Wednesday, March 31, 2010

'Tis the Season...

With traveling, I missed Palm Sunday and now I'm realizing that Easter is this weekend. I don't go all overboard with flowers and bunny crafts and stuff like that at all, but I do like to do a few of those things. Also, I think it's important to spend time talking about the meaning of Easter (obviously). Now that we attend a non-denominational church, one that doesn't pay much attention to the church calendar that other Protestant churches do, I realize how much I rely on those calendar times (Lent, Pentacost, Advent, etc.) and how changes in the appearance of the church and the service direct your attention and focus to those times. Last Easter Sunday I was so disappointed at church because nothing was different. No Easter hymns--just the same praise and worship music we had on all the other days. I was definitely let down and did not feel the same sense of joy that I usually feel at church on that day.

Given all of that, when I saw this painting at the Louvre last week, I felt something, but I'm not sure it was joy and wonder. No, that's not true. I did wonder.

*I wondered who this Jesus was.

*I wondered why he was so muscular and why his head was so tiny.

*I wondered by his feet look like he's been wearing flip flops all his life. (see how his big toe is further away from the others?)

*I wondered why he looks like he's walking on a tight rope.

*I wondered what those other two women are whispering about. Maybe they, like I, are wondering how that cloth is staying magically fixed on his hip.

*I wondered why he's carrying a shovel. Did he have to dig his way out of the tomb?

*I wonder if I'm being too irreverent. I mean, I'm talking about a picture of Jesus, not the actual person. But still...

*I wonder what it says about me that I wondered these things. I'll be the first to admit I know very little about art and I understand that knowing more would greatly enhance my ability to understand and appreciate what I see. I also admit that I'm not super interested in doing that--you know, knowing more. The result being--I stand in a breathtaking museum, surrounded by priceless works of art, and wonder why WJHHS (Why Jesus has a shovel).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Because it really was all about Noah.

Any of you who know Noah know that he is a whole lotta boy in a wiry package. He is perpetually in motion-- always acting out some inner movie (of which he appears to be the star and is always in mortal danger) and seems really generally unaware of the world around him. Life comes at him and while he picks up a lot when you think he's not paying attention, it turns out he was. When we got to the Louvre we went to the Mona Lisa right away to avoid the crowds and he was ready to leave after his 30 seconds were done. We did stay for over 3 hours, though! Talking to him generally revolves around talking about what he's reading--right now it's castles and weapons and story ideas he has. This week was great for us--we often knock heads and this was 10 days of plenty of opportunities to do that and it went so smoothly. It's rare for a middle child to have so much time with a parent by himself and he really enjoyed that, I think.

Sharpened stick in castle ruins = potential vampire threat.

This shot is called "The Big Lie." Noah was spectacularly uninterested in any of the churches.

Someone needs to stay away from carbs--hard to do in France when one is addicted.

We have very few photos of Noah just...being. As in still, and facing the camera, and still. Any picture where that happens is a gem. I was lucky enough to get 2-3 on this trip.
They're my favorites.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Get Ready for SERIOUS Book Envy, People.

Look at what I was reading this afternoon. No, really look at it. As in, click on it and blow up the picture. Do you see what it is? Do you see who wrote it? It's only the very first English dictionary, written by Samuel Johnson, first printing in 1786. It's only 1 of 5 remaining copies. IN. THE. WORLD. And, as I am typing this, it's sitting not 10 feet from me. Just sitting on an ordinary desk under an ordinary lamp covered by an ordinary cloth. No musty archives, or white gloves. Just a book.
I spent an hour reading just the preface and it was fascinating. How much has language changed in the past 230 years? Yet his sections on grammar and orthography are spot on today. What we've been learning from Melvyn this week--it's all right there. What the hell have we been doing all this time?
Quote of the day, appropos perhaps, in light of the health care debate: "Change is inconvenient, whether it is for the better or for the worse."
So if reading the dicitionary is nerdy, then make me a T-shirt and print me a certificate. I'm loud and proud to be a member of that club.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dreaming (because nothing's open right now).

Before we moved to Tanzania, I made a list of things I'd want if I lived overseas. I wanted to live in a small town (or at least one that had a small-town feel). I wanted warm weather. I wanted English to not be the primary language. I wanted whatever language that was spoken to be written with the same alphabet we use in English. I wanted a place where my kids could go to good schools in English (given that we don't speak another language). I wanted a place that was politically stable.

Minneapolis was a great great place to live and if we had never left, I would never have regretted raising my family there. It's not a small town, but it is a small city for being a pretty major national player and I think it does have a small town feeling to it. But I never. ever. liked the weather.

