Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent Poetry Teatime Resources

Adding a poetry teatime to your week is such a lovely way to add some beauty to your week. We always like to find our favorite seasonal Holiday teas. We especially love Celestial Seasonings Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride and Sugar Plum Spice at Christmas. I baked some cranberry bread from our leftover cranberry orange relish from Thanksgiving. Score for frugality! We carried our advent wreath out to the porch to enjoy a bit of sunshine.

For our special advent tea, I checked out all the Christmas poetry books at our library to find some that included religious poetry that I liked. My favorite was The Young Oxford Book of Christmas Poetry.
I also read from A Christmas Anthology of Poetry and Painting edited by Vivian Campbell, a vintage book my husband found at a used bookstore. We have been talking about the Renaissance lately, and this volume had lots of pictures of Renaissance art.

He also bought me a copy of poet Malcolm Guite's poetry anthology Waiting on the Word. Malcolm Guite is a British vicar, poet, musician and C.S. Lewis scholar, who also happens to look and sound an awful lot like a Hobbit. In this advent devotional, he has collected a poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. He is also posting each poem on his blog during advent with a link to him reading it and artwork by Linda Richardson.
If you don't have time to track down these books, you can also find some wonderful poetry each day as part of the The Advent Project at Biola University. 

I have been loving this online advent calendar for my own personal devotions. Each day a new square pops up with a piece of artwork or video, a musical selection, a Bible reading, a piece of poetry, and a devotion. I have been sharing bits of this with the kids as well and they love it.

It was through The Advent Project on December 1 that we discovered this wonderful poem by our local, world-famous poet, and also Amherst College-alum, Richard Wilbur, called The Christmas Hymn. You can hear him read it here.

Enjoy some tea and poetry this advent!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Nativity Moss Garden

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

We are coming into one of our family's favorite seasons: advent. I did not grow up celebrating advent, but in the last few years, it has become such a special time of clearing space in our life for Jesus in the midst of the hectic holiday season. Last year, we began setting aside the four Sundays of Advent as a time to connect with friends, pray and sing advent carols, share the story of the nativity, and feast together. Occasionally, we also get inspired to craft together.

When my husband, Brent, was a boy, he would sometimes help Janet, an older woman at his church, go out in the woods and collect tufts of moss and partridge berries to make partridge berry bowl arrangements, which she would sell at their Christmas craft fair. A few years ago, he was inspired to make some to decorate our home, and collected the forest stuff at my parents' house in West Virginia. We had so much leftover that year, that we made a moss garden with a nativity in it, as well. This year, we were inspired to recreate our moss garden with the kids.
 While we were visiting my parents before Thanksgiving, we went out into the West Virginia woods and collected all kinds of interesting things, little hummocks of moss, branches with reindeer lichen, partridge berries, pine cones, and strings of ground pine. 
While we were out in the woods we stumbled upon some of the artifacts of my childhood. We discovered my special house in the woods, which my brother and I called Terabithia. This was the fire pit (for pretend fires only). We also found the old logs, slightly shifted from where they had been walls and couches, and the secret rock that marked the entrance.
We got so into collecting that we came home with a big bag of extra forest goodies. So we invited our friends to make one too.
We gathered some planters and a bag of top soil. Then we arranged our treasures on top with little stables that we bought at thrift stores and Wal-mart. We also planted some paperwhite bulbs on one side so our gardens would blossom in a few weeks.This was our friends creation. I love the draping moss effect. Once the paperwhites blossom, we hope to be able to stake them to the branches sticking up.
Here was ours:
 I love being able to combine Brent's special memories of his time with his friend in the New England woods, with my memories of my favorite play spots near my home in West Virginia, and using them to create a beautiful new memory for our kids and their friends.
Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Art of Low Expectations

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we made a rookie parenting mistake. In a moment of frustration, when she would not get buckled in her car seat, I offered her a bag of fruit snacks if she would get buckled up. I don't want you to think that bribery was the problem, because, hey, that works. We've even been known to bribe one child to get another child to do something. "I'll give you all the change in my pocket, if you will get your little brother in his coat." That works too. The problem was that I offered her an ENTIRE bag of gummies, when she would have done it for one. We soon learned our lesson, and after some further research, discovered that a single Tic-Tac was the appropriate price for getting into your car seat, and whole bags of candy should be saved for appropriate things like potty training.

