Sep 292014
Flu shots: All the cool kids have them!

Flu shots: All the cool kids have them!

I was shocked when my Google news alert sent word a week ago that the flu has already arrived in some parts of Virginia! It’s time to think about strategies for staying healthy this winter.

Flu Shots

I immediately packed up the family and took us out to get our flu shots. After a bit of hollering from my two youngest, we were done. A cute mom waiting outside the clinic with her daughter teased, “Mom, was that you making all that noise about your flu shot?” It takes about 2 weeks from the time you get the shot until you are fully protected. We are just hoping to stay healthy for another week!

If you don’t have your flu shot already, make a priority this week to get it. There are so many serious viruses going around this fall. I am keeping an eye on the news about the enterovirus strain that is so frightening.

While I can’t do anything about enterovirus, I can do something about flu risk. Many of us think of the flu as more of an inconvenience than deadly but the flu does kill children every year. Last year, someone here in Virginia lost their child to the flu. Also, if you are in a high risk group, like being pregnant or having a chronic illness, make sure you get that shot as your risk of flu complications is so much higher.

So, we need to all take this seriously. If you can be vaccinated, I hope that you will.

In the United States, how many people receive flu shots? Last year, close to 60% of all children were vaccinated, including 74% of children under age 2. Approximately 42% of all adults were vaccinated, including 65% of those age 65 and older.

Food As Medicine

Chick pea soup from last winter's Goop cleanse.

Chick pea soup from last winter’s Goop cleanse.

As you think about your toolkit for staying healthy this winter, consider some of these nutritional strategies. Science is learning more and more every day about the importance of our gut bacteria in keeping us healthy. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to eat garlic, onions, citrus and ginger!

Cleaning As Prevention

Our flu cleaning arsenal.  We just discovered the Lysol cleaner.  You have to dilute it yourself in your own spray bottle but it smells awesome!

Our flu cleaning arsenal. We just discovered the Lysol cleaner. You have to dilute it yourself in your own spray bottle but it smells awesome!

Two tools we should all have ready are baby wipes and disinfectant spray. Have a large pack of baby wipes or bottle of hand sanitizer in your car and use them after visiting any public place, like the grocery store, gas station, library, children’s sports and after-school activities, etc. Ask your children to remind you to wipe their hands as they buckle their seat belt every time you get in the car. Children are notorious for putting their fingers in their mouths and eyes–the prime way viruses are spread. Also, have a spray bottle of disinfectant cleaner in your home and task your children with helping to spray down surfaces like countertops, doorknobs and light switches as part of their chores. We recently discovered the scented Lysol cleaners that smell wonderful and claim they are just as effective when diluted.

Be well this winter!

*I am not affiliated with any product mentioned here.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Sep 262014
The annual summer ritual of standardized testing in our household.

The annual summer ritual of standardized testing in our household.

My love of a bargain resulted in our standardized testing taking a different path this year.

In Virginia, homeschooled students must provide proof of progress each year to their local school district. The “proof” can be either satisfactory performance on a standardized test or an evaluation from a credentialed evaluator.

For the past two years, we used the California Achievement Test circa the 1980’s because it was the cheapest option. This year, that version of the test was being phased out and we had to upgrade to a newer version. It was about $5 cheaper to get the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills rather than the California Achievement Test so we figured we would try Iowa.

The main difference between the two tests is that you need to have at least a Bachelor’s degree to administer the Iowa test whereas there are no qualifications to administer the California Achievement Test. There are also many versions of the Iowa test by grade and you have to select which time of the academic year you are testing (beginning of the year, halfway through the year, end of year, etc.). There is also about a month wait once you register for the Iowa test until you receive the exam and you must administer the exam in the exact week you signed up for.

When the testing materials arrived, it was a bit overwhelming. With two children to test, I had to carefully sort through the 4 inch stack of books to figure out which were the instructions and which were the exams. Once I had read all the instructions, we were ready to test.

My youngest daughter went first and took the end of year first grade version of the Iowa test. I was surprised to see that there was little reading on the test. Most of the test consisted of pictures. “Choose the picture that rhymes with ___” or “Choose the picture that shows someone ______.” They were testing vocabulary, phonics, etc. just with a minimum of words. Since my daughter is a strong reader, it was almost more challenging trying to answer the questions with pictures. It seemed like she was answering the question in her head with a word and then had to find a picture that matched the word she was thinking of.

In general, the English questions were challenging. The vocabulary words were more unusual than I was expecting. The reading comprehension questions asked a lot of inferential questions that are quite hard for young children to answer. Questions like: “Guess how this character felt,” “Why did the character make certain choices?”, and “Predict what will happen next.” To answer these well, you need life experience more than anything else.

The math portion of the first grade exam was much more verbal than I was anticipating. There were almost no questions with straight math problems to answer. Instead there were picture questions where you might listen to a short story problem and then have to choose the picture that showed the right answer. Or there was a story problem to read and word choices for answers. This was very different from the California test where the math section was almost 100% equations to answer. It made me wonder if the diverse population of California influences how their tests are written. If you don’t speak English very well but you really know math, you can at least do very well on the math portion of the California test. In Iowa, you are sunk!

I was a little surprised at how verbal this test was in general. It required a solid understanding of the English language. As I was pondering this, I happened to read an article in The Atlantic about creativity and its link to mental illness and came across this interesting fact about Iowa:

“The University of Iowa is home to the Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most famous creative-writing program in the United States (UNESCO has designated Iowa City as one of its seven ‘Cities of Literature,’ along with the likes of Dublin and Edinburgh).”

-Nancy C. Andreasen, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” The Atlantic, June 25, 2014

Eureka! The answer. Since each state’s exam tends to reflect its own state values, it seems Iowa sets the bar high as a “City of Literature.”

The third grade exam was not picture oriented like the first grade test. The English test contained questions on spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and reading comprehension. The wording on this test was more difficult than in the practice books we used and the format of some questions was unfamiliar. The math examination had several sections. There were a lot of story problems to solve. One section was timed and only 5 minutes long. They were clearly testing for speed of calculations. Another section asked difficult questions like, “What else would you need to know in order to solve this problem?”

