We’ve been getting into playing chess as of late. At this stage the kids are not really understanding (or remembering) how the pieces move, and they still belive that the point of the game is to take as many figures of the opposition as possible, but they definitely enjoy going through the motions. And pressing the chess clock buttons in appropriate times. And getting excited when they’re “winning” and pouting when they’re “losing”.

Here are some pics of these chess-playing attempts, in all of their intense, contemplative glory.

And the game begins…

Levchik opening up his pawns

Verusha attacks!

“Hmmmm..that DOES put me in a predicament…”

“But what if I do…this?”

"You're running out of time, buddy!"

“Not so fast!”

“Victory is mine!”

…and the game goes on…

When our car died at the end of last year, we made an executive decision to try something different. So, the money we could have used to make car repairs went to purchase a NICE bike and a trailer to cart the kids in. We figured that the car, being the respectable age that it is, will continue breaking and needing more and more repairs, while the bicycle situation may be a more sustainable solution and an incentive to get moving.

The real test came when winter vacation was over and we had to begin driving/riding our son to pre-school. (Our daughter was spending a few weeks with granma in San Diego, so we had some time to adjust). Unfortunately for my husband (who did the carting while I walked the mile or so to work), those first two weeks were the coldest this winter, with temperatures at times bordering freezing (which is COLD for Houston). Add the wind-chill factor generated by biking, and you had lots of wind-burned fingers and rosy cheeks.

I didn’t get the experience of riding the 5.5 miles to preschool and back again until recently, when our daughter was already back in town and the temperature rose back to Indian Summer. The riding to school was a breeze, especially since I didn’t even have the trailer attached in the back – we had intuitively left it at school over the weekend, anticipating more riding the following week.

So, to make the story short. I did it: I rode there, latched the whole contraption together, buckled two bubbly munchkins into their seats in the trailer, and rode all the way back. After that, I didn’t want to move much for the rest of the day, but that’s another story. I did enjoy the excersise though. So much, in fact, that I did it all over again the next day. At this point I took the camera along too, to share the adventure with everyone. Here are some shots taken on the way to/from the school.

Let's get going...

Work 🙂

A small part of the Johnson Space Center

Trees don't count

Mystery mansion

Extreme fly fishing, anyone?

Sinking into the asphalt...

Look Mom, no hands! (No worries, the kids where not in tow yet)

Today it's autumn

There. Finally.

All packed in and ready to go!

Playground pitstop

Hydrant

Sleepy and pacified...

Almost home.

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Photo by  Juniper Spring Photography

A couple years at least I have been arguing with myself about education. On the one hand, what can leave a more lasting and powerful impact on your child’s development than the type of schooling she receives? Shouldn’t the selection of just the right match be a thoughtful, research and convictions-based process?

On the other hand, I think of myself and my sister (no comments about Brother), who went to your average, run-of-the-mill public schools all of our young lives, and seem to have gleaned a tremendous amount from the experience. We wanted to learn stuff, we were taught, and so we did learn. With no help from Montessori, Waldorf, Charter, Magnet, or any other hipster names in the schooling world.

Still, it would help to have a good, solid understanding of the different types of education programs and approaches out there, so that, given the choice, we could pick what we think best fits the needs and abilities of our munchkins. So, without further ado, here’s a brief description of the major types of schooling available (loosely organized by level of hippiness, interpret that as you will):

1. Public, standard edumacation

This is the default. Public education means that there are standards that must be followed, which is good, but also that most of the kids need to be able to meet those standards, bringing the standards down to ridiculous lows, which is bad. I am a product of public education, as many of the more brilliant people I know, so take it from the horse’s mouth: public schools can be home to talented teachers, great administration and support staff, and bright, enthusiastic students. The down sides everyone already knows, we hear enough about them on NPR.

2. Charter / Magnet schools

According to wikipedia , “Charter schools are primary or secondary schools that receive public money … but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school’s charter.” For instance, the charter school my two little ones currently attend uses the relative freedom that it has from standard rules and regulations to place emphasis on a more hands-on, activity-based approach to education and learning. Also even in the pre-K classrooms, child initiative is regarded highly, and often the kids themselves are given the opportunity to decide where the class goes next and what they study. This approach of teacher-guided free exploration is emblematic of many alternative forms of education.

