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.

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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)

 

now that it’s summer, shall we put these thoughts on the back burner?

“The lights went off in the middle of lunch. That was when the criminals appeared. This is what happened. Everybody screamed, ‘The school is on fire!’ The sound of a rifle echoed across the walls. All of the students ran into the bathrooms to hide. The intruders came in. The kids were cornered.”

This was the start of a story that my fourth grade son brought home from school earlier this year. I asked him about it, but he didn’t want to say much except that the first sentence had been given to the class and they were asked to continue the story. Not long before that, the same son had asked me whether I ever used to feel scared about going to school. My heart felt heavy. How have we gotten to this place where school and violence are so often associated with each other?

In March I claimed a half-day assignment in a second grade class at a school on St. Paul’s east side. Ms. Romo, the classroom teacher, had requested a half day off of teaching to catch up on paperwork and I had taken over her role midday. Just a few minutes after Ms. Romo left the room, a school staff member announced over the intercom that we’d now have a “lockdown with warning.” When they had heard this, the second graders scrambled out of their seats toward the wall farthest from the classroom door. Someone turned out the lights, a few other students started pulling down window shades. Two girls started crying. Actually one had been whimpering ever since she’d come back from the buddy room. There she’d heard from another student that Angel had “almost got kidnapped” during recess, which sounded hard to believe to me, but had sent this young girl into a panic.

There was a knock on the door, only adding to a sense of fear that had been rising in the classroom. They seemed to be afraid that someone was coming for them. Then we heard the key turn in the lock. Ms. Romo entered the room just as emotions were nearing the point of hysteria. I took a deep breath, thankful that a trusted adult could help me calm them down.  

She called them to a circle on the carpet and reminded them that “lockdown with warning” meant they could continue with their regular classroom procedures with the classroom door closed. This was not as severe as “lockdown with intruder,” which required additional safety measures – though she didn’t go into detail about what they’d do differently in that situation. Then she gave them all a chance to share how they felt. She reminded them that they need not get all worked up when they hear a rumor, something that has not been verified. She told them, “You need to trust that the adults at school will keep you safe.”

I wanted to believe her – as I’m sure many of the children wanted to believe her – but hadn’t they heard too many news reports to the contrary? Just the month prior, in Parkland, Florida, 17 people were killed. Not long after this incident, in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, 10 were wounded and 10 killed.  

The New York Times has labeled us “a nation plagued with mass school shootings.” I read that one reporter interviewed a student in Santa Fe and asked if there was a part of her that thought this would never happen at her school. The student responded, “I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.” Who could blame the kids in St. Paul – including my own – for thinking any differently? 

 

thirteen years ago

When we tied the knot, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. (Nobody does, according to my grandma).

Since then we’ve

Said “Good morning” about 4700 times

Eaten over 9400 meals together

Survived 9 years of graduate school 

Bought a house

Witnessed the birth of our two sons

Walked with each other through numerous job-related stressors, including a job from hell (that mercifully lasted less than a month)

Apologized a lot

And learned to keep short accounts

One important gift we can give to our kids is an example of sticking to one’s commitments and being “all in” – even when it’s hard or messy or feelings get hurt. Because the joy that results is worth the effort.

Thirteen years later we both still say, “I do.” With God’s help. No matter what. 

why I won’t abandon the picture book even though my kids think we should

Our ten-year-old has become known for devouring thick books, but he has very definite ideas about what he likes to read. He’s recently made it though the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series and has moved on to Heroes of Olympus. A few weeks ago he was a bit agitated when he was out of said reading material and still had one more day to go before his next library visit at school. His affection for 500-plus page tomes sometimes leaks out as scorn for picture books, a sentiment that his younger brother has picked up on. Not to be left behind, our seven-year-old has also expressed a preference for chapter books. Trouble is, he can’t read too many of those himself.

So, I’ve been adding more chapters to our read-aloud times. I insist the older boy put down his other book when I’m reading a chapter book aloud. He’s been known to express his displeasure about this, but he is often drawn into the story more than he’d like to admit. We recently finished reading Caddie Woodlawn together and both of the boys have brought up topics from it for discussion later. My younger son even retold the Pee Wee story from the book at a recent family story time. (His dad and and an aunt who was here hadn’t heard it before.)