The third grade exam also had sections for social studies and science. Both of these tests had several detailed questions about agriculture. We were not anticipating these questions and they are probably easier to answer if you live in rural Iowa! The science test had questions about experimental design which were challenging. The last two sections of the test required reading and interpreting maps and using reference materials for research.

I also administered the CogAT test to my third grader. This test is generally used to either identify gifted and talented students or to determine whether a student’s test scores don’t reflect their actual intelligence. The questions are more like logic puzzles of sorts. They want you to identify number and picture patterns and complete word analogies. The timing on this test is also quite short. You have to answer both accurately and fast.

We sent the test in for scoring and the results came back a little over a week later. The detail in the report is quite helpful. It shows you by concept where your child is weak or strong and how they performed on a grade equivalent basis. My third grader scored a composite equivalent to a child just starting in the 4th grade which is right exactly where we wanted her to be. We might have broken the test’s scoring ability for my kindergartner. By age, she should have taken the kindergarten test but since she had completed a first grade curriculum, we tested her at first grade level. She scored very well in every area except for that tricky inferential reading comprehension (which, given her age, was not surprising.) Her composite score was equivalent to a student almost halfway through the second grade.

In general, the Iowa test was a bigger challenge than what we were used to but I appreciate how the concepts being tested are good preparation for college-level thinking. Also, apparently the Iowa scores can be evaluated over time so that if you use the test every year you can get some additional data in your report about how your child has improved year to year. I am not sure what we will use for our testing this year but I would not be opposed to trying the Iowa test again.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Sep 242014
Sometimes little brother joins the homeschool action . . . especially if it involves Danny and the Dinosaur!

Sometimes little brother joins the homeschool action . . . especially if it involves Danny and the Dinosaur!

Last fall, I gave a peek inside our homeschool classroom, showing a little about what we were learning. It was my first year homeschooling two children at the same time, one in kindergarten and the other in third grade.

I am pleased to report that in general, our year was a success! Teaching two at a time didn’t pose as many challenges as I anticipated. With the exception of math, I generally taught all subjects concurrently to both children. I generally taught at the third grade level and assumed that my younger daughter would probably not pick up all of it and we would adjust as needed. To my surprise, she generally kept right on pace with her older sister!

While I went into teaching third grade completely oblivious to its importance, I learned later on that third grade is a high stakes year for most kids. Time magazine calls it “the single most important year of an individual’s academic career.” Researchers can predict the likelihood of high school graduation based on how well a child reads in third grade. As a result, many states will hold children back if they are not reading on level by third grade. The common maxim is that before third grade, you are “learning to read” but that once you hit third grade you must “read to learn.”

Reading ability was not a concern for us but I must say that in general, our homeschool ramped up for third grade. We tried to teach more material and more complex material. It was challenging at times but we stuck with it.

With apologies for length, here is the subject-by-subject breakdown of our homeschool year:

Math

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We continued using the Singapore Math curriculum we have been using for the past several years. This was the first year we completed the full curriculum on time by the end of the year and I was thrilled with that progress.

My kindergartner blew through the kindergarten math books and then proceeded to blow through the first grade math books ahead of schedule.

My third grader had a bigger challenge ahead of her. Third grade is the year to learn the multiplication tables. Memorization of math facts is not something that comes easily to her but she is very good at adding numbers in her head. So, for example, rather than memorizing 8 x 4 = 32, she often had to count, 8, 16, 24, 32. I did not feel it necessary to emphasize speed at this stage so we just made it through the year with the counting method. On the plus side, with the concept of multiplication firmly in her head, she could calculate answers to questions beyond the scope of the course, such as 20 x 5. She also gradually began to memorize the facts after calculating them so many times.

We learned that there are many ways to teach third grade math. In our local public school, it appears they require students to memorize up through the 12 times tables and the corresponding division facts and then answer story problems based on these facts.

Other math curricula have different approaches. With Singapore Math, after we had learned the 2, 3, 4 and 5 times tables, we then had to learn how to multiply ANY number by 2, 3, 4 or 5, such as 55 x 5 or 555 x 5, by learning how to carry numbers in multiplication. Next, we had to learn long division so that we could divide any number by 2, 3, 4, or 5, including remainders. After we had learned all of that, then we progressed to learning the 6 times and higher times tables up through 10. Singapore Math (and it seems more commonly in Asian math curricula) emphasizes breadth of concepts whereas U.S. math seems to emphasize memorization of facts first and then teaches concepts like long division later on.

Comparison of public school and Singapore Math teaching methods for third grade.

Comparison of public school and Singapore Math teaching methods for third grade.

The only challenge for us with this mismatch in strategies is that U.S. standardized testing frequently has questions requiring rote memorization of the 11 and 12 times tables, which we didn’t properly learn. My daughter had to work a little harder to answer those questions but generally did fine using her counting method.

We also used the Common Core Math workbooks to prepare for standardized testing. In general, the math in these books was easier than the Singapore Math curriculum but helped us prepare for the format of many test questions. We found the Common Core Math to be a fairly accurate guide for each grade level of testing.

Language Arts

Brave Writer: The Writer's Jungle and The Wand.

Brave Writer: The Writer’s Jungle and The Wand.

We used Julie Bogart’s Language Arts program called The Wand. The curriculum was developed in conjunction with Rita Cevasco, an expert on childhood language learning. There were 10 months in the curriculum. Each month we read 2 books. Each book was read 10 times before moving on to the next selection. Daily lessons included learning of complex phonics such as c’s that sound like s’s, the –tch letter team and unusual vowel combinations. A brief history of the English language was also included. We learned about Latin, Greek and other language roots. We copied quotes out of the assigned book and did dictation. At first, I couldn’t imagine teaching some of this to a kindergartner and third grader but I pressed on. This curriculum took me a lot of time to plan in advance and to create my own worksheets to go with the material. I was not a big fan of it at first due to the time commitment.

