I'm happy to share that my interview with Rebecca Bohman of The Luminous Mind Podcast is now available for your listening pleasure.
In the interview, we covered a full range of topics relating to lifelong learning, including my impetus for writing Equus Rising. I'm hopeful that our discussion of the importance of broadening our narrow perspectives on history will resonate with even more people today than it would have when we recorded the conversation on May 7.
We also talked about how my approach to homeschooling has evolved over the last three years, as well as the benefits I see in teaching kids photography. (More minds might be open to these discussions as of mid-March, too.)
You can listen to the podcast here:
The Luminous Mind Podcast website
Libsyn (iTunes and Stitcher Publisher)
Happy Publication Day to Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped U.S. History ! The book is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. (The Kindle edition is a print replica format, so please make sure it's compatible with your device before purchasing.)
Let's celebrate together! Illustrator Robert Spannring and I would like to invite you to our virtual book launch party tonight, May 14, on Instagram Live at 8 p.m. EST. I'll be hosting the party on my account, @juliasoplop. To join, open the IG app, go to my profile at that time, and click on my profile picture, which should bring up the live feed.
At the launch, we'll answer questions about why and how we wrote and illustrated the book, do a very short reading, and give away a paperback copy. To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is submit a comment or question during the live event. We'll announce the winner at the end. I can't wait to get this book into your hands!
Hope to see you tonight.
I’m thrilled to reveal the cover for my book, Equus Rising: How the Horse Shaped U.S. History (May 2020).
The cover photo features a wild stallion from the Pryor Mountains of Montana. Isn’t he gorgeous? I’ve been admiring wild horses for years, but when I began to research this book, my respect for them skyrocketed. I knew we needed one on the cover.
As a journalist by training, I try to write on a level that is approachable for just about any reader. This book will resonate with horse lovers and wild horse advocates, but it's also for any adult or teen interested in reading a unique perspective on how this country came to be. No prior horse knowledge or experience required.
Equus Rising is now available for pre-order on Amazon for Kindle only. The paperback will be available for order upon publication in May 2020.
It didn't occur to me that tonight was the end of the decade until the bombardment of articles began last week titled things like, "2010s: What the **** Just Happened?" I found myself reading these pieces and nodding in agreement.
What a strange, strange decade it was in terms of politics and culture. What a disappointing and confusing decade it was in terms of what those aspects uncovered about some of the people in our lives and our struggles to navigate those relationships. And what a depressing decade it was in terms of the contrast between our continuously increasing understanding of climate change and what it means for our children's futures and the ever-growing, insidious science denial and greed that have prevented significant mitigation efforts.
And yet. As I was tallying up the disheartening ways we've collectively failed our children and their peers during this decade (I'm an optimist, I know), I started to wonder if there was anything fundamentally different about this 10-year block of time than any other, or if my perception of the world and the people in it has just changed.
That's when it struck me: at the beginning of 2010, I wasn't a parent yet. I was a different person.
At the close of the 2000s, Jeff and I were newlyweds, young people with endless energy. We worked full-time jobs on opposite sides of town by day, then met at a state park near our house just about every evening to mountain bike together. Afterwards we'd grab dinner and head home to work on our new house or just snuggle up and watch a show together. Work hard. Play hard. Relax.
Eventually I left my job to write and start a small photography business. My lack of schedule combined with Jeff's remote job gave us something we both craved more than a stockpile of money: flexibility. We traveled more weekends than not and, for as long as we'd been a couple, we'd somehow pulled off being seasonal residents of the Colorado Rockies. A summer here. A winter there. Plenty of shorter trips in between.
Being married to each other came pretty naturally to both of us, too. Our family dynamics were, more or less, relaxed. And on a broader level, the country was progressing in a way that felt right to us, that jived with our personal morals of equality and so on. Social regression wasn't on our radar. We were so busy growing our own dreams and assuming the best in people that we missed the undercurrent broiling just beneath the surface.
I do actually think the 2010s were fundamentally different than other decades in certain ways, but it's also true that my entire perspective on life and my role in it flipped during those years. The reason is that we created an entire family from scratch in this decade: three girls. Our dream come true. They turned our lives upside down in the very best, and most chaotic, way. (You can stop asking if we're going to try for a boy, by the way. We've never tried for a boy. And I'm done giving an awkward courtesy laugh when you ask.)
