crafty · DIY · Keepin' it real · Resorting to Violins · waxing philosophical · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 661: It feels good to be bad.

“You’re old,” K tells me with a grin, every time I announce the death of some celebrity she’s never heard of.

And I reply, “Yup. And it’s so awesome!”

I’ve realized lately that there’s a significant amount of freedom in getting older. Not only do I care less what other people think: in some areas I even care less what I think. To wit: I have multiple hobbies that I’m bad at.

It feels like there’s a bell curve for hobbies. When you’re a little kid, nobody expects you to be particularly good at things because you just haven’t had time to develop skills yet. You’re adorably cute, so it’s okay if your violin playing is a bit squeaky. But then, as you get a bit older, the assumption is that you should be striving for excellence with your hobby: if you want to continue, grownups tell you, you have to practice more, take more classes, get this coach. This attitude intensifies through high school as the all-important university applications loom.

One day adulthood creeps up on you like the clown in a horror movie. Or maybe it just smacks you in the face like that swinging paint can in Home Alone. Either way, expectations of being good at your hobbies seem to plummet. It’s totally fine to try a new hobby and be bad at it… and keep doing it just because it’s fun. By the time you hit your eighties you get a medal just for showing up: “Wow, she’s eighty-nine and she plays in a community orchestra! So inspirational!”

I made a little chart for you:

A graph with an x- and y- axis; there is a line following a bell curve across the chart. The bottom is labelled "Age in years" and the side axis is labelled "expectations of excellence." The levels in the expectations axis are: none (age zero and sixty), "You're obviously still developing your skills" (ages 12 and 35), "Pretty good, but you're no [insert name of famous professional here]" (ages 16 and 28), and "If you don't perform like a pro, you're wasting everyone's time. Especially your own." (age 20.)
If you’re preparing to tell me that this isn’t correct for a bell curve because the x-axis isn’t on a linear scale, don’t bother. I’m bad at statistics, I don’t care, and I still enjoy making up funny graphs.

Now in my forties, I feel good about mediocre work for the first time ever. When I play my viola, I’m not focused on polishing a piece; I practice until I can play all the notes at the correct speed, maybe throw in a few dynamics or some vibrato, and then move on to the next piece I fancy. I’m not going in order of difficulty: I just play what I like. It’s very liberating. I’m a mediocre violist (which means I’m good enough to be last chair in a professional orchestra. Ha ha, little viola joke there) and everyone just thinks it’s cool that I play. Most importantly, I love it.

Ditto carpentry. I don’t usually spend time “honing my craft” or striving to produce professional-quality work. I just like the power tools, the smell of fresh wood, and the ridiculous amount of innuendo that woodworking injects into my conversations. I’m totally screwing around, doing a half-assed job, and most of what I make is good from far, but far from good—and I don’t care.

Take it from a former perfectionist: it feels good to be bad. I highly recommend it.

family fun · Travelogue · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 653: What do you meme?

I don’t usually take pictures without people in them. I mean, I do take photos of my crafts and sometimes food for the blog, but I don’t go on trips and take pictures of the wildlife or scenery. First off, I’d rather be in the moment instead of seeing everything through my camera; and besides, photographers much more talented than I have taken way better pictures of these same animals and vistas. If I need to see a picture of a giant tortoise, I can find dozens of really excellent ones; why clutter my photo stream with mediocre versions?

That said, for some reason I was snapping pictures at the tortoise breeding centre in the Santa Cruz highlands, and I got one of this giant tortoise looking off to the left with his mouth wide open. He looks like he’s shouting to someone just outside the frame. A photo like this is just begging for a caption, don’t you think? It’s got “meme material” written all over it. Thing is, I’m not always that funny. And all of us are funnier than one of us, so I’m putting it out there.

Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to come up with some funny captions for this tortoise. Comment below or on Facebook, and I’ll share all the submissions (and announce my favourite, of course) in a future post.

family fun · Keepin' it real · snarky · Travelogue · well *I* think it's funny... · Worldschooling

Day 632: Isabella

There are things you can say in Galapagos—in polite company, with complete honesty, with a straight face—that you can’t anywhere else: 

“I want to see more boobies.”

“So they can touch us, but we can’t touch them?”

“Wow, these boobies are way bigger than the last ones we saw.”

And then there’s this one: 

“THE FLOOR IS LAVA!” 

