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.

Waiting for Brother

An evening I’ll fondly remember when the boys are grown.

This little guy will sigh and ask, “How much more does he have to play?” Older brother used to have more time to play, and quite honestly, he still has lots of time to play, but that doesn’t make it any easier for a six-year-old to wait patiently through an hour (sometimes hour+!) of piano playing twice a day. And he needs to remain somewhat quiet.

But he’s so good. And really, he is patient. He steals my heart.

He used to sit on the floor playing with his dinosaurs, and while a little noise doesn’t hurt, the banging and roaring of dinosaurs was a little too much. So then he began to draw on the art app on our iPad while his brother played piano. After months of that, he grew tired of it, so he moved on to other things. When the weather warmed up, he decided he’d  go outside to swing and play with our dog, and he still does that often. Sometimes he sits in the kitchen and looks over our Calvin and Hobbes books. Sometimes he just curls up with me on the sofa and waits.

Sigh. “When’s he gonna be done?” (After the first piano practice, the boys get to play games on their digital devices, so it’s especially difficult to wait for that.) But he does.

I was kind of sad when he stopped drawing because for the last few years, he loved drawing and coloring, and he often occupied himself doing this. But then he stopped, and I wondered if that interest was fading.

But the other day I suggested we color together in his bird coloring book. (I had suggested it in the past, but he always said no.) This day, he said yes, and ever since, he’s been coloring in that book on his own every time big brother plays piano. I snapped this photo the other night because I wanted to remember the moment, and I love his expression as he colors. He takes his work very seriously, as you can see.:)

I love this photo also because it nicely wraps up the boys main interests right now: for the nine-year-old, piano, and for the six-year-old, drawing/coloring and birds.

I know someday they may move onto other things, but I hope not. I hope whatever they choose to do with their lives, they’ll always love classical music, and they’ll always love birds. And maybe the six-year-old will continue drawing too, even just for fun.

Today, the six-year-old brought me his coloring book to show me which birds he had colored, and he told me that for now on, he would color in it while his brother plays piano. Then he hugged the book to his chest and said, “I love this.”  He steals my heart.

(And then I went and ordered two more bird coloring books.)

Homeschooling 3rd Grade: Where It’s Taken Us And How our Schedule and Curriculum Have Changed Over the Year

Putting together his Meccano robot.

I just read over the post I wrote earlier this year, Homeschooling 3rd Grade: A New Venture. That was a good title for that post. Third grade has had a different feel to it than the first years of our homeschooling adventure, and my nine-year-old is making a huge shift in his maturity as well as activities. In the last 2-3 months, he has done very little creative building and clay sculpting. This makes me a little sad, but I know it shouldn’t. It’s because he’s turned his attention to the piano, and this has been exciting for all of us. It’s a big commitment on all our parts. For my son, he has to practice, practice, practice. For us, we have to create the time and space for him to practice and also be there to support him. On top of that, I’ve had to do more academic work with him. I don’t think he’s lost interest in building and sculpting, but he doesn’t have the time, so he’s choosing what is more important to him, which I think is great. He is also maturing, showing glimpses of the adolescent to come, and while he’s capable and willing to take on more work, he also needs plenty of downtime and fun time, which I try to give him.

Learning the piano has become a time crunch for everybody in the house because my husband and I try our best to sit and listen to him play. We’re delighted to do this, and I think it helps motivate our son. We also help him remember what his teacher told him. Since this is a big part of our day, and it’s become important to our son, I have let other subjects slide. I know that letting my son focus on his work is essential, and it’s a great opportunity we have while homeschooling. Because we’re flexible when it comes to curriculum and time, I can make sure he has plenty of time to play and be a kid as well as work hard at what he loves. (At least, I try to do this.)

Intermission at the symphony.

I hope to continue on with these other subjects again at some point, but I’m not worried about it. My son’s education in music goes well beyond his practice since he’s learning about the composers and doing a lot of listening and observing too. But I’ll write more about that in a different post. This post will focus mostly on the work I require him to do.

Our Schedule

During the Fall season, we were quite busy but in a good way. We had appointments on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. My nine-year-old had a piano lesson on Thursdays and a class on Friday morning. The first 8 weeks, he took a pottery class, and the last eight weeks of the season, he had a chemical engineering class which was a program done by Engineering for Kids. We enrolled him in both of those classes because of his interest in these subjects.

