Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More Cirrus Clouds

Another bright blue sky day with cirrus clouds and 63 degrees in February. I love this weather.

Photo by ChristineMM taken 2/12/12 with iPhone4 and Instagram.

Raising Renee Documentary Review

A few days ago I watched the documentary Raising Renee on my cable TV service provider's On Demand service. I found the movie interesting and insightful on many levels.

The film is about a mid-40's artist Beverly McIver who is a professional artist who was being lauded by the art world for her oil paintings. McIver also is a college professor, teaching art, of course. She is African-American, raised in Maryland in racially turbulent times, and is single. As the movie begins she is living alone in Arizona.

I was interested in the movie partially because it shows her painting process and told stories of her life that were the fuel for her artistic spark. The clownface paintings disturbed me until later the stories about her experience in school with taking clown lessons was explained. The film creators did a very good job intertwining her real life with showing her artwork and explaining how art imitates life.

McIver's older sister, Renee, is mentally disabled. At 48 she is developmentally like a third grader, according to Beverly. As the film begins she is still living with her mother who takes care of her as if she were a child. During the movie, Beverly and Renee's mother passes away and Renee had agreed to take care of her sister, so the next chapter of their story unfolds. The life change to suddenly shift to being a single woman living her passion with freedom to living with and helping oversee Renee's safety and welfare is shown.

Beverly has trouble continuing her old life as she knew it. If one needs quiet and peace to paint but there is a blasting TV and a lonely sister who wants to chatter in the evening, it's a hard juggling act.

A change is made to help Renee live more independently. I won't reveal it all here. I do note that the end was touching when Beverly finally has her peace and quiet, she thinks it is too quiet with just one pet cat left in the house, and she longs for company.

Also addressed in the movie is the issue of the challenge of a single African American woman raising children in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. McIver struggled to make ends meet as a maid. Beverly attended a school which she said was mostly white rich kids, across town. She later went to college where she learned to paint. The negative experiences feeling poor and judged as inferior by racist white people in Maryland is told in this story. I think McIver must be happy to sell her paintings to rich white people at her art gallery showings for $10K each!

For me the major emotional element in the film was about Renee and her disability. The film can't help but make you wonder how our society is to care for adult aged disabled persons (since the old institutional system started to get phased out in the 1960s). This issue touched close to home as my nephew is 12 and has Autism and still does not speak and is unable to communicate much and also has developmental issues. (The last I heard he tested at an age three level but I'm not sure what the latest tests have revealed.)

I have been asked to be my nephew's guardian if anything were to happen to my brother and his wife and I said yes (although no legal paperwork was ever written or signed). My husband's reaction to that request to me was, "Do you have any idea what that really means should you say yes?" Yes, I do. I can't imagine me doing it, but if that situation ever arose I would rise to the occasion as best I could. Someone has to do it!

It is important to me that disabled people have as independent a life as possible and a high quality of life and be kept safe, it just takes a lot of work for someone to do. Compromises are often made to see that the one needing the most care gets it.

A note to parents: I feel this is a good movie to show to your tweens and teens to show what the life of a person with this type of disability is like. This is a big issue and one that makes for interesting discussion with your kids. What are your values surrounding this issue? Does someone you know have a disability like this?

Be cautioned it is said at one point that Renee gets raped after opening the door to a stranger. This is not graphic but it is discussed. My personal opinion is once the tween years hit and it's time to start discussing human reproduction and values around sexuality it is time to also tell kids about the violent crime of rape.

Both boys and girls need to have real information about rape and to see for themsleves that it is a terrible violent crime which is not something to be joked about. (If you are not aware kids today joke about rape and some kids in schools play Rape Tag at recess.) We need to speak frankly and directly about rape and call it what it is: a rivolting violent crime that is not fodder for jokes or games.

Rolled into this should also be a talk about sexual harrassment with words and also with inappropriate touch. Girls should be taught to not take that kind of abuse from boys in the community or at school. Boys should be taught to not disrespect girls by doing those things.


Raising Renee official movie website

Beverly McIver's offical website

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Spring Lacrosse Has Begun

I am busy with younger son (age 11) doing spring lacrosse.

For reasons I will not get into here he is only doing a two day a week clinic, so this is not a burden on our family's time as it has been in the last years. With that said, I wish my son was doing more. Comparing the programs available here in Texas to what he had in Connecticut I now realize we had it really great back in Connecticut. The lacrosse programs for kids here are smaller, less available, and the supply for the program does not meet the demand.

Update: Okay upon reading the above, I sound pretty ungrateful. Actually I am grateful that something exists, and my son is grateful. Something is better than nothing. I am glad that some volunteer work to put this program on. While my family does not help with lacrosse we are spending a lot of time helping the Boy Scouts and the rowing team and my husband's also helping homeschoolers by teaching a stock market class. We can only take on so much, so with lacrosse we need to lean on others to provide the program.

Photo by ChristineMM 2/24/12 with iPhone4 and Instagram taken in The Woodlands Texas.

Thespians Documentary Review

Last weekend I took a break from the stresses of my life to sit down and watch the documentary Thespians which was showing on my cable company's On Demand service.

Thespians is about the largest competition for high school students for performance arts, in Florida. The movie follows four troupes who prepare and try out at regionals, then make it to the top tier statewide competition.

I found the movie interesting and inspiring. The efforts of good coaching are evident and it made me wish that all kids who would like to try their hand at performing arts could have that chance. I note that a bunch of the teen guys formerly were only into sports, but when the high school years hit they tried acting and ditched the sports and found a new passion. Another story is of a (gorgeous blonde) girl who claims to be a nerd and was very shy. Additionally she was pulled out of her shell after being raped added another layer of emotional duress to her fear of self-expression. Those stories helped to attempt to bust the myth that only loud or extremely extroverted people make good actors.

A message I took away is that when natural talent meets good coaching and hard work and perseverence all combine, fantastic things can happen.

At one point two students complain to their teacher that their performance is not what they wanted it to be. They seemed frozen and were not going forward. They had the equivalent of writer's block for actors. I loved the teacher's response which I will paraphrase: that acting is a process not a product and the only way to get what you want, to get something better than what you have it to keep working at the process. Only by working through the process over and over does an artist find and discover what makes the performance better. You can't get better by sitting around thinking about the problem or ruminating on your mediocrity or failure. You have to actually practice, practice, practice to discover what will make something great.

In the end of course there were winners and losers. However between the sheer joy that the participants had to just compete (not walk away with a medal) and the happiness of the full troupe who did an entire live play for the thousands of other student actors (not for a prize or to compete but just to perform for performance's sake), you could see that everyone was glad they competed and made it to that level of the competition.

Magnet schools are a great thing and I wish we had more of them. This film reinforced the fact that alternative education can benefit kids: not all kids need or should have a basic college prep tracked high school experience. These kids are thriving with magnet schools and with good acting teaching. (I was knitting during the movie so missed out on whether all four schools in the film were magnets or if it was just some of them.) The film also then can make the case that the arts in regular public schools (or done in the community) is important too.

I enjoyed seeing teens doing something they loved and how these teens found their niche.


Thespians movie official website

My blog posts:

Thoughts on Homeschoolers and Acdemic Competitions

Deadlines Are Good

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shadows in Parking Lot

Photo by ChristineMM using iPhone4 and Instagram in Spring, Texas on 2/26/12.

New Resource for Teaching Writing We're Using

At a recent (free) webinar I attended with Lee Binz of The Home Scholar and Andrew Pudewa of Institute for Excellence in Writing about homeschooling high school I heard of this book: 501 Writing Prompts. I bought it immediately. I started using it today with my ninth grader in our homeschool.

501 Writing Prompts by LearningExpress
ISBN: 978-1-57685-438-9

This book explains different types of writing that schools and colleges use. Some of these are used on standardized tests.

The beauty of this book is that it gets right to the core of what a person needs to know about the four different types of writing: pursuasive essay, expository writing, the narrative method, and literary research essays. The rubric or grading chart is given to explain what teachers and test graders expect from the writing. To illustrate this more concretely there are sample essays of various scores to show exactly what they mean.

(In reading this book I realized that the way I was taught in school is not how essays are being graded today, so I am glad I didn't just rely on what I myself was taught and what I remember.)

There are no shortcuts to learning to write, everyone gets better by practice. To this end there are 501 writing prompts to use for practice.

This is the type of book that is worth its weight in gold. With a full retail price of under $15 and for a discounted price online of under $10 it gives all the information you need to know. This is a lot of help for such a low cost! It cuts to the chase and doesn't waste your time on long lessons or too lengthy explanations.

