I Yam is the Power That Be

One thing homeschooling allows me to be is fully myself. As a career teacher, you are beholden to the denominators of the community you serve. I’ve always chafed a bit against this, even as I recognized rules and standards were an expression of the social contract that negotiate our individual standards, desires, and agendas. I think it’s a huge part of why I’ve stayed in independent schools so long, where the accountability is more intimate and there is generally more flexibility and autonomy granted.

You don’t want teachers to be too hemmed in; they are not conveyors-of-information-cum-babysitters. The people you want teaching your kids are real people, interesting people, people with passions and histories and life experiences, people who will curse under their breath or pray in the bathroom or buy a silly, extravagant (maybe borderline inappropriate) gift for a friend just because. Learning is social, and one way it is so is that there is a real limit to how we respond to content, no matter how compelling. As humans, we respond to each other, but only if we act like people.

Still, I’ve tried in several ways to be as rigorously objective and agnostic as I could. No matter my own feelings or standing on a subject, I’ve tried to convey a position that is little else but consistently contrarian to what my students felt.

This has probably been good practice for me. I do want my own children to be their own persons and to do their own thinking. I want to avail them of every perspective and not cheat their exploration.

But I also want them to know who I am. I want them to know who I voted for and why, who I pray to and why, how I strive and why. I am liberated to talk about my faith and how those core beliefs impact every area of my thinking. I am liberated to share my tastes and hold court on judgments aesthetic and otherwise. I can talk to them and share with them personally, knowing who they are and what they can handle. I can cross the lines that only a friend or family can cross, but not an outsider, even a trusted one.

Of course, this works both ways. Seeing more of me means also seeing beyond a manicured presentation of myself. My kids will be privy to all my flaws and petty smallness. They’ll know all too well how mean, immature, and goddammawful I can be. They know already. In some ways, homeschooling the kids will be like trading in the polished, generic, institutionally-driven blockbuster they might be getting at school for a more meandering, exhausting, experimental, and possibly more profound art film. Either one could bomb or thrill.
King Kunta clip

The Bible Story

Manatee comic

I apologize to all at my absence this week in Children’s Church; I think I caught a sudden summer flu and infected my entire family.

Nevertheless, allow me a brief comment on this week’s catechism question:

Q: What introduces the Ten Commandments?

A: These words introduce the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

There’s an important theological lesson here about why we should obey the moral law of God, but let’s reserve that discussion for next week when it is teased out further.

Instead, I want to make a brief point about how we ought not to tell Bible stories to our children but a Bible narrative or THE Bible story. It is often tempting to treat the Bible as an anthropology of fables and adventures for our younger audience but that distorts what we believe it to be. We may think that treating it as a book of heroes and life lessons will make it more accessible or palatable to children, but we then make the gravest error of neglecting the true hero and message of the Good Book.

Children who grow up with this distortion are susceptible to seeing the book as a tome of divination or spiritual answers, like the i-Ching. They may very well be confused or led astray by “difficult” passages or even basic texts like Noah and the Great Flood because they were only told simplified accounts devoid of proper context.

The Bible itself gives us guidance in how it treats highlighted events and relationships as an illuminating framework for understanding the overarching story of salvation. God points out the rescue from Egypt, not to place the new nation of Israel on tenterhooks, but to explain who He is and what is His ultimate plan.

This is useful to keep in mind, not only for the spiritual education of our kids, but our own personal study of the Word.

Biggie: Why does the car smell so bad?

TK: Well, it’s been sitting out in the sun for a while…

Biggie: No, that’s not it.

TK: No? Did someone make it smell bad?

Biggie: Yeah, it’s you.

TK: Why me?

Biggie: You fart a lot.

Dominoes Pt 2: We Check Out Books from the Library

I did a little follow-up to our first foray into dominoes. I first checked from the library all the books I could find on dominoes.

Domino Addition

Domino Addition by Lynette Long is a picture book about basic math with dominoes. Dominoes has had a long tradition of being used for math, especially because of its usefulness in subitizing. That was actually a new term for me until last year when Biggie’s first grade class began doing some components of Singapore math; subitizing is being able to recognize quickly visual quantities.

Domino Addition was too easy for Biggie, and I didn’t want to ruin the fun in dominoes by having him do math drills from them. Fortunately, the actual game of dominoes is intrinsically educational. Unfortunately, neither of us knew how to play. But we had books for that:

DominoesDominoes Around the World

Dominoes (Games Around the World) by Elizabeth Dana Jaffe was the simpler of the two, so I basically handed it to Biggie and said, “Read this, and teach me how to play dominoes.” We first played block-dominoes:


As you can see, it involves matching patterns and adding up scores. It was a good practice of mental math. As with all games, there’s also latent lessons in taking turns, following rules, good sportsmanship, strategizing, and so on. We then tried a variation called draw-dominoes, which we realized we could only do with a double six deck (we had a partial double nine deck). As a result, Biggie had to lay out the patterned deck, which he did from an image reference in the book:


Again, lessons on noticing details and patterns and patience.