Arusha fit the bill. The weather in Arusha was absolutely perfect. Seriously. I learned the language and would have gotten better had I stayed on. It was diverse--something I didn't know that I would appreciate so much.

Beijing...well, let's just say it's not those things. So they don't speak English, but turns out that's not making up for the other junk. Turns out pollution is much higher on my radar than it used to be.

Cluis...OK, seriously, I'm not moving to France. Yet. My kids really can't go to a French school and the thing about having jobs and making money seems to be a sticking point at this time in our lives. But should that stop a person from looking?

The kids can't go to school until they are academically fluent in French so it's going to be homeschooling. Sadly, however, we will need to work. Using my amazing powers of French and deduction, I believe the sign in the upper right window says "for rent." Using my amazing bargianing powers, honed in developing countries, I will get that flower shop below for a song. Since the flowers already come looking very pretty in pots, I don't have to actually KNOW anything about them. I'm sure I can learn all the French words for different colors pretty quickly.

Maybe the shopkeeper's life is not for me. I grew up in Montana, I owned horses, I've milked cows. Maybe what I need is a small farm. Hard outdoor work suits homeschooling, we'd have a horse or two, a couple BIG dogs...I could sell milk and eggs. Theoretically, I could learn to make some crazy fancy butter that would make me rich. I'd steer away from cheese, though. These people already have a lock on that. This sweet place is a looks like it used to be a barn. It has at least 3 other barns (one of which could be repurposed into guest rooms for travelers on the Compostela Trail or as guest rooms per the custom here). There are fields and green grass aplenty for the 10 or so cows, and neighbors that look like they could talk me out of any trouble I'd get into.

There is the fixer-upper possibility. Paris is known for its flea markets and, given the casual attitude towards things old here, I should be able to snap up a whole bunch of stuff at reasonable prices. There are a baJILLION sites devoted to women who can transform anything with a can of spray paint and a hot glue gun. This balcony will be transformed into something irresistable and I WILL have working shutters on the doors and windows (red, please, not blue).
I can rent out rooms, but Mark would still need work--that modern heating system I'm going to install won't come cheap.

Memo to self...avoid new French-looking houses. They may be less work, but they are clearly devoid of personality and style. Also, spend some time getting a really cool gate. It matters.

Impossible? Just remember, someone bought this entire CASTLE 25 years or so ago for the low low price of $162,000. I bet he thinks it was worth it, even if he does have to let people basically go in and out of his house every day.

Did I mention that I read Under the Tuscan Sun at least twice a year?

Where will you live in your next real or imagined life? Is it an actual place or something you need that you might find in many places?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Real Spelling

I guess I should correct the impression that Noah and I are here in France because he needed a spelling tutor. Real Spelling is far far more than spelling and I can guarantee that some people who read this blog (that YOU Karen, Lucy, and Ave) would give their kidney to sit at the table with Melvyn Ramsden. He really is a genius--he didn't learn to read or write until he was 10, has mirror laterally (meaning he can't tell his right from his left, he writes normally with his right hand, but backwards like DaVinci with his left), and was a King's College scholar at Cambridge. He reads, writes and speaks English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic--but probably more. He's a linguist who has studied the English language and basically codified a system of spelling for the English language. He's quick to say this is not a method or a program or something's he's developed--it's a pulling together of what linguists have understood for many many years to be true in a way that is accessible and user-friendly for people.

It is an enormous paradigm shift from what we've all be taught about words and spelling, even though we intuitively know that the way we've approached spelling in the past hasn't been very effective. How many times have we all said, "People are born good or bad spellers and that is that." Those who are good at it (like me) have no idea why we are; those that are bad have not had a lot of success becoming good spellers. Research shows that remediating spelling is very difficult and there really is no effective way to do it. Phonics is a system based on sounds, and when spelling is based on or connected to phonics, you end up with the idea that English is very confusing and full of exceptions. Melvyn, and other linguists, understand that you can't understand and work with words in isolation and that the way they are spelled is connected to the meaning. All words have a base element and are added to by prefixes and suffixes. Understanding the structure of how a word is built, understanding what words are related to it and understanding that the spelling is not representing the sound of a word, but rather its meaning, is the key. Because you end up looking at word families, you build vocabulary in astonishing ways. It's very intuitive--you can't teach any one aspect in isolation.

It's really absolutely fantastic. Melvyn is completely totally passionate about words and languages. He's also an academic and hates anything to do with education, so you can imagine me sitting at the table 3 times a day hearing about how education and teachers are getting it all wrong inside out and upside down! When I'm working with him, he won't touch "how" to teach anything. He only focuses on the orthography of the words. Nerd alert here, but I could work on this stuff all day and it would feel like 10 minutes. Looking at the etymologies of words, where they come from, how they're connected, how meanings have changed, is fascinating.

