Tag Archives: learning

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.

Why We Ditched School Altogether, Part II

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024When 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.

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. ;)

The Joy of Question and Answer

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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

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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. ;)