Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oddly Fitting

I went to that class tonight, the one I've been considering registering for. It's an advanced EMT class.

Sad to say, the class won't be running, since they did not get enough people registered. After all my thinking and deciding about taking it, turns out, I won't have the option.

Not exactly, anyway.

The instructor said he will try to see if he can find a way for us to complete the class. We might do some of it by sitting in with a more advanced class, some by getting together in small groups, some by independent study. Some online. Some by having a guest speaker come in. And some by having assigned homework. And, of course, as would be done with the original course, much of it by clinical time at the hospital and ride time in the field on an ambulance.

An unheard of way to run a college course, maybe.

But not at all unfamiliar to me.

I don't know if he'll be able to make it work, as far as the powers-that-be are concerned.

I DO think I'd have a better time, and learn more, this way, than by sitting in a lecture twice a week for several months.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Right Brain/Left Brain

It has been a long day, and, as usual, there have been some interesting coincidences.

Today apparently has a theme.

It started when I received a comment on one of my other blogs, asking if I was familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor, and her TED talk video about her experience of having a stroke.  I had heard of her before, but hadn't seen the video, so I watched it.

I found her to be very interesting.
I had heard some people talk about having had strokes, and I've seen quite a few patients in the midst of having a stroke, but hadn't really thought much about what the experience would feel like from the inside.

The video is about a stroke that affected the left side of her brain, causing her to lose that brain function, and live, temporarily, entirely functioning through her right brain. How fascinating!

This got me thinking about trying to find more balance between my own right and left brain. I tend to be very left-brained.  Not in everything I do, but definitely much of the time.  Maybe I'll learn to play guitar. Or start painting. Or both.

Having found the video interesting, I showed it to one kid, and sent a link to it to several other people. As I was getting ready to run out the door this afternoon, one of my kids stopped me to say he had something to show me, that he thought I'd find interesting. What was it?  He handed me a copy of Ms Taylor's book: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, that he just happened to have.

I had a very busy day today, in and out several times. New students to meet and a new class to start, taxes to pay, a trip to DMV, then off to a lesson I was taking rather than teaching, and then a training on Trauma Resuscitation and a conversation there with the person who may be teaching a class I'm hoping to start tomorrow. In and around all this were several conversations with different people about the whole idea of having a right and left brain, how they work, and how that is important.

I finally got home, to find this posted on facebook:

So it has been that sort of a day. Definitely a theme.
I'm not sure what that means.
I'm fairly sure I'm not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What if No One is Looking?

Here I am, seventeen days into this new blog adventure.

For the first few days, I didn't tell many people I was doing this, and it showed. No one knew the blog existed except for those few, and I got maybe 2 or 3 hits per day.

After a little while longer, I decided to go a little more public about the blog and posted a link on my facebook status.

Suddenly, I got a lot more hits. About twice as many as I get on one of my other blogs- one I've had for nearly a year, and one for which I had been writing a post every day for two and a half months.

How interesting.
Suddenly, I'm popular.
I started wondering why that might be so.
Part is that in the unschooling world, there are people out there who have heard of me. I've written a fair amount here and there over the years.
For my other blog, I'm pretty much an unknown. A newbie. Not someone most people would have much interest in hearing from.
So it made sense, and I thought I had it figured out.

Turns out, that probably had nothing to do with it.

After having announced every new post for several days in a row, I stopped. Not intentionally- I just got busy with other things and didn't think to post about it.

If my theory about people being more interested in this blog because I have a lot of experience were true, then if they liked the blog, they'd come read it, whether I specifically announced each post or not.

That's not what happened.
Suddenly, back to two or three hits.
All those people who responded to my facebook status did not find the blog interesting enough to take action on their own to find out about updates.

Apparently, they only went to look at it because they saw my status post about it. A case of bringing it to their attention, making it easy for them. Putting it in their face, in a way.

So here's the question...
What do I do now?
Do I go back to announcing each post so I get more hits again?
Do I stop writing, if no one is really interested?

And isn't that interesting, right there?
How long did it take for my actions to potentially change based on whether or not I get some reward for what I'm doing, or on whether or not people "like" me?

That's a little scary.

It comes down to something very simple.
Am I writing this blog for myself, or for other people?
Does it matter if anyone reads it?
Am I dependent on other people's opinions?

I've decided, for now, not to announce my posts anymore.
It feels too self-serving, somehow.
It feels like it may change what I write, or how I write it, if I even consider whether other people are reading it.

I'll keep writing about my experiences for myself.
If anyone finds it interesting, that's great. If not, then not.
I don't need to get an "A" in blogging or something.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

You Can't Know That

The most common situation in which most people hear "You can't know that" is during an argument, when one person believes the other is not supporting their argument with facts.

More frustrating is the situation where "you can't" doesn't mean "you are not capable," but means "you are not allowed."

I don't like to be told I "can't" anything. I don't think anyone does.

As an EMT, I run into "you can't" on a daily basis.
Most frequently, it has to do with patient privacy.

What it is supposed to do is protect people from having their personal medical information shared with people who have no business knowing it. I have no problem with that.

But what it DOES is interfere with an EMTs education because legally, we often can't find out what happened to our patients. The hospital can't tell us. Once the patient leaves our care, we no longer have the right to know.

This means we can't find out if we were correct in our assessment of what was going on.
It means we can't verify our successes, or learn from our mistakes.

If there is something that makes me more angry than being told I legally am not allowed to learn something, especially something I need to know to provide better patient care, I don't know what it is.

Plus, it makes no sense.
What makes sense is for every EMT to learn from every patient. What makes sense is for everyone involved in the medical care of a patient to be included in understanding what was happening and why, and what made it better or worse.

But no.
No can do.

This means I've had to figure out other ways to learn. Other ways to verify what was happening.
It's an interesting challenge.

I come home from calls and look things up a LOT. I have the whole internet, and I also have a variety of reference books. I know some much more experienced providers who are able to answer questions for me, not about a specific patient by name (legally can't do that!) but about what symptoms mean, or what different conditions look like in the field, or how to tell the difference between similar conditions, etc.

I spend time every day increasing my store of knowledge. Sometimes, it's the little things that make a difference, so I look for those little things. I read books, I read blogs, I talk to people. I go to conferences, workshops, "teaching days" and training classes. I look for every opportunity I can find to learn more about the things I know the least about.

Even so, it sure would be a lot more efficient, and more effective, to be able to learn from the situations where I have the most hands-on experience. To be able to follow a patient's case as it develops.

The only time we get to do that is when, by chance, we know or meet a family member who volunteers the information. They are not bound by the HIPAA laws, and can tell us whatever they want. It is VERY helpful when they do.

The whole thing makes me very sensitive to things people are "not allowed to know." To the idea of someone, or some organization, owning information or knowledge.

Mostly, "you can't know that" makes me determined to find it out.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wrong Answers

I did something interesting today.

After writing that post the other day about testing, I rewrote the pre-tests we give in classes we teach.
The results are quite wonderful.

First, I should explain why we give a pre-test at all. It's simple.
It is in order to have an objective way to evaluate how well the class was taught, whether we were able to communicate effectively.  It isn't testing the students, it's testing the teachers.
If we only give a test at the end of the class, it measures nothing about teaching. For all we know, they already knew all the answers before taking the class. I've had that happen numerous times, where I took a class in something, and it didn't really cover anything new to me.

