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Annual Birthday Wishes

I have just completed the last party of the birthday season. I have gotten in the habit of writing a blog post every year acknowledging the fleeting time that I have with my children, acknowledging their blossoming personalities.

Dear Lucy,

This year has been one of metamorphosis for you – both physically and emotionally.  About a year ago you began having panic attacks. These panic attacks grew increasingly more frequent until we – you, Dad and myself, agreed to seek outside help.  Mental illness runs long in our family and I saw the signs of an anxiety disorder early. While some people have criticized our decision for early intervention I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it because I’ve watched you blossom under the guidance and wisdom of these outside helpers.  And I could not be more proud of you.  You have embraced every offer of help, every book, every piece of advice, every technique. As a result you have become MIGHTY and STRONG. You faced your fears, and demons and you beat them.

And my darling girl, I want you to remember that. I want you to forever remember that at 10 years old you were strong enough to face your irrational fears and beat them back into submission. Because some day those fears are going to feel bigger and stronger than you can imagine and I want you to pull from this tree of strength that you planted this year and blossom. I want you stand in the warmth and sunlight of your inner courage.

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Dear Max,

Your growth sneaks up on me every year. Every year you get bigger and more grown up and I watch in wonder and sadness. This year you really began to shed your “little boy” appearance. You’ve grown tall and muscular. Your speech is clear, your thoughts more complex.

I have relished in our bedtime routine which has evolved into nightly reading. We’ve read the first five books of The Percy Jackson Series and have now begun the next series. We have shared thousands and thousands of pages.  We have discussed characters and settings and what we think will happen next and what we hope.  Every night you call down for me to come up and read a chapter and by the soft glow of night lights we share another world. A world that only you and I are allowed.

Please, don’t ever leave me alone in that special world sweet boy. You will grow more independent of me, need me less, but I want us to always have that special world that we have so meticulously built together.

Dear Harper,

Who are you? Where did you come from? At times you are a complete mystery to me. I don’t see hints of my personality or Daddy’s. You are your own person – a gift that I wonder at.  You turned 5 this year – but the number is irrelevant because you like to run with the big kids. Anything they can do, you can do better – and nobody, and I mean NOBODY can say “no” to you. It is not part of your vocabulary.  You are self-sufficient in all things except one…….you refuse to go to the bathroom by yourself. EVER.  I’m writing this down now because someday you will have your own children and one of them will refuse to be potty trained and you will be frustrated and when you call me to complain I will laugh at you. I will laugh and laugh and laugh and then I will say, “God is just”.

However, I am wallowing in your childhood. I snuggle you and bend to your whim because you are my last. Do I spoil you? Probably. Do I care? Nope. I still love the way your breath smells in the morning and I still nibble on your toes and I will until it seems weird.  I sit in wonderment of you and most days I just shake my head and shrug my shoulders at the amazing person standing in front of me.

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Small Victories

David and I decided to homeschool our kids in March 2013 – the end of Max’s first grade year.  You can read the whole sordid tale here but one of the main reasons we made that choice was because of Max. Max was ending his first grade year behind in reading, writing, comprehension and had developed a stutter which was aggravated by stressful situations — like being at school.  Max was also VERY aware that he was behind and that he wasn’t good at school.  Nobody needed to tell him or point it out – he knew.

Our first year homeschooling was challenging – in a good way.  We tried a variety of textbooks, workbooks and learning styles. Some of them worked and some failed. My main focus was to help improve Max’s confidence and to help him gain ground in the areas that he was the weakest, handwriting and reading.  We put aside things like grammar and focused most of our energy in these two areas (along with math and the normal things).

At the beginning of this year I had the kids take the California Standardized Test (yes, homeschoolers test too – it is just not high stakes, not stressful, and kids aren’t sent to after school tutoring or summer school if they do poorly).  Max’s test came back with average to high scores in almost every category.  (He had only one low area and that was grammar.  Easy fix for this English teacher).  I shared the scores with Max, explained to him what they meant, where his weaknesses were and what we needed to work on this year.

We’ve continued our work. Max is learning cursive and where a year ago his handwriting was similar to a Kindergartner or Pre-K student this year his cursive is beautiful and looks like another child wrote it.  His reading has taken off and although he still tells me he can’t read even he is starting to realize that is a lie he can no longer hide behind. The results of all this labor – and love – came about two weeks ago.

