Miscellaneous Thoughts on Sleep, Jackhammers & Kindergarten

Penndot placed a sign in our front yard a while back that said "Road Work Ahead." But no construction crews appeared. We wondered about the upcoming project. Weeks went by.

Until one night, around 10 pm. And they brought jackhammers with them. It was very loud that first night. Worse than the jackhammers were the honking cars out front. Switching the traffic light to the blinking red setting makes everyone lose their minds. And to be fair, it's really hard to figure out who is supposed to go next at a four way stop when two four lane roads intersect. Then weeks went by and we heard nothing else. Last night they were back. With the jackhammers.

Luckily kindergarten is taxing enough to Laurel that she was not bothered by the noise and fell promptly to sleep.

As for Marko, well, remember when he slept for like 20 hours a day during the first 3 months of his life? And how awesome it was when I got to "sleep train" him to stay in his crib after that? (It's really fun to sleep train a baby when you lay them in bed and say "fall asleep"...and they fall asleep.)

Well, he's not like that anymore. His antics in the hours between 7 and 10pm are hilarious. His demands are unique and constantly changing. He goes on at great lengths about the various beasts that are going to eat him in the dark if we leave him alone. He needs to go to the bathroom. He drinks a ton of water, and then needs to go to the bathroom more. He demands to sleep outside, to build a campfire, to sleep at a Hampton Inn, or to play the piano. Once, he asked me for a beer. If one of us is tired enough to actually go to bed, he just snuggles up against us and goes to sleep. However, he is strongly opposed to the idea of sleeping in his own bedroom.

I suppose we could just weather this phase by simply going to sleep with him. That's what we did with Laurel and she turned out ok.


And that was that....

It's still only August, but Laurel started kindergarten today. No more long lazy days and ignoring bedtimes.

Laurel was surprised at how much they had to sit in their seats. (Quite a bit different from Montessori.) She stripped off her school uniform jumper at some point in the day so arrived to the pick up line with just her shirt and a pair of bicycle shorts on. "It's very hot in there," she told me. It did not seem to be a big deal to anyone. She went to something called "Thinking Class" and drew a picture of a tree.

And that was that; the first day of kindergarten come and gone. There seemed to be a wide range of kids in her class....some who were clearly having their first experiences with school, and others, like Laurel, who are very comfortable in institutional settings. Laurel prefers being around lots of people. One of the things that was sort of exhausting about this summer for me was providing that for her. Seeking out the playgrounds with the regular crowds of big and little kids and going to the pool was a daily requirement for her. Marko and I definitely prefer smaller groups or hanging out by ourselves. I think this is a personality thing and not a developmental thing because Laurel has always thrived in her daycare or preschool settings and craves the stimulation of a crowd.

Marko missed her today, but we went to his playgroup and did some grocery shopping. I found it vastly easier to get chores done with him just tagging along and not having to moderate any play/fights. He was even more helpful than he has been for most of the summer when it came time to clean up. For his "early childhood enrichment" we counted the peanuts I was shelling for dinner. I believe he can recognize amounts up to 3 without counting, but is sort of spotty with any one-to-one correspondence. He wanted to play Set, but that was way beyond him. We also read Fire Fuego, Brave Bomberos, which switches between English and Spanish. I noticed the other day that Laurel was teaching Marko to recite numbers to 10 in Spanish and he seems really interested by hearing words in other languages. The French baby books that my aunt has supplied us with are almost always one of his picks for bedtime reading.

So, summer is a wrap and I am trying to shift into a schedule for the school year. I'm coming up on a one year anniversary of becoming a stay at home mom, and while it doesn't really make sense for me to start a new job right now, recent events have reminded me that one always has to freshen one's resume and be on the lookout for opportunities. On the other hand, it's actually pretty challenging and fulfilling work to manage a home and be directly responsible for the early childhood education of our kids.


Behold, Virginia!

We went down to Charlottesville to visit my great aunt last week and then spent the last couple of days exploring the Grayson Highlands area in southwest Virginia. It was refreshing to get out of town, although M did have to work for half the week. Working from the road poses its own set of challenges, but at least we get to be all together and we are the kind of people who need a change of scenery (especially if that scenery can include some mountains).

