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There’s a movement within the home school movement that emphasizes completely child-lead learning.  No curriculum, no textbooks (unless the child wants one), and from what I can understand, no structure beyond the normal routines of the family.  This approach to education is called unschooling.

I’ve gone back and forth over how I feel about unschooling.  I’ve seen both my daughters spontaneously learn what they needed to know as they grew from baby to toddler to (in L’s case) preschooler.  It seems logical that they would naturally continue that learning.  A neighbor of mine home schools and a number of time I’ve been at her house, she was nagging her children to get their work done (or start it) and there was the general sense that if she wasn’t hovering over them they’d just laze around all day and watch TV or engage in some other mindnumbing activity.  That’s the fear a lot of parents have about unschooling, that if someone isn’t breathing down their children’s necks, their children will just be blobs.

I’m not worried that my children will be blobs if I don’t direct their learning.  What I do worry about is will they learn everything they need to know.  And that’s when I have to ask myself just what is the “everything they need to know?”

That’s a pretty complicated question.  I remember being in junior high and the common whiny question we liked to ask the teacher was “When are we ever going to use this?”  It was a pretty regular refrain.  The teacher would either supply some lame answer or tell us to quit whining and start working on our homework.  What did I know about the real world as a child?  How was I supposed to know just what I’d need as an adult and what I’d wind up forgetting how to do?  A drill I really hated in school was diagraming sentences.  I had this English teacher from 6th grade through 9th grade who delighted in diagramming sentences.  I remember taking home anywhere from ten to twenty sentences and having to use a ruler to neatly show the different parts in their proper places.  I’m sure I wondered when I was ever going to use that skill.  I mean, who writes a sentence with all the modifiers in slanted lines underneath?

Once I changed schools beginning my sophomore year I never diagrammed another sentence.  If you asked me to diagram a sentence today I’m not sure I could do it.  Yet today I’m very thankful that I was compelled to diagram as many sentences as I was.  I credit that exercise more than anything else for my ability to write ever since.  I’ve written copy for newspapers both in my first couple years of college and now as a not-so-young mother of two.  Most of the time my copy has needed very little editing.  I’ve kept journals at various junctures in my life and it’s been possible because getting my thoughts down in writing has been a fairly effortless process.  My junior year in college my English composition teacher told me several times he liked my writing.  This teacher has himself published several poetry books.  Come to think of it, my writing has been affirmed by just about everyone who’s had anything to say about it except for that English teacher who made me diagram so many sentences.  Well, her and a really weird one in high school.

So what do I do when my daughters are around eleven or twelve and I want them to diagram sentences because I now see the value of it but maybe they don’t?  Do I wait a year or two and see if they spontaneously develop a desire to delve deeply into the workings of sentences?  Or do I make them do it for their own good?  Is it possible that I am the only one in that school who truly benefitted from that exercise?  I mean, maybe it was good for me because I have always been destined to be a writer.  Maybe no one else cares.  But even people who don’t enjoy writing blog posts, journal entries, articles for magazines, and a novel in their spare time still have to write just to communicate.  So, I’m pretty sure most everyone in my class diagramming sentences and hating every minute of it is better off today for it.

I always go back in my mind to this experience of diagramming sentences when I ponder the merits of unschooling.  I know my children will learn a lot on their own, but will they get the growth from doing something of value that seems boring and tedious at the time even when they don’t want to?  Or is that a false dichotomy?  Maybe there is a way to make sentence diagramming, not to mention long division and other school exercises, something exciting and interesting, something that every child would want to do.

That’s what I want to find out.  Learning is something that can be fun and exciting.  To be perfectly honest, I have learned and retained so much more since leaving college and my full time job than I think I’ve learned in all my seven years of higher education.  I learned how to take full advantage of my library card, and when I got an interest in a subject, I simply checked out books about it and read voraciously.  The first subject had to do with finances.  In all my many and varied school subjects, I somehow missed the one about how to manage my own money.  I did learn a fair amount of that from my parents, but even they left out a lot of stuff I’d need to know once I got married.  Somehow, the everything I needed to know wasn’t covered in my formal education, and I survived.  I just put myself (and my husband) through a self-directed crash course and six years later we’re still doing OK in that department, and we also have much to learn.

