Scenes from Texas

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David, Ruth and I just returned from a spring break trip to Texas, specifically San Antonio and Austin. We were a family of three on the trip because John and H. were in Chile on a missions trip. H. had been to Chile several times many years ago (pre-marriage) and had wanted to return and wanted to take John. When he decided to go this spring, we decided it would also be good for me to take the other two kids on a trip somewhere special.

Why Texas? Well, we’d never been there before and I’d heard great things about both cities. I wanted somewhere warm but not too spring-breakish (no beach or Florida). We were not disappointed. It was a great trip.

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At first, when we saw bluebonnets, we were super excited. Then we realized they are everywhere. Literally. The ones in the photo above are from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center which was lovely.

IMG_6165The fauna that David and I were most excited to see were BATS. I didn’t know before this trip but Texas is apparently known for its large bat colonies. The ones in the photo above are from a colony that lives under the Camden Street Bridge in San Antonio. If you show up around sunset you can see them emerge. It’s a pretty spectacular sight…thousands of bats streaming out from the bridge and flying into the night. Even more impressive were the bats in the Congress Street Bridge colony in Austin. It’s the largest urban bat colony in the world (1.5 million bats). It’s also impressive and fun to see the large crowds of people who line the bridge and the hillside (and on boats on the river itself) to see the bats.

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We had fun in both cities. I liked Austin better…it was more, well, weird. (I can see where the Keep Austin Weird slogan comes from.) We biked around the Ladybird Lake in the middle of town, had great tacos, swam in the natural pool that is Barton Springs, sloshed through the Capitol on an exceptionally rainy morning, and walked around the University of Texas. San Antonio felt way more busy and touristy to me, although the Riverwalk area is truly beautiful. We happened to be there during the NCAA Final Four so the touristy feel was probably exaggerated. We enjoyed the Alamo and the other Missions, saw great Latin American art at the San Antonio Museum, ate great BBQ (the carnivores among us), took a river boat tour and enjoyed the San Antonio Zoo (our favorite was all the wild nesting cranes in the trees).

IMG_6038However, our favorite thing we did was hike at Enchanted Rock State Park, about an hour and a half away from both cities. It’s a short hike up (about half a mile) but super steep. And so worth it. Hiking around the park was also fun with a lot of boulders to climb.

Probably my favorite thing we did was to hunt for street art around Austin. The first day in the city we went on a longish walk near University of Texas (ending in ice cream and root beer floats at Amy’s) and saw as much as we could. The last day of our trip we ended at the S. Congress neighborhood and visited a few other landmark sites.

When I told friends about this trip, I had a few people remark that I was “brave” to do it. That seemed like a strange sentiment to me but I realized that as a family we have become very accustomed to travel. The kids were old pros at things like packing and going through airport security lines. And they are old enough that it’s really very easy. They did their own packing for the most part and were troopers on days that were long and sometimes tiring. The three of us had a really good time together. We missed H. and John a lot, but we also enjoyed each other and knew they were having their own adventures.

So, I’ll end this post with what I’ve said in other travel posts: If you are trying to decide if it’s worth it, it is. Just do it. Go!

10 Things We Do In Our Homeschool

Inspired again by Julie at Bravewriter’s podcast: 61 Things I Did RIGHT in My HomeschoolI thought I would also look at the things we DO that I’m proud of after recently looking at what we don’t do.

As I wrote this list, I realized that a lot of it may not seem like homeschooling. It’s hard as a homeschooler to separate out what is “school” vs. what is “life” or “parenting”. We travel a lot. Partially that’s because we homeschool and can go off-season. Is that school? I think as I’ve gotten more experienced, I no longer really care about the distinction of school and life. This is what we do. School. Life. All of it mixed up together.

  1. We read. A lot.
    *Reading is the foundation of our homeschool.

    *In the younger years we read stack and stacks of picture books. I planned preschool and kindergarten around themes (Letter of the Week or Five in a Row inspired) and mostly we read books together and called it school.

