Thursday, November 8, 2012

Math Recalculated

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was about math.  At the time, we were more or less "unschooling" math, and I was letting Bean engage in math play instead of doing structured work that moved along in a more or less orderly fashion.  At the time, I thought we would do that until it didn't work anymore.  About a month after I wrote that post, Bean stopped being willing to make colorful pictures out of the solutions to various types of equations; so I let her just do the problems themselves.  When she realized this was the same thing as just doing the problems in a workbook, she was no longer interested.

By this time in our lives as homeschoolers, we had been through enough cycles of smooth sailing, hitting brick walls, and starting over with something else that this was a familiar pattern and I had a fallback position for the next time this happened in any subject. I went back to The Book. My homeschooling bible that is, Home Learning Year by Year, by Rebecca Rupp. We were at the end of the third grade academic year, so I looked at Rupp's suggestions for fourth grade and saw that she suggested the Key To series for Fractions, Decimals, Geometry, and Measurement from Key Curriculum Press.  Each series covers one topic over four to eight workbooks, with each workbook representing about one grade level worth of work, and they are recommended for 4-12 graders. When I saw that each book was only four dollars, I had no problem ordering the entire Fraction series.  As soon as it was clear that Bean liked the style of this series and was willing to do the work, I ordered the entire series for each topic: Decimals, Geometry, Measurement, Metric Measurement, Percentages, and Algebra.  [I must note that the Algebra and Geometry series are not exactly the equivalent of high school level classes, but for upper elementary and middle school students, they are very serviceable for Pre-Algebra and introductory level Geometry.  The Geometry books do not include proofs and do not require any exposure to trigonometry.]

Armed with the Key To books, I outlined my plan for fourth grade last year, using Book 1 from the Key to Fractions, Decimals, Geometry and Measurement series.  I supplemented with the fourth grade Math Made Easy book for number theory, operations, and probability.  Math Made Easy is a workbook series published by DK, which is available from Amazon, and periodically Costco.  Intellectual snob that I am, it would be easy to overlook a workbook like this if it weren't effective.  It's not Singapore, Saxon, Right Start, or any other program popular with homeschoolers, and as such doesn't have conference cred, but Bean really likes the no nonsense layout and that aside from a few examples, there are no prescribed ways to do the work.  For kids who can figure out their own way from raw numbers to solutions and for parents who feel reasonably confident in guiding them there without a cheat sheet, these books are more than adequate - a fact our homeschool consultant has vetted more than once.

Last year, Bean was using all of these workbooks at the same time: Fractions one day, Geometry the next, etc.  She liked the variety, and that kept her interested and working, but the results were inconsistent.  By the end of the year, she had finished book one in most of the Key To books and was very confident with fractions and geometry, but she still didn't know most of the multiplication tables and was behind in her other computation skills (multi-number addition, subtraction, and division.) I knew the problem had more to do with application problem than a intellectual development.  That is, she was developmentally ready to do the work correctly, but wasn't applying her attention effectively.  If there was a developmental issue, that was it.  Because we were jumping around so much, the things she didn't find as interesting weren't sticking and she wasn't getting enough consistent practice.

So for fifth grade I decided to see if she was ready to approach math in a more disciplined way, tackling one topic at a time.  When I wrote up my plan for the year, I went through Home Learning Year by Year and looked at each math topic she outlined.  The subjects that are covered by Key To books are easy, Bean is doing the second book for each of those.  For number theory, probability, money problems, and word problems, I went through the fifth grade Math Made Easy table of contents and wrote down all the appropriate page numbers.  (By the way, Math Made Easy also covers fractions, but I like the way they are covered in the Key To books.  If Key Curriculum Press had books for operations, probability, and number theory, I would probably use those instead.)

This year, instead of jumping around, we are making the developmental leap of tackling one topic at a time.  So far this year, Bean has covered number theory and probability using Math Made Easy and she spent the entire month of October doing Key to Fractions Book Two.  She started Key to Decimals Book Two today, but between field trips for her California History class, Thanksgiving and open houses for kindergarten programs (yes, kindergarten; and yes, school - that's another blog post for another day) we won't scream through that book at the same speed with which she covered fractions.  So far so good, though Bean asks me at least once a week when we are getting back to Algebra.  My reply is that she can do it on her own any time she likes.  I'm not trying to hold her back; I know she has no trouble with algebra and will do it if she really wants to; I just want to make sure she masters the other elements of math that she is ready for but would ignore if left to her own devices.

After decimals, it's back to Math Made Easy for several months' worth of operations practice.  We'll finish up the year with Book 2 of Key to Measurement, Key to Metric Measurement, and Key to Geometry.  The Math Made Easy series ends with fifth grade, so I am on the lookout for a substitute to fill in the gaps around Book 3 for all of the Key To series.  I am considering the sixth grade Mathematical Reasoning book from Critical Thinking Company.  Hopefully by then Bean will have forgotten that she resented the presence of dot to dots in the first grade version of this book several years ago.

Our experience with math echoes our overall homeschool experience so far.  It kind of started as a mess after a disappointing school experience and took a few years to settle into a good routine.  Once we settled into a better routine and had a stable roster of resources, I was able to start setting goals (sometimes subconsciously) and start nudging Bean forward.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Learner's Permit

I was standing behind the steering wheel of a 32 foot sailboat, supposedly in control of the vessel with three strangers on board, fighting back nausea, trying to figure out which way the wind was blowing and whether that was right, left, starboard, and whether the boat was close hauled, broad reach, or just up a creek.  Clearly I had no paddle, which I was far more used to, and no rudder, like the 27 foot boat I had sailed with a fair amount of competence the month before.

One of the strangers, the instructor I had just met two hours before, was shouting at me to get control and find my heading before we heeled or keeled or did something else equally liable to land me in the Pacific.  I took a deep breath, fought back the urge to either throw myself overboard or hurl my breakfast onto the smug father and son duo would had flown in from Phoenix specifically for this class and adjusted the wheel.

As the boat settled, I saw with crystal clarity how Bean feels when faced with a workbook page asking her to delineate the parts of speech in a sentence.  I realized that what started out as a whim might be the best thing I had done for our homeschooling in a long time.

I hadn't really planned to learn how to sail at all.  As I flipped through the parks and rec catalog, looking for summer classes for the kids, I happened to notice a basic sailing class for adults and thought it might be a fun way for me to fit in some exercise.  The fact that the class counted toward certification to be a bareboat skipper was a bonus.  Having an official piece of paper with my name on it might be gratuitous, but it never gets old.

