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.

Kitten’s First Full Moon


We have a new kindergartener in our house. Ruth won the “Little Miss Enthusiasm” award this year from her swim team coaches and that pretty much sums up her approach so far to everything school related. (It’s only the second week so we’ll see if it will continue.) Last year she and I dabbled in preschool. I had big plans to do a “round the world” preschool for her but they fell apart quickly. We ended up reading loosely on themes but I could tell she wanted and was ready for more. I used Five in a Row with both boys for preschool and kindergarten but I had thought about using something else for Ruth, just to keep it fresh for me as a teacher. But I finally came back to more of a “why fix what isn’t broken?” point of view. She and I are going to do Five in a Row and I find myself newly excited at the thought of going through many of the much loved books with her.

Our first book of the year was Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes. Astute readers will notice that it is in fact, not a Five in a Row book. And such is the benefit of homeschooling the third time around. Kitten’s First Full Moon is a beautiful, perfect book for this age group. (It’s also a Caldecott Medalist.)  It’s a sweet story of a kitten who thinks the full moon is a bowl of milk and tries and fails over and over to drink it. The illustrations are entirely done in black and white which is an unusual choice for a kid’s book but so striking that you wonder why more books aren’t monochromatic.

My approach for doing Five in a Row is to use the main book as a jumping off point. We read a lot of other books about the same topic and we do some related activities. We usually read the main book more than once but not necessarily the prescribed five days in a row. Another benefit of homeschooling the third time around. We read a lot of books to go along with Kitten’s First Full Moon. Some about cats. Some about moons.

A new book that we both enjoyed was I See Kitty by Yasmine Surovec. Chloe loves kitties. In fact she loves kitties so much that she sees them everywhere. In the sky. In the stars. In cotton candy. The reader can try and spot the kitty along with Chloe. This would be a fun book for very young toddlers and preschoolers as the words are simple, colors are bright and it’s fun to play the “find the kitty” game. But Ruth at almost 5 was also really charmed by the hiding kitties so there is appeal to slightly older kids also.

Another new book we enjoyed was David Kherdian’s Come Back, Moon with illustrations by his wife and Caldecott winning illustrator, Nonny Hogrogrian. I’m not sure if it is based on a traditional folktale but the story has that feel. Bear steals the moon because he can’t sleep. Fox and the other forest animals set out to find who has taken the moon and how to get it back. The story is gentle and slow with soft watercolor illustrations. There’s nothing flashy or overly clever here, as in so many of today’s picture books. I appreciated that simplicity.
Other Cat Books We Recommend: 
Ginger and the Mystery Visitor by Charlotte Voake
Have You Seen My Cat? by Eric Carle
Three Little Kittens by Jerry Pinkney
Posy by Charlotte Newbery and Catherine Rayner
Copycat by Ruth Brown
Cat by Mike Dumbleton
A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann

Other Moon Books We Recommend:
Meet Me at the Moon by Gianna Marino
The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
Red Knit Cap Girl by Naoko Stoop
Moon Dreams by Ruth Martin
Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle

Today, stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday. 

Tomorrow, come back here and I’ll be sharing some of the activities we did to go with our moon studies.

What we are reading.


I haven’t done this in awhile but I thought I’d take the time to share what books we are reading as a family. We’re still juggling a separate bedtime “special” book for each child. In reality, the boys both listen to both books so eventually, it might just make sense to have one book. But for now, this works for us.

Ruth and I are reading Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins. I discovered this sweet trilogy a few years ago with David. They tell the story of three friends, Lumphy (a buffalo), Stingray, and Plastic (a red rubber ball). The friends have adventures visiting Tuk-Tuk the towel in the bathroom and braving the scary washing machine in the basement. They are sweetly told and a good pacing for young listeners. I like that Jenkins also shows the characters’ flaws (Stingray is kind of bossy and sometimes not a good friend) in a way that kids can probably identify with and learn from.

Back in the spring, when we were going on vacation, I picked up The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker to listen to in the car. Typically, the boys love listening to audiobooks on trips but Ruth isn’t always so excited about them and this can cause some squabbling. My thought was that a book about a princess might get her a little more interested. The boys resisted it a bit, but they are pretty open to any book, even about princesses. As John has said, “I don’t care if it’s about a girl. As long as interesting stuff happens to her.” Ruth ended up being only mildly more interested in that audiobook than any other but the boys fell in love with this series of stories about the magical kingdom of Greater Greensward. We have spent the summer happily listening to the next 6 in the series. Until, horrors of horrors, our library didn’t have the last audiobook. David then asked for the last book in the series to be his special book and we are all enjoying one last adventure with these characters.

