Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

I am, of course, thankful for the roof over my head and the food on my plate.  But there's so much more that I'm thankful that a quick little list just can't adequately describe.  So at the risk of sounding a little sappy, here's what I'm thankful for right now:

My totally awesome family.  I have a wonderful husband who continues to support this crazy career of mine while we homeschool The Peanut.  This has not always been easy, but we continue to make it work.  I also have a really cool, smart little kid who continues to amaze me on a daily basis.

My really cool friends.  I have several friends that even if I don't see for awhile, we can pick up where ever we last left off and just keep going.  I am also blessed with a couple friends who are also mentors.  The one thing I can guarantee with just about any of my friends that if we're together, we're going to laugh and have fun.

My cat.  Seriously.  My cat Pandora is my BFFF (Best Furry Friend Forever).  She spends a good bit of her time either in my lap or snuggling next to me.  At night, she sleeps next to my pillow.  She follows me around like I would imagine a dog would and has a personality like no other cat I've ever owned.

My church.  I am not terribly religious, but I was raised Presbyterian and I do believe in a God.  Church started as a gig for me a little over 10 years ago.  I thought it was cool to be paid to do something that I would do for free and I didn't really care what I was singing so long as I was singing something.  My boss turned out to be amazing and took me under his wing -- see above about my cool friends.  Overtime, the choir became a second family for me.  I ended up joining the church and while the music program is still my primary focus, I have become involved in a number of facets.

Music. It's my life.  I am one of those people who almost always has a song stuck in their head.  (Right now, it's "Rejoice Greatly" from Handel's Messiah since I am preparing it for an upcoming gig.  Give me 5 minutes and I'll probably be mentally running another movement even though I don't mean to do it...)  Anyways, I can't imagine what the heck I'd be if I didn't have music.  Even if I didn't teach, I'd still find somewhere to sing and make music.  For me, teaching is icing on the cake - it gives me the chance to share my passion.  I think this is doubly cool with kids -- to watch them make connections and creat their own music makes me indescribably happy.

Games.  Board games, card games, Wii, Dungeons & Dragons... you name it.  I love games.  What I'm most thankful for, though, is how they bring people together.  Whether it's the hubby, Peanut and me trying to escape Forbidden Island, a whole bunch of my word-smithing friends duking it out over Bananagrams, or The Bickering Eight fighting the latest battle (either with a dragon or amongst themselves), it's a chance to connect, play, and be silly for awhile.

I really do feel blessed for everything that's going on in my life right now.  And for that, I'm very thankful.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Balance... or am I just crazy and biting off way more than I can chew?!

School starts for us the week of August 29th, so of course I get tagged for jury duty for that Monday.  The court system of Worcester County must really like me because I also went for jury duty almost 6 years ago when I was pregnant with The Peanut.  Needless to say, school will be delayed by a day.  I doubt The Peanut will complain too much -- I think on one level, she's ready to get back to school and the routine it offers her.  I know she thinks she likes having time on her hands, but I find that her attitude gets pretty bad after awhile -- especially after a couple of days of rain.  Our schedule should still allow for plenty of outside time on the nice days.  I won't keep her chained to her school table all day...

This year marks Kindergarten for The Peanut.  Last year, I was perfectly content to share the schooling with our nanny because I considered it a "gravy" year.  Technically, this year is another "gravy" year, but since I had to actually call the school and tell them she wouldn't be showing up for Kindergarten orientation, it feels more official.  (In Massachusetts, a parent doesn't have to file paperwork to homeschool until the child turns 6... The Peanut is 5.)  So I feel like the burden of educating The Peanut should fall much more squarely on my shoulders (and my husband's as his schedule allows).  Please don't get me wrong -- the nanny has done a wonderful job helping me -- lots of great ideas and a different perspective.  I think for as long as she sits for The Peanut, she will always help -- just not as much as this past year.  This transition is made easier (or is being forced, depending on how you want to look at it) by her need to cut back her hours because of her course load.  I really am looking forward to taking on the vast majority of the school work -- the last couple of months have been spent prepping for this year and I'm really excited about what's coming up.

This year also marks the start of Shrewsbury Arts Alive.  The rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated.  It is in fact kicking off under Pakachoag Music School's umbrella.  In reality, the church voting the program down was probably the best thing that could have happened to it.  We're starting out with a stronger program selection right out of the gate.  I also have a supportive board and some semblance of a budget to work with and a marketing team.  And - most importantly - while this is still pretty much my baby, I am backed by a school that's been around for 30 years and a team of individuals who have tons of experience in this realm.  How awesome is that?  I will continue to see students privately while managing this program and acting as one of the music class instructors.

And this year marks the start of creative homeschooling.  We will be one of those families who makes it fit within our crazy schedules.  It may mean that The Peanut does not get to sleep until 10am in the morning -- she's much more of a night owl than a morning person.  (Sadly, she's not so good at concentrating on school stuff much past dinnertime).  And it may mean that at least one day a week, The Peanut will be doing schoolwork with me at the church as I need to be onsite because other instructors will be there -- I won't have much to do beyond turning on some lights and making sure the heat's turned up in the wintertime.  Why  not find a quiet place to do our lessons?  It may also mean that my husband will have to take on some of the responsibility when he gets home in the evening or over the weekend.  (I'll just be sure to save the lighter fare for him for both their sakes!)