If you use this book and really practice you can't help but improve your writing skills. Once you know what the graders look for you can learn to write in that way to give them what they want.

I highly recommend this for all students.

Homeschoolers, this is an inexpensive supplement to whatever you are already using to teach your students to write. Homeschool co-op parents can use this as a basis for classes. Teens can use this book yourself to improve your skills, on your own if you are self-motivated.

As we use this book all I keep thinking is, "Here is all the information we need in one convenient place now it's up to my kids to learn it and practice".

I started using this today with my ninth grader.

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose other than what's in my general blog disclosure statement located near the top of my blog's sidebar.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pine Trees with Cirrus Clouds

It was a gorgeous day on 2/22/12, sunny with cirrus clouds and 77 degrees when I snapped this photo using my iPhone4 and Instagram in The Woodlands Texas.

How the Winter Garden Turned Out

In my first winter in Texas I planted a garden.

Herb seedlings and tomatoes were planted out in the first week of September. It was in the 90s and sunny, still scorching weather back then.

When we moved in there was an empty raised bed, 4x6 feet. We spent over $50 on organic soil and organic compost, purchased at the big box DIY store to fill it.

I had high hopes. I watered every day by hand so as to not waste water by using a sprinkler.

The entire backyard here or shall I say the entire tropical garden in the land in the back of the property is in partial shade. The ground is in the understory of many trees and close to this property that throw their shade down. There is red oak, unknown pine varieties, and sweetgum over 50 feet tall. Then I have about 30 small trees in the 40x50 foot back "yard". Also there are a few different types of palm trees (varieties unknown to me) and then maybe a hundred of some kind of tropical plant that looks like and serves a purpose similar to what the hosta does in the north.

My point is, the raised garden bed is only in partial shade. I have no other options for the back yard to raise edible crops in full sun.

My side yard is in shade and planted out with more tropical plants and bushes and big old trees.

I have a patch of lawn about 10x10 feet directly next to the road which I cannot garden in.

Do you see that my options for gardening what I want to grow are limited?

Long story short the winter garden plants did not get enough sunlight to do well. I grew exactly two green tomatoes. My tomato plants didn't grow more than two feet tall. The basil froze during the frosts we had. (I really wanted them to thrive as it is hard to find fresh basil in the grocery store here and what they have costs $3.50 for a small bunch. Ouch.) The one rosemary plant is doing okay. Everything else I planted didn't produce enough to harvest.

As the spring gardening season approached I didn't get too excited about gardening this year. No one has made an offer on our Connecticut home so we are not yet purchasing a "real house" here. It looks like we may be stuck in this rental house over the summer which means that 2012 will not be my first season to garden in the spring and summer growing season.

Yesterday I attended three lectures about gardening in Texas. The details of the program were not shared ahead of time. Come to find out the things I needed to know were never discussed. Instead I learned a lot about trees and drought's effects on trees. I heard about organic gardening which was a very good presentation but I already knew 99% of the content from years of autodidact learning. I heard a lecture on native plants to Texas that will attract pollinators, it was all about flowers. (Interestingly enough I know of these already being featured in perennial gardens elsewhere as non-natives to New England but here they are native.)

What I did not learn that I need to teach myself was the planting seasons, when to do what. I heard nothing about gardening herbs and vegetables.

I'm getting the itch to plan a garden and to dig into the soil. With temperatures last week in the upper 70s and even up to 81 with lovely sun and blue sky I want to get out there and garden. (This feels like the best kind of May and June day in Connecticut.)

I have also decided that the excellent winters in Houston make up for the too hot and too humid summers. When comparing New England to here, I'd rather take a mild winter and a brutal summer to what we still consider a brutal summer and also a brutal winter (with dangerous driving conditions and labor to shovel the walk of ice and snow and with bills to pay for driveway plowing).

I'll have to wait another year to have a garden in Texas I guess...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trees with Sunset

Bare trees in winter with sunset. These were taken within seconds of each other. Photo by ChristineMM using iPhone4 and Instagram and no filter used in either on 2/08/12 in The Woodlands Texas.

Everything is Complicated

Yesterday during a conversation I realized that I've reached a point where I have no patience left for people who fail to see that everything is complicated. I am sick of hearing people's opinions about things that try to give a reason for something as one single thing that can easily be changed. I am tired of people who think they're right and everyone else is wrong and don't get why the rest don't see it their way as they hold some golden piece of information that the unenlightened do not know.

The truth is, that most things in life are very complicated and so few things can be changed by doing one thing differently, let alone by making an easy change. Life is not that simple. If it was, everyone would open their minds to make the easy small change and then every problem would be solved and we'd all be living in a utopia.

We're not in Utopia.

And the pathetic fact is that easy small changes often fail to affect anything very much. I wish they could!

I can and will choose to remain polite in such conversations. The second I can change the topic, I will, if my initial attempt to bring the complexity to light fails to work due to closed-mindedness or whatever else the issue is. (I am being kind to not list a few more reasons that the person would be closed minded.) However I will not seek to take our relationship more in depth such as moving it from acquaintence to friend. No matter how much I'd like more deep friendships in my new place of residence I don't need people in my life who are going to stress me out with stupid talk or ones who have values I do not share such as they are prejudiced or racist.

I think I've solidly hit middle age as my perspective on life has been shifting in the last couple of years. I no longer feel that my lifetime is going to be so long that I can't imagine what it will be like. I have a pretty good idea of how it probably will pan out including a few different scenarios should a few different major things happen.

I have the feeling that really, there will never be enough time to do everything I want and to see everything I want to see. Life is limited and I want to make good choice about how I spend my time. I have enough stress in my life without adding to it by willingly having stupid conversations with stupid ideas that only add up to a pile of drivel at the end or worse, give me stress which corrupts the rest of my day goes on and on to ruin my week.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Anadarko 2

Photo by ChristineMM taken while a passenger in a moving car from I-45 North in The Woodlands Texas on 2/03/12 with iPhone4 and Instagram.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


As we drove down I-45 South it was very dark and suddenly there was an eerie orange glow over a lot of buildings. My husband informed me we were in Huntsville and that was the prison.

Photo taken by ChristineMM with iPhone4 and Instagram while a passenger in a moving car on 2/05/12.

Steampunk! Book Review by ChristineMM

My Star Rating: 2 stars out of 5 = I Don’t Like It

My Summary Statement: A Motley Mix of Creepily Dark and Nonsensical Stories

This is a steampunk themed short story collection for young adult readers aged 14 and up. There are 14 stories. The subtitle promises these to be “fantastically rich and strange”; I disagree and feel it would be more accurate to say “creepily dark and nonsensical stories”. Some are just boring and silly.

Most are typical stories, most of which we’ve heard before (wild west train robberies, suffering kids in an orphanage) but the writers change them up to become steampunk by inserting odd words which we do not know the meaning of nor do we ever find out. The steampunk terms can be anything from using old Wild West terms or Victorian England terms, made up words or words that have fallen out of fashion long ago. Although the words should set the mood or help the reader understand the story most of the time they came off as confusing and weird for being weird’s sake, not for story enhancement. Oh, and to add to the steampunk genre, they threw in some weird inventions, magic, or time travel. When and where these stories are set varies from the present, a hundred years ago, Ancient Rome, there is definitely variety here.

I was really disappointed with this book and reading it cover to cover was what I’d say was slogging through it so that I could do a thorough review. To me there was one really well told story: The Summer People by Kelly Link. One was a notch below that: Clockwork Fagin by Cory Doctorow. I give M.T. Anderson’s The Oracle Engine a nod for an original story but was bored by the war theme and the setting being Ancient Rome. The idea behind Everything Amiable and Obliging by Holly Black was a good one but the details of the story grossed me out. I thought Some Fortunate Future Day by Cassandra Clare was a decent story but it needed just a bit more editing to make us see why the girl fell in love with the man as there was not much shown that would lead us to think he was so appealing.

Some things in this book are dark and violent. As a parent I will share some details to give you an idea what I mean so you can see if this is a book that’s right for your kids. Children in an orphanage being beat to a pulp and tortured, held in a jail cell, and starved, by the man who runs the orphanage, with more intentional verbal abuse to break kids to get them to be submissive to their master. In one story (by Clare) I swore it was going to turn to something else that actually would have made fodder for an R-rated horror movie (but it didn’t, it may have been a better story if it did). Steam Girl had some really descriptive passages about why the teen boy lusted after the teen girl that went a bit too far.

