Category Archives: Homeschooling

Free Pattern: Sengi

The sengi, aka elephant shrew, is a small mammal native to the forests, grasslands, and rocky outcroppings of south-eastern Africa.   They have a long, flexible snout that allows them to use their amazing sense of smell in any direction without moving their eyes, and it is from this feature’s similarity to the elephant’s trunk that they received their rather fanciful English common name.

Genetic studies have revealed that the sengi is, in fact, more closely related to elephants than to true shrews, despite being only a few inches long and having a lifestyle more typical of rodents than ruminants.

The tiny rufous sengi, one of the smaller varieties of sengi, is less than 4″ long but can run at speeds over 8mph, making it the fastest terrestrial animal on earth relative to its size (it’s about twice as fast as a cheetah).  Each individual maintains a complex network of pathways through the grass and scrub of the savanna which it uses to hunt for food– mostly insects, but also seeds in the right season– and escape danger.

The rufous sengi is also basically Elvis for my children right now.  We were watching a BBC nature documentary about small animals (Hidden Kingdoms, it’s streaming on Netflix right now and I highly recommend it) when they first discovered it, and for the last month, sengis have been EVERYWHERE in their art, play, and imaginations.

Here’s a knitting pattern for a toy rufous sengi, suitable for an advanced  beginner.  She measures about 3.5″ from tip of nose to rump, with her tail about the same length as her body, and she stands a petite but powerful ~2″ tall on her specially-adapted long back feet (for zooming) and bitty front feet (for batting obstacles out of her paths in a dismissive manner).  Her white “socks” mark her as an adult– juveniles have brown legs and feet.  She is perfect for a stocking or an Easter basket, fits in a pocket, and is equally at home racing along the highway or just doing chores!

Sengi “housework”– gotta keep those paths clear!

The sengi’s body is knitted from tip of nose to tip of tail in the round, starting and ending with I-cord.  Her ears and front legs are picked up and knit from the body, and her hind legs are knitted separately in the round starting with I-cord and then sewn on.

Supplies:

  • dk yarn, about 40 yards, in light brown, tan, or rust (MC)
  • dk yarn, less than 10 yards, in white or cream (CC)
  • dk yarn, less than a yard, in chocolate or dark brown
  • two 8mm round black beads for eyes
  • small amount of stuffing (I used wool)
  • double-pointed needles, size US 5
  • yarn needle

Pattern:

using MC yarn, cast 3 sts onto a single needle

working as an I-cord, knit three rows

k1, kfb, k1 (4 sts)

knit one round

*kfb* all around (8 sts)

at this point I arranged my stitches on 3 needles, with 2 sts on the first needle and 3 on each of the others– this arrangement makes it easier to predict the shaping in the head

knit one round

k3, kfb, k1, kfb, k2 (10 sts)

knit one round

k4, kfb, k1, kfb, k3 (12 sts)

knit one round

k3, kfb, k2, kfb, k1, kfb, k2, kfb, k1 (16 sts)

knit one round

kfb, k15 (17 sts)

knit one round

s1k2tog psso, *k2tog* to end of round (8 sts)

knit two rounds

*kfb* around (16 sts)

knit in stockinette until the piece measures about 3″ from the base of the snout (about 3.5″ from the tip of the snout)

*k2tog* around (8 sts)

knit one round

stuff body and head firmly with the stuffing of your choice, remembering to add a little extra if you’re using wool or another stuffing that compacts a lot over time

*k2tog* around (4 sts)

knit 1 round

k1, k2tog, k1 (3 sts)

slide all sts onto a single needle and work I-cord until tail is about 2″ long

k2tog, k1 (2 sts)

continue in I-cord until tail is about 3″ long

k2tog (1 st)

break yarn and pull through remaining stitch to cinch closed

Front legs:

On the underside of the torso, just after the neck shaping, pick up 5 sts in a ring

with MC yarn, knit 1 row

k2, k2tog, k1 (4 sts)

switch to CC

knit 1 row

k1, k2tog, k1 (3 sts)

knit 1 row

break yarn and thread end through remaining 3 sts, cinch closed

repeat to place a second front leg next to the first

Hind legs:

using CC yarn, CO 3 sts and work I-cord

knit 4 rows

k1, R-inc, k2 (4sts)

knit 1 row

switch to MC

knit 2 rows

k1, R-inc, k2, R-inc, k1 (6sts)

knit 1 row

k1, R-inc, k4, R-inc, k1 (8 sts)

knit 2 rows

*k2, k2tog* around (6 sts)

*k1, k2tog* around (4sts)

*k2tog* around (2 sts)

leaving a generous yarn tail, break yarn, bring end through remaining sts, cinch to close.