We give a pre-test, and then, at the end of the series of classes, we give the exact same test as a post-test. Then we can see if anything changed.  Also, giving them the test on the first day helps the students understand what we are hoping they will learn. This is particularly important for our classes because they   teach things much more in depth than most people expect.

The new pre-test today went very well.
I removed all of the multiple choice questions and replaced them with fill in the blanks. I didn't keep all the questions. I asked fewer, and focused on the ones that people should easily be able to do at the end of a semester, and on ones where people have significant misunderstandings to start with.

We handed it out, and explained the purpose of the test. Not for grading, but as a guide for us on teaching, and one way to evaluate our performance later. We didn't want anyone to have any test anxiety. We also told them that it's fine to guess, and if there is something they really don't know- and there probably is- just guess, or make something up, or tell us what you think. Try at answer every question.

They didn't. Answer every question, that is. Some people tried to, some left some blank, some wrote "I have no idea."
That didn't really tell us much.
The answers they DID give told us volumes.

Now we have some idea of what they know, and, more importantly, what they don't know, or what they think they know.

To give them credit, some of the answers they gave are clearly in the right direction. They get the concept, but lack the details. We can clear that up easily.

The ones that were absolutely wrong were not surprises; some of the concepts are confused by popular culture, and we can straighten that out, too.

Overall, it gives us a great starting place for helping people make the journey from where they are now, to a place with a much greater, much deeper understanding.

Plus, we know who the people are who have a good sense of humor.

I'm pretty happy with how they approached the test. I was a little concerned that anxiety would get in the way, and people would feel embarrassed about giving "wrong answers." Those "wrong answers" are actually the most useful for us, by far. They give us tremendous insight into our students.  FAR more than any multiple choice quiz could EVER provide. If someone doesn't know something, it is much more useful to know what they think about it, than it is to know that they don't know the right answer.

Now, to make a plan for the best way to make use of this information.

One of the questions, I'm going to make a list of all the answers given, because they are all good answers, but not the specific ones we use. It will make for a great learning experience to take all those answers, and see how they fit into the categories we use. We were looking for four principles that cover a broad range of behaviors. Many of the answers were the various behaviors, rather than the principle behind them.

Another question, the answers given did not take into account that we are talking about real, actual fighting. Most people's experience with "fighting" is NOT real fighting, and they use fighting terminology loosely.

The test turned out to be very educational for ME. I have a third to design, and now have some ideas to make it even better.

Just to clarify... no one has to take our classes, ever. In fact, if they don't have a particular interest and drive to be there, they shouldn't. It's definitely a subject that can't be learned by anyone who is not committed to it, or who doesn't bring a lot of heart and joy to their practice.  My job is to bring out that joy, by sharing my own.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Typical Day

People often ask what a typical unschooling day looks like.

Of course, there is no such thing. We have some patterns to our days, and some things we do on a schedule. Some days might feel more "typical," and others more unusual.

Like earlier this week, when I got a phone call offering me a free car.
NOT typical.

The only way to really describe what is typical here is to say that we all do things, and we do some of them together, and some of them separately, and most of the time, we're all doing more than one thing at a time.

Like today.
Lots of together for some of us, lots of separate, and definitely more than one thing at a time.

I spent part of the morning doing some research online. Part of it reading, part writing, and part catching up on things.
In the afternoon, my daughter assisted me in giving a longsword demo to a group of 19 middle school kids, as part of their library-based book group. Yeah. Coolest job in the world.

On the drive there we discussed her upcoming plans to attend a dance weekend, and also her possible plans for some travel and learning experiences this summer. She's trying to balance several different interests, and figure out how she can best do that.

Also on the way there, we got a good idea for what to make for dinner, so we stopped at the store on the way home to get the ingredients. Then we had to go take all the swords back where they belong, since I don't want to keep them in the car, AND they need to be there in the morning so we can take them to do some demonstrations at the classes that start then. They won't do us much good if they end up in my car at the shop.

I washed dishes while everyone came in and out, doing their own things. We asked and answered questions about the day today, and about plans for tomorrow. I needed to write up some notes for tax purposes.

I peeled potatoes while watching a taped TV show, a pilot episode for a new show we didn't know much about. Turns out it has some math stuff in it that included the very same topic that we had had a discussion about this morning- down to including information about the fibonacci sequence on pineapples (thanks Vi Hart!). This was particularly interesting because the show also partly was about odd coincidences, so this led to a discussion of other coincidences of the day, of which there were several. We decided we like the show, for now.

I cooked dinner during the end of the new show, and then during the first part of watching an episode of a TV show we taped the other night, that I had already seen. I wanted to see the other people's reactions to it, so I listened in.

We had a discussion about who thought what was going on, and who thought who was the "bad guy" and why they thought that, as the show developed. After it was over, we talked about some of the clues in the show, and how this show has a typical pattern which tends to give away the ending.

Throughout this, the fourth other person in the house came in and out several times. He doesn't care for that TV show, so doesn't watch it with the rest of us. He ate dinner on his own, while the rest of us ate while watching the end of the show. We could hear his music upstairs, as usual. After dinner, I went to talk with him, and catch up on things, since he hadn't been in on much of the earlier conversation.

During most of the show, I was also working on preparation for tomorrow's new classes I'm teaching. Thirty new students, and I needed to rewrite the pre-test we give on the first day. I had been thinking about testing since writing that post the other day, and wanted to make some improvements to the test. In order to do this, I had a running e-mail conversation going with my mentor.

While printing out the tests, I was also working on the attendance lists, and the software I use to create them crashed repeatedly. I spent about half an hour figuring out why and getting it back running again.

Starting in the middle of the TV show, and running through the test rewriting and printing, a friend was texting me, trying to convince me to take a class with her because at the first session this evening, only three people had shown up, and they won't run the class unless they have at least six. It's a class I've been considering, but had planned to wait until next year to take. But now... I'm not so sure. It might be better to go ahead and take it now, but I'm waffling.

I've discussed it with the one kid who has been the most frustrated lately with my schedule not meshing with his very well. He's a good listener, and was helpful in sorting some of the issue out, but I still haven't decided what to do about taking the class. I have a few days to decide. It's a big time commitment, but might lead to a financial improvement, so... I still don't know. I need to look at the overall balance for the whole family. I haven't talked to the other two yet, but they are more likely to think I should take the class, since it is something they are interested in as well. Also, one of them is more or less on his own most of the time now, with a job and a girlfriend, so he doesn't care whether I'm around, most of the time, since he isn't, either.

I was supposed to do some laundry, but have run out of time. I have to be up early tomorrow because we have to shuffle cars around, with one of ours down for the count and the other having to go to the shop in the morning. Figuring that out was also interwoven throughout the evening, because the Grand Shuffle will end up involving six people and four cars. Plus, I just found out I'll have to leave here earlier than I wanted. Time to find a book to take with me in the morning so I will have something to read while I wait for a while at one point.

Finally got back to the web research- it was for another one of my blogs, and I wrote up a quick, not very satisfying post, and will have to get back to it later.

