Author Archives: Nikki Mantyla

About Nikki Mantyla

Writing teacher who adores her hubby & 4 kiddos, books & knowledge, gardening, novel crafting, and creativity of all sorts.

The Plague of “Right” Answers

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I’m laughing to myself as I compose this post. It’s sort of like walking through a huge puddle of glue and hoping to get to the other side without (a) getting stuck in the puddle or (b) spreading the glue farther or (c) tripping on all the other people already glued in place, hahaha.

When we’re all so entrenched in something together, trying to describe it is like trying to lift your foot out of that puddle without the glue sticking to the bottom of your shoe. Yeah. I’m covered in it too.

See, I figure that’s what makes it a plague: It’s widespread; it’s infected all of us.

Fifth grade

my awesome fifth-grade self

My earliest awareness of the issue happened while sitting at a fifth-grade desk wearing a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, and knit stirrup pants (no joke—that was what ten-year-old girls wore in 1992; see photo for proof) and staring at a test question that asked me which of the following I needed to use in order to kill germs when washing my hands. I had my pencil all ready to circle “soap”—except I couldn’t find it. “Soap” was not one of my choices.

How did I react? Well, I was mad! I knew the “right” answer and the test was messing me up! It wasn’t letting me be right!

Obviously this stupid test was stupid and wrong and horrible and whoever wrote it was the biggest idiot. Whoever wrote it should be shot. I wanted to rage at someone and defend myself. How dare they create this bogus set of answers to try and make me feel dumb!

Yeah, you can tell I was a totally sweet, easy-going child. Not at all mule-headed.

When the teacher read the answers and revealed that I should have circled “hot water” for that question, it didn’t help me get over it. “That’s so dumb!” I still thought. “You can wash with cold water and soap to kill germs!” Pretty sure I’ve held a grudge against that quiz for the past twenty-three years. I was “right”! It was “wrong”!

Did I learn from it, though? Oh sure.

The rest of my school (i.e. “testing”) years, I was more careful. If those cute little perfect-circle bubbles didn’t give me the option I was looking for, then I would think like the test maker and decide what answer they wanted me to darken with my perfectly sharpened #2 pencil.

Basically, I learned that success meant conforming to what an “expert” has decided is “right.”

Not until adulthood did I start to catch on that experts change their minds:

  • The brontosaurus never existed. (Sure, take away my favorite dinosaur and pretend it was never there to begin with!)
  • Pluto isn’t a planet, so there are only eight, not nine like you were taught . . . no wait now it is a planet again and we’re adding extras.
  • Butter and coconut oil are the nastiness things you could ever eat—in the ’90s; now coconut oil, at least, is a superfood and you should put it in everything because somebody caught on that our bodies sort of need natural, healthy, saturated fats as opposed to nasty substitutes (ahem, “Smart” Balance??) we tried to engineer.
  • And remember how for a while, around the time I started having kids, you weren’t ever supposed to give peanut butter to babies because peanut allergies were on the rise? Well, scratch that. Yeah, the allergy is still on the rise, but now experts have decided avoiding it might be making things worse.

So there’s this extra criteria for being “right”: you not only have to have it from an expert source, but you have to have the latest. Because the latest study is treated as though it were absolute Truth and none shall deny it . . . until the next study takes over that role.

And then, of course, along came social media allowing us to debate “right” answers endlessly and judge each other’s sources (how expert? how recent?) and each declare ourselves the winner. Just as I’ve held on to being “right” about “soap” on that fifth-grade quiz. We aren’t so willing to relent. We aren’t so willing to consider alternatives. We are “right” and they are “wrong” and we will hold to it with our dying breath!

But here’s the thing . . .

Can you blame any of us?

We’ve been conditioned to it. Our entire American educational system is built around getting the answers right. The main thing we were taught from kindergarten all the way through our final college exams was that the very most important trait you could possibly be is “right.” Being “right” on those tests means that you get to move on, move forward, earn a degree, get a high-paying job, be successful.

Your whole life hinges on being “right”!

I could go on a tangent here and mention how this testing culture pervades areas outside of academia, like the medical profession, where some experts (namely the CEO of the American College of Physicians) have estimated we waste $200 to $250 billion per year on unnecessary tests (Sherman). I could point out how once we endure those unnecessary tests, then doctors tell us the “right” answer that goes with our results: surgery or eliminating gluten or whatever else is the “correct” remedy of the day. Never mind, again, the fickleness of science and how this decade’s medical interventions will be considered barbaric fifty years from now. Tangent over.

