The Education Learning Curve

Today my children all return to school.  This year, I have two left in Elementary – one of them in his last year there – and one in Middle School and one in High School.  With four boys in three different schools its going to feel like a second job for me to keep on top of their schedules, deadlines, requirements, and commitments.

Every new year of having my kids in American schools has brought with it new challenges for me as a parent.  Between technology developing too rapidly for my grey matter, the generation gap, and a vocabulary gap because of being British, it can be difficult for me to understand what a homework assignment even requires the kids to do.  I do a lot of googling and watching demonstrations of methodologies on YouTube.  This year, however, with one kid in High School, I feel like I am in for an even steeper learning curve than ever before.

My oldest and I attended a High School induction day a couple of weeks ago and that revealed to me how out of my depth I was.  I went all the way through High School, an undergraduate degree, and a postgraduate degree, and I then taught High School.  I am, therefore, well versed in education and the transition between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.  In Britain.  When it comes to how all of this functions in America, I have next to nothing.  And I had better learn quickly because the years are rapidly flying past.

The talks that were delivered at the induction event involved a huge amount of assumed knowledge.  Acronyms were being bandied around with no allowance for anyone, like me, who had only a scant idea of what they stood for, what concepts they represented, or how they pieced together into something coherent.  What I think I grasped, however, is that there is a through-line from the beginning of High School to its conclusion that will determine prospects for tertiary education.  Yikes.  I thought I had a couple of years to figure this stuff out.  Apparently not.  So I need to hit the books myself now and get on top of such things as GPAs, SATs, ACTs, credits, dual enrollment, AP courses, and all of those other things I am clueless about.

This new experience, this new area of life I need to research, is another stark reminder that my adult life and experience was all but reset to zero when I emigrated.  Whole areas of my knowledge were voided and made irrelevant and – even after nearly four years of living in America – I am still a stranger in a strange land trying to fill those gaps in knowledge with new learning.  I am an old dog so new tricks are hard but I will work hard to understand what I need to know.

Advertisements

Lemonade Stand

This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand.  They suggested the idea and we supported it.  This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.

They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer.  I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil.  I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind.  They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience.  I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.

DSC_0206

DSC_0209

We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points.  We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall.  A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies.  What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.

DSC_0213

It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit.  They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings.  I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently.  It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch.  I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience.  They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.

Scoffing Shane’s Confectionery

I have lived in Pennsylvania for just over two and a half years now and in that time I have sampled a few state foods.

Despite the fact that Mr Pict and the Pictlings love them and I go into school every two weeks to deliver them to the kids, I do not like pretzels.  I know I should be drummed out of the state for such an admission but I just don’t like them.  I can eat one if I have to but it is not something that I enjoy.  I did like Tomato Pie but I prefer more traditional Italian pizza than this twist on the theme.  I tried Tastykakes and was disappointed – as I had been by my first ever Girl Scout Cookie.  I do like Rita’s Water Ice and frozen custard and like that I can deploy it as a bribe / reward for my kids ever so often in the summer months.  I have mentioned several times on the blog now that I do not like American chocolate, despite visiting Hershey twice now.  The Pictlings have had no such difficulties adjusting their palates to American chocolate but the taste and especially the texture remains alien to my Scottish mouth.  In addition to visiting Hershey, we also did the Turkey Hill Experience to learn how this local ice cream is manufactured.  Ice cream I love; it just doesn’t love me as I am lactose intolerant.

Recently I tried a new local food in the form of some sweet treats from Shane’s Confectionary.  Having started operations in 1863, Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest continuously running candy shop.  It’s store on Market Street, Philadelphia, opened in 1911, when the business moved into retail from wholesale.  Having fallen on hard times in the post-war period, the candy shop was recently lovingly restored.  We will have to take a trip there with the kids some time.

DSC_0007

We actually received some Shane’s candies as a New Year gift and, knowing they were special, I saved them for a rainy day.  We had some cherries that had been soaked in brandy and covered in chocolate.  These tasted divine and the crunch through the chocolate into the chewy, fruity centre was pleasing.  They also had a lilac metallic lustre to the chocolate coating which made them extra magical.  There were also some chocolate caramels.  The kids all loved those but, given American chocolate does nothing for me, I was not bowled over by those.