Those first Mama-Bear emotions when you're looking down at your new baby are deep and primal. Your initial mission is to keep this fragile being alive—an overwhelming task. But as time wears on and you learn how to feed and tend to the basic needs of your child, those maternal instincts expand. You still feel the desperate need to keep your child alive, but at some point, you manage to glance up from her face and notice the world around you again. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s still there after all this time. But the angle is different, and now there is an eerie quality to the light. It's changed in a permanent way that you can't quite put your finger on.
You start to see the world for how it's going to affect your child, how it's going to hurt her, get in her way, let her down. You start to see what you need to try to do to change it, to give her the best shot at life.
I went through this process of reawakening to an altered world with each of my children, but it was the most dramatic with my last. She was 7 months old. I was nursing her on the bed. And when I looked up, what I saw staring back on that November night in 2016 were elections returns.
In a moment, the wool came off my eyes. The world I thought I had just brought three kids into was unrecognizable. (Yes, I've been schooled since on how naive I was to not have fully understood the undercurrents of hate coursing through the country before this moment and am grateful for that schooling.) This moment was not the same subtle awakening I had with the first two kids, but something else entirely.
In a split second, those maternal instincts shifted from focusing on my infant's survival to putting on my gloves and preparing for a larger fight. It was as if my role as a woman and a mother suddenly came into stark relief in a way it hadn't before. Gone was my good-hearted assumption that the world would respect my daughters and their peers. Gone was my inane notion that evidenced-based reasoning was a method people at least tried to use to make decisions, even if unsuccessfully. Gone was my desire to please others for the sake of keeping the peace or not making them feel awkward for their willful ignorance.
Keep your head down and get along? No, thank you. I see what my kids are up against now and will set false pleasantries aside. I'd rather be fighting for the health and safety of all children, regardless of how they got here; for the equality and dignity of vulnerable and marginalized populations; for the basic rights of women to define their own lives regardless of what any men do or don't do to them.
Thankfully, my husband has experienced a similar perspective shift in becoming a father, and we've spent the last years of this decade supporting each other in trying to translate some of these new instincts, awareness, and drives into our careers, personal lives, and family relationships.
Perhaps in the years to come, we'll find more similarities between the 2010s and other decades in our country's history that aren't obvious in the moment. But I can tell you with certainty that for me, no decade in my life will compare in growth. Nothing will compare to the joys of bringing three children into the world with the love of my life, the weight of the realization of what that world and the people in it really look like, or the constant struggle that has followed to figure out how to maintain hope for these kids of ours, and to figure out how I can best contribute in some way to making the future better for them.
Wool pulled off. Gloves on. 2020s? Bring it.
Photo: Watching the sun set on the 2010s at Jordan Lake.
Each January, I try to spend some time reflecting on the previous year and setting intentions for the New Year. My goal is to take stock of my own accomplishments by my own metrics—by identifying the experiences I found most valuable, not by anyone else's standards of success.
I'm still pinching myself that my work appeared on my favorite spot on the internet, the incredible Design Mom blog, not once but twice in 2018. The first was my sister's home tour, which I styled and shot in Minneapolis during a blizzard weekend. The second was my own home tour and accompanying essay. For real? My heart still starts to race when I remember these things actually happened.
I really slacked on posting professional photography work here on the blog in 2018, but maybe I'll find the time to catch up it the New Year? (Or maybe not.)
Intro photography course
As a home school educator, I began to look for an introductory photography curriculum for my elementary schoolers last spring and couldn't turn up anything impressive for their ages. So I set out to fill that void and wrote an 85-page, downloadable intro course for elementary and middle schoolers called Documenting Your World. (You can find it here.) Folks, kids can learn so much about photography before they're ready to take a high school course. Don't sell them short by making them wait!
I'm going to announce some REALLY BIG news about this course within the next couple weeks, so please stay tuned. And if you run into me on the street before then, I'll probably talk your ear off about it, because I'm so excited. I apologize in advance.