    *We always have a read-aloud longer book going. This is more challenging with older kids and busy schedules. We don’t read a chapter book aloud every day, although I’d like to. But we do read something all together most days.

    *We always have a current audiobook for the car. We’ve shared so many fantastic series this way. (Gregor the Overlander, Sisters Grimm, The Frog Princess, The Children of Ashton Place, the Sixty-Eight Room series).

    *We visit the library frequently. I have never limited the number of books the kids can take out or had any requirements for what they have to read or limits to what they can read.

    *I always take a book with me. Everywhere. And the kids have developed the same habit.

  2. We play a lot of games.
    *Board games: Risk, Catan, Qwirkle, Clue, Monopoly, Ticket to Ride.

    *Card games: Blink, Swish, Fluxx, Capitalism (or Feudal Wars), Spit

    *Car games: Twenty Questions, Find the Thimble, Would You Rather, I Spy

  3. We watch a lot of movies together.
    *When the kids were little we watched a lot of Magic Schoolbus and Bill Nye. Schoolhouse Rock and Carmen SanDiego. (Also Dora and Diego, Land Before Time, and, yes, Elmo).

    *We often watch family movies. This also has gotten harder as they get older. What appeals to a 14 year old boy is often not ok for an 8 year old girl (or she isn’t interested). But we find some that everyone likes or we split up and watch in different groups. Recently we’ve enjoyed in various groupings: Dunkirk, Jumanji (the Robin William version), The Matrix, Brave, Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve), Logan Lucky, Now You See Me, and Beauty and the Beast.

    *Sometimes, especially in the doldrums of January and February, we will have a popcorn lunch and watch a movie or documentary together.

  4. We travel as much as we can afford (and have vacation time for). 
    *We’ve been able to take the kids on lots of shorter trips (Williamsburg, Jamestown, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Roanoke, Charlottesville, Annapolis, Pittsburgh).

    *And lots of longer trips. We’ve done a three week road trip to the Southeast US including Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta and places in between. We’ve been to New York many times. We’ve done Chicago. We did a ten day, approximately 2000 mile loop of California last year. We’ve done a road trip to Boston/Rhode Island/Connecticut. We’ve been to Niagara Falls and Toronto. And we did a trip to Iceland and Paris.

    *Many of our most memorable family stories and jokes come from travel together. I love the exposure to new places that travel offers but even more I love the shared experience we have as a family.

  5. We spend time outside.
    *We don’t do formal “nature study”. But we do try and go on hikes semi-regularly. We used to go fairly often to a local wetlands. That’s another thing that has been harder with a high-schooler, but I’d like to find a way to get back to it.

    *Even when we don’t intentionally go on a hike, we go for walks together. If the weather is good, the kids spend a fair amount of time roller blading or biking or scootering or playing their made up game of bike/roller-blade/ basketball.

  6. We do art.
    *This ebbs and flows. Sometimes I am more intentional about planning an art lesson or project. Then months go by where I just don’t get to it. But our home is rich in supplies (paints, pastels, markers, pencils) when the mood strikes.

    *We drag our kids to museums. Sometimes they like it. Sometimes they don’t. I think more often than not there is something they like, even if they are surprised by that fact.

