Tag Archives: learning

A Story Jar

Standard

“Tell her about the polar bear!” I prompted my seven-year-old when my sister asked how our latest zoo trip had gone.

It had been probably our best visit yet, full of up-close encounters, including the polar bear swimming right up to the glass where the seven-year-old had been standing, face full of wonder.

He looked at me funny. “What do you mean?”

“Tell her how cool the polar bear was.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

The same thing happened during writing time with school. I’d ask him to write a story — just a one-page, second-grade-level story — and he’d be stumped for ages, even if he already had a prompt and knew what he wanted the story to be about.

I hated seeing him so tense about it. I wanted him to gush with excitement over both the real story of the polar bear and his own made-up stories.

And I realized that the skill we needed to foster was storytelling.

As usual, Pinterest came to my rescue with the idea of a story jar. I sliced up neon note papers and told the kids to write down anything.

The usual protest of not knowing what to write didn’t persist long. Before I knew it, they were begging me to cut more slips. They’d filled out every single one and still had more ideas!

Once I finally said “enough,” the storytelling itself was just as fun. They took turns drawing slips from the jar and adding to an epic-level story with a cast as big as their imaginations.

When their contribution felt weak, I pressed for more details:

Me: “What did the monster look like?”

7yo: “Ugly.”

Me: “How come?”

7yo: “He had brown spots all over him, like dirt and mud.”

Gradually their descriptions became more generous, like when the four-year-old’s monster turned “brown with blue spots and huge horns and three green — no, I mean red — eyes.” They also improved at connections that gave the story a better arc. When a random object showed up, I’d ask how it got there and they’d say things like, “The clever princess gave it to him.” Characters had believable motivations, such as the mouse putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea to get away from the monster who couldn’t swim. Most impressive of all, the ending circled back to the beginning: the monster had squashed the mouse’s house, and in the end the mouse found a treasure chest that he used to make a new house.

We’ve done it twice now, changing slips to create a completely new story, and it’s such a hit that I’m sure it’ll continue to be one of our favorite school activities.

It gets me thinking, too. Maybe I need more creative exercises for my own writing. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling. Maybe I need to find ways to have fun instead of feeling stumped as I stare at the screen. Maybe I need to stretch my imagination just a little more.

Funny how even elementary school can be for grown-ups too.

Maybe I need to put all my story elements in a jar and mix things up a bit. ;)

The Joy of Question and Answer

Standard

From the moment we decided back in March or April that we were going to do school at home the next year, my kids and I have gotten into the habit of answering any and all inquiries with “We should learn about that for school.”

By “inquiries,” I mean the endless rounds of “Mom, why is _____ like that?” or “How come ________?” or “What’s the difference between __________ and __________?” that little kids manage to think of and to which parents usually respond, “I don’t know — it just is.”

So yeah, my clever we-should-learn-about-that answer was really just another way to put off their questions for later.

Suddenly later has arrived.

In some ways balancing school with a toddler, kindergartener and second grader has been a chaotic nightmare. All four of us have had moments crying in frustration. At least every other day I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever attempted and I should really just send the two older kids back to “real” school. If the kindergartener reads one ten-page book and writes one sentence, and the second grader reads for fifteen minutes and writes a one-page story, and they each recite ten math facts (addition for the younger and multiplication for the elder), some days we (sadly) call that good.

But it’s August, and I started in August on purpose, figuring it gives us a month to settle into a routine before we judge ourselves too harshly.

The part that is beautiful, though, is when little moments happen where they discover the answers to their own questions.

Today we went to the library to find nonfiction books at their reading levels about specific animals, after studying library books about mammals, reptiles, etc, last week. The kindergartener declared he wanted to learn about leopards, and the second grader decided on cheetahs, and then he stopped and asked, “Mom, what’s the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?”

“I don’t know,” I responded truthfully, “but maybe we’ll find a book that can tell us.”

“How could a book do that?”

I laughed a little, and it gave him a minute to think about his own question.

“Oh, like maybe it could say that cheetahs have gray spots and leopards have black spots?”

“Something like that.”