Stitch the top of the sengi’s little drumstick securely to the side of her rump with the bind-off edge oriented directly to the top.

Repeat for other hind leg.

Ears:

All shaping is done on the OUTSIDE edge of the ear– the round begins at the inside.

Starting about one stitch away from the top midline of the head and moving outward along the same row of knitting, pick up four sts on one needle, then pick up four sts directly behind those sts on the head (8 sts)

Using MC, knit 2 rows

k3, L-inc, k2, R-inc, k3 (10 sts)

knit one row

k3, k2tog, k2tog, k3 (8sts)

*k2tog* around (4 sts)

break yarn, lace through remaining sts, pull to cinch.

Repeat for second ear on the other side of the midline of the top of the head.

Finishing:

With CC yarn, stitch a shallow “V” shape on each side of the sengi’s nose to frame her eyes.

With dark brown yarn, stitch two short lines from just in front of each her ear about 1-2 stitch lengths forward.

Sew the beads in place securely– between the endpoint of the dark brown line and the angle of the CC “V”– on either side of the head to make eyes.  I sewed on both eyes at the same time, securing them with a figure-8 stitch through the inside of the face to help nest the beads into the face more realistically.

Weave in and trim all your yarn and thread ends, and your sengi is ready for whatever fast-paced adventures life sends your way!

 

 

Three Things to Do for Indigenous Peoples Day

if you need background on why Christopher Columbus doesn’t deserve celebration, click here for an approachable primer


Tomorrow, Monday October 10, is Indigenous Peoples Day.  If you’re thinking “Gosh, that doesn’t sound like a holiday one can or should observe by shopping the sales at the mall!” give yourself 10 points.

If you’re wondering what you might do instead, read on!

Research your local Indigenous people

Maybe you live in a place that was wrested from an indigenous group by force during a protracted military conflict, maybe you are living in your people’s traditional homelands, maybe you’re somewhere in between.  You can find out.

Research the ethnic groups and languages that were present in your area before colonial control solidified.  Learn about the history of those people, either before conquest or after.  Imagine how your area would be different if the cultural frontier had been more amiable.

Find out what indigenous people are doing in your area now.  Where is your closest reservation?  What issues matter to native communities near you?  How have their cultures influenced the dominant culture (consider language, cuisine, holiday and seasonal observances, etc.)?

Consume art about and by Indigenous people

On Youtube, watch this.

On Netflix, try Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Songs my Brothers Taught Me, or Strange Empire.

Read something.

Stand in solidarity with a cause that disproportionately affects Indigenous people

Donate or sign to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux against an oil pipeline that would threaten their water sources and has already destroyed a burial site.

Sign to support the efforts of the Gwich’in Nation to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Donate to the National Congress of American Indians, which recently won a landmark legal case against the Washington R*dskins concerning the defamatory nature of their name and logo.

Donate to the Endangered Language Fund to support research and revitalization of indigenous languages.

Sign to demand BIA recognition for the Celilo Falls (Wy’am) Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of the oldest continuously-inhabited human settlement in the Americas.

Urge President Obama to free Leonard Peltier.

Donate to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition to further their work pursuing reparations and peace after the horrors of Indian Residential Schools.

 

Of course these lists and suggestions are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive– these are just some ideas to get you started.

 

Primary Day

I think the results of today’s primary voting here in Oregon are a foregone conclusion.  Donald Trump is the only remaining candidate for the Republican nomination, so he will win 70-90% of the Republican vote.  The Democratic race will be fairly evenly split between Clinton and Sanders, with a lot of rural counties strongly preferring Sanders and the most racially diverse counties strongly preferring Clinton.

But I’m still freaking out about it.

I doubt I’m alone in that.

All through this primary season, the smalls and I have been watching the returns come in on Huffington Post.  We’ve talked about delegates and superdelegates and proportional awards and caucuses and polling data.

We’ve seen the signs and bumper stickers around town and cheered or jeered or rolled our eyes according to our preferences.  I’ve bitten my lower lip bloody driving down I-84 and seeing the balance of the signage on our county measure.

We’ve watched the debates and paused them to debrief.  We’ve clicked through candidate websites and read articles together and done deep research.

When I filled out my ballot, Númenor and Ithilien sat next to me at the dining room table and drew up their own construction-paper ballots with their own circles to fill in as we read the voter’s pamphlet together and talked about what was important.  How I decide how to vote.  What I look for.

