Saturday, March 1, 2014

Life Eutectics

So today I'd like to talk about eutectics. I'm not much of a chemist, but there was some empirical knowledge I gained from working with ceramics, and one of these concepts-in-practice was called eutectics. You can look up eutectic on wikipedia and be dazzled by charts about it and possibly grasp the theory far better than I can explain it, but I'm going to try to put it in a nutshell anyway. The idea is that you can take two or more materials that generally melt at a temperature too high for you to maintain, but when they are together, these particular substances have a lower melting point than they would separately. There may be good reason for this, but to me this still seems like an easter egg in the universe's programing. Surprise!

This concept in mind, I'm just thinking about life at my house lately. Four days a week my sister brings my best friend's two kids here with her. She's being paid (fairly, but not terribly much) to look after them, and I'm offering a place for them to spread out and do school and play and interact with my own kids (They are living at their grandparents' house, which is partly under construction inside and can be a little limiting for little ones.) They eat here, study, play, bathe, etc. With my own 6 kids we were already kinda nutty. So you might expect chaos.

And yet (apart from cabin fever setting in while we wait for spring. . .) the opposite seems to be the case. It's not easy, but things are more functional than ever at my house. Expecting others most of the week forces me into a routine and to prepare myself and my home. It forces me to simplify my expectations of my day. And yet, at the same time, I usually get more done than I ever had in the past, because Rachel is here to help hold the baby or wash dishes or marshal the kids through cleaning up after themselves etc. I help with Willow and Lilly and she helps with my kids, her nieces and nephews, and there's no real division of child care in that bigger sense (although there are some things she regularly handles and does transport them here). Finally I'm not just being tag teamed by kids, but passing the baton with someone else during the weekdays. I'm able to sort through a bin of clutter that used to sit for a month, to keep up with the laundry, to move things in and out of storage and rearrange furnishings, to run an errand during business hours and so on. Even more exciting to me, I spend more time with my sister and I feel I know her so much better. I'm constantly impressed with how she patiently and loving interacts with the kids, consistently corrects them and keeps her cool in front of them. We talk, and I'm so excited to communicate with another adult in daylight. I'm so glad to be able to help Kalah with her kids and to help Rachel with her sitting job and I know Kalah is excited that her sitter is able to help me.

This is like the perfect storm. I don't know how long it will last, but it's an arrangement I'm so glad for at this time in my life. The eutectic is the three of us coming togetherand finding that somehow the math works out less taxing for each of us. We're still each asking something of each other, but we're each giving too, and there's some hidden secret that's making each of our lives work out together.

Now if I could just find the secret to perpetual motion.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who numbers the days

To my sweet tummy dweller-

We have been waiting for a long time for you. I have been frustrated not knowing what day your birth will be on, but today I think that there are many things I do not know, things only God knows of you, hidden things: the moment of your conception, the days your life on this earth will count to, the hour you will come to call Jesus your Lord, the time of your baptism, the day you may marry on, and even the days of your possible children's conceptions and their births and future possibilities. The cascading written futures are all God's and I have been foolish to be anxious for knowing this one. It is a joy to be your mother and I am glad of your life within me.

I do look forward to kissing your face soon while I take comfort in knowing that it is God who numbers all of our days.

I love you.
Love, mommy <3

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Learning to Teach: Pre-Reading

Lately a various people have asked me how I teach reading to my kids. After yakking it out a couple of times, I've come to realize there is somewhat of a rhyme to my reason, even if it's not a system, per se. I also thought that maybe it would be helpful to others who are teaching little ones. Or know little ones. Or maybe are way past ever being interested in raising kids but just like reading about me and my ongoing adventures. I love you guys too.

First, a disclaimer- I'm not a certified anything in this field. I don't know what to do with kids who are exceptions to any rules or whatever. I'm sure I'm missing something someone considers vital. I'm just not that worried about it since I'm three kids into this reading thing so far (two more on their way to reading) and it's going swimmingly. I'm sure I'll eat my humble pie and have some of my own issues to get over with each individual. Every kid is a unique person with unique needs and as their parent you are best equipped to be sensitive to those needs as they are ever changing and to adjust accordingly. If you ever feel overwhelmed about it there are always resources and experts to check with but it's usually over-kill and nothing that worrisome if you stick with something and love on your kids.

