The No Homework Post

Laurel's school has a no homework policy for their primary building, which houses K-3. It has been a blissful experience to not have to deal with a packet of worksheets every single week. I used to be in charge of curriculum for an organization that provided after-school care at many different schools around the city. It was an ongoing fight to ever get the staff to do anything fun, enriching or related to a book, because of those damn worksheet packets. It's not that they weren't interested in enrichment, it was just that the worksheets endlessly flowed from the children's backpacks. Nobody was ever done. And we spent a lot of time deciphering directions and examples and having conversations with the children where they swore they had never seen a problem like that in their life.

I also spent 5 years as a classroom teacher and yes, I must confess to have sent home some pretty dumb homework assignments. Nobody is a good teacher in their first year, or usually second or third. But I learned over time and also tried to find ways to make sure my students did their own homework assignments, as it had become a bigger and bigger problem over the years with parents getting a little too involved with them.

All that to say that I think homework is usually pretty dumb, and kids who have spent most of the day inside, around lots of other people can probably benefit from being outside, or alone with their thoughts, or perhaps both, if you can swing that. I was very pleased that her school had this policy.

I pick her up from school a little before 4pm, so there isn't a lot of time. We play outside unless the weather is truly terrible. She reads or draws while I make dinner, or sometimes plays Legos or some other make-believe game. She reads before bed every night. None of it is very structured, but I know from years of curriculum-writing how every one of those activities aligns with a standard, strand, anchors and eligible content.

But this year, her teachers were sneaky. They started out by sending email attachments of "optional" homework. Then a month or two after the start of the year, they sent home a permission slip asking if we wanted to "opt out" of the optional homework. I opted out. No thank you. Parents in the school yard agreed, little kids need time to play. But later  found out they all opted in. I felt pretty dumb about that.

And then the worksheets started coming home in the folder. I wasn't really sure what to do with them, so I just put them in another folder and stuck them on the bookshelf. The folder started getting really fat. At conference time, they said Laurel was doing well, excelling in all her subjects, reading above grade level, etc. etc. Very positive. No mention of the homework, or lack of completion.

Then one day, Laurel started working on the sheets that came home. She said she had to or she would have to go down to the lower math group. For the most part, she now seems personally motivated to get the work done at home and it's clear that they are spending time during every math class going over the answers. I dislike how this came about, but I don't have a problem with her doing a developmentally appropriate amount of homework on content they actually covered in school.

In my humble (yet experienced) opinion, all the math homework that kids do from kindergarten until they hit algebra or so could be skipped if kids had a lemonade stand (or sold Girl Scout cookies!) or got an allowance and handled more cash. If they used analog clocks to tell time a little bit more, and cooked on a regular basis, following and doubling recipes. Play some Battleship, the card game War and its variations, add in a little sewing or woodwork and you are set.

I'm a big believer that you should go all in with support for your kids' teachers and school. Do what they ask, as a sign of respect for their professional opinion. I was just mad about the fake "no homework" oh-no-wait "optional homework" no-actually-it's "required homework unless you want to be in the dumb math group policy."


No TV, No Problem

We gave up tv for Lent, and by tv (it's 2018 after all), I mean that I unplugged the Roku and threw all the Kindles in a closet in the attic. I keep my laptop and telephone out of the way until the kids are in bed. Definitely we were watching a lot of television shows, but also overuse of youtube videos to answer every little question and obsessive checking of the weather report. TMI every second of every day. I didn't realize how much the kids were looking at screens until they weren't looking at them at all.

At first, it was terrible and I'm rather inclined to still think it's terrible every day around 5 o'clock when I'm trying to cook dinner and I can't park them in front of some Netflix. Now I have to slow down the dinner prep to give them time to chop a few veggies or stir the pot. Efficiency be damned.  Sometimes it's fun. Our new kitchen layout makes it a lot easier to lay ingredients out in the mise en place fashion, although that requires a certain level of planning that is not really my natural strength. We are playing way more games. Solitaire with a real deck of cards. Chess and dominoes. Lots of puzzles and Legos.

