Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hawaii Facts

Hawaii's state fish is the humuhumunukunukuakua'a or trigger fish.

There are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, N, P and W.

Think how easy first grade would be if we all spoke Hawaiian!

From: Bockenhauer, National Geographic, "Our Fifty States."

Hitting the Wall

Yesterday, at about 3:30 PM, I hit the wall. We are on week two of the allergy cough that will not end. No one can sleep. No one feels well. It was a little novel yesterday. Unlike most days, I didn't yell. I didn't descend into a weepy pity party. Instead, I got detached and distant.

I look around at my three kids, one who regressed into a toddler style temper tantrum, the actual toddler who shrieked with teething pain, and my five year old, who suddenly decides in this moment to urgently request a spelling lesson. Along the barking dog, the piles of urine stained laundry, the upcoming need for dinner prep, my unread Bald phonics book and the perky County Student Services Counselor who insisted "Mrs. Benjamin, you need to preserve a portfolio of ALL of your daughters work and record ALL of the hours she's spent in home-schooling. She needs all 8, just the same as if she was in public school!"

I looked at all of the log jam of human needs in my life and decided in this cool, detached manner "this is completely ridiculous! It is completely ridiculous to think I can be a wife, mother 3 young children, and run a household all while trying to survive my first year as a teacher."

"One of the hardest things about mothering," as I explained bitterly to my husband on the telephone, "is that you can't step outside for a cigarette break." Not that I've ever smoked a cigarette. I just really, really crave running outside and having a moment to collect yourself while the chaos rolls on without you for a while.

I don't have cigarettes, which is a good thing. I do have my Catholic faith. So I went down to my little Marian alter and started praying. I found I couldn't focus on our Blessed Mother. When I get in this state, I feel like she's "too perfect." What does she know about the bitterness of these days? With an immaculate heart, how could she ever get as agitated and depleted as me.

I found that I could pray to Saint Anne, her mother. Saint Anne, who had the impossible task. How do you home-school a girl who has never existed before in the whole human race? So I prayed silently to Saint Anne. It wasn't a pure prayer, one bursting with faith and confidence. It was pretty whiny and pretty thread bare. It was real and from the heart.

There was no immediate lightening bolt of an answer. My two miserable, allergy prone kids continued crying through most of the day. I stepped on a sliver of glass in the kitchen. As I soaked in the bathtub to try to get the splinter out, the repairmen appeared to fix my broken washer. On and on, and so forth.

Grace was clear, nevertheless.

I had a beautiful chat with two close Catholic friends. I *heart* having real Catholic friends in my life. A spelling EXPERT from the UK emailed me with advice for how best to teach phonics to Hannah. My husband came home in a great mood and gave me a big hug. He handled the bedtime/bath routine while I got to "relax" at Kinkos.

I relished my time alone at Kinkos. I realize it's odd to describe xeroxing Childrens' phonic workbooks as a "vacation," but I didn't care. Plenty of time to get a task done, quite, time alone in my thoughts.

Afterwards, I picked up some candy for Trick-or-Treat tomorrow. We're going with the All Saints Day theme. Chocolate eyeballs for Saint Lucy, Chocolate ears for Saint Peter, and chocolate teeth with Saint Allophonious.

They are my dear friends, these Saints. I only pray that more and more kids will request a handhold from the communion of saints whenever their days get rough.

Inside the Beltway

It's a tense time in D.C. this month. If you guys are starting to get tired of the election commercials, you can't imagine the feelings of we residents of the Nation's Capital.

My husband's Catholic men's group had a verbal fist fight during each of the last three meetings. Our Newcomers Carmelite group had a tense exchange between the novices (all McCain supporters) and our group leader (an Obama supporter).

There is a time for standing up strong for pro-life (as in our Carmelite group), but much more often there is a need for fasting and prayer. There is always a great need for charity.

If you are feeling frustrated with fellow Catholics "who just don't get it" during this election, please take a moment to reread my "How I became Pro-Life" essay. I was once a good Christian girl who didn't get it. Sin clouds your conscience. All the beautiful photography of fetal development won't do much if your not truly introduced to the author who "knit you in the womb."

So please, pray. And have great hope.

