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Date: February 19, 2010

a community writing center

As a writing teacher and a college writing center director, this project by Dave Eggers really caught my eye. He set up a storefront in his neighborhood in SF to help kids with writing. I saw Eggers last March at a conference in SF. He’s a smart and motivated guy (and a helluva good writer). This project of his is awesome. I can see myself doing something like this one day. Sometimes I feel like my life as a teacher can be a little bigger. I teach college writing, direct a college writing center, and help my son with his learning (some call that homeschooling), but expanding that to an even larger community might be really nice. I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, and service, and a distinct lack of it in many places. Anyway, this project got me thinking. Check it out.

I’m a homeschooling parent. (Lately I’ve taken to calling that life learning, not homeschooling, but that’s another conversation.) When you say you home school (and the like), people take that as kind of criticism of mainstream schooling because, well, at least in my case, it is. There are many problems with the mainstream system, I think. The idea that it is a system in the true sense of the word is part of the problem. But I don’t think that means one should completely separate themselves from those within that system. Sometimes we life learners catch ourselves perpetuating a kind of homeschooling snobbery–most likely as a kind of defense mechanism against the prejudices we sometimes face. Of course, that is not the answer.

One thing that has attracted me to what Eggers is doing is that he’s bringing to public school kids what many life learners and homeschoolers strive for everyday–a real sense community, purpose, and authentic voice. The kids at 826 Valencia Street are really there–doing real and rewarding work, letting their voices be heard, enjoying the respect of adults who are really interested in what they have to say. These kids are participating in what Egger’s refers to as cultivating democracy and enlightened lives through the participation in community (and in the case of 826 Valencia via the primacy of the written word). These values are closely aligned with those of my family as we negotiate this thing called homeschooling and learning with others.

a delicious sticky mess

Today we spent the better part of the morning at Pilcher Park in Joliet, IL learning about how maple syrup is made. This is a popular seasonal program at the park where they actually tap their sugar maples and produce the syrup on site. It was good fun. As I understand it, the whole process begins in early to mid February when the trees are tapped. The tree has to be at least 12 inches in diameter before it is mature enough to tap. That’s about 30 years old. Larger trees can take more taps. When done properly, the tree is not harmed. Once tapped about three inches deep, a spile (or spout) is attached and a five gallon bucket is hung from it to catch the sap as it drips out. As long as temperatures are above freezing, the sap will drip anywhere from a half gallon to five gallons a day from each spile. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. (The sap is about 95% water.)

As the sap is collected at the park, it’s poured into a larger tank just outside the “sugar shack.” Going into the tank it’s filtered and then flows into the “sugar shack” itself where it finds its way to the evaporator. As we opened the door to enter the sugar shack, it was like walking into a dream. We could barely see as the room was filed with sweet smelling steam of the water boiling off the sap. The kids all gathered around to learn about the process of reducing the sap down to syrup and even got to sample a bit right there.

After checking out the sugar shack, we went for fun winter hike to work up our appetites for what was to come after that–a delicious pancake breakfast with 100% maple syrup of course. As if all that wasn’t enough, after breakfast the tour continued. This time, we learned about the animals of the park’s nature center–focusing mostly on turtles, tortoises, snakes, and the center’s prized red-tail hawk Nemo.

We had such a good time, when the tour was over, Chris, Aidan, and I decided to do some more hiking. You can’t beat 39 degrees and sunny in February. It was a great morning. Time well spent. Check out the photos above if you haven’t already.

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