Sunday, January 31, 2010

Everything Seems Bigger When You Are A Kid

As part of our wintertime phys ed regimen, we went swimming today at a nearby pool:

My friend Angela took these pics. Thanks, Angela! They are really cute.

If you look at the top pic closely, you can see all the way to the other end of the pool. It is quite a long way away, perhaps 75 feet or so. But to me it looked small today because the last time I came to this pool, I was about eight and was taking swimming lessons there.

The pool looked really really big back then. So big, in fact, that I never actually got in it during my swimming lessons. I sat on the side; the poor instructor didn't stand a chance of getting me in there. The pool has this really great ledge, about a foot wide and a few inches lower than the edge, and kids and parents alike sit on it to get used to the water. But when I was small, sitting on that ledge was the closest I ever got to swimming.

And, I used to totally lie to my Mom about how great I was, too! There is a diving board at this pool, and I would go home and tell that I was jumping in off the high diving board, when in fact I wouldn't even go near it. Finally, one week my Mom came to observe her swimming prodigy and discovered the truth. She asked after class, 'why did you tell me you were jumping in off the high diving board?' And I told her, 'because I wanted you to think I was doing good at swimming' - without adding, 'so that I could stop this farce of weekly lessons during which I waste my time, and the instructor's, by not even getting wet.'

But I have a great Mom; I didn't have to add that last bit out loud. The weekly agony was stopped, and I learned to swim at my own pace, in peace. Thank you, Mom!

Here's the kicker: today, I knew that the pool would be smaller than I remembered, and I knew that the high diving board would be as well. Still, I thought, even if the diving board isn't exactly Olympic size, it's probably still pretty high, right? Fifteen, twenty feet, at least? Nope - it's four feet out of the water. Four feet.

I wondered how high it looked to Luke and Owen - who didn't jump in off the board, but swam happily over much of the rest of the pool. Luke, along with our buddy from down the street, even cannonballed in.

Right from the spot where, so long ago, I refused to put so much as a toe in the water.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Big Bad Bunny Slippers

My obsession with knitting, and especially felting, continues. I love how you can take a big, lumpy, odd-looking batch of knitting and turn it into just the loveliest, softest, coziest pair of slippers:

Here is what these looked like before I felted the heck out of them, in a bucket in my bathtub:

They were too big even for me, and they were intended for Luke, whose two favorite colors right now are blue and brown. I was skeptical about them ever felting down enough to fit either of us, but thankfully they did. Here is one next to my foot just to show you:

Now they fit Luke perfectly. And, I have to say it's very gratifying that he keeps them at the bottom of his loft ladder, so he can slip right into them in the mornings!

Owen really, really wanted bunny slippers - but they'd have to be big-boy, kinda tough bunny slippers for a manly five-year-old like him. So we made them in his favorite color, fire-engine red, and I'll give them a brown tail ASAP (probably tomorrow). These are the unfelted slippers:

The pattern (which, along with the pattern for Luke's stripy slippers, came from Knit One, Felt Too, an awesome book for obsessed felters) says to sew on the ears after felting, and so that is what I did - they aren't attached in that pic up there.

And here they are all done:

Aren't they SO freaking cute?

It makes me smile that this boy, who recently has begun to lecture about how the color pink is good for girls, but not boys, and who has attempted to ban music with female vocals on the grounds that he is a boy and boys do NOT listen to music sung by girls, is running around in bunny slippers.

But only very masculine bunny slippers, of course.

Monday, January 25, 2010

All About the Accessories

We did a really excellent thing on Friday:

Yep, that is Owen, rock climbing! Luke took the picture and, since Owen isn't quite up to competent camera usage, I have no pics of Luke climbing because you can't belay somebody and take pictures at the same time. (The belayer is the person who's holding the rope that prevents disaster.)

After I learned how to belay, a process which took about an hour and consisted of learning to tie the climber into the rope and learning to take up slack, brake (to stop a fall), and feed the rope as the climber 'spidermans' back down, we went up to the beginner section. It was so cool because the more advanced climbs are all 40 ft high, and they built the beginner section to start upstairs so that our 20 ft climb started halfway up the advanced wall, and the boys felt like they were among the experts.