We also took a look at Dominoes Around the World by Mary D. Lankford, which had an almost overwhelming number of variations on the game. It also had a few solitaire versions of domino games, a few math puzzles, and a recipe for making dominoes with graham crackers. Ideas, ideas, ideas.

Two more books:


Toppling by Sally Murphy is a fictional story about a fifth-grade boy obsessed with domino toppling whose best friend gets diagnosed with cancer. Interestingly, it’s written in poetic verse. Biggie read it in one sitting, said he liked it, and we didn’t talk much more about it. I’d like to get him more into poetry, and this was a baby step towards that.

Towing Icebergs

Towing Icebergs, Falling Dominoes, and Other Adventures in Applied Mathematics by Robert B. Banks is a whimsical consideration of mathematical problems evident every day in the world around us. It demands a good working knowledge of trigonometry and calculus, so it was a little out of my rusty reach, let alone Biggie’s. I did try to work through the chapter about dominoes, however, and found it fascinating. Banks calculates the velocity of the falling dominoes in a domino show and demonstrates how, mathematically, it is analogous to water waves and tsunamis. He also cites a better mathematical model in the _American Journal of Physics_1.

Maybe later. Lots of other bread crumbs to follow for the moment.

  1. Shaw, E.E. (1978). “Mechanics of a chain of dominoes.” American Journal of Physics. 46:640-42. 

Summer Reading (and Writing)

I really listened to an interview with Nancie Atwell, famed for her advocacy and innovations in workshopping writing as part of the K-12 curriculum. She made a firm point that seems obvious and yet we often ignore: The best way to read and write well is to do a lot of reading and writing. Concordantly: the best way to do a lot of reading and writing is to enjoy doing them.

If I have any advice to give to parents for keeping up academically over the summer it is to encourage kids to do as much reading for pleasure as they can. It doesn’t really matter the quality or content—fiction, non-fiction, chapter books, board books, graphic novels, manga, newspapers, magazines, blogs. I wouldn’t be bothered if your 16-year-old has a thing for Curious George—as long as he reads them by by the dozens. One thing that disappears when kids graduate into middle and upper schools is the time and opportunity to read of one’s own volition. I was always rueful about that.

Yes, yes, there are ways to nudge, of course. Biggie was always a voracious reader; I made a half-hearted effort to give him some reading instruction when he was very young, but he’s mostly self-taught. I did, and do, read to him as part of his bedtime routine, though, and when he was five we started with The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, Biggie was a precocious five-year-old—but not that precocious. However, bedtime stories is one of those perfect opportunities to present something a little challenging, a little bit out of the reach, a little bit mystifying and magical. C.S. Lewis himself spoke of children’s literature, folklore, and fiction as ways of making difficult or profound ideas understandable from a distance. It gave Biggie a taste, and a foretaste, of language and lessons that I hope he will aspire to.

After Narnia was Harry Potter. By this time I was becoming more and more inconsistent with bedtime reading, and Biggie was starting to read on pages and chapters ahead without me. Furthermore, Biggie’s interests and obsessions were leading him more into non-fiction reading, and he sometimes had spells where stories, even Harry Potter, lost their appeal. I’ve lately used our time before bed to tether him back to the books and boost his interest, and I’ve taken to bribing him: finish The Order of the Phoenix and I’ll let you see the first Harry Potter movie.

We’ve eschewed any of the Narnia movies, and I managed all this time from letting the Harry Potter movies appropriate Biggie’s imagination, but we’re now in the home stretch, the books are getting dark and anxious, and Biggie needs a little help holding together the massive story arc of the series, so I think I’m going to start feeding him the movies in 10 chapter intervals as he gets through The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows.

As for writing… well, we’re taking baby steps. Biggie wrote a lot in first grade, and I love the approach they took: write about whatever you want but plan it out, workshop it, revise it, publish it, and celebrate it. With me, Biggie and I are writing one-sentence journals (an idea I got from the Happier podcast). I presented him with his very own Moleskine, and every night, as part of our bedtime routine, we write at least one sentence about the day—me in my journal, Biggie in his. The next day, I publish our entries (lightly edited for mechanics and privacy) on a blog (tomahto.wordpress.com).

Again, the idea is to just make it a natural part of our lives, something that is meaningful and fun. And we do it together.