Time to Say Good-bye (to the newspaper)

A photo I took of my very first column in the newspaper seven years ago this month.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on July 6, 2016. 

It is bittersweet for me, but after writing this column for seven years, I find it’s time to say good-bye.

I started this column when I was pregnant with my youngest son, who will turn seven-years-old this August. Unlike his older brother, he was a much more active baby and toddler. We had to build a cage around our television and speakers to keep him from knocking them over. Somehow I found time to write while he was taking a nap and his brother watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Word World.

Both boys have come a long way since then, and neither of them could bear to watch such childish shows as Mickey Mouse or Word World anymore. Changes happen so quickly that I can’t keep up with them. Luckily I have some of it recorded in my columns. Otherwise, I might only have photographs and a few sloppily written journal entries.

While writing these columns, my husband and I decided we wanted to homeschool our children, and I’ve shared our decision making process and the highlights of our experiences. My eldest son has gone from wanting to be a “snake scientist” to a roboticist and now that he’s almost ten-years-old, he’s considering the life of a classical pianist. (God help us!) It’s been a wonderful journey learning about these subjects with him and teaching other important subjects too.

My six-year-old has had only one interest for the last year and a half, and that’s birds. What fun we’ve had with that! I’m sure this will continue on, and I’m sure other interests will come and go. Though graduation is a long ways off, whatever qualms I had about homeschooling in the beginning have died. Keeping the family together and exploring the world together has been the best decision we ever made. Any other issues are minor and can be worked out over time.

For five of my seven years at the Barrow Journal, I wrote every single week (save one or two), and this proved to be a great learning experience for me. I know writers who sit on their work for years, never quite satisfied with it, and fear keeps them from sharing it with others. When you are forced to write something quickly and get it in on time, you let go of perfectionism. You learn to be happy with things that aren’t quite right because everyone will have forgotten about it the following week anyway.

Sitting down to write or create anything on a regular basis is a great discipline to acquire, and just by doing that, you will get better over time. Not everyone will like your work, but that’s not important. What is important is that you have created something of your own. You have used your time wisely instead of wasting it in front of the T.V. or on Facebook.

If it weren’t for writing this column, Amy Sharony, the owner and editor of home/school/life magazine would not have found me. I’ve been working part-time for her for the past few years, changing my role as my life’s needs have demanded.

I helped her launch the magazine, wrote countless articles, managed the social media, and now I’m pleased to see she’s creating so much more than a magazine. There are online classes for homeschoolers, a store, a blog, a podcast, and most of all, a community of like-minded people who offer support to new and seasoned homeschoolers. (homeschoollifemag.com) Because of the work I’m doing there, I have to prioritize my time, so I’m letting go of some things, including this column.

You can also find me on my personal blog, mamaofletters.com. I will continue to document our homeschooling journey there as well as all the different parks, towns and venues in Georgia we try to visit each year.

I am very grateful to the Barrow Journal, especially Chris Bridges, for allowing me to babble on for all these years. Chris is a kind person, and he has been great to work for, and it’s been a pleasure to be part of his team.

If you are one of the few readers who have enjoyed my column over the years, thank you so much. I hope you will reach out and find me in other places. I am not gone, just moving on. Have a wonderful summer.


Happy Father’s Day

father's day-1

Note: I meant to post this on my blog on Father’s Day, but I was sick over the weekend and nothing got done. It was published in the Barrow Journal on June 15, 2016, before father’s day.🙂

Father’s Day is this weekend, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that my kids have a great father. No one else on earth wants my boys to succeed in their heart’s desire more than their father. This is why he spends countless hours researching whatever it is my boys express an interest in so that he can make sure they are doing it right.

He doesn’t think any age is too young to do something right. In fact, he would argue, it’s crucial to start young. When they become adults and enter the workforce, they will be competing against peers who have apprenticed, volunteered or had wealthy parents enough to send them to all the best schools. We don’t have that kind of money, but we can start them early on the right path.

As a college professor, he’s in a unique position to see that homeschooling is beneficial to kids. He uses his knowledge as an advisor when thinking about how he wants to support his own kids. I’m lucky I have his support because I know not all couples agree on whether or not to homeschool. Sometimes he and I will squabble over how to homeschool, but we rarely question the decision to homeschool in the first place.

A few years ago, my husband had a chance to work from home full-time, and he took it. For a while, we weren’t sure how this would work out, but he doesn’t regret it and neither do I. Even though he has to spend the greater part of the day in his upstairs office, he can come greet his boys in the morning and also eat lunch with us….We always watch a documentary on Netflix or PBS at lunch. (You would be surprised at how much conversation and interaction can happen between family members while watching T.V.)

