I believe I can fly


It’s a sunny but cold Tuesday in December, and I pack Ender, also a lunch that consists mostly of oranges, into the car. Maggie the runty Boston Terrier I don’t really love—but oh, Ender loves her and she loves him too, they are littermates—jumps into the car with us. Fine. It’s not so cold that she will turn into a dog icicle when I leave her in the car while we explore the Reynolds-Alberta Museum. And she loves car rides. Also, she loves Ender, and he already has his arms wrapped around her. She’s coming.

I trudge back into the house for some pillows and blankets, make them a nest. Have everything? Child, dog, lunch. Water bottle. Ender’s wearing his rainbow crocs—I toss a pair of winter boots into the trunk in case we get stranded on a rural Alberta road and have to walk somewhere. The car’s 12 years old and plucky, but still. December on the prairies. Snowstorms come, ice sneaks up on you, cars flip.

Final check… child, dog, lunch, water bottle, winter boots.


We go.

The Reynolds-Alberta Museum is 246 km, or two hours and twenty minutes, away from Calgary, in the metropolis of Wetaskiwin. It’s dedicated to the spirit of the machine, and it’s full of tractors and vintage farm equipment, old cars, and also, planes. And that’s really all I’m going to tell you about it, because this is not a museum review.

I like the cars. They remind me of Cuba.

Ender likes the planes best.

On the way there, Ender snoozes most of the way, Maggie in his arms. I listen to Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, and bemoan that I am now the kind of person who listens to books like The Joy Diet. Remember when I used to be the kind of person who just enjoyed living her life? Where is she?

She’s at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, taking a selfie in a tractor with her 10-year-old son. Hello, me.

He’s very, very happy.

Did I mention he likes the planes best?

When I brought Cinder here—I think I brought Cinder here? Surely, I brought Cinder and Flora here when they were younger—he was fascinated by the insides of  all the machines and spent hours playing with the hands-on gears, pulleys, inclined planes, and levers.

Ender pokes at all of them with mild interest, and returns to his aesthetic enjoyment of the vintage cars. He likes the colours, the lights, the moving parts, the things that go—but he’s not particularly interested in their insides. Me neither. Let’s just look at shiny things.

Look! The workshop! A welder!

We watch the sparks for a while, but neither of us, to be honest, is interested by the science behind the process.

We spend a lot of time in the airplane hangar. As I’ve said twice before—he really likes the planes.

And they are rather magic, if you think about it. First production-style automobile—1885 or so. First manned flight, 1903. The Ford Model T didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1913.

And before the end of World War I, humans were killing each other from airplanes.

Ah, progress.

Fun Fact:

The first country to use [airplanes] for military purposes was Italy, whose aircraft made reconnaissance, bombing and artillery correction flights in Libya during the Italian-Turkish war (September 1911 – October 1912). The first mission (a reconnaissance) occurred on 23 October 1911. The first bombing mission was flown on 1 November 1911. (Source: Ferdinando Pedriali. “Aerei italiani in Libia (1911–1912)”(Italian planes in Libya (1911–1912)). Storia Militare (Military History), N° 170/novembre 2007, p.31–40, via Wikipedia)

I do not give Ender a history lesson. But I tell him a little bit about the speed of these inventions. He doesn’t really care. He’s starting to get concerned about Maggie. Wants to know how long she’s been in the car.

Two hours.

Too long, he decides. Also, he’s done with the museum. We trudge outside, across the prairie field dotted with melting snow, so very well suited to being a rural airport. Car. Dog.

She bounds out of the car like a crazy person—er, animal?—and runs around the empty parking lot. Pees on a clump of snow.

Ender tries to give her some water to drink, but she’s too excited. Runs a few more loops. Then leaps back into the car.

“Is she cold?” Ender asks. I shrug. It’s not pleasant, despite the still-shining sun. The winter winds on the prairies are brutal. But, although she is definitely a creature of comforts—she’s convinced the electric blanket on our couch exists for her pleasure—she is, above all, a pack animal. She’s not taking any chances on being left behind.

We drive back as the sun sets. Maggie snoozes in Ender’s lap. He gazes out the window for a while. Then pulls out his iPad and watches a show. Falls asleep with headphones on, the dog in his lap.

I listen to The Joy Diet. Don’t really hear much of anything. Through the rearview mirror, I see Ender’s happy face.

He had a good day.

So did I.

This is a very prolonged happy moment.



Two in high school, one at home equals… I don’t know, I’m really bad at math

Last week, I started drafting a post celebrating and documenting Calgary’s Pride 2019 and telling you why it is we march—and why if you don’t get that it’s political, that all the joy and dancing and laughter and singing around Pride is so political, then you shouldn’t come to our glitter party—but I couldn’t make it funny or even particularly convincing. So I shelved it.

The week before that, I wrote three very long essays about why I hate the family therapist that’s part of Flora’s medical team. Short-hand: She doesn’t understand. Me, Flora, our family. I don’t like her. I don’t respect her. I don’t want to listen to her, and I can’t hear her even when she gives me something of value, because I really need to be able to be angry at someone, hate someone, blame someone, and she’s the ideal candidate for the task. But I couldn’t make it empathetic or compassionate. It just sounded mean, and I didn’t want to come across as mean. Just… pissed and misunderstood.

We live here, how lucky is that?

Then, some good things happened, but I didn’t even try to write about those, because I didn’t want to jinx them. I jinxed some of them anyway. Alas.

And since Tuesday I’ve been trying to compose a “Back to School” post. My first-ever, because this is Cinder’s first “Back to School” year—my boy’s in grade 12, y’all. And it’s Flora’s first-ever “to school” year—she did it, we did it, she made it to regular school on day 1 just as she decided way back before BAM! Surprise! Curveball!

Flora’s first day of school; yes, that is her unicorn costume

And, Ender’s first year at home alone. I mean, with me, but you know what I mean. I don’t count, because I’m an adult. His first year at home alone without his siblings. He missed Cinder desperately when Cinder went to school last fall—I found this odd, because it seemed to me Cinder spent most of his time in his room anyway, playing computer games and punching holes in walls—but apparently just having him in the house was… nice.

I’m trying not to overplan and overpanic. He’ll be fine. He’s got buddies in the hood, and a homeschooled buddy just two doors over.

Cinder planning his semester (who is this kid??)

He’ll be fine. Me? Here’s the funny thing that most people don’t get. When Cinder went to school, I did not suddenly magically have more free, non-kid time. Because there were still two kids at home (and one of them was about to need 24/7 care but let’s not go there again, not now, not yet). And now, with both Flora and Cinder in high school—I do not magically have more kid-free time. Because, there is still… Ender. And an Ender who no longer has two older siblings to hang out with during the day, to distract, to bug, to annoy, to fight with.

And then there were three…

We survive our first week solo relatively well. Tuesday and Friday are a half-day, and on Wednesday, we have lots of errands, and Thursday is a beautiful day, so we spend a lot of time outside, and then, the weekend, and a sleepover with his cousins and all his friends on the Common.

And today is Monday, our first week of five full days of no Flora and no Cinder at home.

We’re gonna be ok.

