Another reason why winter needs to end #SOL19 6/31

Tonight, my son’s friend stayed for dinner because we were having homemade pizza. Afterwards, the boys played on their devices for longer than I meant to allow. As I shooed him out the door – homework! bedtime! – I filled his arms with his iPad, the book he wanted to borrow, and a dozen fresh eggs for his mother. I asked if he had gloves. No. I reminded him to be careful. Ok. Could he manage all these things? Yes. Say hello to your parents. Goodbye!

He left.

A few minutes later, my phone buzzed. His father:

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I’m blaming the enticing snow banks, not the 10-year-old. After all, winter will end before the kids grow up.

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Country girl? #SOL19 3/31

This summer my sister and I stayed at my dad and stepmom’s lake house for a week while they went camping with our children. It was delightful. I have been a city girl for a long time now, so I relished my time in the “country.”

Since the grandparents had all the kids, my sister and I generously did a few chores during our week off. We watered the plants, tidied the house, fed the cat, did all the laundry we could find, even went through old canned goods and got rid of the ones that were seriously expired.

But no one had said anything about the chickens. And clearly living creatures needed to be looked after. So… how much do you feed chickens? How often? We didn’t want to bother our stepmother, the main chicken keeper, and we really didn’t want them to come home early with all the kids, so the internet was our friend. At no point did we pause to realize that our extremely competent stepmother probably did not leave her beloved chickens to starve while she was gone.

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Chickens are fun to watch.

Once we’d finished our basic research about chicken feeding, I let myself into the coop, confident that I could handle this chore. As I entered, I noticed that the top of the wire mesh roof was covered in rotting leaves, and I decided to clear the leaves as an extra bonus to my super-daughter work. I started poking and pushing at the decaying debris and, of course, it rained down all over my head, into my eyes, onto my shoulders, and right down into my bra because, of course, I was wearing sundress. As I stood there, covered in itchy, smelly leaf rot, the thought “I am not stupid. Why did I do this?” ran through my head.

I probably should have just left the coop then, but I was worried about those chickens, so I brushed off what leaf pieces I could and continued with my mission. It turned out that the chickens had a feeder, so I assumed they had enough food, but what about water? I looked around the coop – my stepmother is no slouch: these chickens have multiple rooms – and eventually found a small water bottle. It honestly looked like something I’d put on a hamster cage, not nearly big enough for four chickens, but I filled it anyway. Still, I continued to worry: there was no way that was enough water. I noticed the chickens milling around a white bucket precariously perched on some cement blocks. A water bucket! When I looked in to check the water level, I noticed lots of green mold growing inside, so… I decided to continue my super-daughter act and clean it. I was still wearing my cute sundress.

How hard can it be to clean a water bucket for chickens? I looked up at the mess of hoses attached to the garage spigot. There were at least five along with some sort of crazy thing that you move around to make water flow out of one hose or another according to your needs. But, they were just hoses, how hard could it be? About five minutes later, after some curses and some water spraying in unexpected directions, I finally managed to get water into the bucket. The mold did not come off. I made the hose spray harder. The water rebounded out of the bucket and all over me, but the mold held on.

At this point my city thinking clicked in, and I went inside, got a kitchen sponge to clean the bucket, noticed the dish soap, and grabbed that, too. And, voila!, my city solution worked: the bucket was clean. Hooray! I stood back to look proudly at my handiwork and had a terrible thought: Are chickens sensitive to dish soap? I had no idea. I did a very thorough rinse of the bucket.

This process took at least 15 minutes, and the chickens glared accusingly from their coop the entire time. They knew that I had no idea what I was doing. I had taken their water and was clearly incompetent. They clustered around the door, watching, waiting, judging.

Triumphantly returning the chickens’ glares, I returned to the cage and placed the now-clean, thoroughly rinsed, and completely refilled water bucket on the uneven cement blocks. And it leaked. A lot. Water went everywhere. The chickens were visibly delighted, clucking and pecking at the wet ground, at the stream of water, at my toes. I repositioned the bucket. No dice. I fiddled with the spouty-bit that was supposed to let the water out only when they pecked at it. More water flowed, and the coop turned into a muddy mess.

Finally, soaked, rotten leaf debris still in my hair and bra, sweat running down my back and cleavage, and flip-flops covered in mud from the mess I’d made in the coop, I gave up. My stepmother was returning tomorrow. I would just have to ask how to take care of chickens.

