Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Happy 9th Birthday, K.!

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 50 (Ugh!)

Today is K.'s 9th birthday. If you know him in real life, you probably already know that, though, because he has been telling us and everyone he sees that today is his birthday for a while now. Let's just say he is a little bit enthusiastic about the whole thing. Actually, K. is enthusiastic about nearly everything that interests him. There is very little half-way with the boy. His current loves continue to be the Hulk, cars, Legos, and St. Bernards. This is a lovely diversification from his years long obsession with all things Cars. An all-consuming interest I never thought would abate.

K. continues to make great strides and the two years' worth of delays he accumulated while sitting in the orphanage become less and less noticeable. He is just such a happy, bouncy, energetic, loving boy and I can't imagine life without him. To remember how little this guy was, take a look at these two posts (some of the only early ones which have pictures... he's wearing 12 -18 month sized clothes in these. In case You needed a Smile and Just Because it's Cute

Tonight we will be having hamburgers and for dessert he chose Oreo Pudding Dream Bars because he saw the picture in my facebook news feed and needed to have it. I'll let you know how it is... it sounds tooth-achingly sweet.

Happy Birthday, K. I love you very, very much!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Unifix cubes to the rescue

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 49

Today H. had another breakthrough with numbers. Before you can really understand the magnitude of her accomplishment, you first have to understand where she started. When she joined our family at the age of 9, she could count to 20 (by the end of our stay in China), and could write her numbers (in Arabic numerals) to 20. The problem was, that it was all done by rote, and just like 'lmnop' gets lumped into one long letter by little children singing the Alphabet Song, in H.'s mind the numbers 1-20 were one long string that you said in order and had no bearing on real life other than 2 must follow 1, and 3 must follow 2, and so on and so on. The first two years she was home we spent working with preschool number manipulatives in order to tease apart the numbers and give her some understanding of what each of them meant. We counted and counted and counted everything we could find. It was the rare moment I let her use a number without seeing the corresponding physical items which matched it.

At first it was very difficult for her to remember the name of each numeral just by looking at it (and so went spent more and more time counting objects to get to that number). I actually despaired for a while that she would never be able to recognize numbers without counting above the numeral 5. We even stopped doing math for a while because we seemed to be going backward at one point. Much deep breathing ensued.

Then a friend sent a pre-kindergarten math (Singapore Math) book that matched what H. needed at just that moment and we were off again. The break and new book were just the thing that was needed. Since that point, we reached an impass with the Singapore series and I went back to my first homeschooling love of Rod and Staff math (1st grade). And that's where we've been since the new year. H. has learned to identify and read numbers up to 100 (far past number 5 which I despaired we would never pass a year ago) and can skip count by 5's and 10's with a little help. I haven't done a huge amount with skip counting at this point, though, because I was afraid that it was lodging in the rote memory part of her brain that we had spent so much time getting out of. (Note, rote memory is not a bad thing at all if you have the concept behind the numbers you are saying. I was not convinced that this was the case for H. and that 10-20-30-40... were just a string of sounds you say together.)

In the Rod and Staff book she is working in, one of the exercises we routinely see is to have two, two-digit numbers and to have to circle either the higher one or the lower one. For instance, 36 and 26 will appear and the child is to figure out which number is the biggest (or smallest depending on directions.) This particular exercise has been a little tricky for H., but she has been managing because I have her use manipulatives for every single problem.

This is a complete aside, but I know others have commented to me about how their children from less than ideal backgrounds seem to have memory issues. Memory is a problem for H., and it sometimes shows itself in learning to read and do math because in order to do these things well, you need to hold several things in your head at once before you can put them all together. By using manipulatives, H. is able to do problems that she wouldn't be able to do otherwise because the manipulatives, besides helping to show her the problem, act as an external memory system for her. Imagine my delight when I had another pet theory confirmed by someone with letters after his name. In The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children by Torkel Klingberg, Dr. Klingberg writes,

The education [of children with working memory deficits] also provides a range of strategies designed to make it easier for children to learn despite a poor working memory. In most cases, the method entails reducing the demands on working memory and supplying external aids to relieve them of some of the information burden. For example, the children might be given briefer instructions that don't overload their capacity (reducing demands) and notes or pictures that remind them of a sequence of actions so that they don't have to keep that information active in their working memories (external aids).

But back to H. This morning, H. was working on one of these types of exercises and I was doing something else at the moment (probably helping a little girl), and I hear TM look over and offer H. some help, by pointing out that she could count by 10's to get to the number she was trying to reach. When I got back to the table, my worst fears about H. not understanding skip counting came to pass. I took a look at what she was doing and for the number 32 she had 50 cubes stacked together in a line. I was baffled. Never before had she had difficulty of this nature on this particular activity and she suddenly couldn't figure out why that 50 before her wasn't 32.

(The Teacher of the Year award will go to anyone who can guess what she was doing before you read my explanation. I will admit I had no clue and took a very long time of watching her build her stacks to figure it out. Sometimes the only truly difficult thing about teaching is figuring out why a child is getting something wrong... there really is a very good reason 99% of the time.)

After much watching her work the problem and listening to her count (and more than one break to re-set her brain from disassociating), I finally had the A-ha! moment. By adding the counting by 10's part, it seemed to H. as though we had moved to a completely different counting system. In one system you count by 1's, in another you count by 5's, and in yet another you count by 10's, but they are separate and completely unrelated. Thus, if you are counting by 10's, you first stack up three sets of 10's to make 30, then because you need two more numbers, you need two more sets of 10 because in this land, you can only count by 10's... thus you have "counted" to 32, but end up with 50 cubes.

