Friday, December 21, 2007

This is it!

Okay, now the Christmas card and mail merge are really done ... again!


Christmas card and mail merge are finally finished and ready for printing!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Best Advent Ideas

Happy Holidays! Advent, the holy season we celebrate in the weeks before Christmas in prepration for the birth of Christ is almost over. We attended our first advent worship service last night. Max sang in the annual Children's Christmas Pageant at our church. Both boys had been practicing their songs at home almost every day. He looked so cute, standing at the front of church with his friends and peers, singing songs in his bright red Christmas vest. Mitchell looked so cute, too, in his matching outfit, but he decided not to join his classmates at the altar this year. The loud music and hundreds of faces, most of them unfamiliar, in the rows and rows of pews were sensations that he was not ready to experience. As one Sunday School teacher reassuringly reminded me, "Someday you won't be able to get him to come and sit on your lap." My favorite part of the evening was watching the other littlest ones grab their jingle bells and ring them proudly all through Away in a Manager, as their teachers and parents silently implored them to set the bells down and save them for the next song.

This year, we are adding a special touch to Advent with two inexpensive candy-filled Advent calendars. We bought them at Trader Joe's for our boys and our nieces. Each day of December is represented with a punch-out door, and inside each door is a holiday-shaped chocolate.

In previous years, we have also used a wooden heirloom advent calendar, a gift for Max from his grandma and grandpa in California, with 24 doors containing a miniature wooden ornament to decorate on the attached wooden tree. Max also has a talking Christmas tree to help him count down the days until Christmas. I ordered it from Avon when he was a baby. When you turn on the toy, a talking snowman says grandly, "Each day, place an ornament on the tree, and you will know how many days there are left until Christmas." And, magically, the snowman would tell us today, "There are only *five* more days until Christmas is here."

There are other advent traditions I would like to try with my family. Here are some of my favorite possibilities that you might like to try for next year. Purchase supplies at after-Christmas clearance sales to save money and time next year. One idea, gathered from an old edition of Family Fun magazine, suggests wrapping up 25 Christmas books -- old or new -- in Christmas paper, and opening and reading one story each day.

Two years ago, I purchased beautiful red stain cord and several types of Christmas plaid fabric, with the good intentions of sewing an advent garland of tiny Christmas mittens. Cut out 25 mittens (actually 50 pieces) from your choice of fabric, sew, whipstitch, or glue the sides together, and attach them to the satin cord with yarn, ribbon, or clothespins. Then fill each mitten with a coin, chocolate, trinket, or Bible verse, for each day of December until Christmas.

I finished our Christmas card yesterday, and this weekend I will print the cards and envelopes. Last year we gave over one hundred cards to family and friends. Check your mailboxes!

Monday, November 5, 2007

First Snow of the Season!

"Mom! Mom!!! MOM!!!!!" Max's voice frantically called to me. What was the emergency? He didn't sound alarmed, but he sure was loud.

"It's snowing!" he screamed down the stairs, his voice full of excitement and pure joy. Mitchell and I ran upstairs just in time to see a few dainty white crystals being tossed around in the blustery wind. Then they disappeared into the grayness of the day.

When I was little, my fourth grade Sunday School teacher, Mrs. LaVonne Schroeder, taught me a winter tradition that her teacher taught her when she was little. One morning at church, after a recent snowfall, she told us that when she was young, she always looked forward to the first snow of the season, and whatever date the first snowflakes fell to the ground would predict how many snowstorms there would be that winter. So, today is November 5 (my dad's birthday ... Happy Birthday, Dad, and many, many more!!!), which means we may only have five snowstorms this winter.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Max, the Lightweight World Champion

Tonight Max will attend his first wrestling class. He is so excited! In my head, I am thinking, he is going to love this sport, and, with the years passing even faster in my head than they do in real life, I imagine him drinking protein shakes and putting on wetsuits and wearing garbage bags and telling me, Bye, Mom, I'm going out for a run! to make weight. I've been blessed with cousins and friends who were great wrestlers to teach me all about that part of the wrestling world. I imagine his wiry little body dressed in a singlet, scurrying around on the mat in the quest for another pin. I see his long dark curls sticking out of his headgear as he gets up and shakes it off, preparing for his next move. I hear myself screaming, Shoot! Shoot! Take him down!

Today, I will just try to worry about how to get him to the gym when I'd secretly rather be tucking him in for bedtime stories and prayers.

Max and I look forward to the community education book that arrives in our mailbox quarterly. I scour the newspaper in search of fun activities to try. Possibilities for this fall were so numerous with many great classes in the arts, math, science, and athletics. I presented him with lots of choices for sports activities: football, floor hockey, ice skating lessons, basketball, soccer, martial arts, and wrestling. Meanwhile, the worried mom in me thought about the potential downfalls of each activity as he would grow up: tackling, body checking, fasting, injuries on the mat.

Tops on his list were wrestling and martial arts, so I signed him up for a six-session wrestling clinic, as well as floor hockey, which was cancelled due to low enrollment, and basketball. This winter I also plan to take him to bowling, swimming lessons, or both. If Max were given his ultimate choice, he might actually choose to stay home all day and play with Legos and experiment with test tubes and chemicals and watch Mythbusters on television. He protested for weeks when I signed him up for baseball two summers ago, until he fell in love with the game after his first practice. I am excited that he is so excited to try something new.

