Success: Kids, Lead the Way!

I’ve been living in a state of amazement the past few days. I’m sure that has something to do with snowmageddon, or Winter Storm Stella, which dropped record amounts of snow in my area. It’s no exaggeration to state we got close to three feet of snow within a 24-hour period. We’ve been digging, digging, digging. The cars are once again visible and the driveway is clear, and I can finally come in and warm myself by a fire. Stella was incredible, but my thoughts the last few days have been about my kids and their Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team, who just recently took first place in their regional competition on March 11.

My daughter is coloring; my son is gluing balsa wood. They are busy and independently self-directed for the moment, and I can write for the first time in a very long time. Life is hectic when you homeschool and coach an Odyssey of the Mind team. Our homeschool team is comprised of six members, a five-year-old still in PreK, two 2nd graders, two 3rd graders, and a 5th grader. My daughter is the youngest, and despite her age, she is quite a performer! Despite the eclectic age differences of our entire team, they worked well together and entered a division 1 (grades 3-5) competition in the Ready, Set, Balsa, Build problem… and won, beyond any of our expectations! They have earned the right to compete in the state tournament on April 8. It took me a few days to get over my disbelief, but now I think it’s time to be proud of what this team has accomplished.

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I won’t give many details, as it is against OM rules to share a team’s unique solution to a problem before world finals are over, but I can give you an overview of the problem they chose. Problem 4 this year is called Ready, Set, Balsa, Build. For this problem, teams were required to build a structure out of balsa wood and glue that can hold as much weight as possible. The structure must be at least 8” tall and it must weigh no more than 15 grams. The teams were also required to use certain sets of predetermined wood lengths and amounts (IE: six pieces of 2” long, two pieces of 8” long, etc.). The teams were also required to present a unique performance that dealt with the theme of precision. During that performance, the teams are required to build a large-scale replica of the balsa wood structure out of trash items, and one other creation of their choice.

Our team received high marks from the judges for all elements of their solution, and their structure was able to support every single weight that was available during the competition. Officially, their structure held 417.5 lbs. of combined weights that were placed during the 8-minute time limit. I have no idea what kind of weight limit is typical for division 1 teams, or what the record is. Most of the information out there is for division 2 and 3 teams. All I can say is that the structure our kids brought to competition this past Saturday far outperformed any of their test structures. Over the past several months leading up to the competition, our kids built many test structures before settling on a final design, and they used those test structures to practice choosing and placing weights, and also to get an idea of what weight limit they could expect. In fact, they expected the structure to break within the first half of the competition, and had even written dialogue for their team member who was placing the weights on the structure. I have to give the performers credit for improvising the last minute of their performance and ending it differently than expected. Even though some of them were caught a little off guard, they all handled it quite well!

Before I go any further, I need to say thank you to NYSOMA Region 21 for including us, as homeschoolers. Our own region would not. Everyone working to make this regional event a success was friendly and dedicated. The regional director is tireless and never once hesitated to answer any of my questions. I am in awe of the many volunteers who helped us register and the judges who volunteered many hours of time to train and officiate the competitions. Thanks is also due to the host school in Canajoharie for providing an amazing space for the competition and allowing the teams to use the classrooms as a home base for the day. We had such a good time, and are very thankful for the opportunity to be part of this community!

Odyssey of the Mind was a memorable part of my school days and I always knew that I wanted my children to have this type of creative problem-solving experience. The school district where we currently live does not participate in OM, so even if my kids were in traditional school, they would not have the opportunity. I began asking questions about forming a homeschooling team several years ago, and my region chose to ignore me completely. Last year, I reached out to OM on the state level and started to get some answers. Ultimately, I was directed to region 21 with the assurance that we would be welcomed. I remember hesitantly emailing the director, and not expecting a response. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail the very next day filled with welcoming words and excitement about our inclusion. From that moment on, we became the Homerkinds, the name we chose for our “district.”

Last year, our first Homerkinds team, an eccentric assembly of homeschooled kids ranging from 1st grade to 5th grade, competed and took third place for a problem in which they had to design and maneuver a vehicle. But after watching other teams compete in the balsa wood problem, they knew right away that that’s what they wanted to do the following year.

This year’s balsa wood problem was actually a perfect fit for our team. It seemed that there were elements suited to each member’s strengths. And for my third grade son, building is well within his wheelhouse. After testing the team’s first round of test structures, the team designated my son to be the primary builder of the competition structure. It didn’t seem to affect him when I told him that I too had once built a balsa wood structure for an Odyssey of the Mind competition…. And that it broke under the weight of only the crusher board! (The crusher board is a thick piece of wood that must go on top of the structure before any weights can be added.) Unlike me, however, my son has a slow and steady approach to building. I can’t watch him; I get impatient! He gets better with each structure, and learns from each mistake.