Magnet schools are also public schools which focus on a specific field of study or type of curriculum. They are often competitive, requiring entrance exams or auditions, or highly sought-after, with a lottery system in place to randomly select qualified students. The specific field of study may have an academic focus (ie. mathematics, language arts) or a vocational/technical/artistic focus.

3. Home-schooling

Home schooling takes on many forms of its own, but the underlying theme is that the individual parents and children are given much of the control over their education, and while there are some standards that need to be met, much can be included or excluded depending on the preferences of each individual family or group. The personalized approach allows parent/child teams to focus on areas where the child may be struggling or areas that are especially interesting to the child, and to breeze through the tasks that are easy and/or boring. Another benefit is that the home setting keeps the children from being negatively influenced at school by their peers (ie. peer pressure, violence, stereotypes, put-downs, etc.)

The difficulties of homeschooling revolve around creating opportunities for children to socialize with others, having enough discipline to learn and study daily, and for the parents, chiseling out a huge chunk of time to develop/follow a curriculum, plan activities, and teach their children. I can imagine homeschooling being very rewarding for some families (with stay-at-home parents) and virtually impossible for others, especially if both parents work full time.

4. The Montessori Method

The Montessori education system is based on teaching methods developed initially by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952), and then by others following her lead. The main permise is that children are natural learners with a natural guiding force within them which helps them learn on their own, given the right circumstances. Typically emphasis is placed on initiative and freedom to explore, paired with a carefully crafted set of playing tools (open-ended units which can be manipulated in innumerable ways, driven by the imagination of the student) and teachers or “guides” who do more observing and re-directing than actual, direct teaching. The teacher may also show how each set of playing tools can be used. During a typical school day, young children rotate through several work stations (“work” because play is a child’s work), and the teacher facilitates the process.

On paper, this approach really appealed to me. But when I did come in to visit a Montessori pre-school to see how it plays out in practice, I was surprised by just how little interaction there really IS between the teacher and students. But what about circle time? What about teaching them stuff? I thought. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t quite as alternative as I thought I was…

5. Waldorf Education

While the Montessori approach may still focus heavily on academics and achievement in middle and high school years, Waldorf education moves even further from the Main Street of education, ending up on a fairy-dwelled cottage nestled in the rolling hills of Imagenaria. Incidentally, it is based on the work of modern Renaissance man Rudolf Steiner , who also founded a popular alternative agricultural method (biodymanics) and new philosophical/theological movement in the early part of the 20th century.

The Associate of Waldorf Schools of North America believes that “For the Waldorf student, music, dance, and theater, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about, ingested and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate a lifelong love of learning as well as the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world.” In other words, in a nut shell this is a holistic, arts-based approach to teaching and learning.

6. Unschooling

Yes! This is every child’s dream come true. And why shouldn’t their dreams come true? After all, isn’t dreaming important? And isn’t the joy of seeing those dreams come to fruition worth something?

Excitement put aside, this form of education has been gaining momentum as of late. Since unschooling aims to break out of the traditional mode of school and structured education per se, the term “unschooling” itself evades precise definition. Generally speaking, unschooling is letting the child learn while living life (and not going to school) in the family. This includes play, outdoor exploration, participating in family chores and activities, crafting and creating, and playing an active role in the local community. All concepts are learned hands-on, and of course, the learning is completely child-directed (see, I told you J). In my ideal world, this would be the ideal education. But in a world of deadlines, stress, and payments that binds us parents, this is an approach that is practiced only as an addition to a more structured, standard form of education, for fear that something vital would slip through the cracks if children were allowed to run wild. (Like, “oops, they’re ten and don’t know how to write yet….”)

Closing remarks
In a few days and weeks, we will have guests either blogging or interviewing here on Diem Dame, that are experts (parents, teachers, educators) on each of these forms of education. So stay tuned! And please, if you know of other movements in the education world that you’d like to share, or if you have personal experience with any of the above, feel free!