So many firsts and exciting things this year for us.  Juggling it all is a daunting task, but I look forward to the challenge!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Puttin' my teacher hat on.

School starts for us on August 29, 2011 and will run through mid-June 2012.  It will end no later than June 22nd, but we may finish up a little sooner than that.  This year, aside from a scheduled break around Christmas -- because, really, it's busy enough as it is -- we aren't doing formal school vacations.  I've found them pretty difficult to recover from this past school year.  Instead, a school week will have 3 - 5 days in it.  The 3 day weeks are around holidays that I know the hubby and I will more than likely be off work.  The rest of the weeks are either 4 or 5 days -- if we did it as I have roughly mapped out in my little planner calendar, 180-ish days hits the week of June 22nd.  If The Peanut decides to work ahead on a short week and do 5 days instead of 4, then I can shave time off the end.  I figure this system will give us tons of flexibility for impromptu field trips, sick days, and don't-wanna days.  This is an experiment -- we shall see how it works.  If after a month or two it is making me crazy, then we'll go back to school vacation weeks.

Stuff we'll be working on...

Language Arts:

We may end up finding another Grammar solution.  I'm already on the fence about whether I like FLL, but what's more important is how she responds to it.  The lessons are very short and to the point which is a big plus, but there is a ton of repetition -- when I reviewed the book to make plans for the year, I found several areas where I think we may end up skipping or combining lessons.  If she likes it, we'll stick with it this school year.  If not, I've got a couple of ideas which may work for us.  Regardless, I don't see us using this two years in a row - there is a program that I think she will really like, but I'm not sure she's quite ready for it this year.

Since The Peanut likes writing her stories and has recently taken a huge interest in poetry, the Spectrum book will be heavily supplemented with other materials.  I have a couple sourcebooks around making books with children.  I also have a list of resources (books and websites) for grade school poetry writing.  Each week, I'll sprinkle something in from one of these sources to keep her on her toes.  Also, since some of the Spectrum Grade 1 book is material we've covered this year in other sources, we'll be skipping some of it.  I anticipate getting into the Grade 2 book before the end of the school year.

As for what we'll read, some of it will be stuff I'll have her select either from her own personal library or from the public library.  I'll also find things that I think will interest her that she may not pick for herself.  Last school, I picked all the reading.  This year, I'm going to give her at least some of the responsibility.  There will also be plenty of reading to do for History and Science.  Honestly, it doesn't matter what I put in front of her (within reason) -- she absolutely loves to read and does so every chance she gets.

We're starting the school year with Saxon 3.  We started this a couple of months before the end of this school year.  With skips for repetition, we're about halfway through it.  I am not sure what we'll be doing when we finish up.  I am leaning towards moving over to Singapore Math and supplementing with Life of Fred "Before High School Mathematics" series.  This is something that I will explore further in the Fall once I get everything else squared away.  We may go to Saxon 4, but it kills me to pay for all the material and really only use half of it -- even used, Saxon isn't cheap.

We'll be learning about ancient cultures using Story of the World, Volume 1.  Using their teacher guide, I'm taking each chapter at least a little deeper than the high level overview each chapter provides.  I highly doubt we'll get through the entire book this year.  Instead, we'll finish it up at the beginning of the following school year.  We've got time and I think it will be fun exploring this time period.  Most everything for the school year has required only basic planning.  Since I want to go deep with this, I have been spending most of school prep time on this - a process that I've actually enjoyed doing.

I am taking the advice of a couple of moms who have science/math kids -- which The Peanut is -- and am starting with the basics.  This year will be all about Chemistry using two sources: Elemental Science and Real Science 4 Kids.  I like Real Science 4 Kids quite a bit, but with only 10 chapters, it isn't enough to use it by itself for an entire school year.  I toyed with supplementing each chapter and basically writing my own material -- at this level, it's fairly easy to do so, but I only have so much time.  Elemental Science is close to a full year's worth of material by itself, but doesn't do as good of a job (in my opinion) explaining the basics.  It does however do a good job of taking the basics to the next step.  The two programs combined make for a nice elementary school chemistry program.

We may pick this up again.  We had to stop working on Spanish this past year because it was turning into an exercise in frustration for The Peanut.  I think she likes the idea of learning a foreign language, but doesn't like that it's a lot of drill work and practice to actually do anything with it.  We were using a program put out by Hooked on Phonics on her computer and I was supplementing with activities, songs, and worksheets from a couple of different sources.  The last level on the HOP program was challenging and required concentration.  The Peanut gets frustrated if she doesn't get something on the first or second try -- and this level required several more than a couple tries in many instances.  I may wait and start Spanish a month or two into school (or even after the holidays).  Learning Spanish was The Peanut's idea so I'm happy to support her efforts to learn it and provide resources, but I do not consider this a priority at the moment.  Since many of the materials for other subjects will be new and the routine is new, I'd rather get her settled into these before figuring out how to fit Spanish in.

We will probably continue taking classes at the Worcester Art Museum.  If we cannot fit one of their classes in our schedule, I may ask the teacher to come work with us one-on-one (or organize something for area homeschoolers with her).  Since I am friends with the teacher, I don't see this as being a big deal to do.  History also gives us a chance to do some art appreciation as well, though I think she prefers to make masterpieces over viewing them. 

Time permitting, I'll give her piano lessons to teach her the basics.  I have a fantastic teacher lined up for her when she gets a little older.  He has asked that I get her going with the basics and he will take over when she reaches a certain point.