It is at this moment that I was incredibly thankful that I went ahead and made the, what at the time seemed a wee bit frivolous, purchase of uni-fix cubes at the last homeschooling convention. I'd never needed them before, but had bought another book which used them, so picked them up as well. If you don't know what they are, they are interlocking cubes, with sets of 10 in different colors. It is very easy to see the 10's as you count, but you can also break them into individual cubes. When I discovered the problem, we went back and did a lot of counting... counting 10 cubes, taking them apart, putting them together, adding one more, etc., etc. Then it all clicked, when we counted to 20 and I added one more block, instead of saying 30, she said 21. And there was great rejoicing. It was her own a-ha moment of realizing that instead of different and separate number systems, it was just one system used in a different way. She then went on to do the rest of the exercise correctly.

It was a huge win. I was feeling really happy until a little while later, I hear H. say, "Sorry, Mama."
"What?! What are you sorry for?"
"Sorry, Mama. The math... "
She couldn't even articulate what she was sorry about but she felt badly that she hadn't understood her math immediately. Boy, talk about a knife to a mother's heart. I carefully explained that I wasn't upset with her. It was OK that she hadn't misunderstood, but then she worked really, really hard, and then she understood and she did an amazing thing. I proud of her. I'm still not sure I have convinced her of that. When for too many years mistakes have not been allowed, it makes a child fearful to try something new or to stretch herself in any way.


Baby steps.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Homemaking when Life isn't Perfect -- when you are drowning in stuff -- part 2 of a series

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 47

In the first part of the series, I introduced the idea that we are never going to live a perfect life and our homemaking is going to reflect that. So often our tendency is to wait until things get better to really live our lives. We need to accept our imperfections and move on.

Does that mean that we need to turn belly up and not do anything, though? No, of course not. It just means that the perfect circumstances for really living how you want to live will never happen. We may never have the perfect circumstances, but we can still do something about our environment if it is making us unhappy, and remember the first step is determining what is making your unhappy.

I would venture to guess, based on my own experience and my completely unscientific study of talking with friends and reading facebook, is that 99.9% of what makes people unhappy with their environment is that it is too cluttered and too messy with too much stuff. We are slaves to our stuff. We pick it up. We clean it. We store it. We push it under beds and in closets. We move it from stack to stack. We try to clean around it. And we get annoyed with our family when they don't join in our full-time job of battling it. We only think stuff is making us happy, when the opposite is really true.

Think for a moment about catalogue and shelter magazine pictures. What do you see in them? Actually, the better question would be what don't you see in them? You don't see piles of stuff. You see flat, clean surfaces. You see chairs and beds without piles on them or under them. (You also see monochromatic bookshelves and closets full of clothes, but that's a whole 'nother issue.) We look at these photographs and wished we lived there. It looks so calm, so soothing. We think how easy it would be to clean that space! We think, I could just sit in that room and read and not worry about having anything to do! We look at the photographs and think, "I could breath deep relaxing breaths if I lived in that room!" Then we turn and look at the room we are living in and feel defeated before we've even begun. My house will never look like those magazines. If I only bought what I see in the pictures, then, then! my life would be perfect. And we put more stuff into our homes.

It's not the designer bedding, it's not the art on the walls, it's not the high-end furniture... it's the lack of stuff that we really want. If a room is clean and decluttered, with only the things we really want in it, the walls can be a disaster of paint, peeling wallpaper, and plaster and still be able to breath and be content with it. I share this example, because for the most part, I have removed the stuff I really don't want or need from y bedroom. When it is vacuum and dusted, I can sleep and sew and be in it without undue guilt or anxiety. I actually don't really care what the walls look like. Now, my walls may drive someone else batty and cause them not to be able to rest, but then they would probably have done something about them, oh long about 14 years ago. My point is, what we think is making us unhappy may not be the actual cause at all... there is a good chance that it is your stuff that is overwhelming you.

Now, there are possibly 1001 books available that you can read that help you organize your stuff, get rid of your stuff, and deal with your stuff. There are television shows showing you other people getting rid of other people's stuff. You probably even know that you have too much stuff and wish you could get rid of it. But here is a tip that I don't see written out very often. If you don't let it in your house in the first place, you won't have to get rid of it later. (It's the corollary of the best way to save money is to just not spend it in the first place.) For those of us who love to save money by shopping at garage sales and thrift stores, who think Freecycle is the single best thing about the internet, and who love it when people ask if we want their used stuff, this is a particular problem. We don't really need the stuff we're getting such a good deal on and our homes pile up with our good deals and other people's cast-offs and we feel guilty if we get rid of them because they were such a good deal.

Actually we feel guilty getting rid of them because deep down we know we shouldn't have bought or taken it in the first place. What we were doing when we took or bought that stuff was buy into the lie that at some point when we have purchased or acquired just the right things, our lives will fall into place. If we acquire enough homeschool curricula then we will finally have that perfect homeschool. If we acquire enough books, we will finally find time to read them all. If we acquire enough kitchen gadgets, we will find time to become really good cooks. If we acquire enough decorative objects, our houses will finally look like the magazines. If we acquire enough clothes, we will look like those people in the fashion magazines. If we acquire enough workout equipment, we will finally get in to shape. This list could go on and on. Once again, we are waiting, waiting, waiting for the perfect circumstances, yet in trying to find those perfect circumstances we continue to clutter our lives with unneeded objects and continue in the cycle of dissatisfaction.

What to do? Well, it's easy enough to say give away at least half you stuff. (Other estimates I've seen suggest it takes getting rid of 75% of our possessions to really reduce their hold on us.) If it were easy, no one would have a problem with this, but it's not easy. It is scary to get rid of stuff. We worry we will miss it too much. We worry that we will need it at some point in the future. We worry that we aren't being responsible with our resources. We worry we aren't getting rid of our stuff 'correctly'.

I will admit that I am in a constant state of getting rid of stuff. No matter my best intentions, extra stuff comes into my house, people grow and we cease to need certain things, things wear out, things lose their importance. It is not a one-time thing, but a continual process. I have a place in our house where I routinely put things I'm giving away and when the pile gets to big I get rid of it. It has become habit whenever I pick something up to ask if I really want it enough to bother putting it away. Sometimes I think,"You know, I've never really liked this," and put it in the give-away bag.