Taking a sailing class is a continuation of a theme that I've noticed since I was about 35: I relearn something that I did poorly as a kid.  Usually, I associate some degree of trauma with whatever I'm re-learning.  When I was nine I picked knitting as one of my 4H projects for the year, but after my first few wonky inches of a scarf, the co-leader of our club suggested I better pick another project quickly since the county fair was only six months away.  (The other co-leader was my father, and since I wasn't doing anything related to horticulture or animal husbandry, I'm not sure he even knew about my ill-fated attempt at the fiber arts.) At 35, I taught myself the knit stitch using a book and the purl stitch using YouTube and proceeded to knit non-stop until Boo was born, at which point, I realized it would take more than an online video for me to figure out how to knit around a nursing baby and keep up with then 5 year old Bean.  I know some mothers who manage to knit through all sorts of hell and high water, but I was not gifted with their dexterity.

I did figure out to hire a babysitter and squeeze in math and science classes after Boo was born.  I had always planned on being a doctor until a particularly nasty run-in with physics class my sophomore year of high school.  This and related disasters of adolescence pretty much upended my life at the time and led me firmly down a book-lined path of liberal arts and away from labs and numbers.  Taking pre-calculus, biology, and chemistry at the local community college has not yet steered me back to med school, but it was cathartic and gave me extra confidence when it came to working with Bean on math and science.

My childhood encounters with sailing were fleeting and far less traumatic.  The summer I was fourteen, the only thing I did on my family's summer vacation besides sit in the back seat and listen to Tears for Fears until the batteries on my Walkman were drained was take two classes on a lake somewhere in Michigan (the vacationland of the midwest) in a boat barely big enough for myself and the instructor.  I found it thrilling and confusing, not quite grasping the relationship between where I wanted to go, the wind, and the direction we actually sailed.  Later that summer or maybe the next, I spent a week with my father, his best friend and the friend's eight year old son on a boat.  This was as thrilling as it sounds - complete with sea-sick-enhanced food poisoning contracted from fried fish and screaming fights with my father over whatever world-shattering thing we fought about in those days. (I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self that I wouldn't even remember all the small tragedies in 25 years.  I'm sure I would fight bitterly with myself and not believe a word of it.) I have always remembered the boat as a sailboat, but after my second sailing class this summer, I began to wonder if it had really been a power boat, because nothing seemed familiar.

Sailing is not knitting or math.  It is physically demanding as well as mentally challenging.  Sailing has its own language and it's own locale that is completely different from anything in my day to day life.  From the minute I step on the dock, I am in different world.

More than anything else in my adult life, learning to sail has reminded me what it's like to be a freshly scrubbed, raw human being trying to learn the business of life and learning
 from scratch.  It calls to mind the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind." It's easy to lose that feeling under our daily and yearly accumulation of experience and knowledge. It's even easier for me to forget that Bean and Boo are still in the very early stages of hunting and gathering their way to fully formed human beings.  But when I am learning something unfamiliar in a vast environment that has its own dangerous power, forever reminding me how bumbling and inexperienced I am, it renews my perspective as a parent and gives me reserves of empathy when my children are in a tight spot, gripping their steering wheel and unsure which way the winds are blowing and what to do next.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Summer Stretch

Whew! We made it.  When Bean paddled into the harbor just before noon today, her two-day stand up paddleboard (SUP) class ended.  A full summer's worth of eight weeks of classes ended as she paddled under the bridge that signals the border between the calm waters of the north harbor and the choppier waters near the entrance to the bay.  Dr. Yap and I looked at each other.  She did it!  She went at least as far as  the busy lower harbor, and maybe out into the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

When I left her this morning, after zipping her into the now well-broken-in wetsuit, she wasn't entirely sure she would be willing to brave the swell outside the harbor.  Yesterday, when she and I went out together, she went half way under the harbor bridge and decided that was far enough.  Last week, during kayak camp at the same facility, Bean adamantly refused to participate on the day her class headed into the bay in tandem sit-on top kayaks.  She was not convinced her instructors would fully prepared her class of 8-12 year olds to handle the waves, since they spent the first day entirely in the safety of the harbor. Besides, after all the warnings that sit-on top kayaks were less stable than their spray-skirted brethren, she wasn't about to get in one with an unpredictable almost-stranger, let alone navigate it to the ocean.

Honestly, Dr. Yap are weren't sure Bean would make it through her full summer of classes at all.  The first week, a modern dance camp with her regular instructor but in an unfamiliar facility was every bit as intense as it was billed.  The four day camp was situated on the banks of a river, surrounded by sycamores, the one tree to which Bean is allergic, and took place the week after a strenuous trip to Chicago.  She started out tired on day one and after five hours of social interaction and dancing, she was exhausted. On day three, I got the call I often expect, but rarely get.  Bean stood up in the middle of the afternoon session and insisted that she had to go home right now.  Fortunately, she and the instructor worked out a way for her to stay and participate before I even got Boo to the car.  After the second call, telling me they would see me at the end of the day, I stood in the kitchen, knowing exactly what had happened:  Bean wasn't feeling her best, the afternoon session was not her favorite dance style, and suddenly she just couldn't take it anymore.  In her Asperger's mind, she wasn't allowed to excuse herself or take a break on the side, she couldn't see a way out and couldn't break the rules, so she exploded.

The next class was a Boogie Board class, one Sunday afternoon at one of our favorite local beaches, with instructors who taught a bevy of native California kids how to read the waves for signs of rip current, then sent them into the surf under their watchful eyes.  It sounds like a fun, light-hearted class that could be a formality for kids growing up in sight of the Pacific. But for a kid who has been swimming confidently for less than a year, it was fraught with anxiety.  The morning was filled with growls and feet stomping directed towards Dr. Yap and I, who were guilty of being far too willing to shell out money for these classes and of giving her the responsibility of deciding which classes she was ready for.  Clearly, if we had been less able to pay the park district fees and more restrictive with her choices, her life would have been easier.

Our life would be easier too, if we had to decided to keep the activities to a minimum and let the summer unfold without schedules or planning.  Once upon a time, in the early days of homeschooling, we did that.  Our first summer, we continued to homeschool as I continually tried to figure out what, how, and when we should work on what.  But sometime during the foggy mornings of July, I followed Dr. Yap's suggestion and looked online to see what summer offerings were still available at a local private school known for their excellent summer program.  Circus Yoga!  If ever a week-long class had Bean's name written all over it, that did.  Once she made sure it would only last a few hours each day, she was willing.  It turned out to be a great experience.  The class size was smallish, the people friendly, the school way more organized than any local private school we'd encountered.  Maybe one more week?  Mask Making with a former staffer at Jim Henson's studio?  Yes!