Physical Education:
Although I am questioning how interested she really is in it, she has asked to take gymnastics again this year.  I personally believe that she enjoys just getting out of the house and doing something.  We will probably explore other options through a neighboring town's recreation department as well as a local health club that has a great kids fitness and swimming program.  Since one of her grandparents has generously offered to pay for gymnastics next year, we'll sign up for a half year and see how it's going around the holidays.

Other stuff:
A local homeschool group loosely organizes a girl scout group.  It's not a troop, but instead, a bunch of Juliettes (independently registered girl scouts who aren't affiliated with a troop) who get together once or twice a month for field trips, craft projects, etc.  The Peanut has expressed an interest in participating as a Daisy.  Since it's low-cost and fairly low-commitment and a great social opportunity, we will do that.

The Peanut will also continue to participate  in our church's Cherub Choir -- our choir for 4 - 7 year olds. 

It looks like it will be another busy year for The Peanut -- lots for us to look forward to! 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Start-ups, Politics, and Crazy Ideas

Several months ago, my boss, Malcolm, and I had a crazy idea to start a music school.  It seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time: Shrewsbury loves the arts and they love their kids participating in them.  Shrewsbury, like most school districts, don't offer as much in the way of arts education as they once did.  Granted, they're still better than some.  And Shrewsbury doesn't have a full-service performing arts school -- lots of places to take lessons and some one-off programs here and there, but by and large, nothing on-going.

Malcolm and I put together a great package that included group music classes on a variety of topics, a theater program, and even some visual arts classes. I had several top-notch teachers lined up who were excited about the program.  While we certainly planned on starting with the youngsters, we had a vision of expanding our classes to include adults as well in all three areas.  Our plan was to include it under the existing music ministry at the church.  The school itself would be secular, but he and I saw plenty of opportunity to expand upon church offerings and programs using the resources that the school would have in place.

Our church loves politics.  And here's where our grand idea gets squished.  After several months of back-and-forth, the church decided that this school was too risky.  Despite having seed money squared away, a built-in student base from several sources, and tons of excitement from younger families -- families that already participate in our church as well as others outside the church -- the school was killed in committee.  Our timing was off.  Those that were most excited about the school were not around for the vote given that it finally happened early last week.   Also, true to form, as one sub-committee asked for one thing, another one was unhappy with the answer/result.  Sadly, the school could have benefited everyone -- even if they did not directly participate in it -- because it meant an additional income for the church as well as new offerings for church programming.  Nevermind that it would be a great marketing tool for the church.

We were told, instead, that we would need to form a separate entity - most likely a 501(c)3 non-profit - and then apply for space usage (and pay a fee for that space).  So the church would still get its income with none of the "risk" or side-benefits.  The problem is that in making this decision, the church overstepped what it could decide for us -- entity type, governance, etc.  While we can certainly ignore some of the church's decision, Malcolm is rightfully hesitant to move forward.  He's busy enough for three people - another board, another organization, etc would probably tip the scales for him.  I'm right there with him -- as it was, this was going to be a challenge for me to juggle next year.  The added stress of putting together a separate non-profit would probably be too much unless he and I draw in more help from the get-go..

I have a few options to explore for this, but I fear that our great idea is dead in the water unless people show a ton of enthusiasm and push for it.   As of right now, I'm tired and more than a little burnt out from the process.  The lack of vision and possibility continually astounds me but it is what it is.  The next month will be spent regrouping and figuring out options (if any).


When something doesn't fit into your reality, you have a coping mechanism.  Some people are open-minded and want to learn about it.  Some people block the offending item out of their mind.  Other people try to force it to be what they think it should be.  And this is where we pick up the story.

This week, I have heard more times than I can count, "Well.  I've never seen a 5-year-old act like that."  This being said as if the person saying it has had experience with many 5-year-olds in life.  The one she had the most experience with was me.  Since I am an only child, all my cousins are older, and my mother doesn't have a bunch of friends with kids near my age (then or now), I can't say that she has a wealth of experience to draw upon in this department.  While I do not particularly want to get into the details of my childhood, I will say this:  aside from looking like me, my daughter is almost nothing like I was at that age.  While I was relatively compliant, she is strong-willed and stubborn.  While I was happy to go with the flow and learn at an age-appropriate pace (and push myself behind the scenes), she pushes for more information every chance she gets.  And when she's bored, look out!  While I could read simple picture books, she reads chapter books.  While I probably could only do real basic math, she knows a good portion of her multiplication facts.

I have never had my daughter formally tested, but my research and reading tells me that she's probably on the high end of "exceptionally gifted" if not "profoundly gifted".  This basically means that her IQ is high.  Possibly really high.  Having spent a lot of time around smart people -- including The Peanut -- I'm finding that often times when the IQ is high, it's made up for some other way.  The brain is just too darn busy to care about social graces and/or the personal comfort of it's human.  (Or in more extreme cases, the gifted kid has a learning disability or something cognitive that mucks up the thinking process).  Anyways, not having had The Peanut tested, I cannot tell you her IQ nor can I tell you exactly what her other "issues" are in a clinical sense. My mommy sense will describe her tantrums as epic, some of her sensitivities as strange, and her obsessiveness as frustrating.  For an outsider looking in -- especially when a tantrum is in full-swing or one of those sensitivities is rearing it's ugly head -- The Peanut probably looks like a strange little character.

