"I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." -Richard Dawkins

Monday, January 21, 2013

What the Curriculum Looks Like

Everyone (and I mean everyone) knows that I have been fretting over homeschooling for an age. The first steps were easy. Send in the LOI. Send in the IHIP. Don't send kid back to school after Christmas break. That was the simple part. But then...?

I had, seriously, no idea what to do as far as curriculum was concerned. As I've stated before, we have a lot of learning materials in this house. I mean, a lot. A lot. But I had no idea how I was going to splice them together and create something workable, or how I was going to supplement what I didn't have. Frankly, at this juncture, I'm not sure why I was so panicky, but I realize not every mom who launches into this is going to have all this amazing stuff on hand simply because she always knew she'd want to have it on hand. (That's my excuse. If I saw it, and I knew in my lizard brain that I'd need it, I'd get it.) I have always had this undercurrent of you will homeschool that I have never quite ignored, no matter what. This has always been the plan. And I have never been more thankful for that subconscious knowledge!

So I thought I'd put together a list of our materials for Moms who need a clue. I know I needed a clue, so I'm hoping this will help someone.

The most important part of all of this is that I keep record (in a day planner) of everything she does, every day. This helps me keep track of where she is, what she's done, and what we have left to work on. I have a checklist I've made of what needs to be covered this grade, which I pieced together using the New York State core curriculum standards, as well as resources such as What Your First Grader Needs to Know.

First Grade 

We work through these at her pace, which is pretty fast. Usually 4-6 pages a day with auxiliary instruction where required on the whiteboard or scrap paper.

We read every day, that's the most important part. She reads, and I read. Sometimes my reading is followed by listening comprehension questions if I feel like she needs to sharpen her focus, other times I just let her listen for listening's sake. We have a home library of roughly 700 books, so it's not hard to just pick something up and roll.

I made flash cards that we add to every time we learn something new from the books. She loves them. Just like with Math, we go through these books at her own pace.

All of this is constantly supplemented with hands-on experiments, all the time.

Social Studies
I found this one the hardest to find a kickoff point from. I wound up going with the NY core, which has mostly self/community and map/geography as the 1st grade standards.

Art is all about discovery this year, I have no set curriculum for it and that's fine. Every week we're working with a different medium, sometimes it's more arts-based (watercolors, colored pencil, etc.) and sometimes it's more craft based (knitting, sewing, multi-media, etc.) As we move into world cultures I will create projects to complement where in the world we're learning about.

For the first two weeks we had classical music on all the time (I keep the Nook plugged in at our work table, helps if I need to Wikipedia something really quickly, and also I have Pandora on pretty much all the time.) Once we start moving into the world cultures I'll be making stations of cultural music to complement where in the world it is we're learning about.

Phys Ed
  • Weekly Gymnastics classes.
  • Yoga indoors when too cold outside. (Shanti Generation Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers on Netflix.)
  • Outside for at least a half an hour when cold, much much more when warm.
  • Free dancing (typically combined with Music-time.)
  • We have a park with a playground in walking distance, for the warm months.

Following the state core in sporadic units (not daily.) For adults all of these things should be teachable without a curriculum as they are mostly common sense, hehe. Topics include fire safety and prevention, bicycle and roadway safety, nutrition, cooking, basic hygiene, and health care. 

Home Ec
It feels silly to even quite include this at her age, but I find I include her more in chores now that she's home. I have stuff I need to get done, and she's home to help, so she does. She puts her own laundry away, helps me fold cleaning rags and things and put them in their homes. She washes some dishes, tidies up around the house and takes responsibility for her bedroom. She also feeds the cats daily and gives them fresh water. In addition to chores, she helps with cooking and I have been teaching her basic knife skills, to complement this. She makes grocery lists and crosses off items when we're in the store. In the winter she helps with shoveling and salting, in the warm months helps with gardening.

  • Gymnastics.
  • Girl Scouts.

End of Year Testing

So that's that, and I hope it helps some frantic someone out there who has no idea what to do with themselves!

Just keep telling yourself; I've got this.

