Sunday, October 30, 2016


In doing Bio, we were discussing bioluminescence (when animals produce light, like fireflies and some fish).

"Like Moshe," Chana says.

"Really?"  I know Moshe (my son-in-law) recently psyched himself out of blistering when he burnt himself (like those people who walk on hot coals), but can he really make his cells light up?

"Moshe Rabbenu," Chana says.

וְרָאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה, כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה; וְהֵשִׁיב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַמַּסְוֶה עַל-פָּנָיו, עַד-בֹּאוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ

Extraordinaires Design Studio Pro: Review

I've been reading about "strewing" recently.  Sandra Dodd, who is an unschooling guru, wrote a post about putting things around the house that your children might find interesting.  I'm not a huge "strew"er.  I used to, when I was trying to "get the kids to learn."  But having a little more confidence with the process of unschooling at this point, I don't bother keeping maddening fraction manipulatives around to give them a feel for fractions, because cleaning them up drives me nuts.  Fractions are cool and I imagine eventually they'll enjoy fractions inherent usefulness and interestingness.  (Did you know that interestingness is a word, despite the red squiggle showing up as I write it?  I just googled it hoping to find a synonym.)

This morning I read something that really hit me strongly.  Someone asked about how much to get involved with being the initiator of ideas in unschooling (which is related to strewing) and this mom said that the simple act of saying "Yes" instead of "No" has been life-changing.  Letting the kids go through old boxes and drawers, touch things, mix things ("baking") in the kitchen, take apart old electronics, jump and use furniture.  She said things that she would have said "No" to because of inconvenience end up being tremendous fun and make up some of her best memories.

I still try to find trips that I think the kids will like and I still pull them out of the house to walk down the block to see a fat spider in an amazing web.  And when Timberdoodle sent out a call for reviewers, I checked out their products and requested ones I thought were age appropriate to my children and in line with their interests.

Since my 15yo has always been interested in animation and art but has disliked official art lessons, Extraordinaires Design Pro looked interesting to me.

For some reason, I thought it was for the computer and she would be able to use it with or instead of the Paint program she uses for drawing her figures.  This was an error.  Note to self: read things more carefully.

It's a game.  It is great to do with a few people together or alone.  In addition to art, it promotes thinking, creativity, and I read in a few places that STEM teachers got it for their classrooms.  Basically, it is a game that teaches product design.  It assumes that you are the product designer and you are designing something for a client. There are 4 categories of cards: Extraordinaires, Design Projects, Improvements, and Sketching. You "meet your client" (choose a client card, called an "extraordinaire") who has some unusual qualities and unusual needs.  Then you choose a design project card, which is what your client wants designed.  Then the other cards guide you as you plan and execute your design for what the client "hired" you to create.

It's sort of like Writing Strands insofar as having a guided assignment with a lot of room for personal creativity.

Here is a summary of my tenth grade daughter's assessment:

It's a visual guide for drawing. You have the option of drawing digitally, but the guide itself is physical.  I am disappointed it is not a program for the computer.  It is structured, and is initially a bit confusing and seems to involve quite a bit of effort.  But after sitting with it for a bit and playing around with it, it is basically a guide to help you visualize and draw a whole picture.

I think it could be useful for someone that does not know how to do that on their own. It provides questions to make you think of the history and small details of the character in the drawing.

It also helps when you don't know what to include in the backdrop.

The Extraordinaires are the characters. There is a selection of them to choose from and they each possess normal human attributes. For example, the Superhero looks like she is absolutely amazing, but even she needs a cup of coffee every once in awhile. It shows you that everything has more than one side to it. The design projects are little categorized cards, divided by objects (clothes, vehicles, buildings, etc.) that give you ideas on at least one thing from that category to draw. Improvement ideas are given with the help of Think Cards. These are also divided into the same categories as the Design Projects. They ask you specific questions that make you, well, think about what you drew. For each card within a category, it will give you three different topics to think about complete with three complementary questions corresponding with that topic. As an example, I have taken out the Think Cards for the category "Gadgets." One topic of the card is "Interaction" where it asks "How will the Extraordinaire interact with the gadget? How will their physical abilities influence your design?" I particularly like this question because it is more so something that goes over your head and/or seems a bit obvious. Say your character is a pirate and the gadget is a sword. What if that pirate lost his right hand? He would have to hold it with his left and, based on statistics, odds are his right hand was dominant, making it even more inconvenient for him. It also gives questions to make you think about design and structural ideas, such as "What if your gadget had to last 1000 years? What if it was disposable? How would you change your design?" Sketch and Present would be the full category. It says it on the book, you sketch and annotate your design to highlight specific features and details. 

Obviously there are a lot more tips and such, but those are the basics. I think this could be quite useful for both people who want to pursue art as a hobby and people who are striving for profession.

