Wednesday, March 23, 2016

In Praise of Homework

On a regular basis, I come face to face with articles telling me that homework is not helping my children. These pieces are laced with strong feelings about the value of childhood and playtime and the complaint from parents that they don't want to spend their after school time 'fighting' with their kiddos to complete the assignments that have been sent home in their backpacks.
I have many friends who feel inclined to take the homework packet and chuck it directly from the take-home folder into the recycling bin. I hear these stories and then proceed to keep my mouth zipped tightly shut. I am not looking to start a fight, but I can't help but vehemently disagree with the 'anti-homework' movement. In my experience, some children may actually need homework to thrive.

I concede that homework may not be for every child, but it is certainly a necessity for at least one of my children. Now at the age of 9, my oldest and I have had years of negotiating after-school routines. I have found that our happiest days incorporate a very rigorous homework schedule; just the opposite of what is advocated by the 'no-homework' movement. Although there are probably some kids who would use their after school time to play outside, create artistic masterpieces, or challenge themselves with advanced reading and writing, my kid is not one of those. My child would choose instead to spend any and all extra unstructured free-time playing video games and lounging on the couch until dinner or even bedtime. And I am certain that he isn't the only one. Giving him the freedom to 'just be a child' is not helping fact, I am pretty sure that left unchecked it will cause more harm than good in the long term.

Homework serves many purposes in our household aside from the skills that they are intended to strengthen. First and foremost, homework gives me insight into what my children are learning at school. By sitting with my kids or at least being present while they are completing their take-home assignments I can see where they are struggling and where they are excelling. When I know where the point of struggle comes from, it allows me to step in and 'guide' them through the learning process to help ease the stress and frustration that comes along with a difficult task. I don't give my children the answers, I just help them to think about their assignments in a different way and offer alternative suggestions on how to achieve success. This has helped my reluctant learner to become more confident and engaged academically and has helped my younger learner to feel comfortable sharing learning suggestions with others in her class that may also be struggling with the same concepts. When I know where they are excelling, it allows me to offer my kids greater opportunities for learning that keep them challenged and engaged. This helps to eliminate the boredom that comes along with mastery. It gives us the opportunity to discuss, together, the 'bigger picture' of the target subject (beyond just grade-level) and for the kids to choose for themselves how they would like to progress. For my oldest, it usually means  learning math concepts that involve algebra, geometry and basic calculus since grade-level math (adding, subtracting, and multiplication) is no longer interesting. Without the homework, I would not know where their individual skill levels fall in relation to what is happening in class. I actually give my kids additional homework to help them explore subjects that they are passionate about...and they like it.

For me as a parent, homework is also the tool that I  use to keep my children engaged in learning even when school is over for the day. That is a pretty important skill to master; as important as unstructured play. I have seen very clearly that our society puts a weak (at best) emphasis on life long learning. Since I am in disagreement with this as well, it is natural that I find myself opposed to the 'no homework' mindset. Moreover, I feel that free time should be a chance to learn about all of the things that interest you but that you didn't have the ability to study during the hours of the day that were set aside for structured, goal-oriented learning. Homework sets a precedent that just because the school day is done, it doesn't mean that learning should stop. This is a skill that I wish more adults possessed as well.

Homework offers some structure and routine to after school free-time. I find it interesting that so many people argue for a lack of structure in free-time for elementary aged children when it is so obvious how important structure and routine are for pre-schoolers and toddlers. Elementary aged kiddos still thrive on routine. They like consistency. For us, homework lessens the anxiety that comes along with too much free choice. Trust me, that sounds ridiculous, even to me....but I still believe it to be true. The school days that do not involve homework evoke a different 'feel' and often, my children are more likely to mill about fighting with each other; uncertain of what their role is in this unstructured time. Because homework is such a part of our daily ritual, my kids will now assign themselves their own version of 'homework' if none has been assigned to them. They find it comforting. Homework is used as a transition time between 'school time' and 'home time'.

