Friday, May 27, 2011

Break Schooling

We have spent most of May either preparing to travel, travelling, or recovering from travel - not a lot of schooling going on here.  But that's okay, that's why we more or less homeschool year round, it takes the pressure off.  If we blow off the month of November to go to Hawaii, or oops, don't get anything done in May, it's okay.  Bean doesn't have to worry about making up any homework when she's sick and I don't have to sweat days that are more about appointments than academics.

This was our big spring family trip, a birthday trip since Bean and I both celebrated ours while abroad.  We flew in and out of Dulles, with brief forays to DC and Baltimore and a longer stint in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I know many homeschoolers would have turned the itinerary into curriculum, but that's just not how Dr. Yap and I do things on vacation.  As it was, we had a much busier trip than we normally do and it was chock full of educational opportunities, both intentional and serendipitous.

Flying from right to left across the country means that the first day was dedicated to travel.  The only thing we learned - besides the limits of parental sanity when traveling with a two-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a grandmother - is that Virgin America is a very civilized airline.  Everyone and everything was so pleasant, we didn't mind paying for all checked bags and anything beyond the first drink.

It also helped that after years of trial and error, I think I actually perfected the on-board entertainment for each kid.  I bought each of them a legal-size flat plastic pouch with a zipper at our local art supply store for $1.99.  Each one was stocked with age and personality appropriate art supplies and activities and both bags fit nicely in a ziptop tote bought from Target for less than $20.  These art pouches were pulled out over and over again during down time at each hotel.  For the way home, I streamlined each pouch, putting things that hadn't been touched during the trip in the suitcase and adding in a few new things we picked up along the way.

We spent our first two nights on the fringes of Old Town Alexnadria, on the Virginia side of DC, and took one day in DC to see what we thought would be most interesting to Bean and Boo.  Of course, two-year-olds and eight-year-olds have different ideas about what is worthy of their attention, but we had Oma in tow so we figured between the three of us, we'd work it out.

Dr. Yap and I are both city girls at heart, but for one reason and another, we have spent the last decade in a town that has many monikers, but compared to any metropolis I like to refer to it as Hicksville-by-the-Sea.  We thrilled for the chance to ride a proper subway - a clean, well-lit subway with good signage to boot.  The last time either one of us rode the Metro (though not together) was during the 1993 March on Washington for GLTBQandeverothersexualother.  So even though we had to figure out the complex fee structure instead of riding for free and even though the drag queens in all their colorful regalia were replaced by Queen Bean in all her colorful regalia (and Oma wearing the first of what I think were 10 separate coral colored t-shirts - I'm not complaining, it made her easy to find) - we made a point of taking the Metro.  Fun was had by all.

After a brief foray into the Smithsonian "Castle" to get our bearings we made a beeline for the cafeteria at the Natural History Museum (eating at odd hours is the most inconvenient part of traveling from coast to coast.) After fueling up and making a presumably unavoidable stop in the obligatory cafeside museum shop, we headed straight for the second floor Insect Zoo.  Bean loved trying to suss out all the creepy crawlies in their cages and Boo just thought it was creepy.  He had a similar sentiment about the forensic anthropology exhibit titled "Bones."  After about twenty minutes he declared himself finished with this dark, "yucky" museum and Dr. Yap left with him, heading towards the Air and Space Museum.

Bean, Oma, and I took advantage of the toddler's absence and meandered slowly through this fantastic Bones exhibit, a good portion of which relied on the local Chesapeake Bay area to provide historical forensics cases.  Bean, of course, was most interested in any part of the exhibit showing teeth, and their were plenty.  The whole thing culminated with a visit to the forensic anthropology lab, where Bean had an education specialist, a bunch of jaws, and lots of dental x-rays all to herself for at least half and hour.  After those two exhibits we felt like we had gotten our monies worth (admission to many Smithsonian museums is free) and meandered toward the Air and Space Museum.

