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Strawberry Jam!

Strawberry Jam!

The kids and I made half our haul of strawberries into a tasty jam this afternoon. Rio and Serena were both great helpers, as was the morning preschool gang. They washed the berries, cut the tops off them with a safety knife, and put them into bowls for mashing. Rio even helped stir the sugar into the jam.

My two big discoveries for the day were that making strawberry jam is, wonderfully, one of those bits of domestic magic that is secretly much easier than it looks. We followed a simple recipe we grabbed from the internet, which was more formula than recipe: just match quantities of sugar and mushed up berries 1:1, add some lemon juice, heat it up, and put it in jars.

It sounds simple, and it is. Also forgiving. We made several mistakes along the way, and the jam still turned into jam. It did so in spite of our lack of canning equipment, our failure to own a candy thermometer, our messy hands and messier workspace. It turned into jam in spite of our using the food processor instead of the potato masher to mush the berries and our innovative “squish the big bits with your fingers” technique.

I confess, I was astonished. It wound being kind of runny, since we skipped the pectin, but it was delicious. Like eating the sun, if that wouldn’t be fatal.

Once we had conquered jam, we had a serious challenge to face: do we slather this stuff on the homemade sourdough boule Martin baked over the weekend, or the homemade banana-walnut-chocolate-chip bread he and the kids made?

Both, of course. And then we lick our fingers.

Strawberries, harvested

Strawberries, harvested

Today the girls and I went to Red Fire Farm, the organic farm that provides our vegetable CSA. The bulk of the CSA comes to us in the form of a weekly drop-off at the Growing Center, but we also have an open invitation to go pick some crops at the farm. It’s a long drive, almost two hours. It takes a lot to get me to drive that far with my kids, and this was totally worth it.

In addition to the amazing strawberries we picked, we also got peas, herbs and seedlings (we had to pay for the seedlings, but they were very reasonably priced. one might even say cheap, at about $1.75 apiece).

I had heard rave reviews of Red Fire, which prompted me to sign up with them even though they’re a little pricier than some of the other local CSAs. So far, my experience says it is all true. They really do put out more diverse food, and higher quality produce.

Our first week of the CSA brought us a wide variety of vegetables, not just an avalanche of greens like we’ve had with other farms. We got cilantro, kale, turnips, beets, spinach, green garlic and, yes, two heads of lettuce (but one of those was red!).

The farm trip really put it over the top though. The farm is idyllically beautiful, with pockets of woods breaking up verdant fields and a big, big sky. Being there felt like an opportunity to breathe more deeply and be more fully alive in my senses. It also gave me a great excuse to spend an afternoon alone with my girls, something I do surprisingly rarely considering I’m their full-time caregiver. It feels like we are so often socializing or learning or enriching that we’re rarely just on an adventure together.

We all had a blast, even when the thunderclouds actually broke out into pouring rain on top of us in the middle of picking our peas. We had our raincoats, and it turns out we’re all waterproof. It turns out Rio is an expert strawberry picker. She had a great eye for spotting clumps of truly ripe strawberries, and was diligent about staying inside the lines of the open pick-your-own field (unlike her Mama, who was occasionally lured under the string into the closed off section full of ripe berries). Serena is still at the nibble-and-toss stage of berry picking. She carried a basket around with her for most of the time, and put a few berries in it. Some of them might even have ended up in our stock pot.

My kitchen counter is now ensconced with two gallons of freshly picked strawberries, a flat of jam jars and a few boxes of pectin. Recipe suggestions welcome. I’ve never canned anything before, so tomorrow will be a whole new iteration of adventure. Today all I managed was tying up the herbs we picked at the farm to dry and setting the seedlings out in the garden so they’ll be easy to plant tomorrow.

I’m sure we’ll go back to the farm later in the summer to get a wild abundance of tomatoes. In the meantime, I expect to keep enjoying our weekly haul from the CSA.

Sitting at the table one day, about ten days ago, Rio and I were doing a math project. She seemed to have come to the end of her interest in it. It was a simple game with paper, pen and a box of smooth round stones.

(In spite of everything I am about to say, I remain steadfast in my belief that these three items can keep a person busy from age five to fifty. There was nothing wrong with the math stuff, nor with the method we were using.)

“Rio, you’re getting so grown-up,” I said. “Soon we will need to get a book of kindergarten math games, because you have learned this game so well.”

“Don’t worry about that, Mama,” she said in an off-hand way. “I’ll be going to kindergarten in a few months, and I can learn math there.”