So before there is reading, there is pre-reading. The number of skill sets to identify with pre-reading might be overwhelming, since in a way it starts with language and identification and the whole miracle of the mind of an infant who is interpreting her whole world through her sensory input. First she is learning to identify things, not just as objects in her field of vision, but as interactive objects in space that each have qualities associated with them. She's comprehending spacial relationships, time and change, experiencing emotional connections with the world around her, and generally building up a sense library. And if you're like most of us, as a parent you are talking to her all the while. So she is gradually building associations between the sounds you make and these sensory experiences. The repeated ones reinforce connections in her mind, and as she starts experimenting with sound making and motion making she herself favors repetition, reinforcing what she's learned in her own practice, even if it's just a single syllabic noise or random raspberry sound she's learned to produce.

Pretty soon she's understanding a lot of what is being said around her, or at least picking out the things that are pertinent to her experience. Given time, she begins playing with those word noises herself, and the more success she has in responses to those word noises, the more certain she is of their meaning.

A couple of years later (or even as late as three or four years is not abnormal), when she's forming words and little sentences, then she's taking command of her language and realizing that others can be made to understand her. All the while ever since the earliest time, I hope, you've been reading with her. Together, hold a book appropriate to her development stage and just read.

The first concepts about books will just be as objects. Things that can be carried, pages that can be turned, bright colors. At some point the photos or illustrations will become recognizable icons, thanks to pointing and naming. Because, let's face it, a house is not the same thing as a picture of a house. So what they've began to learn is that an image can stand for an actual object.

Now as you've been reading with them, they've also begun to realize that certain books prompt certain stories to be told, so that the same book consistently causes you to to tell them the same story. If a favorite story is read often enough, they may even begin to memorize some of it. Just like they like to reinforce language skills by being (sometimes painfully) repetitive, they may also often bring you the same books without any concern that they've already heard it a dozen times today. Be as patient as possible with this, as long as they are engaged and genuinely interested.

In addition to reading picture books with them, let them hear you reading aloud more advanced chapter books. Let them enjoy quality stories without worrying about laboring to read yet. Let them see you enjoy reading quietly to yourself. All this will help your little one to have a desire to participate and become literate too. You may not think of yourself as a reader or think it's your favorite hobby, but you need to model it, and model an enjoyment for it in order to encourage them.

When they start being interested in singing along with you, (which may be long before they speak words, since they love to hear and dance to music!) begin teaching them popular alphabet songs. As much as is reasonable, supply them with letter games and toys. Be careful not to just teach them the letter names, but more specifically the basic letter sounds. Just like they have learned that a picture of a dog stands for an actual dog, and especially if they can be prompted to tell you that a dog says 'woof' or 'bow-wow' or whatever onomatopoeia you elect, they will be ready to accept that a symbol 'letter' represents a certain sound. This sound learning is the most commonly understood 'pre-reader' stage, although everything that comes before in terms of language and symbol learning is also foundational and I consider pre-reading skills to really begin from birth.

Before I continue, I want to add one thing to prevent frustration. No one learns on a schedule. No one learns on a perfect upward-climbing linear graph formula. Some times we gain ground, sometimes we are stagnant for a while, sometimes we learned to parrot but not to understand and need to be reintroduced, sometimes we actually forget what we knew, and other times we have rapid growth in our skills. This is true for all people of all ages in all areas and types of learning. So it is not anything to be worried about if a pre-reader seems to spend a long time in one stage without advancing, or even needs to be reintroduced to anything they seem to have forgotten.

So once your child is learning letter sounds, how do you get them reading? Well, I do a number of surreptitious things, but I never try to rush them to the starting line. Instead I am watching for the readiness signs.