Is she really five or is she a two-year-old?  Because let's face it, most five years can hold it together a little better than that.  Right?  And thus has been the mantra of my mother this week.  Right along with associated guilt aimed towards me because obviously, since she's acting this way, my earthy-crunchy parenting style has allowed her to turn into his terribly behaved child.  Nevermind that this our "normal" and that no shaming, belittling, or yelling at her when she goes into orbit over the latest crisis is going to get her to calm down any faster.  In fact, it just adds to the noise.  And my headache.

I have less than 36 hours here.  I am so very ready to go home.  At the same time, I'd like to fix this just a little.  My mother will probably never change her reaction entirely, but to somehow help her better understand her granddaughter just a little bit would be huge.  She is proud of The Peanut (and encouraging) when she displays the "good" side of being gifted.  She thinks the reading and the math and all the other cool stuff she does is great.  But to only accept one side of a someone's personality is not accepting the person.  And like it or not, our brilliant little Peanut can also be a screaming, irrational little monster of a kid.  Some weeks, the little monster stays away.  Some weeks -- like this one where we're having a growth spurt and we're away from home with a screwed up schedule - the little monster comes out to play frequently.

I've come to accept and love the little monster side of The Peanut.  I've even learned several tricks along the way to help her through the rough patches.  If Grandma could get to know her just a little bit, she might actually be able to truly help the next time The Peanut aims herself at the nearest passing satellite instead of helping to launch her into it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I'll take an order of Calculus with a side of English Lit.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published this article discussing how public schools across the country are starting to charge for classes, sports, and extracurriculars.  I know that this practice isn't a new one -- some schools have charged for their sports and extracurriculars all along.  Increasingly smaller budgets makes it impossible for schools to offer various programs and activities for free -- the rationale is if the school charges a fee for it, it frees up money to be spent elsewhere.

If the fees were only for sports or extracurriculars, I probably would not have as big of a problem with this idea, so long as accommodations were made for low-income students who wanted to participate.  This isn't the case, though.  Many schools are charging for academics -- and some of those schools do not offer any financial help in the process.  For example, "Dakota Ridge High in Littleton, Colo., charges sophomores $15 for basic 10th grade English but $50 for honors, which uses additional materials. Juniors can take basic English for $8 or pay $75—plus a test fee of about $90—for Advanced Placement English Literature".  This may not seem all that bad until you consider how this adds up over a number of classes and extracurriculars when a family has multiple kids.  One family from Ohio profiled in the article paid nearly $4500 for a year of public school for their children and were forced to keep their daughter out of chorus so they didn't run up the cost further.  Other schools have stopped offering more advanced classes altogether forcing families to look for these classes at local colleges.

Given that a private school price tag can run $15k - $20k per year, $4500 seems like a bargain.  With that said, what about the low-income kids who can't afford $4500?  Are they to be denied the opportunity to take an advanced chemistry class or an A/P English class because their parents can't afford it?  What about students who are talented in sports or music?  Some schools even charge for their extracurricular service organizations -- programs such as SADD.  This country puts a lot of weight and value on a college education.  Many of these types of programs factor heavily into college and scholarship applications.  What happens to those kids who don't have the opportunity to participate because they couldn't afford the fees?  (And yes, one could argue about the value of that college education versus some manner of vocational or trade school.  That may be the subject of another blog entry one of these days...)

And what about the gifted low-income kids?  Gifted programs are non-existent in many school districts.  Many argue that the enrichment programs that were offered to gifted kids were a joke -- and in some cases, this is absolutely true.  Now it's harder for the academically advanced kids to get the classes they need -- unless mom or dad can pony up the cash.  I've heard time and again how the smart kids can just manage on their own.  They don't need anything special to do it.  For some super motivated kids, that can be true.  I was one of those motivated kids -- I did have free access to advanced and A/P classes and I took them.  I also found ways to challenge myself outside the classroom all on my own.  There are just as many kids out there that need guidance and materials; they want to learn this stuff but just can't do it on their own.  What about them?

I wish I had some grand solution that would solve these problems.  Kids need opportunity to explore -- which makes sports, the arts, service organizations, and (of course) academics so very important.  How do you put a price tag on these needs?  Or, maybe more importantly, how do we remove the existing price tag?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Wires and Tantrums

Every six months or so, The Peanut goes through a major growth spurt. This isn't just one of those times when all her long pants are suddenly capri-length and it's time to go buy her a whole new wardrobe.   Her physical growth thus far has been slower than that.  It's the mental component that has been the killer.  Since these spurts usually occur near her half-birthday and actual birthday and her birthday is tomorrow, I should have seen the one this week coming.  Life has been so crazy these past few months, I missed the signs and didn't realize it was happening until we were in the middle of it.

This past week has resulted in more timeouts, more yelling and screaming (on both our parts, unfortunately), and more revoked privileges than the last several months combined.  On her best days, The Peanut has a mind of her own and is not afraid to voice her opinion.  Someday this will most likely serve her well.  On days when you're just trying to get her to eat her veggies or go to bed, though, this quality makes me a little nuts.  When in the throws of a growth spurt, combine this with a very short fuse, even shorter attention span, and no thought to consequences, and you've got a mouthy pint-sized time bomb.  A tantrum may only be seconds away and I guarantee it will be over something trivial.