Here is my homework for you for this installment:

1. Don't bring new stuff into your house if you don't really NEED it or you don't really LOVE it. Just don't do it. Be aware of what is coming in and why. It is so much easier to control the stuff problem if it doesn't arrive to begin with. Say no to people offering you their stuff unless it is something you specifically need. For instance, I said yes to the used printer because ours had died and we really did need one. I've said no (thank you) to any number of things that we didn't really need, even if sometimes they might have been vaguely nice.

2. Determine if you are functioning with a mind-set of scarcity or provision, and ask yourself which is more Biblical. If you are operating from scarcity, realize that you aren't getting rid of stuff because you are afraid that you might need it later and that God won't provide it in some way. This is different from being responsible with resources, instead it is just plain hoarding. Even the Israelites were not allowed to take more manna than they needed for the day. When they tried, it turned wormy. Has your stuff done the same thing? Besides, by giving your unneeded stuff away, you could be someone else's provision. It's worth thinking about.

3. Don't get hung up with how to give it away. Sure in a perfect world, we would wait to find the perfect recipient for each of the items we wish to give away. Or we keep it thinking how much money we could get from it if we sold it all. Remember, though, we don't live in a perfect world, and I have a feeling that what happens is that stuff piles up, accusing you of not finding the perfect recipient. Or it piles up while we get around to that garage sale that never happens. (I'm not really good at garage sales and they never seem to pay enough to be worth the effort. I know others are much better at it.) Sometimes, especially if the situation is dire, you just have to have it out of your house. Take it to a thrift shop; say yes to the trucks which come around every month or so; donate it to people or organizations who are good at garage sales. But the key point is, once you've decided to get rid of it, actually get rid of it.

4. Remember that this will be an ongoing process with seasons where you can focus more on it and seasons where the emotionally energy required just isn't there. Give yourself some grace if the latter is the case. If you are in crisis, or you have a child in crisis, or for any number of reasons life seems precarious, don't add to your problems by trying to organize as well. It won't go well and you'll just feel guilty. Acknowledge your season of life and focus on that. (Though you can certainly still observe #1.)
Can't get enough of reading about getting rid of stuff? Evidently, I can't get enough of writing about it. A quick search pulled up these past blog posts about it.

Stuff, part 1: Lessons from the Playpen
Stuff, part 2: Lessons from the Too-Small House
Stuff, part 3: That's Entropy, Man
Stuff, conclusion: The Hard Part
Clutter, part 1
Clutter, part 2
Clutter, part 3
Clutter, part 4

See what I mean? I haven't reread them, but a quick glance here and there assures me that at least I am consistent. And these don't even touch on the cleaning and organizing posts...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Spur of the moment art project

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 46 (and now it is after 5 pm on Friday... so the number will climb even higher.)

It's not a good thing to wake-up with a houseful of children and not have a plan for the day. Our schedule has been a little off this week and I need to spend some time moving things around so I can get everything to fit right. But this meant that I wasn't ready for whatever I had originally planned for this morning and it probably wouldn't have made sense with what we did manage to get to this week anyway. It has also been quite some time since we had done an art project and people were feeling a little out of sorts about that.

This is all why I found myself on an emergency run to the local art store to pick-up some supplies. I had quickly scrolled through my Pinterest pages to see what we could do on the spur of the moment and what I had supplies for. Do not do this with a little girl at your elbow who sees each picture and NEEEEEDs to do every single thing she sees. It's just not helpful. I did manage to settle on a project that combined collage and paint. Since this would involve some of my children's very favorite things (cutting up paper, glue, and paint), I figured we were good. Well, except that my children must drink paint, because we were out again.

The emergency art supply run was successful and people settled down to create. It was more or less successful depending on the person. The idea was to sketch a design on a piece of paper, choose some other papers in the colors that were needed and cut or tear them to size and glue them on, then fill in with paint to create a final project. Or, in reality to do whatever with the paper, paint, and glue and turn out a final project.

Here are some of the results.


H. (This is her current favorite thing to draw... a house with a tree)

G. (She says this is a baby robot)

L. (She says this is of a car stuck in a fog... and yes, I have it right way up, I checked.)

K. (It's a car)

D. (I love this. D. became extremely frustrated when it wasn't working out like he wanted, but I hope he'll go back to it at some point.)

Of course, a morning of painting isn't without its hazards. G.'s clothes, once again, are covered with paint. (I can tell these girls are numbers 9 & 10 because I long, long ago gave up on paint smocks.) And when I looked at L. I discovered that she was a little painted herself.

It's hard to see in the picture, but that left cheek is rather painty. This is also her current "smile on purpose" smile.

The other hazard is a result of too much help. The paint brushes were helpfully put into the sink so we could eat lunch. Then after lunch, the dishes were helpfully put into the sink as well. This means that I got the job of cleaning not only paint off the brushes and pallets, but food as well. The table and floor seemed to come through relatively unscathed this time, though.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Now I can get back to being productive

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 45

To say I've been a bit distracted this week would be an understatement. I've just been finding it a wee bit difficult to focus. But, I have some good news to share with everyone. HB 3079 unanimously passed in committee and will now be sent off to the House for a second reading. It's just one of many steps, but it is moving forward and that is very good news.

Now, for a little civics lesson. I wasn't sure what happens next and I'm pretty sure there are a lot of others who aren't sure, either. Most of us know vaguely that bills go before house and senate and then get signed into law. (You may now start softly singing to yourself, "I'm just a bill...) Well, just like the song, we have a long way to go. Out of a possible 19 steps, we have just completed step 6. Here's a list of the steps if you want to see it all written out. The short story is, I sure hope all of you saved those terrific letters you sent to the members of the adoption committee, because we're going to need to go through this letter writing business three more times. So, everyone take a short break, congratulate yourselves, and rest up for the next battle. I'll do my best to keep track of when it will come up before the House and let everyone know.

