Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Instant Challenge!

Do you do DI? I’m always trying to spread the Destination Imagination word to people. I think it’s a great activity for homeschoolers especially because it focuses on team building and social skills, but of the real world sort and not the annoying class project sort.

Basically, in DI, your team chooses a challenge (they’re different every year) and prepares a “solution” to present at the tournament. The challenges range from improv games to building robots to creating weight bearing structures to making plays to helping people. This year, my kids’ team chose a challenge where they have to create a mystery story. But, being DI, of course there’s more. It has to be set some time in history, it has to be presented on a wacky shaped stage with the audience sitting facing each other, it has to include some sort of clue that uses engineering of some kind, and the kids won’t know the ending until they start the skit so they had to prepare multiple endings. That’s the sort of thing you do in DI.

There’s one other piece of competition in DI and that’s the Instant Challenge. An Instant Challenge happens super fast. Kids are given just a few minutes to work out a “solution” to this one and it can be anything. Some are performances, like make a skit about a road trip where you meet three monsters or make a skit where one person can’t talk and everyone has to figure out why. Others are tasks and the tasks can be anything. There’s a lot of bridge building and tower building with things like paper cups and chenille sticks, but I’ve seen task challenges were you have to move things around or create secret codes or float boats or send projectiles across a room. Other challenges ask kids to make something, like a painting or a building or anything really, and then use in somehow in a skit.

Instant challenges are great for teamwork and practicing quick thinking. Even if you don’t do DI, you can do Instant Challenges. They could be great for starting off other group meetings like scout troops or robotics clubs. They could be a good get to know you or fun challenge in a class or co-op. They could make an interesting party game. Yeah, I know, I’m a DI crazy person, but I do sort of think it’s true. Instant Challenges are wacky and fun.

Here’s some of my favorite sources for IC’s (aka Instant Challenges). Some of these collections include old challenges really used at tournaments and others are just ones created for teams to practice. None of these documents have names so I had to give them random ones.

The Mouse Set (my favorite set)

The Ruler Set (more from the Mouse author… this is a great challenge writer)

The Gazebo Set (last one from the same author)

The Iowa Set (old tournament ones)

The Tennessee Set (includes some non-IC team building too)

The Ohio Set (from an old official practice set)

The Random Set (another from an old practice set)


Difficult Thoughts on Homeschooling and Race

A warning to readers. This is sort of a personal exploration post about a lot of things. I rarely post much about politics. One of the things I enjoy about the online homeschooling community is how it gives me a peek into different perspectives on the world. But every once in awhile, I share some of mine beyond simply the practical stuff, the parenting trials, and the books we’re reading. I promise, next post about math instead.

Last week, I listened to This American Life’s two part series about integration in schools today called “The Problem We All Live With.” I think a lot of homeschoolers only pay attention to school education news in limited doses. Many of us have had bad experiences with schools and know that even supposedly good education news can rile us up. This has been true for me at times as well, but I’m also interested in the education world in general. I have strong feelings and opinions from when I used to teach in schools. While sometimes school stories do make me want to gnash my teeth, I’m drawn into them often.

This story, about the increasing segregation in schools and the lack of movement toward integration overall, was depressing and teeth gnashing to say the least. It followed two districts where integration is happening and the difficulties of making it work in the face of angry parents. The second district had a story that was especially familiar to me. You see, during most of my youth, I attended schools that were much more integrated than most apparently are, in part because of a magnet program that drew mostly white suburban kids to mostly black city schools, just like the program profiled in the second part of the story. It was, for me, a great experience. I can remember clearly before heading off to middle school my mother saying to me that one of the things I needed to think about was that I would need to be comfortable being in the minority as a white student. I don’t remember that being an issue to me. On the contrary, I’m so glad I had that experience. It was not always as rosy a racial harmony picture as all that, but it was, overall, a positive experience for me.

A few things make this difficult to reflect upon. First and foremost, we live in the inner city in a very racially diverse neighborhood. While the schools weren’t good when we first came here, they’ve improved greatly. If I wanted to, I could enter the charter lottery and send my kids to one of several diverse urban schools that are really, all in all, not bad places. And I’m all too aware that, whether they mean to or not, white parents have been the driving force resegregating schools, in part by moving but also in part by choosing educational alternatives to keep their kids away from what is seen as the wrong kind of culture in schools. One of those alternatives is homeschooling.

