Advent Art


One of the (many) good things about having three kids is that I can repeat projects and activities I did with the oldest years ago and they are new to the youngest member of the family.  We’ve done this Advent art project twice before and it’s become one of my favorites. It’s super simple, allows for some open ended creativity and makes a pretty finished product.

First, you take old crayons and shave them. You can do this with a crayon sharpener. We’ve also used a vegetable peeler with good results. Then you cut out a shape using white paper. The first two times we did this I had the kids first draw a simple picture on the paper and then cut around it. However, I realized that the picture gets kind of lost in the end so we skipped that step this time. Next, you place the shape you have cut out on a piece of wax paper that is bigger than the shape. Then sprinkle crayons over the paper. I don’t give a lot of instructions at this point, other than to point out that large clumps of crayon will likely turn brown in the end.


The next step is the most fun. Place a second sheet of wax paper over top of the white paper and crayons. Then apply heat with the iron. It does not take a lot of heat to melt the crayons and have the two pieces of wax paper seal together so watch the kids carefully at this step. Finally, cut around your white paper shape , leaving a border of wax paper.




They end up looking pretty in a window. It was a fairly grey and rainy day when we did these but they look especially nice in the sun. We also experimented this year with leaving out the white paper and just dropping crayon shavings between two pieces of wax paper. I liked the way that turned out as well. We ran out of time but I think if we do this again I would experiment more with that method.

With art projects for kids there is often a struggle between process and product. A lot of adults will talk about being more “process driven” and I agree that the value in doing art with kids is often more in the doing itself than in having a perfect finished product. But I also find that my kids like product. One of my kids in particular worries more about having the finished product look “right” even when I purposefully talk about their being no “right” answer in art.  One of the things I like about this project is that it’s so obviously open-ended and loosey-goosey that even a perfectionist kid can have fun just playing around and seeing what you end up with.

The last two times we did this:
In 2012 with a 3, 6 and 9 year old
In 2009 with a 3 year old and 6 year old



The Nutcracker Comes to America

25793079Part of the fun of the book basket is re-reading beloved favorites year after year. And part of the fun is discovering new books. Yesterday we opened the first new-to-us book of this year. Chris Barton’s The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition is an unusual look at the history behind the Nutcracker in America. This is a different perspective than usually given in kids books about the ballet. It’s not about E.T. A. Hoffman’s original story or the adaptation by Alexander Dumas or even really the ballet by Tchaikovsky. Instead it tells the story of how and why the Nutcracker became the most performed ballet in America.

I’ve seen the Nutcracker countless times as a child and as an adult and I admit to never really wondering how it became a holiday tradition. I was somewhat shocked to learn that it was first performed in America in 1944; I had imagined it as being an older tradition than that. It was also interesting to learn that about the three Christensen brothers who loved ballet and how the Nutcracker became a shared love of theirs, especially in the shadow of WWII.

I enjoyed this new addition to our Christmas book list. Ruth takes ballet and we are going to see her first “real” Nutcracker this year and I think she also enjoyed the idea of learning more about the ballet. The boys were ok with it but I’m not sure it will become a yearly read for us. It’s an interesting story but might not hold the attention of kids who aren’t especially ballet obsessed. However, if you have a ballet lover or are just looking for a Christmas book that is somewhat different, this is a good choice.

Advent Reading

Reposting from 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

The favorite Advent tradition in our house is our book box. I wrap all our Christmas books and put them in a box. Each day the kids get to pick a book and we read it.  I’ve posted in the past about the individual books we enjoy year after year. I thought this year that I’d compile a list with links to some of those past reviews.

For Animal Lovers
Who Would Like a Christmas Tree? by Ellen Bryan Obed
Humphrey’s First Christmas by Carol Heyer
Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman
Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell
One Winter’s Night by Leo and Diane Dillon
Who Was Born This Special Day? by Eve Bunting
Counting to Christmas by Nancy Tafuri
The Animals’ Christmas Carol by Helen Ward
Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown
One Small Lost Sheep by Claudia Mills
Christmas Cricket by Eve Bunting
Dream Snow by Eric Carle
The Christmas Cat by Maryann MacDonald
A Letter for Bear by David Lucas

Just for Fun
Merry UnChristmas by Mike Reiss
The Twelve Bots of Christmas by Nathan Hale
The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
The Christmas Crocodile by Bonny Becker
Morris’s Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
The Twelve Bugs of Christmas by David Carter

