Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Reading year and 2012 goals

After a few months of neglect, I updated my 2011 Reading page.  In the beginning of the year, I was disgusted with my pathetic reading life and resolved to repair it.

I read  26 books last year.  Ten were read-alouds for our homeschooling, most of the rest were novels I read for pleasure.   I didn't count books I started but didn't finish. There are a lot of those!   26 books is better than zero books, it's true.  But it's not quite what I had in mind.

So, in a few hours it'll be a new year. The new year brings a new beginning.  I'm not making any commitments, but I'd like to continue to work on my reading life. 

This year I'm going to be reading the Bible all the way through.  I have tried to do this a few times but have only succeeded once.  I don't believe it is a necessary thing to do, but I want to do it this year.  I'm trying this plan found on Desiring God.

Besides reading aloud to my kids - in January we'll be doing The Iliad and some Greek plays together, among other things - I want to read one novel and one nonfiction book each month.  That will be 24 books just for my own pleasure and edification, better than the 16 I got in this year.

It's a start.  

How is your reading life going?

Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini

Earlier this year I started playing around on Goodreads. I wrote some comments on a book and then by internet magic moved then over here. And here it sat in draft form for a long, long time. I'm doing some housekeeping so thought I may as well publish it, finally!

Twice BornTwice Born by Margaret Mazzantini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story of a marriage, of a war, of love.  But not a love story by any conventional definition of the term.  Gemma and Diego are a mismatched Italian couple who meet in Sarajevo and are drawn back to that city even as the siege is beginning.

The story moves fluidly through time:  the present as Gemma takes her son Pietro to Sarajevo to see the city of his birth, and the past as the full story unfolds.

Most than once I almost gave up on the book, as I sensed events unfolding that I didn't want to read. Have you ever felt that a character you liked was going to disappoint you? I didn't want to experience that, and I felt it was coming.  As is my usual practice when I feel like abandoning a book, I read the last few pages to see if I had figured out what was going to happen.  I hadn't, and had to go back and finish.

The characters, particularly Diego, are complex.  I am still trying to figure out how I feel about him. The scenes of war are heartbreaking.  The ending is satisfying but as with most good stories, I want to know more.

There are some other issues that I would love to talk about but would involve spoilers.  There is a lot to this book beyond the plot. If you can handle a story with some very dark moments and pictures of humanity, this is a worthwhile book.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It is still Christmas

Is Christmas over at your house?  Are you already done putting away all the seasonal decor, or are you itching to?  Going by the blogs I've been reading, most people are.  I am saddened by people saying "I can't wait to get the house back to normal" and "I'm so sick of that tree!"

But it is still Christmas for many of us.

If you celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday, not a religious one, of course it's over.  Santa's come and gone, the presents have been given, the parties are past.  Time to move on.  That makes sense, and I'm not complaining about you.  It's the Christians who are so anxious for Christmas to be over who are making me want to cry.

For those celebrating Christ's birth, the party should be just beginning. 

Of course Christmas is not a biblical holiday.  We are not commanded to celebrate it.  But traditionally, Christmas begins on December 25.  That is the first day!  It ends on January 6, the day traditionally celebrated as the day the Magi presented their gifts to the Christ child.

Advent is what ended on December 25. Advent is the time of preparation, of contemplation and readying ourselves for the celebration.   In many homes, traditionally, the tree was not even put up till December 24,  Christmas Eve. The children were surprised by it on Christmas morning.

Now, the tree goes up the day after Thanksgiving, or even before, and by Christmas it's all falling needles and in the way.  So it's out on the curb, or back in the attic, first thing on December 26.

Why is there such a long buildup to Christmas, and then it's over in a blink?  Thanks to a facebook friend, I had my revelation about this last night.

The retail calendar is dictating the Christmas season now..  The retail calendar says we have to start buying stuff for Christmas as early as possible. I think I started seeing serious Christmas stuff in stores in October this year.  People are frantic to get their houses decorated.  I heard someone say, "We're late getting our tree up!" on December 1.  That's not late.

But then, once Christmas Day comes, there's nothing left to buy.   The gifts have been given, the decorations are up, the cards have been sent (well, most of them).  The stores have to clear out the old stuff and bring in the new.  Target, I'm told, is full of Valentine's Day products, the next retail holiday.

We don't always keep our tree up till January 6, but we keep the other decorations up till then.  (This year the tree is going out today because of allergies.) I understand the need to get a tree out of the house and out of the way, the need for some return to normal routine.  We are still enjoying some free time (not as much, as people do have to go back to work), still making cookies, still having company over for some Christmas cheer.  Still singing Christmas songs. We aren't in fully holiday mode, but it's not completely over for us yet. 

Retail Christmas is over. It's time to start buying for Valentine's Day.

Real  Christmas is not over yet.  Keep it going.  Just a little longer.  And next year, think about maybe not starting so early.  Hold off a bit.  Then you might not be in such a hurry to get it all out.

Merry Christmas.  Today is just the third day!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santa Truthers

Over at NRO's The Home Front, they're talking about kids, parents, and Santa:

How Should Parents Deal with Santa "Truthers"?

You can see my comment about telling my kids the truth about Santa at a young age.  As I post this, I have another comment awaiting moderation there, in response to someone telling me and other truth-tellers to lighten up about Santa.

What do you think?  Is is lying to tell kids that Santa is real?   Does telling kids the truth about Santa ruin Christmas?  Is our cultural heritage in danger of disappearing if we treat Santa the same way we treat the Wizard of Oz and other great imaginary characters?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are you ready to Maximize your Mornings?

Last fall I dubiously signed up for a challenge.  I needed some routine in my life and Inspired to Action was providing a way to get it: Hello Mornings!   It's a challenge to get up early, get active, pray and read the Bible, and generally not be one of those people who hits the snooze button and gets up only when forced to.

I said dubiously.  I've tried challenges of various sorts before, and never really last with them.  I always find some reason to stop trying.  But, I got into an accountability group, printed some materials, and tried to learn how to be productive early in the a.m.

Now, the fall challenge is over and a new one is starting up in January.  I'm signing up again, somewhat less dubiously and more enthusiastically.

Does that mean I was successful in this challenge?   No, not really.

I mean, I did get up early many mornings.  OK, some.  I got some exercise (I walk the dog every morning, but sometimes it might be for only 5 minutes), read my Bible and prayed at least a couple of times a week, and tried to get a good start on the day... sometimes.  I had many excuses and even sometimes good reasons for not leaping out of bed before dawn and getting started.

But I also found some days when I couldn't find an excuse, and did get up and going.

Those were the best days!  

 I am not convinced that everyone's life is best suited to early rising by the mama.  I think families need to find their own rhythm and sometimes that means a later start and end to the day.  Wives and mothers need to figure out how their families work best.  Sleep is important and there is much competition for our time.

But for me, at this time of life, early is best.

It is so hard to get up early.  When my alarm goes off, I just want to curl up tighter and go back to sleep.  But when I force myself up and out, and start my day - wow.  Look out world!  I am getting something done.

So I'm excited to start a new challenge on January 15.   I'm hoping to do make it better than the last challenge, by getting up more consistently and just being more productive.  (I admit some early mornings I start clicking through blogs and reading news stories I'm not interested in, just because I don't feel like I can get started on my real day.) 

If you could use some  help getting started in the morning, being productive and getting things done, why not consider joining?  I'd say it's valuable even for those who don't want to get up early.  No matter what time your morning starts, you want to start the day strong and productive, right?  So, check it out and join in.  Maybe we'll end up in the same accountability group!

PS: Here is a free eBook you can download.  Even if you are not doing the challenge, you might find it helpful.

Inspired To Action Button

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A book to add to your family Christmas reading

Yesterday we pulled out our box of Christmas books and CDs.  We have a nice collection of Christmas picture books that we treasure.  But they are picture books, written for children, and my children really aren't anymore.