DSC_0009

The boys also had a moulded sugar steam locomotive.  Apparently these clear candy toys  – brought to PA by the Amish – are a holiday tradition at Shane’s, with parents buying them up for their children’s Easter and Christmas gifts.  I have happy memories of going to an Edwardian style sweet shop with my Gran and picking out a variety of boilings which were plopped into a paper poke and treasured and savoured during shopping expeditions.  I completely understand the tradition and the element of nostalgia.  The train was literally just boiled sugar though and, therefore, would have been too bland for my liking.  Give me Kola Kubes and Soor Plooms any day.  There were no complaints from the younger sweet-toothed Picts, however.

DSC_0018

So that is Shane’s Confectionery ticked off the list.  I wonder what my next experience of edible Pennsylvania will be.

Halloween 2015

My kids absolutely love Halloween in America.  They started talking about plans for costumes during the Summer and the middle two have been literally counting down the days for months.  Although this is now our third American Halloween, the novelty of the experience has not worn off on my kids.

Festivities began on Friday with parties and a parade at school.  The school has rules about gory costumes, face paint and hair spray so there was much angst over needing different costumes for school than for actual Halloween.  Happily, since my younger kids love dressing up, we have two sacks full of dressing up gibbles for them to dip into and everyone got something together.  I went in to help with the First Grade party and was assigned to a room full of fairground type activities on a Halloween theme.  By far the most popular activity with the kids was one involving hitting a wooden frame with a mallet and thwacking frogs in the air.  The objective was to get the rubber frogs into buckets in order to score points but the kids much preferred seeing how high and how far they could propel the frogs across the room.  Ceiling tiles were battered, I had to drag frogs down from overhead projectors, and crawl behind bookcases to retrieve them.  Some groups invented twists to the game such as goal keeping and using the sticks from a hockey type game to bat the frogs as they flew through the air.  It was exhausting and I had the sound of the mallet hitting the wood ringing in my ears for hours afterwards.  Good fun though.

Then – after a very quick dash home to get some laundry in the dryer – I was back to the school to watch the parade of kids and staff all dressed up in their costumes.  It was great fun seeing them all, especially the kids who had made their own costumes.  The parade was immediately followed by more parties, this time for my Third and Fourth Graders.  Last year, I was a Room Parent so all my party time was spent in one classroom with one of my kids and I rarely saw the other two participating in festivities.  I was very glad of the opportunity this year to spend time with all of my kids during their parties even if it meant speeding up and down a corridor to pivot between classrooms.

I didn’t get much chance to sit down or stand still in one place during Halloween itself either.  It was another hectic day.  We also reached a bittersweet milestone as my oldest son went out Trick or Treating with friends.  It was the first time we had not had all four of our kids with us to go guising but we are very happy indeed that our oldest son has made such good friends here that we wanted to spend the evening with them.  My oldest was dressed as a plague doctor.  Apparently only one adult on his whole trick or treating tour had a clue what his costume was but, even though we had assumed everyone would get it, he rather liked being a tad obscure.  My other three went trick or treating around our neighbourhood with our next door neighbour kids and the children of our friends.  My 10 year old was the Joker, my 8 year old was Robin and my 6 year old was Frankenstein’s Monster.  The kids walked and walked until their pails were so full of candy and other treats that their arms were getting a bit orangutan like and their feet were sore.  We visited haunted houses, met Chewbacca on his porch, and my little Frankenstein’s Monster even got to meet his biological parents.  Then it was everyone back to my house – where we had left the dads on the porch to hand out treats to visitors – for steaming hot bowls of soup and hot dogs.  It was a long and busy two days but filled with so much fun and laughter – and sugar.

DSC_0056

DSC_0060

DSC_0062

DSC_0063

DSC_0075

PS  If you would like to read a comparison between Scottish and American Halloweens, I covered that in my first Halloween post.

PPS If you like all things monstrous, then you might be interested to check out my altered book project over on my art blog, Pict Ink.

Pumpkin Picking

In what has become a Halloween tradition in the two years that we have lived in America, we headed to Shady Brook Farm this weekend to have some spooky themed fun and pick out pumpkins.  Mr Pict and I had thought to take the kids somewhere else, change things up a bit instead of repeating the previous years’ jaunts, but the boys all protested and wanted to return to familiar territory.  The Pictlings have determined the tradition.

