Use It Till It’s Tattered

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Porch peace flags still hanging in there.

Erma Bombeck, comedian of all things domestic, once wrote,

My mother won’t admit it, but I’ve always been a disappointment to her. Deep down inside, she’ll never forgive herself for giving birth to a daughter who refuses to launder aluminum foil and use it over again.

My parents used what they had until it couldn’t be used again. Clothes that couldn’t be repaired became rags (although I refused to use my father’s old underwear for a dust cloth). Bread bags were washed and turned inside out to dry. And yes Erma, sometimes foil was reused too.

My kids would surely say I uphold that tradition. It might be frugality, but I think there’s more to it. I have sort of a Velveteen Rabbit feeling about objects worn from use. I like using the same cloth bag to carry library books home. Sure it’s frayed, with straps ever shorter from being sewn back on, but the bag has life left in it. I wear shoes until sunlight shows through, then relegate them to gardening shoes. I save old jeans too, using them for everything from a jeans quilt to trying out my weird idea for jeans-based weed control.

I once wrote a post about the psychological effects of materialism, illustrating it with an image of my toe peeking through a hole in one of our very old blankets. My toe really didn’t appreciate the publicity. Yet here’s that photo again because it really illustrates my point.

Use it till it's tattered.

Who takes pictures of their own toes in a past-its-prime blanket?

We have dear ones over for dinner on a regular basis. Each time, I use trivets that were probably given to my parents as wedding gifts over 50 years ago. The cork covering has degraded pretty badly, but they deflect heat as well as they ever did.

Useful, just unattractive.

Useful, just unattractive.

I also use the best hot pads ever. These were crocheted in tight little stitches by my grandmother sometime in the 1960’s. They still work perfectly even if marred by scorch marks. I’ve tried all sorts of replacements, from thermal fabric to silicone. Nothing is as flexible and washable as these handmade spirals.

In use for decades. Stained but still perfectly functional.

In use for decades. Stained but still perfectly functional.

Our towels are, as you might imagine, pretty tattered. Of course they absorb moisture as well as they did when their side seams were perfect.

Old towels need love too.

Old towels need love too.

Even the kitchen floor is giving up.

No, that's not a giant spider. Not dirt. Just a floor after years of service.

No, that’s not a giant spider. Not dirt. Just a floor after years of service.

We actually do buy new things. I can prove it.

The comforter on our bed had been worn through for years. I repaired it over and over until the fabric got so thin that it simply split. It had also been indelibly stained. I remember the origins of some of those stains. Like the time one of my son’s friends came in our bedroom late at night to seek our counsel on some apparently vital adolescent matter, sitting on the edge of our bed (with bib overalls greasy from working on his car in our garage) while chatting with my husband and me. Those stains wouldn’t launder out.

Bedspread of 20 years.

Bedspread of 20 years.

We used it with peek-a-boo batting for years until we broke down and bought a (severely marked down) bedspread. “A new bedspread? Who are you?” my daughter asked, “It’s like I don’t know you any more.”

Something new. It happens, even here.

Something new. It happens, even here.

There’s a heightened beauty in things we use everyday. I see it in our daily tablecloth, our heirloom dishes, our antique furniture. I like the sense of completion that comes when using something fully.  We’re supposed to use ourselves up too.

While we’re not defined by our things, they do say quite a bit about us. I guess I’ve said this already in a poem.  Nuff said.

 

Object Lesson  

 

18 and in love

I heard

Too young.

Won’t last.

 

Yet each solid thing unwrapped

from fussy wedding paper

made it real.

 

The cutting board

too thin to last

split into kindling.

Paint chipped off leaky flowerpots,

used until they cracked.

 

Bath towels, coarse and cheap,

wore down to barn rags.

Bed sheets, gone to tatters, torn

to tie tomato plants and peonies.

 

One last gift, a satin-edged coverlet

saved for good till every other blanket

fell to pieces. Pretty but polyester,

it too frayed to shreds.

Nothing temporal

remains inviolate.

 

All that’s left are

clear glass canisters

holding exactly what we put in them

right here on the counter

for us to see

each day of our long marriage.

 

Laura Grace Weldon, from Tending

 

This post is shared from our farm site.

13 Smart Ways To Make Healthy Foods Fun

Fun ways to get kids eating healthy.

Eat outside. It makes an everyday meal more fun. Image: CC by 2.0 Rolands Lakis

You want the little darlings to eat what’s good for them — and like it. You know power plays, bribes, and other control efforts don’t lead to healthful eating habits in the long run. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some gentle yet effective tactics.

 

Shrink It

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

If you’ve got a kids’ tea set, let em use it!

Kids enjoy scaled down versions of everyday objects. Maybe it lets them feel larger or maybe such things are easier to use. Every now and then, let your children eat from tiny dishes. No need for a tea set; you probably have the perfect sizes in your cupboard. Use the smallest appetizer plate for a dinner plate, a ramekin for soup or cereal, and a shot glass or other tiny vessel for a beverage. Baby forks and spoons are already miniature utensils. Smaller dish sizes automatically scale down portion size, meaning kids might actually have room for tiny second and third helpings. Encourage kids to serve themselves. They can refill glasses using a tiny pitcher, creamer, or even a small measuring cup with a spout. I know teenagers who still think that eating with tiny dishes is a hoot.

 

Focus on companionship

Making healthy foods fun for kids.

Togetherness is as important as taste. Make that more important! (CC by 2.0,  Mark)

When eating is about companionship, it builds positive associations between healthy food and togetherness. Relaxed conversation also de-emphasizes who eats how much of what. Kids who eat family meals regularly tend to have better dietary behavior as teens. And family discussions also boost brainpower.

 

Make fruits and vegetables the first course

Put a somewhat different selection of produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries.

Put produce on the table while you make dinner. It chases away the hungries in a healthy way.