But what is the alternative to being “right”? Stuck in the glue as we are, the only other option seems like being “wrong”!

It’s all so tiring, to be honest. I’m exhausted just putting quotation marks around the words every time, let alone the weariness of keeping up with all the latest edicts. Hahaha.

So maybe we need to ask a better question, like is there a way to shift out of the right-vs-wrong paradigm altogether?

einstein-quote1A different set of questions can make all the difference.

(Some people go so far as to say the “right” question can make all the difference, but that’s where I said at the beginning that this is a sticky post!)

We could start with “What if . . .?”

Sometimes imagining the possibilities and their ramifications can get our minds heading in new directions. Almost like how citrus oil can dissolve adhesives and simultaneously brighten your mood with the smell—two outcomes that are definitely a great start for getting unstuck.

Forbes article about innovation titled “Are You Asking the Right Question?” (again with being “right” like it’s unavoidably the goal, hahaha) has great advice for the first step toward forming better questions:

Pause. When a person opens their mind to the kind of ideas that come quietly they unveil the deeper, richer thoughts that are too easily chased away by the adrenaline of taking immediate action. Spend some time alone with your thoughts. . . . In the early stages of a difference-making quest, the simple act of paying attention to your thoughts can provide the few degrees of adjustment that brings about the greatest innovation. Everyone has hunches, impressions, and the fragile beginnings of new ideas still forming. Absorb them. Listen to them. Take counsel from them. (Sturt and Nordstrom)

When I’ve paused to consider this epidemic of being “right,” the “what if” that’s been occurring to me looks a bit like this: What would happen if we lived our whole lives without any testing? No tests and no right answers.

Instead, what if we grew up encouraged to educate ourselves through exploration, questioning, guessing, trial and error, etc? What if it was okay to make mistakes and then learn to fix them, okay to change your mind, okay to find new conclusions and never put too much weight in current reasoning? What if we culturally assumed life is a guessing game anyway and we shouldn’t take any of it too seriously? What if we championed respectful discussion as a means to discover others’ ideas and gain additional perspective and consider new possibilities?

I’m not saying we don’t do those things already; I’m saying what if those were the driving force behind our education in place of testing and the memorization/competition of “right” answers?

Then would creativity and individuality thrive far more than they do now?

To me, such a society would teach and value being true to yourself. Not in the sense of trying to compete with everyone else to be most unique, but in the fundamental sense of relying on your own conscience to tell you when something resonates as true for you right then. We would teach our children to listen to that inner voice above all else. We would teach that when you go against your conscience, you risk hurting yourself and those around you.

Thus the most important lesson you would be taught from toddlerhood through your teenage years is to listen to your core self.

Think of all those times when what feels true and good to you seems logically ridiculous, or the times when what feels wrong seems so reasonable you can’t convince anyone else of why you are saying no—until down the road you see the situation with the clarity of hindsight and understand why your conscience guided you that way.

Sometimes none of the choices you are presented with feel good to you, and your conscience prompts, “Maybe we need to ask different questions.” Then as you dig through more ideas and shift your thinking, a true answer emerges that feels perfect for you and your situation—without it having to be “right” for a single other person on the planet.

026Deciding on our kids’ education was like that for us. First grade for my oldest kid at our local elementary felt off to me; I had never thought twice about public school until the nagging in my gut that year wouldn’t let me ignore it anymore. So we switched to homeschooling, and my gut was like, “Eh. Better, but you’re still not there yet.” It compelled me to ask more questions, dig further, change a little more. Since researching and converting to unschooling, I’ve felt so much happier and more peaceful.

But the secret to happiness isn’t unschooling. I don’t need to go around insisting everyone needs to adopt our lifestyle as if it’s a “right” answer.

From my perspective, everyone finds their own secret to happiness by listening to their inner voice.

Haha so maybe in the end I’m still in the glue puddle, offering a “right” choice even after all my careful avoidance of it. But this is like the trump card of all right answers! Because it’s the card that lets all the rest of the answers belong to you.

I mentioned back in January how letting go of being “right” in my marriage has made all the difference. Slowly I’m trying to do that with everything. It’s time to let go of needing to be “right” at all.

