posts tagged with 'writing'

filling in the memory hole

Yesterday afternoon Zion and I went sledding (again). We didn't get out to the hill until after 4:00, it with the cold the snow was in great shape, so we were still going strong as the sun dropped below the trees. It wasn't only the good conditions that made me want to stay out as long as we could, though; the weather forecast gave me a feeling that it could maybe be our last sledding of the year. So, thinking as I often do of how to tell the story, I went to take a picture of Zion walking up the hill towards the setting sun. But my phone, at that moment, ran out of batteries.

The main reason I write in this blog, as I've probably said before, is so I can remember what happened in this adventure that is our life. So, just like when I miss a photo, when I go for a while without writing I feel some loss. Like the last two weeks, when a combination of factors left me unable to write and post coherent thoughts. But never fear! Yesterday we were out with friends who took a photo just like I was thinking of and, unasked, texted it to me! And even though I haven't been posting I've actually been writing down at least the outlines of some things I want to say, which I'll retroactively publish when I get a chance. Thus the historical record will be preserved! (And then I suppose this post will just be confusing, but never mind; count it as the memory of a particular moment, right?)

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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writing and sleeping

I've been staying up late the last few days or weeks. There's so much lovely stuff to do around here—playing, building, cooking—that it's hard to sit down to the computer to write until everyone else has gone to sleep (also it's hard for me to concentrate before everyone else has gone to sleep!). I have no illusions that posting in this blog is something I need to do, but I do enjoy having it as a record; and when I don't write in it for a length of time I have trouble getting started again. Plus I committed to doing this poetry thing, which I'm pretty happy with—but I haven't managed to get much ahead what I need to have done for each new day. And then of course I have a real job that I need to write for. But as I talked to Leah about it she recommended writing in the morning, so I went to bed at a reasonable hour last night... and woke up after six hours of sleep before 4:00, raring to go! Oh well. Rescheduling myself will take a little time.

unschooling children know no schedule

After a very busy day at our house, in which we hosted a segment of our new co-op for wreath making (11 kids in all), I was ready to go to sleep right after supper. To be honest, I was ready to go to sleep not to long after lunch, but it didn't seem appropriate to just abandon guests and children and retire to the bedroom, so I kept myself going. And then I kept myself going some more after supper, because the younger boys finally started writing.

Now, when I say writing I don't mean they were actually putting letters on paper themselves. Lijah can't really, yet—or at least you don't want him to, since it's tiring to not only tell him how to spell a word, very slowly, but also draw each letter in the air so he knows how to make it. And Zion's writing genius was stifled by my early attempts to make him write down his own stories. That was a mistake.

Happily, Lijah is unendingly creative; and having learned better, I now just do my best to capture his stories as they emerge and get them down on paper for him. It turns out that when I do it creates a positive feedback loop: he's tickled to hear his own stories and wants to make more of them. Mostly so far he's just done one page and moved on, but this evening he was inspired by Harvey's working on a comic strip (at the dinner table, but whatever) to string together eight pages of material featuring Thor, the devil, Wiley Coyote, Nuliujuk, and more. Not to be outdone, Zion created his own eight-page book. More coherent, if less wildly original, it's a story about a meteor crashing to earth and releasing a cloud of battling Pokemon.

All this creativity took place between 6:30 and 7:45, which may be early evening for some people but is definitely the center of the bedtime hour for us. So that was delayed. Worse, writing time also kept anyone from doing their kitchen chores, so after I got everyone tucked in bed at around 8:30—Leah is out for the evening—I had to come down and start the dishes. But I think it was worth it. Stories are important. I can't wait to see what they think of next.

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writing about my writing

When I was a young person, I briefly fancied myself a conservative. I don't think I had any reason for that besides appreciation for the way conservatives wrote. See, when you're only against things you can write beautifully cutting takedowns of any progressive program without having to think too hard—you find the sarcasm flowing easily and naturally. I say briefly; by college—by junior year in high school, even—I had come to my senses and become a vague radical idealist. I didn't get in any real arguments with anyone while I was experimenting with conservatism, so you might say no harm done—but in fact, I think that my writing has never recovered from the curse that admiring Rush Limbaugh for even a couple months brought down on me.

