-time. So I train her, especially with math. And I end up feeling like I'm a fake because I try so hard to please the schools.

In a perfect world, tests should only be used to measure academic progress, but I wonder if that is a ridiculous concept as well. My oldest could rattle off the names of the first twenty five presidents when she was nine. But it is not vital information for her in her chosen college path, so she has long since forgotten the order. Instead, she's learned how to research, so if she has a sudden desire to know how Zachary Taylor died (recent conversation), the information is as close as a Google search. Don't knock the internet. If you learn how to use it properly and check sources, a world of knowledge is at your fingertips. Which led my daughter and I to come to this conclusion: Tests should test students' ability to look things up and find the information they are looking for, either in books or on the computer. Students should learn to discern fact from opinion and from fiction and draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: Superfight

Some years you hit on the perfect gift.

I gave my kids the card game Superfight for Christmas this year. It looked interesting. You build superheroes using character and attribute cards and then argue why it would beat your opponents' characters in a fight. I dealt out some cards to show you:

So let's say player one picks three character cards and three attribute cards and from those cards he picks "Macgyver" and "Shoots lightning". He then discards the extras and draws a random attribute. The random attribute might be useful, not-so-useful, or a weakness. In this case, player one picked "can control hair." Player two does the same and creates a pterodactyl who can duplicate one opponent attribute and shoots glitter (I'll let you figure out which attribute the pterodactyl picks). The players then argue for their character and why they would win in a battle. We did have a need to put a time limit on the arguments, since some family members can go on indefinitely. The winner is chosen when either one player concedes or by vote of other players. In the event of a tie, each player draws one character card with no attributes and they battle it out with those cards, but the winner keeps his original character. The winner plays against the next player. After a character wins three rounds, it retires, because it is obviously too powerful and someone else should get the chance to win.

We have had so much fun with this game! Sometimes the character and attribute combinations are hysterical, and the arguments are even better. We've played it the original way, but it is easy to vary it and play it other ways. We did a Dating Game version where the first person creates the date, then everyone else creates characters and argue why their character would be a perfect match. The date chooses. We played with my parents using the geek expansion deck. They enjoyed it, but I might use the original deck next time since there were a lot of characters in the geek deck that they didn't know and we ended up arguing for them. My kids played with their friends without keeping score, so the game was one battle after another until it was time to leave. You can also play to create the funniest character, the scariest character, etc.

One of the best things about it is that it teaches you to argue effectively. You don't win just because your character is Batman or Superman. You have to explain how they would win and consider the character's abilities and the attributes. There are expansion packs for different genres, if you want even more cards to work with. I got the geek deck, that includes a lot of sci-fi references, and the anime deck, which made us realize we really need to brush up on our knowledge of anime. I also picked up the kids' pack to try out at my storytelling group. It includes a lot of classic characters and people young children can understand, like a cop, a genie, a fairy godmother, etc. Every pack also includes three blank character cards and three blank attribute cards, so you can add anything that you feel needs to be included in the decks. In a nutshell, this is a great game, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A New Year and a Couple of Resolutions

I hope everyone is enjoying a bright New Year! We celebrated ours quietly at home after an afternoon with my parents. 2015 was tiring for me. I don't feel like I'm getting the hang of working and homeschooling and the general housekeeping stuff. I'm not complaining. I love all that I do, but I don't get a lot of breaks from it all. It saps my creative energy.

That said, I do try to make  time for my art. Aside from my model of the Little Prince, I help design and set up the window displays for the Children's Library. I also sketched a portrait of my cousin and her fiance to give them for Christmas. And I designed my Christmas cards, a feat that surprised me.

This is the window right now. I kept the last design I did and added to it to make it an enchanted forest.
I plan to write more this year. I miss working on my blog. Life ebbs and flows with waves of busy. Sometimes it's all I can do to keep my head above water. I know that writing helps me to sort myself out, and it is important to make time for things that help keep you grounded. That will be my first resolution: Write on this blog every week.

My only other resolution is to take time to meditate every day. I figure that even if I can only spend five minutes doing it, it's five minutes more than I was doing. I found some simple guided meditations on YouTube and I can do it on my own as well, thanks to years of practicing yoga. Doing too much often makes me panic, and I really don't have time for panicking. Taking a moment to stop and simply focus on breathing in and out helps me to remain calm when I feel overwhelmed.