Then there’s the matter of stuff I learned in school that is no longer applicable or that I have since come to learn has another side to it and may not even be true.  I remember the Food Pyramid being a fundamental tenet of health class.  Well, today, not eveyone subcribes to the Food Pyramid as the definitive guide for human nutrition.  I also learned that vaccinations were the most important way to ward off disease.  I now know that vaccination status actually ranks pretty far down on the list of effective preventative measures.  In junior high I learned that genetic engineering was a horrible evil of society because it was tampering with God’s creation.  Then I majored in agriculture where genetic engineering was something I did in genetics lab, and over the course of my studies determined that it wasn’t evil.  Now I’m rethinking that view and wondering if maybe it is evil after all, though for rather different reasoning.

When it comes right down to it, much of what we learn is opinion and subject to change.  There are some fundamentals, like faith in God, the ability to read, basic math, and grammar (yes, even grammar does change, but pretty slowly compared to say, computer programming).  I’m sure there are some that I am forgetting.  But beyond those fundamentals, everything else is subject to change.  Either new research will come along to clarify old theories, or they will be proven erroneous.  And the process of debunking old and false notions has historically been a messy one.

I’m not sure what method of schooling I will pursue with my children–I expect I’ll be experimenting with various methods and approaches.  I do hope that my children learn the fundamentals, and that I always remember there is way more out there to learn than could possibly be crammed into a school program.  I expect over time I will gravitate towards more child-lead learning.  I can see myself heading that way already, because frankly, it’s easier.  But I imagine that will be interspersed with me being more insistent than usual that my children learn a particular academic skill.

Like maybe knowing when it’s time to quit blogging and go to bed…

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My first invoice

I mentioned before that I have written for a special issue in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. When it was all said and done, I submitted three stories, and they are going to come out in print this weekend. My editor emailed me that it was time for me to send him an invoice so I could get paid. So I had a little fun making up a simple template and filling in the specific work I did, along with the agreed upon price.

Now I feel like a real freelance writer, sending out my first invoice. Maybe I should frame my copy or something. I’ll feel even more like a real freelancer when the check comes in.

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As you might guess by my lack of posting, I’ve been rather busy for the past couple weeks.  The main thing I’ve been doing is organizing my files and filing system.  I just about have it set up and I think it’s going to work really well.  No more papers lying around the house because I don’t have a place for them.  Each important paper has a home in one of my numerous files.  More on that later (hopefully).

Some writing news.  Between Erik and me, we had four stories out with various publishers, having submitted one each month beginning in January.  Three out of the four came back in May, so May was our month of rejections.  The one that didn’t come back I’m probably going to have to consider rejected as well as I’d sent it to a publisher whose policy is “if you haven’t heard from us in so many months, consider your work rejected.”  I got my two stories sent off to two more publishers, and Erik will get his story sent off sometime in the hopefully not too distant future.

But while my children’s picture book writing may not be Olympic material yet I am actually a published author.  OK, so it’s not the Big Time, but it counts.  I have an article on the Penpointers website, so check it out.

And, I’m currently in communication with an editor at the Fort Collins Coloradoan about writing one or two feature stories about the Parade of Homes for a special insert.  That’s a paid credit, so I’m really excited.  I got that contact through Brian Kaufman, one of the authors in the Penpointers group.  He’s done work for the Coloradoan in the past and is now having to turn that paper down in favor of more lucrative assignments, so he recommended me.  I’m grateful for networking.  It would have been much more difficult to break in on my own.  Still, I need to prove myself once I get my first story assignment.  I also have plans to work up my Welcoming a New Baby article for publication in the Fort Collins Mother’s Center newsletter, and a tentative commitment from the publisher.  There are other possibilities as well.  My limiting factor really is time (isn’t it everyone’s?).

Speaking of which, it appears a little person needs me…

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I can’t afford to get writer’s block.  Literally.  Time at the computer is a precious commodity for me as I am the proud mother of two young active daughters.  If I’m lucky, they might both nap at the same time… for about ten minutes.  And that’s the time I have to get a rough draft of my next project banged out, or put in a few revisions on an older work, or compose that oh-so-important cover letter to that next publisher on my list.  Ten minutes during the day and however many hours I choose to work late into the night hoping my munchkins sleep through.

I have more projects lined up for myself than I will have the time to even begin for a long time.  There is a space in my mind that is always thinking about what I want to write next.  I might be changing a diaper while working out how to condense that picture book manuscript I read to the group last night.  I might be whipping up a batch of sauerkraut while mentally prioritizing just what will get written with the next ten minutes of time (whenever that happens).  Or, I may be telling my three-year-old a made-up story for the tenth time and start thinking “Gee, I think that’s picture book material.”