The spirit of Odyssey of the Mind is “…hands on for kids. Hands off for adults.” As homeschoolers, our kids have an advantage because they tend to be independent workers and thinkers to begin with. I think adults tend to underestimate the abilities of children. Many feel that children need to be guided and shown the “right” way to solve a problem. But OM doesn’t work that way. Children are the leaders, the thinkers, the solvers. It’s beautiful! One only has to eavesdrop on a group of children engrossed in their own game to appreciate how well they work together and how creative they can be as they embody different characters and personalities, devise rules of conduct, and interact with each other using various voices and dialogue. As homeschoolers, our kids tend to have more time and freedom to interact in this way without the strict oversight of adults. For OM, it’s our job as coaches to help facilitate an environment where this natural form of creativity can be directed toward specific problem criteria. And as homeschooling parents, there is definitely more time to do this.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments when this freedom usurps productivity! Some days it’s like: Why can’t you just get that prop done??? You just took every box in the house and an entire roll of duck tape to build a 200 square foot elaborate Nerf fort and you can’t even apply a coat of paint on your prop!?!? I guess it’s all in how you define productivity.

Our children are often learning from real life experiences, and less from textbooks and other scripted sources of learning. Our days aren’t focused on preparing for tests, or following an ultra-rigid schedule. We have the freedom to shift our schedule around to accommodate a quick last minute spontaneous practice or an all day prop building session.

While we may not aid the kids in developing a solution to their OM problem (IE: we are not allowed to give them ideas or do any of the work), we may adapt our curriculum to strengthen certain concepts or advance certain skills, as long as our lessons aren’t directly related to telling the kids how to solve their OM problem. For example, for math we might take extra time focusing on measuring using a ruler and discussing fractions. We might research structural engineering and look at how it is employed in building various forms of architecture, bridges, or towers. We don’t shy away from discussing big terms like compression strength and tensile strength, and we encourage our kids to learn more about anything with which they are unfamiliar. Because real life is such a major component of our days, we might pause and reflect on the cell tower we just passed and why the builders were able to make it so tall. We might talk about the geometry of a bridge we just crossed and how it works to give the bridge such strength when carrying a load.

When our kids collected every sort of glue they could find in our houses, we turned their desire to find the strongest one into a science experiment that they led. They cut balsa wood into equal pieces and glued two pieces together butt to butt, using different glue for each one. We encouraged them to make predictions before testing these experiments. They took turns placing small weights in a basket hanging from the joint, and they recorded their findings to compare them scientifically! Through their own curiosity, they could make an informed decision what type of glue they would use! This type of curiosity became a fundamental guiding force throughout the journey to competition day.

While our kids were preparing themselves for regional competition, I found that I was plagued by the private thought: I hope they did that good enough. I remember thinking to myself it doesn’t look like this structure is going to be as good as the one he tested. I have no explanation for my thinking except that I tend to be a worrier!

Now they are preparing once again, this time for state competition. My son has decided to build a new structure as he feels the other may have been compromised by the weights even though it never broke. Our kids would like to rehearse some more because they felt they didn’t set up quickly enough. And spontaneous ALWAYS needs more practice. But now as they prepare, I find myself with different thoughts and more trust in their abilities. Now, I confidently think I know they will do just fine! I suppose I am learning and growing, just as much as the kids.

My son told me the yesterday as he was painstakingly gluing some of the first pieces for his new structure, “Mom, I actually don’t mind doing this. I’m really good at it, and I’m glad the team choose me to be the builder.”

I told him I was so proud of him.

He added, “I don’t deserve all the credit. I don’t do everything. My teammates deserve a lot of the credit for their hard work.”

He’s right.

Pancake Dreams, Childhood Memories

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There were two things I never experienced knowingly until I went to college: fake butter, and fake maple syrup. Furthermore, whether you call them pancakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, most of us share the same image of this popular American breakfast dish. This was not the case for me.

We called them pancakes. We ate them for breakfast. But in fact, I grew up eating crepes. My grandmother learned to make them for my French grandfather; my father took over the tradition, and today for the first time in quite a while, I am returning to it. I haven’t made crepes in ages, but yesterday the craving took me over, and I realized that the “pancakes” that were commonplace in my household were foreign to my children.

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stack of homemade cornmeal pancakes, my son’s favorites.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good American pancake! We make them all the time with variation: whole wheat, buttermilk, cornmeal, white light & fluffy, and so on and so forth. Growing up, eating thick pancakes was a novelty, in which we would daringly engage at a diner (almost always disappointing), or at a friend’s house where the concept of chocolate chip pancakes or pancakes from a box was an uncontemplatable yet delicious sin. But back to the real story…

There was never a recipe. We learned by watching the various ingredients go into the blender, and we appreciated the results with the first bite from that thin little pancake with the perfect balance of creamy tenderness and golden crispiness. My grandmother wielded two small non-stick skillets in her house and she would make crepes in tandem. My father’s pan of choice, and mine as well, is a low-lipped cast iron frying pan, perfectly seasoned, never washed, and used exclusively for crepes.

