Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Feeding the imagination

I've been thinking a lot about things that fire a child's imagination lately, due in large part to having finished reading Winter Holiday, which I wrote about yesterday. In the Swallows and Amazons series, the thing that strikes me over and over is the spectacular imaginary world the children create together, often based on the things they have read and learned. They play out themes and stories from Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, geography lessons as they explore Kanchenjunga (the third tallest mountain in the world), and even poetry they had heard. (Titty names an outcropping near the farm where they are living the Peak in Darien. It is from a line in a poem, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer", by Keats.) They have rich imaginations because their minds have been filled with rich ideas.

These ideas have been communicated to them through words either read by themselves or heard as they were read to them. This listening and reading required many things from the children. The images these words inspired were provided by the children's own minds. It was the jumping off point for greater imagination as they became the basis for the children's play. This is very different from our current culture where it seems everything is provided by images. While the images themselves may be highly imaginative, it was the imagination of the creator that was at work and not the imagination of the audience. The audience was essentially passive, with the effort required merely to have ones eyes open.

I have children who appreciate the artistic efforts of graphic books and they stylistic choices of movies, but while they are interesting to look at they do not require the same effort as listening or reading a book does. I believe we lose something and our children especially lose something when we do not require people to make a practice of using ones imagination. As with anything going on in our brains, if it is not exercised and used, the neural real-estate is quickly taken over by other functions that are being used. By not asking our children to use their imaginations... by providing too many easy-to-consume images and too much pre-packed activities... are we slowly eradicating their ability to even have one? A world where no one has imagination is a bleak world, indeed.

I wonder if it is any surprise that the increase in the prevalence of screens comes at the same time that children's free time has been severely curtailed. It becomes a slippery slope. Children have difficulty entertaining themselves, so adults, driven to distraction by loose-ended children, plan more of their activities for them. And so on, and so on. Yet open-ended, non-adult-led play is so important to more than the imagination. As Jane Healy writes in her book, Different Learners: Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Your Child's Learning Problems:

"Neuroscientist Adele Diamond has studied the development of executive function in children's brains, and she is sold on the power of the environment to either teach or erode these important skills of self-restraint and self-management. 'I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all buy many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early,' she remarked in a National Public Radio report. Curiously enough, one reason may be a decline in another type of children's play: the unstructured, imaginative kind in which they have to rely on themselves for planning and executing their improvisations. This kind of play naturally provides good exercise for developing brains -- especially systems for controlling emotions, resisting impulses, and exerting self-discipline. Dr. Diamond believes that even older children can benefit from creative play. 'You need games that require children to stop and think,' she says, 'and I have not seen any [video games] like that.'" (pp. 86-97)

I have seen first hand that the things my children learn best are the ideas and concepts that they have 'played'. It seems it is through playing that they make these ideas their own. We focus a lot these days about the food we give to our children. It sometimes feels as though preparing a healthy diet has become a more important religion than most religions. Yet do we stop to even think about the diet of ideas we are feeding our children's minds? And which do we believe is more important? They are good questions to think about.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Have you ever heard of Fridtjof Nansen and his ship Fram?

Don't feel badly, neither had TM, D. or I. That is, we didn't until we read Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. It is the third book (if you don't count Peter Duck, which is technically the third, but not really part of the sequential story) in the Swallows and Amazons series. While I love the first two books, I had never read this one. I think I may love this book even more than the first two which is not always the case with a series.

As you can guess from the title, this book is set in winter and has the children who comprise the Swallows and Amazons turning from playing pirate and sailor to being arctic explorers. The lake they sail on in the summer has frozen over in a very unusual cold snap and the North Pole begs to be discovered. As an added bonus, the houseboat of an uncle is ice bound and quickly becomes the explorer's headquarters nicknamed the Fram. By about halfway through the book the names Nansen and the Fram have been mentioned more than a few times. The children in the book seem to think he was a pretty cool explorer and we were beginning to wonder who they were imagining themselves to be.

It turns out the Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer who went north in 1893 to see if they could reach the pole. They set out for the arctic in the Fram where the ship was eventually stuck in the ice and could go nowhere. A year after their initial departure, Nansen and a companion leave the ship and continue north. They eventually return home three years after they left having reached within four degrees of the pole. They traveled by dog sled, kayak, and on foot and survived on walrus and polar bear. It all sounds terribly exciting (and cold) and having learned about Nansen, we could then understand the children's fascination with him and why they commandeered the houseboat to become the Fram.

We all became so interested and engrossed in the stories that I ordered a copy of Nansen's diary of the journey for the boys to look at. Happily, Farthest North: the Epic Adventure of a Visionary Explorer is still in print. I kept the book a surprise for the boys and the fact that they were very excited by receiving a journal written in the 1890's show how interested in the book they were.

Last night we finished the book and read the last page. It was one of those books that no one wanted to come to an end and you both want to read quickly to see how it ends, yet want to read every word as slowly as possible so the book won't end. You don't want to say good-by to it. TM summed it up by saying as I closed the 350 page book, "The trouble with that book is that it was too short."

If I could have changed anything about reading the book, I would have read it in the dead of winter. I'm not a big fan of winter, yet reading it had me (and the boys) wishing we could go outside and ice skate and build igloos and be arctic explorers. It would have made it just about perfect.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The day of the overly ambitious craft

It happens. I pick a craft to do that I think will be manageable for everyone with a little help and it becomes completely overwhelming. Such was the story of the Viking long boat.

We have been learning about the Vikings and their forays into France and North America. The Vikings have been a saga all fall homeschooling-wise. Pardon the pun. First there was our attempt at a lunchtime read aloud book, Viking Adventure by Clyde Robert Bulla. I hadn't heard of the book before, but it was published by Sonlight and received some really glowing reviews on Amazon. It seemed like a pretty good bet. Then I began reading it out loud. It was not what I expected. The book had short sentences. The book did not use a lot of pronouns. The book had a very simple sentence style. The book was not fun to read. The book was not fun to listen to. If you read the book for very long, you started to talk in very simple sentences. The children did not like it. Well, you get the idea. We lasted exactly two chapters before none of us could take it any longer and set the book aside.

