Kindergarten: Ladybugs


Recently Ruth and I spent a week reading about ladybugs. We revisited an old favorite, The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. I can’t imagine that there is anyone out there who doesn’t know this story but if you haven’t yet met the grouchy ladybug, do. My almost 11 year old still loves it when the whale’s tail smacks the ladybug and sends him flying back across the land. It’s a fun book and if you want your fun to come with learning objectives you get lots of animals in their habitats and clocks and telling time.

We also read about a million of the Ladybug Girl books by David Soman and Jacky Davis. I love these odes to imagination. Of all the literary alter-egos that Ruth enjoys, this one might be my favorite. I think she prefers Fancy Nancy or Pinkalicious (both of whom are fabulous) but something about this red tutu wearing super-hero just makes me smile.

Other ladybug books we enjoyed:

Are You a Ladybug? by Judy Allen and Tudor Humphries
Ladybugs by Gail Gibbons
Yoo-Hoo, Ladybug! by Laura Ljungkvist

And why did we read all these ladybug books? Serendipitously, it went along with Ruth’s kindergarten class study of bugs at our co-op.


But the real reason was that our little ladybug turned five.


(Our ladybug with a friend who showed up on our dinner table for Ruth’s birthday dinner.)


Six weeks in: Musings on school


We’re six weeks in to the school year and it seemed as good a time as any to think about how things are going. I find that like my students I’m often relearning the same material over and over (“You CAPTITALIZE the first word in a sentence”, “7 x 8 is still 56 and always will be”,  “It’s and its are not the same thing. And neither are too and to. Not to mention two.”). But for me the lessons are more about expectations.

Lesson #1
You will not finish everything, learn everything or do everything that you want to.

Note I don’t say “you might not finish…”. You WILL not. And yet every year somehow I end up feeling stressed that we aren’t going to “finish” or that we left some things on the to-do list.

Recently, I’ve been in discussions with some parents of younger kids who are concerned that their kids are not learning enough in preschool. It’s tough not to roll my eyes at this. Or to give them a lecture about not worrying so much about what their 2 or 3 year old is learning. From my lofty perch of 7 years down the road, I realize that whether they learn their shapes and colors and letters this year or next will really not matter in the big scheme of things.

However, I was also recently confronted with my own ridiculous worries about “missing something” when I was reading an article that mentioned the Cuban Missile crisis and my first thought was,  “Oh, no! I haven’t really covered that with John! He doesn’t know much about the Cuban Missile crisis.” At which point I had to roll my eyes at myself (tough to do even on a good day) and remind myself that he’s in 6th grade and we can probably manage to squeeze it in before graduation. I’m not sure this worry about something left unsaid/untaught/undone ever goes away for parents, and particularly for homeschooling parents. A good friend of mine who has a daughter who is a senior in high school has confessed to me that she has to fight against a desire to “stuff” all the knowledge she can in her daughter this one last year at home.

So here’s the bad news: you can’t do it. You can’t teach it all. You can’t even teach most of it. You can’t do every project. You won’t finish a lot of the curriculum. You will leave out good things, things that are worthwhile. Things that you will be sad that you left out.

But here’s the good news: You can’t do it all. You can’t ever “finish” learning.  And really as a homeschooler, that should be part of what underlies our very existence. No, we don’t know everything about birds or Roman mythology or car engines or butterflies. We will forget to teach certain dates in history. Heck, we might leave out entire historical periods. There isn’t enough time in the day to cover every subject, even shallowly. But what we can do is teach them skills and teach them how to learn. And perhaps most importantly, we can model a life of learning. We can show them that butterflies and Roman mythology and car engines are all cool things to be interested in. We can glory in the “I don’t know”. We can enjoy it when they teach us something that we “left out” but they learned elsewhere.

Lesson #2
Focus on the yearly goals rather than the daily checklist. 

This one is sort of related to #1 but it seems slightly different to me. Often in the course of the homeschooling day, something will happen that causes our school day to come to a grinding halt. It might be a kid who is struggling with a concept I thought he already understood. It might be a kindergartener who needs a little extra attention and so is choosing to get it by annoying her brother in every way possible. It might be a lesson that takes much much longer than I expected or budgeted for in my plan for the day. So I try and tell myself it’s ok. It’s ok if we don’t finish everything I wanted to that day. Or week. Or month. Or year.

