Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pursuit of Knowledge, The Practice of Discernment (part 2)

While our state as a whole ranks quite high in the "level of education achieved" demographic, our specific geographical area consists almost entirely of folks who opted to end their formal education with their high school diploma. This rarely makes any impression on me whatsoever; there are many, many areas of aptitude in life, and I'm not so haughty as to think that book learning is the only way to go.

I will admit, though, that there's a certain thrill in sitting down with someone who can engage in an animated, detailed discussion of the abstracts of life. Science. Literature. Philosophy. Art. Culture. History. These are the bits that are often missing from my adult conversation. And these are the very things that Cousin Malcolm brought into our home during his short stay.

Cousin Malcolm had barely unloaded his pack when he was regaling us all with tales that rival anything in "Around the World in Eighty Days." A pitch-perfect ear for story-telling, a showman's gift of timing and the habit of producing--at just the right moment--a key piece of evidence only served to fuel our hunger for more of what he was selling.

"So there I was, sitting under a bridge in Paris," one of Cousin Malcolm's stories began, and instantly, we all snapped to attention.

A bridge? In Paris? Do tell!

"So there I was, with my bag--" he swept his hand toward the very sack that now slouched tiredly beside our couch, "just smoking a cigarette under this gorgeous bridge. It was almost night, but not quite. And then, this fellow came by and--you won't believe this!"

His hand disappeared into his pocket. In a moment, he produced a shiny Euro. He held it out for the children to admire, then slipped it into Logan's hand with a wink.

"This man gave me that Euro. He said, 'Here, son, go buy yourself a beer.' And you know the best part? He was Haitian. An artist, of course. It was a riot. I ended up staying with him for a few days. Amazing guy."

From there, Cousin Malcolm dived into a long discussion of the state of modern art in France, then took a detour into the state of government in Haiti before heading back to the bridge in Paris. We rode along on the journey, anxious to hear more. Then he was off again.

"You do know why there are so many ponts in Paris, right? Do you know how long the Seine is? Want to learn a song?"

In the course of a few short days, the topics covered were vast and sundry--and personal. While I've told my children about Marie Curie and her work, Cousin Malcolm took my children along on his personal tour through the Institut Curie. Stops included several theories that she chased, scientists that she worked with and a gaggle of silly biographical stories that morphed a giant of science from an untouchable icon to a woman--a mother--who pursued a dream.

Having been, and seen, and touched for himself, so much of the world is personal to Cousin Malcolm. Who better to open the doors of understanding and insight than one who can give a first person account?

After the children went to bed, those doors swung even wider. Mr. Blandings and I enjoyed bouncing ideas off of Malcolm. String theory ... what do you make of that? Restoring paintings ... good idea? Transubstantion--how do you think that works? What's this I hear about some idea about crystals being alive? Where do you stand on--?

On the second night, we stepped into the idea of Creationism vs. Darwinism. Cousin Malcolm--a cultural, though non-practicing Catholic--has studied the theories of Darwin quite thoroughly but, he revealed, finds holes in the overall findings. A viewing of "Expelled" was arranged. And the conversation took a turn that really wasn't surprising at all. In fact, Paul faced the very same issue in the book of Acts when he visited Athens.

19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Cousin Malcolm was intrigued--absolutely intrigued--by the ideas that we presented to him regarding the many positions that Christians take on Creationism. Old Earth, Young Earth, evolution within species, no evolution within species ...the many shades of the theologies that exist within the Christian community. He swallowed every bit that we could offer eagerly, countering, digging and playing devil's advocate all along the way.

At the end of the night, he was completely satisfied to admit that he was content to have knowledge of, but no commitment to, anything.

And this is what we ultimately discovered about Cousin Malcolm: He is, for all intents and purposes, an Athenian nomad somehow trapped in the wrong time. So great is his knowledge, so curious is his mind, that it is virtually impossible for him to reduce anything to truth. There are simply too many options. Too many alternatives. Too many theories.

The world as Cousin Malcolm knows it is shades of grey. Truth is relative. Worst of all, it is never ever definitive.

This is how I came to realize that not living among the academic giants of our time is really not a loss. There is, after all, such a thing as knowing too much. God created us to wonder, to learn and to pursue truth. But he also created in us a gift that many of the most intelligent minds can somehow not grasp: discernment.

You can be interested, educated and engaging ... but if you lack discernment, what good is any of it? How do you know what theories to hang on to, and which to discard? How do you differentiate between good and better? How do you function?

When you think too much, even the simplest facts of life are much harder to grasp.

"I know how to multiply," Atticus bragged as we sat at breakfast one morning.

"Do you know zero times zero?" Malcolm asked.

"Of course. It's zero."

"But do you know why it's zero?"

"Because if I give no one gives me anything, then I still have nothing," Atticus said.

"Yes, but can you prove that?" queried Malcolm, grabbing a piece of paper from the counter. Within minutes, he was scribbling a proof worthy of a graduate school mathematical course. Which he's taught, of course.

At the end of the lesson, Atticus's brows were knit tightly.

"I think my answer made more sense," said Attiucs. "Nothing times nothing is nothing. I don't see why it has to be so complicated."

We drove Cousin Malcolm an hour and a half east on Sunday. We spent the afternoon tooling around a touristy little village in the mountains, where the children oohed and aaahed at Malcolm's ability to converse with groups from four different countries--in their native tongues, naturally. He entertained us all with a story about apprenticing in a Bavarian clock maker's shop. We ate in a deli, then we dropped Cousin Malcolm at a small, deserted motel. His plan was to walk due east for two days, then pick up a ride at the state line. Jo cried when we pulled away from the curb; I heard Atticus praying for Malcolm's safety as he contemplated, no doubt, the idea of hitchhiking with new and more personal horror.

When we arrived home, we discovered a small parcel of items that Cousin Malcolm had left behind to thank us for our hospitality. A booklet written in hiragana. A sampling of international coins. A bookmark listing the official website of a university's advanced physics lab. And a copy of "The Odyssey," with songs in the original Greek.

What will stay with us the longest, though, are the tales of adventure shared by Cousin Malcolm, who brought strange ideas to our ears ... without necessarily knowing what they meant.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Pursuit of Knowledge, The Practice of Discernment (part 1)

We spent the weekend with a house guest. This is news in my little corner of the world because I never, ever have a house guest. Some people are hospitality central, always opening their homes and having family and friends come and stay a spell. This is not me. If I exude anything, it's apparently not the kind of softness and warmth that makes folks set up shop for a weekend. For supper, sure. But a whole weekend of suppers? No.

But this particular extended family member had not a clue of how unprepared and ill-suited I am for overnight entertaining. The third child of Mr. Blandings's aunt, you could barely even call this young man a cousin--especially since Mr. Blandings himself hadn't laid eyes on the fellow in more than half a decade.

But the phone rang last week, and I was greeted by a friendly voice that addressed me in a way that implied familiarity.

"MG? This is Malcolm, Mr. Blanding's cousin."

Ah, yes. Malcolm. The legendary Malcolm. While I wouldn't have been able to pick Malcolm out of a crowd, I surely knew him by reputation: graduated in the top of his private school class, begged off attending the top-tier art schools he'd been wooed by, backpacked his way across Australia and Ireland before returning stateside to pursue undergraduate degrees in mathematics and linguistics, flitted off after graduation to teach in Asia, more backpacking throughout Europe, months spent in South America ...