However, about mid-way through the year an amazing transformation happened in my children. I started getting spontaneous writing! My girls would write me notes or comic strips or all kinds of things without being asked! I realized that some of the more tedious parts of this program, like the spelling practice, were very important in building their confidence in writing. Now that they knew how to spell many words properly, they were happy to write things. They also were more willing to take chances on guessing at spelling, since they had a background in the different phonics and an understanding of when certain spellings are used. So, this curriculum was an amazing success and I would recommend it to anyone willing to put in the time.

One quirk about this language program for us, however, was that it appeared that Rita Cevasco might be a Brit. A few of the phonics lessons ended up requiring some modification because they didn’t make sense to an American speaker of English. Brits pronounce certain vowels differently than Americans. For example, the word “aunt” has a short “a” sound in American English but a short “o” sound in British English. The adjustments were minor, however, and as avid PBS watchers we found the differences more amusing than frustrating.

2014-09-24-commoncorelangarts1 2014-09-24-commoncorelangarts3 To prepare for standardized testing, we also used the Daily Language Review books for first and third grade. These books ask questions about grammar, punctuation, reading comprehension and other common testing subjects. The third grade edition also required several short writing projects, which was a good supplement to The Wand curriculum.

 

Science

2014-09-24-giantscience For our science curriculum, we used the School Zone Giant Science book. I liked it because it was colorful and included fun activities such as word searches and simple experiments in addition to reading the text and answering questions. Hands down, the experiments were my children’s favorite. The book covered a wide variety of topics from weather to plants but the main focus was on animals. We learned about insects and ocean life, lizards, snakes and mammals. Animals are a natural hook to science for most children and this book understood that well. I was surprised at how many animal facts were new to me!

 

Spanish

2014-09-24-readandunderstandspanish Our goal for Spanish last year was to find some way to move beyond the stereotypical memorization of numbers, colors, days of the week and a few vocabulary words that is the default elementary foreign language curriculum. We found the Read and Understand Spanish series which is designed primarily for bilingual classrooms. We started off doing once a week Spanish lessons reading the story of the week and completing the 4 worksheet pages. That was not giving us good results as the children were exhausted with Spanish by the end of the lesson and weren’t retaining much.

We switched to shorter daily Spanish lessons with repetition of the story each day and completion of 1 worksheet per day. The worksheets required a combination of writing, cut and paste exercises, word searches and drawings. Coincidentally, many of the stories complemented our other learning in other subjects. Story topics included Jane Goodall, spiders, and fictional stories about children having birthday parties.

Foreign language is one of the most difficult subjects to teach in my experience. While we made progress in terms of learning to understand Spanish phrases and sentences (as opposed to just one random word here and there), my children do not “speak” Spanish to any measurable extent. The lack of immediate progress can be frustrating. However, I do notice subtle progress, particularly in my third grader. She seems to understand more and more and occasionally will write Spanish words herself before I have the chance to spell them out for her. Both girls made good progress learning to write down spelled words in the Spanish alphabet, which is particularly confusing because the Spanish “e” sounds like the English “a” and the Spanish “i” sounds like the English “e.”

In general, I liked this curriculum and would consider using it again.

Handwriting

2014-09-24-smartkidswhohatetowrite 2014-09-24-handwritingwithouttears One of the areas that needed attention last year was handwriting. One of my children had a dysgraphia resulting in frequent letter reversals. We began the year with Dianne Craft’s figure 8 handwriting program and did that daily for the recommended 6 months. I used the program for both my girls. I wouldn’t say that the program was an immediate magic bullet for dysgraphia but it did seem to help. After using the program, the reversals seemed far less frequent.

After 6 months, we moved on to worksheets from the Handwriting Without Tears program that I had picked up used at a homeschool conference. The biggest benefit I received from this text was learning from their suggestions about how to format a handwriting practice page for maximum results.

About three quarters of the way through the year, I realized that I was wasting a lot of time using pre-printed handwriting practice worksheets. I was missing out on the opportunity to use handwriting as a reinforcement for our other learning. So, I began to create my own handwriting practice worksheets using our spelling words. This approach worked very well and I have continued the practice.

Both girls made significant strides in handwriting. Today, the dysgraphia issues are almost non-existent and all the hard work we put in seems to be paying off.

Art

2014-09-24-artisticpursuits I thought I was going to love my art curriculum but I found myself struggling to want to use it. I found it hard to get excited about many of the art projects we were doing and my children did too. After a while, we found ourselves not using it. For me, it was the extra effort required to look ahead and gather all the needed supplies (on top of all the other learning we were doing) and also the lack of excitement from the children when they were doing the assignments. These weren’t like craft projects. They required focus, attention to detail and appreciation of art history. My children seemed to rush through them in 5 minutes, although they did enjoy them and were proud of their work. I am disappointed that I didn’t do more with art and wish I had finished the curriculum. Fundamentally, I think it is a good curriculum but you need to approach it with some of the same seriousness you would use when teaching a subject like math or science.

 

History

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History was another area where we didn’t quite meet the expectations we had for ourselves. Our goal was to give the children a broad concept of what history is, how old the earth is and how old people are.  My husband did most of the history reading to the children. The year started out well but gradually as we all got busier and busier history just seemed to slip through the cracks. It was also a hard lesson for both me and my husband to learn that it is quite difficult for young children to listen to the non-fiction books we had selected. Many teachers prefer historical fiction for this age group and I can see why. With history at this age, it seems to be an “exposure” subject where children may not absorb it fully the first or second time but with each exposure they start to appreciate more and more. As a teacher, it is hard to stay motivated when your students are staring at you blankly or fidgeting and hoping you will finish soon!

Overall, I think we can call our school year a success.  We attempted more subjects than ever before and learned a lot about teaching strategies for this young age group.  Repetition is key for these young learners.  Going over and over and over a concept seems to really drive comprehension.

In my next post, how we fared with standardized testing this year.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Sep 212014
One of our many challenges upon arriving home: tackling the mountain of laundry!

