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Summer bucket list

It's the first day of summer. We closed the books on 5th grade last week (or actually, Calvin did, I have a lot of record keeping yet to do) and kicked off our summer schedule with a week of choir day camp. Summer isn't necessarily different for homeschoolers, but summer weather in the lovely state of Michigan is a great equalizer: it only lasts while it lasts. So with the kid away all day this week I've been updating records, late-spring cleaning the house, getting a variety of appointments out of the way, and making summer plans following a "what do you want to do this year" interview with my boys that resulted in a summer that looks like this:

Rooftop fireworks in Chicago

Mini golf

The splash park

Visit our zoo

Rolling Sculptures Auto Show

Kayak the river

Finish the local bookstore reading challenge (Calvin)

History of Zelda course with game play

Watch all the Disney movies in order

Can some summer goodness

Stratford, and Jen and Larry's

More fires and S'mores with our home firepit

Take more pictures


10 things I will miss about you (or already do)

Birthday number 11 is in the books, and it's is really just starting to sink in how much time has gone by, and how little time there is left (hopefully) with my little one here at home. Parenting is a hard job. And I don't mean hard as in back breaking. Sure, it is that sometimes, too—The diapers, the sleepless nights, the endless preparation of meals and washing of laundry—but in the end, it's not those things that are hard. No, parenting is hard because if you're doing it right, what you're really doing is spending about eighteen years of your life making yourself dispensable.

When Calvin was little, just a tiny infant I wanted to lose my entire day in, my parents both imparted to me a wisdom that I have held close ever since: from the very first moment, parenting is about letting go. Letting go so they can take their first steps, letting go when you drop them off at their first class or for a first play date, letting go when they take the car out the first time, then when they go to college, and all the little moments between. And each time you let go a little more the space between your heart and theirs lengthens just a little more, pulling first uncomfortably taut, and then, hopefully, slackening again to a comfortable normal. And if you've done it right, in the end neither of you will need those strings at all to exist in a comfortable orbit. 

But the growing up and the letting go happen so gradually most of the time that it's easy to not notice the little changes, and there are many lasts that have already passed us by without my noticing or documenting them. That's life. It can't all be documented any more than it can be stopped or held onto. In the end we're left with memories, and sometimes not even those, but the ones we keep close help us through the letting go and the moving on.

(1) The way you said "squirlul" and "elephlant" until you were three or four.

(2) The crazy face. It was a really crazy face.  

(3) The way you cuddled when we read together. We still read together, but you're past cuddling now.

(4) You singing along with me when I sang you songs like "Leaving on a Jetplane" or "You are my Sunshine" before bed at night.

(5) The weight of your body curled against mine when I carried you. The last time I did this was five years ago. You'd fallen asleep in the car on the way home from somewhere, and you were already too heavy for me, but I knew it was a last chance and I took it.

(6) Your tiny voice. It's growing bigger ever year.

(7) The way you blow me kisses when I drop you off somewhere, not once, but several times, as you walk away from the car to whatever activity awaits.

(8) Our prolonged goodnight exchanges between floors. It started with the simple "goodnight, I love you", repeated by us both, but grew to include air kisses and a variety of other phrases called out after I was already downstairs from putting you to bed. It might be a stalling tactic, but then again, it might just be sweet.

(9) The way you carry(ied) your blanket everywhere. Literally everywhere a number of years ago, now just everywhere in the house.

(10) The way you read: in just about every position (rightside up, upside down, sideways, on the floor, on top of the couch...) but not any one of them for long.


10 influential people from my life

All good things must come to an end. We know this truth in life, we just don't always truly know it until we are faced with it, and as this school year closes we are saying goodbye to a man who was not only influential in Jon's life, but thankfully in Calvin's as well. The director (and founder) of the Boychoir of Ann Arbor has been shepherding boys, offering vocal and life training, for thirty years now, and he is retiring. Jon's experience in the Boychoir was important to him, and I feel priviledged to have had the opportunity to meet the man and witness the effects the choir has had on Calvin. Not only has he learned a lot about singing, he has learned a lot about coming together as a group, about honor and tradition, and about shaking hands (strong grip, look them in the eye!).

As we've spent this year, especially the past month or so, saying goodbye to this man who has been profoundly influential for so many, I've spent some time thinking about how formative these years are for children, and the importance of early role models and leaders. And that led me to thinking of my own formative years and the people who saw me through them. Parents aside, of course, because their influence is obvious and special, I have come up with the following ten:

(1) My parents. Yep, let's get the obvious out of the way. I'd say it's a given, but not every child respects their parents or takes their lessons to heart, so I put them first and foremost here because I learned so much from both of my parents, and continue to learn so much from them, that the top of this list is where they belong.