My biggest issue, deserving of its own paragraph was surprisingly by Holly Black whose work I respected in the tween book series made into a movie: The Spiderwick Chronicles. She lost some respect here, with her story’ starting off with a bang describing a robot filled gambling parlor and bar who ran a house of prostitution stocked with robots. There is mention of human men having sexual affairs with robots to cheat on their wives. (The robots are programmed to do anything a human tells them to do. They are true slaves.) The bar scene with entertainment for visitors of a boy child robot in bondage and being whipped and a prettied up girl child robot performing an oral action on a big lollipop to elude to I think you know what, was too over the top mature for the young adult market. Her idea of a woman falling in love with a male robot dance partner was an interesting one but that other stuff was too disgusting. I don’t think that fourteen year old’s need to have stories with kinky sex scenes, the idea of sex with robots programmed to be slaves to any human desire goes too far in and of itself.

The rest of the stories were mediocre, confusing, silly or dumb. I would like to believe that these could have been worked on a bit more, edited more, developed just a bit more deeply, and they could have been much better. This is a hodgepodge book of mostly mediocre writing.

What moved my review from “It’s okay” to “I Don’t Like It” = 2 stars was the mature content. I truly slogged through this. I’m tempted to rate it 1 star but I’ll hold back and stick with 2 stars.

Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the Vine program for the purpose of writing a review on the website. I was under no obligation to promote the book on my blog or to give it a favorable rating. For my full disclosure statement see the link near the top of my blog’s sidebar.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Photo taken at sunset by ChristineMM while a passenger in a moving car heading south in I-45 in Teague Texas on 2/05/12 using iPhone4 and Instagram.

Teaching My Son to Read It Carefully

The meaning of a sentence can change based on one word. If you skim or read sloppily you may miss it and misunderstand. Most of our reading is not imperative or life threatening if we make an error. Especially when reading fiction for entertainment it can be hard to try to get kids to see that it is important to slow down and pay attention to Every. Single. Word. Whether they are reading thoroughly or skimming or missing a word here and there, teachers and parents and homeschool parent-teachers often do not know.

If in your homeschool you do reading comprehension worksheets you are forced to practice reading very carefully. However these same kids sometimes skim or read too carelessly, not just the passage but the question AND THE ANSWERS ALSO.

The first thing kids may do with a multiple choice answer list is pick the first right answer without even reading the rest. Despite the fact that the directions said "pick the most accurate answer" they don't always even read all the answers. Well, let's back up. The student may not even have read the directions because, let's face it, how many times must you read the directions to tell you to "answer these multiple choice questions" or other typically extraneous duplicate statements. Our minds are insulted by the repetition of simple statements so we consciously choose to not read them or maybe our eyes seem to not even notice the directions up there at the top.

It is a shame to know the content but to just mess up on the answer, so the test score does not reflect the reality of what the student knows. On the other hand if the sloppy reading was done on the reading portion they truly didn't comprehend the information 100% accurately! Just one word can change the meaning. Their sloppy reading error can happen in either section of the test.

When the reading passage for a reading comprehension exercise is easy or boring it can be easy to want to fly through it. After thinking the passage was simple, students sometimes try to rush through the question and its answer choices. In so doing they may make errors. They may say "that was so easy" then be surprised they not only didn't score 100% but they may have gotten only half of the answers correct, and failed the test!

In the past I have been largely inspired by Charlotte Mason and her focus on taking in content and letting the mind process it, and reading rich and interesting reading materials and the use of narration to check for understanding. I have also taught to my son's learning styles in the elementary and middle school years, which meant an avoidance of doing 100% workbook learning by themselves and doing more interactive learning. In the earlier years my sons learned much more by listening to me read aloud from higher vocabulary books than their eyes and brain were able to read to themselves silently. But I rarely followed up these intersting learning activities with written multiple choice tests to teach them how to carefully read and to correctly respond to test questions.

By choosing to do what I did in our homeschool it set my kids up to learn a lot of content but not to be skilled in doing reading comprehension worksheets and to not be whizzes at taking written reading tests. My older son is not a natural at this kind of test taking so now he has to change his reading habits and force himself to slow down and take care in reading the passage and to take pains to read those test questions and the selections of answers carefully. This is like learning a new habit rather than just learning a new skill.


Let me pause here to say this:

The converse which I feel compelled to mention is that often the not-natural written test takers of multiple choice questions have high verbal skills and could ace and impress you if they were tested orally by the teacher. They can have actual discussions about the content, not just parrot back facts that were memorized. They also can show that they took in new information and mixed it with what they knew from the past and that they have an understanding of the entire topic (if that is not real learning I don't know what is) versus just knowing what they read in that one passage and that's the end of their knowledge base about that.

The flip side is the kid who flies through a written test with ease and with a high score may find it hard or impossible to ace an oral test, perhaps finding putting words together to summarize too much of a challenge to handle. They may also be so nervous about talking to an adult about it that they appear to know next to nothing, when in fact they really do know something -- but remember -- when being tested what you really know does not count -- all that matters is how you score on the test!

The "natural written test takers" may be best at things like narrowing down answers by using logic and strategy rather than being masters of the content being tested! We don't know which of those correct answers were guesswork! We like to think none were guesses but as the teacher or parent or homeschool parent teacher we really do not know, do we?

The weird thing about American culture and education is we seem to never praise the student with a high verbal ability who can communicate clearly and who can orally discuss content fluently that shows solid comprension. Instead there is an over-focus on easy to grade tests and an accusation that anyone who cannot perform on those tests well is a know nothing idiot, which is just not true.


I was thinking that this blog post is about learning to take tests well but in fact all nonfiction reading and also just reading directions on how to do something is dependent on careful reading of Every. Single. Word. So, the careful reading of the passage part is an important life skill to learn and to make a habit of.

In the real world and in the school game also, the trick is to know when you have to pay attention to Every. Single. Word. and when you can read fast or skim. It is the difference between trying to teach yourself to learn to use a new piece of equipment that you purchased (read it carefully) and when you are reading for pleasure (go ahead and read that magazine article quickly).

My fourteen year old resents having to learn to slow down with reading. I am trying to use my powers of pursuasion to make him realize this is really important for the real world, it's not just something you do in order to take tests well for school evaluations or for college admissions hoop jumping.

Now that my son is a freshman in homeschool high school and he wants to enroll in community college for dual credit he has a real world reason and internal desire to get done what needs to get done. As I've been working with him this week I keep thinking, "I wish I did this sooner" but then I correct my statement to say, "He resisted this in the past as it seemed stupid and that we were doing it just to try to get right answers on an assignment". Now he has a real reason to succeed. I hope his internal motivation provides enough enthusiasm to propel him through the tedium of forcing slowing one's mind down enough to read more slowly and carefully. This is a concerted effort to learn a new skill and it is anything but fun.

I guess for us, this challenge can be summed up as:

"We did alternative learning as we felt it was best at the time. We got away with avoiding doing certain types of typical school activities for many years. Now that I realize my son is not a natural at careful reading and multiple choice written test taking it is a skill that he must master if he is going to fulfill his desire to take community college courses for dual credit for the high school years. He'll need it for further college studies also. It's time to just do this thing."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

T Building

Photo by ChristineMM somewhere near Dallas Texas taken while a passenger in a moving car with iPhone4 and Instagram on 2/04/12.

Decision Made. Really. Yes, Really.

My ninth grader has waffled back and forth on his decision about whether to apply to a science magnet school in town so many times I'm getting whiplash. He's also created more stress for me which I'm sick of. I have mentioned that on the blog but have not mentioned it every time it has gone from yes to no to maybe. I don't even remember what I blogged last on the topic.

March is the month that he'd need to apply for the move in students’ phase of admissions and we don't even know if there is one single spot for a move in, anyway. Maybe we are trying to make a decision on applying only to find out there are no openings.

The way I approach serious goals is to prepare. If a standardized test is to be taken in March and it actually matters how he scores on it, such as in this case, he needs to do some simple review of the topics. He has refused to do review and is not taking this process seriously. What he seems to not comprehend is that this is his ONE chance to go here, the window of opportunity closes as they are trying to discourage new students starting in grades 10 or 11 and starting in grade 12 is not allowed.

I am not the type to have a serious goal and to not take serious steps to make it achievable. "If you're going to do something, do it right." Applying to a magnet school is something I think that students should take seriously.

To help my son make a decision, I needed to try to deal with my son's apathy. I first thought about the pros and cons of going to a magnet school compared to homeschooling and made a list, in order to be prepared for the discussion I was going to initiate.

