Thursday, March 26, 2009

March Inspiration

These past few weeks, I have been a little shorter with the kids than usual, and find that I need a bit more down-time than normal, too.

Ben helps when he can, and there is always that almighty baby-sitter, screen time; in fact, as the boys get older, this is more often educational rather than true couch-potato vegging.

Even with Mommy-time and TV, though, this in-between season of too cold for fleeces, too warm for winter coats (resulting in excessive whining and less time outside)can be wearing. So, I decided to post some inspiration this week!

In no particular order, here are some quotes, websites, and silliness I've been trying to keep in mind while fighting the early-spring doldrums:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge" - Albert Einstein. What cracks me up about this quote is where I read it - in Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of the Purple Potty People! Author Dav Pilkey is someone that I suspect would have made a great homeschooler, judging from the way he skewers the educational system in these awesome, funny books.

"Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire" - W.B. Yeats. When Luke is happily reading Calvin and Hobbes, or whistling a little tune over and over again, when he is just in 'idle' mode or wants to horse around with Owen rather than do anything (that I think of as) productive, I try to remember this one. Because those non-productive times are offset by lots of very creative, productive hours, and it's important to remember that there is an ebb and flow to interest-led learning; he goes by his own schedule. Sometime soon, I'm sure he will have more creative drive and interest, and then we'll be off on the next wild ride - the one after dragons, which was the one after Star Wars, which was the one after Pokemon...

Home Education Magazine; I've enjoyed the free online version for a year or so, and then I was lucky enough to receive a gift subscription this past Christmas. It's a great magazine, lots of interesting, timely things to do with the kids and also content intended to make us adults think about why and/or how we homeschool.

Barbara Kingsolver's great book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the book's website both get me happily thinking about the coming growing season. They are informative and a cure for cabin fever.

Because you just can't see them too many times, here are OK-Go on treadmills:

And finally, The Twiddlebugs:

Monday, March 23, 2009


Luke is obsessed. He's passionately reading any book he can get his hands on right now about dragons.

In addition to Dragonology and How to Raise and Keep a Dragon, Luke read Christopher Paolini's Eragon, the fantasy tale of the boy Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, over the course of five days last week. Five days! He is eight years old. This is a 700+ page book. I am in awe, not so much because of the speed with which he reads, but more because Luke's comprehension is astounding. Eight years old!

The book that captivates him most right now - until he dives into the Eragon sequel, Eldest, is The Dragonology Handbook: A Practical Course in Dragons. The book is set up as a course, with homework assignments and lessons, and I think that is part of Luke's fascination: it's like he has a private tutor about his current favorite subject!

Luke has taken to sketching dragons, and after some serious begging we now allow him to go out in the woods behind our house - alone! we are truly raising a Free-Range kid - and search for dragons to observe and draw. In case you missed that, let me just reiterate the point - Luke. In the woods. Drawing!

Each time he heads off into the woods, my heart is in my throat; when he returns, flushed with fresh air and the excitement of dragon-seeking, I realize that letting him go is the right thing to do.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Capitol I

Here is a little song that has been making our spring cleaning kinda fun:

If you're pushing forty, like me, you may remember that song from the Sesame Street of your youth. I loved it then, and as it turns out, I still do.

I don't know how they did it, but Luke and Owen have learned all the words to both Capitol I and the bonus Lowercase N track, after listening for about 3 minutes to each. So, we now have rousing choruses of these songs as we clean windows, sort laundry, dust and sweep.

It's nice - makes the cleaning feel like it's done faster, too!

Monday, March 16, 2009

My New Favorite Book

I have been a fan of Lenore Skenazy's writing for a long time, since reading her columns in one of our favorite monthly papers, The Funny Times (please keep in mind, if you follow that link, that those who know me best often refer to me as a "bleeding-heart liberal"... this paper leans, perhaps more than slightly, to the left - and, it's really, really funny).

Last summer, I read that Lenore had started a blog, Free-Range Kids, after she became known as "America's Worst Mom" for allowing her 9 year-old to ride the subway on his own. I enthusiastically checked it out and ended up placing Free-Range Kids into my Blogroll (over there, to the right). I love it because it's the antithesis to helicopter parenting; every new post helps me to remember that, while we live in an era of heightened media coverage, we do not necessarily live in an era of heightened crime, child abduction, or Death By Raw Cookie Dough.

