inside the movie

When I grow up, I think I’m going to be an actor.  For the past few months, I’ve been involved with a movie making class.  And about a week ago, I went to a real live film shoot.  My dad works as an editor, so we had it be a “bring your kid to work” day for him.

Now, the last thing they’d use in a real shoot is one of those tiny camcorders like we use in movie making class.  Definitely not.  They have a big camera on a tripod, and there’s a guy holding a giant rod (boom) with a mike on it.  When they’re ready to shoot, the assistant director yells, “Quiet on the set!”  and a bell rings.  Then when they’re about to shoot, the director says, “Action!”   In one scene, I saw the actor, and he was talking to another actor, even though I couldn’t hear what they were saying. And then finally after the take is over, the director says “Cut.”  And then the bell rings again.

Next, we explored a set that was supposed to be inside a house of one of the characters (who was probably a rich person).  The living room was very roomy, and it felt like an actual house.  That is, until you looked up.  Then you saw the wooden ceiling of the studio, with beams across it and lights attached.

You can see the beams and lights above the sets

Next, we explored the kitchen.  I remember there being a concrete pillar on the way to the kitchen.  At least, it looked like concrete.  When I knocked on it, I discovered it was some kind of plaster.

They were filming a hospital scene in the hallway outside Dad’s cutting room.  We couldn’t actually see what the actors were doing, but I saw some backup actors (extras) walking around the hallway as doctors and patients would in a real hospital.  I also noticed something in common with all the scenes that we watched:  the director wasn’t watching the actors being filmed. Instead, he was watching a video screen showing the camera’s point of view.

The director and crew watching the video feed outside the set

When we came back to the hospital scene some time later, we noticed that everything was gone. We looked in the room where they were doing the filming of someone in a hospital bed, and there was nothing in there.  The room was empty.  When they’re done, they clean everything up very fast.

I could picture myself as an actor on that set, and I would feel like I was that character.  But I don’t think I could feel like that character without the set.

try to relax

I often hear (and read) other homeschoolers, the ones who do some form of structured learning, talking about how they like to get the “schooling” portion of the day out of the way in the morning.  Which makes sense.  They talk about various curricula, and what’s important to learn, and I have this image of kids sitting at the table diligently doing their work.  There’s something so satisfying in that image.  Something reassuring.  It says, “We’re on track.  We pulled the kids out of school, but they’re still getting a solid education.”  I’m drawn to that image.

Too bad.  Because I can’t do it.  Not with this kid.  I’ve learned a lot over the months since March.  Learned, for instance, that if you try to do something too structured with Damian, he rebels.  And by the way, he works best in the afternoon, not the morning.  And he learns best in chunks.  Shortish chunks.  With a lot of time in between to go off and do his own thing.  And that his own thing?  Is a form of learning too.  It’s play and research and exploration and, miraculously enough, he’s rarely bored.  Unlike when he was in school and he frequently came to me after homework was done to tell me how he didn’t know what to do with himself, most of the time these days he amuses himself easily and thoroughly.  (Not playing video games, incidentally, because those are off limits until early evening, and they have preset time limits, as well.  We find it works best that way.  Those games are addictive and all-consuming.  If they take over his brain, other creative pursuits don’t stand a chance.)

But I digress. The point is this:  He’s not other kids. He’s himself.  And part of the reason school didn’t work for him was because he didn’t have this kind of down time in between the chunks of structured learning.

I know all this and yet I still felt odd about it.  Almost guilty for letting him off the hook, even though I knew full well that if I didn’t give him this level of freedom, if I asked him to pay attention to history and then segue immediately to math and so on, that he’d get incredibly irritable and rebellious and basically shut down. If, instead, I give him just a slice of time doing history (we both really like studying history together) and then let him run off to do his own thing and then later gently coax him into, say, doing some art with me, that he’ll do each activity much more eagerly and fully.  I saw this.  I see this. And yet it’s just not the Way Things Are Done, you know?  Nobody else is doing it this way.  We’re more structured than the unschoolers but less so than everyone else I know.  And I know it’s part of a semi, sort-of movement called Relaxed Homeschooling, but how relaxed is too relaxed?

Imagine my relief a couple of weeks ago when I read a description on Velma’s blog of how her grandson, who is twice exceptional, like Damian, learns:

Even more, perhaps, than “once exceptional” gifted children, ours need down time and self-directed activity (or apparent non-activity). I have learned that my boy needs “digestion time” for things he has learned. Then one day he will come out with some new related idea or application. He can only handle traditional learning for so long. Then he rebels. No matter how hard I try to make it fun or hands-on, he eventually says, “No more! I want to do some other things.”