Uh…no, we’ll be doing kindergarten here, I explained gently. That’s what homeschooling means.

No, Mama, I am Going To School, she informed me. We sat down to talk this over.

Turns out, Rio wants to go to school instead of homeschooling. She wants this because:

  • she wants more time away from me.
  • she wants to get away from her annoying toddler sister.
  • she wants to make a lot of new friends.
  • she wants to learn Math.

And finally, her bottom line reason, “Mama, remember last year, when I wanted to try homeschooling, and then I did try it, and I liked it? Well, now I want to try kindergarten. I like to try new things.”

Of course you do, kid.

My goal in life for the past five years has been to raise that child, and her siblings, to be creative, self-possessed and powerful. I want her to know what she wants and be able to get it for herself. If she’s using those tools now to tell me she wants to go to kindergarten, I don’t feel right thwarting her.

I know just about every homeschooling family goes through a little kindergarten envy, especially with the oldest child. There are a lot of strategies for working around this. But I don’t want to. I don’t feel like Rio is asking to go to school because some of her friends do or because she wants to ride a bus. She seems to deeply grok what school is about and want to do it.

There remained, however, the small matter of logistics.I explained to Rio that the time for kindergarten registration had passed and we had not signed up. “Can you call them and ask if they have a place for me?” she said, very matter-of-fact. How could I refuse? I called. They were full. Our public school district offers kindergarten, but they are not legally bound to provide it to every child the way they are with first grade. So the kindergartens get full and they just turn people away. We’ll put you on a waiting list, they said. People move. You could get lucky.

I talked to my beloved husband. He shares my feelings about public schools, which can be politely summed up as: “No, Thank You”. Like me, however, he wants to honor the Adult Inside our children when that voice speaks, and it’s pretty clear that the Adult Inside was speaking to us about Rio going to kindergarten.

“I’ll make some phone calls,” he says. “There was that school on campus…”

My husband, gentle readers may recall, works at Tufts University. They do in fact host a school for children. A school that is the oldest nursery school in North America. It is a competitive private school. The kind you have to apply to nine months before you hope your child will start school there. The kind that preps kids for prep schools. The kind that charges more in annual tuition than I have earned from my freelance work in the past three years.

I thought we had pretty much closed the door on that as an option for our kids after the whole Fayerweather Thing last year. But the Universe can’t give you anything if you don’t ask, so I told him to go ahead and call.

He called. They said, “Oh. Kindergarten? We’ll send you an application.”

We filled it out that night, and he dropped it off the next morning. They called an hour later. “When can you bring your daughter in for an interview?”

We brought her in a few days later. Right away, it was clear that this was the Right Place. The director came up, introduced herself to all three of us and then focused entirely on Rio – speaking directly to her, pointing out features of the school that might interest her (like the wooden chimes built into the staircase bannister). They broke their own stated rule about not allowing kids to do classroom observation because they saw how mature she is and correctly thought she could handle it and would enjoy it. When she asked a question – how do kids learn math here? – she got a clear, honest answer. An answer that involved divvying up buckets of dinosaurs and learning to read clocks and calendars.

The campus and program almost exactly match her old preschool, which I always thought was perfect for her in every way. It’s a very open program that allows children to direct nearly all their learning, but has a high ratio of adults to kids and a small amount of structured time each day. They’re on a beautiful corner of the Tufts campus, surrounded by green space and nature-themed playgrounds. Like the Family Coop, they go outdoors every day, something I have been less successful at than I’d hoped with my home program.

So it’s great, but almost certainly unavailable to us. Except…as we were wrapping up the tour, the director quietly let us know that the day Martin called, a family had notified them that they might have to pull out of the school because they were buying a house. The director mentioned to the front desk that there was a possible kindergarten opening, and they should encourage anyone who called to apply. Martin called an hour later.

The other family confirmed that they were definitely leaving two hours before Rio showed up to take her tour, and the opening was hers. There was no active waiting list because they had closed kindergarten registration nearly four months ago and stopped taking applications.

How are we going to pay for this? Funny you should ask. In seeking the answer to that question, we stumbled across an error on my husband’s pay stubs. They’ve been underpaying his for his research work for the past year. Tufts owes him back pay equal to approximately half the tuition, and will be increasing his weekly salary going forward by an amount that will about cover the other half.

I’ve had goosebumps all week thinking about how the Universe fell all over itself to create this unlikely opportunity for my little girl. I’m still ambivalent about school as a long-term prospect and certain I will miss her come fall.