During one of our last mothers rosary group sessions the Virginian women were looking a bit depressed. My friend Susan grabbed my shoulders and said "Have Hope. Look at us. Last election, Abby & I were some of the lost ones in the Democratic camp. Now were here!"

In 2000, I pulled the lever for RALPH NADER. In 2004, I abstained from voting for President after becoming outraged at the last moment that John Kerry adopted the "pro-embryonic stem cell research" position. In 2007, I changed my voter registration for the first time to vote for Mike Huckabee. This year I get to vote for McCain & Palin.

Anything is possible. Let us keep praying. Let us keep offering sacrifices. Let us keep building up the kingdom of God, one brick at a time in our domestic churches.

One day we'll all settle happily under Christ's wings like a mother hen. I'll be surprised to find out who prayed hard for my conversion!

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I'm stealing Conversion Diary Jen's idea.

Light blogging week. Man has this been a rough Fall for our family. Taking up formal homeschooling and a formal commitment to housekeeping at the time is a real challenge.

Last Saturday we hosted 35 guests for Alex's 4th Birthday party. It was great. Pictures to come soon.

Saturday night at 8 PM tragedy hit our house when our formally docile dog of 13 years bit a 10 year old neighbor. The little girl needed 4 stitches on her cheek. The entire experience was devastating. Sunday, I just threw myself in front the Monstrance and cried during Holy Hour.

For everyone who has been praying for this situation, thank you. The little girl got her stitches out yesterday. I haven't seen her yet, but her Mom stopped by yesterday for a good 1/2 hour talk. The Mom is extremely pleased with the doctor's work. The scarring should be minimal to non-existent.

We're still discerning what should happen with our dog. Animal Control was extremely helpful. We called them just out of a basic "Catholic should respect authority" even though our vet & so many other people urged us not to bother. I'm really glad we did.

The painful lesson I learned at 8 PM on Saturday night was to never, ever let a kid pet your dog without you standing next to your dog, guiding the process. We had three neighbors over who were older girls, who had dog sat our dog before. I totally trusted them and I trusted our dog. When I thought about kids and dogs being a dangerous combination, it always involved young kids. Not so, unfortunately. It's heart-stopping when life flips around on a dime.

My husband has pulled 1 AM work days for a few nights in a row. I hadn't realized how much I depend on him coming home and handling the bedtime routine for the kids. I told him, "when you work late, I work late!" My heart is out for all of you wives who have husband's who travel.

Six months, and still no new Benjamins on the way. I had profound thoughts while suffering unwanted cramps while listening to Governor Palin's V-P debate. I can't remember any of them, now of course. Oh well, maybe they'll subconsciously appear in a novel some day.

Now that I'm entering the Carmelite Order, I'm seeing signs everywhere. In my past, in my present. One funny example happened yesterday. I noticed that my brown leather sandals are getting stretched out and uncomfortable to wear. As I put on my 10 year old Teevas, I started feeling pity for myself. "Cold weather is coming to D.C. and I can't wear these much longer. I don't have any shoes to wear this winter." Then this thought hit me really hard, "Wait, I'm joining the DISCALCESED Carmelite order!" Same situation, but a little Catholic humor makes it all bearable.

On Santa Teresa's Feast Day, I gorged myself on knowledge of new Carmelite saints. People of interest: Leonie Martin, (The Little Flower's older sister), Elizabeth of the Trinity, & St. Teresa of the Andes. Really inspiring people. I'll link to interesting web pages soon. Also, I feel more in love with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton during my visit to her shrine last week.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Feast Day St. Teresa of Avila

I chose Teresa of Avila as my confirmation name in RICA because I thought it was "cool" that she was the first female doctor of the church. I often felt bad that I didn't put more thought into my saint selection. Six years later I'm not only working on my own spiritual autobiography (pitifully slowly, could use some prayers on that score) but on Sunday, October 19 I start my formation as a lay Carmelite. Looks like St. Teresa chose me!

(Can I also say how amazing it is that my husband and I will start our Carmelite journey together on the exact day of the beatification of Louis and Zelie Martin, the saintly parents of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus? Oct 19 is the 150 anniversary of the Martin marriage. Make a note to do something kind to your spouse on Sunday. Sacramental marriage is too rare a thing these days!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Why I love Daily Mass . . .