Yup.  Yup.  Yup.  That’s my kid too.

I needed that validation, I think.

No more almost-guilt.  No more self-doubts, wondering if I imposed more structure, he might learn to adapt and therefore benefit more in the end.  Because I know that’s not true. Know it on a gut level.  Every family is different. Every kid is different.  This is how it is for us.  This is what Damian needs.  End of story.

division by any other name

Last year in school, Damian was entirely befuddled by long division.  And I can understand why.  He had to remember this arbitrary-seeming set of rules about taking the largest place value number, multiplying to find the right number to put below the dividend, then subtracting, bringing down, and so on.

I tried to explain it at the time, but he glazed over.  And honestly?  I couldn’t figure out a way to make it tangible.  Damian is like me with math: if he gets the concept, he’s gold.  If it’s all just Do This and then Do That, well, who can remember what if you don’t know why?

When we started homeschooling, we kept trying with long division.  Got nowhere.  Damian saw the numbers and shut down.  Pavlovian reflex.  Poor kid.  So we backed off and went back to multiplication.  But now it’s time.

One afternoon last week (or maybe the week before), we were lying on his bed, and I started talking to him about how we were going to do long division.  I was taught by the “chunking,” or “partial quotient” method, so I thought I’d try that with him.  It’s easier than the customary column method, because you don’t have to know what quotient to put in the hundreds place, the tens place, and so on.  You just write down what you can easily estimate is less than the dividend, then subtract and deal with what’s left in the same fashion, until you get to the end.  I’m not explaining it well at all, I’m sure, but if you’re interested, here’s a simple YouTube video on it, and a Yahoo Answers page, for more clarification.

Anyway.  I told Damian that basically, you take a chunk out of the dividend, then you look at what’s left, and you take another chunk out, until you’ve taken all the chunks you can, and the remainder is either zero or is smaller than the divisor.  (Then you add the multipliers of those chunks together, and that’s the quotient.)   I illustrated with my fists.  He totally got it.

Later, on the couch, we went through some problems together.  Again, he totally got it.  Felt comfortable with it.  Told me he even liked it!  I think because it’s like solving a puzzle: “What’s the answer?  Let’s dig and see what we can find.”  I also think it’s because it makes sense in a holistic, right brain way.  He can picture it.  It’s working for him.

Oh, and part of the reason we tried this method?  A math tutor I know suggested it.  She says it can be easier for kids to learn.  Which begs the question… never mind.

gun play

Damian’s interest in guns (mostly Nerf), as evidenced in his post below, has been… um…. interesting.  For the record, I have no problem with it.  Dan has no problem with it.  We both see it as a normal part of his emotional development.  It doesn’t mean he’s a violent kid.

Honestly, I look at it as the boy equivalent of kittens wrestling on the carpet, or dogs mock-growling and leaping on each other in a tail-wagging pile.  Mock fighting is a staple for most juvenile mammals, isn’t it?  Certainly for the cute baby predators on Animal Planet.  It’s about learning how to navigate socially.  How to assert power, when to back off, when to team up with someone stronger, and so on.  It’s also about finding an outlet for the difficult emotions that seem to go along with early puberty.  Exploring issues that are better played out than talked through at this age and stage.  And it seems entirely healthy to me.

Besides, Nerf guns are fun.

But when you carry guns around in a liberal community?  A lot more complicated.  And Damian, naturally enough, wants to have gun battles with other kids.  Wouldn’t you, if you were him?  But every time we’re in a new situation, I kind of have to feel out the other parents, make sure they’re okay with their children handling (bright orange and green) (very obviously toy) guns.  Some are.  Some aren’t.  Some start out not so much but then warm up to it.  I’ve been talking through my own feelings about gun play a whole lot more than I ever imagined.

An interesting experience.

Nerf guns and me

These days, I’ve pretty much been interested in guns.  Not the deadly kind, but the kind that shoots foam darts instead of metal bullets.  That kind is made by a company called Nerf.  Recently, I’ve noticed that some Nerf guns are pretty much modeled after real guns.  There’s one called the Raider CS-35.  It’s basically Nerf’s version of a Tommy gun.