(2) My grandparents, and other extended family members. Another gimme, I'm sure, but my maternal grandmother especially imparted a lot of wisdom that I have carried with me. And beyond verbal lessons, time spent on her hobby farm when I was little I'm sure helped form some of my love for nature. I remember it so vividly. My Godmother taught me to ski like a woman (we have hips!), and later how to sew. My paternal aunt aroused in me a curiosity about my history that fed a later obsession with the broader subject of human history, then evolution. All of my larger family have quietly and influenced who am through our many years.

(3) Early friends (and frenemies). Yes, I realize this is a kind of nebulous list item, but specific names, even the specific people, from so long ago aren't what really matter here as much as the idea of them. The first half of elementary school is a maze of social learning that leads kids down many paths, some of them ending in disaster. I had a few friends who meant the world to me, some who stuck with me, even have stuck with me, through many years, and others who definitely led to hurt. 

(4) The young Authors program at my elementary school. Again, this isn't a particular person, but the program and the team that ran it were invaluable in developing my love for reading and writing. I can't even remember now if it was an in school special, or an after school club type thing, but I remember attending writing workshops where we received encouragement and constructive advice while we exercised our creative writing sides. 

(5) My fourth and fifth grade teacher. She was the kind of teacher who took a personal interest in each and every student. In her class(es, because I had her twice), we put on amazing plays, shared full thanksgiving meals where we learned about etiquette, and earned special Friday night dinners at her house through good behavior. She read aloud to us every day, which definitely deepened my love for reading.

(6) My middle school advanced math teacher. He was terrible—the worst—but I didn't say this list was all about positive influence, it's just a list of the most influential, and he was influential for sure. After a partial year in his class learning, above all else, that math is not, under any circumstances, meant for girls, it took me until my adulthood to regain any confidence in the subject. And you know what? I'm pretty darn good at math.

(7) My high school band director. He was taking no flack from anyone. None. Wasn't having it. And because of that our band was pretty good. But he was also jovial, and very supportive. I definitely remember whole class hours spent discussing important and difficult current issues, and those times were as valuable to our development as the music was. The life lessons I learned in band have never left me (like how to properly hang dress pants on a hanger, for one).

(8) My high school drama coach. Yes I was a band and a drama geek, and it wasn't as IN then as it is now. And it might be that my involvement in the club was as influential as the drama coach himself. I wasn't an actor, I was everything else behind the scenes, and I learned a lot back there, like how to wield a power drill or operate a table saw. Plus you can't beat theater for teaching self respect and confidence.

(9) My high school psychology teacher. This is another one on the list that is not entirely rosy in my memory. He was a difficult teacher, and not particularly nice, but that might be why I learned so much that really stuck with me in that class. I have several "flashbulb memories" of deep discussions in that classroom, including the one that taught me the term "flashbulb memory".

(10) My ninth grade literature teacher. When I got to high school I already loved to read, but my freshman english teacher taught me to read in a different way, opening up a whole new amazing world in my mind. That is a lesson I believe I will keep building on all my life.


10 reasons to include performing arts in (home)schooling

There are all kinds of articles and studies out there right now in support of keeping fine arts in the schools. This comes at a time when the greater push is to improve and intensify academic learning in an increasingly homogenized and student saturated environment, all with fewer funds, so the battle to defend (or, on the flipside, defund) the arts is real, and it's a brutal one. 

A few months ago we were at the GP's for Calvin's anual checkup. His doctor, a young man whom I for speaking to me like an equal and Calvin like a capable human being, went over Calvin's list of "out of school" activities with us. I think he was just curious, or he may have been checking in because he knows that Calvin is homeschooled, and although we seemed to pass any test that might have been administered, we also seemed to flummox him with regards to Calvin's arts involvement. That's a lot of music, he said. It wasn't said with any kind of tone, so I don't know if it was meant as a judgement or merely as an expression of surprise, but it got me thinking. 

Calvin has choir rehearsal twice a week, band rehearsal twice a week, dance class twice a week, and a weekly piano lesson. He participates in anywhere from 2 to 4 theatrical performances a year. We study fine arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, and art viewing) at least twice a week. This is a lot, especially when I see it typed up here in front of me, and by no means do I think this level of involvement is right for everyone. But Calvin does the performing arts the way other kids do sports. He is trying several of them, and the amount of time he dedicates to them over the year is not really more than a child involved in team sports dedicates to those. Yet his involvement in the fine arts elicits a very different response than a child receives who is heavily involved in sports. 