It's an easy opportunity to do frequent confession.

Advice from Father Avelino during his pep talk on my role as a Mother:

"I can think of no more important job in this deformed society, than to be given the task of forming souls!"

Thank you for our priests! I can't tell you how grateful I am to have the sacrament of confession. It's a clean slate, a "do over." You've got a problem, you've got something that's knawing at you, you've got a venial sin that won't go away not matter how hard you try. Just step into the sacred silence of a confessional and WHAM! Jesus is there. He gets you all straightened up and realinged. He even hands you the zeal to face a new day.

In my mind, "I will not leave you orphaned" means "I will not make you figure out all alone how to know, love and serve Our Father." Thank you God for handing me my Catholic faith with all the richness and the beauty of the confessional.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Happy Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

(continuation of the 40 days of prayer)

The Joyful Mysteries

The Annunciation: As Mary and Joseph accepted with faith her unexpected pregnancy and trusted God to work things out, may all mothers today accept the life within them and trust God to help them work through their problems.

The Visitation: As Mary and Elizabeth ministered to each other and shared their joy together, may we serve pregnant mothers who are in need.

The Birth of Christ: God came to us at Bethlehem in the form of a baby. May God come to each mother who conceives a child. May the love she learns to have for her baby open her heart for receiving the love of God.

The Presentation: Mary and Joseph presented the child Jesus in the temple in accordance with the prescriptions of Jewish law. May we never fail to observe the moral prescriptions of our Church in our lives.

Finding of The Child Jesus in The Temple: Mary and Joseph were distressed to have lost Jesus in the temple. May those who have lost, or never found Christ, open their hearts to Him.

Hymn: Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (To Beethoven’s Ode to Joy)

Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee
God of Glory, Lord of Love
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee
Opening to the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light


Last night a friend from choir dropped off my husband’s Lecture notebook along with two surprise books for me. My friend is a psychology professor and we’d been talking about the “Anxiety Cure for Kids” as a solution to Hannah’s elevator phobia. (Hannah spent time alone in an elevator two years ago when my stroller with Alex got stuck outside as the doors closed. A nurse held her hand on the second floor and brought her right back down. Hannah’s elevator phobia, however, has gotten worse over time.)

I started reading the adult version of “Anxiety Cure” for some clues to help me and Hannah. I was shocked to get hold this clear key of understanding for my relationship with my Mother. It’s such a perfect measure of grace for me.

I think I’ve blogged a lot about my struggles with how to honor my Mom. I’m pretty sure that my Mom has an undiagnoised anxiety disorder. I know for certain that me, my daughter, and my maternal grandmother all suffer from the same thing. I also know that my maternal great-grandmother suffered a “nervous breakdown” in the 1940s and spend the next 24 years in a mental institution. (The only other facts I know about great-grandma Ruth is that she was a college educated women in the 1890 and the only explanation ever given for her break-down was “she was a college woman who couldn’t adapt to rural farm life,” something I unhelpfuly replay in my mind on particularly rough stay-at-home Catholic mothering days.)

So anyways, I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know if my Mom has an anxiety disorder per se, or just inherited some maladapted strategies for dealing with stress from the maternal McCormick clan. I do know that I’ve harbored some major resentment for the lack of a home-making role model I had as a kid.

Our house was always chaotic and tipsy-turvy. If you picture you home during a bad bout of the stomach flu, that is the state of my childhood house all the time. Life was one stressful event after another for my family. It wasn’t “real stress” that other people could see. It was more like “fake stress.” The consequences were real though.

I remember watching a Reading Rainbow series a few months ago and feeling overwhelming envy for a kid with a wheel-chair bound Mother. The series on kids with disabled parents was supposed to highlight how rough it is for a first grader to have to sweep the kitchen floor and open up chicken soup can for his single parent with M.S. “What a hard life,” the host sympathetically intoned.

My internal thoughts went something like this “at least he can see why his Mother can’t care for him. Its obviously, she’s in a wheel chair. He won’t grow up thinking that Mothering tasks aren’t important. He won’t think that he doesn’t deserve it.”