What, this isn't your life? :-)

"Malcolm! Wow. How are you?" I asked, unable to shake the image of the wiry boy who had attended my wedding 13 years previous.

"Well, actually ... I was wondering if I could come for a visit."

Selfishly wondering how many juicy tidbits of Asian cultures he could impart on my children (who are studying Core 5, after all), I answered, "Absolutely! What do you have in mind?"

"I can be there in an hour. I'm 45 miles away according to google maps."

And this, my friends, is the joy of a vagabond relative. You just never know when--or where--they'll turn up.

Mr. Blandings managed to put Malcolm off for a few days due to a round of illness we had coursing through the house. But sure enough, on Friday afternoon, the doorbell rang and there before me was not the 14 year-old who had vied for the garter at my wedding, but a tall, rustic-looking young man closing in on thirty with the majority of his life's belongings strapped to his back and a pack of cigarettes peeking from his pocket.

Jo, Atticus and Logan stared at him with half-concealed fascination tinged with horror.

"You smoke?" Logan asked. Note to self, I thought, give a crash course on manners to the six year-old.

"President Obama smokes," Atticus volunteered helpfully.

"Yeah, but I don't trust anyone who smokes. Seriously. Everyone knows how bad it is for you. What kind of a choice is that?" Logan countered. Note to self, I screamed internally, give a crash course on manners to the six year old tonight in the bathtub when no one else is around.

And this is how we began what turned into an incredible adventure with the brilliant, irrepressible cousin Malcolm.

Cousin Malcolm allowed as to how he may stay a night or three. And this is where things got really interesting. Cousin Malcolm had apparently made his way west from Boston, where he had deplaned from his latest wanderings in Seoul. Not one to travel by traditional means, Malcolm had alternated between walking and riding his thumb across the entire length of the US, and was now working his way east to his parents' home.

"You hitchiked?" Jo asked as he unlaced a pair of very experienced Chucks.

"I caught rides," he said, not above playing the semantics game.

"It's really dangerous to hitchhike. Someone could, like, kill you." Yes--this was Logan.

"There are lots of really interesting folks out there," Malcolm answered, as if that settled it.

Apparently, it did. Because for the next two nights, my children lived with a modern Jack Kerouac. And let me tell you, it was eye-opening for us all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Through your child's eyes--a diatribe complete with a giveaway!

Everyone has a soap box or two that they lug around with them. One of my special favorites seems to be vision issues and young children. Seriously--I have cornered more parents than I can count with my concerns after watching their child squint at a book, turn their head while reading, struggle to print on a line or give up quickly when sorting through a box of like toys.

When Jo was diagnosed with vision difficulties as a preschooler, I began educating myself on the complex dance that results in the miracle of sight. While the entire human body is a wonder, I find that vision is a particularly amazing piece of creation. The coordination--and communication--between membranes, lenses, nerves and brain is far beyond what I could have ever dreamed up. So many pieces to the puzzle that fit just so. So much development and such a small margin for error. It's dizzying, I tell you.

Unfortunately, many parents put in desperately few hours ensuring that their child's eyes are developing properly or that he or she has the range of vision that is appropriate for his or her age. Heck, most parents don't even know that there is a range of normal vision, and that is changes as your child--and his eyes, muscles, etc.--mature. Parents don't know how closely vision is associated with overall behavior, how sensory input through the eyes can be overwhelming or even how small things such as print size can impact a child who seems to have "learning disabilities."

Why don't parents know these things? Because the people who have the knowledge generally don't take the time share it unless there are glaring red flags. Doctors don't pick up on it. Once a year, a nurse tells your son to stand on a line and read an eye chart, and then tells you that he passed. Unless you mention that he can't read for periods of longer than ten minutes, no one's the wiser. Teachers don't point out what appears to be a vision issue until it impacts classroom performance. And, believe it or not, your friendly neighborhood optometrist won't tell you either. Their training stops and starts with a general classification of eye health and vision. Much beyond that and they're swimming in deeper water than their sheepskin can float on.

For the bigger issues, you need the big guns. You need a pediatric opthamologist.

A pediatric opthamologist can tell you not only how well your child can see, but how his or her eyes are developing. Are the muscles working in tandem? What is the ideal visual range for my child? Do his or her eyes tire easily? Is there any crossing? What print size is recommended for my child? And this is just for starters, folks.

While an initial visit to a pediatric opthamologist may be a budget cruncher, I can't recommend it highly enough. Armed with the information that this specialist will give you, I can almost guarantee that you will find some way to homeschool better, smarter and with less fuss on your child's behalf even--and this is the kicker--even if your child's vision is 20/20. If I had a nickel for every person who took my advice and saw a pediatric opthamologist and then reported back to me that their child really wasn't just complaining, he couldn't see the words on the page ... let's just say I'd be hosting this blog on a paid site instead of blogger. :-)

I posted last week about sensory issues and homeschooling and trust me, vision is one of the senses. Input that comes in fuzzy, inaccurately, cloudy or erratically hits the brain with a thud and pushes out behavior that stumps adults like us who just can't see the world the way that the little people we're charged with parenting do. The kids can't fix it themselves. They need help learning coping skills and working with the neurological wiring that God gave them. No matter how frustrating it is to parent a child who fidgets, spins like a top or can't find a specific Lego in a box full of clashing colors, you hold the key to helping your child mature through this.

I mentioned in my last sensory post that I had a sampling of the line by line readers offered by Heads Up! and was planning on giving some away. Before I give out the rules, here's what Heads Up! has to say about their products.

Heads Up! Top of the Line This reading aid has a blue or yellow highlighted strip along the top to help readers "keep their place" along a line of text, graphs, or charts. Use of color has been shown to be helpful in focusing attention, so the Heads Up! Top of the Line is helpful even for proficient readers who are distractible or have difficulty maintaining visual attention for adequate periods of time. Makes a great bookmark, too! (Size 2-3/8" by 8")

Heads Up! Double Time This reading aid has a transparent yellow or blue strip along the top that highlights an area large enough for the reader to view two lines of most texts. A visual reminder to continue reading to the next line, the Heads Up! Double Time is also a helpful tool for proficient readers who benefit by using color to help focus attention. Makes a great bookmark, too! (Size 2-3/8" by 8")

Heads Up! Frame - 4 x 4 1/2 Our own creation, these frames are made of transparent colored polycarbonate with a printed frame. The large Heads Up! Frames are 4" x 9" rectangles. You can direct attention and focus by placing the frames over workbook pages or other written materials to be examined. The frames block in key material while the color contrast helps maintain attention. These frames are especially useful for marking the place on the page for individuals who tend to look away from the page frequently. When looking back at the page they can easily and quickly find the framed-in area. Available in the following colors: yellow, pink, blue, red, green, and orange.

Heads Up! Frame - 4 x 9 Our own creation, these frames are made of transparent colored polycarbonate with a printed frame. The small frames are 4” x 4-½” squares. These frames are useful for the child who feels overwhelmed when viewing an entire page of material; the teacher can frame in just a section of the page so that it appears more manageable to the child. Available in the following colors: yellow, pink, blue, red, green, and orange.

