Monday, September 22, 2014

learning life skills

"You are homeschooling? You must be so organized."
"What do you do to make sure that they hit all the milestones and reach the standards?"

If homeschooling was all about academics and making sure that they are doing just as the school kids are doing, then I would really have to worry. No, I am not so organized. I juggle a lot of logistics, but I am ridiculously flexible, go-with-the-flow-or-become-insane person nowadays. In our state, we have to take standardized tests only once every three years, and I have no desire to test my kids against some outside standards more frequently.

Homeschooling is about so much more.

"Why is he kicking lawn chairs?"
"He is angry and upset."
"Can I show him how to burn his anger?"
"Yes, but he needs to express it on paper first."
He goes out with a piece of paper, a lighter, and an aluminum pan. I taught the older one about literally burring his anger up, and he did it, twice, with very calming results. The younger one will not write out his anger, will not draw it. That's why I did not suggest it to him, thinking it would not be effective. I watch as the older one explains to his brother his proposition. I see younger one furiously slashing at a paper with a pencil, his hand jerking back and forth. They rip it into shreds, then place them one by one into a pan, where the flames lick them up. Their younger brother brings a dry leaf, they laugh and stick it in.

Then they come into the house for some vinegar. 8 yo is excitedly telling my how they carved an angry 8 yo out of chalk and now they will dissolve him. (I taught them this week in geology how chalk is limestone, and how caves are dissolved cavities in limestone. It was my suggestion to drip some vinegar onto chalk, and that knowledge came in handy.) They run outside, in high spirits.
10 yo made "Happy Rosh HaShana!" in Minecraft using stone blocks. 4 yo taught herself how to spell simple words like "zoo", "cat" and "dog".
10 has been coming to me lately, frustrated that his younger brother has a significantly larger amount of allowance than he does. I have not been censoring what the kids spend their money on, but his biggest hit was a dental bill at the beginning of the summer. After having a second tooth pulled due to poor brushing habits, I put my foot down and said that when that bill comes in, 10 yo will be responsible. He gulped, but he did pay it up. Of course, by now he does not remember what else he spent his money on, just that his brother is way ahead.

10 yo kept asking about what kind of jobs he can do to earn money. The problem with being a bit spacey is that every responsibility that I assign him tends to be half-done, or abandoned in the middle, hence, he does not get the payout. I was getting frustrated with all the creativity that was required of me, and lack of effort on his part, so, in the middle of Yom Tov cooking, I suggested that he do some research to see what jobs would be appropriate for a kid his age.

Half an hour later, he came back, saying that he has some leads, and that he found some things that appeal to him: a worm farm, a lizard farm, aising minnows, and taking selfies to sell to companies for advertisement "although, Mom, I don't think I will be doing that". I asked, how does one make money on a worm farm. He said that you sell the worms to fishermen, or to gardeners. I asked him whether he knows anyone in need of worms, and he said that he is not sure.

He also looked up rates for lawn mowing, leaf raking and snow shoveling. Where we live, the snow shoveling is pretty much out of question, but de-icing driveways is a real possibility. He also said that if, in addition to shoveling snow, one brings rock salt, one can charge extra for that.

He also came up with the idea of selling baked goods. That one would be fine, except that I am not so sure how it would work, kashrut-wise. I also said that people are more likely to buy baked goods as a fundraiser than as a money-making venture. He said that he can donate 10% to the new shul. By the way, the kids emptied out their tzedakah boxes, counted the money, and designated its destination.

As Team Yardo left to rake our lawn, I slowly exhaled. There might be a worm farm in our future...
What I do know, homeschooling is directly responsible for all this freedom to think and to act, and to develop skills which are important out there in the real world.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

oh what a day!

