We decided – Amie, DH and I – to homeschool Amie for the coming semester and probably also fifth grade.

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We love the school she is going to at present. It’s a smallish (ca. 400 kids) neighborhood K-5 school where kindness really matters, where the teachers are deeply caring and the staff a charm. Amie loves her teacher and her classmates and she is well-liked in return.

But she has been bored and frustrated, as she waits, a lot, Not sitting and waiting, thank goodness, but repeating and repeatedly hearing material she already mastered. Her vocabulary, use of grammar and spelling are at above elementary level and she regularly aces (over-aces, with extra credits) math.

Because everything comes easy to her, her work ethic and work habits aren’t very good. She has no confidence and shuts down when she meets a challenge (something that is only exhibited at home, when she is challenged by cello). She makes a clear and tragic division between (school)work and play.

School has introduced her to topics in science and social studies that interest her a lot, but she was never able to investigate very deeply because so much attention in Fourth Grade goes to Math and Language Arts. She wants to work, but hasn’t had the opportunity to go in-depth on a topic and as a result is losing her intense curiosity.

Now, you might say, why don’t you give her the more stimulating project work after school? Why not enroll her in Kumon Math or what have you? But that won’t work for us or for our kid. She would feel that her time is even more disrespected if we kept her waiting for hours every day (and that kind of waiting is not, by the way, relaxing), then replaced her play time with extra work. On top of that, she’d be even more advanced, more bored in class, which would only exacerbate the problem.

On the topic of having one’s time respected, for a long while we were stumped about her frequent complaint that she doesn’t have enough time in her day. We’ve always guarded against too many extra-curricular activities, so much so that unfortunately sports/physical movement have fallen by the wayside. Still, even though she just has 1 cello lesson and 1 orchestra lesson a week, and even though she doesn’t get a lot of homework, she insists that she never has any time. Where was this coming from? We realized that she means that her time is not valued. This feeling (or rather, fact) of having her time wasted is always present to her and sabotages any attempt at in-depth projects.

At home we can give her individualized attention (something that is difficult in a big classroom) and she can go at her own pace. It is not the intent to accelerate her, but she needs to have more freedom. One of her math curricula, for instance, will be Khan Academy Grade Four. She has already been playing with it and was allowed to pick and chose her modules (addition, multiplication, fractions, etc.), so she is not tied to a linear progression but can skip around.

Also, we’ll free up waiting time for project-based work and for more physical activity to build her physical resilience.

We’re aware that she will be missing out on a certain type of social interaction (working on groups, waiting, taking turns), which at her school was unreservedly positive. We are looking into opportunities to keep her socially engaged – especially crucial because she is, after all, an only child. There are other homeschooling families we’ve already connected with, art classes at the local art museum (especially for homeschoolers), and group sports. Thanks to our wonderful school district, she’ll be able to still go into the school and see her friends at drop-into-art and chorus, and she’ll continue in her school’s strings orchestra.

All this is possible in our home setting (though I do wish we had a school room) and in my own life. As I excitedly tell friends about this amazing development I become more and more aware of the luxuries I enjoy of 1) being qualified and confident and 2) working from home and choosing my work and 3) a relationship with my child that makes this a natural fit. And though she will miss her friends, Amie is also looking forward to it.

We start in January and, as you can see, I’ve already started buying lots of books!

Today, I wore my Green Team cap and handed out kale chips in my local elementary school’s lunchroom. I had mixed the kale with lots of olive oil and salt and pepper and dehydrated the leaves at 110F overnight (10 hours). They were cri-ispy! A big bunch of kale shrank to just about enough to give every kid a taste.

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I like taking the kids out to the gardens, and even helping them with recycling at lunch, but serving them the food that grew in their school garden is the best. Interesting too. At the school they sit at round tables, about eight kids a table. I visited each, offered, and maybe one kid would raise their hand. You know that kale, no matter how crispy and oily, is *green*. The horror! And some don’t know what kale is. But the one kid would take it and eat it and say it’s good and want more, and – hop – all the hands would shoot up.

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Each table also got a ball jar with marigolds from the garden, and my fellow parent volunteer distributed the other veggies from the garden – rainbow carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, and herbs harvested by the first and second graders. Two hours and five grades later, all this was gone!