That's one reason why I don't write more about my socio-political ideas (loosely defined) even though I do think about such things from time to time. Even when I have a thought I really want to write about, and try really hard to express it in thoughtful, measured language, I find hints of my high school sarcasm emerging—and even more than hints. Consider this post about sustainable agriculture (especially the first paragraph).

OK, what's wrong with being sarcastic? Especially when the target of your sarcasm will never read your words? Well, besides being kind of rude regardless it's also, if you ask me, not actually thoughtful. I say above "without having to think too hard", and that's really how it feels to me: writing sarcastically, assigning a simplified (or false) position to your opponent and then dismissing it in equally simplistic terms is super easy. And it's super frustrating as well, for people who actually want to think about the issues at hand. "But, but, but..." they sputter, entirely justifiably. "You're ignoring vast swathes of data and argument in the other direction! What about..." and then you call them an ivory tower elitist. You know, for thinking.

Something else. Writing—especially simplistic sarcasm—tends to be closed and linear. And the way I write is especially so. I don't outline blog posts: I think of a topic and write from beginning to end. (That's what I did for 50-page papers in college too, so as much as want to I don't know that my process will change any time soon.) That means that, as I put ideas down as words, I'm necessarily narrowing the scope of my thoughts and my argument. When I come up with an idea—a topic—it feels broad and spacious and full of potential. As I write it gets more and more specific, until the end result is something like a butterfly pinned to a display. You get to see the colorful patterns on the wings—well, one side of the wings, until they get dusty and fade—but in no way do you get the full sense of the creature. A butterfly is to flutter.

Probably, the solution is to work harder. If I was more thoughtful and wrote notes and outlines, I bet I would have a better time capturing the complexity of my original thoughts. Or maybe I need to give up essays and start writing poetry...

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Harvey the writer

Monday is our big homeschool day here, so we don't take Monday holidays off. And we didn't even do any Columbus-themed content today, because Columbus was a big jerk. We did chat for a while on our walk the other day about what the holiday was about, and naturally I tied the explanation in to our ongoing history conversation this fall about Europeans trampling on indigenous people's rights; but in view of what I learned on the internet yesterday and today I think I understated the case. But never mind, because Harvey and Zion have lots of time to fill in any gaps in their historical knowledge or ideological formation; what Harvey worked on today was writing.

You see, in an effort to generate more content around here we're training him to write blog posts—or, as they're known in the world of elementary school, "personal narratives". Today he wrote about Taya's birthday party yesterday; it was a great time, and his account will save me the trouble of writing it up myself.

It was Taya’s pool birthday party and we brought a present for Taya. It was a princess doll that Mama made. We went for a drive and it was so long!

When we got there Taya was already in the pool. We put on our bathing suits and went swimming! And then everybody was leaving the pool, so we left. Then we went in the party room and it was all cold. Then we went in the locker room and put on our warm clothes. Then we went in and made puppets. And then it was time for a game, and we didn’t play. Then after the game Taya wanted her doll so much she opened it up. Then we had cake.

Then it was time to go but we went to the playground with Taya and played with the fire truck and went in the hippopotamus and played “steal Tintin”. And then it was time to go, but we remembered we lost Tintin, so we drove back to the playground to get him. Then we drove back home.

the doll--pink hair, silver crown, dancy skirt--posing on the porch

the doll in question

He needs work on his transitional phrases, but the content is solid. That's pretty much what happened! While it was tough getting him started, once the creative juices were flowing he had lots to say (the story was dictated; we're interested in storytelling, not handwriting and spelling). And when it was time to add the illustrations, he was all-in with the project. He even asked about the technical details of making copies of the masterwork—and then started on another story after supper. There will be many more personal narratives to come over the next few months.

We'll work on writing anti-colonial polemics a little later.