What have all my people been up to around here while their mother has been a tiny bit preoccupied?

Well, L. has been very interested (read obsessed) with making books and has often roped H. and G. into a type of illustrator sweat shop. If she can find a person who is able to write, she will commandeer them and insist (as only L. can insist) that they take dictation. Now, we are not talking just a line or two here, were are talking paragraphs and paragraphs. She writes "chapter books," you know. Here is some of the collaborative artwork just waiting for her to catch some unsuspecting pencil-pusher to fill up all those blank pages.

K., who has managed to avoid his sister's vortex of book making, has been doing this, though really, it's what he does all the time anyway, so it's nothing new.

We've even had an on-going science experiment happening. Well, some people would call it getting ready to garden in the summer, but it's the same thing. (B. was home over spring bread and got this all set-up before he went back to school. I have very specific instructions as to what I am supposed to do and haven't killed anything yet.) Everyone has been fascinated with how fast these little seedlings grow.

Of course, there is always a lot of reading these. I can read out loud and think about other things all at the same time. It's my super power.

And we've listened to the William Tell Overture by Rossini because we read about William Tell for school. (Interestingly, I think this will be the first generation of children in a long time who don't listen to the finale and think, "Lone Ranger.") D's been working through a long DVD series on the clans of Scotland for a class on Scottish history. Other people have been doing other things while I reply to emails and constantly hit refresh. I think.

But right now a weight has been lifted and I'm going to spend the afternoon working on getting the house back in order... and I'm going to like it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Children and Play: a reading list

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 44 (Don't forget to voice your opinion on the adoption reform bill before tomorrow. They need to hear from every single one of us to really understand the far reaching consequences of their policies.)

A reader asked me for my reading list of books on the topic of children and play. You know I'm always happy to supply lists of books for you. Once again, this is not a definitive list, but a result of my own idiosyncratic reading. Plus, my tip for the day is that if you look a book up on Amazon that you have enjoyed, I find the lists of books a little lower on the page with books other customers bought who looked at that specific book to be very useful. (Remember, the links for each of these books go through my Amazon Associates account, the only form of advertising I let on my blog. I receive a little amount from each item ordered through these links. Thank you... it helps support my reading habit when the library doesn't come through.)

So, if you want to read about children, play, and the importance of play in the development of children, here is where I would (and did) start.

The Power of Play by David Elkind. Does anyone read David Elkind anymore? So many of his books have made such a big impression on me and influenced my thinking. This one is no different. It has been quite some time since I read it, but I think it should be required reading to start on this topic. And then, when you have finished it, you could go on to The Hurried Child and All Grown Up and No Place to Go, by the same author. These books are not the newest on the market, but I think that their message is even more important today.. and evidently was not headed by the general public when they first came out.

Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How our Children Learn -- and Why they Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Golinkoff, Hirsch-Pasek, and Eyer. I have already written an extensive review for this book here: Children and Play. It's a favorite topic of mine it seems. I highly recommend it.

Vivian Gussin Paley. This is not the title of a book, but a prolific author and educator. While she comes out of a more traditional school setting, I find her work to be useful and thought provoking in the extreme. I would even go out on a limb and say that anyone who has any contact at all with preschoolers should be required to read her work. I've read The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter (review here at How Pictures Work) and The Girl with the Brown Crayon (review here at On Reading Vivian Gussin Paley). In doing a little research for this post, I discovered she has a book called, A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Guess what book is going to be going on my library reserve list as soon as I'm done here?

There are also a couple of more practical books that I want to share with you as well. These are both books I have used off and on over the years, sometimes using the activities suggested in them, others just reading them for inspiration. The thing I like about them is their open-ended nature that allows for a child's own exploration of a topic. You can use them as you like or start one of these activities and let you child take off from there. Sometimes people just need an idea to get them going, and these provide plenty of ideas.

First is Sandbox Scientist: Real Science Activities for Little Kids by Michael Ross. There are lots and lots of science experiments in this books. But don't be expecting the science fair types of activities, but instead, ways to start a child exploring a subject and ways to provide those experiences.

Family Math (with a list of many, many authors) by does for math what the above book does for science. This book has hundreds of math games and activities from early grade school on. It's one of those books that covers a wide range of ages and abilities. If textbooks are really taking their toll, it might be worth putting them aside and doing some of these games for a while.

Anyone have anything they want to add? I'm always on the search for new books to read.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How to Homeschool : a slightly irreverent guide

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 43 (Don't forget to voice your opinion on the adoption reform bill before Thursday.)

I received this question from a reader:

"My son is about to be 2 and I have another one on the way. I really want to homeschool but don't know exactly where to start. What age should I try to start teaching him stuff and what kind of curriculum do you use? Where do you buy it? How do you know they are learning everything they need to know and you're covering all subjects and all your bases? Have you ever looked into online homeschooling or do you use textbooks?"

Since I'm always on the lookout for things to write about and because I thought my answers might be of broader interest, I decided to answer this on the blog.

Dear Reader,

I know the idea of homeschooling can seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn't need to be. While it is good to look ahead and be prepared, my best advice for parents of little ones, is to enjoy them being little. There will be plenty of time for textbooks and lessons in the future, don't rush it. (Even though I know you really want to dive in.) The best school for toddlers and preschoolers is lots of play, lots of stories, lots of snuggling, and lots of "helping" mom. You really, truly don't need to do anything more than this.

Children of this age learn best through playing and exploration. Let them play with water, sand, clay, and dirt. Give them time to investigate things on their own. Show them how to build a bridge with blocks and then let them work out how to do it themselves. Read lots and lots of stories. Play at the park, dig a garden, wash the dishes, shred the lettuce, sweep the floor, and then read some more books. Talk about what you are doing and ask questions. Listen to their questions and take the time to look at them and answer them. Draw, color, paint, glue, and cut. Go to an art museum and look at some paintings. Try new foods. Read more books. Point out letters in the world around you. Invite friends over to play. Count the scoops of flour as you measure it to make cookies. Match the socks. Read more books. Sing songs, bang pots and pans, clap rhythms, listen to music. Read more books. "School" does not require anything more than this during these years. It's as simple as that. You don't need to start teaching your child stuff, because you already are... all the time.

