Tomie dePaola (1934-2020)

Yesterday, children’s author Tomie dePaola died at age 85. To honor his life, here are some of our family’s favorites among his books:

STREGA NONA: A Charming series of stories about “Grandma Witch,” a wise old woman and magic-worker in an Italian village. The first story is inspired by a traditional folk-tale, but they all have an “old soul.”

NOW ONE FOOT, NOW THE OTHER: The story of a young boy whose dearly-loved grandfather suffers a stroke and moves in with the boy’s family. The grandfather is unresponsive for some time, then begins a slow recovery as his grandson cheers him on. A great way to introduce kids to the frightening uncertainty of illness. Also a great reminder that sometimes kids––who after all are used to not understanding what happens around them––often take big changes in stride quite well.

TOMIE DePAOLA’S MOTHER GOOSE: I found this at our library’s used book sale this year, and it immediately became my favorite Mother Goose volume. It has hundreds of traditional rhymes, including many I had never heard before. DePaola was not afraid to include irreverent rhymes, like this one that makes my kids and me laugh:

THE CLOWN OF GOD: This was perhaps Beth’s favorite, and one that I made a point to read to the kids in the days before Beth died. It tells the story of the rise and fall of a juggling clown named Giovanni. Midway through the story he meets two Franciscan brothers:

As the three men ate, the two Little Brothers told Giovanni how they went from town to town, begging their food and spreading the joy of God.

“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.

“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.

“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”

“If you say so!” said Giovanni, laughing. “But now I must be off to the next town. Arrivederci, good brothers––and good luck!”

Beth loved to comment on how thoroughly Catholic this book is, not just because Franciscan monks show up, but because it blurs the lines between what is secular and what is holy in a very Catholic way. The book ends with the juggler, now an old man, visiting a church, in a scene that is somehow joyful, sad, and whimsical all at the same time. The book will not fit everyone’s spirituality, but it is undeniably beautiful.

Perhaps Tomie dePaola would not mind if we were all to wish him what the Franciscans wish Giovanni: Arrivederci, good brother––and good luck!

Flash Cards and Four-Year-Old

My four-year-old read his first Bob Book with Beth almost a year ago, but somewhere along the way he started throwing fits (with Beth or me) when it came time to sit down and read. His favorite ruse is to yell, “I can’t read it!” when looking at a page he has read repeatedly in the past.

Eventually, he settled into a pattern: either he flew through a Bob Book because he had it memorized, or he refused to even try. I suspect that when he looked at a sentence full of words, the stress of it just made his little head explode. The same was true with the piano: he would gleefully play three or four notes I showed him, but trying a full verse of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” devolved into pounding keys with flat palms.

Flash cards are probably not the ideal for building a love of reading, but I needed to change something. If my theory was right that a page full of words was overwhelming my son, narrowing it to one word at a time might help. I don’t want drawers full of cards for kids to scatter about, so I used our tablet.

I have a flash card app called Anki, which lets you load up lists on the computer and then sync them to the tablet. Every time you practice a card, you mark how well you did: repeat (red), hard (yellow), good (green), or easy (blue), and the app judges how long to wait until it shows you that card again based on your history with that card. The explanation is complicated, but using it is fairly easy, as it handles the repetition each day.

For the list of words, I got the first four Bob Books and entered every word in all four books into the flash card deck. I doubled up by doing each word with lower-case and upper-case starting letters, since my four-year-old is still learning the differences. Once he could get through that stack of words, I had him read through the actual Bob Books, one per day. Then I added all the words from the next four books, and so forth. The app lets you set how many cards per session (I use 20), and it focuses on the cards that need the most work.

Two or three weeks in, it turns out that my four-year-old enjoys doing flashcards on the tablet, which means we can spend about ten minutes a day on reading without him throwing any fits. He doesn’t have the Bob Books memorized anymore, but by the time we get to a given book he knows all the words well enough that he doesn’t get too stressed. He always insists, “Get an easy book!”, and my plan is that each book should already seem easy by the time we get to it.