When that opportunity comes to write, I hit it hard.  It’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint.  I’ve been imagining this for a long time now, so it just flows. In ten minutes a bit more of what’s inside comes to life.  Then, I hear a cry from another room, I reluctantly hit the “save” icon, then go and mother my child.  That space in my mind continues to “write.”  I am engaged in a game of Candyland while contemplating what to fix for dinner.

Focus and integration.  These are the tools of my fledgling writing career.  When I’m physically writing it’s the only thing I’m doing, and I’m doing it as fast as I can.  The rest of the time I’m thinking about it at some level.  Even more importantly, what I write flows out of my life.  I’m writing stories for children like my daughters.  By the time I write it, I’ve either told it several times, or I’ve experienced it.  Like the overnight success that really took ten years, it’s amazing what can be written in a few minutes here and there when it’s been there in my mind for days.

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A couple weeks ago my husband started bringing Tintin volumes home from the library, and I’ve been devouring them. I grew up reading Tintin comic books–in the original French! Tintin is pronounced to rhyme with the sound you make to imitate a baby crying, not like a tin-tin can! And Tintin’s dog is named Milou, not Snowy. But European snobbery aside, it’s been lots of fun getting reacquainted with Tintin, his friends and enemies, and his adventures.

I remember Captain Haddock’s short temper and weakness for whisky. I used to laugh at all the multisyllabic words he used to express his frequent outrage at the large and small insults and injuries he encountered on every page. My favorite Haddock outburst took place in The Red Sea Sharks when Tintin and Haddock got the upper hand on a ship where they were being held prisoner and Haddock learned through a scheduled rendezvous that the African people in the ship’s hold were destined to be sold as slaves. The rendezvous was with the dealer. Captain Haddock just let loose on the slave trader and shouted after him as he was leaving. When Tintin told him the trader was out of earshot, Haddock got a megaphone and continued with the name calling. I remember as a child finding the words Haddock used to express himself to be absolutely hilarious. I mean, how can you keep a straight face while reading words like “ectoplasm” and “bashi-bouzouk?”

Reading these adventures as an adult, I realize that Herge, Tintin’s creator, intended to portray Captain Haddock as the stereotypical foul-mouthed sailor. Either by choice or because profanity wasn’t so accepted in the literature of the 30s and 40s, Herge did not have Haddock use actual profanity. Instead, he would draw an angry-faced Haddock spewing out strings of fifty dollar words or well-alliterated but otherwise meaningless phrases. Phrases such as “ten thousand thundering typhoons!” (“Mille million de mille sabords” in French), “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” and “Band of bashi-bouzouks!” As children, my brother and I would laugh over the outbursts and when our parents were out of earshot, would call each other the multisyllabic names Captain Haddock threw out so freely to anyone who so much as looked at him wrong. As an adult, I still laugh over the outbursts, and I better understand the picture Herge was painting. In real life, the words would be much different, and not repeatable in polite company. But who can argue with “orangutan?”

I generally have greater respect for an author or film director who manages to realistically portray a situation that would be rife with profanity in real life without actually using swear words, or at least only using a few of the milder ones than for a creator who puts all the dirty words into his work. I happen to believe it takes greater intelligence and creativity to come up with alternate words that still get the message across than it does to put in the curse words you hear all the time. I watched A Walk to Remember which dealt with teenagers on the edge of delinquency. The directors wanted it to be a PG movie, which meant that most of the profanity such teenagers normally use had to go. And yet it was clear to the viewer that these characters were a bunch of foul-mouthed troublemakers–at least they started out that way. The movie wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant to watch had the actors used the exact same words real life delinquents use. And the Tintin series wouldn’t be as funny had Haddock used words an actual foul-mouthed sailor uses. Herge’s use of multisyllabic words to portray Haddock’s angry outburts was truly masterful.

At one point today, I got frustrated with something involving my daughter L and started to raise my voice at her. I caught myself and instead exclaimed: “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” That got her laughing hysterically, and made me feel better too. Profanity cannot give you that kind of lift no matter how much you try to justify its increasing inclusion in books, movies and songs. So, whether a character is meant to be comic relief like Captain Haddock, or a serious character with deep disturbing problems, an author takes the high road by choosing to not use profanity.

Thundering Typhoons! Where did the ectoplasmic time go?