Caution: Homeschooling in Progress

Homeschooling is awesome. My mind is blown over how awesome it is. In science spent the first two weeks exploring molecules, heat and cold, and the water cycle- and how they all link into one another. From rock candy to rain in a jar, oil and water to observing evaporation. So much fun to be had in the kitchen, you guys.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Better Than Expected

The first of the year was a massive shift in reality for us. So many things had happened in December, and they escalated into the decision being made to finally- (finally-) take on homeschooling. Oh, was I ever terrified. Somewhere between sending the paperwork in to the superintendent and not having the kiddo's stuff from her desk at school back yet, I had a minor panic attack. I can't be sure why, but I did. But the letter of acceptance came back fine, she and her dad went to get her stuff out of her desk at school. Everything ironed out and on the first, we began lessons. I know they tell you to unschool for a month, to kind of let the kids find their own groove again, but Ro was so adamant about homeschooling, ready to roll, eager to freakin' go go go go! So I decided that she could have that week and a half off, between when they let out for Christmas, and New Year's, and then we'd launch into lessons from there.

Talk about freaking out, I didn't have anything established, even though we are laden with learning materials in this house. Our home library is an impressive home library. It took me the better part of five days, and a trip to Barnes & Noble, before I had my ducks in a row, but I did it. We're fifteen days in now, and I can't even begin to tell you what a load off this has been.

I love that the frantic hustle is gone- no waking up at 6:30am, get dressed! bus stop! Where is your other SHOE? No need to holler and threaten Ro into bed at seven every night, no need to have homework done, and where is your folder, and what is this permission slip, I didn't see this, and what do you mean tomorrow's the book fair, oh, Daddy's going to have to run to the ATM ... No, instead we have nice evenings together. Have a little ice cream if you'd like, let's watch Treasure Planet on the sofa together, let's not worry that it'll be 10:00pm when it's over. We'll just start a little later tomorrow, that's all.

It's so much easier for us all to sleep in a little, wake up, have breakfast together, and ease into lessons once we're all dressed and our eyes are peeled all the way open, (hello coffee, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again.)

I am magnificently lucky to be good friends with four homeschooling Moms on Livejournal, totaling fifteen children. Witnessing their journeys from day one has perhaps been one of the greatest resources available to a person. Now, I'm honored to be among them, and to add my wisdom to the pot.

Overall, I have, perhaps, only one thing to say about this whole thing:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Dinosaur Comes to Troy

While we're on the topic of Troy, check out this interview I did for KFP magazine with the manager of Dinosaur BBQ in the weeks before their grand opening...

 For the families that live in downtown Troy, the city can be a bit of a mixed bag. Though the gorgeous architectural examples of its glory days are abundant, many of them are sadly also abandoned, run down, or otherwise left to collect dust. The revitalization of Troy is forty years in the making now, and examples of urban renewal come and go with the passage of time.

The building that many of us young families knew as Fresno’s on the River has sat empty for several years now, its patio silent as it looked out over the waters of the Hudson, leaving us with nothing but memories of having drank and dined there with friends when we were younger. But then in the summer of 2009, the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que stomped in on its t-rex legs with a big plan. They were going to open their fourth location in that old building, bringing the quiet bend in River Street back up to speed.
I had the opportunity to visit the restaurant in the scramble before their grand opening on November 9th. General Manager Brian Lomnicki sat down with me to talk about the food, the location, and the unique aspect of the building renovations.
Though the whole mess started with a 55-gallon drum cut in half at the Harley Rendezvous in Mariaville, it’s clear that the vision has far exceeded those humble origins. Though there are now four locations across the state of New York, the building in Troy brings something a little more special. It isn’t just the gorgeous view of the river that sets it apart. “This bar is made of old beams from our Harlem location,” Brian tells me, gesturing to the long slab of wood, burned in with kitchy tattoo motifs. “And the backdrop [behind it] was reclaimed from a hotel in Buffalo, it’s from the 1800’s.”
The bar isn’t the only thing that was reclaimed, however. From the wide plank flooring, still sporting its old paint, to the metalwork and antique leaded stained glass windows that hang and work as decorative dividers, there are few things in the restaurant that weren’t rescued from New York scrapyards by the owner himself. The building is a bit of an altar to the recycled, everything hand-picked by the owner, who, Brian says, loves to get dirty and get involved.
And the atmosphere is nothing to spit a bone out at, either. The loud, funky, eclectic energy is great for kids, especially, Brian tells me, teenagers. “We have live music here three times a week, and out on the patio during the warmer months. We showcase local bands.” If parents wanted to encourage a safe gig to let their kids meet their friends, have a soda and rock out, this is the way to do it; while mom and dad are sitting just far away enough to strike that perfect balance between independence and safety.