We were waylaid for an exceedingly pleasant half an hour in the Sculpture Garden outside the Hirshhorn  Museum.  For a while, Oma and I did nothing more than contemplate the wonderfully odd, but sublime architecture of the Hirshhorn and watch Bean run barefoot laps around the central fountain and in and out of the Sculpture Garden.  Then Bean discovered not one, but two birds who met a sad fate at the hands of the Hirshhorn windows and asked Oma to film her made-up-on-the-spot nature series.  Once she started poking the poor creatures with leaves to compare their anatomies and injuries, it was time to continue our sojourn to the Air and Space Museum.  (We found out later that Dr. Yap and Boo had taken a short break in Hirshhorn garden as well.  It really is a wonderful oasis right off the Mall.)

I wish I had seen Boo's joy in the Air and Space museum firsthand, but by the time we arrived, he and Dr. Yap were already in the museum shop and Bean had as much interest in the air and space craft as Boo had in the Natural History Museum treasures.  I know he loved going in the airplanes and spaceships (as he put it) because we heard a lot about both for the next few days.  The museum as a whole looks like it's getting about as much funding as NASA is these days, despite the heavy foot traffic. It was exactly the same as I remembered it from my last visit more than 25 years ago.

We didn't spend much time in Old Town Alexandria, other than to sample the local seafood for dinner, but we happened to be there on a Friday evening when the Torpedo Factory Art Center was having an opening and Bean discovered her new favorite contemporary artist, Leslie Blackmon.  Her Baa-America!  show featured crocheted 3-D sheep in the guise of famous artists and celebrities.  Bean's favorites were Jackson Baa-Ollock and Martha St-ewe-art.

The next day, we drove to Baltimore, which is home to the world's oldest dental college and that dental college, now part of the University of Maryland, is home to the National Museum of Dentistry.  Yes, that's right, my tooth-obsessed Bean discovered that one of her favorite kid-oriented dentistry websites, MotherPower Online, was the online home of the National Museum of Dentistry.  We'd been trying for a while to organize a trip to Williamsburg and when we found out about the museum, we knew this would be a perfect addition to the birthday voyage.  As we started trying to figure out how we were going to make all these different locations fit into one trip, we discovered that Baltimore has a little more going for it than the dentistry museum.

We stayed right on the Inner Harbor, and only had a chance to explore a fraction of this redeveloped waterfront, filled with a mall, restaurants, museums, decommissioned Naval and Coast Guard vessels and a Revolutionary War era fort.  The first stop, before even checking into our hotel, was the National Dentistry Museum.  The Museum is on two partial floors of the original College of Dentistry, which itself is right in the middle of the University of Maryland medical complex. We had the whole place to ourselves and it was obviously well-funded and the exhibits were very up-to-date (one was about DNA and genetic link to oral health.) We spent about an hour-and-a-half there and although I think Bean enjoyed finally being there, I think she was disappointed that we were the only ones there and I think that she was actually far more engaged in the forensic anthropology exhibit at the Natural History Museum in DC.  She wanted to go back the next day, hoping there would be other kids who share her unique enthusiasm.  Dr. Yap and I were a little relieved when the kids decided they were too worn out from the excellent children's museum, Port Discovery.  We don't mind indulging her passion at all, and truly hope she will find someone with whom to share her interest, but we aren't eager to see her get hurt if her chosen audience rebuffs her willingness to disgorge all she knows about dentistry and orthodontia.

Since it was right there across the street from our hotel, we also visited the National Aquarium.  I don't know if we were tainted by our many experiences at our local Monterey Bay Aquarium, or if our assessment was truly fair, but no one was impressed.  Boo thought it was too dark (this is a theme with him, and being two, it's a big criteria for him - that and how much freedom he has to run around.) Bean thought both the individual exhibits and the museum as a whole were poorly laid out and difficult to navigate.  Dr. Yap thought there was too much concrete and too many large photographs of fish were there should have been actual fish.  My two favorite aquariums, the aforementioned Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga both focus almost exclusively on local water life and I really think the National Aquarium missed the boat in neither focusing mostly on the rich Chesapeake Bay nor clearly curating exhibits of American water life region by region.  The curation was all over the place regionally and lacked focus.  Oma thought it was just too much darn walking.

After two nights in Baltimore, we headed south to Williamsburg, stopping outside Richmond to see some of my relatives whom we have always seen far too infrequently.  We stayed at the Great Wolf Lodge, a water park resort, which is an experience itself.  The water park was a blast but the main attraction was proximity to the Colonial Triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.

