Friday, August 30, 2013

Candy In School - Prepare for a Tirade!

Originally posted September 2011

Today is my girls' third day of school. As much as I'd love to homeschool - and perhaps I'll return to it someday - the school has shown time and again that they're committed to the kids who go there, and by and large are taking pretty good care of my kids, who in their turn are blossoming socially and intellectually. With one major serious exception: they feed my kids. They feed them junk food. And sometimes a LOT of it, depending on how one defines "a lot." There aren't words in English that I know of that express how deeply I dread Halloween, and even worse, Valentine's Day, with its overload of sugar and yellow and red food colorings and gobs of sugar and dairy.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Homemade Yogurt - Easier Than You Think!

My original yogurt post has gone the way of the dodo with the loss of the original blog, but that gives me the opportunity to wax poetic from scratch about this creamy tasty treat. We don't do a lot of dairy here since by and large it doesn't agree with us. However, there are a couple of exceptions: raw (unpasteurized) milk, and cultured dairy, such as yogurt, kefir, and sour cream.

My family goes through about a gallon of yogurt a week, give or take. It's a favorite in school lunches, for dessert, for breakfast, for snacks, or in smoothies - we don't give it that often, generally only one serving a day, but it can be pretty much any time of day. The last time I checked on the price of Stonyfield Farms whole milk (so full-fat) organic yogurt, though, it was pushing $5US per quart, meaning a gallon of organic yogurt would run up a tab of about $20 a week! (I suspect the price has gone up since then - it's been a few years since I bought it.) By contrast, a gallon of organic milk runs about $5-6US week, depending on where I can get it and whether it's store-brand or not and what's on sale that week. I can easily buy into the idea of saving $15 a week on yogurt alone.

The way I make yogurt is based on the Girls Guide to Guns & Butter's Crockpot Yogurt recipe, modified to fit my kitchen and needs. Reading it makes it look a LOT more complicated than it really is, and after the first couple of times you'll get into a groove and it'll be a lot easier. Promise. Ready? Here we go!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Random thoughts on Schools and Teaching

Originally published on February 26, 2012 [during a long-term music teaching assignment at a local elementary school; very slightly edited mostly for style and updated terminology.]

Now that I've been in this particular long-term teaching assignment for 5 weeks and counting (at least 3 more weeks to go), lots of random thoughts have been going back and forth in my mind, none of which is ready yet for a post on its own (except the school discipline and standardized testing which I was working on even before I started working here). Some are old memories refreshed, some are old memories seen through new eyes, and some are complete reworkings of misconceptions I had of kids and discipline before I became a parent.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Child's Response to the Standardized Testing Madness

Originally published on Thursday, November 8, 2012

Yesterday morning as I was braiding Younger Child's hair for school, Older Child was in the basement at the computer furiously typing away. "I'm going to write a protest letter!" she told me as she passed the doorway on her way downstairs; this week, in early November, students at her school are undergoing the first round of practice testing for the MSA, Maryland's standardized test, which is administered in March. Yes, that is FOUR MONTHS away, and there will likely be another round of practice tests and countless sessions of "how to find topic sentences" and "how to summarize contrived articles" before the real thing. Test preparation last year took us huge and unwieldy chunks of time and upset schedules right and left, all while stressing teachers and students to the max. When Older Child asked me why there were so many practice tests, and what they did with that information, and why she would have to make up a practice test if she missed it (because in all honesty I was planning to let her stay home this morning and go back in to school after the practice test was finished), I had no answers for her, and suggested she ask the people with the answers, and so the letter below was conceived.  My only admonishment was, "Make sure I get to read it before you print, please!"

Here, with only the signature edited out, is what she took to school yesterday, and with her permission I'm sharing it here:
To Whom It May Concern,

    What is the point of the practice MSAs? If they’re just to get us ready for the proper MSA, we already are. Most of the fifth-graders have taken it at least once, and the fourth-graders have usually taken it once before. I know there are some people who have just come to this school and are new, and the third-graders certainly haven’t taken it before. Maybe they should have the practice MSA, but it doesn’t mean all three grades should have to take it. It messes up schedules, and last year, I had to choose between instrumental music and my special. Nobody offered a make-up time, instructions on which to do, or even an apology I’d have to miss something. I don’t even think that’s a choice people should have to make.
    It also eats up our reading and math time. We don’t even get to read when we finish a section of the practice MSAs! Maybe it’s not allowed on the real one, but what about the practices? You’re supposed to check your work when you’re done. Okay. Once you’ve checked your work three times and you still have ten or fifteen or maybe twenty minutes left, is there any merit to checking it again? And then what are you supposed to do? If it’s still “good practice”, why is it as strict as the real MSA?
    Last year, among all the vocabulary quizzes, words of the day, and learning time spent reviewing strategies and going through packets, I think we got in more than enough practice time, and the tests really seemed unnecessary.
    MSAs are about reading and math, but instead of spending our time working up to the MSA focusing on reading and math(and science, in the case of the fifth-graders), we focus on test strategies. We’re learning how to take a test, not how to be good at reading and math.
    Altogether, I think we overload on MSA practice.

