C is for Curriculum

 

When we pulled our two children out of school a few years ago and decided to homeschool, I was filled with giddy optimism. “Now THIS was going to be fun,” I told myself, as I rolled up my sleeves and began to set up a school in our home. (Yes, I took it that literally.) Blackboard? check. Textbooks? check. Desks and chairs? check. Alphabet on a string? check. Pencils, paper, paint, posters, rulers, maps, stickies, smilies, markers, doilies? check. Curriculum?

Curriculum?

Anyone?

For the love of doilies, I didn’t have a curriculum.

And that’s when panic set in. How on earth were my children supposed to learn? How was I suppose to teach them if I didn’t have an age-appropriate, time-tested, topic approved, standardized school curriculum? What time were they supposed to learn math? First thing in the morning or after snack time? (oh god, did I have any juice boxes?) Were they supposed to learn to write in lowercase, UPPERCASE, script or cursive? At  what point did history officially begin? with colonialism? the neanderthals? the big bang theory? oh no, wait, that’s science.

I quickly found said curriculum online. It was described as “co-ed, easy to use and teacher-friendly.” That was a relief. Since I had a boy AND a girl, that meant I could teach them both the same things! Phew!  I felt armed, confident, guided.

It lasted two weeks. Two weeks of feeling utterly defeated as a would-be teacher and a parent. Two weeks of  tantrums and tears. When I finally stopped crying, the seeds of our unschooling journey were planted. We haven’t used anything resembling a curriculum since. It was a long and sometimes confusing process filled with discovery, doubts, and missteps, but ultimately I came to understand that my children could not be neatly molded within the framework of a guided curriculum. When we finally left them to discover the world on their own terms and at their own pace, our children’s curiosity began to bloom right out of the pot and spill out in tendrils that criss-crossed and intertwined in ways I couldn’t have imagined. There was no way to separate geography from history, language, landscapes, culture, or art. We found fractions in the kitchen, patterns in nature, and science washed up on the beach. These things had been there in plain sight all along, only I hadn’t been able to recognize them as learning opportunities because I had been taught that they didn’t belong in the realm of education. Knowledge was something that had to be taught, acquired, instructed. And in my own personal case, paid for.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for us in the beginning was that neither of my children had any interest in learning to read. Experts from all fields–educational, psychological, developmental–were telling me that a child could not progress in their learning if they didn’t first know how to read. At the time this made great sense to me and resulted in a not-so-subtle campaign to get them on the reading bandwagon. Not only did it backfire on me, but it temporarily squashed their love of being read aloud to, so I backed off and let them navigate and explore their passions instead.

In the end, it was the exact opposite of what the “experts” had claimed. Because they wanted to learn more about what interested them, both my children began to put letters and words together in order to get there. Following their passions motivated them to want to read and write, not the other way around. Incidentally, their passions–geography and drawing for my son; horses and languages for my daughter– were nowhere to be found on the easy to use curriculum.

Which brings me to the glass of water. The one that some see as half-empty and others as half-full. Most people, when we talk about our no-curriculum life, like to point out that by a certain age, children should know a minimum of basic things. These basic things somewhere along the line were agreed upon and became universal– we need to fill our children up, drop by drop, to this level, at this age, with this information. And therein lies the half-empty glass.

What most people don’t understand is that while a standard curriculum may provide universal structure, it has crippling limits to children’s unique talents and capacities. The “basics” may get covered, but when children are allowed to learn without limits, to play, discover, fail, explore and experiment, the glass is not only half-full, it has the strong potential to overflow. The problem is that the realm of formal education doesn’t like overflow because it can’t be controlled or contained. It can’t be measured and tested. Overflow doesn’t fit the factory model generated by standardized learning.

In the absence of curriculum, C can no longer stand for conformity, or containment, or control. It now stands for curiosity, creativity and occasionally chaos. Oh, and most importantly, clown.

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Life Learning Yearning Brady McBrown

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(Based on the cadence and rhythm of “The Great Henry McBride,” By Dr. Seuss)

“It’s hard to be down,” said young Brady McBrown.

It’s impossibly possible to fake a frown.