My husband can also take the time to be my son’s audience while he practices piano for an hour after lunch and dinner. My son loves playing the piano. He also loves learning about composers and listening to classical music performances on YouTube. I’ve been reading an introduction to the great composers with him, but my husband is the one who helps my son look up performances online and reads about them further on the Internet and Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers.

My husband always wants to give the boys anything they want, and sometimes I have to slap my head at this. Whether we run out of a snack food or entrée they like, he runs to the store often to keep the house overstocked on everything everybody likes to eat. He does almost all the grocery shopping.

When we visit a museum, he usually lets the boys pick out a little something from the gift shop, and if one of the boys goes shopping with daddy, they usually get to pick out something special on the trip as well.

My six-year-old has had a special interest in birds for the last year or more, and my husband has promised him that someday we’ll buy him a real bird as a pet. The only thing keeping him from running to the pet store right now is that my cat is still alive.

My nine-year-old is also interested in robotics, so my husband found the best robots on the market for him to learn from and play with, and this year he also guided my nine-year-old in building a computer from scratch. His thinking is that if our son is going to work a lot on computers, he wants him to understand the hardware as well as the software. Someday he plans to help our younger son build a computer too.

Every day my husband talks to his kids and interacts with them, which I think is wonderful, as I didn’t grow up with a father that was as available as that. Some days he might inquire about their progress on their favorite digital games, getting just as excited as the boys about Hungry Shark World. He laughs with them over Calvin and Hobbes comics. Other days he might go outside and push the boys on the swings, and he’s been making up dinosaur stories to tell to my youngest son at night for several years now too.

There are many different ways to be a good father, and I know there are many great fathers out there. I’m lucky to be married to one of them. Happy Father’s Day to all you awesome dads.

Summer Break Begins

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 25, 2016. I wrote it a couple of weeks ago, so some of the events I mention in it have already happened.

I am exhaling a sigh of relief as I write this column because this week marks the end of so many things. Our appointments are done until fall except for my nine-year-old’s weekly piano lesson. One appointment a week seems like a vacation to me.

I have also finished testing my nine-year-old. In Georgia, homeschoolers are required to administer a standardized test at the end of third, sixth and ninth grade, and this year he was in third grade, so it was time. Although it felt like a huge waste of time – I know exactly what subjects he’s weak in and what subjects he excels in – it was pretty painless. He was able to sit and focus and take the tests in reading, language and math, and he told me he didn’t think they were too hard. I don’t have the results back yet, but I’m not worried, especially since the scores are for our eyes only.

We are out for “summer break,” so to speak, although as homeschoolers, only a little bit changes in our daily routine. I plan to do lessons during the summer, but I’ll mostly let the boys pick their favorites. I know for my nine-year-old that will be science, and I won’t be surprised if my six-year-old wants to keep learning the multiplication tables. Unbelievably, he seems to like math. At least, he likes it if he thinks it’s a game and not “a lesson.”

We’ll be taking a break from lessons for the next couple of weeks because my boy’s cousins and their parents will be visiting us. We’re all very excited because we haven’t seen them in so long, and my six-year-old doesn’t remember them at all. This means I’ll have five little boys in my house for a whole week! This should be an experience I’ll never forget!

Expecting visitors has been good motivation to do my spring-cleaning and some decluttering, although my house never looks like I have successfully “de-cluttered” it. More toys and crafts and junk seem to grow out of the walls as soon as I deliver a box to charity.

I’m grateful it’s not quite summer on the calendar yet, and we’re having some nice spring weather. The boys and I planted green beans and tomatoes and some herbs – it’s a much smaller garden than we’ve attempted in the past because I know it’s all I can probably handle. As the boys get bigger and interested in many different things, the time we have to putter in the garden gets smaller.

I fondly remember those days when my eldest son was about five and constantly pulling seeds from bushes and flowers we would pass, and he’d want to plant them all. Or he would ask to plant the seeds we’d extract from the fruit we bought at the grocery store. (We actually have a lemon tree growing from one of those experiments!) Although he still loves plants, especially his carnivorous plants, he’s not as interested in spending that much time in the garden. At nine-years-old, he’s entering a new season of his childhood.

