Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Back to the Future

It's time that Cooper and Katie experience one of the best of the '80s movies -- Back to the Future!

(As usual, I'm a little taken aback by some of the language. We were tough kids back then.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blowing off the birthday blowout

From Saturday's Briefing:

Katie, June 20, 2015
My all-time favorite birthday party was a decidedly 1970s affair.
The whole kindergarten class was invited to help me celebrate. We all piled in the back of my dad’s blue Ford pickup and traveled about a mile to a nearby park.
I wore a red-white-and-blue-striped halter top. We played tag and red rover.
We ate birthday cake served by my mom and aunt, both dressed as friendly, bell-bottomed clowns.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive.
How on earth, then, did I become the kind of mom who frets about pulling together a magazine-worthy birthday party year after year?
Tastefully coordinated invitations and paper goods. Precisely planned activities. Thoughtfully gathered party favors.
Lovely, yes, but kind of at risk of missing the point.
Children — my children, at least — mostly want to run around and have fun with their friends. They don’t require stenciled burlap banners or cupcakes on beribboned pedestals or Mason jars with chalkboard tags and chevron paper straws.
The past couple of years I’ve given Katie free rein on planning her own parties. Last week, we celebrated her 10th birthday exactly the way she wanted.
She invited her whole fourth-grade class plus lifelong and neighborhood friends to gather at the park down the street. She asked for donations to a local nonprofit that feeds children in need instead of gifts.
Decorations were spare: one of my kitchen tablecloths on a picnic table and a lollipop tree created by Katie (Styrofoam cone, spray-painted silver, punctuated with more than a hundred Dum-Dums, topped by swirly, sparkly ribbon).
Refreshments were minimal: bottles of water and a cooler full of Popsicles. And as many Dum-Dums as you wanted to pluck from the tree.
Activities were inexpensive or free: Katie and her friends played freeze tag and four square. They blew bubbles. They tramped all over the playground. They played bean-bag toss and basketball. (Red rover, sadly yet prudently, is no longer in fashion.)
For two full hours, there were kids everywhere. No one told them to line up or sit down or stand still. They just played, devoured Dum-Dums and ate Popsicles. A whole bunch of drippy Popsicles.
As kids left, they took home small bags packed by Katie — bouncy balls, colorful pencils and Ring Pops. After the last guest was picked up, we checked the park for litter, packed up the minivan and drove home.
I didn’t spend hours crafting invitations or decorating cupcakes. I didn’t write a giant check to a gymnastics center or art studio. I didn’t have to clean the house before and again after.
Did the lack of fuss and fanfare affect Katie? Not in the least.
Did she feel celebrated? Absolutely.
“It was one of my favorite parties ever,” she gushed later that day. “There were so many friends there, and we all got to spend time together, and we got to play whatever we wanted.”
Do I regret all those years of planning and executing over-the-top parties? No.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with intense planning and coordinating and celebrating. Those parties make up a fraction of the catalog of fond memories of being mom to Cooper and Katie.
But I’m happy to add to that catalog the memory of Katie planning her own party, of watching her friends pile on the curvy slide, of serving orange sherbet Push Pops.
Simple. Cheerful. Festive. The kind of party that sticks with you for a lifetime.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


It's hit me over the past few days that Cooper has only four years left before college.

Four years.

That's not a lot of time to fit in everything we still want/need to do.

Instead of moping about it, tonight I decided to do something. I taught Cooper how to make soup without a recipe.

With Cooper at my side, I gathered ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator. I chopped. I talked him through the sautéing, stirring, boiling, etc., and let him do that work.

The "recipe" as it was created:

Tortellini Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
12 baby carrots, sliced
Garlic powder
Freshly ground black pepper
8 cups vegetable broth
1 large tomato, chopped
8 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 large package refrigerated cheese tortellini
4 oz. fresh spinach
Crushed red pepper

1. Heat olive oil.
2. Sauté onions for about five minutes.
3. Add carrots. Continue to sauté for another five minutes.
4. Add garlic powder and salt. (Lots of garlic, just a little salt)
5. Stir for 30 seconds.
6. Add broth, tomato and basil.
7. Bring to boil.
8. Add kidney beans.
9. Lower to simmer for 5 minutes.
10. Return to boil.
11. Add tortellini.
12. Cook for about 6 minutes.
13. Add spinach.
14. Cook for about 1 minute.
15. Add a little crushed red pepper


As he cooked, we brainstormed other options. We would have used fresh garlic, but I'm out. Green bell pepper would have been a good option. I wanted to serve with Parmesan, but we're out of that, too.

We talked about layering ingredients, about using what we have, about ways to make the whole soup more Tex-Mex, less Italian by changing a couple of veggies and spices. We talked about cooking with veggie broth instead of chicken because Katie is a vegetarian.

The results were delicious.