I had given up finding a chapter book to read about the Vikings when I happened to be flipping through the Daedalus catalogue. (You do know about Daedalus and their online store salebooks.com, right? Really, if you love books, you need to know about it.) I came across a description of a book that sounded really interesting about the Vikings and was $1.98, hardcover. At that price, I sort of felt morally obligated to buy it, so I did. We haven't made it very far, but we are enjoying it. It's The Sea Singer by Craig Moodie. I'll tell you if we end up liking the whole thing.

Then yesterday, we made an attempt at creating Viking long boats out of recycled materials. It looked so promising on the web site where I found the instructions. If I had only 11 year olds and up, it would have been fine, but it would have taken longer than the two hours I allotted for the activity. With a lot of younger people? Well, we ended up modifying the craft a lot and TM, D. and P. were really good about pitching in and making the younger people's boats. We did end up with boats.

But, my goodness, it was not one of our more relaxing crafting mornings.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Knowing when to engage

There was some comment on the post I wrote about our trip to the Chicago Historical Society and what I thought was my amusing account of being called a chaperone. I guess it wasn't quite amusing enough, since I didn't seem to communicate that I found the whole thing a little hilarious and wasn't really upset by it. Tone is hard to read.

When we are all out and about, we tend to receive comments. I can't blame people for this... there is so much scope for comment. Family size, twins, multi-ethnicity, facial differences, homeschooling. I sometimes wonder how anyone ever narrows down all their choices. You get used to it, though it is a relief when a trip is comment-free. I would say, that while do occasionally get the rude or ugly comment, the vast majority are positive, or if not out-right positive, more incredulous than anything. I think anyone who deals with a lot of public comment gets used to filtering what is worth expenditure of energy and what is not.

There are times when I will expend the energy to deal with the comment. Right up at the top of the list is if my children are present and something is said that could call into question their worth as a person or their place in our family. I will always deal with that because my children need to know I will stand up for them and because it is important to hear the truth in the face of untruth. The other instance where I will always engage in a discussion is if the comment will somehow affect others down the line. Has there been a misunderstanding as to the legality or standing of homeschoolers? I will not hesitate to share how the law defines and views homeschoolers. (In IL, for instance we have the exact same standing as every other private school and are to be treated as such.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum are comments that need no response. Those are the comments that are just thrown out there and don't really do any harm. Sure, they can be repetitive or annoying, but usually a smile and nod or a frown forward movement are all that are needed. I see it as background noise that can be filtered out and not worth expending any emotional energy. The, "Boy you have your hands full" comments definitely fall into this category.

In the middle are the type that we encountered at the museum last week. The employee was polite and trying to be helpful, so there was no need to become angry at her. Our children didn't feel as though anyone was questioning their place in their respective families. (I'm not sure they were even really paying attention.) There were no negative consequences that were going to happen. We were still going to get into the museum regardless of what entity the employee saw us as. The question then boils down to, "Is it worth my while to stop and educate this person about the misunderstanding?"

We didn't discuss it between us, but the collective decision between the three mothers seemed to be that it wasn't worth the effort. Sometimes you just want to go to a museum with your family and not have to be an advocate for whichever cause you happen to be representing at the time. Since the employee was happy to share with us that homeschoolers get in free if we call ahead even on paying days, there was no one who was going to be injured down the line. In fact, we were even happy to have that piece of information. Sometimes, though, for people who are unfamiliar with homeschooling, they haven't had the chance to think through all the ramifications and I believe this was one of those instances. By the end, it was just funny.

So I apologize if I didn't quite convey the humor of the situation and communicated irritation or anger instead. I will admit that when we were asked to enter another way that internal alarm bells started ringing... because you just never know. But good will was shown and thus we supplied good will of our own. Maybe I should tag what I believe to be my funny posts with a tag indicating they are supposed to be funny. Just in case I have left anyone unsure.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I may have mentioned once or twice that my household is loud. While there are occasions (particularly with the little girls) where the loudness is due to unpleasantness, mostly it's because we have a household of very verbal people who all want to share their opinions all the time. (Well, except when we encounter any human being outside our home. Then it is absolute silence and not necessarily a silence I appreciate.) In order for all these people to be heard when they share their opinions or whatever happens to be flitting through their head at any given time, it is necessary to speak loudly. This is because everyone else is already speaking. When the background noise is already loud, one must speak even louder to be heard.

Yes, I have tried to have them all practice the rule of one person speaking at a time that most of civilized and polite society observes. We practice... a lot... especially during dinner. We need more practice. Dinner is still exceptionally loud. It is also frequently hilarious. Such as the night a little bit ago when some children were discussing a field trip they went on. At the museum there was a plastic cow which had plastic udders hooked up to a water supply which allowed visitors a chance to "milk" a cow. TM was sharing how when it was his turn, the udder came off in his hand and water was spraying everywhere. This would have been funny enough, except that HG missed the key word "plastic" in our conversation and was horrified about a cow's udder coming off. No one actually snorted milk through their nose when the misunderstanding was discovered, but it was close. This is what I'm up against. Hilarious noise which is nearly constant, except when it is not caused by hilarity and is due to five year olds who have not gotten their way. That type of noise is not nearly as enjoyable.

