Friday, July 24, 2015

At the End of July

I still fight against it.

I have ever since I moved to the South. I don't like that summer is "over" by the third week in July, and that back-to-school means August 1.

Nonetheless, there are some things I have to come to terms with.

Like that I got a speeding ticket on the way home from an educational workshop yesterday. I really felt like I should be rewarded for spending the entire day sitting in a frigid room, honing my skills as a teacher; however, I was punished with a silly ticket.

That's my friend and history class co-teacher, Diane. She was way too gleeful. By the way, I'm a granny driver, so a speeding ticket is extra ridiculous for me. But I did learn some really great stuff. We are super excited about National History Day and are going to figure out how to get our students to enter projects this year.

And I have to come to terms with the fact that my little boy is a thousand miles away in New Mexico and that I won't hear from him for 10 more days. He's at Philmont High Adventure Ranch with his Boy Scout Troop. I'm so happy for him.

But the puppy and I miss him.

So today I started cleaning out our sunporch, which is an adorable room that is used to store junk. It's also where the litter box resides. While I was cleaning, I uncovered things that made me cry.

Like our very first display board from when we began our American Heritage Girls troop here 13 years ago.

And like Duncan's kindergarten graduation display board.

It was full of pictures like this.

I sent some pictures to my friends to make them cry, too. I'm a pretty good friend like that.

And what I really have to come to terms with is this: See all those graduation announcements below? Well, those kids are all going to college really soon: my students, my friends' children, my own little girl.

That's Laurel's growing stack of college supplies. Because, you know, she's leaving in just 3 weeks.

And that's all I have to say. Because it's nearly the end of July, and fighting back-to-school has never worked.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Brave Writer's The Writer's Jungle

Math and writing are without a doubt the two subjects that worry homeschooling parents the most. Which? How? When? Should I use this? Do this? Am I doing enough? Too much? Wrong? Why won’t/can’t my kid multiplydivideaddsubtractwriteasentenceparagraphessaypaper??

As an English teacher, I am, naturally, regularly asked: what should I use for writing? (Less regularly am I asked "what should I use for math?" In fact, probably never.) This is a surprisingly difficult question for me because there are so many excellent resources out there. Free resources. An abundance of excellent, free resources.  It should be easy to direct people various sites that do a great job teaching the basics: how to write a sentence, how to craft a paragraph, how to succeed with a 5-paragraph essay, how to put a research paper together. What’s the problem?

Confidence— or lack thereof.

Over and over again, I hear parents say, “I am not a good writer. I don’t know how to teach writing.” I hear parents comparing their kid to another kid, even though we all know the mantra “Don’t compare yourselves to others!” Even though we understand in our bones that our friend’s kid is just one of those kids who loves to write, and our kid just doesn’t yet. We all do it.

The bottom line is that we’re afraid of screwing our kids up.

Ahh. Julie Bogart to the rescue. I’ve been advocating Brave Writer for years just because I love Julie’s philosophy. I have always thought that if I were to write a curriculum, it would look like  Brave Writer. Brave Writer offers lots of online courses which look amazing and which I have heard firsthand (from one of my students who wanted extra writing) are superb.

Awhile back I shamelessly begged for a review copy of The Writer’s Jungle because I realized that I really shouldn’t be telling all these homeschooling parents to buy it without having ever actually looked at it. Because, you know. When they asked, “Do you like it?” I would have to honestly reply, “Actually, I’ve never seen it. But I love her philosophy and I feel certain I would love it!” 

OK. Now I have an actual copy of The Writer’s Jungle (thank you, Julie!), and I can say without hesitation: every homeschooling parent should own this, read it cover to cover, and then use it for the duration of their homeschooling years.

First of all, let me clarify that this isn’t a book filled with lesson-by-lesson, “do-this,-now-do-that” plans on teaching your child to write. The Writer’s Jungle takes a holistic approach to the writing process: 
  • providing understanding of how and why for the teacher,
  • giving relief and assurance for the parent, 
  • building confidence for the teacher/parent and student, and 
  • delving into actual writing opportunities.

You will need to commit to reading, underlining, and making some notes in the margin. These are good things! This isn’t the kind of instruction manual that allows you to dig in after a three-page introduction. Bogart has reasons why—and you should read them.

