Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 

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Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:

 

 

Essential Skills for a Modern World

IMG_1380 Again I’ve been disappointed while on the internet. I should know better than to expect scientific accuracy and critical thinking skills in the world of social media, where opinions are valued over truth, and truth is often “Because I said so” or “Because someone on the internet said so.” It’s circular reasoning reinforced by ego and emotion. No matter how many times I blunder, trying to inject scientific rigor and critical thinking into conversations filled with fear, supposition, and emotion, I don’t seem to learn that far too many adults don’t understand enough science or have enough critical thinking skill to navigate today’s information-filled world.

If pressed today to pick two skills essential to teach our children and ourselves, I’d pick an understanding of science and the ability to think critically. I’ve not the hubris to suggest an entire list of most important skills to teach your child, whether they learn at home or at school. The list would grow long and be impossible to order, as we live in a world where life is far more complicated than a hundred years back. Reading. Writing. Math. Government (and history). Housekeeping. Cooking. Personal finance. Swimming. Apologizing. Interviewing. Music and art, or at least the appreciation of them. Rudimentary social skills. How to be wrong. How to use your computer and phone, and how to help your grandmother do the same. Patience. Promptness. Someone stop me, please!

When I watch the reality show that is social media and read through what passes as reporting on politics, science, current events, health, and nutrition, I realize that two skills are poorly lacking for many people, even degreed and credentialed people: the ability to think critically and a basic knowledge of the mechanisms of science and the scientific process. These basic skills often are required in tandem, although there is plenty of need to employ them independently of each other. I need critical thinking to decide if a source I’ve found is objective and informed. I need an understanding of science to appreciate where that doctor is going with that long, flexible tube and just what he expects to find and why I should care.

Many times we need both. Understanding the infectious diseases that fill the news and our world  — Ebola, measles, malaria, influenza, and more – requires some basic understanding of virus versus bacteria and immunology, but it also requires the ability to think about risk without letting fear cloud our judgement. It takes critical thinking to appreciate risks correctly — the risks of acquiring those disease ourselves, the risks inherent in the ways we treat those with the diseases, and the risk to the world’s divergent populations if we don’t. Public health touches private health in ways that can benefit or harm either, and it takes merging science with critical thinking to see how that works.

In our highly technical world, where so much of what we encounter each day has a chip and is run by a program, comfort with science and skills in critical thinking are more important than ever. How many of us understand the basic way computer programs work or even what an algorithm is? Not the programming languages themselves that are behind our Angry Birds, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Google Everything, and Pandora, but the basics of the stuff of programming. On and off; ones and zeros; procedures, loops, and subroutines. Whether we’re wired overtly or not, computers and the programs that tell them what to do are woven into our daily lives, keeping inventory in grocery stores, managing countless systems in our cars, and protecting our well-earned money. Thinking logically, part of critical thinking, paired with some basic knowledge of physics, can help us better appreciate what limits (and doesn’t limit) technology today. You can be certain that hackers have at least some critical thinking skills in place and not a small amount of computer science skill as well. While we may not be able to keep up with every advance or learn any programming language in its entirety, understanding more about these ubiquitous systems is wise.

In my next two posts, I’ll explore what I see as the desirable skills in critical thinking and science and pose some suggestions for how to pass those skills onto our children while developing them in ourselves. I’ll recommend a bit of curriculum to help these processes along.  I’ll share what I’ve done at home to nurture these skills in my boys as I help them to grow into adults who better understand their world and know how to find out more about that world in a way that’s smart and responsible. Passing on these skills guarantees them years of frustration with those they may meet in social media, at meetings at work, and in their personal lives, but knowing they will leave the nest asking questions and pulling from their bank of scientific understanding helps me sleep a bit more easily.

 

Review: Models for Writers (Short Essays for Composition)

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.09.33 AMPerhaps the best part of teaching writing to other people’s children is the curriculum I accumulate along the way. Over the past two years, I’ve purchased more writing books than I could have ever justified buying for my two boys alone. I’ve tried a few that have flopped (Brave Writer and One Year Adventure Novel), used some old favorites (Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage), and found some new friends. Still more sits on my shelf, waiting for the right student to come along. The longer I teach gifted students to write, the easier it is to make guesses about what will work and what will flop, but  as children are as different from each other as are snowflakes from one another, I’ve tossed very little aside for good.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition (Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz) has served as assigned reading in college and high school composition classrooms for years. I teach out of the 9th and 10th editions, which are recent enough to be easy to find and old enough to make used copies easy to afford. (I’ve never seen the urgency in having the newest edition of a writing text anyway.) There is little difference between these two editions, so I’ll not be drawing distinctions between them. I use this text after Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage and before more formal argumentation texts, finding it works well after a student understands the essay writing process overall while providing a bridge for writers before they move to formal and cited academic writing, as in MCT’s Academic Writing 1.

Models for Writers is divided into four sections. The first three (The Writing Process, The Elements of the Essay, and The Language of the Essay) focus on just what an essay is and how it is put together. The first section covers the basics of all writing, from prewriting through first draft to revising and editing. It’s an effective review for students who’ve done projects requiring prereading, not a guide for the first-time writer.  The second section does much of what MCT’s Essay Voyage does — it addresses what writers must master to make any essay work: thesis, unity, organization, beginnings and endings, paragraphs, transitions, and effective sentences. The fourth, Types of Essays, the section I use most heavily when I teach one-on-one,  explores the many genre of essay: illustration, definition, comparison and contrast, narration, argument and more are explained fully with examples. The book concludes with a short treatment of the research paper. I’d not call this last section sufficient for teaching the process of writing from sources, but it does serve a fine introduction to the craft. It touches what comes next, just as the first section provides a short look back.

For all but the first section of the book, the format is the same. Rosa and Eschholz provide a few pages of instruction on the topic at hand. These brief but comprehensive portions of each chapter give the reader the language of the topic and the basics of the technique at hand. What follows are three or four essays to serve as examples for the topics at hand. Essays by Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Helen Keller, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, and many others illustrate the chapter’s lesson. After each essay are questions for study and discussion, questions focused on helping the student analyze the given essay in the context of the lessons it’s supposed to illustrate. These questions demand a set of skills I’ve not found elsewhere: careful reading followed by deep thought not just about what the writer wrote but about the devices the writer used in the essay.