Heads Up! Reader The Heads Up! Reader has a highlight strip of color between two strips of grey. The highlighted section aids in visual tracking and the color helps maintain attention to printed text. The straight edges can be used to neatly underline key words or phrases. The Reader is thin and flexible, and can be used as a bookmark for added convenience. Choice of yellow, green, red, blue, orange, pink or clear.

These are wonderful tools for new readers, for children with sensory input differences, for kids with ADHD, for children whose attention is often pulled away from a page, for kids who struggle to stay on task for ... EVERYONE.

O.k., now for the fun part. I am giving away two complete sets of Heads Up! readers. To be entered in the drawing, simply leave a comment that lists the age/ages of the child or children you'd be using the readers with and whether you'd prefer yellow or green frames. Leave a separate comment if you're a follower of this blog (or if you choose to become a follower) and I'll throw your name in the hat twice. The drawing will be held on Friday, March 6 and winners will be posted at that time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

TOS Review: Math Tutor dvds

If you've read this blog for very long, you know that I very, very rarely run out of things to say. I'm a font of words if not wisdom and quite often ramble on for so long that only two posts can fit on page one of this blog.

So imagine my conundrum when I discovered that I really can't find anything to say about the dvds offered by My sample copies were Algebra 2 Tutor (6 hour video course) and The Basic Math Word Problem Tutor, an 8 hour ride through ... well, word problems.

I watched the videos. And yet ... I'm drawing a blank.

And then it hit me: essentially, these videos are the exact same instruction that I received in a public school classroom. The formula? Guy with white board explains math. The outcome? Mary Grace doodles on notepad and wonders what's for dinner.

The instruction is thorough, practical (and I quote: "Count on your fingers if you have to.") and without distraction. Investing in one of these courses will definitely earn your child a full credit toward the mathematical discipline at hand. It's old-fashioned school learning at its best.

It's also the mathematical equivalent of driving your car through a barren desert with the air conditioner on--you know what's out there, but it's just not appealing enough to get out of your comfort zone and indulge in.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

TOS Review: Bible Story Songs

My kids can memorize just about anything if it's set to music. Doesn't matter what the topic is: the anatomy of a flower, countries of the world, presidents of the United States. If you give it a beat and make it (kind of) rhyme, then I can guarantee an almost 100% retention rate.

Now, applying and/or understanding that memorized data is a whole 'nother thing. Fifteen month-olds that sing the alphabet song are not, I'm sorry to tell you, brilliant. They are great parrots and deserve to be praised for being so stinking cute, but they're not destined to read any earlier than the toddler of the same age who invests all of his or her time in learning the theme song to Dora the Explorer. Don't think this is true? I present for your inspection my son Logan, who has a dizzying array of grammar tidbits stored in his brain. He can't use any of them (not yet) but he can spit them out at will and sound like a genius. Is Logan any more intelligent than a child who can recall with uncanny accuracy the batting averages of his favorite hitters? No. Logan has simply been exposed to a different set of norms, and it shows up in the fact that he can sing songs about articles of prepositions.

But there is something to be said for memorization. First of all, you can't recall important information if you never memorized it in the first place, now can you? And how would any of us have made it pre-cell phones if we hadn't learned to memorize digits in combinations of seven, and therefore call our bestest of the best friends?

Memorizing Scripture is a particular calling for Christians who believe that the Bible is God's Word. If a poem or limerick is worthy of space in our child's brain, how much more ought to be devoted to the life-altering, peace-offering words of the Lord?

For most children, the easiest way to soak in a few key truths from the Bible is through music. This is a large part of why those simple songs we learned in Sunday School were so effective; without realizing it, we befriended long-ago prophets, learned how to pray and marched alongside the saints who had gone before us. This is the power of song.

I myself have employed music in Scripture memorization since my children were old enough to join our local AWANA club. The cds offered through AWANA focus on the specific verses listed in the accompanying books and help a child virtually fly through the process. When we began using the cds offered through Sonlight, I saw an amazing jump in the complexities of what the children could retain. Flawless recitations of entire psalms became the norm. With this kind of foundation, deep dialogue could be started on the meaning behind what they were learning.

But it all started with the memorization.

In that vein comes the Bible Story Songs collection. While these cds are marketed towards children of all ages, I found that they were most appealing to--and appropriate for--young elementary students and preschoolers. The music is of the Sunday School variety (simple piano tunes with very little orchestration) and the vocals can be slightly grating. Jo could barely stand to be in the room with the cd on, but Oliver found its jumping melodies entirely danceable.

Bible Story Songs offers sheet music, coloring pages and other extensions through their website. Young students could easily use these cds as an entire memorization program: listening to the cds while you color would be a fun activity for just about any preschooler. I picture new Christians benefiting the most form this kind of simple study with their children. If you're daunted by the prospect of memorizing Scripure and want a starting place, this is a good first place to look.

The cd I reviewed centered on the book of Matthew and introduced actual Biblical text. And while I can't see any reason why a child really needs to know the genealogy of Jesus, it certainly isn't a bad thing to have in a corner of your brain. Who knows how that kind of information can be used later on? A deeper study into God's promises? A reminder that God's timing doesn't always reflect our own? A gentle nudge to reconsider those in our lives who don't seem to have very bright futures?

Who knows what God will do with the humble work we do in pouring Scripture out for our children to absorb? But one thing is for certain: a lifetime of God's Word recalled will never come back void.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Adoption updates

It's been a while since I've mentioned the legal goings on surrounding Oliver and Manolin's status in our family. To date, both are still officially foster children; no terminations, no finalizations, nothing to make their last names the same as ours.

Some days this rankles. Others, it feels like a side journey in God's slow working of His plan. Today, thankfully, is the latter.

I met with Manolin's social worker this morning. I'll call her Jenny. Jenny is a sweetheart with a hard shell--exactly what one needs to pull off her job with the grace she manages. Manolin's case is one of her favorites; she first saw him as a wasted, limp 7 week-old and now delights in rolling his fat wrists in her hand and remarking on his pot belly.

"You eat up everything your mom gives you, Bubba," she tells him at the end of each visit. When she says "mom," she means me, and this is like a balm for my soul.

Manolin's bio mom is under court order not to attempt to contact him for the next ten years. She hasn't laid eyes on him since she left his hospital room in handcuffs last summer. I honestly can't say if she'll ever see him again. How does one pursue a relationship with a child you intended to destroy?

Termination is right around the corner for Manolin, and as soon as the wheels of justice catch up to our hearts, he'll be ours in name as well as in spirit.

Oliver's case is always a bit touchier. Visitation resumed--but it's off again. His bio mom thought about relinquishing--but she changed her mind. The termination paperwork is done--but it's not filed.

Georgie--Oliver's state social worker--is a constant source of aggravation in my life. Her excuses and justifications wore thin months ago, and I'm trying to hold to the last scrap of Christian kindness I can muster every time her number comes up in my caller ID at this point. She is well aware of my frustration and has vented some of her own but always come back to "You're such a great family for Oliver. I'm working as fast as I can to get this done for you."

In the end, though, it's not for us. It's for them. For Oliver and Manolin. When the papers are finally signed, the message to these little boys will be clear: finally, and forever, you are home. No one can ever take that away from you. You are safe, you are loved, and you belong.