One of the worse, biting things about mental illness is that it’s invisible. You can’t see it. No body else can see it either.

I remember this one day during my 17th summer. My sister and I were alone at home for a week. My Dad was leading a college student trip out of the country, and my little brother was staying with my grandparents. My Mom left on a teaching trip and left us twenty dollars to feed ourselves for six days. It was Thursday and we hadn’t eaten in for a day because we ran out of money. There was nothing in the house, no saltine crackers, no extra pennies under the couch. (There was a refund check that my Dad had promised was in the mail before he left on his trip two weeks before and had to empty out our checking account. The check hadn’t arrived. The four of us had exhausted all the food and coins in the house before my Mom’s trip.)

My sister and I were both working at the annual Methodist Minister’s conference at the college next to our house. My clear memory is putting on my best Sunday School dress, the one from the Limited with blue poseys on a cream background and scheming about how to smuggle a donut left out for the volunteers home to my hungry sister. “I could just ask?” I thought. Then it hit me with a start, no one know that we are this hungry. No one expects that girls who wear Limited dress can go 48 hours without food. None of those sweet ministers would hesitate to share their breakfast with hungry kids. At the same, time I knew for certain that my Mom would never, ever forgive us if we asked for so much as an extra donut.*

So that’s why I was mad at that poor first grader. When your Mom is in a wheel-chair, people notice. They bring over casseroles and stuff. When your Mom is chronically embarrassed and ashamed, nobody can tell that anything is wrong from the outside.

So I’ve had all these feelings for a long time. Every time I learn how to do something new as a home-maker, it’s accompanied by a mourning period “why didn’t I have this growing up as a kid?” Then I read that passage in Anxiety Cure which I quoted in an earlier post. Turns out that chaotic housekeeping and anxiety tend to go together. I could no more expect my mom to have a smooth, efficient household routine when I was a kid, that that first-grader could will his mom to get out of her wheel-chair.

This anxiety craziness thing, is ending with me. I’ve got the tools. I’ve got the heavenly help. I’ve got the sacraments and saintly intercession of Brother Lawrence. We are starting our baby steps in the daily routines outlined by Home Comforts. I’m making a pledge that with Our Blessed Mother’s help, I’m going to cling to my house-keeping routine even on days when I don’t feel like it. I need structure because structure helps keep me well.

I’ve been so blessed to have a Mother who gave me life and who got me baptized. I’m blessed to have a heavenly Mother who lends me all the home-making with a cheerful heart lessons that I lacked growing up. I’m even more blessed to have children who know how to pray to their Gardian Angels in elevators and ask St. Anne to help them learn how to read. I’ll do my best with these mothering tasks and trust our Blessed Mother to handle all the rest.

* As a post note, God always knows when you are hungry. My job for the day was driving around elderly visitors. One couple was so charmed by me that they insisted on buying me dinner at the college cafeteria. I asked immediately if I could take my little sister. At the free meal, I told my sister to stock up so that it would last her all the next day. My sister told me that would be “accepting free food from a poor minister would be like stealing from the church.” I told her “this is God providing for us!” I got her to eat only one sedate piece of chicken and she passed on the ice-cream sundaes.

Structure & Anxiety

Structure Your Life without Anxiety

“We have found that the lives of many anxious people lack structure. Thinking of your life as having a “structure” may be unfamiliar. . . The uses we make of our time is what we call the “structure” of our lives; it is how we organize our lives. ..

The structure of your life refers to the routine, everyday activities of your life, or how you normally spend your time. As we will explain, a chaotic pattern both is caused by anxiety symptoms and contributes to worsening of anxiety. This chicken-and-egg balance of panic and structured living is important to understand, since often people who have lost a functional structure in their lives believe it is impossible for them to have structure again.

Structured living is often lost when anxiety hits because your feelings of panic are so overwhelming. They demand attention when they surface, and take precedence over any other plans that had been made. This giving in to a feeling-driven scheduling means that it is very hard to stick to any plans. Almost all people who suffer from panicky feelings recognize the dominant role of panic in making daily plans. For some people, this takes an extreme form and leads to avoidance of almost all activities. For others, it means that they are never sure if they will be able to execute a plan when the time comes. Once the anxious feelings become the focus of how you react to life, it is hard to live by any routine without being swayed by how you feel from moment to moment. When this happens the dragon is running your life, not you.

