10 Ways to Improve Public Schools

One of the best things about being a homeschooling mom who was and remains a certified public school teacher is that I am in a unique position to say what I really think about the current state of affairs in public education without sounding self- serving. I have a lot to say – don’t get me started unless you want an earful! In summary I believe in free, high-quality public education for all and I will fight for it until my last breath. Period. The End. Many people – even those who homeschool and even those without children or whose children are long grown – share that sentiment. I am proud to call many of these people friends. On a recent Facebook thread for another teacher friend, some of these amazing people asked what they could do to help their local schools, teachers and students, and I was only too happy to share 10 Ways to Improve Public Schools!

1. Buy gift cards to stores that sell school supplies and grocery items (many of us buy food for our students as well as paper/pencils).

2. Join your PTSA and if there isn’t one to join, start one.

3. Volunteer in the classroom or in the school office. If you can’t spare time during the work day, call and ask how you can help at home – cutting out bulletin boards, collating homework packets, prepping lab supplies.

4. Attend school board meetings. Spend the first few times listening, then participate.

5. Send your child’s teachers a note or small something when you feel the school year is dragging along. The teacher probably feels the same way and could use a pick-me-up, too. A handwritten note, a $5 Starbucks card or just some spiffy new post-its work wonders.

6. Ask your school’s principal if there is a teacher/class/child who needs to be adopted. Then adopt that teacher/class/child, either as a family or as a civic/church group.

7. Ask your school’s principal how you can help at-risk kids. Can you start a tutoring group? A parenting mentor group? A backpack feeding program on the weekends? Teachers can’t do everything, but we will kill ourselves trying.

8. When you catch a teacher being awesome, send a letter. An actual, physical letter. Even the good ones need positives in their folder come evaluation time.

9. Stick up for your teacher – with your kids, with other parents, with the community. If you hear groundless teacher-bashing, stop it. If it has grounds, challenge the person to take it to the right person to get the problem solved.

10. Vote. And I’ll be bold – vote Democrat. Right now, those are the people who are looking for common-sense solutions, equitable funding for all children and asking actual boots-on-the-ground folks for their input.

If you can’t do all of these things all at once, pick five and put them on your calendar. Get involved, speak up, be the change. Teachers need you. We absolutely do.

This year, I’m adopting the classroom of a friend who is beginning her first year of teaching in a low-performing school. I have her first care package ready to go and will send more throughout the year. Locally, I am looking for financial supporters to bring Communities in Schools to our district. We have such a high rate of poverty here that nearly all of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. In fact, the number of non-qualifying students is so low, that our district was easily able to cover the difference so that every child eats free on every campus. Let that sink in for a moment. Communities in Schools is a partnership between the district and CIS to identify and meet needs on campus to improve campus climate, learning, attendance, and graduation rate –  things that schools with high levels of low-SES students typically struggle with. If you want to know more about them, follow this link.

It’s just not enough to sit around and fault-find and complain. We can’t sit around wringing our hands and saying, “Back in my day…” longing for the way things used to be. (Hint: “the way things used to be” is only good for certain groups of people – it wasn’t rainbows and lollipops for everyone.) And it’s really a cop-out to shuttle your children to better schools, private, public, or in the home and say, “Well, MY kid is taken care of – my work here is done!” or “I pay my taxes – that’s my share!” It’s just not enough. We all have to do something to make it better for everyone.

So, what will you do? Be the change.

Where I’ve Been

Before I became a SAHM, I worked part-time and thought it was probably the best of both worlds, if both worlds were to be had. I multi-tasked. I got lots of things done. AND, I got to spend part of my day doing grown-up things, changing the world, yada yada, and part of the day doing mom things, changing the world, yada yada.

But when we decided to have  a second child and I looked at the costs of quality childcare and my paychecks, it was a no-brainer for me to stay home. Sure, we would have to forgo the yard guy and the cleaning lady, but I would be home to do the yard and the cleaning. I wouldn’t be able to drop a few hundred dollars every season on a new wardrobe, but I could just wear mom clothes – you know, jeans and tee shirts and comfy cardigans with a cute pair of shoes. And forget about the trendy hair cuts and nails, because who needs those when you’re cleaning toilets and sculpting play dough, right?

But the main reason I became a SAHM was because, for me, having “the best” of both worlds meant both worlds were rather mediocre. I received great reviews and my classes were thriving – but I knew that I could have been doing so much more for my students if I wasn’t also feeling the tug of hearth and home. My house was mostly clean and we ate many home-cooked meals, but I could be doing so much more if I wasn’t also feeling the weight of responsibilities at work.