Homeschooling among minority groups is growing, in part to escape the segregated attitudes in schools. Recently there was an excellent article about the growth of African-American homeschooling in my city and several others about the rise nationwide. However, it’s still disproportionately white. And the tribal mentality in homeschooling means that sometimes different religious groups don’t even mix, much less different racial groups. I’m also sadly aware that the racism in some elements of homeschooling are much closer to the surface than in other places. Some of the most popular homeschool programs include racist language, read older literature that is filled with racial stereotypes, and filter American history through a providential lens, one that emphasizes that Europeans (and not anyone else) were given this country by God.

That’s not why we chose homeschooling. We avoid those sorts of materials. I’d homeschool if we lived in a ritzy suburb or a rural area or even a foreign country. I decided to homeschool years before we moved here, years before we had kids even. Some homeschoolers decide on this path after seeing their local school or even after experiencing its negative impact on their child. But we chose it because of the benefits of learning at home, not because of the negatives of being in school.

But, by doing so, we’ve removed our kids from their environment in many ways. There are no other homeschoolers my kids’ age in walking distance the way school friends would be. We travel, sometimes half an hour or more, to see friends, mostly in the suburbs. There is some diversity in our group of extended friends, but mostly it’s very white. It does not reflect the neighborhood around my kids. They have, in the last year or two, started to make more neighborhood friends simply by being old enough and confident enough to be outside at the parks and strike up friendships. Still, when I reflect on this, it makes me uncomfortable, to say the least, that we leave our neighborhood, where the kids are more than half black and Latino, to see our friends, who are almost all white.

However, I get that few parents want to sacrifice their ideals about society for their child’s education. When I think about Civil Rights parents, willing to send their kids into atmospheres of hatred and derision, I’m constantly awed and astounded by how difficult that must have been. I made education decisions for my kids, not for society as a whole. I don’t plan to change even though, I’m aware that for society as a whole to shift, sometimes people have to make decisions that are not great for them in the short run in order to make a better future in the long run. Sending my kids to school wouldn’t change much, but when everyone makes the decision to opt out, for whatever reason, that’s bad for the people who don’t have the resources to opt out, whether by moving away, starting a private school, or homeschooling.

There’s no easy answers, but it bothers me sometimes that homeschoolers like to bury their heads in the sand about some of these hard truths. We would like it to be simple that we’ve made the right decisions for our kids and would like to pretend that dropping out, tuning out, and isolating ourselves is without broader consequences both for us and society. Like I said, we homeschool, I believe in homeschooling for all sorts of families, and I don’t plan to change. But listening to those two stories is a heavy weight in a way.

The only silver lining, I hope, is that schools aren’t always much better when it comes to teaching tolerance and valuing diversity. By homeschooling, I can expose my kids to more diverse authors and literature than they might meet in schools as well as a more well-rounded history of the world as a whole. At least, that’s what I hope.  So I strive to teach my kids to recognize their privileges in the world, including the privilege of being educated at home.

Blog Clean Up

Hello, dear readers. I’ve been getting more hits in the last few weeks and it gave me a mild kick in the rear to clean up the blog a little bit. I don’t think I’ve looked at the links in a year (or two or three…) and I had not updated our curriculum section above. But that’s all updated now. Specifically, you can read about our wrapping up of fifth grade (that’s currently) and our loose upcoming plans for sixth grade in the fall. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on that in the near future (eek! middle school!). In the meantime, if you have a favorite book blog you think I should be reading, I realize I have fallen behind on keeping up with those, so please suggest it!

We started back to school after a break of about a month for summer camp, cousin camp, and a trip to see relatives. I’m sure I’ll post more soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this totally unrelated to anything picture of the boys enjoying summer to its fullest. I hope you’re all milking it for everything it can give as well.


A Load of Malarkey

Warning: rant ahead.

It looks so innocuous, doesn’t it? Even positive. But I find this Venn diagram and most of the others I see circulated on social media like it to be a harmful thing. It’s not the way I want to frame my life and definitely not a trap I want my kids to fall into.

Some version of this diagram – sometimes with only three circles, often with different graphic design – comes around every month or two on my various feeds, shared by people whose ideas I usually think are pretty positive and open-minded. It seems like a great idea. You’re asking people to look at their lives and think about how to bring different pieces together, to find meaning, to help others, to think about what they do well. It sounds great.

The problem is that this graph is not achievable for a huge number of people. Getting paid to do something is outside your control to a large extent. Your passion may be something that simply isn’t marketable or easily monetized. And your gifts may not include monetizing your passions. In fact, monetizing one’s passions has a cost for that passion for many people, a cost that some people are uncomfortable paying. So where are you stuck then? Supposedly without a purpose.