I’ll digress a minute to talk about the classes. Unfortunately, we weren’t happy with either of them. A new pottery teacher seemed to “dumb the class down” to the level of very beginning students. (This was my son’s third class.) As for the chemical engineering class, we could have done many of those projects at home with a book. (Very disappointing considering Engineering for Kids does these programs in public schools.) This was the first time we were ever disappointed in classes my son has taken, so I think we’ve been pretty lucky. But it showed me that as my son gets older and more knowledgeable about the subjects he cares about, it will be harder to find outside sources that can challenge him.

This season, my son has only had piano lessons to concentrate on. I still do main lessons with him on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday mornings with a few exceptions.

We also took time out for both my boys to attend a three-day spring camp at the botanical garden. That was fun for them!

3rd Grade Curriculum

Language Arts

We’ve been doing a lot of reading and that makes me happy. I start most our mornings off with a read-aloud (this is something I let go for awhile, and I’ve managed to weave it back in, so I’m very happy about it), and I also read to the nine-year-old right before bed. Briefly, here is some of what we’ve read:

My son is reading (and re-reading) three big volumes of Calvin and Hobbes, which he loves. They sit on the kitchen table with our newspapers, and he reads them throughout the day. Besides this, he’s been reading the Battle Bugs series, which he seems to enjoy.

This year, I have read My Father’s Dragon, Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Story of Dr. Doolittle, and On the Shores of Silver Lake out loud to him. I also read (at his request) some books about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and several books (of my choice) about the Cherokee Indians, including Only the Names Remain. Right now I’m reading Alice in Wonderland and The Long Winter. (Some of these books my younger son listens to as well.)

We finished All About Spelling Level 1! Can’t say my son loved it, but I thought it was a great program, and it showed us both that he can spell, if he thinks about it.

For handwriting, we switched from Handwriting Without Tears to a calligraphy set. My son still loathes writing with a utensil, but it became a little more bearable with a calligraphy pen. I let him pick a sentence of his choice to write in calligraphy.

With a test prep book and some posters I have, I’ve been going over parts of speech with my son because I know that will be part of the test he’s required to take at the end of the third grade. I can’t imagine a worse way to foster a love of writing (unless a child likes it) than teaching kids the parts of speech at this age, and for the life of me, I don’t know why he needs to know this right now. I really hate having to teach it, and I hate having to test him. (But grateful we are homeschooling considering the ridiculous testing they do in schools these days!) Enough said about that.

Math

I am so proud of how far we’ve come in math this year, but it was my academic priority. We completed four Life of Fred books. (Yes, four! Which puts us at completing seven total.) This year we worked through Dogs, Edgewood, Farming and Goldfish. I have the next three books, which is suppose to take us through 4th grade, and I plan to start them in the summer (or maybe fall). For now, we’re just doing some practice in the test prep book.

I have also begun to require that my son memorize the times tables, and we started with the three times tables. I put a little chart of “the threes” up on the wall, and I covered the answers. We go over it every time we do lessons. To make it fun, I began timing my son on how fast he could recite the 3 times table, and I get him to try to beat his last time. To my delight, my six-year-old wanted to join in on the fun. (Let me be clear: It’s fun for the six-year-old because he’s obsessed with numbers. Not so much for the nine-year-old.) So now they do this together, which makes it more fun. (At least for the six-year-old. Perhaps it’s tolerable to the nine-year-old.)

Using the Magnetism experiment kit that Nana sent them.

Science 

As mentioned above, my son took a chemical engineering class during the fall season. We also continue to watch science and nature documentaries. However, for the first time, we’re going to be starting a science curriculum, and we’re so excited! My son is so far ahead in science that we picked a middle school curriculum. We purchased Elemental Science’s Biology for the Logic Stage. We’re going to start this during the summer, and I’ll let you know how we like it. (For those of you looking for science curriculums, elemental science is a secular curriculum.)

Social Studies

Not much has changed in my approach to social studies. My son is still enjoying News-O-Matic occasionally, and we’re trying to follow the presidential election, though not in depth. My son is beginning to show more interest in history documentaries. (Especially this recent one about the Vikings.) And we’re putting our History Timeline to good use.

Most important to note is that my son’s segue into studying history is coming through his interest in music. He loves learning about the famous composers, and we’ve been using Meet the Great Composers as one resource.

Also, I already mentioned that we did a little unit on the Cherokee Indians by reading several books and visiting the Cherokee basketry exhibit at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Tellus Science Museum. My boys are on the right side of the dinosaur.

