Friday, November 30, 2012

Teaching My Own: Christine Mitchell

So yesterday, I was chatting with my friend, Christine, about the idea of homeschooling her three young children, and she made this innocent comment:

...sometime you'll have to tell us all about how the hubby feels/felt about homeschooling, because mine would...yeah. :D

She brings up a good point. It's one thing if your grandmother or neighbor or dentist office receptionist thinks you're a nut job for homeschooling your kids. But what if your husband does not share your passion for teaching your own?

That's an interesting question, and I'll respond to it in my next post, but first I want to tell you about the wild irony that surrounds this situation:

Christine is one of the best things that ever happened to my daughters and me in our homeschooling lives.

* * * * * 

Let's flash back about ten years to the day my girls enrolled in a special school-for-homeschoolers.

{Don't worry - I'll explain that contradiction later in this series on Teaching My Own.}

On our first day at this resource center, we wandered down a hallway full of classrooms and lab spaces until we stopped at the open doorway with a sign that read, "Interactive Project Collaborative." Inside, we found about twenty kids and a handful of parents, busily and happily playing open-ended games on computers, taking photos for stop-motion movies, working in journals, and making cool stuff with a variety of building sets. My eyes moved over this amazing mass of interested, occupied, incredibly self-directed learners, in search of a teacher. Eventually, I discovered a young woman, sitting at a desk in the far corner of the room, chatting with two kids while putting the finishing touches on a giant LEGO model of a diamond engagement ring.

And that is how I met Christine Mitchell.

Over the next few years, Christine earned her place on the Streicher Short-List of Most Influential and Inspirational Adults in Our Homeschooling Journey. Here's why:

Her personality is easy-going and approachable; kids are naturally drawn to her. On the shy side, but filled up to the brim with spunk, Christine has the ability to tame wild-and-woolly fifth grade boys, while also making the most tender-hearted kindergartner feel safe. My gentle little fourth-born is proof of the latter - in traditional classrooms, this delicate flower wilted under strict regimes and more assertive classmates. But under Christine's care, she bloomed.

Because of her own quirky creative energies and anything-goes artistic flair, kids feel free to experiment with their own imaginations. You want to make a collage out of plastic baby doll arms, create a printed fabric featuring dentures, or build a robot that can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Not only will Christine support your vision, she's probably already done it herself.

Even in a free-wheeling, anything-goes environment, she knows how to set up systems that encourage kids to do the right thing. Using badges to manage crowd control in her highly visited lab, apprentice programs to encourage bigger kids to look out for younger users, and teen internships to give older kids a chance to lead, Christine found ways to gain cooperation and spread enthusiasm for her increasingly popular workspace.

Despite her own tender age and lack of experience as an educator at the time, Christine instinctively understood child-led, experimental, experience-based learning. We all called her a teacher, but Christine's leadership was much more about creating an interesting physical space and an inviting social environment, and then getting out of the way to let kids work.

* * * * *

It goes without saying that Christine's influence left its mark on all four of my daughters. But her guidance had special consequences for two of my kids:

Christine noticed and nurtured my second-born's passion for visual art, for color, for drawing and painting. By the time she was twelve, my daughter began to dream of attending the University of Washington to study art, just like Christine had done. And you know what? My daughter made that dream came true. Many other people supported her in the long journey toward the UW and her art degree, but Christine was the first.

Under Christine's leadership, the IPC lab was a place where girls and boys could engage together in tech-ish ways. My youngest daughter grew up playing with boys in the lab every day, beating them at computer games and building LEGO creations that made them drop their jaws in amazement. She has gone on to pursue her dreams in the world of math and science, and I give Christine a lot of the credit for my fourth-born's determination to not only succeed in male-dominated studies, but to beat them soundly at their own game.

* * * * *

So it is with considerable irony and nostalgia that I am now having conversations with Christine about homeschooling. The great wheel of life has turned, and she is now the full-time mommy with her own little mob of school-age youngsters, considering the best ways to unlock their potential and make their dreams come true.

