Wednesday, December 26, 2012

3-d Pop-Up Parsha Papercraft: Chazak, Chazak! (for parshas Vayechi, etc)


Despite a largely useless computer due to various hard drive failures (new one on its way), I wanted to do something special for this week’s parsha… except I like the hands-crossing Ephraim/Menashe activity so much, we’ll probably just do that again.

But then I remembered – this is not only parshas Vayechi, but it is also the last parsha in sefer Bereishis – which is totally worth celebrating!

This is a pop-up 3-d text project where the words Chazak, Chazak, v’Nischazek (חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק) can be coloured by the student, then jump out and make a delightful statement.  Geesh; I know I’m WAY overtired when I use the word “delightful.”  There’s also a song of Chazak, to the tune of Mary Had a Little Lamb (borrowed from Morah Morah Teach Me Torah – you can listen to the song here – search for “chazak” on the page).  It, too, is delightful.

You can do this on a few different levels of complexity, depending on the age of your kids.  For the very youngest kids, I’d just cut out the words as a whole.  For older kids, you can cut out the insides of the letters, which I haven’t done here.  Whatever you do, make sure you leave the top and bottom tabs attached to the letters when you cut them out.  That’s what’ll make the whole project “pop”!

  • To download this and hundreds of other Limudei Kodesh (Jewish) printables – including weekly parsha copywork and holiday resources, click here.  (search for “chazak”)
  • For General Studies printables, including science, art and music resources in Hebrew and English, Ambleside, composer and artist resources, click here.

Here are the basic steps to help you along:

0.  Print the sheets on cardstock (except the page that says to use regular paper) and colour in the letter outlines and vowels.

Triangular Crayons Extra Jumbo (12 colors)1.  Cut out the word as a whole and FOLD IT right away on the crease lines, before you cut any more (if you are planning to cut more).  Fold back and forth a bit; you want it to be nice & limber.  Dsc04594

Aside:  Didn’t I do a nice job colouring these???  Well, maybe not, but I do want to put in a plug for these crayons I bought last week, which are quite nice.  My colouring doesn’t show it, but I have always disliked the bumpy texture you get when you colour with crayons, a texture which seems almost completely gone when I use these crayons, which are made in Europe by a company called P’kolino.  The only thing is that they are billed as “Extra Jumbo.”  Maybe that means something different in Europe, but to me, they feel a bit smaller than other triangular crayons we’ve used, including the Melissa & Doug Triangular Crayons (not my faves, but they have a nice case, feel very hard, and have lasted us a long time).  End of shameless crayon plug!

2.  Okay!  Once the letters are cut out, apply glue to the very top tabs only.


3.  Paste the word into its little folder.  Placement may be a little fiddly the first time; practice on your own before involving kids, if at all possible.  You want to be able to close the folder and a) have the words fold up nicely, and b) not have any part of the words sticking out when it’s closed.


4.  When you’re satisfied with the top tabs, glue the bottom tabs only and paste to the “floor” of the folder.


5.  Fold the card open and closed while the glue is still damp to ensure that the word is in a good position.

 Dsc04606   Dsc04607 

6.  When all words are pasted into place, paste the two little folders into the bottom of the main folder.  Paste the song lyrics on top, if desired, or use the blank Torah scrolls provided to create your own lyrics.  Note:  my lyrics say Bereishis only; due to a failing computer, I am NOT including lyrics for Shemos, Vayikra, etc., so if you want those, you’ll have to hand-write them or make up your own printable version. 

Oh - I also hand-wrote transliterations on the top of each flap, but you could put whatever you wanted on there.  I just don’t like seeing a blank surface. ;-)

Dsc04604 Dsc04603

Here’s what it looks like when you open up the folder:


7:  Add the “Chazak” Torah scroll OR create your own image on the blank provided.  I finished this by creating a fast wrap-around string closure because it’s a little bulky and pops open on its own otherwise.  The circle the string wraps around is just 2 layers of the same pink cardstock glued together for extra rigidity.  Notice I made an extra string-hole… whoops!  (These are actually little notches, not holes; I just snipped a tiny triangle shape off the bottom and fed the string – really yarn – through the hole with a tiny crochet hook.)

 Dsc04612 Dsc04613 Dsc04611   

… and done!

Leave a comment if you end up doing this; I’d love to see how it turns out!!!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Where I disagree

In light of the school shooting on Friday in Connecticut, a mother named Liza Long has released a heartfelt article saying, “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's [Friday’s shooter’s] mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris's mother. I am Jason Holmes's mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.”

She says something I agree with wholeheartedly:  “it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.”  Canada, too.

The institutions we used to keep around to lock these folks up in are gone, and that is a shame, despite the fact that they were often abused, and many people can and should be treated and released.  We know a lot more about mental illness now, but one of the things we no longer seem to know is that many people cannot, will not, ever be able to live in regular houses in the community.

We ought to lock them up.

But here is where I must disagree with her article. 

She goes on to write:

“…since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.”

Here is where the inside of me cries out, “no, no, no.”

If everybody who murders is mentally ill, then there is no evil in the world, only illness.  I do believe the lines have often been muddied and we shouldn’t try mentally ill people for crimes they don’t truly understand.

I believe some people make bad choices and knowingly, sanely commit murder.  It’s tragic, of course.  It’s not what I’d consider a sane action, by any means, but to dismiss huge swaths of crime as evidence of mental illness takes us even further from solving the problem, in my opinion.

In fact, I think it’s sad, scary, dangerous, that the issue of mental illness is being so widely speculated about in the face of Friday’s shooting, given that (at least from what I’ve seen from reputable news sources) there is no evidence that the shooter was suffering from a mental illness.  Sometimes, people just do rotten stuff.  And I hate that.

But now, here’s where I’m back to agreeing; in the face of sheer utter moronitude – I give you… the Comments section!

File:Straitjacket-rear.jpgI don’t know what the answer is – other than putting back some of the long-term mental institutions that were so glibly eliminated way back when. 

