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.

For art this week, my third grader made a unique, ravishingly beautiful but simple depiction in celebration of the Day of the Dead. The instructions were simple. Watch the Festival of the Bones book on YouTube, then draw skeletons in white in an interesting background highlighted with a bit of accent color and gel pens. The cute, funny book, Festival of Bones by Luis San Vincente is a delightful read, apt for her assignment and this weekend’s celebration about the Day of the Dead. But it’s my daughters drawing, her focus on rethinking the architecture of skeletons, to mark out a space where even skeletons can flourish via the possibilities of her imagination, that I keep today.

My daughter’s art assignment

My daughter drew 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. I asked why a picnic and a snowy night. She simply said it is her drawing, as a result, anything is possible. Why not render skeletons in another light? Not as scary creatures but as delightful beings, doing delightful things even at a time or during a weather vastly different from how people imagine skeletons to act, to be, to live. I was stunned by her description, and her vivid and confident illustrations of the 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. This same vivid and confident portrayal of skeletons is possible even with motherhood, especially for working mothers.

Two skeletons, a picnic and a snowy night by Lotanna.

My daughter’s artwork helped me to rethink the subtle yet pervasive attachments we may all have to the fabric of motherhood. The need to think about what it means and what it takes to do both, work and motherhood, effortlessly, defiantly, with struggle in many cases and but a rugged ease in some instances. Just today, I not only reviewed four NIH grants in need for funding as a peer-reviewer, but I managed to put on a home-based Halloween party, albeit for four children, while also watching a movie that celebrated my daughter’s art assignment.

The artist herself.

Rethinking motherhood, for working mothers is a necessity. What I am determined to do is take what is sidelined, the sheer strength, fortitude in all our roles, and elevate it, concretize what it is, outside of fiction, whether rendered or thought as impossible for working mothers like me, who do both work and our roles as mothers effortlessly sometimes or with impediments other times. For us, anything is possible. My daughter’s imagination is a reminder for me continue to work to rethink the piecemeal notion people may have about work for mothers and mothers who work, to lay it bare down to its bones, because every successful advancement, every failure, every hope or every struggle, requires that we all learn and know firsthand that being a working mother, is both possible and meaningful like 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night.

Friday’s and every day are for the future. Today we read a splendid retelling with brilliant illustrations on why everyone should care for the planet. It’s a story that’s at least 500 years old, a Benin folktale on why children should respect the earth and the sky. Why the Sky is Faraway, by Mary-Joan Gerson and Illustrator Carla Golembe was published in 1995 and won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the year for use striking illustrations to retell this folktale that resonates with today fight for a sustainable future for us and our planet.

In the beginning, the sky was very close to the earth with plenty to eat and drink just by reaching up to the sky. My son and I tried to imagined such a world. There would be strawberries in the sky as illustrated by the book and french fries and Ice-cream plus pizza and chicken, he said. If anyone was hungry, all they have to do is reach up and take a piece of the sky and eat. Such a world seems wonderful to him. Such a world seems so radiant and perfect. A sky full of everything you want, all your favorite meals, all by reaching up to the sky.

But like everything we inherit on earth, even a sky full of food was not sustained overtime through people’s wasteful habits, people’s disregard for something vital to their own existence, something as simple as the food they eat. It’s no wonder the sky became angry and moved faraway. So what do we do I asked my son? Whatever we do to bring the sky back, he said. I agree. We may never live in a world where the sky is very close to the earth. We may never physically reach up and take a piece of whatever we want from the sky and eat to our hearts content. But we can do our part to not be wasteful, not be greedy and actually take care of our planet. Whatever we can do to respect the planet is vital and for my children, telling these folktales is a necessity.

In Religion yesterday my son learnt about God and how he created everything. Religion is the one subject that truly captivates his attention for a long time compared to other subjects. Since the start of the school year we have been coloring and learning about the 10 commandments. I honestly don’t know if he remembers any of them. But there is something about learning about God and Jesus in particular, that makes him still. His stillness with Religion (via the same technology he loathes with other subjects) is piercing. His love for religion, with word for word memorization of the Catholic mass since he was 3 for example, has been profoundly insightful to our family.

At 3, he knew how to say the Catholic prayers during Holy Communion.

Yesterday we spent time learning about the wonderful things God created. Like the moon. My son adores the planets and the moon. The picture of the moon in the chapter we read was his favorite picture. His teacher asked why the moon was his favorite? He replied, because it shines on everything. Just when we thought he had provided his answer, as his responses are often short, my son goes on to explain why the moon was his favorite.