The True Meaning of Christmas
Listen to the Silent Night by Dandi Dale Mackall
Little One, We Knew You’d Come by Sally Lloyd-Jones
How Many Miles to Bethlehem? by Kevin Crossley
A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown
The Christmas Story by Patricia Pingry
This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar
Mary’s First Christmas by Walter Wangerin Jr.
The Third Gift by Linda Sue Park

Because You Have To
The Night Before Christmas by Jan Brett
The Polar Express by Chris VanAllsburg
How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schultz

Starring Favorite Characters
Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney
Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
Humphrey’s Christmas by Sally Hunter
Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas by Cynthia Rylant
Max’s Christmas by Rosemary Wells
Lyle at Christmas by Bernard Waber
Harry and the Dinosaurs Make a Christmas Wish by Ian Whybrow
Olivia Helps with Christmas by Ian Falconer
Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew
Fancy Nancy’s Splendiferous Christmas by Jane O’Connor

From a Carol
Drummer Boy by Loren Long
What Can I Give Him? by Debi Gilori
Silent Night by Susan Jeffers
The Little Drummer Boy by Ezra Jack Keats

I Dare You to Read One of These and Not Cry (I Can’t)
Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

And Everything Else 
The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers
Christmas for 10 (a counting book) by Catherine Falwell
Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo
Coming Through the Blizzard by Eileen Spinelli
Christmas Is… by Gail Gibbons
The Snow Globe Family by Jane O’Connor
The Smallest Gift of Christmas by Peter Reynolds
Shooting at the Stars by John Hendrix
Santa is Coming to Virginia by Steve Smallman
The Nutcracker Comes to America by Chris Barton

A lot of other people do an Advent book basket. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to consider making it part of your family’s yearly tradition in some way. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest (get the books from the library or use what you already have) ways to make some great Christmas memories with your kids.

This year my 10 year old was talking about the books he knew would be in the basket. I asked him if he was too old for this particular tradition or if he was getting tired of the same books. “No way,” he said. “I’m hoping to memorize them all eventually.” So there you go. If you’re a homeschooler this can be your memory work and Advent tradition all rolled into one.

11/26/16- And now, that 10 year is a 13 year old who brought up the empty box for the books on his own because “we always have the book box”. I’d already wrapped them and put them on our shelves this year so I told him not to worry. Even as a teenager he is looking forward to many beloved favorites and to seeing what new ones I added this year from the library.

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower

31182425It’s a little late for you to enjoy this fantastic new picture book for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration but write it down on your to-be-read list for next year. Written and illustrated by P. J. Lynch this book tells the familiar story of the Mayflower crossing and the early days of Plymouth colony through the eyes of John Howland, a young indentured servant on the Mayflower. During the voyage, John is swept overboard during a storm but miraculously catches hold of a rope in the water and is pulled to safety. Along with the other Pilgrims he endures the hardships of the early years and sees many of those who sailed with him from England suffer and die. Howland initially dreams of going back to London to make a name for himself but when he finally gets the opportunity he decides to stay in the New World and make a life in this new home.

The illustrations are gorgeous. Lynch is also the illustrator of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey and the paintings here have the same realistic richness.

The story is made even more appealing because it is true. John Howland was a young man on the Mayflower who fell overboard and was saved. He was a servant and later married a fellow Mayflower voyager, Elizabeth Tilley. Together they went on to have 10 children and 88 grandchildren. (Yes, you read that right. 88 grandchildren.) Apparently millions of Americans are descended from them, including many famous people.

All of my kids enjoyed this one. It’s a long picture book so probably best for older kids on their own (perhaps 4th grade and up) or for any ages as a read-aloud. The parts of the story are divided into short sections so it’s easy to read all in one setting or over the course of several days (Thanksgiving week perhaps).

To find out more:
P.J. Lynch’s website (where I discovered he is Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature)
Pilgrim John Howland Society (where you can see some of the famous Howland descendents)

And Happy Thanksgiving!

Project Feederwatch


Are you watching?

Project Feederwatch is one of the best recurring projects we do in our homeschool every year. It’s simple. You just count birds at a site in your yard up to days a week from Nov-May. You can count every week or you can do it once or twice. Once you count, you enter your data on the website. There is a small fee. The first year you get a great poster of common birds in your area and some other materials. The website stores your  data from previous years and it’s fun to go back and look at trends of birds. My kids love doing it and it hones their skills of observation and awareness of nature. It also is a great way to be involved in citizen science.