When a fellow wakes up to a free day ahead,

he must kick off the sheets and spring from the bed.

No classes, no lessons, not even a bell.

No teacher to dictate, or lecture, or yell.

I’ll learn when I yearn and whiz when I wish.

I may look at a book, or cook up a fish.

 

There are so many things that would be so much fun.

It’s terribly hard to decide on just one.

I might go to the museum, perhaps, who knows?

I’ll take in the Monets, Manets and Van Goghs!

I could become a curator, a Master of Arts.

Or dig treasures from dirt and piece back the parts.

Yes! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll dig up a crown.

King crown-digger upper, Brady McBrown!

 

But now I’m not sure. Legos could be clever!

I’ll stack up a tower that goes on forever.

I could be an architect, maybe build a whole town!

Crown-digger, town-builder, Brady McBrown.

But why only two things? Say, I could do three!

I could put on my swimsuit and swim in the sea.

A deep sea diver! Yes! That’s what I’ll be!

Crown-digger, town-builder, diver McB.

 

And science is fun! So I’ll do that!

I’ll mix up a potion in a great big vat!

I’ll point to the map and pick a new place.

I’ll zoom in to cities and back out to space!

Or add up some numbers, divide them by ten.

I’ll count all the bird seed, then go feed the hen.

Then study some stars and the patterns they form.

Oh no! Those clouds! I think there’s a storm!

The rain’s pouring down like cats and dogs!

The puddles are filling with tadpoles and frogs!

I’ll stomp and stamp and jump in the muck!

Til my clothes are quite caked and my shoes are quite stuck!

 

The rain won’t stop me.

There are gifts to be known.

There is play to be played.

And seeds to be sewn.

On a day like today, with dreams in my head,

I can hardly wait to leap from the bed!

On a day like today, with dreams in your heart,

Today is your day! Where will YOU start?

 

photo credit: Redbook, Suessblog

End of Summer Limericks

I wrote these for a “sand and sea” limerick contest. 

Limericks, as a folk form of poetry, began in England and Ireland in the 1800’s and were often recited aloud in pubs as a form of entertainment. They consist of 5 stanzas following a strict AABBA rhyme scheme.

There was always a thread of competition to see who got the most and loudest laughs. These rounds of limericks were of course accompanied by rounds of beer and got progessively bawdier as the night went on. By nature, limericks are humorous, absurd and always a bit “salty” or risque and sometimes downright crude. I’ve tamed mine down just a little.


 
The Boy from Impanema
 
A girl met a boy from Impanema
who expertly shook her caiperinia.
She tossed the pink umbrella
and bedded the bronzed fella,
waking penniless and parched in the marina.
 
 
 
Aunt Beatrice
 
Aunt Bea took a trip to Greece,
a gift from her doting niece.
She re-tied the knot
on Yannis’ yacht.
Uncle Al–may he rest in peace!
 
Rio Trio
 
She met a lover in Rio
Who had a best friend named Leo.
They asked her to tango,
and fed her a mango,
and now they’re a happy trio.
 
 
 
Sweeney
 
A curious chap named Sweeney
Uncorked a rusty old genie,
Who granted his wish
to swim like a fish
While wearing his wife’s bikini!

Two Foodie Poems



For me, going into a really good patisserie is more exciting than going into a jewelry store . . . and less expensive. These delicacies remind me of little jewels.  Feeling down? There’s nothing a pastry can’t fix. The drawback here, is that, unlike jewelry, you can’t wear them . . . accept on your ass. 


My tribute to French pastries . . .

 
Patisserie
 
Baubles behind glass
Kneaded, braided, beaded and glazed
Edible gold leaf flutters and settles
Upon the skin of cooled confections.
A cream puff ring!
Ribbons of marbled marzipan?
Delicately dusted truffles
in ruffled slips await
My choice.
Crumb-dotted doilies, I fear
Reveal remnants of a salted butter crust,
a must.
I am too late.
Single sweet, powdered pearls 
Sit upon the footed Macarons,
Nectarous and toothsome!
Pedestaled and perfect in lavender or coco.
Chanel? no.
Better in fact 
For the palette distracts
all momentary woes.
 