Art

My son took a pottery class this fall, and during that time, I went sketching with my younger son. After this, however, I have only done a few Art Fridays, and this makes me sad. I need to find a new, inspiring resource to get me going again.

We have had some good art sessions though, and we recently visited the Georgia Museum of Art to view a Cherokee basketry exhibit and the MFA student exhibition. My boys don’t love art as much as I do, but I think it’s an important part of a well-rounded education.

I shouldn’t fail to note that my son is learning about music, which is art, and he has attended several classical concerts this year too!

Spanish and/or Chinese

This is the first time I’ve mentioned Chinese, huh? Well, we have a Chinese calligraphy set that I plan to use. We got started, but then that got stalled. And same with Spanish. We had a great start at the beginning of the year using Mango free through our library, but that’s just something I’ve had to let slide as my son focuses on his music and I focus on teaching him what he needs for a test AND make sure he’s got plenty of free playtime.

But third grade is not over yet! I need to test my son because the Georgia law says I need to do so every three years, starting in the third grade. I’m going to be doing that soon, and then I’m going to consider third grade over, and we’re going to be focusing more on the wonderful work that my kids love to do. In many ways, I’m already doing that.

Next up I will post about how kindergarten is going with the six-year-old!

A Little Bit of Wildness

This morning was the first morning that was warm enough for us to sit on the porch and do lessons. I love sitting on the front porch, but it’s tricky doing our lessons out here because it’s hard to keep the boys focused. They are ready to jump out of their seats and go play in the yard, but frankly, since there are some days that I have a hard time getting them outside, I don’t mind. I guess you could also call doing lessons outside my strategy for getting them to play outside. But we still got a lot of work done, so I’m feeling pretty good about this morning.

I am in the process of reading this wonderful essay by Carol Black. (It’s so long, I haven’t finished it yet!) She talks about how kids in traditional schools are losing their wildness. (Really, you should go read it yourself. She explains this much better than I am.) I began thinking about this and wondering that even though my kids are not in traditional school, they probably don’t have that kind of wildness she refers to. In an attempt to balance that unavoidable necessity of being able to live within our society, I make my kids sit down every morning and do lessons. I make them clean up their dishes. I make them get up early and get to places on time. All these things temper that natural wildness.

I also let my boys spend time (because they so desire it) on screens. We don’t live on a big farm where my kids can wander aimless for hours, and though we do have a big yard, my kids can get bored outside after awhile. We garden, but we only grow a few vegetables successfully. There are days they want to go outside and play. There are days when they aren’t interested in going outside at all. Although the idea of living on some land and letting them wander for hours sounds ideal, it just isn’t happening. It’s not realistic for us.

But I agree with her. Humans lose something vital for our well-being when we’re stuck inside a building all day, and kids, especially, need to have more freedom to move around, explore, and develop an appreciation for nature. So many adults are stuck at a computer all day, they feel no connection to their inner wildness. I hope my children will grow up to feel a connection to nature.

This morning after lessons, my nine-year-old brought me this little hairstreak butterfly to show me, and it sat on his hand long enough for me to take its picture. While doing lessons, we noticed how the mama and papa bluebird would not feed their chicks in the birdhouse on our porch because we were too close to it, so we moved to the other end of the porch, and then the bluebirds got to work again. I also thought about how both my boys know the names of all the common birds we see in our yard, and yesterday evening my six-year-old came in from the backyard (where he was playing alone) to tell me he heard the baby chickadees in the birdhouse out there for the first time.  And finally, yesterday I noticed my boys stooped in the backyard observing something for a long time. Later, they told me they were watching some ants eat a worm — a very fascinating encounter for two little boys!

So perhaps we are striking the right balance between being a little bit wild and being a little bit not wild. Or, at least, we’re learning to appreciate the wild things and our place alongside of them as wild (yet just as predictable as the bluebirds) human beings.

***

And on the opposite kind of subject, my post Don’t Cut the Screen Time — Just Make Sure It Countsis up on the home/school/life blog today.

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.

At the Heart of Homeschooling

I made some minor changes to my blog. First of all, I switched to a new template, though it’s very similar to what I had before. But it opens up the menu and side margin a little, which I like.