These are hard questions for many young students, quite gifted ones included. Even organic writers (not the sort grown without pesticides but the kind who were born with stories to tell and a keyboard attached to their fingers) struggle when it’s time to talk about elements of writing within another’s writing. Initially, I used the book without those questions, assigning the readings as examples. That worked fairly well, as we could talk about some of the patterns a writer would use or note a particular way to handle an introduction. Using the book this way won’t shortchange a writer, as there is plenty to learn without those questions. But despite the struggle they cause for some students, these questions are generally worth the grapple. They move a student to think about what they read and then, hopefully, about their own writing in a critical and analytical way. Whether discussed or assigned as written work, using at least some of these question sets will bring your writer further along in composition and reading skills.

After the questions come classroom activities which, I suppose, would be helpful for one teaching in a classroom. A few are amenable to using one-on-one, but most require a partner or small group. The suggested writing assignments that follow each essay are far more helpful. Note: Some of these assignments aren’t directly addressing the skill at hand while others are more chapter-related.  Because I like my students to have some say in what they write, I usually ask them to look over particular assignments in these sections, selecting options that would elicit writing that best addresses the purpose of the chapter.

As mentioned earlier, I use Models for Writers after I’ve taught the essay via Essay Voyage or with students having some basic command of the essay, understanding the principles of the form and format all essays share. Because of that command, I start with section four, which addresses the types of essays one can write. (Note: The division into types helps teach techniques that might be hard to sort out otherwise. Few essays fit neatly into a single category. A comparison and contrast piece may have highly descriptive passages, for example.) This book could certainly be used start to finish for a writer less familiar with the form.  I generally assign material from the first three sections as needed with my more experienced writers, combining, say, the chapter on introductions and conclusions with the chapter on definition writing. This reinforces the essential techniques and parts of the essay while providing context for using that skill while writing. It’s a flexible text.

I like Models for Writers. It’s approach to technique is straightforward and logical. It’s essays are highly engaging and carefully chosen to illustrate the point at hand. Its assignments for essay types are varied and can easily be expanded upon. The essays are, however, chosen with a college audience in mind. If you have a particularly sensitive child or if your child is quite young, pre-read the essays you assign, ensuring they are appropriate for your child. All essays come with an introduction to orient the reader to the context of the essay (time, publication location, author background). Don’t skip these sections, as they help guide the reader through the piece.

What happens after Models for Writers? Michael Clay Thompson’s Academic Writing 1 could follow or be used along with Models. I’ve also used Writing from Sources (Brenda Spatt) when I want to develop a student’s ability to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively. They Say, I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst) helps students effectively incorporate the writing of others in to argumentative writing. New to me this year is Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters), a book teaching argumentation. Whatever text one chooses, it’s likely time to move into using outside sources for one’s writing, learning the techniques of academic writing. The essay skills learned in Models give writers a strong start for that next task.

Note: I’m unable to accept new private students this semester as my docket is full. Should I have openings for weekly students, I’ll note availability at Write with Sarah, my professional website.  I do have room for project coaching, a service detailed on my website.

 

 

 

The Beginning of the End

IMG_0067It’s cliché to say that it happens when you’re not looking. It’s trite even think, as I look upon the young man who sits across the dinner table from me, that yesterday he was only ten or five or two. Time passes. We expect it to and often even want it do, sometimes willing it to go faster. Colic couldn’t pass soon enough, nor could countless illnesses. Surly and irritable patches, rare and brief in my older, weren’t to be lingered over, nor were his periods of anxiety and sadness.  Of course, I could no more accelerate those than linger over the piano recitals (at least when he was playing), the snuggly read-alouds, the enthusiastic ah-ha! moments, and the happiness I experience when watching him be happy. So it goes. Somehow, when we look back, we see it all at top-speed. We warn those with small children: “Enjoy it! It goes so fast.” Others told us the same, after all.

Suddenly, but not really, he’s seventeen. A high school senior applying to colleges. The beginning of the end of our homeschooling tenure. He sits for the road test for his driver’s license in a few weeks. He starts his third semester dual enrolled at a local community college, launching into eleven credits he’ll add to the twenty-five he’s earned so far. He is taller than me by enough that I have to scoot my seat forward after he drives, and he seems to love little more than looking down as he stands next to me. He can lift what I can’t lift and tell me a host of things that I don’t understand. He has skills I don’t, interests that he’s explored deeply without me, and dreams unknown to me that are his alone to savor.

Children always have their own unspoken thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires, but it may not be until their teens that, to their parents, the breadth and depth of this private life becomes so apparent.  It’s hubris to think one can completely know one’s child, and it only takes reflecting back on my own childhood to realize that a rich interior life kept private starts quite young. I say I know my boys well while remembering that they are sovereign beings with their own valid ways of thinking, feeling, interacting, and being.  That’s how it should be. Growing up requires recognizing that sense of self as separate from parents, siblings, and friends.

Thanks to homeschooling, my older and I have had plenty of time together. Homeschooling produces an intimacy that, for either party, can feel like a warm embrace or a chokehold, depending on the day. It’s easy to let homeschooling take over, becoming a parent’s primary purpose and identity. But all of us were something else before we parented and homeschooled. As have many homeschooling parents, I’ve dropped my pre-homeschooling professional life into a lower gear, working a bit on weekends to keep up my skills as a physician assistant but veering sharply from my intent a decade and a half ago to seek a faculty position in a PA program.  As many homeschooling parents have also done, I’ve built a small business, a job that can be done from home. It’s something for me, something along with my writing that is not about my children (although I doubt it would have happened without my experience homeschooling them). In that intimacy of homeschooling, I think it’s essential to retain an adult identity beyond the very important job of raising and educating children.

