Monday, August 29, 2011

On the First Day of School...

We enjoyed our traditions: the first-day-of-school muffins (cinnamon raisin this year); the painted handprint (my, how that hand has grown since kindergarten); and the list of the sweet girl's favorite things (fun to see how those change too). This year, for the first time, she filled in that list of favorite things on her own rather than dictating them to mom to write down. Yay for learning independence.

I remembered how hard transitions can be for the sweet girl. Even good things, new things. Anything that is "different than how we've done it before" can cause her angst. (I sometimes think she will grow up a major liturgical traditionalist...)

I rejoiced to see all the good things we remembered from last year. Some of the learning habits we instilled last year are still good, solid, worth keeping. Hooray!

I felt defeated when I saw the quick re-occurrence of bad habits. I need to find ways to help S. replace bad habits with good ones. It's not enough to just say "that needs to stop." In my own life, I know that's not enough. What positive things can I put in place of the negative ones I'm trying to let go of? That's the question I ask myself. It's one I need to ask with her too.

I found myself looking forward to some new learning trails.

I almost banged my head against the wall in frustration when I found I couldn't come up with words to explain a simple writing concept. It's so hard sometimes to teach something you love with great passion and intuitively understand how to do. The passion and intuition can be great helps, except when they're not.

I remembered I need to be courageous about challenging S. to do what she can do, and to realize she can do more than she thinks she can.

I discovered we need breaks. The material is heavier and lengthier this year. We need breaks, plenty of them and varied kinds. Fresh air. Bird feeding. Walks. Picture books. Music/dance. Blessing counting. Drawing time. Whatever it takes. There's a reason our family has chosen to teach/learn this fact, lots of reasons. I have to remind myself anew that I don't have to teach "traditionally." That is one of the blessings of this learning life.

All in all...probably the most challenging first day we've ever had. I figure it can only get better and better from here!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Week in Review (1): Austen Fluff, The Bard, La Belle et La Bete

For the past eight plus years I've been writing reviews for a website called Epinions. How I got started and why I stuck around writing for them is worth a post sometime, and I may yet write it!

But for now I just have to say that I love writing reviews, especially of books and movies. When I write about the things I've been reading and watching here, I often link to my longer reviews on Epinions, and I plan to continue doing that in as natural a way as possible.

Beginning today, however, I thought I'd begin a weekly posting with links to the reviews I've written and published in the preceding week. If something strikes your interest, I hope you'll click over and give the review a read...and you can always feel free to leave me a comment here.

Some weeks I review quite a bit and other weeks not so much, so the length of these posts will likely vary. My goal is to try to get them up on a Friday or Saturday.

This week's reviews feature:

My yearly Austen fluff beach read (we did our mini-vacation to Lake Erie last weekend)~ North by Northanger by Carrie Bebris. This is part of her Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Detectives series and it was surprisingly fun and even more surprisingly touching. Her Lady Catherine is especially spot-on, so if you just can't get enough of Lady Catherine's dulcet tones, I highly recommend it.

A delightful documentary that goes behind the scenes of the 1988 theatrical production where Kenneth Branagh, directed by Derek Jacobi, played Hamlet for the first time. Discovering Hamlet is definitely for theater geeks, but they'll love it.

Jean Cocteau's 1946 romantic fantasy film Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bete). I hadn't seen this in years, but it was just as fascinating as I remembered. Poetic screenplay, visually stunning effects. I just can't seem to keep away from versions of Beauty and the Beast. My review links to some different book and film versions.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

..."Watch Your Aim..."

I was cleaning in the kitchen this morning and found a tiny scrap of paper on the floor. It turned out it was a torn piece of my favorite Chinese fortune cookie message ever. I kept it on the fridge for ages, but I guess it fell off. I had to toss it, but that's okay...I still remember the message, which I shall quote here for your amusement and enjoyment.

"You will be a dragon of creative fire this week. Watch your aim."

I provide this especially for my writing friends (you know who you are) who are trying to stoke the creative flames.

Someone should really come up with a whole set of fortune cookie messages that inspire and encourage creativity. Or...wouldn't this be a cool gift for a writing friend...a whole set of fortune cookies filled with writing prompts!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To Buy or Not to Buy: That is the Homeschooling Curriculum Question

We're less than two weeks from the beginning of our school year and I am in major planning mode. I'm printing forms for our binders, getting books set on the shelves, planning lessons, and just generally getting excited about the continuation of our learning journey. Not that the journey really stopped in the summer, but we did take a good, long break from routine. The sweet girl enjoyed six weeks of arts camp, a week-long VBS, and some days in New England during our unexpected family time there. We've still got our family's end of summer mini-vacation ahead, but to all intents and purposes, summer is winding down.