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My cast iron crepe pan

The tradition, however, was the same in both households. Crepes in my family are served fresh and hot, and eaten right away while they are still at their most delicious. Whether we were offered “pancakes” for breakfast or we requested them, the system worked as follows: The quickest child would claim the first pancake, even with the knowledge that sometimes the first one would not be sheer perfection while the pan temperature was adjusted and the cast iron fine tuned its seasoning with the current flame. The claim was staked by simply shouting “I get first!” In turn, someone would call second, and the last child (there were three of us), would obviously be third. At my grandmother’s, she would make crepes just for us, perhaps eating one for herself at the end. When my dad made crepes, he worked furiously providing crepe after crepe, with my mom in fourth place, and my dad eating his fill only if there was a lull in the lineup or if we had all eaten our fill.

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The lineup of plates in the crepe serving frenzy

It wasn’t that we each ate in isolation. The flurry of activity in the kitchen meant that we essentially ate together, moving from table to the serving lineup and back again, keeping our place and the system running smoothly, with only occasional arguments about who was next.

Looking at recipes and uses for traditional French crepes, there is no doubt that our crepes and how we eat them have been hybridized. I am not afraid to add a hint of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt to my recipe. We enjoy them ladled with melted butter and authentic maple syrup. Bon appetit!

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Wheat, a journey of pride

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Yesterday, I ground wheat berries from our own harvest! My family and I have been experimenting with the highs and lows of growing our own supply of hard red winter wheat. This is our second harvest.

We’re not farmers by any means, just a family on a journey to self-reliance with a passion for food that is homegrown and natural. We went into this knowing the labor and agreeing that we were not going to invest any money in fancy equipment. We’ve made many mistakes and learned from each one. Our original 1/32 acre plot has since grown to a whopping 1/8th of an acre (and switched locations to allow the original plot to rest). I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the labor, the trial and error, when I can order a 50 lb. bag of hard red wheat berries online for a very reasonable price.

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hard red winter wheat berries, harvested late summer 2015

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it in my opinion. To grow something, to await the wonder of germination from something in stasis and ostensibly barren of life, never ceases to amaze me. After planting our winter wheat in late September, days later we witness a carpet of vivid green. It grows for a bit, and then it stops with the arrival of the short winter days. Winter wheat needs this cold period, and in the spring it takes off again, this time continuing its journey upward to becoming a mature plant with offspring of its own. We watch the stalks turn golden and the heads start to bend sideways, an indication that the seeds are ready for harvest. Then the real work begins (the labor that makes me doubt this endeavor sometimes!). We harvest, we thresh, we winnow. And then we have something amazing — pride in our work, a sense of accomplishment. Oh, and of course bushels and bushels of nutritious wheat!

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weighing the freshly ground flour to make bread dough

We haven’t purchased store bread in almost six years, except occasionally while I was pregnant with my now four-year-old daughter, when the smell of yeast made me even more sick than I was in general during those months. We’ve been grinding our wheat for the past two years, but this is the first year I will be baking extensively with my own homegrown wheat. The first year yielded little more than enough to save for seed the following year. We’ve been gradually building a supply of heirloom seed over the past two years, and this year there is surplus!

For many this journey may not be worth it, but I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy hard work.

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stretching & folding the dough before a second rise

We’ve always kept a big garden that provides fresh vegetables throughout the summer and enough surplus to put by for leaner months. Growing wheat has been something my husband and I have always talked about. I love the sense of accomplishment of working the land and producing food myself. It’s one of the few things that always makes sense to me.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of baking bread. And there’s nothing harder than waiting for freshly baked bread to cool enough so everyone can enjoy that first warm slice with butter!

 

[edit: after posting this on Facebook, a friend commented with a link to this very interesting article, called Bread is Broken. It seemed appropriate to post it here as well!]

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four 13″ loaves, baked in un-lidded pullman pans.

 

It WAS Alive

Almost a year ago, I posted to this blog my account of the old abandoned Draper School building in Rotterdam, NY.  If you missed it, this current post might be more relevant if you read the original story here. It was called When it was still alive, a quote taken from my son at the time of our visit. In that post, I described the eery scene of a broken building and imagined the grandeur that must have once been the heart of its community. I was not wrong.

To my surprise, the post received thousands of views, and many thoughtful comments from previous students and teachers of the Draper School. The outpouring of personal stories were heartfelt. They confirmed what I said in my previous post, that neighborhood schools do indeed create lasting memories and relationships that extend far beyond the academic lessons on the chalkboard (or whiteboard or Smart Board). Schools are oftentimes the hearts of their community, and when they stop beating, the neighborhood feels a profound loss. Many comments were from distraught readers, learning of their school’s demise for the first time. Others were from nearby residents, disgusted with what now stands in their community. All comments contained precious memories of days gone by in the old Draper School.