After all, at some point, if all goes well, they graduate and eventually leave home. Homeschooling isn’t a tenure-track job. It ends, either after that last high school year or earlier, depending on family choices. And from what I hear, there really is life after homeschooling. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a different path or even a path after my children leave at least the homeschooling nest. I can’t imagine our lives without it while still planning (and often yearning) for the day I’m out of a job.

Some days I second-guess myself. The days where friction is high and teens are being teens (and mom in her mid-forties is being a mom in her mid-forties), I wonder if we’d get along better if we weren’t sitting so close to one another and if someone else could give the instructions and do the reminding for six hours a day. But life’s not a controlled experiment, and second-guessing the past is a frustratingly futile task that always ends in tears. We’re here, and he’s seventeen. It’s the beginning of the end.

In just over two weeks, he starts his senior year of high school with the next round of classes at the community college. Two weeks after that, his homeschool group starts. An online class starts whenever he’s ready.  I’m still searching for a few missing pieces — a an acceptable government class and maybe a bit more literature. I’m fighting my urge to shove it all in, everything I wish we’d done over the past decade, everything a well-rounded student should have.  I wonder at what I’ve neglected while knowing that there really are only so many hours in a day.

It’s the beginning of the end, and end followed by a new beginning somewhere studying something that is not administered by mom. Before that beginning, there is a transcript to wrap up in a bow, paragraphs to write while wearing my counselor hat, and decisions to ponder with my son, along with a good amount of prodding as he works on his applications. There is plenty to do this final year of homeschooling my older, plenty to do for both of us. After all, he has a whole new beginning just around the bend.

 

 

Changes of State

IMG_0553After four months of not blogging or otherwise writing anything more than website content and emails, I’m feeling a bit wobbly as I figure out how to fit writing into a very busy and quite changed life. I now have two teens, one entering his senior year and the other starting eighth grade. I’m married after many years of being a solo adult in the house. I’m also taking on more work under the (hopefully not false) belief that older children will be more independent children, thus creating some additional space for me to expand my professional life. Oh. And I’m still homeschooling.

Somewhere in all that flux, I stopped writing. While I needed to put my time and energy into the changes our family has been experiencing, I’ve missed the outlet writing provides. I process when I write. I move from minutiae to main idea, finding themes and patterns and often gaining perspective. But the last four months required privacy of thought and experience. They have demanded time, attention, and planning, accompanied with heaps of patience and perseverance. Teens. A husband. Work.  Oh, so many deep breaths.

Teens. Somehow, without permission, my younger son entered his teens. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s “twelve plus one,” insisting he’s not a teen until he’s fourteen, because that’s when high school formally begins. Whether this is a bit of reluctance to be grouped as the suspect being named “teen” or just a quirky way to spin a milestone that he doesn’t see as meaningful (“No, I don’t feel any different now that I’m twelve plus one.”), I don’t know. When I do the family body count, I find two teens, two beings wrestling with autonomy, responsibility, hormonal fluctuations, dramatic brain changes, and the necessity of regular showers. For the past few years, I’ve found myself holding my breath, relishing the relatively easy preteen years of my younger son, wondering what changes would happen. It is getting harder again, as it should. Teens have a hard job, growing up into themselves.

Marriage. Sharing a home with an adult who loves me deeply delights me. The preparation for sharing a home and a life challenged all of us, with all the physical work of moving and the emotional upheaval that goes with even the best of change.  It’s taken less time than I anticipated to find our rhythm and for the boys to adjust to the change. It’s still new, and I know we have plenty to learn about living together as a couple and as a foursome, but the joy seems to deepen by the day. It’s the most worthwhile sort of work, learning to love more completely and communicate effectively within that shared love of family.

Work. For two years, I’ve taught writing to gifted homeschoolers via the internet. One-on-one, I’ve worked with children ages ten through sixteen on academic writing (essays and research papers) with a bit of fiction writing worked in for those who feel the need. I’ve also coached a few graduate students through their academic writing projects and dissertation proposals, helping them organize their thoughts and present them more professionally while nudging along skills in grammar, usage, and punctuation. (See Write With Sarah for more information. My individual tutoring spots are full for 2014/15, but I’m available for coaching on a project-by-project basis for writers of any age.)  I’m also offering copy editing, a new service that will likely take some time to develop, but seems a natural extension of my coaching.

More work: This year, I’m also serving as writing coach for Online G3, an online source of classes in the humanities (and now science!) designed for gifted kids. (Click here my review of Online G3.) Joining an organization that’s been the highlight of my younger son’s homeschooling experience is heady and daunting. My technological acumen is, ahem, rudimentary, and I’m slowly wading my way through electronic classroom software and forum software. I have fine guides, and I’m keeping my focus on the content of this endeavor and trying not to fret about the tech end too much. It will come together. I’m sure!

Oh. And homeschooling. Homeschooling older teens often consists more of administrative duties than teaching duties. Dual enrollment courses for my older require me to drive a fair amount, write a few checks each semester, and keep the internet provider paid, but I do little actual teaching for my older. Despite years of maintaining his transcript, I still find myself awed by the responsibility of the task. What exactly is a high school credit measured by, time spent, material learned, or some magical mix between them? What do I grade, and what is just deemed “passed”? I’ve gained some confidence in this role, but I can’t say I’m comfortable reducing his educational experience to a few sheets of paper full of numbers and letter grades. Oh, and college applications. I’ll have on my counselor hat for that task.

My younger still is transcript-free, but one administrative job this fall is to start one for him. I’m still actively teaching him, although online classes and homeschool group classes put me in the part-time teacher category. Math lessons are done with me. Latin is at least graded by me, as I’m not devoting myself to actually learning the Latin with him. ( I know my limits, and he’s far better at the language than I.) Chemistry, however, is all mine — my younger son along three other teens will be my students for lab, lecture, and hopefully a fire-free year of high school chemistry. I’ve started to plan but still have a good way to go before the syllabus is complete. Oh, there’s work to be done…

So with teens, marriage, work, and homeschooling in front of me, I return to blogging and other writing endeavors. I’ve missed writing. Writing offers time for me to be present with a single line of thought, and while I’d not name that process meditative, I’d call it mindful. I need more of that in a life that feels constructed of dozens of pieces, many calling me at the same time. I want the peace of the process brings and the clarity that results from the sorting and thinking as I go. How it fits into an increasingly busy life remains to be seen, but I need this part of me back.