Elementary school homework is the 'soft' transition into accountability. If you think it is hard to get your kiddos to do their assignments now, just wait until middle school or high school when after-school work begins to take an hour or more to complete rather than 10 minutes. I don't believe that you are doing your children any favors by delaying this inevitability. Again, homework establishes the routine that will become a common, unavoidable theme later in life.

 Lastly, I believe that homework sets a precedence for responsibility. As a parent, if you are taking your child's homework and throwing it away, it is telling your child that it is okay to give the finger to work that you don't agree with. Honestly, there are many times that I would like to do the same thing with my work. However, if I started to chuck every work assignment that I didn't agree with or thought was boring, I would eventually be fired. The homework that your child is bringing home in elementary school is the easiest that it will ever be in their entire life and it is your chance as a parent to start instilling a sense of responsibility for completing the task (however mundane) that is assigned to them.

Obviously, I am expecting a lot of mixed feedback regarding my own personal opinion on the subject. I am not saying that homework is right for every family, but I am tired of hearing that is wrong as well. Ultimately, parents are as responsible as schools in the education of their children and it will be up to each family to decide what the important things in life are. In our family, we place a high value education. Homework helps us to strengthen our familial bonds around this fundamental core value. Please stop telling me that I am harming my children by asking them to be active, life-long learners.

Friday, March 11, 2016

From now on, I am always going to wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook

We all have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, we feel the need to keep in touch with one another and on the other, we want our privacy. Most of my 'friends' are so different from me, that if we were forced to hang out with each other in real life, the chances of us finding anything in common to talk about would be in the fractions of a percentile. If you have 'made' friends with enough people on Facebook, eventually you will find that your feed has a birthday reminder popping up just about every day of the year. It is pretty easy to skim past it and not acknowledge the person who is celebrating because maybe in a strange way, it feels too personal to wish someone a happy birthday....especially a person who may be a long lost acquaintance and nothing more...especially if it is a 'friend' who is a lurker; someone who logs in on the FB but never comments, never posts and never interacts....Ever.
  But today, I learned my lesson the hard way.
I don't throw parties. I never throw parties. I hate throwing parties. For the most part I am a social introvert. People scare me. Even my friends scare me. But this year, I decided to go out on a limb and invite my friends and 'friends' on a camping trip out to the desert. March is a shitty month for having a birthday. It ranks up there with November as The Worst Month on Record for having any type of outdoor party....and our house is too small for much of an indoor event.  So, I decide that to celebrate, I am going to have a camp out at the only place I know of where the weather is mostly reliable this time of the year. Its a place out in the Washington desert that I have been visiting for a long time and a place where I feel pretty comfortable. And it is beautiful. And there is climbing and hiking and bird watching and a bunch of other stuff that a person can do if they decide to make the short drive. It seemed like the best bet I could think of for an 'easy sell' to even my most reluctant friends.
  Except that, even though we have been making the day trip out to this climbing area since January (because it is sunny and warm and dry), on this particular weekend (which also happens to be my birthday), the weather has turned to shit and the forecast calls for wind, rain and less than ideal temps. So, this person (me) who never throws a party and decides to throw a party, has to cancel said party. This person (again, me) cannot convince even her best of friends that it could possibly be a good idea to make this trip happen. The one notable exception to this being her steadfast husband who smartly decides to remain neutral in this situation.
  Canceling your own birthday party feels 'cry in the shower all morning and try and pull yourself together' sort of shitty. It shouldn't be a big deal. I keep telling myself this. "Whatever, the weather is will be better some other time". But I know myself, and the likelihood of me having enough courage to actually ask people to do something for me on my behalf again in the near future is slim to diminishing. It isn't gonna happen.
And then I turn on Facebook. And for some stupid, crazy reason, it makes me feel better to see all of the birthday wishes pouring in on my page. It's kind of lame, I know. And at the same time, it isn't lame at all. It is like opening little packages of happiness. And suddenly, I don't feel so bad about having to cancel my own party because none of these people would have been able to come anyway and they are still taking the time to tell me that they love me. And that is a pretty special thing.
So from now on, I am going to return the favor. Even if it is a person that I may never see again in my entire life, I am going to take 30 seconds out of my day to wish them a Happy Birthday. Maybe if they are having a sucky day,  it will help them to have a better one....even if it is for a minute. Because everyone deserves a little love on the day they were born....everyone.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All Hail