I think.

Ender’s “not back to school” lunch

Our coping strategies are very similar. I decide to reorganize the homeschooling supplies and purge the stuff that we are definitely never ever going to use again. Ender reorganizes his Lego shelf—to make room for the new Lego sets he’s planning to receive for his birthday, my eternal optimist.

We read a book together, then I read alone.

I do laundry, because it’s Monday and it’s raining, and that’s what you do on rainy Mondays when you have a dryer and a large drying rack.

He sorts his Lego, then starts uploading Minecraft mods.

I scour the house for chocolate. For fuck’s sake, surely, there’s an untapped stash of chocolate somewhere?

(There isn’t. I eat a handful of chocolate chips instead.)

There aren’t very many chocolate chips left in the house, because Cinder was doing midnight baking…

He asks for three lunches.

I answer an email, then text, from a new homeschooler who wants some advice on learning plans and unschooling. I’m not sure if what I tell her will be helpful. Because in the end, my “proof of concept” is unique to me and my family.

I think a lot about my work. Write some new words. Delete a few. Write a bit more.

I ask him if he wants to go swimming. Or something?

He shrugs. “Maybe go for ice cream? Later? I’m busy now.”

I go back to my computer. Tickle the keys.


Invite the nervous new homeschooler over for coffee.

Write while I wait.

Happy rainy Monday.

The path less travelled



Me and my “baby,” at the Passport Office

A passion for learning and for life: unschooling and worldschooling in practice (a NOT-BACK-TO-SCHOOL present)

Today… something extra special…

For everyone whose kids aren’t heading back to school today, in appreciation of the path you’ve chosen to walk. Never a dull moment, is there?

And, for everyone whose kids are heading back to school today, who, 10 years later, are still asking me, “But how do you do it? And what is it, exactly, that you do all day?”

I’ve finally decided to tell you. 😉


In gratitude to Inspired Calgary for the opportunity to get on the soapbox, and to sponsors Pandia Press, Bravewriter, Patterson Springs  Farm, Wild Child Alternative Education, Bean & Bear Media, and Mountain Reach Educators for making the event possible.

And an extra-special thank you for Sean Lindsay to capturing the event on video so that those of you who weren’t there can see me call Yo-Yo Ma a violin player.

(I was very nervous.)

The transcript of the speech I was supposed to give follows the video. Obviously, I departed from the script just a little…

Prepared speech

All right. Unschooling. Let’s have a quick poll. Who here is familiar with the concept, philosophy, whatever you wanna call it? Who thinks it’s the best idea ever and that’s what they’re going to do with their kids? Awesome. I love preaching to the choir… Who thinks it’s totally kooky and only crazy people would do it? Who equates it with unlearning and unparenting?

Don’t be shy to tell me so—when I first heard of unschooling, I was kind of appalled. And, here I am, 10 years later, its fourth biggest advocate.

Its first, second and third biggest advocates are my three children.

photo (71)

Unschooling, as most of you know, was the term coined by homeschool advocate John Holt—and I’m sure you’re all reading all of his books and Growing Without Schooling articles—they’re all archived on the web—if you’re not devouring them, do, they are absolutely inspirational.

John Holt used the term unschooling to refer to homeschooling in general. Holt thought that the best and most important thing about homeschooling was that it not duplicate school in the home environment.

Since then, the idea of unschooling, and the term itself, has acquired all sorts of definitions and sister terms, including delight-driven learning, free range learning, child-led learning, interest-led learning. There are as many ways, today, of defining unschooling as there are families who call themselves unschoolers.

(You can read how Flora defines unschooling here.)

The thing most people think we have in common is that we are curriculum-free—or at least curriculum-light. The actual, much more important thing that I believe all unschoolers have in common is that we love learning and we believe our kids love learning and we believe our kids will learn whatever they need to learn as they need to learn it.

This is both unbelievably easy and unbelievably hard.

It also starts, not with believing in your child, but with believing in yourself. To be an effective unschooling parent, you need to love, crave, delight in learning new things. All the time. And be confident that… you can do it. That when you need to learn Japanese—you will sit down, grit your teeth, do the work, and learn Japanese.

If you don’t have that trust and confidence in yourself, you will not have it in your children.


So I actually have an assignment for all of you who are thinking about unschooling. I want you to think about something you’ve always wanted to know how to do—and, starting tomorrow, I want you to start working on it. Japanese? Knitting? Car maintenance? Worm composting? It doesn’t matter what. Something.

It’s possible that you’re a little out of practice at chasing your passions and your interests. Before you start helping your children on their unschooling journey, launch yourself. Be passionate about your life, your interests, your learning.

I think that’s a critical prerequisite for being an unschooling family. The parents have to be committed life learners too.

My second assignment for you, if you are thinking about unschooling, is to commit a month to—are you ready for this?—doing nothing to actively shape your children’s education. Just… watch them. When you’re not setting the agenda—what do they do? When left to their own devices, when they are not interrupted, when they are not shuttled from activity to activity, playdate to playdate, what do they do?

Pay attention. Do it alongside them—or at least watch them. What do they love to do?

Then offer them a little more of it. But not too much. Make it findable, reachable, available—but don’t shove it down their throats.

nbtb-Ender running by river

So this is the point in the conversation when someone usually starts to hyperventilate a little and say,

“But if they want to be a world class violin player and I don’t get them in early child hood music education by three and practicing an hour a day by five, they’ll never get there!”

Or “But if they’re not reading by six they’ll be behind.”

Or “But suppose all they want to do is play video games?”

Here’s the thing: a child raised to love learning will never be behind. A child brought up in a family that values learning and who learns how to learn continuously, constantly—not to pass a test, not to get a certificate but to acquire a skill or knowledge they need and want to have—that child has an incredible leg up on kids who are forced to learn things they don’t care about.

How many of you had to take French as a second language in school? I did, through to grade 12. Languages are incredibly easy for me. I spoke five or six before I was 10. I learned Japanese and Korean in university. Spanish when I decided I wanted to travel in Latin America. I’m learning Farsi now. French? After being made to learn it when I didn’t care about it?

I think I can say Please and thank you in a horrible Western Canadian accent, and that’s about it.

What Went Right

Here’s another thing, though—if you can’t make yourself believe this—if you think your children will never want to learn to read unless you make them—if you think your children will never want to learn math unless you make them—unschooling is not for you. I’m not sure homeschooling is for you, either, but that’s a highly controversial statement and if you like, we can argue about that on Twitter sometime, but not here.

(I’m @NothingBTBook. Come fight–er, talk–with me.)

If all your kids want to do is play video games—awesome. There are so many studies coming out now about the advantages of video game playing on learners, that Sweden has made Minecraft mandatory in its schools. What you, as a parent, need to do in that case is—hang out beside your children while they’re playing their games. What are they doing, really? There’s more happening than just swiping at the screen in most of the games children gravitate to.

Talk to them about what they enjoy. And why. If you think the game they’re playing is idiotic—it’s okay to think that—try not to say it. Watch. Angry Birds is all about geometry. Minecraft is fabulous. Fruit Ninja, I’m not so sure about, but, you know, the lame games, kids burn out on—they binge for a while, and then move on to something more stimulating. Hate the game they’re playing? Do some research and offer a more interesting one.