I had the pleasure of taking on some branding, graphic design, writing, and editing work this year for my sister, Mari Melby, as she expanded her business offerings. (We had so much fun teaming up for her home tour that we couldn't stop there!) My favorite project was working with her to design The Intention-Based Planner, which we just launched in December. (The Annual Reflections and Annual Intentions pages of the planner helped me plan this blog post and get my mind wrapped around 2019.) It's a printable planner we hope will help you live with more focus, intentionality, and energy.
My last living grandparent, Jane Connors, passed away in September. I wrote this tribute to her and would love for you to read it. I think it's my favorite piece I've written all year. In true Connors fashion, we convened in Minneapolis and celebrated the heck out of Grandma's life. I know she would have loved every minute of our family gathering.
We're in the middle of our second year of homeschool—words I never imagined I would say. Home educator is one of the most challenging roles I've ever taken on, but goodness, it's been so rewarding. I don't know how many years I'll last, but I love being able to give my girls this experience while it makes sense for our family. I may, on occasion, accidentally write history and science curriculum for them at a college level rather than an elementary level, however they always tackle it with curiosity and grace and never cease to amaze me. This school year has been the year of the horse here in our homeschool, and I have a feeling some of the curriculum I pulled together is going to turn into a larger writing project for 2019.
I posted a couple fun DIYs this year:
How to frame your photos for big impact on the cheap
Desk refinishing project
We didn't slow down our travel schedule at all with the first two kids. Some trips were fantastic. Others were rather terrible and involved fevers and vomiting and urgent care visits. We've cut down a bit on spontaneous trips since Piper arrived (lessons learned), but we still ended up with a busy year of travel. Highlights included Minneapolis (twice), Lake Superior, Berkeley, Montana/Wyoming, the Outer Banks, Topsail Island, and Asheville. I didn't share much about travel on the blog last year, but I posted a lot of travel and lifestyle photography on Instagram. Join me over there?
Jeff and I have been trying to spring each other loose at least once a year for a longer solo trip, which has worked well and allowed us time for actual relaxation that doesn't exist when traveling with young kids. Jeff has gone to surf camp in Costa Rica the last few years. I usually require some Rocky Mountain time. (I wish we could escape more as a couple, but we don't have the opportunity to leave the kids right now.)
In a surprise twist...politics made me furious again this year. Two results of this anger (besides making lots of donations and voting my heart out) were: 1) I started to grind my teeth for the first time in my life (no joke) and 2) I wrote this satirical letter. The response the letter generated was phenomenal. Some of the messages I received from women who have experienced sexual violence brought me to tears. I see you. I hear you.
Looking back over the year, I'd say the majority of experiences I valued most were not things I planned; they fell into my lap, and then I ran with them. Something I've begun to learn over the years as a parent, educator, and creative professional is to make space in my life—both emotionally and logistically—to be able to say yes to unexpected opportunities. One of the jobs I take most seriously is playing defense for my family and for myself against the pressures of taking on too many structured obligations at the expense of time and energy for creative pursuits. I'm not going to lie. This year felt busy. It would be impossible to have three kids and numerous ongoing projects and not feel like you're always behind. But I think overall, we hit the nail on the head in terms of balancing structured and unstructured time. I don't mean we lounged around during unstructured time, but that we had enough of it to pursue opportunities that arose and accomplish some really fulfilling things with our time.
In 2019, my overarching intention is to maintain a similar balance for our family of structured and unstructured time, leaving the door open to grasp exciting opportunities as they arrive. And along the way, I hope to get a few things done:
One large writing project: I've started the research and writing on a larger project (teaser: horses) and hope to spend a lot of time on in it in 2019. I don't have a goal of completing the project on a certain time line, but I'd like to make substantial progress on it this year.
Photography: Just say no—not to personal photography but to projects I'm not excited about. I'm going to be more selective about the work I take on and more assertive when someone tries to take advantage of my skills.
Travel: Always! I'd like to take at least one or two solo trips to recharge and encourage Jeff to do the same. I've got a few ideas for family trips but want to leave a lot of open space for spontaneous travel opportunities.
Homeschool: The girls told me one of their favorite parts of school time is working on our nature journals together. I feel the same. I want to make sure to prioritize that activity this spring and let curiosity drive our learning. I also want the girls to spend more time writing and less time memorizing content from the social studies unit I painstakingly (over) developed. We'll pick up where we leave off next fall!