As parents, we want our kids to have an amazing childhood full of good things and exciting adventures. But time after time, I find myself frustrated and disappointed after what should have been a really fun event. For the past two years, we have bought tickets for a Christmas event at a local historical village. We loved the idea of wandering around the village after dark, with the lanterns lit,  riding in wagons and singing carols. But every year, before we left the house, the tantrums began. Someone didn't want to wear their coat or gloves or hat or shoes. We ended up carrying some screaming toddler to the car and strapping them in, so we could drive 40 minutes to an event. Did I mention it's after their bed time? Did I mention it's expensive? Did I mention it's cold? Did I mention that it always ended in a tantrum on the way out too?

Finally, I realized that part of the problem was me. I am naturally an idealist with super high expectations. Events, especially around the holidays, could never live up to my expectations. In my head, the kids would fully realize how much money and effort Mommy and Daddy put into planning this event. They would be filled with gratitude, they would act like perfect angels. When they didn't, I would be get mired down in a pit of parenting guilt and disappointment.

I finally realized that the solution was to be realistic about what our family enjoys and can handle, and to lower my expectations likewise.

If you ask my four-year-old son his favorite place in the world, he will gladly tell you: Costco. We go there every week. It is ten minutes from our house. We see the same snack ladies who dote on our kids and give them tubes of yogurt and bites of cake. Preschoolers care nothing for novelty. They want to go somewhere they already know they will be happy.

Kids are not actually that hard to impress. The town next to ours built a beautiful new forest-themed playground. Every time we go there, the kids have the most fun playing on a big pile of dirt they left in the woods.

We have never taken our kids to Disney World. If you take your child to Disney World, where do you go from there? How do you top it?  I wonder if we parents might be guilty of escalating fun to the point that it is not sustainable for families-- it might even be making us all miserable.

Right now, we have set the low expectation bar for vacations at a Hampton Inn with a pool. The kids are happy with this because they get to swim. We are happy with this because we can pay for it with my husband's hotel points. We make one or two long road trips a year, and we've found the best plan is just to find every Costco along the way and eat there. It's cheap, there aren't too many options, and we know they like it.One time we did go a little off-course and stopped at a grocery store for sandwich fixings, chips, and drinks. The kids were blown away. "Potato chips and root beer at one meal! This is almost as exciting as the time we ate cold cereal for dinner and watched The Sound of Music!" 

One of the highlights of our Thanksgiving vacation to West Virginia last year was when we visited a state park. We discovered an old playground (the kind they've probably outlawed by now) with the see-saws that  bang your bum hard on the ground, the swings that swing really high, and a sheet metal slide that was nearly as tall as the tree beside it. You could get some really good speed on that slide, especially if you were going head-first, which our kids were. My husband began taking slo-mo videos of the kids tumbling head-first off the slide, so they did it again and again and again. It wasn't the newest roller coaster, or IMAX movie, but our kids still ask if we can find that slide again.

Last year, our family decided to embrace frugality as a lifestyle. We wanted to get our finances under control and actually start saving money. We decided to cut our grocery budget, so we started eating more simply at home, reducing the number of meals where we ate meat and saving desserts for Sunday and dinner with friends on Tuesdays. We started looking everywhere for food that we could forage or harvest for free. We spent hours making applesauce and grape jelly from free fruit.

The unexpected side effect of all this frugality has been gratitude. For Christmas last year, our friends gave us a ham. They had raised the pig themselves and we were going to splurge to buy a ham from them, but they gave it to us as a gift. Since we had been eating so simply, that ham felt like such an extravagance. We still all get a little bit nostalgic thinking about that Christmas ham.We never would have felt that gratitude and appreciation if we have not been used to a steady diet of beans and rice. It tasted amazing, but even more so, it was a symbol of people who love us and love spending time with us. If our frugality hadn't pushed us into spending time with people instead of buying stuff, we never would have had that experience.

