Monday, October 30, 2006

Violence and Homeschooling

Several people have told me that I must be happy to be homeschooling when I see report after report of violence in schools. But of course, homeschooling doesn't really make you safer.

My heart breaks like everyone else's, and I get furious too when I hear about violence in schools. It's not like my homeschooliang friends and I are sitting around giving each other smug high fives because our kids aren't sitting in a school box like fish in a barrel, waiting for anyone with a grudge against life to walk in and slaughter them.

Those are my neighbor's kids, my family's kids -- even if they're in Pennsylvania or in Chechnya or in Colorado. It's my problem, too. It bothers me that some people, even some homeschoolers themselves, see homeschooling as a way to opt out of engagement with the atrocities of life, to become separate and safe. I've heard more than one person say, in the last few weeks, that she's considering homeschoolng because of the danger of life in school.

The truth is that violence happens everywhere, and my children are out and about more than the rest -- don't we have a higher likelihood of being hit by a car, or accosted in a parking lot, or stalked by a weirdo, or something like that. School violence is particularly nauseating and horrifying, but just like highway accidents don't keep me at home, school violence doesn't keep me from putting my kids in school.

Pulling children out of school because of nuts with guns, hoping to protect them from the wildness of this human life, is a kind of sad and desperate act. Obviously I more than others think you should do what you like with your own children, and that homeschooling is fantastically fun and beneficial for children. But I don't think fear is a good reason. The homeschooling community isn't safe from maniacs with firepower. Homeschooling is just a different way to educate your children.

Do blankets from Grandma keep them safe? Or just happy and warm? :D

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Trunk or Treat Rained Out

The downtown Norfolk YMCA does a great job of planning cool stuff for families. Unfortunately, they cannot control the weather. Now I've got a fog machine and a black light crying in the corner because last night's "Trunk or Treat" was rained out!

It's not that we're hypercompetitive (okay, it is that, but it's not *just* that). We just really love Halloween. We love the spooky stuff, the dark, the drear, the ravens, the severed hands, all of it. If we had a little less common sense, we might be in danger of being one of those families you see on Wife Swap, where they sleep in coffins and wear shrouds to school. Okay, probably not, because most of the year, we're as cheerful as anyone else, but in October, when the wind gets a little chilly, we always find ourselves browsing the spider web aisle.

We live on a bad street for trick-or-treating. Nobody comes down this street. So our burning desire to decorate way more than is reasonable has never been realized -- we anticipate the grief and frustration of having dressed the house for a party, and having no one come to dance.

When we found out about the Trunk-or-Treat at the YMCA, where you dress up the back of your vehicle, park it in the parking lot, and let the kids trick-or-treat around to everyone's car, it seemed the perfect opportunity for us to shine. And there was a contest for best trunk. We needed no further enticement.

We got a fog machine. And a black light. Decorations. A thingy to make it so we can plug in a bunch of stuff in the back of our van. We have, I must admit, an eight foot inflatable bat that lights up and runs with a little fan inside to inflate it -- you know what I'm talking about.


Then it rained. And they moved it indoors. Which was just not going to be any good, what with the fog machine messing up people's workouts and the black light trying to work against the fluorescent gym lights... to which we say... never mind... I guess there's next year... sniffle snuffle.

Today we are going to get conciliatory pumpkins.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Disney World: What Did We Learn?

We studiously avoided all educational aspects of Disney World. I'm sure they were there, but we tried to ignore them. Did we learn anything, in spite of our efforts?

If you think about what you're doing, and plan ahead, and research, and prepare, and organize, you can learn a lot from Disney World. On the other hand, if you do none of those things, you can probably learn a lot too.

We did not think or prepare. We tried at every turn to avoid analyzing anything, applying ourselves, deconstructing the images with which we were presented, or allowing ourselves to expand and grow. We did not learn "Hello" in all the languages at Epcot's World Lagoon and practice speaking with the native employees. I did not prepare a scavenger hunt and teach children in advance what they would see, and therefore we did not identify the landmarks from the different countries. We bypassed all the interesting tropical ducks at Animal Kingdom and rushed straight to the biggest roller coaster, which we rode as many times as possible. We danced around like fools in the sun, rather than comparing Disney's Snow White with Grimm's version. When the ferry came close enough for us to see Cinderella's castle for the first time, we did not mention Neuschwannstein.

So, what did the kids learn from our trip, given our staunch refusal to teach them anything?

