October, from a Window in the Country

Our October learning traced a map of streams and waterfalls. For days at a time it felt like formal learning came as a trickle: writing was avoided. The suggestion of reading lessons nearly induced tears. Even reading aloud was protested in favor of elaborate pretend games outside, and lengthy inscrutable art projects.

Of course, I could have insisted that the lessons happen anyway. Instead I waited, uncertain but hopeful.

Then, suddenly a waterfall: a full page poem written on inspiration. A reading lesson that wouldn’t end, the learner wanting more and more content, progressing through a week’s material in an afternoon.

These paths can be hard to watch from above. One longs for a steady churn of a reliable river. One longs for daily inspiration. One knows a few rote tasks must be done.

But from both accomplished results, we watched as their creators took enormous pride in what they had chosen to pursue.

One Thing at a Time 

The eight-year-old lucked into the opportunity to be in a play at the local high school. It was an immersive, time-demanding, socially stretching experience that would have been exhausting had she had anything else going on. But as it was she slept in late, played, read, and talked about the performance to come. She sat for the hour before drop-off each day to have her hair brushed and plaited into french braids. She read the script, watched the rehearsals over and over, and murmured the complicated Greek character names under her breath.

It was the ultimate of what unstructured schooling can offer: the time to dive into a passion project, the time to reboot in between, and the focus that naturally results from those two elements.

Presidential Unit Study

The nearly four-year-old spent a good bit of the month paging through through Pete Souza’s photo book of the Obama presidency. I’d find her sprawled on her bed in the afternoon, staring at the images, many of them quiet, evocative captures of the president waiting, listening, or thinking. The photos introduced all sorts of questions and conversations for us: the presidential seal, Air Force one, soldiers, flags, Congress, the First Lady, the White House. At the end of the month we had the chance to share with friends favorite books that we were into—I asked her what she wanted to share. “I’m really into the Obama book.”

Allow Me

We do monthly allowance, untied to any strings of performance (though household chores are a daily reality). Your age in dollars, setting one dollar aside for generous giving each month.

It’s enlightening to watch personality-driven impulses develop and shift—the nature steadily altered by nurture. The generous one who consequently almost always has empty pockets. The spendthrift who can browse a store without asking to spend a single penny. Seeing that play out and learning from each other.

One child wanted to spend several months savings on a birthday gift for Dad. After crossing the $20 threshold, she was still a dollar short. I offered ten cents for every word looked up in the dictionary. By this I meant: look up a word and tell me how it’s defined. She interpreted it as: Look up words at random and write down the definitions.

Whichever! Within a few days the dollar was earned, and the juxtaposition of words was delightful.


A Book I Loved

The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery, The tale of a couple of writers in New Hampshire falling love with their pet pig. The pig spends its life with them—twelve years!—and Montgomery documents life alongside him. His favorite food and how they got it (mostly the compost bins of nearby cafés), his many visitors (neighborhood children), the times he escaped and various townspeople called to ask them to pick him up.

A writer of nature tales and anthropology reporting, Montgomery packs the book full of knowledge about pigs and otherwise. A natural introvert, she writes about the ways having an enormous social animal in her backyard brought richness to her life in a small town.

It makes you want to be a better human, and to have a pet pig.

After I finished it on my kindle (it was a library borrow), Amazon suggested I might like to read the most recent collection of Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery. Indeed I would, Algorithm, indeed I would.

Winter Warmup: Read This Book with Us!

Find a copy of A Christmas Carol—look for an illustrated unabridged edition like this one. Read it aloud in the evenings, stopping every few sentences to explain what’s been said. Charles Dickens is a master of description, and 175 years later it feels like the source of what we mean when we say Merry Christmas. Not to mention Bah, humbug!  Even the depiction of grasping, penny-pinching capitalism feels downright modern.

When asked why she liked it, the six-year-old said, “It’s a little creepy, but it’s also funny, and I never know what’s going to happen next. I like that it’s about Christmas.”

Begin reading it with your family in November so you’re not in a hurry.

After you finish Dicken’s “ghostly little book…may it haunt their houses pleasantly” as he called it, plan a family viewing of the Muppet version, or check your local theater listings for live performances nearby.

And a Blessing for You 

We must cook, rather than graze, if we are to survive the cold and the wet. Those allergic to cooking may need to bite the bullet and get the casserole down from its shelf if they are not to short-change the family dinner table. Only onions, starch and meat juices can get through to our marrow when everyone comes home soaked to the skin.

-Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries (cookbook)

To remember winter isn’t to remember a variation in weather, but to remember an entirely other world. Winter is less of a season and more of a planet.
-Nikaela Peters, Winter is the Season of My Childhood (article)

Early Pursuits Found Fulfilled

sent to you on a gust of October air

The mornings when I had to announce it was time to begin school soon gave away to the mornings when they would ask me when is school starting. There were episodes of doing hard things that felt hard, and we survived them. The girls latched on to a few subjects excitedly. Whenever that happens we are instantly reminded of how easy it is to do a subject when they are excited.