This feeling-based reaction to life is terribly harmful. It leads to instability and to being able to count on nothing, not your feelings, not your actions, not your schedule. Everything in your life is chaotic. All people, but especially people with anxiety problems, need structure to their living. The chaos that is caused by impulsive, feeling-driven planning undermines all structure and exacerbates the feeling of being out of control that characterizes anxiety disorders. We have found that the more choices you are able to exercise over how to spend you time-for example, if you are retired, work in your home, or are a homemaker-the more difficult it is to impose structure on your life. Employment and other obligations that are structured by external forces help keep you form focusing too much attention on your feelings.

(The Anxiety Cure, pge 147-148)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Relish Humilation

Occasionally my husband unintentionally flaunts that he is light years ahead of me spiritually. On Friday, Jon came home supercharged by his recent confession with Father Avelino. During our family rosary that night this was his prayer: “Mary please uproot all pride in my life, drown me in humiliations.”

Drown me in humiliations? Not the passé increase the virtue of humility in me. No, my dear spouse plead to be drowned in humiliations.

I felt sort of prodded into joining into this request when it came time to state my own intentions. “Yes, me too! Uproot all pride in me and increase my humiliations.” There is this special type of prayer that sort of makes diaphragm clench up. My thought on Friday night, was “uh, this prayer might actually work!”

On Sunday, I worked as heroic sheepdog to get all my little ones ready for Mass. My husband packed our crew into their car seats in time for 8:30 Mass. I came out of the apartment carrying something forgotten item, either Hannah’s sweater or Maria’s pacifier. My husband lifted his head out of the backseat and said, “Can you get Maria a bottle? She hasn’t eaten all day!”

I started to protest, “Why didn’t you feed her?” Then this phrase entered my head “Relish Humiliation.” Relish Humiliation. I’m supposed to lap up these moments. I turned on my heels and headed back into the apartment to grab some milk.

As I searched around for a clean bottle with a matching cap, I thought about how pathetic I am. My baby and I were both up for at least half and hour. Yet I never thought to actually feed her. Instead, I was too busy lost in thought from my recent Virginia Woolf New York Times book review that I read online that morning. “What a dreamy Mom, I am?” I thought. “It’s so hard on my kids.” (Most Moms remember that children need to eat before Sunday Mass. Most Mom probably do not find the “servant question” of Virginia Woolf so engrossing.)

Relish Humiliation. It doesn’t feel good to take correction. Yet that is all that Christ asks of us. Admitting our mistakes, noticing our shortcoming, practicing submission to those in Authority, these are the tasks that make up the life of a faithful Catholic. This is how Christ will separate the sheep from the goats.

I may not ever figure out how to balance my dreamy abstract thinking with the practicality of motherhood. Christ doesn’t really require perfection. If I relish the humiliation when I forget things, I’m well on my way to acquiring the virtue of humility in spades.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Last night, I was in charge of picking out the movie. I sort of bottomed out with "P.S. I love you." My husband is such a good sport with the whole girly romantic thing. He kept saying "It's not bad," as I kept picking at the plot line. (An Irish guy gets married to an American Irish girl, he dies at a young age, and sends her letters for a year to help him get over her.) I kept feeling vaguely dissatisfied though out hte flick. The couple are married for 9 years but she's never "ready" for a kid. She's got some issues and regrets after his death, but they all seem sort of flat, sort of lost.

I left the house at 6 AM, alone in a rare moment, to attend First Friday/First Saturday Adoration. I thought about that movie again. Thing thing that bugs me the most is that in the middle of the movie, there is the flash back to the "perfect" meeting of this couple. Meeting the right person is "when your life starts" the movie says. Yet the whole film talks about mistreatment of the "right guy" as inevitable. (For example, in one of the most distressing scenes the widowed heroine goes to her divorced mother for advice. They both comfort themselves that whether by divorce or death, men leave and "you are always left alone." As a Catholic, I had a hard time equating being dumped in divorce to being left as your spouse enters enternal life. One is a sin, one brings tremendous sources of grace.)

