Snow Days 2018: Day 3

Today we did a lot of cleaning. Too much for L’s taste. But strangely enough, part of that “too much” was something she chose herself. Deciding that E’s closet was hopelessly chaotic, she took it upon herself to pull everything out and reorganize. And then complain that he wasn’t helping.

At eleven, she’s such a contradiction: she’s a mix of child and teenager, switching back and forth unexpectedly. So mature one minute, so childish the next. Then back to mature: she made her own cake for her belated birthday party tomorrow.

K was there to assist, to advise, to do some tricky parts, but even some of the seemingly tricky parts, like removing the cake from the form, the Girl insisted on doing herself.

I look at these pictures and I can imagine what it will be like when she’s older still, perhaps coming home for a visit, cooking with K and chatting about this or that.

Solo Baking

We made chocolate chip muffins last Monday during our unexpected snow day. I helped a bit — not a lot, but a good bit, especially in the middle.

Today, the Girl decided she wanted to make muffins again, this time vanilla. She found the recipe online, checked the ingredients, made a shopping list, called K to see if she needed us to pick anything up for her while we were at the store, convinced me to go (didn’t take much), mixed, poured, baked, and cleaned up after herself.

This is not to say there weren’t moments of frustration. It turns out she didn’t check eggs closely enough, a fact we discovered after we returned from the store. No problem: she went to the neighbors and asked for an egg, taking them some muffins when they were done.

She wanted to go to the store by herself, to walk down to the CVS about a half-mile down the street, but that was a bit much. Still, all these signs of growing up…

On the Proper Use of Time

1

At times, the school year seems to extend endlessly, a pile of days that stretches beyond our sight, under which we all seem to be crushed slowly. If there’s a class that’s an inordinate challenge, the weight of that pile seems to double, and somehow, no matter how well things are going in the year, a few more days seem to be tossed carelessly on the pile as third quarter approaches. “What?! I’m this exhausted, and we’re just now in the back half?!”

Decorating his pinewood derby car

Other times, the year seems entirely too short, something requiring calipers to measure. The list of standards the state requires teachers to cover seems to require twice the days the state allocates for the challenge. Some standards seem as if they might take a lifetime to master in and of themselves. “Assess the processes to revise strategies, address misconceptions, anticipate and overcome obstacles, and reflect on completeness of the inquiry.” I’m still working on that one. “Determine appropriate disciplinary tools and develop a plan to communicate findings and/or take informed action.” Ditto.

An unusually-attentive Clover

In between those two, the powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, allocate a certain number of days to testing. In the decade-plus I’ve taught in the States, that number seems to grow every year. In the case of the hard-to-handle classes, it’s a relief in a sense — for the obvious reasons. It’s tiring keeping them focused and engaged every day, and a test is just the right mind-numbing exercise to make the period pass by fairly painlessly. They get little to nothing out of it, and they put little to nothing into it, and everyone knows that’s what’s going to happen, but we do the dance anyway, and everyone goes home with their dance card happily filled. And yet for those same classes, it’s a nightmare, for teachers already feel we’re trying to cram too much into to little.

It just doesn’t seem like the proper use of time.

2

Wednesday afternoons are often when I catch up with school work. The Girl has choir practice, until five and K and the Boy are out doing the grocery shopping as they wait, and so when I arrive home, the house is empty and silent. I make a cup of coffee, get out some papers to grade, or more likely, load this or that website that now holds my students’ work and begin assessing, or I start sketching out my plans for the next week’s activities.

Frustration at the difficulty of cleaning up after an experiment

Today, however, I had a thought: I don’t have anything to do for school that is terribly pressing; my school is quite near the Aldi where K and E are shopping; I could easily pick up the Boy and take him home for a bit of playing. I called K; she asked the Boy; he was thrilled. Home we went, talking all the way about what we might play.

Said clean-up

We settled on cars, with a bit of blocks. And in the midst of it all, out of seemingly nowhere, we ended up building jails for the misbehaving cars. E designed one, which meant he placed the blocks, and I hunted them down for him if he couldn’t find them. Then we tested it, which meant he rammed a big car into the jail to see if it stood. It didn’t; the bad car escaped. So we did it again, alternating who designed the jail. No jail held the prisoner for longer than a few moments when the Boy really set his mind and muscles to the task.