With a conscious effort to keep my own screen out of sight, I've found it's difficult to keep up with some friends and I'm starting to be really terrible about getting back to people on text or Facebook. I guess it makes sense, my goal was to be more present with the kids, and I'm definitely doing that. But being present here, now, makes it feel like there isn't really room for much else.


Front Row Seat

Today a car ran into the gas pump across the street. Apparently the driver had a prosthetic leg that got stuck on the accelerator. The car was up on its side when the fire trucks and police arrived. I don't think anyone was hurt too badly, as they all got out of the car, but the tow truck drivers couldn't figure out how to get the car out of there. Nothing blew up, luckily. I was babysitting and all the kids stopped what they were doing to look at the fire trucks, but other than that, they were not impressed. City kids.



Laurel wore her nightgown inside out last night. As she is prone to distraction during all activities involving hygiene and housework, I assumed she just grabbed something out of her drawer and threw it on without looking. But in fact, her teacher had instructed the class to "wear your pjs inside out and flush an ice cube down the toilet." I used to work with a woman who always told the kids things like that, and I suddenly missed her and that job when I thought about the fun we had. I was skeptical of the winter weather warning - the storm looked like it was going north to me- but school was already canceled for the day when we woke up. It's a heavy wet snow, mixed with rain. Heart attack snow, some say, because it's so heavy to shovel.

The people in my neighborhood seem to have given up on clearing their sidewalks. Another degradation of civility? There is a $300 fine for not doing it, but I take it more as a matter of courtesy to those who need to walk by your house. One of the agreed upon social norms of urban living. But now there are great stretches of the neighborhood that seem to go uncleared for as long as the snow lasts. Pedestrians pack the snow down into little icy patches, dogs leave pee trails, litter gets lodged in it. You can tell exactly where the transitional living apartments are, with their institutional grade salt and completely clear sidewalks.

I was pretty bummed about school being canceled, because that meant the boys' preschool was also closed and I have really grown to count on those three mornings a week to stay sane. I just really need to be alone sometimes.

We did make it outside and I was very pleased with the performance of Max's new full-body rain suit. He wouldn't stop eating snow off the driveway though. "This is soooo yummy, Mommy."

I helped the kids work on Valentines for their classmates. I cut out hearts from construction paper and they signed their names and decorated them with stickers. And that's as fancy as we are going to get this year. We had a dance party. Marko finished building one of the LEGO sets from his birthday. Laurel read all the e-books I put on her kindle. Max dumped things out, climbed on furniture, tried to reach the knives, ate playdoh, and then told me he wanted to "sleep in the buggy. With milk." So he's asleep in the stroller now, and I sent the other kids off to watch tv.


Sounds and sights, of the miscellaneous variety

There are Legos everywhere. Bursts of squealing, screeching, shouting, crying, then it settles into quiet voices as they get back to playing together. They tell stories to each other. "Pretend you are the dad and you went to mow the grass and there was a horse in the way..."

"Pretend you are a cheetah and your brother is coming over with some juice...."

Back and forth, they exchange scenarios while they build what they call "set ups" - little arrangements of figurines and cotton balls and tape.
Footsteps and muffled voices outside the door. I'm naked, in a hospital gown, waiting for my supposed-to-be annual skin cancer screening. The PA comes in, greets me while looking right past me. "Any concerns?" She tsks at the scar on my shoulder. "Who did this?"

I don't say anything. She was the one who performed that procedure. The scar looks like shit. It healed wide. I'm not the type to mind, but I do catch people staring at it if I'm in a swim suit. She tells me she needs to check the pathology report and leaves the room. When she comes back, she checks the rest of my body and doesn't say anything else about the scar.

