Summer School 2018 and Why We’re Schooling Year-Round

We finished up our 2017-2018 school year last week (blog post on that coming soon)…and so, obviously, the thing for us to do this week was to jump into our summer school routine!

In general, we’ve done school year-round, sometimes in different ways and for different reasons, but we’ve found it works really well for our family.

First, it allows for us to have a generally consistent structure to our days. Our kids don’t do well with extended periods of time of no structure. And, to be honest, really don’t do well with extended periods of time of no structure. We lighten things up over the summer, but we can keep our general structure pretty similar to what we do during the school year. The day starts with math and handwriting over breakfast, and then everyone gets a bit of play time before we tackle anything else, and we do some more work before and/or after lunch. The little kids are continuing to be exposed to the idea that they have some choice in what we read, but I get to read the books to them, and we all sit on the couch and read together for a period of time in the afternoon.

Second, it allows for us to continue to work on building skills that would otherwise stagnate or start to decline if ignored for months at a time. We’re continuing on with math, handwriting, reading, and Chinese, all areas in which I think it would be harder for my kids to jump back into their work in the fall if left alone all summer.

Third, we can pick up some study in areas in which I want to prepare more for the fall. We’ve jumped around a bit in terms of our Language Arts curriculum over the last couple years, and we’re going to try Sonlight again in the fall, and I think I need to work with my girls a bit on writing before we start that program. With the little kids, I want to work more on letter recognition over the summer.

Fourth, a lot of the rhythms of our lives just incorporate homeschooling. Matt and I usually read out loud to the big kids before bed, and a lot of the books we use are our Sonlight read-alouds. That’s part of the rhythm of our family life, not something we want to drop just because it’s summer time. Similarly, we’re attempting to cultivate a lifestyle, not a checklist. Yes, my kids are required to read every day…but we want them to read because they have a lifestyle of learning, not just because any given day is classified as a school day.

Fifth, schooling through the summer gives us so much more flexibility during the year. If we’ve continued on with even a portion of our school work during the summer, I don’t feel at all bad about taking days off to go to the park or visit friends and family during the school year, and our many doctor and PT appointments don’t throw off our school schedule. We can create a schedule that works best for us and includes a good deal of flexibility, because we’ve already done a lot of school work, even before the official school year starts.

Of course, we’re also spending a good deal of time just playing outside, going to the pool, and generally enjoying life and the blessings of summer! But summer school is also part of our family’s summer life, and I’m thankful we’ve gotten started on that 🙂

Families Belong Together

This morning, I packed up two of my kiddos and headed downtown for our local Families Belong Together march. (Matt and the big kids had a prior commitment, or they would have joined us, too.)

As an adoptive mother, I’ve spent a great deal of time in recent years researching trauma and its effects, both short and long term. All adoption is born out of loss and trauma, and in order to be the mother that my children need, I have to understand the implications of that fact. And, of course, that knowledge has also come into play as I’ve parented my first three children through the trauma of witnessing Matt’s heart attack and their subsequent unexpected separation from Matt and me during his hospitalization.

Most people will experience some form of trauma in their lifetimes. But that does not excuse the deliberate infliction of trauma on others, as the Trump administration’s immigration policy has done and is doing. Countless apolitical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have spoken out against this policy and its traumatic effects. News articles are documenting shelters filled with “eerily quiet” toddlers. The only times in my life I’ve been inside buildings full of quiet children have been…when I visited orphanages. Can you imagine, a building full of hundreds of children…quiet? It’s because they learn that no one is coming for them. No matter how much they express their needs, those needs are not going to be met.

I know these things, and I live out, in my parenting journey, the reality of walking through life with children who have experienced separation from their parents and the horror of life in an institution. How can I stay silent, as our own government, in the United States of America, in 2018, enacts practices that separate thousands of children from their parents and caregivers, from their only sources of stability and safety and security in this world?

I won’t stay silent. I call my Senators and Representative. I post on social media. I make financial contributions to organizations doing good work. I pray. I vote. And I march.

approaching our Columbia march gathering place
the Columbia gathering in front of the courthouse
a sweet lady let FangFang and Atticus hold her signs – “Love not hate makes America Great!” and “Stop pretending your racism is patriotism”
sporting my Families Belong Together tank top, courtesy of my friend’s Six Sisters Custom Designs Shop
Marching. “I Really Do Care, Don’t U?”

A Busy May Full of Visits and Transitions

I took a few weeks off of blogging in May – it was a bit of a crazy month! My dad visited at the end of April, then my mom came for a visit.

Our Chinese teacher (who has become a friend) graduated and moved across the country to be with her husband.

We had an ER trip for FangFang when she flipped her wheelchair over on top of herself. She was, fortunately and miraculously, completely fine.

We’ve had FangFang enrolled in public school, receiving homebound services, but we had her last session and withdrew her from public school.

