posts tagged with 'books'

two books' take on foster care

In the last couple weeks I've read a couple of books, one very good and one not as good, that I thought were an interesting juxtaposition. Our read-aloud chapter book for the last while has been Pine Island Home, by Polly Horvath. We loved her silly story The Pepins and Their Problems a couple years ago, so I thought this one about kids living on their own on a farm on the Vancouver coast would be a sure hit... but for some reason it didn't quite land with us. The book does a great job subverting expectations about what's going to happen next for the precarious family of orphans, but we actually found that more stressful than delightful. I think that might be because we wanted a little more character development and atmospheric detail? In any case, we saw it through to the end but were glad to move on to a more compelling story.

I did think it was interesting comparing one facet of Pine Island Home with a book I read on my own a couple days ago: Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It's about a pair of sisters who are in foster care, with their mom in jail after blowing up a motel room cooking meth. The narrator is ten-year-old Della, and she's a fantastically convincing and compelling character with plenty of development. The book deals with—is about!—issues of sexual abuse and child poverty, so neither of my boys for whom it would have been appropriate felt like they wanted to read it, which is fine. But I felt like it was a super valuable read.

The big difference between the two books was their treatment of foster care. In Pine Island Home the kids—four girls from 8 to 14—lose their parents to a tsunami and then, after some time with a caretaker, are sent to Vancouver to live with their great aunt only to find on arriving that she's just died as well. Since nobody else is looking out for them they decide to live in the house on their own, and their greatest fear throughout the story is that they'll be discovered by social services, separated, and taken into care. In Fighting Words Della also begins the story frightened of social services: her mom's abusive boyfriend, who took Della and her older sister in after their mom went to prison, threatens Della that he'll send her to a group home if she complains. But once she actually does enter the foster care system she finds it's made up of people who really care about kids and are willing to stand strong in support of her—even when she's not able to give them much in return.

That arc makes Fighting Words read as real and true. Pine Island Home not so much. That story's four girls aren't rich, but the way the story goes what stands out the most is their privilege. There's some talk of the trauma of losing their parents, but it doesn't really seem real. And they land on their feet in a beautiful multi-acre property on the ocean where they have a real chance of living on their own unless they get found out. I think I understand why the story plays out that way: we want stories about independent kids but we don't want them to be too traumatic. And in the 21st century it's hard to think of kids having realistic independent adventures that aren't. But Fighting Words shows that there are actually plenty of kids having adventurous lives against their will. When Della hears that some kids in her new school never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from she's amazed; she'd never known anyone who wasn't food-insecure. Unfortunately that's very much a reality in 2021, and it's wonderful to have stories that reflect it.

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our reading lately

As I think I've mentioned, we managed to get through a year-plus of pandemic without any interruption to our chapter-book readaloud practice, even if it did lead us to read some selections that I might not have tried if we had all the variety of the library available to us. Most recently it was A Wizard of Earthsea, but Ursula LeGuin. It's a great story but the telling of it isn't straightforward; Harvey actually tried to read it himself six months ago or so and couldn't get into it. But as a readaloud it was a hit, for whatever reason, and with two reading sessions most days we got through it pretty quickly. I'm not sure how much of the exact progression of the story that Elijah was able to grasp, but he liked as much as anyone—enough that he's now doing a lot of playing wizards.

