Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween! Carving Jack-O'-Lanterns

Four stories about Halloween:

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The best part about Halloween is trick-or-treating. 

It's a night for little people to don an alter ego and swoop out the door into the night. Racing breathlessly down the dark and seemingly unfamiliar streets of the neighborhood, they thrill to the excitement of a world that seems mysterious if not downright scary. But the crowds of other kids, and the strange phenomenon that brings all the grown-ups to their doors with big bowls of candy, lend an atmosphere of friendliness and excitement and fun. It's a great night to be a kid.

If you are older than ten, trick-or-treating is still a good time. We grown-ups are the ones who stay home on this special night, as the young'uns own the darkness. Our responsibilities boil down to two main bits: 1) have lots of candy on hand, and 2) decorate the front doorstep to be festive and just a little bit spooky.

Buying the candy is easy. Just go to Target. 

I'd rather talk about decorating the front porch.

First, you are going to need jack-o'-lanterns. And jack-o'-lanterns start out as pumpkins. 

So go buy some pumpkins. More is better, but really, you can't go wrong with even just one. I usually buy mine at the grocery store, rather than an overpriced pumpkin farm, and if I wait till the day of Halloween to buy them, all the perfect ones are gone and the nice bumpy, irregular, spotty ones are left. 

Those are the best ones.

Pick one that warms your heart. Take him home and give him a nice warm bath. Then chop off his head.

Technically speaking, I suppose it's more accurate to say, make a hole in the top of his head. Potato, po-tah-toe.

Just be sure to make a series of small, straight cuts around the stem that eventually connect and allow for the top bit to come off, exposing the lovely pumpkin guts inside.

Go ahead and trim the guts off the top, or the lid, as I call it. Make it nice and smooth and pretty

Now we turn our attention to the inside of the pumpkin. Here's the deal: all those guts have got to come out. Get a big spoon, roll up your sleeves, and start scraping. 

While you're scraping, let me rant a little bit. 

Okay, here's the thing. People generally think of pumpkin carving as this warm and cozy, kid-friendly, relaxing holiday tradition. 

Well, I hate to shatter any illusions, but in my experience, this process is torture. Just this step of scraping out the guts is seriously difficult and annoying work, and anyone with any sense gets tired of it within the first five seconds. 

You know what that means: parents get to do the dirty work while the kids wave the sharp knives about and say, "Hurry, parent! You're taking too long and I want to get to the good part."

My blood pressure goes up several notches at the mere sight of pumpkin guts. 

Well, today, for probably the first time ever, I scraped my pumpkin all by myself. 

No one ditched me with the job of scraping their pumpkin.
No one brandished the knives.
No one pressured me to hurry.

I'm supposed to say that I missed the golden memories of years gone by, and shed a quiet tear of bittersweet loss.

Nope. Not in the least. I listened to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as I worked patiently and efficiently, and enjoyed the unusual calm. 

Once the guts are out, it's time to work on the face. First, orientation. One must consider how the pumpkin naturally prefers to sit, and situate the face on the proper side of the pumpkin to accommodate that posture. 

Next, features. I prefer a classic face, with triangular eyes and nose, and a gap-toothed smile. Predictable, I know. But also charming and nostalgic, at least to my eyes. 

When it comes to planning out the cuts, you can draw on the features with a pencil or marker. Or you can get fancy and use a preprinted pattern. I won't judge you if you do, but I prefer to cut mine free-form. 

I almost always go with a gap-toothed smile on my jack-o'-lanterns, and today I seemed to be channeling Mater as I carved out the teeth. I'll wait until after dark to show you the full effect of my creation, but trust me, he's a charmer.

In the meantime, remember those pumpkin guts? Hold on to them! I set mine aside in a big stainless steel bowl, and later we shall work magic with them. Stay tuned.

* * * * *

Trick or treat! Can I offer you a few more stories about Halloween?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Tragic Tale Of Suffering

Today was another busy day of painting in my bathroom and closet. To me, it was exciting and productive, but I'm afraid Ranger sees it quite differently. His feelings are deeply hurt when I ignore him in this way, and his only consolation is to go to my third-born's cozy bed and curl himself up among all the pillows and blankets.

Poor lad. See how he suffers?

Teaching My Own: Our Little Books

Ever since my daughters were tiny wee toddlers, I had been making little surprises for them to find in the mornings. Alongside their cereal bowls, I might lay out a new game or a sheet of stickers or a little note or drawing that I had created the night before. Certainly, I didn't do this every day, and my creations changed over the months and years, but for a while, I made them cards that looked like this:

On one side was a visual; on the reverse, a little note from me relating the visual to our lives - I might tell a little story or encourage them to draw or color on the card. At the time I made these little tokens, I was just having fun...I had no idea how they would someday influence my daughters' educations.