On the flip side, as she comes out of this caveman haze, I am immediately noticing how much new stuff got wired in her head.  For example, yesterday, during school, instead of reading items on a worksheet out loud, she read them silently to herself and just filled in the answer.  Until I realized that's what she was doing, I thought we were still in short-attention mode from the spurt.  A few things she said yesterday, while not particularly special in themselves, were phrased differently than I'm used to hearing.  So this spurt will be like many of her previous ones -- big changes which will leave me simultaneously amazed and overwhelmed.  Perhaps more so this time around since I am starting to plan how school will look for us next year.  

Between now and the next growth spurt -- which by my reckoning is due late October/November -- I will be thinking about how we handle the complete 180 her personality does during the week or so this happens.  I do not like being <em>that</em> mom who screams at her kids and yet, I had more than a few moments this week when I became her.  School was a major source of frustration for both of us -- she didn't have the bandwidth to deal with it and I didn't have the patience for her goofing off or the tolerance for the temper when she didn't pick up a concept quite as easily as she sometimes does.  Transitions also posed major challenges.  The Peanut is normally like any typical five year old -- getting her out the door, bedtime, getting dressed, etc is like herding cats.  During a spurt, transitions are far more challenging, even with advanced warning, using timers, and many of those tricks the experts tell you to do.

I'm not sure what the answer is.  It's only 3 - 4 weeks out of the year, but they are hard weeks.  As I sit here and write this, all I feel is exhaustion.  While I'm understanding of the fact that she's not on her game and probably feels like she's in a fog while all of this goes on, her behavior is Not OK and I can only let so much of it slide.  Is the answer canceling school for the week and not going anywhere more than we need to?  I suppose ideally, that would solve many of the sources of friction we experienced this past week, but I don't think it's realistic.  I can certainly cut back on school and my expectation during that time, so long as I see the spurt coming.  In the meantime, I am happy that my little girl has been returned to me and I look forward to discovering her new talents and abilities with her.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I believe when I graduated from high school, you could major in art or music therapy.  I also think at the time, the idea that music or art could have true therapeutic value was still poo-poo'd by "the experts".   Great strides have since been made in this field since I was a senior in high school and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Had I known that such a field existed (and I could have found a reputable school that had that major), I might be in a very different place than I am now.  Even so, there are aspects of my current situation that allow me a glimpses into this field.

In the last couple of months, I've had two friends suffer terrible losses.  A conversation with one of those friends recently centered around grief and how you work through it.  At the time, I didn't have a good answer for her but it got me thinking about my own experience with grief and how I managed to work through it in the end.

In high school, I had a friend who was very much like an older brother to me.  He kept me on track and certainly wasn't afraid to hassle me when he felt I needed it -- and there were several instances when I needed it!  When I was sixteen, he met a tragic end one night when a drunk driver slammed into his truck. Being a fighter, he hung on for several months, but ultimately died around Christmas. Being sixteen, I dealt with it the best I could.  I had someone to talk to who helped some, but there were many months of me "going through the motions".  I buried myself in my schoolwork and music and eventually I surfaced.  

Almost 20 years later, when I was pregnant with Peanut, I was booked for a solo gig singing Eleanor Daley's Requiem.  Instead of the standard Requiem Mass that most Requiem's use for text, Daley sets poetry about death and dying to music.  The text is powerful stuff.  How she sets the solo is truly amazing -- the line is very exposed  with very little support underneath it.  It is raw, but beautiful and haunting at the same time.  The most often heard movement, "In Remembrance", offers hope and some closure to the pain brought forth by the solo.  

From the solo:

Each night I listened for your call,
when your call stopped
I held my breath, suspended.

I'd grow accustomed to a dialogue with
then wait for the sounds of night

you, dying,
and I but witness to the end

The stillness is a room I've moved into,
and you are not here,
you are gone

the dark heart of a night without song

-From The Sound of the Birds
By Carolyn Smart

And from a choral movement:

"In Remembrance"
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning's hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.


Perhaps it was the pregnancy hormones talking, but this particular gig brought me right back to that December when I received the phone call.  Fortunately, I had a a couple of months to work through these feelings I had thought long buried before I had to do the actual performance.  In the end, I felt like I had finally made peace with his death and now I can sit with it, but not dwell.  (And the performance itself went well too).

One aspect of my job is service work for funerals.  Sometimes, the music is "set dressing" -- it's there because it's supposed to be.  Other times, though, I have been asked to sing deeply personal songs for the family -- everything from Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" to "golden moldy" hymns to Schubert's "Ave Maria".  Requests could be family favorites,  songs that give comfort, or songs that somehow express the grief of those left behind.  It's a service that I enjoy doing.  As a performer and music teacher, I am well aware of how music can affect people.  It can transport people to another time or place.  It can hurt as well as heal.   If I can give a family even a small amount of comfort or closure during a difficult time, I am happy to do it.

To answer my friend's question:  I still don't have a "magic bullet" answer because grief is different for everyone.  I can only encourage you to continue living your life even if it is going through the motions on some days.  I also encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open along the way.  Comfort and closure may come to you from an unexpected source if you keep your heart open to it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Do kids really need a teacher to get educated?