There is this book called "The Schmutzy Family". Mama Schmutzy lets her kids do all sorts of creative and messy things, until it comes to Friday, when she notices how dirty the kids are, and they cannot bring in Shabbos like that. So they clean up for Shabbos and it's all sparkling and gleaming (with only two cups of grape juice spilled on the tablecloth). Then on Sunday they discover a mud puddle and Mama Schmutzy, while counting days till next clean Shabbos, dives right in.

I can appreciate her spirit. although I am nowhere near as brave.

The waiters are ready to take an order
This morning, as I was beating myself up for not writing down kids' schedule for the day, I saw how it slowly unfolded into a breakfast restaurant. They dragged in a bedroom lamp, for ambiance. They sat down and wrote a menu. 8 yo and 4 yo were racing in and out of the kitchen, reporting breakfast options to 10 yo. Unfortunately, by the time the menu was ready, I was mostly done with my breakfast, but the kids served each other, even taking orders down on post-it notes. 10 yo was ready to make french toast and pancakes. I might take him up on that tomorrow.

As I looked over the menu, I noticed some misspellings. I told him discreetly to look at appropriate labels and boxes. He fixed those. Then I sent him to the dictionary to fix "medeum". He shortened it to "med". I showed him an e-mail from a sofer that came in that morning through the shul list. It was full of run-on sentences and misspellings (flower instead of flour, whole instead of hole). 10 yo caught a few of those, and looked up the correct spelling. Then he made copies of the menu using printer.

My husband, a pretty conservative guy when it comes to breakfast routine, went with the flow, although he quietly remarked to me how hard it is to be more flexible with the lack of light and funny order of things.

Next "exciting" thing was my daughter slipping on a book that 1 yo dragged out and dumped in the middle of the floor. She slipped, fell over backwards and hit her head and elbow on a hardwood floor. I offered ice cubes. She went to snuggle with her blankie in her bed, a fairly usual response. She even came out to complain that 8 yo is being too loud and disturbing her rest. Next thing I know while working with boys is that she is asleep, at 10:30 am. She never sleeps at this hour. And being sleepy is a sign of concussion. And she did fall pretty hard... I was texting my husband at that point. He told me to wake her up in and hour and watch for nausea and vomiting.

She woke up on her own, but she did not look so hot. Rather, not only she did not look good, she felt very hot. I took her temperature and discovered that her "cold" of the past few days produced a fever. Most likely that was the cause of her falling asleep rather than the fall.

Meanwhile, 10 yo's mishna teacher rescheduled, and taekwondo carpool asked whether I can drop off today instead of picking up. Meanwhile, I was preparing to finish everything by 3 since a friend was doing me a favor and watching the kids so I can take 8 yo to psychologist for his appointment.

I was told this week that I am not used to being flexible and going with the flow. I think if I were any more flexible, I would be tying myself in knots.

This was our fourth visit to the psychologist. He has been pushing medication, both for ADHD and anxiety from day 1. The plan that he collaboratively came up with last week did not go anywhere. Of course, this new approach required half an hour of prep on my end, and one glance and refusal from 8 yo. The psychologist called it a "success" based on the fact that 8 yo is not tantrumming over that issue now. And I kept thinking: for now.

After today's session, when 8 yo did not exactly open up or offer any concrete suggestions on how he is planning to deal with things so that he does not get so upset, and when the psychologist dangled medication yet again, I said that we are trying to get into a different group, this one with both psychiatrists and psychologists on staff. I am not cancelling next appointment, but this guy is starting to veer into behavioral approach "good boy, woof" and I know that does not work on this child.

So I come home, rushing everyone to get taekwondo uniforms on. 8 yo remembers that his belt-tying patch came off in the laundry. I tell him that I had no time to sew it on (we only discovered that it came off this morning). He screams and stomps that he is not going. I still have carpool to pick up, so I am telling him that I have to leave. He is yelling, and I am losing it, as I notice that my daughter is now wearing leggings and a sweatshirt. She is cold. The whole car ride she is telling me how the carseat feels like her bed and she is sleepy. The baby does manage to fall asleep on the way there, but gets woken up by the boys exiting. He is yelling now.