It surprises me that I’ve seen so many homeschool moms share this graph because we all have a calling to educate our children. No one is willing to pay us for it, yet we persist. According to this, we have no purpose in our lives. In fact, we’re not even allowed to call education our vocation because according to the Venn diagram, that requires money.

I find an incredible amount of purpose in my life teaching my kids. At this moment, while I do have other things in my life, teaching my children is my driving force. It’s the thing I do all day, the thing that brings me meaning and fulfillment.

Of course, those “other things” are important too. I write, I see friends, I read, I make art. Those things are also an important piece of my purpose and fulfillment in life.

I think this graph is a trap that we build for people in our society. We tell each other that the only path to meaningful lives is to find a career that will do everything for us, a career that we love, that gives us purpose and a comfortable life. We tell ourselves that unless we are paid in money for something, that is has no value. Since others are who pays us, we allow others to determine the value of our work on every level. For a few people, life does work out that way. But for most people I know, they may like their jobs and even find some level of purpose in them, but it’s through their creating unpaid art, coaching their kids’ sports team, passionately discussing books with friends, volunteering at a local charity, sustaining their church or other such work that they actually find a huge part of their fulfillment. The job is what lets them live comfortably and may even be enjoyable work, but it isn’t what brings everyone purpose. That’s the “other things.” And this graph devalues them. It says they’re not important to the real picture. The graph says that shouldn’t be the goal. It’s settling for something lesser.

You see, I’ve also seen people struggle with this and feel like they can’t be happy unless their job is what brings them happiness. It’s looking for paid work to bring us all the answers. Sometimes it can, but sometimes the answers are in unpaid work, family, community, or hobbies. We make it harder for people to find that sense of purpose when we tell them that everything must come together and they should get paid for it. Money is important. There’s no getting around that. If you don’t have enough money to provide basic food and shelter, then you’re never going to have the level of happiness that you need. But if you can achieve that level of basic financial security, I think it’s possible to find purpose in your life and a job doesn’t have to be the source of that purpose.

So I say if being a lawyer is what brings you purpose, then great. if playing role playing games is what brings you purpose, that’s great too. If volunteering at a food bank is what brings you purpose that’s great. If baking fabulous cakes for everyone’s birthday is what brings you purpose, don’t feel like you have to open your own bakery or it isn’t really purpose. If teaching your children is what brings you purpose, then that is purpose, even if no one is paying you. If you get purpose from a bunch of different, unrelated things, that’s great too. Your job doesn’t have to do everything for you.

I want my kids to grow up knowing this. Knowing that if they’re out of work for a year or stuck in a job they dislike but can’t leave for awhile when they grow up, it doesn’t mean they can’t look for fulfillment and meaning in other places. It doesn’t have to mean they have no purpose. If they choose to do a job mostly for the money, it doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to look for meaning through arts or writing or dance or acting. I want them to know that giving away your time can be more fulfilling and purpose filled than a paying job. And that the world needs people who make money and carefully give it away. I want them to see that this is only one model for living a happy live. It’s not the only model and certainly not the only way to find purpose.

Not Ugly Educational Posters

When I set out to set up for the year, I wanted to revamp our walls a little bit so I went in search of some decent educational posters.  We’ve had some useful ones in the past, but they were all very classroom looking.  That would be fine if our classroom was a classroom, but it’s also a dining room.  I wanted some things that would reference the room’s dual function while still looking nice on the wall for Thanksgiving dinner, if you know what I mean.  Things worthy of a frame up.

Obviously, I didn’t buy all the things I’m linking below, but I thought maybe someone else could benefit from some of the searching I did.  I promise I didn’t only search for science themed posters and art, but there seems to be a real lack of good grammar posters.

This is a cute option from Dazeychic on Etsy.  She also makes another one called Math is Marvelous that’s equally neat.

Here’s another neat science option, this one part of a set of three about flasks from Nerdy Baby.  They also have a very adorable, but less artsy option about a baby using the scientific method.

Science Poster Art Print Original Illustration Stellar Science Wonder 11x14 Science Poster PrintContinuing on the science theme, this print from Ink and Sword on Etsy is also just beautiful.  Ink and Sword has a ton of other great science prints, including several chemistry themed ones and a bunch of space themed ones with some beautiful colors and design.