My aunt planned all kinds of great kid-friendly activities, the best of which was probably visiting her friend's farm where they got to feed some chickens and collect eggs, and look at horses and cows. We also visited her local toy store, found a nearby playground and walked her dog. Laurel surprised me by even picking up the dog poop in her efforts to prove to me that she is mature enough to get her own dog. (I must admit, I'm wavering on that one now....)

M did a couple of long runs on the AT. We all drove up to Shenandoah together and my aunt, the kids and I explored the big meadow while M ran. The next day we headed out to southwestern Virginia in search of a remote campground and the Grayson Highlands. I really recommend the Hurricane Campground if you use tents or small trailers. It's about 20 miles from the interstate and some of that is on forest roads, but they were well maintained. Some sites are reservable and some are first-come-first-serve. It was really clean, with big gravel tent pads at each site and a nice picnic table and fire ring. We camped along a creek and the noise from it was very soothing.

The Grayson Highlands is a busy state park, with lots of well marked trails and a visitor center and developed campground. Not really our scene, at least to camp in. But it does offer access to the Appalachian Trail and has amazing views of the surrounding mountains via some easy trail.

When we were waiting for M to show up at our rendez-vous spot on Saturday, Laurel - in her typically friendly fashion - introduced herself to lots of people. "Have you seen my dad? He is a runner. He has a big beard." She squinted her eyes at some distant rocky peaks and spotted a person climbing on them. "I don't think that is my dad, because he is a professional runner but not a professional rock climber." She met some horse back riders and they got off to let her pet their horses. She looked everywhere for the wild ponies, but they had moved to another part of the park just ahead of us. Marko kept calling the mountains "beautiful" and when we were driving on those windy, steep country roads he put his hands up in the air and shouted "wheeeee!"

Whenever anyone asked me what my favorite part of the AT was, I always thought of southern Virginia, but hadn't really been back there since we volunteered for Hard Core in 2008. It was great to see it again, even if just for a couple of days.


August Updates

All I wanted for this summer was to spend a lot of time with my kids and pack in as many quintessential summertime activities as we cared for, while keeping it simple and close to home. We wander through the park quite a bit, and carry a picnic blanket to spread beneath shady trees. Laurel's improved her bike riding and swimming skills quite a bit and Marko has uncanny upper body strength on the playground equipment. We eat Italian Ice at the farmer's market on Mondays and go to the science center or museum whenever we need some air conditioning. We got in a little hiking and camping and swimming in the river. M ran so much the kids started playing "running" as a game. We floated - and sunk - a lot of little boats. The list that Laurel and I made at the beginning of the summer is pretty much checked off. So, it has been a really wonderful summer as evidenced by their suntans and bleached hair and the amount of dirt we scrub off our toes at the end of each day. My phone memory is maxed out right now because I took so many pictures of us doing awesome things. However, the days are long. The Perfect Childhood Summer should always wind down in August with a few too-long days and a little bit of boredom.

Today was such a long and tearful day that it seemed appropriate when Laurel's classroom assignment arrived in the mail, along with a thick packet of forms to return. She will start kindergarten in two weeks.

I was standing in my yard yesterday when I met one of our neighbors, coming down the street from the grocery store with her two little boys. She had that look about her, the look I've come to recognize that hits stay-at-home-moms around 4 o'clock. Moms that go to a job during the day look slightly mentally refreshed at 4 or 5 o'clock. I think it must be the transition and those 15 minutes of quiet in the car before you pick your kids up from daycare. Moms who have been with their kids nonstop all day seem much more acutely aware that there are a solid 4 hours until bedtime is remotely possible. (And I say moms, but my next door neighbor is with his kids all day and I know we are in solidarity on this one.) We exchanged phone numbers and immediately started texting and arranging play dates.

I wonder what I look like at that time of day. I don't even want to explain the situation I got into with Marko today when I needed to stop him from wrapping tape around a chair outside and get him into the bathtub. The time period between 4 and 8 is filled with me uttering the most ridiculous directions because my kids are doing weird, annoying or destructive things and misusing all sorts of household objects.

