Satisfaction derived from one (novel) work in progress

Five weeks in, I’ve written 39,645 words. I’m working on a novel.

If I ever finish it, and then publish it, you should definitely read it.

39,645 ÷ 5 = 7929 words per week

7929 ÷ 7 ≅ 1133 words per day

Truthfully, I don’t know whether to crow about this rate of progress, or if I should be mildly—or wildly—embarrassed by my sloth. Remember, I’m a dilettante who hasn’t published much more than a blog.

Then again, the world can—and will—think what it wants. In the meantime, I shall carry on developing the imaginary universe I can’t help myself from inhabiting, trying to do justice to a scientific concept that my celebrated husband offered as a plot device.

I think it is working. The fact is ridiculously exciting.

On the evening of day 35, around page 170, I got to the good part. You know, that moment where a handful of threads are woven together, and one suddenly understands why we heard about this, then that, then the other thing… ?

Truthfully, I didn’t, myself, see all of it coming. My takeaway: writing fiction can be weird.

If I were a different kind of creature, perhaps I could keep up with regular installments for a diverting blog while crafting a novel clever people would feel compelled to read. My reality defies this notion. The same pool of energy feeds both projects.

Alas, poor readers! The novel wins.

Lately, the novel also encourages me to imbibe a glass of wine alongside the lighting of a five-armed, silver-plated candelabra from my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, so it’s kind of a strange beast. Either that, or I am the odd one, but don’t you like knowing you are reading a work composed on a laptop by candlelight? That’s not just me, is it?

I’d love to share the recent story of “My First Flight in the Era of the Novel Coronavirus” (hint: uneventful) or “Flying vs. Amtrak Reality for Those Who Take Delta Variant Seriously” (hint: airlines impose mask regulations more seriously than train conductors), but I am forced to choose.

Happily, the kids and I have made it across the USA and back into the physical presence of my father. He needs an elective-yet-function-improving surgery, he was waiting to have family around to get the thing done, and it’s a Really Wonderful Thing that we are here to support him through the process.

Today we had to change the bed sheets prior to surgery and he started bathing with the special, sticky, infection-defying soap. Now, how do we keep the dog off his bed until the incisions heal?

It’s also downright bizarre to be anywhere other than where we’ve been for the past 17 months or so. How often are the rest of you realizing how definitely we are living through Interesting Times? How often do you give thanks for the fact that you’re still around to notice said fact?

My personal answer to that last one: at least once daily.

It’s almost definitely good for my family to have its paradigm shifted at this point. I know that I have become a creature who might just as well never leave the house at all, if left to my own devices. That could likely earn me some kind of diagnosis from the DSM if I were inclined to seek professional opinions on the subject.

I’m not.

Lacking that kind of openness to criticism, I still know I benefit from noticing what’s different here (time zone, state, county, population density) vs. what’s the same. The part where the kids and I are living with Dad’s pandemic puppy is a learning experience.

While I grew up with pets, the last time I lived full time with any was a pair of cats in the 1990’s.

I was really worried that Dad wasn’t training his dog, but the pup is much better behaved than Dad’s most comedic text messages suggested. Phew!

Fear not, blog-reading friends. I am alive, healthy, and grateful for both of these things to be true. Here’s hoping that soon I’ll be begging you, my favorite audience, for beta readers for a dys-/utopian novel. Is anyone game?

May you all remain healthier than the arborvitae my dad put in his yard right before temps topped 116º F here. He’ll be lucky if 2/5 survive the summer, I’d guess. God willing, the delta variant will remain less deadly than that ratio.

Remote school works best for YOUR child? You have the RIGHT to continue!

Late spring polls—and the blessed waning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the USA, at leasthave prompted headlines like this one from the Boston Globe:

“After a difficult academic year, the majority of Mass. parents want in-person school this fall

Boston Globe article headline with "the majority" highlighted by this bloggerThat unambiguous headline hides the whopping 31% of parents who disagreed with the sentiment. Almost a third of the 1,619 parents polled by MassINC Polling Group are NOT eager for mandatory, full-time, in person education just a few short months from now.

That’s more than three out of every ten people. In my childhood classrooms that averaged around 30 kids, that would have meant nine or 10 were attending against their families’ best instincts. I don’t think numbers this significant can be dismissed as a “trivial” minority over whose preferences the majority can ride roughshod with impunity.

