How Do You Stay Hopeful?

We are living in times that can overwhelm even the sturdiest among us. Each day’s news seems increasingly hard to bear. As the months drag by it wears us down in different ways. Outrage and anguish can fray our bodies. Addressing too many issues can fracture our effectiveness. Cynicism or complacency can hide our hearts, even from ourselves.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and Twitter seeking to find what others are doing to hold themselves up.  My question:

Please tell me what you are doing to remain hopeful in these times. If you are doing something, anything, to help turn the tide toward ethics and common sense please share that too.

A welcome tide of hope rushed back at me. I found it interesting that nearly all of it had to do with nurturing — nurturing relationships, creativity, possibilities, balance, and compassion. Here are some of the hope-inducing insights friends shared with me.

Find balance

Strengthening myself with compassionate activities like gardening, yoga and reading books by great minds. Really trying to be a better listener without feeling the need to always respond. Trying my best to raise empathetic kids who in turn will carry the torch on their own.

I kind of feel like light shines twice as bright in so much darkness.   ~Tobias Whitaker

Almost every Monday morning since the inauguration a small group of us meet at a local coffee shop and write postcards to our legislators. We also make phone calls and send faxes. Being with like-minded people helps. This week I am spending time with a great group of women in a cottage at a lake, eating, drinking, discussing books and authors and recharging my batteries.   ~Betty Kramer

I’ve never done anything that fills me with more hope than raising my little boy. The equation seems so clear. I put in love, reasonable limits, and real time in the moment and he grows up curious and kind. I reach out to  make our apartment a gathering place for other mothers too. We have a lot of hope that our generation can make a difference.   ~Rosie

I have planted seeds and trees, and I’ve spent time with the littles in the family. I’m doing some stuff in the studio, making things I love. I’ve registered young people to vote, and stood on a street corner on a cold winter morning honoring the kids who are organizing for change. I walk and/or hike almost daily. I drink good coffee. I send wee gifties to folks I care about, and leave things in public places to be found by strangers.

I rarely read the news, knowing that there is a lot of tough stuff going on. I am selective in what I listen to on the radio. I just, as my English mother-in-law used to say, keep chunking along.   ~Debra Bures

I keep working on getting people to vote. Two new voters yesterday! They previously did not vote because they did not like any of the options, but now see their responsibility…  Also, I get out in nature, with grandchildren, garden, sing, throw pots (but not against the wall). I’m involved with an amazing herbal healing group and love the alternative focus. I joined and participate in the Crooked River Timebank and that is a strong community building, for Mama Earth and her people, positive fun thing to be part of.    ~Carolyn Rames

 

Build connections

I talk to the person checking out my groceries. I ask the guy panhandling at the corner how he’s doing every single day and wait to hear what he’s got to say. I sit down with the maintenance guy in my building for a beer if he comes by. Clicking in with people does me good. The more people ignore each other the worse they make it.     ~Elgin

I find hope (lots and lots of hope) in the work of a group called Better Angels – here’s why. While attending our first convention I enjoyed three days of stimulating conversation with folks who politically are polar opposites and yet, because of a common desire to depolarize our country, we approached each other with positive intent and listened to one another with love. The goal? To learn to listen to understand how people think and believe – period. Not to debate to win or change another person’s mind. Just listen with love to hear and understand.  It was inspiring to say the least and, a universally positive experience for those who attended. As a result, my husband and I as well as many others both left and right leaning are committed to being trained to facilitate the peaceful exchange of ideas. We need to depolarize our country and we know that we can.   ~Leslie Boomer

Hone down to what you can do

I am working on getting my backyard certified as a backyard habitat for the National Wildlife Federation. I am also working at a glacial pace on 7 personal goals. I am trying to control a small portion of the world and make it better.   ~Katherine Clark

I am raising money to provide legal representation for immigrant children separated from their parents.   ~Brett

I decided to focus any activist leanings I have this year towards getting people to vote. I joined the local League of Women Voters and am trying to help with their events when I can.   ~Kathy

I stay involved in my community….serving on the board of directors and being active in my local community theatre, serving as President of the Friends of the Library and volunteering for the county parks. Being the change I want to see in the world starts with my neighborhood, imo. And I am raising daughters who are following my example.   ~Lissa

Look for what’s good

Focus on the world around and closest to you, those you love and touch and see and hear in your everyday life. We live in a time when choosing to separate yourself from the noisy, chaotic, distractions in the world is more difficult than ever, but even more essential. Essential for your own individual well-being, but I believe critical to humanity.

…Focus on the good. I guarantee if you look carefully at the world within your sphere of influence, those close to you, you will find goodness, strength and hope. You will be able to contribute to that. You will, in a very real sense, help to create peace in this world. I believe we can all do that. And if we did, can you imagine the impact?   ~Cheryl

Amplify beauty and meaning

My job as a music programmer for Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor is a huge help — booking musicians, hosting the shows and just being alongside people as they take a weekly break from all the craziness around us is a positive high point in every week. In a similar vein, hosting our house concert series keeps me grounded in my home, neighborhood and local community and gives me yet another opportunity to serve musicians, friends and family–all of whom are creative, vibrant, caring people doing their bit, every day, to “get us all back to the garden” which is my aim and goal as well. I post poetry on FB and I’ve been doing a “poetry post card” project with a friend of mine–we write a poem a day—or try to–on a postcard, sometimes adding a bit of art or whimsy to the cards–and we pop them in the post to each other. This also necessitates a walk into town to the PO (our postal carriers often neglect to pick up mail so I take it directly to the post office instead) and the walk takes me into my neighborhood–I get to see people, say “Hi” and maybe stop for a chat–I get some exercise and clear my head. I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep the world around me sane, centered and peaceful so I try to be deliberate in my choices, to choose, always, “the things that make for peace.”

