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.

On Homeschooling and Mommy’s Learning Curve

pretending to read
pretending to read

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 17, 2016.

I’ve been noticing lately how easy it is to sit down with my six-year-old and do his lessons. He might complain that he doesn’t like lessons, but when we sit down together, we usually have fun, and sometimes he wants to write extra math equations or letters. I’m always a bit surprised but delighted by that.

It wasn’t the same with my older son, at least when comes to the sit-down, pencil-on-paper work. Even though he could do it, I don’t remember him having fun. I blame myself.

It may be part personality. It may be because my six-year-old likes to sit and draw, so writing letters and numbers aren’t far off from that. But I think mostly it’s because I didn’t make him do this kind of work until recently, and since this is my second time around, I’m not worried at all that he’ll get it.

Whenever my kids struggle with something, my mantra is: “Don’t worry. You’ll get it.” That is, we’re just going to keep going over this in very, very short lessons, and eventually you’ll catch on. There is no pressure. We don’t have a test we’re cramming for. I don’t care if you get it this year or next, but I know you will learn it. And in the meantime, we’ll also learn about all these other things you’re interested in learning, especially since you’re absorbing it like a sponge.

With my first child, I felt pressure to prove to myself that I could actually teach him. So I started giving him formal lessons right after he turned five. He already knew his ABCs and all the sounds of the letters, so I figured he’d learn to read easily. When he didn’t catch on quickly, I got frustrated, and sometimes I took that out on him. Even when I tried to hide my frustrations, he could sense I wasn’t pleased. I know this affected him in a negative way.

If he went to public school, he would have been expected to start reading in Kindergarten and 1st grade. He would be expected to write sentences. I got caught up in thinking that he should be able to do those things because his counterparts in school were doing them, although really, I wonder how many other children struggle with it too?

It didn’t take me too long to remember why I wanted to homeschool in the first place. I think too many kids are being pushed to do academics before they are developmentally ready for it. Now that I’ve watched how my older son learned how to read so easily – like a lightning bolt struck him one day! – but not until he was ready for it, I am convinced that all kids should be able to learn without the pressure of keeping up with their peers.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that when you realize you’re making a mistake, you can stop, regroup, and try again. When I realized I was pushing my son at too young of an age to read, I stopped using the reading curriculum I was using at the time, and we tried other things. Many months later, we picked up that curriculum again, and it was so much easier.

After that, I knew I wouldn’t push my younger son to read at such an early age unless he proved to me that he was ready to learn. Waiting and relaxing about those academic milestones has made all the difference for both my sons and me. Learning should be fun.

 

What is a True Friend?

Playing a story starter game at our homeschool Valentine’s party.

Note: This column was reprinted in the Barrow Journal on February 10, 2016. It was first published in February 2013. But we had another Valentine’s party with our same friends this year as you can see in the photo above.

On Valentine’s Day I will take my boys to a small party where they will exchange valentines with their friends. Watching them form their very first friendships, I reflect on what I have learned about friendship these past forty years.

A wise person once told me that she would not know whom her best friend was until she became an old woman. Only at that time, she asserted, could she look back on her life and say, “You have been my best friend.”

Young people throw the terms “best friend,” “best friend forever,” “BFF,” or “bestie” around like balls, hoping the person they throw it to will toss it back at them.  I have no doubt that for some people, the friends they make in their youth stick with them for a lifetime.  But as we grow older, we realize that true friends are rare.

Some friends are here for only an era of our life – school days, college, married with children, a summer vacation – and then when the ties that bind them loosen, they slowly (or quickly) exit our lives. I don’t think this lessens the value of the relationship.  We need various people to learn from and lean on during the different seasons of our lives.

What can weaken a friendship? Two friends may mature at a different pace, or sometimes interests change.  Distance can have a huge impact, if someone moves, or perhaps there’s a complete change in lifestyle. Are there friendships that can withstand any or all of these conditions?

True friendships withstand the test of time and the changes that can put obstacles in the way of a stress-free relationship. That is, it’s easy to be friends with someone who is available, who you have much in common with, and who you agree with on most issues.

I’ve learned that true friendship does not have much to do with what you have in common, though, of course, commonalities are needed, especially since they bring you together. What holds your friendship together is a deep love and concern for the other person’s well being. You care, so you continue to be there for that person.

  • Friends show up in times of trouble. When I lived in Japan, I had a friend at home who died of cancer, and I’ll never forget the e-mails she wrote to me before she died. In one of them she said that once she was bound to a wheelchair, she learned who her true friends were. I wonder if I had been at home, would I have been one of them?
  • True friends give each other space to grow and change though maybe not in the way you would choose for them. As long as your friend is happy, healthy, and living in harmony with the people around them, you cheer them on.
  • True friends are honest with each other, and they accept the other person’s honesty. They don’t let petty arguments come between them. They forgive each other. They realize that they don’t always have to agree.
  • True friends give you the freedom to have other friends. They are secure enough to know that if you are a worthy friend, they don’t have to do anything to persuade you to spend time with them. They know you have enough love in your heart for all your friendships.
  • True friends aren’t difficult to meet up with, and they aren’t hard to keep in touch with, if they live far away. While we all get busy at times, true friends inform each other that their friendship is still important, and both of them make an effort.

