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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Five in a Row: How to Make an Apple Pie 2016

At the end of September, we took our second trip through the book How to Make an Apple Pie and see the world by Marjorie Priceman. During my planning time, I was brimming with ideas for this book. We would gather ingredients from all over the surrounding area. We would make butter. We would pick apples. We would grind wheat. We would visit the cows at our friends farm.We spent two weeks on this book, and didn't accomplish anything on my list of big plans other than baking a pie. But this year seems to be my year for learning that not everything has to line up perfectly at exactly the time that I plan. Set out to learn about apples and end up learning about narwhals instead. That's okay. Take a day off to go to the museum with friends. That can be art too. Go on a fun apple picking adventure several weeks after the fact. That can be awesome too.

This year, we are doing our first group class with several other families at our church. We are spending the year studying Apologia's Swimming Creatures of the Fifth Day. We read the chapters and do the journals at home on our own, and then get together every other week to do the experiments together. On Monday, we had our first class introducing ocean animals. Then on Tuesday, serendipity struck, and we got to tag along on one of my husband's work trips to Cape Cod. After his meeting, we discovered an awesome small aquarium nearby (that was also free).
They had lots of amazing fish and other creatures from the Atlantic ocean including a touch tank with crabs and starfish, and two harbor seals that live in a tank outdoors.

The rain cleared up enough to dip our toes in the ocean. Apparently our children have been ocean-deprived up to this point because they ran around yelling, "There's real sand!" and "I hope I don't fall off the continental shelf!" They loved playing in the waves and collecting treasures.

A recent storm had washed up tons of seaweed and dozens of empty horseshoe crab shells.

We also collected a jar of ocean water to bring home for experiments. In the book, she gathers a jar of water and dries it to make salt. We tried this as well as another science experiment for our ocean class, which involved freezing plain water and salt water to see which would freeze first.

This is an excellent book to talk about geography as the character travels around the world to find ingredients for her pie. We got out our big world map and found all the places she visited. We also found all the names of the oceans to go with our science study. Then we went to our pantry to find where our groceries come from. We also learned a bit about apples and their life cycle. To go along with our studies we read, One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, Bring me Some Apples and I'll Make You a Pie: A Story about Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley, The Apple Doll by Elisa Klevin, and How do Apples Grow by Betsy Maestro.

We didn't get to go apple picking during the week, but we did visit our local orchard. We chose three different kinds of apples: Gala, Senshu, and Cortland for a taste test. I can never leave the farm store without their discounted "misfit donuts." We always feel like we should give a home to those tiny, misshapen donuts. 

The next day we had an apple-inspired poetry tea. We made little bags of spices to add to our teacups for mulled cider. We read poems about apple trees by local poets Robert Frost and William Cullen Bryant. For our apple taste test, we used a new resource we love: Mystery Science. You can sign up for a free year of science lessons. In each lesson, students solve a mystery by watching a video, discussing the questions, and doing an experiment. We used the lesson: Why are some apples red and some green? The experiment was an apple taste test. I printed out the experiment forms they included and we tasted all our apples and logged our results. The kid loved the lesson and learned all about selection in growing fruits and vegetables.

I decided to do a special lesson with my kindergartener and preschooler. We made apple pie playdough and read The Apple Pie Tree by Zoe Hall, Apple Pie ABC by Allison Murray and The Apple Pie that Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson. They loved it.
The older kids weren't as happy, but they did go off and make a tiny pie from clay and throw a Fall party for all their Calico Critters. Then the younger kids decided they would share the playdoough with their older siblings while we read aloud from Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han, a chapter book about a young Korean-American girl who wants to win the Little Miss Apple Pie pageant, but others question whether she is really as American as apple pie.

My first year I was heavily into Pinterest, but now I rarely go on because it just inspires me to overplan. Even at the beginning of this year, I was printing out way too many worksheets and other activities for the week. One thing I do, though, is take a glance at all the resources I've collected over the years for appropriate activities. A few years ago, Scholastic Teacher Express was offering $1 sales on many of their ebooks, and I picked up a fun one called Math Picture Pages. I found a fun sheet called Autumn Harvest market. It included a fun sheet to color, then you count up the objects in the sheet to make math problems. My older kids did the math worksheets on their level. The little ones did some cut and paste books from the Five in a Row Fold n Learn. This one was an Apple Subtraction book using objects from the book. I also picked up two books from the math section at the library: What Happens at the Orchard by  Amelia Letts and Working at the Farmer's Market by Barbara M. Linde.

One reason I don't use Pinterest as much is that I find that if I leave a little unplanned time in our day, my kids come up with great activities on their own. In this case, my oldest daughter decided to set up a pretend Farmer's Market. She decided to sell kombucha at her market "made from a local SCOBY!." She was also selling potatoes and Trixie was selling apples and zucchini. I gathered up some change and we had some added math fun pricing items and making change.

We finished up our two weeks by baking a pie! This time the kids did almost all of the work of measuring, peeling, and slicing. I only helped a little with the rolling.

Our pie was ready to go in the oven!

The finished product!

As we tried the first bites of our pie, Ella said, "This shouldn't be a book we only do every four years! We should do this book every year. Next year, we can grind wheat and cinnamon and pick apples!" So I guess this may turn into an annual event.

Then what do you know? A couple weeks later, to celebrate my husband's birthday, we went apple picking at the most beautiful mountain-top orchard. We came home and made him another pie for his birthday!