The moon he said, shines on the trees as well as the elephant. It also shines on the grass as well as the peacocks. Even the fruits and vegetables, the horses and the butterflies and also the fishes and the birds in the sky. The moon shines on everything. I love it because of that. His teacher and I were stunned. I was also speechless. The depth of his thoughts surprises me always. Here is a boy for whom interaction can be quite a task, his responses very minimal, and his disdain for homeschooling very high. But the moon and its power to shine on everything was spectacular to him and worth underscoring how it shines on everything.

Just when I thought the class was over, his teacher asked him to draw what of all God’s creatures he loves. My son said his family. He would draw his family as that’s what he loves. He proceeded with focused and purposeful determination to draw me, his dad, himself, his sister and his brother. I was in awe. Everyday with him is different. Some days can be silent. Some days like yesterday stunning. But in the end and like the moon he continues to shine bright in ways that make me smile. Keep shining my son, as bright as the moon, shine.

Our family.

My infant son plays with his feet with confidence. He received a toy set from a dear friend that allows him to use his feet to play with a toy piano. When we initially introduced him to the toy at around 1 month of age, he would just sit there and not interact with it. Granted he was still making sense of his world after only just leaving a dark womb 30 days ago and so his interactions with everything were very minimal. But recently and now at 3 months of age, I introduced the toy set to him again and he was in love. His eyes lit up to all the colors of the toy piano. He became determined to master the toy and boy did his determination pay off. It helped him learn to play with his feet, and he played over and over again, playing tunes on the toy piano. Truly, how he make sense of his world fascinates me, especially how he learns, and how he adjusts to life playing with his feet. And he is playing away.

My first undergraduate research job at Penn State University was for the Family Life Project, a longitudinal study of the biological, individual, family and community influences that affect rural children. As an undergraduate researcher, I was trained to code how children interacted with the toys they were presented with. Specifically, I coded an interaction whereby a child was presented with a jigsaw puzzle and watched for certain cues like; did the child reach for the toy immediately or did the child simply stare at it? Did a parent assist the child with the toy in anyway he or she chooses? The idea behind these coding was that how children interacted with a variety of developmental competencies even with something as simple as toys may lead to later success or failures not just throughout childhood but also in adolescence and adulthood. So early acquisition of skills necessary for interaction or play are in turn important for interaction with peers as well as adjustments to tasks in schools.

This study as well as my overall background in human development and family studies thanks to my undergraduate years at Penn State, is one of the key reasons why I remain fascinated with how children make sense of their world. Research from the Family Life Project would suggest that my son’s interaction (albeit one small data point) with toys are necessary for self-regulation. I say that it’s is simply delightful to watch his determination with play especially his vigorous playing with his feet. Keep playing in life or with your feet as the willpower to learn, to make sense of your world, is in you.

We learnt about the letter ‘I,’ my son and I this past week. It was the perfect letter for a son who adores ice-cream. He also got the perfect math assignment to count with his favorite thing, ice cream cones. Homeschooling has been grueling the past few weeks and we finally did our first set of parent teacher conference this past Thursday and Friday. As I reflected with each teacher, as I listened to their assessment about this experience with learning, as I looked back on my children’s achievements this past quarter, as I even argued with one about a letter grade in art (I had to bring out the researcher in me for this one) I can’t help but smile. Their resilience, their courage, their determination, their perseverance, and even their ease with making learning work in the middle of an ongoing pandemic has been mesmerizing.

Homeschooling for all its difficulties and it is extremely difficult to homeschool 3 children while also nursing a baby and maintaining your own work-still, all of it is worth it. I have learnt so much from my children this past few months and I have slowed down a lot. Homeschooling forced me to focus on what really matters. Of course I love my job, but I love my family more. Of course, I want to make an impact in the world, implementing sustainable solutions that will improve people’s health in limited resources settings, but my family makes this passion truly worth it. Because if I can succeed with homeschooling, if I can make sense of the rugged difficulties at times like with homeschooling a child who has 1-5minutes attention span on Zoom, or the rugged ease at other times like with learning the letter ‘I’ with a three year old who adores ice-cream, then I can continue to refine my ideas about the rugged complexities associated with implementing sustainable health solutions. It’s all rugged in a way, homeschooling, global health and yes I love the word ‘rugged.’ But the ease of it all when it makes sense is sublime and truly worth fighting for.

Our letter ‘I’ assignment

As maternity leave slowly comes to an end, in the middle of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating, I will keep the rugged ease of learning with my children that homeschooling has taught me this year. It’s my mood for now, this ‘rugged ease’ with life and homeschooling three young children. I hope to continue to reflect on why as our experience with learning continues.