Peppers


In the pantry, a jar sits on a shelve, lonely and unused. Its bright red colour livens the mess of spices and aromatics standing at attention in a practical array. Bird’s Eye chili peppers, dried to a dusty crisp, artifacts of a summer’s past.

We had planned a large garden, tilled long and narrow mounds on which we planted gourds, lettuces and root vegetables, our knowledge of gardening inversely proportional to our enthusiasm. Seeds of hot peppers thrown on the edge of a row of romaine lettuce testified  to our inexperience. They should have been sprouted indoors while the deep brown earth laid dormant under a crust of snow and ice.

Shortly after laying our cornucopia underground, we had seen our own little buds sprouting deep inside the warm comfort of the womb. Twins. Bed rest. Our garden was left to fend for itself as we fought the forces of chaos on the home front. Within a few weeks in July weeds choked everything but the sturdiest squashes, potatoes, and zucchinis. “No wonder that’s what the pioneers ate,” I thought as I laid hatching. The spring rains gorged the edible plants as well as the weeds, the summer sun ripened them. The children picked what could be salvaged and eaten raw and the twin buds rested and grew. Summer lingered into September, then exceptionally into October and the weeds got more luscious. The twin buds matured and bloomed and I was released to the garden just in time to harvest a late crop of red hot chili peppers before fall threw its blanket of frost, smothering weeds and herbs alike. I strung the peppers on a thread with a sewing needle and hung them to dry in a south-facing window, letting the summer rain evaporate from the taunt red flesh.

Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, the sequence of a year. The peppers adorned our window for a year, long dried but too hot to complement our family’s dishes. Some were rehydrated with boiling water, cooked with oil and garlic and made into chili garlic sauce following Margaret’s authentic Malaysian recipe. We used it by the drop, careful not to breathe deeply while the jar was open.

The house and the garden wrapped their weight around our necks like a boat anchor, dragging our family into a wake of debt and fear. When  we decided to sell our house to pay off all our debts the peppers were duly packed into a glass jar, wrapped in packing paper, and moved to our new landing, a relic of the dreams we left behind as we looked up and ahead. The peppers remained untouched as we welcomed our ninth child and moved again when we made our home in the highlands.

Here they live, a vibrant reminder of a summer past when we learned the wisdom of letting things grow as they must.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homeschooling Questions: Working with different ages, grades and interests


The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.

 

As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?

 

My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.

 

My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.

 

In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.

 

Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”

  1. Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
  2. Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
  3. Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
  4. Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
  5. Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
  6. Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
  7. Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.

Action de Grâce


Par une belle journée d’automne, nous avons passé de bien beaux moments sur notre propriété en campagne. Pour l’instant, il ne s’agit que de champs et de forêts. Mais un jour, nous y construirons une maison. Si vous cliquez sur la première photo, vous pourrez toutes les voir en pleine grandeur.

Unsolicited Advice: Achieving potty training success – Don’t be anal about it


True confession: I never waited for my kids to be “ready”. I potty train at 2. That’s it. None of my children (until the twins) cared about spending some time in a soiled or wet diaper. Some of them may still be in diapers had I been waiting for signs of readiness. There is a window of good will at age 2 and we jump right through it.

Our no-nonsense approach to potty training hinges on the knowledge of our potty-training children’s temperaments and the unavoidable fact that we cannot control their sphincter function. Keep cool, calm, and collected. This is not about you. First read the preamble to this potty training edition and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to teach your child: The Potty Training Edition

1. Take time off work, or plan to stay home for 4-5 days. The key to potty-training success is repeated successes. Success is defined as peeing in appropriate places. This is very difficult and immensely frustrating if you are always on the go.

Ask me about the day I sat my potty training toddler on a cashier’s counter at a department store and she emptied her bladder. I asked for a towel and the cashier gave me 2 tissues… That’s how I learned that if I was going to keep my temper, I would have to stay home for a few days or use Pull-Ups.

Don’t set yourself and your child for failure. Being constantly on-the-go will cause setbacks that are frustrating for you and demotivating for your child.

2. Figure out what motivates your child. Our approach is based on rewards or positive reinforcement. Some children respond well to motivational charts with stickers. Others respond well to the feeling of being a big boy/big girl. Some children are motivated by a special treat. Don’t skimp on the rewards: this is for a limited time only. Once the habit of peeing/pooping in the toilet is well established, you won’t have problems removing the treat, it happens very naturally. We use Smarties all the way. If you see that one motivator is not registering, try another. One of my friends buys a big toy that goes on display on top of the fridge. She uses stickers and after 7 days without accident, the toy is theirs. My kids would get discouraged by the delayed gratification and responded better to the immediate gratification of a single Smarties candy. For the purpose of this post, I will use “Smarties” as a synonym for “reward”.

