A Brave Writer’s Life in Brief

Thoughts from my jungle to yours

Of trophies, ribbons, and medals

Melting into the Stacks Image by kejoli

A popular meme in parent-discussion groups is to trumpet the valuelessness of trophies, ribbons, and medals for participation in sports or the arts. The idea goes that if everyone gets one, no one earns one.

The thought is that kids need to learn that reward comes from achievement, that losses have a real impact on the outcome of a season or effort, and that the reception of a physical symbol for beating other teams (or perhaps, successfully performing to a higher standard that other performers) is meaningful/important, not rote, not cheapened by “everyone gets one.”

Old school parents trot out their memories of coaches who yelled; and practices that beat up their egos; and trophies they finally won; how worth it, it all was; and how they grew impeccable character by only being rewarded for winning.

Winning proved that all that hard work and pain was worth it! The trophy told a story: these kids were better than everyone else. Their work was more impressive at the end. Beating people and having proof in the form of a trophy produced pride: this group of boys or girls could know that they stacked up as superior people, at least in this sport.

Not so fast, schweetheart.

Spare me the lectures about how soft this generation is becoming. We need to ask the obvious question: Is winning the goal of childhood activities? Should it be?

When I was 10 years old, I joined a swim team at our tennis club. Let’s pause to appreciate that I was in a family who could afford swim team and a tennis club membership. Unlike the typical 10 year old, I was small. As in tiny. My last name was “Sweeney” and I was called “Teeny Sweeney.” The girls on this team ranged from ordinary girl to hefty. And then me.

Needless to say, in four years of competing, I never won a single race. Not one. I never even placed, unless you count “7th” or “last.” My times improved! I beat my own times repeatedly because I went to every practice and I tried hard. I had no ability to beat girls six inches taller than me, however.

I finally quit the team in 8th grade. At my last meet, I won my heat in breast stroke (first time ever)! I would get the chance to swim for a ribbon! Oh wait—the loud speaker crackled to clarity—”Julie Sweeney is disqualified for improper strokes.” My feet had come to the surface too many times. Of course. I couldn’t have beat the other girls without that advantage. I slunk away from the blocks.

The last race of my illustrious career found me swimming the third leg of a relay race. If you know swimming, that is the slowest leg. Naturally, going into the 3rd length of the pool, my team was in first place. Coming out of it, we were in 4th—thanks to my tiny body and short legs. The last swimmer had to make up for my lost time, and did, but we finished 3rd—my one and only swimming ribbon to show for four years of swim team commitment.

I remember the drive home. I felt defeated. I wondered why I had bothered to swim at all. Sure, I had loved getting into a pool in the rain, sweating in the sauna, giggling with my buddies, licking dry green jello out of the palms of my hands for energy before races, huddling under towels shivering and dripping wet cheering for each other. But what was the point? I was a terrible swimmer because—biology! I couldn’t control that. I had failed.

Everything I controlled, I did well—showing up on time, wearing the right gear, trying really hard, applying the coach’s advice, improving my speed and form, being a good teammate, taking criticism. “Nothing to show for it”—that’s how it felt.

Of course, there was a lot to show for swimming. It was good for my health and my self-discipline. It was good to be on a team where I wasn’t a star. When I was in gymnastics, I was the girl who got the good scores. In swimming, I learned humility, and what it was like to work hard even when I wasn’t talented, or a part of the “best team.” I learned to appreciate endurance sports. I became a competent swimmer—in pools, in the ocean. No small thing growing up in southern California.

I spent many happy hours in the pool, with friends, working hard, learning about my body and what it could be pressed to do beyond its natural aptitudes.

Would a pizza party and a little trophy at the end of my seasons have robbed me of those lessons? Would it have undermined how I understood achievement and accomplishment, and led me to a life of mediocrity?

Would a participation trophy have meant “nothing”?

I’d like to suggest the opposite! I might have been able to interpret my years on that team in a different light—in the light of commitment, hard work, and shared joy at my teammates’ successes and struggles. I wish someone had said, “Great having you on the team. Thanks for participating!”

Children and teens should be encouraged to participate in all kinds of sports and activities, regardless of their natural acumen and aptitude. Why should piano only be for the prodigy? Why should baseball only be played by kids with great hand-eye coordination? What good is it to reduce all the effort and learning of playing sports to success on the field or in the pool or on the balance beam?