I also changed my tagline to “at the heart of homeschooling.” I did this partly because I couldn’t think of anything else, but also it seemed right. We are at the heart of homeschooling. That is, in the thick of it! There is no turning back from it now. We are educating our children so much differently than they would be in school. Is it better? I think so. But I’m not saying school is bad for all kids either.

Our kids are engaged in learning almost all day. When they play, they are deep in a crazy, imaginative make-believe world of their own creation, which I believe is the best kind of learning for kids. They don’t have the stress of constant test taking or having to switch gears so often. They are learning at their own pace. We have conversations about dinosaurs, classical piano concertos and composers, Calvin and Hobbes, birds, Star Wars, and oh the endless questions…which are all encouraged!

I’m learning more and more how odd we are, though. Most people don’t live like us. Most people aren’t excited about learning or exploring the world. They don’t ask questions, and they pretty much do what everyone else is doing. They put their boys in sports and girls in gymnastics. (I’m not saying these activities are bad! They can be very cool, but they are also more popular.) It’s hard to find people who do the uncommon stuff. People don’t talk about the cool fossil they bought at a rock show, sketching at the garden, obsessing about the birds in their yard, taking piano lessons, and general things that geeks love. (But I’m not saying people don’t enjoy these activities or a combination of popular activities with these either! It’s just hard for me to find these people.) That is, unless they are homeschoolers. Homeschoolers understand more about these things.

I don’t consider us privileged. I certainly don’t consider us better than anyone else. And we definitely aren’t swimming in money to make our lives easier. But we’re different. We make different choices. We have different priorities. We don’t fit in with the crowd. And that’s okay.

Then again, a lot of people don’t fit in with the crowd. But they are probably like us…they are sitting at home reading a book, taking a coding course online, working in their workshop, or spending time at the library. They are a quiet crowd. They are busy doing their thing and not caring what other people think.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts as I make some tweaks to the blog and reflect on this lifestyle I’m writing about here.

The Ebb and Flow of a Homeschooling Mom’s Life

My azaleas are blooming beautifully this year.

The other day I was browsing the photos I have taken this year. I did that to refresh my memory of what we’ve accomplished this year. The end of the year is fast approaching, and there are several tasks I need to get done. One, I like to update my blog about what we’ve done. Two, I like to create a slideshow every year because it’s so fun for my family to look back on what we’ve accomplished. (I’m really in trouble this year since I’ve taken most of the photos with my phone camera, and those don’t get organized like the ones that go directly into Lightroom. Sigh.)

Three, I have to test my third grader for the first time. Figuring out which test I want to use has been a pain. I have found no detailed information about what each test is like, though I’ve gotten lots of anecdotal bits and pieces from different people who have tried one or the other. I have come to resent the fact that I need to test my child at all. We could spend our time actually learning and doing something useful, but I digress… I know I have no right to complain when teachers have to deal with this practically every month of the school year, and I only have to do it once every three years!

Anyway, when I was browsing those photos we took this past fall, I felt like I was looking at photos I took the PREVIOUS fall. Usually time is going so fast that I look at photos and feel it happened yesterday, so this was an unusual sensation. It felt longer since my in-laws had visited us. It felt longer since we bought that storm trooper Halloween costume. And it felt much longer since my son attended his pottery class and chemical engineering class. But it was this school year that all that happened!

I’m not sure why. Has this ever happened to you?

My guess is that it has something to do with how the rhythm of my day has changed since the winter break. We have less appointments, so I’m not driving as much, though we’re still quite busy. I spend a lot of time planning lessons, executing them, and most of all, my son is playing piano 1-2 hours a day, and we (my husband and I) usually sit to listen. (He needs/wants a bit of coaching.) This makes for a full but relaxing day! I’m not used to relaxing that much, but I like it! And actually, I’m relaxing in other ways too. I exercise more, cook more (I’m on a quest to learn how to bake bread!) and sometimes I watch a television program (by myself!) in the evenings. A year ago if I wasn’t doing something for the boys, I was writing or editing. Every minute of the day I was doing something that needed to get done. My new schedule is making me feel a bit self-indulgent, but I don’t want to give it up!

I also realize that I have not written many blog posts lately, and that makes me sad. I do love blogging. But life ebbs and flows. We have busy seasons, quiet seasons, shifting seasons. I have been ebbing more than flowing, I think, but soon, I am sure words will start to flow again. In fact, they already have, so you can expect more posts from me in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, I hope you’re doing well and enjoying spring. If you have a moment, leave me a comment and tell me what you’re up to.