Now, though, the library is once again an option, and just in time for finishing Earthsea we took delivery of our first shipment of chapter books. So today we started The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes—different in every way from Ursula LeGuin but also very good. And more at Lijah's comprehension level. And when that's done, I've got other holds in at the library. Thank goodness!

a momentous day

In former times the library was pretty central to our lives. Both because we all love having a constant stream of new books to look at, and because it's great to have somewhere to go in any sort of weather that's a) not the house, b) inside, and c) free. As I've noted before the second biggest trauma at the start of this pandemic—after having to cancel our long anticipated co-op music day—was that the library closed down before we had a chance to lay in a big store of books. It was my fault; I thought of it on that fateful Friday the 13th but told myself that Saturday morning would be a fine time to browse. Nope: they closed that evening and haven't opened to the public since. Of course, books have been available since last May or so, but in order to get them you had to know what you wanted in advance, put a hold on it, reserve a pickup day and time, and then be there in the specific half hour you put in for. All of those steps are hard for me! Well, the procedure hasn't gotten any easier, but my desire for new books has reached a breaking point (and I've been properly shamed by friends who do regular library pickups) so I'm proud to report that, yesterday evening, we received our first library books in over 13 months.

picture books on our coffee table

library books at our house!

I was super excited to go and pick them up. In retrospect, I could have extended that excitement to the boys by requesting some books that would be particularly delightful to them; I didn't do that. Mostly it's picture book biographies of poets, since that's what I've been thinking about. Still, such is the demand for reading material around here that Harvey has now read every word of all of them (he accomplished the feat in just slightly under 24 hours). Good thing there are more coming! Including some requests from the boys. What I need now is some way for them to access the library website and put in their own holds when they want something... any chance I can manage that before the library reopens for real?

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still managing to read

As we started spending more time at and around the playground the last couple weeks, I remembered that I really miss the library. Really, not getting to visit there once a week—or more!—is one of the hardest things about this pandemic for us (which shows how incredibly fortunate we are, something I don't take for granted in the least). But even without the library for fifty-three weeks and counting we haven't done that badly for books. Sure, we'd love to have access to new and interesting picture books, and research on the internet isn't nearly as fun as paging though age-appropriate texts. For chapter books, though, we've managed to find enough new material to keep up our habit of reading half and hour to an hour every day. My habit of stocking up at every used book sale I see is paying off!

It also helps, of course, that the boys all really love being read to, and that all three of them are interested in a wide variety of styles. In the last couple weeks we've read Misty of Chincoteague and The Tale of Desperaux (that's a new one for us; Leah found it at Savers), and now we're working our way through My Family and Other Animals, an autobiographical account of zookeeper and naturalist Gerald Durrell's childhood on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s. I don't think I would have tried to read it to them a year ago at the beginning of the pandemic: it's more episodic and atmospheric than plot-driven, and while it's filled with beautifully written description it's not necessarily a story you'd expect would be enjoyed by a seven-year-old. But it's also silly and full of animals, so I guess that's a winner.

That's not to say I wouldn't much rather have the option, at least, of finding some good new books at the library. Every time we reach the end of one book I start to get nervous that, this time, we've really come to the end of our supply. Everything else is open now: even the elementary schools are now back in person four days a week, and middle and high school will be going back full time in a couple weeks. And we can go to supermarkets and malls and, for all I know, bars and movie theaters! So why not libraries?!

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our reading this week

Honestly, one of the hardest things about the pandemic for us—now that we've got our bubble school situation going—is not being able to go to the library. We used to go every week, often twice a week. And now we haven't been once in over eight months. Yes, we could do curbside pickup if we wanted to, but it's just not the same. We're browsers; we don't go in knowing what we want to check out. So finding books online is hard. Also we're not good at planning ahead!

So we miss having a constant stream of new-to-us books in the house. And sometimes we miss having specific books. Like when we leaned from friends that there is a fifth Dory Fantasmagory book available. Ever since Harvey was a little reader we've loved Dory, and it was tough to know there was a book about her out there remaining unread! Happily, last week our friends took pity on us and got the book out, again, from their own library to lend to us. So now all three readers among the Archibald boys (I include myself in that number) have finished Tiny Tough, and I'm in the middle of reading it to Elijah. Good times.

zooming through the last book

When the pandemic started there were lots of people creating attractive offerings online, and one of them was from our friends the Jacksons (creators of the amazing story podcast, Tales From the Moosiverse). As we entered the first full pandemic week—the first week of lockdown, no school, and work from home—they stepped up an offered to read a chapter book to any and all kids who wanted to tune in over Zoom from two to three o'clock. They kicked it off with Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, and when that was finished—in just a couple of days—they moved right on to the fabulous Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr. They read for an hour every day, and the group of kids listening quickly became a real community. It was certainly a big part of our life! The five-day-a-week schedule ran through the end of June, then they switched to Monday-Wednesday-Friday for the summer months. This week, after something like 35 books and close to 100 hours of reading, what came to be called "Zoom Through a Book" came to an end.