And now I will put on my mom voice and ask: How are you taking care of yourself?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

This Year's Christmas eCards

These are my ecard designs for 2015. I've been crazy busy around here and am still trying to catch up on everything. It probably won't happen this year, but I'm going to cut myself some slack for being a working homeschooling mom. I also turned in my quarterly report to the dept. of ed. this month because I was busy trying to save our parks curators' jobs from budget cuts last month. This whole year swept by quickly for me, without many breaks along the way. I keep in mind that ife is a journey, and at this time of year, I do my best to stop and remember how thankful I am for all the good things in my life. I hope everyone enjoys their holidays!

(click to enlarge)

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Griffin Cake

I make a lot of birthday cakes. Always in the spring and summer. Always someone else's. I never baked a cake for myself. Which is ridiculous, because I enjoy making them, so why shouldn't I bake my own cake?

I've had plenty of years when I didn't even want to bother celebrating my birthday. This time of year is always so busy. My day is a speed bump between Thanksgiving and Christmas. By the time it comes around, I am in the midst of writing cards or baking cookies  I usually spend any birthday money on Christmas presents. I don't really feel like dealing with one more thing, and now it marks how fast time is passing, how old I'm getting. I also feel it is the most pathetic act to beg my kids to bake a cake for me. I know they would if I asked, but I'm not the type of person that wants to ask.

I usually end up with a store bought cake. Which is OK, but it isn't the same as homemade.

I really, really wanted to bake my own cake this year.

In the grand scheme of things, a cake isn't very important, but it does make me happy. To create something unique lifts my spirit. To bake something that everyone devours because it tastes so good on the cake. Sometimes you have to do what makes you feel good. Mothers spend a lot of time putting their own needs last, and this is not a good example. Yes, you want to show your kids that you are there for them and others, but you also want them to see you are there for yourself. It goes back to the old airplane emergency: you want to put your own oxygen mask on first so that you are able to help others. If you honor yourself, your children see you consider yourself important too. And they learn to honor their needs.

This is me honoring my creative need.

Griffin cake. Velvet cake with mocha chocolate buttercream frosting on the lion body and beak, chocolate whipped cream frosting on the eagle head, wings, and chest, as well as the tip of the tail. Talons are chocolate dipped pretzels.  I made the eagle portion from one cut of about half a cake, which worked out well as I didn't need to worry about parts falling. I freeze the cake before cutting, and then used melted chocolate as glue. It held together well.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

What I'm Working On: Recycled Book Art

 I haven't decided whether I'm finished or not. I might cover over the eyes. I might paint it. Then again, I do prefer the rough look of it, much like the author's drawings. I might leave it alone and see how I feel about it next week. I just hope it's recognizable.

For me, art is more process than product. Figuring out how to do something and fiddling with it. I guess I look at many aspects of life that way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

An Autumn Thought in Haiku

Change is eternal
Life is sun through colored leaves
Every moment unique

(Haiku by me, photo by my youngest, from a recent walk on a chill October afternoon.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The "I should really post some photos" Post

Mom wants pictures. She doesn't use Facebook. So here is a visual recap of some of our activities.

Chase made a costume to wear at the Renaissance Faire when he went with his friends. He pounded out the chestplate himself.

Before she went back to University, Marina and I set up a fall display at the library. She only had time to make three squirrels a bird and some books, so I put the rest together. I plan to add pumpkins soon to take it through Thanksgiving.

 We had many animal visitors to the yard this summer and early autumn. The toad above was under the hydrangea bush by the door.  Below, an oddly marked grackle came visiting a few times. I named it Spot.

After several blurs and missed opportunities, I got a photo of our backyard hummingbird. She hangs around the yard during the summer, and even buzzed my ear when I invaded her territory one morning to fill our small birdbath/fountain.

We finally had a Monarch butterfly in our yard. It's worrying how few butterflies and bees we've seen this year. Please, if you garden, try to avoid pesticides and herbicides. They are really hurting the beneficial insect population and their food plants.

 We visited an orchard recently, on our way to drop off supplies to Marina. She asked us to take some reference photos for her (It's an artist thing. We are always supplying her with reference photos), so Sierra brought her camera and while I picked out apples (no time to pick them ourselves), she snapped some photos of the orchard residents.

That's all for now. I have to say, I really miss my old camera. I can't take as good shots of insects and moons with my daughters' cameras. My supermoon photos were shiny blurs on black. I think Sierra misses the camera too. She could do a lot with it that her small camera can't.
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