Saturday, November 8, 2014

I've Changed

Life is change. Everyone changes, even as adults. People gradually shift their attitudes on a wide variety of topics, often in response to changes in their experiences and circumstances. Usually these changes occur so slowly as to not be noticeable to those with whom the individuals interact regularly, or to the individuals themselves.

Yet, sometimes, people have experiences that change them more rapidly, or in ways that never would have been expected. Moving overseas is just such an experience. I feel much like the same person who first moved to Egypt six and a half years ago, but I’m not. Here are a few of the ways that living overseas has changed me:

I’m More Aware of Culture and Cultural Differences

Not too long ago, a friend here in Kosovo arranged for our family to visit a local Albanian family in their home. Throughout the evening, I plied my American friend with questions about appropriate behavior—is it insulting that we’re enjoying the outdoors rather than the “guest room?” Our hosts seem desperate for us to sit down; should we sit on the blanket they spread on the ground even if we’re more comfortable standing? Should I—and my husband—ask about the extended family, including wives, mothers, and sisters, or should we—he, in particular—not show interest in the female relatives? Is this one of those cultures where I’ll insult my hostess’s cooking if I don’t eat everything on my plate, or is it one in which eating all my food implies that they didn’t give me enough? Is it ok to provide milk for my daughter to drink, or should I allow her to drink the fizzy juice-ish soda? How do I signal that I’m done with the after-dinner tea, or would it be rude to signal such a thing in any way?

When I lived in the United States, in the culture of my birth, not a single one of those questions would have occurred to me. Culture is something that we absorb without noticing it, and we continue not to notice it unless something happens to draw it to our attention—usually an encounter with a culture that is different from our own.

I’m No Longer a Proponent of English-Only Business Practices

On Facebook, a friend posted an account of a personal experience in which she had to “press 1 for English” at an ATM, and she was offended that she had to choose English, rather than the machine’s software assuming she understood it. Before I lived overseas, I would have agreed with her frustration. I was a big proponent of the idea that foreigners in the United States should learn English, and that when we call various institutions, go to an ATM, or engage in other such scripted activities, the assumption should be that we speak English. Now, my initial reaction to complaints of that nature is sympathy—not for the inconvenienced English-speaker, but for the individual whose native language is not English, who needs to obtain information and instructions in a language he can understand, and whose ability to do so could be threatened by proponents of English-only business practices. My Facebook response conveys my opinion on this issue pretty well, I think:

And yet, when we were in Egypt, I really appreciated the "Press 2 for English" option. I'm inclined not to mind giving the same courtesies to non- or limited-English speakers in the United States that I've enjoyed as a limited-Arabic speaker in Egypt, a non-Khmer speaker in Cambodia, and a non-Albanian, non-Serbian speaker in Kosovo … It's much more efficient for everyone involved—incuding that native speaker in line behind the foreigner who's taking forever because he doesn't understand anything on the screen—to have the ability to choose the language right at the beginning. It takes 1 second of your time to push that button for English. As someone who has desperately needed that button before, I sympathize with those who need it in the U.S.

I Notice and Am Angered Annoyed By Unwarranted Exaggeration

I’ve lived in a country that was an effective dictatorship—I’m no fan of President Obama, but don’t tell me he’s a dictator. I’ve lived in countries where corruption is just the way things get done—certain parts of America have more corruption than others, but rule of law is the norm; don’t tell me that America runs on corruption. I’ve lived in countries where the poor have multiple generations living in one-room houses with dirt floors, no electricity, and no plumbing, and where allowing any one person to eat his fill means that another family member dies of starvation—don’t tell me that a person with a comfortable home, plenty of food, and cable TV is poor. I’ve lived in countries where the lucky children attend trade schools rather than so-called “academic” ones (that don’t actually teach anything), so that they can earn enough money to keep their younger siblings from starving while learning a skill that will enable them to make a decent (for their country) living as an adult—don’t tell me that these kids are slaves because they’re being paid less than you would accept for similar work. I’ve lived in a country where people may be killed for becoming Christians—don’t tell me you’re being persecuted when your employer wants you to work on Sunday or when the decorations at City Hall say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

My Foreign Policy Opinions Have Changed

When I lived in the United States, it was easy to decide what the official foreign policy of the United States of America should be: whatever was in our best interest, period, no further questions asked. It all seemed so clear cut. However, when I started paying attention, which for me was when I moved overseas, I began to see more shades of grey than black and white. I still believe that American interests should dictate American policies, but it isn’t always clear what those interests are or how best to advance them. Many fiscal conservatives—including me at times—reflexively oppose foreign aid, for example. However, I’ve learned that sometimes foreign aid is exactly what is needed to shift the attitudes of a population toward American interests, so that they are more likely to assist us in accomplishing our goals in the future. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem making foreign aid conditional on the policies of the assisted government, such that governments that oppose U. S. interests find themselves with less—or no—aid, but even there, the situation often calls for more subtlety than I once appreciated. I’ve realized that it’s easy for those of us with only headline-level information to think we know the best course of action, but once we get into the details, it isn’t so easy to make sense of the complexities and apparent paradoxes, and the best decision becomes less obvious.