It has quieted down considerably, with everyone back to doing their own things now. Out of the five people here, I think two have gone to bed, I'm about to, and the other two will likely be up for hours. One will probably still be awake when I get up in the morning, and will end his day about when I start mine.  It makes us a great home for puppies- almost always someone home and awake. No puppies these days, though. Probably a good thing. Keeping the kittens out of the dog food is challenge enough.

Tomorrow will be a long day, what with new classes starting, getting up and out earlier than usual, teaching most of the day, then figuring out how to get my car back, how to pay for the repairs(!), another class in the evening (that I participate in as well as co-teach) and then contra dancing in the evening. Probably won't stop moving from about 9am to 11pm.  Not a lot of time in there for hanging out with kids, so we'll keep in touch through texting except for about an hour and a half in the middle when I might get to be home for dinner. Friday is by far my longest day, most of the time. I often tell people Friday is my Monday, but since I love what I do, it isn't like working all day is a bad thing!

Since I was on the go a lot of today, and will be even more so all day tomorrow, it is almost inevitable that we'll get an emergency call in the middle of the night tonight. That's when we usually get them- when we're already over-extended for some reason. Let's hope everyone stays home, safe and well tonight.

Our days are pretty much like this, give or take. We don't always do the same things, but everything is intertwined with conversations in various groupings, about what were doing at the moment, what we've been doing before, and what we plan to do next. With the addition of the girlfriend being here a lot these days, the dynamics have changed somewhat. This is also a very busy time of year for me, with the new semester starting, and quite a change from the atmosphere of the past several weeks. Things will settle down after the first week of classes.

Yes, I recognize the irony of being unschoolers and also being a teacher. I'll probably write about how that came to be at some point. For now, for anyone reading this who doesn't know me and what I do, I'll just say I don't teach in or for a school. I teach something that can't easily be learned without a highly skilled teacher. You could, maybe, learn some of it, but even that would take a very long time to learn on your own, and some of it you really can't, since it requires interaction with another person, and very specific feedback. I don't know of anything else that works quite the same way, and that's probably a large part of the attraction for me. The ideal situation for this is a master/apprentice, but very, very few people can actually fully apprentice these days, so it ends up being classes and lessons, rather than a full time learning experience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

More Questions

These questions come from a comment on someone else's blog. The original can be found here. Since my focus is a bit different from hers (or anyone's, since we're all different people!) and because the questions made me want to address some of the assumptions behind the questions, I'm bringing it over here to my blog.

I honestly know nothing about “unschooling”. What is it exactly? 
Good question. You will probably get as many different answers as people you ask. There is no actual definition. Way back in the 70s, people used it fairly interchangeably with homeschooling. Now, there are different groups of people using it slightly different ways, and people who don't like the term at all, preferring to focus on what they do, rather than what they don't do.

Basically, it's learning without depending on school concepts, schedules, methods, etc. Learning as if schools had never existed. It's a belief that learning happens best (perhaps only) if the learner is in control of what they learn, why and how.

Are you legally allowed to not cover and be tested on certain subjects in each grade, or am I misunderstanding? 
First, consider what the word "cover" means in education. Usually, it means someone- a teacher- has "gone over" a certain set of material, according to some lesson plan. Then that material is said to have been "covered." Notice it does not require anyone to have learned it. Likewise, people frequently learn things on their own, without anyone "covering" the material at all.
So are unschoolers legally allowed to "not cover" material? Yes. In this state, at least, there is a set of "subjects" that must be accounted for, but no instructions whatsoever are given for what, within those subjects, must be "covered."
Now, on to "certain subjects." Yes, the state has a list of subjects. And schools are based on the concept of separate subjects. Unschoolers generally don't agree that life should be separated out into subjects at all. We can go back, and in retrospect, assign different activities and thoughts to "subjects," in order to satisfy a state requirement for paperwork, but that isn't the same, at all, as teaching or testing on certain subjects as a specific goal.
I'll cover the testing part of the question in the next one.

Also, don’t most states require occasional standard testing by the state, even for home-schooled children (to make sure they are actually being educated)? 
I don't know about most states; I only know about the one where I live. It requires standardized testing in certain years.
Standardized tests do NOT "make sure they are actually being educated" and even if they did, there are other, better ways.
The testing requirement here has a minimum score requirement that is pathetically low, and most people, even without having specifically studied or been "taught to the test" can meet that requirement. Some parents just give the tests and don't worry about the score, as long as the state leaves them alone. It's simply another hoop to jump through, not a meaningful measurement.
I have always found it fascinating that the state requires a test to be given, allows parents to give the test, does not require reporting of the scores. If they trust the parents to give the test and behave accordingly depending on the results, why don't they just trust the parents to educate their kids in the first place?

If so, how do you prepare them for all subjects, if they might not have gravitated towards one or two yet? 
As I said in the previous answer, a lot of unschooling parents really don't care what those test results are, as long as the state leaves them alone. I wouldn't "prepare them" for "all subjects." Chances are pretty good that they know enough to pass the test anyway, since the tests are a minimum standard. It's not like my kids are sitting around doing nothing. They are learning all the time.
The test requirements only cover math and reading/writing anyway. Not "all subjects."

How do you teach advanced math subjects that are required for college entry, if they aren’t naturally interested in Algebra (who is, lol…)?
Ooh. There it is. That assumption. Why is it always algebra getting picked on?
Who is naturally interested in algebra? I am, and always have been. First started learning basic algebra when I was about 9. LOTS OF PEOPLE LOVE MATH. Really.
As for assumption #2: It is absolutely not true that "advanced math subjects" are required for college entry.
They might be required for certain majors in certain colleges, and if my child wanted to go to one of those, chances are it would be because they love the subject, in which case, it wouldn't be an issue, or, if they came to an interest later on, and needed some prerequisite for college that they hadn't been interested in earlier- they can learn it NOW. No big deal. There is no law that says "college" has to be four years, starting immediately after graduating high school.
And assumption #3 in that question: People frequently ask unschooling families how they will "teach" some "advanced subject" with the assumption that the parents do all the teaching, and if they need to teach something they don't know themselves, it makes unschooling not possible. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't have to teach them anything, ever. There are an infinite number of resources in the world. If I can't answer their questions, I help them find someone who can.

I ask these questions, because I was home-schooled and it involved a lot of strict state requirements, in regards to regular testing at a local school and registration with a private school or home school group that met state standards… 
I have to wonder if that was really a state requirement, or if the person's parents only believed it to be so, or if they had joined some support group that preferred to work that way. There are parents out there who really want to duplicate school at home, and WANT to do regular testing and register with some sort of umbrella school. That doesn't mean those are actually legal requirements. While it may have been this person's experience, it likely was not the state requiring it.
Many parents who begin homeschooling don't know what their state requirements are, and most school officials don't know, and don't want to. Homeschooling communities need to keep a close eye on what their school districts are asking for because they frequently overstep their legal authority.

To enter college, you need proof of high school graduation and credits in certain subjects. 
No, you don't.
To start taking classes at a community college, all you have to do is sign up for the classes.
If you want to go to a college that requires certain credits, etc, and you want to go that route, you can usually get those at a community college in two years or less. Compare that to twelve or thirteen years of public school.
For what it's worth, many colleges love homeschoolers, and specifically unschoolers, because those students are much more self-motivated. Also, they tend to contribute more during class because they are not conditioned by high school to avoid speaking up.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Frequent Questions, Over the Years

As my kids were growing up, whenever anyone discovered that we were homeschooling, we were mostly met with at least mild interest. With interest, comes questions. If we mentioned unschooling, the questions were more frequent, and sometimes, more bizarre. People have some really odd misconceptions out there, and a whole lot of concerns. Concerns about MY kids, apparently.

