Friday, August 31, 2007

Urban homeschooling

I used to think that city-living would be sort of an obvious ideal for homeschooling families. That was before I had any kids. Now that I have two kids (neither of them school age) and am oh-so-much-wiser, I still think that city-living is a fantastic way to homeschool.

Now that Joseph has his wheelchair and Margaret is getting to the "I must climb without ceasing" stage, I also see why moms like yards and playgrounds. Kids need to burn off steam. In the city, with young kids, this means that I have to take them somewhere. If I had a yard I could just let them play while I washed dishes at the kitchen sink, or something. But, I don't have a yard. Not that I'm complaining--I hate yardwork and yards are not very wheelchair-friendly.

Getting the kids out of the apartment could be seen as a burden on me, but I've slowly realized that I need to get out, too. We live, basically, in one room all day. That's too close, especially when one child is in wheeled devices. I need a change of scenery. I'm a better mom when I have stimulation and diversion and the kids aren't dependent on me for ninety percent of their entertainment.

Fortunately, I live in a great city. Washington has its problems, certainly, but one of the greatest benefits is its small size. Anyone who lives in the city is close to the action. We get to Mass each morning, but many days I consider whether to go on an "outing". These are some of my options on a typical day, for an almost three-year-old boy (Margaret usually snoozes on these adventures):

the grocery store
a park with a fountain
a coffee shop near a construction site
the library
the bookstore (like the library, but with coffee!)
Chinatown to see the noodle man
the Postal Museum
the Natural History Museum
the reflecting pool to see the ducks
Union Station to watch the trains
any destination involving a Metro ride
a walk through the neighborhood to do odd errands

And this doesn't include seasonal activities, special events, and things that are only appreciated by older children. It would be crazy not to take advantage of all this on a regular basis, especially when the museums here are all free. These places are packed with school kids on the weekend!

My kids are young, now, so there is no worry about fitting in lessons or the "scope and sequence" requirements of a curriculum. But, what about five years from now when I might have four or five kids and three of them would be real school age? We hope to still live in a city with many of these same opportunities. Do we leave it all alone in order to stay in and do lessons? I've heard veteran moms say that too many outings can be deadly to the pace of schooling. And the little ones need naps.

Perhaps I'm veering into unschooling territory, here, but I think my approach will be about what it is now. I'm prepared to reevaluate as our family grows and I get a better sense of things, but this is, really, one of the main reasons I so want my children to be raised in a city. They are hit in the face with education as soon as they walk out the door. As interests and individual projects develop there are museums and opportunities within minutes of our home. Mobility is one of the great benefits of urban life and I hope that our children are independently mobile long before they are old enough to drive a car. How could I give my daughter an art textbook when the National Gallery is a short bus ride away?

We don't, actually, have all that much choice about where we will live long-term (academia seems to have a lot in common with the military, sometimes). Perhaps I will one day have a yard and a learning room. For now, I'm going to give myself permission to take a lot more "field trips" with my kids.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My contribution to the skirt wars

It's a hot topic of debate among Catholic women: Should we wear skirts all the time or just on Sunday?

I've been thinking (and, indeed, praying) about my take on the whole debate for some time. There are women I admire and respect on both sides of the issue. I've heard arguments about modesty, femininity, Marian imitation, and cultural revolution--all on both sides. I've read so much on this topic, that I'm afraid I won't be able to link back to all the women who have influenced my thought. For this, I apologize. Had I known that I would have a blog when I started reading this debate, I might have been more diligent about saving links to posts.

When I consider how to dress I ask myself several questions: Is it modest? Is it feminine? Is it appropriate to the occasion?

Modesty is a very difficult area to judge. Some think skirts are always more modest because they disguise the curves of a woman's body. Some think pants are more modest because they can't fly up in a revealing way. Some believe that a modest woman always covers her elbows, while others are okay with sleeveless shirts. Some would never be seen in a bathing suit while others think a tankini can work just fine. I think modest clothing is different for different body types and different situations. But, if anyone ever asked me for a rule of thumb as an aid to discerning modesty I think I would say that any clothing that communicates something about your underwear is probably immodest. If your skirt is so short that your underwear, or lack thereof, is noticeable, then the skirt is immodest. If your pants are so tight that the brand of your underwear is readable, that is immodest. If your shirt sleeves expose undergarment straps, or if your top makes it obvious that you aren't wearing any undergarments, that's usually immodest.