Fast forward a few years to the official beginning of our homeschooling adventure. As soon as my first-born daughter decided to be done with kindergarten, I needed a clear plan of attack. Thanks to John Holt, I was bound and determined to give my daughters freedom to learn according to their own interests. Which meant there would be:

no workbooks
no textbooks
no 'reading books'
no assignments
no tests
no school hours
no assigned subjects

As I was raised in a traditional setting, this approach seemed permissive, bold and perhaps even foolhardy. Still, I was determined to give it my best shot.

At the same time, I thought a lot about my responsibility to introduce my daughters to the 3Rs. I didn't want to stifle them in meaningless busy work, but I didn't want them to be ignorant social misfits either. I was looking for some middle ground that would allow me to gently expose my daughters to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic in a natural and casual way, tailored specifically to their own interests and preferences.

And that's when I remembered the cards I used to send them. Inspired by the personal and interactive style that had worked so well for them as babies, I adapted that practice to come up with a system that brought us years of fun and low-key learning.

Each girl picked out a spiral-bound notebook and decorated the cover to her heart's content. Then, in the evenings, I would write her a little note which usually included some kind of game or puzzle for her to solve. The next morning, we would read the note together, and then each daughter would work on the activity. Later, we would usually chat about how it went. Here are some examples:

My daughters loved to find their books at the table in the morning, and would often ask me to make certain games, use certain stickers, or otherwise tell me what they liked. I took advantage of every opportunity to make the games pleasing to them, and thus give them ownership in their journals.

My favorite games were the open-ended ones - I especially liked to play "Which two things are not like the other?" It was fascinating and interesting to hear the rationale behind each girl's choices and I gained great insights into understanding how each daughter's mind worked.

While some of the games had 'right' answers, I never corrected their work or directly pointed out their mistakes. Nothing squelches a good time like being told you are wrong.

I also did not force them to complete the activities. I took note of their disinterests as well as their interests, because understanding your learner is one of the main jobs of a teacher.

My overriding goal was not to teach facts but simply to stir up interest in my daughters' growing minds for reading, writing and math. By showing them the fun things one could do with numbers and letters, I hoped to prepare their nimble and fertile minds for all that was to come.

And you know what? These little books did just that. They are one of the great success stories of our earliest homeschooling days and sentimental treasures to boot.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Weekend Hashtag Project

It's no secret that I'm madly in love with Instagram. If you haven't noticed the billion and one posts I've made on the topic in this blog, you can always hop on over to the app or the web version and check out my feed at @dianeagain. I post daily.

Recently, I've been enjoying an Instagram feature called the Weekend Hashtag Project. Here's how it works. Every Friday, the oh so clever Instagram people choose a topic or theme and set up a special hash tag with #WHP followed by the name of the topic. They post the news all over the place - on the Instagram feed @instagram, on the Instagram blog, in Twitter at @instagram, and my favorite place, on the Instagram page on Facebook.

Then us Instagrammaniacs kick into gear by capturing photos that illustrate that theme and posting them with the appropriate hash tag.

There are just two simple rules. The photos must be taken during that weekend; no fair using old photos. And you may only post your own work. Straightforward and simple.

On Monday morning, the hash tag closes and the Instagram workers choose some of their favorites to post in their feed. Of course, one can look at the whole lot of WHP photos by going to that hash tag on Instagram.

So far, I've participated twice:



Honestly, I'm hooked. I've decided to set aside time every Saturday morning to brainstorm ideas and come up with a photo idea or two. Challenges like this exercise the problem solving centers in my brain  and fuel my creativity and imagination. So much fun.

You know what else would be fun? If you did it too!! If you're posting to the Weekend Hashtag Project, please tag me to your pic...I'd love to see it!

* * * * *

For more of my #WHP stories, check out:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Teaching My Own: A Two-Part Plan

Okay even I can admit that my overall goal of teaching my kids to be lifelong learners sounds a little flaky. I mean, I still stand by that ideal, and now that my homeschooling journey is complete, I can comfortably say that it served us well.

But I will also concede that my plan sounded a little hippie. Just love the learning, man, and pass the peyote. Everything will work out fine. 

Yeah. I wasn't quite that low-key about my daughters' education.

So while I still envisioned a homeschooling experience that would lead my daughters to love learning, I had some other, more pragmatic targets in mind. It helped me to start with my most distant goals, and then work backwards from there.