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feel free to stop reading

A "friend" of ours recently posted a facebook comment—in response to an article—that facebook helpfully highlighted for me. In it she said many things, including:

I get that people want to live off the grid and off the land but for heaven's sake stop blogging about it and just do it and live your life and not rub it in the faces of the masses if that's what you want.

I'm not sure if that part was meant to be about us or about the article's subjects (who were, according to the headline, planning to retire at 33) but either way I took note. We don't really want to live off the grid or off the land, unless it should become necessary, and we certainly don't want to rub anything in anyone's face. I write because I like looking back on what I did years ago; blogging works much better than trusting in my suspect memory. I also try and be a little funny. If you enjoy some of these words, I'm glad; but you don't have to read them. If they're causing you distress, please close the tab right now, and godspeed!

underwhelmed by the Penderwicks

There are times in my life when I read a lot, and there are times when I feel like I barely have a moment to pick up a book. The past couple months have been the latter. And before you say I have a good excuse I have to admit that it's as much a question of interest as it is of time. Last fall I was zipping through the new books section of the library; lately I'm just not feeling it. So maybe that's why I'm not as impressed with The Penderwicks as I expected to be—or maybe it's not really that good.

It came highly recommended, and I was totally ready to like it. National Book Award winner! "Modern Classic"! New York Times bestseller! (alright, so that last one is actually more of a debit as far as I'm concerned, but you get the idea). Plus, the concept of a modern old-fashioned story is a good one, and the cover looked accordingly promising. Too bad.

My main complaint about the book is that it feels sketchy. Rather than being developed properly the characters—the four Penderwick girls, supporting players, and badies—are indicated by brief signifiers: Skye is blond and likes math; Batty wears wings; Mrs. Tifton is mean and favors high heels. The setting is similarly lacking, satisfying itself by simply mentioning the details of the surroundings. The mansion grounds where the kids get into trouble feature statues, hedges, and a frog pond, but the author never even tries to evoke any primary experience of those things for us. So, despite the acceptable plot, I had a hard time entering into the story; nothing about it rings quite true.

Take the following descriptive passage, selected more or less at random.

But she found the hedge to be thicker and more prickly than she had anticipated, and after several attempts to crawl through, she had accomplished nothing except snagging her hat twice and scratching her arms until it looked like she had fought a tiger.

Then, when she was just about to give up and go around by the driveway, she discovered a way in. It was a tunnel, carefully hidden behind a clump of tall wildflowers and just the right size for going through on all fours. ...

She emerged on he edge of the enormous formal gardens, directly behind a marble statue of a man wrapped in a bedsheet and holding a thunderbolt over his head.

Many things about that selection are noticeably clunky. "Thicker than she had anticipated"? "More prickly"? What is the hedge made of? Whatever happened to "show, don't tell"? And both "tall wildflowers" and marble Zeus demonstrate a fuzziness in who's doing the observing, or at least a lack of care: why say wildflowers without telling us what they are? And if the character can't recognize Zeus or a toga what are the chances of her pegging the statue as marble or recognizing and naming a thunderbolt? (if the statue is a copy of the one seen here the resemblance is far from obvious!).

Compare to a bit from Gone Away Lake, a good book (by Elizabeth Enright).

The spagnum grew in silver-green cushions; it oozed water at every step, dark water the color of strong tea that had a rich delicious smell. ...

Beyond a wide cluster of sheep laurel, all speckled with flowers, was the bog garden. They had never seen a garden like it; nothing was planted in a bed. It looked as though it had been the work of nature alone. By dark still pools grew leathery pitcher plants, whose urn-shaped leaves held water and drowned insects, and whose wine-colored flowers were like the umbrellas of Siamese kings.

There we have real description, artful prose, and a little bit of allusion. It was hard for me to just excerpt that section and not keep on reading, even though I've already read the book three or four times; I haven't managed to finish The Penderwicks yet.

I have a theory about why, of the two books written for kids of similar ages (grades 3-6), Gone-Away is so much deeper and more engaging— but it's bedtime so it'll have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that if you ask me The Penderwicks, while readable and even pleasant in parts, in no way lives up to its advance billing. I'm disappointed.

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