This is one way to take advantage of hunger to develop lean eating habits. Fruits and vegetables are brimming with nutrients but low in calories, so a first course of produce makes sense. Plus, studies show that snacking this way spurs kids to eat more veggies during the meal as well. Simply put different fruits and vegetables on the table while you’re cooking, after sports practice, or whenever appetite hits. Liven it up on occasion with a variety of kid-friendly dips and spreads.

 

Make faces

Of course you should play with your food! (Thanks to At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Play with your food! (Check At Second Street for plate painting instructions.)

Paint distinctive “face” plates with a simple outline of eyes, nose, and mouth. You can do this at one of those decorate-your-own pottery places or paint them at home as Second Street does. If you’d rather buy them ready-made, purchase a face plate like  Fred and Friends Food Face or one from the ThoughtfulTot Etsy shop.  Face plates let kids arrange a different visage at each meal: maybe spaghetti hair with a green-bean mouth at dinner tonight, then a tortilla beard sporting black-bean lips and salsa eyebrows at lunch tomorrow.

 

 

Accept help in the kitchen, garden, and market

Hands on ways to make healthy food fun.

Kids want to get involved. (CC by 2.0 Stephanie Sicore)

Better yet, expect help. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, hands-on responsibilities increase maturity and builds skills they’ll need throughout life. Let your mutual interest in great taste (and a speedy dinner) translate into enjoyable time together.  You know that stage when two-year-olds beg to help with whatever you’re doing? That’s the time to start saying yes. The younger you let kids help, the better. It won’t be long before you’ll have kids who are fully capable of making dinner for YOU.

 

 

Eat like a monster 

Healthy food fun for kids.

Or a vampire. Or a zombie. (CC by 2.0  rhobinn)

There’s nothing wrong with pretzel-stick fences over cheese slice sunsets or broccoli trees sprouting from mashed-potato landscapes, as long as the kids are the ones who create and then cheerfully devour the scenery. It’s also fun to chow down adorable meals like those shown in such books as Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food, Tiny Food Party!,  and Funny Food: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts.  Remember, you won’t have to say, “What do you mean you’re not eating your dinosaur pancake!” if you make sure kids have had a hand making it. Use books like these as a starting point for inspiration. And don’t forget to make monster noises as you bite the nose off an elephant-shaped sandwich.

 

Try muffin-tin meals

Muffin tin meals.

Healthy little bites for a fun meal. (CC by 2.0  Melissa)

This worked wonders for my four kids when they were small. We called them Super Snacks. Each child got a six-cup muffin tin. We filled the six openings with different offerings in small amounts. The compartments kept each food item from the sin of touching another food, and the concept was novel enough that my kids were more willing to try something new. Back then, I thought I’d made up the muffin-tin meal concept, but it turns out lots of parents do the same thing. Well, not quite the same; they’re much more clever. Check out Muffin Tin Mondays.

 

Grow it 

How to make healthy family meals fun.

Gardening grows kids who like fresh food. (CC by 2.0 NCVO London)

If you have the space for garden or there’s nearby community garden, put your child in charge of at least one planting. A child is much more likely to eat a homegrown crop, especially after tucking peas in the ground and watching the seedlings emerge, grow, and flower. And peas, like many freshly harvested plants, are particularly tasty eaten right as they’re plucked from the vine, still warm from the sun. To avoid the misery of weeding, you might want to use a natural weed barrier method to keep them to a minimum.  There are plenty of ways to garden if you don’t have access to a bit of dirt. Start a jar of sprouts on the counter. Try container gardening, such as a pot of peppers on the balcony or a window planter of basil. You might even try an upside-down planter, or geek out by creating a vertical window garden on your own. For more ideas, check out books like Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children and Kids’ Container Gardening: Year-Round Projects for Inside and Out.

 

Get closer to your food origins

Getting kids to eat healthy.

Make bread as your ancestors did.

Try making cheese, butter, bread, and other staples from scratch. Go to pick-your-own farms. Your kids will be eager to dig into baskets of blueberries and bags of apples for a taste, but they’re just as likely to be eager to try radishes, endive, broccoli, pecans, and other treats they pick themselves. Join a CSA that encourages members to donate time on the farm. Explore your own ethnicity through food by reconnecting with the recipes, stories, and heritage that are part of your background. (Try asking grandparents and great-grandparents for their food memories. And their recipes!) Your enthusiasm can spark the same in your kids.

 

Make eating new, unusual, or typically kid-scorned foods a privilege

Getting kids to eat well.

Enjoy your food with gusto, but don’t coerce kids into trying a bite.

Rather than family policies such as “Try just three bites” or “Clean your plate,” you avoid the pressure of overt encouragement. You might say, “Would you like to try it?” rather than automatically giving a serving. You might wait until your child asks for a bite of what the adults are eating. I found it powerful to imply that the dish is something the child is more likely to enjoy when older. Any of these tactics puts the emphasis on the pleasure found in unfamiliar foods. You can’t enforce taste.

 

 

Look forward to cooking

Fun with healthy food.

Bite right into the heart of a heart-shaped pizza. (CC by 2.0 woodleywonderworks)

Talk about foods you want to try. Watch food shows together. Develop an archive of cooking videos that inspire you. Heck, consider filming your own cooking videos. Page through food magazines together to find recipes you’d both like to try. Regularly use cookbooks aimed at young cooks, such as Mom and Me Cookbook,
Southern Living: Kids Cookbook, and Mollie Katzen’s Salad People and More Real Recipes.

 

Take it outside

Getting kids to eat well.

Breakfast tastes better on the porch. (CC by 2.0 David Goehring)

A meal or snack is instantly more delightful when you take it outside. Sit on the front steps or under a tree with your plate. Pack an impromptu picnic and take it to the park. Wrap up in snowsuits to drink cocoa out of a thermos. You might even, as my Eastern European friends do, wait until a bright winter day to take a hike and cook dinner over a fire.