The next year, we knew to look at the course schedule as soon as it was posted in March and Bean picked four weeks of half day classes that would break up the summer of continued homeschooling.  After the first week, which did not go off without a hitch when her original class was cancelled due to low enrollment and she suddenly found herself in a Nature Art class, the classes at the private school were once again a hit.  It was a way for her to be at a school, without actually going to school; a chance for her to socialize with other kids, without expecting her to be around them for a whole day; an opportunity for her work with new adults each week in science, cooking, and animation classes.

If last year's summer classes offered a nice diversion, this year's slate was a stretch. Besides dance camp, and all the ocean sports,  Bean took three Lego robotics classes, a Lego architecture class, cooking, and  a web design class at the private school.  For five weeks, she had to be somewhere every day, renewing friendships from previous years, navigating the playground and lunchtime when she stayed full days, and admitting that she hated being the only 9 year old girl in a robotics class full of 12 year old boys with enough time for me to switch her to a different session instead of refusing to attend or exploding in an unexpected temper tantrum.  It wasn't always easy, but she did it.  We made it.  She stretched herself way beyond her previous boundaries, taking on far more activities and challenges than she normally does during the school year.  She learned a lot of things she was excited about, but not always in the exact way she would have liked.

Will this translate into smoother homeschool days? I don't know. But I do know that we're paying for two extra dance classes this fall and that I'll be spending three afternoons driving across town to the dance studio.  And I've bookmarked the full-week circus day camp on the other side of town for next summer.  We never know what we're capable until summer comes, we get a break from our normal routine, the days get longer, and we stretch outside of our usual pace and schedule.

Yesterday, I asked Bean what her favorite activities were.  The answer, a particular Lego robotics class with a great group of kids and stand up paddling.  When Dr. Yap and I met her on the dock, we learned that she had made it into the open ocean, out of safe harbor, saw a sea otter snacking on a crab, and never planned on doing that again.  But she didn't refuse to try it, as two of the kids did, and she didn't exclaim to us that she hated it and was made to do it, as two other kids did to their waiting moms.  She did it willingly, skillfully, and bravely, if fearfully.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Over the last two and a half years, our homeschool schedule has evolved to a pretty nice sweet spot.  We still tweak things here and there, but overall all, I would say we've settled in to a nice routine.

For a long time, I tried various ways to schedule our homeschool time and plan Bean's work.  The first idea that worked well was to come up with a standard school time and stick to it.  We start as close to 9 AM as we can and almost always finish by 11 AM.  This works nicely for both Bean and I since we're morning people and our brains are freshest after my second cup of coffee and before her lunchtime carb fix. We both also like the predictability and structure of having a set time for school.  I plan whatever I need to get done for the day in the afternoon, and Bean knows she has that time coming up to do whatever she wants.

As we added and subtracted things from the overall lesson plan each year, I struggled to figure out how much and what to do each day and to figure out how often to do each subject.  In order to avoid resolving this, I weighted each subject, from math to health, equally and had what I thought of as a scrolling schedule.  I listed the next assignment for each subject and we just went down the list, covering whatever seemed like the right amount in a day.  Gradually, it became clear that we could do about six things in a morning.

Soon after we officially started Fourth Grade last fall, I finally admitted that language arts and math should get top billing in the schedule and show up each day.  It helped that we finally settled on workable curricula for each of those subjects.  Once we had work we didn't mind looking at, it was a lot easier to commit to doing them every day.  We alternate language arts and math with other subjects, covering six things total every day.  I try to arrange the day with a nice rhythm, alternating tasks that require more writing or brain energy on Bean's part with those that are more passive.  I also try to make sure there's some variety: world history one day US history on another; music and art happen on different days as well.

Foreign language ended up anchoring every day until I realized that as often as not, we were too tired/hungry to do it when it came around and it was getting passed over in favor of lunch with a (usually unfilled) promise to do it in the afternoon.  Now, Bean starts her day with Rosetta Stone.  I used to specify which language she was to work on each day in attempt at keep her progress even, but often as not, all she wanted to do was Dutch. Or she wanted to do Arabic on the day I had planned to do French.  I reasoned that since foreign language was entirely optional at this age as far as the state was concerned, she could do whatever language she wanted each day as long as she was doing one.

My latest tweak is moving to what I think of as a modified block schedule.  Instead of assigning subjects to specific days, I gave each group of subjects a letter A through D (since Bean usually attends a homeschool class one morning a week, we only homeschool four days and this works out nicely with the amount of subjects we cover.) Until I read about the block schedule used by a local private school, we would do geography on Monday, art on Tuesday, etc.  If we missed a Monday for a sick or Dr. Yap homeday, we missed geography that week.  After a while this got confusing with my lesson planning and the lack of continuity was leading to a lack of enthusiasm for some things.  Now, we just start with the next letter day in the schedule.  For example, if we take Monday off for Labor Day (also known as an extra Mommy homeday in these parts) and Tuesday is an "A" day, we finish the week on a "C" day and start the next week on a "D" day.

So here's what our schedule will look like when we officially start Fifth grade in two weeks:

A Day

  • Rosetta Stone I record the chosen language after the fact.
  • Read aloud from Fifth Grade Literature list We're finishing up the Chronicles of Narnia and one of us cannot wait to finish that and start the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
  • Language Arts 1-2 pages from the Critical Thinking Co.'s Language Smarts D (This is technically a third grade book, but it's large and we're slow and it's totally appropriate for Bean.)
  • Geography Bean is finishing up a States workbook - it's taken us a year, but we've made it to South Carolina; then switching to topics from What Your Fifth Grader Should Know and Color Yourself Smart: Geography - I hate the title, but it really is a great series.
  • Math Topics vary throughout the year, but we mostly use the Key to...Series.
  • US History Westward expansion, the Civil and Reconstruction. Oh my.
B Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Literature topics We're starting with an introduction to Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream) and then do some poetry.
  • Math
  • Latin This is Bean's request, but I think it's a great idea.  I don't consider Latin a foreign language, I think it's a great foundation for many things: building vocabulary, spelling, understanding medical and scientific terms, critical thinking.
C Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Science We'll do some reading in the physical and natural sciences, but this year I'm trying a lot of hands on kits, preferably those that do not require "common" household items that I never seem to have on hand.
  • Math
  • World History We're covering the rise of Western civilizations, starting with a peek at what happened in the millennia between Lucy walking out of Ethiopia and the pharaohs building giant monuments to themselves in the Nile Delta.  After that, we will run through Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with as much of a side trip into Mesopotamia and Byzantium as I can muster, but these aren't the most resource-rich areas, in terms of curriculum.
D Day
  • Rosetta Stone
  • Read aloud
  • Language Arts
  • Study Skills A dreaded but important subject, since she isn't naturally building these over time in school and many of them don't come naturally to Bean. We're using the excitingly-titled Study Skills for Early School Success.
  • Math 
  • Music We're reading through the music theory and history in What Your Fifth Grader Should Know, listening to music and occasionally using Simply Music's piano instruction.  
One noticeable absence from this schedule is art.  I have come to the end of what I can teach or facilitate in terms of art theory and practice.  Bean continues to produce all manner of art on her own, and I will keep exposing her to art and art history, but I want to outsource art instruction.  I was hoping to start her in private or small-group lessons with a wonderful woman nearby, but that was before Bean decided to take three dance classes and a homeschool gymnastics class.  On the plus side, I never have to worry about PE. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Historically Speaking

Every homeschool parent has a favorite subject or subjects, as well as those they would love to expunge from the lesson plan - whether they admit it or do their best to feign neutrality is another matter altogether. I feel pretty comfortable with most subjects (although science experiments are an albatross) but I like to have some kind of overall plan, a parent's guide, or at least a workbook for most subjects.  I often get suggestions to play this game, or make up this worksheet, or do this exercise and usually I smile politely, say thank you, file it in an internal compartment for someday, and never think about it again.

History and geography are a whole other matter.  (I refuse to use the so-vague-it's-utterly-useless term social studies.  Even though I know my homeschool consultant has a little square on her matrix for it and has to combine everything vaguely related to culture, history, or geography, I stubbornly present her with Bean's work in the four distinct areas of US History, World History, Geography, and Foreign Language every month.)  I was the annoying kid in my eighth and ninth grade classes who insisted on setting the curve in US and World History.  I just couldn't help myself, no matter how many times my best frenemy casually mentioned that I was threatening her GPA.  I started out my college career as an Asian History major and even though I finished up with a major in Women's Studies, the concentration was in history and I made the surprising discovery during my senior year that I had enough credits to declare a minor in US History.  I have an easy facility with date memorization (I should say had - that was before two kids and eight years of sleep deprivation) and love the stories and connections that I saw in history.  I can call up the timeline of human history with savant-like precision and I'm not afraid to off-road if any subject Bean and I cover needs further explanation.  

Many homeschoolers use Susan Wise Bauer's Story of the World series, even if they are not classical education adherents (Susan and her mother literally wrote the book on this brand of homeschool education.) I love reading Susan's blog and tweets, especially the entries which describe her writing and research process, and I don't have a position on whether her books are too secular or not secular enough (seriously folks, there could be an entire conference debating this subject.)  This is the one subject area where I want to take the reins in hand without the benefit of a thousand page guide.  I eagerly present Bean with a patchwork quilt of history and geography resources, lovingly curated by me.  I more or less follow Rebecca Rupp's suggested timeline and areas of concentration for each grade and use many of her resources.  However, I have no qualms about making substitutions, adding in something that catches my or Bean's current fancy or elaborating or refuting any point an author makes. This is my metier and any modesty on my part would be wholly false.

Since we first started homeschooling, we have been making the grand tour of US colonial and Revolutionary history and are now taking a more in depth view at the birth of the nation, also known as the writing of the Constitution.  Along the way, we've made brief forays into slavery and westward expansion (pioneers) just because we couldn't help ourselves -and because there were pressing questions about the hideous nature of the first and the second provides rich make-believe fodder.  For first and second grade, Bean and I loved the If You... series of books by Scholastic, which allow kids to imagine themselves as children in other eras.  There are many, many titles by various authors, covering all aspects of American history (including books on many individual Native American tribes.)  Another good, early grades source is the American Kids in History series of activity books, also from Scholastic.    I think we'll come back to both of these resources as we introduce other eras.   We just finished reading a number of books by Jean Fritz, each about a different Colonial or Revolutionary War figure.  I love Fritz' books for third/fourth grade, because they require a little more listening/reading stamina than other kids' books of this genre (each one is about 30-40 pages), yet they are completely accessible and retain kids' attention.  They are both humorous and very detailed, another rare plus in history books for kids, which usually have one or the other quality.

We are now alternating between George Washington's World, by Genevieve Foster and A Kids' Guide to America's Bill of Rights by Kathleen Krull.  The latter is self-explanatory, but the Foster book is in a class by itself - in fact each of her volumes that are centered around a different (male) historical figure (Julius Cesar, Christopher Columbus, John Smith, Abraham Lincoln) could stand alone as a text in a middle or even high school history class.  The premise is unique: Foster starts with a dominant figure in a particular era,  then paints a very full picture of the world around and far beyond them.  For example, the George Washington book divides his life into six parts and describes his life in detail at the start of the chapter.  Further sections describe the life of his contemporaries all over America and the rest of the world, including African and Asian kings, Catherine the Great, and Junipero Serra.  In this way, early US history is put into world context.  The information isn't necessarily unique, but the method of presenting and packaging it is singular.

For world history, we started off in first/second grade covering general European history of the middle ages.  My favorite resources for the Middle Ages are David Macaulay's Cathedral and Castle books.  Macaulay is a genius illustrator and the text mostly lives up to the drawing.  (Depending on age and temperament, you may need to do some parental editing.)  For older kids, Bean and I have been reading our way through Karen Cushman's medieval fiction for kids.  Mathilda Bone and The Midwife's Apprentice both feature female protagonists who accidentally find roles for themselves in the medieval versions of medicine.  Along the way, kids learn about medicine, midwifery, daily life, religion, and class in the England of the Middle Ages - all from the perspective of preteen girls.  (Her novels are appropriately graphic for their time period, but not gratuitous -definitely better for an older child and not always good at bedtime.)

In the early grades, we also touched on Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman histories, mostly using the Children of the Ancient World series from Cricket Books.  These books are structured differently from the If You series mentioned above, but also appeal to kids by focusing on what life was like for children in each time and place.  D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths is a classic companion to Ancient Greek study.  Bean loves the brief descriptions of each member of the (rather twisted) Olympian family and we have fun seeing how each divinity was used to explain something in the natural world.