My six-year-old is much less a nature boy than his older brother was at that age. He would rather carry all his dinosaur toys outside and play with them in the dirt and a small pool of water, i.e. “the watering hole.” But he does love to go outside late at night with his father, carrying a flashlight, and look for frogs. Older brother joins them too.

Soon it will get hot. The mosquitoes will get worse. The green beans will need to be staked, and I’ll probably be tired of going out to water them. But for now, I’m going to relish the beginning of summer break, a change in our routine and this beautiful weather. I hope you are enjoying the benefits of the season as well.

Everybody Needs a Mentor

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 27, 2016.

This bread-baking mission I’m on is full of frustrations, but since I’m doing it for fun, that’s okay. It’s like a puzzle I’m determined to figure out, and I’m relieved I have no deadline for it.

I bought a book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker’s Handbook, and I read it carefully, followed the directions, and the results were so-so. I have watched YouTube videos, read blog posts, and I’ve posed questions to my Twitter followers. (I really appreciate those who are helping.)

But I have realized that EVERYBODY BAKES BREAD DIFFERENTLY. I try this, I try that, and still, I’m not happy with my results. How do I get that beautiful sourdough bread with all the holes and good taste?!

I would love to have a bread-baking expert by my side to help me. This person could look at my sourdough starter and tell me if something is wrong with it. She could watch me mix and knead the dough. He could note the temperature of my house or other conditions that might affect the bread baking.

When it comes down to it, you can only teach yourself so much. Sure, someday I may figure this out, but how long will that take? Will it happen before I waste a barrel full of flour? Will it happen before I get so frustrated I give up? Or maybe I’ll finally produce a loaf I can live with, but I’ll never know what I could have produced, if someone had shown me a better way to do it.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. Everybody needs a mentor, but most importantly, children need mentors. I don’t believe the way most kids are educated these days is enough. Kids are graduating from college and many of them are struggling to find decent paying jobs, let alone jobs in their chosen field.

Sure, learning through the school of hard knocks can build character, but most of the time, the school of hard knocks just knocks people down, and they can’t get back up again. Or if they do get up, they are too far behind to catch up in this life’s rat race.

I would rather a child build character earlier in life, and I would rather them have a step ahead in these basic areas like “what am I going to do with my life?” Don’t the people who believe in the “school of hard knocks” realize that the people getting ahead and accomplishing amazing things usually had help? Sometimes you hear a great story of how some person raised himself out of a difficult life and accomplished something great, and we love those stories because they are RARE.

Most of the young people who are accomplishing great things had a great education and great mentors, or “connections,” if you’d rather call it that. Sure, money helps. But I feel certain behind every success story there was someone who recognized a talent, fostered it and told that child exactly what he needed to do to get ahead. They put him in touch with the right people, and this by itself can be very motivating to a child. Doing these things for a child costs nothing.

When children don’t have anyone who is interested in their unique talents, they start to see these talents as something negative instead of positive. So they go down another path, and many of them end up in a less than desirable situation.

Whenever I meet a child, I am struck by how that child has a special talent or interest that is unique to him or her. Whether she has achieved a billion points on her favorite video game, or he loves collecting rocks, it makes me believe that we’re all born with an innate curiosity and drive to do things.

It depends on what happens to us in childhood whether we use our potential or not. Did someone tell us to “stop acting like that” when we let our imaginations go wild, or did someone take an interest in our wild notions?

A mentor can be any person, but for a child, the parent is the person who knows him best, and as an adult, a parent has the ability to give a child a helping hand, lend a tool, do a little research, or find another adult who can help. Don’t let kids waste their potential and then struggle to compete with peers who are well ahead of them. Kids need our help and guidance. Be a mentor.

Capturing Wild Yeast

My first loaf of bread. It’s not just about the kid’s projects. I’ve started one of my own.🙂

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on April 13, 2016.

I have never been much of a cook or a baker, but I greatly admire those who have these skills. While I can see that cooking can be an art, it’s not my go-to creative outlet. But I wish I were better at it, and for a long time, I have wanted to learn how to bake bread…beautiful, healthy, aroma-rich bread.

My bread-baking goal became a reality recently after my family watched a series on Netflix called Cooked. The book of the same title, written by Michael Pollan, inspired this series. Pollan has made a living writing about food, and while I haven’t read any of his books, this series was fascinating. It had a lot to do with the history of food and how different cultures cook and find food. One of the episodes, titled “Air,” was about bread.

Bread baking has been around since before recorded history. No doubt some early baker neglected his or her flour and water mixture for several hours and came back to find it bubbling. That is, it began to ferment, or it became a sourdough starter, which is what we call it now.