Until that day, we wait.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sensory School

You know how in certain seasons of parenting, there are issues so huge and all-encompassing that you doubt you'll ever wrangle your way out from under them?

That's what Sensory Processing Disorder was for us just a few short years ago.

I've posted from time to time about our road in helping Atticus--and, to a lesser extent, Logan as well--find a way to balance all of the stimulus his brain was not wired to sort out on its own. It was a two-year journey marked by weekly OT appointments and a life-altering schedule of daily home therapies that took priority over much of our schedule.

And you know what? The kid still has SPD. No joking.

O.k., that's actually a little sensory humor there, for the uninitiated. People with sensory issues always have sensory issues. There's no cure, per se, only coping skills. The world of a person who is sensory seeking or sensory aversive is always slightly askew, but with the right set of pathways firing in the brain, they live just as normally as anyone else. Well, except for the fact that I'm convinced pretty much everyone has sensory issues. Think about it: do you hate a certain cut of pants? Are there noises that make your skin crawl? Do certain food textures gross you out? Sensory issues, one and all.

Now that I've convinced you that your parents were remiss in not getting you the therapy you needed as a child, here's an email I received recently from a mom of a boy with SPD:

Mary Grace,
You mentioned that your son had some sensory stuff going on. I was wondering how you homeschool him. My son is a wreck when we sit down to do school. He falls out of his chair, chews on his sleeve and can't keep his eyes on the paper in front of him. He's 10. I don't know if I can teach him anything. What do you do?

L., take heart. You can teach your son. If you haven't already sought out an independent evaluation by an Occupational Therapist, I recommend it. It's worth the money. A good therapist will point out your son's areas of strength and weakness, giving you a game plan for your homeschooling. A great therapist will help you put the plan together and walk you through the process of teaching your son the coping skills he needs.

As for personal tips I can offer, here are a handful of the tricks I use/have used to keep Atticus on track while he's working:

1. Lap animal. A weighted lap animal is worth its um, weight. You can use a store-bought stuffed animal or make your own. To do the former, simply remove any fluffy filling through a small incision in the animal's back (something semi-flat, like a turtle, works well) and refill it with pea gravel. To make your own, stitch some thick fabric into the shape of a circle, fill with pea gravel and add accessories to give it personality. The animal Atticus used was about five pounds, and kept him company by draping across his lap while he did any sort of seatwork. For a while, it was his constant table companion, even joining him for meals. With this little critter on his lap, he didn't scoot, wiggle or fall. Worth the $7 in materials, to be sure.

2. Head phones. As I mentioned last week, I realized that Atticus has been having difficulty working in our not-so-silent house. A nice set of headphones works nicely to muffle the distractions, and some classical music serves to set a backdrop that's equally non- confrontational.

3. Reduce the page clutter. A brightly colored, cheerful workbook page might seem like just the thing to peak the interest of a distractable child, but it's overload for a child who can't handle the extra visual stimulation.

4. Frequent heavy work breaks. Interrupting a read-aloud or math lesson for five minutes so that a sensory challenged child can press against a wall, carry a load of clothes upstairs or do push ups reduces overall interruption time, believe me.

5. Line-by-line readers/workbook page highlighters. I'll be reviewing (and giving away) some of these neat little doo-dads soon. The idea is to focus the eyes on a specific area of the page, and help a child find their way back to that spot if they look up.

6. Fidgets. Pencil tips, squishy balls ... whatever works for your child. Atticus will often do writing assignments with a specific Darth Vader Lego guy in his hand because he can easily flip it from sitting to standing with one hand. That counts as a fidget, not a toy in my book.

7. Schedules. Yes, it's true. Knowing what's coming, when it's coming, and what it will look like helps a child with sensory issues establish some order in their homeschool life.

8. Stay on top of daily therapy. Don't put the bookwork before the sensory work. While it's nice to check off "science" and "reading," postponing the brushing or other sensory therapies in favor of that to-do list is usually disastrous. If it makes you feel better, write down your therapies on the same schedule you maintain for your school work, and check it off alongside the other subjects.

9. Use it. If a child is particularly affected by specific sensations, put it to use. One of the reasons why Atticus learns so well through touch is that he has an amazing memory of what something feels like. Practicing writing in sand, physical experiments, etc., are all valuable tools for him because of his sensory issues. I try to pull that kind of learning in whenever possible since it clearly works.

Atticus is nearly 9 years old now and no longer requires any kind of daily intervention to help him maintain his sensory equilibrium. His coping skills are enough to help him waltz through virtually any trouble spot that he encounters; if I see him struggling, I know it means he's getting sick. That doesn't mean, though, that's he's cured. As mentioned earlier, this is a life-long state of being, and one that we as a family assist Atticus with as needed. But thanks to a season of sacrifice on everyone's behalf, SPD is just a piece of who Atticus is. His eyes are blue, his hair is strawberry blond, he likes Star Wars and yes, he has SPD.

TOS Review: The Bridge to the Latin Road

Atticus has wanted to learn Latin for the past year or so. I'm not sure what planted this particular seed in his heart, but I can tell you that two Christmases ago, one of his favorite gifts was the Latin Words Sticker Book that he found under the tree. This gift was part inspiration, part placebo on my part; having only a passing knowledge of Latin to call upon, I was at a loss as to where I might find a suitable curriculum.

The most logical place to begin searching, it seemed, was in my dog-eared copy of The Well-Trained Mind. The suggestions offered there were detailed and focused, but none seemed to fit with the casual approach I saw myself taking with a seven year-old would-be Latin scholar. So instead of grabbing the most accessible program I could find and diving in, I chose to hold back for a while and offer Atticus a steady diet of Latin etymology in addition to the Koine Greek study we had already taken on as a family project. This "Hey, look! That's Latin, Atticus!" approach worked quite well. He picked up a handful of roots and felt like he was going places with a dead language. (I never said he was your typical kid, now did I?)

I knew that if his interest continued to grow, I'd find myself reaching for any handy curriculum watering can and hoping that this was the program that would work for us. Therefore, it was no small surprise when he announced last fall that he was truly "ready to learn some real Latin now, please."

You can guess, then, how delighted I was to be able to review The Bridge to the Latin Road by Schola Publications. Schola Publications puts out the renowned Phonics Road to Reading and Spelling, one of those ├╝bersucessful programs that never fails to draw a crowd in the convention vendor halls. I was familiar with their overall methodology and knew that they took a long-range view of overall goals, breaking them into bite-sized bits. This seemed to fit with my take on how I wanted to tackle Latin with Atticus, so I signed on in delight.

Suffice it to say, I was disappointed when I first opened my huge box. Not only was the binder that my teacher's guide was housed in far too small to hold the many sheaves of instructions that I was going to have to pore over (I substituted a binder of my own), but a quick glance at the program was disheartening. There was no Latin in this Latin program, I realized. Sure, a handful of roots were sprinkled unevenly throughout the heavily-scripted weeks. But this was an English grammar program ... not a Latin program, as advertised.

The content seemed as dry as a bone when I leafed through it. Holy cow, I asked myself, is that sentence diagramming? Seriously? My heart sank when I thought of how dismayed Atticus
would be when I loosed this monster upon him. A full-blown, by-the-book, old-fashioned grammar program and my homeschool? Heaven forbid!