Presence with my family: When you're a full-time parent, a home educator, and have a few part-time gigs (and almost no childcare), it's impossible to be present at all times for all people. Plus I think it's good for my kids to know I'm not at their beck and call at all times; I have a life and other responsibilities, too! That said, there's plenty of opportunity to reduce endless scrolling or constant thinking of how I'm going to cross off the next item on my to-do list. In 2019, I don't want to aim for an unrealistic goal of being fully present for everyone at all times, but rather to allow myself to be fully present when it counts most—on family excursions, when my kids are anxious about something, when they genuinely need or want my attention.
Happy New Year! And Happy Intention Setting!
(Warning: The following not-family-friendly satirical letter does not fit the usual tenor of my blog, but desperate times call for desperate, late-night therapeutic writing measures.)
Dear Boys Who Behave Badly,
It is with great pride we write to you on this joyous, historic day to celebrate the reauthorization of the Boys-Who-Behave-Badly-Towards-Women-Shall-Face-No-Consequences Act (first established at the dawn of time).
In November 2016, you went loyally forth to the polls and voted with all your masculine vigor to remind our nation that even in this century, admitting to and bragging about sexually assaulting women WILL NOT disqualify a man from the highest office in the land.
We would like to express our gratitude to you (and, ironically and confusingly, to college-educated white women) for reaffirming this God-given truth, which bestowed upon us the confidence to do what we did today.
Always remember: WE ARE THE VICTIMS. As the esteemed Lindsey Graham so thoughtfully said, "I keep telling my colleagues, if this is the new normal, God help us all.” WE ARE THE VICTIMS. We refuse to let our bad behavior haunt us.
We are God’s gift to women (you may be more familiar with the terms “pussies” or “wombs” in reference to these insubordinate creatures), and we will continue to dominate them forevermore.
We will fight against honesty. We will shame and mock accusers. We will use Bill Clinton’s sexual missteps to justify our own for perpetuity.
We will denounce all the preschool and elementary school teachers out there telling kids such shameless lies as, “You can’t blame someone else for your own bad behavior,” and “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” And we will stand firmly against the most laughable, disrespectful lie of all, that “No means no.”
As one venerable professor wrote this week, “If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex.” Boys will be boys—FOREVER! You know these alternative truths to be self-evident.
We say unto you: be vigilant; be belligerent; remain staunchly condescending; cling to ignorance; do not give up on incompetence; hold fast to amorality. And, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, should you ever accept the liberal conspiracy messaging that you need to keep your dick in your pants when it is unwanted. Your dick shall goeth wherever it desireth, whenever it desireth, for eternity. Amen.
We leave you now with the eloquent words of our courageous leader—words to sear into our memories, words to live by, words that bear witness to the beauty of our God-sanctioned entitlement: “I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Signed with sweet relief and a healthy dose of toxic masculinity (while glancing over our shoulders, hoping our own skeletons won’t emerge from the closet—but prepared to grab ‘em by the pussy if they do),
Hurricane Florence had descended on us overnight. The wind was gusting, and the rain had just begun. The lights were flickering as I stood in the kitchen. My mom had been worried about us, so I assumed when she called around noon she was just checking in on the weather. But her voice was shaky, which meant she had bad news. My heart sank. As she told me my grandma, Jane Connors, had passed away that morning, the power went out.
Darkness. Silence—except for the three kids buzzing around me, wondering why I was crying.
As I hung up, the fabric sheers on the table caught my eye in the dim kitchen—a gift from Grandma. I had been using them to cut yarn for a weaving I was working on when my mom called.
My eyes tracked around the room. Next to the sink sat my favorite spatula, used that morning to fry eggs—a thrifted gift from Grandma for my first apartment. Next to the spatula, a mixing bowl—my favorite and another thrifted find from Grandma.
I thought of all the items tucked inside the cabinets from Grandma: cake pans; sauce pans; plates; bowls; serving spoons; a wooden recipe box overflowing with recipes in Grandma’s handwriting, crucial parts underlined in red; illustrated instructions on how to properly cut onion and pepper; oven mitts; and on and on. I was literally surrounded by Grandma.