I once had sympathy for American isolationists who wanted to let the rest of the world deal with their own problems. Now I recognize that the problems of the rest of the world often are our problems, though they may not be knocking on our doors just yet. (Think Ebola—what if we’d helped contain this outbreak when and where it started, rather than waiting until it came to the United States? It would have been a lot easier to deal with it then.)

I Have a Heightened Appreciation for the United States—Warts and All

Some of the above sections may make it sound like I have lost sympathy or understanding for my fellow Americans, or like I have lost my perception of the United States as an exceptional nation, or that I have lost the ability to recognize flaws that exist in my own country. None of those is the case. The good in America is there, and the bad in America is there, and living overseas, where I can see the good and the bad in other places, has given me the eyes to see both more clearly.

I have a much greater appreciation for those things that make our nation great. The United States was established on the freedom of the governed to choose their leaders, and despite the bellyaching of both political parties at various times in our history, that foundation is not and has not been in jeopardy. Our educational system puts to shame the educational systems of so many of the world’s nations. Our economy, even in the tough times, allows us to enjoy prosperity to a degree of which most of the world’s citizens can only dream. And despite the fact that our medical care is not provided for free as so many would prefer (I wouldn’t prefer, but that’s neither here nor there), the quality of the medical care available in American hospitals—even those with less than stellar reputations—is head and shoulders above the care available throughout most of the rest of the world.

As for America’s warts—I recognize those, too. I recognize that our culture is such that it makes childbearing and rearing more difficult than it needs to be; that community is lacking in most American cities, towns, and neighborhoods; that our prosperity has led to a materialism that cannot and should not be sustained; that the stereotype of the arrogant American exists for a very good and very regrettable reason—that too many Americans overseas expect the world to adapt to them, rather than recognizing their obligation to adapt to the world. There is corruption; there is political overreach; there are things that can and should be done better.

I know that when I go back home, when I visit my family, even when my friends and family see my Facebook posts or read this blog, they see that I have changed. I have become more complex in some of my attitudes, more simple in others. I have become more liberal in some ways, and more conservative in others. I’m pretty sure that not everyone likes all the changes—and frankly, I’m not always sure that I do, either. But overall, I have to say … I like who I’ve become in the last six years. I like that I’m willing to challenge ideas that I used to accept unthinkingly. I like that my default response to inflammatory headlines now is to dig deeper and try to find out what’s really happening. I like that I look for commonalities and try to understand individuals as individuals, no matter their nationality. Others may not need to leave the country of their births in order to experience these changes, but I did. And I’m glad I did.

Friday, July 11, 2014

In Search of a Science Curriculum

We have enjoyed Sonlight for Alexa’s preschool and early pre-kindergarten, but we have decided that this will be our last year using Sonlight. There are several reasons for that decision, and I won’t get into them right now. I only mention it because if we were sticking with Sonlight, I would not now be in the process of researching and choosing curriculum for Alexa’s kindergarten year. (Yes, I know that won’t begin until fall 2015, over a year from now. However, next year will be fully occupied with our move. I need to be prepared with research before we arrive in the United States for home leave, during which time I hope to attend a homeschool convention and visit several libraries and bookstores, armed with the research that I’m beginning now so that I have an idea of what I want to see in person before I buy.)

Within the last week, after way too much research, a good bit of discussion, and some serious stress on my part, we chose a science curriculum. In this post, I’m going to review what we were looking for, describe the most appealing* options we considered, and finally, tell you what we chose. If you’re not interested in homeschooling or in science curriculum, you may not wish to read further.

In a perfect world, I would find the perfect science curriculum. (Spoiler: This is not a perfect world!) The curriculum would meet all of the following criteria:

  • Inexpensive
  • Involves a combination of textbooks, more interesting science-related books, and hands-on activities (demonstrations or experiments, nature walks, lap- or notebooking, and possibly workbooks). 
  • Complete and ready to go—all lesson plans, supplies, and books would arrive at my door neatly packaged in one big box.
  • Evolution and Old Earth assumptions would be taught explicitly, but ideally while recognizing that God set it all in motion or at the very least while refraining from disparaging religion. Bonus points for objectively presenting evidence for and against Old Earth and Young Earth viewpoints, as well as evolution, theistic evolution, and literal 7-day creationism. At the very least, the curriculum must not set up the false choice of “you can be a Christian or you can be a scientist, but you can’t be both.”
  • My preference: Rather than jumping around as most elementary “general science” courses do, the course would pick one area of science and cover it well. I would prefer a cycle of one year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • Jeff’s preference, which I did not know until pretty late in my research: Rather than sticking with one topic for a full year, the curriculum would cover a variety of topics.