And this is where it gets interesting, folks. Because had I unwittingly purchased this program on my own, I would have sent it back without another look. But because I was obligated to use and review it, I gave it a go. You're not going to believe it, but--I like it.


Using The Bridge to the Latin Road has taught me some very, very important lessons in the selection of curriculum and my overall approach to education, namely: there are some things that really do need to be taught at a grindingly slow, incremental, mastery-first pace. And Latin, my friends, is one of them.

Within the first two weeks of using Bridge to the Latin Road, I began to see some chinks in the armor of the Greek program we have been using for the past four years. Designed to get a child up and moving in a classical language as quickly as possible (think whole language), this program had given us a feeling of great success in our first years of using it. We learned the alphabet to a song, read a primer to remember the sounds of the letters and moved right in to vocabulary, which we'd been adding to for quite some time. But just about the same time that Bridge to the Latin Road came on deck, something shifted:

The word endings kept changing, without rhyme or reason.

As noted, my background isn't heavy in the specifics of classical languages, so I relied on the instructor's guide to fill in the blanks--which it really didn't. And we were all left scratching our heads, wondering what in the world had happened.

Did we miss a page? Had we left out a step? Seriously, we could say really, really impressive things in Koine Greek, like: "I know an apostle." Doesn't that count for something?

The answer is, no, it doesn't.

Unlike modern languages, which can be learned in a willy-nilly, immersion sort of way (much the way that a baby picks up language), classical languages follow a completely different track. So foreign to our current mindset are they, so dead, that there's really nothing we can reconcile them with. So yes, you can pick up some stunningly brilliant vocabulary ("I serve the Lord!") and still be an absolute novice in the world of true classical language learning.

In other words, my family's knowledge of Koine Greek was a house of cards all along. The second rules needed to be applied--rules we had never learned based upon structures we were never aware of--the whole house toppled.

I can clearly see the value in The Bridge to the Latin Road now. Is it dry? You betcha'. It's so thorough it makes your hair squeak, and boy, does it reinforce every. little. nuance. We have drilled parts of speech I would just as soon have banished from the world of grammar, giving me flashbacks of my tenth grade English teacher and her insistence on everyone using a red pencil for this, a blue pencil for that, a green one for this and so on. There's DVD instruction, hand-holding in the form of very careful written directions and an answer key that would satisfy an accountant's sense of accuracy.

You can imagine that we are taking this one in very small doses; I'm not a glutton for punishment, and Atticus isn't, either. But I can already see where this program is headed. By the next step, Atticus won't be wondering what tense a word is, or where a modifier should be placed. And when the "real Latin now, please" is finally tossed in, he's going to fly. He'll add to his vocabulary by leaps and bounds and be a master of the Latin universe by the time he hits his SATs.

Now, if I could just convince Schola Publications to write a program for Koine Greek. I've got a certain house of cards to start shoring up around here, you see...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TOS Review: Rocket Phonics

If there's one thing that I've learned as I've traveled the road we call homeschooling, it's that no one approach teaches every child to read. This, in a nutshell, is the main shortcoming of the institutionalized school system's modus operandi. Child A learns through doing. Child B is an auditory learner. And Child C needs someone to hold their hand through the entire process. How, then, can the method designed for Child Q work for all 26 of the eager would-be-readers staring at the board?

Thankfully, as parents who've chosen to home educate, we have more options on the table than we can process at one sitting. There are whole language programs. Phonics-based learning. Songs. Curricula built around sight words. Bells. Whistles. Bare bones methods. Readers. Finger plays. Primers. Programs for infants. CD-ROMs. Resources, people. We have resources!

Homeschoolers also have the benefit of the ultimate teaching ratio when it comes to specific skills; generally 1:1, unless you happen to have twins or an especially precocious toddler who wants a bit of what Big Brother's being served.

And then there's what I think of as the "I know you so well .... " status. Frankly, you know whether your child will sit still long enough to learn silly songs about the letter of the day, or whether a plain black-and-white line drawing will drive him to distraction. No classroom teacher has this information ... or the time to truly care.

Anyone who has settled in to the idea of teaching their own child to decode the English language has stood, baffled and in awe of the never-ending stream of offerings. And let's not get into how many fellow homeschoolers are ready to que up and outline why the curricula they chose is clearly the one that will work for your child, too. It's enough to make you shrug off the responsibility altogether, if you ask me.

Selecting a reading program is a highly individualized science, as far as I'm concerned. Actually teaching a child to read is not. Once you relegate the two seemingly at-odds truths in your mind and get on with the business of helping Johnny learn to read, you'll be that much the better for it.

All of that said, Rocket Phonics is a wonderful example of what I think of as a "full service" approach to reading. More involved than 100EZ, less complicated than Sing, Spell, Read & Write, Rocket Phonics offers bells, whistles and games without the kiddy entrapments that make many learn-to-read programs a bust for older phonics learners. In addition, there's a specialized alphabet code (similar to the 100EZ approach) that tips students off to the many nuances that make reading English challenging to the newly initiated, opening doors to a more mature reading experience right off the bat. This kind of instant success is a confidence boost for reluctant readers, and incentive to keep moving forward. It's also just the kind of feedback that older readers need if they've been struggling with other programs.

Rocket Phonics relies heavily on games, visual tools such as colorful cards and scripted, systematic instruction. If you've taught general phonics before, the directions are overly detailed, but the newbie should find them a comforting backup in times of uncertainty. The focus on interactive, experiential exposure to phonics is contagious; children taught with this program will almost instantly find themselves picking out the letter combinations they've learned in the signs and labels that surround them in everyday life.

One added benefit of this program is that due to the large amount of time spent involved in card-type games, younger siblings will no doubt ask to join in. This is a time saver for the busy mom of littles who wonders how she can possibly occupy her preschoolers while she covers reading instruction. With Rocket Phonics, any child who's old enough to keep bingo chips out of their mouth can be dealt in to the fun and may even pick up some beginning skills along the way.

Rocket Phonics has a "real school" feel to it that will appeal to traditional homeschoolers and families who worry that a bare-bones approach will somehow shortchange their child. Younger learners will take to the fun-and-games approach with little awareness that they're learning (unless mom points it out) while older children will be able to largely overlook the fact that they're receiving remedial instruction thanks to the fact that the method moves at a fairly quick clip.

In the realm of complete phonics instruction programs, Rocket Phonics is a stand out. Not all children will benefit from--or need--this kind of intensive, step-by-step method. Take careful stock of your child's personality and learning style, and select an approach that will fit his or her needs. If you know that your own son or daughter will enjoy and learn from a deep dive into the phonetic waters, then by all means, take note of this program.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Feb. 13, 2008

A year ago today I was on eggshells, my head in the clouds ... and every other cheesy line you can throw out about being nervous about something. :-)

We laid eyes on Oliver for the first time on Valentine's Day of last year.

A whole year. So short, and yet so long. Who knew? I think my father-in-law summed it up best yesterday:

"Seriously? It's only been a year? I have to admit, sometimes I forget that you didn't give birth to that boy."

Yeah, me too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Get me off of this thing!

People who read this blog often seem to slap me into one of two categories: clueless idiot or absolute saint. Since I'm neither, I often struggle with addressing the questions I receive in my email inbox. Sure, there are some questions that are fairly easy to answer. You want to know what math programs I've used and sent packing? I'll happily tell you. Curious as to where I ordered a resource I mentioned in a post? Glad to point you in the right direction. This kind of stuff is easy peasy, though, compared to many of the emails I seem to get.