And then finally, everyone is scrubbed clean and inspected for ticks and we sink into bed with a pile of books and all is right with the world again. We talk about our day and recently, Laurel has been begging me to tell stories of my childhood. And from this, Marko has started telling stories about when he was "a kid". (Generally, he's telling us about something that happened last week, or this morning.)

I love the sounds of August...conversations drifting out of cars passing by and the crickets and cicadas in the trees all around us. It's pleasant company for me after everyone else is sleeping and I'm still working on the perpetual pile of dishes. Summer has been different for me this year. I'm really grateful I've been in a position to enjoy it for what it is.



This weekend we camped on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. A couple of weeks ago, we went to the Ohiopyle campground, which was especially fun because we were there with Laurel's friends from school and their families. However, the campgrounds are super crowded in the summer and kind of noisy. It's less than a mile from the parking lot to get to the 653 Shelter so we did a sort of hybrid backpacking trip. We didn't hike very long, but we were far enough away from our car that we just carried in sleeping stuff and water and a few snacks. Marko would have made it, except we were running out of daylight so M threw him up on his shoulders for the last part of it. We made a fire and ate some pistachios.

The next morning, we woke up and hiked out (Marko made the whole distance this time on his own two feet. Yay!). We took them down to the river in Ohiopyle for a while and they splashed around, collecting sea shells and drawing in the sand with sticks.

I don't have a single picture of the weekend. I never carry a camera anymore and my phone doesn't really work in Fayette County so I just left it in the car. We didn't really have any toys or books with us, and it was fun to see the kids find stuff to do. The overnight trip was a total reset for all of us....a chance to hang out without a lot of distraction and enjoy each other's company and the beautiful surroundings.

Not that it's all bliss and relaxation. They cry, they fight, they won't go to sleep at the right time. Marko needs to stop a lot when we hike and we still have to carry him sometimes. I have to be prepared to clean up poo and then haul it out. Everyone gets really dirty, there's poison ivy and ticks. I've learned to never, ever run out of snacks, but sometimes it still happens. And the car is utterly trashed every single time we go anywhere. It kind of creates a lot of extra work for me. But still, I'm always glad we went.

I love that we have a place to go. The kids are getting to know the trails we frequent and the terrain and features of the region. They recognize the landmarks on the way to our favorite places, and Laurel especially understands how everything changes throughout the year and depending on the weather.


How to Raise an American

Last night we met up with some family at the park where I spent every 4th of July (and most days of summer) as a kid. The weather was pretty terrible, but we still had a good time, sharing a picnic and watching the kids play together. We ended up leaving before fireworks started, as it was raining pretty heavily, so Marko and Laurel have yet to experience that part of Independence Day.

It's complicated to explain the meaning behind this holiday. You can't really talk about any of our patriotic celebrations without talking about war. To a child, it may just seem to be about picnics and fireworks.

Last night I read this essay in the Atlantic about E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy list. When I was a kid, my aunt bought me the kid's encyclopedic version of his list (it's been revised several times since). I remember paging through it well into my high school years, and comparing the items that I was familiar with from school to those I had not yet encountered. Hirsch was criticized for the heavy "dead white male" presence on the list, and the essay in the Atlantic really explores that criticism. Having spent most of my education career working with Latino and Black children, and now raising my own white children, I am sensitive to the subtle messages that underpin every textbook paragraph or discussion about historical events, and the way those messages have different effects on children from different backgrounds. But still, it resonates strongly with me that having a common body of knowledge is important for our country and for preparing the next generation of citizens.*

The thing that I always liked about Hirsch's work, and what I found most relevant to my own work as a teacher of literacy, is the idea of schema. No matter what might be on your "list" of things to teach your kids, each item is sure to provoke curiosity of a whole web of other topics. Exploring those schema can often lead to alternative accounts of historical events, exploration into stories that were once important to Americans but now forgotten. The "list" is fluid, ever-changing, just like the composition of America itself. I'm sure Pearson and Scholastic and the marketers of Common Core hate that idea, because it becomes impossible to publish it and sell it to schools.

At the end of the essay, the author challenges us to think of just 10 things - not the the 5,000 on Hirsch's list - that every American should know. I'm only going with 5, because my kids are little, and my list is sort of centered around Independence Day and words they might hear. I'll look these up on Wikipedia, do an image search, look for flags when we're out and about, and check out some books from the library the next time we go.  I'm probably going to accidentally tell them something inaccurate, or leave out a relevant detail. The point is not to make them experts on the term, just to familiarize them, one story at a time, one evolving list at a time.

