Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday French Lesson

I was very excited last week to read these sentences that N. wrote in his French workbook.  Real sentences!  "I want to go to Paris.  I'm going to visit the Eiffel Tower and eat in a French restaurant, ride the Metro, visit the Louvre, go to Parc au Buttes-Chaumont, and eat a croissant and a baguette."

I wish we had time to work on French together more than once a week, because N. enjoys and is easily learning what he's studying now and I know he would easily make quicker progress if we could do more lessons.  Maybe in summer.  Meanwhile, I'm very happy with the foundation he's building now.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Our Little Free Library

N. received a Little Free Library from his grandparents for Christmas.  We mounted it in our front yard in January and we've had so much fun rummaging our shelves to stock and restock it.  We've also made trips to the local used book store to find favorite titles when we don't want to give away our precious personal copies.  We regularly check to see what's been taken and what new titles appear overnight.  Neighborhood parents of young children have told us their kids love walking over to check out the selection regularly.  Both N. and I are really enjoying spreading our love of books throughout our neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


N. received several months of a Tinker Crate subscription for Christmas from his grandparents and he's really enjoyed it.  He especially liked last month's kit, which was all about hydraulics.  He experimented with various configurations of the syringes and tubing.  I've been impressed with the construction of the kits: they begin with a basic project, and then suggest several modifications to make the kit more open-ended.  The projects are structured to encourage tinkering, not merely following directions.
Building an automatic drawing machine
Making slime
Though we have quite a few educational science/engineering kits, such as SnapCircuits, and Lego Crazy Action Contraptions, along with chemistry and physics sets, the Tinker Crates have been more successful with N. for both learning and play.  Partly I think this is because they arrive in the mail and get his attention, unlike a box that sits on a shelf for months (or years!).  I've talked before about the learning power of the fortuitous moment; when something piques our curiosity, we are primed to learn more. 

Building pneumatics

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do Homeschoolers Get Snow Days?

(Steeper than it looks in this photo)
It's funny how many times people have asked us if as a homeschooler, N. gets snow days.  The answer is "Of course! But not as many as the kids here in North Carolina do..."

We've had two days this winter of real slide-down-the-hills-and-throw-snowballs snow this winter.  On those days, N. is up early and out the door along with all the other kids in the neighborhood.   Since all car traffic virtually stops in our city as soon as flurries begin and snow plows never make it to side streets, the kids gather with sleds at the top of a steep little street in our neighborhood.  Parents guard the intersections while chatting and drinking hot drinks in thermal mugs.  If the conditions are good and you have the right sled, you might get a two-and-a-half-block run downhill.  Adult neighbors catch up with each other while kids throw themselves down the slopes for hours.  The mood is festive because snow is rare and short-lived.

By the next day, the snow is mostly melted and the plow has probably come through.  There's no more sledding.  But the schools in town are still closed! And will continue to be so for days, due to fears of icy roads or unusually cold temperatures.  During a 14-day stretch in February, the public and private schools here had about 3 1/2 days of school, I think.

I love the festivity of the initial snow days, but this excessive fear of a little bit of snow, ice, and cold, drives me, a native Minnesotan, nuts.  Canceling school the moment the mercury drops below 32 is very hard on working parents and the many kids who depend on school for meals.  And I confess to feeling a little smugness along with sympathy as the snow days drag on, seemingly unnecessarily, wreaking havoc on the lives of our friends.  While other kids are home day after day driving their parents crazy, N. and Tim go easily back to their regular studies and routines.  We get all of the fun and little of the disruption caused by snow days in the South.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What Would the Quimbys Do?

I recently finished reading Ramona Forever and Ramona the Brave (Beverly Cleary, of course) aloud to N.  He'd been asking to come back to a few of the Ramona books that I hadn't already read to him or that he hadn't read himself.  I resisted because these are easy books for him and I thought he should read them himself; I like to read aloud books that are more advanced, a bit beyond his own reading level.  But he begged and it seemed mean not to give in.  I didn't have another read-aloud in mind, and anyway Ramona is such fun.

