Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Key to Informal Learning: Have a Mentor at Hand

Most of our learning this year so far has been of the "informal" variety, due to the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves: living hours from home for 7 weeks while dealing with daily radiation, weekly chemo, and the fallout and difficulties that those cancer treatments caused. And then we moved home, and continued the informal learning, because the post-radiation healing process does not happen overnight. 

In spite of our nontraditional approach, our children are thriving.  Annie is reading more and more, the kids are both writing a lot, Finn is working very hard at learning French via a curriculum and a tutor (his goal? fluency by age 13...we'll see how that goes!), math is getting done. We have read about pilgrims, ancient Syrians, seeds, bees, ladybugs. We've read Frances Hodgson Burnett, J.K. Rowling, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and plenty of picture books. The children spent an entire day digging an enormous hole in the garden, trying to get it large enough to fit them both (as a hiding place!) and doing the measuring and calculating required to figure that out.  Annie has learned to wash dishes and Finn is cooking. Annie opened a "Fixing Shop" where she charges money to fix broken things (so far she is pulling in a nice income taping up books that need help!).  They both spend hours playing outside at an elaborate invisible road system they created--Annie pushes a play shopping cart and Finn drives a wheelbarrow.  Annie has done a bit of sewing.  In short, learning is happening.  

For anyone else who finds themselves in similar circumstances, here are some quotes that help give guidance during times of "informal learning"....it's all about home culture and an attentive mentor!

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"The culture of the home has to be one which arouses intellectual curiosity and facilitates learning.  Children need to have learning opportunities and materials available.  Most of all they need a mentor at hand who sets the tone of activities and is there to interact and ask questions."


"The parent is as indispensable for informal as for more formally organized teaching and learning.  The child has to acquire knowledge about the culture from the parent who has to play an active role in transmitting or mediating it. How do 'informal' parents do this? Partly by cottoning on to what the child is interested in and extending it, and partly by suggesting things the child might be interested in and seeing if they are taken up."


"An interesting feature of informal learning is that children are not faced with having to try to digest new knowledge which does not fit into or extend what they already know or does not arouse their curiosity or motivation."

and, finally, 

"The converse of [not forcing a child to learn something before he or she is ready] is that parents can really capitalize when children do 'switch on' their attention.  They are much more likely to be in the 'zone of proximal development' and therefore profit from attending.  That is also why parents, especially those who use more informal methods, have constantly to 'keep their antennae out,' as one described it." 

--from Educating Children at Home, by Alan Thomas (emphasis added) 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Peace in the Home: Five Tips for Meal Planning

Last week in the space of less than 24 hours I had two different close friends, at two different times, express interest in how I organize my life.  The first heard me mention "menu plan" and she said--that's how you do things? you plan out what you will have for dinner?  that must help so much because then you don't have to think about it!  Yes, she's right!

The second was a text I got from another dear friend, who said I'm overwhelmed. I need your help, organizing/time management guru.  So I called her, we talked, and I sent an email as well. She was overwhelmed by trying to balance her domestic and professional responsibilities, as well as family life, and felt like she needed guidance on how to make things at home run more smoothly. She wanted to know how I ran things, so I told her.

So that got me thinking about efficiency in domestic life and how routines help make life peaceful. My house is by no means perfectly-run, perfectly-organized, or (alas!) perfectly-clean, but it's pretty efficiently managed and we're functional and I'm not overwhelmed, so I am happy with it.  Unannounced guests can drop by and I don't panic or want to crawl into a hole, so I think things are okay. However, I haven't always been like this, and I realize lots of people struggle with making meals and cleaning house.  But these things do help foster peace in the home!

So this week I am going to talk about meal planning and next week I'll talk about housework.

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Planning meals makes sense to me because we have to eat every day, multiple times a day, and although some people might be creative enough to stand at the fridge at 5pm and decide what to eat for dinner, that kind of last-minute decision-making causes me anxiety.