(You might want to check out these posts too: How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games + space-that-is-me-my-heart-made-made-into-place, which is about the dangers of telling people you love that the things they love are stupid)

As for that world class violin player who’ll never fulfill her dreams unless you get her in lessons by age three…

One in a million three year olds has the kind of talent that will turn her into a violinist like Itzhak Perlman or a cellist like Yo-Yo Ma.

(Also, yes, I’m totally making up this statistic. I’m not actually a 100 per cent sure what instrument Yo-Yo Ma plays. Call me on it.)

And if she has that talent, there is very little you can do to extinguish it. Fail to sign her up for violin lessons—she will find a ukulele in a neighbour’s house and start strumming it. She will demand lessons. She will practice without you telling her to.

NBTB-Not An Artist

I feel a cynic in the audience, who says no child will practice violin—guitar—piano—unless you make her. Not even a talented child. Again, I say—if you unschool, you have to have that faith.

I agree with you that plenty of children can be turned into competent musicians if you force them to practice.

(Not everyone’s an artist. And that’s ok.)

What I’m saying is that the children who truly love music—art—science—math—for whom it is the interest and the passion—they will discover it and chase it and master it without you forcing them to sit down for an hour of practice every afternoon.

If you don’t believe me, you shouldn’t unschool. You will be miserable, and you will make your children miserable with your inconsistency and lack of confidence in themselves.


OK. Enough philosophy. What you all want to know is, what does unschooling look like on a daily basis? And I’ll give you a few examples from my family, but before I do I want to talk about scheduling, routines and rhythms.

For me, unschooling does not equal unscheduling. It does not mean not knowing what the hell we’re going to do tomorrow or next week or next month in all aspects of our lives. It does not mean waking up Monday morning, rolling out of bed at 11 a.m.—that’s only in my fantasies, sigh—and saying, “Gee, I wonder what we’re going to do today?”

I work, my kids’ daddy works, our work demands introduce a fair bit of deadline-driven chaos into our lives, and all of my children do better in the context of some sort of predictable schedule. One of the things that worries me most when people first discover unschooling is that they turn it into this Religion of Freedom in which nothing is planned, all is chaos… and everyone is miserable. Some people do great when everything in their lives is unplanned and unpredictable.

I am not one of them, and neither are any of my children.

And so—no unscheduling in my life. Our life, and our unschooling practice, has a definite rhythm. It’s a responsive rhythm rather than a rigid one, but there’s a definite routine.

nbtb-thinking about laundry

The main anchors of our daily routine are, frankly, about me, and not the kids. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is write for 30 minutes. This is my meditation, my religious practice, my work, my everything—no matter what else happens in my day, this is what I must do. Then, I check in with the kids to make sure they’ve eaten—keep in mind my kids are 14, 11 and almost 7 now—and I make sure they’re settled into doing something—it’s summer still in our world  so that something generally involves being outside with their friends—and then I go back and try to wring at least another hour of time, sometimes two for my work.

Then I turn my attention back to the kids. Feed them second breakfast or first lunch—anyone else’s kids just never stop eating—and be available to them if they need me for something. This would be the time that I do math with 11 year old, or she’ll show me her latest modeling clay project or something, or my seven year old will want to show me his Lego project. Or we might read. Or we’ve made plans, or make plans to go somewhere interesting in the city, alone or with friends.

nbtb-munchkin manuscript mustard

I have a teenager now, and he sleeps until late, and when he wakes up, I try to be present and not distracted to just hang with him for a bit. He and I are trying to get into the habit of doing math each afternoon for 15-30 minutes—he’s very math/science/engineering focused, and he’ll probably want to do some on-line math courses soon, so we’re working on establishing those habits. How does this fit into an unschooling philosophy? See, this is something he wants to do—this awareness and desire came at an age at which it made sense to him that certain building blocks had to be in place first—and so, we’re doing it.

By the way, after not doing any math, at all, until my eldest was 11 or 12, we breezed through grade 2, 3 and 4 level math in 17 days—I kept track—and then grade 5 took a little longer, 21 days. And then we took a break for almost year, reviewed everything in a week, and he keeps on plugging away at it. And he’s the one who reminds me we’ve skipped too many days.

nbtb-gamers and jumpers

When he’s not doing that, by the way, all he does is play video games. And run. And listen to audiobooks. And watch Youtube vloggers. And run. And play video games. And Skype with friends. And make cookies from scratch. And run to the Y to go for a swim. And look up tutorials on how to set up servers, hack mods or optimize his computer to better play video games.

All he does is play video games… and I think he’s doing ok.

(But did you notice that… he doesn’t just play video games? I know this—because I watch and pay attention…)

The 11 year old is an artist, and she spends big chunks of her day drawing or making jewelery. Also writing stories about unicorns. Yesterday, she came to me and said she wanted to ramp up her math. So that might happen.

The not quite 7 year old mostly plays in dirt and with Lego.

So my afternoons focus on what the kids need and want, and might include going swimming, going to a thing—there are so many things happening in Calgary all the time! It’s awesome! An unschooler’s tip: I put all the things in my calendar as I hear about them. So, Beakerhead is coming up—if you don’t know what Beakerhead is, google it, and I’ve just taken care of all your science planning for the year, you’re welcome—as soon as the program guide came into my hands, I ran through it, marked all the stuff that looked cool, put it in my calendar, and so, when on that Wednesday in September, I’m not on deadline and we want to go do a thing—look! There’s a cool thing happening! Let’s go!

NBTB-beakerhead 2015 intrude

When we get back from a thing—or when I finish a bout of doing something with them at home—by late afternoon, we all take a break from each other. The kids either go to hang with friends—we live in a great neighbourhood for that—or chill with audiobooks or the little guy builds Lego—and I go to my writing space or to the balcony to be alone. I might work or inflict myself on social media… or I might just stare off into space for a while.

As an aside—self-care and taking time for yourself and to be alone is so critical as a homeschooling parent. Teachers have regular breaks. So do day care workers. Make sure you give them to yourself.

Then, supper. After supper, the kids can go on screens—so when I said my eldest plays video games all the time, I just meant all night. Except on binge days—that’s another part of our routine—I need two days a week when I can really hyper-focus on my work, and on those days, they have unlimited screen time.

Ironically, those days don’t look that much different for them than the other days, except that I’m not really available to them in any meaningful way.

A couple of nights a week, my daughter has martial arts class—the boys don’t do classes of any sort, it’s against their religion, my eldest informed me once—and a couple of nights a week, I take to myself and head out of the house almost as soon as my partner comes home.

Once or twice a month, I get us out of the city for most of the day—into the mountains, or to Drumheller or to a place like that.

And that’s sort of what unschooling looks like.

It looks like… life.