Why should any sports team for kids be about winning, frankly?!

Winning is a happy end result when several factors are in place:

1. Parents have money to spend on the sport. In some sports, the investment is significant!

2. Parents have time to coach, and know how to do it well.

3. The team winds up with a surprising collection of naturally gifted athletes.

4. The team “gels” and they get on a win streak.

That only happens for one team per league. Literally.

Winning can’t Be Everything. For kids, it should barely BE a thing!

Our children are growing—they are discovering how their bodies work, how to play hard, how to show up when they are cranky and hungry, how to take direction and practice skills, and how to adjust to new locations, other teams, and weather. 99% of our kids will not go on with any sport in college.

If we reduce a team’s season’s success to whether or not they got more wins than all the other teams, we are saying that all that effort that went into the sport is not valued. We are forgetting to honor and recognize the achievements that will build self esteem (the real kind of self esteem that comes from team play and hard work, not the kind that comes only from being the ones who “trounced” the other teams).

It’s fine to give an “extra trophy” for winning—go ahead and make it good sized. It’s equally (perhaps more) important to also honor the season’s effort and commitment by the “losers.” Trophies and pizza seem to be doing a good job, in my opinion.

Real life says that there is room for Coke and Pepsi. Heck, there’s room for homemade sweet tea at the local diner, in addition to the big brand names. Not everything any of us does depends on a “will to win” or even “being the best.” Sometimes being “not the best” is the best choice!

In fact, being a team player who loses graciously would be a fabulous outcome of a season. We could use more adults like that.

As home educators, we give our children the gift of valuing their growth, efforts, and curiosity every day—without grades, without measurements that tell them how they stack up with other kids. We do this because we’ve come to believe that their success as people doesn’t depend on being better than others, but being the best people they can be, given their limits and talents.

Their milestones are worth celebrating. Their efforts deserve rewards and respect. Their achievements are respectable whether or not they are at the top of their field, class, grade level, or age. Why? Because their achievements are theirs.

If we teach kids to value their efforts and show them all that they learn when they participate with commitment and energy, besides “winning,” we help them become people who build their self-understanding from the inside-out (rather than outside-in). They will not be dependent on others to tell them who they are. They will have a right, sober, honest perspective of themselves that they’ve built from the myriad experiences they chose to explore that comes from self-awareness, not a Championship Trophy.

That self-understanding is worth an Extra Large Pepperoni and a little gold statue in my book. At least that.

Cross-posted on facebook

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First poem!

Hogwarts Poem_NataliePoetry Teatimes can lead to wonderful, unexpected results!

The following features the acrostic poem (when a word is spelled vertically then words or phrases that start with the same letters are added) of Brave Writer student, Natalie, who is a huge Harry Potter fan!

Hi Julie,

Our second tea time evolved into a poetry freewrite! We had watched a short BrainPop Jr. Video on poetry and this format obviously struck a chord with Natalie.

She proudly read it to me:


Howls echo from Lupin
Owls are coming
Grawp’s learning English
Waves coming from mermen
Amazing spells working
Ron’s daddy dies
Tests are done
Spells perfect.

Funny, just noticed she ended it with a single period. So glad she isn’t intimidated by writing a poem.

You’ve let me know more than anyone else that I’m doing the right thing. I’ve been reading through years of your blog entries and listening to your podcasts – your journey is filling me with the confidence I needed to keep us on our unknown path. I can’t wait to share more with you!


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Tuesday Teatime: The Aftermath

Tuesday Teatime Elke

Hi Julie,

I have decided to send you a picture of the ‘aftermath’ of tea time Tuesday! We were in the midst of kitchen tiling and threw together an impromptu tea time, complete with a crepe flower centrepiece compliments of my 7 year old daughter. The tea was bubblegum kids fruit tea, the cookies – oatmeal raisin, the napkins – Bounty, the poetry – Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more including my poetry journal from when I was a teenager. After the hot tea and warm cookies were enjoyed, pencils could be heard scratching away composing original poetry from everyone including my 13 year old son and also my husband. It was definitely our most ‘dressed down’ tea time Tuesday but a much needed and enjoyed break in a busy day!

Blessings on your day,

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Want to start your own Poetry Teatime? Here’s how.

