Junior Philosopher

cimg5128The past several lunchtimes, my kids and I have been listening to Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, with varying levels of attention. Today, my son and I had this conversation:

son: “Are both Socrates and Plato philosophers?”

me: “Yes. They are both lovers of wisdom.”

son: “I’m a lover of wisdom.”

me: “Then maybe you’re a philosopher.”

son: “But I don’t even know how to be a philosopher.”

me: “All you need to do to be a philosopher is to love wisdom and seek wisdom.”

son: “Okay.”

I might need brush up on my Socratic dialogue skills now that I have a seven-year-old philosopher in the house.

Raising Readers: Selecting Books

A week or so ago, I wrote about how my spouse and I accidentally created a Reading Culture at our house, and then accidentally inculcated our children into it.

Today, I wanted to write about how our kids get books into their hands. Do they read just what they’re assigned to read by parents and teachers, or do they read only what they pick for themselves? Do my spouse and I limit what they are allowed to read, or do we let them  read whatever printed materials they get their hands on?

In our house, the short answer to both questions is: It’s something in between. Read More

Raising Readers: Reading Culture

I was sitting and reading one afternoon last fall when the cat got up from my lap and, wakened from the world of the novel on my lap, I realized that the house was very quiet. So, I decided to check on the kids. I looked in on them in the room we’ve dubbed “The Library,” and both of my  children were sitting on the couch, reading silently to themselves. They looked up at me and smiled and then looked back at their books.

“Holy cow!” I thought. “Finally, we can all read as a family!” Smiling, I went back to my book and my couch in the other room.

Friends have asked me how we got to this point. How did we get our kids to love reading? How do we get them to choose reading over screens and devices? In a recent post, Cheyanne of Tangerine Wallpaper posited some related questions, and I figured the topic of reading was worth a blog post (or two).

Really, we didn’t set out to make our kids into readers, but when I look at our house, I realize that we have developed something of a reading culture in our house, and even though we didn’t develop this reading culture for the purpose of promoting a love of reading in our kids, I think it contributes to the reading habits my kids have developed. Here’s what our reading culture looks like: Read More

Fruit Punctuation

This morning while I was peeling and chopping and tossing things into the slow cooker, my six-year-old told me about something in a book he was reading.

“It says ‘Anakin’ and then it has those big bananas,” he explained.

“Big bananas?” I asked, clearing onion skins into the compost bucket.

“Yes. You know, those big word bananas that explain what things are.”

I turned and looked directly at him. “Big…word bananas?”

“They’re like giant commas around words.”

“Oh! You mean parentheses?”

A cloud of deep thought crossed his face and then cleared into a smile of recognition.

“Yes!” he said. “Parentheses!”

Big word bananas. Okay.

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To Drink Deeply

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

-from Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Over breakfast, the kids and I decided that we’d do our lessons, eat a quick lunch, and then arrive at the wildlife sanctuary early so we could take a hike and enjoy the weirdly warm December weather before our nature class.

We worked well and ate lunch quickly, but by the time we were on the road, we’d somehow lost most of the extra time we’d figured in. We discussed it on the way and decided that if we didn’t mind being a few minutes late for class (which we didn’t), we’d still have time for a quick hike.

We pulled into the parking lot with twenty minutes to spare. Perfect! We jumped out of the car, ran to the office to check in and let them know we might be a smidge late, and then hit the bathroom.

By the time we were at the trailhead, it was five minutes until class.

How the heck had we lost fifteen minutes? Read More

Studying Ancient Egypt

To complement our study of ancient Egypt, we built a pyramid.

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In order to be as authentic as possible, each of these LEGO bricks weighs three tons. Next we need to mummify a minifigure.

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Mothering Monarchs

Wednesday before last, I went out to check the mail and discovered a Priority Mail package from Pennsylvania.

It held the ten swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) plants and one dozen live monarch caterpillars (and two that hadn’t made the journey) I’d ordered the week before Read More

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Pandora’s Homeschool

“Mom, did you say eighty thousand people died in one moment?” asked my daughter.

This afternoon, my children and I sat under the Tree of Knowledge, and they accepted with trust the apple I offered them: I read to them about how our country dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all of the people living in those cities.

“Mom, have they ever dropped atomic bombs on any other country?” my daughter asked.

“No, not in war. Not except for tests,” I said.

“Good. Because that was an awful thing to do.”

Before I started today’s lesson, their world-view didn’t include atomic weapons used to intentionally annihilate two cities and hundreds of thousands of human lives. This knowledge has shifted their perception of the world.

“Mom, I can’t wait until we learn about the Ancients again because even though they did lots of bad things to people, they couldn’t kill nearly so many people at once as people can in modern times.”

And because we homeschool, I’m the one who gets to tell them about Stalin’s purges and the Holocaust and atomic weapons. It’s a mixed blessing. I’m glad they’re hearing these things from me and that I get to be there to see them process the information, and I’m also grateful for the opportunity to look more deeply into these issues myself, but it’s difficult to tell them about these things. It’s difficult enough just to confront them myself.

Maybe I’m less like Eve and more like Pandora. With each lesson, I open the box a little more and let out into their world one more evil. And now I’m wondering, do I leave Hope inside the box? Or do I let it fly free and trust that it can hold its own out in the world and—even more—in the hearts of my children?

