Dec 122014
Our festive front door.

Our festive front door.

One of my best Black Friday finds was completely unintended. I was sent a notice about a flash sale on a front door decoration set for half price with free shipping. Total cost: $51.60. It was perfect for our home. It was a traditional, Colonial style with symmetrical matching trees in small pots, natural Williamsburg-style decorations of pinecones and berries, a door garland and even a battery operated LED wreath.

The set arrived quickly and I set to work putting it up. We generally don’t do a lot of outdoor Christmas decorations so I wasn’t exactly familiar with how this would work. I think we have all seen pictures in magazines of these beautiful garlands draped over doorways but once it arrived and I stood outside holding it in my hands, I realized that I had no idea how to do this.

Hmmm....how is this going to work exactly?

Hmmm….how is this going to work exactly?

The first thing I discovered is that the kit I ordered came with only one garland and it wasn’t going to be long enough to surround the door like advertised. Fortunately, I had one extra garland from a set I already owned that I had never quite known what to do with. All the rest in that set I use to wrap around our stair bannister but there was one left over that usually ended up unused or in random places. I lucked out and the two garlands coordinated nicely even though they are made of slightly different materials. The length was just right.

The garland is quite heavy to handle so you can’t just drape it over the door frame and expect it to stay. I knew this was going to require some hardware so I went in the basement to poke around in our tools.

First, I studded the door frame with nails about every 18 inches or so to give the garland something to prevent it from slipping off.

Studding the door frame with nails.

Studding the door frame with nails.

I laid the garland behind the nails and it sort of worked but there were parts of the garland that slipped out from behind the nails, especially along the sides of the door making the garland look loose and unkempt. My first thought was to tie the garland to the nails with some green sewing thread. This did not work at all. The thread was not nearly strong enough to handle the weight. I needed wire.

It came to me that some of the extra garbage bag twist ties we had in the kitchen might suit. So, I tied some of those around the nails.

Twist ties to secure the garland were tied around each nail.

Twist ties to secure the garland were tied around each nail.

I wish my twist ties were green and a bit longer but in general this worked great! The garland was nicely secured. I put the trees in place and started connecting all the wires together. When I got to the last tree, I had a small problem. I had a female (plug) end on my garland and only one male (prong) end coming from the remaining tree. I could either connect the tree to the outlet or the garland but not both!

Oops!  A loose end that could not be connected to anything!

Oops! A loose end that could not be connected to anything!

I went to the basement and looked at our collection of extra Christmas lights. All of them had one female end and one male end. There was no combination of lights that was going to work to get the garland and the tree connected to each other and the electrical outlet.

After all my efforts, I had managed to connect exactly one Christmas tree.

After all my efforts, I had managed to connect exactly one Christmas tree.

I texted my husband who was on his way to a company Christmas party to stop by the hardware store and bring me home a male/male extension cord that was very short.

He called me right back:

“I’m not sure male/male extension cords exist and even if they do, that would be extremely dangerous to have lying around. What if you made a mistake and plugged both ends into the same outlet!”

Electrical wiring is clearly not my strong suit.

“Are you sure you wired up the garland correctly?”

This was not the question I wanted to hear. That garland took forever to put up and I was not going to take it down. I insisted that my wiring must be right but that I would go outside to check for him. I started with the tree furthest from the outlet.

“OK, this tree has a male plug and it is connected to the garland via . . . . . another male plug,” I said with great disappointment.

“Yeah, you just need to reverse the garland and everything should connect just fine.”

So, back outside I went and took it all down and put it all back up again the other direction. And, of course, it connected perfectly.

A 5-minute call with my husband (who had no even seen what I was wiring but has a natural symbiosis with electricity) resulted in all the wiring connecting perfectly!

A 5-minute call with my husband (who had no even seen what I was wiring but has a natural symbiosis with electricity) resulted in all the wiring connecting perfectly!

Satisfied with my progress, I went inside to put up the garland on our stair railing that we also use to display the holiday cards we receive.

Staircase garland up!

Staircase garland up!

It is a great clutter prevention strategy to have a spot to put all those holiday cards that arrive.  We clothespin them to our staircase garland and they look amazing.  We admire them as we go up and down the stairs each day.

It is a great clutter prevention strategy to have a spot to put all those holiday cards that arrive. We clothespin them to our staircase garland and they look amazing. We admire them as we go up and down the stairs each day.

Lights make such a difference in lifting our spirits during the holidays. The only problem is that you have to remember to plug and unplug them every day. Fortunately, I put a technology solution to work for my staircase garland, an indoor light timer. These are a hot item at the hardware stores lately so if you see one and you want one, make sure to grab it. They are inexpensive. A pack of 2 with an indoor and outdoor light timer was about $12.

The indoor light timer, a wonderful, time-saving way to enjoy your holiday lights.

The indoor light timer, a wonderful, time-saving way to enjoy your holiday lights.