We drive home. My daughter goes straight to her bed. I put the baby down and finally make it to the restroom. When I come out, I find him sitting in the middle of an oily puddle. He got into the pantry and dumped the entire bottle of canola oil. I have friends who bring their toddlers into the bathroom with them. I value my privacy, but this incident made me rethink whether my privacy is more important than my sanity.

swimming in an oily puddle
I carefully tiptoed into the puddle, lifted the oily child and carried him into the bathub, clothes and all. I washed him, first using soap to remove the oil, then using cream to moisturize his sensitive skin, thinking how insane this all is. Then I buckled him into the highchair and surveyed the damage. After using a few paper towels, I realized that time has come to google the best way to clean up a household BP-sized oil spill.

The best way: use sand, kitty litter, oatmeal or salt. Sprinkle generously over the spill, let it soak in, and then sweep away or vacuum. I had half a tub of oatmeal, but it was in the pantry, the entrance to which was blocked by an oil spill. I used up the entire container, then used salt on the spots that still looked slick. The baby was not used to sitting still for so long, so I gave him the empty oatmeal container. He started sprinkling water from his sippy cup into it.

oatmeal soaking up the oil
I tried. I really tried. Yesterday we went to a barbecue. At the end, they were selling leftovers: grilled chicken and hot dogs at very reduced prices. I snatched some up, feeling smug that a dinner will be ready.

Now I had to wade through oil to get to the fridge where the pan with the leftovers sat. I warmed some chicken up for 1 yo, but he would not eat it. He started throwing it on the floor. 4 yo came out from her room. I never checked whether she slept or rested. She just wanted to cuddle. 1 yo wanted out. I wanted this disaster to be over.

I binge-watched Jewish music videos with the kids. While they watched the screen, I started crying.

G-d this is hard. This is so not how I had planned this day. This is so not what I expected to happen. I just wanted to have a warm ready dinner, and relaxed kids because, for once, I was home instead of running to taekwondo. Instead we were sitting around a laptop in an oily kitchen, with cold food in a foil pan, my daughter's hot forehead on my arm while I was holding a squirmy baby.

That's how my husband found us. He got to cleaning up the BP spill. I got to cuddle in bed with my daughter. The boys were dropped off. My husband warmed up dinner. I put 1 yo to sleep. By this point, that barbecue chicken did not look good any more. The boys saved a hot dog for 4 yo, even though she could not eat it.

I sent them all to bed.

Tomorrow 4 yo was supposed to go to her playgroup, and I was supposed to take boys to a Percy Jackson-inspired field trip about Greek mythology. Then they were supposed to go to taekwondo. Instead, 4 yo will be staying home (and hopefully feeling better). The boys might make it to the museum, if my husband can take them. Obama is coming to visit CDC, which is directly on the way to taekwondo, and the traffic will be shut down. So I guess the boys will have to run in the backyard.

I am flexible, I am super-flexible.

What I need to do is to pray more. This is all so much out of my hands...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sept. 11th

I'm writing this selfishly, as a way to process what happened that day.

I was a senior in college, in Stern, attending a morning biochemistry class. We had some sort of inspection from other colleges present that day, they flew in to observe a class and then later to meet with some students. Our classroom was right on Lexington. First an ambulance whizzed by, a normal NY occurrence, Then another. Then, a whole choir of ambulances, loud. My professor stopped for a second and joked: are we on fire? She finished the class. Back in the day, there was no internet on the cellphone, not everyone had one, and it was rude for it to ring during class. So we sat there, with inspectors in the back, engrossed in reactions.

As the class dismissed, my friend Meryl met me at the door with eyes huge as saucers: "Did you hear? They flew planes into World Trade Center, and Pentagon is on fire!" Me, being a seasoned New Yorker: "What kind of crazy rumor is that? Let's go and check some news online." We walked to computer room. NYtimes server: would not load up. CNN: blank page. ABC: just waiting and waiting. It dawned that something really did happen. Finally, somebody got some website up, and it was clear that this is real, the towers are on fire, one already collapsed, Pentagon has been hit, there might be more planes missing.