IMG_7413Max was sitting on the floor putting his shoes on and he looked up at me and said, “Mama, how do you think I’m doing in school?” I looked down and said, “I think you’re doing great. You’re picking up your grammar quickly, you are a natural at math and your cursive is unbelievable. But that isn’t the important question. How do YOU think you’re doing in school?”  Max paused, looked up at me with those big brown eyes and said, “I think I’m doing GREAT! I’ve got this year nailed!”

And that my friends is the sound of success.

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Ebola: No Truth To Be Found

As David left for work this morning I shouted, “Have a good day! Don’t catch ebola!” We both laughed but living in the suburbs of Dallas – ground zero for ebola in the United States – it is a weak laugh.  Friends and family have asked if I’m worried and I suppose I’m less nervous than some, more than others. I work at a university with a heavy international population so I’m probably at a bit more risk than some but not as much as a nurse or health care provider.

The real problem though is the lack of truth. Depending on who, or where or what you read, the truth about ebola is ever changing and that is the problem. A problem that is infecting our democracy, our political system and our society.

If you think that the ebola outbreak is nothing to worry about then you could read this article in the New York Daily News, or this piece in the New York Times, or this article from Forbes news which clearly state that there are far larger threats than ebola and that we are all over reacting.

However, if you think ebola is a huge problem and that the CDC is doing a horribly botched job of handling it then I suggest this article from USA Today, which states that the situation is far worse than we can imagine or this article from Forbes (which counters their other article).

If you think ebola is just a political football that both parties are using to control the upcoming elections than you could refer to this article from NPR or this piece from MSNBC.

And it is this very moving target of absolute truth that is the scariest thing of all, because we have dissolved into a country not based on facts but on opinions.  Even something as cut and dry as science has now become open to debate.  With each citizen feeling the need to voice and defend their opinion there are no universal truths behind which we all stand.  A friend recently told me that China will be the next super power because they have a billion people who all think and believe the same thing and Americans can’t even agree on what color the sky is.

We no longer watch the news, but instead gravitate to the information source that supports and justifies our already existing opinions. We don’t challenge our own thinking but instead look for ways to support it.  This idea that we are all individually correct in our opinions and can point to an article to prove it does not make us well informed but instead makes us mindless sheep who fear everything that is new and different from ourselves and that is the most frightening thing of all.

 

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Fears & Failings

I started speech therapy in second grade.  We lived in Seattle Washington at the time – the land of perpetual green trees and misty rain.  I had a lisp, and I couldn’t say my “r” sounds.  I would continue in speech therapy until sixth grade.  Seeing a speech pathologist way past the time that most of my friends had moved on and had mastered speaking. To this day there are still words or sound combinations that hang me up – “hamburger” is my personal nemesis or “calvary” – forget it – I can’t say it.  The legacy of struggling to communicate orally was the source of  my passion for the written word and a desire to prove to the world that I was smarter than I sounded. That the words that came out of my mouth were in fact not a reflection of my intellect.

Your greatest hope as a parent is that your children won’t face the same struggles that you faced. The amount of time I have spent praying that my children will be smart and that they won’t have speech problems is countless. When Max started showing signs of a stutter my heart broke.  There was my only son picking up the journey where I had left off.  Struggling to communicate, grasping to achieve at school, knowing he was smarter than people thought. Max has made much faster progress than I did. He has faced his stutter with courage, embraced his struggle, and is improving by leaps and bounds.  I suspect he will be done with speech therapy by the end of this school year – a whole five years earlier than myself.

Today I came across this TED talk from a singer in Sydney Australia.

I’ve never experienced the frustration and uncertainty of a “fluency” issue but there on that stage stood my son. On that stage stood me and I couldn’t help but shed tears of acknowledgement.

 

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5 Things NOT To Say To A Depressed Person and 1 Thing You Can

I have launched WordPress at least six times in order to write a blog post about mental illness.  I did after my babies were born.  I did after the shootings at Newtown, with tears still fresh on my cheek.   I never publish.  These posts that I write feel so raw, so vulnerable, so real that I can’t seem to ever publish them. And now Robin Williams has taken his own life and everybody scratches their head and wonders “why?” First, let me say that suicides come in clusters, so as we mourn this loss as a society we should be aware of the everyday people standing next to us who may not be doing so well.  The best I can offer right now is a list of things NOT to say to somebody who suffers from depression.

1.) Just Cheer Up! Be Positive!

