Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Paper Wasp Nest

When I dropped by my parent's house one day last week, my mom gave me a little present she'd been
saving for me:

Of course, I was super excited! It's a paper wasp nest that fell out of a tree in their front yard. It was damaged in a storm and abandoned by its residents (So no danger to me).

Check out the amazing patterns. I've seen many of these nests over the years but never one with such a beautiful pattern.

When I taught 4th grade, I used to bring cool items like this into my room all the time, so my mom got in the habit of saving interesting nature items she found for me. Sometimes it would be a dead dragonfly or monarch butterfly, other times a gall of some kind. The more I brought those items in, the more my students would bring them in, too. Our science table overflowed.

This one went to my son's classroom for observation.

The next time you head out in nature, see what you can find to bring back and observe. Please do not remove living things if removing them will cause them harm. For example, I've brought back a cocoon and placed it in a butterfly house for observation but I wouldn't uproot a sapling. If you catch insects, worms, slugs, etc, place them in a proper container with air holes in the top and items from their environment such as soil. After your observation, return them to their homes. And be careful to provide proper accommodations for animals that live in water or have moist skin such as salamanders and frogs.

Next Friday, I'll share a strategy that will help kids dig deeper and really investigate the items you collect.

What interesting items have you found in nature lately?

Related Posts:
Mystery Caterpillar
Mystery Caterpillar, part 2
Nature Observations With Young Children

Wordless Wednesday: Autumn in New England

Photos taken 13 November 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: Affording to Travel

My husband and I have always known that travel would be a part of our lives, even once we had kids. Many people wonder how we can afford it. The simple answer is that it's important to us, so we budget for it the way others budget for a new car or a flat screen TV. If you live a moderately comfortable life, travel is possible for you, too, even if you think you can't afford it. I know not everyone truly can afford to travel, but many who say they can't really can. Perhaps they can't travel to China, but they can enjoy more modest trips. And many people who take trips to Disney World with their families spend far more on their vacations than we do. It's simply a matter determining your priorities.

We only own one TV and it's an OLD one with a tube. Our cable plan basically provides TV reception (you know, the cheap plan that costs about $10 per month). Our two cars are 5 years old. We bought one new back in 2007 but we bought the other used. Our cellphones are just phones. Not fancy phones with a data plan. Those things just aren't important to us. But there's something we really care about.

This isn't to say you need to forgo cable or a new car or a fancy phone. But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you’re either interested in exploring nature with children or learning about other cultures, so travel may be important to you too.

If you wish you could travel, maybe it's time to talk with your family about your priorities. I've had many people say something like, "I wish I could take a trip like that." So consider this...Is taking a trip important to you? To your spouse or partner? To your kids? Often, you really can afford to plan a trip with some changes in your spending.

I know you've heard it all before- cut the $5.00 latte from your daily purchases, pack a lunch instead of going out, carry a refillable water bottle instead of buying water. The list of ways to save money is endless. But, the truth see those lists over and over again because they're true. Most of us can cut some daily expenses if we determine we'd like to use our money for a different purpose. The key is to decide what you want and go after it.

Once you decide to travel, the location you choose will have a big impact on your costs. For example, traveling to Italy in the summer will cost you a small fortune in air fare. We had planned to go to Italy last summer but changed plans when the budget didn’t allow it and went to Mount Desert Island in Maine. Our only real expenses were the cost of renting a cottage and gas for the drive up. Other than that, we cooked most meals at the cottage, so we had limited meal expenses. All of our outdoor recreation was free except for the cost of an inexpensive park pass for Acadia National Park. We could have spent even less money if we had chosen to camp.

If this is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend you read Alexis Grant's blog, The Traveling Writer. She backpacked solo through Africa and blogged about the experience. Recently she's been blogging about how to "Take a Leap" and go after your dreams. If you dream of travel, Lexi has some great advice to offer. While most of her recent advice is for folks wanting to take a professional leap and become a solopreneur, her ideas work for travel, too. (You can also search her archives for posts more specifically about travel).

Blogger Elizabeth J. Bird over at L’appel du Vide has also been offering money saving tips for travelers lately. And, if you’re a really adventurous traveler, check out Rolf Potts’ Vagablogging (author of Vagabonding). If you're interested in longer-term trips, he's the guy to read. You can spend less money traveling than you will living in the US for the same period of time if you're flexible and adventurous. 

