on lemon pie and other writing quandaries

“How long does it take to make a lemon pie?” my fourth grader came into the bedroom and asked as I was lying there awake but not quite ready to get out of bed and face the new day.

“Oh about an hour – or hour and a half,” I said, thinking that it could vary quite a bit depending on whether it’s got a homemade crust or not. Are we talking about a pudding pie or a lemon meringue pie? I’ve never made either for a long as my son has been around so I wasn’t sure what he was thinking of…

“How about I say an hour? Is that realistic?”

“Yes,” I said, deciding I don’t need to help him over-think it. He returned to his spelling sentences at the dining table and I got out of bed.

Last year I’d read about an author that mentioned writing her first story of length in third grade. She had written a chapter a week using the spelling words she’d been assigned to use in sentences. It was a clever enough idea that I thought it worth passing along to my son. He wasn’t interested in creating such a challenge for himself, but I’d thought it couldn’t hurt to pass along the idea. Who knows whether he might take it up some day…?

When I came to the table with yogurt for breakfast he showed me the sentence he’d been working on, which included the phrase “hot lemon pie.” I told him lemon pie would probably not be served hot. He’d added the adjective to make sure the sentence met the 10-word length requirement, I knew, so I suggested a replacement.

Last month I’d glanced at his spelling sentences. Three in a row contained the word “vary” so I took the opportunity to point out that adding “very” to a sentence usually isn’t necessary. It’s an overused word, and more precise describing words are far more useful. (This was when he had explained that each sentence with a spelling word should contain at least 10 words. “Very” adds to the word count, at least.)

He’s struggled with writing ever since he’s been asked to produce his own prose. He over-thinks it, his teachers often conclude, at the expense of fluency. And every time I hear that it feels like sort of a déjà vu moment, taking me back to my own elementary school writing habit of sitting and staring at a blank piece of lined paper, wanting to writing but knowing that whatever I put down on the page wouldn’t be as good as it could be…knowing that I’d hate it and not want anyone else to read it.

It’s not easy to watch my kids struggle with the same things I used to struggle with (or still do). It’s unsettling to doubt whether my help is truly helpful. Yet it’s provided with the hope that he strives to improve, that in future assignments he chooses to think of a more precise word than “very” or that his imagination would be captured by the idea of weaving all the words into a story.




alphabet forest

Today is day 10 of our 12-day celebration of words at the Minnesota State Fair’s Alphabet Forest.

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Our shaded oasis is all about literacy development, supported by amazing authors and beautiful books. Countless children and other diligent denizens have won words and completed an Alphabet Forest game card in order to earn a blue ribbon.

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Hundreds of volunteers have helped provide the one-on-one interaction with learners of all ages that Debra Frasier envisioned when she designed this shaded oasis for fair goers.


It’s been humbling to lead the whole endeavor. I’m thankful for lots of guidance and support from a committed core group, some of whom have helped keep this place going for eight years. It’s a marathon of a job, that’s for sure, but the positive feedback we’ve gotten has made it all worthwhile.


home cooking

Aunt Betty has a stack of grandma’s recipes. She’s been hanging on to them since her mom down-sized and moved out of the house, I think. The thing is, none of them seem to be the recipes for the things that grandma made the most. Those were the recipes she carried around in her head, I’m guessing, and some of them were never recorded. So when I asked Aunt Betty for grandma’s bread recipe she sent me one that was close – it had the same ingredients that grandma used to use, she’d written – but it wasn’t the exact recipe. I pulled it out Saturday morning and made that whole wheat bread. By the time the smell of baking bread was coming from the oven, I was half done frying the bajiya that we were taking to the community garden potluck.

“Why are you making bajiya for the potluck?” one son asked.

“They said bring a food that represents your ethnic background,” I explained.

“That’s not my ethnic background,” he said. Neither of our boys are fond of bajiya, fritters of ground black-eyed peas spiced with turmeric and coriander.

“Yes, it is. You’re half Somali,” I reminded him.

“Well, it’s not your ethnic background,” he said.

“It’s the one I married into.”