The real trouble is that we've all become accustomed to speaking at a certain volume in order to be heard at any given time. I am discovering this volume is significantly louder than anyone else uses. Our indoor voices are at least as loud as most people's outdoor voices. (Which is another reason the museum worker's comments yesterday made me chuckle. Really, she didn't want us to use our indoor voices.) It is bad enough with the children, but people sort of expect children to be on the loud side, so the complications are fewer. The real problem is that I have become accustomed to using a louder voice so that I have any chance at all of being heard. Usually, my loud voice can be heard saying, "Will you people please be quiet?!" (No, the irony is not lost on me.)

So, if you have been talking to me recently in a venue outside my home, I apologize if it seemed as though I was shouting at you. There were more than a few times at church last Sunday where I realized that my voice could probably be heard over everyone else's in coffee hour. It's as if I hear group noise and am now conditioned to need to speak above it. I blame my children.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Stay with your chaperones

This morning we headed down to the Chicago Historical Society for a quick field trip. It was just three families who met initially... and one of them was not the P. family, so our numbers were quite low for us. (The P. family joined us a little later, which is probably just as well, as you will see.) The museum is free this month and since the H-S family has been studying Chicago, they invited us to join them.

So, it's about 10 am on a weekday morning in September which means that the school field trips have yet to resume in overwhelming quantities. The museum is not busy with just a few other visitors. We enter the museum. I have 7 children with me, there are 4 H-S children, and 2 children belonging to our friend who made up the third family. (I told you we were a small group.) As we approach the desk to gain entrance to the museum, we are waylaid by a museum employee, "Excuse me, but what are you? Are you a school group?"

"Well, no, we are just three families. We do homeschool, though." said by three different mothers in unison.

"Why don't you just come this way. This is the way the school groups should enter. We don't want to clog up the entrance lines," as she marches in another direction and beckons us to follow her. "Here are some school group museum maps. Please don't use the elevators. And remember, the next time you come, be sure to phone ahead so that we know you will be here," she continues.

In the meantime, children are starting to get antsy and ask questions, such as, "What are we doing?" "Why is she doing this?" "When do we get to go see the museum?"

And then, just to prove a complete and total lack of understanding as to who is standing before her she begins to talk to the assembled children. "Remember to use your indoor voices and be sure to stay with your chaperones."

Chaperone. That is what I think I will call myself for the rest of the day.

Monday, September 22, 2014

They still wait

And I continue to remind you about them. Who are 'they'? These two little girls...


And Tina.

Every single day they live without a mother and father to love them, kiss them, hug them, and let them know that they matter. Every single day they miss a part of their childhood that children in our part of the world take for granted.

Is one of these girls your daughter?

I won't promise you rainbow and happy trees every single day if you decide she is. I know first hand that this road can be hard, and sometimes I worry that I scare more people away with my honesty than I help. But even though it may be difficult at time, I can also think of nothing more rewarding that I could do with my life. I have had a front row seat in watching a life unfold before me. Of watching a child who had no self develop a sense of who she is. I have had a front row seat in watching the excruciatingly slow process in a child heal from unspeakable things. I can tell you, I don't take a genuine smile for granted any more. I have had a front row seat in watching a child grow. Not in any metaphorical sense, but grow in an actual physical sense because for his early life he was not given enough to eat and we worried about the life long consequences. All of this has come with hard work, harder than I could manage, more patience than I possess, callouses on my knees from the times of praying out of sheer desperation, and the willingness to let God use me in a miracle.

And they are miracles. Every single child is a miracle and worth an all-out effort to help that child development into their potential. Every single child is worthy and deserving of committed, self-sacrificing love. Everyone thinks this sounds grand and yet there are children who have paperwork and legal clearances to join families, but there are no families who want them.

These girls are real. Their hurts and needs are real. Their desire for love is real. What they need now are real parents.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An apology to my mother

When I was growing up, every summer we would take long car trips to different parts of the country. Inevitably, we would pass through a town where lived an older family friend whom we would stop and visit. I can remember some of the visits vividly. I can remember silently staring as my parents tried valiantly to get me to say something, anything. I would sit there mutely, wondering when we would leave and wish people would stop talking... to me, to each other. I was hardly a sparkling personality during those visits, but as is true of most children, was far more concerned about myself not at all about the adults in the room.

Well, parenting has a way of paying one back for ones childhood. Yesterday good friends invited me and the children to come and visit and go to the store to pick ice cream. It was an exciting sounding outing and the small people spent much of the day very excited about it. Life was good while we walked to get ice cream, brought the ice cream back to our friends' condo, and ate the ice cream. But since it is terribly rude to eat a gift of ice cream and run, we stayed and visited for a while. Remember my description of the shoe store? Well, it was just like that. After the ice cream was done and we were sitting in the living room, the mute children emerged in full force. Except this time it was mute children times however many I had with me at the time. It wasn't even as though they didn't know these people. But suddenly, when it came to sitting and chatting, all verbal abilities disappeared. I valiantly tried to get my children to talk about things they were interested in and received mumbled one word answers in return. It was the type of experience that as a parent makes you want to crawl under the sofa cushions. It was left to me to pick up the conversational slack and I did, all the while inwardly muttering at my children. And just like the shoe store, the second we exited the condo building, I was bombarded with words, words, words.

So here is my belated apology to my mother for the number of times I did this to her as a child. Your lessons must have paid off somewhere along the line, because I am now able to sit and visit and make conversation... just not in time to make your parenting life a little easier.

Perhaps there's hope for my own children.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Our success with reading picture books Five in a Row style last made me decide to continue it this year. This past week we read Thundercake by Patrica Polacco. Since this isn't a book that appears on any of the Five in a Row lists (I just liked it), I had to make everything up from scratch. Here's what we did in case you are interested in using this book as well.

On Monday we read the book and talked about the word brave and what it means. The book tells the story of a little girl who is afraid of thunder. Her grandmother encourages her to come out from under the bed so that they can make a thunder cake together. In the course of gathering the ingredients, the grandmother shows the little girl how brave she really is. In addition to building vocabulary, I wanted to make sure that everyone understood what the book was about.