And tomorrow I will tackle her important question about daddies and homeschooling. 

Life Is Like A Velcro Mask

I was scouring through my photo albums the other night and came across this gem.

My youngest received this amazing velcro mask set for her birthday, and my second-born decided to help her break it in. They spent hours that day, running around in those kooky bird-anteater-elephant-peacock contraptions, and then that was the end of it. The masks were never used again.

Which just goes to show that life, like a velcro mask, should be seized in the moment and lived to its fullest, because you never know how long it will be around.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Teaching My Own: Glad That I'm A Girl Scout

The early years of our homeschooling experience sailed by. My daughters were thriving; I was excited and enthusiastic and only occasionally terrified by the ramifications of what we were doing. But often enough, I would run across articles like this one, which reassured me that even though they would never admit it, the Educational Experts Of The Day were advocating for learning environments that sounded an awful lot like what we were already doing at home:  


And so I was satisfied to follow my daughters' lead, just as John Holt suggested I do, and our happy homeschooling life continued.

But as time went by, I began to hunger for something more. While I really was content to let my daughters continue to explore the world at their own pace, I also wanted a to create a window in their lives through which I could show them some interesting things they had not yet experienced or thought to ask about. 

With a little trial and error, I hit upon the PERFECT solution:

Checking out Native American art at our favorite camping spot, Totem Landing, at Camp Lyle McLeod.
Making checkerboards from recycled materials.
Counting, sorting and classifying the girls' giant hoard of Beanie Babies.
Observing a deer that wandered through our campground at River Ranch.
Posing with the bags of litter that we collected at our local beach.
Making Mother's Day vases with a friendly troop of older Girl Scouts.
Stringing necklaces from handmade beads that were sent to us from another troop. 
Exploring the lake at Camp Lyle McLeod, with younger siblings and parents who camped with us.
Regrouping on the shore after paddling canoes and rowing boats.
Using a homemade solar cooker to melt s'mores.

We joined Girl Scouts.

This organization for empowering girls is well-known and respected around the world. But while most parents consider troop activities to be an after-school, enrichment activity for their daughters, Girl Scouting became my family's educational bread and butter.

As soon as I understood the program and saw its potential, I leaped in with both feet. I trained to become a leader, then started growing troops for each of my daughters. By the time my youngest came of age, I was leading over fifty girls, and holding four ninety-minute troop meetings each week, plus countless field trips, special outings, and weekend camping trips.

I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

The iconic Girl Scout achievement badges were an important part of the process. Because the badges are grouped into five general categories that highlight science, math and environmental activities as well as arts and crafts, cooking, and health and fitness, it was easy for me to generate an interesting range of fresh experiences, week after week after week. In order to earn those highly coveted prizes, the girls were willing to try anything. So basically, I used the Girl Scouting program as a format for my daughters' education - a curriculum, if you will - and my darling little scouts begged me to keep the lessons coming.

* * * * *

These photos are proof that my daughters were caught up in a happy community of girls who were learning and growing and exploring together. But there is so much more that isn't captured in the pictures. We sang, we laughed, we talked, we treated each other with respect, and talked about our hopes and dreams. We ate snacks together, and brought in our pets for Show and Tell. We slept overnight together and we got scared of the dark together.

And yes, as any pack of little girls will do, we sometimes hurt each others' feelings and made each other cry. But we also figured out how to work problems out, and to apologize, and to keep on being friends.

In short, Girl Scouting served as that window to the greater world that I was hoping to find. Under my leadership, my daughters experienced the world in countless new ways. Yet within the context of the troop, my direction and guidance felt like a gentle invitation rather than an authoritative command.

I think John Holt would have approved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hope, Love, Joy, Peace...And Chocolate

Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and that means my favorite holiday season is almost here.

No. Not Christmas.

Before I rush headlong into the busy days of shopping lists, gift wrap, and long lines at the post office, I will make some time for enjoying the sweet and simple pleasures of Advent with my family.