Kindergarten, here we come.

IMG_3894.JPG, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

This is a photograph of the clock on top of my kids’ puppet theater. The hands only move at the urging of human hands to set the time. There’s no battery or clockwork behind the face, so normally it does not keep time. We use it as a learning toy for learning clock time; I imagine when the kids are older, they can use it to set the time for their “performances”.

The other day, I was in that room with an adult friend who glanced at it to check the time and I said, “Oh, there’s no clock in this room.”

We were unsure. Is this a clock? Is a clock a thing that looks like this, or is a clock a thing that tells you what time it is?

When I was a child, one of my favorite snacks was Peanut Butter Balls. The recipe for these is delightfully simple:

  1. Wash all the hands that might go in the mixture. This includes your own, any child helpers, and any children who claim they do not want to help but might get drawn in once they see there is honey and chocolate involved.
  2. Scoop 1 cup of peanut butter into a mixing bowl.
  3. Add 3/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  4. Start squishing these together.
  5. While mixing, add chocolate chips and honey to taste.

This is my mother’s version of the recipe, anyway, carefully written in the margins of the cookbook. As a kid, the next step was always to carefully roll the dough into balls and arrange them on the tray. And then of course to eat them.

Doing this for snack with my homeschool kids the other day, I ran into a problem. Serena is too little to make balls, and the three-year-olds in the group are too impatient to leave them on the plate for more than a second or two. Which in turn upsets the older kids who want to Do The Project Right.

So I got out the cookie cutters and child-size rolling pins and let them play with the mess they were making, instead of fighting for control. The peanut dough turns out to be malleable and not very sticky. It was like edible play dough. Each kid had a decent portion to play with, that they could safely nibble as they went. Unlike cookie dough, there’s no need to bake it and no raw egg to fret over.

Need I saw how awesome this was? Let me repeat: edible play dough!

Thanks, Mom! I owe you big, for writing down the recipe, for letting me run off with your cookbook, and for raising me to think of creative ways out of sticky situations. We’ll be doing this one again for sure.

What are your favorite cooking activities with kids? Do you have a creative way to make messes in the kitchen? Let me know in the comments below.

rio’s reading game.jpg, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

Rio made this!

I’ve been reading an interesting book, published in the 70s, called the Home Guide to Early Reading. This is pretty much the opposite of the Waldorf approach I’ve taken with my kids thus far. The author advocates a playful but structured approach to teaching reading beginning at about four years old.

Rio seems to be on the cusp of reading readiness, and while I have complex feelings about this, I thought we’d try a few of the exercises in the book. The first one was an exercise to encourage children to develop a directional sense, so that they can follow the flow of text on a page.

Following the book’s instructions, I made a narrative picture with a series of dotted lines in it. She needed to trace my dotted lines to get from the house to the apple tree to the bridge to the fairy circle, etc.

Rio unexpectedly loved this, and spent a long time on it with me. When we’d filled an entire page with my story arc, she said, “Mama, I want to do the next one. I’m going to make the pictures and you have to trace it and write.”

And then she did it. She even made the right number of lines for me to write my name at the bridges (a little game-within-a-game we made up, writing one’s name to ‘pay the troll’ at the bridge).

I guess I don’t have to worry about her falling behind on the whole reading thing. She can teach this stuff!

The Shrinking of Treehorn

The Shrinking of Treehorn

Serena took this book out of the library. I think she chose it because it was a nice shade of green and charmingly square.

When we got it home, I noticed that the drawings were by Edward Gorey, a favorite artist of our entire family’s. We’ve been to visit his house on the Cape, and generally find his whimsical, creepy art about our cup of tea on most occasions.

The story is a lovely, strange tale about a little boy with clueless parents, too much TV and a breakfast cereal fixation who one day begins to mysteriously shrink. The author deftly avoids wandering into drab moral lessons while skirting close enough to let the reader come to her own conclusions about the value of 56 favorite television programs and endless plastic toys in a child’s life.

The book is novella length, but all the kids in my morning program have sat through it several times and keep asking for it again. Unlike most books the kids adore, I actually enjoy reading this one and have been happy to oblige them.

Yesterday, Rio said that even though she is not going to have any babies when she grows up and explores the world as a singer, she will have just one baby, and name it Treehorn, just to see if it shrinks.