I’m going to give worldschooling just a few minutes before I close, because worldschooling is not complicated. You travel, you learn. You experience, you learn. That’s really not much else to it. And you will worldschool just the way you homeschool. So, as an unschooler talking about worldschooling, the perspective I offer is for goodness’ sake do not turn every museum-temple-whatever visit into a forced educational experience with pre-experience reading and post-experience worksheets! But, you know, if that kind of thing is a critical part of your personality, you will bring that to homeschooling and to worldschooling. And that’s okay. We have to be the people we are.

I think almost all of us dream about the possibility of worldschooling, right? Travel, exotic locales—it’s exciting. I’ve just spent three months with my kids witnessing a Cuba in a transition as intensive as the Communist revolution of 1959 and it was exhilarating.

17-Haunted House

I’ve taken my kids to Poland, France, London. To all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and to fishing villages in Mexico too.

This is a fabulous experience, and if you can afford to travel the world with your children, do it. It will be exhausting, and at times you will wonder why you ever bothered to leave—but in the end it will be worth it.

If you can’t afford to—and I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind as you go along on your homeschooling journey—everything is possible in theory, right, but practical considerations trump our dreams. Travel is expensive, even when you do it cheaply—especially if you are a family of five, six or eight, right? Your job, your partner’s job—and input into you taking your children off to Asia for six months, come on honey, you won’t miss us that much—your own level of comfort—these are all important considerations.

Trio on benches at laundry park2

If they keep you close to home—worldschool in your city and your community.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to look at your city and your province the way a tourist would. If I were a stranger here, where would I go? What would I see? Make a list of all of this area’s museums and tourist attractions—even the crappy ones. And explore them, even the crappy ones. The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is a one of a kind experience, and it’s only an hour away.

Walk the streets of your city—or the one that’s an hour’s drive away—with no agenda other than to experience it—learn it. Obviously—take your children along.

The second—we live in a multicultural city, and we live in the time of the Internet! Take advantage of both. Go to the city’s various cultural festivals. Go to ethnic markets. Take your kids out for some out-of-your-comfort-zone food—or get a cook book out of the library and prepare an Indonesian or Moroccan or whatever feast at home.

One of our favourite things to do is to go to the Asian supermarket and look at all the foods we don’t eat. And, sometimes, buy them and eat them. Often they’re delicious. Occasionally, they’re gross. Both experiences are fabulous.

NBTB-read my mind 2

I don’t have to tell you how the Internet brings the world to you—I’m just going to remind you not to forget it. A vicarious experience of the world is right there, at your fingertips. One of my kids favorite things that they’ve found on the Internet on their own and brought home to me is Universal Yums. Every month, a box of candies and snacks from a different country arrives in our mailbox, complete with a little booklet of facts and trivia about the region of the month, sometimes with links to music or movies—what a spring board for further exploration!


UniversalYums.com, and yes, they ship to Canada.

The world is your classroom.

Your city is your classroom.

Your life is your classroom.



If you want to learn more about unschooling, I do have a legacy blog, Undogmatic Unschoolers, you are welcome to mine for information. I only update it twice a year now, with the children’s learning plans in September, and their progress reports in June–you may find these helpful as you consider your own un/home/learning journey. It also has all sorts of unschooling-in-calgary resources.


POSTCARDS FROM CUBA return with a teaser tomorrow. Are you ready?


If I’ve changed your life–I aim high ;)–consider buying me a cup of coffee ($5), a bottle of cheap wine ($20), or,  you know, a week’s worth of groceries ($350).*

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(Seriously. Those damn kids WILL. NOT. STOP. EATING.)




A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #3

A conversation:

Sean: Hurry! I need to pee and the baby is grabbing the camera, the box of nails and my beer!
Jane: Where are you?
Sean: In the bathroom! Hurry!
Jane: Your camera, box of nails, and beer are in the bathroom?
Sean: Now is not the time to discuss the inappropriateness of me putting all these things in the bathroom sink. Just save my beer… and the camera. He can have the box of nails.

September 9, 2011

 A reading assignment that will change your life:

Vera Pavlova’s If There Is Something To Desire: 100 Poems.

for a shot of Vera to convince you to devour her beautiful book of poetry, check out this article she wrote for Poetry magazine: Heaven is not verbose: a Notebook.


A writing exercise to do instead of wishing you were writing:

This is my favourite Vera Pavlova poem:

I walk a tightrope,

a kid on each arm for balance.

This is all a poem can be, this is all a poem should be. Now. Write your own. Two lines. That’s all.



An explanation:

This is the third week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.



A re-run:

In defence of routines

 (first published on September 21, 2011)

I wrote this essay in response to a long and heated thread called “Discipline for Young Children” on one of the yahoo groups I belong to. I’m not as active a participant in those discussions as I was when Cinder and Flora were little―partly because I no longer have napping kids, partly because I’ve become much more reluctant to offer advice, even when nominally asked for (because I’ve learnt most people don’t want advice and solutions: they just want to whinge, and get unconditional support for their whinging… but that’s food for another post), but mostly because I work and write for money so much more now than I did in those first years… and I’m kind of written out at the end of the day. But every once in a while, against my better judgement, I just can’t resist…
…I would like to offer a defence of―or the case for―rhythms and routines in an unschooled life, with young children and older ones too. [Another poster] wrote in one of her earlier posts “Whenever someone reaches for some additional form of external or arbitrary ‘structure’ I wonder, usually in my head, what is making them feel insecure this week and why they feel that will solve the problem…”

And I would like to answer that with, yes, actually, it can.

The stuff that you have a predictable routine/rhythm for―so long as it works for you in a positive way―is stuff you don’t have to expand energy thinking about and reacting to. (I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory episode in which Sheldon uses gaming dice to make all non-essential decisions to leave his precious brain cells free to do the important work of “the mind.”)

My partner and I are both self-employed, random-deadline driven people engaged in creative, chaotic work. That injects a great deal of surprise, unpredictability and “must make this decision Now!” and “must upset any and all plans made to date and respond to this Crisis Now!” into our professional―and because we are self-employed and work from home and see our lives as intertwined etc.―personal lives.

The counterbalance or anchor if you prefer that word to that chaos is predictability and simplicity wherever it makes sense. And we didn’t arrive at that conclusion/practice overnight: it slowly evolved as we kept on adding children and responsibilities to the chaos.

So we have a morning routine, for example, that I stick to even when there’s a deadline fire burning under me and what I want to do the second I wake up is start pounding away at the keyboard. It’s a routine that honours the fact that 3/5 of the members of this family suck at mornings, and 2/5 are ridiculous early birds, and it includes things like me sitting on the couch with a book ignoring the kids while I drink my first―and hopefully second―cup of coffee and my eldest not speaking or looking at anyone for 45 minutes or so after he wakes up and playing his X-box or just lying on the couch with a blanket over his head. (A routine, see, doesn’t have to be about “doing” stuff. It can also be about safeguarding time to just “be.”) It also includes things like getting dressed, brushing hair, recorder practice, tossing a load of laundry in, making the big bed, and culminates with a morning walk with the dog. But its most important thing is―the time for three of us to just wake up and hang for a bit. (Two of us starting playing and doing stuff as soon as they wake up. The bums.)
This is what we do 9 out of 10 mornings. And it’s not something that anyone complains about as rigid, boring, limiting―it’s a guarded part of our day that, on that 1 out of 10 mornings where we have to miss it―where we have to get into the car first thing in the morning for example―makes us appreciate it all the more on the morrow when we return to it.