I'm sure Eleanor and I will read The Story of Holly and Ivy together, and everyone will look through the old favorites.  Maybe we'll find some that aren't so beloved anymore and give them away; at least I hope so, as we are always trying to reduce our number of books.

But, still, I wanted a Christmas book that would appeal to these older children.  And so I found  Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, a selection of Christmas writings, edited by Nancy Guthrie.

This is a nice little book with twenty-two short readings by authors such as Martin Luther, John Piper, Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon... and many more, obviously.  Some are excerpts from sermons, others come from books.  I've read about a quarter of them so far.  Some have resonated with me more than others. I don't think the book is perfect.  I've shared a few of them with my kids and we'll get to more in the days ahead, though surely not all of them. Not all will be interesting to them at their ages.  I can keep some to myself for a while. 

It's a nice addition to our Christmas book box.  

As always, I'd love to know about other good Christmas books for teens. 

Christmas baking and candy-making

Last night we made our list of must-have Christmas-time treats.  I am not sure we'll get to baking all these items; I may opt to buy some instead.  We need something for a potluck lunch that's coming up, a few gift items, a New Year's Eve afternoon open house, and some just for us. 

In no particular order:

* Sugar Cookies. The rolled, cutout kind.  I avoided making these for years, but when Eleanor turned 10, we had to start.  This year I bought her a set of snowflake cookie cutters and some edible glitter.  We've learned the best way to handle sugar cookie dough (roll on parchment paper, freeze, cut, move parchment to baking sheet) so we have lovely shapes instead of the blobs my sister and I used to come up with.

* Cranberry Bliss (You Idiot) Bars. The name of this recipe is actually Cranberry Ecstasy Bars, and I found it in the Oregonian several years ago.  The "you idiot" part is in honor of the counter person at a Portland-area Starbucks who rudely corrected my husband when he had the misfortune to order a "cranberry bar."  The "you idiot" was not spoken but clearly implied.  So, we found the recipe and have never bought a cranberry whatever bar in Starbuck's since! 

* Chocolate-Orange Hazelnut Bark.  It will make you moan in delight.

* English toffee.  Recipes abound.  Just use real butter and good chocolate. This is not the place to go bargain.

* Peppermint bark.  Two of our family can't eat peppermint, so I'm not sure about this one.  I may turn Eleanor loose to do it herself, or .... we may buy that big tub at Costco. 

* Fudge.  I have a few requests from people to make fudge.  I think I've made it before, but I don't have a special recipe. Yet.

* Sponge candy.  This is also known as seafoam and I hope I can find my mother's old recipe.  It's an exciting candy to make - once the sugar/corn syrup mixture becomes very hot, baking soda is quickly stirred in.  I can tell you it's very  hot because one year my sister and I made it and part of the plastic spatula melted right into the candy.  Didn't affect the taste. 

* Anise candy.  This is another sentimental favorite.  It's just hard candy flavored with anise extract.  I could take it or leave it; but my sentimental girlie put it on the list.

* Biscotti.  We just like biscotti and rarely make it, so now it's formally on the list.

* Gingerbread men:  Eleanor would prefer to do a full-on gingerbread house, but... maybe this will be her project.

This doesn't seem like very much, does it?  We will probably make some other things before the season is out. We do love to bake around here.  But these are our must-haves. 

What are yours?

Friday, December 09, 2011

More about Christmas Gift Shopping

I thought I was finished talking about Christmas gift shopping but a conversation last night prompted me to say more.  I couldn't bring myself to say this in person to near-strangers, but:

If your children are nagging you for gifts, want too much stuff, want every popular (highly-advertised) toy or electronic item around right now, and are generally driving you crazy over gifts... you are not training them properly.


I have many child-training failures in my life so far.  My kids don't clean their rooms, don't naturally help me out in the kitchen, and are completely incapable of putting their shoes away.

But they have never nagged, pleaded, cajoled or threatened over gifts.

This must be because when they were little, we never allowed them to get hung up on popular toys.  We limited their exposure to advertising and didn't buy anything related to TV shows or movies.  We bought them great toys - they still refuse to give up many of their childhood toys: Playmobil figures,  Legos, baby dolls.  We didn't buy toys that don't do anything, but toys that were fun and useful.  The Simple Homemaker has a list of toys she likes; we had many of those ourselves.

We also never asked our kids for Christmas lists.  They didn't write letters to Santa and we didn't ask them directly what they wanted.  We knew what kinds of things they liked when they were small, so it was easy.  Now, as they are getting older - believe me, they have ways of making their desires known.  But they understand that most likely, they won't get everything they would like.  One of my kids is dying for an iPhone, but he knows he won't be seeing that on Christmas morning.  He knows he might see that when he can pay for his monthly data plan.  So, when it's not there, he won't be disappointed.  I know both kids will like what we do give them, because we know our kids and we know the things they enjoy.

It is natural for kids to want stuff, and in particular to want stuff they see other people with.  They can learn that they can't have everything.

But they can't learn it unless we parents teach it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Taking time to breathe

The original title of this post was "It's the Holiday (Complaining) Season."  I have been reading way too many blog posts and Facebook statuses complaining about the holidays. You know the rants:  My kids want too much stuff, I eat too many treats and gain weight, Christmas is too commercialized, I have all these obligation gifts to buy...

Then I read Permission to Breathe over at Inspired to Action and was, well, inspired by that more positive approach.

I do see a lot of frantic people, unhappy with life during the holidays. I used to get frantic too, trying to create the perfect Christmas for my family and friends.  I am still learning how to stop doing some of the unnecessary shopping, cooking, and fretting.  There is a lot to say on this topic so I'm going to focus on one area of stress for now:  gifts!

I used to hate shopping for gifts.  So much of my gift-shopping seemed to be about obligation and reciprocation rather than love.  So, I changed my focus.  It was hard, but I stopped worrying so much about obligation and reciprocation gifts.

Gifts are supposed to be given out of love or at least friendship, not obligation.  We shouldn't give a gift because someone bought one for us. Christmas advice to keep a stash of wrapped presents around to give people who show up with a gift is misguided and just sets up more gift-buying obligation.  The proper response to an unexpected gift is to say "thank you," not to run to the closet for an impersonal gift that could be for anyone.  It makes life easier for me not to try to anticipate who might bring a gift over and try to buy, and then not lose, something for them, just in case.

If I want to take a hostess gift to someone, I stick with consumables: wine, chocolate, a vase of flowers (not a bouquet that the hostess has to deal with immediately), or a little potted plant she can put on a table and then throw out at the end of the season (or when I go home, if she is so inclined).  Every grocery store seems to have some seasonal arrangements in baskets or little pots; they can be inexpensive and just show the person that you were thinking of them on the way over to their party.  Or maybe even beforehand! 

Of course there are some people we need to give a little something to: the piano teacher, boss, secretary... I keep those gifts simple and don't go crazy trying to figure out the perfect thing.   My hostess gift list usually suffices.  But sometimes it can be more personal:  the church secretary likes to cook, so we're getting her a small collection of spices.  Sometimes we just get gift cards, which many people disdain as too impersonal but you can personalize it by the store.  Crafty friends would most likely love some mad money at the local Michael's or Hobby Lobby, right?  I like gift cards for Wawa, a regional convenience store chain with great sandwiches and a coffee bar to die for. I give them to the mail carrier and to my kids, because everyone has to to go Wawa sometime.

Homemade gifts are wonderful, but I've found that if I don't start in August, my plans won't come to fruition and I'll be frantic around Thanksgiving.  This year I made the conscious decision not to make any gifts, except (possibly) some fudge for a family member who loves the stuff.   I felt guilty for maybe about a minute, and then it was over.  No pressure to knit or sew or do any of the crafts I enjoy except when I'm on deadline!  Maybe another year...

I won't get into shopping for the children now.  That is a huge area of Christmas angst for parents, and it should not be. 