The Jacksons didn't read all those books, all those hours. Other parents and grandparents stepped in for a few—I read three, myself—and a couple kids even did some reading. But they carried the bulk of it, and all of the scheduling effort, and they were definitely the heart and soul of the project. The 30 or so kids who were there that first week back in March didn't all stick around, of course: as schools' remote learning started up some of them got too busy, and others drifted away when the weather got nicer. But that just meant the group that stuck around became more and more of a community (interestingly, all but one of the diehards were homeschoolers...). After the reading ended each day they'd stick around to chat and share games and pictures with the "share screen" function, for 45 minutes or more if they could get away with it. Human contact is precious these days! There was a party on Wednesday to wrap things up, and it definitely felt like something worth scheduling.

At this point, to be honest, we're ready for a break from screens. That full schedule I described in the linked post up again (here it is again if you don't want to scroll up) eased up a bit as the months of the pandemic passed, but not that much. We're doing Kids Church on Sunday, then it's no Zoom for a full week—more, if we can manage it—while we clear our brains and get ready for fall. We're planning a little more (careful) human contact, but we know that there will be plenty of virtual interaction too. Which is fine: because the Jacksons have shown us how well it can go! Yay for Zoom Through a Book!

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beginning my print publishing career

I'm in a book! A couple months ago a member of our homeschool coop emailed me asking if I wanted to contribute an essay to a book she was putting together called "Why I Love Homeschooling." She was interested in getting a variety of voices, and was looking for my thoughts as a homeschooling dad and as a former public school teacher. She was looking for kind of a quick turnaround, since she and her coauthor wanted to have the book published and available by early August, in time for parents to read as they considered possibly homeschooling for the first time this school year. No problem for me... you know I was going to do it all the day before it was due, regardless of when that was! No, just kidding; I actually put in a fair amount of thought and effort, and at least a little bit of that effort was measurably in advance of the due date. There were two challenges to the process, things I don't have to deal with in the rest of my writing. First, I wanted to make sure what I had to say matched the rest of the book while still being my actual voice. Second, it's not easy being edited! How can it be my voice when you keep changing my words?! But I like to think I was a pretty good sport about it.

The book is available now on Amazon if you want to take a look at it: only $12.99, or free on Kindle Unlimited! (whatever that is...). I also have one spare copy that I can pass on to the first person who lets me know they want it!

Or if you just want to read my chapter (totally understandable! but the others are good too) here it is:

ABOUT OUR FAMILY

I sometimes tell people that we fell into homeschooling by accident. Our oldest was still four the year we got a kindergarten registration packet in the mail for the first time. He would have been one of the youngest kids in his class, we didn’t feel like kindergarten would be that good for him, and we enjoyed having him around . . . so we kept him home. That year we just kept on doing the same kinds of things we’d always done together as a family, and it was fine. Then when the new school year arrived we wanted to stick with that routine, so we filed a home education plan like the state wanted us to. The next thing we knew, we were homeschooling three boys age ten, eight, and five! Amazing.

