Death By Flatulence (A Sad Story)

…or, unschooling reading and writing with a boy-boy

Austen and I were typing dorky notes to each other in Word. I typed a sentence and he read–then he changed the sentence and I read it. For example, I wrote, “Austen is not a gas bag.” And he changed it to (what else?), “Mom is a gas bag.” And on it went until we wrote this story. Austen’s debut in literature, world take note.


by austen and Mom

One day, a boy did a bad thing. He made a big fart. It blew his head off.

His head was not big. His head was not small. His head was gone.

He was sad.

Actually, he was dead.

All because of a big fart.

The end.

Nim’s Island

We watched Nim’s Island a couple of days ago, and Flora is currently rewatching it for the third time. It’s quite a neat, different little show about an 11-year-old girl who lives on an island with her marine biologist father and corresponds with an agorophobic author of adventure novels. The dad is lost at sea, and the author comes to rescue to the girl—but in the end the girl rescues her—the dad does get home safely (spoiler alert, I suppose, but my kids couldn’t enjoy it until we established that there was going to be a happy ending!).

The movie’s great on its own, but the best part from a homeschooling perspective is the opening scene, in which Nim runs along the seashore with her pelican friend Galileo and her seal Suki, and says, “I don’t go to school. I’m homeschooled—or rather, island-schooled. I learn everything from my friends.” And then Galileo the pelican delivers a real life lesson in how objects falls…

It’s on Netflix, and the Calgary Public Library has the film, the audiobook, and the two books. Which I already have on hold, so get in line.

Settling Into Fall

I’m in bit of shock that it’s not just the second half of October, it’s the last third of October.

We’ve ended up with pretty minimalist external demands—Orff music for Flora once a week, Tang Soo Do for Cinder twice a week, and they both have just started drama for 8 weeks at Evergreen. And it’s been my deadline lax time of year—about to turn into deadline hell, but I have another week of grace, I think—and still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt time pass so quickly.

Perhaps it’s the gorgeous weather? We’ve been able to be outside so much of September and October.

Our Learning Plan, in which I for the first time ever dared to make some more solid predictions, was out the window
the day I sent it off to the School Board. We briefly left Ancient Greece for Venice with The Thief Lord, but are now back into the realm of the Greek gods—as they morph into Roman ones—courtesy of Rick Riordan’s The Lost HeroBunnicula‘s made a brief reappearance, primarily in early reader form—if there are other fans of the vampire bunny out there, there’s a new series of mini-chapter books James Howe has been writing called Tales from the House of Bunnicula. They’re both fun read alouds and manageable read alones for a Flora (not a Cinder), so we’ve been enjoying those. And back to the Horrible Science mags. Another new thing: Life of Fred the elementary series—this very oddball approach to math through story. Flora loves it; she devoured the first volume, Apples, in a handful of days, and now we’re more slowly reading through Butterflies. (Cinder’s a passive participant; the math is way easy for him, but I think he enjoys some of the silliness.)

I’ve mostly been focusing on creating good morning and meal routines—with various levels of success. We’ve been getting out to walk the dog en mass first thing in the morning (our definition of first thing in the morning: at the crack of anywhere between 9:30 and 11 a.m.), and I’ve been doing the Taco Tuesday/Pizza Friday meal schedule thing pretty consistently. I think I need to do the same thing to lunch. 🙂 Them kids, they just won’t stop eating!

What’s your fall looking like so far? [originally a yahoo group post]

The Great Scrabble Battle

I asked for it.

Cinder, you see, likes to win. Even when he’s playing a game for the first time―or against a clearly superior player. So as we were pulling out the Scrabble board, I very firmly and seriously told him―twice―that this was a game I was going to win. I was absolutely going to help him―I wasn’t going to be ruthless―but this was a game I was extremely good at, and he was just learning to read and spell. I was going to win, and he couldn’t be upset when I won.

Sean chimed in, “You can play Carcassone later and whoop Mom at that.”

Cinder shrugged. “I’ve watched Mom and Richard play lots. I know the strategy.”

And we played.

Cinder’s path to literacy has been slow. If forced to label him, I’d call him an emergent reader or a developing reader. (Labels suck.) He can work his way, when he pays attention, through phonetic three letter words and the handfuls of sight words he’s memorized (one of them is Cthulu). Four letter words, even perfectly phonetic ones, require a lot of concentration, some prodding. Over the last few months, we’ve been intermittently working on finding tools and strategies to help him. He’s come a long way, but it’s hard work for him―pieces are still missing―that “aha!” moment that came for Flora when she was four or five still hasn’t come for him. He plugs away at it… then takes a long break.