It probably took many accidents before humans realized this chemical process could yield some tasty bread. Then it took centuries before scientists discovered what was happening. Later still, someone created the commercial yeast that is used in all the breads you buy at the store. (Artisan bakers who use natural yeast will tell you that not only are the breads we’re accustomed to bland and tasteless, they aren’t as healthy either.)

Before I watched this documentary, I had no idea about this process or that I could do it at home. By setting out a bowl of flour and water for several days, I could capture wild yeast and bacteria (two of the microorganisms that are always floating around in the air we breathe) to make my own sourdough starter. I knew I had to try it.

If you want to try it, there are dozens of tutorials online to help you, but it really was as easy as putting 1 part flour (most bakers recommend unbleached all purpose flour) to 1 part water in a bowl and mixing them together. I covered mine with a thin kitchen cloth and put it by a window that I opened for several hours each day. You can also leave it on a porch. Everyday, I stirred the mixture vigorously to beat the air into it. After two or three days, I began to see bubbles in it.

Since I had never done this before, I wasn’t sure what to look for. I knew if it started to smell bad, I’d need to throw it out and start again, but the only smell it gave off was a sweet, fermented smell. I knew it must be working, but I had no idea how long it would take. After another day or two, I added more flour and water to the mixture, and I continued to do this everyday. After about seven days, after much wondering if I was getting it right, I knew I had the yeast. It was very bubbly and it had a smell but not a bad one.

Now that I have my own yeast, the bread baking has commenced. Unfortunately, I have yet to bake that perfect loaf. From everything I read, learning to bake bread takes many trials and errors. Each loaf I make seems a little closer to the real deal, although I’m happy to say my husband likes what I’ve made. Though they’re not perfect, they are edible.

In my research I have learned that every baker who uses a sourdough starter bakes his or her bread differently. This could be extremely frustrating, but no, I refuse to get frustrated. (Okay, at least most of the time.) I am in this for the long haul. I’m going to figure out how to get that perfect loaf with the big holes. And hopefully it’s going to taste good too. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Schools on Trial

schools-on-trial-goyalNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 23, 2016.

If you’re a parent with a child in public school, you may want to read Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice by Nikhil Goyal. Nikhil Goyal is an accomplished twenty-year-old journalist (he’s one of Forbes’ 30 under 30) who wants to change our public school system for the better. Seeking real solutions, he traveled the country visiting several alternative and democratic schools to see what he could learn from them.

You may not agree with Goyal on every point he makes. In the first few chapters, he’s very critical of the current public education system, though there are many who agree with him, at least partially. You only need look at all the parents and teachers protesting against the Common Core, excessive testing, and even homework for the younger grades. Homeschooling, as well, is becoming more mainstream, but this is still a small percentage of the U.S. student population.

The best part of Goyal’s book is his in-depth look at democratic schools. A democratic school is a private school where the students have significant control over their education, and some schools even give them voting rights when administrative or disciplinary issues come up in the school. Goyal believes that public schools should give kids more control over their education as well.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking, “Goyal, you’re preaching to the choir.” I’m a homeschooling parent because I believe kids should have a more individualized education, and I think they should have a say in what they’re learning. It should be common knowledge that we learn more when we’re interested in what we’re learning.

Still, I’m not as democratic as some of these schools. I make my boys work on reading, math and some other subjects. But unlike public school, I work with my boys to find curriculum and resources that they like, and I don’t rush them. If they need more time with the material, I give it to them. Most of our day is spent pursuing interests we love, and that does make a huge difference.

As Sir Ken Robinson says in his famous Ted Talk, I think schools are killing kids’ creativity, but I also know it’s very hard to cater to individual students when you have 20~30 students to teach at once. I have always wondered how schools could give kids more autonomy and make learning more relevant to their lives and interests. The schools Goyal writes about in his book offer hope.

He writes, “After visiting many democratic and free schools around the country, I have concluded that I had never met more articulate, unorthodox, curious, and happy children before. The students at these schools have a purpose. They are lifelong learners. They love reading books and playing and learning. They can go on for hours about their interests and passions. They can communicate better than most adults can.”

I would like to see more research done on the graduates of these schools, especially those that are working to foster a diverse student body and admit lower income families. I think any kind of school is hard-pressed to help a child who doesn’t have a supportive, loving family at home. While the research and anecdotal evidence is showing that kids who attend these schools benefit, most of them do not come from a disadvantaged background, as Goyal notes in the book. (By the way, there are two democratic schools in Atlanta.)