Oh, and speaking of Tommy guns, I may not have the Nerf Tommy gun, but I do have the best thing close to it.  It’s a foam dart machine gun made by a different company called Buzzbee. It’s called the Tommy 20.  To me, however, it doesn’t necessarily look like the Tommy gun, but rather a fictional gun from a first person shooter that I like to play.

I like playing with these Nerf guns because I can imagine that there are enemies and I’m going on a top secret mission, and I can pretend to shoot the enemies.  I also like to challenge myself to shooting contests to see how good I am, and to practice.  For example, today I shot a suction cup dart onto a window and then I tried to shoot that dart with another dart, sort of like the Robin Hood cliche where he splits an arrow with another arrow.  The first time, it took me four tries to shoot the dart.  The second time, it only took me two.   When I showed Mom and told her that I was doing the Robin Hood cliche, she said, “Good luck with that,” but I said that I’d already succeeded.  She said that I was an excellent sharpshooter.

Today, I was browsing the internet, looking at pictures of Nerf guns and real guns.  There’s a machine gun (in real life) known as a P90.  I looked at it and thought, “Wait a minute, that looks like that Nerf gun, the Firefly.”  I searched for the Firefly on Wikipedia, and, as it turns out, the Firefly IS modeled after a P90.  I immediately decided I would save up for the Firefly, because then I could pretend it was a P90.  That would be cool.

I also like Nerf guns because there’s such a thing as Nerf fights.  I’ve only had a few with Mom and Dad, and my friends when some of them came over.

Now, you probably know that I have some Nerf guns, but if you’re wondering which ones, I’ll tell you.  The first Nerf gun set I got was a set of two guns.  It was called the Dart Tag Strike Fire set.  Then I got the machine gun with a rotating drum by a different company, called the Tommy 20.  Then one day my Nerf Strike Fire pistol broke.  We were planning to go to Toys R Us to get a new one, but Dad managed to take it apart and fix it.  We still went to Toys R Us, though, where I got a Nerf shotgun known as the Nerf Recon CS-6.  However, there was a point when the Recon got jammed.  So I went to replace it with a revolver called the Maverick REV-6, but then I was able to fix the Recon, so all of my Nerf guns are working now.

I really like Nerf guns.  They’re fun to play with.


Me with the Recon (shotgun) and Maverick (revolver)



Because Kathy asked.  And because I thought it was funny.

Come to think of it, I may have a little something to say as well.  Which is:  I signed Damian up for homeschool gym last session (Sept/Oct).  He was lukewarm about it, but I thought it would be good for him to have phys ed in his schedule, and I’d heard the teacher was good (and he is).  But I told Damian that it was entirely up to him whether to continue past the end of October, when we had to either pay for the next session or stop going.  For the past few weeks, he was convinced that he wanted to stop.  Which was fine with me. He started tennis class on Fridays in mid-September and just restarted his weekly swim class yesterday.  He doesn’t need the exercise as much as he did in early fall.  Plus, I think it’s important for a kid to have some freedom to make decisions about his life.  So if he wanted to stop, that was his call to make.

Before the final class of the Sept/Oct session, I asked again.  And he said he wanted to keep going.  So far he seems to be throwing himself into it more fully. (Literally, in this case.)

I suspect that if I’d said, “I think you should continue with the gym class,” he would have been reluctant.  Which I find interesting.  The fact of no pressure led to an unexpected choice.

Also a kid pile-up.

not exactly unschooling

This past week, I started reading online about unschooling, following an email thread to a hyperlink to a webpage, and so on.  And as often happens when I do that, I started wondering about unschooling.

It sounds so appealing: let your child follow his or her own interests, let those dictate what he or she learns, don’t restrict, require, or otherwise force your own ideas about What Should Be.  Kids learn naturally.  They learn to walk, they learn to talk, they ask a million questions about the way things work, they take objects apart and put them together differently, and so on.

Sounds awfully idealistic.  But it’s in keeping with the attachment parenting approach we began eleven years ago, consistent with eating organic, trying for a home birth, doing Floor Time therapy and, oh, everything.  The ideas behind unschooling are very attractive to me.

But also not.  You see, maybe other kids learned to talk without help.  But Damian needed some guidance.  And when it became clear that he was ready to walk but unwilling to try, we set up a row of water bottles across the living room floor so he could maneuver from one to the next without having to take more than a single step without something to hold on to.  It worked beautifully.

Sometimes Damian picks up a book and devours it.  Sometimes he gets on his computer and researches the hell out of something, and then implements his discovery, or learns how to use a program on his own and probably more thoroughly than anyone could teach him to do.  Other times, he could use a little guidance.