But one person responding in the comments section to Long’s article has all the answers:  this person suggests parents restrain mentally ill children by any means to ensure public safety, medicate them out of their skulls, even, “Have them committed to a mental institution.”  She may not realize the point of the article – these institutions are gone.  Lacking those, the commenter advocates locking them in their bedroom.  Now, if this woman’s murderous teen is anything like my brother was as a teenager, a bedroom door won’t keep him in; most locks won’t either.  The final solution:  “Surrender them to the state.”  Hmm… I doubt very much that any state would be willing to take them beyond the cuddly-infancy phase. 

Can you leave teenagers on church doorsteps?  If so, I’d have done it years ago.

But actually, that wasn’t the commenter’s final solution.  Here’s that one:  “…threaten to kill themselves? Let them. Because one day they will kill you. And your other children. And perfect strangers.”

Somehow, that doesn’t seem like the answer.  But it would make a cool YouTube campaign.  Instead of “it gets better,” maybe she could get Dan Savage and his partner Terry to inspire a series of celebrity videos urging teens with mental illness to off themselves.  “It gets worse,” could be their catchphrase.  “Life with mental illness is not worth living.”  “End it now.”

Definitely not the answer.  Not that I know what is.

Do you???

Is now the time to talk?

NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.

Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
image In light of the school shooting on Friday in Connecticut, a mother has released a heartfelt article saying, “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's [Friday’s shooter’s] mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris's mother. I am Jason Holmes's mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.”
So let’s talk. 
Let’s talk about my family’s Chanukah party, which often sucks anyway, because our father continues to be dead (yes, we’re grown-ups, and yes, it’s been four years, but still).  What semblance of a party there was last week, thanks to my mother’s very hard work, was totally shattered by the wandering-in and shouting and carrying-on of my possibly drunk but definitely crazy, smelly, bedraggled little brother.
He’s never been violent, but boy… last week was the closest.  He came here a few times, and it was the first time, after 18 years of mental illness, that I thought he might actually hurt somebody.  Ted had to ask him to leave, and in the end, he did.  Same thing at the party; my mother eventually shut and locked the door.  He came back in a couple of times, quietly at first but getting louder each time until eventually he left for good.
I will emphasize:  he didn’t hurt anybody.  I don’t think he ever would.   Sometimes, his gentleness amazes me, because I don’t know what demons he’s wrestling with.  I hate to throw a cliché like that in there – demons (shudder) – but there it is.  I don’t know what he’s struggling with, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like he’s struggling hard enough.  He’s sure as heck not winning and neither was our party.
Which is not the same as shooting school kids.  This morning, he called while I was in the other room and told Naomi, “don’t tell your mother I called.”  She DID tell me, and I assured her that she shouldn’t have secrets from parents “unless it’s something little and happy, like a birthday present.”  But even telling her that – it’s more naughtiness than anything else.
So my brother doesn’t hurt anybody… unless you count the family members who have no idea how to keep him safe, and how to protect the rest of us from his shouting, irrational, scary behaviour.
The mother who wrote the article, Liza Long, doesn’t want her son put in jail for his violent, antisocial behaviour.  “No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail.”  But there are no other options left. 
In the paternalistic atmosphere of former times, people were often institutionalized for years – for life.  Trouble was, sometimes they were actually sane.  Sometimes, they had treatable problems.  And these days, the thinking goes, we have amazing medical solutions that can fix almost everything; even better!  Fix em up, out the door, save a fortune!
So the institutions have gone the way of the tuberculosis sanatorium and instead we look for ways to integrate such people into our community – supportive housing, shelters, and… well, the fine arrangement my brother has settled on since the summer:  living under a bridge.  Except the underside of bridges can get a little cold here in Canada ‘round about December time. 
imageMost of our lives, we were inseparable.  Growing up 17 months apart, I thought we were two halves of the same person.  Me and my “dark twin.”  He quickly caught up to me, somehow; he was bigger, stronger, smarter as long as I could remember.  He was in French immersion, so I learned French.  I remember rolling my tongue, savouring the word “violon” he’d taught me, singing Nana Mouskouri’s “haricots dans les oreilles” song.  We’d curl up under the sheets and pretend we were twins, waiting to be born.  We’d switch clothing and try to trick everybody – nobody was ever fooled.  We finished each other’s sentences, read each other’s mind, used deaf-blind sign language on each other’s palms in synagogue. 
Except he was way, way smarter; he won math contests and entered science fairs, talked physics problems on the phone with his friend Nima (not at Princeton, probably well on his way to a Nobel), played the violin and piano, really played, when I’d dropped out after a couple of miserable years.  And he used to brag to people that I was a writer; I slept with a dictionary beside my bed – he was proud of me in the same way I was proud of him.
It is hard to remember that he used to be a person, giving and taking, like regular people do.
Not that Eli was ever quite a regular person.  Irregularities started showing through pretty early, probably before junior high school.  He cut his bangs with hedge trimmers.  He wore a hat for a whole year in school, an inappropriately woolly toque.  He didn’t shave his facial hair for years after it started coming in, preferring to live in denial.  And when we’d take a bus together, we’d be talking normally at the bus stop, but then he’d tell me he was going to pretend to have Tourette’s.  I had no idea what that was, but knew I should sit far, far away, so I did, watching him babbling or talking nonsense to people on the bus and chalking it up to the regular embarrassment of teenagerhood; isn’t every preteen girl utterly embarrassed by her brother?  Oh, he also spent a year of university living in a car, dropped out of a co-op placement… well, the list goes on and on.
Looking back, it all fits together.  It’s easy to see that he went off the rails long before his first admission.  My mother says he used to say there was something wrong with his eyes; things just LOOKED funny.  She took him to the ophthalmologist whenever he’d say that; they never found anything wrong.  To this day, he has perfect vision.  And things still look funny.