How have you budgeted for travel? Do you have any money saving tips for travelers?

Related posts:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Backyard Visitors

Look who wandered through our yard on Thanksgiving Eve:

Apparently they didn't get the memo about the coming holiday and the demise of millions of their cousins. (These are wild turkeys, not the domestic kind you buy in the store for your Thanksgiving meal).
 I love the patterns in their feathers.


I hope all of my U.S. readers had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday, full of friendship, family, and good food.

Have you had any wild visitors in your yard lately?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: Holiday Travel

In an earlier post, I encouraged you to pack your sense of humor when you travel. Today, as we enter the holiday season, I also encourage you to pack patience as you set out to visit friends and relatives.  If you'll serve as host/hostess, be sure to dig yours out, as well.

Of course, patience isn't a thing you can literally put in your suitcase. But as you pack your bags, you can take a minute to consider the virtues that will make your holidays more enjoyable. The holiday season can be a wonderful, joyous time of year. It can also be incredibly stressful. Perhaps you try to squeeze too  many activities into too little time. Or maybe you squeeze too many people, related or not, into a small space. Or you set too high expectations about what the perfect meal or party should be...the variety of stresses I could list is endless. You know what they are for you and your family. Plan for them so you can get on with the important business of enjoying your family and friends.

Once you pack the clothes, shoes, presents, and toiletries, take some time to mentally prepare for the stresses you'll face. Then toss your sense of humor and your patience in your suitcase and go have a good time.

Do you celebrate a holiday in November or December? What holiday? What will your celebration be like?

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Holiday Season

Several weeks ago, a photo that juxtaposed two images popped up on Facebook. The left was a photo of (I assume) a "starving African child" lying on the ground wearing only a tattered shirt. The right was a Christmas tree with a huge pile of presents spewing out from underneath it. While I am uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of the child's photo, I appreciate the underlying message.

Before you rush out to buy your children every toy in the world, and perhaps rack up thousands of dollars on your credit card, think about ways you might make your gift-giving more meaningful, personal, or charitable.  Whether for Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, or other celebrations, is spending thousand of dollars on more "stuff" necessary? When our friends visited from India they commented on how much "stuff" Americans have. We have relatives who live in the UK and they've told us the same thing.

This holiday season, I encourage you to slow down. Enjoy your family and friends. Instead of spending an entire day out shopping, dedicate that time to making simple gifts for friends and family. Bake cookies and give those as gifts. Provide a variety of papers, glue sticks, scissors, stickers, etc. and have your kids make cards. Provide paints and paintbrushes and have them paint pictures for their relatives. Buy simple frames at a craft store or discount store to display them. If you're interested in more specific craft ideas, there are LOADS of resources in your local library and on the Internet that offer simple, inexpensive gifts you and your children can make.

Another way to make the season more meaningful is donate money in someone's name. There are so many ways to give back. Here are two of our favorites:

1. Heifer International  focuses on raising people around the world (including the US) out of hunger and poverty by helping them become self-sufficient. They provide animals appropriate to the region in which a family lives and teach them how to keep the animals healthy and productive. When the animal has babies, the family "passes on the gift" by giving the offspring to others in their village. Heifer provides lovely gift cards that announce your gift, or you can have an email sent to the recipient.

To teach your children about the benefits of such a donation, read them Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier. (If you purchase the book, a percentage of the proceeds go to Heifer). Beatrice's life in Uganda improved dramatically after her family received a goat from Heifer. I was lucky to have Beatrice visit my classroom in 2001. She was an intelligent, lovely, 16 year old. She spoke several languages and shared her story with my students in English. They were so moved, they began a fundraiser for Heifer. We have been regular supporters of the organization ever since.

2. Support a family in need in your community. We donate to a locally run organization that helps families in our area. Nearly every town has an non-profit organization or church group that supports families in need. Many school nurses also know of families in need and can arrange for anonymous donations to help those families. Many retail establishments also have tags listing needed items. You can choose a tag, make a purchase and deliver it to that store.