The boys bounced on the giant trampolines, looked at the animals, played on the climbing frame, and ate pretzels, funnel cake and deep fried oreos.  The middle two boys had a shot of a corn cannon, blasting corn cobs at various objects.  Everyone guffawed when my 10 year old managed to hit the giant corn doll in its groin.  Our 6 year old had fun blasting zombies with a paint ball through a rather too rapid fire technique.

DSC_0085

DSC_0099

There are two barns that get decked out spooky style for Halloween.  In the evening, folks can wander through the dark interior while real life “ghouls” terrorise them but by day it is equally fun to wander around and see all the grotesque and fun decorations.  The kids love the alien barn.  Donning 3D glasses makes paint jump off the walls and models of aliens seem to vibrate.  The kids think it is massive fun.  My 12 year old and I then had a wander through the horror barn.  It’s grotesque in places with imagery lifted from gory horror movies but it’s the room full of clowns that freaks me out the most.

DSC_0046

DSC_0054

DSC_0063

DSC_0066

Then it was time to head to the pumpkin patch so that each of the boys could select a pumpkin for carving.  I guess the pumpkins were nearing the end of their season as there were many rotten and smashed ones littering the ground.  It, therefore, took a while for the kids to find the pumpkins they wanted.  We set them a size and weight limit which was not an issue for our 10 year old who wanted the smallest, roundest, most orange pumpkin he could find.

DSC_0120

We then did some freestyle carving to turn the pumpkins into a My Little Pony, two vampires and Jack Skellington.  With that, the pumpkins were ready to be transformed into lanterns for Halloween.

DSC_0154

DSC_0155

DSC_0158

DSC_0162

 

 

Our Geek-End

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, an annual event we were introduced to last year.  Knowing what was in store for them this year, the boys bounded out of bed.  The middle two even dressed themselves appropriately, one in an Avengers t-shirt and one in his homemade Star-Lord t-shirt.  Despite neither parent having an interest in comic books or superheroes, my three younger sons are obsessed with that whole culture.  Our 9 year old in particular is a walking, talking encyclopaedia of Marvel and DC knowledge.  He can talk ad nauseam on any character one dares to mention.  It may not intersect with our interests but Mr Pict and I are always happy to promote geekdom in our children so we support their comic book obsessions.

When we arrived at our local comic book store we found that the car park was jam packed and we grabbed the last vacant spot in the adjacent car park.  Last year, the tables with the free comic books had been set up inside the store but this year they had set them up beneath a marquee outside the store.  Although we arrived just after opening time, a lengthy queue had already formed.  The queue was moving swiftly and the event  was well organised, however, so it did not take long for the kids to reach the head of the queue and start selecting their three free comic books each.  Just as last year, there was a large and diverse collection to choose from so they had no difficulty picking out three each without there being any crossover.

Having done the free bit, the kids then went into the comic book store to peruse their wares.  I thought I had seen the place at its most busy during the same event last year but it was even more jam-packed this time.  It was great to see so many people milling around from the young to the old, many in costume or at least themed t-shirts.  The staff gave my 9 year old props for designing his own Star-Lord t-shirt which had him puffed up like a wee peacock.  The three younger boys all follow a comic book series so they picked out the latest editions of each from the shelves.  My oldest meanwhile is a collector of Funko Pops so he looked at the massive stack of Pops available in the store.  In the end, the only way to compel the kids to leave the shop was to remind them that we had pre-booked cinema tickets and had to go.

DSCN0530

DSCN0527

DSCN0523

DSCN0520

The cinema trip was a continuation of our geeky day as we were off to see ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’.  To say my kids and husband had high expectations of this movie is a terrible understatement.  Sequels can often disappoint. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘Godfather II’ and ‘Toy Story 2’ are rare exceptions.  In my humble opinion, ‘Ultron’ did not surpass the fun and spectacle of ‘Avengers Assemble’ but nor was it a case of “diminishing returns”.  Some characters (Hawkeye in particular) were fleshed out more in this movie, promoted from being elevated sidekicks, while others (such as Thor) were pushed to the peripheries.  The character relationships were developed further and all the individuals were shown to be working effectively as a team.  However, at the same time the movie seemed to be about fractures and splinters appearing in the group which made it a bit less rip-roaring fun.  There were stupendous action set pieces and the baddie – pretty much a personification of the internet gone bad – was effective.  There was a flabby section, however, where my eyes began to droop and I wasn’t that engaged with all the new characters.  But the cinema trip was not about me and the important thing is that my kids were on the edge of their seats throughout, loving every moment of it and lapping up all the comic book geekdom.  My 8 year old was sitting next to me and kept leaning over to whisper to  facts to me or his predictions for the movie.  He was disappointed but forgiving when one of his predictions failed to materialise.

