Monday, May 30, 2016

Some Positive CPS News

If you've read a newspaper or even just a social media feed from the Chicago area lately you've seen a lot of news about our schools. Some of the news is confusing, some of it is maddening, and none of it seems great for our kids. 

In the midst of budgets, politicians, and bureaucracy, however, there are also shining stories of great individuals that stand above the rest to make a positive difference in the lives of our kids. Today I'm really excited to share an interview with one of those individuals.

Meet Playworks coach, AmeriCorps volunteer, and Chicago native: Ariana Walls!

Coach Ari, as she's affectionately known to the kids at B's public school, has been volunteering her time and talent all year through the AmeriCorps program. As part of her work at the school she planned a "Community Engagement Initiative" that included repurposing the school's paved playlot. The Little Dragans and I helped out for a bit, and then I caught up with Coach Ari later for some more details. I hope you'll enjoy hearing about her experience and seeing the pictures of her project.

Coach Ari's plan for the playlot: basketball court, four square, hopscotch, and lines for the different classes. I'm ready to play!!

KD: What are your responsibilities as part of AmeriCorps?

AW: As an AmeriCorps member my biggest responsibility is to complete 1700 hours of service. Through Playworks, I was given 10 months to complete the hours. As a Playworks AmeriCorps coach at NTA, my job focuses around recess, an after school leadership program and non-competitive sports leagues throughout the year. Along with the 1700 hours, AmeriCorps members are required to attend service projects once a month, as well as plan a "community engagement initiative" or CEI event. For me, my CEI was the playground painting. 

KD: What have been some of your favorite memories from this year? 

AW: My favorite memory from this year would have to be with one of my 3rd grade classes. The class was particularly loud and disrespectful that day making it really hard to get through our lesson. The next day I had 25 hand written letters in my mailbox from that class. The kids were so sweet, talking about how much they loved recess and learning games from me. It was the first time I had that "ah ha" moment and felt like I was making a difference. 

KD: Is there anything about your work this year that has surprised you or from which you felt like you really learned something?

AW: NTA has a really diverse staff, culturally and racially. I think that I have learned so much from my recess staff in particular. We are all such different people and come from different backgrounds but are here at the school for the same reason, to provide a safe and fun space for children to play. I was the rookie coming in this year, but my recess team really took me under their wings and welcomed me during the first few months of the school year. They also grasped onto the Playworks language and values that I was trying to incorporate in the school quickly, which made for a well meshed team. 

KD: What was your project for NTA's play area and how did you come up with this idea?

AW: I came up with the idea to paint games and boundary lines on Federal Street a few months ago. For my CEI, I had to identify an area either in our school or community that had a need. I identified that one of NTA's biggest needs surrounding recess had to do with the lack of boundaries and games. Each day before recess I would have to place cones to try and distinguish different play areas. I would also have to chalk out four square courts and hopscotch. As you can guess, this took up a good amount of time and was not very effective. If it was a windy day, the cones would blow all over leaving kids unsure of where to play certain games. I realized that if I could have permanent boundaries, recess would be able to run way smoother. 

KD: How do you think the project will improve the experience of NTA students?

AW: I have already seen an improvement at recess! The street is brighter and more inviting so more kids feel welcomed to play (which is awesome)! Boundaries are clear and understood by even our youngest students, making recess fun for them and stress free for myself and my team. I am hoping that in the years to come, many students are able to have fond memories on the space we created. 

Thank you so much, Coach Ari, for serving our community and for showing us all that one person can bring about change if they are creative, motivated, and optimistic like you are! You have made a lasting and positive mark on our school, and we thank you for your service.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

White Sox

We are White Sox fans.

There, I've said it. It can be a polarizing sort of statement in this town with two teams. But we are definitely White Sox fans.

When we first moved here I was a young(er) lass from a state with no professional teams—fans of the D.C. franchises will argue this point with me no doubt, but I felt no real allegiance to their teams. Closeness in proximity does not equal closeness to my heart. So I came to the city as a tabula rasa, ready to experience all that Chicago had to offer. After attending both a Cubs and a White Sox game, however, I knew which colors I would wear.