 

 

 

Homeschooling in the Digital Age

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For more on homeschooling highschoolers, check out the GHF Blog Hop. 

“Time to get off the computer.”

I don’t know how often I say that to my boys. I say it politely, adding a please. I say it with a time attached, giving a number of minutes. I say it with fewer words, each a sentence of its own: “Get. Off. Now.”  I say it with more: “If you continue to sit at that computer after I’ve asked you to get off, you’ll not see that game tomorrow (or this week, this month, in a lifetime of Thursdays).” I’ve yelled it. I’ve written it as a note or passed it as a text. Some I’ve even cried while saying it.

This is homeschooling in the digital age.

When I started this gig at the start of 2005, mom to one seven-year-old and one three-year-old, we had one computer, and we used it minimally. I checked my email. My older son might play a game for 30 minutes a day. I sometimes sought out homeschooling information and read through the archives of the TAGMAX and the like. My cell phone was a pay-as-you go, and texting wasn’t a verb I knew. As a family, we were fairly strict about “screen time.” We had a few educational games (remember Zoombinis?), and TV watching was limited to documentaries and other overtly educational programing. Our internet connection was slow, and our cable line nonexistent. We were largely unplugged.

We’ve come a long way on the technology train since then. As I write this, my older son, almost 17,  is in the basement on the computer he built, an “ancient” laptop (5 years old) nearby on the floor, sporting an operating system that isn’t familiar to me and being used for purposes I don’t understand. He’s doing his biology using online software from Plato Courseware. Before that, he worked on his 3D Programming course and his Intro to Statistics course, both free offerings through Udacity, one of several available MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Later, he’ll log into his course on the local community college’s website to work on his Advanced C++ programming class or English 101 course. At some point, he’ll turn to his Java homework, and while the homeschooling group class he attends this week is a live, in-person experience, the programming work is all on the computer, of course. After that, he’ll click through to  Codeacademy, his go-to site for informally picking up computer languages, where he’s picking up Ruby, a language, he tells me, that is something like Python, which still means little to a mom who learned Basic and Pascal decades ago. Then have an IRL human experience in the afternoon: real teens chatting and eating while real moms drink coffee and chat. Then, after an IRL dinner at the kitchen table, he’s likely back down to his computer to Skype with either programming online friends from the college or to Skype/Minecraft with a good buddies (most whom he knows in their human form).

His brother, twelve, who’s at another machine built by his brother, is on the main floor, working (I hope) on his Marine Biology Coursera course, another MOOC offering, or perhaps on one of his literature classes from Online G3. He could be checking in on what’s due for Biology, an IRL class I teach but that has assignments posted on the web and sites to visit on the web. Perhaps he’s honing his latest essay about aquariums and fish-keeping, using Google Drive for writing and the internet for research. Either way, after practicing the very real piano, tending to his water-, fish-, and plant-filled aquarium, and reading a book made of paper, he’ll spend an hour or two on Skype with a friend he knows in human form and play Minecraft. Loudly. Then we’re off to fencing — the live type, with foils, epees, sabers, and real humans.

As I read through those paragraphs, those ones that plant my children, for hours a day, a foot or two from a screen, I’m filled with a mix of awe, sadness, and concern. I’m awed at the offerings my kids have. Homeschooling has never been deeper in its offerings than it is now. While my younger still spends a few hours a day at the proverbial kitchen table with books, papers, and a real pencil, working with Mom, more and more the picture of homeschooling is more akin to partaking in a buffet than the family-style meal it used to be, and the buffet includes some incredible online offerings.

This metaphor, introduced to me by a friend as she related how she explained their eclectic homeschooling style to friends and the Powers that Be on the college Common App (meaning even the college application process has gone digital), fits how many families now homeschool. I can’t think of a more apt comparison. This monstrous buffet caters to learners of all styles and with all sensibilities. There are endless choices: traditional texts and workbooks, online classes for free, online courses for more than free, homeschool classes via co-op or even school district, in-school electives, DVD programs, subscription classes, field trips created for homeschoolers, individualized instruction online or live, dual enrollment classes at local colleges and universities — or online, and much, much more. It’s overwhelming, frankly.

A decade ago, when homeschooling was the back-up plan if the second school in two years failed, I talked to friends and paged through catalogues. I dog-eared pages and took trips to the local teacher’s store. I attended used curriculum sales, frequented used curriculum sites, and purchased the leftovers of my friends. We were at the library weekly, often with dozens of books exchanging residence during the visit. Our homeschooling day was a mix of reading aloud, discussing any variety of topics, working through math workbooks, doing science experiments, watching science videos, and playing. The computer had little to do with it.

Today, our internet connection is our lifeline. It links my younger son, who has Asperger’s and finds real-life interaction fatiguing and bewildering,  to classes, friends, and aquarium enthusiasts (he’s a bit fish-obsessed). I’ve seen his social skills grow, interestingly, and I attribute some of that to the practice with people without bodies that he gets through audio-only Skyping with friends. (Facial expressions and body language can overwhelm some people on the autism spectrum. He does experience people live often enough to be building skills in this area of communication as well.) It connects my older son with friends, other programmers, a few mentors, and even to students who can benefit from his programming knowledge. It brings him classes he can’t get from a book and encourages the rabbit trails that have brought him to find himself fascinated with computer engineering and programming.