It's been a week of interesting and thought-provoking reads.  First, I was pointed to this NY Times Op Ed piece that talks about how a school in Western Mass pulled a small group of students out of the mainstream high school and let them design how they wanted to learn.  They worked with the high school teachers while they designed their curriculum which consisted of a bunch of projects to explore various topics.  Their reading list went above and beyond what the AP English class would have been required to read.  These students, by the way, weren't all over-achieving honors students -- there were a couple that were thinking of dropping out.  These kids ended up excelling and learning a ton.  This morning, I was pointed to this study round-up which focused on young children.  Two independent studies showed that four-year-olds are more apt to learn and explore more if left to their own devices.  

The ideas presented in these articles aren't new.  Most early childhood educators figured out a long time ago that putting a preschooler in front of a water/sand/rice table and giving them a bunch of items to use with that table will create hours of exploration and fun.  They even manage to learn stuff along the way.  The article about the high school kids takes this idea one step further:  it's not just the little tots who learn by doing, it's the older kids too.  (Giving the older kids ownership in what they're doing helps the process too).  Homeschoolers have an education philosophy around this called "unschooling" which when implemented correctly is all about child-directed learning.   

The general idea here, though, is something that I struggle with regularly.  Peanut is almost five.  She's still at that age the researchers say where she should be, to certain extent, left to her own devices.  Let her explore.  Let her play.  It'll spark her creativity.  On the other hand, this kid wants to learn things that are well above grade level.  She asks for it for by name.  (I'm serious).

My compromise as been to become her teacher for the rote things: phonics, basic math concepts, etc.  I am her teacher for the foundation.  From there, we've got wiggle room.  

Science is easy.  We do lots of experiments and model building.  A month ago, we built a little solar-powered oven using a pizza box to demonstrate that even in the middle of winter, the sun is strong enough to bake cookies.  (It took a loooong time, but we got cookies).   We'll build a soda can robot in a few weeks as part of a little unit on robotics.   We also do lots of reading on whatever topic we're studying.  Next year, we'll start Chemistry.  I actually purchased a Chemistry book meant for grade schoolers that I intend to supplement heavily with additional hands-on stuff and additional reading.

History is a little less easy, but still manageable.  We do tons of reading.  (If you've got a kid who likes to read and be read to, might as well take advantage of it!)  I also find activities that center on the time period.  We cook or bake a food.  We do crafts and/or draw pictures. We play games. Last year, we visited Old Sturbridge Village.  Next year, using a textbook as our spine, we'll start exploring history from the beginning and spend the next several years learning it in order.  The text incorporates all kinds of hands-on activities and additional reading sources which makes my planning even easier!  My goal at this age is exposure.  If we find something that really interests her, we'll dive deeper.

As she becomes better with her reading and writing skills, creativity is easily built into Language Arts.  We've started simple writing prompts.  We read short poems and talk about the imagery and what the poet might be talking about.  I've really enjoyed doing this -- a four year has a very literal mind, so thinking beyond those words on the paper generates some interesting discussions!  

Math has been the surprising one for me.  I remember my days of elementary math class, sitting at my desk, and memorizing my math facts and trying to puzzle my way through fractions.  The highlight of the week was when our teacher broke out the flash cards and played "Around the Room" where you moved around the room based on what you got right.  Nowadays, there are all kinds of hands-on manipulatives: geoboards, tangrams, plastic student clocks, etc.  I know some of this stuff existed long before I was in elementary school, but it wasn't something used in our classroom.  Peanut and I play with flashcards occasionally.  We spend more time with the math toys in the manipulatives bin.

In order for Peanut to go off and learn on her own and explore her creativity, she needs to have the foundation laid so she can do so. Phonics are phonics. Addition is addition. There's only so much creativity you can put into it.  And for those of you who know Peanut, you know she's got creativity in spades, so I think we're onto something with her!  And, finally, to answer the question posed in the title of this post:  Sometimes kids need a teacher.  Sometimes they need a guidance counselor.  Sometimes they need a mentor.  And sometimes, they just need to be left alone to figure it out for themselves, even if it takes them three times as long as it would have if you sat down and just showed them the answer.

With all this said, I don't advocate doing anything more than what a child's ready to do. Peanut and I started this process earlier than most kids because she made it clear that she was ready and interested. I would have also been just as content to let her play and explore on her own had she shown that inclination.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Annual Review

This month marks my fourth year teaching voice.  In the grand scheme of things, I haven't been doing this for all that long considering that my coach was in her 70s when I started working with her and she'd been at this for a long time.  We all have to start somewhere and every year, I reflect on what I managed to accomplish and what I want to work on for next year.  This year, I happen to have a convenient place to do so.

Keyboard Skills:  Those 10 or so years of piano lessons in high school went up in smoke when I basically didn't play the piano for about 15 years.  I played a little here and there but never enough to keep up with it.  Prior to teaching, I took 6 months of piano with my boss, Malcolm Halliday, to help me find my chops again.  Six months of lessons does not undo 15 years of not doing anything, but it got me to a point that I thought I could sit and play for my students as we worked.  (Please note that many voice teachers aren't proficient enough at the keyboard to play for themselves let alone students -- they're stuck with hiring a studio pianist to play which can double their fee). 

Every year, I'm a better pianist.  I have a whole mess of bad habits that I'm aware of that I will probably never correct, but I screw up less when I'm playing for students and I can play increasingly more complicated pieces.  I'm still not comfortable playing outside the confines of my studio.  Malcolm is pushing me to do some solo piano work -- he doesn't ask if he doesn't think you can do it.  So that's my goal for this year.  We're working on a piano/organ duet based on the Meditation from Thais right now.  I hope to have it ready to go for late April or May.