Grandma Wolters did pass along some of her cooking skills, though. Perhaps the first thing she taught me was how to make homemade frosting. She’s the one who taught me how to make gravy too. There was never a recipe we referred to for either one – it was a little of this and a little of that until you got the right consistency and the right quantity. Taste and adjust as needed till it’s just the way you like it. That’s actually how I make most of the foods I grew up eating. But I’m an adventurous eater and crave variety more than anything. So I collect recipes too.

When I first asked my husband how to make bajiya he wasn’t even certain what the main ingredient is, but I found a recipe for it online. Now I make it sometimes for company and sometimes just for us. “It reminds me of my childhood,” my husband has said.

I sometimes wonder what foods my sons will remember from their growing up years. And what foods they’ll know how to make from memory… In case they ever change their mind about bajiya, the recipe will be right there in my recipe box.




lessons from a visit to the farm

Your grandpa’s farm can be a rather intimidating place when you’re six years old and have spent most of your life in the city. But you’re a good sport about it. Not long after you arrived last Monday, Rojo the dog knocked you over a couple of times and left a scratch on your face. So you had reason to want to stay in the house, but your mom sent you back outside with your brother and cousins, reminding you stay close enough to one of the bigger boys who could make sure the dog didn’t knock you over again.

You learned that pigeons get little mercy when they disturb the barn insulation as they’re trying to build a nest. So you got to witness your cousin and uncle shooting some of those birds with a BB gun.

You thought the hay mow, which is essentially off-limits to the dog, would be a good place to hang out. It was, until your shoe got stuck between two of the hay bales somewhere and no one – not your cousins, brother, uncle, aunt or mom – could find it. You learned, as it turns out, that looking for a shoe in among the bales of hay isn’t that much different from looking for a needle in the haystack. So you had to take the sock off the foot with no shoe, and you decided that totally barefoot was better than one shoe off and one shoe on.

While in the hay mow, you got a good look at a cat skeleton, which no one else seemed to want to touch. Apparently you thought it was worth picking up – and swinging around a few times (perhaps to prove YOU weren’t grossed out by it). Nothing like a brief overview of cat anatomy in a natural context.

After the shoe was history, you figured out how to climb to the top of the stack of round bales in the hay shed. You seemed to think that was a good perch and even when your brother decided to find something else to do, you were happy to sit up there and take in the view from 20 feet up. “I know how to get down by myself,” you boasted.

I think it was fair to say that you’d learned a lot that day – the kind of learning a kid gets during summer break.

sharing a feeling

Last week I was subbing in a preschool classroom. Annika was one of the five kids at my table for small group work. Though the other kids had scattered to various play areas after finishing their worksheet, she lingered at the table. “Today after school, I have to say with Nana, but I want to be with my mom,” she said.

“Is your mom working?” I asked.

“Yeah, and she comes back after dark,” Annika said. “She spends a lot of time with her boyfriend. I don’t get to be with her that much.”

“How does that make you feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” she responded.

“Maybe you should tell your mom that,” I suggested.

“I already did,” she said.

“And what did your mom say?”

“She said, ‘Oh, I do spend time with you,'” Annika told me.”But I want to be with her more.”

We sat together for a few moments, that sweet five-year-old and I, each thinking our own thoughts, sharing a similar feeling. I wished I could make it better for Annika. I wish Annkia’s mom realized that her little girl isn’t going to be little for long, in the grand scheme of things, and that she should savor every moment.

The only thing I could offer this little girl was a listening ear – and perhaps a story. “Do you want to read a book?” I asked.

She brightened. “Go get one you like from the bookshelf,” I told her. She came back with the colorful I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and we let the silly, sing-songy story distract us for a bit.




why you should read to your kids even when they can read for themselves

In honor of “I Love to Read” month, here’s a slightly condensed version of an article I wrote for our school newsletter. 

Most parents understand the benefits of reading to their preliterate children, but too often neglect this important pastime once their kids start reading for themselves. In The Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease asserts that reading aloud helps increase a child’s attention span and improve his listening skills.