And yet I remain uncertain about my sons’ relationship with their computers and the worlds they open to them. It’s hard to manage the lure of the online world, full of stimulation and distraction. I struggle myself, and I’m far from my impulse-driven teens. As a forty-something adult, I find myself checking email, online Scrabble, text messages, and Facebook far often than I likely should, distracted from writing and assorted computer-based obligations. Those temptations threaten the rest of my time, with a smart phone that makes access to diversions way too easy. So if I struggle, an adult with a (theoretically) fully developed frontal lobe with no deficits of executive function except those induced by child-rearing and homeschooling, how hard must it be for them, with their developing teen brains, to manage the Siren’s song of the digital world, balancing work and pleasure with habit and addiction?

Mighty hard. And so I set limits. I insist on meals at the kitchen table and time away from screens.  I plan time for them away from the screen and with live humans. But as my children age, I give them more say in how they manage their time, on the computer and off. This is part of their education, the management of whims and work, the balance of life offline with life (and often work) online. With practice, support, judicious limits, plenty of reminders, and some missteps on my part and theirs, I’m confident they can move healthily from homeschooling teens to working adults while living in the digital age.

Review: The Blessing of a B Minus

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.02.47 PMI read plenty of parenting books during my first decade as Mom: books on babies and infants, attachment parenting gifted children, difficult children, children with Asperger’s, children with ADHD, mindfulness and parenting, and even Buddhist parenting. Then I stopped. Whether satiated or jaded, I just stopped as my world steadily broadened beyond parenting young children.

But when a conversation thread on Facebook led me to a post on overparenting by Wendy Mogel, PhD, I decided it was time to read a book on the genre of child that now lives in my home — the teen. My older, nearly seventeen, was late to bloom, or at least that’s my excuse for not giving more academic and practical attention to this stage of life until now. He’s also a pleasant and easy teen, the sort who almost always agrees to help with a chore (although getting to it may take time and reminders) and who rarely eye-rolls or talks back. I’ve actually been relieved when he slips into a rare argumentative mode, defending his reality and rights. It’s reassuring somehow, seeing those stereotypical teen behaviors.

While I’d heard plenty about the teen brain, reading articles online and listening to TED talks and the like, I’d not thought I needed a parenting book to guide me through my older son’s version of the teens. I certainly didn’t think I’d read one called The Blessing of a B MinusUsing Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. I’m not Jewish (although my mother converted a few years back, giving me at least a bit of backing in some basics). I’m not even Christian. I’m an agnostic Unitarian Universalist who respects the teachings of the world’s religions but doesn’t talk about blessings or children being or gifts from a god. I was dubious, but with a friend’s good review of her first book for parents of younger children, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and a desire to manage my younger son’s teens with a bit more poise (and it will be needed), I ordered it.

I was delighted with both the intelligence of Mogel’s writing and her thoughtful approach to parenting the teen. She maintains that teenagers as being thwarted by and, yes, blessed by their rapidly developing and therefore unwieldy brains. While the preteen years are a time for increasing connections, the teens are when the unused connections are pruned. This consolidation of sorts, when paired with hormonal changes and plenty related physical changes, leads to the weak planning, poor organization, and  spotty self-regulation that many teens experience. It’s physiological chaos, and accepting that a certain amount of mistake-making, rule-bending, rudeness, and general drama accompany that chaos is, per Mogel, the first step in finding a way through. She speaks of appreciating these traits, these blessings, in her words, and working from the assumption that there is good in both the short and long-term to these ubiquitous, problematic, and even desirable elements of teenage life.

Mogel doesn’t advocate letting a teen rule the house with rudeness or preferences. She doesn’t suggest being the teen’s best buddy. She advocates some compassionate distance with firm limits and emphasizes that mistakes and near-mistakes are experiences teens must have to gain the skills needed for the next stage of life. Her primary audience is Jewish, middle to upper middle class, intelligent, open-minded, and prone to helicopter-parenting. Don’t worry if not all those descriptors fit. The essential advice — that teens have to struggle and that the struggle can be frightening and frustrating for parents but should not be squelched — works regardless of faith or socioeconomic class. After all, rudeness, poor grades, materialism, poor judgement, and risk-taking are to some degree part of the lives of most teens at least for part of those challenging years.

Mogel addresses those teen issues about which make most parents grumble as blessings, using plenty of Jewish references throughout the book. She manages this without writing a religious book, one that assumes the presence of the divine in day-to-day life. Yes, God is mentioned, but never in the way that makes me, an agnostic, struggle to read on. She avoids platitudes about God’s plan or will and places the job of parenting up to the humans with their boots on the ground — parents. Instead, concepts like shalom bayit (peace in the home), yetzer hara (the animating source of energy that can lead to greed and selfishness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) provide a set of Jewish terms that manage to resonate across beliefs. She weaves these terms throughout her writing, bringing wisdom from one culture to anyone parenting teens.

Mogel’s advice may be a bit more hands-off than some modern parents want to hear. She advocates less panic about college admissions and encourages more focus on the ways teens benefit from learning from their own mistakes. Mistakes made during these teen years, the ones where children are at home, she asserts, can prevent much worse ones when children go away from home.  The Blessing of a B Minus emphasizes that teens need to learn from the pickles that they get themselves into — late assignments, lost items, poor grades, and questionable choices about sexual activity and substance use. But unlike other books on teens that advocate straight natural (or at least consistent) consequences for each error, Mogel manages to preserve boundaries between parent and child without sacrificing the connection. She advocates compassion for parents and children and respect for the dignity of both as well.  She notes early on that the sort of relationship with our children that many of us have built — attached and cozy — is exactly what can lead to parental shock when teens start to distance themselves from us (often only to pull us back in when things go wrong). She is at her best when helping parents negotiate that distance, allowing that it hurts and yet is necessary and, perhaps most importantly that compassion can sometimes be the best way to manage a situation. After all, as adults, when we lock ourselves out of our car or procrastinate on a tax form or work assignment, we both have to pay the price (a cold walk to a warm gas station to wait or a late night that leaves us groggy the next day) while often counting on others to care and assist (a neighbor rescues us from the gas station or a partner makes a pot of coffee for our long night). We don’t live alone in this world.

