Friday, January 29, 2010

Hope (?) for Reading and Writing in Public Schools...

In my post yesterday, I talked about the methods I used to get my son Ryan to love reading and writing after public school had squashed his interest. Click here to read yesterday's post. Today I am going to answer the question, "What happens to a homeschooled kid who loves to read and write when you send him back to public school?"

First, I suppose I must answer the question, "If homeschooling is so great, why would I ever send my kid back to public school?" I did it because I had to in order to keep my kid sane. We moved to this area about six months ago and immediately connected with several homeschool groups in this area. Problem was, the groups served mainly kids under the age of twelve which left my thirteen year old son basically high and dry in the friendship department. Granted, he did meet some great kids his age, but due to distance we were only able to get together for a few hours each week. It seems both here and in Chicago, the pool of teenaged homeschoolers is small which results in them deciding to attend school to take advantage of being around those their age.

So, in order to meet Ryan's social needs, he went off to middle school after the winter break. While he was immediately embraced by the school community which allowed him to meet kids right away, he found the reading and writing rules and expectations to be lacking in freedom and very much like his 4th grade public school.
In the second week of school, Ryan was given an assignment in social studies where they are studying Aztec culture. He was told how long the paper had to be, and that it had to be in first person journal format. He was told the name of the character he was to write about, what his occupation was, and the five different topics he had to cover within the body of the journal. From these requirements, Ryan found it difficult to be creative or get excited about the act of writing. He was essentially falling victim to what happens in schools all across America when kids are asked to write about a topic they are removed from.

John Holt in his book, "What do I do on Monday" quotes James Moffett whom explains it best:

Almost all the writing we ask students to do in school is of a very distant kind- writing to a far, almost a nonexistent audience, about far subjects. No matter how wide a variety of essay topics we may assign, no matter how often we tell students that they may pick their own topics, the student is always in the same position. The discourse is always of one kind. This makes writing dull for the students, and makes their writing dull for those who have to read it.
John Holt goes on to talk in his book about what needs to be done in schools to offer up positive writing experiences:

We cannot teach children "the skill of writing" in a vacuum of ideas and feelings, by having them write exercises or essays that we think are good for them, and then expect them to take that "skill" and begin to use it to write something important. They can only learn to write well by trying to write, for themselves, or other people they want to reach, what they feel is important.

I have seen this at work in my son. When he was being homeschooled, he felt connected to the topics he wrote about and as a result his writing was fresh and creative and he felt excited to share his stories. Now that he is back in school, he feels disconnected from his writing. When asked to write his Aztec journal, he was initially excited and full of ideas for the story, but soon grew frustrated when he realized the constraints his teacher put on the piece. I asked Ryan to make the story his own while taking into consideration his teacher's expectations, but it didn't matter, most of his real creativity and ideas went out the window with the rules he had to follow.
The kids in Ryan's social studies class have been reading their Aztec journals aloud in class. Boring renditions of "I am a trader, I eat maize, I like to hunt for my goods" Ryan is amazed at the lack of creativity put forth. I explain to him that this is the sort of writing done by kids expected to follow the rules, kids whom have not been able to write on topics they love. Writing for them has become drudgery.

I worry about Ryan and wonder what will happen to this writing as he spends time in public school. The good news is that there is a movement afoot which is trying to get schools to take a hard look at how they teach writing. The National Writing Project is trying to improve writing in the nation's schools and have identified the requirements of a good writing program. A program that encourages authentically taught writing over writing which is simply assigned. While the changes this program brings about may not reach my son's school for quite some time (if ever!) it makes me hopeful that these initiatives will allow kids in public schools to have more freedom in their writing. Offering them connections to what they write about, which in turn will make for creative and confident life long writers.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Encouraging the Love of Reading and Writing in Kids...

"You may not talk (or write) except when we tell you, and then only about what we want you to talk about, and in the way we want you to talk about it. All other talk and ways of talking are illegal, to be repressed and punished."

-from John Holt's book, "What do I do on Monday?"