A child’s listening level tends to be higher than her reading level, which means that you can and should be reading fifth grade books to a child in third grade, for example. By doing so, the third grader can enjoy a more complicated plot than she can read for herself, something she’s ready to hear and understand. Slightly above-level books tend to be motivating for kids – they want to see how the book ends and want to grow in their own reading skills in order to enjoy more complex material.

Reading aloud to kids is also a nonthreatening way to grapple with difficult issues, Trelease suggests. Through the story, your child can experience a certain kind of challenge – with you at his side – and there’ll be an opportunity for you to talk about it together. You can use the story you’re reading as a starting point for a conversation, asking questions such as, “Do you think the boy made the right choice?” and turn it into a coaching session, which will probably stick with your child much longer than a lecture would.

Besides, reading aloud is a great way to spend quality time with your kids. I find that the conversation about a book we’ve read may continue for days after we have read it. It becomes part of our family’s shared experience.

an award that gave us pause for thought

Last week our kindergartener received an award at the school’s first awards assembly of the school year. He was recognized for, “always being a kind friend to others.”

“That sounds like Caleb,” his big brother said when he heard about the award.

“In kindergarten that’s a big deal,” his aunt said. She should know; she’s an elementary school teacher.

“That’s all?” his daddy asked. He was expecting it would have been something to do with academics. Part of me did too. After all, I think our six-year-old is bright, with a sophisticated vocabulary and good number sense for his age. And yet the thing the teacher chose to highlight was his social skills.

In the class I taught this past summer, I brought in an article about how social skills matter more than ever. In it, a professor at Harvard Business School is quoted: “How we value competence changes depending on whether we like someone or not.” The article went on to explain that people lacking in social competence are also perceived as lacking in other competencies.

But I wonder, is it equally true that people possessing social competence are thought to have other competencies too? Is it just us who thought that our son got an award for his social skills because there wasn’t anything else the teacher could identify for which to give him an award? Maybe it’s just that at this point in kindergarten it’s too early to tell what else he excels at.





first days

First day of third grade

We picked up on Tuesday right where we left off last spring, rushing at the last minute to get out the door before the school bus arrived. I grabbed my camera, telling my eight-year-old that we need a first-day-of-school picture. I was still trying to turn the camera on when the bus pulled up. “That’s my bus,” he said, dashing past me to get in line.

I got the battery positioned correctly in the camera so it worked after school, and we got our photo taken then. My son rated his first day “four stars out of five.” Before school started, we had seen his class list and he was concerned because none of the boys he spent the most time with last year were in his class this year. Apparently it turned out to be not as bad as he’d imagined it might be.

First day of PsyD internship

My husband started his pre-doctoral internship on Tuesday as well. It was a day of training and he came home reporting information overload on the online record keeping system they have to use.

First day of kindergarten

“Oh goody. Today is the day I’ve been waiting for,” my 6-year-old said Thursday morning.

“Yes,” I said.

“For many years, actually,” he continued.

I laughed.

“Mom, I’m telling the truth.” I knew he was. When you’re six years old, even two years is “many.” Besides, as the youngest, he is always trying to catch up, always trying to be no less than one step behind his big brother…

After school, the first thing he told me was, “We didn’t – but some people were close to getting kicked off the bus.” Later he reported, “When you’re at school, the first few minutes you feel nervous. That’s what it’s like to start school.”

First day at home alone

“How are you feeling?” my husband asked when he called me just after I saw two boys off to school. I hadn’t cried a bit when the bus pulled away this morning, but I almost teared up when talking to a friend a little later. You know, I told her, when you’re in the thick of the preschool years, there are moments when you feel they’ll never end. Then all of a sudden it’s over.

I turned in my application for a substitute teacher license on Wednesday. They said it may take up to four weeks, but once I’m approved I’m planning to sub two or three days per week. In the mean time, I will enjoy watching the boys together on the bus waving to me through the window as they go on their way each morning. I’m also getting used to returning to a house so quiet you can hear the clock tick.