R rolled her eyes when I said it the first time.

“Well, it is!” I pointed out. 

She was unimpressed, so I tried with N. 

“N, did you hear? THE FLOOR IS LAVA!”

“Very funny, Eema,” he said, in a voice that told me it was anything but. 

But honestly—if you can’t say “THE FLOOR IS LAVA!” when you’re walking through a lava field, when can you?


The landscape at Tintoreras was surreal. Not only was the floor lava, but the whole area was covered in what looked a bit like porous black stalagmites, topped with white lichens. The iguanas took camouflage to a whole new level with their spiky black bodies and a bit of white on their heads. I’d be walking along when I’d detect movement from the corner of my eye, and then suddenly what I thought was a rock turned into a live iguana, just inches away. 

You’d think I’d be used to spontaneous wildlife appearances by now; but in Galapagos the animals almost go out of their way to put themselves in ours. There are sea lions just lying around on the sidewalks, like dozens of drunks passed out in the street. 

(We were confused about how they were getting from the water to the sidewalk until we watched one climb the stairs with his fins and feet. They are adorable when they crawl.)

We had hoped to encounter baby sea lions during our snorkelling excursions. Alas, the only ones we saw were ten metres away in a tidal pool, surrounded by rocks that made the whole thing look like a baby jail playpen. They were jumping and cavorting together while their fathers stood watch on a nearby rock, barking at anyone who got too close. 

We also swam through a cloud of tiny jellyfish and over dozens of white-tipped sharks, and through narrow canals lined with green sea urchins (“Don’t touch,” our guide cautioned.) 

On land, we walked to a beach where the iguanas basked in the sun. A baby sea lion was waiting on the sand for its mother to return with some food; only a few metres away we noticed a small skull, and the kids found some tiny rib bones and a spine a few feet past that. Apparently some sea lion moms don’t come back. 

(“Maybe because the kids are annoying and won’t go to bed on time,” Mr. December suggested.)


Our hotel that night was exactly what we needed: one room with a king bed for the grownups, and another with four single beds for the kids. Mr. December and I went into our child-free room and lay down to relax; three minutes later, we heard a knock on the door.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I locked it. I just need the silence.” Mr. December nodded.

Moments later, as if in a horror movie, the kids emerged through the window (I didn’t know the screens slid open like that.) The first time they did it, I was exasperated. The second time, I was indignant. By the third time, it was just funny, like the signature entrance of a weird neighbour on a nineties sitcom; I could practically hear the laugh track and applause as N stepped through the window frame. 

It was less amusing when he came in at three in the morning, complaining of thirst. I sent him off with a water bottle and tried to go back to sleep despite the loud music coming from a party many blocks away. Eventually I searched for my swimming earplugs and put them in: silence. I got three more hours of sleep after that.

family fun · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · well *I* think it's funny... · Worldschooling

Day 585: Our Day in T-shirts

Cahuita National Park, Limón province, Costa Rica

1. I went snorkelling at Cahuita National Park and all I got was a sunburned bum.

2. Don’t let the monkey STEAL YOUR PINEAPPLE!

3. Sloth Hiking Team
We will get there
When we get there

4. Give me a piggyback, please!

5. Suck it up, buttercup.

5. There’s nothing here I want to eat!

6. Potholes: Hold onto your asphalt.

7. If anyone wants me, I’ll be in my room.

Keepin' it real · Kids · snarky · well *I* think it's funny... · whine and cheese

Day 568: I didn’t even know their names.

I’m feeling pretty cruddy today. In classic mom style, though, I saw a need and filled it: the dishwasher needed to be run, so I started loading it up.

Then around the corner strolled Bob (okay, fine. I didn’t ask his name; I’m making it up.) Also Donna, Jameel, Mitzi, and Edna (again, not their real names.) All five of them, with their segmented bodies and six legs each, scattered across the countertop.

Ants.

“R and K!!! Get down here NOW!!!” I bellowed (as much as one can bellow while feeling ill.)

“What is it, Eema?”

“You two ate outside on the back porch. Fine. Then you left your dishes outside. So I called you to bring them in, which you did. Great. Know what else you brought in? ANTS! When you bring in dishes that were left outside, you have to rinse them immediately to make sure no insects have hitched a ride! Now they’re ALL OVER THE COUNTER! WHAT GIVES?”