I was supposed to have Spanish next. After 10 minutes, the teacher dismissed the class. Outside, if you looked towards lower Manhattan, you could see smoke billowing. I went to the dorm room to call my mother. I found messages from her, and from my father. All international circuits were overloaded, so I think I just reached one of them, possibly my mother in Moldova, and I was unable to connect to Canada. My future husband left me a message that he was supposed to take some sort of test, but it got cancelled.

The lounge in the dorm, everyone glued to CNN. The determination of girls to walk over to NYU, just down the street and to donate blood. Many casualties were expected, and we did not know that there will be no need for blood.

I remember going to that meeting with out-of-state inspectors. I do not remember whether any chemistry was discussed, I think nobody had stomach for that. I remember some teacher stubbornly trying to hold an afternoon class, but there was fog, and lack of clarity, and tremendous worry.

Who did this? Why did  they do this? Are there going to be more attacks? How do you process that a New York landmark is no more? How do you understand that thousands of people who just got up and went about their business as usual are no more? How do you wrap your head around evil of this scale?

I had GREs next day, to be taken in One Penn Plaza. It was also a skyscraper. I would have never thought about this fact before, and it would not have bothered me. I remember calling that morning, making sure that the center is still open...

Two days later, there was a bomb scare at Empire State building, this one literally a block away from the dorm. I was RA on duty in another dorm. We were called and told that the dorm is being evacuated, late at night, and all residents are running to East River. Then we were told to prepare dorm's lounge for the arrival of students. I was instructed to set out Shabbos snacks (nibs come to mind) and try to calm students down. I remember Moroccan foreign students, hysterical, crying that they are getting on the first plane back home out of this crazy America. I remember one of the dorm guards, saying that she is ready to abandon her post and run. I remember that the theme for RA training that year was supposed to be "balance", with a delicate helicopter toy being given out, its propeller daintily balancing on top. Nothing in RA training was preparing us for this level of emotion and chaos. The rest of the year, nobody mentioned balance.

And then, the smoke. The funky, acrid smell that reached all the way to midtown. The clean-up: watching from our dorm room, facing 34th street, as smashed cars were towed to Midtown Tunnel. Firefighter funerals, passing below. It lasted for weeks, and then it stopped. Maybe they found another way to remove debris. Maybe people complained and they started doing it late at night. I don't know, but it was hard to see. Maybe that was all that was easy to remove.

And then, a few months later, shopping in some tiny dusty Boropark shop for a hat. The older lady at the checkout, a photo in front of her of a man. Suddenly, she starts telling me how this is her son, and he died in the towers. Helplessness, sadness, loss, tears.

I got married and started grad school in NYU. Beside it was huge white tent where forensic teams were sorting out the remains...

A few months later, I stopped at one of those little shops which sell water and magazines. Inside, there was a customer already talking to a woman behind a counter, a Muslim, by her looks. I walked in in the middle of their conversation:
The man: "Then who do you think was behind the attacks on the towers?"
The woman : "The Jews..."

I could not deal, so I stormed out, without saying a word. Then, anger and regret set in: why didn't I say something? Why didn't I protest? Was I being a coward? Nowadays I know what to do: you tell people of the address on Facebook and they boycott the shop. Back then, it was private, my private shame of not standing up, not doing something...

When I was teaching middle school, it was shocking that all these kids were born so recently, that none of them remembered September 11th. All people my age do, and all are affected, yet these kids, who are too old to be my kids, not even a generation down, just have our recollections, our experiences, and our testimony to rely on.