We’ve been on a long break most of the summer from the spelling program that gave him his last big leap forward and confidence boost―then slammed him into a wall he couldn’t get past. But after a summer of watching me, our neighbour Richard, and other Co-op firepitters play Scrabble on most fine Saturdays, he wanted to play the game.

He rattled off a dozen words he knew how to spell. “It’s a good start,” he said. I was very proud of him for wanting to play. So long as he was able to cope with losing.

We played. I played to open up the board―to create opportunities for building more words. I played long words, so there would be plenty of E’s and S’s and T’s and the like for him to use. He’d get stuck, and he’d ask me or Sean for help. A few times, we traded letters―he’d offer me an E for a U, a P for a G. It was a great game. He spelled Dog and If and Am and Bum. Also Hire and Fire, and, with help, Tear. And attempted to spell Dense―and came damn close. Figured out adding “s” “ed” or “er” to a word often got you more points than the original word was worth. Spelled Zoos with a triple letter word score for the Z. Quit―with help from me and a trade for a T―for a double word score. I accepted Ed was a word so that he could spell DOG somewhere in the vicinity of Yeti. Yeah, I gave him some slack―but he did great.

Flora kept score for us, writing down each score individually, so we didn’t have a final tally. He went out first, sticking me with -11 points. And we sat down to add up the numbers.

He did the math in his head and I checked it on paper. 276 for Cinder. “That’s a great score,” he announced. It was. In our Co-op games, we hardly ever break 300. We started adding up my score. Half-way through, I realized I was beaten. And not just by a little bit.

He beat me 276 to 171.

Now, yes, I helped him―and I wasn’t playing to score big. But how on earth, with all those three and two letter words, did he whoop me so badly? Well, before we even started, he studied the letter distribution chart on the board. He knew how many Os, Es, Ts, Hs etc. there were in play. He paid hyper-attention to the position of all the triple-letter, double-letter, double-word and triple-word scores. When he had gotten all the letters for Zoos, for example, he trolled the board carefully to see where he could stake out the position that would give him a triple hit for the Z. (He changed Nude to Nudes to make that play, getting points for that word as well.)

He was only mildly boastful, running up with the score sheet to his Dadda. “I might not beat you by quite so much next time,” he told me graciously afterwards. But he was very proud. And mentioned he was almost ready to start the “spelling programme that I hate” again. I nodded, didn’t push. Let him savour the victory.

He’s nine and a quarter―a third almost. My emergent reader. Who can look at a page in a book and tell you, with incredible accuracy, which letters and letter combinations occur on it with the most and the least frequency (also whether there are more curvy or “sticky” letters there. And who can whoop me at Scrabble with spelling mastery over a few dozen―a hundred if we stretch it―words, because he’s got the strategic aspect of the game down pat.

This is why I never worry that he will blossom into a competent reader, when he’s ready, in his own way. Why I don’t push. Why I don’t torment him with drills that, right now, won’t help and will only serve to discourage and frustrate. Why I can have the patience, and suffer from very little doubt, that his unique path to literacy will bear the required fruit, in time. Things like this Scrabble game―they happen all the time.

In Defence of Routines

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.

Ears? Who Needs Ears?

Every once in a while, we need an “obvious as a smack upside the head” reminder of the obvious. I’ve know for a long time Cinder’s not a strong audio-learner. In case I forgot it, the universe reminded me of it today. The kids wanted to do some “proper typing” learning and I pulled up the BBC Dancing Mat Typing programme for them. Flora loved it. Cinder? He spent three minutes with it before shouting out in frustration, “How the heck am I supposed to learn to type with this Frickin’ Cow talking at me constantly!”

Turned off the sound on the computer… whole different ballgame. (Final review of the Dancing Cow: Flora still uses it. Cinder wants me to find him something with no frackin’ cartoon animals.)

Test drive the Cow yourself here

Greek Gods

Today, Flora is Hermes, messenger of the gods. Austen is Hades. And we are all agreed Ender is Chaos personified.

Yesterday, Flora to Austen:  “I bet if we were demi-gods, our father would be Ares.”

In other God news, Flora has now completed “The Twelve Labours of Flora,” and has been promoted from demi-god to minor god. All this time I thought I was raising good atheists, I was apparently just sowing the field for Greco-Roman pagans…

Swear of the day: “By Hades’ gym shorts.” Replacing “By Zeus’s third testicle.” Which, in case anyone’s interested, replaced “By Zeus’s left testicle” as the expletive of choice sometime last week. And for the really curious, it was on June 29 that our family formally  voted 3-2 to replace random ejaculations of “OMG!” with “By Zeus’s left testicle.”

