Saturday, September 30, 2017

Rigor and Rain: Moving through this new season




Yesterday, Kiddo and I went up to Powell Butte to meet up with some of his classmates at his new online school. We dressed for the just-turned weather, meaning that raincoats were on hand as well as my trusty green fleece cap (makes me warm, makes me happy). Kiddo, of course, decided that shorts were the thing as he was glad for the cool weather. Once, I would have argued with him to wear long pants. At this point in his life, though, I've decided that they are his skinny legs and that he knew what he was getting into.

Meeting his teachers was a delight and much of my walk around this little-known and sweet conservation area made up of beautiful woods and meadow was taken in solitude, if that's possible with 50 some odd people around. Kiddo had met another boy in his class and they stuck to each other like glue for the entire time, the hour and a half or so we tromped through over paths in the rain. Would that the walk have been a bit slower, I'd have had more time to focus on the gorgeous surroundings, but a young and vigorous teacher led the way up and around the Butte, full of energy. I can see why he is an inspiration to the kids he teachers, and it didn't hurt me any to get a bit of extra exercise and tag along near the back where the pace was slower.

I suppose it's a metaphor of sorts, my experience of this school outing. I was, I'll admit, a bit challenged to push myself to stay in pace with the group. Yet, I know that Kiddo is being challenged in this same way academically. The past few weeks has stretched him (and if we are being honest, myself as well) in mental work and sticktuitiveness. Even when we do hard things, whether they are double-digit multiplication with decimals or hauling my butt up a steep hill, there are benefits. One of which was having a chance to connect with Kiddo's teacher. She's doing an amazing job of taking this class on a thoughtful learning experience and while we'd been in good communication, it was great to see her (and her darling baby!) and I came away from our conversations feeling even more assured that we have made the right choice for Kiddo's education.

The other day, sitting on the porch and taking a snack break from some work on a slide presentation, Kiddo said to me that "it's nice to have a teacher who is kind and wants to help you. It makes me want to work hard to do well for her." I shared this with her on our walk; I know she was touched that he felt so positively about his experience, but I wonder if she could know how deeply moved I was by his comment. A sense of emotional safety and security was so important for him and to hear him state that need was met gave me something beyond a sense of relief. It had struck the sweet spot of where I had hoped we might one day be.



So much change is evident in this last month, both within and without. My garden is starting to wind down, but the more-frequent rains help it to feel cleaner and the plants seem relieved from the summer heat at last. The orange calyxes on the Chinese Lanterns in the front yard seem brighter and more defined as the light changes. I've built a stumpery garden with six old stumps and an hodgepodge of various rocks and stones, bricks and concrete pieces, fitting chicks and hens and other succulents, an old small vase and seashells in the cracks and crannies and am gearing up to fill the top bed in with more succulents and a variety of plantings. In our backyard, it was high time for the old lavender to be pruned back hard, so much of the greenery on the ends is being cut off to give energy and space for the tiny new tufts of green closer-in on the old wood. This is an experiment of sorts, and I'l see how things really fare by next spring or summer, when the plant has had a chance to go dormant over the winter and catch its breath. I'm guessing it will be more compact and hopefully, that will extend the life of the two plants heavenly-scented plants I bought for my preschool 7 years ago.

Joe and Kiddo had a Cub Scout camping event to attend after our trip to Powell Butte, so after a busy week, I was finally left alone in a quiet house. It takes a while to settle into relaxing after the guys leave. Usually the stress of getting all of the packing done and helping them out the door leaves me a bit at loose ends when they finally pull out of the driveway. Going outside to the back yard, I was grateful that I'd plucked several mostly-ripe tomatoes from the vine before the rain had started. Smiling to myself, I also came upon a happy discovery: my osmanthus tree is nearly ready to bloom again.