Robert did the same with them the next night.

Tonight is a little different than the rest of the returns we’ve watched.  Tonight the results are about us, our neighbors, our family– what we think, what we believe, where we live.

So we will watch along, as usual, but this time with popcorn and while running the Blackadder episode about rotten boroughs.  Just to keep it in perspective, you know.

In case things don’t go the way we want them to go.

In case things get scary.

So we remember that it’s a show.  That it’s rigged against us, against people like us, against young families all over the country.

But we are doing our part, what we can do.  We are voting our minds and talking about serious things with friends and family and raising little citizens who will hopefully grow up to be involved, conscientious voters like us.

And sometimes, if everyone does the right thing, that’s enough to make a difference in the system.

I guess we’ll see what happens.

Growing Up

The past year has seen a dramatic shift in Númenor and Ithilien.

Sure, they’re bigger.  And they speak more conventional English now.  But all that is trifling.  I’m talking about a big, fundamental change.

As unschooled kids, they pretty much run wild through their lives.  They do whatever they want to do, and as their parents, teachers, and facilitators, we try to stay out of their way and provide them with resources and opportunities.  And last spring, that was all that was happening.

But as the mornings turned cooler and the scent of woodsmoke began to permeate our early autumn landscape, something changed.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what’s different, but it’s almost like they have become more focused.

I used to offer to help them look things up.  Now they demand to be shown information.

The endless rattling of questions has started to follow a particular path instead of zigzagging madly between topics.

They listen longer, and closer.  They make more guesses and inferences for themselves instead of asking me to give them each piece of the puzzle.

They have plans.  Real, concrete plans for things that might actually happen– lots of fantasy still thrown in there, but more akin to daydreams than to the acid binges of imagination we were used to.

Before, learning was something that happened to them– they were naturally curious, of course, like all primates, but they didn’t trouble themselves overmuch with knowing anything particular.  Now, they almost seem to vibrate with the intense, conscious desire to learn.

They want to cook, so they are helping to make the menu, and browsing in cookbooks, and being the chefs de cuisine one night per week.

They want to stargaze, so they are finding astronomy books and star guides at the library and making sure we check the weather forecast.

They want to knit, so they are watching my hands intently and making some tentative starts with fingers and spools.

They want to know about bugs, so they are running for the guidebook and carefully trapping interesting things under upside-down juice glasses for observation.

They want to write, so they are using the sound map and copying words from books.

So things look a bit different this spring than they have in previous years, when our children were just the vessels of our vision for this grand educational experiment.

In the fall, the change will likely be more complete, and Númenor and Ithilien will be taking even more leadership in their own lives, but for right now the shift is still underway, and we’re balanced between the two of them being our satellites– doing their own thing but always around what we adults are doing– and all four of us being off on our own individual journeys and making a rather messy pack as we go.

It’s strange to think that, not that long ago, they were each just a tiny tickling thing behind my bellybutton.

Strange, and wonderful.

Let’s Talk About Race

We talk about race constantly with our kids.  We’ve talked about how race is a social construct that helps the dominant group to establish and maintain its boundaries based on perceived cultural or ancestral similarity.  We’ve talked about how the color of an individual’s skin doesn’t always track with their racial identity, and we’ve talked about how race is often performative, and we’ve talked about how race, like gender, is a convenient shorthand for social purposes but isn’t actually real.

But I still wasn’t expecting Númenor– catching a glimpse of How To Get Away With Murder over my shoulder– to come out with one of the hardest questions he’s ever asked.

“What are all the different races?  Can you make a list for me?”

Oh, child.  Oh honey, sweet, baby, child, with your lisp and your first loose tooth.

I know he wants to understand the world.  He wants a logical, discrete system.  He wants it to make sense.  But that’s not the way it is.

There are whole graduate-level seminars on this topic.  There’s no pat answer.  I don’t know how to render my response in small-child vocabulary.

I answered him, because the biggest single responsibility of unschooling is answering questions, but I wanted to think about my answer more, so I’m going to explore it here.

Hold on tight.