At some point, though, somewhere around age 6 or 7, I start to do more formal work. This is when I begin to teach real phonics (as opposed to letter sounds and doing practice identifying first and last and middle sounds.) I know it seems extremely late to those whose children were/are a part of the whole children need to read by the end of kindergarten or they're behind-thing. That's a lot of hooey, you know. Almost none of my children have really been ready to read before that and almost none of them has read fluently before age 8 or 9. (The exception was the one who taught herself to read early. Her choice, not mine.) And you know what? They are all excellent readers who read well beyond their grade level and enjoy reading. I'm pretty sure there would be a lot fewer reading problems if children weren't pushed to read so early. But if you're homeschooling, why rush things? There's really no need at all.

I do use textbooks for reading and English and math. Choosing a textbook is a pretty personal decision and what works for one family is often the book another family just can't stand. I've also tried a huge variety of textbooks over the years and still change depending on the child every so often. For instance, I've used Rod and Staff, Miquon, Singapore Math, Horizons, and non-textbook, homemade math games to teach math. They all had their place and I felt free to move between them as needed. My best suggestion for picking textbooks is to join a homeschooling support group where you can meet other homeschoolers. Ask what they use and why. Ask to take a look at a book. Try some things and then ask some more questions. The second best way to choose textbooks is to go to a homeschool convention that has a vendor's fair. I find it very useful to spend time browsing to see what's out there and whether it looks interesting or not.

As far as online learning, like textbook and curriculum choices, it really depends on what is right for your family. I tend not to do much of it for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is that so much of our world these days involves looking at screens, I want my children to spend portions of their day looking at real books, manipulating real objects, and focusing on real people. There are several studies I've read recently that would seem to indicate that learning done via computer looks different in the brain than learning done in a more traditional manner. My children will have plenty of time for screens and computers in the lives, I don't need to add more.

A word of warning, though. Homeschoolers are a huge market these days and everyone and their dog has something to sell us. Often their sales tactics will run towards the fear-based method of selling, as in, "If you don't buy this book from us, your child will be missing out and you will be ruining his life." OK, they don't actually come out and say that, but it is certainly implied. You won't ruin you child because you picked the wrong textbook. Just remember that when the heavy-handed sales pitches start.

Now here's the big question. How do you know they're learning everything they need to know and you're covering all subjects and all the bases? My short answer is you don't, but that's not really very satisfactory, is it? But, really it's quite true. No one can teach a child everything. Parents can't, schools can't, tutors can't. There will always be gaps. I have them in my education and you have them in yours. There is just so much to be learned that no one will be able to learn everything. The best we can hope for is to cover the essentials (how to read, how to figure, a general sense of how the world works, and skills for finding out the answers to everything else) and go from there. Everything past that is golden.

Because we understand that we are not going to cover everything, it gives us permission to not try. Does that sound bad? It's not really. Instead we have a freedom to allow a child to pursue a special interest. I find when a child is truly invested in a subject, the level of learning is significantly deeper and more intense than a more cursory understanding of a subject. There is some strong research to indicate that this type of deep learning is more intellectually stimulating and has greater long-term results than more shallow learning over a broader area of subjects.

If you are really worried about covering your bases, you can easily find scopes and sequences published by school districts, textbook publishers, private educators, and possibly even Clifford the Big Red Dog. While they will be similar in some ways, they will also differ from each other in others. There is really no such thing as a standardized education. So take a look at these documents, if you want. You may find something on them that you hadn't thought of, but there's no need to adhere to them blindly, either.

And you will know if you child is learning something. You will know because you are the one working with them every day. When you are working one-on-one with a child it is difficult for them to hide in the crowd and avoid answering a question. And if your child doesn't catch-on to something, you also have the luxury of working on it until he does. Or leaving it and coming back to it at a later date. Or changing the way you are teaching it. Or going outside and running around for a while and then coming back to it. You'll try different things and you will have a good sense of what works best for a particular child.

I know this doesn't really give you specific answers. The beauty of the freedom of homeschooling is also the terrifying thing. But don't worry. As you grow into this homeschooling-thing with your children, you are going to grow along with them. You will get to know what works and what doesn't. You will meet other homeschoolers and see what they do. You will watch your children grow into interesting people. All of this will gradually give you confidence that yes, you really do know what you are doing. One of the least talked about topics in homeschooling is how it changes the parents. Deciding to take responsibility for your children's education is no small thing, and chances are you will experience at least a little push back for your decision. Going against the crowd, watching your children successfully learn, having to give answers to people who question you, looking at things from a different point of view, all combine to make the parent very different from who they were when they started. You will grow and learn along with your child.

It's a beautiful thing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

IL Adoption Reform Bill HB 3079 and what you can do

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 42

As I mentioned on Saturday, there is now an adoption reform bill that has been drafted and has now been amended to include the removal of the Intercountry Adoption Coordinator's position and the corresponding need to have home studies written for international adoption be approved at the state level. You can read the full text of the HB 3079 yourself and if you want to see the amendment, click on the link up at the top of the page of the full text that says 'amendment 001'. 

Please if you care about children being able to join their families sooner and removing the salary of an unnecessary position at the state level as well as the ability for the person in that position to harass families, take the time to make your opinion heard. You only need to be a voting citizen of Illinois to do this.

The first thing that everyone needs to do is complete a witness slip before Thursday, March 26, which is when the adoption committee will hear the bill. This is pretty easy, once you know what you are doing. Since I have already spend some time figuring it all out, it will save you time. A witness slip is a way to electronically inform the committee on the bill in question what your opinion is. It becomes part of the official record and is thus a bit more important than just calling your representative. Kane County has put together a very clear tutorial as to how to do this. If you use these instructions with the above link to the bill you should have no problems. 