[My 5th-Grader]

I'm so very proud of her! :-)
[addendum: She waited a long while (several weeks) for a response, and when FINALLY she was called to the office for a meeting with the principal and the teacher in charge of testing in our school, the first things focused on were her tone and delivery, NOT the message. To be fair, she was told by her classroom teacher to deliver it to the teacher in charge of the testing, and when she did finally encounter said teacher she was on her way someplace else, so the actual delivery was....perfunctory at best. That said, IMO she raised a valid concern that was not entirely addressed to her satisfaction, nor to mine. She was told that PARCC would replace the MSA (Maryland's current mandated standardized test) in the next couple of years and, according to my child, was then asked if she could find the stamina to handle one more practice test. In the end, we opted out of the second practice test (in January) and she hung out with me that morning.

For the record, I believe that her teacher and her school have done well by her. My biggest gripe is about The System which imposes these tests on schools and students in the first place. That said, I'm not sure at what level decisions about how much test prep and practice tests are made, even after this incident. This year, my younger child will be in her first year of high-stakes testing, and for a number of reasons I'm very conflicted about this. That'll be covered in a later post on its own.]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Personal Vision: The School of my Dreams

Originally posted on Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Came across this link in my Facebook news feed this morning:

Go ahead, take a moment and click on it. Nothing but good. And deep. :-)

Wow. When I read it, I had.... nothing. Some vague grandiose ideas, but that was it.

At our UU church today, the 6th-graders had their coming-of-age ceremony and the graduating high school seniors had their "bridging ceremony" where they're formally welcomed to the adults in our church, and it began to hit me. In a couple of waves.

Listening to some of these kids talk about their school experiences vs their church experiences, I began letting my mind wander to a lot of the things that bother me about public schools...... so my mind alit on the idea of going back to homeschooling my kids, at least the Introvert but ideally both of them. And then, the second wave hit:

Why not school MORE kids who would benefit from a less rigid school structure, one that didn't limit them or force them where they weren't ready to go but taught them where they were and guided them along as they were ready? One that included the arts - Every. Single. Day! One with lots of time for physical activity, and trips, and parent involvement. One where kids get the help they need, where they have lots of relatively unstructured time to do what kids need to do, to work on fine-motor and social skills informally well before being asked to decode letters and count to 100, where they can spend time BEING CHILDREN, particularly in the early years. A place where children and families contributed to the school in whatever ways they could, from helping grow food in the garden to helping make and maintain classroom materials to simpler cleaning and maintenance, and even to the larger community. A place that was limitless and nurturing, where kids could excel beyond anyone's wildest dreams, that would take the damn standardized tests ONLY because they had to by State law (assuming it would be a public school and so available to everyone regardless of ability to fork out hefty tuition - privately-funded would be better!) - and then get back to the work of growth. A place where I could include kids from toddlerhood onward, younger if I could manage it, and go as far through the school years as possible, so that even at the earliest ages, when children are so impressionable, we could make perhaps the biggest difference - but then have the chance to MAINTAIN it! A place where kids weren't constrained by their chronological ages but could mingle with kids of different ages as their educational needs suggested. A place that could be a cornerstone of a community, that could fill a need not just for children but for everyone. A place with a spiritual - but DEFINITELY nondenominational - bent as well.

And then I remembered that just before I went out on maternity leave a little over 10 [now 11-1/2] years ago, I asked my county for a form to apply for a charter school for my dream school, which would be arts-based. They didn't send me the form till after my baby came, and I was a new mother and overwhelmed with the depression and the reflux and the sensory and special-needs issues, and by the time those went away, the dream had been all but buried..... but when it came to the surface this Sunday morning during the ceremony at our UU church, I had to keep from drawing a breath so sharp it would have been audible across the sanctuary.

I wonder if I even kept that form? I know more or less where it would be: in the music studio where my dream's newest incarnation is taking shape already, teaching private music lessons and making plans to go hunting for grants to teach music in early childhood settings.