When we got through the chaos of the library (three children scattering in different directions as I tried to herd them toward juvenile nonfiction), the chaos of lunch back at home (three children asking for different things all at once), and the chaos of who would get to play educational apps on the iPhone first (two children doing rock-paper-scissors, the loser trickling tears), I finally got to sit down with my second grader as he read National Geographic Kids: Cheetahs.

And there, on the second page spread, was an awesome explanation of the difference between cheetahs and leopards.

It was one of those cool moments, sitting on the couch together and watching him get so excited to learn because it was something he’d wanted to know.

Isn’t that the secret to real learning? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as my own love of and cravings for nonfiction have increased in the last couple years. When I have a specific question I want to answer, whether about nutrition or herbs or gardening or the science of subtle energy, I get so freaking excited about every cool little answering fact I read that I can’t help telling everyone nearby, “Did you know that ________??”

Seeing it happen for my seven-year-old today with cheetahs vs. leopards made me remember why I’m keeping my kids home this year. It recalled the first-grade days of him returning from school declaring it was so hard and so much work and me wishing that I could help him find the joy of it. It reminded me of how much a comment from one of my fellow-mom friends last year had resonated with me:

“Isn’t the most important part of education for them to learn how to learn?”

We’ve got a long way to go to become good at this school-at-home business, but I think their enthusiasm for questions and answers is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction.

Plot Twists and Story Snares

Standard

God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. ;)

Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

Standard

A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!

Why Blog? The Altruism of Giving Ideas a Home

Standard

A moment ago I did something that’s become habitual for me: I took the pitcher of reclaimed water off my kitchen counter, out the back door, and used it to nourish the semi-evergreen plants that live in my backyard and need watering year-round.

the perpetual pitcher

Reclaimed water?

It’s the best term I can think of for the water recycling project I began after attending a cooking presentation at someone’s house over a year ago. The hostess made just a tiny comment about how when you drain water, like off of pasta, you could save it for watering plants.

Honestly, she didn’t even say it that directly; it was just an aside, really. But somehow the idea stuck in my head. I began thinking of all the water I waste, pouring it down the drain when my plants, whether outside or inside, would probably love it. And shortly thereafter I elected a certain pitcher to live on my counter forever more and catch whatever water could be reused.

As I offered it to the bamboo behind my patio today, I got to thinking about the passing-along of ideas and how randomly it often happens. We just happen to be somewhere, happen to be with someone, when something is said or done that sticks with us and changes us somehow.

The beauty of blogging is that it removes the random factor. It allows those ideas a place to exist and be found.

This weekend my intermediate students are writing their first blog posts, wondering what to say. What can they tell the world on this historic occasion of their debut post? What’s the point, anyway?

I’m suddenly thinking that my pitcher of reclaimed water is the point: sharing ideas someone else might not think of on their own but that could alter their life — not dramatically, but in the small ways that feel like a difference.

For me on this blog, it’s about sharing ideas for reading, writing, and teaching, obviously. I think of how lost I once felt as a writer, totally unsure of how to tackle drafting and revising on the 300–400-page level. As I gleaned ideas from other writers — such as printing the manuscript out, putting it in a three-ring binder, slapping it full of post-it notes, scribbling revision thoughts all over the pages — I grew more and more confident in my own abilities.

At first the sharing/gleaning of those ideas was limited to infrequent writing conferences, but once I began blogging and reading other writers’ blogs, tweeting and reading other writers’ tweets, I discovered that social media creates a world-wide never-ending writing conference full of incredible advice.

tips from food bloggers gave me the secret I needed for moist & soft whole-wheat banana bread

The same goes for reading, where I used to get stuck wondering what to read next until I hooked up with other readers on the internet.

The same goes for nutrition, where I used to have no idea how to transition into healthier cooking until traditional-food bloggers gave me their tips.

It might be a personal experience, a recipe, a review, a unique perspective on some current issue — there are so many things to blog about. But I think what it comes down to is that when you put those thoughts into writing on a blog, even as little asides, someone else might latch onto them and put them to use.

A student of mine last semester asked me why I blog when it must take up so much time. Other non-blogging writer friends have asked me why I bother with it before I’m even published.

