End of the School Year

We made it!

My four sons completed an entire school year as virtual learners and I made it through an entire year of teaching preschool in-person. I absolutely never want to experience teaching and learning during a pandemic – or any other crisis – ever again but I think we made it as successful as possible. The boys also had some opportunities that may not have been available to them in a regular year – such as participating in online film festivals and attending conferences. I think we can all agree, however, that this year was incredibly exhausting and that we were glad to get to the end of the school year.

We had another birthday to celebrate since I last wrote a personal blog post. Our youngest son turned 12 at the end of May. We were lucky to have some lovely weather which enabled us to celebrate with an outdoor activity. I would call this crazy golf but it is apparently known as mini golf around here. Thanks to some childhood experiences, I find crazy golf makes me feel stressed and anxious so I chose to spectate rather than actively participate. The course was fun, well-designed, and had an appropriate level of challenge for kids spanning the ages of my brood. The 15 and 12 year olds even managed to achieve a hole-in-one each. Everyone indulged in delicious milkshakes at the end of the course.

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Over a year of being largely stuck at home meant our tired and shabby family living room was really starting to annoy us so our Spring project was refreshing that room. You can see what the previous makeover of this room like in a previous blog post. We did not undertake any major DIY but we replaced the carpet – as we still had the carpet installed by the previous owners, one that was really getting worn and grotty – and bought new sofas. The whole room now feels much lighter while still being cozy. I have more DIY and home organization projects to undertake over the summer break – things I could not get around to while everyone was learning and working from home – but my first big jobs are turning all of our rooms back to domestic spaces. The makeshift classrooms descended into chaotic rats’ nests towards the end of the school year and I am more than ready to transition them back and reclaim them.

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I am trying to get back into the habit of making regular time for art. It was absolutely impossible in the last couple of months, however, as my schedule was ridiculously difficult to navigate. I would have needed to clone myself to make it work smoothly. I, therefore, continued with my Post-It note habit, still taking inspiration from the movies my kids have been loving. These two examples both happen to be from Japanese movies, ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Hara-Kiri’.

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Two of our kids are moving on to new places in their education. Our 14 year old is now done with Middle School and will be heading off to High School in September. He has been learning to cook over the past few months and especially enjoys getting up on weekend mornings to make chocolate chip pancakes for him and his brothers. He is also really into digital art now.

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The big milestone is that our oldest son graduated from High School. This was a whole new experience for us as people as well as parents. My husband attended an international school so he did not have the American version of graduating. There were no festivities for me when I left school. My “milestone” was simply leaving my last school exam. I snapped my pencil in half and walked home. No celebration of any kind. The whole graduation thing was actually pretty overwhelming. Despite opting out of lots of “side missions”, there was an awful lot to keep on top of and process. Every time I thought I had a handle on what was required, I would realize there was another piece of critical information I was missing or something I did not understand. There was so much assumed knowledge in communications about graduation with no accommodations for we ignorant immigrant parents. Keeping on top of all the moving parts was actually quite a slog. Even the evening itself did not pass off without a few glitches but we (just) made it in time and had a lovely time marking the conclusion to our son’s school career.

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Pict Pandemic Spring

I’m back! I finally have enough free time that I feel able to resume blogging – though it may continue to be very sporadic for a while because, like many people, I don’t have a lot of interest going on in my life given the whole pandemic context.

I thought I would write a bit of a catch-up post containing some of the things we have been up to this Spring. Most importantly, we have celebrated three birthdays. These are all, of course, the second birthdays being celebrated in this weird lockdown context. Yes, I appreciate we are technically no longer in strict lockdown but as a family we have chosen to behave largely as if we still are, taking mitigation efforts seriously. Mr Pict’s birthday last year was literally two days into lockdown so there was a lot of improvisation involved but we made it work. This year was much less stressful because we knew we were going to have to keep everything lowkey and also because the supermarket shelves weren’t empty like they were last year.

Two of the boys have also had their second pandemic birthdays. My third son turned 14. He is a massive Roman history nerd – he seriously knows more about Ancient Rome than anyone I know and I know a lot of Roman history nerds – and is also passionate about Soviet cinema, especially of the 1970s. Those themes, therefore, informed his gifts, one of which was a photo of his favourite Emperor, Trajan, which had even been signed. I am assuming Trajan won’t sue me for forgery.

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And our oldest son turned 18. I know! We cannot believe it either. He is now technically an adult. That is somewhat nerve-wracking to think about and makes me feel even more ancient than usual but I am very excited to see what this next phase of his life has in store for him. He is off to the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Autumn to study computer science.