Learning how to create a meal from ingredients you have on hand is a skill that's taken me years to acquire. I don't expect my almost-14-year-old son will perfect it right away. But I don't want to waste the days of these next four years.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

My mom hat and my teacher hat

From Saturday's Briefing:

My mom hat and my teacher hat look and feel similar.
When wearing either one, my goal is to guide and nurture children toward independent adulthood, to help them learn and grow, to make sure they feel loved. And to make sure no one gets hurt in the process.
When I make decisions at school, I often draw from my mom hat. And now, after two years in the classroom, I find I’m wearing my teacher hat to help make decisions at home.
A few lessons I’ve learned this year in fourth grade:
Building relationships makes difficult work easier. Everyone makes mistakes. Helping children to identify their mistakes and to learn from them is easier when you’ve already spent plenty of time praising their work and effort.
When I conference with my fourth-grade writers, I try to open every discussion with positive feedback — strong word choice or excellent organization or exceptional idea development.
When we continue to dissect the work, I don’t overwhelm students with a long list of errors. I focus on one skill to address — use of commas or sensory detail or topic sentences. As the student progresses, we celebrate when writing goals are met.
Then we set new ones.
Do I do the same at home? Not consistently. I need to praise first, then help identify an area for improvement, then celebrate success. Over and over, with greater emphasis on praise and celebration.
Empower children to solve problems. I don’t mean math problems, though they need confidence to tackle those, too. I mean everyday problems.
If your pencil breaks, you don’t need to report it. You need either to find another pencil or sharpen the broken one.
If you can’t find your social studies packet from the day before, you don’t need to tell me. You need to look in your desk, in your backpack, in your binder, in your folders.
At school I’m reluctant to give answers or solve problems if my students can figure it out on their own. How will they learn if someone else continually takes care of it for them?
When I hear “Where are my sandals?” or “Is my practice jersey clean?” at home, now I’m more likely to ask more questions than provide answers.
Encourage children to stretch. This year we challenged all fourth-graders to read 40 books from various genres. (We borrowed the idea from reading guru and Dallas-area educator Donalyn Miller.)
Completing the challenge wasn’t a requirement. In fact, only about 10 percent of our students conquered it. But almost every student read more books this year than the year before, and they explored genres they might not otherwise pick up.
It’s a no-risk, high-reward exercise that can translate to home.
Try a new food. Walk a different route in the neighborhood. Befriend someone you’ve known for years but never really talked with.
Be a deliberate role model. When teaching reading, I’m coached to use specific phrases and to encourage my students to do the same.
For example, when teaching synthesis — one of the highest levels of thinking — I use phrases such as “At first I was thinking [fill in the blank], but now I realize [fill in the blank].”
After using these words over and over in a short lesson, I set my students free and asked them to read on their own and to write responses using the same phrases.
They did, which is not too remarkable given the structure of the lesson.
What’s more impressive is that two weeks later they continued to apply the synthesis skill, using the term itself and speaking to one another about their novels in terms of their growing thinking.
Children are constantly learning from their peers and from the adults placed in their lives. What kind of modeling do I offer at home? Are my phrases optimistic and joyful? Is my seemingly benign dose of sarcasm a little too much?
In a week, I’m officially removing my teacher hat for summer break. I plan to keep it nearby, though, poised to pull out strategies that help me be a better mom.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Manic May requires teamwork

From Saturday's Briefing:

Every May it’s the same. Can we arrive at the majority of commitments on time? Can we avoid double-booking? Can we end the month with celebratory — not surly — spirits?
How much can families pile on to everyday routines? The list can include, but is not limited to: recitals, concerts, parties, open houses, book fairs, teacher appreciation week, graduations, teas, camping trips, dances, field day, field trips, plays, receptions and tournaments.
I’ve learned to march into May with a plan that includes, but is not limited to: shortcuts for home-cooked meals, the constitution to launder daily, the willingness to overlook some usual chores, gift wrap at the ready, a generous sense of humor, a healthy dose of forgiveness (for self and others) and determination to say no when it all becomes too much.
My most essential strategy: Rely on teamwork.
Cooper, Katie and I have been a family of three for a long while now. We’ve learned one another’s strengths. We know our challenges. Most of the time we do a fine job remembering that we’re on the same team, working toward the same goals.
That attitude is even more important when the month of May is interrupted by hiccups, those presumptuous moments that leave no room for RSVPs.
Perhaps it’s a small hiccup, like when your son realizes a front belt loop on his black slacks has popped loose and you’ve got two minutes before you must pull out of the garage and drive toward the auditorium for the spring band concert.
In that case, the other child locates a needle and black thread, you grab scissors, and your son stands motionless while you mend on the spot.
Or maybe your beloved family dog will not step a paw into the backyard if it’s raining, which is normally no big deal except now we’re in the rainiest season anyone can recall, and the only way to allow your furry friend to take care of business is to take her on walks around the neighborhood.
We’ve had many, many walks this month. The three of us take turns, depending on who is actually home and can most afford a soaking.
Some interruptions are less expected and require extreme creativity. Like the day we found a kitten in our yard.
Actually, our beloved dog found the kitten. Margie the Scottie sniffed out the baby and welcomed it to our home by producing the loudest, fiercest bark I’ve ever heard.
After we contained Margie, the three of us conspired on how to take care of the world’s cutest gray and white cat, now taking residence in our backyard.
Actually, two of us conspired. Katie stood on the patio and sobbed, her soft heart for all living creatures wounded by the possibility that Margie had harmed the kitten.
Cooper and I gingerly approached the abandoned cat, hoping to hold her, I suppose, when she leaped across the yard, producing the loudest, fiercest hiss I’ve ever heard.
We, in turn, all shrieked and leaped, followed quickly by fits of laughter. Who’s scared of a wispy kitten?
We regrouped. Katie joined the cause. (The kitten moved too fast to be injured.) We tiptoed near. She hissed, leaped and darted for the back fence.
After two hours of watching from afar — and keeping Margie at bay — we at last coaxed Maka into a small carrier. (Oh, yes. In the process of staring at her immense cuteness, Cooper couldn’t resist naming her.)
Cooper and Katie took turns sitting next to the carrier on the front porch, waiting for our friend Jackie, the cat whisperer, to return to the neighborhood. Jackie swooped in, took Maka home and convinced her to trust humans and their ways. By the end of the week, Jackie had placed the kitten in a forever home.
Ever since we’ve been enjoying photos and videos of Nellie (her forever name) — a fuzzy reminder of an afternoon in May when, despite crammed schedules and heightened expectations, we banded together for a feline rescue.
Our little team can conquer all of May with gusto. We’ll take it easy some day in June.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyra.damm@gmail.com.

