How to run a homemade summer camp

Hi all!  If you’re anything like me, you’ve been sitting inside the last three months with your child, trying to find something for them to do.  Thankfully, after endless worksheets and bad videoconferences with teachers, summer has come and with it, summer camp.

Except that all of the summer camps here were cancelled.  Of course.  However, me and some friends have put together our own summer camp for our kids, and it seems to be working pretty well.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Find some families who have been social distancing to your liking.  These families will be your fellow campers.
  2. Every week, a parent from one of the families will be the camp “counselor” and have camp at their house.  They can do whatever they want to keep the kids comfortable, provided that it meets whatever criteria everybody sets ahead of time.  More about that later.
  3. Everybody pays to run their own week of camp – the other weeks are free.  If you want to do expensive things, that’s A-OK, as long as you’ll be paying out of pocket for them.

That’s it!  Of course, every “that’s it” has a “except…” after it.  Here are the things that I’ve learned in the week that we’ve had the camp (I was the first counselor):

  • It’s best to have everybody bring their own lunch.  Though I’m pretty strict about having my son eat whatever is provided for him, other parents tend to want their kids to have special meals.  If kids bring their own, this keeps lunch from being an issue.
  • It’s important to determine the rules for “field trips.”  Do we wear masks at parks?  Are we allowed to even go to parks or stores?  Drive or walk?  It doesn’t really matter what specific rules you set, provided that everybody agrees ahead of time.
  • What do you do if a kid acts up?  I didn’t have this problem, but one of the families in our group has a kid who is notorious for having huge outbursts.  I made it very clear that if this happened, I was kicking the kid out and sending him home.
  • What if the rules in somebody else’s house are different than yours?  Really, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.  I don’t do things the same way as the other families, but we have basically the same way of doing things.  If you’re really that far away from the other families, it may be best to find new campmates.

Overall, the benefits of camp has been good.  I’ve hung out a lot with my friends (I have a kiddie pool the kids use at the end of the day).  I’ve had some days to myself.  The amount of money I spent during my week of camp, while large (~$250) was still less than a week of camp, plus I don’t have to pay anything for the next four weeks.  Pretty good, I’d say.

Activities for the camp can be just about anything.  Here are some of the activities that I did, plus some that I know other parents are planning:

  • Build birdfeeders and make them squirrel-proof.  Mark Rober has a good video about this on his YouTube that I’m too lazy to look up.
  • Build and launch model rockets.
  • Croquet
  • Build birdhouses
  • Play Magic: The Gathering
  • Design your own board games
  • Go for a hike
  • Visit a park and play frisbee

You get the idea.  If you can think of it, it’s probably fine.

If you have questions about how to do this, feel free to hit me with an email at

Let’s focus on good news for a moment

Unless you’ve been living under a stone, you’ve been dealing with months of COVID-19 lockdown, followed by over a week of rioting and protests.  It’s all very grim stuff, and has made the news very depressing lately.

To cheer you folks up, here are five things I’d recommend to brighten your days:

  1. The Count (censored):  A video showing the Count from Sesame Street in a way you may never have considered before.
  2. FLuffee Talks:  A YouTube channel in which our star, FLuffee, examines the people of WalMart, people with very bad tattoos, and just about every other Florida Man – type disaster you can think of.
  3. Steely Dan – Aja (classic album documentary):  If you’re a big fan of music, especially amazing music made by nitpicking lunatics, this is for you.  Even if you’ve never heard of Becker and Fagen, this is some cool stuff.
  4. A Canticle For Liebowitz (book) – A monastic order keeps the knowledge of a dead civilization alive in the millenia after a nuclear war.  Great stuff.
  5. Space Force (Netflix) – A pretty realistic examination of the US Space Force and it’s mission.  I’m pretty sure, incidentally, that the real Space Force has got to be bummed that the fake Space Force in this show has a better symbol.

Keep your heads up!  Only 7 months are left until 2020 is over!

The Failure of Fairfax County Public Schools

My son is a fifth grade student in the Fairfax County School System in Northern Virginia.  Like most students, he has been quarantined because of COVID-19.  I supported and continue to support this decision.  In fact, about an hour before the schools announced they were closing, I had already decided to pull him out of school myself.  I believe the schools were reasonable in how they handled the timing of the closing.

What was a little strange was that the schools announced they wouldn’t be opening for another month.  For the next three weeks the teachers would be trained on distance learning techniques, while the fourth was a planned Spring Break.  Easter Monday was a scheduled holiday, so it was with great excitement that my son logged into the scheduled Blackboard group chat on Tuesday.