The fact is, a lot of folks out there think I am, apparently, a little whacked. I've been called a collector of kids (and compared to Angelina Jolie ... riiiiight!). I've been told that my children will hate me for homeschooling them. (Um, why are you reading a blog written by a homeschooler, then?) I've been accused of being too intense in my homeschooling, and of being too lax. (Make up your mind!) And I've been told that in the end, foster parenting will be my undoing. (Come to think of it, that could be true.)

Almost as disturbing as the naysayers are the people who really think that I have all of the answers. Seriously. One mom asked me, straight out, to pick a curricula for her fourth grade daughter. "If you use it, I know it will work for my daughter." Holy moly, I don't want that kind of pressure! The fact is, all I can list off is what's worked for me and my family in our own homeschool. As they say here in internet world, YMMV.

The only thing I'm an expert in is running my own homeschool. And really, some days, it doesn't feel like I'm that much an expert. More like a graduate assistant staring into the eyes of 200 eager freshmen. Ouch.

To further the point of how not a professional I am, I submit to you just a few of the missteps I've made in homeschooling over the years--MG's bloopers, if you will. Enjoy.

1. I forced Jo to keep moving forward in a math program she hated simply because I thought she was being stubborn. Turns out she didn't understand it at all. This little "oops" set her far behind her peers in math for a solid two years, and made her one tough cookie to win over to the "math is fun!" side.

2. Logan learned the Greek alphabet and sounds at the same time he learned English. His phonetic spelling looked like it came out of a Greek primer for about a year. "Dog," after all, can be spelled delta-omicron-gamma, dontcha know.

3. Please don't ask me why the state notebooks I made with my kids last year only have 46 states represented. I meant to finish them. I really did.

4. Not once, but twice, I've let my children read books that I had misgivings about ... and yes, that was the Holy Spirit I was ignoring. I've regretted it both times, but you can't unread a book, now can you?

5. I just now figured out that the best way to keep my most distraction-prone child--who was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder at age 4--on task is to hook him up to my iPod. Brilliant, MG. What took you so long?

So there you go. I'm an absolutely real, absolutely flawed, absolutely work-in-progress kind of homeschooler. Totally real. And totally not picking out anyone else's curriculum.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Anita tagged me to:

1. Go to the 4th folder where you keep your pictures on your computer.
2. Post the 4th picture in the folder
3. Explain the photo.
4. Tag 4 fellow bloggers to join in the fun

And oh, boy, wouldn't it just be a bizarre, in-joke of a family photo that I have to post?!?!

Ahhhh, yes. That would be Logan, age 6, dashing after a peacock at the zoo this past September. Yes, we know that he's too old to be terrorizing a peacock. And no, we don't actually let him catch it, don't worry. But see ... Logan has been chasing peacocks in this zoo--probably this very same peacock, truth be known-- since he was two years old.

The first time, it was one of those toddler things; Logan saw the peacock lounging in a sunny spot, he decided to investigate and pooof! Mr. Peacock gave Logan the show that was supposed to make him run for cover: a zillion black eyes dancing in a sea of blue and gold. But Logan was has never been faint of heart, and rather than make for the hills, he crept closer, and closer and closer, until he was nearly atop the bird. I snatched him away before the peacock could get pecky (which I'm assuming they'll do, even though I've never heard of a peacock attack). But a few months later on our next zoo visit, the peacock seemed to be instantly wary of Logan. As if remembering the boy who had nearly ruffled his feathers, the thing pounced into full display and high tailed it for the nearest wooded area with Logan trailing behind.

Now, in normal families, this would be a funny, one-shot story. But we are not--you may have guessed--a normal family. We are what you might call Traditionalists. This is not to say that we are exceptionally traditional in our take on things; as a matter of fact, we tend to swim upstream rather vigorously. No, what we are is a family that makes traditions. Essentially, if something happens more than twice, it's a tradition. Once it's established as a tradition, it's irrevocable and must be continued, ad naseum, until ... well, the end of time, I guess. We call it family culture and figure in the end it's something our children can reject outright in their own adulthoods. Right now, we call the shots and we think it's hilarious.

We inherited this quirky state of being in part from Mr. Blanding's family, along with the snot ornaments on our Christmas tree (don't ask) and a habit of quoting movies so often that our children actually think that we're the witty ones. They're in for a real disappointment some day when they watch Monty Python and "Big Trouble in Little China." Thankfully, they play along with the whole tradition thing and even throw out movie lines on their own, though they often have no clue of the context. (Jo will report that her rabbits have terrible, terrible teeth. Someday, Jo. Someday ...)

And thus it has gone for four long years: we visit the zoo. Logan spots the peacock. I grab the camera. The peacock flees. Logan gives chase. I snap a photo. And tradition is safe for another season.

And now, I do hereby bequeath the honor of the tag to:
1. Dawn Sodini
2. Tara Rison
3. Obladi Oblada
4. Robin's Reports

Values Clarification, part two

(THIS is the emotional post I referred to last week, in all its glory.)

Remember to be very, very cautious when offering up an area of your life to the Lord.

My post the other day regarding values clarification is--obviously--something that's been weighing on my heart. As often happens when your attention is brought to some area where you need a good pruning, God allowed me to see that lately, I've slipped into taking a passing glance at the situations of those floundering around me and have felt that somehow, I could make lemonade out of their lemons. Let's be painfully honest with one another and admit that sometimes, it's easy to spot folks whose rotten choices have landed them splat dab
in it. Let's further admit that many of those people are currently tucking the covers of the proverbial bed that they made for themselves right over their heads and acting like somehow, it's not their fault.

As a Christian, I've felt for years that the "bigger, faster, better!" mantra surrounding our housing, economy, lifestyles, etc., was a bubble that was just made for bursting. And it did. I'm not sure how the folks who rode the wave can't see their complicity, but hey ... I shovel my own form of justification from time to time, if you know what I mean.

Clearly, however, the folks suffering hardest from the downturn deserve far more than our condescending "I told you so" looks as they struggle with the realities of foreclosure, repossession and bankruptcy. In my heart, I know this. But wow ... is it hard to offer it when my head keeps screaming"Why did you buy that house? You had to take out one of those wacky interest-only, 80/10/10, convoluted loan deals to walk in the front door. What made you think that would work out?!?!"

So while I can offer prayer and empathy for those who have unexpectedly found themselves sink
ing in the mire of the financial crises despite their careful choices, I am at a loss quite often with those who are clearly feeling the effects of their own decisions. I'm trying to soften, though. I really am. Because the truth is, falling from grace hurts, even when the grace was mortgaged, rather than given outright.

I am working very hard to realign my actions with the heart Jesus gave me when He forgave all of my stupid mistakes, and to extend that same brand of forgiveness to those who need it most. Hence ... starting back at the beginning. Clarifying what I stand for, who I am and how I want to interact with the world.

Which leads me back to the open door I gave the Lord.

A few years ago, I offe
red to pray for patience on behalf of my cousin, who was working through some parenting stuff that was draining her joy.

"Don't do that!" she recoiled. "If you pray for patience, God just gives you more opportunities to exercise it."