If you are somehow adverse to clicking on links, here are the written instructions:

1. Log on to www.ilga.gov
2. Click on GA DASHBOARD listed under Reports & Inquiry
3. Click on House
4. Click on Committee Hearing on the left and choose 'week'
5. Scroll down to find Adoption Committee, click and look for HB 3079 and click on it
6. Click on the icon of a pen on paper and click on that. This will take you to the link to complete the witness slip

If you are merely stating your support, then choose 'record of appearance'. If you have actual testimony because of prior experience with this position, then you can choose submit written testimony. My rep's office says it should work, but I was having trouble with this part. See if it will work for you.

Of course, you can always call each of the committee member's offices as well. 

Some people have asked me for main points. In my opinion, here are the main issues:

The position of Intercountry Adoption Coordinator is an unnecessary position which is costing tax payers money and adoptive families and their children valuable time, sometimes as long as several months. Because the power of the position lies with just one person, it allows personal biases to play into the decision making process. The position and need for home study approval is also redundant as the social workers and their agencies are licensed by the state and the home study already requires extensive documentation as to the capacity of the family in question. It makes no sense why a person who has never met the family should be able to determine their fitness to parent better than the licensed social worker who has had many face-to-face meetings with them.

Now, to give credit where credit is due. I know in the past I have been highly critical of our elected government representatives, but since some of those rather unhappy emails, I was contacted by a representative in Robyn Gabel's office. I have nothing but praise for her office staff and for the leg work and phone calls that her staff did on my behalf. Her office is reason why I even knew about the amendment in the first place. So, here is my public thank you. 

Now, go fill out your witness slip and make whatever phone calls you desire. Please share this with anyone you know who votes in Illinois. We need to make our voices heard before Thursday (3/26).

The families who have their files gathering dust on a desk and those who will come after us thank you.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Scenes from Saturday

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 40

Let's see, so far today...

I've taught some piano lessons.

Children have completed (or are completing) their Saturday cleaning jobs.

J. took little people to Union Station to pick up M. who is arriving home.

A. bleached her hair.

D. is practicing piano.

H. had a seizure. (Dang)

A. went off with TM and some electric clippers to do something to his head.

P. is at the library.

And I have been spending quality time with my computer trying to figure out how to give written testimony to the IL General Assembly via their witness slip program.

Pretty much a normal Saturday around here.

So what it this General Assembly thing I'm talking about? Well, our phone calls have been paying off I guess. There is an adoption reform bill before the IL House and an amendment has recently been added which removes the Intercountry Adoption Coordinator's position and the need to have state approval for international home studies. This is very good news, indeed. The bill also removes the requirement of appointing a Guardian ad Litem for families who readopting their internationally adopted child as well as doing away with the requirement of a costly court report from their adoption agency. Also good news.

So, if you are in Illinois, now is your chance. Here is the link to the full text of HB 3079. If you click on the link to 'Amendment 1' at the top, it will take you to the amendment with the striking of the coordinator's position. The bill is currently assigned to the House Committee on Adoption and the hearing of the bill in committee will be on March 26. Take the weekend to read the bill and craft what you would like to say and on Monday I hope to have some of my questions about how to submit a witness slip answered and I can give you more definite instructions as to how to go about doing that. Of course, you do not have to wait for further instructions. You are welcome to call the committee members this weekend and voice your support for the bill.

A similar bill has been up before the House before, let's not let this chance slip away from us. Spread the word and ask people to chime in and have a voice in our state's lawmaking process.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Homemaking when life isn't perfect - part 1 of a series

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 39

I've been thinking about doing a series like this for a good long while now. I think this is mainly because I write what I need to hear and I write to process what is happening in my life (you just get to listen in) and this is where a lot of my thinking has been.

It is so easy to equate good homemaking with calm, peace, and perfection, even if you don't harbor secret ambitions of outdoing Martha Stewart. But how often does life allow us extended periods of calm, peace, and perfection? I don't know about yours, but mine happen extremely infrequently. Does this mean I am not a good homemaker? Because this state happens so infrequently, is 'good homemaking' even a goal we should have? Is it too archaic and outdated? Or what if you are parenting difficult children or medically needy children... is it possible to make a good home under these circumstances?

These are the questions which roil through my head. I keep thinking that I should wait until we get to a calm and balanced place and then I will think about them. Then I will have time to perfect my homemaking skills and have something of value to share. But my realization is that reaching that calm and balanced place just doesn't happen.... probably not for any of us. Waiting for it means missed opportunities and dissatisfaction. It seems like a simple thing to say, but realizing that your life isn't going to be perfect, that the people in your family are never going to be perfect, that waiting for a 'better time' just means you will always be waiting is a pretty big deal. By taking perfection (or whatever state you perceive to be close to your ideal) of the table, you give yourself a whole lot more freedom to enjoy your life.

To let's get back to one of my initial questions, Is good homemaking even a goal we should have? I believe it is a very good goal, we just need to carefully define what 'good' homemaking is. Does it mean your house is never messy, the laundry is always done, the children are always quiet and well-behaved, and you vacuum in hose and heels? Of course not! Who can do that without a staff? Heck, who can do that even with a staff? Even if you read other people's blogs or facebook statuses, no one lives this way. Really. Even if you think you have the bloggy proof to the contrary.

People are messy. Even if they are good at putting things away, everyone comes with their own hang-ups, troubles, fears, and failures. And because people are messy, life is messy as well. Homemaking and messiness don't seem to go hand-in-hand, but they have to. So if making a home is not really about keeping things pristine and orderly, what is it? We need to focus on the home part of it all.

According to Miriam-Webster, there are multiple meanings for the word, home. Simplest, a home is one's place of residence. Going further, it is also a social unit formed by a family living together. It is also a familiar or usual setting; congenial environment. When you add the preposition 'at' in front of it, so it becomes 'at home', the definition starts with relaxed and comfortable; at ease. Clearly, while home is our place of residence, it is also something more. It is a place that is familiar and comfortable. It is a place where we belong.