I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule and I invite readers to submit some, because I'd really like to refine my thinking in this area. Even as I write, I can think of two different brides I have seen in strapless gowns. One bride was decidedly more modest than the other.

The question of femininity is next. I really believe that women should dress like women. I don't have a "rule of thumb" worked out for this, yet. I do think part of this is not wearing your husband's clothes (I've known this to happen with pregnant women). Certainly, this also means that skirts and dresses should have a certain pride of place in a woman's wardrobe because these articles are still distinctively feminine dress. I might even go so far as to say that "unisex" clothing should be avoided as much as possible (by men and women). Jeans and t-shirts are casual clothing. They look fine on a construction site, but I wouldn't mind if these things became a bit less of a cultural uniform. I also think women should take an honest look at what is flattering on their body type and, perhaps, seek out some good outside advice. I'm fortunate that my husband seems to have a pretty good eye for this kind of thing. I look rather hideous in sleeveless tops and even most short-sleeved tops. When the weather allows, I try to stick to 3/4 length sleeves because I think this is the most flattering for me. I have a friend who looks great in sleeveless tops and never seems immodest.

Finally, my last question: Is it appropriate? This question addresses a lot of smaller points. Women should dress appropriate to their vocation and age. I don't want moms in habits or nuns in slacks. Women should dress according to the occasion. A cocktail party for your husband's workplace and Sunday Mass require very different clothing choices. Coaching your daughter's soccer team and grocery shopping require different clothing choices.

I wear skirts as much as possible. Sometimes a skirt doesn't seem appropriate to the occasion, but most of my non-skirt days are the result of a small wardrobe. I can't afford to replace pants with skirts when my wardrobe is large parts gifts and hand-me-downs. I don't think that skirts are always more modest, always more feminine, and always more appropriate. I do think that our culture has swung too far along the clothing spectrum in the direction of casual. So, when a skirt and a pair of pants seem equally appropriate and are both available, I will usually pick the skirt. I'm so glad to live in one of the only cities in the U.S. (so says my father-in-law) where suits are the norm for the work week and ball gowns are seen at the opera. I am always so sad to see khakis and polos at Sunday Mass on the men who wear suits all week to Daily Mass. Never mind what some of the other folks are wearing (I really don't need to know which kids have soccer games after Mass). I'd like to see less people wearing work-out clothes on airplanes, and I hope my husband doesn't have to deal with students wearing their pajamas to final exams.

Some women feel called to practice "extreme modesty" to counteract the culture. I guess you could say that I feel called to hold the line on "dressing up." When I appear in public, I want to put my best foot forward. I think that, especially as the mom (someday, I hope) of several children, the last thing I want to show strangers is a worn, bedraggled woman. It's a sign of respect for the others in your environment to be neatly, and nicely dressed. The way I dress affects my attitude towards myself and my work, as well. I don't dust in high heels, but right after Margaret was born I was wearing sweats all the time. Eventually I realized that I felt more depressed when I dressed like a slob.

I've gone on a bit more than I intended, but I may revisit this topic in the future. Please challenge me with your thoughts on the subject!

Monday, August 27, 2007

If you like what I have to say . . .

. . . check out my husband, who says it even better.

My inner nut

Robyn had an interesting post yesterday about the city providing anonymity for those who like to let out their inner nut. It got me thinking. I'm an introvert, too, but I absolutely love city life. The busier the better. We live in an urban neighborhood, but it's not super-dense. Compared to New York, it's like a quaint little town (without the quaint). I love taking the kids to Chinatown here in DC. It's not very "China" but it is a lively, bustling neighborhood. People crowd the streets at all hours of the day because there are lots of apartments, lots of businesses, a Metro stop, and some of the city's best restaurants. Plus, it has the library and the noodle man for the kids and a Starbucks for me.