I do experience discouragement–I sometimes feel that I’m not doing enough but I know that what I am doing is true to who I am–to my temperament, gifts and abilities and part of my effort is tuned to encouraging others who don’t feel as though they quite fit into the “activist” personality that they are still needed and that their gifts–their poetry, essays, music, food, presence–is “enough” because the last thing we need is a lot of people feeling helpless or getting the idea that there’s only one, right way to be “active” in making the world a better place.   ~Michelle Wilbert

Art, art, art (which includes writing). All forms of creative play. NOT watching or reading (so much of) the news. Meditation/chant/quiet time. And I’m a big subscriber to this way of thinking, as Cinelle Barnes said, “Sometimes, I think, laughing is a form of resistance. There’s nothing more annoying for an oppressor than to see the oppressed thriving in the midst of struggle. Joy is resistance, and so is hope.”   ~Paula Lambert

Do work that makes a difference

What brings me hope is how uncommonly simple it is to make peace person-to-person. This is my daily practice. I work front office for a high volume tire company dealing with customers, reps, employees, whatnot all day long. I do what needs to be done and at the same time consciously choose to see the person I’m dealing with as a Child of God (or soul or stillpoint or whatever you want to call it). It doesn’t take a second longer to pay attention with my eyes AND my spirit.  This changes everything for the better, believe me.   ~name withheld

The interviews I do for The MOON almost always inspire me. This morning I spoke with Earth Guardian Xiuhtezcatl, who has been a vocal champion for the Earth since he was six. He’s also a hip-hop artist and published author. His new book is “We rise.” Thank God.     ~Leslee Goodman

I am working with a local school to create a racially inclusive and safe community as well as advocate for youth.   ~Malaka

I find my job as a family therapist incredibly meaningful. I work with people who are greatly impacted by the political and economic realities, but who are also very resilient. For their sake I am able to rise above apathy. The personal relationship I develop with struggling clients fuels me to take greater steps in advocacy. By walking with them, just a little bit, I learn about the network of social services that is available. It seems that this network is fragile and not enough, but I meet incredible unsung professionals (social workers, teachers, therapists) who are good stewards of resources. There is energy in numbers. Oh, and I also don’t work more than my agency job description calls for. I go home and enjoy people I love.   ~Jennifer Olin-Hitt

My job is poorly paid and gets little respect, but I bring my all to it. I’m an aide in the 3 to 4-year-old section in one of St. Louis daycare companies. These little people are learning to express themselves, validate emotion, share, care, and analyze everything around them. No price can be put on their enthusiasm and love. I don’t know why today little kids don’t matter (or the people who watch them), but this is the future. After work I go home knowing I did my best.  ~Tiff

I signed six children up for Summer Reading today. And I accepted a donation of five hundred books from a woman’s mother’s estate; they will be sold to support educational programs for Cleveland youth at The Reading Room CLE.

I try to do what I can, and not spend energy on things I can’t control. So when the news went out that ICE was operating a checkpoint at 150th and Lorain, I shared the information, hoping to help people avoid the intersection. I don’t know what to do about this technically legal but horrifying behavior. Do we go take pictures? Protest? Knock over the ICE truck? I don’t know. I don’t know. But instead of spending the next three hours grieving into Facebook, I put down my computer, went out in my garage, and boxed books for the Reading Room. After three hours, I was exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. But those three hours will help children learn to read. I feel like that’s better than weeping into my laptop, alone, for an evening.

One more thing: all that weird, oddball stuff I do? My art, my performance poetry, my quirky fashion choices? People ask me where I get the ideas for these hobbies, what motivates me to spend my time on this stuff. But those are coping skills. They build my strength so I can stay healthy and help others. Our culture and economy depends on people using entertainment and pleasure-seeking to cope with the everyday brokenness of our lives. It works better, for me to be kind and creative. It works better than mani-pedis and salt baths and chocolate cake.    ~L.S. Quinn 

Take care of yourself

I’m immersed in news all day long. When I get home from work I ignore my phone. I go for a run with music in my ears and space between, have some dinner with my partner, then let the body tell me what it wants to do.  ~Jaxxon:

Spend as much time outside in the sunshine as humanly possible. (I can weep for humanity and get vitamin D at the same time!)   ~Kris Bordessa

I find that I have to continually pull myself back into the present moment to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom – to instead see from a more level-headed perspective. I try to remember to recenter and refrain from letting my body be impacted. I take care of refreshing my body, which is so closely connected to where the mind goes, and I get out into nature to keep an even bigger perspective.   ~Lillian Jones

I am cooking at home more. I’m growing pots on my balcony with peppers, tomatoes, and beans. When I make something homemade my senses are busy and I don’t think about how bad everything is getting, you know?  ~Franco

I’ve quit watching TV. And I’ve ramped up showing kindness to strangers and every person I meet at the library. Also, sending unspoken blessings to people on the highway as I commute. Finally, I’m donating food and money to the Sandusky immigrant cause. Just trying to turn up the light.   ~Laurie

As a friend of mine always says, “Read more poetry, eat more chocolate!”   ~Virginia Douglas

What about you? How do you stay hopeful?

 

 

 

 

 

How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.

Battered Blue Wheelbarrow

What It Carries, Still

Your father, whose voice scared me,

whose head loomed a full 14 inches over my mine,

bought us our only housewarming gift;

a bright blue, six cubic foot wheelbarrow.

We laughed at its size, laughed as you gave me

a bumpy ride over the first lawn

we giddily called our own.

 

He seemed to believe our future

would be one of Paul Bunyan-sized loads.

It was.

 

In it we hauled firewood, dirt, rocks,

crinkled leaves topped with squealing toddlers.

It held a big block Dodge engine.

It toted rolls of fencing, chicken feed, cow manure.

It carried trays of tender seedlings

out to the garden, waiting

as I blessed each one into soft earthen beds.

 

Today you mend the rusted body

of our battered blue wheelbarrow.

I wish your father lived to see

its wooden handles smoothed from use

and what it carries, still

on that one sure wheel.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Listening To People Without Voices

communicate with dementia patients, reading another person,

Image courtesy of polveredigrafite.deviantart.com

I got my first summer job when I was 13 years old.  My official title was “feeder.” This was my first exposure to time clocks and posted schedules. Also my first exposure to quite a bit more.

My grandparents had died a few years earlier after protracted illnesses, and like many others, I associated the sounds and smells of the unhealthy elderly with my own grief.