Months before his first admission, after he graduated from university (Bachelor of Math; double major, applied math and pure math, graduating average well over 96%), I had a baby and got a teaching job a couple of weeks later.  Eli was unemployed, deschooled; the perfect candidate for the task of part-time babysitter.  He was still reliable enough to show up every day and watch the baby.  They had a good time together.  He snuggled, kept track of the pacifier, fed the baby the right stuff, reported to me about the baby’s routine. 
I forget why he stopped, but right around then was when he started calling my 80-something-year-old bubby in the middle of the night to ask her what he should do with his life.  And then he was hospitalized for the first time.
This week, he eventually came so unhinged, maybe from being off his meds and wandering, maybe from being frozen and underfed, that he was finally “ill enough” to admit to a (euphemistically-named) “mental health” institution for a bit of warmth.  He called today – he thinks they may discharge him this week.  Of course, like anybody else, he doesn’t like being in an hospital and is looking forward to living on his own again.
What can we do about all of this?  Absolutely nothing.
Oh, my mother does tons of stuff.  She makes sure the government doesn’t cut off his disability or health care (it’s free, but you need an address; you need to renew it, with a photo, every few years).  She makes dental appointments and ensures he keeps them (he lost his front teeth a few years ago in an accident he doesn’t remember, but my parents bought him implants, finding a very patient and gentle dentist he would trust).  She asks if he’s on his meds.  She coordinates with the person at the community treatment centre.  She pays the shelters when he’s spent his government cheque on alcohol or necklaces or radios; did I mention he’s crazy? 
What else does my mother do for him?
She yells at the manager of the cheque-cashing place because they gave him a “payday” loan at some usurious rate of interest because he was sane enough, for three minutes, to sign the promissory note.  She arranged subsidized housing, but his place got filthy and he started leaving burners on when he went out – bugs and filth and fire risk go against the terms of their contract, and they don’t have a place for him anymore.  At one point, she and my father were talking about buying a condo for him somewhere and sending in a maid – a solution which could never be viable; the dirt is just so far beyond messiness that no cleaning staff would deal with it.  Zookeepers, maybe. 
My 41-year-old little brother could be a full-time job if my mother wanted one; at 67, she doesn’t particularly, but carries on anyway, because nobody else can.  If she ever can’t anymore – well, he’ll wind up living under a bridge, drunk and dirty, which is often how he winds up anyway.
Here’s what I do:  absolutely nothing.  If he shows up at my door and he’s polite, I offer what I might to a stranger:  food, a place to sit in the warmth (on the stairs, not the furniture; I’m terrified of bedbugs), coffee or tea (this summer, he accepted instant coffee and stirred it into iced tea; yum!), use of the phone.  If I’m in the mood, I chat.  If not, I don’t – I tell myself he doesn’t notice either way.  If he calls and he’s polite, I’ll listen for a minute.  There is no give and take, no conversation.  Eventually, I tell him I have to go.
Usually, I’m annoyed, if not angry.  I’m not as kind as I could be – that’s my sisters’ specialty, especially Sara, who is so kind to him and everybody, but then I worry that the whole world is going to eventually break her heart when people are stupid and unkind, as they often are.  To my sisters,  he’s the broken big brother in perhaps the same way that I’m the curmudgeonly frum big sister; an odd gravitational force to navigate around and not get sucked into. 
Mostly, I wish he’d go away.  Last week, after the disasters at the Chanukah party, I wondered for a while how I felt about this brother of mine, and what I felt was mostly angry, annoyance, wishing he’d go away.  The brother I grew up with is gone for good.  And I don’t want the one I do have.  Closure would be nice; death would be easier than this annoying smelly inconvenient person.  Quicker.  Terrible, terrible thoughts.
And then the mood passes and I’m okay, and I’m friendly the next time he calls – and luckily, he doesn’t call that often because then I might dissolve into annoyance and anger once again.
Have I talked enough?  Have we solved the problems yet?
I read a book recently called January First that I would recommend if you want to know about mental illness – the real, scary extremes.  Rarely do I find a book as upsetting as this one was, even though this was NOT my experience of my parents’.  More typical is a diagnosis in the early or mid-20s, which is when my brother was diagnosed.  The girl in this book, January (but her parents call her Jani), was diagnosed very young; I think maybe three or four.  And she’s dangerous; not just ordinary little-kid dangerous, but so dangerous that her parents have to get separate apartments so she won’t kill her little brother.  (read an excerpt here to decide if you’re interested and up to reading the full story)
The most disturbing thing about this book, for me, is the very incompleteness of the story.  As he wrote it, his daughter was still a child, as she still is today.  There is no happy ending; there is no ending at all.  As with any of our stories – as with ALL of our stories, the ending has yet to be written.  It’s a metaphor and yet it is also so very true.
I read a blog post a while ago by a woman in Israel (found it!  Click here to read) who had somewhat befriended a homeless non-Jewish man who lived nearby.  When he was in good shape, he could do odd jobs around her home and she’d give him food.  When he wasn’t, I guess he’d just go away for a while, lose touch, and then, eventually come back.  Except eventually, he died, and she blogged about him and how he’d touched her life, and I thought, “that is not the worst thing in the world.” 
To be a gentle homeless person with a few connections to the world, to have a few people who care about you, to eventually die of something – I don’t know what exactly (dwelling on it ruins the fond haziness of imagining); well, it’s not the worst ending. 
Ultimately, unlike many illnesses, the ending is not in our hands or the doctors’… it’s in his own incompetent, filthy palms.  We’ve already had a sneak preview of some of the grand possibilities in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure that is Life with Severe Mental Illness:  disfiguring, potentially-fatal bike accident – check!  criminal activity – check!  drugs (maybe not) but slow suicide by alcohol – check!  talking to messed-up strangers in ways they might interpret as picking a fight – check! 
Most of the choices are equally bad, and I’m never getting my brother back.  I think I’ve talked enough for now.  Maybe it’s someone else’s turn.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Heartfelt Prayers of the Innocent

Today on Shabbos, our shul had a parent-and-kid davening which we went to, for a change (which involved actually getting up and GOING to shul – yay, me!).  During the “amidah” there was a moment when kids could close their eyes and ask Hashem for something, which I thought was a very nice thing, though everybody was a bit fidgety by that point.