I then sat down with my son and asked why he wanted to go to the magnet school. I was disappointed to hear he did not list the same pros as I'd listed; he barely came up with any reasons. I had more pros. In fact what he said would have made a very weak answer on the application, which may have led to the school not thinking he was very interested! We then discussed what my list said for pros. His reaction was, "Well now that you say those things I agree and I want those things too." We were in agreement on the cons.

Now the question was do the pros outweigh the cons?

Another question was if he wants to apply, after this discussion, is he ready to do the necessary preparation to apply?

I thought that if my son did decide to apply, knowing these pros and these cons, that he would have a better perspective that he owned the decision -- that it was not me forcing him to apply. I thought that if he saw things laid out in a logical fashion might give him internal motivation to snap out of the apathy and to choose to take action to prepare properly for the admissions process.

At this point (this was about five days ago) we felt we had three real options for studies for the fall of 2012: homeschool with finding new online classes or finding new homeschool co-ops to help with what I do not want or cannot teach at home or go to the magnet school or go to the public high school. (Our tight finances due to carrying the expense of two homes from the unemployment /new job /bad real estate market /bad economy does not leave us disposable income to pay for private school.)

Two days ago I had a long talk with a local homeschool mother and found out that she and her oldest child were in the same situation four years ago that my son and I are in right now. At that time he thought he wanted to be an engineer also. She entertained continuing homeschooling or using private school (which they were offered free tuition to attend) or the magnet school and finally decided to begin using the local community college in fall of his grade nine year. There are many reasons why this option has worked well for that student over these last four years, which I won't list here.

The homeschool mother spent a long time explaining to me about the options at the school and the admission process. She cleared up some misinformation that I had been told by other homeschool mothers. I think some of the problem actually was the other mothers were being too vague or did not want to really explain the process to me. Maybe they thought they were wasting their time or they couldn't be bothered but the point is that things were said by those other moms to both make the application process seem harder and out of my son's reach and/or that the college was not as good as it really was, so I hadn't thought it was a great option for grade 10.

Now we had a fourth option for education, to keep homeschooling but to use community college instead of homeschool co-ops or online classes starting in grade 10. Yesterday I discussed these options with my husband then together we spoke to our son.

My son, husband and I all feel that the path that has the most pros and has the least cons will be to continue to homeschool with an aim to start taking one or maybe two classes at the community college in the fall.

The community college option gives the most personal freedom and is the most flexible, allows the good parts of the homeschool lifestyle to continue while correcting the homeschool challenges such as me not having to run a pseudo chem lab in my kitchen and my inability to be a foreign language instructor to directly teach my son, to name a few. The large course offering also offers more scheduling flexibility compared to trying to use the limited online classes for homeschoolers. Trying to juggle participation with the sport team, Boy Scouts, and Robotics Team along with academic studies requires flexibility in the schedule that this will allow.

Another good thing about having some outside teachers for some classes is I think teen boys in particular need to answer to an authority other than their mother 24/7. Parenting with homeschooling with all home lessons I think is too much of mom being the boss and "bad cop". I personally am feeling too much pressure and stress having this much reign over my son and I don't want to get to the burnout stage again.

You may ask why not just apply to the magnet school and see what happens, even if you have decided to use the community college? The answer is what I said earlier. If he is to apply I want him prepared and ready for all stages of the process. I want this to be taken seriously and to not waste the school staff's time either. By choosing to not apply we are off the hook with spending a month doing test prep review and can concentrate on the regular core academics of our homeschool. We'll not waste our time doing that kind of test prep.

So, it's decided. My son has decided not to apply to the magnet school.

So now what do we need to do this semester to prepare for enrollment at community college?

In order to apply to the community college as a nontraditional young homeschooler my son will have to take the ACT COMPASS test. Since he has not yet completed Algebra II we will skip the math for now and he'll take just the reading, writing skills and writing essay tests. He will now prepare for those tests and will sign up to take them this spring. He is able to retake the test monthly until he gets a passing score, should he need to. I was told there is free tutoring on the test prep offered at a nearby library, so that's an option available to us also.

Registration for the fall of 2012 opens on April 10 so we are going fast forward with taking steps to make this happen.


I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders now that this decision was made. I am happy to have my son continue to homeschool and to gently ease into taking courses at the community college. This feels like the best of both worlds and that we are still avoiding some of the cons that attending high school would present. The most obvious con of traditional high school or magnet schools being excessive homework most of which I suspect is of the waste of time stupid type of work. Another con dodged is avoiding early start times of school, both of which would mean not enough sleep for my son. With my son doing a competitive high school sport he is more tired and needs more rest for body rejuvenation than a non-athlete would need. Sleep is a foundation for good health so not having sleep deprived kids should be a top priority for any parent who wants their child to live in a state of wellness.

It feels so good to have a decision made. Now we'll see if my son's apathy is gone...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Heading Home

Photo by ChristineMM taken while a passenger in a moving car heading south on I-45 in Buffalo Texas using iPhone4 and Instagram on 2/05/12.

(Just realized I referred to my home being in Houston. That's a step toward accepting the reality that I'm no longer a Connecticut resident.)

An Inspiring Homeschool Family I Met

I feel inspired by this local homeschool family I met last week. I look forward to getting to know them better. Hopefully soon I will be able to call them my new friends, not just my acquaintences.

I think this information on the Internet about them may inspire you too.


Peter Han (father of homeschooled children) at TEDxYouth in Taipei, 2011 speaking on "Innovation" which includes discussing why and how his family homeschools.

The YouTube description:
"Serving as the President of Inventors without Borders, Inc., the NGO founded by his son, Javier Fernandez-Han, Peter's passion is to help youth around the world use their talent and imagination to invent solutions to solve problems in their communities. Together with Javier, he is co-developing The Inventor's Village, a series of toolkits and learning programs to help youth invent better ideas faster. They are also launching Innovation Foundry, a collaboration of young innovators from around the world to solve specific problems in developing communities."

I shared Peter Han's video first because I like the story he tells about his children's homeschooling.


Mother Ester Fernandez-Han:

I found this interview online which tells more about why they chose to homeschool and about their current ventures and shared their website, which neither of them told me existed.

Interview by Tina on blog New Beginnings

Family website: Play. Fully. Creative. which provides more information.


The children, in the order of their birth:

Javier Fernandez-Han, inventor, lifelong homeschooler


"You Don't Have to Be Creative to Be Creative" application to speak at TEDx Slovenia


Speaking at TEDxYouth in Taipei, 2011 here he is speaking on "Invention vs. Problem Solving" which includes the method and process he invented to help other people invent things.

The YouTube description of this video is:
"At age nine Javier was inspired to use his love for invention to help the world's poor. Rather than attending traditional schools, Javier has pursued a rigorous academic program enhanced by venture-based learning. He recently co-developed "Invent and Innovate", a learning program to help youth use their imagination to invent useful products and services to serve their communities, and is currently co-developing "Inventors Village", an immersive role-playing invention system. Inventing, tinkering, and photog- raphy are Javier's favorite pursuits."


"The young Javier Fernandez-Han shared with the public their projects to help developing countries in making use of waste, creating and cultivating food and biomass indicated that he intends that everyone can be an entrepreneur."

(part one)

(part two)


If you want to see more of Javier talking in video, just search on his name in Google or YouTube.

Two articles about Javier Fernandez-Han:

How a 15 year old and pond scum can save the world

Forbes 30 Under 30: Energy Javier Fernandez-Han age 17

"These are the people who aren't waiting to reinvent the world. FORBES, leaning on the wisdom of its readers and the greatest minds in business, presents the 30 disrupters under 30, in each of 12 fields, making a difference right now."

If you want to read more about him, just do an Internet search.


Fabian Fernandez-Han

2011 Youth Venture Summit video



12 year old builds Oink-a-Saurus app (video story)

Innovating at an Early Age

Fabian Fernandez-Han, 12, Winner of the ‘NYSE Financial Future Challenge’ Rings Closing Bell at the NYSE

Super Young Retirement Savers: CNN Money

For more articles and information, do an Internet search on his name.


Again I'm inspired by this family and very impressed by their "home school". Then again, if this isn't unschooling, I don't know what is. Well, whatever you want to call it, it's homeschooling and it apparently is working for this family!

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Photo by ChristineMM near Dallas Texas taken while a passenger in a moving car using iPhone4 and Instagram on 2/04/12.

Taking a Risk

I decided to take a risk and offer something to the local homeschool community. It felt like I was walking blindfolded off a cliff and I asked myself if it was a stupid idea.

