Archive for the ‘Home’ Category

Praise for Invisible Work

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Invisible Work

“Nobody notices what I do until I don’t do it.”

If you’ve seen this quote before, I’m sure you’ll agree that there is a timeless truth to this sentiment. I’ve been noticing lately the explosion of blogs and programs designed to help you ditch the 9 to 5 and live life large. The featured photos are always exciting and exotic – think yoga on a curtain-draped patio in Bali or climbing mountains in Patagonia. Many of these imagined scenarios sound lovely, and make my life feel frumpy and boring in comparison – which is the point I guess. It IS important to examine our own lives and think about what we really want, instead of just doing the same thing day after day for lack of any better ideas.

But what is with this pressure to be youthful and exciting? It’s as if our lives can’t have any meaning unless we push the boundaries, searching for that next amazing selfie backdrop to make our Facebook friends jealous. I know that some people genuinely crave adrenaline to feel alive (my husband is one of them), but I also know that some people find just as much bliss watching mist settle over a pond (I am one of them).

I also happen to believe in the value of seemingly boring work. One of my favorite book series as a kid was the “Dragonriders of Pern” series by Anne McCaffrey. The dragonriders were the heroes of course, daring, respected and influential. Oddly though, I was always more interested in the people who took care of the “Holds” and “Weyrs” where everybody on Pern lived. I thought about the logistics involved with feeding and supplying all of those people. Where would it come from? If I were in charge, how would I manage it? How would I delegate the chores? I wasn’t interested in fighting dragonback – I wanted to organize.

This is exactly what those self-help blogs aim to save us from – “Drop that scrub brush and become a dragon rider!” If you are truly discontent with your current occupation, then by all means, change it. But for those of you who toil away in jobs that will never look good in a photo, take pride. We need to stick together. War correspondents, dolphin trainers, and wilderness guides may have better stories to tell, but the world would miss us more if we all stopped doing what we do.

Clearing Out the Old

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Garage sale

Things have been kind of crazy for me the last few weeks as we get ready to move and start new lives outside the Coast Guard. We’re in the process of buying a house in Oregon, and need to unload a bunch of stuff that we’ve been dragging around with us all of these years.

One thing about moving every four (or so) years in the military is that we tended to keep things that worked for one place because we weren’t sure if we would be able to use them again. That’s why we have salmon fishing poles and crab pots from Alaska, surfboards and snorkels from Hawaii, antiques from Illinois, and a wide variety of tools and equipment for all of our hobbies over the years.

Then there’s the homeschool books and accessories that I’ve accumulated over the past 15 years. I still remember the effort that went into choosing each item, and the days we spent using them. So many memories! I don’t mind passing my treasures on to other homeschooling families who can use them, or at least know what they’re for, so I had a yard sale last weekend, trying hard to advertise to local homeschoolers. I got rid of some stacks and piles, but ended up giving away most of it to Goodwill, where I’m afraid no one will know what to do with these things. Oh well.

Now I have the rest of the house to go through, because we absolutely will not have room for everything in our new house. In many ways, it’s nice to finally have a place to settle, and know for sure what we can and cannot use, and what will match and what doesn’t. If something is genuinely useful and I anticipate really using it in our new home, I’ll keep it. This differs from the usual advice of “Did you use it in the last year?” because our circumstances are always changing, depending on where we live. Now that we know where we’ll be for a while, we can assess just how useful the beach chairs and duck decoys will be.

For the things that are not terribly useful, I’m trying to trust my instincts as I purge. When I look at something, does it make me slump, as in “What am I going to do with this?” Or does it make me smile because it is so “me?” But it’s still a hard process, because “things” can trigger so many memories of loved ones and times we have had. Letting go of books is especially hard for me, because books are like my friends – especially the ones I read over and over as a teenager. Books are such a source of comfort and enjoyment for me, how can I decide which ones get to stay and which ones have to find a new home?

I’ll have to be ruthless with myself and read simple living blogs and quotes every morning for encouragement. I also may not get much blogging done, but I hope to have fresh perspective and renewed purpose when all of this is done!

Even Schools are Recognizing the Value of Personalized Learning

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Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

Photo by WBUR Flickr Photostream/Creative Commons

I heard a report on my local public radio station about the finalists for the federally funded “Race to the Top” competition. According to the Department of Education website, the sixteen winning “districts will share nearly $400 million to support locally developed plans to personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.”

The report I heard focused on the three small California districts that won, beating out several bigger districts. What are these school districts doing that won them the cash prize?

They are personalizing their students’ curriculum.

New Haven United has an aggressive plan to provide each student in grades 6 through 12 with their own digital tablet, along with hiring extra math, literacy and assessment coaches to help teachers personalize instruction. Lindsay Unified is shifting all their students to performance-based learning, which allows students to work at their own pace through all the material required for ultimate graduation. Galt Elementary District is implementing StrengthsExplorer to create a blend of individualized online learning with classroom instruction for each student. Apparently, the students in these districts have responded very well to the changes. Teachers at Lindsay Unified describe a new excitement for learning when the kids realize they really can move ahead whenever they’re ready, even if that means the kids move up to the next grade level’s material.

I think this news is very encouraging. Could it be that educational authorities are recognizing the value of self-directed learning? I mean for real – not just warm fuzzy platitudes. It would seem so, at least in part. These Districts are still controlling what their students learn, but at least they’re giving the kids some latitude with how and when to learn.

Not everyone can homeschool, and I’ve often wondered how public schools might implement the advantages that homeschooling offers. Hiring enough teachers to create a student to teacher ratio of 6 to 1 would be amazing, but prohibitively expensive. Perhaps the next best solution is technology. Why should all kids have to sit through the same lecture when some kids already know the material, some kids have no clue what is going on, and other kids are simply more visual or kinesthetic learners? Providing every child with a digital tablet or some other regular access to a the Internet would allow access to the information students need to know, whenever they are ready to learn it.

