2020: The year of tipping points

​Sunday, October 4th​​

“Well,” Gary said, “this year hasn’t been what I expected.” Um, yeah. While in the back of his mind he was referring to the general clusterfuck of disasters brought by 2020, he was at the moment speaking directly to the specific disaster-of-the-day: our realization that the solar system we just finished installing over the summer doesn’t power us during PG&E outages that coincide with days when the sky is orange-purple with thick wildfire smoke. Go figure! The outages, we predicted. No sunlight at midday, we did not.

Indeed, this year is full of big surprises, a Spirograph (remember those?) of intersecting disasters and unexpected life changes. We’ve all listed them by now with awe and concern: the current presidency and the looming election (with Trump’s new Covid infection twist); racial unrest; the crumbling economy; the burning of California, smoke so thick on our mountain that we’re stuck inside for days at a time; and the stinking pandemic, making life so damned WEIRD. No hugs for friends, masks everywhere, six foot spacers and one-way aisles in the grocery store.

Our family’s newest big surprise is this: I’m now homeschooling Tristan and Phoebe. I don’t mean distance learning with our school. I don’t mean Zooming with their teachers. I mean real, honest-to-god homeschooling. I NEVER imagined I’d be doing this. I grew up having the fairly mean misconception that homeschooled kids wore potato sacks, had long greasy hair, and were pretty weird. These days that image has melted away, and I know plenty of homeschooled kids who are neither badly socialized nor badly dressed, but I still never figured I’d have my own.

We lasted three days this year at our tiny school on the mountain, which is able to be open in person thanks to its small numbers. After that, for a combination of both pandemic-related reasons and others entirely unrelated to Covid, I realized that it was time to leave the school. (It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought, and suddenly we had reached the tipping point. I’m guessing the global monthly average of tipping points has risen sharply during the pandemic.) Gary and I have been big fans and devoted supporters of our tiny school for almost ten years, and I was really upset about how things went pear-shaped at the end. I called several other moms of families who chose to leave the school over the last few years, including one who had moved on to homeschooling. The women I talked with gave me wonderful support and the consolation I was looking for, as well as advice on how to start homeschooling. I filed the State’s private school affidavit (which enables one to homeschool by opening a “private school”; the kids named our school Happy Raven Homeschool, despite my push for the decidedly less granola-toned Treeline Farm Homeschool), and early the next week, after a weekend visit to Oma and Nagypapa full of beachcombing, we were up and running.

Yes, of course there was heartbreak for the kids. They love the school, and they love their wonderful friends. But staying at the school was impossible. I really struggled with this, but I finally realized that there was nothing I could say or do that would take away the pain the kids would feel, other than to make our Happy Raven fabulous and arrange as many outdoor play dates with the kids’ friends as possible.

To my great surprise and delight…homeschooling is wonderful! I absolutely love it, and the kids are happy. I love the flexibility. All of the State content standards are accessible online, and I know what both Phoebe and Tristan are supposed to cover this year…but WE get to decide how to do it!

Math seems to be the one area where there’s a need to be at a particular, concrete place at the end of the school year. The kids​’​ math workbooks were easy to get, and I figured out how many lessons we need to do a week to finish the grade level by the end of the year. Tristan is a full grade level ahead already in math, which pretty much takes any stress off. He’s one of those lucky kids whose brain is simply wired to do math, and he literally does math in his head that I have to do on paper, sometimes faster than I do it on paper. In addition to the State-endorsed books, I found a whole math workbook online that is entirely focused on food and cooking – Phoebe is delighted with it! Anyone who loves cooking as much as she does is only too willing to multiply fractions to double or triple a recipe. Tristan likes it, too, and was happy the other day to fill out a party-planning worksheet listing the food items he will serve and calculating the total cost of the menu.

Phoebe’s love of cooking inspired an integrated, multi-subject project for both kids: I pulled out all of my cookbooks, had both kids hunt for a recipe they wanted to try, took them to the grocery store with clipboards, had them find the ingredients and calculate the total cost, and brought them home to cook. Tristan, who loves fruit and is also very efficient at keeping things simple, chose a Finnish fruit smoothie that had only three ingredients. Phoebe made churros. Both dishes were delicious! Over the following week, the kids researched the countries of their recipes – Finland and Mexico – and then created travel brochures, complete with colorful photos and fancy fonts (with some help from me on formatting). Tristan and I were especially thrilled to learn about the 5:2 ratio of Fins to saunas and the Finnish tradition of “wife-carrying”, an annual obstacle course race in which men carry their wives slung from their shoulders and over their backs; we’re planning a post-pandemic trip just to see it. Phoebe’s brochure was bursting with color and featured chihuahuas, quinceañeras, and The Day of the Dead.

