Monday, October 27, 2014

Appalachian Week: Down, Down the Mountain

We spent a fun week with Down, Down the Mountain by Ellis Credle, another Appalachian book I had never heard of until using Five in a Row. It was written in 1934 by a teacher in the North Carolina mountains who wanted to see the lives of the children around her reflected in books. It's a lovely little story about Hetty and Hank, siblings who want to buy shoes, but there family is too poor. Their granny encourages them to plant turnips and take them to sell in the town to buy their shoes. They work all summer to grow turnips, but as they head down, down the mountain to sell them, they encounter many different people who need their turnips, and they end up giving them all away.When they get to town, they find that it's the county fair and their one turnip wins a big prize and they get their shoes after all.

So what did we do with that giant turnip I mentioned in my post: Serendipity Homeschooling? We had our own county fair. The kids wanted to gather up all of the vegetables in the house. We had turnips, squash, pumpkins, and onions. Thank you farm share! First we weighed them all to see which were the biggest. It was a great lesson in fractions.

Then we measured the circumference. More math!
You can see just how big our turnip is here. Then we picked some more winners and had an awards ceremony. The winners with the vegetables with the largest circumference were the pumpkins. Here are our own Hetty and Hank, barefeet and all, to collect their prize. Five copper pennies!
The next day we cooked an Appalachian meal for dinner. The kids loved learning how to use a vegetable peeler on the turnips and dicing them up. I decided to make the turnips into a casserole with cheese sauce to make them more kid-friendly. Casseroles are a very Appalachian way of cooking. I don't know how many different vegetables I've had cooked up like this. All that was missing was the cream of mushroom soup.

 We also made brown beans and cornbread to go with our turnips. At least one kid actually did like the turnips. She was also the one that decided during cooking that you had to like what you make yourself. Her older sister told her that you can like making it without liking to eat it.
To learn more about Appalachian culture, we colored in the Appalachian Mountains on our map, practiced building log cabins with Lincoln logs, and I played them some recordings of my great-aunts in Kentucky. I spent several years recording oral histories in West Virginia and Kentucky when I was a student and an Americorps VISTA shortly after graduating college. I pulled down an oral history book I had written to show the kids the pictures. They had no idea I had ever written this book, and insisted that I read it out loud, and had lots of questions.

I have been thinking a lot lately about inspiring your kids. It always seems to come back to the fact that if you want your kids to love learning, you actually have to love learning yourself, and you have to share that with them. But it had never occurred to me that the simplest way to do this was to just share my own projects with them. I recommend trying it with your own kids. Show them that sweater you knitted or play them a recording of your choral group in college or read them some writing. You might be surprised at how inspiring you are!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Appalachian Week: When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant

Last year, we studied one of my favorite picture books of all time: When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. The text of this book is so beautiful and evocative of living in the Appalachian mountains and the gentle, watercolor illustrations are just lovely. 

We put together a special meal for this week. Ella had been learning to make hot cocoa from her Betty Crocker for Boys and Girls cookbook. Everyone agreed that she is now the Number 1 Hot Cocoa Maker in the House, and I was dethroned. I was happy to pass the torch. We also made my uncle's recipe for Prize-Winning Biscuits at the County Fair. We ate homemade apple butter and bread and butter pickles. The girls had canned the pickles with their dad earlier in the summer. While we ate, we read the book Appalachia: The Voice of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant with illustrations by Barry Moser.

One of our favorite parts of this week was setting up an old-fashioned general store just like in the book. We made a list of everything they sold and tried to collect it to sell in our store. For Christmas the year before, Brent and I had made the kids an old-fashioned general store as a special present. We found a small counter/ cupboard, painted it, and added a half-barrel planter to the front full of special beanbags we had sewn to look like bags of sugar and flour and fruit and candies. The store also included an old-fashioned metal cash register, plastic cast-iron kettles, tin canisters and amber-colored bottles with old-fashioned labels.
The girls dressed up in costume. One girl would come shopping with a basket and some play  money, make her order, and the other girl would weigh the items and ask for the cash. So much math all integrated into play.
The girls borrowed several of our canisters to make it look more realistic. Here Ella trying to calculate the weight of the popcorn.
A week of food and play and lots of learning about West Virginia. Such fun!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Appalachian Week: Reading Quilts

In the Five in a Row lessons for The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills, Jane Claire Lambert mentions that one special thing you can add to your kids' life is a reading quilt. When I read that two years ago, it totally inspired me. We were already planning to make Gilead his baby quilt (six months late) for Christmas. So I got this big idea that we should make all the children reading quilts. These wouldn't be big enough to fit their bed, but would be just perfect for cuddling under while reading books. The fabrics would feature some of their favorite book characters and alphabet fabrics.

