Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thoughts on the Village and the Child

There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child.

This got me thinking.... (a dangerous pastime, I know)

In our society, it certainly seems to take a village to raise a child. From the moment of birth (conception, really) we have industries devoted to the care and keeping of the child. Without even considering the obvious ones, like prenatal care, daycare, and schools, think about the many ways our children are influenced by their village. Childproof devices, television shows and videos geared toward the youngest, toys, books, more toys, clothing, electronics, youth sports, dance classes, etc. all court the child and parents with promises of creating a superyouth who is smarter, stronger, and more stylish than his or her peers.

I think of all that has risen up from schools. Learning centers, curricula, textbooks, teaching supplies, and tests are all offered by separate companies to supplement the child's education. Stores have Back-to-School sales now before classes end in the spring.

Then there is government. How many laws do we create because it's "for the kids?" How much money do we hand over to educational systems "for the kids?" Is there anything we wouldn't do "for the kids?"

It appears to me that it takes a child to raise a village.

I, myself, have always benefited from kids. I entertained at children's parties and events. I worked as a teacher's aide in public schools. I taught circus arts at afterschool and summer camp programs. Even now, I benefit by working in a children's library.

I wonder how our village would survive without the child? Because I think the child would survive fine without all of the attention.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Homeschooling Blog Carnival at Dewey's Treehouse

The latest Carnival of Homeschooling: The Retirement Edition is now up at Dewey's Treehouse. Please click over to the carnival and read some interesting submissions from homeschooling bloggers around the world!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reading Outside the Books

What are you reading?

It doesn't sound like a complicated question. Every quarter -- for 17 years now -- I list the books currently read by my homeschooled children. Kids read books. It's not that difficult. Is it?

My youngest made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about learning. Ever the rebel, she balked at my traditional methods to teach her to read. She learned by playing a word heavy computer game. Her brother and sister would read the instructions and story to her and she eventually just started reading.

She is also a natural speller and has excellent penmanship, two things I thought were truly teachable. My son taught me otherwise. No amount of writing helped. It frustrated him. Do you know what happens when you are stressed and try to write? You're handwriting and spelling get worse.

Considering my experiences, it was not a surprise I had to rethink what it means to read. I couldn't write down all of those wonderful classics I had written on my oldest daughter's reports. I couldn't even write down the classics adapted to graphic novels that I had for my son. My youngest enjoys manga and anime.

For those who need the lesson, manga and anime are simply the terms used for Japanese comics and animation. It's a wide ranging field full of the genres you would expect in our own Western culture -- school based fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, sports, etc. -- but you get this from a culturally different perspective. You also read manga (if the publisher stays true to the art) from right to left and if you watch the anime in the original Japanese, you get subtitles. Lots and lots of subtitles.

From watching anime with my daughters, I know they both read very fast. Because I don't and I often need to ask what was said. My youngest is picky about what she watches. The story needs to be good and it needs to be funny or she moves on to something else.

So what is my daughter reading? How do I express that to an educational engine that has reduced reading to the sum of its parts? Because reading isn't about levels and requirements and keeping track of minutes. It's about reading what interests you, even if the words don't happen to fall neatly on a page.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Cake Season 2015

My annual cake baking marathon was a real challenge this year. The pulls from a work schedule, my youngest's volunteer schedule, and my son's intern schedule meant that if I wasn't baking or decorating, I was in the car trying to get somewhere. May was a monster, and I think that reflects in some of the month's cakes.

We start a few days before May with my dad's birthday. He had a milestone 75th birthday, so I wanted to celebrate with a special cake for him. It's my faithful chocolate buttermilk cake recipe with a buttercream frosting. I couldn't find the frosting recipe I usually work with, so I used one from the Fannie Farmer cookbook. I thought it was ridiculously sweet, so I don't think I'll use it again, but it worked with the lightly sweet chocolate cake.

Guitar cake

It's supposed to be a Spanish cuatro, but it ended up as a regular guitar. I need to get a better set of decorating tips for my pastry bag. And yes, I know the hole is too low. The first cake of the season tends to have these issues with detail. You can't tell from this photo, but the adjustment knobs are chocolate chips.

The second cake was for my anime/manga loving youngest. She wanted Kyubey. Kyubey is from Madoka Magica Puella Magi, the Magical Girls series. SPOILERS: Kyubey is a bad creature. The cake was buttermilk chocolate, but this time I opted for a whipped cream frosting. I sawed off pieces of ice cream cones to form the neck and ears, used chocolate covered pretzels for the rings and strawberry slices for the eyes. The mouth is just melted chocolate drawn on with a pastry bag. The separate cupcake was to give a place for the candles. Thirteen this year.

Kyubey cake back
Kyubey cake front

The third cake was an octopus for my oldest daughter. It nearly destroyed me. The velvet cake recipe I used usually is reliable. This time the cake came out fluffier and ended up breaking when I took it out of the pan. I originally tried to make a creamy chocolate frosting, but it never set. It looked like an octopus that got caught in an oil slick and died a horrible death. There were tears the night before her birthday. I went to bed exhausted and got up early for work the next morning. Home from work, I set out to fix my mess.

