March 2015

Wooden Albacus
Neuroscience fascinates me — I’m nerdy like that — and this recent article in kqed news about how kids learn best is really interesting. Apparently, the latest research shows that children remember and understand concepts much better if they can act things out, or if there’s some kind of physical movement matched to the mental concept.

For example, 3rd graders were divided into two groups to do a mathematical word problem. The first group worked on the problem verbally, in their heads, while the second group acted out the problem. The latter did better. This result was repeated in other experiments.

The article goes on to say that many of the academic skills now required for successful functioning in the world — such as math — are fairly new to the human brain:

As neuroscientists investigate how humans learn, they often find that newer skills and aptitudes are mapped onto areas of the brain that also control basic body functions. Increasingly, this work is helping to illuminate neurological connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head,” said Beilock at a Learning and the Brain conference. “We have to go beyond that.”

This “embodied” learning backs up what Maria Montessori claimed in her 1966 book The Secret of Childhood, where she wrote: “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

When it comes to teaching children — even high schoolers, apparently — the science seems to show that encouraging kids to use their hands in learning, and teaching them gestures as another way to figure things out, goes a long way.

And environment matters, too:  Our brains need time to relax, and nature does this best, helping us to focus better. Also, most early-childhood classrooms are set up all wrong:

Visual distractions apply to the classroom as well. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

I think whether you’re a parent or a teacher, this neuroscience research is fascinating to ponder. I’m already thinking about how to use it in our homeschooling moving forward.

Image:Victor Hanacek via PicJumbo


by Margaret Cabaniss

Ciao, ragazzi!
 Even though I got back from Rome last week, it already feels like my trip happened ages ago. (I can still taste the gelato, though…)

I know I said that I’d give a full report once I got back, but Rome turns out to be a hard place to recap: The food is amazing, the scenery is ridiculous, and you can’t turn around without bumping into another famous piece of art or architecture — but you knew that already. What else is there to add, really?

What I can say is that my approach to “doing Rome” subtly shifted through the week as I got my bearings. Before my trip, I must have checked out four or five different Rome guidebooks, consulted Pinterest “best of” lists, and put out a general call for tips on Facebook. But as the trip got closer, all the (truly wonderful) recommendations started to make me slightly panicky: Suddenly everything felt like a must-do, and there was simply no way that I was going to be able to do them all. I was failing at Rome before I even started.

It was somewhere around Day 3, after a couple days spent herded through various tourist sites and speedwalking all over the city, that I started to slow down and take a different tack. I finally accepted that I wouldn’t be able to see everything, and that even trying would take all the fun out of it; I got over the deadly fear of missing out and focused on the handful of things that were really important to me. I did a lot more aimless wandering and drinking in cafes. It was glorious.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go with a plan — just that the best plans should leave plenty of time for soaking up the city, and maybe less time for racing between major attractions. What ultimately worked best for me: I made a short list of my absolute must-sees, looked up a few restaurant recommendations in the neighborhood, then checked the maps to see what could reasonably be done in a day — making sure to leave plenty of time for strolling (and gelato breaks). If at all possible, I’d recommend leaving a free day at the end of your trip: Trust me, after you get there, you’ll find something that you desperately want to work into the schedule — even if it’s just pondering the beauty of the place over a few negronis. (Nota bene: Barnum Cafe makes an excellent one.)

My big takeaways: Major tourist attractions — the Spanish Steps, the Trevi fountain, the Colosseum — are more impressive, and less crowded, at night. Don’t wait to see the most important stuff on your list — particularly in Rome, where St. Peter’s basilica will suddenly up and close for the two-year anniversary of the pope’s election on your last day in town. (To use a completely random example.) Take locals’ dining advice whenever possible; ask your waiters for their favorite thing on the menu, then order that thing. The Eat Rome app is the best $4 investment you can make for your trip.

And to crib from a friend’s truly excellent advice: If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, turn in any direction and marvel at the beauty right in front of you. In Rome, it’s not hard to find.

Questions? Tips of your own to share? Leave ’em in the comments. Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about how I packed for the trip entirely in a carry on — and what I wish I had done differently…

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


Using Essential Oils

March 24, 2015

Bokeh Bark

A lot of people I know use essential oils now. They claim these oils help with various kinds of conditions: insomnia, viruses, infection, high blood pressure, etc. Many parents are using them for their children’s ailments, too.

For the uninitiated, an essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing compounds from plants.  “Essential,” here doesn’t mean “necessary,” but that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance and properties. Essential oils are used in all kinds of products and have been used throughout history for medicinal reasons.

Claims for how effective they are for treating illnesses are regulated in most countries, but a medical doctor I spoke with recently said that while she’s still skeptical about the general public using essential oils, she’s impressed by mounting scientific evidence showing the ability of some of them to fight bacterial and antibiotic-resistant infections.