Before I started all I knew was that was supposed to wear a white uniform to work. On my first day I was informed my only task was to spoon-feed patients unable to feed themselves. The head nurse handed me a list of names with room numbers and told me I had to be done in two hours. “It doesn’t matter if you clock out late,” she said, “We aren’t paying you more than your allotted two hours.” Her swiftly delivered instructions were entirely lacking in useful information.

As I walked down the hall I discovered every resident there thought I was a nurse. Me, a girl who fell over her own feet. Me, a girl who could barely endure the sorrow of driving past a puppy chained to a tree, an unknown puppy whose imagined plight kept me upset for hours. Now I was surrounded by real plight.

Perilously frail people lined the hallway. Nearly every one of them sought my attention. They asked me to get them something urgent like a bedpan or a pill. They asked why they couldn’t go home or lie down or find something missing. They asked to simply to engage in a little conversation. I was overwhelmed.

One woman cried as she begged me to hold her hand. I smiled and nodded. As I listened to her cry I couldn’t help but steal glances at her hand’s bumpy joints and raised purple veins. I realized it had once been as strong and soft as mine. Time’s appetite made me feel as if the walls, floors, and ceiling were already collapsing.  But I had a job to perform. Surely hungry people were waiting for me. She wouldn’t let go. Not knowing what else to do, I crouched by her wheelchair there in the hallway and smiled weakly as I carefully uncurled her fingers from mine.

heart-based communication, transcending speech, speaking with people who can't speak,

Image courtesy of colinharbut.deviantart.com

The patients I was expected to feed lay hostage on narrow beds in identical rooms. Each person’s eyes stared, some directly at me and some at a place well beyond me. Trays of pureed food waited at each bedside. I had to figure out how to lower the metal bed rails in order to reach patients. I held out wavering spoonfuls of meat, potatoes, and vegetables pureed into of a nauseating mush of pale browns and olive greens. After the first patient gagged, I realized it was possible to raise a person’s head and shoulders using a crank at the foot of the bed. Like every other surface, those crank handles seemed to bristle with germs.

I was repulsed by almost everything there except for the people. I found their faces especially compelling. One of the few men on my list was hunched and fierce like a hawk, giving the impression he was ready to fly at any moment. One woman’s deep-set brown eyes were beseeching although she could say only a few garbled words. She looked at me as if she could see much more than those who walk and talk so casually could do. Another woman, whose powdery thin skin and soft clouds of white hair made her look angelic, rarely opened her eyes. When she did I felt strangely blessed. Her awake moments, although silent, felt like moments of expansive awareness.

Maybe it was a 13-year-old’s sense of drama, but I loved these people in a way I couldn’t explain. I wanted them to feel comfort and peace in the minutes we had together. I didn’t know how to accomplish that. But I started, from my first day, to ask them a question. I told them my name each time, that I was there with dinner, and then I asked them what they’d like me to know or asked what it was like to be them. And then I was quiet while I listened to whatever their silence could tell me. I knew most couldn’t hear me or answer me. But I was sure there was a reason I felt something different in the presence of each person. I felt it strongly.

Sometimes an aide would hustle into the room and sharply tell me to hurry. “No use talking to someone stone deaf” or “Ain’t nobody home in there.” But somehow these people, not fully in the stream of life and yet not departed, seemed imbued with more instead of less. They were my elders, far ahead of me in every way, and I hoped for a hint of what they knew. I wished to make my attention into an antennae to pick up whatever they might be sending.

mystical communication with the elderly, speaking to those near death, communicating with the dying,

Image courtesy of carts.deviantart.com

This is a way of communication I have continued to explore. We humans are connected by much more than language and social norms. We understand each other in far less overt ways. We entrain to one another’s heartbeats, synchronize our moods, react to the light each living cell emits, and pick up energy that some call intuition and others call morphic resonance.

It wasn’t anything I talked about then and even now it’s hard to explain. This is hardly a process unique to me, just something I am still trying learn. If I had to put it in steps, here they are.

1. Pay close attention to the other person. You may choose to look at them for as long as is comfortable, or simply to sit quietly nearby.

2. Be aware of your bodily sensations. Recognize them without making a mental effort to interpret them, at least right away. They are significant.

3. Be aware of seemingly irrelevant things that occur to you—song lyrics, flickering memories, a rush of emotion. Recognize these without making an effort to interpret them. These too are significant.

4. Slow down, staying with your awareness of the present moment. You are allowing your heart’s wisdom to enter your consciousness. Opening to understanding with your most vulnerable self, unguarded by the analytical mind, can be a way to receive such wisdom.

5. Send kindness to the other person in whatever way you can. perhaps as a quiet blanket of compassion or as waves of love. Your heart’s electrical impulse emanates several feet from your body, affecting the electrical impulse of another person’s heart within that distance. A loving heart actually transmits that sensation to people nearby. The kindness you send is received. Trust that.

6. After following this procedure through several visits you may choose to send a request from the deepest part of yourself to the other person. Then pay attention to the sensations in your own body, to whatever images and emotions arise, and to the quiet sense of knowing that seems to come from nowhere. These are a response. You may have to work hard to refrain from inserting what you think into the situation. Stay centered.

7. Honor the other person. Choose to close with a prayer, a kiss, a few minutes to rub lotion on his or her hands, or some other direct contact.

 

mystical communication, silent understanding, heart-to-heart communion, speak to the dying,

Image courtesy of kdustyk.deviantart.com

My summer as a Feeder seemed endless. I wasn’t good at my job. I realize now how badly informed I was in my position. Not only was I not instructed to raise the head of the bed, I also wasn’t told how much to feed each person or how important it was to get them to drink. I remember feeding very little to the people who looked away, closing their mouths against nourishment. I didn’t know what else to do for people who were trapped in small sweltering rooms inside barely functioning bodies. I could hardly eat that summer either. The smell of the nursing home—old urine and cooked cabbage—seemed to reappear in my nostrils at odd moments, leaving me with no appetite.