We knew Grandma was living on borrowed time after a series of terrifying medical episodes that began five years ago, which we expected to end her life. Perhaps because she kept on living and sewing and cooking and defying expectations and prognoses, her passing seemed almost surprising. And because she was my last living grandparent, her death feels compounded, as if the other three have left us all over again. (How long does it take to process the passing of a generation?)
It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began to understood what Grandma taught me over the years, and only now am I starting to stitch those gifts together into a few discernable lessons.
Grandma was born in 1931, a child of the Great Depression. Her sense of frugality and practicality shaped her, how she functioned in the world, and how she raised her family. She was a mother, a thrifter, a seamstress, a cook, a baker, a painter. And she was meticulous in each and every endeavor.
One year, my friend and I decided we wanted to learn how to sew dresses for ourselves. So Grandma spent several summer days teaching us to make sheath dresses, despite the fact that my friend and I were rather helpless behind the sewing machine. (“Measure twice, cut once!”) Later she helped me make a lavender silk wrap to accessorize an outfit for a school dance. I’m no master seamstress and can’t usually remember where to find the power switch on my sewing machine, but every once in a while, I whip up a little something (usually a Halloween costume for the girls) using the skills Grandma taught me.
Another summer, Grandma offered my sisters and me cake-decorating lessons and then outfitted us with industrial-level decorating supplies for Christmas. I don’t make a huge hoopla over my girls’ birthdays, but because of the lessons Grandma gave me, I’ve made a tradition of decorating an intricate cake for each celebration. It’s something special and unique I can do for them without going over the top.
Yet another summer, I came home from a trip to India with piles of fabric and ribbon. Despite her horror at how impractical and slippery the silken fabric was (only cotton is practical, people!), Grandma helped me make a duvet with matching pillow cases that I still treasure today. And I have grown as a person enough by now to admit she was right; if you make a duvet out of slippery fabric, it will always be slipping off the bed.
Through these projects and others, I witnessed Grandma’s astute attention to detail, her single-minded focus when working on a project, and her unwillingness to pay for something she knew she could do better herself with hard work and a bit of elbow grease. Either through her genes or her influence, she shared these traits with me, much to my luck.
In addition to being deeply practical, Grandma was deeply empathetic. It was the way she mixed these two characteristics that had, perhaps, the greatest influence on me.
I didn’t think of Grandma as an emotional person in the sense that she wasn’t the kind of person whose lap I’d climb into for snuggling. I remember noting that at Grandpa’s funeral 20 years ago, when the rest of us had devolved into tears, Grandma sat dry eyed, then bustled home and cooked a meal for all the attendees, because that’s how she knew to honor someone; that’s how she knew to comfort the rest of us.
She felt deeply the pain of others—sometimes on a nearly frantic level—and her aid for them came not in emotional ways but in practical ones, often through food or in items she could sew to make them more comfortable.
She had a particular heart for women and children, for the poor and the sick. She knew how hard parenting was. She knew how devastating it was to lose a baby. She knew what it meant to struggle financially. She could sympathize in these ways.
But perhaps even more impressively, Grandma could empathize. She didn’t have to have a spouse walk out on her to imagine how difficult life would be raising kids without a partner. She didn’t have to have a child gunned down to imagine the pain and trauma experienced by the families of Sandy Hook. In a world that feels increasingly and disturbingly devoid of empathy, Grandma had this skill in droves.
You could find her in the kitchen testing recipes, which, once perfected, she would copy onto notecards and pass out to family and friends. She was a newshound, forever cutting out and sending New York Times articles to interested parties. She sewed indestructible oven mitts to protect us from burns and—famous in our family lore—neon orange fleece hoods to protect us from hypothermia should our cars break down on a winter day in Minnesota. She prayed for her family and for strangers throughout daily life and disaster. She identified, collected, or made all the crucial baby items we needed to make the tough transition to parenthood that much smoother.
Grandma devoted her life to the thankless task of caring for others in the ways she knew how. You wouldn’t find her on the volunteer roster of a nonprofit. She didn’t have a college degree or a lengthy professional resume. But she was relentless in her own methods of caring.
