Not Back To School

UnschoolingbusIt’s that time of year again– yellow buses, backpacks, lunch boxes, and first day of school jitters.

The back-to-school scene is a bit different in our household. My daughter begins her sophomore year of high school and her 9th year of homeschooling. No bus, no hall pass, no lunchroom, no recess, no homework.

She’ll be taking on a rigorous program of study tailored to her abilities and interests including ballet, music, screenwriting, and drama. 

Thanks to the many opportunities for homeschoolers in our area, my daughter has taken wilderness training, zoo school, MIT workshops, drama and art classes, and a host of field trips.

When we first began our homeschool journey. We grew to enjoy the flexibility and efficiency it offered. My daughter learned, explored, made friends, and honed her talents.

Since she began homeschooling, I managed to work part-time by teaching, consulting, and writing.

Homeschooling takes a lot of energy and time, but it also gives me a lot more time with my daughter. She is my youngest child and the only one not attending college. So, the time together is especially meaningful. Last year we took a field trip to Washington, D.C. which my daughter was responsible for planning.

When people hear that she is homeschooled, they often assume that I do all the teaching. Over the years, my daughter has had other teachers. She’s taken online courses, science and enrichment classes, joined study groups, and been involved in a school pilot program. Next year, she’s likely to take a community college course. Gradually, I’ve become more of a guide and coach to my daughter, as she directs most of her education.

And so, here we are today, on the college track, with full intention of a homeschool graduation in 2016.

As happy and well-adjusted as my daughter is, I still get bouts of parental angst (mostly 3:00 am).  Does she need a wider circle of friends? Is she getting a strong enough Jewish education? Will she know how to study for tests?  (She doesn’t take many.) Will she be fluent in Spanish? I even wonder if missing all that high school drama and the girl cliques will somehow put her at a disadvantage.

We all want the best for our children, so second-guessing our choices comes with the job description. Our desire to “get it right” sometimes makes us feel that others are getting it wrong. Read any article or news story on homeschooling and you’ll find commentators attacking this choice, claiming that it is inferior to public school, that children won’t be “socialized”, that we “shelter” our kids, on and on.

Never mind that they may have never even met a homeschooler before!

Underlying these negative comments and defensiveness (on both sides), may be our own insecurities. We want our choice to be the “right” choice.

I don’t question other parents’ school choice and I ask the same in return. I am fortunate to have a choice, and it’s what works best for our family right now.

Homeschooling is not for everyone. My choice not to send my daughter to traditional school does not say anything about your choice. I’m simply an advocate of learning,  whatever form it takes for your child to thrive.

Wishing you a successful and exciting school year!

A Great Teacher Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for that special teacher? A gift that she/he probably doesn’t already have?

I recommend the beautiful picture book , Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom & Wishes by Susan V. Bosak.  Published in 2004, this gem has received numerous awards.  The book poetically explores hopes and dreamsthroughout the arc of one’s lifetime.

Dreams cover

The story is multi-layered and can be appreciated by young children and older teens as well.  Aspiring artists will appreciate the full-color illustrations by 15 top world illustrators.  Each page has an inspirational quote and a hidden star for the reader to find.

The narrator not only encourages young people to dream but to to action: “You need the Believe of childhood, the Do of youth, and the Think of experience.”

As a teacher, this is just the kind of gift book I’d love to receive.  It works for multi-age groups and can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Dream was published as a part of the Legacy Project’s LifeDreams program. The website offers terrific ideas for literacy and cross-curricular activities.

I discovered  Dream a few years ago when I began searching for projects to inspire kids to set goals and imagine their future. Now I use the book as part of my writing workshops and presentations. At my latest educational workshop: Raising Girls to Dream Big, a young couple showed up with their newborn daughter. I was thrilled to have these first-time parents in attendance.  I congratulated them for getting an early start on raising a child with hopes and dreams.

So now I’ve adding Dreams to my list of meaningful baby gifts, as well as teacher gifts.

Happy Holidays!

The Muggles took Manhattan and I stayed home.

Last Tuesday, Oct. 16th, J.K. Rowling made her only public appearance in the US,  and I missed it.

Ms. Rowling was interviewed by writer Anne Patchett at Lincoln Center in NYC, and then spoke, read, and signed her new book,  A Casual Vacancy. Somehow, I had missed the initial announcement in September when tickets went on sale, so I didn’t find out about Ms. Rowling’s appearance until October 8th while reading Dan Blank’s blog. Dan was running a contest to give away 2 tickets to writers who have been inspired by Rowling’s work.(Who hasn’t?)  I felt a few seconds of excitement at the prospect of winning the tickets.

Did I even enter? No.

