Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Joining the Literati

I've been chewing on some sort of post for a while about teaching the small fry to read. I've never bought any fancy phonics program, but I guess I'm somewhere along the road to expertise now, having 1) learned to read myself, and 2) taught one and a half children to read. Meaning that Eliza is still learning. Actually, I really can't claim much credit for Ian, since he did a lot of it by holing up in his room with the Bob books until one day he handed me the box and said, "OK, I'm done." Which was the most exciting thing ever, and I rushed to Barnes and Noble to buy him Level 1,2, and 3 books about dinosaurs. This brings me to my first tip:

1. It is sooo much easier to help a child learn to read when (s)he is passionate about something. I really think Ian learned to read the word "mamenchisaurus" before "cat," "hat" and the like. When they're poring over books about trains, stars, insects, whatever, they're bound to pick up many words by sight (especially those repeated over and over), PLUS they're very motivated. And you totally support their motivation because do you really want to read that book about earthmovers aloud for the 40th time in a row? Not so much.

2. Children learn to read on completely different time tables. My experience with my first reader totally spoiled me. Why are people shelling out for learn-to-read programs? I asked myself with wide-eyed wonder. Then I had a second child. She's different, in almost every way possible. I don't mean that she's unintelligent, of course, but her learning style is just ... well ... of a different species than her brother's. She's a child who needs tons of habitual practice and reinforcement on my part, which requires better character than I have. Some days she feels like reading with me, others she doesn't. I don't push it. Like so many other milestones in development (crawling, sleeping through the night, walking, toilet "training," etc.) readiness is everything. One day, this reading thing is really going to click with her and I just know she'll take off. Until then, we keep it light and pleasant, and don't worry about what her brother, friends or anyone else is doing.

3. Play lots of word games. I don't mean Boggle or Quiddler -- yet. I mean the lilypad game, where you write very simple words on the driveway in sidewalk chalk and then call them out and have your little "frog" hop to the right "lilypad." I mean getting out some magnetic letters and their toy animals and having them match each animal to its letter to make a "zoo." I mean making a trail of easy words for them to sound out, with a plate of tasty snacks at the end. I mean writing the names of the colors in pencil and having them trace over the names in the appropriate color crayon. There are oodles of ideas and those are just from my own piddling brain. Check out Peggy Kaye's wonderful books, including Games for Reading: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Read, for some terrific ones.

4. Listen to audiobooks together. This is why I really don't worry about my six year old's reading. The girl listens to long chapter books on CD in her room for hours on end, often the same ones over and over. (Of course, reading aloud to your child just goes without saying, but Mama's voice can only take so much.) Why is this so effective? Because when children hear great writing read aloud, their minds fill in the images (rather than having TV do it for them). Their vocabularies expand by leaps and bounds. So when they're sounding out words on their own, they have a rich treasury of words to recognize. They're familiar with speech patterns and figures of speech. They can make educated guesses about words they don't know. Nothing wrong with that -- and quite often, they're right.

5. Along the same lines, expose them to plenty of real life experiences. A long time ago, when I had the time to read lots of parenting books, I came across something in a book -- which was it? Maybe Magic Trees of the Mind. Anyway, a study was conducted in which one class of children were taught reading intensively at age five or six. Another class was not given formal reading instruction but instead did lots of hands-on science experiments, nature walks, etc. etc. When they were eventually "taught" to read a couple years later, the researchers found that they not only caught up, but also quickly reached a more sophistical reading level than those with the standard reading education. Why? Along the lines I mentioned in #4, their familiarity with the words and its contents not only deepened their desire to explore through reading, but also gave them a richer knowledge base from which a broad range of words had become old friends.

Any other tips you'd care to share? I'm off to read to the kids.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Animal Instincts

Delight: This moment ...

... and others like it during Homeschool Day at SeaWorld San Antonio. A half day of educational experiences for $8 each. No rides, but no lines. No shops or caf├ęs to set off a round of gimme gimmes. No rain until the last few minutes. Yes Shamu. Perfect.

Bemusement: We have a new pet hamster bequeathed to us from next door. Goes by the name of Nufe (long story). Will this turn out to be the beginning of happy family memories or an example of parental indulgence gone horribly wrong? I wonder.

Outrage: During a visit to PetSmart for Ian to buy Nufe a water bottle with his lawnmowing money, I discovered something that made me break out in spontaneous hives. Almost literally. Here it is: In a world where millions of people go to bed hungry every night, where even coffee growers blessed by the Fair Trade program make $2.75 PER DAY to feed their families, there are people buying Halloween costumes for their dogs. Am I being judgmental here? You bet. My jaw hung so far open that my family had to follow me out the door on a tidal wave of slobber. End of story.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What would you do?