It was from this system quoted above, that my son Ryan fled at the beginning of 4th grade. A tightly woven public school classroom which held him in a straight jacket, reducing his enthusiasm to read and write. I knew something was terribly wrong when Ryan stopped reading the Harry Potter series when he was half way thorough it, which up to that point he had been enjoying immensely. Along with that came his refusal to write and attend school. After a few stressful weeks of trying to understand exactly what was going on, I pulled Ryan out of school.

It seems Ryan was struggling with being told not only what to write about, but also how to write. There was a certain way his school expected him to write, a formula to be followed and anything less than their method was wrong. The school thought good writing was to be learned by following a prescribed set of rules and didn't understand good writing came about by allowing kids lots of freedom around their writing. Freedom to write at length on topics they enjoyed in order to allow their creativity to flow. Freedom to write uncensored by grades, especially in the early years when kids form opinions about how competent they are as writers.

For about a month after taking Ryan out of school, I didn't push any kind of reading or writing, allowing the negative feelings toward those subjects to dissipate. Then, borrowing an idea from Waldorf Education, I asked Ryan to start keeping a daily journal. At first, Ryan balked at having to write anything at all, so I told him he could simply draw pictures each day if he desired.

After a few months of communicating with only pictures in his daily journal, Ryan began to write a few passages. Maybe it became safe enough to write once again. As he began to understand his writing wasn't going to graded on quality, he began to enjoy the process.
Because I understood that in order to become a good writer, you also had to be well read, I made sure Ryan was being exposed to reading even though he wasn't interested in picking up books on his own. During this time I read books to him and slowly I edged him back to the world of reading and writing. I moved slowly though because I wanted to make sure he embraced both of these subjects because he loved them, not due to anyones rules and expectations of him.

Several more months passed before Ryan showed any interest in moving beyond where he was. Then one day, Ryan created a comic book story in his journal which became a stepping stone back into reading. For months Ryan drew comics in his journal and soon after that he began to read graphic novels (comic books that tell a story) in earnest. Thankfully our library had a huge selection of many kinds of graphic novels which captivated Ryan for hours and hours. I remember my dad at the time commenting that Ryan should be reading novels rather than graphic novels at his age, but after explaining to him Ryan's struggles and my thankfulness that he was reading at all, he understood.

About the time Ryan was embracing graphic novels, I began to encourage Ryan to dictate stories orally to me while I typed them on the computer, the idea being that kid's story ideas come at them much quicker than they can get them down on paper. I used a tape recorder for this same purpose. Before I knew it, Ryan's stories began to flow out unhindered and it wasn't long before he began to type them onto the computer himself. Soon after that, Ryan began to read novels once again, embracing Star Wars books initially. I never told him what sort of books to read and through this freedom, the sky was the limit. He soon was reading long adult level novels and books became his life.
Today, Ryan as a 7th grader still loves to read and write and he feels confident in his abilities. He never did go back and finish the Harry Potter series. Maybe those books remind him of a time he'd rather forget.
This experience has shown me that public school methods may not work for all kids. I did lots of research to determine the best of course of action for my son given his situation and I hope my examples above provide insight on how to tackle reading and writing issues for children struggling as my son did. Tomorrow, I am going to post about what happens when a child raised with this sort of freedom returns to public school.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Compacting with Teens...

This year I joined the Compact in an attempt to not buy anything new (with food, toiletries, etc... being exempt) for all of 2010. So far this year, I have personally stayed within the Compact guidelines I established for myself.

Others in my family have not fared as well. Early on in our Compact year, my son was invited to a Bar Mitzvah which involved purchasing a new blazer, nice white shirt and khaki pants. Luckily we could use my husband's dress shoes and a tie to complete the outfit. The last minute invite was received on a Wednesday night, the Bar Mitzvah started on Saturday at 10am. Because I am still relatively new to this area, I didn't have a single inkling about how or where to obtain these items used, so I was forced to haul out the credit card and buy them. It did cross my mind to rent the outfit, but it would have cost $130 and I wasn't willing to invest that amount of money each time a Bar Mitzvah invitation came along. The purchase of these items made me feel like I was failing the Compact before I even started. The good thing was it made me realize that I needed to get organized and find the thrift shops in my area in order to find used clothing and gear for teens. Being on the Compact is easy for me as an adult, but a completely different story for a growing teen.