In other words, Mogel advocates a type of parenting that respects both parent and child today and in the future. It is compassionate and respectful parenting aimed at creating compassionate and capable children. It’s not for sissies, however, and her advice about managing teen substance use and sexual activity will likely make some parents close the book in fright or anger. Don’t. Stick with her. She’s realistic — many kids will try alcohol before they are of age, and many of them will sexually experiment to some degree before they are thirty and married. Good kids. Kids who generally follow rules and turn in their homework on time. Zero tolerance, while tempting, she says, may drive experimentation underground, which will lead to less teaching moments and fewer opportunities for teens and parents to have calm and productive conversations about the decision making that goes into these situations. She concludes this sticky chapter, titled ‘The Blessing of a Hangover,’ however, reminding us that pleasure is important for adults as well as children. She encourages adults to make adulthood look responsible and appealing by taking time to responsibly experience pleasure ourselves and to protect our private time with our partners because that nourishes us and shows our children that it’s worth surviving the teens to be an adult. If it’s all bill-paying, kid-carting, and endless work, why bother to grow up?

Perhaps it’s just that raising my teen hasn’t been that angst-filled, at least relative to her examples, or perhaps it’s that homeschooling allows some families a chance to escape some of the more harrowing parts of some children’s adolescence (hopefully not displacing it to college), but I came away from the book appreciating my older son’s relatively easy adolescence. Mogel’s raised teen girls of her own, girls in school, and her examples seem girl-biased (although I just may have a boy-lens on when reading). Many of us with boys have more silence and grunting than drama and open angst, and she seems to address the drama and angst more fully than the inscrutable silence of many teen males. This is a small criticism of what is otherwise a fine book on both raising and appreciating teenagers. Perhaps, when my almost-teen is a few years older, I’ll better appreciate more of her examples.

If you’re looking for a way to interpret and respond to your teen’s behaviors with reason and compassion with an eye on the future adult you’d like in the world, The Blessing of B Minus is a fine place to start. I don’t doubt that I’ll be returning to sections over the years as I continue this journey through my sons’ teens, searching for a bit of wisdom to guide me through.

Review: One Year Adventure Novel

One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) , a year-long high school level course on how to write a novel, caught my eye when my younger son, then ten, was gleefully working his way through his first NaNoWriMo. He’d started that process on a bit of a whim, and despite having only written one short story before that November, he completed a quite readable story of over 10,000 words. (For the details of our experience, read this.) He’d been bitten by the fiction writing bug, so naturally, I searched for more avenues to learn about that style of writing. I visited the OYAN homepage several times over the next two years, but the price was off-putting. (Full price, it is $200 and, per the website, not to be resold, although doing so seems to only bar purchaser of the used material access to the website forums and the ability to purchase additional workbooks.)  I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a formal study of this personal passion. But last semester, a parent of a writing student of mine wanted her daughter to give it a try. My excuse to purchase had presented itself, and I agreed, excited to try it out with an eager, exceptionally bright fiction writer.

OYAN, a DVD and text-based program,  is designed to be used over a school year of 36 weeks.  The Compass, a textbook of 78  short chapters including excerpts from novels, gives the meat of the lesson. Each chapter is just a few pages, periodically including a few pages of text from an adventure classic with a few questions for the student to answer. The DVD lecture is nearly identical to the textbook, meaning the curriculum supports auditory and visual learners. Some lectures include well-chosen movie excerpts to illustrate a particular point, but many are simply explanations of what is in the text.  Ranging from six to about fifteen minutes, the lectures are easy to fit into even a busy schedule. At the end of the last DVD are student quizzes, designed to give weekly, other adventure novels, and other extras.

Daniel Schwabauer, the author of the text and the lecturer on the DVDs, is thorough and generally interesting, first covering minutiae about every element of first the main character then the supporting characters. Plot receives similar attention, with nine chapters dedicated to outlining each chapter in great detail. It’s only in Chapter 40 that the writing begins, along with discussions of dialogue, narration, a variety of literary devices, and  a smattering of other topics about writing. Revision receives four chapters, a seemingly paltry amount given how much time it generally takes and the importance it has, an importance acknowledged by the author but given short shrift in the schedule. Getting the first draft done seems to be the main goal.

The Map is the accompanying workbook, and it consists of forty chapters (the workbook stops when the writing begins),  starting with discussions of theme, conflict, and protagonist, leading to character sketches, and ending with detailed chapter outlines. The student who completes those forty chapters will have a clear template for writing his or her book. Some of these questions are quite challenging, reaching beyond the text, especially in the first half of the workbook, when the student may have little idea of what will happen in his or her book. This intense focus on sometimes abstract novel characteristics can be frustrating to the writer who just wants to tell a story. Discussions of theme and the necessity of meaning are repeated, with an emphasis that this is to be a novel of depth rather than a fun read. Again, given this is likely often the first substantial writing project in a student’s experience, this can be overwhelming. A fun, cohesive read with a strong plot and well-developed characters would be likely a more appropriate goal.

The Prisoner of Zenda (an adventure novel by Anthony Hope) rounds out the student portion of the curriculum, and reading assignments about that novel with occasional question sets occur throughout the textbook. While this makes for slow reading of a short book, the readings are timed to match planning techniques. The Teacher’s Guide, a thin volume, contains guidelines for parents and teachers as they evaluate their students as well as answers to weekly quizzes. The course is designed to be completed solo aside from parental evaluations, leading the appropriately light amount of information in this book. (We did not use any of the 78 short answer quizzes, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I suppose they would provide another criteria for granting a grade for the class, if that were desired.)

Disclosure point: My student and I made it only as far as Chapter 18. Mostly, we stopped because my student was bored and frustrated. Faced with thirteen weeks of not writing, she was losing enthusiasm for what she wanted to do — write her novel. She, like many gifted learners, is a whole-to-parts thinker. OYAN is the ultimate parts-to-whole curriculum. She was, therefore, rather miserable. She’d quickly created character sheets, and after the first week or two, we’d discussed her character’s goals and fears to the point of irritation. (Yes, I was bored, too.)