Just this one innovation, if it was really used, would give kids some sense of control over their own education. Of course, it would be even better to let kids have more of a say in the content of their curriculum, besides just picking a few electives in high school. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. That’s the ultimate control isn’t it? Controlling what kids learn, and in autocratic countries, controlling what adults learn, too. I’m not insinuating that this is done with evil intent. On the contrary, I think authorities generally have noble intentions of doing what is best for their students. They truly want kids to succeed.

My argument is simply that top-down curriculum is not as effective as passion inspired curriculum. It would be lovely if our kids readily absorbed all those carefully chosen textbooks we give them, but if they’re not interested, very little of that information is going to stick with them. Why waste everyone’s time (teachers included), when kids could be investigating things they are really curious about? I would also argue, that even with the best of intentions, we can’t know best what anyone else should learn. We can share what we know, but every child will grow up to do things that we cannot foresee. The best we can do for them is to avoid squashing their natural impulse to learn, and give them the tools and resources to find what they need, when they need it.

Oh well, these winning school districts are off to a good start. Other districts will be watching to see if these innovations produce results. In the future, hopefully more schools will be leveraging technology to give kids more control over the delivery of their curriculum and at least some customization based on learning styles and strengths.

Domestic Inspiration

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When my first child was born, I was still in the Coast Guard and got to experience the role of “working mother” (although we know of course that all mothers are working mothers). It was hard being away from my baby all day, and even with my husband’s help it was hard to find time to do anything but the bare necessities around the house. Then, when I got pregnant with baby #2, my nesting instinct kicked in to overdrive. I really wanted to stay home with those kids, make real dinners, clean the house, decorate for holidays, bake bread, and all those other domestic things. Thankfully, my husband was willing and able to support us, and my Coast Guard career ended shortly after my second son was born.

I’m so grateful that I had the chance to stay home with my kids because I know that there are a lot of families who can’t afford this option. I also know there are a lot of families who don’t want that option! That’s OK; maybe it’s a personality type thing. But for those families who don’t have at least one person (whether Dad, Grandma, Auntie, Mom or whoever) taking on the daily details of home and family, that means someone is still doing it after work, or that various jobs are being hired out (daycare, dinners via take-out, maid service, yard service, etc.), or unfortunately, it could mean that nothing is being done at all.

The Women’s Rights Movement did a wonderful job freeing women from traditional expectations that kept them from fulfilling their true potential, but along the way, domesticity got a bad name. When asked at parties, “What do you do?”, no one wanted to answer “Oh – I’m a housewife,” because the querent would immediately smile politely and say, “Good for you!” while their eyes looked around for someone else to talk to. It would be much better to say, “I grow mushrooms and worm compost in the basement,” or “I up-cycle menswear into designer slipcovers,” or even “I bake bread.”

It’s true that a lot of work around the house can be repetitive, grungy, and boring – usually the jobs that everyone hates the most – like matching socks, changing diapers, scrubbing the shower tiles, and filing the household paperwork. There will always be work that just has to get done, but I’m so happy to see a growing movement of women and men who are rescuing the reputation of housework and elevating it to a creative artform, as well as recognizing the true value of household economics within society. You’ve probably noticed the shift. There are thousands of blogs dedicated to cooking, health, decorating, household tips, do-it-yourselfers, green cleaning, gardening, food preservation, homesteading, frugality, parenting, homeschooling, and all the other possible manifestations of house work. And just look at how many boards on Pinterest are dedicated to these topics!

Homemaking is really about lifestyle, no matter what kind of lifestyle that may be. The way to elevate homemaking from drudgery to artform is to keep asking just one question: “How can I do this better?” When things become routine and boring in any job, the solution is usually a challenge to become more efficient, more elegant, more personal, more creative, more valuable . . . more something.

I was reminded of this recently while reading one of my new favorite sites: Wisteria and Sunshine. The author, Lesley, was describing, with pictures, her recent refrigerator makeover, and my world shifted. No really. Since my kids turned into teens, and I started working on the book and software and everything else, my nesting instinct had disappeared. It seemed like the only reason to keep up with housework was to avoid embarrassment when people came over. I usually make an effort to cook healthy meals, but everything else has been in a holding pattern, waiting for someone to care. Then I saw Lesley’s refrigerator, which wasn’t just clean (I hate cleaning the refrigerator), but thoughtfully planned out with a place for everything, arranged in the most attractive way possible. She had her cheese displayed in a glass domed tray instead of stuffed in plastic baggies wherever they would fit. Her apples and oranges were ready to grab in a special glass fruit drawer. Her nuts and grains were tidy in their own drawer. Veggies were removed from their plastic bags, laid neatly on tea towels inside the crisper. It was a revelation! Suddenly I was inspired to finally clean my refrigerator, because it wasn’t just the same old routine of purge, dump and wipe, but a challenge to make my refrigerator (and food storage) work better than it ever has before.

It’s a small thing, I know. But small things make a difference, and many small things make a big difference. I’m starting to look around my house with renewed interest. My kids are not babies anymore, but it’s still nice to live in a space that feels comforting.

Could you use some creative motivation? Here’s a few sites that I particularly like, although I’m sure I will discover more favorites: Passionate Homemaking, The Pioneer Woman, Cherry Menlove, Flylady, Alice Cantrell, and Wisteria and Sunshine. I think Pinterest is a particularly good way to find someone with the same style as you, and with any luck, that person will have a blog to gift you with inspiration!