With this idea in mind, I did some online research and was able to turn up some used clothing and gear resources for teens. Unfortunately, the clothing option is not located in my area but I include it here for those of you that may be able to benefit from the information.

Here are the resources I have found so far:

Game Stop- buy and sell your used video games and video game systems
Plato's Closet- buy and sell name brand used clothing specifically for teens
Play it Again Sports- buy and sell used sporting goods

I would love to add to this list so if you know of any other teen oriented used resources, please pass them along in my comment section. Thanks so much.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I don't miss Chicago winters...

Sometimes all you need to make a winter day perfect is a little sunshine, some fresh air, and a comfortable spot to hang out with your dog. Of course, temps in the 40's don't hurt either.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Compact 2010: How to acquire books when you can't buy them new...

I just finished reading Michael Ableman's book "Field's of Plenty" in which Michael transported me on a wonderful journey across America as he made visits to many different types of organic farms. Throughout his book, Michael brought the ideas of local food, simple living, and homesteading to life, which in turn inspired me to do further reading on the subject.

Problem was, because I was participating in the Compact this year, I wasn't able to go out and buy new books to quench my thirst on this subject. I needed to find a way to obtain books either used or borrowed that satisfied my need.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered a book swap shed open three times a week at a transfer station within a decent drive of my home. There is no requirement to donate books. There is a limit to the number of books you can take for free which is ten books per family per visit. The shed itself was like a mini library and was actively being used by many people. What a great idea! The books were even sorted by fiction and non-fiction.

After a bit of searching at the shed, I came across a nine volume set of Rodale organic gardening manuals. I felt a bit guilty taking them all for myself, but I knew I would give them a good home. I also knew I would be back next time with lots of books of my own to donate.

Desiring to find more books on my topic, I then headed to the public library where I was able to fill my bag with a huge selection of books on simple living, homesteading, organic food, farmer's markets and gardening. Granted, the drawback is I don't get to keep these books, but with the opportunity to renew twice, they will feel like mine for at least nine weeks. I even have a special cupboard I keep them in at home. If I find I must own one of these books because it ends up being a fantastic reference book, then I will buy it used through Alibris or Amazon.

I keep a list of the library books I read and if I should find I need to access the book again, I will simply check it out of the library once again. It isn't very often that I need to put my hands on a book more than once. I will admit I do get attached to certain books, especially if they impart on me a way of life that I aspire to. If you look closely at the books above, you will see that my library copy of "Fields of Plenty" still rests comfortably amongst my other library books on my shelf at home. I kept it for the whole maximum nine week checkout period and then the library let me check it out for another nine week cycle. Wonder if they would let me continue to to renew indefinitely...would be a great way to build a library of my own.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Credit Card Companies Benefiting From Haiti Donations

Soon after the earthquake in Haiti, Huffington Post raised some concerns that credit card companies were charging transaction fees on relief donations and earning up to 3% of each contribution. After this was brought to light, most of the credit card companies changed their policies and said they would no longer deduct fees from donations being made for relief in Haiti. After hearing this news, I simply assumed that all donations made to Haiti with a credit card would be exempt from transaction fees and that 100% of my donation would go to those who need it most.

What I didn't realize is that there are stipulations on which type of donations will not be charged transaction fees. Only the larger relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, AmeriCares, Save the Children etc...will be exempt from having transaction fees deducted. Other smaller, lessor known organizations will still be charged the transaction fees in most cases. Each credit card company has a different policy on how they will handle your donation. For example, I sent money online to the United Nations Central Emergency Relief Fund (UN CERF Fund) using my VISA card. According to VISA, only 97% will go to the UN CERF Fund (because CERF is not on the list of VISA's transaction fee exempt relief organizations) and the other 3% will go to the American Red Cross because VISA is donating all of their transaction fees to the Red Cross. While I have nothing against the Red Cross, I really wanted all of my money to go to the UN and don't like knowing someone else decided where part of my money would go. On the other hand, Master Card will only waive fees to the larger relief organizations so if you donate to a smaller one, that organization will only receive 97% of your total donation, Master Card will get the rest. For information on how your credit card is handling Haiti donations, refer to this article written by Leslie McFadden at or check with your credit card company.