"Good for another year!" she practically shouts, as she disappears into the hallway. I get dressed quickly, inhaling deeply when I catch a whiff of the mud caked on my boots when I bend over to tie them. It smells like disinfectant in there, and the floor looks clean, but I'm reminded of my mom's stories about her aides throwing soiled linens right on the floor.
Ever since we started looking at camper vans and RVs, I've been noticing people living in their vehicles. On the street near the boys preschool, in the parking garage at the Target. Once I was walking around the corner from my house and the side door on a nondescript work van was open, revealing some shelving with clothes on it, a little bed and a stove. I think I could very happily live in a van, even with the three kids, but that it would be difficult to live the way we do now.
I haven't heard a siren, the entire time I've been typing this. I noticed this fact because I thought they were a near constant presence on my street and I thought I might write a little something about the differences between Pittsburgh EMS and Eastern Area and the number 17 fire engines. But either it's  a slow day for overdoses and accidents or I am overestimating the general amount of first response traffic on my street.


Night Hike

A few months ago we started going on "Night Hikes" before bed. We mostly walk a little loop that takes us down some quiet streets onto a portion of the bike path that runs through Frick Park. We walk this route all the time, but everything looks really different in the dark. Right now there's snow packed tight on the trail, and the woods are a lot less threatening with their blanket of snow. Sometimes we see deer and once we spotted some eyes up in a tree, a possum or raccoon maybe.

I wasn't planning on taking them out tonight. I babysat the neighbors after school, and then after they went home, started rolling out pizzas. But things got out of control, as they do when cooking with kids. Flour everywhere! Cheese everywhere! Legos everywhere!

"Night hike," I told the kids, "Suit up."

They scurried around getting snow pants and mittens and things calmed down a bit immediately.

I thought about trying to tidy up a bit. At least right the tipped-over furniture and pick the pizza crusts off the floor. Then I thought better of it. M walked in the door and happily was into the idea of a night hike. We all set out, flashlights in hand.

My favorite part is how we walk so closely together, often holding hands. The kids don't stray very far, we never have to yell for someone to hurry up or stop. Our voices are a lot quieter, the kids ask all sorts of questions and even though we live in a city neighborhood, we hardly ever see another person.

Tonight Max kept saying, "the Maxie shadow big!" because Marko was walking behind him with a headlamp on.

Laurel was thrilled with every icy patch we crossed.

Marko brought his hiking stick and used it for balance as well as to knock icicles out of trees.

We were all a lot happier and calmer when we got back inside.

I used to go on some pretty grand adventures. Sometimes it takes a little effort to see the value in very small adventures like these, but I definitely think it's there.

Blank-wet and other things I want to remember

The other day we were all talking about first words. We could remember funny things each kid would say when they were small, but could not remember anybody's first words. It's probably here somewhere on these thousand blog entries I have typed over the years. Here are a few more things I want to remember.

Max pronounces blanket as "blank-wet." He wakes up very early every day and likes to watch Daniel Tiger while we snuggle on the couch.

The other day I picked the boys up from preschool, and even though they spent the morning right down the hall from each other in their respective classrooms, they still embraced and said I MISSED YOU, looking genuinely happy to be reunited. Another mom asked me if they were always so affectionate. (Answer, no, we are a family of intense high and lows.)

We finally had a week where Max walked into his classroom by himself and without tears.

Laurel just got the cutest haircut with bangs. Along with her glasses, she looks like an entirely different child. It's fun to see how different family members show up in her face depending on how she wears her hair.

There's more, but if I don't hit publish, this will never happen.



Things are not perfect here. A bit of a disaster at the moment actually, depending on your standards for hot water and places to cook. However, I am really thankful for having a table that folds out large enough to accommodate anyone who wants to gather around it, and the wits and resources to be able to cook a meal to put on said table. For woods to run and play in. For a year so healthy that we have nothing to deduct on our taxes and a row of happy sleeping children lined up in the bed I'm about to crawl into. For a circle of friends and family that surround me with help and support and kindness and fun. For the blessing of a 20+ year relationship with M that is never easy, never boring, but always feels like the right path. For being able to give my kids all the time they need to stop and smell the weeds.


Race Season - Done!