DC is small enough that, unlike Robyn, it is somewhat possible for me to run into someone I know in our Chinatown. But, usually I don't, and Robyn helped me realize that the reason I love Chinatown is that, surrounded by all those people, I am reasonably alone there. In my neighborhood I feel compelled to be a bit social when I encounter people. In Chinatown there are so many people that no one feels like being social--and it's okay.

Robyn's post also made me wonder something else about urban neighborhood dynamics. When she got caught in a rainstorm twenty blocks from home the streets emptied out except for her. She threw a raincover on her stroller and ran. I wondered--where did everyone else go? Why weren't they all twenty blocks from home? I have no idea what Robyn was doing (maybe she'll tell us) but I would bet that all those other people were on the same block as home, or work, or their friend's work, or a shop they knew well and could take refuge in, or a cafe they liked. I know Robyn's neighborhood well and it is a dense, mixed-use area where many of the residents have lived for generations. I wonder how anonymous it actually is once you've lived there a long time. City neighborhoods can seem big and scary when you are the stranger, but it's amazing how quickly you get to know the other faces out on the street.

That's the way to do cities--find a small area you like and get to really know it. Suburbs are anonymous--everyone hides in their cars and their houses (gross generalization, I know, but I can't link back to the post I wrote on this topic a couple weeks ago). When residents of a city try to make it like a suburb by driving everywhere, demanding space for parking, hiking to the suburbs for convenient one-stop shopping, then city neighborhoods remain anonymous, too. Unfortunately, there are very few cities where this kind of urban ideal exists. I hope that changes.

But, even then, I don't have an inner nut waiting to get out.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The new neighborhood

This is a repost of one that was lost when I deleted the old blog. It provides good background information for topics I hope to address in the future, so I've reposted it. Unfortunately, it's the only post I still had in Word.

According to some definitions we still live on Capitol Hill. The local mother’s group, the local paper, and most realtors all call our address “The Hill.” Others call this area “North Capitol Hill” or, best of all, “SoFlo.” (The ad for our apartment read: “New York feel in a DC Victorian.” I’ll tell you one thing this place doesn’t feel like: New York.) The historic name for our neighborhood is “Old City” or “Near Northeast.” Until Union Station was built the area was full of Irish immigrants living in tenements and dying of typhoid. The new train station destroyed that neighborhood pretty effectively.

Later, the area became one of the premier black neighborhoods in the city. The main thoroughfare, H Street, was once the third-largest commercial stretch in town. In the late fifties and early sixties H Street started to decline due to a drop in the population of the area. The H Street bridge was put in during that time, cutting the neighborhood off from downtown and preventing building for a three-block stretch. In 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, riots swept through the city. Days of looting and arson decimated our neighborhood and several others. Some of those areas have recovered but, forty years later, H Street is still lagging a bit. Forty years.

Our family very consciously decided to live in this “transitional” neighborhood. We’ve actually moved in just as gentrification is starting to hit and things aren’t as affordable as they were a year or two ago. Our apartment is beautiful but the other buidings on our side of the block are pretty dilapidated. Across the street are a halfway house (we think) and a couple of vacant properties next to a large schoolyard. The corner is a seedy liquor store. Stretched between the seedy store and a large, historic burned-out building are several more dilapidated properties. The backside of the block is actually pretty nice once you get past the weedy lot behind the burned-out building. Our block is pretty typical. We’ve taken several different routes to church over the last couple weeks and seen the same pattern on block after block north of H Street.

There are encouraging signs of life, too. A big developer is putting in an enormous luxury condo building at one end of H Street. The best coffee shop ever is doing a brisk business despite being one of the only operating commercial entities for blocks. Since we’ve moved in, we’ve seen two vacant lots near us begin rehabilitation. A high-end farmer’s market has managed to pull off a second summer. The new condos, the farmer’s market, and the coffee shop are all wonderful. They’re also full of rich, white people (and temporarily poor white people, like us). The local population and the local culture here are very distinctively black. There’s a lot about that culture that seems pretty downtrodden and depressed at the moment, but there is a certain vibrancy and richness to the history of the black community in this neighborhood. The money is pouring in fast to this section of town and I wonder how many of the local, long-time residents can afford to keep up.