An earlier Gallup poll restricted to 14 to 18 year old high school students in the same state of Massachusetts showed similar dissonance with an equally head-scratching headline:

Few Massachusetts Students Prefer Remote Learning

The data in that case also shows that most people, shown a few narrow options, prefer to travel the path of least resistance and do what they’ve always done. Half (50%) of the kids polled, if given these three choices, would attend “in person full-time.” Only 16% would choose “remote school full-time.”

Then again, 34% in the Gallup poll selected the third option: a hybrid “in person/remote” approach. That third of the student body can’t necessarily be described as “preferring” in person education. A more accurate headline would have been: Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning.Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

Half of Massachusetts Students Prefer Full-Time, In Person Learning

Some of these students might’ve been reacting more to a lousy remote education experience—one they got stuck with during a worldwide crisis—rather than alternative learning in general. Even with widespread reports of low quality remote instruction in 2020, from this data, I see that half of the polled teens expressed an interest in at least some education outside of the traditional brick school building.

From yet another source, I offer a press release from National Parents Union including a third poll (poll data here) producing similar statistics. The NPU poll shows 56% of surveyed parents “value having a choice between in-person and remote” learning. Roughly half prefer in person classrooms, but 17-25% of parents depending upon geographic region would prefer a hybrid model.

As with the other polls, 20% of these respondents would prefer full-time remote learning in 2021-22.

The right to an education

Before I say anything more, let me be clear: I do believe that opening schools this fall looks likely to be safe enough for most. The decision to do so appears to be based upon a sound assessment of current conditions in the USA.

Families who want to send their children back to schools in person should absolutely have that option based upon currently available data.

American children have a right to an education. Maybe even a constitutional right to at least basic literacy. In no way am I looking to dictate the best way for other people’s children to learn.USA flag - 1

I grow frustrated by the outright dismissal of the reasonable preferences of a sizeable minority of parents and children who want continued access to remote learning options for those who prefer them.

If even “just” 16-20% of students would choose remote learning, that’s 4.8 to six students in my hypothetical classroom of 30. I find it interesting that 20% of respondents in the NPU poll (see question 14) also reported their pupils “learning more than they normally would” during remote classes than they felt they had attending school in person.

These are real outcomes from American students for whom remote education works well.

The 31% from the first poll of families who don’t want to send their kids back to traditional school buildings—for now, or perhaps forever—deserve to be heard and accommodated by the public system. They may not be the majority, but the group is large enough, and the stakes are high enough, that ignoring the needs of these families is a dereliction of a very reasonable duty of care.

Let’s face reality: it’s not as though our system has been offering an excellent education to every child who wants one up to this point. (An example: the fierce fighting over scarce seats at Boston’s best public schools.) We have a lot of room for innovation and improvement. The point at which 16-31% of participants in the system ask for an alternative seems like an ideal time to start.

Parents usually judge best what works for their own kids

Barring extreme dysfunction, parents know their own children best. While most moms and dads aren’t professional educators, they are experts on the subject of their offspring.

I have two kids, and only one of them was educated at home before the pandemic. 2020-21 was as much of a wild academic ride for us as it was for students everywhere!

I posted about my family’s educational choices here—Home education as a radical act—back in 2017. I was also grateful to take advantage of my son’s school’s outdoor classes during the pandemic.

I mention the different choices made on behalf of my two children because I’m not a rabid proponent of homeschooling at all costs. My sociable younger son is enrolled in school because he prefers learning in a group, and evidence suggests the system works… for him.

My other kid has definitely found his groove, but even my homeschooler didn’t love the shape of every part of learning through a pandemic. That child, too, is eager to return to some classrooms for some subjects; my kid can’t wait to have choices again.

Home education allows for remote learning

This rambling? preamble has served to get me to the following point:

Families who aren’t well-served by the public system are entitled to remove their kids from it. Aside from expensive private institutions, home education is a legal right in all 50 states. Remote classes—many taught by trained professional educators—can be a part of homeschooling.

The internet began offering amazing online opportunities to homeschooling families many years ago, and the pandemic actually increased and enhanced the quality of the choices found thereon.

  • You don’t have to be a trained teacher to do a fine job teaching your own child.
  • You can purchase ready-made curricula for a term or a year, by grade level, or for individual subjects.
  • If your kid excels in one area while struggling with another, you can tailor everything to his or her needs on your own, or with targeted help by hiring tutors or joining group classes.