With my personality type, I will always want to make big plans for advent: something new and crafty everyday. This year, I  am lowering the bar for our holidays. We will skip the expensive events and light all our oil lamps at home. We will invite our friends into our home and sing Christmas carols and light candles and read the same beautiful story from the Bible that is always worth repeating.  As we come into the advent and Christmas season, I want to remember that when I set my expectations low, that's where I find contentment.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Learning with Boxes for Katje and Operation Christmas Child

For the last three years, we've had the fun of participating in Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan's Purse. This is one of our church's big international service projects for the year: we're hoping to send 200 boxes full of toys, school supplies, hygiene products, and other fun stuff to kids all over the world for Christmas.

On November 1, the kids left church excited to finish shopping for our boxes. Since we do this project every year, we have been collecting items for our boxes all year. We found some great deals on Barbies and Lego after Christmas, picked up discount water bottles at the end of summer, and bought crayons at the back to school sales. So we went to the Dollar store to finish our shopping and picked up toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair ties, notebooks, candy and some other small toys.

We've picked up a few handy tricks over the years like filling the water bottles with candies to maximize your space (and keep the candies from tasting like the soap.)

We also like to buy a plastic shoebox and buy a scarf, bandana, or towel to "wrap" the present inside so that every part of the gift is fun and useful.

The only minor problem we ran into was that our boxes were too small to fit our Barbie boxes. But after a trip to the store we did find some boxes that would work. We really hope some kids will be blessed by these gifts. We paid our postage online and printed our labels, so we will be able to track our box and find out its end location.

Since our minds were on generosity and boxes of gifts for people in need, I decided to devote our school week to the book, Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming. This is the wonderful story set in Holland after World War II.  The country has been ravaged by war and the Dutch people are without food and warm clothes. A little girl named Katje receives a box containing socks, chocolate, and soap from a girl in America. They begin writing to each other and the American girl, Rosie, begins collecting more and more things for the family from her neighbors and friends and more and more boxes arrive in Holland. At the end, the townspeople in America also receive a surprise package from Holland.
This is not a Five in a Row book, but I was able to find lots of online resources to enhance our week's learning including a free unit study on Homeschool Share, an episode of Reading Rainbow about the book, and the Read Aloud Revival Whole Family Book Club.

Since I am a member at Read Aloud Revival, we were also able to watch a wonderful video of an author interview with Candace Fleming. She talks about the true story that inspires the book. Fleming's mother really did send a box to a girl named Katje in Holland after the War. Katje's father wrote back to her, and they ended up sending more boxes and received tulips in return. Candace Fleming also answered kids' questions about her books and writing and ended the video by reading the book: Boxes for Katje.

We learned a bit about Holland for Social Studies, for science we melted some of our leftover trick or treat candy, and learned about what candies would be best to send in the mail using a science lesson from Mystery Science.

We watched a really great episode of Reading Rainbow that included several other stories about kids helping and connecting with kids all over the world.

For language arts, my oldest daughter had the idea to write letters to each other. Each child chose a room in the house and she drafted her little brother to be the postman and deliver the letters. I wrote letters also, and included a small box with a special treat in it (some chocolate, of course).

 Today at church, a young woman, who is originally from Zimbabwe, shared her story of what it was like to actually receive a shoebox as a child and how special and exciting it was to get these gifts. It was so neat to see just how much this simple, service project can impact real kids around the world.

If you would like to participate and pack your own shoeboxes of gifts with your family, you can find all the information and drop-off locations here. National Collection week is this week November 14-21!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Five in a Row: Down, Down the Mountain 2016

This year I didn't spend time in the summer planning out a schedule for which Five in a Row books we would do, but instead I've just been choosing the books as inspiration strikes. In the Fall, I always like to study one book about Appalachian culture before we make our annual Thanksgiving trip to my home-place in West Virginia. There are several Appalachian books, which you can choose from in the Five in a Row curriculum, which is awesome.

During our impromptu Fall Break, there was one day that was predicted to be in the 70s, so my friend and I decided to plan a hike up Mt. Sugarloaf. We are novices at hiking, but we had a wonderful time climbing a mountain in shorts and t-shirts on a glorious Fall day. We made it all the way to the top!The fall foliage was at peak and the view was fantastic. 
After the hike, we picked up our farm share and the kids couldn't resist  picking up two giant turnips. My four-year-old son is obsessed with turnips. He thinks they are the funniest things due to these two books:

 I bet you didn't even know books involving turnip humor were a thing! 