I was convinced that things could be excellent instead of just acceptable if only I did one thing full-time. I chose motherhood. Sucker.*

Reality is that things are still fairly mediocre. The house is clean(ish), the laundry gets done (but not put away) and meals are usually at home (though they are often gross kid-friendly things like pizza and spaghetti). My kids certainly see more of me – a LOT more of me since we ended up homeschooling – but I can’t say that being home with my kids almost all the time has made me a better mother. Sacrilege.**

The fact is, I was better at the Hallmark-greeting-card motherhood stuff when I didn’t have to get to do it all the time. The thought process went something like, “I only get to see him three waking hours a day, so let’s make a memory!” Now I think, “Three more hours until bedtime?! You have got to be kidding me!!!”

So, in January, I decided maybe I should pursue some things for just me: exercise, creative writing, curriculum development. And those things were going well. I ran my first 5K in 10+ years, I got an offer for my first book, and people were requesting my curriculum creations. But, you know what wasn’t going well? The motherhood part of the equation. Not well at all.

Scooter started having more frequent temper tantrums. He lashed out at Cheech. He reverted in some key skills like sharing and falling asleep alone at night. But the final straw for this mama was when he started calling the stinkbugs at the park his best friends. Stinkbugs, y’all.

I’m sure it isn’t all due to me taking time for myself. I’m sure it has more to do with moving away from all of our friends and family, the trauma of a terrible school experience, so few activities in this neck of the woods, etc. But whatever the causes, the only thing I can really change is how I spend my own time.***

So, instead of working out/writing/developing curriculum, I’ve been doing anything and everything I can to get my son on solid ground and to make some friends other than Katie, the stinkbug. (They are all named Katie and he thinks he’s finding the same one every day. I’m not going to tell him otherwise.) I’ve been driving him all over kingdom come to camps and play dates. I’ve been making friends with moms who have children his age. We’ve put Cheech in a three-mornings-per-week daycare so that they both can have a break from each other. During that time, Scooter and I do stuff one-on-one.We have a lot of conversations about dinosaurs, animal habitats, and hypothetical situations involving tornadoes and flash floods.

And it’s helping I think. He’s doing better. And that has to be more important to me than that half I wanted to run or the book I wanted to publish. I think it would be to any parent. Do I wish it didn’t require so much of my time? Absolutely. It’s exhausting – especially those conversations about dinosaurs. Shoot me.

Someday, I can write a novel and run a half marathon and even go back to classroom teaching. But not today. And probably not tomorrow, either. But, I personally can’t be the mom my kids need AND write the next great American novel. But the blog will be here when I get back, right? I’ll just be hanging out with Scooter and the stinkbugs for awhile.2015-07-05 11.22.38

*I know, many will say, “Motherhood is your greatest work!” I hope not. Because I am just not very good at it, y’all. If this is my best, that’s just terribly sad.
**It’s just me I’m sure. All the other mommies in the Interwebz have got it all figured out and cherish every little moment with their precious snowflakes. I don’t deserve children. Yada yada.

***”Put him in school!” the people cry. The people don’t live here. The people don’t understand all the factors. Next year, people. Next year.

Weekly Flash Fiction Practice

Do you write flash fiction? Either as your primary form or as a way to practice writing?

book-thumbnailI was reintroduced to the form last year by my friend and mentor, Rachel Crawford, co-editor of Her: Texas, an anthology of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, song, painting and photography by 60+ Texas women. As with anything suggested by successful people in my life, I immediately wanted to know more.

What is it? Back in the day, we just called it a “short short story,” but kids these days call it “flash.” In a nutshell (a very small nutshell – think pistachio, not walnut), flash fiction is a complete story in very few words. It has a protagonist, conflict and a resolution. How many words exactly? Some sources say less than 2K, some say less than 1K. Micro-fiction, a sub-classification of flash fiction, is usually 300 words or less.

Who to read? Chances are you have already read some flash fiction if you’ve read short short stories by Chekhov, O. Henry, or Hemingway. Google “flash fiction” and you will find a treasure trove. Do your own homework and dive in, but for starters, here are 12 Super Short Stories You Can Read in a Flash. Bon appetit.

But I don’t just read flash for fun. I read it to learn. I write it to learn as well. My personal goal is to write 1-2 flash pieces per week. Here’s why.