As for a schedule, we continued our slow mornings from the summer. If I’m up with the baby at 7, I often have an 1.5-2 hours by myself before the girls come down around 9 a.m. They will frequently wake up earlier than that, but stay in bed looking at books and chatting.

And the very late nights, with the girls reading to themselves in bed, have continued as well.

I sometimes remind myself that those two simple elements represent two of my favorite things about our lifestyle choice.

A baby mouse was found lost and mewing and adopted, for the worse. We couldn’t keep it alive—couldn’t feed it every two hours, and couldn’t feed it that well at all when we did feed it. And should we even have tried? I don’t know. It was very sad.

A bit of summer advocacy paid off this month. The two older girls were enrolled in classes that didn’t exist until I looked up the instructor’s email and asked them to offer them. Both classes are nearly full, meaning that other people wanted them as well.

There were other emails that I sent that did not receive replies. There’s a balance somewhere in there, and I’m savoring the ones that clicked and settled.

An App & Hardware We Liked

After we bought a letter tablet and set of letters from Square Panda it occurred to me that we are still in the early stages of Bluetooth and the tech-touch reality it will someday bring our households. Square Panda makes hardware that pairs with their apps to teach reading and encourage phonics familiarity. Watching a child line up letters in the physical world, and the app responding cheerily in the digital world, astounded me.

The backend is strong too. When a new game downloads, it recognizes your profile and iPad hardware. You can make profiles for each of your children, and find out which game—of their current list of eleven—is best for their age group.

The home edition retails for around $50.

The Loneliest Quiet Time

How well I know the litany of my long afternoon. -Maxine Kumin

That line is taken from a poem of Maxine’s about mowing the lawn, but say the word afternoon to me and my brow will furrow. It is a hard time of day. Dinner seems hours away, a shared cocktail on the couch barely visible in the distance. Lunch is done but snacks are inevitable, aren’t they. I began the laundry, but did it go anywhere from there?

Even if our morning has gone smoothly and many wonderful boxes have been checked, it’s usually when my energy has slumped.

So it is often the time I announce, “Quiet time for everyone, ending in two hours.” The girls can go almost anywhere, the only requirement being to leave me in silence. And though the words hesitate on my lips, my spirit wondering if I could bend to just one more request…it works! They always end up doing something that I never could have orchestrated, like watercoloring on the lawn, or skewing together a tent down by the trees, or an intensely imaginative game upstairs out of earshot. An hour in I often set out a snack of some sort to stave off requests, and two hours in I feel ready to jump back in with them.

A Recipe to Share / Soft Sandwich Bread

I am reprinting with permission Alexandra’s soft sandwich bread from Bread, Toast, Crumb, the best and easiest bread recipe I have ever encountered in my years, years!, of baking bread.

My private theory is that Alexandra is a genius who happened to apply her genius to bread baking and that’s how she made all sorts of breakthroughs. Like no kneading on the counter. And one-bowl mixing. And one measuring cup pouring.

If you can take fifteen minutes to mix a batch of dough before the kids wake up, it will rise while you have your coffee, share breakfast, wipe up spilled milk. You’ll canoodle the dough into bread pans during your morning reading, slide the pans into the oven an hour before lunch and the house will smell of early pursuits found fulfilled.

Like her, I think a kitchen scale and a bag of good instant yeast is worth the order. It will speed up your process and lend easy exactitude to your baking, meandering questions surrounding you in the kitchen or not.

But do go ahead and try this recipe as soon as you can with what you can buy at your grocery and have on hand in your kitchen.

Soft Sandwich Bread

makes two loaves

  • 6 cups (768 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

  • 3 cups lukewarm water

  • 1/3 neutral oil

  • softened unsalted butter, for greasing

  1. In a large bowl whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and instant yeast. Add the water, followed by the oil. Using a rubber spatula, mix until the liquid is absorbed and the ingredients form a sticky dough ball. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot to rise for 1.5 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in bulk.

  2. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 375 degrees F. Grease two 8.5 x 4.5-inch loaf pans generously with the softened butter (I do this with my fingers). Using two forks, deflate the dough by releasing it from the sides of the bowl and pulling it toward the center. Rotate the bowl quarter turns as you deflate, turning the mass into a rough ball.

    (Watch her clever, mess-free fork technique in this video.)

  3. Using your two forks and working from the center out, separate the dough into two equal pieces. With greased hands, lift each half of dough into a prepared pan. Do not cover the pans. Let the dough rise on the countertop near the oven (or another warm, draft-free spot) for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top of the dough just crowns the rims of the pans.

  4. Transfer the pans to the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and firm to touch. Remove the pans from the oven and turn the loaves out onto the cooling rack. Let them rest on their sides for at least 15 minutes before cutting.

A Moment / A Photograph

A lunch tray supplied for three, carried away up the hill, the dishes forgotten until after dinner, brought in before dark.