  7. We try really hard to use the amazing resources in this area.
    *We are very lucky to live outside Washington DC. We tried for a long time to go downtown monthly. Again, that’s something that has gotten harder with older kids but we do still go. We’ve been to Mt. Vernon, the National Gallery, Air and Space, National Museum of the American Indian, the Botanic Gardens, American History, Natural History, the Renwick Gallery, the Building Museum, the Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, the Spy Museum, the Newseum. We’ve biked along the Potomac, toured the Capitol (and got to go into a chamber in Session), been to the top of the Washington Monument, toured the Library of Congress, seen the pandas (and other animals we like more) at the National Zoo.
  8. We go to live theater and concerts.
    *When the kids were very little I had season tickets to two very good local children’s theaters (Imagination Stage and Adventure Theater). We’ve seen some fantastic plays at both. We’ve gone as a family to see big musicals at the Kennedy Center (usually as a family Christmas present). I’ve gone alone with John to the Folger Shakespeare theater to see some wonderful productions. And he still talks about seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in a broadcasted version at our local movie theater. We’ve also been to some live music events, both big and small.
  9. We listen to a lot of music together. 
    * I consider myself tone-deaf so it’s been important to me that the kids learn music from someone else as I know that’s something I can’t teach them. Two take piano lessons and one started trumpet this year. So we hear music daily in our house.

    *We also listen to a lot of music during the school day. Hamilton. Pentatonix. Adele. Broadway musical soundtracks. Sara Groves. David Wilcox. The Piano Guys. Eddie from Ohio. Different kids have different preferences and both H. and I have different tastes. Sometimes everyone is listening to their own thing, but more often we take turns what’s playing in the background.

  10. We also do math and spelling and grammar and history and science and Latin.
    *We aren’t unschoolers. I’ve become way more laid back and flexible than when I started this journey 10 years ago, but I’m still too much of a box-checker and planner to unschool. We do all the traditional schooly things, just not necessarily in a schooly way.

    *What I’ve realized is that the biggest things I’ll remember from the traditional school subjects are the times we worked on it together. Sometimes I hand a kid a workbook and just check the answers. But more valuable are the times when we’ve struggled together on a hard word problem or hard Latin translation.

25 Things We Don’t Do in Our Homeschool

I listened to Julie’s inspiring podcast on Bravewriter about “55 Things I Did Not do as a Homeschooler” and I thought of the To Don’t List I wrote awhile ago. (Interestingly, ALL of the things on that list are still things I don’t do. I guess I was right about where my priorities are. Or aren’t.)

  1. We don’t do lapbooks.
  2. We don’t do nature study.
  3. We don’t follow any formal science curriculum before high school.
  4. We don’t do poetry teatimes except really rarely.
  5. We don’t have any kind of morning/circle time.
  6. We don’t do Classical Conversations.
  7. We don’t use a formal spelling program.
  8. Sometimes the kids don’t love learning.
  9. I don’t plan (other than very roughly) more than about a week in advance.
  10. We don’t count hours or days.
  11. We don’t do Bible Study as part of our school.
  12. I don’t give the kids tests or quizzes before high school. And even then only a bit.
  13. We don’t unschool.
  14. We don’t study music or art systematically.
  15. I don’t worry about the kids reading “twaddle”. (And I really hate the term anyway.)
  16. We don’t do memory work.
  17. We don’t school year round.
  18. I don’t teach Health as a subject. Or PE. Or Personal Finance. Or Life Skills.
  19. We don’t use a chore chart.
  20. I don’t save curriculum to sell.
  21. I don’t do special things for all the holidays.
  22. We don’t do school at desks.
  23. I don’t own a whiteboard or chalkboard.
  24. We don’t do nearly as many crafts as my daughter would like to do.
  25. I am not particularly patient.

So that’s my list. And as a disclaimer, I’ll say that some of those are things that I sort of wish we did. But one thing I’ve definitely learned at this point in my homeschooling journey is that you cannot do it all. Even all the good things. So I’m ok with what we don’t do for the  most part. Except maybe the poetry teatimes. It would be good to have more of those.

Things to read next.

Books our family is looking forward to this spring…

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We’ll be doing some re-reading in preparation. Right now we’re enjoying A Wrinkle in Time in advance of the upcoming movie. I love the anticipation of books and bookish things.

This Week in Books

The first week back to school after vacation is always a bit slow. Added to that normal slowness was one sick kid and super cold weather that kept us inside and canceled activities. In many ways that was a good thing, it gave me time to work on one of my resolutions for the New Year: reading more.

