Thursday, January 21, 2010

Midweek Balance

It's easy to get swept away by the busyness of our daily lives.  As parents, our schedules are crazy, our to-do lists are long, and our days are too short. By mid-week, it's easy to feel frazzled or even overwhelmed.  The weekend feels so far away and there is still so much left to do. But our kids mirror our energy, so it's essential for us to cultivate a little inner-Om.  Midweek is good day to set our intention to restoring balance.  

We began day three of the letter O with oatmeal but before we put it on the stove, I had Amelie make a letter O with her fingers in the dry oats. Feeling the shape of the letter is as essential to understanding it as seeing it. 

After breakfast we moved into the classroom for Circle Time. Because rhythms create balance and harmony, our Circle Time always consists of the same elements: a song, a verse, a blessing, meditation, "Creative Infinity" (finding something in our inner-world during our short meditation to "bring back" to the classroom), and sharing.  Today Amelie shared the piano composition she worked on before breakfast and some stones from our basket.  She wanted to compare and contrast the shape, size and weight of the stones so we got out our little scale and had an impromptu science experiment.  She recorded her findings in her Science Journal and we were both surprised that the smallest stone was one of the heaviest.

Then we popped open the laptop for five minutes of mindfulness with Susan Kaiser Greenland on mindfulness together.  Today's exercise was "zipping ourselves up" and listening deeply.  We're both enjoying sharing these practices this week and they help center our attention for the Morning Lesson.

Next it was desk time.  Today's O words were: of, old, on, one, or, and other. She traces each word once before writing it twice on her own.  Then we spell each word by singing it:

o-l-d "old"
o-l-d "old"
o-l-d "old"
that's how we spell old!

For story time today, I read from a book we have on loan from a dear friend, The Lady of Ten Thousand Names: Goddess Stories from Many Cultures retold by Burleigh Muten.  In the spirit of our letter of the week, I read "Oshun - the Great Mother."  This is a creation story from Nigeria and her name means "The Source." More than that, however, it is a timely story about the importance of honoring and balancing both the male and female ascpects of our human nature. 

When the gods sent to prepare the earth for human beings neglect to invite the goddess Oshun to their planning mettings, their effrots are thwarted.  Upon reporting this sad truth to Olodumare, the the Supreme Sky Being, Olodumare says, "You have upset the balance.  A team of men cannot create harmony on Earth without a woman.  Without Oshun, no plan will unfold."  To restore balance, they have to give up something they love and ask for her forgiveness. Oshun forgives them, but only after they share with her the secrets of the Universe.

Through archetypal stories like this, Language Arts integrates with Social Studies.  We also use art to demonstrate understanding of the story and to answer questions on content, sequence, characters and moral -- and keep a Main Lesson Book where Amelie draws pictures from the stories read in the classroom.  She writes the letter of the week on the left page a few times and then has 15-20 minutes to draw something from the story with crayons and colored pencils. Today she drew the goddess Oshun in colorful clothes, as expressed in the story, with big arms wrapped around three of her children. 

More valuable than anything we can tell our kids are their direct experiences. So for our Afternoon Lesson we got outside for Earth Science, O is for Organic.  Fresh air is calming and even just a few breaths can restore peace when we're fragmented.  Our plan was to collect all things organic and bring them back for a collage craft. (Crafts help with eye hand coordination, fine motor skills, reinforce core subjects... and they're fun!)  

Because immersion means retention we also set our minds to seeing oes everywhere. Amelie enjoyed learning that she can see her breath because it's warmer than the air outside and comparing organic things (rocks, leaves, branches, dirt, flowers) to non-organic things (rubber tires, plastic tubing, asphalt).  Then we brought in all of our samples and made a pretty collage.  

After dinner, Amelie read two of her favorite stories, Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You by Dr. Seuss.  At bedtime tonight, I'll read Oshun - the Great Mother one more time.   Mid-week Wednesdays are for centering and creating Om in the home.  Tomorrow we'll tackle five more O words and then it's off to the city with daddy for some fun.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Music, Math, & a Wise Heart

Today was a math and music day so I set my mind to seeing numbers everywhere this morning.  In the process, a Social Studies lesson cropped up organically and reminded me that real wisdom is greater than knowledge.  

This week our Riverdog Farm veggie box contained about ten mandarin oranges. I noticed this morning that they were beginning to look mushy so we started the day with math.  First we counted the oranges -- ten.  Then I sliced them each in half -- twenty.  Only six halves fit on our cutting board and this created a great illustration of the number six as 3+3 and 3x2.  I juiced and Amelie handed the halves to me... this is subtraction.  Six pieces minus one piece equals five pieces. 

To a young one, making juice by hand demonstrates the amount of labor that goes into bringing just one glass to the table.  As we were juicing, I was reminded of a passage from Touching the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh and our Social Studies lesson began.

