Monday, February 08, 2016

Phonics Firefly

I have blogged about the Phonics Firefly before, but I feel as though I really need to give it its own post. It is a noisy toy, ie it uses batteries and makes noise. Usually noisy toys very rarely make it past the threshold of the house and if they do, the batteries are mysteriously short-lived. Yet, the phonics firefly with it's vaguely annoying voice and music has its batteries regularly replaced and we own not one, but two of the things.

Why? Why would we do this to ourselves? (Because let me tell you, when they are both going in the same room at not quite the same time... much deep breathing must ensue.)

We happily put up with this state of affairs, because the deal little firefly toy is a learning toy that actually does what it promises. It really does teach letter and sound recognition and children like playing with it. Learning toys either fall into one of two categories, they can teach, but it doesn't matter because children hate them, or they are fun and children play with them, but they don't really teach. Oftentimes, I find just regular old toys and games of the non-educational variety are more useful than the "educational" ones. I bought the firefly on a whim because of good recommendations, but truly didn't have great expectations for it.

Our two fireflies have been in nearly constant use since we bought the first one when A. was little. I will also add, that the play is entirely self-directed. I don't help the children. If they want to play with it, they are entirely on their own. I have better things to do with my time than make an electronic firefly tell me I'm doing a great job. I am firmly convinced that A. learned to read so early because she played with it so much and it has helped nearly every other child with early phonics.

My love of the firefly has been renewed over the past couple days as I have watched Y. play with it. She is a fairly competitive child, so testing herself with this toy is right up her alley. She is also strongly driven to learn and she has figured out that learning to read English is going to be in her best interests. A couple of days ago, Y. saw one of the little girls playing with a firefly and immediately picked-up on what it was doing. H. showed her how it worked and since then she has made amazing progress. The first "game" on the toy is it singing the Alphabet Song while each letter lights up as it is sung. The second game is to push a letter to hear the firefly say the letter name. The third game is to push the letter that the firefly says. I have watched Y. move between the three games as she teaches herself the letter names. I would say after two days, she is about 50% accurate. Not bad for having no English exposure up to now.

Watching Y. play with the Firefly has also encouraged G. and L. to get it out again. They know their letters and sounds, but are now branching out into the higher level games of spelling three letter words. R. also likes the firefly and has been spending a lot of time listening to the Alphabet Song. I love how the toy encourages children to pick their own level of learning. Usually when I'm watching the child will pick a level that is a bit of a stretch. They will play at that level for a while and then switch to an easier level for a while. Then it is back to the appropriate one. Every so often, they will try a level out of their reach, then go back to the appropriate one, and so on. I find it so interesting watching them challenge themselves and then give themselves a mental break.

So if you have a pre-reader in your home, or a child newly learning English, I highly recommend the firefly. It is pricier than when I bought our first one 14 years ago, but I would probably spend the money again, knowing how much it would be used over the years. I think we are on our 2nd and 3rd versions. If memory serves, firefly #1 at some point was invited into the bathtub and didn't survive the ordeal. We try to keep the surviving ones downstairs and away from running water.

(In full disclosure, that Amazon link up above is to my associate's account and I do receive a teeny, tiny bit of money for everything sold through that.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

"Nothing will ever be simple again"

I won't kid you, the dog dying on top of everything has thrown me for a loop and I've been kind of an emotional mess. While we're really sad about losing Gretel, I have a sneaking suspicion that the overflow of emotion is not just about the dog. The dog was just the straw that broke this camel's back. I'll survive, but a period of relative calm would help greatly.

In the meantime, even during the extreme of amount of chaos around here, we have still be having our tea time/read aloud rest in the afternoons. This has truly been the single best idea I've had in a long time. It is good for us all to be together, to share a treat, and just listen to an engaging story. It has been a period of calm in a particularly un-calm time.

Of course, the irony here is that during our calm, restful hour of the day, we have been reading about the siege and fall of Constantinople. I can't decide whether knowing the city falls ahead of time helps or not. Either way, I highly recommend The Emperor's Winding Sheet by Jill Patton Walsh. It is an older book, written 1974, but in my book that is a plus since language and sentence structure in books written for older children (and younger ones, for that matter) over 30 years ago is significantly more complex. (I read a lot of books out loud and there is a noticeable difference. Children need to hear complex language or when they are adults, entire swaths of our culture will be unavailable to them. Sorry. Vent over, I'll go back to the topic at hand.) Because of the subject matter, this book is definitely best for junior high ages and older, and I can see boys in particular being engaged by it. I read it to a very mixed audience of listening abilities, but much of it went over the heads of the younger people, which was probably a good thing. The book is about a siege and sack of a city after all. It is not an easy subject. I felt the author did a good job of conveying the truth of what that looks like without going into unnecessarily traumatic detail. I have a very low tolerance for the horrors of war and while my own personal hair-trigger Geiger-counter was going off a bit, it wasn't enough for me to close the book. It is still not easy, though.