P.S. She had left the coop completely prepared for her absence, and I had broken the water bucket beyond repair. She made a new one and I haven’t been in that coop since.

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Group work?

They are building a car powered by a rubber band. Although, to be clear, I’m not sure I should be using the word “they” in that sentence. A loose agglomeration of human beings of roughly age 10 are working on an assignment in the vicinity of one another. That about sums it up.

My son says that “the girls” took over and would not listen to him. His solution? Stop helping. At least one of the girls reported to her mother that “the boys” were just fooling around and didn’t do any of the work. The result? One girl and one boy are in my kitchen the night before the project is due, hot-gluing household items onto two entirely different cars neither of which reliably covers the required three metres. They plan to let the “group” vote on which one to use tomorrow. Both sides agree that the vote will likely divide along gender lines.

 

Every adult I’ve spoken to about this (because this group project has lasted for at least 10 painful days and other parents of other groups are equally put-upon) either rolls their eyes or laughs and says, “well, they might as well learn early what group work is really like.” And, though I wish it were otherwise, I more or less agree. I don’t have fond memories of group work from my school days. Heck, I even hate the group work I’ve had to do as an adult in my online courses. It’s hard for me to remember the synergy of a group of people, focused and contributing, creating something together that they simply couldn’t do on their own. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s transformative. Nevertheless, that’s not what I think of when I hear “group work.”

In the case of the rubber band car(s), I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to blame the teacher: clearly the group work wasn’t well-structured, I thought. Teachers need to assign roles, break the task into parts, provide both independent and collaborative outcomes. But that’s kind of blather, isn’t it? I mean, it sort of works, but sort of doesn’t because group work is messy and complicated and often doesn’t lead to where we hoped it would go. Frankly, I assign group work only rarely, usually using the excuse that I need to “assess individual outcomes.” (Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth astonish me.) So I doubt that the group problems here really stem from the way the teacher assigned things.

But here I am. The kids are asleep, the cars are as done as they are going to be, and I’m wondering why the heck their project is bothering me. As I write, I keep trying to take the easy route, to switch gears to talking about my own classroom and jump right into “I’m going to assign more group work! I’ll research it, and I’ll do it better!” but I’m pretty sure that’s not the reflection I need.

How well do I work in groups? Do I “accept various roles”? Do I take over, listen to others or simply give up? What is a “good” group? What is the responsibility of the individual? How important is group work anyway?

I’m surprised by my ambivalence about the whole thing, but my thoughts keep returning to those two different cars limping towards the three-metre-mark, and I can’t help but wonder what that group needed to change to make one excellent car.

 

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My evening soundtrack

You must eat real food!
If you’re not off that computer in 5 minutes…
No. More. Handstands.
Wheat Thins alone do not constitute a healthy lunch.

It’s late, and I’m tired. I lost my temper with my children earlier this evening over the myriad phrases I’ve said a thousand times. Too often, these shrill phrases feel like the soundtrack of my evenings. By the time bedtime arrives, I am so frazzled that I’m not sure I can outlast the children. Of course, I have no choice, so I continue.

Upstairs we settle into my bed, and the younger one reads out loud in French. A year ago he could barely do this; now even when he stumbles, he corrects himself and goes on. He is concentrated and sure. Next, I read aloud. The boys ask questions, move around, clip their toenails, draw, get water, but mostly they listen. Sometimes, like tonight, the book leads us to unexpected discussions about things like what is a sijo and what makes one poem better than another. (Thank you, Jason Reynolds, for putting poetry in Miles Morales: Spider Man.) No matter how frustrating the evening has been, as we read aloud, the complaints fade away and we find ourselves together in a new place. I read and I read. The boys almost always ask for one more page…

And then, I snuggle the 8-year-old into and sing to him. Three lullabies. Every night. We say goodnight and he smothers me with kisses, triumphantly exclaiming, “I win!” I have to respond, “You always win!” and am rewarded with his giggle as I turn off the light and move into his brother’s room. There, my newly-serious 10-year-old says, “Would you like to have a conversation? What would you like to talk about?” and we snuggle in for five more minutes of murmured chitchat.

Lights out and I the stairs creak as I head back to the kitchen. Brief silence followed by sudden gratitude that my evening soundtrack is richer and more varied than I originally thought.

 

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I didn’t forget, I just didn’t remember

Is it really only Tuesday? How is that possible?