These timers come with few instructions. I’m sure most people figure them out right away but my lights were on 24-7 for two days while I sorted it out. To spare you the same problem, here are my indoor light timer instructions:

1. Plug the light timer into your outlet (or extension cord).
2. Plug the male end of your lights into the side of the timer.
3. Make sure the switch on the side of the timer is set to “timer on.”
4. There are little gray plastic pins all around the dial on the top of the timer. Pull up all the gray plastic pins during the hours when you DON’T want the lights on. I made a mistake when I first started and pulled up just the pins for the start and stop times. You have to pull up all the pins between those two hours.
5. Rotate the dial to set the timer to the current time. If your lights have not come on even though they are supposed to, you might need to rotated the dial a full turn around first until the lights come on and then set the time.

I have a new appreciation for how much work and frustration must go into every single holiday light display. As I am driving by enjoying someone else’s lights, I will wish them a silent congratulations on a job well done!

Do you have any lighting misadventures to share?

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 092014
It's Nutcracker time!

It’s Nutcracker time!

The Christmas season is not complete for us without seeing a performance of the Nutcracker! We looked forward to our season ticket performance of The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker. This is their 10th anniversary celebration.

A few days before the performance, I just happened to notice on Twitter that The Washington Ballet was hosting a “Family Day” with special activities in the morning on the same day as our performance. I wasn’t sure what to expect but we weren’t going to miss it. We woke up early and drove into the city. Because we were so early, we even snagged prime parking in the garage right across the street from the theater.

As we walked into the Warner Theater, we found it alive with dance. There were dancers posing all over the hallways and balconies. The pairing of the gorgeous theater with its gold and chandeliers and the elegant ballet dancers was stunning.

The children were given an activity booklet with assignments to have their pictures taken with the performers. They received a stamp for each activity completed. If they completed all the activities, they would get a special prize during intermission.

My girls weren’t in the best of photo taking moods that day but grudgingly complied with my request for pictures with all the dancers. The dancers were all very gracious and welcoming.

A gorgeous ballerina.

A gorgeous ballerina.

The delightful jack-in-the box.

The delightful jack-in-the box.

Posing with the Chinese dancers.

Posing with the Chinese dancers.

Clara and Fritz.  Clara was portrayed by Katharine M. Lee and was one of the best Clara's I have ever seen!

Clara and Fritz. Clara was portrayed by Katharine M. Lee and was one of the best Clara’s I have ever seen!

My girls loved the craft table where they cut out and assembled paper Nutcracker ornaments for our tree.

My girls loved the craft table where they cut out and assembled paper Nutcracker ornaments for our tree.

The most genuine smile from this child all morning!  Enjoying her Nutcracker creation.

The most genuine smile from this child all morning! Enjoying her Nutcracker creation.

The company dancers were warming up along the railing as a demonstration for the crowd.

The company dancers were warming up along the railing as a demonstration for the crowd.

Their stretches put my yoga to shame!

Their stretches put my yoga to shame!

An impressive split!

An impressive split!

One dancer said she stretched about an hour and a half each day.  This type of flexibility takes dedication.

One dancer said she stretched about an hour and a half each day. This type of flexibility takes dedication.

My girls attempting some ballet moves with a "cardinal" dancer from the cat and the cardinal birds solo.

My girls attempting some ballet moves with a “cardinal” dancer from the cat and the cardinal birds solo.

Saluting with the soldiers (English style).  These soldiers had the cutest personalities.  One girl was giving out high fives and another fist bumps to all passers by.

Saluting with the soldiers (English style). These soldiers had the cutest personalities. One girl was giving out high fives and another fist bumps to all passers by.

Septime Weber rehearsing a group of child dancers on stage.

Septime Weber rehearsing a group of child dancers on stage.

Luis R. Torres was Drosselmeyer.  In addition to being an amazing dancer, he could not have been more charming chatting with the children and posing for photos.

Luis R. Torres was Drosselmeyer. In addition to being an amazing dancer, he could not have been more charming chatting with the children and posing for photos.

After the activities, we had a few snacks from the theater and headed to our seats for the show.

Santa gave me my wish .  . . Maki Onuki as the Sugar Plum Fairy!

Santa gave me my wish . . . Maki Onuki as the Sugar Plum Fairy!

The show was wonderful! Every time we attend the ballet, I find something new to appreciate. This time, it was appreciating the fact that while on stage, your face and facial expressions are the most important aspects of your performance. A beautiful face with a pleasant expression, no matter how difficult the choreography, is the mark of a truly great performer.

Another wonderful thing to appreciate about The Washington Ballet’s performance was that they freely mixed races in their casting. During the party scene, for example, an African American mom was paired with a white daughter with blonde curls. Initially, there was a bit of shock, but that quickly faded into an appreciation for how beautiful this kind of casting is. When there is great contrast between the performers, you end up appreciating more the differences and beauty of each performer. It magnifies each one. A great performance also transports us into a fantasy world and the blind casting helped to heighten the fantasy element as well.

One of the best pairings of the entire afternoon was the Anacostian pas de deux between Esmiana Jani and Brooklyn Mack. You need to be in excellent physical condition to wear the costumes for this dance as they show plenty of skin. Esmiana Jani’s translucent white skin paired with Brooklyn Mack’s chocolate brown was so gorgeous. The contrast again allowed the audience to more clearly focus on each dancer. Sometimes in a pas de deux you tend to think of the two dancers as one unit and some details of their performance get lost. In this performance, you saw each detail and it was just breathtaking.