Instead of putting you to sleep with a rambling description of my feeeeeelings about the past week and day, which would likely feature helpings of self-pity, frustration, grief and pessimism with a few gobs of sunshine, I'm just going to give you guys a quiz. It only has one question. Here we go.

You go to use the loo, and find that someone has left a, er, present in the bowl. What do you do?

A. Shriek with disgust, then go ferret out the guilty party and deliver a lecture on showing respect to one's family members by REMEMBERING TO FLUSH THE TOILET FOR PETE'S SAKE! (Be sure to use the phrase, "How many times have I told you ..." Kids like that. And it just feels so good to say.)

B. Sigh, mutter, "Kids will be kids!" and flush the dang thing yourself.

C. Find your offspring and announce, with a completely straight face, "Kids! The only person who is allowed to leave brown packages at our house is the UPS man!"

(I think you know where I stand.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Considering the evidence

See, here's the deal. About 4.2 percent of the time, my house is quite tidy. I can relax, knowing that most things are squirreled away in their proper places, lending precious little clutter to both vision and soul.

You can figure out the other 95.8 percent.

About 50 percent of THAT time, I walk around either figuratively literally clutching the brow and thinking WHEN ARE THESE KIDS GOING TO LEARN TO PICK UP AFTER THEMSELVES??? (I'm not completely falling down on life skills. My nine year old does his own laundry. But still.)

The other 50 percent only happens because of nine years of chipping away at the marble block of my perfectionism.

Here's what I found when I wandered through last night, detritus from my youngest child alone. (Oh, and the camera had barely any room, cluttered as it was by my eldest's delightful Lego Star Wars stop-motion movies, each involving about 300 photos.) Sorry about the evening-esque photo quality.

This is a drawing of a bat in a cave, which she hopped up from the dinner table to make during her sister's report on caves from her co-op class.

A self-portrait, perhaps?

This is some "cursive writing" she did using a chicken feather as a quill pen and watered-down tempera paint as ink.

A flag. See the pipe cleaner flagpole sticking out the bottom?

Oh, here's a note she wrote to her friend Rev, telling him how much she enjoyed his birthday party. With a matching envelope (hence the staples).

A 3D rosebush.

Her sailboat. Waiting for a pond outing with Daddy.

A pouch, made completely on her own by sewing up the sides with needle and thread, then evidently presented with great fanfare to the grateful carpet.

Dunno. Strip of fabric nicely pinned up the sides.

A family portrait.

Hmm. Found this in a corner of the kitchen. It's heart-shaped, it's spotted ... oh! I know! This is the remote control to the television she made by taping a crayoned picture to an empty cardboard box. Then she and Eliza spent Quiet Time channel surfing. Kids these days. It's all about the screen. No creativity whatsoever.

A length of "ribbon chain" and the chicken feather quill pen, found under the table.

A bundle of chicken feathers, culled from the yard and tied together with a series of knots that might make a sailor quiver with envy.

These bits of this and that serve as evidence -- evidence of young life sprouting and flourishing around here, with all it really needs to thrive. And when these signs of life rub me the wrong way, I consider the alternative.

I'll take the clutter.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Vacation Flashback

So, this has the potential to be a tiny bit awkward, but I've realized that I have a few newish readers to this blog who don't necessarily know all the important background info about my family and me.

Hi Dad! I know you're reading this. Mind if I explain a little? No? You don't mind? Thanks.

So, in April 2002, my dad, age 53 at the time, was diagnosed with ALS. Pick almost any other diagnosis on the planet, and you'd rather have it. For reals. I have this independently confirmed by my friend Greta's husband, a neurologist.

What's really incredible is that it's been seven and a half years now, and he was only given about three years to live. Thanks to some divine and tender mercies, we have been able to borrow him longer than we expected, and due to the generosity of some anonymous friends, we have been able to visit regularly and inject my parents' house with some rambunctiousness. Eliza loves to ride around with him in the electric wheelchair. The other two make plenty of noise.

Things that you and I take for granted -- walking, talking, brushing our teeth, typing, rolling over in bed, breathing -- everything becomes more difficult and eventually impossible to do on one's own with this disease. So when we visit, we always seek out activities that requires as little as possible of any of the above, and that shift the focus away from what can't be done. Things like flying a kite (no photo of kite plunging toward ground on windless day).