And that’s true. We won’t finish everything. But it also helps me to realize that the more important goals are ones that we are reaching and “crossing” off our list. Maybe we have to take a few days (or weeks) to sloooooow way down in math and make sure a concept is really cemented. So we might not finish that curriculum in the time-frame we hoped for. But the bigger goal, to understand math, is being met.

Sometimes the goals are even less checklisty (it should be a word). With my sixth grader many of our goals this year (and for middle school) are difficult to put on a list. Learning to work independently. Time-management. Being able to clearly express himself in writing and orally. Managing classes away from home. Sometimes I realize that a particular goal is being met even when smaller tasks aren’t being done perfectly or as I imagined them.

A lot of times I realize that the real thing we are working on isn’t academic at all. It’s patience or kindness or perseverance or a cheerful heart or forgiveness. I say that as someone who primarily homeschools for academic reasons. That may be true, but on a particular day working with one child on his need to learn to forgive or another child on developing a better attitude when faced with a difficult task might be the primary goal for that day. I wouldn’t count it a success if we end the year with patient, kind, hard-working, cheerful kids who can’t read or multiply. But I also wouldn’t count it a success if we end the year with kids who can read and do math and know lots about lots of things but who are unkind, impatient, and mean to their siblings.



Frank! by Connah Brecon



Frank is a bear who was always late.

It wasn’t that Frank was rude or unreliable. Nor was he a dawdler or a meanderer. 

He just liked to help out.

Frank’s lateness really becomes a problem when he starts school. Each day he is late and each day he tells his teacher a seemingly crazy story as an excuse. He rescues a cat from a tree and the tree runs away with him in it. He gets challenged to a dance-off. He rescues bunnies from ogres. The teacher and the reader have to wonder if Frank’s stories are just stories until the ending when Frank is called on to step up and save the entire school.

Overall, this is a a fun, quirky book. Readers of this blog know that I’m a little tired of the quirky trend in children’s literature. Frank felt different to me though. Connah Brecon has managed to achieve kid quirky with just the right amount of weird flights of imagination that real kids have, as opposed to adult slightly snarky quirky which is the trend I don’t like.

The colors and cartoon-like illustrations are bright and cheerful. On going back for a second read, I discovered lots of clever details I missed the first time. For example, all the stores in Frank’s town sell clocks or watches. Or the dance-off is raising money for people with two left feet.

I did wish that the plot was a little more cohesive and that the ending had a better explanation. A lot of zany things happen to Frank but they didn’t necessarily all fit together until the ending, which felt a little forced to me. And the last page seemed to me to need a bit more explanation. I think those issues are a little bit nit-picky on my part. The kids thought it was  a fun book and I think most kids would agree with them.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

This and That


We’re back in the full swing of school and activities and I find myself with tons of ideas of things to write about but not much time to sit down and do it. My friend Amy at Hope is the Word does an end of the week post called Odds and Ends that is part homeschooling weekly wrap-up and part a lovely mish-mash of things going on in her life. So I thought I’d try something similar.


* School is going well. John is more and more independent with his work. He is using AoPS Pre-Algebra this year for math and loving it. For some odd reason he likes to his math in the bathtub (without water). He’s good about getting it done, so I’m ok with the unorthodox location. AoPS is a challenging curriculum but so far it’s working great for him. The other big winner for him is the unit study approach we’re doing this year, which means he mostly reads. He’s loving that and it gives him a little more flexibility with his time to do other things.

*For David the big winner is the new writing curriculum we are using, Writing and Rhetoric from Classical Academic Press. We’re using the Fable book and he is really enjoying the chance to be a bit more creative with his writing. Well, he’s enjoying it as much as he enjoys anything about school. He’d prefer to spend the day riding his bike around and around our back yard, playing with our dog and building things with Legos. He gets to do all of those plenty, but he sees the rest of life as an interruption from playtime.


*Ruth is the opposite. She still is living up to her Little Miss Enthusiasm title and loving pretty much everything about kindergarten. Everything.

*Unintentionally we’ve had a slow ramp-up to all our fall activities. We started school in mid-August and had two weeks of just school which was nice. Then we added in ballet and co-op. Then the next week Scouts. Then tennis and piano and Odyssey of the Mind last week. And next week swimming starts for John, which is three times a week this year. That’s a lot of outside activities but doing it slowly has made it seem much less overwhelming.

IMG_0561 *We’re studying Astronomy all together as a family. We’ve done some activities from Science in a Nutshell kits. We’ve also been enjoying watching episodes from Cosmos. This is a really well-done series and both boys find it fascinating. Ruth prefers Magic Schoolbus, so we alternate which one we watch during our roughly weekly popcorn and a movie lunches.