Here are my tips for meal planning:

1. Shop the fridge, freezer, and pantry first: to save money and reduce food waste, check what you have on hand already.  Is there a zucchini in the fridge that needs to be used?  A package of frozen beef you could defrost and work into the plan?  Half a jar of leftover pasta sauce?  A dozen extra eggs sitting around?  Take these things into account.

2. Think realistically about the week ahead.  For instance, I know that on Wednesday evenings, dinner needs to be ready when I walk in the door from taking Annie to ballet.  And on Thursdays I get home just in time to start making dinner.  So on Wednesdays I'll plan a meal for the slow cooker and on Thursdays I'll plan something quick and easy. 

3. Make things now to make your future life easier.  I love doing this!  For instance, when I make a pie crust (which I do fairly often because my children love quiche), I will quadruple the recipe, then freeze balls of dough.  When it's time to make quiche, I just defrost the pre-made dough.  This saves time on a busy night and makes quiche one of my fastest, simplest meals. Another example: if I'm making a large pot of soup and my family doesn't eat it all at dinner and lunch the next day, I'll freeze the extra soup so that I can pull it out for a quick dinner another night.  Every so often, I'll have a dedicated hour or two to do some "batch cooking" for the freezer, so I'll put together chicken curry, various soups, chicken pot pie, etc. and freeze those for easy meals later.  Anytime I make muffins or gingerbread I freeze about half the batch and can pull those out for breakfasts, snacks, or supper soup supplements.  Having meals or components of meals already stocked in the freezer saves so much time, and I think it saves money, too. 

4. Use the slow cooker.  On a day when we'll be out and about most of the afternoon, I will happily put dinner in the slow cooker earlier in the day.  I like to do this with chili, curries, and soups: perfect foods for this time of year. 

5. Write it down, but hold it loosely.  I am flexible with my plans, although I generally do stick with them once they are made. But sometimes my mother-in-law will send over a casserole or my husband will suggest pizza, and I am happy to change plans to accommodate those things!

Once I have written my menu plan down, I jot down any ingredients or staples I need to purchase at the grocery store or farmers' market, and then I look through my (simple) coupon collection to see if anything correlates.  

Knowing what's for dinner gives me mental peace. I don't like going through my day and wondering what I'll cook that night...at least I don't like that at this stage of my life, because there are too many other demands on my time and mind.  So it's well worth it for me to spend a little time on the weekend planning ahead and creating a menu. 

And those are my five basic tips for meal planning. If you have any tips to add, please do! I'm always looking for fresh perspectives. And recipes!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Resting at Cherith

I wrote this recently as part of an update on my husband's health for our friends and family, and want to re-post it here in case it speaks to anyone else who is "resting at Cherith" right now.

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Back in 1 Kings Elijah hides himself by the brook Cherith.  This story is in 1 Kings 17, and occurs after Elijah tells evil King Ahab that there will be a drought. God directs Elijah to go hide out by Cherith for a while, and God provides bread, meat and water.  And then, due to the drought, the brook dries up.  Elijah journeys on, at the command of God, to Zarephath.

In my devotional earlier this month I read this:

"The education of our faith is incomplete if we have not learned that there is a providence of loss, a ministry of failing and of fading things, a gift of emptiness....The dwindling stream by which Elijah sat and mused is a true picture of the life of each of us. 'It came to pass...that the brook dried up'--that is the history of our yesterday, and a prophecy of our morrows.

"In some way or other we will have to learn the difference between trusting in the gift and trusting in the Giver. The gift may be good for a while, but the Giver is the eternal love.

"Cherith was a difficult problem to Elijah until he got to Zarephath, and then it was all as clear as daylight.  God's hard words are never his last words.  The woe and the waste and the tears of life belong to the interlude and not to the finale. 

"Had Elijah been led straight to Zarephath he would have missed something that helped to make him a wiser prophet and a better man.  He lived by faith at Cherith.  And whensoever in your life and mine some spring of earthly and outward resource has dried up, it has been that we might learn that our hope and help are in God who made heaven and earth."