While mom and dad are enjoying the 25 brews on tap, including those from such local breweries as Brown’s and Ommegang, the kids can appreciate the Saranac Root Beer that they keep on tap as well; an easy way for them to feel a little grown up. 
“Families love coming here because it’s out of the ordinary. It’s really the only place where they can eat with bikers, who are eating with businessmen in suits, who are eating with grandma and grandpa. Everyone’s here for the same reason. Good food.”
And what about the name? I had to know. “It’s about the size of the portions.” Another employee tells me with a laugh. “You know at the beginning of The Flintstones when Fred orders that rack of ribs that’s the size of his car? It’s that caveman mentality, just eating the meat right off the bones.”

Originally written for Kids Fun Plaza magazine on 11/2010. Yes, I own my content.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Not So Black Friday

This year my mother said to me, for I swear to you the first time ever, "I want to go to Toys R Us. They open at 10." I had to do a brief mental re-cap of the day. Yes, we'd been gone for nine hours, yes, we'd taken a road trip into the middle of nowhere for Thanksgiving Dinner, hold on, this is Black Friday shopping we're talking about? Something we've never ever done? And you want to start now?

Was she seriously out of her mind?

 My mother, you understand, is not often the impulsive type. She has her comfort zones and she likes to remain safely within them. One year I actually had to remove her physically from the house (I mean, pick her up and carry her,) to come see Harry Potter with me. So for her to say this was in no uncertain terms a moment I did not want to waste.

So at quarter to ten that night we set out, in nowhere near enough clothing, to the Toys R Us. No parking spots, we had to park across the street in another complex. We walked. Not to the front of the building. Not to the side of the building. But to the back of the building, with the hobos, and the stock trailers. (See image!) Thirty-three degrees out and windy, we were so wishing we'd stopped off for some low-class gas station coffee before launching into this endeavor. And me, in boots with 1" heels!

What were we thinking?

Ladies, we were in that line for two hours. But here's the twist. I found community right there in the huddled masses who are often depicted on late-night news broadcasts as vicious and violent- nay- we were at the back of the line with those others resigned to being the last ones in. We were patient, and as a result, we made friends.

"Single-serving friends" we like to call them, a phrase taken from Fight Club, but friends they were nonetheless. Such a rare thing to find our solidarity in complete strangers from our town. We discussed much, from our kids to our piercings- shared umbrellas when it began to sleet and the world was looking bleak. We cheered together as we passed milestones around the building (the corner! the trailer! the bush!)

And when we finally made it through those doors it was as a unified front- no every man for himself here. We were on the same side. "I hope you find your castle!" The one mom called to me as we parted ways.
"Thanks!" I replied. And I didn't, but thanks. Because you changed the idea of what Black Friday meant to me.

There is community anywhere you look.

Originally written for the Kids Fun Plaza blog on 12/10/2010. Yes, I own my content.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


It’s the Holiday Season, and as all of us are gearing up for our feast days and celebrations, gathering around with families in the warmth of our homes and stocking our pantries for big dinners, there are people out there who are going without.

It is not my intention to bring a sobriety to anyone’s joy this month. We’re faced with enough of that with every food drive, toy drive and bell ringer we encounter from now until the new year. But it is my intention to give a moment of pause to the reality of the world out there, and I hope you’ll read this and do the same.

Our economy has taken a nosedive in the past few years, and though it’s the natural ebb and flow of things, it doesn’t make it less hard. I speak from experience. Many families just like yours and mine are facing hard times. Not enough money for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, or even, perhaps, for groceries this week.

With these people in mind, I headed out to the Jonesville United Methodist Church in Clifton Park to talk with the ladies who run the weekly food pantry. The Helping Hands Food Pantry has had its doors open to the community for thirty-eight years, and they’re still going strong. They serve all families in the Shenendehowa school district, but will never turn away anyone who needs help, no matter where they’re from.

“We once had someone come from Troy,” said Sandy, the director. “We’ll give them help once, and supply them with the information for food pantries in their own area.” She went on to tell me that they help about two-hundred families a month. A staggering number, when you think about the size of Clifton Park, and the average demographic of their families.

When I spoke with Pat, another worker, she acknowledged sadly that since the economy shift she’s seen more and more families needing to come in for help. “It’s rewarding to be able to help the same people time and time again.” She said, but admits it’s hard to see those families go on needing this kind of assistance for so long.