The biggest thing they both learned was that it's okay to really fully commit to earnest thrill. Because Disney World is devoid of sarcasm and smirkiness, it feels right for kids and adults to behave like giddy lunatics, to sing out loud, to gambol and cavort, and to shout "WHEE!!!" My children are naturally very unselfconscious. This place was their natural element.

They learned to volunteer. Benny volunteered to be in several different shows -- Turtle Talk with Crush, the Festival of the Lion King, Belle's Storytime, Woody's Cowboy Camp, and others. His experience with Disney World was, as a result, very interactive. He learned that jumping up and saying, "I WILL!" makes everything fun. In connection with this, he also learned some social lessons like waiting your turn, accepting the role you're handed, sitting down when your part is over, and being thankful for the fact that you're included. He did all this very gracefully. Sadie did not have the same experience -- she tended to shrink into Mom or Dad's chest cavity whenever anyone with a big giant head approached. :D

Here's a little video of Benny as Gaston in Belle's story show:

They learned to be brave on rollercoasters. This was one that Benny had already mastered (lunatic that he is) but that Sadie was able to experience this year, on her first roller coaster ever, which she rode four times in immediate succession, and never wanted to leave. The bravery of these children astonished us over and over during this trip -- they are truly going to be wonderfully bold adults if this kind of behavior continues! With the obvious exception of meeting people with giant fake heads, which Sadie needs more time to master.

Here's a picture of me and Benny riding Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom:

They learned time management, as we discussed and decided what to do so that everyone got to do what they liked (Sadie liked Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Benny liked anything that went fast around corners and down terrible drops) and we minimized our line time and had food when we needed it. This was also a good lesson in sharing resources (time mainly) and enjoying other people's happiness. Yes, we rode the carousel about 16 more times than Benny probably would have chosen to ride it, and Sadie spent a lot of time waiting for Benny to ride roller coasters. But they didn't complain.

Benny learned a lot through pin trading. If you don't know, here's how it works -- Disney makes little metal and enamel pins showing a million different things. Some commemorate events, some represent characters or rides, some are special pins for holidays, etc. Kids (and adults) collect these and wear them on lanyards around their necks, then trade with other people wearing pins. If a park employee (sorry, "cast member") has pins on, they will always trade with you whatever pin you want for whatever one you want to give them. Benny loved interacting with people like this, and by the end of the trip had become an enthustiastic trader. He had never been exposed to the idea of "collecting" before, so the whole concept of one pin being more valuable or rare than another was new, the whole concept of trading was new, and this gave him the opportunity to talk to a lot of people, which he of course loves.

They learned patience in lines, although in the middle of October, especially in the mornings, the lines were nonexistent! They learned to try new foods. They bonded together as siblings in new ways. Benny met a host of new friends from all over the world. He came up with a new opening line for meeting people (his favorite pastime). On the monorail after the Halloween party he sidled up to a girl dressed as Ariel and said, "You're BEAUTIFUL." That, as it turned out, was a good opening line! He had a conversation with her and her mom all the way back to the parking lot.

We're back from Disney World, and we had a fantastic time, even me:

For more of my Disney videos, you can visit my YouTube channel here.

For more of our pictures, you can visit my Flickr gallery here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

On the Road to Florida

We're on our way to Disney World, after scrambling around town finishing up errands all morning. So what did we learn today, besides how to drive Mommy insane by singing everything instead of saying it? Or how to insist on pushing the "Fast Speed" button on the back of Mommy's headrest, and forcing Mommy to pretend to be blown back my G forces, until you push it again? Besides that?

We're half way to Disney World after a morning of running errands around town and an afternoon of driving in a straight line south. As I sit here, waiting for him to fall asleep, I am tempted to think of this day as wasted, learning-wise. We didn't sit down together and study any Spanish grammar. We didn't do any math problems. But thinking back on the day, I know his brain was engaged all the way.

1. Geography. Benny held his laminated map and followed out progress from Virginia to South Carolina, where we stopped. He learned that country has two meanings (well, he learned two of the several meanings of country). He's still working on grasping that there is interstitial space between cities that's neither city nor just "country" but is actually a county or a township or whatever. Might help if I had a better grasp on that myself.

2. Art and Zoology. Dad and Benny and Sadie took turns drawing animals and guessing what they were while we were waiting for our dinner at the restaurant. My favorite was the duck-billed platypus which Benny guessed was a beaver. Pretty good guess. We concluded that a platypus is a beaver with a beak, and will look it up next time we go to the library. Benny drew a very cool weathervane and had the N reversed to show which way it was pointing.