Over the past year I’ve realized that the amount that we read aloud has decreased a lot. It’s not on purpose, it’s just hard to balance the needs of three kids in different grades and stages and our lives have gotten busier and schedules have gotten more complicated.  But of all the things we do for school, I think reading is the most important. That includes reading independently, reading discussions and reading aloud. So for 2018 one of my schoolish resolutions is to return to the basics and read more with the kids. I also pretty much always resolve to read more myself. It’s good to have one resolution that you know you can keep and that is fun to do.

Lunch time reading this week included Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed. This was a re-read for us, although the first time was five years ago so only the boys remembered it and only vaguely. Ruth is now begging for us to make an ice-skating rink in our backyard. I told her that this week that might work but it would be a short-lived dream here in Virginia. Continuing with the ice theme we also enjoyed Ice Boy by David Ezra Stein. This was a mostly silly picture book about an ice cube who wants to have adventures beyond the freezer, but it did also provide an unplanned intro for a planned discussion of the water cycle and the different phases of matter and for some simple ice-themed science experiments.

For history, Ruth and I are reading through the American Girl historical books from the Twentieth Century. We are currently reading the second book of Kit stories. She (Ruth) has hated history in previous years but this method has proved to be a good gentle way to convince her it doesn’t have to be boring. At the same time, David and I are reading through A History of US by Joy Hakim. This week was the Depression in the volume War, Peace and All That Jazz. And all four of us (John included) spent a lovely lunch hour on the couch looking through Life: Our Century in Pictures for Young People as a review of the history we had studied the first half of the school year.

As our nighttime reading, we are re-reading A Wrinkle in Time in preparation for the movie coming out this spring. And in the car we are listening to The Salamander Spell by E. D. Baker. That’s it for reading aloud, I think.

There was also “tandem reading”. Ruth and I also read Nancy Clancy, Super Sleuth together. She requested that we have a “mother-daughter book club” and I had her pick the first book. We each read it on our own and then met for tea and discussion on Friday. John and I both read two short stories as part of a Great Courses lecture he is doing for English this year. We both also started on The Diary of Anne Frank which we will discuss together in upcoming weeks.

And there was independent reading. I finished Tom Hanks’ collection of short stories, Uncommon Type. (Very good) Ruth is reading several books but the one she seems to be enjoying the most is a new to us series: Zoey and Sassafrass. David was the sick kid this week so didn’t read as much (and he’s not as much of a reader as the others). He is working on Detectives in Togas for a co-op class he is in. John read a lot but I have no idea what. He has about 50 books out of the library now and basically reads all the time. (Like me, his New Year resolution is to read more. And sleep more. If he could figure out how to do them at the same time he’d be golden.)

All in all, a good start to 2018.

February Reading

Fiction Read in February:

American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Wickedly funny collection of short stories. I listened to this one on audiobook which made it even better. It’s read by multiple women and the different voices combined made it even more enjoyable. It got me through several mornings on the treadmill. 

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Mystery set among the suffragettes in late 19th century London. Trapeze artists and circus acts and the fashion of corsets all mixed in.  I didn’t love this one but I did find the history of the struggle for the vote for women fascinating. I still find it unbelievable that women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley
The latest installment in the Flavia deLuce series. Enjoyable as usual and the more we get to know Flavia the more real she seems and the more I like her. 

Echoes of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon edited by Laurie R. King
This is the third (or fourth) in a series of short stories by well-known mystery writers inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Very fun to read (especially after enjoying the latest episodes in the BBC Sherlock series). Some of the short stories are very obviously directly related to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Others are only related in a tangential way but they are all excellent for mystery lovers. 