Advent is a four-week season of preparation and waiting for the celebration of Christmas Day.

It's a time for slowing down, for setting aside the busy-ness of December, for filling our hearts and minds with the true spirit of Christmas. 

It's a time for families to come together, to talk about the angels and the shepherds and the donkeys and the little baby born in a cave on that dark, cold night.

It's a time for gathering up little figures and animals and shavings and tiny manger beds to make nativity scenes, which help us recreate and reflect upon what that time must have been like.

It's a time for an Advent calender of some sort, filled with secret hiding places and special surprises, counting down the days till Christmas. Our family uses this little cupboard as our Advent calendar, where we stash away the smaller bits of our nativity scenes. Each evening, we open one door and take out whatever is inside, talking about how it fits into the story and adding the surprises to our growing nativity display.

It's a time for candles, with one lit for each of the four Sundays of Advent. Years ago, my daughters and I made these tissue paper-covered candle holders in the traditional colors of purple and pink. Each candle bears a name which also serves as the theme of the upcoming week - hope, love, joy and peace. 

By lighting the candles and reflecting on how the themes play out in the story of Jesus' birth, my family and I can better balance the craziness of our postmodern holiday world with the tender story of Christmas.

And when we are calmed and soothed and back in touch with the reason for the season, Advent is a time for one more very important thing: chocolate. 

* * * * *

Wanna see some of my other Advent wreath arrangements?


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Read more about my getting-ready-for-Christmas adventures:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Patience Really Is A Virtue

Today was a day that should have been one of the best days of my year. My favorite place on earth, Stevens Pass is finally open and ready for snowy business, and my two younger daughters and I headed up for our first runs of the year. After suffering seven months of a ski-less existence, I was eager and excited to get back to the crisp air, beautiful sights, and downhill adrenalin that is Stevens Pass.

Sadly, the day was a disappointment. Even though we fought our way through a series of smaller frustrations - like ill-fitting boots and forgotten ski poles - there was one major obstacle that could not be overcome. The snow was in very bad shape. Icy, poorly groomed slopes are a deal-breaker, and the wild, reckless, partying masses who were riding alongside of us turned an annoying situation into a downright dangerous one. After just two defeating hours, we called it a day and headed home.

Even though I have a season's pass, so I paid no out-of-pocket admission fees for the day, the trip was still a waste of gas money and time. I admire the resort management's enthusiasm for getting a nice early start to the season, but they should have waited for at least another foot of the white stuff to fall before inviting us up.

On the ride home, the three of us vented our disappointments about the day. But as we talked, we found more and more to laugh about. Yes, even though we usually seek out advanced runs, we did end up having a pretty good time on the bunny hill, which had the best snow on the mountain. Yes, we did have some laughs on the chair lifts, joking around in the fresh cold air. And yes, bad snow or good, we are excited that the ski and snowboard season is finally upon us once again, more white stuff will be falling soon, and conditions will only get better.

And as we talked this over, we were surrounded by unearthly beauty.We were driving through a surreal, partly sunny/partly foggy landscape and the effect was breathtaking  As my youngest put it, it looked like we were traveling through a watercolor painting.

Also, we stopped at McDonald's for root beer floats and that didn't hurt a thing.

Which just goes to show that no matter what the condition of the snow, good things really do come to those who wait.

* * * * *

Wanna read about the twists and turns of my ill-fated 2012-2013 ski season? Check these out:

Anything Is Possible

One of my favorite things in life is meeting creative young people, getting to know their passions and hearts' desires, and then watching over the years as their talents grow and develop with maturity. I find great joy in seeing their lives unfold, and learning from the work they create.

Tonight, within the course of one hour, I came across three fascinating examples of this phenomenon:

First, meet my friend, Ely. Also known as Razaisyam Rashid. Also known as the Malaysian hipster. When I first met Ely several years ago, he seemed to be an intellectually starving and lonely artist, slaving away at a day job that offered him little creative freedom, and dreaming rather hopelessly of building his career as an indie filmmaker. 