This post will address some of the most common questions or comments I've heard over the years. Not all of them, by a long shot.

If you happen to recognize yourself in any of these questions, then, well, I guess you do. You asked.

You just homeschool because you don't want to get up in the morning to get the kids on the bus.

Well, it has nothing to do with why we homeschool, but it's true, I DON'T want to get up early to put kids on the bus. It is amazing how much it affects us, not having a strict time we have to be up in the morning. It makes it possible to do all sorts of things we'd have trouble with otherwise. We can go out to events at night. We can stay up until all hours exploring whatever thing we're interested in at the moment, for as long as we want. No wake up schedule means no bedtime schedule, either. No arguing about going to bed, no struggle to wake everyone up. If someone WANTS to get up early for whatever reason, they can take full responsibility for setting an alarm and getting up. It has never been a problem.

How will they ever learn cellular biology? (Asked when my oldest was around ten, I think it was)

First, they may never want or need to know anything about cellular biology. But if they do, there are a wide variety of ways to learn about it. This question is an example of a "theme" that comes up often: if YOU can't teach something in particular to your kids, how will they ever learn it, if they don't go to school? It makes a HUGE, erroneous, assumption, that a) I teach the kids everything and that b) the only other option is school. If they want to know something I don't know anything about, I can help them figure out where to get the information. If they need help, that is. Mostly, they are pretty good at finding things out.

I don't see how you do it. I could never be with my kids that much.

This one always makes me sad. It's related to all those TV commercials where parents are sad when there are school holidays, and relieved when the kids go back to school.  
The missing piece, the error in this particular train of thought, is that people who send their kids away for several hours every day have a very different relationship with their kids than people who don't. I'm sure they will argue that they love their kids "just as much," and I'm willing to agree that they probably do. They still have a different relationship with them.
I like being with my kids, for the most part. We have many of the same interests. Besides, even if we are all here at the same time, we are not all in the same room, necessarily, nor are we tripping over each other trying to do the same things. Much of the time, each of us is involved in our own thing. This was not the case when they were very young, but it's definitely the case now.

How do you know they won't have "holes" in their education?

How does anyone whose kids go to school know this? And what does it mean, really? 
There is no way any person could ever know everything about everything. Schools pick a certain set of things as being "the things you are supposed to know," but does that make those things the only things people need to know? No.  No two schools pick the SAME things, anyway. So it isn't like there is a set of knowledge that is all-important. What is important is this: a) people need to know what they need to know, not what someone else thinks they need to know, and b) if there comes a time when there is something you need to know that you don't know- you can always learn it then.

How will they know what they are interested in if they aren't made to try things they think they aren't interested in?

I don't know. If they ever run out of things they are interested in, and get bored, maybe I'd suggest a list of other things to try. No one can ever learn about everything, so there will undoubtedly be things they might have been interested in, if only they'd had the chance. They do still have a chance, their entire lives, and can keep learning about different things forever.

Yes, they may end up deciding at the age of 50 that they wish they had another lifetime so they could go to med school and be a cardiologist. I'd absolutely do that if I had more available years. Can't fit everything into one lifetime, sad to say, as much as we seem to be trying. Do I regret the things I've done while not going to med school to be a cardiologist? No.

They won't have the same knowledge base as everyone else, so how will they get along in the world?

That's right. They won't. Chances are, their knowledge base will be larger. How do I know this? They have more time in which to explore and learn things. Also, I live with them, and talk to them, so I have a pretty good idea of at least part of what they know, and it's way more than I knew at their ages. And that's just the part that I am aware of.
They spend ZERO time waiting for the rest of the class. They already have wider interests than what is taught in schools, and, on top of that, they are likely to actually REMEMBER what they are learning. What do you remember from your high school classes? If you had to take the final exams right now, with no warning, would you pass? Why not? Why don't you remember all that important stuff?

What kind of knowledge base does someone have, if they don't remember most of the stuff they were "taught" in school? There are two basic categories here. One is that they will know a lot about things they need to know- for their job, to maintain a relationship, raise a family, whatever it is that they do. They will also know a lot about the things they LOVE: hobbies, interests, etc.  If that is the knowledge base people will have: what they need, and what they love, then why wait until adulthood to start expanding that base? Why fill your mind with things you don't need, and don't care about first? Some people will argue that it's good for you to learn about things you aren't interested in (see above), so that you expand what you know, and what you are interested in. I emphatically disagree. You won't remember it anyway, and there is no need to artificially set things up so that someone will find new things to be interested in. We live in a world surrounded by them.

Aren't you afraid to be the one totally responsible for your kid's education?

I've got news for you. All parents are totally responsible for their kids. If you choose to give that job to someone else- like a school- that does not absolve you from your responsibility.  At least if I am directly involved, I know what it is I'm being held responsible for.


Those are today's "most frequent questions."
I've also come across a blog post elsewhere that had a comment where someone asked a bunch of questions, so I'll bring those over here and answer them soon.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Math: The Way You Like It

In a previous post, I wrote about how poor math is so maligned by this culture.

In my post, there was something I wanted to get to, but my train of thought went a different direction. Fortunately, trains of thought can circle back around, and here we are again.

Earlier today, someone on facebook posted a video about an interesting method of multiplication that I hadn't seen before.  Ooooh!

When I showed it to one of my kids, he showed me a different way that he knew.  Oooh, again!

It reminded me of what I had wanted to say before: that one of the things I particularly enjoy about math is that much of the time, there are lots of choices in how to approach anything you need to find out. I've seen people get all caught up in being frustrated about knowing what to do, or which equation to use, but the truth is, much of the time, you can choose whichever method you are happiest or most comfortable with.

Don't like percentages? Use decimals. Or fractions.
Rearrange things so that you can make more sense of the problem.
Convert things if it makes it easier.

I love it!

So when I saw these different methods of multiplication today, I was delighted. I LOVE learning different ways of approaching the same thing. For one thing, it's fun. For another, different people are attracted to different methods, different techniques, different styles. The more you know, the more likely one (or more) will resonate with you.

So. Check these out.

First, from the Khan Academy, a video showing the way people are typically taught to multiply.

Then, a different way of looking at the same method. It's shown as a "trick," but it's basically the same, just not written out the same way.

Next, the method someone posted on facebook this morning, as the "Japanese method" but I've also seen it called the "Mayan method."

Here is another version of that method. It fundamentally works the same way, but the graphical representation is quite different, and, I think, lovely.

Now, the method my son showed me this morning, called the "lattice method."

I haven't been able to find a good video of multiplying with an abacus, but there must be one. I'll keep looking.

This all reminded me of something my mother was fascinated with when I was younger, that she called "fingermath," but it's more formally called chisenbop.  Haven't found any good videos for that, either, but there is a page with some information on it here.

Wasn't that fun?
Do you know any other methods? I'm sure there are more.
None of these methods are the same as how I multiply in my head, for example.