Reason? Door to door it would take me about 6 hours to get there by train. (I certainly didn’t want to drive by myself from Boston to NYC.) That would mean missing work Tuesday morning.  Then, I’d have to stay overnight. Where would I stay? A hotel would be way too expensive.Then I’d miss work Wednesday morning, I might not get back in time for Audrey’s dance rehearsal…. You get the picture.

My pragmatism overshadowed the chance for a once-in-a-life opportunity.

This wasn’t the first time I had missed an opportunity to meet J.K. Rowling. In 1999, when my oldest daughter was 8, a friend of mine called saying, “The author of that Harry Potter book your daughter liked so much is at the Barnes and Nobles right now signing books!”

This was way before J.K. Rowling’s mega-author status.  Emily was jumping up and down.  “Can we go, Mom?”

I called the book store to check and was told, yes, indeed, Ms. Rowling was signing. There was a line out the door! They estimated the wait at one hour.  I told Emily that by the time we got there, the wait might be two hours, and her little sister wouldn’t be able to wait in line, and who knows, we might not get in anyway.

So we didn’t go, and I attended to whatever other pressing matter I had at the time.

My daughter didn’t get her book  signed or have a photo taken her new favorit author, who would go on to write 6 more HP books.

And if you think my daughter has forgotten, think again. She still has her tattered , unsigned copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Emily (a.k.a. Leah E. Caras) and I amusingly refer to this incident as an example of short-term thinking. Not seeing ‘the forest through the trees’.

And, Mom’s lack of spontaneity.

Once upon a time, I was a heck of a lot more adventurous. That was BC–before children, when being a risk-taker seemed more suitable. But spontaneity?   I don’t like unpredictable situations. Ditto for big changes. I like order.  I am never late. I have always been a thoughtful decision- maker and a planner.

Had I been given adequate prior notice for both these J.K. Rowling events, I would have made the necessary arrangements to attend. Hey, with my strategic planning skills, I’d have been first in line!

When I heard the coverage of the latest event on NPR, I felt like the kid left out of the big party.  Over 2000 adults showed up for Rowling’s book debut.  One woman traveled from Paris!  Others came from Florida, Ohio, Arkansas. And I was sweating the a 4-5 hour train ride?  I thought about how excited my kids–all huge HP fans– would have been for me. ( Not to mention my students and blog readers.)

I consoled myself by saying I probably wouldn’t have won the tickets, anyway…

But this incident got me thinking about other opportunities I have passed up due to lack of spontaneity–example: a free trip to Israel (bad-timing).  Most of them, I can honestly say, I regret not taking. In retrospect, I can see how I might have been able to make the nitty-gritty details work.

I also remember a few times, when pushed, I jumped. Case in point: appearing on the Lifetime TV show, The Balance Act.  My daughter, 19 at the time, landed an interview about her publishing business, Yaldah Media, Inc.  The producer wanted me to join her. I can’t even remember what reasons I gave EmilyLeah for not wanting to do it. (Finding coverage for my CEO Mom job?  Flying to Florida by myself?)

“Are you crazy, Mom? she said over the phone. “You are going to pass up a chance to promote your book on national TV?”

The experience turned out to be a fun mother/daughter trip. I learned about television production and sold a lot of books!

Perk: I got to meet fitness guru Denise Austin while we were having our make-up done. And, since my sister and parents live in Florida, I got a quick visit with them.

So my friends, I am publicly announcing that, from here on, I will strive to seize the moment and grab an opportunity when it comes my way. I may need a little coaching to get there, but, as they say in recovery, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  I hope to report on my progress in future blogs.

Addendum:  I am happy to tell you that I actually did get a chance to see J.K. Rowling in person. In 2008, Ms. Rowling was the Harvard University commencement speaker. Being an alumna, I received much advanced notice of the event, as well as two complimentary tickets. I’ll never forget my ten-year-old daughter’s face as her beloved author took the podium and the crowd cheered.

It was pure magic.

Are you a spontaneous person?  How do you know whether to say ‘yes‘ when an opportunity presents itself?  

Celebrating Summer’s Swan Song


Sometime back when my kids were all in preschool/elementary school, I started the tradition of giving them each a book bucket on the last day of school.  This was simply a beach bucket with their name on it.  Tucked inside were paperbacks for summer reading.  I also included: puzzle books, comics, magazines, stickers, journals, bookmarks, pens, stationary, and the summer reading club sheet from our library and B&N. I tied a balloon to each bucket and then surprised the kids when they came home from school.

With celebratory music playing in the background, I’d congratulate them on a successful school year. Then we’d ring in summer vacation.

The kids loved this and it became a yearly ritual until graduation from high school. (Two down, one to go.) As the kids got older, I tailored the books to their interests. (This summer my daughter’s book bucket included a much coveted Hunger Games Movie guide.) Anticipation for the buckets began around June 1st.  The kids loved comparing their book bucket photos from year-to-year.