Maki Onuki, of course, never disappoints. She was perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy! It is hard to describe what makes her so compelling to watch. There is something in the way she effortlessly lifts her legs into high arabesque, her beautifully poised fingers and hands, and the precision of her footwork and turns. She makes it look so easy. When she is on stage, it is really hard to focus on anything else.

Her partner, Miguel Anaya, however, managed to distinguish himself as well. In addition to amazing jumps and turns, he was the best partner to her in the pas de deux. In most pas de deux, there is a part where the woman does a series of pirouettes and the man helps her to turn by spinning her at the waist. Maki Onuki and Miguel Anaya did this move the best I have ever seen! He spun her so quickly and she remained perfectly straight like a spinning top. There was no wobbling side to side during the turns and they stopped the turn precisely with no jarring movements. Incredible! At the end of their performance, as they were taking their bows, he paused to kiss her hand, a touching gesture that seemed to say, “You are a prima ballerina. Thank you for dancing with me.”

As I mentioned before, Clara, portrayed by Katharine M. Lee, was amazing. Her arabesque is so high, especially for a child dancer. She had great poise and maturity for someone so young as well. There was a scene in the beginning where she looks into a sort of “mirror” and sees herself as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the real life Maki Onuki staring back at her. Perhaps some day this vision will be realized!

I completely loved the entire show and the Family Day experience. It was a bonus to see our good friends from Fredericksburg coincidentally at intermission. We gave them the free Nutcracker tickets we got with our season subscription last year and they went and were hooked! They now make The Nutcracker part of their family holiday traditions as well.

As for my girls, they enjoyed it but found all the activities on one day a bit tiring. One daughter took a nap during the first act and the other during the second. Between the two of them, they saw the whole performance! They did love to point out all the dancers they had met in person and it made the performance even more special for them. They also enjoyed getting their prize, a small Nutcracker ornament, for their efforts. They came home and displayed them proudly on our mantel.

The treasured Nutcracker prizes.

The treasured Nutcracker prizes.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 022014
Inspired by a designer wreath, my Thanksgiving wreath design.

Inspired by a designer wreath, my Thanksgiving wreath design.

I have needed a wreath for my front door to fill the holiday gap between Halloween and Christmas. I have my black tulle wreath for Halloween and usually try to find a fresh pine wreath for Christmas but November has a gap.

Early this fall, while flipping quickly through a design catalog, I came across an unusual wreath of ruffled burlap with orange flowers. I thought the materials and colors perfectly reflected November. It was quite expensive but I tore out the page for inspiration, wondering if I could make my own version.

I began by making a base for the wreath from two wire coat hangers, leaving one end open.

Two wire coat hangers became the base for my wreath.

Two wire coat hangers became the base for my wreath.

I then cut simple long rectangles of burlap about 13″ wide and a yard or two long, folded them in half and sewed tubes.

Stitching the burlap tubes.

Stitching the burlap tubes.

I used two tubes and slid them onto the open hanger, stitching the tubes together by hand.

Adding the burlap tubes to the wreath form.

Adding the burlap tubes to the wreath form.

At this point, there was some creative hand sewing to get the ruffles just right. I don’t really have instructions for this. I just made stitches where necessary to keep the ruffles bunching correctly. (I also realized that in most craft projects there probably is a lot of this “fussy” behind the scenes detail work, which is why most of us never end up with a result that looks exactly like the instructions we are following.)

Then, it was time to make the flowers. I was inspired by some handmade flowers my artistic aunt recently created. I googled how to make them and came up with this video.

I used leftover polyester fabric from our Halloween costumes. The first step was to cut out circles from the fabric, which I did much of while waiting for my children’s soccer lessons.

Cutting lots of circles of various sizes from orange and yellow polyester fabric.

Cutting lots of circles of various sizes from orange and yellow polyester fabric.

The next step was FIRE! You hold the edge of the fabric near a candle flame, just long enough to melt the edge and curl it but without singeing it or burning it. It took some practice before I stopped burning the fabric.

Burning the edges of the circles with a candle to make them curl and seal the ends.

Burning the edges of the circles with a candle to make them curl and seal the ends.

The YouTube tutorial suggested cutting small slits in each circle to create petal shapes. These were rather difficult to burn and I singed the ends of most of my first few flowers. When I looked at my aunt’s example, it seemed that she did not cut the slits and just used the circles whole. I tried this technique and it was far easier and just as beautiful.

Two options for burning patterns: on the left, the result of burning the circle uncut.  On the right, cutting small slits in the circle before burning to create more of a petal shape.

Two options for burning patterns: on the left, the result of burning the circle uncut. On the right, cutting small slits in the circle before burning to create more of a petal shape.

I then had a whole stack of petals on the table. I started showing my daughter how to stack all the orange together and all the yellow together to make the flowers I had in mind based on the tutorial.

A large collection of burnt  petals.

A large collection of burnt petals.

My daughter took one look at my examples and the huge collection of petals and informed me that I was being far too restrictive in my combinations. She quickly pulled together the most beautiful combinations of yellow and orange and also told me to make some with just the small petals so I had flowers of different sizes. Her artistic talents amaze me sometimes.