 

 

Ramp up the entertainment value with friends

Yes, it's quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

Yes, it’s quite possible your kids will be more adept in the kitchen than you. (CC by 2.0 Coqui the Chef)

If your kids are young, offer a simple cooking class for your children and their friends in your own kitchen. If your kids are teens, let them sign up together for a class at a cooking school to learn pastry techniques or the secrets of French cuisine. Encourage kids of any age to start a regular cooking club. It’s a great way for them to socialize while creating menus, and shopping lists, and then cooking the dishes they’ve chosen. Let them build on their interests. They may want to devote one session to making foods mentioned in a favorite movie and the next session to making bento-box lunches.

 

When your kids regard cooking, baking, and food experimentation as great ways to spend time, they’re well on their way to understanding the allure of good food.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Wired.com

Educate for Conformity or Educate for Innovation?

Do we educate for innovation or conformity?

Image: CC by 2.0 Laurence Simon

David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers is a captivating look at Orville and Wilbur Wright. The brothers were considered peculiar, aloof, single-minded,  solemn, and obsessively drawn to their own pursuits. Neither of these self-taught engineers possessed a high school diploma. In pursuit of their ambitions, the Dayton, Ohio men spent weeks at a time camping on the sand of steamy, mosquito-infested Kitty Hawk, N.C. in order to study flight as directly as possible. There they watched seabirds for hours, sometimes flapping their wrists and elbows to better understand the motion of bird wings.  Local residents assumed these two awkward, unsociable men were “nuts.”

As I read this book I’m reminded of kids I know. Kids lit from within by their own enthusiasms. Kids with labels and kids without.  Kids like mine, kids like yours.

One of those kids is named Aiden.  He attends a regular third grade classroom and, because he’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, he also has an aide for part of the day. Her job is to reinforce, over and over, the exacting demands of his assignments along with other classroom requirements.  (We now know too much help can be counterproductive.) His aide says Aiden quickly comprehends the material but sees little purpose in doing assignments to prove it. His resistance is growing. He reminds me a little of another boy labeled “underachiever.”

Aiden spends hours each week with various therapists working on his speech and coordination.  His progress is tracked in excruciating detail and he’s made aware, sometimes minute to minute, where his deficits lie. It’s exhausting for him. He’s bored. He’s frustrated. He wants to do what he’s interested in and that means anything that has to do with bicycles.

Aiden reads adult-level books about bike repair, bike trips, and bike history. He’s memorized the offerings in bike catalogs from different manufacturers down to individual parts. He draws plans of bikes and will talk at length about them. His dream is to build a self-designed bicycle. Experts assure Aiden’s parents that their son must not be allowed to indulge in his love of bike-related learning except as a reward for meeting incremental goals in school and therapy. Aiden’s mother says when she follows their advice Aiden becomes withdrawn, often barely speaking at all. “He’s himself when it has anything to do with bikes,” she says.  “He just comes alive.”

His mother never expected Aiden to have problems in school since he’s so obviously intelligent. She saw signs of this early on.  As a toddler Aiden was skilled at putting together increasingly difficult puzzles. He was mesmerized by anything with wheels, especially his toy cars but also the wheels on bikes and strollers. He’d lie with his head on the ground slowly moving any object with wheels back and forth to observe the movement. He was also able to draw perfect circles, interlocking them in complicated patterns. When he was about 18 months old his eager engagement with people had noticeably declined. So had his early verbal skills. He became a quiet little boy wrapped in his own fascinations.

When I ask her to talk about Aiden’s best times she describes what many of us consider our own best times —-when we’re deeply absorbed in a state of flow or struck by awe at the world around us. One of those times was when Aiden was four years old. His grandfather, who has since passed away, came for a visit with three bicycles he’d picked up on trash collection day. He and Aiden spent an entire day fixing those bikes together. His mother said he still talks about that day. Another time his family drove to Ohio to visit the Bicycle Museum of America.  Aiden was wonder struck, spending hours looking carefully at each display. This is a memory he cherishes. (Each to his own, his sister describes that place as the most boring ever).

Many children develop unevenly.  Asynchronous development is particularly common in gifted children. A child may show artistic promise and read as well as students many years older, yet be well below grade level in math. All sorts of attention is focused on getting that math score up rather than letting the child’s best abilities afford her a strong sense of self, a sense that she’s capable of learning whatever she’s ready to learn, to let her discover all sorts of ways to love math as it reinforces her artistic and literary inclinations. Our strengths have a way of helping us learn more while pulling our abilities up in all areas, a concept often called  by snappy terms like customized education and personalized learning.  (A concept homeschoolers already know inside and out.)

Aiden’s fascination with bicycles is teaching him history, geometry, physics, technical drawing, and much more  —- a self-education far more in-depth than the curriculum he’s expected to follow. Yet the very thing he loves is taken away until he meets the next demand, and the next, and the next.

We work hard to fit young people into the world of today, forgetting they are here to create the future through ideas, innovations, and solutions. A future that relies more on eccentricity than conformity.  A future where the most gifted rarely fit the norm. That doesn’t mean we must push our children toward what society considers greatness, but to recognize that living with meaning, joy, and purpose is also a form of greatness. Perhaps a far more necessary greatness.

We need to nurture our children in ways that brings forth who they are, what James Hillman calls the “acorn” that’s exhibited in a child’s particular fascinations. Let’s not blunt the (sometimes exasperating, often inexplicable) uniqueness every child brings to life by tossing a blanket over light that doesn’t shine as we expect it to. Let’s remember history is full of “peculiar” people whose unconventional ideas still send us aloft.

I Don’t Believe in Laziness

Guest post by Idzie Desmarais

I don’t think I believe in laziness. In fact, I’m almost certain I don’t.

In my imagination, I hear countless people gasp in shock and horror. What do you mean laziness isn’t a thing? Look around you, there are lazy people everywhere!

