We took a walk around Forest Park yesterday. The weather in Saint Louis this time of the year is unusually beautiful for a Fall/Winter and perfect for a walk in the park. One thing we saw all around the park were pinecones. There were lots of them all around and fun object to pick and play with as we walked around the park.

My daughter and her pinecone

But did you know that on rainy days, pinecones fold their scales? They do so to prevent seeds from spreading. But on sunny dry days, pinecones open their scales. They do so to spread their seeds at greater distance, far from the parent tree. While wet days are days for retreat, days for silence, dry days are days for building, days for dispersing, days for survival for pinecones. Dry days are how they disperse their seeds, even with scales that also dry, scales mostly dead. But how can seeds spread or even survival from dead cells? Turns out that water plays a huge role. When water is absorbed in response to air humidity, the cones and seeds stick to each other. Whereas, without water, the waterproof seed wing surface rapidly drys, so seeds detach and disperse.

A pinecone
My son and his pinecone

If there is one thing I have learnt from pinecones, it is that your dry days are not only your greatest days, but they are also your days for growth and most definitely your days for survival. Keep being as dry as pinecones.

A pinecone
Our pinecone collection.

I am always a little bored with demonstrations of greetings during the holidays. Demonstrations like, similar text messages that often begin on Thanksgiving and end, at least during the holidays, on New Year. They rely on the same things, the same promises, the same wishes, even the same prayers. I am sure you got a bunch of them yesterday. Most start with ‘Happy.’ I am guilt of doing so too. I typed it yesterday on my blog. But as the day wore on, as the cooking and silence continued, even as I spoke to some family members and knew that this year’s Thanksgiving would be a very quiet one, my own text messages became a bit intentional.

My 8year old’s gratitude drawing

I thought intently about each person and why I was thankful they were in my life, healthy, safe and sound, in the middle of a pandemic no less. I professed my love with words that came from my soul, words that I took the time to really reflect just how lucky I am to be blessed and surrounded by people who continually see the best in me. Things I often don’t see in myself, but yet, in their own way, they pull out each layer, one slice at a time, no matter how difficult or worrisome I can be. They all make be a better version of myself and for that, my yesterday was filled with gratitude to them. My whole being was grateful, blissful, content, joyful, blessed.

My 6year old’s gratitude drawing.

I told my kids to do the same, to take the time to reflect in writing or draw this year on why they were grateful. Of course kids would be kids, and besides being thankful for mom and dad, my 3 year was thankful for ice-cream, my 6 year old, learning especially from dad, and my 8 year, pizza and our home. That truly is the gift of this season. From my home and heart to yours, keep gratitude in mind.

My 3year old’s gratitude drawing with help from 8year old.
He really loved reading this.

Books that read like poetry are my favorite. Especially for my children. Enter this classic book ‘What you know first,’ by Patricia MacLachlan written in 1995, with engravings by Barry Moser. It is one of my unique finds from a trip to our local thrift store. I’m probably one of a handful of moms who consistently patronize and scour thrift stores for rare children’s books and I have been so lucky. In fact, most of the books my children read are from thrift stores. Not only is the price right (you can’t beat children’s book at 50cents-$1), but if you are lucky, will will find rare books, books out of print and books with profound messages for kids like Patricia MacLachlan’s book. What I know first tells the story of a little girl who must leave her beloved home on the praire. The pictures were sublime with words so gentle, so spare, but yet haunting. Saying goodbye to the things she loves on the prairie is tough. Who can blame her when she lives on land where the sky is endless, and the day starts with a rooster crow, with a tall cottonwood tree with leaves that rattle when dry, or an ocean of grass everywhere. Still, even in the midst of the known, even if you must let it go, what you know first stays with you, her father says. Remember that.

Like the little girl, it’s so hard to forget one’s birthplace or the things that help shape or mold you especially during this pandemic of a lifetime. What you know first stays with you. It lingers even when you leave a beloved place, or a beloved thing, or beloved people or a beloved way of life. There are so many reasons why I love this book. Though the circumstances compelling the family’s move are never explained, I can’t help but wonder why leaving or letting go of things makes one feel so sad. As a reader, you are left to fill in the blank as you see fit. That’s truly is the significance of this book.