So this evening I am taking camera and my lightweight 53-pounder to his first wrestling class. Shoot the moon, Max!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Kids Say the Funniest Things

This morning Mitchell woke up dry from a night of sound sleep, as always, and five minutes later, his diaper could hold not one more drop. That's why my sofa slipcover is soaking in the washing machine.

As Mitchell and I do almost every morning, when we are the only two awake in the house, we sat together on the sofa, me laying down and him sitting on my legs, talking about lots of topics. His voice is full of energy and is smile is deeply animated. Lately he loves to talk about his clubs (see so I asked him if he wanted to start a Diaper Club with his friends. He didn't like the idea very much. I'm sure he knew in which direction I would casually steer our conversation.

"You could all bring diapers to your club meetings and trade them," I offered. "You could talk about your favorite brands of diapers."

"No way," he replied immediately.

After a minute or two more of discussion about this non-topic, he said, "I can't think of any friends I have that still wear diapers." So we went through his list of ten or twelve playmates and buddies, and sure enough, he was the only one. And I could tell he was very proud of that.

I have asked the opinions of my friends ("just take away his diapers" or "he'll wear underwear when he's ready") and my pediatrician ("I usually refer parents to a psychologist after their child reaches age three and a half"). I am not bothered or concerned by Mitchell's adamant refusal to wear underwear, ever. I know he is physically ready for the potty. I know he is brilliant. I also know he can be stubborn and he likes to do things in his own unique way. I am very curious to see how long he really will wait to make the switch from Pampers (actually, we've switched to Target brand diapers to make Mitchell a little less Pampered) to little boxer shorts from The Gap. While I wait, I know we will have more cute conversations just like the one we shared this morning. It was the smilingest part of my day.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Homeschool: Field Trip #1

When my oldest son Max was just a baby, we had two sets of next-door neigbhors who homeschooled their children. I couldn't imagine sending my new little one off to school for half of his waking hours. I wanted to spend those precious hours with him, learning and playing and enjoying each other's company. However, I couldn't imagine him missing out on all the school experiences I cherished: bringing birthday treats to school, meeting my favorite teachers, taking field trips, and making friends. As I learned more about homeschooling, I realized he would be able to have all of those experiences as a homeschooler. When Max was just a toddler, I was so excited to learn about a local homeschool co-op, in which homeschooled children take classes together once a week. I also learned that homeschool families organize a variety of field trips for their children.

We attended both sessions of the co-op last year, and Max took classes in physical education, Spanish, art, music, science, and public speaking. Our field trip club went to the Science Museum, the Post Bulletin newspaper facilities, the fire station, and Godfather's Pizza. We also went Christmas Caroling at an assisted living facility, enjoyed a gingerbreaad house-making party, and Max played the part of a composer in a musical about Mozart with kindergarten through third graders.
This overcast, chilly morning (50is degrees, with light drizzle) we enjoyed our first field trip of the school year with our homeschool field trip club, which is organized through the homeschool co-op at Christ Community Church here in Rochester. Participation is open to homeschooling families in the area, and the twenty spots in Max's second and third grade class filled quickly. We didn't get our spot in the co-op this fall, but we were able to join the field trip club as alternate members to fill vacant spots on field trips as needed. Most families' schedules are so busy during the week that not everyone can attend every field trip. Fifteen kids, one bundled baby, and a handful of moms and dads met at Apple Ridge Orchard near Mazeppa, just north of Rochester.

Our tour began inside the store, as the owner showed us the kinds of apples they sell, explained the importance of honeybees to apple orchards, and talked about how apples grow through the year. He showed us a bee veil, and a bee smoker, which looks like a metal watering can. The beekeeper puts a small piece of burning burlap inside the smoker and pumps smoke near the beehive to calm the bees while collecting honey. We learned that bees need about forty pounds of honey inside their hive to survive the winter, and that each bee travels 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey. Amazing!!!

Many pairs of eyes lit up with excitement as the owner opened the door to the adjacent room where apples are washed and sorted. We were going backstage at the apple orchard. He turned on the washing and sorting machine for us, and Max said it was just like a car wash for apples. After being washed, apples are sorted into two groups: medium/large and small. The smaller apples fall off the spinning part of the machine first, and they go onto a separate conveyer belt. Workers then sort each group of apples according to grade: first quality, second quality, and cider apples. The apples that are not suitable for consumption are used for fertilizer for the orchards.

He also showed us an apple-picking bag, made of sturdy canvas, and demonstrated the gentle technique which pickers must use while harvesting apples so the produce is not damaged as it is placed into the bag or the wooden crate. Workers strap the bag onto their body, enabling their hands to work freely, and when they are ready to empty the bag into a wooden crate, they unfasten a metal hook at the bottom of their bag.