That said, there are so many redeeming parts of the book that it makes the yucky parts worth plowing through. The chapter that describes the Emperor Constantine (the last, not the first) going from person to person, begging their forgiveness if he had ever wronged them, and that cascading into every person in the room doing the same, on the eve of the final attack nearly brought me to tears reading it. It was so beautiful and moving and heart-rending. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful portrayals of Christian repentance and humility in juvenile literature.

At the book's heart, it is really about a boy (the narrator of the story) learning to see a broader and much more complex world. He starts out having a certain view of his world. It is a rather narrow and close-minded view and he is firm in his opinions of those around him. At the end, as he looks back on all he seen and all the people he has come to love, he wonders at the change in his outlook on the world. Eventually he is able to head back to England and ponders what it will be like to tell his family about all that has happened. He also realizes that it will be very difficult to convince them of the positives of the people he loved, because he knows that they are back in the mindset where he started. He realizes that nothing will ever be simple again. He has seen too much, has come to appreciate the humanity of people he didn't understand at first, has learned there is always more than one side to a story. His life has been made richer, yet much more complicated all at the same time.

This line speaks to me on a very deep level and I find myself thinking about it often since we finished the book. On this blog, I try over and over to convey the change that happens to people when they are confronted by real life orphans. It changes you. Suddenly, instead of just a depressing statistic, you know real faces, real stories, real children. You come away realizing that nothing will ever be simple again, because you cannot unknow what you know. This is also true parenting children who society has deemed less-than-perfect. Those of us who have been blessed by this experience, realize that our worlds have broadened. We know more now. We see things differently. We are thankful that we have not missed out on the joy and wonder our children bring us by staying on the traditional (and normal) path.

Nothing may ever be simple again, but it will be richer and deeper and more meaningful.
I have a new article up... and its stats look so, so lonely with no shares and clicks. Give it a little boost, OK? Letters from China - An Adoption Story, Part 1

Thursday, February 04, 2016

House of grief

I am so, so sorry to report that Gretel didn't make it through the night. It was a very difficult way for some of our children to wake up.

I'm so tired of grief.
I'm so tired of watching my children's hearts being ripped out of their chests.
I'm so tired of losing very young pets.
I'm so tired of not having any emotional energy to take care of the basics of life.
I'm just so tired.

These are pictures that TM took yesterday after he was able to put his heart back inside his chest.

We will miss Gretel greatly. She was a good dog.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A brief update

A.'s surgery went well and she is doing fine. She is currently home to sleep tonight, making use of the Polartech 3000 (or something like that). That would be the ice machine for reducing swelling which we purchased for M's first knee surgery and never dreamed would be using for family knee surgery #3. A. kept telling us that she would be going to class tomorrow and we humored her, but based on how she is doing right now, she may be right.

So that's the good news.

The bad news is that Gretel is not doing well. That would be not doing well as in we really don't expect her to make it through the night. We've been in contact with the vet and since she doesn't seem to be in discomfort and is pretty constantly surrounded by her family who is doting on her, we are just taking care of her right now. It's hard. It's also hard to sit with your children as they grieve what is to come.

We'll just add both these events to the column, "Things that don't help with adoption travel or transition." It seems to be a list which just keep growing and growing. I'm more than ready to stop adding to it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The best part of international adoption

And by best, what I mean is worst. My worst, least-favorite part of the whole complicated process. Is it the paperwork? No, though that is pretty stinky. Is it writing big, huge checks? No, though that's not terribly fun, either. Jet lag? Missing my children? Grief? No, no, and no. None of this is enjoyable or fun or something to be anticipated.

You want to know what it is?

Yes, it is the testing of bodily substances one does not really like to deal with. It's bad enough for yourself or for a child who trusts you and shares a common language. A child who is not entirely sure about your reliability or sanity and who doesn't share your language? Torture. For everyone. Because really, how does one go about using gestures and limited vocabulary to explain what is needed? From past experience, the expressions on the child's face pretty much say, "You want me to do what where? And why? That clinches it, you are insane... how do I get out of here?" I'm just really excited about going through this whole process again, times two. And if you can't hear the sarcasm just pouring out of that sentence, I can't really help you.

