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.


Things I Said

Today I took Marko to the science center and he spent a good 20 minutes watching this lizard and talking about his eyes, his skin, his claws, his jumpy movements. This is one of my great joys of being a full-time caregiver now...all these little moments where I don't have to rush them on to anything else. I can join them in looking and listening. "Extirpated" was a word I kept saying to myself today because next to the lizard Marko was so enthralled by was a tiger salamander, which used to live in Pennsylvania but no longer does. Extirpation means the local extinction of species. 

Last weekend we went out to the Laurel Highlands. M went on a long trail run. I took the kids on a hike, armed with some Audubon guides and a couple of Clif bars. All they could think about was the Clif bars and we spent the first half an hour looking for a rock or log to sit on and eat the Clif bars. We probably traveled about a quarter of a mile in this amount of time. I was trying to hold them off...keep the Clif bars as bait to get them to return to the car or something. But eventually I caved and they were happy. With the Clif bars eaten they were free from distraction and could focus on finding flowers and caterpillars and poison ivy.

We ran into a trail runner out there and he said wow, you've got little ones here and gave them both high fives. They wanted to be trail runners then and we covered more ground for a little while. 

One of the reasons extirpation is so interesting to me is that we have these Audubon guides and try to identify various species with it. Sometimes we're certain we've found something but it shouldn't be where we found it. But of course our planet is heating up and ecosystems are in constant flux anyway and have been for billions of years, with or without human influence. Balance is not static, it is ebb and flow. When we wander through the Laurel Highlands we come across boulders left behind by glaciers. Rocks that used to be at the bottom of an ocean. What we observe right now is also all sorts of evidence of what is long gone.

Of course, along with this philosophical musing on nature, I also said things like, "please don't smash your crackers with that hammer" and "who drew on the windows with crayons?"

Children are wise and curious but also defiant and destructive.


Weekend at Laurel Hill State Park

We spent the weekend camping with my parents and brother at Laurel Hill State Park. It's a large state campground with a little man-made lake and beach and lots of hiking trails, about an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh. Memorial Day weekend is pretty busy at most of the state campgrounds and this one was pretty much filled up. We went on a really nice kid-friendly hike on the Hemlock Trail and saw a stand of old-growth hemlocks. Laurel had a good time identifying flowers using our Audubon guide. We saw jack-in-the-pulpits, violets, bluets, trillium that were done blooming, foam flowers and some interesting fungus. A portion of this trail is slightly treacherous for the 3 and under crowd, so if you take little ones be on guard for that. The stretch isn't very long - maybe a quarter of a mile up, but we had Marko in the backpack and I wouldn't have wanted him to walk there, because of the steep drop down the side of the hill. I know not everyone has a 2 1/2 year old that is still small enough to easily carry around, though. M got some good long runs in, as the Laurel Highlands trail passes through the park here. My brother had the excellent idea of renting some canoes and going out on the lake, where we saw a bird fishing. We think it may have been an osprey. It was impressive to watch it soar above the lake and then dive down into the water. It made about 3 dives before it got something big enough that it carried it away into the forest. The beach provided a lot of entertainment for Laurel and Marko. Laurel caught tadpoles and made friends with every kid there. Marko moved sand around with his tiny shovel and rolled in the sand, telling us he was a turtle.

We camped in a tent loop and I'm always pretty satisfied with the noise level, even when there were thousands of people there like this weekend. Things do settle down once it gets dark and it's really quiet after 11, other than the occasional crying kid. (Including ours, from time to time.) It was freezing cold on Friday and Saturday nights, but I expected this so the kids had long underwear, coats, hats and mittens, which they slept in some combination of.  We lucked out and had no rain at all. Laurel is big enough now to let her join the throngs of children roaming around the campground. Occasionally kids would stop by our site, and my mom taught a couple of them to play bocce.

As for camping with kids, it's definitely getting easier and more fun now that they are a little older. We go to sleep with them when it gets dark, and usually end up splitting up because we have two backpacking tents that are not really big enough for all four of us anymore. We make s'mores at the breakfast fire so there's no pre-bed sugar rush. I take a lot of baby wipes and don't bother trying to really bathe them properly. They get incredibly filthy, regardless of what you do. A thorough tick check, including scalp, should be done when you get home. My parents can be sort of fancy when they camp...so it was fun to be with them this time and have full meals. My dad was all about the bacon-wrapped gourmet hot dog this weekend. We often just eat Clif bars, apples, pb&js and will maybe roast hot dogs. For entertainment I brought sketch paper and colored pencils, a soccer ball, 3 Audubon guides and a couple of Ranger Rick magazines. Laurel also had her razor scooter. Mostly, they dug in the dirt and enjoyed lighting sticks on fire.

I brought a red quinoa salad and it really traveled well. You can check out the recipe here. It was very easy to make and filling if you have vegetarians along.

I'm glad we kicked off the summer season with a camping trip and I hope we can get out there a lot in the next couple of months.


