Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Benny's Book

Benny wrote a story called Benny and Zoe for Reading Rainbow's "Young Writers and Illustrators" contest. I think, looking at his book, that Reading Rainbow will probably drop it out the window or possibly set it on fire, but I'm in love with it. Click here to see the full book on an extra-wide page.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Tiniest Violin Ever

Yesterday we went to Angelico Violins. They recently moved from near ODU to this gorgeous new store in Chesapeake. If you haven't visited their new location, it's definitely something to look forward to! A whole new feeling in the place, and right on the water with a terrace and huge windows. Delightful!

SInce Sadie has been dragging Benny's violin around the house, Mrs. Ford and I agreed she might be able to have her own violin. Here she is getting fitted for her instrument:

She was delighted to get her very own violin!

We had to wait for a while as the lady there cleaned Benny's violin and changed the strings, but we were not at a loss for entertainment. While in the store, Benny and Sadie both had a blast jamming on the junior drum kits.

They are growing up. *sniff* Bring on Tuka Tuka Stop Stop! :D

Friday, March 16, 2007

Down with Tests

I'm homeschooling my child. I have politely declined to take advantage of the government's offerings, and have taken the responsibility for Benny's education off the public school and onto my own shoulders. I have showed them proof that I'm capable of teaching him, and have been released from my legal obligation to deliver him to school every day. But I still have to give him a government sanctioned test every year, to make sure I'm keeping him up to date. Benny is in first grade this year, and this year he has to take the test. And that's making me irritated.

I know that this is no big deal. And I'm not worried about how he will do on the test. I've looked at the standards of learning for first grade and he has more than finished them. It won't take a lot of time out of our week to do this test, and then it'll be over. But I don't want him to take it.

I like homeschooling because we can study whatever the children are interested in, and move at a pace that is comfortable and challenging for him. I like the fact that he's not in public school, where standardized tests are so important, and the teachers have to spend a large part of the year making sure the material on them is drilled into the children's heads. I don't think "No Child Left Behind" is doing anyone any favors -- I know lots of parents and teachers that violently loathe the whole system, and the teach-to-the-test phenomenon is one of the big reasons we homeschool.

Yet here we are, looking down the barrel of a standardized test.

In order to continue homeschooling, without being put on a year's probation, we have to score above the 25th percentile. That's a pretty low number, so it's not like I'm nervous and intimidated. I'm just irritated, and to be honest, part of why I'm irritated is that the standard is so low. If he had to score above the 90th percentile, I might feel like, okay, this has a purpose. But sitting him down in front of this test for several hours so that he can try to score over the 25th percentile seems ridiculous. Sorry if I sound petulant, or snotty, but it's like loading up a show jumper in a horse trailer, packing up all of its tack and equipment, driving across the country, settling in at the show grounds, grooming and prepping him on show day, and then walking him out into the ring to step over a two by four on the ground.

Consider the year we've had. We've studied the Galapagos Islands, Handel's operas, the moons of Jupiter, rain forest insects. We've finished addition and subtraction, moved on to multiplication and division. We've learned to say things like "There are more humans than horses" in Spanish. We've been skiing, swimming, horseback-riding and hiking. He earned a green belt in karate, finished Suzuki book 2, and learned the breast stroke. He participated in an egg drop contest, an art show, a book club, many recitals, and an acting class. He has learned to read chapter books and reads voraciously to himself, at a middle school level. This year we went to aquariums in three different states. But this not enough of a first grade experience. In fact, none of this matters at all. What really matters to the school district is that now he has to get into the 26th percentile on the California Achievement Test.

So what is my problem? I have to ask myself -- am I looking for approval here? Am I looking for someone in the public school system to say, "Wow, you were right, Lydia! You CAN do a good job homeschooling! We never would have been able to do all that stuff with him. Good job!" I mean, obviously, that is a stupid thing to wish for. They're not there to lead cheers for me; they're just there to make sure we're not sitting in our basement peeling potatoes all day. I get that. There is no prize for homeschooling well except the homeschooling itself, and the fine education of your child. And that should be prize enough.


