“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson (A Review)

“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson (A Review)

I picked up this book understanding it was a story about hiking. It was likely an emotional journey running parallel to the physical journey of finding oneself in the harsh, extenuating circumstances of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was partly that, but it was so much more. I was fascinated while I gained knowledge about geology, birds, trees, and even United States history though Bryson’s distinctive writing style. Just when I was getting a little glassy eyed drudging through his seemingly endless statistics about how many birds have disappeared this century, or how many bears there are per square mile in a given section of the Appalachian Trail, Bryson would return to wittily telling his tale and I’d be pulled right back in.

(4/5 stars)

On Raising Good Eaters

On Raising Good Eaters

5 Simple Rules to Avoid Mealtime Battles and Help Your Child Develop Healthy Eating Habits

Throughout my five years of this journey into parenthood, there have obviously been many highs and many lows. I could list several areas where my husband and I have been less-than-exemplar parents. For example, if our five-year-old daughter got to choose, she’d still sleep with us every night. Or this, our three-year-old son loves weekends mainly because he’s allowed to stay in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle undies all day, which is another winning example at how much we rock at parenting. But, all joking aside, there have been a few things that we’ve really been successful with.

One shining example of our brazen parenting success happens to be in an area that’s really, really important. That’s good, right? It might counteract the fact that our son galavants around our home in his skivvies two out of seven days of the week (at least)? I hope so.

At the risk of sounding boastful, and in side-stepping my ingrained Midwestern modesty, I’d like to share something that I am very proud of, as an announcement of sorts. Here it is: My kids are good eaters. Not only are they good eaters, but they truly are excellent consumers of healthy and substantial foods that nourish their growing little bodies. And they really don’t whine about eating.

Our children (the two on the right) eating a picnic lunch with their twin cousins.

I can’t believe how often I’ve heard a co-worker, a mom-aquaintance-at-gymnastics-class, or even a dear friend or relative share their distraught frustrations over their children’s finicky eating habits. So many parents I’ve spoken with over the years have experienced a lot of trouble with getting their kids to eat well, and from what these individuals have shared, having children who don’t eat well can be an anxiety-ridden experience that’s hard on both the children and the parents.

What I’m sharing that’s worked for us is basically how we do food around our house, it’s how we approach mealtime and the ideas behind eating in a very general sense. It’s a set of “rules” that we’ve followed, more or less, since we embarked on this journey of parenthood several years ago. I never set out and intentionally created this list, in a black and white manner, but it’s been a list that’s evolved naturally as our children have grown and changed. These rules have been influenced by both my childhood experiences with eating and meals and my husband’s experiences. These rules have also been shaped by what I’ve learned as a person who has always loved to cook and bake and learn about food. The numerous books and blogs I’ve read about food and cooking over the years have directly impacted how we do things in our family as well.

In our home, this is how eating works, more or less, and what has groomed our two children into healthy eaters:

  1. Eat together, as an entire family, around the kitchen or dining room table, for the majority of your meals. I can think of very few times that I have prepared food earlier for our kids, and then another meal later, for my husband and I. (There’s a reason this is rule number one.)
  2. Prepare one meal. I have never, and I mean never, cooked something for my husband and I and prepared an “alternate” meal for the kids. There are no PB&J sandwiches or hotdogs served here if one of our little people doesn’t want what I’ve cooked. It’s just never been an option, and our kids don’t expect it to be, so it’s never been an issue.
  3. Wen it comes to a meal you’ve prepared, don’t allow your children to say, “I don’t like it.” If one of them does react with a statement like this, we remind them that, 1) it’s not respectful to say that after someone’s worked hard to prepare a food for you, and 2) we don’t always have to “like” food, we eat things because they’re good for us, and usually we really like things, but not always. It’s helpful to give alternatives, like, “This food looks new to me, I’m not sure what it will be like!” Or, “I haven’t had this before, can you tell me about it?” If one of our kids hops up to the dinner table and immediately lets out an, “Uh, I don’t like that,” I’ll often remind them of number one and two (above) and give them a chance to try again. They hop back down, then return to their chair and try to say something more respectful.
  4. Don’t force kids don’t have to finish their meal, don’t turn mealtime into a battle. That is correct, we do not make our kids finish their food. We do strongly encourage them to try everything, and if they don’t finish their food there is no option of dessert, but if they truly don’t want to eat something, it’s okay. I know that if they are actually physiologicallyhungry, they will come back to finish. And, if they don’t finish their food at one meal, they will certainly be much hungrier and more ready to eat their next meal, which will also (ordinarily) be full of healthy and substantial options. If they’d get an alternate option for something they don’t think they “like” then they’d be more inclined to whine for that more palatable option (which, in a toddler’s opinion, is usually something filling and comforting, but not necessarily nutritious, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or macaroni and cheese) at the next meal as well. It’s a cyclical problem, that’s very tough to get out of. Good thing hunger works on our side as parents. When our kids are hungrier, they’re more likely to eat what you give them.
  5. Watch the snacks. Our children have never really been on a snack regimen or schedule. No 10:00am snack, or 2:00pm snack, as a rule. Sure, they snack sometimes, but it’s not an everyday occurrence that their bodies are used to. I also make a concerted effort not to use food as a peacemaker (in a Target shopping cart, for instance, or waiting for an appointment, as another example). We treat mealtimes as our time to eat. Again, when it comes to lunchtime or suppertime, the kids will be hungry, and ready to eat the healthy meal I’ve prepared for them. If they’ve filled up on Goldfish or fruit snacks during your 4:30pm Target run, it’s no wonder they’ll be reluctant to eat the salmon and steamed asparagus you’re planning to serve at 5:30pm for dinner. A hungry tummy is more willing to try new things.

So, there you have it, five rules to cure your picky eater. This is what’s worked, tried and true for our family for the past six years. Our children do not whine about food. Our mealtimes are not a battle ground. Yours doesn’t need to be either.

Picky Eater

A Letter to my Daughter’s (Future) Kindergarten Teacher

A Letter to my Daughter’s (Future) Kindergarten Teacher

Dear __________,

I know we haven’t met, yet, but I’m sincerely and anxiously looking forward to meeting you in August when my daughter starts school in your kindergarten class. It’s been a difficult decision for me to make, to send her to kindergarten this year, but my husband and I have finally made up our minds, and she is coming. Ready or not, here comes our little bug, to begin kindergarten.

It’s not because she’s not ready, our hesitance in deciding whether or not to send her. We’re so thankful that she is indeed very ready. We’ve been blessed with a very special little girl. She’s reading already and can do quite a bit of math. She’s great at making friends. She can run and play for hours on end. Her communication skills are super; she’s a good little talker and listener. She plays tennis and t-ball, and has learned to ice-skate too. She can sing the Star Spangled Banner without missing a beat and loves to perform. She loves to dance, too, of course. She knows a little Spanish. She’s empathetic and kind. Yes, truly there’s no denying she’s ready to move onto a new challenge and experience life with some newfound independence.

Given all of her preparedness, you must be wondering why I’ve been so hesitant with this decision. You see, it’s because I know. I too, have worked where you work now. It’s because of everything I know about the status of education in our country, and specifically in a district like this, that I’m not keen on my daughter spending her beautiful childhood days in the standardized environment that lies inside of those idyllic brick walls.

I understand you need to teach the Common Core standards, and quite honestly, I’m a-okay with that. In fact, as I browse through the standards (they’ve changed a bit since I taught kindergarten, a few years back) I realize she’s already met most of them. I have faith that you’re going to be a great teacher and you’ll recognize if and when a student in your class has met a particular standard already. I know you’ll provide extension activities for those who have already met standards and I also trust that you’ll provide interventional activities for students who are struggling to understand new concepts. I know you will, because that’s what good teachers do.