Mitchell began to cry when we were inside the small room where apple cider is made. The owner warned us that the grinder and shredder would be loud, and he only turned it on for a second, but it was long enough to send Mitchie into tears. The machine crushes the entire apple-- skins, seeds, and pulp -- and a pan catches the juice. The juice goes into a dairy bulk tank and is dispensed into jugs with another machine. Leftover hard pieces and pulp are used for fertilizer. The best kept marketing secret at the orchard was our last stop on the formal part of the tour. The owner opened a thick, oversized wooden door, and we were greeted with the delicious scent of hundreds of freshly picked apples. We were offered a peek inside the cold storage room, where dozens of worn crates were stacked on top of one another. "I wish our whole house smelled like this," Max commented longingly.

After our tour inside the building, we took a wagon ride up a hill to the orchard. Apple Ridge Orchard has 5,000 apple trees and their varieties include the popular Honeycrisp, Haralson, Fireside, Zestar, Goldcrisp, and others. They also grow pumpkins and grapes. The kids enjoyed the children's size corn maze, which is supposed to take about eight minutes to explore, and the regular-sized corn maze, which is supposed to take twenty to thirty minutes to navigate successfully. Max and his friends Fiona and Nic completed the maze in less than ten minutes with the other kids, and we joked among ourselves that our kids completed the challenge so quickly because they were homeschooled. As the drizzle continued to fall, each child chose a mini-size pumpkin to take home in their own bag. While we waited for the tractor and wagon to pick us up again, we checked out the goats, bunnies, sheep, and alpaca on the farm.

At the end of our tour, each child received their choice of a small Honeycrisp apple to take home. Mitchell ate his entire apple in the car on the way back to Rochester. We paid for our field trip tickets ($3.50 for each child, which included the tour, corn maze, wagon ride, mini pumpkin, and apple) and bought a half bushel of Fireside seconds, a container of fat free caramel dip (I had to try it, since the regular version is a new favorite of mine, at a whopping 140 calories and 6 grams of fat for each two-tablespoon serving), two kinds of squash I have never tried, a caramel-dipped apple for the boys to share with their lunch, and a pint of apple cider for the ride home. Our locally-grown goods cost just over $25. Max said his favorite part of the field trip was the corn maze and the wagon ride. Mitchell loved best his "free apple" and the wagon ride. I loved sitting next to my boys on the wagon, each of us with damp curls, seeing their eyes sparkle as they spotted ripe apples that had fallen to the ground, as the clouds hung lightly over the hillside. We were reminded again this morning to appreciate the farmers who spend many hours growing the foods we enjoy each day.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Happy Birthday to Brian!

My baby brother turns 21 today. I have the World's Best Brothers Ever and I thank God for sending them to my family.

I remember the day Brian was born 21 years ago. I was in fourth grade, and I already had one fantastic brother, although I didn't appreciate him enough at that time. My best friend Stephanie's birthday was that day, and my mom was in the hospital giving birth to my new sibling. I remember going to the nursing home to visit my great-grandma and telling her the news that my mom was being induced at that moment. Nana and Danny and Great-Grandma and I wondered together, Would the baby be a boy or a girl? How much would our new baby weigh? What would our new sibling be like?

My birthday was the next day, and I loved being hours away from sharing my birthday with Brian Dale. Who could ever hope for a better present than a new brother? I remember holding him and feeding him and taking care of him and now he is 21. I remember the time he was going to run away from home and no one believed him except for me, so I followed him for two blocks as he carried his little old-fashioned suitcase stuffed with his worldly treasures, and then I convinced him to let me carry him back home again. I remember taking him to hockey practice when he could barely stand on his blades, and then watching him skate so fast he melted the ice, years that passed in a fortnight. I remember my grandma coming to visit me at work to tell me he had jumped out of a tree and broken his arm. I remember coming to his school when I was in high school, and teaching his class Spanish two years in a row. I remember his tears when my baby died, and I remember his boyish excitement when he held Max for the first time. I remember his first day of school, his graduation day, his promotion to manager. I remember the smile and spirit gave us as a baby, because he still shares that warmth with us today.

And today we will celebrate his golden birthday, his last, official step into full-fledged adulthood, and all the memories he has given us over the years. Happy Birthday, Bri-Bri. I love you.

My Kids Say the Funniest Things

Yesterday Mitchell was playing with the tiny action figures from his Mini Rescue Heroes Avalance Set, a gift from my forever-friend, Angie, one of my girlfriends since fifth grade who now lives in sunny Florida. It was just last year that Mitchell wanted to marry her.

The Rescue Heroes are action figures marketed to young boys, and their mission is to rescue people from peril. Mitchell was playing with a truck and a snowmobile and a helicopter and a handful of two-inch-high, plastic, ready-for-anything guys. He enaged them in a lively conversation, and I think they were about to rescue someone when one Rescue Hero said to another, just as Mitchell has said to me and Max and his daddy a hundred times in his life, when one of us is about to go downstairs or out to the mailbox or into any other room of the house ... Will someone please stay with me???