Related to this point, our children receive an allowance every week. To "store" their allowance, they have three jars. One is labelled "Save," one "Donate," and one "Spend." We've told them a minimum amount they need to put in the "Save" jar (to go in the bank). Otherwise they divide their money as they see fit. Then they choose how to donate the money they save. Last year, both kids decided to use the money to buy a toy for a child in need. We went out as a family and made our purchases, then we delivered them to the organization that ensures anonymous donations.

If you look closely at the two ways my family supports others in need, you'll see they match what is important to us. That is not to say other organizations are not important. Of course they are. But one family can only donate so much. Find what you are passionate about and choose an organization that supports those passions.

One final note: If you find your family in tough financial times this year, don't be afraid to reach out for help. There is no shame in asking your community to support you in your time of need. Some day in the future, when you get back on your feet, you can "pass on the gift" by helping someone else.

Have you benefited from the generosity of others? What are your favorite charitable organizations? (Please include links, when possible, so others can learn about them. Note: charitable organizations only, please).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: The Philippines "Growing Up"

As promised last week, here is an essay I wrote about my experiences as a Rotary exchange student. This essay was written in 1997 and was originally published in Voices: Reflections from a Community of Writers (The Educators' Journal of the Plymouth Public Schools, Plymouth, MA) in Spring of 1998.

I have evolved as a writer over these last 13 years. Part of me wanted to revise the heck out of this before posting it for the world to read. But, I decided to leave it. It reflects who I was at that time in my life. My usual blog posts reflect me now.

Growing Up

In June of 1985, at age sixteen, I boarded a plane for the first time. Not only was I facing my first plane ride, I was leaving my family and friends for one year. I was beginning the first leg of a trip that would take me half way around the world to the Philippines. I knew nothing about the people, culture or language, yet I knew it was an experience I could not miss. I thought about the fun my high school friends would have without me. I thought about my two younger sisters and the parents who raised me to be open to the journey upon which I was embarking. My father cried as I boarded the plane, but I knew he still wanted me to go. I had to find out what was out there.

Within four months time I was able to engage in simple conversations in Cebuano, the local dialect. At a local function, I even sang a popular song in Tagalog. People told me that they forgot I was an American, despite my blue eyes, fair skin, and light brown hair. They told me I acted and spoke like a Filipina. I felt like I belonged.

Three months later, as tensions grew between Marcos and Aquino, I found myself caring about the oppression that had existed under Martial Law and joined my friends in their cries of “People Power.” I attended rallies, at which Aquino spoke, and supported my friends in their desire to make change. The day Marcos fled the country there was much celebration! “People Power” actually worked! There was no fighting. Peaceful protests and rallies had made a difference.

With Marcos gone, I was able to travel extensively. I took a bus up a winding mountain road to Baguio. I slept under a mosquito net in a nipa hut while a typhoon raged outside and a coconut tree crashed through the roof. I stood on the bamboo drying racks of a seaweed farm house (a building on stilts in the middle of the ocean) as I watched a water spout come straight toward us and then reverse direction as quickly as it came. I listened to my host father speak at a high school graduation in the barrio trying to empower the students to use their sustainable, local resources to provide income for their families.

I learned many things that year, but none was as important as my appreciation for diversity and my willingness to adapt to new situations. I “grew up” in the Philippines. I became and adult who sees the world in a different way. I learned to appreciate the freedoms we have in the United States but also to see the tremendous value in maintaining the local cultures of other nations. United States citizens do not know the only way to do things. My growing up there has guided every decision I have made in my personal life. It has also affected the way I run my classroom, relate to my students and teach them about the world.

Have you been an exchange student? Have your children? Have you hosted an exchange student? Please share your experiences. 

Related posts:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Drum to the Beat

Last summer, I blogged about a drumming circle, facilitated by Otha Day, that was sponsored by our public library. The community enjoyed the experience so much that our PTO decided to hire Otha for a drumming residency at our school. As chairperson of the PTO cultural committee, I was the lucky parent who got to spend two full days drumming,clapping, dancing, and singing my heart out. It's impossible to participate in a drumming circle and not feel great at the end. To quote a friend who attended the community drumming circle last summer, (as best I can based on memory) "After the drumming, I felt the way I feel after I run- like I had a runner's high! It was awesome!"

I don't want to restate what I already blogged, so please hop over and read my previous post for more details. As I stated then, please consider hiring Otha Day of Drum to the Beat to come to your school. You won't regret it!