Not that Luke is a beginner anyway; he climbed a wall a few years ago and surprised the heck out of me by getting all the way to the top. But it seems that he had less fear at seven than he does now, at the ripe old age of nine, because once he got on the wall he was downright nervous about both the climbing and the spidermanning.

Actually, I thought at first that climbing was not going to be either kid's favorite thing. They were both nervous about getting too high and didn't trust that the belay would keep them safe. So long about lunch time I thought, well, at least we tried it, and started getting ready to go. That's when the girl running the place gave Luke a bag full of magic dust - chalk, the climber's handy helper. As much as chalk actually does help in climbing, the coolness factor of carrying gear attached to a carabiner, attached to your harness, is what really helped get them over their fears. Kind of like Dumbo with the feather.

So, once chalk was introduced into the equation, they started climbing in earnest.

Also, they loved the specific language used by climbers. Once all the safety checks have been completed, and the climber is tied in, he says, 'on belay?' and the belayer says 'belay on.' Then, the climber states, 'climbing,' and the belayer says, 'climb on.' Each time we switched kids, or switched paths helpfully charted up the 20-foot wall (with cute names like Red Brick Road or Climb Bling), we tied in, checked ropes, and had that little exchange about the belay.

I had to drag them out of there when the threat of rush hour gearing up outside became too much for me, some four hours later. I think they would have been kicking and screaming - except that, by then, they could barely move their arms with all the climbing they'd done. They slept better that night than they have since we closed the swimming pool back in August!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dragon Woods

Growing up, I totally took the woods behind my house for granted. I stomped in the stream in any weather, ran there when I was mad or overwhelmed, took my dog running around the boulders and through the oaks and pines. At a guess, I probably spent fifteen to twenty hours a week out in those woods.

It's only in the last year or so that Luke and Owen have been exploring at all behind our house - in fact, it's only today that I begin to know how incredibly, stupidly lucky we are to live with woods at our back.

Here is what Owen's looking at:

It is called Five Dragon Path Tree, on account of there are five huge trees growing together. It is just one of many landmarks the boys have named in the woods behind our house.

We saw wonders large and small today, on my first hike - and the boys' longest so far - into Dragon Woods.

Luke's standing beside Knucker Stream - named after the Knucker Dragon, of course.

The moss growing on the water, in a lovely patch of sunlight in these still woods, fascinated all of us.

It was quiet during the day, but the evidence of night-time mayhem was everywhere:

We're thinking those are some kind of cat, possibly a fisher cat - if anyone knows for sure, or knows of a good field guide to help us identify them, please say so!

Here is what we think that creature pursued:

(The rabbit, not the human.) I felt a bit like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, searching for clues to the whereabouts of his hobbit friends when he came upon the footprints of a fierce fight, and using the prints to figure out what had happened. Not that I could draw any conclusions, mind, with my extreme tracking inexperience. But a girl can dream, can't she?

We wandered farther into Dragon Woods than ever before; everyone was happy to return to the part of the woods that we know best. It's marked, somewhat incongrously, by Pride Rock:

Pride Rock, named for the seat of lion power in The Lion King, brings you up high enough so that you can survey the whole of Dragon Woods.

I think Luke and Owen really do feel like they rule here, in our lovely little corner.

Just as I once ruled in the woods behind my home.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What is a Real Education?

Whoa. I've just read an article in The Atlantic Monthly, and let me tell you, it is a doozy. Entitled Cultivating Failure, the article disses California teachers and administrators who espouse gardening in school in addition to readin', ritin', and 'rithmetic.

It's a rant designed, it seems, to bring progressive educators, anyone who disagrees with author Caitlin Flanagan's near-Puritanical viewpoint about the 3 R's and, one imagines, garden-lovers, to spluttering rage. I must say, it worked on me. If you have a few minutes and feel like you haven't done enough spluttering today, go read it - and then come back, and let me know what you have to say. Go on, I'll wait for you.

So, what'd you think? Were you able to get past the deliberately inflammatory language, like the part where the author calls those who eat at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant "ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting [men] or [women] of the people"? Or, where she compares time spent by children gardening in school to sharecropping in the Jim Crow south?