Comfortable and pristine are not the same thing. We may think we want to live somewhere pristine, but I'm pretty sure none of us would be entirely happy living for an extended period of time in that environment. At least for me, it wouldn't feel comfortable. We each have our own point at which comfortable becomes cluttered or messy, though. And I think it is this line that each of us is constantly fighting with. It is hard to be comfortable when we feel suffocated by our stuff.

The first step in homemaking when life isn't perfect is to really identify that line between comfortable and too messy. It will be different for each person. Actually this is the real first step... just acknowledging that what works for you and your family will be different from someone else. All too often we look around and instead of asking ourselves how something really makes us feel, we think about how someone will see it (with the corresponding tacit judgement.) Stop spending energy working to impress people who don't live in your house and instead focus on the people who do.

And what is comfortable will change. If you have a house full of toddlers, your comfortable is going to look very different from an older couple whose children are all grown. It is a little silly (when we can think about these things rationally) to have one parent wishing, wishing, wishing that they toys weren't strewn across the floor all the time and have the other wishing, wishing, wishing that they still had to step over toys and how much they miss that.

As we go through (and I make up) this series, here's our first lesson:

1. Accept where you are. It's not going to change in the next day or two. Children grow up fast, but not that fast. Illness takes time to heal. Difficult circumstances are often difficult because they tend to linger about. Here is where each of us is. I find it very helpful to tell myself that in five or ten years I won't even really remember much of what I thought was awful and in the long run it won't have mattered that much. Of course, not all troubles will fall into this category, but the majority do.

2. Accept yourself and your own quirks and abilities and weaknesses. This is who you are and while we can always work to change things about ourselves that we are not happy with, those are long-term projects. Other things probably just don't matter. (As a fairly frivolous example) Do you really not enjoy making beds and you're OK with unmade beds? That's fine. Don't do it and don't feel inferior because that's how life works best for your family. But, you have to be willing to accept that and not wish for something else. If you really don't mind certain things that you feel as though other people think are important, then accept it and don't try to make excuses... because you don't need to. Stop living to please other people's imagined expectations.

I think that's enough for now, don't you? This could very well be the most difficult part for all of us to work on. Here's what I see for future installments: Homemaking with Difficult Children; Homemaking when you are Drowning in Stuff; Homemaking in Crisis. Anyone have any other suggestions?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Grumble, grumble

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 38

That number alone should tell you why I feel like grumbling. Do you realize that if we lived in another state we could have already received our immigration approval and I could be taking the train downtown and getting everything notarized and authenticated? That we could be expecting our dossier to be logged-in to the system in the next couple of weeks and could possible be travelling to bring our daughter home in September?

But we're not. And I have no idea at all what kind of time frame we are actually looking at. In some ways the unknowns are the worst, though I'm not sure I would really want to know if we have six more weeks to wait for our homestudy to be approved.

Grumble, grumble, grumble.

So that combined with the fact that the past two weeks have been very busy with not a lot of margin, means that I'm running on empty which is never good. It means I have no reserves to practice patience with the system (or anyone, really). I think the rest of the month is looking a little more calm and I can catch-up on things around the house and be able to do the things which help me recharge.

I really don't do well when we are too busy, though sometimes it just can't be helped. I also don't see why our society views busyness as a badge of honor... as if having free time or doing things that relax you and that you enjoy means you aren't pulling your weight. If everyone were to cut out the 'too much' from their schedule, the world might just be a kinder, more pleasant place to live in. I know I'm kinder and more pleasant when I have margin in my life.
I have a new article published:  Calling the Therapist And don't forget to keep sharing about Illinois: You Live in Illinois and Want to Adopt? My Condolences

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Radio silence

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 36

I'm back from driving six hours to return my nieces to their parents (my brother and sister-in-law). We had a wonderful visit and I think everyone had fun. L. had a bit of a difficult time in the car on the way home. At one point she started crying so I asked her what was wrong, "I miss [cousins]!" she wailed. Upon returning home she had already written one letter which I am to send, and I have a feeling there will be many more to follow.

But I'm beat. J. is putting small children to bed, I'm going to find a book and some pajamas and call it a day.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Playing tourist... or our first glimpse of Maggie Daley Park

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 35 (We've now lost more than a month.)

When it's the middle of March, you have cousins in town, and the thermometer says 70 degrees (after a month of being colder than Alaska), what do you do? You don't spend it inside, that's for sure. We decided to go downtown and play tourist and show our nieces a little of the city. 

First we went to Millennium Park. Here are many of us on the bridge which crosses Monroe from the Art Institute to the park. The bridge is heated which is great if there is snow and ice, but felt a little odd on such a warm day.

This was a common sight. The little girls adore their big cousin.

Then it was time to go visit The Bean (or whatever its official name is). Because you can't really visit Chicago without seeing it, can you?


K. and G.

And then the requisite group photo in front of it. When I looked at this picture after we got home, I realized that many children are scowling. They were having fun, I assure you.

Well, everyone except G. who decided that a group picture was not what she wanted to do.

There were some new (to us) large public art installations which I thought were quite cool. The children seemed to be far more interested in the squishy ground around them.

Then we decided to head over to the new Maggie Daley park and see what was open. We've been driving by it on Lake Shore Drive while it was being built and everyone has been very interested in watching it go up. If you have been keeping an eye on it as well, you can also read this as a quick review.

There are multiple play areas, with some still be constructed. They have age ranges posted as to what age group they are suitable for. There were some very cute preschool areas, my favorite was the harbor with wooden boats hung on chains so little people could sit in them and they would slightly move back and forth like the boat was really on water. I wanted to take a picture of them, but they were always occupied so I couldn't get one. We didn't really spend any time in these areas since for possibly the first time in my parenting career we had no toddlers in tow.