And now...a some photos for your viewing pleasure...

Having a little fun with soda bottle shakers. (They're filled with popcorn kernels)

 It's a little blurry... but I had to include this! Do you think he's having fun?!

Have you ever participated in a drumming circle? How was it for you?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: Exchange Students

"Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world."
Rick Steeves, Travel as a Political Act

When I was a kid, my sister's best friend often hosted Rotary exchange students. I most remember Anita from India and Jorge from Mexico. I was fascinated by Anita's musical accent and the anklets that adorned her ankles. I remember Jorge as more reticent, though he was interested in talking to us and sharing Spanish words.

So several years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I was excited by an announcement on the school's PA system that said the Rotary was seeking host families for future exchange students. I remember this day so clearly- this day that changed my life. For dinner, I sat at my usual seat at our red formica table with chrome edging and asked my parents if we could host a student from another country. I'm not sure why, but I remember being nervous about asking.

My mom looked right at me and asked, "Why don't you go?"
"Go where?" I asked.
"Go to another country. Be an exchange student."
I looked at her dumbfounded. I had never even considered this an option.

In hindsight, I feel like my fate was sealed in that conversation. I got an application the next day, applied, and went through a thorough application process culminating with an interview. I don't remember any questions I was asked except the one that, in my memory, was last.

The interviewers explained that Rotary exchange students could not choose the country they'd visit. They could list preferences, but ultimately they could not choose. "What will you do if you're told you will go to a country you didn't choose."
"I'll go," was my reply.

I think of my response now and wonder, Where did that come from? I had never even been on a plane. I also wonder how my mother had the courage to suggest I be an exchange student in the first place. I was 15. If chosen, I would leave just 2 months after turning 16 and be gone for a whole year. Aside from a road trip to Canada and (I think) one trip to the Bahamas, my parents had never left the country. How does a parent have the courage to suggest such a thing?

Whatever the reason, I'm so thankful my mom made that outrageous suggestion to teenage me. I'm also thankful that my parents had raised me to be secure enough to embark on such an endeavor. And, let me tell you, they had a tough year while I was gone. I'm dating myself, I know, but I ended up going to the Philippines from June of 1985 to June of 1986. Do you remember what happened in the Philippines in February of 1986? Yep. A revolution. Filipinos had been living under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos for too many years when they rose up with cries of "People Power." (Marcos fled to Guam on February 25th and conceded to Corazon Aquino).

I jumped straight to the most challenging part of my year abroad to make an important point. Despite being scary for my parents at times ("I saw them on TV. They're burning the American flag"), I wouldn't change a thing about my year. As hard as it was for my family, I don't think they'd change it either. Yes, they were scared at times, but guess what? We all survived and are the better for it. I was never afraid and I was never in any real danger. And, my life is so so much richer for having been there.

Come back next Tuesday to read an essay I wrote about my year titled, "Growing Up."

In the meantime, if you're a parent, consider the opportunities that might arise if your child were to be an exchange student. Could YOU say to your child, "Why don't you go?" I know I will.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Time to Smell the Roses

Yesterday, I went out for a brisk hike after working at my computer for too long. Sometimes I get rolling and it's hard to pull myself away, but I'm always glad when I do.

Some days, I do more sauntering than hiking as I meander along looking for mushrooms, or birds, or animal holes. Yesterday, I just needed to move, so I set out intent on a quick, heart-pumping hike. My only problem... even when I'm moving along, intent on physical activity, I can't help noticing interesting things along the way. And then I stop to examine them more closely.

As I started down the trail, I noticed an area on the ground that had a strange, amorphous black hue. I considered stopping to look but reminded myself of my goal for this hike and kept moving. Then I saw another patch. And another. I HAD to stop. What is that? I'd never seen it before.

I crouched down, looked closely, and found thousands upon thousands of tiny insects bunched together, hopping around. Normally, I would have spent more time investigating, but I did have an agenda after all, so I took a few photos and hiked on. (Yes.. I did bring my never know when you'll see some thing interesting!)

As I hiked, I remembered I have seen these insects before. The difference... I've only seen them in the snow. Each winter for the past couple of years I've seen those same black patches on the surface of the snow. Have they always been on the leaf litter and I missed them? Do they normally appear only in the winter? (We did have snow last weekend- perhaps they appeared early because of it). What kind of insects are they? I have a vague memory of identifying them as something called snow fleas one year.