“It will be an experiment, Mama,” she explained. “First, I will be pregnant. Then, I will give birth to the baby. Whoosh! Then, I will see that it is a boy, and name him Treehorn. After that, I will see if he grows until he is three or so and then starts to shrink again. That is the experiment part.”

Rio is changing

Rio is changing

Rio is changing. She wants to learn to read and write numbers up to 100. She wants to go out and play in the neighborhood on her own. She wants to read picture books to herself.

In most families, these would be signs that she’s ready for kindergarten. But she’s not going to kindergarten, and I was not  certain what our next step should be. So I did what I always do: read.

First, I read this excellent interview with a woman who goes by the charming name Jean Beetgreen, about the decade she’s spent unschooling her son. Then I read a post by a friend, about watching her grandchildren be unschooled and fall further and further behind their peers, becoming more frustrated and unhappy as they fail to learn.

Then I went to bed, where I had terrible nightmares in which I destroyed my child’s life by choosing to homeschool her and being disorganized about it.

On waking, I recognized those for what they were: nightmares, not reality. In reality, my kids are learning and thriving right on par with their traditionally-schooled peers. But I also know that in reality, unschooling is a Fool’s Leap. You step off the cliff with your child, carrying a tiny knapsack of tools and tricks. Maybe you soar, and maybe you fall. You can’t know in advance.

The same is true of traditional schooling, of course. That hallowed source of all information, Wikipedia, cites studies showing almost a quarter of American adults are only marginally literate. Clearly the risk of failure haunts every approach to learning.

The occasional spectacular failure of an unschooling family stands out for the same reason the brilliant successes do. Because unschooling is unusual. One outlier result can be used to condemn or sanctify an entire approach. This is a little like Consumer Reports slamming all baby slings because of a few accidents, instead of trying to establish safety standards for them.

Unschooling can, apparently, be a good or bad choice for any given family. How do I know what is best for my own kids?

I asked Rio what she felt she needed to learn next year. As faithful readers may recall, I do not think it is up to Rio to set the agenda for her education, but I do seek out her input.

She screwed up her face and tapped her head several times to shake out her ideas, and then gave me this list:

– riding a one-wheeled bicycle
– going out by herself
– going to Lyndell’s to buy cupcakes

What about reading and math?

“I know that stuff, Mama! You teach me.”

She then said she would buy me a set of special toys for teaching math problems to kids, and ran off to get her allowance jars to show me how much money she has saved.

Her enthusiasm (and ability to count her savings) suggests we’re on the right path. She certainly won’t learn the things on her agenda in a traditional schooling setting, and she seems to be learning reading and math at home.

I’m curious about my readers’ experiences. What’s worked, or not worked, for you in homeschooling? How structured or open is your day? What do your kids learn?

This coming Sunday, May 10, is Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. It’s a free event, outdoors of course.

We’re eagerly awaiting this day, which the kids and I enjoyed with friends last year. Not only will a wide variety of lilacs be blooming around the park, but they’ll have Morris dancing, food vendors, and tours of the flowers.

Not that any of that is necessary to enjoy the magic of the Arboretum’s lilac collection. One of the advantages of homeschooling is the opportunity to dodge crowds and go to special events on weekdays while everyone else is in school. You might just want to pick a sunny day this week, or next, and head over.

Whenever you go, I suggest bringing a picnic and planning to spend a good chunk of the day there. It’s a big place to walk around and there are many, many flowers to stop and smell.

SOS is upon us, and if you’re on the fence about going with your kids, consider this:

My brood and I were invited to a sneak peek at Rachel Silber’s studio. We went and admired her truly admirable prints, oil paintings and creative boxes. We called dibs on one of her cool artist trading cards. And then Rio climbed into my lap, squirming with excitement and whispered in my ear.

“Mommy! I have to color. I NEED to, Mommy! RIGHT NOW!”

Art begets art. I know of no better way to inspire a little artist than to show her some real life grown-ups playing hard with crayons and paints and clay and making beautiful art.

Here are a few other must-see stops on the Somerville Open Studios menu:
Bonnie Denis’ sock creatures are even more amazing in 3-D than in photos.

Molly Tomlinson’s photography is probably more fun for grown-ups, but worth dragging your kids to because it’s THAT GOOD.

Skunk’s sculture studio shows off some fascinating things you can do with junk. My kids love this stop every year!

Hillary Scott’s entire house is like a Dr. Suess book. Go there! Be amazed! Remodel your living room to look like a forest with an electric chair in it. Or just enjoy the visit.

Flickr Photos

A little bird told me…

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