Meanwhile, my two-year-old is learning his ABC’s using a couple of different alphabet books that we love. Beth was reading him these books since he was born, so he has most of the alphabet down. I’m trying Anki to see if it helps him fill in the gaps of Z, Y, V, Q, and the like. I took phone pictures of every page from Now I Eat My ABSs, and copied them into an Anki deck for him. So far he’s not improving much, but I don’t push too hard. He asks to do his flash cards whenever he sees his brother doing it, and he has fun going through the deck and pushing the red or green button depending on whether he remembers the letter. We’ll take it easy and see what happens.

Any homeschooling parent will know exactly why I’m sticking with this method: it turned a fit-throwing school subject into a non-fit-throwing school subject for my son. But it also doesn’t involve off-loading the work completely to a reading app and hoping it teaches my son. Rather, it’s a technology that takes something I want us to do together and makes it easier.

I suspect my four kids may not all like flash cards equally, but we will see. I expect I will use Anki a lot in the next sixteen years.

Tidying Up

I checked out a book from the library the other day called Kiki & Jax, with a subtitle about friendship. The Illustrations are colorful, and it looked like it might be a nice story for my younger kids.

When I started reading at bedtime, the story struck me as odd. Kiki kept losing her toys in her messy house, so she and Jax couldn’t play. One day, Jax rang the doorbell, but Kiki couldn’t get to the door until Jax gave up and went home. It seemed an odd premise, and I wondered what to make of the book, when it suddenly became clear. Jax was telling Kiki how to sort through her pile of stuff and tidy up, and he said, “If it sparks joy in your heart, keep it! And if it doesn’t, thank it and let it go.”


Well, it turns out this kids’ book is a spin-off of Marie Kondo’s bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I never actually read that book, but Beth and I talked about it a couple of years back, and the line in the kids’ book about sparking joy was so memorable that it immediately sent me to google.

I told in a previous post how I get anxious when I have too much stuff around, and I love organizing even if I’m not good at doing it efficiently or keeping a clean house. I love getting rid of things, except that I love keeping things.

Do I follow Kondo’s advice? Well, here’s what goes on in my house:

  • First, we don’t go shopping, and I only buy with a concrete reason. I can say with some pride that Beth and I were once featured in Redbook as a “financially compatible” couple, as we both liked to save money by simply not buying things.
  • We have lots of books: classics and reference works in history and theology and philosophy, and bunches of illustrated kids’ books. Generally, I keep classics and reference books, and get anything else from the library or in ebook. Other stuff I’m pondering selling on ebay.
  • Sadly, I hold on to empty electronics boxes for years. They’ll be indispensable if I ever resell anything, but I admit it’s probably excessive.
  • I am a hoarder of digital movies and photos. This has paid off, as I can show my kids lots of footage of Beth, like several hours of recorded videochats with family over the years.
  • For the house, I hang on to scrap wood, solid sheets of hard plastic, large cardboard boxes, strips of velcro, straps with buckles, most anything that might be just the thing for a project. And I actually do use these things pretty routinely.

Maybe I choose not to follow Kondo’s advice, or maybe it’s something a little different: I find joy in repurposing what I already have.

I do not mean that I paint old crates for decorations. I mean that I cannibalized scrap wood from a broken deck to build a pair of sawhorses for my basement; then I removed an attic fan from my garage ceiling, cased it in an old cardboard box, and strapped an air filter on the back (thanks to Ki Park for the suggestion) to catch sawdust.

The reason I can do this kind of thing without drowning in junk is that, since I know it will be hard for me to get rid of stuff, I generally avoid buying anything in the first place. And if something I’m not using is a uni-tasker, and not very flexible for multiple purposes, I throw it out or give it away.