Yes, I was completely overambitious to think that, but my husband jumped in and saved the day because he's awesome, and because he can sew three or four quilts and bake 1000s of Latvian gingerbread cookies if you don't require him to go to work for a week.

So because of my wonderful husband, we ended up with lovely quilts for each kid. They loved them, and they continue to use them on their beds or in the reading nook or as fort-making supplies all the time.

First, we have Gilead's quilt. He was just an infant at the time, so he didn't have any particular reading interests, but the quilt ended up including several of his absolute favorite things now: trucks and "cowzas."
The backing might be my favorite fabric ever. It's called "Pooches and Pickups." Though I do wish I had bought the blue version since he loves The Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle so much.

Ella's quilt has a mix of old-fashioned characters and fabrics since she loved Little House on the Prairie, Fancy Nancy squares, and space and state fabrics because she loves non-fiction books.

The back has these cute Japanese girls in flannel.
Mabel's quilt features pigs! She has been obsessed with pigs since she was two and it's still going strong. The three little pigs appear several times as well as other favorite fairy tale characters like The Three Bears. Angelina Ballerina is also in there because Mabel loves to dance and the Muppets, especially Miss Piggy.

The back has this awesome pig flannel that we couldn't pass up!
 Beatrix's quilt features the love of her life: Kermit the Frog, Beatrix Potter fabric, toile Nursery rhyme fabric, and Snow White.
 And the back is more of the Kermit the Frog flannel.
These blankets are very well-loved now. If you ever consider giving your kids a special non-toy present for Christmas, these are wonderful and useful for those cold, January read-alouds. Word to the Wise: you might want to start making them in August.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Appalachian Week: The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills

One of the first books we ever did with Five in a Row was The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills.  I was surprised I had never heard about this book since I thought I had read all children's books set in Appalachia. It's the story of a little girl named Minna whose father dies and her mother's friends ban together to sew her a quilted coat from scraps. It's definitely a tear-jerker and reminded me of Dolly Parton's song "Coat of Many Colors."

I wrote several blog posts about our adventures with The Rag Coat on my old blog so here's a flashback to our first year. I can't believe how they've all grown.

The weather happened to get really frigid just as we were starting this unit in November. So it was the perfect weather to huddle around the pellet stove, wrapped up in our favorite blankets and read aloud. The quilt they are sitting on is one my grandma made and they each have their special blanket Brent knitted for each girl when she was born.
 Listening to The Rag Coat

We also colored our own rag coats from a free lapbook by Aussie Pumpkin Patch.
Our Rag Coats
As we were thinking about other kids who may not have warm coats and other things this winter, it was also a great time to pack up our shoeboxes for Project Christmas Child. We put together four nice boxes to send to kids in other countries for Christmas.
 Project Christmas Child
We also learned a lot about quilts. First we learned that quilt started with the letter Q and cut and pasted strips of scrapbooking paper onto the letter Q.
Q is for Quilt

For math, I printed out these quilt grids and shapes from Mathwire's quilt activitities. I had some scrapbooking paper that looked like fabric so I cut it down to 8 1/2 by 11 and printed the shapes from Mathwire onto the pretty paper. We've been learning about rectangles and triangles in math, so it was a great extension of that. Mabel's square is first and Ella's is second.
  Shape Quilt squares
Shape Quilt Squares
Then in our Rightstart math lesson, we were learning about triangles. We made this Ten Triangle. Again I just copied the triangles from the book on scrapbook paper.
 Ten Triangle
 The most popular activity was something I created for my toddler who likes to rip things apart. I made a sticky quilt table. I taped a piece of clear contact paper on our small table so the sticky side was up. Then I gave the girls a lot of fabric squares we had left over from various baby quilts we've made. I thought it would mainly interest Beatrix, but all three girls had a ball putting the squares on. Sticky Quilt Table
 And, of course, ripping them off.
 Sticky Quilt

On our last two days, we studied Appalachian culture. Since I grew up in West Virginia and my mom's family is from Eastern Kentucky, it is a favorite subject of mine.

We read a lot of my favorite books including:
When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
Appalachia: The Voice of Singing Birds by Cynthia Rylant
M is for Mountain State by Mary-Ann McCabe Riehle
My Mountain Song by Shutta Crum and Ted Rand

Boy, do Cynthia Rylant books make me homesick!
 Dancing to Doc Watson 
We also listened (and danced!) to some mountain and bluegrass music. Of course, we had to listen to Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." Then we listed to June Carter Cash and had this funny conversation with Ella.
"Her voice sounds funny!"
me: "She has a Southern accent. People talk differently in different parts of the country. Haven't you noticed that Mamaw and Papaw talk differently than you do?"
Ella: "No they don't, Mom! Everybody's voice is different!"