Facility with manipulating numbers makes a lot of things much easier. Play with them. Try these methods out and see, first of all, which you like, and then, see if you can explain to someone why and how they work.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Common Questions, part 1: Curriculum

Throughout the years we've been unschoolers, I've been asked certain questions over and over. I plan to post about them every now and then.

Today's question: What curriculum do you use?

I started out saying "We don't use one."
Unfortunately, that answer always led to a lot more questions, with answers that were as little understood. Depending on who I was talking to at the time, and how much time I had, sometimes I was willing to answer long strings of questions. Other times, not so much. I also tried "We don't really use one." but that almost invariably led to people thinking that we HAVE one, we just don't follow it exactly, which was not the situation.

Next, I tended to answer "Life. We use life as our curriculum."
People hated that answer. Usually, they thought I was being a smart ass, and perhaps I was, at least a little. Even though it was true, I knew they wouldn't understand what I meant. Good communication means being understood, as much as it means to say what you mean. So saying something that I knew they would not understand was pointless.

Then there was a period of time when I used to tell people that we followed the "American Cinema Curriculum" because at that time, an argument could have been made that we really did.

We used to watch a LOT of movies.
Old movies. New movies. Classic movies. Sci-Fi movies, especially old B-movies about killer spiders and such. Disney movies. 
We watched documentaries, movies "based on a true story" and movies that were not at all realistic. Some great movies, and some terrible movies. Mostly, somewhere in between.

One of the things we especially liked to do was find different versions of the same story and have a movie marathon.
Or read a book and watch the movie.
Or watch a series of movies with the same actor or actors, or the same director.
Or movies on a central theme.

You can learn a lot from movies.

Obvious stuff, like whatever a documentary is about.
Not as obvious stuff, like things about costuming and language and writing screenplays.
You can learn as much or more about the time in which a movie was made, than the time in which the story takes place.
Movies are full of cultural assumptions and biases.

Remember when all the bad guys in the Bond movies were Russians? They aren't, anymore.

We listened to movie music (and know several people who write soundtrack music for a living).
We memorized dialogue.
We fell in love with lavish costumes, especially in movies taking place during the Renaissance.
We moaned and groaned and covered our eyes when a particular swordfight scene stretched our willing suspension of disbelief past the snapping point.

And we talked about the movies, a lot.
What was real in it? What was not? What actually happened? What might that event really be like? What else was going on in the world then? Why did the director make that particular choice? If I was the director, would I make the same choice, or a different choice? Why?
What did we think of the ending? Would we have ended the story the same way? How did we feel during or after watching the movie? Why?
How is it that in order to have dialogue in movies sound "real," the actors have to talk in ways that real people never do?
How is it that the audience can be convinced to identify with and root for a character they would not like or be sympathetic to in real life? 
What, if anything, is the "message" of the movie?
What makes a movie "good"?

Times change, though.
We don't watch nearly as many movies now.
We don't have Netflix.
We tend to watch entire series of TV shows together now.  They lead to many of the same types of questions, and hours more character development to discuss.

Sometimes I miss watching movies together. More often than not, I'll watch movies alone now. My most recent theme has been rewatching old horror films that scared the crap out of me as a kid, to find that they aren't nearly so scary now.  Once in a while, we'll still watch together, and recently, my oldest has been wanting to watch classic movies that his girlfriend hasn't seen, so we've been doing that. Brings back a lot of memories!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Contra Dancing

When I was a teen, I learned to contra dance. Then I didn't, for many years, while my kids grew up. Not out of any negative feelings, or even that I wasn't interested, but mostly, we were simply too busy doing other things.

For New Year's Eve of 2010/2011, we learned about a contra dance, and my daughter and I decided to go. Interestingly, it was run by the very same people who ran the dances way back when I used to go.

We had a great time. This group sponsors a dance nearly every Friday, and we have been back for most of those. It's a great social event, good exercise for a few hours a week, and I really enjoy the atmosphere. Everyone is so happy! The age range is from around 7 to over 70. The people are very friendly, and welcoming to newcomers. There have been a few relationships that started there. The music (always live!) is provided from bands that include the "house band," which is whoever wants to sit in that night, to regionally or nationally known contra bands. And the dancing is pure fun!  What's not to like?

And yes. Sometimes the guys wear skirts, too. We're not so picky about gender roles.

On top of all that, or maybe underneath it, is something about contras that I find particularly appealing.

Beautiful, interwoven patterns. Set to music, which is also beautiful, interwoven patterns.

The dances themselves are usually set up as eight sets of movements, each taking eight beats. That entire set is repeated several times, for however long the music lasts (or is made to last). The dance is designed so that at the end of each set of movements, the people have "progressed" so that each couple is now dancing with a different couple. Most dances are arranged so that the dance movements themselves are done in groups of two couples.

So we have pairs of couples, dancing eight sets of eight-beat movements, and at the end of each set, having moved to a different spot so that all the pairs have changed. Rinse and repeat. Are we having fun yet? Yes. Yes, we are.

Add to this the variety of movement patterns. Some are similar to (and have the same or similar names as) square dance patterns. Swing your partner, do-si-do. Others are different, and probably less familiar. Box the gnat, roll away with a half sashay, hey for four.  All are fairly simple, and easily learned. And you get to practice them several times over for the entire dance. By the end, almost everyone is an expert.

Sometimes, groups of four combine temporarily for groups of eight, and very occasionally, a dance is done in groups of six.  Add to this that the music often changes during the dance, becoming more intense as the dance continues, so that there are really three different tunes played for one dance.

Is anyone keeping track of the variations here? I didn't think so.

All of that is fascinating to contemplate mathematically, but don't forget, it's fun to do and beautiful to watch. Everyone in the room has a slightly different position in the dance and they all weave together just so, so that it all works out perfectly. If you had to take each person and describe exactly what steps they are to take, in what order, at what time, and which direction they move in etc, it would be nearly impossible to coordinate a room of dancers. But with an understanding of all these separate steps and patterns, it's fairly simple for a caller to walk everyone through the dance cycle once or twice, and then have dozens of people dance it easily.

To get some idea, watch this video made at a local dance. It features one of my favorite bands, the Great Bear Trio, with Sarah Van Norstrand calling.

For what it's worth, I know most of those people now, and the band is a homeschooling family.

If you click on the link to see other videos by the same person, he has a lot of contra videos posted. Thanks, Ben!

There are contra dances all over the place. If you'd like some help finding a local group, let me know.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Algebra Before Breakfast

Anyone who knows me had to know this post was coming.

One of the things I have often heard from people who are afraid of unschooling revolves around something they think kids won't, or can't, learn on their own. With a few notable exceptions, it is nearly always math related. How will they learn algebra? How will they learn calculus?

The underlying theme is that people won't learn these things unless they are forced to, because no person in their right mind would ever be interested in these subjects. They are too hard. Too distasteful. Too complicated. Too... mathy.

We live in a culture that is, for whatever reasons, terrified of math.

If I were to name the One Thing I think schools do the worst job at, the thing I think they harm the most, and/or do the greatest disservice to, it would be math. I don't know whether it makes me more angry, that people are being taught to fear something that is so integral to their daily existence, or whether I am more sad that they are being taught to fear- and avoid- something that is both incredibly useful, and extremely beautiful.

It's simply unfair that this is so.

