Yesterday was a very busy and raucous co-schooling day at my house, but it was fun, for a couple of reasons.
The first is a welcome new development for this year: H and I now have our friend M joining us again after a few years of working through different options, with the one child that she's homeschooling this year. It's so lovely to have her back with us twice a week; we've really missed her and her kids. I made taco salad for lunch (general recipe at the end of the post), and M brought apple crisp and cheese for afternoon snack, and we kept the coffee flowing. Faster now that teen boys drink it.
The second thing is that I have fun things to teach this year, practically all high-school level. I had to skip geometry today because of an unintentional late start, but I still got to teach one of the enjoyable parts of civics, and a challenging-to-communicate topic in chemistry, and all about relative clauses in Latin. By the end of the day I was, truly, happy about how I'd done (at least from my end; can't know how well the kids absorbed it all). I enjoyed interacting with the kids each time, and as I looked back on the day, I was left feeling: "Hey! I'm pretty smart. I did a good job." Which always feels nice.
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Mark, too, has been having some successes at work that leave him feeling good. We were talking about our days last night over dinner out (new "soul-inspired, chef-created" place went in a few blocks from our house; grits and biscuits and collard greens and country ham feature prominently, as well as brioche buns and good craft beer); we talked about them some more over coffee this morning. A lot of Mark's research and development work winds up being proprietary to his employer, but he occasionally gets to publish with his colleagues: there are eight patents, for example. He doesn't have to be secretive about the fact that he's done significant work on prominent and popular brands. And soon he'll be an author on a new open-access item that's the culmination of a lengthy collaboration he's really proud of.
"It's very weird to work on the same project for years," he told me this morning.
"I know what you mean," I said. "I am not sorry that I had the opportunity to become an expert in one very narrow subject area. It was a valuable experience, to learn how to focus that tightly for so long. But I am glad that I did not spend my life's work on it."
"I'm not sure if I'm a specialist or a generalist," he said thoughtfully. "On the one hand, I'm definitely one of the go-to guys in my specific area of work--" [this sentence heavily paraphrased to remove technical details --ed.] "--on the other, I enjoy being the person who generally knows how to solve whatever problem happens to come up anywhere in the process."
"Perhaps you're not all that different in scope from an academic. I mean, they may be the worldwide expert on one very narrow thing; they do active research on a set of narrowly related different topics; they have to have a working understanding of everything closely related to the field so that they can spot new directions of inquiry and support or criticize their colleagues' work; and they have to stay well-enough grounded in the basics of the field that they can deal with it if they have to teach some random undergraduate class."
I didn't get to hear his thoughts analyzing that one, because he looked at his watch and had to jump up and give me a kiss and run out the door because he had a 7:00 a.m. call to Europe and a meeting across town right after that.
Me, I poured myself another cup of coffee and wrapped my bathrobe more tightly around myself and settled back on the couch, thinking about writing a blog post in the time before the children wake.
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Chemistry yesterday was the most challenging to teach, not because I don't grasp the material well, but because the material is not very easy to explain to newbies. The language that's used by convention seems poorly designed; maybe it's the best we could do, but sometimes you'd like to go back in time and straighten people out before they named things. ("Ben. Trust me. You want to label the resinous electricity as 'positive.' Not the vitreous electricity.")
Anyway, I was laying the foundation for understanding electron configurations: the four principal quantum numbers, how they give a unique "address" for each electron in the multielectron atom. At one point the teen boys were laughing: "Wait, the numbers are called n, l, m... and SPIN?" and: "Wait, l is also s, p, d, and f?"
["No... l is allowed to have the values zero through n-1. It's just that when it's zero, we call it s, and when it's 1, we call it p, and so on. It's like a code. I don't think the reason why we haven't changed to using numbers is anything other than that it's less confusing to label, say, 3p instead of calling them 3-1 orbitals." I've since looked it up and been reminded what I had forgotten, that s, p, d, f stand for sharp, principal, diffuse, and fundamental, and refer to groups of spectral lines. I'll be sure to tell them next time we meet.]
The whiteboard was a mess, but it made sense. I loved it.
Then in Latin we read through a long passage of a story from the textbook which was designed to teach them about relative pronouns (qui quae quod, "which/that" as in "the fruit that rotted was an orange") and the use of the same words as interrogative adjectives ("which/what" as in "what fruit rotted?") and demonstrative adjectives (ille illa illud, "that" as in "that fruit was really disgusting") and demonstrative pronouns ("that" as in "that made me sick) and third person pronouns (is ea id, "he/she/it" as in "it totally had to be trashed.") In all five cases ("the fruit that made me sick"/"the person whose lunch this is will be disappointed"/"to whom can I complain about the fridge?"/"the odor that I smelled is tremendous"/"the bin in which I will throw this is over there"). It's relatively elementary stuff but there was a giant chart on my whiteboard and also some passages in which I had to keep switching marker colors so I could show them how the relative clauses and the prepositional phrases can be set apart from the main thrust of the sentence for easier translating. And it was all very fun.
And finally there was Civics, where I am going through parts that are not so suffused with gloom and disappointment, but the workmanlike stuff of, having discussed the history first, outlining the Constitution (Preamble. Articles, I-III in the first group, IV-VII in another. Amendments: 1-10 in the first group, 11-27 in another,) giving them the big picture as they get ready to read it straight through for the first time. All laid out once again on the same whiteboard.
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I have to think about all of these things, and how to communicate them, and I like that it's languages and politics and chemistry. I never get sick of it. I'm not saying I would necessarily have been sick of it if I was concentrating on only chemistry, or only languages, but I do like having to think hard about all three.
Am I a generalist or a specialist? I specialize in a small group of kids, and I specialize in putting things into terms they can understand. That's kind of a special skill. But it requires me to know a fair amount about quite a lot of different things. Not very prestigious; no publications yet (since I quit academia); but day to day, pretty fun, and I count it valuable to our family. I suppose that's more important than how it is categorized, and that goes for what Mark does too.
*Taco salad: a lot of ingredients but a relatively simple and low-mess way to feed a crowd with varying tastes. My crowd had three 4yo, two elementary schoolkids, two junior high age kids, two high school boys, and three adult women. I do this:
- Put a cup (dry) of brown rice on in my rice cooker in the morning
- brown three pounds of 80% lean ground beef, season it generously with a mild spice mix (packets or your own), and put it in the crockpot with some water to stay hot; when the rice is done, mix that in (the rice absorbs the fat and flavor, and extends the meat some, and also rice served separately gets all over the place). That will keep till lunch.
- shred half a small red cabbage, chop 1 green bell pepper, and tear up two hearts of romaine; mix
- put out the salad mix and the crockpots with bowls of: spicy pinto beans, plain black beans, sliced black olives, chopped avocado, sour cream, cheddar cheese, mild salsa, hot sauce, and tortilla chips. Let kids decide what goes in their salad, unless they are four, in which case parents make the best guess.