Reading…

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A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin

I am absolutely devouring this book of short stories by the late Lucia Berlin. I’m not usually a big reader of short stories, but now I’m questioning all that. This book is filled with the complexities of life — the hardships and the beauty, and the characters are just so real. It’s easy to sit down and read one story over a cup of coffee, then think about it for the rest of the day. A marvelous read!

Weekend Shenanigans

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It was a peaceful weekend. Somehow we’ve found our groove, hitting the good spot within our family, where brothers play for hours on end without much incident (though there are plenty of crying bouts, they work it out in no time, as the alternative is to sit out and watch the other two have fun). Oliver was motivated to earn some extra spending money ($1 per floor of the house vacuumed seemed like a reasonable price to me!) and there was plenty of playground time, with lost socks and tracked-down shoes because yes, even in February my boys somehow end up shoeless and sweaty. But it was really peaceful. I can see how we are hitting the sweet spot in ages — Emil is quite independent at four, and Milo and Oliver are so interested in science and reading and making things with paper that they disappear and reappear only when they are hungry or want to show us what they’ve created. It’s awesome, only I kind of miss them now. Such is motherhood — you yearn for the days of more independence, only to find it too quiet when it comes. DSC_0161DSC_0141DSC_0150DSC_0170DSC_0194DSC_0202

The new session of circus started up again, and the boys were thrilled to be back with teachers and other students they missed over the holiday break. Milo is becoming more confident in his tumbling and Oliver is eager to learn more hoop tricks and a back walkover. Goals! DSC_0205DSC_0157

I hope you hit some kind of sweet spot this weekend! Sending good vibes out into the universe today — catch ’em!

Montessori: On Movement

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“One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions… Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea.”   — Maria Montessori

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During an observation in the lower elementary Montessori classroom earlier this school year, I was struck by just how much physical movement I saw. Two girls stood by the bells, playing the higher and lower tones, and as one played a higher tone, the other reached high into the air, stretching her body; when her classmate played the lower tones, she dropped quietly to the floor, representing “down” for “low.” Other children were spread out throughout the classroom: some were standing, others sitting at tables or kneeling on the floor, still others spread out on their stomachs on soft rugs as they completed their work. Out of the ten children in front of me (many others work in different rooms connecting the lower elementary), seven work on the floor. Of the remaining, three work at a small table together; one stands in half-splits while working. Children’s bodies move and squirm, shift in seats and stretch out. It is a joy to watch the acrobatics while they learn — there is just so much movement! But to the children, the movement is an afterthought; they are doing what is natural, what is comfortable, and what helps them learn.

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This child was moving around quite a bit (it was first thing in the morning) and took a quick 5-second break to lie down on the floor before sitting up and recording the date in his journal to start his daily work. You can see his open journal on the table just above him.

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During this photo shoot, I had to switch my camera’s setting to sports mode — that’s just how much these kids move around! DSC_0143DSC_0117

The assumption in many typical classrooms is that movement equals chaos. That children free to move are children free to cause distraction and disruption, but what I observe is the complete opposite. Children are moving purposefully and quietly. There is the quiet hum or buzz that is so often described in the Montessori classroom that I now understand– of the hushed voices, all are engaged. It makes sense, and there is plenty of research behind why.

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Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., led a project that explored, “Do Children Really Need to Sit at Desks to Learn?” believes that significant educational and learning advances come from giving children the chance to move within the classroom. Movement plays a huge part in the development of executive functioning (the ability to establish order and priorities in a work sequence, but also to regulate cognitive processes including working memory, reasoning, flexibility, and problem-solving) in children. Maria Montessori observed that when movement was part of an educational activity, children were more focused and engaged, and understanding deepened. Oftentimes these classrooms are calmer, more peaceful, and quieter than traditional classrooms where children are expected to sit in rows of desks and stay still — perhaps because the expectation is different and the instructors are meeting children where they are developmentally.

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This group of students spent their first few minutes of the day checking in with each other before getting to work — the child on the far left in the navy coat was telling a story he had written the day before while the other children listened intently. Much of the work these children will do throughout their morning will be collaborative. They check in with each other, help each other, and work together for much of the time. This, of course, requires a lot of moving around the room to accommodate each other, make space, and choose different activities and work.DSC_0104DSC_0086

The unrolling and rolling of work mats (meant to delineate personal space and boundaries for each work task) is a very physical part of Montessori.

There is research everywhere that suggests physical exercise is healthy not only for a child’s body, but also for his brain. An article in the Chicago Tribune last May highlighted the University of Illinois’ Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory’s study, which found that children aged 7 through 9 who participated in a 60-minute after-school exercise program had better focus, processed information more quickly and performed better on cognitive tests than children who didn’t exercise. In addition, over the last two decades, researchers have learned that exercise acts on multiple levels in the brain, that the brain’s wiring depends on “the integrity of the brain cells or neurons, as well as the connections between the neurons, or the synapses.” Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune. While Montessori education provides many opportunities for exercise and values recess, particularly outdoors in all kinds of weather, it could be argued that the exercise of standing, stretching, and moving around the classroom during work time, the movement that is so natural and everyday during work cycles, is just as crucial to the learning process.