A few days ago, 10 yo asked me what are we planning to do for Sept. 11th. I asked him what he had in mind. He wanted to look at the pictures of the towers. He faithfully did that today. 8 yo asked, what is so special about today? I gave him a brief summary, but I saw that it did not register. The evil on this scale cannot be reconciled in a child's mind. It reminds me of a more recent reaction to Holocaust that 10 yo expressed: he sort of knew what it was about, but he only realized how bad it is, and how evil, in the past year. "I still cannot believe it!"-

Back then we had Al-Qaeda, now we have ISIS. Back then we did not have connected intelligence, now we do. Yet we are still in denial that it can be that bad, again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

what unschooling looks like

 This morning, 4 yo asked me to show her how to draw a fish. I did. She tried making her own, but she was not happy with the result (crossed-out fish). I showed her another easy way. She took the paper away and practiced and practiced till a whole school of different fish were swimming.

(In coop classes, 8 yo had to quit a handwriting class many moons ago over his total inability to bring himself to draw a fish. He just could not do it, could not try, and stopped being receptive to the teacher as soon as she playfully asked her students to draw a fish next to letter "f". It did not improve the following week, so I had to switch him out.)

I was giving 4 yo a bath. Among bath toys we have a set of foam numbers that fit into a puzzle and stick to the tub walls. Some numbers are missing. When my oldest was a toddler, I lined them up and said their names out loud. When 8 yo was toddler, I was removing them from his mouth as he kept on chewing them. Sometimes I remembered to say their names, sometimes I did not. When my daughter was a toddler, I just let her play with them. When she started lining them up, I would tell her their names.

She knows all her numbers. Today she took 9 and 1, stuck them on the side and asked me which number they made. I told her, 91. Then she switched their order. I told her that now it is 19. She giggled. As she was getting out of the tub, she stuck 4 on the side, for "her" number. Then she took 0 and 1 and said that she will make someone's age. When she did 01, I told her it's just one. She changed them around to 10 and said that is her brother's age.

She picked Magic School Bus and the Electric Filed Trip as her good-night story. We did not get far, because on the first page Ms. Frizzle is making a list of all items in the classroom that use electricity. She remarked how N at the end of FAN does not look right. I asked her whether she could tell at the end of which word was this N. She read it: fan. Then she found fan on the page. She pointed to the bell and then looked for it on the word list. Then she said: clock, and stopped. I asked her to sound it out slowly, and she found it, too. She was a bit taken aback by "o" making "uh" sound. Finally, she pointed to the light with Lizzie on top and that one gave her harder time. She was not sure how "igh" in light would work, but I told her.

We had this book for a while. She picks her own books to look at all the time, including these ones. She obviously cannot read them, or can she? I have not been reading this one to her for the millionth time, and she normally just likes the story in Magic School Bus, not all the science facts and not even the dialogue boxes. When she picked out this book, I would file it under science, but we somehow ended up doing reading.

My wise older homeschooling friend is unschooling. She has been doing this for a while. She documents how she progressed in her thinking, and, as I follow her, I wonder: will I finally relax enough with the younger ones that they will get the full benefit of a mom who is not so worried about keeping up with the educational system "out there" to let her kids learn and grow as they see fit? 

I see my daughter benefiting from being a 3rd child out of four. I do not have time to sit down and carefully craft her curriculum, and I do not have opportunity to jump in and take over every activity that she starts. She is an independent learner. Granted, she is also a very traditional learner: she wants to be taught, and she wants to do seat work and worksheets. In short, her independent learning produces tangible results, which puts me at ease.

Yet I wonder: what will happen next year, when she will be of kindergarten age? What will be down the road? Will I hijack her learning? Will she continue to pine for school? Will I unschool her, something that I seem to have courage to do with the boys?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

pleasant surprises

Today was first day back-to-cop classes for us. I am teaching a class on geology, so I spent quite a bit of time preparing and then some energy on teaching. Both of my boys are in my class (their choice), and then for the second hour 10 yo is taking Civil War and 8 yo is in Poisonous and Venomous Animals. Our coop is located literally on the spot of one of the major Civil War battles. This year there are many commemorative events taking place, and I was sort of regretting that we are living in such a history-rich area, yet not taking advantage of all the opportunities. This class is just perfect for 10 yo: it is for older kids, requires reading and seems to be challenging.