The touching words, which read like poetry is sterling. The words are also reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s invisible ink with Patricia MacLachan truly inviting her readers to help write every text. What lies under, between, outside the lines and hidden until the right reader discovers it, is admirable. I was completely attuned to the book’s invisible ink when I read it to my kids today, reminding them again, that what they know first, in our home, even during this pandemic homeschooling, will stay with them. Still, I long for them to keep discovering something new, a new world, a new horizon, a new book, even a new version of themselves always. Find ways to carry what you know first, the known world even in the face of the unknown or when the old one seems so beloved, so hard to let go. Keep what you know first. It matters.

Why is the sky blue? Why are clouds white? Why do clouds even start with the letter C? These are common questions my three year old asks every day. He is not alone. Many kids his age get to the bottom of things by asking questions. Yet by the time kids reach middle school, they stop asking their parents questions. This is according to a Newsweek cover story, ‘The Creativity Crisis,’ published in the 2010. In pre-school however, kids like my 3year old on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. This decline in questioning has ramifications for children’s engagement in school, which tends to fall off the cliff when children move from elementary to high school. I came across these findings in Warren Berger’s book, ‘A more beautiful question.’ In it, he shared how children care much about the answers in their why questions. Still, why does questioning in children stop drastically and why is it not even taught in schools?

Why are clouds white?

As this first cycle of homeschooling comes to an end, I have become torn with the heavy focus on subject matters like math or language or reading, and the limited focus on building skill sets such as inquiry or even questioning. Take questioning for example, my 3 year old inundates me with questions everyday. At first, and like many parents, I was tired of the questions and began to respond with the typical statement ‘because I said so.’

Why are clouds white?

Lately and thanks to books I am reading like Warren Berger’s book below, I realized that his questions are necessary part of life, with kids like him actually being born questioners. My job now is to encourage it, to help him learn or even practice it where necessary. That’s all. Keep building questioning in kids. Keep letting them ask why. It matters, even when you don’t have the answers.

We all know life is too short! It is! Here is another kicker, your tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. It isn’t. So choose to fight for what matters, even if it is risky. Today I had to fight for the right to keep 2 dear colleagues. I took a risk on them last year and it has paid massive dividends even in the middle of a pandemic. So for me, a global health researcher by day, risks is all I know. Risk is all I write about and risks are all I fight about. It is worth it for me. Keep taking risks, another short but apt post, perfect for these times.

I love to talk. It’s presumably why I easily gravitated to a career in teaching. But ever since I started teaching a course I absolutely love, I have learnt first hand why teaching isn’t about lecturing or talking. It’s about students themselves asking questions of subject matter and me guiding them where possible to come up with the answers themselves. Education experts call this inquiry based learning and I adopted it in my class this fall semester. I looked for pictures, books, materials around the week’s topic, presented it as a prompt or trigger and asked for questions and questions only. Suffice to say, good questioning is a rich and complex intellectual skill, that works to help both the teacher and student elicit worthwhile information that matters. It also depends on teachers working with students in inquiry.

My guide to an inquiry mindset

At first, I was uncomfortable. My students were too. But I learnt quickly that we all had to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable with questions more than answers, with pushing paradigms, more than finding solutions. I encouraged my students to first think about the questions they had in mind and not the answers. When all questions were asked, together we brainstormed answers where possible. Some answers were easy, some tough, some I knew, some I didn’t. But the growth and perseverance over the course of the semester had been immense. Knowing that it okay not to have all the answers was humbling to me. I came to academia because I wanted to learn first and foremost and I felt I could learn more from my students. Adopting an inquiry mindset has allowed me to learn, even cultivate a natural love for learning in some of the students I interacted with this semester. From the student interested in rural mental health, to the one passionate about maternal child health or gardening for healthy life, the student focused on provider bias or the one implementing narrative therapy for gun violence survivors, the student exploring how family support matters for kids along the autism spectrum, or multilevel determinants influencing their diagnosis to the student passionate about suicide prevention, sustainability, immigrant mental health, young adult mental health and sexual health literacy or stigma with STI testing, it’s almost like as if I knew all of them intimately and adopting an inquiry mindset allowed me to root for their best work individually. That in essence is the hallmark of an inquiry mindset, that students ultimately grow, that they persevere intellectually and continue to explore their passion more deeply even as the semester ends. Every moment was a learning opportunity, to be better. In fact I was intentional about this, letting them know that inquiry may first lead to failure, but even my attempts at failure (which was more work for me) were all learning opportunities to be better, not a shortcomings or failure. Reflecting and revising was intentional and my attempt to achieve growth and looking back to the start of the semester, my little experiment worked.