 
 
This poem was inspired by a Martha Stewart-like evening when I decided to tackle a recipe at 5 pm without looking at it beforehand. It looked simple until I got half-way through and didn’t have half the right ingredients.
 
 
Out of Thyme
 
Turn on the oven to 375,
and while it’s preheating
Sharpen your knives.
 
Cube the lamb
and toss it in flour.
This recipe will have you
in Morocco in an hour.
 
Now drizzle the olive oil
Over julienned slices
of carrots and onion, 
Then add in your spices
 
Hand-ground, of course
To release the aromas
Which pair quite well
With a Merlot from Sonoma.
 
You did buy the wine?
It was mentioned in step six
of the pre-recipe section called
“Timing tips and tricks.”
 
Next, delicately brown 
the beef on all sides
Until the butter stops frothing
and the sizzle subsides.
 
This should take no more 
Than six minutes at best,
During which time 
You should remove the zest
 
From three-quarters of an orange
and half a Meyer lemon
Which you’ll  turn to confit
to serve with flatbread from Yemen*
 
* A must if your aim 
is to wow your guests.
Make it two days ahead
Then let it rest.
 
Now add your home-made stock,
Along with the citrus preserves.
And while those flavors are mingling
Make the goat cheese -scented hors d’oeuvres.
 
While the stew is in the oven
Make sure your linens are fresh
Now set the table with the clay tajines
Imported from Marrakesh.
 
You should be right on schedule!
Plenty of time to shower and dress
Perhaps do a short meditation
to eliminate any pre-dinner stress.
 
Now right before your guests arrive
Chop a handful of thyme or two
and gingerly sprinkle it into the pot.
It’s the key to a successful stew.
 
The odors at this point
Should be simply sublime . . .
 
Unless, of course,
you’ve run out of thyme.

Pluck: A Poultry Tale + Recipe


“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”

— Julia Child

There was a time not so long ago when, if I didn’t feel like cooking, I would drive a good distance from our house in Savannah to The Fresh Market to pick up dinner. On those evenings, I would grab a basket, walk straight past the wooden tables displaying woven wicker crates bursting with gigantic blush pink apples, baby spinach and arugula. I would shoot past the acrylic, lift-top candy bins and the international chocolate shelf, the artisinal cheese display, the barrels of aromatic coffee beans and the nut grinding station, then weave my way through the biscotti and imported “biscuits” aisle, which brought me to the gourmet deli section. And that’s when I would smell it. What I had come for. The rotisserie chicken.

Oh, how I miss that rotisserie chicken: White Wine Herb, Lemon Rosemary, Butter Garlic, Honey and Thyme or Natural (which, they should call “elegantly simple”, for that is indeed what it is.) I loved to watch them turning ever- so-slowly on their sabers, the top one dripping it’s flavorful cooking juices onto the one below, creating a cascade of savory essence, basting, coating, dripping until each golden droplet suspended and finally splattered and sizzled into the pan below. Watching this process, I theorized that the chicken on the very bottom must be the most flavorful and tender, as it had received all of the drippings from the rungs above. On those occasions when I timed it right and could pick my own chicken right off the rotisserie, that’s the one I chose. My piping hot, herb-encrusted chicken nestled inside the foil-insulated bag in my basket, I would wind my way back through the vegetables and fruits (ok, and maybe the international chocolates) to complete my dinner. Those were the days.

In Senegal, I usually dig a chicken out of the freezer chest at our local grocery and dump it into an insulated bag (to keep it cold this time) as quickly as possible. Those suckers are really, really cold. And heavy. Then I met a Senegalese man who raises and sells organic chickens. I ordered one to be delivered the day I was having a dinner party. I would be making Zuni Cafe’s famous Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad for one of Richard’s new clients and his wife.

On the morning of the party, I was on a roll–I had decided that this time, I was not going to let myself get stressed out. Instead I would be organized, ready, cool and calm. I would have dinner prepared, the table set, my kids bathed, the animals fed and the kitchen cleaned, leaving myself enough time to actually shower and have a much-deserved glass of wine well in advance of our guests arrival at 7:30.