Do you notice all the contradictions? Inexpensive, yet including lots of moving parts and little to no planning on my part. Secular, yet religious or at least not hostile to religion. Covering one area in depth, yet covering all areas of science. That isn’t too much to ask, is it? (Spoiler alert: Turns out, it kind of is.)


Science in the … Series by Jay Wiles

  • First book: $39 from Berean Builders, with the option to buy a supply kit ($85) and a lapbook template ($18) from other vendors
  • Designed for grades K-6, with multiple ages able to use each book simultaneously
  • Presents science within a historical framework, with the first book an overview organized around the days of Creation, and following books focused on specific time frames. (Subsequent books cover the ancient world, the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century, and the 19th century).

I love the idea of this series. Each lesson is centered around a demonstration or experiment. The historical focus shows students that science is a process and demonstrates how scientific knowledge is built gradually over time, so even though it jumps from topic to topic, the organization should make sense.

However, there is one major problem with this curriculum: The author is an avowed Young Earth Creationist. He seems to be well respected by homeschoolers on both sides of this great divide, but even so, he does have a bias, and we believe it’s in the wrong direction. Reasons to Believe concludes in their review that this curriculum is not hostile to Old Earth theories, but neither is it compatible with them. If we believed in a young Earth, I would take a very close look at this curriculum—I took a pretty close look at it anyway!—but as it is, we had to move on.

Elemental Science (Classic Series) by Paige Hudson 

  • Preschool series (including kindergarten): two options, each $15 ebook or $27 print, with optional experiment kits ($38 or $42) from Elemental Science. Supporting books must be purchased separately from other sources, but there are not many and they are not expensive.
  • Traditional curriculum is available for preschool through grade 8, as well as online high school courses.
  • Each unit involves a demonstration or activity, text, narration, sketching, notebooking, and nature walks.
  • Preschool courses include a mix of topics; classic series follows with a year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • The author is a Christian, but she uses materials that approach science from a secular view.

 I fell in love with this curriculum when I looked at the sample lessons available on the website. I’m not sure how rigorous it would be, but I am sure that Alexa and I would enjoy doing it, and at her age, it’s at least as important to inspire a love of science as it is to cram her head full of scientific facts and theories. This curriculum checks all of my boxes, and I was all set to use it … until Jeff surprised me with the revelation that he didn’t want each year to focus on a different subject. So I abandoned my obsession with Elemental Science and took a closer look at another option, one that I’d looked at superficially but not in depth because I was too caught up in this one to give it a chance.

  • Series of 3 books ($25-$35 each, or $10 each for Kindle), each of which provides lesson plans for 3 years (K-2, 3-5, and 6-8). Lab or other supplemental materials must be acquired elsewhere.
  • The curriculum weaves together four “threads”—Nature of Matter (Chemistry), Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science—with the goal of helping students understand how science as a whole is interrelated.
  • Involves demonstrations and experiments, lapbooking for younger students, and notebooking for older students. Also includes a list of optional books for supplemental reading.
  • Completely secular.

When I first looked at this curriculum, I rejected it out of hand. There are very few things to make me run away from a curriculum as quickly as seeing on almost every review some variation of the statement, “This is no open-and-go curriculum. It requires a LOT of preparation from the teacher!” Consider that “complete and ready to go” box of mine not only not checked but turning red, flashing, and wailing an alarm!

However, I also saw that this curriculum has several users with extensive scientific training themselves, and they love these books. Their reviews say that it inspires students to think scientifically, not merely to memorize facts (though it requires that as well); that it presents high level concepts in ways that their young children understand and remember; and that they and their children love doing science with this curriculum. Frankly, I realized from my first look that this curriculum probably is the most comprehensive one available; I just didn’t care because I went into a mild panic at the very thought of using it.

Jeff, on the other hand, had no such reservations. He likes to say that all of science comes back to physics, and this curriculum may well agree. He recognized that this option would be more difficult for me, and he said we could use something else. I knew, though, that we wouldn’t agree on anything else—nothing else will provide the depth I want, the variety Jeff wants, the interconnectedness we both prefer, and Old Earth perspective we require. This one is the best choice for us. So I joined the Yahoo support group moderated by Dr. Nebel himself, asked a question or two on my homeschool forum, and ordered the first book.