  1. Remember that race is a social construct, and as such it is different in every cultural context.  The racial categories in mid-20th-century London and the racial categories in rural Oregon in 2016 are not the same.  If you compared either of them to the racial categories of ancient Rome or late classical Maya, you would find almost no common ground.  The dominant group varies between places and times, and is always defining and redefining itself, and therefore constantly amending and adapting the divisions and stereotypes it practices.
  2. What racial categories an individual person’s brain is socialized to recognize is even more specific and variable than that.  Someone who grew up in a Tongan-American community in Portland might racially distinguish Samoan, Tongan, and Hawaiian people but be unable to distinguish between European origins, whereas someone who grew up in a white suburb of Chicago might lump Tongan, along with Kazakh and Han and Japanese and Maori, into the umbrella racial category of AAPI, but hold Polish people and Irish people in separate racial categories.
  3. Race isn’t idempotent.  In the 19th century, many light-skinned people were legally categorized as racially black in the American South (see the “one-drop rule”), but were able to migrate to states with less stringent legal standards and “become” white.  An individual’s understanding of and identification with different elements of their ancestry may change over time.  Mixed-race is currently the fastest-growing racial identity in the United States, which means an increasing number of people have two or more significant racial backgrounds.
  4. Some racial categories supersede others or rely on a secret code to make sense.  Mixed race people in the US who have significant black ancestry often experience the invisibilization of the rest of their racial background, as do mixed race people who “pass” for white.  The racial category “Hispanic” is a hot mess that cannot be understood unless you hear the racist dogwhistle embedded in it.
  5. Fiction muddies the waters.  American Indian characters have been played by Italian, Latinx, and mixed-race people overwhelmingly more often than they have been played by American Indian people.  American families of color on TV often have a striking and unrealistic similarity in skin color between members– actors are cast “Pantone-matched” between characters’ relationship partners or family members.  Mixed race people are cast to play a variety of races over the course of their careers.

What all of this means is that race could be as varied and as specific as to put practically every individual on earth in their own category, and this would be neither more nor less accurate than the “Mongoloids and Negritoes” system of Thomas Huxley, because race isn’t real.

We can talk about the racial categories I recognize, or the racial categories available on the US census (although their “mixed race” category has, so far, been an othering, invisiblizing sham), but neither of these would be a full and accurate list of all the races people can have.

The fact is that there is no system.  There is no list.  There is no rubric.  It’s all just layer upon layer of euphemism and inspeak, seeking to reduce humans to checkboxes in an effort to control them and practice social grouping.

And just like with gender, you can guess about someone’s identity by looking for their cues, but the only way to know someone’s race for sure is to ask how they identify.

Five Winnie-the-Pooh Moments that I Refer to in Real Life

A special edition of My Life in Picture Books to celebrate (admittedly a few months late) the 90th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh’s introduction*!

Some classic children’s books aren’t necessarily uplifting to read, like Mary Poppins (spoiler alert: in case you don’t know, the Disney version of the character is sugary-sweet by comparison to the real MP).  Some classic children’s books are problematic due to racism or sexism or imperialism, like…well, anything written by Rudyard Kipling.  Some classic children’s books are difficult to read aloud because of language or dialect issues, like The Wind in the Willows.  Some require a LOT of background information, so much so that to read them to a modern child is to give line-by-line commentary, such as the Little House series or the All of a Kind Family series.

And some classic children’s books are every bit as sweet and charming and relate-able as you remembered from your own childhood, like Winnie-the-Pooh.

Christopher Robin Milne and Edward Bear (aka Winnie-the-Pooh) c.1927

Here are a handful of vignettes from the classic books about the stuffed animals that live in a fictionalized version of Ashdown Forest that have become part of our personal Darmok in the Surton household:

1.  “Really as blue and as bracing.”  We use this phrase to mean “it was all it was cracked up to be” or “it was even more wonderful than I expected/remembered”.

Piglet wasn’t listening, he was so agog at the thought of seeing Christopher Robin’s blue braces again.  He had only seen them once before, when he was much younger, and, being a little over-excited by them, had had to go to bed half an hour earlier than usual; and he had always wondered since if they were really as blue and as bracing as he had thought them.

2.  “French word meaning bonhommy.”  An exclamatory phrase used to explain that a word or phrase is difficult to define or untranslatable, or is so obvious a cognate or etymology that it stands for itself.  Eeyore is perhaps the oldest inhabitant in the forest; he has the sarcastic and cynical attitude of a teenager at least, whereas the other characters behave like little kids.  When the other animals forget Eeyore’s birthday and he is trying to get Pooh to ask why he’s upset, he is in rare form.

“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing.  We can’t all, and some of us don’t.  That’s all there is to it.”

“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.

“Gaiety.  Song-and-dance.  Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.  He thought for a long time, and then asked, “What mulberry bush is that?”

“Bon-hommy,” went on Eeyore gloomily.  “French word meaning bonhommy,” he explained.  “I’m not complaining, but There It Is.”