The final jail

We made a big mess. The Boy got semi-hurt as he crashed his car into the pile a bit too hard. I accomplished absolutely nothing for school.

It was a proper use of time.

Memory

The Boy gets on a kick and stays on it for some time. For the last few weeks, it’s been Go Fish. Now it seems to be shifting to Memory.

We have an animal-themed version we brought back from Poland, and it has a ridiculous number of pairs. I haven’t counted them, but I’d say it’s close to forty. I can say this because we were organizing them for a morning game and E wanted more than the fifteen pairs we played with yesterday. I pulled out twenty pairs and there seemed to be just as many still in the stack.

“Why can’t we play with all of them?”

I thought of how playing with fifteen went. It was a surreal experience. I wasn’t really trying to remember anything, to be honest; I was turning up cards, letting the Boy see them, then turning them back over. But somehow, as if by instinct, I was turning over cards to make pairs. It’s not that I didn’t want the pairs; it’s not that I was trying to let the Boy win. I just wasn’t putting forth much effort myself, or so I thought.

We compromised on twenty, but it was a bit overwhelming for the Boy: after several minutes, he’d only found one pair, and I’d found two.

Scientific Go Fish

The Go Fish obsession continues. Someone plays with the kids every night, and they occasionally play together by themselves. We’ve yet to tackle a four-player game, though I’m not sure why. The kids don’t seem to eager for whatever reason, and so perhaps that’s why we haven’t tried.

Go Fish last night

Tonight, as I was playing with them, I stood to get something from the other side of the room, and I accidentally glanced at the Boy’s cards. (He has them spread out in a chair beside him, so the natural gesture to avoid seeing someone’s cards — looking down when passing — doesn’t work.) I did notice that he had a yo-yo (we play with a picture-based card set), and since I had a yo-yo, I thought I’d do a little experiment.

“L, do you have a yo-yo?” I asked during my next turn. E was set to go next, and I was ready for him to ask me if I had a yo-yo. He had been a little distracted, though, and asked instead, “L, do you have a yo-yo?”

L looked at me; I smiled back at her.

Afternoon reading

“E, I just asked her that,” I laughed. “You should have asked me that just then. Now, I’m going to ask you for it next turn.”

Playing with dough after dinner

He just smiled.

Last Day of Break

“Daddy, I don’t understand. On Sid the Science Kid, the teacher calls all of the children scientists.” The Boy paused for a moment: he’s learned how to pause to heighten the moment just a bit. “That can’t be right! They can’t be scientists!”

We were on our way home from shopping, leaving the girls at home this last day of break. K stayed home because of a lingering illness, so we were together for the morning, but the Boy and I headed out after lunch to do the week’s grocery shopping.

“Why can’t they be scientists?” I asked, wondering what he had in mind.

“They’re just kids!”

“So?”

“To be a scientist, you have to have a job. That’s your job. A scientist,” he explained still frustrated, though sometimes with him it’s hard to tell if the frustration is real or just pretend, as if he’s trying it on for size.

I thought about his definition and reasoning for a few moments, thought about why the teacher would be calling children scientists — obvious for an adult, not so much for a child.

“Well, E, it’s a question of scientific thinking. She’s calling them scientists because they’re behaving like scientists. They’re thinking like scientists.” This satisfied him for a few moments, but it didn’t satisfy me. I was wondering if he would ask what it means to think scientifically, hoping he would ask. He didn’t, so I prompted him. “Do you know what that means, to think like a scientist?”

“No.”

“It’s a process. You observe. You think about why things happen. You make predictions about why things happen; you check those predictions…”

I fear a lot of Americans really have no clue what it means to think like a scientist.

The other night, while on a walk, I was listening to an old sermon by a religious leader, and he was railing against “intellectualism.” He never really defined it. He never really explained why it was so bad other than to say it was vanity. He was upset about how some Biblical scholars will spend so much time picking at the smallest little detail, and as he said that it occurred to me that he really didn’t have a firm grasp of what those scholars were doing, how they were examining the text, their methodology and the justification for it.