A Book They Read 

A tale from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen retold and illustrated, Saint George and the Dragon is an ethereal and oddly readable tale is of brave Una and her confused, but valiant knight. I must have read it aloud twenty times in September. When I finally asked the 3.5-year-old what she liked best about it, she said, “the way the lamb wears the crown at the end.” To each their own—I originally collected it from the library for the evocative illustrations and antique language as we delve into Middle Ages history with our Classical Conversations group this fall.

A Blessing for You

Shampooing the hair, washing the body, brushing the teeth, drinking enough water, taking a daily vitamin, going for a walk, as simple as they seem, are acts of self—respect. They enhance one’s ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world.

-Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

Early Wobbles

Just around the time you might imagine you could never begin the routines again, never shuffle papers into the right order, never spend the day inside,

September arrives and beckons.

Here in Vermont this means mornings with the windows still open but an extra blanket on top. Baby wakes up first, and she’s got two blankets. And evenings cool enough to excuse an outdoor fire before dinner. Maybe a tray of s’more supplies at your side. And sweaters! I love sweaters.

The leaves are still green. Acorns on the ground, tomatoes at the market, even the basil is still happy in the garden.

We’ve been away from all of our formal curriculum—the handwriting books, the spelling, the weekly memorized material of Classical Conversations, the daily reading aloud (the Bible, historical fiction, poetry, a classic), the math worksheets—since March.

So you could say it’s been almost six months of unschooling.

Six months of a new baby and six months of watching what they ask to do take first place on the list.

Whenever you come away from a period of unschooling, the primary realization is how very much they ask to do! The requests can quickly fill a day. One day you might worry they aren’t writing, they never write any more, and the next day they come to you with two pages of an imaginary menu scribbled down.

By the same turn, to step away for so long and then to return to it is intimidating. My days have been full with only the goals of a tidy home, nourishing meals, a quiet chapter or two (or five) of a good book to myself before bed, rested and kind children. Though the list be simple bake black beans, read aloud, dig through the garden for something to eat, trim fingernails, to add reading, astronomy, and arithmetic back on to it, is scary.

Over dinner last week we sat down together and talked over the girls’ hopes for the year. Eight-year-old: to study science and astronomy. Six-year-old: to learn to read. Three-year-old: letters. phonics. The enthusiasm of the table was collectively zealous, but a tinge of dread snuck in as they spoke. Can we really pull this off? I wondered. Suddenly I longed for the ho-hum of a morning back into our school routine, when things seem entirely possible, if altogether ordinary.

I feel like I’m on the first three steps of crossing a sturdy tree that’s fallen over a riverbed.

Step, catch balance, step, look up and smile, step, wobble, step…

A Moment / A Photograph 

A sawdust kitchen, enjoyed for a few days, swept up and composted before the cakes turned grisly from rain blown in.

Something Ambitious to Try

It wouldn’t be fall if I weren’t eagerly looking up more things to add to our collective feast. Lately I’ve been clicking through the class lists on the website Outschool. Outschool offers video chat classes for 6-12 students, ranging from $8-$14 a session.

We haven’t tried them yet—mostly it’s hard for me to imagine pausing the flow of our day to get just one of the kids settled in front of a laptop. But I’ve loved finding classes for the things the girls are into, like lego engineering, or one about the Wizard of Oz series (the eight-year-old’s current passion), or a book discussion for the second Land of Stories fantasy novel.

The specificity is delightful. And just reading the bios of the clever instructors is giving me joy.

A Book I Read

The Weil Conjectures

Are you a words person or a numbers person? As a natural words person I spend a fair amount of time puzzling over how to invite numbers generously into my children’s world. My approach to this is to read about it (ha!). Basically I’m hoping to get inside the head of a numbers person so I can properly convey that magic to the girls.

So when my friend Katharine recommended The Weil Conjectures, I was quick to ask my local library to order it….

more about this read on my blog

A Book They Read

Pale green Monarch chrysalis with gold spotting are hidden everywhere—under a zucchini leaf, a hydrangea branch. Brilliant orange Monarch butterflies land in the grass to catch the sun for a few minutes, and the remaining Monarch caterpillars are still fattening up in the garden. Gail Gibbons’ detailed illustrations and story from 1989 have been illuminating our understanding of these fascinating creatures. (Amazon)

A local photographer named Mary Holland does amazing work keeping citizens of the Northeast aware of what is going on around them. About the monarchs she writes…

After eight to fifteen days, the adult Monarch emerges from its chrysalis and heads towards Mexico (butterflies that emerge after the middle of August migrate). It is the great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of these migrating monarchs that will return next summer.

Mary Holland’s blog Naturally Curious.

And / A Blessing for You

May the questions be welcome. May your confidence come from gratitude.

She who seeks, shall find.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Matthew 7:7-8

This is a home education newsletter from Rachael Ringenberg of Erstwhile Dear. If you have previously subscribed to updates from Erstwhile Dear, you will now receive these as well. You can unsubscribe to this, and you will still be safely subscribed to the blog. Thank you!

from a Window in the Country

a lively gazette from a household of six, mostly home and hardly schooled. books, recipes, apps, seasonal trial and errors from my pile of papers to yours.

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