Later on, at bedtime, Naomi revealed what she’d been thinking during this solemn, silent moment:  “I wished there was life on Mercury, because then you’d have your birthday every 88 days.”

Then, GZ chimed in:  “I thought about blueberries, and strawberries, and cranberries!”  I tried to bring it back to Hashem by saying those were indeed some of His most wonderful gifts.  Then, Naomi came back with the second part of her “Wish to Hashem”:  “And then I thought, if you lived on Mercury, because it’s such a lucky place, people who were poor could take their net to the river and just find $100!” 

GZ:  “If you lived on Mars, you could look up and see aliens floating past!”

Maybe I’m doing something wrong…?

Anyway, shavuah tov and happy last-day of Chanukah!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fluxx, the Card Game (now available in Jewish-style) – a Chanukah GIVEAWAY!

THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED!  The lucky winner is Susan.  Please contact me by Thursday, Jan 3, 2013 with your details.

If you look around for reviews of Fluxx, you’ll probably come away a little baffled:  is it a good game, or not?
Mine’s another review that’ll probably baffle you.  I don’t know if I like this game or not, and yes, I have played it quite a few times.  It’s a WEIRD game.  And many people like it, including some of my children.  Some don’t; that’s just the way this game is.
Last week at the homeschool drop-in, five parents were sitting around for two hours playing this game.  It’s weirdly addictive that way; only one knew the game before they started playing, and fifteen minutes later, they all still needed quite a bit of coaching, but they were thoroughly hooked.
Growing up, we had a board game called Bonkers.  Billed as “never the same game twice!” you played by putting down little cards along a fairly typical-looking board-game “track”.  Because you could play different cards each time you played, and switch around cards as you played, the track would change and you might wind up winning or losing because of this swift turnabout.
Fluxx is like that – it’s never the same game twice.
Except that, with Bonkers, you had to accumulate a number of points to ultimately win the game.  In Fluxx, you can win or lose in an instant, seemingly at random.  And some people don’t like that.  You don’t necessarily win based on skill or strategy – in fact, strategizing almost seems kind of useless, because everything about the game – every single rule, including the goal of the game – could change in an instant.
When we played it at the cottage, some of the big people liked it and some of the little people liked it.  One of my sisters seemed to get really mad at it – that’s just the way the game goes sometimes.  The nice thing is that you can pretty much play this with people of any age, although you’ll need an adult or big kid to be in charge and ensure that all the rules that have been played actually get followed.  When little kids play, the randomish weird things they sometimes do won’t actually ruin the gameplay for everybody the way it might in some games.  You’ll probably want to wait until they can read comfortably before letting them play.
So here’s what the game involves:
Essentially, there are three kinds of cards:  rules, goals, keepers and actions.  You start playing with one basic rule that everybody does on their turn: draw one card, play one card.  Playing new Rule cards can change the number of cards you draw, play, or insert another complicating element into the gameplay.  Initially, there is no goal – so nobody can win.  But on your turn, if you draw a Goal card and play it, that becomes the goal of the game… until the next person changes it.  Keepers are usually “nouns,” like Bread or Chocolate, that lie inert on the table in front of you until such time as you need them to win.  Goals usually involve having some combination of two Keepers (for example, “Milk and Cookies”; the person with those two Keepers in front of them would win if this became the goal).  Oh, yeah, and Action cards shake things up in case you’re becoming a bit complacent.  So that’s the game!  Confused?  Luckily, it all becomes fairly clear once you start playing… well, eventually.

Here’s even better news!  Looney Labs, the makers of the Fluxx core game and many different “versions” of Fluxx (such as Zombie Fluxx and Eco-Fluxx) have also released a Jewish Fluxx Expansion Card Pack that turns gameplay into a kind of Jewish experience.  I like this part of the game very much.  The Jewish expansion pack includes three new Jewish-themed goals (like Torah Study, which requires the Brain and Torah Keepers), several Jewish-themed Keepers, along with a “Judaica Bonus" Rule (I think it’s an extra turn if you’re wearing a Chai or Magen David) and “Hebrew Knowledge” Action card, which gives you extra turns if you can name and spell a Hebrew word (in Hebrew).  The Goals are the best part about the expansion set, and we’re always delighted to find them.

So here’s how you can win all of this – a full set of Original Fluxx, along with the 7-card Jewish Fluxx Expansion Pack (if you want it; if you’re not Jewish, you can choose not to receive it… but who wouldn’t want a cool, limited-edition Torah Keeper???)!
The Rafflecopter is here! Follow these instructions and it will tell you what to do!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fire & Ice & Oil – Chanukah (Science) Miracles

DSC04542What?  We did science?  It’s a miracle!  Ha ha ha ha… I kid, I kid. 

But I did mention in my Chanukah activities round-up last night that our science has been somewhat less than rigourous lately.  We are enjoying our readings and workbook pages in Mr. Q Earth Science, and I’m actually happier than I thought I’d be to be spending a year away from Life Science, but we aren’t doing a ton of experiments, probably because (sigh) I’m not (in real life) a deeply experimenty person.  I don’t mind experiments, but don’t like Gathering Stuff.  Plus, it’s cold outside and this week’s Mr. Q. experiments involve tracking the position of the sun, which is kind of a tough thing to do if it doesn’t put in an appearance from one week to the next.

But what we do have is lots and lots of olive oil…!  So we did three easy oil-and-water experiments – or rather, explorations.  I prefer this word because, honestly, I’m not really testing a hypothesis when I do a science demo for or with the kids.  Just showing them cool stuff and asking what will happen.  True, asking “what will happen if…” is perhaps the very essence of Doing Science.  But I doubt many physics departments are concerning themselves with figuring out what happens if you stir oil and water with a fork.  To me, if it’s not cutting-edge, and not likely to result in new knowledge for mankind, it’s an exploration.