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Four students find a quiet, cozy nook in the library where they work in the morning sunshine. It was so peaceful in there, I worked hard not to disturb them!

Movement during classroom work time supports the hands-on experiential learning that is the hallmark of Montessori eduction. Such multi sensory learning has been shown in neuroscience to stimulate two memory systems in separate brain regions that can be seen as networked together (Andreason et al., 1999), leading to greater memory retention and comprehension of material. Movement during class time helps to maintain a child’s level of alertness and improves his or her memory recall, perhaps because such movement allows a child to reset or take a restorative “brain break” (which, after a particularly complex lesson, is necessary so that neurotransmitters can be replenished and executive function can process the new material). The National Center for Biotechnology Information states that exercise, even in small doses, produces more global changes in a child’s brain function, and these changes appear greatest for middle school and young elementary age children (Tomporowski, 2008).

“The young child is very hand-minded, and the materials are geared to his need to learn through movement, because it is movement that starts the intellect working.”   —Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

There is no substitute for movement. Movement in children is a natural, necessary part of who they are and what they need. Children and directors alike are taught to embrace movement as a natural, essential, necessary aspect of daily life. What a pleasure to see this in action!

***I have received permission to post these photographs from the parents of each child, but please do not repost without permission. Thank you for respecting the privacy of these very important young people!***

Dress That Mama: 36!

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Today I celebrate my 36th birthday with a full heart and a whole lot of hope for what this year holds. 35 was a great year — new friendships, new writing opportunities, a lot of joy in watching my children bloom and grow, and feeling more solidified in community both in our neighborhood and friendships as well as the Montessori community. I feel so optimistic about what these connections mean for us as a family moving forward, and feel incredibly lucky and grateful for how things seem to fall into place at just the right time when we keep open hearts and minds. Doing so is not always easy. I have been finding out a lot about what it means to be whole and happy, and keeping a healthy balance in our lives, which sometimes means saying no, sometimes having to move on from unhealthy circumstances and make new connections, and to always allow oneself to be pleasantly surprised and open to life and all its joy. DSC_0060

Thank you to an amazing group of women who took me out for brunch yesterday, made me feel special and celebrated and lucky to be alive. I thank you for stopping by today, thank you for reading, thank you for sharing this journey with me!  Here’s to 36!

Art I Love: Ed Freeman

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I keep coming back to photographer Ed Freeman’s work — in particular, his underwater images. Freeman is considered a highly controversial artist for his open use of Photoshop in his art:

I’m not particularly concerned with reporting on the world the way it is. There are lots of people out there who are doing that far better than I ever could. I approach photography as if it were painting; my pictures are about the way I want the world to be. I take photographs just like everybody else, but Photoshop manipulation is an integral part of my workflow and really the creative center around which everything else revolves. It’s hard to pigeon-hole me because I work simultaneously in a variety of styles – so many, in fact, that I’ve had to put up two different websites to cover them all. But what everything I do has in common is computer manipulation – sometimes subtle, sometimes massive.   

Ed Freeman, interview: Qufoto

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I love the ethereal quality of his pieces. They remind me of a modern day version of John William Waterhouse’s 1890s paintings, in particular Hylas and the Water Nymphs. And, of course, they remind me of ballet. 1338722-61327140-6

All photography is in part self-portraiture; what’s in back of the camera is just as important as what’s in front of it. If you want to make better pictures, work on becoming a better person. In the end, that’s what we’re all here to do.

Ed Freeman

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Weekend Shenanigans

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Happy February 1st and good riddance to a very strange January. This weekend was filled with science! From watching Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes (the kids love this show) to Magic House birthday parties, to dinner table discussions, it was all about science. The new exhibit at The Magic House was even cooler than I had expected. We hadn’t been there in a long time, so it was a real treat!  DSC_0128DSC_0131DSC_0132DSC_0139

But I must admit, the real highlight of our weekend was Friday night, when Andrew and I went out with three other couples on our street, the neighbors we have grown so close to over the past year. We all live within several feet of each other, and could not get along better. In fact, the sheer amount of laughter produced on Friday night was monumental as all eight of us packed into one car on our way out. It is special to find a group that gets along so well, even more unique when you live within a stone’s throw of each other. I think it has changed so much in our lives for the better; you have people you trust and adore close by if someone needs help with childcare, people to share your garden vegetables with when you have an excess of tomatoes or jalapeño peppers or (in our case every year) kale and cucumbers! We have in them drinking buddies, but also the serious stuff — in one case a next-door neighbor pediatrician to reassure us when Emil hit his head pretty darn hard once.