The reader certainly gets a sense of what Flanagan feels kids should be doing in school instead of gardening: they should spend their entire schooling - 12,960 hours over twelve years of school, by my count - bent over their books, learning math and reading. Anything else, she seems to believe, is positively criminal, judging by her references to 'precious school hours' that should be spent, for example, 'writing paragraphs on The Crucible.'

But here is my question: isn't the kind of school that Flanagan wants a prison in itself? Isn't it a great way to turn children off to the excitement of learning? I think my head might explode if I spent six hours a day in instructional time, and I'm an adult without the energy level of a typical five-year-old! The author is very Professor Umbridge-y in her viewpoint about school, even as she claims to know how to teach children best.

Repeatedly, the value of a good education is reduced in this article to a score on a test. The question 'why learn?' is answered, both overtly and subtly, with 'to get into college' or 'to score well.' There is absolutely no discussion of creativity, curiosity, the thrill of figuring something out.

I think that this is because the gist of the article is that gardening in school is especially bad for - and a tremendous insult to - poor, minority students whose parents or grandparents picked (or even still pick) food in orchards owned by others. And I'm not saying that the situation for poor minority families in California is a good one - but, once they pass the test and get that all-important piece of paper that says they passed the test, what do the sons and daughters do then? Start working at some crummy job, exchanging mindless button-pushing for tomato-picking?

Maybe that is what they do; while I've always been lucky enough to have food on the table, I've worked some crummy jobs in my time. But when I wasn't cleaning toilets or laundering the skivvies of total strangers, I was still using my brain, reading because I wanted to, or playing board games because I couldn't afford a tv, or going for a walk or even... wait for it... gardening.

Because my curiosity and love of learning was NOT squelched by endless drilling in school. I went on field trips, performed science experiments, had the extreme luxury, by today's standards, of two recesses per day until sixth grade and gym twice a week, and spent plenty of time just playing with classmates. I learned that learning is about more than the times tables and how to tell a subject from a predicate.

I kept thinking about The Alliance for Childhood while I read Flanagan's article about how bad gardening is for children, and how offensive we should all find gardening in school especially if our forbears relied on manual labor (as mine did) for a living.

The Alliance for Childhood is a group of educators including some of my heroes in the field, like Dr. David Elkind, child development specialist and author of The Hurried Child and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, Sue Bredekamp, who co-wrote Developmentally Appropriate Practice, a book I reference even in homeschooling, and Alfie Kohn, who writes so persuasively against standardized testing. Two of them, Joan Almon and Edward Miller, have written a mind-blowing paper,Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, in which they review several studies about how much time young children spend in teacher-directed activities (like math and reading) versus child-directed ones (like recess and imaginative play). Any guesses about how much time kids spend in each? Here's a hint: mostly teacher-directed and nearly none, or actually none, child-directed.

Miller and Almon also discuss the ramifications, for children and our entire society, of the overwhelmingly teacher-directed world school has become for Kindergarteners, and it's not good:

As one kindergarten teacher put it, “If I give the children time to play, they don’t know what to do. They have no ideas of their own.” This is a tragedy, both for the children themselves and for our nation and world. No human being can achieve his full potential if his creativity is stunted in childhood. And no nation can thrive in the 21st century without a highly creative and innovative workforce. Nor will democracy survive without citizens who can form their own independent thoughts and act on them. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, pg. 8)

But, what is the power of a child's own ideas compared with a great score on a test? I guess that is the real question.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Learning Extensions, Analog and Digital...

... or a bit of both:

Owen, and Luke for that matter, is fascinated with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and we only added fuel to that fire by giving Ben a LOTR game for Playstation. They spent most of the week after Christmas, and the week after that, watching their Dad battle cave trolls, orcs, and Uruk-Hai (which Owen refuses to believe are orcs, he thinks they are a whole different, super-bad race). So the pic up there is Owen, dressed as Legolas the elf, with straws for arrows and a wonderful polished stick (one of the best, most-used gifts he's ever gotten, incidentally) as his bow.

He loves to dress as a character and act out a part. I always know when he has taken something in, because he'll go around spouting lines perfectly from story, poetry... or video games. If that's not an extension to learning, I don't know what is.