Instead, we headed to this:

Three large towers, a swinging bridge, multiple slides... everyone could have stayed here all day.

My niece and P. 

What are they looking at? Why this:

While everyone else quickly took off and were climbing like monkeys and sliding like otters, H. was a little lost. Playing at a playground, despite three years of exposure just doesn't come naturally to her. She still isn't sure enough of her own physical capabilities to just try something. Everything just looks scary to her. J. and I each spent some time encouraging her to try things. The fact that she did was pretty huge because there have been plenty of times when no amount of coaxing could convince her to venture out of her very small comfort zone.

Today was a banner day. First, J. convinced her to try the slide. I think the fact that little tiny children were doing this one was enough to convince H. she could do it. You can tell looking at this picture, though, that going down the slide is really not at the top of H.'s list of things she wants to do.

But she did it!

The other things she discovered she could do was walk up and down on these sloped green surfaces. These are around the entire park and were hugely popular with all the children. Some were very steep and others were slightly sloped. It made for many more play surfaces other than the structures. At first, H. was completely freaked out by them and it was like we were back in the mountains of New Hampshire after she first came home. After a lot of encouraging, she finally tried moving around on them and discovered she could do it. Here she is voluntarily climbing up a very steep one towards P. and her cousin.

One of the big slides was a huge hit with nearly everyone.


TM (who for some reason always came shooting out faster than anyone else)

Here is a photo of the whole slide.

The park still isn't finished and there are still whole areas that are blocked off and under construction. Some of them looked very intriguing. And every so often you would see a construction worker working on a part that was already open. To be filed under "things which make you go hmmmm".

At one point we lost L., but with so many people to split up and search she was quickly found. When the search party disbanded and quickly went back to the towers, I spent some time with H. Earlier she had watched everyone have a lot of fun on this pipes which function as slides. I was able to convince her to give it a try.

Look at her!

She pronounced it very fun and did it a few more times. We then wandered somewhere else and she voluntarily, of her own accord, started to climb on something. To me this was a huge success.

Then it was lunchtime (we had brought a picnic) and we sat at one of the many picnic tables to eat it.

The whole group

 Walking on the logs which surround the picnic area
The whole group again.. this time looking as though they are having a good time

Other than the big slides, the other popular structure were the nest swings. There were only three of them at the park and I anticipate that everyone will wish there were more. My children also thought putting one in the backyard would be an excellent idea. (Having just searched for them, I am a little concerned that the stores selling them don't list the price, but ask that you contact them. That never bodes well for something that is affordable.)

Here you can see how high they can go.

It was just about time to leave when H. decides she wants to try a bigger slide. So she did... she just wanted to be sure I was taking a picture.

Afterwards we drove to Lincoln Park Zoo where we met friends and walked around a bit. After a couple of hours, though, people were really starting to droop so we headed home.

My quick thoughts on Maggie Daley Park are that it is very fun and it will be interesting to see what else is added when they are finally done. My crew had a ball. Even today, on a weekday morning, it was pretty crowded and more people were coming after lunch when we were leaving. I can't imagine what it will look like in the summer. I think we may stick with school day mornings. There is a lot to do and something for every ability. I will add, though, that the different play areas are rather spread out and separated. If I were going with a toddler and a school age child, I would want another parent along to help keep track of everyone. Trying to supervise both ages at once could be difficult.

Everyone is now relaxing in front of a movie and we're going to have banh xeo for dinner. It's been a great visit with my nieces and we'll be sad to see them go home tomorrow.
I have a new article up. You Live in Illinois and Want to Adopt? My Condolences Please share this one as much as possible... it's my ongoing attempt to get Illinois to care about children.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The demise of the balloon family

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 33

Last week, while I was at the stable, B. was the fun big  brother and took the littles to the store to buy balloons for M.'s birthday celebration. This was very nice of him and the littles love balloons. See? Here are some pictures from the party.

OK, not balloon-related, but this is what it took to get to '22' with the candles.

Here are the balloons. Do you see them all over?

M., L., and A.

More balloons...

These are snowmen stick puppets which L. made for M.

And more balloons. So many balloons they fly in front of the picture

Just because the party ends, does not mean balloon fun has to end. Static electricity, particularly when combined with a patient Labrador is fun, too.

I'm not sure Gretel is having a great time, though.

But that is not all. You'll notice that some of the balloons have marker on them. That is because G. and L. have used the markers to draw faces on all the balloons. They have entire balloon families. L. has taken to carrying her many balloon friends around in a large kitchen garbage bag. They have played and played and played with them. You would think I would be thrilled with all of this. I might be, except for one thing.

Balloons pop.

It is bad enough that the fun and pretty balloon pops; that can cause tears all by itself. But when you have given the balloon a name and a face and played with it and made it part of a family, then when the balloon pops, it is devastating. It is like losing a friend and the level of wailing reflects that loss. We have lost several balloon friends and I think we have only fifteen or so to go.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, as the entire balloon family bursts...

one at a time...

accompanied with great wailing.
Aside from perpetual drama with balloons, I currently have a living room full of teens, all 15 or 16 of A.'s closest friends who are here to help celebrate her birthday and watch every Lord of Rings movie made. Of course, we'll be serving pie for dessert. It is pi day after all. Here is my pie crust tutorial in case you want to celebrate, too. Pie Crust Tutorial

Friday, March 13, 2015

Look who came home with me

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 32

Today's list of accomplishments:

  1. Made the week's menu and did the week's grocery shopping
  2. Made dinner
  3. Drove to Iowa and back
  4. Served dinner to 9 people
But it's all fun and worth it because I get to spend a long weekend with two of my nieces.

That's A. and P. in the middle and my nieces on the ends

Does the photo seem a bit odd to you (as far as how they are sitting)? That's because these silly girls got it in their heads that they needed to recreate a photo of them from 2006.

I told them to stop growing up, but do they listen?
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