It’s not that I don’t see the point of planning. I’ve seen students start stories with enthusiasm only to reach a point where they didn’t know where to go next. These stories without a climax were initially wonderful, with compelling characters and well-planned settings, but they simply fail to reach satisfying endings. After a few such episodes, I insisted on a few planning basics: Know your setting, characters, plot, and climax with resolution before you start writing.  OYAN takes this several steps further, insisting on intricate planning before a word of the actual novel is written. Major points of focus in the first six weeks are theme and meaning, subjects that OYAN states are what make a novel worthwhile rather than just an entertaining read.

This is where my student got stuck. Me, too. Here was a bright, capable writer who’d discovered the essence of the story she wanted to tell. But what would be the greater message? She was stymied, and I was convinced it didn’t really matter whether she had a theme or message. We both simply wanted a story. Had she wanted to go on, I’d have walked with her, but as mentioned previously, this curriculum is best for a parts-to-whole thinker, particularly the meticulous type, and she was neither.

The issue of message also bothered me on another level. I’d done my homework. This is a curriculum claiming to have a biblical worldview. On principle and because of poor fit for us, I generally avoid these titles. Most tend to be, at best, simply dismissive of other belief systems and usually far worse. I knew that OYAN’s Chapter 18 contained language that belittled nonbelievers, but I’d also heard that was the worst of it, easily discussed with a student and let go. Given my student was not my own child, I planned to forgo the discussion, which worked well, as we had plenty of other matters to discuss.  The video, however, shook me up. Reading his words in the text had not prepared me for hearing his vitriol toward (and poor understanding of) secular humanists. After he misrepresents agnostics and atheists, he backtracks, saying and writing that meaning doesn’t have to come from religion. I can see no purpose to this rant of his other than to wave the flag of his beliefs while denigrating those who find meaning in something other than supernatural.

But even without this disturbing chapter, OYAN wasn’t for us: Not for my student, and not for me, and likely not for my novel-writing son. It has a good deal to offer for the student wanting a fiction writing curriculum with structure, a bottom-up approach, with plenty of examples of technique from a range of classics. It provides parents with plenty of points of evaluation, something that matters more to some homeschooling families than others. It also offers online support via forums for students and parents. Still, it’s expensive for what it offers, and given that purchasers of previously used copies (a company no-no, but not illegal) cannot simply buy a new workbook to go along with the durable materials.

So what is my novel-writing student using now? A free (for the pdf version), high school level workbook from NaNoWriMo. Elementary and middle school versions are also available, as are sets of lesson plans designed for classroom use. I’ve yet to check out the plans, but I can say that the workbooks are far more to-the-point than the OYAN curriculum, and that’s what she needs.

Review: Searching for Meaning (James T. Webb)

I am prone to a winter funk, a recurring time of personal darkness starting with the holidays and extending until spring seems possible. This year was no exception. As I have other years, I reached for my full-spectrum light, just the right amount of human interaction, and a mix of escapist fiction and practical nonfiction. When struggling emotionally, I tend to reach for books on mindfulness and meditation.  I hold a special affection for Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, doled out in small parts to be read and reread as needed. While only an intermittent meditator, her wisdom steers my thoughts away from the existential muck while still giving advice remaining firmly rooted in the here and now. It works for me.

This year, I stumbled upon help from a different source: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, PhD. Webb, founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and psychologist renowned for his work in gifted education. In Searching for Meaning, Webb identifies idealism as a central cause of existential depression, the sort of depression associated with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of one’s life. This, according to Webb, can happen to anyone after a loss or other jarring event but seems more spontaneous in gifted individuals, including children.

So how does idealism fit in? Idealism requires that one has a sense of what is right and good — what should be. What is ideal varies by culture and religion and is made up of, according to Webb, relative rather than universal truths. Ideals are also illusions, which Webb points out doesn’t make them bad but is essential to managing those ideals. They are simply structures we create based upon the where and when of our lives, with plenty of influence from those around us helping them come to be. Some idealists recognize this illusion of ideal, realizing that different people have different ideals, while other struggle to see that their way is not the proverbial highway for all.

Idealism, says Webb, is also borne out of dedication to fairness and equity, and gifted children and adults, keen observers of the world, seem quick to hold to these ideas early in life. Idealism paired with the observation that ideals often go unrealized can quickly lead to despair. Mismatch of belief and reality hurts. Add in a sense of powerlessness (“I can’t fix all the pain in the world”) and the intensity present in so many bright and gifted people,  and the train to existential angst has left the station. Webb spends two chapters exploring idealism and giftedness, time well spent, as accepting that these premises are linked is essential to the rest of his exploration.

If you weren’t experiencing existential depression before starting the book, Webb’s fourth chapter will bring to at least of taste of what it’s like. My routes to the blues are two-fold: perfectionistic thinking that reveals how often I and other fail to live up to ideals and a more episodic sense of existential aloneness. It was here I thanked Webb for managing the theism issue without apology to either side. As an agnostic raising atheists, I was grateful that religion wasn’t brought as an answer to the question of meaning. Religion wasn’t demeaned either, although those who hold their particular religion as a universal ideal and not just their chosen schema for managing life may be less than thrilled with this portion of the book.

If the book had stopped there, I’d have been fine. It was this connection between intelligence, idealism, perfectionism, and deep thinking about our place in the universe that helped me connect the dots of my recurring bouts of the blues. While light deprivation is a piece of my problem, most of my mood dumps occur when ideals don’t match reality. Holidays, where my ideal family together, clash with reality, shuffling children between houses. This mismatch and my attachment to a vision of the ideal family (one that isn’t divided by divorce) lead directly to the blues. This is the first domino to go, for the next step my ever-busy brain takes is to question our connections, which leads me to a profound sense of loneliness followed by concerns that my children will also feel alone in the world. And so the dominos fall.