The Starry Afternoon: An Artistic Victory

My kids love crafts, but for the past couple of years, my eight-year-old has been very resistant to anything labeled “art,” especially drawing. I think it has to do with perfectionism. No idea where she got that.

My efforts to get her on speaking terms with the world of art have only increased her resistance, which left me feeling awful. But I didn’t despair and have continued to look for programs that might bring the joy of art back to my girl.

Recently I discovered a series of free online art lessons by Sharon Jeffus called Art Through the Year.

The program and the projects looked fun and different from the other things we’d tried, so the kids and I gave it a whirl.

Each lesson consists of a ~30-minute video about a certain period in art history, or a certain technique, with printable instructions for projects that go along with the lesson.

The topic for Lesson 1 was “Post-Impressionism and Line.” Jeffus showed and talked about paintings by Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, and we learned about pointillism, line, and techniques for using oil pastels.

My four-year-old son's lion (his sister did the one on the right).

My four-year-old son’s lion (his sister did the one on the right).

There were two projects for this lesson, a lion drawn with lines and our own mixed-media rendition of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

My eight-year-old daughter's lions.

My eight-year-old daughter’s lions.

My children liked the lesson, and they loved the projects.

My lions.

My lions (I’m thirty-seven, since I told the kids’ ages).

I think it helped that the lesson was a video—my kids are so video-deprived, they’re happy to watch anything on a screen, but I was impressed with the quality of this video, especially since it was free. Jeffus used some different pronunciations for Seurat and Cézanne than I’ve heard before, but since I embarrassed myself by saying “facade” with a hard “C” more than 20 years ago, I don’t feel confident about the pronunciation of any French-derived words anymore. I knew who she was talking about, so no biggie.

My son's Starry Night.

My son’s Starry Night.

The pacing of the video was good for us, and I liked that Jeffus left a spot after she described the first project for the kids and me to pause the video and do that project before watching the explanation for the next.

While doing the projects, my kids didn’t lose their cool, they didn’t hit each other, and they worked on their projects for longer than I expected, given their prior irritability around any directed art projects. Our thirteen-year-old neighbor came over and did the Starry Night project with us, but she left before I had a chance to photograph her picture.

Top: Van Gogh's Starry Night. Bottom left: My daughter's. Bottom right: mine.

Top: Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Bottom left: My daughter’s Starry Night. Bottom right: my Starry Night.

We didn’t produce any amazing works of art, but we all had a blast, which is all I was hoping for.

My daughter’s review: “I hated art before because then I felt like I had to do something exact, but this art class has you do something general. I like art now.”

Both kids can’t wait for Lesson 2, “Shape & Shading with Pumpkins”!

Xylem, Heartwood, and Unscheduled Haircuts

Yesterday, my kids attended the first in a series of homeschooling classes about trees. This one was called, “What Makes a Tree a Tree?”

They discussed the differences between trees and bushes, conifers and deciduous trees (and the tamarack, which is the only deciduous conifer and the name of the cabin I stayed in when I worked at a conference resort one fall right after college).

Then they all went out into the hallway and used their bodies to make a model of the layers of a tree in a kind of interpretive dance. My daughter was the heartwood, and my son was one of the two people who formed the xylem around her and chanted, “Water flows UP!” while reaching from their feet to the sky. The heartwood and the xylem are right next to each other, which means my son started hitting his sister while the other layers were being formed, prompting one of the countless ridiculous parenting threats that I find myself uttering: “You can only be a xylem if you have gentle hands!”

Their favorite project was making a paper bag tree.

My daughter twisting branches.

My daughter twisting branches.

My son's finished tree, with paper leaves and flowers, dried winterberries for the apples, and spun wool for the roots.

My son’s finished tree, with paper leaves and flowers, dried winterberries for the apples, and spun wool for the roots.

You can find instructions for making a similar tree on Pikadilly Charm. Ours were apple trees and included roots, leaves, flowers, and fruit because the instructor wanted the kids to show all of the components of an apple tree at all stages.

My eight-year-old made her tree almost entirely on her own, but my four-year-old got a lot of assistance from me. While I was distracted twisting brown paper into the branches of his apple tree, my mommy-sense told me to look towards my son who was right at my elbow. I glanced over and shouted, “NO! NO, NO, NO, NO!” and grabbed the scissors just as he was about to chop a big chunk of hair from the top of his head. A few stray hairs were cropped nearly to his scalp, but due to his naturally shaggy hair, we avoided an emergency crew-cut trip, and although I was embarrassed at having overreacted so dramatically, the rest of the parents in the group just shrugged it off. And the shock got my blood pumping on a cold afternoon, so it all worked out fine in the end.

In other news, my spouse lost his smartphone. He turned it off Thursday night and it immediately dropped into the vast Bermuda Triangle in our house, where it presumably joined my digital watch and the PVC training flute my son was supposed to use in his early flute lessons. Only two items have been disgorged from this Bermuda Triangle, and we’ve already looked in the spots where we found those, and in every other drawer, closet, freezer, toilet, and clothes dryer in the house. Why we bought a house with a Bermuda Triangle in it, I have no idea. If you’ve got any ideas where we ought to look for the phone, I would welcome all suggestions.

UPDATE! We found the phone! It was in a gap in our office chair, and when I sat down in a huff, I dislodged it and it fell to the floor. (Luckily I knew it was likely to get abuse so I’d bought an impact-resistant cover for it so it was totally fine after the fall.) One time, at least, my irritability paid off.