Sometimes, I do think we’re a little weird.

Minecraft is Educational. Really.

Part of the homeschooling set up in Alberta includes twice-a-year visits from your school board’s facilitator. We’re registered with the main public school board in Calgary, and the facilitator from CBE visits us in the fall to discuss our plans for the year, and then again in June to go over what we’ve done. This post is an abbreviated report of the 2011 June visit. Its purpose? A glimpse into what Cinder considers important right now. Take from that what you will.

About as late in the year as you can get, but it went so well. I loved it that what Cinder most wanted to show our facilitator was his Tang Soo Do uniform, and Flora her bone collection—and Mary Anne got it, she was great with them. Cinder also showed her the MineCraft (video game) interface and his Slave I Lego model. On my request, Flora read her a book, and Cinder spelled two phrases I dictated. Then “ass pit,” “shit,” and he started to spell fuck. I told him to change it to fish if he ever wanted to eat sushi again. Everyone howled. (I was just a bit red-faced. Just a bit. Yeah.)

Ever notice how all English swear words are perfectly phonetic? Very interesting.

We set up an agenda for the visit — and we check it off as we go. If we didn’t do that, Cinder would hide in his room the whole visit. So, on Cinder’s agenda was showing her the Tang Soo Do uniform, MineCraft, the garden, the trampoline, and one of his Lego sets. (Note the complete absence of… well, anything even remotely academics-related.) On Flora’s agenda was showing the facilitator Flora’s Museum of Natural Mysteries, a trick on the trapeze bar, and her book of drawings. On my agenda, negotiated at the cost of a celebratory sushi dinner, was Flora choosing a book to read, and Cinder doing the spelling. In retrospect, I’ve got to say, the last was a mistake—Flora loved performing, and Cinder does not, and he got extremely stressed and wound up even though he did what he had intended to do. I regret putting him in that position: I didn’t need to. If I’m brutally honest, I wanted to show off how far he’d come from last year, and I’m the only one who really cared about showcasing that—it wasn’t important enough to him to demonstrate, and our facilitator didn’t need to see it either—she had other “proofs.” Oh, well.

The way to hell is paved with good intentions, and the path of motherhood is littered with well-intentioned disasters.

I Solemnly Swear I Am Up To No Good

Harry Potter Overdose: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as bedtime reading; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CD in the car and on DVD as the good night movie; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on CD in the kitchen.

I’m expecting owls to fly in with the mail in the morning. Flora wants a broomstick and Austen wants to get “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” tattooed on his forehead.

Name That Scientist

“One day, on tearing off some bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized on in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas, it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

Internal Organs On The Ceiling

The heart and stomach still on ceiling. Lungs, intestines and brains have come down. So has the leech–watch out, Babi. It’s coming over on Friday.

Perhaps I should explain. Earlier this month, a momentous event in Austen and Flora’s homeschooling adventure took place: Babi smuggled across the American border two suitcases of Horrible Science and Horrible Histories magazines. OK, she didn’t exactly smuggle them: these are UK publications that are not available in Canada. But, Ray at Horrible Books in San Diego, California, periodically brings them in for US clients. Unfortunately, Ray’s reluctant to ship to Canada (he’s weird. It’s an American thing). But he’ll ship to New York and so, on her April trip to New York, instead of coming back with a suitcase full of Park Avenue goodies, Babi had to leave her undies behind in order to deliver 80 issues of Horrible Science and 80 issues of Horrible Histories to her grandchildren. What a good grandma. (I don’t think she really left her undies behind. I just put that in because it’s very late at night and I’m light-headed and delirious.)

The magazines came with all sorts of goodies, including rubber internal organs. It was just a matter of time before Austen and Flora would discover they attached to walls… and the ceiling… 

Julie & Julia, Flora & Jane

Flora and I watched Julie & Julia together a few days ago:  a monumental event. It was the first time my little girl and I watched a movie together that we both genuinely enjoyed (not that I loathe Zoboomafoo and The Wonder Pets, but I don’t choose to watch, if you grok my meaning). Moreover, it made us discover French cooking. The next day, we made Beef Bourginion. It was too die for. I got Julia Child books out of the library… we have plans to debone a duck and prepare it in pastry, just like in the movie… when Ender’s weaned.

Best Of Times, Worst Of Times

The best thing about unschooling is that yer kids spontaneously decide to spend two hours on their “sick” Sunday afternoon doing math. The worst thing about unschooling is that I then have to spend two hours of my “sick” Sunday afternoon with alien addition, slimy substraction, piffy patterns and monstrous multiplication… ;P I am now going to make them play video games.