There are other anchors like that throughout the day and the week―I’m pretty protective of the last part of our evenings and bedtime, for example, so even though there’s no magic time by which everyone’s in bed or sleep, there sure is a rhythm to the last part of each evening. I have a built-in 3 p.m. tea break for me―that’s the magic time when I run out of steam and get cranky, so I plan for it: tea for me, snack for the kids, something to do (if just flopping on the couch to watch a DVD) so that I don’t become Evil Exhausted Mom (it took me six years to realize I consistently lost it at 3 p.m. Super-observant, I am.) We go swimming each Monday and Thursday―unless something else comes up, but that’s the “default” setting on each week, just as our girl’s music class mid-week is. But there was a time―when my eldest was four to six in particular―when the routines had to be perfectly predictable and inviolate, because that was what he needed at that time.

This last year, I’ve outsourced dinner to routines, a la Taco Tuesday, Slow Cooker Wednesday, Pizza Friday. (Also “What the Fuck’s for Dinner Thursday,” the day that reminds me to stick to the boring predictability of the rest of the week.) This is not my default setting: my default setting is―I’m getting hungry, what should we make for dinner, oh no, the fridge is empty, let’s go out―but this Taco Tuesday setting, although it makes me sound like the most boring person in the world, is better. It means we eat even when I’m on deadline, when my default setting is to not eat at all until the project is done―oh, crap, you mean you kids need to eat?

There are personalities, families, life cycles and individuals who don’t need any of this and don’t thrive on it. For sure. But there are very unschooled families who do. And hyper-organized people who need strict routines to have something to deviate from. And hyper-unorganized people who need some kind of even aspirational guideline to be fly-by-the-seat of-their-pants with.

I’m not sure which one I am, or my family is: we’re five individuals with very different personalities. But I do know that routines/rhythms/anchors―whatever you want to call them if the word schedule gives you the willies―make our family life more peaceful, our work life possible. Most of our days have plenty of spontaneity, go with the flow, live in the moment kinda stuff―too much, I would argue, on the days when work throws me a really unexpected curveball.

Does Slow Cooker Wednesday and 3 p.m. tea mean the baby getting sick, the washing machine flooding the basement, the 9 y o breaking an arm doesn’t throw us into chaos? Of course it doesn’t. But Slow Cooker Wednesday does mean we eat a good supper on Wednesday even if we spent most of the day at the ER (unless of course the broken arm happened before the chicken went into the slow cooker) or mopping up the basement and calling plumbers (see previous caveat).

Making my and my eldest’s morning incapacitation part of our morning routine respects our biological clocks and sets the stage for a good day―and it keeps me from unproductive feelings of guilt over being unproductive in the mornings. And that 3 p.m. tea break I give myself? I don’t like being Evil Exhausted Mommy. And it takes such a small act and such a small amount of planning to keep that from happening.

End of pro-routine pontification.

Quote This: Pam Laricchia on expressing parents’ needs while affirming kids’ needs

English: A jar of coffee-covered chocolate beans

We can express our needs and choose to gift our kids with extra attention, extra supplies, extra anything. Expressing our needs helps them understand when we’re going above and beyond so it doesn’t become an expectation.

Pam Laricchia, Living Joyfully

This is an excerpt from Laricchia’s very thought-provoking post, The Unschooling Family: Considering Everyone’s Needs. You might also want to check out its sister post, Unschooling and the Power Paradigm. For non-homeschooling/unschooling readers, don’t let the label keep you from taking a gander: both of these posts are essentially about respectful parenting. Agree with her point of view, disagree, or fall somewhere in between–I bet her take on power within the family will make you think. And thinking’s always good, right?

Photo (A jar of coffee-covered chocolate beans) from Wikipedia… combining the two elements that are essential to fulfilling my own most critical personal needs… 🙂

English: Weighing scale, Galicia, Spain França...

More like this: It’s not about balance: creating your own family’s harmony.

Why so serious today? Sorry. Want to laugh? How about this one: Mom? Have you noticed I’ve stopped…

And if you want to read more about unschooling, pop over to our new Undogmatic Unschoolers blog. It’s very new and so very thin, but that means you can read everything on it really, really quickly.

How to ensure children think you’re a moron

Intentionally provocative headline. But this has been weighing on my mind lately―how adults tend to have one dominant mode of interaction with children, and that is … quizzing. “What’s two plus two?” “Do you know what kind of animal that is?” “How do you spell hippopotamus?”

I don’t think, in most cases, it’s meant to be disrespectful―and although we homeschooling parents tend to get particularly tense about this when the relatives do it to our children, I don’t think it’s meant to be a real check on our children’s knowledge. It is, quite simply, ignorance. Most adults don’t know how to talk to children: they don’t think they can just have a conversation with a child the way they would have it with a fellow grown-up. And asking questions to which they already know the answers is their default mode.

Do you do this? Stop. Do your parents, your friends do this to your kids? Tell them to stop. And here’s why. A while ago, we had a visitor in the house who was invited by Cinder and Flora to read their new book to them. They cuddled up on either side of him, and he started reading… but but instead of just reading, he started every second paragraph with a question to them, testing their knowledge of what he was about to read to them―before he read it to them. (“This next section is about atoms. What are atoms?”)

Two things happened. First, Cinder and Flora abandoned what was intended to be a really fun and bonding moment for them and our friend. They did not sign up for a test here: they wanted to read a book with someone they loved. Second, as soon as our visitor left, Cinder came to me, perplexed and thoughtful, struggling to get some complex thought out. Finally it came:

“I thought Hiero was really smart. But he sure doesn’t know much about science, does he?”

Hiero could have just read to them, and what they would have remembered is, “Yeah, last time Hiero came, we read Mad Science together, it was so cool, remember that experiment?” And instead…

Here’s the thing: our friend is pretty smart. AND he didn’t mean to be disrespectful of Cinder and Flora. But he doesn’t spend much time with children, and as he tried to find a way to interact with them, he used as a model… what? The way adults interacted with him when he was a child. And perpetuated the cycle.

Do your part to break the cycle. Don’t talk to children as if you’re administrating an oral exam. Or they’ll walk away from the experience thinking you’re, y’know, a bit dim.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

Growing scientists, or, why it rocks when kids love dinosaurs

Ender discovered dinosaurs a few months ago, and unlike revisiting potty training for the third time (yuck), revisiting dino-mania for the third time just really, really rocks. Regular trips to the amazing Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller are back on the family agenda. Our last trip had Cinder and Flora sharing a lot of “Remember when I was obsessed with dinosaur stories.” Here’s a few of my favourites, from when Cinder was six and Flora three-and-a-half.

On the couch, crawling out from under all the pillows and blankets:

Flora: Where am I?

Cinder: Congratulations! You made it through the mass-extinction!

Flora: But I don’t remember anything about it. Where are my mom and dad?

Cinder: Well, they’re all under the mud over there, see? They thought they were lucky because they survived the asteroid, but ah-ah―the mudslide got them.