Octopus cake

Several applications of chocolate whipped cream frosting later and it looked much better. The tentacles are all spiral slices of cake and the anemones were cake donuts filled with whipped cream. The eyes are chocolate chips. The original frosting never solidified completely, but instead formed a fudgy layer that made this one of the best tasting cakes I will never make again.

The last cake of the season was for my son. He wanted a Cthulu carrot cake. I did the head and shoulders. Cthulu is a monster from H.P. Lovecraft. My theory about the monster cakes is that my kids feel less guilty about cutting into them. When my son was younger, he would leave the room when an adorable innocent cake needed to be sliced. The carrot cake recipe was from a kids' baking set. I quadrupled it to allow for the fact that I wasn't using mini cake pans. I used my own eyeball-the-ingredients cream cheese frosting, first spreading a white layer and then tinting it green. The eyes are strawberry slices, the wings are sugar cones, and the tentacles are carrot peelings and frosting.

In spite of a challenging, extra busy month, I think the cakes turned out well. And every one of them was delicious. For me, that is the most important part of baking homemade cakes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Swimming Upstream: Thoughts on Testing

I didn't plan to test my daughter the week before schools started testing, it just happened that way.

Today's paper gave stats on how many students opted out this year. I'm proud of the parents who are standing up for their children. It's hard to swim against the current, but sometimes it is the only way to effect change.

I don't have the luxury of opting out. Testing is part of the requirements for homeschooling in our state. Since I'm already swimming upstream, I would rather save my energy for more important things. We stumble through a week of testing each year and in return we have the freedom to not test her for the rest of the year.

This year, our test changed to align with goals of the Common Core. We don't have the benefit of the curriculum that goes along with the test, we wouldn't follow it anyway, so any prep must be crammed into the week or two before the test is administered. It's annoying, but nothing we haven't dealt with before. I'm learning to take deep breaths to deal with my own anxieties over these tests and try to remember that the test is a tool. It helps to identify where she is strong and where she not. That is the point of it.I try not to worry about topics we haven't covered, because we are not learning on the same schedule as children in school. She is not behind, we are on a completely different clock.

I already knew she was good at reading and language arts, but I learned that my daughter is also really good at word problems. If every math question were a word problem, she probably wouldn't stress about math at all. Unfortunately, the same doesn't hold true for straightforward calculations. I was like that. Carefully figuring each sum to assure myself I had the correct answer slowed me down. I never figured out the beauty of patterns in math because I was too intimidated by numbers and trying to count out the right answer. I could never finish all of the problems in the allotted time. I thought math was a race I couldn't win. It made me hate math.

Our society looks at testing backwards. We worry about our children doing well instead of their well being. A test should help teachers and parents to identify areas to improve and determine whether they are ready for the next level. If we tell them that passing is all that matters, as if they are winning a game, they learn that passing is all that is valued, not learning. Is it any wonder that cheating and risk taking is on the rise? When are we, as a society, going to learn that the answer to education reform is not found if we keep looking for it in the same places--an extended school year, more homework,  a high score on a multiple choice test? You don't find change when you swim in circles.

I think educating your own or opting out is where true reform lies. Filling in bubbles leaves you without air. It's hard to swim that way.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Time of Sparkles on Dirty Snow

The snow is melting here. Finally. We can see the front yard again and we pulled out some of the Christmas decorations that had frozen into the ground in January. Birds are pairing off, crocuses are pushing their green blades through the mulch, and our first flowers, winter aconite, are blooming. In spite of a few hiccups of late-season snow and unstable temperatures, spring most assuredly has arrived.

Watching the dirty piles of slush and snow seems cleansing. Have you ever looked closely at those melting patches? They are more than just tired hills of dirt-peppered ice. On a sunny day, the light hits it and sets it all aglitter. In spite of all, it is beautiful, and then it's gone. It disappears into the soil and the earth prepares to reward our patience with growth. Soon the yard will be full of green and flowers.

Homeschooling is like that, don't you think? If you looked at our house on an average day at the height of our homeschooling years, it was full of piles of books, paper, crafts, toys, and games. The swirl of activity left a mess in its wake. The clean-up seemed endless. The detritus of our unusual life filled our home. Now that it is melting away with two grown children, I stop and notice those sparkles as we advance into a new phase of life. I appreciate the close knit relationship of my children. I enjoy listening to their conversations, their aspirations. I try to help them where I can as they reach for their goals. As childhood recedes like a mound of snow at the end of winter, I notice the glitter of their personalities, their dreams, their hopes for the future. We see it up close for this brief period before they set out on their own to have adventures and begin their adult lives.

Don't forget to look for those sparkles on dirty snow.

Saturday, February 28, 2015


My camera died last December. The last place I used it was the train show, and after that it stopped focusing. All I could see was a blur, and then nothing.

I try to use my daughter's camera every once in a while, but I'm impatient with it. It feels like I'm using someone else's glasses. I can't "see" anything the way I could with mine. It has no manual focus, and possibly no sport setting either. I used the sport setting on my camera to photograph bugs. Of course, I haven't seen a bug since winter set in, with our frigid temperatures, but I like to be prepared. It was also good for fast moving birds. I watch them, longing to capture their image.