I would enjoy hearing how other people deal with getting rid of stuff, or else organizing what they have. Has anyone tried using Kondo’s approach?

Simplify, Simplify

It will be shocking to hear this, but my house is often a mess. Beth and I had long been on board with the cultural move to simply things, so we have big regions of our house with hardly any furniture. But with kids, you still end up with stuff everywhere, often on the floor and stirred about like a dustdevil went through the room.

How to improve the mess? I’m a systemic thinker, which means I’m always looking at the process of how we’re doing things to see if there’s one simple thing that can fix it. With toys, my approach has been that everything needs to fit a category, so that no one has to think about where it goes. Over time, the list has grown: stuffed animals, dolls, regular legos, duplos, magnetiles, animals, cars, balls, food, and dress-up. Of course, now that I list them my heart is racing, and I probably need to rethink my system. But as long as a toy can fit in one of those categories, we can plausibly put it away. If something doesn’t fit one of them, it’s shocking how much harder it is to clean up, as we have to think about each object individually. It’s that little bit of extra time and mental energy that bogs down the system, and makes the whole job more stressful.

But toys can be shoved aside if I’m in a hurry, or piled in the basement until a hypothetical future date. The bigger problem is laundry, which is why a package arrived today with all the craziness in the picture above. I have three boys aged 2, 4, and almost-6, and as of today they all wear the same size and style of socks. Hopefully.

I ordered ten six-packs of sock pairs that all match. They have different colors on the soles, but for the purposes of my kids we’ll just ignore that fact. All other boys’ socks will go into hibernation: that includes the gray crew socks with colored soles, the white crew socks with colored soles, the harry potter socks, the spider-man socks, the superman socks, the captain america socks, the star wars socks, the mickey mouse socks, and the huge assortment of baby socks. Day after day I have beat my head against the wall in the laundry room (which is concrete, by the way) trying to find pairs of at-least-closely-matching socks, all while we are in a hurry to leave the house. Now if the boys need socks, they will get a pair of short gray socks with colored soles.

This is definitely a first-world style of simplicity, since it involved buying more things. But my hope is that life will be simpler in two ways: less thinking about socks, and less time finding socks. While the kids are young, I can hardly imagine a better use of $60.

Fortunately, from now on everything in our house will be simple and easy.


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I grew up in Texas, where snow usually lasts a day or two and then gives way to outside play. In Iowa, I’m going on a second year in a row where my Christmas lights are still up in February, frozen in icicles for most of the last month.

My kids, however, do not freeze in place, or really sit still much ever. Some of my kids’ limbs have minds of their own, which walk them aimlessly around rooms, rearrange toys tornado-style with their feet, or otherwise create trouble while the kids’ heads’ minds are elsewhere.

Desperately needing to use up some of this energy, I finally found a way: during our symposium each day, I sit down and play songs on the piano for about 15 minutes while the kids run laps around our house (kitchen to living room to dining room to kitchen). One kid needs to put on sock and shoes to avoid bruised feet from the hardwood floor, but so far so good.

I used to have a “house rule that there is no running in the kitchen,” a phrase which I required my kids to repeat hundreds over times. They never got it. So instead, I have given up that battle and tried to harness the chaos instead. So far, it’s one of my favorite things we do each day. Most important: it simultaneously gets them indoor exercise, adds a nice element to school that helps them calm down for the second half of symposium, and lets me enjoy something I want to do anyway.

Rosa Parks

Today the kids and I enjoyed a musical called Walk On: The Story of Rosa Parks, put on by a six-member cast visiting the University of Northern Iowa. The Gallagher-Bluedorn has a theatre program with one-dollar productions for kids, and we have been to many.

The play’s message is that Parks’s bus protest was not an isolated event, but rather the high point of a whole life lived with purpose. Parks had joined the NAACP, she had worked for black voter rights, and she had attended a Tennessee school that trained racially-integrated activists for protest. She also was aware that Montgomery activists were looking for a chance to stage a boycott. The play shows her advocating for herself, but also growing as she learned from others.