As of today, I’m letting go of “soap.” I’m okay that I didn’t get to be “right” on that quiz. In fact, I’m glad of it. I’ve realized the reaction I had is where the true life lesson showed itself. I don’t believe the crucial lesson was to be more careful in order to get it right; I believe the more important lesson was seeing the monster in myself, the one who raged and hissed at not being “right,” and recognize that I don’t really want him around anymore. I think I’ll leave him behind in the glue and try my best to ditch the whole puddle, if I can.

Maybe laughing about it will help? Humor could be my citrus oil, hahaha. It’s time to dissolve that sticky adhesive.

Works Cited

Sherman, Debra. “Stemming the Tide of Overtreatment in U.S. Healthcare.” Reuters. 16 Feb 2012. Web. 11 Mar 2015.

Sturt, David and Todd Nordstrom. “Are You Asking the Right Question?” Forbes. 18 Oct 2013. Web. 11 Mar 2015.

Can Marriage Be Easy?

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The first wedding dress she put on was it. She glowed with the perfection of its fit while the rest of us cheered our approval. It was already the first Saturday in November, not much time before my youngest sister-in-law’s January date, and we all left the store with the happy vibe of a good sign. Plus a quick decision left plenty of time for lunch!

At Blue Lemon my mother-in-law asked a woman sitting nearby to take a picture of us, mentioning the upcoming event. The woman held up the camera and said, “I want you all to think of the love that you feel for each other today!”

007

A buzzing sensation tickled my ear—the kind that signals fateful interference. Something important was happening.

She handed us a few of her business cards, saying she felt like she should. I am extra interested in people who tune in to that frequency, so the buzzing got louder as we circled up to read the contents of her card. It outlined the main concepts from her new book about relationships, and she offered a free copy for the bride and groom.

009I’m sure she had an inkling that more than just the newlyweds might need it.

Back in August, Hubby and I had sat at a table for two in our favorite restaurant, a tea-light candle flickering between us as we hammered out mutual frustrations.

“I’m just trying to get through each day,” he’d said.

“I don’t want to survive marriage,” I’d protested. “I want us to be good.”

Ironically we both had the same complaints: feeling like the other person was too critical, like neither of us had room to be ourselves, like we were walking on eggshells with each other. People told us it was normal with the stress of having four small kids, but my gut said to hell with normal. I knew we could do better than that.

Three times I had picked up the phone and dialed a marriage counselor, but I couldn’t bring myself to make an appointment. I didn’t want to rehash what he said and she said when he did this and she did that. All I wanted was a tune-up: somebody with the right tools to get things working smoothly.

Peering over the shoulder of my husband’s grandma, my cosmic-coincidence radar knew the card she held was my divine intervention.

Amazon rushed me the book (Love N Simplicity: The 7 Relationship Master Keys) and I dove in. But despite the signs from the universe pointing me there, I felt skeptical for one main reason:

Could you really fix a relationship if only one of you was reading the manual on how to do it? I wondered.

Still, it was worth a try. At first punctuation errors and a few other issues made me want to call the author and offer editing services. But I soon became too busy smacking my forehead with the epiphanies in every chapter.

Take the drama triangle, for example. I had never considered myself a dramatic person, but oh boy could I recognize occasional versions of me in the rotating roles she described: victim, villain, hero. I realized she was so right that even playing the hero is a bad move: it’s like “helicopter” parenting, only I was doing it to my husband—assuming he wasn’t capable of handling his own life! Seeing it that way helped me begin to steer clear of all three habits.

Now when he asks me for advice, I respond, “What do you feel best about?” He has always been amazing at trusting his intuition, and I have finally learned to back off and let him.

Because really what I learned how to do was let go. I’ve been trying to do that in various areas of my life for years, and this book finally taught me how to release my expectations where it counts: with the man I love most.

  • I let go of thinking I knew better than he did.
  • I let go of trying to change him.
  • I let go of worrying how he would react to things I said or did.
  • I let go of basing my self-esteem on his opinions instead of my own.
  • I let go of reacting defensively.
  • I let go of taking myself too seriously.

And miraculously, as I did all those things, he mirrored them. Within a week, we were sharing funny stories from our separate day and laughing together and slipping into a marriage that was the opposite of the normal “hard work” everyone insists it is. Suddenly it was easy.