When I am reading, I will try to select early readers with repetitive words. (Even though I personally can't stand most of them!) I will begin to put my finger under the word I am reading as I am reading it, so they can associate the word they hear with a set of symbols on the page. If they are familiar with the story, I will begin to pause at simple key repeated words and let them say the word in the story. This may begin them on sight reading (more about sight and phonetic approaches can be said on a post about reading approaches after the pre-reading stage. I won't get into this now, except to say that I believe both to be essential to reading fluently and both important to teach at the same time). They may begin to recognize familiar words just by their shapes. At the same time, I will try to 'sound out' words in front of us, on book pages, signs, in birthday cards etc. I will sound out the letters as I draw my fingers under the word and then repeat the sounds until they strike a familiar chord and indicate a word. I will not pressure the child to do this, but simply let him see me doing it. Now he will begin to get the idea that letters make sounds and put together sounds make words, and words come together in sentences and books and so forth.

He may or may not be interested in writing the letter forms, although I worry least at this point about his writing. I let him trace and copy letters and I help him 'spell' and write by guiding his hand. More than the prettiness of his letter writing, I'm only most interested in that he's learning to hold a writing implement properly and comfortably, and that he's recognizing that letters put together mean things. He may or may not be ready to write his name and if he's really ambitious, also the names of others he knows well. I do not push writing for pre-readers as anything but play, allowing them to prompt me and ask me to help them make a letter and not initiating it or pushing it myself. It usually comes up when they are drawing and want to sign their name or write on it the name of the person the picture is for, or make a simple phrase like "I love you" to include in the picture, or maybe to make a birthday wish list. They may ask how to make certain letters they have been enjoying learning about and you can show them by guiding their hand to drawing an example on a separate paper to let them copy their own way. Try not to get into correcting them or asking much. Reverse letters are very common and are part of the mental to hand development. (Sometimes I write with my non-dominant hand to remind myself how hard it is to be a new writer!) Writing demands more complex skill and can frustrate the young reader if he's not ready for those motor skills.

At any rate, he will begin at some point to recognize that the civilized world around him is full of these letter forms. He will have the tools to figure them out and will have observed how you can break down a word with a bunch of letters into a series of sounds. And at this point I just wait. I don't do anything new, just continue reading and pointing to words as I read and doing sounding out and letter sound repetitions. Eventually, sooner or later my little almost-reader will do something very special.

They suddenly read something to me.

By now the child can be any age between three and seven or even older depending on the individual. I wouldn't worry about how long it takes them to get to this point because reading is a very necessary part of getting along in society and if you're doing all the pre-reading things, reading together, making letter sounds, pointing out words as you read, at some point they will *want* very badly to decode the writing and they will come to it when they are ready. It is more important that they want to read, and not a good idea to pressure them to it. It is important that they own the skill as a personal achievement and not as a challenge they feel put upon about.

The first thing they read on their own, unprompted, can be a sign on the road. Or a label on something, or a word from a piece of junk mail on the table, maybe a card they received in the mail that they really want to understand on their own. In the case of some of my children it has been the cut scene in their video game or a talk bubble in a comic book they were so determined to enjoy. If it is a word that they have never memorized from the easy readers you read with them before then you will be especially sure they have begun to decode the written language.

Celebrate. Now you are ready to read!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Turned Off and Tuned In

Not all of my kids understand clocks and calendars yet. Some are just too young to get it. They have unique senses of time, measured by the regular activities of a day- the routine of waking up and having breakfast, doing certain chores and the rhythm of meals and snacks. They differentiate days by what major events happen on them. Friday everyone loves because it's the day we watch a movie and eat pizza in the living room. It's Pizza Day. Saturday is Daddy-Stays-Home Day. Sunday is Church Day. Monday is Co-op Day and Library Day. Tuesday is Piano Lessons Day, Wednesday is Garbage Day.  Tomorrow is Thursday. Thursday used to be sort of a day without an event. They would be confused about Thursdays because nothing really notable was on our plans for Thursdays. Until recently. In my house now Thursday means "No Screens Day".

Most days the rule is simply that we won't watch any movies or play any video games or computers until after lunch, chores, and schoolwork are completed. This leads to an every afternoon movie time. In the cold months, it was tolerable. But now as I look forward to the Spring I want to get them outside more. Plus, I just think they're too vegged out which leads to poor attitudes and bad relationships. So to ease us into the good weather, I've declared No Screens Thursday. The beauty of it is that they expect it's coming and they know that no begging will get them screen time, so they let it go. I have exceptions, like word processing or drawing on the computer, maybe a typing tutor, but only for limited amounts of time and even then usually I will ask them to come up with something else to do.