I was sick this weekend – completely exhausted – and didn’t get through the stack of work that I had planned to do: end of semester marking and reviewing, exam prep, report writing… I had been hoping to come into this final week really on top of things. Well, that didn’t happen.

In fact, I ended up staying home yesterday, and every teacher knows that sick days create lots of work. I had a little time between naps on Sunday to prep work for my classes and send it in. Then I tried to work while I was home yesterday – to make up for not working on the weekend – but I wasn’t especially effective.

All of this might explain how I forgot that this morning was our (weekly) Tuesday meeting. And why I hadn’t quite printed out the article I’d promised my students. And why I forgot my own book at home – but hey, I managed to print that article during reading time. (Yes, that’s cheating; yes, the students noticed.)

But the worst of it is that I completely forgot that a friend was coming to town tonight and that I had invited him to dinner. I remembered it *last* week, but I was shocked to see his text “Everything on time – boarded” as I walked in the door this afternoon.

Um…

So, about that dinner…

I thought fast, started some rice, pulled out chicken satay (thank goodness my husband cooked this weekend), and checked the cupboard for wine. My darling husband came home earlier than he had planned, picked up a pie on the way, and created a salad once he got here. My children helped me clean (there was wood carving happening in the kitchen; there was a conch shell on the table; there was laundry in the living room) and even set the table. By the time I got back from the airport, guest in tow, you would never have known that I had only sort of remembered this long-planned event.

We had a lovely evening. And then, after he was safely dropped off at his hotel, I remembered one more thing: it’s Tuesday – the blog!

Some days are like that. I’d love to say I got it all done, but given how much I’ve forgotten today, I’m just throwing in the towel and going to bed.

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I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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Author love

My 10-year-old just wandered downstairs to get a book. Specifically, he came for Calvin and Hobbes. I can always tell when he’s reading Calvin and Hobbes because his giggles infuse the house; it’s not necessarily ideal bedtime reading. 

I have no doubt that he wanted the book, but I think he also wanted to know what I was up to because I had refused to read one more chapter tonight even though the title of the next chapter is “The Basilisk” and even though we are pretty sure the dragon has unwittingly settled down for sleep in the basilisk’s cave. (Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke, in case you’re wondering.) Normally I’m a pushover for “one more chapter,” so he really needed to know what had called me away. What could be more important than reading?

“You’re writing,” he observed nonchalantly, reading over my shoulder. “What do you write about?” I explained the idea of a slice of life and confessed that I was stuck tonight. He had a few suggestions for topics, including favourite books. His faves include the Spy School series and, he thinks, probably the Dog Man series because “even though they’re easy to read they are really funny.” But his favourite of all is The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It took us a while to read that one aloud, but both of my children were rapt throughout. As he recalled the story, he remarked that he also really loves Witch’s Boy and Iron-Hearted Violet, also by Barnhill. In fact, I think Kelly Barnhill is the first author he has fallen for. He likes his series, but he loves Barnhill for her style and storytelling.

On a whim, we looked up her website – perfect activity for a parent procrastinating writing and a kid avoiding bed. Her tagline reads, “Author, teacher, mom. Newbery medalist. Terrible gardener. Maker of pie.”

“Mom!” he practically shouted, “you’re a teacher and a mom, too. Maybe you could write a book.” He paused, then mused under his breath, “And she makes pies. That’s really good. Grandma makes pies. That’s good.” He leaned in towards my computer and we began to peruse Barnhill’s site.

“She’s writing MORE books! I hope they come soon. I wonder what they’ll be about. I like the titles.” He was so wiggly with excitement that he did a kind of tap dance around the kitchen table. (He will be unhappy if he reads this. He will say he did NOT dance. Twirled around my chair? Moved his whole body with excitement in a little circle?)  He stopped,  suddenly serious. “Is she a New York Times bestseller? She must be a New York Times bestseller. Can you look?” I asked him why this mattered. “Because that means that so many people like her books. They know about her.” His eyes were starry with the idea that others might have experienced the magic that he knows.

I was about to suggest that we could write to her when I realized that his head might explode at the mere thought. And it was past his bedtime. So tonight I will hold the brimming potential of his excitement in my heart; tomorrow, together, we will write.

Ah, Kelly Barnhill, and all the writers out there, thrilling the hearts of readers, thanks for the magic.

 

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