At that moment, I couldn't think of anything more comical than one brave action figure asking another, in Mitchell's little voice, Will someone please stay with me? Classic Mitchell story #303. Perhaps this afternoon, one Rescue Hero will say to another, Has anyone seen my diapers? I think my mom hid them again so I might try on a pair of big-boy underwear.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Shhh! One of Rochester's Best Kept Secrets

Can you keep a secret? Our family discovered a great hiding spot this weekend and I hope our next visit brings just as much solitude and escape as our visit did yesterday. We went to Willow Creek Reservoir, not far from home, but instead of just walking down to the fishing dock as we have in the past, I showed Troy and the boys a great hiking path that has been one of my favorite getaways. In past months, I have walked or jogged a portion of the trail, but I have never felt safe enough to walk around the whole reservoir by myself. So yesterday afternoon, that is just what the four of us did. During the nearly three hours we spent there, we encountered two joggers, one biker, and one walker on the path, and we observed fifteen or twenty people fishing along the eastern shoreline.

The reservoir was built years ago as part of Rochester's ambitious and mostly successful flood-control project, and it's one of several reservoirs around town. People use the area for fishing and canoeing, and a walking path traverses the perimeter of the reservoir. A golf course and a few subdivisions border the northern and easter edges of the water. The lots with the best views in those neighborhoods boast two-story windows and price tags in excess of a hundred thousand dollars just for the land. I feel sad about the development, as rooftops dot the landscape that had once been tall grasses and cornfields, but I think I would be one of those people spoiling the view if I had a huge bank acoount or the desire to assume massive amounts of debt. For now, I'll just exercise there for free.

In the middle of the reservoir is a large island of trees and tall grasses. Yesterday, for the first time, I saw the back side of the island that has brought me my first glimpses of green in spring, picture-perfect shades of autumn, and frozen branches of ice and hundreds of geese on winter's prettiest days. All four of us were very curious what it would be like to explore the island.

We began our walk around 4:00, and after walking just a few hundred feet, Mitchell said, "I'm thirsty," so I ran back to the car for the ice water jug I had brought, and thank goodness I did, because we heard about fifty more I'm thirsty's on our adventure. Max brought the butterfly net and spent most of the hike chasing after small butterflies and large dragonflies. He caught three butterflies but all of them escaped during their transfer to his miniature backpack. Near the end of the hike, I caught a small blue dragonfly for him, but the winged creature escaped at home when I tried to transfer him to a Ziploc bag (poor thing) and he's still on the loose somewhere in the house, hopefully devouring those flies that are trying to move in as autumn approaches. I thought he was injured in the backpack, but he definitely was not!

During the walk, we encountered milkweed pods and some other interesting seed pods of which we don't know the name. We picked some crabapples from a small tree and found apple trees, too. There were two or three times during the hike when we encountered the remnants of August's heavy rains, low-lying areas that were still very muddy. In the middle of all this natural beauty, I couldn't help but think, Thank goodness I wore my old, washable canvas Nike's instead of my new, light-colored running shoes. I should have left my white Gap hoodie at home, though, because somehow, I splashed mud on the back of that. Luckily, it happened near the end of our hike, so I didn't have much time to worry about it, laundry freak that I am. Guess what I did as soon as we got home? I pre-treated that stain with Bac-Out, one of the best stain fighters ever, and this morning when I removed it from the washing machine, my white hoodie was snow-white again!

My camera ran out of battery power very early in our walk, so I missed the chance to capture some of the prettiest images, but I did get a handful of great shots. Throughout the whole hike, which I estimated at four miles, the boys were super-troopers: no whining, no crying, no fighting. That was unbelievable! About halfway through our walk, Mitchell said conspirationally to me, "Max was having a tough day before we got here, wasn't he?" It was like having a conversation with another adult, until Mitchell mocked Max in his little-boy voice, "Mommy, you're just making it worser!" and then laughed in naughty delight. Luckily, Max and Troy were ahead of us, and Max was so engrossed in his quest for butterflies, that he didn't hear Mitchell's humorous remarks.

Troy and I took turns carrying Mitchell when his little legs grew tired, and when we came to shady areas (or when he decided to lick us or bite us "just for fun") we set him down to walk. When we came to hills, he eagerly ran up the steep slopes as I called, "Shake-and-Go Mitchell!" in reference to his new battery-powered crashing race car that he got for his birthday party this past Saturday.

My favorite memory of the afternoon was when Mitchell asked Troy, as they both listened to an earphone of Max's Disney Incredible's MP3-style pocket radio as the Vikings neared the end of the game, "If I 'pit into this earpiece, will it 'pit on the Vikings?" That was too cute, and of course, Classic Mitchell.

Feel free to check out this great local hiding spot if you are one of my Rochester Readers ... but please, don't tell your friends!

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Day in the _Life_: The State Fair

Yesterday we went to the Minnesota State Fair for the fifth time since having kids. Max and Mitchell were super-sweet fairgoers. Hardly a fight or a squabble the whole day. I'm sure the copious amounts of spending money, rides, and junk food helped boost their good behavior levels.

We left home just after noon in accordance with our can't-help-it, late-start tradition. During the ninety minute ride to the Fairgrounds in St. Paul, the boys ate fast food, listened to favorite family memories, and played their Game Boys. As we passed the Koch Refinery near Rosemount, where smokestacks dot the horizon and pungent smells fill the air, Mitchell teased, "Roll the window down! Roll the window down! It's the Stinky Factory! Mmm, smell that delicious stinky smell." He also claims, with a completely straight and serious face, to love the smell of 'kunks, as he calls them.