3. Physics. Tonight in the hotel bathtub, the children had only the big plastic drinking cups the hotel had provided us, to use as toys. They ended up doing several different experiments and Benny taught Sadie how to submerge the cup just to the lip, then let it spring back up. We explained to her that the air down in the empty cup wants to get on top of the water, because the water is heavier than the air. Don't know if Sadie really grasped it, but in explaining it to her, Benny connected this with the behavior of a helium balloon.

4. Music. Okay, well, here I am exposing my Disney weakness, but they happily sang along to the "Disney Princess Sing-a-Long" DVD that I Netflixxed for the trip. It was very sweet hearing Benny piping out those words along with Snow White and the rest. And got in a little reading practice. I'm sure he never saw "Bibbity Bobbity Boo" spelled out before.

5. Reading. Speaking of reading, Benny's been engrossed in his book, Walt Disney World: For Kids By Kids, which is a kid's guidebook, mixed in with puzzles and things to fill in, scrapbook pages, autograph pages, etc. He's most interested in researching the rides he wants to see at the Magic Kingdom, and is becoming a fount of information (and marketing propaganda phrases) on Tomorrowland.

6. Gym. Apart from wrestling with the dog before we put him in the kennel, Benny also did some exercises when we stopped for dinner, including standing on one leg, which he can do for a remarkable stretch of time, thanks to karate, and other shenanigans. Last year on the way down, we made them do figure eights around trees to burn off their energy at the South Carolina Welcome Center -- we remembered, driving by, what a kick Benny got out of signing the guest book and yakking with the people at the tourism desk.

Finally, Benny lost a tooth this morning. And he's about to learn that the tooth fairy can find him even in a hotel halfway to Disney World, because the tooth fairy is just savvy that way.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Homeschool Open House @ Virginia Air and Space Center

HELP! It's a giant herd of homeschoolers! Actually, the Virginia Air and Space Center looked a lot like it probably looks on any busy day -- a few more moms in denim jumpers and a few more kids who already knew how lasers work, but -- pretty much the same.

We had never been to the Virginia Air and Space Center, in Hampton, because I thought it was a little over the head of my six-year-old, and definitely beyond the reach of my two-year-old. However, when some fabulous person organized a Homeschool Open House for Thursday, we decided to go, i only to let the kids run around with other homeschoolers. It was such a good time! We went with our friends Veronica, Zoe, and Phillip.

Veronica is another mom who shares my philosophy that children should be let experience museums and such on their own terms -- we are equally unconcerned that they use the exhibits in the manner they were intended, or that we see *everything*, or that they fully understand each one. This makes it fun to go to places with her, since as long as the kids are happy, interested, and not bring rude to anyone, we are both content to let them explore. I will say, though, that navigating a museum with four children under the age of six, who all have definite ideas of what they want to see, was a challenge. :D

We started out in the medical/anatomy/biology part of the center, which included a giant "Operation" game, a cryogenic surgery chamber, a mock operating room, and all kinds of cool interactive stuff. Here are Benny and Zoe practicing endoscopic surgery with a plastic cube and a block, which they have to navigate through a maze by poking the little sticks through holes in the cube. This was a big hit for all the older kids, including the three-year-old, Phillip:

Here's Benny at the helm of a commercial airliner -- a good moment for him. Benny and Sadie both play Microsoft Flight Simulator with their father quite a lot, so this was meaningful for them:

Inside another plane, we had a bit of a shock. I guess I just climbed into it, thinking it was just a plane you could look inside of, but there was a movie playing in the front of the plane, and seats to fold down on the sides. Before I knew it, we were doing a bombing run, the plane was shaking, and we were being shot at. My two-year-old was shrieking, "MOMMY! DEY SHOOTING! DEY SHOOTING!" Yes, that was a little tense. But we survived:

The Center also has a play area with soft things to climb and swing on, airplane-themed, for the kids to use to blow off steam and run around. Here are Benny and Zoe operating the hot air balloon:

Yes, my child wore his Buzz Lightyear costume. No, he wouldn't take it off, even to go to the bathroom. Yes, that is strange.