My daughter inspired me to combine the the petals in various combinations to create more interest.

My daughter inspired me to combine the the petals in various combinations to create more interest.

The next step was to hand sew a few stitches to keep the petals together in the finished flowers. My youngest daughter informed me that she wanted to learn how to do this. We sewed the first few together, with me pushing in the needle and her pulling it through. Then I gave her a threaded needle and told her to try it herself. She did a beautiful job!

Sewing flowers with the help of my daughter.

Sewing flowers with the help of my daughter.

The pile of finished flowers.

The pile of finished flowers.

My daughters had big plans for these flowers. They wanted to sprinkle them all over our Thanksgiving table as decorations. Fortunately, we had some left over and their plans were realized. They looked amazing!

A simple but elegant touch sprinkling the flowers all over the Thanksgiving table!

A simple but elegant touch sprinkling the flowers all over the Thanksgiving table!

It was then time to attach the flowers to the burlap base. While you could glue them, I like to be able to wash my wreaths before I put them into storage so I sewed the flowers on by hand. This was another part of the process where there aren’t specific instructions but a loose method of figuring out how many to use and where to put them. In the designer example I was following they bunched them all on one side.

To finish it off, I added a tulle hanger loop and a tulle bow. I also used more hidden tulle as ties to help with bunching the burlap together attractively.

In the end, I had something similar to my designer example but a bit more simplified. I love how it came out and it means even more to me seeing the work of my daughters reflected in it too.

Our Thanksgiving friendly front door.

Our Thanksgiving friendly front door.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Dec 012014
The scene the day before Thanksgiving.

The scene the day before Thanksgiving.

It has been quite a weekend and I am still in disbelief that it is the first of December!

We started off with weather drama–our first snow of the season! It was only a dusting that melted quickly but enough to cause panic. We did our grocery shopping the day before the storm and the store was packed.

Glad to be done with the grocery shopping!

Glad to be done with the grocery shopping!

When we got home, I took the time to thoroughly clean out the fridge as I unpacked the groceries and this was my best Thanksgiving organizational tip. I found that my trusty sanding sponges are great for scrubbing sticky messes out of the fridge. With the fridge cleaned out, there was space for holding the brining turkey. I also had a fresh supply of plastic food storage containers and only good, fresh ingredients to work with. We only have one fridge to work with so we have to make the most of the space.

The tidied fridge with groceries unpacked.

The tidied fridge with groceries unpacked.

On the day before Thanksgiving, we ideally would have stayed home but I had a pregnancy checkup to attend. With light snow falling, my husband did not want me traveling alone so the entire family packed up and we all had a beautiful journey to the doctor through snow-covered farmland.

Virginia has some of the most beautiful farmland in the country and it is even more charming with a dusting of snow.

Virginia has some of the most beautiful farmland in the country and it is even more charming with a dusting of snow.

Once back from our travels it was time to get cooking.

THANKSGIVING MENU

The main courses of our Thanksgiving feast.

The main courses of our Thanksgiving feast.

The Turkey

While most cooks will advise you to stick to what you know for important meals like Thanksgiving, I find it more interesting when cooking for my own family to try some experiments. I read Padma Lakshmi’s advice on cooking a Thanksgiving turkey by brining it in buttermilk and cooking it with apples and oranges and found it so unusual I had to try it.

The brining ingredients: buttermilk (with a little salt and sugar added) and turkey.

The brining ingredients: buttermilk (with a little salt and sugar added) and turkey.

Brining the turkey in buttermilk in a turkey roasting bag in the fridge for about a day and a half.

Brining the turkey in buttermilk in a turkey roasting bag in the fridge for about a day and a half.

Cutting up apples and oranges for the seasoning.

Cutting up apples and oranges for the seasoning.

This year I had to plan some extra time to teach my inquisitive daughters who wanted to help.  Here: showing my daughter how to peel an apple.

This year I had to plan some extra time to teach my inquisitive daughters who wanted to help. Here: showing my daughter how to peel an apple.

I stuffed the apples and oranges inside the cavity, tucked a few in between the skin and the breast meat and put the rest in the bottom of the pan along with a little bit of water.

I stuffed the apples and oranges inside the cavity, tucked a few in between the skin and the breast meat and put the rest in the bottom of the pan along with a little bit of water.

After several hours, the turkey was done!

After several hours, the turkey was done!

Everyone loved this turkey, especially my children. The turkey was moist and delicious and the fruit gave it just a bit of sweetness.

Corn Pudding

Another new recipe was trying the Virginia selected recipe of “Corn Pudding” from The New York Times’ list. Apparently this list was rather controversial. This NBC News story about Minnesota’s outrage over “grape salad” was hilarious. I must say that I have never heard of corn pudding before but then being a relatively recent transplant to Virginia I didn’t feel qualified to judge.

Shaving the corn kernels for corn pudding.  It was actually quite hard to find corn in the grocery store this time of year.

Shaving the corn kernels for corn pudding. It was actually quite hard to find corn in the grocery store this time of year.