After my work was finished each afternoon I spent time listening to the patients parked in wheelchairs and those walking along the hallway handrails. They told me of tragedies. Not the wars and poverty they’d experienced but more recent sorrows— children who didn’t visit, pets gone, choices taken away. They begged me to help them in dozens of ways, every one beyond my ability. They cried. Several women there were healthy in body and mind, but had lost their homes and possessions when they recovered from supposedly terminal conditions, leaving them in institutionalized for years. One man, Joe, told me every day that he was afraid of burning in hell. He insisted he was doomed for eternity unless he could confess to a priest. With the hubris of a non-Catholic, I thought I could easily fix the problem. I told him I’d get someone to come from the Catholic church a half mile away. When I called I was told no priest would come, as a layperson conducted all required nursing home ministry tasks. The next day I asked Joe if he would confess to a layperson. He shook his head with sorrow so profound I could barely breathe.

My job was over when school started. I promised myself I would go back to visit. The faces of the people I fed rose up in my idle moments and in my dreams, but I didn’t go back. The silences I held for them became my own silence.

alzheimer's sufferers still communicate, communicate with the dying, listening to silent people,

Image courtesy of jangmai.deviantart.com

What if a man cannot be made to say anything?

How do you learn his hidden nature?

…I sit in front of him in silence,

and set up a ladder made of patience,

and if in his presence a language from beyond joy

and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,

I know that his soul is as deep and bright

as the start Canopus rising over Yemen.

…there’s a window open between us,

mixing the night air of our beings.

Rumi 

The Land Remembers

There was a small forest behind our house when I was growing up. Stepping from lawn to woods felt like stepping into another world, one teeming with mystery. I couldn’t articulate, but fervently believed, that everything — plants, rocks, water, and creatures —spoke in a language just beyond my understanding. I liked to go alone to a special place, a small rise between two trees next to a tiny stream. I’d sit there silently, hoping creatures of the forest might get used to me, might even come to accept the wilted iceberg lettuce and carrot peelings I was allowed to bring. My offerings were always there the next day where I’d left them, like an answer to a question.

I liked to imagine living in those woods, although I didn’t know how to weave baskets from reeds, how to make a shelter, or what plants might ease illness. I certainly couldn’t imagine eating the creatures I hoped might be my friends. (I was also afraid of the dark and entirely unable to go a single day without library books…)

Of course I returned to the world of mowed lawns and  store-bought food. I’d walk back as if I were part of the forest, trying to keep my footfalls from making a sound despite twigs and dry leaves because I imagined that’s how Native people walked,  when they lived in the same place, when the largest trees might have been saplings.

Every place I stepped then and step now is a place walked by people before me. As Chelsey Luger writes in YES Magazine, “You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories. And every place we occupy was once the homeland for other people, most of whom didn’t leave willingly.”

Now, thanks to collaborative mapmaker Victor Temprano’s efforts we can easily find out more about who lived where we now call home. Mr. Temprano is mapping Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across North America on the website and app Native Land. Simply enter the name of your town or its ZIP code. An interactive map will color-code your inquiry, showing hyperlinked data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.

According to the map, I currently live on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, the League of Five Nations by the English) and the land of the Potawatomi Nation. These peoples were uprooted by Indian Land Cessions from 1784-1894, and beyond. (See a time lapse map of how 1.5 billion acres were taken from Native inhabitants.)

I don’t know much about the people whose land I occupy. I don’t understand the language of plants, rocks, water, and creatures. I am still trying to listen.

“I keep having these recurring dreams where I’m on a plane or train and all the people around me, Native and non-Native, are speaking different Indigenous languages. I hear Paiute, Lashootseed, Diné, Catawba, and they’re feeding their babies wild rice and smoked fish. I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence, but rather embraces the rich complexity of Indigenous culture.

This can be actualized if we all bring our hearts and minds together. The land we walk on is Indian Land, whether it be suburban cul-de-sacs or city streets. Echoes of Indian existence are all around us. It’s up to us to listen.” Matika Wilbur

Adults Close To Their Own Parents Is Actually The Ideal

So glad my family likes to hang out together.

When I was a teenager, a rumor spread through our high school. It was said on a senior’s birthday he went home after school to find his belongings stacked in the driveway and house locks changed. His parents had threatened many times over the years that he’d be on his own at 18, even though his birthday was a few months before graduation.

The rumor was true.

This freshly minted adult moved in with my boyfriend’s family for a few weeks,  then stayed with other families as he could. We lost track of him over the years but I’ve thought of him as my own kids moved out of the house on their uniquely necessary timetables.

In every culture around the world, closely connected families are the norm. Grandparents and older children help out with younger children. As young people grow up they move out at ages that vary not only according to tradition  but also by the state of the economy and overall needs of their families. Ideally, adult children stay close — not always geographically but close in spirit, welcoming new members who arrive by love or by birth and, as years go by, helping the oldest members as their needs increase.

Yet today, closeness between adults and their parents is treated as a joke or regarded with disdain. Take just about any holiday movie made in the last 40 years (at least those not geared to young children). Invariably the plot is some variation on the stifling misery of “going back home.” Or consider pundits spewing toxic opinions meant to pit generations against one another. The takeaway? Adult kids and their parents reside in two separate  worlds where real understanding cannot co-exist.

Pshaw.

A survey of 2,263 young adults (ages 21 to 26) and their parents found 60 percent of today’s young adults get together with their parents at least once a week and 79 percent feel comfortable talking about emotional events. Nearly a third stay in contact on a daily basis. Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, confirms that grown children do better when they are emotionally close to their parents, and believes today’s parent-offspring bonds are improving. She regards the “generation gap” of the 1960’s and 70’s as cultural oddity. “Most cultures have maintained closeness between parents and children,” Dr. Fingerman says. “In America, the middle 20th century was an anomaly — in some way the baby boomers are the odd ones.”

Although stereotypes persistently portray young adults who are close to their parents as less independent, studies show the opposite to be true. Researcher Dr. Irit Yanir conducted in-depth interviews with parents, young adults, and psychologists. She defined a close relationship between adult children and their parents as one in which there is regular communication and time regularly spent together, and in which adult children feel comfortable sharing thoughts and experiences with parents while still comfortably making their own decisions.