One of our many challenges upon arriving home: tackling the mountain of laundry!

Hi Anne: We’ve missed your updates now for a couple of months…. “Sup?

I was actually thrilled to receive several recent inquiries about what is going on with my blog. It is nice to know that people miss you when you don’t post!

Fortunately, there is nothing catastrophic behind my lack of posts. It was a full summer with entertaining and cross-country travel. By the time we returned to Virginia, we were all a little wiped out but had to dive right in to the new homeschool year. Blogging was unfortunately moved to the bottom of the priority list.

I have felt completely behind this entire September. All of the activities that most families accomplish before the school year, like shopping for fall clothes and school supplies, visiting doctors for school physicals and eye exams, we had to push to September. In addition, we had a backlog of things to reset to normal from our trip, like doing laundry, writing a pile of thank you notes and washing and repairing the car. We are also in the middle of planning a large home improvement project and researching investments for our personal finances. So, gradually, we are catching up but it is taking us some time. We are going through the motions of our new homeschool and extracurricular routines but it all still feels a bit foreign and unnatural.

While I hope that all of you are having an awesome September and that your school or work routines are running just like clockwork, I am finding numerous examples of people who are closer to my experience where September is kind of a whirlwind of change and we are just trying to survive the storm. A few people in my life experienced major medical concerns during September and there is nothing that throws your life off balance like a medical crisis. Another friend wrote recently that she just feels a bit overwhelmed by her new fall scheduling and is waiting for things to settle into a routine.

In the blogging world, I was shocked to discover that very successful bloggers John and Sheri Petersik are taking a break from posting to reassess their life priorities in light of the birth of their second child this year. (Good for them! A second child is a huge adjustment for most people.)

Also in the blogging world, the local Fredericksburg couple who cashed out their 401k, sold their home and traveled the world for over 2 years, wrote a fascinating post about their struggle to transition back to regular life in the United States.

If you are in the whirlwind with me, I found it helpful to take some advice from Bob Harper, the famous fitness trainer from The Biggest Loser. This season’s show is all about former athletes. The stories are so human and humbling. These are people who have demonstrated great dedication and commitment and hard work during their careers yet still have fallen victim to their own personal demons. It takes a brave person to admit that on national television and it is inspiring to see these contestants have that courage and have the audacity to make a very difficult change.

On the first episode of the show, Bob is counseling a woman who is suffering from injuries. He tells her:

2014-09-17-harper-mindquote-white

As I get older, I really appreciate how strength of mind is really the best strength to have. Coping with stress and life’s disappointments while still being able to set goals and dreams to look forward to is what keeps us all going. It’s a good reminder that we need to make hard decisions sometimes, focus in on what we need or want and let all the rest go.

So, rest assured that whether you are in the whirlwind or pressing steadily on as usual, it’s all in the range of “normal.” As for me, I am hoping to resume more regular blog updates. I assure you my absence is not for lack of things to say but rather lack of discipline and time to write them all out. I sincerely appreciate your reading! It’s good to be back!

*I have no affiliation with The Biggest Loser or any other company mentioned in this post.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Jul 292014
We drove past this "laser eyes" mural every day on our way to camp.  I am not sure what it represents.

We drove past this “laser eyes” mural every day on our way to camp. I am not sure what it represents.

It was the last day of camp and we were all glad to have made it the full week and to be celebrating artistic accomplishments!

We dropped off the girls and my son and I spent the morning looking at Richmond architecture. I was specifically looking for ideas that would help us with the pending exterior renovation of our home. We are due for a paint job and a new roof and I wanted to see if there were some real life examples of what we were considering.

Richmond is a goldmine of architectural inspiration for Colonial style. We looked at many different types of paint schemes. One of the newer trends that gives a European look to a traditional Colonial home is to paint the trim and the house in shades of the same color. Shades of taupe and beige were particularly striking in this combination.

It was also helpful to see how certain colors and architectural features weather over time. If something still looks good with a little age on it, then it is likely a great choice.

Richmond has lovely rowhouses with classic style.

Richmond has lovely rowhouses with classic style.

As I looked at house and roof colors, I found that I liked it best when the house color and roof color had a bit of contrast, such as a dark house color with a lighter roof and a lighter house color with a darker roof.

As I looked at house and roof colors, I found that I liked it best when the house color and roof color had a bit of contrast, such as a dark house color with a lighter roof and a lighter house color with a darker roof.

The double porches on many homes looked so inviting and seemed like the perfect people watching spot.

The double porches on many homes looked so inviting and seemed like the perfect people watching spot.

We grabbed the girls from camp and had a few shopping errands to run first. We were surprised to find that back-to-school shopping is in full force with store aisles transformed into school supply meccas.

School supplies so neatly organized in bins.  Heaven!

School supplies so neatly organized in bins. Heaven!

There is something so satisfying to me about school supply shopping. I love to browse all the new products and deals. It is also a wake-up call that the cash hemorrage is about to begin. Between summer vacation expenses, school clothing and school supply expenses, August can be as expensive as Christmas!

After our shopping trip, we grabbed lunch to go and made our way to our last Richmond attraction. I saved the best for last. We managed to parallel park the minivan into the last available parking spot and made our way across the bridge.

Crossing the Belle Isle suspension bridge

Crossing the Belle Isle suspension bridge

The Bridge to Belle Isle is a relatively recent Richmond tourism and recreation investment. A suspension bridge was created below the existing highway bridge allowing people to walk or bike across the bridge to Belle Isle. Belle Isle was a former prisoner of war camp for Union Soldiers during the Civil War and was then the site of a hydroelectric power plant. Now it is used solely for recreation with hiking trails and the main attraction, a rocky, urban “beach.”

View from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

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On Belle Isle.

On Belle Isle.

Lots of green, open space.

Lots of green, open space.

Picnic lunch on the beach.

Picnic lunch on the beach.