Goyal knows how hard it is to make changes in our education system. He knows that the majority does not agree with the proposals he is making in the book, yet as he also writes, many parents and teachers are fed up with the system as we know it, and this is promising. If enough parents and teachers stand up, perhaps eventually there will be more positive changes in public schools. But first we must become more educated and aware of the alternatives. Goyal’s book is a good place to start.

The Mistakes Writers Make

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on March 2, 2016.

As an editor of a homeschool magazine, I get a lot of queries (i.e. “pitches” in the form of letters or e-mails) from writers wanting to write for us. I rarely respond to any of them because they rarely warrant a response. While I wish I could return each message with an instructional guide on how to make a proper pitch, it would be a waste of my time. Still, my heart goes out to these wannabe writers because many years ago, I didn’t know how to make a pitch either.

I have read books, articles, attended writers conferences and classes on how to write and make pitches to magazines. While I feel pretty confident I know how to write a decent query letter, I don’t often write them. That’s because most of the time even good pitches get rejected. That’s because of two reasons: 1) There are thousands of other writers wanting to write for the same magazine, and 2) You just never know what the editor of a magazine may be wanting at the time you send your letter. They may list their needs on their website (which you should follow to a tee), but even then, you never know if your idea will suit them just right.

As a homeschooling mom, I don’t have the proper time to do everything I must do to write a good query letter for a magazine, let alone research and write it, and unless I’m pitching to a national magazine, the pay won’t usually be worth the effort. I love writing, and I’d do it for free (and usually do). But when time is limited, and my priorities are elsewhere, I have to weigh what’s worth my time. So I don’t query much.

But I wince at these queries I’m getting in my inbox. It makes it clear to me that most writers don’t go to any effort to learn not only how to write properly but how to contact an editor with an article idea. If you want to be a freelance writer, you should first spend a few months reading books, articles, and perhaps attending a writer’s conference or class on how to do it properly. Nothing is easy. If you want it to be, you need to do something else.

I’m not going to give instructions here on how to write a query letter because there are plenty of resources online that will tell you how to do that. There is an art to it, and you have to practice to get it right.

What I will tell you is the biggest mistake I’m seeing coming into my inbox and that’s that the writer knows nothing about our publication. For example, I’m listed as the editor to send queries regarding health and balance, among other things. So I get a lot of queries for articles about living a healthy lifestyle. The part that the writer doesn’t address is that we’re a homeschooling magazine. Hello? How does your article tie into homeschooling?

If you are not a homeschooling parent, student, or at least someone who comes into a lot of contact with homeschoolers, you probably do not have the right experience to write for us. Yet even homeschoolers make the mistake of not getting to know our publication. Recently a writer sent us a query more suited for a Christian publication. If she had read our magazine, she might have realized it’s secular.

I also have had people send me submissions for blog posts, which shows they really didn’t look closely at our website. We do have a blog, and if we were making a call for bloggers, we’d have that on our website. But we’re not hiring bloggers. We are a magazine, and we accept queries for magazine articles.

Another huge mistake is bugging me on social media. Do not copy (cc:) me on every blog post you write and then post to Twitter. I don’t have time to read your posts, and you’re bordering on spammer. Or stalker. You will be blocked, and you will never write for my magazine.

One of my and my editor-in-chief’s pet peeves are the writers who write a cheerful note letting us know they are writers and available to work for us. Even if well-written clips accompany this e-mail, it’s not a query, and unless you’re famous and willing to work for what we can pay, it’ll go unanswered.

As I keep saying, most writers fail to read our publication. If you haven’t read at least one issue cover to cover, you will not understand our tone or the subject matter we’re seeking. And queries should not only explain your idea for an article in (brief) detail, you should be able to tell us where it fits into the magazine. And we want a short, succinct paragraph about you and your experience too. Many queries I get are one or two lines long. While brevity is good, this is too brief.

There are times when a writer sends a pretty good pitch, and my partner and I talk about it and consider it. But for whatever reason, we decide we can’t use it. I always respond to these writers and tell them their idea wasn’t quite right, but they should try again. Yet, I never hear from them again. Why are you giving up, I wonder?

Writing is hard work. It takes time to come up with a good idea, do the research, and even more time to find the right publication for it. And, yes, if you can’t find it in the library, you have to buy a copy of the magazine when you barely have two pennies to rub together. I know it’s frustrating. I know it pays crap. But if you’re going to do it, learn to do it right.