Timberdoodle recommends Extraordinaires Design Studio Pro as the self directed Art class in their 11th grade curriculum.

Friday, October 7, 2016

unschooling: advice for when they don't want to learn what I want them to learn

When I'm feeling frustrated about my child's lack of Torah and lack of engagement, I have a few approaches.

1. Learn more myself, study the area myself, work on my own learning/spirituality/middos instead of imposing that onto my child
The concept "כל הפוסל במומו פוסל" is at work here.  If I'm accusing my child of not davening, then work on my own tefila.  If I am concerned my child isn't engaged enough in learning Torah, then engage myself in Torah learning.  (This might be a good idea for me, who is challishing to learn Shmuel II with Chana).  Leave my child alone and address any inner insecurities and deficiencies I might be projecting onto them by dealing directly with the source.

This also has the added benefit of having Torah more "shagur b'fiv" (fluent on my lips) and it makes Torah come up more naturally in conversation in a way that children can easily relate to.  If I have just read about Shimshon, for example, odds are that when my child asks if a human being can knock down those columns of the house we are next to, I will know the story well enough to tell it, instead of having him sit down or be bored or on to the next thing before I look it up.

2. Daven
Let's say my desire for them to learn doesn't come out of my own issues or insecurities, but from a genuine desire to pass knowledge down to them.
Pushing them or pressuring them is probably going to be counterproductive anyway, so even if my heart is purely motivated, practically a lot of what I do is going to be perceived as annoying or pressuring.  So I can pour that energy, that fear, that anxiety, that passion out in tefila.  The evaluation aspect of tefila really helps me focus on what my goals and priorities are.  What my fears are.  And where I want to put my energy.  And the emotional aspect of tefila is very relieving.
In my recent tefilos, I realized that I desire very strongly that some day Chana will want to learn.  So that is where I put my focus.  Every interaction with her is in the context of my desire that she will one day want to learn.  This brings some clarity and makes it a lot easier to refrain from activities or comments that would be counter productive to that goal.  I'm not sure if there is anything I can do to achieve that goal, but it definitely clarifies for me things I shouldn't be saying or doing and "First do no harm" is one of the my habitual motivating mottos.
In my recent tefilos, I also discovered that I'm delighted with Elazar and his progress and learning at the moment, but I fear greatly that he will not be interested in Torah in the future.  So that also affected how I am relating to him now, and helped me relax in the now and also gives me some focus and clarity for the future.

3. Make the relationship the most important thing
I've written before about choosing the relationship over academics.  This is a slightly different angle.  I came to this idea in the context of when I'm time crunched (hello, Tishrei and Nisan) and how I often used to try to cram in academics while I was short tempered and stressed and how I felt that did more harm than good.  But now I'm thinking about it in terms of frustrations about the children not learning or fears that they won't learn.  I try to keep in sight that the important thing here is my relationship with my child.  I want that gut feeling that they have when they walk into the room and see me to be positive.  Not irritation.  Not disgust.  Not stress.  Not annoyance.  Just glad to see their mom.  And maybe, if I'm lucky, to share with me something that they've been thinking about or doing, because they know I'm interested.  This comes so naturally when they are young, yelling, "Mommy, look!" a thousand times a day.  And it gradually erodes when we start having conflict about their "responsibilities" and I am asking them to do things they don't want, and I'm nagging...Add in that I'm conveying that they should be different in terms of their learning and how they spend their time and that doesn't make them overjoyed to see my face.

So when I have in my head that the important thing here is a positive relationship, it helps me be more careful about what I say, how I say it, what attitude I have when I engage with my child, and what my overall principles are with respect to managing this emotionally difficult situation.

They are more likely to seek my wisdom if they like me and don't dislike me.  We are more likely to have conversations if the conversations are pleasant and not yucky.  I find myself chanting to myself numerous times through these phases, "Worry about the relationship, nothing else."

Aseres Yemei Teshuva ramblings

I cracked and finally asked Chana when we are going to resume bio.  Only because it seems like every couple of days something comes up in conversation and if we had done Bio, then she would know it or understand it, and I found myself saying a couple of times, "That's in Bio."  Finally, last time it came up, I said, "That's also in Bio.  When do you want to start again?"  She was hesitant, I think mainly (as I mentioned) because she's feeling burnt out schedule-wise.  I suggested just once a week and she was pretty enthusiastic about that.  She chose Mondays and then changed it to Sundays.  So this Sunday I'll ask her if she wants to and we'll see.  I asked her to read with me last night and she declined.