Lenore now has a book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry, coming out next month, and I cannot wait! She's turned the title "America's Worst Mom" around on itself, proudly using it as a rallying cry for those who dare to disagree with parenting experts about how young is too young to ride a bike to a friend's house alone, or use the stove, or... (place your worst fear for your children here). I must say that, as a homeschooling mom with some experience disagreeing with parenting experts on what's right for my children, I am enjoying the free-range/helicopter debate very much!

Anyway, the introduction to the book has now been placed online, and you can read it here. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about free-range kids; if yours are still young, do you hover more than you'd like to? If they are older, how did you handle their need for independence combined with your need to assure their safety?

I'm still working on the right combination - mostly, I try to stop and think before immediately saying "no." I also try to include the boys in decisions about their independence/my need for their safety, and I'm learning that making mistakes can be good for them. Not set-the-house-on-fire, lose-an-arm kind of mistakes, but still... as the saying goes, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Thanks to Lenore Skenazy, my 8 year-old makes a great omelet!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Maple Sugaring

I guess we have field trips on the brain, and a good thing, too - recently, we got to go maple sugaring!

One great thing about living in the northeast are the maple trees, and the lovely, delicious syrup they produce after many, many hours of boiling down the sap, which is 97% water when collected from the trees. Come with us as we learn all about maple syrup!

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

The key to maple syrup is, not surprisingly, a maple tree. What did surprise us was learning that any maple tree will do, contrary to the conventional wisdom that only sugar maples produce sugary sap (other maples have less sugar in their sap, but not by much). And, the tree has to be at least 10 inches in diameter, making it about 40 years old. Clearly, maple farmers aren't in it for their own generation!

In these next pics, the kids are first drilling into the tree, and then gently hammering the tap into place. Even before the tap went in, sap started coming out!

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

Now, here we all are, listening intently to the lovely 'plink, plink, plink' sound that the sap makes as it hits the bottom of the bucket. Our ranger, a maple sugarer himself, gave us these few moments of just listening because it's his favorite part of the whole sugaring process... I think it's my favorite, too.

From winter 08 09

Then, we checked the buckets put up yesterday to see how much sap they've collected - quite a lot, as it turned out, enough to share among all the kids' buckets, which they then carried off to the area where the sap gets boiled down into syrup.

From winter 08 09

Nowadays, this is done in a huge, outdoor, wood-fired boiler:

From winter 08 09

Watching this brought back memories for me of living in a great old farmhouse as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Happily, when it was time to find housing I lucked out and got into this awesome house, shared by myself and 4 housemates. One of them, Tom, tapped the maple trees in our yard, and then boiled the sap down on the woodstove in the kitchen, turning a huge pot of sap into a pint or two of syrup each spring. Maple sugaring always reminds me of those years, for which I am so thankful - I loved my time out there!

Maple sugaring was honed into a fine art by the Native Americans, long before Europeans came on the scene. They tapped the trees like this:

From winter 08 09

And then boiled the sap into syrup using hot rocks:

From winter 08 09

That smoke smelled so good, Luke and Owen had the kids all chanting, "I love rabbits," a takeoff of our family's habit of saying "I hate rabbits" to make campfire smoke move away from us (don't know where it came from, does anyone else do this?)

Before we went out into the woods, we watched a movie about maple sugaring in Massachusetts, and it was such a treat because it featured kids, out sugaring alongside their parents, and talking about this tradition that had often been in their families for generations.

One dad spoke of his desire that his children have a 'sense of place,' and how maple sugaring accomplishes this. While out sugaring, in the beautiful, quiet woods, I think I understood what he meant - and now we are looking for maple trees to tap for syrup, too!

Monday, March 9, 2009

On the Virtual Field Trip

Finally, the big day arrives!

Good morning, and welcome to the Virtual Field Trip! Please make sure that you are sitting comfortably:

From winter 08 09

Also, have your passport ready for better service.

From winter 08 09

Previously, the bus was driven by expert driver Owen:

From winter 08 09

...but today he has graciously ceded this post to two very competent professionals, Dog and Panda.