RESOURCES:he following books may be helpful in continuing the research for the ideal system and approach to education for your child:

What Is Waldorf Education?: Three Lectures
School As a Journey: The Eight-Year Odyssey of a Waldorf Teacher and His Class
What is Montessori? A Basic Guide to the Principles, Practices, and Benefits of a Montessori Education
How To Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way
Teaching Montessori in the Home: Pre-School Years: The Pre-School Years
The Unschooling Unmanual
Radical Unschooling – A Revolution Has Begun
The Ultimate Book of Homeschooling Ideas: 500+ Fun and Creative Learning Activities for Kids Ages 3-12
The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling
Homeschooling for the Rest of Us: How Your One-of-a-Kind Family Can Make Homeschooling and Real Life Work

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If you use a different education system for your child, or a blend of the above, or if there are other great resources that you use / have used to develop your own teaching approach, I’d love to hear from you! Also, feel free to subscribe to this blog and join our growing community of thoughtful, artistic, mindful and a bit nutty parents and individualists!

For New Year’s Eve we had friends over for dinner. I was more anxious than usual about the event because they are all vegans (Mom, Dad, four-year old and one-year old), and I wanted to feed them well but hadn’t had much experience cooking without using any animal products at all. It’s interesting that even when you cut out the obvious duck roast or filet mignon, you’re still left with the mayonnaise, sour cream, cheeses, butter, egg derivatives, etc. Eventually I settled for my salad minus the feta (which sort of killed it, especially because I didn’t have walnuts which I would have used to compensate for the Feta pizzazz), cooked brown rice with olive oil, and as a last-minute decision, fresh-pickled mushrooms and carrots. I asked our friends to bring dessert, because they make amazing raw sweets and cookies without animal products OR sugar. They perform feats of culinary genius and finesse where I would have been like, “Apple, anyone? I have some granola…”

Fortunately for us all, when our friends came they not only had three types of desserts with them, but two main dishes as well, which, combined with my feeble attempts at vegan cuisine, made for a well-rounded, plentiful meal. Apart from the rice and fresh veggies in my salad, the ingredients for the meal + dessert included mushrooms, garlic, dill, black-eyed peas, parsley, white onions, buckwheat, walnuts, prunes, chocolate, cashews, coconut, cocoa powder, green beans, and probably oatmeal. When we finished the meal, I felt full but not gross. Rather, I felt light. I didn’t want to eat more, yet it didn’t feel like the food was all concentrated and churning painfully in my stomach. Instead, it seemed evenly distributed throughout my body, where I couldn’t really pinpoint its location. I felt good; unusual.

This is definitely something I want to try again. I cannot imagine myself ever becoming vegan, because it doesn’t seem natural. I mean, if you need to take supplements, then that’s probably not the way God intended it. But, I can imagine myself vegetarian. Maybe one day…but that’s another day for another post. Later I also want to share the simple recipe for the pickled mushrooms which ROCKS, and was given to me, in an alternate form, by a Russian colleague at work. Which reminds me, if anyone is interested in discovering the authentic Russian cuisine, or wants to re-create those great “pirogis” or “borcht” from long-ago childhood memories, definitely check out the The Russian Heritage Cookbook: A Culinary Heritage Preserved in 360 Authentic Recipes. It was written by a Russian-French American UN simultaneous interpreter working in New York, whom I met when she taught one of our simul classes at grad school. There’s also the Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Foods into Your Cooking, by Heidi Swanson, whose cooking website, http://www.101cookbooks.com I’ve been enjoying tremendously over the last few months…

I am also wondering if anyone knows of good vegetarian/vegan cookbooks that they would recommend?

And if you’re wondering about the watercress: Yes, I did put it into the salad again, and we did mostly finish that salad this morning when I broke down and dumped the remaining Feta into it. There’s still a bit of the green thing left, and I don’t know what I’ll do with it, since my initial plans of chopping it into a dip have been foiled by our car battery dying. Because, now I can’t go to the store for sour cream. See , it’s all connected. But I’ll come up with something.

Stay tuned, and Happy New Year!

or maybe it's just Greek Salad?