*The best find of the week might have been a new-to-me food website, Budget Bytes. So far we’ve tried Creamy Vegetarian Enchilada Pasta and Greek Marinated Chicken. The whole family loved both (well the vegetarian member didn’t eat the chicken but otherwise they were both gobbled up). Both were easy and I’m definitely going to be going back for more ideas.


*Fall birthday season has begun with Ruth turning five. She likes to look back now on the good old days when she was four and “little”.

*We’ve been enjoying some of the cultural offerings at a local movie theater. H. and John went to see a production of Twelfth Night from the Globe Theater. It’s part of a series of plays that were “captured live” and then are being shown in movie theaters. Next week, H. and I have a date to go see another play at the same movie theater. And today, the whole family went to a free Family Film showcase that was part of the DC Shorts Film Festival.

IMG_0814*We’ve also been enjoying the gorgeous weather with lots of walks (with our newish puppy) and playing in the backyard. Ruth has almost mastered riding a bike without training wheels and the boys spend nearly every waking minute not doing school on their bikes. I’ve been working on our yard a lot this summer. I’m not really a gardener but I feel like it’s looking pretty good.

*As always, we’ve been reading a lot lately. I write about that in other posts so I won’t mention all the books here. Suffice to say that we have again maxed out our library cards, which means we have 150 books checked out of our local library. It’s 50 books a card, so I’m thinking Ruth needs to sign up for a card this year.





Scenes from Dulles Air and Space


DSCN1869a DSCN1979 DSCN1961a DSCN1952 DSCN1883We’re studying Astronomy now for Science so a trip to the  Air and Space Museum seemed appropriate. I like the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center location out at Dulles better than the museum on the Mall because it’s so huge that even when crowded it doesn’t feel like a crowd. Air and Space on the Mall always makes me feel a bit claustrophobic because it’s so incredibly popular with tourists. We happened upon the Dulles museum on a day when it was so uncrowded as to feel empty. And that’s saying a lot for a building so large that it houses an actual space shuttle in just it’s smaller wing.

The only downside to the Dulles location is the parking fee. It’s not a lot ($15 a car) but when you live in a city with free museums, you tend to get a little grumpy about paying anything at all. This time though we discovered that they have free parking after 4:00. And even better, in the summer they have extended hours until 6:30 which made the trip even more worth it.

A virtually empty free museum filled with cool planes and amazing space stuff ? Maybe putting up with the traffic up here is worth it after all.



Colors of the Wind


At the age of 15 George Mendoza suddenly began to go blind. In only a few months he had lost most of his sight, retaining only his peripheral vision. Despite what must have been a devastating loss, Mendoza found ways to overcome his disability. He first found an outlet in running: setting the world record for a mile run by a blind runner and twice going to the Olympics for the Disabled. Later, at the prompting of a priest friend who told him to paint what he saw, he began to turn his visions of colors and shapes into works of art.

Those works of art are the clear stars of this book. Each page layout has a full page full-color image of one of Mendoza’s bright joyful paintings. Many kids will enjoy looking at the book solely for the paintings alone. The story itself is told in spare prose on the other page of each layout accompanied by a simple pen and ink illustration. The illustrations often have a bit of color from the painting on the paired page which works well to tie everything together. The text by author J. L. Powers gives a summary version of Mendoza’s story, focusing on his determination to share his unique “vision” of the world.

The only thing I wished with this book was for slightly more information. There is an author’s note at the end which fleshes out some of the details of the story that are skimmed over in the text. However, I think even young kids will feel that there are places in the story that they are left wanting more. The most striking for me was when Powers quickly glosses over Mendoza’s trips to the Olympics and left me wondering how exactly he was able to accomplish such a feat. And maybe it’s just my medical background, but I really wanted to know even a little more about Mendoza’s blindness and his visions.

The title of the book comes from a blind girl who asked the teenage Mendoza what colors the wind is. Later when he began to paint he remembered that question and tried to show what colors he saw in the wind and the world around him. As I’ve  mentioned here before, I like to do art projects associated with books about artists. This book seems like it would be a perfect jumping off point for some really cool art with the kids.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I have not been compensated for my review and the opinions are my own. 

Stop by Non-Fiction Monday for more great kid’s non-fiction.

