January 27, 2005 @ 9:42 am | Filed under: Books
I love to read aloud to my kids. Before they were born, I imagined myself curled on the couch amid a passel of captivated children, doing voices for the characters and receiving a chorus of eager pleas for one more chapter, please, Mom…. And I got that, with my first child, and my second. Then Beanie came along, and suddenly, family read-alouds weren’t fun anymore. It’s not that I expected her, at age one or two, to listen raptly to the novels that entranced her older sisters. I just figured she’d be happy playing somewhere nearby while I read. This was not the case. She was a high-energy toddler who had to be moving at all times. Usually on my head. She’d bounce back and forth across the couch; she’d mess with my hair; she’d torment her sisters. She had no interest in going somewhere else while I read, or in playing with toys that delighted at other times. And it would have been contrary to my reasons for wanting to homeschool in the first place to banish her from the room every time I wanted to read to the others. I didn’t want her to feel exiled during storytime. That certainly would not inspire in her a love of stories.
What I had to do was find times to read when Bean was naturally occupied in some activity even more absorbing than Distracting Her Sisters. Her naptimes were an obvious choice. And at bedtime, when Daddy read to the big girls, I spirited Beanie away to another room for some special cuddle time with Mommy. I read to her, and by that time of day, she was ready to be still and listen. And of course, the books were at her speed, not her sisters’.
But bedtime and naptime isn’t enough time. Too many great books in the world! Fortunately there was an activity Beanie enjoyed even more than jumping on the sofa: eating. Three times a day, she was (and still is) a captive audience.
Some of our best family reading times are over meals. I read to them at breakfast—usually poetry. At lunch I read novels like The Bears of Hemlock Mountain (with its delightful refrain of “No bears, no bears, no bears at all”) or By the Great Horn Spoon. I read picture books like Peter Rabbit or The Maggie B. or Tikki Tikki Tembo—books my older children have almost forgotten, and my younger ones are discovering for the first time.
A little side note here about picture books. They aren’t just for little kids. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease tells about a high-school teacher who reads Judith Viorst’s picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day to her students every year. Her teenagers listen raptly. They can relate to Alexander’s plight. Sometimes whole months of adolescence feel like a no good very bad day.
Back to our mealtime reading. I’ve learned to refill milk cups without breaking stride in the narrative. My picky eater forgets to pick—she’s into the story. And my wild wall-climbing preschooler shovels in her peas with her eyes fixed on the the picture I’m holding up.
Our breakfast poetry readings have done more to instill a love of poetry in my children than any curriculum I could have bought. I don’t make them memorize poems, but they do, because they ask for certain favorites over and over again. I read a mix of old favorites and new discoveries. Often I pick poems appropriate to the day’s weather, or the current season or holiday or animal we’ve been reading about or bird we’ve spotted on a nature walk. I read nonsense poems and serious, lyrical poetry. My little ones know Tennyson, Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Frost—not because I’ve taught these poets as schoolwork, but because they’ve joined us for breakfast so many a morning.
Our choices for novels are often dictated by what we’re interested in at the moment. In spring, our thoughts turn to green, growing things and fluffy animals. We follow “rabbit trails” of related books, like the year we hopped from Beatrix Potter to The Secret Garden to Redwall. In the winter, when we tend to read for longer stretches of time because we’re stuck indoors, we tend toward adventure stories and historical fiction.
Our suppertime book right now is Eleanor Estes’s hilarious Ginger Pye. It’s almost too funny for a mealtime read-aloud, because it’s encouraging bad manners in my gang—they keep laughing with their mouths full!
What are your family’s favorite read-alouds? Write me and I’ll post your recommendations.
January 26, 2005 @ 2:18 pm | Filed under: Books
I’m working on a scene in my next Martha book. In 1700s Edinburgh, there was no such thing as a sewage system. James Buchan, in his fascinating book Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, writes of servants flinging open the shutters at ten o’clock every evening, calling out “Gardy loo!”—a heads-up for passersby—and emptying the household chamberpots onto the street below.
I am suddenly feeling very fond of my toilets.
In March of 1997, Jane was 21 months old. I took her to a friend’s birthday party in Prospect Park. It was my first time driving in Brooklyn. I remember zooming around a curve on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and seeing downtown Manhattan across the river, and feeling so empowered—if I could handle New York City highway traffic, I could handle anything. Jane piped up from the back seat, “Bus!” and I was so excited because she was rather a late talker and had only a handful of words at that point.
The next day, the birthday boy’s mother called to warn me that Tommy had awakened with a stomach virus that morning. Uh-oh. Every kid at the party came down with a really nasty flu—except Jane. She was legendary for her vigorous good health.