"Looking into my bowl of rice, I see clearly that this is the gift of the earth and the sky.  I see the rice field, the vegetable garden, the sunshine, rain, manure, and the hard work of the farmer.  I see the beautiful fields of golden wheat, the one who reaps the harvest, who threshes the grain, who makes the bread.  I see the beans sown in the earth becoming the beanstalk.  I see the apple orchard, the plum orchard, the tomato garden, and the workers who are cultivating the plants.  I see the bees and butterflies going from flower to flower collecting pollen to make sweet honey for me to eat.  I can see that every element of the cosmos has contributed to making this apple or this plum that I am holding in my hand or this leaf of steamed vegetable that I am dipping into the soy sauce.  My heart is full of gratitude and happiness."

I asked Amelie to think about all of the work that went into bringing these oranges to us and we talked while we squeezed.  "Looking deeply into our golden orange juice, what do you see?"  "I see the the seed that grew into a tree!"

The world is full of people who have accumulated information; however, a person who thinks with their mind and heart in alignment is a gem and often a real asset to our global community. Integrating core subjects helps develop a wise heart and honors the whole child. This encourages our kids to honor themselves and the world around them.  Since Kindergarten is a time for developmental play, awe and wonder, the last thing we want to do is override the senses, over-pressure a young mind, or put to much emphasis on the intellectual process.  If a child is directed into academic thinking too often and too soon, we risk getting them stuck up there in their head. 

One way we keep it fresh and fun is by making music.  Piano is a regular part of our curriculum and the benefits of music on the mind and body have been recognized since the days of the great Greek philosophers. Plato said music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.” Visual and performing arts have a way of tapping into that part of us that is more than mind and, at the same time, music begins with math. 

According to the PBS Independent Lens documentary, Music from the Inside Out, A 1997 study by Rauscher and Shaw revealed that preschoolers who studied piano performed 34 percent better in spatial and temporal reasoning ability than preschoolers who spent the same amount of time learning to use computers. Preschoolers who took singing and keyboard lessons scored 80 percent higher on puzzle tests than students at the same preschool who did not have music lessons.

After Circle Time, we moved right into piano practice and got her mind working in sequences, repeating patterns, and thinking forwards and backwards.  Then it was time for her lesson and a little socialization with her music teacher.  The focus today was learning about intervals. Up and down the keys she went naming notes, repeating patterns, accessing both sides of her brain, and lighting up that part of us that is more than mind.

Back home, we reviewed the four processes of math with an art project and used watercolors to paint brightly colored sets of bugs.  This was great quality time together and we both enjoyed painting and then using colored markers to write out the math sentences. Three ladybugs plus three ladybugs plus three ladybugs equals nine ladybugs.  This emphasized what we'd done in the morning with our oranges.

After playtime and dinner it was time for cookie math.  Three rows of cookies with three cookies in each row equals nine cookies.  Add one more row and you've got three times four.  Our cookie math was another repetition of what we'd done this morning with oranges and before bed we added the finished product to her portfolio and reviewed the equations one more time. 

While the art supplies were out we returned to today's Social Studies lesson, Looking Deeply into the Orange Juice.  I asked Amelie to think back to this morning and draw all of the things she can see looking deeply.  She drew the tree with oranges, an orange falling from the tree, the veggie box they came in, the halved oranges, the compost bowl, a hand-squeezer, a half-full pitcher, and a glass with a straw.  She numbered the steps one through eight which told me that her math hat was still on and that she's still thinking in sequences.

Kids don't need to sit at a desk for hours memorizing math facts on a worksheet to become good at math.  Boring a child with written work isn't going to spark their curiosity in the subject and, from my experience, is likely to turn them away from it for good. Too often we praise dry academics and test scores over actual learning and overlook the inner-lives of our children.  When we include and integrate art and music with other core subjects, our kid's inner light turns on.  This nurtures both compassion and creativity rather than just intellect or memorization. 

I agree with Einstein.  Imagination is more important than knowledge... but greater than the imagination is the content of one's heart.  This can't be measured by standardized testing and it is the one thing most central to the continuation of a humane society.  Before we send our young learners out into the world, let's make sure they are ready.  The first step is honoring the whole child.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

O is for Om

This rainy, winter Monday was about restoring balance and getting back into the rhythm of our home.  It was about feeling the world around us and, under a cloud covered sky, connecting with our inner light.  

We began our day with a talk about Martin Luther King Jr. followed by a quiet art period.  Amelie loves doing art in the morning and it gives me time to review the day's lesson.  I've read that art promotes activity in the brain and I believe this.  She seems to do better paying attention to her morning lesson when she's had some time to paint or even color with crayons before breakfast.

After a hearty meal we moved from the kitchen to the classroom -- our Om Room.  We start each school day singing a few verses of a Native American song, "Earth My Body" as we set up the classroom:

Earth my body
Water my blood
Air my breath and
Fire my spirit

Then we sit cross-legged on our zafus and I light a candle while Amelie says a seasonal verse with a little yoga stretch at the end.  We've been welcoming back the sun since before the Winter Solstice with:

The sun is born again today
We greet the sun's first morning ray
We sing and celebrate the light
The sun is born in the longest night
Welcome light!