Flora: So all my ancestors are dead?

Cinder: Everyone’s ancestors are dead. That’s what makes them ancestors. The important thing is you were born. And look, there are your cousins!

Flora: So some of my family survived!

Cinder: Don’t get comfortable yet―there may be more asteroids coming.

On the floor, playing with K’Nex:

Cinder: Here, Flora, build the Jeep so it can race with my dragster.

Flora: I don’t want to build a Jeep. (Flipping through instruction book.) Oooh! Look―a butterfly. It’s beautiful. Ooh! Stegosaurus. I’m going to make a stegosaurus.

Cinder: Make the Jeep, then we can race.

Flora: I want to make the stegosaurus, so he can play with me and be my friend.

Cinder: Why would you want to make a dinosaurs when you can make something with wheels? Look, see? It’s really cool.

Flora: I have an idea, Cinder―why don’t I make the stegosaurus, and you make two cars, and then my stegosaurus can watch you race? How about that?

Stegosaurus stenops, a stegosaur from the Late...

Back on the couch:

Flora: I forgot how I survived the mass extinction again.

Cinder: Stop asking that―I’ll tell you one more time. You were buried by some rocks during an earthquake. But you managed to crawl out. Now you have to search for food. It shouldn’t be too hard―because of the mass extinction, see?

From Life’s Archives, May 19, 2008, Mass Extinctions and Drag Races

Quote this: John Holt on freedom of thought (and curiousity)

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take away from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

John Holt

Arrived in my in-box From The Unschool Bus  via Fishtank Mom.

Made me think of Cinder’s hatred of crafts and colouring books, love of Lego and Minecraft, Flora’s lack of interest in multiplication but obsession with shapes and symmetry.

Photo (Freedom) by Kliefi

Not Back To School: the short answer


We’re celebrating Not Back To School month at Nothing By The Book in September. Not buying school supplies. Not packing lunches. Not hurrying out the door by 8:17 every morning to catch the 8:24 bus…

It’ll be six years this year since Cinder didn’t go to kindergarten. It’s been a pretty awesome learning and life adventure. Throughout which I’ve gotten a great deal of experience in crafting different answers to the “But why on earth do you homeschool?” question.

I think I’ve got it down pat now, and it’s pretty short and sweet. But it sort of has three versions. Because, well, life’s complicated, even when it’s simple.

Version 1: Why did you start to homeschool?

Answer: Because at age five, Cinder wasn’t interested in learning what sounds letters made or how you put words together. Didn’t want to glue pasta to cardboard and sprinkle it with sparkles (still doesn’t; see Why Cinder doesn’t do crafts on Nothing By The Book Days. Could not bear to be within four walls for two hours altogether. Desperately needed to be outside, running, climbing, exploring.

That’s pretty much it.

Version 2: Why do you homeschool now?

Answer: Because it works for us. Because it means Cinder can follow his own asynchronous timetable—he’s 10, and reading is just now starting to fall into place for him, and slowly… but I bet he could pass a Physics 30 diploma exam, provided he could take it orally. Because it means Flora, who learned to read at three, was able to spend kindergarten, grade one and grade two drawing, drawing, and drawing, instead of filling out worksheets. Because it means freedom: freedom to travel mid-year and mid-week, freedom to sleep in and freedom to work and play late, freedom to create our own family and life rhythm. (Confession: The longer we homeschool, the more I suspect a defining reason behind the decision is my unabated hatred of early, rushed mornings… That’s certainly one of the reasons I freelance, instead of rolling into an office, bleary-eyed and de-caffeinated, at the crack of 9:25…)

(Sidenote: freedom doesn’t mean lack of discipline and structure. But that’s the topic for another post…)

Version 3: But, seriously, why do you homeschool?

Answer: Because we can.

English: Motivations regarded most important f...

English: Motivations regarded most important for homeschooling among parents in 2007. Source: 1.5 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2007 Issue Brief from Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. December 2008. NCES 2009–030 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So. Welcome, September. The pools, parks, libraries and museums will be empty mid-week again. Stores stocked with school supplies will be humming, but we won’t be there. We’ll still be at the pools and parks, enjoying the beautiful fall days. And ridiculously, ridiculously grateful that this is what we can do.

June Lake is a small town south of Lee Vining,...

Note: Nothing By The Book isn’t a homeschooling/unschooling advocacy blog: our learning choices are just part of our life and most of my posts and stories simply take that particular life choice for granted—it’s part of the context and background, but I don’t expound on it too much. If you’re in research mode for homeschool-focused type of stuff, you might want to visit our other blog, Nothing By The Book Days. I keep that blog primarily as a daily record of what we do, to help me track activities and projects, but it also has a growing collection of resources, including a new Homeschooling in Calgary page and, perhaps most usefully, a collection of all of Cinder and Flora’s learning plans and progress reports, as submitted to our school board over the years.

When weird unsocialized homeschoolers go to summer camp…

Jane: So, baby, report. How was it?

Flora: Well, it was ok. There were some good parts.

Uh-oh. We’re talking about dance camp, which she’s been looking forward to passionately. She loved drama camp. Cried when horse camp was over. “It was ok” for what she was expecting to be “the best camp ever” is a lukewarm review. What’s up?

Flora: But the teacher’s kind of mean.

Aha. My blood boils. A mean teacher. I’m ready to rise up and do battle on behalf of my little girl right now! But first, a little due diligence:

Jane: What did she do?

Flora: Well… like, she said we could only go to the bathroom on break. At 10:15, and at lunch, and at 2:30. And I was like, but how does a clock tell you it’s time to go to the bathroom? Shouldn’t your bladder tell you to go to bathroom? And what if you have to go pee at 10:45? Do you pee your leotard?


Flora: So another girl asked, what if we really have to go in-between breaks. And the teacher said, we have to raise our hand and ask permission. In front of everyone! How humiliating is that? I don’t want to whole class to know I have to pee or poop! Shouldn’t that be private?

Jane: Well, yeah,  but…

Flora: Anyway, I’ve got a plan. I’m going to pee right before I leave home, and then I’m not going to drink anything all day, and I should be okay until the end of camp. Cause that rule sucks.

Oh, my Flora.


(The post title is a nod to the blog Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers (first prize for “Best Name for Homeschooling Blog Ever,” right?), which I like to visit once in a while although blogger Kris’ life and learning approach is quite different from mine. But it’s good to “hang out,” virtually and in real life, with people who challenge your assumptions and make you stretch your horizons, right?)

World War II explained, by seven-year-old

or, why I’m a terrible history teacher…

Flora: OK, I think I finally get why you don’t think the Nazis are ever funny.

Jane: Good.

Flora: There’s just one problem.

Jane: What?

Flora: It’s the name. Nazi, Nazi, Nazi. Rhymes with Patsy… and Klutzy… and… Batzi… it’s just a really funny word. Why did they pick such a funny word for their organization of evil?

Jane: It’s short for National Socialists.

Flora: Well that’s just utterly ridiculous. OK, National, whatever, but socialists? They so clearly weren’t properly socialized. I mean, if they were, they wouldn’t just go around killing people. And I bet that they never even said hello or anything before killing people. They just killed them. Socialists. Ha.