Yes, the more I think of it, the Common Core standards are the least of my concerns. What is concerning, is the approach that many districts are taking to ensure all of these standards are met (or met as defined by the standardized test, for whatever that’s worth). At least, that’s my best guess as to why central offices, school boards, and administrators are pushing great teachers into such sterile and dull boxes. I cannot determine any other plausible reason why these officials would put such pressure and restraint on the excellent teachers they hire. Common Core standards must be met, so the top dogs (whoever the may be) determine how best to force teachers to force students to meet these standards.

When this happens, when great teachers and empathetic human beings are forced into these boring, standard-sized boxes, the magic and the art and the beauty of teaching and learning begin to disappear. The freedom of teaching disappears. The professional autonomy vanishes. Minutes are counted and days are spent “covering” materials that have been determined by a school board, rather than an educator.

Teachers are no longer allowed to talk about books with children during “reading time” because “there’s not time for that.” I know this, because a couple of years ago, when I was teaching in the very same district you do, I was told (in very black and white terms) by my principal, that I was, “…not allowed to confer with readers individually” on the books they were reading. Not only was I told this, but I was called into his office for a specific and penalizing meeting to receive these direct instructions.

In non-educator jargon this meant I was being instructed specifically by my administrator not to talk with my students about the books they were reading. I was not allowed to help them practice their reading strategies in their books or help them find books they liked. I couldn’t ask them questions about their story to help them with their comprehension. I was only allowed to teach from the basal books that came nicely packed in the tidy little boxes from the “district approved” reading program (which was junk to begin with and, not shockingly, is no longer in print).

So, dear kindergarten teacher, next fall I pray that you will talk about books with my daughter. I hope you are brave enough to do what’s right, even if pressured to do otherwise. My daughter loves to read. She loves to learn. And what better way for a student to learn than to help her learn how to find and read great and interesting books? Oh please, please, please, if I ask nothing else of you, I ask that you continue to nurture the love of reading and learning that my daughter has.

It’s not easy for you, and I understand that so completely, but I ask that you continue to find ways to escape the narrow box that you’ve been pushed into. I believe in you! I trust that you will find ways to ensure the students in your class are learning and making progress toward the Common Core standards, and I know you can do this while still having a fun and lively culture of learning echoing through the walls of your classroom.

I know that there is a lot of bitterness and resentment that surrounds you. The teachers you work with are tired of being pushed around, and they feel disrespected because their professionalism has been questioned by so many for so long as they continue to be directed to carry out orders, but I ask you very sincerely that you maintain a positive attitude. Please, I know it’s asking a lot, but please stay out of the teacher’s lounge. Their complaining and sour attitudes are contagious, and the little children in your room need a shining and smiling attitude from you, and not the negativity from your peers in the lounge. I hope that your positive attitude can set a tone for others, but the truth is it may not be enough.

Instead of spending your precious and very limited alone time during the school day with complacent colleagues, I urge you to seek out those teachers in your building who have a growth mindset. Find others who care and want to learn new things and truly nurture the learners in their classrooms. Find those individuals and collaborate with them. You don’t have to do this alone! Surround yourself by people you want to learn from and with; those who will keep you smiling and excited about teaching all of the kids in your room.

If you can’t find anyone like that in your building (which wouldn’t be too surprising, unfortunately) utilize the power of the internet. Find teachers’ blogs and connect with people on Twitter and Google+ who are passionate about the same things you are and learn with them. The virtual support you receive and the professional learning you engage in with these contacts can be a great source of positive energy, and believe me you’ll need it.

There is so much I’ve asked of you, in this letter, and I haven’t even met you yet. You’ve got a big job, the most important job, to educate and nurture our youth, there is no denying the hardships of this job. Keep your head up, and please, remember that my little girl, and I, are counting on you to be the change. I’ve decided to send her to your school, because I have faith in you, her teacher, to make a difference in the status quo and to be remarkable.

Very sincerely signed,