And that's what the kids do. We are implementing the Real Spelling approach (using a teaching system called Word Works) and it is challenging, to say the least. Most of us have never ever been exposed to looking at words like this, and the depth of knowledge you have to develop is considerable. It's pretty intimidating and easy to feel like you know nothing. We have lots of new teachers every year and turn over 25% of our students each year, so it's a challenge to get everyone on the same page. But it makes so much sense and normalizes English in a way that works. Really, all the "exceptions" are gone. You don't ask a child to "sound it out", but instead ask them to spell it, say it, do they know what it means, can they think of any other words that might be related? Believe it or not, there is a 1 page flowchart that will tell you how to correctly add any suffix to any English word. That's pretty amazing. There are also online word checkers and etymologies kids (and teachers) can use. It would be fantastic for homeschoolers and people who are drawn to more classical education.
So, Noah. He does struggle with writing (although his improvement this year has been so great) and spelling is very weak. He approaches it from a phonetic approach and it doesn't work. This opportunity was not just about him being a better speller, per se. It was about giving him the confidence to see that there is logic to our language and that he can be in control of his writing. It's a chance to develop some of those foundational skills and understandings that we can continue to build on. When he's working with Noah and complimenting him and talking about how schools do a disservice to kids and treating him like an adult, I can really see him connecting, even if Noah doesn't say much at the time.

Noah won't come home a new and improved speller. He will come home more confident, able to work with some new tools that will allow him to be more independent, and have a way to increase his vocabulary and understanding of the world by using those tools. So that's making it worth it to us.

Pete Bowers developed a program called Wordworks and he works with schools to implement what Melvyn does within the educational system. Melvyn's Real Spelling site is here and Word Work by Pete Bowers's Word Works site is here if you want to know more.

Vive la France, baby!

Did I happen to mention I'm in FRANCE? As in EUROPE, people. A place I've never been to until this week. It goes without saying, then, that the French have had a LOT to carry on their collective shoulders, as I may tend to judge not only the town and the country, but the entire continent on my experiences here. So what if it's wrong to do that?

*How come when something great happens, or I see something completely wonderful, my first thought is, "Man, I really do have to get to Italy?"

*The Chinese may be gunking up the air and the water, but man do they have some clean streets (dog poop and peeing babies notwithstanding). HINT HINT Paris.

*Things are closed on Sundays. I mean really really closed. As in, don't even think about buying a cough drop. Unless you can buy it at a cafe, because there are at least 7 on every block and they're all open. A question like, "Where can I buy a SIM card" or "Can I get some batteries" will result in a blank stare.

*Speaking of cafes...are the French either genetically programmed to say no to irresistable breads and cheeses? Or are they genetically programmed to somehow avoid the pounds that I know I'd pack on with a boulangerie on every corner. Karen suggested that you walk it off more there, but the fact that there are cafes and boulangeries every 10 feet seems to negate that. And don't get all Nancy Reagan with the "just say no" thing because I happen to know that I am genetically programmed to be unable to utter that word when confronted with cheese and bread and Diet Coke. "Enable" is not a dirty word in the same way say, "exercise" is. And, appropos of absolutely nothing, I think gold money is totally cool. So are gargoyles.

*Why is everything so charming? Is American charming? Really charming, not charming as an affected state, like Poulsbo being a Norwegian community or colonial Williamsburg or Balboa with what must be a bajillion codes to keep it looking like that. You know, just organically naturally charming.

*Damn, it's expensive. Our hotel room had enough room for 2 suitcases stacked. And 2 beds. It You can't believe what I paid. Ouch! And the stairs--I don't mind carrying up my big suitecase 3 flights at all. It's a bit trickier when said stairs are actually spiral and are just as wide as the suitcase itself. Hmmmm--how many times do I buck that bag up those stairs to earn another Camembert/chevre baguette?

*While I speak neither French nor Chinese, it's possible to impress a Chinese woman on the subway with my ability to read the subway stops. It's equally possible to probably insult all the French people on the same subway with my wretched pronunciation when I do actually speak out loud.

*I miss small towns. Green fields. People that know each other's history and business. Quiet places that are actually people-free. Space.

*People here take history with a casual air. It's no big deal that there are 2 Roman sarcophagi with bones in them in the cellar of the town hall. Or that the house we're staying in is over 275 years old and has beams held together with wooden pins. Or that those beams were clearly used somewhere before this house. Castle ruins down the road? Oh, just part of the scenery.

*I will NEVER want a small car. There, I admit it. I will always want an SUV even though I am spewing toxins right and left. My current car would not make some of the corners in this village.
*Back to clean--that was just Paris. Cluis is very very very clean.