I spent the weekend in Oil Creek State Park with M at the Oil Creek 100 Trail Runs, wrapping up the race season, and enjoying the fall colors. My parents took the kids for the weekend, and I brought my bike with us up to the park so I had a great time biking between aid stations and around town. Oil Creek has a 9.7 mile bike trail that is paved and pretty flat and winds alongside the creek. I didn't take a single picture, but imagine the paved path edged with bright green moss, trees towering overhead with yellow and red leaves and the gentle sound of a wide shallow creek. Saturday morning started out foggy and dreary, but the skies cleared around noon and it got quite hot. M ran the 100 mile event for the third year and had a good race, finishing third and in just over 20 hours. His friend Jeff came up to pace him for the last 25 miles. I spent a good part of the day (and night) hanging out around the aid stations and meeting the families and friends of other runners. There are a huge number of volunteers who come out to mark the course, keep track of the runners, cook food for them, provide first aid when needed and cheer them on. This is pretty common in trail ultras, which is why I never feel too bad when I send M off to a do a race on his own. But it was fun to be there.

One of the interesting things about these trail races is the impact they have on the public parks and lands where they take place. The volunteers at these races are also the people who clear blow downs and repair fallen side hill trail and perform incredible feats of engineering by moving heavy boulders into place to create a natural stairway and keep the rain running off in a certain direction. They pick up trash from lands that have long been used as dumping grounds and turn them into pristine pockets of nature.

Oil City and Titusville were literally the center of the world's oil boom and all of that land the Oil Creek State Park currently sits was pretty trashed by that boom. So it's cool to see that a group of locals have managed to rehabilitate it into a really nice recreational space, and the trail race helps to highlight that and also keep some interest and money flowing towards supporting the ongoing efforts to keep it nice.


Made it!

Second grader ready to roll!
Laurel started second grade yesterday and suddenly my house feels very quiet. I babysat for three families this summer, so we almost always had some extra kids around. It was great fun, a little wild at times but mellow at others. We had some good adventures. I think the best part was learning how to catch salamanders and crayfish in the creek, and watching them all relax on my porch together, painting and reading and watching the world go by. We sang a lot of Raffi and Girl Scout songs. I also think it was very valuable (although the kids might disagree) that I let them get bored, and then let that whole whiny what-can-I-do cycle play out until they figured out something interesting. One day it led to an elaborate game of dress up. Another day it was a lemonade stand. Last week they started making fishing poles out of the weeds in my backyard.

The "Little Brother"
It's one of those things I'm glad I did, but am not sure I'll do again. First, my house was constantly trashed and I pretty much did only emergency triage cleaning for 2 months. I'm not even that fussy about dirt but it's grossing me out. Second, the kids I watched were all Marko and Laurel's age. Trying to manage activities on their level, while also keeping a busy toddler occupied, was a real challenge. If we went on a hike, he had to ride in a backpack because he couldn't keep up with their pace, but then he would be very antsy from not getting enough exercise. Any art supply we brought out ended up in Max's hair (there's actually a semi-permanent pink tinge to it right now from a mysterious source). There were positives, too, of course. Every kid became a surrogate sibling to him and loved to read to him or teach him songs. He adored them all and learned to say their names. And finally, 5 or 6 kids is a lot of kids no matter how wonderfully behaved. Just the sheer number of pretzels consumed, the weight of all those water bottles in a backpack, the number of lost shoes, the time it takes just to get everybody to the bathroom.

In the spring I started making a lot of plans for summer. However, once it got going, I really just put out one new activity or toy each day and planned one outdoor/gross motor activity. Every so often we would bring our lunches and water bottles and bathing suits and go out for a big "wander" and discover new libraries, spray parks, corner stores to spend the spare change we found, trails, and playgrounds. They could be out for 4 or 5 hours at a time with no problems as long as I really listened to and honored their requests to stop instead of pushing them to get to the place where I thought we should stop.

Overall, I would consider it a success! But I'm going to need a few weeks to recover.