The day was rather expensive:

$70 for gas and snacks (we didn't eat all the snacks nor use all the gas)
$10 for Arby's (we had a coupon for a free value meal, which reduced our total by $7)
$30 for admission (two adult tickets, one child, and one free ticket for Mitchell)
$9 for parking
$10 for cheese curds
$2 for cotton candy
$9 for three iced teas
$15 for dinner at the fair (Italian dunker, deep-fried ravioli, and cheese bread)
$6 for two bags of mini donuts (Mitchell requested his own bag)
$5 for a small bag of apples and two apple-cider freezies
$65 for rides and games (50 coupons for $30; most rides and games cost 4 - 5 coupons)

Ouch! I'm not going to even bother doing the math tonight to add up those expenditures. In the middle of the afternoon, when my allergies were at their absolute worst, I told Troy that we should have used the money we spent at the fair, and paid for a night in a hotel with a really fancy waterpark and a bar.

Max and Mitchell loved their time spent at the Kiddie Midway. They both drove the mini bumper boats, which Mitchell was too scared to ride on last year. They also went on the mini race cars, which jerked around the corner much faster than any of us realized. Mitchell was delighted to discover that his favorite ride _ever_ was back at the fair: four-wheelers that bounce up and down as they go around. He insisted that Troy ride with him, just like when Mitchell was a new two year-old, so Troy squeezed into the back seat and Max and Mitch rode up front. The little boys also went on the bumblebee ride, complete with bubbles and controls to make the bee fly up high or close to the ground. Each of those rides cost four coupons per person, except for the race cars, which cost five. Max was thrilled to find a coupon on the bumblebee ride, and he decided to save it for a souvenir.

This year, we explored several buildings filled with amazing things to see, included the agriculture building, which houses exhibits on seeds, prairie gardens, apples, Christmas trees, grocery items made proudly in Minnesota, a motorized train exhibit, and flowers; the Education Building, where we got the free purple bags from the University of St. Thomas that we saw everyone carrying; the Creative Activities building, where we admired quilts, baked goods, beaded projects, historical artifacts, and my favorites, the paintings made by school age children. We didn't have time to visit the 4-H building; the green building, filled with exhibits about environmentally-friendly products and practices; or the vendors inside the grandstand.

Just before dusk, we at dinner at an Italian booth near the grandstand, Vescio's, with locations in Dinkytown and St. Louis Park, ordering our favorites: a giant Italian egg roll (Troy's favorite), deep-fried ravioli (Mitchell's favorite and mine, too), and cheese bread (Max's favorite, but we told him the pepperoni under the cheese was really salami). Then we headed toward the Midway to end our day. I protested briefly (actually, I really complained and thought, I can't believe we are spending $60 on Midway coupons today!) as Troy bought more coupons for rides and games. The three boys took turns playing games and going on rides.

Mitchell wouldn't have even noticed when it was supposed to be his turn; he was so content to watch everything, but when he wanted to do something, he _really_ wanted to do it. His two requests for the evening were to play a game of skee ball (he lost two of the wooden balls and couldn't throw them hard enough to land them in any holes, so I let him walk up the ramp and try just a few feet from the target) and grab a duck at the duck pond. He won two small puppies, one at the duck pond, and one at the whiffle ball game. Troy and Max rode the bumper cars; Mitchell wasn't quite tall enough yet to pass that 42" mark. Max also tried the whiffle ball game in which players try to land the white plastic balls in colored cups to win a prize. Since the prizes were so good in the boys' eyes (huge, oversized stuffed dogs) we wasted money on two buckets of rings and tried to land them on glass soda bottles.

The highlight of the evening was Troy's wins at the crossbow game. Years ago, before we were married, he obtained a disability permit (I still tease him about this, since he was only considered to be three percent disabled, due to a back injury) to hunt with a crossbow. Using a crossbow, he shoots with perfect aim, even at the fair, where the arrows are bent and the bows shoot to the right or too high. He won three huge stuffed animals in six tries: a colorful dragon for Max, to be buddies with the dragon Troy won two years ago from the same game; a "yellow cute ducky" that Mitchell wanted sooo badly; and a pug to keep Minnie company.

We returned home just before midnight, with a sleeping Max in the backseat, and a very chatty Mitchell, who asked over and over again to please go back to the fair _right now_.

My Kids Say the Funniest Things

Tonight after his bath, Mitchell sat on my lap as I checked his ears with a q-tip. "That's enough," he said. He doesn't like getting his ears cleaned. His skin was so soft, and his little golden curls were extra curly, and there was water everywhere in the bathroom.

"Almost done," I assured him.