On Tuesday, we looked at the pictures in the book. Ms. Polacco fills her pages with lush, multi-colored textiles. We talked about the different patterns and then I made a simple quilt outline on paper for each child and let them create their own quite patterns in it.

On Wednesday, I found an excuse to use my laminator. As the child and grandmother go about gather the ingredients, they also count the time between the lightening flash and the clap of thunder to know how close the storm is. I made cards with lightning, thunder, and numbers so that we could practice counting and to find out how far away our pretend storm was.

What's the point of reading a book about a cake if you don't make the cake? On Thursday we followed the recipe and made our own thunder cake. While we didn't have any thunder to cook by, it still turned out quite well. The unusual thing about the recipe (which is in the back of the book), is that is uses crushed tomatoes. The littles were not quite so sure about pouring tomatoes into their chocolate cake batter, but it does help to make it moist... and you can't taste the tomatoes. Of course, I forgot to take a picture before most of it was eaten. This is what is left.

Today, we made cloud pictures. They used a mixture of shaving cream and school glue in equal amounts and they painted on blue construction paper. This was a quick and easy craft (and surprisingly un-messy) that they enjoyed. It went very fast, though, so don't expect it to fill your morning unless you plan on having dozens of cloud pictures drying around your house. The thicker mixture is taking a while to dry, but it is drying and preserving the texture on the page.

This is L. She was the last to leave the table.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Glorious mess

The Hearts at Home link-up topic today is love your triumphs. I've thought all day about this and I realize that triumph means something a lot different to me today (AHC = after hard children) than it did before I started parenting children from hard places (BHC = before hard children.). BHC, I still had the illusion that I had control of my life and the lives of my children. I believed the false, but commonly held, assumption that if I did things the 'right' way, then my children would be like the ones in Lake Wobegon... smart, good-looking, and above-average. My competency, the triumph of my parenting, would be reflected by all my children were and became.

And then came our first child from a hard place and my entire belief system was slowly and irrevocably shattered into a thousand tiny bits. Because, you see, when a child has been hurt like my child had, the damage is extensive. "Good" parenting isn't enough. Actually, I learned that my good parenting wasn't so good after all, especially for this child. Not only did it not help, I'm pretty sure it set us back by several years. It was hardly a triumph.

After hard children, I was back at square one. Sometimes it felt as though we were so far off in what he needed that square one would have been a positive step forward. While each of our children has their own strengths and challenges, our children with less than stellar beginnings have this more so. Life is just harder for them. Things don't come as easily. And there are some days when J. and I wonder if what each of their future holds. Therapeutic parenting... parenting in a way that promotes healing... is a full-time job and one that often feels it is providing small drops in an ocean of need. The idea of triumph seems like a foreign concept.

That's only if you define triumph as a great effort culminating in a finished and completed project. My children, like myself, are works in progress. We will never be completed this side of Heaven. They are also autonomous individuals who have been given free will to the same extent that I have. I don't always make the right decisions, regardless of who has influenced me, and it is the height of hubris to think that my influence will have any greater affect on my children. I can do my best, but that's all. I also have no control over the things that happened in their past. While I can be angry over the hurt and injustice, I can't change it. I can only do my best to make their current lives better. More filled with love.

So what is triumph, especially when you are parenting children for whom life may always be a little more difficult? It is acknowledging and celebrating the small successes. It is loving them despite the fences they have put up to disguise their hurts. It is rejoicing that while we can do our best, their ultimate healing is not within our hands or in our power. It is letting go of the worry of what others think and admitting that your life isn't perfect. Triumph is sharing that life can be hard and not expecting perfection from ourselves or from others.

Because the ultimate triumph comes when we accept the glorious mess of this world. The mess part is easy to understand. Life is messy, no matter how hard we work at it. We are none of us perfect and sometimes we are at our messiest at those exact moments when we are trying to be the most perfect. It is glorious because when we are at our messiest, that is when Jesus can break through and do His redeeming work in us. And that is the real triumph. That God can use our mess and make something beautiful out of it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Studying the human body

One of the things we're studying this fall is the human body. I thought everyone would enjoy it, but was unprepared for quite how big a hit it is. We are just at the beginnings of what we are doing, but I thought I would share some of our resources.

I'm using two different books for the basis of our learning. The first is The Body Book: Easy-to-Make Hands-On Models that Teach by Donald M. Silver and Patricia J. Wynne. I just happened to come across a copy at the homeschooling conference last spring and on a whim, picked it up. I'm so glad I did because everyone is loving it. Essentially, you photocopy the appropriate pages, cut out as directed, and then tape and glue them together. When you are done, you have a model of whatever part of the body you are studying. It is not 3-D, but the different parts are done in layers so you turn each page and see what's underneath.

It's kind of difficult to explain, so here's a photo of the eye model we did yesterday. (This is not colored, but you can also color them when you are done.)

First, it is all folded up, showing the outer eye.

That lifts up and you see the cornea (which is made with plastic wrap.)

Under the cornea is the iris, with a hole in the center so you could see the lens through the pupil.

The iris lifts up to show the whole lens. You can see how it all folds out, here.

Under the lens is the retina. (I did not draw the nice little repaired tears in this one to make it look like my own. When I mentioned it, some of my people looked a little green around the gills.)

Under the retina are the blood vessels.

And finally, we see the optic nerve which transmits all the information to the brain.

It helps to have some bigger people on hand to help the 5 years olds do the cutting and taping, but that is the only difficulty I've had so far. Then, when our model is complete, I read about the body part in Blood and Guts by Linda Allison. It helps to have the model to look at as I read about how everything works, plus this book has some great experiments in it. We may or may not be dissecting an eye ball (and by we I mean M. coming home and helping the younger group.) It all depends on if I can find some animal head in the meat case in the grocery store that still has an eyeball in it. When I looked last week, the pig's head had an ear covering where the eyeball socket was, so I couldn't tell if there was an actual eyeball there or not. It's hard to move a pig's ear around through plastic wrap.