To have a camera is to focus on one thing at a time. To see my subject as I might not if I look at the full scene. To see that one detail that makes me gasp when I open the photo files: the stretched wing of a bird, the delicate scales on our small lizards, the light and shadows playing across the cat's fur, the concentration in a child's face. To focus is to learn, to appreciate, to wonder, to love. My camera deepened my understanding of these things as much as sketching did.

I miss my camera. It served me well for (almost? over?) ten years and survived several drops from various heights over those years. It is likely it lived on borrowed time. My husband wants to replace it eventually, possibly with something "better," something different. I'm trying to come to terms with that. Anything different means relearning how to use a camera. I know I'm going to be unforgiving and compare it to my old one, but I will try to focus on the positive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Recipes are just Guidelines, Really

My 18 year old son is learning to make chocolate chip cookies. He already knows how to make scones, pancakes, waffles and a couple of pasta dishes, but like his big sister, he was slightly intimidated by the cookies. She suggested he start with a recipe from our Fannie Farmer cookbook, the same way she learned.

I realized I haven't followed a recipe for the chocolate chip cookies in a very long time. I learned with the Toll House cookie recipe on the back of the Nestle's chocolate chips many years ago. Once I got the hang of it, I started improvising. At first, I wanted to see what would happen if I used only brown sugar. At this point, my cookies are an adventure every time I make them. I throw in different flours, perhaps add wheat germ or flax seed. I might substitute olive oil for some of the butter, or experiment with the amounts of baking soda and baking powder. If I feel really lazy, I don't even use measuring cups, trusting my sight and touch to tell me if my measures are right. I follow my whims and curiosity. Baking is another outlet for my creativity.

And because my mind is so very random, I started thinking lately about how schools try to use a recipe for education--
Whip up 2 credits math,  fold in 2 credits English. In a separate bowl, mix together 2 credits each social studies and science, 1 credit health education, and arts classes to taste. Whisk all subjects together and set in testing situations for at least 6 hours every year. Serves all students. (adjust serving size per district) Prepared for college placement.

The thing is, recipes are a good starting point, but if you want to make sure everyone enjoys the results, you have to tweak the recipe. I don't use eggs or nuts in my cookies if I know someone has an allergy. Sometimes I cut down on the sugar or salt. I add chips or cocoa to increase the chocolate goodness. I don't just bake cookies. I want this to be an experience that brings a smile and happy memories.

My son's first cookies were a bit messy. I think they needed more flour. They still tasted good. We're encouraging him to try again. With each batch, you learn something new about the nature of the dough and how to make them better. For me, the whole point of using a recipe is so that, eventually, you don't need a recipe.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Carnival of Homeschooling at Why Homeschool

Carnival of Homeschooling The Carnival of Homeschooling: Change edition is now up at Why Homeschool. Please take a moment to visit the carnival, especially those of you who are reaching the end of your homeschooling journey. There are several posts on that topic!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Intangible Talent

My oldest is a tough act to follow.

She's multi-talented, an A student at college, and able to make everyone around her fall in love with her charm, her sense of humor, and her ability to get excited and talk about any number of topics.

My son is the middle child. He is also very talented, but not in the same way as his big sister. He's doing an internship rather than the college route, which is a hard road in our college oriented community. He's also very shy, and if you are not able to hit on one of his topics of interest, any attempts at conversation will fall flat.

I've noticed how hard it is for others to engage him. Family members won't even notice when they cross the line and shut him down. Many don't make it past the hair. He has a lot of it, and it is like my own, very curly and hard to manage. Since he doesn't want to cut it, it is very high maintenance. I'm still teaching him not to forget to condition it regularly, and even with conditioning, there are days when his hair simply decides to do its own thing. His is thicker than mine (which is pretty thick) so it takes a lot of work to get it to look calm. People treat you different when your hair is not tamed. Even when it is, a young man meets regular questions about when he plans to cut it. My son doesn't do well with snappy comebacks, so he simply stops talking. He's not able to play the social games as well as my oldest. If you are nice to him, if you appreciate him, he will respond in kind. If he thinks you will mock his interests, he withdraws.

Those who are able to move past the hair have trouble moving past his computer time. He's on a lot. Not just for games, but for his artwork. His internship at the Digital Arts Experience has really been great. He's learned so much about the process of creating animation, which is necessary if he wants to do game development. The problem with most of your work being online is that it is hard to whip out at a gathering. My daughter is always knitting or crafting gifts. Her skill is very tangible. Most of our family and friends don't know how talented my son is because it's not something that you can display until it's finished. Unfinished computer animation is just pictures on the screen. 

The people at the DAE appreciate him. They always tell me how helpful and creative he is, how hard he works. You need that support when you are an artist. After a year of designing, modeling, rigging, lighting, and everything else that goes into the process of creating animation, he now has something very cool to show family and friends. I hope you enjoy Steve the Gunnasaurus.
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