The season started last week but it’s not too late to sign up and count this year.

And because everything finds its way back to books, a bird themed book list for your young bird and book lovers:

Fiction Picture Books:
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming
The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend
Leaving the Nest by Moredecai Gerstein
Those Darn Squirrels by Adam Rubin
Louise: the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo and Harry Bliss
Telephone by Mac Barnett
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert
Falcon by Tim Jessell
The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

Non-Fiction Picture Books:
The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davies (biography of Audubon)
United Tweets of America by Hudson Talbott (state birds)
Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward
Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
Bird Talk by Lita Judge

Chapter Books: 
The High Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate by Scott Nash
Swordbird (and sequels) by Nancy Yi Fan

Our favorite Field Guide: 
Birds of Virginia by Stan Tekiela- We have others but we use this one the most because it is organized by color which is such a easy way for a beginner to try to find the bird that you are looking at.

A bit of light in the darkness

Like many Americans I have found this election disheartening and demoralizing. As a Christian, I felt that I had no good option to choose on election day. As Penelope Lumley says in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, “Sometimes there are no right choices. There are only wrong ones and one must choose the one that seems the least wrong.” I voted for the choice that to me seemed the least wrong: Mrs. Clinton. I could not in good conscience vote for Mr. Trump. I’m sure many people who filled out the ballot felt the same way, regardless of what name they ended up putting down.

Since the election I have been especially saddened by the fact that so many evangelical Christians voted for Mr. Trump.I know many people who voted for Mr. Trump because they felt he was the lesser of two evils. They are not racist or hate-filled or sexist. At the same time, I feel like the much of the evangelical leadership seemed to support Trump’s policies in a way that I find abhorrent.In some ways, it feels like my tribe has betrayed me. Or maybe that my tribe isn’t who I thought it was.

In the light of all that I found this Washington Post op-ed by Michael Gerson particularly encouraging today:

First, Christian belief relativizes politics. The pursuit of social justice and the maintenance of public order are vital work. But these tasks are temporary, and, in an ultimate sense, secondary. If Christianity is true, C.S. Lewis noted, then “the individual person will outlive the universe.” All our anger and worry about politics should not blind us to the priority and value of the human beings placed in our lives, whatever their background or beliefs.

Christianity teaches that everyone broken, sick, and lonely — everyone beneath our notice or beneath our contempt — is, somehow, Christ among us. “He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth,” said Dorothy Day. I suspect this also applies to Trump supporters — or never-Trumpers, depending on your political proclivity. “Those people” are also “our people.” We show civility and respect, not because the men and women who share our path always deserve it or return it, but because they bear a divine image that can never be completely erased. No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in the repeal of the Golden Rule.

Fall Break in the Historic Triangle

The kids and I went on a mini-vacation/extended field trip last week to Virginia’s Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown). It was a lot of fun and a good way to escape briefly from election news. (I did vote absentee ballot before going.)

Visiting this area can be a little confusing because there are multiple sites at each location and multiple different ticket packages. At Jamestown you can go to Jamestown Settlement  or Historic Jamestowne. Jamestown Settlement is run by the State of Virginia and is a “living history” museum with recreations of a Powhatan Village, the Jamestown Fort and the three ships. Historic Jamestowne is a National Park and is at the actual site of the original Jamestown Fort. There you can visit archeological digs and a museum with many of the artifacts they have discovered. To make it more confusing they each are associated with a different site in Yorktown. Jamestown Settlement is run by the same foundation that runs the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (also a living history site). Historic Jamestowne is part of the same national park as Yorktown Battlefield. You can buy tickets to each individual site, to the associated sites, or as a combo of all four sites. You can also buy one giant pass that includes Colonial Williamsburg.

So what to see? The living history sites at Jamestown Settlement, the American Revolution Museum and Colonial Williamsburg definitely appeal to kids. History comes alive when they get to grind corn or swab the deck or stand in a tiny tent meant for 6 soldiers or see a musket fired or watch a woman cook over an open fire. On the other hand, if you are more of a history buff or like knowing that you saw something real vs. re-created the National Park sites will appeal to you.  If you aren’t from Virginia (so unlikely to return) and have enough time, I would get the pass to see everything. If you have limited time and/or money and smaller kids I would do the living history sites of Jamestown and Yorktown and just walk around Colonial Williamsburg.