For example, I frequently have moms who say “My son hates to write.” Bogart would be a great comfort to these moms:
“Unfortunately, not all writing problems turn out to be writing problems. Some of our kids are simply throwing hissy fits and need to be told so. By junior high, these fits are especially ugly. Their hormonal bodies give them power. We mothers are first hurt and then angry.

Ruth Beechik reminded me that a lot of writing that started out fresh and unspoiled in elementary school becomes anemic in junior high. Our kids have been in school for years now and are less enamored with the daily grind, I mean, routine. They are savvy enough to think of short-cuts to finishing their school work and balk at being made to put out extra exertion.

Writing requires effort and reflection. Some of our boys, especially, don’t want to engage in that kind of work. They look for quick fixes and entertainment.”

And this one:
"The other language arts arena that mothers obsess over is grammar instruction. Just for the record, grammar has very little to do with writing. It has everything to do with understanding the science of language and making sure that you use standard American English when you write. I recommend hitting it three times over the life span of a student: once in elementary school, once in junior high and once in high school."

If you know me, you know how often I recommend exactly that “hit it three times” approach— and how people look at me when I’m crazy when I say you don’t have to pound grammar into their heads every single year forever.

And I love this quote, which is exactly why I don’t like a lot of other writing programs. They produce kids who can write technically correct but extraordinarily uninspired papers:
“Likewise, the report about Vermont that your daughter wrote shouldn’t be a fulfillment of some list of state report topics. It should start there, perhaps, but it must sing in the end. It must have its own quirks, insights and that fresh interpretation that is unique to your child in addition to the evidence of research.” 
So where to start? As Bogart says, “Abandon this constant need to determine grade level. Start out by ignoring writing in its traditional sense. Instead, get interested in your child’s mind.” And this is what she encourages in The Writer’s Jungle: get to know your child, what makes your child tick, and what excites your child. Don’t feel bound by traditional writing methods.

Let me say again: this is not a book of lesson plans. This is a guide to giving a parent confidence, ideas, and many practical exercises for teaching writing. If you’re looking for a program that teaches rote writing, this isn’t it. This is oh-so-much better. I wish every homeschooling parent would read and then re-read it every year or so, using Bogart’s ideas and gaining confidence—and spreading that confidence to their kids.

Below are the Table of Contents pages.

2012 Writer's Jungle

2012 Writer's Jungle

In each of the chapters, Bogart explains/philosophizes (I think of this as her “pep talk” portion) and then gives exercises, examples, ideas, evaluation examples, and more. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 “The Sights Along the Way”:

The “experts” claim to have the knowledge of good and bad writing. Meet the serpents of our imaginations: authors of writing curricula, professional educators, even other well-meaning mothers. We fear that they all say essentially the same thing about us behind our backs. “You can’t teach writing. I’ve seen your child’s work and it’s a joke. I wouldn’t line the cat box with the stuff your kids put out.”… After you worry about how badly you’re missing the mark in teaching your kids to write, these same snakes beguile you with bewitching words: “Listen to me and I will show you the knowledge of good and bad writing.”

You lean closer. After all, writing is central to any good homeschool. And you aren’t secure in your ability to teach it. You listen more intently.…
…The advice of experts, daily repetition and sheer volume will fail you in the end. Once you admit it, you’ll be ready to exit Eden: the land of “Perfect Writing.” West of Eden lies a different landscape altogether, a wild jungle filled with insights, bursts of creativity, bad spelling, unrefined punctuation and surprising metaphors.

There are fewer completed assignments here. Initially the writing will look more like rocks than jewels, but the rocks that are carefully honed into gems become all the more precious as a result. The final papers are compelling to write and read because they come from a living source: the imaginative and powerful minds of children.
Later in this chapter, Bogart provides a fantastic series of exercises on using the 5 senses to observe and describe an object. Here is an example of the “smell” and “sound” exercises:

And then later in the chapter, she gives examples of student writing. (This is from “Eli’s observation of meatloaf”) :
From The Writer's Jungle 2012

This isn’t about developing profound academic writers—although I bet a lot of students will head that way after learning the writing process from The Writer's Jungle. This is about giving kids the tools and practice to be competent communicators. This is about not hating to write—even loving to write! The Writer's Jungle is inspiring, freeing, and confidence-building for parents and students of all ages. 
Want to see how The Writer's Jungle looks in practice? Check out Lora's post on Simple Homeschool about Becoming Brave Writers. Here's a preview: "Before, writing was a subject that caused strife and frustration in our home. Now, writing is our favorite part of the week. It strengthens our relationships, incites conversation, and gives us new ways to entertain and encourage each other."