I sort of prayed about that issue on my way to Adoration. I told God, "I just can't believe that story is true; that you can meet the perfect Catholic boy in Catholic Ireland and then somehow never get anywhere healed enough to enter a true intimate union with him."

I got this flood of assurance. When God gives you the most precious gift of a "perfect" spouse, He hands you the instructions. He doesn't leave you hanging with all the baggage from your parents divorce or all the original sin in the world. He gives you "instructions" or lessons on how to love each other. He teaches each of you how to care for the other person's soul. Some of those instructions come from the church, like the universal requirement that marriage and openness to children go hand in hand together. Some come from more private revelation. But the point is that, we're not on our own to figure out how to stay married to each other.

My husband says that we're blessed because we had a sacramental marriage. It's true that my grace to love my spouse came wrapped in the same paper as the Miracle at Cana (thank you to my dear Blessed Mother). I have to hope that even if others don't have the special gift of a sacramental marriage, that those "how to care for you spouse properly" lessons aren't far away. I have to pray that more Americans, especialy those searching Irish Catholics get that same grace in their lives.

Marriage is so beautiful. My husband and I have started to joke about the celebrity attention we receive by attending Daily Mass together as a family. Jon says "we are like an endangered species." I told him that while everyone who looks at us know initially assume we're cradle Catholics, the truth is that we're not. We're reclaimed. A boy and a girl once adrifted in the secular dating swamp, reclaimed, purified, and placed down in as a model Catholic family. I pray were just the tip of the iceberg!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Letting Children Talk-Piaget

Interesting thoughts from Piaget:

"In one of his most famous experiments, Piaget asked children, "What makes the wind?" A typical Piaget dialogue:

Piaget: What makes the wind?

Julia: The trees.

P: How do you know?

J: I saw them waving their arms.

P: How does that make the wind?

J (waving her hand in front of his face): Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.

P: What makes the wind on the ocean?

J: It blows there from the land. No. It's the waves...

Piaget recognized that five-year-old Julia's beliefs, while not correct by any adult criterion, are not "incorrect" either. They are entirely sensible and coherent within the framework of the child's way of knowing. Classifying them as "true" or "false" misses the point and shows a lack of respect for the child. What Piaget was after was a theory that could find in the wind dialogue coherence, ingenuity and the practice of a kind of explanatory principle (in this case by referring to body actions) that stands young children in very good stead when they don't know enough or have enough skill to handle the kind of explanation that grownups prefer.'
From Time Magazine's Top 100 Scientists

More Nerdy Educational Theory-Vygotsky

One of the most facinating educational theorists I've run across is L.S. Vygotsky. (Now a word of warning, Vygotsky was a Jewish Russian theorist at the time of the 1917 Revolution. I'm a little cautious about how much of his Marxist ideology has impacted his educational theory. I haven't found any Catholic teaching that rules against his viewpoints, but I'm keeping my eyes open).

With that cavet in mind, Vygotsky's ideas are amazing. They aren't wildly known in the US yet because his books were only recently allowed out of the country.

Vygotsky invented this theory called "zone of proximal development" or ZPD. Imagine drawing two circles, one inside the other. The interior circle represents how the student can function independently. For example, my daughter can read and write her name, Hannah, and decipher street signs. Hannah's reading comprehension actually far exceeds these simple reading tasks. With assistance (i.e. someone else reading The Story of the Soul) Hannah can understand, remember and eagerly engage in a discussion about Saint Therese's early childhood.

As a teacher, we should help students expand the intellectual places that they can function with some help. By spending more time on these "outer reaches" of knowledge, students learn the most. The most valuable relationship between teacher and student is one of "collaboration' not dictation.