Fran Pugliese, Class of 71 attended Draper from 1958 until he graduated in 1971, his wife also graduating from Draper in 1974. He later taught at the school from 1975-1982, and coached girls basketball until Draper closed as a high school in 1986. He describes his memories and a bit of the history of Draper School’s end:
Lots of Fond memories. We were a Family. You knew everyone. My wife grew up across the street. We all hoped that Draper would live forever. Unfortunately it couldn’t . My two youngest daughters were attending Draper & I knew, as all parents knew, Draper couldn’t keep up. So we fought for a merger in town & settled for being annexed by Mohonasen. They kept Draper open for a year as a K-5 building. Then renamed their middle school Draper MS. It was a smooth transition but… We all hoped that something good would come out of the building but knew it would take lots of money. Here we are 27 years later & your blog lets us know what we all feared. It’s been vandalized so badly that it will take even more money to make it useable. So very Sad. But we pray that someone will find a way. But we will all have memories of Walking to & from school…How you started on Stanton st. & moved around to Vischer as you got older…..The gyn rocking on Friday nights…the playground…….The little gym & climbing the ropes with Mr Fink………Football & baseball games at Memorial Park& all the teachers like Mr Goodwin…….Just Many Many Good memories…My blog would be longer then yours if I kept remembering…….Til then..Lets Shout for Dear Old Draper High to Prove that we are STILL True!!!!!

Jennifer Carusone attended Draper from kindergarten until third grade, when Draper merged with another district. Though she was young, she felt the loss of her school’s closing as she was forced to attend another.

Former Draper student, Jenn Carusone, on the first day of school.  Used with permission by Ms Carusone.

Former Draper student, Jenn Carusone, on the first day of school. Used with permission by Ms Carusone.

And in her thoughtful comment, she addressed my son’s statement about “when the school was still alive…” It brought tears to my eyes.

… I want to tell him that when the school was still alive, I learned to ride my bike in the parking lot you stood in. It was a pink Huffy bike and I fell so many times. But with my Father’s help, I was eventually riding circles around that parking lot.

The gym with the hole, where you rode the floor scooters, I once played in that gym and rode those scooters, they were my favorite gym activity. The man who taught us in that gym was known simply as “Coach” to me. He was the man who put me on his shoulders when I broke my ankle on the playground. He was an older man by then and I always wondered if he was really Santa Claus who was undercover as my gym teacher.

I bought my first Christmas gift with my own money in that gym. The gift was for my parents. I don’t remember what it was but I remember how proud I felt.

Used with permission of Jenn Carusone.

Used with permission of Jenn Carusone.

Halloween was a very big deal when I was young and at Draper. The parents would come to the school dressed up and we would have a parade around the neighborhood block, the people who lived in those homes would come out and watch us. I felt a little bit like a super star in those parades.

Oddly, the biggest lesson I learned was when Draper was on the verge of merging. It was around this time that my mother and her dearest friend made picket signs and walked around the block in protest. One night I went with them. I held a sign and walked by her side. It was one of the first times I remember admiring her. She was fighting for her cause and she didn’t care what others thought. It was and remained my biggest lesson in civic rights.

Like Jenn’s parents protesting for a cause back then, today parents like me are fighting for similar causes. Public schools are under attack due to lack of funding, the potential of school closings, state take-overs, replacement by a Charter school, controversial curriculum standards, and excessive testing–a compilation of factors that are turning fond memories of school and learning into nightmares of “rigor” and test prep that are severing the personal connection between school and community as education becomes sterilized and standardized. Readers of this blog are familiar with my foray into activism and the birth of my advocacy efforts against education reform, which started after witnessing my son’s experience in prekindergarten. It is through this blog that I began to understand the issues affecting public education and what they really mean for stakeholders like children, parents, and teachers. Watching my son attempt to navigate a standardized academic world was like watching a square peg forcefully beaten into a round hole with a heavy sledgehammer; or like forcing a flower to bloom in the middle of winter, only to watch it die in its unnatural environment and state of being. It is because education is inherently personal, and always should be, that I am interested in the longterm positive effects that one’s school experience has on them. It is why, during my experience in the Draper building, my mind drifted beyond the decaying exterior of Draper’s architecture to the stories, memories, and relationships I imagined to have occurred within its once lively walls–my school experience was that way. Although I am unfamiliar with Draper’s community, so far from my own, it was easy to understand what was lost because it felt so familiar to my own alma mater, a small one-building K-12 school, which was also doomed to close its doors.

 


Mostly, I write this blog for my own understanding, and my own need to articulate complex issues or jumbled thoughts. I don’t expect a huge readership, but every once in a while, my posts find their mark, connecting me with people whom I would otherwise never know. The physical experience of the Draper building has had a lasting impact. My children still talk about our trip there and their feelings and memories of that day. My daughter, now three, still mentions cutting her finger and bleeding. My son, now seven, still talks about the details of the abandoned building. But it is the confirmation of the personal stories I knew once existed that has had the greatest impact. I feel now, in some ways, like I am a part of the Draper community, like I was given a unique glimpse into its personal history.