I spoke at our church’s women’s retreat, where we studied the book of James, super hard-hitting. I loved getting that time away with other women, having good conversations, connecting, and worshiping together. The camping atmosphere was…not my favorite 🙂 But we did have cabins with beds, and there was an actual bathroom, and I survived! And I learned a lot studying James 3 and 4 in preparation for my talk about our speech, about our hearts, about our recognition (or lack thereof) of God in the world, and about humility and wisdom – a lot to cover but some really good stuff.

FangFang also managed to fit in a trip to urgent care. She fell off of a picnic table at the park, earning a cut on her face that required 5 stitches.

We spent a day in St. Louis with my cousin Kevin and his family, which was a blast. We really enjoy Kevin and Rebecca, and they have a daughter, Sawyer, who is just a bit older than Miranda, so we all had a really fun time hanging out together.

Matt finished his semester and headed to Michigan for 6 days, at which point my mom came back for another visit to help out while he was gone. We might have survived without her, but it was definitely incredibly helpful to have her here, especially since no one slept well for most of that week! Atticus, in particular, is very attached to his routines, including Matt putting him to bed each night, and he was not always pleased to have me hanging out with him instead. And we got to have some fun outings – going to a pow wow and spending a bit of time at the pool.

Then our horseback riding instructor (who has also become a good friend) moved to the St. Louis area, and while we can keep in touch, we’ve said goodbye to having her as our regular instructor and seeing her quite as frequently.

And we switched Miranda from her regular swim club to summer swim league at our local pool. And it…did not go well. It was super crowded, including a lot of older kids, with more of a focus on racing against other kids during practice, as opposed to just improving yourself. It took only a couple days of misery before we switched her back to her regular swim team! I should have paid more attention to my own counsel, realizing that finding an activity that works well with a coach or instructor who is a good fit is hard to do – those good instructors are worth their weight in gold – and we should have just stuck with what was working. But we made it right, and even though we lost some money, and I felt like a bit of a flake, I’m glad we did it 🙂

Then we wrapped up the month with a visit from my aunt and uncle! We got to have dinner and hang out with them and give them a brief tour of the Mizzou campus and just enjoy having a bit of time together.

The month was full of so much good stuff – we loved having visitors and opportunities for connection.

But also? I hate change. Knowing it is coming makes me nervous, and I always mourn for what we are losing. If it were up to me, I’d very rarely choose those transitions. And I think that’s one reason why God put me in a college town, where change happens constantly, and I’d have to deal with it. I can’t hold anything in my life too tightly, and I’m forced to embrace change and newness.

I’m still mourning the losses, the unexpected injuries, the moving of friends, and all the transitions. But I’m looking forward with hope to what is to come.

Telling Stories to Work Through Scary Stuff

One of the hardest things for me, as a parent, is knowing how to help my kids work through hard stuff when they’re resistant to doing that work. I love my kids, and I know it’s best for them not to try to bury their feelings – but I also can’t force them to share with me or anyone else what is going on in their hearts.

Last weekend, Miranda had an experience that brought up some big feelings for her. Our two oldest girls have been taking horseback riding lessons for almost a year now, and Miranda had fallen a couple times before, but on Sunday, she had her first big, scary fall, and it really caught her off guard. She was scared, and she was angry, and it wasn’t until the very end of the lesson time that her instructor, Courtney, and I were able to get her back up on the horse. Courtney, thankfully, is amazing and was willing to meet Miranda exactly where she needed to be met and take extra time and offer the right mix of firmness with encouragement, which went a long way.

I could tell that, as Miranda walked around the arena riding Ian, with Courtney right beside her talking with her, a lot of the tension was dissipating, and I was so glad she was willing to get back up.

Miranda riding Ian with Courtney walking right next to her – I love this picture of encouragement and support and being right there with someone as they do hard things

But the big feelings were still there. Monday was a rough day at our house. I mentioned all of this to some friends, and one of them (Meghan Scanlan LCSW – if you’re in the Denver area and need a family therapist, you should probably look her up!) suggested that I have Miranda write a narrative about it and illustrate it and read and re-read and re-read it. That’s a strategy that can often help kids process traumatic events.

This is very similar to a strategy outlined by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson in The Whole Brain Child – Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions, which you can read more about here, and I’d actually considered doing something like that…but even knowing what I know about trauma and its effects, I’d still debated  – did I want to bring it up? Would looking at it more just keep it all in the forefront of her mind and make it all worse? Would it ruin any possibility of us being able to get in another lesson and another positive experience before our beloved riding instructor moves 2 hours away for her new job? But no, it was clear that Miranda really needed to work through this experience and her feelings about it, and helping her to do that needed to be a priority for me.

Tuesday morning I told her that instead of having her doing any sort of regular Language Arts with me that day, I wanted her to work with me to write and illustrate a book about her fall off of Ian and getting back up again. She was a bit reluctant, but I agreed to be her scribe and write down all the words for her if she would just dictate, and she could do all the illustrating. I wasn’t sure how she’d do with giving all of the background information and sharing about the events leading up to the fall, talking about the fall itself, and then describing working through her feelings and getting back up on Ian again afterward, but with some gentle prompting, she was able to tell and illustrate the whole story.