Stars and Stripes
Thomas Jefferson

*Even using the word citizen caused me to pause. I used the word to mean "someone who participates in society" in a very general sense. But I started thinking about the people my kids know who are not US citizens, or who took different paths to citizenship. It's important that we all have an accurate definition of terms like this, or it becomes impossible to understand or participate in discussions about it. 


Right Now: Liveblogging the last moments of the day

It's light until very late in the evening right now. The kids will not go to bed until 9 at the earliest. Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to make them go to bed earlier, but I am rather lazy, and would rather not put forth good effort on a fruitless task. (The downside is limited adult time in the evening, but that's not fun anyway if they keep popping out of their beds.) So right now, I'm lounging in my low-boy camp chair, typing this blog post and trying to see if the kids will actually clean up the random mess of felt pieces, pipe cleaners and Legos they have scattered across the living room and dining room.

I think our camp chairs are actually the most comfortable pieces of furniture that we own. What does that say about us?

I'm playing their favorite music to inspire them...a strange mix of Wiz Khalifa, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and Taylor Swift. I had the marvelous idea to call our dinner "Pasta Bar" and serve the ingredients separately. I think that's why Taco Tuesday is so successful. Everybody ate with enthusiasm (except M, he isn't home from work yet).

My other summer evening trick is to not turn on any lights when it starts to get dark. So it's very dark in here, and I actually have no idea how many pipe cleaners are left on the floor.

Laurel seems to know all the words to Blank Space.

I finally chopped down the jungle of weeds that was taking over the backyard today. I promised to pay Laurel $5 if she filled a whole garbage bag with weeds. But she wandered off after about five minutes and joined Marko in filling and dumping out various water bottles and buckets in the kiddie pool. Then after I picked up all the weeds she was hysterical over missing her opportunity to earn money.

Wow, they really like Uptown Funk. If it wasn't so dark in here, I would take a video of the dancing that is going on. There are still a lot of pipe cleaners on the floor, though.

I'm not sure it's going to get any cleaner in here, so it's time to call it.

No wait, Marko just showed up with the broom. There is hope yet. At least all the pipe cleaners might make it to one corner of the room, along with any stray pasta.

Yep, this is going to be as clean as it gets.

We do baths everyday because we spend a lot of time in the park and I'm paranoid about deer ticks. I'm very excited to read a few of our library picks from today. Marko got "Squirrels" and "Fire Trucks." Laurel and I will continue on with "The Long Winter" - which reminds us how good we have it. And the it will be dark and everybody will fall asleep right away. Probably including me!


Summer Vacation: Don't Overthink It and Don't Overdo It

Yesterday I took the kids to North Park for some bike riding and pool swimming. Laurel recently learned to ride a bike, but our neighborhood is really too busy for a five year old to ride safely in. And the next neighborhood over appears to be safer, but two years ago I saw an 8 year old kid on a bike get crushed by an SUV (he survived, but had pretty serious injuries), so I'm a little wary about that street, too. I figured we could get some street riding practice in - as well as braking practice - on the loop around the Pie Traynor field. Lots of senior citizens were out walking, and were luckily amused by Laurel's exuberant use of her bell as she practiced passing "On your left!" Marko rode along in the trailer and cheered us on whenever there was the slightest incline. He also greeted every dog.

After the bike ride, they played at one of the many shaded playgrounds and then we went to the pool. I wondered immediately why I wasn't totally grossed out by swimming pools as a kid. But Laurel and Marko loved it, and since the baby pool was only 2 feet deep and really big, I could relax somewhat instead of constantly preventing my non-swimming children from sinking to the bottom and drowning. I feel kind of bad about Laurel not knowing how to swim yet and it's one of the items on our summer list.

This video is old, but I like it. I'm going to try this approach, and if it doesn't work, then I'll seek some professional help. But I've heard from way too many parents that they've taken their kids to lessons and their kids still don't swim very well, so I don't want to waste my money.