I wanted my daughters to earn four-year bachelor's degrees in any subject they chose.

I wanted them to be able to get into any university that their little hearts desired.

Which meant they needed to earn solid scores on the SAT, drawing from a solid foundation of strong high school academics, especially in math and science.

Which meant that I wanted them to be poised at the beginning of their high school years, ready and excited to dive in and tackle some challenging coursework. 

* * * * *

Hmm. I remember the beginning of my own high school years. At that point, I had already been in school for eight years (I skipped kindergarten...have I mentioned that?) Honestly, I was completely bored with schoolwork by that point in my academic career and while I still wanted top grades, I was much more interested in meeting upperclassmen and going to football games than actually studying. I don't think I'm the only student who felt that way.

{Note: Still trying to find photos of me in high school to insert here. Wish me luck...} seemed to me that the best way to get my girls on the top of their game in high school was to back off during the earlier years of their schooling careers. Yes, they would eventually need to adapt to learning in a formal classroom setting, with notes and lectures and workbooks and assignments and tests. But not in kindergarten. Not in first grade. Or second or third or even fourth.

By my calculation, a student could easily devote the first 11 or 12 years of life to learning organically, informally, naturally; led by her own interests. With a few years for transitioning, that same student could easily be acclimated to formal schooling by age 14, the typical age for starting high school. Rather than being bored with more of the same-old same-old, this student would perhaps be interested and excited to enter a new phase of learning.

Using this strategy, it seemed to me that I could position my daughters to enjoy the best of both worlds: a blissfully free and self-directed period of learning in the early years, followed by a burn-out free period of study and growth in high school. 

So that's what I decided to do.

Symbols Of Childhood

When I was sorting and cleaning today, I ran across some precious things I had hidden away. Yep, baby shoes. Each pair is a storybook full of memories that unfold before me in a single glance.

The navy blue double T-straps on the far left first belonged to my eldest daughter,. We bought them for her when she was about 15 months old; her very first pair of dress-up shoes. They remind me of her little blonde pony tail and the flannel blue-and-white jumper she wore for Christmas and the special days of having just one little girl in the house. Eventually, they were worn by all four girls. This is an especially lovely thing about having four babies of the same gender; so sweet to have quadruple hand-me-downs.

My third-born picked out the black T straps with delicate leather bows when she was barely two years old. She found her fashion sense early, that one, and insisted on wearing these shoes every single day. Her pretty shoes, she called them. When I see them, I immediately recall the red flowered dress and matching yellow flowered tights that she wore endlessly during this same phase, and she was adorable.

Hot pink Mary Janes? My second, who was most difficult to fit and hard to please with new shoes, absolutely had to have these. She picked them out when she was four, and often wore them with a white and pink flowered dress that was way too fancy for everyday wear, but who was I to say no? The flowers in the dress were a perfect match for the shoes, and together they made a darling outfit. Of course, she liked to complete the outfit with a pair of bright red tights, which struck me as a bit jarring, but four-year-old fashion rules are not for mommies to understand.

The last pair was chosen by my fourth born. She wore a lot of hand-me-downs, of course, so it was a special treat for her to buy something new. I think I enjoyed our shoe shopping trips just as much as she did, because it was so interesting to see how she would express her own sense of style. These black patent leather Mary Janes suited her perfectly; she spend many an afternoon playing out in the neighborhood with the big kids wearing these sweet shiny shoes.

* * * * *

During the early and very busy years of family life, it's practically a full-time job trying to keep everyone in clothes that fit. I often felt like my girls' needs changed as often as the tides; out with the old clothes that were suddenly too small, and in with the new. In that chaos of constant growth and adaptation, I'm glad I thought to keep these precious symbols of childhood.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Teaching My Own: My North Star

Eight months after John Holt's book, Teach Your Own, turned my thoughts about education upside down, I was homeschooling.

Now, despite the enormity of this responsibility, I was feeling fairly confident. My first-born daughter was clever and interested in all sorts of things. The first five and a half years of her life had been full of little outings and projects and adventures in the world, so it was natural for our homeschooling activities to be more of the same. And since she was already a self-taught reader, we were definitely ahead of the game.

For me, the important question was not "What are we going to do?"

Instead, I focused my efforts on this one: "What is our goal?"

It seemed to me that, like every other endeavor in life, my plan for homeschooling ought to have a goal.