1. The economy required necessitates doing away with all of the things that bog down the writing. I can’t waste words on backstory, telling instead of showing, dialogue tags, long-winded descriptions, or even adverbs. As my eleventh grade English teacher would say, “Omit useless words!” Every word has to have a purpose – preferably more than one. (If you’re reading this, Mrs. Stanton, you were right!)

2. It’s a great exercise in starting with the action. No one wants to read a story that starts with a preamble. And when writing flash, you can’t use up your word count including it. Stace Budzko, writer and Instructor of “10 Weeks/10 Stories” at Grub Street says, “Think: the final gesture of a love affair, or the start of a good old-fashioned gang fight.” (Read more here.) Who doesn’t love a good gang fight, amiright?

3. I like the high demand on my creative stores. Telling a story, creating a character the reader is invested in, and giving markers as to time and space in less than 1000 words? Challenge accepted.

4. This is a great way to make sure I write every day. If I’m stuck on a larger project, or simply in research phase, I can still do some actual writing (or revising) every day. It fits well with the rhythms of family life. When I’ve thought through what I want to write (usually while folding laundry, washing dishes or scrubbing toilets), I can shoo the kids out the door to hunt worms and frogs and just about the time they start fighting hammer and tongs, I have pounded out a draft of my 800 words. When they nap, I can revise (or write a blog post, or do some research, or whatever I want to get done that day).

5. When I pass it off to my writer friends for their feedback, it doesn’t require them to block out a day or longer to give it their full attention. They can read it, think about it, and respond with helpful comments in a few hours or less. I appreciate my friends’ willingness to help, and I don’t want to monopolize their time.

How do I do it? I get my ideas from interesting people I see or from events from real life. Next, I think about the story arc, about the conflict and how to best show the reader who the characters are. The number of characters is usually fewer than three, but this week’s work-in-progress has seven. Is each one a major player? Of course not. But if a high school English teacher forced a student to dissect the piece and give details about each character with supporting evidence from the text? Doable. (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Stanton.) Omitting useless words goes for speakers, too. Dialogue is sparse and multi-purpose. Generally, a speaker gets one sentence or phrase in the entire piece. There may only be one or two spoken phrases in total. In those phrases, I give hints as to character’s motivation and personality as well as drive the plot forward and/or reveal conflict.

Flash is a great exercise in saying exactly what I mean, and for me, a good way to get better at something I enjoy. It’s a game, an assignment, and it usually ends up in a drawer. But it’s fun and really gets my brain buzzing. Since I’ve cut back on caffeine, I really need that. Try it and let me know what you think.

Twitter Pitch Parties – Who Knew?

Recently, I participated in my first-ever Twitter pitch party. A pitch party is a writer’s opportunity to pitch their completed work in 140 characters or less using a hashtag watched by interested agents and editors for a window of time. If an editor/agent “favorites” your Tweet, it is an invitation to submit. No one else is supposed to “favorite,” since that would be a pretty dirty trick to get someone all excited that an agent/editor wants to see their manuscript just to discover you are also just a wannabe author living on diet soda and broken dreams.

My first hurdle: getting past my anxiety. By far the hardest thing about this getting published business is putting myself out there over and over again just to be ignored or rejected. It’s a little too much like junior high dances all over again. Gag me with a spoon. But, every rejection stings a little less and so I decided to take the plunge.

Next, you have to craft an enticing blurb about your book that is significantly less than 140 characters. I say “significantly less” because you have to leave room for hashtags as well: the event hashtag, your genre hashtag and your audience hashtag. That takes up a lot of Twitter real estate, so you have to be clever and concise. It is also recommended that you write several different blurbs to remain fresh and increase your chances of catching the eye of a variety of people.

Then, you have to make sure you follow the rules. Agents, editors and event hosts are watching and it wouldn’t make sense to annoy them all by committing Twitter pitch party faux pas. I’m not talking about wearing the same dress as another guest or double dipping a taco chip – I’m talking about tweet frequency. It is very bad manners to clog the feed by over-pitching your pitch. This particular event had a rule of no more than two tweets per hour. I set a timer. Yes, I’m a nerd like that.

So, armed with courage, blurbs and a timer, I invited myself to the party. (Please note: I did not wear an actual dress, but taco chips may have been consumed.)

What was it like? Really, it was a lot like a junior high dance. I followed the feed obsessively frequently throughout the day and saw some pitches I was like, “OMG. She’s, like, totally awesome! I want to be just like her!” and some that I secretly thought,, “Grody to the max!” I retweeted pitches I really liked to show solidarity, and some people retweeted mine. I followed new folks and they followed me. I mingled. I schmoozed. I tried to look totally rad.