Only that’s not really the real story. And anyone who sends their kids to school can probably spot the clues in that first paragraph. Like, why didn’t our son go to preschool? How did we ever think that “just keeping him home” was an option? And why on earth did we want to?! Really, our thoughts about the childhood we hoped he could have were non-standard from the beginning. And that’s despite the fact that I’m trained in Elementary Education and worked in public schools.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING

One important reason we home educate is that we like being with our kids. We’ve been lucky enough to have flexible work schedules to make that happen—my wife, Leah, was home when the first two boys were little, then we each worked part time for the “preschool” years, and now she’s working full time while I hold things down at home. I enjoy doing things with my kids, and I want to make sure that they’re able to do the things that they find important and valuable. Also, we don’t want to waste their time! I’m 100% committed to the existence of public schooling as a public good, and I think most public school teachers are fantastic people—but schools require kids to be there in that building for six or seven hours a day to get maybe an hour of relevant instructional time. It’s better for them to be free of those walls.

Our home education is shaped by two sometimes competing impulses. First is our belief that kids are human beings with an inbuilt drive to learn, and with the capacity—and right!—to make many decisions for themselves. (I keep John Holt’s How Children Learn and Agnes Leistico’s I Learn Better By Teaching Myself on the bookshelf above my desk to remind myself of that when I start to get stressed out.) I recognize that a big part of learning comes through play: For example, I’ve had moments of despair at failed attempts to get my kids writing, but then I notice them playing with little figures and narrating a complex, multi-character story. Learning also needs to be driven by genuine interest: Nobody can learn something they don’t care about.

At the same time, though, I am trained as a teacher and sometimes I like teaching things. So I don’t think you could really call us unschoolers. A few days a week we have some organized instructional time, all together or one-on-one. Some weeks it’s every day! Sometimes there are even worksheets. But that more formal work is always conditional on the kids’ voluntary engagement: I try to make it explicit that they don’t have to participate if they’re not interested (though sometimes the frustration in my voice when I say it undercuts the message—something I have to work on!). In my more self-aware moments I call our less-inspired instructional time “playing school” and recognize that, at best, it’s giving the kids tools to do their own learning later. But sometimes it brings real engagement in the moment. Like this week when our study of reproduction and genetics led to the creation of a pencil-and-paper game that had us breeding monsters for the next two days.

I think what I love most about home education is flexibility. When it’s rainy and there’s nothing to do, we can read books together and talk about them. Maybe something in a book will inspire us to do some drawing. Or maybe we’ll just play a board game. On sunshiny days anyone who wants to can be outside for hours, observing—even if only in passing and by accident—the natural world. Sometimes math instruction is practicing times tables (is there any way to learn basic multiplication facts except by doing them over and over?), but sometimes it’s building a picnic table and calculating the angle to cut the pieces for the legs. How many degrees are in a triangle? I’m not good at planning, so I’m happy to come up with a general idea—talking about reproduction, say—and see where it takes us.

I also feel that it’s incredibly valuable for my kids to be able to learn as individuals. Even beyond their particular interests, which they may or may not be able to develop in a school setting, school norms would force them into possibly uncomfortable boxes. Watching the three of them grow up I see that their learning and development doesn’t move forward in a linear way but in fits and starts, and at different rates for each of them. Because of that, I can’t think of them as a “fifth-grader,” a “third-grader,” and a “kindergartener,” and compare them to their peers in each of those grades. Neither of my older two boys learned to read before their second-grade year, which would have meant hours and hours of separate reading instruction had they been in school; now they both spend endless time absorbed in books. And I don’t even have to call that a success story: In the home education setting, not liking to read would also be fine! Home education lets each child really be themselves.

HOMESCHOOLING CHALLENGES

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges! Some challenges are wrapped up with the same things that attracted me to this lifestyle in the first place. Flexibility, for example, goes both ways. It can be hard to abandon my designs for the day when it’s clear the kids need something else. And sometimes it’s hard to come up with any ideas of what to do! If there was a plan that we had to follow—if somebody else was telling us what to do—then at least I wouldn’t have to worry about coming up with all the ideas. Also, as the “education planner” in the household, I sometimes struggle with knowing when to intervene: Should I work to make sure my ten-year-old can write his numbers the right way around, or to encourage my six-year-old to use a “proper” pencil grip? If I don’t teach them math am I allowing them to develop their interest in the subject naturally and organically, or am I denying them the foundation they need to discover a love of more complicated mathematics later? I don’t know.