Things like finding fresh corn at a farmstand (Dad's ultimate favorite) and bringing it home to shuck for dinner.

Things like visiting the ocean. My dad's spiritual life sustains him mightily. But I think being able to get oneself out between the sea and sky where the rhythm of life can mesmerize you with its simplicity can't be a bad idea. It sure works for me, anyway.

The one thing I didn't really bring him in on was stopping on the way home from the beach to buy a lobster roll to share with the kids. Y'all. Sixteen bucks for a lobster roll that fit into a hotdog bun (which I can't even eat!). What was I thinking? I was raised a New Englander! An offspring of my Dutch father! We don't pay full price for items bought on impulse! "Buy?" "Impulse?" Vhat ees thees? Some bolts of temporary insanity are best kept secret.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Date Night

When The Aspiring Professor confided that he would be working on his thesis all weekend, my in-laws took pity on me and invited the kids out for half the weekend. The result? Last night, we grabbed some supplies from Terra Burgers and a well-loved quilt, and had a date night al fresco at the Arboretum.

Lying on our backs, we saw this:

Window shopping afterward, we saw these at Janie and Jack:

And I was totally jonesing for a pair, imagining how priceless they'd look on Caroline's feet. Maybe Eliza's too. And hey, while I'm dreaming, why not a pair of these for me?

While we're at it, how about some flying pigs?

But this morning I woke up to a fragment of a hymn wandering through my brain:
"Christ is my Sabbath and new moon,
My morning and my day
My age and my eternity
That ne'er shall pass away."

I lay under the covers for a decadent amount of time, listening to the breezes sighing through the leaves of the huge ash tree outside our bedroom window, offering gusts of September air that felt just as an early fall morning should after an unusually brutal summer. Clear, gentle morning sun stole in to light the pages of my book.

Cute cowboy boots pass away, fading eventually into scuffmarked inhabitants of closet corners.

I am satisfied.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

For Vanessa ...

... and anyone else who currently is, or is nursing an infant who is, lactose-intolerant, soy-intolerant, gluten-intolerant, and/or sugar-sensitive. (Aren't we a high-maintenance bunch?)

It's called Luna and Larry's Coconut Bliss. On sale now at Natural Grocers. Those of you unfortunate enough not to reside in this city, check your natural foods store. If you can't find it there, email Luna and Larry and negotiate some sort of deal. You are hardworking mamas and papas and you deserve a treat.

Plus, it meets my ultimate dessert criteria: It's NOT TOO SWEET.

I think I'll go check the freezer right now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Boredom (aren't you hooked?)

Confession: Although I have been a mother for over nine years now, I still find a certain level of anxiety stealing in when I see my children doing this kind of thing in the middle of the day:

This terrible urge to intervene, to hover, to give them something Productive to do, something Educational to fill their time, rears its ugly head, even when the three R's are checked off and they've indicated no dissatisfaction with their apparently idle state. It's like a disease, this boredom-phobia that threatens my more sensible instincts.

But since I HAVE been a mother for over nine years, I am learning to master this impulse. To remember that one of the greatest gifts of a true childhood is that of TIME. Time to quite literally watch the clouds go by. Time to cultivate "the inward eye/which is the gift of solitude." (Name that poet!) Time to connect with their Creator.

Two minutes after I snapped that photo, the boy grew quite excited over the shape of a cloud: "It's like a frowning man wearing a sombrero!" We tag-teamed the cloud identification thing for a while, sharing a few belly laughs, and ended up drawing our finds in sidewalk chalk on the driveway (since the girls were already drawing ships and knights). Not because it was productive or educational, but because we both wanted to, and it was fun, and childhood is fleeting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Something Intelligent

At the head of the dinner table every night in my household of origin sat my father. At the opposite end sat my mother, probably (I realize now) exhausted from a day of cleaning, cooking, getting five kids to do the stuff we should and shuttling us to our various activities. In between, sat the five kids. Us.

And nearly every night, we'd be indulging in some sort of vapid silliness, my brothers mocking their teachers with humorous precision, my sisters and I guiltily guffawing, while my dad attended with great concentration to the task of consuming his well-balanced dinner. Either he was considering some of the thornier patients he'd dealt with that day or some of the more opaque prophecies in the book of Revelation, I'm guessing. Anyway, all of sudden the plate would appear empty and my dad would look up from his work like Shackleton returning from an enforced stay at the South Pole to find the globe engaged in World War I.