A week later, Jane and I flew down to North Carolina on a house-hunting mission. Scott was going to apply to grad school at UNC-G. Our plan was to move down in May and spend the summer freelancing before Scott started classes. Jane and I tooled all around the Greensboro area, and to my utter delight I found a cute little rental house—a former train depot, really—on a farm just outside the city limits. $500 a month, access to the whole farm including the sheep, the donkey, and the duck pond, and there was another family on the property with a little girl whom they too intended to homeschool. Seemed too good to be true. I returned triumphantly to NY and told Scott I’d found the perfect place.
A few days later, I was changing Jane’s diaper and noticed a surprising number of bruises on her legs. I wasn’t particularly worried—she was an active kid, a big climber and jumper, and we’d been at the playground all morning. Still, I decided to run it by the doctor. Unfortunately it was after office hours, so I’d have to wait until the morning.
That night Scott and I had an argument about when he should give notice at work. I was pushing for a slightly earlier date; I was eager to get down to NC and settle in at the Depot House. (It even had a name! I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a name.) Scott thought we should hang in for one more pay period before making the big move. We both went to bed upset, with Jane zonked beside us, her fair skin luminous in the moonlight. I woke in the early dawn, those bruises nagging at my mind. I snuck out of bed without waking Scott and Jane and dug a medical reference book out of the office closet. Bruising: check for petechiae, it said—little red dots on the skin—more than a dozen means bad news.
I crept back into the bedroom and raised the blind enough to let in light from the streetlamp. I remember the cold lump of fear in my stomach. There were more than twelve red dots on one arm alone. It was Saturday, March 22nd, and life as we knew it was over.
The pediatrician had office hours that morning. He took one look at Jane and sent us to the hospital for a blood test. Ten hours later we found ourselves in the PICU watching a nurse hook up machines that would remove Jane’s blood from her body and replace it with someone else’s blood. When Scott called his mother to tell her Jane had leukemia, she thought he was joking at first. He assured her that he would never joke about something like this. It defied belief, but it was real.
By the end of her first week of chemo, Jane had picked up a whole bunch of new words, like “blue IV” and “med-o-tec-tate” (methotrexate). And to think I’d been impressed with bus. Day 8 was Easter Sunday, and she hunted eggs in her hospital room with Scott maneuvering her iv pole around the bed. We thanked our lucky stars that he hadn’t quit his job yet—his company had great health insurance. I wrote a note to the owner of the Depot House, explaining that we wouldn’t be renting after all. Six months of inpatient, high-dose chemo stretched to almost nine months, because of low blood counts and complications. Jane knew more about platelets and white cells at age 2 than I did at 20. We learned how to give injections and push meds through her central line catheter. We watched hundreds of hours of Blues Clues and read picture books until they were stacked as high as the bed.
She finished the last round of high-dose chemo on Thanksgiving Day of 1997. We ate Boston Market turkey and stuffing in the hospital playroom while her meds finished running. There were two more years of low-dose chemo to go, but we expected to spend most of that period as out-patients. When we got home that night—home, where we hadn’t spent more than ten days in a row since March—it was late, a cold, clear night, with as many stars as a New York City sky can muster. I remember thinking I couldn’t imagine ever being more thankful for anything than I was to be carrying that little girl up the stairs to our apartment that night.
I was wrong. Today I watched Jane feeding Wonderboy a jar of baby food. He thought it was hilarious to have his big sister be the one feeding him, and he could hardly eat for laughing—big belly laughs that made the other kids crack up, and then the sound of their laughter, which he can hear clearly now with the hearing aids in, made him guffaw all the harder. I stood frozen in the kitchen, holding my breath as if they were a flock of rare birds who might fly away if I moved. Beanie’s curls bounce when she laughs. Rose laughs mostly with her big brown eyes. Jane is like a poster child for joy. It bubbles out of her and spills over to everyone around.
There’s a little part of me that is still leaning over the bed in that crowded Queens apartment, counting tiny red dots on Jane’s skin, slowly awaking to the fact that we had far more important things to worry about than what day Scott should give notice at his job. It’s the part of me that knows, now, never to take a minute of this for granted—to give thanks every hour of every day for these amazing treasures who have been entrusted to my care, and for the guy who gives his all in helping me take care of them. They are miracles, all of them. Especially that golden girl beaming at her little brother as she lifts the spoon to his laughing mouth.
I consider my primary function as a homeschooling mom to be Strewing the Path. Coined by Sandra Dodd, “strewing” is a favorite term of homeschoolers, especially unschoolers, which describes the habit of leaving books, puzzles, games, curiosities, art supplies, and other cool objects lying on tables and counters and in the car where unsuspecting children will find them. (Check out Sandra’s extensive page on strewing here.)