Finally, we went to see the IMAX movie, The Human Body, which was a nice coincidence given our recent study of this subject. The footage in the movie was incredible. Incredible. Seeing that fifty-foot heart valve pumping, endlessly, 80 beats per minute, hour after hour, year after year, made me feel EXHAUSTED on behalf of my heart. Also seeing inside the lungs, with the little red blood cells rushing by, was very cool on that huge screen. And we had a happy homeschool moment when Benny shouted out, "OH, so THAT'S how the red blood cells exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. WOW!" *beam*

There was a little more sperm and egg and puberty than my child was prepared for, but I'll answer his questions truthfully, if he has any. It's not like we didn't study the reproductive system, but seeing the sperm swimming up the tube, with the soundtrack playing "One of These Nights" by the Eagles... was different. But okay! :D The movie was fantastic, if only for the giant pictures of our interiors. Here we are watching the movie:

A great day at the Virginia Air and Space Center. I think the one who appreciated it the most was my two-year-old daughter, who loves airplanes to distraction, and was in a constant state of ecstasy, just to be in that huge room with so many "aircranes" at once.

For another homeschooler's interesting adventure with small children at his local air and space center, try this.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Neighborhood Art Walk

A local neighborhood puts on an annual "Art Walk" where local artists put their work out on their front porch. Some of the work is for sale, some is for display, but the most fun is just walking around, talking to people, and seeing what creative people are behind the doors you drive past every day. Last year after we went, Benny came home and asked to be an artist, so I bought him a few canvasses and some "real" paint, and let him have at it.

This year he showed his work, and sold signed prints that I had made from photographs mounted on cardstock. His prints sold out in two hours, and one was even bought by the guy that owns a nearby restaurant and he hung it on his wall!

Here's our little set-up in the back of our van:

Here's a picture of the painting that people liked the best:

Benny loves to talk to people, so he had a really great day. Here he is talking to a customer:

And here's one final picture, of one of our friends who stopped by and bought *two* prints of Benny's work. Why, that cost a *WHOLE DOLLAR*!!! :D

Benny also gave away free visors he had made, and sold little drawstring bags and baby hats that I had made, and all of our proceeds went to support the next Community Bike Ride.

It was a good day.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

World of Wonder at the Botanical Gardens

We had never been to the Botanical Gardens, even though we've lived in Norfolk for 7 years, except for driving through in the dark at Christmas time to see the lights. There, I said it. I have exposed us as the uncultured boors that we are. The opera, yes. The Botanical Gardens, no. So, when the World of Wonder was being advertised (and who doesn't want to see a "World of Wonder"??) I thought it would be a great time to cross that particular cultural experience off our list.

I learned a few things:

1. We will definitely be back to the gardens, and it won't take another seven years.

2. The World of Wonder is great, and worth return trips.

3. My child is pretty gullible. ;D

When we got there, I put Benny in charge of the map, and he lead us, after several wrong turns, with me keeping my mouth shut and just letting him be in charge, to the World of Wonder.

Here's Sadie surveying part of the massive rose garden on the way in:

This exhibit's central feature is a giant globe peppered with lots of different fountains that you can run around in. Fantastic.

Radiating out from the central fountain were several areas to explore representing different parts of the world. In the Africa part, the kids enjoyed playing in this hut that was equipped with drums and other instruments to play.

There was a game to play too. When we came in, a guy handed us a passport with pictures of different animals to find in the exhibit. When we found one, we were to use its little stamper to mark our passport, and when we collected all seven we got a little prize. That was cool, and fine, and great, but the best thing was...


The DIrt Factory is a genius installation. It has no instructions, no objectives, no rules. There are three hand-operated pumps for water. And there is a giant box of dirt. There is also a beautiful playhouse/potting shed, lots and lots of different sized buckets, watering cans, trowels, shovels, plant pots, and there are little seedlings that you can play with and uproot and plant and play with again. Amazing. The kids had so much fun here:

Here's Benny operating a pump:

Here's Sadie pondering the enormous box of dirt:

I'm sure it is a gigantic pain in the behind to clean all this up at the end of the day, and get it ready for the next day's play. However, an open-ended activity like this, with no structure and no "right answer" is just so completely wonderful for kids, and this part of the garden is nothing short of genius.