I had a brief venture into the land of essential oils myself: When I was constantly battling sinus infections the first few months my daughters were home, and they were dealing with sinus colds and congestion, I used some essential oils in a diffuser on the advice of a naturopath — with much success. Later on, though, when I got a little experimental (and careless) with another oil I picked up, my husband ended up with heart palpitations and couldn’t sleep all night. Oops.

I don’t think there’s any question that essential oils work, at least for some things; it’s just that you need to know what you’re doing, and use a high quality product.

Have you ever used essential oils for medicinal reasons, home made cleaning products, or anything else? I’d love to hear about your experience, as well as what companies you think are putting out the best products.

Image from picography


Internet Menagerie

March 23, 2015

Boats of Color
Let’s kick off the week with a trip around the web. Here are some of my finds from the past few weeks. I’d love to hears yours in the comments!

  • What it’s like to live with Alzheimers for 12 minutes:

  • This little tap dancer doesn’t want to be just another chorus girl:

Image: by Dave Meier from


Window by Sarah Babineau

I watched this short video on Slate about the importance of turning our screens off at least one hour before bed, and I sighed. I find it so hard to do. Since S and H still won’t fall asleep without me or B, we take turns and many nights I just can’t get to the rest of my work until at least 10 p.m. Then there’s my current habit of winding down… checking Instagram and my favorite blogs, watching a program with B, etc.

I’ve always been a night owl and I work well at night, but working  before bed on screens is apparently a bad idea because it’s actually toxic for our brains. What to do?

We use a blue screen when watching shows movies at night, and it seems to help, though I’m not sure if it’s actually still doing some bad things to our grey matter or not. In a perfect world, I’d finish all my work by 9 or 10 p.m., but with my kids’ schedules right now, I’m not sure how to make that happen. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Do you turn all your screens off well in advance of bedtime? Does it concern you that it’s toxic for your brain to check your phone before you doze off?

Image: Window by Sarah Babineau found at Life of Pix


The Cultural Iceberg

March 17, 2015

Cultural Iceberg

Have you seen this graphic? It’s a great visual of what we absorb from the culture we’re raised in. Food, artistic expression, music, language, etc. are what we tend to think of in terms of “culture” since that’s what we see.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Below the line is whole other set of things, hidden influencers that affect our deepest attitudes and beliefs.

Graphics like this have a lot of meaning to international adoptive families like ours. B and I are very committed to helping our daughters stay connected to their birth culture, but it’s mostly the stuff above the surface that we can help to provide. What’s impossible for us to give them is the deep culture. Even if we spend more time with Ethiopians, it would never exactly be what they’ve lost anyway because culture is so specific to family, region, etc. Our daughters are now Ethiopian-Canadian-Americans and each of these identities will have different meanings and influences on them as they grow up.

Spending four and half years in Ethiopia is still something — I know it remains with them and they have memories. It does sadden me that my little girls have lost the deepest aspects of their first culture; but I hope they never experience a vacuum and we can provide a meaningful amalgamation of the cultures they’ve inherited both by birth and by adoption. There’s no road map for this as parents, but I do think about it a lot.

Have you ever thought about “surface” culture vs. “deep” culture? Were you, or were your children, born into a different culture than the one they’re being raised in?

Image: Oh I



Friday Inspiration

March 13, 2015

I love this story.

Meet Mason Wartman, owner of Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia. After working a desk job on Wall Street, Wartman decided to do something different with his life and opened a $1 pizza joint in Philly. One day, a man walked in and pre-purchased a slice of pizza for the next homeless person who came in. Wartman bought some sticky notes and posted one behind the register so he wouldn’t forget it and eventually, a homeless person did walk in.

The rest, as they say, is history. To date, the shop has given over 10,000 pieces of pizza to the homeless, all redeemed by sticky notes left around the restaurant with little messages on them.

This is another illustration of how one act of kindness can have such a ripple effect. (See my post yesterday.) That first man who walked in to Rosa’s and paid for a slice of pizza for the next homeless person had no idea what his gesture would turn into. So cool.

Have a lovely weekend, friends, and I’ll catch you back here next week!


Life of Pix House on Water

I think most people would agree that kindness is important, but I’ve discovered over the years that it’s one of my deepest held values. I’m strongly affected when I experience or witness a lack of kindness in others, and although I can forgive myself of many things, when I notice unkindness in my heart, I feel really ugly.

Karen Walrond of Chookooloonks (who I wish were my friend, or at least lived next door) wrote a great post yesterday about a talk she gave on the “ripple effect” of kindness. She tells the story of how a small gesture of kindness was a defining moment in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s life when he was nine years old, walking down the street in the slums of Johannesburg with his mother. (Be sure to read it.)