I hear it all the time, young people (or old people!) who say they "hate math" or they "can't do math."
I don't believe either thing is possible.
I believe those who believe those things, have no idea what math really is.

I saw this fabulous museum exhibit once, years ago. It was a large column, from floor to ceiling, approximately four feet in diameter. It was painted white, except for a small section, on the bottom, that was painted black. That section was about an inch tall.

There was a sign on the column that said "If all of math was contained in this column, all the math taught in schools would be in the first inch."

For people to believe that what is taught in schools is all of mathematics, would be like believing that the alphabet was all there is to every language on earth. Are they connected? Yes. Are they synonymous? No.

The worst thing that schools do to math is separate it out from its purpose. I remember that it wasn't until my third year of college that I suddenly- and I recall the very moment- realized what calculus was FOR. Why didn't they ever tell me that? People struggle to memorize equations without context. Why do that?

One of the most interesting parts of unschooling for us has been the freedom to explore everything in an interconnected way. What this means for math is that as the need came up to be able to figure something out, or predict things, or create things, whatever mathematical concepts were involved became part of that activity. Often, it was all mental math, without writing anything down. Occasionally, it required some sort of method of writing things down, and I absolutely loved watching the kids come up with their own way of conceptualizing and making some sort of written or illustrated representation of their thoughts.

I wish we still had all of those. The pages of prime numbers. The drawing of equally spaced fence posts that led to an exploration of patterns. The charts and graphs. They came and went as they were useful, and then the need for them passed.

The thing is, math is part of everything.
And I do mean everything.
It is about relationships between things.
It is a way to describe things, and those relationships between them.
A way to describe movement.
A way to clearly define things.
A way to predict the future, and to understand the present.
It is a part of everything in nature, and everything that man has created.

Explain to me, how would it be even remotely possible for someone to "hate" all of creation?

I think the biggest difference in how an unschooled person learns these concepts, and in how they are supposedly "taught" in school, is that in school, the method, the written representation, comes first. Understanding, if it comes at all, comes afterwards.

In the real world, the need for the information comes first. The exploration and understanding comes next, and any written method or interpretation comes last, if it is necessary at all.

What good is a calculator, if you don't know what to calculate, or how?
How can you figure out an answer, before you figure out the question?

Learning math by rote makes people able to calculate, when given the information on what to calculate.
It does not help them figure out what they need to know.

I find it much more useful to figure out what it is I need to know.
Look at what information I already have, what I already know, what I can use.
Then use that to figure out the missing piece.
A concept so simple- yet often not specifically taught.

Instead, we have people struggling to apply equations, without knowing how to define the variables.
People who come up with "answers" that logically make no sense, and could not possibly be true, but who don't recognize their errors because they have no idea what the answer is supposed to mean, when they get it.

Crazy making.

I wish there was more of an understanding of the concept of numeracy.
People know what literacy means, and in some places, make an effort to promote it.
Numeracy doesn't get even that.
Instead, it is culturally accepted and popular, for people to claim to hate math. They proudly exclaim this at every opportunity, and it is applauded.

The funniest part is that sometimes, the very people who shout the loudest about hating math, actually use it the most. They are so disconnected from things that they don't recognize what they are doing as being math-related at all.

I'm kind of okay with that part of it.
Sometimes, it's not as important to be able to describe or talk about how to do something, as it is to be able to do it.

The part I dislike is that people are made to have very negative feelings about something they could, instead, find joy in.

So, I say to the people of the world, to the builders, the farmers, the artists and musicians, the hunters and gatherers, to the people who sew clothing, to those who play games, to anyone who walks or drives or rides a bike, to those who run, jump and climb trees, to database organizers and dog groomers, to bakers and waiters, to actors, to writers, to those who make things, and those who make do... whatever your place in the world, do the things you do with a full heart and willing hands.

But don't proclaim that you hate math.
Hate "school math"? Sure. But don't blame math for how it has been profoundly mistreated.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Let It Snow: A Relationship Story

I never saw snow before I was seven years old. We lived in the South, in places where it didn't snow.

When we moved here, I was 5 months shy of eight years old. We moved here in April, which should have been Spring. And it was, I'm sure, but Spring for here, not the Spring to which I was accustomed.

The school I went to had rules that were different from where I had been before, and they didn't bother to tell me what they were. I guess everyone was supposed to know.  One of those rules was that any student who spoke while in the hallway, was made to leave their coat on the back of their chair and go outside without it for a week.

I have no memory of what I had said or why, but I will never forget the first time I saw snow. It had started after I got to school that morning, and was falling quite heavily by recess. The first experience I ever had with snow was being made to go out in it, in a short sleeved dress, with no coat, having never been anywhere that cold before in my life.

It did not make a good impression.

When I arrived home that day, not wearing my coat, and explained where it was and why, someone made an impression on someone, I'm pretty sure. I was not made to leave my coat on the back of my chair ever again.

As I grew up, I hated snow. Really hated it. Started dreading it as soon as school started in the Fall, and was miserable most of the winter. I didn't ever learn to ski. I had no interest whatsoever in being outside IN the snow all day and into the evening.

The one time I went winter camping, by odd coincidence, I and one other girl were left outside for a couple of hours, told to chip through the ice to make a space big enough to build a fire in. Funny how experiences like that stick with you.

When I spent my junior year of high school in Peru, so I effectively had summer from June of one year to August of the next, I couldn't have been happier about it. When we moved to California for a couple of years, again to a place without snow, I was delighted.

A variety of circumstances led to moving back here, and back to the land of winter. For quite a few years, I continued my very bad relationship with snow. Mostly, if it snowed, we stayed home. If we didn't have to go out somewhere, we didn't.

It wasn't until many years later that I discovered the strangest thing.
It wasn't SNOW that I hated, it was BEING COLD.
If I wasn't cold, snow was fine.

I discovered that I loved shoveling the driveway.
Neighbors on all sides would be out there with their snowblowers, on even on lawn tractors with little plows, or they hired someone with a plow on a pick up truck to come do their driveway.
Meanwhile, I'd be out there with a shovel and a nice hat, having a grand old time.

It really was my first positive experience with snow.

Soon after that, my life got busier and busier, and I simply didn't have time to hate the weather. I just needed to do whatever I needed to do, and didn't really think about it.

A few years ago, my relationship with snow, and winter, progressed further.
I joined the fire department.
Now, the worse the weather is, the more likely I'll be out in it.
I've been out fighting a fire in 20 below zero (fahrenheit) weather, covered with water from the hose, until I was entirely encased in ice.
I've been on the side of the road in a snow storm, more than once, helping rescue someone out of an overturned car.
I've had to go out every hour or so all night long to keep the driveway shoveled enough that we could get out of it to get to the fire station.

And you know... I've been pretty okay with that.

Snow and I are on fairly good terms these days. I can appreciate how beautiful the landscape becomes, clad in a white blanket. I can look out on a midnight scene, with a full moon, and snow sparkling like diamonds.

But mostly, I've discovered something I never knew.
My favorite season isn't Summer.
It isn't Spring.
And no, it isn't Winter, at least not yet.

It's Autumn. Gorgeous colors, cool days and crisp nights. The bugs are gone, but we get occasional warm sunny days, with just enough breeze. Perfect for hiking and camping.

I never knew this, my whole life, because I let my dislike and dread of winter spoil it for me.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Testing.. Testing...

When I went to Junior High, the school I was coming from didn't use tests. This meant a couple of things.

First, I wasn't accustomed to taking tests. I didn't have any sort of "test anxiety" and really enjoyed any sort of "quiz" or "questionnaire" type thing.

Second, the junior high had no idea what to do with us. They didn't know which classes to put us in, or what to expect from us at all. It mean we all got put in the lowest/easiest classes. The main problem we had in getting used to a more typical school program was that we had to make an effort not to get bored.

Testing, as it is most often done, is a very odd thing.
Mostly, it's a poorly done thing, that has no real connection to the material being tested, and gives results that are only meaningful in gauging how well someone takes that test.

Most tests are poorly designed. Multiple choice tests, in particular.

As I went through junior high and high school, I had a clear advantage in test taking, since I had no anxiety about them. I spent more time analyzing the test itself, than I did filling in the answers. I found that by far, most of the time, with a multiple choice test, it was easy to eliminate at least two of the choices. That left two, usually, so guessing was 50/50. Wow.

The other thing I noticed about most tests is that when you get your score, or grade, that's often all you get. By that time, knowing that you missed question #15 doesn't have much meaning, being so out of context. Since the purpose of the test was to GENERATE A GRADE, rather than to measure or improve learning, that didn't matter.

If people give a test to find out what you know, then don't let you evaluate what you did or didn't know, what was the point again, exactly?

It became more and more clear that tests and grades had little to nothing to do with learning.

During high school, I had two other experiences that helped me see this.

One was in a class where I took a little longer to fully grasp the material. We had frequent quizzes, and I tended not to do well on them. About a week or two later, I would really understand the material, and if given the same quiz then, I would have done very well. The interesting thing about that was this: the final exam was cumulative, covering the entire year of material. I got the highest grade in the class on the final. By that time, I fully understood all the material. The rest of the class crammed for the final, but couldn't bring most of the material back to mind after testing and forgetting it as we went along.  Because of the way the grading worked, many of them ended the year with an A or B, but without understanding the material. I ended up with a C- but knew the material cold. This was a HUGE suggestion that tests and grading don't quite work the way we are led to believe. The grade became more important than the understanding.

The other experience was that in one of my classes, I had a teacher who, to this day, is one of the best I've ever had. Why do I think that? Two reasons. One is that he was dynamic and engaging in class. The other is that I adored his tests. Turns out I may have been the only student ever to have that opinion. Most students hated them, for the very same reason I loved them. First, they were not multiple choice. It was all "essay questions." Basically, he presented material, and then, wanted us to tell him what we understood from it. Not regurgitating what he said, or guessing from a list of choices, but simply what we thought, what we learned, what we remembered, what we still wanted to know. It probably was a challenge to figure out how to grade them, but they gave a FAR better assessment of what the students were understanding. We not only got to give answers, but to explain them. Perfect for me. Like having a conversation.

Turns out, the best way to know what someone actually knows is to... ask them. And then let them answer. Talk about it. Let them show you. Many things can't be reduced to questions on a page.

Since then, I've been in a variety of situations where I've needed to take tests. I still evaluate each test. Most have been not very good, at best. Some are truly atrocious- and sadly, those have been tests where understanding the material really mattered.

I've seen college students break out in a cold sweat over a test that did not affect their grade, simply because it carried the word "test." I've seen adults who are extremely competent and skilled healthcare providers be far more stressed about passing a test on something they know they know, than they are about demonstrating those skills in the real world.

As you may have figured out by now, I love taking tests- but overall, I am not a big fan of tests at all. The best tests I've seen are those that are intended to help someone self-assess. Not those that generate a grade. Not those that are set up to be more important than the skills and knowledge itself.

As my kids have grown up, we only used a standard written test one time. It was required by the state, and it was one of the most stupid tests I've ever seen. When my 10 year old tested as "post high school ability" I decided we didn't need to do any more of that, state-required or not. So we stopped.

All of them have taken written tests elsewhere since then, and had no trouble at all. I suspect there aren't many times when someone's first experience with a written exam is when they get their Learner's Permit to drive, but it has happened. :-)

I've since taken classes about teaching, and while writing a lesson plan was a big deal, test design wasn't really covered. That's too bad, because I think designing a good test is a fun thing to work on. I find designing a test to be far more valuable than TAKING a test. What do I want people to know? How can I tell if they do? What sort of evaluation would be valuable? Or, the flip side: what do I want to know? How can I be sure that I do?  Some things are easily measured, some need to be demonstrated, and others, it may not be possible to know whether someone else fully understands. Understanding is such an ongoing thing.

Going back to my childhood... maybe the most important thing I learned from attending a school that didn't use tests is that they are not necessary. I've never had to doubt that. Instead, I've had the freedom to explore the entire concept, without stress. I can appreciate a test that is useful to me, and ignore the rest.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dirty Gum Wrapper: A Post About Love That Changed Everything

First, you have to know this about my family.  Three girls, with me in the middle, and the other two seven years in each direction. My Mom left (long story, not telling it now) when I was an infant, and came back when my baby sister was born.

We didn't really know each other, my mother and I. I was being raised by my Dad, and she came back, with rules and ways of doing things that she wanted "just so." She had a reason for everything she did, I'm sure, but most of them she didn't share with me, a kid, and many of them were not, exactly, the way I believed other families did things. Whether I was right or not I had no way of knowing at the time, but looking back now... I still don't know. It's impossible to know what goes on inside someone else's home, so much of what we are allowed to see is a mask, a pretense, an attempt to conform.

We moved here when I was seven. Here, being upstate NY, and where we moved from, being southern Georgia. The last thing I remember hearing as we left was that I could never go back, because I'd be a "damned yankee." Oh, yes. Alive and well, the war between the states is, in the places where they "lost," but, more importantly, where things were never really resolved.

I had moved from a small town, with a small neighborhood public school, and living with my older sister and Dad, to here, much colder, strange accents, a very strict neighborhood public school, and my mother, and her new baby, living with us again. The next year, the school I attended went through a complete metamorphosis, and became not the horrifically strict place it had been, but a wonderful experiment in education based on Summerhill. What people nowadays might call a "Sudbury School" except we did it before Sudbury.  Not only had I moved a little over a thousand miles, and forward about a century in some ways, but I also moved from a single parent household to two parents, a new baby, and a completely different educational experience.

It was no wonder that all I heard from most people I spoke to was some comment about my accent. But I digress.

This all left me in a position of great change, both internally and externally. Being an analytical sort of kid, I spent a lot of time trying to "figure out" pretty much everything.

The school I went to was a fabulous place. Really. I'll write more about it later. I love writing about it because people don't believe me, don't believe such a place could have existed. It is the only example I know of where something that was "too good to be true" was true, anyway. The teachers- facilitators, really- went by their first names, so they weren't set up as "authority figures," and took pay cuts in order to allow the hiring of more people, so the teacher/student ratio was much better than at other schools. They believed in what we were doing, and it showed.

We were not forced to do anything. At all. Complete free reign.
One of the things this accomplished was creating an environment where people questioned the "status quo." A lot. We questioned authority, and each other, and pretty much everything, and were encouraged to do so. This is important. Most kids are not encouraged to question anything of substance, really.

So naturally, at home, I continued this questioning of authority, and my parents, having chosen this educational experience for me out of concerns of their own about authority and the dominant cultural paradigms, continued that encouragement.

Um. Not.
I only went to that school because it was a block from my house, not out of any understanding whatsoever about it being any different from any other school.
And my parents were for the most part, fairly typical parents of that day and age.
Which translates more often to "get me a switch" than to "let's think about that and come to a decision together, honey."

So really, it meant that most of the time, at school, I had freedom, and at home, I did what I was told.

One of the things I was told to do was to watch my little sister. Not a whole lot, me not being the eldest, but sometimes. This was not something I particularly cared to do. I wasn't one of those girls who are into babies, not by a long shot. Tolerate, sure. Cuddle and babble at and fawn over- no. Not my thing.

So one day, I was watching the baby. She had a crib set up in the kitchen, where she took her naps, but this wasn't during a nap. Which meant I had more responsibility- I had to follow her around and keep her out of trouble. Sometimes a challenge, but really, she wasn't a particularly difficult baby.

This day, she was crawling around on the floor in the kitchen. Unlike my kitchen now, where crawling around on the floor would be risking your health and sanity, my mother kept the kitchen floor fairly clean.

But not entirely clean.

When I wasn't looking, the baby managed to find an old gum wrapper on the floor. She was poking at it with her tiny fingers, and apparently found it the most fascinating thing. It crinkled, I think. And it probably smelled like the spearmint gum it came from. Wrigley's. I'm sure it was from my older sister, who chewed a lot of gum. I don't know if she liked it, or if she only wanted the wrappers to make a gum wrapper chain with (does anyone ever do that anymore?). Either way lots of gum, and here, on the floor, within reach of the baby, a dirty gum wrapper.

Clearly, this was not acceptable.
As the person in charge, I immediately stepped in and took that nasty gum wrapper away from the baby, effectively saving her from all sorts of diseases, or maybe from choking. I was a hero, I was pretty sure.

The baby did not agree.
She screamed at the top of her lungs.

Oh, lordy. A screaming, wailing baby, rapidly turning red in the face, and I had no idea what to do to get her to stop. Telling her to stop screaming was not effective in the least. Wishing she would stop did not help.

And then it hit me.
Like a glass of ice cold water thrown in my face by an older sibling...
not really. More like a ray of sunshine suddenly breaking through the clouds, complete with birds singing and little bunny rabbits hopping by.

Kind of funny, now, looking back, that this may have been one of the most important moments in my entire life.

Me, in the kitchen doorway, holding an old gum wrapper.
The baby, on the floor across the room, screaming.

What I suddenly realized was this: I could not come up with a single solitary reason why there was a problem with the baby exploring a gum wrapper, with someone there keeping an eye on her, making sure she didn't choke on it. She was not, actually, going to catch some horrible disease. And she apparently found this exploration to be important, and worthwhile, even if all I saw was a gum wrapper on the floor. Who was I to deny her this opportunity? Why did I get to make that decision for her, to take away something she found valuable, just because I didn't?

The thing is, I loved my baby sister, and wanted her to be happy. I didn't want to be the person standing in the way of her doing what she wanted or needed to do, or the one who took away whatever made her happy. I didn't want to let someone else's idea of what was or was not appropriate or interesting or valuable- without any real reason other than "everyone knows" or "it's always been that way" or "it's dirty"- make me make decisions without thinking.

I walked across the room and gave the gum wrapper back.
She smiled up at me.
I smiled back, with a heart full of love, and a mind full of understanding and hope.

She looked it briefly, then crawled off to do something else.

I was eight years old.
It changed everything about who I was, and who I was to become.

I am forever grateful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't Want No Cold Feet 'round Here

The temperature dropped below zero the last two nights. That's pretty cold.

I am not a fan of being cold. Not fond of being overheated, either, but that's not exactly an issue right now.

Christmas before last, my sister gave me a gift that was life-changing. Yeah, you laugh, but I'm serious. My quality of life improved tremendously once I didn't have to go to bed with cold feet and cold sheets.

She gave me corn bags she made for me. Heat them in the microwave for a couple of minutes, and you have a nearly instant mood improvement.

I have two. One for my feet, and one to hold onto. Truth is, it can get a little too warm, so after the first few minutes, they both end up at my feet, to be enjoyed by me and whatever critter is sharing the bed.

This year, I made some for my kids. I thought it was brilliant. That they'd be instantly grateful. Okay, maybe not, but I thought they would at least use them when it got cold.

They didn't.
What is up with that?
I reminded them. Suggested it. Lobbied hard for warmer feet, but got no response.

It wasn't until yesterday that I managed to have a breakthrough. I warmed up MY pair, and when one of the kids was sitting on the couch, complaining of frozen feet, I put one underneath his feet, and one on top, and a convert was made nearly instantaneously. Two of the kids are now using them. Still one hold out.

One added advantage of using the corn bags is that I get company at the foot of my bed. I woke up this morning with my feet surrounded by cats. Now, the dog is on the couch next to me, sharing the warmth. He was very quick to notice the addition of heat, and is not shy at all about cuddling right up. Smart dog.

The bags are very simple to make.
You can use a variety of things to fill them, but don't use popcorn.
The ones we have are filled with feed corn, some whole, some cracked. It doesn't seem to make a difference. I've also made them with rice.

You can sew bags, fill them, and then sew them closed. If you know how to sew, you won't need more direction than that. If you don't know how to sew, you aren't likely to make them anyhow. Use any fabric you have that can be heated. Cotton is good. Old, funky patterned cotton is particularly good. :-) Or cut up an old sheet, or one you get at a thrift store. Seriously. Don't spend a lot of money on nice fabric for these.

The ones I have are rectangular, about 10-15 inches long by 4-5 inches wide or so, and are sewed so that they have three or four "compartments," which keeps the corn from all shifting to one spot. You can make them quickly and simply, or, if you are making gifts, and are particular about such things, you can actually measure the fabric and make nice seams, and make them "pretty."

An easy shortcut is to fill socks and sew the top shut. Don't fill them very full; you want them to be moldable around your feet or other body parts. Bags made as gift bags for a wine bottle would also work well. Or cut an old pillowcase down and use the part that already has three sides sewn. In a pinch, you could probably use a paper bag and tape or sew it shut. (You could staple it if you're going to heat the bag some other way than in a microwave.)

When I first got my corn bags, I suddenly understood those old "bed warmer" pans-on-a-stick. People put hot coals in them, and then used them to slide over the bed, under the sheet, to warm it up before getting in. A lovely idea, but using coals so close to bedding makes me a bit nervous.

I think that's why the corn bags appeal to me so much. When it gets cold, people use all sorts of different methods to stay warm, and many of those are fire hazards. But not these.

It is amazing how much happier I am with warm feet.

I love finding something so simple, yet so useful. Sensible, too. Very inexpensive to create, can use recycled materials, and uses very little energy- but makes such a huge difference. The only thing I've used that did a similar job and was even simpler and used less ongoing energy, was when I was a kid and we heated rocks in the fire, to wrap in a shirt and put in the bottom of our sleeping bags, on camping trips. Same concept, really. The corn bags are a bit cuddlier than rocks.