This is usually the time of year when I'm either patting myself on the back because of wise and prudent homeschooling purchases/planning, or groaning because I either goofed something up, neglected to purchase something we still really need, or spent too much on something I ended up wishing I hadn't bought. This year it's actually a combination of all those things, which led me to think a blog post on homeschool curriculum buying (or not buying) might be a good thing.

I am generally the queen of frugal when it comes to homeschool purchases. I have to be, because we're broke (not a joke or's been true for a while, but it's grown especially true with the recent loss of one job whose significant income has yet to be replaced). Even if I didn't have to be this frugal, however, I suspect I would be anyway, and not just because I'm Scottish! There are so many wonderful learning resources our there, but not every single one is a necessary purchase. And while sometimes the only way you can figure that out is to buy it and hope, other times you can find ways to figure out in advance if a book, curriculum or other resource is right for you and your family.

As we head into our 5th year of homeschooling on the thinnest of shoestrings, I thought I'd pass along a few tips I've picked up along the way.

First off, repeat after me.

Public libraries are your friends.

I know this sounds obvious, but it bears repeating. It's not just that you can find wonderful books, audio and video resources at the library -- and you can. A good library catalog can be a huge aid in homeschool planning. Here are a few ways I like to put our excellent library catalog to use:

~Researching keywords and topics. If I know in advance some of the areas the sweet girl will be studying in history, science, and art (and I do) then keyword searches often turn up excellent resources, including many I've never heard of. If your library catalog system is sophisticated enough, you can search not just "all libraries" within a system but "all juvenile" collections. Refining that way can be very helpful on certain topics, though in the realm of art and music (when you just want to look at great pictures and listen to great composers) searching the whole system is a plus.

~Searching by author. If you fall in love with a given author on a topic, cross-search and see what else they've done. We've found some wonderful things this way!

~Use that hold shelf! Most libraries will allow you to request things from other libraries within the county's system and have them delivered to the hold shelf at your particular library.

~Use ILL. If the system doesn't have a resource, you can go outside the system via inter-library loan and get books sent to you from libraries around the country. This service sometimes requires a nominal fee, though not usually. (And you can usually mark on the ILL form whether or not you're willing to pay for a resource.)

~Borrow first, buy later (if at all). Say you've fallen in love with an online curriculum package but you know you can't afford to buy it. You jot down with pen and paper (or via delicious bookmarks) the books you think would be especially good for your homeschool year. Next step, see if the library has them. Not planning to use them until October? No matter. Borrow them now and discover if they're resources you really want to use. If they are, evaluate them to see if they're something you actually need to own. If the book is chock full of good stuff and you could see yourself needing to continually consult it, refer your child to it, or otherwise use it for a significant portion of the year, you may want to go on and buy it. If it's simply a book you think you could get a good one or two time use out of, and the library has it, then be prepared to request it and have it sent to your hold shelf in time for that portion of your studies. Holds can sometimes come in quickly, but once in a while they don't, so if it's an important enough resource that you know you really want to use it for a given project or unit, put the request through at least two weeks in advance.

Sometimes I discover that a book itself is not something we absolutely need to own, but the book may lead me to other books I didn't know about. Or (in the case of internet-linked books, like those in the Usborne series) I may check the book out of the library for a few weeks, bookmark the websites they refer to, and then return the book. I've begun using the delicious website to bookmark learning sites and tag them for different subjects/units/years, which helps me keep track of what we want to do when.

Besides utilizing the library like crazy, I do have a few other tips.

Don't buy anything on a whim.

Again, sounds obvious, but it's helpful. I probably overthink my buying choices, but I usually find the results are better when I do. I actually bought two things "on a whim" this year, highly unusual for me, and I now definitely regret one purchase and may yet regret the other (though am still hoping to eke something good from it).

It's particularly important that you don't buy on a whim if you don't have very good technology (and folks on a budget often don't) and are looking to purchase downloadable curriculum. PDF files, videos, zip files, MP3s, podcasts -- they're all the rage right now. But these visual and audio resources are only convenient and helpful for you if you can actually take advantage of them. If your computer is old and slow, as mine is, small curriculum resources (manageable sized PDFs, etc.) might be fine to purchase, but larger things are going to give you a big headache. Believe me!

Another trend I'm beginning to see is purchasing access to resources on a site. Sometimes this is an excellent idea, but I still urge caution. Use a website thoroughly before you purchase access rights. Make sure it has a lot of resources you need and that they're organized in a way that's easy to navigate. I purchased access on a website earlier this year which looked great on the surface, but I'm finding less of use than I expected, and it's not in very good order. Nine times out of ten, I find myself going to a similar site that has tons of FREE resources -- a site I already knew and loved. I should have stuck with it and figured out ways to create my own resources for the stuff I couldn't find.

Don't be afraid to take time or to get creative. Or to ask for what you need!

I know lots of homeschool curricula that tell you they've taken all the work out of things for you so you'll have more time. And that can be wonderful. I don't blame them for trying to sell time and convenience, especially since most of us need it. On the other hand, sometimes it's OK if you decide to forgo the pretty package and look into buying that handful of books used from online vendors. It's true -- it might take you two hours and you might only save twelve dollars, but sometimes saving twelve dollars is necessary. And sometimes you may find yourself learning a few things in the process of searching. (On the other hand, don't torture yourself with false guilt if you're having the kind of week...month...year...where time feels so precious that you really need those two hours more than the twelve dollars and decide to buy the pretty package.)

And guess what? That science curriculum you thought looked so cool, the one you couldn't afford to buy? They just might have free sample pages of their workbook. Download them. Study them. Figure out what you can utilize in your own learning environment. I did that last year and ended up creating some nice experiment notebooking pages that worked so much better for our needs than anything pre-packaged could have. I felt so grateful to that company for making some of their materials free, because those materials gave me great ideas. So if you like a certain company's products and ideas, spend time on their website. Order their catalog. Pick their brains. Literally. Many homeschool vendors are families who have been right where you are now. Send them an email. Ask questions. Sometimes they are willing to go above and beyond...they'll answer your questions, suggest resources, point you to their blog (that you may not have known about) or do all other manner of things to help you encourage learning for your kids. The homeschool world, in all its diversity, can be a pretty charitable and encouraging place.

And oh, that's another great part of homeschooling planning.

Swap and share.

You've probably got resources you're not using anymore, either because your kids have outgrown them or they weren't a good fit for your family. Find another family and bless them with those things, either by loaning or giving. Or look for buying/selling boards in a local homeschool group or an online forum. And don't be afraid to ask other homeschooling families if you can borrow. I have friends who have kept me going, in very lean years, by the judicious loan of books and CDs right when I needed them. Sometimes I've up and asked friends if I can borrow something. One year when I simply could not purchase our math curriculum teacher's guides, and couldn't imagine pushing through the year without them (I can be a chicken when it comes to math teaching) I asked a friend if I could borrow her guides. She had children older and younger than mine, and it turned out she didn't need that particular year right then. She was happy to do it. (Just make sure you set aside a "borrowed" shelf, or keep a catalog list of what you've borrowed, so you can return things when done.)

Keeping an eye out for sales and giveaways (through blogs or FB) is always helpful. Sometimes you might also be able to barter or work for resources. I'm a review writer and that has helped me a lot. Maybe there's a company that has a new product. Would you be willing to review it for them? Ask. They might give it to you free or at low cost in exchange for an honest review. Or they might have customer review rewards already in place.

I've ventured far afield! But I hope at least a few of these ideas might spark something for you if you're homeschooling on a budget. If you are, and if you have thoughts, ideas, or questions, I hope you'll leave me a comment.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wisdom from Jack

A little Monday morning wisdom from C.S. Lewis, courtesy of a friend's Facebook status:

"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. " ~C.S. Lewis

Irrigating deserts, yes! And remember, deserts can bloom!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Gift

When I was going through old papers the other day, I stumbled upon a few photocopied poems by Li-Young Lee. I can't remember when I first read his poem "The Gift," but coming upon it unexpectedly and reading it again was indeed a gift.

I love the way Lee tells two stories in this poem, linking the present and the past by way of a small silver splinter. The power of memory shines in this poem, as well as the power of the love we carry with us through memories.

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.

The rest of the poem can be found here at The Poetry Foundation. Karen Edmisten is hosting Poetry Friday this week.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Excavating Treasures

My week has had a strange rhythm. Household tasks (cleaning, organizing), lesson planning and trying to figure out the shape of my fall, lots of Penderwicks on audio (the sweet girl has fallen head over heels for the entire series), with VBS happening in the evenings. No other week this summer will look or feel quite like this one.

The organizing in our laundry room ~ which doubles as a sort of attic space/catch-all ~ has been interesting. I found a stash of papers that I clearly pulled from boxes a long time ago, probably during some other organizing season in my life, with the intention of doing something with them. I still haven't done much with them, beyond sorting through to see what's mine, what's D's, what needs to be filed for practical purposes (if anything at this late date) and what can go straight to recycling. It's an odd bunch of papers, ranging from receipts and other bits and pieces of ephemera to articles printed from the internet, snippets of poems I worked on a few years back, and scribbled drawings by the sweet girl at different ages.

It feels a little bit like excavating your life to come across things like this. I had a similar feeling earlier this summer when I went through some boxes of things I'd stored in my sister's attic during college, twenty plus years ago. Only that was a even stranger feeling since the layers went so much deeper.

Except for a few pages that seemed to have tumbled out of a very old writing file and gotten lost, the farthest this pile stretched back was four years. I know it's four years, because I found this little poem I wrote when the sweet girl was in kindergarten and learning to write her letters:

Learning to Write an "S"

I'm sketching a snake
who likes to skate
across my slate.

I also found essays by Kathleen Norris, poems by Li Young Lee, obituaries of and tributes to Madeleine L'Engle, annotated pages on John Granger's thoughts on postmodernism, and recipes for winter squash.

Tired and ear-achey as I am (and that's part of this week's rhythm too) I had to smile over all these treasures.

Friday, August 05, 2011

I Doubt Boadicea Made Bluberry Muffins

It's been an odd sort of day. I've been catching up on household chores and doing some lesson planning for the fall, but it's been slow going since I'm not feeling the best. The sweet girl has been into creating drawings for a story she's been making up, and she's used a lot of chalk pastels. She kept getting chalk on her face and at one point, I told her she looked like a Celtic warrior. Next thing I knew, she'd covered her face with blue chalk.

So naturally I had to get out the Braveheart soundtrack. And naturally we had to dig up our old Story of the World, Volume 1 (Ancient History) to refresh our memories of the Celtic warriors who fought against Rome, especially Boadicea, the woman warrior queen.

We also made blueberry muffins. We'd been planning to all week, and wanted to make sure we got a batch made while we still had some fresh berries. The color seemed to fit the theme, but not much else. It's a little hard to picture Celtic warriors chomping muffins on the run. Though I suppose you never know...

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

72 Years of Cinema Magic

We had a fun family outing yesterday morning. A local theater has been doing a family film movie club this summer. On certain weekday mornings they run old (sometimes classic) family films, with ticket prices set at $1 per person. Since camp ended last week (and VBS doesn't start till next week) this was the week we could give it a try.

Fortunately, it turned out to be the one week we really wanted to go. We got to see The Wizard of Oz! The sweet girl's first time to ever see it (though she knows the book) and my umpteenth viewing but the first time I've ever seen it on a big screen. Wow -- so many things I missed during all those years of catching it on television.

And how well this film has stood the test of time. My father saw it when it was first released to theaters back in 1939. He was 7 at the time, and was terrified of the flying monkeys. And yes, they're still scary!

The tornado is just an awesome special effect -- and not just by 1939 standards -- the early date just makes it even more impressive. I told D. that in all the dozens of times I'd seen the film on the small screen, I'd never paid the twister much attention. It was there in the background, and my attention was with Dorothy struggling in the storm winds in the foreground. But when you see it BIG -- wow. It's menacing! It just dominates the screen! Last night we found ourselves reading an online article about how they managed the affect (dirt, dust, fans, muslin, wires...) and it's really amazing to realize the creativity that went into that.

Some of the performances really stood out on the big screen too. Margaret Hamilton's witch was delightfully wicked (that last line, when she melts, is just wonderfully delivered) and Ray Bolger's Scarecrow is as sweet as I remembered. The Cowardly Lion was funnier than I remembered. And Judy Garland just about melted my heart on "Over the Rainbow."

Despite a bit of graininess to some of the distance shots, and a couple of segments where the sound was not quite in sync with the picture, it was just a terrific cinematic experience. It makes me wish that theaters would bring classic films back more often. Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a few on the big screen (The Sound of Music, Gone With the Wind) but there are many more I'd love to see. And I love that the sweet girl's first cinematic memory of The Wizard of Oz will be this one.