In the past I had a friend who pulled out a calendar and listed a handful of dates over the next three months that she could schedule a time to see me. Hmm, I thought, I’m busy too, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to find time to spend together (this was before we were married with children, of course). In contrast, I have a friend in Australia who I have been e-mailing for sixteen years. Our correspondence has ebbed and flowed depending on the demands of our lives, but both of us keep it up and neither of us wait for the other to write first.

  • True friendships are those that bring out the best in you. Your friend should give you energy – not drain it.  How many times have we stayed in relationships simply because the person was present, but deep down we know they aren’t good for us? When possible we should clear our lives of people who drain us and leave space to foster relationships that fill our wells.

A friend of mine told me she believed the mark of a true friendship was intimacy – your friend knows and wants to know what is happening in your life. On some level, they stay involved in your life. Indeed, that’s the mark of a true friend.

It goes without saying that to have true friends, we must work at being a good friend.  Even after forty years, I’m still learning how to be a better friend. I hope that I can guide my boys at fostering meaningful relationships that can last or at least serve a good purpose in their lives.

What do you think? What would you add to this list? And by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day!

On Becoming a Birder

20160115_114140My six-year-old’s painting of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. My six-year-old loves birds, and because of that, it’s become an interest for the whole family. We watch them, identify them, draw them and paint them. It’s a great project!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on February 3, 2016.

I’ve always liked birds, but it wasn’t until my youngest son became enamored with them that I started to pay more attention to them. Children have a way of making the world new and exciting for you, and what’s more, they teach you how to relax, if you let them. Birding is not only infectious, it takes you away from all your troubles.

Now everyone in my house is a “birder,” and for me, I think this hobby will outlast my son’s interest in it. But you never know – he may never lose interest in the birds either. Birds are some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures to watch, and I’ve learned that we get quite a variety of birds in our wooded subdivision.

Some of the most familiar birds I already knew the names of – cardinals, bluebirds, blue jays, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens. Carolina wrens are small brown birds, but they aren’t like the sparrows you might find in the grocery store parking lot. They are a reddish brown, and whenever I hear birdsong in the morning, it’s usually a wren signaling to the other birds right outside my window.

When I hear the wren, I know it’s time to get the binoculars. On more than one occasion, if a wren is outside, other birds soon follow. Cardinals might appear in the tree, and as the male watches, the female will fly to the ground to forage on seeds in my flower garden. The tufted titmice might arrive to forage on the ground too.

These are birds that we see here year-round, but lately I’ve seen some winter visitors too. My whole family was thrilled to find a pair of golden-crowned kinglets in the yard one day because that’s one of my six-year-old’s favorite birds. He thinks it’s so cute that when we came across its picture in our bird app, he wanted to have a picture of it on his bedroom wall.

The male golden-crowned kinglet has a bright yellow and orange stripe on the top of its head. The female looks exactly the same except her stripe is yellow minus the orange. It’s a very small bird, almost as small as a chickadee, and it never stops moving, so it’s hard to spot without binoculars.

We also spotted what we think is a pine warbler. It doesn’t come through our yard often, but when it does, it gives us a welcome splash of color because its feathers are a beautiful greenish-yellow. The phoebe is much more plain with its brown and pale white feathers, but it’s still an elegant bird. It gets its name from the sound it makes: “FEE-bee!”

Very occasionally, we get to spy woodpeckers. We’ve seen downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and once, long ago, a pileated woodpecker, which is very big and gorgeous. Most recently we’ve discovered that a yellow-bellied sapsucker has claimed one of the trees in our backyard as a regular feeding station.

Larger birds do travel through our area, but we rarely see them in our yard. Once when I woke up my eldest son in the morning, we looked out his window to see a red-tailed hawk sitting in a nearby tree! My husband has taken our dogs outside during the night and heard owls, and once he heard something large take off from the ground in our backyard, but it was too dark to see much.

There was one night my husband heard a pair of owls, and he quickly woke up my eldest son. They stood on the back deck for several minutes and listened as two great horned owls spoke to each other from either side of the woods.

We so easily forget that the wilderness is right in our backyard. We’re lucky to glimpse the flash of a wing or hear their elusive calls, but as my sons have taught me, if I take just a few minutes each day to pay attention, I am always delighted by what I find.

If you like watching birds, you might enjoy participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project which asks you to count the birds you see for just 15 minutes over the weekend of February 12-15th. (It starts today!)