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We have chosen to keep our sons learning virtually for the entire school year for a variety of reasons. They have adapted well to learning online and are enjoying having more free time and flexibility in their schedule. My 15 year old, for instance, has been using his extra free time to make lots of short movies. His brothers and father have all been press-ganged into acting parts and as cinematographers while I sometimes provide help with costumes, props and make up so it is a bit of a family affair.

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Having the boys home proved very useful this Winter as I very much appreciated their extra digging power with all of the snow we got. Even with all of us digging, it took us over 3 hours to dig out after one particular storm. We then had weeks of vicious looking icicles falling from the house. We built up quite the collection in our azalea bushes.

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We have been on a few walks and excursions since I last blogged but we have tended to return to familiar places. A couple of weekends ago, however, we finally ventured to Ringing Rocks County Park. It is not even that far from home so it is kind of bonkers that we have not ventured out there in the previous seven years. We took the loop trail which took us to the boulder field first. We had a hammer with us (as the website instructs you to do so, we felt OK about the geologic vandalism) and set about glancing it off of various boulders to make them ring. We found that they all emitted a noise that was not just the normal smack-thud you would expect from a hammer whacking a rock but that some boulders really made the ringing sound. Our 11 year old in particular really enjoyed the experience. I guess having spent his entire life being told to respect nature and leave things as we found them he must have been relishing the opportunity to bash those rocks.

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The male Picts all bounded from rock to rock like mountain goats in search of the best rings. That is not something I am comfortable doing primarily because of my malingering SPD problems and also because I am a lifelong wuss so I went off into the woods in search of salamanders. Alas, I did not find a single one. Meeting up again, we headed further along the loop trail to see the waterfall. I was anticipating a bit more drama and oomph out of a signposted waterfall but it was a nice spot to stop and spend some time before we completed the loop. It was a nice, easy walk and one we would definitely do again.

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Finally, and most excitingly, those of us who are eligible are finally receiving our Covid-19 vaccines. As a teacher, I became eligible first but I still had such a massive problem finding and scheduling an appointment that it still took until mid-April for me to be fully vaccinated. Meanwhile Mr Pict and our oldest son have both received their first shots. We plan to keep playing it safe and following mitigation efforts, not least because we still have three members of the family who are unvaccinated and not old enough to be eligible, but it is definitely a weight off my mind – especially as someone who has been teaching in-person since September – that I have that layer of protection. I am so grateful to the scientists and everyone involved in the distribution and delivery of the vaccine.

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PS Here are some photos of our cats, Satchi and Peanut. They have adapted to having us home all the time and think they get to participate in all of the video conferences and frequently appear in my sons’ online classrooms.

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First Day of Virtual School

Can I just state that I deserve all of the acting awards for insisting to my kids that everything about online education would be functional (I made sure not to oversell with superlatives I could not deliver on) while behind the facade I was pivoting between screaming panic and weeping skepticism.  As a parent, I am obliged to create an atmosphere of calm for my offspring but there was one day earlier this month where I hid out in a closet so I could weep tears of rage and frustration.  Weird fact about me:  I really don’t cry very often but, when I do, it is usually because I am a human pressure cooker and it is a release of frustration.  I have had to contend with a sudden influx of a gazillion emails per child, some of which has content so opaque that I needed to be an espionage level code breaker to figure it out.  And some of those emails also contradict each other and contain broken links.  So that’s great.  Meanwhile my gigantic kitchen pin board is so chock full of print outs of schedules and associated material that it looks like a crime solving board from a police procedural show.  All I need is the red string.

However, the boys each have a designated study area – or areas in the case of one child – and their own chromebooks so everything looks organized and ordered.  Calm space for a calm mind, right?

I now have a Senior:

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A High School Freshman:

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An 8th Grader:

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And a 6th Grader embarking on Middle School:

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And apparently Peanut decided it was his first day as Cheerleading School Mascot:

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Luckily I was home for the first day of school.  Going forwards, however, I am back in my preschool classroom so the boys will be flying solo at online school.  This should not pose too much of a difficulty for my older children but it is a bit of a stressor when it comes to my youngest.  He is not only transitioning to Middle School – having to navigate different subjects and teachers and stay on top of a schedule – but he is also a student with an IEP used to having support.  Since he has both autism and ADD (of the inattentive kind), learning through the medium of a screen is far from ideal.  I have reduced my hours at work for the short term (thanks to some understanding colleagues) so that I can be home in the afternoons to function as his aide.  Hopefully he picks up the routine and operating systems quickly.  I am also thankful to have sons who have agreed to check in with him when they have breaks between classes or study hall.

It is certainly going to be a memorable school year!