What gift-giving strategies do you employ to keep your stress level down?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Homeschooling is a long-term proposition

The schoolhouse is still in business; we are still homeschooling and my head is still full of things to write about.  But we are still sidetracked by sickness - one child's mysterious symptoms that have been stumping us since August, and now a round of Bad Colds. 

It's tiresome but apparently not life-threatening so I should keep my complaining mouth shut.

This morning, as I contemplate another day that we will not produce anything for the homeschool portfolio, I am also reminded that homeschooling is a long-term proposition.  We are going through an unproductive season right now.  We are reading (together and separately) and slowly going through the math books (oh, very slowly!), and watching some recorded lectures.  I am confident (well, trying to be) that someday we'll see the fruit of this time, when there is a lot of input but little to no output of learning.

If Pennsylvania law did not require the portfolio of work samples, I could really enjoy this time of caring for my children, allowing rest and recovery.    My girl is making lots of beautiful Christmas cards, my boy is reading up a storm.  Both kids "won" NaNoWriMo two days ago, and continue to work on their stories.  (Yes, there will be an excerpt in the portfolio.) 

Kids' school years go by in the blink of an eye, and we don't want to waste time.  I have only a few years left with them and they still have a lot to learn before they head off to their adult lives.  But we don't want to be frantic.  We can allow for rest.  We have to find the balance between our family's particular needs and our legal requirements as homeschoolers.  It's not necessarily easy.  But we have to remember that homeschooling isn't about a particular year's production.  It's about an entire childhood and beyond.

My friend Susan wrote about her family's sabbatical homeschool year. I have read this over many times and it's time again, during our unplanned sabbatical.  You might find it useful and inspiring too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's the Carnival of Homeschooling!

It's been a long time since I've participated in the Carnival of Homeschooling.  I've had a long dry season during which I wasn't thinking much about homeschooling outside my own little world.  But when my nicely-planned homeschool world turned sideways (which is not as dramatic as being turned upside-down), I thought about the Carnival again.

And I am particularly glad to be back this week, since it's hosted at one of my favorite blogs:  Smallworld at Home.

Go check it out.  There are posts about picture books, writing resources, music education, AD/HD, and much, much more.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Plans? What plans?

Back in August, which seems like a very long time ago now, I was so proud of myself.  I had my entire school year figured out.  My books were all lined up and even purchased, mostly.  Science experiments planned and materials purchased (mostly - have to wait a while for the tomato plants).  I had a calendar with every week filled in, including overflow weeks and breaks, through June.  Planned breaks!  I'd always been one of those "we take breaks when we need them" homeschoolers.  But that hadn't been working for us - it's just too easy to get up in the morning and decide we need a break - so I thought I'd try planning our vacation days ahead.

And then one of the kids got bronchitis.  Who gets bronchitis in August?  We just put off our plans for a bit.  The bronchitis was gone in a week, but some new symptoms appeared.  Weird symptoms.  The family doctor couldn't figure them out.  So far, the gastroenterologist can't figure them out.

"Stump the doctor" is not a game I enjoy playing.

The general consensus is there's nothing serious or life-threatening going on.  But it's keeping the kid down, home, unable to do much.  Concentration is hard.  Field trips are impossible.

So... those great plans?  Mostly shelved, for now.  We're still homeschooling, and doing math and studying history and art and all those subjects, after a fashion.  But it's not happening the way I'd planned.

One of the great things about my particular family configuration is the ease of homeschooling.  Two kids, 18 months apart.  We are able to do a lot of work together.  My kids diverged in math and language arts a while ago, but we stick together on science, history, Latin, and art.   So with this sickness, and the related doctor appointments and phone calls, even the well child has had to make adjustments too: more independent, less mom-dependent, work.

We're finding our way, slowly, to a new plan.  I'm still reading a little, but instead of Herodotus and Livy for our history, we moved to Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Ancient World.  She's just a little more accessible, you know? We're moving more slowly.  That high-school level biology plan?  Not happening, at least not yet.  But there are science and nature dvds at the library, on Netflix and in our own collection, so the kids are still learning.

Flexibility is one of the hallmarks of the homeschool, right?  So I can decide that instead of using a writing program that seems too hard right now, we'll read and discuss and do a little writing on a classic novel: Huckleberry Finn.  That hadn't been part of the plan, but, why not?  This is as good a time as any.

So, plans.  The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. That is Proverbs 16:9 in the English Standard Version.  We make plans, but sometimes things don't go the way we think they will.

Is the lesson "stop making plans"?   I don't think so.  I don't think my time was wasted. My plan provides a good structure for the things I'd like my kids to learn this year.  We are still following parts of it, and we can pick up the rest any time.  Or, we can continue to modify it. We can use different materials that aren't as challenging as I might like, but fit our lives right now. 
It is good to be flexible and not get upset when our plans don't work out.  Don't think I haven't asked God "What's going on? What was wrong with my plans?" a time or two. Or ten. 

One thing is sure:  homeschooling is still the way for us.  I can't even imagine a kid missing the first month and a half (so far) of school and ever getting caught up.  What a burden!  So, looking at the big picture, we can see this as confirmation of our, well, plans.

If you are experiencing some sort of event that is messing up your homeschool plans this year, take heart.  Remember to look at the big picture and why you are homeschooling.   Remember to be flexible and look out for the possibility that there is a better plan.   I'd love to hear all about it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How's that reading going?

In January I set out to expand my reading life.  I love books and reading but had found myself with no time to read, and apparently nothing to read even if I had the time.  We're about 3/4 of the way through the year; how's it going?

Not so very well.

You can click on "2011 Reading" on the left to see my pathetic little list of books.  It won't take you very long to scan it.   What that doesn't show is the many, many books I started but didn't finish.  It also doesn't show my Bible reading and most of my Bible study materials, which are mostly not books but online.  But I haven't whipped my way through the Bible this year either.

So why am I not reading more?  There are a few reasons.

First, I simply don't arrange my day so that I can read.  I don't have a consistent time set aside to read for myself.   Other things fill my days (good and bad things); I am busy.  But, if I tried harder I could find 30 minutes a day to read.

Second, and maybe my real problem, is book dissatisfaction.  I've been going through The Three Musketeers for a long while now.  It's not that huge of a book.  It's fun, but it's not compelling.   I don't long to get a chance to read it during the day.   I have tried to read other books while I'm still working on it.  I go to the library and pick up books I've read glowing reviews of, or scan the shelves and bring home books with interesting blurbs.  There's always something wrong.

(Has anyone else noticed how many books are being written in the first person?  I must be picking up too much women's fiction.)

Last week we did a fun readaloud:  Captain Blood.  Some of us have been sickly for a while and our homeschool reading isn't going too well.  Herodotus requires a level of concentration that we just don't have right now.  We needed something with movement!  I scanned the shelves and saw this swashbuckler novel.  I don't even know why I bought this, or when. But I'm glad it was here; it was such fun.  Great story, lots of action, and because of when it was written (1922), rich with unfamiliar words.   Yesterday we watched the Errol Flynn/Olivia deHavilland film.  Also great fun.

So, my search for good books, and the time to read them, continues.  Maybe the last quarter of 2011 will make up for the first three.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fits Day of Scool

(What's that title about?  Check it out here.)

Our first day of school - official sit-down-at-the-kitchen-table-and-do-math kind of school - was going to be Tuesday, August 23. Our academic year starts on July 1, and I count "school" days in the summer when I feel our activities justify it, but we hadn't done too much this year.  So I was all excited about actually starting school, until I realized that Eleanor and I would be waking up in a beach resort town that morning, and wouldn't be home till dinnertime.  This Girl Scout event had been planned for months! How could I have forgotten it? 