Since I always like to have some sort of chapter book to go along with what we're studying we had been reading The Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Isimov. We just finished it today. I had read this in junior high and remember loving it, so decided to read it as part of our study. It was a hit and I think as we make it to the other body parts, the descriptions in the book will help people to understand what they are learning. Plus, it's just a great adventure story. We also covered a little history, since to make sense of the first chapter, we had to stop and discuss what the Cold War was. The movie is on Netflix, so I think this weekend we'll have a movie night and watch it together. Even if you aren't studying the human body, the book is a great read aloud for upper grade school on up.

I have other books and movies that we'll bring in as we go along, but these are our main resources. We alternate what we are learning, so many people (especially K.) are thrilled when it's Tuesday or Thursday because they are loving what they're learning.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Adoption and education

(First my obligatory disclaimer... or two. 1. I am not a trained special education teacher nor I am a trained therapist, but I have a lot of experience with both these things and have done a ridiculous amount of research. I suppose this gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Use your own judgement when following my advice. 2. This post is written for the homeschooler. I know many children who have been adopted go to public school and fare just fine. That's great (and you can read that sentence without any irony because I really mean it.) Just remember, when I write about homeschooling it does not automatically assume I am saying the negative about other types of school. There, that should head off any comments right off the bat, huh?)

Over the past several years, I have updated everyone on H.'s academic advancement. (If you missed them, here they are:  6 months home and 7 months home.) After those, in looking back through the hundreds of posts I've written in the ensuing years, I haven't updated in a purposeful way. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, there just wasn't that much to say. We had worked diligently and for much of the next year and a half we couldn't see a whole lot of discernible progress. I wasn't too worried, though, because of reason number two for not updating. That would be, we weren't doing a whole lot of straight academics, but really were just continuing preschool. If I was going to experiment educationally with my daughter, I wanted a longer period of time to elapse before sharing what was happening.

I have my own pet theories, which are not entirely made up but based on what I have learned about children and development and trauma and neuroscience and play, plus my own experiences raising and educating a bunch of children. Those theories boil down to something like this. Our children who have joined our families by adoption come to us with a  very mixed bag of experiences. While some of those experiences may have been positive, there is also a great deal of loss and trauma and at least, for some of my children some really horrible parts of their past as well. When you compare this with a child growing up in a stable, nurturing home, the differences are pretty huge.

In order for a child to learn optimally, there need to be certain things in place. First, there must be trust. Without trust, the child plunges into fear and no one can really learn anything when in a fearful state. Second, the foundations for later academic learning must be built. This usually happens during baby and toddlerhood for most children. The child is constantly investigating his or her surrounding environment... touching, tasting, hitting, throwing, dropping... to see what happens. The parent is constantly naming the things in the child's environment and explaining what is happening. The child is surrounded by print in their language and is beginning to become familiar with what it looks like. Numbers are used in a concrete way; to count things in the child's world. The child's small successes are heralded and when the child fails, is immediately encouraged to try again.

Now look at a child living in a less optimal environment. First, if there is no single caregiver, there can be no sense of trust. Fear is a constant companion, whether recognized as such or not, and the child focuses on learning behaviors which give a feeling a safety. These are not always behaviors that will help the child grow in the long run. Often a child in an orphanage is kept in a very limited environment. Sometimes this is a crib for hours on end or, as in K.'s case, the two blank cement rooms of his orphanage. There is little to explore and there is no one to give language to what he is doing. There is no print... in any language. The early lessons that little squiggles on a page can have meaning do come. Also, the vocabulary the child builds is cursory at best and probably involves more commands than anything. More complex sentences, ideas, and words are never heard by the child.

If this child is adopted at an older age, these deficits add up. They do learn some things because children are natural learners and they will take in what's available, but it is not much. If you imagine a child's early learning as building a mental scaffolding to hang later language on, the deprived child has scaffolding that looks like something that would not be approved by the inspector on a building site. It is a hodge-podge of this and that, thrown together in a random fashion. It is not structurally stable and to try to build a real building on this base would be foolish. The building would not stand in the long run.

If I imagine my child to have a sketchy mental scaffolding, then before I can ever hope to teach them something, I need to go back and do some rebuilding. In order to do this, I need to provide experiences that mimic what I would do with a much younger child. The brain is much more plastic than researchers had believed and I think we can use this plasticity in conjunction we a second chance at being a small child to build a better scaffolding.

So what I have done with H. in these past two years is to let her play and explore and discover and converse. We have spent a lot of time reading stories. She needs to hear her new language before she can ever hope to become fluent in reading it. I just finished reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryann Wolf. In it she confirms my ideas that the combination of vocabulary, awareness of the sounds of the language, memory, and pattern identification are necessary to create a good reader. So we play with words. We rhyme, we talk about the beginning sounds of things, we talk about words that mean the same thing, we name things. We talk and read and read and talk. Her reading has improved. She can sound out most simple, short-vowel phonetic words; she can read quite a few sight words; she can sound out some words that are not phonetically simple. We have a long way to go before she is reading fluently, but I see a lot of progress. The biggest thing is that I find her every so often trying to sound out words that she comes across in the course of her day. This tells me that she has learned two very important lessons. The first is that words surround us and they have something to communicate. It is worth figuring out what they say because you might want to know their message. The second is that she has a sense that she can figure the words out. The squiggles have turned into letters which have turned into words which hold the promise of meaning and she now has the code for figuring out that meaning. With my other children, I knew we were close to real reading when they started to read words around them. Reading became personal at that point and worth the effort.