Grandma showed me that two of the most important things we can do in this life are to empathize with other people—to feel their pain as our own whether we’ve shared their experiences or not—and to use our own unique gifts to try to make their lives a little better.
During the hurricane, we had pulled a mattress into the living room, so the girls could sleep on the first floor in case a tree fell on the roof. The wind and rain had been so loud the night after Grandma died that we slept fitfully. At one point Nora woke up, scared because she thought it sounded like there was someone walking on the roof.
The next morning, Cricket and Nora were snuggling on the mattress and from the kitchen I overhead Cricket say, “Nora, remember how you said you heard someone walking on the roof last night?” Well I think it was Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa coming down to say goodbye.”
Nora thought a moment and responded happily, “Yeah, me too.”
(Photo credits unknown. The last photo might be deceiving; Grandma went on to raise six children.)
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.
Yes, I wish my kids joy and happiness. But I also wish them the ability to empathize with their fellow human beings. I wish them the ability to recognize themselves as global citizens—an existence that comes with great responsibility to the Earth and each inhabitant and ecosystem alike, particularly the most vulnerable among us. I wish them the ability to think critically—to fully understand the concept and process of evidence-based reasoning and demand evidence over ignorance at every level they encounter.
But wishing is not enough. Instilling these skills and values will take work.
We began homeschooling in August, so my kids’ formal academic instruction sits squarely on my shoulders. Two months in, I started to evaluate how we were spending our time, what was working, what was not. Yes, we were learning to add and read and write in complete sentences—all those necessary stepping stones for academic success. But nothing in our curriculum was edging us toward understanding global citizenship in a meaningful way.
So I scrapped some of our curriculum and began to design an “Around the World” unit study, which will take us to a new region each month or two (roughly, but not exactly by continent). Through mostly “living books,” as Charlotte Mason would call them (interesting literature instead of textbooks), we’ll use each region as a framework to study geography, biology, geology, culture, language and history.
When I was in school, history and geography studies were usually framed around the same thing: how, when and why men fought men over land and power, and who was victorious. There is plenty of time later to learn all of that. But doesn’t a child deserve to view the world with awe? (I realize that while all children deserve to view the world with awe, many do not have the luxury. We are privileged to be able to offer this viewpoint at this time.) I would like to expose my kids, the older of whom are just 5 and 6, to fascinating aspects of the world and the goodness of so many of its people, despite humanity’s perpetual violence.
My goals are to find literature focusing on the following themes:
-People, especially women and children, whose sense of empathy for others led them to contribute in interesting and inspirational way to their communities, whether through small, thoughtful actions or in large-scale ways.
-The interconnectedness and remarkability of all life forms and our responsibilities as stewards of the Earth, particularly through the exploration of ecosystems and threats to their health, and ways conservationists and citizens can work to reduce these threats. (We do nature and STEM studies beyond the Around the World unit study, as well.)
-The celebration of cultures and languages in ways that promote respect for and admiration of diversity, not fear or negativity.
As I began to search for literature suggestions, I read a blog post by a woman who admitted that despite trying to teach her kids to celebrate diversity, she realized one day in horror when she looked at her bookshelves that their literature collection was anything but diverse. When I read her words, I felt a knot growing in my stomach. Our bookshelves are not nearly as diverse as they could or should be if we are serious about raising global citizens. We’ve got work to do.
Finding age-appropriate literature online can be tricky, since reading levels are not always well labeled. So the first thing I did was buy this reference book: “Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time,” by Jamie C. Martin. She divides her book suggestions by region and age level. The religiosity of her introduction made me worry her recommendation lists would focus on books with a Christian world view instead of incorporating a diversity of viewpoints, but I haven’t found that concern to be true so far. Most of the books below come from Martin’s suggestions.
I decided to start our unit study in Africa, partially because my heart has always been there, but also because Nora is obsessed with lions. I wanted to win her over fast on our new school approach. And I may have gotten a little excited about all the literature Martin suggests (plus more from digging around online) and ordered so many books that we may never reach another continent. (Lesson learned: pick a handful or two of books per region and then move on, or you won’t make it around the world in a year.) We started two weeks ago in East Africa and will work our way around the continent in five sub-units.