I know it’s crazy early to be buying curriculum for fall 2015, but hey … that wailing siren in my head won’t be quiet until I’ve made at least a preliminary implementation plan, which I can’t do until I have the book. I need some mental peace and quiet, so I need that book, crazy early or not. In the meantime, if you notice me mumbling about threads and lesson order and supplemental reading and where I can buy magnet sets or microscopes, please just roll your eyes and look away. I’ll be ok, I promise.

*The less appealing options we considered included the following:

  •  NOEO Science—similar to Elemental Science, but it didn’t have a year for Earth and Space Science, and it didn’t have anything for kindergarten. If I hadn’t seen Elemental Science first, I would have considered NOEO more strongly.
  • Nancy Larson Science—a crazy expensive, all-inclusive program for grades K-4. Reviewers either love it or hate it. I suspect I would hate it, as I only got halfway through my perusal of the sample lesson before I had to stop. The extreme scriptedness of the lessons was annoying, but I could handle it. What I could not handle was the insultingly condescending tone of the script.
  • Real Science 4 Kids—a unit study approach, which would have gotten very expensive by requiring the purchase of 2-3 units per year. Reviews also lamented that it did not require much critical thinking, only fact memorization.
  • Christian Schools International—one of the few explicitly Christian options that teaches from an Old Earth viewpoint. Reasons to Believe has very positive things to say about its integration of faith and science, but it lacks depth and rigor and requires supplementation.
  • Houghton Mifflin Science Homeschool—reasonably priced secular option. Nothing stellar or horrible about it, other than that most of the best things about it are online, and I don’t want to have a problem doing a science lesson because the internet went out, or be required to complete the curriculum in one year or lose access to vital online content, or have problems using it because reviews said that it’s ridiculously difficult to set up the online access.
  • R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey—reasonably priced, secular program that objectively checks most of my boxes … I just wasn’t drawn to it and could not force myself to feel strongly one way or the other about it. I found part of the sample lesson annoyingly cutesy, but otherwise have no idea why it didn’t make my top picks list. I’m sure it’s great for some families, just not for ours.
  • Behold and See Science by Catholic Heritage Curricula—inexpensive, Christian worktext program that is not hostile to Old Earth or theistic evolution. However, it reportedly is light on content.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Letters to My Daughter: Four

Dear sweet Alexa,

Today is a special day. Four years ago today, you entered this world. You arrived four weeks early, so small, and already cautious. You were born face forward, watching where you were going, and once you could see the world awaiting you, you paused for a while to scope it out. From the day we brought you home, you wanted to be held securely at all times. If you fell asleep in our arms and we tried to put you down, you woke up crying. Eventually your father and I clued in to the fact that the best place for you to sleep was nestled securely between us, where you felt safe and loved.

Security—safety—seems to be more important to you than it is to many other children. You’re cautious. You watch other children and get to know them through their interactions with others long before you decide to reveal your own personality to them. You don’t like to get too far from Mama and Daddy; especially in unfamiliar situations, you prefer to stay close to us. Sometimes I worry that your need to feel secure is so strong that it prevents you from enjoying life, from taking those risks that make life fun and exciting.

But over the last year, you’ve grown. You’ve developed a fondness for exploring: first in the safety of our basement, and then in a local park, where you surprised me with your willingness to wander far from me. You’ve made a couple of friends and seem to realize that people other than Mama and Daddy can be trustworthy, too.

Every day, you look more like a little girl and less like the baby we welcomed four years ago. Every day, you speak more clearly, with longer and more complex sentences, so that we rarely have to interpret your words for others anymore. Every day, you seem to understand more and more about the world around you.

And your personality is growing in leaps and bounds. You’ve shown a generous spirit—you were so upset when I carelessly mentioned that some children didn’t have toys; you cried and immediately started picking out toys to give to this toyless child whom you’d never met because “a child should have a hundred toys,” as you tearfully proclaimed. Your desire to help is powerful, as is your delight when you’re able to do so.  Your curiosity about the world is matched only by the strength of your developing will … a will that I pray that you and I together will learn to control and to guide into constructive purposes.

I will not pretend that it always is easy to parent you, Alexa. That strong will of yours can make it challenging. But I would have it no other way. The same determination and resolve—dare I say stubbornness?—that gets you sent into time out so frequently now will help you to stand firm later, when you’re standing up for what’s right.