*Real Spelling rocks. Why are we all wasting our time with anything else?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

...And the Beat Goes On...

Another round of birthdays passes, another year older. I could wax poetic about it all, but honestly...what can you say when your children go from this...

To this...
To this...

Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.

Sigh....I love these guys.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's Serious Business Here, Folks.

I hate to generalize, but...Asians (at least Chinese and Koreans) take things seriously when it comes to their kids. Not a lot is left to chance, so that's where tutors come into play. Not just your ordinary English or Chinese or math tutors, either. My students have swimming tutors, music tutors, drawing tutors, and sports tutors (basically private coaches) as well as academic tutors. They may be outstanding students in school, but still be tutored privately. Korean students also have Korean academy, basically a second round of school all in Korean. If there's something that they would like their kids to be interested in, they seem to turn to tutors. Just "messing around" and exploring things is less a part of their approach. It often makes for overtaxed overworked kids. On the other hand,
if your kids have spent their free time dueling with big sticks, hanging at the beach over the summer, and going to fishing camp, it can be hard to keep up. It's definitely an area where you see the values different cultures place on down time, on exploring, on unstructured learning and learning through play.

And, judging from this ad placed in our expat online forum, it starts early.
My son, 3 years old, is very into lego at the moment. I was wondering if any lego education centre near the east third ring road. Or if any freelancer who can come to our apartment or clubhouse (then I may invite other kids to join too).
Yep, I think she's looking for a Lego tutor.
*On the Time cover, see the kid on the left in the blue shirt with the backpack? Points if you can name the hit TV show he's currently on.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

ISB Temple Fair

Temple fairs were begun in the 10th century and continued formally through the early 0th century and the Qing dynasty. Temples celebrated the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, while merchants set up booths outside. Gradually many fairs became more secular and now include performers, crafts, and foods for sale. During the Spring Festival (the week of Chinese New Year) most parks and temples have a temple fair. We haven't been...they are so crowded you literally can not move! ISB's temple fair is a less chaotic. The Chinese department shines as the kids show the songs, dances, and other performances they learn in their classes. All Chinese students, from kindergarden through 5th grade, perform. There's lots of red everywhere so even a cold dreary February day looks pretty festive!

Ava's (that's her on the right in the pink) class did a wu shu routine (a type of martial arts). She was pretty much overcome with embarrassment about the whole performance thing--it's that more than the cold that kept her face tucked into her coat! Noah did also did a type of martial arts routine, but seemed to have his eyes on a little cutie in the front row, so he looked a bit distracted (please Lord, don't let that be starting!) There were also dragon dances, chinese yo-yos, and drumming. What the kids love best, though, is that they're out of school for the afternoon to wander, buy trinkets, watch their friends, and play games.

Oh, and food. If there's one thing you can count on here, it's that if there's a group of people (and seriously, when isn't there a group of people in this country?) there's going to be food. Which is true, I suppose, for most everyone. Maybe that's why everywhere we go we feel like we're at Grand Old Days or something! I had to spend an hour monitoring the jian bing cart--delicious thin pancakes cooked like on a flat grill like a crepe. Add some egg, green onion, some sort of brown sauce, and some mystery cracker things, fold 'em up, and YUM! All for about 50 cents. You wouldn't think pancake management was a big deal, but HAH. It's one thing when the kids rush up and forget their line basics, but adults--sheesh. I showed a man where the other 8 people were lined up and he replied, "I'm just getting one." Yeah, you and everyone else, Buckwheat. At least three other women professed amazement: "Oh, we have to queue up? " Um, yeah. That's what we spend time teaching your children, you know...line up, take your turn, or a teacher will yell at you.

But the food...cold weather foods reign. Noodles (handmade and handstretched) are a fantastic treat. I'm not a sweet potato person, but hot roasted sweet potatos sold from the back of a bicycle cooker must be one of the best smells of a Beijing winter. Maybe I should start a baking potato cooker for those tiny new-skinned potatos with a light coat of olive oil and then baked with flaked salt, garlic, and rosemary. Another cooker with just big baked potatos-cheese, sour cream, chives, and bacon bits included. Wowza.

The treat that takes the cake are sugared fruit, called tanhulu. When it gets warmer you'll see strawberries, grapes, oranges, kiwi, pineapple, and watermelon, but I think these Hawthorn apples are the very best. And they are the very very VERY best if you can score one fresh out of the sugar syrup. A bonus if they get wrapped in rice paper, which the kids think is funny to eat. Hawthorn apples have the consistency of a slightly soft apple, but are tart like a crabapple. DELICIOSO!

I think the smile says it all!