Languages:  This past year, thanks to Bach's "Wachet Auf" (not the Bach, but one of his sons), and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I conquered German.  This was a language that I have sung in, but not frequently enough to get cozy with it.  Now I'm feeling cozy.  I hope to continue to refine my pronunciation and not forget everything I learned this past year.  Now I'm on to French, my arch-nemesis of a language.  I did a program with Malcolm and tenor, Stanley Wilson this past Fall which featured a couple of Pauline Viardot's pieces in which she set text to Chopin.  I really enjoyed the music and would like to learn more, but the French was a challenge.  I suspect it may take me awhile to get really comfortable with the language.  I am also hoping to pick up a book on IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).  Had I attended conservatory instead of engineering school, I would have learned it there.  This is one of those holes in my education that I would like to fill.

Teaching:  I'm always on the look out for new exercises and different ways to explain a given concept.  This Fall, I expanded my library with a few books on singing and great singers.  I've found some new gems to add to my collection.  I also did my periodic review of my notes from my coach and dusted off a few exercises I forgot about.   I also went shopping for new music books.  Some girls like to go shoe shopping.  I like new music.  (Oh heck.  Who am I kidding?  I dig the shoes, too).  This year, I plan to continue expanding my teaching resource library and I also plan on joining NATS (National Associatin of Teachers of Singing).

Project Work:  I was really pleased with the variety of music I was able to work on this past year.  I sang the role of Narrator in "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" while simultaneously working on the solo the Mozart Requiem or the RPI Festival Chorus.  I returned to RPI this Fall for Beethoven's Ninth and renewed some connections and friendships in doing so.  In between all of this, I had several smaller projects.  I have one project already in the works with pianist Tom Hill which will feature spiritual music and oratorio.  I am in the planning phases of two other projects and who knows what else will pop up along the way? 

Self-Promotion:  I was sad to find out that Borders Bookstore in Shrewsbury changed their bulletin board over to community events only.  This has been a great resource for me in the past.  I still have a few other places to post flyers and I still regularly post to Craigslist.  I've found Craiglist to be more and more of a hassle for less of a reward.  I know when my ads are live because I get bombarded with spam and phishing expeditions.  I plan to get a website together and NATS will provide some promotional opportunities as well.  I'd also like to advertise my services on some of the homeschool mailing lists that I'm on.  I've seen others do this and as long as you aren't obnoxious about it, it's usually allowed.  I'd like to pick up another 3 - 5 students this year.  I've got a nice studio right now, but I see myself losing at least one student in the near future and I'd like to get a few more people in the door so when I lose one, it doesn't hurt the wallet so much.

Overall, I'm pleased with all that I managed to accomplish this past year. I'm hoping to use this year to continue building on my studio and my skill set.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

A recent discussion on the gifted homeschoolers mailing list centered around IQ testing.  It has been a fascinating conversation for me, in part, because I know very little about it.  From it, I've started to get a sense of what all the acronyms mean and what they specifically test for, etc.  One parent asked if it was really necessary -- especially if a child has no learning disabilities (which these tests can also show), and the parent is not trying for a grade skip or to qualify for a special program or service.  I was interested in this aspect of the discussion - this is exactly our situation!  Would it help me teach Peanut better if I knew her IQ and what percentile she is?  Would this test tell me more about her learning style, which up to this point, I've been guessing (seemingly correctly) about?  Even before this conversation started, testing crossed my mind a few times -- I just never got to the point of researching the options and the costs (which I understand to be quite high).

I waffle between needing the cold, hard facts and just letting my instinct and Peanut drive the boat.  On one hand, I wonder if I'm doing everything that I can for her.  Am I holding her back by insisting she finish up that phonics book?  Are my homemade science units doing enough to satisfy her curiousity?  Am I going to somehow screw her up for life because I've opted to homeschool an only child?! 

On the other hand, Peanut is pretty good at showing me when her brain is "full" and what she wants to focus her energies on.  If I'm listening to her and not having a "but we need to cover X and Y more before we get to Z" moment, I can roll with it.  This is probably the toughest thing for me -- remember in school where we had to do something 20 times just to prove we know it?  Much of the homeschool curriculum available still uses this concept and it's easy to get sucked into this notion.  Sometimes Peanut needs the reinforcement.  Sometimes she gets it on the first or second try -- and when she's got it, she's GOT IT. It does help to regularly remind myself that she's just shy of 5.  We're in no hurry here. She's already doing stuff that kids 3 - 5 years older than her are just starting on.  If there is a hole somewhere along the lines, we have plenty of time to fill it. 

I have a direction for our future -- it's something I do frequently think about.  We subscribe loosely to the Classical method of teaching.  The big tenets for this style are the focus on logic and rhetoric, learning from the classics (including learning Latin), and teaching history in order.  Obviously there's a little more to it than that, but those are the big things.  The over-reaching idea is to give them a solid foundation to that they can teach and think for themselves.  This methodology doesn't completely work for us since we need to accelerate and compact the curriculum we use for her, but it gives me a nice framework to work from.  I ultimately see a need to supplement with outside resources as she gets older - whether that be community college, a tutor, or a co-op program.  I do not see us sending her to a 4-year college before her 18th birthday - I have some strong feelings about this, in fact. 