I think this is a common thread in America, this anti-intellectual position, and it’s directed at all sciences. People dismiss all sorts of things they, were they taught like Sid the Science Kid to think scientifically, they likely wouldn’t dismiss, and they accept things that, were they taught like Sid the Science Kid to think scientifically, they would dismiss out of hand.

So I was very pleased when E later spoke of thinking scientifically. And as he played Go Fish with the girls, it occurred to me that here is a perfect opportunity for some basic critical thinking: observe (listen to what others are asking for); test (ask for a few things in a systematic way); repeat.

Decisions

“I want a flat egg. No, no, I want a bagel and some Cheerios. And some milk.”

The Boy’s breakfast decision process is similar almost every day. I feel fortunate that we are in a position to provide him with so many choices, but at times, it exhausts us.

This indecision spills over into all parts of the Boy’s life. When given a choice for clothes, he can dither similarly. When given options for how to spend the afternoon, he can flip-flop similarly. It’s only a mild inconvenience, and probably common for his age. I can’t remember L being like that, but perhaps that’s just selective memory.

His indecisiveness comes into full bloom (to thoroughly mix my metaphors and split my infinitives) when he as a little money to spend, which has been the case for the last few weeks. He’d earned money with various chores and received some from aunts and neighbors, so for the last few weeks, he’s been playing out his options for how to spend his $30.

“I think I want a new log truck,” he said one day.

“But you had a log truck, remember. You lost all the logs, and now you don’t know where any of it is.” That probably wasn’t quite accurate: don’t know those things are, which is not to say that he doesn’t know.

“Well, still, I think I want a new one.”

A few days after that, it was a new Nerf gun.

“Son, you have two Nerf guns.”

“But they don’t fire that well.” Don’t they? I wasn’t aware of that.

He toyed with a few other ideas, but when we went to the toy store tonight, he’d finally settled on a Nerf gun.

And then he had to choose which gun…

Games

The kids stayed home today, and so I stayed home. What to do on a day off? Simple — play games.

First, Sorry. I love how this game teaches patience: you get all your pieces moving around the board, making real progress, and suddenly someone draws an 11 and switches places with you, destroying the work of the last few moves in an instant. Or worse: your opponent draws a Sorry card — back to the beginning for you. Then there’s the opposite problem: you’re right at the entrance to your safety zone, and you draw a 12 card.

“Time to make another lap,” I told E when it happened to him. He was frustrated, but dealt with it well. (Yes, I see it. I choose not to acknowledge it.)

The real surprise for me these last few days has been our children’s desire to play chess with each other. I’ve been teaching the Boy to play chess, and since L already knew, she decided to take it upon herself to teach him the final pieces (king and queen) and start playing with him.

Naturally, she beats him as badly as I would beat her were I to play seriously against her, not pulling my punches, so to speak. Still, Magnus Carlsen began taking chess seriously at about E’s age because his older sister kept beating him and he didn’t like losing. Now he’s the world number one, with an astronomically high rating, and by and large seems unstoppable. Doubtful, but one never knows. The love of the game and the patient critical thinking it encourages are enough .

Evening

The kids are both at an age that they can find something to do all by themselves. The Boy less so, since he’s only five; the Girl more so, because she’s nearing her teens.

This evening, the Girl was researching prices for an electronic item she is saving up for. She’s saved for several items in the past: a Barbie camper, a Barbie bike, and others. Those items are long gone, as well as the dolls which they accessorized. I hadn’t thought about that, though, until I sat down to write this: it’s been so long since she’s played with Barbies that I’d forgotten, on some level, that she ever had. More evidence of that strange way we tend to fall into thinking that the way things are now is how they always have been. And always will be. Remember a Barbie camper reminds me that things change.

The Boy soon contented himself with drawing. I’m not sure where the urge came from, but he suddenly wanted to draw cupcakes.