It's difficult to limit screen time for my kids because a movie is 2hrs long and if they just get a half hour each on the computer, but all watch one another, it adds up to another 2hrs. That's 4 waking hours a day! And longer if I don't stick to the timer, or a second movie choice goes in or they watch another one with Dad later. We don't have cable or anything, but just a DVD player and a few 'educational' computer games is enough to keep them staring. And basically turn them into bickering zombies. I give in more to it in the winter, and it got especially bad this time because I was so morning sick last fall and we got into a rut of keeping the movies going so the little ones wouldn't hang off me while I was sick. There must have been a better way. But I admit, I just let it get bad.

Now I have to back our way out of this bad habit again.

The first couple of Thursdays they got up dejected and not knowing what to do with themselves, but they adapted and now find all kinds of toys and games and reading and activities and imaginative play and arts and crafts. Their Thursdays are really excellent days. I plan on extending this to No Screens Tuesdays as well, and this summer using Tues and Thurs as park days. I may declare a 3rd day no screens too, until half the week cuts off the vegging out.

I don't have too many issues with technology per se. I think it's pretty swell. But as someone who struggled with somewhat of a social internet addiction for a spell, I think I'd like my kids to have a healthier view of technology as something that serves them as needed rather than as something they can't live without. I'm hoping that by replacing the screens gradually with happy time away from screens they will make better choices for their time of their own volition, and ultimately use technology purposefully rather than being slaved to it, sitting... Idol.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The New Old Soap

Recently I decided to stop hoarding a little bin of special soaps and things I've kept for over ten years- since my wedding shower. Some of the creams and things were so old they'd spoiled and needed thrown away. I regret not having just used them up long ago, instead keeping them sorted into a little bin and carrying them from apartment to apartment to house and never opening them. The pretty soaps that weren't bad yet suddenly appeared in our soap dishes. One has a pink heart embedded into it and the day I put it out there was so much excitement. My kids never seemed so happy about washing their hands. I realized, I've been wasting something by not using it up. Not only was the pleasure of the soap lost (though luckily now enjoyed!) but the space and effort of maintaining it neatly in it's little bin took up a part of my life. That was a significant amount of bathroom shelf real estate that could have held something more utilitarian or been a little space to breathe in my life. There is so much of this kind of baggage around me that I'm finally seeing and sharing. I used to pick on my husband for storing all his Star Wars memorabilia and toys from when he was a kid. But now I'm coming to understand the plank in my own eye on this issue. The truth is, I know I've been far worse with much less. I've always known and admitted to being a pack rat but it was 'useful' or 'valuable' or 'memorable' stuff, so I gave myself an excuse all of the time.

Now decluttering is becoming a kind of lifestyle I'm gradually learning. I know I've written about it before. And often I'm talking about life decluttering and stuff decluttering and someone looks incredulous about me talking about it, because, they remind me, I've been talking about it for years and how can I *still* be decluttering. It seems when you put it like that, that I must be doing it wrong. I think there is some confusion in that instance between decluttering and say, spring cleaning. Maybe there is even a better word than decluttering that can set apart what I am really trying to strive for. It's a lifestyle or a way of thinking. A method, or a journey. Not so much a check list or a set of goals, although such things are certainly a part of the process.

I'm learning over time to release my attachment and reliance on 'stuff', to let go of that niggling feeling that tells me to save something because I might need it later or it might become difficult or expensive to have again or because it's a treasure or a memory or because it's a gift etc. Gradually I am cutting through layers of things with a new motto of use-it-or-lose-it. The vision gained at a Mom's luncheon a couple of years ago, about how our homes are meant to be places where useful things flow through to bless our families and others in our circles of influence as opposed to our homes being stagnant stinking pools of useless stuff has inspired me. It allows me to still save odd bits and ends and to store things that seem needful, but it requires me to have a stated purpose and timetable for them to be used or given away. It means I can identify what is really not supposed to stay or what just can't stay for lack of space or purpose. It means I can weigh the value of the space and time it takes to maintain that stuff against its real value.