By this point, Bob, Donna, Jameel, Mitzi, and Edna had been joined by at least a dozen other ants. I didn’t ask their names; it’s probably for the best, since I knew I was about to kill them. Down slammed the executioner’s dishcloth, and the ants were washed away in the sink.

“Sorry, Eema. I didn’t actually know that would happen,” said a child who will remain nameless (but not blameless.)

“Seriously? You didn’t know that if there was an ant inside the bowl when you brought it inside, it would crawl out of the bowl and into the kitchen when you failed to rinse it? Come on.” I huffed.

In a very small voice the child said, “Is there something I can do to help you now?”

An exasperated sigh from me, and then, “Just don’t do it again,” I grumbled as I turned back to the dishwasher. A lone ant marched along the cutlery tray, probably giving me the stink-eye; I popped in a detergent tab and closed the door.

So long, little ants. We hardly knew ye.

education · Guest Posts · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · snarky · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 565: Homeschooling Backstory Part 2 (Guest Post)

Ed. note: He’s back! Did you know that Mr. December’s posts get higher stats than mine do? Anyhow, enjoy the next instalment in his gripping tale of woe bravery evidence-based research.


In my last installment I talked about our initial journey, and how we started to hit a wall with our kids. I had never taught before (well, I was a teaching assistant in university,) so there was a lot of making things up as we went. One idea was to set crushing expectations in order to catch up quickly and justify our life choices (and perhaps even our social status.) So no choices, but plenty of rewards and punishments. We figured that even if this failed, we could shift the blame to the children by talking about “grit” a lot (Read any Prof Duckworth paper on grit – do you see now how your failures are your own fault?) Maybe we could enroll them in a relaxation course so that they could internalize that high-stress schooling is a normal, acceptable occurrence. Anyways, rewards and punishments seemed awesome, and we used this to get past the initial objections from our kids. We had a few more problems though: 

  • No way to punish K: She didn’t like computer games, and didn’t need a lot from us. Rewards and punishments also don’t help when skills or structure are the issue (as opposed to motivation). Her stubbornness also meant without buy-in there would be no progress. Anyways, we quickly understood why her teachers made like Elsa and just Let It Go.
  •  N was a relentless optimizer: He loves computer games, so taking them away was an effective punishment. But he’d do the absolute minimum, juuuuust enough to meet the bar, with the minimum learning. He’d also ask questions like “okay, if I don’t do that, how much screen time do I lose?” so he could weight his options, and once you got past a threshold he would simply say “well, I don’t get screens today, so I won’t do any work either”. So despite his brilliance, progress was hella slow, and we knew extended conflict would grind down our relationship with him over time. 
  • R was mostly doing fine: She was a great writer but needed time to write stories not do worksheets. She was behind but compliant in math, but had a lot of trouble focusing. Rewards and punishments didn’t seem fitting here either.
  • E was only 5: We eventually enrolled her in part-time online school. We added in a bit of math, but mostly we figured, meh, she’s 5. 

In the last post, we had some early successes but now needed a new philosophy. Fortunately for me, I have a secret weapon against ignorance: extensive research. I have a high capacity for technical detail, so I got a dozen books on education & homeschooling, which I read cover to cover, as well as many research papers and a few education websites (my favourite was Alfie Kohn’s blog). 

You may not have the time or interest, so here is my summary of my learning: 

Public schools suck. Schools suck, including private schools, which suck in different ways. Your school sucks, and the way your children are taught sucks. Grades suck, competition sucks, and coercion sucks. The rewards you gave that you thought made you better than other parents also suck. If you teach at a school, maybe you don’t suck personally, but you probably do, and just listen to this teacher of the year talk about how he sucks too so don’t feel too bad. Even if your kids don’t suck when they enter school, they will by the time they leave, and if they don’t suck by some miracle they’ll be anxious and unhappy, go into the wrong fields to please you, burn out and then hate you later. 

To summarize the summary: Modern education systems will produce the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked and your kids will be personally be the suckiest of the bunch of sucks who ever sucked. 

I don’t feel this way about the education system (they do a lot of things very right,) so I was surprised at how negative some sources were. Even worse, there was some publishing mishap where the chapters that deal with what to do differently were missing (it’s surprising how common this issue was.)

But whether you see it that way or not, this was a great result for me: I could not do worse. 