Exploration #1:  Stirring oil and water with a fork (not pictured).  Glass of water, add oil.  This is the oldest one in the book, but still, way cool.  Stir and stir – you can barely get them to mix and a second later, they are separate again.  Before I tried this, I actually demonstrated mixing water with juice – of course, they mixed perfectly in just a few seconds, so the oil thing is even more miraculous by contrast.  Stir a few times; give each kid a chance to try to mix it – it’s hard.  Then, add a couple of dots of dish soap and stir again.  The soap is an emulsifier; it doesn’t dissolve the oil, but allows it to break down into millions of tiny dots, dispersed throughout the water, making the water look like very thick, opaque-y lemonade.  Most of the oil rose out of the water again pretty quickly, but the water is still white-ish looking and the layer of oil on top is also white-ish and opaque.  We can leave the glass overnight and see if the water is clear by morning.

DSC04540Exploration #2:  Ice cube in oil.  Found this one on The Happy Scientist, but you can’t see it unless you have a subscription (I got a free subscription through The Homeschool Buyers Coop by referring good folks like you… so thanks!).  I used a small glass to conserve oil, but then the ice cube didn’t really float freely – oops.  No biggie, it was very cool how it hovered in the water, and I think that even though the Happy Scientist says the cube will float easily, that it was in fact less buoyant because the water wanted so badly to sink but the air bubbles in the ice cube were stopping it, so it sort of hovered in “mid-oil.”  The cool part of the experiment is when the ice starts to melt – which it does almost right away.  The water droplets are a thing of beauty, pulling down from the ice cube into the oil in an elongated teardrop shape and eventually breaking away to form what the kids described as “gold beads” on the bottom.  Eventually, the beads do join up and just form a layer of water on the bottom, and I just poured off the oil for the next experiment when the ice cube was gone.  Naomi asked, by the way, why the ice cube began melting right away even though the oil wasn’t hot.  I pointed out that this probably happens when you put ice into a glass of water or juice, too, but you don’t notice because it mixes right away instead of forming the beads.

DSC04545Exploration #3:  Burn, baby, burn.  This one’s a Happy Scientist experiment that you can actually read without a membership, because it’s on another site!  I poured off the oil from Exploration #2 into an ordinary bowl.  I took a piece of paper towel and showed them that if I set it on fire, it would burn up pretty quickly and be totally gone.  Then, I crumpled another paper towel and set it in the bowl, giving it a minute or two to soak up the oil.  This is actually what we do with little floating wicks every single night of Chanukah, because Ted and YM’s menorahs burn oil, but still – maybe they never looked closely before, and the little glass things don’t look like an ordinary cereal bowl, so it got their attention.  I asked them what would happen if I set the paper towel on fire, and Naomi first said it would get burnt up, but then changed her answer – they probably know by now that if I’m asking them the question, there’s going to be a trick.  Of course, as long as there’s enough oil in the bowl, the paper won’t burn up, but it was interesting to see how quickly the portion of the paper that hadn’t had a chance to wick any oil was consumed (almost instantly), while the rest was still going strong.  I took the opportunity to demonstrate a second principle of fire by sliding a bowl over the fire, which put it out right away.  I asked Naomi to guess why, and she semi-correctly guessed that it ran out of air (the truth is oxygen, as we learned with this Happy Scientist video on The Fire Diamond.  (I don’t love The Happy Scientist, by the way, and probably wouldn’t have paid for the subscription, given the age of the kids, but I am pleased with everything we’ve seen so far and the kids seem to like it even if it’s a bit over their heads.  I’m sure you can find many free videos explaining the principles of fire on YouTube.).

Tea RocketExploration #4:  Tea bag rocket.  This one is all over the Internet (just google Tea Bag Rocket!), and it was in the science video I linked to last night.  I tried it with Elisheva last night and we both thought it was amazing.  You open up a tea bag (the kind that’s folded over and stapled at the top, NOT the plain cheap sealed-square kind) and empty out the tea.  Stand it upright (borrowing a picture here, because I didn’t take any) on an ordinary plate (it won’t get scorched) and set the top on fire.  The flame simultaneously a) consumes the teabag, turning it to ultra-lightweight ash, and b) heats and expands the cylinder of air inside the teabag.  The upward force of the heated air is sufficient to lift the super-light ashy remains of the teabag, causing it to spontaneously “launch” from the plate and hopefully extinguish itself just before it reaches your ceiling.  This is the same principle by which hot-air balloons are lifted off the ground… except, ideally, they’re not simultaneously turned to ash in the process.

Exploration #5:  The flameproof balloon (Please! Read caution at the end!).  Not exactly relevant to Chanukah, but while we’re burning stuff, this one was also in the video.  Blow up a balloon and bring it close to a tealight.  Even before it gets there, the balloon will pop from the heat (please read my caution note!).  Now, fill another balloon with water, and bring it close to the flame.  You should be able to bring it close enough to actually sit the balloon ON the tealight and put out the fire.  This demonstrates the principle that the water quickly draws heat away from the plastic of the balloon, dissipating it harmlessly, so the balloon with water inside can survive at temperatures that the air-filled balloon cannot.

So here’s the warning I promised you:  at the point that I demonstrated this, the tealight had been burning for a long time and was entirely melted, a puddle of wax with a wick in its little metal dish.  For some reason which I am sure is exciting and scientific, at the moment the balloon burst, hot melted wax sprayed out for several feet in every direction (probably from the force of the air poofing out the hole in the balloon), splashing a couple of bystanders, though nobody was seriously hurt, and making a big mess of the table.  If I was doing this again, I would a) make the kids stand farther back, and b) use a fresh, mostly-solid tealight which hadn’t been burning very long.  I also recommend you name the balloons so the kids get attached to them and seriously mourn when “Mr. Balloon Volunteer #1” pops and dies.  “Mr. Balloon Volunteer #2,” the one who survived, has been renamed Water Balloon Baby and removed to the tub for safekeeping.