The irony is that the more things I let go of or make an effort to use for what I set it aside for instead of putting off that project, then the more breathing space is made which allows me to see what else I have and to think of better ways to access it. It's strange in that even though I have fewer things, I actually feel like I have more than before because I can get to it and use it when I'm looking for it or needing it!

Decluttering doesn't just mean identifying things to be kept or gotten rid of. It also means identifying systems or ways of working that are in need of tightening up. Is it easy to put away those cups into that cupboard or have to chosen one furthest away from the drying rack so they never get put away? Are my kids really this forgetful about shoes and coats, or am I not providing enough hooks and shoe racks? Does a dresser really work best for a small child to manage his own clothes, or should I look at a system that doesn't involve him pulling on big heavy drawers and digging around? Are our toys feeling like clutter when they really just need better rules and discipline about  returning them?

Some things are hard to give up and some systems are difficult to even imagine another way of doing and so I find myself sympathizing with a friend who just confides in me that she thinks it's best to just accept her flawed way of life management as her personality or style and learn to love it. But some part of me wishes I could scream out 'no!' because we are selling ourselves short. Better to struggle towards any kind of improvement than to keep living with this deadweight around our necks and trying to smile about it like its healthy.

I'm decluttering, even if I'm never decluttered.

Here are some little phrases or ideas and some encouragement that I think throughout my day to help me to put things in order:

1) Use it or lose it. If I'm really not going to use this or it's not worth the space to keep it in or it's no longer something that's as useful as before etc then I need to recycle/ donate/ gift/ trash it.
2)On my way. ie: Since I'm going from the kitchen to the bedroom and passing the laundry, I might as well take the dirty kitchen rags to the laundry bin and those magazines to the bathroom for reading later. It will only take me a couple more seconds and then these things will be 2 less things cluttering my kitchen.
3)There must be a better way. (to do this or store that etc) Look for other ways people have solved the problem or picture how you would. Imagine it and then keep an eye out for stuff you already have that can solve your problem or the things you need for free or reclaim or re-purpose or on sale that can make it happen. Or drawing a plan for someone else to make it happen for you. Whatever it takes. But if you can't picture it, it won't change.
4)Like with Like. Consolidate similar things into singular places generally. It turns what was random junk into accessible resources.
5) Nesting Chores. I can be running laundry, baking bread, washing dishes, and administering home school subjects all at once through the magic of getting things started in series and maintaining them in a paced fashion. I don't have to be standing over the washing machine and once the dough is proofing I have 30 mins or more until the next step. I can wash dishes and hear a child read at the same time, and if I let the dishes drip dry in the rack I save myself the chore of drying and can come back to put them away after I have done another small chore. You can't always keep this kind of juggling act going, and some times it's good to slow down and concentrate on just one thing and do it right, but you have to find a way to keep up too. This is one of my favorite time saving methods.
6)Fight entropy! This is my tongue in cheek way of reminding myself that I'm doing the impossible anyway, so I don't have to expect perfection. I often write this at the top of my to-do lists. Some might call it lowering your standards, but I like to think of it as having a sense of reality. I will finally lick entropy when Christ returns and I dwell in His forever Kingdom, in a life where rust, mold, and flour moth can't destroy. For now, I am fighting the good fight for the sake of the Kingdom of God in our lives.
7)How do you eat an elephant? Sometimes we don't do a big job because we are overwhelmed by it. Every time I ask my kids to pick up after themselves they melt into a puddle because the job seems insurmountable. It works best if instead I identify specific types of things for them to work on at a time (pick up the clothes, stuffed animals, and papers) Or identify a small area for them to tackle (just pick up the junk that fell down the side of your bed). And really, we need to do the same with our big elephant chores. Slice off a bite at a time and quit belly aching!

Be encouraged!
Where there is no oxen, the trough is clean. We have junk and even big messes in our lives because we are living families, not sterile dead lifeless things. We are burgeoning with activity and future possibilities entrusted to our care!