Here is a long quote from a Educational Theory Website:

"In Vygotskian perspective, the ideal role of the teacher is that of providing scaffolding (collaborative dialogue) to assist students on tasks within their zones of proximal development."[42] During scaffolding the first step is to build interest and engage the learner. Once the learner is actively participating, the given task should be simplified by breaking it into smaller subtasks. During this task, the teacher needs to keep the learner focused, while concentrating on the most important ideas of the assignment. One of the most integral steps in scaffolding consists of keeping the learner from becoming frustrated. The final task associated with scaffolding involves the teacher modeling possible ways of completing tasks, which the learner can then imitate and eventually internalize. [43]

Vygotsky recommended a social context wherein a more competent learner would be paired with a less competent one, so that the former can elevate the latter's competence. This social context promotes sustained achievement and cognitive growth for less competent students."[44] Accordingly, students need to work together to construct their learning, teach each other so to speak, in a socio-cultural environment. In-class opportunities for collaboration on difficult problem-solving tasks will offer support to students who are struggling with the material. By interacting with more capable students who continue to mediate transactions between the struggling students and the content, all students will benefit.[45]

The implications of Vygotsky's theories and observations for educators are several and significant. In Vygotsky's view, the teacher has the collaborative "task of guiding and directing the child's activity."[46] Children can then solve novel problems "on the basis of a model he [sic] has been shown in class."[47] In other words, children learn by solving problems with the help of the teacher, who models processes for them and his or her peers, in a classroom environment that is directed by the teacher. In essence, "the child imitates the teacher through a process of re-creating previous classroom collaboration."[48] It is important to note that the teacher does not control the class with rule and structure; rather, the teacher collaborates with the students and provides support and direction.[49]

Assignments and activities that can be accurately completed by a student without assistance, indicate that the student has previously mastered the necessary prior knowledge. In the majority of classrooms this would be the conclusion of a unit; however, this is Vygotsky's entry point. However, as previously mentioned, the teacher must carefully group the student that "can potentially develop in collaboration with a more capable person."[50]

In our research, we found limited references to Vygotsky's specific views on curriculum content. One exception involves the teaching of writing to preschoolers. According to Garton and Pratt, Vygotsky argued for shifting the teaching of writing to preschool. They explain that Vygotsky differentiated between two forms of speech: spoken and written. Vygotsky, as cited by Garton and Pratt, asserts that a child develops an understanding that spoken speech can be symbolized in writing by progressing from "drawing things to drawing speech."[51] Vygotsky suggested then that the preschool curriculum should be designed so that it was organized to "ease child's transition from drawing things to drawing speech."[52]

Learning to master tools and technologies should also be included in the curriculum. "Students should be taught how to use tools such as the computer, resource books, and graphs in order to better utilize these tools in the future.[53] In this way, students will benefit as these tools and technologies influence the individual's thinking (along with the development of language).[54]

In sum, Vygotsky's findings suggest that the curriculum should generally challenge and stretch learner's competence.[55] The curriculum should provide many opportunities to apply previous skills, knowledge and experiences, with "authentic activities connected to real-life environment."[56] "Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks."[57]


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Things I Learned in My First Month of Teaching

1) Do the Housework First (Or Less Fun Tasks First, School Second)

I'm housework challenged, so this may only apply to me. (If you picture handing your 4 year old a sponge and squirt bottle and watch her stare with dismay that those crusty bits remain on the countertop dispute minutes of vigorous scrubbing you get a sense of my level of competence in this area.) We spent a few tupsy turvy weeks as I plunged into full teaching mode and disregarded my weekly laundry routine. Somehow, I felt that now that school "counted" my teaching tasks were far more important than lowly vacuuming time. Things got pretty miserable in our house, pretty quickly.

Now, I've made a commitment to be a housewife first and teacher second. If I make a commitment to get the laundry done at 8 AM, there ends up being tons of moments in the day to work on fun school projects. If I flip the order around, there is NEVER a spare moment to spontanously tackle the laundry pile.

I'm slowly making my peace with the epitaph on my gravestone not being "Levitating Contemplative Prayer/Brilliant Home Educator" or even the dowdy "Amazingly Accomplished Lawyer", but the plain title of "Wife, Mother, Family Laundress." Me and Saint Clare, tackling the smelly laundry pile every day, all day!

2) Let Your Kids Practice Talking

More important than reading and writing, kids need to refine their oral communciation skills. One of the big shortcomings of school is that little kids have to spend most of their day quietly listening to their teacher. As John Holt says "In School, the teacher who needs the least practice talking is the one who gets the most time to talk!"