Language Arts are easy to cover. Both kids started writing novels about dragons this summer and are happy to work on them whenever given a chance, and they are both doing lots of writing in other subjects; spelling words and handwriting practice just spill out of these. Phoebe is reading the Wings of Fire series and Tristan is working his way through the Calvin Coconut books.

For Social Studies, inspired by The 1619 Project, I’m reading out loud to the kids An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and we’re jumping around National Geographic’s Atlas of Indian Nations. I’m learning so much and want so badly for the kids to understand much earlier than I did how this country was born and how so much of what we’re seeing right now is related to its historical treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. As I read them the Introduction of Dunbar-Ortiz’s book the other day, the kids were both enthralled and horrified, and they kept drawing parallels between the treatment of Native Americans and the many conflicts among dragon tribes in the Wings of Fire series (which is full of metaphors for human atrocities and their associated psychological traumas). I think we’ll turn that into a writing project for Phoebe. Honestly, it could be a PhD: Genocide of the Leafwings, Enslavement of the Silkwings, and Appropriation of Rainwing Territory by Nightwings in Tui T Sutherland’s Wings of Fire as Metaphors for the Settlement and Development of the United States. Or, Psychological Trauma in Wings of Fire: PTSD in Dragonet Veteran Soldiers of the War of Sandwing Succession With a Focus on the Cases of Sora, Icicle, Carnelian, and Flame.

Geography is much more fun than I remember it being. I think we did very little of it outside of US states, really. The fifth grade CA content standards require the kids to memorize the US states on the map and learn their capitals. While I think that memorizing state capitals is a really stupid requirement, we’ve been having fun making a game of it (I’m almost there!), and learning the states has lead to all kinds of fun; I discovered a website (Seterra) that has dozens, maybe hundreds, of map quizzes. Tristan is obsessed – he learned the states in under a week and is on to Asia now. Phoebe is not quite as inspired by maps, but she likes the map games as well. Honestly, I don’t care if she doesn’t learn all the states. I can’t break 86% on the quiz myself because the sea of unidentifiable Midwestern states and all those tiny Eastern states are baffling. Who decided to make Vermont and New Hampshire upside down identicals of each other? But, I love that she’s picking up one or two every time she plays and I know she will develop a general and useful sense of the map from the exercise. Also, we hung a giant world map in the stairwell and are pasting colorful labels on places of interest that come up; of course, Hungary, Italy, Indonesia, Singapore, Finland, and Mexico are already labeled. Just arrived in the mail is a map to Native American language groups that we’ll hang next to it.

The kids requested to learn Bahasa Indonesia, so a few times a week we sit in the living room while I write words like anjing, kambing, suka, mau, lapar, and pergi on a whiteboard and the kids make up silly sentences about how much they love goats or about being hungry for lunch.

Science is enormously fun. I can find gobs of short lessons online, and I love finding things to teach that I know nothing about so I can learn something new; last week we dabbled in Earth Science and plate tectonics. I’m clueless about Astronomy, so that’s in our future plans, as well.

But of all, Biology is the best. We began our first day of homeschool with a drive to the coast to go tidepooling. Both kids were absolutely delighted at the hermit crabs and starfish and anemones and explosion of green and pink seaweeds. We made bar graphs of sea creatures we counted in one tide pool and came home to make tidepool art out of patterned scrapbook paper. On another outing, we hiked in our woods to look for owl pellets, hoping to identify mouse and vole species eaten by the owls. Alas, we didn’t find any pellets that day but were thrilled with the pile of deer and cow bones we collected. Treasures, to Tristan. We went to the zoo with clipboards and worksheets I had made and learned Linnaean taxonomy, performed animal observations, and make sketches of some critters. We dove into the human body with lessons so far on the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems. (Next: the immune system.) The digestive system inspired a comparative anatomy art project in which Tristan diagrammed the guts of a chicken in colored pencil, Phoebe cut and pasted out of patterned paper the (amazingly complicated!) digestive system of a goat, and I took on the human digestive system. We’ve started learning about ecosystems – Tristan went to the lowlands to focus on savanna while Phoebe climbed the Andean peaks to learn about cloud forest – and about keystone species found in those ecosystems. Tomorrow we’re heading (literally) to the coastal redwoods to talk about ecosystem roles and to find examples of producers, decomposers, scavengers, and consumers. And on Friday, when the tide chart tells us that low tide will be at the perfect time of 11am, we’ll hit the tidepools again to see if anything has changed in a month. There is simply no end to the excitement and fun of spinning one Science project off into another – I​’m really enjoying it.​