So I changed our first day to Wednesday, August 24.  But early that morning I called the vet to describe some symptoms our dog was exhibiting and we were told to get him in; Eleanor went with me. That took about two hours; when we got home, I had to pull together chicken and rice for the bland diet he was prescribed.  By the time that was all settled, it was too late to have a first day of school.   We did spend some time looking over our new books, reacquainting ourselves with the old books, talking about routines and schedules and plans for the year. The kids read one chapter from their new science books, and answered the multiple choice questions at the end, so we did so something.  But, it was not the school day I had envisioned.

So our real first day was moved to Thursday, August 25.  It was going to be a half-day, since James had been invited to an event that afternoon.  It is still summer, after all.  But Eleanor was asked to babysit, and one of the people James does yard work for asked if he could mow before the storm hit.  We like these opportunities for work and don't often turn them down.  The kids learn some skills, provide help to our friends, and earn some money (or, sometimes, service hours).   In between these activities the kids did some math and the first assignment in the writing curriculum - which involved no writing.  But, again, they did something.

But, I still wanted a complete first day of school. Friday?  But I'd already planned to take Eleanor to the hospital for her routine back x-ray.  It was quiet there, but it still took longer than we'd expected.  We still had to make our planned stop at Walmart for our Friday night pizza and a few other things.  The whole town was there!  That's why the hospital had been so quiet - everyone was stocking up in anticipation of the big storm.  The aisles were crowded.  The lines were long.  James called while we were there to report sickness.  He had been on antibiotics for bronchitis; the cough was gone but the medicine-induced nausea had hit.  He was down for the day.  OK!  Where's the Gatorade? 

Sometimes I wonder if my kids would be better off in school, where the distractions of vet visits, grocery shopping, and jobs don't get in the way.  If they were in school, we'd have gone for the back x-ray late in the afternoon and disrupted dinner instead of a school day.  I would have gone to the vet and to Walmart alone.  The vet visit would have been more difficult - no one can comfort our dog quite like Eleanor can - and Walmart would have taken longer because I couldn't deploy a child to fetch something for me. James would be able to keep his mowing jobs, but Eleanor wouldn't have the babysitting opportunities she has now.   Of course a child could still get sick and miss school.  

But then I think about adult life; sometimes it seems like it's just one interruption after another, doesn't it?  I don't think I know anyone who doesn't feel that way.  We learn to adjust, change our routines, and get things done. 

I just looked at the calendar for next week.  It's mostly clear. We'll work on math, read history, complete our science labs, work on Scout merit badges, and write some compositions. We'll stay with our routines, mostly.  But not completely, because next week is going to be sunny and hot, after the big rain this weekend.   Grass will grow!  Downed tree limbs might need to be cleared. Someone will need a babysitter.

So math might get done at 4 pm instead of 9 am sometimes.  Or on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon.  We might read history during lunch or after dinner. 

Real life.  It's what school's all about.  Forget about the big first day; our school year has started. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Controller of the Universe

My Boy Scout is away at camp this week.  This is his third year at this particular camp with is own troop; his second as a patrol leader.  (A patrol is a small group of boys within the larger troop.)   This week at camp is usually a highlight of his year.  Yes, usually.  But not this year.

This year he wasn't so sure about going.  He had previously told us that he'd recently started getting homesick while away at weekend camps.  This was bothering him so much he skipped one trip earlier this summer.  But as a leader, he can't bail out on too many activities.  And a Boy Scout who doesn't want to go camping isn't going to be a Boy Scout for long.

So as summer camp approached he was feeling less happy anticipation and more unfocused dread. I know that feeling so well; too well.  When he said "I keep hoping that something will happen and camp will be canceled" I knew we were getting into trouble.  I often have that feeling when an event is approaching and I don't feel ready for it.  It happens almost every time we are expecting company.  I attribute it to my own disorganization: it's hard to look forward to a party when the bathroom still needs cleaning and there aren't enough clean forks and glasses an hour before guests are to arrive. But this was different.

As we peeled away the layers of his feelings, we discovered that he's inherited more from me than his love of books:  control of the universe.   I inherited it from my mom, too!  And now I am passing it on to him.

He told me, "I'm afraid something will happen to one of you (meaning our whole family and the dog), or to me, while I'm away."

Yes, there it is:  he controls the universe.

As I've been working on myself to relinquish that feeling that I control the universe, I didn't realize that I was just passing it on to him.

We went over all his fears and talked them over - endlessly, it seemed; that last week before camp was exhausting.  He listed the bad things that had happened to people at camp.  Nearly all of them were the result of poor judgment on the part of the victim, and even the one that seemed like a random, unexpected medical problem could have been caused by a boy simply not drinking enough water on a hot day. 

We talked about the fact that we believe in a sovereign God - a God who truly does control the universe.  We talked about the fact that God does allow bad things to happen to people, but that we still need to trust in him that it will all come right in the end.

We agreed that God is a better controller of the universe than any of us.

Did that help?  I don't know.  He stayed at camp.  He sent a letter telling of fun during the day and homesickness at night.  We will see him tonight for dinner and the closing campfire and awards ceremony.  Camp doesn't end till tomorrow morning, so he will stay another night.

When he gets home, we'll start working on him to relinquish his notion of control. I'd like him to give it up before he has a child to pass it on to!  That's an inheritance I don't want to leave.

The 31 days blog challenge

Here's something that's intriguing me this morning:  You're Invited:  31 Days of Change.  It's a blog challenge hosted at The Nesting Place.  Pick a topic and write about it every day in October.  Every day?  I am not sure I am up to that challenge.  What would I write about every day for a month?

Homeschooling?    Cooking?  I am working on getting my kids cooking more.  Reading?  Hmm.... "last night I read 3 pages of The Three Musketeers before falling asleep."  Compelling isn't that? You'd come by every day for a month for that, wouldn't you?  How about "31 days of improving my reading life"?

I'm not sure about this.  But with a month and a half to think about it, I might just... think about it!  And you should too.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Curriculum Week! at Heart of the Matter Online

It's Curriculum Week at Heart of the Matter Online's Not Back to School Blog Hop and this year I am ready!   Last year I missed this week because I didn't have my plans together.  I'm doing a little better this time around. 

This year I have a 7th grader and an 8th/9th grader.   So it's time to start thinking about high school a little more seriously.  My kids have done a lot of their schooling together and I'm trying to keep it that way as much as possible, while not shortchanging the new highschooler or overwhelming the new middleschooler. 

Last winter we started Veritas Press Omnibus I, which covers Ancient History, Theology, and Literature, and we'll continue with that, moving into Omnibus II sometime in early 2012.  I'm hoping it will work for us for the duration; it's hard to find a history curriculum that fits us.  I don't do well with "just reading" - I need a plan.  Since my kids still love to be read to, we'll do a combination of reading together and reading separately.

I'm excited yet a little nervous about Science this year.  Taking a cue from The Well-Trained Mind, we're using Biology: A Self-Teaching Guide by Steven Daniel Garber (Wiley Self-Teaching Guides) as our main text, and supplementing with activities from Janice Van Cleave's A+ Projects in Biology.  I'm not sure how well this will work for my 7th grader, so if it is too burdensome, I've keyed sections of the Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of Science and David Macaulay's The Way We Work for her.  I'll just be watching to see how it goes.  It's nice to be ready with an alternate plan for once. 

We've never used a specific all-inclusive curriculum for English and we're not starting now.  My 7th grader will continue with Our Mother Tongue by Nancy Davis (published by Canon Press).  We'll also do Writing Strands 4, which is our first encounter with this curriculum, and weekly writing from various prompts.  My 9th grader does not like to write and needs a lot of practice; along with the Writing Strands work,  he will be working on several Boy Scout merit badges this year that require short essays and such.  He'll also continue using AVKO Sequential Spelling.    In November both kids will do NaNoWriMo again, but I don't think I'll be doing it this year.  They get to pick their word counts; I don't, and I don't have time to throw together 50,000 in a month!

