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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Milestones, not Millstones

It seems like my life as a parent has mini-seasons that have nothing to do with the weather.  May was about travel and June was about processing and starting our summer.  July has been all about milestones.

Has any modern parent not come to dread that word?  Somewhere between the second and third trimesters with Bean I realized I better not purchase What To Expect in the First Year or I would go nuts.  It didn't matter though because at every well child visit from about six months on, I sat in the waiting room of my pediatrician's office and filled out a milestone questionnaire, sometimes blithely checking off the expected Yes or No, and sometimes filling out qualifying mom-notes in the margins.  I wasn't sure if our first pediatrician even read the forms.

I remember when I filled out a form for Boo sometime in the first year and said No, he wasn't rolling over.  When I asked our current pediatrician if he was concerned about that, he said, "No, that's just one of those things we have to ask, but I always say that I'm only concerned if a kid sees a hill and doesn't immediately want to roll down it."  So Kid Doc admitted that milestones are relative, not meant to be a millstone on our parental necks.  At some point, some of the milestones become non-negotiable and something to sweat.  Or an accumulation of missed milestones hints or screams at trouble.  We are very fortunate that all of our kids' missed milestones have fallen well within the zone of relative normal.

Our health care provider has the well child forms online now, so (slightly) Type A parents like myself can worry ahead of time, er, I mean, be prepared.  If July had not become Milestone Month around here, I might not be able to check off Yes, is potty-trained, when Boo has his Three Year well child check up in October.  It would have meant nothing other than his moms hadn't gotten around to it yet and had become well-versed with this second kid in knowing which developmental stuff to sweat and which stuff we just don't want to deal with.  Months of wet pants and pee on the floors was pretty high on the second list.  I figured if we waited, I could sit down and have a nice little chat with Boo and let him know what the new, diaper-free program would be and maybe, in my wildest dreams, that would be that.

We've been introducing him to the idea since he was about 18 months, but as far as he was concerned, the underwear was for extra warmth on top of his diaper and the Elmo potty chair was a far better place to store toys than bodily excretions.  For a long time, I knew that if I pushed it, potty training would be a whole lot of work for me and a whole lot of stress for both of us.  Boo wasn't insisting, as Bean did at barely 2, that he would no longer wear diapers and we weren't planning to start nursery school anytime soon, so I just left it.  Sometime in the spring he started to seem more interested and aware, but we were about to start our travel season and knew he'd be having his tonsils out during the summer.  As soon as we had the mid-June surgery date set, I decided that June 30 would be the last day for diapers and July 1 would be the start of underwear.

I started an informal count down with Boo, letting him know in advance that he'd be saying goodbye to diapers in two weeks, a week, on Friday.  (Apparently, I forgot to send the same memo to Dr. Yap - oops.) When the day came, I followed my plan, had a nice chat with Boo, and proceeded to put on and change about 10 pairs of nice thick, soaking wet training underwear throughout the day.  We continued on for two weeks, with more wet underwear than success and had yet to reach the point that Boo trundled off to the bathroom of his own volition when he and Dr. Yap were looking at the Toys R Us circular from the Sunday paper.  A set of trains from a popular TV show (not Thomas, the other show about trains) was on sale, buy 2 get 1 free.  Instead of saying no, Dr. Yap said lets go take a look.  I gave her one of my raised-eyebrow what are you up to partner looks, which she pointedly ignored.  I followed my better instincts and ignored the parent-child interaction on the other side of the breakfast table right back.

That afternoon, Boo picked several multiples of three trains and Dr. Yap told him when he peed in the toilet instead of his pants, he could have one.  That's right, outright bribery of the kind we've been taught to avoid if we want a well-adjusted, unspoiled, productive adult on our hands in 15 or so years.  I made a rare showing of good judgement and for the second time that day, I said nothing about the negotiations between Dr. Yap and Boo.  What do you know, about 15 trains later, we have toilet training success.  If there is any behavioral fallout from this one, you'll have to talk to Dr. Yap.  I didn't know any of this was happening after all.

On the other end of our age spectrum, Bean has been working on her own milestone, in her own way.  Two months after her 8th birthday, she has mastered peddling and steering a bike with training wheels.  I remember penciling in a qualifying reason why she had missed this milestone when it showed up on the 5-year well child form: we hadn't really encouraged it because our driveway was a little steep and our road a little curvy.  Since Bean was two we'd tried introducing tricycles and small bikes with training wheels, all of which she outgrew without mastering either pedaling or steering.  She would show sudden bursts of interest, followed by a frustrating attempts to pedal and steer herself down a few feet of sidewalk in front of our house.  After a day or two, she would give up and move on.  We usually let it go, a little bewildered that she just didn't seem to be catching on.

Maybe there are specific developmental reasons why riding a bike has been difficult for Bean, or maybe her milestone is on a different timeline.  Whatever the reason, the three of us understood without discussion that she could happily get through childhood without this skill.  Then she decided she wanted a skateboard this spring.  After all, she reasoned, a skateboard is like a balance beam on wheels and she has pretty good balance.  We didn't say anything to her, but thought learning how to skateboard might be her gateway back to a bike.  She quickly decided that skateboarding was harder than it looked and set it aside to practice her long-abandonded scooter.

With very little practice and no provocation from us, Bean became a scootering pro, an "expert scooterist" as she put it.  She is using a three-wheeled scooter that sits low to the ground which means balance is no longer an issue.  It seems that not having to worry about balance or pedaling isolated the mechanics of steering and allowed her to master that piece of the equation.  After a few months of scootering back and forth to the park and around the basketball courts every day, she announced that she was ready to try a bike with training wheels.  A few weeks ago, we hunted down a 20 inch bike with no gears, a rear-wheel hand brake and training wheels.

In the beginning, pedaling was as frustrating as it had ever been for her, but it was clear that she had a handle on steering.  We walked beside her, putting a hand on the foot that needed to push down and helping her push the right way.  This helped, but she still struggled with figuring out how to get her feet started if we weren't using our hands.  Dr. Yap told her to push down whichever foot was up and that seemed to click.  After about 15 minutes of practicing she was able to steer and pedal herself to the park a few blocks away.  The next day, she repeated the feat, with only a few reminders about how to get her feet going properly.

Bike riding went so well, I'm ready to dust off the idea of swimming lessons for her again.  Then again, maybe she knows more than we do about her milestones and her internal timetable.  As for Boo, I'll take a questionable parenting tactic over pee-saturated clothes and floors any day.