Then we went home to cook and eat a barbecue in the sunshine.  My youngest boys decided that they should make “mocktails” for me.  They pillaged the fridge for fruit juice and fresh berries and the cupboards for candy and lollipops and constructed several drinks for me to sample.  They even made little decorations for each glass.  It was sweet, cute and thoughtful of them – even though they used up gallons of juice and punnets of fruit.  I am going to have to stock my 1970s cocktail cabinet with actual liquor so that they can learn to make me actual cocktails.

2015-05-02 17.39.51

Our Halloween

My kids were giddy with anticipation over Halloween this year.  Their experience of their first American Halloween had been a wonderfully positive introduction to life in America for them. They loved everything about it and were eager to repeat the same fun experiences this year.

Having selected a pumpkin each when we visited the pumpkin patch, the boys settled on imagery and I set about carving them.  The reason I did the carving is that, with the exception of the smallest pumpkin, which really was tiny, the skins and flesh of the chosen pumpkins was extremely tough.  I resorted to using exceedingly sharp kitchen knives in place of the carving tools and, of course, the children could not be let loose with kitchen knives.  That really would have been a Halloween horror!  So we ended up with a large Minecraft Creeper, a baby Creeper, a galloping horse and the head of Jack Skellington to place on the steps leading up to our front door.

The younger three boys had Halloween celebrations at their Elementary School.  They each had parties full of crafting, snacking and games and were all involved in the Halloween parade.  The High School band played while all of the costumed children walked in a large square on the playing field.  As a member of the first Kindergarten class, our 5 year old was actually the leader of the entire parade.  He was clearly loving it, waving to the crowds as he passed them, though his Iron Man mask meant he could barely see where he was going and he had to be steered in the right direction by his teacher.  That morning I had told the children that I was going to levy a tax on them of one piece of their Halloween candy for each Elsa, Anna or Olaf costume we happened across on the day.  There were five Elsas in my youngest son’s class alone.  My kids said no dice to the tax proposal.  There were some really inventive costumes on show and it was fun to see all of the kids enjoying themselves.

My boys had daytime costumes, appropriate for school (Iron Man, Boba Fett and a weird Dark Knight Ninja combination that my 9 year old insisted on cobbling together) and different costumes for evening.  I got the majority of their costumes from thrift stores and the younger ones like to play dress up throughout the year so I don’t mind the costume changes at all.  My oldest son was a Clone Trooper, the 9 year old was Star-Lord (because he is obsessed with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), my 7 year old was a Werewolf (he has been longing for a werewolf costume for years) and the youngest was Frankenstein’s Monster (his favourite classic monster).  I also dressed myself up as a Vampire, complete with pallid face and bright red lips.  Thankfully I was not the only adult wandering the streets in costume or I might have felt like a total pillock but the kids appreciated my efforts and my get-up entertained them so any embarrassment factor was worth it.

DSC_0139

Together with one of the boys’ friends, my monstrous mob traipsed the streets of our neighbourhood for two hours. Mr Pict had devised the route as if he was a military General manouvering troops.  At first they were part of a pack of neighbourhod kids but gradually they pack drew out into a long line which was probably easier for each household to manage instead of having to open the door to a dozen kids bellowing “Trick or Treat” in unison.  The majority of houses in our neighbourhood were participating in Halloween and handing out edible treats but some had gone to incredible effort to entertain the little ghouls.  One house had set up their garage as a den of horror.  My 9 year old and his friend refused to even enter and the 7 year old came out howling, but the other two loved it.  Another house had set up three rooms in their house to be a haunted house full of spooky props and people in costume.  My 9 year old again didn’t go in but everyone else had fun on their spooky tour.  Our neighbours had set up their porch with elaborate decorations including a zombie baby doll, Frankenstein’s Monster sitting in an electric chair and the Bride of Frankenstein standing alongside them.  My boys loved going up to the Monster, especially the little one who declared he was Frankenstein Jr.  It was a really fun night and my kids came home with their Halloween buckets full to beyond the brim with sweeties, chocolate and crisps which they then spent half an hour trading up.

DSC_0197

And they never did give me my ‘Frozen’ tax.

DSC_0227