Awareness of the first thought — that idealism (an illusion) crashing with reality causes pain — can stop the cascade. The part of me drawn to Buddhist thought finds comfort in even that simple revelation: I’m unhappy because my ideal doesn’t match reality. Is this the path out of that particular ideal-driven depression? Not entirely, but paired with letting the feeling be rather than chiding myself for it (If the ideal is NOT feeling depressed, not meeting that ideal is also…depressing) and thus perpetuating the cycle help. Knowing where the discomfort originates is somewhat comforting as well as informative.

Webb spends a good deal of the book describing just what existential depression is and what others have said about it. While interesting, those of us realizing just how our idealism has landed us in these funks will be wanting more practical assistance, and that arrives a few chapters later. Those looking for detailed instructions about what to do and how will be disappointed at his brevity here, but Webb’s list of healthy and less-healthy coping mechanisms should provide grist for many a mind mill. The healthy mechanism bring the reader beyond illusions and are practical: Humor, bibliotherapy, volunteerism, healthy relationships, mindfulness, and many more make this list. Webb recommends restraint with less-healthy methods: distraction, business, narcissism, apathy, substance use, and the like.  He acknowledges that even these less-than-ideal coping methods can have, in small amounts, mitigating effects on existential depression, alas at the price of maintaining illusion.

And that’s perhaps the essence of his message and advice. Webb isn’t against the illusion of idealism. He does encourage an awareness that ideals are illusions and promotes conscious choice if one continues to hold to those illusions. He also supports an active engagement in this imperfect world paired with an active search for personal meaning as antidotes to existential despair.

Searching for Meaning steps far away from the traditional self-help book, offering no simple solution for the pain of being human. Webb avoids the trite, explores deeply the connections between idealism, giftedness, and questions of meaning, and offers solutions that demand metacognition (thinking about thinking) and personal responsibility. This is a book about the gifted for the gifted, and it is written to the adult or older adolescent. (Younger readers may benefit from the chapters on coping mechanisms, but it’s heavier than many younger readers may find comfortable.) It’s certainly a tool I’ll add my box for my recurring wonderings about meaning and bouts of foot-stamping idealism that brings my mood south. It’s a fine complement to my current regime of  meditation,  Pema Chödrön, a full-spectrum light, and kind companions who accompany me on this shared journey of life.

For more on how I manage the challenges of existential despair:

Strings Attached

018Birth is the start of a separation that most mothers long for, as gravid bellies grow beyond all believed limits and small hands, feet, head, and even pointy elbows poke the most intimate parts of their host. Nothing, for the pregnant woman, is done alone, and all that mom does during those 40 weeks is done with two beings in mind. But at the end, those weeks before birth, most moms are ready for the change to come, if only to experience less trips to the bathroom and to stop pushing that foot out from under her ribs. The first-time mom learns quickly that birth just changes rather than severs the connection.

Sure, squeeze-induced bathroom trips decrease in frequency after that first separation, but for the next oh-so-many years, they are rarely the private venture they used to be. And while babies out of the womb can be passed to another set of loving arms or even set down for at least a bit, they are persistently vocal about their preference, even when all the available arms full of groceries, in the shower, or holding onto someone else. And while we moms don’t do it with grace every time, we accept that our separation at birth was only the cutting of a single strand of connection. It was only the beginning.

And so it goes. That cord-cutting starts a cascade tiny separations. Weaning. Walking. Talking. Eating and toileting and dressing and bathing — with less and less assistance. Reading. Writing. Exploring the world and their place in it. Finding their own voice and learning to use it to show how separate they are from their parents and siblings. And all the time running away and coming back, more on elastic bands than string, with the furthest runs out followed by crashes back into the safety of a parent.

It’s not a linear process, and it’s often unclear when a given separation occurs. The child who spends weeks working solo suddenly wants mom by her side for math — every day. The boy who was saying goodnight to mom with little more than a quick and squirmy hug suddenly needs stories and conversations between the stuffed animals that returned to his bed after years of absence. No wonder it’s easy to be confused and conflicted about when and where and how to let go.

My older son is sixteen. He is a bit more man than boy everyday. I’ve not tucked him into bed in years, as his sleep cycle sends him to bed hours after my eyes close. He’s driving on a permit, taking college classes, and shaving (occasionally), and he spends much of his day in his office, a corner of the basement where interruptions are fewer and where, I guess, he feels more his own person. He’s working on the organizational skills required by college classes and the high school variety, a process that reminds me of whiplash. For days on end, all cylinders seem to be firing. Each time I check on him, he’s working on schedule or making adjustments as needed. I start to loosen my hold to the string that seems attached to his frontal lobe. I might even set it down for a bit.

And then it’s mayhem. Deadlines are missed. Assignments remain undone or not turned in. Test grades plummet. Alarms go unheeded. Chores are abandoned midway. 

And so I pick up the string, tie it around my wrist and pull. Hard. The resulting unpleasant collision of mother and son makes for all sort of ugly exchanges. I’m disappointed that he couldn’t maintain the organization needed for his life. I’m frustrated that I’m again his frontal lobe, which leaves me a bit short-handed for my own life. And I’m scared that he’ll not be able to manage just a few years down the road when I’m not so close to grab the string.

It’s that last part that’s the key. Separating is scary. Not separating is scary, too. As with the rest of parenting, there is no guidebook about when to let go. If my experiences are any indicator, there aren’t any clear rules. Strings are rarely cut outright or even set down with forethought and intention. Often, parent and child just set them down, either worn out from holding Most just slowly dissolve out disuse by both parent and child after some time on the ground, . It’s hard to see what separations have occurred without stepping back a good deal and seeing where you haven’t been in years. I’ve not tied his shoes in almost a decade. I don’t recall when last I cut his food, coaxed to shower, or thought twice about wondering if a household chore was within his ability set.

As he’s grown, we’ve formed other attachments, the sort where I need his assistance or occasions, those borne out of common interest. I’ve long turned to him for computer problems and other technical challenges, and he’s now the one who manages what’s up high and too heavy. There’s a comfort in this pattern of give and take, each of us with skills that help the other, an interdependence that feels somewhat similar to my relationships with other adults in my life. Somewhat.  He is still — and always be — my son. Strings attached.