After our visit last year, I wrote to the Schenectady County Historical Society to try to learn more about the school and the building. The first Draper School was built in the early 1900’s on Guilderland Ave. extension. It burned down on May 14, 1914. A new Draper School was built on Mill Lane (now Draper Avenue) and opened in 1921. During the 1986-87 school year, the Draper School was absorbed by the Mohonasen School District. Most recently, the Draper building was used as the location of a charter school, which closed in 2008. I was astonished to learn that the destruction we had witnessed was recent, a result of just a few years of vacancy, not the result of decades of abandonment as I had previously assumed!

Kathy Alden Dalrymple, Class of 87 recounts the merger, and how the new school could not take the place of Draper:
I was part of the first graduating class of the new merged school – I don’t even acknowledge that I ever attended the new merged school … I just have zero connection to it whatsoever. Draper was, and always will be my alma mater! I attended from 2nd grade till it closed in 86. Like the rest of the commenters remarked, Draper was the best. It was small, but one great big family … And in the summer of 2013 we had an “Across The Years Draper Reunion”… – that means – EVERYONE STILL ALIVE – from the year the school was built, until it closed its doors in 86 – EVERYONE was invited! How AMAZING was that! How’s THAT kind of example for FAMILY, huh!?? It was actually my 25th reunion year in 2013, and I CHOSE to attend the Across The Years party instead of the regular one for the merged school that they “tell” me I graduated from. I had more fun seeing our old Draper family that night!! And like they said earlier – I loved to see the classes 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 years older – or younger – because even the seniors still went back to connect with the 7th graders – or the elementary kids. Everybody knew everybody! THIS is the kind of beautiful family that lived at Draper.
Anyone interested in the Draper School or other New York history can search historical online newspapers at www.fultonhistory.com, which offers free, searchable digital access to a number of New York State newspapers, including the Schenectady Gazette from 1911 through 1974.
I love history–and because schools and education are so foundational for many, leaving such a profound impact on the lives of people, the cultural history of schools is never bland. I want to thank my readers for providing me the insight needed to truly appreciate the history of the Draper school. It has been my pleasure to read your stories and memories of your time at Draper.

PreK… Again?

I am amazed at how the arrival of a simple form letter from my school district has my mind racing and my heart flooded with a variety of emotions. Since deciding to homeschool our (almost) seven-year-old first grade son, our correspondence with our local public school has been at a minimum. The district envelope’s arrival in my post office box made me immediately think my attention was needed for some sort of homeschooling technicality. Maybe my quarterly report was inadequate? No, this letter is coming too late to have anything to do with that. A reminder maybe for the next quarterly report? No, too early. I had no idea of the content… so I opened it.

It has come to my attention that you have a daughter who is eligible for our pre-kindergarten program for the 2015-2016 school year.  If you are interested in enrolling your daughter in our program, please call me by January 30, 2015 to let me know. If I do not hear from you by then, I will assume that you are not interested.

It seems like only yesterday that my son was four years old and excited with the prospect of trying school. We rushed to fill in the necessary paperwork and take care of the health and dental requirements to reserve his spot in the classroom. My earliest posts on this blog chronicled his growing hatred for school as I learned about Common Core State Standards and how developmentally inappropriate they are for young children. I remember an independent, creative, and articulate child who had no issues with being separated from his parents, and who was eager to be in school with his friends. Having a late January birthday, he was one of the oldest children in his PreK class. He learned his letters and his numbers quickly, and was outgoing and made friends easily. Despite this, his hatred for school grew steadily until we were forced to cut his days down to half days, ultimately withdrawing him completely. Our next decision to boycott a brick and mortar kindergarten the following year finally led to our decision to formally homeschool starting in first grade.

Now, my daughter, who turned three in October 2014 will be old enough to start formal school this coming fall! As a parent, I am acutely aware how different my children are from one another. By virtue of birthday, my son was one of the oldest; my daughter will be one of the youngest, starting PreK at three years old! I know that a lot can happen in her development over the next six months, but I’m grasping within my own mind to justify whether or not she will be ready for full day schooling, five days a week. Her diminutive size for her age is a huge psychological barrier for me. This tiny slip of a girl in PreK? Doesn’t seem possible.

My mind continues to list the many other differences between my children. My son was a veteran four-year-old, always articulate, with excellent language skills, and an impressive vocabulary for his age. He was a thoughtful little boy who liked to figure things out, build anything from nothing, and who enjoyed asking “why” and receiving an honest answer. However, I felt like none of this mattered to the expectations associated with his Common Core curriculum. Pencil grip and Pearson worksheets were the way of the PreK world, accompanied by following directions (All. The. Time.) and complying with a classroom culture that became increasingly “sit still and behave” rather than “play and explore.” As is commonly reported in regard to the Common Core, it WAS expected in my son’s PreK classroom that the children learned everything in the same way and at the same time. There was little room for student-led discoveries, and English language arts and math ruled supreme. My son lost interest, starting “acting out,” and in the end just shut down. I was reassured by one teacher the day we left the school for good that “sometimes kids just aren’t ready to be away from home.” But this wasn’t the case for us. My son didn’t fail at school. School failed my son.