Would you like your family featured on Tuesday Teatime? Email us your teatime photos with a few lines about your experience (put “Teatime” in the subject line)! If we select your photo to post then you’ll receive a free Arrow or Boomerang of your choice! Note: all submissions fall under Creative Commons licensing.

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Day-long Brave Writer Writing Workshop!


NEW! Day-long Writing Workshop – July 10, 2014

Golden Colorado (near Denver)

Registration fee: $49.95 per person (one spouse or live-in partner may attend with you for free)

Schedule: Saturday, 9:00 – 4:00 (Lunch one hour from 12:00 – 1:00)

You will supply your own lunch, but we will supply water and snacks for the breaks. If you want to start next year right, and live around or near Denver, please join us!

This workshop will go through the nuts and bolts of writing from pre-writing to freewriting to revision and the role of a rich language arts lifestyle. We’ll cover all ages, but especially 5-14 years of age. We will not cover academic high school writing. More info here.

Sign up today!

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You are not a teacher

Melting into the Stacks Image by Laura D’Alessandro

As a career goal, wanting to be a “teacher” is not one I would choose. I might choose to teach (for instance, I love teaching theology at Xavier University, I love teaching writing to my students at Brave Writer, and I loved teaching acting to the homeschool co-op students). But without a specific subject area, teaching in and of itself doesn’t interest me. Being a “teacher” is less interesting to me than participating in the learning process in subjects I care about.

We grew up in schools, most of us. We are aware of adults who choose teaching as careers. Some choose to teach because they love children. Some choose to teach because they love lesson-planning and creating a classroom environment. Many choose to teach because once proficient in their favorite subject, they enjoy passing that information on to the next generation. Of course there are those who choose to teach because they’ve seen teaching modeled as an adult career for 12+ years of their lives, and they can envision themselves in that role in a way they can’t imagine themselves into any other adult field.

In homeschool, we are in an entirely different environment from school. “Teaching” in its school sense is counterproductive to your goals.

You won’t likely stand in front of a dry erase board, poised to lecture your four kids. You don’t consult a set of criteria delivered to you by the board of education and figure out how to squeeze that into your year.

What you can do and do almost effortlessly, though, is model learning. Your enjoyment of the books you read aloud, your passion to track down information about a historical fact, your curiosity about nature and art create an appetite for learning in your home. This lifestyle of learning starts with you, a learner—not you, the teacher. You don’t teach kids to value learning. You learn. You value it. You live it.

I like to say that we should live our passionate curiosities in front of our kids. If reading about Charlotte Mason’s advocacy for art appreciation has piqued your interest in art, dive in. No lesson plan. No script for exciting children about art. Simply get interested in art. Buy the books with large photos of paintings and pore over them while you sip your morning coffee. Leave them on the coffee table and page through them while you nurse the baby. Load the DVD player with Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting and watch the DVDs—right in the middle of the morning, when “school” should be happening.

Get out the charcoal pencils and try your hand at drawing your hand. You can do this while a child is working on math. At the same table.

Likewise, if reading a book about the Sioux tribe to your children sends you on a wild goose chase for more information about what happened to Native Americans in South Dakota, Google it. Read the information to yourself, for yourself. You can share it, if a child is interested. But you be interested. Live it for yourself.

Sometimes what matters to your child will overlap with what matters to you. Reveal how connections (the science of relations) creates a tapestry of education. Perhaps the artwork you are looking at depicts an era in history that is a current fascination of your son’s. Show the paintings as snapshots in time of the very era being studied in text. Discuss. Perhaps several different painters (in different eras) depict the Greek myths according to the tastes of their time. If you and your children are enjoying reading the myths, these paintings could be a wonderful companion to that study. Compare. Consider.

You might be passionate about much more mundane subjects, too. I spent about a decade obsessed with the rock band, U2. I read daily articles, books, watched films, went to concerts, listened to their albums. My kids watched me develop a passion that led to so much in my life (from music to politics to theology to geography to published writing—mine about the band!).

What sets homeschooling apart is the ability to lead a life of learning with your children (not in addition to, not instead of, not on purpose to “teach” something). You get to pursue what interests you, and in the process your children will see a real living model of learning. THAT education is worth dozens of textbooks. You are giving your children a template for how to be self-teaching, how to cultivate a curiosity, how to pursue a passion.