With that said, I try to bear in mind that this direction might change a whole bunch of times even in the next year.  It helps me plan to have some sort of general direction so long as I don't get so caught up in the details that I lose flexibility.  The one thing I cannot anticipate -- and I'm not sure testing would help me with this or not -- are the developmental leaps.  In two weeks time Peanut's reading abilities jumped several levels.  She literally went from reading easier picture books with some help to reading whatever you put in front of her with little or no help.  She's done that in other areas as well, at seemingly random times.  We go from plugging away little steps at time to one hee-yuge change.  (And of course, that hee-yuge change usually means that everything changes in terms of how I approach educating her).

During all of this, I also think some about my childhood.  My parents weren't big believers in gifted program which they thought fostered snobby, elitist kids.   I'm also pretty sure that they didn't believe me gifted because I had to work hard, especially at math.  I have since learned that this didn't make me less gifted.  In fact, I think a lot of my own giftedness is in the musical realm since that's where stuff comes more easily to me.  Academically, I did end up excelling as well.  I wasn't, however, one of those kids who didn't need to study before taking the test.  Anyways, I wish my parents had taken it a little more seriously.  I understand that they worked with the info they had available to them, but had they pursued it, I think I would have been a little more comfortable in my own skin earlier in life.

An introduction...

Welcome to my blog!  Let me show you around...

I am the Diva.  No, I'm not one of those pompous Sopranos who think they're all that and a bag of chips.  But I am a singer and a voice teacher.  Teaching became a passion of mine later in life.  I hold a bachelors of science from WPI and worked as a database designer for many years.  After the birth of my daughter, Peanut, I switched back to my first love of music and started teaching.  In my nerd life, I still managed to pick up gigs here and there and landed the job of Soprano Section Leader at First Congregational Church of Shrewsbury, a job that I still hold today. 

Music started very early with me.  My mother, an accomplished alto, would sit and play the piano with me either in her lap or next to her on the bench when I was little.  By the time I was 12, she had me up in front of the tiny Methodist church we attended singing duets with her for the Sunday service.  I started piano lessons in 2nd grade and was my piano teacher's youngest student for a time -- I continued my studies through 12th grade on the piano.  I seriously considered going to school for piano performance.  My parents, practical sorts that they are, nudged me in the direction of an education that would "lead to something".  After graduating from WPI, at the urging of the music director for the community chorus I sang with, I started voice lessons.  Twelve years later (or so), I am accomplished soloist, an on-again, off-again musical director, and a voice teacher with a growing studio.  This alone has been quite a journey.

But I haven't even gotten to the second half of this blog's title - the Brain.  The Brain is my daughter, Peanut.  She's always been a little small for her age and has had this nickname since birth.  She turns five in May.  Early on, she made it clear to us that she wasn't an ordinary little kid -- although, I'm not so sure there's anything ordinary about any kid.  She started speaking between 6 and 9 months - her first words were "kitty cat".  She learned signing as a baby and had a significant vocabulary before her verbal skills caught up.  By age three, we started to use the word "gifted" to describe her.  Somewhere around this age, I was pointed to Deborah Ruf's Work which turned into an eye-openning read for us.  Peanut was somewhere between level four and level five!  At about age 3.5, I started formally homeschooling her -- at her insistance.  She had so many questions (usually at inconvenient times, like say, when I was trying to get dinner on the table) that she needed answers for. Right. Now. Sitting down for a couple hours a day to do school filled her need and saved us a few burned dinners.  As of this writing, her reading is somewhere around a 3rd - 4th grade level and her math skills are 2nd - 3rd grade. 

Yes, I've gotten flack from people about starting school so early with her.  And yes, I believe some people think I'm just one of those over-achieving stage moms.  If I met me at some random point in time, I might think the same thing.  And believe me, this is a balancing act of sorts.  Peanut is still very much a 4 (going on 16) year old girl.  She likes to wear skirts, get her nails painted, play Barbies, run around at the playground, and mix her Play-Doh colors together until they make a fine shade of grey.  She also has tantrums, won't eat her vegetables, and doesn't listen to reason.  So while we can use "gifted" to describe her, I use it more to keep me focussed on how best to help her navigate the world academically and to help her understand why her thought processes go where they go.  It's not there to encapsulate her -- one word is never enough to describe a person.

So what's this blog all about?  No, it's not a bragging page about Peanut's intelligence, although, the rewards and challenges of working with a highly intelligent child will certainly come up regularly.  It's also not a shameless self-promotion page.  I will be putting together a website in the near future for that.  What I hope this becomes is a place for me to record this journey.  I admit, for Peanut, that I'm not so good at writing stuff down.  I never obsessively kept a baby book for her.  Aside from one-liners on Facebook about what mischief she's currently into, I don't write down milestones either.  There is a mailing list for gifted homeschoolers that I post to frequently with little snapshots of our lives, as well as questions and concerns.   I realized yesterday as I was posting that what I was writing was more than just a little piece of advice to someone else -- it was a true picture of our family, something that might be worth reading again at some point. 

I also want a place to track myself as a teacher -- as the homeschooling mom and as the studio teacher.  I have a lot of stuff just randomly kicking around my head.  It might help me to work through it to actually put them on paper (or the screen).

So, again, welcome!  I look forward to sharing our journey with you.