Monday, May 04, 2015


I usually work at school until 5 or 5:30 p.m.

Today I left "early," and Katie and I were home by 4:40 p.m. I had big plans to run necessary errands AND leisurely cook dinner.

About 4:47 p.m., we let Margie out in the backyard. Moments later, there was a tremendous racket from our somewhat-mild-mannered Scottie. (She's mellowed with age.)

I investigated. Margie had cornered what appeared to be a bunny. I forced Margie inside and then took the next sensible step. I asked Cooper, our trusty, brave Boy Scout, to make sure the bunny was OK.

He returned with the news that that was no rabbit -- it was a tiny kitten.

Katie, who loves all living creatures, burst into tears for fear that the baby was injured, either in the journey that led her to our yard or by Margie, whose ancestral line predisposes her to rooting out vermin.
Margie, fresh from locating and "welcoming" the cat
Then I took the next sensible step. I called Jackie, our neighbor, friend and affirmed cat whisperer. She is also a high school counselor and was still at school, prepping for AP exams tomorrow.

She suggested that we (1) get a cat carrier from her laundry room, (2) lure the kitten in with food and (3) hold on to the cat until she could get home.

Cooper obtained the carrier and cat treats. The "luring" part of the job was not so simple.

Now, this cat (who we are calling a girl, though we really don't know) is tiny. Cooper is 6-foot-1. So even though he is super kind and gentle, Coop must have seemed scary to the kitten, who had just been cornered by a fluffy, barking Scottish terrier. When Cooper approached the cat, she hissed and leaped across the backyard.

This caused Cooper, Katie and I to shriek and leap like marionettes with broken strings. I mean, this cat may be tiny, but she is fierce. (The three of us laughed until our sides hurt.)

We let her settle between the back fence and the tree. We started at her for a long while. Katie volunteered to read on the back porch to keep an eye on her. Meanwhile, I really had to run those errands. (The minivan air-conditioner stopped working this weekend, and I needed to get moving on a solution.)

Sweet kitten is still frightened. 
So, I left Cooper and Katie and Margie and the cat at home. Cooper called and texted with updates, all the same. The cat hadn't moved.

By the time I returned home, Cooper had named the cat "Maka." She hadn't eaten a single cat treat or sipped the water he had placed under the tree.

"We have to get her in the carrier, Cooper," I said. "Whatever it takes."

Moments later, Cooper was ready. He had put on blue jeans, hiking boots, a thick jacket and thick socks in an exaggerated effort to protect himself from this wild animal.

We eased up on her, certain she would climb into the carrier.

HISSSS! Pounce! Leap!

Now she was in yet another corner. Cooper and I were determined. We cautiously approached. We braced ourselves. At last -- success! The tiny gray-and-white kitten was contained.

Maka's home while waiting for Jackie
Sweet Jackie was still at school. We weren't comfortable with Margie and Maka in the same house, so the kids took turns sitting on the front steps with crated Maka. They didn't want her to feel alone. When dogs would walk by, Katie would pick the crate up and move it close to the front door, just in case Maka felt frightened.

Around 8:30 p.m., Jackie arrived. We visited for a while, then Jackie walked Maka to her home, where she will keep her until we can find a good home.

Thank you, Jackie, for your help!
I'm proud of this little family -- a genuine team. There are many days (most days?) when I feel like we're just getting by, just able to keep our head above water. Yet we each have our strengths, and we together we compensate for our challenges. We are fortunate to be able to call on experts to help. We laugh every day. We love each other, and we are genuinely grateful for one another.

Now, who wants to adopt Maka?