black history month at our home

“What language were those people speaking?” my four-year-old asked me as we were driving home from Aldi this morning. He was talking about the couple I had a brief exchange with on our way out of the store.

“English,” I said. “They speak English, like us.”

“They speak English?” he asked.

“Yes, they speak our language but they have a different dialect — they speak Black English.”

There were no more questions. Until evening.

After dinner we read Coming Home: from the life of Langston Hughes. In the book, Floyd Cooper explained that Langston Hughes’ father went to live in Mexico because, as a black man, he was not allowed to practice law in Oklahoma.

“Because he speaks Black English?” my four-year-old asked.

Living in a biracial household, I think it’s more important than ever to address my children’s questions about race and skin color and culture head-on. And they get a dose of Black History Month each February. I make up the ‘curriculum’ as I go.

This year, we started out with reading a picture book version of The Negro Speaks of Rivers and then moved on to the biography of the author of the poem, Langston Hughes. I’m still looking for ideas of what topics to cover this month. That’s part of the adventure. I am expecting some interesting conversations along the way.

sharing a story and a game

As we were driving toward St. Paul’s east side, my seven-year-old son was in the back seat muttering something about having the worst mom ever. My four-year-old was in an equally foul mood, demanding to know why I hadn’t scraped all the frost off his window.

I turned on the radio. The announcer informed us that it felt like 18 degrees below zero at the moment and the wind chill advisory would be in effect until noon. “I told you we should have stayed home,” came the accusation from the back seat. No, we most definitely should not have stayed home, I thought. What we need right now is something to turn our eyes off of ourselves and our petty grievances.

When we arrived at our friends’ home, I got a grocery bag full of books (procured during a recent book drive) out of the trunk and we went inside.

We were greeted by a preschool and an elementary aged boy, their parents, one set of grandparents, an aunt and a few other relatives. Their boys and mine started pulling books out of the bag and previewing them. The children’s mother studied a board book about body systems, anatomy for kids basically. “These are the lungs?” she asked pointing to one of the diagrams.

“Yes, lungs,” I said. She studied each page of the board book. The grandfather had chosen a book as well.

One of the boys was looking through a book called 1000 Monsters. Soon four boys were watching the monsters change form as they flipped the three different segments that made up each page. After a bit, I picked out a level 2 graded reader with a cartoonish crocodile on the front. I read it aloud to everyone in the room. The words were easy enough that several of the adults could follow along. Many of them laughed at the end. They got the joke.

I told the mom that I read to my boys every day and that reading to your children – or even just paging through the books and talking about the pictures – helps kids do better in school, no matter which language she’s using.

“These books will help us with our education,” Na Ni Moo said. She already knew what I was trying to explain. She told me about the library that she used to go to while she lived in the refugee camp. She said she had learned a lot by reading library books. The best part was that there were books in her first language.

Then, behind me I heard, “Osprey power, activate!” My sons had introduced Eh Ku Moo to their animal powers game. What better way to spend part of your winter break than sharing a story and a game with friends?

speaking of Santa

Today I took my four-year-old in for his early childhood screening. The interviewer began the assessment with some small talk. She stated that Christmas is coming up and asked my son what he wants from Santa.

“Santa’s fake!” he told her. She started laughing. “I’ve never heard that answer before,” she said, looking at me rather than my son.

“Okay, so what do you want for Christmas?” she tried again.

“A sketch pad,” he said.

“What else?” she prompted.

“A Bible,” he said. At this point I started wondering if my boy thought he was saying what his mommy wanted to hear. I also started wondering what sort of judgments the interviewer was making about our family.

“Oh, I’d want one of those too,” she said. “What else?” By then, I was getting tired of the question. What are we teaching our children in this country? That Christmas is all about getting? In our family, we try to spend a lot more time talking about what we’re giving for gifts than discussing our wants.

I think my son was tired of the question too. “A box,” he said. Thankfully she let it go at that and moved on to her scripted questions.

Despite this awkward beginning, he scored well above the average four year old. I expected that — since we live in a place “where all the children are above average.” Now, I’ve just got to teach him not to break the news about Santa to his classmates. Thankfully, we’ve still got some time to work on that.

encouraging your kids to try new foods

I asked my boys for their input when I was selecting seeds for our garden in early spring. My older boy wanted carrots. Carrots seemed like a waste of precious garden space to me. I tried to talk him into something more interesting, but he didn’t waver. Carrots are his favorite vegetable. Raw only, thank you very much.

So we planted a short row of carrots. Our very prolific lemon cucumber vines almost covered them up, but we did have carrots to dig in late October.

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The biggest one weighted nearly a pound, I think. It made its way into a batch of carrot soup not long after we picked this book up at the library:

carrot soup

Of the eleven books we checked out that week, my preschooler asked for this one to be reread the most. On the last page, there’s a recipe for rabbit’s favorite carrot soup. So we made a half a batch one day.

You know that theory about having your kids involved in growing and cooking their food? It seems to hold true somewhat – they do tend to be willing to try new things when they’re involved in the decision making process. Both boys ate a small serving of the soup. The older boy even asked for seconds. And he suggested I write the recipe down before we turn the book in.

But when I offered them carrot soup the following day, they were willing to let their mom eat all the leftovers. I didn’t mind. It was the best carrot soup I’d ever made. (The first as well.)

some of the finest art materials around

This year, our leaf collecting was spurred on by story time. The librarian was reading books about fall. (No surprise there – everyone seems to be on the topic these days so we’ve been reading books about the season at ExploraTots and Kids at the Castle too.) Anyway, what caught my eye that particular day was one of the books the librarian didn’t read but had set aside. I picked it up and added it to our check-out pile.

leaf man 2

Since then my boys and I have been collecting leaves.

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We pick them up off streets and sidewalks whenever we go walking, press them, and turn them into art.

Ehlert’s book gives lots of ideas of what to do with the leaves. For example you can make a butterfly, fish or turtle.

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Buildings and jet planes are fair game too. (Use your imagination- that top of the building below looks like an onion dome, doesn’t it?) Also notice the bird in the lower right corner. My older son was most pleased with his bird.

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One evening I took the book and some leaves to share with friends from Burma. The eight-year-old girl in the family studied the examples from the picture book and made some lovely art. So did her brother and neighbors. They filled both sides of their papers.

Art project 4

The next day she began collecting leaves herself. I think she agrees with Ehlert and me that autumn leaves are some of the finest art materials around.

why did you put black beans in the brownies?

My four-year-old and I both like to mess around in the kitchen. So I thought we’d give this “nutritious” version of a dessert a try one recent morning.

The day before, I had purposely soaked and cooked some extra black beans along with the beans that were destined for our chili. My son, who does not generally eat black beans of his own volition, pushed the button of our small food processor and watched those black beans turn into puree. He helped measure and add the vanilla, maple syrup, and other ingredients that we blended in. Then we baked the brownies and let them cool while we went to the library.

After lunch, we sampled them. His first reaction was, “Yum.” A moment later, “Why did you put black beans in the brownies?”

For the most part, I’m not a mom who resorts to hiding nutrient-dense ingredients in her children’s food. I think kids ought to learn to appreciate nutritious foods in a recognizable form, but at the same time I’m not averse to making homemade sweets a little bit better for them. So, I’ll probably make them again.

Though my older son said he likes ‘real’ brownies better, he never refused one of these.

school supplies quandries

One of my favorite back-to-school activities is getting the supplies. Back in the day, my elementary school supply list included new crayons, water color paints and a “Big Chief tablet” among other items. I loved the potential of the unsharpened pencils and empty notebooks, the promise of a school year’s worth of learning ahead of us. But I can remember resenting my parents’ choice not to buy certain items on the list if they didn’t think they were necessary. I didn’t like it either when they ignored the specified size or quantity of an item and bought what they thought was a better deal.

I always thought I could do better. But this year, my son ended up with an orange folder instead of a yellow one. The list specified sturdy plastic folders in red, yellow, blue and green. The store we were at didn’t have sturdy yellow folders so I told him orange was close enough. I didn’t want to go to another store to look for one when we’d already gotten everything else – except the one item I never could find. I looked at several stores for the Elmer’s X-treme glue stick the art teacher requested, but never found one. I was planning to ask about this at the open house. I completely forgot. It wasn’t until after the open house was over that I also realized I forgot to include the most perplexing item on the school supplies list: 1 old clean sock.

School hasn’t started yet, so there’s still a chance to rectify two out of my three failures. Perhaps I should order that glue stick for “bigger, tougher projects” online and scrounge up an old clean sock. Imagine the potential!