Which is to say no colors, because the White Sox wear black and white.

Good thing, too, because then we moved into a building with a view of U.S. Cellular Field! We can watch the fireworks after home runs and wins—some years there are more than others. If we're watching the game on t.v. we actually see the fireworks before the live delay can catch up, so in a way we can predict the future!

This year for my birthday, the Little Dragans and Grant got me Pick Seven: 4 tickets to 7 White Sox games! I have wanted this for a really long time! Very strategic gift-giving, Little Dragans, as I'm sure they figured I'd need some help filling all those seats.

Happy Birthday to me.

White Sox games are a great activity for kids! Some tips (you all seem to like these):
1. Take the Red Line El and practice your "How Many Stops?" game. For us, this is easy: one.
2. You can pack one closed water bottle up to one liter in size for each ticket holder. Do it.
3. Hats. Sunscreen. And then a bit more sunscreen.
4. Check out all of the kids zone activities and cool off in the "showers." Just explore all the different areas of the stadium if they get bored with the game. I know, even super fans can get a little bored at baseball games.
5. Hot Dogs. On the 4th of July they're only $1!!
6. If the player chooses a Reggaeton walk-up song, it's obviously because he wants you to stand up and dance.
7. Go crazy and try to get on the Jumbotron. Little Guy and Grant were on it yesterday! #BucketList. Immediately afterward, one of Grant's work colleagues e-mailed him to say he saw him. It was a very Ferris Bueller moment. Except that was a Cubs game.
8. Have fun! And invite us along if you feel you need some expert-fan friends. Bring your gloves to try to catch a fly ball.

 Not this time. Six more chances this season!

I've been working with a reading group in B's class on In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. I remember this book from when I read it in the third or fourth grade, and it is just as gorgeous as I remember. Shirley Temple Wong immigrates from China to Brooklyn in the '40s and learns how to make friends with her new classmates while Jackie Robinson breaks down barriers in the major leagues. The writing and the imagery are unmatched—and, it turns out, pretty tough for first-graders to totally understand. Thus, my work with them. 

In 1997 Jackie Robinson's number was retired from all teams. To commemorate his historic debut in major league baseball each year on April 15th, every player wears his iconic number 42.

If the first-graders have missed some of the subtleties of Bette Bao Lord's voice and unique childlike narration, they have at least gotten very interested in the historical figure of Jackie Robinson and the fantastic sport that he played. I'm going to leave you with this passage that we just went over on Friday in which Shirley Temple Wong's teacher explains why baseball is our national pastime. I challenge you not to get a little teary-eyed (by the way, I fail at this challenge every time).

     "In our national pastime, each player is a member of a team, but when he comes to bat, he stands alone. One man. Many opportunities. For no matter how far behind, how late in the game, he, by himself, can make a difference. He can change what has been. He can make it a new ball game.
     In the life of our nation, each man is a citizen of the United States, but he has the right to pursue his own happiness. For no matter what his race, religion or creed, be he pauper or president, he has the right to speak his mind, to live as he wishes within the law, to elect our officials and stand for office, to excel. To make a difference. To change what has been. To make a better America.
     And so can you! And so must you!" 
(Lord, Bette. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Harper Collins: 1984. 92)

I hope you'll make it to a game this summer, even if it's that other team in Chicago. Have a hot dog and think of us if you do!

Me, B. Soooooo sad the Sox LOST!!! They were in first place but they LOST against the Royals. I'm so bummed!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pepperoni Rolls

You asked for it, and the Little Dragans have delivered!

Our post on West Virginia left many of you wondering about these mythical pepperoni rolls of lore. If I could fit all of you in my mid-size SUV and cart you over hill and dale to the Little General convenience store off Route 19, I would gladly treat each of you to a bite of this splendor. But alas, not all of our wishes can come true. You can check out this great recipe from "Chickens in the Road" that the kids used to make pepperoni rolls last weekend!

Since we didn't modify too much, I'll let you visit her charming site for the recipe, but I'll leave you with some pictures of the process and a quick review.

This recipe calls for cheese baked into the dough, not gonna say no to that!