8 yo chose his class with a bit of reservation on my part; he would be the oldest there. However, he seems very excited about it, and he showed me a folder that he made in there. There was writing involved, and cutting and pasting. He also had to google images of animals he thought were poisonous, and he was able to do that on his own before class (with my supervision and encouragement).

4 yo is taking printing class, followed by Little Bodies. I am not concerned about the academic content, just that she gets to play and interact with other kids. "Mommy, we got to color with the wrong end of paintbrush and it was so fun!" 1 yo is in toddler room.

After we finished our classes and I collected the kids, we headed home for lunch. In the past, 1 yo would not last, so we had to hightail it, and quickly. He usually fell asleep on the way home, and then I frantically served lunch. I used to try to squeeze in some schoolwork around the coop classes and before taekwondo, and it did not go smoothly. Today I planned to get very little school done: math and Chumash for 10 yo, and multiplication and typing for 8 yo. We finished 10 yo's schoolwork before the coop. I quizzed 8 yo on his flashcards once before the coop and once after lunch. He finished his typing in the morning. I also asked kids to get started on Rosh HaShana cards. 10 yo picked a card "to you and yours" for one of his friends. I had to explain how that is not so appropriate. 8 yo wrote his without any fuss. Granted, it was those three lines, but this is a nice surprise.

10 yo's mishna teacher was coming, and I was planning to take some time to relax before taekwondo, but 8 yo pulled out electricity kit and asked whether we can do it. I know that this is true learning: he is curious, he wants to do it, and he will learn and retain. As he was opening it up, I saw that he must have pulled it out before. He knew exactly how to set it up, what all the parts are and how they work. I just sat back and watched. My father would have been proud of his free experimentation.

I kept thinking how 8 yo keeps surprising me academically in the past few weeks. He loves Keyboarding Without Tears, and keeps asking to do more and more. He is holding his fingers correctly, even though he did not learn all the letters yet. Considering how till now his modus operandi was to avoid computer unless he was passively watching, I am finding his new confidence very encouraging. He has been typing more.

He also asked me to get him cursive workbook from HWT. Again, I thought that we are done with handwriting practice, since last year it was hard, and I am not positive that cursive is an essential skill to learn any more. Yet he is enjoying it, and his letters are looking great. He is putting in a lot of effort. His printing also improved. Now, this kid qualified for OT at the beginning of the summer, and we have not exactly spent that time working on his handwriting.

So what did he do all summer? He went to camp. He played. He read. He hiked. He built with Legos. Nothing academic, really. Yet somewhere between getting older and more mature, and getting stronger, he is able and willing to do tasks which I would not consider before.

We are meeting with yet another psychologist. This one is strongly favoring medication, and not just for anxiety, but also for ADHD. I have talked to him about side effects of the medicine. My husband researched anxiety, and saw that kids are prescribed SSRIs, which, if the child is depressed, up the risk of suicide. I have looked into ADHD medicine, and found that most parents use it as a last resort. I brought up how I am concerned about long-term effects, and how I am worried about having to get off the medication one day and not having ever developed a focus of his own (I refer you to Leonard Sax for further reading). The response that I received was that I should worry about him now, not down the road. What happens down the road, happens. The funny thing is, as much as I worry about him now, I am not worried about him down the road, I know in my guts that he will turn out fine, find his path, discover his passion, and pursue it. It might not be college, it might not be a neat behind-the-desk profession, but he will be fine. I am not sure that I want to sacrifice the future for the sake of getting compliance now.

In a sense, I am glad that he is not in school, and I get to see and experience all these little pleasant surprises. Their loss, our gain.