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Amie and I are enjoying reading and telling creation stories. We weave in evolution, the Flood, how Coyote created land, fossils, Darwin and Lopez, and how the first people came out of a bird’s egg.

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” — Barry Lopez

And how the trees grow straight up out of the snow.

Today, the day after Halloween, we found our first punkin orphan, dropped off at our mailbox. Amie ran to welcome it. We reminded people of the composting program when we were out trick-or-treating, and many were enthusiastic. And I met one elderly gentleman who was the first to live on this street, and he and I resolved to meet soon so I can take down the history of the neighborhood.

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I am back on track with the baking. Because these are busy days I went back to the old recipe which is such a favorite in our house. Daily Bread No.7 was finished in a jiffy and Bread No.8 will be finished at breakfast. I love it too, but am hoping fr a good no-knead whole wheat recipe.

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We had our first frost last night. It went down to 21. There’s more frost predicted tonight and tomorrow night, so I decided to bring in all my potted pepper plants. I’ll post a picture of my interesting living room tomorrow. The hoop house is performing well, though unfortunately I don’t have any precise data. But all the plants inside it survived the frost, so far. The eggplants are still going strong. The tomatoes aren’t looking so good, but the tomatoes on the vine are still ripening.

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Today I went into Amie’s class (K) to talk about compost. While putting her snack together in the morning I had an idea. I walked in, sat down in front of the kids, and asked them if it was okay for me to eat my snack, I was so hungry. I rummaged around in my bag, complaining that my snack had been in there for a long time and muttering that I hoped it was still good. Then I pulled out a big clear plastic box with wet, gooey, wormy compost! Eek! What happened!

We talked about rot and decay, composing and decomposing, falling apart and being taken apart, it no longer being food for us but still perfectly edible for other organisms, etc. I must say, I used to teach college kids metaphysics, epistemology, logic and ethics, and that was tough. But teaching these five-year-olds is a different thing altogether!  Afterwards the class went out to  plant bulbs and make a scarecrow in their little school garden.

(Note to self: mustn’t forget to take that “snack” out of my bag. I’ll do it tomorrow…)

I did a quick hive inspection today. It was hot – at 10 am – and I had forgotten to tie my long hair back, thinking the hat might keep it back, but no… So I made it quick, and just pulled out the frames to check on the pattern of brood, honey, pollen, and drone cells, and to find the queen. The powdered sugar test for mites will have to wait till next time.

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these frames were really heavy

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(Thanks to DH for the pics!)

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I did the bee talk at my daughter’s preschool last week. The kids loved it. I came in all dressed up in veil and suit and gloves. I had brought one deep brood box with the undrawn frames in them, as well as the burr comb I pulled out earlier. My smoker was still smelly from going into the hive right before and stealing a drone, which I put into the old queen cage for them to see. They were so careful with him when they passed him around.

They had so many questions and, of course, stories about being stung, or not being stung. We talked about how to be safe around bees, and about how generous and hardworking they are. Fascinating, how the minds of 3, 4, and 5-year-olds work. Especially the boys were concerned about the fact that a colony is basically a sisterhood. “But then there’s no room for brothers!” said a little guy (a brother). I assured him that in the human world there is lots of room for brothers, but not so much in the bee world. They’re just different.

They, and I, had a great time playing a game that illustrates how bees use pheromones and scent to recognize each other. I had put one of 4 strong-smelling things (banana, garlic, oregano and tiger balm), 5 of each in old yogurt container (20 kids), then strapped a paper napkin over them so they couldn’t see what was inside (note to self: cloth next time!). They had to sniff their own scent and then buzz around to find the other members of their colony.

Lastly there was snack (very important!). Amie had designed a bee for the cookies and had helped cut some out. She was chosen to distribute the snack to the class. She was so proud. Of course she knew the answers to all the question I had for them, but she let the other kids answer first.

Amie has taken to writing me letters – she’s been watching My Neighbor Totoro, in which the oldest girl writes letters to her mother. I can’t come anywhere near her when she is writing. “Don’t look!” she says – not aware, perhaps, that I can hear her perfectly as she sounds out what she is spelling!