Here’s a post about a particular online foreign language program that worked out well for my kids: YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids. I’m also a fan of the affordable online courses offered by Royal Fireworks Press.

Roughly 2.5 million American students were learning from home before the pandemic; by March of 2021, that number doubled to 4.5 – 5 million. (Homeschool statistics from NHERI) Plenty of families rejected their schools’ responses to COVID-19 and took the plunge at the time; all of us can make that choice today based on what we’ve learned over the past year and a half of disruption.

If you know that returning full time to a classroom isn’t the best decision for your child, I encourage you to try home education… if you believe it might be a good fit. Making this choice now doesn’t commit you or your child to this course forever; many kids transition in and out of homeschooling every year.

The NHERI link I gave above offers more detail on the subject of the success of home educated students, but the short version I believe everyone deserves to know can be summarized thusly:

  • Homeschoolers as a group perform better on standardized tests than those educated in public schools— 65-80th percentile for the home educated vs. 50th percentile for public institutions (Ray, 2015)
  • Homeschoolers as a group “succeed and perform statistically significantly better than those who attended institutional schools (Ray, 2017)” as functioning adults
  • “87% of peer-reviewed studies on social, emotional, and psychological development show homeschool students perform statistically significantly better than those in conventional schools (Ray, 2017)”

Oh yes, and, add to those points: selective colleges are generally very accepting of well-prepared home educated applicants because they also tend to perform as well as institutionally-educated enrollees at the university level.

Beyond these general facts gathered prior to the ravages of the coronavirus over the 2020-21 school year, it is worth acknowledging that a child who doesn’t feel safe at school is less likely to learn well. A parent who fears for her offspring’s health and safety is likely to perform less well in her own work. These are not insignificant issues; these feelings deserve to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Where state governments or boards of education dismiss out of hand the wishes of 20-30% of their enrolled families, I offer the option of parent-led home education, not as a prescription, but as a valid choice available for those who want it.

Though I’m not a home education focused blogger, per se, I’m happy to answer any specific questions that I can, or to provide links to specific types of resources that have worked for my family, if asked. Ask away in the comments!

If one fifth of students learned more during the pandemic, it seems obvious to me that public schools have an obligation to understand why that happened, retain that advantage going forward, and incorporate remote options for that sizeable chunk of their constituents.

Sending “filthy” photos to my kids when their chores demand attention

My kids have chores. They are both old enough now to lend a hand that’s actually useful. They ought to be able—and feel obligated—to assist in the smooth running of our household.

And, for the most part, they do. With some nagging required, absolutely, but they are good kids and reasonably helpful.Boy holding stick vacuum as if cleaning the floor

I’ve posted before about the best option I’ve found for keeping the kids on track with relatively less nagging: a chore checklist. Where I used to have one master list for the whole family, the enforced togetherness of the pandemic—and our loss of our usual paid help for the heavy cleaning—has prompted me to print a separate list for each kid, and even a new list* to remind my husband of the jobs I need him to cover.

For your reading pleasure, here are copies of my teen’s daily chore list and the middle schooler’s version. By all means, use them to prove to your own kids that they are not, in fact, the only children forced to help out around the house. Or, if your kids work much harder than mine, please let me know in the comments so I can educate my own wee punks the next time they complain about sweeping the kitchen.

And speaking of crumbs…

Visible dirt, crumbs and spills on white tile floorAm I the only mom in America whose family seems oblivious to visible schmutz on the floor?

If you peeked at the chore chart PDFs, you may have noticed that both kids are assigned to sweeping the kitchen tile once per day, and that it’s a totally separate job from plain old vacuuming which is also meant to include the kitchen. This isn’t because my standards are all that high; it reflects the reality that the dust bunnies threaten to outweigh we mere humans on a regular basis.

NZ Brush Co bannister brush used for sweeping up kitchen crumbsThe floors really are pretty filthy in spite of all of these assignments and my own quick swipes with broom, brush, or hand vac a few times each day. This fact leads inexorably to my new habit of sending the kids “filthy” photos via text message with disturbing regularity. Here are a few examples:

There’s hardwood with dust bunnies

dust, hair, and an old price tag on hardwood floor near chair leg

Corners with cobwebs very tricky to photograph spider silk, by the way

Cobweb formed in corner near door jamb over tile floor

And the supposedly “dusted” windowsill covered in not just pollen, but also an unused alcohol wipe still in its package that left a visible outline when shifted! Can that even be a mere week’s accumulation?Topical wipe covered in pollen on pollen-coated windowsill near outline from the shifted packet

I’ll spare you the picture of the toilet visibly in need of scrubbing. Even the teen objected to that disturbing image, asking me if sending it was really necessary.