This past weekend we traveled down to Arizona for the wedding. Anyone who has little kids knows that “vacations” with them are anything but relaxing—more like fraught with peril. But this time we were able to navigate the tension of it so well. As we pulled up to the airport for our Southwest flight (read: no assigned seats), we debated strategy.

Photo Jan 15, 10 53 07 AM“For my stress about sitting together on the plane, I’d really feel better if I could drop you at the curb,” he said.

“Okay, but I’m not sure I can handle all the kids and all the bags.” I said this in a very normal tone, not in the defensive, argumentative way I might have before. His drama-free statement let me respond truthfully in the same easy voice.

“No, just take the toddler and get checked in so you can get seats. I’ll bring the bags.”

“Well,” I thought out loud, “I could take one of the boys to push her in the stroller and then I could take some bags with me too.”

“That would be great.”

Maybe other people figured out that kind of respectful exchange long ago, but to us in a stressful situation it feels miraculous.

Even when we revert to old habits and one of us gets dramatic, we snap out more quickly each time and the apologizing is simple: “Sorry I was being such a dork earlier. Not sure what came over me.”

When we want different things we have become open to letting each other be his or her own person, secure in our own preferences.

When unwanted feelings come up, we are learning to process them quickly. I scoffed at the book’s claim that it takes only 10–30 seconds for an emotion to pass, but once I began experimenting, I was amazed. Again the secret is letting go and being okay with what you are feeling. Funny enough, when your body feels heard, the emotional message can be ultra-brief and not so intense—another drama-free relationship.

Perhaps my favorite concept, though, is how she tells readers to stop seeing a relationship as two fractions instead of two whole people. Lots of advice insists that even if marriage isn’t 50/50 all the time, we should be okay with other divisions like 90/10. I love that she refutes that: each person should be 100% taking care of his or her own emotional needs. When two whole people are in a relationship, everything they create together is bonus!

So really in many ways the secret is to be okay with yourself:

“When we deeply love ourselves, loving others will naturally flow without any effort on our side. When we honor, treasure, respect, nurture and value ourselves, being this for others is easy! It won’t be something we have to try to do but will come so naturally that it won’t even be an issue. We just will be it, live it and do it.” (244–245)

I’m still amazed that one book and zero therapy sessions could do this much for our marriage.

Photo Jan 15, 3 42 04 PM

Our next task is to see if it can translate to easier parenting too . . .

Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part II

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(Click here to read “Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I”)

When I transitioned to herbal remedies in place of drugs four years ago, I remember thinking, “Good thing we aren’t in the medical profession!” If I were a pharmacist or married to one, for example, I’m not sure how well that switch would have gone over for all involved hahaha.

But as a college writing teacher married to a tax accountant, I figured we were safe from such life-altering displacement. Taxes are as certain as death, they say; and everyone believes in education.

Insert corny sound effect: ba-dum tshh.

This past summer at the most recent adjunct-faculty meeting I attended for the English department at Salt Lake Community College, I made my big confession: “Guys, I’m a traitor. I’ve converted to unschooling.”

It got the laugh I’d intended, but also lots of questions. “Unschooling? What’s unschooling? I mean, I get that it’s not doing school, but what does that look like?”

“Beats me!” I considered saying. Being a newbie at a lifestyle this radical made me feel shakier than jello in an earthquake.

But my heart wanted to yell out something cheesy like, “It looks like joy!”

I was already discovering the truth of what all unschoolers claim: you really can sit back and delight in watching your kids learn everything on their own, the same way you clapped and cheered with the truest enthusiasm when they learned to crawl and walk. You just have to trust that they will do it in their own time: bringing you books to read them on your lap, then picking up a pencil or crayon and figuring out how to hold it and mark on a paper, then announcing that they’ve figured out some scientific process by analyzing it themselves.

004When we went to The Leonardo museum last spring my then six-year-old found a bunch of wooden circuit pieces on a table for kids. With no obvious instructions in sight, he puzzled over the wires and the clamps and the nails and the various gadgets until—voilà!—he had produced light! And then sound!

We got him his own snap circuit set a few months later, and in no time he had snapped together a radio and tuned it to a station he recognized. He came upstairs to show us and had his thumbs carefully placed in certain spots that improved the reception; I chuckled and gave him a hint for another configuration that wouldn’t require using himself as a conductor haha.