Instead of frog princesses, we’re spending time in the car with giant rats, bats and cockroaches. John read this series by Suzanne Collins (yes, of the Hunger Games) a few years ago and really enjoyed it. David discovered Gregor the Overlander in the audiobook section at the library and thought it looked interesting so it’s become our new story for the car. I’ve never read it myself and so far am enjoying it. It’s also a good way to make the boys practice narrating/summarizing. They listen to the story sometimes without me in the car (when H. is driving and I’m elsewhere). So then when I get back in I make them sum up the story for me so I can be up-to-date.

I’ll admit to not being a huge Madeline L’Engle fan as a kid. I liked A Wrinkle in Time okay, but I don’t even remember reading her other books. It may have been that I read them at the wrong time or they were just a little too dense or weird for me. John has been picking as his special books her Time Quartet and we are currently reading A Wind in the Door. I’m still not sure if it might be too dense and a little too weird for me. Or maybe I’m just not getting it all. John agrees that it’s weird but he says he likes it so we’ll keep going.

As a family we also read a different book together at lunch. Currently we’re reading Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. I have seen such amazing love for this series, usually from homeschoolers. I’m finding it a bit slow and dull. It may be partially my fault as we’re taking forever to get through it due to not much lunchtime reading over the summer. It’s a little hard to feel invested in a book 
when the story feels more fractured. I’ve also finding all the sailing references kind of bewildering. Again, the kids seem to really enjoy it and say they want to keep going so we will. It feels like the kind of book that might sneak up on me later and surprise me with how much I like it so I’ll just have to see.

That’s what we’re reading together. John informed us at dinner that he’s reading 11 books on his own right now, but hasn’t quite settled on which one to focus on. He also just read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald as his first assigned reading of the school year. I’m trying a new reading-based unit study approach with him. So far it’s going well. I hope to write a longer post about the study at some point. David is reading the third Harry Potter book. He really dove into the world of Hogwarts this summer. It’s been extra fun to see him and John sharing this world, both in conversation and in play (they built an entire Diagon Alley one day out of Legos and spent the day making stop-action animated movies using it as a set).

So that’s a bit of what we’re reading. What are you reading as this school year begins?


The Real Boy


Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a book that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile but somehow have never got around to. So when I saw her new book, The Real Boy, on the shelf at the library I picked it up for me and John, the resident fantasy novel lover in our house.

Oscar is an apprentice to Caleb, the last magician left on a magic-filled island. Oscar has always known he’s different: he doesn’t understand human interaction and he doesn’t remember any of his earliest years in an orphanage. He may not understand people but he does understand plants. He knows the forest and the language of herbs and medicines. On the island where Oscar lives, there are the magic people who live in the Barrow and there are the Shining City where the Shining People live. The Shining People don’t have any magic or the ability to use magic but they are beautiful and rich and they never get sick.

Oscar’s quiet life is turned upside down when Caleb goes off to the mainland on business and Caleb’s apprentice, Wolf, comes to a bad end. At the same time the Shining People’s children become ill, something seems to be happening to the magic in the forest and there seems to be a monster living in the Barrow. It is up to Oscar and his one friend, Callie, the healer’s apprentice, to figure out what is going on on their island and how to fix it.

I really liked this book. There is somewhat of a reference to Pinocchio, as you may have guessed from the title. However, it’s not really a re-telling of that fairytale. There were twists I didn’t see coming and ones I expected and was wrong about. It’s somewhat of a quieter fantasy, the story is as much about Oscar’s struggle to learn how to become a friend and how to interact with other people as it is about magic. I think for this reason I liked it better than John, who really digs dragons and elves and wizards and epic battles. I wondered at times if Oscar is supposed to be autistic but no diagnosis is spelled out in the book. Still, it may be a good book for a kid struggling with fitting in or one to help a kid understand a friend who might be on the autism spectrum or a bit quirky. I saw The Real Boy described on Goodreads and being “for the Neville Longbottoms” who loved Harry Potter and I thought that was a great description. Oscar is much more of a Neville than a Harry. All in all, I found this an endearing story with an intriguing plot that was beautifully written. I would highly recommend it.

And I’m definitely moving Breadcrumbs up the TBR list.