Math is one area my kids are not working together.  James will start Algebra I with Life of Fred, Khan Academy, and Dad.  Eleanor is working in fractions, also via Life of Fred, Khan, and Key To Fractions.  

We'll continue to do Bible Study via Starr Meade's The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Study Latin  via Getting Started with Latin, which we have been stuck in for a long, long time; we should finish in a few months and then I'm not sure where to go next. They get their PE at the YMCA and our backyard and neighborhood.

Eleanor takes piano lessons but James needs something for Music.  I have tried doing "Composer of the Month" a la Charlotte Mason before and it never works well for us.  This year I'm thinking of "Genre of the Month" where we explore different forms of music, from classical to blues to show tunes to pop/rock.  This might work better, or at least be a little more fun.

 Last year we had some great Art lessons from a teacher who lost her job when her school closed.  She is planning to teach homeschoolers again this year, so we'll probably do that again.   I also found (via Pinterest; who says it's a waste of time?) some art lessons put together by Concordia University. They are listed for 1st - 6th grades, but look like they could work for older kids too.  I have to admit I have not studied them in great detail yet.

Like Sandy, I decided not to put links in; most of the materials are easy to find online. You can also check the left sidebar under "Educational Materials We Like" for links to some of the books and programs we're using.  Leave a comment if you have a question or can't find something you're interested in.

I am joining hundreds of other bloggers linking up to Heart of the Matter Online.  Come join us!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Planning fool

Yesterday I bragged about having my science curriculum all figured out for our next academic year.  Today I carried on and came up with a (nearly) complete plan for our homeschool for the entire year.   There are some odds and ends missing but it's mostly done.

I can't even believe it.  I've never done so much planning before.  Never ever.

It's really rather exciting.  I might not be flying by the seat of my pants this year.  I could be organized.  I could avoid wasting a lot of time wandering around muttering to myself.

I might have time to leave my kids alone one morning a week to go out and sit in a cafe and drink coffee while I read and/or write.

Wow.  I might even participate in Curriculum Week at the Not Back to School Blog Hop at Heart of the Matter Online.   But not tonight.  I'm kind of tired of typing.   Planning is a lot of work.  But oh, so satisfying, know what I mean?    It'll be even more satisfying if I can pull it all off!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

2011/2012 Science plans

Today, I spent a lot of time doing homeschool planning, mostly for science.  I may have done more planning today than I have ever done in my homeschool mom career.  I mean, more today than in the entire 7 or 8 years I've already been homeschooling.  I've not been much of a planner.

Science has always been tough for me; this is not unusual for homeschool moms.  I've never found a curriculum I liked, at all.  We've done a lot of reading, and experiments, and some lab sheets, but never anything really formal.  I think my kids are on grade level with science; that's what the standardized test scores show, anyway.  James does a lot of reading on his own; Eleanor comes a long a bit reluctantly.   They both loved studying the Leafcutter ants and now are enjoying a book (and Netflix documentaries, and youtube videos) on giant squid

But James is moving into high school and now we're talking about credits.  Unschooling science doesn't work for me anymore.  So, I've been researching and reading and buying, and today I planned everything out.

Our main text is Biology: A Self-Teaching Guide by Steven D. Garber.  I got the idea for this from The Well-Trained Mind, and I think most of us are going to like it.  It's a very straightforward text; there are some drawings and charts but no color illustrations or photos.  Each chapter has a list of terms to know, multiple choice questions with an answer key, and "questions to think about" with no answer key.   Most of the chapters will take two weeks:  the first week for reading, the second week for going over the terms and answering the questions.  I probably won't have the kids answer all the essay-type questions, but rather a few each time.

I also pulled out my copy of Janice VanCleave's A+ Projects in Biology.  The Home Science Tools catalog says that all the activities in this book are equivalent to a year of biology; the age range is 9-14.  We're not going to do every activity.  I looked through it and picked the ones that looked most interesting and scheduled them out through the year.  Some are keyed to the chapter of our main text; some are not.  I couldn't find an activity to fit each chapter perfectly.  I included everything needed for the experiment/activity so I won't be walking around muttering angrily at myself for forgetting to save milk jugs or buying iodine and distilled water. We'll also mess around - finally - with the soil test kit we bought last year.

While I was doing all this my eye fell on our Usborne Internet-linked Encyclopedia of Science (the link is to a newer edition than we have).  Hey!  We could use that too!  So I went through that and keyed pages to chapters in our main text.  This will most likely be helpful to Eleanor more than James.

She is not high school age yet, so this might be a little difficult for her.  Or she might make it difficult for herself; she's that kind of girl sometimes. So I'll have to see how it goes for her; she doesn't need a science credit yet.  I think the use of the Usborne Encyclopedia will really help her out.  The format is a little more engaging and perhaps more accessible for her.

When I was almost finished, I remembered that we own the book The Way We Work by David Macaulay.  I am not sure I need another resource, or can squeeze anything more in, but I may check out the chapters and see what fits where.  That might also be more accessible to my 7th grader. 

I have our plan mostly typed up and scheduled.  The hard part will be keeping up with the schedule.  I've never, ever had a schedule in our homeschool.  We've always reveled in our freedom to take days off when we want or need to, and I've never tried to finish a particular book by a particular day.  I built in some vacations (including 3 weeks off for Christmas) and we're going to try to stick to it.  I'm very good at letting distractions sidetrack me, so it will be a challenge for all of us!

I don't want to make our first high school year tedious, or boring, or schoolish.  Still, it might be time to get a little more serious around here.

Better than free cheese

Last night while we were out enjoying a lovely dinner with friends, a wild storm came up.  The wind was blowing, there was lightning and thunder, and sheets of rain coming down hard.  By the time we left (the moment the resident 4-year-old hit her oops-we-missed-her-bedtime meltdown), the rain had stopped.

We pulled into our driveway and were caught up short.  There was a huge tree limb in the space the car usually sits. It had come off a tree that stands right next to the driveway.

But, while the tree limb was coming down, our car was in our friends' driveway and we were eating delicious fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and green beans so delicious my kids asked for more.  Or, maybe we were on the blueberry cobbler at the time the tree fell.

It doesn't matter where we were; it matters where the car wasn't:  under the tree. Crushed.  It would have been totaled.   And it's an old car; even if the insurance does cover tree-crashing, we wouldn't get enough to buy another car.

We just stood there gaping and marveling at God's providence to us.  This was even better, way better, than the free cheese I came across earlier this week.  A huge blessing.

As we cleaned up today I thought about this blessing.  I thought about people I know who might scoff at my thankfulness and bring up all the terrible things people endure:  devastating illness, the loss of a child, foreclosure and homelessness.  Why doesn't God fix those things?  Why bother with the small stuff, like cheese and cars?

I came to this conclusion: in these small things, God reminds us that he is in control.  And that he does take care of us, in big things and small.  We just have to remember that in his care, he allows unpleasant, difficult events and circumstances along with the blessings.

This might not be so easy for me to say if I had, say, a child dying of cancer or was in the midst of losing my home.  I don't have any insurmountable trials to endure right now, which is not to say I have no trials at all. 

But in my experience, even people undergoing great trials see small things as blessings too.  And these small gifts from God help them to go on.

So I am very thankful for the providence that caused us to be out when the tree fell apart.  And I will add that to my list of blessings to remember, when I am in a situation that causes me to wonder how much God really cares.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

So much for summer school

Two months of summer vacation is too long.   Kids get bored, they forget important skills such as how to get up in the morning and do basic math, they get lazy.

So I try to avoid a long summer vacation in my little homeschool when I can. This year, as in the past,  I had some nice summer school plans made. 

And then, it all just went out the window.  Yesterday, I decided to surrender to summer and set a back-to-school date.  I've never had a back-to-school date before.  But this year I need one, because at some point we need to get back to school work.

So why didn't summer school happen?