I love the promise of that tree and the seasons. That tree, a discarded delight from a neighbor's garden years ago, blooms tiny ivory flowers in both spring and fall and they give off the most heavenly scent. In spring, on a warm day, it's bliss to stand out there and let my senses take it all in. In fall, it makes me hope for a dry day so I can fully enjoy it. But it always blooms like clockwork, and the buds are so small, when they do pop open, it always takes me by surprise. That beauty can be dependable, relied upon--- this is such a gift. My gardening philosophy is to use as much salvaged and discarded materials as possible. Last weekend, the same neighbor who was 'done' with that beloved tree also gave me some crocosmia bulbs which she was clearing out. I'll find a few places to plant them in for next year as I love the fiery red, arching flower sprays.



Education is a lot like gardening. Sometimes there are challenges, sometimes --whether in one's back or one's brain-- it makes you sore. It makes you push yourself in order to benefit later. The level of commitment is a balm, it soothes... as we see ourselves gaining more skills and knowledge*, we feel the intrinsic reward of a job well done and of having achieved new things. This isn't to say there aren't hard times, the inevitable uneven ground to tread or the new concept which challenges one's mind and will. I push myself that little bit harder to be down on my knees, doing work which I know will hurt and look good later on as flowers bloom, and Kiddo does the same, wanting to get those 100% marks and to please his teacher who is working to help him understand new things about his world. Hard work seems to be the theme of this season, the transitions both in our hearts and out in nature as the weather cools. The garden looks bright in the overcast light this morning, somehow the pink and red mums and the orange-yellow squash blossoms, the dazzling green of the Italian parslesy seem even more pronounced this rainy morning. The leaves of the forsythia outside the kitchen picture window shiver in the breeze and I know that soon, we'll be building fires in the woodstove, carving pumpkins and the rains will come and come and come. For now, this morning of rest, spying a lone hummingbird in the back taking shelter in my sweet tree, I'm appreciative of both the rigor and the rest. Autumn is a chair I will rest in comfortably each evening, to knit a scarf for a stranger and know that we have worked hard during each day. Peace be with you.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

New Frontiers

This morning, we walked out into the sunshine, Kiddo and I. Happy together, heading toward Portland Nursery for chrysanthemums (me) and a fancy Italian soda (him), I was celebrating in my heart our last day of just hanging out we'll have in a while. In my post a few months ago, I was reflecting on how much I enjoyed our year-round homeschool learning. However, a few things have happened since then which is why I've been making the most of the last few days.

Toward the beginning of August, while scrolling through some nonsense on Facebook, I found an ad for a new online charter school. They were advertising this school as being project-based and inquiry-driven, two things I believe help to form a strong education. In fact, I've believed this since I first encountered Neil Postman's book with Charles Weingartener, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity". If I have a guru, it's likely Postman, who died in 2003 but will always live on through his extensive writing on education, communication and technology. Postman didn't just write this book, which suggests that learning how to learn, learning how to ask questions, and learning how to discern substance from noise ('crap detecting', he rather aptly put it), he also put his theories into practice with his "Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study", which was a school within a school in New York and ran for 15 years. 

For me, this book is my touchstone. This dovetails with the emergent curriculum style of early childhood ed that I practiced for years as a preschool teacher. The children drove the activities, the information presented and the play. Of course, older students need more formal guidance and the school focuses on some things Kiddo is adept at and others which he will find challenging: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creative thinking. While his goal today, if asked, is to become a famous YouTuber, I can see that the skills being developed (and, I should add, the technology which he will be learning, as the school is online with the Google suite being used) can assist him in pursuing both his hobbies and have practical application in the future. No harm in working toward an end goal like his when one is gaining a lot of knowledge in how to deal with this new world and new economy. 

After my due diligence, we decided to enroll J a few weeks ago, therefore we have been taking the past few weeks to do fun things: spending days with friends, playing Monopoly, and truth be told, being a bit lazy. It's been nice to get to do housework at a slower pace because I wasn't trying to get school time in. 
Next week, though, that changes for us. I take a backseat as teacher and am now a parent coach/helper in this new arrangement. This will mean a lot from me, but in a different way than we'd previously experienced.