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(Dear Mama I had an exciting day how are your days)

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(Dear Mama I love you are you okay I am okay thank you for the message love Amie)

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(Dear Mama I am at the airplane woops I am at the school had to hop off the airplane)

As you can see she is using invented spelling and I am letting her, though in my responses  I of course use the American English spelling, and I take the opportunity to discuss some words. In her first note, for instance, she wrote “deer Mama”. In the second and third one she had corrected it to “dear”.

What a treat this is! I stick the notes in my journal, and she keeps mine in a special box.

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Today is the Valentine’s party at Amie’s preschool. We got the dreaded note on Monday: “Please have your child bring 20 Valentine’s cards to school on Friday.” So all of this week we worked on the cards, handmade entirely out of scrap paper. Last year I’d say I did 75% of the work, this year only about 30%.  Next year, I told her, she’d be responsible 100%. Amie also made cards for her teachers, and she wrote their names on the back: Meree (Mary), Soosin and Soosin, and Raylee. Of course I forgot to take a picture, just like last year.

Happy Valentine’s Party Day!

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During the Transition Training we watched a lot of images and videos of Transition Initiatives, and at first I watched them with mixed feelings of joy and anxiousness. My heart sank because I inevitably thought: “I can’t make that happen.”

That sinking feeling stems from the fact that, though I arrived here over 11 years ago, studied, married, bought a house and had a child here, I still don’t feel at home. Why? Not because of the people around me: I have found each and every one of my colleagues, neighbors and friends – Americans or not – to be sincerely welcoming. So it must be me.

I always assumed children have a natural sense of being at home, for I myself, as a child, felt at home, without ever a shadow of a doubt. But was it because of something a child does or is, or was it because of what my parents did and modeled? Or was it because of the place?

The place was Antwerp (Belgium), a city within half an hour’s drive of the city where my grandparents and aunts and uncles all lived. A place where my family can trace and place our ancestry as far back as the 1700s. And a place with a culture in which “migrating” is the exception. You see, Belgians don’t leave Belgium: the emigration rate is less than a percent. And Belgium is a small country, about the size of Maryland, so children “leave” (for college, or to live) to within at most a two hours’ drive away from their parents. In my family I was the third (out of four now) in the span of two generations to move abroad, which makes my family exceptionally migratory.

Let’s put this in context. The United Nations Commission on Population and Development concluded in 2006 that only 3% of the world population is an international migrant (with most migrants moving from developing to developed countries). The kind of mobility within the United States that makes for big moves, in contrast, is high: the Census of 2000 determined that, within 5 years, no less than 8.42% of its respondents had moved to another state and an additional 2.86% to a foreign country. That number has in all probability gone up in the last couple of years.

So let’s just say that my Amie is seeing a home very different from what I saw as a kid. We see family once or twice a year, not every weekend. Mama and Baba have strange accents – and so does she, insisting on “woh-T-er”. Mama and Baba can’t vote and they don’t know how to negotiate certain communal systems. So I am afraid that Amie will not know what “home” is, or that she will call “home” something that I would call but a weak version of my own rich childhood memory of home.

And so I must ask myself: can I, dare I, make this place my home? What if home means not just the core family of the three of us, not just lengthy visits (visits: that says it all) from grandparents and aunts and cousins, not just local traditions with good, good friends that we see often… but also the wider culture of a hometown?

The Training helped me realize that I should make this hometown happen, for myself, for Amie, and that it is possible. That this what a Transition Initiative could mean to me, my family, and the people in my community: not just becoming more resilient in the face of peak oil, climate change, and economic crisis, but first and foremost what our trainer called  “becoming indigenous toyour place”: coming home.

{Previously, about Transition: the giving of gifts}

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“That is the Mama skeleton, and that is the Baba skeleton, and that is the big sister and the baby brother skeleton, and…”

Yesterday evening I was helping Amie get to sleep – I just lie next to her in the dimmed light, in our bed (we still cosleep), hold her hand, and read a book while she stares and stares until finally her eyelids drop.

I was reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I find fascinating, and suddenly she said, so totally out of the blue:

- I want Baba to die before you.

I fairly couldn’t disguise my shock. That’s probably why she changed to:

- I don’t want you and Baba to die before me.

And still I was speechless. So she said:

- I only want people that I don’t know to die. Tell me all the people I know who have died! Tell me their names!

- No one you know has died. But Opa’s Mama and Baba have died.

- I know that!

- As well as Oma’s Mama and Baba, and Thamm’s Mama and Baba, and Dada’s Baba.