In general, corn pudding is quite a simple recipe but the cooking process is a bit unusual. You cook the pudding in a water bath. Generally, you do this in the oven but since my oven was occupied by the turkey I used the electric skilled my in-laws gave to me one year as a present. This is a lifesaver when you need more oven space.

Corn pudding is cooked by steaming it in a water bath.

Corn pudding is cooked by steaming it in a water bath.

My only problem with the electric skillet for this cooking method was that the steam condensed onto the top of the pudding. We had to drain it before eating to remove the excess water. Other than that, it seemed to cook perfectly!

Corn pudding.

Corn pudding.

What does corn pudding taste like? If you have ever had a dessert like flan or the Greek dessert Galataboureko you have an idea of the general consistency and sweetness of this dish. Then add some corn kernels to it. It is really quite sweet. It must come out of the same southern tradition as sweet potatoes with marshmallows. In general, we liked it. I am not sure if we would make it every year but it is an interesting side dish.

Stuffing

Our stuffing came from a basic package mix. The only change this year was that we tried the “cornbread” variety and it was delicious!

Stuffing ingredients.

Stuffing ingredients.

Garlic Cauliflower Mash

So, when you are trying new recipes, not every recipe can be a winner and this one definitely is not! I wanted to include a vegetable and a clean eating recipe in our meal. This alternative to mashed potatoes sounded great but tasted terrible! It might have been better with either no garlic or just a very tiny amount. The garlic in this was overpowering and made it inedible. I even tried heating it up a bit the next day to reduce the garlic taste but it was just awful. Most of this went into the garbage.

Reboot with Joe's Garlic Cauliflower Mash - not a winner for us.

Reboot with Joe’s Garlic Cauliflower Mash – not a winner for us.

In the match-up between traditional boxed mashed potatoes and the healthy alternative, garlic cauliflower mash, the potatoes were the clear winner!

In the match-up between traditional boxed mashed potatoes and the healthy alternative, garlic cauliflower mash, the potatoes were the clear winner!

Cranberry Mousse Mold

I thought it would be humorous and a reference to my home state of Utah (Jello capital of the world) to serve some sort of Jello dish with our dinner. We tried this Cranberry Mousse Mold. The first problem with this recipe is that it is impossible to find cranberry flavored Jello. I checked several stores and none of them had it. I ended up using strawberry instead. I put the whole box in but the Jello just never ended up setting up correctly. There seemed to be too much liquid from the cranberry sauce and water. To make it work, I ended up freezing it but it began to melt quickly as soon as it came out of the freezer.

The cranberry jello mold disaster.

The cranberry jello mold disaster.

It’s very disappointing to ruin a Jello recipe! The flavor was actually OK but the consistency was all wrong. I’ll have to try again with a different recipe.

Pumpkin Cream Pie

Pumpkin pie is controversial in our house. Some of us love it and some of us can’t stand it. I saw this recipe for Pumpkin Cream Pie and thought it sounded interesting. The comments said that it was a great pie for people who hate pumpkin pie.

Ingredients for pumpkin cream pie.

Ingredients for pumpkin cream pie.

My 6 year old took ownership of making this recipe with me. She thought the filling was delicious and creamy but her favorite was the whipped cream with brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice. I loved the whole thing and even the pumpkin pie haters in the house said that this was delicious! This is a definite keeper for us and very easy too.

The finished pumpkin cream pie.

The finished pumpkin cream pie.

The proud pumpkin pie chef.

The proud pumpkin pie chef.

Rolo Stuffed Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies

This recipe has been on my to make list for a while. I missed the small print about how you can substitute the pumpkin spice pudding for vanilla pudding with 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice added so I was desperately searching stores for pumpkin spice pudding. This was as impossible to find as the cranberry Jello! During our Thanksgiving shopping, I just happened to find a box of the pumpkin spice Jello and I grabbed it.

The elusive pumpkin spice Jello pudding.

The elusive pumpkin spice Jello pudding.

My eldest daughter took ownership of this dessert as chocolate chip cookies and Rolos are her favorites!

Ingredients for Rolo Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies.

Ingredients for Rolo Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies.

The trickiest part, burying the Rolos in the cookie dough.

The trickiest part, burying the Rolos in the cookie dough.

These cookies were very rich and chocolaty fresh out of the oven. They actually tasted better the next day when everything solidified a bit.

The proud cookie chef.

The proud cookie chef.

Our awesome desserts.  Both were fabulous!

Our awesome desserts. Both were fabulous!

Overall, it was a wondrous feast! We have so much to be thankful for this year.

The rest of the weekend, however, went steadily downhill. The next morning, my son awoke with a terrible digestive virus, which then spread throughout the whole family, sparing only my husband. So, despite all this rich eating, I ended up losing a pound and a half!

While I had big plans to get a start on our holiday decorating, I ended up cleaning up terrible messes, washing bedding, disinfecting surfaces, and sleeping in to try to recover myself. Caring for sick children while you are sick yourself is the most exhausting task as a parent. We are all on the mend now and feeling much better but still recovering a bit. I did manage however to get quite a bit of our holiday shopping done online as well as catch up on my knitting. We are starting December a little behind but hope to catch up a bit this week.