It did not go well.  Because FCPS had sent out links that required no particular sign in to get on the chat, there were cases where trolls interrupted the chats with racist and obscene content.  This was not the case with my son’s class – with those kids, the chat would just cut off at random times.

That afternoon, the following was announced by the Superintendent of Schools, Scott Braband:

As a parent, I was less than thrilled to hear about this.  This was particularly the case when it turned out that the school system had failed to perform upgrades on its Blackboard servers for 20 months.  As predicted, Blackboard blamed FCPS for not doing the updates and FCPS blamed Blackboard for failing to force them to do the updates.  The superintendent apologized several more times, school board members sent apologetic emails, our principal sent apologetic emails, and the teacher sent an apology that sounded suspiciously like he wasn’t being told anything more than we were.

On Monday, the kids logged into Blackboard.  Again, it didn’t work.

This led to another series of apologies:

  • The superintendent let us know that he was really, really sorry about the whole thing.  Because of this disaster, there will no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year.  We’re going to fire Blackboard because they were so bad.  In fact, he’s so serious about being sorry that he instituted a blue ribbon panel of experts from the tech industry to try to unravel the mystery of how this could have gone wrong.  Who could have seen it coming?
  • The principal sent a letter explaining that, due to the screwups, there would no longer be face-to-face learning for the rest of the year, plus the other stuff above.  He also expressed how proud he was of his teachers and our school community.  Of course, they hadn’t caused the problem and had no ability to solve the underlying problem, but he left that part out.  For the rest of the year, assignments will be posted on Google classroom.
  • The teacher sent a letter repeating what the principal said, leaving out the part about how great the teachers were.  He promised to put stuff up on Google classroom.

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention:  None of the work given to the kids will be turned in to the teacher or graded in any way.  I’m sure this won’t cause the kids to take it less seriously.

Let’s sum up the above in a few bullet points:

  • The school closed because of COVID-19.
  • The school stopped instruction entirely for a month to train the teachers.
  • The first attempt to teach caused total anarchy, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • The second attempt to teach caused technical failures, which everybody blamed on everybody else.
  • Google classroom is now the teacher.

Except in the case of my son.  I, and many other parents, started teaching our kids the best we could once school stopped.  We’ve done math via Khan Academy, we’ve been reading Earth Abides for our literature “class”, we’ve done science using pure inquiry, we’ve had music and computer “specials”, we’ve had spelling and grammar practice, and he’s got a creative writing project where he’s making his own SCP.  He’s told me that he’s learning more at home than he ever did at school, and that he spends a lot more time learning at home, too.

The school system will undoubtedly take another crack at distance learning this year.  They’ll fix the system to find that it’s still broken.  They’ll spend my tax dollars on experts who study the problem without coming to any conclusions.  And they’ll ultimately  search for the guilty, punish the innocent, and reward the uninvolved.

Addendum:  While I was writing this, I got an email from FCPS that claimed to have “Five Things To Know This Week.”  The first?  “Distance Learning Continues.”  I guess they didn’t get the memo.

Addendum 2:  As of next week, we will have finished Earth Abides and will start reading Shambling Toward Hiroshima by James Morrow.  I recommend you do the same if you’re in the same boat I am.

Teaching from home

I’m not going to tell you all about COVID-19 because I’m sure you already know about it.  If you don’t, you probably aren’t reading this blog because you have no contact with the outside world.  This is your time to shine!

My son is out of school until April 13 and I’m stuck trying to teach him something worthwhile.  As a former chemistry teacher myself, I know the basics of teaching, but the specifics of teaching a fifth grader are a little beyond me.  However, with a little work and some creativity, I’ve been able to come up with a curriculum that might be useful for him.

Here are some of the guidelines I used when coming up with his curriculum.  Keep in mind that this is not intended to be a real homeschool curriculum, but rather something to keep him busy and learning until real school starts again.