My younger son has decided he wants to make a donation to the canine program through Virginia Task Force 1, a search and rescue group from Fairfax Virginia currently in Haiti using dogs to search for survivors. So that 100% of our donation goes to the Virginia Task Force, we will send our money the old fashioned way- by check.

The realization that big American credit card companies can be profiting in some financial way to the crisis in Haiti frustrates me. Shows me how crass some big businesses really can be.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti Donation Information

Check out the Today show website at to see a comprehensive list of organizations accepting donations for the earthquake relief effort in Haiti. The site also lists ways to avoid being scammed by less than scrupulous folks preying on the desire to give during a crisis like this.

My thoughts are with the people of Haiti during this incredibly difficult time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Frozen Pond

It has been many, many years since I have skated on a frozen pond, hand cleared of snow. While we have had several days of very cold temperatures here, making the ice safe, it still felt a bit unnerving yesterday to travel out onto a surface typically reserved for geese and boats.

Skating against the wind was exhilarating, fresh cold air in our faces. Traveling with the wind, we were like sailboats- gliding along effortlessly.

I spent many winter days of my childhood skating the frozen lakes of Michigan and being out on a pond once again took me back to those days. Simpler times where I only had to worry about keeping my feet warm -and my present day worries of keeping the bills paid wasn't even on the horizon. It felt great to feel young again as I sailed across the ice, and to know my son was forming his own memories of this day.

Just before we left the pond, the ice called out to us with a great cracking sound reverberating underfoot as the ice expanded. Nature's voice calling to us, rooting us in the body of her soul...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Real Educational Freedom

Educational freedom does not come from the type of schooling so much as determining what style of schooling would best suit your child. Closely observing your child and their personality traits will help to determine if either a public school or homeschool setting would provide the best learning environment.

Homeschooling laws are such in this country that anyone can choose to teach their children at home rather than send them off to school each day. While homeschooling laws vary from state to state, ranging from high regulation to none, it is relatively easy to stay within the guidelines of homeschooling regulations. Much more difficult is to understand the many different types of homeschooling and figure out where you fit within the framework. From radical unschoolers to those that do school at home, wandering the maze of options can leave one feeling unhinged.

Unlike homeschooling, public school options take the mystery out of figuring out how to operate within compulsory school requirements, and there are many different types of public schools available- from large urban to small rural- all with a distinct flavor of their own. Private schools offer up another array of additional options to consider. Deciding if your child should attend a small private school or large public school can be a complicated decision as well.

As a parent, how do you know whether to send your child to public school or to homeschool? Further complicating the decision is that most parents of each camp feel extremely attached to their mode of schooling. If you ask a member from either camp why they chose the schooling option they did, it will be because they personally feel it is the best option available. There is very little flexibility or understanding between homeschoolers and those who send their children to public schools. I have heard homeschoolers say they are misunderstood by the public school folks and are tired of their children being labeled as unsocialized, while I have heard public school folks say that homeschoolers feel their kids are too smart for the system. Even within homeschooling itself, there are differences in philosophies which lead to conflicts. Radical unschoolers feel their children learn best by child led learning while traditional homeschoolers feel unschooling is lazy parenting.

While parents of the different camps spend vast amounts of time defending the schooling decisions they have made for their children, I wonder if the children themselves and their schooling needs have been left out of the equation? It seems parents quickly jump to one form of education or another because they like how it sounds, but is it really the best option for their child? Homeschooling proponents explain that their method supports freedom in education for their child, but what if their child would learn best in a school setting surrounded by their peers? Public school folks are in the same boat. What if their child would thrive in a situation which would allow them to study at their own pace and tailor their learning to their interests rather than sit in a classroom all day?