What we do is extremely eclectic.  No tests (except for the little BrainPop quizzes), no worksheets (so far, not even for math), no set curriculum.  But we don’t unschool.  Probably won’t unschool.  I feel better having some structure.  A list in my head or on the computer that says:  he’s learning about history in this way, with these resources; learning science that way, with these other resources; spending some time on grammar via Brain Pop; doing math on a regular basis, getting caught up up to grade level, and so on.

And then I feel guilty.  Should I give him more freedom?  Am I causing him to resent learning at home the way he resented learning in school?  Am I — as the unschoolers suggest — just swapping one environment for another?

So a few days ago, I asked Damian.  “Do you like the way we’re doing history?”


“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate it?”

He thought about it for a moment.  “Eight.”

Eight is good.

“How about Brain Pop?”

“I give it an eight.”

Okay, good.

“And the blog?  How does that rate?”

“Eight too.”

“Math I assume is lower, but is it okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.  I don’t mind it because it’s over quickly.”

“You might like it better once we get past calculations and onto the theoretical stuff.”


I stopped there, but it was enough to reassure me.  If he’s giving the schooly part of his homeschool experience an eight out of ten overall, and more to the point, he’s not procrastinating wildly and protesting sitting down to do it the way he fought homework in the past, then really, I think we’re doing okay with our eclectic approach.  It may not be child-led, but it’s child-friendly.  And that counts for a lot, I think.

We live on a steep hill.  Long steep driveway.  Long steep street heading out from the driveway.  Did I mention steep?  Yeah.

One morning after a snowstorm this past winter, I was walking with Damian to school.  Sounds so benign, no?  Except the driveway and street were covered in black ice.  We had to step carefully from one semi-chewed-up spot to the next, like stepping on slick rocks in a fast, treacherous stream.  And it’s truly a long driveway.  It felt like some kind of gauntlet, a test you have to pass in order to move on to the next level of a really tough video game, except that you can’t start over if you die.

Finally, we got all the way down the driveway.  Then we crossed the street, a tiny respite, a plateau. On the other side of the street, as the sidewalk headed down again, Damian slipped on the even blacker ice there, his feet skidding out from under him as he crashed down hard.  He wasn’t badly injured.  He was, however, deeply shaken.

We carefully, slowly walked the three blocks to school.  He was still wobbly when I left him, but I rounded up the school guidance counselor to sit with him and try and help him calm down. I felt terrible about walking away from my poor, traumatized kid.  I later found out the day had been a wash.  He was too shaken up to participate in anything, to really be there at all.

That was then.

Sunday night, Damian went out to have an imaginary gun battle with his Nerf guns.  It was a dark night, the (still long, still steep, pothole-filled) driveway was hard to see.  After some time had passed, he burst into the house, crying hard.  We hadn’t seen him cry like that in years.  He’d taken a bad fall into a deep pothole.  He’d called for help but we couldn’t hear him, nor could our neighbors, so he had to struggle up and wobble back up the hill and into the house.  It was hard to turn the doorknob with the deep cuts in his hand, and his knees both had bad scrapes too.

We tended to his wounds and talked him through his feelings, but it took him a long time to calm down; I think it wasn’t the pain so much as the memory of that moment of helplessness.

Monday is normally a full day:  Robotics and movie making classes back to back in the morning, then an out-of-town homeschool gym class in the afternoon and finally a social group to cap off the day.

Damian woke up still feeling wobbly and emotional.  We stayed home from robotics, but he decided he wanted to go to movie making class because they were shooting his big scene.  Stayed home from gym class.  Went to the social group.  We did little homeschooling, instead we hung out together and separately, and mostly just chilled.  By that evening, he was doing fine.

I stuck around during the movie making class.  Since it was just an hour, I brought my laptop and sat in the adjacent classroom.  I did some work, and eavesdropped a bit.  Damian sounded fine.  He sounded more than fine. He sounded chipper.