  1. Make a learning schedule:  My son is learning for six hours today, in twelve blocks of 30 minutes.  Between each three blocks is a 1-hour break, with very short breaks in between blocks.
  2. Emulate the classes he takes at school:  My son has science, social studies, language arts, and a bunch of “specials.”  I’ve taken pains to include each of these in his overall studies so he doesn’t overdo the things he finds interesting but stays with the program.
  3. Teach topics that he finds interesting:  At this very moment, my son is reading “Earth Abides”, which is a book about how a small community survives a plague that wipes out most of mankind.  Clearly, this is something that’s interesting to a kid living in the time of COVID-19.
  4. Teach topics that he doesn’t find interesting but needs help with:  My son has dysgraphia, which means that he has trouble writing.  He works with a special ed teacher at school, and I’ll be working with him here at home to improve his writing.  Neither of us particularly enjoys this, and we both find it frustrating, but it’s something that needs to be done.  Fortunately, with the schedule we’ve set, we have limits on how boring and awful it can be.
  5. Experiment:  We’ve got a rare chance to experiment with things that our kids find interesting.  We were learning about sound today, and he had questions about why you can’t hear things so well behind a wall.  Thanks to a cookie sheet of water and a spoon hitting the surface, we were able to see how the waves move around an obstacle.
  6. Use online resources:  There are literally a zillion resources online that can help you to teach interesting stuff to your kids.  Scholastic has one that I’m using, and there are bunches of others.  (And yes, I know that you can’t literally have a zillion of anything.)
  7. Be flexible:  The good thing about teaching like this is that we can make changes to the plan if necessary.  If something is particularly interesting, we can spend extra time on it.  If we want to teach the same thing across different subjects, we can do that, too.  If we want to do a field trip, we can do that (provided that it’s to a place where other people are not).

One very good place to find quality resources is with homeschooling activities.  We may be doing this for a month or so, but homeschoolers do this all the time and have gotten very good at coming up with resources you can do at home.

Regarding homeschoolers, I know that some of you think of them as being religious nuts or as flaky hippies who don’t know anything.  Yes, some of them are religious nuts and some are hippies, but that’s true in society at large.  All homeschool groups put out reasonable activities – just make sure you adapt them for use with your own kids.  And don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – even an atheist can find extremely useful resources among religious homeschool groups.

I hope this has helped and that you stay safe during this pandemic.  Above all, remember that even if you do a lousy job with your homeschool experiment, you’re not going to permanently damage your child.  Do your best, and things will work out.

How safe is too safe?

I got an email this week from a chemistry teacher at a small private school.  She had been teaching for a couple of years using only reagents that posed no real possible danger for students under any circumstances – think acetic acid instead of hydrochloric acid and so forth.  She was concerned that she was being far too conservative when thinking about safety and limiting her students in what they could learn in the lab.  What would I suggest she do?

This is a good question, and one that I think isn’t asked enough.  When working in a chemistry lab, there’s always a balance that needs to be struck between making the lessons interesting and useful, as well as making the labs safe enough that nobody can ever get hurt.  On one extreme is a lab in which the only reagents are baking soda and vinegar – in this case there’s no danger of injury but also a limit to how much that can be learned.  On the other extreme are labs that examine how aqua regia and hydrofluoric acid react with common substances – interesting and instructive, but suicidally dangerous for the kids.

What I told this teacher is that you simply cannot be too conservative when safety is considered.  If there’s even the slightest doubt in your mind that a lab can be done safely, then don’t do it.  Even if you feel like baking soda and vinegar are too dangerous to use, then you should absolutely not use them in the lab.  It doesn’t matter what the other teachers at your school do and it doesn’t matter what the lab manual says.  Never, ever perform a lab with reagents that you feel uncomfortable using.

This is not to say, however, that you can’t use interesting reagents.  The key here is to educate yourself about how to use them safely.  If you currently just use baking soda and vinegar but are interested in titrating sulfuric acid, there’s no reason why you can’t.  Provided, of course, that you fully understand your own limitations, the limitations of your students, and the limits of your safety equipment.

Before performing any lab, you should always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I understand the dangers of using the reagents?  If you understand all of the dangers of using the reagents – reactivity, flammability, storage, and so forth – then you can consider the lab.
  • Are my students able to handle this lab safely?  If you have four classes that are mature and one class that is not, it’s probably a good idea to either let only four of the classes do a particular lab, or alternatively, cancel it for everybody.  Even if a lab should be safe, always consider your students.  And if you haven’t ever taught your kids the basics of working with hazardous chemicals, now is a good time to do it.
  • Do I have the lab equipment to handle everything safely?  If you need to transfer a reagent from one place to another, are you certain that you’re using the right tool for the job?  And do you have the waste container needed to handle whatever is produced?
  • Do I have the safety equipment to deal with a problem?  If you don’t have goggles and some kind of eyewash, you can’t do anything that involves non-eye safe reagents.  If you don’t have a fire blanket, you shouldn’t use flammable reagents – and a safety shower is much better!
  • Have I done the lab before, or has somebody I know done it before?  If you don’t know somebody who’s done a lab before, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.  However, it does mean that you need to run through it yourself ahead of time with a critical eye.