As he hopped down from my lap, he said, "If you had to check my butt, I would have to do a headstand." And with that, he strutted out of the bathroom in his size five diaper. I have no idea where gets those quirky ideas.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Homeschool: Our Curriculum

Here is a partial list of my favorite resources for homeschooling. We have not purchased a currciulum package, but my first choice would have been Sonlight, a literature-intensive and worldview-based program. I like the freedom to choose topics that are relevant to our lives and are of special interest to Max and Mitchell, and though it is time-consuming, I like being able to create my own lesson plans. The Sonlight package would have been about $700 - $1000 per chid, and I prefer to use some of those funds to buy books, purchase educational toys, sign the boys up for classes, and take field trips.
If you are interested in this list of resources for your homeschool program, please check this post again as I list additional resources in the future. I wish I had time to post the links for these favorites, but I have lesson plans to write! In addition to the titles listed below, we also utilize resources within our community, including a local homeschool co-op, a field trip club, the public library, local parks, community education classes, church activities, and field trips to local and state museums. Even if you are not a homeschooler, you may find items of interest on this list of what I consider to be the best resources I have encountered on my search to find top-notch additions to our at-home library. My can't-live-without selections are highlighted in bold text. Future items added to the list will be highlighted in another color.

Explode the Code workbook series
Reading Activities by Marilee Robin Burton, et al

The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Peter, Peter, Pizza-Eater And Other Silly Rhymes by Bruce Lansky
Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky

The Ultimate Shape Book: Shape Patterns for 50 Story Books for Grades K - 2, published by Evan-Moor

Singapore Math, textbooks and workbooks
Multilevel Math Fun: Instant Games and Activities for the Multilevel Classroom for Grades 1 and 2, published by Creative Teaching Press
Math-Made-Easy series, published by Dorling Kindersley
Moving with Math
40 Easy-to-Make Math Manipulatives, by Carol Reesink
The Complete Book of Math Timed Tests for Grades 3 - 5, published by American Education Publishing

Language Arts:
First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind by Jessie Wise

Sequential Spelling series

Music Together Songbook Collections and CDs
Menagerie Songbook
The Story of the Orchestra book and CD
The Usborne First Book of the Recorder Kid Kit

Real Science-4-Kids Chemistry, Pre-Level I
Christian Kids Explore Chemistry
The Usborne Book of Science Activities, Volumes One and Two
730 Easy Science Experiments With Everyday Materials by E. Richard Churchill, et al
Janice Van Cleave's For Every Kid series
Science Teacher's Almanac by Julia Spencer Moutran
More Mudpies to Magnets: Science for Young Children by Elizabeth A. Sherwood, et al
The Ultimate How-It-Works Encyclopedia, published by Horus Editions

Usborne First Thousand Words in Spanish
Usborne First Thousand Words in Spanish Sticker Book

Social Studies:
Value Tales biography series
The Children's Book of Heroes, edited by William J. Bennett
The Usborne Internet-Linked First Encyclopedia of History
If You Lived ... series, published by Scholastic

The Little Hands Big Fun Craft Book: Creative Fun for 2-to-6-Year-Olds by Judy Pres
Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On Art for Children in the Styles of the Great Masters, by MaryAnn F. Kohl and Kim Solga

Physical Education:
The Ultimate Homeschool Physical Education Game Book by Guy Bailey

The Getty-Dubay Handwriting Series

Magazine Subscriptions for Kids:
Family Fun magazine
Martha Stewart Kids
Kids Discover
Your Big Backyard
Sesame Street magazine
Highlights for Kids

Early Childhood Education:
Slow and Steady Get Me Ready by June Oberlander
Mazes workbook for ages 4 - 6, published by School Zone
Carson-Dellosa's File Folder Games for Preschool, Kindergarten, and First Grade
Do-a-Dot Activity
Mister Rogers' Play Time by Fred Rogers
My First Book of Mazes for ages 3, 4, 5, published by Kumon Publishing

Bible Stories:
The Children's Bible in 365 Stories by Mary Batchelor
The Usborne Family Bible, retold by Heather Amery
One Hundred Bible Stories, published by Concordia Publishing House
Read and Learn Bible, published by the American Bible Society
My First Bible by Pat Alexander

Bible Devotions, Prayers, and Hymns:
Sword Fighting by Karyn Henley
Lutheran Worship Hymnal, prepared by The Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
Father, We Thank You by Ralph Waldo Emerson
100 Ways to Tell God's Great Story by Phyllis Vos Wezeman
The Fun and Active Book of Devotions for Kids
Heritage Builders Simple Science Family Nights Tool Chest

Favorite Books we use weekly:
Pots and Pans by Patricia Hubbell
The Big Book for Peace, edited by Ann Durrell and Marilyn Sachs
Graham Oakley's Magical Changes
The Dangerous Book for Boys by Hal Iggulden
Treasury of Virtures: Twenty Stories to Grow On
Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Invetions and How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones
Emily's First Hundred Days of School book, sticker chart, and activity cards by Rosemary Wells
The Great Big Book of Children's Games: Over 450 Indoor and Outdoor Games for Kids by Debra Wise
What to do with the Kids on a Rainy Day by Adrienne Katz
Building Thinking Skills: Critical Thinking Skills for Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, published by The Critical Thinking Company

Homeschool: The First Day of the Year

Last night I went to sleep with first-day-of-school jitters. Not the ones from elementary school, when I wondered who my teacher and classmates would be. Not the ones from junior high school, when I wondered if my outfit would fit into the coolest clothes category. Not the ones from high school, when I had butterflies in my stomach as I thought of boys I hadn't seen many times over the summer. The first day jitters I had last night were because I was nervous about teaching the two most special students in the world.