3.  “Aha!”  The other animals kidnap baby Roo and leave Piglet in his place.  Piglet tries desperately to carry out Rabbit’s plan (everyone would say aha! to Kanga so she understands that Roo has been kidnapped and will only be given back once she agrees to leave the forest forever).  We use this phrase, and its repetition, to indicate that a Cunning Plan has come to fruition and we want other people to notice.

“Aha!” said Piglet, as well as he could after his Terrifying Journey.  But it wasn’t a very good “Aha!” and Kanga didn’t seem to understand what it meant.

“Bath first,” said Kanga in a cheerful voice.

“Aha!” said Piglet again, looking round anxiously for the others.  But the others weren’t there.

4.  “I think the bees suspect something.”  From one of Pooh’s most famous escapades, in which he dresses up as a cloud and rides a balloon up into the sky next to a beehive in an attempt to steal some honey.  We use this phrase pretty much exactly as Pooh did– for indicating that someone has caught on.

After a little while, [Pooh] called down…

“I think the bees suspect something!”

“What sort of thing?”

“I don’t know.  But something tells me that they’re suspicious!”

“Perhaps they think that you’re after their honey.”

“It may be that.  You never can tell with bees.”

5.  “Spotted or Herbaceous Backson.”  A phrase used to stand in place of bullshitting.  Poor Owl, who can’t really read or write but is far too proud to admit it, is presented with a note from Christopher Robin, who is just learning to write (“Gon out, backson.  Bisy, backson.  C.R.”), and tries to pretend he can both read and understand it.

“It is quite clear what has happened, my dear Rabbit,” he said.  “Christopher Robin has gone out somewhere with Backson.  He and Backson are busy together.  Have you seen a Backson anywhere about in the Forest lately?”

“I don’t know,” said Rabbit.  “That’s what I came to ask you.  What are they like?”

“Well,” said Owl, “the Spotted or Herbaceous Backson is just a–”

“At least,” he said, “it’s really more of a–”

“Of course,”  he said, “it depends on the–”

“Well,” said Owl, “the fact is,” he said, “I don’t know what they’re like,” said Owl frankly.

Many happy returns, silly old bear!


*While A A Milne wrote several stories and poems about childhood and his young son and even Edward Bear in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the first story about Winnie-the-Pooh was published in the Christmas Eve edition of a newspaper in 1925.

Find the Magic

We spent our weekend (our WHOLE weekend, friends!) cleaning and reorganizing the house.

Yep.

That means there was plenty of dust and laughter and reminiscing, and lots of frustration and more than a little yelling, lots of going up and down stairs and hefting and hauling, some sadness and some serendipity, and the smell of vinegar and the sound of the Pandora station I created to bridge the gap between Robert’s taste in work music and mine.

It also means that the smalls spent the weekend Being Tested: listening, following directions, performing difficult tasks, staying focused, managing their compulsions to derange sorting piles and run around unaccustomed places, being responsible for their choices, and proactively communicating their own needs.

Unsurprisingly, then, today everyone woke up feeling pretty grumpy and low-energy.

On grumpy, low-energy days, even ones that you have earned by dint of hard work and awesomeness, it can be difficult to find the magic in your life.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So this afternoon, while I was feeling like ugh and yuck and blerg and blah, I walked around my home and captured these little bits of magic:

artwallAn updated art wall (now with figural art, perspective cues, symbols, and some child-written labels!).

knitting in progressA big project edging toward completion.

soft toys in a rowRe-discovered pretend friends.

new saltNew salt, white and pure and beautiful.

lettuceLate-planted seeds racing toward the sun.

garlic harvestThe first garlic harvest of the year, laid out to dry.

toys put awayCreative tools ready for new inspiration.

took and henhouseA laying flock.

reading nookA quiet, comfortable hideaway for book lovers.

spring raindrop baby dollSweet reminders of a spring well-spent.

blackberry blossoms and ripening fruitAnd the promise of blackberries to come.

Happy summer to you and yours!  May you find the magic wherever you look!

 


Stay tuned for more on the knitting!

Soft toys from L to R: homemade rocket ship (following this tutorial), sea turtle, warty pig, trilobite from PRI, and manatee from Sea World (from a trip I took in my childhood; I would NEVER go there by choice).

Toys from top L, clockwise: train, dragon, bushel basket, American maple hardwood school blocks, rocket ship, homemade storage cubbies.

Reading nook: The Hare and the Tortoise, Goodnight Oregon, C is for Cthulhu, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Basket is an old one from Ten Thousand Villages, shark bean bags are homemade based on this photo.

Spring raindrop baby was homemade, inspired by the work of a now-retired Etsy seller.