What I do believe is that a lot of people have a lot of really lousy ideas about what types of people are lazy and what laziness looks like. In our consumerist, capitalist, and highly competitive society, productivity (here being defined as the participation in monetary work in an economy built on a model of endless growth) is valued above pretty much everything else, and if you’re not either: a. working most of your waking hours for pay or b. in school preparing to be working most of your waking hours for pay, you’re probably just being lazy.

People like to talk about kids being lazy a lot. Lazy because they’re doing badly in school, or playing too much, or not doing their homework, or getting really stressed by school. And common wisdom says that kids are too lazy to do hard things like learning on their own terms, which is a frequent criticism unschoolers get from relatives, strangers, and random people on the internet.

I’d like to argue that whenever people see something they’d label as lazy, it’s really one of these other things they’re seeing instead.

People who are struggling, or even in crisis.

People with disabilities, mental illnesses, and chronic illnesses/chronic pain are very, very familiar with being considered lazy. Lazy because they’re not performing up to the standards of “normal,” healthy people, and if they just tried harder, thought more positively, and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, they could surely do better. Any children in school, who are learning (or not) in a high stress environment, with regular evaluations, and the threat of failing grades leading to summer school or even having to repeat a grade, are in a difficult enough position as it is. Add in the struggle of a disability or illness of some sort, and you’re expecting the impossible. You’re expecting someone to thrive in an environment and a lifestyle that they’re literally incapable of coping with. Then on top of that, they get called lazy, and blamed for the failings of a system that was not built for them. They get to feel worthless and like a failure, like they should be able to do better, even if they can’t. Though it’s compounded in children with physical or emotional difficulties, the reality that school is the problem not the student holds true for those without any illnesses or disabilities, as well. Schools weren’t built to be a nurturing, flexible environment in tune with how children naturally learn and grow, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a large portion of children struggle in such an institution.

People who feel lost, directionless, and unenthusiastic.

Sometimes, even if someone isn’t struggling in a major way, a way that could actually end up being a diagnosable illness, they’re still not doing so well. Maybe they have trouble getting excited about learning or doing anything much, they’re stressed out and uncertain about what they want to do or how they want to do it. This means they need people to help them figure things out, find some new pursuits, make any necessary changes to their environment, set some goals that feel good to the learner, or otherwise offer a supportive presence and helping hand. What someone who feels lost and uncertain doesn’t need is to be made to feel guilty about those feelings, or told they’re just being lazy.

People who like to daydream, whose learning is more internal and less visible.

In our culture there’s a common idea of what learning is supposed to look like. Children who are learning are supposed to look diligent, hard at work, focused, and possibly like they’re not having too good a time. Everyone learns in ways that don’t look like learning at least some of the time, but especially for some young learners, learning can be a very internal, non-structured process, involving lots of daydreaming and quiet time playing, thinking, and imagining. This isn’t laziness, just learning in ways that schools don’t tend to value.

People who learn in more energetic, kinesthetic ways, through play and exploration. 

This very much overlaps with the above. This is yet another learning preference that is largely ignored in school, to great detriment for many active, enthusiastic kids. There’s also a tendency for adults to think that kids who are just running around playing all the time are having way too much fun to actually be learning. This, of course, is not at all true, and luckily there’s more and more research showing the importance of play for children AND adults.

People with a sense of entitlement.

I’m leery about the word entitlement, simply because it’s so often lobbed at people in the same way lazy is, and for the same reasons. I don’t think it’s entitled to expect respectful treatment; access to food, water, healthcare and shelter; experiences that bring you joy; support when you’re having trouble; and a place in the world. Those are human rights, not something entitled millennials or children or name-the-group are unreasonably demanding. However, I do think a sense of entitlement exists, in people who believe that they’re more deserving of good things than others, who believe that by virtue of their birth or wealth or other attributes they’re better than others, or that they don’t have a duty to be generally polite and kind to those around them. Basically, there are people who don’t ever go out of their way to do anything for other people, and that’s really entitlement right there. But don’t call it laziness. Name it for what it is: a sense of superiority and lack of caring for others.

People who call themselves lazy.

Sometimes (okay, for many of us, often) we really want to do something, and yet we don’t start doing it. We start something, and then avoid doing it for weeks. We procrastinate endlessly. Then that little voice starts in our heads, “I guess I’m just lazy.” Well, I don’t think you are. I don’t think I am. I think it’s more likely either one of the above (struggles either big or small, a favoured learning style that doesn’t look productive), or perhaps most often fear. Fear of failure, fear you’re not smart enough or good enough to be doing what you want to do, fear of ridicule or criticism. Laziness might not exist, but fear most definitely does.

I also find myself wanting to ask, is “doing nothing” really so bad? Must we constantly be engaging in something productive? Why can’t we just relax, without having to justify whatever we’re doing to either ourselves or others? Something doesn’t have to be a “learning experience” to be worthwhile. Once we move past some puritanical (or maybe more capitalistic) mindset of having to be constantly engaged in something appropriately useful, we can really work on embracing all life has to offer, whether it’s useful to the economy or not. I don’t want to dissect the episode of Veronica Mars I just watched for any learning potential, I just want to enjoy it, and enjoy the discussions with my sister it sparks on the characters and plot and what we think might happen next…

Learning is always happening, whether we’re noticing it or not. But more importantly, just living, just existing and enjoying and working and playing and yes, learning, is enough. We don’t have to justify our very existence by being productive. Just being is good enough.

This is why I always wince when I hear the word lazy passing anyone’s lips. It’s demeaning, it further hurts children who are already struggling, makes people feel guilty and worthless, and just creates a horrible environment to live in, never mind for positive learning and growth. Learning happens best when people feel supported and challenged, not when they feel stressed and insecure, with people watching them in disapproval and muttering about laziness. If adults really care about learning, then they need to work on being more supportive and less critical, and erase the word lazy from their vocabulary, and the false concept of laziness from their minds.