This is long, even for me, but here is there is a reward for those who have managed to make it this far. Now I am going to talk about H. and math. Math for the past two years has been a huge hurdle for H. She came to us knowing how to write and count to 10, but any knowledge about what those numbers meant wasn't there. It was something you did by rote. By the end of last year, after a lot of playing with numbers and manipulatives of all sorts, H. could identify the numerals 1 - 5, but 6 and up were a complete bafflement to her and I despaired of ever having her learn them. We took the summer off and only talked about numbers when they came up in real life, which, if you really think about it, is quite often. It was with a little trepidation that we began math again this year. Well, her math scaffolding may still be a bit shaky, but it is strong enough to build on. Do you want to hear her really, really good news? Not only can she identify all the numerals up to 10 now, she can count and identify numerals up to 100. Yes, you read that correctly. 100. But wait, it gets even better. Not only can she count to 100 by ones, but she can skip count by 5's and by 10's. That is still looking at the 100 chart, but she can find the right numeral and say its name. She can almost do the 10's by memory.

There is so much more I could say about the idea of rebuilding a mental scaffolding, but I've gone on too long already. For the moment, I just want to sit and relish the idea that H. can name numbers past five. Last year, if you had asked me if she would ever learn to do this, I'm not sure I would have said she could.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, September 15, 2014

Shoe shopping with G. and L.

With the cooler weather comes the need to wear warmer clothes. This also means that over the past week I have had multiple children coming to inform me that they have nothing to wear. Nothing. (Actually, in D.'s case this was actually quite true. No long pants, no pajamas, just t-shirts and shorts. It all comes of growing to fast.) One of the casualties we discovered was that G. and L. needed new shoes. L. in particular since I didn't think I could wedge her sneakers on her feet one more time. So A. and I loaded the little girls into the car and headed off to the shoe store.

In G. and L.'s life, it is very rare to have an outing with just Mommy or Mommy and a big sister. This was an event and it was very exciting. When G. and L. are excited they jabber. The entire ride to the shoe store was spent listening to two little girls talk and laugh and make funny noises. It was quite hilarious and A. had fun taking several videos of them. The little comedians were in rare form.

We park in front of the store and G. and L. pile out of the car dancing and jumping and exuberantly expressing their delight at such an outing and getting new shoes, too. Happy, happy, happy. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. Laughing, laughing, laughing. We come to the shoe store and enter it.


Some magical spell must have been put on the shoe store because the second they girls entered it they were rendered mute and expressionless. No smiles, no laughs, no words. Not a sound.

They solemnly stood on the foot measuring things and then sat back down in their chairs and waited. The clerks brought out sneakers and dress-up shoes and started to take the shoes out of the boxes. No expression. I asked them which shoes they would like to try on. Each girl silently pointed at the pair she wanted and the clerks put them on each child's feet. They obediently stood in their news and when asked to walk took two or three tiny steps and then stood still as if the new shoes prohibited all movement. I asked each girl if she liked this pair of shoes. Each girl then nodded with the same expression a child would use to indicate they would now bury their dead pet. I ask again to be sure each child is happy (happy at this point seeming to be a moot point) and pay for the shoes. We exit the store.

Happy, happy, happy. Bouncy, bouncy, bouncy. Jabber, jabber, jabber.

"I looove my new shoes."

"My new shoes make me run so fast! See me run!"

All the way home.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

One-point perspective

Yesterday was our first art project day. I had planned in some actual art lessons this year and yesterday we learned about one-point perspective. I found a great exercise that involved painting and decided to copy it. This teacher was doing it with slightly older children than most of mine, so I wasn't sure how it would work. I also had them use acrylic paint (or Sharpies) instead of the watercolors. I think acrylics are slightly less frustrating for little people to use.

The little people (G., L., and K.) enjoyed the project and their sketches before the painting began were pretty good,but the paint makes it a little difficult to tell what's going on. The loved the painting part, though.

(Who, if you look in the upper right hand corner, has a tendency to draw out whatever is going on in her head. It's kind of like stream of consciousness drawing.)

K. (He was really interested in drawing cars and trucks. You can see the red firetruck right in the center of the road.)

Having shown you those, I realize you still have no idea what exactly the point on the lesson was. The next four may clear it up. Here is TM's. You can see the single vanishing point there in the center of the paper. We talked about horizons and scale and the imaginary lines that lead to a vanishing point. 

 Next comes P.'s.

And D.'s (he decided he's rather have a river than a road.)

And I've saved H.'s for last. She worked so hard on this. When it was time to eat lunch, she wasn't done, so spent another chunk of time after lunch finishing it. I wasn't sure she would 'get' the lesson, but before she began, she studying the examples I had shown everyone very, very carefully and drew this:

What a long way she's come!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why my arms are sore

I swore to myself that I wouldn't blog about exercising, but sometimes in the search for blog fodder the opportunity is too good to pass up. The worst part about being 48 is the shocking change in metabolism. Change might be an understatement. The screeching sound of breaks from my metabolism coming to a sudden and very definite stop could probably be heard on the other side of the world. At least that what it felt like. If my body's decline was to continue in the way it had for the past year, then when the little girls were, oh, say, 13, I was a little frightened and horrified that I would actually be fulfilling the 'elderly' label which appears in my medical file. Thus, in utter desperation, I have been hauling myself out of bed every morning to exercise. While I do feel better and it's helpful with my overall stress level, I don't enjoy it and it is sheer will-power (and the not insignificant desire to fit back into some of my clothes) that gets me out of the house.

So all of this is leading up to why I when I was at the store the other day I was standing in front of the hand weight section. Part of what I have been doing is walking with weights, which I thought were five pounds each. It was feeling pretty easy, so I decided to go up a couple of pounds to make it worthwhile. Eight pound weights seemed like a good choice. I did notice that the eight pound weights felt more than a little heavier than the weights I had, but you know how it is... when you are focusing on how much something weighs it can feel different than what it actually is. At least that's what I told myself.