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This morning I conducted what is becoming a monthly ritual in our household: the trip to the post office with the brown manila envelope in hand. Normally the girls and I walk to the post office, then stop by the park on the way back home. Today, the weather was bad, so instead I loaded the girls into their car seats and drove down the street. The post office has a big window facing the street. I parked the car there, left the motor running and went inside to mail off my manuscript. This one is My Baby Sister and its destination is the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I’ve revised My Baby Sister a total of five times, making this manuscript the one in which I’ve invested the most effort. It’s also the one I believe in the most. I think it’s good enough to go somewhere and I’m going to persevere with it until it does. F, S & G will take around three months to decide if they want it. I’m hoping to choose a second publisher to submit it to well before that in the event that F, S & G rejects it. But other than that, it’s time to give My Baby Sister a rest, forget about it, and start working on my next project. If I need to resubmit it to another publisher, I can take a fresh look at it.

Once I returned from the post office and unloaded the girls out of the car, the day took on a more normal stay-at-home mom flavor. Both my girls have the sniffles, so we took it easy. We rolled a ball back and forth to each other in the living room, I let L watch a sesame street movie while I took a shower. I added some rye flour and water to my sour dough bread starter. I swept and mopped the kitchen floor. Recently we replaced our fridge and the floor was showing signs of the large appliance switch. I folded three baskets of clothes, finally declaring myself officially caught up with the laundry. While folding the clothes, L got silly and started putting various pieces on her head. She saw E take off her slippers and socks and put the slipper on her head, and thought that was a riot. I pretended to make a big deal out of it, “What? A sleeper on your head?” This only made L giggle all the more. Who would have known that minutes before L was crying in my arms over some upset?

I’m a techie at heart and actually have my household chore task list entered in Outlook. I’ve set the tasks to recur based on my ideal for how often certain jobs, like cleaning the bathroom sinks, get done. But the task will only regenerate when I’ve checked it off as done. This means that when I invariably fall behind from the ideal, once I do accomplish the task, I’m automatically caught up on that task and won’t see it again until the time I’ve set for it to recur. Each day I make a little game with myself to see how many overdue tasks I can check off. Today, I got to check off two.

For lunch the girls and I shared one of the pints of yogurt I made yesterday. I get two shares of raw milk which translates into two gallons a week, half of which I process into yogurt. Lately I’ve been skimming the cream off to save for ice cream, but this time I left the cream with the milk. It is such an improvement on the taste and quality of the milk and yogurt to leave the cream in. I dream of the future when we will have a family cow who produces enough milk that when we want extra cream, the leftover skim milk is considered waste–something to feed the pigs, not consume ourselves. In the mean time, I have many pints of creamy yogurt to enjoy.

I contemplate what to fix for dinner, and settle on soup using a turkey stock I made up shortly after this past Thanksgiving. I will throw in the leftover whole grains we’ve eaten for breakfast, the chicken, a pint of sauerkraut my husband and I fermented ourselves last month. Of course, I’ll start by sauteeing some onions, carrots and celery in a stick of butter, sadly purchased from the store. I think again about our future milk cow, who will give us enough cream for me to make butter.

Many diaper changes happen before and during dinner preparation. I’m late on starting and want L to go to bed early so I feed her a couple painted hard boiled Easter eggs just in case. I also let her chew the chicken meat off the bones as I cut up pieces for my soup. Surprisingly, she’s still hungry and does have a little bit of her soup, but only after Erik agrees to add some rolled oats and banana slices. As I’m sitting down to enjoy my soup, it becomes obvious that E needs to go down to sleep right now, so I move to the rocking chair to nurse her. As soon as E is asleep, my husband Erik and I help get L to sleep. We then sit down for some private time and E wakes up. Erik gets her settled back to sleep but then he can’t put her down without waking her up. So I prop up a Tintin comic book to read while I consume three bowls of soup. Erik is reading another Tintin book while holding E. The soup, by the way, is delicious. Adding sauerkrout to soup gives it an incredibly rich flavor. I make a mental note that in a pinch stock and sauerkrout alone will make a decent soup–more nutritious than boxed mac & cheese.

Before I know it, it’s time to start thinking about my own bedtime, and maybe I should clean up the kitchen so it’s nice for tomorrow. Nah, I’d rather be blogging. Or working on one of my writing projects (I have more of those than I really have the time for). It’s during the evenings after my girls are asleep that I can usually count on some concentrated time to write. I say usually, because both girls often wake up at night fairly often and need to be soothed back to sleep. Still, there have been enough uninterrupted evenings that it’s not unreasonable to hope this one will be like that. Then I have to decide between writing, catching up on housework, spending some quality time with my husband, or any number of other possibilities that get put on hold day after day. What will it be tonight? Whatever it is, it will involve homemade ice cream.

Such is the life of a stay-at-home aspiring author.

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