There you have the difference between schooling and homeschooling.  Last winter, I was worried about getting him to school because he’d already had too many absences and I’d been told he needed the continuity.  So I didn’t do what my instincts were shrieking at me to do (bring him home after he fell).  This week, it was a no brainer.  No teacher, no principal, no test to prepare for, no need to ingest facts and methodology on a specific schedule.  If he needs down time at home, he gets down time at home.  And recovers emotionally a whole lot faster as a result.

here, there, and everywhere

Okay, so here’s an unexpected homeschool dilemma: how much is too much?  Damian belongs to a homeschool discussion group that meets biweekly (the setup: discussion first, then pizza and play).  We go to “Game Day” at a nearby Panera once a month (he brings Magnetix or Legos and has a great time).  In the spring, he was in a homeschool bowling league in Boonton.  One is starting up in West Orange, much closer to home, so we’ll check that out.  He attends weekly homeschool classes for gym, robotics, and movie making, not to mention group tennis lessons and solo drum lessons and a weekly non-homeschool social group.  Soon he’ll be restarting his Sunday group swim lessons (he’s looking forward to it), and I just heard about a homeschool ice skating group class for the winter.  He loves most of it, likes all of it, seems to thrive on the variety in his life.

But that’s not all.  Thanks to my myriad local email lists, I know about monthly homeschool meetups at at least three libraries in Northern NJ, monthly art classes at the Montclair Art Museum, and numerous one-off classes given by the Newark Museum and the Jersey City Museum.  Cooking class once a month at a tiny cafe in Jersey City.  Periodic homeschool science workshops at the Liberty Science Center and at the Hall of Science (awfully far to go, but tempting for the great ethnic food exploration along the 7 train).  Upcoming or recent homeschool group tours to the United Nations and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Titanic exhibit and African Art at the Metropolitan and the Franklin Mineral Museum and the just-reopened Edison Historic SIte (surprisingly captivating, we’ll try to write about it later this week).  And on and on.  Someone just set up a wonderful-sounding event involving learning how seeing eye dogs are trained (Damian has a time conflict, bah).

A veritable cornucopia of educationally-related activity, no?  When I introduced myself to the most local email list last spring, I was told I’d soon find out there was more to do than any human being could handle.  I was skeptical.  Not anymore.  And much of it sounds intriguing.

Do we do everything?  Can’t possibly.  Would explode.  Collapse.  Melt down.  And I’m not just talking about Damian.

We need breathing room.  We also need to spend time to, y’know, put the home in homeschooling.  We have plenty to do right here, and some of it really needs to get done so I can feel secure that I’m helping Damian gain the skill set and knowledge he’ll need to, oh, I don’t know, get into college, get a job, have choices in life.  (Not to mention, I have a manuscript that won’t rewrite itself.)

On the other hand, if we don’t do enough outside of the house, Damian gets visibly restless and we risk getting on each other’s nerves.  He’s an only child, and we don’t live on a neighborhoody street, so he only sees other kids on play dates or at these various events.  And he’s a social guy these days. So there’s a necessary balance.

Plus, there’s this amazing city a mere thirteen miles east of us which happens to be a culturally, historically, and architecturally rich place to learn about, well, nearly everything.  So I’m tempted to grab everything that comes along that fits his interests/age range/learning needs and desires.  But I can’t.  Because, see above.  Need to be home sometimes.  Need to have chill time.  Need to do household things.

So the question remains: how much is too much?  I suspect in this, as in most everything else, it’s a very personal decision.  Our rhythm so far seems to be: stay home (more or less) two days per week.  Do stuff the other three days.  Field trip or one-off class once or twice a month.  We’ll see how that works out.

This schedule is also entirely mutable in the sense that the robotics and movie making classes will end in early December, Damian may or may not continue with the homeschool gym class after this month, and so on.  And that’s life, I guess.  Variable, changeable, subject to the whims of fate and family.

I’ll say this, though.  Homeschooling isn’t boring!


A few days ago, Mom and I made what I consider to be the best bread in the world.  Today we’re going to tell you a few things about bread, as well as showing you some pictures we took of the bread making process.

From this:


to this:


Let’s just say that the thing that  makes bread rise is a fun guy (fungi) who likes to burp.  You probably know him.  His name is Mr. Yeast.  Put the sleeping form of him into warm water and flour, and the warm water will wake him up.  The flour is his food; it makes him burp.  When he burps, it makes bubbles of air (carbon dioxide).  Once he burps enough times, the air will make the bread rise.  The thing that keeps the carbon dioxide inside the bread dough is gluten.  Gluten is a protein that made of the flour and water.  (It’s actually two proteins: gliadin and glutenin.)  To make the gluten activate, we need to knead the bread dough.  It makes the gluten strong enough to be able to hold the very excited Mr. Yeast in place.

Here are the pictures of the process of making bread:

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