Except now that the test time has come around, I suddenly find myself having all these thoughts. Feeling so resentful. Demanding that someone recognize that my child has worked hard and enthusiastically, that I have knocked myself out teaching, and that we don't need to be measured by this stick. Is it just the introduction of any kind of evalutation that makes me want to somehow "win"? Am I such an overachiever that I can't be in the same room with a test without wanting to ace it? Am I putting to much of myself into this "number" that we will get back from the testing service?

I have to tell you: I have bought two test-prep workbooks for Benny and he's been doing them. I don't understand why I'm doing this -- it truly makes no difference if he scores a 35 or a 95. It is all the same, and no one ever needs to know these scores except me, my husband, and the person who's making a checkmark next to Benny's name on a list of kids who are "approved."

But I'll know. When I was a kid, I was a good test-taker. I was a National Merit Scholar. I was a good little brick in the red schoolhouse -- born to sit in class and write down points and regurgitate in bubble sheets. Benny is not that child. he is an independent thinker, a creative powerhouse, a rocketship. Am I incapable of just letting him take the test however he pleases, and not oppressing him with all this practice? It's so ingrained in me that anything less than perfect on anything that looks like a test is an outright failure. Why do I have to inflict that on my child?

I blame the test. And I don't know what to do about it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Too Many Toys?

Too many toys? Kid can't keep his room clean because there's just too much stuff? Here are a few possible solutions.

1. Donate. If you can give a convincing enough speech about privilege and want, you can have your child cheerfully filling up boxes with his discarded playthings to give to Good Will. If, however, your child really feels that he can't let go of his possessions of his own accord, remember that he has to sleep sometime! When the child is asleep, away, or looking in the other direction, choose toys to get rid of that you know are not favorites, that will not be missed. Use your mommy discernment. As long as you know you are choosing things that are truly outgrown or unloved, it won't backfire, but keep the box of toys to donate in the garage for a week or two just to make sure you didn't accidentally scoop up something he can't live without.

2. Rotate. Get a big box that will fit lots of toys, and put a big pile of toys inside to wait their turn in the garage. Explain the rotation system to the child, so that she understands the stored toys will not be gone forever, but can be retrieved (if she wants) on a certain date, and put the date on a calendar, even, if she's worried about forgetting about them. Let her fill up the box, then give a reward (like making cookies, playing a game) when the box is full and in the garage.

3. Delegate. If all the toys have been gotten rid of or rotated out into the garage, and the room still isn't as clean as you'd like, try this. Put her in charge of cleaning up her space. The realism of this enterprise depends on the kid's age and maturity. We put our seven-year-old son in charge of cleaning his room recently, and he does a reasonable job of it. Set a time limit for your child to finish, and then at the end of the time, go in with a garbage bag and pick up whatever isn't put away. Tell her that next time (next Friday or Sunday or whatever day is clean-up day) you will put everything back on the floor from the garbage bag and she can try again.

Now I personally do not care if the kid's room is clean on a regular basis. I don't care if he leaves out his legos and dominoes and all his castles and rolls around in his books and blocks and whatnot. The only time Benny has to clean is every two weeks before the cleaning lady comes, and the garbage bag trick works nicely to get this accomplished. I'm not sure if everything gets put away exactly properly, and I don't really care, as long as the floor is empty and the cleaning cleaning ladies can get at the surfaces. He does have a place for everything, but everything isn't always in its place. I'm not a mother who demands the matchbox cars be neatly stacked in the box labelled "Cars!" or anything. But I do want him to learn to keep his room comfortable, so he can see what he has, and find what he needs.

His three-year-old sister, on the other hand, has never picked up a toy in her life. Oops... ;D

Monday, March 05, 2007

Luray Caverns

In 1976, my parents took me to Luray Caverns on the way to Williamsburg. Last week, we visited again. I'm pleased to report that all the stalactites were still in place.

Could it possibly be 30 years since I was four years old, tip-toeing down those stairs into the drippy darkness, clutching my mother's hand, peering at the rock formations? It was strange walking through those caves, where nothing has changed in 30 years, seeing the same things I'd seen when I was younger than Benny is now. I doubt that the tour guide prattle has even changed. No new buildings or roads, or signs, or technology, just the same brick pathway between this and that, and the same metal railing. Interesting.