Then we can all more easily get down to the joyful business of life learning.

 

Idzie Desmarais writes the popular blog I’m Unschooled. Yes, I Can Write where she focuses on unschooling, freedom-based education, and related subjects such as respectful parenting and youth rights. Keep up with her on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.  Thanks for sharing this post Idzie! 

 

Modeling Education on the Natural World

Skeeze, pixabay.com

Nature operates complex systems with awe-inspiring success. We see such systems in Monarch butterfly migration, spotted hyena hunting behavior, the day-to-day life of a honeybee colony, everywhere in nature.

The science of complexity tells us these systems cannot be fully understood when examined in isolation because they function as part of a larger whole. Perhaps surprising to us, complex systems flourish right near the edge of chaos. That’s how nature works.

Any self-organizing system, including a human being, is exquisitely cued to maintain equilibrium. Yet that equilibrium can’t hold for long. That’s a good thing. Consider the pulse fluttering in your wrist. The heart rates of healthy young people are highly variable while, in contrast, the beat of a diseased or very elderly heart is much more regular. An overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

We are attuned to minute fluctuations in our bodies as well as in the world around us and are capable of almost infinite responses to regain balance. Some of these responses occur at a level we can’t consciously detect. Change or disturbance at any level functions as a stimulus to create new options.

Each time we are destabilized, these elegant and complex processes at our disposal give us ways to regain balance. The more potential responses we have, the greater our adaptability.

To me, this has everything to do with education. It tells me that we’re perfectly suited to expand our learning infinitely outward as long as we are not confined by sameness, limited variables, and inflexibility.

As an example, lets compare a curriculum used in a second grade classroom to a flock of Canada geese migrating north. It seems obvious that the geese are all the same species heading in the same direction, surely far less complex than an up-to-date curriculum supported by all sorts of educational resources and a well-trained teacher. But lets look more closely. Geese are self-organized into a highly adaptive system while the curriculum is not. The geese choose to migrate based on a number of factors. Unlike curricula, geese don’t operate by standardized data nor is there any flock leader telling them when it’s time to leave.

Geese fly in V-shaped formations. Flying together is far less physically stressful than flying alone. Each bird flies slightly ahead of the next bird so there’s substantially less wind resistance. Because they’re flying in formation, their wings need to flap less frequently and their heart rates stay lower, helping them conserve energy for the long flight. Flying in formation helps the birds communicate and follow the route more efficiently. They also take turns leading at the head of the V, the most difficult position. Each lead goose is smoothly replaced by another member of the flock after a short turn. That way no single goose is more essential than any other for the flock’s migration. The entire flock is able to respond and adapt to a whole range of conditions.

education complex system,

John Benson, wikimedia commons

In contrast, that second grade curriculum is tightly structured and largely inflexible. It was written thousands of miles away, far removed from the day-to-day interests and concerns of the students or their teacher. Each lesson is broken down into rubrics to better measure adherence to specific standards and is mandated by lawmakers who are heavily influenced by the $81,523,904 spent by industry lobbyists in one year. Students and their teacher are judged by tests put in place by education corporations, even though improved test scores are not associated with success in adulthood.  Learning cued to real world uses, learning that is based on readiness rather than rigid timetables, is real learning. 

Nearly every variable is limited by the curriculum and overall school structure. The most enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is afforded no real time to let students explore subjects in greater depth or to try innovative educational approaches. The fewer potential variables, the more it adaptability is diminished. Remember, an overly stable system is rigid, unchanging, and eventually collapses.

Instead, a truly viable education is modeled on the natural world.  After all, we are living natural systems ourselves.

What principles are found in sustainable ecosystems?

  • cross-pollination
  • diversity
  • self-assembly
  • interdependence
  • adaption
  • balance
  • an undeniable tendency toward beauty

Such principles support and enhance life. These principles can form the core of a living system of education as well. All we need to add is joy.

Based on an excerpt from Free Range Learning.

Game of Slurs

Game of Slurs

image: tawnynina

Interactions in my family are, for lack of a better word, droll. Have been practically since the kids could talk.

droll       drōl      adjective
  1. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement.

That extends to improbably silly games. There were the word-nerdy ones my kids played using the dictionary and the ones they played on unwitting participants. There were games played while doing chores (for example, sliding across floors they were washing together) and, as they got older, ever drier commentary on each other’s interests. One long-standing game, played for at least a decade, is one my kids made up on their own. It’s a clever way to get around adults’ pesky rules about being “nice.”  I (being impartial) think it’s quite clever.

Fair warning, the game is not for everyone. I suppose it could be titled something pleasant like Creative Name Calling but this unnamed game is really a Game of Slurs.  To play you need two people. Two siblings, two friends, or a parent and child. What these two do, pretty basically, is take turns calling each other amusing insults. (I said it wasn’t for everyone.) So it might go this way between two five-year-olds.

“You’re a donkey nose!”

“Oh yeah, you’re a stinker butt,”

“Well you have ants in your pants.”

“You have ants and wasps and beetles in your pants and your pants are falling down.”

As you might imagine, this can go on. Kids are thrilled to call each other humorous names without getting in trouble. “We’re playing a game Mom!” Somehow, at least as we’ve played, it never crosses over the line into truly hurtful name-calling. That’s the beauty of made-up games. If one participant is nasty, the other participant won’t want to keep playing. Game over, fun over.

Game of Slurs doesn’t consist simply of name-calling. It has a momentum that drives it to an inevitable resolution. That’s the most clever part. Because the winner is the person who ends the game by saying something over-the-top nice when it’s his turn. Super sloppy wonderful superlatives. For five-year-olds it’s something like,”You’re the best, most wonderful brother in the whole world.”

“Awwww!” the other ones shouts, because HE didn’t give in to the desire to win first.