You may know that our family has been homeschooling officially since 2003, when Mitchell was just a baby and Max opted out of preschool, because he "didn't get enough time at home with his toys," in his words. The early months didn't even feel like homeschooling. We were just playing then, learning about letters and numbers and shapes during every day activities, like playing cards, reading books, taking walks, going to the library and music class and community education classes.

Homeschooling feels much different to me now, as the mom and teacher of a just-turned four year-old and an almost-eight year-old. I remember working in second grade classes many times over the years, including in high school, as a physical education apprentice, a Spanish teacher, and a STABLE helper; and in college, when I did field experience and student teaching in second grade classrooms. Second graders are _really_ reading. They are learning to use maps, work in groups, compute all kinds of math problems with carrying and borrowing, and studying other countries. I want Max to have all of those good experiences that traditional schoolers would have in their classrooms, but most of all, I want him to love learning. I want Mitchell to learn to write the alphabet, count forwards and backwards with ease, and soak up hundreds of stories all through the school year, but most of all, I want him to laugh and giggle and sing and play all day long. Those ideals are enough to give any homeschooling mom a huge case of first-day jitters.

The boys had been begging for a few weeks, "When can we start school?" at first with excitement, then impatience, when I would reply each time, "Pretty soon." I just didn't feel ready. I wanted to have lesson plans made to last us through Christmas. I wanted to have the books ready that we would use for the first months of the year. I wanted to have a wish list composed for the supplies I still wanted to buy. I wanted to have my house clean so we could focus completely on learning! But none of those tasks were accomplished, and today we started school anyway, much to my eager students' delight.

Both boys woke early, despite their troubles falling asleep the previous night. "When can we start school?" they asked excitedly. "At nine o'clock," I answered each time, as the minutes ticked by too quickly for me and too slowly for them. I hurried to clean up breakfast and straighten the pillows surrounding our stack of books on the sofa.

We began the school day at 9:20 a.m. after taking first-day-of-school pictures on the front step. Mitchell donned his beloved Santa suit, bright yellow Crocs, and his new Diego backpack recently purchased from Target. Max wore his Number 12 shirt that I love on him and proudly displayed his new favorite new school supplies: a glue-rolling gagdet -- which he discovered today, with great disappointment, is _not_ refillable -- and a crystal-growing science kit and shiny new mechanical pencils.

Our first story of the day was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, an old favorite that we used to read every day, but hadn't read in months. We also read Baby Says by John Steptoe, the story with only seven words of two brothers who learn to play together. In the story, we don't know the brothers' names, so we call them Max and Mitchell because the characters act just like Max and Mitchell. We read a poem from one of our favorite Jack Prelutsky collections, The New Kid on the Block. The boys listened to the CD that came with a cute mouse story called Piper's Twisted Tale by Mark Lowry and Martha Bolton.

Max's special time of the day came first today, as he read to me Mouse Moves House by Phil Roxbee Cox and Stephen Cartwright, his selection from a stack of readers I had pre-selected. Later that day, after lunch, he also read I Love Trucks by Philemon Sturges. Last year at this time, he was still struggling to put sounds together and read them as words. I love seeing his progress in all areas of his development, especially reading.

While Max read to me, Mitchell played with a new set of Where the Wild Things Are magnets and a set of puzzles. He was not very interested in his toys today as we settled into our new routine. Mitchell doesn't always have enough patience as Max works to sound out words. I made Mitchell a snack of cheese and crackers, which he gobbled at the kitchen table while Max and I did our language arts lesson. As we reviewed the definition of a noun, I asked Max to give me some examples of nouns, and Mitchell shouted out, "Candle! Table! Cracker!" and all three of us smiled broadly as we enjoyed another unexpected perk of homeschooling.

Then I sent Max outside to walk Minnie the Pug for a few minutes within sight of the living room, and it was Mitchell's turn for special time on the sofa. When Max came inside, he went to his art desk to work on his spooky castle story that he had begun writing earlier this week. Mitchell and I read The Grapes of Math by Greg Tang. We did simplified versions of the counting activities in the book. We searched for items on a page out of the I Spy Ultimate Challenger, and that is when Mitchell's trademarked silliness crept into our special time, as he pointed to the wrong objects with a completely straight face. I tried some alphabet flashcards, since I was curious which letters he knew with ease, and after about ten cards, he began saying the wrong letters on purpose and even made up nonsense words, this time with a mischievous smile on his cute little baby face. I tickled him and we sang a few songs, and played a game of Quips, one of the greatest kids' games ever.

When Max finished his four sentences for today, including composing and editing, he was rewarded with his model butterfly kit that he had chosen as part of his ten-dollar school supply spending spree. While Max was getting the kit ready for assembly, Mitchell quickly scooted over to Max's workspace and tried to erase Max's story. After that squabble was over, and the butterfly model was beautifully assembled, Max created two sparkly works of art with construction paper, glue, and lots of glitter.