But what I’ve learned I love most of all, alongside all the companionship and laughter, is that I love being able to help. I love driving one of these neighbor children to school every morning, stopping on Mondays for donuts on the way because nobody likes Mondays, and donuts are an awesome way to forget that. I love that we are close enough that one of these friends can call at the last minute and ask for me to watch her baby for an hour when they had a childcare emergency. I love that they ask me for recipes, or about my family, or that they know embarrassing stories about me. This community, these people who weren’t here when we first moved to St. Louis, but suddenly are, and are our people, have come out of nowhere at a time we have needed them most. It just makes life incredibly comfortable and warm.
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I realized it on Sunday, when we all somehow congregated unplanned on the front hill between our houses. How much we all like each other, depend on each other. How a small gathering turned into the whole group of us again, how an hour turned into three hours, with our kids all between us, then on the trampoline in the back yard. How none of us wanted it to end, so we went on like that even when the sun started to set and it grew colder. We kept leaving and returning with more items — coats and hats, blankets, etc. And then we decided to warm ourselves with a fire while the kids jumped and giggled and wore themselves out and eventually we all had to pull ourselves reluctantly away to make hastily thrown-together dinners, give the kids baths, and get back to reality. But man, was it good while it lasted. Here’s to more of those days and nights!

Thank you, universe, for an amazing community.

Sunday Supper: Thai Chicken Curry

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Background

When we lived in Philadelphia there was an amazing Thai restaurant down the street from our house in Roxborough / Manayunk called Chabaa. In our pre-kid days, we would walk from our house to Chabaa, sit outside, and enjoy the most amazing curry dishes. With the temperatures this January dropping into the single digits, we’ve been craving the warm and hearty flavor of curry. So, we searched for a curry recipe and decided to try this Thai chicken curry dish.

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Equipment & Materials

  1. 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (we used sunflower oil)
  2. 1 4-oz can yellow curry paste. This was hard to find, with multiple grocery stores not stocking curry paste at all or only having red or green curry paste. We ended up finding some at United Provisions, which has a significant stock of international ingredients because of the huge population of international students who live nearby.
  3. 3/4 pound carrots — peeled and cut into 1/2″ rounds
  4. 1 white onion, chopped
  5. 1 red bell pepper, cut into 1″ pieces
  6. 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
  7. 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1″ pieces
  8. 1 13.5 oz can of unsweetened coconut milk
  9. Chopped basil and cilantro
  10. Long grain white rice

Procedure

  1. Bring oil to medium heat in a large pot. We used our dutch oven for this, which is fairly large. The dish filled it 3/4 of the way up.
  2. Stir in the curry paste and cook for about a minute or so.
  3. Add carrots, onion, and pepper and cook until the onion is translucent (about 10 minutes).
  4. Stir in the potatoes, chicken, coconut milk, and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure the chicken, potatoes, and carrots are cooked.
  6. NOTE: We also cooked some long grain white rice to pair with the curry.

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Results

This was a tasty dish. We made it with some long grain white rice, spooning the curry over the rice and topping with the chopped cilantro and basil. The chicken was cooked well and it wasn’t so spicy that the kids resisted eating it. In fact, they actually ate it and said they liked it. Because the carrots and potatoes were not cut uniformly, they weren’t uniformly cooked. So, some were a little underdone. Overall, though, the taste of the dish was good and it’s something that I think we’ll make again.

Thoughts for Next Time

There isn’t much that we’d tweak with this one next time. Here are a few thoughts, though:

  • I’d like to up the spiciness. It was a little too mild for my taste. However, I’m not sure that the kids would eat it if it was much spicier. They were already downing their water while eating this one.
  • I’d like to make my own curry paste next time. It would be fun to tweak and adjust the curry.
  • One definite change is to make sure that the carrots and potatoes are cut uniformly. This wasn’t a huge issue, but I did occasionally hit some of the veggies that were undercooked.

A Year Ago Today

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I cannot believe how much this kid (and his hair) has grown over the past year. Oliver is a complicated, sensitive, sweet, thoughtful, stubborn, intelligent, suspicious, artistic, think-outside-the-box kind of person. We have had a rough couple of days involving two dentist’s offices in twenty-four hours and a whole lot of discussion about trust. Trusting other adults is not easy for Oliver; whereas a lot of children trust adults until that trust is broken, he is the type who mistrusts new adults until they prove their trustworthiness. That is a perfectly solid perspective, but a difficult one when having to visit doctors and dentists who may have to inflict a small amount of discomfort or pain for the greater good.

The thing is, as frustrating as the experience was, when I stepped back (and Andrew pointed this out to me, also), it was easy to see that what had happened was perfectly understandable and even desirable in different circumstances. Reminds me of an article I once read…

We’re looking forward to a lovely weekend (it’s going to be in the 60’s!), going out with our group of neighbor friends tonight and then spending a whole lot of time outside. Woo-hoo for fresh air!