And so I come back to thinking about my daughter, almost a year younger than my son in relation to the entry cut-off dates for school, and at a completely different developmental stage than he was (and yet he still did not “succeed”). While there is nothing abnormal about her stage in development, it is clear to me as her mother that she is a very different child when it comes to language, writing, shapes, colors, etc. My son was far beyond her level at the exact same age, but still had the benefit of starting PreK much older. I’m not at all worried about my daughter; as an informed and logical adult I realize that children develop differently, that eventually these basic skills all arrive (with or without the Common Core). But I’m forced to wonder: will she be ready for gripping that pencil and forming those letter and writing those words and sitting still for story time? More importantly, will she be ready for the dull repetition and unimaginative nature of a Pearson worksheet? She’s a girl, so that’s a benefit right there. Studies have shown that boys are at a disadvantage in a formal classroom learning environment. But at the same time, she’s certainly got much more of an attitude than her brother had at this age. Parents everywhere agree that it isn’t “the terrible twos.” As many parents can attest, it’s much more likely that the difficult behavior (all normal by the way) will arise around age three, (and will make two-year-olds look like the cutest, calmest beings!). Will she take that to school with her and be labeled as difficult or bad?

She does, however, have one difference that might benefit her academic career. She loves to color in pre-made pictures. My son hated those exercises, which seemed to be the bulk of the “art” the kids produced, and that were handed out with the real goal of developing hand strength for all of that PreK Common Core standards shit. Everything, in fact, was done with a Common Core standard in mind. It was inconceivable to do anything for pure enjoyment or… I don’t know… because it might be a developmentally appropriate activity for three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

Thing about it: three, four, and five! That’s how old the age range is for kids in PreK. You don’t have to be an expert in early childhood development to realize that the abilities of these children are going to vary greatly. I wonder if all the pre tests, benchmarks, and post tests take that into account. They certainly don’t measure how well-balanced a child’s integration is into a new school environment. They certainly don’t measure if that child is neglected at home and hasn’t eaten a nutritious meal in the past several weeks. And I’m quite sure they don’t take into account if a particular student loves art or music, or if their older brother is bullied in his fourth grade classroom, or if their father was just laid off from work, or if they are fascinated by insects, or if they are distracted by the embarrassment of recently wetting themselves during nap time (which will sadly be gone by the time they reach kindergarten!). Standardized tests, the fulcrum of the reform agenda, don’t tell much about the abilities of most children, especially young children at varying stages in their development from who come from extremely different life situations. If my daughter were to go to PreK, we would opt her out of any and all testing at that level… just like we did with her brother! There’s no reason to test a child this young. No. Reason. At. All.

We don’t have much time to make a decision about whether to send our daughter to PreK in the fall. The deadline is January 30, and right now, I just can’t picture her as ready for the realities of today’s PreK classrooms. But I asked her, just like I did my son when he was four, “do you want to try school”? She just gave me a crooked smile like she was contemplating whether to choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream. She doesn’t know what it’s all about. She will decide in largely the same way as my son did. He wanted to go to school because all the other kids his age in our village were also going. Sadly, that wasn’t enough. My daughter will face the fact that the other girls (and boys) her age will be moving off to school next year. And I will be faced with the same internal struggle I had with my son: will she miss out without these same experiences as her peers? I will let her decide. If she wants to try school because her best friend is doing the same, then so be it… the saga of school inappropriate reform will continue for my family. But if she chooses to stay home, I know she will be ok with her family and the homeschooling friends and experiences we have built up over the past two years. The myth of anti-social children no longer concerns me. My son is excelling in his learning, his social skills top notch and completely within the norm. He’s not behind in ELA or math. In fact, he is well beyond his first grade peers in many ways. I surprised myself with how much fun homeschooling is and how efficient. Truth be told, I hope she chooses to stay home. But unlike the strict guidelines of the school reform agenda, I will give my child some say in how and when she is educated.

Here’s to You, Little Red Hen

I’m so busy right now with a wide selection of seemingly random affairs–things related to gardening, harvesting, homeschooling, book editing, education advocacy, as well as other small tasks. The last thing I should be doing is writing a blog post. But here I go, putting it all aside to tell you that I just ate the most delicious slice of bread, freshly baked and still warm from the oven. This isn’t just any slice of bread. This is bread from the flour of hard red spring wheat that my family grew, harvested, threshed, and ground ourselves! The feeling I have is satisfying. No, it’s exhilarating!