Jane: (Speechless.)

Cinder: Would it make it better, Flora, if they said hello before they killed people?

Flora: I guess not. Nothing would make it better. Not even if they offered cookies.

Cinder: Especially if they were poisoned cookies.


English: Plateful of Christmas Cookies

Keeping an eye on the big picture: why I don’t stress about my late reader

“Cookies!” Cinder suddenly says over my shoulder. Points. I follow the finger and sure enough, there’s the word cookies, smack in the middle of a page of Kevin Sylvester’s Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders. “Any other words you recognize?” I ask. He looks. “The.” “The.” “Geez, like 40 the’s on this page.” “He.” “She.” “Also.” “You.” “Am.” “Said.” “Yelled.” “Hell? Is that hell?” “Yeah,” I laugh. “Oh, read, Mom, read, get to ‘hell.’”

I read. And I smile.

Cinder’s 10. A late reader. An “emergent” reader. Use your adjective of choice, even delayed if you like. I don’t care. I’m watching him chart his unique path to literacy with as much joy and confidence as I have watching Flora chart her more orthodox path (while Cinder’s spotting “cookies” on the page, Flora, while listening to me read Neil Flambe, is simultaneously reading Bone to herself … and occasionally flipping through one of the Magic School Bus chapter books. Or Pssst! Secrets Every Girl Should Know. Or… you get the picture.)

I’m not worried because… well, I love reading. Books. Blogs. Journals. Magazines. Random quotes. Cinder’s grown up with that—with burnt French fries for dinner because Mom had to read “one more chapter.” With piles of books in every room, beside every bed and chair. (Ender’s growing up in a slightly more digital world, so part of his reality is this: “Mama, I ready for nap. Where your Kobo?”)

And throughout Cinder’s journey to literacy, I had—have—one priority. It wasn’t “Get him to read by age X.” Or even “Get him to read.” It was to keep reading—and learning—a thing of joy for him.

So. I don’t torment him with phonics or flash cards or remedial reading of beginner readers too boring for a boy of 10. I just… read to him. With him. Beside him. For him. We read Percy Jackson, and Bone, and Horrible Science. Lord of the Rings, and of course, first, The Hobbit. The Harry Potter books. The Terraria Wiki. The dialogue boxes on Minecraft. Youtube video titles that he can’t read for himself. Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord.

The first page of Moby Dick. (It’s an in-joke. You have to read Bone to get it.)

I think when you, as the parent, love reading—well, there’s no fear. You know it’s not that your child is … lazy? Or recalcitrant. Reluctant to read. If they could—if the mechanics were there, if they were developmentally ready for it—they’d read. Cause reading is not just essential, it’s awesome.

For Flora, the building blocks all came together at three. For Cinder, they’re just coming together now: his library of words and reference points big enough for cross-referencing, his body and mind mature enough that he can slow down, sit down, focus on those little squiggle marks on paper long enough for them to coalesce into meaningful words. Sentences.

I explain all this to my friend Terry and she asks me if I can pour some of that confidence into her husband George. Their little girl is Flora’s age. And “behind.” “Not reading,” as George sees it… although from what I’ve seen, while she’s not reading at the Flora level, she’s probably “ahead” of Cinder. (Forgive the quotation marks. “Behind” and “ahead’ in terms of reading ability are terms that irk me. But they are the convention.) Terry’s not really worried… but George is panicked.

“I can’t help him,” I tell Terry. Now, how do I put this semi-diplomatically? “Because George… well, see, George doesn’t like to read. Of course he’s worried.”

George struggled with reading as a child himself—maybe he was like Cinder, a late bloomer. And the process whereby he attained functional literacy killed the joy of reading for him. George reads work memos. And text messages, the shorter the better. Reading for pleasure? He doesn’t know what that is.

So of course he’s worried. Of course he’s afraid she may not learn to read—may not want to learn to read. Terry’s a book lover and indefatigable life learner: it’s easier for her to not worry. She’s lucky.

I’m lucky too. (I guess so is Cinder.) I know no one would choose not to read; no one would choose not to want to learn to read. For people wired like Flora and me, it comes early and it comes easy. For people wired like Cinder—and one aunt on one side and one uncle on the other side—it’s a hard slog, at odds with default learning preferences. It requires more work, a different approach—and then an even different one, and another, and another. Lots of breaks and downtime, and some regressions. A lot of trust and patience.

The important thing? Not to get him to read at grade level; not to get him to read fluently by age X. The important thing is that the experience of discovering what’s in those books, websites, graphic novels, pages of magazines, cards from Auntie Len and e-mails from Grandma remains an experience of joy.
English: Open book icon

For more on Cinder’s path to literacy, you might want to read Spell is a Four-Letter Word and The Great Scrabble Battle. You might also be interested in looking at how we’ve framed the literacy journey for him in our Learning Plans (the plans tend to be long documents, but the literacy/reading portion is always right near the beginning).

I’m  in the wilds of Manitoba, and generally unplugged. I’ve got a couple more posts auto-scheduled for your enjoyment, but I won’t be able to respond to comments until July 15th.

“It’s impossible–it’s theoretically impossible to make a video game as bad as the Grateful Dead.”

Pen Jillette on video games:

…There is this tremendous amount of arrogance and hubris, where somebody can look at something for five minutes and dismiss it. …

…That kind of obsession is going to lead to a sophisticated 30-year-old who has a background in that artform. It just seems so simple, and yet I’m constantly in these big arguments with people on the computer who are talking about, “I would never let my kid do this and this in a video game.” And these are adults who when they were children were dropping acid and going to see the Grateful Dead.

I mean, the Grateful Dead is provably s***ty music. It’s impossible – it’s theoretically impossible to make a video game as bad as the Grateful Dead. I throw that out there as a challenge.”

From Erik Kain’s blog ar Forbes.com … which he got from an interview with Gameinformer back in November 2009 … but it just made its way into my life via a share on Facebook from a friend who’s the founding partner of a kick-ass Vancouver-based video game company.

Cinder, by the way, had his first programming lesson yesterday. Or his teacher had his first Minecraft lesson yesterday. Another adventure is beginning.

For my own video game awakening: How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games.

Deutsch: Minecraft is a video game which allow...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Cinder Recommends: Horrible Science

Cover of "Bulging Brains (Horrible Scienc...

What is it: A series of more than 30 disgusting, gross, yucky, bloody and nefarious books about science, with titles such as Angry Animals, Bulging Brains, Evolve or Die, Fatal Forces, Nasty Nature and Wasted World, most written by Nick Arnold and illustrated by Tony de Saulles. Also 82 issues of fabulously full-colour magazine re-issues of the books.

Why Cinder loves it: Cause it’s really gross. Informative, yes, chokful of scientific facts and all that—but there’s blood, vomit and fart jokes on just about every page.

Why Jane loves it: Cause it’s pretty funny and chokful of science in a way a non-scientist like me can really get into. And cause Cinder loves it. And I can read it for hours without getting bored.