--F.B. Meyer, quoted in Streams in the Desert (October 5)(emphasis mine)

I type this, even now, having read it so many times, with tears in my eyes.

I have to trust in God, not in the gifts He gives me. These gifts are lovely and can be good--material things, earthly relationships, good health, etc. but they are the gifts, and "in some way or other" I have to learn the difference between trusting in the gift and trusting in the Giver. It brings tears to my eyes because it is so true! I have to live by faith, believing that "all things work together for good to them that love God." (Romans 8:28)  I have seen this over and over again, not just this year, but over the course of four decades of life.

Right now we rest at Cherith.  We aren't relying on ravens to bring us bread and meat, like Elijah was, and we are materially bursting at the seams (as most Americans are), with more than sufficient food and shelter and clothing.  But I still feel we are living by faith right now.  There are many, many unknowns.  When will my husband be able to eat again? Speak clearly? Taste sweet things? Taste anything? Sleep more than a couple hours at a time? Run? Work? 

And then the bigger looming issue: did it work? Did the three months of surgery, radiation, and chemo do what they were supposed to do?

These are all unanswerable questions right now.  We just have to wait and see.  Like Elijah, we are biding our time here, trusting that this whole situation is unfolding as it should.  I want the gifts very badly (the ability to speak, eat, and sleep--such simple gifts; and complete healing, restoration, renewed health--the bigger gifts). But I truly want to trust the Giver in this process. 

So we rest, we wait, and we trust that God is doing a bigger work here than we can imagine right now. This is our Cherith. And our hope and help are found in God alone. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Dishes for Autumn: Royal Staffordshire "Charlotte"

Somehow I ended up with several sets of china (mostly antique) over the years.  As a result, I like to switch them out seasonally and use different dishes at different times of the year.  

In the summer we use my beloved jadeite, but when fall comes it's time to pull out the brown and cream Royal Staffordshire "Charlotte" dishes. 

The story behind these dishes is that the summer before our wedding, I was poking around the local notoriously junky junk shop and found a box of these. They were so beautiful! I fell in love with their autumnal design.  But the junk shop owner is no fool and the dishes were far too expensive for me to purchase.  I went home and told my mom about them, about how beautiful they were, and then went on with my life.

Well!  My mother quietly went to the junk shop, did some investigative research, and bought the dishes for me. What a sweet, lovely gift!  My mother probably couldn't afford them much more than I could, but she wanted to surprise me, and she had a truly a generous spirit.  I was quite touched by it then, and even more so now, as the years pass and I have my own daughter who loves beautiful things. I pull these out when the chilly weather arrives and think about the woman who raised me, who wanted to do some extravagant (to us) act of kindness for me before I became a married woman. 

She died suddenly less than two years later, so these are a little treasure. 

I love them so much I designed a whole baby shower around them back in 2009!

And yes, I do use my "best dishes" all the time.  A couple of years ago I got rid of our "everyday" dishes (Pfaltzgraff plain white) entirely.  I didn't like them all that much, and I had several sets of antique or "fine" china sitting around that I rarely used, and it just made sense to make the switch. I did the same thing with my flatware--I sold my stainless steel stuff in a yard sale and now we use the Community White Orchid silverplated flatware that we inherited from my husband's grandmother. It has such a pretty, lustrous shine.  I dream of one day using sterling silver, because I love the weight of it in my hand, but we'll see.  Our children are fairly careful with the plates, and I'd rather suffer a few breaks over the years than never use what I love. I think since we started using the best dishes all the time, we've broken one thing...and was the culprit.

I feel autumn has settled in around us now: the leaves are finally changing color, the air is crisp, my mums are fading, and the brown and cream china is on the table every day. I'm happy!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Curried Red Lentil Soup (Gluten-Free, Vegan)

This is a recipe for a family staple that I make at least twice a month.  Finn absolutely loves it; Annie tolerates it; and my husband and I never tire of it.  When Finn was a little guy, our local natural foods co-op had a great little deli restaurant.  He was gluten-free and dairy-free in those days, so our Tuesday treat was to go into the city, go to the farmers' market, and have lunch at the co-op deli.  I always got this soup for Finn, and he loved it so much that one day I asked the waitress if I could get the recipe.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, "he [meaning the chef] is kind of funny about those things...."