Maybe listing all those dead Mamas and Babas was not a good idea. So I added:

- But what is dying? I don’t find it scary at all. Our bodies just fall apart, and then there’s nothing.

- Our brains stop working, right?

- Yes, no more thinking or dreaming or sleeping or walking or playing…

- That’s so boring!

- Well, you can’t even be bored,  because you’re dead.

While she pondered this I had the occasion to regret my cop-out. She was talking not of dying, but of being left behind. So I said, more honestly this time:

- Don’t worry about dying, because we don’t know when we’ll die, you or I, and worrying about it doesn’t make a difference.

Was she content with that? She fell silent, and I returned to my book, and she stared at me for a while, then fell asleep.

{other conversations about death here and here and here}

I got the news that they’ve made a movie of McCarthy’s book, The Road – with Vigo Mortensen, so a mainstream movie. I am of course not going to see it (I must be nuts!), but part of me is extremely anxious for those who will, and another part is extremely curious about the effect.  But mainly just thinking about it gives me the shivers.

We’re all retreating into the living room around the warm fire. There’s so much to do in this contracted world.

  • Art

Not a day goes by when Amie doesn’t work at her art. She’ll often pronounce “I am practicing because I want to be an artist.” She enjoyed discovering the technique of splashing by rubbing an old toothbrush over a net. She also likes our instruction book on how to draw basic animal figures (ours is an out-of-print Usborne). She was intrigued when I drew some circles and proposed she draw the basic emotions. She got them down right without my help, contorting her face to feel the shape of her mouth, her eyes and nose.

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Lions, step by step, from How to Draw Animals

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Trying the toothbrush and net splash technique, and the result:

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Emotive faces

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Girl on a bike, from a (paused) video

The last drawing was made from a tiny video still, and Amie became very frustrated with it because it wasn’t turning out exactly the way it looked on the screen. I explained that it was a very difficult subject – the word “subject” is now her favorite – and that the example was really too small. Still, she was nearly in tears, and I cursed myself for not gently leading her away from the project. l will be conscious of  this perfectionist streak in her and help her keep it under control. I know how it can ruin the fun! (Also read Lori’s helpful advice in the current Camp Creek Blog thread).

  • Reading

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Our 100-books-a-month table, with list

Amie is reading spontaneously now, here and there. Only last week she deciphered “Reese’s Buttercup” and “travel” and “cheese,” all of her own accord. Three-letter-words are read fluently, as well as certain sight words like “the” and “and”. Four-letter-words will soon be rolling off her tongue as well.

I know that at her preschool (Montessori) she uses cards and lists of words and all kinds of reading aids, but here at home she just reads books. She has mostly stopped trying to guess what the words could be by looking at the pictures – not all “first books” are clever in that regard! – but she’s good about using the context of the story and the sentence to speed up her reading. In our 100-book-a-month challenge we are aiming for 1 out of 4 to be read by her.

  • Writing

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Amie lists another title

Writing does not come as spontaneously as reading does, but she has gone from penning nonsense words and collections of letters to spelling out real words. When I suggest she write the title of a book we’ve read in our 100-books list, she readily grabs the pen and sets to the job. She will read the words and spell them out as she writes them down, or she’ll copy the letters of the more difficult ones and wonder aloud why some are spelled the way they are. What can I say, English is a funny language! For the latter though I’d rather she use invented spelling than mere copying, which becomes automatic and then she mindlessly forgets letters.

We are now starting to pay attention to her penmanship: the size of the letters (I draw lines) and whether she wants to use capitals or small letters. She still feels more comfortable with the capitals.

  • Math

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Doing algebra

Amie will happily spend half an hour on algebra exercises, but usually only with constant encouragement or if we sell it as “homework”. She’ll also do basic exercises on DH’s Ipod. She can solve:

5+8 – _

5+_=13

13-5=_

etc.

For anything under 5 and the addition or subtraction of 1 she no longer needs her fingers, doing them in her head – though sometimes it helps her to imagine cookies. She’ll still resort to her fingers, and her toes if need be, for the higher numbers, and we usually stay under 20. We don’t use flash cards but cheapo math books, because she likes to make that mark. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but she does like a sticker as lure and reward, and it helps if the math is presented as a game, like a maze.