Karen challenges us to think about the ripple effect that our actions have as we go about our daily lives, and to continue to be nice to one another, even when we feel angry or confused…

Let’s not hesitate to pay a compliment to a friend, or child, or even a stranger; and let’s fight for the disenfranchised, calling out negativity, violence and discrimination when we see it.   Hell, let’s become addicted to doing acts of kindness — in little ways, and in great big ways. Because ultimately and collectively, I believe that all these acts of kindness, and the ripples that inevitably result, might actually be the key to changing our world for the better.

What I really like about focusing on small acts of kindness in every day life is that it’s something each of us can actually do. There are so many horrible things happening in the world, so many stories of people who say and do awful things to others. I’m not just talking about the big things, but all the smaller things, too. I see these things and often feel helpless: What can I possibly do to fix any of it?

Well, I can do what Karen’s talking about: Smile at someone. Let someone in front of me. Acknowledge a stranger. Encourage a friend. Remind myself of the ripple effect of each and every gesture I make.

Does this speak to you? Have you ever experienced the ripple effect of kindness yourself?

Image: Life of Pix



{ 1 comment }


Sunday was International Women’s Day so I thought it was appropriate to talk about this recent article from the New York Times. Psychiatrist, Julie Holland, writes about the high number of women on mood-altering meds these days, and how the phenomenon undermines an important part of what it means to be a woman:

At least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men. Women are nearly twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder than men are. For many women, these drugs greatly improve their lives. But for others they aren’t necessary. The increase in prescriptions for psychiatric medications, often by doctors in other specialties, is creating a new normal, encouraging more women to seek chemical assistance. Whether a woman needs these drugs should be a medical decision, not a response to peer pressure and consumerism.

The new, medicated normal is at odds with women’s dynamic biology; brain and body chemicals are meant to be in flux. To simplify things, think of serotonin as the “it’s all good” brain chemical. Too high and you don’t care much about anything; too low and everything seems like a problem to be fixed.

Holland says that if serotonin levels are kept artificially high, women are at risk of “losing their emotional sensitivity with its natural fluctuations, and modeling a more masculine, static hormonal balance. ” She says this “emotional blunting encourages women to take on behaviors that are typically approved by men: appearing to be invulnerable, for instance, a stance that might help women move up in male-dominated businesses.”

Holland recalls a patient who called saying her antidepressant dose needed to be increased because she kept crying at work. Turns out she was upset by something demeaning that her boss had done. After talking it out, the patient realized the situation called for a response, but not more medication.

I’m guessing this is probably true for a lot of women out there. Life is moving quickly, there are so many demands; who has time to deal with strong mood fluctuations that are perceived by self and others as “difficult” or “negative?” It’s easy to believe that feeling strong emotions is bad.

But what does it say more fundamentally that women are more readily put on medication, and that our emotional fluctuations — which stem from the natural processes related to our biology — are judged as negative, unhelpful, and needing to be “fixed?”

I think Holland is right: there’s a tendency today to dismiss biology outright, as though it’s insignificant and unimportant. But we are mind-body-spirit composites. Women aren’t men and men and aren’t women, and this a good thing. When we judge biological differences, women always get the short end of the stick.

Before you wonder if I’m claiming that women shouldn’t ever take meds for things like anxiety or depression, I’m not saying that at all. Holland readily acknowledges this, too. Her point is that too many women are being medicated too often for something that is natural and good. More generally, I think her piece raises the question of whether our society allows — and supports — women to be who they really are.

Any thoughts of your own about this article?

Image: gratisography 


Friday Inspiration

March 6, 2015

When I want to save someone’s life I don’t care if he’s an enemy or a friend. What concerns me is the soul that might die. – Abed

I recently discovered an inspiring group called the White Helmets, a group of Syrians who volunteer to save people on all sides of the conflict, since there’s no infrastructure there to help anyone now. The volunteers pledge three things: humanity, solidarity, impartiality, and they are part of the International Civil Defence Organisation.

According to its web site, the White Helmets mainly deal with the aftermath of government air attacks, but have also risked sniper fire to rescue bodies of regime soldiers to give them a proper burial. They rush to the scenes of barrel bomb and missile strikes and dig for survivors using tools and their bare hands. They come from all walks of life; they are are bakers, engineers, tailors, painters, pharmacists, carpenters, and students. Many have paid the ultimate price for their compassion — 81 have been killed in the line of duty.

While almost all of the members of the White Helmets are men, two teams of women were formed in October 2014. So far, 56 women have been trained in medical care and light search and rescue work. In some cases, these women are the only hope for other women or girls who are trapped under rubble since in Syria’s most conservative communities, some refuse to let male volunteers rescue women and girls. The female White Helmets have inspired hundreds of people across the world to donate over $100,000 to buy them the six ambulances they need for their rescue missions.

If you want some inspiration, there you go. I cried when I watched the rescue video above. Incredible.

I hope your weekend is peaceful and I’ll see you back here in next week!