In any event, this is practically a first for me.  Because of practicing ahead of time, every single experiment – oops, I mean exploration – went off perfectly, so it was a great day of science.  I even almost boiled water in a Dixie cup, another easily Google-able experiment.  The only reason it didn’t work is that I was using a tealight as my heat source; most places recommend a bunsen burner, which I don’t have.  It got surprisingly hot and there was even a bit of steam coming out, so I was pleased, call it a day, and proceeded to splash molten paraffin in every direction (see above).

But nobody was hurt!  So yeah, successful Chanukah science.

Cool Chanukah Activities Online

My annual, non-comprehensive but hopefully fun and well-rounded, roundup of What There Is For You Online.  Enjoy!


imageSo!  With 40+ pages of Chanukah stuff on, how do you know what’s good?  I have no idea, but here’s some of what appealed to me as I waded through those 40+ pages tonight (true confession:  I stopped after page 36):

 Dreidel Tally Graphing Sheet

Chanukah Matching Game (very simple memory game – I just wasted the last of my printer ink printing these ones out…)

“My Menorah” Hebrew Song – cute and simple original song to the tune of LaKova Sheli  (but you have to know Hebrew)

Simple preschool crafts: Six Interactive Chanukah Crafts

A cute Chanukah Scavenger Hunt which would be good for a party, co-op, or anywhere you want a bunch of kids running around (not here, please!)

Very sweet present-passing group game where kids sit in a circle, learn right from left, hear the Chanukah story AND get to keep their presents at the end!  The Left-Right-Left Chanukah Game is a win-win for everybody… well, except homeschoolers who have only 2 kids around (uses Yiddish terminology and “Hashem” so perhaps not suitable for a secular / mixed crowd, but it could be adapted very easily in any way you liked).

Here’s a set of hands and feet “clip art” that you can attach to pictures of Chanukah symbols to create cute dancing characters.

While most of the older-kid resources require some knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish, this is a decent fill-in-the-blanks booklet that may have you scrambling a bit along with your kids to uncover the answers.

That said, this Chanukah Workbook - Grade 1 (all-Hebrew) is pretty well done, with very neat Hebrew handwriting (the teacher’s writing is in script, but the examples for kids to copy are given in block print), so if you have some Hebrew fluency, flip through this and see if you can use anything in there (I’m probably going to print some, but not all of it, for Naomi).

Another good choice for older kids, these Alef-Bais Yom Tov Questions have one question for each of the 22 letters of the alef-bais.  The catch is that answers aren’t provided.  I love stuff like this, but usually can’t figure them out on my own, so you may want to do your research ahead of time, or you may have some  lively debates over what the answers are supposed to be… (or blank stares, even worse)

Some of the all-English Chanukah booklets are pretty cloying, but this handwritten one, Chanukah Hi-Lights - An informative and comprehensive handout, all in English, gives a decent overview of the story and is fairly attractive throughout.

From Elsewhere

image And now, from everywhere else on the web… where as you can tell, I have mostly been searching for science-related content, because our science has been a bit “light” lately”

A few of my own Chanukah activities from previous years, including a free lapbook (not by me, though).

Exploring the properties of olive oil – a simple kindergarten activity

A couple of decent miscellaneous Chanukah science ideas on this hodgey-podgey page.

A science lesson about fire and burning oil  (this is from Robert Krampf of the Happy Scientist, who has a few more oil- and fire-related experiments and a video about fire at his own site…. I got this free through, but the deal is no longer active)

Chanukah science experiments… a video, with a cute little guy assisting!  (awesome tea bag rocket – must try this one! p.s. just tried it – it works) (the downside is, I’m not sure what some of these have to do with Chanukah… sorry!)

Moving on to some more general topics:

Just as I hit post, I think, this page of Chanukah printables (preschool / K-level) came to my attention.  So I’m reposting with this update!

Flip-your-own cardboard latke craft from Joyful Jewish, where everything is just too beautiful to think about.

Mimi, a printable Chanukah (pig) paper doll who is utterly adorable, from illustrator Carol Baicker-McKee… (Note:  it took some doing to print this nicely because it’s hand-drawn and the background isn’t pure white, nor are the lines particularly dark.  It came out terribly the first time I went to print it.  I fiddled with it a bit to make the background pure white and the outlines more bold for better printing.  However, I can’t legally offer this reformatted version to readers.)

Oh, yeah… music!  You can download a few free non-traditional takes on popular Chanukah songs for free over here.

And here’s a cute video wherein Dina, an animated little girl explains the history of Chanukah.  Part of a series from  They also have a Chanukah Heroes video which I may share with GZ, who’s going through a superheroes phase.

All in all… lots to keep you busy!  Kind of a glut (glatt?).  If only they had this much stuff for Sukkos!

Monday, December 10, 2012

I hate… “December Celebrations”?!?

imageYup, you heard me right.  I don’t hate Chanukah.  I don’t hate Christmas.  I don’t hate Los Posadas, or Kwanzaa, or Diwali, or anything else that people celebrate at this time of year.

But I can’t stand the “genericization” of this whole bloody month, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading here for more than about ten minutes (sorry to any long-term readers who’ve heard it all before!).

Look, it’s Chanukah right now.  I know that, and I guess – reluctantly – I like it.  And next week, it will be over, and I would ask that you pretty please not continue to acknowledge it or celebrate it in any way until next year at this time.  But no… and it’s particularly poignant in years like this one, where, because of the way the calendars line up, schools and the community around us will continue to “celebrate” Chanukah on our behalf at least until December 25th, if not right on through the entire month.