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Any great recipes or memories to share?

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Nov 182014
My son, proving Phyllis Diller's famous quote true: "“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”  He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

My son, proving Phyllis Diller’s famous quote true: ““Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.” He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

As the holiday season approaches, one of the most dreaded tasks is cleaning your house for hosting guests. There is enough to do with all the cooking and decorating but the cleaning obligations can take over your life!

I have been immersed in a fall deep clean of the house lately to get ready for entertaining. Our home always needs a twice yearly scrub-down, including shampooing carpets, cleaning upholstery, dusting, etc. It could probably use it more often but I can only summon the energy twice a year!

There is no secret to making all this scrubbing for company a bit easier. The current popular aesthetic is not only for things to look clean but also to look brand new. If you have an older house, that is tougher to pull off and requires more scrubbing effort. It is hard, back-breaking work but it does look great when it is done and guests love it.

Through a long process of trial and error cleaning my own home, I have come up with a few cleaning tips that are making a big difference in my house.

A Salad Dressing for Leather Furniture

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather.  Who would have thought?

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather. Who would have thought?

My leather dining chairs were crying out for a good clean. After getting rid of all the crumbs and trinkets that our children have managed to stuff into the crevices in the seats, I needed a nice, moisturizing cleaner to reinvigorate the leather. We didn’t have any leather cleaners in the house so I looked online for a homemade solution. I found this one and tried it out. It smells like salad dressing but the vinegar smell does fade within a few hours. The olive oil absorbs into the leather within about a day or so. My husband even noticed how much better the chairs looked after this treatment!

Sandpaper for Deep Cleaning

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

After I discovered that sandpaper does an amazing job reinvigorating toilet bowls, I wondered if sanding sponges could work in other tough situations. I bought a box of them at Home Depot and keep them in the cleaning supplies cabinet. They are terrific for scrubbing crusted on stains off of laminate counters and (when used with very gentle pressure) on hardwood floors. They removed baked on grit from a glass baking dish. They scrub tubs and countertops in the bathroom beautifully too. This is also the miracle cleaner for my oven. It gets rid of grease and burnt food with just water and some scrubbing. No harsh chemicals needed.

One caution with this method, however. You need to test each surface first as the sandpaper can scratch and ruin certain things. Don’t use it on chrome bathroom fixtures as it will scratch.

My "sanded," sparkling oven.

My “sanded,” sparkling oven.

My Miracle Carpet Cleaning Formula

My new favorite "recipe" for carpet cleaning.

My new favorite “recipe” for carpet cleaning.

When you have older rugs and carpets to clean, it can be tricky. Sometimes when the carpet gets wet from the cleaning it can release smells from all the old stains that have ever penetrated the carpeting. The smells don’t go away until the carpet has dried for several days. I have tried all kinds of carpet soaps, laundry detergents and even bleach and had this same problem.

This year, I really wanted to avoid the smells so I tried a new concoction and it worked beautifully! First, I thoroughly vacuumed the carpeting. If there were any stains on the carpeting, I sprayed some Tuff Stuff cleaner on them. I then put some diluted Lysol cleaner in a spray bottle and sprayed the entire carpet. I then sprayed the carpet with a light coat of Febreeze. In the carpet cleaning machine, I put more diluted Lysol in the soap dispenser and no other soaps or detergents. I tried to rinse each area of the carpet twice with clear water as I went. The carpets came out beautifully clean and didn’t really smell of anything. They dried nicely and quickly as well. I used this on both colored and light colored carpeting and didn’t have any discoloration but, of course, if you are going to try this yourself, test a small patch first.

Hope these tips might help anyone else out there scrubbing away! My sympathies!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Nov 022014

2014-11-02-costumekids

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I have been married to my sewing machine for the past few weeks. My children began applying the pressure two weeks ago. “Mom, there are exactly 11 days until Halloween and you need to sew our costumes!” We have been so busy that it all came together in a last-minute crush of sewing.

While in years past, we have generally had a sort of theme for our family costumes, this year, everyone chose their own costume and we were a motley mix of things.

My 6-year-old’s costume was the first one finished. She insisted that she needed to be a jack ‘o lantern this year–one that she could pop out of and surprise people. I created the costume out of inexpensive lining fabric and polyester batting material. It came out rather well with some nice dimension to it. We also changed the design at the last stages so that the leg area remained open for greater leg movement. We paired it with my favorite black and orange tights we had on hand as well as a black dance leotard from her closet and black heeled shoes. It was a great fit for her exuberant personality.

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A pumpkin in fifth position.

A pumpkin in fifth position.

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My eldest daughter always likes to be something beautiful on Halloween. This year, we were inspired by a book on vintage Barbies that was a Christmas present a few years back. I thought it would be fun to choose a mod-style Barbie from the 1960’s but my daughter preferred a more 1950’s Jackie O-style look in “midnight pink.” I sewed all but the gloves and faux fur stole, which we purchased. We look forward to her re-wearing this costume when we attend the ballet.

The look we used for Halloween trick-or-treating.

The look we used for Halloween trick-or-treating.