I am not sure.  We did go on a vacation; that took three days.  The kids participated in Vacation Bible School; that took a week (and counted as school hours).   Both of my kids went to day camps that were educational and fun.  They also spent time working for other people!  Babysitting and yard work took up a bit of time.  Both kids have done a lot of  reading on their own, and we have done some reading together.  We've been to the movies and we've gone hiking. We've had a lot of doctor and dentist appointments.  Boy Scout summer camp is coming up and there is always a lot of preparation for that. 

Some of those activities count as school time, but... it wasn't the summer school that I had planned on.

Well, we know that planning doesn't equal getting it done, does it?

So school starts on August 23.  I have to admit that once I made the decision to call of the summer school that wasn't happening anyway, I felt better.   The pressure is off a little, so I feel like I can take some time to do some better planning than I usually manage to do.  Most homeschool moms like the planning better than the actual schooling, anyway. We can achieve something close to perfection in the planning stage; that's not possible during implementation.

Maybe there is a good reason for summer vacation after all. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My free cheese story

Today I was tasked with contributing to a reception at church.  I was supposed to bring cheese.

Since I hadn't planned on going to the store today and didn't need anything else, I decided to go to the closest store. That's the only thing good about it - it's close. It's also poorly stocked, has poor produce, and high prices on most things.  But I figured they would have some sort of spreadable cheese.

Their selection was slim but I did see some tubs of cheese on special - buy one get one free!  So I took two tubs, swung by the cracker aisle and picked up some Wheat Thins or something, and got in the long express line.  I wasn't sure I was supposed to bring crackers but didn't want to show up with cheese and no way to eat it.

As I stood in line I wondered if I would have a problem with my buy-one-get-one-free cheese. I have had a lot of problems with sale items in that store.   And sure enough, when the cashier rang up my order, I was charged for two tubs of cheese.  I started to protest but the guy stopped me:  "Is this on sale?" "Yes."  "OK, let me go check."  Oh man, here we go.  I had to tell him where the cheese was and he ran off.  I apologized to the lady right behind me.  She was gracious.

The cashier came back quickly enough and told me that I was right.  Yeah, I knew that. So he fiddled with the transaction and told me my total was $1.99.  What?! That was just for the crackers.  I said "you still need to charge me for one thing of cheese."

No, it turns out he did not.  He told me that because of the error, I got the first tub of cheese free. The 2nd tub was free because of the sale (which was really over, but the sign was still on the shelf).  So I got $15 worth of cheese for nothing. 

Can't beat a deal like that! 

Jumping on the Pinterest bandwagon

Do I have time for a new social media site?

No, not really.  But I was fascinated when a friend told me about Pinterest, the online bulletin board site.  Even before I signed up I could see it was a dangerous place.  I could spend hours looking at peoples' pins of crafting ideas, recipes, flowers, colors...

It took me a few days to sign up, and then even longer to feel comfortable with it.  I was suspicious.  How is this site ever going to make money?   What kind of information is the "pinmarklet" in my toolbar (the device that allows me to grab the pictures and pin them) gathering?  What about copyright?

I searched the web for negative information about the site but couldn't find any.  I am still unsure about a few things, but once started, it's hard to stop.  I've found lots of new recipes and tons of craft ideas for Eleanor. 

Ah, Eleanor.  She fell in love when she saw it too, and immediately wanted her own account.  But, you've got to be 13, baby.  She's got half a year to go.  Sigh.  Online life begins at 13.

But when she's browsing craft sites and finds something she loves, she pins it to my board.  I don't let her browse all of Pinterest herself.  I'm not sure I'll want to even once she is 13.  Sandy noticed this problem too:  there is so much that is beautiful and useful there, but there's the ugliness too.  The fashions that - really, you'd wear that? In public?  The "cute" sayings in pretty script but with vulgar or profane language.  (Why are women all of a sudden so vulgar and profane, anyway?)  Pictures of and links to products I don't want my child to know exist.

I'll be looking for boards to follow that my daughter can look at and enjoy with me.   So if you have a Pinterest account, and it's family-friendly, please let me know.  Or come find me there.  You can see the red button on the left.  It rather stands out in my blues, doesn't it? 

You might find things you don't like in my boards, but you won't find anything your daughter shouldn't see.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

VBS Guilt

Last week our new church had VBS:  Vacation Bible School.  Three-fourths of my family participated either as helper or student.  I declined.

Well, technically I didn't decline; I was never directly asked to participate.  No one walked up to me and said "can you please help with VBS next week?"  But there is always a need for volunteers.

My husband is the pastoral intern at the church, so his participation was a no-brainer.

My son helped out at VBS at our last church, in the games area, and had a great time.  So he was ready to help again.  Only thing: this year he didn't get games. He was placed in the kindergarten class!  He was a good sport, though: "I would have liked to do games, but, I guess this is where they need me."  That's the spirit a mom wants to see.

My daughter's participation was not certain till the last moment.  Last year she was a helper at VBS, but this church's classes go up to age 12.  So, she had to go back to being a student.  Not an easy thing to do!   But she was a good sport and went along with it.

I think most 12-year-old who have been consistently going to church and Sunday School are too old for VBS.  I'm sure it's great for kids who aren't immersed in Bible stories all the time.   But the kids who are?  They need something more, and that is not generally provided by VBS.   Besides, the prizes are just so silly and little kid-ish.   She would have learned more by helping in a classroom.  But, oh well.

I'm glad she went because I took those mornings for myself.  I had a to-do list to conquer and I did get a good bit of it done.  When they walked out the door on Monday morning, I hit the list and didn't stop till it was time to pick up the kids at noon.

By Wednesday, though, we were down to one car.  I lost some time driving everyone church in the morning.  That was unfortunate, but, you know, things happen.  It reminded me of our first two years here, when life with one car was the standard.   We got used to having two cars! 

On Friday I did stop and have some cafe time in between dropping everyone off and going to an appointment.   Coffee at home is cheaper, but reading in a cafe feels so luxurious. 

There wasn't time for the hammock, and mostly it was too hot anyway.  I'm mostly happy with the work I got done.

But throughout the week I did feel that pang of guilt for not helping at the VBS.  There were women there who'd been teaching VBS for 15 years.  It never occurs to them to take a break.  I've done it, oh, I don't know, 5 times.  Maybe 4. And I needed a break.

So maybe next year I'll work VBS again.  Next summer we should be moving.  Maybe we can time it so that we're traveling during VBS week.  Or maybe the timing will be such that we'll catch VBS and both old church and new.  I don't think I want to contemplate that too hard.

Everyone's sleeping a little late this morning.  VBS is tiring.  Well, I'm not sleeping in because I'm not that tired.  I feel pretty good!  And not guilty anymore.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Give a girl a challenge...

About two weeks ago my girl received a challenge.  

We were at the library and she was checking out a huge number of books.  Well, probably 10, maybe 15.  Not so huge. The man in line behind her looked at her stack and asked:

Are you really going to read all those books in 3 weeks?

She smiled nicely and said yes.  She turned to me and rolled her eyes.  The librarian gave her a wink. 

In the car, she grumbled a little.  It was hard to read the man's voice (given that we didn't know him); was there a slightly sarcastic or condescending edge to it, or was he just being friendly?   We opted for friendly.  We try never to assume malice when clumsiness will do as an explanation for behavior.

Of course she read them all.  It wasn't even that hard.  She's on the upper edge of the juvenile section so she can chew through those books pretty handily.  We face the "young adult" section with trepidation.  YA authors are vying to be seen as the most cutting-edge and we are not cutting-edge people.   Anne of Green Gables is about our speed right now.   We're skipping the teen paranormal romance.  

We returned them within about two weeks.  She's unlikely to ever encounter that man again, and it wouldn't matter if she did.  But she won't forget him for a while, that man who doubted her.

Do you remember lovely summers spent buried in books?  I do.  

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One of my problems

I am always trying to find just the right notebook(s) for my little homeschool.  I don't need much; just something to record our daily activities. A calendar with enough, but not too much, space.  Pages to write notes and lists.   The other day I thought I'd found it, but I hadn't.  I am still looking. 