Having had my child in both homeschooling settings and public school settings, I don't write this because I believe one version is better than the other, but because I believe parents are not fully determining what their child's schooling needs are when deciding which type of schooling to pursue. Parents will tell you they made the choice they did because of their child, but the negativity shown toward those that choose the opposite option tells me they choose their method because it most adheres to their lifestyle values, not their child's real needs. If school choice was being made based on needs rather than values or preconceived notions, then there wouldn't be any animosity toward those doing things differently. Why are homeschooled children told that being in school is like being in prison? Why are schooled children told homeschooled kids are weird misfits? Children hearing these words are being molded into a certain way of thinking...homeschoolers being taught to never want to try school, and public school kids being taught to never want try homeschooling. Each camp teaching hate rather than tolerance.

Really, again...what about the kids? What would work best for them and their needs? Look closely at your child. Do they seem unhappy as they head out the door for school each morning, like life has been sapped right out of them? Maybe a few years spent learning at home would suit them well. How about that homeschooled teen, sitting in his bedroom playing video games all day? Wonder if he would like to spend a few years at school, investigating some new learning avenues you or he never thought of? Lets get rid of the homeschool or public school labels and pursue real educational freedom with the kids in mind.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Natural Beauty, Yes. Creature Comforts, No.

About a week ago, there was an article called "Broadband, Yes. Toilet, No." in the New York Times that featured a young couple named Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick that have lived in a 450 square foot yurt in a remote part of Alaska for just over a year. Their story is amazing and my jaw actually dropped when I read they heat their abode with wood which they chop themselves and feed into their wood stove every 15-30 minutes. In the morning, after letting the wood stove die down overnight, they wake up to many mornings of zero degree temperatures INSIDE their home. And all this while living with their 11 month old son. Their story is amazing and worth taking the time to read at the link I included above.

I read Erin and Bretwood's story just after I convinced myself that it was OK to raise my thermostat from 55 to 60...a full 60 degrees higher than their early morning temperature and I don't even have a baby to keep warm. I really am left to wonder how they manage it. I found I had to wear a coat and scarf and sometimes even a hat to keep warm at 55. I just really got tired of the bulk and the constant moving around to keep warm. At 55, I always seemed to have a constant shivering feeling about me as well. I feel like such a wimp compared to them.

Now that I keep my temperature at a balmy 60, I still wear the layers but don't need the hat and don't have a cold feeling about me all the time. I also don't have to be constantly moving and can actually sit for a bit and type on the computer. I feel 60 is a perfect temperature and one I can live with for the remainder of the winter, even though I feel bad for not sticking with my original plan of 55 degrees.

I wonder what it must feel like to sleep in zero degree temperatures, especially with no indoor bathroom. No hot shower to warm cold bones with. I don't know if I could do what they are doing but I sure give them credit. They are not living this lifestyle to prove anything. They just are living their dream which makes it all so cool...

Would you be willing to sacrifice some creature comforts to live in a beautiful place and experience nature in a way unlike any other?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Version of Compact 2010

This afternoon I ran over my bike pump with my car and am left wondering if it will work properly when I need to use it. Under the rules of the Compact, I am required to borrow or find a used pump (rather than purchasing a new one) if my pump is indeed broken. Thinking about the gas I will expend as I search second hand shops for a used pump makes me wonder if I will even end up saving resources over purchasing a new one. Because I use my bike for transportation, I see a bike pump as an essential piece of equipment. If I am not able to use my bike to get around, I end up using my car which leads to an even bigger impact.

I really don't want to be left borrowing a bike pump as the need arises. Tires can come up unexpectedly flat and without a reliable pump to remedy the situation, I could be left high and dry. Or in this case flat and at home. So, I have decided to lump a bike pump in with acceptable purchases found in the transportation category. That being said, here is how I plan to implement the Compact for 2010:

  • Shelter- I will only make purchases pertaining to the required maintenance and lighting of the place I live in. I will purchase vinegar and baking soda to be used in cleaning. I will not purchase any new furniture, linens, kitchen equipment, technology related stuff etc...
  • Energy use- I will keep the use of water, heat, electricity and gasoline to a bare minimum by practicing conservation measures.
  • Transportation- I will only make purchases for gasoline and required maintenance of my vehicles. I will walk or bike most places or use public transportation. My car will be used sparingly. I will not travel by air.
  • Clothing/Shoes- I will only purchase underwear and socks as needed. No shoes, no clothing, no nothing whatsoever period! Any clothing I need that I don't already possess, will be purchased used or borrowed.
  • Office Supplies- Will only purchase stamps, or other required staples as needed and only if can't be found used.
  • Books, Newspaper, Magazines- I will purchase the NY Times each Sunday or read the copy left behind at Starbucks. Books will be obtained from the library, or purchased from used sources. Magazines will be read online.
  • Toiletries/Health- I will purchase those items as needed to maintain health and personal cleanliness.
  • Gifts- I will not make any gift purchases this year with one exception- I will give money as a gift to my son as his college graduation present which he will probably use to purchase a laptop. All other gifts will be something that can be consumed such as a membership to a museum or a food item, handmade by me or acquired used.
  • Food- I will eat as local as possible to avoid excessive transportation costs and will eat less meat. Also buy more bulk food to avoid packaging waste. Will eat primarily organic to avoid the destructive nature of conventional food. Will not eat at any fast food establishments that produce single-use paper waste. I will use a reusable mug when visiting coffee shops, cloth napkins over paper at home.
  • Vacation/Leisure- I will minimize my travel and only pursue low-impact vacation options such as staying with friends or camping. I will avoid entertainment that wastes large amounts of energy or water such as Disneyland or water parks (this part is easy because I NEVER visit these sorts of places).

I am sure I will need to update this list as I go along. Not so much to adjust it so that I can buy something, but more so because I find I forgot to address something. I feel my version of the Compact suits me well and takes into account my desire to reduce my overall impact.

Granted, the idea of Compact 2010 is imperfect. It is not meant to be the answer to our environmental problems, but more a vehicle to help create awareness. Maybe the answer can be found through this new found awareness.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lightness of Being - Compact 2010

It was synchronicity at work which caused me to see how the phrase "Lightness of Being" could be used to define the changes I am bringing into my life for the new year. Two seemingly unrelated events- one which involved me joining the Compact and the other which involved me taking part in an exercise at church yesterday, came together to help me understand that in order to simply "be", I need to travel light both physically and emotionally.

In other words, the path to my true self, or "Lightness of Being", is found by getting rid of both my physical material goods (as required in the Compact) and emotional baggage (as the church exercise asked). Excessive possessions and negative emotions (such as sadness, disappointments, and worries) keep me from my inner essence, cluttering my physical space and mind.

As I entered my UU church yesterday, all of the chairs were gathered around the fireplace in which a large fire was roaring. The setting felt intimate and comfortable, a place in which it would be easy to "get real" with myself. After singing the hymn "This Little Light of Mine", we were asked to write down on a sheet of paper the things we wanted to leave behind as the new year began. We each wrote down the things we wanted to shed and then placed our paper into the fire. It felt good to watch my list go up in flames, almost like I was instantly healed of all past concerns and worries. That I would somehow be fresh and new and the energy I once used to manage my hurts would now be redirected toward getting to know the real me better.

This year, as I attempt to toss some of my concerns into the fire and try to remove myself from the work of buying and maintaining stuff, I will find I have time for long walks in nature, or better opportunities to stop and listen to thunderstorms. A moment to watch snow drift slowly toward earth, or an afternoon spent sitting on the beach. This freedom from life's distractions will allow me more time to slow down and think, to meditate and come to understand my true inner self. To strive toward "Lightness of Being"

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Day Labyrinth Walk

Snow overnight made it difficult to find and negotiate a labyrinth in the woods located a fair distance from my house. Had the snow been any deeper, we would have missed discovering the labyrinth for sure. I suppose this experience could be seen as a metaphor for life. Life's path is hard to see and can be difficult even to find. But press on, knowing you are on the right path. Don't force things- savor the journey- and life will unfold as it should.

I suppose this is a good lesson for me to heed. As the New Year dawns, and our time remaining here in NYC becomes shorter, I am anxious to know where we will be moving next and wonder what opportunities are waiting for me in the new location. I need to remind myself to slow down and appreciate each day between now and then. Very difficult to do when living in limbo...