But I’m not ready to give up picture books, so I still scan the shelves at the Rice Street Library during most of our visits. Sometimes I even find a book that pulls both boys in. Last week, I was reading The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt aloud to my seven-year-old, and about half way through, the ten-year-old joined us. He’d been listening, I could tell, because there was no request to turn back or start over. Both boys had had their imagination captured as we read this story set in an “ancient and distant kingdom” in which three great warriors each sought “a worthy challenge” and hoped to prove themselves in “the glory of battle.”

I considered it a victory for the picture book, a subtle reminder of the power of a good story to engage, amuse and provide fodder for conversation.

 

 

snow day(s)

Yesterday, as a sub at my sons’ school, I walked the kids to their buses through about 8 inches of unshoveled snow. I had a pretty good hunch that the roads were a mess. The snow had been falling all day; the plows couldn’t keep up. What ever happened to good old fashioned snow days? (All the pressure from working parents, I know.) Or at at least an early out? (The logistics of staggered school end times in a large urban district, I know. But STILL.)

After seeing all the second graders to their buses, I collected my own sons and prayed that we’d make it home without incident. But my compact car wouldn’t climb the last little hill on Cumberland Street. Too much snow in the street, with just enough slickness underneath to spin and spin. I ended up backing down and turning into the driveway of the apartment buildings across the street from where we live. With steamed up windows and cars waiting for me to get out of the way, I did several turns of forward and reverse, sweating all the while, before finally making it into that driveway. My thought was to drive through their parking lot to Idaho Street so I could approach our house from the west instead. But a stuck car blocked us, that car owner and a neighbor shoveling, trying to drive, shoveling some more… Fed up with driving – or even sitting in a car – I parked by the curb of one of the apartment garages, my older son protesting that we couldn’t just park here without permission.

I told him we’d ask after we got out, which is what I did, flagging down the skid-steer driver who had just cleared the spot where we’d parked our car. He was the grandson of the apartment building owner and I imagined his okay would buy us at least a few hours time. So then we walked the last block home and pulled out our snow shovels. I handed one good shovel to each boy, and I took the old bent up cast off shovel left behind by the previous home owner. The goal was to get the driveway cleared before daddy got home so he could make it up the steep incline and into the garage. We shoveled for about 45 minutes before I brought the boys in, fed them some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, and went back out by myself to finish clearing snow and put some sand on the driveway…

All told, the district’s choice not to close school turned out to be a public relations disaster, complete with stuck buses and stranded students. It’s probably what impacted their decision to close today. We got the robo-call at 9 p.m. informing us school was cancelled for Tuesday.

The boys were already asleep. They found out this morning. “No school today,” we told our ten-year-old, who tends to be the first awake.

“I don’t know if I want to laugh or be disappointed,” he responded.

Then our seven-year-old came out of his room. “No school today,” we informed him.

“WWWWhhhyyyy?” he asked, hurrying to look out the window. There wasn’t any more snow than when he’d gone to bed last evening. And the roads had been plowed. We didn’t need the snow day today as much as we could have used it yesterday, but we’re going to make the most of it.

questions that emerge at the start of winter break

It was 3:30 p.m. on the last day of school before winter break, but the boys hadn’t burst through the door yet, as is their custom when they race in off the bus. I looked out the window and saw them rolling around in the snow. After a bit they brought their backpacks in and let me know they were going back out to play some more. “No throwing snowballs,” I reminded them. (That game had led to tears earlier in the week.) They resorted to playing with sticks. The possibility of this ending well seemed quite small. Why do boys see nearly every object as a potential weapon?

Soon a neighbor boy got off his bus and joined the game. “Hi, Auntie!” he ran over and greeted me when I was walking to the mailbox. “I’m playing while I’m waiting for my sister’s bus.” I smiled. His smiles are contagious. And I like that he calls me “Auntie” even though we’re in not at all related. He ran back to the “stick game” and played until his big sister walked him home. Why are such occurrences of spontaneous play with the neighbors so rare?

While I was making dinner that evening, our first grader informed me that he had no homework. His teacher had told the class that this was her gift to them – no homework. My son’s take on it was, “Seriously? What kind of gift is that? I want homework.” Why can’t this enthusiasm for school last?