Things in Ely's life have changed. I don't know all the details, but he's got a new job in Singapore which is more rewarding and more closely aligned to his creative goals. Last winter, I explained that he was putting together an indie short film called Tikam, which translates from the Malay as Stab. Tonight he posted the final cut of the video and I share it with you here.

Oh, and I should also mention that Ely recently met the girl of his dreams, and married her last summer. Sigh. I love happy endings.

* * * * *

Next up, meet David Faddis. Although I consider David a friend of my own, he is more properly described as a college friend of my daughter. He's come around to our home a few times, and I've seen him here and there on campus, so we're had a few opportunities to talk. But mostly I know David through his work - he's an avid photograper and videograper

Over the few years that I've been acquainted with him, I have watched David's work naturally evolve from road-trip films and spoofy bits with his friends to more introspective pieces. Recently he took some time off from college to wander through Europe and then created this piece which reflects both his beautiful images and his point of view as a traveler. I see a growing interest in the world beyond his familiar boundaries, and I'm impressed with his thoughtful contemplation of people and places, accessible to viewers from all walks of life. 

Brilliant work, David. I'm so looking forward to seeing what you do next. 

* * * * *

And thirdly, let me tell you about a shy, soft-spoken 18-year-old who started showing up at my house for post-youth group gatherings back in 2007. He tagged along as friend of a friend, and at first, sat quietly in the shadows, allowing his zany and extroverted buddy to monopolize every conversation.

But over time, Chris found his voice and shared his own remarkable story. He and some high school buddies had a band. Well, that's not remarkable at all, is it. High school garage bands are a dime a dozen, and rarely last more than a year or two. But Chris and his band, New Heights, turned out to be much more than that. 

Surviving personnel changes, breaks for college work, tempting distractions from record companies, and financial struggles, the band is thriving today. They have toured nationally, established a kickin' presence on YouTube, and I daresay, made all their high school dreams come true.

Tonight, I came across this just-posted cover of a One Direction tune, with a fresh piano arrangement and simply beautiful vocals by my friend, the one and only Chris Kwak. As I take in his calming, confident performance, and think of how far he and his bandmates have come in these past few years, I am impressed and proud beyond words. 

I celebrate your work, Ely, David and Chris. Thank you for reminding me that dreams can come true, and that with some artistic vision and lots of hard work, anything is possible.

* * * * *

I've written other stories about my friend, Chris. Check 'em out:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Keep Pushing On

My painting project is officially finished!! Beginning on October 24 and wrapping up exactly four weeks later on November 22, I managed to complete all the jobs on my original To-Do list and then some:

  • move all of our possessions out of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, four closets, upper hallway and stairs, except for beds and major pieces of furniture
  • remove all upstairs baseboards, carpets, padding, tack strips and staples
  • use wood filler to spackle the subfloor seams, nail marks and other holes as necessary
  • sand twice using medium and fine sandpaper
  • wash down each room from ceiling to floor and everything in between
  • paint the floors with two coats of primer and two coats of porch and floor paint
  • paint the walls and ceilings of each room
  • wash ceiling fixtures, fans, and outlet switches
  • clean and restore finish on all the doors
  • refinish and replace baseboards
  • sort through possessions and get rid of non-essentials
  • move everything back into the completed rooms

As testimony to this satisfying accomplishment, I offer you this photograph of the empty paint containers in this week's trash:

Not to be a martyr, but let me point out that this is just one week's pile-up of empty cans - I threw away at least this many during the previous weeks of the project.