As the Fall semester comes to an end, I am completely grateful to my students, every single one of them because they made me learn and in so doing, I became more like them, a lifelong learner, a student, passionate about helping my fellow students thrive beyond their wildest dreams, one class material after another. Keep an inquiry mindset as it’s the most authentic and inspiring learning you will ever experience.

My children are at the age where dinosaurs are their best friends. Not only do we read all sorts of books about dinosaurs, but thanks to Forest Park, there is a dinosaur park they love to visit every weekend. The other day they drew maps about how we went from our house to the park.

Out of everything there is to see and feel at Forest Park, my kids are so focused when they get to where 2 large replica dinosaurs are stationed, running around the dinosaurs and touching them all over (which makes me cringe given the ongoing pandemic). If there were real life animals, like little squirrels running through the park, my kids would not see it. Instead, all they see are the replica dinosaurs, all they touch are the dinosaurs and all they want to talk about involves the dinosaurs. For my kids, learning, even about dinosaurs is social.

Whether one child is constructing the map to the park by themselves or another child is running around the dinosaurs, the process of learning for them is the same. They create meaning with simple things like a trip to dinosaur park not as individuals, but as members of a social community with a general shared consensus, they formulate on their own, on how the journey from our house begins and how it ends at the dinosaur park.

But above being social, learning for my kids is collaborative. Scholars describe collaboration ‘as a natural learning process that all learners engage in from time to time.’ Homeschooling my kids this year, has fostered collaborative learning in ways I never expected or planned for. As a teacher and co-learner to a 3rd grade student, a first grade and junior kindergarten student, I have gained deeper understanding of how my children structure and make sense of their world. Like with our daily trips to the dinosaur park. Not only do they enjoy seeing and learning about the same dinosaurs every time we visit the park, I also enjoy watching them learn once again about the same dinosaurs. Every story, every experience, even at the same site and with the same replica dinosaurs is different. My role as their parent is blurred in this space. Their love for the park has vicariously become love for me also. Co-learning occurs between all of us in ways that are mutually satisfying, mutually valued as we make sense of the world around through the lens of dinosaurs. This co-learning, a gift from homeschooling, is totally worth keeping.

I came across a statistic recently on why reading by the end of third grade matters. It matters for success in high school and beyond. It matters because it’s the crucial point when children start using reading to learn other subjects. It also matters to mitigate delays in language and social emotional development in early childhood. Bottom line reading, and reading before third grade is fundamental. But what if you master reading in 1st grade, 2nd or 3rd grade, but have no idea what you are reading about, no idea why or no passion to read even for the fun of it all.

Meet my six year old son. As some of you may have guessed by now, he is on the autism spectrum. He was diagnosed at the age of 2 and barely spoke words that made sense by three. So I started to read to him. I read everything I could find. Our favorite book, the first he memorized word for word, was ‘The Watermelon Seed.’ He loved that book, especially the part where the dinosaur swallowed the seed and made the sound ‘gulp.’ He would laugh and laugh when we got to that part. There were other books too like ‘Don’t let the pigeon drive the bus,’ ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear,’ ‘Never too little to love’ and ‘One duck stuck.’ Three things that were common across the books were: sensation-all the books played to his love for sensory things, like the sound of the word gulp, or the sight of a watermelon seed. Sensory books are a necessity for him. Then there was perception, with words strung together, carefully, bit by bit, repetitive, inviting, no, pulling him, until he became alert to their presentation, with focused attention. Perceptive books matter. Finally, with perception came understanding with him forming his own rules, choosing sides in some cases, on how to successfully master not only reading of the words presented, but also learning. Books that foster understanding matter.