We ended up seeing all four sites at Jamestown and Yorktown and walking around Williamsburg without buying a pass. Jamestown Settlement was fun for the kids and I think they all preferred it to the archeological digs at Historic Jamestowne.  John and David were pretty interested in both and I thought the archeology museum was fascinating. We’ll just say Ruth is not a fan of history so this trip was already a challenge for her. Historic Jamestowne also had the one thing that was hands-down the favorite of everyone (including Ruth): the glass-blowing house. The kids could have stayed and watched the glassblower making vases for hours.

I decided not to buy a pass to Williamsburg for multiple reasons. It’s by far the most expensive of the sites and to really do it justice you need to spend at least a full day. We didn’t have that much time to devote to it if we also were going to go to the other sites. However, you can do quite a bit without buying a pass: walk down Duke of Gloucester Street and see all the historical re-enactors, go in any of the shops, go inside Bruton Parish Church, and see the Governor’s Palace and Capitol. We also happened to be there at noon when they fire the noon gun (cannon) outside the Armory which is open to the public.

I decided last minute to go to Yorktown on our last day in the area. I was really glad we did. The American Revolution Museum had only been open three days and it brought history alive in the same way that Jamestown Settlement did. The boys also enjoyed walking around Yorktown Battlefield and seeing the earthworks and remains of the forts there.

If you are a homeschooler, Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum offer special homeschool rate tickets. They also offer special homeschool days (as does Colonial Williamsburg) but if you are there on another day you can just ask for the discounted ticket. It saves a LOT. Total for both sites for all 4 of us was $42 which was a huge bargain and totally worth it. Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield are free for kids under 16 so the total for both sites for all of us there was $14. Another huge bargain. All four sites also have attached museums or visitor centers that are well worth exploring and have excellent introductory movies.

This trip wasn’t really frugal but I tried to keep it reasonable. We ate well as you can see above. Breakfast one morning was Duck Donuts, which are as good as everyone says. And actually a fairly cheap breakfast ($15 for 4, including coffee and juice).  Dinner one night was pizza in our hotel room (Sal’s Ristorante Italian). Another fairly inexpensive option and we got to eat while we played Pandemic, a new to us board game. For dinner the second night we went to Pierce’s Pitt BBQ, a local classic. For some odd reason, Williamsburg overflows with pancake houses so I felt like the other “must do” food thing was to go to one for breakfast. It was very tasty, but our most expensive meal. For lunches we enjoyed The Cheese Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street (really good sandwiches) and Pita Pit. (I think we liked the sandwiches there even more but it doesn’t have the ambiance of being right on the main street of the historic district and it’s a fast food chain.) The one meal I regretted was the one at the Jamestown Settlement Cafe. It wasn’t actually that bad for a cafeteria but there is also a deli on the Historic Jamestowne island that looked much better and I wished we had waited.

As for hotels, we used Hotwire for one night and got an amazing deal. The other night we stayed at Great Wolf Lodge. The kids love the water park there and they also offer really good homeschool rates on most M-Th nights that aren’t holidays.


This was my favorite photo of the trip because it reminded me both of why we go on road trips and why we homeschool.

It’s fun.




Fall Leaf Art with Deep Space Sparkle

If you aren’t already using the Art Lessons at Deep Space Sparkle in your homeschool or with your kids after school, you should be. It is a treasure trove of art activities for kids. You can buy complete lesson plans or search the website  (by topic, by artist, by technique, by grade) for something free that meets your needs. Last week I was looking for a fall art project to do with my 2nd grader and 5th grader. (As an aside, my 8th grader claims to dislike art. He often will join us and can get really into the right project. He also has a lot more other work to do and less free time, so I treat art as a free time option for him most of the time. I figure he’s had plenty of exposure up to this point and forcing him to participate isn’t going to make him enjoy it.) I went to DSS and searched under “Fall” and found this beautiful watercolor leaves project.


First, we sketched leaves in pencil on a sheet of white watercolor paper. Then we used black glue (Elmer’s School Glue mixed with black tempera paint) to outline the leaves. The directions were to use the squeeze bottle to apply the black glue. However, our glue bottle was old and the top was completely stopped up. I found a medication syringe and we used that instead. It worked fine but probably made our glue lines thicker than intended.