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There is only one hazard to be aware of on this beach and that is that the rocks near the water are very slippery! There is some sort of slippery moss or algae that grows on them that you can’t see. Three of us were caught in this trap. My daughter first discovered this as she gently stepped into the water, then suddenly lost her footing and slid right in to a shallow pool. I ran to fish her out and many kind people nearby also started to help. Fortunately, she was able to climb out herself and other than being wetter than she would like, was fine. The next person to discover this trap was me! I was walking quickly over what I thought were dry rocks. One had just a bit of water on it and sure enough it was mossy and slippery and down I went! The last victim was my son. He was sitting on the rocks dangling his feet in the water, slid just an inch toward that slippery moss and slid right into the water! I was right there to fish him out but it taught us all to be VERY careful.

Celebrating the end of our week of adventures!

Celebrating the end of our week of adventures!

The children could have stayed on the beach all afternoon and were sad when it was time to leave. We could not miss the children’s art exhibit that afternoon, however, and hustled toward the car.

The camp does a wonderful art exhibition of all of the children's work at the end of camp. It looks just like an art gallery and it is all put up very quickly with little more than masking tape.

An exuberant self-portrait

An exuberant self-portrait.

Another terrific self portrait.

Another terrific self portrait.

A diamondback rattlesnake made from clay, used in a claymation project.

A diamondback rattlesnake made from clay, used in a claymation project.

Another claymation detail of a flying squirrel and a tree.

Another claymation detail of a flying squirrel and a tree.

We admired the projects done by children of all ages. In the older classes, the children were asked to work in teams to create installation art. This project done by three girls was fantastic.

2014-07-29-house-installation

The best part for me was the artists’ statement.

A wonderful artist statement.

A wonderful artist statement.

The statement said a lot to me. Some efforts are hard for others to appreciate. Simple things can be deceptively complicated. Artistic mess is as difficult as artistic order. It takes time to learn to create good art.

The art show was a great lift to the end of a energy-filled week. While we weren’t expecting to have Richmond in our summer plans, we are glad there was space in our lives to allow for this last-minute change. Rather than being exhausted with all the early-morning wake-up calls and the driving and touring, I left energized with new ideas and perspective. My children took a lot out of the experience too. I will remember most the times spent outside, watching them run joyfully in the sunshine. It’s what summer is all about.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Jul 262014
Resting up for the day's adventures.

Resting up for the day’s adventures.

Day 4 arrived and we did our morning commute to art camp yet again. After the drop off, my son took a snooze in the car while I tried to find something for us to do.

I learned from my past hanging out sessions in Richmond that the Richmond public library often holds many interesting and free events for children. I checked their website from my phone and found out that two different branches were having a preschool story time that morning. I wasn’t sure how long the story time would last so I went for the one that started soonest.

We drove for about 20 minutes until we reached the first library branch. We arrived just about a minute before the story time started at 11:00. I walked into the library and asked where the story time was. The librarian pointed the way and as I reached the door, I was greeted with a pre-printed sign that said that I was not to enter, that story time had already started and that the maximum number of guests were already in the room! The sign continued that if I wanted I could request a ticket at the front desk, wait half an hour and. . . if there was enough interest, they would hold another session! This was a bit more bureaucracy than I was expecting and I wouldn’t be able to wait for the next story time as it would make me late for pickup.

So, we got back in the car and rushed to the second branch of the library with story time at 11:15 a.m. We arrived there also a minute before story time began.

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This time, the librarian at the desk showed me to the room and found the children’s librarian who, with a cheery smile, greeted my son and then rounded up all the children in the library for stories and games.

This was my son’s first story time. While he listens very well to stories at home, in a public setting he was a little distracted.

Someone is not paying attention!

Someone is not paying attention!

The librarian had wonderful inflection as she read the story. At the end, she asked the children some reading comprehension promoting questions, which I thought was impressive.

The librarian then asked each child to request a song to sing. While some stuck with old favorites like the ABCs and Wheels on the Bus, one child requested to sing “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen. We are probably the only family in America who has not seen this movie. The children who requested the song began to sing the somewhat complex lyrics. When it came time for the chorus, everyone was singing out enthusiastically, “Let it go! Let it go!” All I could do was sit there and smile. The children sang the entire song which seemed to be about 4 minutes long! We clapped for them when it was done.

We finished off with the librarian blowing bubbles for the children to pop. My son thought this was great, until he realized he had to compete with the other children for the bubbles and that being the youngest and smallest he was at a disadvantage.

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Overall, it was quite a successful first story hour.

We rushed back to camp for pick up.

For our afternoon adventure, we were blessed with a “polar vortex” which brought cooler weather. Mind you, it was still plenty warm, just not as sweltering as it had been.

One of the things I have never successfully done in Richmond is visit Brown’s Island. I know roughly where it is and as far as I know it is not that hard to get to. However, every time I attempt to get there something happens to disrupt our trip.

We parked near the Tradegar Iron Works, grabbing the last available public parking spot. We began walking toward Brown’s Island when the children spotted a sort of beach and decided that would be the best spot to eat our picnic lunch.

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My daughter found this a perfect spot for sketching.

My daughter found this a perfect spot for sketching.

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My son was unimpressed with our picnic lunch.

My son was unimpressed with our picnic lunch.

. . . but very impressed with the train!

. . . but very impressed with the train!

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We wandered a bit down the beach and found the Three Days Bridge.  This is a wonderful cross between history and art.  The bridge commemorates the three days in Richmond after the Confederate surrender.

We wandered a bit down the beach and found the Three Days Bridge. This is a wonderful cross between history and art. The bridge commemorates the three days in Richmond after the Confederate surrender.

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The bridge offers amazing views of the James River as well.

The bridge offers amazing views of the James River as well.

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At this point, the children said they were tired and ready to go home. I am not entirely sure if we ever made it to Brown’s Island! We were certainly in close proximity. Ah well, we’ll have to try yet again.

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It is always amazing how children find the energy to run when they have the right motivation! We walked back to the car and drove home. We had just one day left to spend in Richmond but we were appreciating all that we were able to experience.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jul 252014
Enjoying the architecture exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture.