I learned the benefits of strewing from my husband. He hates to be told what to read. In high school, his favorite books were the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He read and re-read them for pleasure year after year. In college, he took a class on Tolkien. A certain number of chapters of The Lord of the Rings was assigned for each class. And Scott found that he never wanted to read the material. It had become “material.” It was an assignment, chopped up into increments and parceled out over a semester. He procrastinated or completely blew off the daily reading assignments. At home the following summer, he lounged under the air conditioner and read the whole trilogy for pleasure.
He told me that story early in our relationship, and I’m glad, because it tipped me off to the fact that if I really want him to read something, I shouldn’t ask him to. Instead, if I have a book I’m dying to share with him, I leave it in the bathroom and take all other reading material out of there. That’s strategic strewing.
It works with my children, too. I know their interests. I know where they like to hang out in the house. So I choose books I think will capture my 9-year-old’s imagination and leave them on the windowsill beside her chair at the lunch table, or on the sofa where she likes to sprawl. I leave baskets of books all over the house; I casually lay a picture book or two on my 4-year-old’s nightstand when I’m putting her down for a nap. I sneak into my sleeping daughters’ room and put books at the foot of their bed, because I know that when they wake up they’ll find them and look at them and maybe I’ll get to sleep ten minutes past dawn the next morning.
I have to be careful, because sometimes this gets me in trouble. Two summers ago I wanted to know what was growing in our unlandscaped side yard, so I checked a book on weeds out of the library. I glanced at it but decided this book was too dry to make it worth the effort and tossed it onto the kitchen table. The next day I returned it to the library. The next day, then-7-year-old Jane summoned me with an anguished wail. “Mommy, where’s that great book I was reading? The one about weeds? It was SO interesting!” She’d found it lying on the table and naturally assumed that it was meant for her. I admitted I’d returned it, and she was crushed. I had to promise to schedule a special trip to re-check it out. Apparently what is one person’s giant yawn is another person’s heart-pounder.
Scatter enough books in their paths, and they’ll find the heart-pounders for themselves.
Nine-year-old Jane and I have been playing iSketch together. What a hoot! It’s a kind of online Pictionary game. I log in first and create a private room (very important—the public rooms can be lewd) just for the two of us. Then she logs in on our other computer. In each round, one person draws a word and the other one guesses it. The words are randomly generated by the computer. You can choose categories like books, movies, food, or animals, or you can just choose a basic word list. The “phrases” category is especially fun—Scott’s illustration for “shattered dreams” had me in stitches the other night.
The artist has a set of drawing & painting tools to use. Drawing with a mouse is tricky at first but you quickly get the hang of it. The guesser types words into a box. If you’re on the right track, you get a little happy noise. Correct guesses earn points for both artist and guesser, but for us the thrill is in having the other person figure out what you’re supposed to be drawing.
We began playing this just for fun—I had no sneaky educational ulterior motive. But it has turned out to be quite a boost for Jane’s spelling. She has to spell her guesses correctly or they don’t count. Yesterday her correct guesses included the words “passenger,” “microscope,” “martyr,” and “manicure.” She passed a nice little spelling quiz, all unawares!
iSketch has word lists in over a dozen languages, so you can even practice your German, Spanish, or Dutch. Now if only they had a category for Latin…
Now, we won’t be tossing our beloved Pictionary game anytime soon…after all, it’s nice to actually be in the same room together sometimes. 🙂 But iSketch has an excitement all its own. And since you can invite numerous players to your private room, it’s possible to play a game with Grandpa in Colorado and your cousins in Australia. (Working out the time differences sneaks in a lesson in practical math, too.)
Note to parents: you’ll want to visit the iSketch website first and check it out, sans kids. Be sure to read the instructions for how to set up a private room. Whatever you do, DO NOT let your children scroll down the list of public room names at the bottom. The “user created” names at the end of the list are beyond nasty. A private room, however, is quite easy to set up and perfectly safe from unsavory intruders.
Our family favorite: the Signing Time DVDs and videos. My girls got these for Christmas and we’re all captivated! See All About Wonderboy to find out why we’re learning sign language. Signing Time creator Rachel Coleman, her daughter Leah (who is deaf), and Leah’s cousin Alex (who is hearing) have got my children signing and singing up a storm! We bought them because of the signs and fell in love with them because of the songs—Rachel is a gifted singer and songwriter. Highly recommended. Check them out at www.signingtime.com.
Need practice reading fingerspelling? This site spells out words for you in the manual alphabet, and you type in your answer. It repeats the word over and over until you get it right. ASL Fingerspelling Quiz
Other websites I like:
• Signing Time DVDs
• More about Signing Time
• Rilla Signs
• Unsolicited Signing Time Commercial
• Signing with Babies, My Favorite Topic
He is 13 months old and has had his hearing aids for two months. His hearing loss, diagnosed last fall, came as a surprise to us—we spent his first nine months focused on various and sundry other medical issues. First it was the omphalocele, discovered immediately after birth: a small section of intestine had herniated into his umbilical cord. He was rushed to the university hospital, where our favorite surgeon in the world tucked his bowels back where they belonged and custom-stitched him a belly button. (It’s a beauty, too.)