That’s the tension that gives the game it’s momentum. But participants are getting away with something that feels illicit and they don’t want to stop. They’re caught up laughing at what silly names the other person is calling them and what they’re going to say back. They know either of them can win at any time but that’s counterbalanced by a desire to keep playing, to call out one more insult and then one more after that. Such a game helps develop all sorts of valuable skills like tempering one’s words appropriately, improving verbal acuity, and delaying gratification. These things are learned more fully in play than in instruction.

In a way, Game of Slurs reinforced the usually decent levels of civility between my kids. Name-calling, when it happened outside the game, led right into the game. If you give it a try, play carefully the first few times. Find the humor and dance well away from insult. I bet you’ll find it fun too.

Oh, by the way, teens are even better at this game. Hilariously better. I swear playing it serves as a tonic for the inevitable annoyances of family life. Game of Slurs between parent and offspring may be the most deliciously fun of all.

Earthbound

Earthbound

 

Are we supposed to settle for a planet

lagging behind our expectations?

We want reversible time,

admission into past or future

easy as changing our minds.

We want teleportation, so we can

zip anywhere for the afternoon,

maybe Iceland or Argentina,

where we’ll make new friends,

agree to meet up for lunch

next week in Greece

on only an hour’s break.

 

We want to get past

greed and suffering and war,

enough already.

And death? That’s awfully primitive

for souls with so much left to learn.

 

That said, this planet does a lot right.

Birds, for one.

Water in all its perfect manifestations.

Those alive poems called trees.

The way a moment’s glance

can reveal a kindred spirit.

 

Which we all are, really.

The oneness between self and everything

is this planet’s secret, kept imperfectly.

That’s more than we might expect.

Although time travel would be nice.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

First published in Dove Tails, An International Journal of the Arts. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

An Underachiever Named Bart

I was a good student. I wrote neatly and handed my work in on time. Sure, I got in trouble a few times in the early grades, like the time my teacher called home to tell my mother I was a liar. And I had a chronic tendency to get lost in a book during instruction time but in general I was so ridiculously conscientious about my work that teachers would put troublemakers next to my desk in hopes that I’d be a good influence.

For several years I was seated next to a kid named Bart. He was a wiry, high energy kid whose dryly witty asides made it ever more painful for me to pretend I wasn’t laughing. Sometimes he’d blurt out a particularly hilarious observation loud enough for our classmates to hear. The kids would laugh, the teacher would scold. Bart was very smart, especially gifted in math, but he wasn’t very motivated about getting schoolwork finished. He didn’t pay much attention in class either, instead penciling sketches of race cars or caricatures of teachers. Like a lot of very gifted kids, he drifted through school.

I couldn’t imagine why he just didn’t, as our teachers would say, “apply himself.” All the adults in our lives reinforced the same narrow principle: Do the work, follow the rules, and you’ll grow up to be a success.  If I was feeling particularly devout, I’d include Bart and a few other “troubled” kids in my prayers asking that they might have a decent future too.

Once, when we were in fifth grade, Bart and I had a real conversation, the sort that’s rare between boys and girls that age. It was brief and the exact language is lost to time, but he told me something I’d never heard. Never even considered. Basically he said I was the dupe. School itself was a game and we were the pawns. Why did I play along?

It took me a long time to fully understand what he meant, but this changed my opinion of him completely. Bart was honest. He wasn’t an underachiever. He certainly wasn’t troubled. Instead, he did what interested and challenged him, tolerating as much as possible what didn’t. He used ironic humor to express his views of the institution trapping him. I realized he had far more integrity than anyone I knew. He was true to himself.

Our school district was large, so it wasn’t hard to lose track of Bart once we moved on to middle school and high school. I spent those years in clouds of existential angst. I read stacks of ever more complex books, tried to parse out the meaning in music lyrics, and stumbled (often literally) through adolescence.

Meanwhile Bart was doing far more interesting work of his own. His father, wisely, didn’t hassle him much about school. Instead he encouraged Bart’s fascination with computers. Well before the net was available to the public, teenaged Bart was already building search engines for IBM mainframes. Some say that it’s parents, more than teachers, who make the difference in advancing a gifted child’s interests. Bart’s dad seemed to understand that.

What Bart explained to me back when we were 10-year-olds had a profound effect on my worldview. But I hadn’t thought of him for years until a friend told me she’d run into him at our high school reunion. She said there was one guy who looked younger, more relaxed and happier than everyone else there. It was Bart. The rest of our classmates were loaded with financial obligations while Bart had happily retired at 40. He was engaged in charity work and enjoying life.

Bart changed his name to one more common to avoid the publicity common to wildly successful people, so I won’t reveal too many details about him here. What I can say is that Bart’s early work advanced the capabilities of search engines and his advancements are still in use today. This alone made him wealthy enough to retire at 20-something. But he went on to make significant advancements in physics, the space program, and health.

Underachiever indeed.

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.  ~John Holt

Pregnancy Loss to Newborn Wonder

pregnancy loss, ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

“Do you know what day this is?” Dr. Hasan asked me as I held my newborn son. He stood by my hospital bed looking at both of us with an odd expression. My doctor and I had been through a lot together, but I’d never seen that expression before. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“My son’s birthday,” I answered cheerfully, then turned back to gaze in fierce adoration at the baby in my arms.

He looked again at the chart in his hand and said, “Exactly one year ago to the day I performed the surgery on you. Exactly.” Then my face, I’m sure, reflected back a similarly odd expression, the sort of look that can’t fully convey how odd  synchronicity can be.