“We’re able to be generous because the community is generous,” Sandy says, as she explains that at this food pantry, patrons are able to fill a whole shopping cart with goods, whereas most pantries simply offer a single box. As I tour the kitchen and stock rooms, I see what she means. Donations from local Price Choppers, Stewarts Shops and Pepperidge Farms crowd shelves and tabletops, along with the some thousand pounds of food they purchase each week from the regional food bank with donation money.

Even schools, postal workers, and the Boy Scouts work hard throughout the year to bring in donations for the pantry. The Scouts are especially active. “We have birthday boxes that they put together for us,” Pat explains with a smile. “They have cake mix and candles and some plates and napkins and things for a party, that way if anyone comes in and says, ‘my child’s birthday is coming up,’ we can give them that.”

As I stand there talking to these women, I take note of the people I’m surrounded by. Serving twenty to thirty-six families a week, it’s easy to see that I could be among them. Each and every woman here is like me, mothers struggling to get meals on the table. I take special note of one mother who has her sixteen year old daughter with her, and that daughter has her new baby with her. Three generations looking to catch a break. I feel for them- I have three generations in my own house and we’re in the very same boat.

The Capital District is full of these organizations, programs for the community, by the community. If you or anyone you know is having a hard time making ends meet this holiday season, please; avail yourselves. “There shouldn’t be [any stigma].” Pat says gently when I mention that many women are too proud to seek help for their families. Worse still for the men of the house. “That’s what we’re here for.”

For information about the Food Pantry that will serve your address call: Food Pantries for the Capital District M-F 8:30am to 4pm (518) 458 -1167 or visit http://www.foodpantries.net/

For a full list of area locations offering free Thanksgiving dinners for families in need, visit WTEN’s comprehensive listing at http://www.wten.com/global/story.asp?s=11576954

Originally written for Kids Fun Plaza magazine on 11/21/2011. Yes, I own my content.

A Real Thanksgiving

To say that the American tradition of Thanksgiving is 'fake' would be wrong. The Thanksgiving we have created here in the states is our own. It is a testament to our ability to merge cultures and celebrations, myths and legends, into something we identify ourselves with. Thanksgiving is purely American- but it's also purely inaccurate. This post is about green living because it is about locavorism- after a fashion.

The cranberries and potatoes we associate with our national Thanksgiving day are sort of hogwash. They are our tradition, to be sure, and thusly endeared to us, but they are by no means what was so. I link closely the idea of eco-friendliness with history, because in the time before now, people didn't know how not to be eco-friendly. When all you have is the earth to live off of, all you can do is live green.

So if the northern contemporaries of John Smith and Pocahontas weren't chowing down on turkey, what were they eating? Last year I attempted to add an element of history and locality to our own Thanksgiving day feast, by incorporating a roast of elk which friends of ours had hunted themselves. (See the suspicious brown stuff in the image above!) I hardly think there was anything more local, with a smaller carbon footprint, than that!

If you're interested in incorporating an element of history and locavorism into your Thanksgiving day, here are a few colonial British and Native American dishes you can cook up with your children to teach them about the foods that the settlers and natives would have been growing in their very back yards. 

Succotash (from the from Narragansett language's msíckquatash, meaning "boiled corn kernels") is a traditional Native American dish of corn and beans, (traditionally lima.) It would have been cooked with a touch of animal fat and served as is.

 Johnny Cakes, as they are often called, are a grilled flatbread made of cornmeal. Fried in the grease of cooked meat, they were made out of the hand-pounded corn that had been grown all year and stored away for winter. They were cooked often for the sugaring time when the tribes would make their maple syrup. They are still traditionally eaten this way.

And to create a Pumpkin Soup would have been the both the stubborn pride and sad shame of any colonial British woman, for pumpkins were so ubiquitous in New England that they were considered a poor man's food. However, they are delicious, and a soup made from them makes a delicious first course.

Originally written for the Kids Fun Plaza magazine blog on 11/4/2010. Yes, I own my content.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Zombie Princess Aurora

Okay, it's definitely no surprise to anyone here that I dislike frilly pink princess culture. I have slathered my blog in anti-princess fervor like one slathers Kerrygold on bread. But this year, and just this once, I thought- I will indulge my daughter. I will indulge her fantasies. I will give her what she insists on loving, because I love her. Just this once.