Then came the string of new and alarming discoveries: seemed like half the departments in the hospital had something to say about our boy. Cardiology, genetics, neurology, neo-natal…plus a couple of others who were able to cross him off their lists, thank goodness. The next six months were an adventure of appointment-juggling, full of surprises. In March, a second surgery. In April, he was diagnosed with hypertonia (high muscle tone) and developmental delay. Wonderboy’s physical therapy became our new family pastime. His sisters are a big help with the homework.
An MRI in June showed specific types of brain abnormality but offered little insight as to what to expect in terms of future mobility. PT has worked wonders, but there is a long way to go. He’s a tough little guy, and his physical therapist is a gem–a gentle, patient soul with a wonderfully warm manner. Wonderboy loves her even if he doesn’t always love what she makes him do.
Just about the time we were getting a handle on the PT, we began to be concerned about his hearing. More tests, a surgery to insert tubes, yet more tests—and finally confirmation of what we already knew: he is hard of hearing.
Now that he has the hearing aids, he can hear everything we say to him. We’re teaching him how to make sense of it. Sign language helps, so we’ve all immersed ourselves in the study of ASL (American Sign Language) and I’m not sure which one of us loves it more. My shy Rose blooms when her hands can do the talking—she loves being able to tell me something without opening her mouth. Beanie is learning to fingerspell before she can read. And Jane is burning with an insatiable need to know WHY each specific sign is what it is.
The first time Wonderboy signed “Mommy” I thought my heart would burst. Now he says “Maaaa” and that’s just as magical. He enchants friends and neighbors by studying their faces when they speak, those big eyes serious and fascinated, a little smile quirking the corner of his mouth. And I think there can be no audience in the world more satisfying to sing to than a hard-of-hearing baby. His spellbound gaze says I’m the wonder, as if I’ve somehow invented this marvelous thing called music all by myself.
I think the real wonder is how God works it out: the child with hearing loss teaches me how to listen; the one who can’t talk yet has the most profound things to say.
• Signing Time DVDs
• More about Signing Time
• Rilla Signs
• Unsolicited Signing Time Commercial
• Signing with Babies, My Favorite Topic
January 20, 2005 @ 1:36 pm | Filed under: Who We Are
“You have so much on your plate!”
“I don’t know how you juggle it all.”
“You really have your hands full.”
This is what I’m always hearing from people, variations on the theme. Either I have too many balls in the air or too much food on my plate, or maybe it’s PLATES I’m supposed to be juggling instead of balls, and I guess in that case any amount of food would be too much. And it’s true, I’ve had plenty of days when it seems like the metaphorical spaghetti is raining down upon my head. Especially this past year, since the baby was born.
But I’m of the mind that a little pasta in the hair can be a good thing, metaphorically speaking.
Full hands are a blessing. Juggling can be exciting. A plate heaped with food is generally considered something to be thankful for.
And oh boy am I thankful. Sometimes I’m dizzy with thanks. Other times I’m just dizzy—life whirls by so quickly. What’s on the spinning plates is a blur. So I thought I’d write about what’s on each dish, the whole savory smorgasbord.
I wonder how my children will feel, later, about having been described as dinner. I won’t beat an already battered metaphor to death by attempting to compare them to specific foods. Enough already! The whole point is that real life resists being squeezed into cliche. I’ll scrap the whole thing and just say, yes, my hands are full (aren’t everyone’s? full of something or other?) and I’m so glad and here is what they’re holding:
The children. These days the girls are calling themselves Jane, Rose, and Beanie. Well actually it’s Jane and Rose calling the youngest one Beanie, but she answers to it. And then there’s the baby, whom we affectionately refer to as Wonderboy. Their ages are 9, 6, almost 4, and 13 months. They are homeschooled. So are we, Scott and I. (Are, present tense, not were. Education never ends…)
Scott. I’m tempted to annoy him by writing something mushy, but I’m supposed to be working right now so I think I won’t push my luck. Heh.
Work, oh yes, there’s that. I write. Scott writes. Both of us, here at home, in this messy office with my photocopies of 18th-century Edinburgh all over the wall and his comic-book-hero statues staring at us from atop the shelves. I’ve got a big deadline and I’m working doubletime right now. Scott’s got the kids outside running laps around the house to keep warm. I should shut up and get back to work right this minute.
Just wanted to stop juggling a minute and step back to admire the plates soaring through the air.