So sometimes it looks like that. Compared to the deprivation of enjoyment that would have happened in sitting through an electricity lesson before getting to tinker, I think, “That’s why we unschool. That’s unschooling perfection right there.”

Our ten-year-old’s curiosity runs more toward words and language and social structure than gadgets and tinkering. He often asks me what a word means that he’s heard or how people get jobs or why people do this or that. So I’ll talk through it with him, and if it’s a new word he automatically tries it out a few times in a sentence, a self-conscious grin on his face as he makes sure he’s got it right, and he instinctively adds it to his vocabulary. I’ll often hear him using it a week later, and after that it becomes so natural I don’t notice his usage.

I cringe thinking how I used to come up with lists of vocab words for him and force him to memorize definitions. Sure, he has the inclination and capacity for it anyway, but it’s way better letting him select words and ideas he wants to know.

The same goes for anything else, like the time my now seven-year-old asked how we know what the weather is going to be. We got onto weather.com and looked at the radar maps and found a blue arc headed toward our state with green masses of precipitation. Sure enough, it poured rain all the next day. “Just like the map showed!”

An obligatory weather lesson wouldn’t have had nearly as much inherent satisfaction.

007I admit that my husband and I often hold our breaths, doubting it’s truly possible for them to learn everything they need to know in such a random fashion. I have to bite my tongue from blurting out to the kids, “You should be doing X, Y and Z!” I have to remind myself that our brains retain so much more when the motivation and exploration and discoveries are all our own.

Playing all day is the best way to learn!

Plenty of people are sure to disagree. I know I used to subscribe to the mentality that kids are supposed to be studying—that it’s their job from kindergarten until they graduate from college. And like a job, they need to master the discipline of learning, of sticking to things whether the enthusiasm is there or not.

I see it differently now. In our house, I draw a clear line between the discipline of a job, such as doing their chores every day, and the fragile curiosity of learning that needs to be nurtured with joy.

The best part is that as their parents we get to share the joy, like when Hubby and I overheard a kitchen conversation that turned into a spontaneous math eureka moment.

Our ten-year-old and seven-year-old were looking at a muffin tin and discussing how the fastest way to count the number of muffins was to do three times four. Since this was the seven-year-old’s first encounter with multiplying, he clarified, “Okay, wait, so like two times four is … eight? And two times five is … ten?”

“Yep,” his older brother answered. “So what’s 124 times 6?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know?” I asked the ten-year-old, unable to resist jumping in.

He thought for a minute. “Seven-hundred and twenty. No, wait. That’s not right. I forgot the four. So it’s seven-forty-four.”

(Apparently we can cross “lifelong calculator dependence” off the worry list.)

As for my profession, I count my blessings that I’m in higher ed and not compulsory ed. Phew. It makes all the difference that my students are there because they (mostly) want to be and that they can leave if what I’m teaching doesn’t work for them. Similarly, my seven-year-old is taking a weekly painting class and my ten-year-old is in a homeschool choir, and I think those are valuable because the kids chose to enroll and pursue those interests.

So maybe there’s still a place for school. Just not the forced kind.

Ba-dum tshh.

Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part I

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It doesn’t look like school anymore . . . because it’s not.

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I still tell people we “homeschool” since most inquirers just want an explanation for why my kids are home every day. When they ask follow-up questions, like what time we “do school,” I have to take a deep breath and hope I’m not judged as a weirdo—especially in a brand-new neighborhood where those next door are just getting to know us.

“Oh, we used to have a set schedule, but we don’t anymore. Now I’m letting my kids follow their own interests instead of me teaching lessons.”

The word I haven’t tossed around much—not yet, not until I get a little braver—is unschooling.

We’ve always leaned that way in the sense of leaning away from curriculum. Even the intermediate college writing class I teach is textbook free because I’d prefer to have my students read real-world articles and essays, learning to notice what makes good writing good, instead of learning to regurgitate what a textbook delineates with bullet points. Similarly, in the two-and-a-half years we’ve homeschooled, my kids have never opened a textbook.

BUT . . . there was this huge chasm between the projects that were theirs—100% theirs, like deciding to write their own version of Harry Potter—and any projects that I touched at all. My input was poison, killing every trace of enthusiasm.