I could find these things online, or I could make them up myself.  I never like what I make, though.  Today I figured out one of my problems:  I want my notebooks pages to be pretty.  I want paper with a little flowered border, or some stripes or dots or something that is not just black and white.

So if I could just find the right printer paper, in the right colors with the right design on it, I could make some snappy notebook pages and then, look out world, I would be effective, organized, efficient.

OK, at least I'd have pretty notebooks. 

Why does that make a difference to me? 

I can't be the only person who writes more carefully and neatly when I have nice paper to write on, can I?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Many books, little reading

2011 was going to be my year for reading.   I was going to reclaim my status as a reader.  Now the year is half over.  How am I doing?

Not so well, really.

I've completed 20 books; 9 were read-alouds in our homeschool.  I guess those count, particularly books like The Odyssey and Chosen by God, which were just as valuable for me as they were for the kids.

I have two books listed as "in process" on my "2011 Reading" page.  But that is really not quite true.  I have a few books in process right now.  I just can't settle on one, sit down, and read it through right now. 

I wanted a fun adventure story so I picked up The Three Musketeers.  Then I heard about Blackout - a novel involving time travel and World War II - so I started that for myself and as a preview for my 14-year-old.   While browsing the library I came across Farthing, an alternate history wherein the Nazis prevail in World War II; I had just been talking about alternate history so that piqued my interest.  I am still reading Bonhoeffer; it is very good but not always what one wants to read on a summer day in the hammock.  Yesterday I started reading Herodotus' Histories for our summer school.  (Yes, ancient history as summer reading. It's a good antidote to all the Tom Clancy and Royal Diaries my kids are inhaling right now.)

I've been managing just a few pages a night with my own personal reading.  It's been a busy  summer.  That comment about the hammock? Wishful thinking!

Still, I think I am doing better than last year, though I didn't keep records then.

My kids are doing better than I am.  As part of their homeschooling, I require them to log the books they read.  Each child read about 50 this year; not all of it high quality, as noted above.  Many times I have regretted not logging the books I read as a kid.  Wouldn't it be fun to see what you were reading at 10, 15, 22?  I don't think my kids see the value of logging their books yet.  They do it because I make them.  But I'll keep those logs and someday they will enjoy marveling over the books they read when they were teens.

Or, they'll recycle them with hardly a glance.   Who can predict?

What are you reading this summer?  Do you keep track of your books?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The ant project

[This post has been in draft status since May 15.  That's how long it's taken me to get at the photos.]

Right now there are "pavement ants" dropping dirt onto my dryer from the ceiling above. We can't seem to get rid of them.  I hate them. Who doesn't hate ants in the house, or at the picnic?

But there are other ants that are not so hateable.  We had a good time last month reading about Leafcutter Ants.  The Leafcutters are so interesting my kids did a project around them.  I've told you before that my kids don't produce anything, at least not willingly.  Yet, they decided, or maybe agreed, to do it.  That is how cool Leafcutter Ants are.

The diagram is from Enchanted Learning, and no, we are not subscribers.  We used to be, when the kids were younger.  I haven't printed anything from them in a few years, but since I had subscribed for a while, I didn't feel too guilty taking this one thing.  The subscription was worth it when the kids were younger.

It started with a library book.  Doesn't just about everything?  Whenever I step into our local branch I scan the new nonfiction shelves. There are always new books that look interesting there, and I never fail to pick something up.  Sometimes we never get around to reading what I bring home.  But this time we did.

The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct is a beautiful book.  Yes, the photographs of ants are gorgeous.  And amazing.  We couldn't stop marveling over the pictures in this book.  And then we started reading it.

I'll admit that the beginning was tough.  Lots of technical terms, not all explained in the glossary.  (But that's what dictionaries are for, right?)   I thought maybe we wouldn't get beyond the first chapter.   But we kept going, and the book just got better and better.  My kids even took notes while I read it.  OK, I did demand it.  But they didn't argue.  They always argue about taking notes.  There is a lot of evolution talk, so some folks won't like that.  If that bothers you, you could skip those bits and go right into ant behavior. 

Eleanor had fun cutting out the leaves and drawing the little ants.  This doesn't look much like a leafcutter, but it's still cute.

We don't belong to any kind of homeschool coop, and our support group really doesn't exist as such anymore, so we didn't have a science fair.  But we decided to pretend that we did, so the kids could make a display. They also made a papier-mache model of an ant mound, with the intent of making a cross-section to show tunnels.  They didn't plan ahead, though, and it didn't work out.  It was still fun, and an interesting, if not completely satisfying, learning experience. 

Here are some of the sites they used for their research:

University of Michigan's Animal Diversity Web (usually our first stop when researching animals of any kind)

National Science Foundation has a video about Leafcutters.

National Geographic, of course.

I wonder what science project we'll do next!

Mean blogger

So someone told me (privately, of course) that I was a mean blogger the other day, when I commented on seeing a homeschool portfolio with the child's picture on the front when I was at the school district office picking up my own portfolios.  Here is what I said:
As I was walking out, one last binder caught my eye.  The cover sported a photo of a cute smiling boy.  I recognized him from some homeschool activities; I don't really know his family but we have crossed paths a few times.   If I wanted to be a mean person, I would point out that that portfolio looked like the cover of the stereotypical homeschool magazines we all love to mock. If you are a homeschooler, you know what I'm talking about - the one with the child joyfully doing math or helping a younger sibling with a science experiment, maybe with a smiling mom in the background, all perfectly coiffed and wearing cute plaid shirts or jumpers.
That was mean?  Really?  I said the boy was cute!  (He was.)

I guess I will give a nonapologetic politician-style apology and say:

I'm sorry if anyone was offended.   It was meant as a light-hearted sort of commentary, and was my true first reaction on seeing the photo. 

I don't hate you if you put a photo of your kid on his portfolio.  I don't understand you, but that's OK. You don't understand me either.   Fair enough?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A funny homeschool phenomenon

Summer is homeschool planning season.  Even year-round homeschoolers seem to take some time in summer to plan ahead for the next academic year.  And along with the curriculum talk comes the talk about grade levels.

One of the benefits of homeschooling is the ability to work at different grade levels in the various subjects.  A child could be great at math and able to work at a higher grade level than, say, at language arts.  Some kids chew up the language arts books and write well, while their math is a little weaker.  It doesn't much matter for a child not in school.   Most kids I know, homeschooled or not, do not perform equally well in all subjects.  Grade levels are necessary for mass education, but not for individuals. 

For a long time my kids were typical homeschoolers, clueless when asked what grade they were in.  That's just not something that comes up at home.  We don't worry about what grade our math books are written for; we do a book, then do the next book.  We don't think about what grade level novels are written for; if the child can read and respond to a book (and the content is appropriate, of course), it's the right level.

But, people do ask. We're getting that question a lot lately, because we recently changed churches and are meeting a lot of new people.  In our family, the answer is the grade the child would be in if he or she had gone to school like a normal person.  So this summer I have a rising 7th grader and a rising 9th grader.  Easy.

The phenomenon?  Some people like to answer that question with a little more detail, but, apparently, only if it reflects well on the child.  When the grade level conversation comes up among homeschoolers, I might hear or read things like this:

"My daughter tells people she's in 4th grade but that she reads at a 7th grade level."

"I tell people my son would be in 5th grade but is reading at 9th grade level and doing 7th grade math."

"My son answers with 'I'm in 3rd grade but can read 7th grade books and do 5th grade math!'"

Do you see a pattern here?

Do you notice that no one says "I'm in 7th grade but doing 5th grade math, 6th grade language arts and 9th grade science"?