3. Reward liberally. At first, I give Smarties to everybody who pees in the toilet. It sets the mood for the potty training child.

4. On the first day, I put my child in underwear. A little note: some children will treat undies like a diaper and only have success completely naked. That’s cool too. Just have a lot of cleaning supplies handy and let go of your inhibitions. Make sure that your partner, significant other or co-parent is on board. If not, delay potty training until you can teach with one voice. I strongly advise against using any form of punishment to potty train. It causes more problems than it seems to solve at first.

5. Your goal for the first few days (it can take a few hours or a few days) is to make your child aware that she is peeing. What does peeing feels like? Before a child can learn to hold pee, she needs to learn what pee feels like. The sensation that we “need” to go is the feeling of pressure in the bladder and tightening our sphincters. The first phase of potty training is to make them aware that they are peeing. I watch them like a hawk and offer the potty but I never force them. As soon as they pee I take them to the potty and say “You peed! Next time we’ll do it on the potty”. No rant, no lecture, no disappointment. I try to get them to sit on the potty long enough to pee but this can be difficult. I make a game out of it, try to read a book, watch a movie, whatever. Otherwise, I just let them be and tell them when they pee. “Oups, another pee. Next time you’ll do it in the potty.” I always have some cleaning supplies handy because this can be a messy stage. I also buy 2 dozens cheap underwear. They have to be cheap enough to be cut and thrown out if the child has a really bad poop accident. The key to potty training success is to keep your cool in all circumstances. Scrubbing poop and swishing disgusting underwear in the toilet is not a circumstance that commands coolness. Life is too short to spend it up to your elbows in a toilet bowl. Unless you work in the septic tank business. But I’m not paid for this gig.

6. Keep body functions matter-of-fact, will ya? Peeing is no big deal. There are no air-horns going-on when you pee, are there?  Some children may be jubilant when they have early success. Jubilate with them. But for some temperaments, the jubilation is a cause of stress and increased expectations. At first, keep the horns and sirens under wrap until you get a feel for what motivates or stresses your child. I ask my early potty-trainee if she needs to go every 2 minutes. At the first sign of stress or stubbornness, I ratchet-it-down a few notches and leave my child alone. Yes, she may pee on the floor, and that’s ok: she is learning what peeing feels like. Never force your child to sit on the potty/toilet. Just walk away, make tea, go scrub your baseboards or something. At the end of a long day, I have been known to put a diaper back on. Relax, this is not a salvation issue. If you can’t respond in a constructive way DON’T RESPOND. Put a diaper on the child and pour yourself a drink or three.

7. Every time your child puts even a drop of pee in the toilet, give her a Smarties. The goal is to teach her what peeing feels like. Be liberal with the Smarties: she may want to go to the toilet every 30 seconds, fantastic!! Take her. If you get a single drop of pee every 30 seconds, give her a reward every single time. To expel a drop of pee, she is using her sphincters. This is good stuff. One of my friends (a mother of 10) uses pretzels because it makes them thirsty…. Then they need to go more often. Apple juice and pretzels, Baby! Now you understand why you are taking 4-5 days at home to do this.

8. As soon as you see the pee=potty relation consolidate, build on it. If you go to the park, bring a potty. The more time you invest in potty training during the early days, the more success you will have. If you interrupt your potty training for errands, playgroups, coffees etc, it will take longer.

9. Once your child understands what peeing feels like and can control the outflow of pee, she will naturally start to keep it in. I find that this happens naturally: when they understand what pee feels like and are motivated to do it in the toilet, they learn to hold it. This may take a day for a motivated child but it can also take longer. That’s why I don’t like any method that promises success within a certain number of days. “Success” is not potty training in 3 days, children are not machines. “Success” is peeing and pooping in appropriate places with no damage to your relationship.

10. Be ready for setbacks. Potty training is often two steps forward one step back. As your child learns to control her bladder, she can get overconfident and start having accidents again. As always, keep your cool. She is not doing this to annoy you. Stress and tension in the household can also compromise potty training. Potty training is very demanding on the child: if her brain is occupied by a sudden language spurt or a stressful situation in the family, it may take away from potty training. Once again, keep your cool and stay the course.

11. The answer to any and every accident is calm and composed: “Oups, you had an accident! Next time you’ll do it in the toilet.” Don’t rant, don’t argue. Walk away, go make tea, call your girlfriend or take-up crochet. I usually just check Instagram and see what cooler people are up to.

12. Just stay the course. Remember that the most important key to success is not to let potty training turn into a power struggle. You will lose that struggle. It’s as simple a physiology: you cannot control someone’s sphincters. On the up side, your child cannot control your response. Manage what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Remain unaffected by your toddler’s antics. Respond constructively or don’t respond. It’s ok to ignore the bad stuff, how do you think I went this far without taking-up drinking?