Our May in Lockdown

I mentioned in a previous post that our 14 year old was busy manufacturing everyone’s Christmas gifts.  Well, it turned out that he both didn’t have the patience and couldn’t contain his excitement long enough to wait for December so instead, on May the 4th (ie Star Wars Day), he presented us with the gifts he had made for each member of the family.  He had crafted recycled cardboard, hot glue, and paint in order to make us each our very own custom lightsaber.  He thought about our personalities and designed lightsabers that symbolised aspects of us.  He even inserted a kyber crystal into each hilt.  He wanted his 13 year old brother to have a lightsaber that came apart so he had niftily connected the parts with magnets so it could separate and click back together again.  And now he is coming up with ideas for Christmas gifts!

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I also got crafty in that I created a Flat Miss Laura for each of my preschool students.  I had been contemplating a way to create a digital version but I am a numpty when it comes to a lot of technology and my kids protested they were too busy to help me so I had to go for the low tech option.  I simply drew and painted a simplified self-portrait, scanned it as a PDF, and emailed it out to my students.  I had included supplies for making stick puppets in the packets I sent home with my students and some of them decided to make puppets of classmates and act out scenes from the classroom using Flat Miss Laura.  It was cute.  And, of course, I have also been working diligently on my challenge to draw 180 Star Wars characters.  My routine is to get the drawing part done while supervising my youngest son working on Math and then I paint when he is working on Reading.  I cannot get anything else done when he is working on subjects like Science but it seems to be a good system.

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Meanwhile the hard slog of distance learning continues.  Weirdly, my 14 year old is actually thriving in this system where he has more flexibility over his schedule and the order in which he works on different subjects.  While the teachers are all doing their absolute best with this unexpected challenge, my 17 and 13 year olds both feel they are not being adequately taught the subject content and are, therefore, largely self-teaching.  My 17 year old has also been taking AP exams online which presented us with a challenge since our electricity and WiFi kept cutting out (too many people all on devices at once in a house with 1970s electrics).  Thankfully we made it work and he has now completed most of the exams without any technical glitches.  As for the youngest, distance learning continues to be a challenge.  Since has has both ADD and ASD, there are some advantages in that he is not in a classroom full of distractions and sources of sensory overload.  However, as a student with an IEP, it is challenging for me as a non-specialist to figure out the best way to differentiate the work being set.  In addition to overseeing his academic instruction, I also have to deliver his social skills development work (which is kind of laughable in a context in which he cannot practice with anyone outside the nuclear family) and deliver his Speech Therapy work.  I would be lying if I said I was not counting down the days until school officially ends – except I am also trepidatious about how to create structure and routine during a very different summer break.

We have had some creative teaching going on, however.  My oldest son had to make tacos one Tuesday for his Spanish class and he made guacamole to go with it.  My 14 year old had to create a musical instrument that demonstrated different sound frequencies and opacities for science class.  I didn’t understand the lesson objectives either but he did his best and fulfilled the brief.  And my youngest has been doing all sorts of bonkers gym activities, including a Rubik’s puzzle inspired running activity and basketball with a balloon.

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We have also continued to contribute to any neighbourhood activities for the youngest members of our community when they are out on a stroll.  Our favourite was setting up a Zoo using stuffed animals displayed alongside random facts about each animal.  We have also been doing things like making signs expressing gratitude for essential workers.

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We also had two causes for excitement and celebration last month.  Firstly, our 14 year old submitted a short film to his school’s first ever movie festival.  He press-ganged his brothers into acting and cinematography roles and got very creative with our limited location and props.  We had to laugh while watching the festival because our kid’s film was so much darker in its themes than all of the other submissions.  He was inspired by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Eggers and it was creepy, had zero dialogue, and was filmed in monochrome.  All of the students involved did a great job but we were thrilled when it was announced that our son was the winner of the festival.  He worked really hard on his submission and studying movies is a passion of his so we were really proud of his achievement and what it means for him in terms of encouraging his creativity and rewarding his film literacy.

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But the really big celebration we had this month was my youngest’s 11th birthday.  This is our fourth lockdown birthday.  We don’t have another birthday in our household until October.  Only time will tell what the context for that birthday will be.  The theme was cats because he is completely and utterly obsessed with cats.  Now that he is 11, our youngest child is now older than our oldest child was when we emigrated here.  What’s more, he is the last of our children in Elementary School and will be transitioning into Middle School in September – whatever school looks like then.  This birthday, therefore, feels like a big milestone for us as parents too.

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We went for a nature ramble with the specific aim of seeing some local wildlife.  We encountered several frogs, including a chubby bullfrog tadpole, turtles, and a snake basking on a log.  The latter was my first snake encounter of the summer.  I think it’s a Northern Water Snake.  We often have garter snakes on our property but I have not seen any so far.  We do, however, have some fox cubs who trot around our yard and recently there has even been a coyote in the neighbourhood – though I have not seen it with my own eyes.