And it was like a weight lifted off of her shoulders. She could talk about it without all of the emotion taking over. She decided she wanted to make copies of her book to give to some friends. She’s been reading through it multiple times a day, with no prompting from me.

And she’s excited to go ride again this weekend.

I’m so glad she was willing to get back up on the horse after she fell, and I’m so glad she has been willing to do the emotional work to process all of what she has been feeling. I want to help my kids to grow up to be adults who can get back up and try again after having a bad experience and who have the bravery and strength to do emotional work to process difficult stuff. I think Miranda’s journey this week has been a step in building toward that.

Note: This story has been shared with Miranda’s permission. 

Telling My Kids Their Stories

All four of my children love to hear stories about themselves – particularly when those stories are relayed with joy and laughter. We all love the story about Atticus making pee dinosaurs on the couch (though we try not to tell it too often when he is around, for fear of encouraging future artistic endeavors of this sort!). We all find it hilarious that when I took the girls to our Mandarin teacher’s baby shower, FangFang was so excited to interact with other Chinese people that she approached all of them, saying, “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”)…but not being exactly fluent in Mandarin anymore, she had no idea what any of them were saying and followed up their responses with another enthusiastic, “Ni hao ma?” Miranda likes to hear about how, when we were traveling to China to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, as our airplane for our international flight taxied away from the gate in Detroit, she announced, “We’re almost to China!” We all laugh about how Matt used to pull Madeleine CaiQun’s pants up super high every time he changed her diaper, and she’d run back into the room, filled with glee, announcing to Miranda and me, “What Baba do?!?!”

(no super high pants – but I just couldn’t resist including a photo of my precious little Madeleine CaiQun from those early days home!)

Those stories are adorable and fun, but each of my children have deeper stories, the narrative arcs of their lives. For my two biological children, not only do they have big picture stories, but they have frequent photos, preserved “coming home from the hospital” outfits, favorite baby toys, and our recollections of their everyday moments. For my adopted children, it’s a bit different. In both of their cases, until they reached about 2 years old, I really have just a few pieces of paper and a couple photos for each of them. I can’t tell them what they smelled like as I snuggled their tiny newborn bodies against me, and I can’t tell them what their first foods or favorite toys were. And that makes the information and the photographs that we do have that much more precious. Those details are sacred.

FangFang asks with regularity, “Mom, you tell me my whole story?” And I walk her through it, in broad 4-year-old terms, from day one of her life until now, telling her what we know of her life. She delights in that and loves to hear it all, again and again. When I leave out details, she asks about those – “Mom, you tell me about the bed where I sleep when we were in China?” Some of the interest in hearing her story is, I expect, about seeking reassurance that we are permanent, and some of it is a straightforward desire to know and hear her own story.

And this week, Madeleine CaiQun asked, in a quiet moment, if I would tell her her whole story. “Not with everyone, though. Just you and me and Miranda. Is it my choice who I want to hear my story?”

“Yes, it is your story, and it is always your choice who you want to share it with.”

And so, as God would have it, my mom has been visiting this week, so I was able to leave the little kids downstairs, so I could sit upstairs with just Madeleine CaiQun and pull out that special folder, containing all of the documents I have about my precious girl’s first years. I got out her referral file folder, as well as the other sparse documents and photos we have from her life before us, and she and I sat together, just the two of us, and looked through them all. I read to her the description of her that the orphanage submitted with her file, all the details of her finding spot and what the orphanage officials shared about their impressions of her, what they wrote about the special need with which they had labelled her.

She has, of course, known her story from the beginning of her days with us. We’ve continually sketched out for her a developmentally appropriate outline of it. But this week was the first time we’d put all the pieces entirely together and spelled it all out for her precisely. And it was good. She needs to know, and she deserves to know, and, at almost 8, she’s ready for the details.

After we looked through the artifacts of her history, she and I snuggled in bed with Miranda joining us, too, and she asked me to tell her the whole story of what we know of her life and her coming into our family, from beginning to end, and I did.

She had some questions, as we talked about the particulars, and I answered them as accurately and as kindly as I could. She deserves those gentle, honest answers, and she deserves to have them from me. Her story is hers, and even I do not own its details. It is hers to know and to share as she chooses.

I expect that Matt and I will continue to talk through our girls’ stories with them in the years to come. We are all continually making sense of who we are and from where we came, and adoption adds another layer of complexity to that investigation. I’m proud to walk with my girls on their journeys and hope that I can honor them and their stories now and in the years to come.

Note: As my kids are getting older, we have increasing discussions about their comfort level with information and stories I share on my blog, and Madeleine CaiQun has authorized the sharing of this blog post.