13. If you have questions, just leave a comment. Don’t get married to a deadline, those only cause friction and stress. After 5 days in underwear, if your child shows no awareness of her need to pee, nor willingness or ability to go on the potty, stop and wait another month. If after 5 days your child has anxiety or throws tantrums at the sight of the potty, stop and waits another month. If your partner supports harsh methods of potty training and punishes your child when she pees in inappropriate places, stop and get a supportive partner. If your child is scared of the toilet, use a potty. If your child doesn’t want to use the potty, try a toilet adjuster. If your child is severely constipated or has pain when urinating, stop and seek medical attention.

Recap:

You cannot your child’s sphincters, your child’s mind or your child’s temper.

You can control your response, your temper, the purchase of diapers.

The key to success is to know the difference between what you can control and what you can’t and acting accordingly. Stay calm and happy potty training!

If my blogging is any indication…


I would say that life gets busier as the twins hit toddlerhood. I used to have time to blog but now, I take 30 minutes to check Facebook before I go to bed and that’s the extent of my online presence. I’m not sure where time went. It seems to run through my fingers like water, one day after the next.

Here’s what a day looks like when I work. I work 3 days a week.

5:15 Wake-up. That’s an hour earlier than the children. I need the hour to wake-up before the children descend on the kitchen. Believe me, this makes me a better person. During this hour, I drink my coffee and maybe do a bit of non-demanding work like formatting my writing portfolio. Most of the time, I read the paper and check what happened on Facebook overnight.

Blogging: early in the morning or late at night
Blogging: early in the morning or late at night

6:00 My three teenagers wake-up. No, scratch that. My two oldest teenagers wake-up. Their sister sleeps through the alarm, the pots and pans, and a nuclear apocalypse.

During the weekend, I make cookie dough that I roll into logs and refrigerate, kind of like a homemade Pillsbury cookie thing. As the kids get-up, I bake cookies for their lunches. It makes them better people.

6:15 The teenagers descend on the kitchen and start making breakfast and putting their lunches together. If they are in a good mood, this can be a pleasant time. When the grocery is running low, it is very unpleasant.

6:30 I realize that the youngest of the three teenagers is missing-in-action. I send someone, usually me, to wake her up.  She looks at me with eyes wide open, she may even answer me. It doesn’t mean that she is awake.

6:45 The younger four start waking-up in no set order. This is when the fun begins. Except that it’s not always fun. I may or may not have a series of temper tantrums over this or that. I may wonder why they didn’t stay in bed, as I would if I was still tired. Mystery.

Between 6:30 and 7:20, I start harassing my teenagers to do their morning chores. They need to empty the dishwasher (so I can fill it), feed the dog (so it can go out to poop) and take the dog out to poop (so she can go in her crate for the day). This is the part where they start complaining about the unfairness of life: what, you mean that our meals are cooked, our bills are paid, and we have to empty the clean dishwasher?? What’s next? Put away the laundry that is washed for us??

If the twins are still sleeping, I have time to have a shower. If not, it will have to wait until everybody is off to school.

7:00 My spider-sense alerts me to the fact that I have not yet seen my youngest teenager. If we’re lucky, she’s up and getting dressed. If not watch-out because the bus comes in 20 minutes. She will touch down in the kitchen like a tornado and in a whirlwind of orders, barked and otherwise, will get ready to go to school. She may accusingly declare that since I made her in such a way that she doesn’t wake-up at the sound of the alarm, it is my responsibility to ensure that she is up and dressed at a reasonable time. Yeah, my kids say funny stuff like that all the time. The problem is that they believe it.

Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.
Unhappy camper, up 8 minutes before the bus.

The twins are getting up. I nurse them and give them breakfast. Oatmeal with fruits or cold cereals with fruits and yogourt.

7:30 The first batch of children is off to school. I realize that my elementary school kids are still snoozing. Crap. I keep promising myself to get them up at 7:00.

My 4 year-old demands a “giant hug”. This means that I must sit on the couch with her for as long as her Hugness desires. It’s a pit stop for physical affection: when the tank is full, she drives away.

Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. "You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!"
Giant hugs. Sometimes I sub-contract them. “You! Sit on the couch with your sister and give her a hug!”

I rotate between helping the younger children with their breakfast and making 3 lunches. Our lunches consist of a main meal (sandwich, pizza made on naan bread, pasta with cheese…), a fruit, cookies, juice or water in a bottle and a snack like yogourt, apple sauce or popcorn (we have a corn popper. My neighbour wasn’t able to sell it at her garage sale 15 years ago so she gave it to me. Best money I never spent: we use it daily).

By now, the twins are done with breakfast and covered in yogourt or oatmeal. _MG_9284

Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.
Once a week, I make a giant batch of crepe batter. The older kids make their own crepes in the morning. It makes them better people.