One of the things I wanted to make sure that the kids had this summer (and always) is plenty of unstructured time to play, especially outdoors. This is really important during the preschool years, and I actually think this is a bigger influence on the development of vocabulary and comprehension skills later on than anything academic you do. What you read is never really about just what's on the page. Any experience you can draw on to make a comparison or connection helps to make sense of the words.

So, I remind myself that learning to ride a bike, splashing in a pool, climbing the slides at the playground and digging in the dirt in the front yard are doing great things for them.

The other important lesson we learned from yesterday's outing is that Marko really needs to take a nap from about 12 to 2. Also, it's just dumb for fair-skinned people to be out in the sun from 12 to 2. So, for the rest of the summer, I'll be more careful about getting home in time for lunch and nap, and planning our outdoor activities for either the morning or late afternoon.


Summer Vacation: Building Themes

One of the problems with school is the lack of depth of study on any one topic. I used to work at a school that had only two classes a day...language arts/social studies and math/science. The whole grade focused on one "expedition" per semester, centered around a guiding question. But this was the only place where we really stuck to a topic for more than a week or so.

My principal preferred engaging students to pleasing bureaucrats but nonetheless there were standards to address and it was always kind of mind-bending work to label our lesson plans with the daily strand and objective in the state standards. I'm sure some well-intentioned person had a great reason for thinking that large groups of chronologically grouped children ought to be mastering the same thing on day 84 of the school year. But I digress. 

Summer vacation is a perfect opportunity to dive deeper into something-even if you don't know exactly where you are headed at the outset. This week we built some boats out of corks. The next day we went to the library and I checked out several books on boats. One of them had some projects in it, so we used that to build a new kind of boat out of a yogurt container, some clay, a straw and a piece of heavy paper for a sail. Back to the pond we went and the kids wee amazed at how fast this version went zooming around the pond. Laurel thought maybe the sail was better at catching the wind. I thought it being heavier might have been helpful. 

Lest you think our summer break is full of idyllic learning moments, the children were slightly less enthusiastic about the hike to the pond the second time.

I didn't bring snacks and they were not amused at my joke that being unable to walk two miles without some crackers is a first world problem.

Anyway, today we went to visit the science center, which has a great exhibit on water including this sand pit.
You move the sand to create different terrains and topographic lines are projected onto it. Then you hold your hand above it and it makes "rain" - your hand blocking the sensor puts a projection of water on the sand and it runs down into the valleys.

They also had a model of a lock and dam. It provided a very easy to use way to move boats (or rubber ducks!) from one level to another on a water table.

So, we're building a very nice theme around water here and I plan to keep going deeper. I'd like to visit the creek in our park that flows to the river and see what's in there. I will look for some fiction and/or nonfiction books about traveling by sailboat. We'll keep making little boats. I'll check out Netflix to see what kid-friendly documentaries there are. We'll go kayaking on the river. Maybe befriend someone with a yacht. (Laurel's suggestion). We could draw a map of our watershed. I've heard you can take a tour of the sewage plant. We could volunteer with our local watershed conservation group.

I'll be on the lookout for all of the above, but it's a broad topic so I'll also be paying close attention to the kinds of observations and questions the kids bring up.


Summer Vacation: Cork Boats

Today we made little boats out of old wine corks, toothpicks and paper towels. We took them down to a little pond in the park to see how they would float. Laurel said she knew they would at least float because she knew that corks float. (We drink enough wine in this house that corks are a frequent bath toy.)  It was really interesting to see how the different designs were able to catch the current, or how some just got knocked over in the wind. We spent about an hour at the pond, dropping the boats in from various points and rescuing them before they floated out the other side. It was really windy and that gave us a lot to observe about the little sails we put on the boats. Laurel started modifying her boats with little rudders. As soon as we got home, she started fiddling again, and gathering new materials...trying plastic straws instead of toothpicks for instance. I encouraged her to make some sketches of the the ones that worked but she didn't want to. I think messing around with the materials was the most fun for her. Marko only wanted to decorate the boats with pom-poms but he liked watching them float around. I think this was a fun activity because I did it with them but I didn't try to tell them how to make their boats even when I thought their design was bad. Using the corks ensured they would at least float and we could think about other factors that affect water navigation. I was also very happy that Marko walked the whole way there and back with no complaints.