I put this in the same category as telling a woman who just miscarried “it’s for the best” or telling somebody who lost their dearest friend “they are in a better place”.  No, no they are not.  And no, I cannot just “cheer up”.  If I could just “cheer up” then I wouldn’t have mental illness.  No, I would just be having a bad day.  Indeed, mental illness is more than just feeling bummed out.  Mental illness is a smothering blanket that extinguishes all light, all love and all hope.

2.) It’s All In Your Head

Well pardon the french, but no shit Sherlock!  It is in my head – that is why it is called ‘MENTAL ILLNESS’.  I cannot control my head. If my head was healthy – like your head – then I could manage it, but I can’t.  There is something so painful about looking into the eyes of somebody struggling with depression and hear them say, “I don’t know WHY I feel this way, I don’t want to and I wish I could make it stop”.  A person with mental illness has lost control of their brain. They intellectually know that their life is blessed, happy, robust but they don’t feel those things. Their brain prevents them from feeling happy and blessed.

3.) It’s Not a Real Illness

Or really any variation of doubting whether or not it exists or is a real thing. Unless you are a mental health expert, have lived with somebody with a mental disease, or experienced it yourself you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.  Until you’ve seen an otherwise completely healthy human crippled by depression to the point where they are non-functioning and incapable of taking a shower or getting out of bed you are not allowed to have an opinion otherwise give voice to it.

4.) You Should Totally Exercise – It Releases Endorphins

OMG are you serious?! Nobody has ever mentioned that to me.  That is the most mind blowing advice I’ve ever received in my whole life.  You should write a book. Many people with depression and mental illness work out.  As a matter of fact some do this to excess and it’s called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is frequently associated with an eating disorder. Those are also mental illnesses.  And the people who suffer with a mental illness can barely muster the energy to get out of bed and drag themselves through a work day otherwise exercise, eat, take a shower, etc.

5.) Have you tried vitamins? Green Smoothies? Kale? Flaxseed Oil? St. John’s Wort? Carrot Juice? Etc.

Most depressed people have tried EVERYTHING.  As a matter of fact they must keep trying new things in order to manage the disease. Remedies that work in the beginning stop working and they have to adjust.  Sometimes it takes a combination of a whole host of things to keep the demons at bay and every person is different.  No offense to your offer of carrot juice, but a person with depression needs to work with a medical professional and therapist in order to fine tune the treatment regime that works best for them.

What should you say?  “Please call me when you need help”.  People that suffer with depression feel alone in the sadness — ALL THE TIME.  They need constant reminders that they are not alone.  If you feel they need professional help, then help them find it.  Give them a phone number, drive them to a clinic, let them know you are there. Spend time with the person. Hug. If you are worried for their personal safety then ask them – point blank – “are you thinking of killing yourself” – if the answer is anything but a definitive “NO” then call the suicide prevention line.

I can’t help but think that every person who has taken their own life has regretted it.  Perhaps, just perhaps YOU are the very person they need to help them get back on track.

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I Need Feminism Because…

There is an Internet meme that is making the rounds right now of women holding signs explaining why they don’t need feminism. This makes me so sad that women would freely walk away from a movement that has given them so much. I think a great deal of this is because people confuse feminists with femi-nazis which really are two different things.  I’m a feminist. PERIOD. ALL CAPITAL LETTERS – I AM A FEMINIST. And I’m pretty gosh darn proud to call myself one.  I would love to write some sort of beautifully phrased post supporting my decision but frankly the best I can do right now is provide you with a partial list of the reasons why I need feminism.

1.) Because in 1920 women FINALLY got the right to vote and that was LESS THAN A 100 YEARS AGO.

2.) Because there are still over 20 countries in the world that forbid women from getting an education

3.) Because 28 countries in Africa still practice female genital mutilation.

4.) Because in 1971 women were finally allowed to practice law IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

5.) Because I want my daughter to have CHOICES. The choice to work, to stay home, to be president, to fly to the moon. And unlike my younger counterparts I REMEMBER a time when women were still heavily marginalized in the work place. I REMEMBER a time when a woman was still expected to dress like a man if they were going to work in a professional place. (watch any movie that was made before 1960 and you’ll see what I mean)

6.) Because I want my daughter to know that if she is raped or sexually assaulted she can report such a crime without fearing that she will be accused of “asking for it”.

7.) Because I hope and dream that one day men will be held accountable for their sexual purity and actions as strongly as women.