"Does anyone have anything intelligent to say?" he'd inquire.


Absent any resulting conversation topics, we'd resort to quizzing each other from the National Geographic Global Pursuit game. We got pretty good at geography.

Just in case you, too, find yourself at a loss for meaningful, edifying conversation at your own dinner table, I'd like to present a little pastime we stumbled across a few nights ago. (Across which we stumbled, that is.)

The youngest child picks a letter, any letter. Each family member is assigned a part of speech -- noun, verb, adjective, adverb. Like this:

Caroline: Letter H!

Ian, noun: Hippo!

Eliza, verb: hiccuped!

Tim, adjective: hip!

Me, adverb: hideously!

All together now: The hip hippo hiccuped hideously!

We also came up with Chip cheerfully chomped chocolate chips and The terrible torpedo tastefully trumpeted toots.

Because of course, according to Newton's Fifth Law of Multiple Children Gathered at a Table, there must, at some point in the discussion, be gas.

Enjoy educating, enormously.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I am SO in trouble here

And it's not because I have an article deadline tomorrow night and haven't exactly started on the thing. Oh no, I do that every single month. (There's a book on my to-read list called Outliers: The Story of Success
-- have you read it? Apparently the author, Malcolm Gladwell, found that people who are highly proficient in their field or skill have worked at it for, on average, 10,000 hours. I think. I'm wondering, does procrastination count? Because if so, where do I get my Outlier badge?)

No, it's because a couple days ago, Caroline, perched in her carseat, was gazing reflectively at her raspberry-colored raincoat. "Mom," she soberly intoned, "I just have the feeling that it's time to sell this coat." When pressed by her inquisitive mother as to the source of this feeling, she offered the following reason: "It's too plain, and I like things to be very fancy."

GULP. I'm really not seeing the voluntary simplicity movement in her future.

In other news, Ian earned his first $5 for mowing the neighbor's yard yesterday. So, the college fund may survive after all. Either that, or the Lego company's coffers are about to take on additional lining. Which do YOU think it will be???

Friday, September 11, 2009

My, that was interesting

Hi ho, hi ho, I'm back online. And feeling spoiled by all the sweet condolences for the limb amputation temporary service disruption we endured. Have I told you lately that I love you?

It's been a week.

We flew home from Boston.

We lost Internet service.

We started Friday Co-op.

One of my siblings had major surgery.

My mom came into town.

It seemed like a logical week to let the blog simmer.

But, I do owe a couple of you an explanation.

Behold, the jocundity-in-a-bag known as Bananagrams. A favorite in my word-nerdy family of origin. If you haven't discovered it yet, you're in for a treat!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Away from my desk

Sad news, y'all. Apparently while we were out of town enjoying the cool breezes of New England, our modem had the audacity to implode during a thunderstorm chez Diller.

So I am at the library. And I won't be online this week, hardly at all. And that wasn't grammatical, hardly at all. Such a shame, being cut off from the outside world and all, especially because there were some bloggable moments from the trip.

Maybe I'll have guest posts!

So I leave you with an apology for NOT being a good commenter to my blogging friends this week.

Feel free to sign my condolence book below, and I'll collect any and all grievous thoughts when I reemerge from my womblike hibernation.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Windows open, cool breeze floating in

Dear Ones,

I am away from the manor right now visiting this person:

and this person:

and this person (snowed under by first week in law school, but with enough spare mental acuity to whip us all soundly at Bananagrams):

and this person, wife of above and the one responsible for those three photos.

We are pushing off for the happy isles, i.e. here today. Wheelchair-friendly venues are very dear to our hearts. Plus, did I mention it is 73 degrees here? Apparently there are places on earth -- in this country, even! -- where September heralds the advent of something called FALL. Which is to say, AUTUMN. Who knew?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


See this person? The brunette, I mean.

A complete and total love.

Thanks to Vanessa, I connected with Tobi, a Japanese native and member of our church family, using the much-abhorred method of a Cold Call. (I am not a phone person, unless I know you really really well.) Next thing I know, here's Tobi, arriving at our door bearing bags of books, food and craft materials.

My kids wanted to know whether she'd ever been pushed in on a subway in Tokyo. Answer: yes.

She very sweetly taught them to make origami sumo wrestlers. First things first, you know. Then we had to make them fight each other, many times over. To say that the competition grew fierce might be underselling it a bit.

We also made sushi. A LOT of sushi. What's a geography lesson without food?