Other reviews:

If you're intrigued and want to think about getting started with The Writer's Jungle, check out the Getting Started with Brave Writer page. If I were doing this whole homeschooling journey again, I would absolutely use The Writer's Jungle. It would have dog-eared, salsa-stained, highlighted pages with post-it notes sticking out all over the place. 
My final recoomendation: Toss out those boring workbooks and tedious textbooks. It is worth the extra time and effort.

 Be brave!
Before, writing was a subject that caused strife and frustration in our home. Now, writing is our favorite part of the week. It strengthens our relationships, incites conversation, and gives us new ways to entertain and encourage each other. - See more at:


Friday, July 3, 2015

NYC Senior Trip

When my daughter's senior class trip to Disneyworld fell through, she wasn't terribly disappointed. We (Laurel, her boyfriend, his mom, and me) had a bigger and better back-up plan: New York City.

You know how sometimes, a trip just totally comes together perfectly? This was one of those trips.

Tamyra and I searched for hours and hours on Airbnb for the perfect place to stay. It was the first time that either of us had used Airbnb, and our experience was really excellent. We found several potential places and finally narrowed it down by getting some personal advice from friends on reasonable areas in which to stay. We made our reservations a couple of months in advance. We also decided which Broadway show we wanted to see (Les Miserables) and bought discounted tickets. Besides that, the only planning we really did was that the four of us sat down together and roughly sketched out our 4.5 days in the city.

It is so great to travel with people who have the same basic approach to life. We all love to do stuff, but not too much stuff. We like a schedule, but we like to be flexible enough to break the schedule. We don't mind spending a little money, but we don't want to spend tons of money. We get hungry, so we eat. It sounds so simple, but I know it's really quite amazing to have perfect traveling companions.

We arrived in New York on a Friday afternoon and promptly got lost. But we eventually got to our place in Brooklyn. The neighborhood looked sketchy, but the people were incredibly welcoming and friendly. It was a fabulous little two-bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen and a perfect table for having coffee and planning our days.

As soon as we got settled, we took the subway right to downtown. We spent a lot of time on subways, but it was always a fun experience. So many people to watch! Also, we discovered rather quickly that we are terribly at reading maps, but Daniel is quite good at it.

We wanted to go to MoMa first because it is free on Friday nights. It was quite crowded, but we got in without waiting in lines and spent about an hour there.

I actually got a clear view of Starry Night for about 1 full minute!

After MoMa, we had a surprise for the kids. We had read about Ellen's Stardust Diner in a guidebook. Weirdly, no one had ever mentioned this as a "must do" to either of us, nor had we encountered it while searching the internet. But WOW! Am I ever glad Tamyra ran across this in the book! This was the perfect beginning to our trip to New York!

Ellen's is a 1950s themed diner with singing waitstaff. Sounds corny, I know, but these performers were incredible! Basically, these are folks who are auditioning for Broadway and paying their bills by singing at the diner. We waited in line about 45 minutes to get in, but it was totally worth it. Every one of them sounded like they should be on Broadway. What a fun night!
Photo cred: Tamyra Parks

Saturday was our Central Park day. We spent most of the day just wandering around Central Park. Almost as soon as we got there, the rain began; but Tamyra saw this as a perfect opportunity for some awesome pictures. Did I mention she's a photographer?

Photo credit: Tamyra Parks

Photo credit: Tamyra Parks

Photo creds: Tamyra Parks

The rain only lasted a few minutes,  but it was enough for some fabulous pictures. A Saturday in Central Park is full of entertainment, from musicians to gymnasts to magic shows, and so much more.