Enjoying spending time with the kids can also lead to challenges: If I didn’t like being with them, I wouldn’t need to work so hard to engage them! Lots of people with kids in school imagine home education means my kids are asking me what to do all the time; that is not the case. Most of the time they’re happy to ignore me and do their own thing together or individually. That dynamic also interacts with my teacher sensibilities. When I think there’s something they would enjoy learning then I need to work hard to present it in a way that will draw them in. And sometimes it’s a complete bust anyway! It’s discouraging to come up with what I think is a fascinating project or outing that, when offered, doesn’t elicit anything more than a vague “no thanks” from behind a book. On the other side of the coin, sometimes it’s hard for me to see value in what they’re choosing to do because it’s different than what I would choose. Screen time, for example, is an ongoing issue in our house that hasn’t yet been entirely resolved by democratic and non-coercive means.

There’s also some stress around other people’s expectations. People asking if our six-year-old is reading, for example, or offering pointed questions about “socialization.” Not to mention reporting and state standards! A few years ago, for my annual progress report to the school district, I sent in a writing sample for my oldest son. He had worked so hard on the skills it took to be able to write out an entire page, and I was so proud of him. In the letter we got back from the school district, the only personalized note—the only personalized response we’ve ever received in four years of reporting—was a suggestion to look into tools for online spelling practice. Sometimes all those expectations get to me, and I find myself saying things to the kids like, “I know you don’t want to, but you absolutely must produce something that the state will see as learning.” That’s dumb, right?

Because, really, I know that they’re learning all the time (even if I sometimes need John Holt to remind me). They learned to ride bikes, to swim, to draw and write comic books, to wash dishes, to make jigsaw puzzles, to know when to walk away from a friend who’s making bad choices. And I didn’t teach them any of that! Although I did offer tips on the jigsaw puzzles and, more pointedly, the dishes. I do get to teach them some things—about seeds and eggs, about converting fractions into decimals, about our country’s history of racism, about the poems that I love. Put it all together, and it’s totally worth it. In our house, education isn’t something that happens somewhere else, separate from the rest of our life. It’s just another part of everything we do together as we work, play, relax, and adventure together. And I love it!

PARTING WORDS

Should everyone have their kids learn at home? Lots of the time I think that, yes, of course they should! But I also think that everyone should keep chickens and travel by bicycle and listen to weird music and go to bed when it gets dark. My personal preferences, that is to say, are sometimes idiosyncratic. I recognize that for many people the reality of jobs and schedules means that there’s no time to think about organizing home education. That’s fine! Despite some strong words above, I think public school is a great option. I liked most of my own time there, both as a student and as a teacher. But when parents tell me, “I could never teach my own kids!” I have to disagree. If you want to, you can! You’re already teaching them all the most important things in their lives. And all the rest—math, history, science—is just learning together!

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the return of the king

We spotted a monarch butterfly in our yard earlier this week: the first of the year. We're always happy to see them, and we do what we can to invite them in and make them feel welcome. There are butterfly-friendly flowers all over the yard, and they're especially concentrated in the side yard, where a discerning lepidopteran can find butterfly bush, tall phlox, beebalm, and, especially for those monarchs, plenty of milkweed. I took a look and I think I spotted a few eggs on the milkweed, so we'll have a hunt for caterpillars in a little while.

While I was sick the other day I read Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, which I enjoyed even if a few things about it troubled me. Mainly how strongly its main themes were presented as moral lessons: that monarch butterflies are tremendously valuable both for their beauty and for their role as a proxy for wider environmental issues, which I agree with, and that you should leave your spouse if you're not totally in love with them, on which I have more nuanced opinions. Although maybe you shouldn't trust my review of the book since I was pretty loopy with fever when I pushed through the whole thing in basically one sitting (one "lying-in-bedding?"). But yes, monarchs. Yay monarchs!