Thankfully, all three of my children enjoy books and creative writing.  Recently, I had the unanticipated pleasure of bringing my first grandchild her book bucket of baby books. I hope her mom will continue the tradition.

The book bucket idea came naturally to me as a reading teacher, book lover, writer,  and later, homeschooling mom.  But there is another reason: my love of summer.  Of course, no matter what I do to try to make the summer stretch out or to slow down, it always seems to pass in a blip.

When my fourteen-year-old daughter came down for breakfast yesterday, she sleepily said: “Mom? Is it really September 1st today?”

I gave her a hug.

“But I still haven’t finished my book bucket!”

Like me, she is definitely sad to see summer go.

As I write this post on the last official weekend of the summer season, it occurred to me that maybe we need an End of Summer ritual–a way of letting go and embracing the fall.  I’m not sure I could actually call it a “celebration”, like  at the beginning of summer, but I need some way to envision the upcoming school year without getting stuck in a snow scene.

So for starters, I decided to make a Looking Forward list that my daughter and I could write together, then display in our homeschool room.  This list would include events, happenings, and trips that we are looking forward to in the fall, winter, and spring.  We could add to the list as new items come our way.  Everyone needs something to look forward to, right?

Here’s what I came up with so far:

*Planning our mom/daughter trip to Washington, D.C

*Going to Albany to play with baby Chaya (her niece/my grand daughter)

*Visiting Sam at college

*Hot cocoa mornings  (Not sure about this one)

*Cousin Akiva’s bar mitzvah

So maybe the Looking Forward list, along with a final swim in our town lake, will become the ritual for celebrating summer’s swan song.

How do you say good-bye to summer? (Or hello to fall?)

Writing From A Place of Honesty

Image   I love reading memoirs. I am fascinated by how a writer structures the chaos and complexities of a life into a narrative.  I also wonder how you get over the fear of exposure, of being judged, of hurting friends and family? As Anne Lamont says, “We write to expose the unexposed.”   How many writers out there still fear exposure, though, when we live in an age of overexposure?

I am a private person, and have become more so as I’ve gotten older.  In this cyber age of platform building and social networking, no writer is an island.  Nor can she afford to be.  I may have the life material to craft a compelling memoir, but I am not ready to run naked through the streets. And I may never be. For now, I prefer to select excerpts from my life. Exploring ideas, insights, and truths in this way allows me to both shape and contain the experience and still keep some curtains closed.

This June, I opened a curtain when my essay, “Letting Go” was published in Tablet Magazine.  The personal essay expressed my mixed feelings about my 20-year-old daughter’s engagement and marriage. I hope my experience would help other parents of kids who take-off early.  Tackling this particular topic was a big leap in terms of of my comfort level. The published piece is much different than the one I had originally submitted.  The editor, Wayne Hoffman, pushed me to dig deeper–to write from a place of truth and honesty–from the heart. I almost didn’t make the requested revisions, but once I worked through the fear of vulnerability, I found my real voice. The result was very satisfying.  An added bonus was when the Tablet editor called to say how much he loved my revised essay.

Readers responded to this honesty. The online comments and email feedback, mostly positive, provided me an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).

Evelyn

I’m sitting at my desk at work wiping tears from my cheeks. Your article is so beautiful and right on target. It resonates so deeply- you captured the emotions and dialogue perfectly.  

“Letting Go” was picked up by the New York Times Motherlode blog the same day it appeared in the Tablet. Instantly, my audience (and exposure) widened. Blogger KJ Dell’Antonia invited readers to share thoughts on the topic of marrying at a very young age.  I was surprised by how many NYT commenters seemed not to have read my entire essay, yet still had a strong opinion about it.  Writing openly about your life opens you up to the critics, of course. No dodging that bullet. The diverse reactions on Motherlode reminded me how we each project our life view into what we read and that being “open-minded” is easier said than done.

So, my advice to other private-by-nature people who want to write about very personal experiences in today’s online world? Grow a thick skin; you won’t die of exposure.

And what about you? Do you find it hard to draw the curtains when you write about your life?  How do you decide what is okay to reveal about family members, especially your children?  Or are you happy to run naked through the streets?

A Parent’s Dream

I’m busy working on my presentation for the State of Maryland International Reading Association Conference. I’ll be speaking with my daughter, Leah Larson Caras, founder and publisher of Yaldah Media, Inc., Wed. March 26th.  Topic: A Parent’s Dream.  I’ll trace my journey from teaching first grade to publishing my first novel while raising an entrepreneur.  Thurs. evening I’ll talk about my book along with a slew of other children’s authors at the Author’s & Desserts event.  Looking forward to meeting inspiring educators and authors. Let me know if you’ll be attending or in the Baltimore area.