For me, home education, is one long conversation with my kids. Tangible lessons like “clouds” or “the Titanic” are just new things to talk about with one another. Because there are so many distractions during my “regular” life (there always seems to be at least one serious question every time Mimi has a diaper explosion), I use my school time to focus on intensive listening to my older kids.

Teaching is much more about asking big questions, listening with focus and patience, than sharing my own knowledge. This month, I’ve noticed a huge growth in Alex and Hannah’s vocabulary, their ease of conversation and their joy of “presentations.”

3) Use Dad

Dad is the principal of our little school. His job is to calm down the teacher (me), review and praise student work, handle the scary public school evaluations, and teach difficult subjects. Hannah and I got ourselves lost over phonics. My husband graciously stepped in. He now gives her “private” lessons for 20 minutes after dinner. Hannah laps up the extra attention. My husband loves being an intimate part of her education. I wash the dishes in total happiness knowing that I get to cherry pick only the “fun” educational subjects to teach my kindergartener.

4) When a Kid isn't paying attention to something important, start teaching his younger sibling

Little Mimi is my best student. She loves to sit in the school chairs everyday. She loves to draw with her crayons. If I'm not getting anywhere with math or phonics with my older kids, I'll just start explaining the concept to Mimi. I initially just started doing this to make myself feel better (see, someone cares that I said 19 + 1 = 20 and not 110), it works every time. The older kids are drawn in like magnets. They want to be included in our fun. They also like to be "the teacher" and give lessons to their little sister.

5) Use Drama and Food to Teach History

Yesterday, we had corn beef and I launched into a history of the Irish Potato Famine. We do the Boston Massacre whenever we eat Baked Bean for lunch. We pretend that the Red Coats are Quartering in our house. We imagine immigrating to Boston as a poor Irish family. I usually throw in a dash of ethics. We talk about the uncharity of forcing the Irish to switch religions for a bowl of soup or that the “unsinkable Titanic” didn’t have enough life boats to save the Dads. (Yes, my children will be the ones passionately arguing “THAT’S NOT FAIR” in the State Social Studies Fair.)

6) Kids need lots of down time

Most of our day is spent in play. We take naps. We mess around with toys in the bathtub. We dig in dirt. We play on the monkey bars. We spend WAY more time watching movies than my kids’ pediatrician allows. (We are such movie buffs. Thursday was Annie Day and Today was Superman. I’m thinking that maybe I can rename this home-school thing the Benjamin Film Academy just to get out of the 1 hour of screen time thing.)

7) Model Your Own Learning

The best thing that I'm doing is modeling my own commitment to improve my spelling. Pick a subject that is a weak spot, and model your improvement to your kids.

8) Pray about Home Education everyday with your Spouse

I keep praying all the time to Our Blessed Mother and Saint Anne. The uncertainity and the impossibility of the home teacher role, is actually its strength. You have to turn it over to our Mother. You have to trust. You have to trust your child. You have to trust yourself. Most of all, you have to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide you on this adventure together.

Hope everyones October in Home School Land is also Hopeful and Happy!

Happy Feast Day of Saint Therese!

This October, I'm jumping into the joint theology of St. Theresa of Avila (my spiritual mentor), St. John of the Cross, and Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus. Here's a quote that I shared with my children today.

"(When I was a) little four-year-old person. I had a dream then which is deeply imporessed on my memory. One night I dreat that I was going out to walk by myself in teh garden. I saw, near the arbor, two horrible little devils on a barrel which stood there. They were astonishingly lively in spite of the heavy chains they had on their feet. Suddenly they glared at me with their blazing eyes; then, looking much more frightened that I was, they jumped down from the bareel and ran to hide in the line room which was just opposite. When I saw they were such cowards, I wanted to find out what they were up to, so I went to the window. These wretched little impos were running about on the tables and didn't know what to do to escape my gaze. Every now and then they came and peeped uneasily out of the window, but when they saw I was still there, they began to run about again as if crazy by despair. Of course there was nothing extraordinary about that dream, yet I think God has let me remember it to prove to me that a soul in a state of grace need fear nothing from devils, for they are so cowardly that they flee from the gaze of a child." The Story of a Soul, pg 10.