There aren't enough words to express how much I love this picture. Can we just nominate Grant for president and use this as his campaign poster? P.S. He's still too young, so stop asking him.
The finished product! Note the bits of pepperoni baked into the roll. Outstanding.

These are the second-best pepperoni rolls I have ever tasted. I award them only the penultimate grand prize because truly a hot, glistening-with-grease pepperoni roll in a wax paper envelope from Little General is a phenomenon to behold. These, however, have a great ratio of goodies to dough, have just enough sweetness in the dough to cut the saltiness of the pepperoni, and crisp up nicely around the edges. I've eaten at least one per day since they made them. Today I thought there was one left and I couldn't wait to devour it for lunch after my long run. I don't have a picture of my face when I found the tupperware was empty, but suffice it to say it wasn't pretty.

Do you guys like baking with your kids? In theory, I do. It's very "Montessori," and all. I just find that I get frustrated with them easily and end up taking over. 

Grant, on the other hand, loves baking with them. He and B used to make waffles once a month and she would sit up on the counter with her legs dangling over the side. At age 2 she used to point to the counter and say, "I sit here, don't move!" imitating his admonition to her. He makes biscuits with the kids once a month (do you want that recipe too?) and strawberries and cream each year for Wimbledon. I handle a lot of the outdoor adventures around here, but the kitchen is his space with the kids. 
Look at tiny B in our tinier old apartment!! I probably had to stand on our bed to take that picture.

Little last thoughts with Little Guy:
I liked rolling out the dough with Dad because you get to roll it back and forth. It's better to cook with Dad because he's like three years older than you, Mom.
This is not even a little bit true, but I'm putting it on the blog because that's exactly what he said. And now it's published.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Deer Death Experiences

Devotees of "Dragan Tales" will remember that a few posts back I mentioned trail running in West Virginia and the deer carcass that I encountered. Little did you know that I actually returned to the very same spot with the Little Dragans the next day for some extra exploration!

The kind folks at the City Creatures Blog, an extension of the Humans and Nature project, were good enough to publish the essay I wrote about this experience. I hope you'll enjoy reading about our experience coming face to face with mortality in the country and the city through a child's eye.

Deer Death Experiences: Dust to Dust, in the Country and the City

I'm very grateful to Gavin Van Horn for his editing support and the opportunity to share my writing. Check out the rest of the blog while you're over there! I've been reading the blog and the associated journal for many months and they never fail to provoke thoughts and questions that linger. I hope you enjoy! Feel free to share the link on Facebook, Twitter, etc. or leave a comment.

Bonus: My author pic was actually taken by Little Guy! Yep, he's four and already a published photographer!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Three Tips for Travel with Little Ones

That's right, we're back from another trip! Are you just green with envy contemplating the jet-setting life of these little Dragans? Ha! We don't normally travel back-to-back weekends, but when you live halfway across the country from your entire family and all of your oldest friends, you're going to do some traveling.

One person in this photo does not like heights and is very nervous about those rocks, can you guess who? Hint: He doesn't write the captions.

This past weekend we flew to Boston and then drove to North Conway, New Hampshire for a wedding in Fryeburg, Maine. Are you lost yet? Me too. It was a great trip and the Little Dragans were pretty fun as traveling companions so I thought I'd share some tips that I've learned over the years of travel.

Hardy Farm: the gorgeous wedding venue. I'm pretty sure it's in Maine.

Sorry in advance if I disappoint you by not recommending the One and Only Miraculous Amazing Cure-all Product that will make traveling with kids a breeze. In fact, I'm not going to recommend any products at all. I think there's a whole division of marketing aimed at anxious parents. They prey on our fear, in turn making us more anxious that we don't have the right product, thus leading us to buy even more. Vicious cycle. Do you know how much new parents will spend on products that will supposedly make their baby sleep? I've seen sleep sacks for $130! Just to be clear, that's a bag, that your baby "sleeps" in. Save your money folks, babies don't sleep. Spend the $130 on a nice coffeemaker for yourself, you'll get way more bang for your buck.
Well, that was a tangent.
Back to the trip and the tips!