Many emotions come with this change. First, the letting go of doing something I've so loved, creating that educational space for both of us to learn and grow. Our relationship as teacher and student is something which has added a new layer of closeness and connection. I'll be more able to do some other projects since I will not be doing the work of planning and preparing curriculum,  because this is something I have always greatly enjoyed. Even when it was work, the work was meaningful to me and greatly rewarding. This has also given me a fuller sense of freedom, in that what I do really only matters so long as it matters to me. This isn't said in a selfish way, but is grounded in a history of wanting outside approval. I'm seeing that this need for validation has lessened considerably; to put it in a different way, if it matters to me, it matters. 

The other feelings, though, that I least expected to discover, was the realization of a feeling of failure surrounding Kiddo's previous school experience. This came to me, powerfully, as I spoke to one of the administrators of his new school. In fact, it hit rather like a punch to the gut. Somehow, I'd never realized one part of my frustration when we had pulled him out: I felt that I had failed my son. That I should never have left him in that situation as long as I did. That I should have pushed harder (to what end?) about the bullying issues, been less tolerant and reasonable, that I should have intervened sooner. That's a pretty monumental load to discover I was carrying. Entering a situation where I have to give up control of his educational engagement means putting trust in strangers again. Well-qualified strangers, to be sure, but  there does carry a feeling of risk. Over the last year and a half, Kiddo has made great strides in his perception as a learner; his anxiety is all but gone. He's becoming more confident in his abilities in areas which were previously a tearful struggle. I am handing over the put-back-together new and improved student I've nurtured to new hands. This isn't an unreasonable fear; imagine if you had a car, it was cracked up in a wreck and you've finally got it good as new...you'd probably be wary of a stranger driving it. It's normal. Please be gentle, dear teachers. For both our sakes. 

Yes, the last situation was lousy, but I also have to ask myself what a great child psycholist said to a complaint: "So what?" This is probably the best crap-detecting question there is, and previously I'd brushed it off as being a bit brusque, but the fact of the matter is, "so what?" makes one distill things. What do I need to hold onto from that experience any further? Get the lessons and then, make the choice to emotionally walk away from that moment. Let it go. So what? It's over and while it's a bad hangover, I don't want to carry it around any longer. I'm not sure it will matter in five years or when he's an adult. I realize that my anxiety is my own this time, not his. Change and growth are hard sometimes, even when they are good. We now have a kid who really doesn't need hugs (or at least, prefers them only occasionally now), who can walk down the block to a friends house on his own, who now remembers to look both ways when crossing the street. He's grown up a lot. As for me, I've been stepping back from being as engaged with the world at large. Writing here had given way to writing curriculum, questions, and other school-related work. Part of me thinks I have less to say than I previously thought, so I don't know what form my writing will take or what I'll share in the future. I know I want to focus on getting a few things done around here to make our home more enjoyable. A outdoor 'room' for the backyard is a priority, and we need to finish the kitchen and nook. For now, the deep garnet and the pink mums will go in near a single gorgeous sunflower, red centered and yellow-tipped, along with some gorgeous annual with darling white flowers. And I'll go back now and finish doing the dishes. Life is good, these days. Life is really good. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Not the Last Day of School

There are a lot of photos on my Facebook feed today, reminding me that outside our little Lively Learning House, many local kids are celebrating their last day of school. They hold up signs to tell us which grade it is they are finishing, toothy grins abound. Some children are wearing jackets as it's a rainy, blustery day out there. Not so great for lingering on the playground to say goodbye to friends, but I'm hoping that parents still keep their promises for a celebratory ice cream cone or other treat to commemorate the end of the academic year.

Year-round homeschooling, though, does not offer an official 'end' of anything. Kiddo will likely tell people he's going into fifth grade if they ask, but we have really moved out of that way of thinking. Learning is something that is constantly happening. We might take off a week or two of formal work, but those are spaced out between weeks of focused assignments. Our breaks are connected to what's happening in our family. A few months ago, we took most of Spring Break off because his friends in public school were off, too. It was a good time to get together with buddies. A few weeks ago, he had several days off of school-- he had traveled to Florida with his father to visit family, and between the day-before excitement, packing, and subsequent jet lag, a one week visit needed a few extra days off as a cushion. The first day back into studies is always a bumpy ride, but not nearly as big of an adjustment as the September return-to-school usually was. We can ease back into things and build up our stamina for school, rediscover what we were studying before the break and move forward in just a few days. 