Enjoying the architecture exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture.

Day three of our Richmond travels began thankfully smoothly. We dropped off the girls and drove to our morning destination, the Virginia Center for Architecture. We had an hour before the museum opened so my son took a nap and I read.

The exhibit on current display was an overview of the 99 best architectural structures in Virginia. My son enjoyed the huge map of Virginia at the entrance, especially pointing out numbers to me.

Look mom!  Number three!

Look mom! Number three!

I wasn’t really paying attention to what these numbers meant but since my son kept drawing my attention to them I took better notice. When he got to the number zero, I was shocked by the information.

We do love Colonial architecture here in Virginia.  Perhaps we need to encourage modern twists on colonial architecture that incorporate other perspectives.

We do love Colonial architecture here in Virginia. Perhaps we need to encourage modern twists on colonial architecture that incorporate other perspectives.

I always enjoy the exhibits at the Virginia Center for Architecture. It is a bit different from a traditional museum in that there usually are not original works of art guarded in glass, climate-controlled cases. Generally there are no original works at all. It is more like a unique display of information. But it really works!

The exhibit techniques are usually novel uses of graphic design. The display methods are as much a part of the exhibit as the artifacts themselves! In this case, the architecture works were numbered from 1-99. There was a photograph of each building with some brief information about the building and then a plastic sliding sign with the number of the building in the ranking system.

We had the exhibit to ourselves and took our time looking at each work. There were also some great quotes from architects in the exhibit as well.

Gorgeous architecture was used in the renovation of an elementary school.  What a great learning environment!

Gorgeous architecture was used in the renovation of an elementary school. What a great learning environment!

The unique wall display with sliding plastic partitions.

The unique wall display with sliding plastic partitions.

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I had no idea Virginia had a D-Day memorial.

I had no idea Virginia had a D-Day memorial.

Another Richmond landmark to look forward too!  VCU is in the process of constructing a contemporary art museum.

Another Richmond landmark to look forward too! VCU is in the process of constructing a contemporary art museum.

What a staircase!!

What a staircase!!

After the exhibit we ran around the grounds outside for a bit.  Such a lovely home!

After the exhibit we ran around the grounds outside for a bit. Such a lovely home!

The Virginia Center for Architecture is going through a few changes at the moment. Some information at the museum indicated that the mission of the center is going to expand beyond architecture into interior design, fashion and other related disciplines. Sounds amazing! Their gift shop was also empty and undergoing some sort of remodeling effort. So there are some more things to look forward to on our next visit.

Inspired by the architecture we saw, we took a leisurely stroll around the block and made note of Richmond’s wonderful historic architecture. Then we went to pick up the girls from camp.

We had a packed schedule today and I had been so preoccupied getting the girls ready for their ballet class that afternoon that I forgot to pack lunches! So, we drove toward our afternoon destination looking for something the children would find appetizing. There were lots of cute bistros but nothing we could get a consensus on. Finally, we stopped at the last eatery before our destination.

We ended up at a small, neighborhood convenience store.

We ended up at a small, neighborhood convenience store.

We walked in and saw typical convenience store far, like candies and drinks. Since the sign outside promised sandwiches I looked around expecting a display of prepackaged sandwiches. To my surprise, instead there was a very tiny grill in the corner and a woman ready to cook up fresh sandwiches, fries and chicken. We tried the chicken fingers special and a turkey sandwich.

We had to wait for our food in front of this delicious display of homemade desserts.

We had to wait for our food in front of this delicious display of homemade desserts.

As we waited, we overheard conversations between the regular customers and the staff.

“Hey….haven’t seen you around for a while. Are you still working?”

“No. I haven’t had any work in three weeks.”

Everyone was very friendly. When our food was ready, we purchased it along with some bottles of milk and a treat each child picked out from the immense display. Our total came to $10! It was quite the bargain.

We drove to the nearby park and found a picnic bench in the shade.

Devouring the chicken fingers and fries.

Devouring the chicken fingers and fries.

Thumbs up for the grilled turkey sandwich too!

Thumbs up for the grilled turkey sandwich too!

For the afternoon, our destination was Maymont, the giant park that was formerly a very wealthy estate. The grounds are gardens are incredible. It was the first time my eldest daughter had been.

All that open space inspires running.

All that open space inspires running.

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You get a little bit of a free zoo experience at Maymont.  They have a collection of injured raptors and some black bears.

You get a little bit of a free zoo experience at Maymont. They have a collection of injured raptors and some black bears.

The black bear statue is well polished where all the children climb all over it.

The black bear statue is well polished where all the children climb all over it.

We made our way to the Japanese garden.  My daughter was duly impressed.

We made our way to the Japanese garden. My daughter was duly impressed.

My daughters compared knee ouchies.  You can tell how much fun a little girl is having at Maymont by how many knee scrapes she has.

My daughters compared knee ouchies. You can tell how much fun a little girl is having at Maymont by how many knee scrapes she has.

Everyone's favorite . . . leaping on the stepping stones.  My son was upset that I wouldn't let him attempt the 1 foot gaps by himself.  I wasn't up for a swim at that moment.

Everyone’s favorite . . . leaping on the stepping stones. My son was upset that I wouldn’t let him attempt the 1 foot gaps by himself. I wasn’t up for a swim at that moment.

More koi.  My children were thrilled and started naming them.

More koi. My children were thrilled and started naming them.

We made our way back to the car via the lovely Italian gardens.

We made our way back to the car via the lovely Italian gardens.

The row of red hibiscus plants was very striking, especially paired with the pink accent flowers.

The row of red hibiscus plants was very striking, especially paired with the pink accent flowers.

Back at the car, we pulled out the first aid kit to dress the knee wounds, used a large wad of baby wipes to give an improvised shower, changed into ballet clothes and headed back to Fredericksburg for ballet class. Whew! Another successful day!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jul 242014
Uh-oh!  Trouble on the morning commute.

Uh-oh! Trouble on the morning commute.