For third grade, we focused on the Renaissance, which consisted of several decent, but not memorable biographies of Michelangelo and Da Vinci.  (The next time we come around to this topic, I will definitely take a look at Susan Wise Bauer's history of the Renaissance, currently in production.) Our favorite resource for this time period is the Renaissance and Post Renaissance chapter of the activity book Discovering Great Artists, by MaryAnn F. Kohl and Kim Solga.  Introductions to each artist are followed by art projects in their style or method - such as making homemade tempera with chalk and egg or "fresco" painting on plaster of paris in a pie tin.  My favorite part is that I can pick up the book on the fly and actually find a project we can do right then and there with things in the house - no project-delaying trip to the art store required.

For the last few months, we've been studying the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cultures using the DK Eyewitness book on the subject.  I usually find these books tedious for read-alouds, and more suited to quiet time spent pouring over the interesting pages on one's own, but this time we've made it work with a combination of me reading aloud and Bean reading to herself.  Bean wanted to try some hands-on Mayan-inspired activities, so we'll be starting the Kaleidoscope Kids Book Mexico: 40 Activities to Experience Mexico Past & Present soon.

The one thing I do not use in history is any kind of workbook or written assignment.  I know this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to producing work samples, but I haven't found any history workbooks that I like, nevermind the fabulously picky Bean.  What I want for Bean is that she has a broad and rich understanding of human history and of our world - and broader and more rich than I think she would receive in school.  I don't want a high school AP class to be the first time she hears about Hadrian's Wall and I want her to know that John Hancock was a person, not a John Doe signature.  I want her to have a working knowledge of what plausibly happened in what era and which came first, the Revolutionary War or the Civil War.  If she memorizes a few places and dates along the way, great - but not required.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Post I Don't Want to Write

I've started this post four times and can't seem to get it written, or get it right.  Either I, or a sneaky Boo, accidentally published a few errant sentences last week that slipped from my fingers a few weeks ago. I've written snippets here and there on Google Plus, in Facebook messages to friends, and on replies to other people's problems on message boards.  What I haven't done is write about Bean's diagnosis here - it's all still in my head.

The biggest surprise about her "official-after-way-too-much-money-reams-of-forms-and-six-hours-of-testing" diagnosis is that there is a diagnosis.  In that secret place inside my head, way more secret than a Facebook status or the confines of this blog, I really thought the nice neuropsychologist would tell us that Bean is just fucking brilliant and that gifted is not a diagnosis.  

This is not what she said.  Not by a long shot.  She did say that Bean is very bright, gifted even.  She also said that Bean has Asperger's Disorder and ADHD, combined type which is often attendant with Asperger's but is not the main show in town.  Clearly, Bean is high-functioning to be sure, but firmly and squarely on the Autistic Spectrum, not hovering at the edges.

I know, this shouldn't be a surprise.  I mean, I already blogged about it, so it must be true, right? Honestly, until we received the results from the testing, I didn't really believe it.  I was sure I was wrong and that her pediatrician who's known her most of her life wasn't qualified and that the neurologist didn't really talk to her long enough or examine her thoroughly enough.  I was sure that all my well-meaning friends who think she's lovely were on to something and I was just asking for trouble.  (Because she is lovely - if she doesn't wake up after daylight breaks, and you're not rushing her, or using abstract explanations, or trying to get her to do something in a specific way, or clapping near her; or if you're another kid who doesn't really want to hear about dentistry, or doesn't understand why she's thowing her bike across the park because she can't figure out how to peddle the damn thing, or thinks she's standing a bit too close or holding hands or planting a kiss when it's really unexpected, or letting out the odd whoop on the play structure; or when she's had a half-hour too much social interaction for the day and she's getting manic, or melting down, or just drifting off out of reach, like a radio not quite tuned to the right station setting).

I always avoided reading the literature about Asperger's.  I read about giftedness, which seemed kind of, but not totally right.  And I read about ADHD, with similar feelings.  Or I read about the autistic kids who were middle to low functioning and non-verbal, and clearly that wasn't right.  But when I sat listening to the neuropsychologist, who was lovely in her own right - except when she said, "It is definitely Asperger's, every area of deficit, is related to Asperger's" - and when I cracked open the book I smuggled out of the Amazon box before Bean could see it, "Helping Your Child with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder or Asperger's Disorder," I knew this was right.

The biggest surprises of the diagnosis all went hand in hand with each other and with Asperger's: there are no learning disabilities, only poor working memory, slow processing speed, and very little ability to predict outcomes or make inferences.  Well, I'm no expert, but I think this is a working definition of the cognitive aspects of Asperger's that give rise to the social complications.  These issues contribute to Bean's below average reading comprehension skills, despite having decoding skills above the 95th percentile.  Her Asperger's tendencies are also to blame for poor handwriting and persistent dysgraphia - she's insisting that her stronger left brain that doesn't put up with abstractions stay in charge of the operation.  Even her striking attention deficits are more a partner in crime of Asperger's than a stand alone diagnosis.  The results explain why even though every teacher she ever had could tell she was bright, they were confounded by her difficulties with understanding instructions and why she dances beautifully at home, but stiffens up and stumbles over which foot is which in a class setting where there are too many kids for her to concentrate and the instructions don't make sense. (Bean tearfully ended fours years of ballet instruction last week because her beloved teacher is about to give birth and her previous teacher uses terms like "carmel legs" that make no sense to Bean, instead of "real" terms.)

Nearly three weeks later, Dr. Yap and I have finished the late night rehashing of the results. We're starting behavior modification at home (if I had known putting a nickel in a jar labeled Dentistry School Fund would get Bean to wear underwear or do a multiplication problem, or write a sentence - I might have tried it long ago).  Bean has begun meeting with a chid psychologist who specializes in working with kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, though she knows it as "friendship coaching." Down the road, when the final written report is in hand (warning to anyone headed down the diagnostic path - these things take months) Bean will start working with an occupational therapist on fine and large motor skills, and sensory issues.  We'll look for a tutor or tutors to help with reading comprehension and the boring math Bean hates.  And maybe, we'll even look for a school placement some time in the future.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Back to the Books

When I first saw that The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books For Children, had separate sections for Picture Books and Story Books, I thought they were really hanging their hats on semantics.  Because this is my beloved NYT Guide, I gave it a chance and looked closely at the introduction to the Story Book section which states, "Younger children can frequently listen to the text...with pleasure, but they are best suited for children in the early grades." (p. 107)  So far, Boo has borne out this statement, with startling accuracy.  Every once in a while he listens to one of the stories (such as The Adventures of Maxi Dog) with the same attention he reserves for an episode of Blue's Clues, and he is sometimes distractingly interested in the illustrations (the pictures of Joan of Arc with her armor and sword piqued his curiosity to the point that I just gave him the book and moved on to another one).  Overall though, I can draw a quick timeline of when he became glaringly uninterested in read-alouds during our school day and it starts right about where this section begins.