And here’s how they do it:

Yay!  A funny animated wintertime snowman, holding a wreath, pulling out a red-and-green wrapped gift, with a cozily-lit home in the background presumably illuminated by the fir-tree within.  Yup, looks just like our house ‘round about December 20th… oh, no, wait – it doesn’t.  Just slapping the word “holiday” on instead of “Christmas” doesn’t make these activities any more kosher than slapping a hechsher on a bag of pork sausage would.

It’s very lovely to hunt for commonalities among the festivals, like this image does:


Yes, it’s true.  We all gather with family, light lights and have food.  Hurrah!  And some of us celebrate the birth of the messiah!  And some of us rejoice in our victory over assimilation (hmm -  a message for the season in there somewhere?) and a miracle from Hashem that lasted eight nights!  While some of us… well, I’m sure there are things Kwanzaa stands for, too, and if the people whose cultures that festival celebrates are happy then I guess I’m happy (though frankly, I don’t see it as equal in status to either of the above).

And then, there’s this frequent attempt to suck the student into the spirit of the festival by having them pick a side - “My Family Celebrates”:


... for some people.What if they don’t celebrate Xmas or Kwanzaaaaa or Chanukah or Posadas…?  What if they celebrate Eid or Diwali or the Guru Gobind Singh's Birthday?  The truth is, I grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Greek school where the Greek half were off celebrating the “wrong” Christmas every single year.  They didn’t have a December holiday at all (Greek Christmas is “on or near” January 7th, as they patiently explained to ignorant teachers every single year).

Oh, and don’t get me started on people who answer (and I’ve heard this many times – sighing deep within every single time), “well, at least everybody celebrates New Year’s!”  No.  No, we don’t.

I’m not afraid to call this what it is:  Christians who love their holiday, genuinely nice people – sometimes super-nice people – who who are excited about their festival but don’t want anybody to have their feelings hurt.  Perhaps they’ve had their hands slapped for trying to share their wonderful holiday once too often in public schools.  That’s a shame; I believe their holiday can be shared in public schools in the same way that Jewish parents are often invited to share their holiday – you come in, you give a talk about why you love the holiday, offer a sample of the food, maybe a craft, and that’s it.   In out out – quick and easy.

Here’s how you don’t do it:  you don’t move your holiday into the school full-time for a month and a half beforehand, even if a majority of the students celebrate it.  You don’t teach the songs and mythology, offer non-stop Xmas crafts and decor, and then attempt to palliate the situation with an inauthentic nod to one or two other cultures.

imageThe term “December celebrations” reminds me of the watering-down of History and Geography curriculum under the auspices of the bold new meta-header of Social Studies.  In many cases, “social studies” is a watering-down and politically correct version of what used to be known as history and geography, except it’s a whole lot more centred around the kid and his/her experience of everyday life.  And a whole lot less centred around events that actually have any real significance.  For instance, learning about police, fire fighters and local grocery stores in the early grades instead of about Cheops, Magellan and the Mauryan Empire of India (guess what we read about today?!).

Here is the watered-down synopsis of Chanukah from one of these websites, courtesy of a major educational publisher:

    • Hanukkah, or the "Festival of Light," is celebrated by Jews all over the world.
    • Hanukkah celebrates the taking back of the Temple of Jerusalem from the Romans over two thousand years ago.
    • When the Temple was destroyed, the lamp of the Eternal Light, which symbolized the continuation of the Jewish people, was snuffed out. Only enough oil to light the lamp for one day was found. But because of a "miracle," the lamp burned for eight days – enough time for the temple to be rededicated.
    • Hanukah is celebrated with a menorah – a lamp holding eight candles – to symbolize this miracle. On each of the eight days of Hanukkah, a candle is lit.
    • There is no special feast, but traditional foods – especially latkes – are served. Latkes are fried potato pancakes. Friends and extended family are usually invited to the celebration, which usually includes the singing of Hanukkah songs.
    • Children sometimes exchange gifts and often receive "Hanukkah gelt," or coins. They also play a game with a "dreidl," or spinning top with four flat sides.

Notice what’s missing?  Who’s missing?  Hint:  Hashem and the Jewish people.  Beginning with “the taking back of the Temple,” there’s a heck of a lot of passive voice.  Who took back the Temple?  “When the Temple was destroyed” – um, nope.  Ditto for “the lamp of the Eternal Light, which symbolized the continuation of the Jewish people” – not exactly.  And then, ‘because of a "miracle,"’ – love the PC bet-hedging behind those quotes!  And then they had enough time for “the temple to be rededicated” – to what??  Well, I could go on and on.

In the homeschool world, without the tempering and pandering and reflex political correctness of the public-school mindset, I am inundated with Christmas on every side.  Absolutely deluged with emails offering printouts, handouts, audiobooks – many freebies, all kinds of stuff people like me totally love, and it’s ALL about Christmas.  I don’t think I’ve gotten a single email asking me to rejoice over the holiday season… well, maybe one or two.  Mostly, they want me to rejoice because Jesus is born and wow isn’t it great, and the light of the world, and frankly, though I don’t share that belief at all, I am happy that the people around me in the world are happy.

All of which means I’m free to ignore the Christmas season, because it’s not my season.  If you’re Christian, that’s fabulous, but trying to engage me in a mythical “holiday season” concocted for public-school, public-arena palatability annoys me far more than just blatantly celebrating your own festival in your own way.  If you’re Jewish, well, go light Chanukah candles.  It may not be a holiday season, but it is a holiday and you’d sure as heck better enjoy it!

Happy Chanukah!

Jumping (math) ship… boo hoo

It is with great sadness, nay, a metaphorical lump in my throat, that I admit… JUMP Math isn’t working for us this year.  :-(

I feel like this is the oldest homeschool story in the book:  a fantastic program that just doesn’t work for the kid.

I love JUMP because it’s a great program.  The math is solid, the concepts are well-developed, strongly scaffolded, and rely on minimal verbal cueing in the book so the work doesn’t depend on your language ability.  The book is also very minimalist – uncluttered and easy to understand.