After letting the glue dry (it took a couple of days because our glue was so thick), we got out the paints. We reviewed the color wheel first and I asked the kids to paint their leaves using colors that are near each other on the color wheel. We used liquid watercolors which give really brilliant colors. We then did some catechism practice and PE at the same time (nothing like homeschooling for multitasking) to let the leaves dry a bit before painting the background. I asked them to paint the background using more of a complementary color to their leaves. (You can see below that Ruth didn’t really follow my instructions but I think hers turned our great anyway.) Before the background paint dried, we applied table salt as a resist. I had never done this but it was really easy and gave a cool batik like effect.  You just sprinkle the salt onto the wet paint and then let it dry. Once dry you gently brush it off.


Ruth’s painting. She ignored the complementary background instructions because she wanted hers to look like leaves sitting in a pile of other leaves. I really liked that she did her own thing and I liked the way it ended up looking.


David’s finished project. You get an idea of how vivid the liquid watercolors can be!

img_1751And mine. I was the first one to try the salt and I think I used a bit too much, but it still looks ok. The great thing about art projects like this is that it’s just fun and the process is truly as much the point as the finished product.


What We are Reading

I posted yesterday about the books I’ve read so far this fall but I wanted to also share what the kids and I are reading together (and independently) in school.

John (8th grade) and I just finished reading Lord of the Flies. It was my first time through this classic and although I hesitate to say I enjoyed it, I would say that I found it powerful and thought-provoking. I assigned it at the recommendation of his Civics textbook and because I thought it would be a contrast to the other things we had read so far this year. Up next for him (and me) will be Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains.

David (5th grade) is reading The Mysterious Benedict Society. He is naturally a slower reader than his brother and also enjoys other things more than reading. He likes to read but he also likes to do a lot of other things. He is doing a Boys’ Book Club this year in our co-op and I think it’s been good for him. The teacher picks good books that hold the interest of the boys in that age group and she engages them in discussion and teaches them some literary analysis. But more importantly, having a class has given him the desire to follow-through with finishing books. He used to start a lot of books but not always finish as he would get frustrated that it was taking him longer than it would take his brother. (I don’t compare them but if you have more than one kid you know they do plenty of comparing regardless of how much you tell them not to.)

Ruth (2nd grade) just finished speeding through the Clementine series and loved them. She is now reading My America: Our Strange New Lane: Elizabeth’s Jamestown Colony Diary by Patrician Hermes. She is convinced that she hates history so I assigned this one to her hoping that she would realize that history is really just story. Also, we are taking a trip soon to Jamestown so I thought this would help make it more real to her.

We are all reading Prince Caspian together at night. Ruth has very little memory of the Narnia books although she has heard them and seen the movies. It felt like time for her to hear them again. We are also reading Pocahontas by Joseph Bruhac at lunch as part of our American history studies and in preparation for that Jamestown trip. Finally, we are loving listening to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling in the car together.

How about you and your kids? What are you reading?

Reading Update

Fiction Read in Sept/Oct:

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Idrioason
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

It jumped out at me that 3 of the 6 fiction books I read in the first two months of this school year were books I assigned my 8th grader: Sense and Sensibility, The Curious Incident and Lord of the Flies. The first two were chosen because we had the opportunity to go to amazing performances through programs for students at the Folger Shakespeare Theater (S&S) and Kennedy Center (Curious Incident). We thoroughly enjoyed both books and both productions. As an aside, I have to admit that I joked about assigning Austen to an almost 13 year old 8th grade boy. I wasn’t sure what he would think. He still prefers fantasy and action but he got a lot of the humor and wit of Austen and said he liked it.

Non-Fiction Read in Sept/Oct: 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddharta Mukherjee
 Patient H. M. : A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

Both of these non-fiction reads were fantastic, I reviewed The Gene earlier and again give it a wholehearted recommendation to anyone interested in genetics of biology.

 Patient H. M., a  fascinating story about one of the most studied clinical cases in medical history, is probably of interest to a wider audience. H. M. was a man who underwent a lobotomy as a cure for epilepsy and ended up losing all ability to form new memories. The story itself is completely compelling but the author, Luke Dittrich, is the grandson of the neurosurgeon who performed the lobotomy. This family relationship has Dittrich investigate his own family secrets and possible motivations of his grandfather. Dittrich delves into the history of psychosurgery, mental illness, and takes a hard look at the ethics of medical research. I would rank this book with other great medical non-fiction such as When the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.