And though she kept changing her mind about what she wanted to be, (a punk fairy, a vampire, a princess, a bride, a ghost, Merida, a candy fairy, a cupcake fairy, a rainbow fairy, Ghoulia Yelps, I mean, it was a really bad idea for me to let her look through the Wishcraft catalog whenever it arrived...) I thought, when I surprise her with this Sleeping Beauty dress, she'll be thrilled. So thrilled!

So I bought it, in all its horrible polyester made in China glory, and I showed it to her, and I was like, "LOOK! LOOK! Look what Mommy got you!" and she- you guys, she sneered. She wrinkled up her perfect little nose and said, "...I wanted to be a zombie."

I just about cried.

"Well..." I said hopefully, and probably in vain, "what if you were... a zombie Princess Aurora? Like, what if the prince never came to kiss Sleeping Beauty and she just wound up rotting away right there?" And her whole face lit up like a Christmas Tree.

"YEAH." She said. "I wanna do that!"

So that, my friends, is what she did.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Here is something I will not lie to you about; the deep, unwavering importance (to me) of Ken Burns three and a half hour long epic about Lewis and Clark. I mean, just the name Ken Burns gives me a thrill- I get all worked up! "Oh, Ken Burns! What is it this time?!" and then I find out it's baseball and oh man, I so don't care about that, but I know that for people who do care about baseball, Ken Burns does it more justice- the most justice- than anyone else.

I first encountered Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery while sick with strep throat, home from school at the age of thirteen. PBS was running it back to back, over and over again- a marathon of America (Amerithon?) for 24 hours- maybe even 48. It was during a fund drive. I kept my little 13" black and white TV on in my bedroom, just fading in and out of sleep, watching, not watching, listening, dreaming, soaking up the wonder of a group of men seeing the breadth of this land for the very first time.

I recently noticed that it was available on Netflix streaming, so I turned it on this morning, to act as background noise while packing (hence the title of this post,) but I find myself drawn to the sofa, sucked into the TV. It's been, oh my, fifteen years since I last saw it, and it seems all fresh and new again. Ken Burns brilliance, his artistic genius, shines through as clean and timeless as if it was made yesterday. It's my genuine hope that when Ro is old enough to appreciate history that it's still as enjoyable and fascinating and perfect as it is today- as it was that first time in 1997.

The boxes are getting filled, yes, I'm packing, yes, but I suspect I should turn on some mindless music if I want to stop getting absorbed by the television and actually get more done.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The City Year

It's been a year. A city year. A long year. A free year. It's been a turning point. A learning experience. A year ago today we were eating pizza on the living room floor, surrounded by cardboard boxes, the smell of fresh paint still hanging in the air. A year later, I find myself looking for boxes again, because we're leaving, and I'm not sorry. This was a great experience, living downtown. It was the most interesting time, and we learned so much.
  • Things will catch fire at 1, 3, 4, 6 and 9am. Be ready for sirens at all hours, (and when you live on 4th Street, those sirens are tearing past your windows, lady.)
  • You will have 93 pizza establishments to select from. Choose wisely. (Um, DeFazio's! Duh.)
  • Someone will get murdered in the middle of the street in the middle of the day, two blocks from your house. It will happen again two days later. Brace yourself.
  • Your house is one foot away from the house next door to you. That dude's cigarette smoke and football game both will filter out his bedroom window and straight into your dining room. (In fact, if you stand by your dinner table and look out your window, you can see him half naked, asleep on his bed. Awesome.)
  • You and everyone who comes over to your house will coin the phrase, "It's Troy out." because you'll be able to hear the neighbors out in the street screaming at one another at least once a week. Bonus points if the argument is about "bitches".
  • There's no such thing as "Hey, go play outside."
  • On the 3rd floor, you are at bird, wind and terrifyingly inclement weather altitude. Better hope your storm glass is closed and latched on every window.
  • On the 3rd floor, you are at crap the roof is leaking...
  • The wind will blow all of the litter in such a way that it puddles around your front stoop (no one else's!) Much like the Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • You are within walking distance of a bodega. Don't know what a bodega is? You don't belong here.
  • This is a three-college town. Just go ahead and steer clear of anywhere on a Saturday night.
  • And of course, the parking is all on street. Don't forget to memorize your litany of parking laws, because they will fine you hard if you manage to slip up.
All that aside though, I kind of love this place. Love the apartment. Love the architecture. Love the history. Love the view of Prospect Park. Love the way the wind pushes through the windows and washes the whole place out with fresh air. I make terrible fun, but I also adore, and while I had a great year here, it's time to move on. Salut, brownstone. We had a good year.