Unfortunately, between Grade 2 and Grade 3 it also makes the cosmic leap from pages that look like THIS:


deleteme25 deleteme26

(nice, bright, spacious, lots of examples, lots of whitespace)

…to pages that look like THIS:

deleteme227 deleteme230

I wouldn’t say these are hard pages, but for Naomi Rivka, this has been a giant leap.  She’s definitely capable of doing the work, as you can see here…


This page is actually an exception because she’s done every section.  Normally, once I’m certain that she’s able to handle the concepts on a given page, I’ll cross out several of the examples, usually ones we’ve worked through together.

But still – the big, full pages frighten her in a weird way.  Like I said, it’s a leap, and it hasn’t been a comfortable one for her.  She wants her whitespace back, and as much as I appreciate the distraction-free approach, there is such a thing as TOO minimalist.  If you look at the second blank example page I’ve given you up above, you’ll notice a series of problems about birds and their eggs.  Accompanied by a teeny-tiny stock line drawing image of a bird.  Blah.  In Books 1 and 2, by contrast, when images are necessary, the images are custom-drawn to be friendly and appealing, if almost surreally diverse:


The clip art in Book 3.1, by contrast, is far less appealing:

image image

Naomi Rivka may not realize exactly what’s giving her the wrong vibes about this book, but I think it’s some combination of scariness (lots more text on the page) and the absence of the friendly vibe that the first books gave her.  Notice how in the samples of the JUMP 2.1 text, all the examples are offset with grey highlighting???  In 3.1, that doesn’t happen, so to a non-excellent reader – as much as she loves to read, Naomi Rivka still can’t grasp a whole page of text at a glance – it looks a heck of a lot more like one undifferentiated page of work.

One more example, with pages from the 3.1 book (left) and 2.1 book (right):

image deleteme25

On the left, the top section, separated by a dashed dividing line, is the information that will help you solve the problems below.  It isn’t MORE work, it’s essential background and HELP to perform the task at hand.  But Naomi looks at it and panics.  Whereas she’d probably look at the page on the right, with the upper section shaded in grey, and relax while she waited for me to explain the background – or cheerfully read through it herself so she could race through the six problems that follow.

Subtle differences… very subtle.  For any other kid, these might not be huge, but for Naomi, it is gradually meaning the difference between enjoying math and not enjoying math, and I can’t stand to see that happen.

So what’s next???  Singapore, aka Primary Mathematics.  A very mainstream, very popular homeschool math program.  Indeed, I’m not terribly excited about it because it is so very mainstream.  According to this placement test (which Naomi didn’t attempt; I went through it asking myself which questions she could handle), she’s probably going to do best starting back at Level 2A.  As with JUMP, there are two levels per year.  Unlike JUMP, however, in which you only purchase the workbooks, there are also two textbooks and home instructor guides per year, meaning the program costs quite a bit more money overall.  Not costly, as these things go, but still… more than we have been spending, for a program that’s not guaranteed to help.

The sample pages look good – black and white, still fairly uncluttered, but tons and tons of the whitespace and pictures that I think will be good for her. 

Primary Mathematics Workbook 2A (Standards Edition)Primary Mathematics Workbook 2B (Standards Edition)Primary Mathematics Workbook 2B (Standards Edition)

The program also looks more mathematically rigourous; hence, placing her in 2A when she has already finished the JUMP Grade 2.  I don’t think that will come as a blow to her ego; I really believe that, as with her Hebrew text, she’ll be happy to be working down a level if she perceives it as material she can handle more adeptly.  Indeed, from what I’ve seen, the 2A material is enough of a challenge that it will probably trick her into doing more math stuff and acquiring more fluency in the long run.

It’s been very odd and disconcerting watching her math skills falter given that she got what I felt was an exceptionally good head start.  If we had more time, I’d go back to doing Verbal Math drills.  If we had more time, I’d go back to doing skip counting before any math lesson.  (Have I mentioned that all my homeschooling best-laid-plans have somewhat fallen apart this year???  But that’s for another post… don’t fear; it’s all good stuff like field trips.  But still.  Utter chaos.)

Meanwhile, Mathematical Reasoning: Beginning 2 an obscure and cluttery-colourful book from The Critical Thinking Co. has utterly captivated Gavriel Zev’s math imagination.  I tried doing JUMP Math with him – as with Naomi Rivka at that age, he still can’t write well enough to do math on paper.  When Naomi was in that place, I used Miquon and loved it.  But for Gavriel Zev, the Cuisenaire rods are a building toy – period.  He seems absolutely incapable of abstracting from them.  I could just let him play with the rods, and do various pre-Miquon exercises with him, but he’s actually a workbooky he kid: he wants to feel like he’s “doing” school. I was stuck and in a fit of I don’t know what ordered this overpriced thick paperback workbook, which has somehow, miraculously, answered all my questions about how to help him make the leap from concrete enumeration to more abstract mathematical thinking and operations. 

Brightly illustrated with the kinds of clip art I generally hate, this book manages to captivate his imagination and stimulate his math brain, getting him counting, comparing quantities, shapes and even beginning rudimentary mathematical operations.  Many of the pages are interactive, with no written component at all; I read him a question (he can read it for himself, because his reading level is so far beyond his math level, but I read it anyway) and he points to the shape or number or picture.

So for whatever reason – the colour, the clip art, the interaction, the easy problems – he gets super-excited whenever I pull out this book.  Not that math was a struggle; he’s always very gamely tried to do the work, but given his low frustration threshold, it didn’t always turn out happily.  We also continue doing informal verbal math, mostly using fingers, which entrances him.  We add, we take away… and we learn – hurrah!

If I sound somewhat peeved about this book, it’s only because the one I ordered for Naomi Rivka (Mathematical Reasoning Level C) is so obscure and weird and not keyed to anything else we were doing that I don’t let her waste her math time using it (even though the colourfulness does appeal to her).  So that one was a total waste.  Blah.

Have you ever had to ditch any programs you love?  Is it always this painful???