So looking at my vision up there, it's both wildly specific and very vague all at the same time. Lots of stuff I want to accomplish, but short on details. I wanted to dig deeper, work out what I knew and could already quantify and identify the stuff I'm still clueless about. And I wanted to get it down in writing, on e-paper, if you will, as a public starting place instead of just a pipe dream. Remember, the whole point of the exercise isn't "I want to do this but...." and list reasons why I can't; it's what I'd do if I knew I COULD NOT fail, so I figure I may as well throw it ALL in there. *grin*

Toddlers: Toddlers will PLAY. They will EXPLORE. They will have tons of materials available to them for primarily unstructured play. Large-motor, small-motor, sit-still and run-around. Sensory input galore. Music to listen to and musical things to make sounds on, and songs sung and dances danced whenever appropriate. Art and craft materials for self-directed and teacher-guided projects. Opportunities to get dirty on a regular basis. (mental note: include laundry room along with sand and water tables. LOL)

Preschoolers/Primary (up to Age 6, really): strongly Montessori-based. Kids this age are ready, in varying stages and ages, for more structured sit-still work, refinement of fine-motor skills throughout this time period. Working on getting children to become more and more self-directed as developing maturity allows. Still plenty of music and art and maybe some more formal physical education, but still plenty of time during the day for unstructured physical activity. I'd love to include foreign language in some way, but not sure how practical it would be to include it as immersion is really the way to go at this age; setting that aside for now for further investigation. :-) This is also a wonderful age to practice basic etiquette; one thing I saw my first day as a Montessori parent was the teachers greeting students with handshakes, and while it almost seems funny and stilted and overly formal to us as adults, I started doing it myself and I love how even the smallest children now come to me at school and thrust out their hands to get their "handshake hello." There is practice in the social pleasantries that then become second nature after a surprisingly short time; I've been encouraged by the changes I've seen in my Head Start long-term substitute assignment even though I'm only in my third week there. :-)

GOOD FOOD to eat, and children becoming involved in the preparation and even growing of some food in the GARDEN. (Some Montessori schools grow plenty of vegetables as part of their curriculum, some even have animals like chickens or goats.)  During this time, not much formal work on learning to read or do sums, not in the whole-class way we're accustomed to thinking of reading and math instruction, anyway. Montessori materials provide a HUGE window of access to reading and phonetics and computation; I've seen a number of 6-year-olds working their way through the math materials and doing multiplication and division, partly because the materials lend themselves to ways of working with and manipulating numbers that is very concrete. If kids want to work for days on end primarily on math until they "get" something, they have that opportunity, and their classmates can be working on the things that inspire them at those moments. Ditto the verbal and science and social studies and fine-motor activities. And helping the kids become self-directed is a HUGE skill they'll be able to draw on their entire lives, but hard to do in a traditional classroom where a teacher needs, for his or her own planning sanity (and often because administrators demand it), to maintain some degree of consistency in the curriculum.

I would also like to add some daily time for meditation, even 5-10 minutes. I strongly believe that taking that time to connect with our inner selves regularly is important, and I wish I'd learned that as a child because it's really hard to remember to do it as an adult. :-\

[An aside here: in the school where I'm currently teaching, and in many public schools, there are a number of teachers who've had Montessori-taught students come into their school completely unwilling or unable to handle more structured classroom instruction, and as a result there's a perception that Montessori = free-for-all. In a GOOD Montessori program, this is NOT the case. Adults do provide guidance, try to keep students from avoiding harder work entirely, and also work on behaviors which would be an asset to any traditional classroom as well.]

Elementary grades: Finally some more formal instruction in math and reading, but still the opportunities for a lot of self-selection. Plenty of writing as developmentally appropriate - but not so much as to overwork still-developing hands. Instruction on a musical instrument like piano or recorder or violin as young as second or third grade depending on interest and hand size, starting more Suzuki-style and progressing to reading musical notation. Art instruction, perhaps something along the lines of Monart, which I like because of its way of training students of all ages to see things more deeply and to translate what they see into pictures. Oversimplified, maybe, but that's how I perceive it in my brain-centered way. I'd love to learn more about it - got to see a bit of it in practice but only from the periphery. Dance for sure - and physical education 2-3 times a week. Continuation of foreign language begun in the Primary years. Toward the middle and end of elementary ages, some more involved higher-level projects: community service, making a film or other dramatic production, write a book or script, paint a mural, teaching of the younger kids by the older, creation of a portfolio - something big and cooperative to go along with lots of small-group and independent work.

More work in the garden and in the kitchen for all students, and the beginnings of some work in the community at large, perhaps: stream or park cleanup, making food for a shelter or soup kitchen, that sort of thing, and still time for quiet and reflection and meditation, spiritual but non-denominational, perhaps investigate some of the UU (Unitarian Universalist) curriculum.

