Thursday, May 28, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

For about a month now, we've gotten together with ten or so homeschool families to play pick-up baseball once a week. It's been awesome.

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

The kids range in age from four to fifteen, and I'm continually amazed at the patience and kindness of the older ones to the younger ones, and the capacity for understanding the game and tenacity of the younger ones.

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

They don't know all the rules (or, sometimes, practically any), but they take coaching very well, and their joy at just being on the field is palpable.

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

From pick up baseball

We started pick-up baseball because we wanted an inexpensive, low-key way for the kids to play ball, but it's become something more, now, at least for me.

It's the embodiment of good socialization; when the kids get frustrated, friends help them out. When the facilitator (me) gets a back injury, other parents take over. When the town in which the field is located tells us they need money (oddly, for reasons of 'liability'), participants step up in such numbers that it ends up only costing $10 per family for two months of baseball. When these kids' parents who work outside the home want a day off, several of them choose pick-up baseball day.

It's not just baseball anymore. It's a community.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Artist at Work

It doesn't take much to make Owen happy right now:

From Spring 09

From Spring 09

The keys seem to be paint suitable for windows - in our case, tempera mixed equally with dish soap (I was skeptical about getting it off the windows, but surprisingly it comes off quite easily even after hanging around for several weeks) - in at least two colors, newspaper for the floor, a nice tall window, and, most importantly, the step stool. Because, what fun it it painting only to your own height?

I love four, the age at which yellow + blue = green is pure magic... especially when you add in the step stool.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cheeky Chicken

So, I went downstairs to check on the girls, and snapped this cute pic of them all:

From Spring 09

Then, I turned away and heard a distinctly odd sound, something scraping on hard plastic. I looked back at the girls, and found this:

From Spring 09

Pippi, so named because of her flair for adventure, had hopped up on top of their waterer!

From Spring 09

One more hop, and she'd be out of the brooder - so, now the whole thing is covered in netting with no way for her to escape. Cheeky girl.

Chicken Progress

From Spring 09

They're growing...

From Spring 09

From Spring 09

As is their coop! Ben has worked unceasingly on this all weekend, and so now the henhouse (where the boys are) is taking shape, as is the roof, and the door.

I love seeing the coop out there, and I think it won't be ready a moment too soon; our girls are growing bigger and more active by the minute.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Higher-Level Mathematics

I nearly spluttered tea all over the place while reading this article in The Boston Globe today.

The gist: because lots of teachers-to-be didn't pass the new math section of their teacher-certification exam here in Massachusetts, the children they will go on to teach will suffer an inability to grasp the concepts taught in their eventual classes. Now, I can see that if you are going to teach higher-level math, or specialized math like trigonometry or calculus, you'd better know what you are doing. But somehow, I managed to be a pretty damn good early childhood teacher without extensive knowledge of calculus, trigonometry, or statistics and probability. In fact, I've managed to live a pretty damn full life without extensive knowledge in these subjects! (Recently, though, statistics and probability have piqued my interest, and so now I do know quite a bit about them - read about that here.)

My gut reaction upon reading this was outrage, and since I finished the article I've been trying to figure out why.

Partly, it's because of the attitude here in Massachusetts that testing is the key to all learning, and if we can only get everyone to pass the extensive testing required to graduate, they will miraculously be prepared for Life. So untrue! And thousands upon thousands of children who don't test well, or would rather be learning in their own way, or what they want to learn about, suffer for it. In fact, I think that they suffer for the rest of their lives - the lesson that they learned in school is to put away their interests and curiosity, to shut up and study for the test.

But also, there is the issue of educators' bragging rights. In this day and age, our young people graduate without the knowledge to compare credit card offers (it's true! read about it here), yet educators want them all to know high-level, theoretical math. From the Globe article: State education leaders enacted the new certification requirement so Bay State students can better compete internationally. Massachusetts lags behind parts of China and other Asian countries on international measures, even though the state routinely tops national standardized tests. Just last week, the American Institutes for Research released a report entitled "Why Massachusetts Students, the Best in the US, Lag Behind Best-in-the-World Students of Hong Kong."

I wondered, why do we care so much about our global standing in mathematics? More to the point - why does this standing matter to Massaschusetts' students? Chances are good that not many of them aspire to be mathematicians, and even if they did, how many actuaries or trigonometry professors could one state really employ?

But here is what got me maddest about this article: the assumption that because of the ignorance of the teachers-in-training in higher-level mathematics, their future students are doomed to ignorance, too. All the blame for the children's (percieved)shortcomings is put on their teachers, as if the children cannot learn without somebody force-feeding them the standard curriculum!