I see glimpses of your future in your current struggles and in your current triumphs. It’s a good future. You are growing into your name, Alexa Ruth, Defender Friend. You are strong willed enough, and growing brave enough, to stand up for what is right. You are sensitive and generous, and when you decide to let people in, to let people see you and know you, you will be a good friend.

You’re still growing, still developing. You’re still a little girl—and I love the little girl that you are—but you are growing into a big girl, and I love the glimpses of that big girl, too. I am so grateful to God for having given me these last four years with you. I am so excited to see what happens in you, how you grow and develop, who you become, in these coming years.

Happy birthday, my sweet Lexa. Your daddy and I love you.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Albania: We Did It!

When I was a background investigator, my main job requirement was to gather information. Subject and source interviews, of course, were key components of my investigations. Unlike records checks, however, the people whom I interviewed did not have a standard, unchanging presentation of information—the information that they provided would vary with a multitude of factors: their mood that day, their goals for the interview, their sense of comfort and rapport with the investigator. I quickly learned to evaluate my source and change my self-presentation in order to increase the likelihood of the source feeling comfortable and unguarded with me. For example, when I interviewed a formerly successful businessman about his financial difficulties or a proud man about his moral failures, my best option was to be professional and detached, so there was no hint of judgment or pity; these men were not speaking with a woman, only with an unfeeling government drone little different from a computer or the forms on which they originally had disclosed their problems. Others in similar situations telegraphed that they felt more comfortable opening up to a sympathetic witness, so that is exactly what they got from me. When I interviewed a young soldier about his record of misbehavior while under the influence of alcohol, I smiled and laughed at his antics along with him, all the while discreetly taking copious notes and encouraging him to tell me more. When I left these interviews, I reverted to neutral—to myself, unchanged from my brief metamorphosis into whomever I needed to be for that interview.

One of my investigations involved a young man, a first generation American; his parents had immigrated to the United States from Albania. He was highly involved in an Albanian cultural center, and many of my source interviews were of others who were passionate about Albania, Albanian culture, and the welfare of the Albanian people. The day I interviewed the leader of the cultural center, I came into the room cautiously, ready to figure out whom I needed to be for this interview, but expecting that I would need to show some interest in Albania in order to help this man feel comfortable with me. I had extra time in my schedule that day, so I assumed that my best course of action would be to allow him to extol the virtues of Albania for several minutes before guiding the conversation to the subject of the interview. I was right in that assumption, but I was wrong in my assumption that I would be able to speak with this man about Albania and leave the room caring as little about it as I had when I walked in. He was so eloquent and descriptive in his praise of his beloved homeland—he made it sound like a fairytale land full of friendly people, stunning natural beauty, and rich historical sites that simply begged to be explored. I did eventually work the conversation around to my subject and got the information I needed, but I left that room with more than just information about my subject: I left it with a burning desire to visit Albania.

That night, I asked Jeff what the possibility was of us being able to travel to Albania one day. “Slim to none.” I sighed and set about my business of doing interviews, putting Albania out of my mind.

Yesterday, we visited Albania.

Part of the castle from which Skanderbeg defended Albania from the Ottomans
It was a simple day trip. A 3-hour drive from Prishtina to Kruje. A drive on a good highway through the stunning beauty of the mountains separating Kosovo and Albania. A short drive on a well-maintained highway through the plains, skirting the mountain range that rose majestically just a few miles away. A steep and winding drive on a narrow road from the plains high into the mountains. A walk along a rough cobblestone street lined with souvenir shops and continuing up a steep, slippery path to an ancient fortress. Lunch in the most picturesque of locations—under a canopy, with a view of the mountainside dropping away into plains, and the sweetest outdoor playground I’ve ever seen nestled safely in the courtyard of an ancient stone building that has been converted into a restaurant. Then a walk around a surprisingly small ancient fortress situated atop the hill, with stunning views in every direction. A short tour of a beautiful museum featuring a gorgeous terrace. A slow walk back down to the car, stopping in multiple shops and picking up some new treasures … and some ice cream. A drive back down the mountain—with some exploration of a few narrow, steep, dirt “roads” before we decided to ignore the GPS until we made our own way back to the main road down. Then a three hour drive back to Prishtina, where we capped off the day with an indulgent meal at the best Albanian restaurant we’ve ever visited: Tiffany’s, in case you’re ever in the area and want to taste Albanian food at its finest.

A depiction of Skanderbeg and his army

And the refrain running through my mind now, as I reflect on a day that seemed so unlikely all those years ago when I first asked Jeff if we could visit Albania one day? Well, my daughter is watching Dora the Explorer right now, and her song seems to fit the situation: “We did it!”

Our new treasures: a Kosovar woman and an Illyrian soldier