That’s the real education. That’s the best kind of teaching.

Cross-posted on facebook. Shared on Hip Homeschool Moms.

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Friday Freewrite: Pranks


Monday was April Fool’s Day. Is it okay to bend the truth when playing a prank? Explain your answer.

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New to freewriting? Check out our online guide.

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A lot depends on you


This is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that you set the tone, make the choices, create the energy, and foster an environment of peace and learning.

The bad news is that it is up to you to set the tone, make the choices, create the energy, and foster an environment of peace and learning.

Sometimes we all wish we had a little less power and responsibility, right? Sometimes it’s a lot to carry, and we don’t realize it until our shoulders are slumped and we miss scheduled appointments or forget important deadlines.

If this is you—if the work you do to ensure peace and well-being at home is sapping your vibrancy and optimism—I want to be a voice today that says: “I see that. I appreciate you.”

Thanks for getting up in the middle of the night—again—with the baby and bed-wetter.

Thank you for holding back your tired, angry voice.

Thank you for hunkering down with a curriculum you don’t like but can’t afford to replace right now.

Thank you for making magic with vegetables and healthy snacks for reluctant-to-try-anything-new kids.

Thank you for overlooking the insensitive jab from your trusted partner because s/he is stressed and being a blockhead.

Thank you for examining your motives.

Thanks for exercising and/or eating right and/or taking your meds and/or trying hard to be healthy when it’s easier to give up.

Thanks for excusing childishness.

Thank you for celebrating childishness.

Thank you for being childlike with your children!

Thank you for being the chief source of comfort to your teen who sometimes doesn’t even like you.

Thanks for calling that friend, or your mother, or the sibling that wears you out because they needed you today.

Thank you for keeping house as best you can, in spite of the never-ending assault on your house by all the people who love you but love your house less.

Thank you for washing an unending parade of dishes, for laundering every last pair of socks, for cleaning behind the couches once a year, for hanging pretty things to look at on the walls.

Thank you for research, and appointments scheduled, and payments made on time, and performances attended with camera and heart in hand.

Thank you for not falling apart.

Thank you for holding it together long after you thought you couldn’t.

The work you do is invisible to many but well known to all of us who lead the same life you do. Well done!

Life morphs and changes; demands emerge and fade. Pay attention to your life; make choices that ensure the peace and well being of your loved ones.

That responsibility does fall to you, and we can be grateful that it does. With power, comes responsibility. Keep using it wisely.

As I like to say: “Keep going.”

Cross-posted on facebook.

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2014 Children’s Poetry Celebration & Contest PLUS Cinquain Poems!!

Poetry_CelebrationApril is National Poetry Month! In celebration we’ll be sharing about CINQUAIN POEMS today, but first we want to tell you about the awesome drawing and poetry contest created by Preschool Powol Packets!

During April, co-hosting blogs (like ours!) will post about poetry. Comment on these posts to be entered in a DRAWING for a POETRY PRIZE. An additional entry is available for following host blogs on Facebook (for instance, if you follow Brave Writer, comment here so the entry can be counted).

Kids Poetry Contest!

There’s also a cool Poetry Contest for kids! Children can enter one or two original poems (30 lines or shorter) in one of the following age categories: 4-6, 7-9, 10-12. Entries will be accepted any time during the month of April via a form at Preschool Powol Packets. Poems will be judged on creativity, originality, style, and language. Judging may be subjective and all decisions are final. This year’s contest will be judged by the lovely Becky at This Reading Mama. More info at Preschool Powol Packets.


The following comes from a Playing With Poetry online class
taught by our very own Susanne Barrett.

A Cinquain is a five-lined poem (hence the name!) and is a favorite poetic form for many kids because, as one of our students pointed out, “they are easy and fun to write and they don’t require a whole lot of words!” They also reinforce some basic grammatical parts of speech.

Format for Writing a Cinquain:

Line 1: One word (a noun, the subject of the poem)
Line 2: Two words (adjectives that describe the subject in line 1)
Line 3: Three words (-ing action verbs–participles–that relate to the subject in line 1)
Line 4: Four words (a phrase or sentence that relates feelings about the subject in line 1)
Line 5: One word (a synonym for the subject in line 1 or a word that sums it up)

Alternative Line 5 for older poets: Five words (a phrase or sentence that further relates feelings about the subject in line 1)

Sometimes each line is centered to create a diamond or tree-like shape.