From winter 08 09

Now, sit back, grab some cushions, blankets and a snack, and let's hit the road!

From winter 08 09

Virtual Field Trip at

What a wonderful, wonderful trip! From the moment we heard the Magic School Bus theme song, we were hooked - and then, when Luke found out about the passport links he was jumping for joy. Anything 'official' like that really brings him in, and as Luke is a duel citizen of Canada and the US, he had a choice of official passports, so he was just over the moon.

Owen, still only 4 and not really inclined to sit in any one place for too long, enjoyed the whole passport-creation event, and some of the postings, but Luke and I sat, captivated, in the bus for more than an hour, and still only got into Utah - giving us the rest of the posts to visit later this week!

Some of Luke's favorites were Goblin Valley, the Pirate Adventure, and the Lincoln Log Cabin, especially for the 'build-a-log-cabin' game. I enjoyed the Lincoln Log Cabin too, and also Mt. Vernon in Virginia, and so many other places...

Best of all, now that the kiddos are asleep I can go back in and check out the whole trip again!

Jena, thank you so much for this. It is a true gift, from a talented blogger.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Unintended Consequences of a Poorly Written Law

We interrupt this idyllic, springlike weekend to call attention to a hypothetical issue that has turned into a very real, BIG problem.

You may remember, back in January, when I posted about a news item that had me - along with a large number of others - worried (read my posts here and here). It was the lead-ban law, passed last August, and the concern was that thrift and Goodwill stores, flea-marketers and anybody holding a yard sale would be subject to punishment if they sold anything intended for children under 13 that was later found to contain lead. Since no one in their right mind would test every incoming item for lead content, we worried, the law would mean a nation of very full landfills - and a lot of empty thrift and Goodwill stores, flea markets, and yard sales.

So, we fast-forward to yesterday. I had almost totally forgotten that this law was an issue, since the original date listed, sometime in mid-February, for trouble to begin had come and gone; I nearly fell over when I walked into our favorite local thrift shop and found that all the toys, baby things, and nearly all the kids' clothing was GONE.

They had to throw it all away - completely filling their Dumpster, so the lady in charge told me - by February 26 or else risk being put out of business in case they sold a product that was later found to contain lead.

I was speechless and utterly heart-sick. All the way home, I kept thinking of clothing and toys that we had purchased from the shop that is now contraband; any clothing with snaps, zippers, fasteners of any kind, and so many toys that I couldn't possibly remember them all. By the time we got home, I had gotten over 'shocked' and moved on to 'outraged.'

Here is what the boys and I did about it:

From winter 08 09

We piled every toy we own, and every piece of clean clothing that is now against the law to sell (but okay to own, I guess) into a stack so big, we could hardly walk into the living room. Here's the whole thing from another angle:

From winter 08 09

As Ben pointed out while looking at this pile, which took us nearly an hour to put together, "this is just one moment in time," meaning that this is where the kids are right now, our assemblage will change as they grow out of these and need stuff for bigger kids.

I'm angry about this on so many levels: first, none of the items in that pile can be resold. When I picture us throwing all these perfectly good toys and clothes away, actual bile comes up into my throat. Because of the law, that is what will happen to all this stuff; if we get into trouble for selling it and cannot donate it, what the hell else are we supposed to do with it?

Secondly, there are people who need these things! Especially the clothes, but I think you can argue that kids need fun, interesting, and durable toys, too, at least a few. And, has anyone considered the frostbite risk if the truly poor cannot purchase used winter jackets for their children because of the supposed lead risk?

Third is the natural resources used up when everyone buys everything new. I'm still speechless about this one, so I will refer you to Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff.

Fourth, why age thirteen? Kids stop putting things in their mouths around 3 or 4, so what is up with this?!?

Last but not least - until I think of more reasons which I can discuss without spluttering - is how Kafka-esque this law feels! Like everyone, I worry about the risk of lead in products intended for children. I don't want anyone to end up with lead poisoning, but I am shocked at the approach taken by Congress to prevent this possibility. Everyone is punished under this law, most especially the people who depend on second-hand goods to clothe their children and give them joy.

During our last visit to the thrift shop before the poorly written law took effect, Owen stood looking at our toy haul as it sat on the counter while we added up what it would cost. He said of the 50-cent Bob the Builder interactive workbench and one or two other cute little 25-cent toys: "Mom, I feel so rich!"