Middle school onward I'm still thinking about, mostly because that's not a stage my kids have yet gone through so I haven't been immersed in it for about 15 years, way back when I taught middle school band for half a day for two years. I love the age and stage, for the most part, and I'd want to do right by kids whose brains are going through growth similar to that experienced by toddlers - only in going-on-adult bodies and with more complex language skills and abstract thinking ability, and with the lack of impulse control that also comes with toddlerhood. What a task, coming up with a curriculum that works WITH those factors instead of in spite of them, which I'm not sure many middle school curricula actually do - but again, that's an area I still have to learn more about, especially since I wasn't yet a parent last time I worked in middle school. LOL [addendum: My oldest is now about to embark on her own middle school adventure; looking forward to seeing what's changed, including my own perspective, as the school year progresses.]

I am definitely finding that having my own kids at an age and stage, and seeing their friends and classmates in a way that most parents don't - as a teacher in their school, sometimes in their classes! - has been very enlightening for me, and I'm curious to see how we'll all weather the middle and high school years if I continue to be involved in my kids' schools throughout, or how my perceptions will change if we go back to homeschooling.

Meanwhile, though, I have this vision to hold in my mind and heart, and to collect experiences for. :-) Anyone else want to work here?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Color My World... On Second Thought, Please Don't! Food Colorings (for starters)

Originally posted on Monday, January 9, 2012

Ah, the marvels of modern science! Our children can have cereal with marshmallows (if you can call them that) in every color of the rainbow: Pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, and blue diamonds! And that's just the last time I heard a Lucky Charms commercial, which has been probably 20 years, not long after they added the blue diamonds because four different artificially-colored sugar bombs apparently wasn't enough in one box of cereal. (I understand it now also comes in chocolate. *shudder*) And oh, the yogurt colors: not just baby blues and pinks any more, or a bit of a yellow or green tint, but full-on intense deep RED and BLUE!

Until you've seen a child completely fall apart shortly after having had some of these brightly-colored treats, it's easy to think of them as harmless additives that make our food that much more appealing. Adding red to sugar-saturated kids' yogurt will make it more appealing to the children, so when they eat it, they will be "eating healthy," right?


Not so much. :-(

I hate to break it to you, but if you regularly eat foods with artificial colors, you are eating petrochemicals. And if you're giving artificially-colored stuff to your kids, you're feeding THEM stuff derived from coal tar and petrochemicals. For real. Many European countries have had the sense to ban these chemicals from all food, and manufacturers have made changes in those countries in order to keep selling their products there, while American food remains loaded with colorings and additives not found in their European counterparts. Look at these photos of Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bars (I found this picture in several articles, including this one, which is LOADED with information about this!) for just one example among many.

WHAT?!?!? But surely our government wouldn't permit dangerous substances in our food! If it weren't safe, it wouldn't be approved!

Why Arts Education is Crucial - Semi-Random Thoughts

Originally published Thursday, March 29, 2012

Amid all the standardized testing hoo-hah lately I've been feeling a sort of undercurrent that the stuff on the test is considered "important" and the rest is considered "frills." Oh, sure there are music and art and PE teachers in all our schools here, but that's as much to provide contractually-agreed-on planning time for classroom teachers in elementary schools as anything. Once kids get to middle and high school, very few schools take music or art as seriously. Kids are routinely scheduled out of non-academic classes like band or chorus or drama (assuming these classes are even part of the to begin with); when I taught high school, band was not only placed opposite required sophomore required classes so 10th-graders could only sign up for band if they took those classes on their own time and at their own expense in the summers, but I was taken to task for the decline in enrollment after 9th grade!

Howard Gardner has spent the majority of his professional life researching and writing about multiple intelligences. For those not up on the theory, it's the idea that above and beyond the verbal and math skills measured by traditional intelligence tests (and standardized tests in schools), there are other equally valuable intelligences we can have: musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. Recently added to the list was naturalistic intelligence, and existential and moral may find their way to this list as well.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hi and Welcome!

Welcome - or welcome back! - to My Very Own Crunchy And Progressive Parenting Blog Mark Two. The first one was lost when I deleted a renegade gmail address from my computer and Google's own customer assistance provided zero assistance to this customer. :-( Since there seems to be no way to retrieve the blog, and since no actual humans seem to work at Google, it was easier to just start over.

I hope to eventually restore the content that I still have here on my hard drive (thanks to The Wayback Machine for so many helpful caches!), although like an idiot I didn't save everything here. Won't make that mistake again.

If you're looking for a place to read stuff about parenting, education, healthy food, and, well, whatever other stuff comes to my mind, this is the place! I come here from time to time to "unpack" all the stuff that builds up in my head - not on any particular schedule, just whenever I need to unload.

So come on in and read and learn and share your own learning!