Since my older two kids were, in postmodernist educational parlance, “sucking big time,” I had the luxury of choosing my path. With an Alfie Kohn video playing dramatically in the background, I took that 50% math test and put it in the garbage. That was the last grade I ever gave. I’m not saying grades aren’t important – they are so, so important – and here is a chart highlighting the value they have by age range: 

Child’s AgeFucks You Should Give About Grades In Homeschool
4-80
9-100.0
11-140 + 0i
15-17e(3iπ/2)+ i
18Just make up a bunch of grades and submit them to universities – what are they going to do, call your principal? 

I did later understand better the power of review, which we do more of, and I still need to add in some testing for learning. 

I kept hoping someone would recommend bringing spanking back, but no one did. Very few modern experts even advocated for reward/punishment based systems: they talked about being “student centric”—as if our previous education attempts were just for our own benefit. 

Okay, all good. But what to do next? Stay tuned.


About the Guest Author: Mr. December is an engineer and homeschooling dad who also moonlights as a blogger sometimes. He likes data, writers who cite their sources, spreadsheets, and his kids. He also has great hair.

education · Guest Posts · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids · Montessori · snarky · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 562: Once More with Rigor

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Mr. December.

(Homeschool Backstory Part 1)

Our kids’ school careers began at Montessori. Every day N and K would come home and tell us how much fun they had, puttering around the classroom doing random materials with their friends, with no homework whatsoever. It didn’t seem rigorous enough. They needed something more: evenings of tear-filled pointless homework where we’d eventually do most of it for them. High pressure testing to give the school bragging rights. Music pieces that they hated with lots of difficult notes. Remember: if they’re not resisting practice, it isn’t rigorous enough. You’ll need shorter lunchtime and recesses to make room for all the rigor of course. 

So we pulled our happy kids out of Montessori and put them into school #2, which was supposed to be more rigorous in both English and Hebrew curriculum. In terms of happiness it was perfect – both kids were miserable within weeks. But it wasn’t working academically. The math curriculum proceeded glacially, with one assignment asking the kids to write a story about 7×3 (true!). Most assignments were so abstract that I could not see what a right or wrong answer might look like (such as: “what are the physical and emotional state differences between two mountains?”), yet alone how I would do the work myself. In one math test, K got every number right and every spelling wrong – final grade: 50%. The best objection I could muster was to write “Grate Work” on her assignment when I signed the test. 

Maybe we needed to face the fact that whatever the hell this school was teaching, my kids weren’t good at it. When the school complained K was late 19.0 times, I saw my opening. After asking repeated questions about why a float instead of integer – is there a way to be late 0.5 of a time? – I wrote a (spoof) email asking if she was the most late in the school, saying we were looking to find things she was good at to encourage her. But alas, talking to other parents, 19.0 was nowhere close to the record – several overachievers were late every single day. K’s dream was to be late 0.5 of a time, but they wouldn’t tell us the secrets of how to do so. We tried everything – just a minute late, half a day late, late but didn’t get the slip, late and then forget something in the car to be even later, but nothing worked. 

The next year we switched the older two kids into a public gifted program (school #3), which was wonderful socially, but didn’t seem to help academically. 

So along came COVID, the kids were home, and suddenly we could see clearly what was going on. Nothing. Nothing was going on. Our kids were terrible at school and did not know their fundamentals in math or writing. Oops, my bad. 

Okay, so what to do – I figured the best thing was to back to rigor. Put the “fun” back in fundamentals. S said to forget public school – let’s try out homeschooling. Teach the basics, and once they learn their fundamentals, power them through the grades. And, perhaps surprisingly, it actually worked, in the short term – the math instruction and drills worked wonders, with the kids’ accuracy improving and their processing time cut in half. I was starting to think I could even work in a few humble brags. But then we hit the wall: they didn’t want to do two hours of Kumon every day plus the basics of writing. 

Okay, no problem, I thought, I’ll make my own rigorous work. Math was easy: Every last Kumon math problem done correctly, in order, for a certain amount of time each day. That seemed rigorous enough. 