Here’s a Cinquain off the top of my head:

Clever, crafty
Writing, composing, describing
Best words, best order

For older and/or more practiced students, the precise syllables for the cinquain should be observed, following the directions above for relating to the subject of the poem in the first line:

Line 1: two syllables
Line 2: four syllables
Line 3: six syllables
Line 4: eight syllables
Line 5: two syllables (alternative line: ten syllables)

Students may capitalize all the words, none of the words, the first words of each line, or just certain words. And each poem may be capitalized differently, depending on its subject matter, diction (word choice), etc. Just see which way feels the best to you for each poem. Also, slight variations of syllables are okay.

Here’s another Cinquain poem by Dawn Slanker:

Loyal, Brave
Loving, Playing, Guarding
Best friend of man

If your kids write a Cinquain poem, they can submit it to the 2014 Children’s Poetry Celebration & Contest.

The Sponsors

Prize details are at Preschool Powol Packets (Psst! Brave Writer has donated our Arrow Poetry Guide).
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Take a risk

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-woman-spring-board-public-swimming-pool-diving-being-afraid-to-jump-image33431575A Brave Writer mom asked, “How do I fall in love with homeschooling again when life stresses, sibling rivalry, unmotivated kids make it so hard?”

Sometimes to get what you need or want, you have to take a risk to try something new and foreign that seems like a threat to the old way of living, being, valuing. If you can step back from your guilt at not loving homeschool as much as you used to and think about how you can create a peaceful home that gives you a break and helps your kids to thrive, you will be closer to a solution. It’s very difficult to “recapture” a love for homeschooling when you are in burn out or you are facing challenges that feel bigger than your resources.

You can rekindle it IF you’ve got a very supportive partner, you have the energy to rethink how you home educate (bring in a new direction philosophically or in terms of curricula), and you feel you can find a way to reinvigorate your OWN life with something new and energizing that is NOT homeschool at the same time.

For instance, for me, I tried unschooling after a long season of Charlotte Mason and I started Grad School. Both of these helped pull us out of ruts. At the same time, one of my kids decided to try high school. She went part time to the local public school.

This was a really helpful shift for us (all three) as it took some pressure off of me to teach everyone, it helped me to see learning through a new paradigm (unschooling) but it also helped me appreciate the value of good lesson preparation (ironically) due to grad school. That combination helped us find new ways to learn together that helped me be more enthusiastic about homeschooling again.

That said, if you are in a season where change in homeschool feels like a burden, not like a relief, then consider other options: co-ops, part time public school, full time school, tutorials… Get some of the burden of teaching everything off of you.

If your kids are asking to go to school, hear them. To me, the biggest tragedy of homeschool is feeling that you must keep your kids home or you are betraying your value system. You value education. Homeschool is only one version of it. Traditional school can be an incredible learning moment for everyone and a new thrill. Don’t necessarily rule it out. We loved our involvement (I’ve had a couple kids go to FT high school).

Lastly, I don’t know your personal life situation, but if you are dealing with a painful marriage, chronic long-term illness, or depression, you deserve to take a break from homeschool. That’s a good time to allow the local schools to take up the burden for you and it gives your kids some relief from the painful pressure of home during this season.

Hope that helps!


P.S. I shared this on facebook today about this post:

The [above] blog post was meant to answer a specific set of questions by a mom struggling with homeschool burn-out. It may be surprising to read my recommendations. Your reaction to the article will tell you where you are with homeschool. If the idea of putting your kids in a school environment is painful, you know you still have some energy left in the tank for home education. At that point, you want to look at new models—try new ideas. Don’t rule any out. Give yourself permission to change gears and see where it leads. However, if you are in chronic pain (emotional, physical, existential), just know that your worth as a mother/father and person is not defined by home education. You matter, more than your homeschool.

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Homeschool Carnival at momSCHOOL

Carnival of HomeschoolingBrave Writer’s “You Have Time” blog entry is featured in the Homeschool Carnival over at momSCHOOL. Today is the April Fool’s Edition.

Other posts include: “The Importance of Play in Nursery School,” “Make Homeschool Science More Fun than Play,” and “Why I’m Not Making My Kids Do Dishes Anymore.”

Check it out!