All was going well. I had the bread salad ready at 2:00, or as ready as possible, as the final step is to pour the hot pan drippings over the cubed and grilled bread chunks and then toss with arugula. I had the table set, dessert made, the wine chilling, the green beans trimmed and the orange gremolata ready to pour over the beans once they were cooked. All I needed was the chicken. At 4:00, just as I was putting Sunny and Jamie in the bath, I heard the clip-clop of a horse cart pull up outside. Yes, the chicken. I ran and opened up the gate and there indeed was my organic chicken man, right on time.

He pulled an old rice bag from the back of his cart and reached inside, pulling out a fully-feathered, just killed bird.

“No, no, no”, I said, shaking my head. “There must be some mistake. The chicken I ordered is plucked, cleaned and has no head or feet,” and, I thought to myself, doesn’t look like Ginger the Hen in “Chicken Run” which I had unfortunately watched with my kids the day before.

He laughed and tried to hand me the chicken, but I backed away. “Madame,” he said, “you ordered a chicken and that is what I have brought you. You’re lucky I killed it for you.” With that, he carefully placed the chicken at my feet, got back in his cart and clopped away. I ran after him, hauling the chicken along by the feet, shouting, “but how do I get the feathers off?!! Wait!! Don’t go!!”

In situations like this one, (i.e. an entire three pound chicken that needed to be de-headed, de-clawed, plucked, “voided”, washed, prepared and roasted in two and a half hours), I have been known to succumb to something akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. Sunny and Jamie ran outside with towels on to see why Mommy was standing in the courtyard shouting obscenities, holding a dead chicken by the neck.

“Get your father on the phone, now! . . . Please.”

As I tried not to hyperventilate, I heard Sunny, who loves nothing more than to push the #1 button on my cellphone to call her Papa, leaving Richard a message:

“Papa, it’s me, Sunny. You better get home soon. Mama’s cursing at a chicken. She used the really bad word.”

I frantically Googled “how to pluck a chicken”. A surprising number of results popped up. I decided to skip the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church video on YouTube entitled “Ms. Dudley Shows How to Pluck the Chicken” because it was seven minutes long and I didn’t have seven minutes. I did however bookmark it for later viewing. Scrolling down, I learned fairly quickly that one only need place the chicken in a pot of boiling water and let it sit until the feathers loosened and could be easily removed.

While the chicken sat in it’s pre-pluming bath, I thought it would be a good idea to sample the wine. Two glasses later, I reached into the pot, pulled out the chicken and realized it would be easier if I got the neck/head and feet off first. I somehow managed to do this rather smoothly, finding the joints easily. That accomplished, I took a deep breath, reached into the pot (which had now cooled slightly) and began ripping feathers out. The downy ones came out quite easily, but the wing feathers were more stubborn, so I asked Jamie to please find my eyebrow tweezers. By now, our three cats had become very interested in what I was doing and had climbed onto the counter and were pacing like circus tigers. Tweezers in hand, I began to tug at the more difficult quills. As my hands were wet, I was covered in chicken feathers which were plastering themselves all the way up my arm. Sunny had pulled up a stool next to me and was cheering me on. “You’re doing a great job Mom.” She kept asking me if I didn’t want another glass of wine.

At 6:00, the chicken was naked as a . . . well, you know, and I braced myself for removing the innards. I got a scrap bowl out, cut the skin around the cavity and reached in. I don’t know that I could identify what I pulled out, but I placed it all in the bowl to cook later for the cats. I scrubbed my hands, arms and the chicken clean, inside and out, and placed it in a roasting dish. It looked just like it was supposed to! I felt triumphant, giddy, plucky even!

Just as I was popping my beautifully dressed and tressed chicken into the oven, one of the cats snatched the entrails out the bowl and trailed them across the counter, down the hallway and up onto Sunny’s bed where she proceeded to gnaw on them ferociously and howl at me viciously if I tried to get near her. The resulting mess topped my ‘grossest thing ever’ list, Sunny’s bed had to be changed and Sunny herself needed lots of comforting. She feared that her favorite Hello Kitty sheet (ironic, don’t you think?) would never be the same. And, I found, I needed another sip of wine.