Joe Orman

I'll admit that at first, the idea of setting a goal for educating my daughters seemed unnecessary. Based on my traditional experience, wasn't it fairly obvious that the goal of education is to graduate with a diploma after 13 years, and then go on to college?

Slowly, it dawned on me that my daughters' education could be much more than just a measure of years and a piece of paper.

Neil Postman's book, The End Of Education, was pivotal in shaping my ideas and helping me explore the possibilities of a goal-oriented plan for homeschooling.

But in the end, it was John Holt's philosophy that most directly influenced my approach.

The ultimate goal of my homeschooling efforts - my deepest dream for my daughters' educations - was that they would grow up to be people who loved learning, and considered it a natural and exciting part of everyday life.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day

And for the next two decades, that dream was my Polaris, guiding me through countless decisions and choices, always reminding me of what was most important. It served me very well.

* * * * *

A postscript: My youngest daughter is in college now, following her passion to become an astronomer. She is not one to post a lot of links on Facebook, so when I recently found this one on her timeline, I knew it must be special to her and I decided to check it out. As I watched this interview, taking in the profound thoughts, deep discussions and witty exchange between these two very interesting men, I knew that my deepest dreams for her had come true.

I'm On Top Of The World

On Wednesday, I took every single thing out of my lovely but slightly untamed closet.

On Thursday, I patched and spackled and washed and prepped and taped off every surface in sight.

Today, on Friday, I put two coats of paint on the walls. Bleached Linen by Behr.
Also, I put two coats of varnish on the wood. Valspar Polyurethane in Satin.
As all of that lovely freshness was drying tonight, I sorted through all the heaps of clothes and such that came out of the closet, refolding and organizing what will be kept, and getting rid of a few odds and ends.

This is not a glamorous job. But cleaning out a big closet from top to bottom is one of the most rewarding accomplishments known to mankind. I feel like I just summited Mount Everest.

What will I do for an encore?

On Saturday, I will rip out the old carpeting on the closet floor, and start the process of painting my subfloors.

Don't even ask about Sunday.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Teaching My Own: Support For The Dream

As I eagerly began my new life as a homeschooling parent, I was completely caught off-guard by one unanticipated dimension of this lifestyle.

Some people thought I was weird.

Well, let me be more specific. My mother, who was winding down a long and illustrious career as a public school teacher, was not excited about my dreams. As best I could understand, she saw my decision to homeschool as a vote of no confidence in her professional abilities. Although I tried to explain that I thought she was a great teacher and would love to include her in our homeschooling adventures, she could not rally support for this new idea. From that day to this, she has quietly disapproved of our lives as homeschoolers, which has been a big disappointment to me.

But honestly, it's not that surprising. My mom values tradition and predictability over innovation and change, so I can see where she was coming from. Also, I was well aware that it's fairly common for grandparents to struggle with their offsprings' decision to homeschool their grandchildren, so I was not caught off guard by her disapproval.

The bigger surprise was the way my friends reacted.

Before I explain, first let me say that I respect all mothers who try to do right for their children. Anyone who has been at this mothering game for more than a week or so would agree that there is no one correct way to raise a child, and we moms spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to figure out what is best for each one of our little darlings. Whether a mother decides to send her kids to public school, private school, keep them home to homeschool, or ship them off to French boarding school, matters not to me. What is important is simply that she cares.

So while I was (and still am) wildly enthusiastic about homeschooling, I have always appreciated the fact that it's not for everyone. And I have tried not to judge those who choose a different path than me.

Sadly, my decision to follow my homeschooling dreams was difficult for many of my pre-homeschooling friends to accept. Some were threatened, some were jealous, some were just put off by the whole topic. Because I was no longer part of the local elementary school moms' network, I was quickly cut out of their social scene.

To be perfectly honest, it was a hurtful thing to see how quickly my so-called friends dropped me out of their lives. Even worse, the ties between their children and mine were damaged, and that was much harder for me to take.

Now I'm not complaining too much. Our new friends in the homeschooling world were quickly filling in these gaps, and to a certain extent, it was healthy for us to move into a group of families who shared our educational dreams. Time certainly does heal all wounds and I can look back on this time now and see the blessings.

Yet this short chapter of my homeschooling story is important. Many homeschooling moms have dealt with this same situation, yet this consequence of homeschooling is rarely acknowledged or discussed.

Moms who homeschool take a road less traveled, and the people closest to us do not always understand. Like all moms, we are willing to make sacrifices for the welfare of our children, but it really hurts when our family and friends do not support our dreams.

Better Days Ahead

After my two-week adventure to distant American lands, I've been settling back into my routines at home in the Pacific Northwest. Fall is still blazing here, and I'm enjoying the sights and smells of this strangely beautiful time of year. 