The next morning I set out with my new weights. They felt heavier, but I was expecting to feel as though I was working a little harder. That's why I bought them after all. By the end of the first block, I was a little disappointed that such a small weight increase was proving to be so difficult. By the end of the second block, I was starting to have the sneaking suspicion that perhaps my original pair of weights weren't five pounds each as I had thought. Halfway through my walk I was trying to come up with ways to carry the weights so I could rest my hands a bit. I only thought briefly about putting them on the ground and pushing them along with my feet. I ruled that out pretty quickly since the ends are not round, but hexagons and so they wouldn't have rolled well.

After I staggered home and told my tale of woe, we took another look at the first set of weights. They are not five pounds, but two or three. Instead of going up three pounds for each weight, I more than doubled what I was carrying. At least I knew why I felt like dying while I was out walking.

This morning I took them out again. I would be thrilled if I could say that it went better, but that wouldn't be quite the truth. I almost made it to the end of the first block without feeling extreme muscle fatigue. My current relationship with the weights continues to be one where they should be glad I brought them home (however inelegantly I managed that) and didn't leave them lying by the sidewalk. The best I can say about them at the moment is that they're a pretty color.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Photos from P.'s birthday

We celebrated P.'s birthday last night and I know at least my mother wants to see pictures, so here they are.

Her birthday dessert was chocolate-covered bananas, because I insisted she had to pick something. (She's not a big dessert person.) Without dessert, there would have been some very disappointed little people.

Of course, with chocolate-covered bananas, there is no place to put a candle, so once again, someone had to hold them. And when you hold burning candles, sometimes you get hot wax on your fingers... if you wanted an explanation as to what J.'s expression was about.

A glimpse into what the dinner table often looks like.

Then presents. P. had lots of 'help' opening her gifts.

A. and G.


More presents.

I love G.'s expression in this one.

Horse bookends from Grammy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Happy 14th Birthday, P.!

Today is P.'s 14th birthday. A fact that none of us can forget because we've had daily countdown notices for the past several weeks. It's even better that her horseback riding lesson is this afternoon, because for P., life just doesn't get any better than riding horses.

I love this girl so much and have had the privilege of watching her blossom into a lovey and competent young woman over the past year. She has developed interests that she is, in true Curry form, pursuing with diligence bordering on obsession (and I can say this because I and many of my other children do the exact same thing) and it is a joy to watch. I now know more about Japan than I ever thought I would and it is just from hanging out alongside my daughter.

P. has also really stepped into the oldest child at home role with grace and good humor. With M. and B. back at school and A. there for a significant amount of time during the week, that leaves P. as the one in charge when I'm unavailable. She has been great... responsible and caring with her younger brothers and sisters. When the Japanese student stayed with us for a few days, P. was an excellent hostess and I attribute the good time the student had to P.'s efforts.

So, happy birthday, P. I love you and cannot wait to see what you do and where life leads you (and us.)
I have a new article up: A Reading List for Grown-ups

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Preparing children for college

I was asked to write something about how we prepare our children for college for a different venue and decided to double dip and get a blog post out of it as well.

Yet, having now written and deleted three different attempts at writing this, I find it is a little bit difficult to say exactly what we do/have done. Perhaps this is because we never made the focus of our children's learning in high school to be about getting into college. Sure, I kept an eye on the transcript to be sure we had the bases covered as to what was expected, but that was a more of a book keeping issue rather than a learning one. What my children learned or are learning in high school was a combination of what we felt a well-rounded person ought to know and what they were interested in. We never made the end goal of high school to 'get into a good college,' but made it more about the learning itself. We don't test... we don't grade... but we read and discuss and develop broad and varied interests.

Of course, there are some skills we try to develop in our children: time management, responsibility and follow-through, knowing when to ask for help. These aren't necessarily skills just for college, they are skills which help with all of adult life. I don't know about you, but a still feel as though I am developing these skills. They are life long projects.

I'm guessing that when people ask the question of how they should go about preparing their child for college, they are thinking in much more academic terms. What should they student study? What papers should they write? What classes should they take? How many activities should they be involved in? How many books should they read and what should they be?

And you know what? I don't know.

I don't know the child or what they are interested in. What is good for one of my children may not be good at all for someone else. My own children haven't even all read the same books in high school. There are a few titles that have overlapped, not because of some inherent importance, but because I tend to recycle curricula when I can. There just isn't one formula to create a child who will succeed in college and if someone tries to tell you there is, they're lying (though they might not know it.)

Of course, you will also have to decide what constitutes 'success' in your book. Is it graduating something cum laude and all A's? Is it a child finding their passion and their life's calling? Is it getting by to get the degree and then pursuing life far outside academia? Or is it getting a job with a big salary? This is where you will have to start. What is ultimately important? With that answer in hand, it will inform every other decision you make, including how to prepare your child for college.

Monday, September 08, 2014

A little escapist reading... to the black death

One reason for my slightly compulsive reading habit is that some people in my house continue to be challenging. It's nice to sit down at the end of the day and read myself, if briefly, into a different life. Between that and a good night's sleep, I'm usually refreshed enough to face the day again. I thought perhaps that my stress level was higher than I realized when I chose a book about time travelling to the year 1348, which, as I'm sure you know, was the year the plague arrived in England, subsequently killing half the population.

The book was The Domesday Book by Connie Willis. (This is the same author who wrote Black Out and All Clear, which I've written about before.) This book also takes place in the same future universe as the other two books, but occurs earlier. It also has the same characters and it was very satisfying to discover some of their back story which was alluded to in the other books and tied up a few loose ends. The premise is the same. Time travel is used by historians to learn about past eras. In this case, the historians plan a drop to the year 1320, the first time someone will be travelling so far back in time. Then things go wrong and the black death makes its appearance. There are concurrent stories of other epidemics and it was actually rather interesting reading it while also reading about the current Ebola epidemic. Well, interesting in a rather grim way, that is.