These questions present opportunities for me to do more investigating. Will I do a bunch of research? I'm not sure. It depends upon whether I see them again. I've written about this here before- I tend to learn all I can by observation rather than book/internet research. Then I see what the experts say. If my kids had been with me, I would have followed their lead. I still may do that if we see them together on our next hike.

Do you know your environment well enough to notice such a small detail? I don't spend a load of time hiking those trails- not nearly enough, actually. For all my talk of "get out in nature," I struggle to do that often enough, just like anyone in our over-connected, harried world. But I'm out there at least a couple of times a month, maybe four. And over time, I've learned to notice natural features.

You can teach yourself and your kids to notice natural details. Start with those that are part of your everyday life. You've heard the old cliche, "Stop and smell the roses." Consciously look around as you walk. Bend down to look at a patch of lichen up close. Examine the plants growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. Really watch how the pigeons walk and fly. Share your observations with your kids. Soon they'll be telling you more and more natural things they see.

Then, when you can, find a piece of nature you can explore with your kids. Visit it regularly and notice how it changes over time. Initially, you may notice seasonal changes, but if you do it long enough, you'll begin to notice the changes that happen more slowly, like a meadow slowly turning into a pine forest or a beach eroding over time, or a pine forest becoming a hardwood forest.

I tend to notice little things on the ground- be it tiny insects on the forest floor or minute seashells on the beach that look like grains of sand. That's my own personal interests showing up. But maybe you're kids will be into birds, or wildflowers, or marine mammals. Find what interests them (and you) and go looking for it.

When you do, please come back and share your discoveries with us.

Related Posts:
Nature Observations with Young Children
Seasons and Cycles
Fall Haiku
Mystery Caterpillar

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: Pack Your Sense of Humor

Most people put time and care into packing for a vacation. As you pack your clothes, camera, shoes and other items in your suitcase, take a moment to toss in your sense of humor. Because- let's face it- travel can be stressful, and humor can help get you through.

Take, for example, our trip to Morocco. The day before we left, I was stung by a bee-on my foot- which swelled up to an unbearable size. It was so fat, I couldn't fit it in a shoe. So what did I do? I did my best to laugh it off (maybe I should say limp it off?) and took a photo of it for all to see.

Later, all four of us came down with a bad case of what's known as Traveler's D. (Or perhaps you've heard it called Montezuma's revenge if you've traveled to Mexico).  I've had this particular ailment before. While my case wasn't as bad as the time I had to be hospitalized in the Philippines, it was a tough case, my friends. Now imagine four friends on a train from Fez to Marrakesh suffering from Traveler's D and the only facilities on board consist of a hole in the floor with a toilet on top. Yep... your business runs right out onto the tracks. Not fun. What did we do?

Back at our seats, we began singing our imagined soundtrack for our trip.  You guessed the first song, right? It's so obvious...Marrakesh Express. Later, as we rode our camels into an oasis we sang Midnight at the Oasis and laughed. I know it's corny, but when you're hot, tired, and dry... so very, very dry... it's hysterical. Trust me.

The comedy highlight had to be the day we began our camel trek, though. We rose early and started riding at about 7:30. We stopped for siesta at about 11:00am in a make-shift shelter with walls made of reeds. This siesta lasted until 5:00 pm because it was too hot to be out. A 6 hour siesta! We were still rough around the edges from our stomach ailment (we traded a hole in the train floor for a nice private spot behind a sand dune) and were, quite frankly, hot as blazes. We had our journals and books to read, but really what we did was lie around, too lethargic to move. The Sahara is seriously hot in July, let me tell you.

The only writing we did that day was to complete this brief journal entry in my friend Christina's journal (we all contributed):
 We wish for: (edited slightly for brevity and correctness- who can spell when her brain is melting?)
  1. cold Sam Adams beer
  2. watermelon
  3. virgin strawberry daiquiri
  4. lemonade
  5. COLD water
  6. bathtub full of crushed ice
  7. swimming
  8. rain
  9. Cape Cod summer breezes
  10. Frozen underwear
And you know what? Despite our overwhelming lethargy, we laughed like crazy while making it. Then we got back on those camels and rode off into a sandstorm... Riders on the Storm.