Here is a short-list of Things My 8-Year-Old Knows More About Than Me: How to do preferred searches on our library web site. Comets, the solar system, and space in general. Dinosaurs. Dragons. Greek and Egyptian mythology. Volcanoes, fossils, and rocks. There's more too, but the point is, Luke knows about all these subjects because he desired, very much, to learn about them.

I know with certainty that, should he want to learn about trigonometry, algebra, organic chemistry, or countless other high-level subjects that I, his teacher, know little or nothing about, he will learn about them.

I'll help by guiding him to the books and/or people who'll help him learn - not by becoming an expert in the chosen subjects. I mean, whose learning is it, anyway, his or mine?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Sure Sign of Spring

Just a little pet peeve of mine: the salespeople who swarm our neighborhood each spring, selling magazine subscriptions. Does this happen in anyone else's neighborhood? For every kid selling candy bars (which we might buy), or lawn specialist hawking chemicals (ain't gonna happen), we get at least ten magazine sellers (stodgy people that we are, we're pre-paid by several years for the only three magazine subscriptions we get: Newsweek, The Funny Times, and Consumer Reports.).

So, the kids and I came up with a little poem, which we posted very conspicuously out front:

Please do not ring, or knock on the door/

You will surely find, as your colleagues before/

That we will not buy, causing you to sadly sigh/

And leave our front door, no richer than before.

It was up there for most of April, and we took it down last Saturday, thinking that maybe the annual onslaught was done... but no! Today they started up again. Any guesses what they were selling?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Good Eats, Cheap!

Anyone else out there experiencing a certain lightness in the pocketbook? For Parents and Kids this month, my Food and Family column addresses eating well, without spending the big bucks.

Do you have any tips for eating well on a budget? If so, please share!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I miss winter's quiet, cozy, by-the-fire feeling, recently replaced with the constant need to be in motion. Around me, everything is singing the songs of spring - the garden! The chicks! The porch that needs refinishing! - and I'm still stuck in the Land of Wintertime Inertia.

Talking to a friend back in February, I referred to blogging as a winter luxury - come spring, I said, I'd be too busy to spend time writing long posts about education. While I don't think that will turn out to be true, I do think that more of the posts will be action-oriented, reflecting what's going on around here. (Until next winter, when I can go back to ranting about phonics, testing, and the lead law :-)

So, here are a few pics of what homeschooling looks like for us right now:

From Spring 09

The girls, in their brooder. They'll stay in here for three or four more weeks, where we can watch them grow and change.

From Spring 09

Here they are! Hermione, named after Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, is on the far left, soon to join her snuggling buddies and take a nap. Baby chicks, it turns out, do a lot of napping.

From Spring 09

Because of her curious, gotta-get-there-first-and-find-out-what's-going-on nature, Luke named this chick Pippi, after Pippi Longstocking. She was the first to eat out of our hands, the first to climb up onto our fingers, and frequently streaks around the brooder to find out what's going on over in that corner. She makes even me, who is chicken about chickens, smile.

From Spring 09

Here is the frame of their coop, which I've been calling the Chicken Palace. Ben will completely enclose this frame with 1/2-inch chicken wire, so no predators can get to our girls. Their actual coop - the small, wooden, locked-at-night part - will be on the upper left, giving them room to hang out under the coop and in the whole rest of the structure during the day, even when we can't let them out into the yard. In a word, it will be awesome.

From Spring 09

Our front garden. Remember when it looked like this? Here are a few more photos of the front:

From Spring 09

From Spring 09

I'm sure that the enthusiasm of all that is going on around me, from plants, humans, and chickens alike, will help me shake off the inertia, and boost me into spring. Looking at these pictures gives me hope that this will be true!

Friday, May 8, 2009

An Inborn Sense of Wonder

Rachel Carson is my hero.

I'm reading about her life in a completely awesome book, How Lincoln Learned to Read by Daniel Wolff, which I can't put down. Wolff's book delves into the early lives of twelve famous Americans, starting with Ben Franklin and moving chronologically forward to Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and all the way to Elvis Presley. We consider what they learned, what was going on around them, and how it shaped them into the adults they would become. This book weaves the lives of these twelve into one beautiful, unconventional quilt of American history - specifically, the history of how young Americans get educated. It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and I have read a LOT of books.

One of these Americans is Rachel Carson, pioneer of the modern environmental movement, biologist, author of Silent Spring. Rachel grew up on a ridge in the Allegheny region of Pennsylvania, and spent much of her childhood wandering the woods around her home. The town in which she lived, Springdale, became a manufacturing Mecca during her childhood. Home to glue and glass factories that spewed out horrific pollution, perhaps it was this early exposure that gave Rachel her first sense of the destruction that can accompany modernity. In any case, she grew up a passionate nature lover, and I think it came easily to her, years later, to speak out and try to help stop the destruction of her - and our - beloved outdoors.