East Africa (Part 1: Kenya and Tanzania)
(I should note that not all authors and illustrators from this list are native to the countries or regions about which they write.)
You could go in so many directions with these books, and I have a full list of activities and assignments we won’t even get to this round. But here is a quick summary of how we approached our studies.
Geography: Identified the continent of Africa on a world map. Identified on a map the country or region where each story takes place and where each animal lives.
Language: Produced several creative writing assignments related to the literature and species/ecosystems studied. Compared and contrasted two books based on the life and work of the same woman. Read books with Swahili numbers and phrasing mixed in. (My goal isn’t for them to memorize every language we encounter along our journey, but to understand and respect the use of different languages—to hear or read a word in a different language and think, “I’d like to learn more about that language,” instead of, “Well that sounds funny!”)
Biological Sciences: Organized studies around “Savanna Food Chain.” Drew savanna food chain and energy pyramid. Studied plants or animals from each level of the energy pyramid, and drew pictures or wrote stories or reports to reinforce the knowledge. Wrote about the hunting techniques of a specific savanna predator. Learned about the great migration and why animals migrate (food!). Learned about endangered species of the savanna, poaching and environmental degradation. Will be visiting the zoo’s Africa exhibit next week.
Culture and Art: Tried hand at painting animals in a traditional style. Made Kenyan pancakes. Painted and drew numerous pictures of African wildlife. Read books set in rural villages.
Other: We were all were quite enthralled by the two stories about Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work that resulted in the planting (or replanting) of more than 30 million trees in Kenya. We will be planting a tree in Wangari’s memory in our front yard.
One night, Nora asked me to read the books about Wangari again and then said, “Mom, I want to do something to help EVERYONE in the world, like how Wangari helped Kenya. What can I do?” I knew in that moment we were on the right track. And I’ll be clinging to that moment as we move forward.
Whether you’re homeschooling or just want to increase the diversity of your children’s literature collection, I hope you’ll follow along as I post our book lists and activities throughout the year.
Learn about my intro photography curriculum
Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers
More Around the World Book Lists
East Africa (Part I)
East Africa (Part II) and Central Africa
North Africa (Egypt)
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On my long drive to school this morning, I spotted a bald eagle soaring overhead as I crossed Jordan Lake. My emotions were already running high, and somehow the sighting seemed so significant—I wasn't sure exactly how—that I started to cry. And then I cried for the remaining 20 minutes of the drive.
Today marked many lasts for us: the girls' last day of preschool for the year, Cricket's last day of preschool forever, and our last day at the preschool we've been attending for three years. (Nora will move to a school closer to our new house in the fall.) If the percentage of mothers sobbing while hugging their teachers goodbye is an indicator of quality of experience at a school, I'd say our school couldn't be better. We were batting 100% this afternoon.
It wasn't until hours later when I told a friend about the eagle that I understood its significance; the last bald eagle I had seen was flying over the lake as we drove across it was on the first day of school last fall. On that day, I was about 9 weeks pregnant with Piper and had no idea how I was going to manage to get the girls to school each day and walk them in without passing out or throwing up in front of everyone. (My pregnancies were all fun like that.) There were so many days when just standing up was a challenge, both from nausea and a lovely condition called pelvic girdle pain that sent shooting pain through unmentionable places every time I shifted positions for the last half of the pregnancy.
But I knew that if I could just get the girls to the doors of their classrooms, their amazing teachers would give them all the energy and attention and patience that I couldn't muster. And you know what? I got them there just about every day. And those teachers made the year incredible, magical even. The physical, emotional and intellectual growth we've watched in Cricket and Nora this year has astounded us. And even more importantly in preschool, those teachers loved our girls, and all their students, to bits.
To be honest, I just enrolled the girls at our school because it was close to our old house, one neighbor said she liked it and I had a good feeling when I visited. I had no idea that it would become our community, our people, over the next three years. Saying goodbye today was painful. But seeing that soaring eagle once again on this day of all days gave me the sense that the family we found over the years at our school was more than just luck; it feels a whole lot like fate.
In a few months, we'll move past these "lasts" to a slew of "firsts." First day of kindergarten. First day at a new preschool. And on and on. But boy have these last three years set us up for the adventures ahead. And boy have they been grand.
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. 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.