We had our fill for the day and then headed over to the Chelsea High Line. This is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Somehow our family totally missed this last time we were in NYC, even though we stayed in Chelsea. We were really tired of walking by the time we got the The High Line, so we didn't stay on it for too long. But what we saw of it was gorgeous.

We were also hungry, and everything was outrageously expensive, even for New York. We ended up eating appetizers at an Italian restaurant. They were really fabulous! This was mine, although I can't really remember what it was.

Sunday was an exciting day: Broadway and Top of the Rock! I've been to NYC a few times before, but this was my first Broadway show. It was phenomenal. Spectacular. I could become addicted to seeing Broadway shows. We sometimes go to the traveling Broadway shows in Knoxville, and although those are good, they pale in comparison to the real thing.

After the show (we went to the 3 p.m. show) we headed over to Top of the Rock. Last time we were in NYC, sunset tours were a lot more expensive, but the ticket price is the same for any time now. The evening was perfect and the sunset was perfect. The enormous crowd of people taking selfies did make viewing difficult, however.

Photo credits: Tamyra Parks

Monday began with the Brooklyn Bridge. The morning was foggy and cool, but really it was perfect for pictures.

We did all the things people said we should do, including eating pizza at Grimaldi's (we were underwhelmed) and having ice cream under the Bridge.

From there we headed to the 9/11 Memorial. It looks so much different than when we were here 4 years ago. One World Trade Center is finished now and the museum is open, although we didn't want to pay the $25 to visit it. We just walked around the grounds and the memorials, as well as visiting St. Paul's Chapel.

The site of the attack is a sobering one but so important. This is part of our tangible history, the where-were-you-when-the-planes-hit moment, for them and us.

We walked from there through Battery Park to the Staten Island Ferry. I love the ferry. I love seeing the Statue of Liberty and the city of New York and thinking about the trip into the city I made when I was 20 with Randy, Adam, Robert, and Randy Landry, when we took the ferry in from New Jersey. And I think about how Adam bought a flannel shirt from Banana Republic and how a rat ran across our path in Central Park, and how Adam and Randy Landry have been gone for so many years now. I'm happy to have those memories, even though they are tinged with sadness.

After the ferry we headed to Central Park. Well, first Laurel and Daniel had to do a little more shopping. I haven't mentioned the shopping yet, but we did leave room for lots of shopping! There just happened to be a big Urban Outfitters right when we got off the subway, so they shopped while we found food. One of my friends who lives in NYC told us of a free concert in Central Park that evening. It was the perfect ending to our day—sitting on a bench listening to Tedeschi Trucks Band while eating our deli soup and sandwiches.

Tuesday was our free day. We didn't have a lot of plans, other than visiting the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station, and, of course, shopping. And we were determined to find Katz's Deli and have an incredible pastrami sandwich. We did, and we did. The experience was everything it was supposed to be, and I could really go for one of those pastrami sandwiches right now.

We discovered a great gift shop in the NY Public Library and bought cool posters for souvenirs instead of tacky t-shirts. I know we missed a lot of the displays in the library, but we did get to see Christopher Robin's stuffed animals in the children's department, which was what I really wanted to see. Aren't they precious?

We were hoping to see one more Broadway show, so we stopped in at the TKTS booth on Times Square. We were in luck! We bought discounted tickets to see Finding Neverland that evening. In the meantime, Tamyra and I sat in Times Square watching all the people while Daniel and Laurel shopped.

Finding Neverland was fantastic. It was the perfect way to end our trip to New York. We even stayed outside the theatre for an extra hour watching the performers come out and sign autographs. Kelsey Grammer never came out, but Matthew Morrison ("Will Schuester"!) did, and we got really close!

We left to drive all the way back to Tennessee on Wednesday morning. Tamyra and I both felt extremely accomplished, as she had driven into the city and I drove out of the city. We have conquered driving in New York!

It took us 14 hours to get home, but it was worth every minute for all the memories our kids will carry into their lives. We got home right before midnight on Wednesday and headed right into graduation on Friday. What a whirlwind of a month! I wouldn't trade it for anything. I am so grateful for a friend who was willing to be adventurous and for incredibly flexible, good-natured, relaxed, and really fun traveling companions.

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