Going exactly in the wrong direction

I understand and sympathize with those who desperately try to make schools produce better-educated students. You only have to spend time with an average millenial to realize how little they know about anything except recycling and whatever specialty they studied in college. They have no conversation, very little imagination, and less initiative.

Case in point. This past Monday we were in studio filming various folks for a number of video projects we have. My kids, being homeschooled, follow along. The younger two (ages 5 and 7) take over the boardroom with their books, paper and pencils and proceed to keep themselves occupied while my almost-9-year-old comes into the studio with us to help with the production and work as third videographer (she’s getting good at it, too).

It’s a busy day, so the kids have some homeschooling tasks to complete but not too many. A couple of exercise pages, followed by their assigned reading, then pretty much free reading and colouring for the rest of the morning. (They got to watch a classic movie, Snow White, in the afternoon; yay Mom.)

My little one, who’s the artist in the family, spent most of her morning making her own money. She took sheets of paper and designed money bills. She made a huge wad of them, and felt very rich indeed. Of course, being five, she then wanted to go spend some of that money for real. I told her I wasn’t sure this would work but we could try it once (I’m still hesitating between telling her what the “real” reality really is and letting her play imaginary games, and usually settle for something in-between).

Lunch had to be bought so off we went to the local strip mall’s Subway counter. We order our stuff and as we get to the cash I tell the young pleasant fellow that my daughter wanted to use her own money to pay for the sandwiches and that I would put the balance on my credit card.

He looked at me like I’d just suggested having a picnic naked with space aliens. My little one is on her tippy-toes stretching her arm as far as it’ll go, desperately trying to get her money into his hand.

He’s not looking at her. He’s looking at me with a look that made me understand just what a dark void the space reserved for imagination in his brain was.

I repeated. “She wants to pay for the sandwiches with her own money. She doesn’t have enough to cover the whole bill so I’ll put the balance (here I nodded and winked as helpfully as I could) on my Visa.”

He’s still looking at me, not a sweet clue what to do.

“Please take her money, and use my card to pay.” [Please take the $#^$ money!]

Still no reaction.

A desperate mother sometimes has to resort to desperate measures. I took the piece of paper from my daughter’s hand, put it in the hands of this fine specimen of the public education system, and said “there, how much do I owe you now?”

He gestured silently towards the card terminal, and I did the rest like a Big Girl. Once the sandwiches were properly paid for, the (evidently thoroughly traumatized) cashier handed me the bag containing our precious subs.

My little one jumped and squealed with joy. “IT WORKED, MOM!!! IT WORKED!!!”

Yeah, I thought… but he’s completely broken.

Now this was a fine, pleasant, polite young man. I’m sure he gets along great with everyone. But he obviously had no idea what to do with a healthy five-year-old who insisted on playing a pretty short and innocent make-believe game, even after the rules had been explained, twice, to him.

For all I know, he’s still traumatized. Because, gosh, he got caught in an instance of Spontaneous and Unauthorized Play. And we don’t do that anymore.

What prompted me to tell you about this episode is this story about where kindergarten is going in America (and, I’m sure, Canada).

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”

The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.

That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Couldn’t be wronger.

Kids need to play. A lot. They need to play games they make up themselves, not organized games supervised by adults with dead space where their imagination used to be. Being homeschooled, my kids play every day. They play all kinds of games – many of which make me roll my eyes if I don’t watch out. I mean, they’re silly make-believe stuff. Yes, my kids know the difference between real world and fantasy imaginary world. I indulge the little one a bit on that point at times, but she’s still just five. The other two grew out of it just fine; I have no reason to suspect the youngest won’t. But even though they know their games aren’t real, they enjoy playing them immensely.

I don’t get involved in their games. I don’t direct them. There are rules about what not to do (no hitting, no running inside, no loud screaming, no dismantling the curtains to make togas out of them without asking permission first), but otherwise, whatever, just play.

They also get quiet study time and of course lessons during which they are expected to sit quietly and pay attention. But because they know that if they get their work done speedily and well they get to be free and play as they like, they tend to get their stuff done pretty quickly indeed. As a result I’ve got kids who are ahead of their peers academically but who, unlike their peers, get a ton of unstructured play time. Sometimes they use that play time to write stories. Sometimes they use it to teach themselves piano. Or watch nature documentaries. Whatever they’re doing, I figure, they’re learning something. Including how to share and get along with your sisters instead of bickering. And how to deal with adults when you go buy sandwiches or work in a studio with your parents and other grownups.