I can't say I remember the giant pillars or the huge caverns. All I remembered was the "fried eggs" -- little bumps left when stalacmites are broken off. Maybe they were small and immediate enough for my pint-sized brain to comprehend. Benny's favorite was the "Great Stalactite Organ" which is a musical instrument that is played with hammers striking the stalactites, microphones picking up the sounds. Here's a video of it playing -- if you turn up the volume you can hear "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Benny and Dan were hoping to hear "Toccata and Fugue" -- at least we got a tune by the same composer. If you look closely you can see Sadie trying to get under the railing to "get a rock" (and she succeeded in picking up some cave gravel, unbeknownst to us) and then Benny dancing.

Benny instantly joined forces with another kid, Hannah, who was *almost* as chatty as he is, and they made the tour guide's experiencing more rich and fulfilling by asking a LOT of questions.

They made their parents' experiences rich and fulfilling by dangling over precipices, leaping forward ahead of the guide into dark areas, and in general getting a lot of enjoyment out of the tour. I liked the cave more than I thought I might. I get a little skreetchy in tunnels and closed spaces, but I kept a lid on my heebie jeebies enough to enjoy the founding fathers' favorite subterranean hangout. It is creepy to imagine all those thousands of years of darkness with just a drip, drip, dripping down there, growing those formations with no human to observe. It is pretty cool, however, to look at those dripping rocks and realize you're looking at the same thing Thomas Jefferson was looking at, maybe one inch bigger now than it was then. And in thirty years, Benny can go back and remember that he walked on those same bricks, looked at those same fried eggs, when he was just a little squirrel.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Massanutten Water Park

An exercise in letting go, and proof that the only time I can actually bring myself to "let go" is when I'm physically incapable of hanging on like a limpet.

While we were in Massanutten, we visited the Massanutten Waterpark. It is a child's dream come true. There are three parts to the park. First, there are the exciting chutes you can streak down. Several require that you ride in tube, and others just fling you down on your own with your arms folded and your legs crossed. These big rides are reached by climbing up about forty flights of stairs. Then the main area is a huge climb and slide, all completely water-ized, with other big slides ranging from giant three-story flumes to regular playground-sized slides that are just all foaming with water. The marginal areas include two hot tubs, a swimming pool, a baby pool, a surf simulator, and a "river" with a current that you can float around in a tube while water gets dropped on your head.

Of course when I walked in and saw all this madness, my first plan was to keep a sharp eye on Benny at all times. After all, he could slip. He could fall. He could disobey a lifeguard! So when he wanted to go down the big chutes, I climbed the eighty-seven flights of stairs, watched while he got into one called "Avalanche" and then climbed down. By the time I got all the way back down to where the chutes end, he had long since shot out of the output, and disappeared. Panicked, I located him, and we went back up the hundred and eight flights of stairs. This time, I knew I had to go into Avalanche behind him, or I would lose him again. So I did. That was an awful 45 seconds. A 45 seconds I did not want to repeat. So as I sat at the bottom of "Avalanche," realizing that Benny had disappeared *again,* I knew I had to make a choice.

For the rest of the time we were there, Dan and I played with Sadie and trusted Benny to look after himself. He climbed the stairs. He shot the chutes. He played on the playground, and rode the surf simulator and all the rest of it. He made friends. He gambolled about. He did not die and he did not even crush his skull or lose a finger. He did not disobey any of the multitude of lifeguards, and he did not get kidnapped -- we kept an half an eye on the one exit just in case. It was all FINE.

Six hours later, Benny had neither eaten anything nor had anything to drink, having refused to take a break for any reason. He was still going strong, but the rest of us were ready to be dry! A glorious day for two children who love the water, even if it was a trying time for two parents who have trouble saying, "Go run and play" in any place more threatening than the living room.

Later, Benny asked me why there were so many pictures of Sadie and almost no pictures of him. The truth was that while we had made a point to lay eyes on him every ten minutes or so, and exchange words with him every half hour, we hadn't seen much of him all day! Who would have thought I could have survived this "letting go" experience -- maybe I am growing up at last. ;D

Here's a video of Benny trying to ride the surf simulator -- all it wanted to do was remove his trunks!