The Accident
Written by Carol Carrick and Illustrated by Donald Carrick
We didn't actually read The Accident, which is the middle of a trilogy of books about Christopher and his dog Bodger.  Truthfully, I was grateful my library didn't have this one because after being introduced to the boy and his dog in Lost in the Storm (which is exactly what happens to Bodger, but there's a happy ending), in The Accident, Bodger is hit by a truck and killed.  No parental hand-wringing or decision-making was required to check out Lost in the Storm and the final book, The Foundling, in which Christopher bonds with a stray despite his grief over Bodger - however, I did a quick pre-read in stacks before it went in the bag.

The Adventures of Taxi Dog
Written by Debra Baracca and Illustrated by Marc Buehner
Boo and I read one of the sequels about Maxi, the Taxi Dog while sitting on the floor of our favorite children's consignment shop.  He enjoyed it, but not enough to take it home, and I only remember wondering why it wasn't placed in the Picture Book section of the Guide.  I must confess that I was left with such an overwhelming feeling of being underwhelmed, that I never sought out the original, even though I must pass by it all the time at the library.   One day, if it makes itself glaringly obvious on my trajectory through the children's section, I'll rectify my judgmental ways and bring it home.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Written by Judith Viorst and Illustrated by Ray Cruz
There is something utterly dated about the illustrations and characters in this and other books about the curmudgeonly, elementary school misanthrope that I adore.  I think I identify more strongly with Alexander than Bean does.  In fact, I don't think she identifies with him at all, but she doesn't mind reading most of them; the exception being I'll Fix Anthony, whose revenge theme is a bit un-PC for her sensibilities.  Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday is a cautionary tale mentioned in homeschool tomes as a good resource for beginning financial management.  Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move takes young readers on a full venting journey, before he finally comes around and faces reality in the end.

All About Alfie
Written and Illustrated by Shirley Hughes
The Alfie books are one of those nice surprises that endears me to the Guide and keeps me pig-headedly glued to my quest to force feed - I mean force read - I mean read with no coercion what so ever- as many of the books as possible to Bean and Boo.  The stories are pleasant tales about Alfie and his little sister Annie that don't knock you over the head with purple prose, life lessons or cleverness, but I love the illustrations and the setting, which I presume is in Yorkshire or some other naturally bucolic corner of the UK.

Always Room for One More
Written by Sorche Nic Leodhas and Illustrated by Nonny Hogrogian
Absurdist fable alert!  Not only is it absurd in the most hilariously ridiculous way that even Boo thought was a riot, it is set in Scotland, which means you get to read it with your best bad Scottish brogue.  I for one, look for opportunities to use my best bad accents.  If you don't, your kids are really missing out on opportunities to be either extremely tickled or extremely embarrassed - both of which are good for them.

The Amazing Bone
Written and Illustrated by William Steig 
I actually considered writing a whole post on William Steig because both Bean and I run very hot and cold and are very much in agreement about his books.  This one is in the cold category.  It's just plain weird, and not in the pleasant way that I seek out.  I wanted to like the story about Pearl the pig who found a talking bone that had fallen out of a witch's pocket, but I just couldn't.  Neither could Bean or Boo.

Amazing Grace
Written by Mary Hoffman and Illustrated by Caroline Binch
Yay for girl power books!  Yay for girl power books with girls who defy all the naysayers and have good illustrations to boot.  This book is especially good for kids whose interests break the mold or kids who are interested in the theater .(P.S. This book isn't just for girls.)

Annie and the Old One
Written by Miska Miles and Illsutrated by Peter Parnell
I love Peter Parnell's evocative line drawings, which immediately transport the the reader to the southwest - even if you've never actually been there.  (He also lends his very distinctive style to the illustrations in all of Byrd Baylor's books, with similar results.) Annie and the Old One is a touching, but not overly emotional story about a girl realizing that her grandmother is close to death.  Rather than sitting in grief or anger, the story follows the little girl as she learns to let go of her grandmother.  The family is very obviously Native American and I think this serves to make the story powerful, but not necessarily upsetting for kids.  Because it is set in a different culture young listeners can separate themselves just enough for comfort, but slightly older kids who've been introduced to this culture already will recognize lessons about the cycle of life and get even more out of the story.  Annie and the Old One is beautifully, sensitively written in a way that does not read "BIBLIOTHERAPY."

Annie and the Wild Animals
Written and Illustrated by Jan Brett
I personally love Jan Brett's rich, colorful illustration style and how the pictures literally tell a side story on the edges of the page.  I don't know how authentically she captures the various cultures that her stories embody, but I love them just the same.  Checking out this book, along with The Mitten, Berlioz the Bear, The First Dog, and Fritz and the Beautiful Horses, gave us a reason to have an overdue Jan Brett fest in combination with other titles we had at home.

Art Dog
Written and Illsutrated by Thacher Hurd
Art Dog is a perfectly silly caper with nary an artful illustration or lesson in sight.  This tale of a security guard turned vigilante art rescuer is good fun for both Boos and Beans, but the Boos (2/3) in the group won't get the inside art jokes that the Beans (7/8) might.

Arthur's Nose
Written and Illustrated by Marc Brown
I find it interesting that Bean likes watching the television series based on Marc Brown's supposed aardvark and likes reading Arthur's Nose and the other original Arthur books, but she doesn't care for the books based on the TV show.  It's fascinating because the Arthur of Arthur's Nose, Arthur's Eyes, Arthur's Tooth and Arthur's Glasses actually looks like an aardvark, albeit an anthropomorphized version.  The Arthur of the TV show looks more like a gopher or chipmunk, or some other nondescript member of the large rodent family.  The whole premise of the original book was that a young aardvark was learning to accept his prominent proboscis.  The irony is completely lost on Bean, who until very recently was often confused by the difference between fiction and nonfiction on non-animated movies and TV.  Maybe Arthur's incongruous nose and message don't bother her because the show is animated and therefore automatically outside the realm of the possible.  When I asked Bean if she thought it was odd that his nose was one way in this book and another on television, she basically gave me a regurgitated response on the differences that manifest when a book becomes a TV show, which sounded almost exactly like what I told her that last time this inconsistency (in what book/show I don't remember) nearly sent her over the edge.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the Other Hand

On the one hand, I'm putting on my blinders, covering my ears, and singing LALALA to block out the back to school business so it doesn't stress me out (and lead me to stress out Bean) unnecessarily.  