That night at dinner, as we were eating our beans and cornbread. I laughed and said, "Hey guys, we went down, down the mountain today. We picked up turnips and we're eating Appalachian food. I think I know our next book..."

We rowed Down, Down the Mountain two years ago and had a lot of fun with it. It's a wonderful story about two siblings: Hetty and Hank, who work hard planting a turnip field to buy themselves pairs of shoes. On the way to sell their turnips, they are generous with everyone they meet, giving away all of their turnips. They have only one turnip left, but they decide to enter it in the County Fair. They win and have enough money to buy their creaky-squeaky shoes and gifts for their family.

We began the week with art. We listened to all the details in the story and drew pictures of the inside of Hetty and Hank's cabin.
On Ella's birthday that Monday, we had gone to Old Sturbridge Village, a 1830s historic New England village. It is one of our favorite places, and it tied in really well with our discussion of log cabins, as many of the houses had dried apples, herbs, and hams hanging from their rafters just like in the book. Ella had just received a new Lego set for her birthday, so we spent the rest of the morning building a cabin. 
I don't think there was a moose in the Blue Ridge mountains, but that's okay!

For Social Studies, we learned about Appalachian culture. I told the kids stories I knew about my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles making molasses, washing their clothes at the creek, and making lye soap in a kettle outside. We also watched several educational videos from KET. They have a wonderful series called Old Music for New Ears that features folk performers like Jeanne Ritchie, Mike Seeger, and Odetta singing traditional Appalachian, blues, gospel, and Native American songs. This week we watched Bob and Susie Hutchison singing and playing lap dulcimer. We also watched KET's show Telling Tales, which features Appalachian storytelling. We enjoyed Jack and the Magic Mill and Ashpet: the Appalachian Cinderella.

We had an Appalachian-inspired poetry. Earlier in the week, we had planned a fun day to make fried apple pies with our friends, but several of us were laid low by a cold. We had made all the pies ahead of time, so we baked them up and had apple pies all week. It was perfect for our Appalachian tea along with apple cider and some wonderful poetry from Louise McNeill's memoir The Milkweed Ladies. Louise McNeill grew up in the county in West Virginia where I grew up and later became the West Virginia State Poet Laureate. This memoir is written in verse about life in Appalachia on a small farm before industrialization.
We also read from another favorite poet of mine: Wendell Berry. We read from his books The Timber Choir and Farming: A Handbook. We decorated with this beautiful basket made by  Jessie Martin, an elderly mountain woman who I knew in eastern Kentucky. She was a true mountain woman who knew all about all of the plants and herbs to be found in the forests. I was very blessed to get to talk with her and my mom bought me this basket she made for Christmas a few years ago.
For science, we studied mountains, and did the Mystery Science Lesson: Will a Mountain Last Forever? Word to the wise, if you have a terrible headache, it is not wise to do a science lesson that involves shaking sugar cubes in little containers. But on our next hike, my four-year-old was able to identify a rock fall, so there is that.

For the grand finale of our week, and our language arts activity, we acted out the book. The kids had a ball!
Hetty and Hank were so sad that they didn't have shoes. 
So Granny told them they should plant some turnips.
They took their turnips down, down the mountain to sell them at the store. 
They gave some turnips to a man who was cutting sugar cane and to a woman who was making soap. When they got to the store, they only had one giant turnip so they couldn't buy their shoes.
They took their turnip to the County Fair.
The judge chose their turnip as the best of all! They won a Five-dollar gold piece!
Hetty and Hank were so happy. They were able to buy their creaky-squeaky shoes! 

Five in a Row: Pumpkin Runner

October is always a crazy month for our family with three family birthdays spread out over the month. Most years, school falls apart this month, but I'm glad to say that we actually were able to mostly stay on track. Well, math may have been a little neglected, but we had some good learning experiences, so I'm glad. Part of staying sane also meant taking a week off while my husband was in California on business and the weather was in the 70s. I feel like we actually got to enjoy Fall. Good thing because it snowed the next week.