Dr. Yanir’s research concluded that young adults who have distant relationships with parents tend to be less independent into their late 20s. In contrast, young adults who have close relationships with their parents are more independent in their daily lives, more financially self-sufficient, more professionally secure, more likely to be involved in a stable intimate relationship, and felt more mature.

“The research found that following adolescence, the familial connection is an important factor in forming one’s identity and living an independent life,” Dr. Yanir explains. “It seems that not only can independence and closeness exist together, but they actually flourish together.”

I know it’s not possible or beneficial in all families, but let’s dispel stereotypes about friction between adults and their parents. Let’s laugh together more often too. Someday our grown kids will need some decent quips to share at our funerals.

 “There’s nothing that makes you more insane than family. Or more happy. Or more exasperated. Or more secure.” ~Jim Butcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photoautotrophic Wisdom

Weed I Won’t Pull

 

Some hardship curved it into

a green ampersand. Tendrils sprout

along a resolute stem.

I want to lean close, ask

for some photoautotrophic wisdom.

Listen to the soil’s bacterial choir.

Convert to the worship

plants have practiced since the Beginning.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Keeping Playfulness Alive Into Teen Years

“When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget…our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.” ~Lenore Terr

Every other Saturday morning a talkative gaggle of 10 to 14-year-olds get together to create, stage, and film stories they’ve written. Today’s session is taking place on a rainy day in Hailey’s basement where the kids have plenty of room. Hailey’s cousins Dylan and Luke are the prop masters. The boys get what they need from a suitcase packed with hats, belts, jewelry, wallets, stick-on tattoos, sunglasses, a police badge, fake nails, and a few masks. A bigger suitcase will probably be necessary because they keep accumulating props.

Hailey’s dad, Jason, says he found the idea a few years ago in my book Free Range Learning and his daughter took off with it, inviting her cousins and friends to give a playwrights’ group a try. (Here’s more info on starting interest-based groups.)

The group didn’t start off all that smoothly. The kids seemed stymied about how to proceed and argued about whose ideas were best. The adults avoided intervening, instead leaving the young playwrights to their own devices. At first the kids decided to keep a list of proposed characters and plots, voting which to use. After a while they dropped the list because fresh ideas kept coming. They still argue sometimes while jockeying to better promote their opinions. (Those verbal tussles are actually an important part of gaining social skills.) Jason says they’ve learned to combine ideas and now more graciously share the glory with each other.

During their first year together the kids would agree on a rough story line, then act it out with improvised lines and actions. They’d climb up the backyard slide to elude kidnappers and perish in dramatically extended death throes, these scenes often mixed into incongruous plots like an underwater fashion show gone wrong. Their audience, mostly parents and grandparents, reliably applauded.

The last two years they’ve developed a more sophisticated process. They write scripts and practice them a few times, work on costumes and staging, set up lighting, then film their performances. They edit the videos to include music and credits. They’re so enthralled by devising and acting out stories that they’re frequently in touch with each other nearly between sessions, eagerly planning and honing their ideas. Recently their parents agreed to let them stay for longer sessions. Now all eight kids in the group arrive with packed lunches so they can work until through the afternoon.

Part of the pain of preteen and adolescent years has to do with a loss of playfulness. Too soon they leave behind the delights of play for a peer culture where being accepted often depends on superficial standards of attractiveness and popularity. Kids feel as if they’re under constant scrutiny by others in their age group; judged by how they look, what they own, what they say and do. When play is stripped away by the pressures of schoolwork and fitting in, something vital is lost.

Some kids manage to keep enthusiasm-friendly spaces in their lives where they’re free to be playful well into their teens. They may find the right circumstances in summer camps, school clubs, music groups, community theater, choir, volunteer programs, youth groups, and pick-up games. Sometimes they’re able to let themselves be playful when they’ve traveled to a new place. Sometimes they look forward to extended family get-togethers where they can hang out with younger relatives.

When I asked online for stories about play-friendly preteen and teen experiences I got all sorts of responses.

Many people said getting together with a specific intent enabled them to indulge in playfulness.

Jennifer Tejada: “My drama club was very helpful, assignments that required playfulness being the great equalizer among students.”

Malik: “There was nowhere to be myself until I started rapping with a few other guys. We let loose all our frustrations and aggravations, and it was like that freed us up to laugh like we’d never laughed before. I didn’t let it go at school or in the neighborhood but with those guys, rapping, I could be myself.”

Some describe a place that gave them the freedom to be playful and expressive. 

Cait : After school, in my middle school and high school years, I would go with my neighborhood friends (all ages, all different cliques) and walk in the conservation land that bordered our property. We would make forts, and as we got older we called them ‘nooks’ because forts were so passé. We would go on adventures, tell stories, climb trees…

And sometimes, play-safe places meant a break from daily routines.

Denise Bowman: “For me it was when I was away from peers, doing a trip with my mom. On vacation, away from home, with just us, I was much more able to engage in playfulness and not be so concerned on how I was ‘coming across.'”

Darren: “I lived for summer camp. For three summers, starting when I was 13, I went to a math camp at an urban college. I showed up nervous, acting like I didn’t care, wham, into a totally different world. I met kids from different countries, kids who were gay, kids who were aspies, all of us math geeks. We had fun I experienced nowhere else. When I’m down all I have to do is remember staying up all night to make a math tower (don’t ask) as a joke for our favorite instructor.”

Over the phone I can hear conversation and laughter spilling over in Hailey’s basement. The preteens have invited a few of their younger siblings to play roles in a production they’re calling “Clones, Inc.” Hailey’s dad Jason says the kids have coated Hailey’s toddler brother with lotion so he’ll look like a “freshly hatched” baby clone. Jason is surprised how eager the two-year-old is to comply. When he’s with the older kids, this toddler demonstrates far more patience than he normally does, even delivering the one line they’ve given him over and over till it’s just right.

Jason, who retreats upstairs to finish our call, says he can tell when they’re filming. The hubbub of enthusiasm gives way to expectant quiet that, even a floor away, sounds full of promise.