The key, from my perspective: when the moment arose to do great good, Parks was ready. It reinforces that our young lives (and adult lives too!) are not just about educating our minds, but about growing in character, and becoming the people we want to be. And of course, the play helps the kids see a bit of what racial injustice has been like in our country, and what courageous people have done to move our nation closer to our ideals. I was so glad to have the opportunity to go.

Thomas Aquinas and Engaging the World

Do not love the world or anything in the world, 1 John 2:15.

Today is the feast day of Thomas Aquinas, Beth’s favorite saint and theologian. She started reading his Summa in middle school, and she said that Thomas helped her make sense of her faith at a pivotal time in life.

Thomas said that theology was faith seeking understanding, which means you start with the bedrock of Christian faith and then reflect on what it all means using reason. One way to build on this starting point is to welcome all rational perspectives into the conversation.

When it came to theology, Thomas was not a “Bible only” Christian, nor was he a “teachings of the Catholic Church only” Christian. He used the controversial ideas of Aristotle, and also the ideas of Jewish and Muslim thinkers. Christian scriptures and theologians were obviously the most important, but he was not afraid of outsiders.

Not all Christians agree with this approach, especially because of the Bible quote above. I don’t want to get caught up in a debate, but I should make clear: I take the phrase “the world” to refer to powers and motives that are contrary to Christ. But I don’t believe the line cuts neatly between Christians and non-Christians. Plenty of Christians have embraced harmful ideas, and non-Christians have embraced good things. In my experience, Christians need to read everything critically and discern what is good and what is not.

And that’s how our family homeschools. I teach my kids the Christian faith, but I don’t hesitate to use books written by Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists––or atheists. I suppose some Christians would worry that those writings are dangerous, but frankly I would argue that all books are dangerous. Even when we read the Bible, we filter it through our own fallible ideas. There are ideas I won’t expose my kids to, but it’s not because they happen to come from a non-Christian, or a conservative, or a liberal, or whatever.

Christians need to learn from outsiders, because there are true things that aren’t contained in the Scriptures or the Christian tradition. Christian classical education helps a young person learn to read critically and reflect on many ideas, all while relating them back home to the bedrock of their Christian faith. While it may seem risky, those ideas may even challenge us to rethink how we understand our faith. The point isn’t to rid our thought of outside ideas, but to see clearly what ideas we are dealing with.

The student who learns these critical reading skills may be someone who can someday help confront the church about harmful ideas that have entered Christian life and teaching. In the spirit of Thomas Aquinas, this is how our family hopes to do education.

Morning Time

Following Beth’s lead, the centerpiece of our home schooling day is Morning Time, a practice promoted especially by Cindy Rollins and Pam Barnhill. Beth and I, being geeks, decided to call it Symposium.

Each day, I gather all four kids (more of less) on the sofa for an hour or two that we all share together. A lot of it is over the heads of the younger kids, but the goal is a shared time.

What did we do yesterday?

  • Morning offering. A traditional song offering God our day, followed by a guardian angel prayer and the Lord’s prayer.
  • Saint of the day. So far I’m lazy and just play a little minute-and-a-half audio clip about whoever happens to be featured by Franciscan Media that day. Yesterday it was Saint Angela Merici. I still need to get together a list of feast days so that we read stories about saints who are important to our family. (Today is Thomas Aquinas!)
  • Bible reading. Today I read from The Jesus Storybook Bible, from a chapter that paraphrases part of the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Hymn: Be Thou My Vision.
  • History. I read about four pages from Story of the World, by Susan Wise Bauer. We reviewed some 17th-century settlements of the Spanish, English, and French in the New World, then read about the explorations of Henry Hudson. This is a very useful textbook, but in the future I’ll need to supplement this slot with picture books from the library like Beth did.
  • Calisthenics. We circle up and do jumping jacks, stretches, things like that.
  • Running laps. Indoors. This is a recent addition and maybe my favorite idea ever.
  • Schoolhouse Rock. These are just excellent. Except for the videos about numbers, which I don’t think accomplish much until kids are older. Yesterday we did “Busy Prepositions,” “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla,” and “I’m Just a Bill,” three minutes each.
  • Story Time. Yesterday we did a Grimm’s fairy tale from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book called “The Tale of a Youth Who Set Out to Learn what Fear Was.” Bizarre story, quite dark.
  • Memorization: We’ve spent the month of January learning “Wintertime,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Yesterday the two big kids and I took turns reciting the whole thing.