We were late for the second day of camp. We were running just about on time until we hit a traffic situation on I-95. About 15 minutes away from our exit, traffic ground to a halt. We crawled along at 2 miles an hour or less. Traffic condensed from 3 lanes to two lanes and then down to one.

Finally, we hit the source of the problem:

An overturned tractor trailer carrying a load of butter slowed I-95 South to a crawl.

An overturned tractor trailer carrying a load of butter slowed I-95 South to a crawl.

We call this incident the "butter jam" of 2014, referencing my son's name for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

We call this incident the “butter jam” of 2014, referencing my son’s name for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

45 painful minutes later, we finally got to our exit and made it to art camp.

My son and I then drove around looking for something to do. I thought we might take a look at the Virginia Historical Society. This is a wonderful place to spend some time. It has great exhibits, plenty of free parking and even a good spot to eat your lunch.

But it was closed!

The Virginia Historical Society is being renovated and is closed until fall 2015.

The Virginia Historical Society is being renovated and is closed until fall 2015.

So, we drove around, sat in the car and waited until it was time to get the girls. It was kind of a bust of a morning.

That afternoon, it was another scorcher and we needed to do something inside. I settled on touring the most recent exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Posing Beauty: a celebraton of African American portraits from the 1890's to the present.

Posing Beauty: a celebraton of African American portraits from the 1890′s to the present.

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My children love the swivel chairs in the lobby and remembered them from our last visit.

My children love the swivel chairs in the lobby and remembered them from our last visit.

At the entrance to the exhibit.

At the entrance to the exhibit.

The exhibit contained rougly 200 photographs of African Americans from the 1890′s to the present day. There were historical prints, fashion magazines and art photographs. I asked my children to try to pay attention to how the hairstyles and clothes changed throughout each era. I’m not sure they grasped what the exhibit was about but they had two favorite pieces. One was an artistic work of a large close-up photograph of a Barbie doll face photoshopped in a mosaic with African American features. “Barbie!” they called out. They also liked watching an art film where footage from a Texas beauty pageant with the first African American winner was set to the Psycho soundtrack and sped up and slowed-down in certain places. My favorite pieces were the family portraits from the 1890′s with elegantly dressed families in outdoor settings.

My children were most excited to have a snack on the deck.

My children were most excited to have a snack on the deck.

This was one of my fast days but the VMFA desserts did me in. I couldn’t bear to throw my son’s barely touched cinnamon scone away. Then I had to finish off my daughter’s vanilla cupcake (which had the strongest and creamiest vanilla flavor I have ever tasted).

They were equally intrigued to look for koi in the pond.

They were equally intrigued to look for koi in the pond.

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Next, we spent a little while exploring the outdoor gardens.

Next, we spent a little while exploring the outdoor gardens.

Someone just couldn't stay away from the water.

Someone just couldn’t stay away from the water.

In a little boy mystery, I turned around to take a photo of my girls and turned back 10 seconds later to find my son completely drenched!  I am not sure if he fell in the very shallow fountain and climbed out or just managed to splash himself enthusiastically.

In a little boy mystery, I turned around to take a photo of my girls and turned back 10 seconds later to find my son completely drenched! I am not sure if he fell in the very shallow fountain and climbed out or just managed to splash himself enthusiastically.

It was hot and bright and time to get home to rest up for the next day.

Even the parking lot of VMFA is artful.

Even the parking lot of VMFA is artful.

As we drove home, we noticed that I-95 southbound was still butter-jammed! The traffic did not seem any better than it was over 6 hours earlier!

It had been a day with rough patches but we managed to salvage it. I was proud of my kids for rolling with the punches rather than getting upset about all that didn’t go according to plan. It’s one of life’s best organizing lessons.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Jul 232014

Welcome to Richmond!

Since I spent a good part of my last two summers in Richmond while my children were in camps, I was a bit sad to think we would not be there at all this summer. I waited too long to register for summer camps and they were all full.

. . . . or at least so I thought.

Hey Anne!

Amazing news! Morning spots just freed up . . . in Session 1 (July 14- 18) Please let us know if this is something you are still interested in!

Yes! Yes!! It was amazing news and we were thrilled. This was the art camp my children adored and the staff seem to enjoy my children just as much. It was a serendipitous match.

We packed our lunches, found the art smocks and backpacks and set the alarm for an early start.

After dropping off the girls, I didn’t really have a plan in place for what my son and I would do for the next few hours. I drove around a bit aimlessly and went past The Library of Virginia. We decided to start there.

The Library of Virginia

The Library of Virginia

The current lobby exhibition is about The Flora of Virginia. I had heard about this from the Virginia Native Plant Society. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what this was but I understood that many people were VERY excited about the publication of this flora.

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The first question, of course, is what is a flora? The exhibit explained:

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I loved the idea that this was an intersection of science and art and that hand-drawn illustrations were used rather than photographs.

The most recent Flora of Virginia was published in 1715 by John Clayton. It has never been formally updated since. Most botanists were using a combination of flora for West Virginia and North Carolina when working with Virginia plants. Now they have a flora to call their own!

I learned many interesting things from the exhibit. Of organizational note, Carolus Linnaeus was an important pioneer of plant organization. His work in 1753 to set up a naming system for plants consisting of two names, genus and species, revolutionized botany. Prior to this innovation, there were all sorts of naming systems for plants and many plants had extremely long descriptive names.

I also learned what the term “herbarium” means. While it sounds like it has something to do with herbs, it really means “a collection of dried, preserved plant specimens on paper.” It’s kind of like a library of pressed flowers. The specimens are artfully arranged on paper with the name of the plant and any important notes. Usually a decorative stamp identifying the herbarium is in the top corner. They were described as another intersection between science and art.

Another great exhibit told of the artist’s conk fungus. This is sort of like a large mushroom that grows on trees. It has the unique property that if you mark on it with a sharp object, it will leave dark brown mark that resembles carvings in ivory or bone. Artists have used the fungus as a canvas. There was a great example on exhibit of a fungus from a botany club where all the members had signed the fungus.