When you boil it all down to what’s important, the single most important thing in a science class is to make sure your students are safe.  If you have even the tiniest doubt in your head about whether something is safe, don’t do it.  Keep this in mind when planning your lessons for the coming school year, and you should be fine.

A random interlude…

One of the many ways I pass my time during the summer is to make money by filling out surveys using Amazon’s MTurk system.  It doesn’t pay all that much, but in the past few months I’ve averaged $200 a month, which isn’t so bad.

These surveys range from the boring to the very odd.  Today I was given the task of filling out a survey in which I was asked to write a superhero story taking place in modern-day New York City.  Because I liked what I wrote so much, I figured I’d share it with you here:

The Adventures of Captain John

In New York City, trouble was brewing. James and his wife Cindy were sitting in the living room when they heard a terrible noise from deeper in their apartment. They didn’t know what it could be, but from the sound of it, things weren’t good. James armed himself with a heavy TV remote and Cindy picked up a paperback novel about people in Redding, California. They crept into the back of the apartment.

What James saw shocked him into dropping the remote on the floor. Cindy followed and when she saw what was causing the commotion she opened her mouth in horror. Their toilet had, for some reason, overflowed its basin and was dumping filthy water on the bathroom floor. Quick as can be, James got his phone and called his building’s super. The super didn’t answer – he had a drinking problem and was notoriously unreliable.

Unfortunately, this was an emergency that needed to be solved right away! James picked up a lamp from the living room and shone it onto a picture of a toilet, creating a big toilet outline on the clouds outside. As fast as a bout of Taco Bell-caused diarrhea, the caped crusader Captain John leapt onto the balcony with a plumber’s helper and snake. Without a word, he boldly strode into the bathroom and with a flourish of the plunger, cleared the mess. It was amazing.

On his way out, he gave Cindy a note that said, simply, “Use peroxide to get the stains out of your bathmat.” Cindy thought to herself that, though Captain John may have been a sexist for thinking that she’d be the one cleaning it, that he was still truly the most heroic man she knew.

Freedom – I won’t!

In the 1962 book “The Great Explosion” by Eric Frank Russell, there’s a story that changed my life.  Titled “…And Then There Were None”, it posits a world where the inhabitants exhibit total freedom by simply refusing to do anything they don’t find reasonable.  When Earth explorers land on their planet to make contact, the local population finds it puzzling that the crewmen on the ship allow themselves to be led by a captain.  To them, the idea of being led is preposterous because nobody can be forced to do anything against their wishes.  After all, if somebody refuses to work, the person giving the orders can punish them but will still have to do the job themselves.  The inhabitants of this planet have absolute freedom – the freedom to refuse somebody else’s orders.  I highly recommend you read it – you can find it for free here.

Throughout my life, I’ve found this story to be inspirational.  When I worked at a Catholic school, I gave my boss six months’ notice that I would be taking a week off of school to tour with my punk rock band.  He felt that being with the band was counter to their mission and gave me an ultimatum:  Either quit the band or quit my job.  Keeping the story above in mind, I immediately quit my job.  I chose freedom.

Another story:  I caught a student red-handed in cheating – photocopied evidence and everything.  Because his mom was the head of the PTA, my principal told me that I should let the cheating allegation drop.  Which I did.  And then quit at the end of the school year.  I exercised my freedom to say that “I won’t.”

With that, let’s cue the story of Jessica Gentry, a kindergarten teacher from Virginia.  In a social media post, she describes how she found the world of teaching to be dehumanizing and antithetical to the well-being of her students.  Instead of taking the abuse and suffering, she quit the profession.  Her post was simply her way of explaining to others why she felt that teachers were leaving the profession in droves.

With that, I issue a challenge to all of you.  If you are happy in your jobs, or at least get enough fulfillment from your work to make going to work a pleasure, keep doing the ever important job of helping your students.  The world needs more people like you.

However, if you’re unhappy in your jobs, I challenge you to quit and find something better to do.  You’ll be happier in the long run, and your primary commitment is to yourself and your family, not your job.  And who knows, if enough people use their freedom to say “I won’t”, perhaps the people in charge will make the necessary changes that make saying “I will” more attractive in the future.