God wants us to empty our hands so He can fill them. Our Father is rich beyond all measure and longs to bless us. He knows our needs before we ask them. He will dress us lavishly (at least figuratively speaking) if we will let go of the shreds we think we need because we fail to trust Him instead. We are children of the King. So I need to stop relying on my own ability to stash away in place of His providence.

God doesn't need us to be Martha Stewart as much as He longs for us to be ready to receive him and one another. Being Mary is about choosing the better thing, which is relationships over things. Don't obsess about being cleaned up (or guilt trip yourself about not being cleaned up) so much that you miss the purpose of cleaning up- being prepared to receive each other! Pay attention to your husband, hug your babies, and enjoy your guests.

God gives us things for a purpose and a season. Recognizing the voice of The Holy Spirit guiding us in our lives will help us to better identify those purposes and seasons and use our things to the glory of God.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Looking Closely

For the summer time, I'm not giving a complete vacation from study, but we aren't doing any workbooks or required essay writing. Instead we're just reading from history books, biographies, storybooks and novels, and doing arts like drawing and music, and regularly doing stretches and exercises together in a semi  organized fashion. Today we introduced something new that I experienced at a talk during the MASS HOPE homeschool convention. MASS HOPE was very heavy on the Charlotte Mason method speakers. And I actually like a lot of her approach. I haven't 'studied' it or followed it closely or anything. I've just found through a little trial and error and personal experience as a homeschool student on the other side of the equation, that what works for us is to incorporate the subject studies together in as many ways as possible, and to limit our workbooks to things like math (and even with math to take rests from workbooks and use manipulatives and examples often, to make sure they know the concepts and not just rote answers), and use as many real and engaging books as possible.

So in this workshop at MASS HOPE, they gave a picture study. I'd heard of doing these from some of the books I have which even provide beautiful and detailed engravings, but I never really understood what they were getting at. At the convention, they put up a slide of a Rembrant image, and they gave us adults a picture study lesson and it all became clear to me. It wasn't about being incredibly critical or deep or studying all of the peroiod effects on the artist or the artist's intentions or anything like I endured in college with years and years of art history lessons sitting in dark rooms watching slides go by to the droning of an instructor and madly taking copious notes. No! Instead, it's quite simply just an exercise in seeing- focusing intently to drink in the details and composition of an image. A lesson in purposed observation.

To begin I chose this piece by Mary Cassatt out of an oversized book of her prints I borrowed from the town library.
It's called Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder. I asked them to all look closely and told them that after 3 minutes I would take the picture away and we would talk about what we saw. They looked very intently and quietly. Then when I took away the picture I just asked: What did you see in the picture?

At first they didn't know what to say. It was tempting to prompt them with questions, but I was told at the workshop not to interrupt the pauses and to allow them work out the answers for themselves. Sam and Gwen were too concerned about what was a complex or clever response such that that they seemed to hold back (a lot like we adults at the conference had). It was Jeff that began with the obvious fact that there was a lady holding a baby in the picture. When I responded with praise for that answer, the others began to give rapid fire observations. Her dress was red, her hair was tied up in a bun, They both have brown eyes, the baby was smiling, there was a mirror and in it the mother was smiling, the baby was naked (everyone laughed), Then I said maybe the baby was wearing a diaper and everyone insisted he was naked, I asked how they knew since her arm was covering him. They said you could tell in the mirror. So we looked at the picture again, and sure enough the kids were correct- The baby is mooning us in the reflection of the mirror!

They really want to do this again. And it looks like I need the practice in observation more than they do!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Making Butter

So, I recorded this last month. My hope was to make a bunch more little how to recordings and start to release them one at a time, but I never really got around to making more. In the background you can hear my babies playing quietly. Really, that's quiet play.

Use whole unhomogenized milk! Raw is best. Save the buttermilk for baking! Butter and buttermilk can be frozen for later.

I like this fresh butter a lot, or even when I freeze it for later, because it has a lighter taste than store butter. It seems softer and more velvety to me when I spread it over my thick warm homemade wheat bread.....

Makin myself hungry now.