Ella's favorite by far, though, was Doc Watson. "Mom, let's listen to 'A Frog Named Gordon.'" "Um, you mean, 'Froggie went a Courtin'?" "Yeah!"

We ate some Appalachian foods like beans and cornbread. Okay, so we have this for dinner almost every week, but it is Appalachian food.

We also made some mountain collages, which I thought turned out really nicely.
Mountain collages
by Mabel
Mountain collages
by Ella

Then, finally, for science, we learned about how coal (or any sedimentary rock) is formed. It was a really yummy science lesson. We made what Ella called "Coal Mine Bars." Really they were S'More Granola Bars. The recipe was from the King Arthur Flour Baking Companion. We pressed down a layer of granola for the earth, then chocolate chips for the decaying plants, then marshmallows for more sediment and more granola on top. We pressed it all down and baked it and yum! See the coal layer?
Coal Mine cookies

Monday, October 20, 2014

Serendipity Homeschooling

I recently read a question on a writing blog that asked "Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?" Basically, it said that there are two ways to write a book. You might be one of those people who outline every plot point in full detail or you might be one of those people who fly by the seat of their pants and just start writing and see where it goes. I personally have never written an outline for a paper in my life unless the teacher forced me. I tend to collect a lot of quotes, try to find a personal hook, start writing until I get to what is actually the beginning of the paper, write the middle, and try to tie the ending up in a nice bow with the beginning. 

What I had never considered before reading this was how much my personal planning/ organization style affects how I homeschool. When I first started homeschooling, I was intimidated by all the bloggers I read who seemed so organized. They seemed to enjoy homeschool planning for fun-- like printing out things and putting them into binders with tabs. Some even had their own printable planners that you could download.
I, on the other hand, download all of my thoughts on anything into a single 17-cent, spiral-bound notebook.  On one page might be my lesson plans for the week, on the next a menu plan, then a quote from a book I'm reading, an idea for a novel I want to write, some blog posts I should write, then a page where we've written some math problems or cursive practice because it was the closest thing handy.

My second year in, I finally came to the point that I could admit to myself that I just don't like homeschool planning. I would never sit down and do it for fun. But I also began to realize that there is beauty in my kind of mind too. On personality tests, I always come up as a visionary thinker. I'm great with the big picture, but tend to overlook details. While I don't get any thrill out of filling in boxes on a calendar, I love gathering interesting resources that will inspire my family. I like to think about the big picture of what we're doing and how everything we are studying can be integrated. I'm resourceful so when I have an idea, it's easy for me to think of many books I can pull off the shelf or crafts we can make or curriculum resources I have on my shelf. Because our plan is loose and I'm flexible, we can also drop everything if an opportunity arises.

We only have one car so it requires some planning to be out of the house. On one particular Wednesday, Brent had forgotten that he needed to be at the dentist in the morning, and we needed to be at swim class in the early afternoon at the college where he works. It didn't really make sense to drive all the way home when we were already in the town where we needed to be later in the day. So we had about five hours to kill. We decided we would let the town educate us that day. We started off at the library, then had lunch with Daddy, and walked over to the Natural History museum on campus. We walked in and a student working at the museum asked us if we wanted a guided tour. Sure! It turns out that it was only his second day on the job, so not only did we get a guided tour, but the Director of the museum came along with us
to show the student how it was done. As a result, we had an awesome lesson in examining the teeth of Stone age fossilized animals to see what we could learn from them. The kids were thrilled.

Another day my husband had to travel to Boston for a meeting and asked us if we wanted to go along. I emailed my friend who lives there and also homeschools. We spent the morning at the Museum of Science courtesy of her Membership and free passes and had a great day with our friends. If there had been anything written on a calendar, I would have spent the whole day feeling like I wasn't getting something done, but instead we were free to learn.

So I have come to think of my own personal style as Serendipity Homeschooling. We have a definite rhythm to our day so the kids know what to expect, but as for our subject matter or the books we read, that might change from week to week depending on our interests, the season of the year, what activities we have planned. I might see that we have an opportunity to go to Boston and decide to do Make Way for Ducklings next week. Or I might see that they're doing a talk about bugs at the library so we'll read The Bee Tree. The Five in a Row curriculum is a perfect fit for me because it has some structure, but lots of room for creativity and flexibility. I can do the books in any order, pick and choose from several learning options for each subject. I can also add my own creative projects or follow the lead of the kids.