My son

Recently and thanks to our co-participatory model of homeschooling, I have noticed a dramatic decline with reading, especially reading that included sensation, perception and understanding or even reading for fun. The other day in Science, we were reading about how plants make food and my son was completely bored with no desire to listen, let alone read. None of the word in his textbook interacted with his senses, attended to his perception or fostered his understanding. When the teacher asked him to read, he actually had no problem reading the chapter. But when she asked questions about what he read, he was stoic. At first I thought he was tired and didn’t want to participate. But the more I observed, the more I remembered how I taught him how to confidently master reading when he started to speak at 3. Watermelon seed came to mind, alongside side the other books. Plants get their food from roots, the book said. But my son had no idea what that really meant. What food? From the soil? I see nothing. The teacher asked him draw a plant. He drew a sunflower. I said, no like in the textbook, draw the plant in the textbook with the leaf, he did and asked if he could go play. I said we have to listen to the teacher. She asked for him to draw little strings at the end of the leaf. Those were the root she said. My son was done and asked this time if he could really leave. I made him stay.

Honestly I was also tried and quite frankly bored as well. So I drew the roots. I also helped with the strings and the soil and the labeling of roots, plus the stem and the leaf. If this is learning, I told myself, then we are doomed. I have already helped him master reading. He is a already a confident reader in 1st grade. But now, building his confidence with learning in ways that interact with his senses, attend to his perception and foster his understanding is our next feat. I am not waiting until 3rd grade to build a confident learner. It matter for us now.

This entire week has been exhausting. I am completely drained and fatigued and want everyone and everything to understand this election needs to end. Everyone needs to move on. Count the vote because every vote counts. Then call it already. We all know the winners. We watched as their votes came. Poised and calm, steady hands and heart. They can’t steal it from them. So instead we watch and as we keep facing the truth, they keep filing lawsuits. I will keep praying over our power, over any lawsuit, because surely the truth always prevails.

One of the greatest burden and gift of living through this pandemic is homeschooling. It’s a burden. Simple. Ask any mother currently homeschooling any child and they will list all the burden. For me, my list is long, but I’ll spare you the trouble and focus on one-Attention. Attention is difficult for a six year old especially through a technology we restrict for play but allow for education. Attention is also hard for an 8 year old especially when siblings in the next room are crying because they loathe math or reading or even science via Zoom. Then there is the 3 year for whom attention is very minimal at this age. Attention for him is a chore especially when it comes to watching any school related materials on Zoom or remembering sight words he read out loud less than a minute ago. Like I stated above, homeschooling and it’s insistence on focused attention from children is burdensome.

My son and his sister watching an African storyteller telling African stories

But learning, all forms of learning that has occurred during this period of schooling at home is one of the greatest gifts my family and I have received as a result of this global pandemic. Learning for us is a gift, part of our natural existence not restricted by any curriculum or any agenda. Not a forced activity imposed by any professional or occurring in isolated spaces. Learning, unapologetically realized, recognized, is done everyday at home, insides spaces without walls, through lens never needing to be closed, from the pirate stories, to astronaut goals or even scary mummies all for example, for Halloween celebrations yesterday. Learning for my six year old for example, occurs through interactions with his siblings on a daily basis, something formal education would have restricted or curtailed by now. For him, it’s in the way he politely asks for his turn. That’s all. Interaction is a big developmental task for him and the opportunity to learn at home has instilled asking politely for his turn with a laptop, a book, even the last piece of chicken on the table. He politely asks before proceeding to do anything.

A pirate, an astronaut and a mummy.

For my 3rd grader, learning is expressive. Like the way she draws everything for every occasion like Halloween yesterday, a black cat and jack-o-lantern. Or the way she took a short story she wrote and made it into a chapter book, now with 12 chapters and counting. But as if that’s not all, learning, especially our poetry sessions once a week is about normalizing the mistakes she makes with reading poetry, repeating the process over and over, despite whatever setbacks she feels, until she becomes comfortable, even confident with the words and her understanding of the power of language. For my junior kindergartener (also for his brother and sister) learning occurs within a complex network of people, places, nature, and things. Like with our Sunday walk around the amazing Forest Park in search of the Dinosaur Park (will make a keep story of this soon) or with making leaf man out of dry leaves he picks along our walks during this glorious Fall season. Learning is everywhere, something he does everyday, without any curriculum, just part of his daily living.

My daughter’s Halloween drawing.

These are the gifts homeschooling has given to my family. Learning for us is part of our DNA, fundamentally connected to our everyday existence. Beyond this pandemic, I intend to do my part to keep affirming my children’s learning in this way.