A year and a few weeks before my son’s birth something painful began to happen to my body, something I didn’t understand nor did the doctors I consulted until it was almost too late. That night I nursed my toddler to sleep, tucked my other two little ones in bed, and settled down to relax with a big bowl of popcorn and a new library book. I stayed up much later than usual and when I climbed into bed next to my husband I began to think I shouldn’t have eaten so much popcorn. The discomfort got worse. I told myself that I was dealing with indigestion, maybe even a gall bladder attack, although I’d never felt such shooting pain. I spent much of the night on the floor next to the bed in various yoga positions trying to find a way to rest. But each time my husband woke up to ask if I was okay I told him I’d just eaten too much popcorn and I’d be fine. He threatened, at some point near dawn, to call an ambulance. By then the stabbing pain had ebbed to a tolerable dullness and my toddler was up, so I started another busy day.

I made it though that day and the next before I realized the pain, although it came and went, wasn’t improving. I was barely able to get through preparations for a Memorial Day picnic. So I got visiting family members to babysit and drove myself to the ER. I almost didn’t stay. Hospitals bulge with extra patients on holiday weekends and no one took a young person with abdominal pain very seriously. I kept thinking of my children and how soon I could get back to them. When I was finally seen by a doctor, he couldn’t find any signs of appendicitis or infection. I was sent for an x-ray. In the hallway waiting for the test I had to sign a form attesting that I wasn’t pregnant. I figured there was always a chance. So they jabbed me for a quick pregnancy test. That caused another delay and again I wondered if I should just get up and go home. I found out in that crowded hallway that I was indeed pregnant.

Suddenly they took the pain more seriously and admitted me for overnight observation. I was preoccupied with worried about the separation from my nursing toddler and my two older children. A friend of ours, an internist, came by and told me I was a “pregnant blooming rose.” I didn’t feel like one. The doctors were taking every precaution to protect the new pregnancy. I was examined by several doctors. Each one wanted to know exactly how much pain I was in. I tried to explain that most of the time it was tolerable, like walking around with a headache, except in my belly.

The resident, a man with beautiful brown eyes and long dreads, told me that women with small children are the most difficult to diagnose. He said they diminish their symptoms, without even realizing it, in order to be present for their children. He asked me to close my eyes and try thinking only of my body as I described what I was feeling. I tried to be fully aware of my abdomen and when I did, I saw a horrible darkness. I was suddenly afraid that the baby was there to warn me that I was dying of some terrible disease. I opened my eyes, looked at this kind man, and couldn’t think of a way to explain that fearful darkness to him.

I was sent home with instructions to come back every three days for a blood test to determine pregnancy hormone levels, which would insure that the pregnancy was proceeding. For nearly a week the levels were within normal limits. Although I feigned good spirits for the sake of my kids, I was barely hanging on. Normally I research everything but I couldn’t muster the energy to read let alone explore the possible reason for my symptoms. In fact, I could no longer eat. Whatever I’d eaten days before felt stuck in my body like a boulder. The pains came and went with sharp intensity. While pushing a cart through the grocery store the pain bent me double. I pretended I was picking something off the floor so my children didn’t worry. One afternoon, as a friend and I sat in her backyard watching our kids play together I curled up on a lawn chair in the blazing summer sun shivering and asked for a blanket. My mind kept drifting to the darkness I’d seen. The next blood test found my levels were dropping. I was told the pregnancy was no longer viable. I would need exploratory surgery.

I had no idea what Dr. Hasan was concerned about until I went to pre-admission testing the day before my surgery. I was examined by the first female doctor I’d seen throughout this crisis. She was outraged on my behalf. She told me it was possible I had an ectopic pregnancy which could burst and threaten my life with internal bleeding. I hadn’t considered that nearly two weeks of pain could be related to something so acute. I still remembered when a friend’s mother went through an ectopic pregnancy years before. She’d felt unbearable pain, nearly died in the ambulance, and her blood loss was so severe that one of the paramedics lay on a gurney next to her at the hospital to provide a direct transfusion. She survived but was never able to have children again. This doctor told me the shoulder pain I was also experiencing was an ominous sign, signaling that I may already be hemorrhaging. She didn’t want to let me stand and walk out of her office, literally to move at all. She made a few phone calls and then angrily told me that it had been decided I would be fine until I came back for surgery the following morning. It was the only time a doctor ever walked me to the elevator and watched me until the doors closed.

Dr. Hasan came out to talk to my husband during the surgery the next day. He said I was so packed with old blood that he had to “unload” the contents of my abdominal cavity and pick apart clots that were strangling my intestines and compressing my organs. He explained that he’d sent several masses to the lab for tests and prepared my husband for a possible diagnosis of cancer. The surgery dragged on most of the day. By the time I was wheeled to recovery the doctor had determined that I’d suffered an ovarian pregnancy that had burst some time ago. The blood had limited the function of my pancreas and several other organs and I already had a serious infection. He wasn’t going to rule out cancer until all possible lab tests were in by the next day. My husband wisely kept these details and his fears from my parents, only giving them the good news when the lab tests came back clear.

I wasn’t aware of any of this. My health insurance company wanted me discharged after three days even though I couldn’t sit up or remain conscious for long. My doctor battled for an extension and lost, so they discharged me in paperwork only and readmitted me. I was aware of none of this. Going home after six days was still extremely difficult. Despite all I’d been through, I recovered quickly in the next few weeks. When I walked in Dr. Hasan’s office for a one month post-surgical check up he couldn’t believe how fit and energetic I looked. He cautioned me when I asked about trying for another baby. He said my chances were very slim. I had only one ovary left and he wasn’t sure how much function it had due to damage from internal bleeding.

Amazingly I was pregnant only three months after my surgery. Science tells us the cells of babies we’ve carried even for a short time, will be with their mothers into old age, and I thought of the child I lost. That baby taught me so much about healing and hope and giving voice to my pain.

My labor with this fourth child was unlike my first three. For hours my hands radiated so much heat that I was given ice packs to hold. They melted quickly, so nurses kept giving me new ice packs. One nurse in the birthing room said she could see waves of heat around my hands. It felt too strange for words. I wondered what energy I’d contained that was now manifesting.