how lonely without the moon

if it were gone, would we finally realize
our limited size

or would desperation arise
from a lack of companion

to hurtle together with intertwined orbits
repulsed and attracted by internal forces;

could we navigate the oceans
without their tides to drive us?
and when seeing the stars,
would they compel us to madness

with the urge to reach out
and prove to ourselves
that we are not alone
entangled in darkness
with only a sad song of patriotism
to guide us
on this delicate jewel;
our only home

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2016 Raised Beds

People are always interested in building raised beds. Like any gardening project, there are pros and cons to all options. Here are the upsides and downsides to putting in raised beds and some things to be aware of that will help keep them in good condition for the long run.
First, consider the materials that you will be using in the construction of a raised bed. Oftentimes people will go with the least expensive wood option (usually pine or fir). This, however, is not the best choice for durability. Since raised beds hold large quantities of frequently moist soils, fir and pine boards are prone to rot from the inside out; often degrading in a matter of two or three seasons. Since replacing rotted boards is very difficult without removing large quantities of soil from the interior of the bed, it is better to spend a little extra money at the beginning of the project to purchase rot-resistant wood (such as cedar) or a manufactured product (such as Trex). Sometimes, people will treat pine or fir with a wood sealer in the hope that it will eliminate the decay process. This only delays the inevitable for a short period of time and also exposes your soil to unnecessary chemicals. Under no circumstances should you use railroad ties or treated wood for vegetable beds. These products contain hazardous anti-fungal agents that should not come into contact with soil that is used for growing produce.
Second, consider why a raised bed is advantageous in your circumstance versus an in-ground garden.  One reason that a raised bed may be a suitable choice is the need for soil remediation. Most of the greater Wenatchee valley has transitioned from old orchards into housing and lawns. As a result, residual chemical residue may remain in the soil (arsenic) from previous land-use practices. Raised beds allow you to garden above this contaminated soil and essentially gives you a ‘fresh start’. Also, with proper pre-construction planning, the bottom of a raised bed can be lined with galvanized steel hardware cloth which can keep pests such as gophers and moles from reaching your tender carrots and baby beans and peas. An unwanted side effect of a raised bed is that it can be difficult to keep weed free if proper care is not taken during installation. Stubborn grasses tend to find a way to wind their roots through the cracks and seams where the corners of the bed meet. It can be very difficult to remove all of the grass runners once they become established. It also takes extra effort to maintain the outer edges of a raised bed. For a neat appearance, careful weed whipping is needed to avoid damaging the side boards. An alternative approach is to create gravel pathways between multiple raised beds. This is easier to maintain than a lawn pathway.
Finally, a last consideration is performance. For those who have mobility or flexibility issues, it is possible to build raised beds that are elevated and within easy reach of a person who cannot kneel or is confined to a wheelchair. The trade-off to this is that the garden itself is limited in area to that of the raised bed. There is no easy way to expand the garden once the beds are built. Raised beds also require that the gardener maintain a healthy soil and add nutrients often to keep the raised bed fertile. Without regular attention, the soil can become ‘tired’ and less productive. 

Whatever type of garden you create for yourself, may you find hours of enjoyment from your decision. Happy Gardening.

2016 Foothills Magazine

Here's a link to the recent gardening article in Foothills Magazine. It is always an honor to be included in fun projects like this!