8.) Because I hope and dream that one day we will stop relegating men to mindless sexual animals that are on one hand incapable of any intellectual thought but sex, and yet simultaneously better suited to run the world because they don’t have periods.  Men are incapable of controlling their minds when presented with scantily clad women but somehow can still be in charge of nuclear warheads. If this was actually true then all we would need to do to win a war is send a bunch of naked women into battle and all weapons would be dropped. Alas, that doesn’t really work.

9.) Because I believe that both men and women should be granted longer than 6 weeks to be at home with their newborn/adopted child

10.) Because when you are a minority you must always be vigilant about guarding your rights and freedoms.

These women who are so quick to give up feminism are actually using the very rights the feminist movement gave them – the right to have an opinion that they can voice openly in a public forum. If you doubt this then I suggest you turn to the beloved Jane Austen — do you know why all of  Jane’s heroines were strong willed and unhappy? Because they refused to be forced into a marriage based on dowry and financial prospectus — a very common habit. Women were chattel, property, things that were married and sold (dowry) for the betterment of the family. Jane craved education and freedom for women — Jane Austen was a feminist. So before you toss out feminism as being unneeded and outdated because you have already won the right to vote and can go to school, I suggest you spend a bit more time thinking about what feminism REALLY is and what it has already given you.

 

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Twelve Educational iPad Apps

When David and I decided to homeschool neither of us knew what that meant. However, David knew there were a ton of educational apps available on the iPad and so he gave me a blank check and said “buy what you need”.  We’ve done a lot of technology experimentation and so I’d like to provide you with a list of our favorite apps.

 

letter school1.) Letter School

Hands down the most used app of the school year. Max attended The Handwriting Clinic this year and the occupational therapists recommended this app.  It is a very simple idea – kids must trace letters with their fingers. The difference is that they have to draw the letters IN A VERY SPECIFIC SEQUENCE and completely on the lines or they get it wrong.  It teaches the kids the proper sequencing of handwriting and provides positive reinforcement with a video.  This app is really targeted towards grades Pre-k through first grade but Max enjoyed using it as well (second grade).

stack the states2.) Stack The States

This was another very popular app in my family.  This is a combination of state recognition and Tetris. The idea is that the kids are asked a multiple choice question regarding the states. If they get the question right they get to “stack” the state and they keep stacking until they’ve reached a goal. Lucy (age 10) has LOVED this game. I will catch her playing it in bed before she goes to sleep at night.

hopscotch3.) Hopscotch

This app teaches kids basic object-oriented programming by creating little programs for a team of adorably cute monsters. David and the kids have loved this app. The kids have learned to debug and think sequentially. They simply “drag and drop” boxes of code which tells the monsters to do certain things on the screen.  However, if the kids don’t load the boxes of code in the proper sequence nothing happens or it happens in the wrong order.

human body icon4.) Human Body

Have I mentioned how much the human body grosses me out? Well it does. It is pretty gross with all of its fluids and parts and nastiness.  However, this app makes it seem like this super cool machine that does all kinds of super cool things. Kids get to explore the body through different tasks — like feeding it.  Once you’ve given your person food you get to see an inside look as to what the body does with the food — but it’s all animated and cute and not gross like in real life.

math ninja5, 6 & 7.) Marble Math, Ninja Math, and Fraction Squeebles

Okay, so this is a three in one.  These are three separate apps but they are all math oriented and all about math facts. Lucy loves Fraction Squeebles and Marble Math, Max likes Math Ninja. These are all good and basically offer different sorts of games to teach Math facts.  If you want something a bit more advanced or that will teach actual math concepts you might want to visit Khan Academy but for basic math fact drills these are all good.

telling time8.) Telling Time

I’ve been told that most kids don’t really master telling time until 5th grade.  This game allows you to control difficulty level which is nice if you have multiple players at varying ages.  Younger kids can start with simple O’clock and half past times and work their way all the way up to calculating future time.  This has been great for both Max and Lucy and both have been able to tweak it to meet their ability.

monkey word9 & 10) Word Bingo and Monkey Word

Harper especially loves Monkey Word but both of these apps are good at teaching sight words.  Word Bingo is really targeted more towards 1st grade and older and can be adjusted for difficulty. Monkey Word is for the K-1st grade crowd but who doesn’t love the Monkey? He gives you stickers and makes funny noises.

seven little words11) Seven Little Words for Kids

This is not meant to be “educational” but I find it to be a great vocabulary builder for the 4th-6th grade crowd.  It’s a simple game of synonyms.  You are given a clue, similar to a crossword puzzle, but are provided with word fragments that must be unscrambled to determine the word that fits the clue.  I have the adult version of this game on my phone and sometimes Lucy and I can sit and play together

planet discovery12.) Planet Discovery

A full disclaimer that this app isn’t cheap and requires in-app purchases so be warned.  However, it is a very robust app that has provided Lucy quite a bit of information. This app was designed by the Discovery Channel and allows kids to travel the world watching videos and reading information about countries and regions.  Lucy’s favorite part is the ability to dress a virtual doll in traditional clothing from these countries.