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

Growing small grains has been on our to-do list for some time. We bake all our own bread, and have for the past four or five years. For about a year, we’ve been buying whole wheat berries and grinding our own flour. My gift for Christmas was a Nutrimill. I gave my husband five pounds each of hard red spring wheat seed and hard red winter wheat seed, to start our first plots of each.

Spring wheat means you plant it in the spring and it is ready for harvest by the end of the summer, and that’s what we started with. This was a trial plot (we didn’t even know if it would grow here!), and it was filled with some success (I’m eating bread, aren’t I?) and a lot of failures. Not knowing if growing wheat would suit us long term and our plot too small to necessitate special equipment, we decided to broadcast the seed and rake it in, one method recommended for small scale grain growers. Keep in mind, we’d never done this before and were really experimenting, learning through the entire process. I calculated the viability rate of the seed and took into account average loss, and we prepared a plot just the right size for five pounds of seed. We made two mistakes: First, I don’t think we seeded the plot densely enough; and second, I don’t think we raked it in deep enough. As a result, when the wheat finally germinated and began to grow, we noticed right away that our wheat field was a bit on the sparse side. Because of this, weeds had plenty of space to grow up around the wheat. I tried to weed in the beginning, but it quickly became apparent that come harvest time, we would be searching for our wheat amongst the towering undesirables–so much for our dreams of casually scything down large swaths of golden wheat swaying gently in the breeze.

Harvesting the weed infested field was a nightmare and a challenge, but one my husband luckily took on whole-heartedly. Pushing aside the weeds, we (mostly he) located the wheat and harvested it. We found the easiest way in our situation was to cut off the wheat just under the heads. Painstakingly, we did this while imagining that our neighboring farmers were watching from their barn, laughing all the while.

Our next challenge was to remove the wheat berries from the seed head and separate them from the surrounding chaff. We anticipated that this task would be yet another obstacle that would put another check mark on the side of harvesting your own wheat is not worth it. But it turned out to be quite easy! The chaff came right off with just a little friction or beating. Then my husband devised a DIY wheat threshing system based on something he found online: a bucket with a bearing attached to a rod that ran down through the center of the lid.  Attached to the rod were several lengths of chain. Using a drill attached to the visible end of the rod, the rod turned threshing the wheat inside the bucket with the chains. It was brilliant. The wheat berries were free. Farmers of old used to separate their just threshed wheat berries from its chaff by tossing it in the air on a windy day.  The heavy wheat berries would fall back down while the light chaff would blow away. We replicated this with a box fan and shortened the job drastically.

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Today, I ground several pounds of our spring wheat and baked my first bread with it. The Little Red Hen would be very proud of me, but unlike her, I had help. I couldn’t have done this without my husband’s support (especially the back breaking kind) and his own excitement to see this project through. Furthermore, even the kids are proud to have produced. My 6 1/2 year old son and my almost 3 year old daughter helped harvest the wheat and took it upon themselves to thresh their own small supply of wheat berries (These have become very sacred and I am not yet allowed to grind them–maybe we’ll save those for seed next year!). My reward from the hard work and dedication it takes to produce what society normally takes for granted as something packaged at the end of a processing line is knowing that my food is safe, natural, nutritious, and sustainable. More importantly, my entire family has a connection to their food, a characteristic that I feel will one day benefit my children greatly as the world continues to change. When I asked my children, “who wants a slice of freshly baked bread made from our wheat that we grew?” They responded with a immediate and exuberant “Me, me, me!”

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

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Just out of the oven

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loaves cooling

I’d say the success outweighs the failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is an important part of improvement. Our real goal is to grow hard red winter wheat, which is sown in the early fall to begin growing. It requires a cold period as part of its growing cycle, and in the spring will continue to grow to be harvested at the end of summer. Because of its longer growing period, winter wheat tends to produce higher yields than spring wheat; and the gluten content of hard red winter wheat is the highest of all wheats (spring v. winter, soft v. hard), which is ideal for bread baking. We have already seeded a small plot of winter wheat, this time sowing the seeds more densely. We did a better job raking them in as well. We intend to seed a second small plot in a few weeks to compare the different sowing times. Growing winter wheat will again be an experiment (will it overwinter alright?), but we have learned much and are confident that the process the second time around will be much easier. That will be a post in another year’s time.

Peach Madness

It’s Friday. If you were to drop by, I’d be embarrassed, and I’d ask you to keep your shoes on! My kitchen is a disgusting mess of sticky peach residue. Every bowl, every surface, every button on the microwave is affected (I use it as a timer). Thirty half pints of peach jam stand sealed in my island. What will amount to seven pints of peach chutney currently simmers on the stovetop. I spent my morning peeling, pitting, and chopping half of the bushel of peaches I bought from a farmers market the other day. Although I haven’t the energy to deal with the remaining half bushel today, it will be destined for jarring in light syrup in the coming day or so.

just made peach jam

just made peach jam

If you’re not accustomed to making your own food on this scale, you undoubtedly think I’m nuts. But in my defense, once you endeavor to make food from scratch and avoid the over-processed, chemical laden products that have been mass produced for our convenience, you can never go back! You’re probably thinking, Ok, I get that. But who needs thirty jars of jam? You’re right, I don’t– I actually need much more than that. Several weeks ago, I made about thirty half pints of jam from freshly picked blueberries. And several small batches of strawberry and raspberry jam line the shelves in my basement. I make jam with whatever fruit is fresh and in season.