I don't feel connected to the homeschool community here yet. I have not found people on my wavelength yet, or, perhaps they are not showing themselves fully to me yet for me to realize we are of like mind. I have not really had the chance to say much to the homeschool parents I meet to reveal what I think about education either so they don't know what I am all about either.

The events I attend have mostly mothers who chit chat small talk about anything and everything but never about homeschooling or education or parenting. The homeschool moms in Connecticut were so yearning to talk about homeschooling that when we got together we'd talk shop. Most if not all of us already had rich lives where we connected with others of like mind about the non-homeschooling things in our lives. We didn't need to make friends with homeschool moms to talk about favorite recipes or our exercise routines or to complain about the weather.

I am getting desperate to talk about education and homeschooling and challenges and successes and to seek advice and get a different perspective on. I have not been able to do this in Texas yet. When I'm desperate to talk about homeschooling I pick up the phone and call my old friends in Connecticut.

I had an idea and I talked to my husband and he agreed. We have put ourselves out there and are taking a risk by offering up a free class to be taught by my subject matter expert husband about the stock market to homeschool kids. They are also competing in the Stock Market Game.

I don't know any homeschool kids here, not really, so after having various negative experiences in Connecticut dealing with the offspring of strangers this was scary for me to do. However I followed my instinct and reminded myself of a core educational philosophy I hold which is that ideally adults with special expertise should be able to teach kids about the subject they are passionate about. I feel that "regular people" have gifts to share and that kids should be in touch with adults in the world (not just interacting with paid teachers and paid coaches). My husband is one such person and I feel it is a good thing that he should offer to the homeschool community. (I don't consider it a "give back" per se as so far we have not "taken" anything from this community.) So this is just an offer of generosity from our hearts.

Why should we bother, you might ask? Why should I care anything about other homeschooled kids' experiences? They are not "my problem", right?

I have a general philosophy that the homeschool community works best when we share with each other on a grassroots level. I tell you about this, you tell me about that. We are locked out of so many things by the fact that we are not in school and not allowed to do things offered through the schools so we need to know what is available to us. We also sometimes offer ourselves up to help other homeschooled children then other times other parents offer to help our kids with something. We create things and offer them, that's what is important.

I think it's vital to not just be on the lookout for what we can sign our kids up for and drop them off (free or for a fee) but that we ourselves contribute to the pool of what is available out there. Other parents must feel the same since for years homeschool co-ops have existed and thrived (they're an easy way for parents to give of themselves by teaching other people's children).

It is hard sometimes to get in touch with subject matter experts and harder yet to find ways that our kids can take classes with them or be mentored by them. I dream of my son being mentored by an engineer but in Connecticut I knew exactly two, and one was no longer working in the field (since she was a stay at home mom now). Now in Houston we're surrounded by engineers so I anticipate options for my older son to be mentored by engineers in the upcoming years. I figured surely there would be someone around here whose kids wanted to learn about the stock market. We know the schools barely teach this subject, which is a shame.

The idea came about because my eleven year old starting asking about the stock market. You would think that the sons of a father who knows all this stuff would know it all but they don't. Why? The answer is simple: they didn't care to know. I am busy homeschooling, some of which is interest-led and some of which is "you have to learn math to do what you say you want to do with your career so just do it". I didn't want to shove the finance industry down my kids’ throats also. I can only push and shove so much.

I was reminded of when my older son asked questions in grade 4 which led to my husband leading a class of kids in grades 4-10 and doing in the Stock Market Simulation competition. My older son learned a lot but he didn't want to learn more after that was over, even though he won first place (a $25 prize that we never collected as we refused to give the company his social security number due to a recent identity theft). (And by the my son made all his own stock market picks which my husband thought were bad ideas anyway, but they actually paid off!) My husband had the experience from that time that would help him plan and craft a new class for this spring.

I went online to research if there was a stock market game in this area and found one existed that was starting in about ten days.

I then spent many hours working at finding a public meeting place, dealing with the local homeschool group's rules so I could use their name and other administrative tasks. I won't get into those details although what happened was surprising and disappointing and would be the basis of a few good stories in and of themselves.

I also figured this would be a great way for both of my kids to make some friends in the homeschool community.

I offered the class up on an internet chat forum and was surprised at the low interest given that 300 families are in this support group. I had just one kid interested. One. Plus my two. At the 11th hour another kid popped up. After I closed registration, two siblings popped onto the scene. So now we are running the class with four middle schoolers and two high schoolers. (There were four other interested kids but they were busy with a paid job, a Boy Scout merit badge class, a volunteer commitment and the fourth was too young.)

So far we have had only had one class and it went well. While my husband taught (around our kitchen table) I spoke to the parents. It was great to talk about parenting, homeschooling, education, academic competitions, and extracurriculars for kids in their age group. It was so refreshing to me especially since one of the fathers spoke as if he was giving a TED lecture about alternative education and innovation in learning. Actually later I found out he has spoken at TEDx and even organized a TEDx event in our town in 2011. Why am I not surprised?

It was inspiring to hear that father talk about alternative education although the path his kids have chosen to take with the support of their parents behind them made me feel like our homeschool and family is really really boring. I mean, my kids have not made it to the Forbes list of 30 Under 30, nor have they been featured in any magazine of any kind.

I got over that about 48 hours later when I snapped back into the mindset that what I feel is most important is doing what is right and best for our own kids. My kids are not his kids so the cool path they are following is not what is right for my sons. If I wanted my kids to do those kinds of projects and I coerced them into doing it, then they'd not be following their dreams, they'd be trying to fit a cookie cutter mold that I forced them through. They would most certainly not achieve the same success as that family's kids have because the key is having an internal passion fueling their fire. Even in a homeschool if you force something down a kid's throat (even something alternative and cool sounding) it is almost no different than putting them in school and having the school's agenda forced upon them. We rejected that schooling path for a reason. We wanted something unique for our homeschool that worked for our family.

After all that introspection I arrived back at the mindset that we homeschoolers have freedom to pursue a different path than the schools offer, and perhaps a really alternative path in some cases (like a teen patenting inventions and working to help people in third world countries). It just takes courage and trust to step out onto that wire to first homeschool and then to do what's right for our family. We need the courage to do what our kids need and to also not just try to copy what our fellow homeschooler is doing, no matter how right or cool it sounds.

I am already glad that my husband and I have offered this class to the community. If this works out we can continue together for the fall competition and continue on for years, if we want. It was risky to put ourselves out there into a community which we don't really feel connected to yet, but if we can help our kids and some other family's kids learn about a topic they are curious about by sharing my husband's passion for the subject and his real life work experience, it will be worth all the effort it takes.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Photo by ChristineMM using iPhone4 and Instagram in The Woodlands Texas 2/08/12.

A Few Thoughts on My Learning Watercolor Painting

I've been reading about watercolor painting and trying to teach myself.

Some of the things that good watercolor painters need to know are the same things that good photographers need to know. My prior autodidact learning about photography already has informed me of those things. It's good that a book starts at the very beginning and assumes a person knows nothing, not even about really looking and observing something. I'm just ahead of that curve.

When learning the in's and out's of photography (at which I am not a master by any means) I got to know the limits and challenges of working with the camera. Not only did I see things while out in the world that I wished I could catch in a photo but I also would note the challenges or why the photography medium would not work, or why my lens was not right, or other things. I am now learning the same thing goes for watercolor painting.

I was reading the books on watercolor painting and I'm having a difficult time with the fact that you must paint from the lightest color and then layer on top, darker colors. My mind works the opposite way. It has been a painful process for me to even see and think that way and I can tell that actually painting that will be hard.

For example yesterday I saw a scene of a wildflowers about a foot tall growing on a median strip in town. I saw a lot of black shadow then many blades of various shades of green going upward then topped by the blossoms in various shades of purple, pink, blue, and some scattered yellow and orange. I have no clue how such a scene would be painted in order to show that dark shadow so that it's not just a bland wash of green with dots of color on top.

I have been trying to evaluate scenes I see in real life with an eye toward if they are good material for watercolor painting or not. A master painter may be able to paint anything but as a beginner I am looking for scenes that have both good composition, certain kinds of light, colors that are in my paint palette and ones that can be done with techniques that I have already learned, not too-complex things that I don't yet know how to do.

I was not finding in watercolor painting books, how to paint certain clouds that I think are lovely that I have been photographing. One book I borrowed from the library was about painting the weather and it had watercolor and oil. I don't care to get into oil painting at this time. I have a hard enough time learning one thing, I'm busy with life already and don't have an excess of free time, I don't want to spend more money on new supplies, and my storage space and working area is limited in this (temporary) rental house.