But, the big question, as it is at all junior high dances, is, “Did anyone ask you to dance?”

And the answer is…yes! I got two invitations to submit. I checked their submission requirements, formatted my materials as requested, tailored my pitch and now…we just wait to see if we’ll go all the way. (Ew…did I take the metaphor too far? Too far. Sorry.)

I also got some new followers and made some new pals who are also writers which is very exciting as well.

Does a Twitter pitch party sound like fun to you?

Update: This is the party that never ends, folks! I checked my social media this morning and found another “favorite” from a literary agent. Woohoo! Do I feel like the belle of the ball, or what?!? (I feel like the belle. Definitely the belle.)

Free Printable: Apes & Alligators Game

Does your child need more practice with short- and long-vowel words? With silent  final “e”? Scooter sure does! But, of course, I might as well ask him to clean the cat box rather than attempt to get him to practice these phonics skills with flash cards or leveled readers!

I can get him to practice, however, with my free printable Apes & Alligators Game! Not only will he practice, but he will beg to practice over and over again.

Like my Baking with Blends game, it is simple in concept. Scooter was quick to notice that it is basically the same game – except the board runs the other direction and the colors are different. However, he really does love this game and it is working beautifully to get him to practice.

Let me know if you use this with your children and what creative ways you come up with to use the “Bonus” squares. I’d like to hear from you.

Free Unit Study: China

This week, we will be learning about Ancient China, my inspiration for the China Unit Study which you can download free.

We continue using Story of the World Volume 1: Ancient Times as our spine for social studies,  literature and fine arts and as a supplement to our curriculum for math and science. And as usual, this unit incorporates activities based on classical homeschooling, Charlotte Mason, unit study, lap-booking and Five in a Row and hits many subject areas including math and science.

In addition to the SOTW  Volume 1  text and activity book you will need Chinese Myths (Myths from Many Lands), by Jane Bingham. (Or similar).

Chinese Myths coverI also suggest A Faith Like Mine once again as well as My First Book of Chinese Words: An ABC Rhyming Book.

A Faith Like Mine cover art

 

 

 

 

My First Book of Chinese Words cover

 

The Jane Bingham book provides several excellent parallel myths for the creation and flood stories. The illustrations are colorful, but not scary, and the text is easy enough for a newly fluent reader to read independently.

Activities  in this unit include: map work, reading/listening, narration, making lap-book items, listening to Chinese music, working with adjectives, creating pictograms, cooking Asian Noodle Soup, measurement and making a panda mask. This unit also includes a technology component – looking at kid-friendly sites for facts about Giant Pandas and even watching the panda cam at the San Diego Zoo! So much cuteness!

If you are unfamiliar with lap-booking, I recommend checking out In the Hands of a Child. and their section explaining all things lap-book. (I am not affiliated with In the Hands of a Child.)

As always, you should pick and choose what works for you. And please let me know if you use this with your children. I’d especially love to see your little pandas in their masks!

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase through one of these links, I get noodle money.)

Happy Limericks Day! Party Hard!!!

Well, now that Mother’s Day is over, was it as awesome as you dreamed?

No. Of course not. Because all the most awesome holidays are awesome because mothers do all the work.

But, do not despair! A truly awesome holiday that is awesome all on its own with very little assistance from moms is tomorrow! Yes, Tuesday, May 12, is Limericks Day. Woohoo! I know you’ve been waiting all year and planning a Pinterest-worthy party! I know I have been! (Not really.) But, I did think the day was worthy of a few original limericks. And if you feel inspired, comment with your own! I’d truly love to hear them.

Ahem.

A mom had a toddler of three
Who was trying to learn to go wee
On his own little seat
But he peed on his feet –
A wet little toddler was he.

The laundry is calling my name.
Ev’ryday, its shrill call is the same.
“Come, wash your clothes!
Folks are holding their nose!”
But Facebook will still win the game.

Oh, what should this mom make for lunch?
For my picky, yet gluttonous bunch?
Macaroni and cheese,
Or fish sticks and peas?
Who knows what the hell they will munch!

I took my foul car to be cleaned
And was so embarrassed I screamed –
Three meals’-worth of food
A diaper he’d pooed –
It was so much worse than I’d dreamed.

There once was a mom from Nantucket,
Who tired of her mop and her bucket.
Each time that she’d mop,
Someone would barf in a glop,
So she finally, said, “Oh, well! Forget it!” (See what I did there?)

Happy Limericks Day. Party responsibly.