As you probably have already guessed, today I took R. and Y. for their physicals with our pediatrician. And I really, really tried to get out of this particular test. Oh, how I tried. I like our pediatrician (which really stands for, I think she is good and what she does and she takes me seriously), but on this particular test she wouldn't budge. Drat.

The girls did well. The first doctor visits are always stressful because the new child is always expecting something horrible to happen. This is especially true if the child has had previous medical procedures or surgeries performed, and these two have. It takes a while for them to realize that regular doctor visits are usually pretty benign and that I can be trusted not to throw yucky experiences in their paths unexpectedly. While having an interpreter present can help, in some ways it adds to the unnaturalness of it all, which adds to the anxiety. The girls actually exhibited fewer anxiety-related behaviors than I was expecting to see, so that was good. Exhausting, but good.

The other good thing was that H. has officially graduated from needing a helper when we go places to being the helper herself. This is fantastically huge in my book. I knew that life would just be better if I had an extra pair of hands as we maneuvered these girls to the appointment, and I thought since H. is really good with R., I would try taking her along. H. did great and was really helpful! She held R.'s hand to and from the office, so I could help Y. with her walker. She entertained the waiting girl while the doctor was talking to the other. She carried things. She buckled seat belts. She made conversation with me. (Real conversation, even.) It was a pleasure to have her along. What a change from four years ago!! I am so proud of her.

Our week of doctors is almost done. Tomorrow, A.'s surgery is scheduled for 12:30 and should take an hour. The surgeon isn't anticipating any difficult repairing her torn ligament, but I will be glad when she is out of surgery and it's all done. I'll keep you updated.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Jet lag and claustrophobia

J. and I are still pretty much down for the count as far as our sleep schedules are concerned. We can't stay awake at night, we can't stay asleep in the morning, and are just tired during the time in between. I have never felt so old! The children who traveled with us all seem to be regulated with the new time zone, but I'm tired. And I'm tired of being tired!

Feeling constantly fatigued is also not terribly helpful during the early transition phase of bringing a new child home, though the two always seem to go hand in hand. The weekend went pretty well, though J. and I spent it trying to ward off an impending sense of severe claustrophobia.

The claustrophobia wasn't because of tight spaces such as airline seats, or cabin fever due to bad weather (it was actually quite beautiful), but from the sheer need of many children to be near us all the time. First, you have the obvious need of the two new girls whose lives have been turned upside down. We are the only secure thing in their lives at the moment and they want and need to be near us.

If you are adopting an older child and this is your first time, this is something you really need to understand. There is sometimes the idea out there that in some ways adopting an older child is easier than, say an infant. We all know that infants take a lot of time. They can do nothing for themselves, they don't sleep well, and they need a lot of holding. If you have a baby in the house, you are just not going to get much, if anything done. Surely, though, by adopting an older child, you miss out on at least some of this neediness, right?


A child who has just lost everything is pretty much an emotional infant. It's temporary and they don't lose all their physical skills, but they are also not functioning at their typical age level, either. They need as much reassurance as a baby. Nothing feels normal to them. Not the language, the food, the scenery, the bed, the comfort, the schedule, the bathroom, the expectations, the play, the TV. Nothing. In a sense, the changes have stripped them of any independence they might have had. Thus, they need to rely on external sources until they get things figured out again and a new normal emerges. And those external sources are the new parents who are the only things that seem even remotely secure in all of this.

Consequently, when you bring home two new girls, it's a bit like having infant twins again. Well, minus the constant nursing and corresponding benefit of huge amounts of reading. The fatigue and need to be on call at every moment is the same. (And I am certainly in a position to know!) We help them do a lot of things... help find things, help entertain them, help pick-out clothes, help getting dressed, help washing up, help figuring out food, help to comfort them. I do find it is tricky line to walk, though, because at the same time, especially for R., we want to encourage self-care skills and personal motivation. We're taking everything slowly at the moment, don't worry.

So those are the new girls. We also have this house of children who are recovering from having their world briefly turned upside down with the added complication of when the world went right side up again, it wasn't the same world. Everyone is a bit off kilter and needing some love and support... from, you guessed it, Mom and Dad.

None of this has come as a surprise to either me of J. We knew it was coming before we had even left. We weren't looking forward to it, either. It is all just something to get through. This is why, yesterday afternoon, recovering from the chaos of taking new children to church in the morning, J. and I were sitting down, trying not to sleep and realized we had lost all personal space. We were in the kitchen, which is not a small room, and there were six children there with us, all within less than two feet. We realized that it is how we had spent the better part of the entire weekend. Desperate measure were called for if hyperventilating was to be avoided.