Kindergarten: The Salamander Room


Week Two of Kindergarten found Ruth and me moving from kittens to salamanders. The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer is one of our favorite Five in a Row books. All three of my kids have enjoyed it, which is saying a lot as they all have slightly different likes and interests. In the story, a boy finds a salamander and wants to bring him home to live. Instead of saying no, his wise mother asks him about all the things the salamander will need. Like most kids, he has an answer for every one of her questions. What will he eat? Bugs of course, brought there by the boy. But what about when there are too many bugs? The boy will bring in birds to eat the bugs, of course. And so on. 

One part of the appeal in this book is the realism of the facts about salamanders. What do salamanders need? What kind of habitat do they have? But the genius of the book is combining the realism and realistic illustrations with the boy’s flight of fancy as he turns his bedroom into a forest wonderland. The illustrations mirror the boy’s imaginary world getting bigger and bigger as the forest that he dreams begins to spill over the frame of the drawing of his room on the page. The gentle back-and-forth question-and-answer conversation of the boy and the mother are also appealing both for the predictability (you know she will ask, he will answer) and for the surprise of some of his answers. 

The Salamander Room paired up perfectly with a study of amphibians in general and a review of animal classification. We read a lot of other frog and amphibian books. A stand-out was Brenda Guiberson’s Frog Song, a Cybils nominee last year. One day I had David and Ruth get all their stuffed animals, divide them into piles by category (Mammal, Bird, Fish, etc), count each pile and then make a graph. Ruth and I made the graph together. I had David make his own and we counted that as math that day. It was also interesting to show them a graph using the actual numbers of animals in the world. Somewhat expectedly, our stuffed animal graph showed a preponderance of mammals while in the real world mammals are way outranked by insects and other invertebrates. 

In general it was much harder to find books about salamanders than frogs. That’s one of the reasons I appreciated Susan Hood’s book, Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster, starring an axolotl (a critically endangered Mexican salamander). Reason #2 was that it was a really cute story about a little axolotl who thinks he’s fierce but all the other animals think he’s just cute. He desperately wants to be big and fierce until one day he meets a real monster (a Gila monster). And reason #3? It’s illustrated by Melissa Sweet who could probably illustrate the instruction manual for a toaster and make it look fresh and appealing.  


 For fun, we made salt-dough salamanders, using the recipe from this blog.  


IMG_0559The salt-dough was pretty easy to make and work with and the kids had fun painting their creatures. The best thing we did for the week was probably our field trip to Huntley Meadows, a nearby wetlands. No salamanders spotted, but lots and lots of their frog cousins. 

Other Frog/Salamander Books We Recommend: 
Salamander, Frog and Polliwog: What is an Amphibian? by Brian Cleary
Finklehopper Frog by Irene Livingston
Too Many Frogs! by Ann and John Hassett
Jump by Scott M. Fischer
Foo, the Flying Frog of Washtub Pond by Belle Yang
Too Many Frogs! by Sandy Asher
The Magic School Bus Hops Home: A Book about Animal Habitats


July/August Reading


Fiction Read in July and August:

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Read in preparation for John’s first unit study of the year. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
A retelling of the Snow White story, told from the perspective of the stepmother (Boy) and her daughter (Bird). Oyeyemi explores issues around race and the perception of beauty in our culture. An intriguing book that deserves a longer review, or at least more attention than I’m giving it here. I’d recommend it for those who like both well-crafted stories and pondering bigger issues. 

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass 
Kip is a somewhat lost middle-aged art history professor who recently didn’t get tenure and finds himself drifting through life. His wife, desperate to kick-start him into some kind of action, sends him off on a journey to discover who his biological father is. Told from multiple perspectives and in flashbacks, this story weaves through the lives of a New England family and their friends. It was a good read although not particularly memorable. 

A Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King
The latest installment in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I’m now caught up before the next one is published in early 2015. 

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Read in preparation for John’s unit study. More on that in the next few weeks, hopefully. 

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
Also read for the unit study, this was my first MacDonald book. I quite enjoyed it and see why C.S. Lewis considered MacDonald a great writer of Christian allegory and fantasy. Lewis once said about MacDonald, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Non-Fiction read in July/August

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
I got this one out for the description of the title essay which is partially about the author’s experience being a model patient for medical student’s practical exams. It’s actually much more about her experience having an abortion. The rest of the essays vary widely in content (from an essay on saccharine to one on extreme endurance races to one on the West Memphis Three). The thread that holds all the essays together is the theme of empathy. Jamison particularly ponders her own medical experiences, including a heart surgery for an arrhythmia, a violent attack in Central America where she was punched in the face and her abortion. I was quite impressed with Jamison’s ability to write beautifully and intelligently on such a wide range of topics. And I appreciated some of her musings on the nature of empathy.