Interview: Math Is Child’s Play

One autumn afternoon, the kids who normally rush inside to participate in math circle activities with Maria Droujkova lingered outdoors instead. She discovered them sitting in a large pile of leaves under an oak tree. There the 5- to 7-year-olds were speculating how many leaves were on the ground. Counting them one by one proved futile. So Maria helped the children pile leaves into groups of ten, then measure out 100 piles of 10, fitting them into a small box. Filling that box ten times and then emptying the leaves in a pot gave them approximately 10,000. Ten of those pots filled with leaves fit into a recycling container, for an approximate count of 100,000 leaves. After the kids filled the recycling container 10 times (handily emptying it into a compost pile) they could reasonably estimate that about a million oak leaves had been on the ground.

Maria says the kids were expansive throughout, full of questions and theories, and “kept that first charge of joy from the sun and the leaves for the whole hour.” They never did get back indoors to take part in the activity she’d planned.

Maria is an innovative math educator. She is an expert in building natural mathematical understanding from the earliest years on up through hands-on, open-ended activities. The collaborative site she founded, Natural Math, is dedicated to sharing play-based, deep-inquiry math endeavors through all sorts of resources that empower parents, teachers, and kids to make their own mathematics. Foremost is a series of project-based books for families and math circles. The first title is Moebius Noodles: Adventurous Math for the Playground Crowd, aimed at children from toddlerhood to five years old. The book’s delights include robot commands and mirror books.

Now with eight titles published and more in progress, the newest book offered is Funville Adventures by A.O Fradkin and A.B. Bishop.  Funville Adventures takes readers along with nine-year-old Emmy and her five-year-old brother Leo to a magical place where beings have the power to transform objects. One never knows when something will be shrunk, copied, erased, even turned into an elephant. The sibling have fun creatively solving problems and learning a thing or two about themselves in the process. The book seems like a fairy tale, yet the powers of the Funvillians are a vehicle for introducing children to the concept of functions. Each power corresponds to a transformation such as doubling in size, rotating, copying, or changing color. The authors bring their own math “powers” to the story. Here’s a little about the co-authors.

Dr. Sasha Fradkin has loved math from an early age, and seeks to share that love of math with others. After receiving her PhD in mathematics from Princeton University, she worked for several years as a professional mathematician and taught enrichment math at the Golden Key Russian School to children ages 4-10. Last year, Sasha became the Head of Math at the Main Line Classical Academy, an elementary school in Bryn Mawr, PA. She develops their math curriculum and teaches children in grades K-5. She writes a blog about her teaching as well as various math adventures with her two daughters, and enjoys pondering about exciting and engaging ways to present the beauty of mathematics to young children.

Dr. Allison Bishop grew up with a passion for writing, and initially disliked math because it was presented as formulaic. She belatedly discovered the creative side of mathematics and science, and now sees it as a vital component of the curiosity that drives her life. She is currently a professor of computer science at Columbia University as well as a quantitative researcher at the Investors Exchange. She remains an avid fiction enthusiast and writer, and is always seeking new ways to expose young minds to creative mathematical thinking and fuel their scientific curiosity.

The paradigm in math education is shifting.

Let’s find out more in an interview with Sasha, Allison, and Maria.

Laura: Can you tell us a bit of your own story and what led you to this work? 

Maria: My story keeps changing. Growth requires better stories, right? It used to be about me, a little girl from a little Ukrainian town who wanted to be a scientist like the cool sci-fi characters, when she grows up. Now I am also a parent, a teacher, and a community organizer, and my story is about many people. It is a story about people’s access to real math and science.

I work on helping my young friends and their adults be mathematicians – not when they grow up, but here, now, in their own ways. Let’s say we make functions and functionals into fantastic creatures that five-year-olds find friendly enough. That’s what Funville Adventures is all about. What other groups of people now gain access to this abstract algebra? Maybe math-phobic adults, or those working in their second language, or people with learning disabilities? Maybe tired people who work long hours and only have a bit of time late at night? That dream of radical access to math is what’s guiding my projects.

Sasha: Growing up, I loved the math puzzles that my dad shared with me but found most of my math classes in school dry and repetitive.  I was determined to share the exciting and creative side of math with my children and their friends from an early age. My older daughter, who loves turning everything into a story, inspired me to think about presenting math through storytelling and that is how the idea for Funville Adventures was born.

Allison: As a young student, I loved creative writing and hated math because it seemed too formulaic. I want to help kids discover the creative side of mathematics and science at an earlier age than I did.

Laura: Let’s start with Moebius Noodles. In the introduction, math is described as an exciting and enticingly exotic adventure that’s too often simplified into rote busy work. “It is as tragic as if parents were to read nothing but the alphabet to children, until they are ‘ready’ for something more complex. Or if kids had to learn ‘The Itsy-Bitsy Spider’ by heart before being allowed to listen to any more involved music.” Tell us more about natural math.

Maria: Natural Math is about people making mathematics their own, by posing their own problems, pursuing their own projects, and remixing other people’s activities in personally meaningful ways. We believe that “learning math” means two things—developing mathematical state of mind and acquiring mathematical skills. The question of how to mix skills and concepts in learning programs is very complex, and the debates are hot among researchers, parents, and curriculum developers. The Natural Math path integrates the two in the following ways.

Within each context of mathematics, we start with open free play, with inspiring prompts and ideas that gently help children make patterns and rules. This is the stage where concepts are born, grounded in embodied experiences. When kids doodle fractal hands or stick their noses inside mirror books to peek into kaleidoscope wonderlands, they are playing freely at first. Then children begin to notice, tweak, remix mathematical patterns, and we help them formulate and name their math. Fractals have levels, and the number of objects at the third level is traditionally called “the third power”—but kids often name these tiny objects “grandchildren” of the first-level object. At this stage of “patterning” children hone their skills, because they need more precision and structure to carry on the patterns. You could ask a kid at this stage to show you 3 x 4 with the mirror book (possibly using kid’s own terms), and you’ll see mirrors at the 90-degree angle with 3 action figures inside.