If we were settling in Washington long-term, we would definitely try to buy in this neighborhood. In the meantime, we’re excited to see how things develop over the next year, but I always wonder as we push our fancy double stroller down the street past our new neighbors, “Are we part of the problem?”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Am I a homschooler, yet?

I read my first book on homeschooling when I was engaged. I read my second book on homeschooling right after that. I read a whole bunch more last summer. My oldest will be three in October. I feel a bit funny calling myself a homeschooler (or I am the home educator in this scenario). Even if I wanted to send Joseph to school, he won't be three in time to go to preschool here. But, in this city, all three-year olds go to school, so I've gotten lots and lots of questions about my school plans for Joseph and, I have to say, it's been pretty fun to start calling ourselves a homeschooling family.

It hit me a month or two ago that I would have a three-year old this Fall and I had a moment of panic. Should I sign him up for stuff? Should he have more structured activities? Should I start keeping logs? The loves-to-plan part of me wanted to organize, plan, evaluate, do, do, do. The other homeschool blogs are all buzzing with curriculum plans and learning room photos. I wanted to join in the fun.

Then I went to a tiny fraction of the Real Learning conference and heard part of Elizabeth's talk which, I think, was entitled, "Don't Make This Harder Than It Already Is." The part I heard cautioned all of us moms against striving too hard for unattainable perfection. Margaret started crying then and I didn't hear the rest. Then I read this on Elizabeth's blog and I've been smiling and dreaming ever since.

Red Cardigan asked us to post today about what kind of homeschoolers we are. If you'll bear with me, I'll describe what I'd like to be. Those of you with small kids can dream and idealize along with me and maybe those of you with older kids can have a good chuckle at my expense (it's okay--I'm still young, and I've had a good day).

The books I've read about home education have run the gamut from hardcore Classical to radical unschooling. I've read about complete, pre-packaged curriculums done at reproduction school desks and I've read about kids who spend their days breeding rabbits.

Classical education bothers me because it seems to focus more on the destination than the journey. Unschooling bothers me because there are beautiful ideas I want to introduce to my children. I believe in active parenting, and I believe that a good teacher can be an invaluable guide. Pre-packaged curricula seems far too restrictive, but I do think that, at least occasionally, kids should be gently made to do things they aren't super excited about.

As I've said before, Elizabeth Foss's Real Learning has influenced my thinking and dreaming more than anything else. I think the idea that most resonated with me was, "Children are educated by their intimacies." We hope, first of all, to have a large family. I think that human relationships are probably the single most important educational tool out there so we'll do our best to have plenty of those in-house. Whenever people ask us why we want to homeschool we answer first, "Socialization." This really throws people off--but we do think children are best socialized in the context of a large family.

Second, we hope to have a lively life of family prayer, living the liturgy, and contact with the sacraments. We have, so far, not given up on our goals of Daily Mass, Morning and Evening prayer from the Divine Office, individual Rosaries, and spiritual reading. We have begun to establish beautiful (I think) liturgical traditions shaped by feast days and seasons with our daily teatime as a chance to engage the liturgical year in some small way each day.

Third, and this is the most challenging, we are trying to build a beautiful and ordered home environment. Household management (chores, if you will) are important as is the arranging of rooms and furniture to suit the individual and communal needs of our family. We hope to always live in a city, which means space will probably always be at a premium. I don't aspire to the luxury of a learning room and, even if we did have the space, I'm not sure I'd want one. I'd rather have books in every room of the house with a few nooks and corners for solitary pursuits. We don't have a television and don't ever plan to. I think a television often shapes the layout of a room more than it should. Our couch and chairs now are arranged for conversation and family prayer. I hope to always have a large kitchen so children can be in and out, involved and at the periphery.

I want excellent literature to be the mainstay of our day--books read aloud and to ourselves; creative projects and explorations inspired by the subjects found in those books. If we're fortunate enough to live in a history-rich area, frequent road trips with Dad to explore would certainly be in order. And nature study--more on this in the future--but certainly I want my children to be critically interacting with the world around them.