Why this unequal respect for the two main paths of "extracurricular" involvement? Sports are heavily lauded for the benefits they bestow upon their participants, and rightly so. A sense of teamwork, self-respect, and physical fitness are just three of the many important things they are charged with teaching kids, and I don't at all doubt the veracity of those claims. I do, however, think the same things are taught through participation in the performing arts. I read an article recently that urged people to stop defending arts in the schools, the argument being that they need no defense, their value speaks for itself. If that were true, though, the battle for funding and support wouldn't be raging as we speak.

So in defense of performing arts in schooling (home or not), here are some of the things kids will learn or gain from that study:

Self discipline
It won't come right away. It might take years to achieve, in fact, but practice is self-discipline, and all arts require it. I've always told Calvin at the piano that music practice in particular is self-policing. Practice is sitting down to play a small part of a song over and over again until the whole family is going crazy, but you can finally play it right. You can't fake it, it's either right or it isn't. If it isn't, keep practicing. 

The point of practice, or self-discipline, is to perfect a skill. In the days between classes or lessons, kids are responsible for putt their best effort into this achievement. It's a little like homework in that a parent can make a kid sit down and play their scales they way they can make them finish their math, but arts practice is less mechanical in nature, and the resulting achievements are assessed more fluidly. Ultimately, students practicing the fine arts are more responsible for the value of their practice time, and, thus, more fully accountable for their achievements or lack thereof.

The skill of public speaking
This is an obvious benefit from stage performance, but the ability to get up in front of others is taught in any and all performing arts. It's in the performing part. In preparing works to share with others, be they piano songs practiced for recital, or vocal music to be performed in a choir concert, children are learning the skills of selection and preparation with an eye toward communicating with an audience. Then they actually get up in front of that audience. Not everyone who practices performing arts will be a talented public speaker, but I'm willing to bet that they will all at least improve in this area.

Confidence and Self-respect
Similar to the skill of public speaking, kids who go through years of performing arts education gain a level of self respect from lessons learned about preparation and performance. Youth performance environments are designed to be supportive and encouraging. The main goal of youth recitals is to help young performers gain confidence in their skills and in themselves. A secondary lesson is: put your best into it, get your best out of it. Everyone applauds at a child's recital, which is supportive and encouraging, but kid will know when they've truly done their best, and many will learn to respect themselves and the process enough to the work in between.

Nothing is more frustrating than a section of song you can't quite get, or a line you can't remember correctly, or a step you keep tripping on. And nothing is more rewarding than finally getting it right. Practice may not always make perfect, but done correctly it does always improve capability, and that reward teaches perseverance.

Duets, ensembles, stage performances, dance troupes...though many people think of performing arts as producing divas, the truth is that, as in sports, there are more team players in the discipline than individual rising stars. Get your instruments in tune, set up group practices, follow the director as one, don't miss your entrances. Collaboration is key.

Self expression
All kids long for self-expression. We see this in the child singing at the top of their lungs in the shower, or in the three year old screaming at the top of their lungs on the grocery store floor. Performance arts, any fine arts, really, provide a healthy means of self-expression.

Social exploration
Any collaborative approach in any performing art gives kids a common goal and asks them to set differences aside to achieve it. As part of team work, kids will learn ways to overcome social obstacles together. More literally, kids participating in theatrical arts are given the opportunity to play-act a wide variety of social situations. Kids do this on their own in imaginative play, but here they'll do it with the benefit of coaching.

Cultural and global exploration
All of the arts are celebrations of culture and heritage, and many performing arts programs seek out pieces from world cultures for students to try out and learn from. 

Health and fitness
Especially true in theater and dance, but to some extent in all disciplines, the arts require a healthy life style and encourage physical fitness. While this necessity is obvious in dancers, think also of the need for great breath control and capacity in singers and wind instrumentalists, and also posture and fine motor control for all musicians. Piano players have some really strong arms and amazing abs.

Expansion and connection of all other subject areas
We've probably all heard about the studies linking music in particular to improved mental acuity and performance in other subject areas, like math. Reading music can help students improve their language skills as well. But we also try to include music, literature, and visual arts in our history and culture studies as we go. Since the arts are a celebration of culture and heritage, arts through time can be considered primary sources—snapshots in time—and there is a lot to be gained from studying them.


Spring bucket list 2017

Everybody talks about their summer bucket lists, but how many people have must-do lists for other seasons? It's definitely a busy time, especially if your kids are in school, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the many wonderful things about this season of rebirth and growth. Spring is the time to see migrating birds, to start your garden from seeds, to get in lots of outdoor activity before it gets summer hot and sticky. There are lots of great reasons to embrace this time, and here are a few of our favorites:

Start seedlings inside

Plant spring veggies outside

Avian migrators: collect them all!

Listen to the frogs

Go in search of fungi (especially morels!)

Practice wildflower identification

Hike Magee Marsh

Festifools Parade

Play in the rain

And, just before it's over...strawberry shortcake