On the other hand, I'm preparing almost3yearold for preschool, making lists of what to pack for his lunch, getting immunization records, filling out forms, getting Bean ready for ballet (how did every part of her body grow a size in 3 months?) and vowing that this is the year I will not be undone by doing a ballet bun in uber-curly hair twice a week because I really, really, really will always be prepared with hairpins, hairnets, a hairspray.  

On the one hand, I'm keeping my head down and eyes focused on our current lesson plan and the daily rhythm that works for us.  

On the other hand, I know we'll be meeting with our consulting teacher soon so I better turn my list of what we do into something she can file for the state-mandated records.  I keep double-checking the schedule, making sure there is no overlap between Bean's dance class and Boo's swimming lessons and Bean's homeschool class and Boo's preschool pick up.   

On the one hand, I love the information and support from various homeschool lists and groups that fill my inbox throughout the day.

On the other hand, I've learned to quickly sift through the onslaught of information and delete mercilessly before panic ensues.  At last count, I receive e-mail from 8 different homeschool groups.  I have stopped looking at email from two curriculum-specific groups altogether, only glance at the comings and goings of the local unschoolers group out of the corner of my eye, and deeply regret signing on to a group last week that had "Homeschool Field Trip" in the name but seems to be a clearing house for classes available on the other side of the mountain from where we live.  The other four groups offer a mix of resources and support and as much as I'd like to read about everyone's travails and find out about the latest robotics/chemistry/creative writing class, I know at least fifty percent of the messages are not meant for me.  And don't even get me started on the homeschoolers circle on Google + or the Secular Homeschool board online.  

On the one hand, I'm exalting in the promise of two hours to myself on Wednesday morning and two mornings to focus on Bean and her school work.  

On the other hand, I'm resisting the urge to  schedule an appointment every week from here to Christmas.  Dr. Yap reminded me yesterday, as I rattled off a litany of appointments I want to make a friends I want to visit sans kiddos, that I could also stay home and just do nothing.  Or, she casually remarked, I could try to make some headway on Little Big Planet on the Playstation. (Seriously, half the time I love that she thinks video games are the only truly acceptable form of recreation, and the other half of the time, I wish she'd just let me knit or read a book in peace.) 

Is this time of year really all that different for homeschoolers after all? I feel like I'm feeling the same mix of anticipation, relief, and anxiety that I felt in every other August before we started homeschooling.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Poetry on the Fly

One of the reasons it was so easy for me to become a school dropout (i.e. homeschooler) is that I realized, during three years of preschool and one and a half years of elementary school, that I have rather strong opinions about what Bean (and Boo) could be learning and Dr. Yap and I wanted all of us (that means the kiddos too) to have more of a say in what our kids were learning and how it was learned.  It drove me nuts to have to go along with whatever the teacher thought was important when half the time I didn't know what that was and the other half of the time I didn't think the teacher knew what she was doing.  ( Oh yes, I am one of those parents.) I remember one of many frustrating conversations in particular.  I think the teacher (who will remain anonymous because I live in a small town with lots of internet access) and I were talking about spelling/reading confusing words.  She said "Well, I just tell the kids that English is a weird language and doesn't always make sense."  I tried not to blanch visibly and said, "I've always taught her that many of the words in our language originally come from other languages, which is why they seem to have unusual or phonetically awkward pronunciation and spelling.  I also remind her that language is constructed and much of American English was codified by Daniel Webster when he compiled his dictionary and decided what the standard spelling should be for our words."  I think the word gobsmacked was invented to describe her reaction.  I also think I can read minds because I distinctly heard her say, "Smartass" and "No wonder the kid is having a hard time" without seeing her lips move.

Well.  Now that the choice is ours, Bean and I choose poetry.  This is a very clear case of parenting by projection: I'm unabashedly making up for a lack in my own education by immersing Bean and Boo in verse.  Christmas gift volumes of Shel Silverstein poetry aside, I don't remember reading anything more poetic than a Shakespeare sonnet until boarding school (not that kind of boarding school, this kind of boarding school.) I spent much of my sophomore year of high school moping around the cavernous building, avoiding physics by reading  "Howl" by Allen Ginsburg and discovering Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in the Norton Anthology. It was revelatory.  I added the absence of "real" poetry in my life up to that point to my long list of adolescent grievances.  That same angst fueled my own stereotypically overwrought poetry.  In college, I took a class titled "American Women Poets," which finally taught me how to read and write poetry.  (And, incredibly, it is still being taught by the same amazing professor nearly twenty years later.) The lessons I learned about writing in general and reading poetry in particular, and about listening to women's voices have stayed with me throughout my life.  Not a draft gets written that I don't remember the professor's admonishment to cut out that first paragraph full of beautiful, prosaic, egotistical garbage. (Yeah, I often ignore it though.) The book covers for Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove are still lodged in my mind and many of their words still burn bright.  Some of these poems became the ceremony when Dr. Yap and were married the first, poetic, illegitimate time. (The second, legitimate time had a poetry all its own that could only be captured in an official marriage license.)

So I think poetry is important.  It is probably more important for an 8-year-old to be immersed in poetry as the art of language, verse, and writing than it is for a self-absorbed 20-year-old.  I've always read poetry to Bean and Boo, whether it was a picture book made up entirely of one poem or a volume of children's poetry.  It didn't seem at all odd to Bean that it was part of our curriculum when we started doing "fourth grade."

Rebecca Rupp suggests two books for the study of poetry in the Fourth Grade Section of Home Learning Year by Year.  I rarely buy homeschool books new, sight unseen, but I feel pretty comfortable with most of Rupp's suggestions so I ordered Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? from Amazon after reading the favorable reviews to go along with Rupp's description: "A superb program for teaching great poetry to children. The works of many famous poets serve as jumping-off points for student projects." (Rupp, p. 187)  Reading the word "program," I expected step by step instructions, or at least a bullet-point layout.  Instead, Kenneth Koch's instructions for "Teaching Great Poetry to Children" (subtitle) are embedded in his narrative description of introducing ten classic (read "usually inaccessible to anyone but grad students") poems to various grade levels, along with numerous examples of the children's work.  The second half of the book is an anthology of sorts, providing more good poems to use in a grade school elementary class.  Most poems have suggested exercises to go along with them.  The book is fantastic but after stumbling through three of the classic poems without reading Koch's narrative first, I decided it requires a level of preparation that I just can't commit to right now.  I don't mind buying it, because I know that Rupp suggests the book again in a later grade.  Hopefully, I'll be able to manage a little more prep time at that point.