The infinite road to mathematical mastery is in comparing, contrasting, and organizing these mathematical patterns, and building structures out of patterns. For example, could you connect fractal with mirror book patterns? You can, if you used two mirror books in front of one another to introduce scale into reflections.

Laura: Maria, you were featured in a popular article in The Atlantic titled “5-Year-Olds Can learn Calculus.” In it you explain that math instruction traditionally follows a hierarchical progression that, as you say, “Has nothing to do with how people think, how children grow and learn, or how mathematics is built.” You point out that the standard curriculum starts out with arithmetic which is actually more difficult for children than play-based activities based on more advanced fields of mathematics. You’re quoted as saying,  “Calculations kids are forced to do are often so developmentally inappropriate, the experience amounts to torture.”  How do books like Funville Adventures approach math differently?

Maria: Stories, pretend-play, and imagination! These are keys to growth. Let’s hear more from Funville authors.

Sasha and Allison: In Funville, kids will encounter math under the surface of an engaging story, which will naturally appeal to some kids who might not connect with the more traditional way that mathematics is often taught. Readers will see examples of problem-solving throughout the narrative, and will have plenty of material as a jumping off point to invent their own characters and stories. Since many kids love coming up with stories already, linking mathematical functions to “powers” that characters can have presents them with a new opportunity to interact with math through storytelling.

Laura: Bringing autonomy and fun to math is revolutionary in an era when parents feel pressured to push math on even the smallest kids via apps, educational toys, and academic preschools. Your books and Pinterest page offer wonderful ideas. Please give us a few examples of advanced yet playful math for kids of different ages.

Maria: Most parents we talk to, including the ones who work in STEM fields, tell us that their math education wasn’t satisfying. They want their kids to have something better: to see mathematics as beautiful, meaningful, and useful, and not to suffer from math anxiety and defeat. The two major ways the markets respond to these worries and dreams are via edutainment toys and games, and private early teaching in academic settings.

We suggest a different approach, centered on families and communities. We introduce advanced math through free play. Formal academic environments or skill-training software can’t support free play, but friends and family can.

Mathematics is about noticing patterns and making rules that describe and predict these patterns. Observe children playing in a sandbox. At first it doesn’t look meaningful. But in a little while kids make up elaborate stories, develop a set of rules, and plan for what’s going to happen next. In a sense, what we do with math is setting up sandboxes where particular types of mathematical play can grow and emerge.

Sasha and Allison: The concept of functions is very fundamental and can be studies/played with on many different levels, starting at a very young age. After reading Funville Adventures, children can play games such as “Guess My Power” where one person comes up with a power and others try to guess it by asking for outputs for given inputs and/or by asking questions about the characteristics of the underlying function such as: Is it invertible? What is the domain? Is it periodic?

Here are more examples:

  • Logic puzzles: Both of us really enjoyed engaging with problem-solving through logic puzzles when we were in elementary and middle school.
  • Sports math: A kid who likes to watch or play a particular sport might be encouraged to discover patterns in the many numbers and statistics surrounding it. Certain point totals in football are much more common than others – why? How many ways can one reach a score like 21? If two baseball teams are evenly matched and play n games, how close to n/2 do you expect the win totals to be and why?
  • Patterns in music and art: Older kids who like music can learn about the basic patterns of chords underlying popular songs. Children can learn the mathematics of juggling patterns, or how to make art based on fractals or tiling.
  • Estimation: Kids of many ages can learn through experiments how to estimate quantities like Pi, or how to guess how many M&Ms are in a jar. They can then learn how to extrapolate estimations to quantities they can’t test experimentally, like how many cars are in a city, or how many workers it should take to do a census, etc.

Laura: On NaturalMath.com, you write about a community of people sharing naturally math-rich and meaningful activities for children from babyhood on. We’d love to hear about math circles and what you mean by math communities.

Maria: It takes friendly local people to support mathematical free play: to provide inspiring prompts, to get the action going, and to know when to stand aside and let kids explore on their own. Making, collecting, and remixing patterns depends on other pattern-drafters even more. Parents and teachers need to meet like-minded people to share ideas and encouragement. That brings us to math playdates and math circles.

There are quite a few math circles for middle and high school students, for example, in the National Association of Math Circles.  It’s harder to find math circles for younger kids, or toddler and parent playgroups. Each circle develops its own flavor, and its own lore—the little patterns of play, sayings, and favorite activities. Some of these treasures have to stay local and intimate, but we believe the ideas, experiences, questions and answers could be shared more broadly. NAMC math circle conferences, Julia Robinson festivals, or the Natural Math network called 1001 Math Circles help local leaders grow together.

Laura: Tell us about the Creative Commons nature of Natural Math books.  

Maria: We need this openness, because families, math circles, and other groups in our community are very diverse. Some use the activities as is, but the point is to change, remix, translate, and modify everything to better fit each unique situation.

Storytelling and pretend-play are modifications almost everyone uses. We believe in compelling reasons behind each math activity, but what story is compelling depends on the child. Parents and caregivers change settings and characters: a function machine can be used to magically grow and shrink heroes in a fairy tale, or it can provide enough feed for animals of different sizes at a zoo, or it can fuel starships in a sci-fi setting.

Another modification is about tools and media. Our original activity might call for painting, but kids who don’t like to paint can use clay, or building blocks, or flower arrangements. We try to give specific hints for different media, for example that a symmetry activity requires a lot of folds, so you are better off with thin paper. But we want everyone to experiment on their own, like in this large crowd-sourced collection of multiplication towers.

After Funville Adventures came out, readers started to create fan stories and art about their own Funvillians. For example, Dylan has a tall hairdo and too-long shirt because his power is dilation. You can see some of fan works in the book’s web tour.

Laura: All sorts of projects are in the works through the community incubator, where teams of authors develop books with crowd-sourced input. Tell us more about this approach and other Natural Math books we can read, use, and share.