I'm not usually one for reading books that are too Serious (i.e. depressing). They tend to be a dime a dozen and frankly, I have enough Serious in my life. This book managed to be a great read while at the same time conveying the scope and tragedy of the epidemic. Plus, since we are studying Medieval history this year, it could kind of count as school preparation and I'm really glad I got the teacher's discount at the bookstore when I bought it.

(No, I don't usually buy books, preferring the library to keep me in enough reading material. But I seem to have an annual tradition of going to the library desperately in need of books on the day before Labor Day only to discover the library is closed. I do this every. single. year.)

I really do recommend this book, even if the subject matter seems tough. It really did count as escapist reading and was quite well done. I would even more strongly recommend it if you have any desire to read the other two books about time travelling historians. Meeting the characters in this book would make the initial chapters of the Black Out a little bit easier to make out. Try it.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Do we know how to do the first week or school, or what?

We have rather successfully survived the first week of school. There were only two days where we did actual book work, which seemed just about right for starting into our regular routine. One of the things we are studying this year is the Middle Ages, and the first things we are is Britain in the years before 1000 AD. That means Beowulf and illuminated manuscripts. We have had a couple of long listening sessions and are now nearly through with Stories of Beowulf Told to Children which is a Beowulf retelling by H. E. Marshall. It was published in 1908, so the language is a bit archaic, but it works with the sags style of the story. None of the children (including G. and L.) have had difficult understanding the story and they have loved the long story. One of the things I had them do during one of our reading sessions was to color their initial letter like an illuminated manuscript.

First we learned about illuminated manuscripts and looked at various pictures of the real thing. I had purchased some parchment-like paper and photocopied each person's letter for them to color. (I used A Medieval Alphabet Coloring Book published by Bellerophon for the images.) I provided metallic pens and set them loose.


H. and P.

K. and L.

D. and G.
Then yesterday, we headed out for another field trip, this time to Old World Wisconsin. This time we saw the Norwegian and Finnish farms.

In the old school house.

Playing with hoops for 'recess'. A word to the wise from K., be careful, because if your stick slips it can hit your face and make your nose bleed.

There were also horses. This is one of their Percheron. He is 19 hands. A hand is four inches and horses are measured to the withers (the base of the neck). He's a big fellow.

There were other horses as well.

Some of my people really like horses.

Can you tell?

Any guesses as to who had the camera?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Children need families

My friend wrote a beautiful post about her son and their part in the miracle of his life. Before you continue, go and read it.

Seriously Blessed: Why Orphans Need Families

Did you read it? Good. Now take a look (again) at these two faces.

These two little girls need families, too. They need someone to love them and hold them and tell them it's OK, that they're not alone anymore. At least one of them is on the shared list. Do you know what that means? Her file is not with an agency. No one is actively showing her file to families. She sits on a list that is thousands of names long, defined by her birth date and her special need. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a child to make it off the list and into a family? And so I advocate. Could one of these girls be your daughter? 

I will be the first to tell you that choosing adoption can be a difficult road, but the difficult roads often contain the most miracles. If you have an easy, comfortable life, miracles aren't really all that necessary, are they? 
And if anyone was playing along in the tears due to school betting pool yesterday, it turns out I know my children pretty well. I was spot on... two occasions of tears, by two separate children. One was over long-division and the other because a balloon ("Balloon-y") popped.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

First day of school

As is our tradition, we started school by not starting school. The area museums are blissfully empty the first week after Labor Day, so we choose one and head out. Yesterday's pick was The Museum of Science and Industry, one of our favorites. And to make it a festive occasion we invited the P Family and H-S Family to join us.

We spent the morning in the body section. There were endless turns at the human hamster wheel (at least that's what we call it, I don't know what the official name is) and then when everyone had overdone it on that, they moved onto mind ball. Would it surprise you that some of my children are not good at relaxing their brains? The readout of their brainwaves shot straight up and off the display. The attendant at the game was a little astonished. I wasn't. At all. I decided I really needed one (or two) of these at home. First, they all played with it for nearly an hour. Just the entertainment value alone would be worth it, but think of the possibilities for practicing calming your brain! Think of the calmness and peace which would pervade my house! Just think... and J. did a little research for me. The cost of this peace and entertainment? Oh, about $20,000. (And no, I didn't add an extra '0'.)

We spent over 6 hours there and it was one of the few visits that the children could all do the activities as many times as they wanted. It was relaxed and enjoyable and everyone had a good time. I love empty museums!

Some pictures from the day.

We had lunch at the Jolly Ball.

A couple H-S children and D.

The Japanese student we've been hosting for a couple of days and D.


H., who didn't want her picture taken.

Fun at the wave machine.

Our sheer numbers guaranteed that nearly all the volunteers picked were from our group.

P6 and K., who continue to be best buddies.

The whole group (minus the mothers aiming cameras). This was after we went through the Silver Streak train at the end of the day. There was a screen in front of them. They exited the train, saw the screen and seats and all sat down. When the mothers looked at the screen after we took the picture and everyone got up, there was nothing on it. We decided that said something. 

Now, to give credit where credit is due. I kvetch a lot about family policies at museums and their ridiculous tendency to arbitrate exactly how many children constitute a family. Well, The Museum of Science and Industry has spectacular family memberships. I can always bring all my children plus a guest. Depending on which level, they give me tickets to things for everyone. No one has ever commented or questioned the number in my party. It is fantastic. If you can afford it, I would encourage you to buy a membership just to support the museum. 

Today, we hit the books. No, I have no idea how it will go. Can we lay bets on how many children at how many different times burst into tears? I'll start... two children, one time each. I hope I'm wrong.

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