So, I was building a shed

I was building a shed in my backyard, which taught me several things:  1)  I’m pretty good at rough carpentry; and 2)  My skin and clothing love to pick up stray paint spatters.  If you’ve ever built a shed, you know what I mean.

In any case, building a shed gave me lots of time to think, so I figured I’d share these thoughts with you.  Please note that these are not words of wisdom or particularly useful information – just stuff I thought of while trying to get the cat to stop putting her paws in a gallon of latex primer.

  1. There are two types of offroad vehicle owners in this world:  Those who drive over speed bumps at 0.01 mph and those who drive over speed bumps at 0.02 mph.
  2. There are two types of people in this country:  People who believe that Donald Trump is evil incarnate and should be crucified and people who believe that the liberal media is trying to portray Trump as evil incarnate and as somebody who should be crucified.  Both sides are 100% sure that they’re right.
  3. When people are leaving their house on vacation, they usually wonder if there’s something they forgot to do.  When people are in their last moments of life, do you think they wonder if they forgot to turn off the oven?
  4. When I was a kid, it was nearly impossible not to get a cat.  They were given away in front of the market, people who knew had kittens, and they’d occasionally just show up in the front yard.  Now that people are spaying and neutering their cats, it’s a lot harder to get a new cat.
  5. The best thing about having a pool membership is telling other people you have a pool membership.
  6. If you celebrate only one religious holiday a year, people won’t bug you about it.
  7. My life would be a lot simpler if I could buy only five shingles at a time.  As it is, I have to buy a huge crate if I want to replace one.
  8. Location is everything.  For example, little kids all like to see dinosaurs at the museum but they’d be horrified if they showed up in their bedroom.
  9. I filled out a paper that asked me what gender I was “assigned at birth.”  I don’t know about you, but I think it would be really cool to be employed as a gender assigner.
  10. When somebody asks you whether a knife is a tool or a weapon, I think your answer would probably depend on whether you were about to whittle a piece of wood or whittle a puppy.
  11. I saw a guy today who had an American flag magnet on the back of their truck.  Why not a sticker?  Is there a possibility that he might decide to become Italian before he sells his truck?
  12. My family took a trip last weekend and there was a sign flashing in a construction zone that said “WATCH FOR PED.”  If I were a kid in that neighborhood, I would be terrified.

Thanks, you’ve been a great audience, don’t forget to tip your bartender.

Learning new things as an adult

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve worked as a musician for some of my life.  When I was at university I was the drummer in one band, and then played bass in another.  In my mid-30s I left teaching to play bass full-time in a punk rock band.  I love making music, though at around 40 I realized I’d rather spend time with my family than out on tour.

When my son turned 10, he decided that he’d like to learn how to play the bass guitar, just like dad.  With lessons, he’s doing pretty well, though I think it may be a while before he forms his own band.  I’m just glad he didn’t choose trumpet, because I don’t think I could have survived that.

When he started playing bass, I got an urge that I’ve never felt before:  I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  Whereas many bass players are guitar players who have switched, I started as a bass player and had never picked up a guitar in all of my years of playing in bands.  Now that my son was trying something new, I was inspired to try something new of my own.

My family has been remarkably nice to the discordant noise this has brought to their lives.  I’ve been playing for two months now and have gotten better at playing chords and at sight reading music.  Not great, mind you, but not terrible, either.  It’s fun to see myself getting better, and it’s undoubtedly the case that my past bass experience has been helping.

For me, one of the best features of learning guitar is that my son gets to see me suck at it.  We adults all know that learning something takes time and are OK with it.  However, kids don’t always realize this, and believe that they should master something within weeks of starting it.  I’m glad that my son can see that his dad, who he still believes is capable of anything at all, struggles with learning new things.

A lot of adults, both in teaching and outside of teaching, are afraid to show kids that they’re not good at something.  Just as we expect our kids to learn from their mistakes in the classroom, it’s important that we also model this behavior on our own.  This doesn’t have to be music, of course.  Maybe we’d like to do a project for the first time with our students and don’t know if it will work.  In this case, it would be good for the students to know that we’re trying something new and to see us work out the kinks on the fly.  At the end, we can ask our kids what went right, what went wrong, and how we can change things in the future.  Not only will this make the activity better, but it will show kids that learning new things isn’t always a smooth process, and that this is absolutely OK.

I hope my guitar playing improves soon.  Until then, I’m happy to keep showing my flaws in front of my son and his friends.  After all, nobody’s perfect.