I’m also digging this cool typographic image of the brain from Ork Posters on Etsy.  Ork Posters also offers an equally nifty image of the heart, done the same way.  They both come in a variety of colors, which is nice.

This earth poster from Brainstorm is part of a set of lovely earth science themed prints that includes the atmosphere and ocean as well.  They also make a beautiful set of star charts, some cool US maps, and a really quirky diagram of plant and animal cells (that is currently hanging on my wall).

Another one for science. There are some minimalist small science and math posters from FrameitPosters on Etsy, such as this one about the Higgs Boson coupled with a quote from Richard Feyman.  They have several others as well.

Octopus art antique print Victorian art print poster old prints Ocean Decor Natural History ocean art  large wall art nature print 12x16 art

There were so many vintage options for botanical and zoological prints there’s no way I could list them all.  I was oddly drawn to the octopi and the fungi ones.  But there’s a lot out there in terms of pretty reproductions as well as vintage stuff.

American Independence Map Illustration 18" x 24" Cool PrintFor history, obviously, advertisements or art of the time can make a good frame up, but I was curious what else was out there.  I didn’t find much, but this fascinating little poster of the kings of England is really cool.  Also, this map of the American Revolution from Consider Graphics on Etsy is an excellent print, though a little more expensive than most of the other things I’ve linked.

I really wanted to find something lovely and clever for grammar.  There are vintage grammar (and science) posters abounds out there.  The shop LegalMissSunshine on Etsy has a lot of them, though you can find them elsewhere as well.  The old American ones, including the small grammar ones, are reasonably priced, but the beautiful French ones are definitely for collectors who can pay a great deal.  I really drooled over several of the vintage French anatomy posters since that was our topic for the year (anatomy, that is, not French anatomy).

Honestly, I’m surprised there weren’t more beautiful typographic punctuation and grammar posters out there as that seems ripe for poster art.  Crafty printers of the world, take note!

The February Blahs

I have the worst case of the February blahs I can ever remember having.  For the first time in years, I am just downright out of sorts without any particular cause and not just for a day or a week, but for weeks and weeks.  I just feel beaten down by February, by the kids being whingers, by the various commitments which are usually enriching but currently feel oppressive.  Yesterday, we managed to get outside and the world looked a bit brighter for a little while, so I am hopeful that my generalized funk will end when the sun comes out on a more permanent basis.

Regardless of our vitamin D levels though, some things clearly have to change.  I have been teaching a once a month class that is ending and I’m glad to see it go.  Destination Imagination is ending and while I have really enjoyed some things about coaching this year, I’ve already decided there’s no way I’m coaching again next year.  Shakespeare is coming up and I’m extremely excited about our group, but I also have decided to let it go for next year.  Looking to next year, I want to keep us to soccer, ballet, piano, and co-op and drop absolutely everything else by the wayside that isn’t a workshop or short term commitment.

This year has been so overwhelming.  I used to see homeschool parents saying they avoided outside commitments and I really couldn’t get it.  Now, I totally do.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that has gotten to me since I don’t think we’re that much more overscheduled than before.  I think the last four years of overdoing it have finally caught up with the introvert in me.  I just want to retreat.

Also, in the past, I have often traveled in February.  Paris, Rome, Africa…  even smaller jaunts across North America.  Come February next year, I vow to leave town. I will not be stuck in DC all of February again.  Travel is cheapest in the bleakest month, after all.

I know I’m not alone in my February blahs.  Everyone else probably has them too.  Bring on March.  The sooner, the better.

Legend of Korra Fever

Yep.  We loved it.  I love all the little touches making it look and feel like 1920’s Shanghai.  And I love that Nickelodeon has made a show with a strong teenage girl as the hero but which is clearly meant to appeal to boys and girls alike.  Please, children’s television producers, give us more like this.

Mushroom says, “It was a little sillier than Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Kitara was in it!  She started to tell about Zuko’s mother.  At the ending of the last season of Last Airbender, in jail, Zuko said to his sister, where is my mother!  But she did not end up telling it. [exasperated Mushroom sigh]  In the story, Korra mastered three elements: water, earth, and fire.  She’s trying to master air.  Korra went to an elements tournament where if you passed a line, the other team got to go closer.  Each team would have water, earth and fire.  The new bad guys are the triads.”

BalletBoy says, “I wish they’d make Korra Legos.  That would be awesome!”  Lego, I hope you’re listening.  Have you seen the prices on the used pieces from that one Airbender set? Insane, I tell you.

Home Again, Home Again!