Luke has re-discovered Dance Mat Typing, the funnest way to learn to type that I have ever seen. I'm serious, you have not lived until you've heard the cute moose host in the sunglasses tell you about the 'home row keys.' It's free, and as you go through the program, you get a certificate when you pass each level. Sure beats the grumpy keyboarding teacher that I had in high school!

Although I haven't really talked about it here yet, Luke had a very techie Christmas, finally fulfilling his life's dream when Santa brought him a Nintendo DS. He also got a great game, Brain Age, which turns out to be a learning extension, too. In fact, it is downright educational, and Luke plays it every day to exercise his brain.

Finally, and most analog of all, Lego fever has come to our home. Until this week, Luke directed others as to what to make with Legos for him to play with. He's always functioned around blocks in a purely supervisory capacity - but then, we got invited to join a Lego club and, coincidentally in the same week, he was given a Lego club magazine with directions for how to build underwater creatures. Suddenly, he's building, spending hours creating old-fashioned telephones, dolphins, little space speeders... It's a good thing Owen has loved Lego for a while, because we actually have a fair amount of it around.

And, are they really so analog? There was one last spark to Luke's Lego fire this week: Lego Digital Designer, free, downloadable software for designing your own creations, or checking out others'. And the coolest thing is, you can design something digitally and then buy the Legos to make it in analog!

Block-building could be one of the most intellectually creative activities, I am so glad Luke has finally caught on. Talk about a learning extension!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where in the World are Grandma and Grandpa?

In Auckland, New Zealand, as it turns out:

My parents are on the trip of their lives, traveling west around the globe until July (assuming that they have not killed each other by then, of course... heh heh). And the cool thing is, they're reporting in here periodically, so that we can have an awesome virtual field trip! Here's my Mom, writing about New Zealand:

So far the countryside is absolutely fabulous! We drove down the east coast from Whitianga to Turangi this morning - the highways - not the backroads! - through the mountains are like ski runs - I had to make Dad stop twice so I could get my stomach settled. But I'm going to get over it - there's no way I'm not getting around this country! The mountains look like the farm in Babe! Was that filmed in NZ? Sheep and cattle on these steep grassy hills - I was laughing this morning remembering what Dad told you guys when you were little - when we saw cows on the sides of steep hills he told you those cows had shorter legs on one side!! These animals must!

When they left here, from the East coast, a few Sundays ago, we had trouble figuring out what time it would be in New Zealand when they landed - they flew across the international dateline causing us to wonder, if they flew for twenty-some hours, would they land on Monday, or Tuesday their local time? I must be honest, I still haven't figured this out. But Ben came across a great web site, World Time, so now at least we have a visual - see in the sidebar over there?

My Dad gave me the best time-tip yet: "To change from Eastern Standard Time to New Zealand time, subtract six hours from current East coast time - and then, add 24 hours because it's really tomorrow here." Easy, right?

My folks have seen some amazing sights this week. They attended a Maori meal, in which they became members of The Tribe of All Nations, about 150 visitors to New Zealand who went and met with the Maori Nation for dinner. Here are a few pics of the Maori, sent by my Mom:

She says, "[Here are] two tattooed Maori warriors. Their faces are done with paint these days, but back only 50 years ago these face decorations were carved right into the men's (warriors) skin." This next picture represents fifty-five hours of tattooing:

I can tell you that the 3X4 inch tattoo I have on my lower leg took an excruciating one hour and twenty minutes. But fifty-five hours, my goodness!

In all seriousness, my parents' trip has sparked an interest in learning more about the Maori, a tough, proud people with a rich culture and history. Here is a Wikipedia entry about them, and if anyone knows of any good books for children on Maori culture, or history, or both, please let me know!

Here's a pic of the New Zealand national bird, the Kiwi:

You just can't talk about New Zealand in our house without bringing up Peter Jackson's amazing film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. (No, the boys haven't seen it yet, but they've heard the story - in a long telling that took several days - and played the Trivial Pursuit game, and seen a few choice scenes on YouTube.) If you have not seen the trilogy yet, then go and do so - because this video of Owen battling the Balrog won't make any sense:

And I must leave off on this, a not-entirely-child-friendly merging of two of the best acts ever to come out of New Zealand. Yes, it's Flight of the Conchords' "Frodo, Don't Wear the Ring:"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I am the Queen of Felting

I love the idea that homeschooling isn't just for the kids, it's for the parents too; while the young ones learn about whatever they want to, so can we. It's in this spirit that I took up knitting over the holidays and, while I have been knitting for only a month or so, I've certainly dived right in.