“Do your chores,” I replied. “Believe me, I wish I hadn’t had to see it either!”

The word "dust" scraped onto a dusty black surfacePerhaps it is an extreme reaction on my part. Should I stop sending them the filthy photos?

Then again, here’s a squeaky clean picture that still led to nagging:

Bright blue plastic USB drive housing in pile of suds viewed through washing machine door

That turquoise blue plastic visible in the suds inside my washing machine is a thumb drive someone forgot to remove from his pocket before dumping clothes in the laundry.

Not sure that’s what’s scrubbing your files is supposed to look like…

A persistent, unequal distribution of household labor has pounded the mental and physical health of mothers during the COVID pandemic. The demands I place on my kids to shoulder their share of the load are my reaction to that. I think it is a rational one.

Sometimes, I give in to the urge to take over a job myself, unable to stand literally! on that sticky spot on the tile any longer, but, mostly, I squawk at the kids instead. It’s for my own benefit, of course, but it’s for their own good, too. Children who pitch in at home are going to become more useful adults. Printed instructions titled Housework is Hard! describing how to wipe kitchen counters and clean the microwave

Perhaps these boys I’m raising will grow up to be more equitable partners to their own spouses someday. That’s my hope. For the time being, I will keep nagging, provide clear instructions on how tasks can be done effectively, and remind my kids that they are valuable, contributing members of our family and household.

I’ll probably keep doing that via lots of dirty pictures.

* My husband’s list is pretty short as he already works something-teen hours per day in his full time job while also running a side hustle as a self-employed scientific consultant. I do need his help with the physically demanding tasks, such as vacuuming multiple floors with the full-size machine. (The kids just use the lightweight Dyson hand vacuum which doesn’t have the same power to tackle the *sigh* wall-to-wall carpeting as our plugged in, full sized Miele canister vac.) I’m not quite ready to watch the boys bash the woodwork with the machine, either.

DH’s new list does also include the task I need help with most: reminding the kids to do their own damn chores before he gives in to all of their demands for attention and snacks in the evening! It’s only fair that Dad take on his share of the nagging duties, though he’s better at science than he is at disciplining his own children.

For anyone who’d like to piggy-back on my step-by-step approach to getting effective assistance from older kids who might do a job half-heartedly without definitive instructions, here are links to PDF documents describing How to Clean the Microwave OvenHow to Wipe Clean the Kitchen Counter, and How to Clean the Bathroom. Inflict them on your own hapless helpers with my blessing!

Kitchen compost bucket solutions to tame the sticky stink

I’ll have to begin with the bad news: if you fail to take your compost out, eventually, there will be odors. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Fundamentally, we’re talking about the process of decay by which food scraps become nourishment for future cycles of growth. It’s all good, but you’ll notice there’s goo in good

Biology gets sticky and stinky. Mathematicians know it.food in kitchen compost pail including gummy bears, coffee grounds, oatmeal, and seeds

Having accepted that taking out the compost is at least as important as removing household trash, here are my simple ideas for a less messy, less smelly, less likely to leak composting experience.

I recommend:

  • an 8-10 quart food storage container with tight fitting lid
  • 4 gallon compostable liners for the kitchen compost pail
  • a household paper shredder
  • scrap paper and cardboard shipping boxes destined for recycling
  • 13 gallon compostable liners for the curbside bin

Snapware food storage bin and lid lined with UNNI compostable bag with cardboard

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4 tips to help kids wear masks safely at school

I’m a volunteer safety monitor during lunch and free time a.k.a. recess at a school serving grades 1 – 8. Aside from keeping the usual eye on the kids, during COVID-19, this job also emphasizes maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings properly.

With a few weeks of the school year under my belt, here are my top tips for parents who hope to help their kids keep their masks in place while they play.

Disposable surgical maskMy top four playground observations regarding children and masks:

  1. Fit matters
  2. Fabric matters
  3. Washing matters for re-usable fabric masks
  4. Instruct kids on how to sneeze before they need to know

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