We eat it on toast and on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but most of our jam usage goes into flavoring and sweetening fresh homemade yogurt, made from raw milk from local farmers. With homemade jam containing little sugar and made from fresh fruit, and fresh yogurt, I know that my food is natural and that it contains nothing unnecessary.

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homemade yogurt with homemade peach jam

Making jam is easy, and it’s a wonderful first project for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the world of food preservation. Some fruit, jars, some basic kitchen equipment that you probably already have, some pectin (and the recipe on the box/ jar!), and some common sense hygiene is all you need. You could add sugar to that list, but it isn’t necessary if you’re using a low/no sugar pectin. These types of pectins will set without sugar, and also allow the user to sweeten with honey, or another type of sugar alternative.

If you’re like me, you’ll start with a few batches of jam, perhaps move on to tomatoes (which are also very easy), and then experiment with other recipes such as salsas and chutneys, which like jam, do not require the use of a pressure canner to seal food safely. All of these foods can be processed in a boiling water bath!

Go ahead, make your own jam! You won’t be disappointed! The results yielded will be immeasurably tasty, and the satisfying feeling of achievement priceless. Whether you cook from scratch, grow a garden, purchase locally from neighborhood farms or farmers markets, preserve food on a small scale as a hobby, or are the verge of a complete do-it-yourselfer like me, we are participating in a culture of real food. We share an understanding of the true value of knowing where our food comes from and that it doesn’t have to contain an infinite list of unpronounceable ingredients or come in fancy, individually wrapped packages.

I invite you to get involved in the food revolution. Know your farmers, keep your money local. At the same time, you’ll be playing a role in sustainable agriculture, and avoiding participation in an industrialized food system driven by corporate interests and a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

In his 2013 article, “Beyond the Barcode: The Local Food Revolution,” well-known food author Michael Pollan (author of bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) describes the benefits of a local food economy citing reasons both political and sentimental for the values of a local farmers market. Not only is a local food economy safer and less prone to contamination, but we start to eliminate the vast amounts of fossil fuels that are used to grow large monocultures of cash crops and the fuel it takes to transport these food products thousands of miles. Beyond that, Pollan says, farmers markets are vibrant spaces where people come together to connect to their food.

We like what happens socially at the farmer’s market, which is quickly emerging as the new public square in this country. If you compare what happens in the aisles at the grocery store with the farmer’s market, think about what a world of difference that is. At the farmer’s market country meets city. Children are introduced to where their food comes from. They learn often for the first time that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a plastic bag, but is actually a root. How amazing!

I’ve grown my own garden for the past fifteen years, there was always a garden when I was growing up. I remember my first garden when my husband and I first moved to Buffalo, NY from the Netherlands.  It was a narrow patch of ground between the driveway and our side of the duplex we were renting. I grew only peppers and tomatoes. Across the driveway, in another duplex a mother lived with her three young children. I remember the oldest loved peppers, and he loved them raw! I remember even more his mothers reaction to this characteristic: She thought it was beyond strange, and commented that she didn’t know where he got that from. Anyway, this boy was fascinated with my pepper plants once the green fruits started growing. He was mesmerized. This was the first time he had seen a pepper growing, and had no concept of their origin beyond the grocery store produce shelf.

More recently, only a couple of months ago, friends of mine were visiting and I was showing them my (now much larger) garden at my home in Morris, NY. I saw the same fascination, the awe as one of them saw, for the first time, vegetables still growing on their plants. It reminded me of my neighbor boy in Buffalo. At the time, I had long let my asparagus grow for the summer, and she was amazed to see the plants in their non-spear state. She was so intrigued by the idea of where asparagus comes from that I was forced to search on my hands and knees through the tall plants to find an asparagus spear to show her.

We now grow all kinds of vegetables besides peppers and tomatoes, including a variety of summer squash, green beans and shell beans, greens that include different lettuces and mesclun, spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, melons, sweet corn and dent corn, fennel, leeks, carrots, beets, eggplants, potatoes, and various other things depending on the year and/or the season. Recently, we experimented with growing hull-less oats and spring wheat (a post for another day!). In a few weeks we will plant winter wheat for the first time. Our gardens are thriving diversities of vegetables, flowers, blueberries, strawberries, fruit trees, and hops. I love to grow things and there isn’t anything I won’t try once! I hope to instill this love of growing in my children, as well as the wisdom of knowing where their food comes from.

Eating fresh yogurt

Eating fresh yogurt