This adjustment to year round learning is one which works for our family. Summer learning loss was very real previously, and we spent money for tutoring to keep his skills sharp. Now, though, with year round school, different challenges arise. How to keep school feeling good,fresh, and, albeit not my first intention, dare I say it- fun. It is that balance of having enough routine to help school feel predictable without falling into the trap of being boring. Schools do it by having those little distractions like Spirit Week: Crazy Hair Day; wearing one's school colors; Pajama Day... all those fun and silly times when some kids feel more excited about going than usual. Those little public school celebrations which we have become accustomed to culturally here in the US do serve a purpose.

Without a larger student body, though, things don't quite have the same charm. Pajama day? There is nothing novel about seeing Mom in yesterday's shirt and fleece pajama pants. Crazy hair day? Who's going to see it, besides the people at the grocery store or maybe a friend in the afternoon? School colors? Well, um.... the house is orange and white, so are those the school colors? Who knows. 

What I have learned, so far, is that keeping school fun means taking the time to think about what Kiddo is excited about, and then to run with it. A few days ago, Kiddo was completely stoked; he had just used his own money to purchase a rank on a video game. (For those of you who haven't lost part of your brain to a deluge of Minecraft information, players can pay a certain fee to have special privileges within the game and to unlock special abilities on a specific server.) When I told Kiddo that we were having his favorite, pasta and meatballs that evening, he shouted "We could have a party to celebrate me getting Lifetime MVP!" 

And so we did. The party consisted of my making dinner, him making a paper replica of his game character, and then watching the Lego Batman movie together, which had arrived earlier that day. To me, it was a fun evening with lots of dishes, but to him, it was so much more. It was something to look forward to, something relatively spontaneous and simple which meant something to him. That was the beauty of it: like the Spirit Days at public school, it was something small which had meaning because of the energy and excitement he brought to it. I couldn't have planned it to make it any better. Sometimes, simple is the way to go.

A few days ago, we had been told that yesterday was the last day of school. Bright and sunny, even though it wasn't our last day, the awareness of it put me in the mind to go for a walk and get some ice cream for Kiddo. Besides, we needed a few groceries. It was a gorgeous day and we traveled through the streets down to 28th and Burnside, soaking up the Vitamin D and looking at houses, talking of all manner of things. We grabbed some bread at the store and then headed over to 50 Licks for a treat. Kiddo wanted a blood orange creamsicle ice cream in a waffle cone; I chose a more conservative sugar cone with a small scoop of some wonderful coconut milk based treat with chocolate and caramel. (The lactose-intolerant of us are in luck; 50 Licks offered at least 4 vegan options, and not just your usual fruit sorbet suspects but CHOCOLATE and other delights!) Taking our cones, we walked around the Kenton neighborhood for a while, chatting and looking at the dogs wandering with their humans, the cats in various windows,wondering at bugs and my endless delight in other people's gardens. 

Tomorrow is a school day; next week, we will play some, school some. I think this is the rhythm which feels respectful of Kiddo's whole person as well as my own. On Monday, we go with friends to the Oregon Trail interpretive center. We've been studying a lot about First Americans, Lewis and Clark, and Westward Expansion, so this trip will be business and pleasure of course. Over the summer, we have nearly a month of half-day camps and he's got a week of Scouting camp with his buddies. We have a busy time ahead of us. I know, in the coming months, I'll continue listening for those moments he wants to celebrate and remember. We will find ways to bring a little extra zip and joy into our lives, even when we have a day's worth of learning to do. Finding bright spots along the way means keeping one's eyes open and appreciating all that life has to offer, even when it seems like something silly or unimportant. Because it's not-- not to him, anyway. Those are hopefully the moments which will remind him, sometime in the future, that sometimes homeschooling was tough, but it was also fun. Educating and nourishing not only our brains, but our hearts and souls as well.