According to Wolff, Rachel hardly attended the public elementary school in her town, preferring instead to be out in nature, or reading and writing books and articles of her own choosing. Her writing was published in a national magazine for children, St. Nicholas, starting from the time she was eleven (if you want to read more about the magazine, go here). One, "My Favorite Recreation," written by fifteen year-old Rachel, chronicles a day in May spent out in the woods, among the pines and birds - "a hymn to nature," Wolff calls it in How Lincoln Learned to Read.

As an adult, Rachel published a magazine article (later turned into a book) called "The Sense of Wonder," in which she writes about the preservation of a child's "inborn sense of wonder." This phrase, which I recall hearing during my teacher training (but never knew that it originated with Rachel), resonated within me - I wanted to be the teacher who could encourage this in my students.

It is Wolff's description of her 'Wonder' article that, for me, elevates Rachel from merely a great American woman to my hero: "The Sense of Wonder" places other forms of learning above school-type learning. Wolff quotes Rachel: "I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel." He then continues: "What [Rachel] calls "a diet of facts" is more hindrance than help."

And that, dear reader, is why we homeschool; to foster this inborn sense of wonder. Learning is so much more than just vocabulary or math facts, and if we make it too much about these things, the spark goes out of our kids. The beauty of all styles of homeschooling, from school-at-home to interest-led, is that the acquisition of facts really doesn't take all that long, certainly not seven hours a day, five days a week, for twelve precious years of a child's life.

I haven't finished it yet, but I suspect that the conclusion of How Lincoln Learned to Read will discuss the need for modern education to include more of the unconventional, and far, far less of the standardized. In nearly every chapter so far, the early education (of these shapers of America) that mattered most didn't take place inside a school. Instead, it was out in the world - in a print shop, in the Civil War, or out in the woods - that these Americans learned their most important lessons.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

They're Here...

... and they are the cutest little things you ever saw!

Here are some pictures of our latest additions, five day-old chicks that we purchased from

From Spring 09

Luke is holding an Australorp chick; we found them - and their sisters, Easter Eggers, using the My Pet Chicken breed selector tool. The breeds we chose are winter-hardy, lay 5 or more eggs a week (in pretty colors!), and most importantly are known to be gentle breeds. Cute, too!

Here they are, in the cardboard brooder made by Ben:

From Spring 09

From Spring 09

From Spring 09

They are under a special light that puts out lots of heat - new babies need it to be around 95 degrees - and it looks like a darkroom even when I used the flash; they are getting daylight, although the pictures don't show it.

When we first got them, all of two hours ago, they huddled together and didn't explore much. But then Luke trained them to go to the waterer and feeder by getting them to follow his fingers! A born animal lover, that kid.

I have held them a few times, and I'm happy to say that I've not been attacked, even once! ...Did I mention my extreme fear of chickens? Luke, of course, picks them up and snuggles them into his palms, as if he's done this every day of his life so far.

Stay tuned, I somehow think that I'll be blogging about the chicks often...

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spring Projects

Taking on insane projects seems to be in our blood in Springtime - to see last year's, go ahead and click here, here, here, and here.

And, this year is no exception! In addition to gardening, Earth Scouts, Pick-Up Baseball, and just regular life, here are some other doozies we've got going on around here:

From Spring 09

We're continuing with the Why Do You Homeschool? study, with surveys coming in from all over the country, and world! In studying that map up there, you may notice that most of the responses come from Massachusetts and New Jersey. Many of these respondents didn't hear about the study from my blog, or even the blogosphere - they read about it in their homeschooling email newsgroups. So, I'd like to ask you, if you haven't already, to consider posting the link to my survey (this is the link), or the survey email address - - into your email newsgroup. The more surveys, the better, and I'll be working on this for at least the summer.

Here's another new, log-term project we've got going this spring:

From Spring 09

No, not a new sleeping-place for Owen - we are getting baby chicks this week! They will live in this brooder for the first month or so of their lives (in the basement, not the living room), and then they will move to the coop that Ben's building out back. This is exciting, and a little scary, and sure to be a big blog topic in the future... especially as I have a fear of chickens that I'm obviously going to have to overcome!

And this last one is not a long-term project, but I wanted to share a pic of this great creation the boys and I made today... think of it as part of our interest-led curriculum:

From Spring 09

A geodesic dome, made of newspaper. Unlike the brooder, this structure will remain in our living room... and may very well become Owen's new sleeping-place!