positive self-talk

This paper my nine-year-old brought home made me smile:


“Where did you get your ideas for these?” I asked.

The first was a fortune he had read in a Big Nate book, I learned. The others he came up with on his own, more or less.

Way to go, Caleb.

Isn’t this an exercise we could all use once in a while, to rehearse positive self talk?

Way to go, Mrs. Otto.

February = “I Love to Read” month

“Reading every day, or close to it, takes discipline when children are little. It takes a real act of will as they get older and other claims begin to encroach on the time they have at home. Schoolwork, sports, friends, part-time jobs, and the hydra-headed temptations of technology will try to crowd out regular reading. Don’t let it. This is a battle worth winning,” Meghan Cox Gurdon writes in The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction.

                             THE ENCHANTED HOUR by Meghan Cox Gurdon

I totally agree. It is worthwhile, even when it feels like all forces seem to be conspiring against this goal of sharing stories. My sons are both strong readers, but there’s still much to gain from these read-aloud sessions. It exposes them to literature they might not pick up on their own. Reading aloud also builds shared experiences – it adds to our store of shared references and characters. For example, my younger son occasionally refers to eccentric Mrs. Dowdel, whom we first met in A Long Way from Chicago, speaking of her as if she were a real person. Sometimes, weeks after finishing a book, my boys bring up a point or ask about something we’ve read.

Reading together with older kids can still “create connection out of alienation and distance,” as Gurdon writes. “It can act as a catwalk over the turbulent waters of toddlerhood, and do the same years later in the storms of early adolescence.” These are some of the reasons I maintain our reading team and encourage others to do the same.


a stack of letters

This week I visited my son’s third grade classroom for a special STEM story time, complete with a demonstration of the Bernulli principle and a book give-away.

The kids each got three brand new books to take home, thanks to Aerospace Industries Association and First Book.

2019-12-17 11.37.56

Mrs. Otto pointed out, “These are really nice books, new books. Some of you are holding like 50 dollars worth of books in your hands right now.”

That day my son brought home thank you letters from all his classmates (and from him). They were precious notes, every one of them. One said the experiment was awesome. A number of the letters extended an invitation for me to come to their class again. Several of them thanked me for reading So You Want to Be an Inventor. Jace got a copy of that book, and wrote, “I also like pushing buttons and toggling with levers and switches,” in the words of author Judith St George.

Sundus wrote, “I like the Wright brothers page,” which told about the accidents they survived in their test flights, apparently maintaining a good sense of humor all the while.  Many of them told me they like STEM. “When I grow up I want to become an inventor. And invent something that will change the world in a strange way,” Sabrina wrote.

I read the whole stack of letters and then I reread them. It reminded me of how well we can get to know students by reading their writing. I miss that. I hadn’t realized just how much I miss that. I was touched by the things they chose to share in their letters. Many of them were about my son:

“I’m one of Caleb’s friends.”

“Caleb is very kind and always gets his work done.”

“Caleb is always focused on his work.”

“Caleb is a good friend. His is very kind and respectful.”

“I hope Caleb gets a lot of presents! He is a very good kid. He is also very smart.”

“Caleb is very smart and athletic. I like playing soccer with the boys, and I always go against Caleb.”

“Your son can run across the gym about 35 times and I can run 46 times. Your son does pretty good in school. I see that he is into soccer like me.”

I get very few personal letters anymore, so this stack of twenty plus was a gift. I am thankful for teachers like my son’s who are working to keep the art of letter writing alive – and to those who are reinforcing the value of saying “thank you.”


sharing stories and books

The last time I subbed at my son’s school, I took along my Very Hungry Caterpillar birthday party kit. I told the first graders in the class that this familiar book was first published 50 years ago. As soon as I finished reading the story aloud, one of girls began singing “Happy Birthday” to the very hungry caterpillar. The whole class joined in with gusto. At the end of the day, I passed out temporary caterpillar tattoos. Some couldn’t even wait until they got into the dismissal line – they had to put the tattoos on right then and there.

This week I got a shipment of 100 books with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) themes, and I’ve made arrangements to go into my son’s third grade class to pass them out for kids to keep, along with a special STEM story time and activity. These are just some of the titles I get to share with kids during Diversity in STEM Week, sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and First Book:2019-12-10 21.33.12

When my third grader found out about my upcoming visit to his class, he said, “By the end of the year, you’re going to be known as the fun mom.” While that’s hardly my goal, I do hope my own kids and the others with whom I interact pick up on the idea that reading is fun and fulfilling and can open up worlds of possibilities.

pasta for a crowd

When conference time rolls around and the PTO is looking for volunteers to help provide meals for the teachers on their longest days, I tend to be among the first to sign up. I like cooking for others. And when I do, thoughts of Grandma often come to mind. Grandma was from an era when home cooking was the only way, and she had so many years of experience to her credit. I can’t claim to even be in her league, but I do find myself with a similar urge to share home-cooked food with others.

When my oldest started school, I  bought a 6-quart slow cooker to hold big batches, and I am often looking for new ideas for how to fill it. This year I compared several slow cooker pasta recipes and came with a simple version that uses fairly common ingredients. The recipe is too big to make for just my family, but it’s great for a potluck or similar event. Judging by the few remaining bits on the bottom of our slow cooker, it was a big hit with the teachers last week.

Slow Cooker Ravioli

2 packages frozen cheese ravioli (25 oz each)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion diced

28 oz crushed tomatoes

8 oz tomato sauce

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

salt and pepper to taste

freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Saute onion in olive oil till translucent. Add cooked onion to a large mixing bowl with crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic, spices, salt, and pepper. Mix well and stir in the frozen ravioli, making sure each piece is coated in red sauce. Transfer to a 6-quart slow cooker. Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan cheese and cook on high for two and a half to three hours, till bubbly and cooked through. Serve with additional grated cheese, if desired.


under a tangle of weeds

This year, establishing a school routine has been about as pleasant as strolling through a garden riddled with noxious weeds. Tempers have been short and disappointment great. The younger boy gets on the bus at 6:53 a.m. and the older one at 8:31 a.m. so I have been doing the get-ready-for-school coaching twice a day.

The elementary-aged boy missed the bus once already. You’d think a middle schooler could get all his books, soccer gear, iPad, and a packed lunch into his backpack independently by now. So perhaps it’s mostly my fault that he needs so many reminders and that the number of his near misses is far greater than the number of times he’s been out there the recommended five minutes before the bus arrives.

Then there’s the school work. “There’s no gym and no recess” in middle school, he reported the first day. He’s got one class that’s “chill” but the rest have homework expectations that fourth and fifth grade never prepared him for. I can’t believe how many overdue assignments he’s had already.

By mid-September, our garden had started looking pretty bedraggled. A few weeds had grown rather tall. The tomatoes were mostly done, with cages tipping precariously in several directions. One cage had fallen on its side completely from the weight of the plant. The cilantro had gone to seed. But there were still a few treasures in there, if you looked closely – or dug below the surface. One day I came home with a few juicy yellow tomatoes, ruby carrots and the prettiest purple potatoes. All produce you wouldn’t necessarily have seen in our sorry looking plot at first glance.


The blessings of our fall schedule are similar – things I wouldn’t necessarily have seen at first glance. For example, now I have one-on-one time with each boy – time to help with homework, listen to anecdotes they want to share, and just hang out. The younger one has been helping me with projects after school, like assembling some new shelving, and spending more time cooking with me.

After about a month and a half, I’ve finally embraced our current reality and have gotten better about appreciating the small gifts, which are sometimes found under a tangle of weeds.



maker month

My kids don’t believe me when I say it’s good to get bored, but they’re improving at their ability to transform a blank page or an empty afternoon into something interesting. This month, they’ve been using their creativity and resourcefulness to find their way out of boredom, which I’d posit is an important life lesson. Below are some of the fruits of their unstructured days.

For the library’s summer reading program, my eight-year-old collected leaves from nearby trees and looked up the name of each one. He documented it in the following manner: 6009B0F3-9173-4D8F-B8F5-87F5CB6BC1CC

We can now tell you the difference between a sugar maple and a silver maple. After he finished this, we have found and looked up the names of four other leaves as well. The learning continues.

Word has spread that we have some Lego artists in this household, and so my two sons were enlisted to help finish up a Lego mural. They ended up reworking the whole thing. Don’t you like that eagle?


Then there was the chalk dinosaur, ready to gobble up all cars coming toward our home on Cumberland Street. He’s wearing away little by little, but the remnants still give us something to talk about.


Our 11-year-old has been working on creating his latest game, “Battle of the Fort.” He sometimes complains about the limitations of Tynker and how he can’t code all the things he’d like to. Most of the time I don’t fully grasp what he’s talking about – coding is a language all its own – but I’m glad he’s been developing his abstract reasoning and problem solving skills. With animation, the picture below occasionally has some lightning in the background.


We’re also making memories, with many of the typical activities of summer like pick up soccer games at Lexington Park, swimming at Como Pool, and weekly visits to the library. They make me smile when they can’t even wait till we leave the library before they start in on their new book selections (though also a bit concerned about their safety due to an apparent lack of awareness of their surroundings when walking while reading).


never too old for story time

“I honestly like being read to more than reading,” our 11-year-old said after I put down the Michael Vey book that I’ve been reading aloud to him and his brother. He’s a quick and capable reader, so it’s not because it’s difficult to read a book like this himself. But I think he means there’s something very compelling about a shared story, a story that we can analyze together, make predictions about, and keep talking about, long after the book is done. It’s especially gratifying when you’ve found a book with strong, likable characters,  a good plot, and themes like loyalty and courage.

m vey 1

the “good-byes” of June

“Good-bye is always hello to something else. Good-bye/hello, good-bye/hello, like the sound of a rocking chair.” – George Ella Lyon

This month we said good-bye to store-bought lettuce and hello to garden-fresh lettuce. The leaf lettuce volunteered in our plot this year, getting established in the cool spring before I got around to working the ground. I couldn’t bear to hoe it all up, so I left seven plants that were sort of clustered together. Since then, the sunshine and rain have tended them well.


Also in June, our oldest said good bye to his elementary school. “Earlier in the week, I thought I would be happy when school’s done. But now, I’m not so sure,” our fifth grader said in the car on the way home from school on his last Friday at Chelsea Heights Elementary. This fall, it’s hello middle school, but he’s going to put that thought off for a while. (Me too.)

We said good-bye to the school year routine. Hello, free time. The boys have enjoyed extended Lego-building sessions and have some great creations to show for it. Plus we’ve done a few of the things on our “someday” list, like a birding walk at the Bell Museum and a road trip to the Caddie Woodlawn House with my sister. The best part of that day turned out to be the visit to Devil’s Punchbowl and the “secret” waterfalls a bit farther down the road that we’d never have known about if we hadn’t stopped to ask for directions.