Symposium is usually my favorite part of the day, and the kids are always excited to do it. Length and content vary from day to day, but the touchstones are (1) opening ritual and religious instruction, (2) history lesson, (3) physical activity, (4) story, and (5) memorization.

Homeschooling could easily get bogged down in individual lessons and assignments. Those are part of our day as well, but the point of morning time is to create culture, especially centered around the liberal arts. The message is that we are all in this together, and that our family sets aside a part of the day to focus on what is beautiful, not just what is practical.

Living Books

A lesson sank in for me this morning. Charlotte Mason, the godmother of classical homeschooling from about a century ago, pleaded with educators of children to always use living books.

A living book is, essentially, a book someone wrote because they had a good idea, rather than something they put together to cover a preset body of information. In other words, no textbooks unless absolutely necessary. Our library has beautiful children’s books on countless topics, so classical homeschooling goes to those first.

However, my kids are into science these days, so recently I started on a textbook about the natural world. It begins with simple plants, moves on to flowering plants, and so on. Seems like a good book, and earlier this week I had my kids do dictations and essays on what they’ve learned from it.

But today, none of my kids were paying attention. Some of that is inevitable, but it reminded me of what Charlotte Mason said. If you have beautiful books that are written for their own sake, it is far easier to get kids engaged. My kids were engaged just a few minutes later with a fairy tale book using archaic language and black-and-white illustrations. But they were not engaged with the textbook. Its information was useful, but sort of dead.

This is not to say these books aren’t valuable. My kids choose all sorts of science books from the library, and I’m keeping the textbooks within reach. But for gradeschool, I want the books I choose for them to be beautiful and living. The kids can go to topical textbooks and encyclopedias––which they do, by the way––when it’s their own interest leading them there. That way the subject is alive within the kids already.

My first job is to teach them to love books, to love words, to love learning. If living books can grab them now, we’ll fill in the rest later.

What is Classical Education?

I am not a homeschooling expert. My training is in theology on the one hand, and pastoral ministry on the other, with graduate degrees in youth ministry and Christian education. I love ideas and theories, and I love to analyze what I am reading and doing. But that’s hardly enough to school my own kids.

For the real work on the ground, here are my biggest inspirations:

  1. Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind. Classical Education focuses on language, whether off the page or spoken aloud. Having taught college freshmen, I can say that many young adults arrive at college still needing a lot of work to learn how to hear or read things and figure out what the author is saying. Classical education starts kids early listening, and then reading, words. By high school, the goal is that they can engage ideas.
  1. Read Aloud Revival ( The podcast by Sarah Mackenzie has excellent practical advice. Its biggest emphasis: read aloud to the kids. In the case of our family, that means at least an hour or two a day.
  1. Pam Barnhill ( Beth described Pam as her homeschool mom crush. Her key slogan is to emphasize Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in education, to help kids fall in love with the world and fall in love with learning. Your Morning Basket podcast has lots of great practical advice as well.

My biggest inspiration behind all this is my late wife Beth. She used all these resources, and she set me an example of how to use them. Our kids are already conditioned to sit and listen to books for hours on end because Beth tirelessly poured herself and her passion into them. It is not an exaggeration to say that she is with us through every step as we learn together.