There is no magic ingredient. In fact, let’s rename is right now, and call it Anya’s Signature Salad. The magical aspect of it is this: if you follow the basic formula, you can stick some unusual veggies into it and no one will notice! I mix this salad for myself, for the family, for guests, for parties, for parents, and for getting rid of various bits of edible odds ‘n ends around the house. What I love about this salad, besides the fact that you can easily sneak in some wayward carrots or left-over mushrooms or chives, is that it is so colorful. It is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. Just looking at it and thinking about how all of these nutritious delights are about to be incorporated into my body makes me feel healthier 🙂 .

But I’ve tarried on the benefits of this concoction long enough, so, without further ado, here is the (very) simple recipe:

Anya’s Signature Salad

Basic Necessities:

Several large leaves of lettuce, hand-shredded
Cucumber, chopped
Tomato, chopped
Green onion
Crushed walnuts
Dill (or parsley / cilantro), chopped
Green / red / yellow pepper, chopped
½ cup Feta cheese, crumbled
½ dried cranberries
Annie’s Natural Goddess dressing (can mix with olive oil to decrease sodium)

Accessories / Substitutes:

Alfalfa sprouts
Watercress (YES!)
Croutons
Baked sunflower seeds
Bacon bits
Shrimp (to make it a meal)
Chicken strips
Egg, hard-boiled, finely chopped

If you’re planning to ingest the salad immediately, mix everything up and serve. If you’re not quite ready to serve, mix all vegetables and cranberries, but wait on the Feta and the dressing (and croutons, if you intend to use them). The Feta is salty and will drain water out of the veggies and into the salad bowl, the dressing will make everything soggy eventually, especially the croutons.

This shall henceforth be the official week of the watercress! Though I’ve been familiar with the word for a while, I only recently connected it with the humble, non-descript bundle of green, leafy goodness that shall dominate the meals prepared this week.

Look at it: ain’t it lovely?

Just eat it!

(Incidentally, not only is it lovely, it’s a great vegetable for maintaining a good healthy weight, as described in this book .)

Confession: this is actually the fourth time I’ve purchased watercress over the last few months. The first time I totally forgot I even bought it, and it wilted in the fridge without me ever opening the bag.

So much for the SuperDuper Homemaker Award…

The following time I managed to splice some of it into my magic salad. I also tried to use all of my stellar tricks to get my kids to try it , but alas, to no avail…The next time I made salad OUT OF it, using it was the main ingredient, because I was determined that none of it should go to waste. Still, some did.

But this week, I am taking my struggle public. If you have a funky veggie or fruit that you’ve been meaning to include in your diet, join me in “saying” this Watercress Pledge. Modify as needed.

Watercress Pledge:
– I hereby pledge to incorporate and consume the watercress purchased in its entirety.
– I shall not feed it to wild animals, sweep in under the carpet, or “lose it” in the fridge.
– I shall make a full-fledged effort to feed it to my spawn and spouse, thereby spreading its goodness and sparing self of unnecessary digestive consequences.

Tomorrow the struggle begins. Stay tuned. Share yours.

A couple of days ago I got off early and decided to finally show the kids where I work. Yes, that mysterious place where they drop me off some mornings, and cannot go further because they lack a government security clearence and I don’t. I strapped them in their car seats, grabbed my SUPER AWESOME camera, and headed in. For the record, the kids can go into the Johnson Space Center with no badge if they are under 17 and if their parent has one.

Here are some pics. Enjoy!

Leo in the Mission Control Center, me having trouble with my camera...

To the mothership!

"Ok guys, it seems pretty easy. Just don't touch the RED BUTTON!"

Munchkins in front of the Moon Rover in Building 9

Moon Rover from the back - note the space suit. The point is that a suited astronaut can sit there in the open environment of space and do stuff while another one sits inside, in a pressurized cabin, and drives it.

Looking forward...

No comment.

Future engineer of America!

If you look closely into the helmet visor, you'll see all three of us.

Go Soyuz!!! (Can you imagine that three people can fit into that little thing?

Vierra contemplates Robonaut prototype (the real one is on the Space Station)

Can you just see it now...

I wrote another post on NASA here , there are lots of pictures there too, and more verbiage than in this post :).