Having a little fun with hair and makeup and a photo shoot a few days later trying to make her look as much like the Barbie picture as we could.

Having a little fun with hair and makeup and a photo shoot a few days later trying to make her look as much like the Barbie picture as we could.

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Will the real Barbie please stand up?

Will the real Barbie please stand up?

For my son, we tried to recreate one of his favorite toys of the moment, the Transformers Rescue Bot. While he much prefers the transformers in their vehicle format, he will tolerate them transforming into robots for brief occasions. This costume took quite a lot of sewing effort. There are many details in superhero costumes. I simplified it as much as I could. Unfortunately, my son cried and cried as we put this costume on. “Take it off!” he cried. After a little convincing, her was willing to wear it trick-or-treating.

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Our Transformers inspiration.

Our Transformers inspiration.

With all the sewing for the children, there was no time for my own costume. I wanted to use my costume to announce to our neighbors our upcoming new addition. I found an orange dress in my closet that suited perfectly as a Halloween maternity tunic when paired with a black turtleneck. Then in 5 minutes, I cut out some pieces of black fabric and glued them on. Voila! It was a fun way to spread the news.

The Halloween themed pregnancy announcement.  Baby's first costume.

The Halloween themed pregnancy announcement. Baby’s first costume.

We had a perfect evening for Halloween trick or treating. It was not so chilly that we needed to cover up our costumes with coats. We received many wonderful treats from our neighbors and had fun seeing all the costumes of our friends. It seems Elsa from Frozen was the most popular costume for girls this year and that Mexican-inspired Day of the Dead costumes were the trendiest.

Our treat sacks this year included Halloween hand soap, fruit snacks, Halloween-themed Pop Tarts and a few chocolates.

Our treat sacks this year included Halloween hand soap, fruit snacks, Halloween-themed Pop Tarts and a few chocolates.

It is the very end of fall here in Virginia. There are not many leaves left on the trees but the ones that remain have turned brilliant shades of red and orange. The woods seem ablaze in gorgeous color.

Fall brilliance.

Fall brilliance.

The dogwood leaves are some of the most colorful right now, paired with their red fall berries.

The dogwood leaves are some of the most colorful right now, paired with their red fall berries.

Hope you had a wonderful weekend!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Oct 132014
Heading outside for art lessons.

Heading outside for art lessons.

Each year that I homeschool, I learn a lot about being a good teacher. In these early years, I feel that I improve as a teacher by at least 30% each year over the previous year. Most of what I have to learn has to do with time management, setting the right expectations and child behavior patterns–all great organizing lessons. Each year, I try to learn from the mistakes of previous years and try something just a little bit different.

Last year, we focused in hard on the core subjects of math and language arts. We did well in these areas but I felt like we fell down on a couple of subjects, like art, music, and history. So, this year, I made the decision to start each school day with our weakest subjects and save language arts and math for last.

Below is a quick run-down of our typical school day this fall and our goals for the year.

Art

2014-10-13-artisticpursuits We start our days with an art lesson. While this sounds “fun,” this art curriculum is really quite serious. The ARTistic Pursuits Elementary 4-5 Book One focuses on the fundamentals of drawing. We are training ourselves to see like artists and learning the elements of art that make for more interesting compositions. So far, we are learning about looking for shapes, capturing details and learning about how and when to use shading. It is really a lot of hard mental work. It is kind of a struggle to get excited about teaching these lessons but we are all excited about how much we have learned so far.

 

Goal: Be able to draw with more detail and sophistication and identify simple drawing techniques in other artists’ work.

Still life with kitchen tools

Still life with kitchen tools

Drawing of Audobon owls

Drawing of Audobon owls

First drawing of an LPS toy

First drawing of an LPS toy

Drawing of the same toy about 3 weeks later in our lessons.

Drawing of the same toy about 3 weeks later in our lessons.

Still life of fruit and vegetables.

Still life of fruit and vegetables.



Music

Screenshot from simplymusiconline.com lesson.

Screenshot from simplymusiconline.com lesson.

Because last year, we kept “forgetting” to do our piano lessons, this year, I built it into the school curriculum. Over the summer, I received an email notice from the Homeschool Buyer’s Coop about an Australian piano lesson curriculum taught completely online. For a onetime fee of $60, you could buy a lifetime subscription to the website simplymusiconline.com. This method of learning emphasizes playing songs rather than learning music theory. You watch the videos online for a quick lesson and then spend the rest of your week practicing on your own. Rather than practice 30 minutes per day per child, we practice only about 10-15 minutes per child. So far, my children are enjoying these lessons and they have both learned two songs already and will spontaneously practice them when they pass by the piano.

Goal: Complete the Level 1 curriculum and learn approximately 11 songs. We hope to perform the songs in an end of year recital perhaps for one of our older neighbors.

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History

Balloon globes

Balloon globes

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World geography is the theme for this year’s history lessons. We spent September learning about principles of geography and now are taking an around the world virtual tour. We will be visiting each of the continents and spending a few days in select countries. We created a “passport” that we complete for each country as well as an art project representing each country. We are making liberal use of our library card and our local library system has been amazing in terms of providing wonderful books for us to use.