Twenty minutes later, I had just enough time to wash my face, brush my teeth and throw on a dress and some lipstick. My cheeks already had that healthy ‘just plucked a chicken in record time while downing a bottle of wine’ adrenaline glow, so I skipped the blush. The chicken was starting to smell pretty good and, although the recipe doesn’t call for it, I basted it with the remainder of the wine bottle I had so thoroughly sampled. When Richard arrived with our guests, who I was meeting for the first time, I wanted to drag him into a corner and tell him everything that happened, but I would have to save it for later.

Somehow, I got dinner on the table. I nervously waited as our guests took their first bites. No one said anything, so I quickly scooped up a forkfull of chicken and bread salad and was relieved that it had turned out well, really well. The woman turned to me and said, “this chicken is absolutely delicious. Did you use white wine?”

You could say that.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Actually, it was excellent, which is why I’m sharing the recipe. If you want to impress someone or simply cook the best roasted chicken dish you’ve ever tasted, you should give it a go. I didn’t read the recipe carefully in advance–the chicken is supposed to be brined two days in advance–oh well. This is a link to my absolute favorite cooking blog and the recipe. Enjoy. Oh, and Bon Appetit!

http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/12/zuni-cafe-roast-chicken-bread-salad/

Right Under Our Noses: the Virtues of Dry Toilets

 

untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

untitled illustration of two cats by John Lennon

I remember hearing a rumor many years ago that the rather eccentric Yoko Ono shared the litter box with her cat. I don’t know if it’s true, but apparently she claimed it was a better way to deal with human waste than flushing gallons of wasted water into a septic system and that the resulting melange could eventually be used as compost to grow vegetables. She claimed that if we weren’t careful, water would become precious and perhaps even scarce. She was concerned about the environment way before it was a hot topic, which of course, at the time, placed her in the category of alarmist, tree-hugger, hippie and in the minds of many, just plain crazy. I myself didn’t give the rumor much credence. I did however succumb to a vivid mental image of this petite, almond-eyed woman squatting over a litter pan while humming “she came in through the bathroom window”, much to the dismay of the feline patiently waiting it’s turn.

We have two cats here in Africa and no litter box, because, well, they go outside in the dirt. However, we do have what is known as a dry toilet system. This would be the moment, if you are feeling uncomfortable, to hit the back button on your computer and see what your other Facebook friends are up to. I won’t be offended, I swear. However, if you are even slightly intrigued, you might learn something. American culture, in particular, has placed a big taboo on any reference to the fact that all living things eliminate what they eat and drink. While browsing the children’s literature section in Barnes and Noble while pregnant with Jamie, I remember being shocked at seeing a book called, “Everybody Poops,” not because of it’s contents, but because someone finally had the courage to write about it. The need being served by this book– to help children understand that the process is nothing to be ashamed of– is indication enough that somewhere along the line, we dumped (no pun intended) our bodily functions into the “we don’t talk about that . . . EVER” column and it has stayed there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not espousing bringing it up as a topic at cocktail parties or rotary club, I just want to share what I’ve learned about the entire cycle as it relates to energy.

Those of you who are familiar with our project in Senegal know that we live bill-free in a house constructed with earth, get our water from a well, our electricity from a wind-turbine and solar panels, and grow our own organic vegetables. We’ve recently added a chicken named Ratatouille and a turkey named Gusteau to the picture, but not for consumption purposes. The chicken gives us eggs and the turkey acts as a natural anti-pesticide, spending his days picking at termites and other predetors to our produce. He occasionally steals a lettuce leaf or two, but we forgive him this. Although they don’t have much personality, I’m not ready to raise poultry that will end up on our table. I still prefer to purchase it from our local chicken farm. Much to my surprise, when I didn’t know what to make for dinner the other day, Sunny very plainly said, “why don’t we eat the chicken.” She’s five and understands perfectly where her food comes from, which could easily lead me down another path or up onto my soap box with another topic, but let’s get back to dry toilets.