Each day is intense and fun. Phoebe and Tristan sleep as long as they need to, eat breakfast, and then we start learning. We work hard, and then we’re done and, if it’s not smoky, we go ride the horses. We do not do school for six hours a day. Also, when the kids have had enough of one thing, we do another, or we’re simply done. I love the flexibility in timing, and the flexibility on what we chose to study. I love that I am learning, really for the first time, how my kids learn best, and what doesn’t work for them, how to make this the best possible experience for them. I love that I am figuring out how to help Phoebe rebuild the confidence in math she lost last year. She is a smart kid, but she gets frustrated and flustered when she doesn’t understand something right away, or when math is boring and she doesn’t understand why she needs to learn a particular thing. I was so excited last week when I figured out that if I turned the boring word problems about lengths of wood and the weight of coins into ones about goats or about cooking, she had no trouble doing them. I love Tristan’s eagerness to learn, and I love that I can always give him more when he wants more. And, best of all, Phoebe and Tristan are happy and like how we’re doing things.

I don’t know what will happen next year. I have Tristan and Phoebe on the waitlists of two out-of-district schools where they may be able to go if school is back in-person. If not, I really don’t want them sitting on Zoom doing remote learning. They don’t want that either. I’m still hoping to start nursing school. We might need to hire someone to help them through homeschooling three days a week while I’m at school myself, if the schools are still doing distance learning.

Tomas. Poor Tomas. To be 14 and stuck at home with your mom and much younger siblings. He’s on Google Classroom five hours a day, five days a week. I feel sorry for him, but he’s doing great. He’s very self-motivated. Every day, he gets himself up, fed, showered (he has to make his hair perfect before class), and onto his computer. He pops downstairs for lunch, then back up to his room again. His grades are great. Best of all, every once in a while he asks me for help on Algebra, which I love. Soccer has been up and down, with local air quality frequently too poor to allow for outdoor sports, and with Santa Rosa fires making travel down there dangerous and often axing those practices. Once or twice ​a​ week he’ll have friends over, either Noah to play soccer or Elisha to strum guitars and make music in the outbuilding where Gary set up drums, a keyboard, and a sound system. Tomas isn’t overjoyed with the current situation, but he’s hanging in there. This weekend he’s rearranging his room (which is truly un-rearrangeable) to stir things up a bit in the place where he now spends most of his time. Ugh, poor kid.

A sad note: a couple of weeks ago, Camp Okizu, the AMAZING, free, beautiful camp near Oroville for pediatric cancer patients and their siblings, burned to the ground along with the neighboring town of Berry Creek. All three of my kids love Okizu, and I really like the family camps I’ve gone to. All three were meant to go this past summer, but didn’t because Covid prevented the camps from happening. All three were sad to hear that it’s gone, and Tomas was stunned at the post-fire photos we saw in a CNN clip. Camp Okizu and Family House, the non-profit that works alongside UCSF to house families of pediatric patients, have the best fundraisers in the universe, so I’m sure they’ll rebuild. Nevertheless, it’s devastating that it went up in flames.

And finally, a bit of birthday news: last week, Tristan turned eight. He had a birthday cake with an 8-shaped snake on it. One of his best friends, Ora, and her family came over to celebrate, along with Noni, Gary’s sister Tina, the kids’ cousin Olivia, and her partner Abby. We prepared pizzas on a picnic table and passed them indoors to Gary to bake in our pizza oven. Tristan was thrilled with the whole thing, and I was enormously pleased that we managed to pull off a pandemic birthday party. Poor Phoebe and Tomas might not be so lucky, as February and March are positively dreary up here and outdoor birthdays will be tough. Of course, who knows what February and March will look like. “Expect the unexpected” is a particularly scary thought these days, as my range of “unexpected” is now considerably wider than it was seven months ago.

More photos…

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