I didn't regret reading these aloud because while they might be rather easy reading for a fifth-grader, the stories are emotionally complex.  The world isn't easy for Ramona to navigate!  We talked a lot as I read about her complicated reactions to her experiences.  She gets angry, envious, scared, and pouty.  These are great books for helping kids give voice to their own complex emotions, and the books represent for the adult reader what it feels like to go through the world as a somewhat fractious, complicated kid -- a kid who wants to be loved, wants to be thought "good," but who also has a strong sense of her own self, her needs, her wants.

As a  parent, I was especially struck by the way that Ramona's parents deal with her unhappiness at school, both in kindergarten (in Ramona the Pest, which I read to N. a couple years ago) and in first grade (in Ramona the Brave).  In her first two years of school, Ramona wants desperately to be liked by her teachers, and feels underappreciated by them.  For about a week partway through the year she boycotts kindergarten.  In first grade she begs her parents to get her switched to the other first grade classroom because she has had a series of misunderstandings with her teacher and has come to believe her teacher doesn't like her.  Her parents ascertain that the teacher is not actually a bad teacher, just somewhat formal and old-fashioned, so they make Ramona stick it out. I would probably be exactly the opposite kind of parent: rushing in to meet with teachers, demand changes, etc. to insure my child an optimal learning experience.  I can't even read the resolutions of Ramona's school crises without getting teary!  After all, this is at least in part why we homeschool: to give our child a learning environment better suited to his temperament.

But the point of these episodes in both books is Ramona's resilience.  She survives, even thrives.  Her essential Ramona-ness is not thwarted by being misunderstood.  The bravery of the title is not only shown when Ramona faces down a fierce dog on her walk to school, but when she exercises her "spunk" and shows her teacher who she really is: creative, artistic, resourceful.  She's able to do this because of her parents' confidence in her.  "Buck up, Ramona," said Mr. Quimby after refusing to intervene with her teacher. "Show us your spunk." Ramona was comforted by him singing "Oh my gal she am a spunky gal! Sing polly-wolly doodle all the day!" as he washed the dishes later that night.  Buoyed by this belief in her, Ramona walked to school the next day "filled with spirit and pluck." "She was determined that today would be different.  She would make it different.  She was her father's spunky gal, wasn't she?"

There's been so much research on the importance of inculcating grit, resilience, and determination in kids by letting them wrestle with challenges without parental interference.  Cleary's Ramona anticipates this research.  Though we've chosen not to send our child to traditional school, I hope we are are not depriving him of opportunities to test his ability to face challenges and solve problems -- to be spunky.

(Ramona's originality goes unrecognized)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I think I know my son's tastes pretty well, but I was utterly surprised by the book he's currently obsessed with: Roz Chast's memoir "Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?"  I don't think this was intended for a 10-year-old. It's an account told mostly through drawings of the last years of her parents' lives and of Chast's own efforts to care for them, clean out their apartment, move them to a care facility, etc.

N. had read an excerpt in the New Yorker and begged to get a copy of the book.  I can't really explain why he likes it so much and I have to wait my turn to read it!  But I think he likes the tragicomic tone, and Chast's wry drawings. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Little Help from a Small Bear

The other day we were talking about the new "Annie" movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis.  N. told me there's a girl in his ballet class named Annie who looks like the girl who played Annie in a local production of the musical that we saw a couple years ago.  I said, "Maybe they are sisters."  He said, "No, there wouldn't be two girls in one family named Annie."  I looked at him, puzzled, and then he started laughing, realizing his mistake: of course the girl in the play wasn't named Annie, she just played Annie!  

Then N. said, "Take your daughter back!  Take your daughter back!"  I had no idea what he was talking about, didn't even realize at first that he was quoting something, and certainly didn't recognize the quote.  N. said, "Remember when Paddington went backstage?"

Aha!  N. was referring to an episode in "A Visit to the Theatre" in A Bear Called Paddington that we'd read (probably several times) years ago, when Paddington doesn't realize that the people on stage at a play he attends are playing roles.  He goes back stage at the intermission to try to patch things up between the characters.  N.'s momentary mistake about the name of the girl who played Annie immediately reminded him of this moment in the story.  