This was my first realization that sometimes, when we ask God to walk us through a thorny area, he answers with more questions rather than the magic cure-all we'd rather receive.

And this, I believe, is a large part of why I found myself watching six year-old Logan take a blow to the arm with a large tree branch yesterday evening. The aggressor, a seven year-old neigh
bor boy, stood back just long enough to gauge the effect of his strike. Unfortunately, he miscalculated his enemy. Logan--who towers over many 9 year-olds and has a legendary pain tolerance--gathered his wits about him, drew back and proceeded to smash his opponent with an equally large tree branch.

In the face, mind you.

The effect was ... astonishing. The older boy wavered before dropping to his knees. By the time I made it down the stairs and out into the yard, the older boy was shrieking and stumbling blindly toward our sliding glass door. Logan was pale and shaking, his eyes wider than I'd ever seen him.

ohmygoodness, the blood. Dripping, spitting, frothing, streaming. Everywhere. The older boy had a face full of blood that seemed endless.

The aftershocks of this kind of event are enormous, as I'm sure you can imagine. Phone calls, hospital trips (no stitches or broken teeth, praise God!), more phone calls, apologies ... a parenting nightmare.

But also, an extremely humbling experience. One that God felt I needed, no matter how ungrateful I am to have been handed the learning opportunity.

You see, sometimes its hard to see our children as mere children. Sure, we engage daily in the task of raising adults. (I disdain the phrase "raising children" simply because my goal isn't to raise children. It's to raise adults. Call it semantics if you wish, but I see it as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.) But little by little, we begin to lose sight of the fact that our children really are still children. They are immature, unable to make big choices and clearly in need of guidance. How is it that these truths slip away from us and we find ourselves staring gape-jawed at the evidence of their poor judgement? How is it that we expect them to always be upright, to do the right thing and to pass temptation by? How is it that we expect them to make better choices than the grownups around them who didn't see the folly in mortgaging their future for the home of their dreams?

Logan is a smart boy. We've told him countless times, "If someone hits you, come get us." We've told him to ask for help, to use his wits, to diffuse situations and to avoid conflict. Heck--Logan is smart enough to know that when he smacks someone with a stick, they're going to get hurt. It's common sense. But in the heat of the moment, Logan forgot all of that. He forgot the very foundational things we taught him, and he threw himself headlong into the passion swirling around him.

Logan did a rash, impulsive thing, and I love him anyhow. Even though he hurt someone, even though he has miles to go before he understands the concept of self-control, even though I doubt this is the last time I will find myself scooping him out of a scuffle, A Christmas Story style. And just as I look on my boy and shake my head, wishing he'd put into action a few of those values I've been pouring into him for the past 6 years, God is looking down at all of us. His children. His fallible but beloved children.

This comparison has helped me to spend the past few days scanning the faces around me and looking beyond the rough exteriors to see the soul God created in each one of us. It's opened my eyes to the real meaning of seeing people, not actions. And it's softened my heart. It's getting easier to to offer an empathy that's true and comes without strings. Even to the people who knew better, and who have fallen hard.

Which is, after all, what we're called to do. Love one another, just as Christ loves us. Regardless of who knew what. Regardless of how stupid it seems in hindsight.

Values clarification ... one painful step at a time.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The completely incomplete list of perfectly imperfect reads

I have been working away at a long, emotional post that I just shelved in my draft folder because frankly, I am too emotionally strung out already today. The last thing I need is more lemon juice ... especially when it's under my power as to whether the juice flows or stays in the lemon.

With that said, I'm (finally) giving The Hayes Zoo what she asked for months and months ago--a short list of titles that I consider among my very favorites in all the world of literature. This is a far less emotional exercise, and one I can therefore throw myself into with relish and abandon. :-)

So, here you have it: an incomplete list of some of my favorite reads in absolutely no order whatsoever. I say "incomplete" because I have culled the obvious books for brevity's sake. Really--do you need to know that I consider To Kill A Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby and East of Eden must-reads? No, you don't. Your high school English teacher already told you to read them. And if you didn't listen to her, you surely aren't about to listen to me, now are you? :-)

1. Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. If you know Terry Pratchett's work, this book will delight you. It is winsome, decidedly British and full of some of the most tightly-written humor I have ever encountered. It's an absolute rollick. That being said, if your theology forbids you from reading anything that might cause you to have sympathy for upstart witches, please don't touch this one. The plot centers on the End Times, a demon who wreaks havoc by plotting to snarl traffic and an angel who prefers his rare bookshop to heaven. This is "Wings of Desire" ("Der Himmel ├ťber Berlin") for laughs.

2. Stoner by John Williams. A tale of an everyday life lived in its simplest form but ruled by an obsessive love of literature. Beautifully written. Lingers with you long after you close the cover.

3. Vindication by Frances Sherwood. A novelization of the life of the revolutionary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The historical settings ring true, the characters blossom, and the echoes of more recent history are haunting. This is a book where the details dominate. One of the few books in my lifetime that I have sought out in first copy, hardbound format.

4. Ava's Man by Rick Bragg. The companion volume to All Over But the Shoutin', this book is the first I've ever read that I wished like an
ything I had written. Bragg's voice is real, his landscapes are so lush you can almost smell the swamps, and his dialects are spot-on. I swear he and I are related, because he his family and mine are shockingly similar.

5. Raney by Clyde Edgerton. A short, bubblegum story that chronicles the eye-opening first year in the marriage of a "liberal" protestant Christan and a "conservative" protestant Christian. Hilarious and sweet.

6. Drop City by TC Boyle. Again, not a book to place on hold at the library if your pastor's wife would disapprove of seeing it there. Follows a small band of back-to-nature hippies as they move their commune from sunny CA to Alaska, by way of all of the trappings that the 60s can offer. Keep out of the hands of children, but enjoy the insight into what helped shape our current culture.

7. Divine Secrets of the Ya
Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. One of my favorite books of all time. Vivi still breaks my heart, and I still want to sit next to Sidda on an airplane.

8. Building Suburbia by Dolores Hayden. A crazy-precise look at the rise of suburban living in the United States. If you've ever wondered how we made the jump from a dual agrarian/industrial-living society to a nation of commuters, this is the book to read. Also includes a fascinatin
g treatise on mail-order housing and the beginnings of strip malls.

9. Oral History by Lee S
mith. At turns harrowing and heartwarming, the spirits of the family that inhabit this book entertain and educate at the same time.

10. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. You read The English Patient. O.k., so you didn't read it; you sa
w the movie. Anyhow ... Ondaatje's brilliance as a writer shines far brighter in this book. Although the main character is somewhat (o.k., very) reprehensible, his development and motivations are so realistically chronicled that you can't help but be swept away by the novel.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The List--a poll

And my very first poll it is, too!

After receiving loads of emails asking for pdf copies of The List, I thought it might be easier to just post the thing on the blog. But if the only interested parties are the ones I've already heard from, well ... I don't want to waste valuable web space repeating information. Therefore, a poll:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Values Clarification, part one

I have a whole list of Christianisms that I can't stand, but the term "worldview" isn't one of them. I rarely use the phrases "die on that hill," “put a hedge of protection," or "put out a fleece" for two reasons: number one, I just don't talk like that and number two, I think they are somewhat cliquey when spoken in the presence of someone whose Biblical knowledge is still in the formative stages.