Ironically I found at times that that it was difficult to be empathetic towards Jamison.  At times I felt like saying “Yes, these things happened to you. Now it’s time to move on.” Then I felt kind of sheepish as she has a whole discussion in her essay on women’s pain about how society often has that approach to hurting young women. In the end I decided that this read to me like a young book. It’s similar to listening to a teenager tell you about the current crisis in their life. You know it’s big to them. You want to have empathy. But sometimes it’s hard. 

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
 Somewhat better known as a novelist, Patchett has also had a long career writing non-fiction for magazines. She began at Seventeen magazine, largely to pay the bills and ended up at places like Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. This collection of essays roughly serves as a memoir of sorts as she collected a sampling of her non-fiction over her life. 

I really enjoyed this book and it strikes me now that’s probably in part because it’s from a more mature voice than the previous one. The essay on caring for her grandmother with dementia was lovely and touching without being overly maudlin. Ditto the essay on her dying dog and companion of many years. The early essays on how to become a writer are excellent and would be worthwhile reading for anyone who thinks they might want to pursue a career in writing. 

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead 
Part literary criticism, part biography and part memoir this book is unlike anything else I’ve read. Rebecca Mead looks at Middlemarch, the book that has been the most important influence her own life. I expected this to read mostly like a memoir but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was so much more. Mead includes her own experience but only where it illuminates the book or where the book illuminates her experience. I mostly appreciated Mead’s love for Middlemarch and her extensive research on George Eliot and insight into how Eliot’s life may have influenced her books, particularly Middlemarch. Like all the best books, this one made me want to read more: Middlemarch again, more Eliot, more on Eliot. 

Scenes from a wetland walk


IMG_1019 IMG_1020 IMG_1030 IMG_1050IMG_1091 IMG_1084 IMG_1087 IMG_1089 IMG_1107 IMG_1022Friday we took the opportunity to take a field trip to one of our favorite nature spots.

4 Snapping turtles
4 Painted turtles
3 Great Blue Herons
2 Egrets
Many unidentified birds
1 Daddy Long-Legs Spider
2 Cicadas
Many many frogs
Too many to count snails and minnows
1 Pair of brand new pink sneakers

One of the best things about going back again and again to a favorite spot is seeing the seasonal and cyclical changes.

Previous visits this year:
April 2014

March 2014

Jan 2014

And one of the best things about blogging is documenting the changes that also occur in the humans:

Jan 2013

Sept 2011

Oct 2009

Kindergarten: The moon, some milk and some Oreos.



Along with reading books on cats and moons for Ruth’s first week of school we did some fun activities to go along with our study of Kitten’s First Full Moon. Just for fun we did a Milk Color Changing Demonstration from Steve Spangler ScienceIMG_0514Drop four drops of food coloring into a shallow bowl or plate of milk. Touch the middle with a Q-tip. Nothing will happen. Then put a drop of dish soap on the other end of the Q-tip and touch the middle again.


The colors go crazy. The explanation for why is on the Steve Spangler site and has to do with what happens when the chemical bonds holding the proteins and fat in solution in the milk are disrupted by the polar (both hydrophilic and hydrophobic) soap. For Ruth, we stuck with “Ooh! Pretty colors!” I made sure John and to some extent David understood what was going on behind the magic.


We also spent some time talking about the phases of the moon. This cool Oreo demonstration was a win-win. Easy to do, a great visual picture of the moon phases and tasty too. Which I guess makes it a win-win-win. We had them for tea time while we read some of our moon books. We also spent some time working through a couple of activities from one of our Delta Science in a Nutshell kits on the moon. We are starting the year with a unit on astronomy for science which went along perfectly with Ruth’s book this week.


Of all the things I planned, I think what Ruth liked best was this somewhat spontaneous idea I came up with one day to give her something to do while I worked with the boys on math. I traced a picture from Kitten’s First Full Moon and outlined it in Sharpie marker. My idea was to then have her try and shade it in black and white to mimic the illustrations in the book. She, however, was adamantly against that idea and wanted to use as much color as possible. I gave in and we talked briefly about why the illustrator might have chosen black and white over color and then I gave her the colored pencils and turned her loose. By the end of the week she must have done 10 of this pictures and David also did a few.

All in all, a good first week.