And then she and I got to fellowship while the kids went off and played a little Wii. Which was invented by Japanese people, I'm pretty sure.

Today marked the official end of our Japan unit study, since we'll be traveling for the holiday weekend. So to sum up, and provide a free service to anyone who might ever possibly want to explore Japan with the wee ones, as per my hearty recommendation, here's a list of things we've done:

1. Colored and labeled maps of Japan and surrounding area
3. Discussed bullet train and subway system; dramatized pushers-in using closets as subway cars.
4. Viewed photo slideshow from in-laws' 1980's trip to Japan.
6. Made kimonos.
7. Arranged food and ate bento-style
8. Learned about, acted out, samurai and ninja warriors
9. Held Japanese tea ceremony
10. Learned about Commodore Perry
11. Painted a four-paneled screen
12. Made wonton soup and stir-fry
13. Visited Japanese garden
14. Attempted to visit origami exhibit (rain check!)
15. Learned to count to ten in Japanese (plus various vocabulary words from this book)
16. Discussed Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, with pictures
17. Made model of uranium atom with beans, nuts and cinnamon candies. Split nucleus to demonstrate nuclear bomb
18. Watched sumo wrestlers on YouTube
19. Watched rice harvesting and high-tech Japanese toilets on YouTube
20. Watched The Karate Kid (Ian)
21. Attempted basic Japanese characters
22. Illustrated social hierarchy during shogunate period
23. Ate with chopsticks
24. Arranged flowers ikebana style
25. Compared styles of martial arts on YouTube
26. Read wonderful books, especially by Allen Say (see new Goodreads widget)

Many of our activities were inspired by And for once, we could all be on the same page, with no sense of juggling three different ages. It's been a whole lot of fun!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Don't Quit!

If I could give one tip to parents with a QK (that would be Quirky Kid) who might need a greater-than-average share of emotional deposits to counteract the negative feedback their behavior tends to attract, it would be this (I mean, besides helping him/her find a Quirky Friend and finding yourself a fellow PoQK -- you figure it out):

Find him chances to be a leader.

In the past ten days, my husband and my daughter both passed belt test that enabled them to move up the rankings in tae kwon do. I'm quite proud of both of them.

But on the same day my husband passed his test, along with about fifteen others, his teacher paused the closing ceremonies to make a special award to two students at our school. One was a thirteen year old brown belt. One was my son.
They had both earned the rank of Junior Leader, a position that allows them to wear a special uniform and recognizes the many hours they have put into training for leadership. For about nine months now, Ian has been helping to teach the 3-5 year old "Tiny Texans" class. He leads warm-ups, demonstrates skills, and generally serves as a teacher's helper. On his application for Leadership, in answer to the question, "What are your strengths?" he wrote "Good leader -- rounding up people to do stuff." Bingo.

(The first time I noticed this quality was at a church conference when I and a few other adults found ourselves in charge of about 40 first graders one evening. The adults' meeting dragged on past nine, and our energy levels began to seriously flag. Ian buzzed over from his own class to find me, sized up the situation, and before I knew it, had about fifteen kids following him earnestly through a game of charades and freeze tag. The rest of us might as well have been invisible. To those kids, he walked, ran, and leaped on water.)

When he wore his new uniform to class last week, I overhead his teacher informing first the Tiny Texans and then his class of age peers that "Mr. Diller" was now a Junior Leader and they needed to show him the proper respect. What touched me was that she saw him as trustworthy enough to bear that responsibility, not abuse his position of newfound power. His chest seemed to straighten a bit. He walked an inch or two taller. And he did not lose patience with the three year old who simply does not process the concept of instructions. In fact, that three year old's mother told me today that he considers Mr. Diller to be his Very Cool friend. (Ian's take: "Mom, I think he's been kinda spoiled at home." Excuse me. I just need to snicker behind my hand for a minute.)

This is just the latest reason I'm so glad we overcame our initial doubts almost two years ago and enrolled our son in tae kwon do at this school. Their motto "Don't Quit!" has become quite personal to him. While the teacher's no-nonsense manner put him off at first, we tried again. As it turns out, she has offered him the perfect balance of toughness and compassion. She demands respect AND gives it, with a generous helping of love. The students respond to that -- so that some of them who seem at first least likely to thrive, my son included, end up reaping rewards made sweeter for the struggle.

(Oh, and P.S., if you're local and interested for your child or yourself, you can try out a class there for free! We like free! E-mail me for the 411 or check out their site).