Ruby Petersen’s homemade granola

I grew up eating cereal for breakfast. Just add milk – which a dairy farm always has on hand – and you’ve got instant breakfast. We had plenty of Wheaties, Total, raisin bran and corn flakes over the years but Dad would buy cereals with a higher sugar content from time to time. I remember arguments about who finished the box of this or that coveted cereal – or left behind only crumbs.

I buy cereal for my kids as well, though I usually stick to the kinds with limited added sugar. Reading the labels on even these seemingly less sweetened cereals is discouraging, however. Do you know how much added sugar there is in a serving of raisin bran? It’s 34 percent of the daily value for added sugar (for an adult). An article in the Wall Street Journal a few months back estimated that, on average, Americans consume 60 percent more added sugar than the maximum 12.5 teaspoons (50 grams) the Food and Drug Administration recommends per day. And their standards aren’t any too strict. Other health organizations recommend just six teaspoons per day. The more I read about the overwhelming amount of sugar consumed in this country, the more limited our cereal options become around here. So my sons have lost interest in cereal. That last box of Aldi brand corn squares I bought has been sitting on the shelf for quite a while. But they did ask about granola a few weeks back…

So I made a batch using a moderate amount of brown sugar. Rather than packing the brown sugar in, I just poured until it reached the top of the measuring cup and left it in there loosely. The granola didn’t taste that sweet before I added the raisins, and I was wondering whether there’d be loud protesting when they ate it. But I didn’t voice my concerns and no one seemed to notice that it was less sweet than usual. I made a second batch last week, and it seems we’ve got a version of homemade granola that we can all live with.

I found the recipe from our old church’s 1994 cookbook. I choose it for the simple ingredient list. I had also heard Ruby Petersen, the recipe contributor, had quite the reputation as a cook back in the day when her husband ran the blacksmith shop near Dad’s homestead. (Her hearty meals were farmer-approved.)

1/2 cup brown sugar (not packed)

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup water

Dash of salt

4 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1 cup wheat germ

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup walnut pieces

2 tablespoons sesame seeds or chia seeds (optional)

3/4 cup flaked coconut

½ cup raisins

Combine brown sugar, oil, water, and salt. Mix well. Add rolled oats, wheat germ, seeds and nuts to a large mixing bowl. Pour the sugar and oil mixture over the dry ingredients, stirring well. Press the unbaked granola into a large rimmed baking sheet or two cake pans. Pressing firmly will help the granola bake into clumps. Bake at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes, stir the mixture, moving the darker edges toward the center but trying not to break up all the chunks. Bake for an additional 25 minutes or until granola is golden brown and crunchy. Cool in the pan and then mix in coconut and raisins. Store in a tightly covered container.

our summer bucket list

This morning we stopped by our community garden spot to pick snap peas before heading to the library. Just-from-the-garden fresh and crisp, those snap peas disappeared in no time. “As sweet as candy,” my older son declared.

At the library, the boys each got to choose a book to keep for completing ten of the reading program activities. Then they participated in a dinosaur scavenger hunt. We checked out a week’s worth of reading material and arrived back home just in time for lunch. There’s much to savor in the simple summer routine that we’ve settled into, and Friday library visits are one of our anchor activities. (During the past three school years, it was just me and the preschooler.)

Summers also afford the chance to do things we may not get around to during the school year. I recently read an article in Minnesota Parent advocating for a realistic summer bucket list. I quite agree that an attainable list of meaningful family experiences and activities is better than an over-the-top list that goes undone. So I’ve written down some of the things that have been and I’d like to see continue to be a part of our summers:

attend VBS

make popicles

complete the library summer reading program

take swimming lessons

memorize a psalm

grow our own tomatoes

go camping

check out a new swimming spot

read one of the Chronicles of Narnia

participate in a Lego Mini Build

send the boys to Camp Clair

bake zucchini bread (because there is nearly always someone who wants to pass along one of those “too-big-to eat” monsters and we can only eat so many zucchini fritters)

We’ve already completed – or have in progress – about half of these. My plan is to hang on to this list for inspiration as we move in to the second half of the summer.

What’s on your summer to-do list?