“Okay, Google, show me cupcakes” he commanded our Chromebook. It’s become a favorite activity: “Okay, Google” activates the voice search, and off he goes. It’s a blessing and a curse: it allows him to research things he wouldn’t be able to investigate otherwise due to his still-blossoming literacy, but it could lead to a kind of laziness if not monitored as he learns to write.

After L made some decisions about which iPod was within her budget, she sat down at the piano and began picking through some songs. She stopped taking piano lessons at the end of the school year, but dear friends’ visit this weekend got her interested again, I think. At least on some level.

I’m a little torn on the whole issue: there’s an argument to be made for insisting that a child learn a musical instrument. But that whole argument is made moot by the fact that the Girl sings three hours a week in the church choir. Let her find her passion, a wiser voice says. Let her follow that.

Bedtime

“Daddy, will you come lie with me?”

The Boy is having trouble falling asleep, and when this happens, there’s only one real solution: to climb into the bed with him and let him fall asleep curled in one’s arms.

I’ll admit that there was a time that I was growing tired of this. It was an almost nightly ritual, and with so many things I needed and wanted to do in the evening once the kids were asleep, I just wanted him to drift off as quickly as possible.

But over the last couple of years, another change has happened, which has altered my outlook on stretching out with the Boy in the evening. The Girl, now almost eleven, requires little to no bedtime assistance, and some nights, I have simply kissed her goodnight and turned out her light. She’s growing up, and in doing so, she’s developing her own evening routines and rhythms, and unlike the Boy, she no longer gets scared as she’s going to bed.

It struck me, then, that E will be following suit soon. No, not really all that soon, but soon enough. A few years and the whole bedtime ritual in the house will look entirely different than it does now. A few more years and neither one will really want K or me to lie in the bed with them, stroking their hair, whispering to them to lie still and go to sleep. And I will look back on this time when I could have done it with a tinge of regret that I didn’t do it more often.

Which is why, when the Boy asked if I would lie down with him, I did so without hesitation.

Lost Stars

E and I were lying on the bed in the master bedroom, reading. He always gets a book from school for his daily reading log, and often the book is leveled just right for reading with a parent: a few words he knows, enough short words that he can sound out, and a few words that he needs a lot of help with. Always a refrain of sorts, something easily remembered that he can just repeat.

Today’s book: My Dad and I.

We made it through the book, which was about all the things the narrator’s dad teaches him to do and all the things he teaches his dad to do, and E began teaching me about his star behavior system in school. Of course I knew all about it: I just had a conference with his teacher a few weeks ago, and we get a daily report about how many stars he ended the day with. But of course I let him explain it.

“We start with three stars, and if we do something wrong, we lose a star.” He paused, then added, “I haven’t lost a star yet this year.”

What will he do when he loses a star?

Camping with the Scouts

Camping is almost synonymous with Boy Scouts. To think of one without the other seems almost impossible. Whenever we’ve gone camping, it seems we almost always see some scouting group or another pitching their tents. We encouraged the Boy to join Cub Scouts by, in part, telling him about camping trips.

This weekend we had our first trip, and as I might have expected, he was terribly excited about it until Friday. “I don’t want to go camping,” became the day’s refrain. In the evening, though, I sold it to him by suggesting we might just need to have a men’s weekend. That did it, and so we did.

We packed our gear, kissed the girls goodbye, and headed to our first scout camping trip.

At first, the Boy was hesitant, careful. Shy. He ventured onto a playground after lunch (we arrived just after lunch because of the soccer game — one goal this weekend) and played around a bit, but he seemed to be playing apart from the other boys despite being in their very midst. He kept coming back to check on where I was, to make sure I was still around, and then to ask me if we could go.

“No, we’ve committed ourselves. We’ll be staying till tomorrow.”

“Okay.” No fussing, just resignation.

By dinner time, he’d made friends and disappeared in the storm of boys that raged around the camp. When the evening came and the pack leader began the scout meeting, he was only vaguely aware or worried about where I was.

By the time the sun had set and the pack leader had transitioned into the flag retirement ceremony, he wasn’t even paying attention to where I was.

But he was paying attention to what was going on. Sort of.