Why Flora barely tolerates it: Cause sometimes “they’re mean to animals. And why is that supposed to be funny? It’s just mean.” And also, “that’s just so gross. Why did they have to show that?” There are some issues that she enjoys… but she skips over a lot of stuff.

Recommended ages: We started reading Horrible Science with Cinder when he was five or six. And Flora not quite three. So we’ve probably scarred her for life. Cinder’s 10… and we’re still reading Horrible Science together.

Best way to test drive it: Buy or borrow the full-colour, hard cover The Stunning Science of Everything (here’s the BBC review of it  and here’s the more critical Popular Science review). It’s a good test drive.

Need to know more? You can check out the Horrible Science UK site, or visit author Nick Arnold’s gross (not really) site  and illustrator Tony de Saulles site.

Lucky Americans can buy Horrible Science books AND the colour magazines at reasonable prices at Ray’s Horrible Books in San Diego. North American editions of most of the books are now available for overlooked Canadians too, who can order individual book titles from Book Depository, Chapters or Amazon. (Ray will ship to Canada, but says, truthfully, the price ends up being extortionate. But if you’re planning a trip to the States…)

The best deal on the books, however, is through Scholastic Book clubs, which will often have box sets available at discounted prices.  (If they’re not being offered locally currently, try the World Scholastic Book Clubs. Even with the pound prices and the 25% shipping, the box set prices through the international clubs are often much lower.)

Buyers’ Tip: If your kids love Horrible Science books the way Cinder did, you probably want to plonk down the coin for what’s left of the magazines. You can get them from Ray’s Horrible books at $3 an issue. They’re full-colour and even more visual than the books (which are b&w paperbacks). And at 24 pages, they’re the perfect, “OK, I’ll read you one before bedtime” length (“Two?” “One.” “Two?” “One and a half.”) They are full of typos and oversimplify concepts… but whatever. They’re cool.

And then you might want to look into Horrible Geography. And Horrible Histories. And Horribly Famous. And Murderous Maths. We have them all. We want more.

Tony de Saulles at Epsom library

Tony de Saulles at Epsom library (Photo credit: Surrey County Council)

“He was not sentimental about children…”

“He was not sentimental about children. It wasn’t that he disliked them, for he usually found their rascally ways to be rather charming. He felt a pang of remorse that they would have to change or be forced to change into something else, something more socially acceptable.”

Martha Grimes’ character Ned Isaly in Foul Matter.

And again:

“He was watching a woman with light hair watching the little girl, who, with great care, was transferring earth from ground to pail. It was one of those childhood activities that adults can never understand because it’s pointless. But then that was its attraction–to be doing something where the point lay simply in the doing of it.”

And there ends life’s lesson for today. Now off to do something with the kinder just for the point of simply doing it.

Cover of "Foul Matter"

Spell Is a Four-Letter Word

Or, How My Boy Learns

 From Life’s Archives, June 6, 2011

I think the first word Cinder ever wrote was FART. He didn’t actually write it, if I recall correctly, but carved it into a styrofoam meat tray. For a while after that, he changed every “art” he encountered into a FART. Very joyously. Then he learned how to spell POOP. We still come across the odd random POOP smear—I mean, written on a wall, book or garbage can.

And he hasn’t precisely grown out of that phase yet. We recently started working with the All About Spelling programme, as Cinder started to stall and get frustrated with his progress, or rather lack of, with the next level of Bob Books and reading. We had been doing it fairly regularly in March and April, and then reached a frustration/stall point again, so took a break to let it all simmer and marinate, and I put it back on the table today. Flora’s working through the program with us too, of course, and I did the Step with her first, and it went sort of like this: I reviewed the concept, she repeated it or nodded her head, I read the three-letter word, and she spelled it. Then I did it with Cinder. I reviewed the concept of “sh” and “ch” and “th” sounds. He spelled “shit” to illustrate. I said ok, now we’re going to spell the “u” words from the Step. He changed “shit” to “Shut up.” Somehow—after grudgingly spelling gun, bum, and butt, and rolling his eyes at hug and tub—he ended spelling jack ass and asshole.

I was so proud. (Up to you to figure out if there’s a sarcasm sign flashing behind me).

Meanwhile, Flora was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to a book on tape and drawing rainbows, hearts and flowers.

Every Women’s Studies course I ever took? Lies. All lies.

Writing For Children

Anybody who writes down to children is simply wasting … time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. Children love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention.

E.B.White, “The Art of the Essay” (Paris Review, 48, 1969)

… and therein, you have, I think the secret to why E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web continues to delight children (and their parents) more than 50 years after its debut. Reporting from a household where there’s a cardboard box labeled “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” in the kitchen, a two-year-old who thinks he’s Wilbur, a seven-year-old playing Fern, a dog cast as Charlotte, and a “I’m too cool for this” almost 10-year-old who drops everything and sits down to listen the second “Fern” starts playing the audio book of Charlotte’s Web for the one-hundredth time.

Here, by the way, is a great story by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan about how the book was “spun.”

Charlotte's Web

Lazy Homeschool Moms Unite!

From the AmongstLovelyThings.com: ‎”…”Me!” I shouted into the screen. “I’m that too-lazy homeschool mom!!!” … But I don’t really think it’s laziness, not really. It’s more like… “otherness”. I’m too busy with other things to be spending all of my free time planning and carrying out elaborate homeschooling plans.”

For the full story, go to this post at Amongst Lovely Things: http://www.amongstlovelythings.com/2012/01/why-im-no-homeschool-superstar.html

Listen and Learn

I’ve shared with you before how unaudio my Cinder is (“How am I supposed to learn to type with that #$@#$#@$ cow screaming at me?”). Yesterday, I had an illustration of how audio–and despite her love of drawing and art, un-visual in certain ways!–my Flora is. She was playing on Mathletics and doing pattern exercises. And whenever she’s done them before, I’ve heard her muttering to herself, “Blue circle, yellow circle, green circle–next one is a… blue circle.” She’s quite adapt at this, so I was taken aback by sudden shouts and frustration and “I just can’t do this!” And I look over, and the game’s changed a bit–she’s presented with a pattern, and instead of completing it, she has to pick the odd one out, the one that doesn’t belong. “All I see are the colours, and they’re so pretty, and the pattern looks just fine, look, the squares next to the triangles and circles, and how am I supposed to figure out what doesn’t belong?”

The one that doesn’t belong jumps out at me immediately, and I try to explain to Flora what to look for… it’s not working. I see her frustration mounting. And then, flash of insight: “Say the pattern,” I suggested. “Blue circle, green square, yellow star, blue cirle, green square, yellow star, yellow star, green square…”

“I got it, I got it!” she hollers. And talks herself through all the patterns.

Cinder, meanwhile, is doing something else on the computer with the sound muted and headphones on to muffle out the noise that is his family, so he can concentrate…

Math + Gun = …

A short moment for a commercial interlude: I highly recommend Mathletics.com, a math website both Austen and flora have been rockin’ on for the last few weeks. With the following review by Austen:

Austen: You know what would make Mathletics better? You get points for right answers, right? But it would be so much better if you could use those points to buy guns and then fire them at stuff while you’re thinking.