And it also must be noted that while I generated quite a collection of empty paint cans, there are many cans still on hand, with paint left over for future jobs and touch-ups:

Which is a great reminder that, like shoveling snow and feeding the kids, home maintenance projects are never really done. Yes, I may have finished this round of improvements, but the next set of challenges is never far away. Just gotta keep pushing on.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My Thanksgiving Feast

Thanksgiving Day is all about food. Here is a delicious though decidedly random look at the food that I prepared and ate on this glorious day of abundance:

Cinnamon rolls for breakfast. This one is mine.
Slicing apples for an apple pie. We are planning lots of rich, creamy, decadent desserts but always include one simple pie in the mix. 
Onions, celery, apples and sage simmering together for the dressing. This is my most favorite smell of Thanksgiving morning, and reminds me of my grandmother very much indeed.
Mixing the filing for the pumpkin cheesecake. Years ago, my friend Heidi shared this recipe with my daughters when teaching a class about each of the fifty states. Connecticut has a reputation for its annual pumpkin-throwing contest - the locals refer to it as "punkin chunkin" and my second-born fell in love with this cheesecake, which bears that name.
Angel food cake for the spongy trifle. It's a family tradition to bake this on Thanksgiving Eve...wouldn't feel right if we didn't. Also, angel food is my traditional birthday cake. Just thought you should know.
Filing for the apple pie on the left, bottom crust waiting on the right. Classic pies make a big mess, and I always tackle them first, to get the mess out of the way.
Even though it's a messy process, there is something very satisfying that happens when I get a pie put together and seal it up. I feel very accomplished.
The spongy trifle comes together in layers. Starting at the bottom with cubes of angel food cake spread with raspberry jam, we next add bits of fruit - mandarin oranges and bananas - then this vanilla custard. Crushed shortbread cookies and whipped cream on top are still to come.

When my daughters were tiny, we read a story about a naughty little girl who snuck into her mother's pantry and ate all the spongy trifle that was meant to be served at her birthday party. My eldest wondered exactly what a spongy trifle might be, so I found a recipe and we made one, just for fun. Ever since then, this English dessert has become one of our Thanksgiving traditions.
Peeled and diced, these potatoes are well on their way to being mashed. Sorry 'bout it, guys.
Biscuits, standing at attention and waiting for a turn in the oven. My grandmother used to spend hours making her Thanksgiving rolls from scratch; she often gave me the job of rolling bits of dough into one-inch balls, and plopping three of them into each buttered compartment of her cupcake pan. After they were baked, they would pull neatly apart into three sections, and that is why they were called cloverleaf rolls. 
Two pretty Punkin Chunkin Cheesecakes, fresh from the oven.
Whop, whop, the turkey is done! Technically, it's a turkey breast...we all prefer white meat. I always use an oven bag for my turkeys; they cook evenly inside the environment of the bag, and clean-up is a dream. 
Mashed potatoes and a glorious chunk of melting butter.
Acorn squash. Or Danish squash, as it's called on the west coast. I think acorn squash is a much cuter name.
Homemade cranberry sauce, another dish prepared on Thanksgiving Eve.
The biscuits are hot and flaky, even if they are store-bought.
The green bean casserole traditionally sits in this overflow spot on a cupboard near the table. The matching casserole of dressing (or stuffing...same difference) will soon join it on the left.
The table is set, the turkey is carved, the beverages are poured. 
Bring on the people and let the feasting begin!!

Several hours later...time for dessert!!

You may choose between spongy trifle under its blanket of whipped cream, peanut butter hot fudge pie, pumpkin cheesecake with whipped cream, or a simple little apple pie with vanilla ice cream. 

Or you may choose all four. We won't judge.
I started with a plate full of spongy trifle, and then came back for more. It was heaven.
I'm thankful for the outrageous bounty of my Thanksgiving table; may I continue to appreciate each bite of food I put into my mouth in the upcoming year.

* * * * *

More Thanksgiving stories!

Pumpkins, Acorns, And A Leaf
Teaching My Own: Talking Turkey
I Will Be Thankful When It's Done
Giving Thanks For Thanksgiving
Giving Thanks For Sly And Soul Train
It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Thanksgiving
Thankful For The Forest
"T" Is For Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Dinner
Looking Up: Thanksgiving Edition

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I like to write stories about pies. If you like to read stories about pies, try these: