Plans for May

May starts tomorrow, and the fields are lush, green and full of wildflowers.

Here is what we’re up to this month:

Circle Time:

Our circle time hit a wall last month, and after trying to hold it together by myself for a couple of weeks, I am trying something different. I’ve doubled our walk and halved our circle. After walking about a mile, we come in and sing “This Pretty Planet“, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “America the Beautiful”. Short and sweet seems to be working nicely at the moment.

Poetic Memorization/Recitation:

Inspired by our US Geography block, we have been listening to a variety of patriotic songs, marches and folksongs. The boys sing them throughout the day, and this is taking the place of our more formal poetic memorization and recitation.

Main Lesson Block for 4th Grade:

In addition to revamping circle time, I have also revised our main lesson and reading time. (We were in a funk for a while, and desperate times call for desperate measures.) During main lesson we have been listening to a lot of music and focusing on handwork, which for my 4th grader is embroidering a fabric map of the United States. (Picture the two of us hunched over our embroidery hoops singing “On Top of Old Smoky” or humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.) My kindergartner loves to march around and sing along to all the songs as well. This is not how we usually structure our main lesson time, but it has put the spark back into our days. Our reading time has been devoted to regional novels, tall tales and stories. Once a week we write a summary on the area of the country we studied the previous week. Last month, we studied the area of the United States east of the Mississippi, and now we are moving westward. Some resources I plan to use this month include Stories from Where We Live : The Great North American Prairie edited by Sara St. Antoine, Stories from Where We Live : The California Coast edited by Sara St. Antoine and American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne. I plan to do a recap of the entire block when we finish and list all our projects and resources. This will be our last full month of school (!) for 4th grade and kindergarten, and I am looking ahead to 5th and 1st grade. Expect some planning posts soon.

***

Click to see what we did for US Geography.

 

Habit: Reflective Friday

I am having issues with uploading a photo to WordPress, but I wanted to leave something to reflect on in this space today. I think this quotation by Mark Nepo complements all the talk about rhythm this week. Have a wonderful weekend, friends.

“When we have the courage to relax into the wholeness that is us, the pace at which the mind thinks slows to the pace at which our heart feels, and together they unfold the rhythm with which our eyes can see the miracle waiting in all that is ordinary.”

Priorities

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

When I wrote this post about rhythm and this post about my day, I saw how rhythm – and more importantly the sense of purpose derived from having a rhythm – influences how I spend my day. I know that a rhythm and a schedule are two different things, and that in certain Waldorf circles even the word “schedule” is verboten. But the fact of the matter is, time is spent doing things during the day, and for the sake of simplicity, I am going to call the actual time spent during my day, my “schedule”. I think rhythm is bigger and broader and that without rhythm, your schedule (again, how you spend the waking hours of your day) can be lost in the rush.

 Carrie over at the Parenting Passageway asks this question in her current series of posts about rhythm: “What is most important to me?  Does the use of my days and time currently reflect this?” I think this is a great question to start thinking about rhythm in larger terms. I think it begins to lead you down the path of how your ideals can be translated into reality. At this point in my life, I know I want my time to be intentional. I want what I care about most to be what gets the lion’s share of my time. For me, that would be 3 things: food, books and quiet.

Three meals and several snacks are made and eaten at our house everyday – this takes a lot of time. As I have said before in this space, I love to cook. So do my boys. They think nothing of making soup and bread from scratch for lunch. This task, however, can take up a large part of our morning, pushing our main lesson closer to noon than I would like it to be. I try to let this be okay in my mind, and remember that making the soup and the bread is a bigger lesson than any I have slated for our formal schooling time. I want my boys to know that food doesn’t just instantly happen, that it doesn’t just appear on the table. And I want them to know this on an intimate and experiential level: meaning, I want them to do it themselves. Not just see me do it or just be semi-aware of something happening in the kitchen several times a day.

Books are right up there next to food on my priority list. Both my boys and I are avid readers and spend a good portion of the day reading. I think it is important for them to see me reading for pleasure, as well as all the reading that comprises planning and homeschooling! I also read aloud to my boys everyday. Solitary reading is different than listening to a story together. Both are valuable, and we make time for each every day. Again, this takes time, and not something that I want to happen in a rushed manner. I allow about 90 minutes of our afternoon for story time – this is more than we typically spend on main lesson. However, there is a reason for this. My 4th grader needs stories. Lots and lots of stories to balance his voracious appetite for facts and non-fiction. Time is built into my day to allow for this.

Finally, I also make time for periods of quiet during the day. In the beginning, this was the hardest for me to cultivate, but has been well worth the effort. In the midst of the doing and the busyness of our day, I try to make sure there is no unnecessary background noise. So that when those serendipitous moments of each of us settled to a task happens, the house is silent. This has caused me to give up my once sacrosanct radio in the kitchen. I am not a tv watcher, but the radio used to be my constant companion. Kim John Payne, in his book Simplicity Parenting, talks about filtering out the adult world and the need children have for silence and convinced me to give up this habit. Tangential to this quest for quiet would be time alone for me. I make time to take a walk by myself every day. I usually get 30 minutes, but it can sometimes be a whole golden hour. During this time, I listen to a podcast, make a phone call or just do nothing except get my heart rate up. This time alone translates into the patience I need to finish the day. There are, of course, those days when I could walk to China and still not find all the patience I need, but having this pocket of time helps tremendously.

These are the priorities that govern my day. They may not be yours. However, I think that if you are struggling with rhythm – like we all do at times – or are just starting to establish a rhythm to your day, begin by asking yourself Carrie’s questions: “What is most important to me?  Does the use of my days and time currently reflect this?” You may be surprised by the answers, and I urge you to listen to them. You may be telling yourself something.

Wanna Trade?

The sun is shining and the chickens are laying. At least that’s what I’ve been told. We don’t have chickens, but we do have a great egg trade. I bake 2 loaves of bread, my husband brings them to town and returns with 2 dozen eggs. It’s almost like a magic trick. What’s funny is, I don’t even know our “egg lady”. Never laid eyes on her. I know her name, that she is expecting a baby soon, and that she has a tattoo of a chicken on her wrist. Oh, and that her eggs are so yummy – the deepest orange yolks ever.

We found our egg trade through the neighbor we get our milk from. That is usually how things happen around here. My father-in-law calls it our local face-to-facebook. If you want to know something, you need to ask someone. And you can’t just call on the phone – email, texting and twitter are out of the question. You need to talk in person. After a little chit chat where you inquire about their truck, their tractor, their dog, and any farm animals they might have, the subject of the weather needs to be discussed, as everything centers around rain – too much or too little. You might get a little personal after the weather and ask about their health, their wife. Then and only then do you ask your question.

When I finally did get around to asking my neighbor if he knew anyone who had eggs, he said he did and that they were the prettiest eggs he had ever seen – high praise from a farmer in his 70s. They are pretty and I could have one for breakfast every day. We got an extra dozen in our trade this week, so we had eggs for dinner one night too. Pasta alla Carbonara is a great way to use up half a dozen eggs at a clip – especially if the sun is shining and the chickens are laying where you are. It is great for those nights when you haven’t planned anything for dinner or when the kids just want pasta, but you think they need a little protein too. Add a salad and some bread and you’ve got yourself a meal.

Pasta alla Carbonara

For one pound of pasta you will need:

6 eggs

1/2 cup grated cheese

salt

pepper

fresh parsley

crumbled bacon, diced pancetta or minced country ham

Cook pasta. Scramble eggs, cheese, a little salt and a little pepper in a bowl. Drain the pasta. Add the egg mixture to the hot pot and top with hot pasta. Combine, cover pot and let sit for about 5 minutes. Eggs will not be cooked through*, and should be silky smooth. Garnish with fresh parsley and bits of your preferred salty meat product. Yum!

*Use your own judgement here. I am not squeamish about eating undercooked eggs, as I trust the eggs I am using.

Old School

Talk to any homeschooling parent long enough and the subject of math will come up: spiral, mastery, manipulatives, memorization, calculators, online, workbooks, the list just goes on and on. I have not tried many of the math programs out there; we used Saxon for first grade and part of second. I liked it. I thought it was well-organized, easy to understand, and I loved those soft, manila paper, tear-out worksheets. My son was not as thrilled, and everyday, we would have a math battle.

A lot of things changed during that second half of second grade. For one, I discovered Waldorf homeshooling. Their approach to math utilizes stories in the early grades to teach all four processes simultaneously. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are all introduced with lots of manipulatives that keep it concrete. This was a game changer for us: cute little math gnomes + fun stories with numbers (- daily math battles) = lots of learning. We used Melisa Nielsen’s A Journey Through Waldorf Math as a guide in the beginning. I think this gave us a great foundation to approach math in the Waldorf manner.

By the end of third grade, I noticed that Vincent needed some extra practice. I looked at a few current math books, and honestly couldn’t understand which end was up. (Disclaimer: I have 2 English degrees and have not taken a math class since the Reagan administration, however I do think I should be able to decipher elementary school mathematics.) Instead of wallowing in frustration, I did what I always do when the modern world seems too confusing: I think about how they would have done it in the old days.

Old School Math was born.

I love old children’s books, especially old school books. I usually use them for art projects, making use of the vintage illustrations and text. I never thought about actually using them for their intended purposes. But guess what? Math made sense to me back then. Everything was presented in a straight-forward manner and lots of practice problems were given with a healthy dose of nostalgia. The book shown above is from 1942. We also use another one from 1916. The boys and I get a kick out of the word problems:

“If Frank’s father buys 4 two-cent postage stamps, how much money must he pay?”

“John’s uncle pays $75 rent each month for his store and $35 rent for his house. How much rent does he pay for both?”

“Patty spent 8 cents for the wrapping paper and 25 cents for the ribbon to wrap Mother’s gift. How much did it cost Patty to wrap the gift for Mother?”

If this approach appeals to you, and you don’t happen to have a bunch of old textbooks on your shelves, start looking for them at book sales and Goodwill. Or there is always ebay – you’ll pay more, but probably not more than $10 with shipping. Old grammar and language arts books are good too, however I would stay away from vintage geography books. Themes run from slightly jingoistic to overtly xenophobic. Plus all the countries are different now. Numbers and nouns seem to have stayed the same.

Baking Bread

I love to cook. I love to bake, and baking bread is my favorite. I have been doing it for about 25 years. About 2 years ago, I started making all of our bread exclusively. My initial reason was cost, and that was a good enough inspiration for me to integrate something I have always loved into my daily and weekly rhythm. I am pretty basic with my repertoire. I have an 2 easy sandwich loaves (one is a classic sourdough and one is a yeasted bread), 2 Italian crusty loaves (one that rises overnight and one that is same-day), sourdough rolls (made with a “country/mountain” sourdough that uses a starter comprised of instant potato flakes, sugar and water – don’t laugh until you’ve tried it!), my father-in-law’s pizza dough and the BEST English muffins EVER (these are classic sourdough). All of these recipes can be found here.

I think bread can be intimidating and thought to be time-consuming. It really is neither if you just practice. There is probably 15 minutes total hands-on time in all my recipes – and every recipe yields at least 2 loaves. I don’t knead by hand, which is why my stand-mixer is the one appliance besides the toaster and the coffee maker to be given counter space. I do, however, recommend hand-kneading for children who seem to have a lot of squirrely energy – as the above photo suggests. Both my boys love to bake and have no fear when it comes to anything in the kitchen. They are usually more adventurous than I, and have tried pitas, chapatis, breadsticks and all sorts of yeasty goodness.

I love King Arthur flour. This is the only item in my entire pantry that I am brand-specific about. I don’t think this is crucial or that you can’t bake good bread with other flours, it is just my preference. In the past 3 months or so, I have started grinding my own wheat. I bought the grain-grinding attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, and have been very pleased with the results.  I use a classic water and flour sourdough starter for the majority of my baking these days, but I do use yeast as well – especially when I forget to set my bread the night before. I think yeast is the scariest thing when you are just beginning. I used a candy thermometer forever to make sure my water wasn’t too hot. My advice here would be to just run your tap water as hot as it can get. Especially if you have kids, it won’t be too hot to kill the yeast. I always let mine “proof” in the measuring cup with a nice spoonful of honey. If it gets frothy by the time you’ve measured out your dry ingredients, you are good to go. If you don’t have any action in the cup, I would start over. Oh and buy yeast in bulk – it is so expensive in those little envelopes! A couple of other things. I like to use stoneware to bake my breads. I have several pieces from the Pampered Chef. They last forever, and once they are seasoned, they turn out flawless, crusty loaves every time. Also, if you have a convection oven, use it – your breads with be browner and crunchier.

I could go on and on about baking bread, and have cut this post in half from its initial draft. Before you read the recipes, I will just warn you that I am a rather intuitive baker. If you are a person who measures precisely and needs exact directions, I will probably drive you insane. However, I did provide links to the recipes that inspired my versions, if you need more exact information.

Norse Mythology Block

We just finished our second block on Norse Mythology. This is a standard block for 4th graders (10 year olds) in the Waldorf curriculum. I did not use a scripted curriculum for this block, but did find these audios by Donna Simmons and Melisa Nielsen very helpful. Both give an excellent and thorough overview of the entire 4th grade year.

My son loved the stories of the Aesir – especially the characters of Loki and Thor. In addition to reading the entire epic from the creation of the world through the destruction of that world in the battle of Ragnorak, we also studied the Runic alphabet, Scandinavian cooking, read Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (a contemporary novel based on the Norse myths) and acted out many of the stories through play. Below are some of my notes and ideas from the block.

Story Resources:

  • Norse Mythology by Charles Kovacs
  • Norse Gods and Giants by D’Aulaires
  • Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I read the stories straight from the Kovacs book. I love his voice and how he presents the tales. I used the first entire section of his book for our first block. I skipped the middle section “The Sagas” because I found them to be too much of a detour. I started our second block by reviewing the overall arc of the stories we studied in the first block, stressing Odin, Loki, Thor and Balder. We then read the Gaiman novel, which is an adaption but really sets up Ragnorak well. I went back to read from Kovacs for The Twilight of the Gods, but opted to read the ending (which is really the beginning of the new world) from D’Aulaires. Kovacs’ interpretation of the new world was too overtly Christian/Anthroposophical for me. D’Aulaires has a “Christian” ending also, but didn’t seem as heavy handed.

Norse Meal:

We made a Norse meal early on in our first block. Both recipes came from The Multicultural Cookbook for Students by Carole Lisa Albyn and Lois Sinaiko Webb. We have used this library book so much that I finally ordered a copy for our very own. I would highly recommend it. Here was our menu:

  • Salmon
  • Greens
  • Cheddar Bread Pudding (this is a Finnish dish)

2 cups stale bread
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 T melted butter
2 t prepared mustard
1 t Worcestershire sauce
Place bread and cheese in a greased oven-proof dish. Mix remaining ingredients and pour over top. Refrigerate 1 hour. Bake for about 45 minutes at 350, or until puffed and golden brown. YUM!!!

  • For dessert:

Toskakake (Nut Caramel Topped Cake from Norway)
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1 cup melted butter (1/3 cup reserved for topping)
3 T milk
1 t vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cups chopped nuts (you can use pecans, almonds or walnuts)
Mix eggs and 1 cup sugar until mixture is pale yellow and a ribbon forms when beaters are lifted (about 5 minutes). Fold in flour and baking powder. Add 2/3 cup butter, milk and vanilla. Mix until smooth. Pour into springform pan and bake at 350 for about 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
Prepare topping while cake is baking. Heat remaining 1/3 cup butter over low heat add remaining 1/2 cup sugar and cream. Mix well. Increase heat until mixture boils and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. When cake is done pour hot caramel over top and sprinkle with nuts. Return to oven and bake until top is bubbly and golden brown (about 10 minutes). Cool on wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Writing/Drawing:

Throughout the block we made character pages of Thor, Odin, Loki and Balder. These included drawings of the gods, their weapons or other special powers, writing their names in Runes and then summarizing their character as a whole. This was my son’s summary of Loki: “Sneaky and tricky, Loki is always making mischief in Asgard. In the end he is caught and punished. Loki can take on many forms. He is both good and bad.” We added to these as the stories progressed.

Other Projects:

  • Braided yarn to extend the story of “Sif’s Hair”.
  • Modeled discs out of sculpy and carved Runes in them.
  • Made paper cards with runes written on them.
  • Folded paper Viking longships to illustrate the story of Balder’s death.
  • Painted the rainbow bridge (see above) and the fire that ends the war between the gods and the giants (see below).
  • A friend of mine sent me this link after we completed our block, but I would love to build this long boat over the summer.
  • This sounds like a good podcast for moms to listen to about the stories of the Vikings.

An Easter Hike

I’m breaking my self-imposed one photo rule here. Yesterday was a glorious day in western NC, so we decided to buck tradition and go for a hike on Easter Sunday. We drove about an hour to Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We met my step-father there and had a nice picnic before hiking about 3 miles. The water was freezing, but that didn’t stop the boys from rock hopping and getting wet. Spring was on full display with trillium, Indian Paintbrush, wild iris and wild geranium. Everything was lush and green and it just felt good to be outside. Hope you had a happy Easter too.

Story Time

This summer I went to an estate sale with two of my best friends in town. It was one of those great, spur of the moment adventures. At the sale, I bought a small white bookcase. There was nothing special about this bookcase, except that it was small (which means perfectly sized for this old farmhouse of ours) and painted white (I am a sucker for anything painted white). I didn’t have an immediate plan for this bookcase, but for $2.50 I wasn’t too worried. After I brought it home, this little shelf become a fixture in our living room. Stocked with a dozen or so books, it became an anchor to our afternoons and enables all three of us to have a quiet respite during the day. Daily storytime – something I had wanted to do for a long time – had finally become a reality.

There are a few parameters around story time. Mostly I just want both boys to cultivate the (lost) art of listening. There is no summarizing, no reviewing, no critiquing, no questioning. It is just a time to simply get carried away by a good story. I curate the books on the shelves, and the boys alternate choosing what we read each week. Stocking the shelves has been great fun. I frequently consult The Waldorf Student Reading List (the best $9 you can spend if you are homeschooling with Waldorf-inspired methods, imho) and also the Newberry and Caldecott lists of winners. All of this information is in my head as I scour yard sales, library sales and used book stores. I honestly don’t know if there has ever been a new book on that shelf. Between what I paid for the shelf and how much I pay for the books (typically not more than I paid for the shelf!), this may be the most economical part of our homeschooling journey.

So around 3 o’clock every afternoon, I make a cup of tea, set out a snack tray and light a candle. The three of us (and sometimes the dog) sit on the couch and enjoy a good story. I usually read for about 45 minutes.  People – including my husband – are sometimes surprised at what two rambunctious boys have enjoyed: Anne of Green Gables, Winnie the Pooh, Ramona. (Heidi however has languished on the shelf unread since last summer. I keep thinking she is like the poor girl who never gets picked for kickball.) We just finished Little Eddie by Carolyn Haywood today. It was written in the 1940s and the opening scene involves workmen replacing a telegraph pole. Great stuff. Tomorrow we begin Jude’s pick, B is for Betsy, again by Carolyn Haywood. This one was written in 1939 and tells about Betsy’s year in first grade. We are all looking forward to it.

PS Here is a link to what we have read so far this year.

Soothing the Soul with Jam

It’s been slightly tough-going here. I spent Saturday night with a friend who is grieving the sudden death of his beloved. It is so hard to see someone I love so much in so much pain. After we cried our eyes out for about 4 hours, he apologized, “Sorry I am not more fun.” I assured him I had not expected a barrel of monkeys. Another friend just finished her last round of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Given the last seven months of surgery and treatment, celebration of this milestone doesn’t feel right –  at least not yet.

When compared to deep grief and serious illness, a rough patch of homeschooling hardly registers. And yet it all feels heavy right now – a cumulative effect I’m sure. I am trying to tease out the underlying causes to our homeschooling disharmony. Lack of planning or enthusiasm on my part? Could be. A ten year old who has been especially snarky for the past month? Maybe. A six year old growing tired of Mother Goose? Perhaps.

We are starting a new block on Monday (US Geography) and I hope to somehow shift the dynamic that has developed. During the downward spiral of the past couple of weeks, I have resurrected some of my previous (and not very pretty) parenting methods. They didn’t really work then and they really aren’t working now. The good thing is my learning curve is a lot shorter now. This doesn’t necessarily make things any easier to figure out, but I know what I don’t want to do. My short term goal is to finish these last two days of Norse Mythology, take a personal day on Friday and try to recreate what we are trying to do here.

To soothe my soul of all the big and little things that seem to be weighing it down, I have made jam. Lots and lots of jam. I think I have finally found the perfect proportions. Given everything else that feels tenuous and raw, this accomplishment feels particularly sweet.

8 cups fruit (I used frozen blackberries I had picked this summer)

1 tablespoon powdered pectin for low sugar jam

1 1/3 cup juice (I used strawberry juice)

Mash the berries, sprinkle the pectin and stir in the juice. If you are lucky enough to have a friend loan you her French copper jam pot, count your blessings as I did! Bring mixture to a boil. Add 1 cup of sugar (yes, just a single cup!) and boil for a couple of minutes. Put in half pint jars and process for 10 minutes in a water bath canner.

A Corner of One’s Own

It seems to happen every spring. Just as we are coasting toward the end of our homeschool year, I have the urge to completely redo our school room. I really try to talk myself out of it: “Just wait until June! You can clear out all the old stuff and set up for the new year.” This never works. I don’t know, I may just need a little something to get me through to the end – because, honestly, there is no “coasting”. So better this, than deciding to change curricula or something.

I moved my desk (which is really a door and legs from IKEA) from one corner of the school room to the other. It is tucked under the stairs now and feels really cozy. I made the fancy skirt out of an old sheet and some trim I had. (I won’t tell you what I’m storing underneath – I’m saving that for another post.) I am trying to keep my space clean and uncluttered – with just the things that I actually use in reach.

Ultimately, I’m hoping that the pretty setting will get my butt in the chair and do some planning that I need to do! We’ll see.

Plans for April

It’s April and the wild violets are blooming in the hay fields.

Here is what we’re up to this month:

Circle Time:

We are continuing to work on our penny whistle skills, trying to master Hot Crossed Buns, Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

Poetic Memorization/Recitation:

Vincent (4th grade) - The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Jude (Kindy) –  Cock a Doodle Doo by Mother Goose

Me – Daffoldils by William Wordsworth

Main Lesson Block for 4th Grade:

We are finishing up our second block of Norse Myths, with the Twilight of the Gods and Ragnarok on the schedule this coming week. Vincent has really been anticipating the war between the gods and the giants. I’m using Norse Mythology by Charles Kovacs and supplementing with Norse Gods and Giants by D’Aulaires. We are continuing to work on our drawing and summary skills during this block.

Normally, I like to keep our blocks contained within the month, however, our extended spring break has interferred with this. The second week in April will see us beginning our final block of the year. I am combining US Geography (an extension of the local geography we began the year with) with our final Man and Animal block. I plan to take about 6-8 weeks, studying one region of the country per week. Both my boys have always liked geography, so I anticipate this being a fun way to end the year. It seems like I have a bunch of resources for this block. Mapmaking with Children by David Sobel, The United States of America by Millie Miller and Cyndi Nelson, Yankee Doodle’s Cousins by Anne Malcolmson, Native American Stories told by Joseph Bruchac and Minn of the Mississippi by Holling Clancy Holling. My goal is to keep facts to a minimum, and try to conjure a regional sense of place through biography and story. I have ordered a few other books by Holling Clancy Holling and may use them also. I’ll keep you updated as the block progresses.