Well, we had a pretty amazing trip.  In case you’re not aware, we just spent three weeks in southern Africa – mostly Namibia, but we had some stops in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa as well.  It was beautiful and amazing and worth the suffering finances (please, please, don’t let anything go wrong with the house in the next two years!).

This is just a few snippets of our three weeks on the road.  I will say that Africa, especially Namibia where we spent so much of that time, was so much easier than I anticipated.  We’re reasonably well-traveled, being lovers of visiting the world, but I admit I was a little intimidated before we went.  Now I know I didn’t need to be.  The food was good, the supermarkets were plentiful, the people were mostly very friendly and the roads and drivers weren’t nearly as bad as we had heard.  In other words, if you have the time, money and inclination, then GO!

One of our first stops was Sesriem, in Nambia.  Above are Mushroom and BalletBoy in a little cave they climbed up into in the canyon and below is Mushroom sitting on one of the tallest dunes in the world.

For much of the trip, we were driving around Namibia in a truck with pop up tents on top of it.  We were, ahem, a little more lax about seat belts when we were in the national parks, driving really slow and the kids were nearly as thrilled about that as the sights.

We saw a lot of animals as we drove around and occasionally were driven around.  Giraffes, zebras, lions, elephants, hippos, baboons, a rhino, and more bird species than I could count.  It was like being in an aviary.  And we learned to spot the differences between various antelopes like impala, springbok, kudu and so forth.

Well, you get the general idea.  And as beautiful as the land was (with or without animals), sometimes we got a bit bored.  There’s BalletBoy and me mocking the Husband, whose tongue cannot curl.  Poor man.  There’s probably some springbok outside that truck that we’re totally ignoring.

I was really pleased that there were so many geology tie ins on our trip.  We learned all about how the Namib is the oldest desert in the world.  And the Tsumeb Museum was full of crazy minerals.  Like, really crazy awesome.

And, since it turns out there are unusual roadside attractions even in Namibia, we also took a small detour to see the world’s largest meteorite.  It was really, really big.

Continuing the geology theme, Victoria Falls was one big geology lesson (it was formed through volcanic activity).  Below is the Husband and the kids getting drenched in the spray.  It was truly one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.

Okay, now this is all out of chronological order, but whatever.  We also got a nice dose of culture.  If you look closely, you can see the ancient rock painting in the picture of me and the kids.  We hiked a long way up a mountain to see it and there were lizards and geckos everywhere around us.  It was pretty cool.

And there were a lot of tourist cultural encounters.  Finding the supermarkets and fast food of a place is always an experience.  When we were in the fancy hotels instead of camping on top of our truck, we saw a good bit of singing and dancing that was somewhat authentic, I’m sure, but also somewhat staged.  Still, BalletBoy was pretty thrilled to be called on “stage” here to dance in Zimbabwe.  He was the only person to do so!

And when we were in South Africa, we got a lot of Apartheid history.  The kids had prepared by reading about Nelson Mandela and reading books like The Day Gogo Went to Vote, but it was still a lot to take in to see prisons and townships.  Mushroom was especially affected during our quick time in Jo’burg and we decided to skip doing much more with that when we were in Cape Town.  Instead, we just enjoyed the seals, the views from the mountain and the beach.

Now that I’m home and we’re all easing back into routines (though we’re off school until after Easter), I’m just feeling grateful for homeschooling and how it allowed us to not only take this trip, but to build learning around it.  We got to devote all our social studies to it beforehand for two months and I know we’ll devote a good bit of writing and project time to processing it afterwards when we start back with school.

Week in Review in Photos

I kept thinking I’d get it together to make a post this week.  But with getting ready to travel, getting ready for Destination Imagination, hosting co-op and having a weekend visit from my mother, it just didn’t happen.  But here’s a few pictures from the last week.

We were sent a Flat Stanley by some of our Georgia cousins.  I’m sure they thought we’d take him to the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian and the White House and all that.  We did, but first, we took him to DC’s most famous restaurant.

We enjoyed the tunnel in the National Gallery with Nana Bebe before we did Stories in Art.  Really, the Stories in Art program just rocks.  And I suddenly realized that next year we’ll graduate to their Artful Conversations program.  Both are free.  I just love homeschooling in DC sometimes.

We celebrated Mardi Gras in style with a pot of jambalaya made by our budding chef Mushroom with some help from Nana Bebe.

Finally, with a little help, we realized that all those wacky finger games the kids keep doing have actually made their fingers double jointed.  It’s especially weird on BalletBoy’s fingers.