No, and you're not going to.  Despite all the talk about freedom to work at the child's own pace, and lack of concern about grade levels on the parents' parts, you are unlikely to hear anyone mention that they are below grade level in any subject area.  Oh, a small group of moms, friends, will talk about it together.  But publicly, every homeschool child is well above grade level, even when grade level doesn't matter.

My kids have only a vague idea what grade levels they are working in.  I guess my son knows he's slightly below his age peers in math because the boys engage in math talk sometimes.  But we don't talk about it much.  I don't show my kids their standardized test scores; I just tell them they did fine. 

It's not good for the children to hear their parents telling people (or tell people themselves) all the ways in which they are superior.  It sounds like bragging.  It sounds like insecurity.

"What grade are you in?" is a simple question, generally requiring a simple answer. There is no need to get into detail in most conversations. Most people are just asking in order to place the child in their world. They're really asking "will your child be in youth group with mine?" or "What Sunday School class will he go to?"  Or it's just a way to make brief conversation.  The grocery store clerk is just being friendly; she doesn't really care, and saying anything more than a simple "6th grade" isn't going to make them think more highly of you, your kids, or homeschooling in general.

And, think how it sounds to other kids.  You meet up with someone and people exchange grade levels.  Your kid has to tell the subjects he's above grade level in. You think the other kids are impressed?  You think the other kids are going to like him better because he's in 5th grade but doing 9th grade math?   Think again!

Friday, July 01, 2011

Back from the land of the 3-inch binder

My school district homeschool liaison - the person who reviews homeschool portfolios - called today to tell me mine were ready to be picked up.  I was surprised at the quick turnaround; the deadline was just yesterday and usually it's mid-July before the reviews are done.  Since I was going to be out driving all over town today anyway, I stopped right in to pick them up.

Good thing I did, too, because the office is small and there were a lot of portfolios in there.  As always, my 1-inch binders were a little hard to find in the midst of all the packed 3-inchers.  I admit that I gazed around in wonder at the huge binders, packed full.  I wanted to peruse them!  How do people generate so much paperwork?

The liaison interpreted my wonder as insecurity.  She reassured me that our portfolios were fine (though she will send the official approval letter later on) and that the big ones were... unnecessary.  She quickly added that she enjoys looking through them, even though they contain much more than they need to.  There was one binder that must have been at least 5, maybe 6 inches thick - probably the biggest binder I've ever seen.  It was so packed things were falling out.  She did sigh a little when she saw me staring at that one. 

I told her that the size and contents of the portfolio is a constant topic of discussion among homeschool moms. She just laughed, and said "well, some people do like to keep it all, like a scrapbook."

Yes, indeed.  I'd heard that before, from a very earnest mom who proclaimed "I can't bear to throw any of it out!"  She seemed unable to comprehend the plain fact that "not turning it all in" does not have to equal "throwing it all out."   I am not kidding.   

No doubt I have ranted about minimal compliance here before.  This is the concept that we give the state what the law requires of us; no more and no less.  It doesn't mean having an adversarial relationship with the school district; it just means we  know what we are required to do, and we do it.   Some people complain that over-achievers who turn in every math worksheet and composition make it harder for those of us who don't.  I don't usually get into that argument, but I understand it.  If it appears homeschoolers want to be give the school district everything, they may come to expect it, and then require it.   But, it doesn't really matter to me what other people do, as long as I am not required to follow suit. 

I also see the difference between a scrapbook full of keepsakes and a legal document, which is what the portfolio is while it is in the hands of the school district.  I will keep some of my kids' work samples, their book lists, and the photos they took to document trips and projects.  But the daily log proving we fulfilled our 180 days?  The daily checklist on which I dutifully marked off every subject we covered?  Who cares? 

As I was walking out, one last binder caught my eye.  The cover sported a photo of a cute smiling boy.  I recognized him from some homeschool activities; I don't really know his family but we have crossed paths a few times.   If I wanted to be a mean person, I would point out that that portfolio looked like the cover of the stereotypical homeschool magazines we all love to mock. If you are a homeschooler, you know what I'm talking about - the one with the child joyfully doing math or helping a younger sibling with a science experiment, maybe with a smiling mom in the background, all perfectly coiffed and wearing cute plaid shirts or jumpers.

(What do our covers look like? They bear the child's name, my name, and our home address and phone.  Last year Eleanor drew some flowers on hers; she was going to do a new cover this year but never got around to it.  James didn't decorate his.  He's into minimal compliance too.)  

At that I decided I was getting too close to invading someone's privacy and got out.  I would have enjoyed talking to the liaison about the finer points of portfolio construction.  But she was busy.  She had a lot of huge binders to get through.

I felt so light as I walked out the door.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Feels like coming home

Mention Watkins Glen to most people, and they will think of auto racing.  But some of us know what Watkins Glen is really all about.

Watkins Glen is a village, and a state park, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, right at the bottom of Seneca Lake.  As a kid, I camped there with my family. Glen Creek runs through the park, and has cut a stunning one-and-a-half mile gorge full of waterfalls and wonder.  I don't know how many times we visited, but the last time had to be sometime before 1965, so I was pretty young.  I remembered that I loved it, though, and went back in about 1983 on my own for a brief walk-through on my way between a family wedding and an old-friend reunion.

800+ steps carved into the stone.

Since we moved back east in 2007, I've been thinking about the glen off and on.  I wanted to go back!  But our time was so limited during those seminary years.  I despaired of showing my own kids this favorite childhood place.  But we were given a gift of time, and found 3 days for vacation.  Only 3 days!  But enough time to drive the four hours north.

View of the creek from above.

I haven't lived in New York since I was a little girl and certainly don't think of New York as home anymore.  Yet as we approached the border I felt this odd sense of coming home.  I was so excited to be in New York State again.  I was ready to motor right on up to the Glen and get on the trail through the gorge.  But we had decided to stop in Corning at the Corning Museum of Glass.  That was interesting and enjoyable, but I was restless.  I wanted to get moving!

There are 3 falls you can walk behind. 

By the time we reached the village of Watkins Glen, everyone was tired and hungry.  We went to our motel, rested a minute and then went to find dinner.  By the time that was done, it was near dark and too late to go to the park.  Our motel was just across the street from one of the entrances, but... I had to wait.

The Suspension Bridge, 85 feet above the creek.  One year, flood waters came within 5 feet of the bridge.

The next morning I woke up early, way too early.  Thunder!  The forecast had mentioned the threat of rain, but not till the afternoon.  We thought we had the morning for our hike.  Once again I felt restless and couldn't go back to sleep.  Finally I got up and dressed as quietly as I could.  The rain had stopped.  I slipped out the door and walked across the street to the park. I didn't really want to get into the gorge till I had my family with me.  I just wandered a little bit and stood over the creek on the suspension bridge.  That is above the gorge trail, so technically I wasn't on it.  Finally I felt as if I could breathe.  I was home! 

When I got back to the motel, people were starting to move.  I tried not to be impatient and hustle them too much.  I endured breakfast at Burger King and then we were off.  Rather than walking to the entrance close to the motel, we drove to the main gate.  I didn't want to start the trail in the middle.  Though I don't have a good picture of it, there is a tunnel through the stone to begin the trail. I wanted my family to experience the Glen that way.

They were as enchanted with the Glen as I was.  Who wouldn't be?  It is a truly magical place.

We spent the morning hiking, then went off to spend the afternoon on other adventures.  But this morning, the last day of our trip, Eleanor and I got up early and slipped out together.  We went to the playground and checked out the lily pond.  We also looked at the pool and made our plan for the day...

Was the pool there when I visited as a kid?  I don't know.  If there was one, it wasn't this huge beauty of a pool.  Before we hit the road to come home, we stopped in for a couple of hours of swimming.

We did do some other fun things on this short trip, but the visit to the Glen was the highlight for me.  I don't know if I'll ever go back.  If I don't I hope my kids will.  And their kids, and their kids...

Some Watkins Glen linkage for you:

Slide show of the gorge and park information from

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preseveration