After the World of Wonder, we went through the rest of the garden, including the Enchanted Forest, where I spun a long yarn (which Benny totally bought) about all the inhabitants, and the witch that lives there, and how a red bird in the path means we are being watched, but a black bird means there are trolls nearby, etc. When we got around so we could see Whitehurst Lake, I told him it was the Magic Sea, and on the other side was the Palace of the Princess of Potterdotter. Every place where a little path turned off the main drag, I'd say, "Oh, down there is where the unicorn lives," or whatever. It helped that Sadie fell asleep the MINUTE we got inside the Enchanted Forest, so I was able to be completely horrified that the witch had put an enchantment on the baby. Benny oscillated between saying "Is she *really* enchanted???" and saying, "OH NO! Sadie is ENCHANTED!" Hehehe. That was a lot of fun.

About the time we were all tired and hot, we jumped on the tram that runs around the garden, and took the train tour 2 times. :D Benny was loving it. He sat with another family -- an older couple and their grown children -- on the tram and regaled them with tales of his enchanted sister, and the dirt factory, and the rest of it. Sadie sat in my lap and pointed at everything, and kept repeating, "Mommy, we widing the TWAIN!!!" She loves trains.

It was a great time. I highly recommend it. There can't be too many sunny days left, so catch this one while you can.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another Anti-Homeschooling Article

Another article painting homeschoolers as religious nuts who won't let their children wear shorts, or read Time Magazine, or dance. Another writer having a grand old time ridiculing people who are just honestly trying to pass on their values to their children (and what is wrong with that?) and in doing so, clumping a whole community into one ill-fitting category. The truth is that *most* of the homeschoolers I know are *not* homeschooling for religious reasons (not that there's anything wrong with that) and I'm tired of people assuming that because I'm homeschooling I also don't watch television or wear lipstick. BLAH! This article made me mad. Partly because I don't like being lumped in a category, and partly because the people he's making fun of and criticizing aren't doing anything wrong or unreasonable. Well, the article speaks for itself... and here is a link: Right here.

Here's my letter to the editor:

I'm writing regarding Grady Jim Robinson's article, "Table for One: Fundamentalism and the Facts."

This writer seems to be overly concerned that our elementary school children be exposed to information about sex. I am a little bit worried about him, to be honest. I think all those homeschooled children who don't learn about what sexually stimulates men and women until they get a little older are probably going to be just fine.

I'm not homeschooling for religious reasons. My reasons are multiple, but I think Robinson inadvertantly makes a good argument for homeschooling when he says that the average kid in a public high school "is, well, average." I want more than that for my child. And when he says that overall, public schools are "a safe and sound environment for your child," I have to laugh. Have we really adopted this metric to evaluate our schools? Overall, our kids probably aren't going to die there? I aspire for a deeper and fuller educational experience for my children, and measure their learning by a more complicated standard than just escaping death.

I appreciate Robinson's concern for children (although I still wonder why he wants children to read books about sex), but I must remind him that there are extremists in any group. The parent and child that he has described in his article, if they exist, are definitely on the fringe of the homeschooling community. Most of us are quite normal, quite level-headed, and just want a better deal than the schools are offering.


So, I had a lot more to say to them, obviously, but wanted to keep it brief and limit it to the salient points:

1. I don't want my kid to be average, so don't promise me mediocrity as if it's some shining prize. Don't sell me "pack your kid off and hope for the best, hey, it's what the rest of us do" and expect me to feel inspired.

2. My six-year-old son definitely does not need to read books about sex. It is *creepy* that the author of that article kept using the word "child" and then talking about all this sex stuff. Creepy!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Butterfly Gardens at Christ and St. Lukes

Last week during the congregational meeting, the kids in the church planted a butterfly bed in the Lychgate Garden at Christ and St. Luke's. It's completely darling! On Sunday morning, Benny got to lead the parade of children on the butterfly processional on Sunday morning, carrying the big butterfly balloon and acting extremely solemn and unnaturally sanctimonious. For some reason, Benny really gets these occasions, and dons the appropriate attitude. Had I known, I would have ironed his pants. Oh well.

Here are the kids lined up for the procession:

Here they're listening to Ms. Charlie pray over the garden and give thanks for all things that grow:

Here they are placing their butterfly wands over the sticks that were waiting in the garden:

And here is the finished product:

The folks running the kids program at Christ and St. Lukes are wonderful, and I just love my church. I don't care if this church plants a giant hunk of magma in the middle of historic Ghent with a spaceship carousel on top that plays "Funky Town" when the moon is bright -- they are a credit to the community and Ms. Charlie and Ms. Barbara are absolute gems. Benny is very lucky to be part of the program.

Here's a little video of part of the dedication: