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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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for they shall inherit the earth

The first hand is eight years old.

The second is 11 years.

The exact age of the third hand? Only God knows.

No one bothered to write down the date that hand was brought into the world.

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“A lot of kids in my class say bad things about Somalis. I don’t tell them that I’m half Somali,” my 11-year-old said this evening. He mentioned the same thing last week.

I suggested he might considering pointing out to these kids that there’s a lot of variety among Somalis, that they no more deserve to be lumped into one category than any other group. His dad, who is Somali, advised him to let the topic pass without saying a word.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about living with a minority, it’s that many of them don’t buy into this idea of sticking up for yourself, of calling out the unfair treatment. It’s all about not making waves, about not upsetting people who have the upper hand – and just may use it against you if pressed. I have a feeling my boys are going to take their cues from their daddy on this one. Perhaps that’s best. Blessed are the meek.

things to do on a frigid day (or week)

The great polar vortex has descended on the Midwest and you’re hunkered down at home with the kiddos for yet another day so cold that school’s cancelled and outdoor play isn’t a real option. Make a list of all the household chores you’ve been procrastinating on and allow everyone to choose a task or two that they’d most like to do. This is how we got snow shoveling done right quick – my boys clearly prefer outdoor work to the indoor stuff. (Of course, they also took the opportunity to roll around in the snow before coming back inside.) Once you’ve got the work done – or at least made good progress on your list – go ahead and enjoy the rest of the day.

1. Make some aqua rocks. Just add a few drops of food coloring to a balloon, fill it with water, and set it outside. Once frozen, remove the balloon and enjoy the pretty shapes and colors (from the window).

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2. Write a good old-fashioned letter, and have your kiddos write one too. My boys wrote their one out-standing thank you note, and I filled up the rest of the space in the card. A letter a day is a good goal.

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3. Use this as an opportunity to bake. Choose one of those baking projects you never seem to have time for in a typical week. For example, make some soft buttered pretzels. (Ours were tasty, though not as photogenic as the ones on the King Arthur website.) Then, pull out those canned cherries that have been neglected in the back of the cupboard. Mix in some cornstarch and sugar and place them in a pie crust. Bake until your home smells wonderful.

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4. Play board games for as long as you like. Then make up your own games. If you’re so inclined, use your Lego bricks to inspire some intense role plays. Or just admire your kids’ Lego creations.

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5. Read. Finish up all those library books that are in your to-read stack. Then check out your library’s online resources. If you’re blessed with a library like ours, you may have even gotten an email touting their “Top Five Resources for Snow Days.” Read it in its entirety and choose one option to explore in depth.

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6. Put on some fun music and move to the beat. Everyone needs to get their wiggles out somehow.

7. Put everyone to bed early and let them sleep late. Wake up, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and repeat.

the beauty of a shared story

Parent-teacher conferences are as close as you get to a performance review for your parenting, my sister with older children used to say. If that’s case, my husband and I got two glowing performance reviews last week, one for each son. (Though I tend to agree with the sentiment that our children are not our report card.) Among the things I’ve thought about most from conferences was a comment our son’s fifth grade teacher said after she listened to him read aloud: “I can tell he’s been read to.”

I’ve been reading aloud since my oldest was an infant. It’s nice to have this affirmed, but the sad thing about her comment is the implication that reading aloud to one’s children seems to be an anomaly in this digital age. On more than one occasion when subbing, I’ve observed a child about whom I could say, “I can tell he’s NOT been read to.” It’s the child who can’t sit still for a story, the one whose attention is only sustained when there’s a screen in front of him. It’s the child who has told me, “I hate reading” and the one who has said, “Blacks don’t read.”

I read aloud to introduce my kids to stories they may not naturally pick up on their own. I read aloud because there’s a connection that comes from sharing a story (and I’m glad that people like Kate DiCamillo are talking about it.) One never ages out of listening to a story. This is why in our home we nearly always have a read-aloud book in progress.

numbering my days

Last Thursday the 11-year-old and his 8-year-old brother had been bickering, wrestling, leaping over laundry baskets, and skidding to a stop just inches before crashing into the table with all the houseplants. I love my children, but sometimes they’re easier to be around in small doses. “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested after dinner. It was sunny, nearly 70 degrees, and past the halfway point in October. Such beautiful fall days are not going to be around much longer.

“Let’s walk in the cemetery,” my husband said as we neared the hole in Elmhurst’s chain link fence. We turned in and made our way to the paved trail as our boys ran circles around us. Literally. It’s not easy to walk with someone running in front of you every few steps. This walk wasn’t making me less irritated, as I’d expected it would. I tried to focus on the positive.  

Then I tried distraction. I glanced to the right and read one of the gravestones: “Russell Fox 1905 – 1916.”

“Look, there’s a gravestone for Russell Fox – he only lived to be 11 years old,” I said aloud.

“That’s my age,” our older son said.

Did Russell have the same boundless energy? Did he argue with his brother hourly? Did his mom ever grow weary of his antics? How sorely she must have missed him once he was laid to rest… The circling didn’t stop, even though their daddy had asked them to quit running in front of us like that. I walked in a zigzag fashion to try to throw them off, but it only made them laugh more – and keep circling, sometimes around me, sometimes around their daddy, sometimes around both of us. I was glad that they were happy. How come I wasn’t?

“Let’s go look at the leaning tree – let’s see if it’s still standing,” my husband suggested. It’s the tree that defies gravity, leaning at such an angle you’d think it may fall any second. We talk about it – marvel at it, even – every time we walk through Elmhurst Cemetery.

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But then when we look at if from another angle, that same tree seems pretty normal. 

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It reminds me that things aren’t always as they appear, that the same thing viewed from different perspectives can look very different. Just like my boys’ circling game. It was fun for them. It wasn’t hurting anyone. They obviously had energy to burn – and they’d found an amusing way to do it, much safer than roughhousing.

The “tipping tree” was still standing. Shortly after we passed it, another gravestone caught my eye. It was inscribed with Psalm 90: 12 “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

“Numbering” my days means I should recognize how few there are – and spend them well. It means I should savor this moment, spending a beautiful fall evening with people I love. Our kids are happy and healthy, thriving at school, and a blessing to our home. They make life much more interesting, even fun most days.  

Tips to Get Your Kids Talking about School

The following is an article I wrote for my sons’ school newsletter.

One way parents demonstrate the importance of education to their children is by talking with them about school. Some children volunteer information about school readily, while others need a bit of encouragement to get them sharing. Following are some suggestions for getting the conversational ball rolling. It may only take one question, or it may take a few, but once your child gets started, hold off on additional questions for the moment and let him or her direct the conversation. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Sometimes it can be as simple as asking your children to tell you about any artwork or take-home papers that come home in their backpacks. I often ask my kids to reread Scholastic News (ignoring any protests about already having read it) and then we use that as the basis for a discussion.

Use books as conversation starters. Pick up a book about school from the public library and read it together. Even upper elementary learners benefit from being read to. Picture books are “everybody” books – don’t let your bigger kids tell you otherwise. Some good books set at school that we’ve read recently include Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser and A Letter to My Teacher by Deborah Hopkinson.

Model talking about your day. Tell them something that happened to you today and then give your child a chance to share. By talking about your interests, challenges and joys, you are providing models of what you’d like your kids to share with you.

Ask specific, open-ended questions. Try out some of the ones below if you’re looking for new ideas:

What book did your teacher read aloud today?

Whom did you sit by at lunch?

What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?

Who made you smile today?

What is your teacher’s most important rule?

Which person in your class is your exact opposite? How or why?

Tell me something you learned about a friend today.

What did you do at recess?

How would you rate your day on a scale from one to ten? Why?

What was the hardest rule to follow today? Why?

What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?

Whom do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet?

When did you feel proud of yourself today?

What challenged you today?

 

 

 

 

a snack and a poem

Recently I pulled out a box of alphabet crackers and suggested each person write a poem using the letters on his crackers. (We’re finding creative ways to avoid summer slump in our household.)

So my ten-year-old got the letters G, L, A, V, W, P, and M. He used each one to begin a line of his poem:

George

Limped

Away and then a

Vulture with a club

Whacked him on

Purpose. A typical

Monday for George.

 

paying attention on purpose

Earlier this month, we went camping at Lake Byllsby Regional Park. Our ten-year-old started lobbying for leaving the campground once breakfast was over that first morning. He didn’t want to spend another night in a tent and told me so in as many different ways as he could think of. (One thing this boy has going for him is that he’s persistent. Just like his daddy.) When it started feeling like nagging, I said firmly that we’d reserved our site for two nights and had no reason to hurry back home. I wasn’t going to debate it further.

We walked along the trail past the hydroelectric substation, looking for the source of the sound that had lulled us to sleep the night before. Soon the waterfall came into view, and a bridge to cross over it. We stopped for several minutes on the bridge to watch the water rushing downward, turning the turbines as it tumbled over them and continued on its way. A smaller falls off to the left had algae growing behind it, its brilliant green especially pretty in the morning light. Then we turned to admire the work of an orb spider. “That would make a great picture,” my son said pointing at a web glistening as the sun hit it at just the right angle.

“I don’t know if we could capture it that well with our camera,” I said, considering the limitations of our small Cannon Powershot. “Let’s just enjoy it right now.” We studied the web glistening with dew drops for a few moments more and then continued our walk.

For that short period at least we were fully present in the moment.  We were practicing mindfulness, a term introduced by the psychologist in the family. Mindfulness is about keenly observing and appreciating where you are and what you are doing right then rather than (if even just in your mind) rushing to the next thing. Paying attention on purpose is a skill I need to develop right along with my kiddos.

Many opportunities to practice mindfulness have come up since that camping trip, including

Being in a house so quiet we can hear the clock tick

Spending an evening with nieces and nephews at camp

Watching the boys skip rocks on Lake Superior

Picking the day’s harvest from our community garden

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Biking home from the library together

Touring the governor’s mansion (with less than enthusiastic kids in tow)