I kept looking for a way to fix that paradox. How could I coerce them into inventing their own academic projects without my coercion being the death of joy? Meanwhile we trudged on with our usual routine, the kids whining every morning when I cheerfully announced, “Time to start school!”

When my chiropractor and fellow homeschool mom told me last February, “You need to read Free to Learn,” I’m sure she didn’t mean it as a command, but my gut took it as one.

Free to LearnWithin days I had the book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Prepared for Life. I couldn’t put it down, despite the craziness of packing up our house for the move. I devoured it.

What the author suggests didn’t make any sense under the paradigm to which I was conditioned. I should have tossed it aside as ludicrous. But it made absolute, complete sense to my gut.

Thankfully Peter Gray’s study after study provided the much-needed logic for my reasoning to jump on board. The science proves our brains are wired to observe, imitate, explore, create. Babies manage to eventually walk and talk without being sat down for a lecture on the mechanics of it, but somehow we don’t trust our kids to pick up other essentials likewise. We assume ABCs must be drilled, followed by math facts and the periodic table. If they don’t memorize each set in order and on time, we believe our children will never succeed in life.

Gray points out how much schooling suppresses our innate desire to learn. I could relate to that, remembering how many years it took to recover a thirst for knowledge after graduating with my masters. School—even homeschool, if it’s modeled the same way—teaches our kids that learning happens passively, where they sit and wait for facts to be given to them, where they learn only what they are told to learn.

It took the full 200+ page book to convince me completely, but everything in me said, “Yes! This is what I’ve noticed all along! This is the confirmation I’ve been waiting for, the permission to let my kids take over their own lives and their own learning.”

Unschooling meant raising children to be everything I hope for them: self-reliant, self-motivated, self-assured, active learners.

I was sold, but I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. If I let my kids do whatever they wanted, what would they do? Which choices would look academic enough to reassure me (and my much-more-skeptical husband) that they were still learning?

I picked up another book, The Unschooling Handbook, and found my reassurance in the comments from parents who had been there. Between that and Free to Learn, I came to accept that unschooling by its very nature wouldn’t look like school, that often my kids would do nothing that looked productive, that it might even take months or years for them to recover from the schooling they’d already had.

As I continued reading to grasp all of this, I let my kids do as they chose. The chaos of moving and setting up a new house (during tax season, no less, as an accountant’s temporary widow/orphans) was an ideal time to let go of academics anyway to avoid added stress.

058Anxious for signs of learning, I began to notice my then three-year-old the most.

His two older brothers had been to two years of preschool each plus kindergarten and first grade for my oldest. But my three-year-old was 100% unschooled. Because of the stress of homeschooling his brothers, I hadn’t gotten around to doing a single preschool lesson with our third kid. He’d picked up numbers on his own, surprising us one day a while ago by pointing to an 8 and naming it correctly. Within a month he could spot all ten digits.

Mostly what he chose to do all day was blow through entire reams of blank paper making what initially looked like scribbles. Except that then the scribbles started to have heads with eyes, and then arms and legs, and then bodies, and then regressed back to scribbles, and then suddenly, “Look, Mom! I drawed a six!”

Next he wanted to try a 7, then a Z, since that was close. He wanted to learn the letters of his name, so I showed him once and he scribbled it a few times until he got it right. Then a week later he asked me how to spell his sister’s name. Since my arms were full, I couldn’t show him, but I gave him verbal directions and he managed to write it! A week after that, my heart melted when he wanted to write “Mom.” He still hadn’t learned the letter B, but only because it hadn’t come up yet.

I realized that learning didn’t have to come in a set order; he was learning as he needed/wanted to, in the timing that was perfect for him.

My oldest struggled a bit in the sense of not knowing what to do with himself at first. He was used to being told what to do. I’m giving him the space to decide on his own what his days will look like. My second oldest flits from one project to the next, mostly drawing pictures that during our schooling days he would have felt insecure about, saying, “I don’t know HOW to draw a _______!” Now his creative confidence is on the rise.