 

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Public School To Home School: 5 Tips To Surviving The First Year

About a year ago David and I made the decision to pull the kids out of public school.  The uncertainty and anxiety we felt over making that decision was palpable and even David took to referring to it as our “grand experiment”.  Now, a year later I can’t imagine educating my children any other way.  The number of homeschool parents who start at public school and then transition is growing but not enough of them are talking about the transition.  As a result, here is a list of the things I wish somebody had told me a year ago.

1.) Public School Detox

As an adult you recognize that your children will need to adjust to the new school format but nobody says that as a parent you will too. It took us from August to December to “detox”.  Early on I had a homeschool Mom tell me, “keep in mind that you aren’t doing school at home but you are homeschooling – those things are different”.   We do not have subjects divided by times or spend hours on worksheets.  Life skills and school skills are taught interchangeably and sometimes math looks like a really long visit to the grocery store where kids are calculating ounces and liters and per pound measurements.  Sometimes social studies is a long discussion in the car regarding the welfare system while donating canned goods to the food bank.  Sometimes English is a book club or reading a series of books together as a family.  It takes a long time to release your grip and sense of security that reside in WORKSHEETS.   When I realized that I wasn’t giving my kids any better education than the public school system because I was requiring WORKSHEETS every day I stopped in my tracks and changed course.  Now our day is so much more engaging and eclectic and rewarding for everybody.

2.) Friendships Take Time

EVERYBODY will make you feel like a freak that you are homeschooling and that your children will be socially retarded because they aren’t surrounded by 16 other 8 year olds telling poop jokes.  This pressure will make you frantically scramble for new friends and in the first couple of months they won’t be found and you will feel like a social leper.  It took us a year but we have all met and made new friends.  Homeschool families that have similar schedules, interests and senses of humor.  And yes, perhaps it took a bit more effort than the hundreds of people who surround us during public school but it did happen.  I wish I had more faith at the beginning of my journey that this would happen without me needing to worry about it (and before I forced myself and my children into a dozen awkward social situations).

3.) Dangers of Overbooking

Related to #2 you will fear that you aren’t providing enough interaction and enrichment and so you will commit to EVERYTHING.  Do NOT do this.  I suddenly realized around February that I had booked at least one activity every day of the week and I began to long for days where we could just stay home and do school work. My advice is to designate two or three days and call those “activity days” and that is when music lessons, speech classes, tutoring, Co-op or whatever takes place.  I’m comforted in knowing that even well seasoned home schoolers still struggle with this very thing.

On the flip side, try EVERYTHING.  There are so many great opportunities for lessons and co-ops and clubs and we tried a lot of different things this year.  Some of them worked great like book club and others did not like Lego club. We have loved our co-op experience but there are some homeschool groups I don’t think we will join again.

4.) Goals

I mentally set goals for each of the kids.  Things I wanted to make sure they accomplished before the end of the year. It was nice to think, “well, I wanted to make sure we accomplished these 4 things, and we did”.   I wanted Max to improve his handwriting, his reading skills, learn to tie his shoes, ride a bike and learn his multiplication tables and he did.  He accomplished all of those things.  There was other stuff we accomplished too but to know that the key things were met made me feel like we stayed on track.

5.) Keep Reading and Reaching

There were lots of times this year that I felt like a failure.  I suspect that feeling won’t ever go away, but it was nice to have other moms, homeschool families, books and educators encouraging me along the way. On good days, or  times when we had breakthroughs, I would mark them down and celebrate them so I didn’t let them go unnoticed. Keep looking for those places of encouragement because you will need to go back to that well again and again.  Sometimes the perfect book or article or even FB post was enough to help me face another day.

I can’t believe we only have six weeks left in our school year.  I don’t know exactly when we will stop because I’m not sure when I will feel like we’re done, and perhaps we will continue to do some school things right on through the summer.  After all we’re trying to create life long learners and learning doesn’t stop happening just because it is warm outside.

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