We started the month off with a book we had not yet read, The Pumpkin Runner by Marsha Diane Arnold. The lessons for this book are in Volume 4 of Five in a Row. Volume 4 is intended for use with slightly older kids, so the lessons stretch over two weeks. We loved this book about an Australian sheep farmer named Joshua Summerhayes who decides to enter an ultra-marathon race from Melbourne to Sydney. He shows up in gumboots and overalls and eats pumpkins for energy food. The other runners laugh at him and even try to cheat, but Joshua Summerhayes wins the race and ends up splitting the prize money with the other runners. The coolest thing about this book is that it's based on a true story about a man named Cliff Young, who was a 61-year-old farmer in Australia who broke the world record in an ultra-marathon race by almost two days.
We started off our week by visiting our friends for a fun day to celebrate Fall. We really wanted to meet their two new sheep on their farm. My friend had planned some fun events like scavenger hunts, poetry and apples with caramel. Unfortunately, in the middle of the day, she started feeling very sick and exhausted, so I took over.
We shared the pumpkin bread Ella had made for a snack, and read them the book Pumpkin Runner. I've never seen a group of kids so enthusiastic about a picture book. They had so many questions about sheep and running and Australia. Being from a farming family, they loved that it was based on a true story about a farmer. Afterward, they immediately decided, "Let's have races!" So we did: one where they had to shuffle along like Joshua Summerhayes/ Cliff Young and one where they were actually running.
After our fun day with our friends, we spent the next day learning about pumpkins for science. We used another Mystery Science lesson: How could you make the biggest fruit in the world?  The lesson was about selecting for growing bigger vegetables, and had a fun activity about sorting and grouping fruits and vegetables by their leaves, flowers, and the appearance of the fruit inside. The kids have big plans to grow a giant pumpkin, once we have the space.
We also made a collage of our favorite pumpkins and gourds from the Baker Creek Rare Seeds catalog. Bonus: we learned about Jere Gettle, the founder of Baker Creek seeds, who was a homeschooler, who loved to garden and save seeds. He started his company when he was just 17.
Thursday was our day for poetry tea. We had pumpkin spice tea. A friend of mine had told me about a treat they have in Australia called Fairy Bread, which is bread with butter and sprinkles.We are very pro-sprinkles in our house, so we had to try it. Very yummy!
Since we were having  Fairy Bread, the kids thought they should dress up a bit.
We read from a favorite poetry book: The Complete Book of Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker. The book features beautiful illustrations of fairies. Each one is based on a different flower, plant, or bush. They each have a poem to go with them. There are books of Flower Fairies for each season, so we read the Autumn fairies.

On Saturday, we went apple-picking for my husband's birthday, and guess what we found? A pumpkin patch! 

This book was a great opportunity to learn about a new continent for us: Australia. We looked up Australia on the globe and also found the Equator, Prime Meridian, and Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We discussed the fact that the seasons were opposite in Australia, and read several non-fiction books about Australia, Australian animals, and the Coral Reef from the library. We also read about Cliff Young, and watched news videos about him.

For our second science lesson, we learned about the muscles and bones in your body and how they work. We used another Mystery Science lesson called Why do your biceps bulge? The kids were fascinated when the video showed the teacher pulling the tendons on a chicken foot. We really enjoyed the activity, which included making a paper model of a robotic finger. With string and paper clips, the finger would actually move when you pulled on the string.

The art lesson for the week was on perspective and how a painting can change depending on your point of your point of view. So we went on a walk.One of my sadnesses in not being able to sell our house this summer, is that the kids really want trees, especially trees they can climb. We don't have any trees, except a maple by the street in front of our house with no low branches. A few streets over from our house there is an avenue with a long tree belt in the middle. We often have walked there to pick up pretty leaves in Fall. This year, we discovered that it was just packed with good climbing trees. Each kid has picked out a favorite tree, and it's our new favorite playground. So we decided to get a new perspective on our art. We brought along our nature journals and we drew in the trees.

I also snapped some photos to show how you can draw a picture that looks more 3-D by making the trees near you large and the trees farther away smaller. The Five in a Row manual had a lesson on this using toys, which we did using our Star Wars figures. This led to Mabel's masterpiece: Wookies in Perspective.