_MG_9313

8:00 I start giving my kids the final bus countdown. “20 minutes until you walk away!” I busy myself with a game of kids-whack-a-mole: lunch! socks! uniforms! Baby in the dishwasher! Lunch! _MG_9281

8:20 I shoo my elementary school kids off to school. This usually involve a mad rush for matching shoes  and a desperate cry for “Did you sign my tests?” followed by a flurry of papers being pulled out of the bag as I am trying to push stuff into the bag. Chaos ensues.

8:21 The second batch of kids are gone. I take a deep breath and feel like a deserve a drink. I have a condescending thought for all the people who think that 8:30 am is early. Normally, I should be getting in the car to go to work. More likely though, I am still un-showered and in my pjs. My husband comes out of his home office and asks: “Aren’t you going to work?” I reply: “Of course I am, why are you asking?”

8:30 Showered, sort of dressed, hair…. bah. Whatever. I look for my daughter’s socks. I pick the first two. They never match. One day, I gave her matching socks and she laughed. She doesn’t even know that socks come in matching pairs, this child of the Hand-Me-Downs. Manage expectations People, this will keep you sane. I look at what my daughter is wearing. It usually involves layers, textures and patterns. Lots of patterns. I tell my husband that the Montessori teachers must appreciate the fact that she dresses entirely on her own. He doubts it. IMG_2783

8:40 The “You’re late” school bus drives by my house. That’s the bus I’m never supposed to see because I’m supposed to be long gone, driving my daughter to preschool. We get in the van and drive away.

8:50 Drop-off at preschool.

9:30 I get to work. I write correspondence for a federal Member of Parliament. What this means is that when people write to their MP, I answer. My boss reads my replies and edits them as needed. I can tell how his week is going by the amount of edits. He can probably do the same. I work 3 days a week. On the days I am not at work, I would be going for a run with the twins and my dog.

2:30 I get off work, pick-up a few food items on my way to preschool, pick-up my daughter and possibly other people too. There is a graph that explains when and where I am to pick up which child on any given day. It was trained into me. “This is not a drill, soldier. This is a live project. You’re a go.” (Except that Matt Damon  is not in the van with me).

4:00 I get home with my daughter. The teens are already home. The twins are crazy cranky and initiate the whole whine-and-cheese fest for mom. I nurse one while the other has a complete meltdown. I nurse the other. If I am lucky, I still have some frozen meals prepared. If not, I have to make supper while my three younger children compete to see who can drive mom nuts the fastest to the most spectacular effect. I play a game of kids-whack-a-mole involving serving 4 different snacks while trying to keep the twins from doing what twins do best: induce chaos. With one hand, I make supper while keeping the kids from raiding the fridge with the other hand, and closing the cupboard doors with the other hand, while retrieving the hand-mixer with the other hand, while getting a twin out of the (stored) deep-fryer with the other hand, while grabbing a juice bottle just before the other twin pours it on his face with the other hand. Twin whack-a-mole is a fun game except that my sense of humour is deficient.

I usually end-up with a cranky kid on my back. IMG_2776

5:15 I fix myself a double cappuccino. For the second half of the day.

5:30 or 6:30 We eat. And by “eat” I mean that I stuff my face with one hand while feeding the twins with the other. My husband and teenagers are trying to have an intelligent conversation about world events while the younger children exercise their right to free expression. My husband tries to tell me something. It usually ends with “….nevermind, I’ll tell you in 25 years.”

6:30 The twins have their baths and get ready for bed. I get the 4 younger children cleaned and ready for bed while my husband cleans the kitchen. On any given day, there is a waltz of activities and teens comings-and-goings. By 7:00 pm, the twins are down and we get bedtime routines started for the next 2. My husband and 7 year-old son are reading The Chronicles of Narnia together. I go lie down with my 4 year-old until she settles enough to fall asleep. This may require a few stories and more songs. I may go a little nuts as I sit there with her, mentally running through my to-do list like an endless reel.

8:30 By now, the four youngest children are asleep for sure. We cycle laundry, finish cleaning the kitchen. My husband and I often go for coffee or ice cream in the evening if the house is somewhat under control. Or we may go on a grocery date. I know, so hot!

10:00 pm Ideally, we would go to bed now. In reality, we can still be found chatting with our teenagers or wasting time watching a movie (him) or checking social media (me). This is when, in theory, I would be blogging but I’m not.

11:00 pm One of the twins wakes-up. Usually Lucas. I nurse him back to sleep for the night and go to bed.

3:00-4:00 am The other twin wakes-up.  I nurse her back to sleep. Return to bed. Find the 4 year-old curled-up in my place. Return her back to her bed (located right at the foot of mine, it’s a short push and a shove).

5:15 am The next day….