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work ethics

We're reading Farmer Boy at bedtime these days. I love that book. We're almost through; this evening we read the chapter called "Threshing", in which Almanzo and his father spend a snowy late fall day threshing wheat on the barn floor. As they get started Almanzo asks why they don't bring the wheat to the new threshing machine in town, and his Father tells him it's because all it saves is time: it wastes wheat, and it damages the straw so it's no good to feed the animals. And he doesn't see any purpose to saving time. After all, he tells Almanzo, they won't have anything else to do on stormy winter evenings; would Almanzo rather just sit around twiddling his thumbs? No, thinks Almanzo, he has enough of that on Sundays.

I'm aware of the perils of trying to raise children according to the Little House series. I think they're perils common to many in my circle of friends. But when the boys start the day with an hour of Minecraft, then enjoy a leisurely breakfast followed by an indeterminate amount of time reading at the table before they do their dishes, I start to wonder if I'm doing something wrong. At that just takes us up to 8:00! I wonder if Almanzo would have enjoyed the idea of leisure time more if he had had an iPad?

Of course, I can also look at myself—I acknowledge my own difficulties, historical and current, with sustained effort. And I count blogging here as work! But I have a long list of things I'd like to accomplish, which gives me a chance to try and model a proper work ethic. It might be working: today Harvey made breakfast—waffles!—and offered to pick up the slack of Zion's work before supper when Zion was absent. Of course, he's the one child who's not listening to Farmer Boy. I wonder what that means...

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hardcrabble for real

One of our favorite picture books is Hardscrabble Harvest, by Dahlov Ipcar. Leah bought it for me at a bookstore in Maine on vacation a few years ago; she could have bought Ipcar's Lobsterman, to be more thematically appropriate, but when she saw Hardscrabble Harvest she knew I had to have it. It starts, "Farmer plants early in the spring. He'll be lucky if he harvests a thing." It's hard for me to refrain from quoting the whole thing; many of the lines are favorites, and we bring them out as the situation demands. "Chickens in the garden, scratching up the row. Run farmer run, chase them with a hoe" is one that sees frequent use. The story runs through one farm season as a young farming couple deals with one setback after another. Because that's what farming is, setbacks. Maybe my favorite couplet is, "Summer almost over, harvest drawing near. Most of the cauliflower eaten by the deer."

Ipcar knew what she was talking about: in her twenties, she and her husband survived for a few years as subsistance farmers in Maine. The daughter of artists William and Marguerite Zorach, she was also painting in between farm jobs, and she had her first MoMA solo exhibit at the age of 21 (art doesn't pay much better than farming, even for "the first woman and the youngest artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the museum"). She illustrated Hardscrabble Harvest using only mixes of red and green (and black and white) which gives it a unifying feel, and the pictures are a blend of symbolic and realistic.

Leah thought the book would appeal to me because of how much I moan about things going wrong in the garden. It's interesting, now that I think about it, how well-constructed the story is: the first three-quarters are a series of things going wrong—all kinds of animals eating the crops, mostly—then the last part is the farmers' amazing bountiful harvest, capped with their Thanksgiving feast. Because that's what it's like: all my attention is focused on the trouble I'm having with seedlings, and meanwhile we're getting as much asparagus and rhubarb as we could ever hope to eat. Yesterday I made some rhubarb syrup, and today I'm doing the second rhubarb pie of the season. After all, what's all this food for but to eat up? As the book ends:

Stuffing in the turkey,
cranberry sauce.
Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a hoss.

Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a pup.
Here come the relatives
to gobble it up!

the last page of the book: cat and dog stealing pie off the counter

the last page

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