For me, it’s because I love to share ideas and because I’m indebted to all the people who have shared with me. My life is a conglomeration of all the little tidbits I’ve picked up here and there. Those tidbits have turned me into a writer, a reader, a recycler of water, a baker of sourdough breads, and countless other good things that make my life more fulfilling.

Maybe something I mention will ring true for someone else and help them the way it’s helped me.

What about you? Why do you read or write blog posts? What ideas have you gleaned that have changed you?

Leave a comment!

The Etiquette of Better to Give than to Receive

Standard

At the beginning of December, our seven-year-old wasted no time or words in making Santa aware of his desires. (“Dear Santa, I want . . .”)

He pestered me to help him mail it right away, but first we had a talk about “niceties” and a subsequent revision. The second letter, complete with falling snow, turned out a little better with the help of a ‘please’ and a ‘thanks’:

Then this week I discovered I had a bigger job in the Teaching Etiquette department than I’d originally thought.

Two neighbor girls who are good friends with our boys came to our door to bring them gifts. Afterward the seven-year-old started musing about who else might bring him unexpected gifts. He began listing the likely candidates: “Well, I know I’ll get presents from Grandma and Grandpa . . .”

I stopped him. “It’s not very good to focus on what you’re going to get.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just poor etiquette.”

“What’s ‘etiquette’?”

“Good manners. Niceties.”

“But I said ‘thank you’ when they brought the presents!”

A plan began hatching in my brain as I replied, “Yes, you’re really good at ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ now, so it’s time to bump it up to the next level. Now it’s time to think about what gifts to give to people. Who would you like to give presents to for Christmas?”

He listed his closest friends.

“Okay,” I said, my idea still only half-formed. “Get your shoes on. We’re going to the craft store so we can get stuff to make presents.”

Make presents?” he asked in disbelief. “But we can’t make toys!”

“Sure we can. I’ll show you.”

We came home armed with wooden blocks, Mod Podge and scrapbook paper. “It’ll be fun!” I declared.

Hour 1: Both the seven-year-old and the four-year-old had a great time selecting and cutting out pictures to glue onto the blocks. Soon we had plenty and they chose six pictures for each set. The fifteen-month-old made things difficult, but otherwise it was so-far-so-good.

Hour 2: The toddler went down for a nap and I got us into assembly line mode. We were slicing the pictures into twelve squares, gluing them, and testing the difficulty level. All was well, but the number of unfinished squares began to overwhelm us. Suddenly my idea didn’t seem so hot as our enthusiasm waned and the whining ensued.

Hour 3: I was left to soldier on alone, grumbling internally (okay, and a bit out loud) about how I was never going to do this again and it would have been so much better to just buy gifts they could wrap and hand to friends.

Hour 4: The four-year-old casually returned, saying, “Hey, I want to glue those on,” as if he’d just realized I was doing something cool without him. Soon the seven-year-old wanted back in on it too. “This is fun!” they declared as we completed some of the sets and they got to play Quality Control, testing the puzzles for age appropriateness and enjoyment level. “We’re like Santa’s elves, making the presents!”

And, as often happens with these parenting lessons, I found myself looking in the mirror and seeing my own hypocrisy.

I’d been doing the same as my seven-year-old, just with time rather than presents, greedily counting up the possible hours I could find to get stuff done this busy time of year. Those four hours crafting with my kids (well, minus the hour when they deserted me) were some of the first hours I’ve spent with them all month. I’m home with them all day, and yet how often do I give them my full attention and actually sit down to do something with them?

Today they’ve been playing with the puzzles again (we’ll have to create “kid-tested, mother-approved” labels for these gifts), which makes me hopeful they will be well appreciated by the recipients.At first I was afraid it would all be wasted effort if their friends don’t like the puzzles, but now I don’t think so, any more than it was a waste to revise a letter to Santa.

Both mom and kids received a good lesson and good feelings just from the giving.

Anybody else going homemade this year and have similar adventures with it? Do you think homemade gifts are worth the time and stress? What do you do to help your kids put giving ahead of receiving? (Bonus points to anyone who can name the picture book that alligator illustration is from!)

Leave a comment!