She went to the back.  I saw the chef looking at us. He'd seen us a million times before.  A few minutes later, he shuffled out to my table, tossed a sheet of paper on it, said "hope you're good at math" with a wry chuckle, then walked away.

YES! I got the coveted recipe! And I *am* good at math, so I could reduce the enormous quantities of the original recipe in proportion and come up with something appropriate for the home cook.  Since then I've tweaked it slightly (and memorized it so I never actually look at the recipe), and the chef has moved on, and I haven't seen this soup at that deli for a long time, so I will post it here in case you need a bit of curried carrot comfort during these chilly autumn days--at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere!

*Curried Red Lentil Soup*

2 T. olive oil
2 large onions, diced (you can definitely use more!)
8 c. water
2 cups dry red lentils (rinsed and drained)
2 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped 
2 14-oz coconut milk
1 tsp. salt
2 bay leaves

for the spices
1 T. olive oil
2 T. fresh ginger, minced
2 T. curry powder
1 T. fresh garlic, minced
1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add onions and cook until they begin to brown slightly.  Add water, lentils, carrots, coconut milk, salt and bay leaves. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the carrots and lentils are tender. Remove from heat.

In a small saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat, and then add the ginger, curry powder, garlic and cilantro, and saute for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add to the lentil mixture.

Remove the bay leaf, puree with an immersion blender, and serve. 

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Although it seems like a beta carotene overkill, we like to eat this soup with my vegan, gluten-free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.  The recipe for those is here (and I actually double this and make 24 muffins every time, freezing leftovers for to have for quick breakfasts or my children's bedtime snacks).  Something about the curry flavor of the soup and the warm cinnamon and ginger spices of the muffins works quite well together, at least in our opinions.

Happy cooking!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Back Home, and Back to Blogging

Well, we are home!  

My husband completed his radiation treatments on September 28.  (He completed chemo on September 10, only completing 5 rounds because he had begun to experience ototoxicity, a common and sometimes permanent side effect of cisplatin, but the dosage was the optimal minimal amount, and chemo isn't essential for this type of cancer treatment anyhow.) 

Radiation for head-neck cancer is powerful, damaging, and life-altering.  We knew this going into it, and we also hoped that it would be life-saving.  But nothing fully prepares you for the damage.  Because the radiation targets delicate areas of the body (mouth/oral cavity, neck lymph nodes) it often causes patients to lose the ability to eat or speak, while also causing painful mouth and/or throat sores and copious, disgusting quantities of mucus production.  This was our experience!

Tomorrow it will be five weeks since treatments ended.  My husband is still experiencing side effects, and still not able to eat (he takes his nutrition through a PEG tube).  But we are seeing slow, prodding progress.

It was so good to get home.  My primary goal was to ease slowly back into normal life.  After living away for seven weeks, I had to re-familiarize myself with my house!  At one point I literally forgot which drawer was my socks drawer! We got home around sunset on September 28, and found that a group of friends had decorated our recently-rebuilt-and-stained deck for us.

You can't see it here, but there's a little settee, a zero-gravity chair, a *ton* of mums, pumpkins....I have the sweetest, kindest friends. I enjoyed many sunrises with coffee out there until it got too cold to tolerate!

We've taken everything at a snail's pace these last five weeks.  I waited several weeks before taking Finn back to piano lessons.  I waited a couple of weeks before returning to our little tiny co-op (and right now I'm only doing half-days there, until mid-November).  School has continued to be quite slow and light.  My husband is off of work indefinitely, until he heals more fully, so our days are flexible and less structured than usual. I have found that keeping things slow and loose is an antidote to pain and struggle.  After four months of extraordinary mental and physical effort and focus on cancer, I see that we all need lots of space and margin to heal, get our bearings, and adjust. These quiet days are a gift in that sense.