The exhibit had a combination of rare books, artwork, photographs, history and botanical information. It was a clever meshing of many different disciplines.

Another organizational note from the exhibit.  This is a "vasculum," a special box botanists use to hold plant specimens collected in the field.

Another organizational note from the exhibit. This is a “vasculum,” a special box botanists use to hold plant specimens collected in the field.

After the exhibit, we toured The Virginia Shop, their gift shop. This was a wonderfully designed gift shop! It had a huge hipster influence with all kinds of artful and quirky items. I made note of several items for future Christmas and birthday gifts.

There were some wonderful education resources, including this unique book on teaching the underground railroad to children.

There were some wonderful education resources, including this unique book on teaching the underground railroad to children.

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There was also a wonderful selection of authentic antiquarian books.  Most were volumes with Congressional hearings,  trade records or diplomatic correspondence from around the time of the Civil War.  They would be a great addition to a formal law or business office and they were reasonably priced around $15 or so!

There was also a wonderful selection of authentic antiquarian books. Most were volumes with Congressional hearings, trade records or diplomatic correspondence from around the time of the Civil War. They would be a great addition to a formal law or business office and they were reasonably priced around $15 or so!

If you are a Virginia local, you can sign up to join the Library of Virginia’s mailing list. They have a great book club and other events.

After the library, we took a quick walk across the street to the Virginia School Board building where you can take the elevator to the top floor observation deck for an amazing view of the city.

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There was a construction project going on right below us that was fascinating to watch.

There was a construction project going on right below us that was fascinating to watch.

Walking back to the car, we saw this billboard at a local sandwich shop:

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Although I don’t think anyone would say that the economy is in “recession,” there are aspects of the Virginia economy that feel that way sometimes. I hope this small business struggles through.

I picked up my daughters from camp. This year, they both only wanted to do half day camp. When I asked them why they said it was because last year I did such fun adventures in the afternoons that they didn’t want to miss out! Wow! This may be the highest compliment my children have ever paid me. They actually wanted to hang out with boring old mom!

For some reason, every time I am in Richmond, I notice cryptic signs.  This one asked, "Who is Salomonsky?"  Apparently he is a prominent and controversial real estate developer in downtown Richmond who once served time in federal prison.

For some reason, every time I am in Richmond, I notice cryptic signs. This one asked, “Who is Salomonsky?” Apparently he is a prominent and controversial real estate developer in downtown Richmond who once served time in federal prison.

Another Richmond signature: road tolls!  You need to have a roll of quarters and dimes with you in the car just in case! (or an EZ Pass)

Another Richmond signature: road tolls! You need to have a roll of quarters and dimes with you in the car just in case! (or an EZ Pass)

The children had one primary destination in mind for our Richmond adventures so I decided to get that out of the way first.

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The Richmond Zoo is small but on a previous visit we had a lot of fun there. They allow you to get up close to feed the giraffes which is fun and they have other activities as well like a train ride, carousel and petting zoo.

Unfortunately, however, there was one factor working against us on this trip:

93 degrees with Virginia humidity is HOT!!

93 degrees with Virginia humidity is HOT!!

There are no indoor exhibits at the zoo so we braced ourselves for walking around in the heat. I purchased some sunscreen at the zoo store which came on a nice caribiner clip so that I could attach it to my keys. (A good organization tip to remember.)

We wandered around looking at animals, most of whom were trying to lie down in whatever shade they could find. My children complained the whole time that it was too hot and they were ready to leave after only about an hour.

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We did enjoy watching a giraffe run across their savannah exhibit. I don’t know if I have ever seen a giraffe run in person before. It is an amusing sight. The giraffe has such gangly long legs that it runs in a sort of graceful tangle. We also saw some zookeepers transporting a large Galapagos tortoise into a mud pool to help it cope better with the heat.

So, our circumstances weren’t the best for a zoo visit but I was glad to get the zoo out of the way so that the children would be ready to see other things.

We drove home through the back roads and encountered heavy rain along the way.

We drove home through the back roads and encountered heavy rain along the way.

Overall, day one was a success! Richmond is such a comfortable city to visit with the amenities of a big city but less parking hassles and traffic. We all looked forward to what the rest of the week would bring.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Jul 162014

Hookity-Tookity-Tah (English version) at amazon.com.

Hookity-Tookity-Tah (English version) at amazon.com.

Húkiti-Túkiti-Tá (Spanish version) at amazon.com.

We are in the middle of celebrating numerous birthdays this month and it seems the perfect time to review a book about sweets!

Hookity-Tookity-Tah, written by Antonio Mugica and illustrated by Hermann Mejía was sent to me to review by Hunter Hackett of the La Jolla Writer’s Conference.

This is a story about a town with a dragon problem. To prevent the dragon from eating the villagers, the King negotiates a deal to provide the dragon with “One thousand pies! One hundred cakes! And then a bonbon wagon!” to fill him up instead.

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Without giving it all away, there are a few culinary disasters along the way and a nutritional message.

The story is imaginative and fun and the illustrations are wonderful, bright and detailed with a sense of whimsy to them. The King, for example has the body of a cupcake and the desserts made for the dragon look deliciously surreal. You will never find desserts quite like these 50 foot cakes with towering piles of frosting. The characters use pulleys and ropes to cope with the massive scale of the sweets.

The author, Antonio Mugica, is a man of many talents. His day job is serving as CEO of Smartmatic, an international voting software company that appears to produce many of the electronic voting machines we use here in the United States. He is also a musician and bilingual(!) writer.

The illustrator, Hermann Mejía, has won international awards for his caricature drawing. This is a 35-minute video of him presenting to the International Society of Caricature Artists with several examples of his incredible work. At the 31 minute mark he shows some illustrations from Hookity-Tookity-Tah and then shows a short video of him painting.

Hookity-Tookity-Tah is a treat much like the sugary sweets it depicts.  It is fun and engaging and perfect for summer reading.  

*Disclosure: I was provided a free review copy of the book.

Posted by anne
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