Then we ring our school bell -- a calming meditation chime -- three times.  When we hear the bell, we pause with our breath, find our center and bring our full awareness to the present moment.  At this point I usually say a little blessing -- something short asking Mother Nature to help our hearts know wisdom -- and then we sit in stillness for five breaths. 

Next is my favorite part, going to our Creative Infinity.  Before we open our eyes and "come back" to the classroom, we look around in our inner world and find something to bring back with us.  Today Amelie brought back the Cheetah of Loving-kindness and I brought back patience.

Then comes Amelie's favorite part, the Sharing Stones.  We keep a little hand-painted basket of stones we've collected outside and use these each morning for a short show-and-tell.  There are no rules about what we can share -- something from your heart, a concern, a story, or even a new toy.  This ritual gives us a regular time for honesty, open questions, and often times, just plain fun.  It was Amelie's turn to go fist and she picked a pretty painted blue stone from the basket, then shared her set of marbles. 

I try to use everything as a platform for integrating subjects and digging deeper and I think this is rubbing off on her. Without prompting, she sorted them all by color, transparency, and size.  Then she told me about all of their magical properties.  I love letting her use her creativity like this and agree I with Einstein -- imagination is more important than knowledge.

She passed the stone to me and it was my turn to share.  I popped open the laptop and we watched the "I Have a Dream" speech -- stopping from time to time for Social Studies discussion.  I paused at, "their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom," and pointed out this example of our interconnectedness.  If you are not free, neither am I because there really isn't any "you" or "I"... only "Us."

After the speech it was time to get out the wiggles.  We learned a great song at a Spirit Rock Family Practice Day last spring, Now I Walk in Beauty, and we modify it each day to fit the day's lesson.  We've danced in beauty (letter D week), jumped in beauty (letter J)... we've even marched in beauty (letter M).  Today, in honor of Dr. King's dream, we "marched in freedom."

Now it was time for our Main Lesson.  We've been covering roughly one letter per week since August and today began the letter "O."  O is the fifteenth letter of the alphabet and a vowel but before moving into all of the sounds that O makes or diving into sight words, I like to get into the letter or number and really play with its essence.  Understanding the ultimate nature of a letter or number puts it into a memorable context and makes it fun.  

We use butcher paper and begin by writing the upper and lower case a few times.  The letter O is a big sweeping circle and just drawing it creates a visual of completeness.  O is round and whole, it has no beginning and no end.  I think the essence of O is the vibration that resonates when we say the sound and hold it.  "Oooohhh."  It's complete and unbroken and comforting.  Our mouth makes an O shape when we say it.  Maybe it's just me, maybe I'm partial to this sound, but I love its feel.  Saying "Om" feels like being home... when I say this syllable, my heart is transported to that place of comfort.  O is cozy, O is home.  Today had that nostalgic home-y vibration... rain outside, fuzzy socks, a blanket of soft, gray flannel over the earth.  Mmm. Home.

We made a big O on the floor with our bodies, we chanted Om a few times and felt the vibration of our voices coming together, and we imagined how it might feel to hold a big round imaginary O in our arms.  Later this week we'll look for oes in nature and explore more circle symbolism (unity, eternity, and the goddess).  

Next, I asked Am to think of a few words that begin with the letter O.  Her first word was "omnivore." Before I wrote it on the board, I had her get the dictionary and look it up.  We've been practicing using the dictionary and she's getting pretty good at it.

Omnivore is from Latin "omne" meaning "all" or "everything."  This is interesting because "Om" is a sacred syllable representing Brahman, the impersonal Absolute of Hinduism — omnipotent, omnipresent, and the source of all manifest existence. In other words, "Om" means The Universe in all it's magical wonder.  The essence of O is it's all-seeingness, it's wholeness.  The Chinese circle character yuan, literally "round", means "complete, perfect" and I'm sure it's no coincidence that the letter evolved from the Egyptian hieroglyph for "eye."

The next word Amelie came up with was "octagon."  Then we moved on to Fry's 300 Instant Sight Words.  She's mastered about 200 this school year.  The O words are: of, old, on, one, or, other, our, out, only, open, over, one, own, o'clock, off, once, and order.  We wrote these on the board and read them a few times.  We'll practice writing them all week and have a spelling test on Friday.

We usually read a story and then break for lunch at this point in our routine, but today we had something more fun planned for the afternoon... puddle jumping with friends!  So, we ate lunch and then sat back down for five minutes of mindful breathing.  If you haven't joined mindfulness together, now is the time!  They're supporting Winter Feast for the Soul and have made available online short, guided meditations for kids. 

We finished our meditation just before our friends arrived and decided to honor the day with a little service and pick up trash during our excursion in the rain.  I've never seen two girls get more wet than these two did today.  After a whole lot of splashing, it was time for dry clothes, hot cocoa, and the warm smell of cookies baking in the oven.  Later we'd soak in a hot tub.

Today had that nostalgic, rainy day, vibration... whole and cozy, comfy and home.  It was about seeing the hidden connections, feeling the world around us and, under a cloud covered sky, connecting with our inner light.  I'm so grateful for our little Om School and looking forward to the rest of the week.
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