The boys ate a late lunch on the deck while I read the mail, the three of us enjoying the last days of the hot summer sun. (Well, I enjoyed it. The boys complained, "It's too hot!" in perfect whining intontations.) I began teaching them a new prayer, from our book entitled We Thank You For This Food, which I keep handy in the kitchen on my cookbook shelf. After lunch, we read some more books. With his trusty new pencil, Max completed two pages in a phonics workbook, a code activity and a crossword puzzle, and four simple pages in a multiplication workbook.

At three o'clock, we went into town to celebrate a successful first day of school with a trip to Cold Stone Creamery. Despite Mitchell's initial huge protests, we opted for the Cold Stone ice cream shop at the mall, in order to squeeze in a trip to Gymboree to earn Gymbucks and a visit to Barnes and Noble Booksellers. After trying a small sample of their flavors of choice, Mitchell chose blue cotton candy ice cream mixed with a peanut butter cup and sprinkles, and Max opted for cake batter ice cream, with a peanut butter cup and marshmallow creme stirred into his kid-sized creation. The total for their desserts was $4.45. As a reward for their cheerful attitudes throughout most of the day, I bought them each a charm for their Crocs, which are loose-fitting, foamy clog-style shoes that are very popular and oh-so-comfy. After great deliberation, Max chose a lightning bolt, and Mitchell chose Percy the train. The charms attach to little breathing holes on the top of their shoes. Trips to the mall and the ice cream shop are not normally part of our school day, but they were a fun treat for the three of us today.

We ate dinner on the deck, a combination of takeout from Subway and China Star, with disposable tableware, which made the evening an even bigger treat for me. The boys were in bed by 7:30, with jammies on and teeth brushed, and we finished most of the items on my lesson plan for the day.

In bed, before lights out, stories, and prayers, I taught them how to play "Fifty," a dice game from one of my favorite resources, The Great Big Book of Children's Games. In the game, players roll two dice and score points when they roll doubles. A pair of sixes gives you 25 points; a pair of threes wipes out your score; and all other doubles net you five points. The first player to reach fifty points wins the game.

We read our Old Testament Bible story for the day from Mitchell's toddler Bible, My First Bible by Pat Alexander; Stone Soup from the Treasury of Virtues; and Father, We Thank You, the version of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem illustrated beautifully by Mark Graham. We practiced some Spanish words from our copy of The Usborne First Thousand Words in Spanish by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright, including cama (bed), la almohada (pillow), la pasta dentifrica (toothpaste), la silla (chair), el retrete (toilet), el telefono (telephone), el video (video), el espejo (mirror), el cepillo (brush), el esponja (sponge), la ducha (shower), and el armario (closet). Those are words we will be able to use daily in conversation, once I remember to do that!

Mitchell fell alseep just after we finished prayers for the night, and I read Chapter One to Max from the classic Stuart Little by E.B. White.

Before he went to sleep, Max commented, "I think this was the best first day of school ever. It was the first time we got to have a party, and it was the first time we got to spend ten dollars on school supplies. (With his money, Max had chosen a 3.99 glue roller tool, a set of two mechanical pencils with extra lead and eraser refills for 3.99, the model butterfly kit for 1.00, and one other dollar item I can't remember tonight; Mitchell chose a 9.99 Diego backpack, his new favorite cartoon character. We went shopping at Target this past Monday and school supplies were in short supply.)

Last year, we honored the first day of school with lots of books and a trip to Florence Park, one of our favorites in nearby Stewartville.

Mitchell fell asleep by 8:30 tonight and Max fell asleep around nine o'clock. We ran out of time before I finished all of the activities I had penciled in my lesson plan for the day. We did not get to read the beginning pages of the book that came with our crystal-growing kit. I did not get to do the easy sequential spelling lesson today. I had planned to work on music theory with Max, and we didn't have enough time for that, either. He wants to learn to play piano and guitar this year. In a few more days, I am sure I will realize that I do not have enough time to teach him those instruments on my own, without the help of some music teachers. I do know two individuals who I think will be good teachers for him as he begins formal music instruction. A small and brave part of me is still holding onto that notion that I can do almost everything. This evening I appreciate the advice I have received from veteran homeschoolers: start the school year slowly, in stages, and don't expect to cover every subject every day.

Now I'm trying to finish my mental to-do list for the day, which includes tidying up each room for just a few minutes, a load of dishes (thank you to the person who invented dishwashers, and thank you to Kent for the friends-and-family Bosch discount), lesson plans for the next couple of days, and a steaming hot bath.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

My Favorites: The Invitation

I invite you into my world. Read about my life: my adventures with my kids, travels with my family, times spent with friends. Read about what inspires me: my favorite literature, music, art, moments, and scriptures that bring beauty to my days. Read about my favorite things: homeschooling, running, being outdoors, reading, music, spending time with loved ones, my faith, and being creative.

The Invitation
Oriah Mountain Dreamer
Canadian Teacher and Author

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dreams
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon...
I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life's betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your
fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand on the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
It doesn't interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after a night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn't interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the center of the firewith me
and not shrink back.
It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
© 1995 by Oriah House, From "Dreams Of Desire"
Published by Mountain Dreaming