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
This one was an out of the box reading choice for me as a YA Science Fiction novel (and winner of the YA Speculative Fiction Cybils category). I gave it to my oldest to read and he enjoyed it so I thought I’d try it. Quite engrossing (as several way past my bedtime reading sessions attest to). There is a zombie creating virus, a out of control artificially intelligent computer, spaceships and two star-crossed (literally) teenagers. The story format is that of files relating what happened after one rival mining company attacked a mining settlement on a distant planet and set off a chain of horrific events. There is also some disturbing violence, a fair amount of rough language and sexual talk between the teenagers. If you have teens that have read The Hunger Games they can probably handle this one but if you have younger or more sensitive teens you might want to wait. 

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
Read for the Newbery Challenge at Hope is the Word. I loved this story of a young girl in New York City in the 1890’s. It reminded me of other books with feisty young girls as heroines: All of a Kind Family, Caddie Woodlawn, the Moffats, Anne of Green Gables.

Non-Fiction Books Read in February:

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
Story of Galileo and his daughter who was a nun. Gives new perspective on the idea that Galileo was the beginning of science vs. religion. Galileo believed in science but in science as a way to understand God. 

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe
I typically really love books about books. This one was ok, but didn’t really resonate with me as others in the genre. There is more on Schwalbe’s life than on the books he highlights and sometimes it seemed to me that he was stretching to make a particular book fit with the point he wanted to make. 

Marbled Flowers

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For a fairly quick art project this week, we made these spring flowers using the marbled paper from a few weeks ago. I got the idea for the project from Deep Space Sparkle. The directions are simple. Using a piece of  construction paper folded in half, we cut a vase out along the fold of the paper. We then cut out the flower centers, petals, and stems from the marbled paper and then we glued flowers and vase onto a larger sheet of construction paper. I did suggest to the kids that they arrange all the shapes on the page before gluing so that they could figure out how they wanted it to look before committing.

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David chose to glue his petals in a way that they curled off the page, giving a 3-D effect. I also liked that his finished result is very asymmetrical on the page.

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Ruth found the cutting and glueing to be a little more challenging that David. It was a good project for her because it worked on skills that she hasn’t mastered. It also was inherently more freeform than some other art projects. She’s a bit of  a perfectionist so I always like giving her art projects that encourage her to not worry about “getting it right”.

Read Aloud Thursday

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If it’s the last Thursday of the month then it’s time for Read Aloud Thursday at Hope is the Word. Check it out. This week Amy has a lot of great early readers and picture books to share.

Part of our “read-aloud” culture is audiobooks. We almost always have a current audiobook going in the car. In the past few years we’ve enjoyed listening to several series in full. The current series we are totally absorbed by is Maryrose Wood’s  The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place6609748We’ve  loved the first four in the series and finally got the fifth installation from the holds list at the library.

The plot is fairly typical of a middle grade mystery/adventure. The Victorian setting is unusual but the basic plot-line of mysterious orphans in some kind of vague danger will be familiar to readers of other juvenile stories. Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females goes to work as a governess at Ashton Place. Her three young charges are unusual: they were raised by wolves. As the books progress the mystery of just how the Incorrigibles ended up in the forest intertwines with other mysteries: What is the howling coming from the attic, Why is Lord Ashton so obsessed with his Almanac, How did Penelope end up at the Swanburne Academy as a young girl and most importantly, Exactly what is in the hair tonic that the Swanburne headmistress insists that Miss Lumley use?

However, although the plot is somewhat unexceptional, there is much about this series that is truly exceptional. The characters are quirky but never snarky. There are frequent asides about topics as varied as synonyms and ferns and the dodo. Like the best Victorian literature, the reader is often addressed directly. There are running gags (like the fact that Miss Lumley or the children often imagine a modern invention like the phone or airplane but then are too busy to pursue actually inventing it.) The Incorrigibles themselves are model students if you are a teacher who wants students who are energetic, creative, and eager to learn. They may be distracted by squirrels but they are always ready for whatever lesson their beloved Miss Lumawoo has planned for them.

If you like slightly quirky books with a touch of mystery and a lot of sweetness underneath the off-beat humor, I highly recommend this series.