I finished this sweater last week, and I love it. I called it my experimental sweater, a good name because it doesn't really fit me all that well - it's too long in the arms and too broad in the shoulders, while at the same time it's not quite long enough in the body and so I end up looking like a gorilla wearing a sweater that's too short. It is not pretty, which is too bad, because it is such a lovely sweater.

As I was finishing it up, I realized that this knitting stuff is habit-forming, and that I felt really strange without something somewhere on needles. So I decided to make a felted tote from the best knitting book ever (the one we've taken to calling 'Stitch n' Complain' in our house because the real name contains a swear.) I figure I'll use the tote to keep my knitting in, so that I can take it with me wherever I want, instead of using the far-less-transportable basket that houses current projects now.

But the felting presented a problem: to take wool and turn it to felt requires very hot water and agitation. Most people toss their projects into the washing machine to accomplish the task. But we have a front-loader - great for saving water, and cutting down on drying time and wear on clothes - but sucky for felting because you can't stop the washer to see when it's time to stop felting, and also it hardly agitates at all (hence the less wear on clothes). I would have to find another way.

First I tried boiling the heck out of a gauge swatch, but after ten solid minutes of rapid boiling, all I had was a house that smelled like a herd of sheep lived here. So then I found a blog post on the web in which the blogger stuck her project in a bucket on a towel in her bathtub and used a (clean, new) plunger to agitate in very hot water. I must admit I was skeptical, especially after the boiled-on-the-stove experience, but I tossed the swatch into the bucket along with a bit of dish soap and a pair of Owen's jeans, and in about three minutes, voila! I had felt.

Now, it was time to take my finished bag and try it with that.

There it is. I was afraid to stick it in the bucket, because I worked so hard on it.

And here we are mid-agitation. I am getting scared at this point, after five or so minutes of hard labor, that maybe it won't take.

But after another few minutes, less than five, it worked! It felt all felty. So I rolled it up in a towel to get out some of the moisture, and then laid it flat to dry.

And THAT is why I feel that I can call myself the Queen of Felting. Best of all, I ended up with about two combined skeins of yarn in three different colors, so I can make other stuff to felt! Socks, mittens, perhaps another purse... habit-forming, I'm telling you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Acquisition of Proper English

This morning, while Luke described the trajectory of something he'd been reading about, he pronounced it with the emphasis on the first syllable so that it came out 'TRAjectory' instead of 'traJECtory,' as we would normally say it.

It made me pause and think: he mispronounced the word because he's only ever read it, and never heard it spoken. And I just found that so cool!

He's done this before, with the word 'motto' - I wrote about it here - pronouncing it 'mow-tow' and knowing of this word only from literature. Comics, actually, thus making the case that Calvin and Hobbes is truly high art.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how humans learn language, and the telling (not to mention cute!) mistakes we make along the way. Things like when Owen says "I'm pretty funny, amn't I?" He knows that it's a contraction, like isn't, but somewhere in the hard drive of his mind, he knows that isn't... well, isn't.

And then, there are the unpronounce-ables; when Luke was two or so, he used to call mustard 'shmenky,' because he just couldn't get his mouth around the word mustard. Naturally in our family we now always say 'pass the shmenky please.' He also used to say 'chip-chop cookies' instead of chocolate chip. When I was a girl, one younger brother called me 'Wee-wah' and the other called me 'Nenni' - I guess even 'Karen' can be tough for little ones!

I also love the substitutions, words that get put in place of the actual words; Owen calls Sprite 'Sprout' on the rare occasions he gets to have it. Again when I was a girl, one brother jokingly told my family that he was feeling sick to his stomach; he reported: "I'm nauseating!" We haven't heard a substitution from Luke for quite a while, and then a week or so ago he came out with this one while we were out on a walk, overlooking a fast-running stream: "Hey, look at those jimmies!" Ben and I exchanged glances, trying to figure out what a jimmy might be, and then it clicked - he meant eddies, those little whirlpools that you see in fast-running water.

Another word that he's read, but never heard, and another chance for me think: that is so cool!