Finally our son Samuel arrived. His birth came exactly a year after my husband sat all day in the waiting room afraid I might die, the day the darkness was taken out of me so life could flourish again.

ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting

 

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What’s the difference between David Hahn and Taylor Wilson’s pursuit of science?

Back when the boys in our regular book club were preteens and young teens, one of the books that really caught their attention was The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. It’s the true tale of David Hahn, a very gifted teen who became obsessed with learning everything he could about nuclear energy. Hahn gathered materials for experiments in all sorts of enterprising ways, even getting his hands on reactor plans. His father and stepmother forbade him from doing further experiments in the house after his efforts resulted in several chemical spills and small explosions. So he moved in with his mother and used her backyard potting shed for a hugely ambitious endeavor: building a model breeder nuclear reactor. His reactor hadn’t reached critical mass when evidence of his project was discovered during a routine traffic stop. That potting shed was deemed a Superfund site and cleaned up by the EPA in 1995.

Something astonished the boys in our group more than Hahn’s extraordinary project.  They couldn’t understand why no one reached out to foster Hahn’s powerful intellect nor guided him to adult scientists who could have more safely helped him explore his interests. Maybe the boys in our group were so surprised because, as homeschoolers, we’d been accustomed to folding science interests into our days as naturally as we ate when hungry. And we’d had great success asking experts to share what they know with interested kids.

Hahn grew up, but didn’t go on to get advanced degrees or research grants. Instead he’s served in the military, been arrested for stealing smoke detectors (a source of the radioactive substance americium), struggled with mental health problems, and still does what he can to pursue his science passions with math skills he says are limited.

Hahn’s experience is radically different from that of another extraordinarily gifted teen who started investigating all things radioactive at an even younger age.

how to raise a gifted child,

Digging up yellowcake. (image permission: Tom Clynes/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Taylor Wilson, at 14 years old, became “one of only thirty-two individuals on the planet to build a working fusion reactor.”

What’s the difference?

Do scientifically gifted kids advance due to sheer curiosity alone? Or is it absolutely essential to have parents and other adults who foster that curiosity as far as those kids want to go?

That’s a central theme in The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star, a book by Tom Clynes about Taylor Wilson.

The book is alarming, especially with the danger inherent in Taylor’s early pyrotechnic and later radioactive projects.

But it’s more alarming to consider how many children are unable to explore their gifts as Taylor and his brother did through their growing up years. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three to five million gifted school aged children in the U.S.  That’s about six to 10 percent of the population. And even in prestigious gifted programs, the emphasis is on college prep, giving very few young people the freedom to explore unusual interests. As Clynes warns,

Everyone’s heard the bright-kid-overcomes-all anecdotes. But the bigger picture, based on decades of data, shows that these children are the rare exceptions. For every such story, there are countless nonstories of other gifted children who were unnoticed, submerged, and forgotten in homes and schools ill-equipped to nurture extraordinary potential.

The book is also inspiring. That’s not due to Taylor’s accomplishments alone. It includes his parents and many other adults who have done everything possible to advance his interests. It’s true, few of us have the business and social connections Taylor’s father could access. He made a few calls to have a full-sized construction crane brought for Taylor’s sixth birthday party and spoke to a senator in order to get his 11-year-old son a tour of a shut-down nuclear reactor.

His parents were also able to connect Taylor with expert mentors. That’s pivotal when most high-achieving adults say having a mentor was vital to their success, yet meaningful mentorship opportunities are scarce in today’s educational environments.

The overall approach Taylor’s parents took is exactly what gifted education specialists prescribe. As Clynes writes, this has to do with “staying involved and supportive without pushing them, letting them take intellectual risks, and connecting them with resources and mentors and experiences that allow them to follow and extend their interests.”

We’ve found that supporting a child’s fascination with science (and every other subject) is about saying yes. It has little to do with spending money, more to do with putting time into expanding on a child’s interests without taking over. Clynes agrees, reminding parents that they play a pivotal role.

…We parents believe our own children deserve exceptional treatment. And the latest science actually supports our intuition that our children are gifted. A growing body of academic research suggests that nearly all children are capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise and that the processes that guide the development of talent are universal; the conditions that allow it to flourish apply across the entire spectrum of intellectual abilities. Parents, the primary creators of a child’s environment, are the most important catalysts of intellectual development. While there’s no single right way to rear a gifted kid, talent-development experts say there are best practices for nurturing a child’s gifts in ways that lead to high achievement and happiness.

Here are some of those best practices.

  • Starting young, expose children to all sorts of places. “Early novel experiences play an important role in shaping the brain systems that enable effective learning, creativity, self-regulation, and task commitment.” (It’s notable that Taylor’s experiences were nearly all hands-on, especially in his early years.)
  • Pay attention to signs of strong interest, then offer the freedom to explore those passions. Studies show strong interests are often fleeting windows of opportunity for talent development that may fizzle if the child doesn’t have opportunities to cultivate them. “Don’t be afraid to pull your kids out of school to give them an especially rich and deep learning experience, especially when it relates to something they’re curious about.”
  • Don’t worry if strong passions don’t develop early on. The learning process has a way of taking off on its own whenever kids find a passion.
  • The major role for parents of children with intellectual or other passions is to facilitate, not push, by connecting them with resources that continue to expand on that interest. Emphasize opportunities for hands-on experience.

Taylor has gone on to develop a prototype that can more inexpensively produce isotopes for medical use and a radiation detector that will more easily secure borders against nuclear terrorists. He is now 21 years old and a recipient of a two-year Thiel Fellowship. Rights to a movie based on his story have already been acquired.

Clynes closes the last page with this reminder.

Whether we use it or not, we have the recipe…parents who are courageous enough to give their children wings and let them fly in the directions they choose; schools that support children as individuals; a society that understands the difference between elitism and individualized education and that addresses the needs of kids at all levels.

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Talent, steered toward accomplishment. (image permission: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)