What I realized though is that certain weather conditions are more suited to using different art mediums. I think it's just a fact that to achieve a certain look you should use oil instead of watercolor. Guess what I'm realizing? The types of things I want to paint will need oil painting!

In dabbling in watercolor I have found that I want to work with the paint more, to mess around in it. The quick strokes and fast decisions are not what my mind wants to do. When I move the paint around too much it ruins the look and it drowns out the ability to let the light shine through the paint which is the thing that makes watercolor beautiful!

My time for pursuing a hobby like painting is limited. I'm living in this tiny place and there is hardly anywhere I can lay a painting flat while it dries. I want to work on something deeply when I have time. I don't want to work to lay down one layer of paint then wait a day for it to dry then do one more layer. When I have one hour I want to work that entire hour and do what I can. I don't have the space or the materials to support me having a dozen paintings in process all at once.

The learning curve on the watercolor painting is challenging for me. I think I may look into taking a class. I think experienced teachers can show me things that are hard to teach through reading a book. While book authors do have wisdom to share they are not moving and demonstrating. The books also can't watch me paint and show me what I'm doing wrong (or right). Now that I have some good paint, good brushes, and good paper on hand I realize that what I need to develop is knowing how to translate what I see in real life onto the paper and knowing the limits of watercolor versus what I thought I wanted the paint to do, and then to know the techniques to create what I want.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Clouds over St. Joseph's

Photo by ChristineMM in Houston, the St. Joseph's Medical Center. The clouds are what I was drawn to try to capture. Taken with iPhone4 and Instagram February 2012.

A Generation of Helpless Kids?

Article: Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?

by: Mickey Goodman

on: 2/13/12

in: Huffington Post

My short answer: the helicopter parents are the ones raising helpless kids. Not every parent is a helicopter parent. I'm not a helicopter parent.

There is a fine line between helping your child navigate in the world and stepping in to take over in place of your child. Instead of letting things go that happened between a child and teacher or child and coach or child and Scout leader, some parents insert themselves in the middle when they are dissatisfied with what happened and try to manipulate a change of events. Or, some parents do the work for their child so that they will not experience failure.

There is a difference between these situations:

1. A schooled child getting bullied for years and the parent complaining to the school.

News story from 1/22/12: 6th grader with Autism beaten at the bus stop, has been bulled since 1st grade with the school allegedly not taking action after the parents allegedly complained time after time. This time a student bystander video recorded the beating and put it on YouTube for "entertainment" viewing.

2. A fifth grade child on a community sports team who boasts a goal of building good sportsmanship and safe sporting conditions is getting bullied and physically injured, including being hit on the helmeted head with a lacrosse stick intentionally, while standing around, not during game play. The coaches son is the one who did it. There is also verbal taunting and teasing including profanity, which is against the team's rules.

The parent emails the coach to inquire what the bullying policy is, without mentioning names of the bullies and telling what happened and when. The coach investigages and takes action. The bullying stops.

(That one is from our family, last year.)

3. A Cub Scout came to meetings but refuses to work with the group to work on the tasks needed for rank advancement. The Scout puts his head down on the desk and refuses to participate, at multiple meetings. The Scout leader tells the father what is happening and that he is falling further and further behind but he could work on the tasks at home. The father says the boy has been acting out at school also and that the family is "picking their battles" and that Scouts comes second after schoolwork. The Scout does not do the Scout work at home either. Multiple times the leader tells the boy and the parent that the boy won't make rank if the work isn't done and it's said in an encouraging way not in a negative tone or with shaming language.

At the award ceremony the Scout expresses disappointment that he was the only one in the Den who didn't earn his rank and says he wants to quit. The Scout leader says there are three more months left to the rank year that he can easily finish up at home. Later the father tells the leader that the boy is embarrassed at not getting the award at the banquet and has chosen to not do the work. The boy does not earn the rank. At the last event of the year before summer break, the father says the boy is thinking of quitting Scouts altogether. The leader tells the boy and the father encouraging things to try to pursuade him to stay in the program. Over the summer, during the break from school and Scouting, the boy decides to return to Scouting and decides to work harder to earn the next level of rank in that year.

(That leader was me.)

4. A middle school student misses school days to go skiing with her family for a fun vacation. The student was given the work to do before she left but when she comes back she tells the teacher the work was not finished. The test make-up was already scheduled. The mother calls the teacher and begs for special permission to put the test off longer and to not give lower marks on the now-late work. The teacher was not happy with that request. (I can't blame the teacher.)

(Someone I know was that mother. I don't recall how it panned out.)

It seems that teachers get a reputation for which you can manipulate and which refuse to be manipulated. If I were a teacher I would dread dealing with the parents. I already deal with the parents in volunteer organizations I help with and am grateful that my income stream for work is not intermingled with those politics. I can't imagine worrying that my job would be in jeopardy by a Helicopter Mom Gone Wild.

5. Students in the fourth grade classroom were being rude and using profanity to the substitute teacher who happens to be the parent of one of the classmates. The mother had volunteered in the school and the principal felt she worked well with the students so she talked her into doing substitute teaching.

In her role the substitute was now teaching her children's friends including kids she knew who had been visitors at her house for parties and playdates. The sub couldn't believe how rude and disrespectful the kids were being to her and to each other, as if they were two different people when they're at school versus with their parents outside of school.

One day during a spelling test the students were cheating and talking and breaking multiple rules. The sub was firm and made them be quiet and stopped the cheating. The students went home and complained of the "mean rude sub". The parents talked amongst themselves at a Christmas party and momentum was building up. One mother told me, "We think she is mentally unstable and maybe insane based on how she speaks to our children." Finally a small group of mothers confronted the principal and demanded that the sub stop being used at that school due to her "abusive" behavior.

(Happened in my Connecticut town's public school. I don't know how it panned out.)


I think kids, especially middle school and high school aged are more resilient than parents give them credit for.

What I see happening is parents reacting to an upset kid and trying to fix it or change things. The parents want revenge or the situation fixed or rules adapted so that their child doesn't have to deal with the consequences of their action. But the parent's diligence and unyielding perseverance to deal with one situation often goes much longer than the kid's. Soon thereafter the kid is over it and has moved on and wants to forget that thing happened, but the parent won't let go. The parent may choost to put in days or weeks or months asking for a demand to be met by the outside party (teacher, organization, school or whatever). Sometimes the parent's over-involvement has negative ramifications on other kids in that group or sometimes the kid winds up burned in the end.

My son's former rowing club in Connecticut has a rule that athletes can talk to their coaches any time they want but parents are not allowed to speak to a coach unless a special meeting is called and a third party representing the club is present. I wonder why they had to put that rule in place? I'll tell you why: I bet it's due to parents behaving badly.

At the heart of this is the fact that things are never perfect and that sometimes a less than favorable outcome happens, if that does, we have to learn to cope with it and move on. Parents shouldn't and can't go back and rewrite history to try to have every participant, athlete, or student have an optimal perfect experience. No matter how hard a person in charge of a group of kids works, they can never, ever create a perfect optimal experience for every kid.

Aside from the big issue of bullying and children who are victims without the supervising adults taking care of it, the best thing parents can do is teach our kids how to cope and deal with the situation themselves. Kids need to see that their actions have consequences. If they don't like the consequence they can choose to change their future actions.

Kids need to learn, starting when they are young, how to process the emotions that come from disappointment, anger, and frustration. If kids don't learn those coping techniques they are headed for danger and possible mental illness!

You can't haul off and punch your boss if you are told the budget was cut and there won't be a raise this year, despite good job performance. You shouldn't verbally abuse your future wife because she didn't do something to your satisfaction. You don't always get the promotion you want. Not everyone gets into the college they dreamed to attend! Not everyone is on the winning sports team! Not every skilled child athlete gets to be a millionaire professional athlete as an adult.

It's very hard to keep top grades in every class (without cheating). It's hard to focus to study when not under the influence of a stimulant prescription drug, it really does take effort to sustain one's focus and ignore distractors like Facebook, YouTube and text messaging.

"We need to become velvet bricks," Elmore says, "soft on the outside and hard on the inside and allow children to fail while they are young in order to succeed when they are adults."
-from the article "Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids?"

So, to whoever saw me hauling my screaming five year son out of the store tucked under my arm like a football: I was not abusing him, he was screaming and demanding I buy him (yet another) toy he didn't need and that we couldn't afford anyway. I removed him from the situation as his tantrum was disrupting the peace in the store. All those little things add up over time and what you do starting in the toddler and preschool years does count. The older they get, the harder and more serious the situations seem but they must learn to cope with them: not being invited to a friend's party, not making first string on the sport team, not getting as much time on the field as you hoped for, and not getting a high grade on a test when you didn't even study.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trees 5

Photo by ChristineMM taken with iPhone4 and Instagram somewhere between Dallas and Houston while a passenger in a moving car on I-45 South on 2/5/12.