Maria: We developed a community support mechanism for producing Moebius Noodles. It boosted the book’s quality, and was a source of morale to us, so we kept it going to help other authors with their projects. The idea is to grow books in the nurturing ecosystem of people who care. Two to three coauthors, or else an author with a developmental editor, make the first draft. That stage is intense and private: brainstorming, building, bouncing ideas. Then a few more like-minded colleagues, who work on similar ideas themselves, join as advisors and reviewers. With their feedback, the draft is ready for “beta reader circle”—a more open field test of activities from the book by parents and teachers, sometimes combined with crowd-funding. More revisions, more discussions with other Natural Math writers and readers—and the book is ready to go out to everyone. We see publishing as a gradual, participatory, ongoing process where ideas grow more and more accessible to wider and wider public.

Our newest book created with this model is Math Renaissance: Growing Math Circles, Changing Classrooms, and Creating Sustainable Math Education by Rodi and Rachel Steinig. It is for teachers and parents of children ages six and up. The authors share their insights on how math experience might be improved at home, school, and math circle.

Check out other Natural Math books at the web site.

Funville Adventures by A.O Fradkin and A.B. Bishop

Avoid Hard Work! … And Other Encouraging Problem-Solving Tips for the Young, the Very Young, and the Young at Heart by Maria Droujkova, James Tanton, and Yelena McManaman

Socks Are Like Pants, Cats Are Like Dogs: Games, Puzzles, and Activities for Choosing, Identifying, and Sorting Math by Malke Rosenfeld and Gordon Hamilton.

Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers  edited by Sue VanHattum

Bright, Brave, Open Minds: Engaging Young Children in Math Inquiry  by Julia Brodsky

Camp Logic: A Week of Logic Games and Activities for Young People by Mark Saul and Sian Zelbo

Moebius Noodles: Adventurous Math for the Playground Crowd  by Yelena McManaman and Maria Droujkova

Here’s to more math adventures!

30+ Book Nerd Delights

book nerd, book bucket list,

How many of these do you want to do? Have many have you done? 

Create a hidden room behind a book shelf.

Take a photo of a book title that perfectly epitomizes your day and share on social media.

Read in a cozy retreat like a hammock, tent, yurt, tree fort, whatever sounds cozy to you.

Pay attention to Library Angels. This is the name given to reading materials you aren’t looking for that somehow appear in your life and turn out to be exactly what you need. Here’s a peek at the strange history of book synchronicity.

Regularly exult in the wonder of libraries. In case you’re not aware, library drinking fountains dispense magic water. Really, try it.

When traveling, make a point of visiting an area library. For incentive, here are some of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

Leave a Post It note to the next reader of a library book.  Maybe a simple, “Dear Next Reader, I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  warmly, Previous Reader.”

Name a child after a literary character or author. There are plenty of lists online like FlavorwireMomJunction, and Babble but chances are, your name and the names of your family members have probably already shown up in literature. Just do a search for “name fictional character.” (My kids’ names are found in the classics, in Star Wars, and in video games although we actually chose names that seemed wise and gentle.)

Bestow literary names elsewhere in your life. When I was a kid, my pink bike was named after a fictional horse. Over the years we’ve given cows, chickens, and dogs some lofty monikers. I tend to name things around the house too, like our vacuum and our kefir starter…

As you read, drink what the characters are drinking in the book.  Local microbrew with Bill McKibben’s Radio Free Vermont, gin with Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth, locally made wine with any of the Inspector Bruno mystery series by Martin Walker, Prosecco  with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of novels, hot chocolate mixed with a hint of hot pepper with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Start or join a book club. If you have time, don’t limit yourself to one.

Indulge in poetry-infused movies and movies about writers.

Savor quotes from your favorite books by copying them onto a plate or mughand printing them on a scarf, or writing them on a shirt using a bleach pen.

Go to book fairs. They’re available in every state of the U.S.  and around the world.

Reread a favorite childhood book to figure out how it shaped your life. (I’m pretty sure The Secret Garden saved me.)

Go to a workshop offered by an author you admire.

Go through a book shelf and donate high quality volumes you no longer want to your local library or an area women’s shelter. Or ship them to Books for SoldiersBooks for Africa, or Reader to Reader. (Huzzah, you’ve just given yourself space for more books.)

Try the read and release method with BookCrossings. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, playground, or waiting room. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently, nearly 12 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Make a composition book cover or try simple bookbinding.

Read under a tree or in a tree or anywhere in nature that inspires you.

Stay up all night to finish a book.

Buy a copy of a book you appreciated and send it to a friend, just because. Do this often.

Whenever possible, buy your books from local brick and mortar bookstores. And get to know the people who work there, they’ll have excellent book suggestions. (But beware. I was thrilled to see a bookstore open not far from me. Although it quacks like a bookstore, it doesn’t act like one. It has lots of local authors and locally made bookish crafts with a token array of bestsellers, but it turns out the owner charges “partners” a non-refundable application fee of $75 to have their book or products sold there for a limited period of time. I cannot imagine what will happen to authors if such a model becomes commonplace.)

When you buy books online, consider steering your dollars to an ethical business or non-profit like Better World Books  or Biblio.

Eat what characters are eating in the book. Thick inviting sourdough bread while reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan, hot fish and corn muffins while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, authentic bird’s nest soup while reading The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang,  peanut butter bar cookies topped with chocolate while reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest  by J. Ryan Stradal, nachos with cheese sauce while reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, a hearty sandwich of the sort served at The Bistro, in nearly any of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache Series (sign up here to get a free download of Three Pines recipes).

Read in the tub. Or a pool. Or the ocean.

When you travel, read a book set in your destination. Heading to San Francisco? Try  The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle.  Off to a small town in Wisconsin? Read Jewelweed by David Rhodes. New York City? Try Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Shape snacks that look like books out of fruit leather, honey, and chocolate.

Or heck, help your area library or bookstore run an Edible Book Festival.  Here are some images from the annual festival at Cleveland’s own Loganberry Books.

Cancel plans, then read.

Make altered books.

Connect with your favorite authors on social media. Link to them with a meaningful quote or the way their work changed your outlook. Want more suggestions for showing authors your love? Here are 17 ways.

Let what you read inspire your own work. As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist says,  “Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.”