Enter movies. We are thankful for movies. Very thankful.

The English speakers got to watch a Disney cartoon on the television in the living room. The non-English speakers were not interested, so they sat in the kitchen (a compromise since they were still in the same room as J. and I, just more than two feet away) watching a cartoon they enjoyed in China on J.'s computer. It bought us about an hour of not being touched or talked to.

This is bliss in our current world.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Emergency crafting

There's always that point in adding new children to your family where life hits its nadir. (At least I hope we're at the nadir.) It doesn't matter if it's a new biologically related baby or older, adopted children, there comes a point when life just seems to spiral out of control and everyone is more than a little unsettled. I always find the third week postpartum to be that point when I've brought home a baby. Everyone is sleep deprived, the baby hasn't settled and has to a ways to go before settling happens, and those hormones are still doing cha-cha all over my body. With older, adopted children, the three week mark still pretty much stands, which for a China adoption timeline, puts you at about one week home. This is the point at which everyone really begins to understand that this is permanent. The existing siblings also have lived with the new brothers or sisters for about a week and the shine has worn off more than a little bit. The excitement of the new has faded, but everything is still so new it doesn't feel right. Plus, the language issues are still huge and frustration on both sides is very near the surface.

This has been us the past couple of days. Our fun times have included melt downs of various degrees from the vast majority of family members. Normally, this would be enough on anyone's plate, but we like to do things bigger over here, so we've added some other fun stuff. Most of us are fighting head colds, which at the moment seems to have bypassed the new girls, thankfully.

And then there is the dog. Neither J. nor I slept well last night because we were so hyper-aware of her breathing. When we were getting ready to go to bed last night, Gretel just didn't look good. She is nothing but skin and bones and is eating, but not with her usual healthy appetite. Her breathing is a bit labored due to some fluid around her lungs, and she is quite weak. Every time the dog barks we all rejoice because for a barking dog, she has been eerily silent. We are very worried about her and the vets are completely baffled. So, when we went to bed last night, we were not entirely sure Gretel would still be with us in the morning. We spent the night worrying when we heard her breathing and worrying when we didn't hear her breathing. It's not restful. She made it through the night and this morning, seems a tiny bit better. Emphasis on tiny, but enough to allow me not to watch her constantly. We've started to prepare the children that Gretel is very sick and we just don't know what her future is.

Plus there is the background grief of losing my dad and the planning for heading to Arizona in April and figuring out how we will get college students out there. A. has surgery next week for her knee, giving her the honor of having family surgery number 11. And a man who is very like an uncle to me is in ICU in Arizona. I know you are all jealous and just wish you, too, could have this much fun.

But life goes on and a houseful of discombobulated AND unoccupied children would not help things a bit. So, this morning I headed upstairs and raided my craft area for something... anything... that I thought this group of children could manage, would keep them occupied for more than a few minutes, and that wouldn't be too labor intensive for me given my head cold and level of general fatigue. That wasn't too much to hope for, was it?

Enter a huge package of foam sheets that I had bought for school last year, but then never got to the project I had planned. It seemed like some good start. Then I found a site that had a bunch of free, printable templates for various flower and animals, that were actually easy to print. I printed a selection for them to use if they wanted, got out some scissors, and glue sticks and let them go at it.

It was actually a huge hit. Some people used the templates, others just made up their own creations. I knew my usual people wouldn't have much trouble occupying themselves with the craft supplies, but I had no idea about my new girls. Y. once I helped her a bit, quickly figured out what was what and ventured out into her own territory after having made a flower using the template. R. had an impromptu scissor-usage-coaching session. She cut and then together we eventually made a mosaic-type picture with the scraps. She really enjoys coloring, I'm not sure she really saw the point of our multi-media creating this morning.

I didn't get pictures of everything, but here are a few that I did.

TM's... though I don't think flowers should have quite so many eyes.

Y.'s... The flower was part of the template, and then she added the corner decorations and the grass.

D.'s... Who went off to find a piece of scrap matboard so that he could create an entire Pacman game with his creations.


Will it surprise anyone to hear that K. made vehicles? A police car, a fire truck, and our van pulling out trailer.

Of course, creativity and occupied children does come with a small cost. Here is the aftermath of the morning's activities. But, the children all helped clear it up while I made some lunch.

So far, today is already better than yesterday was. Here's to hoping that the nadir of adjustment has been passed and we are on our way upwards.
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