Each January I try to compile a summary of some of our most poignant moments, experiences and projects of the closing year. As I spent the last month piecing together 2017 in photos and writing and hazy-mom-brain memories, one broad theme emerged.
But first I’ll start with our travel adventures. The year began by welcoming and photographing new babies in New York, Minneapolis and Berkeley. We tracked wild horses on the Outer Banks. We visited family in Minneapolis (again) and explored my old haunts in the city I’ll never stop calling home. We celebrated 20 years of friendship in Utah with my high school Swiss Semester group and their incredible families. We met sea turtles and collected shark teeth at Topsail Island. We hiked peaks in the Blue Ridge to take in the fall foliage spilling across the mountains. We explored frozen waterfalls at Hanging Rock.
We spent a lot of time at home too. We cleared a little trail system through the back woods, so we could take short walks without leaving the yard. We began our first landscaping attempts in the front yard to make it a more pleasant space to play and ride bikes. And, most significantly, we embarked on the great experiment of home education.
The overarching theme of our year was this: learning.
Last year, we watched in deep, jaw-dropping disappointment as the world into which we thought we had brought three lives began to devolve around us. Ignorance won a seat at the head of the table, and with it, the unconscionable willingness—and even insistence—of so many to leave the world significantly worse than they found it for our kids and their peers. Empathy, critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning? Out the window.
So as parents, we spent a lot of our year learning what our kids are up against. The blinders came off. On the flip side, we also watched and learned from individuals and organizations who rose up and unified to fight for social justice, for science, for women, for the environment, for our kids and their generation. Now we better understand how to prepare our kids’ hearts and minds for their future, and who our allies and role models are in these efforts.
These realizations greatly informed how I defined teaching and learning in our homeschool. A few months ago, I wrote a post about some of my educational goals, which center on empathy, global citizenship and critical thinking. The year reaffirmed our commitment to raising children who value life-long learning, who will seek knowledge over ignorance at every turn, and who will demand no less from the world around them.
By removing the noise of schedules imposed on us by the traditional school system, we freed up more time for the girls to immerse themselves in meaningful activities without the rush, without the busyness, and with plenty of time left over for one of the most crucial aspects of childhood: free play.
An unexpected high point of our learning experience last year was that the girls decided they wanted to start horseback riding, and we became more of a part of the stable community than we otherwise could have been. (A heart-felt thank you to their wonderful and wonderfully patient instructor, Kelly, and to the owner of the stable, Piper.) The girls also had incredible experiences at writing and arts camps at Duke Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue—opportunities we may have turned down if we hadn’t started to manage our time in a non-traditional way.
Throughout the year, we also began learning how to navigate the peanut-laced world in a slightly different way after Cricket completed her peanut desensitization clinical trial (oral immunotherapy) at UNC in January 2017. For 32 months, the trial was a large and emotional part of our daily lives—a story for another day. The fantastic news was that Cricket passed the last challenge, demonstrating she had increased her ability to tolerate peanuts from a few specks of peanut dust to16 peanuts.
The problem is that the immune system is a fickle thing and won’t promise the same results every day. Since the trial, Cricket has reacted twice to the daily dose of peanut she takes to maintain her desensitization, now six Reese’s Pieces, which is far less exposure than the amount she took during the last challenge. These reactions serve as reminders to us that desensitization is not a cure; it simply offers Cricket the best level of protection available from a life-threatening reaction. So with that information we move forward, navigating restaurants and birthday parties and airplanes, operating in that gray area of trying to learn to loosen some of the reigns but never truly knowing where the limits lie that day.
Yes, I’d say learning was our grand theme of 2017. We learned a lot about disappointment. We learned a lot from people doing deeply good work. We learned how to buck cultural norms when they stood in the way of our family’s dreams.
My goal for the coming year? It’s simple: to keep actively and intentionally learning.
We finished up our study of the African continent just before the holidays with a week-long focus on Egypt. I suspect you'll enjoy reading the books we found. Our favorites were the top two on the list.
North Africa (Egypt)
Located and labeled Egypt on map. Read about contemporary Egypt and the Nile. Wrote stories set in Egypt. Studied Nile crocodiles and painted pictures of them. Studied ancient Egypt and read letter from Isabelle (Letters from Afar) about her exploration of Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Compared and contrasted “The Egyptian Cindarella” and Disney’s “Cinderella” using a Venn diagram. Spent a day studying, drawing and writing about caracals (wild cats) at the Carolina Tiger Rescue.
Learn about my intro photography curriculum
Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers
I've been documenting the world around me in writing and photographs since I was 6 years old without understanding exactly why I feel this need. But it's so intensely rooted that I've never shaken it or even tried. Over time I've learned there is something profound in simply bearing witness, in allowing your actions and work to say, "'I am here, and I see you."
Along the way, I've witnessed perhaps some of the deepest pain and the greatest joys life can offer, as well as all that good stuff caught in between that makes up daily existence. If we are living well, we are continually bearing witness to those around us in various ways. But when clients specifically ask me to serve as witness to a moment or phase or milestone? It's nothing short of an honor.
I've been honored to photograph this family, these friends, on four occasions now. (You can find their previous sessions here, here and here.) Last year was truly one of new beginnings for them. Their new house represents just a small portion of these beginnings, but I wanted to make sure it figured prominently in the images as their base camp. Beyond the obvious beauty of this home and the love this family has for one another, a stunning element I witnessed during this session was one they'll never take for granted: restored energy.
To view more lifestyle portraits, click here.
One of my favorite parts of planning portrait sessions is helping each family select a location that is significant to them. Not only is Pittsboro's Fearrington Village a prominent place in this family's current routines, but it's also where the couple hosted their rehearsal dinner years ago. They have so many joyful memories here that it was a natural decision to capture them strolling around the farm and gardens. (And the fact that this family and this place are also special to me made the session particularly meaningful for me too.)
To view more lifestyle portraits, click here.
These books about West Africa might just be my favorite batch yet. "One Hen" and "One Plastic Bag" are based on the true stories of incredible people whose innovative ideas, sacrifice and hard work transformed their communities for the better. Warning: When you read these stories, the words may catch in your throat when you understand where they are going. "Yatandou" is a powerful and beautifully illustrated fictional account of how technology can improve the lives of those living in poverty. "Deep in the Sahara" tells the story of a young girl learning that the women in her family wear the mulafa (hijab) because of their faith. It's a simple lesson that may answer a question you didn't realize your children might have.
West Africa (Ghana, the Gambia, Mali and Mauritania)
Inspired by Isatou Ceesay and the women from “One Plastic Bag,” built something useful from our recycling: a picnic basket. Then packed up the basket and took it on a picnic. Inspired by “One Hen,” pooled allowance money and bought a gift for a family in need from Heifer International: a flock of chicks. Wrote fact sheet on the sand cat’s adaptations for desert living. Drew sand cats and their kittens. Visited the NC Zoo's desert dome to visit the sand cat and other desert dwellers.
More Around the World Book Lists
East Africa (Part I)
East Africa (Part II) and Central Africa
North Africa (Egypt)
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I'm Julia Soplop. I've spent my life documenting the world around me in writing and photography. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.