Thanks to this crappy piece of legislation, he may never say that again.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Big Yellow Bus

This is a very exciting week for us here at the Stone Age Techie: we're getting ready for a field trip!

It's a virtual field trip, and if you look up in the top right-hand corner of my blog, you will see how you can go, too.

Totally awesome interest-led homeschooling mom Jena at Yarns of the Heart came up with this superb idea, in which we send along posts of our favorite (not necessarily recent) field trips to her by tomorrow - March 6th - and then on the following Monday, the 9th, we depart through her blog to points exciting and unknown.

Because Owen has never been on a 'real' school bus, and most likely never will, he is very much jonesin' for this experience. So, in honor of the Virtual Field Trip, we're constructing a school bus!

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

From winter 08 09

On Monday, the three of us will sit in the bus and with the power of modern technology (our laptop), we'll visit all the great places that our fellow homeschoolers have been via Yarns of the Heart. If you have been somewhere interesting, and blogged about it, please share by sending the link along to Jena.

We can't wait to check out the virtual field trip!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why We Homeschool

Last spring, I surveyed parents in my area who had removed their kids from public school in order to homeschool them. And, even though I took Luke out because the academic pressure in the early grades made him sick, I still felt in my heart of hearts that he was unique in this respect, and that most other families homeschool for religious or family values reasons. These reasons are perfectly valid, but as it turns out, not the main reasons given by the parents who responded to my survey.

Anybody have a guess as to what the #1 reason, cited by every single parent, might be?

Yep: academics.

A few parents cited academics and religion, a few cited academics and social issues - but they all expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the curriculum and teaching methods their children received in the local public schools. They ran the gamut from gifted children who spent the bulk of their school days giving quizzes and correcting their peers' papers - I'm sure you can imagine how popular those lucky children were - to very bored, smart kids who became behavior issues in class, and on to children with special needs whose education plans were not honored and who were harmed emotionally because they were part of the 'dumb' class, and who didn't learn anything to boot.

With all this in mind, I'm excited to share an article of mine, published this month in both the online and print versions of Parents and Kids. You can find it here.

Update, 4/12/09: Unfortunately, Parents and Kids has no archive, so my article is not currently on the web. If you are interested in reading it, please email me at and I will send you a copy.

In it, I tell our story about why we homeschool, discuss last spring's survey, and answer commonly asked questions that we homeschoolers get. If you enjoy it, I hope you'll pass it on; the more dissatisfied parents learn that homeschooling is a great alternative, the more kids can get out of school and start learning.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Practical Knowledge

Even though Luke is so healthy, vibrant, and knowledgeable about almost any subject you'd care to mention, I still worry about the traditional sorts of things that he doesn't know yet. Math facts, long division, the diagram of a sentence; these are subjects Luke does not know much about because they don't particularly interest him.

While I do worry, I have confidence in Luke. It springs from the knowledge that, should he suddenly become interested, he will learn those subjects faster than you can say 'standardized test.'

At the Life Without School blog over the weekend, I read a great post about what kids should know, when. Laureen, the author, wonders where practical knowledge fits into a child's education. For her family, living on a seafaring Catamaran, 'practical knowledge' takes on a different meaning than for us landlubbers. Still, Laureen's point is made every day, right here in our home.

Each time Luke cooks himself an egg, asks a question and then says 'hey, I know where I can find this out!', begs to get on the library website to search for books on his favorite subjects, makes connections between seemingly unrelated subjects, says 'I don't get why this is funny' when reading the comics and then really listens while I explain it to him - he learns so much about metaphors, sarcasm, facetiousness, mottos, and other conventions of English as well as our culture, just from the comics! - each time he pokes his head up from the blankets in the morning, he learns infinitely practical stuff.

It doesn't stop at practical, though. Luke is capable of seriously high-level critical thinking, and participates actively in family discussions about any topic from chicken-keeping to the American Revolution. He may not remember each and every fact he's ever learned - although, he does a better job with this than his mother, for sure - but I think he is expert at a more important skill: how to research, really learn , about a subject.

And, I ask you, what is more practical than that?

From The Stone Age Techie