I love how this conversation reveals unconscious cognition at work.  N. didn't consciously search his memory for something that would help make sense of a funny mistake that he was a little bit embarrassed about.  But the story jumped to the front of his mind through the power of association. Reading (and being read aloud to) gives us access to a wealth of life experiences through which we can understand our own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning About Opera: Madama Butterfly

As I've written before, we've been to many operas as a family, both regional professional and student productions in our home city and major professional productions in London and Berlin.  N. really enjoys going to the opera, so he was excited recently to go to a regional professional production of Madama Butterfly.

We're often familiar with an aria or two from an opera before we see it, but we've never studied them before we attend.  Thanks to supertitles we can follow the plots and let the magic of the production work on us.  After we go to an opera, we sometimes read more about it and listen to bits on records, CDs, or YouTube.

On the way home from the theater after Butterfly's tragic death, N. asked what that book was in our living room that said "Madama Butterfly" on the spine.  "Oh, that's right," we said, "that's the score.  You might enjoy looking at that."  Because Tim was once the stage director of a regional professional production of Butterfly in Minnesota, we have a CD of the complete opera as well as a full score tucked away with a couple other opera scores in the bookcase in the living room with all the piano, cello, and miscellaneous sheet music.  It hadn't occurred to either Tim or me that N. would be interested in this, but he very much was.  For the next few nights, he listened to the CD and studied different parts of the score, sometimes playing phrases on the piano, examining what changes had been made in the production we saw (which combined Acts 2 & 3 into one, for example).

This was another example of the power of the fortuitous in learning, a favorite theme of mine.  I love those learning moments when an experience sparks an interest and the right materials are in the right place at the right time to make the most of that interest.  We could never be prepared for every such possible moment, for we could never predict them all.  But it is gratifying to watch when everything aligns seemingly naturally for maximum learning.

Poring over the score.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday French Class

This semester I'm supervising N.'s French study on Friday mornings. We're still loving Hachette's Les Loustics series.  In early October we took a long weekend trip to Montreal, where I attended a conference and Tim and N. thoroughly explored the city. It was so fun to see N. decode signs and listen to the French chatter all around us. But today's French lesson began with something more mundane but still culturally central: une boule de chocolat chaud pour le petit déjeuner!  N. thought this was très magnifique!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Milestones: Bike Riding

In late September, N. learned to ride a bike!

In the early years, I biked with him in a baby seat on the back of my bike for a long time (much longer than he technically fit in the seat!) and then I attached a trailing bike to mine, and he happily pedaled (or coasted like a dead weight!) behind me on many long rides on our local greenway.  But when he grew out of the trailing bike, his knees knocking the handlebars with every pump of the pedals, he didn't want to learn to ride a bike of his own.

Not wanting to push him into something he didn't feel ready to do, we waited to get him a bike till he said he was interested (maybe there was a chicken-and-egg problem here, but I thought he knew how fun biking could be because we'd done so much together).  Finally when N. was 8 years old, his pediatrician, who has strongly normative ideas about what children should be doing at every age, told us sternly that N. needed to learn to swim and ride a bike, as soon as possible!  We were amused by this directive, but used it to encourage N.  He was too tall for bikes with training wheels at this point, so I bought him a nice, barely used hybrid trail bike with lots of gears and hand brakes, thinking it would last several years as he became a competent rider.

Instead, this fancy bike intimidated N.; he tried it a couple times but was overwhelmed and couldn't get the hang of it.  After a couple initial forays, he refused to try it again. I sold the bike on Craigslist last summer before we went abroad for the semester.

This fall for his 10th birthday N. picked out a simpler cruiser bike (no gears or hand brakes).  He was still reluctant to try it out, but one day I finally convinced him to get on it. I told him I would hold the seat and run behind him.  Which turned out to be a benevolent maternal lie.  He got on the bike and took off on his first try, thinking I was back there, helping him stay balanced.  There he was, riding down the street with me jogging a bit behind, as if he'd always known how!  He couldn't believe it when I told him he was doing it all himself!

I got my bike fixed up (sitting unused in the garage for years while I waited for N. to join me on bike rides, the tires had rotted and the chain rusted through) and we've taken rides together on the greenway, to the farmers' market, around the neighborhood.  On every ride, N. calls out in wonder and disbelief, "Riding a bike is fun!"