Invincible Microbe Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Invincible Microbe Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

Authors: Jim Murphy and Alison Blank

Publication: Clarion, July 2012

My Star Rating: 4 Stars

Summary Statement: Gave Grim and Non-Hopeful Outlook (Even in the Title) - Could Scare Some Sensitive Kids - Marketed to Ages 9-12

I am a homeschooling mother who prefers using "real" or "living books" instead of boring textbooks, especially for the middle school and elementary grades for learning about nonfiction topics such as science and history.

I own and have read several of Jim Murphy’s books and appreciate that he writes detailed nonfiction books that educate deeply (and do not dumb down the content), that he can write in an engaging, non-boring style and that he does NOT use a patronizing tone. I also like that he sometimes chooses to write about topics that have been ignored by the children’s publishing industry (like TB).

Murphy writes deeply on topics and some may even ask, “Do kids really want to know all this detail. Do they care?” and “Who is reading these books really”? This book is marketed to children aged 9-12. This is Murphy’s first writing partnership with his wife Alison Blank who writes and edits children’s publications. I noticed a difference in the writing style of this collaborative work. I got a sense that the writing was a bit watered down in the beginning of the book. However at other parts I thought maybe not enough was done to bring this down to the level of the age of the readers. Even a labeled gifted student or any bright kid at age 9 or 10 may not know the terms disingenuous or grudgingly, to name just two. Other times large or uncommon words are used when I felt the writing could have explained things a bit more or another word could have been selected. I was torn about the book, thinking sometimes it was “just right”, sometimes it was a bit easier to read or simplified than necessary yet other times it was talking over a 9-12 year Old’s head. In the last two chapters there is an over-use of government agencies and nonprofit organizations which children of this age are usually ignorant about.

This book discusses TB starting with early man and going forward in time and telling how it affected people around the world (not just focused on the USA). Two chapters focus on the sanatorium method of treatment. Different medical treatments that were used at various times were explained and their uselessness or that they made it even worse is explained also. I appreciated the detailed information about different ideas that scientists and doctors had and how they experimented and tested them (sometimes even going directly to use on humans) and sometimes with dire results. This was treated well although some of the treatments were gruesome and some readers may be grossed out or even scared that supposedly well-intentioned doctors did things that hurt or even killed their patients due to their wrong-thinking or ignorance. (If doctors 50 years ago made terrible mistakes can’t the doctors of today also make mistakes using the current medical opinion of today?)

Once we get to the point in history where an antibiotic cure was found and an effective immunization was found, it was hopeful and good. So, at that point I still didn’t understand the title of the book INVINCIBLE MICROBE. I thought we’d beat the disease!

Then we hit chapter 10 which dives deeper into the fact that microbes mutate and adapt to become resistant to antibiotics. On page 108 it discusses a resistant form of TB discovered in 1979 then goes on to explain that AIDS was in the United States and that AIDS patients began becoming infected with TB. It then switches to discussing TB treatment in third world countries where patients are not willfully complying with antibiotic therapy so they use a system where a health care professional watches them take the pills. The last sentence of the chapter says that while TB seemed under control in the USA it was raging in other parts of the world (that’s scary).

The situation grows more dire for readers in chapter 11. It opens with a story of one airline passenger from the Ukraine infected with TB flying to the USA who winds up infecting many people on the same airplane. While readers may be worried about that, the writing turns to being cluttered with acronyms for government agencies in USA and worldwide agencies are thrown around without any explanation for what they are. Readers aged 9-12 don’t usually know about those (and many adults don’t know about them either). What child knows about the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease? WHO and the CDC are never explained. That introduces an element of confusion for the reader. What the young readers will understand is the warning on page 118 that thanks to modern (and affordable) international commercial air travel “no disease is more than 24 hours away”. So even if you live in America with good health care you are still at risk!

Sadly the book ends on that scary tone. Even the title is grim, calling TB “invincible”. I didn’t finish the book feeling hopeful. I didn’t finish the book feeling confident that humans will be able to beat this thing; I felt that it’s a constant work in progress, but knowing the past good intentions resulted in so much suffering and death I wasn’t feeling too hopeful for the future of battling super germs. Although the authors said that many scientists and agencies are trying their hardest to stay on top of this “invincible microbe”, if they were confident themselves why was this grim title chosen?

I had some issues with the way the funding of the sanatoriums was handled. When deciding to get into a certain topic such as funding of treatments and the controversial issues of race and prejudice, and how a nation is to handle requests for free treatment by illegal immigrants, it’s complicated, and hard to address in a children’s book for kids aged 9-12. I detected some guiding persuasion by what was said and also by what was left out of the book. I felt some topics were glossed over too shallowly (poor white people and all the African American citizens) and other times they went too deep (Mexican illegal immigrants). I also researched on my own and found that another option for sanatoriums existed: nonprofit organizations who gave free care to their members, why was that never mentioned? I was left thinking the best source for funding was government, to give fair and equal access to all. After reading an emotional story of suffering by TB patients when reading that some were denied care due to the color of their skin or their wealth level that it’s a crying shame.

If I try to think optimistically: I think the writing of those controversial topics was done intentionally to show how what was done in the not so recent history was imperfect and to get kids to ask how we can use lessons learned from that to apply to today’s challenge with the same issue of trying to get citizens (and illegal immigrants) equal access to the best medical care of the day. That’s a good thing. If I try to think cynically: I would accuse the authors of a veiled attempt to persuade readers to think that free health care administered by government is the best option for everyone and that Mexicans should be able to freely immigrate to America and to receive free medical care also (not just free care to US legal residents). I have not detected persuasion of this type in past books by Jim Murphy so I wonder if this is the influence of Alison Blank. I’ll not share which of these I personally suspect is true.

So, my feelings on this book were mixed. In a nutshell I appreciated the detailed book about TB to teach about the history of medicine and the history of our country and the world, yet I didn’t like the doomsday ending. I don’t know that every child would be interested in reading this book, yet the gifted kids who may gravitate to this type of deep learning who want to help save the world, are sometimes also the most sensitive and worrisome types that may become highly disturbed by the last two chapters.

Overall I do appreciate all the history in the book so I still rate this 4 stars = I Like It.

Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from Amazon Vine. I was not paid to write the review nor was I under obligation to rate it favorably or to blog about it. For my blog's full disclosure statement see the link near the top of my blog's sidebar.

Deadlines Are Good

After my years of schooling and work, I rebelled against deadlines and schedules. The early years of being a mother-at-home were wonderful schedule-free times with my kids. We had general routines but no hard and fast schedule. Then, the early years of homeschooling were never with strict schedules or deadlines, it was great. It felt liberating and so free to live in a spontaneous manner.

As the kids entered the elementary grades they started doing more and more organized things with groups and we had those things in the schedule and things with deadlines but still in the rest of our family life it was pretty loosey goosey and laid back.

Well now I've got a ninth and sixth grader and I have finally come around to realizing how good deadlines actually are. I don't mean just for them but also for me. In an nutshell, deadlines help me be more productive and help me push to get something done that could have been finished prior but was just not made a priority due to it being a non-priority due to having no end date in sight.

Last year's deadline to move out of the house by the date the movers was arriving was a very clear, mandatory deadline. I worked so hard I put my health at risk, but it had to be done. The goal was to get the house on the market to capture a buyer before the school year started so we'd sell it quicker than possibly carrying the mortgage over to the busy spring selling season. Well it didn't work as we'd hoped so indeed we're paying both for a rental house in Texas and a mortgage and taxes on a house in Connecticut.

My health insurance recently sent me an incentive plan for exercising and doing other healthy things to my body. I laughed when it came in the mail. Then I was thinking that even the dumbest incentive prize might be enough to make me come up with an exercise routine schedule and would give me goals to meet by certain date deadlines. Even if I didn't really want the stupid prize just having that structure in place may be what makes me actually get my butt out of this desk chair and get into the gym to work out. So I stopped snickering at the new incentive plan and started thinking it just may work on some people, like me.

My kids get more work done when they have a deadline. Homeschool co-ops and other types of outside classes can force a date on a homeschooled kid that otherwise may not exist if the mother is teaching the subject at home.