{By the way, if you have not experienced a fall season first-hand, you should know that fall is as much a smell as it is a sight. There is a sweet scent to the air - light, delicate and natural - that brings back many a memory from falls gone by. It's one aspect of this season that I often forget from year to year, and am pleasantly surprised to experience it anew when autumn rolls around again.}

But even though I've been home for four days now, I'm still feeling out of sorts. After focusing my energy on other people's schedules and needs during my time away, it feels odd to be back in my own life. 

Yesterday, I was pondering this strange sensation and wondering how long it would last before I felt normal again, when I looked out the window and found this lovely treat.

Yep, it's a double rainbow. And to my Christian way of seeing the world, it's also a lovely promise that better days surely lie ahead. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Teaching My Own: Words To Live By

At the drop of a hat, my five-year-old quit kindergarten and suddenly my dreams of homeschooling became my reality.

I was surprised, excited, relieved, confident and grateful.

Yes, my patience had paid off, everything had worked out perfectly and now my grand experiment was about to officially begin.

And while I stepped boldly into this new world, I will not deny that there was a tiny little voice inside of me, just as there is in every homeschooling mommy, that was whispering fiercely, Just what in the world do you think you're doing?!!

Oh, I'll admit the whole truth. I don't know if it's courage, conviction, rebellion, or just plain insanity, but it takes a lot of guts to homeschool. It's like stepping off an aircraft carrier into a handmade birch bark canoe and saying, "Thanks for offering to help me out but I got this."

The biggest, scariest, worst fear was that somehow, I was going to ruin my kids.

Luckily, I had been meeting other homeschooling families, and those moms had some wise words for me. I still remember, word for word, the best pieces of advice I got from them:

In order to homeschool, you only need two things. You need to love spending time with your kids, and you need to love learning. 

Only worry about what you need to do in the next six months. If you can handle that much, you'll be fine.

Those words rang true to me then, just as they do now, and they calmed my fears and gave me hope.

And with high spirits, I officially began my career as a homeschooler.

The Pink Hotel

Truth be told, I was a fearful little girl, and one of the things that scared me out of my wits was the Pink Hotel.

Even now, I'm not sure if it was a hotel or a bar or a rooming house or a brothel. All I know for sure is that it was a looming building that stood on the far end of Main Street, right next to the train tracks. In my sweet and innocent hometown, the Pink Hotel was the tallest, chunkiest and most disreputable place in town.

And it was covered in pink aluminum siding.

Somehow, its pinkness scared me even more. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, that pretty color seemed so gentle and safe. But I could sense the danger lurking inside those rosy walls, and my childish instincts warned me that their prettiness was a trap.

Although I had no opportunities to wander around town by myself, I clearly remember my mother warning me to stay away from the Pink Hotel. I also recall asking her why it was so dangerous, and she told me there were bad men inside. Mmm yes, I remember seeing them inside the open doorway, in a dimly lit room with glasses clinking and cigarette smoke wafting out in to the sunshine. It all seemed so sinister to my tender little heart.

Years went by. I became a little less frightened of the world; the terror of Pink Hotel faded but did not completely disappear. While I was away at college, a few of my friends occasionally stopped in there for a drink, a fact which both amused and troubled me. The stigma lingered on.

At some point when I was busy living my life in another state, something radical happened: the Pink Hotel got a makeover. Whatever seedy businesses had been conducting themselves there picked up and moved away, and someone got the brilliant idea to tear off that pink siding and restore the original facade of the building.

So when I was back in my hometown last week, I went to visit the Pink Hotel and see how the old girl is doing these days. Look what I found.

Isn't she adorable? 

Those pale red bricks and architectural details are charming, and harken back to the building's original life as a hotel for visitors to my little hometown, back in the late 1800s.

This is a much better look for the Pink Hotel. She doesn't scare me any more.

And she cleaned up her act on the inside, as well. Since the aluminum siding was stripped away, she has been used for apartments, office space, and other respectable purposes. But I'm told that she's been sold again. The Pink Hotel is about to become a microbrewery and beer garden.

Which brings the whole story round to the beginning again, and puts a smile on my face. I guess the old Pink Hotel is just a bit of a party girl, and will not be denied her wild times.

Next time I'm in town, I'll check her out again. And if the renovations are complete, I might just walk right up to that forbidden door, step inside to the shadowy interior, and order myself a microbrew. 

And when I do, I'll know for sure that I am over my fear of the Pink Hotel.