Tip #1: Pack LIGHT.
It's easy to get caught up thinking that you will need eight different outfits for everyone, a matching pair of shoes, noise machines, backup special toys, etc. but the fact is that you will have to lug all of this, plus your children who are too tired to walk—though curiously not too tired to run away from you down the moving sidewalk. If you pack the bare minimum, you will be less tired from lugging it and therefore more energized to deal with said children, and will not be carrying unnecessary weight  when you have to chase them down that moving sidewalk.
For this trip, each child was allowed three outfits including the one they wore on the plane, one pair of shoes on their feet, and a bathing suit. The three of us shared my carry-on suitcase and we were just fine for the three-day trip. Had we run out of something we could have picked it up at Walmart. Bonus: your new item becomes a souvenir!

Wedding outfits: one of only three allotted. Little Guy just loves formal wear. So much.

Sub-tip #1 regarding what toys the kids can bring: You want it, you carry it.
Little Guy is the loving sort. He has a whole nest of special friends that have to surround him while he sleeps including: four different blankets (one that is almost destroyed from all this love,) two different pillows, and four EXTRA SPECIAL CAN'T PART WITH THEM stuffed animals. I find this endearing most of the time. Not on the plane, though. He gets a tiny backpack and whatever will fit inside. That's it.

Tip #2: Say "yes" more than "no."
I'm dropping "no"s left and right during the packing process (Can I bring my light saber? No. Can I bring my whole collection of Roald Dahl books? No. Can I bring this spider I found at recess? NOOOOO!) Once we're actually on the plane, however, I'm a yes woman. Let's face it, you're sharing the space of an elevator with a bunch of strangers who have all paid a lot of money and do not want to hear, see, smell, or feel your precious children at any time during these few hours.
The plane ride is not the time to start cry-it-out sleep training, or pacifier weaning, or to become suddenly sanctimonious about limiting sugar intake and/or screen time. My rule for the plane is pretty simple: If it keeps you happy and does not affect other passengers, go for it. We don't fly every day, so I doubt anyone's going to get a mouthful of cavities or lower SAT scores if they sit there sucking on dum-dums and watching The Incredibles for the fifteenth time. Everyone arrives happier.

Tip #3: Ask a local—a local parent that is!
Once you've arrived at your destination, I've found the best way to enjoy it is simply to ask other parents what's fun for kids in the area. No one knows the best kids restaurants and activities like other parents and tapping into this wealth of knowledge can save you loads of time and disappointment.
In North Conway I made friends with a family at the hotel pool (unofficial Tip #4: Book a hotel with a pool! And free breakfast!) and they recommended a hike to Diana's Baths. This was a perfect outing because we got to be outside, the hike was really only about a mile and a half round trip, and we saw some gorgeous waterfalls and pools.

Really fun pizza place where kids could color in a new menu cover that the restaurant keeps and reuses! Flatbread Company

Before we flew back on Sunday we had a few hours to kill in Boston, but it was rainy and I don't know the city at all. I texted a friend with kids in the city and she suggested Legoland. Brilliant idea! The kids loved it...okay, Grant and I loved it, too, and it was only ten minutes from the airport. Bonus: our sweet friends came and met us for a snack right before we had to go!

See? We saw Boston!

Everything is awesome!!

If you're ever stuck in Chicago for any reason—although I hear the weather here is always great so it's not like every flight to/from here in the winter will be delayed or canceled—I'd love to brainstorm ideas for you and your kids, hit me up!

Traveling is part of our lives because we live far from so many people we love, but we still want to be there for them and stay connected. The older the kids get, the easier it is, but I also think that just remembering that it will all turn out fine in the end is the key to having a great time.

Mom forgot to mention that you should definitely have a small screen like an iPad or a phone for each kid with movies downloaded. And make sure that the battery is at 100%. And don't forget to bring a charger so you can charge it at the hotel before you have to fly back.
Mama Dragan: B, I was trying to avoid telling people they had to buy things. Can you think of anything else that helps kids while they travel?
B: Um, headphones?
Mama Dragan: Nevermind...