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And, of course, I have to include some photos of the other members of our household: Satchi and Peanut.

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Kids and Cats in Quarantine

Since we obviously have not been on any family day trips or outings, I am not generating much blog fodder.  I thought, therefore, I would just share some of the things we have been up to at home in these last 6 weeks.

Distance learning has become a big part of our weekdays.  The homeschool day does not last as long as the actual school day but it is still pretty demanding and somewhat intense.  This is especially the case with adapting to all of the technology and software.  The older three boys are more used to using their chromebooks for school work but it has been a complete switch in modes of learning for our youngest son and he and I have been on a steep learning curve.  My oldest son has to rescue us at least once per day, usually more.  We are gradually settling into a routine and rhythm, however, and everyone has found their preferred space for working.

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My 14 year old is definitely the Pict family member who is making the most of lockdown.  He has almost finished making everyone’s Christmas presents already, he created some Mad Max inspired cars, and he made a large batch of beef jerky that should have lasted him and his brothers a lot longer than it did.

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We’ve been doing some goofy stuff, like messing around with the google animal photos feature, but we have also participated in some fun neighbourhood activities aimed at entertaining the youngest members of the community when they are on their daily walks.  We had love hearts for them to spot, an Easter/Spring themed hunt, set out teddy bears for “Going on a Bear Hunt”, and several other themes so far.

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I had to process the fact that my year with my preschool students had come to an abrupt end.  Then I set about making them “learning at home” packets and my oldest son helped me make videos of storybook readings.

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The cats seem to be enjoying having us all home 24/7.  Peanut, the ginger cat, is very much a people person and lap cat (or anywhere on your body cat) so he is in his element being permanently attached to someone.  Satchi, the fluffy, grey, three-legged cat, still picks and chooses when he wants to interact with us but he seems to be enjoying having more options throughout the day.  As you can see, he loves to squeeze himself into tiny boxes.

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We’ve played lots of board games, eaten a lot of home baking, the older boys have been indulging in movie marathons, and we are generally just keeping ourselves busy and balancing out time apart with time together.  We certainly haven’t grasped this as an opportunity for self-improvement (not so far anyway) but we are muddling along just fine.  Life is weird and strange right now, certainly somewhat unsettling, but life is also good and it is useful to stop and reflect on that now and again.

Birthdays in Lockdown

Two thirds of the Pict family birthdays are in Spring – two of them within the same week.  It’s a busy time of year.  Usually birthdays involve a treat meal at a restaurant and a family excursion somewhere.  However, given we are all in lockdown as part of the containment measures during the Covid 19 pandemic, the celebrations have been a bit different so far this year.

Mr Pict’s birthday was first up.  It fell within the first 48 hours of the lockdown so we had already made plans we had to abandon and I quickly had to come up with an alternative plan.  I like to be organized because I get angsty about chaos undermining the joy of any celebration.  There were no eggs in stores at that point so I bought a premade cake from the supermarket bakery.  Mr Pict had no complaints about that and happily we managed to pull the rest of the festivities off and his birthday was a success.

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Next up was our third son turning 13.  He will certainly never forget the birthday that marked his official entry into teenagehood.  I obviously had prior warning that this was going to be an entirely domestic celebration so it all went much smoother.  Like his father, our 13 year old is obsessed with Ancient Rome.  His favourite Emperor is Trajan so his main gift was a map showing the Roman empire during Trajan’s reign and he also got a hoodie of Trajan’s World Tour.  This established the theme for the cake.  I used food colouring to paint the outline of a bust of Trajan.  If I thought drawing in ink without pencil guidelines was challenging, that was nothing compared to painting with food colouring on top of a cake.  Some edible gold added a bit of razzle dazzle and distracted from the wonkiness of Trajan’s face.

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Six days later, it was the turn of our oldest son to celebrate his birthday.  He is 17.  That seems crazy to me.  17 is how old I was when I permanently left home.  Our oldest son is addicted to pepper sauce and hot sauce and super spicy salsas.  He and his 14 year old brother actually eat ghost pepper salsa, scream from the pain, and then eat more.  He, of course, received some hot sauces he had never tried before as one of his gifts but that also gave me the theme for his cake.  Tabasco is his everyday hot sauce – and I do mean everyday because he adds it to everything – so I made him a Tabasco cake – though I assure you pepper sauce was not one of the ingredients.

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The next Pict family birthday is at the end of May.  It is likely to be another lockdown birthday.  Then we have two birthdays in the Autumn.  Goodness knows what life will be like by then.  We’ll just keep rolling with it, taking things day by day, and reminding ourselves of all the things for which we are grateful, including family and birthdays and cake.