My job now is to go about my day, setting the example of things adults do: working, cooking, building/fixing things, gardening, reading. They sometimes assist, which lets them start to learn adult skills too. When they ask me for help with their interests, I try to respond instantly now (rejecting my old line of “We should learn about that sometime, but for now let’s get back to ________”). We use Siri to Google their questions, and I translate adult-level articles into kid-level answers for them. They regularly ask me what words mean that they’ve heard, either from their dad and me or from a movie, and we discuss context and meaning until they’ve rolled the new word across their tongue a few times and solidified it in their heads. Sometimes I catch them using it soon afterward, and I get that quick thrill of reassurance that they are learning.

They haven’t written any stories yet, the way they used to before school (even homeschool!) killed their writing enthusiasm. I’m sad about that, and I feel guilty too. My poor oldest kids! If only I’d known everything before I started with them. I would have let them grow up like their younger brother and sister will: completely unschooled, scribbles turning to numbers and letters, letters and numbers turning to words, words turning into stories. The thrill and excitement of every discovery and milestone being all their own.

And as for me, I’ve realized that the best thing I can do is let them see me working on my own writing. It’s time to get back to blogging, back to novel writing, back to playing with words. For their sake and my own.

Fingers crossed that it’s not too late for all of us to recover.

(Continued in “Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part II”)

Hiatus

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IMG_3792 Back in September, we got an awfully big surprise.

Around the third week in August, I had started having undeniable pregnancy symptoms. We did some math on our fingers and excitedly planned for a due date of May 6th, which seemed perfect: I’d be on break between teaching semesters (May is my biggest chunk of time off every year), Hubby would be through with an always-grueling tax season. We’d have plenty of time to rearrange our three boys into bunk beds and all that. And we had plenty of time to wait a month before spreading the news to family and friends, so we didn’t tell anyone yet.

IMG_3455Still, we both admitted that something felt off. There was something different about this pregnancy, but we couldn’t figure out what it was.

Three weeks later, in the middle of catching ourselves up on Downton Abbey, the baby kicked me.

I put my hands on my stomach and suddenly couldn’t pay attention to the captivating drama of Mary and Matthew anymore. I froze, waiting for it to happen again, my head spinning to catch up with what this meant.

It meant I wasn’t seven weeks along, that was for sure. It definitely meant we weren’t due in May.

When the episode ended, I timidly revealed the news to Hubby, and we spent the next hour laughing at the possibility. Could it really be true? Could we have been pregnant since last May and not known it?

Two days later, an ultrasound confirmed it: we were over eighteen weeks along! Due February 8th.

IMG_3905With a girl!

Everyone’s response to the news? “I didn’t even know you were pregnant!” Well, we said, neither did we!

Since that ultrasound September 14th my priorities have swung in a wildly different direction. I abandoned the blog and put all my spare energy into prepping our house and lives for a new baby in less than four months.

Today is the first day in those months that I feel suddenly open to blogging, ready to see if I can still write anything after so long out of practice. The older boys’ room is finally outfitted with a bunk bed (including a new handmade quilt for my five-year-old who was previously in a toddler bed), a mural to fill the wall space, and painted closet shelves. The other room now holds a toddler bed, a crib, a changing table, a rocking chair and a train table, with just a few things left to arrange on the walls before it will feel complete. I’ve crocheted a flower blanket, sewed a floral chair pad and girly owl pillow for the rocker, and continued nesting like that to my heart’s content. IMG_3929This past weekend her grandma bought us a bright pink car seat and a neighbor loaned us a bassinet. Her closet now has just enough size 0–3 months clothes for us to get by for a little while. I can finally feel ready.

Last night, sporting a basketball under my shirt, I walked into a room full of strangers facing me in their desks, probably wary as the first thing they learned about their new college English teacher is that she is nine months pregnant. But once we got going, and they opened right into discussion so easily, I felt the usual thrill of discovering I’ve got a good group of students — knowing we’ll be able to analyze and dig into complexities and have the room hum with enthusiasm because I can tell they’re interested and they care. It reminded me how much I love all that, including discussion here on my blog.

At the same time, this is my fourth time around having a newborn, and I know my limits. I cut down to just one class this semester so that those 75 minutes twice a week are my only commitment in these next few months besides my baby and three boys.

This post isn’t an announcement that I’m back to blogging, just an update to confirm that I’m not.

Since my last baby, I’ve learned a lot about shaking off stress and living a peaceful life. That’s the life I want to welcome my daughter into — in just three short weeks! Writing will resume when it feels right.

A Story Jar

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“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. ;)