But "worldview" ... "worldview" is a rich word. Literally, it means the eyes with which you see what's around you. Where you're coming from. What makes you tick. Yes, worldview is a word that I embrace.

Because my worldview is based on a set of Christian values, I see the society around me and am often dismayed. I know I'm not alone; check out John Holzmann's recent blog post to read about some of the disturbing goings on around the world, and see if you don't walk away with your eyes turned heavenward and your heart breaking.

A few nights ago, I spoke with a friend whose daughter is in our local public school. This friend has shrugged her shoulders over the state of education in our area, and has even dabbled in afterschooling as a way of making up the difference in what she thinks her daughter ought to be learning and what the school board actually requires. I usually walk away from our conversations wondering how anyone so disillusioned with a system can continue to participate when said involvement is not mandatory. This particular evening was no different.

After outlining the fact that she had just spent an entire dinnertime countering a lesson in ethics that her 3rd grader received that day, my friend went on to tell me what, exactly that lesson entailed. Are you ready? It was the classic lifeboat scenario, resurrected. If you aren't familiar with "lifeboat," watch this short video for a primer:

Back? Horrified? Good.

Yes, her daughter was asked to rank the value of life, a job that most Christians agree is best left to the Author of Life. Appropriate for a 3rd grader? Apparently, someone thought so. Despite having been effectively debunked in 1976 (, values clarification is back.

All the more reason to homeschool, in my opinion. If that's not an option, at the bare minimum, sound a very vocal alarm. To my friend, it was another annoyance she had to unravel at the end of an already busy day.

"Are you going to talk to the teacher and let her know you thought it was inappropriate?" I asked.

"No. I already talked to my daughter."

"So you don't do anything? You just let it happen?"

"Pretty much. I don't want to rock the boat. They know I'm Christian down there, you know," she answered.

I'm still processing all that that answer implies. Christians shouldn't rock the boat? Christians should be doormats? Christians shouldn't let others know when they are offended? Christians just go along with society's ideas?

Imagine where the civil rights movement that culminated in an end to Jim Crow laws would be today if they held to those points. At the back of the bus, that's where.

People who know me know that a large part of why I homeschool stems from my worldview. Spending a few hours with me will reveal even more about how I see things. Ask me why I don't work outside my home, eat pork, watch certain movies or frequent particular stores. Worldview.

In truth, every one of us makes choices on a minute-by-minute basis that reflect what we care for, what we value and how we see the world. And folks, if people know that you're a Christian, they are watching. You represent Christ and His words in action here in earth. It's not a small order to be the Public Information Officer for an entire faith, is it? But we are!

So please, join me as I take a moment to ask myself--what is my worldview? How do I display it to others? Is it inconsistent with my actions? And, last but not least, am I willing, when necessary, to rock the boat?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The List

I've been working away, compiling something of a master list of all of the books I either a) want my children to read on their own or b) I want to be able to read aloud to them. I'm only mid-way (or so) through the list, and I just had the most wonderful realization:

I get to "do" this list more than once.

Because of the age spread of my kiddos, I will get to introduce a whole new round of children to the land of Narnia in a few years. I will be able to slide our worn copy of
Robinson Crusoe into many more sets of hands that will leaf through the pages and be mesmerized. I will read Blueberries for Sal to another preschooler who thinks that plink! is the most lovely sound in the world.

The doors of great literature are still waiting for me to pass on the keys to yet more minds who will fall in love with the magical suspension of disbelief.

I love what I do.
Love it. And this is just one reason why.

Review: WriteShop Story Builders

People assume that because I am a writer, and because Mr. Blandings also makes his living off of words, our children are naturally inclined to the art. While I can't say that it hurts to be raised by parents who love books and find words fascinating, I can also vouch for the fact that genetics alone do not a talent make. I was raised by a father who subscribed to the weekend paper so that he could scan the car ads, a mother who thinks of Harlequin romances as high literature, a grandmother who has, in her lifetime, only read one entire book (the Bible) and an illiterate grandfather. I still manage to bring in a few dollars every year off of writing, so apparently, genetics aren't to blame for my incessant need to pound out words.

In my own little brood, the writing bug has nibbled far more than he has actually bitten. Jo dabbles in writing; she has a large collection of stories housed in a dozen or more of the blank books I pick up each year at our state homeschooling conference. She prefers to write on her own time, in her own way and with very little direction from me. Were I more teacher than writer, I would probably find this to be something I struggled with. Since I also prefer to be given free reign over my own creativity, I find this a fairly natural approach to writing.

Atticus has also taken a flying solo approach to writing. When given the chance to draw his own comics or pen his own tales, he will happily dive in. But since Atticus is still at a very formative stage of the writing process and is still picking up the tolls of the trade, I watch over his shoulder a little more. I also assign him some specific writing tasks--which he hates, as a rule.

Logan is an enthusiastic writer, but not given to stories or description in the least. He is my list maker, letter writer and one-sentence journal entry boy. Given his druthers, he wouldn't write in his journal at all, actually. He'd simply illustrate his thoughts.

So how do you pry those great works out of the pens of young writers? How do you help them leap from doe-eyed horror at the sight of a blank page to flowing ideas spilling out line by line?

One method I've used with regularity over the years is the story starter. I picked up this particular tool when I first started coaching writing camps nearly a decade ago. After a quick gauge of the general interests of my students, I'd throw out either a sentence that was open ended, or a handful of words that I asked the children to weave into a story of their own choosing. The results of these story starters never ceased to amaze me with their variations; when given the words mouse, turtle and lake, I might be handed stories of valiant mice defending their lake home from an invading horde of malicious turtles, a nice buddy tale of two animals gliding through the waters on a sunny day and a story about a little girl who collected animals during her summer vacation.

I've always assembled my own random story starters, and was somewhat amused to find that an entire market had been created around offering up ideas for homeschoolers. At one point, running low on time and dry on inspiration, I checked one such book out of our local library (I think it specialized in story starters for boys) and was disappointed to find nothing that I hadn't already tried, and quite a few that were so lacking in creativity that I was shocked.

Such has been the case with pre-made story starters and me for the past few years. I like the idea, but feel that the products run from implausible and confusing to dry and boring. Thus, when I received a review copy of WriteShop's Story Builders, my expectations were dismally low.

I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I dug deeper into this product. Based on the same "customize this story" idea listed above, WriteShop's Story Builders offer literally thousands of possibilities in just one deck of cards--and there are several different card sets to chose from. Each set comes with nearly 200 individual cards containing elements such as characters, situations, actions and emotions. Parents simply cut out the cards (I suggest laminating as well) and begin piecing together the outline that will lead their young writer closer to their imagination.

The characters are a far cry from the usual simplistic "boy" and "girl." No--writers using this program choose from snowboarders, peacocks and other possibilities designed to fan the flames of "what if?" For writers that need a little more direction, adjectives are included. Can't think of anything to say about a boa constrictor? How about a picky boa, for you?

For only $7.95 per set, I think that these themed decks are a deal for moms too rushed to pull together their own creative writing prompts. There are tips for using the sets included, as well as blank cards for throwing in ideas that fit the interests in your house. Our set now boasts cards labelled Titanic, rebel, Han Solo and knight. I wonder what would happen if I threw all four on the table at once?