Play. Let your kids do it. Don’t schedule play dates. Just give them time to be whoever they want to be. And watch them blossom into interesting, well-balanced, people.

And just the perfect weather for it too

Today we are going  to a friend’s farm to ride horses. I mean, to visit and catch up. And ride horses. Did I mention the horses? 

We’re a touch excited about that. And I thought: what better thing to do after an afternoon of horsing around than sit down to a hearty bowl of chili? 

I just hope this batch is large enough… 


Your butt as an ice cube: a late-season cottage tale

Ahhhh. Late September. What a time to be at the lake. It’s still warm during the day, very cool at night, and there’s virtually nobody else around except for a few hardy (and quiet) fishing dudes. Plus the not-so-quiet hunter fellow who seems to be having a grand old time testing his rifle judging by how often he does it.

But mostly I like this time of year because it helps me feel so thoroughly alive. This morning, being a Saturday, I allowed myself to sleep in until 7. Got up, got my 8-year-old to start the fire with matches from the Speaker of the House of Commons (yeah, I know, you want the backstory to that one), prepared a mug of sweet tea and went for a swim with my husband.

Yes, the water is cold. Not brutally cold yet, but oh, it’s coming. We ran back up the stairs, got dressed, and drank our tea in front of the fire.

Now the rest of the kids are up, eating their sugary cereal (weekend treat), and planning their day. These are simple pleasures, and they are by far the best ones.

There is such a thing as just war

Interesting read this morning, from Terry Glavin. Stop the war, he says. We all know that’s what needs to be done.

And then this: That war, on top of everything else, may be endangering mankind’s food supply.

I’m not very keen on war myself. But there are times when it’s the only way to stop innocent human beings from getting massacred. If we need to use biodiversity to convince pacifist lefties to join in, so be it.

Where's my magic wand?

Who says you’re an artist?

You do.

“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.”

If you’d asked me what I wanted to do with my life when I was 16 years old, I would have said a writer. I’d always loved reading. I’d always loved stories. I’d always thought writing stories for other people to enjoy would be the coolest, and scariest thing to do.

That’s not a dream that flew very well with the people around me at the time. I was quite actively discouraged from pursuing that dream. I mean, it’s fine as a sideline, on your time off. But very few people can live off their writing and we really don’t think you could. So find something else, something more realistic, to do with your life.

I was told that, more or less in those exact words. And I listened. I launched a business at 18, which was successful enough. But it only lasted a couple years. Then I went into other fields, mostly in sales, and made that work well enough, but only for a short while. Then I thought maybe I should go back to school. I earned a law degree and got a job offer at a high-flying firm. I accepted it then turned it down a few weeks before I was set to start, to the great consternation of those around me who thought I was finally on the path to reasonable, practical prosperity.

I’m sure I was. But I’m also sure I would have been miserable trying to work as a lawyer.

It took me years to accept that I was really meant to be a writer and a storyteller and focus on that. So I understand how difficult and challenging it is to craft your own handmade magic wand to hit yourself on the head with. But it’s the only thing that really works, that lets you be who you were meant to be. Don’t ever let anyone distract you from your magic with considerations of practicality. Be who you are, and make that work for you.

Good reads, September 21, 2015

“We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.” Wish I’d said that. But I least I can read it. 

The four desires driving human behaviour.

Ad blockers and the future of the web. Because we always have to have e-wars…

Watcha watchin, Mr. President? The list of movies Nixon, Carter & Reagan enjoyed during their White House years.

When schooling meets policing. I’m not surprised it’s come to this. You put kids in very artificial circumstances, with – at best – indifferent adults and you wonder why the kids misbehave. I don’t.

Good reads, September 20, 2015

Why Ikea is Swedish of “argument”.

Denmark has a differen kind of sex-ed. One that mentions (shield your eyes)… Children! As in: have them young!

Columbia University has a fantastic resource for the study of film: An interactive, online, and free glossary. Bookmark that one…

This is not a pleasant read, but if you’ve ever had to go through the difficult decision to walk away from a family that was not OK, you’ll understand.