So, for this year . . . indulge Joseph's love of reading aloud as much as possible. Break out the drawing paper and crayons while Margaret naps. Let him crack the eggs and mix the pancakes on Sunday morning. Continue with catechism chats and prayers at bedtime (Dad's department these days.)

I am excited for this year. The world is opening up in a big way to my little boy and I am grateful to be with him as he begins to explore it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Good news

That is, if you are a fan of my blog.

I've decided to keep going. Many thanks to those of you who left encouraging comments after last week's deletion episode. I spend the remainder of that week with Robyn. It's nice to have a friend who knows you better than you know yourself. We had many good talks and I returned home feeling refreshed and ready to tackle my life again--mouse droppings and all.

My husband and I try to have a virtue-based approach to life. That is, we eliminate rules whenever possible. Rules are needed where virtue has failed.

In the case of blogging, I have determined that writing and reading blogs can be a beneficial activity for me and my family. The virtue I need to cultivate in relation to blogging is temperance, or moderation. I need to discern, each time I go to my computer, whether or not the time is right for me to publish a new post or log into Google Reader. Deleting my blog because I've failed to be temperate is no way to cultivate virtue. Rules are tricky too. I don't want to say, "I will only blog at 2:00 each day," only to find that at 1:00 both kids are peacefully napping. I have made one rule: No writing or reading of blogs on the weekend, except for the kids' blog (sadly neglected of late) which I will make a priority of each weekend because my family really does appreciate it.

With that, I set off anew on my blogging adventure. I think I hear the kids waking up . . .

Monday, August 13, 2007

I did something rash

I deleted my blog.

We had a rough few days around here. Margaret had a nasty virus. I tried to go to the Real Learning conference and spent the entire time with a screaming baby in the back room. We finally left before lunch after hearing part of one talk. I was feeling frustrated with my husband because he was spending a lot of time on the computer. Then I started to think the computer was taking over our lives, or that maybe we needed two computers so that we could blog simultaneously and visit afterwards.

So I pushed the big, black, "Delete This Blog" button. Then I deleted my google account and all of my google reader subscriptions. I thought that this was a well-considered, prayer-directed move. I thought I would feel peace and freedom. But I just felt a bit nauseous. This morning, over breakfast, I told my husband and he was pretty upset. I didn't expect that.

He made a good argument in favor of blogging: I like it. It's a great creative outlet for me. I love to write and a blog gives me a place to practice. I've done some of my best writing since high school on this blog. At my best, I go through my day giving more careful consideration to all my actions because I'm always wondering what I can write next. I love the blogging community and the 4Real community. The tiny taste of the conference last weekend showed me what a healthy, online community can be. Most, if not all, of the speakers are bloggers as well who give lots of encouragement and practical help to other moms. My husband thinks I actually have something worth saying. I've always said that blogging helps my vocation.

On the other hand . . . I definitely use the computer as an escape. Not a retreat--a place to go for refreshment and renewal so that I can go back to the rest of my life with energy--an escape. When the kids get on my nerves, I click over to Google Reader and look at someone else's kids for awhile. I tune out the kids and their annoying behavior gets worse. I could blog when they are in bed, of course. But that's when my husband is writing on his blog and I don't feel like further cutting into our time together to write on mine. It's not that I don't believe in hobbies but most of my other hobbies are much more inclusive of my children. I don't think my kids are going to learn much by watching me zone out in the blogosphere.

Then there's the element of pride. I want people to notice me. I want people to think I have the coolest blog ever. I want to really have something profound to say. I used to journal, but I stopped because I was too whiny and introspective. I thought blogging helped me to overcome that because I know that I have an audience. But, when I know I have an audience I feel pressure to POST SOMETHING! People are waiting! My fans adore my thoughts!

And, after all this, I think, "It's just a blog! Get over it!"

So, I have resurrected my blog--sort of. All the old posts are gone, sadly. The template is very close to what I had except that the lovely Sedes Sapientia image is distorted. I'll have to work on that. I'm going to think about this for a bit and, in the meantime, if you care to offer your thoughts on the value of blogging, balancing blogging (or other hobbies) with life, or anything else helpful, I would be most appreciative.