Goal: Gain an appreciation that the world is a large and complex place as well as respect for different cultures and peoples.

One of our recent stacks of books from the library on Africa.  Our library has a terrific collection of both reference books and fiction from each country.

One of our recent stacks of books from the library on Africa. Our library has a terrific collection of both reference books and fiction from each country.

Example "passport" pages.

Example “passport” pages.

Our Congo art project: interpretations of Luba fertility sculptures.

Our Congo art project: interpretations of Luba fertility sculptures.

Our Ethiopian art project: paper mache interpretation of the guinea fowl found in their folk art.

Our Ethiopian art project: paper mache interpretation of the guinea fowl found in their folk art.



Science

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Computer science is our focus for science this year. We started off with some introductory books on computer science, including the history of “computing.” We have now progressed to the K-8 Into to Computer Science Course at learn.code.org. This is an amazing curriculum available to anyone completely free of charge. They provide all the lesson plans for the “offline” activities. My children, however, look forward to the “online” lessons where you get to practice coding through a series of interactive games. The first one we did was based on the games Angry Birds and Plants Versus Zombies. Each lesson is introduced by a video starring computer science greats like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, telling the children in simple terms what they are about to learn. This really is an amazing gift to U.S. schoolchildren and I hope that every school will someday take advantage of it. In addition to our computer science lessons, we are also doing a few pages per day from the study guide for the New York 4th grade science exam to prepare ourselves for end-of-year science testing.

Goal: Have at least a general idea of how one might write a computer program, including some of the language elements and logical constructs.

Screenshot from one of the online lessons at learn.code.org.

Screenshot from one of the online lessons at learn.code.org.



Spanish

2014-10-13-spanishnow I looked long and hard for a Spanish curriculum I wanted to use. There is a lack of intermediate and advanced language curricula for elementary school students. It is also hard to find affordable programs. I finally settled on the Barron’s Spanish Now! curriculum that includes a workbook and companion CDs. This year, we are trying to focus more on speaking Spanish. I liked that this curriculum seems to have a lot of repetition in the exercises. You use variations of the same phrases over and over and over. The curriculum is probably designed for at least a junior high – adult student. We adjust it by doing only one page per day. The curriculum is similar to what we used last year where there is a story and worksheet pages to follow. We repeat the story every day and do the worksheet page. The CDs are great because they allow us to hear the correct pronunciation of words and also provide oral exercises. The curriculum also teaches Spanish grammar, like masculine and feminine, plurals, etc. So far, my children are handling this curriculum beautifully.

Goal: Improve Spanish vocabulary and understanding. Be able to respond to simple questions in speech and writing with at least a few routine Spanish phrases like “Es posible . . . “ or “Es necesario . . . .”



Language Arts

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We are continuing with the Brave Writer language arts curriculum, graduating to The Arrow curriculum. This curriculum uses longer chapter books and provides copywork passages and literary elements for each book. Ideally, you complete one book per month. There also is a companion Partnership Writing curriculum containing several creative writing projects which you would also complete roughly one per month. My only complaint with the Arrow and Partnership Writing curricula so far is that it does not come with any sort of daily schedule or monthly lesson plan as to when to do what. There is a general guide in the Partnership Writing curriculum but it doesn’t cover basics like how many chapters are you supposed to read in a week to make sure you finish the book by the end of the month. I am having to figure that out on my own. In addition to the Brave Writer curriculum, we are continuing with the Common Core Language Arts 4 Today test prep books as well as a vocabulary and spelling workbook. This is also our year to learn cursive writing, which my children have been waiting for!

Goals: Improve patience for longer chapter books. Improve reading comprehension and vocabulary. Continue progress in creative writing.



Math

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We are continuing on with the Singapore Math curriculum, levels 2A/2B and 4A/4B. The only change I made this year was that I didn’t order the teacher’s manual for the books this year. In past years, I found that I hardly referred to it. There is so much to complete already between the daily assigned textbook and workbook pages that I didn’t need any other teaching activities to supplement. The only downside is that I don’t get an answer key without the teacher’s manual but the math is still simple enough at this age that we don’t really need it.

Goals: Complete each curriculum. The second grade curriculum requires addition with carrying and subtraction with borrowing as well as simple multiplying and dividing by 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10. The fourth grade curriculum requires multiplying by 2-digit numbers, adding and subtracting fractions, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing decimals and calculating area and perimeter.



Preschool

Another twist this year is that I have one more student added to my homeschool, my preschool-age son! I am still trying to find a curriculum that works for him. I initially planned out a lot of fun crafts but after trying a few with him learned that his dexterity is still quite limited (although he loves painting with a brush) and that he has more enthusiasm for reading, games and playing outside. We are also doing some socialization learning for him through a sports class (more on this in a future post). Formal schooling isn’t necessary for him at this stage so I am not worried about doing a lot but am trying to keep him engaged in reading and learning in general. He always seems to end up in the middle of the girls lessons, whether “helping” them paint or accompanying them during their piano lessons so he is also learning quite a bit by osmosis as well.

This is the most ambitious homeschool schedule we have attempted yet! It has taken several weeks to feel comfortable with it but it is finally starting to settle into a groove.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
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.

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