Then I got stuck, as it turns out I didn’t know about anything except math. No matter, we created our four pillars of non-incompetence: 

  • Math: A goal of being two years ahead. I figured that lofty goal would satisfy most people and then they’d forget about it.
  • English: No idea, but that’s S’s problem
  • Science: I could not remember anything I did in elementary or middle-school science. Did we even do chemistry? Was it just a bunch of digging in dirt? Wait – thermocline – I remembered that word, for when water changes temperature depending on depth. But I think that was grade 9, so I figured I’d wait to teach them that gem. For now, we just joined HENSE*
  • Everything else not in the other three: This is S’s problem, so I left it to her, with the only condition that it be rigorous

Now that we had a model, I figured I’d start with a math test: what could be better for rigorous evaluation? That would show the parents we’re not total idiots. So I used a New Jersey grade 5 math test, and then my son got 50%. He rushed through, didn’t know some terms, and there was this one question I had no idea how to solve either (see below). 

What the &^$% does this diagram even mean? Who would do division this way? At least we know it isn’t to scale—that’s really helpful, thanks.

So what should I do now? Punish? Reward? Unschool? Back then I saw unschooling as the opposite of rigor: sprinkle (sorry, strew) some books around and they’ll be 18 and out of the house in no time! 

Stay tuned for the next installment of my journey.

Ed. note: Mr. December offered to change the last two words to “our journey”. I declined. The views expressed in this guest post are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent the views of all of us here at SweetCrunchyJewy. -S

*HENSE: Home Educators with No Science Education

Keepin' it real · Kids · lists · parenting · snarky · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 561: I wanted to say…

We were at the supermarket checkout packing up our groceries. I was showing the kids how to bag items so that nothing gets squashed (“Guys, if you stack all the plastic clamshells from largest to smallest, you have a stack that won’t fall over and nothing will open accidentally.”) Suddenly, I heard a man’s voice behind us:

“Hey, guys? Just remember that you’re not the only people in the world, okay? Other people need to check out, too.”

When none of us even acknowledged his statement, he upped the ante: “Yeah, and that was the NICE WAY TO SAY IT!!!”

Here are the things I didn’t say to him (in no particular order):

  • “WHAAAAA?!?”
  • “Neither are you.” (the only people in the world, that is)
  • “Oh! Your Majesty! I’m so sorry—I would never want to obstruct the royal procession! Please forgive your humble subjects!”
  • “(gasp!) You mean…” I’d look around furtively, then whisper, “there are others?
  • “Oh, go love yourself.” (à la Justin Bieber)
  • “I’m trying to teach my children to be patient, and you’re setting a really bad example right now.”
  • “There are other people in the world, but no other checkout lines you could have used? How peculiar.”
  • “OMG, you sound just like my grade ten math teacher! Yeah…he was a jerk too.”
  • “I just upped my meds, so up yours.”

And my personal favourite:

  • “Damn! You distracted me and I did this bag all wrong! Now I’ll have to unpack it and start all over again!”

What did I say instead? Nothing at all. I kept my cool, ignored him, and went on with my day.

crafty · Homeschool · Kids · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 531: Mapwork or Make-work?

K and N started their History work today. It consisted of some reading, a few summary sentences, some timeline additions, and mapwork. In case you’re unfamiliar with what “mapwork” entails, it involves a blank map and a list of things to label and/or colour in.

Upon reading the mapwork assignment, K was not impressed. She went on a long rant:

“This is such a stupid assignment! The map they want us to refer to doesn’t even show the exact same area! And how the heck am I supposed to know whether the fertile crescent is the area inside that line or outside it? And shading it would make the labels look stupid! And how am I supposed to know where anything is, anyway? Besides, it’s impossible to do it exactly correctly…”

Then, in true Giftie-with-ADHD fashion, K made her counter-proposal:

“Can’t I just get a giant piece of watercolour paper and make a world map from scratch? I’d make sure I had all the lines right and I could colour it nicely and label everything and it would be like a work of art! Can I do that instead of doing all these dumb map assignments that are pointless and confusing?”

You read that right: she objected to having to label five bodies of water and outlining one geographical area on a blank map—work that would take her about five minutes to do if she’d let herself—and instead wanted to spend weeks or even months working on a large-scale world map. She’d rather do more work as long as it’s self-directed and creative, if it means getting out of following instructions that she doesn’t care about.

N, on the other hand, did the very same mapwork assignment in about three minutes. It turned into seven minutes after I refused to accept messy, sub-par work and taught him how to use a ruler to help keep his labels neat and readable. I wonder… how many years of “Go back and do it properly this time” will it take for him to just do it well the first time?