8ish Years Ago, Somewhere in Virginia

Yesterday our refrigerator broke. Well, I could probably say that several months ago, our refrigerator began to break, and while M&K are great at many things, home maintenance is not something that comes naturally to us. We are greatly inclined to ignore the compressor ka-chunking after every cycle. Until we realize the ice is not frozen. And actually, most of the food is not cold. (Good thing we don't ever stock up on meat.) Then we are motivated to take action. We spent this morning at the Scratch and Dent, selecting a suitable replacement. It was actually the first appliance we have ever purchased. And a side note about the Scratch and Dent....is this a Pittsburgh thing? Literally everyone from friends to neighbors to the crossing guard at Laurel's school recommended that we go there. Actually it all sounded more like, "Yinz have to go the Scratch n Dent!" (Even if they don't normally speak in a Pittsburgh accent.) Anyway, we found a fairly unscratched and undented model and they will deliver it on Thursday. Until then, it's ice chests and everyone has to clean their plates. No leftovers. In other news, the post office has lost a package M was expecting and the PWSA still has not issued us a water bill since February. The dental office charged the wrong insurance account, and I had to straighten that out. Marko is in a "dumping out" phase. The weather has suddenly turned hot, so I need a bigger diaper bag to take when I go out to make sure I have enough water for all of us. And that was pretty much my week so far. Yes, life is indeed exciting right now.

Cheers! From the AT, 2007
Here you can see a picture of us from about 8 years ago. Clearly slackpacking on the AT, since we seem to be carrying a bottle of wine. I believe we are somewhere in southern Virginia. I remember I saw a scarlet tanager that day. There was a lot of sidehill trail. Hiking without a pack felt effortless. A couple of '07 thru-hikers that we know are on the PCT right now and posting updates on their Facebook feeds. Watching my friends' adventures unfold reminds me of the many adventures we have had. Some folks we know are moving to Phoenix, which stirred up all these memories of late-night stir fry at Johnny Chu's and watching Akron/Family sweat in Modified Arts. The homemade tamales my teacher's aide brought me, and walking across the entire South Mountain Preserve with Leah and Kristijo. And my cousin Lisa is moving cross-country and just texted me from the road, which made me think of cooking blueberry pancakes in the Bitterroot Mountains with Lance and M, for some reason. Not sure why. They are nowhere near Idaho. I guess it's just the adventure. Rolling into a place that you've never been and seeing it with fresh eyes.

I think I'm on the path I'm supposed to be on, but there's so many different ways life can go. Actually, I guess I don't even believe in a "supposed-to-be path." This is just where I'm at. Enjoy it, or change it. But when my fridge breaks down before we're ready to do the rest of the kitchen upgrades, or someone asks me what's new and I have to say that I spent most of the day on hold with the water company, or sweeping up cheerios, I sometimes think, "seriously? How did I get here?"

The other night, M took me to see Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, we went on a date to see an astrophysicist give a lecture. Trust me, he's very entertaining, although I just can't get into Cosmos. He was speaking about something he calls the Cosmic Perspective. It was very interesting to see his slides zoom in on DNA strands and zoom out to theoretical models of multiverses. You can read more about his ideas in this essay. I think I was most moved by the interconnectedness of it all, and the way that patterns repeat themselves across nature and space. He's right that if you are musing about the cosmic perspective, you have it pretty good because it means you aren't mired in day to day survival.

And for all the mundane chores that must be done and redone, I have this incredible gift of watching a two year old and a five year old navigate the world. They pick up a shard of a buckeye nut and bring it to me. Which tree did it come from? Who ate the rest of it? How did they crack it? Can a tree still grow from this part? Can we put it in our mouths? Things I would just step over become reasons for curiosity and conversation. Last night and today we had a lot of wind, and little sections of new leaves from the chestnut tree had blown down all over the school yard. Marko spent a half an hour gathering them up as if he had found something amazing. He probably doesn't even remember last fall, so this idea that leaves coming down to his level, where he can examine them and touch them was sort of mind-blowing. Plus, he insisted on wearing this blanket as a cape, so it was very cute to watch. Laurel is reading more and more everyday and seeing her eyes light up when it "clicks" is just as rewarding as it was when I watched my America Reads Challenge mentee.... little six year old William in...gulp...1998, do the same thing.

So, that's life right now. Good as ever, but not because it's perfect or easy. It's just amazing when you stop to think about it.


Marathon Sunday

Marathon Sunday is pretty much my favorite day of the year, for one reason. The route goes by our house, and so our block is closed off to traffic. Every single year, at least one car will come flying down Braddock Avenue and go slamming into the wooden barricades Public Works sets up. For this reason, I do not let my kids actually play in the street, but it is tempting. We do go down to the corner and hang out with all the neighbors to cheer the runners on. Some die-hards arrive early with lawn chairs to see the elite runners to go by. Most people drift down with cups of coffee in hand and babies in strollers once the big crowd of runners starts to pass. There's always a cranky police officer there, dealing with all the people who forgot about road closures and are trying to get to work or church.

This year, M ran again and finished respectably in 3 hours and 21 minutes. He's still got Boston on his mind, so plans to run another marathon in the fall and will hopefully get to that pace he's been chasing. It was really great to hear from friends all around town who saw him running and yes, he always looks that happy when he is running. He also saved me from navigating downtown traffic by riding his bike home from the race. (Yes, M is hardcore like that. He will run 26 miles and then bike 8 home, up a giant hill.) Marko and I cheered him on at mile 17, with Marko briefly joining the runners on the course. I had to dash out and scoop him up while he screamed "DADDY!! I RUN WITH DADDY!!!!"

Although, Daddy running is not that unusual for Marko to see and he greatly preferred watching the street cleaners come by after the race.