And that is how we are healing.  It's so good to be back! 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Homeschooling During a Hard Time

This is a topic I've pondered quite a lot this summer as I faced the reality that our summer and fall would be different than we anticipated.  

The blessing is that we homeschool, so we don't have to be away from our children at all during this time.

The challenge is that we homeschool, so I am responsible for their educations whether cancer strikes our family or not! This can feel like a lot of pressure, especially since Finn is at middle school age.  

Earlier in the summer we completed our state-mandated standardized testing and Finn came back in the 98th percentile for his composite (math + language) scores.  He always scores in the 90s.  Standardized testing is a terrible way to measure a child's "academic achievement" (I agree with Charlotte Mason, who wrote that the question was not so much what the youth knows, but how much he cares), but at the same time, it provides a measure of comfort to me.  Because it reminds me to relax.  I wrote a bit about what I've done so far here, and if you read between the lines, it's clearly....not a lot of formal work.  

I love habits and crave routines, but during this season of life our habits and routines are not the usual ones.  It helps to remember that we are learning all the time.  I try to think of our entire day as a time to learn, not just the hours from 9-12.  But, as with habits, I find that a scaffolding for learning is still helpful. So I've dialed my thinking back from curricula and schedules to underlying principles. 

Charlotte Mason's principles are the basis of my own, and I find that I can implement them without as much structure as one might think.  (Her method requires a certain amount of structure, planning, and time-keeping.  But I am focused on principles!)  She wrote that a child needs knowledge of God, knowledge of humanity, and knowledge of the natural world.  So when I think of what my children need, in terms of their education, I can see how we can pursue these things without necessarily imposing a formal structure on our everyday school lives.

How can we obtain a knowledge of God?  Through reading the Bible.  Through talking about the Bible.  Through the narratives of our own lives and the lives of other people. Through praying together as a family.  Through singing or listening to hymns together.  Through talking about religious allegory when we encounter it.  Through discussing popular culture through the lens of Christian life.  (And I'm not talking about simply moralizing.) Sometimes through poetry, art, and music.

How can we obtain a knowledge of humanity?  Reading the Bible works here, too. :)  Biographies, history stories, looking at the globe and talking about how people live, family history, discussing why people do what we do (the intersection of religion and psychology), current events, social interaction. Read Shakespeare!!  Read literature. Read lots and lots of good literature.

How can we obtain a knowledge of the natural world? Get out in it!  Look--really LOOK--at an insect, animal, tree, flower.  Maybe draw it.  Talk about the trees.  Read engaging stories about the natural world (Herriott, Burgess).  Subscribe to an interesting, age-appropriate science magazine (my son loves "Ask" magazine and has nearly memorized every issue he has received).  Find engaging documentaries. Take care of a little veggie patch or garden flower bed.  Grow some basil and eat it.  Taste and see that the Lord is good! When a child asks questions, wonder with him or her and try to find the answer. 

All three of these things are intimately related, of course.  We can't separate the knowledge of God from the understanding of His created world or His human creatures. The science of relations is unavoidable and that brings beauty and richness into our lives. 

Practically implemented in our lives, this is how we are homeschooling through our hard time:

*do some math, read some [good] books (both read-aloud time and independent reading), and write something every day (flexible as to when these things happen, as long as they DO happen)

*talk a lot, play a lot, go outside!

*have an undistracted mother who is willing to learn alongside the child, answer questions, and seek out resources (SO hard and yet SO essential--I think this is the most essential thing of all)

*maintain a consistent bedtime and of course keep to consistent and healthy meals 

*create peace and order in the home not simply through a fairly orderly space but also through human interactions. Cultivate emotional maturity and peace! A peaceful, stable home life is good for everyone. 

That's it.  That is all I am doing during this hard time, and I am confident that this is a solid approach: find the principles that make sense to you, and implement them as simply, holistically, and consistently as possible.  It's not just a good approach for homeschooling during a hard time--I think it may also be a good approach for living life.