This week I really had no idea what book to do next when I stopped to get our farmshare and lo and behold, there was a GIANT turnip in the bin. I have no particular fondness for turnips, but I knew that they were a key part of one of the books on our shelf: Down, Down the Mountain. Since this book is set in Appalachia and my parents had just visited from West Virginia, it was perfect. I tucked four or five turnips in my bag and warned Brent, "Don't cook those. They're for school." Then I thought, I've never blogged about all the wonderful Appalachian books we've studied and I do love Appalachia, so I should do a blog week about it.So all this is to say: stay tuned for Appalachian Week! Brought to you by one, giant turnip.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Seasons of Reading (Or Why You Haven't Seen Much of Me)

When I first started homeschooling two years ago, I stuck with the schedule I had always known in public school. Even though my kids were chomping at the bit to begin in August, I held them off until September and homeschooled right through June. Then I read a homeschooler's blog, and she casually mentioned that they do more inside school work in the late part of summer so that they can have more free time during the Fall to be outside playing and enjoying the weather.

This was a total AHa! moment for me because our family doesn't particularly love summer: the humidity, the mosquitoes, the fact that our unshaded park becomes unplayable. But we do love Fall! So we start school at the end of July and it gives us the margin in the Fall to spend an extra half-hour in the park, to take off for a day on an adventure with friends. 

This Fall in New England has been gorgeous. We have been walking our dog every day and collecting so many leaves. We've been sorting our leaves and graphing them and trying to identify them. We've been planning field trips with friends and time at the park. Mabel has learned how to ride a bike. The little ones have been playing in the yard while we do our reading lessons and crafts on the porch. Swimming lessons, trips to museums, birthdays, and family visits have filled our days.  And I haven't been blogging much because our days have been so full.

For the last two months, every time I feel pressured or crazy, I have been trying to tell myself, "I am not in a rush." I'm not in a rush to get through this season and on to the next. I'm not in a rush to educate my kids. I'm not in a rush to get through that math book at the expense of noticing the leaves on the ground. 

One day as we were coming to the end of our walk with the dog, the kids asked to stop at the park. I could rush us all home so we wouldn't get behind on our lessons or we could spend twenty minutes at the park. We had the place to ourselves so we filled up all the swings. There are only three so my two-year-old son was sitting on his six-year-old sister's lap in the big swing. The sky was perfectly blue and the leaves were just starting to burst into color. My oldest daughter kept going on and on about how swinging that day was her favorite thing she had ever done. She tends to be a bit dramatic. Then it grew quiet. My toddler son turned to his sister and said, "It's lovely, Mabel. It's lovely."

There is a beautiful essay by Katherine Paterson called Dog Day Wonder in which her son brings her a cicada and asks her to watch as it sheds its skin. She writes, "As I let that wonder wash over me I realized that this was the gift I really wanted to give my children, for what good are straight teeth and trumpet lessons to a person who cannot see the grandeur that the world is charged with." It's what I want to give my kids too.

What about reading, you say? Because that's another part of this seasonal life. Our Fall reading is not like our winter reading. When it gets cold and we fire up the pellet stove, the most attractive place in the whole house will be snuggled up on the couch reading in the warmth. We will have a stack of longer chapter books we will read this winter. Winter is long so we'll have lots of time to read.  We'll listen to tons of audio books too, and maybe watch Anne of Green Gables all over again. We'll definitely have tea parties, and maybe we will try reading poetry at them this year.

But in Fall, our reading is light: mostly the picture books we're reading for Five in a Row and short non-fiction science books. Our time outside will inspire us with questions like, "Why are the leaves changing color?" and we'll go to a book. We'll read The Salamander Room and need to learn everything we can about amphibians, which will inspire Ella to catch an insect and keep it in a jar. So suddenly we are researching habitats for roly-polies and building them a home. We'll listen to audiobooks in the car on the way to field trips or swim class. There will always be books at night before bed.

All winter we will read and read, and our heads will be full of adventures .Then like Mole in The Wind in the Willows, Spring will fill our house "with its spirit of divine discontent and longing." The muddy yard will call us again and we won't be able to spend another minute inside. Out will come books about tadpoles and frogs, caterpillars and butterflies. Then summer will come and we'll spend hours listening to audiobooks on vacation road-trips. Then our new box of curricula will arrive and we'll jump into studying again.

The weather just turned nippy today, and soon the stove will be lit and I'll be planning booklists and blogging more faithfully again. For now, we are soaking up every last bit of grandeur Autumn has in store for us. I hope you are too.