The leader discussed the proper way to handle a flag, the proper way to show respect, and then explained how to retire a flag. It involves fire, which is ironic considering all the controversy over the years regarding burning flags. Yet the pack leader explained that the flag is first cut into four pieces, three pieces with stripes and the star field left whole to signify the unity of the country, and at that point, it is no longer a flag.

“We burn the cloth,” he concluded, “then respectfully gather and bury the ashes.”

During evening prayers, he suggested we pray for the flag.

“What do you mean?”

“So that they never burn it like that again.”

Apparently, he’d misunderstood what was going on, and I suppose he’d simply sat and watched, somewhat horrified, as his pack leader instructed scouts to burn flags. I explained what had happened, and he seemed okay with it, but still a little disturbed.

In the morning, he was ready for more running, yelling, and falling with the boys. It was as if he’d forgotten all about it. I suppose he has, but we’ll see next year when we go again.

Stabat Mater

The Girl has been singing in the youth choir for about a year now, and she was recently chosen to participate in a small ensemble to learn some more challenging pieces. Last night, she and the other seven members (ages 10-16) sang “Stabat Mater,” an a cappella, three-voice piece in Latin.

Hat Trick

The Boy has spent this autumnal soccer season running around the edges of the action. Last week, before the game, he insisted that he was going to push his way in like I’d told him to do. “Just go in there and get the ball.” And he did. Sort of. But he was still mostly just running around the periphery.

Today, K and the Girl joined us — next week is the final game — and E assured me as we all got into the car, “Today, I’m going to get in there like you told me.

During the pre-game practice/warm-up, things were just as they always are: the Boy at times seemed lost in all the distractions of other teams getting read, still other teams playing, adults moving here and there, and there are times when he was intensely focused on what the Coach Kevin told them to do.

The game began, and it looked like it would be a tough game for the opposing team: every single child was smaller than most of our team. As a child, you just want to win, to obliterate the other team; as an adult, you want your kid’s team to do well, but you want to see the other team do well also. Today seemed like that would be tough, and indeed, it was.

The Boy from the start seemed a little different. He was more aware of what was going on, and he even made some defensive plays that were impressive. At one point, a player from the other team made a break-away and was heading down the field to a certain goal, but the Boy chased him down and kicked the ball away from him at the last moment.

And then the moment — the moment, I thought. The Boy managed to take the ball at the baseline of the opposing team’s side, and navigated toward the goal, seemingly unopposed. But someone knocked the ball out at the last minute, and as it shot out of the bunch of kids, I thought, “Well, there goes his chance of scoring this year.”

Yet a few minutes later, the same thing happened, and he scored — his first goal. He came running across the field to tell us. “Mommy! Daddy! I scored a goal!” High fives from the coach; high fives from the family. It was just a bit magical for the Boy. But he wasn’t done.

He took a break — the kids don’t play halves but quarters, and most kinds play alternating quarters — and explained some of the finer points of scoring, as if he were Robert Lewandowski, the Polish soccer player who, with a hat-trick this week, became the all-time leading scorer for the Polish national team.

But when he went back in, he backed up his explanations with another goal, a beautiful break-away that he ended burning up the back of the goal. (Never mind that this week, like last week, the teams decided to play without goalies. That’s just a technicality.) Shortly after his second goal, he managed another escape, only to shot wide to the left.

“Too bad,” I thought. “It would be nice to get a hat-trick like Lewandowski.” And just as I was thinking such silliness, the Boy managed his third goal.

On the way back to the car, the Boy summed up the day perfectly: “I really went hard on those guys today.”

Linguist

Coming home from soccer today (“I really tried to do what you told me!” the Boy declared when assessing his performance: he got into the fray of children running around the ball and pushed his way in. Didn’t go for the ball, just nudged people here and there.), the Boy asked, “Daddy, if the letter is ‘A’ why does it have an ‘E’ sound in it?” I said the letter aloud, noticing that it actually has a diphthong at the end: a long ‘E’ sound.

“I don’t know.”

“Why isn’t it just ‘a’?” he asked, making the short ‘A’ sound.

“I don’t know.”