Joseph Jenkins wrote a book, first published in 1995, called “Humanure” in which he details the virtues of dry toilets (see link below). The title itself may be off-putting, but the concept is simple. You place a receptacle, ok, a bucket, under a standard toilet seat (he gives you the plan for building it) and when you’ve done you’re business, you cover it with a layer of saw dust, straw or any other natural material. When the bucket is full, you place the contents in a compost retainer (also detailed in the book) and layer it with food waste, i.e. fruit and vegetable peels, egg shells, coffee grinds, plant trimmings, anything biodegradable. The only stipulation is that you don’t use dyed toilet paper. After about a year, enough time to allow any toxins or harmful bacterium to dissipate, you have one of the richest composts imaginable with which to grow organic produce. I skimmed the book cursorily when Richard first suggested that we adopt this system (since we don’t have running water, we didn’t have much choice) and promptly threw it at him while launching a tirade about the numerous ways in which he has ruined my life as I knew it. When we moved into the house, I was told I had two options: I could walk outside in the brushland and hide behind a bush, if I could find one, or I could try the dry toilet system. To his credit, he built a handsome throne of concrete, spent a fortune on a lacquered wooden seat and promised to be the “emptier.” To the unsuspecting eye, it looked like every other toilet, minus the handle and water tank. We used a mix of peanut shells and millet shucks as our choice of coverage. To my begrudging surprise, there was only one pungent odor eminating from our bathroom–it smelled like fresh ground peanuts. We’ve been using this system for almost a year and, like most routines in my life, it now seems natural. Richard laughs when he hears me touting the virtues of dry toilets. Once addicted to creature comforts, I am now, you might say, a convert. In general, our project has opened my eyes to an array of “green” choices, some I was already familiar with, others completely new to me. Read on.

We recently called in a specialist on renewable energy, Pierre-Jacques, a frenchman who has lived and worked in Senegal for the past 26 years. We needed help finding a way to power our cold production, having considered both solar and gas-powered refridgerators, and wanted a professional opinion on which was the most energy efficient and cost-effective. After he asked us a myriad of pertinent questions and toured our house, he said, “you’ve had the solution all along, right under your noses. You just haven’t been harvesting it properly.” He went on to explain that by placing our dry toilet waste in an air-tight cistern along with a small percentage of cow, pig or horse manure, we could produce enough methane to power a full-sized refridgerator/freezer and our gas oven! He said this so matter of factly and non-chalantly that I asked him to repeat himself. “Sure,” he said. ” It’s called Biogas. I have all the plans because it’s what we do at our house and I can tell you it works.” By running gas tubing from the cistern to the two appliances, we can produce cold and heat by recycling our waste. He went on to explain that by “harvesting” the methane, we were also preventing it from dissipating into the environment, which is what happens when it’s placed in an open-air composting unit. I immediately thought of all those problematic cows out there in the world shamelessly releasing their gas into the universe and wondered aloud if there wasn’t a way to harvest it. Imagine the energy problems we could solve! Pierre-Jacques laughed, but explained that, in fact, China, India and Brazil are already doing it, on a large scale basis as well as individual (see attached link). The best part about his suggestion is that our composting efforts won’t be lost because what remains in the tank after the methane is distilled can be emptied periodically into our compost, making use of all the elements of the system.

I was curious about the person to output ratio. In other words, would the four of us be able to produce enough methane to keep the appliances running constantly? Pierre-Jacques, who spouts out statistics and technical information with the finesse of a poet, told us that output is usually proportional to the needs of the family. However, because I like to cook and entertain for others, we’ll add a small percentage of animal manure to augment our methane production. We’ll be installing our new system in a week or two and I, for one, don’t care how the fridge gets cold, I’m just looking forward to popping open an ice cold beer!

I’ll admit that our project is an extreme one. Not everyone is willing or able to implement what we’ve done, particularly a dry toilet system. But here in Senegal, we may be able to at least raise awareness and at best provide solutions to real energy problems, not to mention financial instability for a population that suffers from extreme electric bills, frequest power outages and the high cost of gas. And of course we hope that those who can afford the “tradtional” methods will want to go natural because of the environmental benefits. Who knows. For now, it’s actually fun being a part of this crazy project of ours. After all, it really is a working lavoratory . . . I mean laboratory.

http://humanurehandbook.com/index.html