What I don't like about deadlines that I create, is for me it's one more thing to impose on my kids, one more thing to monitor. It can be exhausting to both parent my kids and homeschool them plus oversee all their outside activities and deadlines. I cook meals and clean my own house and manage so many other family and household responsiblities. How much can one person do? I wind up being more loyal and responsible to the outside parties than to the things that are in my control.

As I write this we have a new schedule. No more three half days a week at medical appointments for my older son. No more him being brain dead and tired from his neurofeedback therapy. He is doing home doing more homeschool lessons than we did for the last four months. My younger son stayed pretty much on track but sometimes the schedule would mean some things fell off the radar for that day or that week or....

This is a time of transition as we settle into the new rhythm and routine. I am already seeing that the lack of an urgent deadline, the lack of appointments is already helping them slack off. With me facilitating all the homeschool lessons I have no outside sources pushing my kids about academics. It's time for me to buckle down and get organized and do what I have to do in order to keep tabs on my kids to help them stay on task and to see that they are doing enough academics.

While I used to think that deadlines and schedules were bad I now think they can be positive motivators. For now I'm emphasizing deadlines rather than minute by minute schedules as the idea of that still makes me twitch.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Trees 4

Photo by ChristineMM taken with iPhone4 and Instagram, near Conroe Texas on 2/3/12, while a passenger in a moving car going 70 mph on I-45 North using existing light.

My Ideas for Education Reform (Part Three)

After a few week's break here is the continuation of my ideas on education reform. Here are the former posts:
Part One

Part Two

So now that I have shared some ideas here's my opinion about why I think it won't happen.

I Don't Think the Schools Want Change

School administrators spend time analyzing test scores and talking about what those numbers say about their school. They talk about needing to improve student's scores. The only thing they seem to offer for helping is making a topic a main focus next year or doing more test practice or maybe changing the curriculum (at an immense cost to the school as textbook changes sometimes require face to face training via in-services to teachers).

I say that based on what went on in my Connecticut town. They'd do a big report on this year's test scores then make a change for next year. According to my friends who attended the meetings year after year and saw the changes over time, what happened was when math was the focus year 1, math did go up, but writing went down. When writing was the major focus next time, it went up, but math went down, so forth and so on.

What does not get discussed about how to help the students learn is perhaps how to change the basic structure of school. They tweak just what the teachers do, in a small way, not a large change such as teaching to different learning styles or other more complicated things that may be the foundational source of the problem.

I daresay that no one wants change, really, or they'd look outside the box and make some daring changes, bigger changes rather than just sending more math worksheets home for test prep practice.

Why don't the change? Maybe they are afraid of change. Many people fear change and avoid leaving their comfort zone. Those in charge want the system to look like the old school style they had when they attended as children yet they go nearly crazy trying to figure out why the kids aren't learning and asking what they can do.

Private industry has been changing and employees have had no choice but to change when the market changes. Companies who make changes don't always like to make a change for change's sake; they do it as it makes something better: it's cheaper to deliver, it gives better customer service, it allows them to make more profit, and other reasons. Schools don't have that mindset. They act like they want to keep things the same old way no matter what. Even when pressured from above to improve things, how they try to change it is so limited and narrow.

Change is not easy for employees in the private sector. Change never seems easy or convenient. Change takes effort. Employees only change when forced by someone above. Well, maybe that's not fair to say as often employers don't empower employees to make many decisions on their own so employees would not be able to change unless it came down on them from higher up the corporate ladder.

Whoever said that schools get to keep doing things the same old fashioned way, even when it is not working? Where do they get off thinking they are allowed to do that? Why are people (parents and taxpayers) not demanding a change? I think it's because even the parents of kids who are unhappy in the system are ingrained with this is the one way it is. "It was good enough for me; it's good enough for you." Perhaps people can't even conceive of a way that it could be different and be better.

Before you say that a big change can't be done, think of what we know. We see some magnet schools doing things differently and the students are thriving. For example a science magnet in Connecticut has the kids doing physical science and biology in grade 9 then chemistry and physics in grade 10. The kids are thriving not just surviving; they are not suffering by doing two science subjects in one academic year. Whoever decided that high school kids can only do one science in one year? Why do public schools prohibit doubling up on sciences in one academic year?

At that magnet school, the different schedule gives them time in grades 11 and 12 to do serious lab science such as working with scientists on real medical studies. Isn't that fantastic? Why aren't there more schools like that?

The magnet school students also have a longer school day, going to one campus for four hours, and then traveling to their town of residence's campus for some studies for another four hours. Yes, you heard me right: the students willingly attend school for longer days and have an inconvenience of traveling between two campuses. Why? Because they think they are getting a better education in their area of academic interest and they are willing to work harder and longer. They like learning, they want to go to school there, they want to learn more than regular public school offers so they are doing school for longer hours and they love it.

A big change would be hard, but I would argue that some of the stresses inside the classrooms would lessen. Teachers say they wish they had students who really wanted to learn. What if the new method that better aligned students with their abilities meant the learners were happier and more academically challenged and intellectually stimulated? Is that not better for the entire class of students and a better teaching experience for the teachers?

Maybe school would go longer in the day. Maybe some teachers would not work all the same shift, maybe some are noon to 8pm shift. Maybe some teachers would like to work different hours! I did not say they would work longer hours for the same pay, I said work different hours. Maybe a teacher would like to work a four day work week but work 10 hours (plus lunch) instead. I know that model is loved by those in the private sector who are offered it.

Moving things around would not just be negative, it might help. Before you say the child's extra-curricular activities would suffer, consider this. The hockey players would not have to rise at 4:30 in the morning in order to do practice at five because it's the time the rink was available. Imagine that rink being used all day long by various area schools, instead of standing vacant for most of the school day. Since so many clubs and sports are done through the school already (as they wanted it to be) this would just be moving the schedule around.

The University Model

If students could learn until something was mastered, to re-take or have more concentrated learning on a certain skill area, it would mean students would not be so known by their peers as the kid who is stupid, something that hurts a child's self-esteem and sets a kid up for failure (and for learning to hate school and learning). By being around the same exact peers less, but with being around kids on the same wavelength more often, less of the typical meanness and social pecking order, negative socialization would occur. Some students who are suffering in school would be able to focus on their own progress and moving forward instead of feeling overpowered by the negative socialization they face daily in school. The messages on posters that some teachers put up on classroom walls often represent a utopian ideal that some students never feel represents their reality. How pathetic is that?

(I am speaking of course of students always progressing and moving forward. I know some kids can struggle with concepts but once they are over the initial hurdle they may surge forward. Thus the kid who had trouble with fractions the first time around may fly through the next time. It could be the teacher, the style of teaching, the fact that the child had some developmental change that allowed for more abstract thinking or that the kid needed to have it taught more than once, or spread over time. Once that is gone through, they may go quickly through the future material. It could also be that the student sick or dealing with some personal issue like divorce, and the next time they take the topic when the rougher patch is finished, they fly through it.)

Splitting students up and spreading them out to mix with kids of different grades (which would naturally self-select so the ages of the kids didn't fluctuate ridiculously widely, I'd like to think) would also reduce exposure time to being with the same kids day in and day out. This means that bullying would be reduced.

If you don't see the bully jerk for four classes every day she has less of an opportunity to bother you, and you have less of a chance to develop into being her target. Even if you have bullies in the class, it is easier to take the exposure to them in one class, instead of being locked in stride with them for every class all day long (as is the structure of some middle schools and most elementary schools).

If the students who excel in an area get to be around others who are like that too there would be no stigma in being intelligent either, the science kid would not be labeled a geek, so the benefit is not just for those who get labeled stupid because they didn't get fractions right away, another benefit is there would be less risk in shining academically.

Public school is so big that any change seems impossible to make. Who has power over the change? Perhaps the problem is there is not one person or one team of people. It's not just the administration of one school; it would have to be someone like the superintendent of that school district. But since the school has to answer to the state there is the state education department to answer to. If no one feels they are in control and empowered, no changes can be made. If the source of power, if the puppet master if you will, is an unknown entity so disconnected from the ones actually doing the job, whether it's running the school or teaching the students, then how would change ever come about? If those in control are so distant that they don’t even walk the same halls as the students how can them really know what's going on and that a change needs to take place? Oh, that's right, they look at the numbers and they judge the school and the student's learning by test scores.

One of the things that are most apparent in charter schools and magnet schools is that the administrators know the students and the teachers see the students for more than one class. Perhaps smaller is better and that's just one reason why charters and magnets succeed.

The public education system is so broken and yet it feels like no one is really steering the ship, so how can anyone really think that a change will ever happen?