The other book Rupp suggested, Poetry From A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers, by Paul B. Janeczko, is available at our local library.  Bean and I immediately took to this book.  The order imposed by the alphabetical premise and the whimsy with which the mission is carried out appeals to both of us.  Sometimes the connections between the letter and the poetry are obvious: "A" is accompanied by the poem "Autumn Beat" by Monica Kulling and a suggestion to try writing an "acrostic poem." Some of the connections require careful reading and bit of deduction: "E" is accompanied by the poem "The Animals Are Leaving," by Charles Webb, which turns out to list endangered and extinct species; and a comment from the same poet about using ones own experiences in writing.  Bean doesn't always want to write the suggested poetic forms when we are reading, but I know she likes the book, partly because she never complains when I bring it out.  I also know she likes it because when the book was checked out of the library for two months (Blankety-blank book hogs! Probably another homeschooler) she took the unprecedented step of not only telling Dr. Yap about a school topic - a word-related one no less (not the engineer mom's area of expertise) - but she asked her to track it down for her.  And track it down she did: less than a week after Bean made this request, a discarded library copy out the out-of-print book, still wrapped in plastic, arrived from North Carolina.  Bean is a bit chagrined that anyone would do something as base as discard a library book, defacing it with DISCARD stamped inside the front cover. She keeps reminding me that it is not actually a library book in active circulation and warning me not to accidentally return it.

The other, even better reason I know the book is having an impact, even though she doesn't always do the writing for each section is that she writes poetry completely unbidden.  I find scraps of it around the house.  This poem, written in red marker, was composed on the top of the monkey bars at our park:

Marigolds are pretty in Spring.
Cherrys Blossoms flicker in summer's light.
Ice ickles gleam in winter's wing.
But you crumple crisp like fall's leaves.

There is nothing overwrought or self-absorbed about that.  With her permission, I entered it in our county fair. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Stretch of Grass, A Patch of Sand

Homeschoolers quickly get really good at sussing out all their local resources.  We find new ones and figure out how to make the most of old ones.  Libraries are an obvious place to start.  In this age of the ever-shrinking welfare state - which a homeschool friend from Norway says is non-existent in the first place- I fear the extinction of the local park almost as much as I worry about libraries.  We visit many local parks, but the one that's a block from our house will always be our family favorite.

There is no bathroom, but there any many suitable trees for the purpose and no one will bat an eye, as long as you dispose of number two the same way dog owners do.  One of the three families with kids who live directly across the street may even send you over to their house if they're in the park.  The playground itself can be hot during the middle of the day in the "summer" (also known as October), but there are many shade trees on the periphery, right near the patches of grass best suited for practicing cartwheels.  For those young and nimble enough, there are also the trees themselves, many of them perfect for climbing.  The trees that aren't meant for human athletic pursuits, sport fascinating lichen, ladybug communities, and a few squirrels - all available for inspection.

The playground itself is meant for the younger set, but older siblings quickly learn how to shimmy up the swing set poles, turn the infant swings into circus trapezes, send sand down the slides to put them in turbo mode and generally parkour the play structure.  There are plenty of sticks lying around to build castles and battlements in the sandbox and usually plenty of helping hands to build a highway system.  Off to the side, Bean is usually the chief baker of mud pies and finds plenty of berries, flowers, and leaves to turn into "paint" for sidewalk art.

It's not just the stuff that makes our park so special.  It's the people.  One of my favorite groups of moms was a loose-knit group of women with at least one kid each around Bean's age.  Things have petered off in the last few years, as we've had our last babies and older kids are more involved in school and other activities, but I used to count on several baby showers and birthday celebrations a year from this group.  One friend with kids a little younger than Bean didn't have a formal playgroup, but knew all the families who showed up at the park daily between 9:30 and 11:30 am.  She put off nursery school for a long time because they had the park.

We have always tended to be part of the late afternoon/early evening crowd.  Veggie Booty and strawberries were shared, dads and Dr. Yap came home and immediately met everyone else at the park.  Plans for big kid bedrooms, birthday parties, vacations, and school were shared and compared.  Because we are around the corner from a state university campus, visiting families imbue our park with a very international flavor.  Families from Greece, Italy, Colombia, Germany, Israel, China, Korea, Russia, and many other places congregate on the recycled rubber playground surface, speaking in halting English but sharing the common languages of parenthood and childhood.

Beyond the confines of the playground, out in the great open space of grass - the only lawn or "yard" most of us know in our crowded, overpriced slice of paradise - we witness many ephemeral wonders.  In the last three months I have seen soccer team  and sword fighting practices, flag football, frisbee, games of catch, remote controlled airplanes, a rather fanatic dog owner training his retriever for some kind of competition, a phalanx of two-year-olds chasing a soccer ball half their size, birthday parties, college fraternity/sorority mixers, sunbathers, gophers popping their heads out of holes, and a lone, majestic blue heron gracing us with its presence.

One magical summer morning, before the fog had lifted, the kids and I were about to whiz past in the car on the way to Somewhere Else when I stopped suddenly to witness several young men walking across temporary slacklines, as if they were gliding along in the air.  Four lines stretched like rays in a geometry textbook, from trees near the playground to the tennis courts on the other side of the meadow, some 500 yards away. Two men were expertly walking separate lines - each about four feet off the ground - while others silently watched on the ground, in the shadow of an oak tree.  We sat in our car, watching from outside the park, in awe, until one of the men jumped off his line, and we suddenly remembered we had Somewhere to be.

Right now, with a toddler and a homeschooler, I can't imagine not spending at least five hours a week at Our Park.  Someday though, I will no longer see the familiar strangers playing the never-ending pick up games on the basketball court and won't ride or scoot with Bean and Boo along the paths that skirt the canyon-side dog run.  One day, I won't find sand in my knitting and when I drive by the park I'll have no idea who's bike or stroller is parked at the playground.   Right now though, it's an inextricable part of my social life and my kids' childhoods.  I sometimes beg for a day off from the park, but I know I'll miss it when the time comes for my kids to move on to other feeding grounds for their young minds.