Dr. Yap has never visited the patriotic trifecta (and please don't ask her to rate her interest in these sights on a scale from one to ten, her answer is probably not on the scale and probably not an integer) but I've been twice before and have wanted to take Bean ever since she became interested in the American Colonial era a year ago.  The first time I visited Williamsburg, I was six and it was the summer after the Bicentennial (please don't feel the need to do the math).  I don't know if was because Williamsburg was still awash in the glow of the Bicentennial celebration or if my memory is wonky, but I remember having a blast with the historical interpretations and with hands-on demonstrations of making marbled paper and dipped candles.

For whatever reason - it was too hot for my family of Coastal California weather wimps, it was too early in the season for everything to kick into high gear, we took the wrong advice about where to park and ignored the right advice about attending an orientation - this was not the same experience.  Bean did love the wigmaker, who was properly and humorously in character, and found the blacksmith shop fascinating; and Boo took full advantage of access to dozens of doors that he was allowed to march up to and try opening.  Much of the rest of Williamsburg seemed lacking and after two half-days trying to make it the historical experience extraordinaire, we decided to pack it in and head to Jamestown and Yorktown, which we had initially planned to overlook.

And we would have been so wrong had we overlooked the amazing state parks at Jamestown and Yorktown.  That's right, state parks.  If you want to see what's left of the actual settlement at Jamestown or the actual Revolutionary war battle site at Yorktown, by all means visit the federal parks in those locations.  If you want to have a historical experience extraordinaire, buy a combined ticket for the two state parks (the tickets are good for an entire year), Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center.  The parks are about 15 miles apart and each sit near their federal counterparts.  The facilities are so nicely done, with museums inside and vast interpretive areas outside, that I just couldn't get over that these were state parks.  We can't even keep all of our state parks open in California, let alone provide them with enough funding to offer visitors such a complete experience.

We visited the Jamestown Settlement first and spent about 2.5 hours there.  The site has three separate outdoor interpretive areas: a Powhatan Native American village, life-size models of the three ships which brought the first English settlers to the area in the early 17th century, and the Jamestown fort.  All three sites were fully staffed with people in period costume who fully embodied their characters.  I didn't hear any questions they couldn't answer with gusto.  We were allowed to fully interact with the interpretive environment in each area (except they prudently disallowed Boo from firing a musket during the quarter-hourly demonstrations.) We wandered in and out of Powhatan homes, and up and down the three ships, and Bean even tried a straw mattress in the Fort.  In the Native American village, we noticed four staff members in traditional clothing, each taking part in one of the daily tasks that would have been commonplace in such a village at the time.  A fifth staff member was demonstrating how to shape a needle out of deer bone that had been generously provided by registered hunters in present-day Virginia and she invited Bean to try her hand at running the bone splinter along the sharp edge of a rock.  We noticed this staff member was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had an ID badge.  It turns out, she was new and hadn't yet made her deer skin dress.  In addition to doing extensive research in primary sources and the most trusted historical research, staff at Jamestown learn hands on how their character would have lived.  As Bean and I were invited to use an oyster shell to help the new staff member scrape the hair off one of the three hides stretched on frames around the village, it became obvious why the interpretive team was able to provide such thorough answers.  There were a few anomalies, such as a female blacksmith in the fort and a woman among one of the ship's crew, but they were so good at what they did who were we to quibble?

We finished the day by giving ourselves a self-guided driving tour of the federal area at Jamestown and headed to the Yorktown Victory Center the next day to experience live on an early farm and life among the soldiers encamped at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War.  The kids weren't quit as impressed with this one, but the adults were pleased.

When were weren't soaking up science and history, we tested the strength of our stomachs on the waterslides at Great Wolf.  The next time, we take a trip like this, I will try to remember to take more photographs of edumacational stuff for our homeschool consultant (I apparently started and stopped taking photos at the poorly-lit dentistry museum.)  I'd also try to encourage Bean to use her art materials and journal a little more along the way to document the experience, not just as hotel-room and airplane entertainment.

Now, to try getting back to regularly scheduled homeschool "programming."

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