Spiritually, she came for Rosh Hashana shofar and sat around outside shul the rest of the time.  On the second day, after I finished my personal musaf Amida, I went outside to discuss some of it with her.  I'm sorry how that turned out.  I chose the part that was really speaking to me this year.  And she happens to be extremely sensitive to repetition (her mind apparently works very quickly and grasps quickly and it drives her bonkers when I repeat myself, which she's mentioned to me repeatedly, because apparently repetitiveness, redundancy, and saying the same thing in slightly different ways doesn't really irk me :-P).  So what I thought was nuanced and new (to me) was pretty similar to what she remembered from previous years and she ended up being bored and slightly irritated from the repetition.  And I felt bad because she was so sweet to sit there and give me ten minutes to talk about a subject that I care so much about and is so important to me and I wasn't able to make it interesting to her.  There were other passages in the machzor that probably would have worked better but I didn't choose them and I felt sad that I didn't make the most of that opportunity.  I keep telling myself that this is not the end of the road and if the liturgy is appealing and has a lot of depth then maybe one day it will draw her in to explore it.  Trust the inherent fascination of the topic.  Trust the human mind.  Trust curiosity.  Trust the learning process.

I don't know if I mentioned it on this blog (haha, I probably did, but I tend to repeat myself, as my teen tells me constantly), but I think I made a mistake which is probably a common parenting mistake.  Some of the points of Torah that I found SO illuminating, life changing, eye opening, fascinating, are points that I tried to convey to her.  And perhaps that was short sighted.  Perhaps she had to dig for them herself.  Perhaps I make those points so often that she rolls her eyes at them (yeah, yeah, Torah is about self control and moderation.  Yeah, yeah, remembering you're not the center of the universe.  Blah blah blah this time of year thinking about mortality, whatever).  (And she is very thoughtful and respectful and doesn't say this to me--I just suspect from her facial expressions.)

She's been going to my chumash class where we did the Yom Kippur avoda inside the chumash, and then I ran through it in the musaf.  So we did the pesukim, then the shemona esrei, then I photocopied a page from the Yom Kippur Pictorial Avodah book that gives all the steps.  By that point, Chana was bonkers with the repetition.  I had originally planned for her to be in shul to experience it but I think that would just be unnecessarily painful to her.
So maybe mincha.  Maybe just Yonah.  That has the benefit of not being tefila (since she has communicated clearly that she is not interested in tefila at this time).  It has the downside of being something she's read before and might find repetitive.  I guess I'll ask her.

Which reminds me, I wanted to see if she will learn the Akeida with me.  I think this is actually the perfect age for an in-depth discussion of the difficult theological issues and lessons it presents.

The boys and I haven't been doing much, scholastically, but every single day all three of them have been asking me to spell words and checking if they are writing certain words correctly.  So unschooling reading and writing through unlimited media is alive and working beautifully.  I have thought to myself that to try to make sure all three of them were working on their reading and writing (typing ;) would have been too much to manage during this chag-heavy time; but with unschooling, they come to me instead of the other way around, and it's super efficient and pleasant for all.

I've been thinking a couple of things about unschooling that I was planning to write about, but this is long enough so I'll just make it a separate post.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review of Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life

Timberdoodle is a great catalog.  They have high quality materials and it's always fun to browse.  So when they sent a call asking for people to review their products, I immediately took a look at what items they were offering that my kids might be interested in.

The first was the book Wordsmithy:

My 10th grader is a natural writer so I thought she might find it useful and/or interesting.  The reading level is 9th grade+, and it is recommended on the site as part of their 11th grade curriculum kit.

Since we unschool, I handed her the book and said, "If you read this, then you can give me your opinion.  If you don't read it, I'll have to read it because I said I'd review it."

That was the first test of the book.  Is it interesting enough for an unschooled teenager to pick up and read?

She did read through it.  She was even interested enough to also look up the author and see what kind of writing he does, since he was dispensing advice.  (Note: he is a devout Christian, and mentions God as part of his guidance.)

As she was going through the book, she felt that he was giving advice more about the technical aspects and less on simply writing for pure pleasure.  She wondered if he writes fiction or nonfiction (which led to her googling him) and was unsurprised that he mainly writes nonfiction.  She did feel that his suggestions are useful for those who want to improve in mechanics and proficiency of writing.

When she was in the middle of the book, she often commented to me about things he said that were or would be useful.  She just as frequently commented that she disagreed with this or that.  (When I say "commented," I mean mainly on chat, lest you think we actually speak, except for the time we went on a short walk together and she spent a good portion of it talking about the book.)

The impression that I got is that her mind was engaged in the book; she was taking him seriously and giving him the respect of looking at her own experience with writing and seeing if what he was saying fit in to that and if she thought it would be useful and true, or she didn't think a particular piece of advice would be helpful.

I have the feeling that a lot of what he said in Wordsmithy is going to be in the back of her mind as she writes, whether she agrees with him or not.  His style of writing is straight, talking directly to the reader.  It is compact and readable; each tip is not longer than two pages and has a takeaway point.  It's the kind of information that sneaks in and settles in to your world view of how to write.

If I could sum up her opinion in one sentence (and this is an exact quote): "He has good tips."